Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Animal Allies: Hummingbird Messengers

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; strength, courage, endurance, etc. The animal world is vast and varied and full of natural magic. It’s normal to feel drawn to different animals, each for special reasons, but most have a core group of animals they are drawn to repeatedly. I call them my animal allies, friends of nature that I feel an affinity for.
Animals are helpful guides in ancestor and spirit work. Where we have lost our connection to the natural world, they have not. They are a key to help cross the threshold, something known and familiar, and cultures throughout history have often associated specific animals with this task. I use them in visualizing exercises to help me widen my view of and understand my journeys with the spirit world.
There are different kinds of animal allies. There are ones that are mated to us, our co-walkers. Chances are you can think of one or two easily that you have been drawn to or had an unusual connection to. Our shadow allies are animals that stir great fear in us. By working with them magically, we can learn the way to work through that fear. These allies can be powerful magic.
And then there are the animal allies that serve as guides and mentors, guardians of portals that look into parts of the natural world normally hidden to us. 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, of seal, lioness, owl and buffalo for strength.

Hummingbird Messengers
Spring has arrived and the animal world is reawakening. I await the first hummingbird sighting in the Northeast. The hummingbird is an animal only found in the Americas and the islands between them, so its mythology and folklore belongs to the New World. Hummingbirds are seen as messengers between the worlds, aiding shamans in their work to keep nature and spirit in balance.
My Grandmother was fond of hummingbirds, of both hummingbirds and owls. Feathered allies can easily cross from one world to the next, and for me, because of my emotional connection to my Grandma, hummingbirds are my close allies to the spirit world. Imagine the hummingbird, wings moving so fast that you can’t see them, can’t focus on them. Wings moving so fast that its body appears to hover in mid-air, as if still.
This is the meditation of the hummingbird. It is so simple to me, moving between worlds without moving, at once blurred in motion and sedately still. It’s about learning to walk with one foot in spirit world and one in the breathing world. It’s about learning to trance in instead of trancing out, about journeying through another world while remaining aware and present of this one. May the return of the hummingbirds this spring stir feelings of rebirth and renewal.

Hummingbirds in Legend
  • When Native American culture was being lost, the Ghost Shirt religion attempted to bring back their old ways through dancing and the leader of their dance was a hummingbird.
  • There is a ritual among some Pueblo Indians for stillborn babies, or those who die within days of their birth. They hold prayer sticks with hummingbird feathers during the winter solstice sunrise to quicken re-birth.
  • The Cochiti Pueblos have a legend about how Hummingbird thrived during a drought because a passageway to the Underworld remained open only for him to fly through, where he gathered honey. They believed he alone didn’t lose faith in Great Mother and so the way remained open for him to flourish.
  • There is a taboo against harming hummingbirds among the Chayma people of Trinidad as they believe the birds are dead ancestors.
  • A Mayan legend describes a hummingbird piercing the tongues of ancient kings, whose blood would be poured on sacred scrolls and burned. In the smoke, their divine ancestors would appear.
  • The Aztecs used hummingbird feathers for decoration. They adorned their ceremonial cloaks with feathers, and the priests attached them to their staves, used to suck evil out of those cursed by sorcerers. Chieftains often wore hummingbird feather earrings.
  • There is a warrior in Aztec mythology named Huitzilopochtli, “hummingbird from the left,” referring to the spirit world. He was the son of Coatlicul, who conceived him from a ball of feathers that fell from the sky. Huitzil was killed in battle and a green hummingbird appeared where he had fallen. The Aztecs believed that warriors who died in battle became hummingbirds.
  • One of the Nazca lines in Peru depicts a hummingbird.
  • In the Andes, the hummingbird is associated with resurrection because each night, in the cold, the hummingbird appears lifeless, but as the sun returns it stirs again, taking flight.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Crossroads: Spring Equinox

