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 28, 2011


The counties my ancestors lived in NY.
I can look at my family tree over and over and every time, I see something different. The more variant ways I take in the data- the list of names and dates and geographical locations- the more three-dimensional the tree in my brain becomes. I can see the migration trail that my ancestors took as if they are rippling across the top of a map, travelling from right to left, seldom back again. I can see them moving further to the ocean and then across and down. Until the last two generations, we hadn’t moved further west than Michigan. We are a season-loving people.
Maybe it’s the constant of the seasons changing that reminds me most of the fluidity of life. Everything always changes. The future is always in motion, always moving. I am not sure where life will take me. None of us are. Sometimes, the uncertainty of not knowing where I’m going is eased by the ability to reflect back on where I’ve been, and the reminder that, whatever the circumstance, I navigated through it to get to where I am.
I know where I come from. The people and places I come from. As I write this, I am sitting in my childhood home, celebrating the holidays with family I don’t get to see often enough. I watch my nieces and nephew and think about how much their lives have changed as they’ve grown. I remember what kinds of things played through my head at their ages. I remember at what skin my worldview was. I remember the events that shaped my perception and my life… and me. I take in their stories and how much their lives have shaped them into who they are, who they are becoming.
Where will they go? Where will their lives take them?
The earth is sleeping in this part of the world. And in her slumber I can feel the thick roots vibrating where the feet of my ancestors have travelled, toiled and trod. In the wintering of the world I open myself to the unknown path that lies ahead of me and reach out to touch those tendrils of ancestral memory.

In America…

The cities in Connecticut we lived.

CONNECTICUT… Fairfield Co: Stratford. Hartford Co: Hartford, Simsbury, Windsor. Litchfield Co: Bethlehem, Kent, Washington, Woodbury. Middlesex Co: Clinton. New Haven Co: Milford. Tolland Co: Tolland. Windham Co: Ashford, Windham, Woodstock.

FLORIDA… Pinellas Co: St. Petersburg. 

MASSACHUSETTS… Barnstable Co: Sandwich. Bristol Co: Taunton. Essex Co: Andover, Beverly, Lynn, Methuen, Salem, Salisbury. Franklin Co: Whately. Hampden Co: Brimfield, Monson. Hampshire Co: Northampton. Middlesex Co: Concord, Marlboro, Reading, Watertown, Woburn. Norfolk Co: Boston, Charleston, Dedham, Dorchester, Medfield, Sharon, Stoughton, Walpole. Suffolk Co: Roxbury.
The cities in Massachusetts my ancestors lived.

MICHIGAN… St Clair Co: Memphis, Port Huron, Riley.

NEW HAMPSHIRE… Grafton Co: Orford.

NEW JERSEY… Bergen Co: Hackensack, Paramus, Pemmerbogh.

NEW YORK… Cayuga Co: Auburn. Clinton Co: Clinton, Dannemora, Mooers. Columbia Co: Kinderhook. Dutchess Co: Dover, Nine Partners. Erie Co: Tonawanda. Fulton Co: Gloversville, Johnstown, Mayfield. Genessee Co: Alexander, Batavia. Greene Co: Cairo. Monroe Co: Clifton. Niagara Co: Barker, Beach Ridge, Cambria, Hartland, Lockport, Middleport, Newfane, Olcott, Pendleton, Royalton, Somerset, Wilson. Oneida Co: Vernon. Orleans Co: Eagle Harbor, Gaines. Oswego Co: Redfield. Steuben Co: Cohocton. Ulster Co: Hurley, Kingston. Old New York: Flatbush, New Amsterdam, New Utrecht.

VERMONT… Caledonia Co: Danville. Chittendon Co: Barre, Burlington, Charlotte.

And in other countries…

CANADA… Quebec: Chambly, Contrecouer, La Durantaye, Lacadie/ St Jean, LaPraire, Montreal, Providence, Quebec City, Saint-Laurent/ I’le D’orleans, Varennes. Nova Scotia: Louisburg, Cape Brenton.

Counties in England inhabited by ancestors. 

ENGLAND… County non-specific: Armounderness, Cambridge, Chester, Cranefield, Devonshire, Doncaster, Gloucester, Hertfordshire, Hunterdon, Lazenby, Lea Hall, Preston, Lidel, London, Northumberland, Sussex, Totteridge. Berkshire: Bray, Eaton Hastings, Sulham. Buckinghamshire: Bourne End, Little Missendon. Cambridgeshire: Chatteris, Needingworth, Wimpole. Cheshire: Barrow, Clifton, Doddington. Cumbria: Kendal, St Olaf. Derbyshire: Sawley. Devon: Plymouth, Salcombe Regis, Sidbury, Sidmouth, Stapleton. Dorset: Bridgeport, Cadle Hadden, Dorchester, Piddlehinton. Glouchestershire: Witcombe Magna. Hampshire: Winchester. Hertfordshire: Minsden. Ipswitch: St Mary’s Tower, St Nicholas. Kent: Dover, Faversham, Headcom, Northclay, Turnbridge. Lancashire: French Lea. Lincolnshire: Crowland. Lincolnshire North: Barton. Norfolk: Hemsby, Norwich, Ormesby, Scratsby. Northamptonshire: Cottingham, Daventry, Long Buckby. Nottinghamshire: Worksop. Oxfordshire: Buford, Mollington. Shropshire: Eyton, Eyton on the Waldmores, Little Withiford, Leighton, Moreton Corbet, Oswestry Castle, Upton Cresset. Somerset: Chaffcombe, Glastonbury. Staffordshire: Cresswell Manor, Ford Green. Suffolk: Beccles, Groton, Moulton. Waltshire: Wighill. Warwickshire: Warwick. Wiltshire: Marlborough, Salesbury. Yorkshire: Bedale, Bracewell, Brideshall, Carleton, East Riding, North Riding, Norton, Norton Conyers, Skelton, Skipwith, Wighill. Yorkshire North: Knaresborough Castle, Tadcaster. Yorkshire West: East Haddlesey, Kirkburton.
Isle of Jersey. Isle of Man.

FRANCE… Abbey of St Grestain, Aix La Chapelle, Argences (Caen, Bayeux), Beaumont, Bretagne, Castle of Ambrieres, Challe Mesnil, Clermont (Lemans, Maine), Cleuville, Estouteville, Falaise, Fecamp, La Carite-Sur-Loir (Nievre), Lens (Artois), Liseux, Notre-Dame (Rouen), Saye, St-Jean-de-Montaigue, St Jean Baptiste (Caen), Toulouse/Haute-Garonne, Valognes, Y/Somme/Picardie.

GERMANY… Hesse Darmstadt.

IRELAND… Bannockburn, Tyrone County.

NETHERLANDS… Amsterdam, Enigen, Hees, Wageningen.

NORWAY… Maer, Nord-Trondelag.

PALESTINE… Damietta.

SCOTLAND… Orkney Islands.

TURKEY… Nicea.

