Erin O'daniel is a writer, artist and gender expansive womxn living in Duluth, Minnesota

Ancestors North and South

In October, I enjoyed a vacation in the Blue Ridge mountains and piedmont of North Carolina. While there, I spent a lot of time talking to my southern ancestors. I thanked them for the opportunity to return to the South and connect with the magic of the region. I asked questions about what next and wondered aloud through the rich and painful lessons (many about how to respond to loss) of 2018.

 Over the last two years, I’ve started a practice of tapping into the ancestral wisdom and support in my life. Inspired by the brilliant Anishinaabe writer and activist Winona LaDuke, I speak to the trees and rocks and rolling water as family. I aim to show my elders, wild and human, how much I love and respect them. Mainly I express appreciation and actively listen to both the living and the dead all around me.

 This recent trip seemed especially important to connect with the spirits I can’t see yet feel intimately below the Mason Dixon line. I’m a migratory being and have nurtured what I call a north south dialectic all my life. Born in Miami next to the Atlantic Ocean just south of the Everglades, I moved to Lake Erie and made the rust belt home at five years old. When I was twelve, I returned to warmer geography and spent my next seven years in north Texas. This time during middle and high school at my family’s house in Dallas is the longest I’ve ever called one address home.

 While in Durham last month, I heard author Mohsin Hamid talk about migration at the Nasher Duke University’s contemporary art museum. He used examples from his book Exit West to describe us all as immigrants. He said, “Whether we’ve moved from one country or region to another or have just wanted to be someplace or someone different in our minds, we know what the cost of uprooting and rebuilding ‘home’ and ‘self’ is in our hearts.” His ability to unite us as an audience speaks to the universal in leaving one place and finding ourselves in another.

 It’s interesting to reflect on the generation older than me in my biological family. Beside my parents, all of my relatives have resided in the same place their entire adult lives. My oldest maternal aunt and uncle are potters who built their business and house (that includes an insanely inspiring studio and gallery) on forty acres of land in western New York one hour south of Buffalo. I eat off the art they make each day, every single meal I’m at home.

 My youngest maternal aunt and uncle were high school sweethearts. They too have lived in the same house for forty plus years. They graciously maintain our family cottage my grandparents bought in the 1950s. I’ve spent every summer of my life there except for one- yet live too far away to contribute much to the upkeep. I feel full of love and gratitude for the long hours of physical work they give over the summer season.

 While an avid international traveler, my paternal uncle has resided in the southeastern US his entire life. He introduced me to big ideas like vegetarianism and visiting India on spiritual pilgrimage when I was ten. As a chiropractor and adventurer, he’s expanded conversation, even if mostly in my head, about how to live a full, political, fun and progressive life. As this generation ages, I want to create something to say thank you. The steadiness of their lives still enrich mine.

 Similarly I want my non-physical elders and ancestors to know I’m tuned in and aware of how they feed my life. Hamid spoke to the emotional violence of migration- what it takes to leave one location and/or group of people. While I’ve lived so many places, I haven’t ever deeply acknowledged the pain in the process of uprooting and re-rooting. Mostly I’ve given myself over to the excitement and unknown- and trusted in the infinite beautiful beyond me that keeps me safe and steady as I migrate. I love building homes in new spots and meeting different people. Every address I claim as my own, is a way to recreate myself and my dreams. I always feel the magic and spirit in this process.

 However, as I contemplate change after four years in my current apartment (once the ballroom of a house built in 1890 by a womxn and her lumber baron) an insanely beautiful third story walk up with a view of my beloved bigLake Superior, I feel Hamid’s words in different ways than before this address became mine.

 If we take out the journeys, our losses when we leave a place or people we love are remarkably similar and sorrowful. And if not expressed, that sorrow will continue to resurrect generation by generation. Yet when shared, we aren’t just a “kind of person, moving in one way or another.” We aren’t others separated from our stories or languages. Migration’s violence is all around us- loss of addresses, smells, time, shared moments. When we recognize this and acknowledge our own loss and sorrow, we can offer more compassion to others.

My maternal great grandparents Alva and Gust Swan, emigrated here from Ostergotland, Sweden in 1890.  I wonder how often they talked openly about their losses. Did their stories about this sweeping alteration of the fabric of their lives influence my aunts? Has their migration shaped my life in wilder ways than I previously imagined?

 Now, after hearing Hamid talk and speaking with my ancestors regularly, I’m wildly curious about their loss- the familiar sounds, street names, and shared words my people left behind. Ultimately, when we look across any lifetime, where each moment is lost to us forever, we are all migrants. Every life is a migration. We can never retrieve or return to our childhoods. This land of younger days and runny, diluted, watery decisions dripping all over the tilted countertops of our lives equals the things and people we love rolling off precariously when least expected. Hamid said, “ We murder others when we leave as others murder parts of us too- yet migration is the human universal.”

 Interesting that all my life my writing has been the thread connecting empty and full to old and new. Hamid compared his creative practice to migration. He said, “When we write we leave parts of ourselves and create a void.” By setting time aside every day for our most important practices, connection to emptiness allows us to fill space. I talk to my ancestors as a structured series of gestures to help me tell stories and understand experiences that at the beginning feel unknown and almost unreachable. Similar to moving to a new space, where nothing holds that warm honey of familiarity, I reach into a vast unknown and rewrite my own story, my self on the page and in new adventures.

 This kind of living is a weird hybrid state- multiple realities and experiences intersect, past writes present writes future. And life creates an unstable reality that is ultimately rich and fertile. Migration is about writing a story and returning to a very pure state. When we create a new home, the fiction I tell of myself, including loss and love, have and have not, is re-animated, retold- free to be something other than static and solid. With this change, I get to re-describe something that has been described by others. Similar to names and brands, skills and skill-lessness in putted into our systems, migration takes us out of our ideas of ourselves.

 My ancestors will always connect me to a larger way of passing through space. While my wandering ways and writing help challenge my perceptions of self and world, movement and history mingle inside and outside of me. I’ve dug a well, filled with the emotional, political, spiritual, social and creative elements of me, I can always draw from. Connection to ancestors and writing are both bizarre states of creation. There is a willingness to be re-created in the asking and the telling of our stories. Remembering that my migration everyday is about loss- and love- connects me to these parts of myself and the magic all around me.

Thank you Ancestors north and south for reminding me and re-imagining who I am and can be. I migrate courageously with your comfort, support, inspiration, and encouragement.


Old Bat

Blind Batti Hope