Saturday, 3 January 2015

Kwanzaa Thanksgiving when my mother threw Kola and said Ase

For my mum, Lucille, whose mantra is ‘divine order.’

Picture of mum, taken when she was having me! At the time she sported this boys' cut (influenced by Miriam Makeba) and says this might be why I wear my hair short.

In the past year I’ve experienced the joy of properly ‘meeting’ my mother. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to embrace her spirit and engage with some of her soul urges which are interwoven with mine. I’d like to share some of it because the other day a wonderful thing happened which for me shows that at 82, she is journeying to true ‘eldership’ and becoming the Mother she really is.

Mothers can sometimes be taken for granted, especially when they’re getting older and seemingly past it! Yet every day with my mum I see something previously unknown in her and a new speckle of growth in her understanding. I appreciate this time to be with her because it impacts my own journey. Our developing bond has not always been there. She left me when I was two and something in the care of her sister during the migration fever (as I call it) and for a long time I couldn’t reconcile the ‘abandonment.’ Several years ago, I forgave her in my way and accepted that she was doing what she felt at the time was right, like the many others infected with the same fever.

Like many of us my mum had religion imposed on her. Most of us don’t think of it as an imposition, but tend to take it for granted that it has always been our way of life, ‘traditional’ even and what’s accepted/expected of us as ‘good people’ to wholeheartedly embrace. So Mum was a ready recipient of Christianity. She didn’t question any of it because it simply WAS. I on the other hand always questioned everything that didn’t appear to make sense. Some of those questions I posed to her – like ‘why did God ask Abraham to kill his son?’ Initially she didn’t give me adequate answers, but to this one I think she eventually made the standard response that it was to do with ‘testing Abraham’s faith.’ This was ok, I could see the point but still begged for more answers. You see I wasn’t getting to the REAL question for which I was seeking answers - which was WHO IS GOD?
Eventually, when I was about 15 I told her I wasn’t going to THAT Church (All Saints – Church of England) around the corner any more. That took long because since my early childhood in Guyana I have struggled with being ‘churched.’ I enjoy the singing and clapping and the lively fellowshipping that happens in some churches, but often find them phoney. I always had the feeling of not quite fitting in – and perhaps I projected the feeling by my infrequent attendance so that those church folk found it difficult to extend the consistent ‘love’ the whole thing was supposed to be about! Anyway, the All Saints Church I used to go to under my mum’s orders was stuffy and dull. Mum rarely attended with me but used to send me with my face fixed for a feud on my own. Some argument led to the declaration that I wasn’t going back ever again. That was a liberating moment. You see, when I posed some of the questions about religion and Christianity to my mum I was looking for something I didn’t realise until recently – my mother’s own true faith/belief in it. Somehow that would convince me; make me want to be part of it. But my mum has this suspicious way of disguising herself; being one foot in and everything else out; of appearing to be one thing but being another; of trying to please others; of trying not to disquiet and upset the given order of things. Bizarrely every one of her children were blessed or baptized or ‘offered up’ to different Christian denominations: Catholic, Anglican, Seven Days, and me, Pentecostal.

Portrait of her grandmother, Lucille, by Leah Gordon

Her story began with her estrangement from her own mother (and twin sister) when she was 9. She was sent to the City (Georgetown, Guyana) to live with spinster cousins, old enough to be her mother(s). She experienced Cinderella’s fate and then some at the hands of these women - particularly a not so ‘dear aunt’ as she called one of them. It seems she loved school, but before going she had to do a whole heap of chores (as most ‘Caribbean’ children, especially during the 1940s/50s would have had to) before she was allowed to go. She often arrived late to school where she also received ‘lashes’ for it. She endured several blows to her head from all direction (parental and wards, school children and their parents), physical, mental and spiritual. These led to her falling asleep everywhere. She tells a story of nearly being run over because she fell asleep as she was walking down the road. In the midst of these torments she went to Church. It was an Anglican that ‘dear aunt’ used to send her to though she rarely went with her (the same vibration mum would later return to me). Though they sent her to the church, they didn’t allow her to receive confirmation when it was time - she seems to regret this. But she clung to the teachings of the church and now in her aging is brimming with the memories of the Anglican hymns she sang as a young girl. I introduced her to YouTube and sometimes she asks me to find one of them. I confess my total abhorrence of some of these songs because rather than giving praises (making a lovely loud noise) unto the Lord there’s this terrible wailing as though it hurts to praise their God. The other day she asked me to find one of these dreadful hymns. Again, the same horrendous wailing. She said, it’s the ‘key’ they’re singing it in. Exaggerating I said, they all sound like this. We found one YouTube entry that was just the words on screen for her to follow. And she sang and somehow that seemed to content her heart.

