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, September 26, 2012

Mythological Deities as Doorways

Tlazolteotl, by Susan Seddon Boulet

Like many children, I learned life lessons from the storybook fairy tales I read. When venturing into an unknown wood, leave a trail of breadcrumbs so you can find your way back out. When strangers stop you on your journey, don’t tell them intimate details of your life, like where your Grandma lives. Don’t break into other people’s houses and take what isn’t yours, even if it is ‘just right’. Don’t give up who you are for a man, because trading your fins in for feet won’t make him love you. Beware your desperation in the solitude of night and what you call to your aid to save you. It would be better to learn to live with darkness and fend it off for yourself, for the small man will save you, but he will come later asking a cost you cannot yet comprehend. And still, in his lesson, we learn that the power of naming a fear can and will illuminate where you stand in that dark.
            For me, it wasn’t much of a stretch to look at the stories of mythological deities for lessons of a spiritual nature to aid in my personal growth. Now, I don’t believe that deities personified in cultural myths and religions were once living beings that walked the earth. Before the Romans came to Celtic lands, the indigenous people did not personify their deities. Danu was not a woman but the mighty river of the same name. The river was deified, for the people lived at its mercy. More than that, they could feel the energy and spirit of the river and honored it in the form it took. It intimates to me that they lived alongside the natural world around them, without putting themselves above it. When the Romans came to their lands, they were the ones who decided the Celtic gods should have human faces.
I see the compendium of deities as a multitude of archetypes that define specific energies. Through all cultures there are gods and goddesses of love, wisdom, fertility, healing, death, war, arts, etc. Each individual deity represents an aspect, a lesson, of how we define our humanity as it relates to divinity, from within the context of a specific culture, largely determined by its geography. To me, all of the female deities are facets of the core group of feminine energy, which is just half of the core of divinity, made up of both gendered energies. And this core is just a pebble in the energy well of all living things.
In opening doors towards my ancestors, I used the tools of mythological archetypes to reach a deeper understanding. There are lessons to be learned in the attributes that our forefathers gave to their deities and the associations they ascribe them with. It’s a way of fleshing out the emotional connections they had to their spirituality. In opening myself to the energy of the natural world, and seeking guidance from it, sometimes that energy finds me, shows me a path to take.
Two years into my pagan practice, at Equinox, I jumped into a dance around the fire, letting the drums speak to my bones. My body felt not entirely my own and there was a freeness to it. Instead of resisting, I opened. And as I fell into the dance, the smell of the autumn air grew thick and heavy with strange perfume. It was a jungle heat, wet and dark. I was flooded with emotions and images, flowers and birds, with songs and visual colors and I felt like someone has stretched a layer of soft light cotton over me and I relaxed deeper into the moment, letting the dancer do the dance.
I looked up at the others dancing around the fire and I knew their faces, but over each of them I saw shapes and images of other beings, dancing in tandem. Some had swords flashing, arms akimbo, masked faces, and some were crushing sea shells underfoot. I knew we were in a moment of ecstatic grace, touching that primal energy and being gifted with a direction. I later wrote down everything I experienced and researched goddesses, narrowing the list with the sensory experiences and visuals I had to South America, and out of my element, as far as pantheons I was familiar with. And then I found her, Tlazolteotl, an Aztec Goddess of Sex and Excrement.
            I believe my initial response was, “What?” It was a pantheon with such bloody connotations and I was seeking to heal the anger inside me, not give it purchase. But I kept researching. She was all things. Prostitutes given to the soldiers during training were dedicated to her (and later sacrificed for being tainted). She ruled the ninth calendar month and a festival of brooms was performed in her honor, where the city itself was ritually swept and cleansed. Once a year, men could visit her priests and be cleansed of their sins. She was the great cleanser… something else I was seeking.
I knew it was important when, in my research, I came to know that Tlazolteotl had been with me the whole time, waiting for me to stumble into her path. Fifteen years ago, I bought a print of the artist Susan Seddon Boulet at a yard sale. I wasn’t familiar with the piece but was beautiful, and I was happy to have one of hers. An image search I ran brought up a copy of that print. It was Boulet’s depiction of Tlazolteotl and the picture was hanging in my living room.
