Drinking with the Ancestors   2 comments

Some teachings run you through their rituals.
Find your own way – individuals
know what works beyond the shown way:
try out drinking with the Ancestors.

Chat ‘em up — don’t merely greet ‘em;
such rites are chummy: do more than meet ’em.
(Spend your weekends with a mummy?)
But I like drinking with my Ancestors.

Another round of pints and glasses
will have us falling on our asses.
Leave off ritual when they’re calling —
you’ll be drinking with your Ancestors.

By and with the spirits near us —
“Don’t invoke us if you fear us” —
good advice: if you lose focus
though you’re drinking with your Ancestors,

in the morning you’ll be uncertain
if you just dreamed or drew the curtain
on some world where it more than seemed
that you were drinking with your Ancestors.

Alcohol works its own magic,
and not all good – it’s downright tragic
if you’re just hung over from what could
have been you drinking with your Ancestors.

They come in all shapes, and in all sizes:
some are heroes, some no prizes
(they’re like us in all our guises).
Listen: they are singing, they are cussing,
they can advise us if we’re fussing
over where our lives might go
or put on a ghostly show.
We’re the upshot, on the down low.
We’re the payoff, crown and fruit
(we got their genetic trash, and loot),
we’re their future – “build to suit.”
So start drinking with your ancestors.

*            *             *

Ancestor “worship” is sometimes a misnomer, though not always — some cultures do in fact pray to, propitiate and appease the spirits of the ancestral dead in ways indistinguishable from worship.  But others acknowledge what is simply fact — an awful lot (the simple fact that we’re here means our ancestors for the most part aren’t literally “an awful lot”) of people stand in line behind us.  Their lives lead directly to our own.  With the advent of photography it’s become possible to see images beyond the three- or four-generation remove that usually binds us to our immediate forebears.  I’m lucky to have a Civil War photo of my great-great grandfather, taken when he was about my age, in his early fifties.  In the way of generations past, he looks older than that, face seamed and thinned and worn.

The faces of our ancestral dead are often rightfully spooky.  We carry their genetics, of course, and often enough a distant echo of their family traditions, rhythms, expectations, and stories in our own lives — a composite of “stuff,” of excellences and limitations, that can qualify as karma in its most literal sense:  both the action and the results of doing.  But more than that, in the peculiar way of images, the light frozen there on the photograph in patches of bright and dark is some of the purest magic we have.  My great-great-grandfather James looks out toward some indeterminate distance — and in the moment of the photo, time — and that moment is now oddly immortal.  Who knows if it was one of his better days?  He posed for a photo, and no doubt had other things on his mind at the time, as we all do.  We are rarely completely present for whatever we’re doing, instead always on to the next thing, or caught up in the past, wondering why that dog keeps barking somewhere in the background, wondering what’s for dinner, what tomorrow will bring, whether any of our hopes and ambitions and worries justify the energy we pour into them so recklessly.

And I sit here gazing at that photo, or summoning his image from what is now visual memory of the photo, as if I met him, which in some way I now have.  Time stamps our lives onto our faces and here is his face.  No Botox for him.  Every line and crease is his from simply living.  And around him in my imagination I can pose him with his spouse and children (among them my great-grandfather William) and parents, and so on, back as far — almost unimaginably far — as we are human.  Fifty thousand years?  Two hundred thousand?  A million?  Yes, by the time that strain reaches me it’s a ridiculously thin trickle.  But then, if we look back far enough for the connection, it’s the same trickle, so we’re told, that flows in the veins of millions of others around us.  If we can trust the work of evolutionary biologists and geneticists, a very large number of people alive on the planet today descend from a relative handful of ultimate ancestors.  Which seems at first glance to fly in the face of our instinct and of simple mathematics, for that spreading tree of ancestors which, by the time it reaches my great-great-grandfather’s generation, includes thirty people  directly responsible for my existence (two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and sixteen great-great grandparents).  Someone called evolution the “ultimate game of survivor.” And now I break off one line, stalling forever this one particular evolutionary parade, because my wife and I have no children.

