Sitting on a Bench

I went for a walk with my husband earlier this week. It was a glorious blue sky July day.

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Highbanks Park, Cols. Ohio, photo by me

Sometimes my hip bothers me, and it did on this day. So, I sat on a bench in the shade, facing a small stream, eyes closed. It was very quiet. Except for the sound of gurgling water. It was very still. Except for fluttering birds and scurrying chippies.

The setting, the silence and the alone-ness were a recipe for a little meditation.

I felt my feet planted firmly on the ground. Silence and stillness. I was alone.

I opened my eyes after a little while and listened to the quiet sounds of this place. I saw in front of me the pale purple of vetch, the greenness of leaves. I could smell the earthy scent of slightly damp soil.

An emotional wave of humility and gratitude washed over me. I was so aware of the gift of sitting there, on that bench, in that spot, with the trees and flowers and a singing bird there with me. There was nothing that could have been more complete. And as I sat there in the awareness of the moment, feeling small and insignificant in a larger world, I also felt a pang. There was an out-breath that seemed to release from deep inside of me the sorrow and sadness for Others. Those struggling in poverty. Those who struggle with addiction. The incarcerated . The misunderstood. Refugees. The people in Syria and South Sudan. People we make invisible because of fear or misunderstanding. Or simply because we are unaware.

It was a profound moment. It was a bit of a confused feeling. On the one hand I was so grateful to be in this calm, serene, safe place under a blue sky, feeling the warmth of the summer sun. On the other hand I felt guilty, uncomfortable. This is where I often find myself. This weighs on my heart and my soul. Why am I blessed with all of this when so many others struggle and suffer so unimaginably?

Some folks read these blog posts and contact me with comments like, “I’m sorry you’re so sad.” These thoughts often don’t feel good and they do make me feel sad. But the feelings tell me I haven’t shut myself off to or given up on caring, on feeling, of being concerned for others, of wanting others to be lifted out of pain and suffering. I’d rather experience the sadness than have no awareness, thoughts or feelings about these things. Sometimes people say, “Just turn off the news.” Nope. I dial it back sometimes, but not off. I don’t want to be dumb and blind to the realities of the people on this planet. I want to be informed. To understand. I want to know so I know how to help. To learn. To grow. To learn what needs to be done to heal.

Healing and transformation are possible the moment we accept the actuality of things as they are—good, bad, or ugly—and then act on that understanding with imagination, kindness, and intentionality. This is not easy or painless, by any means, but it is both an embodiment of and a path toward wisdom and peace.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn

I do not accept that this is as good as we get as a country. There is much to be improved on. As a piece of the global puzzle and as a home land.

“What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals? ” ~Barak Obama

All kinds of people and communities have to make a choice. To decide to do, to be, something different. Or not. To respond, react and act differently. Or not. We have to be unafraid rather than afraid. Or not. We have to ask questions and listen in order to understand instead of assuming we “know”. Or not. We have to figure out how to look outside of the box for new ideas and solutions. Or not.

In among all the struggles what are the common threads? What do we share with the people we fear, disagree with, hate? There has to be engagement, generosity and community building. We have to figure out what inspires us as individuals to act from a place of integrity even when it means going contrary to the status quo. And how can these circles of compassion widen? How do we, you, I, facilitate this?

I know I do not want to be afraid of anything simply because I do not understand or agree with someone or something. I do not ever want to feel I need to distance or separate myself because something or someone is different from me. With that kind of defensive behavior I run the risk of running back to and hiding in what is familiar, what is comfortable, what I identify with. I run the risk of being closed off. Of being constricted. And, in all honesty, I do these things. I am trying so very hard to be stronger than my fears, than my anger. But it is very, very hard.

It’s a tough job reining in all our identifications with the worries, the fears and the narratives our mind creates. Our expectations, judgement and opinions create divides that we give great importance and power to. All those things come from our biases, our lack of trust, our sense of protecting what we perceive is ours.

 Nisargadatta says, “The mind creates the abyss, and the heart crosses it.

What could we be without all the crazy, worry filled, fear based ideas that come into our minds and our lives? What would it be like if we stopped separating ourselves from others and Nature? What would happened if we nurtured our fundamental awareness and being that realizes the connected-ness in life rather than the isolating, separated-ness that sometimes happens in life?

Wisdom is knowing we are all one.
Love is what it feels like.
Compassion is what it looks like.”
Ethan Walker III

We really need to get to the point of healing, bridging the abyss, regaining the power and force of being connected to others and other living things. Of cradling Earth in gentleness and respect.

This force of separateness grows fear. We claw at and grab in attachment, to things, ideas, places, power. We become constricted, grow defensive, ambitious, and territorial. We protect things that cause us to feel separated from, better than, more deserving of, entitled to. We work to bolster and protect these things, forgetting to look up and around. It is seen in religion, in politics, in National pride…..it manifests as jingoism, racism, intolerance, aggression, repression, oppression….

