Lamuwan kata means “we are one.” It speaks of the relational connectivity that ties a tribe, a community, a people together. It spoke volumes to me this past weekend at the Center of Babaylan Studies Conference held in Glouster, Ohio, a very small, almost hidden town on the outskirts of Columbus. I came to the conference seeking guidance, hoping to quell a heavy, unmothered heart that burdened me since youth. And I say “unmothered” in so many ways: unmothered by my biological mother who abandoned me a few months after I was born; unmothered by the country I grew up in, America, as if I were an outsider, a pariah, in the city that raised me with its unloving arms; and unmothered by diaspora–unmothered because the land that gave birth to my ancestors was colonized and enslaved, and the caprices of history flung its children to the farthest corners of the earth.
I came to the conference in halves. That early Friday morning, when the sky was still the darkest blue, before I took two planes to the heart of Ohio, I dropped off my partner to his U.S. Navy carrier on the edges of Portsmouth, Virginia. He was shipping out, again. For many days: it is a hectic schedule I can never become accustomed to–he ships out for 30 days, comes back for one, two days–then ships out for another 30, and then repeat until he leaves for deployment. This schedule is ending soon, when he gets out of the Navy in 2016. But knowing that this will soon end does not make the image of his ghost-like, monstrous ship any lighter, any easier. We both know his ship embodies the American imperialism that ravaged our homeland. We both know he joined the Navy before we were radicalized, before we faced the devastating and dehumanizing culture that is the U.S. military. But this is another story, another long narrative that shapes one identity I carry, one of the many identities I am burdened, I am gifted, with.
I came to the conference in halves, seeking a kind of redemption. The Core CfBS members asked us to bring a sacred object to offer at the community altar, and I decided to bring a framed picture of my lola, the fierce, unrelenting matriarch who has saved my familia over and over again, who raised me after my birth mother left, who mothered me when I was alone, who passed away the first year of my MFA program, who once said to me, a few months before she became sick, “Anak, you left me.” But her words were said in acceptance. That very first night, I offered my grandmother’s portrait and thought of the inscribed words beneath her calm pose: A mother’s love is reflected in the joyful faces of her loved ones. When it was my turn to place my sacred object on our shared altar, I confessed to everyone that I hope to return to her this weekend. What I did not realize was I was going to do so much more than just this; I was going to return to my ancestors, the spirits that have paved the way to allow me to breathe and exist today, and I was going to heal, meld, fuse my halved selves. It would be the start of my personal awakening, my quiet journey toward a stronger, more beloved faith.
That first night, Father Albert, or Paring Bert as we affectionately called him, redefined the concept of loob, a term in Philippine psychology that refers to one’s inner self (the “psyche” in Western terms). But he deconstructed it and broke it down in parables, with laughter, in endearing seriousness and love. My dear writer-dancer-poet pinay sister, Jana Lynne Umipig, described it better than I could in her essay, “Opening My Loob to All of Creation,” which beautifully surmised the whole conference for me (and many of my fellow participants/sisters and brothers):
The Loob, he explained, is a whole web of meaningful relationships. Generating cultural energies that build community. That help us see our inner self is one with all else. A welcoming, an inner being with hospitality–a relational self open to self of others. But further still he spoke of the Loob in connection to not just other people, but of all of creation.
Using the song of the “Bahay Kubo” as metaphor, he said, “The interior of the bahay kubo [nipa hut] is like the inner self, the home in self, but if you open the windows, the outside is also a part of your inner being. The plants outside, the mountain–[these are all] part of your loob. We are part of this universe. We are connected, do not keep it out.”
[…] He helped me open my eyes further to how the Loob is a whole web of meaningful relationships. Where do I feel my hurt when someone is hurt outside of me? Especially when they are precious to you. If we see the land as part of this, the way indigenous peoples are tied to the land. They are deeply attached to the land. And their love for their land is such that they can offer their lives for the sake of ancestral heritage. Loob is connectivity. Even to see a video or see a picture, we can be moved, the connection is there.
Paring said, “Like the islands seem separate on the surface, but if you look deeper you see how connected they are, deep to the bottom of the ocean.” Connectivity, of all beings. And he helped me to understand that as Kapwa is seeing ourselves in the other, Loob tells us to see further that we are one with all of creation.
Lamuwan kata: we are one. How Paring Bert defined loob, this universal loob, loob that reveals our relational connectivity as humans to each other, to the land, to our ancestors, to the spirits that linger, to the cosmos and the universe, reminded me of another word that encompasses this same relational liberation: ubuntu. Acclaimed novelist Chris Abani deconstructed ubuntu in his famous TED Talk, “On Humanity“:
But what I’ve come to learn is that the world is never saved in grand messianic gestures, but in the simple accumulation of gentle, soft, almost invisible acts of compassion, everyday acts of compassion. In South Africa, they have a phrase called Ubuntu. Ubuntu comes out of a philosophy that says, the only way for me to be human is for you to reflect my humanity back at me. But if you’re like me, my humanity is more like a window. I don’t really see it, I don’t pay attention to it until there’s, you know, like a bug that’s dead on the window. Then suddenly I see it, and usually, it’s never good. It’s usually when I’m cussing in traffic at someone who is trying to drive their car and drink coffee and send emails and make notes. So what Ubuntu really says is that there is no way for us to be human without other people. It’s really very simple, but really very complicated.
