Death & Life & Babies & Grief & Soul Connections and, mostly, Love

Today would have been my mom's 65th birthday. It's her first birthday since she passed in a car accident, her first birthday as an Ancestor, her first birthday dead.

Today is the day I share with you all that I am pregnant with my second baby, almost exactly 10 years after my first.

This is the story of the overlap of two souls, of the grief & joy that haunt our fragile human lives, of the meaning I'm carving out of these two unexpected and overwhelmingly life-shifting experiences.

My mom, my sister Lacey, me & baby Mycelia, and my grandmother Memere during my first pregnancy 10 years ago.

My mom, my sister Lacey, me & baby Mycelia, and my grandmother Memere during my first pregnancy 10 years ago.

On November 27th, 2015, the blackest of Black Fridays, my beautiful and beloved mama, Janis Hill, died in a car accident on her way home from work. She was my best friend and biggest supporter, the most loving, fun, and easy-going person I ever knew, and the best Grammy my daughter Mycelia could ask for.

This isn't one of those things when people elevate someone to the status of saint after they've died- my sister and I always knew we had the best mom. As my ex-boyfriend said, "That was the only memorial service I've ever been at where all the nice things everyone said was true." My ex, whom my mom checked in on via text every now and then, because she was the kind of person who made friends everywhere and never lost them.

There were 350 people at her Celebration of Life & Love, many of whom had driven in to my hometown of South Lake Tahoe from out of town on a snowy December day. I spoke, my nine-year-old daughter spoke, and my mom's husband led everyone in a jubilant clapping and cheering session, singing out our love to her and allowing us all to physically and vocally move the grief through our bodies in the company of other people who loved her just as much. It was my favorite part of the service, and I've included the audio file below. Dave's cheer starts at 31:10; Mycelia's & my part starts at 42:00. Listening back, my favorite part is the story I share about how mom would trick my dad into thinking she was spanking us when she really wasn't. 

(Aside: I wasn't sure if anyone would actually listen to this recording, but it's the next day and I've heard from a few who listened all the way through and were moved to tears. So I feel compelled to share that the strong Christian overtones shared by some people at my mom's service had not been relevant to her life for almost 20 years. We all had fond memories of the church she'd raised us in, and still love the pastor, so we chose to have the service there. My mom, sister, and myself love people and the world and maybe even something like God, but we long ago stopped believing that the only way to live a good life or maybe a good afterlife is to pledge allegiance to one man, one belief system, one myth among thousands. When someone dies, people turn hard to whatever comforts them, and many people chose to ignore my mom's gentle extraction from the faith when they spoke of her after her death.)

Ever since I was really little, I've been afraid that my mom would die in a car accident coming home from work.

She and my dad met and worked at Harrah's Lake Tahoe in the late 70's. After my sister Lacey and I were born in the early 80's, he worked day shift and she worked swing shift, so that one of them would always be home with us. She worked 6pm-2am, and I'd lay in bed worrying about her driving home in the snow at night. Sometimes I'd work myself into such a frenzy that I'd start sobbing. It was "anticipatory grief" without having any proof that it would ever actually happen (that phrase usually being applied to someone whose loved one is dying from an extended illness).

And yet, my premonition was right. At the time of her death my mom had 6 weeks of work left at Harrah's, after almost 40 years. I had almost completely stopped indulging my old fear. Almost.

During our last phone conversation, two days before her accident, after we solidified our Xmas plans, I said to her, "I can't wait until you're done with that job and don't have to make that drive anymore." She felt the same way. (Ever since she'd moved out of Tahoe and over the hill to Gardnerville, NV, I'd hated the long commute she had to make twice a day. A massive, steep mountain called Kingsbury Grade is the shortest route, and it's terrifying in the wintertime.)

Me and my sister and mom were all texting in our years-long ongoing text thread five minutes before she died. She was parked after having dropped off the co-worker she'd carpooled with. She was about 10 minutes from home. Her last text said we'd all talk on the phone after she got home and settled in. (My alcoholic father, who she'd left over 10 years before, wasn't doing well and Lacey and I wanted to talk about what to do about him. She had been supporting us as we dealt with his alcoholism for years. He ended up going into the hospital that same night, though we didn't know until the next morning. It was two weeks before he detoxed enough in the ICU for us to be able to tell him mom had died).

About 10 minutes after receiving her last text, when she had just died but I didn't know it, I suddenly thought about an audio recording I'd taken of her & my daughter laughing like maniacs the last time she'd stayed at my house, two months before. I brought it up on my phone and played it for Mycelia. We laughed and talked about the special dynamic they shared- ever since Mycie was a toddler their main thing had been doing whatever they could to make one another laugh.

I caller her a number of times after tucking Mycie into bed that night. The phone rang twice, made a weird noise, and the call dropped.

Somehow, by some grace, despite my lifelong fear, it didn't occur to me that maybe something was wrong. She was already over the mountain when she texted last, so close to home. She'd get in touch tomorrow and tell me that she'd dropped her phone in the toilet or something.

So I wasn't surprised when I woke up early the next morning, turned my phone on, and saw a voicemail from her husband Dave's phone. It would be her, explaining why she hadn't answered or called me last night.

But it wasn't. It was him. From 11pm the night before. 

There was an accident. Your mom... didn't make it.

We always took a Four Generations photo when we were together, starting here a few days after Mycelia's birth.

We always took a Four Generations photo when we were together, starting here a few days after Mycelia's birth.

It's hard to explain what happened inside me the moment I heard those words. It wasn't an immediate, resounding NOOOO like people so often report, like I'd always imagined it would be. There was a feeling of, "And so it has happened, it has finally come to pass." An instant small acceptance, because I'd expected it for so long. As with the car accident Mycie and I were in when she was 3 (which I wrote about in Unexpected Healing: Past Trauma & Cellular Release), I went right into a very logical, get shit done, mental state before I fell apart and felt the full impact of what had happened.

And anyway, I couldn't start grieving, feeling, crying until I'd called Dave back and heard it again, live, made sure it wasn't a mistake, and found out exactly what happened.

He answered immediately. He hadn't slept at all. 

