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, February 29, 2012

Stitching in Time: In Step with Minnie

Crafted by Minnie Estelle (Wicker) Ruston 1890-1964.
One of my favorite childhood books was Halfway Down Paddy Lane by Jean Marzollo, the story of a 15 year old girl who takes a bad fall and wakes to find herself in 1850s America, in the home of an Irish immigrant family, all of whom work at the local cotton mill (who she later discovers are her ancestors). One scene in particular has always stayed with me. One night, after working a long day in the factory, the matriarch sits out on the porch with her daughters, making lace. Not darning it, but making it. It was the first time I realized in my childhood that even the things I thought were complicated to make were, in fact, once crafted by human hands.
I am reminded of that book when I take sewing work into my lap at night. I love to hand-stitch. I enjoy the discipline of learning to sew in a straight line without a guide, and the body memory I learned that ensures my stitches will be of even size and space between them.
In the bin of my father’s family belongings, I pulled out a small quilt sampler. Based on the other mail-order patterns addressed to her, my best guess is that the sampler was made by my Great-Grandmother Minnie Estelle (Wicker) Ruston. It was loose in the bin and has some color-bleed from basement water damage over the years, but besides suffering two pinprick moth holes, it is otherwise perfect and the stitches are unmarred.
I turned the sampler over in my hands to see how it was sewn. Such tiny stitches stared up at me and I was momentarily overwhelmed. I was holding a piece of family history that spoke to something I do to calm my thoughts, something I enjoy in my time. To better reach out and connect to Great-Grandma Minnie, I set out to recreate the pattern she made, to walk in step with her.
I tried to keep to her pattern without undoing her piece, imagining that her fabric choices were probably made up of leftover scraps she had from other projects. The small pattern I drafted was made up of a circle in the center, 12 inner petals and 12 outer petals. Ten of the inner petals were paired, two of the same with two extra individual ones. I kept the same pattern for mine, with scraps I had in a drawer. Minnie’s color scheme was more white, linen and brown, while mine was white, purple and green.
There were 25 pieces in total. As I worked them together, stitch by stitch, I quickly grasped that there is artistry to this kind of piece-work. After sewing, my pieces seemed smaller than Minnie’s and it is far from a perfect replica. But the spirit of the design holds true and the intention of sharing her work ended in creating a thing of beauty I might not have endeavored to make otherwise and might never have learned how capable I was to undertake it.

Crafted by me, February 2012.

What was more wonderful was finding that the areas I had to fudge due to my inexperience were almost twin to her own sampler, ways of pulling the fabric in when there is a tad too much. And my center piece was smaller than I intended it to be, but in the making of it, I remembered how a dear friend used to make quilt circles during our U.U. services and once that memory bloomed, I figured out how to make it work (and that I should have cut it much larger).
Hand-sewing is a meditation I love, folding fabric, like time, and binding it together in the shape you desire. Hands have been stitching longer than we can remember, where men at sea and soldiers were often more capable darners and menders than wives and mothers, before sewing was ascribed a gender role. These meditations through time layer the past onto the present. I am sewing a pattern that my Great-Grandmother sewed. I can feel her hand over mine, more sure, more used to the rhythm of it.

Minnie (left) and me (right), folding time in one pattern.

To create my sampler, I used the same stitch that my Great-Grandmother used. That her Great-Grandmother used. That all those who have come before and taken a needle into their hand have used. The needle separates the edges of threads and weaves in, through the threading, the fabric, and weaves out to take breath on the other side, before diving back down again, into the earth. I am sewing and weaving the earth and sky together. I am creating.
Working on my family tree, I realized that I was meditating on the backstitch in my head. Emma Whitcher was born and died. I slid the needle into the fabric at her birth, and moved it to the left, slipping out at her point of death, life’s beginning and end. But then I move the needle back to the right, halfway, to the place where Minnie, Emma’s daughter, was born, sliding the needle in at her birth, and then all the way to the left to Minnie’s death, coming back out of the fabric. And then halfway to the right, when her daughter Ruth was born, then out to the left, where Ruth died and halfway back to where my dad was born. The rhythm repeats, through those still living and those who are yet to be, so that someday a descendant- though not mine- might find my sampler and wonder at the stitches and endeavor to step into my shoes and take a needle into their hands.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Emma's Letters

