Leaning In: Whispers from our Ancestors

Writing is saving my life. And it’s saving the lives of other women as well.

It’s a deep time. Troubles and challenges are showing up in the world and call us to honestly inquire what we are willing to fight for. It’s a time when the wells of the heart and belly open, spill over, and crash out at our feet. Our shrill voices punch the air, and our souls push at our backs, knowing that we must stand.

Then during our quiet times, we lean in to hear the whispers and urgings of our ancestors, while at the same time we breathe into a new and unknown future. Paths before us appear thorny, yet are imbued with light. Even though we risk being wounded, we step anyway.

Writing allows the rubble of thought to fall upon paper, to be seen, wrestled with, rewritten.  We can put order to chaos, work through the grit and mystery of grief, exalt ideas and actions and dreams. When words are witnessed, by ourselves and others, they open the door of Permission…to be vulnerable, courageous, to share our own stories so that we know we are not alone. We greet fear, sometimes with an embrace, sometimes with a baseball bat.

As our words morph, we morph. We take in new information, form new ideas. We feel, resist, and feel again. Our sentences change; we release with scribbles or stabs at the paper with pens; we doodle; and our story emerges. The old story, the one in between, the new.

And here we are, changed. Our voices, saved. A female line and experience, documented. Saved for the next woman, girl, who may read what we have written, and be inspired to write her own story.

Folks, It’s Time to Write

During one of my workshops, one woman spoke to me afterwards. She described coming to the US during a time when being African American was not a good thing, and how challenging it was for her. Back home, African Americans were treated just like everyone else. Here, they weren’t. And she couldn’t quite make sense of such a thing. She said something that stuck with me: “Sometimes, as an older person, I feel it is my duty to write my stories down, to tell them, because I was there in my own history. My voice is important. How will other people know what happened? If I don’t speak, who will?”

I have been watching social media, news outlets, and people in general as they respond to the new administration. Misinformation flies everywhere. It is becoming more and more challenging to sift through headlines, words, and sources to get at what’s really happening. Voices are being shut down, demonized, twisted, avoided, or simply lost.

This bothers me.

Greatly.

Truth must be louder than untruth. Love louder than hate. Standing for what is good and right louder than staying in our own comfort zones. We are riding large waves of history; it is an important time, not to be forgotten or silenced. The richness of all aspects of this beautifully rough storm deserves to come to the surface, because we are then given what we need to walk through it and get to the other side.

To help this process, I created Story Circle Workshops. It is an intimate gathering of friends and/or cohorts who wish to dig deep and explore their place in their own history. Through writing exercises, guided meditations into the senses, and working with the chakras, we write from rawness up through power and heart into the voice and spirit. With the guidance of our ancestors, our stories move full circle, calling up healing, and releasing us into the world to be our best selves. Stories are compiled and printed into booklets for the group to keep, share, and pass along.

If you’d like more information about these gatherings, please contact me at rachel@telltalesllc.com.

Picking Your Battles: Writing About the Hard Stuff

In my experience, writing about challenging times in my life is sometimes super easy. It all just gushes out on the page, messy as it is. Sometimes, it’s just hard. Reliving those moments and feeling those emotions can stir things up and make me feel uncomfortable. If I put my pen down and walk away, I might return to it…I might not.

Sometimes, you simply might not know what to say.

This happened to me last week when the Women’s Marches were happening, and people were responding to the current administration and all that it might mean for the world and our children. I felt the exciting-weird-unsettling adventure out there, and I knew that historic moments were being made, and that there would be so many voices with so many viewpoints rising up.

Surely, I told myself, I would have something to say about that. For myself, for my kids, for others. There certainly was plenty of feelings inside swirling around.

Nope.

I held my journal and pen, and breathed into those empty pages. For hours.

I breathed into what all of this might mean to me, what my role is, and how I could do better in my own life. I breathed into what my children might have to navigate as they move out into the world. I breathed into my frustrating lack of action and my fiery heart to explore what was mine to do.

What really was mine to say? What did I want my kids to learn from everything that’s happening? What message did I want to get across and who the hell would care?

