by Shloma Rosenberg
I come from a House of Osha that is full of Oshun's children. Nowhere is Oshun's beauty more evident in all her glory, both sweet and sour, than in the forms in which she appears through her children.
I am sitting in the living room of my Godmother's house. It is early still and we have already been awake and working for a couple of hours. The house is bustling with activity in preparation for the initiation of twins, Alex, a son of Shango, and Kim, a daughter of Yemoja. They will be the seventh and eighth priests that I will initiate. I see them sitting, staring at the wall and looking quite shell-shocked in the melancholy light of early morning, and I remember how I felt when I was in their shoes (or lack thereof).
It seems like the Oshun priests have come out in full force for this ceremony. Pete and Sara, the Barbie and Ken of our house, are standing in the kitchen stuffing their faces with "pasteles" in a last minute effort to curb their hunger in the face of two long and arduous initiations.
Pete is sweet and very cute. The golden boy. Everybody loves him and deservedly so. He works his ass off without a word of complaint. When he comes in, earlier, most often, than anyone else, in his immaculate, typically Miami outfit, you would never guess that a within a couple of hours he would be covered from head to toe in blood, leaves, sweat, and goat shit, but he just hangs up his jacket and starts moving. His asthma medication makes him jittery. This, combined with his bright, white, toothy smile makes him look like an eager puppy, ready to please. He has a great sense of humor, evidenced in his uncontrollable "church giggles" (always, in the grand tradition of Oshun’s sons, at the most inappropriate of times) and the "Be Kind to Animals" T-shirt he sports during sacrifices. He is always ready for a little tension-breaking humor. He leans close to me as he passes and whispers something about "another day in the Gulag", a hushed reference to the backbreaking work of the Religion. He's nobody's slave, though. He works like he does because he loves the religion and he loves his Godmother. He's always looking for the favor of his elders, or anyone else for that matter. He wants so badly to be loved. He can’t stand to make mistakes ... he must remain blameless at all costs. You have to walk on eggshells sometimes so as not to hurt Pete's feelings or cause him to feel slighted. Insecurity and thin skin are the birthmarks Oshun puts on her children.
Sara, on the other hand, comes across as the Ice Queen. Flawlessly beautiful, she floats through the room in chic, stylish outfits that seem to be extensions of her form. Imagine gazing upon the finest, most delicate porcelain doll you've ever seen, and getting the impression that if it was hit by a truck, it would be the truck that would fall apart and the doll would be left without a scratch. That's Sara. I thought she hated me for the first two years I knew her. She still might. But I don't think so. Before the initiations begin, she invites me on her "one-last-cigarette-before-we-start" excursion to the patio. I go, because there is nothing better than listening to her bitch about perfectly reasonable people doing perfectly reasonable things. She could make the Pope regret being Catholic. I have the feeling, though, that if anybody ever challenged her she would fall apart. Not to worry, though, no one would ever challenge her. No matter how high the odds in their favor it wouldn't be worth the gamble. Now she is planning a party. Whenever someone is pregnant, getting married or having a birthday, you can expect Sara to be there with balloons, streamers and stupid games. When Sara is around, EVERYTHING is an event. She works her ass off too, like Pete, but with a slightly different flair. She'll look around, huffing and rolling her eyes in her best "Why-isn't-anyone-else-capable-of-doing-this-instead-of-me-who-has-been-working-all-day" fashion, as she grabs the mop and does what she loves to do best--help. If she can help AND give someone attitude, so much the better. Those who love her (and you can't help it) call her Sarilyn, like Marilyn, isn't that perfect?
Marta is in the kitchen. I
don't know much about her, she's from another house, but she often comes to our
initiations to do the cooking. She is an older woman, quiet and sweet, and very
much a mystery to me. I am glad she speaks slowly. My Spanish is sometimes not
up to the angry, rapid-fire pace at which most Cubans converse. When she does
carry on a conversation, it is very much worth listening to. She has been a
priestess for a long time. I'm not sure how long, but her daughters have been
priestesses for upwards of 27 years, so I would imagine a good deal longer than
that. She is beautiful and full of grace, but her face betrays a sadness that
runs deep. I know that she often takes massive bundles of relief supplies to
her family in
It is evening now, and the initiation is almost finished. I was just assigned a task by my godmother and I passed the buck to my godson Kevin, another son of Oshun. His love for the religion runs very deep. Deeper than you would expect for someone new to it. Life was hard for him, though, and I believe that gave him the ability to appreciate things quicker and more thoroughly. He went through the same torment growing up that a lot of gay kids suffer. It toughened him up to the world. He loves gravelly voiced actresses and imitates them often (When he was a bartender he used to put his bow tie on the side of his head and pretend he was Rose Marie). If things get heavy, Kevin's always there to lighten up the scene. It's hard for him, I think, to take things seriously. Whenever I have to discuss anything with him, he always imagines he is "in trouble" (So far, nothing could be further from the truth). He tries to speed up the process, rushing me along, hoping I won't be able to talk long enough to get to what he believes will be the part where I get mean. Oshun doesn't let us escape our vulnerability scot-free, but She sure gives us the tools to get through the tough parts.
It is well into night now, and people are leaving. I look in on Raysa, my godmothers' 6-year-old daughter, and find her watching TV with Elisabeth, a 14-year-old priestess of Oshun. Lissie, as we call her, is lying on the bed with her head hanging over the edge, dropping grapes in her mouth. She is sweet, funny, bubbly and pretty and she giggles red-faced when you tease her about boyfriends. She is the kind of girl little boys like to harass with frogs. She seems like somewhat of an anachronism. A 14 year old who doesn't have a ring through her navel and a bad attitude in this day and age is a rare thing indeed. I try to imprint the vision before me on my brain, because I know (fear?) that it won't be long...
