Legba, Kafou, and the Space in Between

•October 6, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Note: this is posted over at my Tumblr, where I do a lot of Q&A and interaction…follow me there for more regular updates.

In many ways, all spiritual and religious systems and communities are about confronting thresholds and crossroads; within ourselves, within community, and with the spirits who are near and dear to us. Each threshold marks a point in time and reminds us of who were before we found our feet in that particular spot and who we might become. Each crossroad represents what choice we must make in the moment and what choices are created when we set our feet to one particular decision. We cross thresholds and find that a door may close behind us while others open faster or slower, depending on factors we might find out of our hands. We traverse crossroads and confront desire and self-determination mixed with demand and consequence. We might walk down a road only to find it deeply undesirable or filled with brambles we can’t fight through, and backtrack to find the crossroads of our past decision…only that is has changed and the roads stretching out from it are no longer the same as they were.

This is cause and effect, decision and consequence, and this is where we find Legba, Mèt Kafou, and the liminality that Haitian Vodou embodies.

The Western mind has a drive to categorize and create likeness based on our initial understanding of what is in front of us. We are expert puddlejumpers, and we crash in oceans of belief like toddlers in rain boots: we think we know depth and breadth at the initial jump-off and we reach conclusions that might not actually exist, and then are shocked when we find ourselves soaking wet and up to our knees (or over our heads…) in confusion. This is cultural relativism in action and there is really no better example than the Internet Understanding (TM) of Atibon Legba and Mèt Kafou.

This isn’t a sometimes cranky houngan throwing shade; it is honest-to-god truth. We are fallible creatures and we approach culture and cultural religion that we have grown up outside of with a flawed understanding birthed from problematic antique anthropological viewpoints that all can be understood inside our own cultural understanding. We do it, and it inevitably throws us for a loop when the spirits show us our lack of understanding.

Happily, we can undo that.

If you Google around or search Tumblr for information about Legba and Kafou, you inevitably come up with a literal mess of information:

  • You should propitiate Legba at the crossroads
  • Mèt Kafou is the literal Devil
  • Legba is just like American Horror Story made him out to be: a baby-eating, coke-blowing, tophat-wearing, red-eyed demon
  • Legba and Kafou are brothers or twins or the incarnation of the astrological symbol of Gemini
  • Legba/Kafou is Esu or Eleggua
  • Mèt Kafou is an evil being bent on destruction…yet can be easily approached by anyone bearing a bottle of rum and a printout of an Internet veve
  • Legba is the sun, Kafou is the moon
  • Offer Legba a skull and he’ll Do A Thing…

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Haitian Vodou can be a great example of ‘many stories, all true’, but there are some things that are just not correct.

Where does the misunderstanding come from? Largely, it springs up from false equivocation (Legba is Eleggua, Kafou and Legba are twins/brothers) born from the idea that since Legba and Kafou embody similar ‘jobs’ they are the same and, in some subtle ways, a colonized idea of what Vodou is, drawing from racist tropes made popular years ago.

Let’s start with Legba.

Krèyol sonde miwa, o Legba e!

Legba is sometimes said to be the most important lwa in Haitian Vodou, and there is some truth to that. He is vital to all work, all ceremony, and all priests because it is he who stands at the gate at the end of Gran Chemin/the Great Road and opens it so that other lwa may pass and come down or participate in work or ceremony. He goes by many, many names that denote his standing or the particular ‘face’/personality/affinity he is coming with, and he is most often greeted as Papa, an honorific in Vodou that denotes respect and the place a lwa holds in the religion and in the hearts of the sèvitè/servant.

Additionally, there is a Legba for almost every nasyon/nation/family of spirits in Vodou. If someone just says ‘Legba’, they are likely referring to the more Rada (generally cooler and more stately) Legba called at the beginning of every ceremony, but Legba is legion…there is Legba nan Nago, Legba nan Petwo, Legba nan Ibo, Legba nan Kongo, Legba nan Sinigal, and on for most nations of spirits (Nasyon Gede does not have a Legba…they are their own Legba, which is another topic for another time). There are also numerous Legba that may have specific affinities for particular work or particular places, like Legba Bwa. In all these ‘faces’, Legba has humanity which translates into a feeling of familiarity.

Legba is served at the door or the gate and, in ceremony, is saluted in a particular way that draws his influence into the temple. He is a rare-ish lwa to see in possession, but when he does come he most often arrives as an elderly man who cannot walk or stand for long and so sits in his chair and is given his accouterments there: a baton or cane, a particular style of Haitian bag woven from palm, perhaps a Haitian hat, and often a bottle of rum. He might enjoy a taste of siwo kàn/a dark sugarcane syrup, or his pipe with some tobacco. He takes a wide variety of colors, depending on region of Haiti the lineage comes from, but he Does Not take black; folks who conflate him with Eleggua often give him red and black, and that’s not correct. Likewise, giving him an Eleggua head is inappropriate and he does not come as a child, so giving him toys is likely to get a raised eyebrow and a hand-off to the Marassa.

Legba can be approached by anyone, initiate or not, because he sits at the gate in this liminal state that is both in and out. All people who come to Vodou either pass into the religion through him or through Gede, so all people come under his purview. He can be an excellent resource in opening the door for someone who wishes to participate in the religion, if it is indeed the right place for them. He does whatever work he sees as beneficial or that he can be negotiated into doing by the talents of a learned vodouizan.

He is not without his price, though, and he can be absolutely impossible to deal with if he is displeased or feels he has been cheated or not paid for his favors and blessings. A rather infamous story about Legba can be found in Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn by Karen McCarthy Brown. A party is in full swing but Legba has not been propitiated properly for his blessings. He arrives in possession and sits down on the floor and sobs until his food is quickly prepared and brought to him. He refuses to let the party continue because he says he has been forgotten and no one loves Legba. If he doesn’t open the door, nothing happens.

