Remember...

Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

I Knew a Boy

Me, the year I kissed my first boy, and my sister.
At my 20 year high school reunion, I heard the same news everyone always hears, that some of the classmates who were absent, were not able to be there because they had passed away. One of the deaths was a shock. He was one of my oldest friends, a childhood playmate. It hurt. It hurt to find out how he died.
Some people were surprised to discover the depth of my hurt. I get it. We stopped really socializing in the tidal influx of new students in Middle School and in High School, no one would have known we ever knew each other. We didn’t speak until the last semester of senior year, when we worked on the senior show together.
We had a moment.
It was always weird before then. When I got to high school I was trying to reinvent myself, to start over emotionally, in a sea of people who didn’t know my early struggles, who didn’t know my secrets. But he knew mine and I knew his. And it was weird.
He lived at the end of my block and we knew each other best when we were still learning who we were, still basking in the promise that we could be anything, anyone. That meant a lot to both of us. I knew a boy who was quick and creative, who was cleverly inventive. We would figure out what we wanted to play and he would figure out how, as if he had mapped the landscape of our neighborhood in his head.
We reenacted Star Wars often. I was Leia and T.J. was Han, because he had dark hair, and another boy, Derek, was Luke, because he had blond hair. We were crafty five year olds, using the back of a garage as a detention center and the secret room beneath a tree fort as a trash compactor. We didn’t know the whole story yet, but we made up our own versions.
He was clever and bright and thoughtful, and once he knew you, he was a good-natured trickster. He was also a boy who liked to do things for shock value, or because he had already deemed them to be another way to get it done, even if it wasn’t the same way everyone else was doing it. Or because he was owning something that was hard for him, before anyone could make fun of him for it. Little kids can be little bastards sometimes.
I know what his home life was like. I was there. He was sometimes in a dark mood, even when we were small, and it always seemed to come from somewhere outside of our wild pack of children running around. But even when he was upset, he was never mean to me. That matters.
In middle school, I was somewhere I shouldn’t have been instead of where I said I was going to be. And so was he. Our paths crossed and we acknowledged each other with surprise. See. in a crazy way, we grew up a family of about two dozen kids on our block. Even though we weren’t friends, we were cousins of a kind. He always kept my secret and I kept his. 

We didn’t speak again until the last semester of senior year. I was performing in the Senior Play and he was working stage crew and tech for it. We were on a short break.
“Why did we stop being friends?” he asked me backstage. I shrugged.
“We knew too much about each other. It was awkward.” He nodded thoughtfully. I could see the little boy in his face. Sometimes for me, the time and distance falls away so easily, and I squeezed his hand conspiratoriously. “We had a good run, playing at war in the summer time. We had fun.”
He laughed. “You were really good at rescuing prisoners from the fort,” he remembered.
“I never got caught.”
He said he got involved in the play because he wanted to be part of something fun before he graduated. He said he understood why I liked it, that it was good people. And, as was usual with him, the weight of what he didn’t say, the weight of what we knew about each other spoke volumes.

The last time we saw each other, I was walking my parent’s dog home on break. He waved and smiled at me, walking over to catch up for a moment. Leather, my parent’s dog, loved him. He was always good with animals, especially frightened ones. It wasn’t something he lost when his eyes flashed dark, so many thoughts fighting for dominance. The last thing I saw was him smiling, the boy I used to know flashing across that smile.
He’s the first boy I remember kissing. We were five years old and he was my first boyfriend. But I hadn’t seen Return of the Jedi yet. In my version of Star Wars, Leia dumped Han for Luke, and Derek became boyfriend #2. We were still five.

I hope you are at peace. I hope you are getting to do all of the exploring you always wanted to do. It’s a vast system of worlds. Happy hunting, TJ.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Don't Stop Fishing, aka Another Bite on Elsie's Line

When Elsie and I first met. And my brother.
I've posted before about my struggle to flesh out my maternal 2x great-grandmother Louise's family tree, in the blog post "Looking for Emma Louise Burnah," in a blatant hope that somebody, someday, would make the same search and find me. Hoping wasn't enough. While waiting, I have kept seeding genealogy sites with names and dates.

A few months ago, I ran one more search on Ancestry.com, and I got a hint on someone else's family tree! It listed Louise's parents as Samuel Burnah, born in Ste Madeleine, Quebec, and Mary Fortin. I sent a message.

I waited for a month, checking obsessively, to hear back from them. And then I did. We've been sharing information back and forth. I am currently waiting for my new friend to tell me which of my beloved great-grandma's siblings they relate to.

I am beyond thrilled to discover more members of that family tree in the same world with me right now. There is so much more chance that someone has gotten further than me in their research! And, if not, at least I am not on this journey alone anymore. (More cousins!)

