Names and Naming

•May 3, 2017 • Leave a Comment

I finished a draft of a piece for publication recently, and part of it included writing about one of my names. Names are really important in Vodou and many other religious practices, as well as in regular life (duh), and that goes for spirits and us meatsacks alike. What we address each other as has meaning and purpose, and it becomes an identifier of sorts. I started thinking about how and what names mean to me and how I ‘wear’ them.

I have a LOT of names. There is the name my parents gave me when I was born, which I don’t use any more, and there is the name that I chose for myself when I decided the parent-given name didn’t fit. I am not sure I actually chose it in that it just sort of fell out of the sky and onto my head over a decade ago, but it fit and I kept it. It took my awhile, but I realized that there are particular selves attached to each of those names, and one tastes like ashes. When people call me by the name my parents gave me at birth, I get uncomfortable but not for the common experience of being unhappy because that name is decidedly female. It’s more that it is a connection to a person and a time in my life that I have no desire to hold a connection to. I was never female, so the name was never female.

When I went into the djevo, I became spiritually nameless. I was no longer who I was, but I was not yet who I was going to be and so did not have a name in the religion. In practice, people still called me by my regular daily name or, more amusingly, addressed or referred to me solely as blan (white/outsider). I hadn’t been born yet, so there was no religious way to address me.

In the djevo, when I started to meet my spirits, some of them gave me names for themselves that aren’t in common use–names that I had to sit down and chat with my mother about to figure out who it was. Sometimes they were ‘secret’ names of spirits–almost like a true name in the way that refers to the true name of YHWH, and sometimes they were names of a particular face of a spirit (most spirit names in Vodou are family names–Damballah is a family name, since there are hundreds of Damballahs, Gede is a family name, Ogou is a family name, Ezili is a family name, etc). Learning their different names gave me insight into who they were and, in turn, into who I am in relationship with them. Those names tell me how to serve them and what place they might have in my life, as well as what areas they are concerned with.

When it is time for the actual leve/lifting part of kanzo and we are brought up from beneath the waters of Ginen/the realm of the spirits, we are still not people yet. The first part of leve kanzo leaves us blind in a way–since we are not named yet, we do not have the privilege of seeing clearly or being seen clearly, and so our eyes and gaze are hidden from the community. Our baptem/baptism gives us a name and reveals us to the community in celebration with the removal of the ayizan that protected us prior.

Prior to kanzo, I was not even concerned in the least of what my godparents might name me. It was a detail that was sort of lost in the shuffle of the plane crash that was getting to Haiti and into the djevo. My godfather had explained how names are often selected–they are usually given to the godparents by the spirits–and he later told me how mine was bestowed, which pleased me.

At my baptem, my name was announced as Bonkira (full name: Bonkira Bon Oungan Daguimin Minfort). Our baptem names are really important names. They tell a story about who we are and who we will be, what we will do and what we need to strive for. It’s not a name that is (often) used in casual address–if anything, we might address each other as ‘houngan’ or ‘manbo’ in passing, but mostly we use our common names. Though, if my mother ever came out and called me by my initiatory name, it would sort of be like when your mom shouts your full name and you know you are in trouble.

My kanzo name means ‘what is good is rare’, and that is a large and heavy name, being both a blessing and a burden. I have a lot to do, and I think about it a lot. It’s not an axe over my neck(that is my spirits if I don’t do what I am supposed to do) but it is a weight that pushes me. The work of my hands can be good, but it also means I have to hustle to make sure it is–after all, it could be a rare occurrence if I don’t keep my nose to the grindstone and learn and practice and perfect the work of a priest.

Bonkira is not my only name, either. We all receive a secret ‘inside’ name from Papa Loko, the father of all asogwe, directly. If my kanzo name references who I am in the world and what is possible of me, then my inside name is the deepest reflection of who I am as a person and priest who walks as a direct descendant of Loko, with his tools and blessings on my head and hands. There are only two people in the world who know what that name is, and if I ever heard it come out of a spirit’s mouth, my head would spin around Linda Blair style and I’d be on my belly in the dirt asking before anyone around me could catch a breath. It would be the spiritual equivalent of a nuclear bomb going off at my feet.