Throughout all this I’ve made it a kind of mission/experiment to introduce her to some of the ancestral forms of honouring spirit/ the Divine and God. I have had an ancestral shrine for some years which she has never criticised. Neither has she ever said anything about my Osun shrine. Our conversations about matters of spirit are rich and varied. She always reverts to the Christian Bible and Jesus and I always infuse the talk with the power of ancestors, the Orishas and what “God” means to her/me. We never argue about our differing views but complement each other’s understanding. It’s true I get frustrated and have in the past torn down her white Jesuses in an act expressing that what was hidden from the old should be revealed to the babes but we’re cool about this now! After all no matter how many outward impressions of white Jesus I tear down from the walls her consciousness is suffused with them. I have found little images of the same long blond hair, blue eyed guy in some of her prayer books and am a little embarrassed about how ironically I set on a ‘crusade’ to eradicate the affects.

Lighting a candle for the ancestors at nubia pamper day

Elder at an 'opening to spirit' ritual for Osun

Since becoming a ‘member’ of Unity school of Christianity she has always shared affirmations with me. For example, a favourite is ‘Divine Order is established and maintained in all my affairs.’ I honour these affirmations now and recognise them for their full worth. Though the Bible has been her guide, some forms of Christianity her staple means of expressing her faith, she recognises ‘spirituality’ as something different to the ‘doctrines’ (or full prescriptions) of a given religion. She acknowledges that much was beaten out of and indoctrinated into Africans. She used to organise thanksgiving services back in the day. I must have loved these occasions because I’ve carried them forward in my life (now with a twist that incorporates my sense of ‘spirituality’ and aspects of ancestral traditions). At her thanksgiving ceremonies, Christianity always plays its part. Passages from the Bible are used, a mix of denominational hymns are sung and usually prayers are directed to the Christian God. Some years ago she held one in Guyana to celebrate her 70th birthday. My cousin caught ‘comfa’ (went into trance, became spiritually possessed) which delighted my mum. Like me she treasures the power of the drum and knows that a drum work must be done at intervals in our lives (actually as often as one can afford – time and resource wise) to keep alive the traditions and spirit of our ancestors. This is the departure from the ‘Christian’ order of things. In the churches when members ‘catch spirit’ they declare it ‘the holy ghost’ but prior to the interventions by Europeans this ‘spirit’ was associated with ancestors and other cosmic forces that manifest to guide the way we live and bestow blessings on us (as individuals and our families/communities). Christianity, particularly in the Pentecostal and Baptist denominations allows members to ‘mask’ the connection with ancestral spirits or the individual’s spirit guide. The ‘holy ghost’ possesses everyone, sometimes in a mass frenzy of collective excitement and worship, back-dropped by a pastor’s prodding the ‘recipient’ of the ‘holy ghost’ to identify the spirit as ‘Jesus.’ It’s a readymade formula and way of worshippers ‘accepting’ and labelling their experiences. Any other label is ‘uncertain’ and could be the opposite of the ‘holy ghost’ – i.e. something ‘demonic’ or the ‘devil’ thereby warranting the need for ‘exorcism’ and the pledge to come under the Order of Jesus (and be thus ‘born again’).

