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, January 28, 2015

Looking Back: Unexplainable Things Have a Purpose

“If the wonder’s gone when the truth is known
there never really was any wonder.”
~ from the television show House

Unexplainable things have a purpose. It’s something I believe. It’s not the same thing as “everything happens for a reason.” I don’t believe that is true, as it insinuates that something somewhere is orchestrating the event. In the natural world, things just are and what matters is how we take them. I believe that sometimes the purpose of unexplainable things is just to exist and/or happen, in order to serve as a moment against which we respond and reveal how we react to things unknown. They can be teachable moments, reflecting our vulnerabilities and levels of openness. We cannot control what happens to us all the time. The only control we have is how we respond to it.
Some people think of death as the ultimate unexplainable thing. We try to make sense of it in order to find some solid ground to stand on when we face it but we also meet the stories of those who have come back from death with disbelief and skepticism. We want to know but we want to know and have difficulty accepting an outside voice as truth, assuring that we can never truly have an answer.
Unexplainable things happen but even calling them that is a misnomer. It’s not that they can’t be explained. It’s more that we lack the understanding or language to put the experience into words that make sense. Maybe because we try to put into words something our intuitive bodies just know. We have multiple senses and each of these have their own language and way of responding to and translating the world around us. We spend so much time trying to figure out if what happened to us could have happened to us, that we lose sight of the fact the experience happened at all. Some of these teachable moments are not as grandiose as death. They can be small events that evoke a larger change within us.
In the summer of ’97 on a Smoky Mountain peak, I wandered away from my house at dusk, away from the chaos of people, towards the small creek that ran along the property. I was having one of those nights of feeling like there was no place to be alone in a house twenty-one people lived in and I was looking for a little inner quiet. I must have sat on the bank of the creek, listening to the gurgling, rippling and singing of the water off the stones for an hour, unmoving, just being.
I almost didn’t notice the shadow that flew over me and by the time I reacted the creature was sitting on a low branch above the creek five feet in front of me. It was the first memory I have of seeing an owl in the wild. It was by the far the largest bird I have ever seen in nature. She appeared mostly white, with bits of grey tufted here and there. She wasn’t moving and her eyes took me in. They were large and round and the color of dandelions. She might have had horns, and in some recollections earlier on I was more sure- before my brain started telling me what could or couldn’t be possible.
I held my breath as the owl turned its head around. For the moment that we sat there, the smell of the air seemed to shift, filling with a muskier scent of moldy earth and grated wood bark. I exhaled and the owl spread its wings out and flew silently, not even a whisper, over my head. I fell backwards as it passed, watching it glide overhead, in fearful intimidation. I remember her wing span was almost as wide as I am tall.
In that moment, I felt like I had glimpsed an unaltered state of the natural world. It woke something in me and my eyes were open, seeing the wild in tandem with the modern. For years I studied every kind of owl looking for the scientific name of the one I saw. No picture ever fit the creature I saw.
One day I asked myself, if someone told me that the owl I saw was impossible in nature, would I disbelieve the experience? The answer was no. Even though I couldn’t find the correct scientific answer, my nose remembered its smell. My skin remembered the rush and blur of air as the owl swooped in. My eyes remember with artistic grandeur the unfurling of those wings. And my ears recall the kind of silence that accompanies the presence of a predator in nature. I chose to embrace the truth that my interaction with this magnificent creature woke a connection in me and served as the catalyst for the spiritual path I have taken. Knowing the facts and the science about that moment would not diminish the wonder and magic of the experience, and it shouldn’t.
[This article was originally published February 23, 2011]

"The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.
It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art
and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder,

