Mysterious Illness and Melting Ice

Ice slowing melting & refreezing in our pond (March 22, 2022)

I recently read Sarah Ramey’s memoir, The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness. Published just last year, it is described this way:

“In her harrowing, darkly funny, and unforgettable memoir, Sarah Ramey recounts the decade-long saga of how a seemingly minor illness in her senior year of college turned into a prolonged and elusive condition that destroyed her health but that doctors couldn’t diagnose or treat. Worse, as they failed to cure her, they hinted that her devastating symptoms were psychological. …Ramey’s pursuit of a diagnosis and cure for her own mysterious illness becomes a page-turning medical mystery that reveals a new understanding of today’s chronic illnesses as ecological in nature, driven by modern changes to the basic foundations of health, from the quality of our sleep, diet, and social connections to the state of our microbiomes.”

Book Jacket Cover

I haven’t experienced the horrifying stories she recounts with medical personnel, but I know others who have. I think it helped that I was usually drawn to alternative practitioners, though Sarah had her own horror stories with alternative practitioners. She finally found help with practitioners of Functional Medicine, and my own primary care nurse practitioner is aligned with that field. For that I am grateful.

I identified with the mysterious nature of auto-immune chronic conditions–when I reflected on it, I realized that they have been a part of my life for many years–most recently, Hashimoto’s thyroid disease, SIBO, adrenal fatigue, and borderline diabetes, but earlier in my life there was endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, and gradually developing multiple chemical sensitivities, and multiple food sensitivities. For most of my life, I managed to work and keep my balance, but it became more and more difficult. Finally, when I turned 65, and could access Social Security and Medicare, I retired from my work as a full-time minister.

I wondered at the time if being released from the stress of full-time work might bring me relief from the illnesses, but that was not to be the case. Instead, I was better able to manage living with the illnesses. But it is a delicate balance. If I eat well (for me that means no refined sugar, no gluten, low carb, lots of vegetables, and meat, while avoiding the list of specific foods that give me problems), if I rest when I am weary (which is spending some variable part of every day lying on the couch), if I take certain natural supplements (for example, I take Berberine, which has been shown to be as effective as Metformin for helping blood sugar balance), and if I don’t overdo it anywhere, well then, I have some energy to do things I love, to write, to garden a bit, to learn new things, even the miracle of building our little pond last year.

Sometimes, I can forget that I have these illnesses. Some days I wake in the morning rested and glad to greet a new day. I might have several hours to work on projects. I tend to get more weary and achy as the day goes by. And during these two years so far of COVID, I have been glad for the many opportunities that the world on Zoom provided. But then, something happens that upsets the balance, and I am sunk into a lower level of functioning, just barely able to cook my meals and take care of the basics. Most recently, I think that my body might have reacted badly to my second Shingrix vaccine. The last four weeks have been mostly couch weeks: reading books and watching British mysteries on Roku. I hope that I am emerging from that now. It is not easy to know what upsets the balance–all I can do is respond to it.

Because I am always asking questions about meaning, I appreciated the connection that Sarah Ramey made between our chronically ill bodies, and the larger ecology of the earth. I think about that too. I wonder if my own body is mirroring the afflictions of the earth I love, is somehow sensitive to the larger web–global warming, the prevalence of forever poisons, the loss of communal connections, the ecological balance which human beings have undermined. If that is the case, can I love my body as I love the earth? Can I grant her that self-care that has been neglected for too long?

One aspect that Sarah Ramey sees as critical is our need for human connection. I was reflecting on how for much of my life I made connection through activism, through shared work. I still feel the impulse to act for justice, in small ways, but there are less opportunities now for the connection that used to be a part of it. I have also felt more isolated since retiring, and, of course, since COVID. Maybe I need to learn something new–to nurture connection that is not at all about work or social justice, but about something more elementary. Can I be cherished, not for what I do, but for my being? Can I cherish others in this way? Can I also cherish myself in just this way? Perhaps it will require a kind of spring melting of some other kind of hidden ice. May it be so.

Hard to see, but there is a thin clear layer of ice on the surface of the pond this morning, but more of the winter ice is melting each day. March 26, 2022

The Mystery Seed

On March 14th, at 1 p.m. Queer Spirit will broadcast an interview with me, done by Revs. Marvin Ellison and Tamara Torres McGovern. Queer Spirit is a regular feature of OUT Cast, a forum for LGBTQ+ issues broadcast on community radio every Monday. WMPG 90.9 FM from 1:00 – 1:30 p.m. (Livestream: WMPG.org) One of the questions they asked: “What do you think has been your generation’s unique struggle with sexuality and spiritualty – and what would you say is your generation’s contribution to these matters?” I thought about what I had written in my book, Finding Our Way Home, in a chapter called “The Mystery Seed.” I want to share an excerpt with you today.

