A couple of years ago I was bitten by the genealogy bug. It was really quite a bite; I joined a couple of “trace your ancestors” websites and spent a lot of time building a family tree that now extends all the way back to 1598 and follows the meandering path of my family across half of the UK and to the thresholds of Canada, New Zealand and beyond. I also worked hard at gathering all the minutiae that I could along the way as this was no skeleton outline that I was after – I was intent upon putting meat on the bones of my family, gleaning whatever details I could of the lives and circumstances that took my forebears hither and thither in an effort to get to know something of their aspirations, their challenges, their motivations. In short, I set out to (at some level) “get to know” my ancestors, which I am sure is a prime motivator for a lot of people caught by the genealogy bug. In hindsight, I can’t help wondering if it is often a hallmark of those who are primarily in search of themselves to, at some stage, turn to genealogy and so embark on this painstaking, time-consuming and often frustrating journey to unearth their family’s past, their roots, as though through finding out who they have sprung from, what compounded family story they are the latest chapter of, they will somehow have that all-important lightbulb moment as to who they are and why they are here.
Of course, the further back you take your “tree” the harder it gets to do this as records become sparse and finer details disintegrate but I managed to pluck out some recurrent themes from the history of my “tribe”. One being that, on both parent’s sides, we have a travel-instinct verging on the nomadic demonstrated by the fact that when circumstances have dictated, we have up sticks and moved on, thinking almost nothing to uproot multiple family members and shift the length or breadth of this isle of ours in search of a better life, a future of some sorts. That, in itself, told me something that, at a deep level, I felt I wanted to know about myself. As one of four siblings of whom two have stayed firmly put in the place where we grew up, I had always felt somewhat wayward for the fact that I had moved 150 miles south and put down roots in an entirely new place that I have, for 25 years so the larger portion of my life, called home. For all this laying down of roots, and until I built my family tree, I still tended to feel like the prodigal who was “meant” to return “home” to where I was born and yet, failing to feel this at the heart-level, had never quite done so, although I had considered it once or twice. That feeling of not-quite-belonging dispersed forever once I became acquainted with the history of my family because here was hard evidence that shifting from place to place wasn’t new at all, it was the family norm; in fact, it probably accounted for why we were still around to tell our tale!
In the space of just a couple of generations, my father’s whole family had uprooted from dire circumstances during the 1880s in rural Norfolk (which, for one of them, meant the workhouse) to start a new life on the back of the newly industrialised coal seams of Tyneside and then, just 50 years later, shifted again to the Midlands to take advantage of the work generated by the pre-war housing boom (I still have the one piece of furniture they took with them – my grandmother’s sideboard). On my mother’s side, her ancestors had also (so very coincidentally) left rural Norfolk just a little earlier than my father’s as agricultural communities took the knock from newly mechanised farming practices, and headed all the way to Croydon near London where my mother’s grandfather reinvented himself as a Victorian cabby running a guest house on the side. I found the same hardy traits among my Yorkshire lot, who moved from one end of that then sizeable county to the other over the years, presumably in search of a livelihood and I grew up acquainted with the fact that my mother, the daughter of a regimental sergeant major, was well versed in having to shift from pillar to post as a child, having spent the first 7 years of her life in India. Whatever the historical context of the times, the overview I gleaned from all of this movement was that, as a family, we possess a stalwart spirit and considerable talent for adapting to circumstances, a propensity to morph into something that in fact takes advantage of those circumstances out of sheer determination to survive and I take great satisfaction from knowing that those family characteristic lie somewhere inside my DNA.
