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, May 16, 2018

Preparing to Revere the Dead

Spring has finally sprung. This is the time of year that I pull out my box from Samhain, from when we spoke the names of Ancestors and Beloved Dead and burned their ribbons in the fire. It is the time I take to prepare for the shrines I hold between Beltane and Samhain.

I pulled out white muslin and cut new ribbons, one inch by twenty-one inches. I cut one-hundred and one ribbons, adding them to what was left of last year. I folded them up and slid a straight pin through them.

A little danger as sacrifice for standing in the presence of the Ancestors.

I cut blue ribbons for those who died since last year’s shrines. My hands trembled at the list of names of loved ones who passed this last year. The seasons of hard losses stick under my ribs.
I ironed the ribbons one at a time. It is a meditation I enjoy. That level of mindfulness is the least I could do. So many remembered dead dance through my heart, as they did in life.

Mark Dutcher Eaton*, Melinda Tanner, Elizabeth Fricke, Jeff Patterson, Willie Lingenfelter, Elsie Durant Riddle*, Gabe Reynolds, Joel Pelletier, Victoria Eaton*, Edward J. Jerge II, Trent Illig, Donna MacDonald Riddle*, Jurgen Banse-Fey, Charles ‘Sienna Fox’ Duvall, Jack Singer, Tommy Amyotte, Paul Seeloff, Richard James Riddle*, Andrew Begley, Susan Alvarez-Hughes, Coswald Mauri*, Norm Herbert, Jad Alexander, Dr. August Staub, Princess Leather Falcor*, Melvin Chausse, John Simeon Croom, Karl Weber, Luna Jackalope*, Albert Gritzmacher III, Freya Moon Greenleaf, Patches the Crazy Circus-Freak Dog*, Barbara Jean Schiffert, Bella the Bear-Cat*, Joe Quagliano*, Soja Arumpanayil, Tracy Lee Flint Jr., Christina Adkins, Harry T. Brashear, David Ruston Eaton*, Carol Quagliano*, Paul Ames*, Robert Kiff, Sumant Malhotra, David Knight, Amy Maxwell, Ruth Ann Livingston Kiff, Zami*, Joseph Croteau, Norm Eaton*, Patricia Ann Art-Slomba*…

They are not forgotten.

I breathed deep and exhaled. And then my heart skipped.

This year the heat startled me. It pulled me from my litany of names, from my ancestors. The heat scared me. It’s a sign of how well-recovered I feel that I stepped back into my spiritual habit without remembering that I have not handled the iron since being on fire. I forgot that my wife did this part for me, sacredly, the last two years.

I ironed all of the ribbons. Slowly, reverently, cautiously, and carefully. My hands were unsteady and clumsy as I have been since recovering but I did not burn myself. My ancestors stood with me, hovering like they did in the Burn ICU.

But I ironed all the ribbons.

My wife came home soon after and ironed the prayer flags I use to mark the entrances to the shrines. There are 63 flags, all hand cut and hand sewn. It was a way of layering magic, fluttering flags calling those who hear to come greet their ancestors.

This is what it means to build a practice. This is how I prepare to honor the dead. Focus. Intention. Work. The spirits from the other side who meet me in the middle sure do help. This is how we open a doorway that others may walk through if they desire it.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Ghost in My Bed

Every night I spend an hour or so in bed watching a movie or drama episode. My cat curls up on me behind the small screen and reaches with her paw. I put my hand out and she spreads her toebeans around my fingertips. And squeezes.

Love floods my heart.

We stay that way until she presses her paw against my palm. And she falls asleep. Deeply. With three cats deceased, this is precious time to me. Some nights I steal to bed early just for a little more connective mindfulness of being together.

I brought it up with my wife because there was something about the recent nights that had stuck with me. I was recalling the sweetness of Mara’s paw in mine and I realized that I was strongly visualizing a small grey tiger cat paw.

Mara is a tuxedo.

My next thought was of Luna, the first of our cats to pass back in 2010. She was my familiar. Any time I meditated she would come and curl in my lap. She slept on me every night and would often appear in my dreams. She didn’t always stay to see them through. I have dreamed with her since she passed, but rarely.

I was sure the feeling of similarity would vanish after I made the connection to Luna, like it was some grief-filled longing that brushed my senses. But that wasn’t the case. The next night that sensation was more certain, so much so that I moved the screen to put my eyes on Mara’s black and white coat.

Even looking at Mara with my eyes, my heart was telling me it was Luna. There was this thing I used to do, with my fingertip spreading Luna’s toe pads. None of the other cats allowed me to do that. Especially not Mara. So I initiated the moment and Mara spread her toes and let me pet her there.

