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, March 30, 2011

Ancestor Worship and Ancestor Work

Part of the path I walk involves a deeper sense of metaphysical belief and requires more of an understanding in the super~natural as well as a strong sense of comm~union with the natural world. It’s important to me that people find their way to create a personal relationship for themselves with their ancestral spirits and the death that affects their lives. So I differentiate in the way I speak about my practice between worship and work.

Worship is accessible to everyone. I also call it honor, reverence and remembering. At its simplest, Ancestor worship is the act and mindset of honoring your family lines, known and unknown to you. It’s the act of remembering them as living and breathing people who paved the way for you to be. It’s the way of thinking of them as a greater whole, one entity that is Those Who Came Before. This is something that everyone can include in their lives, regardless of religious beliefs. In this model of thought, the dead are dead, and what you are remembering is a name and the history of the life beneath it.

That has tremendous worth in itself, and is a way of finding connection in uncertain and unsettling times.

As I’ve said before, in Ancestor work, you must be open to the possibility that there is more to the world than we comprehend. In my Work, I am developing a personal relationship with what happens in death and what kind of transformation takes place during and after. I understand spirit as passing on from its physical body and reincarnating into… something other. I also see spirit as a residual echo of the living, in the way that we know the star light we see in the night sky flickered in a past long gone. Both exist simultaneously.

Organic beings have spirit. We leave organic residues that can be traced, even after the signs of life have decayed. Our spirits leave behind energy residues that those who know how to recognize them and connect to them can use for other purposes. Some residues still ring strongly with persona, so much so that you can call on individual or specific spirits to work with- ones you have connections to. I do that. I’m hoping that through the thread of this blog I will be able to show how the work I do translates into understandable concepts.

What I mostly do involves energy work and energy manipulation. I break up elemental energies into qualities of earth, air, water, fire, and ancestor, striving for some kind of equilibrium between them, depending on what the moment calls for. If you can be the centerpoint of the juggling, you can learn to walk through any maelstrom as if you are the eye of the storm. You can also learn to move the edges of where your spirit begins and ends, making your presence larger or smaller than your physical body. You can make your energy more intense and noticeable or more diffuse and invisible.

Energy is energy. I broke them up as a tool for my brain to understand and work them and help me to understand the qualities of the differences. What I came away with was an understanding of the unity and the sameness of all living things. Everything that grows and decays is connected, depending on each other for the space to grow and flourish. I seek my own growth in this one, the next one, and all the worlds seen and unseen around me.

May we all find our way to peace, compassion, wholeness and openheartedness.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Beginning I Saw in the End: My Grandfather's Crossing Over

My Grandpa and I in one
of the family pictures we
took every year. It was in
a family collage I took with
me to college.
It’s been seven years since I sat in the hospital room with my Grandfather, watching him dance with death. There is no winning in the dancing, just an end of the music, the last pulling of strings humming in the air, becoming vibration with no sound, and then… memory. Waiting with my Grandfather, my heart was already heavy with the loss of my grandmother, three years gone. I could tap my grief out for you in my own soft shoe, but we all know the face grief wears, and the mask grievers don.

This story is not about the darkness of the waiting and unknowing. I saw the light in the death. I saw the mystery of the unknowing. I saw the hope in the grief.

He was struggling to breathe. We were painted in the room, separate tableaus across the same canvas. What happened to me did not happen to them. I was not ready to say goodbye to him, our rock, but I was ready for his suffering to end. I didn’t think he would be better off without us but I was ready for him to be free. I was ready to deal with my grief on my own time, not his. Being ready to accept the death made all the difference for me. In that room, with the clicks and the whirrs of the equipment and the slow, low rattling of his lungs, I was prepared to wait.

I was praying in my head, words my heart couldn’t bear to speak, telling him it was okay, that we would be okay. I don’t know how I knew he wasn’t going to wake up. I think we all did. But we hoped. Sometimes when death comes, hope is a dangerous blade. The fact was we were there because he had decided he was ready. Cancer may have claimed him, but his death was on his terms.

We never really talked about death as a family, as a neighborhood, or as a culture when I grew up. Someone died and everyone put their funeral outfit on and we were sad and gave those grieving some space and then life went on. It tells a lot about my family that they allowed the soft chanting from the corner of the room where I sat. Music helps me move through emotion more easily and we were all doing what we needed to do in those moments.

When it happened it was quick. One second. It felt as if someone opened a door in the wall beside me, soft wind rushing in, and that second stretched into season as winter welcomed in spring and spring turned to summer and the smell of tilled earth, warm with worms, tomatoes and cucumbers, filled the air around us. I was ready for what was coming. I felt the shift as it happened.

