Ancestors Live On in Our Lives

ancestry, emotional resonance, quantum physics, consciousness, celebration,

We all grow up with the weight of history on us. Our ancestors dwell in the attics of our brains as they do in the spiraling chains of knowledge hidden in every cell of our bodies.

~Shirley Abbott


When my east coast cousin visited she asked for updates on our extended family. I told her about surgery an uncle had on a drooping eyelid.  She was intrigued because her doctor recommended she have surgery for the same thing. He told her the problem came from stretching tender skin around her eyes as she put in contacts.  How could she have known the tendency ran in the family?  Later, as we looked through old photographs we saw the same prematurely sagging eyelids in a few of our ancestors.  Orphaned children, stoic immigrants who left loved ones behind, farmers who’d lost their land shared this feature—-they looked as if they’d stopped fully opening their eyes.  She and I considered the emotional resonance.  When she left she was still mulling over what it might mean in her own life.

There are many traits passed down in families.  We’re familiar with inheritance of physical features but it seems that other tendencies run through the generations as well.  In my family we’re prone to heart palpitations, stomach problems, anxiety.  We error on the side of caution.  We tend to make a living as teachers, clergy, academics, scientists.  This is true of the living and those long gone.  Such facts can be easily traced.

Some things are less easily traced but just as pronounced. When I was a new parent, the legacy from my ancestors rarely occurred to me. I saw my newborns as wondrously made beings with talents and personalities that would unfold in time. But as I held, nursed and rocked my babies I found in myself certain ingrained beliefs that surely had passed to me through bloodlines or through ways of thinking that were tight as hidden stitching.

My parents were warm and loving with their children, but they also fought against a palpable sense of worthlessness that pervaded their daily lives. As a child I sensed this in my mother’s suppressed anger and in my father’s hidden sorrow. My father whistled as he worked on chores and hugged us each night before bed, but his posture often showed sorrow. My mother read to us, played games with us and wore bright red lipstick but she was on guard against a hard world. When my children were babies my own feelings of worthlessness came out in me full force. By what means had these feelings become mine?

Then I remembered how fully I identified with my parents. My father’s frugality was learned during a difficult childhood and was passed on to help his own children learn economy. But his despair had an exaggerated effect on me, in fact I felt unworthy when given praise or gifts. I’d absorbed my father’s childhood pain.

My mother emphasized her sacrifices on behalf of others, hoping for enough appreciation to fill hungry gaps in her life. I learned to sacrifice as quietly as possible so that I would gather no perfunctory gratitude, absorbing her childhood misery without the redemption she sought.

These were not healthy adaptations, yet I’ve come to believe children take on the angst of those who are close to them as if by osmosis. My parents overcame the painful realities of their early years through hard work, faith and loving attention to people around them. But they also took on the stories of their own parents and grandparents. Of course we are strengthened by adversity, but when we repress the hidden impact of generational suffering it’s more difficult to heal and grow.  That I was raised in a happy home yet felt this pain makes this obvious.

It is one of the tasks of humanity to steer one’s tribe toward the light of greater understanding. The legacy of sorrow and suffering we take on can be overcome, and in some way the overcoming is not only a victory for ourselves but also a triumph for our ancestors. Each generation can heal not only itself but ancestral pain as well. Changing the energy around who we are affects who our loved ones have been. The more I learn about quantum physics the more I understand this to be possible.

It’s not all about overcoming difficulty. It’s also about living out the gifts passed on by those who have gone before us. Those abilities and interests we call our own, so often are legacies from those long gone. As my children get older I find something ‘clicks’ when I notice attributes in them that were present in their relatives. I see these traits all the time. My research-minded, highly technical grandfather would recognize these traits manifested abundantly in my sons. A grandmother and great-great uncle who taught Latin and the classics would find kinship with my daughter. I see myself in relatives who wrote, searched for spiritual meaning and had highly idealistic views of the future. Even in day-to-day preferences I see commonality. My own mother loved mysteries, scorned shoes in favor of sandals and adored rich desserts much like my daughter. My husband’s grandfather was always tinkering with equipment much like my sons.

When I come across things these relatives left behind I give them to my children. A ring, a book, a pair of binoculars once owned by long-gone relatives carry meaning, especially because I tell my children what they have in common with the people who used them. I also try to keep alive the stories of their relatives’ lives as best I can. In this way we retain the living memory of those who have gone before us. We learn from the pain, celebrate the gifts and hold their light aloft for future generations.

To be aware of this is to consciously carry forward what we choose from our rebellious, curious, compassionate, inventive, wild, spirited, loving, angry and freedom-seeking ancestors. That we exist at all is a testament to their endurance. Who we are is a choice, made in the context of many who lived so very fully before us.




In memory of my gentle father, who left us 7-26-2010. Too soon.

To Be, Or To Multitask

multitasking, busy, mindfulness, I.Q., cell phone, distraction,

I did it again. Deleted unwanted emails while on the phone, just trying to be efficient. No, I wasn’t reading the emails. Honestly I started out just deleting. But I had to scan quickly through a few to make sure I wasn’t missing something important. And next thing you know it was time to end the conversation. Sadly our entire interaction felt flat, as if we never really connected. I know why. I wasn’t really part of it. Chances are the very busy person I was talking to wasn’t either. Yay for multitasking.

