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, April 24, 2013

What the World Needs Now is Love

In my city, a young Egyptian boy at the high school has been harassed every day since the Boston bombings. It’s not local news, but his older sister is heartbroken for him. Someone even wrote “terrorist” on his locker in permanent marker, because he looks different. Because people are afraid and that fear trickles down to their children. But this boy and his family fled Egypt because it was no longer safe for them to be there. What happened in Boston was their every day. And an innocent boy is being asked to bear the brunt of our fear because they think he looks like someone else who did an awful thing.
This is what happens when we feed our fear. We create more. Fear breeds fear.  You would think that a city with such a large refugee population would be more tolerant of its diversity. We become strange creatures when we feed our fear instead of our love.
I saw the same thing happen in 2001, when I started my first day of work in a new city on September 12, at a grocery store catering largely to veiled women. I watched an older customer scream when a Muslim woman entered with her three children. She left her cart where it was, grabbed her purse, and ran out of the store. I listened to a woman rant for twenty minutes about how you could never know if it was a man or a woman “under there” and how that wasn’t fair to Americans. The more people fed into their fear, the uglier it became.
We always try to make this about those who are other than us. But Timothy McVeigh, who was responsible for the bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995, was American. He was born in my hometown and raised just outside of it in my working class, All-American blue collar corner of the state. This isn’t about 9/11, Oklahoma City, or the Boston bombings. It’s about the horrible things that happen every day and the tools we use to bear them. It’s about truly believing, beneath the skin, that we are all relations.
If I trace my genetic DNA back far enough, what strange soil might I find their lines journeying through? I know, right now, that there are men and women in Poland, Ireland, Germany, Scotland, and the Netherlands who can trace themselves back to the same ancestors as me. These men and women are my cousins. However distantly, we share blood. We are all relations.
I see the eyes of cousins in the eyes of strangers in the street. I smile at them and wish them wellness and happiness like I would wish it for a loved one. I would not forcefully take anything from them, whether I am in need or not. I deny no one their humanity or personhood.
I see you and I wish you happiness.
We are each responsible for our actions, and for how we respond to events in the world. We are not our race or our gender. We are not where we live or what job we take. We are magic-makers, capable of changing the world with acts of simple kindness. The easiest thing you can do, in times of great stress, is to feed the world your love, instead of your fear and hate.
It is easier to lash out at others from our fear-place. History shows that we have done it and we will continue to do it. We forcibly relocated native tribes, who had already been living here, because of the few tribes that even they were in battle with, who held different, more aggressive beliefs. And we wanted to claim ownership of their land. We held all the indigenous people responsible for a few. We mustn’t forget that. We were wrong.
When Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, we responded in fear to the large Japanese-American presence on the West coast. In 1942 the government rounded up 127,000 Japanese-Americans and put them in internment camps. Their crime was having Japanese ancestry. Two-thirds of them had been born here and they were forced to sell off their lands, homes, cars, businesses, etc in order to comply with the government, hoping they could reclaim them when the scare was over. Ten relocation camps were built in seven states. Those families lost everything they had because of choices our government made from a place of fear. They were held for up to four years in inadequate housing with poor food supplies, like prisoners.
I only learned about that when my Interfaith youth group spoke to a man who had grown up inside one of those camps. It was hard for my na├»ve mind to believe. When I returned home and pulled out my Global Studies text book, I could only find one sentence that said, and I have never forgotten, “For their own safety, some Japanese-Americans were located to camps during the war.” That was it.
In this current time of crisis and fear, it would be easy to segregate ourselves from the unknown things that scare us. It would be easy to jump into the trust-no-one pool of thought. What would be brave and courageous, would be to continue to believe that people are good people, and that people want to be good people. I choose to believe that one smile or one kind word make a difference to someone on the edge of choosing to feed their hate.
I am afraid. I see that you are afraid. We are afraid. Let us not be afraid of each other.
To best honor my ancestors, I will learn from the mistakes they made from their places of fear. I will feed my love and give that to the world. I will ask questions before I assume or accuse. I will be patient and tolerant with the differences between us while working towards a way of living together harmoniously. I choose to be brave.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Carry In, Carry Out

