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 26, 2012

The Graceful Birch

This time last year, a small accident derailed my day-to-day routine. Sometimes, we’re thick, and we don’t/can’t see the full path we’re heading on for what it really is. Sometimes, the universe has to kick us in the face before we can see it and alter our course. Growth, transformation, and evolution are at the heart of my spiritual practice, and I comforted myself with the knowledge that growth comes, even after a painful transition, if we can stay open to accepting it.
I spent the day after the accident going through old family mementos with my dad. In the box, among the cache of old camping photos, taken by my Great-Grandma Minnie, we found a piece of white birch bark, a lone keepsake among photos, pamphlets, brochures, recipes and news articles.
That find meant a great deal to me. Birch is my favorite tree. In my parent’s kitchen, I held a piece of the past, a pale piece of birch placed among collected bits, treasured enough to keep forever. Did my Great-Grandma Minnie pick it up? Was it a gift to her from one of her children on a family adventure? Was it something she loved instinctively, too?
That bark now sits among my treasures. Birch is a tree that we have attributed symbols of growth to over history. The Norse rune Beorc, named for the tree, means growth, and is one of my personal talismans. I have been meditating this last year on birch, pushing forward for my own healing and renewal, moving towards wellness.
Against the dark grey of seasonal winter, the white birch stands out in the forest like bones jutting from the earth. As they age, their bark splits and peels and curls away in beautiful rippling edges. If you have never seen an elderly birch tree, you haven’t experienced the full truth of their wisdom; that what is no longer needed gets sloughed away. I have seen birch trees bowed down by ice after storms. They bend but they bend under great weight. They bend but they do not break. Many old folktales say the birch was cut by an angry old man because it refused his command to break and fall.
I have leaned against a young sapling, and rested my weight against it. After a time, I could feel the slightest shudder of vibration, as if the tree beneath me were breathing. And I knew that ripple was the wind swaying the tree top, resonating down the trunk and against my chest. The tree folk have a rhythm of breath all their own and a stillness that I try to carry with me.
Peace, gratitude, growth, adaptation, evolution… these are the qualities I learn from the birch tree, a deciduous member of the Betulaceae family, native to temperate and boreal climates in the Northern Hemisphere. As one of the first trees to seed and spread after the receding ice glaciers, botanists refer to it as a pioneer species. It is often one of the first trees to seed and grow after disastrous fires, creating essentially pure stands of birch. After a generation, they are usually replaced by more shade-tolerant conifers or stronger hardwoods, and when they die, their bodies and fallen leaves will further nourish the recovering soil. There are so many birches in Umea, Sweden that it is called “The City of the Birches.” A devastating fire swept the city in June of 1888, and left 2,300 of the 3,000 inhabitants homeless. When the city was rebuilt, the buildings were placed further apart and silver birches were planted widely between buildings, so they might halt the spread of fire in the future.
There are sixty species of birch and they can grow up to 80 feet tall. Properly cultivated, they can live up to 140 years, though silver birches in the wild rarely live past 80 years. Currently, the oldest birch tree in the world is 101 years old in Wageningen, Netherlands. Each birch tree is male and female, carrying both the slender, male, drooping catkins, and the short, conical, wooly clusters of female flowers.
Birch bark is marked with long horizontal lenticels, making it quite distinctive and easily identified. The lightweight, chalky white outer bark is easily separated into thin strips. The bark is strong and flexible, as well as water-resistant, and can be bent, cut, and sewn, like cardboard. Full of resinous oil, birch bark is slow to decay, lending to it an air of indestructibility. Removing bark from a living tree leaves a permanent black band on the trunk, which will not harm the tree as long as this band is undamaged. Still, bark should always be removed from fallen trees first.
Birch bark was used as material for canoes, wigwams and other shelters, scrolls and writing paper, instruments, boxes and baskets, and even shoes and clothing by the indigenous peoples of North America, Northern Europe, Scandinavia, Russia, and Siberia. The water-resistant properties of it made it a valuable material in roofing. It is a good source of firewood, for whether it is frozen or freshly cut, it burns without spitting or popping. It even burns well when wet, because of the kind of and amount of oil it contains. In March, cuts can be made to the birch tree, from which thin sugary sap is collected, half as sweet as maple syrup. Moderate tapping will not harm the tree. Birch wine and other cordials are made from this syrup.

The word birch is said to derive from the Sanskrit word bhurga, meaning “tree whose bark is used to write upon.” It is also said to come from the Germanic birka with the Proto-Indo-European root bhereg, meaning “white, bright; to shine.” Where these language roads may overlap, I cannot say. The Germanic rune berkanan, or beorc, is named for the birch tree, which is known by many folk-names: Beithe, Bereza, Berke, Beth, and Bouleau. The tree has a prominent position in the history of Anglo-Saxon place names, like Birkenhead, Birkhall, and Berkhamstead, showing most commonly in Northern England and Scotland. The Gaelic word for birch, beithe, pronounced “bey”, is seen in Highland place names like Glen an Beithe in Argyll, Beith in Sutherland, and Loch a Bhealaich Bheithe in Inverness-shire.
            The birch is one of the earliest trees to bloom in the spring and as such, it embodies the energies of growth in general, but especially regrowth after destruction. To the Celtic people, birch represented inception and new beginnings. Twigs were used in May, at Beltane celebrations, to light bonfires marking the beginning of the new season. In October, at the festivals of Samhain, bundles of twigs were used to drive out the spirits of the old year. At Winter Solstice in December, birch brooms were used to sweep the house the morning after the longest night of the year, clearing the way for renewal. Birch was often used as a Yule log.
            Beltane bonfires in Scotland were made of a combination of birch and oak. Birch was often chosen as the maypole tree for the festivities, and was sometimes used as a living maypole. Scottish Highland folklore says that a barren cow driven with a birch stick will become fertile; a pregnant cow will birth a healthy calf.
            Birch was the Germanic tree of wisdom, and the holy tree of Frigga, the Mother goddess and wife of Odin. Frigga is associated with the Welsh owl goddess Blodeuwedd, and the barn owl is a familiar of hers. Birch, used in rune divination, known as beorc or bfarkan, is associated with Freya, the lady of the forest and goddess of fecundity. It is associated with the planet Venus, and all goddesses of love, like Freya and Frigga.
Birches were used to ward off evil spirits. Birch twigs were used to beat the energy left behind by witches out of the house. Twigs can also be used to gently strike a person or animal possessed by an evil spirit and drive it from them in exorcism. In its association with the dead and the Underworld a folk ballad from the 17th century, “The Wife of Usher’s Well,” tells of a woman’s sons returning from the Underworld in clothing made of birch: “It fell about the Martinmas,/ When nights are lang and mirk,/ The carline wife’s three sons came hame,/ And their hats were o’ the birk./ It neither grew in skye nor ditch,/ Nor yet in ony sheugh;/ But at the gates o’ Paradise/ That birk grew fair enough.”
            In Siberia, the Birch tree was considered to be the axis of the world. Siberian shamans hung other dead shamans in birch trees. They left the dead to the elements. The dead spirit would use the birch as a doorway to spirit world, and as a means of return when he was petitioned for guidance. Among the Eskimo of the Gold Coast, shamanic teachers climb birch trees, circling the trunk nine times to represent his ascent into Upper World. His students will each do so in turn.
In some Ojibwe communities, birch bark was a sacred gift from Wenabozho, a cultural hero and they buried their dead in bark wrappings. Birch bark rolls depict the symbols of the Grand Medicine Society of the Ojibwa and are a treasured possession According to other Ojibwe folklore, lightning won’t strike birch trees.