Emma Angeline Whitcher was born in 1845. She was my great-great-grandmother, mother of Minnie, mother of Ruth, mother of my father. Among the family possessions are letters that 16 year old Emma wrote to Captain Charles Thompson, stationed in the same camp as her brother George Harrison Whitcher, during the Civil War. Charles and George were both in the 7th Michigan Infantry.
Emma’s letters were written on stationary embossed with a Union flag and seal, in the year 1862. Her handwriting was exquisite and easy to read except where the ink was faded. My father and I sat at the kitchen table, surrounded by old photos and program books, picture frames and antique shelves. I read aloud words 150 years dead and forgotten. The story of a young girl and a man she was smitten with.
I don’t know if she knew Charles before her brother joined the war or not, and we don’t know when young George left Western New York to make a life for himself in Michigan. We know he was living there at the outbreak of the war. I wonder if Charles was a childhood friend from his hometown or a new friend he made in Michigan?
In the first letter, Emma chastised Charles, in what seemed like a very forward manner, for reading the letters she had sent to her brother, where she inquired about Charles and wanted to know more about him. Emma implied that her brother George was supposed to mask her desire for a “likeness” of Charles by suggesting the friends pose together for a sitting, so he might send it back home to his family.
Emma’s tone was both familiar and flippant, a brash young girl talking to an unknown man as if no social boundaries lay between them. At the same time she apologized for breaking social etiquettes in her reply. Emma asked Charles to forgive the fact that she did not wait the appropriate length of time before responding to his letter, but she wanted to address the wrong she felt was done. And then, as if to reinforce her interest, she sent him back a likeness of herself and hoped that he hadn’t built her up in his mind so elaborately that he was disappointed in the reality of her. I found her honesty and forthrightness fascinating.
She talked of her time spent sleigh riding and ice skating with family friends. She told Charles about the first soldier sent home to Lockport in a casket, and how all the fire wagons were draped in mourning cloths. The body was escorted home by seven soldiers and there was a procession through the entire length of town. She had never heard the “death march” before but she said she thought it was beautiful.
She mentioned that George said “a letter from home was better than dinner at noon” and then quipped that she doubted very much that her brother would pass up a meal for a letter from home in a playful voice. But her lightness belies her worry and fear for the war after the first soldier from town came home dead. She even goes so far at the end of the letter, keeping a light tone, to ask Charles if he would make sure George did not get shot in the back before he managed to write another letter home.
My Great-Great Grandmother apologizes to Charles for all of the “rail fences” in her letter. It took me a while to realize she meant all the misspelled words that she had crossed out lengthwise and then slashed top to bottom multiple times. Emma begs Charles to overlook them, as if she would normally have rewritten the letter before it was appropriate to be sent out. To me it speaks to a hastily written letter, important for her to post, a glimpse of how wartime changed some of the established social frameworks.

Isn't her script lovely? (Photo by Phillip R. Eaton)
George Harrison Whitcher enlisted in company A, Seventh Infantry, Port Huron, MI at the age of 19 in 1861. Emma and Charles Thompson exchanged letters during 1862, each one from her a bit more familiar and forward. George was killed in action at Gettysburg, PA on July 3, 1863 at the age of 21. As far as the family knows, his body was never recovered. A year later, on November 16, 1864, Emma married Hiram King Wicker.
The question we were left with, sitting at the kitchen table, was how these letters come to be back in Emma’s possession? Did Charles return them to her? Did he also die and they were returned to her? We double-checked that the letters were in fact postmarked and had been sent to Charles. I wondered if it was the death of her brother and the following bereavement on both their parts that saw them parting ways, for it seemed understood that Charles and George were close friends.
My father unearthed an old newspaper article a few days later and sent it to me, about how the Whitcher family had spent years and money searching for George’s remains. The article was about how Daniel Whitcher, a brother, received “a letter enclosed in which was a small metallic plate battered and covered with hard earth, in which was stenciled the dead soldier’s name.” It was news worthy enough to make the paper, a part of a dead soldier returned home, 1889.
A man went back to Gettysburg 26 years after the battle and found a piece of rifle that had been dug up from the battle field 3 years earlier, with George Whitcher’s name and infantry unit engraved on it. He sent it back to the family. It took me only a moment to recognize the name of the man who signed the letter, the man who returned to the spot where George Harrison Whitcher had died and not been found. A name that would have meant nothing to me without the letters that Emma had written.
It was from George’s friend Charles, who seemed to have his own pull towards finding closure. For himself? For the family? For his fallen brother-at-arms?

Port Huron, Mich., June 19, ‘89.
Daniel Whitcher,
            Dear Sir:--While at Gettysburg last week I came across the enclosed which was dug up about three years ago at the place where we stood on that memorable third of July, 1863, after being buried nearly 24 years. “Was the body of G. H. Whitcher recovered and taken home for burial?” I could not find his name among the dead in the National Cemetery.
C. Thompson,
Late Lt. Co. A, 7th, Mich., Vol.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Dream Vision from my Ancestors

An original illustration from a dream vision, private collection.
A name trips across my tongue and dances upon my lips. Robert Moulton… born 1495 in Ormesby, a small village in North Yorkshire, England. Robert, who was alive when Columbus announced his discovery of a New World, Robert and his wife and their two-year old son John. My ancestors who were alive when a Spaniard crossed a vast black space called Ocean and found alien life on a new planet.
What did they think when the news reach their ears of a land on the other side of the ocean, strange and new and unending? Was it another story woven by fairies, or did it alter the landscape of their world? Did it change the axis of their importance in their centric universe? Did it fill them wonder?

