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

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?

“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!


Honoring Our Ancestors

We were in Japan for 3 weeks this summer which was a wondrous journey of extremes: from the neon, buzz and bullhorns, and manga-mania of Electric Town in Tokyo to the mist-covered hills, sacred herd of deer, 1,000-year-old cedar tree, and the shrines and temples of Nara.

It’s taking a while to get back into the F L O W of home…though it is lovely to be someplace where I have mastery over the language!

But I came home to the August 2010 issue of Our Own Voice, a literary ezine of the Filipino diaspora. This special issue was edited by the dynamic Leny Strobel, director of the Center for Babaylan Studies and by OOV editor Aileen Ibardaloza-Cassinetto, poet of the exquisite. It is dedicated to exploring and celebrating babaylans, indigenous Filipino healers and shamans. The zine’s frontis piece took my breath away.

One of my own pieces, “Honoring Our Ancestors,” is included in this issue. (Note: It is not for the squeamish; I am unabashed about the mysticism. Read at your own risk.) I share my experience of attending the First International Babaylan Conference which happened last April. But, more importantly, the piece is about the tradition of staying connected to those who have gone before us. Mine is only one voice in this chorus, this chant. I am privileged to be in such company, especially Frances Santiago’s “Pintada,” M. Evelina Galang’s Lola Amonita Balajadia and the Counselors of Light,” and Leny’s From the Editors Laptop column. Check out the issue! (And if you do, try reading while listening to Grace Nono’s song “Panangpit.”)

Now that I’m back, there’ll be more coming in the blog…particularly around art that celebrates nature and encourages us all to connect…

Mabuhay, live,

Mary Grace