Sunday, February 28, 2010

Holi ~ Hindu Spring/Minnesota Winter

It’s Holi!

Holi is India’s answer to Carnival, if you can imagine Carnival including a nation-wide water- and colored-powder-fight. It’s bright and obnoxious and loud and fun: a hue and cry.

The “Festival of Colors” harkens Spring. It occurs on Phalgun Purnima, or the full moon at the end of the last winter month. In some parts of India (not mine; I lived in a pretty boring part of India, festival-wise) it’s preceded by fifteen days of worship and revelry, including a huge bonfire the night before.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, takes part. In the morning, you put on white clothes and go to the temple; the adventure is getting home. You spend the rest of the day drinking bhang (if I have to tell you what that is, you don’t need to know), throwing bright colored powder and water balloons and soaking family, friends and total strangers alike with water guns full of colored water.

On Holi, traditional behavior and boundaries break down. Class and caste are forgotten. Employees gang up on their bosses, students throw water balloons at teachers, kids waylay grandparents. Although technically a Hindu festival, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs flood the streets as well. If you’re out of the house—old, young, rich, poor—you’re fair game. Reluctant people are often pulled out of the door and mercilessly soaked by friends. You are going to party whether you like it or not!

On this day, India is ruled by Krishna, the mischievous lover. Social rules and reserve are washed away in a raucous flood of  procreative play. Holi is a boisterous and beautiful sexual thrill, an ancient wet T-shirt festival. For little kids, clueless to connotations, it’s just play. For teenagers, half innocent and half knowing, it’s a day of permissiveness and unleashed energy. For adults, it’s a day of freedom, a chance to relax the tension of propriety and embrace the primal. Wives and husbands flirt like young lovers. People chase each other, catch each other, smear each other with color, soak each other with Spring. The thin cotton clothes of men and women alike become plastered to bodies painted sky blue and sea green and saffron and that crimson that looks redder and richer and brighter in India than anywhere else in the world. The country goes mad with color.

Gangs of kids and young men, faces smeared red, bodies painted like warriors, will roam around,  defend a territory from other gangs, ambush strangers and roar with laughter. It does get violent in the city, and unsafe for women. Spring fertility rites and modern Indian cities are a dangerous combination. The heady and the horrific keep close company.

When I was little, Holi was a neighborhood thing, wild and exciting but pretty safe. It got rougher as I got older, so we used to go to a friend’s village up the mountains to celebrate. Adults and kids alike would chase each other around the huts and small houses, tear through the forest, powder clutched in one hand, squirt gun in the other, whooping and shrieking with dismay or triumph or both.  Everybody got crazy, everybody had fun. It makes me smile to remember.

This is the one time of year that I ache for India. Festivals who were popular in their native land can get lonely when they live abroad. We make Hindu holidays our own, here on a Minnesota farm: celebrate Diwali by filling the house with the scent of chai and the light of candles; Shivaratri with reflection and conversation. But trying to celebrate Spring Rites in a Midwestern February…well, there are limits. The white clothes of Winter remain pristine, untouched. Only the sky, too distant to tint the snow, shines with color…but it is a blue brighter and cooler and sharper than any other sky over any other place on earth.

To know more than one place is to be stretched thin, ever longing for the home you’re not in. I keep having flings and then falling in love with other geography. Just when I think I’m settled and safe, I’m pulled out my door by the rough and colorful friends I’ve made of other places.

I’m staying in today, remembering old loves and feeling happily married. Urban and I will cook Indian food: Panir (famers cheese) with peas and mushrooms, peppers with cilantro and lemon, rajma (kidney beans in a tomato gravy) saffron rice; and listen to music: Nine Inch Nails, Modest Mouse, Pink, Santigold. Maybe even some MIA and Indian fusion, who  knows? We’ll laugh and trip over the dogs and tease each other and argue about what to listen to and chase each other around the kitchen. We’ll make the day our own. We’ll color it, sweet and deep, and it will be like no other time or place on this earth.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


This is about my relationship with pain, which has been my close companion for about 8 years now. It’s excerpted from something I wrote awhile ago for a relative who who was having painful health issues, to try to help them and their family deal with the ongoing crisis. One of the worst things about pain is how alienating it can be: most people don’t get it; how could they? Another family member, who is also a psychiatrist, recently asked if she could share it with some of her patients, so it’s edited to remove personal info. I hope it can help people.

