Tuesday, December 1, 2015

December is Makandal

Last January, Legba pulled twelve cards. This is the final one, a revolutionary start for the new year.  Makandal is seen as a natural man, standing out in the woods. With Danbala curling above his head, Makandal stands in a stream of moving water.  The water signifies the emotional burden that he carried.  Desire, loneliness, anger.  The emotional energies that helped him do the work of igniting the passions of his fellow Africans also left him very alone.  His spiritual companion is Danbala, the energy of creation.  All revolutions are about birthing a new creation.  And it is under Danbala’s steady gaze that the work of the revolution begins as an idea, a thought, and a desire to be free.

Makandal’s activities had a profound impact on the start of the revolution.  He influenced the next generation of revolutionaries to make the changes that would bring forth the nation of Haiti.  Let me share a little about Makandal:

There is very little in the historic record, and what we do know is speculative at best.  Some accounts say he was a Muslim, enslaved in Africa and brought over to the island of Saint- Domingue either from Senegal, Mali or Guinea.  Haitian historian Thomas Madiou states that “Makandal had instruction and possessed the Arabic language very well.” (1) Other accounts name him as a houngan who had knowledge of the leaves and plants of the island. (2)

From there, the stories interweave but details are cloudy.  He had only one hand – or maybe one arm.  The arm or hand was lost in Africa – or in a sugar mill incident.  Whichever is the truth, the loss kept him out of the fields, allowing him to travel as a sort of delivery man between plantations.  In his travels, he became familiar with the island and its floral, eventually gaining intimate knowledge of its many plants and their purposes for both healing and harming.  He also made a connection with the maroon Africans, eventually joining them.  Speculation says he either developed a large network of groups – or created the network allowing him to gain access to all the plantations. His fellow maroons distributed his work with equanimity, killing white masters, African slaves and livestock with impunity.  Makandal was deadly serious about wanting to escape the rigors of bondage, and he took no prisoners in the doing. Freedom or death was the same thing to him.

His reign of warfare ended when an ally was captured and tortured into revealing Makandal’s whereabouts. The historic record is clear on this one point.  He was captured in the north and publicly burned to death in Cap Hatien’s square.  However, either due to the heat of the fire or supernatural cause, no body was discovered in the smoking pyre the next day.  Makandal’s legend would only grow from there.  And (again possibly speculation or truth, who knows…) a young slave named Boukman was present at the burning.  The flames of Makandal’s pyre would ignite this man’s passion for freedom, and Boukamn would go on to become an important leader in Haiti’s revolution to free all the enslaved people on the island.  

For the month of December, Makandal’s energy and passion will encompass everyone in the sosyete.  We will all become revolutionaries in our own lives and in the life of the society as well.  Makandal’s power was not just his abilities to create poison, but to affect transformation of his life, the island and its people.  Makandal had the talent to detect changes that were happening across the island and in the plantation culture.  He was charismatic enough to lead large, diverse groups of people in coordinated efforts toward a common goal. And he was intimately familiar with the land he lived on. Through his experimentation and practice, Makandal came to understand how the plants supported his efforts and kept his compatriots alive during the worst of times.  His plant knowledge was not just about poison but about life as well.  He was as much a healer as he was a revolutionary.

With Makandal as the energy of this month, he will lend his revolutionary thinking, energy and purpose to the sosyete, giving us the energy to birth a new vision of where we are heading in 2016.  Gather up healing herbs (mint, basil, thyme, rosemary) and tie up a tiny paket of them. Place the paket behind your front door for blessings and protections.

Equally, lay a small bundle of baneful herbs (agrimony, thistle, rue, horehound) under your front mat for protection and to deflect away anything with ill intent.

As you tie your pakets, light a red or blue candle (the colors of Haiti) and invoke Makandal’s energy for protection, for healing and for change.  Now is the time to consider what you want to bring to you in the new year.  Do you want freedom from a job, a relationship, a position?  Are you looking to connect with others of a like mind?  Then kill off that old pattern of living and invoke a new one for yourself!

December’s Shadow is Papa Loko: with such a strong card ruling this month, it makes sense that the shadow would exalt the energies of Makandal.  Papa Loko will sit as judge on this new activity, ensuring we do it right from the start.  His unerring judgment will guide Makandal’s ashé as we go forward.  A volatile spirit such as Makandal needs a strong hand to guide those energies in a positive way. Papa Loko is also a spirit of the forest and herbs. He will temper Makandal’s provocative nature, and channel it in a positive direction for the entire sosyete.
(1)   Madiou, Thomas.  Histoire d'Haïti, Impr. de J. Courtois.  1848.
(2)   Weaver, Karol K.  Medical Revolutionaries: The Enslaved Healers of Eighteenth-Century Saint-Domingue, Urbana, IL:University of Illinois Press.  2006.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

I will always have Paris

Have you ever been to Paris? It's everything they write, sing and paint about -- and more. The light really is different there. The people are wonderful, the food amazing, the coffee tastes different, the entire city smells like a perfume bottle and there are romantic bridges, and secret alley ways and art and music pouring out of every corner, window  and doorway.  Which made the news over the weekend of the Paris bombings so painful to watch.

