“sometimes the body is a satellite”, by Clay AD
Sexual assault, mention of murder
They [doctors] assume that an individual person is an isolated entity, not recognizing that he is situated in and shaped by a multigenerational family system.
— Gabor Maté, 'When the Body Says No'
Light a candle, bring an offering (a glass of water, some food, flowers, or whatever seems appropriate), write the name of the ancestor you’d like to connect to. It can be an ancestor of blood lineage or of affinity, the dead are flexible. If you do not know the name of the ancestor, if adopted or if the name has been lost, or if you are just trying to reach back, have an empty paper and pen in front of you. Leave this on your altar to stew for a time and see what comes up.
I find it embarrassing to talk about haunting. Even find it somewhat embarrassing here to write of it. Coming from a Midwestern Protestant family, religion did not feel open to the spirit world. Seeing was believing, the only exception being the bible, where reading was believing. As a child sitting in church service I would listen to sermons on the trinity -- the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. I asked my Sunday school teacher if Jesus was haunting the chapel and she replied there was no such things as ghosts, Jesus was a holy son who was now in heaven with his dad God, the end. She then suggested to my parents I stop reading Goosebumps books.
My only other cue into “ghosts” was Ouji board sessions in middle school with friends at sleepovers,where we’d ask about each other’s crushes and dramas. However, in my teenage years, and only when I was alone, I began to have an occasional feeling while staring down over a highway overpass, on the way to my friend’s house, that time was more like a soup than a line, and inside of the pot were many invisible moving parts.
I knew to never bring up my highway musings to my parents or church leaders; I grew up avoiding drawing attention to myself for the most part. But this picking sensation, as well as my interest in punk music, controversially led me to “quitting” church at sixteen. My early twenties would then lead me to Starhawk, anarchism, tarot and science fiction.
It’s important to give context to the time and the state of my body. I am a somatic bodyworker, and in October 2018 was partaking in my first session of training to become a practitioner. Receiving and giving bodywork for five days in a row gets you high. Aliveness flooded my systems from touch and my emotional state expanded from moving through years of physical and mental tension and pain. Now I’m more used to the feeling of this sensory overload, but at the time my brain literally felt like it was on drugs. This state allows a kind of receptivity in the soma, an openness, and this was where I was coming from when I began this line of questioning toward the dead.
Engage in a meditation method that works for you. There are many, but try to find space in your mind to repeat either the name of the dead or the intention to connect if you do not know the name. Give yourself a set time, half an hour, or better an hour. Long enough for the bodily systems to settle into the space and intention. Trust what comes up, whether that is an association, a directive (to bring something, do something), a vision, or name(s). If nothing comes up do not be discouraged.
I was sitting on my floor in my bedroom, meditating at night when I witnessed what I’ll describe as a vision but also felt like a portal:
A landscape of green rolling hills, lake pastures, forests, a small village.
My perspective was limited by my viewpoint , I was about four meters from a
large stone in a grassy field speckled with small white flowers. In the distance a
teenager walked toward me. She was wearing a plain grey dress with a white apron
waving in a soft wind holding a dirty metal pail, a few cut yellow flowers draped across
the rim. Before she passed the large stone, a man came into my view. He was in his
late forties, he had a beard, he was wearing brown pants, a cap and a white shirt.
Before the girl could realise what was happening he moved quickly and grabbed her, forcing her down behind the stone. The pail fell and rolled into my view, however the girl and the man were blocked and I could not see them. I heard her fighting for a moment and then quiet. The vision continued and I just stared at the fallen pail and flowers that I knew were within her view, that I had a feeling she was also staring at.
* * *
I remember I’m meditating and I remember I am not physically in this meadow. As if a hand grips and pulls the back of my head, I feel myself ripped from that space, eyes open full of tears back in my bedroom. I try to regulate my breathing while my mind races to understand why and what just happened.
