We gathered at the park on a warm, sunny day—a day that would have been lovely if not for the urn that contained the ashes of my neighbors’ baby. I stood by the urn and looked out at the people seated in folding chairs: the baby’s three agnostic/pagan parents, her staunch Baptist grandparents, friends and family of assorted religious and political leanings. All of them heartbroken.
The pagan priestess who had planned the service with me and agreed to give the sermon had canceled just a couple days before. There I stood, a baby’s ashes beside me, aching eyes staring up at me. There I stood, looking out at all of those people who were waiting for me, the pastor, to say SOMETHING—something that would make the unbearable lightness of those ashes at least a little bit bearable.
That was the first funeral I officiated. The first time I felt that funeral weight of love for heartbroken strangers who were looking to me for comfort. The first time I felt the heaviness of the funeral words crawling out of my mouth. The first time I dealt with the weighty anger because my words were not enough, because death was not fair, and this God I was supposed to serve had a lot of explaining to do.
This heavy love-in-grief has revisited me through the years: when I had to move our Easter sunrise service to the hospital bedside of a beloved church member; when I sat with a young man devastated by his porn addiction; when I talked with parents struggling with a child’s mental illness; when I heard that the diagnosis was ALS and, when the time comes, he doesn’t want a feeding tube.
It’s a pastor’s job to bear the weight. A friend’s job too, I suppose. And a parent’s, and a sibling’s, and a lover’s. I used to think my words should lighten the burden. It’s an easy mistake to make for a girl who fell in love with Emily Dickinson in elementary school and went on to major in creative writing. I believe in the power of language almost as much as I believe in the power of God. And if I could just find the right words, I thought, I could pry the weight off of the crushed hearts around me.
Turns out, though, that the words don’t work. More often than I would like, the words turn to dust in the ears of the grieving. My dusty words may or may not be beautiful—it doesn’t matter much. What matters is that the words born in love bear witness that I have been there, with someone, under the weight of their grief. What matters is that, with or without words, love calls me to be present in the pain with my whole self. Which is hard. And heavy.
I think of Job’s friends who sat with that destitute man for seven days and seven nights before they opened their mouths. Most of us can’t handle that much weight.
Love in grief, funeral love, is heavy. But wedding love . . . I know that marriage is an imperfect institution—that many marriages involve dissatisfaction and heartbreak and grief if not outright abuse and trauma—that the history and much of the present reality of marriage is patriarchal and heterosexist. I know. But still, wedding love, for me, is light. It is joyful and sacred and full of promise.
I have been privileged to officiate weddings for many people I love: my gorgeous graduate school officemate who escaped a nightmare marriage and found Mr. Dreamy Triathlete; young men and women from my church, who I baptized and preached to and prayed for; two women who contacted me to see if I would be willing to do their wedding because they wanted to be married by a Christian pastor and they were having a hard time finding one to officiate; two men who had been married already for years, but wanted to finally make it legal and wanted to do it in my town where one of their fathers, who had refused to come to the first wedding, was eager to be part of this one.
Yes, weddings, for me, are light love. But these last two hold the story of a heavier love. Because not everyone in my religious tradition sees the beauty of two women or men in love committing themselves to each other in holy matrimony. Some of my fellow pastors would refuse a request to officiate such a wedding. Some of them tried to get my pastoral credentials revoked because I said yes to such a request.
Still, I am called to love them: the ones who called and wrote to explain to me my faulty theology. The ones who voted for my ordination to be suspended. The ones who testified in front of an entire delegate body about why I am unfit to be a pastor.
As a Christian, I (try to) follow the teachings of Jesus who said, “Love your enemy.” (Other faiths echo this concept as well.) Even if I disagree with someone. Even if I deeply dislike someone. Even if someone is really and truly a supreme jackasses. I am called to love them.
That is heavy love. Heavy and awkward.
Loving people through grief is hard and heavy, but it is, at least, recognizable as love. The weight bears down in a familiar way, and you just bear it because you have to. You let the heaviness settle all over you, press your limbs, your gut, your heart, firmly down like a lead blanket.
