|"Soul on Fire" - photo of me taken by Carlos Iglesias|
When I was an immigrant kid growing up in Chicago, my mother was very religious, and we attended the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. I was a good little disciple and follower, and truly believed that a canned-goods drive was better than trick-or-treating on Halloween. At least for a while, I did.
Luckily for me, our parents were very involved in the inter-Balkan and Eastern European communities in Chicago, so from time to time, we would visit various Orthodox Churches in the area. Our family sat on an odd religious fence: on Saturdays we would hear about the evils of graven images, jewelry and movie theaters and then on Sundays we would attend epic Greek weddings or Macedonian baptisms, and I would marvel at the gilded, iconic ceremony of it all - the candles, the chanting, and the transcendent smell of frankincense.
I felt holy breathing it in, like I was somehow imbibing God. I’ve always burned frankincense when I really want to part the veils between me and God, to ignite my higher faculties into action and to send my intention swirling like the smoke to the realm of the All, carrying the message of my devotion. It’s powerful stuff, it lingers. It purifies, it blesses, it reveals. It invokes.
I loved listening to the chanting, as well. I loved it when the choir and the Orthodox Priest would chant a “call and response” pattern. I rolled with the repeated phrases calling on God’s mercy in the ecumenical language of Macedonia. “Gospodi pomiluj, Gospodi pomiluj, Gospodi pomiiiiiiiiiiiiiiluuuuiiijjj!” I found that I would just spontaneously sing them to myself in the days to come while playing in the yard or studying at school. They would pop out of me like bubbles. The singing made me feel holier in church and when it would “pop” out of me, I would momentarily feel the same way. It was as if the mystical feeling of the ceremony could reproduce itself on a smaller scale just by my repeating the words.
Through the religious ceremonies of my ancestors rose a deep groundwater of mystic feelings – feelings of being transported and transformed, of exiting normal time and space and crossing into a spiritual realm. In my childhood I had many instances of this indescribably blissful feeling, which seemed to have a will of its own. I felt it in church, but I felt it even more in Nature. Lying in the grass or spending entire days in treetops, somehow as a kid I used to be able to slip into a meditative stillness in which the minute details of a flower or a line of ants or the morphing shape of a cloud seemed to become a portal into the sacred realm.
But being a Gemini, my wiggliness and curiosity would also get the best of me and send me crashing back into the profane reality of endless questioning. Often, while suffering through interminably long Orthodox ceremonies on my feet, my mind would wander. I wondered why all the saints had such long faces, for example. If being close to God was the ultimate goal, then why were all the images so grave? They scared me with their huge foreheads and forlorn expressions and pointy beards.
In the SDA church we had lots of Bible stories and I read and re-read every volume of The Bible Story series by Arthur Maxwell. I also spent most of my free time reading the boxes and boxes of old National Geographics that we inherited from our Uncle Paul. Stories about mythology, witch doctors, and indigenous ceremonies fascinated me to no end. I loved reading about the Aborigines in Australia and how they clapped and stamped their feet and painted their bodies in Dreamtime ceremonies. I wondered if it was possible for me to go to their Dreamtime in my dreams. The pictures inspired me to paint my own body just like them and to imagine what special kinds of rhythmic clapping and stamping gave access to the Dreamtime.
Being allowed very little social life due to my father’s universal insistence on the word “No”, I found in reading a great escape from life’s ennui, and for the stretch of my elementary school life, I was super content with reading the Bible stories, National Geographic, and my mother’s nursing-school books, especially the ones on anatomy and microbiology. I read the Bible for fun. I liked the English of King James, even as an elementary-school kid. I thought it had swagger. Smite, smote, smitten. Yaweh was scary, but boy, did those Children of Israel go on some wild adventures! Biblical tales and legends fed my mercurial imagination to the bursting point, and I was forever asking “why”, or “what if” in church school ,unsatisfied as I was with the universal “have faith” or “thus it is written” platitudes that seemed to be the answer to everything.
I was crazy about King Solomon and all his wisdom and riches. I would fantasize about being the Queen of Sheba and how I would act when confronting his countenance. So I draped myself in my mother’s finery with her jewels pinned to my head for a crown, and practiced my queenly walk to his throne room, which I set up in the living room. I imagined how my glamour would overwhelm him and how I would put him under a spell with my magical dance. He would wake up stripped of his powers, and I would rule his kingdom as well as mine. It seemed a much better story than the one in the Good Book.
I often obligated my sisters to act out my biblical fantasies with me, which we never performed for the adults because it would have been considered disrespectful and blasphemous.
