Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Travelogue, "Belief in" & voodoo (long post)

[photo by Julie Bennett]
We're all in New Orleans now - Paulette, Julie, Laura and I, in a groovy restored old house in Midcity, right next to the Canal Street streetcar.

Bourbon Street is revolting. Even just the smell of it, though I can't say what the smell is. It's an intense culture, if it can be called that, of in-your-face sex and booze. Eg. an old guy standing outside trying to get people into a bar had a t-shirt on that began, "My Tongue & Your Clit..." The bartender at the absinthe bar the other day said she chugs alcohol to get drunk because she doesn't like the taste of it. One is tempted to say The Big Sleazy instead of The Big Easy.

Pronunciation is difficult. Any given word that looks French is either pronounced with an American accent or a (more) French one. You have to hear how people say the word to know. For example, for beignet you say ben-YAY. But for Decatur street you say, Duh-KAY-der.

My favorite thing yesterday was the Voodoo Museum, run by a white guy/voodoo priest. He gives a little introductory lecture on the way in, debunking all information formerly and erroneously possessed. At first the museum just seemed like two little rooms full of...carvings, offerings, framed explanations of Voodoo, Marie Laveau, gris-gris, etc., plus dirt and dust. But then I felt something in there and I lingered for some time. For a while I was alone (the gals were all done and sitting outside) but in some way I did not feel like I was alone. I felt good in there.  I made an ritual offering into a gnarled dusty tree stump - a wish wrapped in some coins.

There's a little store (mostly handmade stuff) on the way out. I picked up something like what you would think of as a voodoo doll, but wasn't. Made mostly out of moss, they are meant as charms for wish fulfilment. I felt drawn to one and picked it up - the man said the one I chose was for impossible situations, for someone who is terminally ill.

Powdered sugar covers the floor
of Cafe Du Monde
We got into a conversation. He told me that 30 years ago he had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Because cancer is so detectable now, I wonder if it's a thing that just comes and goes in human bodies in a way that doctors don't know about, which is why you hear so often things like, My cousin was told she had 2 minutes to live, etc., and it's been 10 years. You also hear about early detection for breast cancer causing more people to get treatment, some of whom don't need it. 

It seems like people tell me these stories (about outliving the doctors' predictions) because they want to inspire hope. It sometimes seems like they're saying, This happened to me, therefore it will happen to you. While it shows that it's possible to outlive a grim prognosis, this angle on things is not inspiring for me because it says absolutely nothing about the odds that I shall do so. What seems much more a sign for me, in particular, is my continuing good health. Though even that has only been three months so far (since the grim December CT scan.) 

He did talk in terms of "when it is your time" which I find kind of comforting. Not in a deterministic kind of way, i.e., that at 4pm on some particular date will absolutely be my time, more that at some point one's body is going to need to die, and no amount of juju or chemistry is going to change that. And, if it doesn't need to happen, it won't. 

Behind the bar (Bourbon St.)
He told me he has a 350 lb python upstairs that doesn't sleep in a cage but roams freely around his apartment. There was also a lady in the entryway with a very pretty baby ball python. I wish I had taken a picture of it. 

I know that many people think in terms of "believing in" something, or not. For instance, you could conclude, because I connected with the icons or whatever they are at the voodoo museum, that I "believe in" voodoo saints or magic. Some people can't think of spirituality in any other framework besides belief. This kind of langage is very strange to me. 

What does it mean to "believe in" God or saints or voodoo or bodhisattvas? For most people I think it means that one considers them to be real, 'independently existing' in a similar way, say, to a chair. I'm sure this is usually what is  meant when someone says, "I believe in God." 

[photo by Julie Bennett]
From one point of view, the voodoo museum was a few dirty rooms containing a bunch of inanimate lumps of wood and metal. That was not my point of view, though it makes sense to see it that way and I understand that.  

What feels right and natural for me at this point is to relate to the world - plants, objects - as if they had a presence of some kind. Not being a "materialist" (in the sense of seeing physical matter as the only reality, that everything can be explained in terms of matter and physical phenomena) doesn't mean I "believe in" ghosts or rebirth or Apollo. However I do have a strong sense of felt realities that do not exist under the purview of science. The rational mind is beautiful. We can understand so many things, we can have extremely complex and useful ideas, we can evaluate a situation and strategize, and this is a large part of what makes us uniquely human (though in many ways collectively speaking we are also idiots!)

Anyway. In addition to the rational mind, overdeveloped in many of us by our hyperrational, materialist culture, there are also...forces. Desires, instincts, hatreds, the unconscious--these are forces that simply exist. They can be thought of as within us - or beyond us - but in any case they are mostly not part of the rational mind. (It is in this realm where we perhaps discover the causes of the idiocy mentioned a few sentences back.) There are also other states of mind and attitudes - equanimity, love, clarity - that move beyond words, surpassing the rational mind. The rational mind is not to be disparaged; it is an important level of experience. It can't understand everything. As Hamlet says, There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

I want to relate to the world as alive. I suppose that's called animism, which will, again, be defined in terms of beliefs I don't have. There are energies that are not accessible to a self-centered, literal, contracted mind. I am interested in those energies and in cultivating a mind that is receptive to them. Sometimes they can influence. I don't care if what I am relating to is 'out there' or 'in here'; it doesn't matter.

What I believe is that the jumble of thoughts and beliefs that zoom around in our heads are not of primary importance. We are in fact hypnotized by our own thoughts, many of which don't do us any good at all. In fact they often make things more difficult than they need to be. I believe that what's important is what we do, and the mental states that motivate what we do. Everything else is, perhaps, as the Hebrew Bible says, vanity, striving after wind.  

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