You can't stop looking. The minute you do, someone will discover a room of 1890 censuses that didn't burn in the fire and there will be new information available. It could happen. Don't give up!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Half a Year

Dragon and Phoenix by Nico Niemi
I started my rehabilitation six months ago the Solstice. The longest day of burning sun has a different meaning for me this year, as I drape myself in shawls and hats and gloves to keep out of its eye. I am halfway through my year-long recovery and much further ahead than I anticipated; not as much as I would like.
I feel a stronger kinship with Spirit than I did before my accident. I saw the dead in a way I haven’t before, fairly corporeal. I saw my Great-Grandma at my bedside. I saw scores of other unknowns come and pray for me, lay ghostly hands on me to heal me. The known and unknown worlds moved in tandem. Science and magic were one in the same.
I wouldn't say my connection to Spirit is different than before. It's more like I see it clearly now. I see each of my breaths and all of my choices much more clearly.
That's what knowledge is, what wisdom means, why learned people were both respected and feared. Knowledge is to have your eyes opened. And once you see, you cannot unsee. Once you know, you cannot unknow.
It’s a choice. I always want to know.
There are some things that are hard to bear. I am in pain because I was on fire. It could be overwhelming to sit in that truth. But in application, I was on fire and now I am not, because the body is a fricking amazing animal.
I have new beautifully tender skin that is teaching me what it means to experience the natural world for the first time. Again. I am walking. I am healing. I am transforming and growing. I am the phoenix rising from the ashes. I am the dragon waking from a long slumber. I am the sun emerging from behind the moon.

I know that spirit is always around us. So is life. So is death. We dance with all every day and there is no reason to fear it, only reason to surrender to it. Remember that you are the darkness and the light. Embrace it. Breathe. And live. Every moment is a gift.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Random Acts of Kindness


Every time there is a mass shooting because of senseless gun violence, it breaks my heart and shakes me. I don’t like guns. I don’t own one. I’ve never held one.
I’ve had one held on me. That was life-altering. Metal is cold, like the cowards who hide behind them while pointing them at another being, as if any life is other than sacred.
If you like guns, I don’t have a problem with you. I have a problem with people who own guns and think they have a right to take lives with them.

What happened in the Orlando nightclub is devastating. Forty-nine people of every age, celebrating life and being alive, gone so quickly. It took me three days to get through all the victim’s names and their known stories. So many couples were taken out together, a mother died saving her son, and a son’s last text to his mother before his death was heartbreaking.
That seismic a loss is too overwhelming to comprehend.

I have new skin from my skin grafts. It’s baby butt smooth and just as sensitive, discovering sensations for the first time again. The emotion that comes over me when I read the names of the dead literally makes that new skin crawl. It’s painful. My new animal skin understands better than my grown-up brain how very <wrong> the loss of people-I-don’t-know is.
My animal skin understands that murder is never okay.

Gun violence. It happened here, in the city where I live, in 2009. We are one of the statistics that come up in the news every time there’s a mass shooting. The shooter had barricaded the back door of the American Civic Association with his father's car, so no one could escape, and went in the front door. I wasn't there. But I was a few blocks away. I lived there and still do.
It was surreal. Shots had been heard. The shooter had gone in through the front door and shot the receptionists, he went into his old classroom and opened fire. He never said a word. He shot four more people than he killed, and he took thirteen lives.
It happened in my city. Blocks from my house. We were downtown when we heard the final news. We were helping to prep for an art opening, but the tone was somber and sober under the sounds of helicopters above. Even at the art gallery, we were just two blocks away.
Thirteen people were murdered. It seemed unbelievable.
I walked home after the all-clear was given. I walked home through the throng of people waiting outside the ACA, waiting to hear the fate of their loved ones. The shock and grief were palpable. Everyone was crying, both those wailing and those stone silent. I didn't feel anger, just stunned unreality. It was so quiet. Everyone was holding each other up.
I barely made it through them and when I did get home, I collapsed. When I <keep hearing> about these mass shootings with semi-automatic weapons, I think about that wave of grief and pain that comes in the aftermath...

What I know of gun violence is that it can happen anywhere. I have an idea of how stunned Orlando is by what happened there. Like everyone, I feel helpless. I am at a loss of understanding.
How could one person be responsible for so much pain? Does it matter why he did it? Will that erase the damage? Will knowing waken the dead? No. There is no answer or discovery the police could uncover that will offset those lives taken, or give peace to the grieving families.
This shadow side of our world is so ugly, it hurts. I have seen the ugly. I have lived the ugly, and in response, I chose love and kindness. It was not easy. It was a hard and difficult journey to get there. But it was a choice. I live it every day.
Violence breeds violence. It is never an answer.

You can't just sit in grief. No one can. Not for long. You have to find a way to transform it into something useful, or you're just multiplying grief, and sending that out into the world. You have to transform it. Transmute it. Turn darkness into light.
I will honor the forty-nine innocent lives taken with forty-nine random acts of kindness for strangers. Each time I do, I will pause and honor another name from the list of the dead. I will keep this journey as a mindful exercise as I work to spread love into the world instead of hate.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Practice of Hanging Names


When I created my first ancestor altar it was meant to be a place and space to honor those who came before me. I was only looking for a quiet space that could be made sacred, to light candles and say names. It was a good place to start and my ancestors became a meditation of names burned deep into my bones.

