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 29, 2015

Malidoma Patrice Somé, Supernatural is Natural

“Earth is where we belong. She is our home. She gives us sustenance unconditionally and makes it possible for us to feel connected. Earth is where we go to and where we come from. The nourishment and support of the Earth Mother grants us the feeling of belonging that allows us to expand and grow because we feel strong.”

Western civilization superimposes us onto the natural world, as if we are above it, and it is below us. As if it is nothing more than a storage shed for resources at our disposal, and not a living, breathing world we are a part of. We see this viewpoint in the entitled way we dam rivers and when we clear-cut forest dwellers of their habitat, of their trees. We even blow holes in hills and mountainsides to make a way for ourselves and we call it progress.
Along the way, we stopped living with the earth and began to try to tame it to suit our needs and comforts. It is saddening. Yet there are people who walk with feet in both worlds, that of our constructed culture and that of the world we wandered far from as generations of nomads settled into cities. And these people are using their gifts to serve as guides, and awaken our perception to the larger truth.

“Human beings are most of the time unaware of the extent and intimacy of their connection with nature, especially the world of plants and animals. We act as if we are the proud and dominant other and thus can and should manifest our superiority in ways that are rather careless and devastating to nature. Indeed, trees live in harmony, and we create dissonance. Yet we want to live in a world where everyone and everything is harmoniously linked to everyone and everything.”

Malidoma Patrice Somé is one of these remarkable people, straddling both worlds and successfully acting as a mediator and translator between them. He was born to the Dagara people of Burkina Faso in West Africa. Malidoma was kidnapped from his village at the age of four by a Jesuit Missionary who had befriended his father. He was placed in a boarding school, on path to become a priest, to be used as a tool to convert the African people to the white man’s God.
When he was twenty he managed to run away and walked the entire distance back to his village, where he found himself home once more, and yet a stranger among strangers. He had been gone for fifteen years and could not even recall enough of the Dagara language to communicate with his mother and sister.
His Western world upbringing left him inadequately prepared for his return. He and his people did not understand each other. Well past the age of manhood in his village, Malidoma was required to undergo a month-long rite of passage before he could fully become a member of his community.
He had to first unlearn what he had learned.
His trials are compellingly written in his book Of Water and the Spirit: Ritual, Magic, and Initiation in the Life of an African Shaman. In its pages he describes one of his first breakthroughs, where he was bidden to sit and watch a tree. He was aware of his own head processing through wondering what the purpose was, of wondering what the correct thing to do was. There had to be more to it than staring at a tree, right? Then he became angry and felt like he was being made to go through a public humiliation, as he was sat in the center of the village. Passed that anger, he broke open and began to speak to the tree. It became a sort of confessional where he poured his feelings of frustration out and apologized to the tree.
What he experienced next was a transformation of the tree into what he calls the green lady- a green human form spirit who felt like love and home. He ran sobbing to the spirit and she held him in her arms. When he came out of the moment and was hugging the tree he immediately tried to blame the vision on the heat and lack of food- which is the Western way of thought- except that the elders of his tribe who were watching had seen the same green lady in the moment he did. How could he explain that?  

“My experience with the green lady raises an important issue, namely, the true identity of the elements of nature. What if they are not inanimate objects, as people in the West have been taught to believe, but rather living presences? How would we need to change if we granted to a tree the kind of life that we usually reserve for so-called intelligent beings? If you peek long enough into the natural world - the trees, the hills, the rivers, and all natural things - you start to realize that their spirit is much bigger than what can be seen, that the visible part of nature is only a small portion of what nature is.”

