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, December 28, 2016

Just Like Harry Potter

Last year I woke Christmas morning in my private rehab room, legs thickly bandaged. My head was laying on a handmade pillowcase decorated with ivy and mistletoe. It was one of a few dozen gifted to the hospital to be gifted out to the long-term patients, of which I counted. I opened my eyes and reached for the cup of water I kept on my hospital table, along with my lotion, my gifted iPad mini, my glasses, Kelley's chapstick that she gave me, and a small notebook and pen... all lined up carefully before sleep, within easy reach.

But on Christmas morning there was also a stack of presents on my table! The first thing that went through my head was, just like Harry Potter! In the first book he wakes to find presents at the end of his bed at Hogwarts. Not having had any family who cared about him, it was an unexpected moment of pure joy.

In the hospital, I recognized that same feeling behind my breastbone. I had been so saddened to have to be there for the holiday. I had not anticipated or expected the hospital to acknowledge it at all. But there were four presents, wrapped in bright paper, waiting for me.

I later learned there was a woman who organized it every year. She came onto the floor with two carts full of games and toys and books the day after Christmas, and put them in storage until next year. I asked her to thank Santa Claus for me and she smiled.

It was a small kindness for her and a huge uplifting moment of childhood wonder and hope. The fact that someone did such a kindness for isolated people in painful recovery, it gave me new courage and strength. People are good. People are kind. Remember that as the love of the holiday season gives way to exhaustion and winter.

People are good. People are kind. Be among them. Where you see moments of possible random acts of kindness, take them. Be the catalyst for joy in the world. Pour that into the world and create one you want to leave behind for your descendants.

I will.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Modraniht, id est matrum nocturum

“the Modraniht, that is, in the night of the mothers[=matrons?]”

I came across this celebration when I was researching the pagan roots of my German ancestors. Early Germanic peoples celebrated the night before Winter Solstice as Mothers Night. The Venerable Bede, a Christian monk from the 8th century wrote about it in his description of the pagan calendar. In Old English they called it Modraniht. More than 1100 votive stones and altars have been found through the centuries, dedicated to the mothers, or matrons, and half of these altar stones were inscribed and dedicated with Germanic names.
The main areas of worship have been uncovered in ancient Germania, northern Italy and eastern Gaul. There are a few larger cult centers with temples found along the Rhine. Many of these altars were found near rivers, wells or springs. The dedicated altars and votives reached as far as present day Scotland, southern Spain, Frisia and Rome. There is reference to the Germanic Mother Cults in the writings of Bede in 725 AD: “And the very night that is sacrosanct to us, these people call modranect, that is, the mothers’ night, a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the ceremonies which they performed while watching this night through.”
Altars and votive stones, as well as temples, were often carved with images showing three women of matron age and appearance, often holding baskets of fruit and a baby. Based on the inscriptions found, it is thought that these altars were dedicated as offerings of thanks for abundance, gifts and blessings that soldiers and sailors had already received. They believed the Mothers had responded to their prayers and this was their way of acknowledging them, burning incense and leaving sacrificial offerings of food.
Many of these goddesses or spirits were named for the family that was dedicating them, as well as being named for the river or spring that watched over the local town or village, such as the Albiahenae matrons of the town of Elvenich or the Renahenae of the Rhine. Of the 1100 votive stones found, over 360 different ones name the same sets of matrons, the Aufaniae, the Suleviae and the Vacallinehae. Based on the age of the stone inscriptions, it appears that the cult of the Matrons began to die out in continental Germany around the fifth century CE, and Modraniht fell out of favor as Christianity gained foothold.

The Night of the Mothers was the time to honor the familial and tribal “soul” mothers who watched over them. It was intended to honor those who had crossed over, not for those still living. On Mothers Night we honor the sacrifice of life so that the ancestral matrons might become a source of wisdom and strength for those still living.
I begin my celebration by creating a small rock cairn on a temporary altar. I honor first those of my mothers who have crossed over, inscribing their names on stone in chalk. I light a candle for each of them. I remember them and tell what I know of their stories. I do also choose to honor the strength of the mothers still living, that they may become part of that ancestral current when it is their turn to pass through the veil.
I drink a cup of tea and invite them to share my cup. I crochet, something my Great-Grandmother taught me on the front porch over the summer when I was younger, gifting me her hooks when she could no longer use them. One way to honor the mothers is to honor their work and pass on the skills that have been taught to you by your mothers, and their mothers, that they live on through you, and the crafting of your hands.
What was special to them? Before dusk falls on Modraniht, I sit and hand-sew, darning old clothes. With each stitch, I pray. Tonight I stitch runes of rebirth, recovery, and courage into cloth. Each stitch is a small prayer of hope, a way of pushing forward despite the adversity.
This night is the night for daughters and sons to honor the line of birthings that occurred throughout history, that opened the way for their births. That made their presence in the world. It does not matter what current feelings might be complicated around maternal relationships.
You are because they were. Do not rewrite the past. Honor the journey.