Bean seeds

Do you remember the fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk? When he and his mother are in desperate straits, Jack trades their cow for some magical bean seeds. The bean seeds grow overnight into a vine that reaches up to the sky. He climbs the vine and encounters an evil giant, who eats human beings, but Jack is able to escape with a magical hen that lays golden eggs, and a golden harp that plays by itself. He learns from a fairy that the giant’s castle is actually his very own—he is really a prince whose father was killed by the giant. In the end, he kills the giant, and recovers his hidden inheritance.

So what does this have to do with us? The bean seeds enable Jack to connect with who he truly is, and with a larger reality beyond the small cabin he shares with his mother. Within each one of us is something like those magical bean seeds. We are so much more than we can imagine. We might say inside each of us is a Mystery seed, a seed of what we might become. This Mystery seed is our potential to connect with the larger Mystery of which we are a part; it is the Divine within us that connects to the Divine beyond us, it is the fractal pattern of life and love and creativity. This seed is not only in some of us, not only in fairy tales or kings or saints, but in every one of us.

What evidence do I have for this seed of divinity within each human being? How have I personally experienced this might be so? Ironically, it has been illuminated when I faced situations where people were treated as if they had no dignity or value at all. But something within and between people transpired to bring forth a light that could not be extinguished.

When I went to college, one of my best friends slowly revealed to a few of us that he was homosexual. This was a great torment for him and for all of us who loved him, because we were very devoted Catholics. According to Catholic teaching, homosexuality was against the laws of nature. Tom would try hard to live celibately, and then crash, and go out and “get debauched.” He was depressed and often despaired of his life. I felt a painful contradiction in all of this—I knew he was a deeply spiritual person, so why should he suffer in this way? But I didn’t have an answer at that time.

Before I met Tom, in the reality of my youth, it was as if gay people did not exist. When I was growing up, during the 1950s and 60s, I never even heard the word lesbian, and gay only meant happy. I never saw gay people on TV, read about them in a book or newspaper, or learned about them in school. As a girl in a Catholic family there were two possibilities for my life path: I could become a wife and mother, or I could become a nun. I never even imagined the possibility of lesbian.

Tom’s dilemma introduced to me a whole category of people who were considered unworthy of sacredness. Gay people were not supposed to exist. And if they did exist, they were identified as unnatural, disordered, a mistake, a problem. African American lesbian poet Audre Lorde writes, “We were never meant to survive.”[i]

At that time it never even occurred to me I might have something in common with that group of people. I didn’t come out as a lesbian until years later, at the age of thirty-one, after a five-year process of struggle and transformation… Gays and lesbians have often been excluded or disparaged even by those who are closest to us. After I came out, one of my sisters refused to let me stay in her home because she didn’t want her children to know about gay people. I received a letter from another sister. She wrote, “I pray for you night after night… Homosexuality is wrong! And as your sister I don’t want to lose you to the devil.” Her words were those many of us have heard from parents or siblings, or from the institutions of our society.

How much guilt, despair, and shame have gay people carried in our hearts because we were not welcome in the reality defined by our culture and religion? Because we could not see the sacredness within? How many gay people have killed themselves in the pain of that reality? How many gay people have been killed, through the violence and hate of a society that has refused to include us in their definition of reality?

But so much has changed. Now it is hard to imagine I didn’t know about the existence of lesbians or gay men. Now gay people are in prime-time television. There are supportive high school groups for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, and Straight youth. My friend Tom eventually was able to embrace his sexuality, and share his life with a long-time partner. In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state in the U.S. to allow same sex couples to be legally married, and in the years since, marriage has been won throughout the whole country.

Even language became transformed. Words like lesbian, or queer—once painful putdowns—were reclaimed as words of honor. I remember we young activists marching and shouting, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”

So much has changed. For me, it seems like a miracle—in fact, two miracles. First, I still can be amazed I exist as a lesbian at all. How did I cross over into a whole new reality? It is as fantastical as Jack climbing a bean stalk into a castle in the sky. Second, it is remarkable that we who are queer can celebrate being queer. How did we go from being outcasts, to celebrating and believing in ourselves? How did we go from being outcasts, to demanding that reality make a place for us? To celebrate ourselves as queer we often have had to risk every other valuable thing in our lives. We’ve risked family, friends, jobs, safety. Yet this thing which was considered a problem became the “pearl of great price,”[ii] as the gospel says. This heavy burden became the hen that laid golden eggs. And it has been incredible to see!