When we move deeper into ceremony, Legba does not fall to the side; he is sung for each time a ceremony moves into a different rite or nasyon of spirits. Consequently, Legba is sung for again when the Petwo rite (when the Petwo spirits are sung for and saluted) arrives and only then do we welcome Kafou.

Mèt Kafou (sometimes seen as Kalfou or Maître Carrefour in French) is a lwa who is the actual embodiment of the crossroads. It can be hard to conceive of until you meet him, but he is a spirit who stretches across multiple explanations of who he is; a divinity and a place all in one. He is often addressed as mèt/master as a term of deep respect denoting his seat, and expertise. For the Petwo rite, he can be the pivotal lwa in terms of whether something goes well or goes deeply awry. There are specific ceremonies where his oversight is so important that even a mistake in his salute can be so disastrous that the risk is only assumed by the head priest, and if that priest is not available for the salute no spirits will come or be called into possession for the entirety of the ceremony. The community will work but will not risk Kafou’s displeasure by bringing spirits past him.

When I was at the very beginning of my participation in Vodou and was trying to understand how Kafou could be grasped (not understood…trying to understand him in totality is a mistake), my mother said something profound: if Kafou is unhappy with you, you have nothing. He can close all things in all ways until he is placated, and that can be a lengthy and costly process. Imagine driving on a road and never really getting anywhere. You find yourself continually passing the same bush on the right and the same abandoned gas station over and over, ala Groundhog Day, because all roads are closed to you and you only have the same quarter mile to drive over and over and over again.

This is Kafou. He is notoriously temperamental, like many of the Petwo lwa, and can be quick to offense and exacting and thorough with his consequences. A mistake in his salute can open the door for him to strike back for care not being taken and proper respect not being shown. A cultural misunderstanding of this says this sort of behavior and personality are evil but that’s a deep misread. Instead, it is reflective of the general amorality that Kafou (and the religion at large) can embody; he is neither good or evil but simply is. If you treat him well, learn how to serve him, and are careful to be extra observant in your service, he can be a great ally. Treat him like a divine gumball machine that exists to give you what you want and he will show (and use) his teeth. Hilariously, the previous sentence originally came out as ‘..to give you what he wants’, and that is basically on point.

Amorality trips folks up when they are looking into Vodou, because the Western idea generally is that divine beings are basically invested in your well-being and are your invisible friends in the sky who want to give you stuff and won’t ever harm you. This does not apply to the lwa or to Vodou in general, and specifically not to lwa who walk in the Petwo rite. There is pain there, and the lwa can be impatient, fast-moving, and less interested in spiritual handholding and hair-petting. They come to work and to achieve what needs achieving. Even seasoned priests handle Kafou carefully because the crossroads can shift in any direction, depending on how the wind blows.

It is a rarer occurrence to see Mèt Kafou come down in ceremony because he is a force to be reckoned with. He often comes down screaming and throwing his chwal around the peristyle or, most often, around the crossroads where he is most commonly invited into possession. He may be saluted with a flaming log or something else on fire, and he particularly enjoys dancing in a fire set for him. Mèt Kafou rode the head of a brother of mine and threw himself into a huge bonfire and rolled around on the logs and lay there long enough that the gathered crowd thought for certain that the chwal was dead. Perhaps, if Kafou was suitably annoyed, he might have been but Kafou emerged from the flames with his chwal unburned and only smelling slightly of wood smoke.

In some ways, it can be said of Kafou what is said of some of the other Petwo lwa: Kafou has no friends, only acquaintances. I find that this is because of Kafou’s lack of humanity because he is the embodiment of something that is decidedly not people: he is the power and depth and breadth of the most liminal of places, where the confluence of stuff and power and people comes together and becomes one thing which, for Vodou, is Kafou. When I have been present for work done with Kafou, it is like feeling this massive…thing just unfurling itself and watching you. When I have seen Kafou in my dreams, he has presented himself almost like a stalker: he stays in the shadows and watches me and tracks me almost like I am prey. He has no cause to eat me, so I don’t worry but it can be unsettling because it is a reminder how deeply not human he is.

Knowing all of these things, I cringe when folks who have zero connection to a teacher who can guide them through interacting with Kafou talk about going to a crossroads, tracing what they think might be a veve for Kafou, and then asking him for something. While anyone can talk to Legba and have some manner of assurence that Legba will not rise up and eat them if they accidentally give him something that he may not really enjoy, even a priest is fair game for serious consequences with Kafou if they bring the wrong bottle or buy the wrong goat. Beyond that, if you do not have the license to seek out and ask Kafou for his assistance at a crossroads, you have no way to make sure that what shows up, if anything, is what you are naming it. Lots of things will be happy to take those offerings and muck around in your situation with no ritual obligation to do the work or speak the truth.

Legba sits at the gate, but he is not the gate itself. When you leave an offering for him at the gate, he may take or not depending on whether it’s something he wants or if it is what he has negotiated as his payment for what you are asking of him. If he doesn’t want it, it’s just there and he pays it no mind.

Kafou, on the other hand, is the crossroads and whatever is brought there is being left on him. If it’s not what he wants, it’s still on him. If it’s an inappropriate offering, it’s still on him. If it wasn’t meant for him but it was left there anyways and who it was meant for isn’t coming to take it, it’s still there. Imagine your unhappiness if someone shoved some peanuts M&Ms into your pocket. They sit there, they melt all over you, you can’t put your phone in your pocket, and you definitely do not like M&Ms and may even be allergic to peanuts. If you are having a good day, you may end it at telling everyone around you what a thoughtless bastard the M&M person is. If you are having a shit day, maybe you track them down and punch them in the face a few times to make the point that M&Ms do not go in your pocket.

