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.

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.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.