She is a balancer. You cannot enjoy the sensual pleasures of love and sex if you cannot also accept the releasing of the toxins in your body through defecation. Her medicine, her lessons are about seeing with both eyes clearly. It’s about accepting someone’s flaws as part of the whole of the person that you love. And it’s about forgiveness, but forgiveness of self. Why Aztec? Why this legendary bloody pantheon? I think the primal nature of the culture, that base energy of survival, is what I needed to realign myself with my intuitive body… the very basic questions of was magic real and was I capable of touching it? And through my meditations on taking the pain with the pleasure and the dark with the light, I found my answer was yes.
More personally than that, my work with Tlazolteotl taught me that it’s all right to love something and want something, even though the act was once tainted through violence. She teaches me constantly that more than one thing can be true and that if I believe that, I cannot hold my truth as more important than another. These lessons transformed me, and transform me still.
I have used other deities’ stories for personal growth and transformation and my inner amateur anthropologist is always eager to understand what lessons the deities held for the cultures that revered them. I also endeavor to study deities of death and dying, of gateways and crossroads, as a means of understanding the way my ancestors related to the idea of an afterlife, as a way of constantly reassessing my own beliefs.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Autumn Crossroads at Equinox

We are turning into autumn and the last of our tomatoes and beans are fruiting. The morning glories herald the dawn in vibrant hues of violet, periwinkle, and fuchsia. The white moon flowers are twined around the rail, their buds thick and strong. They are ready to burst open and hail the darker days of the year. Silence stills the land here, one year into recovering from the horrible flooding that made headlines in the news. The first of the geese flying north to south in migration have trumpeted across the sky.
Smells turn crisp and quick as leaves dry, drop and decay, crunching against the bottom of our feet as we walk through the brush. Garden fruit and vegetables that missed their harvest will rot and fall. They become mulch and nourish the earth for sowing in the spring. In autumn, layers of bone, earth and leaves cover the world, dulling the sharp piquant of summertime. We bed our gardens and add bulk to our bodies against the funneling twist of leaves lifting in chillier winds. The beauty of life is migrating onward, disappearing into the earth and ether. The world outside us prepares to sleep. The world inside us softens into rest, too.
We have toiled through the languid heat of our longest days and the changing landscape heralds the lengthening dark that will descend soon upon us. The Equinox is my favorite time of year, symbolic of the crossroads. It is at the point where the breathing world joins with the spirit world. It’s a place where two conflicting truths can stand equally as firm and where balance is born. It is the place where the gateway exists. It is a gateway that lives inside you.
As the point of balance floats over our land like twilight fog, obscuring lines and blurring edges, we have the chance to touch the other side without walking through it. On Equinox, I pause to catch a breath. I stand between the long days of light and the long nights of dark. I stand at the crossroad and pay homage to those who have stood here before me, to the pause in the passage of time, and to those who will stand here long after I am gone. On this day I can see into the future as far as I can see into the past.
We stand in the tipping point, the grey space, the limbo, the in-between. Equinox is a time for feeling and reflection, a chance to catch our breath before moving forward. This is the time of year when I pause my search for more lines of my family tree. I wrap up my current work and make notes of where to look next. I will spend the winter months researching what names I have, reading old tomes and histories so that I might discover what I can about who my ancestors were and the places they inhabited.
The genealogical research is easier for me to do in sprints, following one line through till I hit a wall, then fleshing out that line, giving it form and story. In this way the act alone is a study in my own history and I am the eternal student. By using this method, the names and dates imprint on my memory with context. Every winter my living knowledge of my family grows stronger. In my dedication, the threads between me and my ancestral dead grow thicker.