When I am in pain, I am not rational. Pain distorts and amplifies every minor stress and moderate worry into insurmountable disasters. Thinking about the state of my lawn/inbox/whatever can reduce me to a hysterical frenzy at 4am. The worse the pain, the worse the irrationality. Telling someone who is in pain that they are being irrational is not helpful, though.

Pain makes me feel like I am going crazy. It’s a constant murmur/noise/shrieking in my head that can drown out everything else. It never really goes away, but it can be better or worse. When it’s not bad, it’s like background music; when it’s bad, it’s like being up front near the speakers at a packed, loud concert: I’m jostled around helplessly and feel it thump in my bones. When someone talks to me, I see their lips moving but I can’t hear what they are saying.

When I am in pain, all I want is for it to stop. I will say or do anything to make it stop. If moving makes it hurt, I will say or do anything not to move.

The same way an animal in pain will curl up and ignore everything, or bite out of reflex, I will either lock up and ignore or verbally lash out at my husband. I can’t help it. Pain kicks in adrenaline, and takes the “thinking” part of my brain off-line. The “reflex: fight/flight/freeze” part takes over, the same part that takes over in anger or other strong emotion. I panic. Everything feels like a threat I want to run away from, but the threat is inside and I can’t get away. There are times that I have banged my head repeatedly or pulled my own hair. Watching me be in this much pain is scary for my husband.

Pain is not just a physical thing. It is extremely emotionally traumatizing. When I am in pain, my husband has to be very gentle and speak very softly. If he is agitated, upset or loud, it terrifies me and I go into a panic (see above). When I am in pain, what I need first, MORE THAN ANYTHING is for my husband NOT to problem solve, but to come and gently put his arms around me and tell me he’s there with me and everything will be ok. Usually at first I yell back “No, it won’t be ok!” but after awhile I can calm down. Sometimes when he tries to hug me, I feel claustrophobic and push him away or yell at him; it’s again like being an animal in a trap. He might just hold my hand at first, then hug me. I need that comfort first, even just for a few moments. Physical contact is not just nice and cuddly; it also releases endorphins which alleviate pain and help me relax.

Because I am still in pain and not thinking clearly at this point, now my husband has to problem solve. That usually means getting me a heat pad & helping me position it on my abdomen (otherwise I will just sit there and hold it in my hands like an idiot), a pill and something easy to eat.

Now comes the waiting. The 45 minutes it takes for a pill to kick in seems like HOURS when I am in pain. I often start to panic: Why is it taking so long? What if that pill was a dud? What if it doesn’t work? Sometimes I work myself up so much that by the time the pill does kick in, my body is so tense that the medication doesn’t work as well. So relaxing while waiting, even a little, is important.

I HAVE TO keep my brain/mind engaged and keep those endorphins coming, or I just goes down the pain>panic>tension>more pain spiral. Sitting around in pain doing nothing makes pain WORSE. Sometimes I get so desperate that I get up to do something like the dishes, just so I’m not stuck on the sofa with nothing to do but feel in pain. If movement causes more pain, this is ultimately foolish! So, what to do?

1. Put on some not-too-loud music that lasts at least as long as it takes the pill to kick in. This gives me something to focus on. If it’s an album/mix I know, it also helps me to think: “by the time “Unstoppable” comes on, the pill will have kicked in & I’ll feel better. Only four songs to go!” I also put on music to help me get to sleep if I am in pain. It really helps.

