Fet Damballah 2016 and Aftermath

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.

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~ by Alex on March 19, 2016.

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