I sit alone now in my godmothers' darkened kitchen, eating a guava and cream cheese sandwich that Sara made for me before she left. Sweets from the sweet. As I sit, I think about the blessings that Oshun has given me. When life is sweet, Oshun is everything that makes it worth being here: music, dance, food, drink, love and sex. When life is sour, She is the armor that we wear to survive in the anticipation of tomorrow, which, with God's help, will be brighter and sweeter than any day before.
It has been some time since I wrote this essay. Life has
changed a great deal for all of the people about whom I wrote. Pete moved back to
My life is more full of Oshun’s children now then ever before. According to my Ita, I must be very careful of them. Oshun told me that her children with break my heart, mend it, and then break it all over again. I must not invest it them too heavily, she said. Her children are like the girl with the little curl in the middle of her forehead...when they are good, they are very, very good, but when they are bad...
I initiated my second Oshun a few years ago, a woman named Ellen. She is a genius with needle and thread. As part of the achievement of her degree, she had to spin wool into thread, weave the thread into fabric and create a dress. She did it, and I imagine that dress will outlast even the cockroaches when the end comes.
She is very quiet and reserved, speaking out only to offer arts and crafts advice, or to identify the species of any given insect that walks across the porch. On other topics she will only speak in the most private of settings. At every spare moment she is spinning her drop spindle, making thread from god-knows-what kind of fluff. She keeps herself busy constantly, and sometimes I wonder what it is that she is avoiding by keeping on the go. Like most daughters of Oshun, though, she still has a few surprises up her sleeve. Just when I am starting to picture her in "Little House on the Prairie", she comes out of left field with some incredibly scandalous speculation on the contents of someone’s trousers, or a tale of pot smoking in high school.
She throws tarot cards at a coffee house on Thursday nights to supplement the income from her job testing fabrics for a major department store chain. I used wonder how she manages to break bad news to her clients, considering her shy nature. I wondered this, that is, until I saw how happy it made her when one of her dire predictions for a skeptical client came true.
Then there is my dear, sweet
friend Albert in
We make each other laugh, too. Thank God for that. On one of the less eventful days of Joe’s initiation, Kevin, my goddaughter Jackye and I were sitting on futons in the middle of the floor (as well as piles of Fritos and candy) playing cards to pass the time. Albert came to visit, and, upon sticking his head in the door, exclaimed "Oh my God you guys, this looks like a pot den!" Maybe you had to be there. With Albert, it’s all about delivery.
He recently had to rush to the
side of his long-time partner, Frank, who was taken ill during a business trip
While Oshun's children can be the sweetest people on Earth, they can also behave in a very ugly fashion. They are known to hold grudges and avenge themselves in often vicious ways. You will find many a priest who will proclaim the children of Oshun as the masters of gossip, witchcraft and deceit. This behaviour, no matter how horrible it may seem, is also the mark of Oshun. Her children often have had to fight hard to get where they are, overcoming many obstacles, but also pushing a great deal of negativity below the surface. It is sometimes easier in the short term to deny pain or hold tight to prejudice in order to get by. Oshun’s children cannot understand why others do not think the way they do. They assume that everyone should like what they like or abominate that which they find distasteful (or that which may hit too close to home). Often their stubbornness and narrow mindedness is the only thing that has kept them going. To paraphrase Vera Donovan in Stephen King’s Delores Claiborne: "Sometimes you have to be a high riding bitch to survive." In her patakis, Oshun was alternately the faithful spouse and the adulteress, the doting mother and the abandoner of her children, the goddess of conception and the cutter of throats. She acted capriciously, indulging herself, and then turned around and risked her life for the world. As my godfather says, we can never understand her, we can only love her, adore her, listen to her and accept the blessings she gives us.
I see Oshun now, more than anything else, as the Orisha of survival. Her patakis speak of her sorrows, her pain. They do not paint the same picture as the popular image of this Orisha. Most speak of Oshun as a happy-go-lucky temptress, dancing and making love at an almost constant rate, but when we look to Odu, we see an entirely different story.
Oshun Ibu Kole is the vulture who carried the prayers of a dying world on her strong back all the way to heaven. She eats carrion and lives in toilets and gutters. This Oshun drags away the waste and sorrow of the world to leave way for better times. Ibu Anya, the Oshun of the drum, dances not because she loves to party, but because the world had cast her out, and only the drum would give her audience. She dances to forget. Ololodi sits at the bottom of the river, sewing and knitting to occupy herself. Oshun Aparo lived in exile, having been cast out by her various husbands. She lost her crown when she left her husband, Erinle, and went to live in a cave, with only the tiny feathers of the quail to shield her from the elements. Ibu Doko is the furrowed soil in which the seed is planted. She is the ever open vagina in which her husband, Orisha Oko, deposits his sperm. When Oshun was impoverished, she went to live with Eshu Aye, who had only male goat to eat. He castrated them to make her believe she was eating she-goat, which, prior to that, had been her customary food. From that day forward, she ate only castrated goat, as a pact with Elegba. In return, Eshu Aye ate pigeon with Oshun, casting aside his taboo in order to seal the pact. From this union came Idowu, Oshun’s third child, who saved her from poverty and mended her heart, which had broken at the loss of her first children, the Ibeji.
When I say that Oshun is the Orisha of survival, I mean to say that whatever it is that she does, she does to make life worth living. If she dances, she spins and whirls to make life bearable. If she sews, makes love or cuts someone’s throat, it is because she HAS to, in order to survive.
It is true that without Obatala to form our bodies and Yemoja to act as the incubator of our creation, we would not be here. It is without Oshun, though, that it would not be worth staying.