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, October 28, 2015

The Rite of Passage in Trick-or-Treating

When I think of Halloween, my mind drifts to cups of mulled cider, the crunch of fresh apples, bright orange jack o’ lanterns, crisp leaves underfoot and the smoky breath in the evening air that foretells the coming of winter. The holidays of my childhood evoke memories of monster movies and spider webs, pillowcases full of candy, bobbing for apples, spooky houses and things unknown.
And trick-or-treating.
Once a year we had permission to, and were encouraged to, dress in costumes while travelling door-to-door, collecting candy in our pillowcases. Looking back, I understand that Halloween was a chance for an insecure girl to wear another skin, someone else I might be. Our parents would ask us, “What do you want to be for Halloween?” and the universe would open before me. When I didn’t have an idea for a costume I would raid my parents’ closet and come out some version of hobo, hippie or gypsy. Halloween, dipping us into darkness, was ripe with possibility for those among the living.

Halloween has its origins in the Celtic festival of Samhain, pronounced sow-en, eventually coming to America with immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries. Children went out into the night carrying lanterns lit with candles, called samhnag, made from turnips. The root vegetables were carved with frightening faces to scare away the spirits wandering the night. Children went from home to home, guised in supernatural costumes, where they were given offerings of food or coins. The gifts were meant to help the children ward off any spirits wishing to do harm on Samhain, the night when the dead walked again.
Some later customs refer to it as Souling, where children would offer prayers for the dead in return for a small cake. At houses where they were refused, they would batter the door with the butt ends of turnips. One of the earliest records of guising for Halloween comes from 1895 Scotland. A North American reference to it in a newspaper in Ontario in 1911, reports that children would go guising between six and seven on Halloween, spilling songs and rhymes and being rewarded for them with candies and nuts. Trick or Treating as we know it in America didn’t begin until the 1950s.

Our parents carried us door-to-door when we were children and later, when we could walk on our own, they would coax and encourage us to go up and ring the doorbell while they waited for us on the sidewalk after a whispered reminder of what we were meant to say. The walk to the porch was long to my short legs. The temperature in the air dropped in the space between my parent and the heat behind the unfamiliar door opening before me. After a hearty “Trick or treat!” and a piece of candy dropped in our pillowcase we would run back to our parent, back to safe, and on to the next home.
The first year that we went out trick-or-treating without chaperone- our own little gang of tricksters- was an early, and personal, rite of passage. Mom stayed home to mind the door and was busy making sheets of homemade pepperoni pizza so it would be hot and waiting when we came in out of the cold. We walked the neighborhood and then the same route we walked every morning to elementary school. Up one side of the street and home the other. It was familiar and known, but in the cloak of darkness it felt foreign. Landmarks stood in shadow and we needed new eyes to find our way.
We were being trusted to watch out for each other, to stay safe, to cross streets wisely and not to stray beyond the streets we knew, or the ones we were told we could travel. As children we didn’t realize how far the web of grown ups-who-knew-each-other spun and we were not hip to the fact that we were never in any true danger.  But that unknown is an essential element to the rites of passage that test our mettle and help us grow. The cold leaves crunched underfoot as we ran from porch light to porch light, pillow cases filling fast with candies my brother and sister and I would later sort through and trade (always setting aside some tootsie rolls for my dad).
There was one house that was always decorated fantastically for the trick-or-treaters. And then one year, the house was barren, the only decoration a scarecrow flopped onto the porch with a bowl of candy in its lap. A lot of houses that closed for the night would put the candy bowl out on the porch with a note. As we closed upon the porch, I felt a strange feeling in my belly and I stopped. That’s a person, I thought. I knew that when we got up there, the scarecrow was going to grab us.
We stood still, watching the scarecrow and debating whether or not it could be a real person. We dared someone to see what kind of candy was in the bowl so we could gauge whether or not it was worth it. The scarecrow didn’t move the entire time and was sitting at a strange angle. We approached in a group and as I reached into the bowl… the scarecrow grabbed my hand as we screamed and ran halfway back down the sidewalk. A familiar voice laughed, assuring us it was our neighbor. We stood our ground and made him show his face before we went back for the candy we had earned.

