TOOLBOX TUESDAY: Sweet Dreams Oil

•April 19, 2016 • Leave a Comment

As I prepare for kanzo, I have re-opened my tiny esoteric business to help me along the way. I’ve been selling privately for awhile, and am now offering products regularly at my Etsy page, via my Tumblr, and on Facebook. Toolbox Tuesday will feature one of my handmade products each week, with notes about use and how it works. 

SweetDreams

King’s Conjure & Curio Sweet Dreams Oil, 2016

I like this oil a lot, quite honestly, but that’s easy to say about any of my oils because they are mine, after all. It’s got a great fragrance that is assertive without being overbearing, and I love how the oil looks when bottled with the various botanicals it contains, all suitable for incubating dreams and increasing dream clarity.

What I like most of all, though, is that it works. It REALLY works. In fact, I was a bit surprised at how well it works. It is a cool, non-aggressive oil but, it has got a depth of power in it that I haven’t experienced in other dream or psychic vision related oils. I’ve tried a bunch of them over the years and always got fair-to-middling results–I would dream, but it wouldn’t have the oomph I really wanted it to. Details might be a little bit fuzzy, or I would remember the dream in snippets that didn’t make sense without a larger context. Dreaming is the primary way I speak with my divinities both inside and outside of vodou, and so it’s important to me that my dreams are fostered and given as much backstage support as possible.

For me, having dream support sort of lifts the veil on my sleep, which provides the clarity and depth of vision I want. That in turn allows me to dream with my lwa and other spirits unbothered by the intrusion of whatever parts of me are restless when I sleep.

When I was filling bottles with Sweet Dreams Oil, I accidentally got some on my hands. Since it’s not an oil I worry about being contaminated by, I just rubbed it into my (bald) head and thought nothing of it. That night, I had the most in-depth, vivid dream that I have experienced in at least the last month. It gave me a lot of details on a situation that I need to act on, and showed me the solution. That alone tempts me to use it every night, but I found that I didn’t need to–I ended up having super vivid dreams all this past week, without another application.

Manbo Mary bought a bottle and I got to watch her open it. She had a sniff, declared it lovely, and then used it later that night. The next day she wrote me a review, saying:

“I bought a Sweet Dreams oil from Alex and immediately I noticed the high quality scent and herbs. When I dabbed some on my temples and throat that evening, I had some very vivid dreams that made a lot of spiritual sense to me. I’m very pleased with the results I got from Alex’s oils and highly recommend them.”

Unsurprisingly, Manbo Mary has shared that she’s been having vivid dreams going forward from when she used it. Very happy about this positive experience.

I apply it directly to my skin, but it could also be used to dress candles burned to enhance dreams and dreamwork, added to a sachet for under your pillow, used in a bath, or perhaps lightly applied to a personal talisman that you keep close when you sleep.

If you’re looking to have deeper and more detailed dreams to gain insight into spiritual or religious practices and perhaps encounter your divine figures, it’s worth giving my Sweet Dreams Oil a shot, available at my Etsy shop, King’s Conjure & Curio, through the King’s Conjure & Curio Facebook (and like my page!), or message me here.

Every Tuesday, I’ll feature another product and it’s uses. All proceeds from sales right now go to my kanzo fund!

In a Dantò frame of mind.

•March 26, 2016 • Leave a Comment

I have been rolling around the idea of writing about Ezili Dantò  for quite awhile, but I’ve hesitated over and over for reasons that seem like a bit of a cop-out, honestly. Dantò is often a quiet spirit for me, but she lives in the pieces of my heart that are the softest, the most bruised and full of pain, and the most distrustful and skittish. After learning that she was indeed one of the spirits who had decided to take up residence in my life, I avoided the hell out of her (and every other female-presenting lwa who showed an interest) for as long as I could but no lwa and especially no Ezili will put up with being ignored for too long.

I have deep-seated issues with femininity in all it’s forms for reasons I haven’t quite been able to sort out. I appreciate it in others and value the important part it plays in many people’s lives, but when it becomes intimately involved in my life? NOPE, not interested. There’s this level of discomfort and dis-ease that makes me want to take my skin off with a cheese grater to feel better. It reduces me to this level of vulnerability that is really, really uncomfortable, and especially when that femininity is embodied in someone who is being nice to me, or maternal, or comforting, or gentle. I act like a kicked dog and hide in the corner and can’t even be coaxed out with the tastiest treat. Throw me in a room with Ogou screaming and howling and vomiting blood and beating everything within reach with his machete and I will be fine. Put me in a room with Dantò just standing there and smiling and I will claw my way up the wall trying to get away from her, leaving my fingernails in the plaster as a sign of my struggle. I deal about as well with upset/angry/irritated women, too. Part of my avoidance of Dantò and all my other female lwa was that I didn’t want to deal with any sort of mother-y aspects, but I damn sure didn’t want to deal with any raging female spirits, either.

However, I am not entirely without common sense and self preservation. When Dantò and other female Lwa showed up, I kept my distance but got them some of the things they desired and set them on my altar and prayed that they would just leave me alone because GOD this would be easier if I didn’t have to open the Pandora’s box of my issues with women. That lasted about as long as it took me to form the thought, though.

Dantò has always been the hardest for me to pin down because she has never been what I expected. Lasiren came as her beautiful, shapeshift-y, mermaid self and threw me into this laughing, joyful ecstasy that fills me with energy and the pounding of the drums. Freda showed up, looked me up and down, and judged me worth her time in some way before ensconcing herself as the head diva in my homo-tastic bachelor pad. Dantò, though, was difficult.

I expected Petwo Dantò, the woman betrayed by her sister and/or the revolution who is filled with raging grief and fire, or I expected Ge Wouj, Dantò’s sister and similarly strong-tempered woman who was all business and was not about to put up with any of your shit. I braced myself for that incoming siklòn/whirlwind, but it never came. I waited and sort of eyeballed her and reached out for the space where I thought I would find her, but nothing was there. I counted myself lucky and went about my business.

My health took a turn for the seriously fucked-up right before Fet Damballah last year, and I was in a really bad way. I was having trouble walking or standing for very long and was at the end of my proverbial rope trying to work 50+ hours per week and keep up with my religious duties. One night in a fit of exhaustion, I asked my lwa if my health would improve if I were to kanzo. I didn’t say I would and I didn’t say I wanted to, but I was basically asking for options. As a result, I was sent on a LSD-worthy dream sequence that answered the question but also introduced me to my Dantò. When I related the dream to my manmi at the urging of HM, who ordered me to write down every detail of the dream so I remembered it all, I told her about a woman I met after I had seen some things on my whirlwind dream excursion to Haiti.

I found myself naked in a shower with this woman who I had never seen before and it was immediately awkward. I am not so big on being naked around people I don’t know, never mind showering with them, and I was mindful that I was in Haiti in someone else’s house…naked in a shower. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever been in proximity to, with long dark hair that stretched past her hips and some of the darkest skin I had ever seen. She was young and gorgeous and smiled at me when I started to make excuses about why I needed not to be naked in a shower with her. She wouldn’t let me leave and instead gathered me in her arms under the cool water, put my head on her shoulder, and her voice was in my head telling me everything was going to be okay.

When vodouisants talk about dreams, we get bluntly specific with details. What was the person wearing? Were they light-skinned or dark-skinned? How dark-skinned? Darker than <person>? Darker than coffee? Was their hair natural or straight? Did their lips move when they spoke? Did they smile or cry? What was going on when you saw them? Did you smell anything? Was it sexual or platonic? I went through all those details with a very attentive manmi who smiled and exchanged knowing glances with her other children present as we dissected my dream.

I had met my Dantò, or at least the Dantò that was most interested in me in the moment. I learned a lot of things that night, but I also learned that there is a Rada Dantò, and she comes as a young, beautiful, dark-skinned woman, often with long, flowing hair. She is Dantò before she was betrayed and before grief and anger and regret became such a well-known part of her. She is not without those things—she knows what happens to her, has seen it, and embodies this undercurrent of sadness—but they are different in her, at least in how I know her. For me, she shows that you can hold grief without it consuming you, that your heart can be hurt and fractured and torn to pieces but that you are not broken, that vulnerability is not always to be exploited but to be nurtured and held and cared for. This Dantò knows she is going to hurt and that the betrayals she suffers are inevitable, but she knows she will survive and come out the other side as an older Dantò with a different sort of wisdom. My Dantò holds the space for me to hurt, from feeling small and vulnerable to sobbing on the floor with a broken heart. She isn’t cruel, but she doesn’t let me turn away from the bits of my heart that rot like a cancer.

