I didn’t go to New Orleans seeking God, nor can I say I came back having found Him.

There is much divinity in NOLA, of course, and plenty of Hades too, and on previous trips to the Crescent City I’ve certainly been, how to put it, receptive to other planes of existence. But of all the things one can look for, and find, and overindulge in, in New Orleans, what I went looking for was a five-foot-nothing Ukrainian Jew.

3 skulls

 

Sallie Ann Glassman

Pic from ISB

This isn’t a tale of questing adventure, sorry to disappoint, for Sallie Ann Glassman is fairly easy to find. OK, exceedingly easy. She’s the proprietress, heart and soul of a little shop called Island of Salvation Botanica down in the Bywater, and from what I can tell she’s always-always there. If she does happen to be at her place in Voodoo Alley, a ten-minute walk away, or doing some kind of community service out somewheres in the city, she’s bound to be back in soon.

My dear friend Miss Led (Forcefed), a self-professed “dirty south kitten” and erstwhile inhabitant of the Lower Ninth, turned me on to Island of Salvation when, as she was giving me a lowdown and dirty overview of the places to hit and skirt, I asked her about voodoo. She stopped singing at me in that cadenced Yat that I could listen to all. day. long and cocked one of her big, blue eyebrows. “You want some voodoo, chile?” she asked with a grin. I grinned back.

“All right then,” she said. “Sallie Ann’s your girl.”

Ms. Glassman hails originally from Maine, but has been practicing voodoo since the late ’70s and is known today as the “High Vodou Priestess of New Orleans.” Her societé, La Source Ancienne, is a small but verdant leaf on an ontological branch that reaches back through five centuries of the Caribbean African diaspora, over the Atlantic alongside Santaría and Candomblé, to the Yoruba and Bantu religions of western Africa. She’s said that she doesn’t have “a good excuse” for why she turned to voodoo, “except to say that it was a spiritual calling.”

Yemanjá-Katia Honour

Pic: From Katia Honour‘s awesome site.

My reasons for wanting to visit with Sallie Ann are no less arbitrary and, if you get right down to it, occult: one of the characters in the novel I’m writing has a complicated relationship with the spirit world in general and Yemanjá, the goddess of the sea and fertility and maternity and a handful of other things depending on who along the aforementioned branch you ask, in particular. It’s probably as much a result of having lived with this character, Cleo, and her doubts and fears and hopes and spiritual longings for so many years that compelled me to chase down some answers in the form of a crystal ball session with a complete stranger in a strange land for such a strange reason, as it is my own doubts and fears and hopes and spiritual longings. (Though I must say, the lines between “Cleo’s” and “my own” have gotten increasingly blurry.) But anyway, that was the plan—to get some, how would you say, esoteric-experiential background on Yemanjá and see what use of it I could make in the novel(/life).

So I called Ms. Glassman up few weeks before the trip—this is early March—to see if I could arrange a session. She was very kind on the phone, and the fact that the High Priestess picked up her own phone in the middle of the day struck me as humble and down-to-earth in a way that immediately doubled my esteem, but apparently a lot of people are writing novels with soul-searching protagonists these days and she was already booked through to July. “But just come by the shop,” she told me. “One of the girls can read the tarot for you.”

(By “the tarot,” by the way, she means the New Orleans VooDoo Tarot, a getting-back-to-the-roots-of-voodoo tarot deck Ms. Glassman compiled and illustrated herself.)

Come April, then, when I got to NOLA, I headed down to Island of Salvation to see what I could see. Just northeast of the French Quarter, this section of St. Claude Street is lined with small warehouses, liquor stores, gas stations, bait shacks, po’boy shacks, coffee shacks, shacks that are probably bars, some clapboard-house-looking shacks that may or may not be duplexes, and various and sundry other nondescript(/indescribable), rather ramshackle shackish edifices.

Number 2372 is the New Orleans Healing Center, a two-story brick building (with, somehow, four floors and a mezzanine inside—seriously) painted bright orange. There are juicing shops and physical therapy clinics and yoga studios and several places with the words “lotus” and/or “blossom” in their names, but mostly the Healing Center strikes one as an emporium of Haitian/West African/Creole art/clothing/books/furniture/stuff.

Just inside the glass doors at a table not much bigger than I sat at in grade school was a woman dressed like an elevator attendant in a swanky hotel—blazer with a coat-of-arms patch and shoulder braids, tasseled chauffeur hat, buckles, shine and polish—who was maybe the nicest woman I’ve ever met. Besides being friendly, she honestly seemed to think that just maybe I really was Matthew McConaughey and was just fooling with her by saying I wasn’t. While I chalk that up to tall, thin, mustachioed, long-haired white dudes looking pretty much all the same, it nonetheless made my day. “You sure you ain’t in the movies?” she asked through her rising disappointment.