One person turned away. One person died and one person cried out. I was aware of two realities. The air in the room stopped moving and I heard the sound of a toe tapping as a green light stepped into the room through the wall beside me. I held my breath, afraid to shatter the moment. On the bed, my grandfather smiled and lifted out of his body. Whatever you want or need to call it, his spirit, his anima, his soul leapt towards the light that smelled like my childhood summers and blinked away.

I was back in the room and the warmth that held us there was gone. He was gone. The sudden cold sterility of the room was disarming. So quickly, the heat from his body was dissipating. I stood apart from the moment and the grieving. I wanted to stand in sorrow but I was left in wonder.

When I remember that moment, what I remember was that it was not awful for me, but left me full of awe for my experience and the gift I was given amid such a welling of sadness. Somewhere in the universe, in the ether, in the springtime around me, the energy I saw leave that room still lives, whether transformed, absorbed, scattered or inhaled, and the warmth of the man I loved became something new.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Death as a Rite of Passage

I talked about how some unexplainable Mysteries serve another purpose in the piece I posted February 23, 2011. Death is no exception. Just as we need shadow to define the light, we need death to give purpose to our lives. Before the advent of funeral homes, when someone died, the family came together to decide how to pay homage to the body. They worked the body and touched the death. They had to face the destruction of the person they had loved. I believe that in the working of it, they were able to process through much of their grief. It’s hard not to face death when there is no one else to make it for away for you.

When my Grandfather died, in the hospital, they were kind enough to tell us to take as much time as we needed. But besides sitting beside the body, there was nothing we could do or were allowed to do. The queerest thing to me was walking out of that room and leaving his body behind for someone unknown to me to wheel away and take to the morgue.

I know the route he took, knowing that hospital well from my days as a candy striper. I knew that he would sit in the freezer until someone from the funeral home picked him up- which was to be our first stop the next morning. And he would sit in their freezer until someone I also don’t know embalmed him and prepared him for the viewings. In my own grief, I didn’t want strange hands to clean him and dress him. I wanted them to be hands that loved him, that would wipe down his sacred body with the memory of his arms as arms that held children and grandchildren.

Our world is so far removed from this that even the notion of caring for my own dead often makes people wonder if I’m crazy or into self-punishment. My answer is that sometimes life is hard and gives us trials we feel will break us. I know that I am strong enough to face death and I could have cared for him in death the way he cared for me in life.

The issues I had facing death in the past were related directly to the cold sterilization of it. As children we were removed from the ritual of it. And from our outside view, once the funeral was over, the fancy clothes came off and everyone was supposed to move on as if the funeral marked the end of the grieving period. One day people were in our lives and the next day they weren’t. That’s what death was to me as a child.

When a person died, neighbor families who had laid their own loved ones to rest would help the family in need lay out their dead and attend to the burial. It just happened that some families saw more death and were the family who always came to aid the grieving. At some point, these families stepped up and offered to take care of these details for their neighbors and community, setting up for the family and cleaning up afterwards. This kindness evolved as populations grew and the families built a second parlor to maintain for funeral use only. These were the first funeral parlors. Every step a good intention, every step separating the grieving further from the death.

It’s something to think about. How can we work towards reconnecting with death in a healthy way? Think about the funerals you have attended. What parts of them did you appreciate? What about them felt wrong for you? Take those thoughts and put them together to what might be the ideal funeral for you, if the intention is to honor the deceased and move you through the grieving process. Then take those thoughts and share them with your family and friends. Open a dialogue about death. One easy trick to facing something you fear is to speak its name out loud, and often.

It’s important to understand that the way the body is disposed of is about the personal wishes and religious beliefs of the deceased. This is where we honor the knowledge that this person walked the earth with us. Whether we agree or not, and within the limits of the law, we follow their wishes out of respect for the presence they were in our lives and hearts. Anything that happens beyond that is for those left behind.

This is where we have an opportunity to decide what would help us most in our grieving process- and it should be about the family of the deceased more than the community-at-large.  If what is most important for you is the gathering of loved ones or people who knew the deceased, consider putting up photos of them and use the time to share stories about the deceased and allow people to cry if they need, in a safe space.

Crying has such a negative slant in our society, messy body fluids and sounds that are hard to hear. How many times have you heard someone apologize for crying when they should be crying? Stifling tears that want to fall stills movement through grief and often holds us back from moving on. The stereotype that tears are weapons is something we hold over each other and it’s cruel. Crying is natural and cleanses the awful feeling of grief from our muscles and organs.

