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  • Writer's picturedrliza99

Becoming a Good Ancestor

Updated: Dec 11, 2023

orange and yellow maple leaves in autumn

In his poem “hieroglyphic stairway,” Drew Dellinger writes: “it’s 3:23 in the morning / and I can’t sleep / because my great great grandchildren / ask me in dreams / what did you do while the earth was unravelling?” [1] We are the ancestors of the coming generations, and the choices we make now will have repercussions long after we are gone. We are shaping the collective future by our decisions and actions every breathing moment. What kind of ancestors do we want to be? Robin Wall Kimmerer is a scientist, professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She tells the story of a particular Grandmother Maple tree she visits for counsel, and shares what she learned from this elder. “To be a good ancestor,” Grandmother Maple taught her, “you have to build good soil.”⁠ [2] In this lies the potential for regeneration after hardship. Kimmerer recalls the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens, and how in the wake of so much devastation, new life gradually emerged in small pockets of good soil. Good soil holds both the composted nourishment from the past and the seeds and spores of a future we “cannot imagine, but trust will arise.” [3] The Maple is a very generous ancestor, Kimmerer explains. In autumn some trees withdraw all their nutrients inward to be used the following year, before dropping their leaves. Those leaves contain little to feed the soil. But Maples, she says, hold nothing back. They offer their leaves full of rich nutrients to the ecosystem of the Earth, making wonderful soil. They give all that is within them to nourish the flourishing of future life.

A surprising number of younger people are concerned with how to become a good ancestor, and making it a guidepost for their lives. Author Layla F. Saad hosts the Good Ancestor podcast. Her Instagram account has more than 600,000 followers, most of them millennials, like she is. In her blog, Saad writes: “Becoming a good ancestor is something that we actually have to practice in our everyday lives. … It is something that we use as a north star to guide us on whether or not we want to spend time on a certain activity, opportunity, creation, or even relationship. It's a filter that we can use to see ourselves in the world, and how we choose to interact with the world.” [4] In the UK, the Good Ancestor Movement facilitates wealth redistribution as an act of economic justice. Founded in 2022 by another millennial, Stephanie Brobbey, it fosters new economic systems anchored in ecological and social well-being and repair. For ten years Brobbey enjoyed a successful career as a private wealth attorney, helping the mega-rich avoid taxes and grow their assets. In 2019 she had an awakening. A friend shared with her the startling fact that in the UK there were more food banks than McDonald's outlets. It led her to reflect on her own complicity with wealth inequality and sparked her determination to do something about it. She became a different kind of wealth advisor, now working with her affluent clients to reduce their assets through ethical redistribution. She developed a three-month training curriculum where her clients learn the history of Western imperialism and the slave trade, and explore topics like reparations, divestment, and how to engage in activism toward a more equitable and sustainable economy. They form a peer support group as they learn together and process the complicated feelings many have about their wealth, and their responsibility to change the system that created it. Brobbey points out that this is not about philanthropy, but undermining “modern capitalism’s indoctrination around the need to accumulate — and the negative effects this perpetuates for both people and planet.” [5] Becoming a good ancestor has both inward and outward dimensions. Embodying our soul’s purpose, the healing we do on personal and inherited trauma, deepening our communion with the Sacred, the work of forgiveness and reconciling relationships, all help us turn our wounds into wisdom to serve coming generations. Alongside this, our commitment to social justice, transformation, and collective liberation, to honoring the Earth and all of life, shifts the foundations of the world our children’s children will inhabit. All this, of course, is a direction not a destination. This is not an assignment we will ever complete, nevertheless it is one that each of us must pursue with integrity. This post is excerpted from my book-in-progress. Photo of maple leaves in autumn by Claude Laprise on UnSplash. ___________ [1] Drew Dellinger, “hieroglyphic stairway,” in love letter to the milky way: a book of poems. Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 2011, 3. [2] Robin Wall Kimmerer, “Building Good Soil,” in John Hausdoerffer, et al, eds., What Kind of Ancestor Do You Want to Be? Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 2021, 182. [3] Ibid, 183. [4] (posted 1.17.21, accessed 5.28.23) [5] (posted 11.25.22, accessed 7.9.23)

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