Since I was twenty, I firmly believed in the line from one of Ezra Pound's Cantos: "That which thou lovest is thy true heritage." A natural reaction, I suppose, to the sense of rootlessness that comes of never knowing my biological parents, and having a tendentious relationship with my adoptive parents. So coming to Ireland was in a way a challenge to Pound. Would I feel a sense of connection to where my people came from, or more of a sense of distance, of disconnection? Would my self-constructed heritage trump a biological one? Oddly, on this trip to Ireland I having been feeling both.
This morning we talked about lineage, its power to form us, as evidenced by whaat we have heard from the people who have come to talk with us, Owen and Moly, PJ, Patrick, Padraig, Noirin, and the musicians last night, Josephine, Tom, Paul, Mick and Blackie. It is clear that this place and the people who are a part of their DNA are the wellsprings from which they were formed. And I identify with the deeper vein of place that may have helped shape me in ways I could not imagine, even as an American child of Irish-American parents, both biological and adoptive. Doug says that he understands me better having come here, that he sees this place in me and me in this place. It certainly resonates for me.
But it also shines a light into the empty space where knowing one's forebears lives.
This is certainly true in terms of my birth parents, about whom I know almost nothing. My birthmother was Irish - Edna Flynn - and the little facts I know about my conception are not happy ones. Given her age at my birth (a surprising 38) it is unlikely that she is still alive, and my one attempt to contact her to get a family medical history was rebuffed. It was one door shut to knowing who I was and where I came from, My adoptive parents, Ann and Joseph Brennan, had Irish blood. My father was pure Irish on both sides. My mother was more of an olio of Irish, English, Alsatian French/German. The Irish side - Joe's side - was predominant in our family life, presumably beecause he had extended family living near us, and there were regular family gatherings. My mother Ann always fought to give me a sense of myself as partly English and Alsatian, but with no living relatives anywhere near us, the sense of heritage was less reinforced. Heritage? I had great confusion about who I was, what I was, how I fit into the world.
It was no surprise, then, that the line from Pound's Canto spoke to me. If I could not know who I was by my lineage and heritage, I could construct one out of the things that I loved. Music, words, art, conversation with intelligent people, cooking...a heritage grounded in present experience rather than who my people were and where they had lived. It was, I know, a somewhat self-oriented view that placed me on a map that I had created for myself, not on one that had been bequeathed to me.I chose and built my heritage, or maybe it chose me in some mysterious way.
But it would be wrong to say that this alone would sustain me, that there wasn't a hunger in me for what I saw in other families, in other people. Doug knows his family, can talk about family tree going back to the old country, understands both the joys and the losses in the long family saga. I have virtually none of that, except what I could adopt from Ann and Joe Brennan. For some people, that might be freeing, and in some ways, it is that for me as well. But it is still a sense of lost markers to orient myself.
It was odd, then, last night, to see the uilleann piper Blackie. He looked so much like my father as a young man that it took my breath away for a moment. My father's hair would not have been long and curly like that - I have a picture of him at his confirmation with the black short hair slicked back as would have been the norm in 1926. But the shape of the face, the eyes, the thick dark brow...it was Joe Brennan reborn, not as the tired alcoholic with which I grew up, the man who would be in his grave by 57, the man who became the man of the house supporting his younger siblings when his parents died in his senior year of high school.. No, it was a different Joe - the possibility of youth and gift and energy that I never got to see in the Joe Brennan who raised me.
And the pain of never having known that part of him, if indeed there had been such a part, was strong, and the grief of knowing nothing about Edna Flynn, my birth mother, was equally painful. And the well of sadness of not being able to give my children these threads to weave into their own story was a particular kind of heartbreak, as if I had failed them as a mother by not giving them the whole of their story.
Perhaps Pound's line about true heritage will become my epitaph, that all that matters is that I have lived and loved and created and failed and helped and struggled, that I have found a deep love with someone who understands me mostly (just I can understand myself only mostly) and that I have raised remarkable children. Perhaps the lack of rootedness is what gave me the ability to move through a complicated life with tenacity and a sense of something waiting for me beyond the horizon and a willingness to be transformed at various points in my life as I am meant to be transformed. But there is still within me that hole, that empty spot.
In great sculpture, there is always the negative space that provides context and proportion and meaning to the metal or stone or clay that the sculptor wrests into its thing-ness. In music, there is the necessity of silence to allow the song to truly speak. For me, then, it may be that hole which will have to suffice, rather than the latitude and longitude of knowing one's heritage, as I walk along my pilgrim journey to the next refuge.