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.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Halloween Gift; Blessed Samhain

By Joy Harjo

Remember the sky you were born under,
know each of the star's stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is.
Remember the sun's birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother's, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people
are you.
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Setting a Place for the Dead

It’s pronounced Sow-en and it’s an old Celtic festival celebrating the transition of the land from harvested to resting. It’s also one of two nights in the year when the veil that separates this world from the last and next are thin, allowing us to more easily contact those who have come before and those who have passed on. The U.S. holiday of Halloween has its roots in Samhain, brought over by the Irish immigrants who found the New World pumpkins much easier to carve into lanterns than the turnips they had used in their homeland.

Before the Christians introduced themselves to the Celtic lands, the people had no human personifications of deity. Danu was not a woman who represented the river Danu or the element of water. Danu was the river that flowed through the land and she was mighty. The Celtic people believed the land spirits and elementals walked among them, visible at liminal times and in liminal spaces; the point between yesterday and today, between today and tomorrow, between light and dark. They saw a space between inside and out, as in doorways and windows (which is where the idea of carrying a bride over the threshold is rooted). After Christianity bonded itself to their pagan, or pastoral, ways, land deities were personified as human to match up with Saints.

According to Eliade's Encyclopedia of Religion: "The Eve and day of Samhain were characterized as a time when the barriers between the human and supernatural worlds were broken. Not a festival honoring any particular Celtic deity, Samhain acknowledged the entire spectrum of non-human forces that roamed the earth during that period." It’s a night for divination and conversing with the spirit world, human, tree, stone, wind and other.

This is the time I long for… at the moment the harvest is in, the beds are put to sleep and there is a moment for some rest. There is time for some rest and quiet conversation with old ghosts. My house stands near the meeting of two rivers and I call on the energy of those forces of nature. I call on the power of the mountains ablaze in autumn color. I call on the energy of the steady stone, asleep beneath me. I call on these energies so that I may awaken myself to the beings that I share this space with. I call on the light of that magick and I call it into me, where it will join with my will and my flame and it will guide me through the dark months.

Mothers of my mother and fathers of my father, steady the flame within me. There is still a long way to go.

The Dumb Supper
On the night when the veil is thinnest, the dead walk the earth again, if only in spirit form. I visualize the different overlapping energetic planes as separated by veils, instead of walls. At Samhain, the veil lifts and the skin separating us is no more. We all share the same space for the duration of this holiday. Celtic people would put a candle inside a carved turnip in the window, to light the way home for their dead. The religious introduction of the devil condemned these spirits into demons. After that, scary faces were carved in them to frighten the evil away from the home; what had been a lantern and invitation to come inside became both a ward and warning.

When I carve my pumpkin, I intend it to be a beacon. I will place it on the altar when I sit down with friends, each of us and one of our ancestors or beloved dead sitting down to honor them at a formal Dumb Supper. While the specific Dumb Supper is Celtic in origin, you can find variations on this ritual in Korean, Mexican, Appalachian and Egyptian cultures veneration of ancestors.

In the formal dinner, a place is set at the head of the table, a shroud set over the chair. This place setting is the Spirit Chair and acknowledges all the spirits your heart and home are open to. You may wish to set other chairs for specific ancestors and loved ones, too. One way I personalize the Spirit Chair is by writing all of the names of my ancestors and loved ones in silver sharpie on a dark plate that I bought at a local dollar store. Place a candle on the center of the plate, and any others intended for those who have gone before. Prayers and letters to the spirits can be placed under the plate. At the beginning of the meal, light the candle and speak the name of the spirit you are inviting out loud. These will be the last words spoken. A Dumb Supper is a silent supper, silent being the original meaning of the word dumb (as in deaf, dumb and blind). In a shared space I use instrumental music to help keep it focused and sacred.

