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, January 26, 2011

Ancestors for Mindfulness

None of us walk this earth alone.

We all know it. Most of us experience that reality when we run errands or hear the traffic of the apartment dwellers above and below us. But even as our world population is physically expanding and growing, our culture is pushing us towards isolationism. We have more people but our technology is moving towards more automated services. Our world moves so fast that we need help staying on top of things.

When I was a kid, my dad used to chit chat with our mailman and knew all the bank tellers names and stories. They all had families and children that he’d ask after. We couldn’t go shopping with my mother without running into one or two people who knew her. It was a sign to me that the world I was growing into was much bigger than I imagined. Every person my parents knew was one more person with a spouse and children, one more blossoming unit of life that existed like our house did, somewhere in a part of the city I had never been. My childhood taught me that the world was bigger than I could comprehend.

Sometimes it’s hard to care about that fact, much less apply it to the day-to-day of trying to pay bills and feed our families. The world moves faster than most of our brains can keep up with. I work hard, daily, to pay attention to where I’m walking, what I’m saying and to generally be as present in every moment as I can. I do consider it a luxury that I can carve out the time to focus on it. To help with this endeavor, I like to have a tangible reminder of the larger world to give my brain some rest.

I don’t like to forget that the world is full of individuals going through life just like me. Every person matters and deserves kindness and patience. Every individual journey has merit and meaning, and every journey is a thread on the greater web. One of the tools I use towards this mindfulness is one that grows every year. I have a personal calendar I created on my computer that is my Ancestor Calendar. For every date known on my family tree, I marked a name and year down on the appropriate date, notating with ‘b’ for birth and ‘d’ for death.

Imagine yourself as a seed in the earth and your life as a journey that spirals straight upwards. From an aerial view, the spiral resembles a complete circle. Any point you touch on the circle runs down beneath your finger through multiple levels of the spiral. Beneath your finger lays a chronological record from points of your life connected by one date, a visual interpretation of time from an alternative point of view.

I see my own history as if I were lifting the veils across time at the same fixed point. Every year, on my birthday- whatever else occurs- it is also the same day that Hannah Ann (Treadwell) Eaton died in Michigan in 1884. On Summer Solstice I honor it as the day that Elsie was born, my great-grandmother who was the light of those who loved her. One hundred and forty-five years after the day Ammi Smith was born, his grand-daughter Hattie Eva died, a birth and a death on the same day, over three generations. Or that over the generations of multiple family lines, there were more births in July than any other month. I include the births and passings of people who were family to me, blood or not.

This calendar reminds me that at some point in my life, my feet will stand on the same space of earth that my ancestors trod. I had that sensation the first time I stood in Old City in Philadelphia, my sandals on cobbled streets. I could hear the traffic and I could palpably feel the movement of horse and buggies clopping past me, as if I were that finger touching on multiple events at one moment. Being more aware of the past fleshes out the experience of the present moment and allows me to be more mindful of the footprints I leave on the world for those who will walk it after me.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Unknown Ancestors

Our ancestors are more than just names and dates on paper. Whether we know their names or not, they exist within us, in our individual blood cells, evidence of their existence though we can’t see it. Whether we know who they are or not, they existed on this earth, and they lived their lives much as we live ours. Remembering individual ancestors is my way of honoring their journey across this earth.

I also do work with my Ancestors internally and energetically, as a way of reawakening the echo of them inside me. I use them as doorways, known touchstones, to connect back to the original pool of energy I believe we return to when we move on. I do this so I can learn the larger patterns of the world. All of this work I do, in order to better myself, so that I may be of greater benefit to the world while I am here.

When I connect to this idea, this visual, this energy- my ancestors- it is like sinking into a pool of water I can breathe in. I become part of it, where my physical body does not divide the water molecules but becomes one with them. It’s how I imagine I felt wrapped in the amniotic fluid in my mother’s womb, when the only thing I had to do was grow.

How do we connect to that energy if we don’t know our ancestors’ names?

The first time I walked the streets of Old City in Philadelphia, I sensed a layering of ages woven together, as if a rift would open at any moment allowing a horse and rider passage across its cobbled roads. I feel this same way when I speak the names of my ancestors. In a romantic notion, I feel as if I could weave a tapestry of their names and reach my hand into it, touching the weft briefly until the web becomes water and it stirs in its displacement, rippling out across the unknown mystery. Part of doing ancestor work is walking the world with a deeper mindfulness, one foot in this time and another foot straddling the memory of all the others that came before.


Somewhere in the sky, the stars sit in wait for darkness to reveal them.

Beneath that sky, a young girl plays on the sand of a beach that could be any beach. But this one, is the one she calls her own. She will spend her day under the sun collecting empty shells and smooth-shaped pieces of glass tumbled by the currents unseen. She sees patterns in the clouds and the flowers, as if they are mirroring each other though they are not the same things. She watches as light makes way for shadows to laugh and play along with her and her siblings.