WALES… Aberffraw, Dendaethwy and Malltraeth in Anglesey, Glamorganshire, Powys.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Modraniht, id est matrum nocturum

“the Modraniht, that is, in the night of the mothers[=matrons?]”
Early Germanic peoples celebrated the night before Winter Solstice as Mothers Night. The Venerable Bede, a Christian monk from the 8th century wrote about it in his description of the pagan calendar. In Old English they called it Modraniht. More than 1100 votive stones and altars have been found through the centuries, dedicated to the mothers, or matrons, and half of these altar stones were inscribed and dedicated with Germanic names.
The main areas of worship have been uncovered in ancient Germania, northern Italy and eastern Gaul. There are a few larger cult centers with temples found along the Rhine. Many of these altars were found near rivers, wells or springs. The dedicated altars and votives reached as far as present day Scotland, southern Spain, Frisia and Rome. There is reference to the Germanic Mother Cults in the writings of Bede in 725 AD: “And the very night that is sacrosanct to us, these people call modranect, that is, the mothers’ night, a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the ceremonies which they performed while watching this night through.”
Altars and votive stones, as well as temples, were often carved with images showing three women of matron age and appearance, often holding baskets of fruit and a baby. Based on the inscriptions found, it is thought that these altars were dedicated as offerings of thanks for abundance, gifts and blessings that soldiers and sailors had already received. They believed the Mothers had responded to their prayers and this was their way of acknowledging them, burning incense and leaving sacrificial offerings of food.
Many of these goddesses or spirits were named for the family that was dedicating them, as well as being named for the river or spring that watched over the local town or village, such as the Albiahenae matrons of the town of Elvenich or the Renahenae of the Rhine. Of the 1100 votive stones found, over 360 different ones name the same sets of matrons, the Aufaniae, the Suleviae and the Vacallinehae. Based on the age of the stone inscriptions, it appears that the cult of the Matrons began to die out in continental Germany around the 5th century CE, and Modraniht was not as widely celebrated as Christianity took hold.
What can we take away from what history tells us? The Night of the Mothers was the time to honor the familial and tribal “soul” mothers who watched over them. It was intended for those mothers who had crossed over, not for those still living. On Mothers Night we honor the sacrifice of life so that the ancestral mothers might become a source of wisdom and strength for those still living.
I like to begin my celebration by creating a small rock cairn on a temporary altar. I honor first those of my mothers who have crossed over, inscribing their names on stone in chalk. I light a candle for each of them. I remember them and tell their stories. I also choose to honor the strength of the mothers still living, that they may become part of that ancestral current when it is their turn to pass through the veil.
I drink a cup of tea and invite them to share my cup. I crochet, something my Great-Grandmother taught me on the front porch over the summer when I was younger, gifting me her hooks when she could no longer use them. One way to honor the mothers is to honor their work and pass on the skills that have been taught to you by your mothers, and their mothers, that they live on through you, and the crafting of your hands. I sit and hand-sew, darning old clothes, and as I stitch I pray.

I am Sarah, daughter of Margaret, daughter of Patricia, daughter of Margaret, daughter of Eliza, daughter of Mary of Ireland.

I pray for health for my loved ones.
I pray for healing for my friend, a mother, battling through breast cancer.
I pray for healing for a friend whose mother died a year ago today.
I pray for healing for a friend who lost her mother recently, a mother whose birthday is today.
I pray for healing for a friend whose mother recently discovered her cancer has returned.
I pray for strength for my niece, a new mother this year.
I pray that the echo of the wisdom of the mothers who have come before is remembered.
I pray for the earth, for our Great Mother, whose bones and minerals and animal DNA gave us life.
I pray for all mothers who came before me, all who walk with me and all who will come after.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

I Believe in Santa Claus

Last week, my wife flew into the house, cheeks rosy and eyes bright shouting that she had seen Santa Claus in the grocery store (insert childlike exclamation marks). I smiled while she elatedly described him to me, an old man with snow white hair and beard in a red sweater, slowly walking the aisles. He had candy canes and oranges in his cart and when she looked him in the eye, he winked at her. I felt the giddy welling in my own belly and wished I had been there to see him, too.
Whether you call him Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, Saint Nicholas, Sinter Klaas, Father Christmas or Pere Noel, the spirit of the myth that was once a man has lived for centuries in the hearts of people everywhere. Bishop Nicholas of Smyrna lived in the 4th century. He was the son of a wealthy family who used his money for the welfare and good of his people, performing miracles for those who might otherwise have been left destitute. He brought hope and light to the world. He was a real man before his spirit was blessed with immortality. In the passing of time and telling of stories a holy man became something greater. He became a season of giving and a myth with many faces.
It is the legend of the immortal gift-giver and toymaker that most of us grew up with. I still remember my love of the “jolly old elf” as a child. I remember because I still carry that love in my heart. My favorite version of his mythology comes from the fictional work The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by Frank L. Baum. A babe left in the woods was raised in magic by the fairy folk and gifted the Cloak of Immortality for all of the joy he brought to an otherwise bleak human world, so that he might continue his good works forever. I like the idea that long after I am dead and gone, the spirit of the man called Claus will continue. Our world needs magic in it.
I wish that the joy and spirit of the holiday season could stretch out and blanket all of the calendar days, so I try to drink it in while I can, syrupy sappy happiness and all. I love baking cookies and delicacies and crafting presents for loved ones. I love the lengths people will go to in order to make a little Christmas magic happen. I learned that from Santa… and the spirit of him that lives in the heart of my mother and father.
How can belief in him be a bad thing? Santa Claus wants us to be good to each other. He promotes charity and compassion as well as candy canes and hot cocoa. I was the child who vehemently defended his existence far beyond what I should have, for as smart a child as I was. See, I’d done the math. I knew how much the presents we got from Santa Claus cost. Times that amount by three children. There was no way my parents could afford to spend that much on us. I was adamant, fighting with friends on Grand Street on the way home from school and stomping home angrily because they didn’t believe me. They didn’t believe in Santa, when he was so good to us. I really wish I could remember how old I was then.
I remember sitting on my dad’s lap, in his father’s rocking chair when I was a bit older. He mentioned how important it was that I not ruin Santa for my younger sister, or other young children. I was bright for my age and always a bit ahead of putting pieces together. He assumed I had already figured it out and knew I was the kind of child who liked to share the knowledge I had. I will never forget the way his face drained of color when he saw the look on my face – when he realized that not only had I not put it together yet, but I had not even suspected the truth. My poor father. I had been a warrior for the Northern Elf for years and now my dad was saying he was a figment, just an idea.
That did not take the magic away. I was not entirely sure that my father was right. Santa had to be more than an idea. My eyes opened wider in the wake of that moment. I understood that the mall Santa was like the priest at church, speaking for a man who could not possibly be everywhere at once. I didn’t negotiate much beyond that until I realized something about my parents. They never bought things for themselves. All year, I watched my mom not buy herself anything and realized she was squirreling money away so that they could make Christmas the most magical day for us. My parents sacrificed to gift us magic out of love. Because they remembered their joy as children, waiting for the sounds of sleigh bells in the night sky. It was a legacy they went to lengths to pass on.
I remember well my days as a young girl, waking in my flannel nightgown, waiting until we were allowed to wake my parents. I remember every year, our mornings around the tree unwrapping presents. Those mornings opened a window into the child that lived in the heart of my parents and my grandparents. I understood that they were once children my age, excitedly opening gifts with their parents. In my mind’s eye I can see the tree changing backwards into homemade ornaments and popcorn strands, paper chains and nuts strung. Rugs become rag wool become wood floor become dirt and straw… Always there is a child beneath the tree whose blood is part of me.
The real Santa Claus lives inside all of us, like the divine energy of god does. We all have a santa and a scrooge, a light and a dark side. At holiday time, we find it easier to feed our inner Santa. We feel the desire to give gifts of magic to children around us and fight hard to help him defeat our stressed-scrooge inside.
Like the Native American story, we have a choice to continue to feed our inner Kringle and spread the joy and light of love, compassion and charity throughout all of our days. Whatever you believe, whatever you practice, whoever you love, take the best of the holiday season with you into world, through the long winter, well after the snows have melted.

