Monday, June 8, 2020

Our Family Stories

Around 30 years ago, I decided to take up the adventure of tracing my family history. As others have found, this exercise can be a far-reaching, ever-expanding, near-consuming endeavor; a descent into a series of black holes and dead-end brick walls as one continually opens new doors of never-ending inquiry. But it is also one of the highly rewarding things we can do in our lifetime, to see ourselves placed within the context of many others.

There are three levels of discovery that come from family research. The first level is the basic facts of one’s family: names, birth and death dates, places; the vertical and horizontal relationships and entanglements among each other. The second level is learning their individual stories: how they lived, what transpired, what journeys they traveled. The third level is placing the experiences of their lives within the larger historical context occurring around them, sweeping them up, molding and guiding their lives beyond what may have been their choice.

Currently, over 1200 unique names make up my genealogical family of the last 400 hundred years, with varying levels of detail known about their lives. As I occasionally reflect on their lives and times in relation to my life and time, several themes arise.

To my knowledge, not one member of my genealogical family was ever lynched in a vigilante hanging, or burned alive tied to a tree while an “audience” applauded. Not one person was ever the property of another, committed to a lifetime of unpaid service with no say in the matter. Since the founding of America, not one man – and since 1920 not one woman – has been openly denied the right to vote or run for office based on their skin color, country of origin, educational level or wealth. Since the late 1800s, all were entitled to a basic and equal education paid for at public expense. All of the men could choose to serve their country in the military and advance through rank based upon their service and abilities; my great-great-great-grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War to create a united America; my great-great-grandfather fought in the Confederate Army to try to break the country into two parts; both of their stories are a part of me. Some of my genealogical family were discriminated against in their jobs/careers due to their national origin, but over time they gradually broke through those barriers. My genealogical family was free to travel the country, settle where they chose, live in any section of town they could afford. When they encountered law enforcement officials or the judicial court system, they intuitively presumed they would be treated fairly and respectfully, with equal process as given to all others; generally their intuition was not disappointed. My father never felt the need to give me special instructions on how to act if I was stopped by the police. These are some of my family stories, experiences and cultural heritage. They are most certainly not everyone’s stories.

As I moved into adulthood, the life expectations I took for granted were not necessarily the expectations others could take for granted. Doors of opportunity were opened for me all my life if I demonstrated competency; others had doors slammed shut even before getting the chance to show their skills and talents. The three pillars of access, education, and resources helped me “get ahead” in the world; the absence of these have been barriers to a better life for many. I left my hometown and its high school with generally good memories, and the confidence that I was well-prepared to take on whatever life adventure I would choose. I am doubtful that my contemporaneous Black graduates at the segregated Lincoln High School – which sat next to their limited and restricted housing enclave across town – had comparable memories, or felt the same preparation and opportunities for their dreams of their upcoming life.

Family histories are more than just names and dates. They are the times families lived in and were affected by. They are stories long told, of good times and bad times and sometimes horrific times, handed down and reinforced over generations and centuries, even if now in just fragments of memories. Stories that continue to permeate the thinking, expectations, and instinctive reactions of persons today. Too often we judge others based upon our own life experiences, which likely bear little resemblance to the experiences of others – experiences we know little or nothing about. We all live in a bubble of our own family experience, and our bubbles are not the same. Yet when we take the time to puncture these bubbles, we can find a common core that can be shared.

We know so little, have such a superficial knowledge, of each other. Yet it only requires some time and sincere effort on our part to really listen to one another. To hear the Family Stories that have shaped who we are. To assume someone has lived a different life than ours, and thereby has naturally arrived at different conclusions. To break out of our insulating, protective bubble. It is only through such listening that we can find the unity of our humanity. Why do we make acceptance of each other, respect for each other, friendship with each other, so hard?

©   2020   Randy Bell   

Monday, March 30, 2020

An Afternoon Walk

I just got home from a short walk in my neighborhood on this last Saturday in March 2020. Such a walk has not generally been a part of my daily routine. But with Covid-19 keeping everyone home, and my regular gym at the nearby YMCA closed due to the shutdown, it seems like a reasonable temporary substitute for daily exercise. It is not a long walk due to my physical limitations. But it provides a challenge to be accomplished, a beneficial movement of the body, and makes the chocolate chip cookie reward at the end even more satisfying.

On this particular day, we are experiencing a summer day preview: sunny, in the mid-80s, expected to last for a couple of days more. Then it will be back into the normal mid-50s/60s mountain temperatures, with more rain. It was a very mild winter, but I am still glad to have that season behind us.

We are preparing for a statewide “stay at home” order on Monday 5pm, though we are already in a county/city version of the same. During this walk I was struck by the abnormal silence of the city. Minimal traffic on the roads, a few people out for a walk or jog, keeping a safe distance as they pass one another. Meanwhile, the sights and sounds of the birds are more than happy to fill the air space. The garden plants are gradually peeking out to fill the eye space, perhaps dwarfed by the cascade of colors from the rainbow of fruit trees that make their appearance at this time. There is much to see and hear that is normally missed in our hurried busyness. Humanity thrashes around in its self-made chaos; Nature follows its own timeline and routines relatively undisturbed.

