Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Elsie Elizabeth Durant Riddle

My great-grandparents at Niagara Falls.
My Great-Grandma Elsie was a summer solstice baby. She was born on June 21, 1904. She died January 9, 1994, my senior year of high school. This past solstice, as I stood in a dark wood surrounded by thick clouds of fireflies beneath a star-lit sky, I sang Happy Birthday to her. The memory of Elsie was strong with me- the cool feel of her skin, the sound of her laugh, and the crooked way her smile would lift up on one side before stretching across her face.
I realized she would have been 110 years old. There was something to that moment, as if it made missing her less painful, knowing that she likely would have expired naturally by now. There are no more lost years we could have had together, like the ones her disease robbed us of before she died. I still miss her, but I hold her close.
Her smile and laugh lit up the room. Her love filled my heart with warmth like the sun in the sky. She was special and I cannot celebrate summer without thinking about her. I was born nine months after my Great-Grandpa Harold Riddle died of a heart attack and the day I came into the world would have been their fifty-second wedding anniversary.
I don’t know anyone who didn’t love her. When I started high school, one of the band teachers, Mr. Allison, sought me out just to tell me how much she meant to him. During his formative years, she watched him, and he seemed to love her as much as I did. In that moment, my world shifted. I understood how one person can ripple through people’s lives without realizing it. Elsie was special. She was a pip.
Meeting her for the first time.
All of my childhood, my Grandma-from-Florida (that’s where they retired to so that’s what I called her) would come and live with us for the summer months. Every time I bite into a ripe sun-warmed strawberry, the sweetness I take in reminds me of those shared memories. There was a room in our small house that had been the upstairs bathroom. When the bathroom was moved downstairs, they left the toilet upstairs, a smart choice for a house with small children. This extra room was where she slept, right next to my bedroom. I used to sit on the edge of her bed while she dressed in the morning, slipping on her hose and open-toed cork sandals, to go with her culottes and the sweater she would throw over her shoulders.
Her touch was always cool and soothing in the summer heat. She tried to explain to me how it was much hotter where she lived, so she was cold during the summer. My small world couldn’t comprehend anything hotter than 100 degree heat.
            My Grandma Elsie was one of my first pen pals, encouraging me with my writing. When I got glasses in third grade, I was nervous because only a couple other kids in my class had them, and they were picked on. She wrote me about how absolutely no one had them when she was in school except for her, and it would be okay. She always said I could ask her anything.
Us again, 8th grade for me.
Every Christmas at my grandparents’ house, we would pass the phone around to talk to her, long before I was old enough to use the phone myself. I remember the wonder I had at her voice on the phone, sounding so close to me, as if I had expected the miles between us to manifest through the receiver. Science is magic to the mind of a child.
She was a practicing Catholic and she believed in it. I sing Ave Maria to her all the time. I know that somewhere, wherever she is, she hears it. In the years after, through my genealogical work, I discovered more about her than I knew in life.
Her parents were George Francis Durant and Emma Louise Burnah who were married in 1889. He was sixteen and she was twenty. The Durants were French-Canadian; both of George’s parents had emigrated from Quebec. The surname Burnah has been hard to place and has been found in a variety of forms such as Burnah, Burneh, Burmah, Bruneh, Brunet, and Burnett. I can follow the Durants, LaRoches, and Lavallees into Quebec and France. The Burnahs remain a mystery I dream of solving for Elsie. I want to know her mother. I want to know where her mother came from.
Her father George was a laborer, living in both New York and Vermont for work. George and Emma had seven living children, of which Elsie was the youngest. I remember her telling me that she was the baby, and she teased us that the baby was never spoiled- followed by her impish laughter. Elsie’s family lived in Burlington, Vermont before landing in Lockport, New York, a town along the Erie Canal.
She married Harold Riddle in 1924 at the age of 20. He was 21, the son of a farmer, and he worked as a chauffeur, driving motor truck and later working as a die setter at the local Radiator factory. They had three children together: Harold Jr. who was called “Sonny,” my grandpa Richard, and their daughter Donna.
Sonny was a bit of trouble through most of his life and I know he caused my great-grandma heartache. I only knew him as birthday cards, sent faithfully every year, singed “Love, Uncle Sonny.” He spent his early years in prison outside San Luis Obispo for bank robbery and was in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He lost his legs to gangrene due to infections from his time on the run.
Great-grandma Elsie and my Grandpa Dick would often talk about Sonny as a young boy, telling censored stories from his childhood. But there was a truth to the quiet way his name was spoken, and the absence of him in family stories and the family time that included us children. I am old enough now to know how it feels to have things sit so painfully in you that you cannot bear it words. I know how you can love someone so deeply, even though their choices are hurtful to others, and you cannot condone the actions they take.
For a time, to make ends meet, my great-grandparents moved to Somerset where they owned a small convenient store and worked a farm for food while renting out their home in Lockport. While they lived there, my Poppa Harold lived part-time with family in Lockport, working at Harrison Radiator. Later, for a time, they shared a duplex with my mother and her parents, having their own space on one side. They retired to St. Petersburg, Florida, which is where my Poppa passed away.
Before he died, my Grandpa told me that his parents loved each other very much and that Harold doted on Elsie. His father was easy-going unless one of the children sassed their mother or talked back to her and then he would rise like a bear to her defense. I remember hearing her say, “You grandfather and I…” to my mom around the kitchen table. My brother remembered him. I knew all I needed to know from the way she spoke about him, the way her tone revealed how little her love for him had faded. I remember feeling wistfully like I had missed out on knowing a great man.
I discovered on the census reports that Elsie’s parents lived with them for most of her marriage, until they died. My mom said she declared that she would never live with her children. She didn’t think it was fair. And she never did.
There was one year she didn’t stay with us. She stayed with my Grandparents instead. My mom explained that she was ill and they wanted a quieter space for her. I heard the whispered stories during the summer of her forgetting where she was, who my Grandpa was, of her getting up at 3 a.m. in a panic, pulling her sweater on backwards over her nightgown, because she had to get lunch ready for the children. That was the year I learned the word Alzheimers.
She stayed in Florida after that and was moved into a nursing home. My great-Aunt Donna lived nearby. My mom and grandpa went down multiple times to visit her, but we never saw her again. Her mind descended quickly. She died on in 1994 after complications from a hip surgery she got from falling. She was 89 years old.