Lamuwan kata. We are one. Loob. Inner self–relational self, interconnectivity, opened self. Kapwa. The self in the other. Ubuntu. Human kindness. The self reflected in the other.
These are powerful, simple words, but very complicated, liberating ideas. They decenter the Eurocentric identity I was raised in, but also liberate the indigenous, unawakened Pilipina self I am still decolonizing. Paring Bert also reframed loob as an eternal spring, that though we, especially those born in the diaspora, may have two selves (maybe even more than two–the colonized, Christianized self; the feminine gendered self; the masculine gendered self; the traumatized, abused, anxious self; etc.), their frictions with each other does not have to only create negative energy–this friction is also cultural energy, it springs out of us, overflowing like a river into an ocean.
I came to the Babaylan Conference in hopes to learn more about the babaylan, to research my Pilipina identity rooted in the islands my cosmic self left behind; but, I left with something even greater than “research.” I left reawakened. I left with a question that no longer haunts me: Who are you? Although, rightfully so, “Filipinos are cultural amnesiacs,” (as said by Tita Leny Strobel in the decolonizing, must-read book, Back from the Crococile’s Belly), this address, this interrogation of identity and community no longer brings me to my knees, flailing about and searching outside to know, to think-feel, who I am. Father Albert reminded us, in another one of his invoking parables, that identity is composed of “narratives.” We live a narrative identity, not contained, separate, individualized identities. He told us the story of a particular tribe in the Philippines that claimed they had no culture, no rituals, no selves. They would not dance for him, would not wear their traditional clothing, would not perform any traditions; they kept claiming they had none, that they were forever lost. But then he began to ask them about their stories. About their parents, their grandparents, their ancestors, and out of their loob, rushing outside of them like a once dry stream, their selves emerged, full and bright and illuminating. They danced their dances. They talk stories for hours. They wore their traditional dress. They re-remembered the ancestral selves that were within, that were never displaced, just unawakened.
I left the conference still in halves, but no longer fragmented, no longer broken beyond repair.
I left the conferenced filled, bearing so many gifts: the hour-long conversations, talk stories with my fellow sisters and brothers; the poignant, heart-rending Typhoon Haiyan poem by Stephanie Camba; the witnessing of a fellow pinay-sister’s awakening as a healer, a prophet; the think-feel, visceral, illuminating war cry / performance art / dance / poetry of pinay-sister Jana Lynne Umibig; the return to my own dancing, my own heart, my own think-feel rhythms during the last night’s ritual, jam session; the synchronization and healing between my Christian faith and my indigenous, decolonizing self; the sustenance and enrichment of eating delicious, heartwarming Filipino food every breakfast, lunch, and dinner; the synching of kindred spirits with Ate Christina Carter, hearing her journeys through academia and back home in Iloilo; the singing and re-translating of a Filipino lullaby–our lost memory–by Marybelle Mb; the shared pilgrimage of carrying a part of the Ifugao Hut’s log to the sacred ground of Mamerto Tindongan’s house, singing chants in my own ancestor’s tongue, embodying the loob that ties me with my loving pamilya, sharing the weight of healing with my tribe, my community; and my own recurring, enlightening dreams that bring me back to ceremony, to sacrament, to chanting, back to a world that is beyond the physical, back to the metaphysical plane where my lola watches and protects me, sending her love, her light, her fires.
The most powerful moment for me was our ending ritual: our chanting, hands held together as one tribe in front of the Ifugao Hut, which is being built as a way to give healing back to our ancestors who suffered during St. Louis’s 1904 World’s Fair, where we were presented as savages, as animals, as dog-eaters:
We believe in the power of ritual to help us heal from historical trauma. We are a group Filipinos and Filipino North Americans who would like to build a Traditional Ifugao Hut that will symbolize our capacity for healing and reconciliation thru the sharing of Filipino Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Practices.
We are building the Traditional Ifugao Hut in Ohio led by mombaki (healer) Mamerto Tindongan. Our vision is to build an on-site installation and healing ritual at the site of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair in Missouri.
These are only brief memories; there too many to name, too many to hold, too many to share, too many write (this is why, at the end of this piece, I want to re-share my pinay-sister’s illuminating account of the Babaylan Conference. You can read them here: kayumanggingapilipina.com).
But more than this, what I left the conference with was the greatest gift of all: critical consciousness, but wrapped and illuminated in love:
It is said that to awaken to critical consciousness, it is not enough to see and grieve what is wrong in the world; one needs also to fall in love.
— Lily Mendoza in Back from the Crocodile’s Belly
I am so thankful to the Center of Babaylan Studies, to the Core Group Members, to Tita Leny and Tita Lily, to Father Albert, to Grace Nono, to the brilliant and empowering speakers throughout the conference, to Amanda [Ngoho], to Lisa, to Christina, to Christine, to Tess, to Jen, to Marybelle, to Koole (who always drove us around with such heart, warmth, love), to shaman Mamerto Tindongan and his loving, endearing pamilya; and to everyone who participated and who I was blessed to talk to and blessed to be in presence with. From the deepest part of me, I say: maraming salamat po. Lamuwan kata. Mahal na mahal kita.