Thursday, March 15, 2007

Spring Cleaning and Returning to the Source

Luisah Teish
Harper/Collins, 1991
ISBN13: 9780062508591
ISBN10: 0062508598
Spiritually, emotionally and physically, it's time for me to clear out the cobwebs, shake loose from the ennui of winter and that long cold sleep. To that end, I'd like to offer a recommendation, Jambalaya. It grabbed my attention after just reading the first few pages. But to do this touchstone of a book justice, let's have Teish captivate you herself.

"Somehow I knew that there was much more going on than was apparent on the surface. My existence and that of the things going on around me caused me to question everything, always looking for the deeper meanings."New Orleans-like the San Francisco Bay Area, where I now live-is a psychic seaport. The psychic energies of many people living and dead hovers over the city of New Orleans, possibly because of the water. Visitors to the city become "tipsy" after being there only a short time. "Tipsy" is the name given to that state of mind that precedes possession. (It is also used to mean slightly drunk.) I grew up tipsy. Due to the limited perceptions of a child and the nature of memory, I can only describe it vaguely. I remember a big, too soft, and bulky double bed in the middle room. This is the place where my cousin Frank Jr., took refuge from the whippings he seems always to have earned. He used to hide under this bed to smoke cigarettes; but for me smoke and Frank were not the only things hiding under that bed.

Perhaps I had eaten too many pickles that night and overindulged in the delicious teacakes and sweet potato turnovers my Maw-Maw used to bake in the woodstove. Whatever the external cause, when I laid my head on the duck-down pillow covered with an immaculate muslin pillowcase, I just couldn't sleep. Everything was so still and quiet that I could not tell whether the numerous and barely distinguishable adult relatives of mine were asleep in the front room or out for a night of church. I could have been there alone without concern because everybody on the block was somehow kin to me and would have come running at the slightest disturbance.

But tonight as Wind slipped slowly through the cracks in the wooden fence that enclosed the backyard, no one seemed to be afoot. At least, no one human. I could hear only the wind and the irregular tapping of Maw-Maw's white dog, who was born with only three legs. I was always afraid of that dog and kept a safe distance between us, not because he was in any ways vicious but because his eyes were always red and I had been told that he knew when somebody was going to die.Was it Frank? Had he crawled under it to avoid a whipping and fallen asleep? Had Maw-Maw's creepy dog gotten under the house and situated himself directly beneath the bed? When I asked myself these questions, Wind told me, "No, "Cher."" As my fear mounted, I became aware of a sensation of lifting subtly. My back seemed not to touch the buttons of the mattress. I kept rising and rising until I seemed to be five feet above the bed. I remember thinking that if I kept rising like this I was going to bump into the ceiling and smash my already flat nose. "I wanna go down," I said nervously inside my head, and at that moment my face seemed to sink through the back of my head so that my chest and feet were still facing the ceiling but my face was looking down at the bed. And what a sight it saw!

There under the bed was an undulating, sinewy, mass of matter as brown as the waters of the muddy Mississippi River. It was squeezing out from under the bed on all sides like a toothpaste tube with pin holes in it. The brown was taking forms, humanoid but undistinguishable by gender. They were getting higher, showing heads with eyes, bellies, legs, outstretched arms, and I was getting closer to the bed. My face, now only a few inches from the sheet returned to the other side of my head, and as my body descended I looked at these brown humanoids towering over me. I seemed to shake uncontrollably, my muscles moved about as if I had no bones. I opened my mouth, screamed but the sound was made only inside my head. The brown-folk seemed to take a deep breath as my body settled on the mattress. They touched me and their matter slipped into my muscles and ran through my veins. The floodgates opened and as a warm astringent liquid sank into the mattress, I sank into sleep.This happened when I was about five years old. Twenty-three years later I got a piece of an explanation of its meaning. A Puerto Rican woman water-gazed for me, and-without knowing my story--told me to make two dolls for my unknown ancestors and keep them under my bed."
(from Chapter 1 -- Growing Up Tipsy)

Luisah Teish is a priestess in the Yoruba tradition, healer, dancer and artist. She was raised in New Orleans by her family whose own members were "root women" and devout Christians, who practiced a familiar (to me) amalgam similar to Santeria and voudou. While Luisah was exposed to this kind of religious expression throughout her childhood, it did not become part of her conscious life until adulthood. A crisis or 'nervous breakdown,' precipitated a years long process of searching for her roots, reconstructing her past and embracing its traditions. Where it finally led her was to a new identity as priestess and woman-centered artist.

This is a highly readable, engaging account of not just her journey, but the Yoruba world view, the pantheon of gods and goddesses that populate its universe, and the individual's relationship to them. Striking to me are the contrasts between that world view and the Christian belief that attempted to supplant it.

For example: Teish contrasts the quintessential Christian belief in 'original sin' and the Yoruba principal of 'ache,' the divine force present in all things, existing in humans from the moment of their birth. There is no word for 'sin' in the Yoruba lexicon; there is foolishness, faithlessness and error, but all human beings are considered endowed with a piece of the sacred animating force of the universe.

In order for the reader to fully appreciate this complicated universe and the depth and importance of the daily practice, Teish lovingly describes the Seven African Powers and their attributes, their significance, their domains and their roles in people's daily lives.

(The Seven African Powers are central to Yoruba beliefs, and also form the core pantheon in the Afro-diasporic beliefs of Santeria, Voudou, Macumba, etc.) I loved her description of Oya Yansa, who I discovered in my own odyssey about ten years ago.

She is the warrior queen, the whirlwind, the catalyst for upheaval, cleansing and change on the deepest levels. She is constantly associated with imagery of keeping things clean, of sweeping things away--one of her talismans is the whiskbroom. (To put an Alvarado spin on it, she is the Ultimate Badass Housekeeper.) And she always hides her true face, presenting the one that is necessary for the work at hand.

On the most profound levels, Teish reveals to us Oya as harbinger of cosmic displacement and reconstruction, Creator/Slayer of Worlds, the one who while disguised, removes the stagnant and moribund: She is the girl who cleans up. Very different from the pale Virgin of my youth, asexual, whose chief attributes were endurance and the absorption of pain. Oya fights, takes lovers, reinvents herself to meet the occasion, revealing part, but never the whole of who she truly is.

I think here about my own disguises, my own decisions to hide or reveal in daily life, as well as writing and performance. I come back to Jambalaya time and time again to find imagery and meaning, to be strengthened, to deepen my connection with Oya and the warrior spirit. Teish's book is a completely accessible guidebook as to how to begin to touch the hem of Her skirts.

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