Earth Day is coming up this weekend, but for me, Earth Day is every day. You can’t see the pattern of revolving humanity and still be selfish about taking what you want for yourself from the earth. There are so many other people and animals to consider, as well as all the species of plants. It would be wonderful if we lived in a culture that was not human-centric, for the world we live on isn’t.
I was picking trash up along the street this week when a neighbor down the way asked me what I was doing. “Picking up cigarette butts,” I said. He was flabbergasted that I was picking up trash in someone else’s yard. I shrugged and told him that technically, my yard wasn’t my yard because I was a renter. Again he seemed surprised at the care we take with the property- we’re the only house that gardens in the summer on our street. What he seemed most surprised by was that I took care of something I didn’t own. His idea of property and possession saddened me. If everyone on my street cared, the curb wouldn’t look like a garbage dump. I believe that the care, or lack of care, we provide ourselves, and our homes, reflects the emotional state we exist in.
I pick up trash when I see it because the earth is not a garbage can, a point to which our landfills would beg to differ. I also do it because I honestly and sincerely care. Non-organic trash chokes the earth. How can living things grow and breathe under layers of plastic bags and concrete? If we want to live in a cleaner world, we have to be willing to clean it. I want to live in a cleaner and kinder world.
I didn’t always feel this way. I was a smoker in college, another young kid who thought it was cool to finish off a cigarette break by flicking my butt into the grass. My friend Jurgen called to me one day and asked me to bring him my cigarette butt. He showed me how to field-strip the extra tobacco and put the filter back in my cigarette box, because the tobacco and paper would decay, but the filter wouldn’t. I had never thought about that before. It’s what he had been taught to do with them in the military. He never chastised me for littering, or tried to make me feel guilty. He just showed me a conscientious way to walk on the earth and I took that lesson and awareness to heart.
In Binghamton, there are six wooden carousels that were built by George F. Johnson, a wealthy businessman and philanthropist. He built these carousels in local parks. As a child, he was very poor, and could never afford to ride the carousel. It was a magic he was denied that he carried into his adulthood. He wanted every child, who wanted to, to be able to ride a carousel so he stated that the price for a ride was a piece of litter from the park, forever, as a way of helping to keep them clean and green. How wonderful is that?
My local community has a basic rule we enforce for ourselves when in nature, because we feel that those of us who are alive to walk it are stewards of the land. The rule is simple: Garbage In, Garbage Out. Everything we bring with us, we take home with us, including dishes, glow sticks, disposable food tins, candy wrappers, empty bottles, etc. I’ve branched that out to a larger concept of carry in, carry out. Whatever I take with me, wherever I go, I am aware of it, and I make sure it all returns home with me, because at home I know everything that can be recycled will be.
What you discover are things you might not have been aware of, like just how many plastic-bottled beverages you go through, or how much waste goes into individually packaging a lot of the food we eat. It helped me make better choices in purchasing products, and over the years my garbage production has decreased. This year for Earth Day, make it Earth Week. Carry a bag around with you and put everything (except actual food) that you would throw in the trash bin in the bag. Do this for a week, and see the actual trail of trash you are leaving on the planet.
Remember that the earth is our mother, our father. It is the planet that gave us life and on which we are still dependent. Find ways of walking softly across her features, and see where you can trim your needs and comforts, sacrificing a little of our modern world to preserve the larger one. Remember that we are children of the earth, not its masters. Put your hands in the earth, play with some worms, plant some seeds, make friends with a tree spirit, and soak up the sun.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

My Grackle Friends

photo shared by Factumquintus

Five years ago, a group of birds woke me on an early spring morning, their piercing croak filling the space outside my bedroom window. I had never seen them at our feeder before, the brown-black birds with iridescent green and purple heads. They were substantially bigger than the house sparrows and cardinals we were used to feeding and they did not seem to be able to manage the cedar feeder without almost knocking it over. They were so flashy in the sunlight that I later had to look them up on the Cornell bird identification website. They were my first grackles.
Of the nine grackles that frequented our yard, only one figured the bird feeder out. He was a little larger than the other ones and he found a way to hook one foot on the side of the feeder and a second foot just underneath it. He bent his body slightly sideways to balance his weight, with his tail wrapped around the side corner. From there, he would use his beak to scrap the seed off the side, down onto the ground for his friends, feeding below.
I watched them every morning when they rolled through for breakfast. I would sit quietly and after a while, they didn’t even startle when I slid the window curtain to the side. My friend, the grackle acrobat, slowly learned some more skills with balancing on the feeder. When he spied me through the window, he would run through all of his tricks and land on the clothesline, staring at me. After a while, he even started calling to me in the morning from the feeder if it was empty, which was one thing the other grackles picked up. Still, above the din, I was able to discern his fuller rusty hinge croak from the others.
When they moved on in the summertime, I was sad to see them go, but grateful for the time I was able to spend with them. The next spring, they returned, my friend front and center, and I was overjoyed. We picked up where we had left off and shared our morning times together. Two years ago, when the grackles returned, my friend was no longer among them. Even though none of the others could manage the feeder, they kept returning, and I spread seed out on the ground to encourage them.
A week and a half ago, I knew spring was finally here when I woke to a sharp grackle cry outside. It is a small group this year, but strong. There is one among them who figured out the feeder first, a smaller female. I found her hunched over the landing strip of the feeder, tucking her tail underneath it for counterbalance, skipping seed down onto the ground for her grateful friends. She unabashedly jumped up onto the clothesline and looked through the window at me.
Over the days, others have mastered the feeder, each in their own way. There is a large pair of males who discovered that if they each land on a side of the feeder at the same time they can keep it from swinging wildly beneath them. I don’t claim to know anything about bird genetic memory, but even still, I allow myself some musings. I know that in the wild, grackles can live eight to twelve years. Maybe there will come a spring that they don’t return. And maybe the grackles will keep coming long after the ones who came with my old friend are dead. Maybe they’ll keep coming long after we move away from where we live now. Maybe the fact that our lives intersected at all have linked our journeys somehow.
I wonder if the young grackles in the group knew my old friend, or if he passed before they were born. I wonder if they remember, and if they do, if they remember him. And then I realized that it doesn’t matter whether or not they do, because I do. These grackles are here and I remember the first grackle that brought them here and found them food. These grackles are living their lives in the moment, eating sitting and throwing up leaves in the dirt. I am bearing witness to the larger journey of their small group. Their lives come and go and I remain.
It is like that with our world, we come and go and the trees in their lengthened years bear witness to our passing. Watching the grackles outside my window, I am reminded that the whole pattern I am watching unfold is what my ancestor work is about. I hold my hand to a thread of ancestral energy that is the pattern of birth, life, and death we humans keep marching through. I hold my hand to that thread, keeping it present and connected to the action of living my life now. That energy is there for all of us to connect into, waiting just on the other side of the curtain, hiding beneath the rusty creak-song of an early spring grackle.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Danger of Genealogy