The next day, an answer to the confusion and shock came as I was listening to a podcast called “How to Survive the End of the World” by sisters Autumn and adrienne maree brown. In the episode Autumn spoke about a foundational yet horrific experience of being spontaneously contacted by an ancestor who rode over the Atlantic in a slave ship. Autumn describes the distress of being in and witnessing the terror of the ship, and the aftershocks of that experience.
That isn’t to conflate our experiences, but rather to say it gave me some insight into what might have happened the day before. Perhaps I realised, it wasn’t a horrible realistic image spontaneously conjured by my brain (a fear I felt as I went to sleep), but rather an experience an ancestor was attempting to share, a moment of trauma which had still not found relief or healing.
If possible visit the site of your ancestors. Their homes, graves, and other places of importance. Bring an offering with you, some water for the plants growing there, something you’ve cooked, their favorite candy, a meaningful object. Be aware of synchronicities, weather, impulses; it could be a kind of communication.
Epigenetic research has shown that trauma is carried through generations,that behavioural patterns and dynamics can be passed down between family members unless there is intervention and healing. I would add they even travel through and between the dead. Daniel Floor in his book 'Ancestral Medicine: Rituals for Personal and Family Healing' speaks on “lineage repair work” as a practice for connecting to wounds in our lineages and repairing them under the guidance and direction of our ancestors. He doesn’t believe the dead are equally well, and differentiates between “ghosts and not-yet-ancestors” from ancestors, who have found peace and when contacted provide guidance, support and love. This makes me think Franciska is more like a ghost, and though she is teaching me a lot, she has also asked for help, and through our murky contact I try to understand.
She tells me to fill my room with yellow daffodils…
I remove the flowers from their vase and create a ring around the room; their heads face upwards in different golden hues.
Setting: Spring 2019, opens with a shot of the protagonist laying on a scratched wooden floor under a loft bed in an old collective house in Berlin, Germany. It is a cozy space despite the grime. They are 27 with peach skin and bleached hair; their eyes are closed and their body surrounded by flowers. Light streams in through the windows. Under their breath they mutter.
Clay: Franciska, Franciska, Franciska…
Franciska: An oozing feeling starting from your head, moving all the way toward your toes. Follow it with your hand hovering above the body.
[Clay follows instructions]
Clay: What do you need?
[image of Franciska from the knees down appears clear, long black dress and leather shoes. She slowly walks around Clay’s body and places her hands on their shoulders.]
Clay: Do you want me to go to Schwarzenburg?
Franciska: Talk to Tommy
Research your family history. If possible, connect to members of your family to hear their personal memories and stories. If adopted, or in an unsafe situation to reach out to blood lineage, learning about lineages of affinity (e.g. connecting to trans ancestors, or queer ancestors) can provide just as much information in your formation. Do some research—whether online, in a book, or by connecting to elders in your community.
Before I moved to Germany in the summer of 2016 I spoke to my great uncle Thomas, or Tommy, at a family wedding. Upon hearing my plans he remarked I should visit our Austrian family if I was able. They lived in a small town near the Czech border called Schwarzenburg.
When he arrived in Schwarzenberg for the first time in 1981 he went to the post-office, and in broken German spoke with the older woman working there, only to discover they were related, and that many other people in the town were distant relatives. Contact had been rare in the years before; he was the first person to go back in almost a hundred years. They had been in the Soviet sector after WWII so visiting was impossible and writing difficult, occasionally they were able to smuggle letters out and the family would try to smuggle money in to support them.
Tommy told me my great-great-grandmother, i.e. his grandmother who is also my grandfather’s grandmother, immigrated to the United States in the late 1800s, by herself at age seventeen from that town. Her name was Franciska Hornath.
Our conversation got interrupted by the reception, but I thought it odd and wanted to ask why she had immigrated alone at such a young age to the States.
A couple years after the vision I wrote to Tommy, convinced Franciska was the girl in the field who I had seen, who had reached out to me. In the email I said I had been thinking of her, and asked if he would be open to telling me more of her story.
