The ancestors and the dead are much on my mind these last few days. This is coming up in so many ways.
For one thing, I just began reading Micheal W. Twitty’s book, The Cooking Gene, which I ordered after reading one of his articles (he writes for The Guardian, among other places). In this book, Twitty explores his ancestry, the connections between American culinary history and chattel slavery, and foods of “the South” (there are many “Souths” and many layers to each). This book is too deep and complex for me to describe it in any way that does justice to it. Just know that it is amazing and we should all buy and read it. (I’m also giving a copy to my youngest son, an aspiring chef.)
This morning I also read an article published in Nov. 2018 in Borderlands (an e-journal): “Mimicry, Mockery and Menace in Swedish International Adoption Narratives,” by Richey Wyver, a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Auckland. The author states:
“I will examine the process of the construction of the international transracial adoptee as a ‘mimic’ Swede in adoption narratives, and discuss what this mimic identity entails and implies.”
It’s the cruel predicament of the “mimic identity” with all its colonial and racist impositions, as inflicted on foreign adopted children, that makes me wonder if Daniel Foor’s teachings of “ancestral medicine” could be one way some adult adoptees could deal with the emotional impacts of the conditions described in the article. (This train of thought, however, was not within the scope of the article.)
Descendents Also Make Me Think of Ancestors
My two children have their birthdays in the next week and a half. One will turn twenty-three and the eldest will turn thirty. When I was pregnant with my oldest child, I became passionate about genealogy. There was something about gestation that made me long for “roots.” I also wanted to find out more about my own father, a mysterious and elusive “deadbeat dad” (now among the ancestors himself). I spent many hours at the Sutro Library in San Francisco. I tracked some of my father’s movements through city directories of San Diego and Honolulu. I also discovered my connection to many New England families, especially around Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire.
The good news: it was a lot easier to research my family tree as so much has been done already. (New Englanders seem quite obsessed with ancestry.) The bad news: a direct line to family histories of slave ownership and/or economic benefits from chattel slave economy via cotton trade in the North, as well as complicity in the displacement and genocide of First Peoples. (I’d figured this out in a general way, much earlier in my life, so this wasn’t a complete shock. But now this is more “up close and personal.”)
Every person alive has a complex ancestral history, with villains, heroes, “nobility” and “peasants,” family feuds and bitter wars, all rolled into the coils of their DNA. Our ancestral memories are nightmares. My Scottish Highland ancestors were persecuted by my English ones. Ditto for the Irish and the Welsh. My English ancestors may have suffered at the hands of the Norse ones. How many ancestors died in plague epidemics, wars, and childbirth? And certainly my more recent ancestors were active participants one of the cruelest periods of history–one that is still ongoing.
So while I delight in finding new names for my family tree, it is the delight of a satisfied sleuth, not the delighted pride of ancestry (except for a possible link to Alfonso the Slobberer, a King of Spain, whose nickname does make for a good story…).
So this brings me back again to “ancestral medicine,” a method of healing lineages. The first key premise is that the dead can change, but only with the help of ancient, robust ancestors who are “well and fully seated” (Foor’s language). The other key premise is that the dead can and do enjoy contact with us, the living.
In the method Foor teaches, we begin with a meditative effort to connect with one or more of those fully seated ones. We then ask for help and healing for the lineage, and protection for ourselves while it’s done. We begin to nurture our ties with our ancestors by making offerings or simply talking. We also get out of the way so the wise and ancient ones can bring their healing forward through generations of descendents, all the way to the living and our own descendents. And we continue to nurture our ancestral relationships.
It’s pretty simple and straightforward. One of the beauties is that I don’t have to deal directly with my late father, and you don’t have to deal with your abusive Uncle Roger (or whomever). We can leapfrog over contact with the slave owners and Indian killers–we know they are there–but we don’t have to try to heal their sickness ourselves. We let the wiser ones deal with that. In time, and with our prayers, offerings, and nurturing of ancestral relationships, the ancient ones facilitate a process of (what I imagine is) some kind of responsibility, reconciliation, restitution, forgiveness, and peace.
My Own Lineages
In the last two years, I’ve completed work with three out of my first four lineages (with another four to go). My father’s father’s line (James Marsh, 1854-1938) was the first, and I have to say, is my favorite so far (which surprised me no end). This is the lineage of the “Bright Fathers”–going way back with a sort of flavor that might be Welsh, might be Norse, but is undoubtedly a mixture of all sorts of ancestors. There is a feeling of well-lit halls, feasting, music, jokes, and hardiness. I know, it sounds somewhat stereotypical, but that’s how the first willing ancestor appeared to me. Actually, he wasn’t the “first” I contacted in a light trance. There was a rather dour figure who just pointed me on my way before I “met” up with the Bright Father figure. The dour figure seemed almost “on watch.”
