Editorial: Dead and Alive: Being with Ancestors Part II

Editor’s note: 

In what is now a Dark Matter tradition, contributors to this issue convened on Zoom to discuss each other’s work, both written and visual.  What follows is a highly edited version of our conversation. Pam Booker and Chez Liley, who were unable to attend the meeting, sent in responses to the work in the form of video and writing. I took the liberty of folding some of those responses asynchronously into the conversation.  

Suzette Clough, “The Beginning of the Beginning.” Constructed watercolour paper, beeswax, gold dust powder, inks, acrylics

Return to Origins

The only way for human beings to survive the end is to return to the beginning. (Barbara Mor, The Great Cosmic Mother)

The bear’s dream brings the ancestral life that arose from the oceans into the present, so the ancient lineage continues in the new. (Chez Liley, “Bear’s Dream”)

Suzette: My painting is a kind of practice of returning to origin and in that origin there’s this capacity to create anew. Not just going back to the past but something so primal, it’s the primordial stuff we’re made of and somehow getting to that it really gave me a lot of hope. It wasn’t a candyfloss hope, it was a return to origins where all life originates. And in my work, one of the things that has come through has been the birth of the cosmos.

Perdita:  I love that that cosmos is not anthropocentric.

Kathleen: Like in Chez’s piece where the world is ending but it all begins again in the bear’s dream.

Chez: Yes. And the question is how to be, in this unknown, this end/beginning. 

Perdita: In this age of light pollution and media pollution that is colonizing our imagination and our hearts, Suzette’s work allows me to reenter the lost conversations with the earth that my heart most needs. It takes me out of anthropocentrism and back embedded inside the tangled reality of this world.

Fractured Selves

Standing in the shallow water, sharp little rocks scatter the riverbed, biting into my bare feet…the broken rock fragments felt like the shards of unmetabolized trauma from my near ancestors, settler-colonists dissociated from a felt sense of relationship with the earth. (Zenith, “Standing on First Stone”)

Kathleen: Every piece in this collection is trying to figure a way out of the fractured identities we have now because of systems of oppression and the chaos that surrounds us. Jojo, you wrote about the priestess and the scholar—these fractured selves that live within us and how that gives rise to shame. As a Hapa, I’m half Japanese and half white, and that dichotomy in myself has always triggered shame. Within myself I am both the colonizer and the colonized, both victim and perpetrator. So I felt you speaking to me in a personal way. 

Jojo: Thank you. Shante’, all of the voices that were speaking through you and the image of standing on the sharp rocks carries a lot of that as well. All of this history is living in our bodies and we have to figure out a way of approaching wholeness and belonging from all the fracture and wounding.

Shante’:  There’s something around the sense of it all living in the body, both the original support and the fracture, and how we learn to turn towards different aspects of it. I was looking at Suzette’s painting and the way my body was settling it was almost like sitting with a river or a mountain, this very somatic resonance. 

That sense in Perdita’s piece also of how we perceive the dark, how we perceive that fertile void…

Perdita: Yes, but I would not call it a void. Eighty percent of the universe is dark matter and it’s something and we don’t know what it is and what does it mean to call what we don’t know not void but possibility…

The void is the Mother Goddess who will be mutilated and her body torn to pieces. Also in Genesis they take away her personhood, her being. There’s no void, there’s a body. We don’t understand most of what we are, what’s in us and around us. If it’s not void, what is it?  

Shante’: Right now the center of my practice is around the process of how that nurturing everything, that darkness, that primordial beingness becomes empty or becomes not perceived for people who have been touched by colonization and the reciprocal process of what is it to remember that there is a being there, and learn how to feel back into that support. 

Lise: The phrase you use in the essay to describe it is “the shape of absence.”

Perdita: That’s what Barbara Mor is writing about, the great Cosmic Mother who’s been taken from us—and so we find ourselves addicted, hopeless, anxious, violent.

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Ancestral Pain Body

the sickness of this living without birdsong and the feel of dirt between my fingers (Hellen, Out of the beringian refugium”)

the history of my ancestors murdered, humiliated, beaten, raped in pogroms… The bright swastikas painted on the doors of my elementary school, the overwhelming and deafening reality of the Shoah, deep in my DNA. (Strudensky, “Swing Low,” notes)

Kathleen: Hilary, when you wrote about building that shrine to your ancestors, it reminded me: the Japanese have shrines for their ancestors that they pray to all the time. My family shrine was destroyed in WWII and I could see the effect it had on my family on the Japanese side. They were totally shattered after that. What Shante’ calls “the long body”—the genetic code that made us who we were—was destroyed. 

Pam: Hilary, I love the ancestral framework that underpins the storytelling in your piece.