I love Paris - I was there years ago, and it remains one of my favorite trips ever. I did the boat ride down the Seine, walked all over Notre Dame, Montmartre and did the labyrinth inside the cathedral of Sacre Coeur. I toured the Louvre, the Tomb of Napoleon, and drank coffee at a street side table on the Champs Elyse. I felt so grown up -- and I was all of 17 when I did this. A friend and I did this trip to the City of Lights at 17 years of age - and we felt safe. We never saw a bogeyman, no one bothered us and we did everything we wanted to without supervision. Paris and I had a teenage love affair that I will never forget. I will always have Paris.

(And just for the record, it is every bit of wonder, beauty and fabulousness you think it is and more...)

So Paris being the target of another bombing this weekend went straight to my heart. I hate this. I hate that I hate watching the news. I hate that my memory of Paris now includes monsters lurking in the shadows. But I will still have Paris. I will not allow these animals to ruin my favorite memory and my beloved city of lights. And when I feel threatened as I did this weekend, I get radical. I think out the box. And I make change, like drastic change. I love change, I embrace change, my middle name should be "Change." I grew up with change - that's what happens when your mom wants to move every year and your dad works for the government and you have no say in the matter. So six grammar schools and two high schools later, I got change down. I own it, I embrace it and I make The Donald crazy with it. Its just how I roll.

I had a Jean Moreau moment this weekend and I am fully embracing my archetype. After 2 years in dreadlocs, my scalp was hurting all the time. The weight of the dreads was constant - I never realized just how heavy all that hair had become! While waiting out a painful joint healing, I was stuck in front of the TV, watching the news and crying. And then, I said enough. I need change and I need it now.  I got out my metal comb, lots (and lots) of oily conditioner and began the excruciating process of combing out the locs. 18 hours later, my newly freed head feels amazing. I keep running my fingers through my (very) short hair, and the feeling of it brings back a lovely memory from my Paris trip (I had very short hair then, too.)

My friend and I had just come out of a candy shop, and were meandering down the street when a couple of handsome young French boys dashed up to us, grabbed our hands and twirled us around. Then, they snatched a piece of candy from the bag, kissed my cheek and with a "merci madamoiselles!" dashed off down the street, leaving us a bit shocked but giggling like the school girls we were. Flattered by their forward moves, we spent the rest of day elated and happy. I want that feeling again.

So I've cut off all my hair, releasing my aching neck and painful scalp. Its short and trippy and very Jean Moreau. Or Jean Seberg, I can't decide.  It'll always grow back - that's the great part. Like Paris on the rebound, my hair will come back. It always does. In the meantime, I am embracing the look of both Jeans fully.  Gonna wear red lipstick and striped tee shirts. I will be a rebel Vodou angel, praying for Paris and for the people who were injured. It's November, the month of the Ghedes. I will give an  action de gras in honor of those who have died. And I will sing for the Ghedes, so they can do their work in Paris. My shorn hair is an offering to them, so that they can carry forth in this world.

Paris and I are burning but in a good way. With anger. With pride. And with patriotism. Je suis Paris. Ayibobo.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

November means Mange Mo' - Feed the Dead

 Legba pulled a strong card for November: Mange Mo’, literally Feed the Dead.  Very apropos for this time of year!  November heralds the month long celebration in Haiti called Fet Ghede.  It is an opportunity to clean up the family grave site, serve the ancestor’s favorite food and drink, light candles for warmth and energy, while celebrating the life of the ancestors through service, prayers and songs they enjoyed when alive. Beginning on October 31 (which is a more American affectation than Haitian) and running through November 30, Fet Ghede is a national holiday in Haiti and is celebrated the length and breadth of the country. Offices shut down, people take a holiday from work, and everyone heads down to the cemetery to celebrate, to cry, and to remember. It is such a strong and powerful reminder of one’s past, I am surprised that it is just this one month.
Feeding the dead should not just be a once a year practice.  In a place like Haiti where food can be problematic at best, feeding the ancestors is a routinely engaged gesture, one that is so normal it is done automatically. At dinner tables all over the country, a tiny bite is set aside for the ancestors, so that they can also eat with the family.  A tip of a cup offers liquid refreshment and no one would dare begin a meal without making this inclusive and universal gesture of greeting.

Including the ancestors is so strong and prevalent, that during our Kanzo, one of the houngans was instructed to offer food and drink to his dead godmother from a Santeria tradition, so that she would look kindly on his making the passage into Haitian Vodou. The godmother was installed with all the pomp and circumstance she would have received, had she been alive.  A govi was produced and with blessings, songs, and offerings, her ti-Bon Ange was invited to sit within it. A tiny chair was set up on the pe (the circular altar at the foot of the poto mitan) where the govi was reverently seated, and a tiny kolye placed around the neck of her clay vessel.  With a ring side seat, she got to view up close and personal all the rituals being performed for her godchild..  It would have been unthinkable to kanzo her godchild without her direct consent. The presence of the Govi was significant in this circumstance as a stand-in for the deceased godmother. When we ate, the govi was fed bits of the meal. When we slept, the govi was covered to signal the spirit within that it was a time of rest.  And when we processed out of the djevo on our batem day, the govi was decked out in white satin and beads, just like her godson.  The inclusiveness of the govi during Kanzo was just one of many rites that Vodou provides to keep the ancestors close by.

