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

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!

Mountain Beauty – my poem on elephant journal.com

My new poem, “Mountain Beauty” (<– here) was just published on elephant journal, a wonderful online forum I love. May it be of benefit.

Women, how do you feel, embrace, or define beauty as you age? Men-folk, what about you? Please post your answers on elephant journal. Thanks, salamat!


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

Growing Up Filipino II

Growing Up Filipino II

Growing Up Filipino II

I was 10 when someone gave me my first diary. It was small, hard-backed, had a teddy bear on it and, most importantly, a lock. What more could a kid want than a space where she could say anything she wanted? Crushes, rants, dreams, magic, love songs. It was all in there. What my first diary meant to me can be summed up in one delicious word: FREEDOM! I was hooked on recording the details of my life, the soaring search for the right word, playing with poems and stories from that moment onward.

I was one of those kids who loved her English teachers and was wide-eyed with wonder (and a little intimidated!) at these wise-owl women we called librarians. In L.A., in the 1980’s, there really weren’t too many stories with Filipino or Filipino American kids on the bookshelves. In third or fourth grade, I had an assignment to write a report on my heritage. When I went to the public library, the librarian wasn’t able to find any books that mentioned Filipino culture. She shook her head sympathetically. The invisibility of my culture in books  sank into my consciousness quietly, stealthily. Because I never saw an author of my heritage, I’d assumed that people like me didn’t have any worthwhile stories. Hey, if my beloved English teachers and the wise librarians didn’t have stories of families like mine on the shelves, the stories couldn’t possibly exist, right? Kid logic.

So I wrote, secretly. I was a writer before I even had a word for it. No one in my family and no one we knew wrote stories. The grown-ups in my family were all nurses and navy men, vendors at  sari-sari stores, and med techs who worked long hours and relaxed by watching TV and movies and feasting at potlucks. No books for pleasure, only text books for saving patients’ lives. I thought I was weird for writing my stories and kept my weirdness private. But, man, the joy of locking my bedroom door, curling up on my window-seat with flowery cushions, turning on the radio, and letting my black felt-tip pen glide in loops and swoops across the page!

The first time I ever met a Filipino writer, I was already 19, studying at UCLA, and firmly convinced we had no stories. It was one of the most awesome moments of my life to learn, at last, that someone from my background was an author. His existence showed me that dreams are possible (and that, perhaps, I wasn’t so weird after all). The writer happened to be N.V.M. Gonzalez, who is considered a national treasure and one of the founders of literature in the Philippines. He was also a keen teacher who respected his young students greatly. N.V.M. didn’t make a big deal about himself. Humble, like the characters in his short stories.

So it’s with the greatest pleasure that I share with you all the U.S. launch of the anthology Growing Up Filipino II, edited by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard. Cecilia is tireless in publishing stories from the Filipino diaspora — a fancy word that simply means my sea-faring, adventurous, and  hard-working community has traveled and settled around the world. It’s filled with 27 stories from writers of Filipino descent who grew up in the Philippines, the United States, and Canada. There are wonderful writers like Marianne Villanueva, Paulino Lim, Jr., and Cecilia Brainard. One of my own YA short stories, “Shiny Black Boots,” is included in Growing Up Filipino II. And I count myself lucky to be in such fantastic literary company.

I think the me who was the L.A. Valley Girl in the 1980’s would have loved to see Growing Up Filipino II on the bookshelves. I wouldn’t have had to wait so long to learn that we, too, had stories worth reading. And to my friends who, also, never knew that Filipino stories existed, this is a great time to introduce them to your teens. As a kid I loved Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins and Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Stories of survival and resourcefulness, creating bonds of friendship, and taking care of your family are universal.   James Baldwin said it best in his 1984 Paris Review interview: “Your self and your people are indistinguishable from each other, really, in spite of the quarrels you may have, and your people are all people.”


Koan #5: Ted Stone Morning

Home, prairie-muck dried
onto the seams of my field pants,
hiking boots splattered with mud,
hair in pleasant disarray.
The scent of freedom
still clings to me.
Just an hour before,
by watch-time,
by two-legged time,
by analog hands or digital face,
I stood in a place
14,000 years in-the-making,
a glacier’s passing,
strewn with dolomite and limestone
crumbling, soft-edged rocks,
and the whimsy of a universe
where lands stretch, wrinkle,
move in slow motion.
Barbara gave me her tour
of this prairie she nurtures
which belongs to all Chicagoans.
(But really isn’t it clear by now –
all wild places
are God’s first?)
Gray praying mantis cocoon,
pasture rose topped by
a berry-looking ovary,
drooping little blue stem grass;
we met on sacred ground
where she pointed out
how females recreate nature,
how life goes on
through our tenacity.


Inspired by a morning at Ted Stone Preserve and an interview with Barbara Birmingham, site steward there with her husband George for 14 years. Reprinted in ‘City of Big Shoulders: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry.’ Ryan G. Van Cleave, Editor. 2012.