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, March 25, 2015

The Beginning I Saw in the End

Donna and Richard Riddle, madly in love.
It’s been eleven years since I sat in the hospital room with my Grandfather, watching him dance with death. It was my first bedside vigil and will not be my last. We sat, wondering how long it would last, watching his chest rise and fall, gambling the minutes… did we have time to go to the bathroom? Time to get a cup of coffee? Time to put on fresh clothes after a frantic race across the state to get there before it was too late?
The doctor had said it could be minutes, hours, days. We didn’t know how long it would be but we knew how it would end. There is no winning in the dancing, just an end of the music, the last pulling of strings humming in the air, becoming vibration with no sound, and then… memory. Waiting beside my Grandfather, my heart was already heavy with the loss of my grandmother three years earlier. I could tap my grief out for you in my own soft shoe, but we all know the face grief wears, and the mask grievers don.
I want to tell you something true, because it is the last day my grandfather had. The morning before I rushed to the hospital, he saw his doctor. He’d had lung cancer and had undergone treatment. He’d been in remission and then his cancer had returned. That morning, he asked his doctor how long he was looking at. Instead of months and years, the doctor gave him weeks and months. I don’t think he had expected that answer.
He hadn’t been feeling well. My parents received a phone call that night. Grandpa told them he thought he needed to go to the hospital. They raced over, but in that short time he had already slipped into unconsciousness. They say animals know when they’re about to die. And we’re animals.
My Grandpa loved life. He soldiered through losing my Grandma without removing himself from the world. But he was tired and he was in pain. That much was obvious in the hospital room.
He was struggling to breathe. We were painted in the room, separate tableaus across the same canvas. What happened to me did not happen to them. I was not ready to say goodbye to him, our rock, but I was ready for his suffering to end. I didn’t think he would be better off without us but I was ready for him to be free. I was ready to deal with my grief on my own time, not his. Being ready to accept the death made all the difference for me. In that room, with the clicks and the whirs of the equipment and the slow, low rattling of his lungs, I was prepared to wait.
I was praying in my head, words my heart couldn’t bear to speak, telling him it was okay, that we would be okay. I don’t know how I knew he wasn’t going to wake up. I think we all did. But we hoped. Sometimes when death comes, hope is a dangerous blade. The fact was we were there because he had decided he was ready. Cancer may have claimed him, but his death was on his terms.
We never really talked about death as a family, as a neighborhood, or as a culture when I grew up. Someone died and everyone put their funeral outfit on and we were sad and gave those grieving some space and then life went on. It tells a lot about my family that they allowed the soft chanting from the corner of the room where I sat. Music helps me move through emotion more easily and we were all doing what we needed to do in those moments.
When it happened it was quick. One second. It felt as if someone opened a door in the wall beside me, soft wind rushing in, and that second stretched into season as winter welcomed in spring and spring turned to summer and the smell of tilled earth, warm with worms, tomatoes and cucumbers, filled the air around us. I was ready for what was coming. I felt the shift as it happened.
One person turned away. One person died and one person cried out. I was aware of two realities. The air in the room stopped moving and I heard the sound of a toe tapping as a green light stepped into the room through the wall beside me. I held my breath, afraid to shatter the moment. On the hospital bed, my grandfather smiled and he lifted out of his body. Whatever you want or need to call it, his spirit, his anima, his soul leapt towards the light that smelled like my childhood summers and blinked away.
I was back in the room and the warmth that held us there was gone. He was gone. The sudden cold sterility of the room was disarming. So quickly, the heat from his body was dissipating. I stood apart from the moment and the grieving. I wanted to stand in sorrow but I was left in shock and wonder.
When I remember that moment, what I remember was not that it was awful for me, but that it left me full of awe for my experience and the gift I was given amid such a welling of sadness. Somewhere in the universe, in the ether, in the springtime around me, the energy I saw leave that room still lives, whether transformed, absorbed, scattered or inhaled, and the warmth of the man I loved became something new.

[Original article published March 23, 2011.]

