Sunday, October 24, 2010

Honoring The (Sometimes Dysfunctional) Ancestors

Just a few days now until Samhein. I sit in a shaft of weak sunlight in my leaf-strewn garden and wonder, as, I guess, all old people do: "How did another year slip by so quickly?

Maybe more than any other holiday, Samhein has a huge component of fun, generally related to the coincident secular holiday. Scratch a Pagan and you'll likely find someone who loves costumes, the dark, all things "spooky." And, a large part of showing up for Samhein, being fully present in the holy day, involves our relationship with "The Ancestors." For many Pagans, that part is fun, as well. Lovingly-crafted ancestor altars, with pictures and mementos of the beloved dead, are artfully arranged. Food and music and stories that remind us of our parents, grandparents, and other now-dead relatives make up a large part of many Samhein rituals and divination and other forms of communication are used, here while the veils are thin.

Yet, for some Pagans, those of us who grew up in dysfunctional families, these practices can become fraught, rather than fun. One coping strategy that I've adopted is to broaden my definition of the term "Ancestors." I've done this in two different ways, over time.

First, through trance work,I've gotten to know some Ancestors from my deep past, especially one old, old woman who survived a lot of very cold winters inside a cave. I can draw strength and inspiration from those ancestors that I'm not able to find in my immediate predecessors. When I call upon the Element of Earth, I remember that Earth contains the bones of my ancestors, all of whom were survivors. When I ground, I can feel the layers of life under my feet; I twist my own roots deep around the roots of my own past.

Second, I've come to realize that I have any number of "Ancestors of the Heart" to whom I am not genetically related (any more than we are all, of course, Sons and Daughters of African Eve). Primary among these, I count Dorothy Parker, for her deep romanticism and idealism which she defended with her deep cynicism. She was one of my first models for how to be a smart aleck in this world and began my love affair with poetry. I count here, too, fictional characters: Susan Sowerby from The Secret Garden, Dorothy Sayers' Harriet Vane, Meg Murray and Mrs. Who from a Wrinkle in Time.

And, so when I sit on Samhein to honor The Ancestors, I will honor my own version. And, as I've written before, I hope to be:

reminded of one of my favorite passages, ever, from Ursula LeGuin. A woman importunes her ancestors for help. "Oh, it's That One. In trouble, again," the Ancestors chuckle to each other. It's what I imagine some Viking thrall saying to some settler from ancient Rus and to the barefoot old crone, the one who died lighting fires at the edge of the cave to keep the winter wolves away from the smell of placenta and mother's milk. "Oh, it's That One. In trouble, again."
But I think they'll say it with a friendly chuckle.

And I will renew my own pledge to do as Katrina Messenger once told me Jung taught that we must do: I will continue to know, dance with, and release the energy of my own shadows so that, to the best of my abilities, I do not project them onto the next generations. Some bits of my family's heritage will hopefully die with me. It's one way that I can honor those with whom I prefer not to spend time, across the veils.

Here's Angela Raincatcher and Thalia Took dealing with some of their own ancestral issues. How do you deal with yours? Who are your Ancestors of the Heart? What would an altar to them look like?

Picture found here.


Thalia said...

I assume you meant that to go to a specific post of mine but got the html off? Since it just goes to the main page and I'm not sure which post you are referring to now.

As for dysfunctional, yeah, one of my ancestors (though not direct, as she had no children) is my ninth cousin thrice removed, the (in)famous Lizzie Borden. Yeah, she can stay away, thanks.

I don't usually honor my ancestors, and it seems a very I don't know foreign idea to me for some reason. Perhaps my family just isn't big on family. I suppose also I distrust it for the same reasons I distrust automatically giving authority the benefit of the doubt. No, actually, I want to examine it first, and see if it warrants honoring.

Funny you should mention Dorothy Parker though. My altar to 'ancestors of the heart' has on occasion included Dorothy's buddy Harpo Marx. Now there was an old soul.

Thalia said...

Well you've inspired me to write a post on the ancestors over at my place. Though, warning, it's pretty harsh. But it's the truth.

Level Best said...

THANK YOU for what you've written about honoring chosen ancestors. Too many of us either don't have or haven't had the opportunity to know of blood ancestors worthy of honoring, yet it seems few persons acknowledge this fact.--Level Best