We are about to enter the labyrinth, going underground like the mythological Ariadne, under and inward. I have been practicing my embroidery, in remembrance of my Great-Grandmother Minnie, and her mothers, whose scraps of sewing craft I treat as sacred objects from a line of women I never knew. In my nightly meditations I have been embroidering labyrinths, moving into the dark to come out of the dark. It takes two full lines, two lengths of needle and thread, in at one end and out at the other, to create the full labyrinth, which is made up of two roads, crossing at the key. In this ancient tool, duality and balance snake into forms that do not lose their symbolic origins.
If I unwind the labyrinth, the four arms of the equinoxes and solstices spread before me. We stand at the crossroad, facing autumn, knowing that as we step onto the road it is already turning towards winter. The crossroad lies near the heart of the labyrinth. We turn inward to find center at Solstice, and roll outward, retracing steps to find the sun again next Equinox. In walking the labyrinth, we move like the waters of our body move to the currents of the ocean, rolling in and out, each turn in moving us closer to healing and wholeness. As life continues through the shorter days and my body moves daily through the world, I carry the peace of the labyrinth inside me, as an anchor of stillness, walking it quietly within while the world moves loudly around me.
As the leaves dry and fall, I find some of this peace in the act of showing honor to those long gone. I walk the local cemeteries, picking up trash and litter. It is such a small offering made to the memory of those gone before. They may not be my ancestors but they belong to someone. These dead shaped the town that I live in and they had lives filled with hopes and dreams, just like mine. To me the cemeteries feel most like parks, with spirits wandering here and there. They are some of the quietest spaces, full of the grace of those who lived and those still living who remember their names.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Experiencing Death V: Suicide

This week is National Suicide Prevention Week. In this time when our society is still laden with bullying and inequality, it’s important for us all to recognize that for some people, this door may feel like the only help left to them. I don’t say that lightly. Suicide is a choice that has touched the lives of most of the people I know. It’s a choice we don’t talk about. It darkens our days and we hold it at bay, unwilling to face the truth of a decision our loved ones made.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is a wonderful organization that attempts to aid those left behind in the wake of such a misunderstood choice. Choice… decision… action… it feels hard to pick the right word on this subject. Bear with me while I navigate through this. In my own life I have lost nine friends to suicide. That’s nine family, friends, and classmates over the course of twenty years who have chosen to take their own lives. Three more who have passed from shady drug overdoses that may or may not have been purposeful, but that answer was lost with them. Some days, that is too many for my heart to bear.        
I have tried to write different posts on this topic but it is such a dangerous one. I cannot speak specifically to any suicide that has touched me, for the others who have been left behind still feel those wounds deeply and I would not cause them more pain. The things we cannot face become sharp instruments that wound us in their memory. And to those of you who understand that sentiment, I say from my own experience, face the memory and see its truth. Once through the pain, there will be peace.
The first suicide I faced was when I was 14. One of the reasons I exited the institution of the Catholic Church was because the priest could give me no comfort. I was trying to understand the mindset of my friend, who sought me out after months of no communication just before he took his life. I didn’t understand and I blamed myself. What I thought was him reaching out to me was him putting affairs in order. Not that either of us could have known that at that age. But the priest gave a young girl who needed guidance dogma, and buried the hilt deeper into my chest.
There is always anger with suicides. There should be. But for me, under the mountain of loss, I come back to compassion. Anyone who has known their own darkness, anyone who has stood at the edge of such madness and felt the desire, even for a moment, to drop over the edge, must be the shepherds of compassion in the wake of suicide. For we have all been there. But those who take action are those who fell over the edge of madness into despair.
On the other side of that line, what we see as rational is colored differently and changes shape. I believe that some suicide is chosen out of a wish for peace, for quiet, for relief. I don’t believe suicide is about anyone but the person who takes that road. It’s not done to hurt anyone left behind. At the point of falling over the edge, it’s not about anyone else. I imagine it’s like tunnel vision. The people I have been close to who took their lives were all in a spiral of chaos beforehand. Even if we couldn’t see it until afterwards.
I believe that if they thought of us at all, that they believed they were doing us a favor by removing their chaos from our lives, so that it wouldn’t touch us anymore. But more importantly, I think to their sickened minds, it was the only door left to them that promised a measure of peace. It’s what I hold onto at night, when the darkness comes. In the silence of the night I wish them peace.