“No.”

“You sure you ain’t what’s-his-name?”

“Yes.”

“What you do, then, huh? What you do for work you ain’t in the movies?”

“Water and wastewater.”

“Oh. Well, you’re welcome here anyway, Mr. Wastewater,” she said with a smile.

Fifty feet to her right is a door with “Suite 101” in a decal on the jamb. A small, handpainted sign reads “Island of Salvation Botanica,” but it’s a glass door and looking through it, well, you’re not mistaking it for a Bloomingdale’s. It’s a tiny shop, and every available inch is put to use. A narrow footpath winds from the door to the back of the shop, around a desk and back again through wire racks loaded with cards, pictures and packets of organic material; wooden tables displaying horsehair brushes, buffalo horns, ebony daggers and pewter rings; and mannequins bearing linen shawls, masks and headdresses, and bone-and-feather necklaces. Winged figurines and lamps and tapestries and what look like Haitian dreamcatchers hang from the ceiling. The walls are covered with shelves and pigeonholes and hooks and cork board, upon which are arranged every last accoutrement one could ever need for every aspect of a voodoo life. From your standard incense sticks and vials of essential oils to “bath fizzies” to god/goddess/Virgin/Baby Jesus statues to camphor sachets to Mason jars of herbs like dragon’s blood and brimstone to desiccated oxtails to bottles marked “pigeon blood,” Sallie Ann’s shop has ev-ery-thing.

Island of Salvation Botanica

I would have felt too much like a scumbag tourist (which I am) and too little like an earnest soul-seeker (which I’m less of) whipping out my iPhone 4S to take pics, so I’m relying on Island of Salvation for these.

Near the back, standing near a desk piled two feet high with stacks of paper and books, was the High Priestess herself. She’s a small woman, not just short but also slight and so light on her feet when she moves that you think her bones must be as hollow as a bird’s. I felt a little thrill. A conduit to the divine, a weaver of spells, and an instrument of arts most of the world considers dark was there, just feet away, listening intently to a beautiful young black woman in a business suit and heels who, though she wouldn’t have come much higher than my chest herself, looked as substantial as Kenley Jansen in comparison to Sallie Ann. From what I could tell while I poked around (aka, “eavesdropped”), the young woman felt she was being undermined by her subordinates at work and needed a way to boost her confidence.

“Do you not think you deserve to be there?” Sallie Ann asked the girl when she’d finished her lament. Sallie Ann’s voice is low but rich, her tone soft, concerned, and not in the least bit patronizing.

“It’s not that,” the woman said. “I know I do, but it seems like no one else does.”

“So who cares?” Sallie Ann said with a smile and a wave of her hand. There was a brief moment in which the patron’s cares seemed to linger about her, stubbornly, before she broke into a smile. “You’re right,” she said, almost giggling. “You’re so right.” Sallie Ann smiled a little wider and then the suddenly the two of them were laughing and talking at once, saying how silly it is how much we care what other people think and agreeing with each other that yes, in general we should absolutely stop being so silly, but it’s just so easy to get all wrapped up in ourselves and our busy lives, isn’t it, and forget that, really, we already have all we need? Wouldn’t it be better if we just knew that all the time?

Then Sallie Ann floated over to a shelf and plucked some baggies of ground incense and spice off a shelf and gathered some candles out of a box and slid a small ampule of green oil out of a rack, explaining what each thing would do and how the woman should find something that was hers and hers alone outside of work to master, why the candles were the colors and scents they were and how the energy we spend on others costs twice as much and goes half as far, which of the Lwa were most likely to be most responsive to the rituals and how maybe if the woman wasn’t doing anything that weekend she could come be of service at the children’s center in the Ninth Ward and see just how much she had to offer. All the while the woman, smiling, said, “Mm-hm” and “okay” and “yes.” When she went past me out the door, clutching her brown paper bag of goodies, there was a kind of bashful, giddy hope in her eyes.

My own interaction with Sallie Ann was brief—she was closing up shop and had places to be. I told her about my book and my life and my decade-old, latent interest in Candomblé, but she was distracted, snuffing candles and locking drawers, and I was thinking mostly about the conversation I’d just overheard. Sallie Ann said it sounded like the writing was magical, and that I should schedule a crystal ball session (she does them over the phone). She invited me to her place/house/temple on Voodoo Alley, where she’s been hosting ceremonies every Saturday night for 34 years (alas, I didn’t think bringing 11 dudes after two days at a music festival would show the requisite respect…), wished me well and said goodbye. 