She'd been at a main intersection at about 6:30pm, on Mottsville Ln. about to cross Highway 88 there in Gardnerville. An intersection she driven through twice a day, five days a week, for years. An intersection that usually has stoplights in place. But that day, just a few hours earlier, unbeknownst to her, an accident had occurred there that took the stoplights out.

This next paragraph contains information obtained from speaking to the investigating officer and from newspaper reports (I've given enough key words in this post that you can google and read more about the accident if you want to. I wouldn't begrudge you it. I'm always curious about these things and, in fact, have obsessed even more about the details of other people's tragedies since this happened. I can't read these articles about her accident myself, because I know that a terrible picture of her car accompanies them, and I am not now and may never be ready to see that).

The official accident report has still not been released, over three months later. But to the best of my knowledge, this is what happened...

The Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) and the police were on scene after the first accident (in which no one was killed), directing traffic. For reasons that the official report will reveal soon, they left when night fell, without having replaced the lights or leaving any emergency lighting in place at this major highway intersection the day after Thanksgiving. Instead, they left three foot tall stop signs in place.

In the hour since it had gotten dark, multiple people had called 911 to report the dangerous conditions, saying that the stop signs were not visible.

My mom had been in a fender bender a couple months before that somehow totaled the car she'd had for years. She'd gotten a new one, but had been afraid to drive it to work (unsure how it would handle the climb over the mountain in winter weather), and had been driving her husband Dave's car to work. But that day, she finally drove her new car. The car she'd been afraid to drive to work in. The car she died in.

As she approached the intersection in her new car and came to a stop (no doubt noticing that the lights were out but feeling familiar enough with the intersection that she wasn't worried), a young woman named Holly who was unfamiliar with the area was coming from her left, driving on Highway 88. Two cars were in the right-turning lane going the same direction as Holly, blocking the view of Holly's car from my mom's perspective as my mom pulled forward.

Holly was not speeding, intoxicated, or texting. She is just as much a victim of NDOT's negligence as my mom is. 

Her car T-boned my mom's, colliding directly into the driver's side door. Together the cars hurtled forward until they hit another car stopped at the stop sign opposite Holly's, opposite the sign Holly couldn't see because it was too low, unlit, and the two cars waiting to turn right going her direction were blocking them.

The Four Generations some time in 2007.

The Four Generations some time in 2007.

They say my mom died instantly. It makes sense that she would have, the impact was so severe. The cops gave Dave everything she'd had with her that night, and Lacey and I found the heart shaped cheap metal earrings she'd been wearing. One of them was severely bent. 

It is very likely that she never saw it coming, and in that it was kind of the ideal death. But that hasn't stopped my mind from, when I am in my darkest places, obsessing over the moment of impact, playing it over and over again in my mind, wondering if it was painful or scary for her. Those have been my worst moments through all of this, especially because of my childhood fear.

But that morning, as Dave told me the few details he knew, my mind hadn't gone there yet. I wanted to know- did Lacey know yet? No, he wanted me to be the one to tell her. Did Memere know yet? Memere (pronounced Mimay; it's the French-Canadian word for Grandma) is my mom's mom. They talked on the phone every single day. She was a couple weeks away from turning 94. We were all going to get together to celebrate her birthday on December 12th, but instead we got together for my mom's memorial service that day.

Yes, Memere knew. Unlike me and Lacey, lucky in our ignorant bliss the night before (me hanging with my daughter and finishing reading a novel in the bath, Lacey out at dinner with her boyfriend and friends), Dave and Memere and my Uncle Charlie (my mom's brother who lives with Memere) knew something was wrong. Dave knew that his wife hadn't come home when she should have, and Memere knew that her daughter hadn't called at her usual time.

They started calling each other around 8. And of course they called my mom many times- going through her phone weeks later and seeing their texts and hearing their voicemails was beyond heartbreaking. Then Dave called hospitals and the police. They told him nothing, though the police certainly knew by then. The accident was big news in that sleepy town. 

Finally, at about 10:30, a knock at the door. 

Dave says he knew right away what it meant. Two officers stood there. When they left half an hour later, he knew that mom had been pronounced dead at the scene and was on her way to the coroner, and he had a small cache of her personal items they'd taken out of the vehicle.

Memere called as the cops were leaving, and he told her. All three of them were up all night in shock and grief, after hours of anguish. Going through all that was always part of my fear fantasy as a child- the waiting, worrying, knowing something was wrong. I hate it so much that they lived through that. And I am so selfishly grateful that I was spared it. I think it would have made the whole thing much, much harder for me.

When he hung up with Memere Dave called and left the voicemail. (In case you're wondering, I am not at all miffed that he told me via voicemail. I much preferred hearing the whole truth right away, rather than "There was an accident... call me." And I understand that he was deep in shock at the moment and was focused on conveying this information to me as soon as possible).

The first two hours after I heard were so hard, because Lacey didn't know yet, and she was sleeping in. I called a hundred times. I couldn't relax or fully drop into my feelings until my sister knew.

Which is not to say that I wasn't already grieving by then; I was a mess. My boyfriend Owen and Mycie were with me, and Mycie and I were crying together on the couch while I tried (and failed) to eat the food Owen had brought.

I finally got Lacey. She'd seen all my missed calls and assumed something had happened with dad (which it also had, but we didn't know it yet). I knew that would happen, so I told her immediately in the most direct way I could- Mom died in a car accident last night. She thanked me later for telling her that way, for not dragging it out, even by a few microseconds.

Unlike my reaction, she immediately started wailing, and interspersed with her questions over the next 10 minutes she kept saying, "I can't feel my body, I can't feel my body."

A friend called soon after that and asked through tears, "Is it true?" I said, "Didn't Lacey tell you?" "No," she said, "I saw it on Facebook."

A friend of my mom's had already posted and had tagged her in his post. He apologized later that day and said he hadn't understood that it was tagging her, thought that only close friends of theirs could see it; I believe him and have no hard feelings about it.

But it did immediately put me in a place where I needed to craft a Facebook post so that our important people would hear it from us first. By then I'd called all the family and close friends, and felt ready to make the public announcement.

