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, February 25, 2015

Wearing White

It may seem strange to hear me say that my Beloved Dead has been heavily on my mind this winter, but my city has been blanketed in white for longer than I remember since I moved here. For me, white is the color I associate with ancestors. When I gaze out at the crystalline snow, I see the sun shining dancing upon those who are no longer here.
My introduction to Ancestor Work was through Ifa, a religion practiced by the Yorubans. They wear white when petitioning the ancestors or dealing with death because to them white is purity; it is the absence of color. When I started doing my own work, I liked that idea of approaching such an emotional space from a place of hope and light and clarity, as opposed to the only visual I had of death, of somber people in black dress.
It is true that when crossing the threshold to whatever other world you wander through, your newness and uniqueness in that world becomes a kind of neon sign, a flashing look-at-me to beings both light and dark. Specifically with spirit world, you attract all manner of energies, good and bad, light and dark. I have found it extremely helpful to approach the work from a place of light, acting as a beacon of light against the darkness that would seek me out. I usually imagine myself as Gandalf’s staff, shining with a light and love so brilliant and warm it hurts that which would hurt me.

2010, photo by Rahdne Zola.
That’s what works for me. Different cultures have different customs and there are many others that wear white around death and grieving. It’s a traditional color in Ethiopia and India. Hindus wear casual, white clothes for funerals and their widows usually wear white for the rest of their lives. Buddhists also prefer white over black to show their grief.
In China, white is the predominant color for funerals. As a sign of happiness, red is an inappropriate color to wear. The grieving family will wear a piece of colored cloth on their arm for 100 days. Children of the deceased wear a black cloth, grandchildren wear blue, and great-grandchildren wear green.
White or black can be worn in the Philippines, heavily influenced by Chinese, Japanese, and Catholic beliefs. Here, as well, red is a taboo color. It is believed that anyone wearing it during a time of mourning will suffer from illness and/or die.
            Black is traditional custom for funerals in Thailand, as well as Japan, whether Japanese kimonos or formal, black Western-style clothing. With Western clothes, a single strand of white pearls is also permitted. In areas of the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, Russia, Slovakia, and Spain, it is common for widows to wear black for the rest of their lives. Black is still considered proper funeral etiquette in the U.S. but no one is expected to wear it for extended periods of time.
In much of the non-Western world, white is the predominant color associated with death, grief, and mourning. But the history of the Western world weaving between the two colors is intriguing:
  • Wearing black for mourning dates back, at least, to the Roman Empire. The toga pulla was made of dark-colored wool.
  • Black wasn’t just for mourning. It was also a sign of sadness across Medieval Europe, where it was common for conquered people to greet their new lord dressed in black.
  • In contrast, Medieval European queens mourned in white.
  • In 1393, Leo V, King of France died in exile in Paris. His funeral was dressed in white, not black, to the curiosity of the locals. It became custom for Queens of France to wear deuil blanc, or “white mourning.” In 1938, Queen Elizabeth made a State visit to France while in mourning for her mother. She had a custom White Wardrobe created for the trip by Norman Hartnell.
  • Royal funerals were dressed in white in Spain until 1498. Queen Fabiola, of Spain, revived the tradition at the death of her husband, King Baudouin I, of Belgium in 1993.
  • 1536, King Henry VIII wore white after the death of Anne Boleyn.
  • There is a portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots in a white veil from 1599, in deep mourning after the deaths of her father-in-law, then her mother, and then her husband, Francis II of France.
  • White cloth was cheap, undyed fabric, appropriate to mourning as it was supposed to symbolize a neglect of caring for the material world.
  • In 1840, Queen Victoria married Prince Albert and she wore a white wedding gown to reflect the economic crisis in Britain. After this occasion, white was not used for mourning again in Europe. (Until the 1930s, wedding dresses were simply fancier versions of contemporary fashion.)
  • Victorian mourning customs are strange and complicated… and earned their own blog post. Come back next week for more!

I know that when I die, I don’t want people to wear black. White would be beautiful to me, but I might not be there to see it, so… Maybe blue. Blue is a healing color. Or maybe green, because the Earth is green and alive and because of Her I was alive for a while, too. Or maybe it doesn’t matter what color people wear. Maybe all that matters is that I loved them and they loved me. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Genealogy and Health Histories

