Love Unconditional

Myke and Lori, 1977, two of us standing close together, smiling. Lori is wearing a veil on taking her first vows as a Franciscan Sister.
Me and Lori, 1977, when she took her first vows as a Franciscan sister.

What does unconditional love mean? What does it gift to us in our lives? I first experienced unconditional love in my friendship with Lori Slawinski. I have been looking back on my life by going through old papers these last several weeks–my winter project. The other day, I reread dozens of letters from Lori from when we first knew each other. We met when I went to college in the fall of 1971. She was a sophomore at the time, and became the “big sister” I never had at home, my being the oldest child of so many. I haven’t found any photos from that time; this photo from 1977 is the earliest. Very quickly we became best friends, though there was a moment when she hesitated–she said she was afraid of corrupting my innocence. I can’t remember exactly what I said to her, but all I could see in her was her own bright goodness. I think each of us were surprised to be chosen and loved by the other.

Looking back from the perspective of being a lesbian, I wonder about our friendship. We were never sexual with each other, but our letters can only be described as love letters–mostly written on school vacations when we were apart from each other, missing each other, and expressing our affection with such deep passion. I had occasional crushes on boys during this time, but nothing could compare with the love I shared with Lori. Our love for each other was also expressed in the context of our passionate love for God. Lori and I were part of a small circle of friends who were trying to follow Jesus and figure out how to live the gospel in our times. All of it intermingled. From her I felt God as the unconditional lover, and from me she felt that too.

Unconditional love is a transforming energy, a grounding that helped me to believe in myself. Maybe because we weren’t trying to be “in a relationship,” we could grant each other the freedom to explore fully who we were, without expectations? Our maybe it was the spiritual rootedness that provided that freedom. We had a fantasy of continuing forever in our little community, but college is a temporary place. When she graduated, she left to join the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago. I didn’t follow her there, but tried another way, eventually discovering the Catholic Worker movement. Lori was very psychic, and I remember it took a lot to claim my own inner knowing, since she always seemed to know me so well. Separating was a challenge, after being so close. But we were able to let each other go, to try to work out our own destinies.

Our lives diverged significantly when I encountered feminism, and found myself leaving Catholicism, leaving Christianity, embarking on a new spiritual path. I imagine it must have been difficult for her, yet we stayed connected. I went to Chicago Theological Seminary in 1983, came out as a lesbian while there, and she came to my graduation in 1986. (It was years later, in 1999, that I was ordained a Unitarian Universalist minister, but that is another story.) Somehow, the love we had for each other never wavered. We kept in touch via occasional letters and long distance visits. Sadly, Lori died of cancer in July 2012; this second photo was from our final visit in May of that year.

I am so grateful that I was able to experience her unconditional love in my life. I have had other significant loves, and still do, but her love was the root. It enabled me to come alive, to feel joy, to trust the dreams I dreamed and the ideals that guided me. Despite our different paths, that unconditional love remained tangible. Perhaps that is why my image of the divine is rooted in a Larger Love, who loves all of us unconditionally.

Have you experienced such love in your lives? Please share your stories if you might be willing? Each story reminds me of the possibilities that surprise us when we least expect.

Myke & Lori, 2012

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How to find the magic?

Evergreen tree inside our house, decorated with lights and little ornaments, with wood stove to the right in a brick hearth.

Almost Winter Solstice here! We got our first snow the other day, just a few inches, but enough to brighten the ground. It is good. It seems the long cold nights are infiltrating my spirit, and I feel weary. As I get older, it is harder to rejoice in the season of winter–ice has tripped me up on prior walks, and bruised my bones. COVID has limited our ability to welcome guests into our home, and it is too frigid for visits in the garden. Last week, our heat pumps suddenly stopped working, and we turned to our back-up boiler, but it seemed a little clanky from disuse, so we fired up our wood stove. That sounds cozy, but I find the wood smoke gives me headaches. (Thankfully, the heat pumps were repaired in two days.)

I feel old and cranky and tired with this season. It is ironic that pagan myths often assign this season to an old woman. I wonder if the winter crone is cranky? I am wrestling with how to find the magic of this cold dark season.