After a year of devotional practice and attendance to my altar, I had a firm foundation and I was ready for something less passive. I was prepared for the next step, to reach out to the names I had been speaking for connection and counsel.

My personal altar changed and the travelling shrines I created during the year did as well. I wanted them to be a space, whatever the place, for spirits and humans to meet, where I could speak to them with greater chance of being heard, and vice versa. But I wanted the shrines to be thoughtfully provocative to the senses, to help blur the line between the living and what comes after.

I had been doing research into my Slavic genealogy and then into early Slavic pagan practices, trying to bridge a gap from the last known-to-me name and their unknown ancestors. I stumbled across information describing how, when babies were born, a piece of earth was placed in their mouths as the first food they would ingest, as a means of keeping them always connected. Then, the umbilical cord was tied to a tree in the center of the village, where it would leather over time, swaying in the breeze with the cords of those who had come before them.

I had the thought that someday, when I had a home that had a tree, I would tie a natural ribbon on it for each of my ancestors, and let them decay away. That visual stayed with me so strongly, that I began to include it in all of the shrines I help co-create. I offer people the chance to write the names of ancestors or deceased loved ones on ribbons cut from natural fabrics, and hang them on an installation. When the shrine comes down, I roll the ribbons up and keep them until All Hallows, where we read the names on them out loud and burn them in our sacred fire, sending them up like prayers.

The unexpected layer of the magic for me came in the first shrine we created like this. I was sitting in it at dusk and the ribbons swayed gently in the evening breeze. And I peered through the veil they created. I peered through it and I heard a woman's laughter. On the other side of the ribbons, on the other side of water, two young women laughed on a floating bridge.

I remembered that one of the ways to truly honor the dead was to be alive in the world.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

A Ritual of Endings

I have a friend that I see once a year, on top of a mountain for a week. She's a beautiful friend with a beautiful soul and she was one of my first teachers along this crazy spiritual journey.

These last few years, at the end of the gathering, she has taken a moment to hold my shoulders and look me in the eye. She holds my gaze and tries to say everything through them that can't pass her lips. And I nod to her, keeping my face steady, even though I want to brush her off.

That discomfort is a place of resistance and magic lives on the other side of it. So I push through it.

"In case I don't see you in the morning, I guess I'd better say goodbye. Bye," she says.

There is more unspoken in her words and I hope I understand them right. She's older, about an age where it's possible she won't return. I want to brush her off. Of course she'll be back. We all live forever, don't we? But I know we don't. So I nod and hold the sacred exchange.

The moment is not about me. I can deal with my emotions around it later. The moment is about how she feels about me, about us. So I smile soberly, still staring with her into that space where our lives intersect.

"I love you," I added this year, my own mortality ringing in my ears. I didn't have the courage to say it last time, but I didn't want to let the moment pass. We held that space and she nodded before walking away, disappearing into a celebratory crowd.

This year we had a second exchange in the morning as everyone dispersed. She came right for me and hugged me, reminding me again how grateful she was I survived the fire to return this year, and telling me she wished nothing but the best for my life and my future, weighting every word with a lifetime of thoughtfulness, just in case...

As a teacher myself now, I knew the best thing I could do was give her that last moment, in case it was. The least I could do for her was let her play out the ritual.

"I love you," I said again. She held my gaze, her hands on my shoulders, connecting us. And she took a deep breath.

"I love you, too," she answered, before walking away.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Missing Donna on Mother's Day

I got a phone call early in the morning on Mother's Day, 2001, confirming that I was planning to come home that day. My Grandma Donna, battling lung cancer, wasn't doing well. I could tell from the sound of my dad's voice that it was worse than that. He's always the one who calls to give me bad news. We sped home but she died on the way there.

It's hard to celebrate a holiday when every symbol of that day reminds you of grief and loss. A lot of people understand this. But we can't stay there. We can't affix ourselves to that sadness. Letting go of grief, and moving on, back to love, is inevitable, or we're not living.

Maybe it's my age, maybe it's my recent brush with death and changed outlook on living, but it feels different now. The best way we can honor those we have loved and lost is by acknowledging those we love that are still with us.

Mother's Day was a blessing for me this year, because I am alive. Because I am alive to be with my own mother for longer. And because when selecting a Mother's Day card, they all made me think of my Grandma Donna, and I smiled. And remembered her laugh. And her good-natured, competitive card playing. And her summer gardens.

Because she died on Mother's Day, I think about her every year when the holiday rolls by (and loads of other times, too- she was something special). When I remember her, it brings her as close to my heart as possible. And I smile. And then the love I feel for those still with me expands.

That is not a bad thing.
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