“When We Talk to Our Dead, They Talk Back” ancestor altar,
installed at the Torpedo Factory Art Center, Alexandria, VA,
for “Dia de los Muertos: The Art of Remembrance” exhibition, 2011
How do we relate to problematic ancestors, family secrets, and past betrayals of faith and trust? Honoring the ancestors seems to imply that you accept them and their life choices. But who doesn’t have issues with their blood family? Can we really look way back into our family tree to those ancestors we never knew and ignore the ones we actually had relationship with?
I am the daughter of two Spiritualist mediums who, when I was young, channeled discorporate entities on a weekly basis for the public. I wholeheartedly that the dead lived on as spirits and could communicate directly to the living. The world was a magical place where all things were possible. As I got older, I was introduced to some of the family trade secrets. Not able to see anything real beyond the illusion, I turned my back on the religion of my family.
But beyond the showmanship of Spiritualism’s physical phenomena, the ancestors continued to call to my heart. As an adult, I have struggled with what is real, hoping that the world wasn’t as cold and empty as I sometimes saw it. As a Pagan priestess over the past ten years, I have walked between the worlds and experienced the spirits directly without the mediation of mediums. And yet, I still feel mired in a morass of self-doubt–is what I am experiencing real or am I making it all up in my head?
As I cross into middle age, I grapple to understand my family’s past and hold compassion for myself as I explore the intersection of what is real and what is illusion. I am starting to come to peace with this part of my past. As the slate on the altar reads: The Sight is real, the Show illusion. I honor my experiences because they give me insight into the complexities of life lived in a world filled with contradictions. Nothing is what it seems at the surface, especially if it seems simple. Decisions that others may judge easily and quickly as right or wrong are full circumstantial caveats, if one really looks at the constraints and motivations of the people living with those decisions.
I’ve been working on this piece for two and a half years. It was supposed to take only two months. The vision from the Baron was so clear. I felt all I had to do was gather the pieces and put them together. And yet it took so long.
If I have learned anything in creating art work for the gods is that the work happens on their time frame, not mine. They guide my process, spurring me to climb the stairs to my alternately freezing cold or sweltering hot studio on the third floor, when it suits them. They show me what they want and are loud and clear when I put something in the piece that they do not want — even if it “should” work.
Today is Memorial Day. My plan was to work on some writing projects. But no, the Baron had other plans. I had sweated for hours working on his shrine yesterday — surely that was enough. I wanted to work on my other projects coming due (or overdue). About an hour of stop-and-start writing, I was antsy and couldn’t concentrate. I need to move and do something with my hands. So, it was up to the studio to put the finishing touches on the shrine. And three hours and a damp shirt later, it was proclaimed done. I ate lunch and then decided where to hang it downstairs.
Somehow I am not surprised, now that I actually think about it, that the Baron wanted his shrine finished on Memorial Day — a day we are directed to remember the men and women who joined the Ancestors in defense of our nation.
“As we age, we have the chance to reinvent ourselves and to have new adventures. Arthritis took me away from painting. Now I use my artistic abilities to design clothes. As we age, our connection to our deeper womb powers increase and we are often blessed with new gifts of magic.” —Ingeborg Ten Haeff, 78
I spent part of yesterday sitting around the kitchen table with two respected and lovely women from my spiritual group, Becoming. We ate a scrumptious meal, shared different divination tools we have used, and just talked about our lives and our dreams. They shared with me a book they had discovered, Wise Women: A Celebration of Their Insights, Courage, and Beauty by Joyce Tenneson. Each photo is accompanied by a snippet of conversation from each woman photographed.
I was so filled with hope and wonder as I turned each page. Each woman was so full of life, even having lived fully. These are women squeezing the sweet juice out of each day. Each has experienced hardship; each has put forth effort persevering and thriving. These are heroes and role models. These are women I want to know. These are women like I want to be now and thirty or forty or fifty years from now. These are women who through their strong and open hearts allow the light of the Divine to shine forth into the world — and I gasp in awe at their luminescent and earthly beauty.