Even though it was only a few hours after finding out, it felt good to immediately connect with so many people who loved her and for Lacey and Dave and I to receive such a strong outpouring of love and support. Times like that, I really love social media. It helped me so much in those initial weeks of shock and overwhelming grief.

Oh, hey, it's us again.

Oh, hey, it's us again.

I wanna go back now to early November 2015, 2-3 weeks before my mom died. It was the New Moon in Scorpio, and Owen and I spent the day together. We'd been together 2.5 years and had talked a few times about having a baby, but always ended up deciding not to. We have my daughter, and just sort of thought we'd save our time and money and energy for the three of us.

But somehow, by the end of that day, we'd had a spontaneous series of conversations that ended with us deciding to start building a life together that could support a child in a couple of years. I went to a New Moon ritual that night hosted by the ladies of Holy Sponge, and everything that came up for me there supported this decision. The themes of that dark, powerful night for me were ancestry, death, and motherhood. I spoke those words aloud a number of times.

Over the next few days Owen and I revisited this new baby idea, and it solidified. We would have a child.

I wasn't sure if I should tell my mom or not. I told her everything, but I knew there was literally nothing she wanted more than for me to give her another grandbaby (Lacey decided long ago that motherhood wasn't her path), and I didn't want to get her hopes up in case it somehow didn't happen. After her imminent retirement she and Dave were going to move here to Grass Valley/Nevada City to be closer to us. We were all sooooo excited about this, and the prospect of a new baby would make it even more exciting for everyone. If I told her, I couldn't let her down.

I told her. I called her and told her. And she was just as happy as I knew she would be. I didn't know that it would be one of our last conversations, but I knew it was one of our happiest. 

And it means so, so much to me that she carried that happy news with her the last two weeks of her life. 

This is my mom's face a few hours after Mycelia was born in 2006. This is how happy my having babies made her.

This is my mom's face a few hours after Mycelia was born in 2006. This is how happy my having babies made her.

The first few days after my mom's death I felt strongly that her passing was even more reason for us to have a baby, to bring more life into and create more love within the world.

But soon after that it shifted for me- my mom moving here was such a big part of why I felt that I was capable of having another child. I had so little support the first time around; it would be a totally different experience with a loving caregiver who wanted nothing more than to be involved and helping.

It made me so sad to think of experiencing all that joy and not having her here to share it with.

Owen understood, and supported me in taking as much time as I needed to settle into this new reality and decide how we would move forward.

So, when I ovulated around the Winter Solstice, my first ovulation since my mom's passing, we used a condom.

And I got pregnant. 

I saw the positive result on the pregnancy test on January 3rd, and sobbed my eyeballs raw for 20 minutes, saying "oh my god oh my god oh my god" out loud. It felt like just as much as a shock as getting the news that my mom had died, but tinged with joy and awe instead of devastation and despair.

It, of course, feels so meaningfully connected to my mom. I thanked her over and over, and I remember pleading with her, "Please let me keep it."

I had a miscarriage 7 years ago, and my mom's death made it so real to me that loss happens. I was afraid that I'd lose the baby and that if that happened I'd of course find it significant in a heartbreaking way- it wasn't meant to be after all, this baby isn't spiritually connected to my mom and her passing, I am not supposed to have happiness in my life again.

Fortunately/unfortunately, the strong nausea, frequent vomiting, and extremely tender breasts told me throughout the first trimester that the baby was sticking around.

We finally heard the heartbeat two days ago, right as I hit the second trimester, and I am so happy to finally be sharing this news with everyone. It's real, I really am going to have a baby. I wanted it, then I didn't want it, but always I really did, and even though we "took precautions" we got pregnant, immediately after my mom's death.

Her soul left, this soul entered.

Try as I might in this post, I can never put into words the emotions I've felt these last three months. I could write forever and ever about how it feels to lose my mama, and about how it feels to be having a baby again almost exactly ten years after my first (babe is due three weeks after Mycelia turns ten), but no writing can capture the breadth of these totally unexpected turns my life has taken.

I feel grateful, joyful, terrified, excited, devastated, overwhelmed, worried, and full of love. I can't believe I'm going through all of this without my mom being a phone call away, and yet I wouldn't be going through it at all- not in this specific way at this specific time- if she hadn't died.

I feel like this baby is her parting gift to me, to her other daughter, to her granddaughter, to her mother, to everyone. I feel her so much in all of it. Some days I feel like I haven't really lost anything at all, because we shared so much love and she gave me such a solid foundation in this life.

And it's not just a bullshit saying- those things truly can't be lost. They're mine forever, and they are just as real now as they were when she was embodied here on Earth next to me. I haven't lost her love at all.

But some days I do feel like I've lost everything. It seems unfathomable to me that the most important person for most of my life is gone, that my oldest fear came true. Until very recently I secretly believed that it was still possible that this was all a mistake, that she'd be calling me soon with some crazy story of where she'd been all this time. We texted every single day, and I still look to my phone expecting to see her name there.

The hardest part now that the shock has worn off is, of course, how badly I want to be able to call her and share each little step on my pregnancy journey with her. I completely fell apart in the car after hearing the heartbeat at the midwives two days ago, because that heartbeat made this pregnancy real, and I was finally confronted with a future of infinite moments where my impulse will be to tell my mom some funny or exciting or scary news about her grandchild and I won't be able to.

And yet. I don't doubt for a second that she's part of this. I'm learning to navigate our new relationship. With me here, in this body she gave me, this body she birthed. With her there. With this new baby who, hey, is maybe part of her spirit in some way, in my body, waiting to be birthed.

If you've read my unassisted birth story, Matrilineal Love, you know that I was stuck in my labor (with only Mycelia's dad present) until my mom and Memere showed up. And then the thought that the woman who gave birth to me was standing next to me, and the woman who gave birth to her was standing next to her, and envisioning that line extending backward indefinitely in time, gave me the strength I needed to finally push my own daughter out.

Uncle Charlie, Papa Owen, me & new babe, Memere, Lace, and Mycie, taken today as we got together to celebrate my mom's birthday

Uncle Charlie, Papa Owen, me & new babe, Memere, Lace, and Mycie, taken today as we got together to celebrate my mom's birthday

I told her many times that if I had another one, I'd want her there at the birth from the very beginning. No one brought me more comfort just by their mere presence, and I felt safe whenever she was with me.