But loving the enemies? Loving the jackasses? What does that even look like? How does it feel? It’s uneven and distorted. For me, the weight rests less in my heart and more in my mind. I have to try to figure out what that kind of love looks like.
It doesn’t look like refusing to marry same-sex couples for the sake of “church unity” and some people’s misguided biblical scruples. It doesn’t look like smiling and nodding when an angry pastor tells me that in his entire congregation of two hundred there are no gay people. It doesn’t look like leaving the convention hall so that people will be more comfortable when they talk about why I shouldn’t be a pastor.
But it also doesn’t look like snarky name calling, or refusing to listen, or leaving the table.
Like the funeral words, the words of this heavy enemy love also come slow. But not because they are painful and feel meaningless—because they are weighty with meaning. Because, when it comes to loving enemies, there is a fine line between being honest and being brutal, between being polite and being a coward. When it comes to loving enemies, the words do matter. A lot.
Like, for example, “jackass.” It is a fine word to communicate to you the struggles I feel in loving difficult people. But if I were writing or speaking to an actual jackass, I would need to find a more appropriate, more loving word.
Perhaps the heaviest love of all is love of God. The centerpiece of the morning and evening Jewish prayer service is the shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is one.” This flows into the v’havta: “Love the Lord your G-d with all of your heart, soul, and mind” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). This teaching is so important to the Jewish people that when Jesus, a devout Jew, was asked, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” he responded, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:36-37).
The scriptures teach that loving God is a deep obligation for people of faith. And that is rather intimidating—to be expected to love the Creator of the universe—the Creator of love itself—in any sort of meaningful, worthwhile way.
How does one even begin, really, to love God?
Maybe that’s why Jesus, after revealing the most important commandment, goes on to say, “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:38). So we circle back around. The weight of loving God comes from the obligations such love carries to also love other people and to love ourselves.
The love of God is, for me, the Love that compels the other loves of my life. The Love that nudges me to continue to pray for and speak (mostly) kindly of the woman who sent a nasty email about me to everyone in the church. The Love that sets me down right in the middles of heartbreaking grief. The Love that leads me to officiate gay weddings and engage in meaningful conversation with those who claim homosexuality is a sin. The Love that demands I consider what is good rather than what is polite, what is true rather than what is easy.
The obligations of love are heavy. Still, so many times I experience this weight as a gift, a grace that keeps me grounded and strong.
Writing offers us an incomparable opportunity to disappear.
I personally hold that words have no intrinsic meaning. What is it about the word “girl,” for example, that specifically encapsulates the idea of a girl? If the word “girl” really is inextricably, objectively tied to the concept of a girl, why do other people talk about ein mädchen, yek dokhtar, une fille? Words are given meaning by our collective agreement to use them—these little clusters of sound—to refer to specific concepts and ideas.
This means that when I write, the text I create is just a representation of what I want to say, not an exact reproduction. The words have meaning to me when I write them, and meaning to you when you read them, but those two meanings will never be exactly the same. Words that have particularly sinister or positive connotations to me might well mean nothing to you, and vice versa.
Imagine a little girl in a brightly-lit room. What does the image make you feel?
I don’t know who you are. When I write, I’m writing to a ghost of you, a reader that doesn’t really exist. You, in turn, read these words and hear a voice that is simultaneously me and someone else entirely. No matter how honestly I write, your understanding will be shaped by your own experiences and ideas, not mine.
I can, of course, change the voice with which I speak, with the aim of generating a specific effect. I can do my best imitation of a man, a woman, a child. What I can’t do is choose who reads the words I write. I can’t know how you feel about men, women, children, and I can’t choose what kind of imaginary writer you enter into conversation with.
These words exist in the middle of this dialogue between ghosts. It’s a space where meaning is in flux, where I create endless numbers of endlessly shifting identities, all of them mine and none of them exactly me. In that space, I can’t help but disappear.
In “real” life I work with refugees. When I first started the process of medically transitioning, I was about to begin a community project with unaccompanied refugee minors. I’d considered pulling out of the project altogether. I didn’t know how much I would change and how quickly, and I didn’t know if it was fair to force vulnerable young people to interact with someone who was physically otherin a way that might make them uncomfortable.