An old Cherokee Indian was speaking to his grandson:
"A fight is going on inside me," he said to the boy. "It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil- he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is good- he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith. This same fight is going on inside you and inside every other person, too."
The grandson thought about it for a long minute. "Which wolf will win?"
The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one I feed."

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Healing Holiday Tree

Whether you celebrate Christmas or Yule, one of my favorite traditions of the season is decorating the evergreen tree. I celebrate both holidays, sitting vigil through the long night of Yule, the Winter Solstice. Dawn means that the coming days will lengthen and the longest night of darkness is over. The Christmas I celebrate is a cultural one. It has become bigger than its Christian meaning in America and its roots are twined in pagan practices of Winter Solstice. Whatever you believe and however you practice, the magic and spirit of the holiday is alive in all rites and rituals of the season, including caroling, office holiday parties, and secret Santa gift exchanges.
As I get older I find I need the magic more. I look forward to the holidays as the time of year when people hum carols under their breath, smile at cashiers and clerks and are generally in a good mood. It’s the time of year when I can look someone in the eye and the chance of them reciprocating is high. Christmas brings out the best in us, and we dream of peace on earth and goodwill to all men.
That dream is important to me and I use that energy to buoy my heart against the number of loved ones each year who are no longer living, who can no longer celebrate the holiday with me. Every year, I miss my grandparents more and more, not less like I hoped. You love the people you love, and for some of them distance of space or time doesn’t change that feeling.
It would be easy, I think, to be so overwhelmed with missing them to not care about the holidays. My grandma and grandpa were that special. So, putting up our Christmas tree every year is a moving meditation I do to work through that sadness, backwards, into the joy of every happy memory I built with them as the foundation of my own holiday spirit.
When we were young children, every year when the holidays rolled around, my dad would bring the artificial evergreen tree up from the gravel and dirt basement and my mom would pull two large cardboard storage boxes out of their bedroom closet. The boxes were patterned with large orange blossoms a la the seventies. Inside their walls lived our ornaments, which we put on the tree together.
My mother would put on the delicate ornaments and then we would take turns picking a favorite ornament to hang. When I was a little girl, I loved the family day of decorating the Christmas tree. My favorites were these white lantern tops, with colored gels that sat over lights on the strand. I loved those little lanterns. But more than that, I loved the event of being together.  It’s what Christmas is really about.
Putting the tree together still holds that joy for me, that act of setting the evergreen up in the house, of bringing nature indoors. We have a thirty-five year old artificial tree that we are recycling until it falls apart. After setting it up and wrapping thick garland in between the branches, you’d never guess at its age. I unwrap the ornaments from their boxes and spread them out on the coffee table. It’s a living collage of my childhood and the transformations I’ve undergone through and into adulthood.
I have a small angel with a plastic head and a white crocheted dress/body. She has brown pigtails and a small halo on her head. My sister had a similar one with a ponytail. She’s been a part of my Christmas tree for as long as I can remember, so long that her origins are unknown to me. Then there is the collection of apple themed ornaments gifted to me by my grandparents over the years. Some are dated, some have my name on them. I linger over these ones, remembering receiving them, remembering the laughter in the kitchen, the warm food and the card games afterwards.
Among our ornaments are an assortment of stars and moons from our early years, transforming into birch bark woodland creatures and plumed birds. There are ornaments crafted and given by old friends as well as handmade ones from family members. Each one has a story. Each one has a name and face behind it. Each one reminds me of the people I love, whose lives have touched mine.
As I hang these ornaments on my tree, I call those memories into the tips of my fingers and place them with purpose. Where do they want to go? It’s a dance I do to remember… to remember my grandparents, faraway friends and to remember that joy and love. To remind myself in the dark days of winter that there is joy and light to be had. My tree becomes a living memory. It becomes a beacon of hope.
            Everyone has their own style of decorating the tree. Mine looks like a quilting of memories, some nestled in each other and some taking center on their own. But the weaving of time and treasures becomes a spell that lifts my heart. We humans come and go like tides rolling in and out. But as I sit in a dark room, sipping hot cocoa and taking in the beauty of our tree, it is a light that can outshine any sorrow.

I cannot gaze upon it without feeling gladness in my heart, without looking forward to all the holidays yet to come.

Relevant Posts:
Poppets for Grief (posted December 15, 2010)
Christmas Legacy of Dick and Donna (posted December 22, 2010)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Being a Memory Keeper