There are names that have come directly from spirits that seem to be vaguely like pet names or names that describe a relationship. Some of them are funny and/or embarrassing, and some of speak to larger or more serious topics. Sometimes they behave as a pass key–if I get called that name, I know who exactly is speaking to me.

Spirits outside of Vodou do the same thing, too, with names and titles. I have a spirit who has simply addressed me as ‘priest’ for years, particularly when she is unhappy with me. She also says there’s an actual name for me from her, but she isn’t too talkative and I’m not asking. When Esu started kicking in doors and taking up residence, he started calling me by a particular name (nothing like waking up from a dream with words from a language you don’t speak running through your head) and when that phrase comes up, I know I better than to just think it coincidence.

It goes the other way, too–I have names that I use for particular spirits to reference a relationship, and I have spirits who I am still harassing to actually tell me their true name (looking at you, Dead Man). Sometimes the chase is a lesson itself.
Now, I am mulling over another name thing–a spirit whom I have grown close to has requested I change my name to match his, which feels…weird. I mentioned it before, and the potential reasons why are still true–it is likely because I either truly don’t have a family name because I am not related to my father, because I am about to get married and names often change with marriage, or just because that spirit wants to be clear that I belong to the spirits. This came up when I started writing the above referenced piece for publication, in the ‘you should publish it under this last name’ sort of way. I have requested that the publisher do so (and they will), but I have basically put off any larger change until after the wedding, in the likely vain hope that the spirit will relent. A name change like that will cause drama in that people will think they know something about me, like I would be silly enough to advertise my head so clearly, and I am not particularly looking forward to that sort of insanity. I am also not looking forward to another complicated project, and especially in the Age of Trump. But, they know they almost always get what they want so it’ll probably happen anyway because I love them and am a sucker for happy spirits.

•April 30, 2017 • Leave a Comment

The flames are getting a little bit higher, and I recognize the slight breathlessness that seems to be permeating everything right now. Time before going back to Haiti is growing short and there is a lot to do before I go shed another skin and find myself in the middle of more mysteries. I have almost all my clothes for the maryaj set (So. Many. Costume changes) and there are 10 rings waiting for blessings and to be placed on my fingers. I’m ready for a change of scenery and purpose, and for the slowing down of life that Haiti gives me.

As all of this gets closer, my relationships with my spirits are continuing to evolve and it gives me a lot to chew on. To tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, I have never been all starry-eyed about marriage in any form. Less than six months before the most prominent husband-to-be showed up and vigorously proposed maryaj, I had basically decided (and said out loud, because I am a dumbass at times) that I was not really interested in getting married, period, and was enjoying being single. Funny how the spirits listen and cackle to themselves when we make plans.

Even though I have said yes and wholeheartedly mean it, I still feel the same way and it weirds me out that I am getting married anyway. I suppose spirits and marriage is a whole other stadium than a person and marriage, but still. I chew on that a lot. I don’t like being tied to things, which was one of my main objections to kanzo–I didn’t want to be tied to anyone or anything. Of course, I have very different feelings about that now, given the blessings they have pelted me with since I came out of the djevo, the least of which is a mother who cheers me on and is doing her level best manmi-of-the-groom stuff in terms of making sure everything comes together for this thing.

It’s hard to say what life will be like on the other side of this. When I was hurtling towards kanzo, everything was on fire and I just didn’t care because it really couldn’t have gotten any worse short of me actually dying. This time, things are not such a mess and I am more circumspect. There are a few unknown factors such as housing after I come back to Haiti, but it is nowhere near as messy as it was last year at this time. I have not been screaming for six months straight and so I have time to think about what I am about to do and what it means for me.

I know how other things shape up for people I am close to and the their maryajs, but, if anything, my spirits have shown that they do not quite interested in fitting the molds that get socially established around spirit spouses in vodou. I look at how my mother is with her spirit husbands and marvel at the absolutely torrid love affairs she has with them, as it is exceedingly clear how deeply in love with them she is and how deeply they love her in return, and I wonder how that will pan out for me and who, out of my legion of husbands and paramours (some of the ones getting rings don’t get married, but get rings of commitment), will be that way for me. I have my own torrid love affairs in some ways, but things always change and grow and evolve as spiritual commitments and heat are added.