If we stop. Just stop. What whispers to us? What calls out to us? Who are we? Who do we want to be? What is our true nature…?

Do we find ourselves standing at the place that is common ground for each one of us? All of us? The shared Earth? The need for the fundamentals required for a healthy life: food, water, shelter, medicine, clothing. The human need for love, both in the giving and receiving of. Companionship. A sense of belonging. A sense of purpose.

So, how do we inspire ourselves and others to work towards this? To walk away from apathy, isolation, separateness, our sense of correctness/ superiority?

“…we must also inspire, because inspiration is how we motivate action.”  Ian Reifowitz

Please share, please tell me: What inspires you? What calls you to action? What bridges do you want to build?

**Readings from This Week

Your Life, Your Journey

” Do Shaol, Do Thuras”

The Irish phrase “Do Shaol, Do Thuras” means “Your Life, Your Journey.”

Many years ago I was handed a box by my step mother. My father had recently passed and she was transferring this box of family photos, history and information on to me. I was to become the keeper of this information. Inside there was the history of our coat of arms, copies of patents, invitations to award dinners and events, wedding invitations, old telegrams, newspaper clippings, strange piles of marketing flyers…..some things I knew what they were. Other things, I had not a clue. Pictures of people were mysteries….no names, no places listed, no dates. No connection to be made. Just faces looking back at me.

I realized I could either throw the box and it’s contents out, or get the information organized and keep it safe. I made a decision to protect the information and unwittingly dove head first into the world of genealogy.

This past Christmas my daughter began talking about a family trip to Ireland. We had been talking about doing a “big” trip somewhere. My now decades old foray into genealogy saw Ireland as a solid contender as a destination. Northern Ireland in particular was at the top of the list. And a sleepy town in County Down called Portaferry became one of the highlight destinations.

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Portaferry, Co. Down, Northern Ireland. June 2017. Photo by me.

The venture into genealogy has been a true journey for me. Past history has become living history. I have felt at times as if my ancestors were walking by my side on this journey.  Each story uncovered about these family members put them in a spotlight for me. As I have gained perspective on their lives, my life has gained some perspective too.

Your life. Your Journey. My Life. My Journey.

“Walking. I am listening to a deeper way.
Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me.
Be still, they say. Watch and listen.
You are the result of the love of thousands.”
~Linda Hogan

Genealogy is sometimes fickle. Information exists sometimes, but not always. Oral history is sometimes proven, but not always. People with the good-intentioned desire to make connections sometimes make them up, ignoring dates, places and more. Brick walls are at every corner. Angels appear out of nowhere with a missing piece of the puzzle. Genealogy really is not a single person’s journey, but a collective effort at finding and piecing the puzzle pieces together. DNA testing helps but only if there is a living male descendant.

Exploring the past, I have been able to get as far back as the mid to late 1700’s in Portaferry. This was the first place I could connect my maternal 4x great-grandfather, James Vance, to.

There is no DNA proof. There are no birth or census records yet found in Ireland that connect him to Portaferry. The church he most likely was affiliated with there was destroyed in a massive storm, along with any records. There are Revolutionary War records where he indicated he “was from” Portaferry, Ireland. There are American records that record Portaferry as his “home”. There is only one place in the world called Portaferry.

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Scots-Irish history supports the reason for his family’s journey from Scotland to Ireland in the 1600’s, and then eventually to Pennsylvania in the mid 1770’s. Oral history from family supports this also.

So Portaferry became a family destination. (And I am ever so grateful my family agreed to this)

We are bound to our ancestors and to those who made us,
whether we want to be or not.
What matters is what we make of what we are.”
– Kate Elliott

Upon arrival in America both sides of my family eventually settled in parts of Pennsylvania. My son lives there now and when we go to visit I find myself looking out the car window, watching the scenery fly past. Questions loop around as thoughts: What thoughts did they have leaving Ireland? Did they know where they were going…have relatives here already? How many family members did they say good-bye to? What few things did they bring with them? What was it like for them to see the Monongahela River and the rolling hills of PA? Did it look like home?

Those questions arose again as I walked on the ground and streets where this Scots-Irish ancestor of mine most likely walked, Portaferry. In talking to a town historian there he said, “Portaferry wouldn’t have looked too much different land wise…it’s the same now as then. What you see now is what he saw then.”

 

 

There was great power in that summation for me. A connection to the past. My eyes saw what he saw. The water. The hill. The windmill. The castle. The tower across the water. The forceful tide flowing in and out through the Narrows everyday. The Irish Sea in the distance. All that was the same, then, as now.

