Ancestor Wounds and Healing

I’m on my way to the Wild Maine Witch Camp!  My friend Sylvia and I are leading one of the morning workshop series (called a Path), on the topic of Ancestor Wounds and Healing. 

Our intention in this path, is to open our lives to the blessings of our ancestors and to healing the wounds we carry from them. This work, for us, is rooted in our understanding that our path as witches is tied up with collective liberation from colonization and oppression, from patriarchy and racism. Connecting with our ancestors is a way to wrestle with our collective history and all that it includes, in order to bring healing and liberation in our times.

I have been blogging about this process with my own ancestors for the last several months, discovering more about the experience of my German and East Frisian immigrant ancestors, and the Quebec story of my French, Innu and Scottish ancestors. I’ve been asking questions about how the stories of my ancestors fit into the larger story of colonization, of relationship to the land, of migration, and belonging. Perhaps I have also been wrestling with the question of whether my European ancestors might have any blessings to offer me. That story is so tangled and broken.

I am looking forward to sharing this work with a group of people in the context of our lives as witches. Our tools will include experiential magical practice, music and chanting, personal sharing, guided meditation and trance work, sacred herbs, and the wisdom of each person in the circle. We will draw on Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects which is based on a cycle of four movements that we will use through our four days together. We will begin with gratitude, then move into honoring our pain, then seeing our connections with new eyes, and finally, going forth.

Perhaps I am hoping to discover if this message from Linda Hogan, Chickasaw writer, also might apply to me:

Walking. I am listening to a deeper way.

Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me.

Be still, they say. Watch and listen.

You are the result of the love of thousands.

Biddeford Pool beach

Miracle of Ocean

Crescent Beach September

Yesterday late afternoon, with the weather up to 80 degrees, I went to Crescent Beach. Would it be the last day warm enough for me to go in the water? Maybe, maybe not. But without expectations, I set up my chair on the sand, and walked down to the edge of the water to feel the cold splashing on my feet. Its temperature was mildly cold not frigid, much warmer than early summer. There were a few more waves than usual. Only a small group of children were in the water, jumping into the waves as they broke on the shore.

I have become a bit timid about waves, as I have gotten older. The tide was low, and there were lots of round stones to walk over, so I came back to my chair and put on some swim shoes, so I’d have better balance. Then I walked back out and stepped right in. I moved quickly through the breaking waves and past them to about my waist level. The rhythms of the water rose up to my shoulders, and then back down, lifted me up and down, too, but gently. I dove into one wave to cover my head, but then I just stood facing the sea, watching the waves come in, letting them carry me up and down.

Here’s the amazing thing: after being in the water, the waves, for a long time, and then staying longer still, I began to be washed in a sense of joy and happiness. It felt miraculous because this whole past week, I had been feeling exhausted and achy–a classic flare up of the auto-immune conditions I struggle with. But somehow the water washed all of that away, and I was filled with a physical sense of well-being and playfulness.

When I go into the water, I usually pray to the Mother Ocean, I give her my worries and struggles. She is one kind of divine presence, larger than I can ever be, and the source of all life. But it wasn’t my small prayer that shifted me–it was the very energy and power of her presence all around me, it was the waves dancing with me, it was my body responding to the waves. It was unexpected.

Filled with this lovely happiness, when I came out of the water, I walked along the shore looking at stones and shells, and I found several pieces of sea glass. I love that the ocean can transform these broken bits of human invention into tokens of beauty. Since I have been thinking lately about the ancestors, it came to me that sea glass is a kind of gift from people who came before. I’ve read that it can take 20-40 years in the waves, sometimes longer, for glass to be tumbled to create this patina. So someone a long or short time ago made the glass, touched it, discarded it.  I am holding this connection, broken yet made whole again, and so I prayed for friends and family who needed healing.Seaglass

After my walk, I sat in my chair and ate some yogurt mixed with cocoa, honey, cacao nibs, and blueberries. I started reading the novel Barkskins by Annie Proulx, which begins with French settlers in Quebec taking down the forest. (Another way to try to understand colonization.)  Isn’t it a picture of happiness, to read in a chair on the beach, sun on my shoulders?

monarch catepillarOn my walk back to the car, one more fun surprise. This colorful monarch caterpillar on a milkweed plant just past the beach roses.

I wish I could share with you the happiness of being in the ocean, of walking on the shore finding sea glass, of reading on the beach on a September evening, of finding a monarch on a milkweed.

But the happiness was triggered by actually being in the ocean with its waves dancing me up and down. So if you are feeling timid about walking into the waves, whether literal or metaphorical, please know that on the other side little miracles might happen. Joy might find you.