What I found really bizarre was that when I followed one branch of my mother’s side of the family to the mid-nineteenth century, I found a dozen family members labouring on a farm just a few miles from where I live! When I traced the same line to the 1820s and beyond, I found my family residing in Hartley Wintney, just 7 miles away in rural Hampshire, the southernmost county of this part of England. Why is this so remarkable? Well, having been raised to believe my gene mix was made up of entirely “Northern” ingredients, consisting of a hefty dollop of Yorkshire mixed with a pinch of Tyneside, and therefore having carted around a stigma, albeit self-created, that I had in effect “defected” to alien territory in “the South”, the unearthing of this ironic piece of family history was enough to make me laugh long and hard. Not only had I found my ancestors living on my doorstep (the very last place I had expected to find them) but the village of Hartley Witney is, even more coincidentally, the location of my first-ever gallery, the one that started this whole life-altering process of taking the art seriously about half a decade or so ago. In hindsight, I realise that I sensed a deep-seated affinity with the place, the lanes and woodlands around it, from the moment I moved here, spending a lot of time driving or walking in a loose circle around what is a gorgeously unspoiled village green with church and shops laid out along the old coach road nestling in glorious countryside. On this occasion, something made me stop off in the High Street of Hartley Wintney, which I hadn’t really explored before, and the prestigious art gallery that was there at the time. An informal chat with the manager lead to him looking at images of my art online; he was impressed, offered me wall space in a forthcoming exhibition and the rest, as they say, is history. Chances are, my ancestor would have walked past the same building that housed the gallery every time she paced the high street to get her groceries. And so, it seems, in choosing to make my home where I have, I don’t have to feel ostracised at all because I find I have history in these country lanes and the very bricks of the villages hereabouts (funny how important that can seem). Whether coincidence or something more, there is a certain amount of serendipity in it all.
Perhaps the lesson in this is that whatever the trials and tribulations of human endeavor, all the oh-so-consuming affairs of our daily, material existence, we have this overriding tendency to arrive back pretty much where we started sooner or later and to repeat ourselves again and again. Maybe that reflects just how relatively limited our human existence has been – for all our industrial and technological advancement – thus far. Its like there has been a glass ceiling on all of our endeavours to-date or, perhaps, a missing link – something that we haven’t yet found that will move us the extra yards (or, even more likely, something we’ve lost…). Yes, we have technology at our fingertips, we have so much of pretty much everything at our disposal in a world of incredible diversity with its endless opportunities to pursue an array of material goals and yet the same old problems weigh down all of humanity as much as they always did. We are ever nearing the tipping point, in imminent danger of burying ourselves beneath the increasingly grave consequences of our failure to “get the point” of what it’s all about and of irreparably damaging our planet in the process.
So, what is the point of life on our planet? Why have we seemingly covered so little ground (and, this time, I don’t mean in a literal, geographical sense) so that at one level we can seem to have it all yet, at another, and as caretakers of this planet, we often come across as a metaphorical toddler that has got his hands on something to play with that is beyond the safety guidelines for his age-group; at times, we just don’t seem fully capable of handling this complex “toy” that we have (perhaps misguidedly) been given and all the zappy special-effects we have now unleashed by pressing all the buttons at once. When will we mature into the adult, or at least adolescent, that knows what it is doing. Yes, science has tripped upon lots of “the answers” but until we have a few more (or at least accept that they can’t all be found in the same old places that we’ve always looked for them…), we are very likely on dangerous ground and its time we got up to speed on all fronts. A big part of the problem seems to be an over-reliance on empirical science and a fixation upon the material world whilst we have all but forgotten how to use a whole array of tools that reside, covered in the dust of ages, at the bottom of our human bag-of-tricks, including those that more intrinsically connect us with nature and with each other. Another is that the whole concept of “spirituality” has been given such bad press as a result of the organised variety of religion that has always had its own agenda (to do with empowering a handful rather than the masses) and which has forced us all to exist beneath a glass ceiling for eons until relatively recently, although the tide is starting to turn as more and more people seek to find their own version of spirituality outside of an organised church. As a result of our history, the spiritual and the material realms of life have been so long estranged that a considerable task lies ahead if we are to knit the two back together in time to make a difference but the task is necessary if we are to regain balance and evolve to the next stage of our time on this planet.
Yet none of what I’ve said is new, we are already so enlightened on a multitude of levels; why haven’t we evolved more than we have so that we make use of all the potential at our disposal, now and with urgency? Why do we still seem to be so wide off the mark and, by and large, living life to the same predictable patterns that we’ve followed for centuries? To quote Bruce Lipton in his excellent book co-written by Steve Bhaerman “Spontaneous Evolution: Our Positive Future and a Way to Get There From Here“:
The sad joke is that most of us are “remotely controlled” by the beliefs and limitations of people who have lived in the past, and we don’t even know it!
