Honoring Our Ancestors

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We are in extricably woven with our ancestors.  My belief is that if we tap into that fertile unseen world much healing wisdom will surface.

-Gigi Stafne

The timing of Halloween coincides with several ancient holidays and festivals which not only marked the halfway point between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice, but also served as an opportunity for people to remember ancestors and departed loved ones (The Day of the Dead in Mexico, All Souls’ Day in the Christian tradition, the Celtic festival of Samhain and the Norse festival of Winternights).  It was believed that the veil between the world of the living and the ancestral realm was particularly thin at this point in the year.

In the modern western world, we don’t have many formalized rituals that help us honor our ancestors.  We might display photographs of them in our homes or own cherished heirlooms that they passed on to us.  Maybe we occasionally get into the kitchen and prepare old family recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation.  Or maybe we share fond memories and stories about our grandparents and great-great grandparents around the dinner table.  You might have been fortunate enough to grow up in a family that placed some importance on reaching back through time to connect with those that came before you through food, stories, heirlooms or genealogy research.  But what if you didn’t?  Maybe that information was never made available to you, or maybe, through complicated family dynamics, the connection with your ancestors was deliberately severed at some point along the line.  It is not uncommon to not particularly like or agree with those that came before you.

And yet, we sense that there is something about our ancestral connection that matters, regardless of the complex human relationships that come with it.  I recently heard a podcast interview with John Lockley, author of Leopard Warrior:  A Journey into the African Teachings of Ancestry, Instinct, and Dreams.  Mr. Lockley is a South African healer and shaman who writes about the importance of our ancestral connections.  He writes:

“To forget one’s people represents a sadness beyond words.”

He goes on to explain that it’s not about liking or agreeing with your ancestors.  It’s simply about having an appreciation for the life that they have passed on to you.  I love this idea of stripping down the honoring of our ancestors to a very basic practice of gratitude for the gift of life that we received from them.  Maybe your grandfather was a real jerk and you would rather forget that you were related to him altogether.  But by simply honoring the life that he passed on to you, one can set aside his imperfect humanness for a moment and see that he is just one in a line of many that made you being here possible.  When we can find this basic gratitude for the life force that flows through our body, we can see that this ancestral connection runs deep.  Everyone descends from someone else.  This realization brings with it a sense of peace, humility and interconnectedness that runs through all of life, not just the direct line of people we came from.  Suddenly it’s easier to sense our connection to the ground beneath our feet and the humans, animals and plants with whom we share this Earth.

As this season of remembrance begins, honor your ancestors in any way that speaks to you.  Make your grandmother’s cookie recipe or tell your children the story of your great-great grandmother fighting to save her home from a raging grass fire on the desolate windswept plains of the upper midwest.  If you are sketchy on what your roots are, ask your living relatives for help or join http://www.ancestry.com and do a little research.  They offer a free two week trial which is plenty of time to get a basic idea of your family history.  If you really have no idea about your lineage, take an online DNA test (also available through http://www.ancestry.com)  and find out where you come from.  Do some research on those cultures and see what resonates with you.  But most importantly, be willing to take a moment to offer gratitude for the roots of your being, regardless of what they look like.  See if that simple act of appreciation opens you up to a greater sense of connection with all of life.

Simple Seasonal Pleasures for October

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Welcome October!  My favorite month of the year.  It’s been cold and rainy here in Nebraska, and no one seems to be complaining.  The sky hangs heavy with low gray clouds, and the leaves are just beginning to turn.  I’ve put away the summer clothes and unpacked the sweaters and scarves.  I just made the first batch of chili of the year.  Finally, the time for coziness and inner warmth is here.

  1.  Visit an apple orchard.  Here in Omaha we are fortunate to live near Nebraska City (it’s where Arbor Day originated, if you weren’t aware), which is home to several apple orchards.  In addition to stocking up on apples, we will stuff ourselves with warm apple cider doughnuts and buy a gallon of cider to take home and make this apple cider cocktail.  One of my favorites!
  2. Pack a fall picnic.  There is something about having a picnic on a crisp fall day that is utterly charming.  A plaid blanket and a thermos full of a hearty, soul-warming soup are essential!
  3. Read a scary or witchy novel.  I love snuggling up with a good scary story this time of year.  Some of my past October reads have been DraculaSalem’s Lot, and the Dark Witch trilogy by Nora Roberts.  This year it is Beneath a Blood Red Moon by Shannon Drake.
  4. Bake pumpkin bread.  Such a delicious quick breakfast or afternoon snack with a cup of coffee or tea.  This recipe from Smitten Kitchen is my favorite.
  5. Take walks in the crisp leaves.  I love the sound of fallen leaves crunching under my feet!
  6. The smell of woodsmoke.  As the evenings get chillier and people begin using their fireplaces and wood stoves again, the woodsy scent of smoke rising from the chimneys around the neighborhood evokes such a sense of warmth and coziness.
  7. Honor my ancestors.  The timing of Halloween coincides with several ancient holidays and festivals which not only marked the halfway point between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice, but also served as an opportunity for people to remember ancestors and departed loved ones (The Day of the Dead in Mexico, All Souls’ Day in the Christian tradition, the Celtic festival of Samhain and the Norse festival of Winternights).  It was believed that the veil between the world of the living and the ancestral realm was particularly thin at this point in the year.  Whether or not you believe there are thin places in the year in which we are closer to the spiritual realm, it is lovely to have a time set aside for honoring and remembering our ancestors.  A great place to do this is in the kitchen, of course!  This month I will make my dad’s famous pasta dish (simply known as “The Dish” at our house…it was that good) and my great-grandmother’s Pepparkakor (Swedish ginger snaps).  Cooking and baking are tangible, delicious ways to connect with our ancestors.
  8. Let go of what no longer serves.  I’m taking a cue from the falling leaves this month and letting go.  Letting go of clutter, jewelry, clothes, shoes, books, ideas, beliefs, habits, relationships, commitments….ANYTHING that isn’t serving me.  My very wise friend, Siobhan, who happens to be a very talented life coach, has proclaimed October the month of letting go.  Why?  In Siobhan’s words, “to create the space I need to be more ME.”  YES.  It’s amazing how both mental and physical clutter can stand in the way of our authenticity.  And so I will clear out the closets and the garage.  I will go through the kitchen cupboards and drawers.  I will journal my way past beliefs and ideas that are no longer helpful.  I feel lighter and more spacious just thinking about it!
  9. Watch “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!”  Whether you have kids or not, you are never too old for this sweet little Halloween special.

A very happy October to you!  I hope you find your own simple ways to make it special.