Can’t take me away from me

*This piece was written for the Modern Mystic Chronicles podcast, and was read by my friend and podcast creator, Imani Quinn. Listen to the episode here.

My great grandmother was a dancer. When she and my great grandfather moved from Ireland to the states, she danced to his fiddle at bars to supplement their meager income as recent immigrants. I learned about her when my father, originally an anonymous sperm donor, told me when we met, when I was 30. When I asked if he had a picture, he said something along the lines of, “Regrettably, I never saw a picture, but family lore is that when she danced she lit up the room — in fact, she was the light of the town.”

I wasn’t supposed to know about my great grandmother Marie. Or my fiddle-playing great grandfather, or their grandchild who would go on to create me. The donation industry and related laws don’t acknowledge rights for me as a daughter of their lineage. And yet here I am, a dance-loving woman who can coax even the shyest onlooker to the dance floor. At one of my high school dance performances, my stoic 11th grade history teacher called my dancing “magnetic.” When I learned about Marie, I knew immediately that what my teacher saw is a part of Marie in me. 

I’m also an outdoor lover, but I didn’t really know that when I was a kid. The family I grew up with lives a solidly indoor-based lifestyle. Apart from feeling that I was different, and that I was constantly lured in by the small “forest” near the creek in my suburban neighborhood, I had no clue that being outside was a key to my physical, psychological, and spiritual health. I was 26 when I moved to Northern California, and it’s where I found my truth. The places where I felt most myself, most free, most joyful and peaceful — they were among the Northern California trees, or beside cold rivers flowing through those forests. 

The pieces didn’t make sense then — that there was a significant spiritual component to the groundedness and belonging l felt upon landing in this region. But it would be revealed to me.  

It wasn’t until that meeting with my biological father, where I learned that he too left his home state and triangulated the U.S. until landing and digging into Northern California, that a clearer view of my connection to this land came into focus. His sanity, he told me, is connected to the ability to hike in the trees and his regular trips to the mountains, where he goes to clear his head. 

Neither of us grew up near mountains, but both of us found them before we turned 30. Whatever desire for hills and green landscapes our ancestors carried manifested in us both, so that we ended up living less than an hour and a half apart — strangers, linked by blood. 

But the cryobank and the law says we have no enforceable connection. According to those systems, he is not my father, and I have no claim to where I come from. And yet, when we met, it was clear that our ancestors called me. Like the plot of the movie Coco, they found me, guided me, and let me see the lineage I belong to. No industry or so-called country had the authority to stop them from showing me. 

When I was young I felt like I belonged to no one. Sometimes I still feel that way, even now. Growing up in America can do a number on you, in terms of what you believe the impact of race can be on your soul. It’s interesting, isn’t it? The idea that race, a human construct based on skin color, can influence your soul — the characteristic of ourselves that is completely separate from, yet connected to, everyone and everything in the universe. Of course, race has nothing to do with the infinite nature of who we really are, but when you grow up in a race-based culture, it can take a lot of unlearning to find out who you are separate from the labels. Same for gender, or class, or even political affiliation. 

Race is the hardest for my spirit to shake. I grew up with my Black southern family, learning about and connected to my Black southern ancestors. Even though I felt their presence within resonating musical chords, or in brief moments when I allowed energy to flow freely in my body, I still felt disconnected because of the difference in my skin. That’s the pesky thing about the construct of race — it constantly has you looking for a box to fit in.

Having lighter skin than the rest of my family was confusing, especially since I wasn’t told that my father was a white sperm donor until I was 16. Unintentional gaslighting of that sort does a number on knowing and intuition, so in that way, I’ve been fighting back doubt since the day that truth was revealed — a truth my soul already knew. 

At first I felt guilt about the relief that came with the confirmation that I am half “white.” I felt that I was somehow betraying my Black family and ancestors by being excited to finally know something about myself that I suspected for a long time. I still carry some of the guilt, I guess it’s a form of white guilt — that my body may be allowed into spaces where darker bodies aren’t, or that I have somehow benefited from the whiteness that’s a part of me through strictly transactional means. 

Fortunately, the majority of the guilt dissipated when I learned about Marie. When I learned about her son, my grandfather, the steady warrior for justice in his white working-class midwestern town. A man willing to fight racist neighbors to stand up for desegregation, who taught his kids, my father, to do the same. More guilt faded with the relief that my father’s lineage does not carry the heaviness of slave ownership — that I only have to contend with that from my maternal line, where one or more of my enslaved female ancestors was forced upon by someone “white.” 

Mostly, I felt my strange version of white guilt morph into pride because my people were the dancers, the anti-racists before it was cool, poor immigrants who risked making a life in a new country. The best part is, I felt them dance. I felt both of my lineages dance together, like they’d conspired in my favor this whole time, and they can finally dance in celebration because I now dance with them too.

The truth is, I belong to no one but myself. I come from strong lines, I come from hard truths, but at the end of the day, my spirit is new — uniquely my own, and my primary responsibility is to cultivate my soul. That’s how I have the strength to believe I had the right to seek out a man who made me anonymously. It’s how I can say that the stance of the California Cryobank, also shared by the American legal system — that I have no right to know about the paternal part of my lineage, is unequivocally illegitimate. It’s how I give myself permission to listen to the ancestors who pull me toward them. It’s how I learned that all this time, Marie was dancing with me.

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