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Spring Cleansing & Home Blessing

Equinox is upon us, mid-point between the longest night of the year and the longest day and we bask in the warmth like turtles on a log, like snakes on the rocks. Winter mostly behind us, we throw open our windows and curtains, letting the first of the warmer air blow through. Light hits the corners of our darkened caves.
If our bodies are the temple of our spirits and deserve the best of our attentions and care, our homes are the temples our bodies depend on. My home is more to me than wood and flooring, than roof and wall. It is not my property but it is my sanctuary, my resting place. It is sacred.
Spring is the best time to scrub your house of its dark corners. House cleansings and home blessings can be done to simply rejuvenate the space, as well as more specific reasons like moving into a new home or after a remodel, a traumatic death in the home, the loss of a loved one, haunting, feelings of being watched, etc.
I like to teach people how to do it themselves, because no one is better suited to build the temple of their home than the ones who live in it. Set up an altar in the room that you consider to be the heart of your home. All you need on it is a candle, to serve as a hearth. You can add items that are personal and meaningful for you, anything that warms your heart. Personalize it to suit your preferences and tastes. Intention is the most powerful magical tool.

Step One: House Cleansing
The purpose of the first step is to cleanse, clear and empty your home of unwanted energies. Start at the back of the home and sweep towards whatever door you use as your main entrance and exit. Use a broom to stir the air. Go through every room, pushing towards the main door. When you’re done, open the door and sweep it outside.
Now that the energy is stirred and moved, grab rattles, drums, pots and pans… anything that makes noise. Start at the back again, make some noise, and move towards and out the front door. This will chase out anything lurking in your home that wishes you harm or ill, be it an entity or a repository of negative emotional gunk. If you have trouble moving the energy it may be helpful to chant “bad energy out of my house” while you’re working.
To finish off, you can burn some white sage, commonly found in smudge stick forms (mind your smoke alarms). You can also use copal or camphor if you can’t find sage. Both of them are strong herb and resin purifiers.

Step Two: Resting
This is optional, but it adds a substantial boost to the cleansing. Burn a candle made with real cinnamon oil and walk it through your home. It’s not just for baking. Cinnamon, Cinnamomum zeylanicum, is the dried bark of the laurel tree. It’s native to Sri Lanka and was originally the only place it was grown. Most of the cinnamon we use today is Cinnamomum cassia, and comes from the cassia tree.

Step Three: House Blessing
            The blessing is the most important part, coming full circle, closing and sealing the gaps. It is about sacredly blessing the portals where energy comes in and out of your house. In doing it, you create a protective filter. Your altar candle is burning. You can set the cinnamon candle, if you used it, on the altar as well.
You will also need a bowl of salt water, a small dish or vial of oil (olive oil works fine). If it is just you, you will use each of these one at a time. This is a good excuse to invite some friends over and, sharing their love for you, to fill your house with warmth.
Work room to room and anoint every portal with a tiny dab of water, oil, and then smoke from the sage. By portals I mean electrical outlets, heating grates, windows, doorways, televisions, computers, faucets and drains, toilets, tubs and showers, etc. Do not stick your wet or oily fingers in the outlets- for the love! I just run a dab along the outer casing.
While you’re doing this, speak words to the effect of: Protect my home and family from harmful energies.
Be mindful while you are working the magic but do not be somber. After all, the intention is to fill the house with light and warmth. When you are finished, pour the remains of the salt water across the bottom threshold of your porch of stoop and ask the Ancestors to watch over you.
May it be so. Ase.

[A combination of “Home Cleansings and House Blessings,” originally published September 21, 2011 and “Spring Equinox Cleaning,” originally published March 19, 2014.]

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Our Natural, Magical World

It's sunny in my city, after weeks of being blanketed in snow. It's been a rare winter for where I live. But the ice is melting and the sidewalks and potholes are full of puddles today. The air is warm and I can smell spring beneath the snow. The grackles and robins have made their appearances and over the next few weeks the grass will emerge, the ground will warm through, and nature will reveal itself again. Nature is the seed-source of my spirituality.
One of the moments that developed my spiritual understanding came when I was prompted to read the introduction to David Abram’s book, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Abram, a philosopher, performer and ecologist worked as a sleight-of-hand magician in his early years in clubs across New England, including the infamous Alice’s Restaurant. In and after college he traveled around the world, studying the connection of magic and medicine in Indonesia.
His own experiences gradually altered his perceptions of native shamanism and the craft of their true work. He describes a significant moment during a stay with a young magic practitioner in Bali. Each morning, his hostess would bring him a tray of fruit. Each morning, she also carried many small green bowls filled with white rice, which she intoned were offerings for the household spirits, the spirits of the family compound.
Curious, David watched his hostess leave the small offerings of rice along the outside corners of the various buildings. When he sought them out later in the day, he found the bowls empty. He hid himself away on the second day to wait and watch. What he witnessed was a line of black ants struggling for hours to drag each kernel of rice away one at a time. He discovered that the same event occurred at each offering place.