There was a thrill in being able to be brave without the need for a parent. On our own we had evaluated the threat, calculated a plan and supported each other in carrying it out, calling on the energies of our Other skins to aid us. On Halloween we stood in the shadow of no one. It was always light when we started our adventure and in the joy of running from porch to porch we would lose the subtle slip into darkness until we were cold and tired and our bags were heavy with loot. Often, home seemed far away. We would slip home and share stories of what we had seen on our travels.
The next morning’s walk to school, I was aware that the same-old route I had been taking every morning was different. It was bigger. The houses weren’t just landmarks anymore. They were also skins of homes with families and faces inside of them, containing other children who thought the world was no bigger than the size of their house. On that morning I understood the world was bigger than my house, my block, my route to school. There was more of it than I could comprehend.
As a child, on Halloween night I walked with demons and devils, witches, ghosts and ghouls borrowing human skin, along with superheroes and princesses. I dared to enter dark places and returned from them unharmed. In the turning of the world, I learned I could enter the darkness and return. Maybe not unscathed, but I could return and know the healing would come. Each year now, as I drop candy into the bags and baskets of little cows, superheroes, witches and pirates, I hope they will remember their fearlessness on this night. I hope they will remember how they learned to move from jack o’ lantern light to jack o’ lantern light as a way as a means to get through the darkness.

[Originally published October 26, 2011.]

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Bastard's Ball

Last week I talked about how to work with/around unwanted ancestors in your family tree. In a couple of weeks, I’m going to talk more about doing a bit of ancestor work at this time of year. But this week I offer another way to honor those unwanted ancestors without having to invite them into your personal space. I set it up before doing any kind of work, before calling on my full ancestral line. It’s simple and easy and it can take a myriad of forms.
I call it The Bastard’s Ball.
  • Start with a space set away from where you intend to work. It can be a far corner of your yard, outside your home. It can be a small altar in the next room, a shelf beside the front door, or a folding table in a closet.
  • As with most magic, intention is everything. It’s more important than props or aesthetics. If you set aside a space and you mean for it to be isolated, it is.
  • First I light a candle. I call on the bastards, the drunks, the abusers, and the thieves. Some I call by name. But I concentrate on my family tree and I pull down those whose energy echo is dark and murky. And I light the candle, drawing them to it.
  • Then you need to entice them to stay. I leave a variety of vices out, like alcohol, cigarettes, candy, coffee, pastries, etc. If you know of specific vices, use them. It will make the spell stronger.
  • If you’re feeling especially uncertain, you can ring the small space with a circle of salt.
  • It can be that simple. Walk away and leave them to play while you do your own work elsewhere.

After my ancestor ritual, meditation, or dumb supper, I put the lights out on the Bastard’s Ball. I send my guests on their way, hoping they enjoyed my hospitality. It’s a twofold intention. I do it as a means to keep their energy from my work, as well as offering them a thank you for being part of the reason I exist.
Not everyone can stand in the place I do, and that’s all right. I think it’s important to acknowledge the dark as well as the light. When I claim my ancestral lineage, I accept it all. Without even one of those links, I would not be here.

To see where you’re going
You must know who you are
To know you who you are
You must know where you’ve been
The story of your ancestors speaks through your blood
Light and dark

You choose the way forward

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Unwanted Ancestors

Every family tree has bad apples. It’s that simple. I mean, history is full of bad people. Every one of them had a mother and father, and perhaps siblings, and many of them had children of their own. If you go down far enough, some of us dangle at the end of those branches. This is a notion that commonly steers people away from ancestor work. They worry about what kind of spirits they’ll open up their world to.
Every apple tree bears some bad fruit. Every orchard sometimes suffers the rot of an entire tree. It happens. And sometimes blight will devour an entire orchard and kill off a species. You are who you are because of every person on your family tree that came before you.
Everything is interconnected. Everything. Just as you control who you open your front door to, you can control what spirits you open yourself and your heart to, without keeping that door locked. As long as you remember and believe that, you can work with or around your unwanted ancestors with ease.