            What we would call the supernatural, his people call the natural world. They have no word for supernatural. The closest word they have is Yielbongura, “the thing that knowledge can’t eat.” Western thought may have decided that it is separate but that doesn’t make it a truth for the larger world.
In fact, that way of thinking will only serve to separate us more from that which we all want most- to rediscover the sensation of wholeness. Spirit is real. What is spiritual can be explained by science, but not explained away. After all, you can put blinders on a horse so that he cannot see the distractions around him, but the distractions around him are still occurring. He does not see, yet they happen.
That’s true of the fullness of the world around us. Either we are open to it or we are closed to it, but it does not stop existing if we do not believe in it. If we choose to, we can do work to open ourselves up to the spirit world, the larger world, the greater web around us. We can see and hear with more senses than we use. People who have had these experiences, as Malidoma had, often decide in the aftermath that they must have hallucinated. So much of the spirit world is ephemeral that it takes a certain amount of faith and openness to make the connection.

"You can acquire what is usually seen as magical. When in fact the more you dwell in this kind of world, the less you see it as magical because it is the familiar, it is the kind of thing that every human being is entitled to and it is the kind of thing that is at the core of human nature, the search, the intense search for the magical." 

            I can’t recommend Somé’s writings enough. He has two other books The Healing Wisdom of Africa, which chronicles his life after the awakening, and Ritual: Power, Healing and Community. The story of his life’s journey and the purpose his Ancestors gifted him with is laced and woven with a breathtaking, wondrous, and seemingly simplistic awareness of the larger world that stretches beyond our everyday perception. Malidoma’s words act as a gateway, a doorway that the reader can grasp, an opening they can step through.

“Indigenous people see the physical world as a reflection of a more complex, subtler, and more lasting yet invisible entity called energy. It is as if we are the shadows of a vibrant and endlessly resourceful intelligence dynamically involved in a process of continuous self-creation. Nothing happens here that did not begin in that unseen world. If something in the physical world is experiencing instability, it is because its energetic correspondent has been experiencing instability. The indigenous understanding is that the material and physical problems that a person encounters are important only because they are an energetic message sent to the visible world. ... Ritual is the principal tool used to approach that unseen world in a way that will rearrange the structure of the physical world and bring about material transformation.”

            [This article was originally published July 20, 2011.]

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Every Day is Earth Day

Earth Day is every day. It’s not just a sentiment. It’s true. Despite what Western convention would have you believe, land does not belong to anyone. We belong to the land. We were born from it. We evolved out of it. And from the moment of our birth, we are charged as caretakers of the Earth. We are all Stewards of the Land.
Believe it. Own it. Live it. How will you rise to meet your birthright?

Let’s Talk Trash for Earth Day. I know the trash you see on the streets and in the parks does not belong to you. You didn’t put it there. That doesn’t mean you can’t pick it up. Just yesterday I picked up three knotted plastic bags of dog shit left behind in various yards. I don’t have a dog. But the owners of those dogs were obviously not going to do it.
I am especially offended by all the broken bits of plastic littered about that most people don’t see, all the bottle caps and bits of food packaging containers. Have you seen the video about the birds that die with bellies full of plastic? They mistake it for food and it kills them from the inside. Who will defend their right to life free from harm if not us?
Maybe you don’t have it in you to pick up all the trash you see. The best way you CAN help is to not add to it. We create the world we want to live in by the choices we make. Do not ever throw a thing to the ground because you don’t know what to do with it. Adopt a practice of Carry In, Carry Out.

And then take it a step further with the Earth Week Challenge. It doesn’t have to be earth week when you do it, but challenge yourself to spend a week not using garbage cans or waste baskets. Carry a reusable shopping bag with you (one you can wash afterwards) and throw personal refuse you would normally put in the garbage in your reusable bag- unless it’s actual food waste, because that can be unsanitary. But collect everything else. At the end of the week you will see the waste you produced, just from your day-to-day routine. You may not be able to apply this to work-related refuse, but that candy bar you ate at on break should go in your reusable bag.
Then reflect on ways you can pare down on the unnecessary garbage and maybe keep the challenge going for a month. What choices can you make when you’re shopping to both get a good price AND cut down on the amount of wasteful packaging? How much can you reduce your garbage output and increase your recyclables output over time? It makes me feel good that every week I put out one small garbage bag and two very full recycling bins. Someday, when we can have a composting bin on our property, even that minimal garbage output will go down.

