Editors note: this post was originally featured in 2014, new blog posts on The C2C return September 11th, 2017.
In the wonderful documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, directed by Werner Hezog, an anthropologist tells the story of when he met a member of an indigenous tribe who would draw over the ancient paintings left behind by his ancient ancestors.
The anthropologist, whose main concern was the preservation of these ancient paintings, asked the indigenous tribe member why he was drawing over these ancient paintings. (In the anthropologist’s opinion, such behavior was ruining a precious artifact for the annals of humanity.) The indigenous tribe member simply shrugged his shoulders and explained that his ancient ancestors where actually working through him at that moment, helping him preserve the painting for future generations.
The response shocked the anthropologist and made him question the traditional Western view of our relation to our past, our ancestry, and artifacts that echo our human tradition.
Becoming A Living Artifact / Preserving Ourselves For Our Future
Not too long ago, I sat down with one of the very first readers of my novel to go over her feedback for me. I was so excited to hear her point of view: she was the first person to ever read a draft in its entirety and it was both nerve-wracking and exciting to see what she thought of it. Over lunch, we spoke at length about what was good about it and what needed to be fixed, and then, afterwards, I immediately began working on fixing the areas we discussed.
As I began working on solving these problems in the novel, I started thinking a lot about my ancestors. Hoping they might guide me with some solutions.
You see, I’m a Mexican-American, so I come from a lineage that is a mixture of Spanish and Aztec blood. The Aztecs were a people who were the inventors of the number 0, they brought us chocolate, corn and the most accurate calendar known to man—even more accurate than the Gregorian calendar we use today. On the other side of my lineage, the Spanish contributed greatly to the world of literature, art, nautical exploration and cultural refinement, but, unfortunately, also contributed to the art of war, empire-building, genocide, and colonization.
Added to this cultural lineage is the fact that I’m also the son of immigrant parents, who came to this country from Mexico searching for a better future and more opportunities of themselves and their children—just like every American in history.
Invigorated by the idea of the American Dream, my parents instilled it in me that I should always dream big and follow those dreams at whatever cost. They instilled me the values of hard work, education, of staying true to my morals, of being proud of my cultural heritage, of being kind and respectful, but also of living life to its fullest.
As I continue to write my story, I sometimes sense as if my parents and my ancestors are all working through me to finish it. It’s like I am this living artifact: preserving the original work of my ancestors but also giving it my own modern, unique twist.
In the process, I’m also preserving myself for my future descendants.
This is true for all of us.
Our lives are but living artifacts of our ancestor’s lives. The way they lived, the way they thought, the way they believed, even sometimes their physical strengths and defects, all live within us still (sometimes in our very DNA).
And one day, it will be our job to pass down this culture, this lineage, this pattern to our descendants.
What lines and patterns (inherited from our ancestors) will we deepen and make more clear for future generations?
What lines and patterns (inherited from our ancestors) will we wipe away and remove, because they ugly the painting of our humanity?
We’re caretakers of more than just our creative work—we’re caretakers of a story that has been told for centuries and will be continued to be told for centuries more.
What will we add to the story? How will we change things? What will we take away from the story? How will we keep things the same?
It is said that the great American poet, Maya Angelou, used to call upon her ancestors whenever she went to make a big speech in front of a big crowd. She was wise enough to know that she was never speaking for herself when she took that podium: she was speaking with the voice of the thousands that came before her, and paved the way for her success.
Those ancestral voices gave Maya Angelou a voice. The strength of her ancestors contributed to her mighty power as a poet. We shouldn’t be surprised: Maya Angelou’s greatness could never be winnowed down to just one human being, just one voice, just one mind. She could only exist as an accumulation of “the many” who came before her.
In my own journey, I am learning more and more to call upon the strength of my ancestors. I am learning more and more to ask myself to confront their negative patterns that have contributed to my own very limiting beliefs. I have been working hard to clear those negative beliefs away and am working to release their weaknesses, and draw only upon their strengths in order to become like a living artifact.
I choose to honor the past, but I also honor the fact that the past is past, and the present is the only place where change can truly occur. My job is to preserve my ancestral lineage, but I know I’ve also been given permission to leave my own mark on history, give it my own say, speak with my own unique quirks and sensibilities. I am here not to be a carbon copy of the voices who came before me, I am here to be a “modern translation,” so to speak. I will tell their stories, the ones filled with cries and laughter, joy and pain—but their cries will sound closer, sort of like mine, and their laughter less faint, not corroded by time.
Their joy will be felt now. Their pain, right here.
We are born of our ancestor’s intention, but not of their actual bones. In us, our ancestors live, but we are only their homes. As the home itself, we will dictate what comfort they will find in it. Be we American rustic, European ornate, or Japanese minimalist. They take shelter in a room in our house, but we dictate what room it is: be it the guest room, the study, or the bedroom–or the cellar. In each choice we will decide whether they are just our visitors, to be consulted only occasionally, or whether we make them dictators of our creative work—or whether we, in fact, give them so much power as to haunt us in our very sleep.
I say put them in the guest room—out back—make them cozy, but not too cozy. This is your house after all. You’ve earned your right to make this space your own. Own it. Walk around it like you’re The Queen and it’s your time to reign.
Although you were born of your ancestors, their time to make a dent has passed.
Your time is now.
Honor the past with an iron fist, but don’t forget the gold of your present consciousness.
Here, right now, the past and the future collapse into one. (Your one.) They explode, and resonate throughout the galaxies. Because of this (because there is only today and today only) you shouldn’t be afraid to create the work and the life you want.
Your ancestral lineage is a million voices strong, and they all lift you up, they all give you courage if you call on them. But, remember, your voice is part of the million. Don’t let them drown you out. Make sure your tone is equally loud in measure.
The Courage To Call On Your Ancestors
We’re never as courageous alone as we are when we know—and feel—as if we’re surrounded by an army of courageous men and women who are not only on our side, but who have paved the very way for us to arrive at this point.
Your life is a painting that your ancestors began. You won’t get to finish the painting, no, but certainly, you’ll get to add your own personal touch.
So touch this moment. Touch it deeply. So that, one day, your descendants may choose to underline your work and then paint around you.
much ancestral love,