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, May 30, 2012

Sudden Loss

“It never gets easier,” I said to a young man in grief. Losing people is always hard. It’s okay to hurt. It’s okay to be mad. It’s not supposed to be pleasant.
My friend Thatch put it best, sitting across from me at the picnic table, bringing comfort to a dark moment. He said there’s a box in your brain, where you compartmentalize your friends, where all the bits and pieces of who they are to you live. Death upends the contents of that box and scatters them. The scattering is grief. It brings old things to the surface.
Time is not relevant. You have to relive every memory all over again, with new eyes. And your new eyes perceive those memories with the knowledge that the living, laughing friend in your recollections is now dead. It’s hardly the amount of time we spend with someone that prompts our grief, it’s the depth in the time spent together that does.
No, it never gets easier, but with each loss we have to navigate, with each grieving we endure and push past, we get stronger. We learn tools to transform the grief. We hold onto the knowledge that someday, though we will always miss them, we will be happy for their peace. Even if that day is not today.
We were on the mountain at a festival last week when news reached us of the sudden passing of our friend Freya Moon Greenleaf. I was grateful to hear the bad news in the midst of a spiritual container, surrounded by friends and fellow community members. Miles away from our home community, those of us who had travelled to the festival came together in our sorrow.
We gathered in the Ancestor Shrine, in the woods by the water, and called in our ancestors to welcome Freya to Spirit. We hung a prayer ribbon for her and wished her peace. We wished that her next turn around the earth will be happier and better for her. That part was for her, to honor her. But the grief is still real. Today, it is still fresh and still here.
“Love,” Sarahluna whispered to me, “just love.” And she was right. When you’re grieving the only place that’s safe to go is love. The best way we can honor those lost to us is to live in the world as brightly as we can. To laugh, touch, connect. To live, breathe and love.
That’s the part of grief that’s about us. We hurt because we know we won’t see our friends and loved ones anymore. We are hurting. They are not. Every breath we take reminds us of that. It also reminds us that we are alive. So we tell the people we love that we love them and hold tightly to them because in death we know how quickly a light can go out. So we breathe into those lights, to strengthen their flame.

I am lighting candles for your safe travels, Freya.
May the ancestors welcome you home.
May the memory of your laughter outshine the loss of you soon.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Plugging Into Nature

I have an Ancestor Altar on top of a small bookshelf in my office. I use it as a place to leave offerings and prayers, and for doing spirit work. I use the construction of an altar as a meditation on creating a sacred space. The meditative intention, layered over the last one builds a history of sacred purpose and sacred energy. Nature is my temple, and immersing myself in it connects me to divine energy. Magic is all around us.
Once a year I go on retreat to a festival in the mountains. For a week I unplug from the electrical appliances of the industrial world and I plug into the mountain, into the stone, into the air, the stars and into the water. It is a spiritual balm unlike any other and reminds me of yearly childhood camping trips with my family. We spent our summers discovering the landscape of the state we lived in: the Finger Lakes, the Catskills, the Adirondacks, the 1,000 Islands, various creeks and gorges, all of the old-time re-enactment villages, the underground caverns, etc.
One of the places we took frequent family trips to was Arrowhead Campground, remembered most fondly for the crazy year the inchworms were literally raining from the treetops. On one trip, my brother and I were exploring the woods and we found a giant pine tree that had fallen during the winter. We saw something when we climbed beneath it, that it was something more than just a dying thing. We spent two afternoons together fleshing out its skeleton with sticks and rocks and moss until it resembled the other thing we saw. We disappeared under that tree and we slipped into a crack in the earth.
That spot was special and we both sensed it. Normally we would have wanted to show it off and I didn’t understand then what kept us silent. We even managed to stay quiet as our parents passed right beside us, wondering aloud at what we were up to that they hadn’t seen us around. We were safe in the bubble of that beautiful, dying pine tree, in both this world and another.
Have you ever found a spot in nature that feels that way to you? A place you like to escape to, to unplug from the world? A place you only reveal to people you feel close to? I have dozens of spots like this. Everywhere I go there is a place that speaks to me, something that pulls at me. Some tree, or rock or clearing.
I believe that I am drawn to these spots because other good energy has been laid down there before me. It could be as simple as the echo of every person who has stopped there and been momentarily spellbound. It could be an ancient place people used to gather. It could be the oldest spot in the woods and it could be the youngest. I don’t think it matters so much why those spots call to me. I think what matters, is that I can sense it, that my heart is open enough to hear it.
These places feel as sacred as altars to me. When I find them in the natural world, its more sense than sight. That sense feels kind of fuzzy and unclear. But I am drawn to add to it, to leave offerings as if it were a holy shrine. I think about bringing the shrine to life like creating a painting, by adding color and texture to create clarity.
I soft focus my senses so that I am taking in everything without any one thing pulling my focus and I walk around the space, feeling out what spots sing to me. Where do I feel the wonder? Where does the energy seem to concentrate? How can I make that more obvious to other eyes?
I take objects from the space itself, sticks, stones, feathers, the odd bone, and move them to another spot in the space where it feels better to me, and I’m no longer surprised to see patterns emerge. The more pieces I move, the sharper into focus the good feeling becomes, until it hums. When my skin hums I know it is good. I have laid another layer of good energy down in that space. I have acknowledged it as sacred and left behind a bit of magic for someone else to discover.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Experiencing Death I: The Unborn Baby