This Dantò carries a blade, though, and that is my reminder not to underestimate her and to know that her smile can turn to tears in half a minute and that her knife can still find my heart. She asks me for a blade that she can hide easily—a boot knife or a knife that could be hidden easily in the waist or bodice of her dress (if she chose to wear one—the lady shows up for me all Lady Godiva-like and just covered with her hair)—and it’s not for decoration. She is the embodiment of what is to come, which means potential sings in her skin and that there is only a moment between her and what came for her when her tongue was snatched and her face slashed.

I adore her beyond measure, she who is the mother of the secret places in my heart and who sees me as I am with no preconceptions or prerequisites. She asks hard things, but gives cool water and reassurances in return to the skittish kid who side-eyes her from across the room and only begins to trust when he can see both hands.

Ezili o, ke ou vre..

Kismet

•March 19, 2016 • Leave a Comment

I don’t usually don’t focus my writing on particular people, for many reasons. Most of all, this blog has always been about me and my experiences because, when I started it, I couldn’t find anyone who reflected what I was going through and I ended up feeling pretty lonely. So, I decided to write with the desire to share what was happening to/for me and to provide sort of a signal flare for other people like me—queer transmasculine types who find themselves being dragged along a spiritual pathway—so no one would feel alone like I did. Since then, my life has sort of blown open in a lot of ways and I have ended up in places I had NO IDEA my feet would carry me to.

It would be silly and painfully false to say that I have been a spiritual island unto myself all this time, and people have always played a part in me learning and finding my way be it through casual conversation or more formalized interactions. I’ve been a student many times over and each teacher has been instrumental in me being who I am and have been over the years, with many iterations of my Self and the knowledge I hold in my head and in my heart. This blog post is about that, sort of, and about how I am who I am right now, kind of. Mostly, though, it’s about a person who is not me.

Way back when dinosaurs walked the earth and my cell phone flipped open (also known as 2005), I worked at a leather bar in Boston, where I lived. I spent just about every Friday and Saturday night there, and it was a really formative experience where I learned a lot that has benefited me spiritually—how to be invisible and unobtrusive, mostly, and how to talk to people. I was (and am, in a lot of ways) a very shy person, and I didn’t know a whole lot about myself except that I liked where I was and what I was doing.

One night, a friend of mine came into the bar with the guy he was dating. I don’t have a ton of super Polaroid-clear memories of working at the bar, but this one is crystal clear. My friend came over to introduce me to his new guy, and New Guy was super sweet—a big, friendly smile and he seemed genuinely happy to meet me, with a wave and a big hug. I was not used to a super warm reception at the bar from guys I didn’t know (leather bars are super masculine, male-dominated environment, and I was the only obviously not-cisgender man there) and so I was pleasantly surprised by how nice he was, for someone meeting a complete stranger. In retrospect, I know now why I remember him so clearly—I was supposed to, and he had the bright, shiny sort of shimmer around him that clings to people that I am being maneuvered into meeting for future important reasons.

He and I saw each other now and then while he was dating my friend, but eventually our lives went in different directions—he and my friend stopped dating, and I unexpectedly began what would end up being a several year spiritual process of my life being shredded. I was basically lifted out of everything I had been doing, and that included essentially disappearing from the bar I had worked at.

I never really ended up back in those same circles since some things from my life then never really returned. A little over three years ago, I was messing around on Facebook and decided to join a discussion group focused on conjure work and folk magic. I started to participate and posted on a few threads, and not too long after got a Facebook message from someone I didn’t appear to know. My immediate reaction was sort of privately surly—when you join Facebook groups around esoteric topics, it’s not unusual to get messages from people asking to do work for you or whatever, and I had already had a handful of those right off the bat. I had already had a few of those, and was sort of Done With That. I opened the message and it was essentially ‘HOLY SHIT ALEX, I haven’t seen you in so long. How are you?’. I squinted at it for a minute and looked at the profile and fuck me if it wasn’t New Guy, better known as Houngan Matt/Bozanfe Bo Oungan. I hadn’t seen or heard from him in about seven years or so, and it was weird as hell to get that sort of message from him.

I didn’t know anything about vodou, but was interested in the sort of way most people are interested in vodou—it sounds exotic to outsiders and gets a lot of play with pop culture, so I kind of wanted to see what all the hype was about. When he mentioned a fete for Gede, the only spirit I was really familiar with, I perked up a bit and ended up going. This was the fete that sealed my involvement in vodou, and Gede opened the door for me to get involved with the sosyete. Matt and I regularly talk about how our 11-years-with-a-hiatus friendship is part of some cosmic long game that our collective spirits play.

That’s interesting enough on it’s own, but that is really only the tip of the iceberg. Right around the time the earthquake hit Haiti, a non-vodou spirit I am involved with casually mentioned that I should go to Haiti. I side-eyed the hell out of them for that, especially after the earthquake, and sort of threw that in the ‘ain’t gonna happen’ pile. What was I going to go to Haiti for? Vacation? Come on. And yet, the idea wouldn’t die and people around me suggested that maybe Haiti was really a stand-in for ‘vodou’. I had the same ‘yeah right’ reaction to that, but with a little more to go on that ‘go to Haiti’ and with the knowledge that people practiced vodou in the US, I reached out to an acquaintance who I knew did stuff with vodou. They in turn told me I should talk to Houngan Matt in Boston and gave me his email, but I never followed through for whatever reason and I never put two and two together and realized that New Guy was Houngan Matt.

One step weirder, Matt and I were talking this past weekend and realized that he and I likely came in contact somehow when we were much, much younger. He mentioned remembering me with curly hair, but I have not had curly hair since a terrible perm experiment when I was in grade school. That got us talking about where we grew up in Massachusetts and come to find out his mom used to live down the street from the house I grew up in. It’s entirely plausible we ran into each other when we were kids. Cosmic long game.

Despite how I come off sometimes, I am a super sentimental person and contain a lot of squishy emotions. When I decided to show up to Gede’s fete and go see what vodou was like, I packed a lot of that sentimental and squishy stuff away because I was pretty convinced that who I was would not be welcome where I was going. I mean, Matt is gay (like, really gay), but he’s a cisgender dude and I am not, and I am big and queer and bald which means there are a lot of people who don’t like me or who take offense at my presence. I was fully prepared for that and hardened my heart to go where I had been directed and then stay there for a bit. I was pretty wrong about not being accepted, and Matt, and by extension our spiritual mother, had a part to play in that. This has been a lot of background to essentially say that how I know Matt is significant, but he makes me feel is so much more important. In my own flawed and fumbling way, I suppose this is sort of a mushy love letter because, in a lot of ways, my heart is very full as of late and it has a lot to do with Matt.

I was very nervous and guarded when I showed up for that first fete, and I stayed that way for awhile. I didn’t know anyone that first night, and I had essentially dropped myself into another world where I didn’t speak the predominant language and didn’t really know what to expect. I was scared that if anyone knew me as who I am, I would be uninvited or asked to leave or otherwise be treated in an unkind way. I didn’t say much about myself for awhile, even when Matt was around, and stayed quiet about the parts of me that I was most sensitive about (read: my gender and sexuality) for quite awhile. In fact, I stayed quiet until Matt directly asked me what pronouns I preferred and I had a now-or-never moment. I don’t remember how I answered, but I remember that I felt super awkward through no fault of Matt’s—I wasn’t out at work since it probably would have cost me the job I had at the time, and Matt is one of the few people in my life who has known me since before I got dumped in the spiritual pool. I was afraid that if I told him I wasn’t the same person I had been when we met, he wouldn’t like me any more. Silly, I know, but that’s sort of how it went for me.

But Matt was perfect with it and that sort of set the tone for how I have come to be really, really comfortable in my manmi’s house. He both inadvertently and directly challenged all my assumptions about how vodou would receive people like me, and he has never been wrong about that, ever. Before I even talked with our spiritual mother about gender things, he smoothed the road for me in that he reassured me over and over that it would not be a Thing and answered all the questions I was too timid to ask of a woman I (at the time) barely knew and thus did not trust.

In a very short time, Matt has been someone I have come to chase after in the sort of way a younger child stumbles after an older one. I don’t think he wakes up in the morning and thinks about how he is going to be an example to me but he really has become someone I look up to a lot and who, in some ways, I model myself after. He is an incredible person and an incredible priest, and he embodies a lot that I want to cultivate in my life. He is beyond patient with my constant questions and babbling, and puts up with my ceaseless enthusiasm for the things I am learning and experiencing. I look at his patience and marvel at how much he puts up with from me alone, and I think about him often when I am at the end of my own (very short in comparison) rope with my dayjob clients and, at times, with my spirits. In a lot of ways, he is who I want to be when I grow up across the board—the sort of man I want to evolve to be, and the sort of priest that I hope I can learn to be. I imagine there will be a part of him that is horrified with me saying this, but I hope a larger part of him will be pleased and not weirded out when I say that I love him in my own way.