Kafou, being the crossroads, also stretches from Vodou into Vodou-adjacent rites often referred to as secret societies. Being a liminal amorality, he is happy to stretch into rites that conceive of spirit relationships in different ways that a Ginen-based priest or lineage will. In those rites, he may be worked for things that a Ginen priest does not work for. Folks who research Kafou on the Internet and come up with associations and service for him that rise from those Vodou-adjacent rites may find that Kafou is happy to respond to that form of service and rise to the occasion to behave in the way you are unwittingly communicating to him that you expect. All is fair game when it comes to the crossroads.

Like Legba, Kafou is not Esu or Eleggua. He is served with black and red, but giving him items that belong to Esu or Eleggua is asking for a bad time. He is not willing to speak with anyone that knocks on his door as Legba often is but, if he is annoyed with what amounts to pestering, he might respond in a way that expressed his dislike. He is not a ‘level up’ in dealing with the lwa in that there is no sort of prestige or badass points assigned for dealing with him. I would never expect a reputable priest to suggest a non-initiate to go deal with Kafou on their own, nor would I expect a reputable priest to easily problem-solve someone’s Kafou issue. Like, if someone approached me with a disaster stemming from missteps with Kafou, I am unlikely to be willing to offer advice without at least laying down some cards to see what exactly was done and speaking to Kafou on my own to see if this is something that can be mitigated and if I am the right priest to do the mitigating.

Outsiders tend to be attracted to Kafou because he is a master magician. He can work miracles or mayhem, depending on how he is served, and his skill can be unmatched if he chooses to engage and is paid appropriately. Folks who don’t have the backing to approach him for this work routinely get burned. It is pretty self-destructive to approach him without an appropriate guide. After all, kafou a se tè glise.

With all of that in mind, I am not afraid of Kafou—after all, he is key in the creation of a priest–and I don’t think people should be afraid of him. For me, I maintain what relationship I have with Kafou by a) not bothering him and b) approaching him on his terms, which is engaging how I have been taught to. I think the most useful tool in relating to Kafou, and Vodou in general, is to forget whatever you are bringing to the door and holding yourself in a position of humility with the understanding that Kafou and Vodou has a different way of relating to the world and, in that world, humans are not the top of the food chain or the center of everything.

It is in both Legba and Kafou that we see liminality: both of them embody ‘yes and..’ in different ways. Through these fundamental concepts of difference in the religion, we find comfort in uncertainty. When we stand at the door and knock, the answer, if it arrives, is not certain. When we arrive at the crossroads, we can find passage of some sort but what we gain there is not ours to determine or control. We step into a particular uncertainty in that we hand over outcomes trusting that we have been taught well and that we will be received in a manner in line with how we have arrived.

I give thanks for the lessons of Legba and Kafou, as different and unique as they may be, and I give thanks for their role in the formation of who I am. May we embrace what they can bring to us with gratitude even in the most difficult times, and may we step into uncertainty trusting that the separate liminalities of Legba and Kafou will come find us where we are at.

Advertisements

•May 21, 2018 • 1 Comment

I have had interesting conversations the past few days, surrounding this past weekend’s fete, with some interesting chewy thoughts as a result.

I think, if/when we become part of Haitian vodou, we are doing ourselves a disservice if we forget that we are embracing a religion of revolution. Vodou is a living, breathing religion based in upsetting status quo and re-balancing the scales in favor of pitit de lwa yo/the children of the lwa and those who seek the intercession of the lwa. It is a pragmatic religion in that it sees the value of the people who come to the door, but it requires the ability to fully participate in the process of revolution.

When we come to the door and ask for admittance, no matter who we are, we consent to beginning this revolution. It begins within us first because if we do not burn, how do we bring fire to the world at large? We must constantly be working to refine and undo what keeps us and the world we interact with out of balance. We aren’t promised stasis or comfort, we are promised that, if we do the work, we will have the tools to manage those things and to find temporary balance.

This is bloody business. Revolution is not easy, straightforward, or painless. It hurts. It demands we examine every crack, crevice, and closet in our life and drag out the dark pudding of the soul that eats at us like a malignant fungus. It takes prisoners. It unravels who we think we are, and presents an opportunity to rebuild if we are willing to fight for it. It spares nothing and it doesn’t bend to our whims or our assumptions about what it will be for us. It demands our best efforts and our ability to be humble when we are faced with adversity.

We certainly fall and fail in the process. There is not one of us who is perfect and without fault but we are expected to get up and get to work, if we choose to remain. There is the expectation that, as we got to the door and knocked, we will bring that resiliency with us and embrace as we are embraced–completely, soft spots and all–and participate in the religion as it is presented to us.

A lot of stuff changes when we embrace this revolution. Some things fall away. Some things become more important. Some things morph so completely that we don’t recognize them any more. Some things are sacrificed for something better. My mother told me once that, in pursuit of what the lwa offer or want, there is no sacrifice that is too big or too small. What you place at the feet as the lwa–the masters of this revolution–determines what they give to you. You get what you put in.

Vodou is hard. It’s supposed to be, because life is hard. Life is like the edge of a machete, and that can be humbling. The upside? If we put our very best forward, listen to our teachers, and move with humility, we find ourselves unshakable with spines of iron and burning bloody hearts. When you walk through fire and come out the other side, there’s not a whole lot that can undo you.

