Processing Karma

The author 10 years in the past.

Processual learning, in classrooms and in life, emphasizes the intricate and unfolding manner of transformation. Karmic lessons are not always fully carried out in this life; we may only know one piece of a lesson we are supposed to learn now. That lesson needn’t exist in a linear frame. When you look up at the stars to notice how they are ordered, you won’t see a straight line or set of instructions, but we know we are made of the materials of stars. We are scattered, dynamic people.

In my post “Transfiguration,” I discussed cultural memory because, as I delve deeper into secular spirituality, I wonder: “Who was I in previous lives?” Some maintain we stay within our family lineage, believing we are one of our ancestors.

Maybe you were your great great grandfather or grandmother, a great aunt.

I once watched a documentary where a child discussed his life as his mother’s father (he believed he was his grandfather who died a few years prior to his birth). My friend, Adam MacHose, tells me his children, 2 & 5, talk about what they used to do “when they were adults.”

When we leave these bodies, we must possess knowledge of all previous lives. All agreements with other souls, all red threads of karma, they fill us up with love for what we’ve learned—what we’ve seen through different eyes is understood and we prepare to do it over again. This may be the only comfort for those who don’t find justice and affirmation in this life, though it isn’t a reason not to seek it, or not to be angry when they do not find it.

Patterns form in families, as I study mine I am convinced of this.

One of the beautiful things about the internet is the accessible digital archiving of public records.

I found a lot just by finding birth and death records, looking at the Ellis Island database, and using the Mormon-owned Family Search. If you are wondering: no, this is not a post for Mormon evangelism, but you may take interest in Latter-day Saints’ motivations for keeping detailed public records:

Latter-day Saints believe families can be together after this life. Therefore, it is essential to strengthen relationships with all family members, both those who are alive and those who have died.

Though I’m not a Mormon, I can empathize with this belief. I do not believe in a heaven where we retain our worldly identity from just one life. My grandmother, Phyllis, did. She believed we stayed 33 years old forever in Heaven and we sang hymns to Jesus. She’s still in this realm somewhere. I know because I remember of hymns I haven’t heard in over 20 years at times when I need encouragement.

“Be still, my soul, the waves and wind still know…”

“One good memory I have of my grandfather, Benny, was that he used to cut up pomegranates for us to eat,” my mom told me as we drove to the craft store to pick up some colored pencils. She doesn’t remember much else about him; he died when she was in 6th grade.

Mom couldn’t remember what his profession was; her mother Charlotte, Benny’s daughter, was not close with my mother after she left the family. Mom was in middle school when Charlotte left. Opportunities for connection with Charlotte’s family diminished after that. Charlotte also died in 2014, so I can’t ask her questions anymore. Charlotte’s mother, Edith, is 93 and lives in my mom’s town.

In about 2006 Mom was driving us home and we rode right past Edith. She would have been 82 then, but the way she zipped down the street you’d think she was 20 years younger. I don’t remember ever meeting her. Mom said, “That’s my grandmother. She says we’re Jewish.”

I found an obituary for Benny from 1974. His last name was Gawrich, like my grandmothers. His parents’ names were Gawrilowicz, which, it seemed, Benny himself anglicized, since his brother’s name was unchanged. He was born in Brooklyn in 1918. His wife Edith’s maiden name was Frank. Edith worked at a sewing factory. My aunt still works there; Edith taught her how to sew.

Edith’s phone number on a Google search matched up to the address I knew she’d lived at. I called Edith and she did not answer the first time. I left a message on her answering machine. No returned call. I irrationally felt rejected; I screen my calls as well.

That’s the thing with the digital: we have all this information available—the archives, a history of human beings, but we must account for temperament—human errors.

Perhaps Edith did not want to call me back because she felt I would like to unload anger on her for being out of touch. She had no way of knowing.

Fearing non-existent rejection has no place in this universe. Too many people I’ve known have died before we could talk because of such faulty reasoning. I called Edith again. She answered.

“Hello, this is Marlana, I’m Robin’s daughter…your granddaughter. Well, I’d be your great granddaughter.” I kept overcompensating to prevent thoughtful silence.

A noise. Edith stirred and I shut up, “Are you Robin’s daughter?” she asked me in a “cut to the point, kid” way.