I have one recipe from her, for Swiss Steak. It was written in the early 1960s on an index card with a birdhouse decorating it. My dad said she used to make this all the time, and it was his favorite dish. I copied it out, exactly as she wrote it, line for line.

[side 1]
Round steak
cut in serving size pieces
sprinkle both sides with flour
pound flour in steak with
rolling pin or heavy utensil
brown on both sides in hot fat
I use oil.  place in small
roaster or cake pan.  Slice a
couple onions place in pan
salt +/ pepper meat + onions.
pour over tomatoe juice, or regularly canned
tomatoes, or a can of tomato soup (over)
[side 2]
delute with ½ can of water if you
use the soup.  Bake in oven
350 degrees about 1 hr 15 min.
or until Tender.  Turn meat
over when about half done.
can be cooked in electric
fry pan.  But has to be
watched so it doesn’t burn or

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Perspective, or If the World Were 100 People

In 1994, the world population was at 5,606,000,000 people. In 2004, it rose to 6,387,000,000 people. It’s 2014 and the world population is now 7,141,000,000. It’s only going to keep rising. It’s a scary thought, knowing our resources are finite. But that’s another post for another time. This post is about perspective.
We’re at a cultural crossroads and we have two choices. Either we decide that there are too many people in the world and we care only about ourselves and we could give a crap about our neighbors. On that path we take what we need, whether or not we’re taking from someone else. Or we understand that there are so many people in the world, we are not and cannot be more important than another. On that path we understand that we should be working towards making sure what we have is shared as equally as possible.
We should be taking care of each other. It’s hard to do when money is the bottom line and big business seems to have more legal protections than people do. How can we fight that? What is required is perspective on a smaller scale. It’s really hard to imagine 7.1 billion people, and harder still to care about that many people when, in our lives, we juggle maintaining relationships with and caring for less than a hundred people.
But what if the world was only 100 people? There is a list of statistics that has been going around since 1990, and is often updated. Unsurprisingly, the numbers in it change constantly. For instance, in 1990 only 1 out of 100 people had a college education. In fourteen years, that number has risen to 7. I found this to be an interesting exercise in where I fall in the larger, yet more simplified, statistical world.
Disclaimer: The actual statistics may vary slightly from what I have. I tried to find the most current numbers for each category but they are not all from the same year. For my purposes, this post is about creating perspective, not accuracy.

