I did not like the “listening to our ancestors” exercise.
I gave it a shot. I crossed my legs on the yoga mat, closed my eyes and took three deep breaths along with the other writing retreat participants. But my jaw was set and my guard was up as our workshop facilitator Kim led us in a guided meditation.
We all come from a long, unbroken bloodline of humans that came before and whose DNA is the stuff of our being. Our bodies, our talents, and our traumas came from this tribe. What would they tell us if they were here with us now?
A long, thin arm of pale afternoon sun stretched itself across the wooden floor of the meeting hall, sectioning me off from the rest of the circle. Over there: the others, some welling up with emotion as they invoked their ancient forebears. Over here: me, feeling like a bouncer at a private party keeping a sharp eye on the buffet, ready to eject any gatecrashers or troublemakers.
No, I do not feel my grandmother’s presence. No, I do not hear her voice in my heart. In fact, I wouldn’t recognize it if I heard it with my ears. I only ever met the woman twice in all my life.
I fidget on my yoga mat, adjusting and readjusting the blanket folded under my butt. Damnit, just relax! It’ll be over soon.
I have the thought that it’s a bit weird that I should have such strong resistance to this exercise. I have ancestors just like everyone does, and if anyone’s dead relatives are looming over us in this room, then there’s no reason why mine shouldn’t be here too, beaming their heavenly advice at my intuition receptors. Plus, I’m quite a seance-y kind of person who would normally leap at the chance to get a special message from beyond the great divide. But the truth is, this meditation puts me on edge to a degree that surprises me.
Why the high walls?
Maybe it’s because my family is intergenerationally estranged in all branches of the tree. I don’t know much about the people who made me, beyond the inner ring of my nuclear family. (And, maybe more to the point, they don’t know me.)
Maybe it’s because in what I do know about my ancestors, trauma features heavily, and I have no appetite to get in touch with yet more inherited pain.
Maybe it’s because my own trauma came at the hands of those nearest to me, or because I am stubbornly proud of my hard-won resilience and independence, my self-sustaining ecosystem. All the necessities of life are grown right here on the ship.
Instead of following the meditation prompts, I decide to ride out the exercise by focusing on my inner experience. I notice vigilance, stubbornness, irritation, even anger. Tightness in chest and thighs. Eyes bright and hard behind their lids. My lower lip pulled up like a drawbridge. If the spirits of my ancestors are in this space at all, they’re over there, keeping a respectful distance. As they should.
And then Kim says:
Can you feel them live on in your body?
…and I am hit by a fierce wave of HELL, NO.
Hey! I originally wrote this little essay for my Substack publication, The Underwire. You can read the whole piece by clicking on the link above.
The Underwire is a mix of personal essays, reflections on the things that haunt me in the dead of night, and even the odd poem, which is weird because until recently I was fairly certain I hated poetry. Nowadays poems slide out of my brain and onto the page from time to time, and – gasp – I like it. Who knew.
Because I’m a nonfiction book publisher and longtime editor I happen to know some stuff about writing and publishing, so sometimes I share tips, prompts, and encouragement for the writerly road.
And because I’m also a longtime student of the antics of my own mind (through therapy, meditation, journaling, reading oodles of self-help books etc.), I’ve acquired a colorful bouquet of spiritual and mental health practices and tools that work for me. Sometimes I share those, too.
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