The Art of Disappearing
When they say Don’t I know you?
When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
If they say We should get together
It’s not that you don’t love them anymore.
You’re trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.
When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven’t seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don’t start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.
Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.
I was thinking of this visit to Brigid’s wells as we celebrated her feast last night, and blessed ourselves with water collected 4 1/2 years ago.
On our way from the west to the east of Ireland, we stopped in Kildare, the town which was home to St. Brigid, one of the patron saints of Ireland and, according to the stories, an abbess who founded a monastery in 5th and 6th century. Many stories link her to the older goddess Brigid, goddess of smithcraft, poetry, and healing. We had read that there were two Brigid’s wells in Kildare–one now designated for the saint, and a pagan well still associated with the goddess. Apparently, the pagan well wasn’t advertised, but we had read that it could be found near the parking lot of the Japanese Gardens/Irish National Stud. So we set out to find it.
On the way, close by, we saw a sign for St. Brigid’s well and found that one. People come to the Brigid’s wells for the healing properties of their waters…
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I learned another new word in Passamaquoddy: Mocahantuwok, which means wicked devils. I am not sure if the word is used in a friendly teasing way, or in a serious condemning way. But in a serious way, I have been thinking about using it for certain people in Washington DC who are bent on undermining the processes and hopes of democracy in this country. You can guess who I mean.
It is not the worst time in our country’s history. That might have to be the initial conquest of these lands, and the direct genocide of millions of Indigenous people. (That oppression still continues of course, but perhaps in more indirect ways.) Another contender for the worst time would be the 250 years of enslavement of captured African peoples. (That oppression also continues, also in more indirect ways.) I don’t believe there was a golden age of American democracy, that we are now on the verge of losing.
But I do believe there was a dream of America that had something to do with democracy, cooperation, and reciprocity. I think about the poem of Black American, Langston Hughes, written in 1938.
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
…Let America Be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed! This dream was not only dreamed in America either. In learning more about my ancestors in Europe, I was struck by the ongoing struggles between the forces of domination, empire, and greed and the forces of reciprocity, cooperation, and shared power. For example, my East Frisian ancestors valued their freedom and resisted domination, resisted being forced into feudalism. Friesland actually means Free Land.
But those relational values were even more striking among my early Innu ancestors on this continent. I remember reading parts of the record that the Jesuits wrote about the Innu during early conquest times. How horrified the Jesuits were that the Innu people would only follow the lead of their leaders if they agreed with them. (Democracy!) How horrified they were that a man might agree to a contract, but if he went home and his wife disagreed, he thought he should be able to get out of that contract. (Power was meant to be shared!)
Those are the same values we are now struggling over, in Washington, and all over this country, once again and still. Will we create a society in which all people are included, in which power is reciprocal and we cooperate for the good of all? Or will some mocahantuwok create a society in which they dominate over others, accumulate as much as they can, and destroy the rest of the people and the world?
It is no easy struggle. I don’t know how we achieve our goal. But I know I choose to live by the values of reciprocity, cooperation, and democracy in every way possible, and I choose to align myself with others who share those values. Perhaps each time we do that, in all areas of our lives, we contribute some spark of energy that makes the dream more possible.
One of the first stories I heard about an ancestor was that of my great-great grandmother, Margareta, on my dad’s side of the family. My grandfather Heie Johnson wrote about her in a little notebook, and I have a copy of that story in his handwriting. He said:
Margareta Graue Henneke Engelman was born in Westphalia Germany, no dates. Parents died when grandma was 12 (she told of having to carry water for cows with a yoke until neighbors & friends interceded.) Seems she was given over to someone as bond servant. When she grew up, the brother of her husband, grandfather Henneke, came to US went to Calif. found gold. Sent for his bride & grandma Graue Henneke & her husband. Grandma’s husband died leaving her several small children. (Don’t know what happened to brother Henneke & wife). Later grandma married Menke Engelman. He was killed by a runaway team of horses & plow when our mom was very young. Grandma Henneke Engelman is buried somewhere in Kansas. Mom and I went to see Grandpa’s (Engelman) grave one time but I can’t remember the name of cemetery. I do remember that the tombstone needed attention. Wonder if it is still there. I often wondered what Grandpa looked like. That seems to be about all I can remember. Doesn’t sound like much does it? However I do feel thankful that they all came over when they did.