Birch is used in furniture making. The wood is heavy, tough and contains a straight grain that makes it perfect for handles and toys. It was used to manufacture anything that required turning, like hardwearing bobbins, spools, reels, and herring-barrel staves. In the country, lighter birch twigs were used as thatching, to make brooms, and for wattle-fencing. Baby cradles were traditionally made from birch, as a means of protection from fey folk.
J.C. Loudon wrote in his Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs, in 1842, that the Highlanders of Scotland used birch for much of their household and farming production, and general building materials. They used the branches as fuel in distilling whiskey. The Scottish used the spray to smoke ham and herring, which was preferred against any other kind of wood. The bark was used to tan leather, and was sometimes twisted in rope to be used in the place of candles. The spray was used for thatching and dried in the summer with the leaves to be used as a bed when heath was scarce.

The leaves of the birch are both an antiseptic and a diuretic. The infusion, having a bitter taste, has been used to treat gout, rheumatism, dropsy, and mild arthritic pain, as well as urinary tract infections, specifically cystitis. Taken over a few weeks, birch leaf tea will detoxify and stimulate the gall bladder, kidneys, and liver. Cooled, it can be massaged into the scalp to accelerate hair growth.
Native Americans used bark tea for fevers, stomachache, and lung ailments. Birch bark and twigs have similar properties to Wintergreen and can be drunk to aid purification of the blood. It’s a good body tonic, helping the bowels with conditions of diarrhea, dysentery, and cholera infantum. In history, it was used to expel worms from the body. Taken internally, the tea can be just as helpful for skin ailments like warts, boils, and sores, as well as when it is used as an external wash for skin eruptions. Cover the bark in water, boil until it softens and mash it with a hammer or pestle into a paste. This can be used to apply to sores, abrasions, and inflammations on a daily basis until healed.
            The salicylates in the bark and the essential oil ease sore muscles and joint pain when applied externally. The oil soothes irritated joints and actively decreases the inflammation. Massage it in to relieve stiffness and reduce pain. The oil has a high concentration of acid that repels mosquitoes and gnats. Mix 25 drops with 4 ounces of water in a spray bottle for a natural bug repellent. The inner bark is bitter and astringent and has been used as a remedy for intermittent fevers.
            Birch trees have intentionally been planted in waste areas, like old mines and toxic ground. The birch is believed to purify the ground in the same way it can purify the body, paving the way for nature to return. When the birch dies, it’s own body will nourish and cleanse the soil beneath it. I don’t know if that is true or not, that the birch can cleanse a soil so quickly, but I do believe the birch to be a great Way-Maker. In my own life, it has seen me through new growth and challenges. In meditation with birch, I have learned to bend with change instead of breaking beneath it.

  • It takes 25 years for a silver birch to bear fruit.
  • The name Macbeth is derived from the word birch.
  • Beithe is first in the Ogham, an Irish tree alphabet.
  • The tree was dedicated to Brigit, the goddess of inspiration, healing, and blacksmithing.
  • Gardeners used birch brooms to purify their space.
  • Birch was the personal sacred tree of the Norse god Thor.
  • In Germany, young men would place decorated birch trees in front of the houses of their beloveds on May 1, to reveal their feelings.
  • In some Scandinavian countries, the leafing of the birch tree marked the start of the agricultural year.
  • In Sweden and Lapland, birch sap is used in place of sugar.
  • The Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, Eostre, was celebrated from Spring Equinox to Beltane with birch trees.
  • In Wales, wreaths of birch were given as love tokens.
  • Birch boughs were placed over cradles and carriages to protect infants from the glamour of the Little People.
  • On St. Stephen’s Day, December 26/27, Robin Red Breast used a birch rod to slay the wren in a gorse bush.
  • Many countries make birch wine and beer.
  • Cattle and deer do not like the taste of birch bark, so they leave birch trees alone.
  • In folklore, tying a red ribbon around the stem or branch of a birch tree would ward off the evil eye. 
  • Birch was used for protection against lightning. 
  • The Paper White Birch is the New Hampshire state tree.
  • The Lieschi, or Lesovik, a Slavic Spirit of the Forest, lives in the top of birch trees. He wears a long green beard and casts no shadow, changing his size at will. He hibernates from October until the spring.
  • In Russia, the birch was worshipped as a goddess during Green Week in early June.
  • Russians plant birches outside the home to bring protection.
  • Modern Siberian shamans use birch for the center pole of their yurt, with nine notches carved on it.
  • The thin bark was widely used as writing paper in Northern India. The first written version of the Vedas, ancient Indian wisdom, were written on birch bark.
  • The sap is fermented to make birch wine.
  • Birch bark can be ground down and fermented in sea water to season the sails of Norwegian boats, made of wool, hemp or linen.
  • Baltic birch is sought-after for making speaker cabinets, due to the peaks of high and low resonances.
  • It is sometimes used for acoustic guitars and mallets in keyboard percussion.
  • Books bound in Russian leather, tanned with Oil of Birch Tar, are unlikely to mold. Asphyxiating gases have been sourced from birch wood.
  • Charcoal of birch is used for gunpowder.
  • Many indigenous people linked the birch with the fly agaric mushroom, amanita muscaria, a hallucinogenic mushroom used for spirit journeys, because it seemed to prefer growing beneath birch trees.
  • In saunas, birch twigs are used to ‘beat’ the body to stimulate circulation.
  • A tea of the twigs and bark aids in ridding the mouth of canker sores.
  • Softened birch has been used to form casts for broken arms.
  • The inner bark of the birch can be dried and ground into flour for bread or cut into strips and boiled like noodles in stews. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Winter Solstice Wonder: Snow Falling

“They say that every snowflake is different. If that were true, how could 
the world go on? How could we ever get up off our knees? How could we 
ever recover from the wonder of it?”
~ Jeanette Winterson, The Passion

The world we live in is a vibrant kaleidoscope of magic and science, for science is magic that has been placed in boxes; a deconstruction of wonder. It is this place of wonder my spirituality has found me, breaking down those walls of distinction to simply be moved by the beauty of… everything. There are days when I feel like I see the whole world for what it is for perhaps the first time.
Winter is coming to the land that I live on, to the city that I live in. In America, Solstice marks the beginning of our coldest days, which for those of us in the Northeast, usually means snow. It’s an excuse to snuggle down with loved ones and nest in blankets in the shelter of our homes. It’s a reason to pull into ourselves and reflect on what we have gratitude for, and what is important to us.
I also find snow to be quite beautiful.
There is breathtaking wonder in falling snowflakes, in the filigree of crystalline symmetry, as the little frozen worlds slide in to meet each other and catch on edges; each snowflake a delicate crystal. How amazing it is that they fall into each other, hugging and holding on to create something solid and larger than itself. Under a blanket of white, the sleeping earth becomes encased in diamonds of ice.
The sunbeams fall on snow, momentarily blinding our vision and we must reach into other senses. The dancing light flits across the surface of earth, refracting and sharpening in the cold chill of breath. And we smell winter, freezing against our mucus membranes. And we taste winter in the icy cold within our lungs. And every bare particle of flesh feels itself retracting against the frosted air. That is what it means to be alive in snow-drenched winter time. When the sun shines it’s brilliance we forget the cold, if just for a moment, and bask like lizards in the reflective gaze.
On Solstice night, we sit through the longest dark of the year. We’ve watched the days get shorter and we’ve been turning our porch lights on before making dinner. We’ve stood in bursts of sunshine and soaked up the solar vitamins in preparation. Winter may just be beginning, but with its start comes the promise of lengthening days. The air is cold but the sun is warm, a hope that shines through the intruding chill.
            Yet even as I anxiously await the first flurry of snowfall, I see the pattern of the worlds and know that as the darkness retreats, snowmelt will warm with the early spring breezes. It will sink into and feed the ground below us which, in turn, will nourish seedlings so that they might flourish in our gardens. Then plants and flowers will grow in warmer sunlight, to nourish our hearts and bodies.
            All this is wonder, beheld in the beauty of a single snowflake.
            On the longest night, we greet this turning. We greet this movement forward, into a new spring, a breath of freshness in an age-old pattern. What appears to be a never ending circle when viewed from above, is an ever-winding spiral, a journey circling around and moving upward with each turn when seen sideways. It’s a pattern we know, which is how I know that on winter nights, when the moonlight is strong, the fallen snow will shimmer with the reflection of the sky above us. The earth we trod will be awash with fields of glittering stars.
            That starlight lives within us, a spark of ancestral matter. And it is this gift I reflect on most. All the light I need lives within me. All the hope I need is in me. Every day, I hold fast to this truth and let it illuminate my darkness, and hope that someday, others will see their own source-light, too.

