Working Your What, Part 1: Ancestors   Leave a comment

[Updated 26 July 2020]

Part of my what is ancestor magic. And — no surprise — it’s not a fully-worked-out thing by any means. It doesn’t need to be, because unlike fully-worked-out and therefore dead things, my magic is alive. Sometimes like all living things it changes and shifts where I don’t expect it. Yes, my mind can still run circles around my practice, with arguments like But the ancestors have already reincarnated and they’re off on new adventures. They’re not just waiting around on the off-chance that maybe you’ll finally notice them and pay attention to them!

To which another part of me answers You’re thinking from a limited vantage-point. There’s no time in the place where we meet with the ancestors. Or rather, all of time opens up, if we allow it, for ancestors and descendants alike. What I did yesterday and will do today ripples back and forth through time, just like the actions of everyone else flow and eddy and wash across other lives. Yes, in some of what I do, I fulfill an ancestral goal or vision in my life today, and also launch my own projects, and sow my own dreams. I may work to rebalance excesses and extremes set in motion long ago, and extend long-term projects and plans, even as I add my own energies to the stream which others in their turn live and work in. And some of those others may be the ancestors themselves, returned to take up the Great Work.

A tool for my magic and my connection to ancestors:

Below is a picture from nearly a century ago in 1922, of three generations on my mother’s side. In the small-town Iowa living room, she’s the youngest, the dark-haired three-year-old near the center, looking down at the doll in her arms. Everyone’s standing in front of the fireplace — though all you can see are the bricks and the mantle above. On either side of my mother are my aunt and uncle, ten and five respectively. The young woman on the arm of the chair to the right is my grandmother Lila, with her father, my great-grandfather, ensconced in the wicker chair, the bald patriarch of the clan, calmly reading. Facing him is my great-grandmother in a dark dress, her laced boots mirroring her husband’s. It’s all carefully posed, an image of the white middle-class domestic ideal of the time.

generations

What magical uses here? you ask. So many. What is remembered lives, runs the Pagan proverb. Another is the magic of images themselves — this image, both frozen and alive in time, potent to evoke. (Remember that image is any sense impression: yours may be a song, or a recipe, the taste of family. Or an heirloom, cherished family object whose touch rouses memory.)

Another piece of magic: I know everyone’s names here, and the lives of everyone but my great-grandparents overlapped with mine. But I don’t need names to evoke anyone, because any evocation is built-in to my bones and blood. With each heartbeat I evoke them. They are each already a presence for me, quite literal pieces of my DNA, as well as the stories and impressions I carry. Put a finger on my pulse and I have a practice: with each heartbeat I say the Names — I live because you lived, you live through me. You stand by the family hearth, the fire that still lights and kindles in me, that I pass on.

In any situation, they are a council of elders to consult, a family gathering both in and outside time. One key is to ritualize this, or it will most likely remain a vague impression at best. How to ritualize it matters less: the act of holding them in my attention vividly, aided by gesture, words, objects, and a commitment simply to do the ritual, matter more. I can’t do it “wrong”.

Put a question in meditation, for example, being sure to write it down as well, and watch for dreams and subsequent meditations to round out the query. So much wisdom to draw on, if I can begin to listen to hear it. Each of my ancestors lived out a life with its sorrows and joys. My aunt who never married, in a time when single-dom was much rarer, but built a quiet and modest career as an editor, keeping her sexuality under wraps for most of her life. My uncle, who at 12 years old drove my great-grandmother along country roads in the family car, while she literally “rode shot-gun”, bagging pheasants for Sunday dinner. My grandmother, widowed young, who raised three children. My great-grandfather, who hunted and fished and homesteaded in Sun Valley, Idaho in the late 19th century, before settling down to farm life “back east” in Iowa.

With all this richness of human experience to draw on, I can draw on it to amplify my own, make better choices, honor their lives by living mine more fully, paying forward the investment in family that each made, just by being alive. In such a family gathering, they shift and move from their places in the photo, and turn to take up their lives, before and after the brief flash of the camera that captures their forms in two dimensions. (Oh, let me supply the third dimension of time!)

