Audibly, it was a moan, a wailing, part breath, and vocal cords in concert with something deep inside her. Thirty-five years after her death, I still have a visceral response to her expressed grief at the end of our visits to my paternal grandmother’s eastern Kentucky home. It needles its way through my skin, muscles, and burrows deep into the marrow of my bones.
We were a part of my grandmother; she remains a part of who I am today.
Traveling home from Greenock, Scotland – the birthplace of the maternal grandfather I never knew – my damp eyes connect with my bone marrow, and I experience an irrational depth of grief. I never knew him! He was never a part of my life. As a barely-adult, he left the shipbuilding, industrial town along the Clyde for North America. And, yet, this is the place that formed him at a very different time. I feel like I am leaving him as I left my paternal grandmother at the end of our visits.
Born an American, a nation founded by Enlightenment thinkers who elevated reason above emotion and religious thought, rationality is embedded within me. I cling tight to reasoning as a tool for perceiving the world. With an intuitive personality, however, I can be at odds with myself. Reasoning can seem contrary to intuition and spirituality. I recall one of my seminary professors questioning my assertion that I place experience slightly above reason as an authority.
Emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is becoming clearer and clearer to me that we have lost sight of the inexplicable that is part of our human existence. That is, reasoning matters, but in the west, we have severed our souls from our bodies. Accumulating material wealth at the expense of relationships, an overreliance on individualism as a virtue higher than the common good, and our disdain for the earth aside from what it can do for us has led us to a cultural forgetting of the mystery.
Though dead, my paternal grandmother’s absolute adoration and unconditional love for her family (especially my father, her only child) follows me. Reasoning tells us that because I knew her, my memories and sense of her following me are simply thoughts of prior experiences. Even my visceral memory of her pain is dismissed as a vivid thought exercise.
But what if we are connected to those who came before?
The trouble is our reasoning begins with a priori knowledge or prior assumptions. Our emphasis on rationality over the spiritual means we may miss what does not fit into our worldview. I discussed my need to suspend my western beliefs to understand the writings of Dagari elder Malidoma Patrice Somè in a previous post (See Ancestral Threads). I had to give up basic assumptions to learn from his experiences. There is an arrogance in assuming that the only correct way to comprehend our existence is through the western lens.
I do not have memories of my maternal grandfather. I have only a stereotyped image of an abusive alcoholic man as the explanation for why my mother broke all ties with him. In my genealogical research, I have learned some dates and places. I now know the existence and names of his siblings as well as that of two children (my aunts) who died as an infant and two-year-old.
And yet, I experienced a tangible connection to my grandfather during my three weeks in Greenock. Something about the place and time triggered something within me. I feel his grief as powerfully, palpably, tearfully, and viscerally as my paternal grandmother. He is as deeply embedded within me as the grandmother whose house I had overnights in as a young child and visited with my own children as an adult.
Something embedded within us connects us to those who came before. Whether it is epigenetic markers, as some trauma research suggestsSee, for example, the research of Rachel Yehuda, PhD., or an aspect of our psychology and existence that western thought denies, leaving the birthplace of my grandfather is viscerally painful. Our visit over, I leave him on the banks of the Clyde as I left my grandmother in eastern Kentucky at the end of our visits.
And I feel grief in the marrow of my bones.