I can’t write about him and how important he is without writing about our spiritual mother, who made him as a priest. There really isn’t a priest who is alone in vodou—all priests are born from another priest—and children are a product of their parent(s), in one way or another. I have complicated relationships with parental figures, and so really kept Manbo Maude at a distance until the lwa very clearly handed me over to her. It’s one thing for them to do that, and another thing for me to go along with it. I not only had to choose to have faith in the spirits, but to have faith in her, and that was a tall order for me. But, there was Matt, and Matt was okay and wasn’t a raging egomaniac who didn’t know their ass from their head and so I figured she must be okay, too.

She, like Matt, has never failed me, not once. She has consistently turned my assumptions on their head and shown me, over and over, that my fear is just fear and doesn’t have any real footing in reality. I will never, ever forget the first time she and I talked about the possibility of kanzo. We sat at her kitchen table and I was utterly terrified when I said that, if I were to consider doing kanzo, I would not be able to do it as a manbo. She looked at me for a moment and asked why, and I explained that I wouldn’t be comfortable doing anything that designated me as a woman. The half second before she responded was possibly the longest moment of my life, and I was really scared that she was going to tell me that she couldn’t help me and that I didn’t belong there.

Instead, she shrugged and said ‘then I’ll make you a houngan’ before sipping her tea like it was no big thing, because it really wasn’t. I’m pretty sure I looked like I had been hit by a truck, but that was the moment that I knew I was going to be okay with her and that I knew she was a good person for me. The spirits could have promised me she was Jesus come for the second time, but none of what they said really mattered until I knew for myself that I was where I belonged without any doubt. I’m not sure she knows what a pivotal moment that was for me, but it was really a stay-or-go situation for me entirely dependent on what she said right then and there. I asked her two more times after that if she would make me as a houngan, and she said the same thing each time—yes, and she didn’t care one bit what anyone else’s opinion on the topic was.

That’s the kind of person she is, and that is directly related to the kind of person Matt is, since a child reflects their mother. When I have moments of doubt about the things I have decided to do, I think about how she and Matt see me and how fear is just fear without any roots. I am by nature and past experience a skittish and untrusting person, but vodou—and specifically Matt and Manbo Maude—has undone that without really trying hard. It’s just been sort of how things grow. When I talk about how vodou has transformed my life, that’s what I mean. That isn’t even entirely accurate, though, because there is a lot of vodou in the world and a lot of other priests who would have not treated me or received me in the same caring and unassuming way. More accurately, vodou as Manbo Maude embodies it has transformed my life.

I also say a lot that vodou has saved my life, and that is also a true statement but is not entirely accurate either. Vodou has presented me with the choice of whether I wanted to save my life, and, upon deciding that I did, begun to arm me with the tools to do so. Those tools have not just materialized out of thin air, but have come from the hearts, hands, and heads of Matt and Manbo Maude into mine. They are my examples that I use as a compass in a lot of ways, together and through Matt as Manbo Maude’s child. I honestly have no idea where I would be without both of them. I decided that I needed to live and have saved my own life, but it would not have even been an option if I hadn’t had examples of what could be in front of me. I have roots that I have grown of my own volition, and I can’t begin to really explain how important that two of them have been to making those roots grow. I joke a lot that my involvement with vodou is Matt’s fault and that all of the things that have happened between that first fete and now lay at his feet, but it’s not really a joke. Eleven years of the universe deciding to squeeze us together repeatedly is not a joke or coincidence, and I will never be able to express my gratitude for what has found me or pay back the deep debt I owe the both of them, alongside what I owe my spirits.

I read this and realize how much language fails me—I can’t really write how I actually feel in words, because there are no words to explain how much love I have in my heart for Matt and for Manbo Maude. I am woefully inadequate in expressing it, but this is my imperfect love letter to them both with my imperfect words, because they deserve unending credit for who I am right now and who I am becoming, whoever that may be. I am blessed beyond belief that the forces that turn the earth saw fit to throw me and Matt together and then deliver me to Manbo Maude’s doorstep. If I can be even the tiniest sliver of who they both are when I grow up, I will be satisfied.

Fet Damballah 2016 and Aftermath

•March 19, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Fet Damballah was last weekend and I’ve spent a lot of time chewing on things that happened for me and how I felt about them. I’ve written recently about how life has become much more introspective as I prepare for kanzo, and that sort of played out this past weekend in a lot of various ways.

My relationship to fetes has radically changed as my relationships with my lwa have grown and deepened. I used to approach fetes as The Way to directly speak to my spirits, as many of them were often incarnate during a party, and it’s still true that it is a good way for me to get direct, concrete interactions with them. I have found that they used fetes to communicate things that I am either not hearing otherwise or to deliver big news that needs to be nailed home. These days, however, I interact with them much more privately at my altar or when I am sleeping/dreaming. This has added a layer of intimacy that has sort of broken open my head in unexpected ways—I don’t just interact with my lwa in this manner, ALL my spirits have now found their way into my head in a very direct way.

These days, fetes are more a devotional activity in that I want to make sure that I put effort behind everything being as perfect as possible so both the lwa and attendees have an enjoyable time. They are also a particular sort of a social event for me—I have many spiritually-inclined friends that I speak to regularly, but many of them have little to no familiarity with vodou. They are happy to listen and comment, but they don’t have the understanding that many of my sosyete siblings do about relating to the lwa and so I end up running at the mouth about what is going on and has gone on for me in the context of vodou. It’s one part excitement, I think, and one part processing. I’m sure it’s annoying for my peers on some level, but I work to mitigate it, I think, even if I am not super successful. I end up being that way across the board with parts of my life I feel really engaged in or excited about. I am an excitable puppy at times, especially when it’s an area I fully buy into and am very preoccupied by.

Prep for Fet Damballah started several weeks ahead of time for me. While at priest school with my Manmi, she mentioned how, in Haiti, our house has a rocking chair for Damballah so he does not have to writhe on the ground the whole time when he comes. My sosyete sister Manbo Mary talks about in her most recent blog post that there are many Damballahs, but the Damballah Wedo is the most common Damballah served in the Rada rite. When he comes, he comes as a snake who behaves like a snake—when he possesses someone, they fall to the ground (supported by others—no one gets hurt) and squirm like a serpent might. He doesn’t speak in out loud words and instead hisses or makes non-word sounds and cannot support himself on the legs of the person possessed (see: snake). He is also a lwa who is very concerned with cleanliness and purity, and it is reflected in many of his characteristics and behavior—Damballah Wedo is not just a snake, but a great white snake who largely only takes white food and white items as offerings and who cannot be approached with alcohol or contaminated with any blood. He will take white birds as a sacrifice, but they are sacrificed outside of the temple when he is present or being honored, and folks who are bleeding in any way either need not approach him or go through a complicated cleansing thing to sort of mitigate things (particularly for people who menstruate and are menstruating at the time of a rite for Damballah). Further, when he comes, he is covered with a white sheet or cloth to maintain his privacy and purity—those who would greet him go under the sheet and only touch him with their pinky fingers.

So, with all that in mind, it is understandable that when he comes, he may not feel like staying long if he has to be on the ground in the dirt and general filth. When he comes for maryaj Lwa, he is lifted into a chair to sit and complete the maryaj vows since that allows him to be more comfortable and stay longer. Well, why not a rocking chair for his fete, then, so he can stay as long as he would like?

I consider one of my spiritual gifts/talents to be the ability to acquire very specific things and who knows how to work the world to find things that are needed. I told Manmi that I was sure I could get a hold of a rocking chair for Damballah in pretty short order and, when I went home that night, I set to working Craiglist and Facebook and arranged that night to go see what I hoped would be the right chair. Turned out it was, and I scored a very nice chair for very little. Of course, since it is my life, it involved picking up said chair at what was very clearly a crackhouse, but my spirits throw me into those situations because I can manage them. I was pretty happy that I acquired one, and with so little stress and drama.

Friday night saw me hanging out with sosyete siblings and getting a lesson in how to create a niche/table/altar for a fete from my brother, Houngan Matt, who creates the most beautiful altars I have ever seen. He makes it look painfully easy, but it’s complicated in unexpected ways and especially for me, someone who missed out on the gay decorating gene. HM jokes that he got enough for both of us. I tell him often that I have no idea how he manages to do it, but that idea got blown to bits this weekend.

When I picked up the rocking chair, Damballah was pretty clear about what he wanted. It needed to be draped in white (which it would anyways—everything that he touches is essentially covered in white), it needed to have a sash around the back like a ribbon on a gift, and it basically needed to glow. I had no idea how this was to happen, but I was sort of hyperobsessed with making sure it got done right. Houngan Matt, in all his wisdom, basically handed off decorating the chair to me, saying essentially ‘Damballah has been in your ear about this, you should do it’. That struck some fear into my non-decorating heart, but it was game on and, as I got going with the help of Manbo Mary and one of my to-be kanzo sisters, it all came together pretty clearly. It was one of those moments of hyper focus that I get when I know my spirits are in my ear telling me what needs to happen. So, we pinned and tucked and folded and layered and tied and it came out looking spectacular, like a glowing white-with-a-hint-of-green throne fit for a giant white snake. It was pretty awesome.