 

Raccoon/Espons

One of the great things about our cats is how they alert us to visitors in the yard.  This morning, Billie suddenly leaned over into the bedroom window, all focused attention, and then she hurried off to the kitchen.  I looked out the window, and then I too ran to the kitchen–to look out the French door windows to the back.  We had both seen a raccoon, walking right onto our deck, checking things out.Raccoon on the deck

Sadly, this was not a great nature photo–I didn’t capture the raccoon’s adorable face.  And when they saw us at the window, they decided to move along, leaving only small wet footprints behind. I barely caught their distinctive striped tail as they hurried past on their way toward the steps to the driveway.  Raccoon tail

Compost barrel holeThe Passamaquoddy word for raccoon is Espons, and it means the one who leaves a mess. I pulled on my boots to go outside to see if Espons had left any messes anywhere in our garden–but the only thing I found was a tiny hole dug into the side of our compost barrel.  It looks like that compost is ready.

I think this is the first time I’ve seen a raccoon in the yard, though I saw one in a tree down by the brook a while back. As much as Margy and I love to play in the soil, plant trees and bushes, and tend to the growing plant life all around us, the most thrilling part of connecting to this land is when the critters visit us.

Many small birds and squirrels live here all the time, but we’ve also seen turkeys, a very occasional deer (and not in the last year), the skunk, the groundhog, a few chipmunks, the fox, the hawks, the turkeys (they visit a lot–though not this spring–they must be raising young somewhere else right now), not to mention tiny toads and salamanders. I call them visitors, but really, we share this urban environment. They live here as much as we do–but not usually on the deck!  We try to find a balance between welcoming them, and reserving certain garden foods as our own “territory.”  (Since we don’t yet have much food in the perennial food forest we’ve been slowly creating, it hasn’t yet been a big issue.)

I am reminded somehow, by the joy of this unexpected visit, that my spiritual “marching orders” during this past cycle of seasons have been rather clear.  I was not to try to “make magic”–which I understand as to focus my intention and will to create something or to make change in this world.  Rather, I was to flow with the already flowing magic of the deeper River, to let the Earth move my feet, let the Wind guide my mind. I was to rest, and let the Fire of joy carry me through the days.  That joy has carried me into some marvelous learning–the Wabanaki language class comes to mind.  That joy has carried me out into the garden to plant and tend and haul wood chips around.  That joy has carried me to the pages of this blog site, to write and reflect.  But it isn’t really about creating a garden or a blog.

It is about observing, being quiet, listening to the trees, tuning in to the flow of interconnected life. It is about moving beyond doing into a different way of being.  A way that is alert to the many beings who visit us, whether we notice them or not. It is about noticing.

Margy's clover & daffodils

Margy’s clover & daffodil garden in the front yard.

May Day the old way

May Day treeYesterday evening, eight of us danced around the pitch pine in our yard, dressing it up with rainbow ribbons for May Day.  Did you know that the original Maypoles were not cut wooden poles, but live trees?  It makes sense to me, coming from people who worshiped among the trees, who honored and revered the trees. And so what better way to celebrate the full arrival of spring, the arrival of the May, than to celebrate the tree with an ancient dance?

Earlier, I had attached eight ribbons to a small metal ring, and then Sylvia tossed a rock-tied string over a branch so we could lift the ribbons to a good height for dancing. Margy went to a field close to where we used to live to pick forsythia branches to decorate the bottom of the tree. In this time of the earth awakening, we joined our life energy to that of the earth, that we might all be full of life and regeneration.  It was a magical moment to be weaving in and out between each other, with our bright colors, dancing on the earth, and finally surrounding the tree, hands joined in a circle.

After a rain-filled night, I took photos this morning. We keep hoping for more warmth…it is only in the 40s today.  But we’ve finally finished planting all the bushes. I set up the rain barrels (by putting in their spigots and re-attaching their overflow hoses), and yesterday I found smaller containers for storing a big bag of Kaolin clay (an organic product used for certain orchard pests). Tending and planting and tending.

When I pay attention to what is happening to our planet, I feel so much despair, I feel overwhelmed. I know it is better to plant trees, than to cut them down.  I know it is a good thing to tend this small plot of land.  But even with many of us planting trees, or protesting, or changing our lives, do we have the power to stop the destruction?  No, I think not.  But what came to me the other day was this.  If we are out there, planting a tree, putting our hands in the soil, watering a seed, dancing on the ground, or even lying in a hammock under a pitch pine, perhaps we can learn to hear the voice of the earth.  Perhaps she will see us there, and take pity on us.  Perhaps she will open our ears and hearts and guide us into regeneration and healing. This is my hope.May Day Pitch Pine

Sacred Trees and Resurrection

When I was looking through some old family photos, I wondered, what is this picture of a tree?  Then I saw my grandfather Heie Johnson almost hidden up in its branches.  I don’t know where it was taken, or by whom.  (Any Johnson relatives know the answer to that?)

