Monthly Archives: February 2012

Ancestor Medicine

“The lessons we avoid in life will only come back with interest and the interest is pain.”–Ken Ludden

“As an artist, you can only ever express who you are.”–Qasim Naqvi


“Is Tilly, my maternal mother the one I am supposed to ancestralize?” I ask.

The shells are tossed and answer an emphatic yes. I am not surprised. She is the one on the other side I carry closest. 

It is believed in most traditional cultures that the relationship between the living and the dead is sacred and symbiotic, because essentially we are them. I’ve heard one woman say that we are simply ancestors in the flesh. Birth and death are two sides of the same coin: when we are born here, we die someplace else and vice versa (Malidoma Some). Just as there are people here, hopefully, waiting to receive us, there are those on the other side, hopefully, who mourn our loss. The tears we shed are like amnion for the dead.

The efforts of the living and the dead are essential to the success of a birth/death. Both side have responsibilities. One of ours is to help them transition to the ancestral realm, as they help us to transition during birth. I think it was in Malidoma’s biography Of Water and the Spirit where I read about how a child is born into the Dagara culture of Burkina Faso. Prior to the birth, a diviner consults the ancestor-waiting-to-be-born in order to determine its purpose in incarnating.

Now, many of us in modern culture are lost, searching for our purpose, melancholic and weighted down with the burden of our undelivered gifts. Can you imagine coming here and already knowing why you came? Can you imagine being named for your purpose so that you can’t forget it? Can you imagine that your community also understands your purpose and helps you fulfill it? To the western mind, this might feel like too much pressure and a lack of personal freedom, but traditional cultures are built on community. Your life is not simply yours alone and your purpose has to do with the well-being of all.

When the mother is ready to deliver, all of the children in the village gather around. As the baby’s head appears, the children start shrieking with delight and praise. Since children’s voices are the closest to the baby’s, this is a signal to the baby that they’ve arrived in the right place. It is hard for most westerners, born into cold, sterile hospitals, to imagine such a warm, beautiful, welcome. Reading this made me weep with a profound sense of loss.

Conversely, If one is not aided by the living in their death transition, well, things don’t go so good. Since modern culture has lost touch with the true essence of ritual and grief, the kind of grief “that,” as Martin Prechtel says, “makes you look bad when you’re done,”  the dead struggle, lost, purposeless on the other side. Outside of their rightful seat among the other ancestors, they are rendered powerless to help those they’ve left behind.

As above, so below. So, as a result of the improper send off of our loved-ones, well, their world and our world, which is one world, is in a creepy place. Maybe you’ve noticed. From an indigenous perspective, we cannot begin to heal the wounds of this world until we heal the connection with our ancestors. As Malidoma says, “anything we do here without the sanction of our ancestors will bear little fruit at an unbearable cost.”

All day and night, forty or so of us perform an elaborate ritual to help our deceased loved-ones cross over into the realm of the ancestors. As part of the ritual, we keep an all night vigil. Some of us gifted with sight can see their ghosts gathering around the fire as far as the eye can see. There are so many needing help. They have waited so long. At around 3am we consult the shells again to see if the ones the shells designated have made it.

“Has Tilly made it?”


Is there something else I need to do?


Does she want to see me dance?”


Great. This is the last thing I want to do. I am cold and tired, but I can’t say no to Tilly. We have come this far. I approach the fire and dance around jerkily. My mind is racing the whole time.  I’m sure this is the worst dance I’ve ever done and it’s in front of all these people. I want to give Tilly something beautiful and I’m sure I’ve failed.

The shells are consulted again. Has she made it? Yes. Well, at least my efforts were enough to get her there. Mission accomplished, but I cannot forgive myself for that awful galumphing gorilla dance. Suddenly I hear something inwardly that carries a jolt and I know I am plugged in:


Damn. Those ancestors are not wasting any time. I better hold onto my seatbelt: shattering of illusions straight ahead! The words take a minute to settle into my stomach. It’s so obvious now, so clear, I almost want to laugh. It’s one of those things that you can see in someone else, but can’t recognize from the inside.

I think back to the many years I suffered a contentious relationship with my dancing. It’s true that I often used dancing to punish myself. And then I turned around and blamed dancing and everyone in it, but it never hurt me. I hurt myself and tended to attract the energy of victimization.

Now I understand why I’ve been so blocked in renewing my life after retiring from dance: even though a new career or relationship might give me the illusion of moving forward, without this new understanding it would just be the same shit, new package. In order to move forward I would have to bring all parts of myself.

Of course this understanding, though hard, comes with a gift. Now, I can peel away another layer of healing. (I suspect this goes on forever).

“Besides, the whole tortured artist thing is so last century,” says Mr. Octopus.

Yeah. This is the age of enlightenment. You gotta get your shit together.

Gun Gun, Go Do, Pa Ta Pa Ta…

I retired from full-time dance performance almost five years ago.

“Yeah yeah yeah,” says Mr. Ocotopus.

Sorry. I tend to belabor that point on this blog. It’s a process. Anyway, most people have to face retirement eventually, but dancers, like professional athletes, are confronted with that change in life earlier than others. The questions are daunting, like the dreaded “now what?” And the “who am I without the what I do?” and the “how fat am I gonna get?”

For the dancer/athlete, these questions tend to unfortunately coincide with the mid-life crisis, thereby causing a real spiritual double-whammy. Suddenly, this vast, open space lays before you. You feel alone, lost, and for most dancers, unlike our pro-athlete brethren, without the financial means to start a chain restaurant.

Also, probably like most, I was in a state of mourning and spiritually sick. My pain guided me to seek healing. But once I was more or less back on my feet, I still had to face the void, egads. Some vague notion of home flitted through my memory-bones. I looked to art. I looked to Africa. Something in the sound of the drum said yes to me in the places that hurt and I suspect that is true for us all.

Most recently, I picked up a drum and started to play. To my dismay, the rhythms of the mother-land did not flow effortlessly from my fingertips. Who did I think I was just because I have some Nigerian blood in me? There are no unearned advantages in life regardless of how things may appear. Not for the really hard stuff anyway, like loss or mastery for that matter.

So, here I am, a beginner again. It’s  not so bad. I like my new teacher and my husband comes to classes with me. We practice to the dismay of our neighbors. Sometimes in class, my teacher, knowing I am a dancer, will ask me to dance while he plays and I am honored to oblige. In those moments, dancing is in its right place, free from the stress, pressure and fear that I often performed under as a professional.

The teacher of this class, Wole Alade, is a spiritual being in his own right. He has shown me that the place I seek is inside of myself. I know that may sound like a spiritual platitude, or simply obvious, but it’s also easier said than done. How many of us can claim the home inside ourselves? How many of us can really sit in it and not be led astray by the seductive glamour of this world?

Looking back now,  I can see more clearly how our gift can be our greatest challenge, how our challenge can be our greatest gift, how our pain can be our salvation by pointing us in the right direction. Even the ego, that part of our humaness that so many teachers of spirituality disparage, has its role to play.

It is the very thing that brings validity to love.

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