This is late, emerging from months of neglect in a pile of drafts on drafts on drafts. The image above was snapped in April during the annual ceremony at Lakou Souvenance Mystique, north of Gonaïves. It has nothing to do with the below except that it is also, in part, about honouring and nurturing connections with those who have physically left us.
Max Beauvoir’s light went out on September 12th, a Saturday. At the risk of turning this blog into a record of the publicly departed, I wanted to post something about a conversation we had on life and death that has stuck with me and helped me move through lot of grief over the past year-plus. My thanks to Marie Arago for posing the perfect question during a beautiful day spent talking and drinking coffee at his home. This is excerpted from an email to a friend last year:
I wanted to tell you more about this man, this formidably tall, slow-moving, thick-trunked tree of a man. He’s a Vodou priest — houngan, in Haitian Krèyol — and sat me down in his garden on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, filled with formidably tall trees and patrolled by ghostly, aging canine guardians, to give me the language I needed to understand life and death here.
“The word Houn means God, but it means life also,” Max explained. His French accent curled around these English words as his cigarette smoke curled above our heads. “It means vibration also.” He took another lingering drag of his Comme Il Faut menthol with his left hand and stretched out his long-fingered right hand flat, palm down. “It’s the sound that when you open your hand and you hit the center of the drum” — he struck the centre of an imaginary drum, houn! — “that’s where you get that sound. It’s not OU like in French, it’s not O-N like in ON, it’s HOUN and it comes from the belly.”
The sound vibrates out. Life, Max told me, is vibrations.
“You probably do not realize it,” he said with a smile, “but if they put you behind an electronic microscope, you’d see how many vibrations you’re having right now that you wouldn’t believe, you’re vibrating so much. And once your life stops, you’ll stop vibrating.”
This country is vibrating. Every country, every city, every mountain, every river-side pier vibrates, but I’ve never been anywhere with quite the same frequency or hum, by turns jarring and soothing. Haiti vibrates in a way that affects your own vibration, alters it a little bit every day and every night that you spend on its land or in its waters. Maybe forever. I don’t know yet.
Vodou, Max explained, is far from the blood-letting goriness portrayed by Hollywood. He practically spits the word — Hollywood. He has the demeanor of a deep-down calm, but there is a storm behind his visage. Catching the briefest flash of anger in his eyes is startling, stunning in the way of September’s dry lightning spells.
According to Vodou philosophy (at least, according to Max’s telling — and there are so many), each one of us gets 16 lives. “The woman that you are today may be the man of tomorrow.” This, he said, is why it’s ridiculous to kill. And once you pick up enough of these lives, plucked from the full spectrum of living, you become wise. He lit another cigarette, took another drag.
“When you become a wise person you don’t need anybody. You retain just the essential of the self, which is spiritual, because we are all spiritual, and as a spirit you move about the universe at the speed of light.”
It was through him that I learned that dying isn’t dying, because even as you’re living and vibrating, you’re in constant contact with the dead. Or, rather, the dead are in constant contact with you. And when you die, after a year and a day, there is a spirit waiting to accompany your soul under water. Back to Africa, he said.
“Dying in the sense that the western person sees it does not exist, cannot exist, it is not true. Of course, it’s a right, and I will respect that right, that you only have one life and after that life once you die you go straight to paradise, purgatory or hell — we think it’s a joke. It cannot be. In fact, we cannot even comprehend. How can you even think that somebody could be capable of burning soul, which is something totally immaterial? And because it is immaterial, it fills up all space like gasses.”
He smiled as he said this, another curl of cigarette smoke diffusing above our heads, his voice ticking upward at each statement with the openness of a question that was not a question. It cannot be? Burning soul?
It fills all space? Like gasses?