At her cousin Pansy's funeral

Her 'thank you baam' at her 80th birthday

Embracing her granddaughter at her coming of age (18) ritual

If therefore my cousin was ever to ‘catch comfa’ (go into trance) at one of these Churches – either it would be defined as possession by the ‘holy spirit’ or something demonic. Outside of the Church, however, it might be seen as her ‘own spirit guide’ trying to communicate with her or an ancestor doing same. Naming the spirit as ‘Jesus’ avoids the apparent wilderness of spirituality, its independence from any religious prescriptions, forcing the individual to fear themselves (rather than knowing ‘self’), be terrified of their experiences, finding peculiar their private outbursts – sometimes speaking non-lexically (in ‘tongues’) during prayer or intuiting things others can’t see or understand, hearing ‘voices’ they think might lead them to ‘madness,’ and so on. All these experiences precede and preclude the existence of religious orders and their icons. Conveniently, religious observances and icons enable individuals experiencing these seemingly ‘strange’ manifestations to interpret them in their terms, and ultimately be relieved of them. They can now join hands with others who have never experienced these peculiar forms of ‘awakening to consciousness’ (one way to see the experiences) or apparent mental breakdowns (another way) that are consequent to these manifestations. The individual is now part of the church family, comforted by the knowledge that Jesus’ blood sanctifies all such phenomena. It might be worth saying here that when (African) spiritual practitioners speak of honouring ancestors we’re not only speaking of ancestors caught in the holocaust of enslavement, we mean far before that time and long time before the birth of Jesus. Also in Guyana, someone might become possessed by a ‘spirit’ manifesting the stereotypical ‘actions’ of someone from a different ethnic group, so that the ‘cosmic forces’ and spirits recognised in spiritual practice is not one dimensional. Importantly, every individual comes into the world with a unique relationship to these forces. The quest for self-knowledge and Truth expresses the need for the unfoldment of spiritual purpose, and the individual’s ultimate realignment with soul force and the Absolute Source (or All) we might more simply relate to as God.

Mum throws kola
All sides up and positive

Priestess Osunyemi pours libation

Mum reading her dedication

Youngest in our group lights the Kwanzaa candles

Flute and drum rousing spirits (brilliant drumming by Prince, flute/drum by Siayom)

I know I digressed a little. But it was relevant. My mum speaks of some experiences which she said she could not share with anyone. The reason is that ‘they’ (her elders) would either chastise or beat her when she tried to talk to them about it – saying ‘yoh too biggoman.’. Her dreams, her visions, her intuitive interactions with spirit forces were thereby relegated to ‘nonsense’ as opposed to being allowed to express her unique relationship with her spirit and soul force. Hence her readiness to ‘disguise’ her innermost observances. This has persisted throughout her life. So too have those dreams/dreaming and intuitive interactions and where she finds a ready listener or sympathiser she speaks freely about them. Where she feels threatened if she were to disclose what she intuits she is silent and agrees with the other. I have always known her to meditate – at first I really thought she’d fallen asleep but now I accept something really happens when she’s communing in stillness.

An Osun Priestess recently invited my mother, as an elder to attend a naming ceremony she was conducting for her granddaughter. My mum was glad to go as she had never been to one, neither had I. She was in her element. She even got up (despite the crippling pain of arthritis and having to brace on her stick) and danced as the spirit moved her. She observed the Priestess (Osunyemi) throwing kola for divination so that when a few weeks later it came to her turn to do this she knew what to do very well.

This holiday I held a kwanzaa thanksgiving ritual. I wanted to give thanks for so many things this year, but particularly the venture of publishing my books and website. I wanted others to partake in giving their thanks also. It was the first time I would try to change up the thanksgiving somewhat – mixing it with Kwanzaa and including Orishas, folk songs and drumming (we usually beat tamborines and shake maracas to the singing). In other words, as much as possible, substituting the outward Christian symbols for those reflecting aspects of my spirituality and understanding of ancestral traditions. We had a table set for Kwanzaa, laid with those symbols – a unity cup, the kinara candle holder with seven candles (3 red, 1 black, 3 green – embedding Garvey’s flag), fruits: mango, banana, dates, tamarind, kaki, custard apple, grapes and ground provisions, cassava, plantain (green and yellow), eddo, sweet potato, also some scotch bonnet peppers and ginger. There was also a thanksgiving table laden with more candles of different colours, glass of water, honey, cologne, flowers, fruits, seeds/grains, Indian sweets, homemade bread and Guyanese black cake, wines and rum. The candles on this table would ordinarily have particular meanings according to their colours, (spiritual purpose, prosperity, health and healing etc). This time I wanted them to represent Orishas (white for Obatala, green for Osain, black for Esu, red for Oya, yellow for Osun, blue for Yemaya, etc). Mum was cool with this as an adaptation to our usual thanksgiving.

