I am one of those types perceived, at this time of the year, as a kill-joy by followers of popular culture. Since I have written elsewhere about my antipathy to the American-style celebration of Halloween, there’s no need to repeat that here. Much as it bears repeating, it seems.
I don’t know much about my ancestors, honestly. My parents have never really talked much about the history of their families. On the Irish side, that may simply be that inbred disquiet about opening the door to the ‘skeletons in the cupboard,’ and on the English side, who knows. For whatever reason, I have very little family history on which to build a picture of the past.
The little I do know of the past couple of generations reveals a rich landscape of creatives. As I bring to mind siblings, cousins, parents, uncles and aunts, I can count musicians, poets, nuns, those who do beautiful work in wood and clay, photographers, actors, painters, writers … mystics and makers of all kinds. If, as Dostoevsky said, ‘Beauty will save the world,’ then I feel I am encircled by quite the gang of unassuming world-changers.
So while my known family history feels a little ‘thin' to me, I think of this small crowd as the ones who have gone ahead of me, the ones who point the way. They are part of what the writer of the book of Hebrews calls the ‘cloud of witnesses’ - the pioneers who blaze a trail, the veterans who cheer me on.
In Hebrews we read that the effect of these great witnesses, who encircle us like clouds, is to cause us to throw off the things that entangle us, that weigh us down. Seeing their lives helps us to run our own race with perseverance. Knowing the story of those who are ahead of us enables us to resist weariness, it helps us not to lose heart when things are tough on our part of the path.
And things are a bit tough right now, aren’t they? And don’t we need the encouragement of those who’ve been in a tough spot before, and somehow weathered the storm? If they have done so with a certain amount of grace - if they have allowed the pressing effect of war, or heartbreak, or ill-health to express itself in song, and sculpture, and symphony - then don't we find ourselves encouraged to dig deep, to draw up treasures from the well of despair?
All this ancestor appreciation brings me to the other side of the coin, as it were. It brings me to the question posed by Robert Macfarlane in his book, Underland. ‘What kind of ancestors will we be?’ he asks. In this season of seismic shift - shifts of culture, of economies, of worldview, and of the natural world - this seems to be one of the most fitting questions to be asking.
When my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren discuss among themselves the people that we were, what will stand out to them, I wonder? Which elements of the way I live my life will seem to them worth holding onto? Is there anything about my choices that will encourage them to resist unhealthy entanglements? Anything that will motivate them to throw off the things that weigh them down? Will stories from my life offer them fuel, as they run their own race with perseverance? Will I have blazed trails that they can follow, or passed on any lessons that cause them to take heart on their own journeys?
Let’s assume there is something from my life that is worth handing down. I realise that is a big assumption. It presupposes that there are values that I live out in my era and my cultural context that are applicable in some way across time and culture. Perhaps there might be something about my choices that, even unwittingly, presages what is to come in some way. And that offers insight, somehow, for those in the future that find themselves slap bang in the middle of a reality of which we have barely an inkling.
Having made all those pretty hefty assumptions, then, how will these ancestral gems be communicated to those that follow? Think about it: how have you learned from those who have gone before? It seems to me that the most compelling tribal treasures are communicated through story and song, through painting and poems. Perhaps this is what Dostoevsky was getting at.
As I imagine myself in the role of ancestor, what tale of beauty or bravery am I weaving with my life? What design of courage do my colours paint? Is it possible that I might create something here that offers hope for a world reconciled to love once more?
If this sounds fanciful or romanticised to you, I have perhaps failed to ground it in the grit of ordinary life, where all true stories unfold. Here in 2020, as we see the unravelling of previously eminent cultures, what words do I use to describe what I see? How do I construct a container for family life that is resilient and purposeful? As the world is shaken by a global pandemic, what habits create an unshakeable foundation for my life? What investments am I making in the life of my family, community or co-workers that will outlast my own energies? And is there anything of enduring beauty that I am making, to be discovered and sifted through when I am gone?
What kind of an ancestor am I? I realise I have scribed here more questions than answers. Questions seem fitting, though, for this perspective on history. True answers will come only from those yet to be, from those who come after us who look back on our lives. When, years from now, they celebrate this October weekend of Allhallowtide, All Saints and the Feast of Souls, what reflections will come to their minds about those of us who have gone before?