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 29, 2013

The Origins of Deity

On a mountain top in the Berkshires last week, we were hit with a hail storm beyond belief. One minute, the air was damp and thick with humidity. We were sweaty and dreaming of showers when the rain started. But what happened next was amazing.
The hail began to fall, thudding against the roof of our three-sided rustic cabin. And then we were yelling to be heard over the sound of a million dime-sized pieces of ice falling like a sheet of winter onto our springtime. I can’t be sure how long the hail storm lasted. I was so awed by the magnitude of it as we sat in wonder and worry. It was easily thirty minutes, probably forty, and maybe more. Possibly still, it took less time than it seemed.
I have never seen hail last more than a minute or two. Time stilled as we watched it drop and crest like waves rolling off of the tarp, falling in mounds. My breath hung frosty in the air, which was cold. The ground was white. The animals of the woods were silent.
I had a moment of primal fear that the roof would not hold or that the worst was still to come beneath the pounding onslaught. I wondered what my ancestors might have thought the first time they experienced weather of any magnitude. Would they stare up at the sky and exclaim?
“Why are you doing this?!”
“What do you want from us?!”

Did they name the thing that accosted them? Did they pray to it and beg it to stop as if it had sentience? Did the forces of nature surprise and frighten them into unwanted submission? Did they make offerings to it of food, wealth or dance? Did they mark the end of the storming with what they had been doing to entice it to their will? Did they ritualize that action as the thing that would end the storm, should it come again? Did they hold it as sacred?
Is that how deity began? By separating aspects of our natural world and giving them human faces? By not understanding that sometimes things happen. Not to us. We are part of what is happening. We are not the sun. We are not the center of our world. The earth is the center of our world, just as the sun is the center of the earth’s world. We are the current of time flowing over the earth. We will come and go as deities have come and go within our cultures.
I think about our ancestors and how the way they lived and their spiritual beliefs evolved over time. In my personal practice, much of my discovery has come from moments of need, of reaching out, of reading patterns in the cause and effect.
I sat in awe of the hail, of the forces of nature that came upon us suddenly in a storm of thunder and lightning. I was humbled by my unimportance beneath the storm. I thought of the things that make me fearful, of the shadows that loom over my head.
We survived the hail, and we rebuilt what it destroyed. In these rites of passage, we each hit our walls and we make choices. We survived the days of cold sleeting rain that followed unending. We gathered together and found laughter and joy in the darkness together. And we were together when the rainbow crested the sky as the ice sheeting the ground began to melt and the steam filled the air.
It’s like Brigadoon, I thought, slipping into the mist as winter settled over the mountain. I dreamt of Frost Giants and wooden halls thick with fire and warm drink. I dreamt of my ancestors from the frozen Northlands. And we all carried on, with one eye on the sky above us, lest it open itself again.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