Getting used to Damballah’s voice was pretty interesting, too. He had been very present for me for the week leading up to the fete, largely because I was doing a lot of work in his name—I have been working on a rather large painting for/of him that he had a lot of opinions about, and I completely rejiggered where my altars were in my house, partly because of his input. He has spoken to me in dreams in a sort of disembodied voice while he is in snake form, but having Damballah on my shoulder, sort of, was different. While Ogou and my hotter spirits are rather loud and direct, Damballah is subtle. He speaks smoothly and almost in a slithering manner (go figure) and he comes across as a presence that inserts itself into my head like a very gentle needle through silk, being very careful not to tear or catch the fabric, but pushing slowly through nonetheless. I was very surprised to pick up on his voice when I was painting because he is usually very quiet for me. He had pretty firm opinions about his painting and what it should/should not look like. He was patient with me trying out different things but very firm about his desires and what I could/could not do, like a foundation set deeply into the ground. Where Ogou or my Gede might have said ‘are you kidding? Absolutely fucking not’, Damballah said ‘no, not like that. Try again and make it like this’. He feels immense and ancient, but modern and present at the same time.

Saturday was getting ready for Saturday night. Errands and finishing the table were the orders of the morning, once we were all caffeinated, and the house hummed all day. The kitchen was full of people cooking the mountain of food for the evening—for the altar and to eat after—and everything smelled incredible. The prep for a fete has this incredible tension attached, in the best of ways. You know what is coming up and there is a deadline, so you are throwing all your effort into getting things done and getting out of the proverbial way before the hour strikes midnight and you leave your glass sneaker on the stairs while you run around ironing mushwa and tucking griot in next to the Cinzano on the altar. For me, everything starts to get drawn together during the priye/opening prayers, and it explodes all over the walls and altar and everyone present when the drums start. It makes me deeply happy in ways that are hard to articulate. It’s like the priye sort of sweeps everything clear, sets the stage, and invites you in to be part of this immense party, and then the drums start and your chest bursts open (think happy heart, not Alien). The drums sort of tickle your pulse and thunder all the way down to your DNA, and then you start to dance. I can’t dance for shit, but in those moments when we start to sing the family in and Gran Chemin unfurls, I don’t care—it’s much too joyful for me to stand still.

Damballah came when we sang for him, and cleaned the entire room and everyone in it when he did. The person who he took was participating in his salute and was carrying the very large vessel of water we salute when he arrived, and they started to fall. This in turn led to the floor, the walls, and anyone standing in proximity being doused in water as the horse jostled about. After he left that person, he came down in another horse and greeted as many people as got in front of him before he was too tired to stay any longer. I spent most of my time on rocking chair duty, which entailed slowly rocking his chair so he could keep moving.

I realized how happy this made me later in the night, when Ezili Freda came down. She requires attendants when she comes, because she is a lady and needs her things. So, she is fanned with a gorgeous painted accordion hand fan and is presented with perfumed powder to pamper herself with and is perfumed with lots of Pompeia lotion, which she also blesses people with. I ended up on Pompeia duty, which meant I followed her around and poured Pompeia into her hand as directed so she could bless and otherwise attend to people whom she decided to interact with. She loves her Pompeia—in the span of about twenty minutes or so, she went through two bottles with me, and another bottle with the other person she possessed.

Freda is incredible to be around. Everything feels better in her presence. Problems are not problems any more, or at least do not seem as cumbersome or intense. Everything looks beautiful and radiant and, when literally standing in her shadow, I felt lighter in spirit. Of course, I was super focused on making sure Pompeia was in her hand the second she held it out so there wasn’t a lot of mental room to even think of anything else. She threw her arms around whatever men caught her eye (what fancy lady doesn’t love attention?) and enjoyed the presence of all her husbands that were present, washing heads and hands and delivering intimate hugs and smiles. When she looked a little less than pleased with how someone received her and turned away from them, I leaned in and told her how beautiful she looked and how she outshone everyone else in the room (all true). In response, she turned to me, smiled, and bathed my head and face in Pompeia and gave me a big hug which was a huge blessing for me and one I truly did not expect. I really wasn’t fishing for attention and my whole focus was on making sure she was happy and feeling good, because that’s what I truly wanted—for her to have what she wanted and feel lovely and satisfied while having it.

The other really poignant part of that was that the way she greeted me and blessed me was how she greets and blesses men. She doesn’t usually touch women that much as all, as she often views women as competition. It’s not that she doesn’t like them, but more that she wants to be the most beautiful woman in the room and the center of attention. So, she greets women like Damballah greets everyone—she loops her fingers in theirs—but embraces men and touches them a lot more. I believe that the spirits see me and know me as who I am, but for whatever fucked-in-the-head reason, I wasn’t expecting to be treated as who I am. I related this to HM later in the evening and his response was ‘of course she did’. I have a really complex relationship with Freda, since she inspires more fear than any other divinity I’ve ever encountered and because I have a tangled relationship with femininity, but I felt really loved and really seen in that moment.

From there, the fete just got more amazing. Agaou came down in three different people and crashed around the room like he does, and my big little sister and I danced for Ogou when the drums started for Nago. She is young—only a teenager—but she dances like no one else I have ever met, and has such a wealth of wisdom about vodou that people underestimate because of her age. Her dancing makes me look like a drunken rhino, but I have so much fun with her.

Amazingly, we also had time to sing for Petwo, Kongo, AND Gede, which almost never happens at a Fet Damballah. Even more amazingly, Petwo lwa came down and Gede very quietly shuffled around. It’s hard to fit in the entire regleman and end before noon the following day, but it happened. Simbi came down and was hilarious in albeit a very unexpected way—he came down, spoke with someone, and then decided to get the hell out of the fete and took off running up the stairs and into the house, where he dropped his horse on a couch. Gede had been in and out for the entire fete, albeit very quietly and unobtrusively, and did a tiny little banda in a man he was clearly quite familiar with, and then we finished as the sun came out.

After eating lots of Haitian food, a bunch of us dragged ourselves out of the temple and off to bed for a few hours. Damballah le Flambeau had been on my mind when we sang for Petwo and after I fell asleep, I dreamed of him coming to the fete as a dark-skinned man wrapped in red and shimmering with heat. When I told Manmi about this later, she nodded and reminded me that not all Damballahs come as snakes.

Damballah seems to have slipped into my consciousness a little more since the fete. I find that I am being stalked by rings made in the shape of snakes, and I keep telling him that I am going to marry him as promised but that the agreement has been that I will do that after kanzo. I think about the dream I had ages ago where we married right then and there because he said we needed to, and my tiny little black heart twitches and reminds me I am surrounded by love even when I feel like I am wallowing in shit.

There’s been some wallowing lately, and I wallowed pretty hard this week. After the fete, I felt this huge disconnect from all things spiritual in a really unexpected way and it surprised me. I had some pretty serious moments of ‘I could just box all this stuff up and ride into the sunset’ and, if I chose to, I really could with some serious consequences. I talked to my spirits while in the depths of the shit because what else is there to do if I really don’t want to go down that road? It wasn’t born out of not wanting to do what I’ve set out to do, but fear and anxiety. There’s a lot ahead of me right now and I am basically running full speed towards a non-physical death. How the fuck do you deal with that and process it without going completely fucking nuts in the preparation process? I don’t know, really, but I cried at my lwa and asked them to relieve me of the stress-sickness that has basically taken up residence in me lately about kanzo and my future. I don’t really want to go into this dreading the process or outcome, and I don’t want to have a nervous breakdown before I get to Haiti.

A lot of my crying took the form of ‘I don’t know how to do any of this and I don’t know how to process these feelings’. I’m not sure I came away knowing how to do anything different or how to process all these feelings/emotions, but I felt a little calmer, at least. I really hate that part of the prep process for me is examining all this really difficult and messy shit. I know it’s good for me and is sort of laying the pavement for what comes next, but boy is it hard at times. It’s hard not to run from, too. I am historically very good at running from things that challenge me, but if I run now, nothing changes and I fall back into the rot and inertia that spells out my downfall and actual death.

