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…

Novena for the All Soul’s Day octave

•November 2, 2016 • Leave a Comment

All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day are important days in Haitian vodou–in Haiti, this is the beginning of fet Gede, the series of ceremonies for the Gede family of spirits. In our temple in Haiti, it is a two-day celebration. In the surrounding town and in much of Haiti, it is several weeks of processions and parades.

A novena is a 9 day prayer cycle utilized in Catholicism as devotion to particular saints or causes. Novenas are very important in vodou to gain attention and favor from a spirits, and I decided I wanted do a novena for the dead because of how much Gede has done for me–Gede loves me A LOT and is very responsible for me getting to Haiti and getting into the djevo. There are pre-written novenas for the octave/All Soul’s Day plus eight days, but I didn’t like any of them, so I wrote my own. The prayers used are prayers commonly used in vodou, and there are pieces I wrote specifically (so please don’t strip my attribution). I tweak a few traditional things for my own preferences.

Our Father

Hail Mary x3

Glory Be

Oh My Jesus

Zo li mache (specific song/prayer that talks about the bones walking)

Wisdom of Solomon 3: 1-9

Recitation:

We all die. Our deaths begin as the first gasp of breath in our newly born lungs.

We all die. When our feet first touch the ground in uncertain steps, the earth calls to our bones; foretelling the day we return to dust.

We all die. The shroud is tied tightly, our bones are dry and thirsty, but we still live yet.

We all die.

Day 1: Prayers for the newly dead*

Day 2: Prayers for the unnamed dead

Day 3: Prayers for the forgotten dead

Day 4: Prayers for the martyred dead–victims of colonialism (Native and Indigenous groups who lost life and land at the hands of colonialists)

Day 5: Prayers for the martyred dead–victims of police and state-sanctioned violence–people of color murdered by police and militarized law enforcement

Day 6: Prayers for the martyred dead–victims of hate crimes associated with gender or sexuality (LGBTQ+ victims of violent crime)

Day 7: Prayers for ancestral dead

Day 8: Prayers for lineage dead

Day 9: Prayers to the Bawons and Gede for care of the dead anba dlo and for personal concerns and gratitude (I suggest praying to the divinities who govern the dead in your own tradition–don’t open a can of worms for yourself without longer term planning and thinking.

Eternal rest grant unto them, oh lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of the divine rise in power.

Amen

*Pray as you feel led, and speak specific names if you have them or so desire.

Kanzo 2016: To Beat War, Part Two

•October 1, 2016 • 1 Comment

Read part one here.

Kanzo is kind of like being boiled alive. Bat Gé is where you get thrown in the pot and, over three nights, the temperature of the water begins to heat up to a full rolling boil. By the time you get thrown into the djevo, the ‘pot’ is boiling so hard that it is shaking and bouncing and spitting water all over.

On the second night of Bat Gé, bubbles have formed in the pot and steam is coming off the water. It’s getting hot, and the ceremony reflects that. The air is heavy, hot, and wet with kiman and perfumes, there is not one second of silence or stillness, and the lwa come in the heads of their children with an almost unstoppable frenzy.

I am pretty hard to shake or impress these days–I have Seen Some Shit™ and am sort of used to the spiritual rollercoaster of divinities showing up, grabbing me by the proverbial ankles, and shaking me upside down. I, however, have never seen stuff like I saw in Haiti starting that night. It’s hard to explain, really, but vodou is different in Haiti. There is something about having your feet in the dirt–literally, temples do not have finished floors–that changes things. It’s not that vodou is somehow less real or authentic in a Haitian house in the US–it shouldn’t be–but the immense weight of being on the ground that was bloodsoaked and left smoking in the wake of the Haitian revolution and where ancestral spirits live in EVERYTHING makes things blow open in a whole other way.

The first lwa that came on the second night of Bat Gé was a lwa I had never heard of or seen in the US–a theme for much of my kanzo and practice going forward–and he came hard in a petite Haitian man. A priest told me, in our charades-like communication, that he was a very strong lwa. I watched him dance and noted how happy he was–big smiles for everyone, and it was clear that there was some sort of relief and release of tension in being able to be embodied. Eventually he asked for some cologne and the next thing I knew, he had dumped about half a bottle of Florida Water on his chwal’s/horse’s head…and lit the chwal’s head on fire. He danced for a minute with his head on fire and then he was gone, the fire extinguished, and the chwal perfectly fine beyond a slight smell of singed hair.