Here in America, we put our ancestors away, locking their physical remains up in strange places with people they don’t know.  We buy land in tiny plots, symbolic of larger domains that are no longer the available to the ancestor.  We interr their remains in vaults of concrete or marble, lock iron gates to keep out strangers (and family) or lock in the dead.  Sometimes, they are not laid to rest at all.  More often than not, due to rising land cost or the lack of available land, Cremation has become the norm.  Cremains are placed in govi-like vessels that are then installed in large mausoleums, alongside strangers.  And again, when the iron gates closed, our beloved family members are left lying in strange ground. No wonder we love zombies so much these days – they are our own ancestors rising, looking for sustenance and family to keep them company. 

The forgotten dead trouble us all the time – we just don’t know how to interpret the signs.  I get calls about family troubles all the time. The story is almost universally the same.  The father / mother is upset or having trouble sleeping/working/having relations with the spouse. They’ve tried everything (they say) and to no avail.  Nothing they do seem to help or abate the signs and symptoms they are experiencing.  But when we talk further, it is revealed that the ancestors are hungry. I interpret this from the conversations which go something like this:

“I can’t sleep! My legs are heavy and restless.”
“I feel like someone is sitting on my chest.”
“My mind won’t stop running,” or “I can’t shut off my mind.”
“The house feels ‘hot,’ ‘cold,’ ‘weird,’ ‘unusual.”

All these statements are indications that the Ancestors are on the prowl.  Restless legs are indicative of walking spirits.  Feeling heavy pressure on the chest, legs or face is ancestrally based energies, vying for your attention.  A busy mind or unusual energy in a home is also a sign that the family is troubled, and like any family issue, when the elders are rumbling, we all feel it on the earth plane.
The simplest solution is to pay attention when these things occur.  Ancestors are the heart and soul of our work as Vodouisants. Keeping the family running smooth requires effort, but nothing that is difficult.  Repetition of the following gestures will make ensure you do it often and regularly, thus keep the spirits happy.

Most months, on Monday night, offer a small coffee saucer with a single bite from your meal and a shot glass of water or coffee is the simplest way to feed the spirits. They really don’t require much – just your continual devotion to their spiritual amelioration.  For the month of November, when the entire month is devoted to the Ancestors, you would do best to make a plate each night.  This card indicates that they are really hungry this year.  Have you been to the cemetery lately, to clean and clear their gravesites?  It is traditional to do so, and you can gain mucho respect from them for the gesture. Consider it a pilgrimage. Make a gravestone rubbing of their headstone.  Plant flowers like mums and winter cabbage to keep it looking great. At home, use the gravestone rubbing as a centerpiece for your altar.  Set out purple and black candles.  Place ancestral foods they liked on white china plates.  I usually buy Italian cookies for Dad’s side, maple candies for Mom and set out two cups of coffee – one black, one with cream and sugar..  I change the coffee daily and keep the altar fresh. I also use flowers, incense and perfume that my mother loved.  The dead are rising and want their time with you.  Spend it well with them, to ensure a solid year going forward for you and yours.

The shadow card for November is Holy Death.  This can mean both a metaphysical death such as the end of a job or a relationship, or the actual death of someone.  The Ghede may laugh loudly, and clown around, but they are deadly serious. In another tradition I once carried, this month heralded the beginning of many crossings. The Baron is coming and he does not fool around. Deadly serious, fiercely riding the raunchy clan of ghedes who accompany him, he is a takes no prisoner kind of guy.  He is the final harvest of souls, and he comes for anyone he chooses.  That  is the truth he carries from Bon Dieu.  You will feel his cold touch this month.  Be wary of odd places, strange people or late night forays to locations unfamiliar.  Stay small, feed your dead, but remember to honor the Baron this month.  Wear purple and black, even if it is just a scarf, a ring or a pin.  Pour water faithfully each night and light candles so that the Ghedes will come only for those who deserve their steely-eyed interest. May all your Dead feed well this cold month of November! Kwa senbo!

KOSANBA - Panel Two: Nature and Communion of Spirits

Last week, I attended the 11th International Conference known as KOSANBA,  The elite of the academic world presented papers on a wide variety of topics. Here is my review of the second session focusing on Nature and the communion of Spirits.

Maria Goyoechea presented a the first paper on Elsie Augustave's The Roving Tree. With particular attention paid to the various spirits who visit the protagonist Iris, Goyoechea argues plausibly that the spirits supported Iris in her wanderings to Haiti, Africa and back. Given entirely in French, I was lost in parts, but the general appeal of the passage's that Goyoechea read were very engaging. I will put this one on my list for further reading.

The second speaker was Meshon Jackson, whose paper on Loko, the Orisha Oko and Osanyin was very short and did not hit the mark for me. Drawing analogies between the three spirits, she spoke of the need to focus on trees in spiritual practice. It was only when asked whether she thought trees were specifically masculine, that Jackson perked up. No, trees also produce seeds, she answered, so they are both. She then delved into a bit of Yoruba theology about rees, masculine versus feminine spirits and how this is interpreted in Yoruba theology. I am hoping when she writes the paper for the journal, she expounds on her topic further.

Finally, Elana Jefferson-Tatum spoke about the tale of the Kola tree as an example of African Philosophy and personhood.  An excellent paper, well delivered, she spoke about the idea of people having personhood by way of simply being defined as such by their colleagues, fellow villagers and neighbors. She also linked this observation to the populations of Africans in Haiti, remarking that personhood was the idea taken from them through subjugation, and by which they redefined their place in the world. A very erudite young lady, we ended up flying home together and making a great personal connection.

