uring this season of remembering and honoring our ancestors and the Beloved Dead, and in the festivals that come after for many of us – the holiday season proper – it is unavoidable to think about family, and for many of us, those thoughts are not happy ones, and they are not simple. It can be a time of loneliness and despair, rather than cheer and solace; or it can be a mixed bag of both in such a way that leaves us profoundly confused. If the unfolding season leaves so many people despondent, confused or alone with respect to family, that is because family really is a confusing and complicated thing. So many of us simply do not have families to turn to. Or if we do have families, so many others have relationships straining to the breaking point. Or others may even have no relationship: for how can a relationship be cultivated between people who stand on different sides of what seems to be a great unbridgeable chasm?
No wonder that, as soon as the times of coming together begin, so many of us withdraw, out of genuine need for protection, simply because when it came to family, we did not seem to luck out.
We have a saying in my family: we say “in-laws and outlaws” when lovingly referring to the extended family. You try to find a way to laugh, because sometimes that’s the only thing you can do, short of moaning. I’ve got some salty stories to tell about the generations way back, let me tell you, and I bet I’m not the only one. I’ve lost count of so many people who have a history of cruelty and violence in their family, a history that forces them to keep their distance at all costs. How do we honor such truths, and how do we tell such stories? Aren’t they better left unsaid and forgotten?
A Sacred Arts perspective on the whole problem of family begins with the community of the living and the dead, the past, present and future. It begins from the vantage point of the whole, which for us is like gazing at the radiant sky and earth on clear and starry night. What might we learn if we start here? No matter what form family takes, no matter what it looks like at present, everyone has a family, and that means everyone has stories worth telling and listening to. Stories are healing, and so that means that we don’t have to go very far to let the healing begin.
The dead are all-too-easily forgotten – even the ones that deserve to be remembered. Out of sight, out of mind. So when we think of family, we tend to let only what we see and touch orient us. But if we start with the whole, family is not necessarily made up of people we can always touch and see with our eyes, nor are they necessarily related by blood. Not only in space, but even far away in time do they dwell. The living and the dead make up our family. What this means for us is that there is a tremendous wellspring of strength from which to draw, starting with this enlarged sense of family.
One of the delightful older stories (it comes from the writings of Plato) has family and friends meet in the afterlife for what looks like a festival. Before moving on to the next phase of their journey, they pass their time strolling about together at leisure sharing stories with one another about their experiences. Can you imagine getting all your people together to share stories? What an interesting and raucous time that would be – it would be a story in itself. If family is a mess, it is a divine sort of mess.
We wish our family could be the ones that care for us, laugh and cry with us, and love us always and no matter what. We wish all of our ancestors are the ones who stand behind us with their hands placed ever so gently upon our back and shoulders urging us forward, encouraging us to dream bigger and go farther than ever.
magic, miracles: receive my lunar letters
ARRIVING on full moons each month.
Every descent into dark and scary places, every journey into the Underworld involves finding the right medicine, a medicine that can be retrieved and brought back into daily life where it may be put to good use.
Like Inanna or Ishtar, Dionysus, Jesus Christ, Persephone or San Juan de la Cruz, we will choose to harrow hell in order to find healing, wholeness, and true, bone-deep, holiness.
So we go, we go to the crossroads and then we descend down into the belly of the world where we are asked to see not with our eyes but with our hearts, minds, and physical bodies. We learn to see a crisis for what it really is: a choice. And to make that choice wisely and descend into the unknown is often the hardest part requiring the greatest courage
As I see it, many of us, many of you, in our own ways have agreed to this task. We have signed up to look at our own scared and scarred places, and many of us again, through various activisms, have signed up to confront the shadowy realms we find in our neighborhoods, our schools, our communities, our regions, and our countries.
Yes, we say again and again: yes! We will go into the unknown places, and we will do the hard work!
And we do. Bless us and all that we are. There are so many of us, far more than I think are typically recognized or acknowledged.
But in the doing and confronting, in the healing and the dealing, in the hard truth-telling and the brave action-taking, we often forget that the struggle itself is, after all, not the story. The struggle is only one part of a much greater tale. The end, the goal, is the gleaming treasure, the victory, the cup of blessing, the medicine that restores life, not merely the struggle, the bitter, the challenge.
The Underworld in the old stories is traditionally understood as the most dangerous realm not because of what you encounter there. Every demon was, after all, once upon a time, just another angel. No, the Underworld is the most dangerous realm because it is the place that will trip you up and keep you stuck, mired in a swamp of your own waste.
This is why Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell is not the hottest part of the Inferno, but rather colder than cold, frozen in place and time, still and deadly. It is what can happen to each of us as we confront our shadows. We can remain locked in a never-ending struggle, like the figure Sisyphus in the old Greek tales.
But hear this: our lives are not meant to be lived as one eternal and exhausting Sisyphus-like struggle. The underworld, also traditionally known as the realm of illusion, has pulled one over on us, so that every victory we accomplish is not met with a period of peace and rest as it should be, but instead is met with yet another crisis to solve, another journey to go on, another descent ever deeper this time, to make.
Does anyone else feel stifled and even hopeless by this scenario? So what can be done?
The answer is clearly not to go back to the surface and become satisfied with superficial answers and options to tough choices.
No, the answer is found when we look again to the ones whose footsteps we first followed: Inanna or Ishtar, Dionysus, Jesus Christ, Persephone or San Juan de la Cruz. Descent is followed by ascent. We go down so that we might come back up to the topside world, changed and carrying the needed treasure, the life-saving medicine.
Or, if that seems abstract I would say this: in every cave and every underground place physically in the world, you go down far enough and you will hit water. Even and especially in the most dry, deserted, heaven forsaken places this is true, go down far enough and you will find water, you will find life. And when you do finally find it, the water surges and springs up through bedrock and shadow, through cave and root systems it springs up, enlivening and enriching everything it touches until it reaches the surface where it flows and nourishes all creatures and the land upon which they live. The spirit of this life-saving medicine we seek works for us too in just this way.
Even in the places receiving the least light, places which leave us feeling most terrified, most empty, most bereft. Even here, if you will go down far enough, you will find a well of water, a well of life, that given half the chance will spring up, healing what is hurting, mending the broken pieces, calling forth restoration and carrying you back up through the shadowlands into your one, blessed life.
You and I, all of us, have what it takes to confront adversity or necessity. Go down far enough and you’ll find it too. Necessity, once known as an ancient and powerful Goddess, demands from us our most creative and inventive aspects, makes us stronger in ways that matter, and provides the occasion for betterment. She is a whetstone against which we sharpen our minds, a deep note with which we may attune our Souls.
And so for those of you who feel the weight of crisis after crisis, who feel it is always a struggle, always so hard, and rarely getting easier I simply say this: there is a well, deep within. It is time to dig down let it spring forth!
In love and blessing~
magic, miracles: receive my lunar letters
ARRIVING on full moons each month.