Conversations with ancestors. With ghosts.
I crave community, communion, conviviality. But I also crave quiet, solitude. Maybe because in those moments when you are alone, a different form of knowing emerges. Little twinges in your heart, tingles in your ear. Other connections, connections that span generations, lifetimes, tangled webs of memories and regrets and hopes and sighs.
I used to worry that my ancestors wouldn’t be able to find me over here, so far away. That I’d be all alone, completely alone. But that was silly, because I have roots here, too. And spirits, those spirits of the people who lived their lives as best they could, who tried to wrangle with the great questions of life, meaning, love — they want us to be happy. They whisper to us when they can, they try to guide is in their own ways. Maybe it’s just through shadows of the things they taught us*. Maybe they walk with us. I don’t know.
I spent long summer arctic nights in fitful sleep, and I would dream of wandering out into the tundra. And there, that was where I knew nohkom could find me. Somehow it made sense, that great travel between time and space in the eerily quiet hours, punctuated by the distant buzz of ATVs and the hush of waves in the bay or the powerful roar of the south wind rushing over hundreds of miles of arctic tundra. And I would dream of animals and messages, and when I think back to those moments, I would picture my Cree and Metis and English and Norwegian grandmothers all drinking tea together, laughing. I still get a little feeling of this, with the hairs on my neck rising ever so slightly: the feeling of their laughter. When I’m on the right track, when i’m listening:I hear their voices, if that makes sense. Not concretely. Just the memory of voices. The hint of their knowing, strong voices pushing me in the right direction. A feeling that, ah, my girl, you finally get it. Keep going.
nôsisim (we love you, granddaughter. Keep going).
One time, I heard a woman on the bus who sounded like my late grandma Judy. And I stayed on that damn bus for ten extra stops to let her voice hug me, comfort me. I walked back into my childhood for those ten stops. And when I got off the bus, I cried. But I also knew, in her Trickster way, that she was sitting there the whole time, enjoying that moment with me.
Sometimes you walk into a room, and you know. Someone has left an imprint of love, or hope, or gratitude. Someone is trying to speak to you, to comfort you. Or sending you a message to share, in some tiny way, with others.
Sometimes I’m not ready for this. I avoid it with lots of busy-work. I try to keep myself surrounded by people, with laughter, with anything to avoid hearing, to avoid knowing. Because it’s somewhat unsettling to face those bigger things, those universal emotions that connect all of us. Sometimes it’s too overwhelming to contemplate time and being and why we’re all here to begin with.
I used to worry, with my scientifically trained brain, that to indulge in this listening was to betray my rationality. But over time I’ve come to realise that the world is populated with things that defy western knowledge traditions. I know that I am cared for, loved by generations of people, just as I love future generations (and the children and grand-children I may or may not be so lucky to have).
We will face many difficult things in life, and indeed those before us faced great hardships. But the enduring thing that binds us is love.
So though I feared that to cross the ocean, to leave the homeland of my ancestors behind, to stop wandering next to the rivers that punctuated my childhood, though I feared this was going to sever me from those stories, messages and memories, I kept wandering. Because we are never entirely alone. And maybe what we really need to do right now is listen, listen with our hearts, our minds, our bodies and our ears. Listen even though it seems crazy to do so. (Sitting in the dark, straining our ears into the quiet, hoping to catch the buzz of some long-ago uttered words). I feel silly doing this right now. But still I listen.
Because they are speaking, in the ways that they can. And I think, I think all that anyone ever wanted for our generation, when they had time to think about it while they walked the earth — they wanted us to be happy. Truly truly happy. And safe, and loved, and strong and to be heard by those around us. They wanted our sojourn here to be good and to make sure that the horrific things of the past, the things that many people’s ancestors survived, they wanted to make sure those never happen again. So let’s remember that. Let’s live in the way we hope our children and grandchildren and future generations can live: with love, strength, gentleness, beauty and care. Let’s hope they can hear us, many years from now, sending out our hopes and dreams to them.
*this thought was inspired by this performance, and the thoughts that the creator, Ang Gey Pin, shared when I asked her about whether her ancestors were present while she performed…her answer was very elegant, alluding to how they are present in the things they teach us. This really resonates with my own connections to my Metis/Cree/English/Scottish/Norwegian/German ancestors.