So, here I am. I told my lwa this week, over and over, that the plan was for Haiti and that me feeling wonky was not me backing out of what I have promised. I imagine this was as much for me as it was for them. I spent time with Gede last night, re-setting his altar in the altar/art room and telling him about my worries and, as I hoped, I woke this morning feeling much better. Gede is so close to my heart in ways that don’t lend themselves to words. I love him and know that I am loved in return, despite my laziness and stubborn-headedness. I think, for me, that’s a lot of what vodou is in my life—it reminds me that I am worth something, that I belong somewhere, and that I am loved in spite of (and sometimes because of) all the the things I see as flaws. Vodou challenges me across the board, but it’s a challenge that opens the door for me to be more, know more, love more, and I like that.

Undoing and Reforming

•March 5, 2016 • 3 Comments

My weekends have taken on an interesting rhythm. Saturdays are the days when I write and clean and study materials for kanzo, and Sundays are where I get up and head to Mass (sometimes) before I go into the city for kanzo school. I spend several hours with my soon-to-be kanzo siblings, and we practice veve and vire, ask Manmi a zillion questions (or maybe I just do..), and discuss vodou. After ‘class’ is Haitian food in the kitchen, where we sit around Manmi’s kitchen table and continue discussing questions and various sorts of vodou philosophy. It’s a nice sort of schedule.

Last weekend, I was the last one there and I sat at the table while Manmi cooked for the week. She told me stories of how she prepared for her own kanzo, with months of sleeping on the ground and praying to her spirits for their guidance and blessings. She talked about how her focus in the months prior to going into the djevo and how her world had narrowed to just that, essentially. I remarked how it seems my life has taken a similar turn, albeit somewhat unexpectedly.

And it has. These days, my life is dayjob and preparing for Haiti and kanzo. I don’t go out and I really don’t do much more than show up for work, do my job, and go home with Haiti and the Lwa on my mind. I eat and I pray and I plan and I dream, and that’s really it. I get invited to social things, but the drive to go is absent—I objectively want to, but there is the question of spending money (have to save for Haiti) and feeling distracted from what I really ought to be doing. I’ve started slowly telling friends that I am basically out of circulation until at least the fall, if not longer.

In a lot of ways, this is sort of sobering. My focus is on walking well to my death—I am going to Haiti to die and be reborn from the waters of Ginen, where the Lwa dwell and where my Manmi will pull me from. When I promised to go into the djevo, I promised to die. I promised to walk willingly into death and trust that I will be brought out on the other side, and that’s fucking scary.

Of course, this is not a physical death—though I know I’m physically going to suffer in some ways—but a more esoteric one. The Lwa have not put all this effort into me to dismiss me from my body, after all, as They could just as easily do that her. The person who goes in to the initiatory chamber to kouche will not be the person who walks out, though. I don’t know what will be left and what will grow in the newly made spaces. I have no idea who I will be on the other side. I can’t see how my life will shape up After. My future is being deliberately unwritten right now, only for the slate to be wiped clean and then re-scribed.

The wiping of the slate started months ago, I think, when I agreed to do this. I have continually been directed to look at the things I keep tucked away in my emotional and spiritual closet and don’t want to look at. There has been a lot of getting my hands dirty with the black stickiness of the soul that has accumulated over the span of my entire life, with the goal of me seeing the broad picture of who I am. None of this is being lifted away, at least not now, as They aren’t going to relieve me of the burden of my past. I must, however, drag all the shit out of the dark and look at it. I have to have some idea of the lay of the land before I go in, and I can’t look away. I don’t expect any of these things to be lifted away by kanzo or for my life to drastically change the second I walk out, but I know I will have the tools to deal with a lot more of my collection than I do now.

All of this has been super unpleasant, honestly. Things are in the closet because I don’t want to deal with them or look closely at why they hurt (good things don’t go in the closet, after all). I don’t know that I’m doing a great job at this, especially since I struggle to do the actual looking without flinching away.

If I am good at something, though, it is looking at the broader picture. I can see how all the current pieces are slowly spinning into one big ball. I see it as a giant ball of wax since I’ve been doing things with wax, and it’s like the pieces are getting heated until they are flexible and almost melty—like that second when you dip your finger into candle wax and it almost burns as it dries on your skin—and slowly being assimilated in a Borg-like manner to the greater whole. I don’t know exactly what this means—am I slowly connecting with all the various pieces of myself? Am I being made whole only to be undone?—but I know it is part of The Point.

A really hard area has been facing my gender stuff head on for what it is. I am brokenhearted in some really hard ways that I will be going in before I have chest surgery. I know it’s the right decision and I know why it’s the right decision, but it doesn’t make it hurt any less. I know I will be in a better position to reconstruct an essential part of my Self after, but it doesn’t mean I don’t want to now. Logic doesn’t speak very well to hurt and needing to go in as I am hurts a lot. My elder brother said something really important not that long ago that clicked deeply and that is that making kanzo and being baptized as a houngan is really the first public, permanent affirmation of my gender and identity. In a strange and twisted way (and I should expect nothing less), it is an Esu lesson. It’s really THE Esu lesson that has been banged into my head by Him over and over—I must be who I am no matter how hard or the cost, because my happiness and sanity will otherwise be compromised. He reminds me that I am His child in this, and that He stands as only who He is without worry for what it will cost Him because that is His àṣẹ . I am not Him and can’t embody the vast depth that He holds, but I can throw myself at His footsteps because I must, or I will be dragged. The hard way, or the harder way. I can’t live in a vacuum of what other people would project onto me. I can be sorrowful, though.

The other hard hit area has been dealing with my family-of-origin issues. I didn’t realize how deeply those roots go and I didn’t expect my relationship with my Manmi to really kick that hornets nest. It has nothing to do with her, really, except that she is my manmi—my spiritual mother—and that was all that was needed as ignition point. This combined with my ancestors really showing up in a heavy way has been hard to deal with. I found out how angry I am with my mother and with my family in general and how much I really resent how they treat and have treated me. If there is anything that is a tangled mess, it’s this. My gender seems simple and cut and dry in comparison.

My matrilineal background has come out of the shadows in a big way. They are the ancestors who have stepped forward—almost all women, interestingly enough—and they have unequivocally said that I am theirs and they accept me for who and what I am. They basically explained all the issues with my parentage and family in one fell swoop, and that has been enlightening to say the least. My mother’s side is heavily Welsh and Scottish, with strong ancestral ties to the actual land there and resulting heavy ties to the tylwyth teg, or the Welsh version of the Fair Folk or fairies or whatever you want to call them. They tell me that I’m a changeling, and it makes perfect fucking sense and only amplifies family stuff.

It’s really sort of ridiculous, honestly, when you look at me and my family and who I am. I am the only person in my family with light-ish hair. My gender is all weird. When you put me with my family, it is very clear that I am the cuckoo bird in the clutch of starlings. Fuck, it even makes sense with Esu stuff—the child whose soul was given over to the crossroads? Yup. It explains to the T why my parents sort of look at me with the general shellshocked ‘well, we know we’re supposed to love you, so…’.

There are a bunch of reasons why a changeling–where the tylwth teg take the soul of a child and replace it with something else–would be made and none of them are really pleasant. The soul that war born was too ill to survive, the soul suffered trauma that made it’s tie to the body dicey, the parents harmed the child in some way or neglected it, or there was a deal with the tylwth teg gone wrong, either directly or in the ancestor line somewhere. In each instance, the tylwth teg show up and take the soul that was born and replace it with a soul that already existed in annwn/under the hill, a soul that needed to be born, a tylwth teg that wanted to be human, or, depending on the folklore, a log or a stick that the parents thought was the child. I am not a log or a stick and the ancestors were pretty clear on the likely cause of this.

I was talking to other folks in my Manmi’s house about this and Manmi’s daughter by blood posed a really interesting question—what if whatever was originally supposed to be me was replaced by a soul that already had ties to Haiti or Ginen? That sort of set me back on my heels because I have never thought of it that way. It doesn’t really matter, in the long view, because it doesn’t change anything—I am not Haitian or anything—but it certainly would explain A LOT. Another melty piece attaching to the whole.

All of this has only created more inner turmoil for me with my family. It’s made ancestor work really painful, though I know that pain would lessen if I just fucking did it more. I haven’t yet been able to approach them without a lot of sorrow and anger and that keeps me from wanting to, even though they keep saying ‘come here, we already know and it’s fine’. They’ve done a lot for me, but I struggle to go sit with them because it hurts, a lot. Even the ancestors who I knew in life hurt—even though they loved me then and still love me now.

This is basically my world right now, with a side of Netflix and creating art and spiritual work. I’m basically a hermit for whom nothing else exists beyond Haiti and the concept of Before and After. I told my Manmi that the world basically ends the day before I plan to land in Haiti, and that’s sort of how I am living. All Ginen, all the time.

Vodou fucks everything up.

•January 3, 2016 • 13 Comments

Or, y’all don’t know what you’re missing.