“Yes. That’s me,” I said.

“What a nice family, huh?” was the next thing she said. Forthcoming and curt. I could appreciate that.

As we talked, Edith confirmed some of my research. There were also new elements she introduced to the research dynamic.

“Benny [my great grandfather] never wanted kids. I asked him ‘why would you even get married if you don’t want kids?’” Edith told me he agreed to have two children. They had six. Benny also didn’t want any children named after him, a breaking of convention Edith abhorred, she told me: “The first son was always named after the father.” It seems she was a bit of a normie, but alright. She also confirmed the anglicizing of Gawrilowiscz—Benny was the first to do this.

We talked for some time on the phone. My interrogative approach was well received: Edith is 93 and says no one visits her anymore. Her daughter lives in the apartment above her in the same building she’s lived for at least 60 years. She’s agreed to meet with me two weeks from now—my time constraints, not hers.

Our family is diasporic. There’s a thread of people leaving and going far away. Edith’s Jewish family left Europe during the Pogroms. They were secretive people, never delving into family information. When she asked she’d be dismissed or met with “we don’t talk about that.” She explained how her experiences with her husband were similar. I imagined this was a hard situation to grapple with, since growing up my mother told me to always ask “Why?”

I still do.

Edith recounted a time she was on the phone with a serviceman while she was using her maiden name He told her, “I don’t talk to Jews,” and hung up.

I’m led to the work of Gabriela Fried Amilivia as I talk to my great grandmother:

Traumatic memory transmissions are articulated over time not only through social sites or institutions but also through cultural, political, and familial generations, a key social mechanism of continuity and renewal across human groups, cohorts, and communities. The intergenerational transmission of collective trauma is a well-established phenomenon in the scholarly literature on psychological, familial, sociocultural, and biological modes of transmission.

Edith explained to me her family’s journey from Amsterdam to New York, then Montana. She said her family must have wanted to move because “they were putting them [Jews] in jails, you know.” I wasn’t sure which historical moment she was referring to. I just let her talk. She was snappy and loved explaining things. Then, Edith, by herself at a young age, moved to New York City– Brooklyn. She met Benny there.

“…he used to cut up pomegranates for us to eat…”


After meeting with a few psychic astrologers over the last year I especially took to one, Magic Mike (who also goes by “The Peace Dealer”). We’ve now talked on Skype together and one of the elements of my natal chart he brought up was the dwarf planet Ceres located in my 10th house of career. This was a planet he didn’t know as much about, he said. He would research it more.

After my mom told me about Benny’s love of pomegranates I thought about how pomegranates are situated in the background of The High Priestess tarot card. Jordannah Elizabeth wrote about “The Hermit” last month, and a few days later I found a comprehensive tarot book at a record store/performance space/book shoppe in the same town where my mom and Edith live. It’s a curious place, located inside a once bustling shopping mall, now mainly used for seniors’ morning hospital sponsored walks, Weight Watchers, Curves, Gold’s Gym, and a large antique depot where a JC Penney once was. It smells of damp basements and, last week, human pee in the left-hand quadrant. The big box stores, stubbornly adhering to the mall like treacly pieces of gum, are mingled with one locally owned pizza kiosk, Aunt Anne’s Pretzel, and a nail salon. I like going there for the feels.

Anyway, I serendipitously opened this book about the tarot and instinctively turned to The High Priestess, one of my favorite tarot cards.

The High Priestess is also known as Persephone, Isis, the Corn Maiden and Artemis. She sits at the gate before the great Mystery, as indicated by the Tree of Life in the background. She sits between the darkness and the light, represented by the pillars of Solomon’s temple, which suggests it is she who is the mediator of the passage into the depth of reality. The tapestry hung between the pillars keeps the casual onlookers out and allows only those initiated to enter. The pomegranates on the tapestry are sacred to Persephone. They are a symbol of duty (because Persephone ate a pomegranate seed in the underworld which forced her to return every year). The blue robe the Priestess is wearing is a symbol of knowledge. She is wearing the crown of Isis symbolizing the Triple Goddess. The solar cross on her breast is a symbol of balance between male and female.