My heart caught in my throat. I didn’t need to prove it. How can you prove such a thing? I just accepted it as a gift. I don’t know how long it will feel like this. I don’t know how long Luna’s ghost will join us in our nightly cuddling.

All I know is how much I miss her after eight years and how joyful my heart has been to feel her again. It is strange to touch Mara’s arms and paws but to feel someone else, to feel Luna. And then an hour later it was not-Luna. It was Mara again.

I curled myself around her, me and Mara, mindful of the love I have for her. Mindful of the different relationships I have had with each of my cats. I am mindful of the lessons I learned from loving them.

Not all ghosts bring sadness and sorrow. Some bring love. When you stand in the river of your Ancestors, the only thing you can do with all that love is pass it on.

Bhagavad Gita 2.20:
The soul is neither born, nor does it ever die;
nor having once existed, does it ever cease to be.
The soul is without birth, eternal, immortal, and ageless.
It is not destroyed when the body is destroyed.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

My Grandma Pat is Dying

I laid two candles down.

I have a book she gave me that she said was too complicated for her, about religious archaeologists. I put it on the altar.

I poured out a glass of water.

I am Sarah,
daughter of Margaret,
daughter of Patricia,
daughter of Margaret,
daughter of Eliza,
daughter of Mary,
daughter of Irish mothers unknown.

I struck match to metal and lit one wick.
I called in my grandmother’s ancestors.
I called her mother Margaret Loretta Burke.
I called her father Robert Joseph Art.

I called out the names of her mother’s Irish ancestors:
Frank Burke and Eliza Conners,
Thomas and Ellen Burke,
David Conners and Mary Dowd,
Mrs. Ann Burke,
Barney Dowd.

I called out the names of her father’s German ancestors:
George Art and Katherine Pills,
Adam and Catherine Art,
John Pils and Mary Burzee,
George Arth and Wilhemina Wernersbach.

I asked them to watch over her, and to welcome her when she is ready to move on.

I lit the second candle. I asked them to watch over those of us who are afraid to let her go.

I spent the time it took the candles to burn down reading the book she gave me, connecting in to her Hospice bed across the miles. I spent my time reading also connecting into the thread of her that lives in me.

And breathing.

[A look into how I use my ancestor work in practical applications.]

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Why We Funeral

The day before Easter, my Uncle Norm died. He was my dad’s younger brother. He lived directly across the street from me. His was the second sibling death in the family in three years. And it hurts.           
And even in dealing with this grief, another death is looming. And my heart feels like it’s drowning. What do you do when you’re drowning? You focus on one small thing at a time to get yourself above water.
Everyone else’s lives continue at a frantic pace but you are stuck simply trying to remember how to breathe.
I don’t live in the same place as my family. It makes death hard. I don’t have my own vehicle, and I haven’t been able to drive distances since my accident. My recovery also makes public transportation difficult. For now I have no choice but to grieve from here. Here, where no one else knew the people I lose from home, where no one else can or will grieve with me.
For a moment, I wish professional keening was still a cultural thing. I could hire a handful of women to bring over casseroles and cry with me and let me tell them my complicated stories.
We still don’t really talk about grief. Not outside of wearing black while standing inside funeral parlors. My mom had a funeral outfit. I remember the nights she would come home from work and get dressed up in that blouse and those slacks, with hose and heels and make-up. Sometimes a friend would come over and they would go pay their respects together for an hour or so.
I remember. But what I didn’t see was that grief is hard. I sit on that edge uncertain as to whether or not I am grieving the loss of them or the loss of the relationship I will now never-get-a-chance-to-have. Maybe it’s both. It’s probably both.
I think the beginning of grief is largely uncertainty.

One of my first jobs besides babysitting was getting paid to sing at weddings and funerals. Singing at funerals is so surreal when the families are unknown to you. You need to be both a comfort and a catharsis.
The main aspect of a funeral is to lay the body, the sacred vessel of the beloved dead to rest based on their wishes. It’s a way of capping the respect and affection you had for them. It’s a way to wrap up the end of their story.
And that’s great.
[I do think that there will be a tipping point where we have to be accountable for the ecological impact the way we dispose of our dead, of the carcasses left behind. I think that point has already come. No more chemicals. No more sealed vaults. Our bodies were meant to decay in the earth and feed the soil. So we have to change our relationship with death. And our bodies. And how we connect soul/spirit/anima to flesh.]

