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Thoughts on “Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn” by Karen McCarthy Brown

This book has been on my shelf for a few years. I purchased it along with Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen (click to read Part 1 and Part 2 of my review of Deren’s book). I bought these books because they were recommended to me by a close friend who was initiated into the Vodou tradition in Haiti, and I was interested in learning more about the religion. I would later learn that Mama Lola was the manbo who initiated him.

The book is an excellent academic work. Ms. Brown is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Anthropology of Religion, so not only does she explore the mystical practices of the Vodou religion, but she also presents a moving look at the challenges that face Haitian immigrants in the US who struggle with poverty, racism, and discrimination. Having known many Haitians from my years living in Miami, I was able to relate to a fair amount of the personal stories presented in the book, having seen friends deal with the same types of struggles. Professor Brown does a great job explaining how popular culture, institutionalized racism, and organized religion all contribute to the negative stereotypes associated with Vodou.

American popular culture dwells on images of Vodou’s malevolence, an attitude as nonsensical as equating Catholicism to Satanism. The understanding most North Americans have of Vodou is derived mainly from its portrayal in novels, films, and television, where images of sorcerers, zonbi, snakes, blood, and violence abound. In the United States, the word voodoo is used in a casual and derogatory way to indicate anything on a spectrum from the deceptive to the downright evil. If it were not so clear that racism underlies these distortions, it would be hard to understand why this kind of stereotyping is tolerated for an African-based religion when it would not be tolerated for other religions.

The negative portrayal of Vodou in the press, in novels, and in travelers’ accounts began in earnest shortly after the Haitian slaves won their freedom, a period in which slavery was still practiced in the United States and in many European colonies. The argument was often explicitly made that the barbarism of their religion clearly demonstrated that Haitians were incapable of governing themselves—an argument used by the United States and several countries in Europe to justify their refusal to recognize the fledgling black republic. Racism is more covert and convoluted these days, but the stereotypes of Vodou still serve their purposes. One of the central ways such propaganda works is by characterizing Vodou as in every way the opposite of “true” religion, that is, of Christianity. This description is ironic, for people who serve the Vodou spirits consider themselves good Christians.

(pp. 110 – 111)

It is important to remember that Vodou is a rich spiritual tradition, and like any spiritual tradition or religion, when practiced in earnest, will instill the practitioner with spiritual values and promote individual growth. I love the way Maggie, who is Mama Lola’s daughter, explains this, emphasizing how having Vodou in her life helps her live in the world, and elevates her above mundane and meaningless human existence.

“You know, maybe if I wasn’t part of Vodou, I would not know so much about people. Maybe if I did not grow up in it, I would be just, you know, just like ordinary people . . . walking . . . like everybody else walking on the streets, up and down . . . and don’t know right from wrong.”

(pp. 298 – 299)

There is profound wisdom here, and something we can all learn from. So many of us are guilty of “walking,” and being lost in our self-importance while cut off from reality through the constant stream of digital noise. We have forgotten that we are spiritual beings having a worldly experience. I can still picture my old Haitian friends, and I remember distinctly how deeply spiritual they were, how caring and charitable. I think the world could learn from the Haitian people, about the importance of community, family, tradition, and spirituality.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope this post inspired you.

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“American Gods: The Moment of the Storm” by Neil Gaiman: Issue #09

This issue concludes the graphic telling of Gaiman’s masterpiece. I followed it from the inception, and enjoyed every issue. In fact, I may reread the entire series at some point.

After going through the trials of exploring the realms of the gods, of going through death and rebirth, of observing the cycles of the various manifestations of the Divine, Shadow is left wondering what to do. He realizes he cannot go back to his old life. Once you have plunged into the mystic, you can never return to your old life. You are forever changed.

Shadow said nothing. He had had enough of gods and their ways to last a lifetime. He would take a bus to the airport, he decided. Get on a plane and go somewhere he had never been. He would keep moving.

As a reader reaching the end of this tale, one feels like Shadow. It is not realistic to think you can just go back to your old ways after glimpsing the mysteries of the gods. You must move on to some place you have never been, and likely, that will be somewhere inside yourself.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading and exploring.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 54” by Lao Tzu

Image Source: Wikipedia

What is well planted cannot be uprooted.
What is well embraced cannot slip away.
Your descendants will carry on the ancestral sacrifice for generations without end.

Cultivate Virtue in your own person,
And it becomes a genuine part of you.
Cultivate it in the family,
And it will abide.
Cultivate it in the community,
And it will live and grow.
Cultivate it in the state,
And it will flourish abundantly.
Cultivate it in the world,
And it will become universal.

Hence, a person must be judged as person;
A family as family;
A community as community;
A state as state;
The world as world.

How do I know about the world?
By what is within me.

This passage is pretty straight-forward. A good and spiritual life must be cultivated and tended. You must nurture that which you want to flourish in your life. The closing couplet, though, seems to express a little bit more.

In the last two lines, it appears that Lao Tzu is asserting that an individual’s view of the world is based upon the sum of his or her experiences. I wholeheartedly agree with this. I know that personally I am the culmination of all the things I’ve read, all the people I’ve met, all the places I’ve been, all my joys and sorrows, and on and on. And my understanding of the world is constantly evolving, as I continue to travel the path of life. As long as I am alive and conscious, I suspect that the way I see the world will continue to change.

This past year, I have seen a lot of change in my life. Some of it was painful, but they were all experiences that I can learn from, and that’s what life is about, learning and growing.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you have an amazing day.

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“Negotiating in a Multiethnic Society” by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

This short essay is included in Eco’s book Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism.

