Notes from Atlantis

Random Thoughts from the Crescent City

Friday, June 02, 2006

Notes from Atlantis 25

Dear Folks,

I guess I ought to be shot. At any rate, I’m a terrible adoptive aunt. An old pal of mine from high school, Mary Pat Carroll, dropped by last weekend from Houston for a visit, accompanied by her two sons (ages 22 and 10) and I took them to a voudou ceremony.

And got possessed.

How embarrassing. Alright, it wasn’t all bad. We also took them to the Aquarium, and to an impromptu music festival out along Bayou St. John, and to the Praline Connection, and cooked them chicken etouffee, and they all swear they had a terrific time, but still. Scaring a ten-year-old witless is just something a nice adoptive aunt should never, ever do.

So let me explain. Mary’s eldest son Sam just graduated with honors from Rutgers, and she and Michael, his younger brother, had flown up to Jersey and partied him down and rented a U-Haul and driven him south with all his worldly possessions. He starts work in Houston next week as an engineer, doing something impressive with an oil company, I’m afraid I have no idea what. Sam’s father is Lebanese and Michael’s is Moroccan (Mary is a nurse who worked for years overseas), so they’re fairly cosmopolitan, but still. Did I mention that MICHAEL IS TEN YEARS OLD??? Bill and I thought it would be fun for them to get a taste of several different aspects of New Orleans, so we thought we’d go to the Aquarium (newly reopened), and then go hear a little music, and then attend a voudou ceremony being given by Sallie Ann Glassman, a friend of ours and a local mambo, or priestess.

And it really WAS an excellent idea, at least in theory. For one thing, the Aquarium is flat-out beautiful. I never went there before the storm (one of many things we “always meant to do”) but it’s amazing now, with a wide variety of fish (everything from neon tetras to electric eels, piranhas, jellyfish, sharks, and huge manta rays) to penguins, sea otters, and parrots (yeah, alright, parrots aren’t fish, but they’re in the Amazon Rain Forest display and they’re gorgeous). My favorite was something called a sea dragon, a lovely clump of diaphanous green that looks halfway between a sea horse and a floating lettuce leaf. Amazing. Aquariums can be, well, a little dank and smelly (even the old New York Museum of Natural History used to look a little fly-blown) but this one’s a peach. Plus it’s incredibly peaceful just to simply stand there and watch the fish swim slowly around in their tanks. I may go there a lot this summer, if I end up becoming “weather-stressed” waiting for tropical storms to develop.

And when you remember that something like 99% of the creatures there died post-Katrina (I think only the pelicans survived) it’s not merely beautiful, but inspiring to see it all looking so pristine and gorgeous again. So the Aquarium was a big thumbs-up. My adoptive aunt stock was rising at this point.

So we regrouped and went on to the “Bayou Boogaloo” along Bayou St. John, which was also very nice, if a little small. Okay, maybe I’m judging it by Jazz Fest standards. This fest was just an impromptu celebration of the fighting spirit of Mid-City (coming back, but still with a long way to go) and of the artists and musicians and restauranteurs who live there, who were on hand to display their wares. You had Lynn Dury and Walter “Wolfman” Washington and a host of other bands, all in a pretty outdoor setting, with crowds sitting along the bayou and kids playing egg-toss and a stilt-walker and beer and food stands and even a tent where they were giving people free massages! How cool was that? We stayed for a couple of hours, just soaking up the vibe, and it was wonderful. Perfect. We were flying high.

So we came back home and got into our voudou ceremonial gear (white for purity, with red accents, since Ogou Achade, the spirit we were invoking, likes red) and drove back over into the Bywater, where the invocation was being set up in at a vacant lot. Okay, cards on the table. Do I believe in voudou? Kinda. It appeals to all different parts of my personality, the crypto-Catholic part and the theatrical part and the wild part (YOU folks know it’s there) and also the part of me, rather large, which suspects there’s more to heaven and earth than was dreamt of even in Shakespeare’s philosophy, although he dreamt a lot. The basic idea of voudou (for which I’m using the alternate spelling, to demark it from “voodoo”, which is tourist dreck, or “hoodoo”, which is folk medicine) is animism, or deism, to use the white folks’ word: gods in everything and everything as a manifestation of God. What happened was the displaced (!) Africans in this hemisphere brought their gods with them, which gods then became syncretized with the Catholic saints. A lot of voudou seems to trace its roots back to the Yoruba culture in Nigeria, which is arguably as rich as the Irish in poets and visionaries, so when you add in three hundred years of oppression and slave revolts and travel, you get a potent brew indeed.