The table itself is set with the service backwards from how you would normally set it. If your glass sits on the right side of your plate, you set it on the left. Same for your linens and silverware. Dinner is also served backwards, starting with dessert, main course, side dishes and ending with the appetizer. You can adapt this depending on what format of meal your family prefers; it’s all about the intention of mirroring the effect. Where possible, I have found it beneficial to make recipes that are meaningful or have history for you and the spirits you invite. When the food is served, course by course, the Spirit Chair is served first, and then the spirits, taking a note from the ancient Greeks and offering a good portion to them.

Enjoy the meal. Pay attention to memories that flood your body or images that come to you. Be open to accepting everything and try not to rationalize or process the experience as it happens. Maybe you will hear a voice. Maybe you will feel the strongest impression that you just had a conversation with someone deceased. Maybe you will be met in your dreams as you drift into Otherworld in slumber. Maybe nothing will happen for you. But the spirit you invite to the table will be honored, fed, and warmed.

When the meal is over, say a final farewell. If possible, leave the food on the table until the candle sputters out (I recommend tea lights) and let the food get cold. Then dispose of it with sacred intention. If you live in the country, you could leave the plate outside for the night (candle extinguished of course). If you have the blessing of composting, you can recycle the offerings.

In Your Home
This year, start your holiday with intention as you carve your pumpkin. Will it be an invitation for you to open your house for the night? Or will it be an offering in itself of honor, but nothing more? Which choice is right for you this year?

Invite your close friends over for a sit down meal with an ancestor or a shared loved one who has passed. Find ways to make it meaningful for yourselves. Of course, not everyone can set aside the time or resources for a formal dinner, especially not on Halloween when the children are trick-or-treating. Instead, try setting another place at the table while you eat your usual dinner. Light a candle on the plate and simply offer a bit of what you have to the spirit plate first. What impressions flow through you during your meal?

Listen to the wind and the skittering of the leaves.
Smell winter blowing in, like the shifting of the ocean current into the bay.
This is the water time. Change is coming. Change comes.
Pay attention to your dreams during the night.
What wisdom do the ancestors offer you?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Honoring the Recent Dead

All Hallows
In a previous post I shared the difference for me between my Ancestral Dead and my Beloved Dead. As we near All Hallows Eve, I want to share my thoughts on the Recent Dead, where the waters of grief are shallow and stormy, and easily stirred.

It is almost October’s Blood Moon, also known as the Hallow Moon, Shedding Moon and Winterfelleth, which means winter coming, and the New England earth is giving the last of her harvests. The tomato beds have been cleared and put to rest. We have passed the Equinox and turn towards winter and the longest night.

As the earth quiets and stills and both we and the animals prepare to spend more time indoors than out, we can hear more clearly our own thoughts and emotions. My thoughts move, at this time of year, to the people I have lost in the last turning of the wheel. The celebrations of Halloween and Samhain are dedicated to the concept of the spirits of the dead walking the land. This creates a collective of thoughts directed towards this idea on October 31, whether in belief or mockery or fun. With such a large pool of energy to connect to, it is a fitting time of year to actively honor their memories.

Death as a Passage
Just as births are a joyous occasion and a rite of passage for both parent and child, death is also a rite of passage for both the deceased and their loved ones. It’s supposed to be a moment that alters and colors our lives. After a birth you spend your life learning to let go of what could happen and help your child grow into their own person. After death you are forced to understand the absence of the physical and the acceptance of the unknowable.

Do you allow death to diminish you? Or do you use it as a catalyst to make changes in how you relate to your world, and the people in it? If someone died that you never told how important they were to you, take steps to make sure that doesn't happen to again. Tell those who remain how much you care. If someone you admired passed, be a role model for those who may look up to you. If someone passed in tragedy, have gratitude for the abundance you have been given and share it with others when they are in need.

A fetus spends nine months in its cocoon, forming and birthing itself. As someone who appreciates the balance of the natural world, I believe that our spirits, once released from the larger physical cocoon, spends time to unform from the essence of who we are into… whatever comes next. Whatever you believe that to be. I honor the unknowable journey when I honor their memory.

What names sit in your list of recent dead? Who were they to you? What impact did they have on your life? What lessons did they bring that challenged you and helped you grow?