A crossroad is a place where two roads meet, where two planes intersect. It’s where dark and light find neutral ground. Where balance is born.
At the Spring Equinox, our days and nights are of equal length. We have successfully survived the short days and long nights of winter and we can smell spring in the air as we head towards the longest day of the next Solstice. For my practice, the Equinox is symbolic of the crossroads. It is at the point where they meet, where the breathing world joins with the spirit world. It is the place where the gateway exists. That gateway lives inside you.
We have the chance to touch the other side without walking through it, as the point of balance floats over our land like fog, obscuring lines and blurring edges. We stand in the tipping point, the grey space. Equinox is a time for feeling and reflection, a chance to catch our breath before moving forward. Around us, the world is waking.
Outside my kitchen window the flock of sparrows that winter in a wayward bush fill the air and the day with cheeps and chirps and silly songs, as they take turns at the bird feeder. They warm their wings in the sun and carry twigs and hair and roughage to fortify new nests for new life. After such a mild winter, my tiger lilies have sprouted early in the spring warmth and have risen four inches from the soil. The peppermint has begun to bloom and stretch and already must be chastised into staying in its corner of the garden bed. I spent Equinox morning enjoying the sunshine on my skin and the smell of warming grass in the air.
Sensation blossoms full as bulbs prepare for birth. My hands long to touch skin, fur, scales, dirt, worms and seeds. The soft breezes carry hints of fragrance and perfume across my senses- I may not know where from, but I know what’s coming. The wild is waking, heralding its return in the creak-clacking of the grackle’s birdsong in the morning sun. If you quiet yourself you will hear the sounds of creatures stirring.
            I have begun to shed the layers of winter, to cull my home of clutter and items unused so I might pass them on to others in need. The winter altar has been cleared of its evergreen bowers and turned over to spring with purple flowers. The windows will be opened and the house will be aired. The floors will be swept free of dust bunnies and house gremlins. The garden will be planned and the necessary seeds will be ordered.
            The world outside us is waking. And the world inside us is stirring, too.
            In mythology, at Equinox, Persephone rises from the Underworld, from her home with her husband, and in return her mother Demeter allows the trees to bud and flowers to bloom, her grief abated. Inanna resurrects in her sister’s domain below the earth, having passed through death to attain knowledge, and she returns to the world changed. Stories of transformation, of spiritual alchemy. It is the time of doorways, gateways, thresholds and promise. What dream do you bring with you from the darkness? How will you manifest it into reality in the lengthening days?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Eulogy I Wish I’d Given

Grandma Donna & Grandpa Dick
After he passed, I realized that I was not sure what my Grandfather’s spiritual notions were. He was raised Roman Catholic and we all attended Sunday mass with my Great-Grandmother when she came to visit for the summer. But I spent enough Sundays with him to know he didn’t attend any church regularly. So, when my Grandpa died, we requested the minister attached to the funeral home to reside over a simple service.
It was humorous. The poor retired minister was so excited to be behind a podium again that he threw every bible story he could into discussing death, including Jonah and the Whale. Yet he couldn’t keep my Grandpa’s name straight. The minister meant well, but he lost me when he started talking about how death was like the small white dead skin cells that fall out of your socks at night. I’m sure everyone behind me thought my silent laughter resembled tears. I hope my Grandpa would have been amused at the absurdity, too.
I was so overwhelmed with the loss, I didn’t even think about talking. It never crossed my mind that I might look back later and wish the moment had been more personal, more about my Grandpa. He was the reason we were all there. One of my cousins spoke for him but I wish it had been more than just another funeral. We were just trying to get through it though; a strange service held behind stranger walls.