Heie Johnson in a tree – Version 2

1930s

I’ve been doing a lot of research about my ancestors, trying to understand their legacy in me, trying to understand colonization and the possibilities for a different way of being. I came across a story concerning the missionary efforts of Christians in early pagan Germanic lands.  It said,

The favoured method of showing the supremacy of the Christian belief was the destruction of the holy trees of the Germans. These were trees, usually old oaks or elm trees, dedicated to the gods. Because the missionary was able to fell the tree without being slain by the god, his Christian god had to be stronger.

This is a sadly perfect example of the colonization forces of Christianity–that part of its history which is about domination, conquest, and empire.  But since today is Easter, I wanted to go back to something I learned from Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, in their book, Saving Paradiseabout another force in the history of Christianity, a force that moved against domination on behalf of equality and interconnection.

They researched the visual world of early Christian worship, and what they found were beautiful mosaics: a deep green meadow under a blue sky, flowers, a tree with four rivers flowing from its roots spreading out over the land. There were sheep in the meadow and a figure of a man who was the shepherd of the sheep, with a kind and radiant face turned toward the people. There were men and women, all with radiant faces, each one holding in their hands a laurel wreath crown.

Each week as part of worship, after the readings and hymns, after the sermon and prayers, there was a communal potluck feast for all the members of the church. As people sat down together, those of the upper class were sitting next to workers and servants. Special attention was given to widows and their children, and to all the elders. At this holy communion meal, all brought what they had to share, and partook of its bounty together.

According to Brock and Parker’s research, this would have been the experience of Christians in the early centuries of Christianity. Most people were unable to read, but the symbolism of the images around them would be immediately apparent: the Garden of Eden, the original Paradise. The tree in the meadow was the tree of life described in the book of Genesis.  At the center of this early Christian worship was a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. He was the radiant man tending sheep, the Good Shepherd, a living presence in their midst. They believed that by his resurrection, he had restored the original paradise, and reestablished the presence of the divine spirit within the whole created earth.

The Christian community was meant to be the living embodiment of this resurrection paradise. In the midst of a world controlled by the harsh realities of the Roman Empire, they came together to celebrate a new earth, imbued with the beauty and grace of divine blessing. They were an oasis of care and connection. Their vision of radical equality undermined traditional social status, and they operated a vast social welfare program that offered livable options for the poor and enslaved. When someone became a Christian, they dedicated all of their material belongings to the community. Christians were not allowed to kill or become soldiers in the army. They were striving for life in Paradise.

One thing that Brock and Parker did not find, in the visual world of the early church, was any representation of Jesus being crucified on a cross. Early Christians acknowledged the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Many of them had probably seen actual crucifixions, since the Romans carried out this brutal form of execution in public places, to terrify the populace and reinforce their imperial control. But for the followers of Jesus, the church itself—their communal gathering—was not a place to be filled with images of torture and cruelty. It was the place to remember that love was stronger than empire, and that heaven was possible here on earth.

It was only much later—nine centuries later—that the church first created images of Jesus on the cross.  Brock and Parker asked, “Why did Christians turn from a vision of paradise in this life to a focus on the Crucifixion and final judgment?” In their book, they trace the complex changes—century by century—that could account for such a development. Their trail of clues led to the 8th century, when the Frankish King Charles the Great, better known as Charlemagne, attempted to conquer and annex the Saxon people’s lands along the Rhine River. (Some of my ancestors lived along the Rhine River.)

The Saxons had practiced a hybrid form of Christianity, a blending of the Christian story with their earlier pagan practices—Thor and Woden and Jesus were all acknowledged, and their worship was held in sacred groves of oak trees or around holy springs. The Franks justified their expansionist assaults by claiming that the Saxons were not true Christians. They cut down the sacred oaks, and deforested the whole countryside. They baptized the Saxons under threat of death. The Saxons kept rebelling decade after decade, but ultimately lost the wars. And, sadly, it was their descendants (also my ancestors) who eventually carved that first image of Jesus on a crucifix, and carried out the first pogrom against their Jewish neighbors.

Christianity, once offering hope for those persecuted by the empire, had become the official religion of empire.  By the middle ages, paradise had been relegated to the afterlife, and the communion feast had been turned into story of death and sacrifice and judgement. It was in the 11th century that Bishop Anselm of Canterbury created the “theology of atonement.” This interpretation of Christianity, still haunting us today, claimed that humanity’s sins had so offended the almighty God that it required the sacrifice of his son Jesus on a cross, to bear the punishment for all of our sins. (If you thought that this was what all Christians believe, did you realize it only started in the 11th century?)