My Recent Dead
Karl Weber, a loved friend, passed last January in tragedy. He had the most exquisite crystal blue eyes and a smile that was infectious. He was always honest with me, and never knowing how else to put a thing, he said it direct. Karl told me that when he was younger he was not always a good person, but in the span of years I knew him, he was generous with his self, his heart and with his time. He is missed.

Lunabelle the Jackalope Cat, our beloved pet and family member passed March 4th. My baby, also known as Luna-No-Pants and Chicken McNugget. She was the first being I reared into the world and was my shadow and companion for almost ten years. She became suddenly sick and when we took her to the vet we discovered that she only had hours to live. She is irreplaceable.

Charles Littman was my kindergarten teacher and Ellen Fitzgerald was my fifth grade teacher, one of the first truly compassionate and open-minded adults I met. The world is a better place for the work they both did and the heart they gave. They touched the lives of hundreds of children who are now adults in the world, impacting change and creating new families.

I am a better person for having known them, for having been shaped and colored by their deeds, ideals, and service. I see the threads that connect us all more clearly every year. There are many ways to honor the memory of the recent dead. If they died from illness, you can make a charitable donation in their name or volunteer time at a hospice. If it was a role model of yours, see where you can give back, like maybe working with Habitat for Humanity, or reading stories to children at the library. The one thing death clearly defines is how important it is to be a part of the life around us. No cultural festival demonstrates that idea better than Dia De Los Muertos.

The Day of the Dead
I like how this festival joyfully celebrates the lives of those who have recently passed. I find that the funerary customs I was raised with actually attributed more to my struggles with how to grieve. For those who celebrate The Day of the Dead, there is no room for tears and grief during the three days of reverence that last October 31- November 2. They believe that an invitation to their dead for a party should be a party when they show.

Families decorate the graves of loved ones with candles to warm the hands of the spirits and their favorite foods to entice them to return for a visit. The more recent the death of the deceased, the more extravagant the altar built in their name will be. Families’ picnic and feast together in the cemeteries, decked with the scents of copal and marigold, and littered with Calaveras (sugar skulls). It should be noted that The Day of the Dead does not historically connect to Halloween. It traces back to a month long celebration of the Aztec people, which took place in the calendar month of August. When the Spaniards stumbled upon it, they moved it they moved the festival to correlate with their festival of All Souls.

Spend a moment and share the name of someone who impacted your life, in whatever way, who passed this last year. Offer a toast to their memory the next time you share a drink. Tell a story of something you learned from them, or share a memory that makes you laugh.

Every life touches another.
Every death vibrates in someone’s breast.
May those we have lost be at peace.
May those who have lost find peace again.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Apples & Pomegranates: A Meditation

In the autumn, an apple, ripe, falls to the ground and rots as the nights grow colder. Seeds sink into the earth, nourished by decaying flesh, and sleep beneath the layers of soil and dying brush. As the soil warms in the spring the seed will crack open and a shoot will pierce the dense skin and unfurl, baring itself to the sun and rain. It will grow its trunk towards the stars until it is strong enough to branch and blossom. Those blossoms will grow and stretch and birth forth fruit as summer comes to a close, in time to nourish our bellies and stock our pantries and fall to the earth as the animals sleep sated, to rot and decay and deposit seeds on the earth…

In the autumn, Inanna went underground, passing through seven gates, passing down seven generations till she stood naked and bare. She went underground to meet her sister, her shadow self, so that she could know her own darkness. She was stripped bare, and still she pushed forward for knowledge. Inanna embraced her sister Ereshkigal and accepted her darkness. She stepped into the hands of death to know the deepest mystery. In order to remember, she had to dismember.

In the beginning of mythology, when goddess was worshipped with god, Inanna went down to meet herself and recover her ancient wisdom, her wholeness. In the darkness, they say, the pomegranates were bountiful. The pomegranate hangs heavy, with a thick, sour and bitter red rind to fool the blind into ignoring its treasure. For inside, the husk is filled, swimming and dripping with roads and paths and lines stretching out into the world and curving in and multiplying like endless possibilities marching off the edge of the world. Sweet, juicy seeds bunch like grapes, hanging on inner branches connected to the inner rind. So many seeds. So much food. So much to nourish the body and soul.