I feel thankful that my grandfather preserved this story! I’ve always thought of her as someone who overcame much adversity. Since then, I’ve learned a lot more about her life, but her parents and the exact place of her birth have remained a mystery, even after 30 years research by my cousin Jim.
However, I am beginning to wonder if she too might be from East Friesland, like all the others of my grandfather’s ancestors. Here is why: according to a census in 1880, she described her birthplace, and the birthplace of her parents, as “Hanover.” The Kingdom of Hanover lasted from 1814 to 1866, at which time it became a province of Prussia. Margareta was born about 1827-9, and emigrated about 1861, so even though this area is now part of Germany, she would have known it as Hanover. And, Hanover included East Friesland during that time, where notes seem to indicate that she was married to her first husband, Johann Heinrich Henneke, about 1852, [though I haven’t seen a source for this] and perhaps birthed her first children.
I excerpted this brief history of Hanover from another genealogy site:
Until 1708, Hanover had been a minor principality within the Holy Roman Empire. In 1708, its lands were combined with most of the Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg and became an electorate (essentially, a voting member state) of the Holy Roman Empire. Its rulers belonged to the dynastic lineage of the House of Hanover. …The status quo persisted until 1803 when Hanover was conquered by both Napoleon and the Kingdom of Prussia. In 1806, …16 states from the Holy Roman Empire, including Hanover, were joined together to form the rather weak Confederation of the Rhine. In 1807, the Treaty of Tilsit declared that Hanover would be joined with part of Prussia to create the Kingdom of Westphalia, ruled by Napoleon’s brother Jérôme Bonaparte. Westphalia joined the Confederation of the Rhine soon after… When Napoleon was finally defeated in 1813, it spelled the end for both the Confederation of the Rhine and the Kingdom of Westphalia. Rulership over Hanover reverted back to the House of Hanover.
The Congress of Vienna of 1815 …created the German Confederation, a loosely-knit group of 39 Germanic nation-states of which Hanover was a member. …The March Revolution in 1848 caused Hanover to temporarily leave the German Confederation, but after they failed, it rejoined in 1850. Hanover remained within the German Confederation until the Austro-Prussian War (or “Seven Weeks War”) in 1866.
But my grandfather said she was born in Westphalia, so I looked more closely at the Kingdom of Westphalia, which included Hannover (striped and purple on map) but didn’t include East Friesland, which came under the rule of Holland during those years. So another possibility is that she was born in an area of Hanover that was also included in the Kingdom of Westphalia during that time.
Finally, down below, there is a map of the Province of Westphalia, after the kingdom was dissolved and it was part of Prussia. It is adjacent to Hannover, and just south of East Friesland. So it wouldn’t be impossible for her to be from there, later traveling north into Hannover, or East Friesland. A further argument for this place is that both parents of her husband Johann Heinrich Henneke were born there. So perhaps they met up in Westphalia, and then moved to Hanover. However, another argument for East Friesland is that when her first husband died, in Illinois, she later married Meenke Engelmann, who was from East Friesland. People tended to cluster with others from their own regions and who spoke their own dialects.
I have been so interested in this question, since one of the reasons I am exploring my ancestors is to find out their connections to the lands that they lived in before they came to America. I also want to tell more about the family she created, but that will be another post. For now, her original home sadly remains a mystery, but I am so thankful to have her photo and part of her story.
Are there any European ancestors who might help us to find a mutually beneficial relationship with the earth in our time? Today I was remembering that this was my original motivation for reaching back to these ancestors. Oh, it has also been helpful to gain a better understanding of how my ancestors fit into the larger story of the colonization of this continent in which I live.
But on a spiritual level, why would I reach for a true connection, if not to ask for help in the struggles we are facing in our time? Much of Australia is burning right now, fascism is running rampant over our country, hurting the plants and animals, and the people of our land, leaders plot for power and violence, and so much is being destroyed.