I didn’t know. And that was ok. When I put my journal away, it was still empty. Whatever is to be put onto those pages will eventually come. For now, I will let it go to perk away inside, and hopefully grab bits and pieces as they surface.

 

Sharing the challenging parts of ourselves involves courage and vulnerability. The parts that are grappling with right and wrong, choice-making, regret, taking a stand, unhelpful behaviors or emotions, painful events – they all deserve an ear. Be a bit gentle on yourself when writing about these areas…give yourself time and space. Feel out what you’re ready and willing to put out there.

While we struggle to share circumstances, events, and our thoughts behind them, we are also reaching forward to those who might read our words. We might write from a desire to be heard and witnessed, validated, or simply to make it so someone else doesn’t fall into the same traps we did. We might write to inspire, to let others know we were there too, and they can get to the other side. We might write to guide, pass along wisdom, give the gift of our learnings and warnings.

We might write to save someone, or the world.

Archiving the Physical: Big Things and Grandma’s Quilt

How do you archive big things? *Weird* things? And what happens when your family just doesn’t want your stuff? These are some of the questions that came up in my recent workshop, The Story Collector.

What do I do with that?

People collect and keep amazing things at times. My grandmother collected porcelain snow angels. My mother brought back a giant advent scene from Italy. My godmother collected candle holders. My uncle has a treasure trove in what we call “the shop,” a space with all manner of tools, parts, old things, wood, and gadgets.

Grandma’s quilt

Depending on your ancestry, you may have Scandinavian knits or needlework, English linens with cross stitch, doilies, and all manner of other textiles that you would like to preserve and pass along.

Linens, clothing, needlework, or other fiber crafts require a bit more specialized care. My grandmother made all of her grandchildren quilts, and she intended for us to use them…not just let them sit in a box. There are a couple special ones, however, that I’ve washed, wrapped in white cotton cloth, and set aside in plastic to help them last.

The same can be done for other fiber pieces. Doing a bit of research on archival methods or preservation methods used by museums is a good starting point.

Artifacts from a specific culture or group

Sometimes, we find we are gifted or inherit items that are from a specific culture or group.  If I’m part of that group, then I might consider keeping the item and passing it along to my children. Inheriting a Norwegian bunad would stay in my family since that is part of our cultural heritage. Being gifted a wooden gillnetting needle would stay in my family since we are members of the Chinook Indian Nation, and it was a tool that my grandfather used.

If I’m not a part of the group, then I would pass those items on to someone who is, or pass them to the group itself.

Well, that’s odd…

I’ve come across some pretty interesting things that people would like to preserve. One gentleman I knew had been a teacher, archaeologist, and diver. There was a room above his garage which held an extensive library of books, shelves of archaeological items, and a display case full of old diving gear, old books, coins, even bones. I suggested he go through his belongings and decide what he wanted to pass along to family, and what might be donated to museums, other teachers, educational institutions, or even sold to other collectors.

A woman in one of my workshops mentioned she had a bunch of handmade tools made by someone in her family who was a blacksmith. She didn’t want to just give them away, but she wasn’t using them either. A few of us chimed in that an educational program that teaches trade skills might just want to use the space for a classroom, keeping all the tools there as models and teaching aides. Collectors and museums might also be interested.

So when dealing with the more unruly three-dimensional items, do a bit of research into preservation, decide what you want to keep and pass along, then find creative ways to get special items into the hands of those who want them or could use them. Sometimes archiving and preservation requires more than just acid free boxes and special pens.

Archiving the Physical: Collections

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Most of us think of old pictures when we start thinking about archiving. Perhaps even letters and newspaper articles as well. Acid free papers, archival tapes, plastic sleeves, boxes. But what about big things? Collections of things? *Weird* things? And what happens when your family just doesn’t want your stuff? These are some of the questions that came up in my recent workshop, The Story Collector.

But there’s so *many*!

I like to collect things. Knitting needles. Books. Native American and Norse art. Tarot decks. Drums. We all have our favorite things. But what happens when these collections just get too big for one person? What if no one wants to inherit the collection?

Consider sharing the collection among family members who are interested.