What happens within people that they can claim the power to celebrate themselves? …What happens inside people when they refuse the rejection of society, and claim the right to name themselves valuable. When people who have been told all their lives “You are no good,” find within themselves a different voice that says, “You are sacred.” To me, this is powerful evidence of the divinity within us. And this is the premise of the work of those of us who call ourselves Liberation Theologians: the Divine is revealed in the struggle of oppressed people for liberation.[iii] It is the Mystery seed within us growing like a vine into the sky.

…That is what happened for me, too. Within a community of women, I experienced a new reality coming into being. With women who were celebrating lesbian existence, I encountered the Divine in a new way. Sometimes we called it the Goddess. Sometimes we had no name to describe it. But we felt a sacred and holy power when we seized the courage to embrace the body of another woman. Everything shifted. It no longer mattered whether we were welcome at the table of the society that excluded us. We were in a new reality and could no longer be denied.

Me and Rev. Marvin Ellison, back in 2009, as co-leaders of the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry, getting ready for the public hearing.

[i] Audre Lorde, “A Litany for Survival,” The Black Unicorn: Poems (New York:  W. W. Norton, 1978), 31.

[ii] Matthew 13:45-46.

[iii] Liberation Theology was first articulated in 1971 by the Catholic Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez, in his book, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation (1971 in Spanish, English edition Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1973).

Learning Passamaquoddy as a Non-Native

Photo: Snow covered tree at dawn.

What a beautiful dawn the other day, all the branches coated with light snowy adornment! I’ve been feeling grateful these days. In particular, I’ve been thinking about how lucky I have been to study the Passamaquoddy language with Roger Paul during the last 3 1/2 years. I recently saw an article published a few years ago, by Taté Walker, “3 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Learning an Indigenous Language as a Non-Native.” It got me reflecting about the questions, some of which I had already considered when I began. #1 Why am I learning this language? #2 How will I center tribal perspectives as I learn this language? #3 How will I handle criticism from Indigenous people? Today, I also have a fourth question which I will explore.

I looked back to my earlier posts to remember my thoughts about why I was learning this language. I had asked permission from the teacher, and also from my Wabanaki friend who was going to take the class, and both had been very welcoming. Roger has talked about how his elders had decided it was time to share the language with others beyond the community. On a very practical level, it was hoped that by increasing the number of registrations, the class was more likely to be offered at USM, so more available to Wabanaki students who wanted to learn.

On a deeper level, I wrote that it was a way to begin to decolonize my mind, “I want to think differently”–Nkoti piluwitahas. I also had the thought that, ideally, any of us who came to live in Wabanaki territory should learn the original language of this land, as respectful visitors. Also, years ago, an Indigenous woman had said, “If you really want to understand our spirituality, you must learn our language.” It stayed in my mind though I can’t remember now who it was who said it. (This was during the time I was working on the issue of cultural appropriation by white people of Indigenous spiritualities.)

Today, thinking about it again, I know I had the privilege of retiring from work right at the time the class began, and there was a program for seniors to enroll in university classes for free. Everything came together so easily. My heart led me into it and the door opened. I think perhaps, too, though I didn’t realize it at the time, it was a way to connect to my own Innu ancestors.

During the process of taking these classes, I have learned so much about the perspectives and history of Wabanaki people. I have learned how few people are now fluent in the language, because of forced assimilation, and because of the terror of the boarding schools and day schools, where children were punished for speaking their language. I have learned that for me to learn the language is a privilege that many Wabanaki people do not have, if only because they are busy trying to survive in the English-speaking world. I understand that if I were to speak the language in most contexts, it might be a painful trigger for Native people who carry so much trauma about the loss of their language. So mostly, I haven’t tried to speak it except in our class contexts. And though I am beginning to understand more than I could have imagined, I am humbled too by how difficult it is for me to speak any of it, except for carefully constructed dialogues. I am truly still a beginner.

