Author’s note: It took me a month to write this one essay, and I’m still not sure that I’m saying it clear. It’s a bit long. Stay with me…
It begins on Mother’s Day, a windy blue sky day, as I am deadheading roses in the community garden.
I am thinking about mothers: a friend’s wonderful mother who is in declining health, my sister-in-law who is expecting a second son in a few months, my own badass mom, my late grandmother whose hands I sometimes feel inside of mine as I weed flower beds.
Of course I am thinking too of roses. These sweet, pink, prickling darlings between my gloved fingers, pruning shears snipping, as I lop off the faded flower heads. The process encourages the plant to pour its energy into producing more flowers as it attempts to go to seed and reproduce. I am meddling with the fertility of roses, selecting for the characteristics I want: loads of flowers, abundant short-term beauty. Snip and clip.
Meanwhile, my mind is chewing over current events, pondering how they relate to mothers, genes, ancestry, the heavy past and the uncertain future. A friend whose daughter recently became a mother shared a poem* with me that speaks to all of this…
The burden of ancestry
We bear the weight of those before us
And are responsible for those after us.
The night before, May 13th, in Charlottesville, Virginia–where I went to college and lived for eleven years–a group of angry people gathered in a park downtown. They carried burning torches and looked for all the world like an unhooded Klan mob.** They gathered to protest the proposed removal of statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The statues stand in a small memorial park in downtown Charlottesville. They are massive—bronze, both men in full military garb, much larger than life, astride huge horses.
Living in Virginia, where the Civil War haunts much of the landscape, I’ve learned more about Lee and Jackson than I ever intended. (If you read Hear All The Bells, you’ll hear all about that story.)
I’ve read their letters, visited their homes and graves, and I still do not know what to think of them. I do not know how to judge individuals from the past.
Within my personal family tree, I have some ancestors who did some bad things. I know enough of their story to have some context, some of idea of why. I don’t want to excuse them, and I don’t want to judge them–I want to understand. I want to learn and examine my own heart and see what remains of the bigotry and hurt and do my best not to perpetuate them. It seems like forgiveness for past and future lies along that path.
Besides, my ancestors (and yours) were humans, not heroic statues. Take them off the pedestal, strip off the bronze ‘till you can look them in the eye—each crazy and wise, foolish and graceful, fucked up and yet with an extraordinary, exquisite light, capable of vast transformation when allowed to shine. Judgment of such creatures, especially from a far distance, is difficult.
Likewise, I do not know and cannot personally judge the torch-wielding individuals in Charlottesville, but their actions are another matter. I can judge those, no problem. Those torches are intended to strike fear and perpetuate an ideology of domination. A few weeks from now, in July, the actual Klan plans to hold a rally in Charlottesville to support retaining those same sculptures along with the old and ugly myth of white supremacy.
These protesters are carrying the burden of ancestry, as we all are, but they are carrying it carelessly and cruelly, without respect for their fellow humans or descendants. They are taking pain from their ancestors and concentrating it, mixing it with their own desires and griefs and fears, and creating something toxic and and confused, a noxious future without roots in any reality.
The teaching, the lessons, the listening.
What stories to tell…?
How do we keep the universe together?
What manifests our existence?
Why are we here?
Yes. What stories to tell? How do we keep the universe together? How do I explain burning torches to a child who is just old enough to begin to realize that he is not safe in this world? How do I explain them to an elderly woman who escaped the Nazis in Europe only to see them reemerge in the country that gave her refuge as a child?
I don’t care what happens to those statues. I want people to be kind to each other. What does it take for that to happen?
It’s a big question; it brings us back to roses…
In a sense, I am deadheading all the time, every day—pruning shears flashing and snipping, shaping the story of the past and the future with each decision, every thought. I am (in theory at least) doing my best to select for hope and clarity, to select for inclusivity, kinship, human decency. I am deadheading history, all the time: imperfect, awkward, snip and clip. So are the Klan members. So are you.
There’s no avoiding it. Maybe it is why we are here, part of our purpose. To manifest our existence in what we chose to emphasize and teach. I am lucky to have miraculous parents who selected for love, who chose to break with certain patterns of our personal ancestry. They did it in small ways—approaches to child rearing and communication, steering us away from some behaviors and toward others. They did it imperfectly but consciously, like good gardeners. Snip and clip.
We all are part of the all.
Whether we feel like we’re just beginning something,
Or at the end of a lineage,
Ancestorily we’re all tied together.
I think a lot about how to help heal the gut-churning anger of the torch-bearing mobs. It is hard to get rid of anger, difficult to dispel fear—especially if your family selected for those traits and fed you on fear and anger for most of your life. It sucks to be born wild, innocent, and free and then have your ancestors teach you, often through violence, that the world is against you, that you cannot trust your fellow humans, that you must always fear anyone who is different.
That makes for a pretty shitty world, doesn’t it? But I can understand. This world is scary, this life is short, and a great many things—human and otherwise—will kill you or people that you love at the drop of a hat. That’s a hard, heart-breaking thing: we are not safe, at least on one level of reality. But is that really the only reality?
I will tell you where I find my comfort. “We are all part of the all,” and that ALL is extraordinary and infinite. We belong to an oceanic wonder. Our grief can be dwarfed and comforted within that vastness, our fear diffused—if only we could focus our attention there. If only we could remember. It would change the world.
Just as we belong to this all, our ancestors also remain part of it. In the biggest circle of life, nothing goes away. All life, culture, tradition, history: interwoven and tied together, available to us to re-shape and to heal.
Deadheading shapes the direction of future growth. We select for traits we desire. So what will it be? This vast love or the same old fear? You hold the shears.
*Burden of Ancestry poem by Rodney Webb
**This torch-carrying mob on May 13, 2017 in Charlottesville was a precursor to a July 8th protest at the statue site by the Klan, followed by the violent “unite the right” events of August 11-12, 2017.