I don't know how I'm going to do this without her, all of it, any of it, but I am. I have so many people still and so much love.

And I have her too, I'll always have her.

Happy Birthday Mama. You're gonna have another grandbaby! We love you. Thank you.

The Deepest Magic: To Know Yourself, Know Your Ancestors

*Updated with new info Spring 2019*

I wrote this less than a month before my mama died in a car accident, after which I immediately got pregnant. That experience enhanced the way I view the march of generations and the connections between souls separated by time. You can read my blog post about all of that here.

But stand brave, life-liver,

Bleeding out your days

in the river of time;

Stand brave:

Time moves both ways.

-Joanna Newsom

(image source unknown)

(image source unknown)

You come from a long line of healers, midwives, songstresses, herbalists, dancers, birth-givers, artists, and wise women. 

You are a direct descendent of powerful visionaries and earthwise geniuses, and their ancient knowing resonates today deep in your marrow.

These are not empty platitudes or the wishful thinking of modern spiritual yearners; these statements are genealogical fact.

You have billions upon billions of ancestors, who lived at all times and in many places across the globe. The human species evolved over millions of years and took many paths to spread out across the planet.

You need not know the specifics of who they were, where they lived, or what they did. In fact, you will never know the concrete facts about the lives of 99.99% of your ancestors.

They are lost to history, because they lived in prehistory.

They lived in a time when everyone was in a state of constant direct communion with the earth and sky, with the animals and herbs, with the water and weather. They couldn’t survive otherwise.

They lived in a time when knowledge of the body- the magic of healing and the holiness of sex and the miracle of birth and the necessity of death- was held by every member of the tribe. They couldn’t thrive otherwise.

They lived in a time when reverence and a sense of the sacred spoke to them in hallowed whispers throughout the mundane tasks of daily life. They couldn’t find meaning in the universe otherwise. 

Today many of us ache for these old ways, yearn for the wisdom that seems so inaccessible to us in our denatured, hyper-speed modern life.

The dearth of this once commonplace wisdom has led to a craving in our culture so intense that it leads many to embrace nonsense, sometimes dangerous, teachings in an attempt to feel connected to something, anything, sacred.

This need not be the case. For those of us who hunger for a deeper spirituality, the simplest, realest, most powerful, and most personally meaningful way to find it is to find our ancestors. Everyone I talk to who has engaged in any sort of ancestral work has found it to be the most important source of connection, reverence, and wisdom in their lives. 

There is a reason that every indigenous culture on earth practices what anthropologists call “ancestor worship;” the spiritual imprint of those who came before us in our bloodline resonates more strongly within the molecules of our bodies than any other source of knowing, being, or loving.

Our ancestors shared our same genetic blueprint and the physical and non-physical gifts & foibles that shape our lives today. Even though we’ve never met in the physical plane, we understand our family on a soul level, and can communicate there as well.

These people once lived and breathed, just like we do now. They know what it is to be embodied, they gained a lifetime of wisdom, they’ve experienced the portal of death, and have graduated to the other side. 

From there, they continue to influence our lives. I’ve found that connecting and communing with my ancestors is much easier than I’d imagined. They want us to reach out. Just as when they were living, they are still deeply entwined with and concerned with the fate of their descendants. They are our kin, they are us, and they are our surest path to self-knowledge.

Here are three ways to connect with your ancestry:

 

1. Recent Genealogy-

 

This is how you can get to know the .01% of your ancestors who left written records, the ones closest to you in time, the ones you may have known in this life. Start by talking to the oldest living member/s of your family or anyone who knew them. You want two pieces of information from them- all of the names and dates you can get (full names, maiden names, birth and death dates and places) and any stories they may be able to tell.

The stories will give you insight into your own life and the human condition, and if you’re lucky will carry you through joyful and tough times for the rest of your life. Even if the stories aren’t all that meaningful, they will at least give you a glimpse of who these people who made you were.

The names and dates will get you started on ancestry.com. At this point, decades after it was founded, hundreds of your ancestors have already been input into the databases at ancestry.com by other descendants of theirs (your many heretofore unknown cousins!), and the company has uploaded millions of files and documents and sometimes photos related to those who lived in the past. 

Once you input the names of your closest ancestors- parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc.- those who came before them will magically start to fill in on the higher branches of your family tree. What used to take people many hours of travel and searching through musty library stacks and filling in family trees by hand is now available at our fingertips with a few strokes of the keyboard.

Learning about your recent ancestors on the internet is easy and deeply fulfilling (I dare you to start digging into your roots and not become completely fascinated and totally obsessed), and modern technology has also made uncovering your deep ancestry possible. 

The Recent Genealogy category can also include autosomal DNA tests (the ones that give you a percentage breakdown of your somewhat recent ethnic heritage). The other kind of ancestral DNA test is Mitochondrial or Y-DNA, described in the next part…

2. Deep Ancestry-

 

Deep ancestry uses your DNA to trace your lineage back to ancient times, to about the last Ice Age, around 2,000 generations ago.

This is the prehistoric period discussed above, well before agriculture or writing or even settled villages. This was the hunter-gatherer period that spanned the vast majority of human history.

By uncovering your deep ancestry, you can know where your people were living at the dawn of humanity. This is done by using your DNA to trace your pure matrilineal or pure patrilineal line. The matrilineal line is traced through the Mitochondrial DNA we each inherit from our mothers, and the patrilineal line is traced through the Y Chromosome, which only males carry and pass on to their sons.

So for women, if you wish to trace both lines (might as well!), you need to have your brother tested instead of yourself. If, like me, you don’t have a brother, you have to perform two tests. You can test yourself for the matrilineal line, and then have any male on your father’s side tested for the patrilineal line.

I did my tests (on me and then, years later, my dad) through The Genographic Project by National Geographic. I love everything about this project and highly recommend it.

I especially loved knowing who my mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s (etc. ad infinitum) people were. If you’re a woman, then every single woman before you gave birth to a woman who lived long enough to give birth to another woman. This is an unbroken line stretching back eons. That is amazing! I cried my eyes out when I got the results back on my matrilineal line.