If the world were a village of 100 people…
  • There are 50 women and 50 men.
  • There are 66 adults aged 15-64, 26 children 14 and under, and 8 adults 65 and older.
  • Only 30 are white; 70 are not.
  • 89 people are heterosexual; 11 are homosexual.
  • The continental breakdown is: 60 people live in Asia, 15 in Africa, 11 in Europe, 9 in South America and the Caribbean, and 5 in North America.
  • 12 people speak Chinese, 5 Spanish, 5 English, 3 Arabic, 3 Hindi, 3 Bengali, 3 Portuguese, 2 Russian, 2 Japanese. 62 people, more than half of our village, speak other languages than these.
  • 33 people are Christian, 22 are Muslim, 14 are Hindu, 7 Buddhism; 5 people find their spirituality in nature; 7 people practice other religions and 12 more do not align themselves with a religion.
  • 48 people can’t speak or act on their faith because of fear of harassment, imprisonment, torture, or death; 52 people can.
  • 77 people have shelter from the elements; 23 do not.
  • 51 people live in urban areas; 49 people live in rural ones.
  • 63 people are adequately nourished, or better; 21 people are overweight, 15 people are undernourished and 1 person is dying of starvation.
  • 87 people have access to safe drinking water; 13 do not.
  • 68 people breathe clean air; 32 people do not.
  • 48 people live on less than $2 US dollars a day.
  • 12 of our 26 children live in poverty.
  • 30 people are unemployed.
  • 9 people are disabled.
  • 78 people have electricity; 22 do not.
  • 65 people have improved sanitation conditions; 19 people have unimproved toilets (which basically means they at least have a poo pit somewhere away from the room they live in); 16 people do not have toilets.
  • 83 people can read and write; 17 cannot.
  • 7 people have a college degree; (93 people do not, less 26 children means…) 67 adults without one.
  • 22 people share or own a computer while 78 people do not have access to their own computer.
  • Only 30 people are active internet users.
  • 75 out of 100 people are cell phone users.
  • 40 people have no shoes.
  • Less than 1% of people have HIV/AIDS.
  • 6 people own 59% of the wealth.

Out of 100 people:
I am one of the 50 women in the village and one of the 30 white people. I am one of the 66 adults under the age of sixty-five. I am one of 11 queer folk. I am one of the 5 people from North America and one of the 5 people, out of 100, who speak English. I am one of 5 people who find my spirituality in nature, and am one of 52 people who can practice my faith freely.
I am one of 77 people who have shelter I rent and one of 78 people with electricity. I am one of 51 people living in an urban area, though it blends its edges with the rural farms that feed us. I am one of 21 overweight people and technically one of the 48 people living on less than $2 a day. I am one of the 30 unemployed. I am one of 87 people with access to safe drinking water, one of 68 people breathing clean air, and one of 65 with a flush toilet in my bathroom.
I am one of the 83 people who can read and write and one of 7 people who got a college degree. I am one of 22 people with a computer and one of the 30 active internet users. I am one of the 60 people who owns shoes (I have four pairs), and, I am one of the 25 people who do not own a cell phone.

