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!