My grandfather had a small collection of owl statues. When he passed, my grandmother distributed an owl statue to each grandchild. Mine still sits on my writing desk. Distributing a collection can make it more manageable, and the pieces are still within the family. You can attach the story and history behind the collection, and why it was so important to the person who held it. It makes it easier for the recipients to store and hopefully pass along to their children one day.

But what if the collection has to stay together?

Look into organizations who might take the collection as a whole and preserve it.

In the course of writing an article for the Genealogical Forum of Oregon, I spoke to a gentleman who has been donating his massive book collection to the GFO over the last few years. He was a teacher, and gathered many books that are no longer in print, or would cost a fortune to obtain otherwise. As part of his retirement planning, he chose to donate his collection so that others could use them in their own history research. He also wanted to be able to go see his collection from time to time, and know it was in a safe place.

Check local genealogical societies or historical societies to gauge interest. Try museums, or look into private collectors who might want to purchase or be gifted the whole lot. Look at educational avenues; for example, say you have a collection of old cameras. Perhaps there is a photography organization that would be interested in receiving your collection to put on display, or a teacher who could use them as teaching tools. Think outside the box to find places who will treasure your treasures with similar gusto and passion.

Next up: Big things and textiles.

What If Stories Could Change the World?

“There are two ways of trying to create a good life. One is by punishing evil, and the other is by actively promoting virtue.” ~Christopher Boehm

“Punishment and trance are a great deal more comfortable and familiar than aliveness.”   ~Anne Lamott

The world seems like a sloppy, unfriendly, chaotically backwards place. My body caves into itself as my insides contract, my own heart a heavy weight, sinking past my toes into the earth herself.

“Mom, what is going on? Everyone seems so…weird,” my daughter says. I wait for the words to come that could even come close to expressing my thoughts. My eyes lock on the floor in front of me. I wait. My thoughts hide in deep cracks and crevices, invisible but felt, utterly inaccessible. I wait.

“Mom, you’re doing that sigh thing again.” The sigh that means I simply can’t get out what I want to say. The long fingers of Fear grasp and escape with my thoughts that might rock relationships, connections, community. Silence is what it wants. Uncertainty. Division.

I am reminded of a legend from the Great Lakes Region of the US and Canada: the Wendigo. Stories and descriptions vary, but the common thread is that the Wendigo is a giant, cannibalistic, malevolent, supernatural monster who is seen as the embodiment of gluttony, insatiable greed, and excess. Stories about the Wendigo caution against such behaviors, encouraging moderation and cooperation.

In some myths, the Wendigo is described as a giant with human characteristics. Whenever the Wendigo would eat another person, it would grow in proportion to what it just ate. Thus, it could never be full…a gluttonous being emaciated from starvation, never satisfied after killing and consuming. The more it eats, the more it starves. In other traditions, the Wendigo is seen as a spirit who possesses humans, causing them to become overpowered by greed, thus turning into Wendigos themselves. The more it wants, the more it possesses.

I can see this belief mirrored today by the term “Wendigo Sickness,” attributed to humans and corporations who destroy the environment, create chaos in communities with their greed and racism, and believe that cannibalizing the life-force of others (including animals and other forms of life on earth, as well as the earth herself) is a logical and morally correct way to live.

I believe that many are in this Wendigo Sickness state. The ever-consuming monster, with a heart of ice, no lips, and yellow teeth. It uses its long arms and fingers to pull land, resources, money and power into its gaping mouth. Wars start because of its insatiable hunger for more, more, more. It eats the life force of our neighborhoods and its people, instilling fear and division, distrust of cultural groups, to question matters of faith, to blame and punish. It eats trees and rivers, mountains and meadows, chewing through the earth to reach oil and precious metals and stones. It wades into the seas and drinks our clean waters, stomps on our coral reefs, and dines on whales and dolphins and precious ecosystems. It craves the life force of humans (the metaphorical flesh); it wants to eat them up and spit them out, to use them as stairs in their climb to gain money, power, possessions, fame.

The Wendigo is sick, cut off from its roots, entangling us in its net. It has led us to believe that we are separate from each other and our environment. It has infected us with its self-serving ego to supremacy. We consume far more than we need to, simply because we want to feel powerful and important. The Wendigo’s sickness perpetuates as our young children interact with our culture and society.

