Tilting at Windmills

Nonfiction by | July 20, 2008

“’But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked.
‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat. ‘We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’
‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.
‘You must be,” said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here.’”

— Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

My earliest recollection of being near a madwoman was when I was nine. Her skirt was black with large, white flower prints cascading down its length to her toes. Her blouse was white and faded you could see her tits cleaving to it. If I was afraid of her, it was because she was an Other, as God was an Other. After all, a small town could grow legends, tall tales— she was in one of those, and I believed it. If anyone would have asked me then how she got into the farthest end of the house without waking the dogs, I would have answered she had a power over animals.

That day, Mom was repotting lirios in her garden when the lunatic grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her hard. Mom turned around and simply said, “Why! You’re here again.”

The madwoman went to the water pump, gripped the handle with both hands, and jumped up and down like a Slinky going down a stair. When she got tired, she took a laundry soap from the outhouse sink, lathered her head and body. And then, without rinsing, she stood to go. Mom invited her to have lunch with us but she just bolted out of door and was gone as quickly as she entered. That was the last time we saw her.

A week before this, she entered the house in the same quiet manner. I was supine on the sala floor with my brother, reading “The Sugarplum Tree.” I did not even notice she was already lying next to me. Oblivious of her presence, I continued reading. She must have not liked being ignored; she yelled Waah! Both my brother and I half-rose, startled: she was there, a hand’s breadth away from my face, grinning through her tarred teeth. Some of her hair was loose, and some strands streaked across her face. I dropped my book, yanked my brother’s arm, and ran to our room. After a while, I peeped through the door to see if she was gone— she was. I ran to the kitchen to tell mom about it: the madwoman was there— drinking coffee with mother.

I believed then that the mad could not comprehend our actions or the world, no more than they could comprehend their own. Perhaps they never can, but you could watch your mother listen to a madwoman and see that sanity is what you are willing to grant to another. Speak thou and ye shall flourish.

Even then, it wasn’t just my mother. In Norala, we have a local character named Ayi. Ayi is a well-known town figure— as famous as the town mayor, more famous than the parish priest. If you’re new in Norala, you’d never know he’s different. He dresses neatly, and wears slippers. His hair is always neatly trimmed, army-cut. His face’s shaven. As local story goes, he fell from his cradle when he was a child, and that was how he turned out “different.”

The town used to believe him a clairvoyant. As story went, he once gave a man a number. The number hit at Last-Two, a lottery-like betting game where the winning number is the combined numerical right hand endings of basketball scores. As his share of the prize, he got a cigarette. When I was about 8, I would hear my neighbors sometimes calling him, asking for “his number.”

Now, though people no longer think he could foretell a winning number, he still gets free cigarettes sometimes. My mother tells me she’d sometimes see Ayi going to the town market square, sometimes to just sun himself in front of a bakery or sit amidst a group of smokers or coffee drinkers.

Once, my school sponsored a beauty contest at the cultural center in celebration of Virgin Mary’s birthday. The cultural center was small and had only been renovated. It was filled with people who came from the barrios in rusty tricycles. Most were standing along the picketed seat for the contest sponsors because one couldn’t get a view from the stadium.

It was during the talent portion when a lady we knew crashed in through the exit gate, naked to her feet. They said she was having a fit. She had a daughter who was a joining the contest that night. But our guidance counselor merely led the madwoman out of the building. For a week we talked about her, but when she returned to school to sell food in the canteen, we acted as though her fit did not ever happen.

They were the several mad men and women of my childhood and there were a few more, all of them freely communed with us, offering the most we could know of them. Once, a woman was waiting for a PUV to Koronadal City at the public terminal. A madwoman, wearing a lot of colored beads on her arms, sat beside her. The madwoman started to talk, about her husband who used to beat her (I surmised that was how she lost her sanity), and her in-laws who kept her children away from her. Her voice was loud, and a few people started to gather around them. The sane woman listened, asked where the madwoman’s beads came from, why she was beaten, but the madwoman kept talking about her husband beating her, her in-laws. Yet in that moment, in the crowd gathering and the woman listening, the town suddenly achieved again its rare composition. A presence was given and— how generously, without condition— a presence was acknowledged: this I understood was the town essence I hold dear.

When the PUV arrived, passengers started to fill the seats, and the sane woman kept glancing at the vehicle. The madwoman was already repeating her story for the fourth time.