I ran across the street to St. Coffee, which were it in Silverlake would have been the osmium of hipster but in NOLA is just a place to drink coffee, and started scribbling furiously to capture as much of the place and the conversation as I could before they disappeared back into the ether.

Now, more than two months later, I can still smell the shop and hear Sallie Ann’s voice and see that young woman standing on one leg, mindlessly slipping her stockinged foot in and out of her patent leather heel, in and out, in and out, while she listened. The exchange, I’m sure, is one that happens several times a day in Island of Salvation, and innumerable more at botanicas and Santería shops and corner bodegas all across the country face of god’s green earth. But it’s no less special for being common, and it fits in nicely with some things I’ve been thinking about the last little while.

I’m one of those people who for so long conflated any and all spiritual practice with the structural evil of organized religion and its deliberate hoodwinking of the masses with pat answers that strangle critical thought that I saw even the simple, good, everyday interactions carried out under the umbrella of “worship” or “rite” as suspect, insincere, corrupt. The interaction in Island of Salvation was not the first time I’ve borne witness to this kind of positive and life-affirming advice-giving, but it’s precisely this kind of thing that’s help me come what distance I have in being able to differentiate between The Religion of The Church (whichever it may be) and the daily practices of everyday people, and in being able to  bridge the gap between the highbrow philosophies of life I thought were the “real thing” (Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Krishnamurti, and a laundry list of other writers whose names you need foreign-language competency to pernownce) and the folk wisdom and common sense by which the rest of us live our lives.

We all need advice along the way, but to find someone who can give you advice, someone whose wisdom or experience you value and who has no stake in whatever your next move ends up being, can be tough. And the kind of stuff Sallie Ann was handing over by the shovelful to this timid, nervous beauty? People pay hundreds of dollars a session once a week for months or years to hear that stuff and develop plans for how to integrate it into their lives and plans for how to implement their plans. All this girl will do is light a couple candles every day and sprinkle some powder on the flames and rub a drop of oil onto the inside of her wrists.

Such “superstitions” strike the rationalist in me as ridiculous, but that other part of me, that part that’s so new that I’m not even sure what to call it, knows that while she’s doing them, she’ll also be thinking about the things Sallie Ann said to her and how she can apply those things over the course of her day. That in and of itself would probably be enough to bring about some change in the way she approaches her life and the people in it, but on top of that she’ll also have the power of the Lwa behind her, the power of spells and magic and thousands of years of these spiritgods’ participation in our profane affairs. She’ll have the power of Sallie Ann Glassman. Me, I’m like, “I need to do this. All of it. Myself.” And then I try so hard to change myself all the time—”Be more relaxed! Be more natural! You’re so sensitive!”—that if I ever do round a corner on one neurosis, two more have popped up in its place. With voodoo—and yes, obviously this extends to any religion—you’ve got this sense of backup, right, this cadre of people or spirits or powers of some sort that are helping you out. It absolves you a little of control. Not of responsibility, mind—”Exu made me kill my boss” isn’t going to hold much water—but of control. You can relax a little, let yourself be swept along in the stream of things, and focus that energy on more important things. Like being less of an asshole.

This whole thing may be obvious and uninteresting to most of you, and probably sounds crazy and lame to the rest. It would have sounded weak to me, and not so very long ago. I’m not saying I believe that spirits, gods, orixas, whatever you want to call them actually exist. From an empirical perspective, I’m no less an atheist than I ever have been. I will say, though, that I’m a kinder, gentler atheist. A Buddhist atheist, by which I mean I’m really starting to grasp the utility of what a man named Siddhartha Gautama called “relative truth.” It may not be “true” that a handful of spirits from the dawn of time exist, but if it helps you keep doing the things that are good for you, and if you start displaying some of the characteristics of Yemanjá you’d like to bring into your life, then who’s to say it’s not “true” that lighting candles and whispering spells and appealing to the gods works?

I suppose what I’m saying is that I no longer reject outright the belief in God/gods/the supernatural. It’s like a cognitive tool that helps reinforce and justify and motivate practice, which to me is the important thing. Practice, repetition, discipline—these are the things that change lives. And if some complicated, fantastical cosmology helps increase what physicians would call your “adherence” to those practices, then by all means, go for it.

One of atheists’ favorite similes is the idea that God’s just a fancier Santa Claus, a bullshit fairy tale intended to keep people in line with a carrot in one hand and a nightstick in the other.

Two things about this.

bird claw

I took this.
It was on the hood of a car in a parking structure in Burbank.
I took this, and ran.