I emailed the project organiser to express my concerns.
“Olive,” her reply began. “Thank you so much for speaking your truth.”
The idea of speaking my truth is a difficult one for me, because in many ways, my daily life is composed of lies I cannot help but tell.
Here is one of my truths: I cannot reliably pass as male or female. On a personal level, this suits me well; having never identified as a man or a woman, realising that I could physically become something approaching neutral was a revelation.
Out in the real world, things are more difficult. Whilst I could, theoretically, consistently refuse to inhabit either a male or female role, in reality it would make life almost unliveable. The vast majority of people will read me as one or the other, and telling everyone I meet that I’m actually neither is inconvenient at best and actively dangerous at worst.
So I lie. Sometimes intentionally and sometimes because I simply have no opportunity to tell the truth. Buying cigarettes, I make an active effort to pass as female, because if the cashier reads me as a teenage boy—my other option—they will refuse to serve me, or worse. I am now on first-name terms with the security guard at my local supermarket, having had a ten-minute argument with him regarding whether I do or do not have a vagina after he had tried to physically remove me from the whiskey aisle. (Entertaining? Yes! An experience I want to repeat? Absolutely not.) In public toilets and on buses late at night, I hunch my shoulders and stare at my phone, because in those situations it is infinitely safer to be a teenage boy than a queer woman.
Ideally, I should never feel like speaking my truth is wrong, even if it might be dangerous. But my own principles tend to fall apart in the face of more pragmatic concerns. When a teenage boy in the middle of a sprawling refugee camp tells me about his experiences of police brutality, in a language that literally does not have a word for “transgender,” am I going to correct him when he calls me “khanoum”? When I return a lost child to her mother and she kisses me on the cheek and calls me “sister,” am I going to object?
That’s a truth that I often cannot speak to others. Here’s one that I often cannot admit to myself:
I am a trauma survivor.
Recovering from childhood trauma works something like this: You are subject to a hurt and a violation that is too horrific to face; much like a light that is too bright to see or a heat so searing that it feels cold, your mind cannot physically process it. In response, your brain develops ways to deal with the experience without facing it head-on. Mostly this is a case of brutal self-distraction and control—substance abuse, self-harm, eating disorders. Recovery usually means processing your experiences painstakingly slowly, in situations where you feel safe, whilst gradually reducing your reliance on self-destructive coping mechanisms.
I tend to think of it as a badly-broken leg that has healed wrong. You learn to avoid walking on it because it can’t take your weight. Your new way of walking will twist your spine, ruin your joints, and cause you pain, but it will allow you to function. To fix it, you’ll need to break the bone and re-set it, and then—slowly—learn how to walk in a way that doesn’t hurt.
Forcing someone to face a traumatic experience when they’re not ready is about as therapeutic as forcing someone to walk on a broken leg.
I am transgender. I was sexually abused as a child. These are truths I’ve been forced to speak—in doctors’ offices and gender clinics, to my family, to my friends, to strangers at work—so many times that not only have the words ceased to be empowering, they have also ceased to have any personal relevance to me. Having an identity and experiences that differ from the norm, especially when those differences are visible, means constantly having to explain yourself on other people’s terms. When I say these words aloud, I enter into a conversation with someone who is talking not to me, but to their idea of a transgender trauma survivor, a composite figure made of all the other narratives about gender identity and trauma that they’ve ever encountered.
These are also truths which often cannot be spoken, for reasons of personal safety and lack of vocabulary, or because they represent a horror that is by nature unspeakable. They are truths that exist in conflict with each other, constantly calling each other’s validity into question. What if I’m making it up? What if I only think I’m transgender because transitioning allows me to destroy the little girl in that brightly-lit room into which I, even now, cannot look? What if I am too scared to transition fully because it means ceasing to be that girl, and becoming the man standing behind her instead? My truth is one of uncertainty, a constant internal dialogue between shifting identities—man, woman, child—all potentially false.
People often talk about writing as a way to speak your truth, but for me, the primary lure of writing is that it allows me to speak my lies, too.
