And then..

•August 2, 2017 • 1 Comment

I returned from Haiti a few days ago, with my maryaj (and other things) completed.

I married the sea and the sky, the spine that holds up the space between our world and Ginen, the hurricane and the stillness of the deep sea, raving madness and utter calm, work and rest, fire and water, the scream of revolution and the very ground blood is spilled forth on, the resolution to do what is necesary no matter the cost and the reserved calculation that issues directives, and death, while not my husband, stands much-loved at my side.

I have a lot to write about, and a lot to process. The experience was incredibly meaningful and significant in ways that I can’t even begin to understand yet. I am blessed in so many ways.

Now, I sort out everything that went slightly haywire before I left (seems to be a common precursor to a big trip) and catch up on my naps.

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•June 2, 2017 • 1 Comment

I’ve been spending a lot of time close to myself and purposefully quiet. Big things are coming, and it feels like I need to be still to soak it all in. Life in general has sort of followed suit as well–the active bit of my dayjob is over, and so I am spending the upcoming month just closing out the site, which necessitates a lot of solitude at the site, and then working a bunch of shifts at my side gig, which is solitude in it’s own as it is largely 3rd shifts.

I have been feeding my fascination with nuns, and have been particularly fascinated with a particular order based in Kentucky. My fascination is largely surface level (I have no desire to be a nun..)–they wear all black, are strictly cloistered, and one of the nuns pictured on their site looks very much like a dear friend of mine (it is not her). I’ve been reading their blog, and they detailed a particular nun’s preparation for her solemn vows, which are basically her permanent vows to be a spouse of Christ in her order. They specifically mentioned that ahead of what amounts to a big wedding, nuns make a 30 day retreat in preparation–a time of quiet and final discernment on what they are about to do.

…oh.

I don’t have the privilege of 30 days of retreat from the world prior to my maryaj lwa–I have SO MUCH shit to do–but it makes sense that this is how my world is orienting itself. I am more than than 30 days out from the ceremony, but that sort of mindset is already in place. I want to do nothing but be still, and I’ll get that in short periods prior to the ceremony, where I’ll spend a few days in extended prayer to essentially make agreements with my to-be husbands about my future.

In the devouring of nun information, I have been watching vocation videos from nuns, monks, and priests on Youtube–they basically detail how a particular person developed in their faith and how they decided to enter their position. One in particular–a man who had been a farmer in the midwest with a large crop yield and associated business–detailed how he asked his god why he had been given all these things (farm, successful business, etc) if he was supposed to give it all up to enter the priesthood. He relays that the answer he received was that he had been in that particular situation because it was the right environment for him to finally be able to say yes to the call to priesthood.

I relate so much to that, in SO MANY ways. All my spirits basically did the same thing–they waited until my life had reached the tipping point where I was able to see that nothing would change unless I did what was presented to me. Had everything been good, I probably would have turned them all down. They really waited until I could say yes because they know how stubborn I am and, frankly, how much I did not want to be involved in any organized religion or have permanent ties to other people. The vision of spirits never fails to amaze me.

Today, I pick up the last two rings for the maryaj. I’ve already seen the bodies of them without the stones, but I will see them complete today and bring them home to my spirits, where they will sit on my table for the lwa until both the table and the rings get packed up.

I am so excited.

Going to the peristyle…

•May 26, 2017 • Leave a Comment

…and we’re going to maaaaaaaarried.

Things have gotten super interesting ahead of my maryaj, and it’s sort of turning my interior world upside down. The overriding message largely seems to be ‘you’re gonna learn how much we love you, one way or another’, and it is super awkward for me because I default to ‘they are humoring their slightly brain-damaged perpetually yapping shelter dog along because he does stuff now and then’. What they are saying in reality is ‘you are important to us and we love all of you, just as you are’.

Fet Kouzen was sort of an evolution in my experience with Kouzen Zaka, the lwa of agriculture and work. I don’t hear from him that often, since he is always working, and I don’t ask him for much, because I can always work harder and do more before asking him to take on my burdens. He was the one who drew the short straw among my spirits and had to tell me that I needed kanzo or I was going to die, but he was also the first one to be joyful with me when I finally said yes–he came to me in a dream crying happy tears and welcoming me home. I worked him heavily before kanzo to help bring in opportunities to make money, and he came through..and then he probably needed a vacation from my screeching, so he has been off to Ginen doing his thing.

He came down BIG at the fete–at one point, we had four Kouzen in the room, ranging from a Kouzen who loves to dance (and mowed down on some watermelon) to a more Petwo Kouzen who comes and manifests symptoms of a type of skin syphilis, which has him scratching and burning himself to relieve the pain. He wanted to make sure he had *HIS* party, and so he came and stayed for hours and hours.

The job of a priest in the house hosting a party is to really make sure the party goes off–we facilitate the experience for the community and make sure the spirits have what we need, so, unless I have pressing business with the spirits, I keep to the side and make sure it all goes well.

Kouzen was having none of my shadow-dwelling. He came up to me with a big grin and blessed me a few times over, telling me he would take care of me. He basically elected me his pipe-keeper, so every time his pipe was empty of tobacco or went out, I got summoned to re-pack it and re-light it, which was super amusing to me on so many levels.

There was a moment where he swaggered up to me, grinned and then summoned me closer, only to lean in and whisper something I couldn’t actually hear into my ear. I leaned in a little closer and he said, in heavily accented I-am-talking-so-you-will-listen English, ‘you look good’. I laughed and said thank you, and then had a moment of ‘is my future spirit husband really flirting with me in a temple full of people? Yes, yes he is!’

I did look cute, though, if I do say so, and it’s nice to be appreciated for my fine self. All this testosterone is doing it’s thing!

