It seems quite often that I happen upon someone’s think piece or social media post about the joy of “working with the ancestors” or the affirmations that they receive daily that their ancestors are pleased as punch with the lives their descendants live.
How does one attain this level of familial perfection? Especially with those family members that one has never met?
There are numerous individuals who would solemnly swear that their ancestor, removed by so many generations, is an exotic royal, an affable rogue, a shaman, or some other colorful character has pointed their otherworldly finger and beckoned them to their destiny.
Of that, I must admit, I am ever the skeptic.
I have seen what could be described as angels and demons.
I have been touched by unseen presences.
I have been visibly shaken and brought to my knees by these beings in moments of overwhelming emotional and spiritual awareness.
I have engaged with spirits in dreams and waking visions.
But none have ever called me to some special, preordained destiny. My name is not inscribed in some secret tome — save for the Lamb’s Book of Life if my mother has her say.
Nearly two years ago, I had a very sobering experience with my ancestors in a ritualized meditation. It was not an affirmation, nor was I singled out for some great purpose.
I am surrounded by darkness and stand on a flat surface of indeterminate substance. Despite this darkness, I am able to see myself from outside of myself. It is as though a light illuminates me, although I see no light — not above me or beside me.
If you are perhaps familiar with the series “Stranger Things”, the closest visual interpretation would be scenes in which Eleven stands in a black liminal space, using her psychic powers to remotely view events and individuals.
Unlike Eleven however, my feet are dry.
I am alone, but I experience no sense of loneliness. It is as though I am content to be where I am.
The darkness continues to surround me. I am neither cold nor warm. There is no movement, only silence and what can only be described as a sense of patience from what is now the sentient darkness.
Going into this, I did not know what to expect. Am I to encounter those who I know? Perhaps my paternal grandfather? Or his father? Or his father’s father?
After all, it is a masculine current that I seem to resonate with at this stage in my life.
I can hear the voice of the ritual facilitator but it seems far away and fades into a droning sound.
I begin to discern figures in the liminal darkness.
I see myself through their eyes as well.
Each in turn suddenly appears fully formed.
Each sits upon a stately chair made of woven fibers that appear to be rattan.
Like me, they are illuminated with a light of unknown origin.
I know them to be my maternal grandfather; a woman I sense to be my maternal great grandmother; a man I sense to be my maternal great-great grandfather. Behind them all is a man-shaped shadow that I immediately sense to be distantly removed from all of us.
I can discern that he is naked from the waist up and carries something which may be a cane or a staff or perhaps a spear. I only sense that he leans against it and holds it firmly with his right hand. Around him stand other similarly darkened figures of various sizes. Some are the height of children.
All are silent in the darkness.
I see myself from each of these family members’ perspectives.
I know the face of my maternal grandfather. He has a smile that comes easily. One of his eyes has a milky cataract that gives him a mysterious air. He is a peaceable man, who long before he converted to Christianity from Islam, was a man who loved two things: liquor and brawls — especially those he would start himself.
When my mother disclosed this to me much later, I laughed in disbelief.
He is my namesake. Unlike him however, I never had much taste for liquor, much less brawls.
My grandfather is now surrounded by children. And those who are seated with him are surrounded by children. I do not recognize them. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. There are no photos of my mother or aunts and uncles. Cameras were a luxury they couldn’t afford.
As I see myself through their senses and perceive their thoughts, there is only one thing that is apparent which they do not communicate with words.
They were all perplexed at why I didn’t have children. The distant man in the shadows is perhaps the most perplexed of them all.
I sense his confusion.
It is visceral and feels like a heavy burden.
I have brothers — two in fact. One who has had his fair share of marriages with two ex-wives and six children.
At that moment, when I recollect these nieces and nephews, I am immediately hit with the realization that this is not enough.
That sense of confusion is all the more palpable as I am drawn out of my meditative journey and find myself crying in the darkened room where our journey began.
The voice of the facilitator encourages us to be present and to come back to our senses.
The only sense — the only emotion I feel is sadness.
That is my experience with those who have gone on before me.
None of them spoke to me.
Perhaps none of them ever will.
Last October, a medium visited my hometown for an event that a friend organized. I had never met this individual before and as skeptical as I am, I said nothing while in his presence before or after I made his acquaintance.
Later in the evening, he told me things about myself and my family that no one else could know. He said my (maternal) grandmother was with me. He described her in terms that no one else could have known. He said he saw her praying five times a day — she was a Sikh before converting to Christianity, something that I’ve never mentioned in passing.
He said something rather curious as well — relating that my grandmother wanted me to wear colors again and stop wearing my trademark shades of blue and grey.
Not long after this experience, I guardedly related this to my mother.
She was silent for a significant period of time during our phone conversation.
She finally admitted that she has seen her mother after her death and during a time of great distress, she heard a door open, felt a hand on her shoulder, and heard her mother’s voice speak “words of peace” to her. My mother, a no nonsense Christian woman, referred to her mother as our spirit guide and related a passage of biblical scripture in which the Apostle Paul refers to those who have passed on as comprising a “great cloud of witnesses”.
Recalling a dream months prior, it seems that this witness is truly closer than any distant ancestor ever could be.
In this dream, I stood in my bedroom before my dresser. From the hallway, I heard a voice which drew my attention. I turned to see a woman dressed in white. Her face was radiant and her dark hair seemed to have a life of its own, moving in a breeze I could not feel.
I return my attention to the drawers and find that each is incredibly deep. Beneath the layers of grey and blue are brightly colored brocade garments. I touch them and remove each from under my darker clothing.
As I do so, the woman says “you were named after a prophet and a king — you need to act like it”.
Maybe interacting with our ancestors is some profound experience that leaves us deeply unsettled.
Maybe it’s a comforting hand in one’s moment of despair.
Maybe that manifested destiny we seem to desire in order to set ourselves apart from others is simply honoring a request to change our clothes and living with a greater sense of purpose.
Perhaps if there’s anything one would owe their ancestors — to take responsibility for, it would be that.
Perhaps it’s best to sort that out first…