“Grandma’s father had died when she was a teenager, and her mother had remarried someone that was evidently vicious, and very disturbing to the whole family. There was a culminating major confrontation when she must have been about 16. I think that it was a sexual attack on her by her step-father, and she fled the house and took refuge with the local priest, and he helped her get to Vienna where she was a governess for several families. I only learned a few years ago that the confrontation included a defense of her by her beloved older brother, Franz, who was killed by the stepfather. He had been a violinist and to my recollection from my grandmother, had played with Strauss in the Emperor’s palace, as she told me about she and her mother sneaking in to hear the orchestra. She saved $10, and that got her on a boat to the US, where she landed in Baltimore at 17 (I have a picture of the boat she came on). She learned some English on the boat trip. Somehow, she knew a family in Kansas City and headed there, where she became the governess for a wealthy family.”
Reading this I felt time warp in on itself. I think despite the anarchistic-queer-spiritual life I had cultivated in the recent years I still get roped into the rational religion of my past, and get skeptical of the power I know the universe contains. This email felt like a finger reaching through to my guts to unearth something I knew was there but needed “proven” outside of myself. Here was the proof. The next summer I went to Schwarzenberg.
Take some time to reflect on how you feel about your ancestors, where they came from and their traditions. How do those inform you presently? After reflecting, write or draw your thoughts and place them on your altar.
At the train station in Linz I waited for “uncle” Franz and his two daughters with a good friend who agreed to come for support. He is descended from my great-great-grandmother’s sister. We get into a car and squeeze next to his two daughters who are in their early twenties. Though we all have almost nothing in common (me and my friend trying to dress down our queerness to meet these strangers we will spend an entire day with) with them (very normative middle class Austrian family, the daughters both with full time jobs and benefits) we chat happily and I’m relieved to find they are kind. In the long drive my uncle’s daughters and my friend sing along to pop songs in the car like Britney and Green Day, American cultural imperialism facilitating a bond. Uncle Franz is somewhat fascinated by why I’m interested in family history, but talks about how much he likes Tommy and how happy the family was to be reconnected again when he showed up all those years ago.
Franz gets us schnitzel for lunch at a restaurant on the drive there and we meet his mother Maria, a quiet and stern older woman. Her Austrian-German accent so heavy I need help translating, so the words get filtered through my friend sitting next to me. Later, we sit in her house, where she feeds us white bread and ham sandwiches and shows me family albums. A picture of Franciska next to her sister and two brothers standing next to a barn. She looked like a teenager so it must have been taken soon before she left.
She was strangely absent from my senses as I walked around the stone-built house of her childhood, the fields surrounding, and the church on the hill where she hid from her stepfather. I assume spirits also hold a psycho-geographic response, remembering my own feelings and triggers when revisiting physical sites of trauma. The kind of numbness or dissociation I have experienced when returning to those places.
I didn't know exactly what I was looking for, waiting for. I longed for the directness she sent me in the beginning. At the table with all the family I try to initiate a conversation about her stepfather, and they look at me like they don’t know what I’m talking about and ask if I don’t want another piece of cake.
I am disappointed they are still silent about the abuse, which was more than 100 years ago by a man they never met, who ultimately changed the course of our lineage’s history. Before leaving one of the relatives, who baked the cake and has a sweet smile, pressed a small necklace of black and white crystal beads into my hand. She said, “Tom brought us this in 1981. It was Franciska's and I have the feeling like I should give it to you now.”
This past winter I saw Tommy, we sat across from one another at a Mexican restaurant in Kentucky, near the care home my grandmother was staying in. He said he didn’t find their non-response surprising. It took him many visits and a lot of time to build up the relationship before he could ask why his grandmother had moved. Even she never talked about it, and mostly had only mentioned Austria to say she missed her mother. Tommy being a doctor made a metaphor from his experience, saying that when he finally pulled the story out of them it felt like draining a very old abscess, and suddenly the family felt like the wound was fresh again.