Roy in uniform, Elmira NY.
One of the side benefits to genealogy work is discovering how your ancestors died, and what that might tell you about your family genes. Three years ago I had an accident. In the course of getting treated, my sugar was discovered to be startlingly high. The next day, when my dad and I were distracting me by going through some family stuff, he was talking about his Grandpa Roy, who was a prison guard at Auburn NY. My great-grandpa Roy was injured in a small prison riot. But his official death lists that he died from complications to his injuries due to his pre-existing condition of diabetes.
And it was like an unwanted lightbulb went off. I changed my diet. I changed my lifestyle, hoping to avoid a similar diagnosis, but just before Christmas, thanks to finally having health insurance, I found out that I am also diabetic. Thanks, also, to the concern Roy’s story prompted, I have/had already done the majority of lifestyle changes, and those changes saved me from being sicker than I was.
I know that my Grandpa Mark, Roy’s son, died of cancer that was so advanced when they discovered it, it had already spread to his bones and throughout his body. He was 67. My Grandma Ruth died of cervical cancer at the age of 43. My Grandpa Dick died at 72 of lung cancer caused by asbestos from his stint in the Navy.
I know my great-grandpa Harold Lafayette Riddle (1903-1975) had a heart attack at age 72 and his wife, my beloved Elsie Elizabeth Durant (1904-1994), died of old age at 90. My great-grandma Margaret Loretta Burke (1899-1938) died of renal cancer at 39 and her husband Robert George Art (1892-1974) died of bladder cancer at age 82.

I’ve discovered other stories along the way of my other various levels of great-grandparents that lend themselves to more research:
  • 3x Bailey Harrison Whitcher (1799-1865) had become deaf and was hit by a train crossing the railroad tracks when he was 66. His wife Ordelia deLozier (1810-1888) died tragically after falling down the stairs at age 78.
  • 4x Peter de Lozier (1786-1849), Ordelia’s father, died of cholera at age 39, after abandoning his family to return to the sea. He was a Prisoner of War at Tripoli.
  • 9x William Blackmore (1640-1676) was “attacked by Indians” in Scituate MA and killed at age 36.
  • 10x Sgt. William Pond (1622-1690) died “unexpectedly” at age 68.
  • 10x Robert Sallows (1626-1663) drowned at sea at age 41, while living in Salem.
  • 11x James Chilton (1562-1620) and his wife died the first winter aboard the Mayflower. He was 58 and the oldest man on board. Her age and name are unknown. Their 12 year old daughter Mary survived them.
  • 11x Thomas Rogers (1572-1621) died the first winter on the Mayflower at age 49.
  • 15x Sir Henry Norreys (1491-1536) was beheaded at the Tower of London for an alleged adultery with Anne of Boleyn. He was 45.
  • 23x Sir Edmund Fitzalan (1285-1326) was beheaded at age 41.
  • 25x Robert of Artois (1216-1250) died at age 34 “leading reckless attack on Al Mansurah.”
  • 28x Frederick Bararossa (1122-1190) drowned at age 68 while on crusade in Silifke, Turkey.

In my research, I pay homage to my ancestresses who are known to have died in childbirth, for their mortality and their sacrifice in birthing those who made me possible:
  • 2x Hattie Eva Dutcher (1857-1882) at age 25.
  • 10x Ruth Lee (1602-1642) at age 40.
  • 13x Anne Walgrave (1495-1530) at age 35.
  • 19x Agnes Daubeney (1307-1335) at age 28.
  • 19x Aubigny Creake (1335-1355) at age 20.

On a happier tone, I also made note of twenty-nine of my known ancestors who lived to me more than ninety years old:
  • 3x Ammi Smith (1824-1918) age 94. 
  • 5x Desire Tourgee (1752-1845) age 92. 
  • 6x Patience Thomas (1732-1822) age 90. 
  • 6x Thomas Boots (1761-1852) age 91. 
  • 7x Mary Smith (1701-1800) age 98. 
  • 7x Nicholas LaSueur/Lozier (1668-1761) age 93. 
  • 8x Lydia Starr (1652-1744) age 92. 
  • 8x Elizabeth Williams (1671-1771) age 100. 
  • 8x Hannah Latham (1651-1750) age 99. 
  • 9x John Bird (1641-1732) age 90. 
  • 9x Thomas Andrew Hovey (1648-1739) age 91. 
  • 10x Richard Sears (1590-1696) age 106. 
  • 10x Anna Reeve (1590-1685) age 95. 
  • 10x Mary Clark (1590-1681) age 91. 
  • 11x George Dyer, weaver, (1579-1672) age 93. 
  • 11x Sir Edward Bishop (1601-1695) age 94. 
  • 11x Capt. Richard Walker (1592-1687) age 95. 
  • 11x Jean Fafard (1598-1696) age 98. 
  • 11x Elizabeth Franklin (1570-1671) age 101. 
  • 12x William Jackson (1585-1688) age 103. 
  • 12x George Raymond (1538-1632) age 94. 
  • 12x Humphrey Pinney (1588-1683) age 95. 
  • 12x Maria Hatton (1573-1670) age 97. 
  • 13x John Whicker (1452-1556) age 104. 
  • 14x Richard Elwin (1555-1647) age 92. 
  • 16x Edward Morris (1455-1556) age 101. 
  • 17x Katherine Wallcott (1368-1460) age 92. 
  • 24x Eleanor/Alianore de Gorges (1270-1375) age 105. 
  • 25x Petronella de Gresley (1147-1249) age 102.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Night Vigil

