All this year has been about story, its power, and Story as a living thing. There’s a Greek word μῦθος, from where we get our word ‘myth’ that captures something of it’s nature: it is something worth being recorded, remembered, and retold. But even that falls short in true. Story is what sustains us. It’s what provides continuity throughout the triumphs and nadirs of our lives. It’s what connects us with everything and everyone that has come before. It’s what enables us to connect to those in our world now; and yet, it is so intensely personal.
I’d burn down the world to preserve the tales I tell myself. They’re that important to me, the stories I weave in the darkness of the night when I’m lulling myself to sleep, or the tales that enfold me, spinning out from day dreams. I have come to cherish my Stories enough that I’d sacrifice just about anyone or anything to preserve their integrity. It doesn’t matter how seemingly irrelevant or simplistic our stories are, they are precious and sacred.
I’m not talking about religious experience. I’m talking about our imagination’s ability to engage with storytelling, to experience through words another life, to be moved emotionally by another’s words, to create in our minds doorways to other places.
I value my interior life deeply. I always have. There is nothing more precious that I could share with someone. There is nothing more important save the Gods and the work I do for Them that I share. It has a value that goes well beyond the here and now, these threads of imagination and creativity that sustain like nothing else. They are, like the arts, the best part of our humanity.
We can remake ourselves through the stories we tell. This is partly why it’s so incredibly important to steep children in fairy tales and fantasy and literature. It provides nourishment on a fundamental level. Years ago I remember an argument with a fundamentalist Christian relative. She was dead set, adamantly so, against children being allowed to read any type of fiction especially fantasy. Imagination might free them from the chains of their monotheism of course. I was viscerally horrified at the mental and emotional paucity of what she would have encouraged in children, a type of prison for the mind, a crushing of the spirit. We need our stories to enable us to survive in the world.
Story has the ability to teach us. We gain power through their telling. It is an arena where we can fail and learn and grow and hopefully succeed gaining knowledge, power, and healing that we can bring back to this world to transform our lives. Story is how we pass on the knowledge and wisdom of the ancestors. It is how we forge connections to them to our Gods, to ourselves, to our world.
This is in part why I share my stories with very few people and why I grow so enraged when I’m reading and someone, however well meaning, insists on talking to me. I may not show my anger – usually it is either people who are lonely and want to connect or people who themselves don’t like to read who do this. I do my best to be patient and respond with kindness however painful the interruptions might be. When I am about to lose myself in another world, to crawl into another world where I can live and breath, love and thrive and someone forcibly drags me back to mundanity, it’s a very special kind of agony.
So tell your stories. Fall in love with certain books. Write your fanfictions. Keep a poetry journal. Take a stab at nanowrimo. Day dream. Become the hero or heroine of your own tale. Fall in love with words. It’s important. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Hiding my face I fled, and the grey wind hissed behind me.
He revealed His mysteries, so the dreamer went blushing into battle and died.
So many winged creatures sculpted out of flight to peer from a ledge
wine is spilled on promiscuous lips
tiny dried up men speaking pure light
Do not go gentle. Do NOT go gentle.
I will not die like the shadows of those mountains, who are cast down by the body of the nighttime sky. I will not die… Dark is better for devotion.
I collect small things. Within my bones and atriums I can hold your pieces. The lance of my eyes is unsheathed. Terror has rent the fabric of the sky. I am at the mouth of the cave. I am willing to crawl, from death to resurrection.
Immortality exists under the World Tree, where three roots pierce the ages… The clock will always strike midnight and history repeats.
From the thunder and the storm, I alone tread the red circle. I celebrate our old eternal custom, our purifying rites. I won’t run off.
My thoughts have a spirit’s wings, my memories a desert wind;
Down on your knees, Achilles, a fresh grief will flood your heart.
[With respect to Alice Oswald, Ada Limon, Mina Loy, Amy Lowell, Cynthia Manick, Marianne Boruch, Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa, Marilyn Hacker, January Gill O”Neil, Euripedes, Etheridge Knight, Dylan Thomas, cairo mcflarlane, Andal translated by Ravi Shankar, Edgar allen Poe, Christopher Logue].
Today is the feastday of St. Ursula. I like her a lot and had the pleasure of visiting her bone chapel in Cologne last year. On my other blog, I wrote about that and a little about her. check it out here.
I came back to NY today and on the way I stopped in Wellington, PA. There is a Quaker meeting house there off Rte. 74 (Warrington Meeting House) and my sixth great grandfather Rev. Alexander Underwood was one of its key, founding members. He helped raise money to purchase the land and was a very well known minister within the Quaker community.
Alexander was born in 1688 in Maryland and died in 1767 (on Oct. 31) in Wellington, Pa. He is buried in the cemetery of the Warrington Meeting house (part of which, along with the original meeting house, you can see in my photo above). I wasn’t able to find his stone, which was frustrating. I thought that I had found that of my fifth great grandmother – his daughter Ann Ailes Fraizor, nee Underwood (I’m descended from her via her husband S. Ailes) but it was the wife of another Underwood (tangentially related). It was a sad fact that many stones were worn almost to illegibility and many of the oldest stones were quite simply unreadable.
