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.