About Mary Grace Bertulfo

Writer. Story-gatherer. Every wonder tells a tale.

Goddesses, Women’s Spirituality, and Nature

Dear Ones,

The gift was loosely wrapped in soft, crinkly beige tissue. I held it upside down and backwards. Theresa flipped it gently. “It’s a goddess,” she, the giver, said simply.  And so it was. Hand-crafted together from milkweed pods, tiny pine cones, and acorn caps. Theresa had gathered them in Ohio, Illinois, quiet places, or maybe she carried the serenity inside herself, enough to pay attention when beauty appeared at her feet.

Gifts come in many forms, you know? Like time. When Unity Temple’s “Women’s Connections” Retreat asked me to
deliver their keynote, they gave me the gift of time. Two hours to weave together my story as an Asian American writer, the power of stories to heal the world, and to share my passion for the history of babaylans, Filipino women healers. Two hours to listen to ninety women’s voices, a thoughtful and feisty chorus. Their stories and mine moved in and out, attached like an in-breath to an out-breath. Weaving. The two months I had to marinate and ponder the talk helped my understanding deepen about traditional, indigenous Filipino healers. As scholar-performer-oralist Grace Nono reminds us, babaylan are not our past. They are our present. They are modernity and change. Their existence speaks to the vibrance of indigenous Filipino culture that survived colonization. They still fight to protect nature and simply live. Stateside friends, think Standing Rock.

Mother Earth, Inang Mundo, sings her Story. From our feet, grow roots, deep into the loam and the core of the planet. Through our shoes, souls can sprout through soles. We can anchor to the earth and remind ourselves of what is real. Why? Because power-hungry ghosts are trumpeting stories of fear, trying to keep us divided and afraid of each other. It is an old, base, yet effective tactic: Scare people into submission through story.

There is another way. Stories can heal, too. Stories can shine compassion on everyone we’re being told are Bogeymen. Stories can focus on Mother Earth, her generosity, and the need for us to give back to her in thanks and reciprocity. What kind of stories are you choosing to tell? How will you share your gifts?


Mary Grace

Summer of Asian American Stories

Dear Humanity,

As we head into the fall season in Chicagoland, I wanted to take one last look back at what an incredible summer it has been for this story-gatherer. Every culture and group has its stories. Now, more than ever, is a time when stories can help human communities uplift, survive in love and honesty, be brave, thrive, and heal. Here were the “Top 5” highlights of my summer. I hope you found rich and profound stories to sustain and nourish you, too:

5. George Takei and Gaman. Resilience. Went to hear Uncle George speak about his time in an American internment camp, taken at 5 years old at gunpoint. Through Japanese American internment, the Civil Rights Movement, Marriage Equality, and Hollywood, Uncle George has expressed an indomitable human spirit, sense of humor, and grace. He has a profound belief in the practice of democracy. Gaman: the Japanese word for enduring the impossible with patience and dignity. Check out the song in his musical, Allegiance.

4. The First Asian American Literature Festival. Traveled to Washington, D.C. for this amazing gathering of Asian American poets, performers, writers, scholars, and lovers of the written and spoken word. Asian Am Lit rang in the corridors, stages, and galleries of the Smithsonian, the Phillips Collection, Dupont Underground, and the (OMG!) Library of Congress. So inspiring: Li Young Lee, Regie Cabico, Sarah Gambito, Gowri K., Gene Oishi, Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, Franny Choi, Sejal Sha, Karen Mei Yamashita, and all. Readings, workshops, book vendors, editors, poetry slam, literaoke, pop-up dessert bar. Kudos to the Asian Pacfic American Center  (APAC) of the Smithsonian and Kundiman for creating this space in our nation’s capitol.

3. Sssst! Tagalog Camp. Taught a Tagalog language class for kids. The sense of cultural continuity and the kids’ freshness gave me hope. Reconnected with my dear friend, Elaine, a talented photographer, and we’re revisiting our book project of Filipino American women’s stories.

2. Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Daytrip with my friend Scott into the shush of prairie grasses, the search for elusive bison, dizzying butterflies and grasshoppers, golden Alexanders, prairie sunflowers, and purple thistle waving in the wind.

1.The Banyan, Asian American Writers’ Collective Inaugural Celebration. Gathered and organized with local Asian Am writers to read our works and launch Samina Hadi-Tabassum’s book of poetry, Muslim Melancholia. We had an intergenerational audience, ages 4 days old to 70+ and packed the Oak Park Main Library with stories, food, Asian Am visual art, music, and kids’ activities. Worked with Riksha Magazine to share stories that were nakakaaliwuplifting. More to come? Yes, please.

I know, I know. Technically #2 isn’t full of Asian American stories. Or even human stories. But the Flowers and Grasses have their tales to tell, too. The act of getting quiet and listening to their wordless existence brought me peace. From the Flowers to me, may the peace spread to you.