Locate points of questions, discoveries, and/or surprises that have occurred since beginning ancestral work. How have you changed? How are the relationships reciprocal? Find a gift to bring to the ancestor(s) you are working with, find a way to bless it, perhaps with water, moonlight, or sun, and set it on your altar.
The lineage that Franciska comes from, my mother’s side, has felt heavy all my life. My late-grandfather was an extremely aggressive man, he struggled with alcohol addiction and was often unkind and bigoted. He loved me deeply and I think this helped repair some of his relationship with my mother, but his toll on her and the rest of my family has visible repercussions even though we don’t really talk about it. It seems like Franciska’s trauma carried through our line in invisible ways which have led to very tangible and embodied outcomes.
Since she reached out it’s opened something in my family. My mom visited uncle Tommy to hear about her great-grandmother for herself. She and I have a complicated relationship, which is beginning to be based more in compassion, but for a long time was often edged in tension and hurt. It gives me a lot of hope to feel like she’s able to start contextualizing some of her own pain and trauma in the dynamics with her parents, with the help of this resilient ancestor who survived incredibly violent and horrible things.
With the writing I sense I’m at rest stop on the journey rather than the final destination. One attempt in many during a fragmented process of finding out her story. I’d like to know more about her, what she was like when she was older. I know she left the Catholic Church to assimilate in Kansas, and later Kentucky with her new husband’s family, and attended Protestant churches for the rest of her life. Tommy told me that despite this, she never stopped wearing her rosary.
I want to ask her what drew her to the United States. Being from European descent on all sides of my family, I feel complicit in the history of settler colonialism. Finding out more about her journey, as well as my other ancestors, feels important as a white person, not to excuse the violence of that history, but rather to situate myself within it, to engage in disowning and dismantling the power structures my people have clung to. This I know is also a process, and a practice that must be lived.
I would joke with a friend that I was being haunted by my great-great-grandmother, but I know it's more complex than that. She has no bad intentions, rather she seemed to be searching for an receptive being, for connection. Franciska allowed me to witness her, inside a moment I doubt she shared with many in her lifetime, for fear of prejudice, sexism and shame. I speculate that she came to me for a variety of reasons: because I would listen and not confuse the vision or bury it away, because I have had my own experience of sexual assault, because the somatic practices I do allows receptivity and sensitivity this work seems to require.
There are many traditions of working with ancestors and I don’t think I’ve yet quite connected to the right one for me. Ultimately I’d like to find a way of working that is rooted in the cultural traditions of my long-ago ancestors, namely European based paganism. I am still searching for those. The exercises in this essay I gathered piecemeal, mostly from the book 'Ancestral Medicine: Rituals for Personal and Family Healing' by Daniel Floor, from trusted friends’ advice, and my own intuition and experience.
As a bodyworker I find the most powerful moments often come when someone feels enough trust to open up and tell their story. To be witnessed, and then challenge the internal voice that so often says that their experiences are not worth sharing. When this happens I’ve seen deep physical change in the body, as if lifetimes of baggage suddenly float into the sky. Suddenly I’m face-to-face with someone completely different, or maybe more accurately, more completely themselves.
Clay AD was born in Indianapolis Indiana and now lives in Berlin where they are a somatic bodyworker, artist, writer and tarot reader. In their interdisciplinary practice they honour and explore illness, ecology, science fiction, transformation and the politics of care under capitalism -- by themselves, collectively and with their clients. They are a certified practitioner of the Pantarei Approach and their somatic work is informed by their background in improvisational movement, meditation and breath work. Their first novel, Metabolize, If Able is available through Arcadia Missa Press UK and was named a finalist in the 31st Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror. Their writing has been published by Pilot Press, Futures Journal, Hematopoiesis Press, and Monster House Press. They have led somatic and writing workshops at NGBK Berlin and Shedhalle Zurich, and read internationally including at the Institute for Contemporary Arts London. They received their BFA from the Cooper Union for Advancement of Art and Science in 2014.