Saturday, March 19, 2016

Blood of faith: a brief reclamation of narrative


I have no idea how to begin. Beginnings are an unlikely problem for me.

My heart is boiling. My blood attempting to flow in opposite directions. My red blood cells at war with my white blood cells. My DNA twisting to constrict itself, or individual genomes, out of existence.

Let me tell you about my blood.

For the last seven years, I’ve searched historical records to make sense of oral tradition. My father had an aged pair of infant moccasins, beaded yellow, blue, red, in the upper right hand of his chest of drawers when I was a girl. They were tucked amongst Army paraphernalia, purple hearts, dog tags, black and white photographs of himself and strangers, a bullet from some large rifle, a temple sash, and a bottle of his cheap cologne. I have always wonder to whom they belonged, for whom they were intended. My father told me that I was 1/64th Chippewa, through my great-granddad, my grandmother’s father, who had been abandoned as a child by his mother after his own father disappeared into the Yukon. The story varied as my father grew older and perhaps sicker from his brain injury. Great-great grandpa Adams—gold panner, grizzly tamer, mountain man—lost somewhere in the tundra. I was never certain why he left, never certain what had happened to his wife, my great-great grandmother; never sure where’d they’d come from or what their ties to indigent people might be. But seven years ago, after I finally laid to rest the grief of unmet expectation and went looking for my father’s grave, I knew I wanted to find answers.

One of my favorite poetry professors once told the class I was in that if we hadn’t figured out who we were by thirty, we’d spend a fortune in therapy bills over the remainder of our lives trying to reckon our identity. I prefer to spend my resources writing to discover that identity instead.

Whenever I asked my mother about my native roots, or my origins in general, I was met with the same dismissive response. To her nothing mattered but that I was descended from Mormon pioneers. She had plenty of stories from the trek West to veer me off course from my indigenous exploration. I think to her, Mormonism was our genesis. Never mind that her great-great grandfather, the apostle for whom she held much pride, was a slaveowner, or that the presence of his slaves in the Salt Lake Valley influenced the Utah territory in the tradition of slavery before its abolition. Never mind that he’d left his first wife in Salt Lake for years and years with his younger, fertile wives while he established settlement in the Bear Lake valley and San Bernadino. My mother paid no heed to the sadness and resignation in journal entries written by his wife, her great-great grandmother. That we had family on the forefront of the restoration seemed all that mattered. That we sprung to life suddenly as some kind of righteous anomaly in the midst of so much oppression and misguided apostacy. If not tale of the Mormon pioneers, she regaled me with stories of ancestors who’d crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower. The puritanical elements of that legacy certainly remained in force during my childhood. A whitewashing. 

Outside of my search for connection with my heritage, the loneliness and isolation of my childhood created great need that I learned to fill by bending truths in half. These elicited attention, both positive and negative, that otherwise I lacked entirely. In that vein, I told fibs to support my curiosity of Native American history. In the third grade, I told my mother I'd been given an assignment to write a report on the Bear River Massacre so that she would drive me to the monument erected some ten miles from our home on the lip of Northern Utah. I stood with a notebook and carefully copied the information on the plaque, then went home and wrote a summary in my own words that I delivered to my teacher, Mr. Spendlove, just so as to cover my tracks if my mother went asking after the assignment. In the fourth grade, as part of a legitimate assignment I wrote the first poem I ever penned about the displacement of native peoples by white settlers. Unfortunately, my mother didn't keep a copy. But my teacher, Mrs. Wick, was impressed enough by my insightspredation of wildlife by trappers and destruction of forests by European immigrants in exchange for native way of life—that she pushed me in a poetic direction. And then, in the fifth and sixth grade, as my father grew more irrational, more violent and unpredictable, more irascible, I turned away from him. My mother failed to protect me. Teachers failed to protect me. I filled notebook after notebook with my own resigned entries. I adopted the whitewashing and lent myself to a story of personal broken-ness to assuage my mother’s need for 90 degree angles, exactness, and honor. It earned me what little concern she seemed able to exert as a mother. By the seventh grade my father’s physical ailments and my mother’s rigidity reached a climax. The end of my eighth grade year, my mother accused my father of sexual abuse of my adopted sister. She also insisted that my broken-ness seemed to stem from like causal relationship, and she pushed the idea like she had so many drugs to “fix” my perceived problems. The story provided her needed out. It gave her ease of conscience to keep me and my younger adopted siblings from seeing him for five years.