There is no way to ever prepare yourself for the loss of a loved one to suicide. I think the best thing you could do is accept that there wasn’t anything you could have done. Don’t torture yourself with what you could have/should have done, for we can never go back in time and change what has occurred. Honor their memory and their struggle against their darkness. Love them. Move forward in your own life and live. Each breath you take is for them. Each joy you feel is in their honor.
According to the AFSP website’s recent statistics, a suicide occurs in the U.S. every 14.2 seconds and almost a million people attempt suicide every year. Men commit suicide four times more than women, yet women will attempt suicide three times more than men. They occur most often in adults between the ages of 40 and 59.
Reasons for suicide can include a known psychiatric disorder (depressive disorders, schizophrenia, alcohol or drug abuse, post traumatic stress disorder, and personality disorders), a past history of attempts, a family history of suicide, and individuals with impulsive behaviors. There can also be a state of suicide crisis, where there is a precipitating event, like some kind of severe loss, whether personal or financial. There can be a sudden and abrupt change in behavior including things the person says, actions, and the loss of their ability to function.
Warning signs include consistent low moods, pessimism, hopelessness, desperation, anxiety, psychic pain, withdrawal, sleep problems, increased alcohol and drug use, a rise in unnecessary risk taking, wishing to die, giving away prized possessions, and unexpected rage or anger. According to their website, the AFSP says that most suicidal people have some form of depression, which can be described as severe and consistent sadness. It can also be described as a withdrawal from things that once brought the person joy.
While one statistic said that a majority of people who commit suicide have a diagnosable psychiatric condition when they take their life (of which depression is included), another statistic says that most people being treated for a diagnosed mental illness do not die in suicide, insinuating that with proper care and treatment the suicidal thoughts will go away.
If you believe a loved one is in danger, get help. Talk to them if you feel you can. Give them examples of behaviors that are concerning you. Let them be honest and don’t judge where they are emotionally. Try to avoid cliché statements like “You have so much to live for” or “Think of what that would do to the people who love you.” Anyone in crisis is in a fragile place and adding guilt and pressure to them could just make them shut down.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, tell someone. I would encourage you to be honest about where you are. Don’t be afraid. If those thoughts persist, get help. You are not alone.
·         If you or someone you love is in an immediate and dangerous crisis of taking their life, call 911.
·         If you or someone you love is having serious suicidal thoughts but is not in immediate jeopardy, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). It is available 24 hours a day, toll free and confidential.
·         Specifically for the LGBTQ community, call the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386 to speak with a trained counselor. The line is open 24/7. All calls are confidential and toll free.
To those of my heart who are no longer with me because you took a door that only you could see, I may not understand, and I accept that I may never know why. My anger does not diminish the joy you gave me or the love we shared. I remember the good times and the laughter and the beauty in you that you might have seen if things had been different. I call on that light to outshine the unknown that clouded your mind and as I step into the world, I carry you with me, always.
May it be so.

Relevant Posts:
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)

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Working with the Dead

My ancestor work doesn’t just involve honoring those who paved the way for me to be here. In times of hardship and trouble, I make petitions to my ancestors for guidance and aid, but most often simply to watch over us and shield us from harm. I work to keep my connection to them strong so that when I find myself in need, they are right beside me and sharp in my mind. I have always been sensitive to the spirit world. I have always known when spirits were about but not in a psychic way. I get emotional impressions, not factual information.
Fresh out of college, I attended my first Psychic Fair, full of doubt and skepticism, but knowing that I wanted it to be true. After several trips to the spiritualist community of Lilydale during my time in college, I desperately wanted to be a believer. After all, if I thought I could sense spirit activity, I couldn’t be the only one who could do it.
We’re always skeptical about anything we haven’t or can’t experience for ourselves. How do we know something is real if we can’t touch it or see it or hear it or taste it? Even though I was sensitive to spirits, if I couldn’t see them well enough to describe them or hear them say what they wanted, how could I be sure anyone else could? And that’s were faith always comes into play. If I believed I could, I had to trust that others could. If I believed I had a gift that others didn’t, I had to believe that other people could have a gift I didn’t.