I am unique. I am one of a kind, among many who are one of a kind. I am special, but not more than another. May we all find our way to peace, tolerance, and coexistence.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

To Love What is Mortal

Bella the Bearcat  April 1, 2002 – June 11, 2013
 I’m not sure what it is about the first anniversary of a death that weighs so heavy. One year. It’s not like I stare at the calendar and count the days down. It’s more like the day comes around, and life has carried on, but there is a niggling reminder in my brain that the date is important. Only I am not sure why. Then, when I remember, it’s always different, and yet always the same…
Suddenly I remember exactly where I was, how the room smelled, how my heart felt. I remember sitting on the floor of my office with Bella, willing her to lift her head and watching her try to roll her eyes to meet mine instead, holding my partner’s hand. We both remember the moment we knew what was being asked of us. One year ago, today.
Bella wasn’t ready. We weren’t ready. But death and time didn’t much care. It was the right thing that we did, because we loved her.
Yesterday I found a bit that I wrote before we made the phone call last year: For the last two days I have seen small flashes of light flitting about my field of vision. I didn’t think anything of them until this morning. Last week, when my father had unexpected surgery, I prayed hard to our ancestors to see him through it all right. I threw a door open to Spirit. When I saw my cat this morning, my baby, I saw those flashes of light surrounding her and I knew deep down in my gut that something was wrong. As I type this, she is dying. You can see it in the absence of her gaze and the listless limpness of her lounging. She is not in pain. She is not in distress but her light in this world is dying none the less. And we are watching, sitting death side with her. We put on her favorite cello music and brushed her with her favorite soft bristle brush for as long as she wanted. We tempted her with soft food, and she ate some, but not all… which is telling.
And then I couldn’t write anymore. All of the words that wanted to come out were a shadow of what I was experiencing. Again.
For every pic in focus, I have 20 blurry ones.
I remember how she felt beneath my hand. How she was bristley, not soft. When she was a kitten, she slept across my throat at night, her tiny breath dancing against my chin and neck. I raised her, taught her, watched her grow. The thudding slap of her feet against the floor as she stomped around the house always echoed. She did not see well and was easily startled into straight-up-in-the-air armadillo mode. It hurt her feelings when we laughed, which we did, and she’d cry/whine at us in response before hiding from whatever scared her in my lap. I was her wooby. I can recall with perfect clarity the sound of her voice. I used to tease her, calling her cranking cries “dulcet tones”. She understood sarcasm. She wasn’t terribly bright or brave, but she was the sweetest friend. And I know that she will always live in my heart. I know because I hold Luna there, too, who died three years before Bella.
I still call out for her. I look up when I see her ghost out of the corner of my eye and for a moment, I forget she is not corporeal. I live for the nights she visits my dreams and I can smell and feel her again. I think of us as a four cat household, even though two are gone. So, I guess, in reality, death has not removed them from my family. Death did not remove her from my heart.
We are a four cat family. Love adds. Love multiplied my family into something greater than it was. It is that awareness Bella gifted us with in her death. More than the sorrow and the loss and the tears I shed while writing this, wishing I could hold her one more time… more than the sadness, today I feel that love.
What I remember about that day now is the strength I found to step outside of my selfish human heart and let her go. To answer the vet when they asked the question of why we were putting her to sleep. I remember the strength I found to hold her head and her gaze as she died, so the last thing she saw was the love on my face for her. The last words she heard were us telling her what a good girl she was and how much we loved her.
I remember how strong my arms were when I picked her dead body up afterwards. She was still warm and yet the feel of her was gone. We stood at the window and watched the murder of crows in the field, the ones who came to shepherd her transition. I remember how hard it was to just lay her body down and walk away from it, knowing I would never hold her again, my hand hesitating on the door before I closed it shut behind me.
Love multiplies. At night now, I tell Mara stories about the sisters she didn’t get to know. I tell her how much it meant to us that she picked us, how heart-lifting her appearance in our lives was. And I think I understand now, what it means to know that neither Zami or Mara will be with us forever. There are no guarantees.
I could feel angry at the losses of Luna and Bella at such young ages and barricade my heart against such sadness again. I could. I could do that. But I can’t.
I think I’d rather be grateful for the time our lost friends gave me. I’d rather carry that gratitude into continuing to be grateful for the time our living friends give me. I am grateful for all the little lives I have woven into my own, each one so very different from the next. I will love them all until they leave me, and then I will love them still. Surely the best way we can honor those we lose is to continue to share our love. To take that love and share it with the living who need it.

excerpt from In Blackwater Woods by Mary Oliver (28-36):

