Just in time for fall comes the *long-ago promised Pajama Chat with Stephanie Rose Bird, author of Sticks, Stones, Roots and Bones and Four Seasons of Mojo.
I'm thrilled to have Stephanie here to share with us her views about natural living and creativity. Stephanie and I met a few years ago. She has a lovely essay in the anthology I compiled. When I read in Chicago at the indie bookstore Women and Children First, Stephanie joined me and we had a great time.
Stephanie is a spirituality and health writer, educator, visionary artist, solitary green witch, hereditary intuitive and contemporary rootworker. (And I might add a beautiful writer and a really nice woman.) She has an MFA from UC San Diego.
Without further ado*, here's our chat:
Pajama Gardener: You write about hoodoo and working roots. What are these practices and how/when did you become involved with them?
Stephanie Rose Bird: Hoodoo is a unique collection of folkloric practices of African American people. People from diverse cultures including Native American (Southeastern North American groups) as well as people from Appalachia and immigrants from Europe, particularly those from northwest and eastern Europe, became involved with its development. The tradition is about self-determination, and may include healing or harming as the Hoodoo practitioner sees fit. Early on, Hoodoo, like other African-based traditions was used very proactively to help enslaved Africans in the Americas gain freedom. This is well documented by scholars. This was accomplished by using knowledge obtained in Africa of venom, poisons and herbs to effect slave holders (the masters) health or otherwise influence them so that a revolt could take place. Hoodoo healing was also used proactively and very positively, as plantation medicine, because blacks and even many whites were not able to see mainstream (allopathic) doctors. Hoodoo also involves the intersection or crossroads were humans and the spirit realm meet.
I focus my work on Hoodoo as a healer's tradition. Hoodoo can be used to help people have a better quality of life. Folk medicines are used for healing common ailments using the roots, berries, seeds, flowers and leaves of plants, typically called herbs. Matters of everyday life include finding and keeping a life partner, creating domestic tranquility, putting an end to vicious gossip, finding and keeping a job, increasing prosperity, doing well at school and maneuvering through the challenging passages of life like pregnancy, childbirth, adolescence, marriage illness and death are all addressed. There are people who use Hoodoo to bring terrible harm to others. I am not interested in that particular application and it is not something I am involved with. As someone interested in history, I am much more interested in the ways Hoodoo demonstrates how African culture has survived and continued in the United States. I am interested in the diversity of expression of Hoodoo, for example Hoodoo's appearance in blues songs, folkloric uses of plants for healing, the folkloric stories that grew from within Hoodoo and art objects used such as mojo bags, handcrafted brooms and magical soaps. I see Hoodoo as an interesting application of ethnobotany that is uniquely American.
Hoodoo and Voodoo are not one practice. Voodoo is derived from the word Vodoun, a well-developed belief system that began in West Africa and evolved in the New World, very strongly manifesting in Haiti and in New Orleans. There are priests and priestesses of Vodoun and an in-depth ordination process. There are also deities lending it a religious tone that doesn't necessarily exist in Hoodoo. There are commonalties between Vodoun and Hoodoo yet they are not one in the same. Just like Hoodoo is not Santeria, Obeah, or Candomble although there are certainly some crossovers.
So Hoodoo is not a religion yet it is practiced by an eclectic group of people. In the past most of the practitioners were involved with the Protestant church as Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals, while a few were African Moslems. Today, Hoodoo continues to attract an eclectic group of people regardless of their religious affiliations. There are Hoodoos who lean toward West African traditional faiths like Ifa of the Yoruba people like myself; others look towards Khametian practices of the ancient Egyptians, still others come from a background of Wicca, Witchcraft, Paganism, Shamanism and other practices.
PG: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
SRB: One of my favorite things to do as a child was reading. I devoured books and all my favorite teachers were either Language Arts teachers or teachers of other arts like visual art, dance and singing. I loved Shakespeare growing up and dark tales. I grew up in the country and there was a very large series of food storage buildings that captivated me; they were covered in quotes of the wise from throughout time. I found them to resonate and as a combination of their omnipresence and the rhythms of people like Shakespeare, T.S. Elliot, Langston Hughes and Edgar Allen Poe, soon enough I was writing poetry of my own and reciting it. As a teenager I was involved with a small group of African American teenaged poets under the direction of an elder poet Ms. DuBois. Still, writing remained overpowered by my chosen art forms for much of my life which was dance and fine art. It wasn't until about 1999 that I got the call--something or someone spoke to me across time and said, "Hey! You should write." Still, before that many of my artist friends were calling me a writer because whenever I had the chance I was incorporating writing into my art and utilizing nonfiction writer's processes in my art, like planning & research, research, research!
PG: You are something of a modern Renaissance woman: you write, paint and dance. How do visual art and dance inform your writing and vice versa?
SRB: I have to give credit for these overlays to my parents. I grew up in an unusual household. My mother studied dance for many, many years and she made sure I did the same, from the time I was 4. My parents were very artistic and we had a craft business. We spent a lot of time creating together and discussing aesthetics of what worked and what didn't, what people might like and why or why not. That upbringing made it natural to be creative and not to really compartmentalize each one but to just do it. That's how it was and it has begun to be the same way for me. I've given myself that freedom. I've been dancing for about 7 years as an adult-spread out over time. Most recently, I've become heavily involved with American Tribal Style Belly dance. Right now I'm also studying Kahiko, which is ancient Hawaiian Hula and Spanish folk dance. I try to also take West African workshops whenever possible and have it on my to-do list to learn classical Indian Dance and the dances of Java. At the same time I paint and I write, every day. As I said earlier, it is a natural way of being for me, started in my childhood. The three-forms are all centered around a nexus of creativity and they are inspired for my passionate interest in world cultures. As I paint and write I listen to world music and classical music typically--the music will spark inspiration also for potential dance choreographies to try out.