This is what I feel I’m up against. How do you fight something that is a spirit, a thought form, a monstrous creature? How do you keep yourself from turning into one? Will our innate goodness outweigh our selfish human nature? Are we predisposed to act cooperatively, or will our competitive, violent selves keep us divided, fighting each other in wars, calling each other enemies, killing each other in our streets?

Madness. All madness of the ever hungry Wendigo.

But, there is something I can do. Something to disrupt and undermine the Wendigo agenda.

I can tell stories. And listen to the stories of others.

How can this be of any help? Because understanding each other – empathizing with someone – is an act of giving. It is an act of reverence which has no choice but to inspire interconnectedness and community. Altruism is a by-product of such actions. And the Wendigo hates all of these things.

Stories help us find the balance between remembering and creation. The words fly from the mouth, carrying pollens of understanding, compassion, willingness. We open into the knowing that we sit across from ourselves, with common goals, challenges, circumstances, faults, and dreams. We may disagree at times, yet somehow we find the pathway that allows us to hold those differences gently – sometimes firmly – and we continue to move forward. The words educate us…allow us to walk for a time as someone else, dipping into the past which has informed and honed this person we see before us. And sometimes we are surprised at the values and bright attitude this person carries, especially after a life rife with struggle. Or that a person who seems to have everything can be utterly alone and unhappy. Or that, underneath the niceties, a person can hide darkness.

Stories help us remember higher values. Struggles that led to success, the value of courage, sticking with something even though the urge to quit bashes us in the chest. Times of great love and patience. Awe at the world despite all of its messiness. Victories. Rising above hatred. Treating each other well.

Stories remind us of pain…death, illness, arguments. Things broken, bashed, unglued. Things coming apart, falling away, destruction, dust. Things we don’t have and wish we did. Heart hurts from unkind words or actions. Dirty environments.

Our stories show us that we are capable of deep love, kindness, patience, and compassion…yet also of selfishness, aggressiveness, violence, and brutality. Right now, our stories seem to have centered around the latter: divisiveness nationalism; hateful rhetoric; racism and unjust judicial systems; separateness from the earth and each other; war; fear of the other; “my faith is the only true faith”; everyone is out to get us; we can’t do anything about it; we need more more more – all feeding the Wendigo.

But it’s all part of human nature, you say. We will never get rid of the Wendigo because we will always have this urge to consume, to be selfish, you say.

I believe something different.

I believe it’s possible to interrupt these Wendigo tendencies through story. I believe that story builds pathways that strengthen the higher qualities we inherently own: a moral compass, our conscience, selflessness, love, consideration of others, cooperativeness, compassion, social reciprocity, altruism. I think we will always grapple with our own darkness…yet our courage to honestly look these spaces in the face is what tends to shift the stories we create in our lives.

Telling our stories creates understanding, which then creates compassion and empathy for ourselves and others. This act of giving undermines the Wendigo. When we sit with another and share our lives, when we write in our journals, when we tell our children about their ancestors, when we create our memoirs or personal essays, we undermine the Wendigo. When we understand someone by listening to their stories, it short circuits our tendency to blame or assume and hate, which undermines the Wendigo. When we are courageous enough to look ourselves straight in the eye and have tea with our shadows, our outer stories change, which undermines the Wendigo. When we come to a place of being with each other as fellow humans on this earth walk, holding our differences with a kind of reverence and awareness, the Wendigo becomes mist, blown about by winds.

This is what I will tell my daughter.

Am I Weird or Something?

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Earlier this year, the local newspaper did an article on my business. The photographer had remarked that he had to go take a picture of a “little old lady who does genealogy and stuff.” I’m not quite sure what he thought when he showed up to see a mom of two teens with long auburn hair wearing Converse.

The experience had me wondering…why do people automatically jump to “old lady” when personal historians, genealogy, and history are mentioned? Am I weird or something to be so geeky passionate about this subject matter? Sure, many of the folks who do that work are older, but I’ve seen an equal number of younger people taking on the family history torch with gusto and flair and creativity.

I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to be able to put together puzzle pieces that allow you to create a complete and validated family line back to the 1700s or farther. I get giddily excited when a new ancestor is uncovered, and even more so when the stories around them remain intact. Getting family photos scanned and saved digitally makes me sigh with relief, because they won’t be so easily lost or damaged. Helping people to remember their stories and encouraging them to write them down brings me deep joy.