All hail the Goddess in All Her Forms and in All Her Names!
Stephen Harrod Buhner, in Ensouling Language: On the Art of Nonfiction and the Writer’s Life, says “Everything you hate is everything you stand against. It is everything that you oppose, that you write to change, that you want to be a part of changing, that you must participate in changing in order to respect yourself. . . . Your rage against these things is what will make it possible to face the blank page, day after day after day.”
THINGS I HATE
- how I can’t seem to focus on one task for long enough to get it done
- that at 40 I still feel like an inexperience child
- that I lost my belief in the magic of the world a long time ago (One of the things I love about myself is that I still strive to get it back.)
- that I cannot bring myself to answer questions that I know but do not like the answers to
- being late
- making a wrong turn based on faulty perceptions
- seeing the goal and having no idea how to get there
- driving in circles without a map
- [something that I cannot share right now]
- being so concerned about losing others that I sometime lose myself
- that I am slowly losing my eyesight
- people who don’t care
- rich people who fault poor people for their condition without any idea what it is actually like
- poor people who fall for it
- rude drivers
- Fred Phelps and his crew
- that I can’t eat all the cheese I want without gaining weight
- that I just don’t quite know how to easily be myself around friends
- feeling insecure
- being indecisive
- being interrupted
- people who try to prove they know everything
- the smell of old urine
- feeling out of control
- corn nuts
- not being listened to/being dismissed
- not listening to or trusting myself
- that I have to think about the food I eat so as not to regain all the weight I’ve lost
- cleaning the house
- people who are proud of their ignorance and intolerance
- tiny yappy dogs
- the fear I have of hidden animals with teeth
This afternoon I am sitting on my front porch watching the local wildlife, naming the sparrows, cardinals, mourning doves, butterflies, and feral cats. Right now about twenty little birds are hopping through our unmowed yard and pecking seed under the bird feeder. We have three identifiable feral cats that live in the woods across the street — one black, one tabby, and one white with orange spots. They all look pretty big, which is surprising. They wonder up the front sidewalk toward the porch and stop suddenly when they notice me on the porch. I say “hi” and we give each other the hairy eyeball. Last year, I had a similar experience with a red fox, but I haven’t seen any of them this year.
Remember about a month ago, I wrote a list of things I love because I was reading Ensouling Language: On the Art of Nonfiction and the Writer’s Life by Stephen Harrod Buhner?
I’ve been adding to that list and also working on the other lists of things I hate, my heroes, and books that have moved me. So, in the interest of sharing…
- the smell of magnolias in April
- early morning birdsong
- wind chimes
- this video
- 160 beats per minute
- moonstone jewelry
- handcrafted jewelry
- goddess happy hour
- wandering about to see what I can see
- dancing with my husband
- my husband
- reading slash fanfic
- riding on the train and imaging that it will just keep going past my stop for work
- gin and tonics
- birthday cake with big icing roses
- dreaming up rituals
- my mother
- my mother’s partner
- my family of choice
- my cats
- dressing up in costume
- alone time
- running without hip pain
- getting the joke
- laughing loudly
- sleeping babies
- my niece and nephew
Looking back at my list, I realize that I wrote birthday cake, my cats, rituals, wandering about, and sleeping babies on both. Hmmmm…
In the process of reading Ensouling Language: On the Art of Nonfiction and the Writer’s Life by Stephen Harrod Buhner, I feel emboldened to play with language. How can you not when Buhner issues this challenge:
“I believe in writing that burns the blood, in which you feel forest wolves tensing behind you, writing filled with wilderness, writing that forces the margins, writing that challenges, that insists, that bleeds when it’s cut, writing that uplifts the best in us and defies the worst, writing that’s not afraid to breathe the same air as evil, writing that unashamedly believes in the good, that is undefended, writing that has death in it, writing with the same power that fills ancients redwoods, writing filled with darkness, writing with untamed wildness flowing through it, writing carrying an eagle’s call, floating in the high cold winds of a mountain pass, writing that is not civilized, not contained, not channeled in irrigation ditches of tired grammatical form and civilized demeanor, writing that grabs readers by the neck and shakes them, writing that stirs the deepest parts of the soul, that allows the mythic to flow again into consciousness, writing that undoes, that unmakes, that touches on chaos, writing in which the old gods live, writing that touches on the deepest parts of the human and finds no definite line between us and other life forms on this planet, writing that surges, strains, demands, forces, rages, writiing in language as liquid and mercurial as life itself, writing that is nonlinear, filled with luminosity, deep psyche, writing that DOES NOT SHUT THE FUCK UP. And certainly writing that does not fail to use the word fuck when it is called for, and it will always be called for. Eventually.”