            “Your first parent was a star.”
             ~ Jeanette Winterson, Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Experiencing Death VIII: Choosing the Moment

We have an ornament that we hang on our colorfully-decorated tree, in memory of our cat Luna. This is our third holiday season without her. The ornament is a little cream-colored cat with wings and dangling legs. At this time of year, I still find myself looking for her sleeping form beneath the tree. But already the grief has ebbed to longing. That ornament reminds me of the joy Luna brought to our house and that’s what I remember.
The night before she died it was obvious that she wasn’t all right. We had kept an eye on her all day and besides seeming overly tired, the main concern was that she seemed to have difficulty breathing. When I got ready for bed, she was on the couch and she barely responded to me, which was abnormal. Every night before, she would follow me in, and climb on top of me. That particular night she didn’t even twitch as I passed. I didn’t even hesitate. Moved by something greater than me, I lifted her gently and eased her into my lap, noting her whimper when I lifted her. No, she was not all right, and though we would try to convince ourselves she would be okay, I think in that moment, I knew something I couldn’t put words to. I knew our time was precious.
I didn’t sleep. I didn’t even nod off for a second. The spirit world was so ripe to me it was viscous and I was scared to leave Luna unattended. I remember every minute, every labored breath in, every whimpering exhalation and every second-too-long between them, when my heart caught in my throat. I remember the hot heat that emanated from her, like the last coal burning out in the fireplace. The entire night she never tried to move from where I had propped her on my lap. She never shifted her position, and neither did I. Not even for a moment.
I could feel how important each second was, in a bordering-on-obsession way. But as a highly-sensitive person, I have always stopped my world for these moments- the ones I know we can’t do over. Only that night could I feel the full force of how much weight she had so recently lost. I was still awake when my partner woke for work and we agreed we should take Luna to the vet as soon as we could. I fed her a bit of water with a pipette which she seemed thirsty for but soon wouldn’t take more of. I tried to offer her some wet food and she wanted it, crying at me, but she seemed to know better than to eat it. We took her to the walk-in vet.
We weren’t prepared to be forced with a final decision less than three hours later. I wasn’t prepared for the answer to my question of “How long before she’s in pain and it’s too cruel to wait?” to be “Oh, honey.” She only had hours left and her pain wasn’t going to stop.
In that moment, there is no decision to be made. It won’t stop you from second guessing later on, but in the moment it is the only choice available- end the pain. Luna seemed far readier than we were, perched like a rabbit on the floor of the exam room, content and unafraid (totally unusual for her) while we waited for lab results. But after forcing an x-ray on her next, she couldn’t breathe and was in apparent agony.
The reality still stands that we chose for her to be ready to die. And that is not an easy thing to swallow. We women, who can gift life into the world whether we choose to or not, we women who bleed every month for that right and that chance, we women are capable of gifting that kind of mercy death and carrying the burden of that choice. I cannot speak for men because I am not one, and I do not know where the strength for such mercy comes from in them.
I held Luna’s face in my hands and I didn’t look away from her eyes. I told her what a good girl she was and how much we loved her. She was the best girl ever. When the poison was injected, her eyes widened with… fear, pain, fire? Who knows. She had lost so much weight that it barely took a second. I barely had time to breathe in. And then she went limp. Her eyes dulled with the sparkle life gives them. She was gone.
I don’t care what anyone thinks. I ripped her out of the plastic bag they put her in and carried her home in her blanket, the weight of her suddenly so heavy in my arms. She was lighter than a feather in life and heavy as bricks in death. Is it our soul, our spirit that lightens our time upon the earth?
I would not take back sharing her death with her, even though the memory of it causes me pain. It was pain she experienced so that she could finally be at peace and I believe it was important that I share in that truth. In our society, we have trouble letting go, and as long as that is an issue we face, our cultural relationship with death will not change.
I think that one of the hardest life lessons we can make is that sometimes, we have to tell death it’s okay. No one should have to live in pain that’s caused by their body either slowly or quickly shutting down in a way that makes it impossible for them to have any quality of life- unless they want to and choose to ride it out. I could have made the choice to watch Luna slowly die in agony, unable to drink or eat, because I wasn’t ready. That would have been horrifically unfair.
It’s something I think about, watching people with terminal illness in the news, trying to fight for the right to choose their own moment of death, rather than spend their last days unconscious on medication because otherwise they could not tolerate the pain. We are so willing to put down our four-legged friends because it’s the humane thing to do, whether they can consent or not, but we don’t give consenting adults who have been given a death sentence the right to die in peace.
I can’t imagine it would be easy to accept that choice from a loved one. But I think I could come to terms with respecting it. Personally, it still doesn’t feel easy to say, “I opened the door for death to enter.” I still miss Luna terribly, but even looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Relevant Posts:
The Beginning I Saw in the End (published March 23, 2011)
Eulogy I Wish I’d Given (published March 14, 2012)
Experiencing Death: The Unborn Baby (published May 16, 2012)
Experiencing Death II: My Father’s Father (published June 13, 2012)
Experiencing Death III: Squirrel in the Road (published July 11, 2012)
Experiencing Death IV: The Body at Daggett Lake (published August 15, 2012)
Experiencing Death V: Suicide (published September 9, 2012)
Experiencing Death VI: Alone with the Dead (published October 17, 2012)
Experiencing Death VII: There in the Room (published November 14, 2012)

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

What the Dead Know

The same music box.