I don’t know how to speak my truth, because I’m not sure that I have a truth to speak. My lived experience is composed of multiple identities and histories, all of them potentially false, and some of them impossible to face. In writing, this uncertainty is not only acceptable, but unavoidable. There’s no way for you and I to be certain that we are reading this text in the same way; we both know that the meaning of these words is in flux.
This is a space in which I don’t have to present my identity as a truth to be spoken, but can show you myself as a mosaic of uncertainties and shifting identities, all of them neither true nor false.
Imagine a teenage boy. Imagine a queer woman. Imagine a little girl in a brightly-lit room.
Only here can they exist in dialogue with each other. That dialogue between them is my truth.
At the beginning of each summer, I excitedly make a list of what I want to read in the two and a half months I am free from reading hundreds of student essays.
Last summer, I read everything I could find by Octavia Butler and about the Vikings (no connection to Butler). The summer before that, I read books I had never read but knew I should, like My Antonia and Anna Karenina. This summer, I have an eclectic list, which is fast becoming an actual teetering stack with the help of the Denver Public Library, with the general theme of “lesbian.” It’s been awhile since I wandered the stacks of books by and about lesbians, and—since I’m attending the Golden Crown Literary Society Conference in Vegas this summer—I thought I’d immerse myself a little early. Here’s my list for the summer (a mix of new and old, compiled solely because they consider topics and/or genres that interest me):
A Thin Bright Line by Lucy Jane Bledsoe (the keynote at the GCLS Con!)
The World Unseen by Sarim Sarif (I’m re-reading that one)
The Ada Decades by Paula Martinac (I just finished it last week)
Sappho’s Leap by Erica Jong
Art on Fire by Hilary Sloin
Hoosier Daddy: A Heartland Romance by Ann McMann
Lesbian Pulp Fiction: the sexually intrepid world of lesbian paperback novels, 1950-1965
American Romances: Essays by Rebecca Brown (a re-read)
My American History: Lesbian and Gay Life During the Reagan/Bush Years by Sarah Schulman
Zami by Audre Lorde
The Dime by Kathleen Kent
The PowerBook by Jeanette Winterson (a re-read)
Patience and Sarah by Isabelle Miller (a re-read)
Across an untried sea: discovering lives hidden in the shadow of convention and time by Julia Markus
Depths of Blue by Lisa MacTague
Bend by Nancy J. Hedin
Because lesbian lit considers a marginalized group of people in some way, it possesses its own unique qualities, which, I would argue, makes it its own genre. Lesbian lit almost always features main characters who are lesbian, it often seeks to subvert the dominant societal narrative, and it often does that subverting in a fascinating, cross-genre way. Some of the most experimental books I have read have been lesbian books. Consider everything by Jeannette Winterson, or Rebecca Brown’s essay (nuns, Oreos—wow).
Lists like this one move beyond a summer reading list for me. Already, just making the list made me feel more connected to the larger lesbian community out there (and the prospect of attending an lesbian literary conference in July makes me excited to be in that community awhile, too). Of course, my daughter Mitike rolled her eyes at me when I told her my summer reading plans: “So you’re just going to read romance all summer?” I tried to explain that these books are about all kinds of themes, from romance to oppression to politics to lived life to science fiction, but she shook her head. “Mom, all these books are about women who love women, right? That’s romance.”
Yes and no. The older lesbian books, like The Price of Salt (made into the 2015 film Carol) focus primarily on the love between two women, because the main conflict was that the women were trying to love each other at all. The same is true about historical fiction, like The Ada Decades, a lovely little book that carries the reader through eight decades of the life of a woman living as a lesbian in North Carolina, or The World Unseen, which considers a forbidden love between two Indian women in South Africa. However, some more recent lesbian books merely feature a lesbian main character, like the lesbian detective in Kathleen Kent’s The Dime. The more acceptable it becomes for women to love women, the more we’ll see this shift in lesbian literature.
