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, 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.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What I Thought I Knew

Every autumn, I travel to the Berkshire Mountains to attend Twilight Covening, an event created by the EarthSpirit Community. It’s a time to do deep magic of connection with other people, with the lands we live on, with the changing of seasons, and it’s a time where I find a deeper connection to myself. I use the sacred space and rituals to prepare for winter work, for there is always work to be done. Every time I find myself reaching a place I worked towards, I see that the path stretches out further still ahead of me. There is no end to the current. I am the current. There is more to do, more to learn.

This year the work I was doing was around learning tools to replenish yourself when you are depleted. I often ask the question, who cares for the caretakers? We all have someone in our lives we count on to have the answers and to solve the problems (even if it’s ourselves). We can’t care for others if we are not cared for. It doesn’t stop us from trying. Most of us often deflect from our own needs, wants and workings, thinking we are better people for sacrificing them in the wake of the needs of others. What happens when we have exhausted ourselves in caretaking? Who, in turn, cares for us? This weekend, I was given an answer, one that was so simple it should have been obvious.

We worked in the sun of the mountain top to connect to the spirit of tree, water and stone. The spirit of breath, fluid and bone. I thought it would be easy. I thought I understood what that meant. I have spent my life hugging trees, grounding in water and loving the stones of the earth. I forgot the layers of consciousness that are difficult to perceive from this side of the world.

We are one species of the earth’s children and many of us cannot hear its voice anymore. We have to learn to quiet and listen. It wants to teach us what it knows. And when we are depleted of energy down to our core essence and we have exhausted all of our resources in the care of others, we must turn to the natural world, our mother, and *trust* that she will help us, giving us what we need, moving through the world for us while we rest in ourselves and receive those gifts. It’s not the same thing as shutting down emotionally to do what needs to be done. It’s staying connected, and staying present, but being supported.

When we were connecting to stone, we were told to “push beyond the depths of our own silence,” to find stillness. Only I was rocking. I have nerve-damage in my left leg from an accident that is obvious to no one but me. Sitting on the floor for long periods of time causes nerve firings down the length of my leg. In that moment in the pine forest, when I realized I was rocking, I understood it to be something I do to distract myself from the pain, to move that excess energy through my body in a current and grounding it outward so it does not burn.

When I was sitting in my rock, a giant nugget of mountaintop with rough veins of quartz running through it, I didn’t know where to start. I took some deep breaths to my version of stillness and I opened myself to the stone beneath me. I whispered to the earth that I did not know how to find its stillness. I took myself to the edge and told the stone that I could not speak its language through the barrier that was my pain. I asked the mountain, the deep ancestor, the bones of our planet, to teach me to find stillness.

I felt so cold, sinking in until the edges between us blurred. I moved to the very skin of the pain of this body and then I took a deep breath. The stone beneath the pain was waiting for me. In one flash, pushing through the barrier, I experienced the fullness of the pain in a blinding white light like being electrocuted. And then… there was no pain. None. For the first time in ten years, I was sitting in exquisite stillness and silence, aware of the sounds of the world around me, but inside we were at peace, the stone and me. I wept openly for a long time, as our clan time commenced. “Once you know something, you can’t unknow,” my Clan leader said.

That peace lives inside me, and that place without pain does, too. It requires work on our part to find it. It requires that we take the time to build a relationship with those spirits. So to find it again I will build relationship with stone and learn its version of stillness. Anyone who has ever navigated a human relationship… it’s that big. It’s that serious. It requires that level of commitment. And once you open that door, the world opens to you. You just have to get out of your own way and listen.

This walk, this path, this work is opening before me and I accept it though it is frightening. I am opening myself up to something infinitely larger than I can comprehend. I am opening my consciousness up to something that will constantly keep me humbled and in service. But what am I if not a child of this world around me, part of its genetic make-up? What am I if not a daughter of the Earth? What am I if not breath, fluid and bone, if not also tree, water and stone?

Connect to the EarthSpirit Community.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Autumn Apple Seeds

When you cut an apple in half through its belly, at the center of the fruit sits a five-pointed star. This star, glistening beneath the surface of the skin, is a reflection, a mirror image of the stars in the sky above us. Where we normally look outward, into the night to see the light of that distant being, nature shows us to also look inward, into the core of the fruit of the earth to see the same image. What lives without also lives within.
If you want to speak to your ancestors, do not gaze up into the starry field of midnight sky and seek their names in the light of those heavenly bodies. Go into yourself, dive into the bloodstream towards those endpoints where memory lives. Speak to the voice of the ancestors alive in you. Speak into the darkness and they will listen. They will hear you. Find that edge, that meeting point of their footsteps and yours, and they will answer.
In the crisp and cooling air of autumn, the season is expressed in the crunching sound of dry leaves beneath feet. The orchards release a pungent and overwhelming fragrance. Apples taste best when plucked from the tree, when they are the same temperature of the cold mountain air around them. Nothing compares to fruit fresh off the tree. There is still so much life in the apple when it has been newly broken from its stem.
That crunch of teeth breaking the skin releases the sweet juice. Nectar runs down the flesh, and it is the purest liquid I have ever ingested. Synapses that had been sleeping since last winter begin firing and I can see the crisp edges of the world around me. I inhale them, feeding on them, until I am left with a knobby core filled with seeds.
There are a lot of meditations at this time of year, reflecting on the last of the harvest, and how we cannot escape the shadow of death as the landscape in the seasonal zones dries and crisps and is whipped into dust by the winds. Every year, on Samhain night, I swallow an apple seed as a reminder that death comes to everyone. Death is not unkind. Death is what takes us from the trauma of our failing bodies.
This is the season where we walk a long edge, where hallways to other worlds are everywhere. Close your eyes and whisper the name of your loved one who has passed. Remember the scent of them and the feel of their skin beneath your hand. Under closed lids, build that image of them and open a doorway, inviting them in. Be the lighthouse beacon that guides them to you. Feel your love for them and exhale, making it bigger each time, until it spills out past your periphery. Call them home. They will listen.

Rattling to the Edge
Every harvest season, I eat my apples down to the core, break it open and claim the seeds. I do this for all of the fresh apples from our local orchards. I keep them in a recycled aspirin bottle (washed and rinsed) and use it as my autumn rattle. The sound of the small seeds against the bottle is a gentle vibration that shakes the edges of my etheric body.
            Small seeds bounce against the container’s edge, blurring lines. I open to my ancestors. The world is turning towards the thinnest point between the layers of what is seen and what is unseen. What wisdoms do those who came before me carry that can help me through these dark months? What strength did they bear that I can tap into, plant in my core, and use as I grow?
            I rattle open a door.
            I rattle as the leaves whip up around me and the grey clouds roll in.
            I rattle as the earth sighs into slumber and in that sleep the spirits stir.

The Death inside the Seed
Apple seeds, or pips, contain a cyanide and sugar compound called amygdalin. When it is metabolized, it degrades into hydrogen cyanide (HCN). The tough outer coating of the seed protects us from the poison, and it from our digestive systems, so it can come back out and plant itself in the ground somewhere (theoretically). Unless the pips are pulverized or chewed, the amygdalin remains safely within the seed. Even so, our bodies can detoxify small doses of cyanide, so don’t fret if you have spent a lifetime swallowing apple pips.
Disclaimer: Death is not something to toy with. It’s not a game. Cyanide denies the blood its ability to carry oxygen and causes asphyxiation. There is no antidote for a lethal dose of cyanide and death takes minutes. The fact that ‘death’ lives in the heart of the apple seed is a reason I use it to symbolize death and rebirth. Speaking to the truth of something is in no way advocating for the use of it as such.
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