That was actually one of many frustrating parts of this visit. Now it may simply have been that St. Luke’s cemetery was such an intense experience and that I was simply still bowled over from that, but I got absolutely nothing – no contact at all—from the Warrington graves.
Now this is my biological mother’s paternal line (her father’s paternal line specifically) and that entire line is a bit vexed. There have been many challenges and blockages as I try to uncover ancestor information. I’ve made some strides (identifying Rev. Underwood for instance as my sixth great grandfather) but it’s still frustrating and very slow going when compared to my mother’s maternal line.
I spent a significant amount of time today walking through the cemetery searching pretty much all the stones (the cemetery was not that large). I spoke with members of the congregation as they were setting up for a morning Meeting. They weren’t sure which of the Underwoods were buried there or where and the person who knew wouldn’t be in today, but I received permission to wander to my heart’s content through the cemetery. Even better, I got the chance to walk into and see the meeting house that my sixth great grandfather helped found. That was pretty damned cool. (I’m sure they would have allowed me to remain for the service but I’m not Quaker and I refuse to be one of those people who ogles other religious practitioners like they’re specimens under a microscope. I’ve experienced that too much as a polytheist when visitors attend our services to do it to someone else. I moved my car so that I wouldn’t bother anyone when my friend MAG and I left and got down to the business of making offerings). Not being able to find the graves, I found an old tree in the cemetery, one that I liked, prayed, poured out offerings and eventually left.
I tried to suss out why there was so much silence tonight once I got home, but div was inconclusive. Part of it may have been that I always have a cadre of military dead with me and Quakers are pacifists (though there were several in the cemetery who served in the War of 1812 or the Civil War); part of it may have been that there was a Meeting in progress, in fact I got a strong sense that was significant; and I’m sure there were other reasons too. It was, however, frustrating. I had a feeling last night though that this particular leg of my visit wasn’t going to be particularly productive. I considered just going straight home but I didn’t want to be disrespectful. It’s just not time for that line to open up to me yet and that’s ok.
Today I started a very mini-pilgrimage. Mostly I’m down in MD to visit family, but on the way, I very deliberately sought out a cemetery where I know a number of my relatives are buried. (I intend to visit another from a different part of my lineage on the way home. Both are in the same county in PA). It was…overwhelming. I walked into the cemetery and realized immediately that I am related, quite directly too, to at least 95% of the people there. I’ve never been in a cemetery where I had more than one or two relatives, certainly not one that has six plus generations of my maternal line! It was dizzying and I quickly became disoriented. I don’t think I can quite describe the sensation of walking amongst that many of my dead, or of sinking down before my third great grandparents’ stones and communing with them. It was powerful to say the least.
Since I have difficulty driving long distances because of my back and neck injuries, my friend MAG drove me down and is accompanying me on the ancestor pieces of this journey. She is a good travel buddy and very good at playing handler for me if need be—and today I needed it. We left NY at five am and made it into York County, PA by ten thirty but it took us almost another hour to find the cemetery. We knew it was off rte 425 but even so, it was not the easiest thing to find. When we did, it hit me like a punch in the solar plexus, literally knocking the wind right out of me. I saw it as we crested a hill and I knew “that one ‘s mine.”
My primary purpose was to visit the grave of my first cousin twice removed (I think I go that right! An error in my genealogy had me thinking he was my second great uncle for awhile.) Wesley Heffner who died on June 5 from wounds sustained in WWI.
Wesley was part of Co. B 26th Infantry which was part of the first American forces to arrive in France as part of Pershing’s Expeditionary Force. They were immediately deployed to the front. According to the wiki entry on this regiment, they earned more campaign streamers than any other regiment but at a terrible cost, losing nearly half their forces. (1) They did, however, help turn the tide of the war. “…Soldiers of that regiment were quintessential doughboys: part of the first American division to arrive in France, the 26th Infantry was first to enter combat, first to sustain a casualty, first to take the offensive, and first to enter Germany after the Armistice.” (2) Wesley didn’t make it to the Armistice. He died before the battle of Soissons. I’m still trying to track down where his company would have been in May-June 1918 but I haven’t had much luck. Near as I can tell, probably Cantigny, maybe Amiens, but I’m not sure. I’ve a bit of research ahead of me.
Anyway, I went to visit his grave and I knew I had a couple more ancestors buried there but I had no idea, just…no idea exactly how many. Usually when I go into a graveyard, after having made some preliminary offerings, I can find who I’m looking for almost immediately. That was not the case here. There were just too many and I was completely overwhelmed. I finally asked Private Heffner ‘I’m here to honor you, I need some help finding you!” and heard clear as day “look to your right.” And there he was. Later, he helped me find his grandparents (I finally thought to ask him again after I nearly passed out from the heat after a very long time tramping through in the graveyard. I tried to douse and it all but exploded in my hands because there were just so many of my ancestors there. Again, when I asked, he immediately pointed them out).