If you have a mind to face the truth, if you can stomach it, read writings by Derrick Jensen. It’s hard to face the legacy of the effects our pursuit of industry and progress have had on the Earth. My firm belief is that if we cannot do it cleanly, we have no business doing it. We cannot afford to forego the effects of what we do for the sake of progress. And yet big business does just that. How can we care if we don’t know? Check back in the next few weeks for my thoughts on the essay “What We Leave Behind” from The Derrick Jensen Reader: Writings on Environmental Revolution. Even my hometown is not immune to the aftereffects of industry, made known in a new film by Tanya Stadelmann, called “This Creek.”
I don’t blame you if it’s too much to hear, too much to know, or too much to handle. But we all spend enough time with our heads in the sand, like ostriches, trying to protect our human hearts. But while we do that, who is protecting the heart of the Earth?

We’re slowly learning. People and groups are making changes, but the time has come for more sweeping global changes. The best way to move forward is to follow by positive examples. The country of Sweden recycles all that can be recycled and what little garbage remains, less than one percent, is turned into an energy source. Other countries are now paying Sweden to import the garbage they do not have room for.
Did you know there are giant swirling masses of plastic covering our oceans and separating the underwater life from sunlight? There are five main masses, totaling millions of tons of weight (of plastic, which weighs next to nothing. See what this group is doing to help clean up the oceans. Do you want to eat fish that has been eating plastic?
In Paraguay, people have seen beauty and possibility in the trash piled up around them. Imagine beautiful musical instruments for underprivileged kids made of recycled materials pulled from dumps. Seriously. Watch the video. Listen to the music. One man's waste is another man's treasure. Literally.
These problems are human ones. Humans created this waste. Not the Earth. It can’t be the Earth’s problem. Sometimes we need a reminder that when we let nature be what she was meant to be, beautiful things happen. Humans once trapped wolves to near-extinction, and the land changed because of it. These changes are not irreversible. Watch the magic that happened when wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone.

Every day is Earth Day. We are born from it. We evolved out of it. And from the moment of our birth, we are charged as caretakers of the Earth. Believe it. Own it. Live it. How will you rise to meet your birthright?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Talking Trash for Earth Day

“The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.”
~Paulo Coelho

I take daily walks around my neighborhood, often playing Lisa Gerrard’s “Sacrifice” or Deva Premal’s “Gaté Gaté” low in my ear buds as I wove through the neighborhood. I keep the volume just high enough to drown out the street traffic, but not so loud as to drown out the natural birdsong. The ice and snow have melted in my residential area, unveiling the layers of litter, clothing, red Solo cups, broken bottles, and pieces of furniture long gone to the curb.

People walk by it every day and don’t see it. It happens. The garbage becomes part of the background, or maybe people get depressed by it and they stop seeing it. Where I live, it’s a mixed bag. One block to the west of us is made up of quiet residential homes and the streets are nearly cleaned up post-snow melt after just a couple of weeks.

One block to the east of us is mostly rental apartments. The difference in the condition of the yards and streets is tangible. There is a sense of “I didn’t put that garbage there. It’s not my garbage. It’s not my yard. It’s not my job.”

Just a quick walk around the corner this morning revealed an old sweatshirt, a small plastic child’s pennywhistle, chunks of broken liquor bottles, a rusty metal bedframe in pieces, old plastic bags with soupy dog shit, candy wrappers, a warped phone book, a car gas tank cover, three empty dime bags, a baby shoe, a row of abandoned plastic cups, a plethora of cigarette butts of varying ages, and a deflated basketball. I picked up the garbage, wearing a pair of kitchen gloves, and put it to the curb with my trash.

Side note: As a general rule, I only pick up trash between the sidewalk and the curb, or from vacant and abandoned houses. I don’t go into people’s yards without their permission. I did learn, while walking around and snapping pictures, that other people may not see or want to pick up their own trash, but they sure get persnickety when they realized that I saw it and was documenting it. I guess blinding yourself to something sad only works if everyone is in silent agreement to do the same. I have also learned that most people are more than willing to let me pick up the trash in their yards. Only a few get suspicious that I have ulterior motives… that there might be treasure in their trash that I am lying about. I couldn’t possibly just be doing it because it needs to be done.

