This is my second time at Muriel’s Jackson Square in New Orleans, and my second time in New Orleans altogether since stopping to visit a friend here during a solo cross-country road trip four years prior. Above the restaurant at Muriel’s sits an elegant maroon, jewel toned séance room equipped with classic vintage furniture, mummy sarcophaguses, and the spirit of the property’s former owner from the early 1800’s, Pierre Antoine Lepardi Jourdan. This local haunt seemed like the proper spot to enjoy a drink while waiting for my 3:00pm appointment with Nola’s most legendary living Voodoo Priestess, Miriam Chamani.
I had been warned about the dangers of Voodoo by friends and New Orleans locals. “Don’t go alone,” they said. “Respect the spirits. Same with Voodoo. Respect it, but never invite it in.”
Before leaving the Séance Lounge to meet with Priestess Miriam, I take a photo to post to Instagram. I’m trying to tag the location, but all that comes up is the south of Spain and Fez, Morocco. I can’t even tag that I’m in New Orleans, let alone a restaurant called Muriel’s. I would learn later that evening that Mr. Jourdan has a reputation as a ‘trickster ghost’ and is known to play pranks on restaurant patrons.
After that exhilarating encounter of a spiritual kind, I walk briskly out of the French Quarter towards Rampart Street where the quaint home of the Voodoo Spiritual Temple sits, its bright mustard yellow façade radiating invitingly against the monotonous earth tones of the surrounding area.
I stand anxiously inside the dark storefront of the Voodoo temple for about twenty minutes before the bell on the door rings to announce a group of young college students wandering in. As someone who tends to be late for everything, not to mention coming from New York City where everyone is always in a hurry, those minutes of standing and waiting puts me at a slight unease.
The Priestess, hearing the bell, slowly makes her way out from the temple and calmly studies each of her visitors. She appears to be taking us all in as we try not to gawk at her too much. At 77 years old, Priestess Miriam is in no rush. Her quiet presence is so powerful and awe-inspiring that it brings the group of visitors to a stark stand-still, eager to see what will happen next.
The priestess speaks. “Your energy is a lot,” she sighs to the young women before her. She reminds us to take time to slow down. Taking her place behind the store’s register, she chats thoughtfully with this next generation of Women & Gender Studies students about discrimination and the experience of multiple forms of oppression when one is both a woman and a person of color.
Content to part ways with a bit of shared knowledge and new spiritual souvenirs, the young admirers leave and the priestess glances at me, smiling through tired eyes. “Come.” She leads me into the temple and sits herself on a colorful throne.
A young woman glances up at me. I am surprised to see that someone else has been waiting patiently at the end of their own appointment with the priestess. Time seems to be entirely non-existent in the Voodoo Spiritual Temple.
The priestess wraps up her session as my eyes wander to all of the spiritual treasures stacked floor to ceiling, spilling out into the center of the room from all directions. Prayer beads, Mardi Gras beads, lamps and strings of lights. Holy statues, a Pope doll, wooden African figures, flags from around the world, and other religious and spiritual possessions all interspersed with money. Lots of money. $1, $2, $5, $20 bills tucked among the priestess’ collection with coins scattered about. “People who visit leave the money with a prayer for good fortune,” the priestess shrugs with a coy smile. “We all have to pay our rent.”
I’m not sure what I was expecting, exactly. Readings similar to those of a psychic or some spiritual exorcism of sorts? Instead, she lights a very large wooden stick of incense, as if she’d nabbed a table leg, and places it in a metal bowl, the smoke rising.
“What’s that for?” I try to level my voice so as not to sound nervous.
“Cleansing. It rids the temple of bad energy,” she answers softly, carefully focused on the burning incense before her. I can’t help but wonder if she sensed that I had been in the presence of a spirit before sitting down with her. Was it possible that I had walked in with a bad energy?
For two hours, Priestess Miriam speaks as I sit listening in awe. I throw on a smile every now and then when I find myself staring for too long, particularly around the time she mentions “smelling the poop.” She explains that if you love what you do, you have to smell it. The good and the bad parts, I suppose. She laughs a large, boastful laugh. Even Voodoo priestesses enjoy a good poop joke.
She goes on to speak of the “attitudes of humanity” and finding some form of spiritual guidance for ourselves using the metaphor of an airplane. “Going up (in an airplane) is the quietest time. But down on earth it’s very loud.” She explains the practice of mixing our energies with those of the Creator to bring ourselves to a sense of clarity. She encourages the importance of making a good practice with the force of energy that is inserted into us. That we are only “a conduit for nature to feed into us and when we get so carried away with it, then we create all of our problems in our minds.”
Priestess Miriam switches gears to share a passionate commentary on acts of discrimination and equality.
“It’s a frenzy. Women are waking up today. Women are feeling violated by their masculine friend. There’s a part of humanity where young girls are conditioned for working under suggestions. Elite kings in Africa go to villages and pick out young girls and feed them well and pick them up and take them back to his palace. There was a young girl going to the government to have that type of experience annihilated. Look at the circumcisions of young women. Look at the circumstances. They are being brought to this part of the world to see clear of humanity and how they prey upon other humans. Those things inspired the soul to look otherwise. To expand. That these conditions be expanded upon is to help us think otherwise.”
She accuses activists of not looking at the full circumstance of an issue, saying that any path that we think is the right path to justice leads us to develop a selfish illusion that will blow up in our faces. It won’t create any other discipline that will contain the chaos. We have to be aware of these small selfish illusions about ourselves and consider what can be orchestrated beyond that.
She explains the origin of Voodoo being African and one of the oldest religions still in existence, yet filled with many myths and misconceptions. Primarily being confused with Satanism and other racial stereotypes. Go figure.
“Who wrote the book of love? The discriminators.” She says, strikingly calm yet direct in her point. We have been told how and who to love in this world by a more privileged group that, when you look at it, are the ones who created discrimination in the first place. And they are the ones who have deemed Voodooism, one of the world’s oldest religions that spread throughout the world with the slave trade, as being dangerous, leading to extreme measures to try to put an end to the religion entirely.
“That’s the way it goes, little girl,” she adds with a slight head nod. This becomes her catchphrase of the afternoon.
So, if everything we know is a myth, then what is Voodoo?
“Voodoo is an experience,” she explains. “Experiences can activate you in many ways. No experience, you have no game. The experience will direct you.”
She laughs, recalling a time when a late night talk show host visited and made a joke about Voodoo Economics. “There had to be an economical structure long before humans could see to make something economical from His point of view,” she says with a smile.
As I’m leaving through the shop, Priestess Miriam automatically retreats to her spot behind the register. “What do I owe you for your time?” I ask, reaching for my purse. She waves me off. In a single moment of withdrawal, the priestess allows her air of mystery, of higher-being, to step aside as she prepares to close up shop for the day. The incense, good luck charms, beaded jewelry, healing potions, and figurines all put to rest for the evening. The economical efforts to keep the religion of Voodoo alive and well into the next day’s journey.
We share a smile as I say goodbye to the woman from Mississippi who has dedicated her life to guiding others through the innocent yet profound experience of a spirituality grounded deep within her African roots.
That’s the way it goes, indeed.