Monday, August 17, 2015

How are you serving?

I am planning menus, making travel arrangements for a variety of people, and trying to fit a couple mattresses in the guest bedroom so people have some place to sleep. Tomorrow morning I will shop for meals like it's Thanksgiving, buy enough toilet tissue to serve a small army platoon, and hope my sewer lines don't back up on Saturday. I will lay in ice, soda and tea for both hot and cold beverages; make sure we have a couple pounds of Haitian coffee and a couple quarts of cold cream; tally up the candles, cakes, perfume and clean head scarfs. I will wash two sets of dishes (one for us and one for spirit) and lay out bed linens, white clothing, and table cloths. Nope, it's a not a holiday -- its the Lwa's service day and it's a big one. We perform our annual Lave Tet or head washing on the point (or "pwen') of the Marine Lwa (that's Agwe, LaSiren and LaBalen to the non-members.) It's a huge party to plan and execute and I try to make sure I've got all my t's crossed and i's dotted. But all this shopping, baking, cooking and planning has got me to thinking.

When one becomes an Asogwe priest, be it mambo or houngan, there is an inherent and unspoken command that comes along with the rank that says 'you will be of service.' What exactly, does that mean? "Of service..." Over the years, I have seen the term "of service" become interpreted as making fets, hosting Lwa parties and running Kanzos. That's all fine and dandy, but surely there is more to being a priest than knowing how to house and feed fifty people every month?

I am especially focused on that term -- of service -- as I am speaking at the KOSANBA conference in October about this very thing. I was chosen to speak because my husband and I run a large, international sosyete here in the USA.  It's particularly interesting to the Haitian constituency that will attend this conference as to how we are managing to be priests of Vodou when we aren't Haitian, don't have Haitian ancestors and don't live in Haiti. As I approach my 15th year of serving the Lwa, the foremost question I am asked by Haitians isn't why I am serving the Lwa, but how.  This line of questioning points out just how entwined the religion of Vodou is to the country of Haiti.  And these days, it is the same question I've begun asking myself.  How are you serving the Lwa?

I spend my days in ritual poise. That means I pray, I visit the sick, I offer a sympathetic ear, I make meals and I work on charity projects. Occasionally, I get art commissions which helps pay the bills. I also offer monthly fets to the Lwa. Big, elaborate, multi-day events that entail lots of planning, cooking, housing and singing for the 20 - 40 folks who come to the service. It also follows that I spend a portion of the following week cleaning, putting away and resetting my house back to normal, until the next month when I do it all over again. We have been doing this religiously (pun intended) for over 30 years; the first 15 years as ceremonial magicians, the last 15 as Vodouisants. It's fun, energizing and especially fulfilling to me personally. This past weekend we baptized two babies into the faith. It's a rewarding time indeed. But now as I approach my 15th year of priesthood, I want to do more.

I believe it is the job of every Asogwe of my age at least, to begin to prepare those who follow to take over the work. In Ceremonial language, we called it the Great Work. This is a reference to the idea of keeping the gods (God) appeased through ritual and propitiation. There is a long held belief that the world of men and the realm of the gods should not become intertwined. When these two places do intersect, trouble follows. And there is also an unspoken understanding that if you don't make offerings, propitiation or service, then the gods (God) will come looking for it, once again violating the Kalunga and intermixing the world. Calamity almost always follows. So the role of the priest is to help keep the balance as it were. I make an offering to Legba, and Legba agrees not to come looking for his stuff. Likewise, we make service for the Lwa, and they arrive safely and sanely through the act of possession into this realm. If not, imbalance reigns again.

I am taking the time to prepare my godchildren to be this kind of priest. To know the prayers, the langaj of the spirits. To make the right offerings on the right days, to the correct Lwa. To be able to set up a proper space to work in, and to help those who come to them for succor. And as I do this, I find my own role changing in subtle ways. We still offer service, but others now lead. I take the time to breathe on fet days, allowing them to step up and do their thing. My "service to the Lwa' is now formed by stepping back and giving others a chance to shine.

We have a whole new group of people who are learning to be servitors and they are all under 12 years of age. My "service to the Lwa" is now formed by creating a learning program for them - in clear and simple language so that they can become servitors. There is new life in the form of babies, baptized this weekend and beginning their own journey to the faith. I found it delightfully amazing that these tiny beings not only heard me singing while they were in their mommie's bellies but that they remembered. They both squealed in delight as I sang the opening stanzas to the Priye Ginen, and danced with utter abandon to the rhythms of the drum.

