Leny Mendoza Strobel
What about yourself cannot be tracked?
Is illegible? Can’t be archived?
Krishnamacharya, the father of modern Yoga, towards the end of his life preferred not to talk about his personal history. What was important to him is the distillation of the teachings of Yoga as a path to reduce suffering and to experience unity within the body, mind, and spirit. In this tradition, Memory, as one of the activities of the mind, can be considered an obstacle to clarity if those memories are not purified of their shadows. I think of this now as a student of Patanjali’s sutras while contemplating about Hope and how an archive of Memory can be useful (or not).
Many years ago, as a tourist in a small village in Languedoc in the South of France, I was impressed by the historical markers everywhere. It made me wonder about my “third world” homeland and my lack of adequate historical knowledge due to the lack of visible markers of important places, events and people in history that would have made me proud to be Filipina. Where are our archives and why hasn’t our educational system done a good job of turning me into a nationalist by making sure our historical archives got integrated into our canon?
In another site, the Chicago Field Museum is holding thousands of Philippine archived ethnographic materials in the basement; no longer on display because the U.S.’s interest in the Philippines is not like what it was in the late 19th century when the U.S. needed to formally flex its power on the global stage by colonizing the Philippines in 1898. So the cultural artifacts gathered by the anthropologists of that era are now gathering dust in the basement of the museum. I wondered why the Philippines doesn’t have its own version of NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) and a museum curator in the Philippines told me that the country doesn’t have the infrastructure and resources to bring home these archived materials.
I also do not know what to do with the research materials that have piled up during my academic career. They are languishing in file cabinets in the garage and storage boxes. At least most of the books have found their home in two institutions but not my personal files. I suppose I can do research and see where these might go and who would want them in their library. Or I could wish that some Filipino American graduate students would be interested in my work. But I’ve not put in the time and energy needed to archive my materials.
All of the above arouse feelings of inadequacy and inferiority because I hear the script of cultural conditioning around “legacy” and “heritage”—the importance of keeping records of the milestones that crown our lives. After all, don’t we all need and want to be remembered for our achievements and believe that we have done something good in our lifetime to make the world a better place? Ah, but these feelings are fleeting. A part of me doesn’t really care about the tradition of archiving. Confessing this is … unsettling. Let me pass on a story.
Bayo Akomolafe tells the story of the Dibia, the Rainmaker, among his Igbo people in Nigeria. This Dibia has an apprentice who is overeager to practice his powers to bring on the rain. The apprentice listens surreptitiously to the Dibia and tries to memorize the spell that is cast by the Dibia when he makes the rains come. One day the Dibia had to go away to visit another village and at the same time, the apprentice was summoned by a different village to make the rains come. The apprentice thought this was his chance to be his own rainmaker. He recited the spell and no rains came; repeatedly with each spell, no rains came. He felt like an utter failure and became despondent. When the Dibia returned and heard the news, he took the apprentice aside and told him that it isn’t the spell that makes the rains come, it is the Gathering—of the winds, the birds, trees, guardian spirits, the village people, the stars and the sun—and those gathered talk amongst themselves and decide together to bring on the rain.
I love this story! It points to what’s illegible about myself, what hasn’t been tracked and archived—the gatherings in my village in Northern California where we summoned the Spirits: of inquiry, generosity, hospitality, kindness and over a couple of decades have become a cultural movement of decolonization and re-indigenization in the diaspora among Filipino Americans. The movement has grown mycelia-like and I can’t tell where the archival sites of this movement’s important achievements are located or who the “rainmakers” are. I am content to know that the movement (of resistance, of beauty-making, of meaning-making) is alive and well and continues to flow through the river of Time.
In the absence of archives, what we do have in abundance are the imprints in our hearts, psyche, and our soul where our arms have held each other, when we’ve cooked and fed each other, when we’ve sung and prayed together, and cried together. This is Kapwa—the Self-is-in-the-Other—remembered and embodied every day in the ordinariness of our lives. Recorded in the hearts and minds of our shared Self, we turn to each other through the thick and thin of living in the belly of the beast. Those who witness this from the outside remark that we are the kindest, most generous, happiest, and most resilient people.
Yes, of course, we have the written word, too, and we have been “educated”, but according to a recent “reading literacy assessment” conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)1 the Philippines is kulelat or at the bottom of the list. The test was given (in English) to over 600,000 15-year-old students around the world. This test was administered in mostly non-OECD countries and now also includes Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and other “developing countries.” The Philippines is also kulelat and second to the last in math and science (last is Dominican Republic).2 Is this because we have failed at archiving?
In David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal, I feel I’m being asked to remember the time when we weren’t an archiving species yet. I’m being asked to return to the time when there was no written word; when the quality of presence mattered most because sound (aural/oral) is the only mnemonic device. No vowels and consonants and no printing presses to record selective information deemed precious enough (by whom?) to be recorded and saved for future generations. To communicate, ancient folks had to turn their faces to each other, lean towards each other’s ears to listen and to remember. My people even had the tradition of ungngo—of exchanging Breath with the other—the ultimate gesture of connection. In this form of communicating without the written word we understood our connection beyond the gross body and intimately knew that our subtle body is connected energetically with the unseen realms. Although we have been colonized and educated and inducted into the modern era, this subterranean self has remained untracked, illegible and unarchived. And I am grateful.