And that is what I truly found in Montreal. Despite the dryness (who'd have thought that Montreal would be like a desert for humidity!) and the sore leg from my spectacular flying fall the day before: the personal connections I made with folks were the most wonderful thing for me. That we all had communion in that place - everyone supportive and everyone eagerly looking to hear what another had to say or offer. Clearly, Haiti still has much to tell to those willing to listen with an open heart.

Well, communion with my fellow presenters and watching Manbo K try to navigate the metro without her coffee. The best roomie one could ask for, K stumbled along, following me through the halls and subterranean byways till we got to our breakfast spot up on the mount by St. Michel.  And despite our crack of dawn travels, she kept up a witty repartee as we went along. Dubbed one of the Ab-Fab manbos, she was a huge hit with her paper on Medsin Feys in Haiti. More on that next week. Right now, I have a huge Fet to plan, shop and cook for; bathrooms to clean, beds to make and altars to build.

As I said, it may be lots of work to write, speak, and lead, but it sure as heck ain't boring. I assure you not! Ayibobo.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

2015 KOSANBA -- Amazing time with Amazing folks

I attended the 2015 KOSANBA conference in Montreal. It was an amazing communion in the crossroads of art, literature, practice and scholarship. Along with Manbo Ke Kontann, we presented our papers among some pretty stellar luminaries -- Lois Wilken, Liza McAlister and Claudine Michel to name just a few.

The conference was focused on Azaka Mede, Klermizine and Gran Bwa.  Poor Klermizine was lost a bit in the shuffle, as most of us focused on Gran Bwa and his forests or should I say his disappearing forests. The over-arching theme was how trees take us to God. We heard talks on the matrilineal rite of burying baby umbilical cords beneath a tree in the family lakou; how there are no more trees to make the large drums outside of Goniaves; and our own Manbo presented on Medsin Feys and their healing leaves. I used a metaphysical tree in my own talk on the sosyete and how we've evolved over the years as an American Vodou house. We were quite the hit, and the following day many of the manbos presenting focused solely on Manbo Ke Kotann and myself during their talks.

The first day presented a wealth of information: 6 panels of four presenters covering all kinds of topics. Session 1 was on Memory, History and Resistance in Vodou and Haitian Literature.  Marie Cerat presented a dialog about veves as signs of power and resistance among the Africans. Although given in French by the chair Florence Bellande-Robertson, I could follow along well enough to get the gist of the talk.  The author's thesis was that veves were a way of conveying information in secret. That the whorls and diagrams not only spoke to a connected heritage of Taino resistance, but that they were also methods of communication among the enslaved plantation populations. I was wishing my French language skills were better by the end.

Bamidele Demerson presented a lovely talk on the artist Ulrick Jean-Pierre.  Jean Pierre paints scenes from Haiti's history in full figure size - the paintings are enormous, and Demerson spoke at length on the Makandal painting. I haven't heard such great discussion since I was in art school.  An in depth look at the historical figure of Makandal, along with some serious art critique on the technique of the painting made it very informative for me.

Ann Mazzocca, a dance professor from Virgina spoke on the embodiment of Vodou in dance and movement. She had visited Souvenance in '07 and '08, and was taken by the movement of ritual as a method of encoding the liturgy and faith of Vdou. We spoke later about dance, Haiti and Souvenance, only to discover an amazing synchronicity - I had taken print making in 1975 at the University of Connecticut with her father. Talk about 6 degrees of separation!

Finally, the masterful Dr. Kay Zauditu-Selassie spoke about the representation of trees in African Diasporic Literature. A stunning work, she was mezmerizing and I could have listened for hours. Later, she came up to me to say she was curious about our sosyete and to ask what I knew of twins. Another sychonistic hit, as I am currently working on an installation of elemental twins - Marasa Anba Dlo (water), Marasa Bwa (wood), Marasa Twa (fire) and Marasa VanVan (air or wind). Ayibobo!

(I will write a little more each day on all the panels - they were very worthy topics, that need their own space.- Manbo)

Manbo K and I sat up high in the auditorium, animatedly cheering, laughing, and giggling at all the right (and of course) wrong moments.  This earned us the nick named "Ab-Fab Manbos" from the younger presenters. We jumped in with both feet, delighting both the kids presenting and others who found our silliness captivating (if not annoying!).

That night, there was a memorial service to the late Dr. Karen McCarthy Brown and Ayti Max Beauvoir, honor to them both.  McCarthy-Brown was remembered by all as someone who gave freely of her time and talents, as well as being a path blazer for female anthropologists.  Ayti Max had three of his favorite manbos present, and they led a quiet action de gras for him, which we finished with a rousing yanvalou dance in his honor. As the music began and the 30 or so people present began the call and answer, I joined in. I was totally unconscious of my doing so, until I realized this was what I had spent so much time looking for. Community. A chance to belong to something greater than myself.

Fifteen years ago, I was in an Atlanta suburb, attending a Yoruban bembe for my friend's birth as an iyalorisha.  The drummers were from West Africa and were pounding out a huge beat. At one point, an American priestess jumped up, gave a hoot and began to sing with the drummer.  Another person, a visitor from Cuba came forward and asked if he could sit in with the drummers. And the wife of the Baba who hailed from Martinique, stood up and offered a dance to the spirit the music was for. There it was - the mystical crossroads I had been looking for - a West African drum beat, picked up by a Cuban national, sung to by an American and danced by a Martinique priestess.  And it happened that night in Montreal as well. As we listened to beat of the drums, Americans, Haitians, Africans and European people all came together; to sing, to dance and to remember Ayti Max. I found myself in sync with everyone, singing without thinking, moving without hesitation and just being in the moment naturally. A gift of spirit, one I will not soon forget.

