Honoring Your Blood Ancestors (even if you probably would’ve hated most of them)

Awhile ago, I had a DNA test. The results contained a couple of surprises, though the fact that there were surprises wasn’t, in itself, surprising.

Let me back up.

Years ago, when I was recently diagnosed with IIH, drugged to the gills, recovering from a spinal tap, and bored out of my mind, I decided genealogy would be more fun than staring at the ceiling and trying not to throw up. There was only one problem.
We’ll call him Albert.

Albert was my great-grandfather. He was my maternal grandmother’s father and, by all accounts, an absolute chemical toilet fire of a man. My grandmother wasn’t really raised by her parents — her mother died in a sanitarium at age 22, and her father, well…

Let’s just say I didn’t have much to go on other than that side of my family was French-Canadian, and their name was spelled wrong. It was extremely difficult to get more information about them, because every search result for my great-grandfather only turned up his many, many, many appeals from Attica. (Also, he was the one who changed the spelling of his last name, and was the only one in his entire family who spelled it that way. It’s like he went out of his way to make this impossible.)

I probably would not have liked great-grandpa Albert if I had known him in life. I have two toxic relatives who are both much closer to me and still living, and I don’t even talk to them. Neither of them have even been in and out of maximum security prison (as far as I know. It’s been awhile).

Nonetheless, great-grandpa Albert is family. He is a part of my ancestry — just as much as my Acadian and Métis ancestors, my great-great-grandmother who lived through losing three children to marasmus, and the great-great-to-the-nth-degree-grandfather who was being sent to Africa to build a railroad, noped out, went AWOL, and became a pirate instead. Just as much as Fíngen mac Áedo Duib, Niall of the Nine Hostages, and all of the other kings, criminals, heroes, and monsters tangled in the roots of my family tree.

Venerating ancestors is not, in itself, an aspect of my practice that I struggle with. I can see the importance and beauty in it, but I also think most people have a less jacked up family tree than I do.

What do you do when a lot of your ancestors were legitimately terrible people?

I’m reminded of a video clip a friend of mine showed me some time ago. It was of a black celebrity, discussing how he reconciled his feelings on having European ancestry, despite the fact that it came from people who enslaved the rest of his forebears. She thought he was a fool for it — why would you honor people who oppressed the rest of your ancestors? I couldn’t really offer much of an opinion either way, other than to feel that, sometimes, things like that are what you have to do.

They’re what you have to do for yourself. To stay sane. To not feel like you, yourself, are somehow tainted by them.

During and after a divorce, parents are cautioned not to badmouth each other to their children. Not only does doing so alienate the other parent from their child, it hurts the child. Parents can divorce, but children have to carry the genetic legacy of both of their parents forever. Hearing one parent badmouth the other isn’t just upsetting, it’s damaging. That child is a blend of their parents, and being told that one half of them is basically garbage doesn’t exactly foster strong self-esteem or good mental health.

You can’t really escape the ancestry you carry. Even if it’s full of a**holes.
(Probably especially if it’s full of a**holes.)

So what do you do?

The part of ancestor veneration that does trip me up is my estrangement from parts of my living family. The estrangement is by no means something I regret — on the contrary, the only thing I regret is that it took so long to happen. How do I reconcile honoring terrible people who have passed on, while removing those who still live from my life?

Is time a dark enough window to hide the sins of the dead?

I remember reading Women Who Run With the Wolves many years ago. In it, the author talks about taking a predator’s weapons for your own, dismantling them, revealing their elements of truth, and using this to strengthen yourself:

“We dismantle the predator by countering its diatribes with our own nurturant truths. Predator: You never finish anything you start. Yourself: I finish many things. We dismantle the assaults of the natural predator by taking to heart and working with what is truthful in what the predator says and then discarding the rest.”
Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype

This is the approach I take, for my own strength, for my own sanity, and because the dead won’t be brought to task. I can’t make great-grandpa Albert be there for his family, make him less of an abusive alcoholic, or keep him out of prison. I can’t reach into the past and redeem anyone, but I can see them through the lens of hindsight. I can see the truth in their stories and put it to use. I can see where lives went wrong, where generations of abject poverty, oppression, abuse, alcoholism, and plain bad decisions shifted and twisted the branches of my family tree.