no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed."
-Albert Einstein

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Irish Who Built the Canal

When doing genealogical research, I often turn to census reports for information, as they consist of data compiled by takers going house to house. But these listings are a good showing of the neighborhood your ancestors lived. When looking up my mother’s maternal ancestors, I noticed that my 2x great-grandparents lived in a neighborhood predominantly made up of Irish names. And I noticed that many of their neighbors were either born in Ireland, or their parents were born in Ireland.
Many of the Irish men who worked on the Erie Canal in Lockport, NY ended up settling there. I am currently (until I prove otherwise) running under the theory that my maternal Irish ancestors were among these settlers. Born after the canal opened, my known Burke ancestors worked on or near the canal. This family lived numerous places but settled in a small house around the corner from where I grew up.
My great-grandmother Margaret Loretta Burke (1892-1938) grew up in that house. My 2x great-grandparents Frank Burke (b.1863) and Eliza Conners (b.1866) lived there. My 3x great-grandparents Thomas Burke (1832-1885) and Ellen [unknown] (1838-1897) lived in Lockport, where he held a number of city jobs, including sailor, boater, policeman, hostler, livery, and a state worker along the canal. Thomas’ mother was born in Ireland. Eliza’s parents, 3x great-grandparents David Conners (1838-1903) and Mary Dowd (1837-1903), were both born in Ireland, a decade after the canal was finished.
At the very beginning of the Canal project to dig 363 miles across New York State, they found they lacked the heavy man power to keep their desired pace towards progress. No group wanted to work on the canal, as it was backbreaking labor, from sun-up to sundown, and the pay was low. And so, the project managers looked to the group of people no one wanted for help. In 1818, the New York government started recruiting Irishmen straight off the boat in New York City.
While the majority of the Irish immigrants came over during the potato famines of the 1840s and on, according to the first census taken in 1790, there were already 44,000 people of Irish birth registered out of a total population of 3.9 million. We might not think that sounds like a lot of people today, but that was more Irish than anyone wanted in America.
Of all the cultures immigrating to America, author George E. Condon writes in Stars in the Water that the Irish were lowest of the lot. Anyone with a hint of brogue was considered a foreigner, no matter how long they’d been in the country. In fact, many job ads throughout the 1800s closed with the line “Irish need not apply.”
And yet, according to Lionel D. Wyld, in Low Bridge, “the Irish turned ‘Clinton’s Folly’ into the Grand Western Canal.” By the end of 1818, there were 3,000 Irish at work on the canal. About 2,000 of them were working in Lockport, where the biggest drop in the canal’s elevation was.
The temporary workers lived in small dirt-floor shanties along the canal. What was it like for these strange men who found themselves in a stranger land? What did they make of the darkness of the unfamiliar nights? What did the large island men think of the wild forests?
According to Samuel Hopkins Adams, a well-known muckraker, “The country at the end of the voyage was rougher than anything the men had known in Ireland. Owl and wildcat music in the woods kept them awake and scared at night. The first time a snake came into camp, the whole lot nearly deserted. There are no snakes in Ireland. They thought this one was the devil.”
It was not uncommon for men to disappear during the night. But those who stayed worked hard. For their long shifts of extreme labor, they made between 37 and 50 cents a day, depending on their skills. Despite popular mythologies about the Irish being natural laborers, they were not used to such work in their native country. But their wage on Irish soil amounted to a mere 10 cents a day. So they adapted and acclimated, and accepted the whiskey that went around as part of their keep. It kept their muscles loose as they labored and sweated it away in the hot sun before it could intoxicate them. Condon writes that the Irish moved quickly, filling the land with work songs as they toiled for low wages and whiskey.
When I came to this wonderful empire,
It filled me with the greatest surprise
To see such a great undertaking,
On the like I ne’r opened my eyes.

To see a full thousand brave fellows
At work among mountains so tall
To dig through the valleys so level,
Through rocks for to cut a canal.

So fare you well, father and mother,
Likewise to old Ireland, too,
So fare you well, sister and brother,
So kindly I’ll bid you adieu.
Many locals, themselves children of immigrants, were scared of the strange sounds of the Irish tongue. They worried their homes would be pillaged, as if the workers moving across the state were a band of beggars and thieves. Sometimes, they did not help their reputation. On Christmas Eve 1822, a fight broke out in a tavern between the townspeople of Lockport and drunken Irish canal workers. A man by the name of John Jennings died, and eight Irishmen were indicted for his death.
Cultures may have clashed, but humanity won out. In the fall of 1823, two runaway slave hunters from Kentucky arrived in Lockport, procuring a warrant to arrest Joseph Pickard, a local black barber. Pickard was a runaway who had found his way to freedom and independence. In the judge’s office, he became so spooked at the thought of being sent back that he leapt out the open second story window into the throng of canal workers who waited below to see how the judge would rule.
Lockport was heavily peppered with Quakers and anti-slavery sentiments. When Pickard jumped into the crowd of workers, the hunters came after him with their pistols drawn. The Irish engulfed Pickard and held the hunters fast until order could be restored. The judge dismissed the warrant, as the men could not produce proof that Pickard belonged to their client. On this issue, the townspeople and the workers found common ground.

            The workers continued construction on the canal that would ultimately be responsible for the city that Lockport would become. On October 26, 1826, my 3x great-grandmother Ordelia Whitcher (paternal side) was on board the Seneca Chief with Governor DeWitt Clinton as it passed through the locks, cut and carved from the limestone by Irish hands. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Making of Offerings

One of the oldest items on my ancestor altar is a bronze statue of Kuan Yin, the goddess of compassion. I adopted her as a spiritual mentor when I was unraveling my inner anger ball. I used compassion and kindness as mindful tools towards changing the way I responded to the world around me. The bodhisattva visual was a beacon of hope for me.
I use deity in my pagan work. I am a big believer in mythology as useful metaphors of ideals we strive towards. If I stumble across a mythology that speaks to the simple or complex characteristics of Work I am doing, I may choose to walk with the mythos of that deity.
With Kuan Yin, as a dedication to my spiritual faith, I string a small beaded necklace at the start of each new year and drape it around her neck. I consider it an offering to the spirit of her story that is diluted down into acts of compassion and kindness. I offer it as a gratitude for the guidance her stories have gifted me.
It doesn’t mean I think that Kuan Yin walks the earth or watches over me. I don’t believe that when lightning strikes Zeus is hurling his thunderbolts (though it’s a great story). When I leave out food offerings for the dead, I don’t believe they come and eat it. But I know that hungry animals are being fed in their honor.
These small offerings mark the years I have been on this path. Each layer displays the time that has passed since I started this Work. Over time, the notion of making offerings as a sign of gratitude and dedication became a heavy part of my spiritual life.
Offerings are good ways to bring attention to something I see as sacred that others might not. A marigold wreath left around the knob of a tree. A mandala of birdseed and corn left in a forest glade. Peanuts piled like cairns on logs and in knotholes. Natural fiber ribbons and yarns left loose on branches to pull the eye, precious resources for nests and burrows.

