Tuesday, September 18, 2018


As an aging woman in a morphing world, my issue is having too much.  Too many books, too many clothes.  Some of them I've had so long that the fabric is rotting which makes me sad because I liked them so much and they aren't made anymore.  For instance, people don't sleep in long white nightgowns anymore -- they wear sweats.  But too many longtime friends have passed on, and surely that's more serious.

It's clear that we're at the point in history where all our theories of organization have run out and it's time to invent more ways of being.  Since there was a big surge of reinvention and reorganization after WWII, their time of usefulness is all running out at the same time.  In fact, everything that was a big new boom wave in the past must inevitably begin to collapse at about the same time, which means that the media are always noting the deaths of movie stars, esp. the ones who were popular all in a cluster, like Westerns.

Never before our archives of images formed could we see -- not read about but see -- famous and related people throughout their whole lives from birth to death.  It's a lot to ponder, esp. if the people portrayed are not part of the group in which we've been embedded our whole lives.  But the more contemporary portraits of people we aren't likely to know -- like the families of indigenous people after they were so colorful at first contact and before they become indistinguishable on the street and in the stores from everyone else -- are not picked up by media.  If it weren't for the insight of Paul Seesequasis, we wouldn't know Cree girls with bobby socks and perms, print dresses and cardigans, dancing swing with boys who have ducktails.

Sometimes in my own family I run across a little cache of photos from early days, but not very often since I gathered them all up when my mother died.  It's just that they're too much to sort and there's too little time.  Also, I discover that others are not so fascinated as myself.  In terms of place, people have a certain fantasy about how history went, and are not pleased to have that challenged.  To them Valier was once a ranch, like the ones in John Wayne movies.  They know ranches.  They don't want to know the ranch was owned by a Confederate raider who came here as a teenager because the Civil War ended.  Nor can they picture a pre-Euro world on the prairie.

Nothing has changed our understanding of living beings more than genetics.  It's not just Euros coming to America and calling things here by Euro names:  elk here were stags there, robins there are really thrushes here, and -- of course -- these Indians are not the ones from India.  About the time that we figure out that DNA tells a different story about what animals are, along comes David Quammen and teaches us that all living beings are expressions of the same code and can pass that code around among themselves over both time and space.

I'm reading a book called "The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion, and DNA" by Jeff Wheelwright.  It's about the mutant gene BRCA1.185delAG.  All the BRCA genes are potentially cancer-causing and this one is: it causes breast cancer.  In the course of tracking down who and why and what should be done about it, Wheelwright gets to know a family that includes the "Indian Princess" who is partly indigenous.  Tragically, she is carrying this gene, inherited from Sephardic Jewish ancestors she never knew she had.  She copes by becoming a Jehovah's Witness.

This story is in the SW and Colorado so the history includes the Spaniards overrunning the indigenous people, then the latter rising up and throwing them off, followed by a new invasion favouring Jesuit bureaucracy, and then this specific family becoming Jehovah's Witness.  The people involved create their lives and identities from different layers of the past, so some mothers still light candles on Friday evening, but have lost the memory of Jewish peddlers and other immigrants who brought the custom to them.  The practice is not anchored in religion but in the felt significance of custom, also inherited from Sephardic Jews.

Culture can overwhelm inheritance and I feel it sharply now.  Because I've lived in multiple places, known different kinds of people, done contrasting kinds of work, read and read and read things none of my relatives have read, I don't see the world the way they do.  I look at what was supposed to be our genteel and blameless lives and see tragedy: the grandmother who nearly died of goiter because of living in Dakota and Manitoba where there is too little iodine and probably because of a genetic need for iodine because of her previous generations (Finney in Ireland and Scotland -- all Finneys claiming to be Scots because Irish were stigmatized) having been adjusted to maybe too MUCH iodine on a sea-drenched island.  Her thyroid problems may have translated through the epigenome to problems among the grandkids, even emotional ones not thought to have roots in physiology. 

Her middle name is "Swan" which is often a Metis name, so maybe I have a little indigenous blood after all.  But genetics are much too complex to make guesses like that.  On the other hand, her very best friend, a woman who came to Oregon from Dakota where they lived near each other, looks very indigenous.  Her name was Coleman, which could easily be an "Americanized" version of a tribal name.  But one must weigh that idea against the unreal American yearning to be indigenous, a person of the land who is nobilized in stories.

My family does NOT want to hear about it.  Their way of handling such things is denial, not-hearing, ignoring, shutting out, and devoting themselves to "Outlander", a series full of avant garde things like S and M or polyamory and a lot of dubious politics.  They say they just skip that part. They love romantic novels and history makes them legitimate. 

The other half of my heritage is also Brit, but the kind that figured out that prosperity is the same thing as respectability, so if you make your living from titty bars, it's okay as long as your home is well-decorated with kitsch.  Not that different from Trump believing that if he has enough gold-plated furniture, he will be admired.  He's right.  But only admired by the ignorant.  it's an old outmoded Euro concept, like so much of our lives.

But then . . . one of the things I have too much of is criticism of relatives and politicians.  Over time, it has rotted.

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