Masking

In New Orleans, we love a good masquerade. Here, costume wearing is pretty standard. Most of us have dedicated closets and drawers and shelves for our costume pieces. Masking is part of our identity. I’ve only lived here two years and in that time, my not already inconsiderable costume collection has grown at least five times larger than it was before.

Of course, down here, masking is tied into Carnival, brought to Louisiana by the French. Mardi Gras was first celebrated in Louisiana in 1699  and other than a few years here and there, the tradition has continued ever since. Most people outside of New Orleans think that Mardi Gras is a single Day event. It’s not. In actuality, Mardi Gras starts the day after Twelfth Night and continues on to Fat Tuesday. It’s also not something that goes on for the tourists: the entire city celebrates for the entire season.

Why are we talking about Mardi Gras when we aren’t anywhere close to Twelfth Night? Because it is Halloween ,and Halloween seems to be the city’s Mardi Gras prequel. While Halloween itself is on Wednesday, the weekend before Halloween is traditionally when we all gather and celebrate in the Quarter. It’s a time of local revelry and of course, masking.

Masking is probably one of the longest traditions practiced by mankind. It has both practical and spiritual uses, and goes back at least 40,000 years. Masking was used in antiquity for many things; ritual persona, sacred dance, theater and warfare.

When you don a mask, you become someone or something else.  You take on a character that is both ‘other,’ and also greater than yourself. As my Significant Other points out, “masking comes from the sacred clown tradition, which is represented by the Fool in the tarot deck. the Fool, the zero card, represents unlimited potential and rebirth”. In New Orleans, we celebrate this potential of the city to constantly reinvent itself moment by moment. The city does this yearly, creating an atmosphere of constant flux and possibility. It’s probably one of the reasons we bounced back from the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina so quickly; the city was able to redefine itself, to strike a new pose, carrying the people within it into its rebirth: it’s used to this sort of thing after all.

There’s a great deal of the trickster spirit in masking. From Coyote to Harlequino, from Loki to Prometheus, Tricksters often take on different personas to go about their business of foolery, which ultimately brings about positive change. Transformation and resurrection, along with a healthy dose of heroic action, are characteristics of the Trickster. Whether or not you like the Trickster, he certainly brings about an often chaotic transformation. When we mask, we’re recreating the actions of the Trickster to change our reality into something greater and better.

As Titus Burckhardt says in his article The Sacred Mask, “It derives from the expression persona itself. We know that in the ancient theater, derived from the sacred theater of the Mysteries, this word designated both the mask and the role. Now the mask necessarily expresses not an individuality—whose representation scarcely requires a mask—but a type, and hence a timeless reality, cosmic or divine”. In this way, the mask transcends itself from being a simple costume, to a whole new identity with many ritual possibilities. New Orleans is a city that ritually masks to transform herself year to year into something new and different each time.

Lady Deer on Frenchmen St, NOLA

Lady Deer on Frenchmen St, NOLA 2012

Burckhardt continues on to say “Moreover, man spontaneously identifies himself with the role that he plays, one that has been imposed on him by his origin, his destiny, and his social ambience. This role is a mask—most often a false mask in a world as artificial as our own, and in any case one that limits rather than liberates. The sacred mask, on the contrary, along with all that its wearing implies as regards gestures and words, suddenly offers one’s “self-consciousness” a much vaster mold and thereby the possibility of realizing the “liquidity” of this consciousness and its capacity to espouse all forms without being any one of them.” When people mask in New Orleans, in many ways they are bringing to bear the sides of themselves that they hide from the mundane world. People mask to become the people of their dreams and imaginings.

Another Deer on Frenchmen St, NOLA 2012

Another Deer on Frenchmen St, NOLA 2012

The idea of a city that masks is not confined to New Orleans. Other cities have Carnival as well: Rio De Janeiro, Venice, Rome, Paris…all of these cities do the same sort of thing and this gives our cities a much different reality than cities that don’t mask. Cities that mask see magic in the world more easily.

Angler Fish and Bubble Wrap on Frenchmen St, NOLA 2012

Angler Fish and Bubble Wrap on Frenchmen St, NOLA 2012

The roots of Mardi Gras lie first in Paganism, but within modern history, within the Catholic celebration of Carnival leading to Lent. The Catholic tradition holds that we each have a dark self, prey to temptation: a shadow-self. Masking ensures people confront their shadow selves. The Jungian archetype says that “The Shadow represents the traits which lie deep within ourselves. The traits that are hidden from day-to-day life and are in some cases the opposite of the self is a simple way to state these traits. The shadow is a very important trait because for one to truly know themselves, one must know all their traits, including those which lie beneath the common, i.e., the shadow. If one chooses to know the shadow there is a chance they give in to its motivation”. Masking brings on a self-awareness of  identity; we mask to confront the shadow, so that the motivation to give into it is much less.