And I remembered what sparked my heart last spring about my patrilineal East Frisian ancestors. It was a line in a letter, a mocking recounting of a piece of old wives’ advice: “Remain in the land and nourish it.” I wanted to reach out to those “old wives” to see if they might help me, help us. During our Ancestor Wounds and Healing workshop in October, I introduced the group to the East Frisian tea ceremony, as part of our ritual of gratitude for the gifts of the ancestors. We were short on time, and I considered leaving out the tea ceremony, but felt an unmistakable tug from spirit–“No! You must do the tea.” And so I did.
Two days later I led our group on a trance journey with the intention for each of us to find an ancient ancestor–maybe from centuries ago–for each of us to meet someone who was at one with their land, in harmony with their land and people. So we traveled through time and out of time to make a connection. In that journey, I met my East Frisian ancient many-greats-grandmother, the same one who called for the tea.
When she arrives, I burst into tears and suddenly feel how wounded I am, we are. She is whole, she can traverse deep time and be called upon in any time. I burst into tears and she is loving me, with healing hands, and she knows how all of us have been broken. I felt the holding power of her love to contain the pain of centuries. She is a healing presence, a witness to it all. She touches my heart, she says, “I can teach you how to laugh, even though the later Germans in your family lost how to feel.” She has a joy deeper than I know. She wants to continue our connection. She says, “Drink the tea ceremony to call me.”
I was profoundly moved. I didn’t have a name for her that day, but later, a name came to me. The German/Frisian affectionate name for grandma is Oma or Ooma. But a great-grandmother would be, in German, Ur-grossmutter and I am moved to call this ancient great-grandmother Ur-ma, or Oor-ma. The word also reminds me of the rune Uruz, which represents the aurochs, an ancient wild cattle species, now extinct, that was the symbol of wild strength, persistence, healing, and courage.
At the end of December, Margy and I shared in a rune reading. I used the runes to reach out to Ur-ma, and the first rune I pulled was Uruz. Sweet. Then came Nauthiz–which means Need, or difficulty, or struggle. How we are. Finally I pulled Gebo, which means Gift, and the power of reciprocity which is love.
And so when I reach out to Ur-ma, I drink the tea and I pray: “You have wholeness, we are so broken. Bring your healing energies to our time. We have lost the connection to all beings and the land. We have forgotten our kinship. Help us heal. Help us to love the land, to love the spirit.” And I keep remembering those words, which somehow came down the centuries even so: “Remain in the land and nourish it.”
With these last few quiet days at home, Margy and I were finally (after almost four years) able to take down from the attic all of our wall pictures, and decide how we wanted to decorate the walls of our living room and kitchen. It was especially wonderful to place over our fireplace hearth this print, Stewardship of the Earth, by James E. Francis and Arla Patch. We had purchased it several years ago in a fundraiser for Maine Wabanaki REACH. Here is more information about it from an article in the Friends Journal.
This work of art is a collaboration between James E. Francis, Penobscot artist and director of cultural and historic preservation for the Penobscot Nation, and Arla Patch, artist, teacher, and [at that time] member of the communications subcommittee of the Wabanaki Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
It was made for a western Maine community celebration of the native woman Molly Ockett (c. 1740–1816, Abenaki nation, Pequawket band). The theme of 2013’s MollyOckett Days Festival was “Stewardship of the Earth.” James created the central image of the tree that becomes the earth. Arla created the context based on the European American tradition of quilts. James provided the symbols, which represent the four remaining tribes in the Wabanaki Confederacy: the Penobscot, the Passamaquoddy, the Maliseet, and the Micmac.
A theme of the four directions, which comes from both Native American spirituality and ancient Celtic tradition, is depicted as the night sky for the north; the sun rising over “second island” next to the Passamaquoddy land of Sipayik; the midday sky for the south; and the sun setting over the White Mountains for the west. “Agiocochook” (home of the Great Spirit), also known as Mt. Washington, is included in the western sky.
Blueberries are included for the role they have played in sustaining Maine native peoples historically and to this day. Maple leaves are in the upper corners to honor the development of maple syrup by the Wabanaki.
