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, December 29, 2010

Stillness, Goodwill

Written Christmas morning: Having no children of my own, through whose eyes to watch the day unfold, the morning allows me time to embrace the stillness of the day. All around the world, like a rippling echo of wonder and cheer as the planet turns, we wake and rise in waves of cheer and excitement. For this reason, above all others, today is a sacred day, where more hearts are turned to joyous purpose than any other. If we could wish for one thing, if we could set our minds to one singular purpose en masse today, I have to believe a miracle could happen. I believe, with that much energy, we could manifest peace.

If we can feel what we feel in our hearts today, why, then, can we not extend that emotion out to all our days? It’s a philosophy I espouse, rather than a reality, based on the bodhisattva teachings I have studied and the Buddhist practice of LovingKindness. It’s a life path begun in a UU church, where the belief that every person in the world has worth and dignity laid foundation in my heart.

Last week, I was checking out while holiday shopping when an elderly woman at the head of the line pulled out a checkbook. The woman in front of me immediately started huffing and stamping her foot, displaying the credit card-at-the-ready waiting in her hand. The elderly woman got anxious and made a mistake on the check and hard to start over, which made the woman in front of me mutter under her breath about how she should be allowed to go ahead of people who aren’t ready to check out because she had important places to be…
If the impatient woman had just been patient in the first place, the elderly woman would have been checked out before she would have felt the need to utter those words. It’s something I see every day and it amazes me that people don’t understand that they’re trying to make themselves feel better at the expense of someone else. It is disheartening to see that we’re trying to teach our children not to be bullies without realizing that we’re perpetuating the habits in small ways we don’t understand. We can learn to see. We can re-pattern the way our brains think. I’ve been doing it for the last three years, widening the field around me that is my world, making me feel more strongly a part of it and taking everything much less personally.

It is not enough for us to honor our ancestors. This is a theme you will hear me repeat. We have a responsibility to begin being good ancestors for our future descendants. Now. Most people think about their descendants as their children, and their grandchildren, and those who come after. For me, as someone who doesn't have children, I see the world's children and my descendants. Every choice I make will impact their lives. I put the faces of my nieces and nephew on that swath of descendants before me, so that the notion is important.

I want them to live in a better world than the one I live in. Just like my ancestors wanted for me.

At the holidays, we have the noblest opportunity to treat the world and our fellow companions in it the way we wish to see it. We speak of kindness and goodwill and we think we do our best. But again, if we can act on that conscience for a few days, why can we not carry it with us into more? For many of us, the answer to that lies in the stillness we cultivate for Christmas, and the fact that we lose it as the calendar rolls into the new year. Then what?

If you have never walked a labyrinth, I highly recommend it as a tool towards stillness. Walk the circuits with intention of letting go. Release your burdens as you make each turn and let your mind open towards that calm eye inside you that can weather the storm around you of bills and responsibility, and mad cacophony of noise emitted from various electronic devices. At the center, be at peace, and remember the stillness of a snowy morning. Remember that the world turns forward and the paused traffic resumes its rat racing, but that stillness doesn't disappear from the world. It's just harder to reach. It's true. The sun may rise in the morning but the stars are still above us, blinking. They're just harder to see. You can use to find the labyrinth nearest you.

Christmas Day allows me to stop and have a cup of cocoa, and feel the world open up to the wider web, reaching out to forgotten friends and distanced loved ones. We are each stars unfurling, entwining and reconnecting, spreading our map of the universe out. We feel connected. In that connection is that feeling of calm stillness and peace, of not being alone, but being alone at the same time. For me, the loneliness fades. It's this feeling that I carry with me into the world, through all of my days an interactions with people, when I can, in both large and small ways. With it is the hope that a momentary kindness of patience might ripple out into both small and larger moments of change. Envision the world you wish to live in, and start to live it.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Christmas Legacy of Donna and Dick

Christmas is a time of year where I feel the space between the importance of honoring our ancestors, and trying to walk the path of being a good ancestor, now, for our descendants. My childhood memories of the holidays are tied directly to my Grandpa and Grandma Riddle. They have both passed on within the last decade, and every year, when the holidays roll around, I miss them.

