Ancestral Wisdom


Have I ever told you that I struggle with depression? It started in earnest when I was in junior high and has been an unwelcome companion pretty much my entire adult life. I’ve named my depression “Fang.” Sometimes Fang is asleep at the back of his dog kennel, sometimes just awake and looking around, but this weekend Fang was up, pacing and drooling.


I saw a post on Facebook that really, really hurt me. It wasn’t directed at me, and certainly wasn’t intended to be hurtful, but it sent me reeling and Fang was up. I tried to pray that God would take away the pain, but then I thought that if I didn’t have this pain I wouldn’t be who I am, and I wouldn’t have empathy. So maybe just put Fang back to sleep. Please, God?


An appointment with my therapist, a day with Parker, and time outside have all helped – a lot. Fang is dozing now. And there is a point to my telling you this.


I didn’t really have any ideas about what to write this week, because depressed people don't think very well. This morning I went in to do my devotions and, as usual, God has provided a topic for me.


I mentioned Sarah Bessey’s book, A Rhythm of Prayer, a few posts back. This morning I read in the book the prayer written by Rozella Haydée White, “Ancestral Wisdom, Present Guidance.” She writes about the times in her life when she really wanted guidance, and then she realized that she didn’t need guidance to make a decision; she needed guidance to tap into the ancestral wisdom deep in her soul and body. She had tried the guidance the world offered and found it not relevant to who she is: “I came to understand that the guidance I was seeking was one that tapped into the spirits of my ancestors: guidance that flowed from the women who came before me.”


Beautiful.


My white tradition doesn’t tap into ancestral wisdom or strength the way I understand other traditions do. Of course I remember my parents and grandparents. I don’t know a whole lot about generations before my grandparents. So this morning, after I read the prayer, I stopped and thought about what wisdom I could glean from what I do know.


Turns out, there is a lot.


My grandfather was born in San Francisco six weeks before the earthquake of 1906. Family lore has it that his parents lived in a tent with him after the earthquake. My great grandmother lived through the earthquake, the Spanish Flu pandemic, both world wars, and the Great Depression.

Her son, my grandfather, served overseas during World War II. He had a brother and I don’t know what role Fred played during the war. She lived through a lot.


My grandmother was born in Mississippi. Her father was a doctor, and he died of pneumonia when he was in his early thirties. After she was widowed, my great-grandmother Del, who I vaguely remember as an old lady in a nursing home who offered us some kind of horrible candy, picked up her mother and her four little girls and moved them across the country. In San Francisco Del supported her girls by running a boarding house (some suspect it may have been more than a boarding house, but that skeleton will have to remain buried because I have no way of knowing). She also would have lived through the Spanish Flu pandemic, both World Wars, and the Great Depression.


Gramma was very affected by the Depression, and was very frugal for her entire life. She moved her two children across the country when World War II broke out and Papa was assigned to the Pentagon. She was far away from her mother and sisters when he was sent to North Africa. My father was in eighth grade when his dad returned home. Ultimately the family returned to San Francisco and that is where all of my memories of them are.





On my mother’s side, I know that my Nana’s parents (or grandparents?) immigrated from Ireland. Someone founded Black’s Department Store in Iowa, so Nana grew up in comfort and wealth. Her father died of the Spanish Flu, and during World War II my grandfather, Harold, was a doctor in the Navy. She also moved her four children around so they could be with their father. When Mom was 16, Harold died of an allergic reaction to the rabies vaccine.


So I have women in my history who stiffened their spines, loved their men and children, and kept on going.


The woman I know most about is Del’s mother, Annie. I mentioned in a previous post that my great great great great (? I lose track of the greats) grandfather, Charles Clark, was the largest slaveholder in Mississippi. He was a general for the Confederacy and the governor of the Independent State of Mississippi after it seceded from the US and before it joined the Confederacy. Annie grew up a child of privilege, surrounded by slaves.


She wrote her memories of the Civil War in a book titled The Master of Doro Plantation. My grandmother, Annie’s granddaughter, typed it out and made sure every member of the family received a copy. She writes a typical antebellum story about how well treated and beloved the slaves on Doro Plantation were. Supposedly after she was married her husband gambled away all the wealth she brought to her marriage.


Del was her daughter, and she accompanied Del and her four daughters on their journey to San Francisco.


My grandmother's engagement picture is in the room where I read my Bible and pray every morning. This morning I looked at that picture and thought about her. She was a glass half-full kind of woman. I never saw her cry – she didn’t see the point. If something was unpleasant or painful, she ignored it. Her rose-colored glasses were clown-sized.


Each of these women suffered some combination of grief, tragedy, abuse, and disaster, and each had to make a way for herself and her children. Each did, because each was strong, steely, intelligent, and resilient. Each, in the words of Brené Brown, had a strong back, soft front, and wild heart.