Death reminds us of our mortality. It also reminds us that we are alive. It makes the springing of seedlings through damp soil all the more beautiful, and it transforms the sound of babies laughing into music. Take time to grieve in the darkness of death but balance it by surrounding yourself, your friends and loved ones, with the light, energy and breath of life around you.

Spring bulbs awaken after the decay from winter's frost.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Natural, Magical World

One of the moments that developed my spiritual understanding came when I was prompted to read the introduction to David Abram’s book, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Abram, a philosopher, performer and ecologist worked as a sleight-of-hand magician in his early years in clubs across New England, including the infamous Alice’s Restaurant. In and after college he traveled around the world, studying the connection of magic and medicine in Indonesia.

His own experiences gradually altered his perceptions of native shamanism and the craft of their true work. He describes a significant moment during a stay with a young magic practitioner in Bali. Each morning, his hostess would bring him a tray of fruit. Each morning, she also carried many small green bowls filled with white rice, which she told him were offerings for the household spirits, the spirits of the family compound. Curious, David watched his hostess leave the small offerings of rice along the outside corners of the various buildings. When he sought them out later in the day, he found the bowls empty. He hid himself away on the second day to wait and watch. What he witnessed was a line of black ants struggling for hours to drag each kernel of rice away one at a time. He discovered the same event occurring at each offering place.

“I walked back to my room chuckling to myself. The balian and his wife
had gone to so much trouble to daily placate the household spirits with
gifts--only to have them stolen by little six-legged thieves. What a waste!
But then a strange thought dawned within me. What if the ants themselves
were the "household spirits" to whom the offerings were being made?”

That thought initiated David to take in more of the natural landscape of the village, as well as the compound. He realized that there was a large population of ant colonies surrounding the buildings which should have been more of a nuisance to the family. In placing a consistent daily offering for the indigenous insect inhabitants, his host family had found a way to live with the natural world, assuring their own food and kitchen area to be left invasion free. This notion challenged his understanding of spirit as meaning something more than “not flesh.”

“… my encounter with the ants was the first of many experiences suggesting
to me that the "spirits" of an indigenous culture are primarily those modes of intelligence or awareness that do not possess a human form.”

All living things have spirit. It pushed me forward in my Ancestor work. The Western definition of ‘spirit’ limits them to a supernatural existence, separating us further from the natural world. Clearly we define things too much, and there is a point where understanding takes us out of the moment and into our heads, and definition stunts growth so that we can move on to something else. David Abram could have stopped at the observation of the ants taking away the rice and assumed he had figured out the magic trick. Instead, he allowed the revelation to open his own understanding.

The voices of our ancestors speak to us in the unfurling flower buds and the rippling grains in a meadow. They speak to us in the hatching eggs of spring. Everything of spirit inherits energy from our ancestors. Spirit is the natural world and the natural world is spirit.

It can be hard to garden in the city, where the birds, squirrels and stray animals are also looking to thieve themselves a meal. A full birdfeeder and a scattering of nuts in the side yard once a week stopped the squirrel-sunflower carnage and allowed the vegetable seeds to grow unscathed. We feed them through the winter so they are not as starved come seeding time. The stray animals know there is always something for them at the back of the house, so they don’t pillage our garden or root through our garbage. As a result, we have co-existed beautifully together, while the quicker pulse of the modern world flows around us.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Ritual for Luna: May 1, 2000 – March 4, 2010

Just two days before Luna passed.
A Year Ago
Two days from now will mark a year to the day that we took our 9 year-old cat to the emergency vet. She was listless, having difficulty breathing and hadn’t been eating or drinking. In three days she had lost enough weight to appear suddenly skeletal. At the vet she perched like a rabbit on the floor between us while we waited for test results, so normal that we thought we worried for nothing. Two hours and a drive across town later, she came back from an x-ray in serious distress. I stared at the abstract art they were calling the x-ray film, her body obscured by a black mass where intestine and stomach should have been. I marveled at the sheer size of the darkness that swam towards the boundaries of her tiny body.

I wish, in retrospect, that I could have carved time out of bedrock and stilled her pain for a few moments more so we could have said a proper goodbye. She was audibly gasping and her tongue was lolling out. The earth mother in me who is wiser than my heart knew what we had to do and my partner and I were in agreement. It took a moment. In between my hands I held her head and her gaze. I told her she was the best girl ever and that we loved her so very much with as much stability as I could muster. My partner cradled her body. In less than three seconds she was gone. It was the hardest moment of my life. But it was the first moment that I did not need to weigh my options or think about the situation before I made a decision. It wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about us.