But the real moment came late in the night as Gran Ibo made her appearance. She was particularly focused on one of the babies, and danced before him, swirling and touching his face. He sat perfectly still, mesmerized by her movements.  His huge grin and wide-eye amazement stunned everyone present.  Not in the least bit afraid, he coo'd with delight as she stroked his face, telling him he was hers. Ayibobo - if the Lwa are pleased, then I am too.

My "service to the Lwa" is becoming more of an outreach practice. It is writing books about Vodou, speaking at conferences on my experiences as a Mambo leading a house here in the USA.  It's writing this blog so that others may find their way to the Spirits.  And it is in my artwork, my daily singing and my gardens to the Lwa. My "service to the Lwa" has expanded, moving beyond my abilities to plan parties and into the world as a real life practice. As it should be.

When I speak at the conference in October, this is what I will tell the audience. I came to Vodou because of a small black man who has always accompanied me in life. I stayed in Vodou because it gives me joy to sing to the Spirits. And I will remain in Vodou because the next generation is looking at me to learn how to be an Asogwe. I think that's what Asogwe really means - an example to follow. Its a big commitment, but then I've never been one to shirk away from big commitments.

For example, right now, I gotta go hang out those eight sets of bed linens, put away the place settings for 15 people and reset a temple back for regular use. An asogwe's job is never done. Ayibobo.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

August is Gran Ibo

The card for this month is Gran Ibo, a mysterious spirit, whose worship has been forgotten in Haiti. The Ibo were a proud nation of Africans who chose to die free rather than live as slaves.  Here in the US, we have a place called Ibo Landing in Georgia. It is remembered as the place where a group of Ibos chose to drown rather than step onto the land as slaves.  The story continues to say they turned into birds and flew away. I find that an interesting intersection of myth and legend.  In Vodou, we say the ancestors become birds who perch in the mighty Mapou tree, singing and calling to us until they return to God.  Perhaps, it is the Ibos then who sing from the top of our enormous tree in the yard, calling to us before service work.

Legend also says that Gran Ibo was a maroon slave who escaped to the mountains, where she welcome everyone - Africans, Buccaneers, Taino and Arawak peoples into her camps. She was a free leader, and she granted that same status to anyone who sought her out in the mountain tops. Although we think of Haiti as an island, with white beaches, the interior has huge mountain ranges, some of which are nearly impassable. Those very same forests and rocky aeries was where the runaway slaves too refuge from the Spanish and French masters.

Although the Ibos are gone, we still have their songs.  They are amongst the most danceable of melodies.  When I want to get the house moving energetically in service, I throw an Ibo song to the choir, and invariably people leap to their feet and begin to dance with great joy and enthusiasm.  A Haitian mambo who was gracing our temple with her presence once told me that she hadn’t heard any of the Ibo songs I sing in ages, and she was very grateful to hear them as her grandmother used to sing them as well.  I felt honored to be able to share them with her.

Gran Ibo is the ancient mother of the Ibo nation and the great comforter.  She is said to be the guardian of the flags of a houmfort. Gran Ibo is the one who takes it all in – all the secrets, all the people, all the pain and suffering.  Her symbol is a canari jar, the earthen vessel in which she carries her power and secrets.  The Ibos used canari jars, govis and other clay containers for storing their foods and as a symbol of their ancestral grounds.  Forcibly removed from Africa where their family land was, and unable to have sacred ground here in the new world, the Ibos used their canaris and govis in place of the earth, for the holy burial of their dead.  In this month of August, we will need to feed our ancestors to help keep our lives in equilibrium.
If you have a govi from your kanzo, this is a good month to feed it and redress it.  Use three different essential oils that speak to you – a sweet one such as an orange or spearmint; a sharp one like pepper or basil; and a floral like jasmine or ylang ylang.  Place your govi on the altar, and drop three of each oil into the vessel.  As you do so, say the following prayer:

(drop the sweet oil) – For those I love who have gone before me.
(drop the sharp oil) – For those I lost in bitterness
(drop the floral) – For those who are yet to come.

Sit before the vessels and inhale deeply the three scents.  Allow your mind to drift and later, make note of any images, words or feelings that came to you. These are the messages of the ancestors. Building upon them will bring blessings into your life.

The shadow of August is exalted, as represented by the Ayiti (Hierophant) card.  This card’s traditional meaning is one of spirituality, religion, ritual and doing the right thing.  I chose to use Max Beauvoir as the Hierophant, because of his position in Vodou in Haiti. He is very much the spiritual leader, and all about doing the right thing for Haiti and for the Vodouisants there.  As the shadow of Gran Ibo, this card lends powerful consciousness to your choices. It will help you do the right thing for those who find their way to your door in August.  Your teacher may arrive, or you may become the teacher for someone who comes to you for help. Be prepared by feeding the ancestors, keeping them present on your altar, and allowing their wisdom to be your guide this month.