Mary Grace

3 Things I Love about Filipino Culture Today

Focusing on the light –

At a dinner gathering with Filipino American teachers last night, someone pointed out our community’s lack of representation in the national news – until something shocking happens. (I am paraphrasing the convo.) So, as a counter-balance, I’d like to share 3 things I love about my Filipino culture that make me happy. They may not make the national news, but they make a difference:

🌺 Filipino nurses. Everywhere in hospitals, every day carrying on the tradition of healers. Making America (and many other countries) healthier and helping heal wounds and illnesses.

🌺 Kapwa spirit. The spirit that people are in it together, that we help each other out, that life is not just about yourself but about all of us together. I see this especially in extended families, in the way people help with whatever little money they may have, help in childcare and child-raising, help relatives move, build up homes. I see this in community projects to help the poorest in the community afford wheelchairs, help for victims of typhoons, help empower girls with scholarships, belief, and confidence, help the hungry by providing food.

🌺 OFW’s. Overseas Filipino Workers: the Filipinos on working visas who contribute to the world’s computer industries, software development, medical field, domestic services, and hospitality industries. They sacrifice to send money back to their families, often at great personal risk, with tremendous work-ethic.

🌺 All right, a 4th: I don’t know the name for it but my friend Denise Nacu calls it “welcoming”. There’s a Filipino way of welcoming people at the door, at its best a kind of warmth. You know you’ll be fed, brought into the fold, accepted. Yes, we ask you to take your shoes off at the door – and then we feed you as we all make kuwento, share stories and bask in laughter and the joy of togetherness (pakikisama).

– Mary Grace


Moon Phases


That moment when you calculate the moon phases in 1521 and can now reckon time precisely in the world of your novel. Kilat-kilat, the time when the moon is a flash of lightning. Ah, twenty-first century tech meets the precolonial Philippines!

Book Expo America 2016 – Highlights, Part 1


This gallery contains 7 photos.

Last week was Book Expo America 2016, held at McCormick Place here in Chicago. I was so busy soaking it all in that I didn’t have time to write a proper post. So here it is, highlights of my experience … Continue reading

Chicago Play Reco: “The 30-Year Gap”

30 Year GapHidden gems.

One of the things I love about Chicago is its vibrant theater and performance scene. Every neighborhood seems to have its own venue for great local plays or live readings. It’s a chance to unplug and get face to face with beautiful stories – so close, in fact, you can often see the actors sweat!

From what I’ve seen in Chicago, playwrights, directors, and actors are working hard to make what they bring to stage poignant, earnest, and real.

One Chicago talent is Matthew Johnston whose play “The 30-Year Gap” has one more performance of its World Premiere at the Public House Theatre. “The 30-Year Gap” is a story about Chris (Nate Speckman) and George (Gavin Donnellan), a nephew and an uncle, both gay and who come of age in two different time periods – 1978 and 2008.

Johnston described the focus of his play this way: “The main issue is how his life has changed between 1978 and 2008 and why exactly Uncle George hasn’t come out of the closet, the fear of being rejected, the fear of losing friends, jobs, housing, etc.” This is in sharp contrast to Chris’ experience coming out in 2008 to the support and celebration of friends and family. The play flashes back and forward between the two intertwined lives as Chris strives to help his uncle embrace, without shame, his love of other men.

I saw “The 30-Year Gap” with a couple of girlfriends. We were charmed by the actors, particularly Nate Speckman’s performance. But the real star of the play, we unanimously agreed, is Johnston’s dialogue. Crisp banter organically segues into the serious terrain of love, loss, violence, and then resurfaces with tenderness. I was surprised at the range of emotions Johnston could evoke in 80 minutes. Rare.

There are plot twists and at least one major surprise which I won’t spoil here. Let’s just say, look out for “the Light”. Light and love manifest in the most unexpected way. The “The 30-Year Gap” challenges the audience to ask itself: “Who counts in our society? Who do we count as lovable and worthy? How do we limit society when we limit who we love and respect?” (The playwright might disagree. But that’s what great art is about, right Matt? The work takes on a life of its own and connects with the audience in ways we may not expect.)

I highly recommend “The 30-Year Gap”. In fact, it’s scandalous that you can watch great theater for $10! Go forth and see this performance while you still have the chance. Tickets are even discounted on Goldstar.com.

Public House Theatre. 3914 N. Clark. Tickets: 773-230-4770 Last performance: Thursday, April 28th.

Happy Earth Day 2016!

Bamboo forest aliveI love history. One of the best things about writing a novel is the historical research I get to do. You learn that human beings weren’t so different in the past – love, hate, passion, war, the search for meaning, worth, safety and peace. You also learn that, as a species, humanity is amazingly versatile and open in our thinking.