How We Shape the World

As the internet posts this blog for me, I will be in the middle of my week-long retreat in the mountains of Massachusetts at an event called Rites of Spring, presented by the EarthSpirit Community. This will be my 10th spring celebrating the natural world with them. Except for the battery in my travel alarm clock, my flashlight, and the lone bulb at the top of our rustic cabin, I will be eschewing electricity. As wonderful as it is, I sometimes forget how little we need, and on that mountain, I have discovered I do not fear the dark.
I like to challenge people to do two things. The first thing is to spend a day vigilant enough to note and be aware of every electronic and technological device you use while you are awake: coffee maker, toaster, computer, mp3 player, television, stove, refrigerator, air conditioner, vehicle, ATM, credit card machine, Nook or Kindle, microwave, cell phone, laptop, garage door opener, etc. Have gratitude for those resources that make our lives easier. But to cease to be aware of them means we have taken them for granted.
The second part of the challenge is tougher. Can you go one day without these items? Without all of them? Which ones would be easy to give up? Can you unplug yourself from the electrical world and immerse yourself in the natural one for a day? Can you sit in a shady afternoon with a book instead of a computer? Can you put pen to paper instead of typing at a keyboard? Send someone a hand-written letter. Spend the day in your garden instead of watching television. Play outdoors with your children. Fix something around the house you’ve been meaning to get around to. Talk a walk and listen to the birds and life around you. Listen to your own breathing. Be present in your day.
If you don’t think you can do it, not even for one day, explore why that is. Do you work too much to give yourself a day off? Do you find yourself bored without occupying your time with games and cable? Are we too far removed from the living things of a silent world? Do you find the stillness unsettling? Where is that discomfort within you? If you can push through that the natural world will reveal itself as a pulsing, breathing being. It’s priceless, and I would willingly live in a world of darkness if it meant more of the wild would survive. Our ancestors lived without for centuries. I have found that most of my ancestors lived long lives.
A lot of the energy we use comes from fuel sources that have a finite end. We have culled the forests at a greater speed than we have replanted. Fossil fuels will run out. Why are we putting money into developing new technologies like smaller cell phones and larger, flatter televisions instead of working towards solar technology that is more cost effective for the public? Why have we, as a culture, not swerved away from letting big business tell us what we should want? Why aren’t we demanding less game systems and more reliance on green energies? If someone told you that giving up your cell phone, for life, would save the world, how quickly could you hand it over?
People say that it’s hard to think about the future when they live week-to-week. I am one of those people, and I understand how difficult it can be. But we don’t get to not care. That’s the bottom line. For me, it simply means that where I do spend my money matters more. The world beneath us is our Great Mother. Every advancement we make, and have ever made, has been at her expense. We have to care.
Just because our reality isn’t pretty doesn’t mean we get to close our eyes or turn away from it. Just because we close our hands, doesn’t mean we do not bear responsibility in allowing big business to destroy our home from beneath us. We choose personal comfort over survival every time we turn our heads (hear that, lawmakers?). When we do, we tell the next generation of children that we don’t care enough to leave this a better world than we found it.
We think singularly. We want to leave the world better than we were brought into it, with more things, and bigger ones at that. And if we care about others, we care about our own, first, and sometimes, only. The way we think is wrong. Every crying child should be of concern to us, because it could be ours. Every case of pollution should be of concern to us, because someday it could be where we live that is polluted. Every oil spill and flooded town should concern us all. What happens when all the fresh water is contaminated? Who will we blame when there is no more water to drink? Our fresh water is not endless.
I leave you with some time lapse photos from NASA, showing areas of the world over 30 years, de-forestation and dwindling water tables and all (click the link below). I have gratitude for the visuals, even with the realization of how polluted our space is because of the space program. You can also plug into the search, the name of anyplace in the world to watch the change. It’s sobering, and real, and paints a picture louder than words. One we need to open our eyes to. This is how we've shaped our world.
How much more will we change the landscape of the world in another thirty years? Can we stop the pattern-on-motion now? The world we live in is based on our grandparents and great-grandparents’ choices. What world will we leave our grandchildren and great-grandchildren? What will they think of the choices we made and what we left behind?
When I come home from the mountain, from the friendships and the necessary solitude, I will find the hum of the fridge too loud, the crank of the fluorescent in the kitchen too jarring, and the smooth surface of the pavement will be unsteady beneath my mountain-climbing feet. But I will hold the wonder of that mountain in my heart, and I will see the life of that world alive within this city.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Mothers of My Mother

In genealogy, as far as ease of research goes, it’s fairly easy to find your line of fathers, by tracing your surname through history. These lineages have been documented for centuries in church records and government census reports. Barring fires that destroyed documents- which was, unfortunately, fairly common. Most of the 1890 Census was lost in a fire at the Commerce Department in 1921.
What was sad, in my research, was discovering how many female names were lost in history. Most of those are noted as, for example, Mrs. James Chilton. But those women had names and lives, and I want to know them. I am saddened by the periods of our history where women were seen as commerce to bargain with and property of their spouses, if for no other reason than, without man or woman, none of us would be here. To me that puts us on equal footing. As much as I wanted to know my line of fathers, I also wanted to know my line of mothers.
I know the woman who bore me (and raised me, and loves me still). I know my Grandmother, the woman who bore my mother. But I also wanted to know the woman who bore my grandmother, and the woman who bore her, and the woman who bore her. What bodies did the souls of my ancestors incubate within, before emerging into the world? Practitioners of Ifa, a religion shaped around ancestor worship, believe that you cannot know yourself if you cannot name seven generations of your ancestors. And so, I wanted to know the mothers of my mother.
I was able to find two more generations of my mother’s maternal line before I hit a dead end. When I was young, I knew my Grandmother’s mother wasn’t alive but I didn’t know anything about her family beyond the fact that her father’s family was German. My Great-Grandmother was Margaret Loretta Burke. She was born in Lockport, New York in 1893. She married Robert George Art, the grandson of a German immigrant, and before they married she worked as a glove maker. Margaret and Robert had four daughters before her death in 1938 at the age of 44.
I discovered Margaret’s mother on a census report, Eliza Conners, born in December of 1866. Eliza was 100% Irish, a first-generation American. After she married in 1884, she and her husband Frank Burke lived on Washington Street in Lockport, NY (I wrote about going to find their home in last week’s blog). Frank Burke was also Irish. He was a city laborer, who worked on the canal, and later, specifically, as a lock tender. They had thirteen children, eleven who survived.
Eliza’s mother, my 3x Great-Grandmother, was Mary D. Dowd of Ireland. She was born in 1834. Her husband, David Conners, was also born in Ireland, but I don’t know if they married there or in America. All of their children were born in New York, where he was a laborer. Mary’s father, Barney, resided with them in America.
Mary’s mother is unknown to us, for now. She is my sixth generation backwards. I am content to know the line waits with her in the soil of Ireland. I find myself wondering if her mother also resided on Irish soil, and where that family line will find itself if I can open the door to push further.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Meeting Great-Grandma Margaret

My hometown at the holidays.