I didn’t really feel like getting a holiday tree. But Margy did, so we got this tree from our local food coop. I don’t feel guilty for it being cut, because it was grown for this purpose on an organic tree farm. Seeing how many seedlings try to grow into a new forest in our yard, I know that there can be an abundance of seedlings that naturally never grow up–so this one got to grow to eight feet and then be celebrated. I find myself surprised by how good it feels to have this little tree with us in the house, like a connection to the natural world during a time when that connection is harder to feel. I feel grateful to Margy for pulling us into its sweet magic.

That is my question. How to find the magic of this cold dark season? Can I quiet my mind, rather than merely entertaining it with stories in books or on screen? (though this has often been a season of stories) Can I open my heart, even if I am far away from most friends and family and other loved ones? (reaching out with letters and cards?) Can I embrace the sorrows and fears of age, of my age, my sorrows and fears, and give them a home in this moment? (hospitality has many forms) Can I embrace the silence? Let myself sink into it, floating down like a snowflake, bury myself in the silence like the plants are buried in snow? Silent night.

Letting Go

Flag iris leaves in the pond changing color, and reflected

The many-colored transformations of autumn plants remind me of the beauty in the spiritual practice of letting go. As the leaves let go of their green chlorophyl, so their deep colors are revealed. When I feel encumbered by heavy memories, mistakes, failures. When I feel regret for things undone, unsung, I pray in this way. I take all the feelings and memories and release them into the loving hands of Spirit. Ego desires for acknowledgement, success. I let go. Ego wounds from rejections, betrayals. I let go. Loneliness, weariness, I let go.

Spirit, here I am, all imperfect, yet gifted, all hungering for justice, yet broken with this land and country. I sit alone, yet I feel your presence, and I turn to you, again and again. I let go. I am small, but I am surrounded by and filled with your Love. There is a time for action, and there is also a time for surrender. I surrender to the River flowing. In this surrender there is trust and peace.

Someday, I will let go into the mystery of eternity, the mystery that is death. Each night, I let go into the mystery that is sleep. Each morning, I let go of what is not mine for this day, and I open to what blessings and what actions are here for me to take up. I am too small to try to carry the world. And yet, in this surrender, I am at one with all of the beings who surround me, people, animals, plants, spirits. We are all flowing in the River of Love.

Peach Abundance

Peaches are ripening, bright red and yellow, crowded together on the branches.

Those of you who perhaps followed my peach tree saga last year might remember that after hours and hours of tending–including several organic sprays, thinning the small green peaches, putting little mesh bags on the remaining ones–the squirrels ran off with every single green peach, or knocked them off the branches as they tried to get into the bags. We got zero peaches to eat.

Well this year, I didn’t have the heart or energy to do all that tending. I did one holistic spray early in the season. I felt very non-attached to any outcome, since one might assume that squirrels would eat them all again. But that didn’t happen. A few weeks ago, I started picking a few small random peaches, so that others would have more room to grow, and the branches wouldn’t break under their weight–but only a few at a time, not systemically. I put them in paper bags, which is the actual way to help them ripen. (Not on window sills as I had previously thought.) A few weeks ago, the squirrels started eating some peaches too, sitting in the tree, or taking ones with broken spots that I left on the patio table. I found their leavings on the deck railing. It was fun.

Broken peach bits on the deck railing.

But they didn’t take all the peaches. And the peaches started to really ripen. Now they are bright red and yellow, crowded though they are on the branches. Now, we are processing all the bags of ripening peaches in the house, as well as gathering peaches literally dropping from the tree. I have cut them in slices to freeze–first on a tray, and then put into freezer bags. Yesterday I made a gluten free peach cobbler. We have invited friends and neighbors over to share in the abundance. More people are coming by this weekend. This morning, I saw this little bird pecking for its delicious breakfast. There is plenty to share!

Bird eating a peach on the tree.

I feel grateful and humbled by this turn of events. Sometimes gardening feels like a battle between the gardener and the “pests.” I didn’t have the heart to try too hard to fight this battle this season. (And our cucumbers and zucchinis are succumbing to bugs-so it goes.) I was surprised that the peaches thrived so well without my efforts. I was surprised that the squirrels took some, and it seems they felt okay about sharing. Maybe they sensed that we were not enemies this time. Margy and I feel so good to be able to give them away to others. The garden is such a great mystery! I continue to feel humble and grateful by all it teaches us.

Oh, and here is the recipe for gluten-free peach cobbler. I searched the internet, and then adapted this one from several I had seen:

Peach Cobbler: preheat oven to 375 degrees

Slice peaches and place in a lightly buttered 9 x 13 pan. Basically use enough to cover the bottom well, or more if you like. Sprinkle with cinnamon, and a tiny bit of ground cloves.