Inevitably, parts of my journey involve taking in everything I have learned and processing through it, letting it change the way I see the world and my place in it. Not in large or grandiose ways, but in small ways that alter my perception. I am becoming a Memory Keeper, a library of details of lives that have passed on, bits and pieces of flesh that will tell a larger story when I have collected more of them.
Genealogical research is like putting together a giant puzzle. There are names and people that fit into the lifeline that becomes me. You have to match dates against places, children born and occupations. To help with my tasks, I split my ancestry into four pages, four mysteries to track down. There is my mom’s mother and father and then my dad’s mother and father. It simply made it easier for me to learn the names and histories while I kept track of where they fell in my family tree.
I went upwards, starting at myself, thinking of myself as patient zero, since all paths end in me. I have been going from parents to parents, through direct ancestors and their marriages, one generation at a time. My research is a tree, growing up and splitting into forks with every name found, reaching still for names undiscovered and unknown. I want to know where I came from. I want to know the migration of my people.
In less than a year I found two paths of immigrants who came to settle the new world, one maternal and one paternal, both traced back to the Norman invaders, traced back to the same village of Vikings. From my mother and my father backwards, around the vastness of family trees joining and splitting, merging and separating, I trace them back to the same village, to the same group of Vikings who claimed what would become Normandy. Could those comrade-in-arms have imagined that a thousand years after them their descendants would finally come together again? Is that not a wonder? Is that not a genius way of nature reminding us of our interconnectedness? It humbles me and fills me with peace.
And still… it prods something in my heart. It is sobering. In my research I try to include the names and birth dates of all of the children, not just the ones I am descended from. They flesh out more information about the lives my ancestors lived, how many children they had, how many survived… I made the decision though, for the sake of my sanity, not to delve into the lives of the siblings more than birth or death dates. If they are not a direct line to me, I don’t look into them more. My brain can only hold so many names and dates. But that means, if I were a future amateur genealogist, I would not pay attention to me.
I have no children. I will have no children. There will be no one to look back and find my name on their family tree as one of their ancestors. I don’t know why that fills me with such sadness. We are all forgotten, all eventually lost to the rivers of time. I may have discovered that “Mary unknown” wed one of my ancestors, but I don’t know who she was. And even though I know that Freeborn Wolfe, the name, came before me, I don’t know anything about her.
My nieces and nephew will remember me. My time with them has always been precious and too fleeting and I make the most of what we have. I am a loved one they see once a year, so much time stretching between captured moments. They know I love them but I am an occasion, like my own aunts and uncles who lived out of town were in my life. I hold the time we spend together in stasis from one to the next. Each time, they have aged a year of their life in seconds to me. They forget their youth, as we all do. But not me. I do not forget their youth. I remember everything.
My nieces will remember me and mourn me. But most of their children won’t know me. In the blink of a generation, I will be lost. Reflecting on all of the people that I don’t remember, the ancestors who once lived, and how little that not-knowing affects my life is, honestly, a weight off. It’s like the pressure of becoming an extraordinary person has dissipated and I understand I only have to be the best version of the person I am. What I want is to live fully present in myself and in my life so that when I die, I shall pass with such a dense burst of exhalation that the echo of my spirit vibrates on in the ether.
I am sometimes filled with the compulsion to go out and randomly carve my name in stone in the woods. I understand why so much of the world is covered in graffiti stating that so-and-so “was here.” The human part of me would at least be remembered in mystery than not at all. The spirit part of me understands that it is not our individual self that matters to the history of our species. It is how we evolve, how we migrate, how we leave the world behind us that is of importance.
If, when we die, we have touched lives and opened eyes, if we have loved and been loved, have we not made an impact on our world? This dance is at the core of the Work I do, the balancing shift between honoring the past and preparing a better future, and living in now. I don’t have any answers, just questions. How are my life choices rippling out into the future? How am I leaving this world a better one than I found it to be, for my nieces and nephew, for my grandnephew? For all those who will come after?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

They Came Across the Ocean

The winter is coming,
The dark and snow, the grey and cold are coming.
We stand at a threshold with the last of autumn harvests.
We prepare a meal with our Plenty,
A feast of light and joy to feed our fires,
Warm our bellies and bolster us.

Look at all we have to sustain us
While the earth sleeps and rests.

After the flood this year, many families in our city had to struggle with not having enough, with not having shelter or heat, facing the reality of tainted water. We learned just how far the love of others can stretch and soothe emotional wounds. Giving thanks feels much more relevant this year and my house is getting ready to celebrate the bounty of our harvest, to have gratitude for our abundance. We have. We are blessed in many ways. We have more than enough to eat. We have a home with heat and water. We have our health and the love of family and friends. For all of that I have gratitude that overwhelms my heart with happiness. For all of that I am thankful.

I am thankful for my breath.
I am thankful for this body, for a body.
I am thankful for the blood in this body and those who gave life to give mine.

Even if that was all I had, it would be something. What about those who gave this blood to me? What about those who travelled to an unknown world with little more than their bones and breath? They travelled across the ocean to an unknown world. They came with no guarantee of homes waiting for them. They came with what they could carry. They came across the ocean with hope and promise as their wealthiest possessions. I know from my research that they came as hired men, soldiers and freemen. They came as young girls, wives and mothers. They were all farmers and healers and teachers. They had to be. They came across the ocean for freedom, for a chance.

I am,
that they were,
that they are,
that they will be.

They came from England, on my mother’s side…in 1629.
Robert Moulton and his wife Deborah of St. Olaf immigrated to Salem, MA in 1629 on the George Bonaventure, hired by the English Company to build ships in New England. Ann Wilson and Michael Sallows, as well as Abigail Downing and John Goode of Ipswitch, came to Salem early in the new world. Henry Birdsall of Norwich immigrated to Salem after the death of his wife Judith in 1632. Peter Wolfe emigrated from England to Beverly, MA. Jeremiah Gillett came from Chaffcombe to Dorchester, MA sometime soon after his older brothers came on the Mary & John in 1630.
Richard Walker emigrated from Marlborough, England to Lynn, Massachusetts as a soldier in 1633. Thomas Wheeler travelled from Bourne End in 1637. He arrived with 4 of his brothers and 2 of his sisters. Henry Cooke immigrated to America in 1638 and was married in Salem in 1639 at 23. John Smith was born in Hertfordshire and immigrated to Connecticut in 1639. Abigail Goode was born in London but married in 1640 in Salem. Richard Holbrook, born in Glastonbury, immigrated to MA where he married in 1648 at the age of 29. Deacon Henry Baldwin was married in Woburn, MA in 1649, having emigrated from Devonshire. Nathaniel Briscoe, Jr. was born in Cambridge and immigrated to Connecticut by 1649.
Nicholas La Groves landed at Salem, MA from the Isle of Jersey in England around 1668, when he was 22 years old, as a Huguenot refugee. Joseph Boots was born in England, and died in Royalton, NY. Ruth Ireland and Charles Evan Ruston, born in Doddington and Chatteris, respectively, immigrated to America in 1881. She was 19 and he was 33 and they were the last of my ancestors who immigrated to America.

They came from England, on my father’s side…in 1630.
Joanna Ford emigrated from Dorchester, England to Dorchester, MA, on board the Mary & John in 1630, along with Captain Roger Clapp, whom she married in 1633. He was born in Salcombe Regis and arrived on the ship with Joanna and her family. George Dyer of Dorchester was on board, as were Elizabeth Cooke and her husband Thomas Ford, of Bridgeport.
Mary and Robert Pond came to Dorchester from Suffolk. John Gay left Plymouth, England in 1630 for Watertown, MA at the age of 14. His wife immigrated to Watertown from Headcom, England in 1635 at the age of 22. Abigail Gilson of Faversham married John Eaton of Dover in 1630. She was 29 and widowed with children. He was 18. They immigrated to Massachusetts together in 1635.
Frances Dighton of Glouchester and Richard Williams of Glamorganshire, Wales, were married in 1634. Their first child, John, is listed as dying “at sea” in 1636, perhaps as they were crossing. Anne and Thomas Bird emigrated from England to Dorchester. Mary Dyer was in Dorchester by 1641, when she married Sergeant William Pond.

