This week has been a big one, as I’ve finally put the first stage of the website out there and continued to assemble the material that will go into it. Yesterday I finished gathering past writing from the darker corners of my hard drive going back to the mid-’90s, sorting through it and selecting those items which have promise in crafting current articles or portraying the journey. The total amount of material runs well over a million words. And that does not count the additional hundreds of thousands of words documenting my own Feelingwork mapping and that of the many people who have given me permission to share their stories, nor does it take into consideration the thousands of feeling images I’ve drawn and collected.
It’s all a bit staggering. How did this happen? In my launch post last Saturday, Offering Myself Open, I spoke a bit about the inner barriers that contributed to maintaining my isolation. As I continue to integrate this last round of Feelingwork involving the dissolving of the crucial barrier to my showing up in the world, I can recognize how important it is for me to create a place of belonging for myself. The isolation I maintained in my relationship with the outer world was a direct expression of the isolation I felt internally, a sense of displacement and homesickness for a place that never existed. Now I have faith that my place can exist, and it is in sharing myself here that I am calling it into being.
The Legacy of My Family’s History
In addition to anticipating a future holding a tribe with which I feel belonging, I am also reaching to understand my journey, (How did I get here?), by excavating what is available about my ancestry. It looks like my family roots are pretty simple, with various kinds of laborers and their wives in the census records. Going back to the 1800s yields some interesting bits though, in particular on my father’s side.
My grandfather’s grandmother’s father committed suicide by hanging himself in the barn, apparently, after a few months of “sickness” during which the family was considering having him put in an asylum. And my grandfather’s grandfather, a Richard Shirley, is named in a number of newspaper articles telling of assault and battery charges and jail time, along with suicide attempts trying to hang himself by his suspenders from the cell door. His wife is quoted as saying that her “husband is a shiftless drunkard who works when it pleases him and uses the money to procure drink, but totally neglects to provide for his family.” The article continues to say, “A number of people in Manayunk [Philadelphia], however, believe that the man is insane and has been so for two or three years.” He apparently died in an “almshouse,” destitute.
One thing that interests me about these articles is that for most of them, there are clear discrepancies between the biographical details in the articles and information from other sources about this Richard Shirley. These discrepancies don’t seem to deter the people assembling their family trees from citing the articles, though, latching on to the more superfluous matches between the person in the article and the man in the ancestry chart. I’m interpreting that as not so much a mistake or oversight as an attempt to make sense of the craziness they experienced in their own families. I can say for myself that when I first saw these articles I found a sense of delight at being able to “explain” some of the ugliness in my own father’s behavior, before looking more deeply and seeing that there were likely to be more than one Richard Shirley and it’s very difficult to say if those articles were about the guy who carried the genes that would eventually make it into my body.
Still, I should say that the depiction of an alcoholic in Manayunk, Philadelphia hits home. This was also my grandfather, his grandson, who spent much of his paycheck at the corner bar and was known as a regular fist-wielder who took it upon himself to discipline guys who got out of line. My father as a boy would have to go down to the bar to try to get him to come home for dinner, and had to get a job as a young teen to help the family make ends meet.
On the other side of the family, a different sort of challenge shows up, although not nearly as (melo)dramatic. My great-grandfather moved from Italy, changing his last name from Parascondolo to Pelo. He had been disowned by his father for being out dancing the night his mother died after a long illness. After moving to the States and starting a family, over the next few decades his children would evolve the surname from Pelo to Pello and finally to Pellow, the maiden name of my mother. Apparently this was to attempt to evade the strong prejudice against Italians in Philadelphia at that time, against which they struggled, taking what jobs they could find. I heard at one point that my grandfather spent some time running liquor during the prohibition, for example, and one of the jobs listed on a census for 1940 I think was as a postal meter inspector.
I take from all this a bit more appreciation for the challenges of the past, as well as gratitude to my parents for doing what they could to at least provide financial stability for their family. There was never uncertainty about where the next meal was coming from, as there must have been for the 16 kids sired by Richard Shirley in the late 1800s.
At the same time, I have a much greater and more palpable sense of the magnitude of anguish and struggle carried in the hearts of those in my line. This inner darkness had no place to go, no way to express, and instead went deep underground to influence words and behaviors beyond the realm of the rational. This current of darkness swirled around me as a child. I felt it and could not deny its presence despite those in charge of me steadfastly refusing to acknowledge its existence.
My Lineage, Our History
This is what I’m working with. This is what I am here to speak to, and from. This lineage of pain is what calls out to be liberated through this work I am sharing with you here. This history, a history we all share, a human history of death and betrayal, of agony and madness, of hopelessness and rage; this history does not inhabit the past. It lives here with us now, in every one of us, and we must find ways to release it.
It hasn’t been an easy path, reckoning with something so immense yet so invisible. Out if this reckoning has come a million and a half words (so far). Out of this reckoning came the discoveries and methods I share with you here as I sort through this trove to shape it in ways you’ll find useful. Out of this reckoning I am attempting to reach into a different sort of future. I invite you to come along, and to join me in shaping the possibilities that beckon.