Zami (l), still kicking around, and Luna (r), about 2001. Photo by Rahdne Zola.
I don’t lay claim to a specific religion, but my spirituality is very important to me. Once upon a time, I didn’t know you could be spiritual without being religious, and thanks to my parents’ love of camping and my love of literature, I discovered that my spirituality resonates strongest when I connect to the natural world.
In a lot of ways, having pets is part of that for me, connecting in to another creature, learning to co-habitat, sharing trust. It’s almost been five years since the death of our petite tiger, Luna. My experience with her loss was the impetus for this blog. We’ve lost another cat since then, and gained a new one.
I was on my way to bed, just after midnight. Luna, our normal bedwarmer, was curled up on the couch, which was strange but not unusual. I might have kept going. I was tired, thinking about my schedule for the next day.
It was a singular moment, where I stopped and I looked at her and she looked at me without lifting her head. It wasn’t a brain moment. It wasn’t a heart moment. It was an intuitive moment. Like when your skin knows a storm is coming. When you know you eyes are watching you even though you can’t see anyone. When you know the house is too quiet and the children aren’t making a peep. In that moment, I knew in my body, in my gut, that something important was happening.
I sat on the couch, waiting for her to climb in my lap, but she just sighed. I scooped her up gingerly and slid her onto my lap, paying attention to her discomfort and distress. I thought I was hurting her more and I tried to put her down, but she grabbed my arm and whimpered. She didn’t want to be alone.
It took her a good twenty minutes to get comfortable and settle, draped in my lap, her head thrown over my wrist. When she finally stilled, so did I. I didn’t move again until dawn.
There’s something about a spirituality that asks you to immerse yourself in the living world that keeps you present in your body, in every minute that ticks by. Luna and I were connected. I could sense death sniffing around her. I was so afraid that she might pass at any moment that I remember every minute of that vigil.
Luna slept for five short chunks of time, touching my bare forearm. When she didn’t feel well, she liked to touch bare skin. It comforted her. As the night progressed I spoke softly to her, telling her we’d get her to the vet as soon as they opened, telling her we’d get her medicine. I tried to keep her calm. I sang to her. And I stayed. Luna didn’t like to be alone.
That last night with Luna was the last night we had together. It felt like such a helpless thing, sitting in stillness for hours, ignoring my own needs so she could sleep comfortably. Her coat was like rabbit fur and she had a mean left hook- and wasn’t afraid to use it if you tried to tell her no and she really didn’t want to hear it. She considered herself part of the family, not a pet.
That night when she lay weakly in my lap, I remembered the small kitten with big eyes and big ears who crawled up me at the open adoption day, digging her claws into my shoulder to keep above the throngs of grabby children, shaking. We learned a lot from each other in our ten years together and I learned a lot about myself that last night, too.
I learned I can set aside my fear for the care of someone else. I learned that I can make hard choices in the face of someone else’s suffering. I learned that it’s more important for me to face a hard truth than to hide from it.

In her last moments, she was curled like a bunny in the vet office, head low, quietly gazing up at us. We were waiting to find out what kind of medicine we needed for her, ignorant of the aggressive tumor that had swallowed up the vital organs in her abdomen. But she knew. Animals are more connected to that spiritual energy than we are. Luna knew. She was just waiting until we were ready to let her go. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Looking Back: What Comes After

“I do not claim to know what comes next or what happens to that bit of life [that leaves us]. I don’t know what happens. But I have faith that something does.”