I wonder. Living when they did, how able were they to look at pain, anguish, fear, oppression and injustice? I no longer believe that the slaves of Doro Plantation were well-treated and loved. Could Annie have used her voice to defy the system she lived in, or was it a matter of survival for her, and the women who came before her, to turn away from what was ugly and brutal? There was enough brutality in their lives, I suspect, and maybe in order to keep going they had to look away.



The faith of our fathers taught them that they were really only valued for their reproductive systems. Charles Clark surely visited some of the slave cabins at night. What did that mean to Annie’s mother? She bore the legitimate children, but once her body had too many scars, and as she aged, were there other, younger women to take her place? What did she have to look away from just to stay alive? I am not saying that these women didn't contribute to horrific abuse - I'd like to think not but I don't know. Certainly there are plenty of women in the pictures of lynchings.


How much did their determination to survive contribute to my depression? My father was depressed – he finally agreed to get help after my mother’s stroke, but I saw signs of it before then. He was bound and determined to “help” her see the good things in her life, which as someone with depression I know is not helpful. Thanks for adding guilt to everything else, Dad. He was never taught to confront or cope with emotional discomfort - partly because it wasn't "manly," and partly because his mother refused to acknowledge it. I also know that depression is a chemical imbalance – I think mine primarily comes from my mother’s father, who apparently had “black periods.” But how much is learned? Our first life coaches are our parents, and if they are depressed, traumatized or just getting by – well, there is lots of research out there about that. Adaptive behaviors can become maladaptive when they are no longer needed, but they are still taught to succeeding generations.


Could those maladaptive behaviors inherited from my ancestors contribute to my current depression?


I’m not making excuses, really. Ok, I sort-of am. But I am a product of my ancestral wisdom – however flawed it is – just like Rozella Haydée White. I can choose to look through dark glasses and wallow in my white guilt – because that comes with my white privilege. Or I can look through rose-colored glasses and refuse to see the systemic oppression, poverty, and pain in my world. I'd rather look through clear glasses.


I want to see through the awfulness to the strong, beautiful women that are my ancestors. The ones who kept their families together. Who put food on the tables to feed their kids. The ones who thought for themselves because they had to, and who passed that strength to me, so that I can now turn toward what they had to avoid, and to try to be part of the solution.


Their faith gave me my faith, and my faith is now saying it is time to reject the faith of my fathers, who taught us that women are less valuable, that men know best, that the "male ego" needs to be soothed and boosted at any cost, that people of darker skin colors are somehow less human, that power resides inside church buildings, and if you aren't inside those buildings you aren't with God, either.


I turn toward the faith of our mothers, who taught that God is with us and will see us through, no matter what.


But now I have several questions to ponder. First, how to I build upon and strengthen the qualities I admire in my ancestral women? How do I maintain their strong backs? Second, how do I diminish the traits I don't admire? I don't have much use for traits like a strict adherence to behavior standards for women and strict adherence to a class system that benefits only a few. The challenge there is that these standards are so deeply ingrained that I'm not sure I even recognize them, let alone know how to root them all out. Third, how do I teach my children and grandchildren to have strong backs, soft fronts, and wild hearts? How do I teach them to be good, loving people, in relationship with God, who recognize that they are just as good as the "popular" crowd and no better than the "losers." How do I teach them to help move society to a place where those high school labels no longer exist?


I know I've said this before, but I'm going to keep saying it: we have so much work to do. Maybe a good place to start is to imagine who our ideal self would be. Then imagine again and ask why we value those traits? Are they realistic? Do they really reflect the people God is calling us to be?


I'll start - my ideal self is selfless in the service of the church. Is that realistic? No - I have a family and a farm to run. Does it reflect who God is calling me to be? No, because I can't figure out where I fit in. So is selflessness a trait I really value? Sure, if I were Mother Teresa or Florence Nightingale, but I'm not, so no, selflessness is not a trait I value. Maybe the person I really want to be is someone who knows her strengths and weaknesses, accepts God's love, and follows where God - not the church, not ancestors, not the popular people - God leads me. God "gifted" me with depression - do I really have to write a thank you note for THAT? Depression has helped me to be more empathetic and that is a trait I value. God led me to writing, which gives me the opportunity to open the bloom of the rose that is me as I explore with you my thoughts and frustrations. This is part, now, of who I am. I pray that my writing might be meaningful to you, my readers, and I pray for you, that you will discover the wisdom of your ancestors and allow God to guide you into your good life.


I think I inherited the strong back and soft front. Some would say I got the wild heart, too.

I see the pain, anguish, fear, oppression and injustice around me. The obvious stuff, anyway. With God's help I will figure out how I am called to respond.



The photograph is of my dad's mother, Margaret. The smudge at the top is from my grandfather's nose when he kissed the photo goodnight when he was stationed overseas during World War II.

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