(If you do this and find you come from Haplogroups U, X, H, V, T, K, or J you MUST read the book The Seven Daughters of Eve by geneticist Bryan Sykes. It helped me get a much fuller picture of the lives of my ancestors in Haplogroup V.  And if you don’t know what a Haplogroup is- I didn’t either! But it’s basically your ancient genetic family group).

Although our Ice Age ancestors are so far removed from us in time and are so many more generations further back that those ancestors whose names and life events were recorded in the last few hundred years, there is a deep resonance with our ancient kin that I have found just as real and rewarding.

 

***IMPORTANT POINT: For many reasons (all of which which fall under the umbrella of white supremacy), genealogy and DNA testing work better for people of European descent. To dive deep into these reasons, and for some tips for black and indigenous people of color (and white folks wishing to make cultural reparations), listen to episode 27 of Medicine Stories with Darla Antione, Anti-Racist Genealogical Research (for Everyone). I also recently learned about a DNA testing site that is specific for people of African descent, AfricanAncestry.com.***

3. Direct Communication, Honoring Rituals, Dreams & Other Ways of Connecting

 

What if you’re adopted though? Or if finding this information is too hard or costly or time consuming? Or what if you’ve found these names and places and stories and now wish to bring your relationship with your ancestors to a deeper level? Or you just miss your grandma and want to talk to her again?

The simplest way I’ve found to commune with my ancestors is to simply talk to them. I first did this spontaneously on Samhain a few years ago, while driving in my car. I knew that, in many cultures, October 31st/November 1st through the Winter Solstice is known as the time when the “veil between worlds is thinnest”, and I’d noticed that I could feel this heightened sense of another realm being close by during that time. I felt I was being beckoned.

So I decided just to say hello. I went backward through the generations, speaking the names and saying hello to those grandparents and great-grandparents I was lucky enough to know, reminding them of times we had and thanking them for loving me, and then greeting by name those before them who I hadn’t known personally but whose names are known to me thanks to my genealogical research. 

(For those who don’t know their names, or were adopted, you can still greet each ancestor in turn going back in time.  We all have the same number of ancestors- two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, etc. Greet them one by one.)

This simple act laid the groundwork for a future of communication between me and them (especially the ones closest to me in time, the grandmothers who I knew), and I now speak to them frequently and feel their influence, their love, and (in the case of one great-grandmother) their fierce protection in my life.

Adding a ritual element to this saying hello practice can add greatly to the experience. Lay out whatever objects are meaningful to you, help you access the deep places, or remind you of your ancestors. I have a red glass bell painted with roses that was my paternal grandmother’s that I always ring when I start my ritual, and have found that its presence has enhanced the experience greatly.

I don’t hear direct words spoken to me or have blinding flashes of insight during these rituals, rather a feeling comes to me that helps to guide me forward.  And often things will happen afterward- worldly things like coincidences or opportunities or otherworldly things like dreams- that seem like a direct gift from the ancestors brought about by our communication. 

Dreams that feature ancestors or that seem to contain a message from them are magic working on two levels. When our ancestors enter the dreamtime in order to communicate with us, we best heed their message.

Making art related to the stories and lives of our ancestors can deepen our connection to them as well. 

Years ago I had a dream in which I found a rolled-up scroll embedded in the bone of my right wrist (I am right-handed and write with that wrist), and when I unfurled it the name of my three times great-grandfather, William Newton Wright, was written on it.

The message was clear- write!

I’ve only ever wanted to write in this life, and that dream told me unequivocally that it was time to start taking that desire seriously.

Wright/right/write. The scrolls are in your bones. Write!

Word play is a great way to get my attention, especially when the message comes in a dream and an ancestor is featured.

My first project after that dream was to write out the story of the death of the first child born to my great-grandparents, the Wrights, both of whom I was lucky enough to know as a small child. I’d always heard about how their firstborn child Cleatus had died at six weeks old during a freezing backwoods Arkansas winter and how the mules hauling his tiny coffin had given out in the driving rain on their way to the cemetery and how the hole they attempted to dig kept collapsing in on itself during the muddy burial (my dad’s people like to tell stories, however sad they may be). 

Writing this story out seemed like a good way to honor my dream, the life of the boy who would have been my grandmother’s older brother, and the grief of everyone involved. It was a beautifully healing experience to cast my mind back there, and I loved making art out of this ancestral story. 

When it was done, I read the story out loud to my father (Cleatus would have been his uncle), my sister, and my then four-year-old daughter. Then we rolled it up into a scroll and buried it beneath a tree. It was a simple and spontaneous act, but it tied us all to one another and to our ancestors in a way we will never forget.

I’ve also been able to connect with my deep ancestry through drumming, something I had never had an interest in before I came upon a Saami drum at a yard sale a few years ago. I am not descended from the Saami, but they are also a part of Haplogroup V, so we are descended from the same ancient people of Northernmost Europe, where the indigenous Saami are still living today. Finding that artifact and starting to use it in ritual has opened me up to a whole new level of relationship with my prehistoric kin.

If you have unresolved issues and/or bad memories with an ancestor that is impeding your recent genealogical, deep ancestral, or ritual work, I recommend the my podcast episode 26 with Dr. Daniel Foor.

In fact, Dr. Foor’s work in general provides a wonderful framework for connecting with ones ancestors in a way that requires no genealogical knowledge (perfect for adoptees and people who don’t know their recent family stories). Check it out (and maybe even work one-on-one with a Lineage Healing Practitioner!) at Ancestral Medicine.

Whatever your story, wherever you live, whoever your people, you are the product of the love of millions. You literally wouldn’t exist if every single one of your ancestors hadn’t existed.  Your existence is wildly improbable, and yet you’re here. Because they were here. They live in you still, and you can know yourself most deeply by knowing them more fully. 

This autumn, and then forever after, talk to your ancestors.

(Photo at top taken by Milla when we went down to the river a few days after Samhain/All Souls Day/Day of the Dead. Our Halloween weekend had been very busy and I used this quiet time to finally say hello to my people, as per the custom of so many cultures around the world at this time of year.