Thoughout he provides exercises for writers, including listing out all the things you love and all the things you hate. Just freeform, let it go, and write it out without concern for the judgement by self or others.
Things I Love
- Being held energetically in Becoming’s circle of connection
- Weekend trips with my husband
- Acting silly and getting a laugh
- Roman baths and spa days
- Well-blended, spicy salsa
- PG Tips with sugar and milk with tea biscuits
- A turn of phrase that sweeps your heart away
- Deep rich reds
- Sleeping curled up with my husband
- Snuggling with my kittehs
- Praise for a job well done
- The feeling of satisfaction when I find the answer to some obscure answer
- Warm spring days with a soft breeze
- Rough, hot, sweaty sex
- That little bit of shade on a sunny day
- Wandering freely along an avenue filled with brightly colored shops or through the woods
- Saying the words “monkey” and “pony”
- Flirty bartenders
- Rituals that take you out of your rational mind and transport you a timeless place
- Gathering around the fire with good friends with drums and viryta
- Birthday cake
- Enjoying a glass of wine and a good book on the front porch
- Holding a sleeping baby
- Riding around with my mother in the golf cart while we bare our souls to each other
- Watching the rain without getting wet
- The first pink blossoms of spring
- Making jewelry
- Kronos Quartet Performs Philip Glass – the whole CD
- Cheesy vampire movies
- Dinner with friends
- Doing magic
- A quick wit with an absurd sense of humor
- Inspiring others to do/be more than they originally thought they could
- Mastering a new artistic/crafty technique
- Saying the word “fuck”
p.s. The book link above takes you to Amazon.com. If you buy the book through this link, I get a small percentage. FYI.
Last night I was in a fury.
I woke up at 2:17am
And could not go back to sleep.
I was still angry
From earlier in the evening
When my take-out meal
Which was supposed to save me time
Made me late
For a meeting
I didn’t really want to go to
In the first place.
Fuming in the darkness
Because my husband’s hand
Was touching mine
Because his shoulder
Was crowding mine
Because the dog
Was snuggled between my legs
And the kitten
Lay on my chest
Just get the fuck off of me!
Just everybody STOP
Stop needing things from me!
This morning I was in a rage.
I had not slept well.
I had an ice pick
Lodged in my skull
And a vice
Clamped on my shoulder.
Oh, and it was raining.
At the front door to my office
Stood a wet young man
Looking up at the sky
I guess that my notice of him
Invited a response.
“I’ve been inside all week
In a conference
Looking out at the sun,
And the one day I have to
Explore the city
It rains,” he said
With a foreign accent
And one of those grimaces
That says I-am-not-all-that-upset.
“Do you have an umbrella?”
He shook his head
And so I handed him mine.
“Really? Thank you!” he said
In wonderment and joy.
As I walked through the door
And past the security guard,
I felt tears on my face
Of release and relief.
Now, I’m just tired
but feel a little freer.
Photo: Umbrella Day by Gregory Bastien, on Flickr