I rent. I don’t own my apartment. I don’t own my house. I don’t own my yard. I don’t own my street. But I care what the yard looks like. I care what my home looks like, and what that message says to others when they come to visit. I think the way people live is a reflection of what they think they deserve. I may not have the money to move into a nicer neighborhood, but I can keep my home clean. I can steward myself to the earth that holds me. I can care for it. I can do that much.

It doesn’t matter if it is my trash or not. It doesn’t matter if I was the one who threw the garbage to the ground or not. It doesn’t matter if I own the yard or not. The Earth belongs to everyone and I am a part of it, walking with my eyes open. The garbage is there. Someone has to clean it up.

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
~Mahatma Gandhi

I don’t want to live in a home full of trash. I don’t want to come home to a yard full of trash. I don’t want to park my car on a street covered in trash. It makes me sad to see the spring crocuses and daylilies choking beneath so much garbage. We all need a little breathing room. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Thoughts on Crafting a Eulogy

When my Grandpa died, I couldn’t have known that I would later regret not speaking at his funeral. I had so many wonderful stories of him I could have told, if I could have conveyed them in my grief. I couldn’t have. I am often at a loss for words in the moment, too caught up in the ‘feels’…which, as a writer, I find wryly amusing.
I wouldn’t have been able to do my thoughts and feelings for him justice, but the idea of speaking of and for the dead has become important over the years to the ancestral work that I do. It’s about being in service to something greater than my grief. It’s about being in service to love.
Love is where we find the courage to stand in our grief, to put words to the truth of how the world is now, without our loved ones. How we dispose of the bodies of our beloved dead is about honoring both their memory and the physical temple they inhabited, as well as honoring their wishes for its end.
The funerals we hold for the dead are often designed with them in mind. If they had a specific practice, it will likely be a service of their spirituality or religion, and we the living are welcome to share in that space. It’s where those who are left without the dead are allowed to remember them. It’s part of our process of accepting the transition of death as it applies to our own lives. And I believe that it’s meant to serve the living more than it’s meant to honor the dead.
I have thought back often to my Grandpa’s service, and the poor retired minister who fumbled through every Old Testament story in the Bible and couldn’t remember the dead man’s name. What would my Grandpa have wanted to say? What would he have wanted people to take away from the last time they would gather in his honor?
How would he have wanted to be remembered? How should he have been remembered? How could I have been to bridge to convey that? How can I do that in the future?
But here’s my, this-should-be-common-sense disclaimer: I say that the service, the memorial, the wake… those are all things for those of us left behind. But it is still sacred space. It is still a place of honor and truth and love. The eulogy is not space to air dirty laundry.
You have to be compassionate for the grief of everyone who gathers. But keep it real. Don’t pretend you were close if you weren’t. But, for example, when my good friend lost his father suddenly, it was bittersweet. They had been estranged for some time. After years of being close, his father developed an issue with his sexual orientation, spiritual practices, and food preferences. I sat at that funeral to support him as he stood to speak, the only son of the deceased man.
He was beautiful. He was honest that he and his father had not been on good terms when he died. And then he brought up the good times with his father, the memories he would cherish from his formative years. And I watched him express grief that they had lost the chance to find their way back to being father and son. It was honest and sweet and I know his pragmatic father would have nodded his head and thought it was truly and fairly shared. I have never been more proud of him, or that friendship.
It’s stayed with me over the years. There is a way to be kind and truthful. There is a way to speak from your heart and paint a human picture, rather than the nondescript way the minister spoke of death at my Grandpa’s funeral. It was death that brought us there, yes. But it was our love of my Grandpa, and the fact that it was his death that made us come together.
In a file on my computer, I have started writing down thoughts about my beloved family and friends. I review them every year around Samhain, changing and adding stories as my relationships with them change, as I grow older and more reflective. I know some people will think my stating that I have been working on eulogies for my family members, who are nowhere near death, sounds morbid.
But it’s not. Sure, it reminds me of mortality. It also reminds me to love while I am alive and able to do so. Revisiting old stories reminds me what it is about my friends and family that I love.
Here are some of the prompts I used as I sat down to write. They were little bursts of inspiration that shaped the stories I decided to tell. These thoughts and prompts are meant to convey their character, as well as, in theory, allow me to heal by revisiting who they were to me- to me and everyone else who will grieve them. May it be many, many years before I have need of my words.
  • At what point in your life did you meet the deceased?
  • What was your first impression of them? How was that impression cemented? Or how was that impression proved false?
  • How long have you known them?
  • In what ways did they make your life better or brighter?
  • What pieces of advice did they give you?
  • What struggles did you see them overcome? What truths about their character did you learn about them?
  • What is something you knew about them that other people did not?
  • What are some good deeds they did?
  • What basic principles did they believe in, that they would want you to convey?
  • What important events in people’s lives did they step up to help out with?
  • How can you pay what they taught you forward into the living world? How can all of you?
  • What little stories can you share that illustrate any of these thoughts?