My last year of college, I lived in a rambling old farmhouse, situated just after the sidewalk ended at the edge of campus. There were anywhere from five to eight other people living in the house, depending on the month. Strange things happened frequently, but we always chalked it up to forgetful college students or the more-easily-blamed creaky old house.
One night, we all went out to dinner together, and when we left, the house was pitch dark. When we returned, also together, three bedroom lights were on upstairs. The doors were still locked and uninjured and nothing was touched. When I was alone in the house I would hear footsteps walking around, loud enough that I would get up to make sure no one else had come home. It was spooky enough that I mostly stayed to my room in the back of the house.
In December, we decorated for the holidays, which is when the most obvious instance of haunting occurred. My friend and I were sitting on a small couch together in the living room, reading and doing homework. The only other person there was one of my housemates, in his bedroom off the kitchen. It was a lovely, quiet morning. The living room opened up to what was probably once a dining room. We had placed our Christmas tree and other decorations in that adjoining space.
 Suddenly, in the quiet, a small music box began to play in the other room. The music box was a ceramic Christmas tree, which fit tightly onto a base of presents and toys. We assumed it had gotten jostled or come askew and my friend went over to right it. When she paused I looked up, and saw that the top was lifted cleanly off the base and placed on the other end of the table. We shared a look with raised eyebrows and were appropriately weirded out, because the music starts playing as soon as you lift the lid a quarter inch off the base, much less move the top of it, and we had been alone in the room. My friend put the tree top back on the base and the music stopped.
We went back to our reading and moments later it started again. This time, we both got up and found the tree top once more sitting on the other end of the table. We assumed it was my housemate. Were we so engrossed in our homework that we didn’t notice him coming in to play tricks on us? We put the tree back on the stand and went to his room to poke him for spooking us.
My housemate was on the phone in his room and had been the whole time. He didn’t even know what we were talking about. He got off the phone and listened to our story and got spooked as well. He thought we were trying to creep him out. And then it happened a third time, and we all three witnessed it. Despite our attentiveness, we still did not see it move but there it was, off the base. This time I heard an unmistakable giggle and felt the presence of a young girl. We asked her out loud to stop creeping us out, told her that we heard her, and that we’d pay attention.
During the semester break, my housemates shifted, with only four of us from the first semester remaining. More of us began to hear and sense her around the house. Lights were turned on and off and objects were moved. When you live with so many people, it’s easy to blame it on someone else’s idea of a bad joke. We couldn’t understand yet, what she was trying to communicate with us. She was trying to warn us that we were living with a bad man.
One night, one of my housemates, and someone we thought of as a friend, attacked another housemate when he thought she was passed out. Everything changed. In the aftermath of removing him from our lives we began to uncover a lot of truths about his real personality; his lying, thieving, manipulation, peeping, and trouble with the local police. The random lights that would turn on and off were lights in rooms where things often went missing, specifically mine and one other housemate. The third room that always lit up, and the one constant, was his. Our spirit friend was literally trying to illuminate the person who was lifting a couple dollars here and a pack of cigarettes there, over the course of months. She tried to leave us bread crumbs.
Once he was removed from the house, the haunting ceased. Lights came on when they were turned on and they stayed off when they were turned off. My housemates and I took care of each other and worked through recovering from the strange and violent betrayal of a friend. And once the truth was known, the spirit world around us was again at peace. When I encounter spirit so strong it manifests, I don’t just look at it as a haunting, but I try to stay open to where it collects, and what else it might be trying to tell me. Our intuitive body is strongly linked to the spirit world, and when you can open to that energy, it allows you to see with extra senses. It allows us to see more fully.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Answering for Our Ancestors

What happens when you discover an unsavory character attached to your family tree? It’s a topic that comes up during discussions about ancestor work, as if that discovery re-colors the shade of who you are. It doesn’t. Who you are hasn’t changed. What it does do, is add depth and dimension to your family history, of who your people were, and how they evolved over generations. How would we see the light without the darkness, too?
The reality is that many of us, were we able to trace our family lines fully enough, would find ancestors who fought against native peoples, owned slaves, fought against the suffragette movement, treated their wives and children like possessions, signed documents telling the local Jewish communities to move on, spent time in prison, etc. Serial killers have families, too. Everyone’s family history is riddled with ne’er-do-wells, because once upon a time, those things were the way people were in the world. They were accepted and normative of society. Slavery existed long before people started using other cultures instead of the weak and poor of their own. It doesn’t mean it is okay. But the fact that we believe slavery to be rightfully wrong now, doesn’t re-write how it was or what happened. I would love to believe that my family members have always been righteous, good people, who weren’t afraid to buck a bad system, but it’s just not true.
I expect to find some black sheep, and there probably are more than a few among the names I know already, but census reports and land deeds don’t tell you about the quality of a man. I know that if I were to discover, for example, that one of my wayward ancestors was a soldier who carried out the massacre at Wounded Knee, I would be heartbroken. I would feel as if some of that wrongness was part of me, in me.
That’s what makes free will so important. Our days are filled with choices and actions we take that could lead us along the light path or stray us towards the dark side of being human. Sometimes people fail and their presence in our family tree serves to remind us of that truth- sometimes people fall. And they encourage us to be the best version of ourselves we can be, now and here.
That’s the line of thinking that shapes my ancestor work. I believe that the early colonial settlers were wrong to come over, treat an indigenous culture like they were inferior, and take their land. Simply because my pilgrim ancestors believed they were appointed by God to be here, an entire indigenous population was almost exterminated. In this era, I would never agree with something like that. So what I take away from that chapter of my family history is that I shouldn’t treat other people like they’re beneath me or inferior to me just because they’re different. And I shouldn’t take anything that doesn’t belong to me just because I want it.
I honor those ancestors who came before me. But how do we accept these blemishes from the past and move forward?
I would hope that in this day, we would all agree that slavery is bad. The first slaves white men used were other white men who were poorer than them. And then when they started travelling and discovered white men who looked different from them, they became preferred resources for slaves. And then they found men with other skin colors and they became a preferred resource. And so on. Our ancestors used to treat people as less than them, just because their skin color or belief systems were different. That’s a very simplistic view of all of that history, but if we can look back on it and see those actions as faulty, as a wrongness that shaped Western thinking, we need to bring more tolerance and understanding to our cohabitation on this planet. That’s something we can do as individuals and as a people.
I don’t believe that we, personally, should take on guilt for the choices our individual ancestors made. That would be an exhaustive wave of guilt that would drown most of us out of living our own lives. We’re supposed to be living to make this world a better place. So if you have an ancestor who did a deed so horrible that it makes you feel ill inside, do something for yourself to find closure with that act if that’s what you need.
No one wants to know the blood of a murderer flows in them. Maybe the knowing suddenly feels like a curse. If it does, do something in your life for the world that feels like an appropriate counter-curse. Think about it like relieving that specific spirit of their burdens- whether that ancestor felt guilt over their own actions or not. Break the blood spell and put that family baggage to rest. Do something to better the planet as a means of learning from the mistakes of those who came before you.

The Bigger Picture
We can look at history and see patterns of behavior repeating over and over again, with different groups of people on the receiving end of discrimination and oppression, and in some cases murder and genocide: anyone who wasn’t Roman, Jews, Native Americans, Africans, Japanese-Americans, Jews again, Women, African-Americans, Interracial children, Homosexuals, etc. We slowly move through the pattern of understanding that our way of thinking is wrong. Slowly. I believe that by now we should be much more tolerant of the fact that we all share this world together and trying to force anyone to believe exactly what we believe is futile. Why do we need others to believe what we believe in order to believe it ourselves? We have to stop using what is different than us to define who we are not. Learn who you are, instead.
            I can also apply this pattern-weaving to my own family tree, watching the generations follow their forefathers and then suddenly make a change, move a great distance, switch vocations completely, or something that alters the static course of my bloodline. I am Sarah, born of English Kings and Knights, born of Norman Invaders and Viking warriors, whose own lines faded into merchants and tailors, woolcombers and carpenters, who merged with Irish farmers and Polish woodsmen to break ground in a new world. I am Sarah, born of English Kings, born of indigenous men living in caves in France, whose lines blended with the English and Dutch as refugees fled France, whose lines faded in the growth of a Canadian country and merged with indigenous blood, whose lines later merged with German and Irish immigrants, canal workers and day laborers, breaking their bones to build a new world. All of them, trickling down through the years, leading me here, in this space and time, sharing my work.
May we break the cycles of dis-ease with our fellow men, and find a way to peace and tolerance, that we may all work together to heal the earth that provides for us, without which our lives would fade into nothing more than memory.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Gratitude and Giving Thanks