In tales, it was pomegranate seeds that Persephone ate from the fruit of the tree, securing her stay in the underworld kingdom. She could not unlearn what she learned or unknow what she knew, just as she could not repair the fruit to an unblemished state after breaking through the skin. She opened herself to the darkness, to the things she didn’t want to see. Going in to go out, eating the seeds to follow the fruit back to the branch, back to the veins, back and down like a rabbit tunnel tumbling back into the ground and down into the roots. Down into the roots to break through bone buried in the earth.

I am traveling back through the blood to find you.

Lilith was born of a seed, like Adam, and grew into her own self, but not so Eve, who was born of Adam’s bone and her own bits. She knew that under her skin she was made of Adam but she wanted to know what Adam was made from… what ancestor birthed the world? So Eve picked the apple to pierce the skin and bite through flesh to reach the seed of the fruit to remember… to remember what Inanna went down to reclaim.

She thanked the serpent who showed her the apple, who told her what she’d find in the seeds of the fruit, fruit the tree bore as one bears a child. Cut an apple in half at the fattest curve of it’s middle and you will find the star within, like the womb where the seed grows. The ancient energy of the birth of life. Every seed in the star, that helps power the generator of rebirth, contains a little death. Every small seed contains a small poison. Death is the shadow of life and one cannot exist without the other and that is what Eve learned and Lilith knew. It’s what Persephone could not unknow and what Inanna embraced.

We cannot cease to exist when we die, for if the shadow of life is death, than the shadow of death is life and we will continue on just as the seeds fall to the earth and bury themselves in dying leaf litter. Spring rains warm and feed them and they grow, sinking roots deep in the ground, breaking bone, as they grow up and out, reaching for the sun and stars and pushing our energy towards the world around us. Life is motion. We push our energy out and roll it from blossom into fruit, an offering for those who would also know truth.

I touch the fruit on the tree and feel the seed within. I feel the stem that connects it to branch and down through trunk and into the soil and through the roots crushing through bone. In this meditation we learn how to return to the beginning, to the death that created life and holds the promise of rebirth.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

My Ancestral Dead, My Beloved Dead

My ancestors are pillars of ice-blue fire, breathing in seasons like stars, stones and trees. My Ancestral Dead are fire that doesn’t burn.

Not so for the Beloved Dead. The energy of those who you have known in this physical plane, those you have touched, held, hugged and lost is not cool and calm. Hot salty tears burn my cheeks with a fever as the grief washes over me. The recent dead are changeable water, tumultuous with grief in one minute, still with acceptance in another, and then raging against the feel of loss… they are uneasy waters. Unless you feel called to step further on the path of this work, I recommend stating with clear intention that you are honoring the Beloved Dead and asking nothing of them in return. I routinely call on the energy of my forebears to watch over my nieces and nephew, but I do not ask that of the Beloved Dead.

It may seem strange that I do not ask the spirits who knew me to help watch over us. That’s the good thing about generations though- we keep coming. There are plenty of lives to call on, that I can leave the recently deceased be. It’s my belief that the Beloved Dead are transitioning what was left of themselves through the process of dying and moving on. I have experienced the moment of death with a loved one, and it opened something in me. When he died and his spirit left his body, when the life of him left the room, the air about me wavered and changed, as if a warm flame had been blown out. His body was not him anymore.

I do not claim to know what comes next or what happens to that bit of life. I don’t know what happens. But I have faith that something does.

You can’t discuss spirit without being metaphysical. As far as I’m concerned, spirit is energy and science has proven that energy exists. The way I talk about it is more romantic but that doesn’t remove the science; after all, I’m a writer, not a scientist. I believe what I believe because it makes sense to me based on what I’ve experienced. I am always open to adapting my beliefs. As I change and grow and evolve, so too will my concepts of faith and spirit.