In a dream, I am standing on an island, my feet buried in white sand, surrounded by water of a jeweled peacock hue. This is my island and the island is me, I know the edges of its boundary well. There are dark grey rocks off shore, with sun-bleached crags jutting out of the water at varying degrees. They are close, they are near and I call them Father and Mother, Grandfather, Grandmother, Uncle and Sister. In the light of the morning sun I walk in the shallows among them.
Further away, where the water deepens, grey tips cut through watery skin, stones called Great-Grandmother and Great-Great-Grandfather. Each generation before me spreads out, sinking beneath the sea. The monuments lie beneath, lie within, whether my eyes can see them or not. They are there because they were.
            The ancestors whisper into me with the ebb and retreating flow of tide, leaving gifts of shell and crab, driftwood and stone behind. The ocean pulses out there, somewhere beyond what my eyes can see. There is a pull, a vibration in the water as if a voice is trying to stretch through time to reach me.
I whisper back into the roar of the surf, “I am collecting the driftwood. I am building a boat. I will find my way back to you.”

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Creating Constellations

A map of stars of where my loved ones live.

I do a lot of work with mythic symbols: runes, cave paintings, indigenous drawings, the Nazca lines, Pictish symbols, etc. I like how symbols distill the larger picture down to a single silhouette, outline or image. As someone who tends to get lost in the bigger picture, it helps me better understand the essence or spirit of the thing.
It’s the same idea as taking your genealogy and creating it into a visual tree, with names as leaves, where the oldest known homelands as roots burrowed into the ground, your foundation. It’s a beautiful thing that art does. It shows something outside of its expected interpretation, offering another dimension of context by which to view it.
In the deep winter, when the trees are barren and naked, I look to the stars. I imagine how the oldest ancestors studied their patterns and trusted their fixed points enough to navigate the world. They used the stars in the sky as a compass to explore previously unknown terrain, to aid their exploration. Our ancestors ventured into water that had no visible end just to see what was on the other side. How powerful the stars are, that their constancy made man put faith in them.
I study constellations as a hobby. I am no master of names or places in the sky but I can recognize my old friends and I look to the summer sky for friendly faces, gazing at them as I used to do on camping trips with my family: Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Cassiopeia, Draco. Those nights around the fire with my parents and my siblings are some of my fondest memories, just us immersed in nature, a glittering starry sky above us. It’s a reminder I carry with me now, that they are still above me, even when the sun obscures their view…like those we love are still with us, even when death has claimed them.
When we are small our lives revolve around our immediate parents and grandparents, including our childhood playmates. As we grow older, our worlds and our circles expand. We know people who live in other cities, we grow closer to distant relatives. Our web gets larger and we begin to collect people important to our growth, our chosen family. No matter where we travel, they remain a part of us, a fixed point in our lives, and that love and gratitude never tarnishes or fades. Even when our friends and family are separated from us by geographical distance, the love we feel for each other exists as something solid in us.

My starburst.

Even still, it’s hard to hold that image in the isolation of the winter months. A few years ago I wanted to make a visual representation of the web of people in my life. To start, I took a map of the world, and put a dot where I lived. Then I charted a dot in every city where my loved ones and chosen family lived. Some dots became larger than others, in areas where my roots were deeper, becoming brighter stars on my map of my sky.
When that was done, I drew lines from each dot into the one that represented where I lived. What I found was a wonderful image, a starburst, light blooming out into the world that represented the landscape of loving energy I had created. It was as if the dark gloom of winter melted away beneath its image.

A stilt-walker creature from The Dark Crystal?

A winding path and journey forwards?

A diamond, opening like a box so the light comes out?

That starburst became my personal symbol of joy, a totem I burned onto a wooden disc to carry with me in my mojo bag. I created my own constellation, my own constant companion. Sometimes, as a meditation, I play with it, mapping out the cities and playing connect-the-dots in various ways to see what images I find, like the Big Dipper, the Bear or Cassiopeia’s necklace.
Now, unlike the fixed stars in the heavens, the ones in my life do move around the world and the shape of my personal constellation changes. But I have learned to accept change as the only constant I can count on. Some stars go out and people leave my life, either through death, a move or a falling out we can’t seem to come back from, which doesn’t negate the love we had for each other when we had it.
Every winter I revisit and reshape the stars in my universe, a reminder of how loved I am, and how far-reaching the web of friends has become. This exercise reminds me that I never truly walk alone. My feet walk the earth where others before me have walked, eyes tilted up to the same stars I see, the same stars those who come after will see.
Have gratitude for the love you have in your life, for the lives you have touched and the ones that have stirred your soul. Create your own symbol, whether it be a web, a starburst, a constellation, a collage. Make yourself something you can touch and hold that reminds you of your blessings and fills your spirit with peace.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Meditation to the Stars