There are not enough words to express the loss I feel, that they are no longer in my waking life. I know that I am not alone in experiencing this. We have all lost loved ones and faced the difficult holidays after. My Grandpa Dick and Grandma Donna are entwined in the memories of my childhood Christmas traditions and their spirit colors the choices I have made in how I create holiday traditions in my adult life.


Christmas Eve was a night out to dinner, dressed up at a nice restaurant. When dinner was over, we would drive around, digesting our good meal and take in all the Christmas lights on our way to my Grandma Pat’s house, my mother’s mother. There, we would have food and drinks and sit in the smoky back-room exchanging gifts. Some years I would walk through the galley kitchen into the formal living room and up the steps to the room that used to be my mothers. There was an organ in that room and I learned to play “On the Street Where You Live” and “I Could Have Danced All Night” from the organ book. We’d totter sleepily home, the cold air startling away the smell of cocktails and cigarettes.

Invariably, my siblings and I would wake well before the allowed wake-mom-and-dad-up-time. My sister and I would creep into my brother’s room with our pillows and a blanket, whispering in a sleepy, excited, need-to-eat haze until eight o’clock. One year, because we’d been up so early the year before, my brother had bought and hid a pint of orange juice and a box of donuts in his desk. We watched The Three Stooges on his small black and white television, waiting until dawn. The one Rule we were not allowed to break was that we were not allowed to go downstairs.

When 8 am struck, we children would not be deterred from waking our sleeping parents. We were not afraid to open the east-facing shades or pull down the warm covers. Anything to wake them, to quicken the process of getting them up so that we could wait some more, while mom and dad woke up the downstairs. The three of us would scrunch ourselves together on the top stair while mom called Grandpa Dick.

My Grandma Donna was a pediatric nurse and worked Christmas morning so that the nurses with young kids could be home with their families. When I was a kid, she was Mrs. Santa Claus, doing a simple thing to give the kind of Christmas I experienced to the children of her co-workers. I saw the magic and the sacrifice of it, even as a child. She and my Grandpa would have their holiday when she got up for shift. He would wait for Mom to call and then he’d drive over to spend the morning with us. She’d put the coffee on and then we could come downstairs.

I know it was her favorite part, that look on our faces when we first saw the tree with all of the presents beneath it; so many presents that inspired my strong and whole-hearted belief in Santa Claus. In my life I have watched him transform from a story to a god to a saint to a man to a hero to a myth to a metaphor to an emotion to a state of being. That look on our faces when we were children- that utter joy and faith in something larger than what we knew… that is Christmas.

We opened our stockings first, while my Grandpa drove over, and the cinnamon buns baked in the oven. The Christmas Orange was my favorite part, sticking out of the top of the stocking like the new morning sun, greeting us earlier and earlier every day now. I wish I could say we ran to greet my Grandpa with hugs and kisses when he came, but really we were excited because Grandpa’s presence meant opening presents. A few times we were chastised for not letting him take his coat off, but he always laughed and said he understood, smiling down at us with a twinkle in his eye like Santa, he understood that he was 'just Grandpa' and Grandpa's couldn't compete with Santa. We took turns opening presents. Grandpa would leave when were done, to prepare things for family dinner at their house.

Dinner at Grandma and Grandpa’s was always festive and warm, with presents and dinner and games of scat at the kitchen table for pennies. There were always cookies and treats and the sound of laughter and knuckles knocking on the table to the woe of the other players. I would carry the smiles, the echo of laughter on the walls and the warmth of the kitchen home with me, against the bitter chill of winter.


Moving away from home years ago, in the absence of my family, I had to create my own Christmas. And first I had to revisit what the season meant to me. It’s about understanding and honoring family, in its many forms, and setting aside ego. Christmas isn’t about me, it’s about us humans, and the tapestry we weave as we journey through adulthood. It’s about all of the people walking the earth who mean something to me, walking and breathing and touching other people's lives. Goodwill to all beings is more than a holiday wish. For me, it's the only way to walk the earth. So for me, Christmas is the focusing of energy I feel year round. Which is something I hold fast to in the grown-up dance of scheduling around everyone’s family obligations. I am grateful for the moments of togetherness, and the new hugs and smiles and laughter that will sustain me through the months of night yet to come, peeling back a layer of darkness as the wheel turns forward.