Shelving lesbian literature as a separate genre matters most to women who have just come out. When I came out in 2005, at age 28, I felt incredibly alone. I knew only one other lesbian, a friend from college who had moved to New York City, fallen in love, and held a civil union with her girlfriend. I called her and she invited me to visit. It was late October; the gingko leaves in Central Park were turning yellow. My friend and her legal partner showed me around lesbian New York by bringing me to bookstores. At Oscar Wilde (now closed) and Bluestockings, I stood in the stacks and, trembling, picked up book after book after book in the section marked LESBIAN, my face hot because now everyone in the bookstore knew that I was a lesbian because I was touching and opening lesbian books. I bought my first Jeanette Winterson book (Written on the Body) and my first Sarah Waters book (Tipping the Velvet); I bought the classic Patience and Sarah by Isabelle Miller and I bought the classic Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden. When I returned home to Alaska, to my little apartment three blocks from the ocean, and started to read, I felt comforted. I wasn’t the only one.
Later, reading lesbian literature became more about research. What kind of lesbian was I, anyway? An Adrienne Rich contemplating the unfurling of fern fronds in the forest? A Dorothy Allison, swearing loudly through my fear? A Jeanette Winterson, diving into rabbit-hole wanderings? I wanted to know about the community I had joined. I read Joan Nestle and Lillian Faderman, to discover my history (and I learned the word “HERstory”). I subscribed to Sinister Wisdom and Curve.
Still later, I just preferred reading lesbian stories to straight ones because they experimented more, dared more, surprised me more. Some of my favorite books are not lesbian ones, of course, but they are favorites for those same criteria (The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje and The Last Report of the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich, for example). I love the book in which a character suddenly time-travels into a different body, as happens in The PowerBook, and as I expect to happen in Sappho’s Leap. I love experimentation with language and structure; I love flipped roles and surprising historical details. Lesbian literature offers all of that.
This summer, immersing myself in lesbian literature is not about a desperate search for recognition or about research (although I expect to learn something), but a cozy familiarity. As I relax on the deck of our little rented cabin on the Oregon coast this June with my wife and our daughter, I want to lose myself in books about characters that look a little like us. And yes, Mitike, I’m excited to read a fair bit of romance, too.
The day after my wife, our daughter, and I returned from Scandinavia, we squeezed through the entrance gate to the Denver Pride Festival.
Repeat: the day after my family and I returned from taking a trip only a small percentage of Americans are privileged enough to afford, we sat on a hillside and waved a rainbow flag because my wife and I are still not privileged enough to trust our marriage will always be legal.
The Scandinavian countries we visited — Finland, Sweden, and Norway — approved same-sex partnerships in the mid-1990s and legalized gay marriage in 2009, six years before the U.S.; that knowledge faded the colors in the rainbow flags all around us at Denver’s Pride Festival. But in Scandinavia, Meredith and I never knew where it was safe to hold hands or kiss in public; at the Denver Pride Festival, we kissed long in the midst of hundreds of people, our arms wrapped around each other, our daughter exclaiming, “EWWW!”
A black man working at a gas station in Sweden in 1927 was such an anomaly of difference in that country at that time that people drove for miles just to glimpse him. In 2017, we walked through a more diverse Scandinavia, but most of the people of color we saw were in service positions, and everyone of every color turned their heads, curious, to see Mitike between me and Meredith. It was a relief to walk unremarked through the Denver Pride Festival.
In Americanah, which I started reading on IcelandAir on our flight home, Chimamanda Adichie asks me again and again to hold my privilege up to the light and examine it carefully like an Icelandic sunstone. Her sharp voice is tinged with humor, but it cuts. Who are you, American white woman, to travel so freely through this world? No one looks askance at you. In the Copenhagen airport, a man conducting a survey on an iPad speaks to you in Danish because your height, your skin color, your hair and eye color (every gene that you inherited from ancestors who farmed only two hundred miles southwest of there in Schleswig-Holstein) tell him you are Danish. Do you imagine it will ever be this easy for your Ethiopian daughter? You make her a world traveler, teaching her how to easily flash her blue U.S. passport; you teach her to try cold-smoked salmon, to whisper inside the medieval stave church, to revel in the sea spray in the Norwegian fjords, but you cannot teach her to glide through the world the way you do, because her skin color, hair, and eye color (the genes she inherited from her ancestors seven thousand miles southeast of Copenhagen) will be barriers. Customs officials will often ask how long she has been a U.S. citizen; they will speak slowly in clearly enunciated English, though English has been her primary language since she was eighteen months old. They will carefully scrutinize her visa. And you will be staying in our country for how long? And you plan to do what? Back home, at the Denver Pride Festival, people grin at our family of three because we are diverse; we are the dream so many LGBTQ people dream. Their eyes linger on Mitike’s face. She is the daughter they want. She is so beautiful, so exotic. They say to us, You must be very proud of her. She has such lovely features, not African at all.