With Solstice behind us, the days are lengthening and every night the sun sets a few minutes later in my office window. In the Northeast we are still in the grip of a cold and dark winter. We wrap ourselves in blankets to warm our bodies. We drink mugs of hot cocoa, cider, tea and coffee to warm our insides. We light candles to warm our homes and blaze against the darkened nights.
In the flurry of winter, we look to the stars in the sky to remind us that there is always light to be found in the darkness. We remember, and know, that those stars still live in the sky above us, even when the sun obscures them from view. Light can always be found, if not outside of us, then within. We become the light in the dark.
            The earth beneath us is sleeping, even though we who walk upon it are in need of healing. The earth is in need of healing, too, still recovering from the flooding that ravaged our area in September. Normally, when we are in need, we pull our energy from the earth and the trees and plant life around us. We take only what we need and find ways to return in kind. Sometimes, the natural world’s needs matter more than our own and the caretaker must rest. Where do we turn for energy when the source we know is unavailable?
            In the stillness of a frozen world, I turn to the stars in the sky. Starlight is the ultimate ancestor fuel. It is history, a memory of light that began its journey across space and time in the past. The light we see in the sky, that moment of brilliance, has already ceased to shine by the time we view it. The star still shines, certainly, but that moment, that spark is long behind it and what we see is an echo. The light that permeates the dark is the Ancestor of the present moment, a conduit of luminous energy reaching out to us.
The closest star to our solar system, Proxima Centauri, is approximately four lightyears away, which means that the light we see from that star is four years old the moment we glimpse it. Polaris, the North Star, is 680 lightyears away so the light that twinkles down on us is 680 years old. That means the light originated approximately 9 generations ago.
Almost all of the stars that we see with our naked eye are a few hundred lightyears away, shining with light a few hundred years old, about four generations worth. It’s light that began its travel across the sky when my Great-great-grandparents walked the earth. It’s light born of their time, travelling across empty space to reach me in my time.
A scattering of the stars we can see are as much as 2,000 lightyears away. That’s approximately 25 generations old, our ancestors who walked the earth circa 12 C.E., before Vesuvius erupted and froze Pompeii under ash. What lands did your ancestors walk then? This light is only just now visible to our eyes, available for our use.

            I stand, slippered feet on wooden floorboards in my apartment. I feel the cold of the earth beneath my feet. I feel the chill seeping into my apartment. I take a deep breath and reach into the cold with my roots. I sink into the energy of the earth and feel it sleeping beneath me.
I become Tree, curling into earth. I feel my breath drawing in slow and deep, one breath, as if the entire season of winter is an inhale. I become an entire grove of trees breathing in unison and when we exhale, I know we will breathe out the warmth of spring.
            I am rooted in the earth, arms stretching up into the winter air. Above me thousands of stars twinkle in the night sky. Across the eons of time I sense energy, not heat, but power, source, strength. All of my arms sense it too and I am reaching past the boundaries of my edges to drink it in. I inhale deep and long. I hold the air in my heart, filling me and warming my core.
            As the human of me exhales, I drop the energy I don’t need down through my legs, through my feet, into the sleeping earth. I give back in gratitude for all I have been given. My human breath falls away to earth.
I am vulnerable, naked like the winter trees that lose their leaves. My feet are solid in the soil, roots curling through stone. I feel the stars swimming through the water of me. I am human. I am animal. I am nature.
All that I am stands strong, drinks in, refuels and falls away to earth. Everything but breath falls away to earth. The breath is the rhythm of the tides, the pulsing of light across empty space. The Ancestors are shining above me. Dawn approaches and they fade from sight but they are constant above. I drink what I need and let the rest fall through me into the earth. I am healed and I am healing. I am healer.
            The water in me mirrors and magnifies the brilliance of the stars above and a fire grows within, contained and white-hot. My waters are fire, warming me in veins through tissue and muscle. Edges flow and I feel full to the ends of my flesh. I am starlight shining in skin. I am the end of the timeline, the result of the past, burning through the present. I am breathing in seasons, like time, in and out, ebbing in the waters.

            Our Ancestors are more than our blood relatives. They live in every pocket of the natural world. I am because they were. I am because they will be. I am important because I am here. I am humbled because I do not matter, beyond the matter of this flesh. When I exhale the last time, my soul will cease its matter and will become star-dust, swimming through space to feed the needs of those who come after. We breathe in the wisdom of the ancestors of the past. They are in me and I am in them and in this life it is the only comfort I need.
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