I wandered the room, eavesdropping on readings and using my gut responses to feel out people whose readings sounded exactly like I expected them to sound. I know now that my own interpretations are so vague that I perhaps did some of the mediums a disservice by writing them off. But what was missing for me in their readings was the emotional context, the emotional connection to spirit world that I feel. And the people paying for readings were too eager, too open about revealing information that cold readers can use. And I was young.
To be fair, in retrospect, I have worked through the fear of revealing something that might be too personal or raw to people who are practically strangers to me. I understand why people trying to make money with their gifts might hold back from attempting to offer information that would upset a potential client. You have to be good with people, both living and dead to engender trust. When the dead have something to say and they find a doorway into this world they are not going to sugar-coat or tiptoe around why they’re here. And no stranger enjoys mediating family drama between the dead and the living.
Eventually I found a woman who was sitting patiently, not trying to get people to buy her time. She offered to do a reading for me, as she sensed someone coming through. If I felt she had made contact, I could pay her. It was the right way to woo a skeptic and I sat down. She was dressed simply in jeans and a sweater. Her hair was loose. She had a deck of tarot cards with a Native American theme on them in front of her, which she had me shuffle and then laid out.
Something about a mother figure, she said. But no, I said, my mother was still alive. She said it could be grandmother, but I shook my head no. All three of my grandmothers were still alive. Except for my father’s mother. I said so but she said no, it was my maternal side, connected to my mother. I sat expressionless, knowing a thing or two about cold reading. I watched her go into what I now know as a trance state and she began to talk about how this woman visits me and watches over me and sometimes I can feel her touching the top right side of my head and when it happens I wonder for a moment at the sensation and yes, she wants me to know that is her trying to contact me, letting me know I’m not alone.
I was sitting at the table. I remembered that feeling and with it, attached to a thin thread came the memory of sitting at my Great-Grandma Elsie’s knee when she stayed with us for the summer. Her hand was on the top of my head, and it was cool like silk paper. And with that memory the spot on my head began to buzz in the room at the Psychic Fair and the air around me smelled like baby powder, musty blankets, and lilacs. Elsie spent the summers with us and watched us when my mother went out. She was like a mother to me, to everyone who knew her and all of the senses I had learned to trust were trying to tell me she was present.
Me, Elsie, and my brother, 1976.
The woman across the table was staring at me, her eyes open, and she said “She loves you, and she watches over you.” I put my money on the table, thanked her, and walked quietly outside, where I promptly burst into tears. We all want to hear that the people we loved in the world are still with us when they leave it. I do believe part of them is still here, like an echo, like energy of love that was so strong it stays behind, ebbing through the time we have left. Our spirit is only form within our physical bodies and when we die, some of it moves on, some of it becomes something else, some of it becomes part of the energy of the world around us and some of it stays behind like an echo.
I knew I would do anything to reach my Great-Grandmother again. And I started on the path to where I am now. When I received confirmation that Elsie was with me, she had been dead for six years and I had healed my grief over losing her. So I was ready to call on her, to call her to me, to ask for help and guidance from her. She became a doorway to the rest of my ancestors. I consider them like an “intuition upgrade,” adding another sense to my repertoire.
I do not know the exact length of time before you should call on a dead relative for aid, and I think that the time is different for everyone. In the same way that we all handle transitions and transformations differently, some need more time than others. I believe and worry that some spirits need more time to cross over, to adjust to not being part of the material world. I worry that those who are called to stay here before they’re ready get pulled by what is familiar and become ghosts, stuck in between living and whatever happens next. At the same time, if a recently deceased spirit is the one trying to contact you, it would seem prudent to answer, for perhaps they will not pass over until their business is finished.
We need not fear the spirits around us. In my work it would be akin to be afraid of the ring of a telephone. When we open ourselves to accepting the call of our ancestors, we are opening a larger universe of sensation that can only serve to sharpen our experiences of the world we walk upon in our breathing lives.
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