But the question closest to my heart these days is this: Since I have been granted this gift of learning the Passamaquoddy language, how can I give back? From this course, I’ve learned gratitude and the importance of reciprocity: so what is my responsibility now, as the recipient of such a gift of knowledge? Bearing in mind that I’m not training to be a professional teacher, and I have so little energy anyway because of chronic illness. I have done some activities in solidarity to Wabanaki concerns–but these are not related to language. I don’t have an answer right now. But I am holding this question closely. How can I give back? What is my responsibility in light of the gift of this knowledge? It may be that by holding the question, an answer will be revealed.

Healing Turtle Island

Two deer browsing in the trees behind our yard.

Tonight I feel grateful to participate in the virtual opening ceremony for the Healing Turtle Island gathering. Songs, prayers in Indigenous languages, stories of grief, woundedness, devastating loss, and yet, gratitude. How do we bring healing, bring back balance in our relationships, with each other, with the earth, with spirit? This weekend will be filled with many speakers… (anyone can join on Facebook, or on Zoom, just follow the link). I don’t have a lot of words right now but one of the strange blessings of the pandemic is that because this gathering is virtual, I am able to participate. I was present for the very first gathering here in Wabanaki land, the eastern door. There will be 21 gatherings all together.

This photo is of two deer whom we sighted in our backyard on Tuesday–there were four all together. They were a gift in the midst of a painful week. I found myself just sitting on the back porch watching as they took their time amidst the trees and brush. Sitting still and watching. I feel the presence of such a compassionate Spirit through these visitors from the natural world.

Crowded Memories

Photo: puzzle pieces scattered on the table

Going through my boxes of old files in the basement, I am now working on files related to activism in solidarity with Indigenous people in Boston back in the 1990s. I found some correspondence with one particular activist, for example, and I am remembering the long process of getting to know each other, building trust, and finding ways to be helpful in that struggle. But when my ministry calling required that I move to another place (Cape Cod, at first, and then Maine), it meant that all of that relationship-building was lost, in a way, and I had to start all over again in a new place to build trust, to make connections, to find ways to be of use.

When white people are moved to act in solidarity with Indigenous people, it requires a lot of work to create relationships of trust. There is such a long history of colonization, of oppression, of theft, of genocide, between us–and a long history of “helpful” people doing damage. And yet, the more I became aware of that broken history, the more I have felt moved to participate in such solidarity. Not without mistakes. But I have continued in these other places seeking to build relationships of trust with other Indigenous people, doing the long work of decolonization.

I am not one who usually has spirit-filled dreams at night. Usually, in my dreams I am at a conference or gathering somewhere, along with a whole crowd of people, only some of whom I am acquainted with. I am trying to find my way around, or find food, or find my way back to where I was before–such mundane anxieties. Sometimes I meet old friends there. Often, I feel lost and overwhelmed by all the people I don’t know in places I don’t know.

I started feeling like that as I was going through these and other files from Boston. So many people with whom I have done work, shared conversations, struggled for justice, had significant experiences, lived in a household together, loved, hurt or been hurt by, and yet, I had forgotten so much of it. If I were not looking through these files, I wouldn’t remember much of what is in them. It all slips away with the effort and energy of building a life in a new place. Only a few relationships carried into long distance realities.

Sometimes I fantasize about not having moved everywhere, living somewhere and staying there my whole life. But I realize it is only a fantasy. This came clear to me a while back when I watched the movie Kuessipan, about two girls who grow up as best friends in an Innu community. In the description, “their friendship is shaken when Mikuan …starts dreaming of leaving the reserve that’s now too small for her dreams.” In reflecting on that movie, I realized, I would have been the one who left. In fact, I did leave a small town to go off to college, and I kept traveling to “bigger dreams.” I guess that journey is also in my blood. My grandmother left Canada to come with a foreigner to America when she was 17. Perhaps she too was seeking a bigger life, bigger dreams.

And now, here I am, sitting alone in the basement, going through memories, looking back on the many people I met over so many years. Sometimes I feel so tired. Sometimes I feel lonely in the midst of the crowded gatherings in my dreams. Sometimes it is a relief just sitting alone with the boxes, trying to make sense of the puzzle pieces of my life. It is a humbling journey. May Spirit help me to remain curious and grateful.

Feminist Therapy in Boston

Two outlined hands form a triangle–a symbol of healing which I used as a logo for my feminist therapy practice in Boston.

Going through the old boxes from Boston are taking a long time. The other day, I came upon a few folders from the part-time private practice I had in feminist therapy for women. Of course, most of my notes from that practice were previously shredded for confidentiality’s sake. But a few notes and cards from the tail end of the practice had found their way into a box that was then closed up for 21 years. Anything that was confidential I fed into the shredder, but as I did so, I found myself saying little prayers, sending good energy to the women I had journeyed with in those days.

