How do other people know who they are? If you know who your father was, does it make a difference in who you think you are? Where is “home”? I’ve been playing Aaron Neville’s latest CD, Bring It On Home, and it calls me back from this sense of diffusion that keeps carrying me off into the clouds over Portland. “Tell it like it is,” Aaron sings, “Respect yourself.” Last night I listened to a woman read a couple of chapters from her (so far) unpublished (but spellbinding and well-crafted) novel about young gay men in Japan just before the bombing of Hiroshima. She’s certain she was Japanese in past lives–she can dimly but unmistakably remember Japan, and when she lived there (in this life), many of the places she went to for the first time were as familiar to her as the streets of the town in Michigan where she grew up. She knew what was around the corner before she rounded the corner. She attributes that to karmic ancestry rather than genes. What explains affinity? Some people who’ve never been to Morocco long for all things Moroccan. Others are drawn to Chinese art. Some feel truly worshipful in front of Byzantine icons. I’ve lost all sense of who I am or why I ever wanted to know and cannot proceed with my autobiographical novel right now. I’m letting that be. At the same time I’ve received some terrific emails that also serve to bring me on home.
From Des: “My own truth is far more complicated than yours and I have sort of given up – nobody is going to tell me which parts of Africa my ancestors came from.” That puts the idea of “complicated” into perspective. Thanks, Des. And yet I guess if you have the kind of money Oprah has, you can find out…and clearly it matters to her, and to Henry Louis Gates, and to other African-Americans . My African daughters would give anything to know who their fathers were, and that was a bonding factor between us. Am I afraid to find my father because then I’ll have something my girls don’t have? Seth insisted when he was three–we went to France and spent a day with his father. He had to know him. They spent another day together when Seth was ten. That’s all the time they had; Seth was able to move on after that. There is some hunger in us that wants to know, no matter how hopeless it seems. In southern Africa, paying homage to the ancestors is the cornerstone of daily life. You leave a little beer or tea in the bottom of the cup in remembrance. You light a candle. You take your children to the place where the family bones are buried, and you say aloud, “This is your child. This child would not be, without you. We ask you to watch over your child.”
Speaking of which, Manko is a soldier now. She joined the Army Tuesday. She promised them four years and twenty weeks of her life. She goes to boot camp in South Carolina on the 28th of May. She’s excited, and I ask her ancestors to watch over her.
This email from Carolyn: “On the level of spirit, of course we are all one, and blood lines don’t matter. But on the level of humans becoming, I believe we evolve partly through knowing who our people are. In first being fully part of a family (in every expanded definition of the word) and that family part of a tribe, we can then more fully know ourselves as part of the All One Tribal family. Lineage (whether through a line of teachers or a bloodline) is our source of rootedness, through which we get nourishment to grow. And we carry the imprints of an infinite past. As we gain awareness of the imprints, the patterns of our lives become clearer.”
That makes sense. Rootedness. Patterns. There is so much about me that has never made sense, given my upbringing…no one in my mother’s family (but me) is a scholar, an adventurer, or a world wanderer. Nobody taught me that. Nobody supported me in any of that. I tried to settle down, but I just couldn’t. I’ve never had a long-term relationship, never could stay in one place for long, dragged my poor children all over the world with me. Something about me just will not stay put, will not be domesticated. Seth is the same way. My mother’s family is salt-of-the-earth but agrarian, domestic, rooted. All my life, if people met my mother’s family, they would say, ‘Where did you come from? You’re not like them.’” So the possibly Jewish Merchant Mariner from Latvia feels like my missing link. The first time I ever heard Kaddish, I burst into tears and couldn’t speak again for a couple of hours. But I was reared Presbyterian. Is it nature or nurture, this wandering Jew spirit that is at the core of what I know as “me”? Why do my shoulders sag with these questions?
Then this beautiful Zen story came in a very tender and loving email from Bob: “Story #29 from 101 Zen Stories in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps: “When the nun Chiyono studied Zen under Bukko of Engaku she was unable to attain the fruits of meditation for a long time. At last one moonlit night she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment Chiyono was set free! In commemoration, she wrote a poem:
In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break
Until at last the bottom fell out.
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!”
Yes, Bob. Maybe freedom comes when the bottom falls out of the pail. No more water. No more moon in the water. Let it all go.
Sandy writes, “You [might] try to do a literary genogram, weaving [re-constructing? deconstructing?] your life through the series of associations you have had.” That’s an idea. I am the books I have read. That’s certain. From my time as an invalid child, right up to the present moment, books have been friends, have shaped my ideas of the possible, have built up the pool of images that compose my sleeping and waking dreams. I am the sum of all I have met. I’ve met more books than people. I’ve spent more time with books than with people.
What brings it on home for other people? I wonder. Music? Books? Relationships? Places? How do people root themselves? A few bars of “My Girl,” a Fig Newton, the wild sharp salty smell of the sea–each takes me home. But each home is a different place, a different decade. And so many seas have washed across my feet. If being unrooted is a key to what I know of “myself,” where are the roots of that unrootedness? Jim Longhi, in this wonderful book I’m reading about men on merchant ships during WW2, is prone to hilarious bouts of what he calls “verbal diarrhea,” in which he wonders about the meaning of life, death, and identity. Maybe I’m related to him.
I finished writing this and picked up the liner notes from Aaron Neville’s CD, which is dedicated to all the people “whose lives were forever changed by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.” “People get ready.” “Stand by me.” Here’s what he says: “I was thinking about those people in the water. Thinking of friends I might never see again. Thinking of how I had lost my home; how three of my children, my brother Cyril and sister Athelgra had all lost their homes. So much loss was on my mind. But loss has its gains. Put your pain in the music and watch the pain flow out.”
Tags: , Aaron Neville, Books and Movies, identity, Manko, Seth, What does it mean?