Sunday, January 10, 2016

Moving toward Betelgeuse

Everybody has chore goals: clean the house/mow the grass/scoop the litterbox.

And more complex, multi-step goals. Like "plant more native flowers this spring," "get rid of 30 years' worth of accumulated possessions," or "find a new place to live that meets the requirements of two people who want very different things" (to name a few of mine).

But sometimes progressing toward some ideal is not exactly a goal. Not in the sense of analysis, problem-solving, list-making, or even about taking least, not in a linear sort of way.

 Can we talk about that?

You encounter moments when you overlap your past with your present, and see the differential. Somehow you've managed to expand your view of the world or yourself. Not because you've cleverly delineated a goal and a plan to reach it; but because you grew toward it all unknowing, like it was the sun.

Over many days or years, you chose to embrace an idea: a way of thinking or experiencing the world that moved you, imprinted itself on your impressionable heart. And you don't realize until your Current Self unexpectedly collides with your Past Self that these selves are no longer the same.

How does this happen?

It's like you're traveling along a spiral, where you come around to some version of yourself every so often and give a nod to the person you were the last time you traveled this path. Maybe you're a star on this cosmic spiral I'm envisioning, and you notice that the luminosity you're emitting has leveled up. Maybe you had been as bright as red Antares, the heart of the Scorpion...and now you're even brighter, moving toward Betelgeuse.

But you realize this only when you juxtapose where you began with where you are now.

The idea that made me think about these encounters with oneself in the first place is the way that some indigenous peoples define "persons," and how that is broadening my circle of compassion and relatives.

All humans are persons, but not all persons are human. All living things are considered persons; and the definition of "living" is wide and deep, encompassing mountains, mosses, waterfalls, lakes, winds, clouds, the animate Earth itself. All our relations.

I am still thinking about ancestors, the land and their relationship to one another, you see.

How much wonder does such a personed world hold, how much sacredness and magic? This way of seeing wanted me to claim it. I know this because I encountered it many times, was on its trail in books, poems, articles, interviews, art, the leaves along the pathway stirring in its wake.

I've thought of animals as persons for a very long time—but not mountains.

I've thought of birds as persons for a long time—but only more recently bees.

What I'm saying is that if I can't see a fish as a kind of person, then I am the one lacking, not the fish.

So good news for people like me who are not planful. Who don't have words for what they're seeking until it shows up like a gift. Some part of you may be mysteriously working away at finding that thing and making you a better person, through an underground process that neatly bypasses your tendency to get stuck in your head.

Well played, Evolving Self.

Monday, January 4, 2016

The great grandmothers

My great grandmother Zuzanna Kryvoš came to America in 1920 at age 49 from Važec, Liptovský Mikuláš, Slovakia.

My great grandmother Mary Coils emigrated to America in 1906 at age 8 from Houghton le Spring, County Durham, England. 

My great-great grandmother Christina Mathilda Andersdotter came to America around 1885 from 
Vasketorp, Frodinge socken, Smaland, Sweden. I was given her name.

My fourth great-grandmother—my father's grandmother—is unknown to me. She lived in Slovakia when it was still part of the Kingdom of Hungary, before World War I. Her son, my grandfather, came to America and volunteered to fight in that war, maybe for the opportunity to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, which he later did.

I wonder, did she ever hear from him again? Did he tell his children about his mother? If he did, my father did not tell me. Nor did I ask.

Many things were not spoken of.

But now I want to know.

They all came here, but the one. And in due time they died.

The children the grandmothers left behind, and then their children, moved away.

I am the only one of all my family who still lives in this city they came to, this northern city on a great river. 

I come across their ghosts. Their traces linger in the digitized records I find online. I find their names listed in city directories and censuses, marriage and death records. Their gravestones stand in the military cemetery.

From these bare facts, I piece together fragments of their lives. 

The many houses where they lived, so close to where I live today.

The many children they bore, some who died while heartbreakingly young. 

What sorrows, I think. What difficult and full lives they must have led! All shaped by that brave and bold adventure: leaving behind their homelands and families to roll the dice on America. A different country, a new language, and a young flour milling city by the river. 

I met just one of my great grandmothers, and when I was still too young and shy to ask her proper questions, like: Why did your family decide to cross the ocean? How did they choose Minnesota? Did you ever go back? Do you know your great-grandmother's name?

I am rolling this thought around in my mind: Maybe all the places our families have lived are like our ancestors, part of our DNA. Prairies in our eyelashes, rivers in our bloodstreams, oceans in our heartbeats, oaks in our bones.

I have no children. My mother is gone. My family is not here. I am reaching back to these grandmothers, discovering relations I never knew who cannot be called strangers. Here, I walk in the footsteps of generations who never dreamt of me.

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