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.