i want to be the grandmother who
pulled from the archives and updated October 2023
It was an insignificant morning when I received an invitation to a wreath-laying ceremony for my great-great-great-grandfather.
My great-great-great-grandfather was the 10th President of the United States. President John Tyler.
Tyler was not a celebrated President and did not leave behind him a legacy of courageous leadership.
In fact, he is known as The Accidental President
He was ushered into office as a vice president, and then ascended to the presidency just 31 days later.
He also enslaved real, good, intelligent people.
He most likely brutalized them and employed people to brutalize them.
He probably treated them worse than he treated his animals and property, as historians agree was a defining characteristic of chattel slavery.
His wealth was not built by his own hands.
It was built by the hands of and stolen from the lives of African people who were stolen from their homes, families, futures, and legacies.
It was built under evil auspices.
I don’t take this heritage lightly.
My relationship with my lineage is complex.
I have ancestors who came across the country in covered wagons on the Oregon Trail. I have antique furniture that has been in my family for generations – that traveled over rugged dirt roads in those very rattling, canvas-topped carts. These ornate sideboards and marble-top tables decorate and fill my home with sturdy, well-made beauty that I love.
I have distant grandfathers who served as State Governors and Supreme Court Justices when Oregon and Washington were still considered territories by a hungry, sprawling, young United States. One grandmother a few generations back was part of the committee that designed the Washington state flag.
We “settled the west”.
These historical figures have been sources of pride and fascination for our family because they undertook crazy, daring, influential feats.
This also means that they were agents of colonization, displacing indigenous people from their lands in violent ways, and that they benefitted heavily from the individual and systematic crimes committed against so many.
What is a modern person supposed to do with all of this?
It took a lot of soul searching, confronting my own cowardice, and cultivating resilience to reconcile such personal, dissonant narratives woven so tightly together.
And there is still plenty of this path left to walk and examine.
The most powerful revelation I had was in a meditation a few years ago, when I was struck by a new way to approach my heritage and history:
The task of taking on the sins of my fathers with the intention to atone for and remedy some of the harm they caused is a sacred one.
I used to shrink away and feel so much shame about what I was connected to, both directly and indirectly as someone with privilege that benefits disproportionately from violently oppressive systems.
Then I realized that avoidance was truly the coward’s way out.
I was being self-absorbed.
I was valuing my own urge to not be “associated with such things” over acknowledging the reality of our circumstances and stepping up to do some damn cleanup.
What if atonement is for the brave and loving?
What if I let it galvanize me instead of using it as an excuse to yell “yeah but not me” out into the echo chamber?
I can choose to be on the better side of history and stake my claim in the movement to undo the violence and harm that we’ve inherited.
I can choose the path of redemption not just for me but for my family. Past, present, and future.
I can refuse to uphold an old world pattern that is diametrically opposed to my chosen values of justice, dignity, and righteousness.
I can commit to being part of creating the world I want my grandchildren, their grandchildren, and their grandchildren to inherit.
And the world I want for the grandchildren of people who do not look like me or speak my language.
500 years from now I want my descendants to look back and see that I was someone who did not shirk away from the ugliness of history.
I want to be the grandmother who stood up for what was hard especially when it was ugly.
I want to be the grandmother who gave instead of took.
I want to be the grandmother who chose the courage of action over the convenience of inaction.
I want to be the grandmother who healed where she found harm.
I want to be the grandmother who marched and spoke out and made others uncomfortable enough to look inwards when it really mattered.
What if atonement is for the brave and loving?
Do you see yourself as brave? As loving?
Would you be willing to step up to correct the wrongs of your forebears when it is within your power to do so?
What about the mistakes or shortsightedness of your neighbors?
What about simply showing up to undo the violence done by people who happen to look like you?
Do you have that kind of love within you?
Do you have that kind of courage?
Do you have that kind of generosity and justness in your heart?
Righteousness is inherently uncomfortable.
It does not make us saviors or heroes.
But it does make us foot soldiers on the frontlines of choosing a different future for humanity and our one, precious planet.
It makes us the kind of people courageous enough to look ugliness in the face, no matter how uncomfortable, and move towards doing the right thing.
That is who we all secretly hope ourselves to be, is it not?
This journey of taking on my inheritance, especially the evil woven within it, has been one that has brought me a much greater sense of inner peace and deeper purpose.
It continues to mold my decision-making and my behavior.
It continues to call me forward through uncomfortable veil after uncomfortable veil of learning/unlearning.
It continues to connect me to my commitment to show up… and show up… and show up…
“Be the change you want to see in the world”, they say.
Maybe Mahatma Gandhi's most widely recycled quote.
We cannot do this if we refuse to acknowledge the reality and complexity of today’s problems.
Being change requires self-renewing resiliency. A resiliency that only comes from practice. Relentless, determined practice.
So, what sin of another can you choose to take on to make the world a better place, even if it’s just one small deed at a time?
If you are a man, would you be willing to embody a different kind of manhood and masculinity, one that heals, reveres, and restores the world for other genders?
(Where to start: Try learning at the altar of the remarkable, feminist thought leadership we have starting with bell hooks.)
If you are white, would you be willing to take on the education required to dismantle white supremacy and white violence starting with the day to day ways it already lives in your life?
(Where to start: Defer to anti-racist scholars like Isabel Wilkerson, Sonya Renee Taylor, Ibram X. Kendi, and Austin Channing Brown for how you can be an agent of restoring and preserving dignity of black and brown people in America.)
If you are cis-gendered, would you be willing to take on a student-stance and acknowledge you are learning alongside the rest of us in a changing landscape of understanding gender?
If you are the descendent of colonizers, would you be willing to learn about the native lands you live on and begin to support your local tribal leaders as part of your tithing practice?
(Where to start: look up whose ancestral land you live on, acknowledge it, consider looking up tribal organizations in your area to see if there are ways you can give back and be a gracious guest to the rightful forebears and stewards of the magical patch of earth you call home.)
The world becomes a better place when we take responsibility for ourselves.
The world becomes a righteous place when we take responsibility for those that came before.
What if atonement is for the brave and loving?
A burning world needs firefighters.
We need your brand of courage, your curiosity, your resilience, your grace…
We need You.
Paid subscribers make this newsletter sustainable. Consider becoming a paid subscriber or upgrading to a paid subscribership to continue receiving essays each month.
Hints and Hijinks is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
From Me to You:
I am struggling with how to engage in the Israeli decimation of Palestine right now. I am not informed enough to teach on geopolitical realities but I can encourage you to learn alongside me. To seek out compassionate scholars with nuanced perspectives.
I can encourage you to exercise the piece of power you do have by contacting your State and Federal representatives and insisting that they fulfill their oath to represent the people who have entrusted them with governance. Many states give financial aid in ways that you may be opposed to. Use your voice. It still carries power. It always will. Don’t let anyone try to convince you it doesn’t or won’t. Turn your survivors guilt into fuel for advocacy.
I can encourage you to cultivate the wisdom and balance to know when it is important to not look away and when not looking away is causing your collapse instead of your inspired action. Step away. Breathe. Reset. Do something meaningful here and now so that you can return to engaging in a healthy, contributive way that benefits local and international communities.
I can encourage you to resist reductionism. To assume you may always have more to learn. To listen. To divest from cancel culture and participate in creating a culture of calling on one another to solve problems and help each other together.
For you ears and heart: