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?”

“No.”

Is there something else I need to do?

Yes.”

Does she want to see me dance?”

Yes.”

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:

THE PROBLEM IS NOT WITH DANCING. IT NEVER HAS BEEN. THE PROBLEM IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH YOURSELF.

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.

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