I have been thinking about the mystery of spiritual marriage a lot, too, and what that really means. This has led to a lot of time reading and watching things about Catholic nuns, who are really the best examples of mystical marriage that exist. They are really espoused to Christ and profess deep, meaningful experiences regarding their relationship to their divine husband. There’s a lot that weirds me out about that brand of monasticism and there aren’t that many similarities, but they are the only ones who talk about the mystery associated with the actual act of consecrated marriage, which is basically what I am doing. Some of the spirits have even asked me to change my last name to reflect this. Don’t know what I am going to do about that yet, either.

In the middle of all of this considering and reflecting and chewing, my relationships with them all are evolving and changing in ways that were somewhat unexpected. While they are personal and affectionate, I tend to not expect that and operate as a ‘the facts and just the facts, sir’ kind of vodouizan. They have started flipping that on it’s head lately and it has been a challenge not to react by screaming and standing on my chair, like it’s gonna bite me.

In a recent ceremony, I had interactions that I really wasn’t prepared for. Part of my job as a priest is to facilitate ceremony, so my brain is usually whirring on what needs to be done and what is coming next, so it is all prepared. It often catches me unaware when they show me attention that reaches beyond ‘I need a thing, where is my thing? Priest, get me my thing.’ So, meaningful hand-holding and dancing and probably the most gentle, non-filthy moment I have ever shared with a dead man was very unexpected and hard to process. They must be excited to put a ring on it. Guess I’m kinda cute..

Even the lwa who claims me as her kid is being a lot different. She’s also doing manman-of-the-groom stuff, and it’s so weird for me.

There is practical processing around a lot of this, too. If kanzo is like being on a stage in the community with your djevo brothers and sisters, then maryaj is being in the spotlight on stage all by yourself with a packed house waiting to watch you do your dance. Since I am a priest, I will do a lot of the work for my maryaj myself–I will salute all the spirits, welcome them if/when they come down in possession, dance with them a little, get led around and shown off, and married. I will have my manmi there and my brothers and sisters and the community, but oh GAWD I cannot tell you how nervous all of that makes me. I know my shit, but I have AWFUL stage fright, truly. I logically know that anything that could go sideways or any mistake I could make (which would be hard, I can salute in my sleep and welcoming them is straightforward) is easy to remedy but GAWD. I have visions of the asson flying out of my hand and clocking my mother on the head or me lighting someone on fire accidentally or choking on alcohol that I am supposed to be spraying out of my mouth. I know this is all just nerves and is not terribly logical but man…my heart beats faster having to think about doing all this stuff in front of a packed temple.

But it will be good, though, no matter how many nerves I have and how awkward the idea of getting married feels. They love me, I love them, and I suppose someone somehow has to make an honest houngan of me. My apartment is already piled with stuff to bring and clothes to have altered (thank you, testosterone, for altering my body shape so that NOTHING FRIGGING FITS), so it’s all good.

•April 24, 2017 • Leave a Comment

stgeorge

It was a year ago yesterday, on St. George’s feast day, that I sat down and gave Ogou a tiny feast. I was between a rock and a hard place in preparing for kanzo and I knew I was in trouble, but I also knew that if I didn’t get in the djevo things were going to get exponentially worse. My spirits had already told me to leave the job I had that had advanced my career by leaps and bounds, but I hadn’t agreed to yet.

I sat with Ogou and told him that I would do whatever it took and whatever he told me to do to get in the djevo, including leaving my job even if there wasn’t another one available immediately. I told him that I knew how badly I needed kanzo and that I hadn’t always listened to him, but I was listening then and that I needed his help. I knew I was putting myself in a even more precarious predicament and Ogou delivered–he handed me the matches and I burned my life down to follow him into the djevo. In return, he and my other spirits got me there and valued the sacrifices I made to save my life and my head.