He goes on to describe how elephants are trained not to move: how the baby elephant is tied for long periods to a tree so that all attempts to do so are futile which programs the elephant to believe that, whenever a rope is tied to its leg, it cannot move and so it no longer even tries. Years later, the only thing holding the adult elephant to the spot is a rope around its leg when, in reality, it would have been strong enough to pull even the tree down, had it still been tied to it. As a race, humanity has become much like that; we hardly even suspect the full extent of our own potential and we live life “tied” to the perceived limitations of the past, the belief systems that we inherit from our forebears, taught to us as children and then we continue to “learn” whatever else we need to know from our own experiences in the goldfish bowl that we have made of our own circumstances on this planet and which heavily consists of a perceived reality handed down through ages.
I’ve been looking into the power that beliefs have over our lives for some time, from various different angles and through my reading of a myriad of books and also a course that I’m doing, the “Life Principles Integration Process” course offered by Centerpoint Research Institute. In just the first few weeks of the coursework, I’ve been taken through a powerful process by which I’ve been able to minutely identify and then scrutinise the whole network of (often limiting) beliefs that I have held for probably most of my life, all of which have played a pivotal role in determining what I have experienced to date and how successful I have been at achieving my goals. By eliminating beliefs which were inherited, are outmoded and which serve no useful purpose I am now faced with the exciting prospect of being able to reinvent my life-experience as something that serves me and what I want to achieve. Just imagine what could be achieved if we were to do this on a global level – literally all things would be possible!
My venture into genealogy was in 2010 and, over the past year, I have been far-more preoccupied with the adventure of looking into myself and learning how to fully experience “living in the now” than with taking trips into the past. So, was my trip along the genealogical route a waste of time, should I now regard it with disdain and forget all about it? Certainly not. If nothing else, it was worth it to learn about the 200 year excursion that set out from my near-doorstep, one which took my family gene pool on a road trip that would hardy it up and throw in new life skills such as extreme adaptability to circumstances and a broader-perspective before roosting back almost exactly where it started in the guise of an artist-photographer, would-be-philosopher and some-time blogger.
It was also worth it for the perspective gained from confronting my forebears in order to come to terms with the fact that they were mere mortals with largely mundane existences and a considerably more limited lot in life than than that which is at my disposal. Faced with all that, it seemed sensible to refocus my thoughts back towards what really matters, which can only ever be what is happening in the now. An inherent pitfall, when you first set off on the family tree journey, is that which invests many things in the past with a rosy hue, leading to imaginings along the lines of an Elizabethan-version of yourself enjoying a far more exotic existence than your own seemingly drab one (although if you seriously feel that about your life, you need to wake up and smell the very real roses that are out there to be enjoyed). A tendency to dress up what is effectively a glorified list of birth, death and Christening dates in far too many imaginings results in the obsessional hobbyist engaging far more with the fictional world of their family tree than with the real world unfolding all around them as they while away endless hours on ancestry.co.uk. or Genes Reunited. That’s when genealogy is in danger of becoming “Eastenders” for the research-minded. It all smacks of being yet another distraction away from life, the endless pursuit of which is the resounding trend of our times. Some people set out after the holy grail of discovering that they are related to somebody auspicious – be it Dick Turpin, a famous inventor, a lord, lady or even royalty (without really having a clue in what way this would contribute anything of worth to their own sense of self). Fixed on their quest, they set off on the journey in much the same spirit as those with metal detectors obsessively set out across the muddy field of their current reality in the hope of tripping upon the golden plunder of the past that will, they assume, transform their daily existence from the mundane into – what? There seem to be a lot of people on a quest right now but what is it we are all searching for?
