December 1, 2008

What to say and how to say it. Who to ask and what to ask them.

Intuition is one thing, but right from the start I’ve known that this work was too important to leave to the whims of my intuition. Without my own cultural traditions to fall back on, I’d combed the anthropological literature for resonant beliefs and practices. Through my travels, I sought counsel from others who recognised that working with the ancestors meant calling on forces that can have powerful influence on both the spiritual and physical well-being of the living; forces my culture barely recognises as real and seems not to fully understand. Along the way, much of what I’d come to intuitively had been fortified: countless others – like me – have felt inspired to leave messages in stone for their ancestors; countless others have spoken, or sung invitations, acknowledgements and apologies to their ancestors to establish a habit of interaction and attention (and to make amends for past neglect); countless others celebrate their relationship to their ancestors via a ceremony or feast.

Creating a feast, seemed the right thing to do. Jim and I decided, that once the stone was in place we would dedicate it with a feast held for our ancestors. The timing seemed auspicious: I would finished carving the petroglyph just a week before Samhain/All Souls/Day of the Dead. The night of Oct 31st figures largely in many traditions, so we decided it felt right for us, too. I set about planning the event – though felt something was missing: I wanted to speak to my ancestors, but I didn’t know what to say...or how to say it. While I’ve felt a deeply driven longing to connect with the spirits of my ancestors, I have also felt a degree of fear about unleashing forces or mis-managing forces I don’t completely undertand. I wanted to speak to my ancestors, but unclear about what I should say...or how I should say it. Much of what I’d heard or read about talking with the ancestors had to do with placating them – so as not to arouse their capricious anger - or asking them for help in the day to day affairs of the living. Neither resonated with me. I hadn’t felt victimised by ancestral pranks, nor was there anything I wanted from my ancestors, I wanted only to say, “Here I am. I am your descendant and this is my son. I’m sorry I haven’t properly acknowledged you before now. I promise to do better.” I just didn’t know how. I’d also come to consider whether there was a proper way to draw the ancestors to me... and as well, to lead them away again.

I thought again about Sal and Flo Yepa and felt – more than ever – a need for their wise and practiced counsel. Sal and Flo are two of the gentlest, most generous and most graceful people I’ve ever met. Their understanding of the sacred nature of the world springs directly from their Puebloan culture and is honed through daily practice and attendance to the spirits in everything around them. I called them and Jim and I headed off to visit them in New Mexico.

When we arrived, Sal was alone. Flo had gone to Albuquerque for an appointment she'd had to keep. We sat down in their kitchen and Sal offered us breakfast –coffee, fresh tortillas and fried eggs with the most delicious chile I’ve ever eaten. We chatted while he cooked, then he sat down and asked me what I’d been doing. I told him briefly about my research and my questions: How should I talk with the ancestors, what should I say? Sal’s cousin came in and our talk flowed naturally to other things – daily life, struggles, gratitude, evolution - what changes and what doesn’t.

After his cousin left, Sal said that he wanted to take us somewhere. We drove up along the side of a steep canyon and Sal pointed to a mountain where his ancestors had lived thousands of years ago until they’d been driven out by an enemy tribe. Sal then pointed to another mountain that had been their next tribal home - one that had lasted until the Spanish came. Sal told us that there were still the remains of structures and numerous artifacts scattered across the mountain top. I was struck by the power of living in a place where the landscape around you was one that illustrated your ancestral story: how different my experience of place – and of home – that is. We came to a waterfall and Sal told us to stop. He said that this place was very special to him. It was the place where he and Flo had fallen in love and where they'd often come when they were troubled and felt the need for guidance. It was a beautiful place of deeply cut red rock and powerful, rushing water: a sound that always quiets me. Jim scrambled down to the river's edge and Sal sat down on a large boulder overhanging the canyon. He motioned me to sit next to him and helped me over the rocks. We quietly sat for a moment and then he simply turned to me and said, “Just talk to your ancestors the way you talk to me. Tell them what’s in your heart. It will be right” I was struck by how simple and matter-of-fact his answer was. I asked him how I should call the ancestors to come to me and he said that when it’s time for their annual ancestor feast, he and Flo travel to the highest point in the Pueblo at dawn with offerings of corn seed and pollen (traditional sacred offerings in Puebloan culture) and simply invite their ancestors to follow them home. Once home again, the ancestors are invited to sit at a special table Flo has prepared for them and are served the first portions of favourite foods. I told Sal I was concerned about calling the spirits to me without knowing what I should do after that and he nodded his head in approval. He told me that the feast table is left overnight, but the next morning all foods are removed and that the table and settings are stored away. A mixture of cornmeal and honey is then prepared and used to lead the ancestors away and back up the mountain again where they are thanked and bid farewell. Sal’s advice made me feel calm. That my questions had clear and practical answers, let me know that they were the right questions to ask and that my intuition was still serving me well – both in regards to what I should ask and where I should go to find the answers.
On our way back to Ft. Collins, we stopped at a quite amazing place - The Garden of the Gods (in southern Colorado near Colorado Springs).


ibu kate said...

Ah Sandy. So good to have good internet connection and time to read your blog again. I know the 'what to do when I get there?' question has been with you ever since you left and it is so good to know there's clarity and certainty.

I feel like I'm reading the second last chapter of a novel (just before the climax). And in two weeks I'll get to meet the author in person!!!

21st Century Pilgrim's Progress said...

Can't wait to see you, too. You're one of my most important WA 'peeps'and I won't be completely home until I get to see you again!