Dark comes fast amid the trees, turning the colors of drying blood, red to brown. It's that time of the year, when thoughts turn to the past and to ancestors.
I put up an ancestor altar for Samhain / the Day of All Souls. There is one significant new addition to my beloved dead this year, a sweet voice I can still hear in my memory. But also over the past year, I have learned a few tidbits about how at least one of my ancestors was involved in a KKK group in Oregon. And some of the best photographs I have are from a more recent ancestor who was known to be both sexist and racist, along with having some better qualities.
What does honoring the ancestors mean? Does it mean that you can take credit and say thank you if you don't know anything negative about your ancestors? Does it mean you ignore the ancestors you feel ashamed of and celebrate only those who did good things, like my great aunt who saved many lives as a humanitarian worker in the Philippines?
The past few weeks have been particularly hard on my family with a lot of community pressure and internal struggle for balance. There are times when I rethink the old belief that the universe gives us only as much hardship as our spirits can bear. It seems like the universe has been cutting it awfully close these days.
And sometimes I wonder. Maybe my philosophy is wrong. Maybe this is just bad karma from my prejudiced ancestors.
Should I honor my ancestors?
I think of the well at our old family homestead. Once when I was fifteen, I was lowered into it to help with repairs because my slim body was a better fit for the narrow well than my father's broad-shouldered frame.
My father told me not to look up because sand and dirt could fall into my eyes as he lowered me on a rope 60 feet into the earth. I obediently kept my eyes down. With the headlamp I was wearing I got a good look at the rows upon rows of hand lain rough field stone that was used to reinforce the walls of the well.
To this day that is one of the most respect-inspiring sights I've ever seen. I knew the rocky, clay soil of our remote Eastern Oregon ridge intimately. I had helped grow food in it since early childhood. I'd built forts and hideouts in its rugged outcrops. I had also dug for camas root in the meadows with precious little success, bruising both hands and tools on the many rough gray rocks in the clay. With my significant vision impairment, I had learned to move carefully among the jagged boulders on the windswept top of the ridge. This was not a land that lent itself to digging.
And yet someone dug a 60 foot shaft by hand in the age before machinery and lined it with neat rows of perfectly fitted field stones. These were not the ancestors of my blood but they were in every fundamental way the ancestors of my our hearth.
The winter my mother was pregnant with me, my family shared a tiny cabin with another family. Four adults and three small children in what was once a one-room schoolhouse. In November, they were out one night when the cabin burned to the ground, due to a faulty wood stove. My father moved my pregnant mother and two-year-old brother a quarter mile up the hollow to the moderately flat spot where this well stood.
At the time there was nothing else there. Just the well, left by nameless settlers amid the snow and mud. My father parked an old, broken-down truck next to the well and spent the winter building a new cabin around it. I was born in the loft of that cabin, built over the roof of the old truck the next April.
This is my history and the significance of that well to me. Without a well, the dry Eastern Oregon ridges are unlivable. I knew people who had to haul water, and even as a small child, I remember having a deep gratitude for that well.
My parents may have purchased that land fair and square, but there were--as it turned out--other traces of human habitation on it. My brother found Native American artifacts in an embankment in one of the camas meadows. And there is a circle of ancient mounds on the ridge that is too regular to be natural.
The settlers who built the well or those who came before them--someone--stole this land, and while the road there still isn't paved, they made it possible for us to live there.
This is what I think of every Samhain. My awe and respect for the lives endured by the ancestors of our land, hearth and family, as well as great sorrow and pain for the wrongs that can be remembered if one is willing to look.
While I was down at the bottom of that well at the age of fifteen, I laid some insulation cloth as my father instructed. Then just before giving the proscribed tug on the rope to signal, so that I would be pulled up, I cautiously turned my head and looked up.
I have rarely felt such raw terror in my life. At first I thought something was wrong with my vision, not out of the question given my eye condition. The top of the well was gone or else it was night and the full moon had risen. But I couldn't possibly have been down there that long, I thought frantically.
Then the truth crashed in on my consciousness. That distant round moon of light WAS the opening of the well. I had not thought about how far down 60 feet is or how closed in and vulnerable a soft human body would be that far under the earth in a shaft so narrow that I had to turn around carefully. Now that I saw the distant opening, the realization was terrifying.
I felt my throat constrict and I fought a wave of panic that threatened to send me into senseless screaming and thrashing. My father had told me to be still and not make any loud noises. He was afraid I might dislodge stones in the well and be injured. Getting out of that well calmly was probably the first truly brave thing I ever did.
That well was our lifeline and also an artifact of one of the worst genocides in human history. I was the great granddaughter of immigrants and settlers. I then left that land and went far across the ocean to another country, where I am a first generation immigrant and now a new citizen. I married a man who can trace the names of his ancestors back 600 years on the same little farm in the swampy land of South Bohemia. And our children are adopted from decimated families who were among a handful of Romani (Gypsies) who survived both slavery and the Holocaust in central Europe.
Samhain is far from simple around here.
In the end, I cannot make justice or peace for history. I can only set out the photographs, the names and the symbols of those people who came before, those who gave us life, sustenance, hope and a chance to make our own mark.
The land of my childhood sustained me and gave me a body with health and resilience for which I am often grateful. As a child I learned to call the quarters in the Native American way and I studied the Teutonic runes. Blood says I have no claim to the former and history has tainted the latter. There is truth in that.
There is also truth in gratitude, in respect and in remembering. I will not claim stolen heritage. And yet, I cannot shake the feeling of kindness and peace that comes from the earth at the old homestead. I feel sorrow for the people forced to leave that land, but I do not sense that they hate me. I feel a circle of presence at Samhain, all the ancestors of my childhood--of family, of land and of hearth--and all the ancestors of my present, those of my husband, so well documented, and those of my children, unknown except for the painful history that we know rolled over them in one way or another.
No, I do not feel an idealized warmth from all the ancestors, a circle of support and blessing. I do feel intense currents of sorrow, pain, shame and anger, interspersed with love and hope. But they are all there. They are not absent.
They are all in the circle at this time of year, no matter what baggage they may carry. And I feel called to honor them, not just on this one day but also by living in a way that gives honor for the gifts they each gave me. When the burdens seem too great, I want to always remember this. I humbly accept this life. I acknowledge what came before.