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Terms with the Dead

As a big part of my life, and an even bigger part of my spiritual life, I’ve been focusing on coming to terms with my dead.

Most spiritual practices and traditions feature a current of ancestor veneration; in fact Protestantism (which looms over every aspect of most American’s spirituality or lack thereof) is perhaps something of an outlier (if not wholly unique) in not featuring one.

To be as literal as possible, here’s what I do: I have set a small table with a white cloth. Above, I’ve mounted the photos, names, birthdates and death-dates of all the ancestors I know of and seek to honor/remember. The table itself has objects related to them (my grandmother’s rosary, some costume jewelry) and a small mug where I leave daily coffee (sometimes spring water) and say thank you.’ I occasionally talk to my dead relatives (you could imagine me pretending to’ if that better fits your world view).

This would be rather unexceptional for most of the human population, for most of time (including now). Even for modern white humanist middle-class households (which I can mostly be correlated to) this is barely deviant (and that’s mostly the act of leaving out coffee) it’s rare the house that doesn’t have pictures/mementos of honored dead in places of focus and that’s 95% of what I’m doing.

My dead relatives and I are… good actually. Fond of each other. Though my familial line is not immune or unaffected by the endless of scarring and fissure lines of pain that cut against the grain of generations; my ancestors and their descendants have had to deal in various ways with issues related to mental health, addiction, trauma of war, domestic violence, poverty (or even when not impoverished the lingering fear of it), racism, and roiling disturbances of money/inheritance. All that stated, as far as I can tell all my (immediate) relatives have food, shelter, and relative saftey. Which is not to say everything is great’ but it seems to me that most of the dead seem primarily concerned with being acknowledged -especially if they were wronged- and the thriving of their living descendants. The problems of the my living kin are mostly those of self actualization, problems of loving each other & connecting, problems of healing from hurt, and the problem not being driven mad & sick by 21st century hyper techno-capital which I feel are better problems to have than a lot of the historic alternatives.

One of the secrets of coming to terms, relating more richly and fully to the dead means to do the same for the living: with what they remember, with the stories they carry forward, with the mementos and recipes and artifacts and with the family histories from which they’re built.

Like most of my practices, there’s a perfectly rational’ (or at least psychologically acceptable) explanation on why a set of behaviors can provide benefit to me (which includes the ever-ready materialist panacea that placebos are a hell of a drug’). I find making time/space in my day to remember those who came before, to express gratitude for the sacrifice they performed and the life they made possible to be incredibly calming. Acknowledging my ancestors balances me. It helps put me in the mindset that my life is a gift, and it makes me a touch more conscious of the gifts I’d like to give in kind. Moreover, sociality (social media in particular) and advertising (where, despite my own efforts, I spend much of my time inundated with) constantly coax me to compare myself to someone else’s highlight reel, someone else’s hyper-branded stage managed never-was glamour of a lifestyle designed to induce dissatisfaction. In contrast, trying to get into the meat & marrow of who my ancestors were, thinking of them (knowing them) as people grants me a bit more serenity to be human myself; my struggles, my triumphs, my failures are all part of the human experience and the possibility space I carve and was carved by. A longer sense of time -which includes ancestral lines and a sense of people who will come after- puts me in a more balanced mindset. Many of my ancestors had it much worse and still found joy and meaning and gifts worth giving; few (if any) of my ancestors had it better’ had more optionality and power than I enjoy now. Though they perhaps usually enjoyed a more clear concept of what it was that they should do, if they had struggles or problems they were more literal and incarnate as opposed to facing a global economic machine that might blight the planet in total via death by a billion plastic spork cuts. It feels at times like me and mine are staring down an avoidable yet inevitable apocalypse because no one can think beyond their spreadsheet showing quarterly returns.

My description mostly refers to my ancestors bound to me by blood and love (which is not always the same thing, for me or for anyone I suspect) but from there, I’m considering how to enlarge my practice. First, there are my craft ancestors who I would honor; writers and shapers of my language… those people who practiced and have shaped my practice of magic. Those can often be summarized as distinct individuals who can be condensed into a picture, a name that can sit on my altar.

Then there’s my ancestors of place. And that’s where so much more pain, anger, and shame is. This is also true when it comes to going back a little further in my own line.

When it comes to the dead’ of a place and society the trouble’ begins to grow hot tungsten white. 5, 10 mothers ago I find the paving stones of my world set by the enslavement of people of African descent, by the genocide of indigenous peoples, by the myriad indignities of & horrors inflicted upon human beings in the name of religious, racial, economic, sex, or gender purity’ or superiority’ or ‘rightness.’ Which all continues to this day in its own descending line.

The world I live in is one built upon mass graves; this is both metaphorically and at times literally true. I enjoy privileges and wealth beaten and threatened out of (usually brown) human bodies. I am complicit in continuing wrong, and with every dollar I spend, with every government I help shape I risk strengthening entities which feed and grow only through the upscaling of human misery.

To become more specific; my city -San Diego- is stratified in human-time layers or horror and death; the indignities heaped upon the Kumeyaay and related peoples by the Spaniards & their mission system sits below (and shapes) the land theft made possible by the secularization of independent Mexico which supports the conquest-racism of anglos\americans (briefly independent Californians) and then all the myriad national sins of the United States having their particular expression here: the marginalization and exclusion of women, LGBT and people of color (which I personally find especially pronounced in the internment of Japanese Americans during the second world war). These are things that my city, my state, my nation were built on and through. They represent historical (and ongoing) practices that greatly influence the lived experience of myself and my contemporaries (as -to my mind- slavery mutated into segregation which mutated into the war on drugs, all driven by the same or at least a similar evil spirit).

When I considered myself a Christian, I was always troubled by the book of Exodus chapter 34 verse 7 wherein Jehovah (after he gets done talking about how merciful he is) proceeds to say of the guilty will be punished, sins will be transferred from fathers to their children even ‘to the third and fourth generation.’ At the time, when I thought the words had to be the literal truth of an all wise, all knowing, all loving supreme being it didn’t make much sense; why are great-grandchildren punished for things their ancestors did? Now, a whole Hegelian dialectic cycle away from my adolescent evangelicalism, I feel like I understand and appreciate the poetry more; the ways we fuck up, our sins’ will have downstream effects for years as we ourselves shaped by the all too often under-acknowledged evil -both done to and by- our ancestors. These currents will be carried forward; the way they demonstrated how to deal (or not) with their emotions, what kind of people they were, how they treated others and on and on; it all becomes the template we were given about what to expect from ourselves and our lives, it sets the stage where we’ll perform for our time. Now, at 35, I appreciate the poetry of the verse claiming that guilt is not forgiven and is carried forward, we’re inheritors of messes and hurt left behind by our forebears, just as we leave messes (or not) for those who come next.

Coming to terms with the dead means facing the proverbial skeletons in your own and your community’s closet.

It means coming to terms with yourself.

Developing a more right’ relationship with the dead, the living, and ultimately yourself means (first) acknowledging what has happened (as best you can) and stopping (as much as you are able) your own participation & complicity in practices inimical to thriving and -lastly- reducing harm for yourself, your & kith, and for all persons. Acknowledgement is first and the cornerstone, but it’s always limited. Faced with (and ultimately exhausted trying to untie) the gordian knot of theft and reversal, genocide and extinction and of conquest and abuse that stretches back to pre-history, the only solution I think is to cut through with the simple blade of I will do better, and I will do my best to aid others in doing better as well.’

It can feel like such a small thing, and yet I often suspect it’s much closer to everything.

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