Michael Williams

Day 14 on the Farm

Ancestors, Sky People
All here today.
Hear our heart song,
Hear our respect,
Hear our love,
Hear our grateful tears fall.
I am truly blessed.
You are truly blessed.
We are truly blessed

(Words are from a poem by Misha Saez, music by Harmony Grisman.)

Back in 2011, I had the privilege of working with the Indigenous psychiatrist and storyteller Lewis Mehl-Madrona. Lewis opened our sessions together with a Lakota chant he had learned from his grandfather to welcome the Ancestors. Later, he suggested I do the same before beginning a storytelling session.

“But I don’t think it would be right for me to use your chant,” I said to Lewis, “I’m not Native and besides, I don’t think I could ever remember the words.”

Lewis broke into a broad smile. “It’s not the words that matter most,” he said, “it’s your intention. Whatever words you bring, whatever the song, it’s the intention with which you bring it that matters most. The Ancestors will know.”
I understood what Lewis meant by ‘intention’ but I was still puzzled and asked him to say more.

“Do you remember when you were a child playing on your own outside?” he asked.“
“Of course,” I replied.
“And do you remember singing little nonsense songs to yourself, little chants that you sang because you were filled with joy, little verses of gibberish and sounds that you sang to the world around you?”

“Yes!” I said, “I do.” And I saw myself again as a little child playing in the fields behind our house, singing to myself little songs that I made up, songs with “la la las” and “dee da, doh, doos” and even “hello little bunny, I am watching you” and such expressions that were my response to the world around me. I would be immersed in that world and these songs connected me to something bigger of which then I had no real understanding other than it was real to me. I went on to tell Lewis that I still did it when I went for a walk — making up little chants in a made up language, walking through the forest singing to the trees or strolling along the beach repeating some rhythmic little bit of nonsense that just came into my head. It’s just my way of talking to the world.

“That’s it,” Lewis said, “the words aren’t important, nor the tune, it’s the intention. The Ancestors will know when you bring the right intention and they will come. They love stories.”
Lewis then went on to explain how all indigenous peoples have rituals like this to invite and honour the Ancestors and their spirits. He also reminded me that if I traced my own ancestors back far enough (in my case, my Celtic ancestors) I would discover that they certainly had similar rituals.
Ever since then, I have invited my grandparents and great-grandparents, aunts and uncles and other deceased family and friends to my storytelling sessions. The first time I chanted aloud, I discovered later that a few people thought it “weird” while a couple of women thought I was speaking in some ancient language, one them saying she was sure I was chanting in Sanskrit. “No,” I said, “it was ‘Gibber-ese’ from an ancient Child-language. “Never heard of it,” she said, eyes widening.
I usually conduct my rituals of invitation privately before the show or workshop, although I often suggest that the audience take a few minutes to invite their ancestors or the spirit of someone special to be present and to do it in whatever way seems appropriate to them.

There is a chant entitled “Ancestors, Sky People” that epitomizes this kind of invitation and honouring the ancestors. The words are from a poem by Misha Saez and they’ve been set to music by Californian singer-songwriter Harmony Grisman (https://harmonygrisman.bandcamp.com/). The song is well-known and is often sung at community gatherings around the world. I learned the song while living in the eco-spiritual community of Findhorn in northern Scotland. You can find examples of it on YouTube, but feel free to make up your own.

Spending time on the Farm has put me in mind of my own Ancestors, the majority who came from southern England in Wiltshire and from Kilkenny in Ireland. Most were farmers who emigrated to southern Ontario in Canada and farmed the land and raised livestock. In fact, many of the folk who live in the vicinity of this farm, claim Irish, English, and Scottish ancestry. As I go about my chores in the early morning, I am reminded of my Great-Uncle Arnold Lucas (on the Irish side). I remember, as a boy visiting in the summer, how Uncle Arnold would get me up at 5am to go out with him to milk the cows. I remember him humming little tunes to the cows as he was sitting on the stool milking them. Sometimes, I’d catch the names of the cows he was milking (Bess, Brownie) but the rest were just sounds or nonsense words.

This morning, I too find myself singing little improvised tunes to the chickens as I feed them or to Fennel, George, and Sugar as I take them out to the paddock. I talk to them too. I chant as I wheel out the shit in the barrow or collect wood for the fire. I think I need to sing as much as I need to tell stories. Author Mark Nepo reminds us that we come into life singing, although it’s mistaken for crying, and that this singing is what opens our lungs so we can begin breathing.

Singing also opens up a conduit between our deep well of emotion and the outer world. I’m sure that’s partly the reason birds sing, squirrels chatter, chickens cluck and crow, why George grunts and snuffles, why the geese honk, and the goats bleat, babies coo and gurgle … maybe even why the train whistles its lonely song as it disappears down the track. It makes them feel better. Growing up with a father who suffered from terrible bouts of depression, I learned that when he was singing or whistling it was going to be a good day. My brothers and I learned to keep playing his favourite Frank Sinatra LPs to keep him in a good mood.

So wherever you are today, hum, whistle, chant, sing. Tap into that pocket of emotion that needs to be expressed and give it voice. You don’t have to know the words. You don’t have to be able to carry a tune. Just bring the right intention into your heart and open your mouth. The Ancestors will hear you. They will come and listen and watch over you.

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© Michael Williams 2019