The poem of mine that opened this entry, “Drinking with the Ancestors,” suggests we can indeed meet and take counsel with members of this immense throng through the exercise of inhibition-lowering and imagination-freeing imbibing of alcohol.  Of course there are also visualization exercises and still other techniques that are suitably alcohol-free — more decorous and tame.  Depending on who you want to talk to among your clan, you can have an experience as real as most face-to-face talks with people who have skin on.  The difference between us in-carnate and ex-carnate folks is indeed the carne.  No sudden dispensation of wisdom automatically accrues to us just because we croak.  A living idiot becomes a dead idiot.  Likewise a wise soul is wise, in or out of flesh.

It seems fitting to end with an experience of the ancestors.  Not mine, this time — I keep such things close, because often when we experience them, they are for us alone, and retain their significance and power only if we do not diminish them by laying them out for others who may know nothing of our circumstances and experiences.  Wisdom is not a majority vote.  Even my wife and I may not share certain inner discoveries.  We’ve both learned the hard way that some experiences are for ourselves alone.  But it’s a judgment call.  Some things I share.

So in my place I give you Mary Stewart’s Merlin, in her novel The Hollow Hills*, recounting his quest for Excalibur, and an ancestor dream-vision that slides into waking.  The flavor of it captures one way such an ancestral encounter can go, the opposite end of the easy beery camaraderie that can issue from making the libations that welcome ancestral spirits to a festival or party, as in my poem.  Note the transition to daytime consciousness, the thin edge of difference between dream and waking.

I said “Father?  Sir?” but, as sometimes happens in dreams, I could make no sound.  But he looked up. There were no eyes under the peak of the helmet.  The hands that held the sword were the hands of a skeleton …  He held the sword out to me.  A voice that was not my father’s said, “Take it.”  It was not a ghost’s voice, or the voice of bidding that comes with vision.  I have heard these, and there is no blood in them; it is as if the wind breathed through an empty horn.  This was a man’s voice, deep and abrupt and accustomed to command, with a rough edge to it, such as comes from anger, or sometimes from drunkenness; or sometimes, as now, from fatigue.

I tried to move, but I could not, any more than I could speak.    I have never feared a spirit, but I feared this man.  From the blank of shadow below the helmet came the voice again, grim, and with a faint amusement, that crept along my skin like the brush of a wolf’s pelt felt in the dark.  My breath stopped and my skin shivered.  He said, and I now clearly heard the weariness in the voice:  “You need not fear me.  Nor should you fear the sword.  I am not your father, but you are my seed.  Take it, Merlinus Ambrosius.  You will find no rest until you do.”

I approached him.  The fire had dwindled, and it was almost dark.  I put my hands out for the sword and he reached to lay it across them … As the sword left his grip it fell, through his hands and through mine, and between us to the ground.  I knelt, groping in the darkness, but my hand met nothing.  I could feel his breath above me, warm as a living man’s, and his cloak brushed my cheek.  I heard him say:  “Find it.  There is no one else who can find it.”  Then my eyes were open and it was full noon, and the strawberry mare was nuzzling at me where I lay, with her mane brushing my face (226-7).

/|\ /|\ /|\

*Stewart, Mary.  The Hollow Hills.  New York:  Fawcett Crest Books, 1974.

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2 responses to “Drinking with the Ancestors

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  1. I was just talking with someone about this yesterday! In trying to comfort a friend about someone that had passed, I explained that having a drink in their honor is a way of reconnecting with them.

    • Hi, Jason — thanks for your comment. I agree completely. It’s a shame we’ve largely lost this understanding. My father’s atheist cousin nevertheless lit a candle and drank to my father as a way to remember him when he heard my father has passed four years ago. I find it a comfort on anniversaries of those dates, too. Cheers (in every sense)! — ADW

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