In the quiet of that stroll, there is time and space to think. To listen to my thoughts – thoughts different than those that arise during a formal mediation sit on the cushion. The pandemic virus seeks to consume much of our thinking time and energy. I feel the unavoidable concern about my own well-being, yet offset by a calm that says “do only what you can do when you can” – deal with what comes as it comes. Planning is good, but too many “what ifs” are not helpful.

I am aware of feeling intense anger at the erratic conduct of our President, his pettiness and complete avoidance of taking responsibility for anything. His untrue information. His lack of a cogent and coordinated plan. His ineffectiveness in directing badly needed resources and support to where it is needed most. But then that anger is replaced by a calmness and pride when I consider all the people stepping up – either in their official capacity or simply ad hoc, voluntary  responses. Governors, mayors, county/city officials, health care providers, CDC scientists speaking truth. Public service employees keeping our infrastructure running. Law enforcement officials, and numerous first responders. Meanwhile, the overriding priority is to remember the anonymous sick, the faceless statistics often known only to their family and loved ones, lying alone in their bed, in pain and trying to stay alive, accompanied only by the medical workers trying to keep them alive in the face of too many falsely-raised hopes and broken promises. The lament continues unendingly: where are the test kits, the masks, the ventilators?

We also need to acknowledge the everyday citizens responding to what is being asked of them. Voluntarily cooperating in what is a massive upheaval to their lives – emotionally, economically, professionally, socially, and daily family life. Most are improvising, making it up as they go into a future filled with blind spots. Doing what needs to be done, adapting on the fly, all because they care. Care about each other. Care about their connection to others. And thereby, their responsibilities to each other. Individually and together, they make us proud.

I have written before about our connection to one another, most recently an essay on this blogsite “A Slice Of Toast” (12/10/2019). Across the globe, for the last several years we have been experiencing a drive to separate ourselves from one another. To hunker down in our own cultural and geographic pockets and keep out those who are not like us. When this pandemic virus finally passes – which it ultimately will – things will not be the same. There will be much retrospective analysis needed, questions to ask, lessons to learn.

One of those biggest lessons will most certainly be a reaffirmation of our connection, our interdependence to one another. Indeed, our connection to all forms of life, and the gift of Nature that makes it all possible. Covid-19 knows no borders. Differentiates no race or ethnic group. Endorses no religion. Ignores variations of age, gender, and lifestyles. None of these labels affirms or exempts us. We can choose to respond by separating out of fear, or coming together out of love. Underneath our words, our practices, our costumes, our skin, we are all fundamentally the same. Equally vulnerable, equally of great potential accomplishment, equally in need of each other to survive and thrive. It appears that we need to continue to be reminded of that periodically.

These were my thoughts on a quiet spring afternoon’s walk. What will you think about on your next afternoon’s walk?

©   2020   Randy Bell   

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

My New Year's Wish

With a changing of the yearly calendar, this is the time when expressions of “Happy New Year” and “Best Wishes for the New Year” abound. For many, it is also an opportunity for a time of reflection on events past, an assessment of time present, and determination of directions to pursue in the forthcoming year. In that spirit of reflection, assessment, and determination, I offer some ideas that may be appropriate for your consideration.

My New Year’s wish is that we reflect upon our myriad ancestors and their stories, some known to us yet most unknown, whose widely varied lives made our lives possible in this time, place, and setting – we are because they were.

My New Year’s wish is that we strive to see our parents simply as the non-idealized adults that they are/were, with their own everyday struggles reflecting their own life experiences, that we may see them through the adult eyes of our present rather than the childhood eyes of our past, a key to living in the present not the past.

My New Year’s wish is that we thank our extended family for the lessons and experiences of our childhood, some magical, some difficult, that brought us to the threshold of our adulthood and sent us on the path we have subsequently chosen to live.

My New Year’s wish is that we prioritize time for our immediate family, for the love and presence that they give us as we struggle to hold them close, yet free them to live and fulfill their own destinies.

My New Year’s wish is that we remember our many friends encountered over the years, some but for a moment in time, others still traveling with us on our journey, some more honest or dependable than others, but all serving to enrich the life that we are living.

My New Year’s wish is that we recall the many teachers that have helped to guide our lives, some in formal teaching roles and others simply by their presence in our lives, some teaching from their knowledge, some inspiring by their example, all providing a foundation upon which we seek to build a “next generation.”

My New Year’s wish is that we acknowledge and respect the many mentors who have reached out to us, and opened opportunities and smoothed our way, whether intentionally or by happenstance, without whom our life would have meandered in wholly different directions with far different results.

My New Year’s wish is that we come to embrace the challenges and regrets that have occurred on our journey, some smaller bumps in the road, others extraordinarily difficult to pass through, many of which resulted in positive outcomes only seen well after the moment.

My New Year’s wish is that we learn to live comfortably with persons seemingly not like ourselves, to have respectful conversations of differing opinions, and to no longer see each other as different but as diverse reflections of the vast creative breadth of God’s Universe.

My New Year’s wish is that we allow ourselves to have big dreams, the confidence to strive for them, the ability to ignore the many naysayers, and the courage to manifest them into our own unbridled joy.

My New Year’s wish is that, as a result of this time of reflection, assessment, and determination, we reconnect with our true inner self, the self that transcends our daily life and our many roles, thereby infusing the spirituality of our being within all that we do and to all whom we encounter.

©   2020   Randy Bell