I decorate Kuan Yin to show that she is not just a statue. She is an altar, a space of Work that changes as I transform, as my Work alters. When I go to the woods, I leave offerings because I am grateful to have wilds to walk in, and in my gratitude, I offer nourishment to the animals that live there. It keeps me mindful. It keeps me present in my gratitude, offering me a better way to experience the world.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Time Capsule

Yesterday, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts opened up a time capsule that was recovered from a cornerstone of the Boston State House building during a water leak in the building last month. The small box weighed 10 pounds and measured 5.5 x 7.5 x 1.5 inches. The box was buried in 1795 by Samuel Adams, then governor and brewer, Paul Revere, the metalsmith and engraver who overlaid the state dome with copper, and William Scollay, a local developer.
It’s not the first time the capsule was opened. In 1885, when the building was undergoing repairs, it was removed and the artifacts were cleaned, before being reburied. A few items were added to it and the contents of the box were noted in historical records. Last night was the second time, the first in 130 years.
The time capsule contained five folded newspapers that the museum is not sure will be unfolded due to their desire to preserve them. There was one folded title page from the Massachusetts colony records and a paper impression of the Seal of the Commonwealth. There were a collection of coins including half-cent, one-cent, half-dime, 10-cent, and 25-cent pieces. There was a pine tree shilling from 1652 and a copper medal with George Washington on it. Conservationists think the large number of copper coins helped protect the artifacts, all in amazingly good condition, as copper inhibits fungal growth. The final artifact was found at the bottom of the box, a silver plaque possibly inscribed by Revere himself. It commemorates the placement of the cornerstone on July 4, 1795.
On that day, George Washington was our country’s President, and would be for two more years. My own ancestors were heavily invested in America at this time. They were scattered across Massachusetts, Connecticut, trickling into New York. There’s something to the thought for me, that two centuries ago when the box was initially buried, so many of my blood relatives were invested in life in this country.

6x Great-Grandparents:
Thomas Riddle & Rebekah Moulton… of Monson MA.
James Chaffee & Rhoda Cady… of Monson MA.
Wheeler Gillette & Julianna Merchant… of Milford CT.
Alexander Hannah & Mary Calhoun… of Bethlehem CT.
Walter F. Dixon & Annatje Goedemoet… of Mayfield NY.
John Parker & Jane Pearson… of Worchester MA.
Mary Bingham… of Wheatfield NY, widow of Asa Tenney.
Lucretia Cleveland… of Wells VT, widow of Jedidiah Darby.
Patience Thomas… of RI and New London CT, widow of Phillip Tourjee.
Knowles Sears… of Ridgefield CT, widower of Susannah Townsend.
Enoch Bird & Silence Lyon… of Whately MA.

5x Great-Grandparents:
Joseph & Mary Riddle… of Monson MA.
Charles & Deborah Chaffee… of MA.
Eliphal Gillette & Abigail Hannah… of CT.
Gertrude Dixon… of Kinderhook NY. Her future husband was still in Ireland.
William Wicker & Susannah Parker… of Hardwick MA and later Orwell VT.
Abner Whittier, Jr. & Elizabeth Dow… of Amesbury MA and later Danville VT.
James Kittredge & Mary Bailey… of Tewksbury MA.
Daniel Raymond & Lucy Richmond… of Cohocton NY.
Benjamin Eaton & Hepsibah Skiff… of Tolland CT.
Willard Gould & Anne Arnold… of CT, MA, and NY.
Reuben Tenney & Abigail Darby… of Norwich CT.
Phillip & Desire Tourgee… of Kingston RI and Saratoga NY.
Isaac Sears & Abigail Andrews… of Danbury CT and Olcott NY.
David Dutcher & Jane Palmer… of CT and NY.
Edmund Bird & Mary Coleman… of Whately MA.

4x Great-Grandparents:
Pliny Wicker & Chloe Morgan… of Hardwick MA, then VT, then NY.
Simeon Whittier & Dorcas Kittredge… of MA and then Danville VT.
Peter DeLozier & Lucy Raymond… of Clinton CT and Lockport NY.
Joshua Eaton & Lucy Gould… of CT, NY, and MI.
Thomas Targee & Martha Smith… of CT and Monroe County NY.

Image: print of the Boston State House from Moses King’s Handbook of Boston, 1885.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.