After he left, another lwa came who I had never heard of before and took the head of a tall, lanky Haitian man who danced like nothing I had ever seen before and then left. After he was there, they started coming faster and faster and people were falling out all over the place. It was surreal to watch–I was constantly jumping out of the way of a flailing lwa or a chwal who had been thrown to the ground and was rolling out of control until they could be corralled by a priest. Being on the ground in Haiti takes away any extra spiritual red tape the lwa have to contend with to be present, and especially for ceremonies with Bat Gé.

At some point, we sang for another lwa I didn’t recognize and he was almost immediately there, in the principal drummer. I found out later that he always possesses a drummer as a precursor to another lwa arriving, and a possessed drummer is something else. I watched Towo drum so hard that, if it had been his chwal drumming instead, he would have had broken hands–he beat the drum so hard that I thought his hands were going to be ripped off. He went faster and faster with only the whites of his chwal’s eyes showing and eventually asked for cigarettes–some lwa like to smoke. Someone put two cigarettes between his lips and he puffed on those for a moment while drumming like a madman. Then, as me and my sister watched over the absolute crowd of folks in front of the drum platform, he opened his mouth, rolled those lit cigarettes back onto his tongue, chewed them up, and swallowed them. I have seen lwa smoke cigarettes and cigars backward with the lit in end in their mouth, but I’ve never seen one eat them lit before. Another ‘only in Haiti’ moment. The chwal, of course, was fine.

Continue reading ‘Kanzo 2016: To Beat War, Part Two’

Kanzo 2016: To Beat War, Part One

•September 25, 2016 • 1 Comment

I landed in Haiti in the middle of a giant what-fuck-whirlwind. I got on the plane–when I got on the plane, after spending 24 hours in an airport–knowing that I would be returning homeless and jobless, and my only possessions being a few boxes in storage and whatever made it into my suitcases. And my spirits; I landed in Haiti with my only assets being my spirits, both in vodou and out.

While in the middle of my airport adventure, I chatted with my almost-official brothers and sisters. Mostly, I was completely losing my shit over everything, and rightfully so. Ogou lit the match, and I lit the fire to burn my life down so that I could follow him all the way into the djevo. One of my sisters said the most insightful thing–that my kanzo had already begun, and she was right. It had started months earlier, actually, when the lwa made it clear that I had to dismantle my life if I wanted to get to Haiti. Kanzo, in many ways, is a trial by fire and my feet were already getting hot months earlier.

The preparations for kanzo begin months ahead of time, too. I remember sitting with my Manmi is mid-April and having her explain part of how kanzo proceeds. Preparations in Haiti had already begun, with materials being collected, prayed over and worked, and carefully guarded. In fact, preparations has begun late since it had been raining so much–leaves and plants can’t be put up wet. The temple was being staffed 24/7 with children of my Manmi and trusted friends of the house to make sure everything stayed safe and ritually clean.

Kanzo is a dangerous time for those who are going into the djevo. There are many things that can harm the process, the materials, and those initiates. It’s a huge vulnerability, and extreme measures are taken to protect those about to go in. Before I went in, I was locked into the house at night, my food was carefully monitored, and people had eyes on me basically at all times. I found out later that priests had basically volunteered to keep me safe, since I was an outsider and didn’t know how to see all the things that could happen.

Part of keeping the initiates safe and making sure kanzo goes as smoothly as possible is literally going to war to protect the house and the to-be priests and hounsi.

To do that, the kanzo cycle proper begins with Bat Gé. Bat Gé literally translates to ‘beat war’ and it’s a three night ceremony of progressive spiritual heat, which leads to actual heat. As the ceremony progresses, it heats the temple (literal heat) and the coming process (spiritual heat). It’s a very Petwo ceremony, calling down the lwa that range from intense spirits who speak with their hands and leave you wondering if they’re angry to lwa that come down screaming, howling, charging, and putting the bodies of their horses into situations that would harm any regular person.

(Picture heavy after the jump)

Continue reading ‘Kanzo 2016: To Beat War, Part One’