Making Peace With Your Ancestors (While Acknowledging Harms)
Thank you for reading and sharing this newsletter — I’m so grateful to all the new subscribers following along. And I hope February is treating you as well as it can. This photo of Ida, Rufus, and Daisy not exactly relaxing at dusk amid clashing textiles mirrors the tension between my own desire to submit and settle into the season and my mounting restlessness as the wintry days go by and voting rights erode, etc. We’ve got some sun here on Lenape land in New York City today, which always helps.
In this edition of the newsletter: things of note, and things I’ve enjoyed or am anticipating; some thoughts on making peace with your ancestors; an event; book news; and this month’s giveaway (a Planting Justice gift certificate) and a bonus sweepstakes coming from Random House.
Of Note, Enjoyed, or Anticipated
An article on determining the date of old family picture postcards gives me an excuse to share my own favorite, above. That’s my great-great grandmother Martha Caroline with her granddaughters, my granny Martha at left, and Granny’s sister Louise at right, in Texas (probably Dallas), around 1913.
Glimpses into kinship practices in an Early Neolithic tomb, in the journal Nature: Ancient DNA from “one of the best-preserved Neolithic tombs in Britain has revealed that most of the people buried there were from five continuous generations of a single extended family” that lived ~5700 years ago.
Fredrick Miller bought a former tobacco plantation in Virginia in the area where he grew up and where much of his family still lives, and then learned that his ancestors were enslaved on the plantation.
“Grave Matters: Segregation and Racism in U.S. Cemeteries”: David Sherman reflects on remains, burial grounds, and privileged belonging. Sherman also co-authored an essay on how poetic elegies help make space for pandemic grief.
“For women of color living the immigrant experience in America, Raksha Vasudevan writes, family estrangement poses a painful double burden.”
Dani Shapiro’s Family Secrets: Season Five continues.
“Why Did 16th-Century Andean Villagers String Together the Bones of Their Ancestors? Researchers suggest the practice was a response to Spanish conquistadors’ desecration of the remains.”
I’m enjoying Awakening Artemis: Deepening Intimacy with the Earth and Reclaiming Our Wild Nature, by Vanessa Chakour. (Thanks to Elizabeth for the rec!)
I’m excited to read Stephanie Foo’s What My Bones Know: A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma, just out. (Starred PW review.) I discovered Foo through her wonderful Curbed essay about tending Forest Park — “I Tackled My Climate Anxiety by Becoming a Parks Department Super Steward” — while finishing up a first draft of my Curbed essay about a now-abandoned effort to turn part of that beloved land into a parking lot.
Making Peace With Your Ancestors
I wrote this list in the third person for an Ancestor Trouble reading club guide that my publisher is putting together, and I thought it might interest some of you. I’ll keep it in the third person here, as if I didn’t just tell you I wrote it. For me, this peacemaking is an ongoing step along the way to my personal reckoning with my ancestors’ harmful legacies in my individual family and the culture at large.
As Newton explores in the book, there are many ways to make peace with and honor your ancestors, from practical acts to psychological and creative contemplations, and even spiritual rituals. Newton offers the following suggestions.
Learn about your ancestors through records, research, and family stories. Set aside time to reflect on how their legacies reverberate in your own life and in your family and beyond.
Visit ancestors’ graves and places important to them to honor their memory. If this isn’t possible, consider making and savoring foods that they liked, or that are common to the places they came from. Incorporate objects that belonged to beloved ancestors into your life and home.
Be open to imaginative associations. If you think of your grandmother every time a cardinal visits your feeder, take a moment to honor her memory and your feelings.
Make peace with your ancestors by acknowledging their harms and working against legacies of those harms. Open-hearted conversations with family about difficult histories can be transformative. Lean into “I feel” statements and questions about your family member’s own feelings. Consider volunteering, or giving financial support in an ancestor’s name. Take care not to expect forgiveness from those who have been harmed.