Lise: You’re the only one who took on the brave task –in detail—of looking at the harm done by our blood ancestors as white people on this continent. So thank you for that. I know it’s not easy work to do.

Hilary: The ancestral pain body became such a big presence in my life that it couldn’t be ignored. I found myself alienated from many of my friends and family because of my insistence I had to do that. That’s starting to shift now, which is good. I had to do it because first of all, that’s what they’re asking me to do. But also, that’s what these times are asking for—for an  expression of that, an acknowledgement of that, a feeling of that—and I just think about how many of our people had these ancestral practices, as you mentioned Kathleen, that for one reason or another had to be abandoned and how they’ve been lonely for so long. Reconnecting with them is  a big part of what’s being asked for right now.  

Kathleen: The ancestral pain is traumatic, it’s generational, it passes on from mother to daughter to daughter. I think about my mother having come to this country after WWII and the pain she inherited from the war was a part of our lives. Our father would ask us to put away all our Japanese stuff, he wanted to Americanize everybody as fast as he could. Asian hate isn’t something that’s just happening now. And so when he asked us to hide our mother’s kimonos and all the stuff she brought with her, it was as if darkness just descended on my life. Although I very quickly acclimated to being an American girl, there was that trauma I had no name for. Even now it triggers. Every time I see a Japanese woman pushed onto the train tracks or sliced across the face, there’s a sadness in me that’s almost uncontrollable. And it’s not happening to me, but it’s happening to everybody that is part of me.

Pam: In my Lil’ Lizzie story I write about her “inner ‘middle-passage’ fury”—that’s ancestral pain. And in the piece about Barbara Mor, Lise, you write about her rage on behalf of women. I feel that rage right now. I’ve been immersed in the Ketanji Brown Jackson hearings and I am both exhausted and traumatized for her and the rage of what we as black women have to hold: the weight of the malevolence that was directed at her.  

There’s a faction that is so intent now on reaching back to the past, which for most of us would not have worked so well—we saw that on display today. So as much as I appreciate the past in terms of the ancestral rootedness that it can provide, I am not trying to live in the past, because… a literal historical past would not bode well for someone like me.

I loved this in Jojo’s piece:  “I fell hard for this imagined future self.” I love this notion of falling in love with our future selves…Maybe that is something we have to commit to: to futuring ourselves forward. 

But then I saw Suzette’s images … they’re just really gorgeous.  All that brilliant color provided a real sort of antidote to the rage. I needed that. Swimming in those colors. 

Nonlinearity

Without the violent eye of history the many woven possibilities of the body unfold.(Donovan, “Dispatches from the Collapse of Time”)

All bodies that communicate the sporic tentacular intelligence of the multiversal multidimensional mycelial entangled web of life that we live in and that lives within us. (Clough, “Remembering our Original Pattern Ancestors”)

Perdita: As we sit here poised on apocalypse as writers I suggest that we delineate ourselves and surrender to entanglement instead. Part of colonization is the idea that there’s progress, a beginning and middle and end. Lost paradise or apocalypse as the two binaries. Suzette’s work invites me into a world that is entangled, mycelial, nonbinary and that is where the magic is—and the possibility. 

Lise: I’m thinking of the figure 8 in your work Jojo. 

Jojo: That figure lives on my arm here (shows us). It became the symbol of the priestess and would punctuate statements in her writing. It arrived like a breath on a page. The messages were all about nonlinearity, about the collapse of a framework that’s built on linearity. We’re assaulted by messages about the ways that that framework is collapsing on itself. Trying to communicate with this future priestess version of myself was also asking what does it mean to be on the verge of collapse, to look back at collapses that have already happened.  What Pam was saying about futuring ourselves, giving ourselves a sense of a future. I was trying to get a sense of, do I believe in a future for myself and what does it look like?  

Darkness and Soil 

What we need now, more than ever, is the healing balm of darkness, the quiet and stillness of the hours before dawn, and the magic available in the dirt, the underworld, and the shadows. (Finn, “The Dark Room”)

Perdita:  One of the exercises I do in my workshops is invite everyone to grab a fistful of dirt and I ask whose body are you holding in your hands. Because dirt is the bodies of the dead and it literally bears us up and grows us….I say “dirt”, not “soil”, because I want to reclaim that word; I’ve been told my body is dirty. Dirt is nothing but the bodies of the dead. It is what we grow from and it is what will save the planet. Dirt does more carbon sequestration than forest does. If we don’t get to know the bodies of the dead in the dirt we’ll become the dirt. We’re going to do that anyway (laughing) but we might as well get to know it before we do.