The next day there were more stellar presentations. When the event concluded, I took the first leg of my return trip home with one of the young scholars. As we flew to JFK airport, we talked about our work, our hopes and the future of Haiti. I said that as an independent scholar, my work was not as important as hers was.  She gently scolded me, and reminded me that my work was very important. That everyone there was working with their minds, but that I was working with my body and soul. Later she shared that her best friend had passed away, and that this friend never felt that she belonged anywhere. "You are making a place for someone like her. I wish she had known someone like you," the young lady wrote. My young friend moved me to tears.

And so I will keep writing, thinking and dreaming. And I will also keep serving, singing and dancing.  I do know that the crossroads I have always sought are within myself. The only difference is that now I can manifest them outside of myself.  And I am discovering that I need to be the signpost in that place, so that others who are looking, can find their way home as well. Ayibobo.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

End of Summer, Mandrakes and Hydrosols

Well its here -- fall I mean. For real.  It's a whopping 56 degrees and I have given up my flip-flops for the season.  Today is a legging and Ugg boots kinda day. I even had to coax the dogs out of the bed; they were curled up in tight balls, the blanket wound around them like a nest. Bodhi had pulled the quilt off and circled around until he was surrounded by the material.  But the offer of "outside" is too irresistible, so they bounded down the stairs and out into the brisk morning.

Since I was up and out with the boys, I decided to check the herb beds. In May, I had planted a lot of material, then left it to go wild. I am not a "neat" gardener. I am enough of a witch still, that I love the look of a slightly untended bed.  I put in lots of good smelling herbs, so I would have lots of material to brew.  There was rosemary, southern-wood, wormwood, calea zacatechichi, lovage, tons of mint (cat-mint, peppermint, spearmint, oregano) and a few oddities like myrtle and rue.  Then -- the bugs came and since I don't spray or use chemicals, I sadly watched them munch through my lovely little collection and wondered what would survive the onslaught. Amazingly, they ate the least smelly of the bunch (the myrtle and rue), but left most of it intact. However, the swarm was pretty intense, so I did not harvest much until late - like August kind of late.

 I seem to remember a bit of lore about cutting all your material before the morning of Samhain, least the spirits take it all back.  Although I no longer practice as a witch, I still adhere to some of the old ways, so I checked to see if there was anything left to glean.  Amazingly the lovage has come back with a fervor and will probably grant me a second round of brewing. Its green scent and amazing essential oil are boundless. Next year, I will try to remember to do it earlier in the season, so I can take advantage of its generous nature.

The mints are done - the peppermint is dried up husk of what it was this summer, and the spearmint is nearly done.  I am praying she leaves me a few leaves for Fet Ghede next month -- Danbala will need some for his basin regardless of the weather and I'd rather it be from our land than the grocery store.  I gleaned just enough spearmint to distill a gram of essential oil and a couple pints of hydrosol. Love that stuff - the whole house smelled wonderful for a day.

My "wild" bed is still going strong. The mugwort has flowered, so no more distilling there. I have found that when I do distill flowered material, it lends a bitterness to the hydrosols. You can clearly tell the difference between the early distillations and the ones I did later in the season. The first crop yields a clean, green scent while the last one has a deeper earthy vibe. Not unpleasant, but not what I was going for.

I decided to let the honeybees do in my anise bed this year. I had four huge plants, and I let them all go to blossom.  The honeybees took to them like fish to water; it was exciting to see so many of them.  And the bees were not at all disturbed by the carpenters and workers who stepped over them to get to the screen porch. The local beekeeper here in Norristown will let me know when she collects from her hives.  Curious to see if my donation offers any kind of flavor. Those little ladies were certainly busy up until this past Monday when I finally cut that bed back.

 The Dutchman's Pipe thrived out front - all that sunshine did it a world of good. When I put it out in April, it was really a dried husk - there were maybe two vines that hadn't wilted over the winter. You'd never know it today - its climbing the front of the house and flowering like mad. I am not sure if I'll take it in - I seem to remember reading somewhere that with enough sunshine, it can winter outdoors. This year, I found some starting in the bed on the opposite side of the house - the plant had really flowered heavily last summer, and perhaps some self-seeded. I'd love to have two of them - they make interesting accents in the front of the house, as well as provide lots of material to work with.  I'll have to do my research. If I do bring it in, I'll trim back the vines and dry all the leaves for sale in Mambo's Mojo. The blossoms are short lived, but are wildly interesting, making for great conversation with my local neighbor gardeners (they are big enough to be seen from the road.) I can't count how many times people have stopped when they see me out front, to ask that the plant is. Fortunately its readily available in the local shops here. I got my from the amazing Otts Gardens in Betchelsville, PA.

In total opposition, my mandrakes did not fair well this summer. Not sure why - I followed all the notes I had from other growers. I used sterile soil that had the right ph.  I fed them fish and kelp nutrients. Warm temps, not too much shade, kept them in dappled sunlight.  A total dud.