Whisk together 1 & 3/4 cup almond flour, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 2 teaspoons baking powder. Blend together 1 large egg, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1 tablespoon honey, 1/4 cup Greek whole milk yogurt, and 2 tablespoons softened butter. Add that to the flour mixture and blend, and then spoon over the peaches–it won’t cover them completely, but spread it around as you can. Bake 25-30 minutes or until golden and bubbling. Remove and let cool a bit so you don’t burn your tongue. You can serve as is, or with cream, whipped cream, or ice cream.

Peach cobbler in a glass pan, with some pieces removed.

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).

Ocean Love

Photo: Kettle Cove: blue-green sea, white breaking waves, rocks near me, island trees at the back

February in Maine, and it is 60 degree weather today. It isn’t really supposed to be like this. We went to Kettle Cove, where dozens of people were out at the beach. A few even went into the water in their swim suits–but not us. Margy was inspired to collect some seaweed for the garden. I decided to sit on a lovely rock, and take photos of the waves and rocks.

Margy holding seaweed at the beach.
Rocks to sit on, with tide pool.

It was so restorative–wind, sun, rocks, water–all the elements. And the sound of the waves calming the spirit like a deeper kind of silence.

I was thinking about climate change and how the weather has become so chaotic. Tomorrow we’re back in the freezing zone, between the teens and twenties, and Friday a snowstorm is on the way. But the message I felt from the sea was not about worry. It was to love the earth just as she is in this moment, to love the weather as it comes–not to always think on how it is supposed to be different, but to embrace the changes as they emerge, to embrace every amazing aspect of this beautiful planet.

I don’t fully understand this message, the activist that I am. So often I grieve for what is happening to the earth because of the greed and destruction of some human beings, all of us trapped in this pattern. And I still grieve. But the other side of that grief is this love.

The message was that we must never cease to love the earth in all of her mysterious flowerings, her beauty everywhere, even when we cannot perceive it. So what a joy when we can feel that beauty all around us. It was that kind of day, that kind of visit to the ocean.

Myke & Margy smiling, with rocks behind us, and the ocean reflected in Margy’s sunglasses.

Climate Catastrophe in Disguise

Wild pansy purple and yellow, blooming in December

A climate catastrophe sometimes shows up as the fragile beauty of a wild pansy blooming in mid-December in Maine. I took a photo this morning, before the snow arrived this afternoon, our likely first plowable snow of the season. Very late for us. The unseasonably warm days feel bright and pleasant, nothing dangerous. But I am thinking of the deadly storms that blasted through the midwest last week, tornadoes killing dozens of people in an unprecedented long trail of destruction. I am thinking of giant raging wildfires in the west, and monster hurricanes in the Atlantic. Sometimes the change feels like nothing much at all, unless I stretch my eyes to take in the bigger picture.

We arrived at our current house and yard six years ago after a 4 month search to find greener housing. We were able to downsize, to add insulation, to cover the south facing roof with solar panels, to install energy efficient heat pumps, to create a garden. Our actions fit the best choices we could make at that time, to align with our love for the earth and all her creatures. In that, they were like a prayer, like a magical spell to further the possibilities of earth community based in mutual respect. On a spiritual level, I have to hope that our small choices can ripple out for good.

But these individual actions don’t make a dent in the greater physical scheme of things. The giant polluters of greenhouse gases continue to ignore the limits of earth to push for expanding profits. We, as a planet, have already exceeded the hopeful atmospheric carbon dioxide goals of environmental organizations like 350.org. Now we’re at 415 parts per million. We’re on the way to unmitigated disasters that we can no longer walk our way back from. Scientists can make some predictions, but no one really knows how the increase in global temperature will play out in the next years and decades.

From where I sit, I can feel overwhelmed and helpless. I don’t have the energy to be out in the streets anymore, an activist like in my younger days. I don’t have the money to donate to activist organizations like I used to when I was working. Many activists I respect talk about the coming collapse of economies and civilizations, even within the next decade. I don’t imagine that I have the physical capacity to survive such a collapse, given my age and health. So what is there to do?