They came from the Netherlands…after 1640, by 1660.
My father’s maternal and paternal lines are thick with Dutch blood. Wilhelm Willemsson Janseen Dutcher emigrated from Einigen to New York after the birth of his son Jan in 1640. Jan Wilhelm De Duitscher emigrated from Enigen, Netherlands and was married in NY at the age of 19, in 1660. Joost Huybertszen Van der Linde, born in Wageningen, was in New York by 1661 for the birth of his daughter. Hendrickle Stephense Van Voorhees, one of my female ancestors, had immigrated from Hees to Hackensack, NJ by her fifteenth year, 1675, when she married Albert Terhune.

They came from France… to Canada and America…by 1647.
Francoise Fafard, born in Argences, Caen, Bayeux married Joseph Mathurin Lemonier, born in Clermont, Lemans, Maine, had both immigrated to Montreal, Canada by their marriage in 1647. She was 22 and he was 27, ancestors of my maternal grandfather. Francois Le Sueur came to America from Dieppe with his sister Jeanne in 1657. He was a Huguenot and a civil engineer who helped build New Haarlem. Isaac-Etienne Paquet dit Lavallee came to Canada from St. Jean de Montaigue as a soldier in LaMotte’s regiment in 1665.

They came from Poland… I mean Prussia… I mean Silesia… in 1662.
Albrecht Zabriski, my father’s maternal ancestor, immigrated from Austrian Silesia in 1662 to New Jersey when he was 24 years old.

They came from Scotland…in 1728.
David Calhoun, a maternal ancestor shows in America by the age of 27 in 1728 when he married in Connecticut.

They came from Ireland…in 1758.
All of the Irish immigrants belong to my mother’s maternal and paternal lines. Thomas Ridel, aka Riddle, was the first immigrant from Ireland, arriving in Monson, MA in 1758. Nancy Machet and John Berry were married in Ireland in 1795, travelling to the new world after. A later relative, Thomas Berry, was in America by the early 1800s. Mary Dowd and David Conners arrived together mid-century.

They came from Germany…in 1848.
Katherine Maria Schmeelk immigrated to America with her family in 1848 at the age of 13 from Hesse Darmstadt, Germany. Her future husband, Adam Art, also emigrated from the same city in Germany. In 1855, at the age of 17, John F. Pils also left Germany for the new world. All three German immigrants represent my mother’s maternal line.

They came from Canada…in 1850.
My mother’s paternal family is heavy with French and French-Canadian heritage. Albert Durant was 8 when he immigrated to America from Quebec in 1850. Rosella LaValley and her family, shepherded by her father Francois Xavier Lavalle, came down from Providence, Canada. She was 18 when she married Albert, 20, in Mooers, NY.

Peace to you and yours.
May you never be hungry.
May you know love.
May you know gratitude.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Ancestral Veterans

Burning of the USS Philadelphia, painting 1897.

War is in our history. It’s in every rise and fall of culture. The ghosts of battlefields long forgotten are littered with the blood of our ancestors. This year, for Veterans Day, I honor my ancestors who both waged war and stood defense, in service of their people.

Early Settlement
Captain Roger Clapp (1609-1690) was born in Salcombe Regis, England. He sailed to Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1629 on the Mary and John. In 1665 Captain Clapp was placed in charge of the Dorchester Company stationed at Castle Island, the oldest fortified military site in North America, in Boston Harbor. He held the post for 21 years and was given a nine gun salute when he retired.
William Pond (1622-1690) was a Sergeant in the colonial militia from Dedham, Massachusetts, first generation of his family born in the new colony. Peter Wolfe (1606-1675) was born in England and immigrated to Beverly, Massachusetts. He served as a Lieutenant in the colonial militia in 1646, in defense of Salem, Massachusetts. Jeremiah Gillette (1650-1707) was a Sergeant in the colonial service of Connecticut. He was also the first generation of his family born in America, having emigrated from England.
Isaac-Etienne Paquet dit Lavallee (1636-1702) came to Canada, at age 28, in the Compagnie de LaMotte, Regiment de Carignan-Salieres in 1665. The first French regular troops arrived in response to pleas from the colonists of New France for aid in dealing with the Iroquois. Immediately they were dispatched to Richelieu, to begin construction on the forts of Saint-Louis and Saint-Therese, as well as the roads between. In the spring of 1666, Isaac's company built Forst Saint-Anne at Lake Champlain. They were dispatched into Iroquois country in September of 1667, but could not rouse the Indians into battle. The Iroquois used the end of this expedition as a means of brokering peace and LaMotte's famous regiment was disbanded. Isaac was one of 400 soldiers who elected to stay in the colonies rather than return to France. He was married, with his own homestead, in I'lle D'orleans three years later.

1754-1763 French & Indian War
Lemuel Lyon (1728-1781), born in Stoughton, Massachusetts, served in Timothy Walker's company during the French and Indian War in 1755. He is listed on the muster of Captain John Carpenter’s regiment in August of 1757. He was involved in the 1758 Battle at Fort Ticonderoga and kept a 35 page journal of his time there, which has been published with some other soldier accounts in the book, Narratives of the French and Indian War (2): the Diary of Sergeant David Holden, Captain Samuel Jenks, Lemuel Lyon, French Officer at the Siege of Quebec.

1775-1783 American Revolutionary War
Oliver Lozier, also Delozier, (born 1747) was born into a family well-established in Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. He was a Bombardier, a noncommissioned officer, in Captain John Doughty's company, in Colonel John Lamb's regiment (2nd continental artillery). He was on the muster roll for April 1781 at West Point. Oliver enlisted in 1778 for the duration of the Revolution and was discharged April 4, 1783.
Born in Connecticut and taking up residence in Massachusetts, Freeborn Moulton (1717-1792) was Captain of a company of Minute-men of Monson. They were part of Colonel Danielson’s regiment which marched at the Lexington alarm of April 19, 1775 to Cambridge, where they remained until May 6, 1775.
Joseph Riddle (1763-1812), grandson of Captain Freeborn Moulton, enlisted young and served almost the full duration of the war. He was a Private in Captain Isaac Colton's company, Colonel David Brewer's (9th) regiment enlisting in 1775. In 1776 he is listed in Captain Joseph Munger’s company, regiment of Colonel Robert Woodbridge, the “Massachusetts Line.” By 1777 he shows as a Fifer in the 4th Massachusetts regiment under Captain Caleb Keep and Colonel William Shepherd, and later as a Drum-Major in General Glover’s brigade. He was at the battle of Burgoyne, charged with guarding the road to Albany as well as the battle of Monmouth, NJ in 1778. A year later he is mustered for the Continental Army in the 9th company for Colonel John Bliss’s 1st New Hampshire regiment. He was discharged from the Continental Army in June of 1780. Pension records list him as a cripple, so it was likely he was wounded.