The first of my paternal ancestors stepped foot on this land three-hundred and ninety-two years ago. If my current research proves correct, my maternal ancestors were already here, living in the areas that have become French-Canada. Without their lives and their struggles, I would not be here. I would not be me. So for all of them, I am extremely grateful.
The history of our country is not easy or pretty. The truth is Western man stole all the land they settled, purchasing it for paltry sums from a people who had a different understanding of ownership. I have done a lot of research on that period of time and that’s pretty much how I feel about it. But there was a moment of peace, and a moment of hope for tolerance in the beginning. And that is the day I am thankful for.
In September of 1620, the Mayflower left England with 102 passengers bound for Virginia in the New World, on a crossing that took sixty-six days. The majority of the voyagers were Separatists who had funded the voyage, having permission to settle at the mouth of the Hudson River. The Separatists were a splinter group of Puritans, who were Protestants that wanted to let the Bible be the final authority on their religion, and encouraged them to have an individual relationship with their God. Whereas the Puritans were taking on trying to convert the Church of England, the Separatists wanted a place “separate” to practice as they believed.
The Separatists of the Plymouth colony followed the teachings of their minister, John Robinson, who believed in and preached religious tolerance, and in this manner were unlike the Puritans who came after them and settled in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. While none of the colonies would allow Quakers or Baptists to settle with them, which is discriminatory but was common practice, the Plymouth Colony did not force its Anglican members to convert. Off course and low in stores, the ship landed off of Cape Cod in November. Five of my ancestors were on board the ship. Francis Cooke, a woolcomber, came over with his oldest son John, to establish a home for the rest of their family, who would wait in Leiden. James, a tailor, and Mrs. Chilton brought their 13 year-old daughter Mary with them. At 64 years of age, James was the oldest passenger aboard ship. They were all Separatists.
Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, 1622 was published in England as a means of encouraging people of like-mind to join them in New World, and it details what their first months were like. After anchoring, the ship sent out parties to find wood, fresh water, and survey the land for other resources; they collected juniper wood to burn aboard ship. November 15, they came upon empty Indian homes, harvest fields, and buried caches of corn. They had dug up a mound, and once they realized it was a burial, they replaced everything and reburied it; they disturbed no more. The found corn, they did take for themselves, but the author states their intention of making amends to the corn’s owner when they encountered them.
They made many searches for the indigenous peoples but could not find them. In early December, the men tracing a path along the river were fired upon by arrows and they retaliated. The natives soon disappeared into the woods and they gave chase but found none. Again, they regularly searched out the natives with no luck. One day, after failing to find them, the men shot and ate an eagle for dinner (and noted that it tasted like mutton).
Only half of the ship’s passengers survived the brutal first winter. James Chilton died aboard ship December 18. His wife died in early January in the First Sickness to claim multiple lives. Both of their bodies were buried in a mass grave with others. The location of this gravesite is unknown. They left behind a daughter, my direct ancestress Mary, an orphan at the age of 13. Based on the placement of the share of land she was later given in her parents’ names, it is believed she was taken in by either the Alden or the Standish family. The Separatists were aware that they had no claim to settle there, as their contract was for Hudson Bay, but after losing half of their people and the rest being ill, the group was made a decision.
On March 16, 1621, Samoset, of the Mohegan, approached the colonists in their village. He said his people were a five day walk and one day canoe from where they were, and that he had learned English from the men who fished and hunted with his people. It was Samoset who told the Pilgrims that their settlement land was called Patuxet. Four years prior to their arrival, the Patuxet people had been wiped out by a plague, after white men had come to their land.
Samoset told them of their neighbors, the Wampanoag, whom he was living with, and the Nausets- the ones who had fired upon them in the woods. He explained that when Captain Thomas Hunt came in 1614, he deceived them and took twenty-seven men with him. He sold them into slavery for 20 pound each. Twenty of the men had been Patuxet and seven had been Nauset. When the Nauset saw that the white men had returned, they had attacked before their men were taken again. Samoset helped take the message to the Wampanoag that these white men did not condone what Captain Hunt had done.
A few days later, Samoset returned with Tisquantum, commonly remembered as Squanto, who also spoke fluent English. He was a native Patuxet who had been taken into slavery. He lived first with Spanish monks, second in England with a merchant named John Slaney, and third as a guide for Ferdinando Gorges, coming home on an expedition ship in 1619. Tisquantum acted as an interpreter between the English colony and the local Wampanoag tribe. He helped teach the Separatist farmers to cultivate corn, extract maple sap, catch fish and eels, and how to avoid the local poisonous plants. Their first harvest was a successful one.
Without Edward Winslow’s written account of the first feast, from December 12th, or William Bradford’s reflections on it twenty years later, we would not even know such an event had occurred. What we call Thanksgiving would not become an annual holiday for a couple centuries yet. [Edward Winslow is my 11x Great-Uncle. His brother John Winslow arrived in Plymouth in November 1621; he was not present for this harvest feast. Two years later, John would wed young Mary Chilton.]
Their crops of wheat and barley did well, though the native corn fared far better. Twenty years later, William Bradford wrote about how, that harvest, the colonists were all in good health. There was plenty of cod and bass in store for every family and they were busy storing fowl, wild turkey and venison. They had a good enough harvest that they had a “peck of meal a week to a person.” He says the reports of their plenty were not untrue.
Their harvest in, and Governor William Bradford “sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together.” The men killed as much fowl as would feed the entire colony for a week. Bradford invited the Wampanoag sachem Massasoit and his people to join them. There were 53 colonists and 90 Wampanoag at the first Feast, which lasted for three days. The Wampanoag brought five deer, adding to the feast. Edward Winslow closes his letter with “although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
For me, Thanksgiving Day is not about the Separatists who came to this country to make a settlement in their own image. And it’s not about the Wampanoag people whose population would soon be decimated by war with the colonists and disease. For those three days in Plymouth, however guarded, friendship was known between two peoples of different culture and belief, and there was hope and promise of peace between them.
That time in history was so turbulent. I have ancestors who fought against and killed natives at Esopus, who lost wives to native blades at Esopus, who fought the northern natives in the name of France, who lived among the Lenape and was a friend to them, who was raised by the Lenape and taken as a son by the sachem, and who started life in native tribes before white men ever walked the soil. I embrace them all and learn from their stories.
This is the message I remember: Compassion for others. Tolerance for differences. Gratitude for blessings. Every year, in memory of all that has come before, I make a list for what I am grateful for as it unravels through the day, and I will include all those who have come before me whose stories have been my shaper. Wherever you are, remember the things that bring your world joy and fill you with blessing, for those are the things that will light your path on darker days.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Experiencing Death VII: There in the Room