A year ago I prayed to my mothers from a hospital bed on the rehabilitation floor. I thanked the spirit women who stood by my bedside on the Burn ICU. I thanked the faces I recognized from photos and the ones I may never identify.
            Again, I pray for them. I thank the ICU nurses who mothered me back to health and back to myself. I thank and pray for everyone who had hands in easing my recovery, brightening my heart, or tended to my body needs in any way. And this year I thank the courses my brain stories took that enabled me to step out of the fire without succumbing to madness.
            In light of that new prayer, I light a candle for the mythological goddess Frigga, who sheltered me in the darkest moments by wrapping what was left of my bones in a cool cloth and tucked me away from the glare of the blinding sunlight. In the next moment, in my ICU bed, I knew a moment of relief.

I am Sarah,
daughter of Margaret,
daughter of Patricia,
daughter of Margaret,
daughter of Eliza,
daughter of Mary of Ireland,
daughter of mother unknown…

Daughters of daughters back to the first mother,
I pray to you in stitches.

The needle between my fingers devolves into metals of various kinds, into bits of bone, until my hands roughen, becoming one with the first hands of my line to stitch skins together. Whoever is unknown to me, whatever countless number of generations of mothers led to my birth, we are joined in this familiar act.

I pray for health for my loved ones.
I pray for my continued healing and recovery.
I pray for happiness for all who walk the earth.
I pray for moments of joy for all who are grieving.
I pray that the echo of the wisdom of the mothers who have come before is remembered.
I pray for the earth, for our Great Mother, whose bones and minerals and animal DNA gave us life.
I pray for all mothers who came before me, all who walk with me and all who will come after... though my line ends with me.
May my life touch others while I am living it.

Grandma Donna MacDonald (m.Riddle)

Grandma Ruth Emma Ruston (m.Eaton)
1xGG Minnie Estelle Wicker (m.Ruston)

1xGG Hattie Eva Smith (m.Eaton0

2xGG Ruth Ireland (m.Ruston), Grandma Ruth Emma Ruston, 2xGG Emma Angeline Whitcher (m.Wicker)

2xGG Hattie Eva Dutcher (m.Smith)
2xGG Theresa Cordelia Tenney (m.Eaton)

2xGG Frances Gillette (m.Riddle) back, far left, & 3xGG Jane Berry (m.Gillette) front, right

3xGG Eliza Marsh Bird (m.Dutcher)

3xGG Sophia Sears (m.Smith)

4xGG Mary Ann Boots (m.Gillette)

4xGG Elizabeth Ann Hill (m.Berry)

[Adapted from an article originally published December 21, 2011.]

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Christmas Orange

In celebrating Christmas, my favorite family tradition involved the mystery of the orange in our stockings. While we waited for my Grandpa to drive over to our house to be with us while we opened presents, we would empty our stockings, filled with little toys and candies… and an orange. The memories are so strong that every time I hold an orange in my hands and smell the citrus fragrance of the rind, I think of Christmas morning, when I would peel it open and gobble the fruit down. There was an orange waiting for us every year.
My mom remembers having one some holidays, but not always. It was my dad who had an orange in his stocking every year. He said it sat on top of his stocking, hiding what was beneath it. And our oranges served the same purpose, to better hide the surprise of what prying eyes peeking around the top of the stairs would soon find inside.
In researching the tradition of the Christmas orange, the only thing that was clear was that its direct origins are still a bit of a mystery. Laura Ingalls Wilder references getting an orange in her stocking as a child in 1880, noting that it was a special treat. According to the Food and Nutrition Encyclopedia by Audrey Ensminger, with the advent of the new rail system, and the abundance of ripe oranges out of Florida and California, there was a fair supply of them available to the public in the 1880s.
What a special gift at a time of year when there isn’t a lot of other fresh fruit available. Lucky for us, winter is the peak of harvest season for citrus. In England, I found that putting oranges in the toes of stockings pre-dates World War II, but became a common tradition during the war. It must have been an especially delicious treat during rationing.
I found correspondences of the orange to the mythology of Bishop Nicholas, better known as Saint Nicholas, but nothing I could cite as factual. Nicholas was a good, wealthy man born in Turkey in the fourth century who spent his life helping the poor. Folklore says that he secreted money into three stockings of three daughters of a man who could not afford a good dowry and feared he would not find them good husbands. In the story, the gold melted inside the stockings where they hung over the fireplace and the young women pulled out three golden balls in the morning. It’s true that statues of Nicholas often show him holding three golden globes, but any claimed similarities to the Christmas orange as a symbol of Saint Nicholas’ generosity have been recently made.
I hold one in my hand and I smell Christmas kindness. I think any Santa or Saint would approve.

Making Decorative Pomanders
Pomander balls go back to the 15th century, used as natural air fresheners. To make them, you need oranges, a lot of whole cloves, and something you can use to pierce the skin like a toothpick, pin, nail, or wooden skewer. You can also use citrus fruits like clementines, lemons, limes, tangerines, or kumquats (kumquats make adorable tree-sized pomanders).
Some people like to make designs with their cloves and others cover it with them like a second skin. For best results, I recommend covering as much of the orange with cloves as you can as the clove oil acts as a preservative. Use your pointy thing of choice to poke in holes before inserting cloves (or your fingers will soon start to hurt). If you need a guideline for your rows, you can wrap a rubber band or masking tape around the center to get you started. Leave room in your pattern to tie ribbons around the orange for hanging and display. I use cotton cording that I can weave around the cloves. Then hang the pomander in a closet for a couple of days to allow drying time, as they can get moldy (one woman on-line said she puts hers in her fridge, but I’ve always shut them away in a closet). Scent-wise, these will last a few weeks.
If you want them to last through the season, you can coat your pomander with powdered orrisroot to help preserve it. For pomanders that both last longer and spice up your home, you can coat your pomander in a mixture of ground cinnamon, ground cloves, ground ginger, ground nutmeg, and powdered orrisroot; three tablespoons each.