Anyone who has done their own genealogical research will find themselves, after a moment of discovery, at the same crossroad that I have reached numerous times. After either a lengthy period of research or the goldmine of stumbling onto a family tree that someone else has already done the legwork for (score!), when the bliss and adrenaline-rush of the breakthrough wear off, I find myself momentarily overwhelmed by the sheer number of new names suddenly awaiting my transcription.
I have so much gratitude for the family trees that I have found, especially when they add multiple generations of unknowns to my own tree. That gratitude is part of the reason I offer what information I have to those who stumble onto my page because we share a common ancestor. It’s my way of paying it forward.
At the same time, to suddenly have over a hundred new names and dates waiting to be organized and inserted into the existing hundreds of names I have, can be darkening. Weaving your way through family trees, lineages, and dates is like using a loom for the first time. For example, you hold the thread of a wife and mother in the back of your brain so that you can continue up the father’s line. When it reaches an end point, you can return to the past, to that woman, and follow her thread backwards.
You do this, two by two, generation by generation, sometimes finding ten or more names before retreating back to start all over. In the end, you have woven a fuller tapestry of your family’s journey through the ages. But if you miss a thread, or if you pull it into the wrong spot, the tension is off and something just doesn’t look quite right. It requires such focus and intention that it is easy to lose yourself in another world, where time is more fluid and interchangeable.
Once a year I halt my search for new names, usually around spring equinox. Once a year I stop searching for more and focus my research on learning more about the ones I have. It is always at this point, when my brain is swollen with the names and dates of those who have come before me and learning how they interconnect with each other and how they end in me that I feel overwhelmed. Sometimes it hurts.
And it occurs to me that this work is somewhat dangerous. You can’t unknow what you know. It’s not necessarily about what the knowledge is, but just how much of it there is. Once I realized that I had over 1,400 names of ancestors, fourteen-hundred names of people who lived, loved, and died, that I know of, so that I could be here… no, not could. Would. So that I would be here. So that I am here… I become less meaningful. It’s humbling, frightening even.
I matter because I have breath. All living things matter. I matter because I am here and this is my life that is impacting the world around me. But when you pull back on the view and look at the larger picture, I am just one more human. I am not going to have children. No one will ever search for me on their family tree. My line dies with me when I take my last breath. After that breath, I will cease to matter to anyone but those who loved me who are still alive. I will no longer impact the living world.
My family bloodline will continue, for now, in the children my sister and brother have. Some of the blood that runs in me will continue, though I am not sure whether or not I even think that’s important. But it’s a thought. That idea marks me as outside of the slipstream of my bloodline; I am of this family, but not of its greater ancestral journey.
I could allow that logic to consume me, to count me as ineffectual. And I might believe it. And there is the danger, the precipice of ‘why bother?’ The danger is two-fold. We must not let our study of the past overwhelm us from remembering that we are change and that we can change and that each voice can be counted in the now. We must use the knowledge we glean from the mistakes our ancestors have made to make better decisions today. And we must not immerse ourselves in the past so much that we forget to live in the world. It’s all happening around you. Right now.
When I find myself in these shadowed moments, I meditate with my ancestors and the answer is always the same. Remember to come up for air from the past and bring what you learn into practice in the present. The best way we can honor them is to live now, to be kind to each other, to treat this earth in a way that is sacred and symbiotic, so that those who come after us may also have the chance to live. We must all be good ancestors now, while we are alive and while we are breathing. 
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