In Stockholm and Oslo, but also in the Norwegian port city of Bergen, we walked past immigrants who have resettled in Scandinavia. I guessed at their stories, based on what I have heard from my refugee students. I imagined the Somali woman and her children who strode past us in Oslo had first spent years in a refugee camp in Uganda. I imagined the Syrian men who stood talking at a bus stop in Stockholm had paid a boatman to take them on the risky crossing of the Mediterranean. I imagined the Afghani man and woman talking in the Bergen fish market had escaped their village and the Taliban, as one of my students did, on horseback. The world knows that the Scandinavian countries are welcoming to immigrants, and that my country — historically the most welcoming of all — is abruptly not, as Trump works to halve the number of refugees we accept. And how odd, that Trump’s supporters are mostly descendants of immigrants who came from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy. How quickly we forget. At the Denver Pride Fest, I waved my flag in gratitude, as usual, that my country’s highest court has insisted that my marriage to my wife is legal, but I also thought of the times in these past few months that I have stood in this same spot in front of the Colorado Capitol Building, holding up signs that plead for openness to immigrants. What kind of nation do we want to be in the world, anyway?
We went to Scandinavia because I wanted to travel somewhere where we would be safe, and all the guidebooks promised that nowhere is more open and more tolerant. In city after city, we stayed in hotels that cheerfully gave me and Meredith a double bed, glanced at our common last name, welcomed us with a bright nod and (always) breakfast the next morning. I imagined living in one of those cities, never returning to the U.S., happily enrolling Mitike in one of those reputable Finnish schools or dropping her at camp in the Norwegian mountains as Meredith and I prepared for a holiday in some quaint village. To be born American and to be liberal is to be always embarrassed abroad, ashamed of the president (in 2003, Bush invaded Iraq just as I rode a bus into Nicaragua — now, in 2017, there is Trump), ashamed of fellow Americans who are too loud and too certain they deserve preferential treatment, ashamed of a history that has included slavery and Native American massacres and now continues into modern times with acquitting Philando Castille’s killer and withdrawing from the Paris deal on the climate and refusing to provide health care to all its citizens. Traveling, Meredith and I taught Mitike to speak quietly, attempt words in other languages, show extra gratitude. Maybe they’ll assume we’re Canadian. It jolted us to walk into the cheerful fray of the Pride Fest in Denver, where scantily clad people shouted and waved rainbow fans, flags, underwear, boas, posters, pinwheels. We were quiet, too European. We sat on a grassy hill and observed, and fit in nowhere.
We walked into Oslo’s Vikingskipshuset, the Viking Museum, and gazed in awe at the grandly renovated Oseberg, a Viking ship from 834 CE that was discovered and dug up on a farm in 1903. Two women had been buried in the ship, in state, along with horses and dogs and cows, armor, kitchenware, clothes, tents, a wagon and a sled. The Vikings honored their chiefs in this way, since they believed that they would be able to use all of these objects in the afterlife, in Valhalla. I loved the mystery of who these honored women had been. Days later, at the Denver Pride Fest, I wondered what might remain of us one thousand years from now. Mitike’s plastic beads, maybe, some of our metal tooth fillings, the matching rings Meredith and I wear — the hard diamonds still sparkling. In this era that overdocuments everything, will any document remain? Something will have replaced the Internet, rendering it as inaccessible as floppy disks and VHS tapes are now, or all of humanity will have been catapulted backward by climate change trauma to survival — campfires, carved wooden tools, pictures painted on stone walls again. And someone will find some fragment of evidence from 2017, one thousand years before, and wonder about our lives, how we lived them, who we were.