First, it assumes the most simplistic arrangement with that power. The majority of the religiospiritual people I know, and all of the ones I trust, ask their gods and do their practices not for specific things, like “God gimme a boat,” but rather for the mental and emotional wherewithal to know what the right thing is and the strength to do it. This is why it’s regrettable that the hexing and sticking-pins-in-dolls aspects of voodoo are pretty much the extent of most people’s understanding of the religion. That type of petitioning the Lord with prayer is asking the gods to bend the world to your whims—basically the opposite of humility—instead of asking for help in bending yourself to better fit the world.

Second, we all operate under a number of false assumptions and faulty interpretations of the world, many of which aren’t any less arbitrary or fantastical than fairy tales. Most of these, of course, are ego-driven, starring overinflated (or self-servingly self-deprecatory) versions of ourselves in epic roles developed over lifetimes in the secret corners of our hearts and dreams. Most of our problems come when other people, with their own meddling desires and whims and pesky ideas about things impinge on that plot line and make our productions looks like pantomime. Of course it’d be better to objective and honest and “real” about everything, but it’s fucking hard to be clear of illusions and pat answers and complex justifications all the time, to live in a perpetual state of clear-eyed, principled rationalism.

I know we don’t need any supernatural beings or influence in existence to give it meaning, to furnish us with morals, to provide us with some sense of belonging and comfort and purpose. But it can certainly help.

And let’s not pretend like we can’t hold these two contrasting, perhaps even contradictory beliefs—that God is everything and God is nothing—at the same time. Just because it’s not real doesn’t mean it can’t function as if it were. I can be aware that the cosmology surrounding my practices is mythical and still imbue it with enough “belief” to make those practices meaningful. It’s not cognitive dissonance, because it’s not causing me strain or discomfort. It’s not, as I would have said a few years ago, Orwellian religious “doublethink,” because I’m aware of it and because it’s not anywhere near nefarious. In fact (get it?), it’s somewhere in the vicinity of what Buddhists call “nonduality.” It is and it isn’t. It’s beyond contradiction. “Yes and no,” as my favorite teacher, Huh Lye, used to say to every. single. question. you’d ask him.

A decade ago, before trading the black robes and funny hats of an academic for the gold-and-burgundy robes and funny hats of a Tibetan Buddhist lama, Hun was doing some research on hungry ghost rituals in rural China. Hungry ghosts are these spirit-type beings whose realm of existence penetrates, albeit imperfectly, our own. They have tiny mouths, narrow throats, huge bellies and insatiable appetites, and they roam around causing sickness and bad luck and all sorts of trouble. They were reincarnated as hungry ghosts for an overabundance of greed in their karmic makeup, and people “feed” these ghosts, both at their home in daily rites and in the temple or throughout the city in elaborate rituals, to show compassion (and thus reduce their own greed load) and to ward off the ghosts’ ill effects. Hun found that if you ask people, “Do you believe that hungry ghosts cause sickness?” they’ll say no. “Do they haunt places and interfere with human affairs?” Again, no. Most rural Chinese that Hun interviewed will tell you that they don’t really believe in the existence of hungry ghosts, but in their daily rituals, they still act as if they do. There are many possible explanations for this behavior, of course, ranging from the continuation of local tradition to a distrust of the interviewer, but one explanation is certainly that despite their rational understanding of the world, their communion with the supernatural offers a tangible way to practice demonstrating generosity and humility.

Besides which, hungry ghosts make a good story, a more varied universe, a richer existence. Feeding hungry ghosts is simply more interesting than sticking to a cold (and ultimately no less arbitrary) moral code, and the same goes for offerings to Yemanjá or Ogum or Mary or St. Peter or Athena or Pan.

Being a storyteller, a compelling through line is the only way I can make sense of the world. My desk is a mess and my life is disorganized and despite the fact that I use them on a daily basis at my job I hate Excel and Access and Alchemy and file cabinets and folders and all those other sorting and storing devices. I find it nearly impossible to work on isolated tasks without knowing why, without understanding how they fit into The Bigger Picture, and without buying into it myself.

But I’m also a skeptic, and my first reaction to anyone else’s story or explanation is, “Bullshit.” I’m always poking holes in the fabric of other people’s existence.

This understanding of the world that I’ve just clumsily elucidated—this and world where anything goes so long as it keeps you going—allows me to do both. It may seem a fine line between a practical approach to living a better life and hypocrisy, but as I’ve said before and will say again, I’m sure, and again, it’s not our worldview that counts, but our behavior. Not how we think, not how we feel, not what we believe, but how we act.

So long as I keep that poking finger and those voodoo pins to myself, nobody gets hurt. And that, as they say, is a win.

 What are your rituals?

Which gods do you believe in?

Do they believe in you?

Header: Viviana Peretti (her stuff is SO rad)

Writer, reader, runner, surfer. Buddhist, humanist, baker of bread.

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