My Great-grandfather, Harold Lafayette Riddle is one of my Ancestral dead, having died nine months before I was born. His life was a gateway between my ancestors and my beloved dead. Harold’s wife, my Great-grandmother Elsie, is one of my Beloved dead, an integral part of my life until her death my last year of high school. I may honor her on the same altar as I honor my ancestors, but I am aware that my connection to her is still partially in this plane, and not the other.

Anyone who came before me that I did not know is an ancestor. For example, my father’s mother, Ruth, is my ancestor; she died when he was five. Most of my known ancestors are a list of names with little known substance. Speaking the names aloud is a song that sings the story of my bloodline:

Marquis DeLayfayette Riddle, Sarah Clickner, Levi Gillette, Jane Berry, Layfayette Riddle, Frances Gillette, George Durant, Louise Burmah, Harold Lafayette Riddle, Adam Art, Katherine Maria Schmeelk, John F. Pils, George Art, Katherine Pils, Frank Burke, Robert George Art, Loretta Burke…

Sir Francis Eaton, Sarah Eaton, Samuel Eaton, Solomon Gool Eaton, Hannah Ann Treadwell, Philitus Tenney, Malvina, Bennett Eaton, Cordelia Tenney, Ammi Smith, Sophia Sears, Reuben Feagles Dutcher, Eliza Marsh Bird, Silas Parker Smith, Hattie Eva Dutcher, Royal Levant Eaton, Hattie Eva Smith, Ruth Emma Ruston, Richard Ruston, Ann, William Ireland, Phoebe Lenton, Charles Evan Ruston, Ruth Ireland, Thaddeus Rice Wicker, Cynthia Lusk, Bailey Harrison Whitcher, Ordelia DeLozier, Hiram King Wicker, Angeline Whitcher, Frank William Ruston, Minnie Estelle Wicker…

So many names, so many lives. These names are the direct line of people whose children bore children who eventually bore me. Were it not for them, I would not be me. The magnitude of that realization can feel like pressure bearing down, waiting for me to be something special or do something special. But standing in honor of these people doesn’t feel like pressure. Those lives are stones beneath me, giving me firm footing. I am because they were, whether they were people of good character or not.

A step to strengthen your ancestral ties is to begin writing down the names of your family tree you know. Ask your parents who their grandparents were if you didn’t know them. Ask your Grandparents who their parents were. Get as much information as you can. Where were they born? Where did they live? Where did they grow up? When did they marry? How many times? How many children?

As for your Beloved Dead, keep a list of those you were close to who have passed on from this world. For my own work, I have tried to keep a list that remembers those I was very close to, classmates I grew up with, people who helped shape and mold me, and people who affected a change my life in an enormous way:

Melinda Tanner, Mark Eaton, Jeff Patterson, Elizabeth Fricke, Willie Lingenfelter, Elsie Durant Riddle, Gabe Reynolds, Joel Pelletier, Victoria Eaton, Trent Illig, Edward Jerge, Donna Riddle, Jurgen Banse-Fey, Tommy Amyotte, Paul Seeloff, Richard James Riddle, Brett Elsess, Charles “Sienna Fox” Duvall, Andrew Begley, Coswald Mauri, Norm Herbert, Jad Alexander, Princess Leather Falcor (beloved pet), Dr. August Staub, Martha Dayton, Maurice “Strong Bear” Foxx, Melvin Chausse, Wilma Derbeshire Meade, John Simeon Croom, Karl Weber, Lunabelle the Jackalope (beloved pet), Larry Littman, Ellen Fitzgerald.

On Samhain, I will call out the names of my Ancestral Dead to come and bear witness as I honor those that I loved, that I have known and held. I speak the names of the Beloved Dead to remember them and hear memories stir at the sounds of familiar words on tongue. That is how I honor them, with voice and word and deed.

Known, or unknown, how best can you honor your ancestors? What legacy, in their name, can you offer your descendants?

*Looking Ahead: Some people are adopted and have no names that are known to them. Later on I’ll talk about working with your unknown ancestors, as well as taking on the ancestors of your adopted tribe, or family.
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