I said those words in an earlier post [five years ago now]. Faith. I do not believe I had the ability to understand the true meaning of that word [now I’m sure I didn’t]. As a child I thought faith meant “believe it because I said so and I know better” and I trusted it was true. Now it means something more like “believe it because you feel it to be true even though there is no evidence you are right.”
Faith means trusting your intuition, even when the world tells you they disagree. It’s one of the reasons I both respect and fear fundamentalism. That kind of faith amazes me. It has dense power that moves like strong current. But that kind of power is uneasily wrought by those who refuse to see another side. “With great power comes great responsibility.” They’re not just words. I believe that faith means believing what you know to be true (currently) while being open to being wrong. If you put a wall up around your faith, you blind yourself.
This is something faith should not be.
Stepping onto a path of faith is stepping closer to yourself. People who are disconnected from their own faith and intuition are more easily led by someone else’s momentum if that person of faith has complete conviction. I followed a self-led religious journey through multiple churches because I wanted to have that conviction, and no church held it for me.
I think faith should have deep roots. But not ones handed to you. Ones in soil you have tended, in a hole you have worked to clear because you believe you are where you are meant to be. You should be able to stand in that hole, alone, even in no others plant themselves near you. Faith is personal. It should not be shaken by others with different faith, because their different path, their different experiences, led them there.
Sometimes, competition can breed breakthroughs, but more often than not, we apply it to aspects of life where it has no place. Spirituality is not a competition. In an ideal world, people would be happy to have found their own place, and would not need to beat down opposing views or seek to force conversion of others. My beliefs have been defined by my experiences, both physical and emotional, and probably more emotional than physical. I don’t expect others to be on the same path. So when I find them, they are precious to me.

I believe in spirits. I believe that something of life remains after death. I don’t believe every ghost story is the same. I don’t believe everyone stays behind. I don’t believe everyone moves on. But sometimes I can talk to them. There is a realness to it that means, for me, the dead aren’t necessarily dead, and I understand that I perceive death differently.
When my father’s father died I was eight. I didn’t understand what it meant beyond the fact that I wouldn’t see him anymore. I can’t say I understand it now much more than that.
When we separate from our physical body, we lose all the html code that created the cells and walls of our body, joining cells into strands of DNA, weaving strands into mobile, tangible structures. But it is our spirit that fuels movement and relation. When our spirit is strong we are invincible and when it is weak we are unmotivated. It is our spirit that dissipates into the ether. I imagine all this spirit energy combines in a great pool. We cease to be me and you and all are One. It’s a cliché and it’s true. The newest arrivals swirl on the surface, where the emotional storms of spirits struggling through the transition are more frequent and severe. The further down into the unending well you travel, the stiller, darker, and stronger the density of energies. This is where the Ancestors dwell.

I believe there is a cycle of energy that spirit goes through as we leave our bodies, even though there aren’t knowable answers to be attained. It’s what led me to start my Ancestor Work and worship. It is hard to do more than simply honor your ancestors if you do not believe that spirit/soul/anima/energy exists in the natural world. My belief allowed me the opportunity to develop a cosmology or visualization that suited me.
Still water is a beautiful mirror of the world around and above it but beneath, still water grows silty and marshy. Insects roost and lay their eggs. In the silt, vegetation rots and decays. Movement in water comes as currents break a way in, pushing and changing the flow of the water, displacing what doesn’t fit or stands in the way. Movement cleanses the water and reveals what had been forgotten beneath the surface.

The action of physically honoring my ancestors is important to my practice, whether I believe it is symbolic or not, because the repetition of movement creates changes in my physical body beneath the surface. Worship becomes a body memory and the deeper it sinks into your muscles, the deeper the spiritual experience you have.
Repetition is not about monotony if you do it right. It’s about adding layers until you find yourself navigating spirit world with ease. It takes time to sync up your physical, emotional, and intellectual bodies. The action of ancestor worship is creating a change in me, moving me towards the calm centeredness I long for.

Connection and Devotion to an Ancestor
1)      Sit in a quiet room. Think about a beloved relative who has passed on (it should not be someone who is recently deceased). Pay attention to the memories waking in your mind at the thought of their name.
2)      Speak their name out loud. Pay attention to the emotion flooding your heart center at the sound of their name.
3)      Wrap your arms around yourself in a hug and speak their name again. Feel the emotion flooding your heart at the sound of their name and the feeling of arms around you. Pay attention to the memories flooding your body as you build up energy. How has the quality of memories changed as you connect yourself to them physically?
4)      Open your arms slowly and hold a candle between your hands.
5)      Holding that candle, speak the name of your loved one again.
6)      Think of happy moments you shared and let the memories grow in your core and rise to your heart. If you have it in you to laugh, laugh out loud. Let the energy of the memories fall down through your arms, into your hands, into your candle.
7)      Place the candle in a special place on your ancestor altar. Every time you light the candle, you honor that loved one.

I don’t need to do this step anymore. The more you do it the easier it gets. But I still do, because every time I walk through this meditation, it creates another wave of peace within me. Every time I do this I change. In worshiping my ancestors I am walking myself towards being a better version of me. In honoring my ancestors, I am taking steps closer to honoring myself.

[A version of this article was originally posted February 2, 2011.]
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.