NORA L. JAMIESON
Recently, in the wake of returning from Ireland and being with the neolithic Standing Stones, and the unfolding ceremony of events at Standing Rock, I dreamed a dream of words
the Constitution does not protect the territory of memory
I had gone to Ireland to walk the land of my ancestors, of my dead. Finding my republic of Ireland kin only recently, I wanted to walk where they walked in the prayer that the land who they had loved, who had loved them, had given birth to them, would speak to me as a daughter. Claim me.
I have been looking to be claimed by clan my whole life. It’s an embarrassing admission at sixty-seven open to accusations of wanna-be, and all kinds of psychoanalytic interpretations. But it’s true and I’m training myself not to use the psychologized language of obsession to describe this unceasing desire to find the through line of my people.
I’ve come to believe that my dead, their memories, their stories are calling to me, are longing for me. That somewhere in the ley lines of my soul they live. They’re not perfect, not ideal, but they carry knowledge of the way to live with earth as kin, to pay debt to the Spirits of the land, to live as a full human being.
Chief of the Cherokee, Wilma Mankiller once said something like this to her people – if you follow the through line of your people you will be alright. I have not one bit of Native American blood in my veins, yet her words spoke to me deeply. The through line. John Berger writes, in his On The Economy of Dead, “the dead surround the living. The living are the core of the dead. In this core are the dimensions of time and space. What surrounds the core is timelessness.” He speaks of rare exchanges between the core and its surroundings, which are mystical in nature and often not clear. He goes on to say that before the dehumanization of society by capitalism the living and dead were interdependent and that religion used to be concerned with these mystical exchanges. Long before organized religion, reverence for and communication with the ancestors was the spiritual foundation of many old cultures.
At its language root, memory refers to “the reduplication of base. To be concerned for, be anxious about, think, consider, remember.” Telling the old stories again and again, generation after generation. Telling them the stories of the Ancestors, the land, this stone, how that peak called to us to gather, that migration, this famine, stories of suffering and endurance and beauty sink deep roots in the soul of the young. Offering them a through line to hone to.
The barely surviving, but resurging indigenous people of this land and time carry their own diverse cultures that, I believe, echo what many of us of European lineage have lost. I am charged to remember what I was never told. I am called to remember the stories that I am sure run in my bloodlines. I am called to remember and honor the stories of my dead. And out of these rememberings to help create a viable earth culture, where species speak to each other, where we learn to become full human beings in relation to each other, the earth, our dead, our ancestors.
So many are doing this. Apprenticing to the land, to the wind, the water, the stars. We search old texts, read between lines of ancient poetry, follow the wild text of our animal kin through snow and mud, and dream. We use our hands in the old ways of making to uncoil the remembering in our blood and brain. We search for the nearly lost ways, in my case, of Gaelic cultures, for the vapor trail of the last Elders now crossing to the Otherworld. And we dream.
the Constitution does not protect the territory of memory
I am a woman woven of four bloods. Is the soul of each blood different? I am of Scots, Irish, English and Scandinavian descent. I am a daughter of those Puritans who first immigrated to North America and settled what is now Cape Cod and Massachusetts, and Windsor, Connecticut. Some of my Scots people came in 1718, fleeing Ulster in northern Ireland and moving into Maine and Canada. My great, great grandparents, Elizabeth and Joseph emigrated in 1872 from Northern Ireland to settle in Enfield, CT. My Irish ancestors, from County Cork, Morris and Mary came before the famine, settling eventually in Machias, Maine where they established a successful lumber business.
I am a woman woven of four bloods. I am a daughter of Occupiers, whose ancestors occupied Wampanoag, Pequot, Mohawk, Maliseet and other indigenous homelands. Who established homesteads on stolen territory, declaring rights to thousands-of-years-old established hunting and fishing grounds. I am descended from Indian fighters, who fought in the Pequot War and King Philip wars defending their rights to stolen land. I am descended from hard workers, and hard fighters. People honed razor sharp by their history of persecution by the British, the Vikings and the Romans. They came here and proceeded to do exactly what had been done to them, seemingly without much question and often motivated by terror of what they saw as wilderness, and savage. And savage is how the British described the Irish, distinguishing them from “whiteness” and civilization which the British laid claim to for themselves.
There is no doubt that those who came here from other lands and from whose blood I am descended suffered. That some of them came here desperate and fleeing hardship, tyrants and starvation. But this not the whole story, nor is it the only version I can lay claim to.
As I traveled through Ireland, thousands of North American indigenous peoples gathered in North Dakota to stop the expansion of the pipeline under the Missouri River. They call themselves the Water Protectors and they understand their actions to stop the pipeline as ceremony. They make a human wall of prayer and dissent, to obstruct the private and public militarized police forces who have come to remove them with dogs, rubber bullets, pepper sprays, and sound cannons. And legislation. They stand in faith with the old ways, the ways they know are in alliance with mother earth, water is life. The old laws.
