My life can be roughly divided into three categories: what I am thinking, what I am doing, and what I am reading. Sometimes the three categories seem completely disparate, but more often I find, and love to find, synchronicity among the three.. In fact, finding the common themes in various areas of life is a distinctly pleasurable pursuit. When I find these lovely alignments I am so filled with delight and enthusiasm, I feel compelled to share my discoveries. This is not to say my discoveries are noteworthy. But they are mine nonetheless.
Lately I have been thinking about, well, ancestors and their place in our lives. This is a natural topic for me to address, as I am growing older, and my parents and their parents are deceased. I have found through personal experience that relationships are never really over. We still think of and ponder our relationships with loved ones after they have left this earth. I am no longer able to ask my parents questions about things I would like to know, but I am free to continue to learn from them, and to be aware of what I may be passing along to the younger generation.
While these ideas were swirling in my mind I embarked upon my vacation to Vancouver. As I packed for the trip, I pulled two unread paperbacks by Colin Cotterill from my shelf: The Coroner’ s Lunch and Thirty Three Teeth (These were the two mysteries I bought when I went to St. Louis.) I knew they would be useful to have on the airplane when “all electronic devices must be powered off.”
In The Coroner’s Lunch, the first volume of the series, I moved back in time to 1977 to Communist Laos to make the acquaintance of Dr. Siri Paiboun, a 72 year old surgeon. Dr. Siri, having spent decades in the jungle as a surgeon to bands of Communist guerillas, is a childless widower who longs to retire. But because so many anti Communist professionals, fearing reprisals from the new regime, have fled the country, Dr. Siri finds himself appointed National Coroner. Dr. Siri initially lacks the will, the experience, and the materials necessary to fulfill his duties but realizes that his appointment to this post is non negotiable.
But what has any of this to do with ancestors? I will tell you. Laos, in 1977 has become a puppet government of North Vietnam. The monarchy has been forced to abdicate and those in opposition have fled or been placed in re education camps. But the Loatian people are traditionally rural, tribal with deep ties to the world of spirits. The power of the unseen guides their daily decisions.
Dr.Siri knows little of his own past, having been orphaned as a young child, and does not believe in un scientific pursuits. He is of course aware of the belief systems of his people but sees no need of any of them for himself. But as he is drawn into investigating a series of mysterious deaths, he receives nocturnal visits from creatures who can only be from the world of spirits. These figures not only assist him to solve his cases, but also open his eyes to the to the connections between the past and the present, to the dead and the living. As Dr. Siri comes to accept the existence of these beings who have passed from the earth, he feels less isolated and more empowered to confront his authoritarian supervisors.
I am not rying in this little blurb to give a full review of this gem of a series, but suffice it to say that for me to be drawn into a book series which contains spirits, said series would have to be beautifully written. And it is. Also it is hilarious. One the funnier parts for me takes place in the second volume of the series, The Thirty Three Teeth, in which Dr. Siri learns more of his connections to the world of the spirits. While he is investigating a case in a jungle village, the local Communist bosses hold a mandatory meeting for all the local shamans. At the meeting, a military officer reads out a proclamation ordering the shamans to order the local spirits to occupy other areas, as their presence is interfering with the military’s efforts to deforest the jungle. Like spirits are going to obey orders from a totalitarian regime! Delightfully absurd!
In Vancouver, leaving Dr. Siri to his own devices,, I visited the University of British Columbia Museum of Cultural Anthropology. which exhibits artifacts about the indigenous , or First Nations, populations. What a perfect outing for someone who has connecting with ancestors on the brain! I was awed by the exhibits from tribes which celebrated the people and traditions which had come before them. They treasured hospitality and family ties. While it is always heartbreaking to learn about cultures which have been mistreated or worse by Western civilization, it is also gratifying to see the efforts being made to bring back these decimated tribes and their traditions.
While I am again not trying to give a full picture of this incredible facility, a few aspects reverberated especially deeply with me. One was of course the body of work by Bill Reid, the artist who worked so diligently to incorporate the Haida traditional arts into his work. He was a jeweler, a carver, a painter, and more. His sculpture “The Raven and The First Men” is on permanent exhibit in what was originally a gun turret.
Another highlight for me was the special exhibit on the work of Douglas Cranmer, the carver in the Kwakwak’wakw tradition. He preferred the name of Kesu which in his native tribal language meant “wealth being carved.” Mr. Cranmer also carried on his native tribal arts and taught and mentored many others who were trying to keep the native ways alive. he collaborated with Bill Reid to carve enormous totems from cedar. One item Mr. Cranmer, a chief of his tribe, inherited was a copper plaque which authorized him to tell the ancient stories and myths of his people during potlatch ceremonies which he hosted. Sadly,the exhibit did not allow pictures to be taken.
In my reading and in learning about the customs of other peoples, I find many ideas which coincide with my own. As a member of the oldest survivng generation of my family, I realize the importance of our stories, of telling them while we are still alive, so that we can both savor them ourselves and give them to the younger ones. Our stories and myths connect us to the ones who came before us, who struggled with existential issues as we have.
Like Dr. Siri, we struggle to find dignity and meaning in our lives despite the fact that we live in an unjust society. Like the First Nations peoples, we need the strength gained from ritual and tradition and from objects which seem to hold the strength of the generations. We need an appreciation for the sacred, for the unseen, for the mystery that is life.
These subjects surely deserve more thought, but I’m not in a hurry. It’s a comfort, however, that when I wonder, for example, if I am like my grandmothers, or what my mother would have thought about some situation, that I am not alone. When I go through old pictures and wish I could have been there, in that generation, just for a glimpse, I am not being maudlin, but looking for parts of myself. When I think surreal thoughts about future grandchildren and what I may pass on to them, I am in good company. Generations and generations before me have done just the same. I thank them.