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Flowers for the Living

by Irish Flambeau, with help from Shiny Crow

It's possible that some people have relatives who are perfectly sweet, nice and pleasant all the time, but I don't know anyone like that.

Some of the hardest relatives to deal with are our living ancestors, our elders. They can really make us crazy! And I've noticed that many people feel more comfortable doing "ancestor work" with dead ancestors, or "spiritual ancestors" that they're not related to at all. I certainly understand why that may be, and I think that something is missing from that kind of work. Someone is being left out. The Living Ancestors.

The first person to talk to me about Living Ancestor work was my mother, Shiny Crow. I had become estranged from my grandparents after confronting them on their participation in patterns of abuse and neglect that had gone on in our family for generations. When Shiny Crow broached the subject with me, I literally hadn't spoken to my grandparents in three years. Shiny Crow had started to intentionally and consciously interact with them as part of her spiritual path, and urged me to do the same.

I was eventually able to be in relationship with my grandparents, without denying anything about who they were, or what they had done.

I didn't want to do it. Shiny Crow gently nagged me. She said it would make a big difference to me after they died, to know that I had done what I could to come to some sort of resolution with them. She said to do it for myself, not for them. In the end, I did it for my mother, but the results were the same. I started visiting them again, in the company of my mother. Having a shared purpose with my mom made me feel closer to her. We were co-conspirators in healing what we could within the family. I was eventually able to be in relationship with my grandparents, without denying anything about who they were, or what they had done. And they knew what I thought about them, and were able to be in relationship with me.

The value of this work really became clear after my grandfather died. My uncle, who hadn't addressed any of the family problems, suddenly became distraught. He began having intrusive memories of his childhood, to experience strong emotions and feel helpless about it. He felt acutely the fact that his parents were now dead and he would never, ever get a chance to resolve anything with them. In contrast, my mom and I felt rather at peace about issues from the past. I think my uncle really missed his chance, because at the end of his life, my grandfather had undergone an amazing spiritual change that may have enabled them to have a much different kind of connection.

"I'm not sure I can do that," you may say. I don't think you can afford not to. Not only does this work benefit you, it benefits our community and the Goddess. Unfortunately for our rational minds, all ancestors wear the face of the Goddess. Even the abusive ancestors, because She is immanent. You are a magic worker, a Witch. Who better to take on the task of family healing with Living Ancestors? Who better, and who else?

Your Living Ancestors have something to offer you, things to teach you, even if you don't know what it might be. Even if the lessons are hard. You are linked to your ancestors by blood. Some say there's a reason you're linked to them in this way. What if it's true? What if you incarnated into your family in order to work on something? Even if it's not true, the family holds a treasure trove of information, teachings and healing opportunities. Some people just have to get around the dragon in order to get there.

It may be that your ancestors are so difficult that the best you can do is to learn from them what you don't want to be.

It may be that your ancestors are so difficult that the best you can do is to learn from them what you don't want to be. When you are in the presence of your Living Ancestors, any tendencies you have to be like them will be highlighted. You will know which parts of them you want to let go and which good parts you can embrace. Observe. Witness. This sorting process will show you that you are, according to Shiny Crow, "a bead on the never ending necklace of your family line".

You may decide that it's not possible to physically be in the presence of your Living Ancestors. Some ancestors are not physically or emotionally safe to be around. If that is the case, work with that. What are the blocks to a relationship with your ancestors? What do these blocks show you about yourself, about family, about humanity? What wishes and hopes have you had to give up? Who are you? How do you create a Family Of Choice?

With most relatives, though, it's much more mundane than that — like the work I'm doing with my father. Recently, I confronted my father when he reneged on his invitation for me to visit him in Mexico for the Day of the Dead celebration. He decided that it was "too touristy" a time to come, withdrew his long accepted invitation to my husband and me, and literally told me I could not visit during that time. I expressed my disappointment and disapproval that he would cancel an already accepted invitation for that reason. His response was to call me a "petulant child," among other things.

My father habitually approaches me as if I were a naughty little girl. I could decide to take my ball and go home, but I refuse to leave the playing field. Instead, I set limits and boundaries with my father. I calmly informed him that my husband and I were sad that we weren't welcome at that time, and that in place of visiting him, we would be attending Tejas Web's Samhain Camp. (Much better than visiting my father, lemme tell ya). I went on to say that we would welcome him at Thanksgiving when he arrived in the States. Why? Because I decided that just because he is a donkey's patoot when dealing with family, doesn't mean I have to be. I refuse to let him define my actions, how I will treat family members and ancestors (and he is certainly my ancestor). When I consciously and with intention went to the airport to pick up my father for Thanksgiving, that was valid and immediate ancestor work. I did it for me, for who my authentic self is, not for him. You might think from this story that he thought he "won." I can assure you, he didn't. It was quite clear that I am no pushover, and I've clearly told him what I think of his actions.

The Goddess has some distressing disguises, and we need to be present with that. Ancestor work isn't about being blissed out all the time, or getting our self-esteem needs met. It's about discovering your authentic self and expressing it everywhere, even with your family of origin. Your family of origin, where your witchy skills will really be put to the test. Here's the tools that really help me to stay true to myself with Living Ancestors:

When grounding, it really helps me to have some amusement about the upcoming interaction.