This girl watches the waves come in and out and follows the chambers of the shells deeper and deeper inward, revealing their secrets as she goes through it, each chamber built upon the foundation of the one that came before. And when the chambers are too small for her to follow, her mind knows that the line will keep turning inward, past shell into dream ether, until even the first strand of it is built upon a wish and a hope, and a bang that rippled outward like the waves lapping at her feet on the beach.

While the stars wait to be seen, they watch the girl holding the shell with her feet in the water. The stars are witness as she comprehends, on some simple level, that in the now the past and the present are dancing within her. She sees the proof shimmering around her, echoes of light conceived eons ago. Even when the stars are sleeping, the water reminds her.


How do we connect to that energy if we don’t know our ancestors’ names? It is as simple as opening ourselves up to the world around us. Walk through the woods and open your eyes to the trees that the generations who came before you watched grow. Touch that tree and wonder at the centuries of hands that have touched that tree and moved beyond it. Stay open to images or pulls you get or feel as you wander through the timeless energy of those who came before.

Until that mindfulness became habit, I used a meditation tool to prepare myself. I used the image of the Ammonite, a fossil of a water creature that lived before and during the time of the dinosaurs, dying out 65 million years ago. The mathematical geometry and pattern of the shell fascinates me. For those who are visual workers, I recommend drawing out the shell, chamber sections and all, or printing out a photo to use.

Take a breath, and pay attention to the way it fills your body. Be sure to breathe deeply, down into your lower abdomen. Focus on the outermost chamber of the ammonite. This is you, in 2011, in your body. As you exhale, allow a care or worry tethering you to ‘here’ fade away. Speak your intention like a mantra: I open my heart to the ancestors who came before me. On your next breath, focus on the next chamber, spiraling towards the center. With each movement forward, repeat the exercise until you find yourself at the center of your own history.

Pay attention to places in your physical body that pull your attention, and to thoughts and images that pop into your mind. Learning to listen to the ancestors is often like learning to speak a new language. When you are ready, bring yourself back from the center with breaths, thanking the ancestors for opening the way (towards a larger-world consciousness).

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Ancestor Altars, and a bit on altars in general

I use the word altar to describe the various spaces around my house that are set aside for idols and gratitudes. And by idols, I mean ammonite fossils, white birch twigs, found-feathers, bits, baubles and candles. Lots of candles.

I realized, as I set about to write this piece, that I used the word ‘altar’ in a very casual and common way. Sometimes, in the pagan world, because we can bring mystery and mysticism down to the level of the every person without it losing its magick, we forget that speaking of altars might embellish in some brains, the images of gilded tables centered in our homes as if we treat our home like a church. An altar is a space that is important because I make it important. I decide that what I place on it means something. And then it becomes more than a shelf with beloved objects on it. Maybe just to me, but then again, I don’t need it to matter to anyone else.

Altars in the Home
I have always been drawn to the meditation of the Romans making offerings to their household gods. I worship and honor the elemental forces of nature that we are both a part of and surrounded by. Even my house is made of lumber from the trees of the earth. I am surrounded by this same world, transformed. It’s what shelters me and keeps me warm. Why wouldn’t I honor that force within my walls as I do within the forest? Which I do. Not because I think I have to in order to prove my faith.

All of the altars in my home happened naturally and organically. Many of them over time. They don’t stand out. Most of them blend in with the d├ęcor. It starts off simply enough. A vacation with good friends in the mountains, and I find a rock somewhere during the trip that speaks to me. I may pick it up almost unconsciously, even though my friends will have had to stop and wait for me to catch up. A rock that I feel the impulse to take home with me from that earth, that spot of joy. It usually always starts with a rock. When I come home and unpack it, I find a place it wants to be. I might write out a prayer and place it underneath the rock, like wishing on the evening star. Then I might write another note. And another and another. I have now made that place important because the rock is there. It has now become an altar.

We Even Do It Outdoors
Often, in the woods, when we stop to meditate or make camp, we will find a nook where we see a natural offering space. We leave gifts and food and drink there, a gratitude to the animal beings for letting us share their space- much like bringing a hostess gift to a party in a stranger’s home. We don’t feel that we have to or that it’s a discipline of our spirituality to do so. It just happens. It’s the gratitude work we do that opens us up to seeing ourselves as sharing this earth with all its living creatures. Once you accept that, all feelings of entitlement- to anything- cease to be able to be true, too. So we have gratitude for what we have and we take pride in what we, ourselves, manifest in our lives.

Taking It On the Road
Some of my altars are very important to me, like my ancestor altar. It’s the only altar that I have been disciplined enough to never set a single piece of clutter on it. I can’t very well take it with me when I travel, but I wanted to bring my Work with me when I went to spiritual retreats.