When my Grandfather died in 2004, I was blessed to be there in the room with him. I had missed saying goodbye to my Grandma, a guilt I still carried with me. He had known that, those years in between, and I believe he waited for me to fold time to get there, where he lay unconscious on the bed. His eyes stirred momentarily beneath his closed lids at the sound of my voice and then slowed again. It could have been days, sitting beside him, we were told. I didn’t think it would be. He felt ready to go, and the spirits were gathering close.
Those of us in the room were midwifing death, whether we wanted to or not. Those who stand at a threshold and guard the way between are charged with a sacred task, whether it’s life coming into or out of our world. You don’t have to know what you’re doing to hold space for the dying- and I’m not talking about people who can be saved medically. I’m talking about those on their deathbed. I’m even talking about animals dying at the side of the road. I’m talking about stepping up to face the unknown one last time with someone, when there is no hope left. When the doctor says days and hours instead of weeks and months.
I wasn’t alone in that room. Each of us could tell a very different story of what happened within that final minute in the hospital room. Every single one of those stories is true. Mine just happens to be fraught with more joy and awe than loss and sorrow, which was not what I expected when I entered. My story is the one I’m sharing.
Midwives are best known for birthing babies and bringing lives into this world, bringing spirits into being. Birth is a physical science that is truly magical to me, and all magic comes with a price. With birth, when the being that has been living in the womb for nine months, comes crying out into the world, fully articulated, it’s magic. And with birth comes pain, and afterwards, much joy.
And in death, when the spirit leaves and the physical body finally shuts down, it comes with extreme sorrow and emptiness. It carves out a hollow space inside us that those loved ones left behind, as if that person literally held space within our emotional body. These are the prices we pay for the experience of being human. Because I was able to accept what was coming, and for having the courage to wish my Grandpa peace, even though I could not imagine living without him, I was given a gift.
I am sensitive to spirit world but I never see anything more than what I call emotional shadow. I saw more when I was younger. It’s true that children and animals see more than we grown-ups do, though I personally do not believe that has always been true. When we hit puberty, there is so much expectation on us to fit into our societal constructs that we sever that connection ourselves if we have it. We sever anything of ourselves that makes us different, weird or strange. Something that I hope will change.
My Grandpa’s actual death took a moment. In the span of that second, my Grandpa took a breath in and out, so imperceptible my sister had her hand over his chest and heart to gauge it. And that was it. My partner and I had been singing softly, preparing ourselves for what was to come and opening the way for him, in our hearts, to cross when he was ready. May he be free from pain.
I was sitting just to the left of the foot of his bed. Beside me, a doorway on the wall opened up. Through the doorway poured this wash of green light. It was warm and made the room smell like summer. The March evening smelled like hot tilled earth and peppery tomatoes. I smelled my Grandma, who had passed four years earlier. I heard her clear her throat, tapping her foot, waiting for him. What I would describe as his soul leapt from my Grandpa’s body in human form, with joyful abandon. And then it became a cloud of smoke which swam into the green energy and in a swirl it was gone. The door was closed beside me.
The room was cold and empty, though the number of bodies hadn’t changed. It was over. He was gone.
My partner and I had been singing softly, honoring his life, expressing what he meant to us with voice. But not only that. I was also doing it to accept the grace of understanding that his freedom from sickness meant that I would feel sorrow and pain. May that grace help me to heal.
After that experience, I can imagine the spiritual growth that might also come from being on the living side of death’s door. To be the person who helps birth the spirit into other world at the end of someone’s life. Or even to be someone who simply watches it happen. To sit at a bedside with someone who might otherwise be alone, so that they can cross unafraid. I believe that how you let go of your time in this world is important to what comes after.
Since my Grandpa’s death, I light candles at night for those who die alone and afraid, that their souls might find peace and move on. I do this because I know, even at my young age, that a time will come when I will sit at the bedsides of people I love as they die. More than anything I wish to build up the courage and strength to find the grace in the blessing of being with them at the end of this life and the beginning of whatever comes next.

Relevant Posts:
The Beginning I Saw in the End (published March 23, 2011)
Eulogy I Wish I’d Given (published March 14, 2012)
Experiencing Death: The Unborn Baby (published May 16, 2012)
Experiencing Death II: My Father’s Father (published June 13, 2012)
Experiencing Death III: Squirrel in the Road (published July 11, 2012)
Experiencing Death IV: The Body at Daggett Lake (published August 15, 2012)
Experiencing Death V: Suicide (published September 9, 2012)
Experiencing Death VI: Alone with the Dead (published October 17, 2012)

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Animal Allies: Owls and the Afterlife

“Humans are part of the animal kingdom, which is part of the vast living world around us. In earth-centered circles, we often adopt animal totems as a means of aligning our energies with specifics elements. The animal world is vast and varied and full of natural magic. Animals are helpful guides in ancestor and spirit work. Where we have lost our connection to the natural world, they have not.
Our animal allies are a key to help cross the threshold, something known and familiar, and cultures throughout history have often associated specific animals with this task. We take their lessons based on indigenous mythology and animal behavior. They represent some part of me and the way that part of me relates to the world around me. The energy of those animals walk with me in my life and when I need guidance I turn to the spirit of my personal allies for strength.”
[Abridged from Animal Allies: Hummingbird Messengers, March 28, 2012]

Interactions with Owls
In the late 1990s I worked two years doing summer stock theatre in Highlands, North Carolina. It was my first time in the south, fitting as in my spiritual life I was on the edge of opening up to something bigger than me. At the time I was lost in the internal philosophy of questing to find it. Highlands sits on the top of a mountain peak where the blue and smoky mountains meet. At dusk and dawn every day, the clouds would roll through town. No one drove during these intervals, but many locals laughed at the glee with which the girl from New York greeted the “fog.”
My true spiritual awakening happened on top of that mountain. It came in the form of an owl visitation. I was sitting by the creek near our house as the clouds were weeping through the woods. I could feel the drops of water walking across my skin. It never ceased to fascinate me.
Something large blurred past me, silent. An invisible curtain dropped over the natural cacophony of insect life at twilight time. Right before me, on a low tree branch sat the largest bird I have ever seen that had not been there moments before. It was the first owl I saw in person and I held my breath the whole time. Not because I thought I would spook it, but because it’s presence held me spellbound. In the gloaming it was mostly white with some grey and large dandelion-colored eyes which stared into me, without blinking.
We sat that way for a few minutes. Then the owl spun its head around, cried into the night, a call that shook me to the bone, and then it lifted, silent as an assassin, flying so swiftly over me that I fell onto my back beneath its shadow. Its wingspan was as wide as I was tall. It was a reminder of how small I am to this world, of how I was just one more animal trying to live among others. It was a gift of Other World touching me on a night when I felt most alone and unseen, when I needed it most. And something within me broke open in that meeting place of water, earth, air and owl.
I have walked with Owl watching over me ever since. Just last year I spent a delicious evening meditating in the woods when a barred owl starting calling out. I called back and, in the moment, found I was a fair mimic. Fair enough that the owl hooted back. We called back and forth at each other for twenty minutes. After the first few exchanges, it stopped feeling like mimicry. Even though I didn’t know what I was saying, it was clear that this animal creature and I were interacting. It was wonderful to lose myself in its world. In my life, owl delivers messages to and from Other World, and aids my work.

Meditations on Owl
Owl medicine is helpful with personal growth, something at the core of the Work that I do. The Owl is a silent and swift predator, taking in the woods around him, deciding on the path before him before taking flight and catching his prey. His hearing is remarkable and he knows the difference between a falling leaf and mouse rustling beneath it. Once an owl has digested its meal, it purges up what it does not need and cannot digest in the form of a small pellet. Owl knows when it’s time to remove what is unwanted and needed in order to make way for new growth. When they cough up the parts of their prey that they don’t digest, they reveal the bones and flesh of the animal in its simplest form. Where others may be deceived, those with owl medicine know the truth of what is hidden.
Owl sees that which others cannot, which often lends to its solitary nature, which also lends to its ability to see deeper within. This animal is a strong ally for soul retrieval, for seeing the healing within that needs to be attended to and know what medicine is right to heal it. When you feel lost, owl essence will help you find your way back to your path, to your wisdom. Owl’s senses see beyond shadows. They pierce through fear and darkness, through what stands in the way so that you might see the other side, where light, happiness and knowledge exist. The only way out is through and Owl knows this to be true.