Our Kwanzaa 2015 table

Thanksgiving table

After a powerful drumming introduction, calling the good spirits to come join our celebration, we poured libation. Sister Osunyemi threw the Kola for the purpose of divining that we would have a successful ritual, and that all our aspirations and prayers would be answered by the spirits. When she threw the kola, however, the response was not favourable. We couldn’t rejoice. We decided to throw them again. This time my mum would do it. She got into position, shook the nuts as she had seen Osun do, and threw the kola. We rejoiced for it was a perfect yes, all sides up, that our ritual would be a success. Osun said to her, “mum I was doing your work for you! This is the work you supposed to be doing.” How we clapped and laughed. We explained what the candles symbolised – whilst for mum the white one would be the ‘Christ light’ it would be that for me too but also Obatala and the energy of purity. And so it was we exchanged the meanings of the candles according to the way I would do it and how mum would. My mum opened with a tribute to me she’d written for me (in secret) showing off her ability to write prayerfully and produce her own affirmations. We used the unity cup symbolically for everyone to take turns to give thanks for the past year’s achievements, acknowledging its challenges and to express our hopes for 2015. After we each spoke, we shouted ‘Ase, Ase, Ase’ to give power to our expressions. For the first time I heard my mum saying ‘Ase.’ It was singled out, coming almost at the end of all the other ‘Ases’ as though I was meant to hear it. Where ordinarily she would pronounce ‘Amen’ she had switched, at least for this occasion to embracing ‘Ase.’ Yes, it’s true that she has learnt to disguise herself, fit into the moment and accept the given order but I’d like to see her willingness to embrace this African (Yoruba) cultural/spiritual symbol as transformative. By the same token for me it was no accident/coincidence that she chose to wear her blue and white dress, the colours associated with Yemaya, the Orisha - Mother of the Oceans (my dress expressed Osun, the river goddess – the two being sisters). You see in the quietness of our conversations she revealed this story to me:

Some time in her early 20s she had this vision/dream (I say vision because it sort of came to pass). She was being chased by her mother in law, she was running ‘breathless’ and couldn’t anymore. It was in Guyana, she ran through one of the local markets (Bourda), and encountered someone she knew and told them she was being chased. The lady told her that a policeman was approaching whom she could go and tell her problems to. The policeman was coming from the opposite side of a bridge she had to cross. They met up on the bridge. He showed her a lady who was in the water. He told her to throw a coin (collection) to the lady and tell her what her problems were. But she was so amazed by the lady, who was holding a beautiful bouquet of flowers in her hands as she was submerged in the water that mum couldn’t remember what the policeman said. She turned back and asked him what he had said, when she turned again to see the lady, she was no longer there.

A special kind of love and high vibration was experienced at our Kwanzaa thanksgiving

She later identified this water spirit as ‘our lady’ because she saw images of a similar lady around (her in laws were Catholic). She has several times seen the lady in visions; she mostly comes to give her some instruction when she needs guidance. For her this spirit is ‘our lady’ – for me it’s a water spirit and could in this sense be either mammy water or Yemaya. In any case it’s a matter of interpretation and emphasises a syncretic moment (fusing of different beliefs/practices as is Santeria and other African Caribbean practices). The more we have these conversations the more my mum begins to believe that there’s more to who she is than what was previously taught her. She ties her head always and seems no longer anxious about being thought of as an ‘obeah woman’ or Bin Laden’s mother as they jibbed with her when she was back home in Guyana. As Maya Angelou says in her book dedicated to the memory of her mother I say this to you mum and trust you will come to realise it for yourself ‘there has never been anyone greater than you’ you are a single, beautiful and unique expression of the infinite source from which we all emerge in material form. Thus for me you are your God. Or as you would say ‘the Father and you are one.’ Ase Ase Ase O!
Osun and Yemaya, orisha sisters are symbolic of the growing bond between myself and my mum