I started paying more attention to Ezili Freda after last week's earthquake, the one that devastated Haiti and finally summoned the world's eyes, all at once, to this small Caribbean nation. She is one of the Lwa, a pantheon of immortal spirits in Vodou who wield their powers on behalf of the devout. Her likeness has sort of followed me around over the years.
I've seen her on prayer cards at sundry Miami mini-marts, and sitting on my kitchen counter is my grandmother's statue of La Caridad del Cobre, Cuba's patron saint, who is often associated with Ezili Freda.
Someone once gave me a white sequined Vodou bottle with her head and shoulders stamped across the front. Then, driving around Little Haiti, I looked over while waiting at a light and there she was again- painted across a big slab of plywood and propped in a storefront window.
Of course I pulled over and asked if the painting was for sale. I am a big fan of folk art and if it includes any kind of religious iconography, all the better. I think I find it irresistible, the unpretentious mishmash of art and fairytales and faith.
Ten minutes and $75 later, I was heading back to work with the Lwa of love and pleasure strapped into the passenger seat.
The portrait is a crude one, with flat perspectives and an angelic face a child would draw, remembering to dot the center of each eye with a nubby, tiny pupil. Since I first brought it home, the painting has hung above the sofa, on a red textured wall, near a window that faces the inlet, and in our shoebox of a foyer. None of these locations ever seemed quite right. Finally, last year, we hung it in the hallway over the antique bookshelves that are stuffed with most of my poetry books.
Today I learned Ezili Freda loves jewels, anais perfume, and sumptuous linens. Her symbol is the checkered heart. She wears three wedding rings, one for each of her consorts: Danbala, Ogu, Agwe. She rules over the home, can assist in matters of fertility, and, oh yes, she serves as muse to writers, as well as painters and musicians.
She is the inspiration behind several works by the late Andre Pierre, one of Haiti's most noted visual artists who was also a practicing houngan, or Vodou priest.
(Left, Andre Pierre)
"I do what I want with the spirits," he once said, "and they do what they want with me."
I am not a practictioner of Vodou. But I might imagine what Ezili Freda would want from me is to remember she was there. Before the earthquake in Haiti, she had simply receded from my sight line. I'd see her hanging between the bathroom and the bedroom, beside a concert poster for a long-gone Pitchfork festival. But I wasn't really looking. She had just become part of the walls and the furniture and everything else we walk and sleep beside without really noticing.
I'm worried the same thing is already happening to Haiti, although even as I write this there's a telethon raising money, and there are special broadcasts and reportage abound. But there's other stuff now jostling for our attention: mudslides and tornadoes in California, the Supreme Court giving even more might to the far-too-powerful. It all keeps marching on and with great clamor.
How will I remember to keep my eyes on Haiti? I hope to do it in the details. I'm listening to Boukman Eksperyans again, whose record Kalfou Danjere (Dangerous Crossroads) I wore out while living on Miami Beach many years ago in a dinky studio three blocks from the ocean. I'm remembering the righteous okra and homemade lemon soda I used to have for lunch at Chez Rosie, just down the street from the paper I wrote for in downtown Miami. Or the time I paired up with photojournalist Carl Juste on a story about salsa classes, how his singular scratch-and-gravel voice helped me find him in a salon crowded with wistful dancers. I'm trying to keep my eyes on Haiti by pulling whatever I know of her closer to me. So far, it's working.