When I was working on the first draft of my novel Maganda's Comb (in progress), I tried to find pre-Hispanic folktales from the Philippines to include. The foundation of the story is structured as an urban fantasy - a story told in a modern setting but intersecting with characters and beliefs from another place and time. I quickly found that it's not very easy to find good documentation on Filipino myths, but did find a few titles on Project Gutenberg. Since the books were out of copyright, I downloaded the PDFs and even printed off a copy for myself at home. The pages worked well enough, but they were cumbersome to store and heaven help me if I ever dropped the manuscript and scattered pages in the process. I had a hard time absorbing and sorting through the data on the pages, something that frustrated me until I realized it was because the pages weren't bound. Somehow my mind translates bound things differently than loose leaf. **shrug**
Trying to find old copies of the books proved expensive, difficult or both. I kept dreaming I would 'accidentally' stumble across copies of Fansler's Filipino Popular Tales at Powell's Books in Portland or some out of the way Goodwill store for 50 cents. No such luck. I resigned myself with the bulky printouts I jammed into my file drawer, mercilessly festooned with sticky notes to keep track of key passages and bound with a large black spring clip.
Then a couple of months ago, the bright and wonderful folks at Village Books unveiled their Espresso Book Machine, a wonderful invention that can print bound books right there in the store. You can pick from current titles as well as out of print titles. I was so astounded at the possibilities of obtaining difficult, out of print books, that I waited for weeks before looking into getting bound versions of my favorite folklore books! (Yah, procrastination roxors.)
Today, in addition to Fansler's Filipino Popular Tales, I picked up Mabel Cole's Philippine Folk Tales and Clara Kern Bayliss' title by the same name all for less than $50. The production value is excellent for the price - clean printing, tight binding, color covers, and readable format. The only title left on my list to print is Philippine Folklore Stories by John Maurier Miller. Apparently though the book is out of copyright, no one has formatted the book for reprinting. Thankfully manipulating PDFs isn't that hard for someone who's a production editor by day. :) So I'm looking forward to having that title on my shelf in a few weeks (allowing for the normal procrastination period, of course).
Since all thought-threads lead back to the Babaylan Conference these days, I'm reminded that the work we did and shared this past weekend is a lot like these books - knowledge from a different age brought forward and made relevant in current times. We may have had PowerPoint presentations (albeit also the usual tech issues associated with, well, tech), snapped pictures on 3G phones, and Tweeted between sessions, we were still a community gathered to a single purpose - to share a common desire to integrate our heritage with our personal quests for spiritual wholeness. We spoke and listened, danced and sang, cried and laughed, but most of all, were present with each other, tangible beings we could finally touch without the need for keyboards and screens. We were actively creating an oral history together, one we all want to share now that we're back in our usual spaces.
Some would criticize that our conference is an anachronism, the dredging up of a past out of touch with the realities of the present. But there are some things too precious to lose, and when you find the way to bring them forward to hold in your hand and share with others, you take the chance and become transformed by that tangible thing you only thought could exist in your dreams.
It's been about 5 years since I first came across the term "babaylan" and the work of Leny Strobel. I found both soon after making contact with FilAm prose and poetry artists - I was looking for a piece of my heritage that resonated with what I'd learned from studying the indigenous practices of Europe, the Americas, and Australia. I remember being worried that after almost 500 years of colonization, there was little information about pre-Spanish spiritual practices in what we know commonly as the Philippines, let alone any current practitioners of those systems.
Throughout my search, Leny has been a touchstone, a mentor who does not give easy, concrete, this-is-the-way-it-is answers. Rather she has been a person I could count on to help me form my own questions then provide the resources and contacts to find my own answers. A deeply spiritual woman, Leny is also an excellent academic who struggles between the tacit and the explicit, the intuitive and the logical, and who most of all, is willing to share that struggle with others, thereby creating a community through her blog, events, and travels with students. Until this past weekend, Leny was a person on the other side of the internet, a woman shaped of pixels on the screen who's able to reach into the heart of another by revealing her own heart. If that's not the definition of kapwa - the self in other - I don't know what is.
The First International Babaylan Conference was her brainchild and it flourished under her leadership, but like the rest of her work, it came about because of the community she created, the core planning group of women with the vision, skills, and dedication to turn a small corner of the Sonoma State University into a sacred place where FilAms and Filipinos could blink away the grime of not quite fitting in anywhere, could shed the cloak of nearly-passing-in-order-to-survive, and raise their open palms to the sky to say Tao Po! I am a human being, as I am now, as I was, as my ancestors were, as we all shall be.
When I came back from the California the first question my friends and family ask is the expected "How was the conference?" And there's only one way to describe it. Before the conference, the different parts of myself and my previous experiences were like the jumbled tumblers inside a combination lock. From the moment I stepped into my suite and joined a small group of women who I would live with the next few nights, a tumbler would turn and fall into place. Then another. Then another. A song would be sung. Thunk. A passing prayer whispered. Thunk. A term, a chant, and passing conversation. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Pieces fell into place that I thought were forever separated because of time and circumstance. Instead I learned that I just needed a reflection in someone else's experience to affirm all that I'd known before. I stopped second guessing myself. I stopped feeling outside my own culture. I stopped holding back "just in case" it wasn't safe to be myself.
And the lock just kept turning. Two pieces at the very end fell into place, two pieces I didn't think would be even up for discussion. But there on Sunday afternoon and then late into Sunday evening - thunk, thunk. It's natural to think that if the metaphor is a lock, then something was opened, but that's not quite the sensation. It's more a feeling of being whole. After all the labyrinthine travels of the past 10-15-20 years where I would come close enough to understanding but never completely Becoming the understanding, finally, it's all there. I'm all there. Here.
So what's next? Well, besides diving back into this blog, I need to plant a tree. Preferably a cedar tree, perhaps as part of a larger reclamation project. Perfect timing considering Earth Day tomorrow. And I need to touch the sea, to let the local spirits know there was a healing offering made in California on their behalf yesterday.