When we find ourselves in that place, the bloody business of vodou takes on a depth of beauty that keeps your heart burning. When Feray comes down screaming and howling and pounds your chest his hand and tears in his eyes, you have goosebumps because this is how he tells you he loves you. When Ezili Freda cries, you know it is because of her own burning desire for the best life possible. When Gede blows smoke in your face and cackles when you cough, you know his sacraments bring life to what is otherwise dead in you. Even when they come unhappy, it because they want the best for you, in their own beautiful burning way.

If we want all of the benefits, we have to do all of the work. It can be so hard sometimes, but things that are worth having take bloody chunks out of you and replace them with all the gifts that we could want. It is a product of Western culture that the default assumption is that religions and spiritual systems will be easy, comforting, immediately accessible, only present us with what we think we want and need, and comforting in the fluffy-pillow-and-baby-ducks way. Instead, we work and grow and push through because we learn it is worth it to fight to see another day, especially when we learn how to breath fire and swallow discomfort.

•April 24, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Two years ago yesterday, I sat down at my table and made a promise that really changed the course of my life. I had been preparing for kanzo for several months and was in real trouble; I did not have what I needed to make it happen, and had no real idea where that was going to come from. I knew I had to get in the djevo that summer because I knew I was going to die if I didn’t. Beyond my spirits telling me that, I could feel it in my bones…and that is a terrifying abyss to be looking at.

So, I made a small service for Ogou as I had been taught and prayed and prayed and prayed. I told him that I was ready to go to war to save my life and that I would do whatever he told me to do to get into the djevo without argument or reservation…and I did.

Within a week of handing Ogou that lit match, things had started to burn. I bought my plane tickets immediately so that there was no chance that I would not be getting on a plane. I packed up and moved back into Boston, downsizing from my own apartment to the smallest, cheapest room I could find. My lwa had already told me that I was going to have to leave my job–an executive-level position at a human services program that I had started and built a solid professional reputation with–so I began making plans of what it would look like for me to quit and promised that I would quit. I began selling off whatever I could to put fast cash in my pocket.

The closer I got to the djevo, the bigger the flames got. I was basically flayed alive: I lost friends who thought I was crazy, my family stopped speaking to me, and it was clear that I was going to be stripped of anything that did not improve my life and serve the purpose(s) my lwa had for me. Two weeks before I was to leave, I quit my job. I sold my car. Two days before I left for Haiti, I found out that I would not be able to keep the room I was living in, and so I packed what I could into a generous friend’s car and stored a few boxes and my clothes in another friend’s basement. Four hours before I left for Haiti, the washer and dryer I was using broke and so I packed a bunch of wet clothes to go with me and abandoned the rest of what was left.

When I did get to the airport, my flight was late and so I was trapped in an airport for almost 24 hours, since a missed connection means no flight into Haiti at night (as the airport closes at 5PM). I showed up in Haiti homeless, jobless, nearly penniless, and having no idea what I was going to do after kanzo. My life was a raging forest fire, and Ogou spared nothing.

It remains the most beautiful, most terrifying, most loving thing he (and the rest of my lwa) have ever done for me. Once I said yes, they destroyed everything so that it all could be rebuilt in a manner which was more beneficial to me and my relationship to them. I went into the djevo with nothing and came out with everything waiting for me. It has taken two years to completely rebuild, but they fulfilled their promises and answered my desperate prayers during kanzo: I gave up everything to be here with you, now put it back together for me.

In the midst of the despair that I ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner leading up to kanzo, I remember my mother telling me that there was no sacrifice too big or too small to give to Ogou and all the lwa in pursuit of kanzo, and that what I got out of kanzo would be equal to what I put in. When I arrived in Haiti broken into pieces, she and I sat and talked about the same thing and she was one of very few people there who understood how dire my situation was. In a strange way, Ogou destroying me with my consent drew me closer to her and we share a similarity in stories, in some ways.

So, last night I sat with Ogou after 9 days of prayers in thanksgiving for all he has done for me and all he continues to do for me. You didn’t have to let me into your djevo, I told him, but you did. You can do anything, and you did everything. There was a service for him last night, too, in recognition of what was laid for him several years ago, and the roses look like a puddle of blood in a reminder of my sacrifice of myself for my Self, willingly made at his hands.

Di m angaje jodia

Fete Damballah 2018: Now Bloom

•March 25, 2018 • Leave a Comment

I rolled into Damballah’s fete weekend in a really quiet place, on purpose. I spent the prior week with Damballah on my mind and it was pretty wonderful. Serene, even. I prayed a lot and asked that I be given the insight and ability to my best job for my spirits and my mother, and I held that close.

It’s kind of interesting to have that interior quiet, especially since my exterior life and dayjob tends to be exhausting and chaotic. Just the day before the fete, I was dealing with a client who suddenly started urinating in containers in their room. Filth right before the the starkness of the absence of filth…that’s my life.

I’ve written before how my purpose in attending fetes has shifted over time, and that still remains true. I don’t go to fetes to see my spirits because the primary way I know my spirits and communicate with them is not in person. I attend fetes to facilitate their function by making sure the spirits have what they need to attend and greet their people, making sure that it all happens so the community may receive what blessings they need from the spirits, and making sure my mother has all the support she could need and that she is also happy with the ceremony. I go to be the servant I have been shaped into, and to serve. As a person I enjoy said so profoundly and succinctly: I am a servant. I serve. That’s what I do, and it is what I have been made for. A priest is a tool empowered to do the work of the spirits, and, at the end of the day, that is it. No glamour, no special unearned graces…just service to the spirits.

