Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Christmas Meditation

The Christmas season has an amazing store of joy that it can, and often does, shower on the head of the unsuspecting. A little hand gripping your hand to tug you toward a glittering Christmas tree. A few flurries in a strangely warm winter. Hugs from kindergarteners happy that you're playing them a song for their school party. Sweet cookies around the table with friends.

Holiday shoppers (Daniel Acker, Bloomberg)
And then, meanwhile, there is the misery of shopping. The unfathomable crowds inside and lines of cars outside. The disgruntled faces at every turn. The look of frustration that I know mirrors my own as I apply strange quantities of pressure on myself to find "the perfect gift."

It occurs to me that there's an inverse relationship between these two things. That the more I get caught up in the shopping, buying, surprising, driving, competing ... the less I glimpse the simple, clear joys of the season.

Those joys are childlike things. To see the season from the eyes of an innocent wonder: that's the secret, I think. And heaping piles of stuff somehow deadens that wonder.

It's not all that different from life, is it?

So here's to keeping an eye out for the joy, friends.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Remembering my ancestors

Bath time for (baby) grandma
Bath time for (baby) grandma
The old religions had something right, I think. Keeping in mind the people who formed you, from their own bodies, even after they've gone to rest in the earth.

Today, lacking a ritual that satisfies that need without offending my own religious scruples, I have found that tracking my ancestors' movements brings to life something of who I am.

And that, in some ways, must have been what ancestor worship was all about: a way to know your place in the world. After all, social groupings seem so arbitrary. Circumstances of birth, property inheritance, marriageable persons within a reasonable distance from home ... these all seem incredibly--really incredibly--arbitrary. We have no control over any of them, and, what's worse, they seem so strangely random. Like the personalities of your siblings. How can one find meaning in any of this?

But the story of the dead; of where they went and what they did; of their wars and their courage; of their breaking new ground and migrating across continents--these are somehow meaningful to me. I watch my ancestors, as it were, cross oceans, found villages, set up churches, marry and move. And now and again, someone stands out as almost heroic in the herd: a man or woman who does something really noteworthy, whether for good or ill. And I begin to understand: maybe I really am connected with the world around me. Maybe I really do belong where I am. Maybe there is meaning in the circumstances of my birth, my wiry frame and personal traits, my siblings and the gifts I have inherited.

So yes, in a way, genealogical research is like ancestor worship, in the sense that it fills the same void. It gives honor to those who have died, without covering over their blemishes, except in the way that such things become lost to later generations. It honors how they have shaped me. That I am not alone. I am like others around me; and also, in some way, these others have left a trace of themselves in me.


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