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This Samhain season I've been called to explore more of the Day of the Dead aspect of this important holiday. I certainly picked out a pumpkin at the pumpkin patch and dressed up and went out with my friends over the weekend, but the month of October has had a real theme of dealing with my ancestors and other beloved dead. My older sister has been spending some real effort to discover family stories and tracing our geneaology in recent months and she asked me to look through our dad's photos for a picture of our grandmother. That search spurred me to do a major overhaul of his photo albums which were in dire need of repair or updating. My grandmother had put two albums together for my father sometime in the 1950s and they were physically falling apart. I've spent many hours over the last month or so taking the photos off the disintegrating paper and putting them in new albums, a process that has led to a number of very fruitful conversations with my dad about his life history and family (Ok, those conversations have been as fruitful as possible with a man who generally considers "grumph" a reasonable response to most inquiries).
Neither side of my family really has close intergenerational ties. Both of my grandfathers died decades before I was born and my father's mother died when I was a young child and had lived my entire life across the country from her. Both of my parents were part of the Baby Boom generation that rebelled in many ways against traditional family structure and values, a movement I still believe is valid and valuable, but that has caused irreparable rifts in family ties. Two years ago, when I wrote about my Halloween altar I noted that I had a picture of an extinct species because I almost felt that loss more strongly than the loss of my own family members.
This puts me in a place that is inherently different from the vast majority of humans over time and across the globe. In many, maybe even most, cultures, ancestors are a close and vital part of each individual’s community. Grandparents and maybe even great grandparents would have played a strong roll in raising a child and those people’s deaths would give the young adult an intimate connection with other ancestors who were no longer living. People very often lived in the same community, or even the same homes, that their ancestors had lived in and followed daily practices and traditions that they shared with those ancestors. This is not, in any way, my reality.
My first real cognition of that strong, shared connection with my ancestors came from my study of cell biology and genetics. I realized that the mitochondria in every cell in my body was exacly the same as the mitochondria in my mother’s body, and those in her mother’s body and her mother’s body. Something as intimate as my own DNA was shared with these women who I knew only barely or not at all. Later in my life, through conversations with my father’s sister, I had a realization that habits of mind and speech, childhood baggage and other less tangible aspects of what I consider myself are passed down from generation to generation in a family.
won tickets earlier this month to see a play at a theater here in Portland that focuses on Hispanic culture. The play, their Dia de los Muertos production, was a billingual story about a young woman experiencing revolution in a 21st century middle eastern country being visited by her ancestors who tell their story of experiencing revolution in 19th century Mexico. One of the things that struck me in the play is how present her ancestors were to her, both physically and emotionally. This morning I listened to an interview with a prominent Mormon journalist and blogger and she said she felt the same presence of her ancestors. Their stories of conversion and migration to live out their Mormon spirituality felt very heavy to her and she said as a young person she experienced “visitations” and proddings from her ancestors who seemed quite invested in her daily life. In talking about difficulties in her relationship with her father she was very clear that her tradition believes that families choose to be together, that they somehow know each other before their earthly births and come together to have certain kinds of experiences together. This thought is held in Waldorf communities, too, and is one that, despite it’s issues (does anyone choose to be born in extreme poverty, with debilitating illness or deformity, or into abusive situations?) provides some level of comfort to me.
I don’t have the strong intergenerational connections of a traditional Mexican family and I don’t believe in eternity spent with my current family, but I do know we are in this particular journey together. My parents are a deep part of me, and through them so are their parents and their parents. Other branches of my family are a part of me, too, even the parts that I share no blood with. I believe that my purpose here on earth is to, through my incarnation into this body and self, have a physical and relational experiences that the non-physical spirit of god can not. Humans have their core physical and relational experiences within the family and so, no matter how difficult it may be, those relationships are vitally important.
What are you celebrating this Halloween season? Were or are you close to your grandparents and other ancestors or have you had a journey of discovery like mine? When do you feel closest to your ancestors? Is it now, during the time of the year when the veil is thin between this world and the other? Rob Brezsny's homework assignment this week was "Which ofyour dead ancestors would you most like to talk to?Imagine a conversation with one of them." Which ancestor would you most like to hear from this early winter? What did you dress up as for Halloween?
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These photos are my personal family photos. If you would like to know more about them please send me an email.
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Halloween 2008: When the Veil Between the Worlds is Thin
Halloween 2009: What Do You Really Want to Be?
Halloween 2010: Doggy Heaven (one of my all time favorite posts - it still makes me choke up a little every time I read it) and The Power of the Dog.
The Full Death Moon 2009 post mentions the Halloween season and the post Martinmas is about another holiday associated with this point in the Wheel of the Year.