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Thoughts on Senseless Violence

A week ago this last Monday, I came home from a restful, fulfilling, and blissful retreat in the mountains. Later that night I checked the web, to see what I’d missed while away. The news of the killings in Isla Vista was a harsh reality to come home to. Six people murdered, thirteen injured, and a perpetrator’s suicide. All that pain and grief happened while I was listening to the music of Lithuanian singers.
It feels like so much senseless death. Even my own town has had its trauma. On April 3, 2009, a few blocks from my house, Jiverly Voong, 41, opened fire at the American Civic Association. He killed thirteen people and wounded four more, before turning the gun on himself. I was a block away when it happened, helping prep for an art show that evening. We didn’t understand all the helicopters overhead but it was clear something was happening. I had to walk through the crowd of grieving families to get home. I can’t even think about it without wanting to cry again. The pain of the aftermath was tangible. That kind of violence lingers and becomes its own ghost.
You would think that we wouldn’t react with such shock to events like this anymore. And some people don’t. But a lot of us still do, which tells me that we feel fundamentally that violence is wrong. And that is important! Our bones are telling us it’s wrong. Our magic is telling us it’s wrong. If this is not the world we want to live in, we all need to learn to listen to that voice.

Most of the time, we are left in the dark as to ‘why’ this kind of violence happens. Not this time. I read Elliot Rodger's 'manifesto', all one hundred and thirty-seven pages of it, chronicling his life from birth to just before he was ready to enact his 'Day of Retribution.' He put his plan in action to punish all single women for not giving him sex and all men who were having sex for being given something he was denied. That's the nutshell, and mostly in his own words. He goes on (at length) about how women do not deserve the rights they have because their brains are wired wrong and they should all be eradicated (through torture), except for a few who will be hidden away to propagate the species. He believed that men would be better off in a fairer world where women could not make it unfair. He says he knew he had to do it when he realized his ideal world was never going to be possible.
He started planning this event when he was seventeen years old. From the beginning the plan always included him taking his own life to escape punishment afterwards. I don’t think his words will give better answers to those left behind in grief.
There is no 'thing' that happened. It was clear in his own story that from a very early age the way he perceived the world was off. There was nothing that really stood out, except for the stories he had where someone was 'cruel' to him, where he was traumatized and scarred for life- incidences he, of course, never played a part in creating. And it isn't until near the end where you begin to understand how all of these perceived slights created a world in his head in which he was entitled to things he perceived all men as having, and angry at the world for not giving them to him. It was chilling.
Entitlement. This is where the line blurs. Entitlement from women, as if they were all supposed to want to be with him because he was a good guy. In his mind love is giving men sex. Period. He would go out in public and sit somewhere by himself and get angry that no woman came up to him or smiled at him. So angry, in fact, that he jumps to wanting to kill them and skin them alive- his words- for being attracted to the wrong men. He dropped his college classes because he could not bear to be ‘tortured’ by watching the pretty blondes flirt or kiss their 'oafish' boyfriends. He was sexist and racist, despite the fact that he was not white himself. I kept forgetting about beneath his rantings. He was shorter than most men and he had the napoleon complex that comes with it in our culture. That alone can make men violent. It happened to my brother when he was a teen, four years older than me and a good foot shorter. It humiliated him.
What I read painted him as a sociopath. If he hadn't done this act, it would have been something else. To read his story, he could have easily become a serial murderer, taking out young girls and men here and there, a la Son of Sam. He was a man on a path of violence. I feel for his family, for all of the friends he had in his lifetime that he rails against in his manifesto, calling them his 'enemies' even while hanging out with them.