When Bad Seeds Fall Close to Home
It’s hard for people to contemplate what sort of ancestors they might have had when the only family they’ve known were bad seeds. I have known people whose immediate families were so toxic they didn’t believe that they, themselves, were capable of being good people. In this way, reaching backwards into the line of ancestors can be healing. Every pattern of bad behavior starts somewhere, no matter the catalyst or reason. Remember that, because there were ancestors who existed before that pattern began. They are waiting for you.
In this world, we all have scars. It’s not a competition over whose are worse. It’s just a sad circumstance of our culture. For cases where the scars run deep, I heartily endorse and recommend therapy, as cycles of hurt are hard to overcome. It’s difficult to believe in a perspective outside of the world of hurt. Therapists, counselors and psychologists can offer that help.
It only takes one person to teach hate and fear, releasing it onto further generations. It also only takes one person to stop the cycle of violence, hate and abuse. If you can recognize the behavior, recognize the triggers that prompt it in yourself and/or prompted it in others, you can find the strength of will to stop yourself from repeating them. You are of your family, you are not your family.
Being able to see the cycle that your parent hurt you because their parent hurt them because their parent hurt them because… allows you to see the bigger picture and the larger energy. You can step back and see it without the personal attachment to it which allows you to decide that you don’t want to be a part of that energy. And your stepping out of it lessens its momentum. Sometimes we have to remove ourselves from one current of energy that’s polluting us, to a healthier one. It only takes one person. Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” No one has said it better.
I do not argue nature or nurture. I believe in both. I have watched a boy, nurtured in a loving family struggle with his angry outbursts and violent tendencies. A boy who never knew his biological father and struggled with emotions he could not control until he was a man, meeting the mirror of himself in his father. Without being exposed to him, he struggled with the same fights he himself had. Growing up nurtured was one step of his evolution. Learning to nurture himself was the next. This is why it’s important to have a connection to something that reminds us of the length of time stretching before us and the length of time stretching after us. Our world is bigger than us.
You don’t have to do work with the dead who hurt you. You don’t even have to honor them. But if you allow your emotions to block their presence in your past in your heart, you block everyone who came before them too.

Ancestor Ritual of Self
Here’s a simple and symbolic ritual designed for attachment and detachment. It is specifically tailored here to help you disconnect from pain associated with specific spirits- not the spirit itself. This is not a cure-all, or a solution to feelings you have not dealt with yet. This ritual is not about forgiveness. A Buddhist teacher once told me that forgiveness is something you give when you need to because your anger is hurting you. It is never about absolving the other person.
Anger is a response our animal bodies have to situations that hurt us. It is supposed to act as that little burst of energy that propels us out of a bad situation. What it has evolved into, culturally, is something greater than it was meant to be. In that vein, this ritual is also about walking your body through a physical action of detaching to help change your actual brain chemistry and emotional response to the ghost of the person who hurt you, and, over time, to how you respond to being hurt in general.
Light a candle to focus your energy. Gather two slips of paper. If you need a stronger visualization, you can use pictures. On one paper, write the name(s) of the deceased family member(s) that caused you pain, and on the other paper, write your name. Put a hole in each paper and tie them together with a piece of red string or yarn, visualizing your connection.
Call on your ancestors, however elaborate or simply you wish, to offer support and witness. Concentrate on the red cord (this is meant for people who have done the internal work first). Acknowledge the hurt done to you from the deceased person. When you are focused and ready, and clearly see the thread between you, cut the red cord where it meets your name or picture, with the intention that you no longer accept the energetic hold the other person had on your heart.
Discard the paper with the cord still attached however feels natural in the moment. You can burn it. You can bury it. You can put it in the garbage.
Hold your name or image, free from tethers, and feel that strength run up your arms and into your heart. Then hold it in your heart and pull it down into your core. Remember that strength. This is where your magic lives.
You are not cutting these ancestors out of your family tree. Rewriting history never solves anything. But you are severing the cycle of hurt between the two of you, and passing peace onto your children and their descendants. The other benefit of doing this kind of work is that, as your ancestors see you working towards wholeness, you may be unknowingly equalizing a generational cycle of bad turns that will allow your ancestral energies some semblance of peace as well- and perhaps at last.