“I walked back to my room chuckling to myself. The balian and his wife
had gone to so much trouble to daily placate the household spirits with
gifts--only to have them stolen by little six-legged thieves. What a waste!
But then a strange thought dawned within me. What if the ants themselves
were the "household spirits" to whom the offerings were being made?”

That thought initiated David to take in more of the natural landscape of the village, as well as the compound. He realized that there was a large population of ant colonies surrounding the buildings which should have been more of a nuisance to the family. In placing a consistent daily offering for the indigenous insect inhabitants, his host family had found a way to live with the natural world, assuring their own food and kitchen area to be left invasion free. This notion challenged his understanding of spirit as meaning something more than “not flesh.”

“… my encounter with the ants was the first of many experiences suggesting
to me that the "spirits" of an indigenous culture are primarily those modes of intelligence or awareness that do not possess a human form.”

All living things have spirit. It pushed me forward in my Ancestor work. The Western definition of ‘spirit’ limits them to a supernatural existence, separating us further from the natural world. Clearly we define things too much, and there is a point where understanding takes us out of the moment and into our heads, and definition stunts growth so that we can move on to something else. David Abram could have stopped at the observation of the ants taking away the rice and assumed he had figured out the magic trick. Instead, he allowed the revelation to open his own understanding.
The voices of our ancestors speak to us in the unfurling flower buds and the rippling grains in a meadow. They speak to us in the hatching eggs of spring. Everything of spirit inherits energy from our ancestors. Spirit is the natural world and the natural world is spirit.
It can be hard to garden in the city, where the birds, squirrels and stray animals are also looking to thieve themselves a meal. A full birdfeeder and a scattering of nuts in the side yard once a week stopped the squirrel-sunflower carnage and allowed the vegetable seeds to grow unscathed. We feed them through the winter so they are not starved come seeding time. The stray animals know there is always something for them at the back of the house, so they don’t pillage our garden or root through our garbage. As a result, we have co-existed beautifully together, while the quicker pulse of the modern world flows around us.

[This article was originally published March 9, 2011.]

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Stages of Victorian Mourning

Queen Victoria in mourning with white trim.
The Victorian Period lasted for the reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837-1901. It’s strict mourning structure was influenced by the Georgian Period 1714-1830, and continued into the succeeding Edwardian Period, 1901-1910, though strictures relaxed a bit. Formal mourning etiquette and practice peaked during Victoria’s reign. After the death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert, in 1861, the Queen spent three years in deep mourning, and the rest of her rule in more relaxed mourning attire.
Mourning etiquette was as strictly held in the antebellum South as it was in England. As a cultural custom, it was quite expensive. It either required the immediate building of an entire new wardrobe, or it necessitated that existing wardrobe pieces be “overdyed” black. This process would forever pull them out of daily use. One has to wonder if some poorer widows chose to spend the rest of their lives in black, not out of continued grief, but out of poverty and the inability to create a new wardrobe.
In death, curtains were closed and clocks were stopped. Mourning clothes were meant to serve as an outward display of inner sorrow, in a time when emotional hysterics were taboo. Popular household journals like The Queen and Cassell’s listed proper mourning etiquette in great detail, and were a staple for respectable housewives. It described in detail what was expected of them for the death of a third cousin, for example, or that of a brother-in-law. Children were not expected to wear mourning colors, though it wasn’t uncommon for girls to wear white dresses for mourning.

Full Mourning
Civil War widow in full veil.
The first stage in the death of a loved one was the Full Mourning period, and the most dramatic. The fashion itself became a means of removing oneself from regular society. I can understand the sentiment. It’s the grief period of surreal disbelief, where every mundane is no longer mundane because the deceased is no longer with you.
Women wore heavy and concealing black clothes, and long, weighted crepe veils attached to special hats and bonnets. The term “widow’s weeds” comes from the Old English waed for “garment.” Dresses were made out of flat black fabrics, like a non-reflective parramatta silk, or a more affordable bombazine. Cashmeres, grenadines, and tulles were also acceptable. The dresses were trimmed with crepe, a stiff, scratchy, crimped silk that didn’t combine well with other fabrics.
The main adornment was jewelry made of jet. It was a lesser stone with organic origins, decayed wood under extreme pressure (think ‘hard coal’). The wealthy often wore cameos or lockets which would hold hair or some other relic of the deceased. These items were considered sentimental jewelry and were not specifically mourning ware.
Widows wore mourning clothes for two to four years after the death of their husband, actual time varying by region. She could choose to dress in blacks for the rest of her life. In the American South, the full mourning crepe would be applied as one piece, starting about an inch below the waist and a couple inches above the hem. For a year widows would seclude themselves and see no one but close family. Outside of her home she would wear a black bonnet with a long opaque veil. It was a signal for others to leave her alone, and let her about her business.
"Fell asleep, June 27th 1870, aged 17."
Full Mourning lasted for at least a year and changing out of full mourning dress early was a sign of disrespect. If the widow was young enough, it was also an act that stigmatized probable promiscuity and sullied her reputation. A widow was not permitted to enter society for twelve months. No man or woman was supposed to attend social events while deep in mourning.
Men were not subject to quite the same restrictions as women. Those in service that required a uniform could wear a simple black armband while in mourning. For other men, an armband instead of full proper mourning attire was a break in etiquette. Gentlemen were expected to wear a Mourning Suit, which was a black frock coat, trousers, and matching waistcoat. It included black gloves, hatbands, and cravats. This should not be confused with the traditional Morning Suit, a suit for weddings and other formal occasions that would often include striped or checked trousers.
Husbands mourned wives for six months to a year. Wearing a black armband, he was allowed to business, as well as social parties. The widower could remarry whenever he wished, even within the six month period, at which point his mourning period would be over.