            If you hang stockings, will an orange wait within it for you? Maybe another festive fruit? Or some tradition unique and special to your family?

Blessings to You and Yours
As part of my spiritual practice I celebrate Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, which falls on December 21. I grew up Catholic, celebrating Christmas with my family on December 25. As an adult, I observe both holidays. I still celebrate Christmas, just a different kind. I love Christmas. I am full to the brim of Christmas Spirit.
Happiness. Peace. Kindness. Compassion. I celebrate Christmas as the holiday of family and humanity. I light candles to honor and revere the goodness inside each and every one of us. I wish for peace on earth, that the good will shine through, that light will win out.
This is the year for compassion.
When someone wishes you a Merry Christmas, say “You, too.” If someone wishes you a Happy Holiday, say “You, too.” If someone wishes you a Happy Kwanzaa, say “You, too.” If someone wishes you a Merry Solstice or a Happy Yule, say “You, too.” It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s something you celebrate.
People are wishing you good tidings in the spirit of brotherhood and joy as dictated by their faith. Return the favor. Don’t be a Scrooge. Who can’t use more joy and light?

[Adapted from a post originally published December 11, 2013.]

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Human Kindness

One of my favorite things about the holiday season is witnessing moments of kindness between strangers as these events occur with more spontaneity at this time of year. Allow me a moment to plug the notion that we can carry Christmas and Solstice with us through the whole year. Human kindness always moves me and makes me misty. The most memorable and heart-warming moment I remember happened during the holidays of 2001.
The day of the attacks on the twin towers happened the September day before I was to start training as a cashier at a local grocery store. We had recently moved to a new city and spent the day of the attacks glued to the television we hadn’t even had hooked before we heard the news. When I clocked in the next morning for training, everyone was in a state of horror and shock.
I hadn’t been there long enough to know any of the regular customers yet, but what I saw were couples and mothers shopping to feed their families, day in and day out. It was their only agenda. They all had different colors of skin and different styles of dress and each of these was widely varied. After the attacks, I saw the majority of my community respond fearfully to the women in their abayas and hijabs.
In their fear they were not kind, and they felt free to make horrid comments to the women shopping that I cannot even write out for you. They literally walked up to unveiled Muslim women shopping, minding their own business, and accused them of killing people in New York City. Of hiding weapons beneath their abayas and demanding to see what was hiding underneath them. And much, much worse. In front of their children.
And what will those children grow up thinking about their place in the world?
I am grateful that my grocery store allowed the cashiers to refuse service to those customers who would not cease in harassing the Muslim families. And I did. Often, at first. I have always believed in kindness. It is always heartbreaking to me how cruel people can be from a place of fear.
What is it that makes us lash out like wounded animals at each other? How does hurting other people make us feel better? I understand being afraid. I understand having fear. We are each allowed to feel the emotions we feel. But we are not allowed to inflict them on others. We are not allowed to wield them like weapons against other people. We are all animals. That is true. But it is supposed to be our human compassion and brains that lift us above our animal nature.
Every day, those interactions were the shadow that fell over my joy of getting to know the community here and its humanity. I saw too much ugly at first- which may have been true wherever I found myself then. One day, on a holiday shift, one man’s generosity renewed my faith in the goodness of people. One small act of kindness was enough to tip the scales.
A Muslim man and his wife came through with their young son, buying healthy grains and vegetables and fresh meat and milk and eggs. It was the healthiest display of food I ever saw anyone bring down my register in all of my time at the store. She wore an abaya and hijab but the old couple before them paid quickly and muttered about letting burkas in the store.  
The electronic benefits line was down, as it often was back then, and their EBT card was denied. They began to count out their cash and put things big extras back, like the asparagus and the turkey. When they took back the only other extra, the box of cereal for their son, he did not cry in complaint. That moment stayed with me. It was obvious they were struggling to decide what else to take away.
An older man behind them asked me how much more they needed, while they sorted through their groceries. They only had twenty dollars and I whispered apologetically to him that they needed another eighty to cover everything, and that our system was down- that it wasn’t their fault. I was so used to customers being impatient and wanted him to understand the technology glitch was no one’s fault.
The Muslim woman started to apologize nervously to everyone in line around the same moment. But the man behind them smiled compassionately and handed me a hundred dollars. All he was buying for himself was bread, lunch meat and milk.
At first the couple would not take it, but he insisted. I will never forget what he said. “You need help, and I am in a place to give it to you. I would like to think that when I need help, someone will be in a place to give it to me.” The family thanked him profusely and gratefully. You could see the surprise wash over them. As they were leaving, the husband turned around and told the man that he would never forget his kindness. And the man shrugged it off, “Just repay the favor some day.”
When they left, the man would not hear me say anything about it, waving my gratitude and tears away. He said it wasn’t a big deal. “It was to them,” I assured him. And it was to me. I have never forgotten it either. I have paid it forward innumerably.