A teen Dick in front of his parents store.
Richard James Riddle
December 23, 1931 – March 25, 2004
My Grandpa was everything to me. He was every Saturday lunch, every holiday meal. He used to come over at noon on the dot. He would tease me with, “What’s for lunch this week?” and then feign surprise when I answered with the same statement every week; bologna, cheese, mustard and potato chip (salt and vinegar was the best flavor to add to the combination).
He and my mom would sit in the kitchen together, the only time the smell of coffee permeated our house. He had his own stash in our cupboard, waiting for his weekly visit. I loved listening to them discuss the world, the way it worked. I loved the way they talked their way into hope. My Grandpa tried the best he could to see the bright end of things.
Me & Grandpa.
When I was a little girl, I remember lots of summer afternoons at their house, playing in the cool basement and watching Grandma and Grandpa work their garden in the back yard, Grandma in her terrycloth one-piece and Grandpa in his shorts and sunglasses. In my memory they are summer, fresh vegetables and warm afternoons filled with the fragrant smell of roses. They were the spirit of growing things.
We would often have family dinners together and I believed my Grandpa to be an accomplished baker. Grandma cooked dinner and Grandpa cooked dessert. After each meal he would pull out his latest creation and go on about how he had even put it in a special box that he found, to make it nice for us. I was a bit innocent as a child and didn’t notice what a handy coincidence it was that he happened to have a Sara Lee Coffee Cake box the same day he made us one.
I’m not sure the grown-ups had any idea I was buying it. But my Grandpa could do anything. One night, He pulled out a cantaloupe and started telling us that he had grown it all up in one day, just for us. It was the first memory I have of recognizing the impish twinkle in his eye when he was teasing or pulling my leg.
Only then did my rational mind inform him that you couldn’t grow a cantaloupe in one day. In the moment that the grown-ups realized I had just accepted his stories all along, there was some well-earned laughter at my expense. One of my favorite desserts is still a quarter of cantaloupe with a scoop of vanilla ice cream using it as a bowl. After dinner we’d play the card game Scat together. He would lend my siblings and me pennies from his jar and at the end of the night, we’d pay him back what we started with if we won and the rest was ours.
Early generational- I'm the baby.
My Great-Grandmother Elsie spent her summers with my family and we would take generational photos while she was with us; her, my Grandpa, my mom and us. He adored his mom, as did everyone who ever knew her. We spent days at the Riddle cottage in Olcott on Lake Ontario. I remember the laughter, so much laughter, love and togetherness. It’s what I thought the world would be like when I was a grown-up. I know it’s possible, to be surrounded by that joy and love. It’s the greatest gift my family gave me, that he gave me. I won’t settle for less than that. I look for the spirit of my Grandfather in the hearts of the people I meet. I like to think that he would approve of my friends, just as easily as he took to my mother’s friends.
Grandpa Dick also had a beautiful Cadillac. I loved riding in it with him. Sometimes when he was watching us, he’d take us to his favorite diner for breakfast. All of the waitresses knew him and chatted him up. He’d happily introduce us and we’d hear how often he’d talk about us. I knew my entire life that my Grandpa loved me, even when he wasn’t with me. It’s such a thing we take for granted sometimes, but now that he’s gone, it means everything.
When his cancer came back, I went home to spend some time with him. I asked him questions about his parents, pushing through the awkward moment of both of us knowing I was asking him because he was dying. Because he might not recover and then there would be no answers. I picked up his prescriptions and took him some groceries one night, after copying old family photos. That was the night I learned that we shared a favorite flavor of ice cream… Black Raspberry.
He was every Christmas morning, all of my life. The very last Christmas we had together, I was 27. My nieces were opening presents and the youngest said “Thank you, Great-Grandpa!” To which the middle child said, “Don’t call him that. It’s rude!” My Grandpa smiled and said, “Why? That’s what I am.” And that’s who he was.
Dick & Donna's wedding.
Richard James Riddle was born in 1931. He had a brother and a sister. His parents owned a small store. He was a young boy when World War II began. He spent some time in the military. He was married twice, had one daughter, and three step-children. His second wife, my Grandma Donna, was the love of his life. He outlived her by three years.
He was the father of my mother and father to my aunt and uncles. He was a father to my own and to all of their friends. I heard stories all my life of him dropping in on my mother’s friends and helping them out. He was a good friend to one of my favorite high school teachers, who lived a stone’s throw away from him after he moved.
I see the ripple of his time on this earth stretching out in the wake of his loss, still. And when I sit quietly in the woods, I can hear the sound of his voice in the wind that blows through the trees. What is remembered, lives. What is remembered never truly dies.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