What has lived is remembered in our tales and what is remembered, lives on.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Eulogy I Wish I’d Given

Grandpa Dick and Grandma Donna's wedding day.
When my Grandpa passed, I didn’t know what his spiritual notions were. He was raised Roman Catholic and we all attended Sunday mass with my Great-Grandma Elsie when she visited for the summer… but I spent enough Sundays with Grandpa to know he didn’t attend church regularly. So, when he died, we requested a simple, generic service performed by the minister attached to the funeral home.
It was humorous. The poor retired minister was so excited to be behind a podium again that he threw every bible story he could into discussing death, including Jonah and the Whale. Yet he couldn’t keep my Grandpa’s name straight. The minister meant well, but he lost me when he started talking about how death was like the small white dead skin cells that fell out of his socks at night. I’m sure everyone behind me thought my silent laughter resembled tears. I hope my Grandpa was amused at the absurdity, too.
I was so overwhelmed with the loss, I didn’t think about getting up to speak. It never crossed my mind that I would look back later and wish the service had been more personal, more about my Grandpa. He was the reason we were all there. One of my cousins stood up to speak to what a wonderful and caring man he was. I wish I had thought to, been I fumble for live words enough, and my grief was so strong… we were just trying to get through it; the strange service held behind stranger walls.

Richard James Riddle
December 23, 1931 – March 25, 2004
My first Christmas, generation portrait.
My Grandpa was everything to me. He was every holiday meal, every Saturday lunch. He would come over at noon on the dot and teasingly ask me, “What’s for lunch today?” and then feign surprise when I answered with the same statement every week; bologna, cheese, mustard and potato chip (salt and vinegar was the best flavor to add to the combination).
He and my mom would sit in the kitchen together, the only time the smell of coffee permeated our house. He had his own stash in our cupboard, waiting for his weekly visit. I loved listening to them discuss the world, the way it worked. I loved the way they talked their way into hope. My Grandpa tried the best he could to see the bright end of things. And if there wasn’t one, well, we’d get through it.
When I was a little girl, I remember lots of summer afternoons at their house, playing in the cool basement and watching Grandma and Grandpa work their garden in the back yard, Grandma in her terrycloth one-piece and Grandpa in his shorts and sunglasses. In my memory they are summer, fresh vegetables and warm afternoons filled with the fragrant smell of roses. They were the spirit of growing things.
We would often have family dinners together and I believed my Grandpa to be an accomplished baker. Grandma cooked dinner and Grandpa cooked dessert. After each meal he would pull out his latest creation and go on about how he had even put it in a special box that he found, to make it nice for us. I was a bit innocent as a child and didn’t notice what a handy coincidence it was that he happened to have a Sara Lee Coffee Cake box the same day he made us one.
One night, he pulled out a cantaloupe and said he had grown it in one day, just for us. It took me a second. And I remember being afraid to contradict him, assuming I was wrong, because he would know, right? I told him matter-of-factly that cantaloupes couldn’t be grown in one day. It is the first memory I have of recognizing that the impish twinkle in his eye meant he was teasing or pulling my leg. There was a pause as the grown-ups realized I had accepted his stories all along, and there was some well-earned laughter at my expense. Thanks to Grandpa and his kitchen skills, one of my favorite desserts is a quarter slice of cantaloupe with a scoop of vanilla ice cream sitting in it.