The small Fennish mandrakes (the smaller long leaf ones in the picture) were eaten by the squirrels and the large black mandrake was leafing out well, until something started eating it. I've moved that one back indoors, and will take in the white mandrake and the large Fennish mother plant today (the large long leaf one in the picture.)

I was cleaning out my garden cabinets, and I did find some seeds from the Mandrake Garden in England I had forgotten about. My buddy Harold Roth (he runs the amazing Alchemy Works site)  said he's planted old seeds and achieved germination. If ever there was an Azaka of the garden, its Harold.  He grows an amazing array of things in Elmira, NY for pete's sake. Talk about a short growing season!  For me, finding those seeds is an sign that I should throw caution to the wind, and plant them up. Harold actually tried to grow 100 mandrake plants one year -- nearly did, too.  Therefore (as far as I am concerned) he is the god of Mandrakes and I take what ever he says about these amazing plants as truth. I love trying to grow mandrakes - they are so unbelievably difficult that if you do get one to grow, it feels like a major accomplishment.

I did get my indoor rack cleaned up and ready for plants. The mapous are turning a beautiful gold - they will be dropping their leaves shortly as they rest for the winter. I need to make room for them in the foyer. The remainder of things are slowing down. Even if you are not aware of the season, your plants let you know what's happening. I am grateful we have space to bring them in, and to have them around for the cold months. Makes me feel like spring is around the corner. As I prep for Fet Ghede, I am reminder that this is the last fet at the house here. It's been an amazing seven years, but all things come to pass, and that means this place has done its work. I look forward to the next chapter of our lives.

And a bigger herb bed -- where I can plant mandrakes outdoors. Ayibobo!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

October is LaSiren

October has arrived with wind, cold temps and tons of rain. What better way to welcome the Siren of the pantheon than with enough water to float a flottila of boats?

LaSiren flowed into this month, on a Mercury retrograde no less, and is already busy sinking ships, diverting our attention with her wily ploys and inundating the world with enough water to make us all remember the movie Waterworld, and shiver with the recognition that it could be very real indeed. But what Siren really brings in this month is high emotional moments, ancestral reverence and deep dreaming of truths and feelings. Let's examine these traits one at a time.

LaSiren is the watery part of ourselves that dreams of better things and often is disappointed. This feeling of devastation and overwhelming emotion is shared with her sisters Freda and Klermizine, two other spirits who all hail from the Aziri River Basin in West Africa.  While Freda is given to dramatic displays of pouting and tears, and little sister Klermizine  loves to play the coquette, Siren is the actively dangerous energy of the trio.  Those who consider her a dainty and dreamy girl will be shocked to learn she will kill as easily as kiss those who come to call her forth from the water.

LaSiren is a sorceress who rules the waters of the world with impunity. With long, eerie blasts on her horn, Siren can call forth legions of dead to do her dirty work. The countless Africans who died in the Middle Passage; the seafarers of sunken ships; sailors and mariners who died at sea - these are her subjects, journeymen and lovers. They answer to the call of her golden horn, and do whatever is demanded of them by their watery mistress. Beautiful, dreamy and dangerous, Siren rules the oceans of the world and everything (and everyone) contained within them. This gives her a particular place in Ancestral worship. It is LaSiren's job to help navigate the dead across the waters to Ginen. Although we'd expect the Gede to have their hands in this, it is the duty of Siren to guide all those souls in the water back home again. Remember this come Fet Ghede, Samhain or how ever you choose to remember your dead throughout the year. Be sure to set a glass of water with sea elements on your altar: Siren is leading the way back.

LaSiren is also the ruler of high emotions. Water is the symbol of emotion, and Siren's very image -- a human top over an animal bottom -- is the embodiment of mind over matter.  Although she is often thought of as overly feminine and sweet, she is nothing of the kind.  Sharp, focused, vicious when threatened and dangerous when challenged, Siren gives us the ability to contain our emotions and act according to the situation. It is the physical temptation of her beauty that belies the focused energy she contains. She can become angry and yet, will lash out with a clarity that is breath taking. Many years ago, I asked Siren to help me with a problem. Not only did she help, but she took out the individual responsible for the trouble and laid waste to the entire enterprise. I am very careful when asking for things from her - she is devastating to a fault.

In this month, she can lend that particular focus to your projects. Lay out a space for her in your home. Place salted water -- very important for this Lwa -- and sea objects (shells, pearls, coral) on this space, so she feels welcomed. She doesn't take anything of the dry world as an offering (despite the lists proliferating on the Internet.) But she does like champagne and perfume, as well as horns and mirrors. I keep a brass Christmas horn on the altar for her, and lots of perfume. Ask LaSiren to help you focus on your current work; to help you have clarity on a challenge; to lend you energy to complete something difficult. It will happen and quickly, too.

LaSiren also rules dreams and the manner in which dreams are interpreted. It is easy to visualized a a ship listlessly idling on a dead calm sea, and the crew staring off into space.  The sounds of the water lapping against the ship, the heat of the sun and the monotony of the day brings on a lugubrious feeling that gives rise to all kinds of thoughts. It is Siren pouring her energy over those crews, engaging with their souls and feeding back their own thoughts, their emotions. Ever been on a monotonous trip, inside your own head? It can be dangerous as well as tedious.  But for those who can fend off the feelings of gloom, Siren can bring clarity of vision to thoughts. It is often in the most mundane places that inspiration and genius take place. Got a problem you can't figure out? Make an offering to Siren and then -- go rake the leaves. Fold clothes. Iron. Dull and tedious monotony will bring clarity and focus.  Water is also a good conduit for meditation. If you have quiet access to a pool , go float for a while. Head to the ocean and mediate on the waves.  Or, fill your bath tub with warm water, a handful of salt and take a long soak. (A shower doesn't work - the action of the shower head is too invigorating.) Still, steady water is the trick to working this ritual of revelation.

