Monday, July 5, 2010

Power in the Blood, by Linda Tate

Recently I had a facebook reunion with Pat, an old friend from college, and she recommended I read "Power in the Blood." Pat had been a true friend back in college, and my renewed connection with her brought back memories of the tough times she helped me through, almost three decades ago(!), of struggling to keep my head above water while trying to navigate the waters of young adulthood. Those memories had faded over the years, like cushions left in the sun, but recalling that time now, I can see how my chaotic childhood replayed itself in my life back then as a newly minted adult. Although my parents had been well meaning, they passed on to me a legacy of fear and anger.

Linda Tate found herself in grad school when she wanted to discover more about her family's history. She had niggling questions about her parents and their odd and hurtful ways and, in order to understand why her parents were the way they were, she had to uncover the mysterious history of their families. She was compelled to do this, knowing that there was wisdom to be found in the revelation. Ever curious, Tate dug in, never letting the myriad challenges posed by this laborious search stop her. Tate traveled, scoured through archives, found long, lost relatives, and traced her family tree back to the Appalachians, an area between Tennessee and Kentucky called the "Land Between the Rivers." At the end, along with stories of colorful ancestors, Tate found the words to detail the suffering in her family that went back generations and finally was able to put the pieces of her family's puzzle together. By solving the mystery of how her parents came to be the way they were, Tate, in turn, shined light on her own childhood, and on herself.

My relatives insist our family descends from The Baal Shem Tov, the 1770 Ukrainian rebel who is credited with founding the Hasidic movement. As I understand it, one of Hasidism's basic tenets is that God has imbued each of us -- in fact, all of His creations -- with a unique nature, and that the closer any of us can come to knowing ourselves, to finding and expressing our authentic natures, the closer we become to God. It's a concept that has fascinated me for years. How does any of us go about knowing, truly knowing, what's in our heart of hearts, especially if the circumstances of our upbringings has smudged the lens through which we would clearly see our own natures?

Because I have wondered about the effects my chaotic childhood had on me, I was curious as to how the process of researching and writing "Power in the Blood" effected Tate -- so I wrote her. This is what she said: The process of discovering the details about my ancestors' lives and the writing of the book itself changed my life immeasurably. I had a much fuller understanding of why things had happened the way they had in my own life, and as a result I was able to achieve more of a sense of peace and acceptance about all that had occurred. Ultimately, I found that sense of home in myself -- found a place to belong. All of this healing ultimately made it possible for me to invite love into my life, and that's why the last paragraph of the book mentions my husband.

Unlike Tate's, my parents' families came to this country from the "Fiddler on the Roof" type villages of Eastern Europe. My father's great-grandmother was affectionately nicknamed by her grandkids as Babalompola, because she was the baba from Yompola. The specifics of Tate's story are very different than mine but, at their bedrock, our stories are the same: suffering passed down from one generation to the next. I picture the pure innocence of The Baal ShemTov (known for communing with God by dancing ecstatically in the forests of the Ukraine) and then I think of my childhood in San Francisco, steeped in anxiety, paranoia and anger. Somewhere along the way, between the Ukraine of the 1770s and the West Coast of the 1970s, some thing happened that changed the course of my family, and its legacy was a cloak of suffering. For those of us who find ourselves at the receiving end of generations of suffering, "Power in the Blood" is an amazing story, one that shows how one woman stopped the chain by illuminating the stories of her ancestors and by doing so gained an understanding of how they impacted her. Maybe The Baal Shem Tov had it right, and that by seeing clearly what lies inside one's heart-- however that's accomplished -- the heart can open, and the suffering replaced with God and love.

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