We gifted Luna death. The separation of the spirit from the body is one of the hardest Mysteries for humans to work through and the way our society distances us from death leaves us little tools to help with the working of it.

Luna was the first Household Loss I have ever experienced- the kind of loss that affected and threw hiccups into my day-to-day routine. I didn’t realize until after she passed how much she spent my whole day moving through the house with me, talking to me, sleeping on me, so much so that my skin holds memories of her the way my heart does. There were hundreds of new firsts I was unprepared for, like the first time we didn’t fill her food bowl, the first time Luna didn’t come running for treats, the first holiday without her, the first of every night she has not slept curled against or on me… The first time we called her name out because we forgot she was dead.

We allowed ourselves to grieve when we were sad and to cry when we felt like we would break from the loss of her. By giving into those moments and not trying to repress them because maybe it wasn’t a good moment or might make someone else uncomfortable, they passed quickly and ebbed away for another reprieve. We took turns helping the other two cats through their own grieving, walking with the baby while she wandered the house checking all of the places where Luna used to sleep. My animal grief spoke the same language as their animal grief and we were bonded in the loss, stronger than before.

I’ve had dreams of holding her and feeling her weight against me and being able to recall perfectly the sound of her purr and the way she used to wrap her paw around my index finger like a baby- and not let go of it. And then I wake to morning, reaching for her, and remembering all over again. I have seen her running in the house when the other cats were sleeping beside me. I have felt her crawl into my lap and settle down only there is no cat there. I cannot say if it is her spirit or if it is the energy current and echo of a pattern she had established within our home, or both. Spirit visitations can be cruel when they remind you that you can never touch them again. Not the way you used to, skin against skin. And yet, the gifts she gave us in her life have not been diminished in the grieving.

We are all animals beneath the skin. Luna was my first experience in the joy, love and fear of being responsible for a defenseless living being. I discovered much of myself in raising her and accepting the bits of behavior that were her way of exploring the world, and not mine to control.

Darth Luna, she was a pistol.

Missing Luna
We go on the best we can. We move forward and keep our hearts open. I will set her ashes out and light my ancestor shrine. I will set her food bowl out on the altar with her favorite treats and toys inside it. I will write down all the stories I remember about her in the journal I have been keeping throughout the year. I will take a moment to reflect on the changes in our lives since she died without judgement or preference and I will acknowledge the gratitude(s) this year has brought me. I will cry because I feel like crying and I will laugh because she gave me such great joy.

The box for her was built by our friend Stone. I woodburned it with a bindrune for rebirth.

As a kitten, she was a bloody hellion who dug up the chicks and hens from Sicily every day. She chewed on all the electrical cords and liked to hold her catnip mice under in the water bowl. I found her curled up sleeping in my closet one day, totally cute, just before realizing she had chewed all of the buttons she could reach off of all of my shirts. One time, she somehow drained a tall skinny glass of milk dry without knocking it over, disturbing the table around it or spilling a drop. And yet, she always ran through a doorway at the same moment I was… I stepped on her tail a bajillion times. Which is funny because her totem animal was a Jackalope.

She was the first of the cats to catch a mouse and would leap off the back of the chair and catch moths in mid-air. Apparently, moth-wing dust was a special delicacy. She liked to bathe in the winter mornings in the fishbowl of warm water we kept on the grate for moisture. She slept curled in a ball behind my knees under the covers. If I said no to something she wanted she would sass at me with this staccato back-talk and I loved her for it. Her favorite two toys were this little gingham fabric mouse and a pink bouncy ball with a rainbow around the middle.
She ate through my plastic bag of valerian, before I understood it was like heroin to some cats, and I found her rolling in it in my office, her eyes glazed over. Luna always helped me sew by holding down the pattern pieces for me. She hated the wood floors and dreamt of a house lined with wall-to-wall sleeping bags. She always knew when I needed a break from work and would come tell me so. She sat with me through all my meditations and often appeared walking beside me in them. She was afraid of ants and plastic bags. In the winter time, she liked to sleep behind the bathroom door, where the v-shape trapped the heat in. When she was really mad at me she’d cuff me along the jaw with her cupped paw, no claws, and then run away out of reach- boy did she have a mean hook.

We have little prisms hanging in the windows and Luna used to run back and forth over the bed chasing the little rainbows. When I think of her now, even though there is still sadness at the loss of her physical presence, I see her chasing flashing prisms across the quilt and I know she loved us as much as we loved her and that she was happy, and the pain of loss is well worth the price of the time we shared together.

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