 

Time Brings All Things To Pass

-Aeschylus

These are my grandparents, Wayne Carlton Hill and Daythel Inez Wright (who's always gone by Inez, or Inie) in 1947 in front of Shafter High School (in California's central valley), where they met a few years before they were married. In 1952 Wayne's mother, Maggie Lorene, had a house built directly across the street. Wayne & Inie moved in when she died in 1986 and have lived there, with a view of the school out their kitchen window, ever since. They've been married over 60 years now.

I've never shied away from thinking about aging and death, even as a child. But I've never felt these truths of life so viscerally, never seen them so clearly, as I did on our recent trip to visit my family. All my kinfolk know of my interest in genealogy by now, so I am lucky enough to be besought with old stories, newspaper cutouts, and photographs when we visit. And my grandparents have always had an entire hallway wall full of old photos, including this one. I love seeing them in their youth, fresh and happy and with their whole lives ahead of them.

When you're young, your whole life seems like eternity. When you're old, it seems to have gone past in the blink of an eye.

Grandpa Wayne and Grandma Inie are in their 80s now. He is dying in a rest home, after a heart attack and a hospital infection rendered him bed-ridden a few months ago. He is emaciated, wasting away. He can hardly speak; it comes out in choked whispers. We weren't even allowed to hug him, for fear of catching his virus. It seemed he had aged decades since we saw him last, a year ago. I will probably never see him again.

Mycelia, my sister Lacey, Grandma Inie, my father Gary, and Grandpa Wayne

Grandma has no physical pain, but she is slipping farther and farther into Alzheimer's every time we visit. She remembers the important things, the family ties. While we were in the rest home she turned to me and Lacey and said simply "That's my husband". She asks about how the people who have been close to her are doing. She never forgot Mycie's name or who she was, even calling her Mycelia sometimes too. Though she does get confused about whose child she is, since Mycie sticks to my sister like glue whenever they're together. And she does call my dad Wayne a lot. But to be fair, he really has come to resemble his father.

My dad moved down to Shafter last year to take care of his aging parents. Not too long after that his brother Terry moved in with them also. It was the four of them under one roof again, but under such different circumstances than 60 years ago when Wayne & Inie were in their early 20s farming and raising two small sons. Now it is the offspring taking care of those who gave them life. Grandpa Wayne will never come home again, and it is only the three of them for now.

My dad and Uncle Terry have aged measurably too, burdened with the pressure of tending to a house filled with objects and memories, a house that has only ever belonged to our family. Trying to sort through their parents finances and making end of life decisions has left a cloud of despair hanging over their heads. The Hill men have always been prone to over-worry and depression.

But not Grandma. Her memory, her independent life, and her family are slipping away from her. And yet. She is grateful and happy for what she has and what was given to her in her lifetime. She comes from (or come from, as she'd say) simple Arkansas folk, though she moved to California as a baby. I like to think that there was something about her people that infused her spirit with a realistic optimism about the wonders and the simultaneous hardships of life.

At the beginning she says "We might go see Wayne today". I love the first part of this spontaneous, sneaky video I shot of her because you can see the Alzheimer's in action, and the strange way the memory loss mixes with things long remembered. I love the second part because she often compliments me on what I'm wearing. Clothing seems to be one of the few things her mind still notices in the moment, and I can sure imagine myself being the same way at that age. And I *love* the last part beyond words and thoughts and straight into feeling and love. The "why not" makes me tear up every time.

I knew both of her parents, Lewis and Gladys May Wright, when they were her age and I was Mycie's age, and I am keenly aware that Mycie is seeing her now as I saw them then. As sweet and loving but very, very old. Older that she'll ever get. Older than I'll ever get. Older than my parents will ever get. Except that they're already almost there. And next it's me. And then it's Mycie.

And on and on in an eternal cycle of love and gratitude and birth and death and laughter and memories and always, always  new life ❤

Deep Ancestry: My Unexpected Ancient Heritage in Haplogroup V

Spring 2019 update: I almost took this post down, but have decided to leave it up. Seven years ago my understanding of deep ancestry and haplogroups was rudimentary, and when I read this I cringe a bit at my naiveté. However, there is still some good information and a sweet story of connection and lots of cool things to think about here, so I’m gonna leave it.

Alternatively titled "Now I Know That My Imagination's Uncontrollable Flights of Whimsy into Scandinavian Hyperborean Dream States is All in My Genes"

(The human family tree only started to separate into diverging branches about 2,000 generations ago...)

After six weeks of patiently checking in every day, I finally got my DNA results back from The Genographic Project yesterday! I thought the timing was quite fitting, as today is my birthday. The test was a Xmas gift and I was so happy to finally have the opportunity to do something that I've been wanting to do for years- trace my ancient heritage back to the dawn of humankind.

The Genographic Project is an amazingly ambitious endeavor by The National Geographic Society and Dr. Spencer Wells to map the genetic journey that the ancestors of modern humans took when we left Africa some 60,000 years ago. (I just noticed that I wrote "we" there instead of "they", which is forcing me to share that Faulkner quote yet again because I seem to have just subconsciously proven it somehow true, "The past is never dead. It isn't even past".) I am so inspired by this project, and by the fact that these questions that humans have been asking for millennia about where we came from and how we are got here are now being answered. And that we can all participate in the uncovering of this knowledge!

Each of us comes from a seemingly endless line of ancestors, the number of them doubling each generation further back we go. But modern day testing only allows you to trace two lines- either your pure maternal line (mother's mother's mother's mother's mother's mother's mother's mother's mother...) via the Mitochondrial DNA that only women pass down, or your pure paternal line (father's father's father's father's father's father's father's father's father...) via the Y chromosome. Women don't have a Y chromosome, so if we want to trace our patrilineal heritage we need to have a close male relative submit his DNA.

I started getting interested in all of this a few years ago when I started learning more about my immediate ancestors. I was fascinated by their stories, and amazed at how close they all felt to me, how real it suddenly seemed that these people who I had never met had had a major influence on who I was to become. But my mind would wander off, wander outward, and I'd wonder about my, as they call it, Deep Ancestry. The people whose names I would never know, who lived in pre-history, who were certainly not born in America. I had looked into various DNA testing companies, but didn't have the money or inclination to participate just yet.

