Last Friday night I was with my women ministers’ circle, a wonderful place of support in my life. Our theme for the evening was sharing about our foremothers and telling stories about the women who came before us and showing pictures if we had them. It stirred in me several levels of revelation about the role of ancestral longings in my life.
My maternal grandmother Faith was sadly a joyless and bitter woman. She died when I was 24 with my grandfather by her side, tending to all of her needs as pancreatic cancer ate away at her body. I spent a lot of time during the summers while growing up with my grandparents and I don’t ever remember seeing her smile. Before she got married she had been a teacher and she gave up that career to become a wife and mother of three children, the oldest of whom was my mother, and Faith eventually worked in my grandfather’s business. Whenever she told stories of her days teaching, I sensed deep regret and great longing.
My paternal grandmother Erika I only met once when I was six months old and my family flew to Vienna to be with her as she lay dying, also of pancreatic cancer. I have heard stories about her warmth and energy. Before she got married she was a dancer, a dream she also gave up for marriage and children, but also because she lived in Europe during World War II.
My own mother Suzanne, died two and a half years ago quite suddenly of pneumonia at age 61. She was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in her mid-thirties, a disease that ravaged her body. My father was completely unsupportive of her and she struggled with pain for many years and how it limited her options in life. After my father died in 1996, for the last seven years of her life she blossomed and flourished and was a woman who came fully into her own power. She stopped caring what other people thought and became a radiant presence in my life. Her greatest passions were social justice and individual soul-care through psychotherapy, especially for persons with disabilities. My greatest grief over losing her is that I didn’t have more time to learn from her in all her boldness.
I had an epiphany in preparing for my sharing with the group. I was suddenly aware on a gut level of so much unfulfilled longing just in the last two generations of my ancestry. A Native American man once told me about the concept of blood memory. I have a sense of that longing flowing through my own veins, amplified through the generations. I feel blessed that I have discovered early on in my life what gives me passion and joy, and I hope to not wait until my fifties to live up to my mother’s example of boldness and courage. I have good friends who assure me I already live this way. I realize that I live my life for these women as much as for myself. They sacrificed much in their lives, largely because, for my grandmothers at least, that was the way things were done.
I am also aware of how these different longings compete for my energy, there is the writer/artist part of myself, the teacher part, the soul-care/spiritual director part, and the part that longs to work for justice. Of course these are all woven together in the tapestry of my life. But it has been a revelation to see how clearly my own calling is woven into the callings of my foremothers. They are an essential part of my cloud of witnesses, my communion of saints. And looking at calling in this context widens the horizons of the seed of who I am.
When I craft my life so as to nurture my creativity, it is because I have the time, the means, and the support to do so. It is a privilege to be able to, not one I take lightly. And yet, I too, struggle with my own limits. I also have chronic conditions that limit the amount I can do and my creative energy often wants to extend far beyond my capacity to do so. Much of my journey is learning to balance this longing with my own limits, and living as fully as possible within my reality. I owe it to my foremothers. I owe it to myself. I owe it to the other women and men in my life who I am blessed to encounter. This balancing is at the heart of crafting the sacred art of living.
There was quite a range of experiences shared last Friday night. There were as many painful experiences of mother as joyful ones. We honored the reality of them all. It helped me to acknowledge the complexity and weight of mother, just as there is with father. And why just exchanging one name for God for another is not really enough. Of course, any name for God is a mere shadow of the reality to which they point.
What are the ancestral longings that flow through your veins? What are the desires and limits of your life?
~Christine Valters Paintner