My longest-term client was a woman with a head injury. Because it was easier for her, we spoke by phone for our sessions. I found myself curious about what had happened to her, and googled her name to discover an obituary from 2014. She had died at the age of 73. I was glad to see the details of her life brought together as a whole. She had been a successful film-maker before an auto accident injured her brain. I met her several years after that had happened. I knew that our counseling sessions were helpful to her, and I also learned so much from her in our work together.

A few things that I remember: The brain is an amazing multi-faceted entity–someone could be smart about many things, as she was, and yet unable to accomplish some very basic tasks like counting or face-recognition. When she reflected on her own recovery, she knew she had disproved the prognosis that after one year she wouldn’t regain any other mental functioning. She kept slowly regaining aspects of her mental abilities. Oddly enough, online conversations were a big help to her–she was an early adopter of making friends via AOL chat rooms. Because of her brain injury, she had difficulty with sequencing–anything she needed to do had to be spelled out step by step. But she told me she began to write online erotica, which if nothing else required a great deal of sequencing. Who might have guessed the therapeutic value of that?

She told me that despite the limitations, she actually found greater happiness after her disability than before–when she was deep into the rat-race, she was successful, yes, but driven and deeply unhappy. When she had the solitude and slowness of her later life, she had a chance to heal from earlier trauma, to learn to love herself, and to find joy. She also found new ways to contribute to the world around her, especially in support of animals.

I am only writing about her now, even unnamed, because she has died. On the very unlikely chance that anyone who knew her thinks they might recognize her from these few details, I hope they know how fond I was of her. These memories awakened a very tender part of my soul. It was a great gift to be a part of her journey of life.

It was a great gift in so many ways to be a therapist during those years from 1986 to 1999. There is something quite sacred about listening, affirming, and gently encouraging–with the skills I had acquired–the healing power within each person. Often people came to me during times of great distress. I didn’t always like each person, though I often did. But with everyone, it felt like we were held, for one hour a week, in the intimate, infinite regard of a larger healing Love.

The things I ended up saving from the practice for my files were things like my advertisements in Sojourner, the women’s monthly paper in Boston, where there were usually 3 full pages of ads for feminist therapists. This is where my logo appeared month after month for several years. I saved some of the networking I had with other therapists. I saved a little sheet on which I spelled out my sliding scale–I was glad to be accessible to very low income women. I saved notes from a few of the workshops I offered or attended. As in my later work of being a minister, some of the best moments remain invisible to the world. But hopefully the ripples of those moments endure.

Courage

Photo: Female cardinal at feeder, with three smaller birds nearby.

I am finally embarking on a project to go through all of my papers, now in boxes in the basement. These range from files that I brought from my office when I retired 3 1/2 years ago, to boxes that I have carried around since college. This week I have been going through a box of writings–poems, essays, and an almost book, dating from about 1986 to 1996. During those years, I lived in Boston, surrounded by lesbian community, making a living in what today might be called the gig economy, while focusing my time and energy on activism, writing, feminist spirituality, and social change.

It was a scary time, financially, just getting by with no safety net, no health insurance, moving from rented apartments to other rented apartments in an increasingly difficult housing market. It was also, for a while, a joyous and exhilarating time, creating chosen family through collective living with other lesbians, wrestling with issues like classism, racism, and sexism, all the while imagining justice, mutuality, and queer beauty.

Reading the many words I wrote brings me back there, and I am impressed by the creativity which filled those pages and filled my life and the lives of those around me. But there was an undertow that sometimes threatened to drown me–a shift when housing got harder to find, when joyful cooperative situations became uneasy roommate situations, when loneliness began to plague me. Still, poetry and Spirit sustained me even then. I found this poem that seems worth sharing as 2021 comes to an end, and 2022 is about to begin. May you find the courage to follow the road where your heart leads you!

1/13/93

If there can be power in a word
the word “courage”
gets me out of bed
surrounds my heart in hard times.

There are many poverties.
Each moon waning, as I just get by
financially, I find my true despair
lurks in the isolation
which has covered the walls of my days
like some asphyxiating new paint
and I feel I can’t breathe
and I feel I don’t belong here.

I remember when I set out on a path
to transform the world.
We sang then, the joy of our
meeting filling our mouths
like lovemaking, our visions
changing us into new beings.
We laughed at how we didn’t fit
our chains anymore, and big as life
we set about to craft a new home.