This is the opposite of my true intentions. I keep writing about the importance of paying attention, connecting with nature, and centering our lives on what’s positive.

I try, I really do. But even when we live simply it takes real effort to avoid being rushed and over-obligated.

My mother was an early adherent of multitasking. She liked to say there was no sense doing just one thing at a time. I wasn’t too thrilled about it, however, when she spent requisite quality time playing a board game with me while heating her curler-bedecked head under the hairdryer (those 70’s models were as loud as leaf blowers) and talking on the phone. I was never sure how the person on the other end of the phone heard her over that hairdryer; that person may have been loudly washing dishes, making them both disconnected multitaskers.

It’s much easier to multitask now. In fact, we’re rewiring the way we operate minute-to-minute. We’ve tuned ourselves to distraction. That seems to make us uncomfortable with distraction’s opposite—-the powerfully real time spent in contemplation or conversation.

A recent study found that people asked to forgo media contact for 24 hours (no texting,email, Facebook, TV or cell phone use) actually suffered withdrawal symptoms. They experienced anxiety, cravings and preoccupations so overwhelming that their ability to function was impaired.

When we multitask it feels as if we’re accomplishing more. Who can’t stir a pot of noodles, listen to music and still maintain a decent conversation?  That’s easy.  Although we’re not really paying attention to that music or honoring the conversation with eye contact and full awareness (let alone mindfully attending to the noodles).

The major multitasking whammy comes from doing similar functions at the same time, as I was doing by talking on the phone and checking email. That’s because the brain doesn’t really do both task simultaneously, it goes back and forth, relentlessly switching attention.

All that switching causes our performance to plummet.  Studies show multitasking makes us up to 40 percent slower or causes the same lack of concentration as giving up a night’s sleep.

Perhaps even worse, we don’t recognize the stress it imposes.  As our brains focus and refocus, our bodies release cortisol and adrenaline.  We may work faster, but also feel more frustration and pressure, and the ability to concentrate becomes increasingly impaired.

Talking on the phone and reading email doesn’t just make me somewhat inattentive, studies find that multitasking can functionally lower one’s I.Q. by as much as ten points.  In my case, I suspect it’s quite a bit more.

So many parts of our lives seem to require multitasking. Parenthood certainly does, nearly every job does too. But I want to be, really be. Multitasking subtracts from that.

I’m taking a vow to walk away from any screen any time I pick up the phone. I’m vowing to spend less time using technology, more time in nature. Any vows you’ve taken? How’s that going for you?




“To live in the present moment is a miracle. The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.”

Thich Nhat Hanh Touching Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living



photo courtesy of Jayo

Hay Now

soil health, grassfed, pastured, sustainability, family farm, ethical land use,

This summer’s first cutting of hay is stacked in the barn. Seventeen acres of grasses transformed into golden squares, storing sun and soil’s energy for the winter ahead.

The unsung miracle of grass is a beautiful illustration of nature’s wisdom. Cows eating only grass flourish, turning these coarse blades, inedible to humans, into rich high-protein milk. This benefits the environment as well as the health of people drinking the milk of grassfed cows. To me, fields devoted to hay and pasture make sense while factory farms make no sense at all.

Hay isn’t a fancy crop.

It doesn’t bring much in the way of money. Some years we scramble because there’s too much rain and not enough time to harvest. But this perennial doesn’t just nourish a few of our favorite ruminants. It helps preserve topsoil.

The loss of soil to water erosion, called sedimentation, is measured in tons of soil loss per acre per year. This runaway soil clogs waterways, smothering aquatic life and affecting navigation. The denuded land left behind is robbed of fertility.

The importance of topsoil can’t be underestimated. According to Out of the Earth: Civilization and the Life of the Soil, the decline and fall of civilizations are based on soil fertility.

Nearly everything we eat relies on healthy soil, yet it takes 500 years for nature to produce an inch of topsoil. Current farming techniques increase soil erosion 10 to 40 percent greater than the rate nature can replace it. We’re running out of the very dirt our lives depend on.

The living skin of our Earth is thin, wildly complex and more interconnected than we might imagine. That’s why, when I look out over the woodlands on our land, the pastures our cattle graze on, the hayfields—I am reassured. The continuous ground cover of pasture or forest protects the soil. Perennial hay fields, pastures and woodlands allow organic matter to build naturally.

I have just a beginning grasp of the vital interplay between amoebae, fungi, bacteria, arthropods and plant roots in soil, enough to sense those bags of “sterilized potting mix” found in every big box store are a mockery of the lessons to be found in nature. I do grasp that we survive, in large part, through the life-giving nutrients of what has died. Organic material of all kinds decays into humus and that makes soil a story of resurrection, writ large.



books worth reading

Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth by William Bryant Logan

Life in the Soil: A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners by James B. Nardi

Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web, Revised Edition by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis

The Secret Life of Plants by Christopher Bird and Peter Tompkins