Another key: I can make of their strengths several charms to strengthen and clarify my path, holding their images and memory as I say the words and lay the spell on myself most of all:

Aim of the hunter is mine, to hit my target. Singleness of purpose is mine, to achieve my goal. Sureness of place is mine, to flourish where I find myself …

Part of my honoring and my magic both is to recognize and embody their strengths. It may reach concrete magical form as a bind-rune or ogham lettering of their names.

Now this is a fragment of my mother’s side of my family. My father’s side, from my perspective, is less easy and comfortable. My relationships with those ancestors are more troubled. Love doesn’t flow as easily or readily. But magic rests there, too, more potent for any difficulty — because they also survived. A great-great uncle and great-grandmother who immigrated to the U.S. in their teens, just the two of them, brother and sister making their way as family servants where they boarded, learning English and acclimating to a strange new country. Survivors of wars and their traumas. My grandmother with the weak heart, knowing a widow’s struggle to keep going through the Great Depression. Illnesses and early deaths. Both common stories, and also utterly personal. We each inherit a full roster of them, and are adding our own right now. Their lives, and my life, are utterly our own, and also glyphs to read for insight and prophecy. Stomach issues on my father’s side, cancer and ulcers: a challenge quite literally to learn better how to stomach the ups and downs of life. Heart issues — what challenges my heart today?

Far more often than I imagine, such signs and wisdom are plain, not hidden at all. Through the concrete details of their lives, the ancestors can provide personalized “prescriptions for living” for their descendants, like this one: find ways to drop stress to clear the path for yourself. Otherwise blockages and barriers will eat you up inside. You eventually arrive at a point where you can see that your inheritance is neither weakness nor strength, but an insight into a long project you’re an integral part of, one that comes with certain parameters you’re working with, whether you choose to recognize them or not, work with them or ignore them.

Practicing ancestral magic means family relationships don’t end just because of death, any more than they do because of birth. Travel to a different era along the time-track, to their time, and I’m the one not yet real, as yet unborn, simply one possibility among many, a descendant whisper they may not hear as they live their lives under clouds and sun, shadow and brightness as vivid as ours today. Yet my birth and subsequent life did happen, and I’m here in my own time, even as I visit theirs, and they visit mine.

I take up the photo again, and in the magic of images and numbers, I’m the seventh element, the six in the photograph complete in themselves, yet also waiting for a missing factor. This is a paradox to work with and explore, how and where (and when) we fit in the cycles and spirals. And it’s a chance, to listen and discover where we find a place, and how we contribute. It comes with work and listening, with knowing all that family means.

Any number of sacred writings have wisdom to offer here: “Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars” (Proverbs 9:1). “The math and myth of seven”, notes Michael Schneider in his A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe, “the Heptad, are intimately related to those of twelve, the Dodekad. Both have in common the interplay of Triad and Tetrad, triangle and square. That is, 3 + 4 = 7, while 3 x 4 = 12” (pg. 233). Use your triangle of manifestation (1 | 2), find your triads, use your four elements, build your own 7 and 12.

But what about those perhaps harsh and bent branches of a family tree? Robert Frost, no stranger to difficult families or to the keenness of multiple personal losses, provides a key to a door that may seem shut and locked. Lest we think ancestral magic is closed to us because of breaking and broken families, he writes in one poem, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in”.

Not necessarily outwardly — that can indeed sometimes be too much to ask of anyone — but inwardly, where all magic is worked. Because Frost’s poem is a conversation between husband and wife about a hired man, someone who both does and doesn’t belong to the family, an increasingly common position many of us may find ourselves in. For the wife replies about home: “I should have called it/Something you somehow haven’t to deserve”.

Ancestral magic finds us where we are, if we care to let it in. It’s then that we may discover how we’ve been practicing it all along in some form, and can build on that practice more consciously, in ways uniquely fitted to our lives and circumstances. I hope that I’ve supplied some hints and suggestions for how to go about recognizing practices we already have, and where we might amplify them, turning up the volume to hear what family, or just one wise member of it, has to tell us that may be useful in these challenging days.

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