2. Gently pet the dog. It is very calming and the quiet that surrounds animals is relaxing to me.

3. DO SOMETHING! I can never think of anything at the time, and I never think some stupid game could possibly help…but it always does. I have to do something uncomplicated that has a finite result in a short span of time. Small jigsaw puzzles, origami, a coloring book, acting out the bamboo forest scene from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” with a bunch of cilantro and a couple of tiny devil ducks. If My husband can sit with me, easy games like Connect-4 or Trouble work too (he has to pop the Pop-O-Matic for me, which is always a little disappointing); sometimes he reads to me. Vague, open-ended things like just drawing don’t work because I have to come up with an idea. If my husband puts a piece of paper & pencil in front of me and says “Draw something” I just freeze up. If he says ”Draw a picture of our dogs in the small appliance section at Target shopping for an ice-cream maker,” that would work. My husband & I also play Dungeons & Dragons because it can last for hours, so if I’m having a bad night I have something else to focus on. TV helps, but only a little. The drugs I take give me headaches & nausea that get worse from the computer or TV. And sometimes it’s just too disorienting and confusing. Some Wii /computer games help too, but again, after awhile the glowing screen is just too much for me.

5. Talk to someone. If it’s late at night and my husband is too exhausted or has to work in the morning & I can’t find an awake friend, I call a crisis hotline. I was embarrassed the first time I called but it they were really nice, and it helped distract me.

When I am in pain, I swing between being brave & stupid by not asking for help, and demanding & childish by being very selfish. There is middle ground but it’s hard to inhabit. Pain makes me feel alone and like my husband does not care about me. I spend a lot of time feeling ashamed of not being able to tough it out, and of having to ask for help. It makes me doubt myself and feel weak. Getting through it requires faith, and not the religious kind (although my experiences the last 8 years have deepened my curiosity about the Great Whatever).

What I mean by faith is, it’s the belief that I will get better, that I can endure. Even when I feel trapped in an endless moment and can’t remember or imagine any other way of being, I have to believe that the pain will ease, it will pass. It’s the faith that although I can’t stop the pain from coming, I don’t have to keep it or own it or find some great meaning in it, I can just let it flow through me like water. It’s knowing that my husband can’t understand what I am going through and will say the wrong thing and act like a dick and walk away when I need him, he is still doing his best and I’m never alone. Even when he is not next to me holding my hand, even when we are not getting along, I am cradled in the home and the life we have made, and that life is real and true and funny and gorgeous. It’s the faith that I’m not alone, the pain will pass and I will still be here.

Monday, February 22, 2010


icicles 2010 008

There are so many other things I should be doing right now besides writing this. My house is in disarray. My horses need grooming. My tack room is dusty. Work is  piled up, minor crises  balanced atop teetering piles of everyday tasks. My personal life resembles my Inbox: requests, problems, crucial  projects and spam all jumbled together and overflowing like a junk drawer that, after years of jiggling and shoving and swearing and cajoling and I-really-need-to-clean-this-shit-out-ing, finally can’t be forced shut. It protrudes, half open, and later that day you bang your hip on it. It bruises.

This time of year usually finds me brooding and angsty. It’s a little known fact that this is the shortest month because, here in Minnesota, we wouldn’t survive another three days of February. Never mind the calendar, this is Midwinter. The snow is deep. The cold is steady and endless, purgatorial. I’ve seen some wretchedly hot summers. It can be miserable, but where heat pushes us outward to our baking skins; the cold draws us low into our brittle bones. Heat smothers us; the cold takes our breath. Heat saps but cold strips. My life is in as much or as little chaos as it is in July, but it looks different now, with the leaves ripped off and bare limbs showing. It gets dark so fast.

When I’m troubled or angry or confused, I look for the sense in it. I examine, dissect, assess; clear the way for the wild flash of insight. I reach for wisdom that transcends the mundane: the true, spiritual meaning behind the everyday chore of emotion. What’s the message, the lesson? What am I supposed to be learning? I’m convinced that whatever-I’m–going-through is a reflection and mysterious aspect of the Great Whatever. I want my suffering to be significant, revelatory, ameliorating.  What I want from life, more than anything, is to understand. I lust for illumination.

There are no answers for me in the cold, just endless tasks performed in the dark. In the absence of message or meaning, the only option is to embrace the mundane. Bereft of spiritual revelation, I notice that commitment and experience do not come through insight. They are earned. I cannot analyze or express or understand this. I can only know it.  And the only way of knowing is in doing. Answer email, groom the horses, dust. Put my house in order. Keep going. This is February. This is the lesson of winter: endure.