Light blue or white candles this month to LaSiren and sit still for an hour. She will speak loudly to you, if you give her the opportunity.

The Shadow for this month is the Hanged Man - suspended between places, neither bound nor free. I used the image of a possession to visualize the energy of the card. I also find it interesting that this card shadows Siren.  Most of the time, Siren stays focused, but when there is doubt or distraction, she can waffle with the best of them. Be aware that you will have the tendency to be distracted from your purpose this month. Don't look for excuses to put things off. Do what you need to do and then move on to the next project. Otherwise, your personal ship will stall and you won't get anywhere this month!

Friday, September 11, 2015

9/11 called me to Priesthood

(This is a reprint of a note I wrote on Facebook four years ago. I feel it is still pertinent to this day - Mambo)

I watched filmmakers Jules and Gedeon Naudet haunting film "9/11" last night. I was mesmerized by the images -- especially since I was supposed to be there that weekend.

I was still living a bi-polar existence at that time. I was a well respect media producer/technical director by day, leading some very important teams through their paces for a variety of Fortune 100 companies.  And by night, I was a priestess and acolyte of Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki.  I helped plan her teaching schedule here in the US and was also doing my SOL lessons, having been elevated to priest by her in 1998. A double agent, as it were.

In 2000, I spent two weeks atop the North Tower of the World Trade Center, a mile above Manhattan, producing a Goldman-Sachs annual meeting. I rode the ear popping elevators up and down, shopped below ground in the stores and parked myself in one of the huge windows with other techs, as we ate lunch and stared out at the world from above. I remember doing the Ferris Bueler move -- standing on tip-toe in the window with my forehead against the glass, the vertigo-inducing visual making me giddy and delightfully dizzy.

In 2001, bedazzled by my brilliant talents -- or just looking for an extra body to run a computer -- Goldman called me up to ask if I would be in attendance at the their meeting, once again atop the World Trade Center. I could hardly resist, it was such a great experience the year before. But before I could pack my suits, I got another call, cutting me from the team due to the budget. Oh well, next year I thought.

Then Dolores called, and we made plans for an Egyptian Master Class here. I got whirled away with her tour, classes, airplane tickets and all the stuff that was required to make her trip a success. We did the class and she returned with us to our home in PA, to rest up before leaving for California.

The next morning, Michael (her husband called) and said he was sorry for what was happening in NY. I thought what's happening, turned on the TV and saw the second plane fly into the North Tower. I couldn't believe what I saw.

Fast forward ten years, and last night, I still couldn't believe what I saw. The brothers have edited and added to their original film. They also showed the new memorial -- a very beautiful park surrounding the original footprints of the towers. I am glad they stayed with a sacred monument, instead of a crass commercial offering. The ground there is consecrated not just by death, but by the valiant efforts of the NYFD, NYPD, and hundreds of volunteers who stayed, searched and gave their own lives over to seeking for the deceased. I thought the water fall monument with engraved names a very beautiful and emotional symbol. A water road to Ginen for all those souls who left so unexpectedly.

Many of my friends did much work to help that day. Manbo Shakmah and the SEED priestesses did their work to help the souls cross. I prayed and lit candles for weeks -- I lost friends in the Towers that day. And Don gives thanks that I was cut from the team. Because otherwise... I don't know. I guess Legba closed that door and opened another.

What I do know is that day marks the moment when I made the decision to go to Haiti and become a mambo. I saw in that instant how life could end in a moment. How things can be changed irrevocably and pointlessly. That if you do not seize hold of your life and make it what you will, you will lose the chance to do so. Some one or some thing will snatch it away and then -- nothing.

I spent 23 years waiting for a phone to ring, with some one on the other end asking me to go some where or do some thing for them. Not for me, for them. I went for the money or the glory or whatever. But I seldom went for myself. After 9/11, I decided I would go for myself from now on. I will choose my destiny, not some one else.

I changed everything after that day. I sold everything I had to, in order to raise money for an initiation that I felt compelled to receive.  I packed up my husband and we went to Haiti. And initiated. Came home and started a church. I left Dolores to another who does an even better job of planning her trips than I did. I left friends behind who did not understand my choice to become a mambo. I left a job behind that filled my wallet but not my soul. And I never looked back.

I also brought things with me that were worth having. I brought my Donald because i cannot live my life without him. I brought my brother and sister along, because I cannot live without them in my life, either. I brought along my friends who did understand my choices and decided they wanted to try this new path with me. And I continue to find others who feel as I did that day.

That I would not lay down because of the terrorists. That I would not stop being who I am (defiantly and proudly American). And that I would seek a way to find communion with all people, regardless of color, creed or nationality. Because if 21 diverse nations of Africans could find a way to rise above their station, praise God above and seek Ginen, then so would I. And if that meant leaving behind some things for the betterment of myself and others, then so be it.