In the last several years I’ve fought for reclamation of my story, this is what I’ve surmised. We allow our histories to be written for the benefit of others, in exchange for simple comfort, for basic human need. Take, for instance, how my father loved watching television reruns of cowboys and indians, and shoot-em-out Westerns. He sang over and over the Shel Silverstein lyrics to Cash’s Boy Named Sue. In one of his last letters to me, perhaps a year before his death, he referenced my great-great grandfather, Grizzly Adams, and I shook my head that he was so deluded.

My father didn’t molest me. He may have struck me over the head with a telephone receiver in full view of my mother, swung his belt into my back for stuffing socks into my shirt before I had breasts, knocked me into the granite ledge of our hearth for turning off a movie too soon, backhanded me for responding to a “yes” or “no” question in the negative, he may have attempted in his staggering gait to chase after me in the attempt to “give me a licking” more times than I can count, he may have restrained me and taunted me, held me down with my mother’s help to beat me until I collapsed in pain and exhaustion for missing the bus or not making it home in time for dinner. But my father was not sexually abusive toward me. 

My adopted sister will have to figure out for herself what her narrative will be.

When my father died in 1994, I was living with my mother and step-father. They arranged a private viewing, but refused to allow me to attend the funeral. I held to my mother’s story—a lie—for two decades. Allowed myself to be clouded over by the broken-ness of my own assumed narrative. It caused distress. Distress is often a manifestation of deeper ills.

Cognitive dissonance is the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change. It’s the general geography of my life right now. I grew up entrenched in the dogma of perfection. The years have eased me into an acceptance of grace at about the same rate that I began rooting through the inconsistencies that pattern the history of my faith. We are told the glory of God is intelligence, but my grandpa, my mother’s father, a man I love dearly, told me on a recent visit that he worries about “you educated kids.” I’ve bounced in and out of the LDS faith three times now. Two periods of agnostic inactivity, one extended period of excommunication. Each time I come back it is with new, clarified vision and perspective. On the evening of my excommunication one of the members of my bishopric warned me that I should be careful what I read over the next year before I could be baptized. I waited four years because what I read was Church history from well-documented, official sources. And when I was ready to come back, my faith was no longer rooted in the rigid dogmatism of my upbringing. My faith looked much more like secular humanism hung on my need for atonement and the compassion and love of a Savior to make up for my broken childhood. I need connection to an eternal wellspring of love and nurturing. My bucket of self-love is ever dry.

I want to believe in God, even though sometimes when I go looking in all the “right” places I can't find Him/Her. Sometimes the evidence to the contrary is so painfully vivid and clear that my distress is keen. Sometimes, I think faith looks a little foolish, even to me. But I still find myself on my knees, like today, on the bathroom floor, pleading to feel that I am not alone and that my narrative is not so broken that my sense of universal place is like so many unstable details that clutter the past.

This past week, after seven years of searching, I found my great granddad’s connection to the indigenous people of North America. We are not Chippewa. Although I still have unanswered questions about why or how a white woman could marry a misplaced Algonquian man in the late 19th century. Those missing pieces may answer why my great-great grandfather left his wife and children in the first place. But because I was able to trace his line back through his mother, an “Indian” house servant identifying as Six Nation, my Algonquin family has come sidling up to me. Some recorded on long generational sheets of Christianized Pequots, Montauks, Nyantic, Quinnipiak, and Narragansett from Connecticut; others waiting to be added into the record from “Samson Occom and the Christian Indians of New England,” and “Family History of the Brothertown Indians.” I have dates, locations, names, all carefully taken down back to 1504. A direct line leaders and sages amongst the Algonquian people, displaced from their native lands by Puritan settlers. They were pushed north, into Onieda County, NY, then west into Wisconsin and Michigan, where my great-great grandfather was born on the Saginaw Chippewa reservation to a young servant woman, Almira Adams, who was likely raped by her white employer. (I have no information for his father, but if I am 1/64, my great-great grandfather John C. H. Adams was half-blood.)

Last night I took the name of my fifth great-aunt, Grace Crosley, to be endowed at the Provo Temple. Grace is sister to my fifth great-grandmother Elizabeth Crosley, daughter of George Pharaoh Crosley and Lornhamah, members of the Pequot tribea name Puritans did their best to blot from history. And in standing for her, I stand for those tried to eradicate her people. They all stand together, searching for reconciliation in my dissonant heart, hoping to be cleansed of the blood and sins of this and all generations. In all my searching for God, sometimes the closest I get is those moments I stand at the veil and knock. These moments I am given completely to remembrance of lost narrative that lives in small portion in my veins. I stand transfixed, wearing white slippers like moccasins. I reach forward and recall what has come before me. I am etched into the unbroken code of time that runs forward and back, like a river, through all the indelible generations. And this is enough for me, today, to call my stream of faith.

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