Recognize your limits. Flooding ourselves with memories of difficult family experiences or marinating exclusively in our ancestors’ troubled pasts can be harmful to our own well-being and prevent us from seeing possibilities for repair. Working with ancestors is a lifelong journey, and it’s okay to take a break. Meditation, therapy, and support groups can be helpful resources if we find ourselves overwhelmed and stuck.
Consider whether more explicitly spiritual practices may have resonance for you. If you come from people whose ancestor rituals remain intact, reclaiming or deepening those can be a good way to build an ancestor veneration practice.
If ancestor reverence interests you but is not part of your own known family history, consider what practices might hold meaning for you. Newton describes her journey from yearning for connection to learning of ancestor-centered rituals across the world and across time, and finally to herself experiencing ancestor reverence as a “doorway to something vital and sacred, accessible as earth, and natural as breath.” Histories of many European rituals are contentious and have been lost, but books and classes can help seekers forge their own path. [A prior newsletter has some suggestions for reading and more toward the end.]
Newton suggests considering the following ways of getting started:
o Lighting a candle for ancestors is a veneration practice across many cultures.
o Devoting a place, often called an altar, to ancestors can be a kind of intention-setting. The spot could be as simple as a section of one bookshelf or tabletop. Some people refill a water glass on the altar daily. Some include photographs of beloved dead (though others believe it is best not to do this because of the idea, as Newton describes, that “not all the dead are equally well”).
o Consider that many religions practiced in the West (such as, in Newton’s case, Christianity) originally coexisted with ancestor rituals.
o Spend time with trees, plants, animals, and landscapes, and imagine your ancestors’ relationship to their own world.
o Trust your own intuition and imagination.
A Free Talk
I’ll be giving a free talk called Ancestor Trouble: The Truth Will Set You Free for the spiritual community of one of my ancestor work teachers, Larisa Noonan. I’ll be sharing some of my thoughts about and approaches to acknowledgment genealogy as a companion to more explicitly spiritual ancestor work practices. The event will be held remotely on Sunday, February 13, at 1 p.m. Eastern/10 a.m. Pacific.
Some Book News
Ancestor Trouble is the May pick for Roxane Gay’s Audacious Book Club! As you’ll see if you click through to her newsletter, she’s had an incredibly tough year, and I’m frankly floored by her generosity in such difficult times. Ancestor Trouble is also among the most anticipated books at indie bookstores, including Greenlight Bookstore, Books Are Magic (bookseller Colleen’s comments above), Book People, Flyleaf Books, and Eagle Harbor Books. Gratitude to the booksellers — and to the librarians supporting the book, too. The Seattle Public Library lists it among their “Peak Picks,” and the San Francisco Public Library includes it among the books they’re looking forward to. The book also received a nice review in Library Journal and is anticipated by Thrillist.
And last but definitely not least: the winner of last month’s advance copy giveaway, Louise, posted some generous and completely unexpected praise for Ancestor Trouble — and the yaupon tea — at Lone Star on a Lark.
If you’re wondering about book events, they will be mostly (if not entirely) remote. The planning is still in process, but two great ones are nearly all figured out and a couple more are in the works. I’ll tell you about them next time, or you can check my site events page in a week or two.
This month’s giveaway is a $100 gift certificate purchased from nonprofit organic nursery Planting Justice, which in addition to growing many fruit trees, vegetable plants, and herbs for sale offers programs including food justice education, holistic re-entry from prison, a permaculture landscaping team, urban farms, and training centers, and also provides living-wage jobs for formerly incarcerated people. I ordered a couple of their dwarf nana pomegranate trees last fall (pictured with kitten and rosemary plant above) and they’re thriving in my front window.
To enter, preorder Ancestor Trouble or request it from your local library (here are some tips on asking a library to order a book if it’s not in the catalog). All preorders or requests, before or after this newsletter, count. If you’d like a signed or personalized copy, order at Greenlight Bookstore and include the details of your request in your order comments at checkout. Send the receipt of purchase or library request in reply to this newsletter or as a DM to me at Twitter or Instagram. Entries must be received by Thursday February 10, at 11:59 PM (Pacific). U.S. residents only (sorry!). The winner will be notified by email or (as the case may be) DM.