ancestors, appreciation, as above so below, awareness, below, blood, compassion, conscious, family, genetics, grandparents, heritage, inheritance, lineage, perspective, photographs, roots, Samhain, tree, wheel of the year
In this time of Samhain celebrations, heritage and what it means to me weighs heavily on my mind. What is a heritage, and how is it passed on? What are the ways we express our heritage, consciously or not? In what ways does knowledge of heritage impact the psyche of the individual? How does it impact the choices we make about who we want to be? What purpose is there to be conscious of and honor one’s heritage?
Some have described heritage as a person’s “roots“, analogous to the structures by which most plants establish stability and a means of nourishment. There are many different ‘root systems’ essential to a person thriving, but, of the systems of roots heritage encompasses, the system under examination here is a more concrete sort: the roots extended by one’s family tree.
Images of waving flags, countries on maps, and black and white photographs of ‘oddly dressed’ and unsmiling people all flit across my mind when I think of family and heritage. Having recently been made aware of a genealogy in the possession of my maternal grandparents, who are still living, thankfully, I have pored over many such photographs with eagerness. To read the names and see the faces of dozens and dozens of people that are responsible for my existence on this earth today was somewhat surreal yet strangely settling.
For years I have felt largely estranged from my family beyond my own little family unit of father, mother, sister, and brother, seeing maybe once or twice a year the many aunts, uncles, and cousins I would receive birthday cards from. All I felt I knew about my ‘heritage’ is that I have “a good, Dutch name”. Words like ‘tradition’ and ‘lineage’ and ‘heritage’ and the larger sense of ‘family’ were a distasteful blandness in my mouth. I knew nothing of when or where my family lived in the Netherlands, what they did there and why, why and when and how they came to America; I felt ‘rootless’, as I expressed in the line of a poem I wrote in high school.
The malaise that this rootlessness drew over me and my attitude towards this aspect of life is, I think, also reflected in the faces of many people I see here in America, even culture-wide in America as a whole. Although never truly rootless, the roots that are there are often sickly, tenuous, and thickly knotted. The pain and trauma of immigrants in the transition to America from faraway native lands tends to involve at least a partial rejection of the ‘old life’, ‘old ways’, ‘old country’. While it is necessary to not clutch the past in order to move forward, the over-zealous effort to move away from ‘the old’ has resulted in a pathological, obsessive appetite for ‘the new’, trying to fill the void left by the purging of ‘the old’. It’s all about ‘the new’ toy, episode, fashion, you name it. “New look, same great _____” rings in your ears. The poorly rooted culture is, therefor, more likely to be unstable and poorly nourished (quite visibly, if one considers American politics and the nutrition-related chronic diseases afflicting and killing millions of American people).
Culture is a form of heritage passed on through generations that observably shifts with location, politics, and so on. Though culture often features very prominently in the general idea of heritage, another intimately present form of heritage is the very skin you live in, the DNA that forms your physical body. Your DNA is half of your mother’s and half of your father’s, and half of their DNA is each of their parents. 25% of your DNA is from each of your grandparents, and 12.5% of your DNA is from each of your great-grandparents, continuing on this way. We can see DNA shift just as we can see culture shift (highly recommend watching some of the fascinating TED and TEDx Talks about genetics). The visible expression of these genes in eye color, skin color, hair color, eye shape, hand shape, on and on, can readily relate some people to their genetic heritage, sometimes their cultural heritage also.
The phrase that has come to encapsulate my worldview, “As above, so below“, returns to aid me in my understanding of heritage. Samhain marks the season of harvest, openned at Lughnasadh, finally drawing to a close. The earth and the people living with it store nourishment and prepare for the cold dark ahead. It is a time to bid farewell to the vitality and vibrance of summer, of the Maiden and Mother, and embrace the time of restful darkness before the renewal of the cycle, the rebirth.
While there are many ways in which a person’s heritage can be expressed, never is one’s heritage so starkly obvious as it is in life’s challenging times. Like a tree whose branches most greatly resemble its roots when bare of leaves during the harshness of Winter, so too a person to their heritage. They might overextend themselves at work like their father, desperately clean the house then sulk over a glass of wine like their mother, become distant while present like their grandfather, or maybe entrench themselves into their church or school community like their grandmother. Maybe they bicker animatedly amongst each other like stereotypes of the big Greek and Italian families, or maybe they are cold with few words from sharp tongues like the British and the Japanese can be known for. “Blood will out” is one way this pattern of heritage has been phrased over the course of history.
I feel that the attitudes I take in my interactions with other people, and the choices I make based in those attitudes, has shifted in a significant way after grounding my ‘roots’. Curiosity is predominant in situations that would have previously been overshadowed with irritation and impatience, a heightened awareness and curiosity about what other people’s ‘roots’ may be. It seems like in the process of making my family more ‘real’ to me I have also made people in general more ‘real’ to me.
All things must come to the soul from its roots, from where it is planted.
-Saint Teresa of Avila
I reblogged this already, but I thought I would put it here also because I felt the topic meshed so well with this post.