Owls in Legend:
  • Owl fossils have been discovered that date back 60 million years.
  • They are one of the few birds found in early cave paintings.
  • They are associated with prophecy, and their cries hold meaning: 1 for impending death, 2 for success in an imminent venture, 3 for a woman will marry into the family, 4 for disturbance, 5 for imminent travel, 6 for guests arriving, 7 for mental distress, 8 for sudden death, and 9 for good fortune.
  • Mountain legends say the hoot of an owl at midnight means death is coming. An owl circling the sky during the day means bad news.
  • Owl allies bring messages through dreams and meditation.
  • Owls are associated with witchcraft, magic, wisdom, the unknown, medicine, weather, death, perception, deception, and dreams.
Greek & Roman Legend:
  • The Little Owl, Athene noctua, became the companion of Athena, Goddess of Wisdom after she banished the mischievous prankster, crow.
  • The owl was the favored of Athene’s feathered creatures, a symbol of her “light,” allowing her to see beyond half-truths. This owl was protected in Greek culture and lived in the Acropolis in large numbers.
  • Owls accompanied Greek armies to war. Sighting them on the battlefield was a sign of impending victory.
  • Owls watched over commerce and trade. Minted on one side of the Greek coin, they represented good fortune.
  • Roman Mythology tells us that Ascalpus spied Proserpine eating a pomegranate in the garden and told on her. She was only allowed to leave if she didn’t eat anything. For his tattling, he was transformed into “a sluggish Screech Owl, a loathsome bird.”
  • Romans believed that a dead owl nailed to the door averted all the misfortune its presence had caused to the household. Romans also believed that witches transformed into owls to suck the blood of babies.
  • To the Romans, the hoot of an owl foretold death. The defeat of the Roman army at Charrhea, between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, was supposedly foretold by the hooting of an owl. It is said that the deaths of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Agrippa, and Commodus Aurelius were all preceded by the cry of an owl.
  • A 2nd century soothsayer, Artemidorus, claimed that dreaming of an owl meant the traveler would be shipwrecked or robbed.
Celtic Legend:
  • Merlin, of Arthurian legend, had an owl as a companion.
  • In Celtic mythology, the owl is a guide to the underworld, known as “corpse bird” and “night hag,” associated with wisdom and keen sight.
  • Images of owls found in the Celtic Isles pre-date the Greek cults of Athene.
  • The Scottish-Gaelic word for old woman is Cailleach and the word for owl is coileach-oidhche which means “night-cockerel.”
  • Owls were associated with the Crone aspect of the goddess.
  • The owls were guides to the Underworld.
  • The myth of Bloudeuwedd, written in the Mabinogi, speaks of a woman magically created as a wife to Lleu. She tricked him into revealing the secret of his mortality and used that to take his life. He avenged his death by transforming her into an owl. The word Bloudeuwedd is still used in Wales to mean owl.
  • The Welsh saw the owl as a predator whose time of power was dusk, when it was capable of defeating the falcon.
  • The Welsh Goddess Arianrhod was a shapeshifter who transformed into a large owl, looking through owl eyes to see the darkness within humans, as well as the soul.
  • The Welsh believed that if an owl was heard hooting among the houses, a young girl had just lost her virginity.
  • A cauldron was found sunken in a bog in Bra, Jutland which dates back to the 3rd century B.C. It was broken into pieces before being deposited, most probably as an offering. The handle fittings of the cauldron were owls.
European Legend:
  • In the British Isles, owls were associated with death and negative energy. Owl feathers were thought to repel those unwanted energies.
  • In the Middle Ages, the owl was associated with witchcraft.
  • In early English folk remedies, raw owl eggs were used to treat alcoholism. It was believed that children fed raw owl eggs would be gifted a lifetime’s protection against drunkenness.
  • Owl eggs, cooked to ash, were imbibed to improve eyesight.
  • Owl broth was a common remedy for children suffering from whooping cough, specifically in Yorkshire.
  • In the 18th and 19th centuries, poets Robert Blair and William Wordsworth were fond of using the Barn Owl as their “bird of doom.” In other literature of this time period, barn owls were often associated with death. If an owl screeched outside the window of a sick person, it was believed they would die.
  • In English folklore, a barn owl screech meant cold weather or a storm was coming. If the screech was heard during bad weather, it meant a change in storm was imminent.
  • Into the 19th century, it was customary to nail a dead owl to a barn door in order to ward off evil and lightning, and protect the livestock within.
  • Owls were treated with reverence in France, with several species named for dukes. The Long-Eared Owl was called Hibou Moyen-Duc and the European Eagle Owl was called Hibou Grand-Duc. In the Middle Ages, only nobles above the ranking of duke were allowed the honor of wearing a plume of feathers in their cap and it is suspected owls with ears seemed to them to be of nobler rank.
  • Lore in the Lorraine region of France, tells that owls would help spinsters find husbands.
  • In Romania, souls of sinners who repent, fly to heaven in the form of snowy owls.
  • Poland folklore said that unmarried women became doves when they died, and married women transformed into owls.
Native Legend:
  • In Native America, the owl is prevalently associated with death and spirits, though each tribe had a different relationship with the animal. Many saw owls as spirits of the recent dead. Other tribes saw them as underworld messengers who shepherded spirits to the world that comes after death. They are spirit protectors.
  • Many tribes referred to owls as Night Eagles.
  • Some tribes saw owls as healers and would hang feathers in the doorway of a home to keep illness out.
  • The Lenni Lenape (New Jersey) said that an owl shown in a dream would become the guardian of the dreamer.
  • The Hopi (Arizona) believed the Burrowing Owl was the manifestation of their god of the dead, who was guardian of fire and caretaker for all things underground, including seed germination. Their name for the owl is Ko’ko, meaning “Watcher of the Dark.”
  • The Hopi believed that Great Horned Owls helped their peaches to grow.
  • The Mojave (Arizona) believed that in death, everyone became an owl for a short time, then reincarnating as a beetle, until finally becoming pure air.
  • The Navajo (Arizona/New Mexico/Utah) believe that the owl is the messenger guide of the other world and other earth-bound spirits.
  • The Zuni (New Mexico) placed owl feathers in babies’ cribs to keep evil spirits away from the infant.
  • The Newuks (California) believed that brave and virtuous men and women became Great Horned Owls after their death. Those who were wicked of heart became Barn Owls.
  • Tribes living in the Sierras (California/Nevada) believed Great Horned Owls would snatch the souls of the dead and transport them to their underworld.
  • The Cree (Northwest US/Canada) thought that the whistle of the Boreal Owl was a doorway to spirit world. If the person whistled back, and did not hear a response from the owl, it meant they would soon die.
  • The Spedis Owl is a petroglyph found on a rock face at The Dalles, the end of the Oregon Trail along the Columbus River between Washington and Oregon. Figures of this same owl have been found in a wide area in that region, but are focally located on there. Legend says the petroglyph was placed on the rock to protect people from the “water devils” that could pull them under.
  • The Dalles was the rough edge of the Northwest Coast area of native people. The Kwagiulth/ Kwakiutl (Vancouver Island, BC) believed that owls were manifestations of people’s souls. They would not harm owls, for if the owl died, so would the person who the soul belonged to.
  • The Tlingit (Pacific Northwest) thought warriors that heard an owl were receiving a message of coming victory in battle.
  • The Inuit (Alaska) have a story that tells of Snowy Owl and Raven making new clothes for each other. Raven made a dress of black and white feather for Owl. Owl made Raven a white dress. But Raven grew so excited when Owl was fitting the dress that she couldn’t sit still. Owl was angry and threw oil lamp at Raven, which soaked through the white dress, turning it black.
Other Legend:
  • In many countries in Africa, owls are associated with sorcery and dark magic. A large owl spotted outside a house indicates a powerful shaman lives there. Many people believe owls carry messages between the shaman and the spirit world.
  • The Zulu, and other West African nations, believe the bird has strong influence in spellcasting. They think using owl parts imbues the magical user with great strength.
  • The Swahili believe owls bring sickness to children.
  • Algerians believed that placing the right eye of an Eagle Owl in the hand of a sleeping woman was a truth spell that would make her tell you what you wanted to know.
  • Owl amulets were used as protection for pregnant women in Babylon.
  • Food was made from owls in India for medicinal use. Owl eye broth aided seizures in children and owl meat helped with rheumatism. Ingesting owl eyes enabled good night vision.
  • In Russia, hunters carried owl claws, a tool for their souls to climb to heaven should they die.
  • The Kalmuks believed an owl saved Genghis Kahn and held the animal as sacred.
  • Malaysians believed that owls ate infants.
  • The Ainu people of Hokkaidu, Japan trust owls to warn them of approaching evil. They believe it mediates between gods and men. They see Blakiston’s Fish Owl, Ketupa blakistoni, as their god kotan kor kamuv, which mean “god of the village.”