In her lap, she holds the half-revealed and half-concealed Torah, representative of the exoteric and the esoteric teachings and higher knowledge. The moon under her left foot shows her dominion over pure intuition. The palm indicates fertility of the mind and the cube on which she sits is the earth. The planet associated with the High Priestess is the Moon. [taken from Biddy Tarot]

The woman sitting on the throne in the Rider-Waite deck is Proserpina aka Persephone the goddess queen of the Underworld (She has varying names, including the queen of Shades, which is funny to me: The Queen of Throwing Shade). There are a few versions of this myth, again, cultural memory, but the mash-up of her tale is: she is the daughter of Ceres who was forcibly kidnapped by Hades to serve as his wife. Her father, Zeus, said it was fine, but her mother fought for her to come back. Hades relented, but before Persephone could come back she ate a handful of pomegranate seeds (those delicious things) and was caught in a bind—once you eat the food of the underworld you are bound to it. Eventually a deal was worked out where Ceres could see her daughter half the year and Persephone had to go to Hades the other half.


The Myth of Persephone is how people of yore would justify the seasons of Ceres. In the Summer and Spring Ceres was happy because she got to see her daughter. Winter and Fall she could not see her daughter, so nature died and went dormant. Ceres represents child abduction, abandonment and:

…most importantly, she supports in death and with death ‘rights.’ Consider this – when we are faced with death, the strangest of things can happen. We grow. Our soul grows. We can see and feel the intensity of a flower. We can experience a side of ourselves that would be unknowable otherwise. We see our soul, and the reason for it`s existence. The darkest hour has the greatest light. And Ceres takes our hand. She walks with us and tends us in this pain. She tends us while we grow. [from Midlands School of Astrology]


As I learned from his 1974 obituary, FASCO Finishing Company is where my great grandfather, Benny, worked. I consider myself an amateur local historian, learning much from my Grandpop Buddy [who saved every local newspaper from the 1950’s until his death in 2004], but hadn’t heard of it. “I will drive past it next time I am in New Jersey.” I looked up the company with the address listed online and this was what I found on Google Maps:

FASCO Finishing Company as depicted on Google Maps.

“He was a finisher,” his obituary echoed. What a menacing job title.  Finisher of what? Concrete? Interiors? People who knew too much?

Karmic finisher. The person who closes out a chapter of karmic patterns in a family.

Use it in a sentence: “It is finished.”

On April 1st I will meet my great grandmother, Edith, for the first time. My stoic countenance can fail to convey the metaphysical connections I feel to karmic places, people, and situations, but I feel in each of us lies a responsibility to each other, people we have and have not met.

“Be still, my soul, when change and tears are past, all safe and blessed, we shall meet at last.”

As classroom teachers can tell you: students do not immediately recognize the multifaceted lessons you are teaching them through modeling, interactions, and personal choices in curriculum—memories which are philosophically, culturally, and interpersonally significant. Our lessons from the universe are similar. Through our families and everyone we meet we learn. Some of those lessons are apparent and some have yet to be understood. They will revisit those lessons. Once you eat the pomegranate, you have to go back. You can’t unlearn. Arundhati Roy says in Power Politics,

The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out.

Hymns from childhood lessons repeat in my head, and can’t be unlearned. I’ll continue to remember them despite learning the contexts in which some of them become glib or gauche. Still, I remember the process of revering a spiritual force, and this provides me with comfort. Not by having the same set of spiritual “rules” that were prescribed to me, but by learning a set of practices. I think of the fascism present in the U.S., especially the current leadership, and hold reverence for the diasporic conditions of so many in our country. You don’t need vast knowledge of diasporic people to care deeply for the conditions which create suffering. It does help to reference it for people who act obliviously. My public opposition to fascism has caused a perceptible chain of events in my life. I won’t resist those events initiated using the principle of faith I learned in childhood. The practice is to adhere to “right action.” As I live longer, I learn more about “right action” every day.

As I absorb the karma of my family, meeting Edith shortly, I continue my process for this life and, presumably, the next.

“Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.

Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.”


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One thought on “Processing Karma

  1. Reblogged this on Awaiting Moderation and commented:

    I’ve been posting more frequently at TERSE. Journal, the new publication I’m working on. Check out my writing on memory, karma, and ancestry. You may appreciate the other writers too.


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