Wherever we find our feet on the path we choose for ourselves, we can find multiple moments that stand out as events that helped direct us to where we are and who we have become. I’m not sure that I would have chosen to do spirit work. I have always had an odd fascination with horror movies, movie monsters, Halloween, haunted houses, cemeteries and death, but not more than others. I have always been drawn towards the unknown. Still, I would not have foreseen that I would be doing the spiritual work that I do.
Looking back, I can see the flagstones of my path as they appeared before me or, at times, were laid down by me. I wanted to share the moments that altered or clarified my beliefs, where death awakened me to its mysteries. Sometimes, in figuring out where you’re going, it’s helpful to reflect on where you’ve been. Every month I will share another point in my life’s journey that redefined what I thought I knew of death and led the way to where I am now. It is death that brought me to my interactions with the spirit world, and it is the spirit world that has helped my understanding of death evolve and widen.
The first moment I awakened to the idea of death is a simple one. When I was a small child, a neighbor across the way was pregnant. It was the first new baby to join our little community that I had a part in experiencing. I watched as her belly grew and I was amazed and terrified at the notion that there was something alive inside.
I have a memory that is more a crisp emotional one than tangible one, that touches the edges of my skin. My mom sat us down in the living room on the shaggy green couch against the illustrated paneling. I remember her arm around me, hugging me tightly in a way that almost scared me. I could feel an emotion from her I had never felt before. She wanted us to know that our neighbor had lost her baby.
I didn’t quite understand what she meant by “lost.” I know I was young enough that I thought it only meant “misplaced.” I wasn’t familiar with loss yet. My mom said it was a sad thing and that it was sadder still for our neighbor and we had to take care and remember not to ask about the baby. That was important.
Years later, the same neighbor finally had her little girl. I remember watching her belly get bigger and noted how people seemed to be more cautious about congratulating her. They were waiting. And there was a moment where everyone seemed pretty satisfied that the baby was on its way.
I waited. After the baby was born I watched her grow, like a ghost, an echo of the one who-might-have-been. It was the first moment I remember wondering if the soul of the baby that didn’t make it came back into this new baby. Or was that other soul in a body somewhere else, on the other side of the world and this one was new?  
My introduction to death started as simply as learning that it occurs, like seeing a door in a room for the first time, only to realize it had always been there. Death happens. It comes to everyone and it can come without warning. Only sometimes, like with the baby, it whispers in an echo preceding first breath. With the fear of an ending came a grateful reminder of how precious a gift living is. Every death reminds us to remember that we are live breathing beings.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Daughter of Margaret, Revisited

I am Sarah.
daughter of Margaret,
daughter of Patricia,
daughter of Margaret,
daughter of Eliza,
daughter of Mary, of Ireland.

That is what I know of the line of my mothers’ mothers. Five generations, three names who have passed. The line of my fathers’ fathers stretches for twenty-five generations, and further yet unverified, like so much of our history. But in a world where an unbroken line of fathers is given power, what of the mysterious unknown line of mothers? It was important for me to pay homage to the silent women of history, to the broken lines of voices that seemed unimportant to the passing of time. Blood matters. It was important for me to find the unbroken branches of mothers birthing daughters.
If you think about water as life, there is all of this energy pouring down into me, from mother pushing daughter out of her uterus to mother pushing daughter out… What will I do with that energy? That gift? This life? How will I use it? How will I honor the mothers who came before me?
It’s the crux of this journey I’m on. At the moment, it’s with my voice, it’s with this blog. The strength of those who came before me trickles down through me and as I share my discoveries of and journey into the spirit world, it filters out into the larger world. I do it for all of my nieces and my nephew, for my great-nephew, for the children whose lives I have become part of. I do this so those who come after me might find their way more easily.