The fact is – and there’s no getting around it – most of our ancestors were as thick as two short planks and lived awful lives to which they were tethered by the circumstantial and intellectual limitations of their times. As I met with that realisation with ever more frequency on my journey to discover “my roots”, my sense of purpose began to wane – it was all becoming a bit “same old, same old”. I discovered there was a limit to which I even desired to become “acquainted” with each and every individual on my tree, especially as my tree grew ever broader and I hit upon endless lists of farm labourers in all direction; after all, that’s what most people did back then! Add to all this that, as records dwindle away pre-1800, there is so little colour to the picture you are building, so much less you can honestly glean about an individual beyond the rudiments of where they lived, where they married, where they died. I found I was simply not taking to this hobby as some do, the more extreme examples of which rampage across the genealogical web space in the same spirit as Hitler across Europe, aiming to sweep up every last vestige of other people’s trees whenever another territory tenuously overlaps their own, an excuse to annex them to their own ever-growing monster-tree consisting of a zillion ancestors as though the name of the game is to show you are in fact related to everybody (yes, in essence, we all are but why spend years and years working to prove it with all the diligence of a conscientious microfiche clerk). I reserve much the same bemused reaction to this approach to genealogy as I do for those people on Facebook whose main aim it is to gather as many “friends” as is humanly possible, regardless of how tenuous the link or, indeed, whether they have any intention of communicating with them. If there’s an upside, there seems to be a massive urge for people to connect with one another sweeping though our mass-consciousness at this time and maybe that is just what we need. For my own part, I made some fantastic connections through Genes Reunited: with second cousins once, twice or three-times removed that I would never have had contact with otherwise, with elderly relatives who shared stories that felt like the last vestiges of a first-person insight into a way of life long passed and with members of my more immediate family with whom any connection would, otherwise, have dwindled to nothing beyond a Christmas card.
What I did with genealogy was pretty much what I set out to do: I wanted to colour-in some of my family’s more recent history, to gain a sense of the lives of my grandparents and fill in some of the gaps that were left in the family stories I had been told. After that, I wanted to acquaint myself with the main “trunk” of my family tree so that I could get a better sense of its height, its breadth and its general state of health; really, to gain a general sense of a timeline stretching back at least in the direction of the earliest beginnings of humanity on this planet and so a sense of perspective for where I am now.
Which leads me to this: An important key to better understanding myself that came out of my research was from an unexpected quarter and had the effect of switching on a flourescent lightbulb as soon as I had the source of the information in my hand. I had always known that my grandfather died when my father was a boy but had assumed an accident had suddenly snatched him or, perhaps, a lingering lung condition had taken him off in his sleep since he was a miner. By sending off for my grandfather’s death certificate and, to my surprise, finding the words “Encephalitis Lethargica” on there, I was able to fully appreciate the horror that must have saturated my father’s childhood world when, age 8, when his father died of this most frightening of illnesses, one which swept nearly a million people to their deaths and left another million in a state of living-death during the 1920s. To quote an article on the BBC website “It attacked the brain, leaving victims like living statues, speechless and motionless” (and if you have ever watched the film “Awakenings” you will have a fair idea what is meant by this).
Why was this so enlightening? Well, for all of his life, certainly all of the years that I knew him, there was an underlying sense that my father was a man living in fear, he was quite literally afraid of his own shadow. In particular, he was riddled with health issues from at least his early 40s and was deeply afraid of the significance of each and every one of his symptoms to the point of hypochodria. More than that, he feared “bad outcomes” at every turn, was a compulsive worrier, would stand twitching the curtains back and forth till the early hours of the morning when, as a teenager, I went out with my friends even though, by then, we were hardly talking. Rather than encourage, he was always one to impart words of caution: “be careful”, “that’s too risky” and “don’t expect too much”. He had no faith whatsoever that I would do well even though I generally did (thank heavens for my mother, who thought the opposite). This childhood environment of barely concealed “worst case scenarioing”, or expecting bad outcomes, has long been recognised by me, in my endeavours to understand my own psyche, as a root-cause of my own deeply embedded fears that have tripped me up and held me back at every turn – and fear of what? I’m never quite sure but there’s always been something. And so, with this one piece of the jigsaw puzzle in my hand I was able to understand how fear had, with my grandfather’s death in 1921, in effect become part of the family DNA, through my father’s expectations of life, drawn from his own childhood experience, and so on into mine. Through fear of paralysis he had, in effect, attracted his own version of paralysis, a fear of venturing forwards or outwards (a perfect example of “what you focus on you get”). This brings me back to what I have said above, about the empowerment that can be yours if you can just get down to the roots of your own belief system, especially where those beliefs are in fact the inherited beliefs of a parent or other ancestor, and dispense with those that can be identified as a handed-down outcome of past circumstances that have nothing whatsoever to do with your own. With this one birth certificate in my hand I was able to identify a distorted or unhealthy “branch” of my own family tree, one which has been doubling back on itself or even downwards for almost a century now (towards “fear for fears sake”) that is in desperate need of pruning or at least retraining so that, as a family, we can continue striving, unfettered and skyward, again.