[Revamped from an article originally published November 10, 2010.]

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Honor the Recent Dead

All Hallows
Last week, I shared the difference for me between my Ancestral Dead and my Beloved Dead. As we near All Hallows Eve, I want to talk about the Recent Dead, where the emotional waters of grief are shallow and stormy, and easily stirred.
As the earth quiets and stills at this time of year, both we and the animals prepare to spend more time indoors than out. In the solitude we can hear more clearly our own thoughts and emotions. Mine move to the people I have lost in the last turning of the wheel.
The celebrations of Halloween and Samhain are dedicated to the concept of the spirits of the dead walking the land. Millions of minds are directed towards this idea on October 31st, whether in belief or mockery or fun. With such a large pool of energy to connect to, it is a fitting time of year to actively honor their memories.

Death as a Passage
Just as births are a joyous occasion and a rite of passage for both parent and child, death is also a rite of passage for both the deceased and their loved ones. It is meant to be a moment that alters our lives. After death we are forced to make sense of the sudden absence of physical life. We are forced to try to put faith in something fundamentally unknowable.
A fetus spends nine months in its cocoon, forming and birthing itself. As someone who appreciates the balance of the natural world, I believe that our spirits, once released from the larger physical cocoon, spends time to unform from the essence of who we are into… whatever comes next. Whatever you believe that to be. I honor the unknowable journey when I honor their memory.

Let Them Rest
            I do believe that those spirits who recently die are in a state of transformation, even though I don’t know of or into what… it’s where I put my faith. And just as our hearts are in turmoil at their loss, pulling at the strands of life that still might be connected to their spirits would pull at that transformation they are meant to undertake.
            Sometimes the recently dead reach out to us. Sometimes they are not finished. But that should be their instigation, not ours. So do not call the recent dead to work. But honor the love you feel for them. Honor that they were in your lives. Remember them that they will live on.

My Recent Dead
What names sit in your list of recent dead? Who were they to you? What impact did they have on your life? What lessons did they bring that challenged you and helped you grow?
This summer we lost a good man, my uncle, David Ruston Eaton. This loss seemed to bring the mortality of everyone I love into sharper focus. I will also honor the lives of Connie Salisbury, Ralph Hall, Arawn our kitty friend, and my grandmother’s youngest sister, my Aunt Carol Quagliano. I am a better person for having known them, for having been shaped and colored by their deeds, ideals, and service. I see the threads that connect us all more clearly every year.
There are many ways to honor the memory of the recent dead. If they died from illness, you can make a charitable donation in their name or volunteer time at a hospice. If it was a role model of yours, see where you can give back, like maybe working with Habitat for Humanity, or reading stories to children at the library. The one thing death clearly defines is how important it is to be a part of the life around us.
This year, on All Hallow’s Eve, spend a moment and share the name of someone who impacted your life, in whatever way, who passed this last year. Offer a toast to their memory the next time you share a drink. Tell a story of something you learned from them, or share a memory that makes you laugh. Light a candle for each life you’re grieving and be reminded of the light they brought into your journey.

Every life touches another.
Every death vibrates in someone’s breast.
May those we have lost be at peace.
May those who have lost find peace again.

[Revamped from an article originally published October 20, 2010.]
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