There are many poverties.
Loneliness is the unforgivable sin.
I have always felt I could survive
the insanity and cruelty of the world
any poverty or hardship or struggle
if only I had companions to share it.

But here I am.
Loss and need my only mothers.

If there can be power in a word
the word courage
gets me out of bed.
Courage rests her cheek against my heart.
Courage squeezes my hands into her pockets.
Courage plants her feet into the prints
of my solitary steps
as if of course this is where the road
must go and I am still
that traveler.

Winter Solstice Dawn

Photo: Solstice dawn seen through trees in our town.

After the longest night, the shortest day dawns with beauty in the sky, and draws me outside into the cold and colors of morning. Snow is covering the ground at last, which has brightened up these last few dark days. Margy and I are learning to play backgammon for holiday fun during the isolation of COVID. After our first full game, we ate a Solstice Eve celebration dinner last night. Traditionally pork is eaten at this season in honor of the European goddess Freya. Later, we pulled out runes for a message for this turning of the seasons. My rune was Gebo, the rune for giving and receiving, for love and partnership.

As the light returns, and the days lengthen, may our human hearts turn toward generosity and compassion, in reciprocity with all of the beings with whom we share this planet.

Wenuhc? Wen nil?

I have been posting recently about my latest research concerning my Innu third great grandmother, and because of that I want to write today some clarification about identity and relationship. The more I am learning about Indigenous people–through study, through language, through cultural sharing by Indigenous people–the more I understand that I am not Indigenous. This might not even need to be said, except that there is currently a problem of people with ancestors even more distant or nebulous than mine trying to use those ancestors as a way to claim status as Indigenous or Métis, to get benefits from governments, or preference in hiring or hunting rights, for example. Sometimes they actually use this to try to take away benefits from Indigenous communities.

Years ago, when I was still just beginning to learn about all this, I wasn’t sure if I was permitted to claim an Indigenous identity, or a Métis identity. A few times I did, out of my own ignorance. And it is not simple for those of us who are mostly something else, but want to honor our Indigenous ancestors. Even so, I can’t imagine trying to use it to take something away from Indigenous or Métis communities. What I hope for is to be a good relative, a friend, to use my position in this society to act in support of Indigenous communities.

For my latest presentation in our Passamaquoddy language class, I found myself drawn to a word in Passamaquoddy that has been used to describe non-Indigenous people: “Wenuhc.” What does it mean? Some definitions say, “white person.” And that is partly true—it refers to white people. But, its roots come from an old meaning. When, they say, strangers came here to Wabanaki land, the Native people said, “Wenuhc?” It meant, “Who are they?” It also held a question, like, “Where are they from?”

When I ask the question of myself, it comes out: “Wen nil?” “Who am I?” The traditional way to introduce oneself is by naming the place where you come from, and your relatives, the people you come from. But for me, as a wenuhc, that wasn’t so simple. The more I played with the concepts, the more confusing it became—which certainly is a characteristic of many of us living in the mainstream culture of the United States. I want to share some of what I wrote—but mostly just the English translation:

The early strangers said, “We are Englishmen.” I speak English, but my roots are not English—so am I English? Wen nil? Who am I? Three of my grandparents have Germanic roots. But, I can’t speak German. I have German roots, but am I German? Wen nil? Who am I? My grandmother came from Quebec, and she spoke French. I can speak French, a little. I have French roots, but am I French?

Wen nil? Who am I? My grandmother’s great grandmother is named Marie Madeleine. She was Innu. She spoke Innu. Now, I know how to speak Innu a little, only a very few words. I have Innu roots, but am I Innu? Now, I can also speak Passamaquoddy a little, but I am not Passamaquoddy.

Wen nil? Who am I? I don’t know. I am a wenuhc woman, a “who are they?” woman. I am far away from family. Sixteen years ago, I came to Wabanaki land in order to work. Now, I am done working. So, what am I doing? Am I a preacher? Am I a witch? Am I a writer? Am I a gardener? Wen nil? Who am I? Tama nuceyaw? Where am I from? All my grandparents lived in cities. Now, I live in the city, Portland. Am I lost? How do I find myself? Am I a stranger? Am I your friend? Am I foolish? Am I wise? I don’t know. Wen nil? Who am I? I am confused.