My mother’s mother’s line (Bessie Edmonds Rowell, 1875-1928) came next. In a light guided visualization, I “met” a cluster of fairly silent “River Women” in a landscape of high, mostly unforested hills. Of course, there was a river, and there was a sense of knowledge of water birds and riparian herbs, and the lessons of moving water, but the River Women are not very communicative yet. That’s okay. I haven’t asked them for much either, but I feel comforted by their presence.
The “Watchers and Archers” of my mother’s father’s line (Swift Milne, 1878-1913) were men of the forest. They felt quite ancient, perhaps Pictish, perhaps not. When I first connected with them, one shot an arrow which landed next to me. By picking it up, I signaled that I was asking for communication. This lineage contains some major trauma: my grandfather’s brain tumor, caused by watching the first nuclear explosion at Bikini Atoll; and Swift Milne’s death in the great flu epidemic of 1918. The women and children who survived these deaths had a hard time.
The line now in progress is my father’s mother’s line (Francis Kerwin, 1878 or 79-1953), part of my Irish heritage. I haven’t put in much time with this lineage lately, though I honor it with the all others in my daily rituals. Mostly what I’ve sensed here so far are green hills, standing stones, small houses, and an old woman who flicks away troubles with her cleaning rag. She’s rather “no-nonsense.” There is also a connection to the Celtic Brigid/Brigit, either as her earlier pagan self or later Christian saint or both.
Of the remaining lineages, two were healed without my active request, just due to their proximity to another lineage. The Bright Fathers did work that encompassed the lineage of James Marsh’s wife, Elizabeth Hutt or Houghton. And the River Women did work on the lineage of Bessie’s husband, William Fraser Rea (1876-1941). So that really just leaves me with Swift Milne’s wife, Elizabeth Harding (1880-1974) and her lineage, and the lineage of Henry Baxter Hodson (1868-1943), Francis Kerwin’s husband.
The idea is that we are less likely to unconsciously replicate family traumas and negative family patterns if we’ve accomplished healing for our ancestors. Ideally I would have done this work before having children, but of course that didn’t happen. However at this time of my life, ancestor work has become part of “getting my affairs in order.” Instead of leaving behind a “clean-looking corpse” (James Dean’s quote), I aspire to leave behind a cleaner collection of less problematic lineages so that my kids have less to deal with. It would be great if one of them got interested and began working on their father’s side too. It could happen. Foor’s book, Ancestral Medicine: Rituals for Personal and Family Healing, was recently assigned in the master’s program my oldest is attending.
Not Just One Way, But…All Our Ancestral Roads Lead Back to Africa
Every person alive today shares the mitochondrial DNA of one woman from Africa, from about 150,000 years ago. She is known as the “Mitochondrial Eve (also mt-Eve, mt-MRCA)” and “is the matrilineal most recent common ancestor (MRCA) of all currently living humans.”
And so I note that the genealogy of Daniel Foor’s teaching comes from his learning in “European pagan paths, Native American ways, Mongolian shamanism, and West African Ifá/Òrìṣà tradition” and that he is “an initiate of Ifá, Ọbàtálá, Ọ̀ṣun, and Egúngún in the lineage of Olúwo Fálolú Adésànyà Awoyadé of Òdè Rẹ́mọ and student of Yorùbá culture” (from his bio.) Africa…
Obviously the hybrid method Foor teaches isn’t the only way to connect with ancestors. Let’s swing back to Michael Twitty. In his book he combines genealogy, history, and explorations of food and old-time cooking methods. He writes:
“I dare to believe all Southerners are a family…We are the unwitting inheritors of a story with many sins that bears the fruit of the possibility of ten times the redemption. One way is through reconnection with the culinary culture of the enslaved, our common ancestors, and restoring their names on the roots of the Southern tree and the table those roots support” (preface, xvii).
If that’s not a quest for healing–ancestral healing–I don’t know what is. And here I imagine what a lovely and potent thing it could be to go as far back as our Mitochondrial Eve, and implore her good offices in sending her healing to the rest of us, her unruly children, down through the long millenia.
In addition to other practical and spiritual benefits of doing this work, I’m not likely to have grandchildren. So why not end my own ancestral story with healing of all those who have gone before, and with a healing extended to my kids, the very last descendents?