An older acquaintance hears we traveled to Scandinavia and exclaims, “You took Mitike there? To the most racist countries in the world?” I was speechless for a moment. Racist? The 2017 UN report includes all of the Scandinavian countries through which we passed in the top ten happiest countries in the world. Norway is first. Maybe Sweden is only tenth because it has struggled with race relations as Sweden invites more and more immigrants across its borders, but our family’s experience in all of Scandinavia was positive, or at least no different from our experience in the U.S. Women of color did a double-take to see Mitike with us; they often studied her hair (perfectly done in neat microbraids and beads, scalp oiled, thank you). Small children stared. But the mostly blonde and blue-eyed residents of Scandinavia were unfailingly friendly to all three of us. What I wish I’d said to my acquaintance: Being white doesn’t mean you’re racist. What I did say: Have you been to Oslo? It’s quite diverse. A true but weak answer. The Denver Pride Fest was whiter than Karl Johans Street in Oslo. The summer camp in Keystone where I just dropped off Mitike is the whitest place I’ve seen in a long time. It’s all more complex than what we see.
My wife and I stood in a green mossy forest of tall spruce trees (are they called Norway Spruce in Norway?) and watched our daughter search in half-serious earnest for fairies in the shadows of the clover leaves. And then, one day later, we stood in Denver’s blue-sky sunshine with our arms around each other’s waists, our daughter close. Oh, yes. I know to be grateful for this life.
For my fortieth birthday, I wanted to travel somewhere I had never been before. On the way home, on IcelandAir, Mitike leaned her head against my shoulder and murmured, “We’re lucky to be able to travel to places like Scandinavia, aren’t we?” I nodded. Unbelievably lucky. Guilt nagged at me. Look at us with our blue passports and our resources, hopping on planes and trains and boats, wandering cobblestone streets, posing for pictures in front of medieval towers. Look at us and our comfort, our ability to leave our secure little house in south Denver and peer into others’ windows. Even at Pride back in Denver, I continued to feel this mix of luck and guilt. Yes, we are a minority, and yes, maybe my wife is right to be cautious in certain neighborhoods and certain situations about how out we are, but after this parade ends, we’ll walk back to our car and drive home to our dog, who will greet us with his curly wagging tail, and we’ll make dinner in our kitchen together and hold hands before we eat, the little circle we make a protective shield for our family. We’re lucky to be together in this complicated world, right now, no matter where we are wandering.
In 2010, my father and his siblings discovered Ancestry.com, that website that allows a person to search birth, marriage, military, census, and death records to construct a family tree.
And because an Ancestry.com tree becomes more accurate as users add more relationships to it, my father and my uncle and my aunts sent me, my sister, and my cousins email invitations to add our own families to the growing tree.
I opened the tree and studied it with growing resentment. According to Ancestry.com, I was a divorced single mother of one daughter, but that did not describe my actual life at all. My daughter was adopted from Ethiopia, with a family tree all her own, difficult (or impossible) to trace because her biological parents’ births had not been recorded in any official way. And I was not technically a single mother, since I lived with Ali, my partner of three years, and her two children.
With a few swift clicks, I added Ali to the tree as my spouse, though same-sex marriage was not legal in Alaska at the time, and Ali had never been interested in marriage, anyway. Another click: I added Ali’s two biological children. With my divorce branching off in one direction and Ali branching off in another, I tangled the neat lines of the Hahn family tree.
When Ali died a year later, I did not have the heart to update the Ancestry.com tree. I barely had the heart to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Then, this past June, the Vikings led me back to Ancestry.com. In June, I learned at the Oslo Viking Ship Museum that one of the Vikings’ major trading settlements, Hedeby, was located in today’s Schleswig-Holstein, a state in northern Germany from which half of my ancestors (all of my father’s side) emigrated in the mid-1800s. I wanted to know more. I wanted to know why the sight of the Oseberg ship jolted some familiarity in me (is that why I’m so drawn to spirals?). When I started asking these questions, my uncle Jim, our family archivist, sent me a DNA kit from Ancestry.com, and, out of curiosity, I logged in to the website again.
