The Deepest Magic: To Know Yourself, Know Your Ancestors

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.

There 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. 

 

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 also recommend their film The Human Family Tree.

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. You can read that story in my 2012 blog post Deep Ancestry: My Ancient Heritage in Haplogroup V.

(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 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.

 

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 podcast episode The Parallel World of the Ancestors from Sounds True.

Whatever your story, wherever you live, whoever your people, you are the product of the love of billions. 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.

Milla and I will be teaching Root Medicine: Ancestral Remembrance & Folk Herbalism at the Spirit Weavers Gathering this June, and hope to bring this workshop to more places. Click here to learn more.

I also offer Ancestral Remembrance Phone Consultations for any wishing to deepen their connection to their lineage.)

 

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 ❤

Off To The Ol' Homeplace...

Today my dad, Mycie, and myself are headed down the 5 to visit our kinfolk in California's Central Valley. We make the trip a few times a year, but usually not in the sweltering summer. The reason we pulled this together at the last minute was because I started researching my family history, or genealogy, in earnest recently and realized That I had to interview my grandparents, and their one living sibling apiece, while they're still with us. I am armed with a video camera and a slew of questions.

My research on one branch, the Camps, has been much aided by the fact that a book was published about my great great uncle, due to the fact that he was a sort of agricultural whiz kid in the mid 20th century and solved the longstanding problem of how to grow cotton in California. (And by the fact that there are about a million Camps out there, and perhaps as many websites and mailing lists).

That's him, Wofford "Bill" Camp, standing next to his father in front. In the back left, behind his mother, is my great great grandfather William. My great great great grandparents are John Clayton and Mary Jane Atkins Camp. This is them in front of the still standing house known as Camps Crossroads, in Gaffney, South Carolina. (Someday I WILL visit this ol' homeplace!). I was lucky enough to know William's daughter, Maggie Lorene (Camp) Hill, as a child. It is to the home her husband built in Shafter, California that we are headed today, where her son, my grandpa, lives with my grandma. The house pictured here is in where my grandpa began his life, and the house to which I'm going is where he'll end it.

I am so intrigued by Mary Jane, and really hope to find out more about her. Aside from raising 8 kids, she was the local midwife in Cherokee County, SC along with a black woman named Mealie Norris. This was the late 1800s and their family's friendship was a bit of a novelty in the post Civil War South.

John Clayton, or Clayt, looks so much like his male descendants! Hey there Gramps, hey Uncle Terry.

Here is an excerpt out of the book about how Clayt related the story of how he met Mary Jane to his son Wofford (Bill) as she lay dying of pneumonia:

Three days later, when her temperature was still much too high and her breathing still very difficult, Clayt Camp sat quietly with his sons and daughters trying to face the fact that his Mary Jane was going to leave him. He rose at one point and went out of the house with Bill to look out over the fields.

"You know", he said, "I fell in love with her before I ever saw her. I was sitting talking with some men in Gaffney and she was around the corner coming toward where we were and I heard the sound of her footsteps and I said out loud 'That's the girl I'm going to marry'. Before she'd come into view. Such a pretty pitter-patter."

I am so excited to spend the rest of my life researching my family history, and hopefully eventually helping others learn about theirs too. I encourage you to get as many names, dates, and stories from your relatives as you can. Then just start putting names into popular genealogy sites and see what comes up. It's a start. I traced two of my lines back to the 1500's just by going "click, click, click..." There's lots of info out there and it's almost a guarantee that some of your distant kin have already done the work of putting some of it online for you. (I have been in touch with 4 of my cousins so far!).

Just seeing the old names is worth it! So far my favoritely named ancestors are two couples- Napoleon and Obeline (French Canadian) and Absalom and Hanna Hosea (Southern).

It's such a satisfying endeavor, so deeply felt in the heart. Think about it- for each generation you go back, you double the number of ancestors you have. And if it weren't for every single one of them, you wouldn't exist.