Worship was no longer a communal gathering of peace and love, but became visually and ritually punishing, intended to stir up fears of future horrors. The priest at the communion table was said to be re-enacting the death of Jesus each time, and this sacrifice was an indictment of all humanity. This death-focused theology found its natural counterpart in the Crusades. While up to then, Christians had been forbidden to shed blood without doing penance, now the boundary line was drawn at the church doors. Soldiers were promised heaven if they died in battle killing Muslims, Jews, or heretics. And so the process of colonization continued.

Decolonization is about learning the stories of our history, and rejecting the beliefs and practices that involve domination, conquest, and subjugation.  But decolonization also includes uncovering the liberating threads we might find in the midst of the forces of domination.  The stories of the early Christians around a communal shared meal are stories that give me hope. The stories of the people of the Rhineland worshiping in groves of sacred trees give me hope.

And here’s a new question:  the Christian missionaries thought their god could conquer the old gods, because they weren’t immediately killed when they cut down the sacred trees. But maybe they just got the timeline wrong. Because now, after too many trees have been cut down over the last many centuries, we are all in danger of losing our lives.  The destruction of the forests threatens the whole planet. I think we need to bring back the sacred trees.

The picture of my grandfather in a tree gives me hope.  I think he knew that the divine was present with him in that tree.  And these days, my own worship includes planting young trees in this place I call home.

Read this book:  Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, (Beacon Press, 2008), I quoted from pp. 263-271, and pp. 224ff.

A Larger View

Reflections on death from one who has died:  As I was going through some papers in the basement, I found a newsletter article from the spring of 2002, written by my dear mentor in ministry, Rev. Victor Carpenter, who died last year in June.  I want to share his words for this coming week, his reflection on Easter and death and life.

Easter Week.  My attention turns to stories of death and the meaning of life. And not necessarily the Jesus story. Sometimes, that story, so overworked and layered with interpretations, shuts me down rather than awakens me.  Instead I commend a wonderfully imaginative perspective from a favorite novel, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.

The novel concerns a missionary and his family in Africa (actually in the area of the Congo.) One of their daughters, the child Ruth Ann, dies. She assumes the form of a serpent in keeping with Congolese beliefs. As a green snake lying on a tree limb she watches her mother and her sisters who, after many years, return to the Congo to search for her grave. What she wishes she could tell them is, “Listen! Being dead is not worse that being alive. It is different, though. You could say the view is larger.”

I love that interpretation! As the great scholar of religion, Huston Smith tells us, all religions teach that after death one is aware of who one has been and who one is and adds that one’s work is not completed. Those who teach reincarnation hold that the soul returns to earth to take up unfinished business. Sometimes many rounds are required to get it all done. As Ruth Ann says, “The view is larger.”

As for what that remaining business is I have only guesses. Probably something along the lines of getting rid of all the false and misleading ideas that have hung us up during our physical lives. Acquiring a larger view. Whatever brings us to that larger view is to be welcomed. Happy Easter.  Warmly, Victor

I am thinking of you Victor, and imagining you in that space of those who have gone on before us, waking up to that larger view. Tree and sky

Moments of Joy

Capisic Brook invisible cardinals

I saw a group of cardinals on my walk today! I haven’t seen them all winter, but as I stood still, watching the beauty of Capisic Brook, first one and then another and then more appeared in the distance.  You can’t really see them in the photo, but after the brook bends to the right, and then to the left–they were there in the bushes near the water. Then, as I was walking home, I heard a cardinal sing in the trees nearer my house. Joy!

I was thinking more about the fun wheel I created the other day. I put “Walk” as something to do under the element of fire, but really, my morning walks include all the elements. Fire is for the movement of my body, and sometimes, the bright sun rising.  But I almost always walk to the brook–which is water.  And I am connecting to the trees and the land and sometimes little animals–which is earth. Hearing the songs of birds, breathing in the invigorating air, well that is air.

Sometimes the walk feels like a chore–getting out there in the cold–it’s exercise, you know, good for me, I should do it, etc.  And my usual definition of fun is something I don’t have to do–no “shoulds.” But often, even usually, once I get out there, a walk is a doorway into moments of delight, moments like seeing the cardinals today, or finding turkeys in the street, or sometimes near the brook, catching a glimpse of a fox or a raccoon. Moments of surprise and moments of joy.

What might you do today to open a doorway into possibility, into moments of joy?