It’s no secret that, as a young adult, I cut my spiritual teeth in paganism and polytheism. It was easily accessible to me and it made sense, in some respects, since I am of mostly European descent. The church of my youth did not want me and did not fulfill me, particularly after some really terrible experiences with an offshoot of the main church that engaged in some very cult-like practices. Despite me not having the language to describe what was going on in the depths of my soul, I needed something bigger than myself to throw myself at, and paganism and polytheism answered that need.

I was never really a good fit for paganism, at ALL. It didn’t give me the fulfillment that I was seeking, left more questions than answers in an unpleasant way, and gave me serious pause because the feeling that there was something bigger and better out there for me didn’t go away. Instead, it grew more hungry and chewed on me in an almost painful way.

This isn’t to say that the relationships I had and maintain with my non-vodou and non-Orisha divinities are in any way bad or unfulfilling. I hold those relationships close and value everything They give to me, but I see Them differently now. I really see Them through the lens of vodou, and that has changed expectations and actions in a very positive way. It has made me a better devotee, a more effective servant, and an all around better human to be dealing with, with more tools at my [and, by situation, Their] disposal.

All of this has led to a massive, MASSIVE pull-back on my part from pagan and polytheist communities. The more I get involved with vodou, the less I find I have in common with those who seems to speak the loudest in those communal settings. When I watch how people talk to each other, about each other, and about their respective divinities, I thank all my divinities and stars and stuffed animals and anything that will stand still that Those who have walked with me since the beginning saw fit to pack me off to vodou. Had They not, I think I might have packed my shit, given the larger pagan and polytheist communities the finger, and disappeared off to parts unknown. It is that noxious, that toxic, and that goddamn unpleasant to be around. It is not surprising at all that many of my dearest pagan and polytheist friends—the ones who basically made sure I didn’t die in the first handful of years that the divinities blew my life apart and that who are along for the amusement ride that my life has become, even if they don’t understand it—have felt similarly and done just that; disappearing into private practice until things become palatable again, if ever.

That said, I am still a polytheist and I don’t see that going away any time soon. It doesn’t conflict with my vodou, nor does my vodou community see it as a conflict for me. That, however, does not seem to sit well with some of the pagans and polytheists I talk to or whose writing I read. I’ve had long discussions about this and it really seems to boil down to one stark, blunt fact: pagans and polytheists are not comfortable with, as my dear soon-to-be elder brother put it recently, subversion made manifest and, as I put it, a thriving, vital religion that lives in and embraces liminality as an ideal space. Vodou exists as a living conflict, with ideas and practices that run at each other head on, with little care for whether it makes sense or looks right or causes any level consternation for those that would seek it’s counsel. Paganism and polytheism does not embody those same things, at least not anymore, if they ever did.

Now, before you run screaming for your pitchforks and torches, hear me out. I promise I don’t hate pagans and other polytheists and don’t want to burn other people’s religious practices to the ground [mostly—some of y’all test me].

All of this has been brewing for me in the last six months or so, and it started with watching pagans and polytheists talk about privilege, social justice, concepts of authority in religious practice, and what boils down to ‘best practices’ in terms of how to approach and love divinities. It is interesting to watch and I am sure it is a vital conversation for those who participate in it and find it meaningful, but it has been like watching a trainwreck caught in a vacuum. The same things are said over and over, the same things are pointed to as sick and inappropriate practices, and the same divisions expand, all while hot air fills the proverbial room until it is poisonous and suffocating.

The part that has really set my teeth on edge is the sort of speech that holds up ‘ancient’ practices and then proceeds to shit all over the tenets and basic functions of living ancient practices. That blows my mind and short-circuits my brain, but it all goes back to the base realization that pagans and polytheists are not that good with purposeful and embraced subversion in their religion and religious practices.

Over the past few years, I have had a similar conversation numerous times with numerous people. It is a good conversation, and it’s one that has continually allowed me to ask questions of my elders and sharpen my understanding of vodou. Essentially, it boils down to ‘how is it that vodou is so powerful? How do the Lwa move so clearly, directly, and fast in your life?’.

I have found that to be a deceivingly simple question. The really easy, yet still accurate, answer is this: vodou is an unbroken religion. It has never bowed to conversion, never died, the Lwa have never slept only to awake and move in the world when a group of interested parties come knocking, and it has never lived on the page—the record of vodou is almost entirely oral, with books recording more about culture than actual practices. This speaks to that subversion made manifest; when the world has slammed down a barrier to vodou on the right, vodou has dodged left. When the Spanish and French imperialists demanded that traditional African practices cease among the enslaved Africans they brought to Hispaniola [later Haiti and the Dominican Republic], vodou was birthed in the bellies of those who believed and brought into the world when those who forged Haiti in their hearts came to the decision they had suffered enough. Some Lwa came from Africa buried deep in the skin and bones of those who would call Them forth on new land, and some were called into being from the bodies and spirits of those crushed by colonization in this new place. Some sprang from the knife and the blood spilled by the imperialist, some rose from the water with open arms for those who screamed for Them under the lash. Some rose from the dead, some rose from the dust on the road. All came because there was [and is] work to do, and the people needed [and need] them.

That is the first subversion and mental car crash of vodou—it is a religion born out of pain and rebellion, and that legacy has never gone to sleep. Vodou has a long memory and the reality of it’s roots can never be forgotten, because it forms the foundation of the religion.

In comparison, traditions upheld by many pagans and polytheists went fallow for hundreds to thousands of years to the point of the death of those religions. Whether by conversion, conquer, disinterest, or otherwise, what is became what was, and stayed that way for quite a time. Did those gods die? Who knows, but Their active practice did. A revival of these things is not necessarily bad, but it changes things dramatically. In stark comparison to vodou and other unbroken religions, these practices never had a chance to evolve—they existed, then went away and were regarded only through the eyes of Abrahamic observers or anthropologists sifting through the sand for remains of what was. Now, there is new blood for these divinities and yet there is a desire for things to be what they were, for a resurrection and recreation of how those religious ancestors loved those gods. There is this idealization of these ancient polytheisms, yet an utter denial that what is no longer can be what was and putting those practices and people on a pedestal in a ‘it was better than because they did it this way’ is ensuring that the revival of these traditions will ultimately wither again, because it is unsustainable.

Second mental car crash: vodou is ancient in the sense that we still do things the way our spiritual ancestors did them and can trace direct lines back to the very beginning, but vodou is incredibly modern with a deep understanding of the world it moves in. It constantly changes through the process of shared community understanding while maintaining that the roots must be fed and respected if vodou is to continue to embody the immense amount of power it has built through the generations. The ason, a ritual rattle conferred through kanzo, has it’s origins in many different African traditions but lives as a tool that does the work that is needed now. It is the old that carries the new into being, in a literal way, and it brings the voice of the ancestors into the room.

The Lwa act in this way, too. They have old origins, but boy do They understand modern needs. When you tell a Lwa that you need money to do what it is They have outlined, They nod in understanding and then provide the opportunity to gain that money. They know what it means when you say ‘I need money this month to make sure my child has food and shoes without holes in them’. They know why it is you might need to pass on feeding them this month, because your dick of a boss cut your hours and you have to pay rent first. They get that and They roll with it, because the Lwa not only move in this world, They are of this world, in a very literal sense. One of my favorite stories is from when air travel became a commonplace thing, and Haitians began to have access to it. All of a sudden, numerous unconnected sosyetes were reporting a similar occurrence; an Ogou who no one had ever met before was coming down at fetes and ceremonies. He told people His name—Ogou Panama—and taught the same general song to call and praise Him with. Why did Ogou Panama show then? Because more Haitians were taking to the skies to travel and the Lwa go everywhere with Their people, so it makes sense that there would be an Ogou who was a flight captain and who could assure the safety of His people as they ventured forth in this new way.

Modernity is a good thing in vodou, because it keeps people alive and keeps the religion alive. If the religion could not be modern, how could it meet modern demands? This idea that modernity is a poison to religious practice is born from longing for good ol’ days that didn’t exist, really, or that we have no proof existed because the tradition we point ceased to exist before our grandparents’ grandparents were born.

This reflects in every day life, too, and further illustrates the inherent conflict of vodou—the Lwa are everywhere, but still reside elsewhere. I see my Lwa in everything and feel Them move in my heart at the strangest times, but They also reside anba dlo/under the water. They are everywhere and in all places, and that’s not weird at all. Heck, They can be in multiple places in the same room, as any person who has been to a lively fete can tell you. It’s not unusual for a Lwa to inhabit more than one body at once in one room. When Gede comes at His parties, it’s not unusual for Him to take lots of people because He wants to have lots of fun [I have seen Him in at least nine different people at once]. Which brings us to another car crash that modern pagans and polytheists have a hard time grasping…

Possession is not special, nor a mark of any sort of status. It’s just not. In fact, it’s sort of a pain in the ass and quite unfun, nevermind utterly exhausting. It does not mean the person possessed is any sort of higher functioning person or has any special abilities. There are things that can be done to make possession an easier process or a person can be an easier tool for the Lwa to use, but, really, it just means you are the nearest hammer for the job the Lwa wish to do in that moment.

