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Leaving Academe

"Eros says: there is more to life than the life of the Mind. What about your body? Is your body intelligent? What does it know? Are you willing to learn what your body is saying? Are your emotions intelligent?"

How can I really claim that I am leaving academe if I’ve not felt that I have arrived and stayed? This strange feeling of not belonging in its hallways, and yet somehow for over two decades I’ve carved out a space within it, I suppose, will always be my koan. The last time I was on campus, I felt a little sad about leaving the giant redwoods and the vegetable garden next to the environmental technology center. I looked at the manicured lawn and the summer blooms, the shiny new buildings, the new construction going on and all I could think of was: is this sustainable? for how long?

A few years ago, an indigenous elder said that someday I am going to leave this work and become a culture bearer. Then she asked: what is your cultural practice?

Why haven’t I considered theorizing, research, writing, teaching, and publishing as cultural practice? Instead, my answer to her question was: I cook and feed people. Just like my mother.

Come to think of it, a lot of my thinking (in academese: phenomenological meditation) happens when I am cooking. Because when I am cooking, I am flooded with memories of a childhood when my mother taught me everything I needed to know about being in the kitchen: how to butcher a live chicken, how to cut onions, how to saute or stir fry, how to gut and scale a milkfish, how to stuff flank steak, and so on. And as I think of my mother and how she and my father raised six children in an expanded nipa hut, how we raised our own pigs and chickens, how we went to the wet market everyday for fresh fish or shrimp, or how we shared dishes with the neighbors and they with us — it occurs to me, now that I look back on the late 50s and 60s, that it was really the beginning of the end of that homegrown, indigenously-grounded communal life of the barrio.

In high school, I started hearing of townsfolk who have left for Saudi Arabia and Canada and the U.S.. My own brother went to Canada and then a decade later another sister married a Yankee and went to Maine. It was the beginning of our own story of uprooting. Uprooting not only in terms of physical migration but of the uprooting of a particular mindset that up until that time believed in the value of families staying together, making a living in the local economy, and spending leisurely weekends with family and friends. It was enough.

Before I could really understand what was going on, I had joined the bandwagon: get educated and speak English well, go abroad, make more money, find more opportunity for self-expression and fulfillment, and make the world a better place. That last one — of making the world a better place — seemed like a good story to build a life upon. I got good at it. I got tenured for it.

But this was all before I learned how to connect the dots. It was my stint at the Hutchins School of Liberal Studies as a lecturer and teaching a 10-unit course on “Work and the Global Future” that some things started to become clear to me. Capitalism is not sustainable. Resources are finite. Cities rely on importation of goods that have to be extracted and manufactured elsewhere. The earth is warming due to human activities. The polar caps are melting. Carbon emissions. Global climate change. We need a New Story. The old story of progress, modernity, and development will not carry us through.

This global view was more expansive than the academic disciplines of ethnic studies and postcolonial studies — disciplines that initiated me as an organic intellectual. There came a time when I started poking beyond the fences of disciplinary boundaries. As a woman, I was also pre-menopausal and the physical changes were ushering in the imperatives of Eros.

Eros says: there is more to life than the life of the Mind. What about your body? Is your body intelligent? What does it know? Are you willing to learn what your body is saying? Are your emotions intelligent?

These questions pointed me in the direction of women and men who were interested in the same inquiries. Filipinas in the diaspora who were ready to look into the history of the precolonial Babaylans — the indigenous women and men who were the shamans of their villages (over 150 indigenous communities in the Philippines); the ones whose powers were feared by the colonizers and so devoted the first of the five centuries of colonization to their systematic extermination.

In the last book I co-edited with my sister, Professor Lily Mendoza, we titled our anthology Back from the Crocodile’s Belly: Philippine Babaylan Studies and the Struggle for Indigenous Memory (Center for Babaylan Studies, 2013). We aimed to contribute narratives of decolonization and indigenization as our way of responding to the crises of modernity.

What does this indigenous turn mean?

For me the question is not only an academic one. It has become a question of world view for me. It has become a question of practice, of learning how to Dwell in a Place, of learning how to be part of the landscape, or learning how to see and feel in a whole new way. I am learning how to dance, chant, do ritual. I greet the ancient redwood in my backyard every morning and I hug the trees in the garden. I put my hands in the soil and try to learn the names of all the non-human beings we live with.

All these take time. Slowness is key. Practicing presence is difficult for someone like me. To dwell in a place means I make the choice to stay home and stay local. I am a latecomer to this way of being and I still feel the resistance sometimes.

How do I unlearn the conditioning of being modern and civilized? How do I disengage from the intellectual life that insists or demands a loyalty to the faculty of reason with the body and emotions served only as side dishes on the menu of the canon? How do I teach if I can’t bring my whole self — body, mind, spirit — into the classroom?

These questions have guided me out of the confines of my academic training. I am grateful for the voices that speak so loudly to my heart and spirit and who assure me that I am doing right by my ancestors and my descendants. I am gathering new stories to tell.

What saddens me is that I had no one to talk to among my university colleagues. We don’t even talk to each other beyond the polite conversations. Or maybe I’ve just grown accustomed to my invisibility and my stealth approach of working just below the radar of policing. Sometimes I wish it weren’t so. But it’s too late now.

I am leaving.

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