Early in the essay, Eco writes:

If, as some say, there are no facts in the world but only interpretations, negotiation would be impossible, because there would be no criterion that would enable us to decide whether my interpretation is better than yours or not. We can compare and discuss interpretations precisely because we can weigh them against the facts they are intended to interpret.

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 248)

This gets to the heart of a deep issue we face in our world. People do not share the same sense of what is true and factual. All information, data, and facts are subject to suspicion at best, and often flat out denial, if for no other reason than the source tends to lean to one polarity or another in the sociopolitical sphere. This is why factions are unable to negotiate anymore, making compromise and progress virtually impossible.

Let’s take an example. Let us assume that “climate change is affected by human activity” is a fact. If we can all agree on this fact, then policy makers from both sides of the political spectrum could negotiate how best to address the issue, weighing considerations from each side to ensure the best possible outcome. But when one extreme denies that humans have any influence on climate change, and the other extreme asserts that humans are the sole cause of climate change, then the fact is nullified and constructive negotiation becomes unattainable.

In this age of information, we must be prudent and use critical thinking to avoid the trappings of misinformation. The internet provides support for any idea, regardless of whether that idea has any validity whatsoever. As we enter into the year 2020, let’s try to have a little more clarity in our collective vision, because only through negotiation will we be able to deal with the challenges that face us on a global scale.

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Thoughts on “Basketful of Heads”

I’ve been a little behind on my reading, so I managed to accrue the first three issues of Joe Hill’s latest comic. How could any self-respecting horror fan pass up on something affectionately titled “Basketful of Heads.” Anyway, I finished reading the first three issues, and it’s a big “meh” in my humble opinion.

The premise is that a young woman takes possession of a mysterious axe to defend herself, yet the men whose heads get separated from their bodies remain alive and conscious. Reminds one of “The Reanimator.” And like “The Reanimator,” there is no shortage of cheesy humor tossed in. But this is essentially where the comic falls short for me. The writing and attempts at humor are weak, and no amount of four-letter words can salvage this one.

I’ve read other works from Joe Hill in the past, and I liked them, so I had high hopes for this one. But for me, it’s not doing it. I’ll have to nix this one from my pull list. Others might like this, but I suppose I am a bit of a horror snob. Oh well. Thanks for stopping by.

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Thoughts on “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse” by Charlie Mackesy

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday. Mine was busy, but nice.

I had a couple draft blog posts on stuff I read toward the end of 2019, but I wanted to hold off on those and instead write about a book that I read which was so positive and uplifting. I’m thinking we need to start go into 2020 focusing on the things that are beautiful and inspiring.

While doing some holiday shopping, I saw this book on display. I had read online that Barnes and Noble awarded it their favorite book of 2019, so I had to pick it up for myself, and I am so glad I did. The book is simple and heart-warming, filled with inspirational messages that are down-to-earth and clear enough for anyone to grasp. It is a graphic novel wonderfully illustrated with humble sketches that add to the book’s overall charm. I was able to read it in about 15 minutes (my daughter read it in 5), but the imagery and emotions lasted with me for days.

I highly recommend that you read this book, even if you are not a fan of graphic novels. It’s a special book that transcends the genre, and I’m sure you will feel happier and uplifted after you set the book down.

To entice you a little more, I figured I would include a couple short quotes, so you have a sense of what you are in for. Thanks for stopping by, and have an inspired and blessed 2020!

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Kind” said the boy.

“Often the hardest person to forgive is yourself.”

“What is the bravest thing you ever said?” asked the boy.
“Help,” said the horse.

“When the big things feel out of control… focus on what you love right under your nose.”

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Thoughts on “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond

It is very rare for me to start reading a book and not finish it. I can forge on through thick, dense texts, as evidenced by the fact that I actually read Infinite Jest. But after getting through about a third of this book, I decided it was not worth my time and energy to continue. I estimate I can probably read two or three other more interesting texts in the time it would take me to finish this.

I was very enthusiastic at the onset of this book, since the topic sounded interesting to me, basically an historical analysis of how and why specific cultures became technologically advanced more rapidly than others, leading to subjugation and in too many cases annihilation of the less technologically advanced cultures.

We all know that history has proceeded very differently for peoples from different parts of the globe. In the 13,000 years since the end of the last Ice age, some parts of the world developed literate industrial societies with metal tools, other parts developed only nonliterate farming societies, and still others retained societies of hunter-gatherers with stone tools. Those historical inequalities have cast long shadows on the modern world, because the literate societies with metal tools have conquered or exterminated the other societies. While those differences constitute the most basic fact of world history, the reasons for them remain uncertain and controversial.

(p. 13)

So while the topic sparked my interest, the problem for me with this text is one that I’ve encountered in other historical works: way too much data so that the pertinent information gets lost in a sea of superfluous facts.

Let me say that while I was an English Lit major in college, I did my minor in History, so I read my share of history books, and some told fascinating stories about how history unfolded, and how events and ideas shaped the direction of cultures and the world. But then there are those books which don’t tell a story but instead inundate you with pages and pages of data which no one could remember and really serves no purpose except as footnotes to other more engaging works. In all fairness, I believe Jared Diamond was working to tell a story through data, but there is a point of overkill for me, and he crossed that threshold.

I’m a technical writer and editor by trade, so I am painfully aware that it is important to strike a balance between facts and data, contextual information, and getting to the heart of the matter. If I’m writing a guide explaining how to generate a report, and I bury the central information within pages of supporting information which the user does not need, then the reader will disregard my text and seek information elsewhere. There is a fine art to providing key ideas with just the right amount of context.

As I was reading this book, my daughter told me that she had watched a film based upon this book in one of her history classes. Since the topic is interesting for me, as I said, I think I will see if I can stream the film, and get the two-hour abridged version.

Cheers!

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