What I learn from this Passamaquoddy writing process is that I am not well connected to a place or to my relatives. My being a lesbian, my being a justice activist, my moving around a lot, all contributed to a feeling and reality of being disconnected from place and family. And given the injustice I found all around me in “American” culture, I don’t regret the need I felt to resist it, to break away from it. But in some ways, that is a very “American” way of being. “America” celebrates individual identity and mobility. It defines who we are by what we do.

When I seek to find my way into relationship with the earth, with all beings of the earth, with the ancestors, with spirit, when I begin to value this relatedness, I see more clearly how I have been cut off from places and people that I might have been from. And I see more and more clearly how I am not Indigenous. I am wenuhc. I am “Who are they?”

And that truth is real, it is okay. “Who am I?” is an open question. It is why I make a spiritual journey into earth community. I can learn. As I learn to be thankful for everything, I begin to feel how I am related to everything, despite being wenuhc.

Note: I first learned about the word “wenuhc” from my Passamaquoddy language teacher Roger Paul. More recently, the organization I volunteer with, Wabanaki REACH, posted about this word on its Facebook page, quoting Rebecca Sockbeson (Penobscot), 2019.

Photo: Pileated woodpecker on a pine tree near our house. The woodpecker is a symbol of friendship for Wabanaki people.

Marie Madeleine Napeteiashu

Innu embroidery on a leather bag from Lac St. Jean

“Even if you don’t know who your ancestors are, your ancestors know who you are.”

@drxicana Dra. Vanessa M. Bustamante

I think I am coming to the end of my intensive search for the family of my Innu third-great-grandmother Marie Madeleine. I have found the most likely Marie Madeleine of the many that I researched, though I cannot have conclusive proof of any connection. Here is what I found.

Marie Madeleine Napeteiashu was baptized June 6, 1803 at Îlets-Jérémie. She was at that time about 7 years old, “or even more,” so her birth would have been 1796 or perhaps a bit earlier. By that time, the priests started recording the father’s Innu name as a surname for the children, so she does not have her own personal Innu name listed. Certainly, she would have had an Innu name that she used for the first seven years of her life and beyond. Her brother Simon Napeteiashu was also baptized at the same time, and said to be about 4 ½ years old, so born in late 1798 or early 1799. Their parents were Napeteiashu, who did not have a Christian name, and Catherine Mitiskue. Their godparents were Simon Tshinapesuan & Marie Madeleine Iskuamiskuskueu, elders in the community who were also parents or godparents to other Marie-Madeleines I researched. Both brother and sister were named for their godparents.

I was able to find an older brother as well, Jacques Nahabanueskum (later also called Jacques Napeteiashu), who was baptized 6/19/1786, at 2 years old, at Îlets-Jérémie, his parents listed, with a slight variation as Nepiteiashu and Catherine Matshiskueu. I think the name Napeteiashu might mean “male fox” if you stretch the spelling a bit—napeiatsheshu. Mitiskue seems a combination of bead/mitish, and woman/skue, so “bead woman.” Matshiskueu means “ugly woman.” I’m not sure about Nahabanueskum. Sometimes the Innu names changed over time.

Sadly, I did not see any further clearly identifiable records for Marie-Madeleine’s parents. Today I spent hours looking at earlier records to see if I could find Catherine. I found many Catherines, but none with her Innu name or a clear link to identify. Unlike for some of the other families I researched, there weren’t multiple prior generations in the baptism accounts; I could open the mystery no further. Perhaps this family’s connection to the priests at the trading posts was more tenuous, at least prior to Jacques, with the father Napeteiashu unbaptized, and the children not baptized until they were 2, 4, or 7 years old. I would have thought there might have been more children between Jacques 1784 and Marie Madeleine 1796, but I could find no record of them. Perhaps might this family have been more tied to their own Innu culture in the forest, and warier of the trading posts?

However, I did find many other records for Marie Madeleine’s brother, Jacques Nahabanueskum. In May 14, 1804, he was married to Monique Peshabanukueu at Îlets-Jérémie, (with his parents identified as Napeteiashu and Catherine Mitiskue.) They had several children baptized through the following years, with their father’s Innu name listed as their surname: Agnes, 1809, Rose, 1810, Marie, 1812, Charles, 1814, all at Îlets-Jérémie, then Jacques 1818 at Riviere Godbout, and an unnamed child who died 1821, then Monique, 1822, at Îlets-Jérémie. Jacques died before 1824, when his widow remarried to Jacques Tshiuteshish, widower of Marie des Anges Tshimatshueu. The children of that Jacques and Marie des Anges would also have been part of an extended family: Simon, Beatrix, Christine, Hélène, and possibly more.