Sometimes kindness comes in the form of a simple smile. Making eye contact with your cashier during your holiday shopping. Taking a moment to saying thank you to all of your cashiers, to the waitress when she brings you a new drink, to anyone working in service for you. There are a lot of people in the world and we don’t know everyone. But at some point in our lives, even our closest friends were strangers to us. And every stranger is someone’s son, daughter, mother, father, friend. We have choices every day in what face we show to the world. Spread compassion and kindness throughout your days. It is the simplest and most beautiful language we can share and it is a language that will shape the world around us into a brighter place.

[Updated from “Human Kindness” published December 4, 2013.]

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Whitcher Monument

Photo by Kerri Kaiser Newman
A few blocks north of the home where I grew up sits Glenwood Cemetery, bordering a public park where we spent many afternoons at play. When I was older I used to walk that cemetery, looking for the oldest tombstones. It was a surprise when my father told me he’d discovered the damaged gravesite of prominent ancestors of ours in that very same place.

The Whitchers
I’ve written previously about Bailey Harrison Whitcher and Ordelia deLozier, my 3x great-grandparents. Ordelia’s father Peter, of Connecticut, was a P.O.W. at the Battle of Tripoli in 1803. After his thirty month-long ordeal and release, he came to own a cabinet-making business in Lockport. Bailey was his apprentice. One of two things happened… either Peter abandoned his family and Bailey took over the business, marrying Ordelia, or Bailey and Ordelia married and Peter took that as his opportunity to leave and return to the sea, but he never returned.

Bailey and Ordelia had thirteen children, seven girls and six boys. Two sons died during childbirth and one drowned in the Erie Canal in 1836. Their remaining three sons were soldiers in the Civil War. I have letters from my 2x great-grandma Emma, written to another soldier in her brother George’s regiment, describing the day the first boy from Lockport died in the war, and the funeral march the city had for him. The Civil War changed everything for the Whitcher family.

George Harrison fought with the Michigan 7th at Gettysburg and died defending Cemetery Ridge. His body was never recovered. The inscription plate from his musket was dug up from the site, and returned to his family in 1889, by the same friend of George that Emma had been writing letters with- there is evidence in her letters that he was corresponding as well. His name was Charles Thompson and he had returned to the site as a personal pilgrimage. He discovered the plate among items being dug up. A monument now stands in Gettysburg to the regiment where the battle took place. George Harrison was 22 when he died.

What a loss this must have been to the family. It wasn’t the last.

Orville Bailey was mustered into the New York 8th regiment, heavy artillery. He was at the Battle of Cold Harbor in VA in May and June of 1864. He was wounded on June 3rd, which also happened to be his birthday. He turned 21. He died June 18, 1864 in Alexandria from his wounds. Ulysses S. Grant said in his memoirs of this last battle, “I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made. ... No advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained.”

The Whitcher Sisters, family archive. Back row, Emma (my ancestress), Mary, and Frances. Front row, Lucy, Ellen, Harriet, and cousin Flora. The photo is of their eldest brother Daniel, in his uniform.
The Union gained no advantage from the loss of their second son. How that must have affected the family, still in fresh grief from George’s death… Emma’s disposition seemed to change greatly. She had seemed to be courting George’s regiment buddy through their exchange of letters, but he also seemed greatly affected by the loss of his brother and friend. A few months after the death of her brother Orville, Emma Whitcher married a young businessman named Hiram King Wicker. They were my 2x great-grandparents.

Back to the Gravesite
The monument my father found in Glenwood Cemetery belonged to Bailey Harrison Whitcher, who died the year after his son Orville. Bailey had grown deaf in his old age and was struck and killed by an oncoming train he could not hear as he had grown deaf in his old age. The monument also included most of his family, including his two sons who died in the Civil War.

It was on a steep slope and the obelisk had toppled over, strewn precariously in pieces down the incline, obscuring two sides and their inscriptions from view. My father began to investigate how we might get it repaired, seeing how important the family had been historically to the city. It took a while.

Photo by Kerri Kaiser Newman
Mark and Dennis Devine brought it to the attention of the Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 268, who championed its restoration. Family and various local organizations helped raise the $2100 needed to repair it and on November 11, 2016, a ceremony took place revealing the restoration and honoring the fallen Whitcher brothers.

I wasn’t able to be at the rededication ceremony, but my father was, and various other descendants of the family showed up to help mark the occasion. Reenactors from the Colonel John B. Weber Camp, No. 44, the Reynolds Battery NY Light Artillery, the 155th NY Reenactment Regiment, the NY Volunteers 140th, and the Union Volunteers Fife and Drum Corps were all on hand to set the tone for the Veteran’s Day ceremony.


I wish there were words to express how deeply wonderful it is to see other descendants and groups take an interest in honoring the legacy of this Whitcher family. I can’t wait until spring, when they finish polishing the marble and the grave is renewed. It’s a privilege to count these men and women in my ancestral bloodline.

