“Walking. I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.”
~ Linda Hogan
On this threshold between one year and the next, my thoughts naturally not only turn to reflections of my own life, but also to those who came before me and the world we leave for future generations.
I grew up in a culture and was raised with a mind-set that stressed the importance of always looking ahead, setting goals, and aiming to improve myself. Every action was intended to yield future results: pay attention in school so you can get good grades, so you can go to University, so you can get a good entry level job, so you can earn a living… and so on. While I am all for personal development, one of the side-effects of this mentality is that it took me until my thirties to realise that the most important time of my life is right now – not sometime in the future which has not yet even come to pass.
Looking back and reflecting was also not greatly encouraged in this progress-focused mentality (although rumination and depression were frequent visitors, go figure!). When my mother died, the message to the 7-year-old me was that we will bury and honour her, and then I should move on with my life. Move forward! There was no time for honouring the ancestors beyond this veneration of the recently deceased. This is something which I’m happy to say has very much changed in my life.
In the end, it was a healthily balanced combination of my academic curiosity and walking a shamanic path that has brought me closer to my ancestors. There is so much to learn and to discover, all of which is so relevant to my life right now. With a little research, I realised that over the course of ten generations, my ancestral pool would consist of well over 2000 individuals; mothers and fathers, from all of whom I am directly descended… One estimate suggests that the most recent common ancestor of all the people on the planet may have lived as recently as 3000 years ago. Everything is connected.
Of my own ancestry I know a little, especially on my father’s side of the family. My great-grandfather had to prove his heritage to the Third Reich to obtain his “Aryan certificate” (Ariernachweis). Almost a century later, I am holding the red, handwritten leather bound book in my hands that contains the family tree which once ensured my family’s safety. “Sobering” is too small a word to capture the gravity of everything this symbolises. But beyond the cold shivers, I feel an infinitely deep sense of gratitude at possessing this knowledge now, however harrowing the circumstances of its inception.
Just as my brother and father still are today, my forefathers were carpenters. And prior to at least eight generations of carpentry, the patriarchs in my family were clock-makers, during an age when time-telling devices were only just emerging. They were pioneers and – I imagine – travellers out of necessity, as the early clocks were few and far between and not generally portable.
Like all family trees I am sure, my own is a testimony to many tragedies alongside the joyful occasions. Of course there were many births and marriages, but also infant deaths, ancestors who died in battle or long before their time. Some were murdered, some took their own lives, and some were apparently adulterers. I am descended from the odd petty thief; one great-great-great-great uncle (or thereabouts) appears to have been arrested on at least 16 different occasions. The trickster has never been far away. I think on a deeper level we all know this, but holding the evidence in my hands fills me with a deep sense of gratitude towards those who came before me, the battles they fought, and the love they shared – all of which were essential in shaping this time and age and the chance for me to live this very life today.
Although I don’t own a television, I completely understand the fascination with genealogy programmes, or the popularity of ancestry.com. Curiosity is a powerful agent, and understanding where we have come from can give us a greater sense of who we are and why we are here today. It can give us a strong sense of continuity and connection and make us aware of the legacy we are leaving for future generations. Finally, I see it as a reminder of my own mortality, which in my books can only be a good thing.
”They envy us because we’re mortal, because any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again.”
~ David Benioff
I believe that there are many ways of learning about and from our ancestors, with genealogy being but one of them. A few months ago, I took part in a shamanic celebration of connection with our ancestors, which involved visiting each ancestor in my maternal and paternal line by stepping back through time. This gave me the opportunity to ask questions of them, such as what their struggles were, what brought them joy, and in what ways they have not been heard. I am sure there are plenty of critics of this approach who would argue that this information is unlikely to be correct. My thoughts are that this information is not even knowable by means of science and genealogy and besides, the accuracy is not actually all that important. It means a lot to me, and the experience encouraged me to see my family in a light of compassion. It once again left me feeling so much more grateful for all that they have given me.
Earlier this year, my wonderfully practical and entirely humanist father visited me in Scotland. Through circumstances and conversations worthy of an entire blog post in its own right, we ended up visiting a stone circle together. We shared our ideas about how those who came before us had built the site, from transporting the stones to working out and justifying the alignment of each individual stone. It was a beautiful moment, one I have no doubt I will treasure for the rest of my life. Here I was, with my father, honouring our ancestors in a way that was comfortable for both of us; at a crossroad of my scientific and spiritual path.
Tonight, during this time of transition, I honour my past, step firmly into the present moment and look into the future. All can be held in the present moment. Tonight, I honour and thank my ancestors, for making all this possible. Aho!