Which brings me to another thought: why do people (and that includes the standard software) always depict their family “tree” as something growing downwards with their furthest ancestors at the top? Surely we need to invert this imagery of the tree to show that we are, in effect, the uppermost branches of something that took root at the beginning of humanity’s history on the soil of this planet? Go on, try it: imagine yourself at the top of a great tree, as the very tip, the uppermost leaf freshly unfurled at top of your family lineage that has been growing, broadening and strengthening for centuries. Feels much better, eh? After all, it is fundamental to our very nature to strive upwards and towards light which is why a huge family tree, laid out the usual way, can seem almost burdensome with so many dead relatives piled in layer after layer above your head! This inversion technique really works on lots of levels, not least because you can then visualise that your earliest ancestors are, in effect, the convoluted lower branches of your tree, buried in the shadowy darkness of their own limited existence and, as you gaze at the uppermost branches, you can visualise those relatives that are the nearest to you, your parents, your favourite uncle and so on, bathed in light, ever nearing the pinnacle which has to be YOU and yours. The roots – those things that still have contact with the soil, that hold this whole considerable tonnage of tree-life to the surface of the life-giving planet – are the part of the tree that have retained the greatest integrity throughout all of humanity’s history because of their unbroken connectedness with nature, with source. Then the trunk itself – you can imagine how this would have stood as a young sapling; bright, optimistic, its first leaves vivid green and uncluttered against the sky in days long before we became tangled in the jungle of human existence as a result of which we haven’t been able to see the wood for the tree for quite some time. The trunk harks back to far simpler times, before our direct connectedness with nature was somehow mislaid or given away in one trade-off after another in our endless pursuit of other human aspirations. Here at the top of the tree is where we now find ourselves, both connected to the soil through the trunk and roots and yet bathed in light and with the most tremendous over-view of all the various aspects of life on our planet that any age has ever afforded us. In effect, here we are at the top of our tremendous tree that has been millenia in the growing, with the potential to connected simultaneously to both earth (our material world) and to sky (or “nature” and the spiritual dimension). Isn’t that where we find ourselves at the start of 2012, confronted by the necessity of reconnecting with nature and our spiritual selves if we are to survive?
The tree, in any case, is the ultimate symbol of regeneration: so woody and bare in the cold, dark days of winter as to suggest that all life has quite seeped away, it bursts back into vivid green youthfulness each spring and often with such floral flamboyance that I still find myself startled by the seeming incongruity of a tree all covered in blowsy pink blossom. Year in and year out, this same regeneration takes place and yet we hardly stop to marvel at it or to consider how we too can regenerate; how nature is the most forgiving and regenerative force that there is.
So is history a waste of time, was genealogy just a passing phase for me, a pointless distraction? No, it was an important lesson. More than ever before, and as the human race in its entirety, we need to look at where have come from, to have a sense of the journey that humanity has been on for all this time, the ruts we have been stuck in and not even been aware of, so that we can fully appreciate where we are now and, from there, where we are going to, if we all have a mind to. To make some coherent sense of the undulations of our human journey to date and the potential to determine where we go from here, I can do no better than to refer you back to Bruce Lipton‘s excellent book. Maybe, at some level, the modern fixation upon tracing our ancestors is all part of that global craving to make sense of the past before we set about altering our future, in the same way as we naturally crave nutrients that are missing from our diet, because never before have so many people been voluntarily engaged in the pursuit of their own history and at such an obsessional level. Ultimately, it all leads to one major conclusion, one penny that drops with a very loud “ker-klunk” – that being a profound understanding of the inter-connectedness of us all. Herein lies another crucial lesson at this momentous juncture in our history – we are all in this together and its time we acted as such. This is why – when our children bemoan that history is boring and pointless – we have to persist with making history engaging and insist that it has its place on the curriculum; not to re-glorify past battles or to test them on their ability to recall “important” dates but so that they, too, can gain this all-important overview of all of human endeavor when they are mature enough to do so, so that they can see the point of where we are right now and what we need to do in light of where we have been. Never has it been more important to gain this perspective, as we enter into auspicious times; perhaps the most challenging and nerve-wracking times of all of our human history, yet potentially an era that our grandchildren will look back on as one characterised by some remarkably dramatic, fast-paced, evolutionary shifts that (in my view) will be the making of this planet and see the elephant untied from his imaginary tree.