Capricorn on Frenchmen St, NOLA 2012

Capricorn on Frenchmen St, NOLA 2012

I love that my city is a constant celebration of the sacred dance of magic and ritual. While most people who participate probably don’t see it in that light, I, as a Pagan, certainly do. Last night in the Quarter, who knows who I was rubbing elbows with. I’m sure that many of the local spirits and deities join in with the mayhem of our very human celebrations. I see masking as vital to living a healthy life. Being  someone who we aren’t for a night let’s us see the world through fresh eyes. It allows the world to see us differently, and to create a vehicle for the divine to come more easily into our life.

Me on the Saturday before Halloween, NOLA 2012

Me on the Saturday before Halloween, NOLA 2012

And in the end, being able to change personas for a night makes us appreciate who we are even more.

Hurricane Isaac

New Orleans area now under Isaac hurricane watch

New Orleans area now under Isaac hurricane watch, could see 70-mph winds on Wednesday –Nola.com

Waiting to see what Hurricane Isaac will do has become a slightly surreal experience. I moved to New Orleans a little under two years ago, and so far, hurricanes haven’t been something that I’ve had to deal with.

It’s been funny; the subject of initiations and their importance has been a topic of conversation for the last several months around here (I’ve been working towards mine), and it feels like this is my final initiation into New Orleans life. If surviving the summer heat and Mardi Gras are the outer court degrees, a hurricane is actual initiation.

The fact that I should have gone to the store yesterday has been pretty much my main thought for the afternoon. I’ve been sick all week and I spent yesterday in bed. I had a horrible craving for brownies, but couldn’t convince myself that the reward would be worth actually crawling out into the world.

Going to the grocery store in New Orleans is always a challenge. Our grocery stores are few and far between (thanks in part to Katrina). For someone who, up until this job, has always worked second shift and has always gone to the grocery store at about 2 a.m., the overcrowded grocery stores of New Orleans are, on their lightest day, quite overwhelming. I’ve found that the best time to do my grocery shopping is during a Saints game. The Saints are our religion down here. Sure, we’re a Catholic city and we have a large number of Voodoo practitioners, but when it really comes down to it, we all know who we REALLY worship. You could probably rob banks while the Saints play and people would just shrug and go back to the game. Drew Brees would stand in for the God, and New Orleans herself, the Goddess.

I was thinking that I would wake up today and have a text from my significant other telling me that he was finally on his way home. Last night was his final gig of a three-month long tour, and his plan was to start driving from Northern PA to get home to me sometime late tomorrow. This is the weekend that we’ve both looked forward to for many months. I’ve been told that we’re a little disgusting in our conversations with each other over the phone (sorry, Jason Mankey!), but when you’re separated from your other half for three months, well…it gets rough.

But no. Instead I woke up to several panicked texts from family members and my S.O. telling me that overnight the hurricane had shifted its way directly towards us.

Contrary to what the rest of the country seems to be thinking, we aren’t panicking. Hurricanes are a fact of life down here. Yes, there were more people at the grocery store, but not by hugely significant amounts. Mostly people were stocking up on water, just in case. Actually, most of my fellow New Orleanians seemed to be stocking up on booze. It seems that in true New Orleans character, the city plans to drink the hurricane away. I also noticed a lot of people taking a second or two to sit outside and enjoy the sunshine. They seemed to have this feeling that, well…we aren’t going to be seeing this for a while, might as well enjoy it while it lasts.

The rest of the city seems to be going about its daily business in a slow, unhurried, way.

I’m told that the biggest decision is whether to stay or to leave. That once that decision is made, the rest is pretty easy. It’s just a matter of coming to that decision.

No one is evacuated until the storm becomes a Category 3. Right now they’re projecting Isaac at a 1 or a 2. I asked a friend of mine, who has lived here for years, if I should be a bit more pessimistic about the storm. Her reply was a pretty practical no…just be prepared, buy water and canned goods and try to get your house as ready as possible. Her suggestion was to leave my doors open during the storm to equalize the pressure and possibly save our windows and some of our roof.

It’s one of those situations that you know things could get pretty bad, but what’s the point of worrying about it? My life is here, my things are here, where else would I go? Sure my parents are still in Ohio, but everything else (except my S.O.) are here.