One of my favorite films is Gattica, about a man named Vincent who wants to be an astronaut and can't due to his physical size. He goes through hell to change in order to realize his goal. When telling his brother why he did this, he relates a story from their childhood. How they used to try to swim out to an island, but never made it. Until one day, Vincent does make it. When his brother asks him how, his answer was "You want to know how I did it? This is how I did it, Anton: I never saved anything for the swim back." Meaning it was the island or drown.

After 9/11, I never saved anything for the swim back either. And I do not regret it. It would sully the memory of my friends who died on 9/11. And so, for Bobby, Bill and Wilson, I swam like hell for the distant shore and I made it. I will see you all on the other side one day. Ayibobo.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Disasters, Dogs and Ogoun - oh my.

I make a lot of religious artwork on commission. Its typical of Vodou sosyetes to have specific spirits they work with, and to have their own sets of colors and so forth. I set lights, invoke Legba to open the door for me, and to give me the best possible inspiration for what I do. The great Gatekeeper does, but sometimes, He likes the work so much, its derailed before I can even get it completed. Does He do this on purpose? Am I just not paying attention? I am not sure -- artwork is still a messy business at best. Paint is wet, glue to sticks to everything and everywhere except the place you want it to, and the dogs don't help with their snuffly noses and dirty paws. I start with good intentions, but after a week like this one, I begin to understand how that road to hell is actually paved.  Witness the following disasters, large and small:

I have a new client who was recently initiated into a Makaya house. He has been requesting some very specific work from me and as we've been on a Makaya high lately, this work seemed fitting. I am very happy to oblige him. I set the table of art (or tableau de arte, take your pick) with a prayer, a candle for Makaya and began sketching.  I make several drawings when I work, to help get the kinks out and to focus my ideas.  Paint and glue are unforgiving, so its better to approach with a plan than to wing it and regret it later. Having gathered my ideas and formulated a plan, I took the time to find materials suited to the task and purchased a couple very cool bottles, some new embellishments (flat back sequins and such) and reviewed the incoming requests.

The first commission was a boutey for Ogoun Flambeau.  This particular Ogou is served in my client's lineage with black and small gold highlights. It's a take off on the above chromolith of Saint George fighting the dragon. Saint George is wearing black armor with golden highlights. The correlation made sense to me -  in Haiti the saint chromos are not aligned because of the particular saint themselves, but more for the colors and decoration in the pictures. St. George wears black armor, so a black boutey was the right offering vessel for this fiery avatar of the Ogoun clan.

I had a fabulous bottle I'd purchased and it seemed perfect for this project. It was square shaped, with raised detail that made it seem like armor. I worked very hard on getting all the details just right, with flat back embellishments, tiny gold sequins and just enough bling to echo the look of the armor in chromo. Upon completion, I invoked Flambeau into the piece. Although we were serving the Marine Lwa that weekend, I slipped the boutey downstairs in the tmple and placed it on the Petro altar for the evening. Sure enough, several of the hounsi found it and wanted to know all about the Lwa, who it was for and when would they get one. They'll just have to wait for a bit on that. I also strung a lovely kolye with black onyx, gold highlighted beads on hand knotted silk cord. A fitting kolye for a warrior.

The client was ecstatic with his artwork and commissioned a second one from me. This time, it was for Ogoun Ge Wouj. The fiery hot spirit is served in his house with red and gold highlights. No problem, I had a perfect companion bottle for the first.

I took my time painting it outside. Several light coats of red paint work better than a heavy one. However, I underestimated the pull of Ogoun for the dogs. Bodhi, my canine doppelganger and bonded familiar was very interested in what I was doing. Way too interested. He investigated the bottle thoroughly,  knocking it off the fence post twice while it was wet. Le sigh.  I cleaned his nose, the bottle and got the paint job to look proper.

Once back at my table of art, I started the embellishment. But the glue ate through the paint. I did not figure this out until the gold metal ribbon I was using slid off to one side, taking the paint with it. Add to this the fun of a large, slobber covered ball rolling across the table while I try to work. Deeper sigh.

I locked the dog out of the studio and came back to find all the sequins and crystals had also abandoned their places - the glue was removing the paint on the bottle and the finish was now ruined beyond repair. Argh.

Ok, back to square one. A trip to several of my thrift stores turned up a perfect candidate. Having learned my lesson, I left Bodhi in the house while I painted. He was occupied by the workers outside yesterday and today, so I was able to properly paint the base, setting it up for embellishments. I also made a trip to Home Depot for the right adhesive, and came back to embellish without the help of a snuffly wet nose checking my work. I am very happy with the finished product and have sent pics off to the client to see if he likes it.

As I cleaned up, I went to toss the ruined bottle when I turned it over in my had and saw the sun burst. In my morning meditations of late, I have been receiving very clear information regarding Legba's status as a solar Lwa. He has made several requests that I intend to follow up on, and now in hind sight I realize He wanted this boutey for Himself. Well, jeez, ya coulda told me sooner.

So now I will be in the basement, cleaning off the bottle and getting it ready for my Solar patron. My client will be getting his amazing Ge Wouj bottle and Bodhi will be assigned to study my artwork before I get it all done, so if there is a change, I can make it sooner rather than later.

Ogou Zé Wouj, O! Konsa yo ye!
Bouch manjé tout manjé, Le pa palé tout pawol,
Ogou Zé Wouj, O! Konsa yo ye!
I take commissions on artwork -- shrines, boutey, statuary and amulet jewelry. Please contact me on the sosyetedumarche.com page for details.