In the beginning, I used an object as a physical altarpiece. I have an ammonite fossil that my wife bought for me, about the size of my palm. It sits on my ancestor altar, and when I travelled, I brought it with me in a handsewn bag. This object carried with it the energy I had paid into my home altar. When I began to use the ammonite for other purposes, I put together a small version of my home altar into a leather box, which travels everywhere with me.

Inside the round leather box from Ghana is a small ammonite fossil, a piece of quartz, a piece of petrified wood, a sprig of rue, and a small silver bracelet given to me by my first ancestor teacher. These are all items that have meaning to me and how I practice. The ammonite is a meditative tool I use to remember the unending thread of the past that stretches out behind me. The quartz is a focal point, like the flame of the candle I use to guide the otherworld to me (metaphoric and literal). The petrified wood acts similarly to the ammonite and is a favorite fossil of mine. The sprig of rue is an herb associated with ancestor work.

In more casual gatherings, I carry a small orange photo book that I got at the photo desk of Target. It has photos in it of those who have passed on (no photos that include living people). I stash it in my luggage bag and keep it next to my bedside at night. I also have a small jar that has dirt from my hometown in it, and dirt from England and Ireland. Some day I will have dirt from Germany and Poland as well. Earth is sacred to me, and that jar mixes together the home soil from the many lines of my ancestors. For me, it has power.

Another item you can use and make- made objects contain more energy and make your luminous being shine brighter- is a take on Buddhist prayer beads. Start by collecting beads that you are drawn to use for your ancestors. For example, I might pick a large bead to represent a family line unknown, but then a pretty swirly bead for a favorite grandmother, and a delicate glass bead for an uncle who died young… anything that will help me make a connection to that object with the energy of that person, known or unknown to me. The easiest and simplest one I ever made was of wooden beads, colored with sharpies of varying hues. After that I wrote the initials on them in black, and strung them on a spare piece of yarn. Powerful doesn’t have to mean expensive, and I would take care to spend a lot of money on expensive tools that you haven’t worked with yet, until you know whether you connect to that work or not.

I carry the energy of my ancestors inside me, always. In the beginning of trying to connect to that energy, I required more tangible tools to keep my focus and keep me aware of that truth on the cellular level. But now many of these tools are familiar old friends, and hold places of honor on the altars of my home.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Family Trees

Genealogy is the study and documentation of family lineage. Luckily for me, there has always been someone in each generation of my father’s family who has taken it upon themselves to keep track, to keep searching backwards, and to attempt to validate what is thought to be true. I remember sitting in a library in Buffalo with my family as a child and searching for specific names and dates in books, copying information down and Xeroxing pages. I loved the smell of the old books.

To some people, that kind of research can seem a daunting task. It’s not easy and there are more brick walls and dead ends than there are proven paths. There are fires that destroyed records and names spelled out incorrectly that might be yours but can’t be proven because of the differences. I hold onto the unproven stories, and document them as such. I’d rather have a family folk tale in place of an empty branch.

Where do you start? Even if you’re lucky to have a list of names and dates and geographical locations, who were they? What did they do? What were their dreams? When my Grandfather was sick, I asked him the questions I could muster about my Great-Grandparents. Still, everything seemed to have the tone of so-now-that-you’re-dying... I often wish I hadn’t waited so long to ask.

You can start now, and write down the names of you, your spouse and/or children. Then write the names of your siblings and parents. Who were your parent’s siblings, and their parents? Go back as far as you can. Ask other family members to fill in names and dates for you. But then, when you have the facts, put some leaves on your tree. Add details and texture to flesh your history out. Here’s a general list of questions that I use for my own files:

Feel free to add stories, memories or anecdotes.
Birth name:
Date of birth:
Place of birth:
Name of Mother:
Date of birth:
Place of birth:
Name of Father:
Date of birth:
Place of birth:
Childhood home address:
Childhood vacation spots:
Favorite places as child:
Elementary school name, city:
Junior/Middle school name, city:
Senior/High school name, city:
Date of graduation:
[repeat as needed]
College, city:
Graduation year:
Military Service:
Years served:
[repeat as needed]
Businesses owned:
Other Odd Jobs:
[repeat as needed]
Marriage date:
Married to:
Marriage place:
Spousal career/job:
Children name(s):
Children date(s) of birth:
Children place(s) of birth:
Places you lived in your life and what brought you there:
Places travelled to:
List family pets:
Criminal Incarceration:
Date of death:
Place of death:
Place of internment:

What questions would you want to know if you could ask? Personalize them. Make a wish list of questions that might seem impossible to find answers for. It’s possible to find amazing details. The more details you can uncover, the more history of your family migration you can reveal. Write down the stories that have been passed down through the generations. You can fact-check them later if you want to, but at least this way you’ll have a lead to go on. It’s never too late to start documenting what you know for your future generations.
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