The work that we do is personal and, sometimes, it can be difficult to know what to share. While the easier option is simply not to talk about it, there are times to be vulnerable and honest as well.
These thoughts are going through my head as I weigh how open I want to be when talking about how my trip to New Orleans reminded me of the importance of ancestor work.
If you hadn’t caught Josh’s blog entry on our trip, check it out here. It’s a good assessment of the vibe of New Orleans and why we enjoyed it so much. We didn’t start our trip there, though. First, we visited Josh’s cousin who lived 2 hours north of the city. While Josh and his cousin were off to pick up a rental car, I found myself with a little time to myself. I wandered around town, checking out the plants that I know as houseplants happily growing wild in front of abandoned buildings. I’m ecstatic as I identify orange trees and rosemary. There were plants there that wouldn’t survive the winter in my northern garden and my plant geekery was in full display.
I rounded a corner to come face to face with a cemetery. The cemeteries there are visually very different, with the groundwater being so close to the surface. Instead of simple gravestones, there were concrete caskets that rose from the graveyard ground like a strange miniature city of the dead. I approached the graveyard, following the twisted sidewalk across from a trailer park where a BBQ was in the works. Passing through the gates of the graveyard with the background sounds of community and zydeco music struck me as rather surreal.
Then, I was distracted by the ghosts.
I don’t have the skills of clear communication with the dead like Josh does, but I can still feel them. And they were there. And some of them were loud. I could feel my brain kind of switch into a light trance as I walked amongst the graves. The cemeteries up North don’t feel like this! Is it because the bodies are above ground and not allowed to rest and decompose in the ground, I thought? After a little wandering, I had to sit down. My head was swimming and I was feeling spirits tugging at me, but I wasn’t getting any clear information. Eventually I stumbled out and tried to walk off the energy high that I was riding.
Fast forward a few days. Josh and I are exploring Charity Hospital Cemetery. If you’ve read Josh’s blog entry, you already know the deal. As we wandered through the central part of the cemetery, the two parts of the cemeteries on the sides called me. I could feel the loud spirits there. This time I was prepared, though. I made offerings of tobacco to the spirits where it felt the most intense (though I later learned that the traditional offering to spirits down there was coins). Some were just loud. Some were in some sort of spiritual pain. Things were certainly more complex than what I was used to. I was also certain that this had connection to what some of the living folks in the area, and how they were interacting with these spirits.
Inspired to learn a little more about the magical traditions of the area, we found a little bit of literature on the subjects of Hoodoo, Conjure, and Voudoun. What I learned that the flavor of practice in New Orleans is certainly a mixed bag of old Haitian religion, folk magic, and Catholicism. Oh, and ancestor worship along with working magic in cemeteries. While there are plenty of folks out there practicing their tradition to heal and bring balance, it certainly isn’t everyone. That was part of what Josh and I were feeling. There are those that work with spirits, and there are those that take advantage of the dead in a predatory way. As Josh said as we left the cemetery “I love this city, but I wouldn’t want to be buried here.”
It was the thought of the power of the dead over our living world that played in my mind as we flew home. I poured through the books that we had purchased, thinking about both how the dead affected us, as well as our ancestors.
Ancestors play a large role in many spiritual traditions. As Josh likes to say, it took many loves to get us where we are. We are a mash up of genetics and the environment that our parents and extended family created for us to grow up in. So many cultures make room in their lives for their dead. The fact that we don’t as Americans correlates well with our issues with death and the dead. That’s a whole other blog entry, though.
As I read about yet another tradition that dealt with honoring ancestors, I wiggled in my seat in unease. For the longest time, I’ve been dodging that work, instead sticking to the living and spirits of nature. Something began to become clear in my head. Ancestor work needs to be part of my practice.
And I didn’t want to.
I tried to do a little work with my ancestors before. At first, I had a bunch of excuses to skip that work. But it boiled down to one excuse, and it was a good one.
I had a relative who had created a whole lot of trauma for a young me standing in the way.
I remember the day that he had died. That night was, interestingly enough, a lunar eclipse. I was at a friend’s house with a whole group of people when I found out, probably 19 or 20. When I hung up the phone, I processed the information. The man who had abused me in my preteen years sending me in a spiral of self destructive behavior throughout my teens had died. I wasn’t much of a ceremonialist at that time, but I do remember what eventually popped up in my mind.
“Well, fuck, I don’t want him haunting me.”
So, I knew I needed to do some sort of ceremony to release all of the trauma that I had been holding in. I don’t remember the details of the ceremony that night he died. I just remember lighting a candle, squatting in a driveway between a car and a wild garden as the moon slowly disappeared. I told him that I wanted him to move on, I would forgive best I could, and wanted healing for his spirit. While he had done terrible things to me, I recognized that he was a product of bad experience himself. He was passing trauma and grief onto me back then, but I was going to be the end of that cycle of pain.
It was a strong ceremony for me, but the healing of the wounds that he had created would still be part of my future shamanic work. It is something that is now a source of strength that I can draw on, no matter how messed up the situation was that brought the strength into the world. I would do work to continue healing, but I didn’t want to do ancestor work. He was there, and I’d rather not pull that energy into my life.
It was about a month before our New Orleans trip that I would be made aware that it wasn’t much of a choice. I have a friend who also does medium work. We decided to do a little work trade. She gets a little Reiki, I get a little reading. When she arrived at the studio, she was ready to go. She had a ghost who was ready to talk. As she described him, I’m sure my face turned a little pale. She was describing him. And he was there, feeling sorrow for what he had done. He was still there, looking for some sort of absolution.
He was still there on the plane as I looked at my ancestors in my mind. I could feel the nudge of my Guides as realization came upon me. Moving beyond the trauma of childhood abuse is one thing. I have more work as a shaman, though. I have to figure out how to heal the line of trauma. I have to do healing work for my abuser so I can properly connect to my ancestral line.
And, to be honest, that’s pretty shitty.
It’s at moments like this that I am reminded how full of shit the outlook of spiritual work being all love and light is. It can bring healing and balance, but to do that, there’s a lot of unpleasantness that you have to wade through. Sometimes, that might even mean taking on a deceased client who has done you wrong. It’s time to put this ghost to rest through ceremony and journeywork, so he can find healing and I can move past him to grow as a healer.
And these are my thoughts on ghosts that I have been tackling since New Orleans. I think that it’s good to share these struggles, as it shows a side to this work that you might not necessarily see. Thank you for taking this literary journey with me.
The Green Mountain Mage