In my own holiday, I’ve kept the cinnamon buns and the scent of coffee brewing, as well as the Christmas Orange. I set a cup out with a cinnamon bun for my Grandpa while we open gifts, in honor of the memories he gave me. Everything changes. Everyone who has come into our lives will go out of our lives, and we have more to learn from the waters of the earth and our bodies that we are open to hearing. It is in remembering the moments of togetherness and the lessons we learned from experiencing life through our elder loved ones' eyes that we are able to honor them at holiday time. These moments of togetherness are also a great opportunity to ask for stories about family members that you don’t know, and hear more tales of the lives of the ones you do.

I hold the moments of the past in my heart like a hearth flame. As I move about the crazy buy-this-now-if-you-want-someone-to-love-you battlefield of commerce, I have gratitude for the car that allows me to travel to those I love, and the home I rent that has heat. I try to share that gratitude with others in smiles and patience. In sharp contrast to the shopping days, Christmas morning is the one day each year that the country is mostly still and quiet, every family huddled around a vision of nature within their own homes. I always take a few quiet minutes to experience and enjoy the stillness of the world with my family, in my home. Blessings to you, in this time of celebration, and the Happiest Holidays from my heart to yours.

These are the collection of ornaments I received from my Grandparents over the years, kept carefull by my mother until I moved into my own home. They hold a place of honor on my tree every year.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Solstice Offering

The Shortest Day
by Susan Cooper

So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive,
And when the new year's sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us - Listen!!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, fest, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
Welcome Yule!!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Poppets for Grief

I’ve mentioned before that it’s hard not to talk about grief in Ancestor Work. Death is such an integral part to the work, that the issues of grieving, working through it and accepting it are pertinent tools. It is natural to fear and struggle with death. Humans cling to our science for answers to give us comfort. Death is perhaps the ultimate mystery for which there can never be any concrete veritas Truth. So we are forced to find a personal truth with which to confront it.

When working through the death of a loved one, the holidays can be difficult. No one wants to be a downer during the festive celebrating of those around them. But grief is a monster that doesn’t take a holiday. The first Christmas without my Grandmother was difficult and I fussed over my Grandpa. The first Christmas without my Grandpa was a solemn affair for my whole family, but we did the best we could, and enjoyed being together. We talked about how much we missed him and shared our favorite stories of Christmases past.

This year will be my household’s first winter holiday since our four-legged companion Luna passed. Decorating our 34 year-old artificial tree, we found a small ornament of a cat with wings that suddenly meant more to me than ever before. And the one with the three cats… I struggle to remember, in idle conversation, that we are only a 2 cat family now. Instead of three cat toys, we bought two. Luna loved sleeping under the tree on the red felt skirt, nestled among the presents, as if we put all of it there just for her pleasure. She would cry and paw at the pile until we tied one of the colorful Christmas bows onto her collar, which she expected much cooing and fawning over.

Making a Poppet
Poppets are not Voodoo dolls, although I consider Voodoo dolls to be a kind of poppet. Use of poppets in folk healing is old and crosses cultures. When I make a poppet for healing, I make the figure of it similar to the being it is meant for.

To make the poppet for my luna-grief, I shaped the fabric into a little dolly. I hand stitched the two-sides together, leaving an opening in the head to fill it and then turned it inside-out. While sewing, I focused my thoughts on happy memories of Luna, who was the first kitten I raised. She was the first being I had to teach and protect and learn to let grow independently which made the sudden loss of her difficult. Not that any loss is easy.

I used a combination of nettles for protection and lavender to ease feelings of grief for filling the inside of the poppet. Another option, and one I use more often, is flaxseed as the base herb. It adds a weight to the fetish that feels good in my hand, and it can be heated in the microwave for a bit of warm comfort. An invisible stitch closed the top and it was finished.