Thanks to my dad, for sharing his passion for genealogy with me, and for wandering old cemeteries and stumbling over graves. Thanks for following up inquiries with letters and e-mails and sharing Whitcher stories, and encouraging interest in seeing this restoration through to completion. I'm glad you were at the ceremony. Uncle Dave would have loved it. I'm sure he did.

A special thanks to Kerri Kaiser Newman, a Whitcher cousin, who was in attendance at the rededication ceremony, for the use of her photos! Both our families descend from Bailey and Ordelia's children. She's one of the closest Whitcher cousins I've discovered yet. If you have Whitcher ancestors, check out the facebook group Whitcher, Whicher, Witcher, Whittier, Welcher Global Family Tree. There are more of us out there.

Other blog posts of Whitcher interest:

A Death at Gettysburg 150 Years Later (July 3, 2013)

A P.O.W. from Tripoli (June 5, 2013)

The Story in the Life (May 2, 2012)

Emma's Letters (February 22, 2012)

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Our Silent Supper in Pictures

On Halloween night, we held a Dumb Supper in our home, rearranging furniture to make room for non-corporeal guests. It sounds strange, but the ritual of opening the way for company is important. The first thing I did was light my Ancestor Altar, a beacon I use to guide them to my home.

We set our table festively, with candles, pumpkins, and the last of our marigolds from our garden.

Printed photographs of my ancestors were included on our table.

These are the Wicker brothers and their families. The man and woman in the middle are Hiram King Wicker and Emma Angeline Whitcher, my 2x Great-Grandparents on my father's side of the family.

This is the Riddle clan from my mother's side of the family. The tall man in the light suit in the back row is my Great-Grandpa Harold Riddle, husband to my beloved Great-Grandma Elsie Elizabeth Durant. His parents are in the middle of the front row.

The Spirit Chair was draped in black fabrics, and a black candle placed on the plate. I've been using the same candle every year since my first Dumb Supper in 2005. The black skull head is reverently stored in between suppers.

We set up a sidebar with drinks for various spirits we work with or remember fondly. Spirits for the spirits. And a proper cup of tea.

I also set a cup of tea on the table for all of my grandmothers and grandfathers, in one of my Grandma's old cups. In my family, tea was a thing.

The first course in a Dumb Supper is always the dessert. I set this plate for my Great-Grandma Hattie Eva Smith-Eaton, who helped me from the spirit world while I was in the ICU a year ago. When we were sorting out the menu, someone requested chocolate mousse- not something we would have picked, but we let the Dead weigh in.

Then the main courses came out while we listened to the radio drama of The Halloween Tree in the background. Meatballs and roasted potatoes with the last of our fresh garden herbs. Brussel sprouts, crescent rolls, and bread and butter pickles from the farmer's market.

And lastly the appetizer, spanakopita.

The table looked cozy and festive when the living bellies were full of warm, home-cooked foods. The house felt full of family, and festive energy. It was meditative and rejuvenating.

At the very end of the evening, the spirits showed themselves. It was an honor to dine with them. There were moments and voices and sounds and phrases that I walked away from the Dumb Supper with, more impressions to use in tracking down my family lines. I gratefully honor Those That Came Before Me, hoping to pass on the relationship I have built to Those Who Come After. Ashe.

[All photos were taken by Sarah Lyn and are not to be copied without permission.]

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Gift the Dead Give When They're Donors

A man saved my life. I do not know his name.

He died a year ago. Maybe yesterday. Maybe the day before. But he was dead by today.
I do not know his name but I know he was a big guy. I know he was over 6’ tall and he died in a motorcycle accident. I know he was a biker. I know he had tattoos. I know his body ended up at Upstate Hospital in Syracuse. And I know that he donated his skin after his death. I know that because there was enough of his skin to cover my burns so that my vascular system had time to regenerate. His skin wrapped around me, literally shielding my wounds and protecting them from further trauma. I know that the cadaver skin meant they could go longer without doing dressing changes.

I know his death bought me the time I needed to survive.

He will have a place of honor at my dumb supper this year. I will wish his family and loved ones dreams that tell them his death made him a hero. I want them to know that I may not know his name, but I will never forget him. Whatever kind of man he was in life, goodness came from it after his death. I owe every step I take to him.

My heart prays with every breath I take. It runs like a ticker tape through my body, a gentle thrum of gratitude. The sun rises and sets and I am grateful. My heart whispers, thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you, even though it will never be enough.

A man saved my life. I do not know his name.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Celebrating Spirit with a Silent Supper

“And in one house they could see an old grandfather mummy being taken out of a closet and put in the place of honor at the head of the table, with food set before him. And the members of the family sat down to their evening meal and lifted their glasses and drank to the dead one seated there, all dust and dry silence…”
~ Ray Bradbury, The Halloween Tree, 1972