1801-1805 The Barbary Wars
Peter De Lozier (1786-1849) was born in Connecticut. He joined the Navy and was on board the USS Philadelphia in 1803 when the government made moves to end piracy on the Barbary Coast. Commodore Edward Preble commanded the Mediterranean Squadron into a blockade in October. On Halloween, the USS Philadelphia ran aground on a coral reef. The entire crew, with their Captain, William Bainbridge, was captured and the ship was used by the opposing Navy as a gun battery. Peter De Lozier and his crew spent 30 months in a Tripoli jail. When the conflict was over, he mustered out of service and claimed residence outside of Lockport, NY. He married, took up cabinetmaking and had a daughter, but eventually left his family to return to the sea. He died of cholera in Connecticut without ever seeing his family again.

1812-1814 War of 1812
Martin Dutcher (1796-1872) was a Private in Captain Andrew A. VanDerzee’s “New Baltimore” company, Colonel Barnabas Carver’s 61st regiment in the War of 1812. He fought in the Battle of Plattsburgh, 1814. After the war he retired to Somerset, NY.

1861-1865 American Civil War
Adam Art (1836-1896) immigrated to New York from Hesse Darmstadt, Germany in the 1850s and served in the Civil War under Captain Levi Bowen, 29th Congressional district.

1914-1918 World War I
Royal Levant Eaton (1873-1931), a New York state prison guard, served in the National Guard during WWI.

Honoring Roots and Freedoms
I believe in peace and practices of non-violence. I know that I am able to believe in peace because I have known peace, and that I have known it because of the sacrifices those who came before me made, to acquire it for our country. Soldiers are men of principle and purpose who believe that the side they are fighting for is a just cause, no matter what history will later decide.
My ancestors were farmers, ministers, soldiers, crusaders and Norman invaders. In all of our histories, our ancestors were defenders and colonizers, pawns and pillagers, and brave men and women facing uncertain futures. They faced those futures for us, whether they knew it or not and we can honor them today by learning from our own history.
I have deep gratitude that soldiers past, present and future have and will risk their lives in the pursuit of freedom. They are more than regiments and companies. The most important thing I can remember is that an army of fighters is made up of men and women who have names and families. They are men and women who are husbands, wives, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. They are people of flesh and blood, of dreams and desire.

I am,
that they were,
that they are,
that they will be.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

For the Recent Dead

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart
(i carry it in my heart)
~ e. e. cummings

We passed through Samhain and the axis of the planet tipped those of us in the Northern Hemisphere into winter, just as the axis of the overlapping worlds tilted us into a place of thinning veils. In that place we bid our loved ones to slip into that other space we know as death. We don’t know it’s true nature or form and we all call it by differing names. It is a place that none of us shall know until it is our time, a mystery we must accept or spend our lives fearing and fighting. It is hardest to honor the Recent Dead, for the grief is still fresh and real in our bodies. We strengthen our reserves and let them go, holding memories instead of arms.
Who you were is no more, though who you were to us remains, shining brightly in the hearts of every soul you touched, every mind you moved and every heart you stirred. What was becomes something new. We light a lantern to show the way.
What was breath and laughter becomes memory. What was flesh and bone becomes earth. Vital fluids nourish what remains. What was spirit becomes star. We open the way for the dead. We open the way, within our breast, for the dead to cross over. We unlock the door to our grief and let the water flow through and become the river bearing spirits across. In our hearts, we become the way for the dead to cross over. May they be at peace.
The very first Spring Equinox I celebrated was while I was in college, facilitated by my partner’s T’ai Chi teacher and spiritual mentor, Thomas E. Malinoski, known to the Seneca people as Tom Kingfisher. He was an adopted elder in the Wolf Clan and a student and friend of Grandmother Twylah, as well as an artist and faculty member at SUNY Fredonia for many years. He led his T’ai Chi class, which he offered free of charge every Thursday in the Newman Center, and afterwards, as some people went home, he prepared the space for the Equinox celebration.
There was no pomp or pageantry to the ceremony he led us through, which only amplified its intensity for me. It was my first experience of awareness with sacred space outside of institutional religion. He opened a doorway for me that Equinox, though it would be a bit longer until I saw it and walked through it. Thomas Malinoski-Kingfisher passed away July 3rd, this last summer, after illness. May the Ancestors welcome him home and may his reunion with Grandmother Twylah be sweet and full of laughter.

At midnight on Samhain, I spoke a prayer for the recent dead, those of mine and the loved ones of friends. When we pass we do not cease to exist. We cease to be. But once we were here, once we were, we cannot be erased. We honor the memory of those who have gone before us:
Edward W. O’Rourke, beloved Godfather, passed April 4.
Be at peace, Edward.
Tom Malinoski, beloved mentor and friend, passed July 3.
Be at peace, Tom.
Pretty Penny the Guinea Hen, beloved companion, passed September 27.
Be at peace, Penny.
William Russell Norcross passed September 29.
Be at peace, William.
Ann Herrington, beloved Grandmother, passed October 9.
Be at peace, Ann.
Willis Kingsbury Rowell passed October 10.
Be at peace, Willis.
Debra Ann Martineau passed October 16.
Be at peace, Debra.
Sophie F. Bachurz passed October 17.
Be at peace, Sophie.
Josephine Elle Rispoli passed of cancer October 23 at the age of 7.
Be at peace, Josephine.
Michael Pullano, beloved teacher, passed October 26.
Be at peace, Michael.
Paul Sachs passed October 28.
Be at peace, Paul.
To those unspoken and unknown…be at peace.

As long as we live, they too will live;
For they are now a part of us:
As we remember them!
At the rising sun and at its going down we remember them.
At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter we remember them.
At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring we remember them.
At the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of summer we remember them.
At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of the autumn we remember them.
At the beginning of the year and when it ends we remember them.
As long as we live, they too will live, for they are now a part of us. As we remember them.
When we are weary and in need of strength we remember them.
When we are lost and sick at heart we remember them.
When we have decisions that are difficult to make we remember them.
When we have joy we crave to share we remember them.
When we have achievements that are based on theirs we remember them.
For as long as we live, they too will live,
For they are now a part of us, as we remember them.
~A prayer from Gates of Prayer, the New Union Prayer book

**If you feel so moved, please add the names of those you loved who died within this last year in the comments section. May they all be at peace.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Songs from a Samhain Night

It’s important to know the history and etymology of the traditions we include in our lives, to be aware of their purpose and adapt them as needed. That is what our Ancestors did before us. What began as Samhain (sow-en), a Celtic fire festival honoring spirits, became All-Hallows-Even in the Christian calendar, honoring saints, and by the 16th century was called Halloween, which fell out of practice by the English in light of Martin Luther’s Reformation. This new religious system did not include the belief in saints and forewent the holiday set aside to honor them. Everything changes, all is in motion.
Like my Irish and Scottish ancestors, I believe the dead walk on Samhain night. For me, it’s not a myth or a folk superstition. Multiple worlds exist over top of one another. We live in one. Spirits live in others. On Samhain everyone can perceive this as true if they choose to. It is the most important festival I celebrate, and I dedicate several days to its activities.
At events throughout the year I facilitate Ancestor Shrines where people are invited to write the names of ancestors and deceased loved ones on ribbons and strips of muslin. I safeguard them until Samhain, where we ritually read the names of the remembered dead out loud. We pass the ribbons, taking turns to speak and honor the memories of loved ones. After the names are spoken into the dark, we burn the natural fiber strips in fire. The smoke sends the wishes, prayers and petitions into all the worlds, so those at unrest may know peace, both living and dead.