And so I served. More and more, I find that ceremony gives me a version of meditative space in that I can see what needs to be done and I am able to do it. I know what is happening and can see what is coming, and I know what I need to do to support that. It’s this particular mental space which is it’s own form of grace from the spirits, because I haven’t always had it. At my maryaj and directly after, I was put to the task of finding that space and keeping by one of my husbands and it pleases me that it is not (currently) a huge struggles. That’s a change for me, and I kinda like it. I am super hot-tempered, and that’s not a good thing for a priest, at least not in the way I am known to be. Easily frustrated, a sharp tongue when it’s not necessary, and inviting myself to situations that elevate that heat instead of weighing whether or not that situation needs my attention. In reflection, I am grateful that it was reflexive for me this time and didn’t require so much effort.

You need to learn to calm you head. There is only one Ogou, and it is me.

When I do my job and work to support my mother and the community, the spirits bless me in ways that I couldn’t expect on my own. Small things take on deep meaning because they are, in their own way, gifts from the spirits that hold me to my service and who love me. A husband came down, and I had a moment with him that left me with the feeling of him touching the inside of my head gently and with love that is personal and intimate and not something that I am historically used to. Despite it being between him and I and visible only to him and I, it left me feeling naked in a temple full of people. It’s an unsettling feeling for someone who has not had the best experiences in relationships to know, irrevocably, how much they are loved. When I wonder why and how and what I have done to deserve these things, I find myself under the steely stare of a few husbands.

How can you doubt my love for you? Did I not put that ring on your finger? What more do you require?

I was graced to see manman m/the spirit who is my mother for the first time and had the most lengthy twenty seconds of my life where she, too, touched the inside of my head and told me behind my eyes that I was loved by her as well.

The fet was also for Ezili Freda, too. She had her fet in Haiti this summer, and so she desired one in Boston as well because why not? She came down happy and thrilled with the attention and gifts she was given, and it was really lovely to see. I joke that I am really good at holding things for spirits, but it’s true. Inevitably, I end up holding things for this lady while she visits with her husbands and would-be husbands, and it’s always amusing. I couldn’t pour perfume fast enough for her and that drew A Look at one point, which was easily forgiven with rapid delivery of the desired perfume. Her gift to me was, just as she was readying to leave, a significant look that spoke volumes behind me eyes.

She and I started out having an odd relationship and, like many other areas, starting testosterone drastically changed how we relate. She showed herself to me in a different way, and I was able to receive her without my skin crawling due to my own internal nonsense around having femininity that close to me. No one is more surprised than me that she has become a spirit with whom I have a very, very special relationship. I mean, she is the only spirit besides my husbands who came to my wedding. I came out of the djevo ritually a man, so I am not someone for her to measure herself against, and I am married already so there is no expectation of that. We are comfortable with each other now, and it is a blessing each and every day. She granted me a huge boon recently when my boyfriend was in some trouble and I was unsure of an outcome: she gave me a dream and told me what was what, and it played out as she said, thank all the things.

After that, it was time to sing for the owner of our house and father of our lineage, Ogou. I was prepared to bring out the asson and the items we use to salute him, and he was in the air like a mist. I put his moushwa around my shoulders to bring out and it was like putting him on like a jacket. He was just RIGHT THERE pressing on my chest, and all I could taste was Ogou in my mouth like blood. Later on, when one of my brothers and I sat and chatted tucked just around the corner in the badji, he said he had felt the energy shift over in my corner where I stood waiting for the moment to bring the asson and I told him that the shift was me clutching at the corner of the altar so that my legs didn’t give out or, more likely, my Ogou didn’t come crashing through and mow down everyone standing between him and the drums.

It turns out I didn’t need to bring out the asson to salute Ogou because he came crashing down before we got that far. All of a sudden, a brother of mine who was seated precariously need some pipes had Ogou in his head and I luckily got my hand behind his head before he pounded it back against the pipes.

Ou kanpe, Papa, o tet chwal ou ap fe mal.

With some asking, he stood and flung himself across the temple and to the drums. He was in one head and then he was in half a dozen heads being his glorious screaming, howling, violent self. That’s a lot in our petite US temple, but he was perfect and did the work he needed to do. It was beautiful and heart-wrenching as usual. Despite what his tears mean, it is never easy to watch a spirit who you love more than you love to breath sob and scream and scream and scream. That touches the inside of your head, too.

The fete wound down after that, and it was a night well done. The gifts from my spirits–of seeing them, of knowing that they are with me, of serving them–were touching and I am grateful that they give me the opportunity to love them.

Fetes don’t often let me off the hook that easily, though. There is always more to do and deeper to go. Priests never retire and we never get to be idle unless we are toeing the line of losing our gratitude, as gratitude dies when we stop being of service.

They hit me with something important this time, too, in the most unexpected of ways. My brother and I were in the temple the night before the fete in the wee, weeeeee hours of the morning preparing for the following day and, out of the blue, he said to me ‘you paint, don’t you? I would love to see your paintings’.

It was a ‘shiiiiiiit’ moment because, in that very second, I knew he was speaking with the weight of lwa yo behind him. It wasn’t just a the sort of engaged conversations he and I have, but it was my spirits reflecting what we talked about as part of our maryaj commitments. I have to make and create, and I asked for their blessings on my creativity in that I will always have the space, time, and inspiration to produce I see behind my eyes and what my hands want to orchestrate. It’s a heady, intense things to lay that at the feet of the spirits because it becomes something they take an interest in. As a sèvitè lwa, all things in my life are at their disposal but it’s sort of interesting to have your spirits be all ‘yeah, so that art thing we talked about? GET TO IT, priest’.

This is a reflection of my overall place with my spirits right now. It has been almost two years of them rebuilding what I purposefully burned to the ground to get into the djevo. It has been a long two years full of really challenging work and big blessings, but they have done what I begged them for inside the djevo: rebuild my life because I destroyed it to be here with you and fulfill what you asked and what I promised, and I have nothing left.