Dine with the Dead
Bradbury’s text was my first introduction to the idea of the silent dinner with the dead, also known as a Dumb Supper. This formal sit-down is traditionally done any night between October thirty-first and November third. I enjoy it most when we can set the table on Halloween evening, also known as Samhain (sow-in), which we are planning to do this year. This one is also special as it marks the first anniversary of the accident where I almost died.
My Ancestors stood at my bedside with me, helping to channel the healing energy. I was so near death myself that I saw them clearly. A few were faces I recognized but most were new to me, with eyes or jaws or mouths set in familiar slants and patterns. When I was closest to the other side, I was least alone. My wife and I will be celebrating life as we honor those who aided my healing from the spirit world.
It’s meant to be silent but it does not have to be a solemn or somber event. Hold the supper sacred and keep conversation on the experience at hand; it is not a place to chit chat about the workday or chores that need to be done as such mundane life can keep the timid dead away who no longer recognize the world-as-is. Perhaps there was a time when true silence was possible but for the scraping of forks and howling of the wind, but in this day, when our homes are filled with the not-so-quiet hum and thrum of electronics, appliances, traffic and plumbing, I try to use the electrical aids to entice the dead to visit.
We play some kind of music that might appeal to our invited guests. We often listen to the radio drama of Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree, which pulls the spirit energy into our home. I grew up sitting around the radio with my family, listening to music. A generation before us it was music and radio serials. The emotional sensation that fills our home when we play the radio drama is one of a joyous family reunion.
The event itself can be as simple or elaborate as your circumstances require. The intention is the magic. Welcome in any weary travelers from the other world and offer them an extra place at your table. Feed them before you feed the living. Allow them an evening of humanity on the night when the overlapping worlds bleed through.

What We Do
We use the dumb supper to open a space for the living and dead to dine together. We have greatly ritualized the evening, though we keep it family-style-casual. At the heart of the evening, it is about honoring Those Who Came Before. We may make a connection and touch spirit world, but that is just an aside. It is not about us. So imagine you are gently trying to lull spirits who have been in other world back into the familiar trappings of life. Think about it like you are starting at the end and moving backwards, like a mirror image of their last breath.
It may seem like a stretch, but apply that to the table itself. I think of the table and meal like a reflection, a photo-negative image of your mundane life. Whatever order you would normally eat dinner courses, serve them backwards. However you would place-set the table, set it backwards. Do you usually put forks on the left and water glass on the right? Reverse them. Whether it makes sense or not, it works, and is one of the oldest guidelines for hosting a supper for the dead.

Prepare the Food
Planning the menu is part of the fun. What foods will you serve? I like to make items that were meaningful to my family as well as items I find that hearken to the cultural heritage I am discovering in my genealogical research: German, Polish, Irish, Dutch, English, French-Canadian, etc. What lines live in your bloodstream?
In order to highlight what makes this supper different, it’s helpful to plan a series of courses. It ends up being a bit more formal than a meal we would normally prepare, but for us, this is a special occasion. It may be helpful to note that pungent and fragrant scents are more enticing to the dead who no longer eat.

Plate the Table
We set a chair at the head of the table and shroud it in black fabric to represent the Spirit Chair. A candle is placed in the center of its plate. This is the setting for all those who wander the night and wish the living no harm. During each of the courses, this chair is the guest of honor.
Then we each set out an extra chair for our personally invited spirit guest. It cannot be someone who has died within the last year. We write the name of our invited guest on a piece of paper and place it beneath their plate. Sometimes I actually write letters or ask a question I am hoping to gain spiritual insight on. If you do not have a particular ancestor you wish to invoke, you may simply write the ancestors of your name, your bloodline, your spiritual heart, etc.
A candle is placed on the center of the plate. I place my guest’s chair across from me, so that I may gaze into the space there, like divination, during the meal. Ultimately, where you place them is not important. What is important is that you serve the Spirit Chair first, your invited guests next, and then yourself. It’s the intention of hospitality that matters most.

Open the Door and Light the Way
At the beginning of the meal, we stand behind the head chair and invite our ancestors to come and dine with us. I even go so far as to open the front door and invite them into my home. We light the candle on the Spirit plate and pour a libation into the cup at the head of the table. I call in the Ancestors with this prayer:
To those who have gone before,
To those whose names live in our hearts and dance upon our lips,
To those whose names have been lost in the sea of time,
To those whose bones lie above and below the earth,
To those whose ashes have travelled on the winds,
We, the living, bid you welcome and entrance.
This action opens door for your personal guests to step in, too. We light the candles on our invited guests’ plates and call them by name. This year I am inviting my unknown-to-me-in-life paternal great-grandmother Hattie Eva Smith. She trained to be a nurse late in life after her husband died. She stood at my left thigh most of the time I was in the ICU.

Enjoy the Evening
A place set for our beloved cats.
The meal itself is also a reflected image of what the dead would remember. We start with the dessert course and sit down to enjoy it. Next, the main course, then the sides. Then the soup and salad, followed by any appetizers and pre-dinner cocktails. You should structure your meal in a way that seems appropriate to you, your heritage and your family traditions- just backwards from whatever that might be.
During each pause in courses, while we are eating, I focus on the space across from me and the multiple sensory impressions I receive. In years past, I have invited my Great-Grandma (known-to-me-in-life) Elsie Durant Riddle to dine with me. From the ether I have been chastised for not salting her meatballs or being stingy on the chocolate cake. I have also heard the gentle trebling of her voice and felt the cool paper of her skin as our hands brushed while I was serving her. I have found myself responding to an unspoken request from her spirit for another napkin. On this night, they can allow themselves the human moments they had in life and we can be reminded of them; Elsie did often need an extra napkin.