I am a woman of four bloods. The English warred on the Irish and the Scots, the Ulster Scots then occupied the land of the Irish. And then there are the Vikings. As I prepared to and as I traveled in Ireland, there was a war between my bloods. The old wars had become interior, now an internal dialogue of longing, prohibitions, rights or lack of. Where do I have the right to walk, what earth can I claim as kin? Who am I? Where are my people? To what land am I kinned? Stephen Jenkinson says that for people of European descent, home is no longer a place, it is a skill. How to home?
As we traveled I was continually yet subtly reminded of the devastations inflicted on the Irish people by the British and the Ulster Scots. Each time the dawning sense of familiarity with the sacred iconography of passage tombs and standing stones and with the people who created them, a growing sense of kinship, was shrouded with heart-ache and a responsibility not to deny the whole of my lineage.
The rain pelted, stinging against our faces, our rain gear ballooned, and snapped in the wind as we climbed over the green step ladder straddling the cow fence, allowing us passage while securing the cows. A very large and beautiful cow, her sides bulging with calf, stood watching us enter and proceed up through the wet cow pasture where large cow paddies sitting on tufts of green grass glistened with pooled water as we stepped carefully around them navigating the boggish ground.
The tall stones sit on the hill, they are there now, under the low sky, arranged in a circle. Immense, silent witnesses to timelessness. In the center a flat stone sat laden with offerings and prayers. On that day, I approached the north stone, and slipped behind it. Taller than the other stones, aligned with the north star, it stands a bit outside the circle.
Hidden, I lean into the rough granite, mossy and licked by cow’s tongues, and I weep long-stored tears. I have been remembered. And I have remembered. I rub my tears onto this old memory keeper, I lick the rough stone and I pray. I want to stay forever.
Leaving, I am reminded of my grief at having to leave my father’s people after rare visits. My people who I might not see again, if so, only rarely. My connection to him. I felt I was leaving kin and I turned as many times as I could to catch a last glimpse of the family of stones.
the Constitution does not protect the territory of memory
Indigenous peoples of the world know what land has been given to them to protect, to call home, a right given by the land itself, by their deep intimacy with that earth, the water, the animals, the plants. The land of Ireland is filled with cairns, passage graves, standing stones, sacred burial grounds, and ceremonial sites acknowledging the Otherworld of the ancestors. Mysterious, inscribed stones, taking generations to complete, speak a language known by the heart and our old memory. Of tectonic forces and old powers of creation, of sun and moon, of what and who is sacred to a people.
The people of Standing Rock in North Dakota stand for protecting the sacred. They have experience hundreds of years of devastating oppression and it’s attendant poverty and despair. And yet, there are the memory keepers, the Elders. They stand now for their old ways and while I hadn’t intended to make this about them, how could it not be? Are they carried by the Standing Rocks, those keepers of mother earth’s memory? Might we all be? The Constitution does not protect the terrain of memory, no.
But neither can it regulate nor legislate memory, because memory in the earth, in the stones of earth, written in scripts all over the world. Waiting. Perhaps it is they, these abiding keepers of memory who enter our dreams, who speak to us of ancient possibilities and ways.
A through line. To home.
John Berger, “On The Economy of the Dead,” Harpers Magazine, September 2008.
Ernest Klein Etymology, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, Elsevier Publishing Co., New York 1967
I remember my mother in her seventies, looking into the mirror while getting ready to go off to one of our lunches, turning to me in exasperation, biting out the words, “getting old is ugly!” And me, nearly forty, reassuring her this was not so. Perhaps reassuring her that it was my way of whistling past the grave yard, yet I truly didn’t find her aging ugly. But each time she looked into that mirror, expecting to find a face that she knew, a face that reflected how she felt inside, which was, I imagine, like herself, another woman looked back. Who knows what others looked back at her as well. Her mother, her grandmother? Or some old woman she never knew but whose bones rested in some place my mother never set foot upon even though she carried that deep down DNA in her bones as well.
In my mid-sixties now, I think a lot about aging, about dreams unfulfilled, things wrought, the invisibility of older women and the obsolescence of true Elders as a vital repository of knowledge in a culture of commodity and speed, technology and social media. The culture of nursing homes filled with old people waiting to die. The culture filled with young people not knowing what they’re here for. Who are desperate and deciding to opt out. I live in a time when I’m told from every quarter that aging is a state of mind, that sixty is the new fifty, that white haired women can be oh so sexy (we knew that), and when young women reassure me quickly how good I look even though I am old. As if age in and of itself needs reassurance. That culture.
As a younger woman I felt that I was contributing to my community, but notice it’s more difficult to embrace that now that I’m an older woman and have deliberately, following the soul of my Eldering, turned away from certain work in order to be available in depth to who, visible or invisible, needs me and the ways I have to offer that were given me to carry. The soul ways.
And, yet, it is still a real work not to be infected and seduced by those voices that shout from every available venue, telling us that fighting death and aging is the great heroic journey of our times. Not getting old seems to have become an obligation. Or proof that you still love life. Or perhaps it is sheer self defense against becoming invisible and irrelevant in this racket we call culture.