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Dumb Supper

“And in one house they could see an old grandfather mummy being taken out of a closet and put in the place of honor at the head of the table, with food set before him. And the members of the family sat down to their evening meal and lifted their glasses and drank to the dead one seated there, all dust and dry silence…”
~ Ray Bradbury, The Halloween Tree, 1972

Tonight is Halloween, All Hallows Evening, a holiday also known as Samhain. Like my ancient forebears, my family and I began to practice the ritual of the Dumb Supper seven years ago, which is a dinner set for both the living and the dead. It can be as simple or elaborate as your circumstances require, but it is a rewarding way to honor the dead and keep their memories alive. This formal supper can be done on any night between October thirty-first and November third.
For the simplest form you can add an extra place setting at dinner and feed that plate first, welcoming in the weary travelers from the other world and offering them the hospitality with a place to sit at your table. Allow them an evening of humanity on the night when the overlapping worlds bleed through. It’s called a Dumb Supper, which means Silent Supper. It is not a place to chit chat about the workday or chores that need to be done as such mundane life can keep the timid dead who no longer recognize the world-as-is away.
Hold supper sacred and keep all conversation minimal, and to the experience at hand. It does not have to be solemn or somber event. There was much giggling on our end last year when we felt an overwhelming cry of “Taters!” erupt from our invited ethereal guests as the food was placed out. Some readings will tell you the night must be silent, and that may have been true in a time when silence was possible but for the scraping of forks and howling of the wind. But in this day, when our homes are filled with the not-so-quiet hum and thrum of electronics, appliances, traffic and plumbing, I tend to worry that those noises will keep the dead at bay.
We switch things up every year, with some kind of music that might appeal to our invited guests. Last year we listened to the radio drama of Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree, which we will continue this year. It was a special treat that brought in much more spirit energy than ever before. It seemed a familiar thing that pulled them in and the emotional sensation that filled our home was one of a joyous family reunion.
For our ritual, we set a chair at the head of the table called the Spirit Chair and we shroud it in black fabric and clothing. No human will sit in that chair tonight. The Spirit Chair is the setting for all spirits who wander the night and wish no harm, but wish a moment of hospitality.
Beyond that, there is a chair for each of us, and for the spirit we are personally inviting to the table. We write the name of the spirit who is our invited guest on a piece of paper and place it beneath their plate. If you do not have a particular name you wish to invoke, you may simply write the ancestors of your name, your bloodline, your spiritual heart, etc.
For my purposes, I place my guest’s chair across from me, so that I may gaze into the space there, like divination, during the meal. Ultimately, where you place them is not important. What is important is that you serve the Spirit Chair first, your invited guests next, and then yourself. It’s the intention of hospitality that matters most.
At this time of year, we use the dumb supper to open a space for the living and dead to dine together. I think of the table and meal like a reflection, a photo-negative image of your mundane life. To that end, the place setting is prepared the opposite of however you would normally set the table. Do you usually put forks on the left and water glass on the right? Reverse them.
Place a candle on the plate for the Spirit Chair and a tea light on the center of the plate for each invited guest. At the beginning of the meal, stand behind the Spirit Chair and invite your ancestors to come and dine with you. I even go so far as to open the front door and invite them into my home, literally. Light the candle on the Spirit plate. Pour a libation into the cup at the head of the table and call in the Ancestors:
To those who have gone before,
To those whose names live in our hearts and dance upon our lips,
To those whose names have been lost in the sea of time,
To those whose bones lie above and below the earth,
To those whose ashes have travelled on the winds,
We, the living, bid you welcome and entrance.
This is how you open the door for your personal guests to step in. Next, light the candles on your invited guests’ plates and call them in by name.
When you serve the meal, begin with the dessert course. The meal itself is also a reflected image of the meal the dead would remember. Start with the dessert course and sit down to enjoy it. Next, serve the main course, then the sides. Then serve the soup and salad, followed by any appetizers and pre-dinner cocktails. You should structure your meal in a way that seems appropriate to you, your heritage and your family traditions- just backwards from whatever that might be. What foods will you serve? I like to make items that were meaningful to my family as well as items I find that hearken to the cultural heritage I am slowly discovering in my genealogical research.
During each pause in courses, while we are eating, I focus on the space across from me and the multiple sensory impressions I receive. I always invite my Great-Grandma to dine with me and have been chastised for not salting her meatballs or being stingy on the chocolate cake. I have also heard the gentle trebling of her voice and felt the cool paper of her skin as our hands brushed while I was serving her. I have found myself responding to an unspoken request from her spirit for another napkin. On this night, they can allow themselves the human moments they had in life and we can be reminded of them; Elsie did often need an extra napkin.
When the meal is finished, we take a few moments and express our gratitude to those who came and supped with us. When the evening feels over, I thank my guest for coming and I open the front door, wishing them a safe journey for the rest of their evening. I tell them to leave as they will (in case they’re not done yet). I will let the ancestral tea lights burn out on their plates.
I thank the ancestors for dining with us and I snuff out the candle on the Spirit Chair. I carry the water from the Spirit cup and pour it on the ground outside:
To those who have gone before,
To those whose names live in our hearts and dance upon our lips,
To those whose names have been lost in the sea of time,
To those whose bones lie above and below the earth,
To those whose ashes have travelled on the winds,
We, the living, thank you for dining with us.
                        We, the living, wish you safe travels.
Ideally, the food would also be disposed of sacredly, either burned, buried or, traditionally, placed in running water. For me, it means leaving it out in the woods for critters, an offering of the bones of spirit-eaten food to other life in need. When I dispose of it, I do so with sacred intention.
            Many blessings to you and your family, both living and dead on this day. I have much gratitude to the Ancestors who lived, who opened the Way that we might walk this earth together. May we walk this earth softly, that those who come after us will speak our names in joy. May the peace and stillness of the season be with you. May the Ancestors walk with us, always.
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