honoring what’s died

graffiti of skeletons holding handsThis morning it’s hard to get out of the nest. The candles don’t pull me, and I lie there cuddled in with the words from a maybe dream. In my dream, my writing persona had two parts, each with its own name. In my dream I knew each of their names. Something like Lillian and Ruth, but I don’t think that’s right. One side was more linear, or performative, the side that sat down to generate words for public viewing, the side that rafted the writing like an editor. The other part was the organic side, the part that let words flow, the part that tapped into the long seam of imagery and possibility living somewhere inside our psyche and let the writing flow from there — the side for whom writing is a swirl, a vein, an immersion, a mess.

This morning I am thinking about the personae, the selves, and the dead — and I want to know how we can honor all of it.Today is Halloween, Samhain. If this is a trigger day or a trauma anniversary for you, I hope that you can take this day only for yourself — I hope that you can ease into a space of gentleness, that you can call in healing to whatever work would otherwise demand your attention, and write or rest or draw or dream or silly-television yourself through this day.

I am still learning about Samhain — it’s a healing festival and a day to mark the transition to winter, and, akin to Dia de los Muertos, a day to commune and remember and honor the dead. I don’t come from a tradition that celebrates the dead in this way, and I wasn’t raised in a church that brought our dead to conscious memory on All Souls or All Saints day.

The writing is coming hard today. I want something thoughtful about persone and this time of the year, when the veils between the worlds are thin and the selves we used to be or the selves/souls of the ancestors who love us and are always holding us up come closer to our breath. But I don’t come from that tradition — I come from the white america that has been scrubbed of ancestry, detached from our European or other cultural traditions (that necessary payment for jumping into the melting pot of whiteness), and my dead don’t know how to find me. I imagine that’s not true. I don’t know how to listen for them. I don’t know how to welcome them into my home. I snag the entrails of other traditions. I bring marigolds onto my small altars. I wipe the altars clean. I imagine my grandmothers’ hands.

I did not know my grandmothers when they died — my relationship with them had been so severed that I could barely feel them. I want to imagine these women at my elbow, helping me know what to cook that will nourish me best, encouraging this leap I have shoved off into, holding me as I wave goodbye to familiar land. But I can’t feel them. I can’t feel any of my dead. I don’t even know that I have enough of a relationship with anyone in my life who has passed on that I can refer to them as ‘my dead.’ It seems too intimate, seems it ought to be reserved for those who stayed, those who loved them well, those who knew them.

By the time my mother’s grandmother died, I was in college and my stepfather had effectively shed my mother of all of her blood family — it was a miracle that we even saw my grandmother in her nursing home room before she died. I don’t know what he convinced my mother that her mother was responsible for, but my mother had turned her back on her family, and we had no relationship with any of them really by the time I was in high school. My sister and I, of course, had been forced to abdicate all relationship with our father, which meant severing ties with all of that family as well. He worked best without an audience, and any of our outside family might have put a damper on his violence — so they all had to go. When we got back in contact with my father’s family, in the mid-90s, my grandfather cried like I had never seen him do before.

What to do with those tears? Where can they go on my altar now?

This is what trauma can do. This is the long bone of the aftermath. We are split from our blood and we don’t know how to find our way back and the old rituals have been lost, or they were the ones used exactly against us, and so in order for us to reconnect with what should be rightfully ours we would have to run through the knives of our trauma memory. We get severed from the women who could have shown us what it means to thrive in this world — and the next. Those same women have also been severed from this exact capacity — and the men, have, too. We all wore our masks and acted our roles: victim, perpetrator, impotent protector, hand-wringing bystander, unwitting abetter.

I want to be able to feel my dead with me, and that means opening up places inside, deep instinct, that still protects itself with hands over eyes ears mouth, that still wants to be kept safe by not knowing not seeing not hearing anything so that it has nothing to say if anyone asks. How do we touch hands with those who could not or did not save us when they were alive — how do we tell them we forgive them, how do we ask their forgiveness after they have gone?

I can only write into it. Writing is the only magic I know. That, and making soup, but that’s a different post.

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A prompt for this day: write a letter to your dead (or allow your character to write/communicate with their dead). Notice what arises in you as you read the prompt. What does ‘my dead’ mean for you? Are these friends, lovers, family — and/or inside parts of yourself? Are there dreams that have died that you’d like to honor? Write into those relationships — or notice if there is a voice/ancestor that would like to write to you. Follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go, and be easy with yourself. Set a timer for ten minutes, and when it goes off, lift the pen off the page — let yourself be finished if you’re finished. You don’t have to be drawn into a conversation that doesn’t serve you.

Here’s to that which sustains us even without our conscious awareness, and to the relationships lost before they could truly flourish. Thank you for your generosity of spirit today. Thank you for the power of your words.

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