I had a chat with my godfather recently where I outlined the boyfriend coming to fruition and a couple of other really huge things happening for me, and his response was obvious: this is what you asked them for. They put it together–career, living situation, ancestral house, relationships….everything, because I gave them everything.

When a forest burns, the ground becomes more fertile. Ash enriches soil and makes it the ideal location for new life to spring up and take root. That’s what the subtle message was this fete: you are rooted and growing. We created all of this for you, and now you need to bloom.

Art is part of that blooming. When I was preparing for kanzo and for maryaj, there was not much room for art and there was no place for blooming when all these big things were on the horizon. There was no enough mental space to access creative vision and make that manifest. Now, though…I have space. I have rich soil. I have more things on the horizon to do for my spirits, but they have provided for that, too, as they promised.

It seems obvious, maybe, but it was an unexpected message-blessing and it needed some acting on. So, this week when I had some time, I sketched out a small piece for one of my spirits who has been asking me to paint them for several years now and it’s beautiful. I am pleased with it, which is new for me as an artist….I am never, EVER happy with my art. Except now I am because it is not just me creating. When I create, they sing in my ear quietly and I translate through my fingers.

And so here I am. Now, I catch up on life that sat on the sidelines in preparation for Damballah’s fet and plot out what comes next. There are giveaways to assemble (ahem), a Patreon to prep (ahemAHEM), and I am right in the middle of a novena for a husband, for whom this time of year is important.

Lè ou fè sèvis lwa, yo fè tout bel.

A love letter to my destruction.

•February 24, 2018 • Leave a Comment

In the coolness of a New England early summer evening, I begged you to kill me.

I was going to fail you and you were going to kill me when I did, so I pleaded with you to just do it now, among the shreds of my life and the half-packed suitcases, and end my suffering. My best was not going to cut it, and early mistakes were going to be fatal. While I had dug in my heels, you had howled in a corner. When I had insisted on what I wanted, you had drooled blood. When I had cried, you sighed and closed your eyes.

After all, you had given me exactly what I had asked for and I had made nothing of it. Whatever it takes, I had said.

Whatever it takes?

Among fruit and rum and desperation, I had said yes and you had handed me the lit match. That was how you let me die.

I burned it all with your name on my tongue and the hope of a dying man in my heart. I watched as my life burst at the seams with licks of flames, and you watched me scorch black with despair. How else could it have been, terib cheri m? How else could I have become other than what I was? I was rotting. It was all rotting, and the blade could only scrape so much infection away outside klinik la de lwa yo. Like Azaka said, the work was too big to be done in any other way. This was my only chance.

You let it hurt. You made it hurt. It had to rip and tear and flay me alive, because my pain would access my strength. I had no idea, kè m, that it could hurt so much. I didn’t know how strong I could be. I thought I was alone and fear convinced my spirits were not with me. I had to wander in the dark and stinking night and I had to be afraid, didn’t I? You were there, though, every step of the way. You let me fall, no matter how bloody and battered was, and you let me right myself because this was what you could not do for me. Each time I stumbled, you remained impassive. Get up and do the work. DO THE WORK.

Did you cry for me? Did you scream anba dlo while I sobbed out of exhaustion in my bed? I remember a priest telling me that my suffering was never in vain and that my tears were counted. How many tears fell from my eyes for love of you?

The closer the end that would be a beginning came, the worse it got. As my world shook, you made the earth crack under my feet. Would I keep moving forward or would this be where I gave up? Could I keep pushing?

You crucified me at the airport, and I burned and burned and burned for twenty four hours in the in-between space of an international terminal. What was left, I wondered, because I gave up everything to follow you to your home, your temple, your dirt. Would you save me if I sacrificed myself to you? Would you keep me safe? Who was I now?

I found my way home delirious after days of no sleep, and sat with the woman you ordained as my mother. She told me how to love you inside and how you would help me, if I asked as she told me to. You have done all this work to be here, she said, so don’t let this be wasted.

Don’t let this be wasted.

I had to face you before you would let me cross into the death that would birth me back into a life worth living. You made yourself small and smaller still, small enough to fit into the bodies of your servants, pitit w yo, and you came to see me in all my pieces; flayed, bloody, and filthy.

You came first to heal, because I was so very unimaginably broken in every way, and put me face down in your dirt under the mantle of the reminder of your own fallibility. You anointed me over and over with rum, a holy water of your own design, and then lifted me up and showed your teeth. You do not smile, kè m, but you do show your teeth in the way a murderer does before the knife at your throat slips to the left and sets you free. I know better than to mistake that for your pleasure.

You made yourself small again and arrived howling and screaming into my mother, and I was terrified. I knew we had business to settle, and I had behavior to answer for.  I was not to look at you, but you compelled my eyes as only you can and seeing you was almost too much. Before I could throw myself at your feet and beg for your beneficence, you spoke quietly in the middle of the packed, chaotic temple.

Why are you here?

You know my temper, and it is only through what shred of self-preservation I had left that I did not respond with every ounce of rage and despair living in my belly. Why the fuck do you think I am here?

I have nothing left, I told you, and I keep my promises.

You laughed and laughed at that, lanmou m, not because it was funny but because it was a pretty answer and you knew it. Even in my utter despair, I have a tongue gifted to speak sweetly and you see through it every single time. One cannot out talk he whose blood has fed the dirt you wallow in.

You must do everything differently, you told me. You must be different. Do not forget how much I love you, and how much I have loved you. Do not take me for granted. You pound my chest in emphasis and all I could say is m konnen, mèt Ogou over and over and over. Love alone brought me to you, and my childish, hopeful love will sustain me for the next part of the journey.

