It usually happens in the middle of the night, when the world is sleeping, and the atmosphere still. Suddenly a violent gust of wind smashes into a wall, making the windows rattle and the rafters complain. The blows are so powerful that the air literally howls, as if moaning in pain. Then—in 15 minutes, or an hour, or a day—the threat suddenly departs, and tranquility remains.
I never used to notice the wind that now startles me awake each night. So I mentioned it to Brad, our driver and helpmate who has lived in these parts far longer than I. “Is it climate change?” I wanted to know. “Because I don’t remember the wind ever being this strong.”
Brad thought a moment before replying. Then explained that, though climate change may be a factor, the main reason we’re feeling the ultra-strong winds routinely these days is because Typhoon Odette blew away the trees that once sheltered our house. Not to mention the fact that, even as we spoke, another Category 5 typhoon—this one called Noru—was preparing to make landfall up north in Luzon.
We live on a hill overlooking the ocean at the absolute northernmost tip of Mindanao. When Super Typhoon Odette hit last December—fully nine months ago now—my wife and I were in Southern California with our children. But Brad and several family members remained in our Philippine house, cowering in a back bedroom as the storm blew off its roof and broke all the windows, scattering furniture and soaking the walls. We are now in the final stages of repairing the considerable damage, but all of us still tremble when that dark wind howls.
Recently, a tremor of another kind threatened to disrupt our lives. A man I never heard of summoned me to a meeting at barangay headquarters to declare that the lot we purchased in 2013 is actually his. Seems he’s related to the now-deceased farmer from whom we bought it and who, he believes, cheated him out of his portion. Such claims are not uncommon in the Philippines, where landowners are legally required to divide their holdings equally among all rightful heirs.
“Clearly your quarrel is not with us,” retorted Jake Miranda, a friend and prominent Surigaonon involved in our entitlement process, who spoke on my behalf. Later, he—as well as several others—assured me that the man’s claim has almost no chance of succeeding.
And yet it reminded me of something I have always known; that things seeming permanent can sometimes be fragile. While that’s true virtually everywhere on earth, it is especially clear here in the Philippines where typhoons and land disputes seem to abound. We argue and cajole and love and grasp, both in ecstasy and in pain. But one day those arguments cease and only the trembling house remains. Life on these islands is close to the core. And so we shake, whisper and moan, always reaching for the light just beyond an invisible door.
Which brings to mind a piece of writing by Albert Camus, the famous French philosopher, author, dramatist, and journalist who won the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1957 and then died three years later at the age of 47.
“In the midst of hate,” he wrote, “I found there was, within me, an invincible love. In the midst of tears, I found there was, within me, an invincible smile. In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm. I realized, through it all, that in the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger—something better, pushing right back.”
To which I can only add a heartfelt amen.
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David Haldane’s latest book, “A Toothpick in My Popsicle and Other Ebullient Essays on Becoming Filipino” is due out in January. A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an award-winning journalist, author, and radio broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.