Harold Lafayette Riddle and Elsie Elizabeth Durant
Richard James Riddle and Donna McDonald
Mark Dutcher Eaton and Ruth Emma Ruston
Charles Duvall and Jurgen Banse-Fey
Tommy Amyotte and Paul Seeloff
Karl Weber and Susan Alvarez-Hughes

I carve my pumpkin with the intention of creating a lantern, as the jack o’ lantern is called. I create it to be a lighthouse that will guide spirits to my working. Whether I cut out the image of a tree, owl or series of stars, my jack o’ lantern will be a source of light in the darkness to help guide their way to me. On Samhain day, when the lanterns are lit, the house begins to smell faintly of pumpkin and apple.
At dusk I light the candles on my ancestor altar, which sits year-round in a permanent place in my office. It can be as simple as a glass of water and a candle, and as elaborate as you wish to make it, adding personal items like photos and mementos. At Samhain I fill the water glass with fresh cold water, for the spirits who thirst. I light a new candle and add candles to illuminate the space. I call my ancestors home, to feast with us.
In the gloaming time between light and dark we wait by the door for the knocks of small children wearing new and different skins. I offer them candy as a reward for their bravery. I remember how much knowledge I had as a child of the wholeness of the world that I lost as I grew into adulthood. I honor that in the children I meet until the dark falls and our supper begins.
A modest table set on black tablecloth is our Supper. The spirit chair at the head of the table is shrouded in black fabric. This chair is for All Spirits who wish to dine with us. Then a chair for me, a chair for my partner, and one each for the spirit we chose to invite. I always invite my Great-Grandmother, who I knew in life. I call Elsie in, light the candle on her plate and take care to offer her food before myself.
The Dumb Supper is served in silence, so as not to scare timid spirits who might wish a bit of remembered humanity when the veil is thin. I usually play instrumental music low, like cello or piano, to help drown out the noises from outside. The food we serve is homemade, prepared with loving hands. We dine backwards, dessert to salad, serving the spirit chair first, then our guests and then ourselves.
            Everything about the supper is the reverse of how we would normally eat. The courses and the place settings become a mirror image of life, the line where reflection meets image, where shadow meets physical form. The house is dark except for candlelight and we open ourselves to any impressions we might receive. We welcome in images, thoughts, perceptions from any spirits who wish to speak. Even in years when the spirits are silent, the supper is a deep and profound meditation.
Beneath Elsie’s plate is a note I wrote to her. I love you and remember you, always. You are as important to me in the spirit world as you were in the living one. Please continue to watch over our family and be a source of comfort to those struggling or in need. I will have you in spirit for as long as you wish to remain.

            Before I go to bed, I extinguish the lights in the rest of the house, all save those on my altar. I speak the names of those who died within this last year, separating the fresh grief from the old and opening a way for those who have not yet crossed over to do so if they will. These are my traditions, adapting and changing each year as my spirituality deepens. I remember those who came before me so that I better see where I stand and where I’m going. In my dreams I will pay attention once more, to visitations I might receive and messages I might be given, on the night when the edges are softest and the worlds and I are open to each other.

Relevant Posts:
Simple Sweeping Lines (posted September 29, 2010)
Setting a Place for the Dead (posted October 27, 2010)
Reflections from a Dumb Supper (posted November 2, 2010)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Rite of Passage in Trick-or-Treating

When I think of Halloween, my mind drifts to cups of mulled cider, the scent of fresh apples, bright orange jack o’ lanterns, crisp leaves underfoot and smoky breath in the pre-winter air. The Halloweens of my childhood pull up memories of monster movies and spider webs, candy, bobbing for apples, spooky houses and things unknown. And trick-or-treating.
Once a year we had permission and were encouraged to dress in costumes and travel door-to-door collecting candy in our pillowcases. Looking back, I understand that Halloween was a chance for the insecure girl-I-was to wear another skin, to pull in the energy of someone-I-might-be. Our parents would ask me, my brother and sister, “What do you want to be for Halloween?” and the universe would open before me. When I didn’t have an idea for a costume I would raid my parents’ closet and come out some version of hobo, hippie or gypsy. Halloween, dipping us into darkness, was ripe with possibility for those of us who were living.

Halloween has its origins in the Celtic festival of Samhain, pronounced sow-en, eventually coming to America with immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries. Children went out into the night carrying lanterns lit with candles, called samhnag. They made them from turnips, carved with frightening faces to scare away the spirits wandering the night. Children went home to home, guised in supernatural costumes, where they were given offerings of food or coins. The gifts were meant to help the children ward off any spirits wishing them harm Samhain, the night when the dead walk again.
Some later customs refer to it as Souling, where children would offer prayers for the dead in return for a small cake. At houses where they were refused, they would batter the door with the butt ends of turnips. One of the earliest records of guising for Halloween comes from 1895 Scotland. The earliest reference to it in North America was from a newspaper in Ontario in 1911, reporting that children would go guising between 6 and 7 on Halloween, spilling songs and rhymes and being rewarded for them with candies and nuts. Trick or Treating as we know it in America, didn’t begin until the 1950s.