I kissed your feet in gratitude and you kept me in the dirt again, standing over me for what I had known was coming for months. You hit me with your machete nine times before my mother’s children stopped you. I counted so that I would never forget your frustration, and I counted so that I could tell how Ogou punishes but does not cause harm to his pitit. Someone asked me later if you had hurt me, and I told them the truth: if you had wanted to hurt me, you would not have laid a finger on me.

I prayed for months to you help me get in the djevo and, when that ritual death was near, panic rose in my throat like vomit. It was all too much at once and, even though my sight was taken from me, I could not be still in my skin. You gave me the most tender of gifts at that penultimate moment, though, and I will forever kiss your feet for it among all that you have given me. In the screaming, shivering darkness of the blindfold, you took my hand and squeezed it so hard that I thought it would shatter into pieces.

Be strong.

It lasted all of ten seconds before I was whirled away from you, but it is the defining memory I conjure up when people ask me how good you are. You flayed me alive, but you loved me for every moment no matter how far afield I went before landing in the dirt at your feet and that brief moment of comfort broke through that final wall.

I dreamed with you and all my spirits under the water for nine long days. You came to me nan domi and held me as a lover holds the object of his affection. You fed me and now I feed you.

While my mother and all my spirits worked to save my life, my body burned with a dangerous illness. You had healed me before I was put anba dlo, and so it was you I prayed for another miracle. You can do anything, I prayed, so do this for me now.

I want to live.

I walked out of the djevo in part by your grace. I learned how big you are inside your djevo, and I learned how small I am as well. You shattered my heart on the way in, and rebuilt it after I came out. You who held the final threshold destroyed me so that I could be made whole to hold my spirits and to remember the gift of becoming. You who demanded a ring so that we could never be separated and so that your love would be written on my hands every day. You who promised to deliver everything to me if only I would love you wholly. Who knew my heart could be so big? Who knew that joy tastes like blood and truth like steel? Who knew that the world could be painted in shades of red and blue?

Where would I be without you, gwo neg m?

Now life begins, you told me with my heart in your hands. This is how I love you.

Interlude III

•February 18, 2018 • Leave a Comment

I am hot in my skin. I could chew my nerves like bread and they would be bitter with adrenaline and doughy with exhaustion. Is it time yet? Just put me in, please. Please just do it. I can’t survive much longer unless I am to devour myself in large bloody bites.

Mare tèt w, says the voice of a man I do not know. I follow his instruction while my mother watches, and secure the moushwa as best I can. Satin is slippery and, if I have learned anything so far, it is that I have no idea what I am doing. The room stares at me impassively. I feel like an alien.

The man says something else, and the words sound jumbled together and he repeats himself, jabbing his finger at the floor for emphasis. I kneel and, with another nudge, kiss the cool floor in front of me. I have been praying unendingly for days, weeks, months for lespri m to bring me through this because I don’t know if I can do it. Now, I just pray to survive the next hour.

The basin is placed on my head and it feels impossibly heavy. There is not too much in it, really, but I have never carried anything on my head before. Fear has the mass and atomic weight of lead thrown into a black hole, and it is all resting on the very top of my head.

Old stage fright dies hard. I am petrified. I cannot dance. After four days in the tropics, my clothes are already too big and I worry that my pants will fall down. I sweat and sweat and sweat and purge my life. Who am I now? I don’t know anymore. I can’t taste what life was and I have no idea who I will be on the other end of this. I told my friends that life was ending the day I stepped on a plane that would bring me past old boundaries and leave me somewhere new, and they thought I was joking. I am not in the frying pan, I am in the crucible balanced over the flame. I await the mold and the hammer.

Don’t let me fall. Don’t let me drop any of it.

I am met at the door of the badji by marenn m, a saint of a woman who stays by my side for the entire time under careful instruction to keep me safe and away from danger. Later that afternoon, I discover bruises on the inside of my arm where she gripped me tightly to navigate me through action and gesture.

We greet the temple and I follow the paket atop my mother’s head out the door to go greet Met Kafou at the carrefour under the blinding, burning sun. I walk through fire for the second time in 24 hours, and I am still not burned.

I am spun back inside, propped carefully with numerous hands who see me up the stairs and back into the temple where the drums thunder forward and the ground vibrates.

Tounen, my godmother says in my ear, e dans. She turns me with her hands and I understand. I turn and turn and the room spins with me. I am dizzy, and close my eyes with the fervent prayer that I will not fall or vomit or otherwise embarrass myself and my mother.

The room feels close and hot, like I spinning through steam, and, in the blackness behind my eyelids, I am falling away. I smell kiman and feel it hit my skin from every direction as I whirl. It fills my lungs and I hear my voice, but don’t remember screaming.

I can’t feel my legs, but I know that my body is tipping dangerously in all directions like a wayward, adrenaline-fueled top just let off the string. I clutch at the load upon my head and praypraypray that it stays. Don’t fall. I can’t open my eyes.

How long this goes on, I don’t know. Arms wrap around me to stop me and I open my eyes. I am tugged and manipulated through what comes next, because I can’t think. My mother is right in front of me and turns to stare at me, but it is not her eyes that stare back. I worry that I have done something wrong.

The basin is taken from my head and I am pushed in front of a pilon taller than my hips that is on fire. Flames leap as high as my shoulders and Ezili Danto in the head of my mother plunges her hands into the flames. Her palms come up on fire and she slaps the flames onto my body, my arms, my face.

She stares at me intently and I hear her voice in my head. Be strong. She echoes Ogou from the previous night who told me that I must be the man I am and step forward as a man for this test and this struggle.

My skin burns and I am so hot that I shiver.

Carry me, lespri m, because I have forgotten how to walk.

