Honoring our ancestors

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Outside tonight, a cold rain is falling, and we are likely to get our first hard freeze of the season. It seems fitting, given that we are moving rapidly from the upward, outward energy of summer to the inward, downward energy of winter. It is a time of reflection and conserving our energy. It is a time when the veils between the worlds of life and death are thin, when our ancestors are accessible to share their wisdom with us. It is a time of honoring the passage of time and the movement between living and dying. It is also the time that farmers and gardeners both look forward to and mourn–the time when the earth sleeps, when seeds are stratified by the cold, when plants’ energy moves from leaf to root. The fruits are harvested; the roots are dug and stored before the ground freezes. It is a time of rest after a busy period of harvesting and storing food. We all let out a kind of audible exhale.

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When I was first formally studying herbs, I remember vividly my teacher Maia Toll recounting her studies in Ireland where they stopped harvesting from the garden on Samhain (October 31), leaving presents of gratitude for the garden and for the faeries who lived there. This stuck with me, and I have taken this up as a practice too. After October is over, I stop harvesting herbs from my garden. I might wild harvest some hawthorn berries or rose hips or burdock root, but I allow my garden to have its rest, and I offer my thanks and some token of gratitude to the plants, the soil, and all the spirits who help to tend the land. Last night, I went out in the cold, cloudy night and spoke lovingly to the garden that has nourished me and so many others throughout this season. I pledged to care for it even better next year, and I offered gifts. It felt like a circle coming to a close, and it allowed me to come inside and enjoy the candlelight and release the energies of the last cycle. Now, we begin again the descent to the darkness of reflection and quiet.

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I long for this time, even though the lead up to this period is often filled with the energy of grief. I get a little melancholy when the light begins to wane and the sun is not so high in the sky. I use a lot of elixirs as medicine to remind me of the sweetness and expansiveness of summer. This year in particular, I found myself feeling adrift. It could have been the Mercury retrograde period in conjunction with an intense eclipse. It could have just been loneliness, but it’s been hard to shake.
Last week, I gathered around a fire with friends to honor our ancestors, and during our journey, I had a visit with one of my most legendary ancestors, my great-grandfather Wesley. I gazed into the fire and saw him as a young man huddled around a coke oven at a coal mining site trying to keep warm. At 11 years old, he was virtually on his own, without an education, and cast out of his family after his mother remarried a man who didn’t want Wesley. He worked in the mines in Western Pennsylvania from the age of nine on. He found his way in the world and made a good life for himself, but it was a hard life. In my journey, my great-grandfather said to me, “We don’t give up. No matter what happens, we just keep going.” It struck me that he was shaking me out of my melancholy. He was telling me what I am made of, even when it doesn’t feel true. It felt like a gift.

Since then, I’ve been cultivating gratitude for my ancestors. I come from immigrants fleeing civil war, farmers making their life on the land, millers producing flour and grains, and many others whose stories and names I do not know. I have become a librarian, and I think of my illiterate great-grandfather often when I am in the library, realizing the great privilege I have to be there. I remember the rhythms of the land from my childhood, and I work to cultivate those relationships with the land and with time more and more every year as a way of honoring my ancestors, honoring my place in this cycle of life and my love of this land that has held and supported me.

And here is one of my ancestors who passed me a great deal of his wisdom–my grandfather Stanley, son of Wesley (and my mom, who I am so grateful to still have walking the earth).
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