Just before I went into the djevo, Ogou stood in front of me and told me that if I was going to truly walk with him, I had to be a different person. I know what he meant, and I think about that every day. I don’t work hard enough and have a propensity to be lazy, and so it is a regular prayer of mine that I keep the reality of the djevo, my sacrifice to get there, and the conditions of my reprieve from what was coming for me at the front of my head. My spirits did for me what I could not do for myself, and so my gratitude goes to their feet every day that they give me breath and strength to stand up. No one can prepare you for the djevo or what it will do to you, but it has the opportunity to be life-changing if only you do the work that the spirits lay at your feet.

Ogou took me at my word, and he got me in there, literally beating my butt in the door. I am better for all of it, and so grateful every damn day.

Si li pral genyen lagè a chemen se Ogou ap jwenn…

A light saute.

•April 16, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Interlude

•April 7, 2017 • Leave a Comment

I lie on my yoga mat, crowded to the edge of a packed yoga studio. The air is humid with our combined breath and sweat, and my mat is slightly sticky with my own perspiration. I do not sweat gracefully, whether it is on my yoga mat or in the temple in Haiti, and I don’t like dampness in my skin. Yoga keeps my muscles from aching too much and my bones from screaming, so, like a solid sweat in the temple when my feet pound the dirt and the spirits howl in the heads of their mounts, I sweat in a room full of strangers and twist my body to fit the instructions issued forth from a more knowledgeable head.

In this crowded room with darkened lights and the hiss of a radiator over soft, meaningless music, we all lie in savasana; corpse pose.

I think about all the dying I have done in the last year.

The instructor speaks quietly in metaphors, and instructs us to observe the movements of the jellyfish that lives in our bellies. It’s supposed to be quaint and relaxing and non-intrusive, but my eyes snap open and I stare at the industrial ceiling and the condensation sliding down the window at my feet.

I don’t have a jellyfish, I have a snake.

It’s a big snake and it lays coiled under my diaphragm, wound around and through my spine. Big loops of it’s body stack over where I imagine the talking yoga head and her jellyfish would tell me my root chakra is. My snake renders me sexless and comfortable. It’s safe there, and I am safe with it there. When I tighten, it shifts reflexively. Sometimes it whispers for me to breathe deep, other times it lays still and lets me find my own breath.

For someone who is utterly terrified of snakes, I deal with a lot of them. My spirits show themselves as snakes. I learn who is trustworthy and who is not by what sort of snakes accompany them in dreams. I have watched snakes as thick as tree trunks swim in impossibly large dream-basins surrounded by low-hanging trees, and screamed like a frightened child when I found a tiny viper in my dream-bed.

It was the great white snake who looked at me in a dream and said, in his disembodied voice, that we had to get married right away that very moment. Even in the dream, I knew what that meant and I protested because I couldn’t yet. I could barely pay my rent. How could I afford a wedding?

Now, he said, and so we got married in that dream. I stood next to an impossibly huge white serpent while a priest intoned a blessing, and we were dream-married.

He insists I for-real marry him all the way up to kanzo. He stalks me with snakes and snake wedding rings and desires communicated in dreams until I am almost screaming. I cannot do two ceremonies a once, I tell him, and I have to get in the djevo NOW. I light lamp after lamp and tell him that it can’t be now, no matter how much he loves me. I repeat the words of another to-be husband over and over: I need kanzo because I need bigger work than a marriage can guarantee, and I am going to die if it doesn’t happen soon.

He acquiesces while I inch closer to death. I know that I won’t be able to wait long for the marriage. He will be patient, but only so patient. Does he know I’ll survive long enough to get in the djevo and live? If he does, he’s not saying. In all my prayers and lamps and pleadings, I am not so sure.

He was an integral part of my kanzo.

On his most recent feast day, only a few weeks back, I sat at my table and prayed in gratitude for all that he did and has done for me; all the foundational work in the background and the strength that leeches upwards from him. I stare at the flickering flame of his candle, and wonder if I will be consumed as he consumes his offerings in possession; whole and unseen, with only a slight intake of breath and maybe a hiss.

Probably.

In return for my prayers and time spent, he grants me a vision that I see with my eyes open. For a moment, I am walking on a rough, pale road through a forest, through a war zone, through the Haitian countryside. Then, like the money shot of a big screen blockbuster, the vision pulls back and I am above myself. It pulls back until I am tiny in scale, and the road is not a road.