I also found a possible later link for Marie Madeleine’s brother Simon, as Simon Napitaietshun with Marie Catherine Tshiatshe, parents of a daughter Marie, baptized in 1819, and a son Simon, baptized in 1821, both in Mingan.

One clue that led me to identify this woman as the most likely choice is in the record for the baptism of my own Marie Madeleine’s son Simon, in 1833, at Îlets-Jérémie, where she is identified as “sauvage du dit poste,” which means, translating the racist imagery, “Indian of said post.” And so it seemed to me it might be identifying her place of origin. Of the women on my list of possibilities, within the right time frame, she was the only one who was baptized at Îlets-Jérémie. Now, on the other side, I know that her husband Peter McLeod was a clerk of that post in 1833. But she, along with two other Indian couples baptizing their children were all identified as Indians of that post.

Another reason I find her a compelling possibility is her age. Born about 1796, that would make her about 50 years old at the birth of Marie Madeleine’s last child of record, Marie Sylvie, born in 1846. Late age, but possible. It also means that she would be 53 at the time of her death in 1849, where she was identified as “about 60 years old.” Close enough. I also thought about the fact of her father being unbaptized—and whether that might make it more likely that she would partner with a Protestant man, quite a divide in those days between Catholic and Protestant, but perhaps not unlike the divide between Catholics and the non-baptized. Until the year of her death, when it was conducted in a Catholic ceremony, her marriage to Peter McLeod was not considered a “legitimate” marriage.

A more ambiguous reason I am drawn to her has to do with the network of relationships she seems to be embedded in. My Marie Madeleine named one of her sons, Simon, at Îlets-Jérémie. This would have been the name of her brother, but also another Simon. When her daughter Angèle was baptized in 1836, her godparents were listed as Simon and Angèle, who possibly match a couple named Simon Utshinitsiu and Angèle Neukapne. (No godparents were listed for Simon’s baptism.) This couple appears often in the records, and this Simon is the son of Jacques Tshiuteshish, (whom Monique married after the death of Marie Madeleine’s brother Jacques).

There were several instances of people being in the same place for ceremonies at the same time. Here is just one example. In 1812, on the day after the baptism of Jacques and Monique’s child Marie at Îlets-Jérémie, Simon and Angele’s child Charlotte Utshinitsiu is being baptized there.  It is hard to articulate those connections, but to see the names again and again, led to a feeling of interconnection between the families, that might have followed through into the baptisms of my Marie Madeleine’s children Simon and Angele.

The unfortunate thing about this Marie Madeleine is that there is little information about further ancestors. But with her there is a definite link to a place and a community. Might I be related to the place called Îlets-Jérémie/Jeremy Islets? In Innu, it is called Ishkuamishkᵘ, which one source said means “where you can find polar bears” but is also similar to the word for a female beaver ishkuemishkᵘ. Now, to further clarify, generally speaking the Innu went into the woods in fall, winter, and spring to hunt, and came to the posts only in summer, to trade and to connect with the priests who did the baptisms, marriages, burials, and such. And they didn’t necessarily just go to one post, while avoiding others, but they usually were found at ones that were close to each other. So there definitely seemed a connection to Îlets-Jérémie, over many years.

I feel a strange sort of sadness as I let go of further hunting. The records are so sparse, so much is unknown. And yet I have learned so much, I have a sense of the community that I had no awareness of before this search. All I had was her baptismal name, really, and the place where she lived the last few years of her life. And now I have this sense of visiting her world of 200 years ago, learning the places of the trading posts, which were first of all gathering places for Innu people before colonization. I glimpsed the multiple inter-relationships, I scanned hundreds of Innu names, I observed the seasons of gathering and then going into the forest, the births and the deaths. I could see that she was born into a world of mostly Innu people, and by the end of her life in 1849, the increasing number of settlers outnumbered the Innu. But in that world, one joy was she was able to bear many children, and to live to be in her 50s, which was old for that time. My imagination is now richly populated with all of these people I have glimpsed through the strange window of the scratchy French handwriting of the missionary priests.

I come back to the message I received in the middle of this journey. It was like all these women whispered in my ear, “We are all your relatives! As you search for us, and find our stories, we are pleased, and take you under our wings. We are all your relatives.” So I welcome them all now. And remember, “Even if you don’t know who your ancestors are, your ancestors know who you are.”