I am Sarah,
the first daughter born of Margaret,
the only daughter born of Patricia,
the third daughter born of Margaret,
the third daughter born of Eliza,
the fourth daughter born of Mary Dowd,
Mary, born of an unknown mother in Ireland.

My mother taught me independence, taught me to listen to my voice as best she could in a society that once tried to silence women. My mother made it possible for me to be open to this path I am on. My mother is the gateway to all my mothers. But we can follow the path of mothers, all of us, back to the earth, back to the primal mother, back to where all of our energy originates.
I tend to her in the summer, coaxing food from her soil to nourish myself with. I grow flowers to feed the squirrels, birds and bees we share the land with. I clean the garbage from her flesh as I stumble across it. As much as possible I reuse what I have used and I allow her areas of wild to stay wild and untainted.
I make altars with her bones to mark the earth, in parks and woods. I do it in the name of my mothers, in the names of those unknown, in honor of those I have loved. I know even as I do it, that someone else will happen upon them. That someone will find them and see them with new eyes, and what I created will be reborn with new meaning and new purpose as part of someone else’s journey.

Sleeping In the Forest
by Mary Oliver

I thought the earth remembered me, she
took me back so tenderly, arranging
her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds. I slept
as never before, a stone
on the riverbed, nothing
between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated
light as moths among the branches
of the perfect trees. All night
I heard the small kingdoms breathing
around me, the insects, and the birds
who do their work in the darkness. All night
I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling
with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Story in the Life

Painting of Lockport NY, 1839, artist W.H. Bartlett
 For the last few weeks I have been writing out what I know about each of my ancestors into a chronological timeline. I have been doing historical research into the towns they lived in, as well as what was happening in the world-at-large. I enjoy the repetition of writing out information. It’s how I learn. It’s how I remember, puzzling names and dates into history. Their history is my history.
Slowly I am building flesh onto bone and adding tissue and shading where the information is weak or lacking. There are so many names and so many lives that stretch out behind me, so many human beings with dreams and wishes, hopes and regrets. People like me.
I am weaving the moments of their lives that are known with moments from history we can’t forget. I’ve been plugging in world events: wars, natural disasters, new discoveries, etc. I am witnessing the generations that saw the introduction of the telephone, or the first commercial airplane use for travelling. I am seeing the generations that survived or succumbed to plague and lost children to warfare. The emotional context is thick and rich and I can almost reach through the layers and touch them, hold their hands.