What helps is to recognize my limitations, to take in the very smallness of my being. What helps is to see young activists in the street, sharing their anger and love with loud voices. What helps is to remember that Indigenous people the world over have already experienced the collapse of their economies and civilizations. Pay attention to their advice. What helps is to recognize the smallness of my being, and yet remember how I am interwoven with the ancestors and all the interrelated beings of earth. What helps is to keep on loving the trees and birds and frogs and even the squirrels of this small place we are lucky to share with them. What helps is to offer bird seed as a prayer in the morning. What helps is to imagine the unimaginable largeness of the Earth, our mother, and her mysterious powers that we cannot measure or predict.

Our pond, frozen, with light snow cover.

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.”

All Hallow’s Eve/Samhain

Fresh cedar sprigs under a pair of cardinals welcome sign on our white front door.

Today we welcome the ancestors with special foods, with herbal incense, and with a fire in our fire circle! For herbal incense I use cedar–I’ll use a dried bundle I made before, and burn it in our fire circle. Cedar was widely used by my Innu ancestors, and so I think their spirits will especially appreciate it. We also have a cedar tree right on the edge of our own yard, so I ask the cedar tree for permission to cut some sprigs to make more cedar bundles, and also to put cedar on our front and back doors for protection from harm, and welcome to benevolent spirits.

The special food I made is bannock, a traditional Innu bread, called ińnu-pakueshikan, which they adapted from the Scottish. Since I can’t eat wheat bread, I used 1/2 oatmeal flour (which is actually what the Scottish used) and 1/2 almond flour. Here is my recipe, adapted from several I found online. It is a very simple bread with many variations. Mix all ingredients together.

  • 1 1/2 cup oat flour (made in a blender from GF rolled oats)
  • 1 1/2 cup almond flour
  • 1 Tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 tablespoon salt
  • 1 1/3 cup water (this might have been more than I needed)
  • 1 cup frozen blueberries.

I put it in a greased skillet, and let it bake in a 375 degree oven for 55 minutes. After about 40 minutes, I cut it in four, and turned the sections over in the pan. A small dish is all set to go outside for the spirits, for when we have our fire. It is crusty on the outside, and a bit mushy on the inside. Tasty with butter.

Blueberry bannock in cast iron pan, cut.

I have been continuing my search for my Innu ancestor Marie Madeleine’s family. Lately this has been by hunting for as many details as I can about Marie Madeleine Katshisheskueit, which means “hard-working-woman”, who was born 11/11/1795, and baptised in Portneuf 6/28/1796. I was finally able to see an actual image of her baptism record, and discovered her actual parents, Jean-Pierre Utshinitsiu (Utshinishkushu=whirlpool?) and Veronique Kaskanieshtshist. (Kashkanatshish=rock ptarmigan) (The earlier source had directed me to another set of parents entirely.) So I began hunting for the rest of their family and found a few more generations, and many cousins.

This was a relief to me because I also discovered that Marie Madeleine Katshisheskueit’s mother died in 1797, when she was only two years old. I was filled with grief for this toddler, and wondered how she would be able to survive such a loss. Then I remembered that my Passamaquoddy teacher Roger Paul said that the whole community always cared for all the children. They didn’t divide into small nuclear families, but rather in extended families. I saw that her godmother, Marie Madeleine Iskuamiskuskueu, was the cousin of her father (and also the mother of another Marie Madeleine that is not my ancestor). So she was likely taken care of and loved by all these relatives.

I haven’t been able to find other records of her life after 1800, so far, which means there is nothing to rule her out. It might mean that she disappeared somewhere, or it might possibly mean that she is my own ancestor, showing up in 1830 without any surname or Innu name that would clarify her identity to me. The hunt continues, only now I am looking at her family members, to get a picture of their relatedness.

Finally, another update: I had been wondering what to do about the frogs in the pond, as winter approaches. Well, it turns out they are doing it for themselves. The last time we saw frogs in the pond was a week ago, and just two small ones remaining. We don’t know where they went, but they must know how to take care of themselves, perhaps find some mud to bury in, or someplace protected for the winter. Our pond is probably too shallow, with too little mud for that purpose, I assume. So the pond is getting colder, and the frogs are gone. Hopefully, we’ll see them again in the spring.

May the blessings of this season be with you, may your ancestors bring you blessings when you open your heart to them, and may we survive the coming cold with grace and peace! Blessed Samhain! Now I’m going outside to the fire circle.

Two small frogs on a rock near iris stalks, with fallen leaves in the water.