That all changed when I watched The Human Family Tree, an informative and moving special by National Geographic. I was blown away by how far our gene-tracing technology has come, touched by how genetically close we really all are, and floored by the prospect of contributing my DNA to this large database of knowledge and finding out more about myself and my deep ancestry in the process. (I would add that this looks to me to be the cheapest way to find out your own ancient ancestry, plus you have the chance to add to a large pool of data and help this branch of science progress forward.)

In case you're a total psychopath who finds all of this boring and can't imagine how the lives and selves of your ancestors effect you today, consider how totally unlikely it is that you exist at all and how every decision each of your millions of antecedents made somehow all led to you being here now:

From Are You Totally Improbable or Totally Inevitable?

I was recently watching Faces of America, a PBS documentary that explores the ancestry of famous people (yes, much like Who Do You Think You Are?) and in it the host Henry Louis Gates Jr. asks Meryl Streep "Do you think that our ancestors shape who we are?" and she answers, succinctly but eloquently, "We are nothing but them".

You see, all of this matters. So I was absolutely thrilled, and quite surprised, to find that my long line of maternal grandmothers and I belong to Haplogroup V. (Simply put, a haplogroup is a group of people who share a common ancestor). I was pretty sure my ancestry would be European (though the farthest back I've been able to trace my matrilineal heritage is French Canada in the 1800s), but I never would have expected to belong to this particular group.

Haplogroup V is the least common of the 7 European clans defined in Bryan Sykes book The Seven Daughters of Eve, which I read sometime last year and am certainly going to read again soon (with renewed interest)! In it, Sykes assigns names to each ancestral clan mother, and Haplogroup V's matriarch is bequeathed the moniker Velda.

According to Swanstrom "Velda is the smallest of the seven European clans containing only about 4% of native Europeans. Velda lived 17 thousand years ago (~850 generations) in the limestone hills of Cantabria in northwest Spain. Her descendants are found nowadays mainly in western and northern Europe. They are surprisingly frequent among the Skolt Sámi (Lapps) (50%) of Scandinavia and the Basques (12%) of Spain." And according to Eupedia "Haplogroup V reaches its highest frequency in northern Scandinavia (40% of the Sami), northern Spain, the Netherlands (8%), Sardinia, the Croatian islands and the Maghreb. It is likely that H1, H3 and V, along with haplogroup U5, were the main haplogroups of Western European hunter-gatherers living in the Franco-Cantabrian refuge during the last Ice Age, and repopulated much of Central and Northern Europe from 15,000 years ago."

v

v

This graphic shows Haplogroup V and H (which gave rise to V)'s worldwide distribution today. I wonder how common this genetic marker is in America? According to this it's between 0 and .5%, but that seems so low. Although National Geographic does echo the sentiment that not many of Velda's descendants live outside of Europe now, "Today, Haplogroup V tends to be restricted to western, central, and northern Europe. It's age is estimated at around 15,000 years old, indicating that it likely arose during the 5,000 years or so that humans were confined to the European refuge [meaning during the last Ice Age]."

I'll probably never know which Haplogroup V subgroup I am descended from, though it is nice to belong to such a small group and have the options be less that they could otherwise be. What I do know though is that my ancestors lived in or near the Northernmost reaches of Europe, quite possibly in Scandinavia. Although none of my genealogy work has linked any of my more immediate ancestors to this region, I have always felt a sort of spiritual affinity with these wintry latitudes and their inhabitants. A while back I posted about my Deep Genealogy work with my herbalist friend Atava. I remember during our first conversation she asked me about my family history and what I am drawn to most. I mentioned the Scandinavian connection, but quickly followed up by saying that I have no evidence that I am indeed a descendent of anyone who has lived there.

Well, that has all changed now. Now I know that my nerdy obsession with the word hyperborean (I've been able to use it twice on facebook and once on twitter and many times in conversations ever since I came across it in my gigantic old dictionary last winter) is somewhat justified. Hyperborean means "beyond the north wind", and I just think that that is the most beautiful sentiment to be able to express in one word. Just imagining a place beyond the north wind immediately sends my imagination into a dreamy revery full of old earth spirits, wise animal guides, and hearty folk who spend their evenings rosy-cheeked beside the roar of the hearth fire.

If you've been following my blog for a while, you know I have a love for all European folk prints, and especially those of the Scandinavian persuasion. I will stock my shop with any vintage dress that features one, and am always looking for new art to hang on my walls.

My shelves are lined with books about Northern Europe in the Ice Age and the Middle Ages. I love Norse mythology and yew trees. I love Viking history. I love their ships and especially the prows of their ships. In the most epic dream I've ever had I was in a sort of dusky underworld, floating along alone on a classic Viking ship on a murky river reminiscent of Styx. The prow was a three-headed snake/dragon that was alive, each creature slithering its long head over and under that of its companions. The ship with its living three-headed prow serpent was taking me somewhere secret and subterranean.

And of course, there's the ever-present mind-lure of Arctic whaling. I love reading stories, both fictional and true, about the crazy ass whalers who braved the ice to chase enormous sea creatures in the name of savagery and profit. (If this is your first time reading this blog, rest assured that I do not support whaling, but am fascinated by its history).

Don't even get me started on the Nordic fjords.

I've also been enamored of the Sami people ever since reading about them a few years ago. The November 2011 issue of National Geographic featured the most gorgeous photographic essay about these folk, who spend their time following their reindeer herds between Siberia and Scandinavia:

Then recently I found out that my lovely & amazing friend Summer is a direct Sami descendant (and doesn't she just look the part?) and the first words out of my mouth were "No wonder I feel such a kinship with you!" or something of the like, having no idea that that statement was more literal than metaphorical.

If there's one thing I've learned from The Genographic Project, it's that we really and truly are all connected. It's a scientific fact. Somewhere back in time, Summer here and I share an ancestor. And if you keep going back, or forward, you and I do too.