He did the same thing again later, and whispered that he loved me like we were exchanging secrets in the middle of a crowd of people. He fed me several times to the point where it got a little embarrassing–I at tchaka off his fingers and then he selected choices bits of his legume for me to eat when he wasn’t letting other people touch it. As I grow older, I grow more conservative about the affection I am willing to have in front of people, and so it was super weird for me. Like, I adore my Kouzen and I am so glad he is happy and content and I value my interactions with him, but in front of all these people? STAGE FRIGHT.

Even my mother’s Kouzen got in on the ‘holy shit, we’re getting married’ thing and, while he was in the middle of negotiating some serious business, turned and flashed me a big grin before getting back to the task at hand.

Compared to where I was at this time last year (i.e.: purposefully burning down my life), things are much calmer and much happier and enjoyable overall. I am grateful that they basically granted my request to have this be a happy experience, rather than a stressful plane crash of a preparation period. There’s still lots to do (move my life into storage pre-Haiti) but it will all come together. They shower blessings at my feet, and I couldn’t be more grateful.

What I do on my weekends:

•May 25, 2017 • 2 Comments
Salye Ezili Freda avek Houngan Tim, Fet Kouzen, Kay Manbo Maude/Sosyete Nago nan Boston.

Salye Ezili Freda avek Houngan Tim, Fet Kouzen, Kay Manbo Maude/Sosyete Nago nan Boston/ Saluting Ezili Freda with Houngan Tim at my spiritual mother’s house in Boston for Fet Kouzen.

 

Interlude II

•May 15, 2017 • Leave a Comment

I am on the floor, and I stare at the ceiling.

It is day #unknown of my post-kanzo period of seclusion, of quarantine, of rest. I don’t count because I don’t want any more pressure. I am supposed to be still and as calm as is possible, after all. The days are long enough as it is, and they don’t need to be any longer. If I was working, they would go faster, but, as both a blessing and a burden, I am not working. My days are filled with resumes, cover letters, cooking so that I may safely eat, and resting, and all of those things are exhausting enough on their own.

I am on a borrowed floor, and I stare at a borrowed ceiling.

I have traded the cool linoleum of my mother’s house in Jacmel for the slightly sticky-with-humidity hardwood floor of a generous friend back in Boston. I lay on my sheet in an attempt to rest after an exhausting afternoon of taking the T to go grocery shopping. I feel like an old man who needs his naps, but also an old man who is constantly on fire and who cannot lay still.

On my last night in Haiti, my mother and I sat in the peristyle near the poto mitan and talked, just the two of us. In the background, my mama hounyo,a  tiny dynamo of a Haitian woman who took care of me while I was in the djevo, fusses and takes care of things that need taking care of while the generator buzzes outside the walls. All of my ritual items are carefully packed in my suitcases, wrapped in clothes and layers of duct tape and prayers that none of them will break or be seized by customs before I get back to my borrowed, temporary home.

My mother and I sit, and this is a rare privilege. In Haiti, she is constantly busy. There are children to see and speak with, much-loved friends and family to welcome, and, above all, so much work to be done. She readily admits that she doesn’t sleep much, if at all,. for the few months she is down there full time because there is so much to do.

The ceremonies are over and the work is mostly completed, so there is a little time. We sit close together, with our knees almost touching, and I receive the information I need to know and instructions that I must follow once I am back in the US. As much as the next 41 days will be rest for me, it will be rest for her, too.

She opens her notebook and hands me a slip of paper with my baptem name on it, as well as the name Papa Loko has given me and the identity of my head. I look at it for a moment, and ask her questions about the names and my met tet. Then, I listen. She goes over the list of things I must avoid and has me recite it back to her. I have been well-prepared for this, and I remember everything. She reminds me over and over to guard my head and tells me how she will be able to tell if I don’t follow the guidelines laid out by her and the spirits. We talk about how to care for some of my ritual items, and she agrees that we will go over this another time, as I know I won’t remember everything now.

After a short moment of silence, she asks me how I am feeling. I feel like I am still inside, I tell her, and nod towards the room that was consecrated as the djevo, and it feels like everything is burning from the inside out. She smiles and tells me that is normal.

I go to bed soon after, just past midnight, and she goes out to the peristyle of a priest who worked my kanzo next to her, for her. When I wake up  at close to 5AM to get ready to leave, she is already awake and ready to bid us farewell.

Inside my 41 days, that burning has not subsided. In the afternoons when I am exhausted from the work of the day (no matter how small–everything is a precious expenditure of energy) and I try to rest, I end up practically writhing on the floor for lack of ability to still the furnace in my belly. I throw myself in front of my makeshift altar and beg my spirits for a little peace and a little sleep, because I am so very exhausted.

They relent, but when I do sleep I dream of fire and explosions and the spirits that come with those things. One morning, I wake up nauseous and tearful, having watched a spirit wearing the face of a beloved family member sacrifice themselves for the good of the family. In the dream, I have refused to watch the ceremony that would contain such a sacrifice, but afterward my mother comes to me dressed in splendid whites to detail what has happened so that I may know. When she tells me how this family member/spirit threw themselves into a bonfire to assure our collective survival, I scream and sob in grief. When I wake, my head is still filled with the smell of burning flesh.

As my 41 days comes to a close, I have slowly learned how to contain the fire inside me. The dreams with fire and explosion still come, but I know what they mean and who stands in the middle of them. The notebook that contains the narratives that unfold behind my eyes nan domi grows full, and I am grateful for their careful instruction.

When I see my mother for the small piece of ritual that closes out my 41 days, I am starting to feel human again and I tell her so. She laughs in a way that tells me all I need to know, and we finish this small piece of work together that is really just another beginning.

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.