Thursday, February 10, 2005


Last night I noticed that the Butcher had put a picture of my Uncle Bri's car on the fridge. Maybe it's been up there a while, I don't know. I've been unaware of it until now. And seeing that car again made his death new again, and I stood there for a few moments hit by fresh grief. It's funny how grief works. You can be fine with something, have grown used to something, and, wham, it hits you right in the gut when you least expect it. So, I was thinking today about a project I really wish we'd been able to do: a kind of personal oral history of a root worker who'd learned her craft in Mississippi from an old man who hadn't been to school, but put his kids through college with the money he earned. She turned me down, though, said that her African spirits had told her she couldn't work with us. That still makes me sad, as I'm not sure how one argues with anyone else's dead relatives. Here's a funny story about it, though. Once, early on in our brief acquaintance, she called me up and asked me to meet her for lunch. It was my birthday, though she didn't know this. It was also just about the end of my ability to stay here, since I was out of money. She didn't know that either. At lunch, she handed me a white envelope. Inside, wrapped in Kleenex, was a brown vial. In the vial was some kind of sweet, piney liquid with some small bits of twigs and some blue beads. "It's money oil," she said, "You rub it on the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet." Well, what the hell. So, I did. After a couple of weeks, my boss called me into his office and practically doubled my salary. I wasn't expecting that. When I'm feeling utterly dry and rational, I know that was just a coincidence. I know my Uncle Bri is no more and that the only thing left of him is the rotting puddle in his casket. I know there are no African spirits ordering women in Nashville around, no Christian god whispering promises to my Midwestern dad, no ancestors of mine trying to steer my life by committee. I know this is it and this is just me, nothing more. But most of the time, I just can't believe it. As much as I know it must be true, I just can't believe it. I've got no use for rational thought. I'd rather be irrational and happy. And it pleases me, not just because it relieves me to think that the world is richer beyond our understanding, but because it's aesthetically satisfying. I was thinking, too, how embarrassing it is in retrospect that my college entrance essay was all about what a great book I thought the Bible was. I guess wise admissions folks know that anyone who writes an entrance essay about the Bible is either going to be some unbearable religion major who never questions her beliefs, or an English major who later cavorts with all manner of magicians. That's what cracks me up about the "interpret the Bible literally" folks. It's not just that "interpret" and "literal" clang against each other in meaning, it's that word "interpret" and the Christian necessity of reading the Old Testament as pointing to the arrival of Jesus. Everything in the Old Testament is some kind of symbol--metaphors with history shattering consequences. Everything is what it is and also means something more. (And, of course, it's the job of the preacher to tell you what more it means.) It's funny to me, too, that folks who spend their whole lives interpreting the Bible are so suspicious of scholars and other folks who spend their lives interpreting other texts. But it's this notion--that things are what they are and something more--that really intrigues me as it plays out in rootwork and other forms of folk magic. In this paradigm, everything is what it is and something more. Menstrual blood is a monthly mess to be dealt with and an elixer to slip into coffee to keep a roaming man at home. An owl is a bird and a sign of impending death. Shoes on a bed are just that and also bad luck. [This probably ought to get us in a larger discussion of luck, but it won't today.] What strikes me most about rootwork, and most forms of folk magic, is that, unlike more "ceremonial" (yes, yes, I know it's a loaded word) forms, folk magic(s) are just a part of everyday life. Little rituals, prayers, activities that fit in your ordinary life. And why shouldn't they? If everything has a double existence, as both sacred and mundane, so does life. I think, as a professional reader, that's what struck me most about this conjure woman. I recognized in her a fellow reader. I look at the shapes light and ink make on screen and page and try to discern meaning. I even manipulate those shapes in order to elicit some kind of response from you, dear reader. She looks at the shapes the world makes and manipulates those to elicit a response. That makes sense to me. So, I choose that paradigm, in which everything is ordinary and occult, and I choose to believe that grief comes up out of you as you're standing in front of the refrigerator staring at a photo of a '63 Chevelle in recognition of the grief your uncle still feels at being separated from you by death.


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