When we put this picture on the wall, along with a few others around the room, I found myself feeling rooted and joyful, at home in a deeper way than before. It was as if some mysterious magic had created a circle around us, and we were aligning into harmony and beauty.
May that beauty bring us hope and strength as we enter a new decade, a decade that will be pivotal in our collective stewardship of the Earth. May we human beings find a way to live in harmony with all of our relatives on this planet that is our home.
In the early days of my feminist awakening, I began to trace the ancestry of my mother line, to learn who my grandmothers might be, and what land we originally came from. I learned this: my matrilineal great-great-great-grandmother was an Innu woman, identified in the records as Marie Madeleine, Montagnaise. She married a Scottish trapper who worked for the Hudson Bay Company in Quebec. His name was Peter Macleod, and he called her Marie de Terres Rompues, after the place where they came to live on the Saguenay River. Her name might be translated, Marie of Broken Lands, which resonates with what came later.
When I have been able to travel to Quebec, to the place the Innu call Nitasinnan [our land], I have felt the presence of the ghosts of my ancestors in the land. The very first time I drove into Chicoutimi on the Saguenay River, I came upon a book on the shelves of the Welcome Center in the rest area—it was about my ancestor Peter Macleod and his family. There have been other encounters over the years, a feeling of my ancestors reaching out to me as I reach out to them.
Learning about their stories has been an important part of my journey. I discovered many dislocations and relocations that occurred for my grandmothers, ways they were separated daughter from mother, separated from the land and the people from which they came. Marie de Terres Rompues bore several children with Peter MacLeod. Her daughter, Angele, was only twelve when her mother died, and Peter married another wife; Angele’s stepmother was a white woman. I wonder if Angele kept a connection to her Innu relatives? She was married at the age of twenty to a French Quebecois farmer, Joseph Tremblay, and they lived in the area of Peribonka near Lac St. Jean. I only know one story about them, from a census report. One year, all their grain burned in May, and they replanted with fresh grain but all of it was frozen and “not fit to be threshed.”
Her daughter Claudia was only eighteen when Angele died. At twenty-two, Claudia married Ferdinand, and during an economic downturn in their region, they moved over four hundred miles away to the town of Hull in the suburbs of Ottawa. Later, they traveled over seventeen hundred miles to the Black Hills of South Dakota, where Ferdinand worked in the mica mines for five years, during the boom years when Westinghouse Electric was producing over $100,000 per year in mica. Then the mines closed.
Their daughter, my grandmother Yvonne, was born in Hull in 1897; she was nine when they moved to the Black Hills, and fourteen when they returned to Quebec. She became a chamber maid in a hotel in the Canadian capital city of Ottawa, where she met Johann, an Austrian immigrant working as a waiter. At seventeen, she followed him five hundred miles to the United States, marrying at the border in Detroit Michigan.
My mother tells me Yvonne and her sisters worried that someone might think they looked Indian. Did she fear prejudice learned in Quebec, or in South Dakota? In Detroit, she became fully assimilated into the white and English-speaking world. Most of the stories were lost, but she did tell my mother they were part-Indian, and my mom grew up feeling proud of that heritage. There were occasional visits to family in Canada. When my mother was a four years old, the news came of Claudia’s death at the age of seventy-three.
My mother was not quite twenty-one when her mother, Yvonne, died. I was a baby then. I have a picture [below] of my grandmother holding me in her arms. When I ponder this story of my mothers and grandmothers, I am struck by how most of these women lost their mothers before, or just as they were entering, adulthood. None of them had a chance to be with their grandmothers. They each turned to the life and the culture of their husbands. And I am struck by the many miles each generation traveled away from the place in which they might have felt a sense of belonging to the land. My mother, too, followed her husband on his travels across the United States. I grew up during those travels and none of those places ever truly felt like home. I didn’t know any other way.
It has been a long and important process for me to reclaim these stories and reweave a connection to my grandmothers.
[This story first appeared in my book, Finding Our Way Home: A Spiritual Journey into Earth Community.]