Excerpted from "Sailing My Shoe to Timbuktu" with permission of HarperSanFrancisco.

On November 2, 2002, Joyce Thompson, writer, divorced mother, and a white former Episcopalian, was initiated as a priest in the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria (also called Lucumi). This excerpt recounts her first encounter with Lucumi, through the man who is now her husband, and her initiation four years later as a priest of the orisha, or guardian spirit, Obatala.


It was clear from the start that Schuyler was different.

He followed up our first date with an invitation to dine with several of his closest women friends. In order to feel less singular, I invited my daughter, then sixteen and always an astute judge of character, to come along. The parties sniffed and circled, discovered people and experiences in common. For a brief stolen moment, Schuyler and I sat quietly on the front-porch steps and smoked. My daughter liked him, with reservations. After our third date, cheap Vietnamese noodles and a long walk with Cecil B. DeMille lighting diffuse over Puget Sound affirming the grace of God, he kissed my cheek. On the fourth, in the mountains with our boy-children, we succumbed to curiosity and surrendered our virtue into one another's keeping.

Finally, he invited me into his sanctum sanctorum. Against one wall of his writer's office, he had created an altar for his ancestors. In their photos, they were a stern and mostly handsome bunch of WASPy eastern Washington settlers, merchants, dentists, whose eyes regarded me with unsmiling speculation when Schuyler introduced us.

He called the altar a boveda. It was covered with white cloth, lighted by white candles.

White flowers blossomed in a clear vase. A clear glass bowl held water. On one corner of the table, a single white blossom floated in a glass of water. A small white cup held golden honey.

"I put that there to attract you," Schuyler said.

I asked him to explain.

Some months before, in the course of performing a misa blanca for him, Rosi, partner of Maria, a gifted medium and priest of Eleggua, had seen a woman with two children, a boy and a girl, coming toward him. Rosi had told him the relative ages of the children and added that he would be an important force in the life of the boy. She had told him he would experience both spiritual connection and sexual pleasure with the woman such as he'd never known before. The woman, Rosi had told him, would reveal nothing more about herself. She would not give her name. But the honey would draw her to him. If he put it on his altar, she would come.

"I guess it worked," he said, with a smile that might have melted diamonds. "Here you are."


When I saw that Schuyler and I would be together for a long time,I sent an email to Maria, his godmother, whom I had never met. I introduced myself as the woman with two children she and Rosi had seen coming into Schuyler's life. Now I was here. My name was Joyce. I said I didn't know if his spiritual path would ever be mine, but that I would always respect it and would do nothing to hinder him on his way. This seemed like the proper, courteous thing to do. Whether I did it for Maria's benefit, or for my own, to speak out loud both my acceptance and my intention, I can't be sure. She responded promptly and tersely, with her blessings. The email was signed Madrina.

Even in an impersonal electronic font on a computer screen, that word-godmother-was enough to incite prickles of longing and fear. Any word that flirts with mother, with all the things a mother is and is not supposed to be, is almost like a living thing to me, irresistibly appealing, but dangerous, too-a wolf cub with small sharp teeth, an unpredictable nature. It is a word that calls up all of my defenses, then scurries past them. Put the words god and mother together and you hold my heart in your hands. I have found no way to protect myself from my need. In the end, all I can do is have faith in my own resilience.

It took me four years to decide.

I flew into Oakland from LA on a Sunday morning in June. My rental car was waiting for me, but over and over, my credit card was rejected. The card had been issued by my local bank, which offered no customer service on a weekend to make things right. Schuyler suggested I call his sister in San Francisco to see if she wouldn't put the car on her card. She made a counteroffer. If I could get to their house from the airport, they'd loan me their second car for the twenty-four hours I was going to be around. Her husband, Michael, met me at the BART station nearest their home.

What was I doing in Oakland, anyhow? he asked.

I told him I'd come for an initiation.

"In that religion Schuyler belongs to? In Santeria?"

"Uh-huh. But not because he belongs. Because I want to."

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus