This biographical essay is written for the #52essays2017 challenge by Vanessa Martir.
I. It is a brave thing to write about Spirit. It is much easier to write, solely, about God, or colonial Christianity, or even decolonizing Christianity. Yet, matters of Spirit are often unwieldy. We can theorize them, but even that comes with its risks. Keating’s exploration of the spiritual work of Gloria Anzaldúa notes:
After all, those of us working in academic settings are trained to rely almost exclusively on rational thought, anti-spiritual forms of logical reasoning….
We might admire Anzaldúa’s bold spirit vision yet fear that if we explore it in our work, we will harm our careers. Not only will our colleagues scoff at us, but we will have difficulty publishing such explorations. As Lara (2005) suggests, these fears can be intensified for Chicanas and other women of colors who are often already viewed as interlopers in the academy. (Keating, 2008, p. 55)
However, matters of Spirit are often unrelenting. They show up, most often, when I want to write fluffy, easily-shareable pieces. They are determined.
Whenever we speak of Spirit, or spirits, we are both aided and blocked by our language. “What do you mean by Spirit”? In the past few months, I’ve been asked this question in so many different ways. I never give specifics because it’s typically already been decided I’m in need of re-Evangelizing.
The women in my family are always negotiating spirit*. For the purposes of this piece, I define it as the essences / life forces which we cannot always understand… yet find ourselves either intrigued or repelled by.
The women in my family are brilliant and can intellectualize most things. Yet, I often hear behind the words, because I came from them. And there is much concern about holy & good spirits – “wait, do you believe in one Holy Spirit or many other spirits” – staying away from evil spirits. But then there are the metaphorical spirits* – the energies & memories of the things we’d rather forget or leave alone. There is always the risk of being blocked by language, of being misunderstood, of being seen as “at-(spiritual)-risk”. It is a brave thing to write about Spirit*.
II. My Gramma was always intrigued with the concept of exorcism. She chased the next revival services, healing events, and traveling “prophets” like ones who would chase a storm. Seeing where it began. Seeing how it ended.
She had a library of books on methods to keep evil spirits away. A hobby? A passion? A fear? All three?
As a child, she would tell me about these excursions of spirit. Sometimes, I could travel along to a service – if she felt it was safe enough. She kept a vial of oil, anointed for the task of both blessing and protecting – warding off evil & inviting in good. “Spirits ain’t nothing to play with”. She told me, “You’ll know when it’s a bad one. Your stomach turns. Your throat feels like it’s hot and dry. Look into the eyes. See if it looks like a soul is behind there“.
She often retired to the back room to pray. It used to be my play room, but I grew too big for the walls. I grew too big for the house, itself. I grew too big for the entire state, I suppose. Years later, she asked me to mind my size – and help her clear out that back room.
I spent hours on the dusty pink carpet, eating home cooked meals, pausing to look up at the sparkly popcorn ceiling, and sneaking journals full of Bible study notes from 1985 into the garbage bin. She would catch me, occasionally. “Grandma, I can type these up for you”. But she preferred the hard copies all around her like a shield. So, in one month, I could only clear one chest. After she passed, there was so much more clearing to do.
“Mother, are spirits real?”
“Why are you worried about this?”
“I just am…”
“You’ve got God inside. You have nothing to fear”.
My mother’s jaw clenches when she is trying very hard to be patient. My Gramma often regaled her with stories about faith healers, far and wide. How much she was intrigued by them. My mother is a medical professional with complicated thoughts around faith healing (life sets up the most beautifully ironic situations). She listened carefully, because this was her Mother, and they were good friends. Only I could see, standing underneath her with my childhood body, that her jaws were clenched & her smile required effort.
I began getting bored with my church at 16 years old. How many more Sundays could I watch the parishioners march up to the altar, seeking more deliverance from the spirits which were real, imagined, a mix of both, who knows? I craved “something intellectual”. I was young and wanted more of everything, really. So, I took a sharp turn, tried out Reformed Calvinism. I was intrigued by their use of the word “eschatological” , the thought that perhaps life could be figured out by a few “simple” tenets, and the added surprise of walking in to church with multitudes of handsome brown men. I was young and thought I knew everything.
I theorized everything then – the life of “spirits” didn’t seem to be worth as much exploration as the “doctrine of election”. I stopped dancing at religious services. I kept up with the rhetoric – until I realized that believing in “totally depravity” left my soul dank & depressed. Until I saw how much violence it did. Until I realized that beyond my Black church, most of the prominent scholars in the denomination were White. They believed & taught that a spiritually elected-somewhat-Divinely-yet-arbitrarily-decided group would access heaven. The implications of that horrified me. I was young, and old enough to know I needed to get out.
One of my favorite tarot cards is “The Hermit”.
