“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.