Grounding — Of course, I tend to forget this most basic of skills when I need it most. One of my psychic teachers used to say, "Grounding will save your butt." It's true! I like to ground before family visits, or before picking up that telephone. When grounding, it really helps me to have some amusement about the upcoming interaction (lightens my energy and helps the grounding work). To this end, I sometimes visualize my grounding cord as a huge pink feather boa, or champagne bubbles, or those toy monkeys with linking arms. When I need a more formidable grounding cord, I try a huge oak tree trunk that's bigger than me. I once heard a Unitarian minister describe how he would curl his toes inside his shoes in order to ground during unpleasant situations. It works like an anchor, and is invisible. I've had great results by visualizing a grounding cord in the room where the visit will take place, and by grounding the whole building. I psychically "set" the quality of energy the room will contain before I arrive, and during the visit.

The Rose — Here's a technique from psychic teachers at the Avalon Institute in Chico, CA that I use constantly. Before dialing a relative on the phone, I ground and visualize a rose lying between my ear and the telephone receiver. The rose is a powerful symbol in many world religions and serves as a gentle shield that helps me remain centered, able to hear the conversation from my authentic self. To use this technique in person when visiting with ancestors, I visualize a rose hovering at eye level between me and the other person. I keep the rose halfway between me and them, regardless of how close they may come towards me. This technique defines the space between our auras, so that I am always in my space and they are always in their space. This technique is deceptively simple; it really works.

Say Hello — Another technique from the Avalon Institute is to say "hello" on the psychic level. Spiritually, many people are acting out because their souls want attention and they don't know how to get it. I try to remember to practice looking deep inside my ancestor, to the Goddess within, and say hello to Her. It's amazing how well this can work.

Anchoring — I first learned about anchoring from studying Neuro-Linguistic Programming and hypnosis. There's a good explanation of anchoring techniques described on page 41 in Twelve Wild Swans by Starhawk and Hilary Valentine. Anchoring can be used to induce various kinds of emotional states or qualities of being. When I'm with relatives, I want to feel confident, centered and cheerful. I meditate on a memory of when I was feeling that way, and while I am in trance I touch my thumb to my ring finger, "anchoring" the trance state into my body. Then when I'm around relatives, I touch my fingers together to assist me in having that demeanor. I could also have an anchor for other states, like "loving" or even "ferocious" depending on the situation (touching different fingers together, of course).

Breathe — The power of the breath cannot be overestimated, in my opinion. When I am doing any kind of ancestor work, I am on the alert for shallow, rushed breathing or breath holding. The Sufis have some very interesting "Elemental Breaths" with visualizations that I am experimenting with now. The Sufi breath practices are incredibly witchy and use the qualities of earth, air, fire and water to purify, ground, raise energy and connect with the Divine. If you are interested in finding out about these excellent breathing practices, see the book Awakening by Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan. Warning: in my opinion, the Sufi system is hierarchical and patriarchal. However, their spiritual practices work, regardless of the unfortunate outer form their organization takes.

Ritual — I'll be visiting my in-laws at Christmas time. The perfect opportunity for Living Ancestor practice, even though I'm not related to them by blood. They certainly challenge me. I've asked my husband to participate in a ritual with me before our trip. During our ritual we will set an intention for the visit, ask certain deities and allies for help, raise the quality of energy we want to have during the encounter and send that energy out ahead of us to be there waiting when we arrive. I plan to reopen our ritual circle at our hotel when we get there and leave it up for the duration of the visit. Before we leave, we can ground out anything we don't need into salt water, thank the deities and allies, and devoke. I have a handy dandy traveling's a small, sturdy black plastic salsa bowl on three legs in the shape of a cauldron. Light, indestructible, and under $2 at Wal-Mart. It'll pass airport security, too!

Before I was more grounded in my authentic self, it really helped to have charged magical objects in my pocket during stressful situations.

Charge a Magical Object — Before I was more grounded in my authentic self, it really helped to have charged magical objects in my pocket during stressful situations. What worked for me was to put a crystal or a pendant into water and leave it somewhere where the full moon could shine on it overnight. Then when I felt stressed, I could touch the object and feel the power of the moon supporting me. Usually I would have the object in my pocket so that no one could see what I was doing. This is good for work situations, and you can set your object to carry whatever quality of energy you want. For example, "strength," "calm," or even "shielding."

Limits and Boundaries — Shiny Crow showed me that it is possible to set limits with your ancestors, even your parents! My grandparents habitually criticized my mom's parenting skills, for example (they were big advocates of "whupping"). She told them up front, in advance, that she would end the visit and leave whenever they did that. Then she followed through. When they started criticizing, she reminded them that she would leave if they didn't stop. If they continued, she would say "I'll see you next time," then got up and walked away calmly. It worked!

There's lots we can all do to work with our ancestors who are still alive, without sacrificing our Authentic Self. These things serve to remind us that one day, we will be the Ancestors, and how will we want to be treated by descendants? Don't let your relatives' behaviors define who you are as a witch in relation to them. This kind of work is an immediate activism that can make an appreciable difference in your life, and the lives of your family members. We've just passed Samhain, where we offered flowers to the Beloved Dead. Now, as we embark on our New Year, perhaps you will join me in giving flowers to the living. The Living Ancestors are here with us now, still able to share their knowledge, wisdom and challenges...still able to enjoy the flowers you bring. Let's not wait until they're dead. Let's talk to them now.

Irish Flambeau is a Peace Witch and organizer for Gaia Reclaiming, in Atlanta, and is a co-founder of a Dances of Universal Peace circle in the north Georgia mountains.