I’ve been trying to think what I would take with me if I were to leave. Important papers are an obvious must, probably my craft tools, my Significant Other’s art and instruments, and the cat…that’s probably it. Clothing maybe, some personal items…but at what point are you saying that you’re leaving just for now and coming back or that you’re leaving expecting nothing to come home too?

During my first months in New Orleans, I went to a panel put on by our local Pagan meet-up group. The panel presented several different local practitioners from the area discussing who they are and what they do. One of them was a Mexican Weather Witch. I was fascinated by her discussion of Lake Pontchartrain and how a good deal of her practice focused on appeasing the Spirit of the Lake, Lady Pontchartrain. Apparently, many of the local natives in the past had also focused on Lake Pontchartrain. If Pontchartrain is appeased and happy, hurricanes don’t happen.

New Orleans is a city of water. We are surrounded by it on all sides. Lake Pontchartrain in the North; the Mississippi all around us. The swamp is pretty much ubiquitous, and as the gulf is only about 60 or so miles further South. New Orleans itself is pretty much it’s own little island. When I visited here for the first time, I was surprised at how much the city wasn’t completely engulfed by the grief and tragedy of Katrina. While there are definitely still scars everywhere, and there is still much grief, I expected a more tangible display of the spiritual grief than I saw. After thinking about it for a while, I concluded that the flood that had killed so many, had also probably washed away the lingering effects in a spiritual way as well. Water is deadly, but it also cleanses away impurities. The city had gone through a trial by water and maybe the Gods were kind enough to flood some of the grief away with it so that healing could occur.

That still leaves things open for Isaac. Katrina is in our past and we’ve rebuilt. But just because we’ve rebuilt from the last time, doesn’t mean that it couldn’t happen again. And I think that this is imminent in all of our minds. Isaac has been acting the same way that Katrina did, and people are worried that it will be worse than Gustav, which happened several years ago.

So yeah, we’re scared. But not in the way it seems that everyone expects us to be. I keep wondering what I can do spiritually to prepare myself for getting through the storm. And all I can really come up with, is to just keep plugging along in my daily practices. I know my Gods are with me, and whatever is meant to be, is meant to be. So what’s the point in worrying about it? As my French ancestors probably would have said, “C’est la vie…”

My house is as ready as it’s going to be; my papers have all been gathered together, and I’ve stocked up on enough water and peanut butter to choke a horse. This will be my first hurricane, but it’s certainly not the first for the lovely Belle de Nouvelle Orleans, and as always, we will get through this one just fine.

Mardi Gras 2012

Mardi Gras 2012

The Gods Walk in New Orleans

I recently submitted a piece for an anthology about personal experiences with deity. The anthology didn’t end up happening (for lack of submissions), so I thought that I would post my piece here.

The Gods Walk in New Orleans

I don’t know about elsewhere, but the Gods walk around New Orleans like it’s nothing new. Let me tell you a story…

I woke up from a lazy Sunday afternoon nap, listening to my significant other work on a new song that he’s writing. This is the end of the time that he spends at home with me. For four months of the summer he’s gone, singing for people that I’ll never meet. He likes to use this time to prepare new songs and stories to tell. It’s always a pleasure for me to listen to him from other rooms, while he’s creating magic with his music. He doesn’t think it’s a big deal, but I know that these are things that I could never do. I’m fascinated by how easily he puts notes and chords together to create something entirely new. Poetry pours from him in waves that he either uses or discards without any thought that these words might never come back to him.

I woke up knowing that he had someone else in the studio working with him. The woman was singing with him and every now and again, she paused to murmur something too low for me to catch. I had fallen asleep earlier in the afternoon and had slept hard. He hadn’t told me that anyone was coming over, but since it was Sunday and he was working on the new album, I assumed that he must have been able to get a hold of someone to do some vocals for him.

I was buried under my great aunt’s afghan in the air conditioning and I was frozen in indecision. I was stark naked. We live in a shotgun apartment in New Orleans. If you’ve never been in a shotgun apartment, they’re a series of four or five rooms that run all in a line. If you want to get to the back of the house from the front, you have to walk through all the rooms in-between to get there. I was worried that this unknown person might need something to drink or to use the restroom and would have to walk through our bedroom to do so. Usually, being naked around people doesn’t bother me, but when it’s a stranger and I’ve had no warning of their presence, I prefer to be clothed.

I finally decided that instead of risking getting up and flashing whoever this poor, unsuspecting person was, I would remain under the blanket and sleep a little longer. It was Sunday afternoon after all and I had already indulged in an indecently long nap, why not snooze a little more? Maybe by the time I woke up again, they would be done working on the song and whoever it was would have left. The woman’s voice was soothing and my lover’s guitar strumming was softer than it might be, so I drifted back to sleep listening to the woman and my lover sing together.

