This time of year, you hear a lot about ghosts, spirits, the veil and it’s inevitable thinness… all the pagan-ish corners of the internet buzz with talk of ancestors and remembrance.
All of a sudden the banner is raised and folks go on about the value of gratitude and learning from the past, the benefit of honoring and constructing a relationship with the dead. Pictures of graveyards, skeletons, and a cascade of breads and sweets clumsily shaped into skulls fill every corner. Soon to be forgotten once more under the auspices of feasting and gaudily wrapped trees.
Death… the dying, the fallen, the departed… all carefully set into their space. Neatly labeled and given their due for a month, sometimes more, and often less…
Often these labels come with certain boundaries… intentional or not.
One of the most common restrictions you see in the modern world… across all spectrums and experiences… is the limit and arena that we will allow the experience of death to touch us.
In many instances this is a defense mechanism… death comes to all, and there is no real way to avoid it… but the realization of the human condition, the mortality of our physical being, is a tremendous weight and fear for many. It can bend and make brittle those who are not prepared to see it’s face… and without the pathways necessary to process the inevitable rush of death and decay, the mind and heart can break at the whisper of it’s approach.
And so many have constructed ritual around which they can keep their lives separate from this reality… there are holy days and ceremonies… there is a time and place to stare into the face of death… and they can mark that day how they wish and move about their daily lives content and cheerful, until their routines are once more broken by the fractures of mortal ends.
For others, there is no single day or festival that holds the entirety of Death’s bond.
We hang pictures on the wall, of all those that we’ve lost… we spend days pouring ourselves into histories and images of those we admire from history and from family records… we buy those pretty yellow pink roses because they remind us of an aunt’s smile… and we sigh content, at the waft of cigar smoke, for our cousins or fathers long past.
These are the things that have always filled my life. Ever since I was a child. It was never something that I gave conscious thought to, and when I looked through sun splashed glass and saw instead the face of my grandfather or my long dead dog gazing back through the gaps of my own reflection… well, that was just a part of living with open eyes.
It was just a part of what it meant, when I knew enough to call myself witch.
I’ve always connected with spirits, dead or otherwise, with a relative ease… those who had already passed and those who soon would be passing… it never mattered if I knew them in life… whether I knew their names… it was easy for me… like the pathways necessary to make this call or connection were something that I had already learned… something installed before I knew that I would need them…
Now enter the pagan community…
I remember reading about other people’s dealings with the dead… ancestor worship… spirit work… out in general and even a bit within my own coven… and I was always a little hesitant. They spoke with grand phrases and of vague happenings… I never knew what that meant. And so it always left me unsure of where I stood in that arena. Maybe a bit uneasy… and certainly a little intimidated… I never knew quite where to look or what to do… the terms were new to me… I was lost.
I don’t really remember what happened… or when… eventually it just sort of clicked. Up until that moment though, I always felt confused and lost. Like I had missed out on something that everyone else already knew somehow… that maybe my experience just had never crossed these paths
Eventually it became clear that what they meant, was something that I had done all along… had been doing all alone, and I just hadn’t the words to share in context with the rest of the world. It was just a part of what I did and what I was.
It seems funny now, in some ways, but there was always one outstanding idea that kept me from getting past these insecurities. When it came to the technicalities and details and specifics of workings, I was always somewhat stalled… because my family, my ancestral line even… has never been a place of safety or ease for me.
It was always the first thing I heard from anyone back then… the first thing people toss out as advice… Work first with your own people and blood lines… or that you should work exclusively with your own people… speak to those you remember or had a connection to in life… learn from your own people… not anybody else’s.
And for many reasons this will never be a legitimate avenue of practice for me.
My childhood was not an easy one. I’ve spoken of it here on the blog before, if only briefly… but we’ll skip over the childhood torments, angst, and parental hangups.
I’ve done a lot of work in my life, to move beyond much of this… it bears mentioning still, because these things never really leave us, no matter our strength or our conviction…
Over the years I’ve done a lot of work to separate myself from the trials and abuse of my childhood… to create a gap, a void from which to process and operate beyond the marks and patterns of that child… and specifically between myself and my mother… giving myself the distance of safety and comfort… giving us both relief from obligation… and so the gap that has always laid bare between myself and my family has grown broader in response.
In most ways this is fine… such repercussions were obviously expected, and in many ways it’s made things easier… I no longer need suffer guilt for my ways or my distance… or the veneer that must cover my life in order to keep from creating further disappointment or dissent.
But that which rang true before, is only made more evident…
My family by blood, in this life… my ancestors as well… have always been distant… I have always had a harder time contacting them than some others… in part, and in some instances, this is not unusual… some spirits are not as easily approached or as interested or able to contact… but in many ways it has always been more than all that.
There is a distance.
Like strangers forced together in a crowded room… they watch each other… nod… perhaps exchange pleasantries… We may exchange small talk when we do meet, but there will rarely be any actual connection…
Which brings me to a fact and very prominent facet of my reality… which I’m sure is true for many others… and that is that spirit work is not necessitated by blood.
And in most cases, I do not think that it should be.
Naturally, for many people it is. For these, the practice of ancestral work, spirit work, death work, ancestral worship… for many these things are a way to honor their family… their fallen… their personal beloved dead… their history and blood ancestors…
And for some of us… this will always be either unimportant or impossible.
This has been on my mind, loosely and in occasional fits since last winter… for in my house, Death is welcome year round, and given special honor for the whole of the dark half of the year, rather than just a night… my dead, are not over full with folks of my blood… in fact, there are remarkably few who will speak with me for much. There is no resentment, mind you… I know it occurred to a few of you looking reading this now… it’s just the way of things…
And so I get to thinking during this part of the year… when I lean in and listen to the flood of voices that grow ever more present… just who are my people?
And as I look toward plans for the Ancestral Winter Feast, I begin to draw lines… where do I turn? Who will step forward? Should any one actually get precedence over the other?
I don’t have answers just now… and I may never… I do what I do, as I am called… I am led by the feel of the thing… by the burning waters of my soul… and so in the end, that is how these matters are decided… As for all this – it felt to me, like a thing worth addressing in public. And so I have.
What about you?
Do you follow the voices that call forth from your veins and flesh?
Is it a path of family and honored history?
Or do you look elsewhere? Do you combine the lot?
Do you listen to the unnamed and unnameable hordes of the dark?
Do you grant them shelter as the nights grow long? And poor them wine by the fire?