And yes, alright, some voudouists practice animal sacrifice, although Sallie Ann doesn’t. Yes, the ceremonies involve drumming and dancing and chants. No, they don’t involve sticking pins in dolls or calling up the Devil. It’s all a serious, joyful invocation of the uncanny, and since New Orleans is rightly or wrongly so associated with voudou in the public mind, I thought it might be nice if my friends got a taste of the real thing.

However, it DOES also involve possession. And given my propensity for slipping into fugue states at the drop of a hat, I suppose I should have known better. Anyway, here’s what happened:

We got there around seven PM. Maybe fifteen or twenty people were present, several regulars from Sallie Ann’s “congregation”, and other guests. They began with a lovely long litany invoking and praising the saints (both Catholic and voudou) and asking for their aid. This is all sung in Haitian patois, and is similar to the call-and-response of the mass. Then a male “hounsis”, or acolyte, invoked Ogou, the warrior spirit, first threatening Sallie Ann with a machete and then, once she had “tamed” him, dancing with her. The ritual space was created by inscribing the crossroads, a literal cross on the floor that signifies the portal between the four points of the compass, the heavens, and the abyss, where the ancestors live. Thus time and space are called into a singular point where the spirits can “pass through”. Legba, the lame trickster god who guards the crossroads, was invoked, as well as other major spirits including, of course, Ogou, who was being asked to protect the community from crime. More chanting, more dancing, and more drumming ensued as the evening darkened and a fire-red sunset smeared the sky. Offerings were brought forward (rum, cigars, knives, iron) and the participants’ hands were washed in perfumed water.

All while this was going on I was experiencing a very strange, uncontrollable spasming in my right hand and, progressively, all up my right arm and then along the whole right side of my body. Don’t ask me what it was, because I truly don’t know. I felt myself slipping into a hypnotic state where my conscious mind was still present, but bemused: looking on, and distant from the phenomenon taking place. Which was, yes, that I felt another consciousness entering my head, a consciousness which was female, and angry, and grieving. Her overwhelming feeling was “What a waste!” I collapsed to my knees and then to a fetal position on the ground with my hands outstretched, and could feel weeping, uncontrollable weeping, coming up through the cement under my palms. What was it? Auto-suggestion? A memory that that area was recently underwater? Earth spirits? I really haven’t a clue. The feeling, I can tell you, was both deeply sorrowful and scary, and also wildly exhilarating. It’s like touching an electrical socket, there’s definitely SOMETHING going through you. One of the “hounsis” came over and held me and put alcohol on my ankles and wrists and the back of my neck and I remember begging her not to leave me alone with this, so she stayed, as did Bill, who was with me all while this was going on. I also sensed a presence somewhere nearby of a man smoking a cigarette, although I was assured later on that no one was smoking anything.

After a while the feeling faded, and when the ritual continued and Ogou Achade was invoked with fire and gunpowder, I started to feel much better, as though at least SOMETHING was being done. Mary and Michael had retreated to the car by this point, although Sam stayed, and eventually we tore ourselves away to join them.

So what was it? I honestly can’t say. I only know I would have felt a good deal MORE embarrassed if I’d done it deliberately. As it was, I felt like the victim of a strangely pleasurable hit-and-run.

New Orleans is indeed a strange place altogether, and perhaps now especially, when its nerves are still so raw. I think, thought, that it’s always been a place where the membrane between the seen and the unseen, the everyday and the inexplicable, is unusually thin...and maybe that’s why people get drunk here, and numb themselves, and some people want to hold it at arm’s length--and, yes, some people want to destroy it, or at least let it die.

We’re all so shy about the sacred, we want the sacred to be something you can write inside a Christmas card, while the sacred is like electricity, or blood, or water. Something very primal and powerful and nourishing, but also very scary.

Anyway, it’s something I definitely want to explore some more, and see where the spirits, the loas, want to take me.

Although maybe next time I won’t bring a ten-year-old.

I’ll let you know how things progress.




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