In fact, possession can be used to send the message that there are no special snowflakes in vodou. It often doesn’t happen without some sort of crisis that makes it clear the person is not in control—screaming, crying, being thrown around the room or on the floor, and other things are quite common—and it ends similarly, in that more often than not the horse is dumped on the floor or into the arms of someone with a keen eye for how these things go. It isn’t done to hurt anyone—and in fact no one is hurt in the process, as the Lwa know if They break Their tools They will no longer be able to use them—but more to send the message that no one is special or above being treated as any other person. From the lineage head with 30 years of service to the Lwa under their belt to the ti-fey in the corner who is horrified that they cannot stop crying, it is all the same—no one will be treated differently or coddled because of who they are.

So why do pagans and polytheists get all wide-eyed and status-y about possession? Part of it is cultural—many are white and have never been a part of a culture that embraces possession by the divine as a completely normal and run-of-the-mill thing. Part of it, I think, springs from this desire for something deeper. The culture of many religions that fall under the pagan and polytheism died with the religions that were held within them and, no matter how hard folks work, that cannot spring to life again. That particular richness was lost, and likely how the divinities directly interacted with people dwindled, too.

It’s trying to come back, and I’ve seen it. I’ve witnessed instances of true, authentic possession of non-Diasporic divinities, and I believe those divinities want that. However, this narrative that possession is special and an honor has created cults of personality and a lot of outright fraud. They point to what they assume must be special preparation by folks who participate in vodou to do the work and use that to puff themselves up as specially chosen, having to do weeks and weeks of preparation to hold a divinity. Know what I did before I ended up with some of my Lwa in my head? I didn’t have sex for a few days and I took a shower. Sometimes there is special preparation to do, but that is often about the person in question more than the Lwa. There weren’t days and days of prayer and ritual or a hugely special or limited diet—there was just me, in my clothes with all my stuff, dancing along to the drums.

That is a hallmark of vodou, though—in many ways, it is low barrier for its practitioners because it has been doing it’s thing for quite awhile without being torn apart. The Lwa have spent an inordinate amount of time figuring out the quickest and easier ways into someone’s head, while the divinities of religions that went fallow perhaps have forgotten how to do that or have been out of practice for so long that They are rusty with Their actions.

If I am insightful at all, there is someone sitting in front of their computer or staring bug-eyed at their phone going ‘how dare you say that? HERESY. IMPIETY.’. And maybe so, if those religions or divinities are hypersensitive.

Here’s another thing about vodou that smashes together those mental cars: the Lwa do not expect or desire bent backs and heads that never utter anything but the most poetic of prayers that praise Them up one side and down the other. Instead, They expect strength of spine and will, and They expect that Their people will not cower or turn into doormats at the mere whisper of Their presence. It is perfectly normal to look Them in the eye, proverbial or literal, and say ‘no, I can’t do that’ or ‘not until You provide the money’ or ‘I need to think about that because You’re asking more than I can give right now’. It is acceptable to argue [within sensible reason—you are dealing with a disincarnate being who has a lot of resources available] and acceptable to make demands of Their service and work. It is acceptable to barter, negotiate, bribe, and otherwise push to have your specific needs or desires met, and it’s not a bad thing or a disrespectful thing, provided you act with at least a modicum of manners and decorum.

I have raged at my Lwa for things They have done or asked for. I have screamed, cried, cursed out, and otherwise behaved in ways that have paled the faces of pagans and polytheists who I have related my experiences to. The inevitable reaction has been ‘how could you’ or ‘I would be too afraid of <divinity> to do that’. My response is that I will absolutely not be afraid of divinities I love and serve. I might be awed or intimidated, but I will not fall victim to this Western idea of fear of the divine because They might step on me. They might step on me anyways and, if the stories people tell me of their divinities are even remotely true, They might step on me because They are feeling particularly asshole-ish that day. Similarly, how could I not speak frankly and bluntly to Them if I love Them? How can I not tell Them when I am livid that They did a thing or did not deliver on something I have worked my butt off for? My first response when Kouzen [whom I adore and who loves me probably more than I deserve] told me I needed to kanzo was ‘you’ve got to be fucking kidding me’. He didn’t frown or pout or smack me, He just smiled and assured me that the money to do so would show up and that I would be fine.

This idea that the divinities are untouchable, beyond reproach, and, frankly, far too fragile and sensitive to hear true words from their servants is a new, Western thing. The people who claim that monotheism is the root of all that is bad and that they have rooted out this influence in their religious practices are some of the worst offenders, and they don’t see it. They do not see how they are repeating and propagating this inherently twisted idea that respect means a bowed head, long practice praising their divinities, and never uttering your true feelings for fear of a divinity crashing down on your head in displeasure if you do otherwise. Are They really that sensitive? Do They really have such an adolescent understanding of Themselves? I think not, but I also think that when people say they are shedding the baggage of their milk religions, they often have no idea what they are talking about.

Often this is spoken about in terms of devotion and what ‘proper’ devotion and piety is, and it’s horrifically narrow in view. Extensive ritual, prayer, and praise, all done in the privacy of one’s home alongside plenty of dictating that this is the right way keeps getting pushed out like a sour, bitter egg from a chicken that should have been eaten months earlier. It does not facilitate growth, depth of connection, or anything but knowing how to say words and do a ritual. It might work for some, I suppose, but not for all.

Vodou turns all that on it’s head. Vodou, in essence, is about community, versus lifting the Lwa up as awesome, great, beloved, etc. They know They’re awesome, and They don’t need my constant reminder when I sit in front of my altar. Having a devotion-focused practice will leave the Lwa lazy and asleep—They work when you do, and a lot of that work comes in community. The Lwa are not focused on how pious any particular vodouisant is, but how the community supports the work and, moreover, DOES THE WORK. Not everyone kanzos to be a priest in the community, but even those who kanzo solely for the relationship with their spirits do things to further the work. One of my to-be elder sisters is a manbo because her spirits wanted that for her, but she is the only who quietly comes and helps at fetes and out in the Haitian community. She’s the one who makes sure the PA system for the sosyete is up to date, and she’s the one who can be counted on to do work when necessary. Instead of being focused on veneration of the Lwa, vodou is focused on strengthening community and evening the playing field for those who are marginalized, since vodou is a religion that strengthens the disenfranchised.

That sort of brings this back full circle to what spawned this lengthy writing; how social justice and privilege play out in religion.

My elder brother said something very true this week; vodou is the original Black Lives Matter movement. It is a religion founded on the principles of social justice, of rising up against oppressive forces and assuring the best possible lives for all involved. The idea that relatively new Western ideas of devotion trump this or outrank it is ridiculous at best and deeply offensive to the spiritual ancestors who broke their backs and lost their lives to assure that vodou and it’s people would live to see another day and perhaps a better existence. Vodou is out in the world, not solely in prayers and altars, and religion that only lives in those places cannot live in an unjust world for very long. My Lwa are the original activists and justice-seekers. They were the force that, through the people, slaughtered the French colonizers and drove them into their boats and back to France. They are the ones who fed the Haitians when there was no food to be had. They are the ones who kept the rafts and boats afloat when the Haitians took to the sea in search of a different life, and the ones who kept people as safe as possible when Duvalier’s tonton macoute death squads roamed the country. They are the ones who sustain Haitians caught in MINUSTAH’s cholera epidemic and who dry the tears when loved ones die.

With all this in mind, how could I write off social justice as second to Western-defined devotional practices? Social justice IS devotion to my Lwa, and especially as a white person in a Haitian religion. It cannot be divorced from vodou, nor can it play second fiddle to what Western religious society thinks is right and true. When I seek to open doors and provide options for the clients at my dayjob, no matter their background, I am doing the work of the Lwa out in the world, and that is holy and good. When I use my voice as a white person to cast light on the appropriated practices of other white people that harm minority religions and people, I am doing the world of the Lwa out in the world, and that is holy and good. I may not sit in front of my altar for days at a time, but that doesn’t mean I am not praying and am not devoted to my divinities—my prayers and devotion come from my heart through my hands, in answer to how the hands of the Lwa have moved in my life. Divorcing that and placing it second to Western ideals is missing the point of vodou.
That point gets missed a lot. A lot of white folks come to vodou and think the work gets done in front of an altar in prayers. They see that as devotion and eschew the community work—however that is played out for them—as lesser or separate. This gets called disrespect for elders, but, in reality, it is privilege at play and thinking that one can bring in Western practices to a culturally-based religion, or that Western ideals somehow apply when they spring from European practices…from the very cultures that sought to shut down vodou. This manifests in a variety of ways, from privileged statements to denouncing the necessary need for authority figures in vodou to polluting vodou with practices that have no place there [applying Qabala to the prayers that open services, using Tarot to attempt to speak to the Lwa, asserting authority that only belongs to the Lwa]. If you are taking Western concepts of religious practice, authority, and what constitutes right interaction, you are missing the big, glaring point.