The World of Bailey and Ordelia Whitcher
Bailey Harrison Whitcher, my three-times Great-grandfather, was born in 1799, at the turn of the century, in Danville, Vermont. At the time, America was comprised of 16 states and John Adams was our second President. In 1810, Ordelia DeLozier was born, daughter of a man who survived being held hostage at the Battle of Tripoli, a man who owned a cabinet-making business in Lockport, New York.
During their childhoods, at the end of the War of 1812, after the eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia, in 1815, the world knew a year without a summer, where frosts and snow in the New England area through July and August devastated crops. New York declared that all slaves must be freed by 1827 and Mary Shelly published her work Frankenstein.
Bailey’s father died in 1817, and I assume this is when he began his trek to the West, seeking his own life in a new frontier. He was the third son of 12 children. The next time we see him is as an apprentice of Peter DeLozier, the cabinet-maker in Lockport, a town along the Erie Canal.
In 1821, Dr. Isaac Smith settled in the village as its first physician. Construction began on the locks that would master the 60’ drop in the Erie Canal in 1822 and a riot of lock workers resulted in the very first murder in town of a man named Jennings. A year later, the village of Lockport recorded its first earthquake, and two slave hunters from Kentucky came to town to arrest a black barber named Joseph Pickard. Instead, a mob of Irish canal workers drove them out of town empty-handed. The Quakers had a strong anti-slavery hold in Lockport.
Bailey was working as an apprentice for Ordelia’s father, which is where they must have met. They were married June 13, 1825 when he was 25 and she was 15 years of age. The year of their marriage, construction ended on the Erie Canal and the first boat went through the new lock system in October with great fanfare. Lockport was a stopping-point for General LaFayette’s tour, and he made a four hour visit to the village where he received a hero’s welcome for his part in aiding the colonies struggle in the Revolutionary War. In 1832, an epidemic of Asiatic cholera swept through the village.
By 1835, the small village had a population of 6,000 people and had bought its first fire engine, which held a barrel and a half of water. Its first hospital was constructed around the same time as, elsewhere in the country the Cherokee were being forcibly relocated from Georgia to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. The village population went up to 9,000 in the next five years. Elevated water tank toilets were commonly found in homes, not just hotels, and the world saw the first mass-production of vulcanized rubber condoms. Niagara County had it’s only hanging, after the first murder conviction of the County occurred in Lockport.
In the first thirty years of their marriage together, Bailey and Ordelia had sixteen children.  Their son Albert Tracy died at the age of 7 in 1836 and the twins, Edward and Edwin, died the same day they were born in 1838. My Great-great-grandmother, Emma Angeline Whitcher, was born in 1845. She was the twelfth of sixteen children.
The year of Emma’s birth, a telegraph office opened in Lockport and news of the Great Irish Famine was spreading. The famine killed a million people and led to the emigration of 1.5 million Irishmen. Soon after, the California Gold Rush boomed and Ordelia’s father and Bailey’s former employer, having abandoned his family to return to the sea, died of Cholera in Clinton, Connecticut, his birthplace.
In the 1850 census, Bailey Whitcher is listed as a shoemaker. During this year over 30,000 boats passed through the lock system to finish their journeys to Buffalo. The Village of Lockport had a population of 12,000 people and made use of gaslighting. A great fire swept the town in 1854, destroying 26 buildings and 10 acres of land. One of the buildings that burned was Bailey’s store, the first brick building in Lockport. Bailey was 55. His wife Ordelia was 45 and my ancestor Emma was 10. Lockport was a center of industry, thanks to the canal.
In the larger world, the first dirigible was invented by French engineer Henri Gifford and the first packaged toilet paper was sold right around the time that construction of Big Ben was finished in London, in 1858. The next year, Charles Darwin published his controversial work, On the Origin of the Species.
In 1859, Birdsill Holly, famous patent-holder and inventor of municipal tap water, fire hydrants and steam heating, moved to town. He was a friend of Thomas Edison, who visited Lockport often. In the 1960 Census, Bailey, age 61, was listed as a retired shoemaker. His mother-in-law, Lucy DeLozier was living with the family. His daughter Emma was 14. Susan B. Anthony spoke in town at the Universalist Church against slavery, while elsewhere in the world Louis Pasteur was proving his discovery of bacteria, of germs. Things were changing.
Then my forebears saw the start of the American Civil War. Lockport became the first official volunteer regiment to answer Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers. The same year, unrelated yet in tandem, the first condom advertisement appeared in the New York Times newspaper. Bailey and Ordelia’s son George Harrison Whitcher, joined the Michigan 7th regiment. Their son Orville Bailey Whitcher joined the New York 8th regiment. In 1862, Emma exchanged letters with Capt. Charles Johnson, George’s brother-in-arms, mentioning that the town’s first dead soldier returned home. It resulted in the first funeral procession through Lockport, with the fire engines draped in black fabric as they accompanied the body on a hero’s welcome home through town.
On July3, 1863, George Harrison Whitcher died at the Battle of Gettysburg. His body was never recovered. Lockport had grown enough to become the first city in Niagara County the following spring. A year after his brother’s death, Orville Bailey Whitcher died as a result of wounds he received in action in Virginia on July 14. Bailey and Ordelia lost two of their sons to the war.
Four months later, Emma Angeline Whitcher married Hiram King Wicker, a man who would become a prominent merchant and citizen in Lockport. 1865 saw some major changes. President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth and the end of the Civil War came. Two months after the last battle, Bailey Harrison Whitcher died at the age of 65, having seen the death of four of his children.  
In the last 23 years of Ordelia’s life, her children and their families were flourishing. Her son-in-law Hiram King Wicker, my Great-great-grandfather, owned a Flour and Feed Store with his brother, served as Fire Chief for the city and was a high-ranking Mason in his lodge, denoted as a Past Eminent Commander. Ordelia’s mother died in 1874 at the age of 84. She had still been living with her daughter. Two years later, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.
In Lockport, Birdsill Holly used his own home to prove his patent of central steam heat in dwelling spaces and was able to build a boiler large enough to heat 50 homes and one large school building. The City Council decreed an end to segregation in the school system. In 1879, Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb, the Nestle chocolate company formed and the first motion picture camera was invented.
Before her death, Ordelia remarried a man, surname Niles, as his fourth wife, but he died a year later. Lockport was wired for the use of incandescent lights, electric street lights were installed and the first door-to-door mail delivery began. At the other end of the state, construction on the Statue of Liberty was completed. Ordelia died two years later at the age of 77, in 1888. She outlived her first husband by 23 years. Neither Bailey nor Ordelia lived to receive the letter about the bit of rifle that had been dug up in Gettysburg belonging to their son, George Harrison in June of 1889. At the time of Ordelia’s death, there were 38 states ratified and Grover Cleveland was the 22nd President of the United States.

Relevant Post:
Emma’s Letters (published February 22, 2012)
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