Hilary:  All of my healing happened sitting on the land sitting on the mycorrhizal fungi under the trees, lying on the ground in the snow or being covered in dirt. I feel like that is one of the medicines, as you were saying Shante’, for this body of pain.

Lise: Jojo, in your piece the very last words the diggers say are, “We emerge from your body and you from ours we are here to call you back into the soil.” 

Suzette: What was it like to write yourself into that place?  

Jojo: The actual learning of the soil is still very much on my to-do list. Being in a conversation like this reminds me of the aliveness I can access when I’m feeling the energy of the dark places. It’s integration work I’m still doing. I grew up Catholic, super afraid of the dark places, and there’s been a breakthrough just in the past weeks of feeling I’m not going to be obliterated when I go into the dark. I might actually belong there…

Perdita: The Black Madonna sits right there as the face of cosmic darkness and dark matter, but part of what’s been done by the Catholic Church is to whitewash that face. Literally, at Chartres, they painted it white….

Lise: Shante’, you write toward the end of your piece that you found medicine for the ancestral pain body in “the fungi’s ability to stitch relationship between water and land by metabolizing death into nutrients for life.” Can you talk about that?

Shante’: The dissociation has been happening for so long for so many people of European lineage that I received this sense of the ancestral medicine for that rupture needing to be so old it was prehuman, a kind of primary elemental process. As a follow-up to my experience in the river there was this image of fungi leaving the ocean and moving onto stone. And what that process is of drawing nutrients from stone, from death, and metabolizing and distributing and actually starting to grow the soil from that, to grow the possibility for plants to come and partner and root systems to ripple out from there.  

Suzette: When I took Perdita’s “Taking Back the Magic” course, I felt as if in the body of her work I was able to metabolize something in my body that I couldn’t do beforehand. Leaning into my paintings as my own ancestors. I believe we’re holding that as a group: the metabolizing that’s possible within some relationships. 

Lise: I absolutely feel that and I felt it so much reading your words.  

Jojo: I feel really enlivened hearing Shante’ and Suzette’s thoughts about the fungi moving onto land and thoughts around metabolizing… All my writing around shame was me living in the pain body and trying to make sense of it from a perspective of white racialization, to step into a place of more fully acknowledging pain inflicted and just the shamefulness of the history that my body has emerged from and participated in. There’s an energy of barrenness to shame… like I don’t believe I can be a full participant in life becoming death becoming life. So there’s something that brings me to life in being reminded that life found a way, that fungi could metabolize stone, that life invented its way into life and the death of that life created soil that made new life possible. There are places that have been stripped of their vitality by colonial systems and there are possibilities for return of life to those places, especially if we zoom out beyond the scale of the individual life.

 Magic

We have what has been called a magical capacity built into our genes. It is built into the physical universe… To evolve then—to save ourselves from species extinction—we can activate our genetic capacity for magic.  (Mor, The Great Cosmic Mother)

Lise: I only decided to write the piece on Barbara Mor once most of the articles had come in and when I started going back over The Great Cosmic Mother it was amazing to see how directly so many passages spoke to just about everything in this issue. Especially what she has to say about magic. “Taking Back the Magic” is the title of Perdita’s workshops and it’s also the title of her forthcoming book about the ancestors. And I think of Lil’ Lizzie and those magical mirror fragments that come to life and reflect her back to herself so she can begin to find another way to be brave, so she can “let herself live.”

Jojo: I’m thinking of threads running through the writing, of presence and relationship being the way that capacity is activated. I rediscover that capacity by being in relationship. Relationship that requires discrete boundaries, connection and spilling over is what animates the magic. Not erasing selfhood or difference but finding the boundaries so we can find the connection across them.

Kristin: I just love that so much. And I felt like that was what was happening in this issue. So many of you spoke to that directly or to a version of that. I think Lise told you how we met  in New Hampshire; Sunday morning I had just finished going through everything for a second time and I was literally looking around the room because I felt the ancestors are absolutely here they were talking to you the writers, to us the readers, and to each other. It was electrifying to get a sense in a bodily way of how much connection there was here. 

One thing I noticed about the writing as a body of work: there wasn’t a focus on the individual human. It was always in relationship to other humans or the lineage or the ecosystem. To me that lack of a pure focus on self created a much more fertile, fecund environment for things to blossom and grow and spill over. 

Lise: Yes I think that’s exactly what Jojo is saying; that’s why there’s so much magic.

Hilary: It’s been my experience that reclaiming magic is healing from the disease of colonialism. That’s probably what I was picking up on as I read everybody’s pieces too, because I could feel those magic threads coming through, bringing forth the healing that’s being asked for so deeply now. Each of us has a particular thread of magic to offer and I could feel it in each piece.


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