Bid the Dead to Rest
When the meal is finished, we express our gratitude to those who came and supped with us. That mostly consists of speaking our thoughts and feelings out loud. When the evening feels over, I thank my guest for coming and I open the front door, wishing them a safe journey for the rest of their evening. I put their candle out. (If I use tea light, I just let them burn out.)
I thank the Ancestors for dining with us and I snuff out the candle on the Spirit Chair. I carry the libation from the Spirit cup, usually water, outside and pour it on the ground:
To those who have gone before,
To those whose names live in our hearts and dance upon our lips,
To those whose names have been lost in the sea of time,
To those whose bones lie above and below the earth,
To those whose ashes have travelled on the winds,
We, the living, thank you for dining with us.
We, the living, bid you safe travels.
Ideally, the food would also be disposed of sacredly, either burned, buried or, traditionally, placed in running water. For me, it means leaving it out in the woods for critters, an offering of the bones of spirit-eaten food to other life in need. When I dispose of it, I do so with sacred intention.

Death is a part of the natural cycle we are all a part of and it’s healthy to find ways of acknowledging it as we celebrate the lives we lead. Our Dumb Suppers are portals that allow us, for one moment, whether we truly believe or not, to open up the part of ourselves that remembers the imagination of our childhoods. And we can believe that we might not know what comes after. And we can allow ourselves to speak words to the dead that would otherwise seem foolish.
            Many blessings to you and your family, both living and dead on this day. I have much gratitude to the Ancestors who lived, who opened the Way that we might walk this earth together. May we walk this earth softly, that those who come after us will speak our names in joy. May the peace and stillness of the season be with you. May the Ancestors walk with us, always.

[Article revamped from a post originally published October 31, 2012.]

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

To Those Grieving a Recent Loss

All Hallows is upon us. Those sensitive to Spirit will feel the winds opening new doorways, and swiftly stirring up the ways between. All those whose hearts are sorrowed by loss, all of you will feel it, too. You may feel a presence beside you, or sense one walking through your kitchen. You may *know* that someone is in your bathroom and with the same surety, know that if you go look, it will be empty.
I understand why these moments scare you, when your heart is still deep in grief, still hoping somewhere beneath the rationality, that your loved one *will* be there one of these times. Anything less is a betrayal. Every time.
It might also feel like betrayal when I ask you not to look for your loved ones in those shadows. Do not will them to come forth. Do not beg them to appear. Not this year. Not this season.
Those who have recently died are in transition.
I believe there is more to us than these physical bodies. I believe there is an afterlife for whatever that is. I’ve said that before. Your recently lost loved one may choose to appear to you. But don’t let books and movies steer your heart. In my experience that choice is uncommon so soon. It may be theirs. But leave that to them. Grieve for them but do not call them to you.
I encourage you to light candles and burn incense. Crack a window and call to your ancestors. Call them by name if you know them. Call to the lines you know, call only to those who wish you well. Call them to sit beside you this season. Call them to sit with you on Hallows night.
Do not sit spiritually alone in this grief. Your ancestors have all known loss. Some of them have sat where you sit. They know that secret, marring hole inside of you. Ask them to find and welcome your loved one. Ask them to watch over you in your sorrow.
Sit with your ancestors and cry your heart dry.
There is no time limit to grief. It’s a silly concept. The loss never goes away. It never undoes. You must be brave and find the strength to bear knowing that, for every second you keep living, the possibility of them being involved in it has been removed. That’s tremendously hard and you’ll mostly make it up as you go along.
For now, this Samhain, these next few weeks and months, leave your lost loved ones to rest. Lean into your ancestors, lean into the living. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

When Buffalo Brother Visits

When I was in the Burn ICU, I suffered from night terrors after waking out of my medically-induced coma. I was beyond fearful for a while. I was terror-filled and terrified. One night, when my room was maddeningly growing around me and I struggled to catch my racing heartbeat, a musky scent filled the room and I heard the familiar snorting of a bison.
A large warm body folded itself beside my hospital bed and my heart recognized Tatanka, my animal guide, immediately. (I know his name is redundant.) He laid his head down and I dug my fingers into his hair, griping him like he were the largest grounding stone in the world. I pressed my face to his neck, shutting my eyes against the mad hallucinations and the insistence of their realness. He felt solid beneath me, too. I can still hear the rhythm of his breath and I matched my heartbeat to it. 
Under such traumatic duress, I was so enveloped in spirit, trance,and  not-in-my-body-ness that a door opened and my animal guide came to me in my time of need. He placed himself between me and other doors so that I could rest. So that I could sleep.
I was told that I talked with Tatanka out loud enough that people inquired after it.
I have been building a relationship with buffalo for over a decade and we have been through some trenches together. To honor him, I want to post some previous passages I wrote about having bison as a personal totem.