And for pity’s sake, book a vacation.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Our Lady of Morphine

Every time I go in for surgery, I say a prayer to Our Lady of Morphine, the Patron Saint of Pain Control, the Angel of Analgesics.

Our Lady of Morphine copy

I drew this  self-portrait (ink and sparkly pen on recycled paper)sometime in late January/early February 2002, while in hospital in Dehradun, India, where I almost died. It’s where, raging with infection and gallstones, I would experience what the doctors called “episodes;” it always made me wonder why I was stuck watching this crappy show. It’s also where they fed me such large amounts of morphine that when I got back to the US, my doctors thought the hospital reports were loaded with typos. But, man, that pain was CONTROLLED!

I remember the Doc at Abbott—O, blessed Abbott, with your uniformed nurses, sterile gloves, and well-lit, pristine bathrooms-- looking at me incredulously over a clipboard and saying “You travelled commercial in this condition, while taking these doses? I assumed you were airlifted.” Nope. I was so out of it that my sister, standing in that 2 am fog outside of Delhi airport (mingled smells of jasmine, diesel and Jet A) had to gently steer me towards the bright airport doors;I was wondering off into the mist. She had to insist I get a wheelchair. “No, no.” I remember saying vaguely, “I feel fine.” The look on her face!

Changing planes at Schipol, sisterless, was a little more traumatic. I’ve had wonderful experiences in Amsterdam (who hasn’t?) but I’ve found that Holland, or at least it’s main airport, is not the most brown-skinned-people friendly place on the planet. I couldn’t get anyone to take my request for a wheelchair seriously. I wandered around, in tears, clutching my carry-on and a mysterious little ceramic house (it sloshed!) handed to me by the flight attendant in the First Class cabin. Ok, so I wasn’t airlifted but I honestly don’t think I would have lived through economy. I sat down, in considerable pain, self-pity and confusion, at a deserted gate, and started paging through my journal for my flight info. I came across Our Lady, and sat staring at her. Pills are scattered everywhere. Massive syringes drip. Doctors and nurses cavort. Our lady sits, serene, amid it all. I started to laugh.

I made it home, to encounter such wonders as Abbott NW Hospital, a husband nearly obscured by roses, a singing and dancing pig wearing a chicken suit, culture shock in the form of mac and cheese, and hippies in the basement. But that’s a story for another day.

I’ve had what I like to refer to as “health challenges” since then (I blame the pig). But just to be clear: the dimly lit, slightly grubby hospital in India saved my life. The non-uniformed nurses, who had a distressing habit of setting loaded syringes with unprotected needles down on my crowded bed-side table, would hold my hand and sing to me until the drugs kicked in. There are many kinds of pain control.

But also: when someone in my family is having a health crisis, we say: Hell, at least this isn’t happening in India.

I dug this picture out of The Grey Cloth Journal, April 12, 2000—February 15, 2002 –a big fat one, and a pain in the ass to lug around. But it’s a treasure trove of narcotics-inspired art.

Our Lady has been letting me down a little lately, so I thought maybe she’d like it here. Feel free to leave an offering.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Vodou that I do.

Oct 08 Dark River altar & dome 041

Recently, a friend at a party asked me what, exactly, it is that I do as a Vodou priestess. I was silent for a moment, then launched into an explanation heavy on the giving-of-counsel–regardless-of-faith and general hand-holding, as if I am primarily an unpaid social worker who just happens to keep a lot of rum and candles around the house.

I find myself doing this a lot—the secular priestess act. I can’t lay the blame on cautious representation of the Vodou taboo to the fearful. I have to admit it: this is just how I am. My intellect tends to overpower my good sense, and I then suddenly it’s like I’m behind a podium. I reduce my religion to historical context and social components. The answer I should have given—the answer my friend deserved—is very simple. As a Vodou priestess, I serve the Spirits, and I serve the community.

So what the hell does that mean? Well, let me tell you, it varies. Lately, it’s kind of sucked. Here’s why.

My surgery was less than a week after the earthquake and I was furious that I had to stop what I was doing; I mean, surgery always makes me furious that I have to stop what I’m doing, but come on!  This is life or death for thousands of people. I’m busy fundraising here. I kept thinking: please let me continue to help somehow.