Finally, the sane woman stood, telling she had to leave. The madwoman simply turned to the nearest person, recounting her sad tale again.

Also at the terminal, the madman I used to see passing by my high school now spends his days there, imitating the gestures of dispatchers, raising one arm, and in a gesture of beckoning would call out “Sakay!” repeatedly at vehicles passing by.

A city, it seems, is less involved. So when you see a madwoman or woman on the street, they seem detached, alienated, completely alone in their environment while the street rushes around them. The first time I saw a madwoman in Davao City it was just like that. It was early morning, and I was cruising San Pedro with my father. She was sitting on a pile of garbage, talking to a fruit peel. “That’s the result of not eating,” my father said. The lunatic was quite a shocking figure. Her hair was disheveled and her skin was black from face to foot, covered with soot and dirt.

In Norala, she could have not have looked so terrifying, dirty and isolated among garbage piles. She could have been given food or talked to, turned into a mythical figure by adults, pitied at times, but not so removed from everyone else, so voiceless. She would be deemed different, and so thrive in spite of her difference. In Norala, crazy people are small-town characters like vendors, priest, terminal dispatchers, politicians, drunkards. In the city, crazy people are drifters without identity or they are thrown into asylums. In our town, they have names, they have stories, they have jobs, and a home to welcome them.

The definition of madness, according to Michael Foucault, began as an exclusionary method of the powerful, and confinement, the exercise of this power. 18th century Europe treated their mad like animals, said Foucault, argumentum ad populum that the mad had lost the human capacity for reasoning, and therefore, they were more animals than humans. Today, madness is seen as a mental instability, a disease, something that should be shunned.

Norala has no theory or science behind lunacy. I think now that maybe the absence of a mental institution in a small town like Norala had influenced the way we have come to regard lunacy not as a pathological disease but a mental character. A Don Quixote can ride down our street with a lance in his hand and no one would ring a psychiatrist to tie and drive him away in a straitjacket.

“I am interested in madness,” said the playwright William Saroyan. “I believe it is the biggest thing in the human race, and the most constant.” It is, and the world is not without its madmen and madwomen. Ask Shakespeare, he understood this more than anyone else.

Languidness enveloped us. The town wasn’t stirring; most days it didn’t. Ayi passed by. He limped a little. He was smiling right and left. “Where are you going, ‘Yi?” a neighbor called out. Put Ayi in the city, and he would have soon become just another forlorn figure on a sidewalk.

I started my story with a madwoman. Let me end this with another. She was my mother’s friend’s daughter. We visited their home one October to order bottles of homemade soymilk. While her mother was talking to my mother, the madwoman approached me, asked my name, held my index finger, asked my name again, then held my wrist. She smiled at me; she had a lot of lower and upper front teeth missing. She was 35 (this she told me), but talked like a nine-year old child. Her voice was whispery and she looked at me straight in the eyes. “May sakit ako nga kuyap,” she started, her voice slightly rising at the end of sentence, as though she was about to ask a question and then decided to drop it. I did not understand the word “kuyap” but I surmised she was talking about her mental condition because she was tapping her temple with a finger. (When we got home, mom explained kuyap meant epilepsy, but mother surmised hers was a psychotic disorder). I looked at mom, but she was busy talking to her friend, so I smiled back at the madwoman. I nodded my head.

She wanted me to hear her story. She wanted to see how I would hear her story. That she would have fits. That she and her family consulted with a doctor who explained to them why she would have fits. Why she talked that way. Why she’d hear voices sometimes. That she went to a SPED school once, when she was 33. That she was better than all her other mentally ill classmates.

And then her story shifted to an uncle who hurt her when her mother left her at the uncle’s home one day. “But mother told me to excuse him for that,” she said in Ilongo, “because, you know, he knows nothing.” How well she had put it for me! After that time, I could figure no further explanation why it is easier for people here to commune with the mad: people do because it is the only reasonable way to live with them. Sometimes I think we see from the eyes of a child reading Don Quixote: loving the character, living with the character: without bewilderment, without judgment. Or, perhaps we are the world’s Sancho Panchas, shaking our heads at their lunacies but without driving the mad away, or running away from them. The town rides alongside them, hearing their tales.

One thought on “Tilting at Windmills”

  1. Great insight. Its something many don’t notice or just would care about. I enjoyed reading. Thanks!

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