Mostly funerals are for those left behind to grief. It’s a place we’re allowed to grieve. The coming together of family and loved ones is a soothing balm. You’re not the only one who feels like time stopped. You get to share funny stories and poignant stories, about what a good person they were or lament the loss of time to smooth the broken edges of your relationship. And in some way the ritual should serve those who gather together.
I think about this a lot. The funerals I have been to that were officiated by someone who did not know my beloved dead were laughable. They were bordering on farce—as if the officiant had never performed a funeral before. But the ones I have attended, led by someone who could keep themselves composed, but who had love for the dead were brilliant and moving and beautiful and stirred the ghost of them in me.
I take notes as I grieve. Connection matters. Without connection we are just flesh. So we come together to grieve to make it real. To reconnect a new reality to an old one. If everyone is grieving they are truly gone. When we know that whether or not anyone grieves a death, they are truly gone.
I regret missing my Uncle Dave’s funeral. I know I’ll regret missing my Uncle Norm’s as well. But this time I am not well or fit for travelling. So I gather up my thoughts and I request them to make sense.
I’m still trying to figure out how to grieve alone from hundreds of miles away.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Nine Years After the Gunfire

Photo by David Marsland, with permission through Creative Commons 

It started at 10:30 in the morning. 

It was Friday April 3, 2009. We were getting ready to go work downtown for First Friday. We heard the helicopters low overhead. We lived a few blocks away from the American Civic Association, where a gunman had blocked the rear exit of the building with his father’s truck and then entered the front door firing.

His name was Jiverly Wong and that is the only attention I shall give him.

He didn’t speak. He just fired bullets. He stepped into an ESL class and shot thirteen of the sixteen people in there. He made hostages of students from other classrooms. Police arrived quickly and at the sounds of the alarms, the gunman shot himself.

It was 10:33 am. He fired 88 rounds from a 9mm Beretta. He fired 11 rounds from a .45-caliber Beretta.

A wounded receptionist, Shirley DeLucia, 61, crawled under the desk and called 911. She stayed on the phone for almost 40 minutes, relaying information as it was happening to the police, at which point the SWAT team entered. They didn’t know the shooter was dead. They found two more semi-automatic pistols on his body.

By 2:33 it was over and the American Civic Association was empty. The streets were not. As I made my way through them—I wasn’t even thinking about getting across the bridge—my city was in mourning. Families were grieving together, openly weeping. It’s still hard for me to think about. It was overwhelming.

In four hours my city was changed, forever altered. I could feel it on the street, covered in news vans and dressed-up reporters from every channel I had ever heard of and a few I hadn’t. We don’t forget. Every time another mass shooting happens we remember. Every time a mass shooting happens, every survivor is thrown back into the moment where they thought their lives were about to end.

At the time, it was the largest number of deaths due to a single-person mass shooting. It saddens me to think that there have been so many that we don't remember them all. And sadder yet to think that because they weren't young, white school children, we are often one that goes unremembered.

This is not a competition. There is no competition in death. In death, everyone loses. But there are tender truths revealed in how we respond. They should all be remembered.

As I finish this, it is 2:33 in the afternoon and I honor those whose lives were lost that day, nine years ago. It cuts a little deeper this year, considering the current tone of our country concerning immigrants. What makes us different makes us stronger:

  • Almir Olimpio Alves, 43, a Brazilian Ph.D. in Mathematics, a visiting scholar at Binghamton University, attending English classes at the Civic Association
  • Dolores Yigal, 53, a recent immigrant from the Philippines 
  • Hai Hong Zhong, 54, an immigrant from China
  • Hong Xiu "Amy" Mao Marsland, 35, a nail technician, immigrated from China in 2006
  • Jiang Ling, 22, an immigrant from China
  • Lan Ho, 39, an immigrant from Vietnam
  • Layla Khalil, 53, an Iraqi mother of three children
  • Li Guo, 47, a visiting scholar from China
  • Marc Henry Bernard, 44, an immigrant from Haiti 
  • Maria Sonia Bernard, 46, an immigrant from Haiti
  • Maria Zobniw, 60, a part-time caseworker at the Civic Association, whose parents were from Ukraine 
  • Parveen Ali, 26, an immigrant from northern Pakistan 
  • Roberta King, 72, an English language teacher substituting for a teacher on vacation, who was a local substitute for many years

Just down Front Street, the American Civic Association Park has a memorial to the thirteen victims, showing thirteen doves in flight that shine as lights at night, as seen in the accompanying photo.

May we all be reminded that violence is a choice. Choose love. Choose kindness. Choose life.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Beginning I Saw in the End

Grandpa and me
I was speaking about my accident this morning, and about how my Grandpa Riddle came to me just before I woke in the hospital ICU. And I thought about how it’s almost the day he died. I always think of that when spring first comes, because that comes next. And I wanted to revisit this post, as it’s timely.