I am Sarah, daughter of Margaret, daughter of Patricia, daughter of Margaret, daughter of Eliza, daughter of Mary, daughter of mother unknown. I never knew my Great-Grandma Margaret. Neither did my mom. Margaret Loretta Burke died when her youngest daughter, my Grandma, was eight years old.
The Burkes were Irish immigrants, who moved into Western New York to help carve the Erie Canal out of the bedrock. In doing my genealogy research, I discovered that the Burke family had lived on the same street since coming to the town, for multiple generations, mostly in the same house. That house was right around the corner from where I grew up. I realized that I must have passed it every day while visiting my childhood best friend. (I also learned that Margaret worked as a glove maker before she married in 1913.)
When I was home for the winter holidays I took a walk at dusk, amid the mounding snow, to see if the house was still standing. I had hoped it was. I had imagined that I would see it and say, oh, this house!, as if we had some previously unexplained bond. Or, at the least, that I would be able to touch the rail and say, my people lived here once. My Great-Grandmother dreamed here once.
But there was no house on the lot. Whatever had existed there, didn’t anymore. There was a newer house on a double lot set slightly back from the road, the only modern house in comparison to the other homes on the street. The lot my Great-Grandma’s house would have been on, sat at the extreme right side of the house (when facing it), and where the driveway is.
The funniest thing about that house, though, is that it’s only one of two houses on that block I have seen the inside of. One night when I was a kid, I was invited to a slumber party at that house for a girl I didn’t know very well yet. I remember sitting in her bedroom and talking. We played games and I won a Men Without Hats album. I realize now that when I slept that night, I was laying over the Burke family land. The girl’s bedroom was right where the lot would have been- 154 Washington Street.
In retrospect, that is pretty cool.
My spiritual work involves magic, which I consider to be the manifestation of our desires through action. The act of searching for my family and ancestral history has been helpful in creating doorways that have allowed me to better connect to the spirit world. When I took that cold winter walk around the corner to find my Great-Grandma’s home, I opened a doorway to that spiritual energy. 

Two months later, I met my Great-Grandma Margaret in the dream world.
I am at an event, like a wedding or a family reunion. There are a lot of people here. I am at a bar table, talking to a woman with a young face… about my age. She has short, curled bangs and her hair is curled up at the ends around her face. I cannot tell if it is short or if it is pinned up. In this room of people, she glows with a Technicolor hue (a sign for me it is spirit). Her hair is glowing a dark, deep chestnut.
I have a moment of clarity within the dream and I ask her pointedly, with a knowing, if she is Margaret. She says yes, staring into my eyes. She smiles at me. She says her name is Margaret. I tell her that she looks younger than I ever remember my Grandma being. She asks me how my Grandma is doing, squeezing my wrist warmly with her hand. She is very still in this room of movement, but I sense a nervousness beneath the exterior, as if I have called her here and she is not sure why.
I have a dream-memory of having seen my Grandmother earlier that night and I tell Great-Grandma Margaret how she seemed to me. In the dream I am worried about my Grandma and I think maybe this is why I have called her here. I say as much to Margaret and I thank her for coming to meet me. I tell her that my mother was also named Margaret. She thanks me and touches my face. She leaves to go and check on Patricia. The party continues, but the Technicolor edge is gone. The spirit has left the dream room.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Reading Poetry to the Dead

In the pagan world, Beltane, also known as May Day, is the balance point to October’s Samhain evening, when the veil between the worlds is thin and spirits may come and go. The veil between the worlds, between the living plane and the ones coexisting around and overtop of us, is also thin at Beltane. It’s not so much a time for ancestral spirits to wander the earth, but for me it’s the time when the land spirits reawaken and, those that wander through winter, return.
Spirit is very strong at this time of year and we can see it in the blossoming flowers and unfurling leaves. The snakes waken and return to the surface to warm in the lengthening sun. Humans emerge from their homes and tend their gardens. Children play outdoors. Life emerges. In the spirit of springtime, I am moved to share that life with my ancestors, to share that energy with those no longer among us.
It was just after the first of spring when we buried my Grandfather years ago, and the life in bloom around me, the soft birdsong in the cemetery, was enough to ease my grief. I return that gratitude by reading aloud to the ancestors and the other spirits that share this earth. I read to the trees and the flowers and the birds in the air. Words are a language the dead can no longer use and as I release my voice into the air, I make an offering of my favorite poems and stories to Those Who Have Gone Before.
When you share poetry with your Ancestors, it should be something that moves you emotionally. It should be something you feel an innate connection with, so that the emotion might cross planes of existence to reach them. I offer one more today, this May Day, to my Ancestors, to the earthen spirits, and to you.

by Mary Oliver

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.