Meeting Bison
When our local zoo was host to a pair of male bison, I could not resist the opportunity to observe them in the waking world. I had dreamt of them thundering across the plains. I had dreamt of running with them in buffalo skin and walking among them with human feet. At difficult periods in my life, I called on their strength to aid me in putting one foot ahead of the other, to keep moving forward no matter what was coming at me.
            But I had never seen one in person.
I went to the zoo every week, sitting outside their pen. I told them stories about their European ancestors, the ancient aurochs. I thanked them for the generations of bison who have been feeding and sheltering humanity. I told them about the bison cave drawings in Altamira, Spain that date to 12,000 BC. I told them about the drawings in the Niaux Cave of France. Mostly, after a while, I sat in silence, trying to become part of their landscape, more than a mere tourist.
I felt their strength in the sound of their footfall and saw intelligence in their dark eyes, with their beautiful lashes. When the older male looked at me, it was not with a dull gaze. He was observing as much as I was. Despite their girth, there is a grace in the way they graze the grasses. The older male began to greet me at the fence when I arrived. When I went with my visiting mother, we were in the adjacent goat pen. I turned around to find my bison friend’s face inches from mine, where he had stuck it through a hole.

Bison in the Wild
Bison are even-toed ungulates, which are animals that hold their body weight on the tips of their toes while in motion. They are usually hooved. Others among the diverse group of ungulate mammals are the rhinoceros, zebra, camel, alpaca, warthog, pig, hippopotamus, giraffe, deer, elk, moose, caribou, reindeer, gazelle, antelope, yak, auroch, sheep, goat, oryx, and musk ox.
The bison and the buffalo are both animals of the Bovidae family, but the bison is of the genus Bison, while the buffalo is of the genus Syncerus. They are related, but they are not the same creature. Their genes diverged 5 to 10 million years ago. Still, as we called them buffalo before their genus was determined, it is acceptable to refer to them by either name. There are two living species, the American bison, composed of plains bison and wood bison, as well as the European bison. There were four other known bison species that are now extinct.
Bison are the largest terrestrial animals in North America, weighing up to 2,000 pounds. The nomadic grazers travel in a large herd during the reproductive season from June to September. Otherwise, the females travel in their own herd with the young, including males under three years of age. The adult males travel together in a smaller herd; a bull seldom travels alone.
Both the male and female bison have horns, and are good swimmers, crossing rivers over a half-mile wide. Bison enjoy wallowing in small shallows of dirt or mud. They can appear peaceful and unconcerned, but they are unpredictable in temperament. Without warning they might launch into an attack. They can cover large distances at a gallop of up to 35 mph. Bison are most dangerous during mating season, when the older bulls rejoin the herd, hormones are high, and fights occur.
When there is outside danger, the female bison circle up around the young, old, and infirm. The bulls take position on the outside. When danger strikes, they come together to protect each other. The only known predators of the bison are the grey wolf, brown and grizzly bear, coyote, and human.

Buffalo Brother
My friend from the zoo!
I used to have anger issues. I began the Buddhist work of Lovingkindness as a means of reshaping that part of me, embracing gratitude, mindfulness, and compassion. I began to dream of Buffalo Brother, who gave me two options. I could snort and engage him in combat, or I could let my anger dissolve into the earth beneath me and graze quietly with him in the grasses. In our world, bison are humble and quiet and content to roam the wilds, but when provoked, they become giant, lumbering, movable mountains. I took this lesson to heart and adopted him as a guide. I connect buffalo to both my root and my heart chakra.
In many traditions, the bison is a symbol of gratitude. It represents the sacredness of life, the relation of all things, and the relation of all those things with the Earth beneath us. It is about honoring all living things, being humble enough to ask for help, and grateful for whatever help is given and offered. I’m going to repeat that: grateful for whatever help is given. That’s the point, right? If you ask for help and then are picky about what is offered, that is not gratitude. In that respect, buffalo medicine is also about prayer.
Bison turn their faces into approaching storms, standing firmly against them. Buffalo stands proud against the winds of adversity. Those called to this medicine should remember to temper themselves in dealings with others and allow tranquility and peace to enter their lives. Strive to see the positive side of all things.
Buffalo is about abundance. It’s about seeing that you have everything you need at your disposal. You do. But sometimes you have to dig into uncomfortable places to get to it. That doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Just because it’s not what you want, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Being grateful for what you have is true prosperity. Stop focusing on what you don’t have and focus on what you do. Keep a daily gratitude list. This practice will change the way your brain thinks, and you will start to see all the good in the world. It will change you from the inside, and you will find that you no longer need to worry about storing your frustrations inside, because buffalo teaches us to release them into the earth.

The Legend of the White Buffalo
The relationship between the Native People and the buffalo was beautiful. They killed what they needed, offering prayers of gratitude to the Great Spirit before the hunt, and having ceremonies honoring the life of the buffalo afterwards. The meat would feed the tribe. The skins and hides were used to make clothing and shelter. Even the hooves were ground down to make glue. Buffalo gifted the People life by sacrificing his own. Many hunters wore protective amulets made of buffalo bone.
Many Native tribes have legends of White Buffalo Woman, who came to the People and taught them how all things were connected. She brought them the sacred pipe and taught them medicine rituals. She promised to return to them in an era of Peace, and since then the birth of a rare white buffalo has been an omen of promise and hope, marking an end to suffering.

Pida miya, Tatanka.

[Contains passages originally posted in Animal Allies: Buffalo Brother on September 25, 2013.
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