I woke up a couple of hours later to realize that he was still working on the song, but the woman, whoever she was, had gone. I felt a sense of irrational disappointment. I had enjoyed sleeping to the music they made together. I got up, put on some comfortable clothes, and pulled out a book to while away the rest of the beautiful New Orleans Spring Night. The house was quiet and peaceful. There was nothing at all rushed and hurried about that long Sunday afternoon.

My partner made us dinner and we re-watched a movie that has always been one of my favorites. Somehow the topic of the afternoon came up. I asked him who he had found to work with him on the new song. He gave me a baffled look. “No one was here, baby, I was working on a song about the Goddess Diana…”

This is not the first time I’ve experienced the Gods and other spirits walking in our house. A whole slew of fairies live in the same studio that my lover sang with a Goddess in. My shiny hair pins and bits of jewelry disappear constantly, only to reappear months later. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night paralyzed with fear, realizing that something is in bed with me. At first I usually think that the cat has decided to come sleep with us, and then I realize that no cat moves or breathes like that. It’s a feeling akin to that which I felt as a little girl waking up from the nightmare and KNOWING that there was something sitting in the closet staring at me. And who knows? Maybe there was… The cat regularly plays tag with and talks to things that I can’t see. Invisible beings perch on my knees and sit with me as I read. Every now and again something bites me in a teasing manner. I think they know that I don’t like them. It’s difficult living in a house with fairies when you don’t necessarily appreciate them.

I meet Baron Samedi on the streets of the Quarter regularly. He peers out at me from the people who carry him with them. Occasionally a tall, skinny man in a top hat, with a skull face winks at me as he strolls by. When our house was robbed by the teenagers across the street, my lover and I offered blood to the Baron to watch over us and to give back threefold what had been done to us. He knows me now, in ways that others do not. I often worry about what other price we might end up paying.

My father used to tell me a story when I was a little girl, about when his appendix ruptured and all that he knew was that he was very sick. He likes to reminisce about waking up to see a faceless figure robed in grey sitting in the chair next to his bed. He said that that’s when he knew that it was time to go to the hospital. When I ask him how he felt about Death sitting with him, he piffles at me and says, “That? That was my guardian angel watching over me”. Maybe my father is right, maybe Death is his guardian angel. He still tells me that he talks to Death regularly and that Death always listens. Maybe the Death that my father knows and my Baron Samedi are familiar with each other and pass back and forth their knowledge of my father and I like two old men playing dice.

New Orleans is a magical place: it is an old place. Ghosts walk the streets of the Quarter amongst the strolling tourists. The LaLaurie mansion sits on the corner of Royal and Governor Nicholls. The house, supposedly one of the most haunted houses in America, seems to decide how it would like people to perceive it. There are days that I walk past it and it looms ominously over the rest of the street with a chill, forbidding air. Other days I pass by it and don’t realize that I didn’t notice it at all. Tourists regularly run into the Verti Marte, the little sandwich and grocery shop across the way, pleading with the people behind the desk to call 911 and tell them about a little girl that has fallen off the roof across the street. The grocers shrug their shoulders and tell the people to either buy something or to get out. She died nearly three hundred years ago, after all.

I like to walk up to the shore of the Mississippi. I spoke to Santa Muerte one night and she made her refusal plain by burning the candle, the wood beads, the chocolate and everything else that I had brought as offerings to her. My partner works with and regularly calls down the God Herne. His eyes change colors and his breath smells like new grass and my lover is no longer at home in his own body. The weather witches talk about leaving offerings to the Lady of Lake Pontchartrain. It is only when she is appeased that we don’t have hurricanes. Pontchartrain is easily forgotten by me, someone who didn’t grow up on her shores, but I know that she is always there. It was only six years ago that she rose up and took 11,000 lives. Those dead sleep restlessly in our cemeteries. They are awaiting the day where they can get up and walk about once more. Whenever I pass through one of their resting places, I leave an offering in hopes that when that day comes, they remember me and pass me by.

I thought that I was prepared for New Orleans when I moved here. But how can you be prepared for standing in the middle of the swamp and listening to a Voodoo Mamba wail into the night? The swamps of New Orleans are not like the forests that I grew up in. In some ways they are much more sinister, in others they are much more inviting. I have always heard stories of Will-O-the-Wisps, but never lived somewhere where I expected to see them. Here I do. New Orleans has opened up the world of that other place for me. Do the Gods walk elsewhere? I’m sure they do, but not in the ways they do here. Here they are almost like everybody else, busy doing their work and sometimes saying hello when they pass by…