So, what to do with all of this? I don’t know. For any of this to mean anything, the people to whom this applies would have to be able to hear it and then look critically at what they have been saying out in the world, which requires humility and a long view. Tied into this has to be the realization that paganism and polytheism in and of itself is only subversive in as much as it’s adherents are willing to be subversive, which means removing their paganism or polytheism as the center of the world or as the most subversive religious action. Doing that assures that Western [and, let’s face it, white] ideas do not play as the supreme narrative on what religious devotion looks like, nor does it allow this false history of identity and lineage to manifest when the only unbroken histories and lineages really exist in Caribbean and continental African religions. It’s okay to fill gaps, but the first part of being truly subversive and acting against the common narrative is to admit that there are gaps and that they cannot be filled with an unending litany of pronouncements of what is or is not correct in a tradition that has only recently risen from a long fallow time.

These car crashes are the gifts of vodou, if we can only get out of our own way to access them. Vodou fucks up the pagan and polytheist idea of devotion because it decentralizes a European-centric voice as important. Rejecting the rising narrative of a one appropriate way that discounts minority and indigenous religion, except as it is useful to illustrate how pious one is, is rising in polytheism and paganism, but it misses the mark. One of the lessons of vodou is that the roots cannot be tended by an individual only—the lone practitioner does not survive, particularly if that practitioner locks the door on growth and vitality by making pronouncements on things that exist past the end of their nose. When we speak from our ego and with the goal to change what others do by pronouncement [versus example], we poison the blood in the root and ensure that our legacy is only one in books.

Sim salalam, sim salawu. Pa salam, pa salawu.

•December 19, 2015 • 1 Comment

You in, you in. You out, you stay out.

I have a rather extensive spiritual history with a whole host of outside-of-vodou divinities in my past and my present. My primary spiritual identity has been as a polytheist–I believe that the divinities are unique and individual in nature, desires, needs, and agendas–and that has held up through all of my spiritual evolutions. I’ve been rather lucky that all my divinities regularly conspire together to assure that I have the best possible present and future, provided I put in work and deliver the effort needed to achieve our mutual goals for me. It’s really a good thing and has changed the way I view myself, my life, and my potential future.

There are very few things I have been forbidden from, either outright as a demand from my divinities or as a result of actions/inactions on my part. For the most part, I am encouraged to do what I want and venture where I would like, in the spiritual sense. That’s something I earned, though, after a series of serious missteps when I was younger and much stupider.

The long and short of my more naive, ignorant self was that I painted myself into a serious corner early on and got myself entangled with a divinity that I found to be an absolutely ruthless and merciless being that would be content to suck me dry in pursuit of goals that needed to be achieved in Their agenda. With the help of a divinity or two, I managed to get myself rescued from that situation–with the notation that if I ever got myself into trouble like that again, I was on my own in terms of getting out of it–and made some agreements and allegiances that protected me. The outcome of that mess was the edict that I would not ever reach out to that divinity for myself or on behalf of a spiritual client, and that if I ever found myself occupying a space with that divinity or Their people I would act with utter and complete courtesy if I could not politely remove myself. It was basically ‘leave Them alone and They will leave you alone, and don’t you dare fuck it up’ agreement, and I have never once screwed it up, to my knowledge.

Any time a whiff of that divinity has appeared in my life, I have basically picked up and run to a diviner I trust to make sure it is complete coincidence or otherwise something that I have not inadvertently initiated. Until recently, that has only happened once and it was complete coincidence that got a lot of careful treatment from me to assure that I did all the right things.

Last Sunday, I had a pretty extensive dream that included that divinity as a central figure. They had stepped forward and asked me to paint a portrait of Them. True to awake form, when I figured out Who was asking this, I zoomed off to see the divinity that had basically negotiated my freedom when I had fucked up in the past. I asked Him if this was something He was aware of and approved of, and what He would like me to do with this.

True to form, He didn’t give me a helpful direct answer and only said that I was a different person than I was when things had gone to hell before and that the situation was now different as well. I spent most of my dream painting and revising the design to the Intruder’s specifications, over and over until I woke up and went ‘FUCK’.

Because I am a lucky bastard and because I don’t dare fuck around when stakes are high and I risk displeasure of my divinities all the way around, I contacted the diviner I most like to work with outside of vodou things. She is a damn saint incarnate who is patient, willing to get dirty while digging into whatever I bring to her, and is owed at least a bit of my soul at this point, for all the the shit I have dropped at her feet.

I had some ideas of what was going on before she and I got down to work, but none of my ideas were right and were in fact quite wrong. Very wrong. Incredibly wrong. So wrong that I was wrong enough to go past being right and enter wrong territory a second time.

Turns out this Intruder never really lost interest in me and had only decided that I wasn’t worth the fight way back when. They had shrugged and gone off to do whatever it was They do until I got more useful. At this point, I am useful enough to Them that They showed up and made an offer that They didn’t want me to refuse. Very directly. this Intruder showed up and offered to essentially buy out all of my spiritual contracts. In business parlance, I am being headhunted to come work solely for the Intruder and abandon everything I have been doing for the last almost-ten years. No spiritual or religious anything unless They brought it to my door. In specific, I would be left to be a divinely-inspired artist for the rest of my life.

I had this completely predictable reaction when this was all laid out for me. Shock and surprise first, then outright anger, then disgust and creeping horror.

I want nothing to do with the Intruder. I don’t believe what They are saying for a second–I find Them to be the least trustworthy divinity I have ever come in contact with–and, compared to what the Lwa and other divinities have brought to me, They are offering me absolute shit to the point where, after I get over the anger and disgust, I am both offended and amused. If this was a job offer from a possible paycheck employer, I wouldn’t even bother to tear up the paper it was written on because it’s that ridiculous. It’s like a shitty part-time job for two cents over minimum wage and no benefits, versus a full-time salaried position that requires a lot of work, but has great benefits AND a commission and bonus schedule on top of regular salary. I’m worth way more than what the Intruder offers.

The answer will be no, but ‘no’ is a process with the Intruder. I have done this dance with Them before and I fully remember how my ‘no’ didn’t mean a whole lot until another divinity stepped in and essentially told Them to fuck off. ‘No’ won’t stick until I make an irrevocable, unbreakable oath which means I am going to be fighting the good fight until I catapult myself into the djevo. I hate that. It’s like having that not-friend who wants to be your buddy wanting to hang out at every possible moment no matter what you are doing, whether it’s pooping or grocery shopping or talking to your actual friends.

I had a long talk with Manmi today about this fully expecting her to sort of look at me sideways, but she didn’t even flinch and named it what it was–temptation. She told me how the Lwa had tempted her and how really hard it was to turn down what was presented to her at times. It was really helpful to hear that, especially since I was FURIOUS with the Lwa after this all came to light. Like,I said I was going to kanzo and my word means something, so why the fuck are you standing by while this happens? But, in the context of making sure commitment actually exists before I sign the final and permanent contract makes sense even if I find it maddening.

So, there’s that. Me and Esu are going to get busy this week, since Intruder has clearly been hanging around my house and listening in on what I say in my prayers at my altars. Not happy to have unwelcome and uninvited guests hanging about, and not about to let that stand.

The best part of this bullshit circus is that it has really solidified how I feel about the Lwa and other divinities that would be removed from my life if I said yes to the Intruder, and how I feel about vodou in general. The Lwa have laid blessings at my feet at every turn and vodou has transformed my life. Vodou fits my outlook on the world and I really believe in the vision vodou and the Lwa have for me and the world around me. At this point, I feel like turning my back on the Lwa and vodou and saying that They have not done enough for me would be like cutting out my vital organs and burning them just for spite. There is something about having a look at what life could be life if you were to take a radical left turn from the best possible outcome that strengthens your resolve, sharpens your focus, and increases the gratitude that fills your heart.

Tonight, I am grateful that the universe at large delivered me to where I am right now. I am grateful that I have made the choices that I have, and that the consequences of those choices have brought me great joy. I am grateful for the brain in my head, the heart in my chest, and the logic that lays in both places. I am grateful to have a goal in sight and the knowledge that if I work hard, I can achieve it.

Happier things on the horizon–it’s almost time for Christmas baths and then Twa Wa/Three Kings Day/Good Luck baths. 2016 is looking like a pivotal year and I am so excited to see where my feet, the Lwa, and all my divinities bring me.

 
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