‘I chose you to marry.’

•August 5, 2017 • Leave a Comment

How do you quantify the most touching spiritual experience of your life and communicate exactly what it meant across a screen?

I’ve been chewing on this for a few days, and I don’t know that I have a simple answer…or any answer at all. Description in words is a cheap substitute for actual meaning in the ways that off-brand soda is a cheap substitute for champagne. It would be easier to shake my brain into yours and give you the picture of what was, in emotional technicolor and spiritual splendor. Memories are not like cornflakes, though, and no hinges exist on my skull. So, I write.

Kanzo gave me big things. Through the grace of my spirits, the work of my mother’s hands, and the support of the community, my life was saved. I gained a mother. I found a family. I solidified some spirit relationships as they relate to being a houngan. I have value and a purpose in a way that my brain can conceive of. None of these things are small or are to be overlooked.

However, these things pale in comparison to my maryaj lwa. Marrying my husbands was probably one of the most profound and spiritually significant experiences in my life. Kanzo is a community endeavor, maryaj is personal and solely for the individual. No one but my husbands can hold me accountable for my part in our maryaj, while the community and my mother and my godparents and my siblings can come down on my head if I am not living up to what they placed upon me and what I promised in exchange. It is strictly between them and me.

I really wasn’t the nervous ahead of the maryaj. My husbands made the lead-up rather easy for me, at least compared to everything that happened ahead of kanzo. Truth be told, I sat down in front of my table in early 2017 and told them that I needed this to be non-stressful and that I wanted to arrive in Haiti happy and excited to be getting married. They largely delivered on that and paved the way to the peristyle door as best they could.

The night my maryaj happened was heavy in all possible ways–the air was thick and chewy with unspent rain, the temple was full and sort of pregnant with anticipation (an admittedly odd-looking blan–one who looks kinda like a woman, maybe, but doesn’t wear a dress or cover their head–had returned and was now marrying an array of lwa in the first ceremony of the summer), and I could feel my husbands all around me before we even started. As the presiding priest prayed and blessed me with incense prior to the beginning of the service, I got goosebumps. They were there already, and they were there for me.

A maryaj proceeds like an elaborate fete. The regleman is adhered to, and the spirits are called. When the spirits who are to marry their spouse are called, they typically come down in possession and a pretty standard marriage ceremony takes place, complete with vows and rings and cake and champagne. I had been prepared for this, but was not ready for how intense a spiritual experience it would be.

It’s hard to really communicate the feeling of your heart being ripped open and love being placed deep inside. It’s hard to really find the words to describe the joy you feel when your spirits whom you have spent years developing relationships with arrive ecstatic to see you and proclaim their love for you loudly and without reservation. It is hard to describe the moment when reality tips and you suddenly see the mystery for all that is really is, in all it’s enormity, and it all clicks into place. It is hard to really describe what it is to know, without a doubt, how deeply you are loved, in public and in front of others.

The husbands came in force, and they came SERIOUS. Maryaj is big, serious business and they treat it accordingly. There is essentially no free spiritual lunch, and so they lay big conditions on the blessings they will give. Litearally: if you betray me/our oaths, I will kill you. If you do not respect my days (the days set aside for only them–no sexual activity otherwise), I will kill you. If you betray your mother, I will kill you. Ogou Feray–the screaming, howling mercenary soldier–took it one step further and placed the edge of his machete on my tongue–if I betray with words, he will cut my tongue out. They mean it, too–it is not hyperbole. It took me a minute and a discussion with my mother later to realize that this is standard maryaj talk and that I had not somehow committed a huge act of betrayal already.

And yet, in balance with such intense messages, they came full of passion. In some ways, the crowd was not even there and it was it’s own intimate encounter left between myself and them. Feray passed rum from his mouth to mine through a kiss. Ogou basically fellated my finger to put the ring on me–stuck it in his mouth and then slid it down my finger. Agwe all but climbed in my lap, and then made the bottle of champagne opened for him ejaculate all over me (really–the cork hit the roof and I wore about half the bottle, much to the delight of Agwe and amusement of the crowd), and then poured the rest over me himself. They all kissed me over and over (no tongue..get your mind out of the gutter) and I even kissed one of my best friends, who held one of my husbands in her head. And of course Gede showed up and graphically detailed what my duties as essentially his boyfriend (we don’t marry the dead) are, and then proceeded to refuse to place the rings on me until we danced the banda together. Several of them bathed me (over my clothes/on appropriately exposed body parts) and it was incredibly tender.

There was even a surprise in store for me–my Ezili Freda came down with blessings for me. She is a spirit who shows up big for me, but whom I struggle a lot with. I don’t do well with femininity or really understand it (go figure), and so I end up sort of at a loss with her. She has, however, made clear over and over that she is quite close to me and loves me a lot. She was saluted as part of the regleman, and no one was more surprised that me when she arrived with a big hug for me before she joined me at the niche. She fed me and I fed her, and she added material to the bath that my spirits collectively made for me as part of the wedding. We have Things To Do together.

One husband was unable to come to the wedding for a variety of reasons, but there was a beautiful moment with him later in my trip…and that is a tale for another blog post.

I had no idea how happy this would make me or how it would change my world. Joy is a choice, but also an experience.

Advertisements

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.

•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.