Unmothered & In Halves: From The Center of Babaylan Studies Conference

Bearing our rituals: carrying a part of the Ifugao Hut Healing Project. Photo by Jana Lynne Umipig.
Bearing our rituals: carrying a part of the Ifugao Hut Healing Project. Photo by Jana Lynne Umipig.
By Melissa R. Sipin

*This post is excerpted from a longer piece entitled “Lamuwan Kata: Experiencing Loob at CfBS Conference,” written in the aftermath of The Center of Babaylan Studies Conference, last weekend.

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…

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.
If you were compelled by this post, you’ll love this article in its entirety. Click here to read it.
Melissa R. Sipin is a writer from Carson, CA. She won Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open and the Washington Square Review’s Flash Fiction Prize. She co-edited Kuwento: Lost Things, an anthology on new Philippine myths by Carayan Press and her work is inGlimmer Train, GuernicaWashington Square Review, and Eleven Eleven, among others. Melissa cofounded TAYO Literary Magazine and teaches at Old Dominion University.

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