The scariest part for me is that he is not alone in the way he thinks about women and what he perceived their place as in the world. Misogyny still exists. I have my own list of men and women who turned violent or abusive when I dared to say no to them, no matter how pleasant I was about it. There was a man in college who was my friend, who suddenly decided that because I was nice to him, I owed him a date, so he could prove to me that we were supposed to be together, despite the fact that I was happily dating someone else. He called me every night, trying to force me to go out with him, "just one time." It ended with him grabbing me by the throat and lifting me up, jacking me into a wall in front of his buddies, telling me, "All you need is a real man to show you what you're missing."
It was not the only time I have heard a man say that to me. Other times I did not get away so easy. In that instance I didn't know what to do. I ran to my friends and they, in turn, cornered him and threatened him with bodily harm if he looked at me again. He thought that was unfair. He came back at me asking me why I ruined it, why I did that... and if you ask him now, he doesn't know why I stopped talking to him. In his world, like Elliot Rodgers, I emasculated him with my rejection. 
The difference is that man has a family and his own daughters now. He moved on and matured. I still cross the streets at night when I see men walking towards me, and I keep to the shadows and avoid the street lights. If I practice misandry, it’s because the world taught me I had to. I don’t think one can call caution misandry, but I have been called a man-hater for it. And that is the way that misogyny hurts both men and women.
I am not alone in that I have a list of assaults and attacks at the hands of men who thought they were owed something from the world, to whom my sensitive, pacifist nature made me an easy target. I have suffered the questions from authorities of what I was wearing and how much I was drinking when I actually tried to report incidences. I gave up trying to tell other people. I was complicit in my silence. We all are.
I don't want my nieces to ever feel like they have to make up a boyfriend just because the guy hitting on them won't take no for an answer. And I don’t want them to have to worry that they might be shot for doing so. I don't want to believe that so much violence could come out of moments like that. For the victims of Rodgers, it was as simple as women he never tried to speak to never looked at him. And that was an assault to him. An offense. He kept saying, in his own words, “it traumatized me." And his world was unfair and it angered him to violence.

I know a lot of wonderful men who would never think or dream of hurting a woman. That's important to me. But I also live in communities with men who think a lot like Elliot Rodgers. Reading some of his more harmless thoughts was startling in that I have heard those words come from the mouths of men I know. 
People are going to challenge his mental health status. I don’t think that matters. I lived with a man once, in a house full of people, who was a bit stand-offish, but social enough. We'd all been close friends for a few years in college. He was weird but we all were in our own way. One day we discovered that he was a sociopath. He assaulted and tried to rape one of our housemates- one of his friends- and everything we thought we knew about him turned out to be a lie. All of us who lived in that house are still haunted by it. I imagine that's what Elliot's family is feeling right now. No matter if your gut tries to warn you, your heart can’t believe someone you care about could ever be capable of something so horrible. 
How do we engage in dialogue with people whose thoughts and words border on a tone of violence against other people? What do we do with people who honestly believe they deserve better than those around them and are willing to take lengths to get it? For me this isn't about gun control or mental illness. What do we, as a society, do with people who don’t care about the rights, dignity, and worth of their fellow human beings?
You can’t take lives and be a good person. You can’t act against people you perceive as less than you and be a good person. Doing some good deeds does not make up for the cruel choices we make. We have to hold everyone accountable for their cruelty, no matter how poor, no matter how powerful. Because true repentance means you will not do wrong again. Anything less than that is unacceptable.

I found a glimmer of hope in the wave of anger that spawned the #yesallwomen stories that have been pouring across the internet. It doesn’t bring back the dead, but it is good to hear that people are raising their voices in the wake of such violence. There is hope in the number of people railing against it.
We need to teach people who raise arms, figurative and literal, against other humans, that they have no worth, no matter what gifts and special skills they have. We need to teach each other to put people first. When politicians abuse their spouses, they should lose their positions. When a man rapes, he should forfeit his rights as a citizen, because he took “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” from another. When teachers take advantage of their students they should be fired. When our family members do wrong, we should love them, but we should tell them what they did was not okay. We vote for what we believe with every dollar we spend, and we vote for the world we want with our words and our silences. Nothing is so important that advancement should overrule the needs of the people it is meant to serve. Our actions today decide what kind of ancestors we will be remembered as.
We all have two wolves within us, to use the Cherokee legend. One wolf is angry and hurtful. The other wolf is loving and kind. They are always battling between each other, inside of us. And the wolf who wins will be the wolf we feed. In the wake of such atrocities, we must pour our love into the world, for love is truly the way to peace.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.