A family tree hides as much as it reveals. I “cleaned up” my part of the Hahn family tree by deleting the fake marriage to Ali and adding the real, legal marriage to Meredith. I added Mitike’s legal adoption by me in 2008 and her adoption by Meredith last December, and I added the names of Mitike’s birth parents. I traced Meredith’s family awhile, out of curiosity, discovering that one ancestral line zigzags all the way back to the 1500s in Alsace, France. Then I studied our section of the tree, noticing how our marriage is an end to our two lines in our families, how the appearance of Mitike as the daughter of two mothers could confuse someone who failed to notice the adoption records. How disconcerting, the reduction of entire human lives to small rectangles that contain only a first, middle, and last name, a birthdate, and a death date.
What does that branching tree explain about me, about Meredith, about Mitike? What does it reveal about Rachel Banta, my grandmother’s great-great grandmother, who was born in 1780 in Pennsylvania? What does it hide about my wife’s grandmother’s great-great grandmother Charity Brewer, who was born in 1805 in North Carolina? How much does it refuse to explain about Mitike’s ancestors, who weathered a struggle between Muslim settlers and Ethiopian Christians in the early 1800s, and who witnessed battles between feudal kings?I am still dissatisfied with the story Ancestry.com tells, but I appreciate now that it is one place to begin.
Lesbian historians like Lillian Faderman (especially in Surpassing the Love of Men, 1981; and To Believe in Women, 1999) have argued that lesbians must discover and build their own sense of heritage. That means that Patience and Sarah, that wonderful straightforward 1969 book by Alma Routsong about a lesbian pioneer couple, is as much a description of my ancestry as my genetic map is. That means that discerning the truth of historical relationships — Susan B. and Anna D., Virginia and Vita, Eleanor and Lorena — is as crucial to understanding who I am as the 1847 passenger list of the ship that carried my ancestors Wulff and Gretje from Hamburg to New Orleans.
On Ancestry.com, the self is the first rectangle. Click the green plus sign, add a relationship. Connect. Add another relationship. Intertwine. The lines seem to tangle, but they barely whisper the outlines of deeply complex stories.
This summer, I began creating a new book — part trail guide, part history — on the 60+ Colorado peaks and lakes named after women. I’m calling it “Remember More Than Their Names,” and I’m blogging about my hiking and research discoveries at http://remembermorethantheirnames.blogspot.com/. I think of these historical women as my ancestors, too, though we only have our gender and Colorado in common. Determining the identity of each woman has been surprisingly difficult, since maps have traditionally used only the first name of a woman honored. Again and again, it has been Ancestry.com that has given me the outline of the story. Then it is up to me, the storyteller, to fill in the rest. For example, Ancestry.com told me that Helen Rich of Breckenridge, the namesake for Mount Helen, died a single woman with no children, but local records and her own papers reveal that she lived for decades with the poet Belle Turnbull. In Turnbull’s poetry, I found reference to forbidden passion, to domestic bliss. And the two women are buried together. Another piece of the heritage told.
I know the danger of looking backwards too long. I know that it is as important that I live my life now, in 2017 Colorado, as it is for me to discover and tell the stories of these women who lived in the past. But I believe I can learn to make of my life something deeper if I can pull these stories from the shadows. This other way of tracing and building heritage matters as much as the genetic map of my bloodline.
When I stood gazing at the Oseberg ship in Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum in June, my blood thrummed with the familiarity of the curves of the ship, the intricate carvings, the spiral on the prow. I touched the silver spiral I wear at the base of my neck, and I leaned closer to my wife and my daughter. What did I recognize? Maybe Ancestry.com would deny a genetic connection between me and the two women — one 25–30, one 50–55 — who were buried together, in state, in the Oseberg ship in 834 CE, but I am certain they are part of my heritage, too, if only because they were women. Maybe the elder was a queen (some have suggested she was Queen Åsa of the sagas) and the younger was a sacrifice. Maybe the elder was a völva, a seer, a holy woman, and the younger was her lover or her apprentice or both.
We will never know. But with each fragment we find, we discover ourselves more deeply. The mystery is my heritage. The seeking is what I want to trace.