Monday, March 31, 2008

Feasting St. Joseph

On Saturday, I was asked by a good friend of mine to be part of the entertainment for Dignity Washington's Feast of St. Joseph celebration. Dignity is a national group for gay Catholics, and I hadn't been to one of their events before this weekend.

Set in the parish hall of a local church, there was an altar at the far end of the room dedicated to St. Joseph, including icons, statues, candles and large rounds of freshly baked breads. (Happily, there were images to the Madonna on there, including some Black Madonna works - hello, Cybele!)

In many ways, the evening reminded me of childhood excursions to any Italian Catholic church. Everyone there was very friendly, and with the smells of roasting chicken, marinara and meatballs wafting from the kitchen, it all seemed very familiar. (Not to mention the platter of fresh cannoli tempting me to the dessert table!)

My friend had asked me to perform some bellydancing numbers, so using the Pussycat Dolls' "Buttons" and a Middle-Eastern take on "I Put A Spell On You" by Natacha Atlas, I dressed in my skimpy best and went for it. Before going out, I crafted the intention of reminding everyone of the joys to be found in sensual pleasures and the reminder that the fullness of life itself is to be found in those sensual pleasures.

After the dancing, I performed two Italian folk songs, and it was the first time I've sung solo in public for a very long time. It was great for me to do and a potent reminder of how evocative and magical the human voice really is.

At the end of the evening, one of the people at the event told me that he really saw/felt the relationship between the sensual and the spiritual in my performance, and his comment warmed my heart immensely. Sounds like that intention got through!

(The image above is one of my favorite of St. Joseph by Georges de La Tour, 1640; my stepfather introduced this work to me, and having seen it in Paris, I was, indeed, amazed by the work's luminosity)

Monday, March 24, 2008

Baking spells

Yesterday, I made the bread pictured here. It's a traditional Italian Easter bread that's very slightly sweet and has orange zest in it. Plus, of course, the eggs, which get roasted while baking, are part of the treat.

I decorated the eggs with various symbols matching the intention I crafted before starting the entire process. I sang, danced, and kneaded, guiding the energy into the dough, which I love to do.

Although many recipes call for using the trusty Kitchen Aid for mixing, I often prefer to do it by hand, especially when I'm actively working magick into the material - which, to be honest, I almost always do.

This morning, I had a slice of the bread along with some AMAZING organic toasted Hazlenuts from Sicily suspended in honey from Tuscanny. It was sheer heaven!

Lately, I've been cooking my way through Gina DePalma's "Dolce Italiano," an incredible book of Italian desserts which are so different than the standard sweet fare.

I recently baked the Torta di Polenta Con Agrumi from her book - a cake that uses flour and polenta as the grain, mixed with orange, lemon and lime zests, topped with a glaze of confectioners' sugar and the juice of the citrus fruits. It was divine. Interestingly, there was no butter - the only fat was, of course, olive oil.

That spell was about bringing joy and pleasure into the lives of those who ate the cake, and at least while we were eating it, I knew this to be true (especially when Philip and I each ate a piece at the breakfast table on Monday morning!).

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Forging my own path

It's been one year since my big witch initiation, and as luck (or Mystery) would have it, I had jury duty one day before the equinox. I was done at 10:30 and went home, instead of back to work, and decided to honor the one year mark.

I took a bath with herbs from initiation day, and I lined the way to the tub with stones given to me by my initiators.

After inviting all the Mysterious Ones, they released me from a number of obligations that I had been doing for the past year (saying my Queer Medicine Wheel prayers daily, going to bellydancing once each week, etc.), and they asked me what I wanted.

It's amazing to me that shortly before the one-year mark I connected to all this work with the tarantati and Cyebele, things that bring my spiritual path into clearer focus with an incredible intensity.

I made my declarations and entered the room and the tub, allowing the magick to do its work.

On the Equinox itself, I greeted the sun with a traditional Italian chant for the sun to rise and send its healing rays to the Earth.

Yesterday, I practiced my drum rhythms in a park, enjoying the sunlight, the sound of rushing water from a nearby creek and the power of the drum to connect me with my ancestors, the Earth Mother, Cybele, the ancestral tarantati and Galli and the fey of the land where I was playing.

In a couple of weeks, I'll be attending an all-day workshop with Alessandra Belloni, which covers various rhythms and dances from Southern Italy. I've done shorter sessions, and I'm very much looking forward to trying this longer one. Until then, it's more practice and experiementation!

(The photo above is one that I took yesterday of my drum in the grass. On top of it is a necklace of Cybele - at least that's who I see it as being - that my dear heart sister Molly got for me for my birthday this year. There's also a bracelet of Virign Mothers there. Cybele became synchronous with the Black Madonna for many Italians as Christianity took hold. There's also a beaded piece that I wear on my belt - it's a reminder of impermanence and also a connection to the spider magick that I do.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

San Rocco

This past weekend, March 15, I went to another tarantella workshop with Alessandra Belloni. Again, it was intense, powerful and completely amazing.