Today, in 2016, we Westerners can talk about this exquisite planet we live on in terms of biodiversity, economics, politics, climate patterns, technology. But I am reaching back to the precolonial Philippines, to my ancestors – to a time when each mountain, river, stream, and ancient tree was understood to be the dwelling place of a diwata, a nature spirit. A god or goddess. Nature was not only biomass, it was sacred.

Okay, take a breath, my darlings. Take my hand, for just this moment and don’t let go. I’ve gotcha. Put the hat of Western skepticism and rationalism on a safe shelf for now. Take this journey to long-ago Southeast Asia with me.

It was not a paradise. It was not a fantasy. It was simply a place where nature was alive.

The implications were this: A tree was not just a tree, it was the dwelling place of the gods. So you don’t just cut a tree down. You ask it for permission. You pray for its safety and blessing. It provides you, at the right time of year so that you don’t deplete its life, with timber for a house, a canoe, an outrigger. You transform the body of the tree. But the spirit of the tree continues…in the things you use everyday. Everything has a spirit. Everything, like you, has a spiritual consciousness and is alive.

Today, in places where people hold the understanding that land, water, air, and plant-life are sacred…the Earth is tended, protected, and loved. And the land loves back, providing nourishment and incredible beauty.

How would we live if we experienced the trees, lakes, rivers, mountains, cliffs, prairies, glaciers, and oceans as holy and alive? What would we do differently?

When Mylar Messes Up Your Meditation Tree

Balloon TreeIn front of my meditation window is a beautiful honeylocust tree. I have been witnessing it for 2 years. One day, a week or so ago, I saw that a mylar balloon was stuck in the highest branches. I was very annoyed. Then, I noticed my mind being annoyed. I let the feeling come and go like a wave. Why should I let such a little thing disturb my peace of mind? The neighbors whose tree it is have moved and my ladder will not reach the deflated balloon to remove it. I congratulated myself for coming to a sense of peace.

Last night, a family went on top of the sledding hill – a set of 10 mylar balloons in hand and boisterous, happy children. Now, there are 4 mylar balloons stuck in the honeylocust tree’s branches.

I had to laugh. Hubris.

Perhaps one day soon a practical answer will arise: how to serve this old tree and remove the glittering litter. But it sure teaches me something about the perfectionist nature of my own mind. Do all conditions have to be perfect for me to be at peace?

“Mele Murals” – Film Reco

I went to the Gene Siskel Center last night to see Matt Yamashita’s “Sons of Halawa” which was a beautiful story about the continuity of tradition in Molokai, Hawai’i. (See my previous post.) Also watched Tadashi Nakamura and Keoni Lee’s film “Mele Murals” which I loved. Hip-hop meets indigenous Hawaiian spirituality. This film was beautiful and honest. Two artists, Prime and Estria, teach students at Waimea charter schools how to paint murals. At the school, students are learning Hawaiian language – to read and write in it – as well as their history. They also learn hula. For someone like me, a Filipina American, this is beyond amazing. It brought tears to my eyes to see the love with which this school treasures Hawaiian language, music, dance, and stories. But here’s the thing. To the kids in the film, who were brought up with hula and all, they seemed…a bit bored. Like they needed a new way forward with their culture, a way to make culture their own. It reminds me of what’s happening with Pinoy kids and tinikling in America – mixing the power of hip hop into our traditional dances. Culture is a living, dynamic thing. And, from what I am seeing, when kids can make it their own, they can relate. It goes deeper.

The other thing that was breath-taking to me about both films is that it shows Hawaiian spirituality with such love. Christianity and indigenous spirituality side-by-side. This was not the point, necessarily, of either of the documentaries. But it struck a chord with me because so much of indigenous spirituality in many cultures, including Filipino, is based on the love of nature, the spirit(s) of nature, respect for the land and the water bodies. When the communities in both films, “Sons of Halawa” and “Mele Murals” engage more deeply with their indigenous traditions, the result, for them, seems to be joy and peace.

Mahalo, salamat, and thanks to the film-makers Matt, Tadashi, and Keoni for bringing their stellar documentaries out into the world!


Sons of Halawa – Film at Gene Siskel

Welcome to Chicago “Sons of Halawa“! The story of elder Anakala Pilipo Solatorio who is searching for a way to pass on his beautiful cultural traditions of music and dance in the Halawa Valley. Sincerity and the sacred. I’m really looking forward to this film, especially as my friend, the darling, Jason Poole is singing in it. Bonus: June Tanoue and her Halau i Ka Pono will be doing a hula presentation. (Yes, my hula teacher. Can’t wait!)

There were still tix an hour ago. Quick, quick – reserve yours! Part of the 21st Asian American Showcase. Saturday, April 9th. 7:30 p.m. Gene Siskel Film Center.

As of last night: SOLD OUT! 🙂