I have a certain protocol that I follow when I come into a cemetery to do this type of work. First I cover my head and I greet the cemetery spirit itself. I make offerings to the cemetery and then general offerings to those buried there, explaining my purpose. I ask the help of the cemetery itself and my own ancestors in locating them. Usually it’s not a problem but this was so intense. I don’t have words to explain. If there is anywhere in the United States that is my ancestral land, it’s Chanceford Township. To this day, Heffners, Schoffs, Runkles et al people the place. This cemetery was filled with my people, my ancestors, generation after generation after generation and they recognized me, and so did the land itself. It’s the only time in the US that I’ve had that experience (it has happened occasionally at certain places in Europe). There was a depth of connection there that I’d never experienced before. Usually when I go into a cemetery in MD or PA I might have one or two ancestors there, maybe half a dozen but not dozens, not multiple generations (as in seven, eight, nine and more generations), not that many directly linked, my direct antecedants. It was so incredibly dizzying.
So after staggering around the cemetery pouring out offerings for about a half hour, I finally realized I needed to focus. I made a general offering to all of my ancestors there and explained first I wanted to find Wesley, and then having asked his help I did that. I spent a good half hour making offerings. The photo of the young man above is very likely the only extant picture of him. Soldiers were (and I believe still are) photographed when they enlist, just in case they die in service, which he did.
I made offerings at his stone, having divined last night about their appropriateness. (For those new to reading my blog, reverencing the dead is a major tenet of my religion. We are expected to tend our ancestors’ graves, visit them, make offerings, know our genealogy, maintain a household ancestor shrine, etc. We use divination to ensure that our offerings and actions are correct and welcome).
Then I double checked my list (I had a list of ancestors that I knew were buried in that cemetery. It was…to say the least…incomplete! While I was hunting for Wesley, a woman came and made a grave rubbing of one of the stones for a client (she was a genealogist), and spoke with my friend MAG. She gave MAG a website where another genealogist had taken photographs of every stone in that cemetery. It was very helpful. MAG passed it onto me and I was able to see what a stone looked like, which narrowed down the process of finding it (no small thing given that my head was just spinning the whole time I was there. Writing this now, hours and hours later, I feel as though I was hit by a mack truck and I’m not sure if it’s from the long drive or the time with my dead!)(3)
I cried when I found the graves of my third great grandparents Jesse Runkle and Elizabeth Runkle (nee Oberlander). Their stones are side by side and as with Wesley I was able to sit for a long time in front of them talking, praying, and making offerings. I’ve never quite experienced anything like sitting there on that ground with them and I wish I could have stayed for a much longer time. There simply wasn’t enough time and I hope to soon return, perhaps in a few months, and spend a significant amount of time in a mini utiseta.(4)
Here is Jesse’s stone by itself:
Here is a photo (poor quality for which I apologize!) of him and Elizabeth as adult seniors (copied from the Runkle Genealogy book by J .Grove. She was kind enough to send me a photocopy of the images as we are both descended from Jesse. I do not know who originally took these portraits as both of my third great grandparents died well before I was born!):
And here is her stone by itself:
After a stumbling, staggering struggle (and nearly passing out from the heat, which I ignored far too long in a dogged desire to find their stone), I managed to find with Wesley’s help, the stones of my second great grandparents William Henry Heffner and Catherine Heffner (nee Runkle).
Wesley is their grandson. His parents, Amos and Della Heffner were there too.
It was odd, I kept wondering why everyone wasn’t grouped together ‘why aren’t you buried next to relatives?” except they are. The entire cemetery is related. I’m still boggled by it. I realize why people fight to the death to protect their ancestral burial grounds. I always understood it mentally but now I get it on a gut level. I understand to the marrow of my being. These are my people and this land that holds their bones is sacred.
It is late now and I am exhausted and will be spending the next two days with (living) relatives. I have more to tell and more photos but for now I’ll conclude with this image. Those rolling fields and many more like them once sustained my ancestors. It’s a good place to live and a very good place to rest and when the land speaks carrying the bones of one’s dead, it’s very hard not to listen.
I’m lucky too. I kept finding Civil War soldiers amongst my direct antecedents and MAG helpfully pointed out that I must have had soldiers who fought at Gettysburg – it isn’t that far from here and all of my folks were in PA regiments. It was, for awhile 50/50 as to whether we’d be making a side trip to the battlefield. It’s still a possibility.
Later, after the cemetery visit, I met a cousin (twice over, though we haven’t calculated the exact relationship, how many times removed, etc.) who has helped me in the past with my genealogy. Ms. J. as I’ll call her here told me that Elizabeth was a remarkable woman. She had sixteen children and all of them survived to adulthood, something almost unheard of in her time. These women were tough. It wasn’t uncommon to have ten, thirteen, sixteen, seventeen, and more children at home and sans painkiller or modern medicine. They had grit.