I try to keep company with other voices these days, and they whisper me a different story, one that the whole natural world seems to know. Death is a giveaway. In a world of right relations, we would all know—wouldn’t we?—that our death must be a giveaway, our bodies laid back into soil, feeding the small ones, rotting into nutrition for the next sprouting. The great big last giveaway.
This past fall, I sat watching the leaves, dazzled sane by their beauty in the shifting light and winds. In the rain. They are dying, their nutrients called home by the mother tree in preparation for winter. The remaining sweetness, the colors and then the shedding to earth, making new earth. A primal generosity. In a culture so terrified of death, the aging carry its unwelcome specter. We are walking reminders that, after all, we are animals inevitably bound to the ancient cycles.
One can live this as fact, biology, concept, science. The leaves will fall whether or not they cotton to the deal, says the scientist. But if you sit and watch the leaves, you’ll know, you will, that they are in some holy agreement with the wind, the sun, fate, the deep pulse of life knowing itself and continuing. In a world of right relations, this would be both a beautiful and sorrowful story. True Elders are steeped in the knowing that this is the way of things, it is one of the vital knowings that they impart to the young. Death feeds life, makes new life. But some of the people fell out of this ancient agreement somewhere along the line and the consequences are breaking the Mother Tree and her young.
Yet I am wondering now if the trees are telling me that aging, too, is not only a giving up, a surrendering to, but also a giveaway. Or, at the least, an accelerated one.
I look down at my hands, knobby and rivered with veins. I see my mother’s old hands holding a needle, holding a book, smoothing the table cloth, wringing each other anxiously as she sits on the edge of the hospital bed after a nightmare. They are my hands now. My skin is thinning, becoming the same parchment life is written on. I am evaporating.
I evaporate and someone drinks. Do I become rain over Ohio fields, or snow in the canyons? Or the brook down the hill? Life is taking me back. Little by little, perhaps even now I am feeding that which has fed me all along. I like to think that the eldering, in our way, are like the dispersal of downy seeds in the sunlight, the corn ground into meal for blessing the babies. How could it not be true? Is it not true of the life around us, the seed pods that burst in a fluorescence while the mother plant dies generous and flagrant?
Yes, the fact is that life will take me back no matter how I resist. Do the leaves have a choice and if they do, would they choose differently? Would they stubbornly hang on until the snows of winter lay so heavy on their surface that the mother tree breaks under the weight? Perhaps the leaves know where they are going. Perhaps they agree. Perhaps they know the consequences of refusal.
I have to admit, I know the consequences too, I see them all around me. Yes,
so often the tight fist of my heart is closed and afraid and I stand outside the round of life. But the leaves have told me a different story. One could do worse than to follow their ways.
This giveaway. I am part of it. We are all part of it. This deep and mysterious wonder of life forms and ways.
Recently, Allan and I chose the piece of ground in a small, old cemetery where we will be planted in pine boxes or shrouds, where we will someday sprout up as grass. It’s a somewhat shabby cemetery, worn stones a bit askew, grasses unmown. Yet lovely. I like to know that the grass we will become is allowed to grow up so that it’s iced with morning frosts of November, backlit by setting suns.
When I am dead, the earth will take what is left of me, a body I give willingly to the worms, the bacteria, the grass. The earth will take what I pray by then is a body, a heart, a mind well used, right down to the bone of me.
Yet, now, right now, life is taking me back into itself. I am evaporating and in that drop of water is the world, in this gesture, years of experience. One woman’s silent attentiveness to life is another’s soup kitchen. One Elder’s art is another’s prayer. Every living thing needs nourishment and every thing is living. There is so much to give away.
“In this terrible, gleaming, penetrating work, we learn what it is to be animal again, and so to be fully human. Nora Jamieson’s true and remarkable voice is so old and so aligned with the old, old ways, it is startlingly new. This is a Literature of Restoration. This is the way of sacred language. This is prayer manifesting in blood, bone, terror, and beauty. This is the language of Creation. These words recreate the holy world and offer it from a fierce heart. Who would have dared to imagine that The Cailleach might be among us again.” Deena Metzger, author, Ruin and Beauty and La Negra y Blanca: Fugue and Commentary
“Like myths, Nora Jamieson’s wild, beautiful, and holy stories resonate with truths from a time when nature and all living things were inseparable. Feeling ‘deranged’ in the modern world, her characters struggle against the forces that separate humans from each other, from the other animals, from the natural world, from the sacred. While the narrative voices bristle with unflinching honesty, they offer solace with the possibility of redemption.” Anne Batterson, author, The Black Swan
“Nora Jamieson’s new book, Deranged, is a basket woven from materials found in the wild and lined with animal fur; a nest for three short stories, strange but true. The stories feature unforgettable old women who live in the shimmering place between civilization and wilderness, women who are in the business of recollecting, reckoning and remembering. Anna, Sophie, and Louise travel the beaten paths of their personal past and keep going, picking their way through the brambles of bygone times, nose to the ground, sniffing for the ragged remnants of the old ways that will bind the sorrows left behind by history.” Patricia Reis, co-editor of Women’s Voices, author of The Dreaming Way and Daughters of Saturn
Weeping Coyote Press, 2015
Paperback, 158 pages
List price $14.00
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