Tuesday, July 16, 2013


CATHY FINNEY has a business, though this page is for her son. 

Your Creative Memories Consultant

More than we had thought about who we are as individuals is due to genetic meshing in our very cells and the adding of the epigenes through environment, including the emotional environment, and then more adding of more factors through the acquiring of gut biota. More is added by our education, our experiences (chosen or not), our partners, our ecological location, our group affiliations, our work, the families we make, and our spiritual aspirations.

Key to what one does about all this stuff might be the strategies one uses to reconcile the “composite identity”.  Surely to some extent we all have a variety of personalities within us, each to be called out by certain situations unless one’s prefrontal cortex is severely compromised, since that’s evidently where these various roles are conflated or separated.  One can try to find some over-arching sense that includes all the others, assign a primary role to just one, render some of the identities unconscious, arrange them in a kind of priority set.  Or you can bug out to a new context where no one knows you and you have the freedom to reinvent yourself.  Of course, biological growth will force a person to a new identity, for instance from the adrenarche to puberty.  How that happens is a major imprinting shift.  So is a new intellectual capacity in the early twenties which can capture a person for the rest of their lives.  The new capacity may be LESS than one thought.

I’m thinking about this partly because of a doctoral candidate in Canada, Elliott Hanowski, making contact because of blog posts of mine about my grandparents, Beulah and Sam Strachan.  He wrote:  “I'm researching the history of the Winnipeg Rationalist / Humanist Society (1926-1940) as one section of my dissertation. I've been trying to get a sense of the people who made up the membership. In the course of that work I came across a letter from Sam S. Strachan on the official letterhead for his Kovar equipment business in Brandon. It's dated 1929. He wrote to Marshall Gauvin, the lecturer who ran the Society, to order two books on rationalism. He and his wife (listed simply as "Mrs. S.S.") also show up as dues-paying members of the Society in 1930. If I understand your posts correctly, they were your father's parents? Out of curiosity, can I ask if you know anything about their religious practice (or lack thereof) in later years?”

Besides answering Hanowski, I created an email list of cousins.  In came a quick set of responses.  One of the most interesting was from a woman who married into the family of Beulah Finney Strachan, as Cathy was preparing a wedding album for her own relative.  Sam and Beulah were indeed “Prairie Humanists” which sometimes affiliate with Unitarians.  They appear to have understood this point of view -- preoccupied with social reform and respectable behavior without addressing any anthro-theos or joining a church -- as secular, compartmented away from religion.  Or rather, from an outside point of view, their cathedrals were the grain elevators and their congregations were the granges.  The closest they came to religion was visiting national monuments, both natural (Grand Canyon) and industrial (Hoover Dam).  They were Progressive but never achieved real prosperity because of drought, Depression and WWII.  They lived on the Canadian prairie but not as long as they lived in South Dakota.  Late in life they came to Oregon, you could say “looking for Beulah Land.”

The children of Sam and Beulah continued their near-Methodist respectability but didn’t relate to church except to send the children to Sunday school.  The exception is myself, because of my mother, who was the daughter of a contentious Presbyterian man and a gentle Baptist woman.  My brothers slipped away early, but I took religion very seriously -- so seriously that thinking took me right on out of the Presbyterian church of my girlhood, then to a small town Methodist congregation mixed with Blackfeet ceremonies, then to an urban Unitarian church, on to the ministry and out the other side.  I am not like anyone else in my family that I know of.

The “composite” identity bind is that I live in an ascetic way, alone, and yet have intense relationships with people so unlike me that I could never live with them.  Even visiting friends, sharing their way of being even for a few days, is painful.  If they are so ill-advised as to come visit, they are upset and even scandalized.  They arrive with bottles of wine and expect to go shopping, not to have a geology lesson.  My true family is a chosen one, not genetic, and yet I’ve been a collector of genetic family information and a maker of connections.  

My genetic family on my father’s side wants to know, defend and confirm their virtue, to claim their relatives.  My genetic family on my mother’s side doesn’t want to know.  They are a ferocious quarreling bunch, some churchy and some not.  They throw each other out, mostly over wealth in the form of land.  Since my mother was one of a set of four women who married three men from the same family (she was the hold-out), there is a third family’s dynamic which is the most problematic of all but the best material for a generational saga.  Still, that third family did not drink, smoke, curse, gamble, go dancing, play cards, spit, or get into fist fights.  

The entering wedge of my nonconformity was obviously my father’s interest in near-socialism (co-operatives), his love of books and his secret interest in sexuality (which he mostly just read about as near as anyone knows).  But one should not neglect my mother’s religiosity and her love of Indians and “the Orient”.  Where my parents converged was in the belief that there was a kind of sophistication and superiority in education.  Both taught at one time or another.  Our house was loaded with books.  My father played classical music records.  Both were interested in politics.  But they didn’t even suspect the world I entered when I started college and certainly not the U of Chicago Divinity School world where I attended in mid-life.

NU provided religious sophistication -- philosophical.  The theatre world, like jazz music, is an accepting one and included nonconformity and individual toughness as high values.  Drama was a high value, so maybe it wasn’t surprising that I sought such a dramatic place as Browning, Montana, where tragedy mixed with comedy every day.  My in-laws were very much like the Strachans, but their two sons had been seized and changed.  One traumatized by WWII and the other a sculptor.  

The great afflictions of families have always been death in childbirth, alcoholism, war, and madness.  None of these families escaped.  The difference is in how they were treated.  Most simply denied and excluded the problematic people.  Counselors advise that one cannot control what happens, but CAN and SHOULD choose reactions on sound principles, not excluding simple survival.  

It’s grandiose narcissism to say so, but I’m looking for the excluded: the dead, the wicked, the addicted, and other stigmatized people, because it is an intellectual principle that the gaps are as important a source of information as the known.  It gets worse: I claim the whole planet as family.  Not just all living creatures.  The grass is my lovers’ hair.

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