Slighting the Mourning
In some places, at this stage, the crepe trim could be removed from dresses, capes, and bonnets. But the dark dress beneath the crepe remained. Any accessories were still black. In the American South, after a year’s seclusion, the widow would shorten the crepe apron and alter the veil from waist-length to shoulder-length.

Half Mourning
After the crepe was removed, secondary mourning colors like grey and lavender, or mauve, and even white, could be introduced as trim on the black garments. Gold, silver, and other precious gemstones can be added to jet jewelry, but could not replace it. Exact time varies by region, but the move from full mourning to half mourning was gradual and happened in stages.
In the American South, after eighteen months, the crepe was removed entirely and secondary colors were added. The widow was now allowed to go without a veil or she would move from a shoulder length veil to a chin-length one. She could begin receiving visitors in her home and she herself could be seen outside of her home. For six months she would gradually include more of the secondary mourning colors in place of the black.
After two years and a day, the widow could come out of mourning entirely. She would send out cards to her friends and relatives, inviting them to come see her. She would invite them to fill her home up with life again.

Jay’s London General Mourning Warehouse of Regent Street in London, started in 1841, built itself up around accommodating grieving families with new, ready-made wardrobes designed for each stage of mourning. A superstition even popped up alluding that it was bad luck to keep mourning clothes in the home after the mourning period was over, insuring repeat customers. This may have well been the precursor to today’s department store.

Mourning for Other Relations
According to the mourning guides, parents would wear mourning for two years after the loss of a child, or as long as they wished to after the two years were over. Children would mourn the death of a parent for a year. At the death of a grandparent, mourning colors were worn for six months. After two months in black silk with crepe, they would spend the next two months in black with no crepe. The final two months were spent in secondary mourning colors. They would mourn the death of a sibling for six months as well. The first three months were spent in crepe, then two months in regular black, and the last month in secondary mourning colors.
Aunts and uncles were mourned for two or three months in just black garb, no crepe. The first month is observed with jet jewelry only. Six weeks for great uncles and aunts. Four weeks for cousins. And then it gets complicated… the in-laws. A woman would mourn her aunt-by-marriage for two months, same as her own, but only if her Uncle was still alive. If he wasn’t, she may only mourn the deceased for a month. And so on. I think I understand why there was a standard manual.

            Taking the Victorian mores out of the custom, and forgoing the hypocrisy and sexism of the restrictions placed upon the widows (still property of their husbands), I get the ritual aspect. Grief is difficult. We think we know how to navigate it but it always surprises us. Even if we’ve done it before, every time the grief is different.
Often we have moments of feeling like we don’t know how to be in the world and the world doesn’t seem to know how to react to our grief. In the Victorian world, the surrounding community would allow for the family to shut themselves away while they transitioned into a changed household. And those in mourning could attend to the everyday things that needed attending to, certain that no one would interrupt their attempts to see mundane tasks through.

Gradually, it would allow the griever to ease out of the river of sorrow, and gently re-integrate with society. It seems a more human response than what we get in the modern world. When my grandfather died and I told my boss I needed to go home for a week to be with my family, he didn’t have to let me go- although I was going whether it meant my job or not. There are many jobs and he was my only grandfather. As it was, my boss left messages for me every morning while we were grieving and arranging funerals and entertaining others in sorrow, pressuring me to come back to work. I would have much preferred a heavy veil and forced seclusion away from spreadsheets and sales calls.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.