It is not a cure for grief. For me, part of what makes that particular emotion difficult is the intangible quality of it. I can’t go and snuggle Luna to make me feel better, because she’s not here. But the poppet is something I can finger in my pocket, that is not as pathetic as carrying around her favorite little gingham mouse toy. And it’s less permanent than needing something to remind me of her on a daily basis. I will never forget her. The nature of time is to make the hurt less, and part of that is distance. When I think about her with more fondness and less sadness, I will burn the poppet in a fire or bury it in my spring garden and let it go.

I made a grief poppet out a favorite childhood flannel nightgown that I had scraps of the year my Grandpa died. I carried it in my pocket, and when I felt overwhelmed with missing him, I would squeeze it and take in the scent of lavender to ease the emotion. I ended up carrying that specific poppet with me for another few months until I felt like I no longer needed it.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Interconnected Web

I know that I am lucky to know of the ancestors of mine that came to America on the Mayflower. I am lucky to have names and histories that trace back that far on my father’s side of the family and I am grateful for the knowledge. Years ago, I met a woman who could trace her family back to the Mayflower also, and she revealed she was descended from the children born of Francis Eaton and Christian Penn. So however many generations have occurred and spider-webbed outward since 1620, we knew that 390 years ago, we shared a common person of interest. It really does put things into perspective, and it spurred a thought in me that would be the seed for the journey I’ve been taking.

In my mind’s eye, I visualize a map of the country I live in. And I wonder what pattern would spread across the map if you could make every person who was in any way descended from Francis and Sarah Eaton light up on the map like it were a Lite Brite. What mini constellation would appear if you widen it to include any descendent of Francis Eaton? How fast would that pattern multiply and spread? And I could take it one step further and light up every descendent of anyone who came over on The Mayflower. How many of us would there be, living and breathing in this country, who trickled down from that one voyage?

In my head I spin a thin filament of light and connect those glowing pinpoints together, watching the weave come to life, stretching across the land. When the web is holding itself taut, I search the rest of the globe for those who have descended from a pilgrim and travelled back across the land or waters, for that has surely happened a few times over. I see a web of life, grown from a few seeds of hope, from an action of great change that a handful of people had the courage to embrace. And this web that shimmers in my vision, and glitters in the starlight above me, also road maps within this body that holds me.

“If you look deeply into the palm of your hand,
you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors.
All of them are alive in this moment.
Each is present in your body.
You are the continuation of each of these people.”
Thich Nhat Hanh

For me, this idea translates out. I think of the clothes I wear. Someone packaged that garment up and shipped it to the store I bought it from. Someone sewed the garment that was packaged. Someone cut the garment that was sewn. Someone patterned the pieces that were cut. Someone created the design of the garment. Someone wove the fabric that was cut. Someone spun the threads that wove the fabric. Someone picked the fiber that was spun into thread. Someone tended the crop of fiber. Someone planted the seeds that grew. Someone cultivated the beds for planting. Think of how many hands touched your clothes and how many lives were dependent upon the creation of those clothes to put food on their tables and feed their children?

At some point, our connections transcend bloodlines. All ancestors are our ancestors. All descendents are our descendents, and they look to us to show them how to care for this world. At some point, we have to stop thinking about what kind of world our ancestors shaped for us and focus on how we can shape it into a better version for those who will call us ancestors someday.

Giving Gratitude at the Holiday Season
‘Tis the season for charity, and what better way to “be the change you wish to see in the world” than by spreading some anonymous cheer? Look into collecting and/or donating supplies to your local food kitchen. Donate gifts to Toys for Tots so that on Christmas morning, some child will have a bit of holiday magic they would have been without. Also, if you want to make sure it goes to a family in need, you can check with local churches organizing and collecting for low-income families who might not otherwise have a holiday and ask what they need.

Regardless of your personal religious persuasion, Catholic Charities is a worthy and well-reputed organization that does a lot of programming of benefit to our local community. If you have $20 to spare, you can buy a flock of chickens (or other animals, with prices going up) for a family through Heifer International. It’s one of the presents we give ourselves every year, donating in honor of someone we know. This year we donated a flock of ducks and a share of rabbits. It’s the kind of gift that feeds the soul.