After dinner the family would play Scat together. Grandpa would lend my siblings and me pennies from the jar on his dresser. At the end of the night, we would pay him back the pennies we’d started with, if we had any left. But the rest of our winnings were ours.
I called my Grandpa’s mom, Elsie, Grandma-from-Florida because I thought it was shorter than Great-Grandma. I remember forming that logic in my head. She spent her summers with my family and each year we would take the obligatory generational photo while she was visiting; Great-Grandma, Grandpa, mom, me and my siblings. Grandpa adored his mom- he’d call her “ma” with a smile on his face- as did everyone who knew her.
We spent some of those summer days at the Riddle cottage in Olcott on Lake Ontario. There was so much laughter, so much love and togetherness. I know it’s possible to be surrounded by joy and love, which is the greatest gift my family gave me. It’s the greatest gift my Grandpa gave me, loving me for who I was and as I was. I won’t settle for less than that, looking for the spirit of my Grandfather in the hearts of the people I meet.
Grandpa Dick had a beautiful Cadillac I loved riding in. Sometimes when we stayed overnight, he’d take us to his favorite diner for breakfast in the Caddy. All of the waitresses at the diner knew him. He would happily introduce us and the women would go on about how much he talked about us.
My entire life, I knew that my Grandpa loved me, even when he wasn’t with me. It’s a thing we take for granted sometimes, those relationships we build. Even now, a decade after his death, that love means everything to me.
When his cancer returned, I went home to spend time with him. I asked him for stories about his parents, pushing through the awkward moment where we both knew I was asking him because he was dying… because he might not recover and then there would be no answers. I picked up his prescriptions and took him some groceries one night, after copying some old family photos. That was the last night I saw him conscious and aware. And I learned that we shared a long-time favorite flavor of ice cream- black raspberry. I’ll never forget that last hug, just as strong and firm as every other hug he had ever given me.
There are so many of them, too many to ever count.
He was every Christmas morning, all of my life. I was 27 the last Christmas we had together. My nieces were opening their presents and the youngest said “Thank you, Great-Grandpa!” To which the middle child said, “Don’t call him that. It’s rude!” My Grandpa smiled and said, “Why? That’s what I am.”
And that’s who he was.
Outside his parent's store.
Richard James Riddle was born in 1931 in Lockport, New York. He had a brother and a sister. His parents owned a small general store and his father worked at the local Radiator factory. He was a young boy when World War II began and he later spent some time in the Navy. He was married twice, had one daughter, and three step-children. His second wife, my Grandma Donna, was the love of his life. He outlived her by two years. They loved to travel. They loved to gamble. They either won or broke even at the tables. They brought the fortune and sunshine with them when they travelled.
He was the father of my mother, and father to my aunt and uncles. He became a father to my own, and to all of their friends who became my family. My life is peppered with stories of him dropping in on my mother’s friends and helping them out when they were in need. At the end of his life he was a good friend to one of my favorite high school teachers, who lived a stone’s throw away from him after he moved.
I can see the ripple of his time on this earth stretching out in the wake of his loss. It ripples still. I feel the joy he taught me when the sun warms my skin. And when I sit quietly in the woods, I can hear the sound of his voice in the wind as it blows through the trees. He lives on in my stories and in the memories of those who loved him.
What is remembered, lives.
What is remembered never dies.

[Revamped post originally published March 14, 2012.]
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