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  • Writer's pictureMetta

Piecing it Back Together

Updated: Jan 14, 2021

Last fall I had a chat with a new friend. And during that conversation, the topic of ancestors came up. And I felt my heart sink a little. Because it's complicated. I feel connected to the characteristics I have, stubbornness, endurance, connection to plants and animals, and creativity that are so linked to my ancestors. But I also feel the burden of the white colonialist settler nature of my ancestors. One half of my family were farmers until around World War II, the war and the GI bill changed my Grandfather's access. He left a farm to fly a plane, and then went to college. He eventually became a professor. He was White so that even with his past in rural poverty, being White meant he had access to the GI bill unlike Black vets returning home. He had a hard time getting a loan to buy a home, but he didn't face the structural racism Black American's faced when trying to own a home and the history of red-lining. The GI bill changed my family’s trajectory and generational access to education and property and money.

Even after leaving the farm, my Grandfather watched the land. He still had a big garden. My Grandmother would not let him do that in the yard. He made a big garden with a friend down near the railroad tracks on some land no humans were using. He would still carefully watch the sky, monitor the rain, and evaluate the height of local corn in relation to the time in the summer. He taught me how to walk very quietly in nature, to just quietly observe and experience the outdoors.

He didn't talk much about it, but he knew how to build and make so many things. He could cut shingles from a log like no-one's business. He had lived on a farm where they did it all.

I sit with how he knew to band trees to weaken them so it was easier to fell them. Because the land was to be cleared. I know I sit in a house surrounded by dead trees, through the floors, the furniture, the walls. It's an extension of the take-it-all-use-it-all-its-ours-to-do-what-we-want White settler culture, capitalism. How we knew how to kill trees and change the land and take it over.

I hold how Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about how the cedar trees were respected by indigenous people and the people lived in balance with them. They didn't take them all. They would ask the cedar for boards and the boards would be provided without necessarily the death of a tree. Taking was in balance, giving was a part of it. Trees were relatives.

I asked my Aunt why my Grandfather didn't' tell me more, teach me more. My Grandfather and Grandmother only told me so many stories. She thought about it for a moment and said "I think they were ready to not look back, I think there were things they had seen they didn't want to tell their Grandchild". Even with deep connections and the bond of family and love, there was so much trauma. Malnutrition, poverty, scraping to survive, traditions of physical abuse. Often children were treated as adults, with no childhood. I'm not even sure how much my Great Grandparents smiled. They knew how to set a jaw and not show emotion and keep working. I was taught not to cry by example. There has been a generational fear of stopping work for any reason. I think because work meant survival, and there was no time or space for emotions. I have that energy in my body: NEVER stop moving and be ready for the other foot to drop, for hard times. Be ready for hard times. Prepare prepare prepare.

I hold the taking over of land from indigenous people. That land was not my ancestor’s land. My ancestors "othered" our human family to make it ok. They were in Osage country and other tribes.

My Great Uncles were missing fingers, equipment and farm labor like that was dangerous. They got emphysema later-in life from exposure to moldy hay in addition to smoking. And yet some of the stories I am learning of Black sharecropper’s lives, the ways that life was even harder farming that way and living under a system created to deny freedom, lacking payment for labor. For those that picked cotton the greater impact on the body compared to other kinds of farming, all coupled with massive oppression and threat and reality of violence. And then with the introduction of the cotton-picking machine how much went away for the sharecroppers, and then the Great Migration. No generational land wealth. I honor the joy, resilience, and connection to the land of the Black sharecroppers.

I hold how big agribusiness has continued to do damage and has hurt so many family farms. The exposure of farmers to chemicals, the legacy of keeping farmers in debt and on the edge. The pressure to treat land and animals as objects, like a factory, rather than our Earth. Othering again to make it "ok" when all beings are our relatives, our family, are people too. Pushing farm yields through massive fertilization and weed killing and the damage to our water as a result. The stealing of water from the land, taking it too far, the taking of water from indigenous people. Animal cruelty and animal waste pollution.

Today I took out a quilt. It has family names on it. The musty smell was strong. I feared washing the delicate quilt, with the visible hand and machine quilting, the fabric is more fragile and shows it's age. Under the must, one of the last hints of the smell of my Grandmother's home. It fills me with longing. The soft white cotton. I looked at the names again. I paused when I saw my name. This quilt was made in 1963, sometime before I was born. That person was my ancestor and we had the same full name.

1963 was an important year for the long long struggle for equity, justice, safety, and freedom for Black people in the United States.

White people wanting profits from tobacco then cotton, and on and on. The deep roots of capitalism and greed, to the point these humans would create a division based on skin color, and would other and enslave other humans, resulting in so much harm and destruction of Black lives. And the ongoing moral injury ongoing within White people through harming our POC family.

For a long time with the complicated history of my family, familial trauma, broken bonds, lost stories, lack of talking, fear of vulnerability, shame - with all of it I was ready to also not look back. As a queer and trans person who is not Christian, I have often felt like I don't exist to my ancestors. That my identities would either not exist, or would be seen as a sin. What I grew up in is a deep part of my fear of Authority and my terror of using my voice. And yet simultaneously I feel a draw to look back. Watching the way I connect to plants, the Earth, and the weather. Feeling pride in the resilience I know in me. I always own at least one pair of overalls.

Thich Nat Hahn has a meditation for healing one’s ancestors. I was resistant to this for a long time but now I know I must heal my ancestor’s trauma and my own, to help keep it from blowing around and harming others and to prevent my bringing more harm into my own life. It opens the door to healing my relationship with all beings. It opens the door to my freedom. It opens the door to uprooting greed, hate, and delusion. It opens the door to my own hungry ghosts finally getting the nourishment they need, not what they are asking for. It opens the door to forgiveness in my heart and taking into my own hands my true belonging in this world. It's not easy. And some of it is direct work with my nervous system and the paths laid down through development.

And so I begin, talking to my ancestors: I have so much compassion for your pain. It is pain that lives in me. You can let go of the plow. You can sleep. Get rest. And may all your tears and loss open to ease and freedom. May you first cry all the tears you have needed to from all the loss, all the hardship, and the bitter taste of any beings harmed by you. May the fear subside, the hunger subside. May the love rise up and fill all the places yearning for that love. May you laugh, and cry, and dance. May you hop up and down and eat pie. May this freedom fuel contributing to freedom and equity for others.

To my family beyond my human ancestors from this lifetime: My deep apologies for my ancestors that did harm to other beings, to anyone reading this who was/is harmed or who had ancestors that were harmed, and my apology for me and my actions and inactions toward other beings that have been harmful. You, all beings, are my family, my relatives, and also my ancestors. I vow to find the right way to reparations and I vow to not blow trauma on new generations. I vow to learn, listen, so I can join in our collective freedom and our deep shared love of love. But only with consent. May I learn what I must leave when I make a request to take, and honor that practice, and honor if the answer in a request to take is "no". When I make a mistake, and I will, may I listen and learn and apologize.

I washed the quilt by hand. Amazingly the musty smell dissipated and left behind a soft sweet smell I remember from my Grandmother's home. I don't know how long that sweet smell will last but it touches my heart deeply. The water never ran clear as I washed the quilt - I can't tell if that is color coming from the fabric, or decades of dust. It feels fitting that it will take more rounds of washing, sunlight, love, and care, and repair, to take care of this quilt in an ongoing relationship. It feels like what I need to in order to give to my ancestors, and care of my own family history, so a new future and different path is possible, enriched with the things that are worth keeping. But with clear eyes and bearing witness to what needs to be dismantled, and what seeds should not be planted again.

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