The Hermit, Rider-Waite-Smith tarot deck
In the dark, deep, blue glow, the Hermit carries one single light and walking stick. They are walking across the cold, craggy mountains. They are looking down, inward. They are reaching deeper spirituality. Some people feel this card is a bit obscure (and sometimes, I agree haha). However, the Hermit is a guide – that sense of “knowing” inside of ourselves when we need a “container”, a “cocoon”, somewhere dark, quiet, and even a bit windy to shake up our previous understandings. A figure, resembling a Hermit, found me in a church in the middle of Nowheresville, Pennsylvania (population 50,000). I was living in the LITERAL, actual mountains during this time. “The Hermit” showed me that there was a healthier way of Christianity & of spirituality, itself.
Then, I moved to Smalltownsville, SC (population 9,000) to continue my journey in further shades of solitude. I spent time with myself. I didn’t write.
VI. It is now 2017 & a few conversations with friends have turned into a nonprofit organization which “centers the voices, teaching, practices, and wisdom of People of Color at the intersections of mysticism and activism”. It is interesting that it is built on Christian contemplative tradition, deconstructing what this means, and breaking open space to include indigineity & diasporic religious traditions – a chance to bring our ancestral knowledge out of “hiding”. Equal parts Howard Thurman, Barbara Holmes, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, the saints, the Christian mystics, and our Grand-ancestors teaching us prayers, songs, and ways to invite God in. Equal parts “what we know” and “what we’re open to discover”. Someone inboxes and says it sounds like potential to the slippery slopes of “idolatry”.
I wish I could explain how western colonization has prompted us to see these practices as “idolatrous”. I wish I could explain how it was demonized… not inherently, demonic. I wish I could read them the quote I read today – from the long process of resource sharing we’ve undertaken. I would read slowly:
“Ostensibly, all women in colonial Mexico and Latin America, like their counterparts throughout the Christian world, were suspected of being witches on the basis of gender, but women of colonized groups were suspect on multiple grounds. Indian women, African-origin women, and racially mixed women—whether Indo-mestiza or Afro-mestiza—were suspect by virtue of being female, by virtue of deriving from non-Christian, or “diabolic” religions and cultures, and by virtue of being colonized or enslaved people who might rebel and use their alleged magical power at any moment. —Antonia Castañeda, “Engendering the History of Alta California, 1769–1848, as seen in Lara’s 2005 work.
Most of all, I wish I could explain that I see this as “spiritual activism” (Keating, 2008) – a way forward that allows us to get into deeper touch with God, self, & others, as we fight for social justice in this world.
But I sense their fear. I’m close to them. And I swallow these words with my morning tea. Perhaps, another time. Perhaps, never.
The next night, I dreamed of my Gramma. First, I described the dream on Facebook (because #millenial). In this dream, I was preparing for my meditation practice. I wore bright yellow.
My Grandmother sat where my teacher usually sits. She wore white and gold. She said to me: “I want you to meditate on this mantra ‘I ain’t got time’.
(Let me pause here to say that everyone who is familiar with AAVE / African American vernacular English understands all of the nuances of that statement. It is not concretely translatable in Standard American English. ‘I ain’t got time’ means something between “I have time, but refuse to engage something”, and “Something is distasteful to me and / or hazardous to my health, so I will reserve my time for the things that help me to thrive”. This is a loose translation).
I cackled, as per usual. She smiled and said, “Yepp, say it, ‘I ain’t got time”. Sometimes in your life, there will be giant pizzas rolling toward you – moving fast…”
This was very typical of her – to take a somewhat random object & work it into a life lesson.
“In that moment, you have to decide. Do I want to take a bite out of that? You can only take a bite with it moving that fast. Do I want to knock it down and share it with friends? That’s an option too. And sometimes, you’ll say to yourself, “I don’t even WANT pizza” & just let it roll by. That’s when you say to yourself, “I ain’t got time”.
I woke up to the Twitter-news that Mercury was in Pisces & that my dreams might hold some keys for deep learning at this time (@starheal). It’s funny how that works.
I believe that art allows us forms of exorcism – appeasing the spirits of things our families, sociocultural histories, and personal journeys leave us with. Moreover, it invites us to welcome in all that is “true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious” (Phil. 4:8-9, The Bible).
My Gramma’s lived in enough awareness of what could be bad. These days, she’s telling me “She / we / I ain’t got time”. And the only spirits* I deal with are good ones.
Resources & Further Reading
Keating, AL (2008). “” I’m a citizen of the universe”: Gloria Anzaldúa’s Spiritual Activism as Catalyst for Social Change”. Feminist studies (0046-3663), 34(1/2), p. 53.
Lara, I. (2005). BRUJA POSITIONALITIES: Toward a Chicana/Latina Spiritual Activism. Chicana/Latina Studies, 4(2), 10-45. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23014464
Image Credit: Createherstock.com