Epiphany: the Meaning of Blue

•January 11, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Epiphany was yesterday, January 6th. I grew up Baptist and had no real conception of Epiphany or the place of the three magi who sought out the Christ child and brought gifts for this manifestation of divinity made mortal. Vodou changed that, and the meaning and manifestation of the feast of the three magi associated with the word ‘epiphany’ has taken on meaning.

The story goes that the three kings (changed to fit liturgical standards from magi, which is a practitioner of magic and probably had to do with the prophecy that a child would be born, etc) followed a star to find the divine made manifest in mortal form, bringing aromatic and important gifts. Once there, they realized that the prophecy was indeed fulfilled by this tiny baby and recognized that something significant had happened.

In vodou, Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany are Petwo timesof year. The manifestation of the divine in human form is an extremely ‘hot’ spiritual act, and that moment of the full seating of a spirit in a mortal body is full of fire. The images associated with this season–Mary overseeing a baby in the manger, a child Christ, the three magi–are deeply tied to out Petwo spirits. In particular, the image of the three magi holding gifts represents the Simbi, a family of spirits who collectively hold many secrets of the wanga priests tie, of the fey and bwa that make up some of the contents of such, and who stir and heat the baths. They are by and large master magicians, and the three magi speak to that, as well as speak to the diversity of the Simbi, since the magi are often pictured as having distinct backgrounds. The culmination of the season is fete Twa Wa, or Epiphany, when the bath for the New Year is made and, in houses that hold a fete Twa Wa, the spirits themselves make the bath. A good luck bath can only be made by a priest (and mine is pretty bitchin’), but a bath made by the spirits known for hot, fiery work? Y-E-S.

For me, this has been a season of revelation, both in life change and internal realizations. One day into the season of advent, I started a new job that lets me use all my skills and experience in my field thus far. Just before Christmas, I signed on to a new apartment that is my first stable, long-term housing since just before I left for kanzo. Big stuff for me, delivered right from the hands of my spirits.

Internally, I have really been considering and realizing the idea and meaning of ‘epiphany’: revealing of a sudden intuitive realization. The lightbulb moments. Sitting back in your chair after you read a piece of research that connects dots you hadn’t considered before. Thunderstruck moments of knowing.

I did a novena leading up to jou de Twa Rwa, and part of that novena was revisiting the epiphany that my emergence from the djevo was. The world had really changed for me, and I saw (and contiue to see) things very differently than I did prior to kanzo. For me, part of being a priest is keeping my feet in that particular epiphany and keeping it up front as a key foundational piece of my priestwork.

It’s hard to explain if you aren’t in the middle of it. I had a related conversation with a good friend recently who is an old school traditional witch. She has been one of few people in my life who have had a front row uncensored seat to vodou unfolding in my life. She was the first person to see me once I got back to the US after kanzo, and she has been utterly unsurprised as to how things have unfolded.

We were talking about how hard it is to explain what happens with spirits whom you have deep and abiding relationships with and how real and in-this-world they are. She related it to the relative lack of advanced traditional witchcraft books or written resources: at some point a) you must experience it to fully understand it, b) the spirits must teach you how to do the work and be in these relationships, and c) it looks utterly ridiculous written down because it makes no sense to most people who are not living it in their own way right beside you.

She’s pretty on target. It is incredibly frustrating in some ways to write about those epiphanies and have them make sense to anyone else. Sometimes words fail the experience because how do you describe what shakes your foundations and changes your understanding of who you are and what you mean in this world?

Epiphany.

This season, it has been about the bonds between myself and my spirits. We talk a lot about how ceremony solidifies something and there is cemented truth there–unless you seek to ruin the work put on you as part of ceremonies and/or break agreements you make, those spirits are with you forever.

The rest of it, though, is based on how you show up and what you do. Attitude means something, as do intentions. How you live your life and conduct yourself influences how you approach your spirits. What sacrifices you make to do what is asked of you, and what lengths you are willing to go to. All of this balls up into the stretchy rubber band of your relationships.

When I arrived in Haiti for kanzo, my mother and I sat in her house and had a long conversation about what my life had been before I left the United States and what was possible going forward. She looked me in the eye and told me that my sacrifices of basically everything–job, home, car, most of my belongings–would not be in vain, as long as I did the work that I was there to do. My spirits backed that up and told me that my sacrifice was my foundation, in a lot of ways, and that as long as I kept up front my oaths and promises, I would always be taken care of. When I did maryaj, they made the same promises in exchange for my promises–my rings will always be the physical reminder of the spirits who love me and walk next to me each day.

That has been the epiphany I keep re-living: they love me and are with me a-l-w-a-y-s, even in situations that seem completely unrelated to vodou because they are MY spirits. They love me enough to show up and show me where the danger is. They love me enough to show up and slip money in my pocket. They love me enough to explain things in ways that make sense to me. They love me enough to teach me and teach me and teach me. They love me enough to be patient.

It sounds simple, but it’s absolutely mindblowing and, over and over, it says ‘this shit is for real’. That, no matter how deep your faith and what you have seen, is always an epiphany of it’s own. This particular revolution of realization shakes your bone marrow. You can go through kanzo and suffer with your sacrifices and receive the support of your spirits there (because you expect it there), but when they show up in a dream on a Tuesday night when you’re curled up on the couch or the floor or on a borrowed mattress in your terribly worn out jammie pants that you keep because they are the most comfy thing ever and tell you that they will always love you and always protect you?

It shakes things up in the best mind-blowing way. You understand things differently and you don’t understand how you don’t look different for it. The color blue is no longer a flat hue, but is deep and rich and technicolor and you intrinsically know what that means and how it spins around you. Things can never be the same, ever, and your internal revolution cycle revs just a tiny bit faster.