I unknowingly walk on the back of an enormous white serpent, too big to be fully conceived of by my tiny head. He was the road I walked all the way to Haiti and into the djevo, without ever really knowing that he was there. He is so big that my footsteps don’t disturb him at all, and I am so small that I cannot recognize the ripple of muscles and scales under my feet.

I think about all of this on my sweaty yoga mat, with the painted pipes of the lofted ceiling above me and the condensation obscuring the view of a busy Boston street at my feet and a tiny impossibly flexible woman beside me. I am the corpse on the ground, breathing only quiet breaths with a snake on my mind and in my belly.

If I had a jellyfish, he would eat it.

Flipping the pages.

•April 3, 2017 • 1 Comment

You can also follow me over on Tumblr, where I write a lot and reblog lots of art. 

Dreams and dreaming are super important parts of vodou. Dreams and how/what we dream is a big way that the spirits teach us and communicate with us. It’s not the only way, and dreaming is a spectrum–some people dream a lot, some people don’t dream at all. Neither end is more desirable or right/wrong than others, and not dreaming or dreaming a lot is not an indication of issues or problems, necessarily.

I fall into the dreaming a lot category. I have always dreamed vividly, and since getting involved in vodou, that has gone through the roof. It came up int he very first leson/reading I had–my manmi looked at the cards and said that she didn’t need to teach me how to dream, since I already knew, but that I needed to listen to my dreams. And so I do.

I dream in ways that feel excessive. I have a lot of ‘small’ dreams–snippets of encounters or narratives with spirits probably five nights a week, and, at minimum, every other week is a longer, way more involved narrative that stretches out over something bigger. Sometimes I have dreams that are clearly for me, sometimes I have dreams for people I know or for clients, and sometimes I have dreams that are really me just ‘overhearing’ things that are really not for me or are not my business. I often dream in cycles where I’ll have a week of continuous dreaming, and then I get a break for maybe a week since dreaming is not super restful for me–I wake up tired, because my spirit is off doing all the things and learning all the things. Sometimes I dream in half-sleep, sometimes it’s deep dreams that seem to last all night. Before ceremonies, I often dream big, and I usually have a night of big dreams directly after. Sometimes I ask my spirits for dreams to explain something that is going on or to clarify information or other dreams that I have had.

I spend a lot of time talking about my dreams with my mother. Almost every time I see her, there is some rundown of what my dreaming has been like, and I always walk away with new insight. She teaches me through stories and relating her own experiences, and I go home and chew on them and pull out the threads of knowledge weaved into them.

Unsurprisingly, a non-secret part of kanzo that can be really important is dreaming. It’s one of the ways you meet the spirits who are close to you and learn more about what your purpose and work will be. The same sort of ‘rules’ apply–if you don’t dream, it’s not a bad thing and if you dream a lot, it is not indicative of issues. I was told by my mother before kanzo that I should write down my dreams while I was inside and so I armed myself with pen and paper. Since I am prone to dreaming, I knew that it would likely be busy for me, and I was not wrong–I had powerful, evocative, and at times scary dreams. Every time I closed my eyes, something would pop up and, upon waking, I would scribble it down. My manmi would come by and see us all every day to hear our dreams and read our notebooks.

I pulled out all of my old journals today in preparation for a piece of art I want to create, and I pulled out my dream journal from Haiti. I haven’t opened it since I left Haiti, and I am surprisingly having a lot of feelings about it. I am sure there are dreams that I wrote down and don’t remember the details of, just as there are dreams I had that stick in my mind and that I think about almost daily.

In a lot of ways, this journal is like a guidebook to me–it contains dreams that speak to the very root of my spirits, and so speak to the very root of me. It is one of very few things that went into the djevo with me and then was also carried out–a rosary is the only other non-medication tangible that I brought in. It contains big blessings and big tears, as kanzo was very, very hard for me. It is something I held onto as MINE and as a life raft of sorts when the oceans of Ginen seemed like they were going to drown me and I wasn’t sure if I would exit the djevo in one relative piece. It is a record of how much my spirits love me–all of my spirits, even the ones outside vodou–and how I can find the language to love them back.

