“…but when you live in this deeper level of communion or love or grace or whatever you want to call it, there is a heaviness to that – ‘Is the rest of the world seeing what I’m seeing? Why are they so caught up in the trivialities, and why are they making each other suffer so much?’ …[my] most wonderful moments were also my saddest. Your very fact of enjoying grace and love carries with it a dark side that ‘I didn’t deserve to know this…I didn’t earn this’. This taught me…that opposites do not contradict one another. In fact, they complement and deepen one another”.
- From the “On Being” podcast by Krista Tippet in an interview with Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM Cap.
The word “Mango” comes from the Dravidian-Tamil maanguy, “highest fruit” and is native to South Asia where it then spread to East Asia around 500 BC. The yellow heart-shaped stone fruit held deep significance to its birthplace’s cultural and spiritual practices and was even adopted by Chairman Mao of China as a symbol for his “love of the people”. As much as we Filipinos love it, calling it our unofficial national fruit and making a pack of the dried variety a must for any would-be OFW’s survival kit when leaving the Motherland, it didn’t arrive on our shores until the 15th century. From then, it only took another 100 years to reach Africa and Latin America via colonial invasion where its sweetness is still enjoyed today.
India today still holds the Mango crown, producing almost half of all the world’s mango. I grew up unaware of the variety and was always told the islands of the Philippines, especially those of Guimaras where my family once vacationed to, held the best and sweetest Mangos. I suppose there’s some truth to that seeing as the Carabao Mango of the Philippines (from which the more popular Ataulfo Mango of Mexico descended from) was crowned the sweetest in the world in the Guinness Book of Records ’95 and was purportedly served in the White House and Buckingham Palace.
My “best”, and simultaneously most stomach-churning, memory of the Carabao Mango comes back in bits and pieces, fading like the green leather couch in my guakong’s sala, cracked with age and sticky with mid-morning humidity. I was binge watching cartoons as was customary for any young, lazy child like me who wasn’t athletically endowed enough to play street basketball outside.
Ma had just halved a Mango, paho as we called it in her Hiligaynon tongue, and sliced squares into its creamy, almost orange flesh to scoop out with a spoon. I remember scooting up to the corner of the lit portion of the sofa, wary of the invisible mosquitos, spoon poised over the plate of mangos on a glass table in front of the TV.
Scooping a portion of it to my mouth, I chewed but immediately gagged, avalanches of sweetness tugging my throat through my mouth, honeyed lightning bolts surging down and cramping up my stomach. It felt as if I had shoved spoonfuls of raw sugar into my mouth, which immediately watered from the shock. I’ve eaten plenty of mango before, but not as sweet as this. I slowly walked to the kitchen, clutching my belly for fear of throwing up, where I dry heaved over the sink, mouth still salivating uncontrollably. “Too sweet,” I gasped at my mom who was sitting at the table, chatting with guakong’s maids. They looked at me and laughed as if I had just complained that life was too good. I don’t think I’ve ever had another mango like that, one almost too perfect it’s met with visceral disgust. Come to think of it, the best mangos I’ve had were hardly perfect with a hint of raw sourness and a bit of fibrousness even. The best ones I’ve had were enjoyed in the most bittersweet of moments, the ones you were painfully aware were going to end and jolted you awake from the self-delusion that you knew all there was to know about anything.
When things make a little too much sense in my world, when the numbers on my Excel sheets seem to line up and my brain gets this nagging feeling that things can’t be this “right”, I take a stroll around the block for a spot of coffee and a reality check. I work within close proximity to a grandiose public library that overlooks a much-visited park, Koreatown with its restaurants and spas stacked into thin columns, and “the world’s largest Macy’s department store”. The confluence of the types of people who’d frequent these mish-mash of places: the families of tourists, the corporate jockeys, ticket hawkers inviting you into open top buses and the Empire State, produces a sort effect that I can only describe as sensible nonsense. A recurring though on these walks: we could let inertia take its course and wake up every single day occupying but a tiny speck on this vast Earthly playground. We could slide into the same speeding underground metal tube, wearing the same fading clothes, headed to the same rectangular concrete slab, into the same rectangular room, to type on the same rectangular keyboard, on the same rectangular desk. And we can do this until the dust seeps out of our bones without nary a realization that a whole world exists out there. With every corner turned, I become aware of just how much effort I spend each day simultaneously manufacturing and rejecting an illusion of sense. Amidst all the wonders of the few blocks I traverse daily, the absurdity gives way to a certain melancholy as I realizes that the very things we live for are the ones that do us in. “Is anyone else seeing what I’m seeing?”.