Gratitude links:

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Mayflower Ancestors

Almost 400 years ago, my ancestors came over to this country, among the first pilgrims to try to tame a living out of its land. Sir Francis Eaton, a carpenter, his wife Sarah and their son Samuel, a baby. They came with the pilgrims, members of the congregation of Leyden separatists fleeing the jailors of England for the right to practice their religion to Holland, and then to the New World in 1620.

I wonder what Sarah, in her early twenties, thought when Francis, 23, told her he was taking their still suckling child on a voyage across the ocean to live in a new and uncivilized wilderness. As far as it is documented, it is believed that the voices of the wives and women of the congregation held no weight in vote of whether or not to partake in the venture to move to this unknown place. I wonder who among them saw it as a blessing and sanctuary. Did Sarah, young Sarah with her new baby, look forward to the new life? Did she support her husband, though quietly unwilling to leave her family behind, or did she believe their god would see them through this one more trial? Or was she terrified, a new bride and newly mothered?

She and Francis were wed in Bristol, and she is thought to have been from Bristol but there is no record of her before a marriage date, as well as no listing of her maiden name. Just Sarah, wife of Sir Francis, mother of Samuel. Sarah, who died the first winter aboard ship, never stepping foot on the earth she had crossed an ocean to meet. What records remained say she died early in 1621 but after January 11. Other records indicate she died in early spring. All of the accidental and surprise deaths were well-documented, so it is assumed that she succumbed to some form of general illness from the harsh winter.

Francis and Sarah married in Bristol in 1619, the place of Francis’ birth. Their son Samuel, named after a brother of Francis’ who died in childhood, was born before the beginning of the voyage from Holland in 1620. Such a short marriage filled with an intense uprooting... and for Sarah, a historically quiet death.

I like to imagine that Francis and Sarah loved each other, so young (to my twenty-first century heart, I am aware). I can’t imagine she would have willingly carried a vulnerable babe into that watery wilderness save for some greater danger threatening them if they remained. I wonder if Francis was ashore when she died, as one of the younger men aboard, or if he was able to sit beside her and whisper his goodbyes and apologies for bringing them across. I wonder if he held any regret for their decision in the loss of her, not knowing of course the place in history they were carving, or if he believed that their god brought them there for another purpose and that his heart breaking was a sacrifice required of him… And how he must have felt, left behind without lodging or food yet, with a young baby who would never have memory of his mother.

Francis wed twice more and had more children. His oldest son Samuel survived, grew into a man, married and had his own children, from whom I am descended. When Francis died in 1633, himself a victim of some sickness that swept through Plymouth, his estate at the time of death is listed as “one cow and a calf, two hogs, fifty bushels of corn, a black suit, a white hat and a black hat, boots, saws, hammers, an adze, square, augers, a chisel, boards, fishing lead, and some kitchen items.”

In my post-Thanksgiving feast haze I allow myself a moment of gratitude for my ancestors who had the fortitude to brave a new world (even if their western views originally biased them to see the Indians as savages, which allowed them to plunder the native’s food stocks without remorse that by feeding themselves they were leaving another people to hunger).

May my ancestors’ trials, triumphs and failures remind me to be brave and fearless when following the path and course my heart see as true. May it remind me to treat other living beings with as much respect as I wish to be given. May it mark the growth and evolution we have made in seeing ourselves as part of a larger interconnected web and may it offer patience and tolerance of the unknown.

Sarah Whispers to the Night Sky
I often dream of a woman in somber clothing standing at a wooden ship rail, staring out at the ocean… The cloying scent of the ocean air is a being all its own element and we are the aliens in its landscape. The world around us has turned to grey storm, where wave and sky cannot be separated, but become one canvas, as my son becomes against my chest, seeking his nourishment and light from me within this mural of fear and hope. We are travelling home, compelled by faith, to a place none of us have yet known. A place we will all rest ourselves when we leave this world of man. But when the waters calm themselves and the skies open to reveal the universe-in-splendor above us I am filled with the wonder of god. There is more to this world than we can know, and more than we should know. We are of godliness, but we are not gods and this ocean holds more wisdom and mystery in her than we can muster. I meet her, mother to mother, and the water within me knows this to be true- I see endings in her endlessness.
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