I can see this, and I can thank them for the lessons. I don’t have to appreciate great-grandpa Albert the way I do my still-living grandfather. I don’t have to pretend his actions were not, at times, completely reprehensible. I don’t have to pretend to like anyone in order to learn from them.

If I can’t honor the people some of my ancestors were, I can honor the lessons they’ve taught me.

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Winter Things Yule Love

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(Also, that Yule pun was terrible and I’m not even a little sorry about it.)

Now that November’s almost through, I feel like I can talk about Yule. I confess, Yule isn’t my favorite holiday — like a lot of other witches, Samhain’s more my jam. Still, there’s a lot to love about winter, from bundling up with my partner, my cats, a cup of star anise tea, and a fuzzy blanket, to visiting the National Arboretum and Rock Creek Park to take in all of the things nature hides under the greens of spring and summer. (I’m a sucker for watching fluffy little titmice puffing themselves up in red-berried hawthorn boughs. They’re so freaking cute, they’re basically alive Pokémon.)

winterthings

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As a Pagan, it can be tricky to find ways to make Yule feel special when so much of U.S. culture revolves around Christmas this time of year. So, I put together a short list of things that, to me, help make this season a little extra sweet.

(more…)

… And this is why I shouldn’t rush.

I celebrated Mabon the other day. Like most of my celebrations, it was small, short, and simple — lighting candles at my altar, sitting quietly, giving thanks, remembering the meaning of the season.

All of which are actually super difficult to do if I’m feeling anxious.

I have a tendency to try to push through things when I’m not feeling well. (Let’s be real, though. If I waited until I felt well, I’d never get anything done.) I’ve long held that rituals are not necessarily for me — true piety is observing them even when I’m not personally getting anything out of it. Prayer does not always have to be a refreshing, uplifting experience to have value. Sometimes even meditation is difficult work, but it’s work that I have to do.

The thing is, the ritual structure I follow has a kind of built-in way to tell if I’ve completely effed it or not. Tripped over my words too badly? I’ll get told. Unacceptable offering? Oh, I’ll hear about it. This isn’t something that’s been a problem before, luckily — even when my offerings have been small and simple, I’ve always been given signs that they were good enough.

It doesn’t help that it’s a structure I’m not entirely familiar with yet. It’s a bit more complex than what I used for most of my life (read: winging it), and the formality of it trips me up on occasion. To be honest, if you had come to me a little over a year ago and said I’d be doing things this way, I probably would have asked what you were smoking.
I digress, though. That’s a story for another time.

Anyway, for this ritual, I was confident! I had these fancy little cakes, I placed them in the offering bowls, I sat and said the words… and I rushed through them because holy butts anxiety sucks super hard and I felt like I was about to die.

And then came the divination.

I use tarot cards for the divination portion of my rituals. The particular deck I use (the Animalis Os Fortuna deck) is pretty helpful here. In addition to standard tarot meanings, the animal imagery of this deck gives it extra layers of meaning that allow the cards to be interpreted in a way that’s more conducive to this particular type of ritual divination.So I shuffled, drew, and…

Not only did I get called out, I got called out with The Moon. The warning, anxiety-indicating Moon, of all things. Like a big, black-and-white finger pointing right at my clenched hands and racing heart and going, “WTF?”

Crap.

I concluded the ritual, now wondering what I’d done. Sure, I had tripped over my words, but corrected myself. I’d said the wrong words at some points, but corrected that, too. But, while I’d been willing to offer fancy cakes, there were two things an impending anxiety attack kept me from offering — my attention, and my time.

I ate something, drank a little water, and waited for the feeling to pass, resigned now to having to repeat the ritual. I had no cakes to offer this time, just clean water and some sweet oil. But I took my time, I spoke well, and I let the anxious feelings dissipate.

And this time, even with my offerings as simple as they were, it was accepted.

There is no physical offering valuable enough to make up for an unwillingness to give my time and attention.