If I find a handwritten letter from a great-grandmother to her husband or child, I’m hungrily reading it, eeking out what information this precious document might contain and how it sheds light on her personality and daily life. How did she write? What words did she use? What color of ink did she use? What’s the paper like? What is she discussing in her letter? How did she sign her name?

I’m just going to say it…this stuff is fun for me. And when I speak to others who are working on their own storied pasts, I can hear the excitement rise in their voices, and I can see that spark in their eyes going off. They want to know. They want to learn about who came before, and what it was like “back then.” They want to know what ties they hold to the past, and where their roots lie.

Everyone has a passion. This one is mine.

Why I Started

I’m not exactly sure when my passion for family history became a focal point for me. It must have stemmed from my visits to my grandparents – both sets – in Astoria. Large family meals around round tables, stories flying, jokes and belly laughs so long and deep we were sore the next day, family heirlooms found and shared, pictures identified, and then more stories. Those memories are still thick in my blood, and I still dream about the roads leading up to those homes, certain rooms, certain objects, smells.

I wanted to know more about my family and where they came from. I wanted to know where my brother got his chin, and why I seemed to have the same grit and perseverance as my great grandfather. I wanted to know how I was related to the Chinook Indian Nation, and why so many of our lines led back to Ireland. I wanted to know if we truly were related to Betsy Ross as family rumors told, and if our Rubens line truly linked back to the man who created the Rubenesque style of paining. I wanted to know who I was, this culmination of generations of ancestors.

That’s when I started researching, going through boxes of pictures with my parents and grandparents to identify them, attended family reunions, took genealogy classes, put together a family newsletter, and did all I could to get our ancestors’ stories. Finding details and the far-reaching family lines jazzed me. I got so geeky excited when a puzzle piece would fall into place that would lead me to another person or generation.

What I found to be even more important were the stories. It was great to have dates and places and names, but finding out who the people were and how they lived made them explode in my imagination. Imagine, my great grandfather, a very able fisherman who had a large piece of land in Astoria, died from sepsis because he stabbed his finger with a fishing hook. Imagine, Chief Comcomly of the Chinook people greeting Lewis and Clark, knowing I am a descendant of him and one of his nine wives. Imagine, the story behind Tamale Pie, and how my grandmother would make this based on what was in her head, the recipe recorded on paper only a few years ago. Imagine, learning how to make gillnets from my grandfather, holding the wooden needles made from apple wood, and hearing my mother tell me one of her jobs was filling those needles for granny. Imagine, my mother sneaking out at night to go swimming in large tanks of water on the military base known as Fort Stevens, only to find out just this year that they were cable testing tanks for the underwater mines placed in the Columbia to ward off enemy ships during World War I. Imagine, my grandmother, whose parents came from Norway, mentioning a special gift of sight that all the women in her line had had, yet elaborating no further. Imagine, an entire culture just two generations out, cloaked in mist, never understood, never spoken of, lost.

Most of my ancestors lived with the land and nature, and therefore had a healthy respect and reverence for the earth and life. So have I my entire life. Most of my family were blue collar workers, with grit and ingenuity and creativity. I call upon those qualities often. Most of my family have lived rather simple lives, with sparks of “holy cow!” thrown in at random. I can relate. Mealtimes were times of gathering, warmth, food, stories, laughter, discussion. I do my best to create that same atmosphere with my family.

Thing is, passing these stories along is important. How else will my children understand who came before them? How else will they know how their ancestors moved, what choices they made and what mistakes they can learn from? Understanding those who came before us allows us to understand who we are. And who we’re not. It gives rise to memory, history, experience. It gives us a place in the flow of things.

Stories give an accounting. They are witnessed, heard, sung, retold, written. Stories are living things – beings that traverse time and space, whispering teachings and guidance, inspiring, validating, commiserating, communing. They can be ugly, bent, spitting at you with vile words and feelings. But worse than that, the story that is extinguished by the untelling is the greatest tragedy. So much, lost.

This is why I do this work. To make known our stories so that they may live and be told.