Wednesday, October 3, 2018
Remembering the Forgotten
This time of year, we often remember and acknowledge our ancestors: those who have come before. Many of us honor the people, blood related or not, who have influenced us and made us who we are today. Whether you have a dedicated ancestor practice or not, many people are drawn to connect with ancestors during this season.
But, sometimes it's like talking about past lives: everyone wants to have been someone important, but no one wants to have been a farmer or servant. Of course, we should remember the mighty dead, the great heroes and the important people who created great change in their day, change that echoes and influences the world today.
But we should also remember the ordinary people (gosh I really disliked all the words I thought for describing this: normal, simple, smaller....perhaps unseen?). There are a million, million lives that no one remembers. And whether they made great ripples or not, we know that the slightest action will create huge waves as it builds through time!
It takes work, to connect with and remember the less obvious people. You may not know much about them, you may not even have a name to work with. Perhaps you know that your grandmother talked about her grandmother, and how she worked hard every day, just to keep food on the table, and to keep all the kids clothes clean and well patched. Or how your great uncle used to be able to whistle like any bird, and you used to listen to him for hours as a child.
Even further back, how many great people were able to rise to greatness because of the many people around them who did little things. How many unsung heroes were there? People who lived and died in anonymity, but still worked hard and risked everything for the causes they believed in. For every historic figure, who made great bold gestures, ask yourself how many other people, forgotten in the history books, acted to support those great gestures, in their own way.
In wars, we remember the leaders and the people who stood out, but every soldier was out there, on those battlefields, fighting for their lives. We look back, and we pick a side that we agree with, and we like to think that everyone on the other side was a bad person. But how many people had no choice. How many soldiers were conscripted to fight? How many fought to protect or save their families? How many were lied to or fought out of ignorance? Do they deserve our disdain?
People are complicated, and the obvious story isn't always the true one. One common thread, when thinking about ancestor work, is what do you do about family members that were horrible to you? Or family members that lived lives that you don't agree with. Perhaps you have a criminal ancestor, or one with radically different political or social views than you.
I can't tell anyone how to practice, but consider this: did that ancestor teach you a lesson? They say that those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it. And we often say that people were 'from a different time' to excuse behavior that wouldn't be acceptable today. When we look back an ancestors, who did things that were not condemned in their time, perhaps we can honor them in the light of teaching us that those kinds of behaviors are not right.
In our local Day of the Dead ceremony, we name the beloved dead. Everyone attending has the opportunity to add names to the list that we read and honor. And let me tell you, even with only a dozen of us there, the list gets long! This is something that happens, as you uncover more and more ancestors who have influenced you, especially as you start to name the forgotten in your list.
I don't feel that we need to name each and every ancestor, every time we work with our ancestors, to honor them. At any given moment, our heart is leaning a different way. Some days, we may be angry and defiant, and called towards our rebellious ancestors. Other days, we may be feeling quite content and full of love for the simple things, and it is the ancestors who were focused on home and hearth that call to us. Or, we may be fully engaged in a new project, and hearing the call of our innovative and studious ancestors!
I like calling out to more generalized categories of the dead, and honoring specific people who I am connecting with most deeply in that moment. I may address 'all my ancestors of blood and bone, all my kin of heart and spirit, my sisters and brothers of path and art,' before calling out actual names.
I also feel very moved when honoring the lives lost in disasters, but I think it is important to remember them as a collective, not by specific names (unless I actually, personally knew people involved). If there were one or two names that were made famous, I think it is better to remember 'the victims of the hurricane/shooting'. Nothing hurts my heart more than the thought of someone, lost and alone and ultimately forgotten, in a big disaster like that, where the media has focused on certain people, and left off mentions of the countless others who were effected.
One of the ways I honor the forgotten is to read the lesser known stories. And not just about the big moments in time. There are heart-touching stories about every period, about every type of person, in all walks of life, around the globe. There is something really poignant about hearing about how people have adapted, how they have struggled and overcome, and how they made do with what was available.
Pictures are another great way to connect with the forgotten. Looking at a powerful picture transcends language. It doesn't matter if you know anything about the person's culture or time period, there is a connection there that brings their live into yours, no matter how many years have passed. I really love looking at pictures that travelers have taken, especially of ordinary people going about their regular lives.
We live in a wonderful age, where we have access to these pictures and stories, through libraries and the internet. We can explore the past in ways that people of other ages simply couldn't. And we can sample so many lives in so many eras.
When we look at the people who came before, we tap into their story, and they are remembered. We may not know who they were, or the specifics of what they were doing, but we can imagine. We can ask questions and think about what it might have been like. And we can honor their memory, in whatever form we experience it.
And to me, that's what it's all about. If their stories can echo forward, to reach and effect us, then our remembrance can reach back (or out, to wherever they are now). Let us not only remember and honor the shining stars, but also every light in the darkness that we can make out....and even the dark spaces in between, the places that we know have light, even though we can't see it.