One such fantasy involved the time when King Herod sent out his troops to hunt down the baby Jesus. I had one infant sister, which I would swaddle as the Christ Child. Our middle sister assumed the role of the Virgin Mary, all draped in bed sheets and scarves from my mother’s closet. I, the oldest, would go into the kitchen and arm myself with the lids of pots and pans and a huge butcher knife as a sword. Helmeted with a stainless-steel mixing bowl, I would swoop in on the holy Mother and Child and wrest the screaming infant from her terrified embrace. I had to be quick, because I couldn’t blow my cover. You see, in my version, I was a double agent. Jesus’ real mom up in heaven never wanted him to be sent down as her husband’s “lamb” to the slaughter, so she decided to rescue him against her husband’s wishes. She sent me undercover as a Roman soldier to kidnap the kid, and bring him safely back to her up in heaven. In exchange, I would receive a pair of wings and be initiated as an angel.
To me, God always had a wife. One of my annoying childhood church questions was about why we never talked about her. I refused to believe what I was told about God being a uniquely male presence. I didn’t like that; it always made me feel weird, like they were tricking me, or something. I also didn’t happen to like kneeling to pray.
Actually, I hated kneeling to pray. I hated the feeling of assumed guilt and groveling that kneeling embodied. Within my staunch Balkan upbringing, we were often punished by being made to kneel on stuff like corn, so kneeling was something that never made me feel holy, just angry and petulant. I understood that sometimes we pray to acknowledge guilt and ask for forgiveness, but to me, there always seemed to be so many other reasons to pray. And it seemed to me that in church we only said “Sorry”, “Please”, and “Thank You” to God. It bored me to no end. How come we never said “Yay, God! Let’s play, let’s dance, let’s go crazy together?” Why was the God of the Church always in such a bad mood? Did he laugh? Did he dance? If the daughters of Jerusalem were meant to dance for God, then did God “dance back”? How come we didn’t dance in church? There was music, after all.
When we were at the SDA Sabbath service, I would sometimes look forward to the singing. But I didn’t like all the songs we had to sing. I never liked “Amazing Grace”, for example, because I didn’t feel like a wretch. I liked “Onward Christian Soldiers” because of its marchey rhythm, but then I wondered what we were fighting for, and had to know why, if we were supposed to love one another, were we in a Christian army marching off to war?
But one morning a special organist visited our church, and we sang “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”. To the spiraling baroque organ motif my pre-teen soul took flight, riding the waves of Bach’s opus into aeons of pure ecstasy. I was lifted higher and higher, the words sweet in my mouth and the music causing me to sway uncontrollably in the pew. All I knew is I wanted to bound into the aisles and start skipping around the pulpit, calling the others to join me in a spirited romp around the holy space.
But, no. That impulse had to be subjugated deep into the recesses of my being, squashed but not squandered. The music of Bach filled my mind with visions of a beautiful Temple, filled with frankincense, candles, and beautifully robed people dancing in a big spiral. I imagined that the angels would hove rover us, spiraling downward while we spiraled upward to meet them. “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord”, the Bible said, but in reality we never made truly joyful NOISE unto the Lord; we mostly made mournful noises of puritanical contrition and begging.
I always felt like the way to pray to God was with my arms raised heavenward, like a child wanting to be picked up by an adult. I felt like God wanted that from us, too, in spite of how angry and resentful the Church insisted He was. One night in a fit of childhood insomnia, I got up and went to the window. As I drew aside the curtains, the clouds parted over a full moon so incredibly bright that its cool light rays washed all over my face and pajamas and made me feel like I had been painted with a special glowing paint that God used for newly-minted angels. I closed my eyes but could still feel the moon’s rays permeating me and filling me with a clean, liquid light that began to make me feel lighter than air. From the heavens came the sound of singing so sweet and crystalline, that it almost made me cry. It was calling me. I stretched my little arms out and up, into the moonbeam, into God’s embrace, with the angel song and the cool breeze lifting me higher and higher. I felt suffused with cool, liquid light. I was melting in the most wonderful way, swirling around the night sky, now overflowing with stars, now blissfully oblivious. Surely this was the lap of God. Surely, this bliss is what we seek when we pray. I was so sure it was. I’ve never forgotten that night, and I’ve never lost the conviction it brought that bliss is the purest, most noble blessing of all.
Around those years, vivid images of a majestic Jade Temple filled my dreams. It had fountains, grottoes, and a multi-tiered Great Hall where beautifully robed beings would gather for grand ceremonies with angelic music. It was green and black, with waterfall pools, moss-covered rocks and precious jade altars where these beings would rest and talk to each other as I passed through, mute with wonder and lost in the indescribable feeling of bliss brimming over. It has stayed with me my entire life, appearing and re-appearing in my dreams and moments of flashing insight. Sometimes the Temple is really earthy, sometimes it’s intergalactic, and sometimes it’sboth. But it is always the feeling that I get from it – an increasingly clear and vibrant ecstasy. An overwhelming, contented feeling of havingreturned to a sacred place outside of time/space, a paradoxical state deep inside myself yet cosmic in its proportions.