My Grandfather's Crossing Over
It’s been fourteen years since I sat in the hospital room with my Grandfather, watching him dance with death. There is no winning in the dancing, just an end of the music, the last pulling of strings humming in the air, becoming vibration with no sound, and then… memory. Waiting with my Grandfather, my heart was already heavy with the loss of my grandmother, three years gone. I could tap my grief out for you in my own soft shoe, but we all know the face grief wears, and the mask grievers don.
This story is not about the darkness of the waiting and unknowing. I saw the light in the death. I saw the mystery of the unknowing. I saw the hope in the grief.
He was struggling to breathe. We were painted in the room, separate tableaus across the same canvas. What happened to me did not happen to them. I was not ready to say goodbye to him, our rock, but I was ready for his suffering to end. I didn’t think he would be better off without us but I was ready for him to be free. I was ready to deal with my grief on my own time, not his. Being ready to accept the death made all the difference for me. In that room, with the clicks and the whirrs of the equipment and the slow, low rattling of his lungs, I was prepared to wait.
I was praying in my head, words my heart couldn’t bear to speak, telling him it was okay, that we would be okay. I don’t know how I knew he wasn’t going to wake up. I think we all did. But we hoped. Sometimes when death comes, hope is a dangerous blade. The fact was we were there because he had decided he was ready. Cancer may have claimed him, but his death was on his terms.
We never really talked about death as a family, as a neighborhood, or as a culture when I grew up. Someone died and everyone put their funeral outfit on and we were sad and gave those grieving some space and then life went on. It tells a lot about my family that they allowed the soft chanting from the corner of the room where I sat. Music helps me move through emotion more easily and we were all doing what we needed to do in those moments.
When it happened it was quick. One second. It felt as if someone opened a door in the wall beside me, soft wind rushing in, and that second stretched into season as winter welcomed in spring and spring turned to summer and the smell of tilled earth, warm with worms, tomatoes and cucumbers, filled the air around us. I was ready for what was coming. I felt the shift as it happened.
One person turned away. One person died and one person cried out. I was aware of two realities. The air in the room stopped moving and I heard the sound of a toe tapping as a green light stepped into the room through the wall beside me. I held my breath, afraid to shatter the moment. On the bed, my grandfather smiled and lifted out of his body. Whatever you want or need to call it, his spirit, his anima, his soul leapt towards the light that smelled like my childhood summers and blinked away.
I was back in the room and the warmth that held us there was gone. He was gone. The sudden cold sterility of the room was disarming. So quickly, the heat from his body was dissipating. I stood apart from the moment and the grieving. I wanted to stand in sorrow but I was left in wonder.
When I remember that moment, what I remember was that it was not awful for me, but left me full of awe for my experience and the gift I was given amid such a welling of sadness. Somewhere in the universe, in the ether, in the springtime around me, the energy I saw leave that room still lives, whether transformed, absorbed, scattered or inhaled, and the warmth of the man I loved became something new.

[Original post published March 23, 2011.]

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

My Mother's Irish Ancestors

The birds are singing their spring songs outside, despite the snow, and St. Patrick's Day marks our turning towards the equinox. The days are lengthening and in my little garden, the tiger lilies are thinking about peeking out of the earth with their bright green shoots. And I am thinking about my Irish heritage. I was surprised to discover recently that all of my known Irish ancestors are found in my mother's family tree.

The first to step on American soil was my 7x great-grandfather David Calhoun, born in Dongeal in 1690. He settled and died in Connecticut. I feel I have to admit that David's grandfather was from Scotland, so his family blood was Scotch-Irish.

Thomas Riddle, also found spelled Ridel, was born in Ireland in 1739. He was my 6x great-grandfather. He hailed from Tyrone County, where he appears on a 1796 list for Irish flax growers. He fought for the colonies in the Revolutionary War as a Private in 1775.

My 6x great-grandparents John Berry, born in 1762, and Nancy Matchet, born in 1767, came to America from Ireland and settled in a small town called Mayfield, in New York. There are still Berrys in Mayfield.

My other Irish ancestors all immigrated to New York, where the Erie Canal was being planned. The unknown parents of my 3x great-grandfather Thomas Burke came to America via Canada, where Thomas was born in 1832. He is listed as living in Lockport in 1855 with his widowed mother Ann. He was employed in "boating."

My 4x great-grandfather Barney Dowd came over from Ireland with his daughters and their families, including my 3x great-grandmother Mary Dowd, born about 1837 in Ireland, as was her husband, David Conners, my ancestor, too.

My Lockportian ancestors all lived in the areas of Lowertown where the Irish who worked on the canal had set up their homes. So in honor of St. Patty's day, I'll set out a bowl of warm honey and milk over sodabread and I'll pour a pint of ale for them. I'll honor those who left their homelands for a country that treated them like vermin. I honor that Irish spirit that allowed them to persevere and plant roots.

[Originally posted March 16, 2016.]
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