When Anniversaries Come Around

Sunday marked two years since the day our beloved cat Luna died, only 9 years old, from a very fast and aggressive cancer. I can’t believe it’s been that long already. I can’t believe it hasn’t been longer than that.
I am still absently haunted by the moment I held her head, held her gaze at death. Her eyes widened that last instant, when she felt she was dying. I am haunted by those two seconds still. But being with her in the moment of her death, at the end of the day, means the world to me.
On Sunday afternoon we made a small altar with her food bowl, her ashes, her favorite cat toy and the bowl our friend crafted for us, including some of her bone and ash kneaded into the clay. I might not have done it if the day passed with ease, but I felt the pull of loss and missed her. So we made the altar and we lit candles and we cuddled our remaining cats closer and spoiled them with lap, treats and catnip.
Remembering her makes it easier to miss her without feeling that stab of pain in my chest. She lived, she was loved, she changed my life and I will not be the same because of what we shared. I am a better human for the experience she gave me with raising a kitten and sharing a house with another independent thinker.
The trick to living, to surviving loss, is to learn tools to help us honor those days that are difficult and painful reminders (because they do come) without succumbing to a dark room, a pint of ice cream and all-day pajamas (personal experience). Emotion is not rational. We can endeavor to understand it and we can explain it away, but it lives in a separate part of our bodies. It is connected to our animal selves. We need to grieve.
Everyone experiences loss in different ways. The only sameness is that we all need to find a way to let ourselves feel what we’re feeling because it’s the only way we can process through it. Some do that in groups of people, some do it alone. Some do it all at once and some do it a little at a time, with ten minutes here and ten minutes there. But memorializing a day and putting too much focus on “this is the day to grieve” is against our animal instincts.
We’re animals. I’ll say that a lot because it humanizes us to remember it.

Grandpa Dick
Spring is a strange mix of happiness and sorrow for me. Following Luna’s death date by two weeks is the day my Grandpa died, eight years past. It seems impossible that a man who was such a vital part of my life has been out of it for so long. I miss him every time I think of him. But I am grateful for his part in my world. And when I miss him too much and wish I could talk to him again, I do. I talk to him out loud to get the things I want to say off my chest and my mind.
Anniversaries don’t affect everyone the same. Neither does death or grief. But for some people, the date can carry heavy emotional context for those left behind. It’s true that death occurs every day, but the ones that affect us happen more infrequently, if we’re lucky. So those days mean more, matter more because it’s personal.
To the world, March 25 is a Sunday, a day of rest. For the first years, it was a return of the day my family sat vigil and watched my Grandpa die. It was as if I poured all of my pain and sorrow and sadness into the date, giving it magical power over me. If that was true, I thought, I could take that power away. I could change the affect the day has on me. So I did.
My Grandpa was a man who enjoyed life and the world he lived in. He did his best to keep moving forward after my Grandma died, even after he got sick. The best way I can honor him is to live my life. I opened my world, saying yes to things I haven’t tried before, like circle dancing, Thai food, and singing solo in a bardic circle of strangers.
They may not be big leaps, but I keep pushing out the edges of my known universe, literally expanding my horizon, in honor of the love I have for him. I push myself to be open to new things so that I may become a better person, in honor of the life that they are not living. It’s not penance. It’s embracing my life because I love them. Because they loved me and it’s what they would have wanted for me.
*Make an altar with gifts, photos and other items that remind you of them.
*Have mutual friends over and share stories about them.
*Find a karaoke bar and sing their favorite song.
*Do something you heard them say they always wanted to try.
*Make their favorite meal for your family.
*Write a story about them. Tell it to your children.
*Plant their favorite flowers or vegetables in your summer garden.
*Do something you have always wanted to do.
The possibilities are endless. Our culture is so removed from the process of death that we lost the tools to grieve. We have to learn to honor the death, feel the loss and honor the life again in living our own. Every breath you take, every act of kindness you commit, every shoulder you give and every smile you share is a gift you offer, and it speaks to the effect that your loved ones had on the person you have become. It is the best way we remember them.
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