PG: A lot of writers and aspiring writers read the Pajama Gardener, what Hoodoo might help writers (encourage creativity, combat writer's block, build self-confidence)?
SRB: Here are three different ideas choose one or try different ones on different days but not all of them at once.
(1) Buy a few unscented pillar candles of about 4" x 6" --in the colors red, orange and/or white. While intently focused on overcoming your creative block, take a couple tablespoons sweet almond oil or sunflower oil and crumble in a handful dried pink rose buds. Stay focused and breath deeply--stay relaxed. Next, roll the candle(s) in the floral oil (this is called a candle dressing). Roll dressed candle in an ample sized piece of tin foil covered with a paper towel--let sit this way overnight. Before you attempt your creative work picture a pure white dove flying away from you carrying a red mojo (bundle) in her beak--the mojo is your bringing creative block with her. Open a nearby door or window and imagine fresh inspiration blowing into your life with the breeze. Keep breathing consistently even, slow and deep until you feel completely relaxed and willing to accept the return on your creativity. Close the window or door after you complete your visualization. Light the candle(s) on a fireproof plate and as you breathe in its sweet scent look for inspiration in the fire of the candle(s). Blessed Be! You'll be creating in no time.
(2) Neroli helps ease inhibitions and promotes relaxation as well as ethereal visions; dab some of this on your pulse points before bed so that creative dreams and visions may come to you.
This oil is sold by many different aromatherapy and herbal suppliers online and it is carried at various local health food stores in most communities. Seek out pure, organic oil--Aura Cacia is a decent brand.
(3) Sprinkle magnetic dust under your work desk and chair, discreetly (don't get carried way). Imagine you are planting the seeds of creativity, inspired visions and a fertile imagination. Magnetic dust brings what you seek. It is an attraction, drawing powder. It can be purchased through various online suppliers.
Generally I suggest:
(1) I like the strength, warrior spirit and tenacity represented by the metalsmiths, metal gods and embodied by metals. Sprinkle pennies in your work space to invite and please the ancestors. Hang a horse shoe in your studio/office--cup shape and prongs facing upward to hold the energy that comes from the great beyond.
(2) Having fresh fragrant flowers in your workspace--the fragrance attracts good spirits and inspires interesting thoughts out of the ordinary.
PG: In your book Four Seasons of Mojo, you talk a lot about the "profound impact each season has on our spiritual lives." As we head into winter, what ritual or practice would you recommend for those of us who get a little blue during the cold dark months? And any suggestions on how to stay physically well?
SRB: We've just been engaged in that time of the year when the veil between worlds--spiritual and earthly; human and ancestor is thinnest. This is the time to truly delve into the spiritual in whatever way you feel most comfortable. Furthermore, it is the time to pay attention to family and to ancestors--whether this means learning more about your ancestry, visiting family cemetery's to pay tribute or as simple as cleaning and reflecting upon family photographs fall is for family and ancestors. It is also nice to break bread with family and with friends--very good for the soul when you are with good people.
I also like candles during this time of the year because they are a source of spiritual warmth and tangible light. Burn candles near your work spaces but always with attention towards health and safety. For some this may mean unscented or beeswax candles, this is helpful for those with allergies. As I mention in Four Seasons of Mojo, avoid lead wicks and synthetic scents. Try out soy candles and other alternative sources. I really like the handmade candles by Pacifica because of the essential oils they scent the candles with--they burn in a very pleasing manner and scents such as orange, grapefruit, neroli, lavender and mint are very uplifting. Adding river rocks to the fireproof plate brings in the earth element and rocks are very grounding--something we need during this spiritual time of the year.
Also in Four Seasons of Mojo I provide numerous recipes for healthy seasonal foods and drinks. I recommend colorful roasted root vegetables (which I'm actually baking right now), these include parsnips, carrots, sweet potatoes or yams, red & purple potatoes, red onions, garlic, rutabagas, turnips and leeks. The more varied the better--this is chock-full of antioxidants.
Peppermint tea with honey and lemon is soothing and peppermint has numerous medicinal qualities. I like teas for fall and winter. Honey and lemon are medicinal and I speak about many of their benefits to the immune system in Four Seasons of Mojo. Lately I've been enjoying the health benefits of white tea with ginger which is very warming and good for the digestion in our season of heavy foods.
PG: What are you working on now?
SRB: I have two new books in the works: A Healing Grove: African Tree Medicine for a New World (Lawrence Hill Books; Chicago Review Press) and Light, Bright, Damn Near White: Biracial and Triracial Culture in America (Praeger Books, Greenwood Press--both will be out 2008 or 2009.
My daughter and I are dancing together and hoping to perform together sometime within the next year. I've been studying my genealogy both traditional paper trail and deep ancestry through a series of DNA tests--Fascinating doesn't quite describe it. I have a solo show opening Feb. 15th in the Chicago area, so I'm painting as much as possible.
Stephanie, can't wait for your next books. Thanks so much for your time!
*Lafreya, this one's for you. Thanks for being patient!