A Kettle of Hawks

Over 20 hawks high in a cloudy sky.

I was outside lying in the hammock two days ago, when I saw a hawk flying overhead, and then more and more hawks, higher and higher. I understand that a group of hawks is called a kettle of hawks, and only occurs during migration. It was amazing to see! A reminder that the seasons are changing. I am writing this outside today on a sunny day, but wearing my winter jacket.

I think I may have found an important clue in my search for the roots of my third great-grandmother Marie Madeleine. In the record for the baptism of her son Simon, in 1833, in Jeremy Islets, she is identified as “sauvage du dit poste,” which means, translating the racist imagery, “Indian of said post.” And just above that record, Jeremy Islets is the post in question. I just want to say that it took a lot of close handwriting inspection to pull out those four words, but I am fairly confident in them now. And so it seemed to me it might be identifying her place of origin. (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.)

To further clarify, generally speaking the Innu went into the woods in fall, winter, and spring to hunt, and came to the posts to trade and to connect with the priests who did the baptisms, marriages, burials, and such. And they didn’t just go to one post, while necessarily avoiding others. But following the clue, of the several Marie Madeleines in my list of possibilities, one was connected to Jeremy Islets, in the right time frame. She was identified in her baptismal record as Marie Madeleine Napeteiashu, baptised June 26, 1803, when she was about 7 years old, they said, which would put her birth about 1796. Napeteiashu was actually said to be her father’s name, with no Christian name attached, and her mother was identified as Catherine Mitisku.

After searching through hundreds of other records, I found a Catherine Mistiku, born in 1773, and baptized in 1786 in Jeremy Islets. She was married to Stanislaus Mishtanapeu, baptized in 1778 in Jeremy Islets. In other records, they are identified as Catherine Mistigu or Mitigu, or Stanislas Tshiuapan (actually the name of his son Paul). I think this is likely the same couple, though in this process, one can’t be positive. I found baptism and marriage records for sons Simon (b 1794, bap 1796) and Paul (b 1798), but no other links for Marie-Madeleine. (And why would Paul be baptized in 1798, but not Marie Madeleine until 1803?) In the marriage record for Paul, in 1817, Catherine is said to be deceased.

Along with the genealogy hunt, I have also been exploring the possible meanings of their Innu names. Mistiku (likely now spelled Mishtiku) can mean, a tree (animate), or a log (inanimate), or possibly a French Canadian or white person-(though Catherine would not be French, but someone might be called this perhaps because she was hanging around the French?) (I think the French were called this because of wearing wooden clogs.) Mishtanapeu means a remarkable man. Napeteiashu was harder to decipher–“nape” refers to a male, and if I stretch the spelling, it could mean a male fox–napeiatsheshu. Spelling was not a hard science in those days. I couldn’t find any other references to Napeteiashu. The one possibility was a marriage with no details attached of Catharina Matshiskueu to Nipituashu. No dates/places/or parents. Matshiskueu means “she is an ugly woman”. So you see, it’s all very mysterious and uncertain.

By the way, several of the names I was researching seemed to have “negative” connotations. I wondered if it was some kind of internalized oppression, or if maybe there was a function of the name to protect the child by acting as if it were not valuable in some way. There was a lot of oppression by the priests. For example, when an “illegitimate” child was baptized, often they did not even name either of the parents at all in the record. Some priests took more care than others. I think the earlier Jesuits learned the Innu language and taught people to read and write in their language. Later priests did not know the language at all.

But as for me, I was so excited to find this possibility. Maybe it was really her, with a place and parents! Then today, I was slowing down to remember that this process of search will continue, and I have to pace myself, to live with each possibility as it emerges. There are hundreds of pages of records, much of it not indexed, so I go through page by page looking for names–and with new names, that means all new searches. Still, I am amazed that these ancestors feel closer to me now, even if they are still like the hawks flying in the sky so far above me that I can’t see the individuals very well. Am I related to a tree, a fox, an ugly woman, a very remarkable man? Am I related to the place called Jeremy Islets? In Innu, Ishkuamishkᵘ, which is similar to the word for a female beaver ishkuemishkᵘ. And how does this all relate to my life as a white woman in Maine, in Wabanaki territory? Still, it does feel like one part of my own journey of finding our way home into the earth community.

A fox near the Capisic brook, surround by trees and other greenery. (This photo was taken in 2018)