As puberty hit, I found that I would recourse to that deep, cosmic place within myself more than ever – it was the only place I could go where my father was powerless to “forbid” it. To the extent that my awkward body began to bloom outward, my parents seemed increasingly determined to fence me in and cut me off from what they saw as evil and decadent American mainstream culture. My question “Why not?” was always met with “Because I say so”, so I would pout off to my room and get lost in a book or shimmy up a tree and go into a nature-trance.
In church, I became even more annoying as I insisted on questioning what hadn’t ever made sense in the first place. I just wasn’t satisfied with “having faith” any more. I wanted to knowwhere God came from, and why fossils are older than the Bible’s creation story. I began to question God’s apparent addiction to punishing people, and to ask why he did things like “harden Pharaoh’s heart” in order to make Egypt suffer increasingly cruel plagues. Why did Job have to suffer so much because of some stupid bet between God the Devil? If betting was gambling and gambling led to hellfire and brimstone, then why did HE get to do it? I began to have increasingly uneasy feelings that I was being tricked. Lied to. Something wasn’t right.
As my yearning for freedom clashed ever more with my parents’ staunch determination to deny it to me, I began to act out atschool. I was now in a public middle school, since my parents could no longer afford the conservative SDA church school. There was a jukebox in the lunchroom, and the kids would play songs like “Misty Mountain Hop” by Led Zeppelin or “Tom Sawyer” by Rush. Rock music! Oh my God, I had discovered “that devil’s music” to my mother’s utter horror, and it was the bomb! It detonated the force of my repressed inner yearnings; exploding them into rebellion and activating a new level of curiosity about the world and my place in it.
At about thirteen, I also discovered marijuana and LSD. Ib egan to trip quite regularly – why not? I couldn’t go anywhere or do anything, so as long as I was confined to my room while my peers went to school plays and basketball games, I was determined to have some fun. With Jim Morrison urging me to “Break on Through”, I melted my mind with microdots and locked my door and painted bizarre paintings on canvas and on my own body while jumping around my room like Captain Willard from “Apocalypse Now”.
I banged my head, pumping my fists to Deep purple and Black Sabbath while my mother pounded on the door and shrieked in protest of the “devil’s music”. I didn’t care. Her opinion, my father’s ridiculous rules, and all my unanswered questions were all melting with me. With psychedelic drugs and rock music, I had found an escape hatch, and the way out was in. I dove deeply into myself, surfing cosmic waves of extraordinary chaos – beauty and terror dancing with each other in the vast expanse of my soul. I swallowed colors and saw sounds and painted dreamtime paintings all over my room.
Church was becoming a thing of the past. My family was crumbling, and even my mother’s religious fervor began to flag with divorce looming and the familial atmosphere growing more and more volatile. My own spiritual feelings were intensifying as my psychedelic experiments took on the inspiration of Carlos Castaneda, Joseph Campbell, and my new interest in Wicca through authors like Starhawk and Janet and Stewart Farrar. Connections began to reveal themselves between shamanism, the Dreamtime, Wicca, rock music and my acid trips to the center of my mind. There was a different way to God, and it had nothing to do with the church’s doctrines. God and his wife, the Goddess, were our supernal, loving parents, and they lived in the Jade Temple of my dreams. They danced – with each other, with us, with Jim Morrison, Mescalito, and the Hero with a thousand faces. In my cloistered adolescence, I was finally howling bullshit on the world with all the fervor of a wrongly-convicted inmate.
One summer, at the age of 17, I managed to escape the house to attend my first rock concert, Aerosmith. It was an intense initiation - a crashing, wild, ecstatic ride on the energy of the crowd, the speakers, the wailing guitars, and the screaming vocals. The band members were gods and their instruments hammered us into a pulp of seething matter, pumping fists into the air and losing ourselves in the group ecstasy and miasma of weed smoke. This was the world I wanted to be in – free, moving, dancing, sweating it all out with my lighter in the air. When my father found out I had gone to the concert, I was severely punished and he redoubled his efforts to incarcerate me. But I was nearing my breaking point, and rebellion kicked into high gear.
Sneaking out at night and truancy by day became my delinquent modus, and everyone was on my case, including my compassionate high school counselor. I managed to pull good grades in spite of my low attendance, but this only seemed to enrage my captors more. My father’s abuse was turning more and more physical, and I began to fight back until it became clear I would have to leave home for good to find my own way. So I got a series of shit jobs and began to go to college.
