ancestors, by Zoe Todd

I dreamt of my grandma the other night. We were in a cafeteria and she bought me pasta: meatballs, rigatoni, and cheese. She bought herself a similar dish. She insisted on paying for it: $8.00. I have been thinking about my relatives a lot lately, in the aftermath of recovering from COVID. They say the veil between worlds is thin during Samhain. And I think the same is true for illnesses. On so many nights through the long months of my illness I had trouble discerning between this world and other ones. Time, space, light were bending in ways that defied western logics.

Often, when white people wax on about Indigenous dreams, they evoke tropes of the magical ‘noble savage’. Maybe some folks do dream in wolf calls and hawk cries, and that’s ok. But for me, my dreams about relatives have almost always been rooted in practical environments. Living rooms, malls, forests we walked when I was little. And often the most mundane encounters can carry the deepest messages. I dream about all of my family in different ways as the years go on, including both my settler and Indigenous ancestors.

Now that I have had a month without relapses from covid, I am struggling to parse out exactly what it was that I just encountered. The illness started so innocuously, so imperceptibly, and the recovery was just as inscrutable. It was like falling, slowly, into a lake, reaching the bottom before slowly surfacing again. The in-between was spent in deep disorientation, where I even forgot how to breathe. Maybe I was growing gills to help me get through the murky water. Maybe I was turning into a freshwater fish. Or a plant. Maybe I was travelling off to other dimensions. I don’t know. All I know is that for months on end, I did not feel entirely here.

The other day I suddenly remembered the week I spent on the couch in April, during one of my relapses of pneumonia. The antibiotics the doctor put me on — the first doctor to concede that I probably had covid — would flood my mouth with a sour, metallic taste a few hours after I swallowed them. The pills were obliterating every bacteria in my body. I remember feeling unmoored as the drugs wiped out co-constituent travellers in my body. We weren’t even sure the pneumonia was bacterial, but we couldn’t take chances. I realize now that I was mourning those microbia. But I was mourning something bigger as well. As I lay on the couch for weeks on end, thousands of people were dying. This is and was a tragedy. Those souls deserve remembrance, grieving. They did not deserve an end at the hands of bad human politics and hubris.

After I finished that round of antibiotics I felt like my body was splitting apart. Like my molecules were coming loose and nothing could hold this assemblage of me in place. The day after I finished that round of meds, I spent an excruciatingly painful day undergoing the worst panic attack of my life. The doctor decided it was a side effect of the antibiotics and asked me to ride it out. My body was enduring the ending of worlds.

When I moved to Connecticut two years ago, I slowly filled my apartment with plants. Succulents, orchids, dracaena, norfolk pine, snake plants, ficus. Almost everything I brought home flourished. Maybe it was the play of light and water in the air, the proximity of the Atlantic Ocean. Everything flourished and so did I.

When I had to move back to Ottawa a year later, and back to the tiny attic I then knew as home in the middle of the Deathstar, I felt clouds congealing in my limbs. Everything was foreboding. Maybe I knew before I knew. I tried filling the attic with plants. But they withered, rotted, dried before my eyes. No matter how much care I enacted, how many blogs I visited. The plants that flourished in one city could barely survive this one.

Ottawa is riddled with ghosts and obfuscations. Any place where genocide is regulated, parsed out in policy briefs, where people commute to and from offices that carried and carry out dehumanizing ‘laws’ in the name of national prosperity can only be understood as cursed. And by this I do not mean the Indigenous lands the city rests on. Not the millennia of meaning and stories that exist beyond the settler configuration of Ottawa. But the city itself — the sandstone and granite buildings, the brutalist towers that house bureaucrats and scholars. These are cursed. And the curse is a bending of light and matter to conceal truths. Knowings.

Nothing in the colonial city is as it seems.

My illness brought me deeper into that realization than ever before.

The only thing that could bring me back when my body started splitting into oxygen and light during the crisis points of my illness, the only thing that could ground me in my own energy, were long-distance reiki and energy treatments from dear friends and family.

One evening, I lay on the couch and my sister’s auntie sent me healing energy from across the country. Silver light poured in. I was surrounded by lush green forests. Creatures revealed their configurations in the stars and galaxies.

“You’re so depleted” everyone would say after a treatment.

I think when you encounter a curse, you are encountering the wilful and unjust reconfiguration of space, time, and matter. An illusion with subatomic weight. Someone has acted with intent to bend these existences to their own will. But existence is, as Leroy Little Bear teaches us, all about flux and flow. Nothing can hold forever, no matter how strong the effort to keep it that way. If I am reading and listening to Dr. Little Bear correctly, the folly of western, colonial, white supremacist being is that it believes it can hold the great energies and arrangements of the universe (or multiverse?) in static configuration forever.

Imagine the conceit of believing you can control the very flow of existence.

We are, I think, in a time of unraveling of curses and intentions that do not serve the highest purpose of existence. Not just on this earth but in this plane of being. Those of us who are able, who have the energy and capacity to break these reconfigurations, are carrying a heavy weight. It requires a capacity to look towards the flux and flow that Dr. Little Bear teaches us about and sit with the movement. Ease into the current. The epistemic eddies, the temporal riptides, the aneurytic pocket universes of the Enlightenment and the last 600 years of white supremacist, colonial capitalist existence (see: Sylvia Wynter’s work for a deep analysis of how western white supremacist society came into being as it currently manifests) are imploding, as they should and as they must.

I do not know what comes next. If I try to ‘see’ into the future I feel a heaviness that eventually gives way to something ecstatic, expansive, and powerful. But to get there requires the unraveling of this configuration of existence. To get there requires great care towards those whose ancestors fought for justice in the face of so many structural curses, obfuscations, and lies. To get there requires love, humility, reciprocity, courage, gentleness, rage, mourning, grief, songs, art, stories, and electricity.

It is telling that at a time of year when we are supposed to feed the ancestors, my grandmother showed up to feed me. On some other plane of being, they are caring for us as we carry out this multi-generational labour of breaking down the fabric of false existence. I believe that the coming while will not be easy. But I also believe in us. So deeply. And I believe we are here to carry out something incredible, something in tune with the flux of eons, galaxies, and the deepest flow of reality. The fish, the ancestors, the stars, the plants, the entirety of being is here to guide us towards a way of existing that honours reciprocity, relationality, and our deepest responsibilities towards one another.

Works Cited:

Little Bear, Leroy. 2011. “Native and Western Science: Possibilities in a Dynamic Collaboration: Arizona State University (ASU)”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ycQtQZ9y3lc&ab_channel=ArizonaStateUniversity

Wynter, Sylvia. 2003. Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument. CR: The New Centennial Review 3, 257-337.


This piece was originally posted on speculative fish-ctions (Dr. Zoe Todd).
Zoe Todd is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She was a 2011 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholar and a 2018-2019 Yale Presidential Visiting Fellow in the Program in the History of Science and Medicine. She is a member of the Anthropocene Re-Working Group, The Creatures Collective, and the Fluid Boundaries team. In 2020, she founded the Institute for Freshwater Fish Futures with colleagues at Carleton, Athabasca University, York University, University of Toronto, the University of Minnesota and community partners in Ontario and Alberta. She is Co-PI on two projects investigating human-fish-water-extraction relations in Alberta and beyond.
Suggested Citation: Todd, Z. 2020. ancestors. November 1. speculative fish-ctions. Available: https://zoestodd.com/2020/11/01/ancestors/