We spent most of the first half just working the rhythms of the tarantella, an incredibly fast 6/8 or 12/8 rhythm that truly induces a trance state.

One of the versions we did is connected to San Rocco (also Saint Roch). He came to Italy during a terrible bout of the plague, and after healing himself from the disease, he became a great healer for others. To this day, there's a regular festival where people do ritual drumming in the streets, warding off disease with this powerful rhythm.

Interestingly, last summer, I went to New York City's Cloisters museum (part of the Metropolitan and located along the Hudson River) and was completely entranced by the statue seen above. It's of St. Roch, and what drew me to it was its very queer energy. Here he is in these hot pants in a very fey pose (a traditional rendering after looking through a Google image search on the saint). He's exposing the sore on his leg related to the plague, and usually he's pictured with a dog, who brought him food during his near-death illness.

My reaction to the statue stuck with me, and then, while practicing this rhythm, I was really drawn to the beat, the sound and the power of it. After putting the two together, I'm very curious to see if there's a connection between Rocco and queer people. That might be the intention of an upcoming trance-journey as well as some scholarly research.

(The statue is painted oak, found in Normandy, dating to the early 16th century. It joined the Cloisters Collection in 1925, I found the photo during a Google image search, and unfortunately, can only attribute it to WallyG)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Nonna Constantino

This past weekend, I got to talk to my Dad about his mother, Josephine (maiden name) Constantino. She died of cancer long before I was born, but I do have a relationship with her from beyond the veil.

I've heard a lot from her about cooking, while I'm preparing food, and lo and behold, it turns out she owned J's Luncheonette for a period of time, a place that served breakfast and lunch and later moved on to serving dinners!

My father has never really spoken of her to me, but recently, I've been asking more questions about her.

The red-haired Josephine was a "firebrand," according to my Dad, enjoying her Scotch and Chesterfield cigarettes. She went to church every Sunday and prayed frequently to Mary Magdalene (most interesting considering my own tight relationship with the Divine Miss M., as I like to call her). My dad thinks that her family was also from Calabria and perhaps one side was from Sicily (not surprising given the close proximity).

Most amazingly, my dad said she would cure him of the "malocchio." In Italian culture, this is the dreaded "evil eye" brought about my someone's envy, negative thoughts or hyper-fixation on another individual. My dad has memories of my grandmother doing something with olive oil and saying some special words to him, removing blinding headaches that he got as a child (prolonged headaches are seen as one of the symptoms of the malocchio). I've heard of the ritual involving olive oil, water, salt and special prayers, so this was incredible to hear that my grandmother was working some juju. The ritual is passed down among the women in the family, although I'd like to think she might have told me had she lived to know me.

How I wish I had met her in life...

(Above right is an image I found on the web of an Italian wise woman, ready with her bowl, to lift the malocchio.)

Sunday, March 2, 2008

A Night of Tarantella

Yesterday, I went up to New York to take a workshop with Alessandra Belloni, a brilliant performer, healer and ritualist who uses the sacred dances and rhythms of Southern Italy for healing and empowering magick.

The four-hour workshop was completely amazing and, I suspect, life changing. It brought together so many strands of spiritual and personal work that I've been doing for the last five years, as well as my history as an actor and dancer.

We spent the first two hours working on the rhythms and chants associated with the tarantella and the Black Madonna (who, apparently, was Cybele in pre-Christian times). The rhythms are remarkable, complex, beautiful and also full of real power.

After this we began working on dances, the first being a choreographed set and the second being an ecstatic healing ritual based on the tarantella.

I came to this through a book I found at the Library of Congress called "The Land of Remorse." In the '50s, an anthropologist went to Southern Italy (where my ancestors are from, actually) and looked at the phenomenon behind the tarantella, an ecstatic healing dance meant to heal the "afflicted" from a spider bite. However, the tarantati (the name for those bitten by the spider) would exhibit similar symptoms (overt sexuality, aggression and depression) year after year, sometimes for their entire lives. Usually they were women, but men would experience this, as well. The men were often gay as were some of the women (a suspicion I had on diving into the book and confirmed by Alessandra last night). Often, these people were not bitten by a physical spider but (what I would call) a spirit spider. The tarantati would be healed through ecstatic dance, wearing bright colors and working these ancient rhythms.

This is my understanding of all this up to this point, and I am just at the very beginning of looking at all this.

For me, personally, I'm stunned at how this connects to the spider work I've been doing, the sacred dance work, my connection to Cybele, my queer spirit dedication, and my own personal ancestry. Much of this took place in Southern Italy, including Calabria, where my ancestors are from. Apparently, the Southern Italians are akin to the Native Americans - they were indigenous peoples who kept their ways even with the advent of empire and Judeo-Christian ideas.

I'm hoping to attend her all-day workshop on April 6. Most amazing!

(The photo is of a statue by Francisque-Joseph Duret, titled "Neapolitan Fisherman Dancing the Tarantella," 1833.)