I got what I asked for. Lucky me. Stupid me!

I've had a good number of surgeries in the last 8 years; but that is a post for another day. What’s relevant here is that while under anesthesia, I occasionally meet the nearly or newly dead; it’s not usually a big deal, they show me stuff, or talk for a bit & then drift off. It’s always peaceful: misty and bright in a based-on-a-true-story, I-saw-an-angel, spiritual porn kind of way.

This is not what happens when I go in for the latest surgery —this is hardcore. Countless people are begging me to bring them, or their loved ones, to the hospital I am in. There are many crying out in helplessness agony, begging to be rescued from under the rubble. They don’t realize they are dead at first; I think many are dying as they speak to me. Later, I wonder, how did these souls find me here, so many hundreds of miles away from where they lay dying? I imagine a big blinking arrow on a Google map in the Ether: “Manbo Here.” I guess distance is only a physical concern. But right now, these are not my thoughts. I am here. I do my best to reassure them, hold their hands, send them on. Once they realize they are dead, most become very peaceful and drift off, but some still want me to help their families. They are desperate.

This is not frightening; I do feel beleaguered, like the only airline employee at an airport in a war zone, where nobody knows how to get to their flights but everybody knows they’re late.

Things are getting hazy. I see some people join their loved ones. A woman gives a cry of fierce joy and swings a lanky boy into her arms. I smile before I remember. He’s here because he’s dead.

Waking up post-op is always pretty disorienting. Recovery from surgery is always a little rough, often leaving both Urban & me emotionally ragged. This has been a tough one. I’m moody, whiny, angry. I feel the Dead hovering just out of the range of my vision; as I drift off to sleep, as I wake up, as I pass though moments of transition, they come forward. They are not all polite. I feel wrenching sympathy for them, but sometimes I want them to leave me alone for a bit. Narcotics withdrawal is enough on its own just now, thanks. There are times I feel totally overwhelmed, clueless and wretchedly unworthy. I fumble around in the blur of my own life; as lost as anyone. How am I supposed to help these souls find their way? I feel selfish and tired and my stomach hurts and I yell at Urban.

I remember going into initiation last year and being told: if you are doing this to make your life easier, leave now! This will make your life harder, but truer. I remember nodding and smiling and thinking I knew what that meant. I realize now, we never know what a vow meant when we take it. That’s why you have to make vows—duh, so when the challenge of reality exceeds your imagination, you don’t scarper. When your heart breaks, your conscience keeps beating. It can be as brutal as it sounds. You’ve had that moment of hesitation in a doorway, aching to leave but knowing you promised to stay.  Romantic imaginings (I’m going to be a Vodou priestess, how cool is THAT?) are a pale, pretty shadow of something greater. Beyond ideas of how it ought to be, there’s a genuine way of being. I feel an incredible outrushing of gratitude: for the Dead and the life they’ve had, the life I’m still living, and the trust they show in me. In their final moment it does not matter where I am or how I feel or if I’m worthy. I promised to serve. I’ll just have to work with what I’ve got.

I've done some brief ceremonies as I've recovered from my surgery. This Friday is Shivarathri, the festival for Shiva (yeah I’m Hindu too, by birth--that is definitely a topic for a different post). I will try to do some focused work over the weekend to help the Dead, as He's (kind of) the Hindu Gede, and my long-time patron.

My community in New Orleans has also been doing ceremonies for the Dead; every Vodou house I know is doing ceremonies to guide and honor them. They media has shared lovely pictures and footage of Christians singing and praying, but be assured there are also many, many people, both in Haiti and around the world, who are not Christian, or not only Christian, serving those in need, those who live and suffer and those who have passed to the next life. If you are one of the many who offered prayers for the Dead, your prayers were heard. They thank you.

So what, exactly, do I do as a Vodou priestess? It varies. Right now, I light candles, coax, pray, chant and sing the Dead on to Guinen, the homeland waiting under the Waters. I tell them they will not be forgotten, that now they are our memory, history, inspiration. They are our guides. In leading them home, I’ve found my way.