Abram writes about the recuperation of this oral/aural presence through the written word. Perhaps this is what I am doing by writing this. I am following the tracks made by indigenous writers like Linda Hogan, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Martin Prechtel, Bayo Akomolafe, Martin Shaw, Rowen White, Greg Sarris and many others. They are the ones who are archiving Hope for me today because I am hearing the voices of the ancestors in their writing. I am learning the Original Instructions from their poetry, mythic storytelling, short stories. My heart comes alive when I read them and my mind quietly abides with a recognition of the seeds that are being sown. There is a tacit knowing that lives in my cultural genes that gets awakened when I am on this road.
What about yourself cannot be tracked, is illegible, and cannot be archived?
How to answer this question when, clearly, I am making self legible by writing which could lead to being archived somewhere someday. Would all the pieces of writing I’ve published over two decades when tracked, catalogued, and stored on iCloud be considered an archive of Leny Strobel’s life work?
I don’t think so. What about the deepest thoughts that I couldn’t write in English because it is not my native tongue? What about the memories that I have kept secret? What about the silences and absences of history that didn’t make it in my writings? What about the dreams I never mention in my writings?
What about Hope?
In my diasporic community, some writers lament the state of our “illiteracy;” that we do not sell enough books because supposedly our people don’t read; that our scholars are not writing and publishing enough. Young folks don’t read anything anymore that’s longer than a meme or a headline. In other words, we are kulelat again.
I will be subversive and say that this kulelat syndrome is negative only in the context of a globalized idea of what it means to be modern and civilized. Only in the context of a schooling system where English and the Western canon is globalized and privileged over the immense diversity of languages and cultures around the planet. Only in the context of the flawed assumptions of a modern worldview that values the written word and sacred texts first and foremost.
Datu Vic Saway, tribal chief of the Talaandig tribe in the southern Philippines, once said: They (outsiders) say that we are primitive and uncivilized because we do not have a sacred text. But we do have sacred texts—we have the Mountain, Forest, Rivers, Sun, Stars, Moon, Animals—we have the biggest sacred text of Nature! Why do we let them make us feel inferior? We know how to read the Wind, we know how to read the Sky.
Whenever I hear this voice in my heart, it enlivens me. It gives me Hope. It makes me want to get to know the redwood tree in my backyard and the creek around the bend and the wildweeds in the cracks of the pavement around my tract home in the suburb. Theirs is a language I want to learn and a language I need to hear.
I am content to slow down and linger among the non-human beings in this place where I am a settler. If I am to have Hope, I wish for this kind of slowness and smallness. I wish to step away from my gadgets more often. I wish to dance and sing more. I wish to be consistent with my yoga and qi gong practice. I wish to look at the sky and make gazing my source of sustainable joy. I wish to meditate with my gaze cast downward at my heart and imagine her spaciousness and her capacity to hold the universe with awe and tenderness. And then in this smallness and slowness, I could tend to the garden and the circles of belonging in this Place.
In this way, this modern self will begin to unwrite itself and become illegible, untrackable, and there will be no archive. But there will be something else.
And maybe this is the gift of the virus, the California fires, the craziness of politics, and the climate crisis. In the place where I live I see more and more people who are turning inward trying to make sense of it all, looking for Hope. I am currently tending a small cohort of local folks who all responded to the invitation to meditate on these questions: What does being a settler in this county mean to you? When did you or your ancestors come to settle here? How does the history of Native genocide impact your sense of place and identity? Before convening this gathering, I called on local Indigenous elders and leaders to ask for permission and guidance to do this work. I mentioned that we hope, someday, after we have done our inner work of decolonization, that we could co-create a ceremony of apology and forgiveness so that we may heal together from historical trauma.
As we do this work we are not recording and posting any aspect of it on social media. We are focusing on building relationships with each other towards a sense of community; towards a deeper connection with the Land; and learning to understand how our recent presence in these Indigenous lands constitute a shadow that needs to be acknowledged for its damaging effects and consequences over millennia and which our generation is finally accounting for. Often it is also a test of how we bridge across differences; this is the path that is always fraught with traps from the conditioning of cultural identities, the blind alleys of supremacist beliefs, and the reptilian brain kicking into its fight or flight mode.
Many indigenous scholars have been calling attention to the erasure of native genocide as the “first sin” at the foundation of the U.S. No apologies. No reparations. So we remain a broken nation. Hope then, for me, lies in these small acts of connection and accounting that make historical shadows visible and rippling out to join the larger arcs of transformation elsewhere.
What about yourself will not be tracked? Is illegible? Cannot be archived?
In spite of these written reflections, something else escapes the pen. Something else is a refusal to be fixed on the page that would tempt essentialists to see me only in the dimension of what is written. Something else is what has been left behind and is no longer a sharp pain in the heart when remembered. Something else is the beautiful silence of the Mind when all the questions of angst and existential meaning find their angle of repose. Something else is a scent from the jasmine that evokes ancestral connection to my Apu Sinang. Something else are all the footprints of those who have walked in and out of my life leaving no residue, only the spirit of gratitude that we had passed each other on the road. Something else is the trust I hold in the wisdom of the youth who are out in the streets marching for the right to live with sustainable joy.
Something else is what the modern mind, so bounded by hardened categories, is incapable of imagining at this time while waving the empty banner of Hope to keep a dying civilization alive. Something else is the budding of new visions, emerging in mostly liminal spaces, breaking through the cracks to let the Sun through the broken planks of what is perceived as real. Something else is the not-yet-visible but palpable, an ineffable movement towards righting the wrongs of the past, seeking reparations and repair.
Ultimately, Hope will always be that something else.
Something else is what will remain unsaid in this quiet afternoon of writing these meditations about Hope.
Graphics by Leny Strobel