I was looking at what he saw everyday.
I saw what he saw.
I was standing where he stood.
I was walking where he walked.
It almost felt like we could walk together and reminisce.
Share a memory.

Political and religious persecution were no doubt the motivating forces in James Vance leaving Ireland. He was part of the last of the five large waves of Scots-Irish to leave Northern Ireland for America in the 1700’s. Up to a quarter of a million Scots-Irish were estimated to have emigrated across the Atlantic from the north of Ireland through the 18th century (with an even greater amount following in the 19th century). Shortly after he landed in Philadelphia he enlisted in the fight against the British in the Revolutionary War. His grave in Greensboro PA has the Rev War marker next to it. He served under Captain Reading and Col. Chambers and fought in the battles of Germantown and Monmouth. He was with Washington and Lafayette in Valley Forge.

 

 

After the war James joined with a group of German immigrants in a business endeavor with Albert Gallatin (who later became Secretary of the Treasury under Jefferson and Madison) establishing the first “Glassworks” in New Geneva PA. The name Albert and Gallatin, as well as the German given and surnames of the glassblowers (seen on the marker below), became intermingled with the Vance family as friendships developed and marriages took place. Thinking back to when we visited Gallatin’s home, Friendship Hill near Port Marion PA, I realize I had many of the same thoughts and emotions I experienced in Northern Ireland. At Friendship Hill I saw the same things James would have seen. I walked the same path James would have walked on. I stood in a room James would have stood in, looking at he same furniture he sat on. I could imagine him greeting his friend Gallatin. Family history tells of Lafayette and James embracing warmly in Gallatin’s living room.

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Statue of Gallatin, his home, James grave and marker from the Glassworks where James worked.

Eventually James married and settled down to raise a family. Two of James’ sons became well known potters in a flourishing pottery trade in New Geneva PA. When his sons moved to Cincinnati they continued with their pottery work. Their sons, James’ grandsons, lived there and designed and built steam powered paddle boats in Cincy that ran up and down the Ohio River. Their children, James’ great grandchildren, grew up to build buildings that are still standing in Columbus Ohio.

These individuals left a mark on history.

Several years ago my family visited what was my great-grandfather Vance’s farm in Columbus Ohio. Now part of Highbanks Park, only the land remains. The buildings of the farm, then state of the art, and the house, with greenhouses and a swimming pool, are gone. Still, we walked the trails. We walked on land my mom walked and played on. The same land her father walked on. And the same land her grandfather walked on. We saw what they saw. My children stood on the banks of the Olentangy River. The same river their grandmother, great-grandparents and great great grandparents stood by.

 

 

Genealogy isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I never would have imagined I would spend decades searching for little clues of history that would weave together a rich tapestry of stories and adventures. I never would have imagined the information would lead me to a small, sleepy town near the Irish Sea in Northern Ireland.

“Do Shaol, Do Thuras”. “Your Life, Your Journey.”

It was James Vance’s life. It was his journey. And it is my life. But my journey includes his journey.

Do Shaol, Do Thuras”

Each one of us are the result of the love of thousands.

What matters is what we make of who we are.”

All this is infused into the making who we are. Whether we know all the history or not, we are the result of the love, the joys, the struggles and sacrifices of our ancestors. Of course it is our life and our journey. It also is our life given to us through the life and journey of others.

What matters is what we make of who are—-drawing on and respecting all the snippets, remnants, blood and DNA of those who came before us. Add to that all the combined experiences we’ve had, with all that is at this moment. Standing here. Now. It has made us who we are.

All of this grounds me somehow. What written history I can find about my ancestors on both sides of my family is that they gave to others. They lifted others up. They adopted orphans. They worked hard. They were teachers and ministers. They bailed people out of Depression era debt. They literally raised churches. They built boats that aided commerce and travel. They built stores that served people and communities. They tanned hides and sewed shoes. Some built furniture while others were self taught itinerant doctors who knew the how to combine medicinal plants into elixirs and ointments with healing properties. They built carriages and forged horse shoes. They grew flax and wove linen cloth. They were council members in the towns they lived in. They supported Women’s Suffrage. They carried bodies off of battlefields. They fought in wars and they resisted wars and fought for peace. They were regular people.

Of course there are a few characters too! We all have a couple. We have pirates, disposed ministers and a witch!

I am a richer person for knowing my family’s history. I feel a kind of connection to some of my ancestors.

It’s all a journey. A personal journey most certainly. But also a journey that began before we were born. A journey of others that led to us being born.

I’ve been fortunate to get to know James Vance as intimately as I have. To have stood where he stood. To have walked where he walked. To have seen the same views he saw. To have been in rooms where he sat.

“Walking. I am listening to a deeper way.
Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me.
Be still, they say. Watch and listen.
You are the result of the love of thousands.”

Be still. Watch and Listen.

**Check out what I’ve been reading This Week