And that shit TERRIFIES me. It’s been about nine months since I came out of the djevo and life has not been the same since. I have gestated this experience and, while I still haven’t fully processed it, the information therein is important to me as I sort things out now. It is sitting next to me on my desk, waiting for the inevitable cracking of the pages, and is alive in it’s own right. It’s definitely a sacred object, but I don’t know what lives there right now, and it’s a daunting task to dive in and find out.

Transgender Day of Visibility

•March 31, 2017 • Leave a Comment

(This blog has been quiet because I have been posting a lot over on my Tumblr. I will be rectifying this going forward.)

Today is the Transgender Day of Visibility, so here I am continuing to be trans. I have mixed feelings about days like this, but I also feel it’s important as a transgender priest in a minority religion to be open and upfront. As far as anyone can tell or knows, I am one of two transgender priests in Haitian vodou, period, and, again as far as anyone can tell or knows, the only trans man. There are some classifications in Haiti that denote gender expression as it is tied to sexuality, but as for transgender people…it seems like, right now, me and this other person are it.

There is a lot of talk about LGBTQ+ and, as of late, trans people specifically being involved in Diasporic or African continental religions. The hard fact is that temples and gathering places in these religions have always been a home for the folks who the majority society rejects. Peristyles in Haiti are full of folks who would be considered part of the LGBTQ+ community in other places (sexuality is different and complex in Haiti, and people consider things in ways that we often do not in the US and other US-like countries). Largely, sexuality and gender are non-issues in vodou–there are almost zero proscriptions around gender in vodou, and what are often conceived of as gendered proscriptions are really practicalities, ritual and otherwise, that reflect the groups of people most often affected by them.

If specific houses or lineages impose rules regarding gender/gender expression, that is entirely an individual determination–there is no liturgical basis to support those attitudes.

Specifically, there is no difference between houngans and manbos beyond the title. We all kanzo the same way, we all have the same ritual licenses, and we all do the same work. My bodily configuration and my gender has no bearing on what I am able to do as a priest. Further, despite unpleasant rumblings in some pockets of the larger community in Diaspora, I do not need to be re-baptized or re-made when I complete what my medical transition will be. A competent and knowledgeable priest knows this, and anyone who has been in the djevo of a competent and knowledgeable priest knows why.

Even bigger than all of that is the fact that the spirits don’t care about your gender and/or bodily configuration. They are spirits. They don’t have bodies. They are concerned with who we are, which can concern our bodies but does not rely solely on them. They care that our bodies work the best that they are able to, and that, if we are used as a chwal/horse for them to mount in possession, that we can physically do what they need. Spirits of whatever gender use whatever chwal makes sense to them, regardless of that chwal’s gender–I have seen feminine spirits mount men (of all sorts) and gender-nonconforming people, I have seen masculine spirits mount women (of all sorts) and gender non-conforming people, and I have watched spirits grab the head of whomever will be the best fit for them (really, the secret to possession in vodou right there..) and get to work.

It’s true that the concept of transgender and transsexual is very new for Haiti–it doesn’t really exist there, even though people keep confusing sexuality terms for terms denoting gender difference, and there is not (yet) a social ‘bucket’ for it. There is also no medical treatment available. As when anyone learns something that is literally completely foreign to them, there are growing pains but, at the end of the day, folks shrug it off and get to work. I had zero problems in Haiti with being trans–I expected to be read as female, which happened and I was fine with that since it was not meant as an insult (see above about people learning new things), folks had to get used to someone with what they saw as a female body wearing pants during ceremony, and there was a brief collective pause when I was baptized as a houngan, but the end result overall was a shrug and moving on. My mother had zero issues with my gender and how I was to be made, so no one else had any issues with my gender and how I was to be made.

So, if you are a trans person or a person who is gender non-conforming or otherwise does not fit in a neat gender box and you are interested in vodou, the religion welcomes you as you are. Vodou embraces us as whole people and gives us space to exist without insistence we be one thing or another at any given time. There is a beacon up here in Boston (where our US temple is) and it shines bright.

Come out, come out wherever you are…