We all come from the same place and the same small group of African hominids who were lucky or smart or destined enough to outwit their surroundings and beat the odds when all other hominid lines failed. And yet, as Dr. Wells points out, what really stands out from this project's data is that we're all so different. Haplogroup V diverges from all the other haplogroups in ways geographic, cultural, and perhaps even spiritual. Each lineage, each family, each individual is a joyful expression of the heartbreakingly beautiful dance of cosmic evolution of which we are all a blessed part.

Each atom in our bodies was born of supernova explosions millions of years ago. We are literally made of stardust, and the cosmos are our most ancient ancestors. Speaking of, have you heard Bjork's latest album Biophilia? Especially the song Cosmogony? Bjork, who I have always loved, who I have always been told I resemble (especially my childood pictures), and who I am now officially considering kin since she is from Northern Europe, certainly understands the common origins of all of life.

ambjork

ambjork

I will move onward from this day, my birthday, knowing that much more about where I come from, feeling supported by all who came before me and all that carries me forward in strong and silent ways of which I will never be consciously aware.

A Dutch Manhattanite, 10 Generations Away

The tip of Manhattan, mid 17th century, everything to the West was unsettled

Lately I have been on a bender, reading and watching everything I can about New York City. And for two reasons. One: I haven't been to a city bigger than Sacramento in FIVE YEARS. I drove out of San Francisco in December '05 and haven't made it back since, despite the fact that it's 3 hours away. And I am starting to feel crazy crazy stir crazy in my idyllic rural little town. I need people, movement, actions, and shops and restaurants that open before 11am and close well after 6pm. (I have never been to NYC. In fact, as far as America is concerned, I haven't been further east than Idaho).

And two: I recently discovered that I am the direct descendent of folks who were among the original settlers of New Amsterdam, later to be named New York (when the English realized that the key to the continent lay in conquering that one tiny island, and quickly did so). Roelof Martense Schenck was born in the Netherlands in 1619 and emigrated to "Nieuw Amsterdam" in 1650, where he soon found himself a wife. They are my great great great great great great great great grandparents.

Upon making all of these discoveries my first thought was The Dutch settled Manhattan before the English? which I quickly learned is a common reaction. It seems that historians all over the world are discovering how the early mythologizing of NY's origins by the English conquerers effectively blotted out the contribution made by the Dutch to the future cultural milieu of the Unites States.

And quite a contribution it was. The Dutch have long been considered the most tolerant nation on the planet (going back to at least the 1600s, which is also when they first sailed onto American soil). Amsterdam at the time was a thriving hotspot of new and rapidly evolving ideas about politics, economics, government, science, philosophy, botany, you name it. The leaders realized that it was, in part, the great diversity of people who sought refuge in their country that made it such an exciting and economically successful place, and they brought this belief with them to the New World.

Which is not to say that the Dutch, or my ancestors among them, were forward thinking idealists and pacifists with love in their hearts and freedom for all on their minds. No no. They were self serving, money grubbing, slave trading go-getters who just happened to realize that tolerance toward diversity served their best economic interests.

They loved them a free market, put commerce before all other gods, and were willing to find a way to live alongside people vastly different from themselves in order to make their lives as prosperous and comfortable as possible. Which is to say that they were, truly, the spiritual and intellectual forefathers of New Yorkers from then on out.

Once all of this started to settle into my mind, my imagination was effectively captured (sometime in the last decade or so I've become a serious history nerd), and my reading has followed suit ever since. In The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America, Russell Shorto makes sense of tens of thousands of pages of 17th century Dutch papers from the colony (translated only recently by Charles Gehring) and weaves them into a fascinating tale of early American vision and drive.

He is also quite keen sighted and humorous in his presentation of some of the documents, as when describing the close, almost fawning-over-one-another friendship (expressed in letters and poems) between the Dutch colony's most long standing governor, the peg-legged Peter Stuyvesant, and his friend (and cohort in the world dominating East India Trading Company) John Ferret. Shorto writes, "At times the correspondence cries out for a latent-homosexuality reading (i.e., when the men write of 'such pleasure' each receives from the 'skilled hand' of the other); it's probably more profitable, though, to see the poems as little portals onto the relationships between seventeenth-century Dutch merchant-soldiers, in which there was a frank deference to one's greater power and in which language was expressed in language as Baroque as the pink-cheeked detailing in a Frans Hals portrait."

My point in quoting that long winded paragraph is simply that the book is not only informative, but quite entertaining as well.

Moving on. On my nightstand, but as of now still unopened, is The Women of the House: How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune, and a Dynasty by Jean Zimmerman. I look forward to reading it.

Next to it, and having been open a few times, is City of Dreams: A Novel of Nieuw Amsterdam and Early Manhattan. This book follows a couple centuries in the life of a family of medical practitioners- barber surgeons (yes, one and the same professions), herbalists, and certified medical doctors. It is a fascinating study on the state of understanding of the human body and medicine at the time (blood transfusion, for example, was quite a new and controversial concept, which is too bad for the poor folks who almost had the life sucked out of them by leeches set upon them for therapeutic "blood letting").

All in all, it's a piece of American history that is highly relevant to who we've become and yet is unknown to, and taken for granted by, most of us. Broadway (literally, a broad way), Wall Street (the street where they built a wall to keep the Indians out), Queens, Harlem, Staten Island, the Hudson River, and many of the other place names around that area all came from the Dutch. The words boss, stoop, coleslaw, and cookies- and even good ol' Santa Claus (Sinterklaas) himself- come to us from the Dutch.

But Manhattan's history, of course, goes well beyond its original European settlers. Graham and I have been watching a PBS American Experience documentary by Ric Burns all about the history of New York City. It's something like 15 hours long and completely captivating. The building of Central Park, How The Other Half Lives, the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Draft Riots of the Civil War, the capitalistic free for all on Wall Street in the 19th century, the Erie Canal, the brilliant mind and roving eye of Walt Whitman, the insanity of early skyscraper building, Ellis Island- it is such a big history. Here's a little taste from the first episode (which, of course, begins with the story of New Amsterdam).

Someday, I will go there. Though I do have to keep reminding myself of what it looks like now, in 2011, before I become too enamored of the image of myself disembarking from a 17th century Dutch sailing vessel onto a rickety old dock and looking up to see neat little rows of narrow yellow brick houses with an abundance of variegated tulips planted out front...