Our parents carried us door-to-door when we were children and later, when we could walk on our own, they would coax and encourage us to go up and ring the doorbell while they waited for us on the sidewalk after whispering a quick reminder of what we were supposed to say. The walk to the porch felt long to my short legs. The temperature itself seemed to drop between the familiar figure of my parent and the heat behind the unfamiliar door opening before me. After a hearty “Trick or treat!” and a piece of candy dropped in our pillowcase we would run back to our parent, back to safe, and on to the next home.
The first year that we went out trick-or-treating without chaperone- our own little gang of tricksters- was an early, and personal, rite of passage. Mom stayed home to mind the door and was busy making sheets of homemade pepperoni pizza so it would be hot and waiting when we came in out of the cold. We walked the neighborhood and then the same route we walked every morning to elementary school. Up one side of the street and home the other. It was familiar and known, but in the cloak of darkness it felt foreign. Landmarks stood in shadow and we needed new eyes to find our way.
We were being trusted to watch out for each other, to stay safe, to cross streets wisely and not to stray beyond the streets we knew, or the ones we were told we could travel. As children we didn’t realize how far the web of grown ups-who-knew-each-other spun and we were not hip to the fact that we were never in any true danger.  But that unknown is an essential element to the rites of passage that test our mettle and help us grow. The cold leaves crunched underfoot as we ran from porch light to porch light, pillow cases filling fast with candies my brother and sister and I would later sort through and trade (always setting aside some tootsie rolls for my dad).
There was one house, always decorated fantastically in creepy themes for the trick-or-treaters. Approaching it on our own, however, the house was barren, the only decoration a scarecrow flopped onto the porch with a bowl of candy in its lap. A lot of houses that closed for the night would put the candy bowl out on the porch with a note. As we closed upon the porch, I felt a strange feeling in my belly and I stopped. That’s a person, I thought. I knew that when we got up there, the scarecrow was going to grab us.
We stood still, watching the scarecrow and debating whether or not it could be a real person. We dared someone to see what kind of candy was in the bowl so we could gauge whether or not it was worth it. The scarecrow didn’t move the entire time and was sitting at a strange angle. We approached in a group and as I reached into the bowl… yes, the scarecrow moved and grabbed my hand as we screamed and ran halfway back down the sidewalk. A familiar voice laughed, assuring us it was our neighbor. We stood our ground and made him show his face before we went back for the candy we had earned.
There was a thrill in being able to be brave without the need for a parent. On our own we had evaluated the threat, calculated a plan and supported each other in carrying it out, calling on the energies of our Other skins to aid us. On Halloween we stood in the shadow of no one. It was always light when we started our adventure and in the joy of running from porch to porch we would lose the subtle slip into darkness until we were cold and tired and our bags were heavy with loot. Often, home seemed far away. We would make our way to share stories with our parents of what we had seen on our travels.
The next morning I was aware on the walk to school that the same-old route I had been taking every morning was different. It was bigger. The houses weren’t just landmarks anymore. They were also skins of homes with families and faces inside of them, containing other children who thought the world was no bigger than the size of their house. On that morning I understood the world was bigger than my house, my block, my route to school. There was more of it than I could comprehend.

As a child, on Halloween night I walked with demons and devils, witches, ghosts and ghouls borrowing human skin (and superheroes and princesses). I dared to enter dark places and returned from them unharmed. In the turning of the world, I learned I could enter the darkness and return. Maybe not unscathed, but I could return and know the healing would come. Each year now, as I drop candy into the bags and baskets of little cows, superheroes, witches and pirates, I hope they will remember their fearlessness on this night. I hope they will remember how they learned to move from jack o’ lantern light to jack o’ lantern light as a means to get through the darkness.

Relevant Posts:
Setting a Place for the Dead (posted October 27, 2010)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Ritual for an Unnoticed Passing

It’s never easy to move away from people you love, both physically and emotionally. But life is not stagnant. It’s not static. We grow towards and away from people all the time, spending periods of our lives in fellowship with others, either working towards common goals or bonding in shared experiences. Those lengths of time are important for our growth. They’re necessary. We meet people who become part of our lives at the right time in the right place. Then things change. We change. When that stretch of the journey is over, someone always moves on, growing in another direction. Sometimes it’s us.
That doesn’t mean the love we carry for the people we were close to ever fades. When a connection ends it isn’t necessarily because someone did something wrong. Change is natural and though physical distance may grow, the emotional quality doesn’t. Loving people is the best thing we can do and once we love, we carry that bond within us wherever we are.
What happens when you don’t know someone you hold close to your heart has died? What happens when you don’t discover their passing for months, or even years? What do you do then?
I have often had the misfortune of discovering that a friend has died, the funeral has occurred, and everyone who knew about it is securely in the process of moving on. But for me, in the sudden knowing, the grief is fresh and painful and often met with dismissive attitudes by others, as if it’s different because the person died months ago. As if it should be different that I haven’t seen them in years. As if any of that truth diminishes the loss of them from the world.
When someone we love dies we hold funerals to honor the vessel, the body that held the deceased, and send them back to the earth, the place we all come from. The second purpose of a funeral is to serve as a space where we can grieve the physical loss of them, honoring who they were to us and the part they played in our lives. This part of the funeral is about the living.
It was hard for me, to grieve far from home for people no one around me knew. Over the years I’ve created a simple ritual that speaks to what I need. It’s my way of honoring the person who has passed on and speaking to the impact they had in my life. It is also a way of wishing them safe travels into the Otherworld, whether they have already crossed over or not. This is something you can do alone or something you can do with mutual friends. It’s something you can ask your close friends to be part of, so that they can hold space for you and witness your memory of the life that passed. Make it personal.
 What is remembered, lives.

Ritual for an Unnoticed Passing
Light a candle. The flame is a focus point. It requires oxygen to flourish. It reminds us to breathe, to be present. It reminds us of the task at hand. If you associate a particular scent with the deceased you could use a candle with that fragrance. If not, but if scent soothes you, the smell of lavender is calming for those in grief.
Speak the name of deceased. Say out loud when they died. Speak aloud how they died. I cannot express how important a person’s name is. It’s how we’re taught to identify ourselves. It’s how our loved ones call for us and speak to us while we walk the earth. Speaking the name of one who has passed brings the vibration of their energy present. Intention is good but vocalizing that intention is better. Our thoughts get muddled in our heads and we can feel multiple complex emotions at the same time. Putting those thoughts and emotions into words sharpens the picture and brings clarity to what we intend.
Allow yourself to admit the sadness you feel at their loss. This is important. This ritual is for you. Share the news of how you found out they died. This is your chance to speak to that moment of grief.
Physically burn something. It’s important that we mortals use tangible tools in working emotional rituals. It keeps us present, grounded. It keeps us here when our spirits might want to be elsewhere. If you have access to an outdoor fire, or an indoor fireplace, you could burn herbs, like dried rosemary or sage, or squares of muslin with prayers written on them. You could make wood fetishes to burn, or even a muslin and herb poppet.
Whatever you burn, use this moment to say farewell. If you have no access to a fireplace, carve a separate candle with words or images and burn that in a holder. Say a blessing for their spirit as the flames consume your fetish. Let your heart speak to your wish for them to be at peace. Let yourself feel what it is you are feeling. Cry, sing, laugh…
Drink some water. Take in a bit. Remember that water is necessary for life. We are made of it and for every tear we shed we can take in more water to replenish ourselves. Don’t be afraid to cry, don’t be afraid to let your body drain. You can always rehydrate. You can always take more in. Offer some water in memory of the life no longer lived.
Take a breath in. Remember you are alive. Remember you are here.
Bring some joy back into the space now. Share something about the deceased that makes you smile, something they did to help you. Tell funny stories of madcap adventures. Do something they enjoyed. Make their favorite food and savor it. Listen to music you listened to together and dance yourself into the very edges of your fingers and toes.

Honor their life by living yours. When you look up into the night sky, see the echo of their laughter shining back at you from the stars above us. Those who walk with you in life, walk with you in spirit until the end of your days, even as their soul is at peace. May your heart be healed and joyful.
May it be so. Ase.
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