You're dead to me and I'm ok with that
A spot of trouble with the ancestors
I did not like the “listening to our ancestors” exercise.
I gave it a shot. I crossed my legs on the yoga mat, closed my eyes and took three deep breaths along with the other writing retreat participants. But my jaw was set and my guard was up as our workshop facilitator Kim led us in a guided meditation.
We all come from a long, unbroken bloodline of humans that came before and whose DNA is the stuff of our being. Our bodies, our talents, and our traumas came from this tribe. What would they tell us if they were here with us now?
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A long, thin arm of pale afternoon sun stretched itself across the wooden floor of the meeting hall, sectioning me off from the rest of the circle. Over there: the others, some welling up with emotion as they invoked their ancient forebears. Over here: me, feeling like a bouncer at a private party keeping a sharp eye on the buffet, ready to eject any gatecrashers or troublemakers.
No, I do not feel my grandmother’s presence. No, I do not hear her voice in my heart. In fact, I wouldn’t recognize it if I heard it with my ears. I only ever met the woman twice in all my life.
I fidget on my yoga mat, adjusting and readjusting the blanket folded under my butt. Damnit, just relax! It’ll be over soon.
I have the thought that it’s a bit weird that I should have such strong resistance to this exercise. I have ancestors just like everyone does, and if anyone’s dead relatives are looming over us in this room, then there’s no reason why mine shouldn’t be here too, beaming their heavenly advice at my intuition receptors. Plus, I’m quite a seance-y kind of person who would normally leap at the chance to get a special message from beyond the great divide. But the truth is, this meditation puts me on edge to a degree that surprises me.
Why the high walls?
Maybe it’s because my family is intergenerationally estranged in all branches of the tree. I don’t know much about the people who made me, beyond the inner ring of my nuclear family. (And, maybe more to the point, they don’t know me.)
Maybe it’s because in what I do know about my ancestors, trauma features heavily, and I have no appetite to get in touch with yet more inherited pain.
Maybe it’s because my own trauma came at the hands of those nearest to me, or because I am stubbornly proud of my hard-won resilience and independence, my self-sustaining ecosystem. All the necessities of life are grown right here on the ship.
Instead of following the meditation prompts, I decide to ride out the exercise by focusing on my inner experience. I notice vigilance, stubbornness, irritation, even anger. Tightness in chest and thighs. Eyes bright and hard behind their lids. My lower lip pulled up like a drawbridge. If the spirits of my ancestors are in this space at all, they’re over there, keeping a respectful distance. As they should.
And then Kim says:
Can you feel them live on in your body?
and I am hit by a fierce wave of HELL, NO.
Reflexively, my arms shoot out in front of me on my yoga mat. My eyes spring open and I point my gaze into all four corners of the room to steady myself. Nobody seems to notice my spastic reaction but I cover for it anyway by turning it into a kind of brisk child’s pose.
My grandparents and the generations before them are vague historical notions to me, impersonal as a museum pamphlet.
My father’s mother should have been the likeliest one to pop in for a spiritual visitation. She was known as the town psychic who relayed messages to wives and widows from the lads at the front during the war. I never met her. To me, she is a single black and white photo with no almost no stories behind it. A face in space.
My mother’s mother died fifteen years ago (or was it ten?). I’d known her mostly as a thick Lithuanian accent on the other end of a rare long-distance phone call that I always tried to wriggle out of. Tell her I’m out playing, I don’t want to say hello. I met her once at the age of two, and again at ten. She was removed and nervous. She smelled of baby powder and the fur of her old kangaroo coat.
And the grandfathers: On my mother’s side, a straight-lipped schoolmaster who died long before I was born. On my father’s side, a barely-known figure with outsized consequence. He was in my life for one brief summer visit the year I turned six, arriving soon after my sister died and staying just long enough to carve an ugly scar in my sexual psyche.
They’re all gone now. And that’s fine with me.
As a person who has grown an entire human being inside my body, I know what ancestry means in a tangible way. At twenty-six, my daughter still feels nearer to me than my own skin, even though she lives on the other side of the world. My womb still pulses with the memory of her quickening.
But these humans who birthed the humans that birthed me? They are unknown to me. They are not mine. Not me. Not here.
Maybe one day I will pick up a thread that weaves me into the fabric of my family of origin, but today, I don’t want to hear their wisdom, their stories, their prayers. Why would I seek counsel down the evolutionary ladder, when I am striving so hard to move up it? Today, let me be a seed that fell from no tree.
I sat out the rest of the meditation with my eyes open. After it was over we used George Ella Lyon’s poem Where I’m From as a writing prompt, and it was a good one.
Here’s the poem that came out of me.
I am from children of war.
From seekers and sailors
and criers of tears who carry on.
I am from tea with digestives.
From boiled sausages.
From macaroni with butter and milk.
I am from the distant shore.
From raw roots
transplanted into loose soil.
I am from bereft parents.
From children lost to accidents,
Lost also to ambition and adventure.
I am from the wild Pacific and the prairie.
From rocky shorelines slick with black-green kelp.
From golden fields of rapeseed rippled by a restless wind.
I am from those who left home young.
The curious and heretical, hopelessly optimistic.
Messages in bottles flung upon the tides.