And oft-quoted story stars with Ajahn Chah, a Buddhist monk motioning to a glass at his side. “Do you see this glass?” he asked. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.”
Every Joy holds within its DNA its greatest Sadness with each defining the other. A fresh bouquet of flowers holds within it the certainty of wilting. A vacation is destined to end. Everyone who enters your life is bound to leave, whether in death or sooner. With all our yearning to “make things last” from our food to our very bodies, things that don’t seem to rot away as they should lead to a sort of non-being despite promises of loftier happiness. Take for example the Banana, ubiquitous grocery selection squeezed into the bag of every desk worker trying to avoid the sugar-laden office pantry.
Most Bananas the average American can buy are of the Cavendish cultivar, bred for transportability and not flavor thus creating a rather chalky, sometimes bitter, barely creamy fruit that makes up for in price and aesthetics what it lacks in flavor and enjoyability. Contrast that to their smaller, usually bruised cousins in Africa and Southeast Asia that are supremely creamy to the bite and pack far more rum-like sweetness despite rotting far quicker. There’s a certain kind of melancholy that comes with experiencing the fleeting, as trivial as a banana may seem as an analogy. The feeling that such pleasure can only last so long before the fruits are consumed or rot. But Melancholy isn’t quite the same as Sadness. It is seeing the end just as you embark on the beginning; becoming fully aware of the present moment with the knowledge of impermanence and inevitable loss.
Back in the the 16th and 17th centuries, Melancholy gained a certain fashionability. A melancholic nature was the so-called mark of a genius and thus spawned plenty of chin-in-hand portraits painted by brooding artists. Today, self-styled Influencers who manufacture potholes in their lives in order to harvest social media likes for gripes aren’t really wrestling with some deeper uncomfortable Truth to portray but even they may be coming from a place that knows why we suffer. A place deep down that knows that perhaps, ALL of It is the cause of our suffering. Everything from the cloudless skies in Central Park to a rapidly melting ice cream on a hot day. Perhaps it’s all ending, and so deep down, we sit lost in our Melancholy.
The better something is, the more you fear its loss. Sometimes that fear overflows into the sweetness of desire. Those days we spent in the Philippines, thousands of miles away Saudi Arabia where we lived, were some of my fondest memories as a child. Certainly the food was good, but it wasn’t extravagant by any means. There were no large-scale barrio fiestas in my guakong’s household where instead we dined on simple dishes of fish sinigang, sauteed water spinach, and congee with peanuts. But what I did have was a (non)sense of a wider belonging, a random group of mostly distant people half a world away whose chasm of differences was bridged only by shared stories, meals, and play times. We walked the noisy streets of Iloilo, eating cheap hamburgers, Banana-cues, and Mangos, knowing a plane was waiting to take us back. But had we not had those miles between us, had their lives not been so different and mysterious to me, had our paths not continue to diverge further and further over the years, had there been less pain in our parting, perhaps we would have enjoyed those humid months a lot less. It was in these moments of realization that I had the best mangos.
The paradox of our joy is that it is defined by our sorrows. Denial of that turns us into wild-eyed addicts, chasing the next online shopping and social media hit even as their effects rot away far faster than the tiny bananas of the Philippines. It is in the right alchemical mix of melancholy that we can truly make sense of the nonsense. When done right, with enough tart to balance out the sweetness, with enough firmness before the ripened flesh, with enough people to share your solitude, any mango, Philippine or Indian, can be the best mango you’ve ever had.
Based on the Penicillin cocktail from the famed NYC bar Milk & Honey, the “Gayuma”, or “Love Potion”, substitutes Don Papa Filipino Rum for blended Scotch, and smoky Mezcal for peaty Scotch. Mix in some Velvet Falernum and (supposedly aphrodisiac) Mango Puree for my twist on the modern classic.
2 oz. Don Papa Rum (or any mild/balanced rum)
1/2 oz. Velvet Falernum (add more ginger and mango purée if not using this)
3/4 oz. Mango Purée (I used this frozen Alphonso one since Mango isn’t in season right now but I’d recommend using fresh Champagne or Alphonso if you can get it)
1/4 oz. Mezcal
3-4 slices of fresh ginger
Dried mango (for garnish)
- Muddle ginger in the bottom of a cocktail shaker. Add all ingredients except the Mezcal and fill with ice. Shake vigorously for about 15 seconds until chilled.
- Strain into ice-filled rocks glass. Slowly pour the Mezcal into the glass over the back of a bar spoon so it floats over the cocktail. Garnish with dried mango.