As a college kid, I got into the moshpits. I had a LOT of rage to burn, and it was against all gears in the Machine. The system, the patriarchy, my parents’ strict Balkan traditionalism, the glass ceiling, sexism, racism, planned obsolescence, the rape of Planet Earth, the cops, and Com-Ed. I blindly hacked it all to bits and threw it into the forge of boiling magma. I just knew I had to be in that vortex. I had to sweat out the toxic remnants of an abusive childhood and adolescence and had to punch out my fears and insecurities and illusions in the swirl of the Chaos.
I hadn’t been to church in years by college, as it was still relegated to the “bullshit” pile along with my father’s harshness and my mother’s martyrdom. I had gone the path of Wicca and was flowering in its Goddess-affirming, earth-loving spirituality. My sanctuaries were now oak groves and sacred fire circles. Our group celebrated the Goddess shamanically - drumming and chanting and swirling around the Beltane fires, losing ourselves, finding ourselves, transforming ourselves. We ate mushrooms and drank tea and I dreamed of the Jade Temple being in the here and now. I was expanding and contracting at the same time, closing my eyes tightly in the sweat lodge only to find myself shattering into the cosmic nebulae within. It was a time when I was fiercely reclaiming the Feminine, and the Jade Temple now appeared to me as earthy as ever, with its womblike grottoes and cool green tones.
Although I left the States and my group, I never left Wicca. I just took it on the road with me and have integrated its lore and rituals into my daily life. I love how open and generous the Goddess is – how embracing and enfolding and comforting Her presence. She is God’s wife, that force I always knew existed and that the church had tried so hard to negate out of me. She brought the joy to the power of God, she gave form to his force. Together they were the essence of Creation, and as I matured sexually, I could sense that lovemaking was indeed a ceremony in reverence of their divine ecstatic union. I began to see that ecstasy is everywhere. In a lover’s passionate embrace, in the still curve of the Earth’s surface, in the crashing tempest over the waters.
I’ll never forget the time in my early twenties when my posse and I decided to go out for soul-food to quell the remnants of a rollicking night of drinking and dancing. We were a motley little coven in black biker jackets and we were starving and hung over with necks sore from head-banging. So we headed over to Chicago’s south side to a greasy spoon called Gladys’ Luncheonette for the soul-food buffet. Over smothered chicken, greens, mac & cheese, peach cobbler, and hot links, we chattered and marveled at the feathered hats and sequined skullcaps of the church-going ladies in the tiny but crowded canteen. One of them slipped us a flyer about an “afternoon jam session” at a nearby Baptist church. A still, small voice inside me said “Go!” so in spite of all my standard Generation-X anti-patriarchal, feminist, anti-organized religion college-kid attitudes, I went.
Inside, after years of not being in the pews, I sat toward the back and waited for the service to begin. The front of the church was set up with a whole slew of musical instruments, guitars, drums, amps, and metals. The choir filed in and the pastor took the pulpit and asked for the Lord’s blessing. Then he picked up his trumpet and began to blast a session of southern spiritual Jazz that I had never before heard in my life. The band accompanied him as he racked the intensity up and down – now playing, now singing, now playing and dancing, now just singing and clapping his hands. All around me people were swaying in the aisles, arms thrown heavenward with looks of ecstasy on their faces. Can I get a witness? I threw off my leather jacket and jumped into it. I praised the Lord Jesus again, I walked on water and sang along with the choir on the banks of the River Jordan. I let it all go. I let this preacher-shaman take the wheel and lead me along the paths of glorious celebration for his name’s sake. We were making a joyful noise unto the Lord, singing and dancing and celebrating in church just like I had dreamed we could as a child.
Somehow, things came full circle that day. I felt Jesus in my chest like a beautiful golden light radiating outward and illuminating the idea that it was all good with God. That in that small church, in the rolling, resounding jazz ceremony, God revealed His own infinite capacity for joy and celebration. That He was NOT this angry, punishing patriarch that we had to rebel against – no, that was my earthly father, and that day it dawned on me just how much I had conflated the two. The Book and the Church had done God wrong– they tried to take something beyond definition and tried to define it and scare us into believing their way about it. In the process, they cut us off from our true spirits and our blissful capacity for holy communion. This God too, had been cut off – from his Beloved, from his joy, from our hearts and trust, and his own bliss.
It was in that Baptist Jazz ceremony that it finally dawned on me that God, Goddess, the Great Spirit, whatever the mysterious Divine Force is called, must be danced. It must be felt, imbibed, embodied, and this same bliss was what the ancients knew to be the portal to the Divine. The dance of the daughters of Jerusalem was the dance of the Cosmos and of the great cycles of our lives. “All the gods are one,” said the Merlin from The Mists of Avalon. No definition, no category, no label or group could ever again tell me who or what God was. In my spontaneous and honest surrender to the music, I had tapped a cleansing, healing bliss that overflowed my heart like a cup running over. With arms raised heavenward like a child wanting to be picked up, I found myself once again in the lap of God. It was good to be home.