I went ahead and contacted one of my aunts and uncles (my birth mother’s youngest sister and husband). They did not know I existed, but have been kind enough to answer some of my questions about the family genealogy. They have sent me two books of family history, including photos of people who had previously only been names on a family tree.
With very few exceptions, my birth family (both maternal and paternal) have been very generous and kind in welcoming me. Every time it happens, another piece of my heart is healed. Every time it happens, I realize how much my heart has been in need of healing. I am grateful.
One of the discoveries in the book is that more than one of my ancestors were wagon builders. One of them was my great-great grandfather, Gottfried F Krels, who was born in Pennsylvania to German parents in 1836. He moved to Wisconsin in 1851 and became a wagon builder. Eventually, he moved West, first to California, eventually settling in southeastern Washington in 1877.
A great-great-great grandfather was also a wagon builder, Abraham Lindley Ogden, born to a family who had been some of the first English colonists in New Jersey in the 1600s. He became a wagon builder, which took him to Ohio in 1840, then to Indiana and Illinois, where my great-great grandmother was born.
Reading these stories of my ancestors, who settled in Washington before it was a state, makes me wonder what it was like to set out across an unknown land with all of your children, belongings, and hopes packed into a wagon. What would it be like to leave behind everything and everyone you knew, trusting there was hope and opportunity for you in a new land?
I realize how important wagon builders were in those days. It’s a long way to walk the Oregon Trail. What you can carry on your back is not enough to get you through.
We need wagons for journeys like those. For shelter, and protection. For carrying supplies.
I am not about to set out across the prairies in search of a new land. I can barely pack for a trip in a carry-on suitcase.
I think our culture is, though, about to embark on a journey into a future we haven’t seen before, leaving behind what was once comfortable and familiar. I’m thinking of this in a few different arenas. Religious traditions are certainly facing a world we’ve not seen before. Some of the structures and practices that served us so well for so many years are not what’s needed for today. I have no worry about the church “dying”, even as I recognize that some parts of religious practice need to die in order for us to live into what God is dreaming for us. Leaving behind the comforts of Christendom to journey toward a faithful future is our work to do.
Also, our nation must face the systemic nature of racism and heal wounds that are causing our streets to run red with blood. Our black brothers and sisters need more than our solidarity. They need us to address and deal with our privilege and fragility. Even the recounting of my birth family history reminds me that the lands my ancestors colonized and settled had already been home to Native American tribes before my ancestors moved in. Healing the wounds of racism is our journey to make.
And our political situation during this election cycle is revealing that people on both sides of the aisle feel disenfranchised and unheard by our elected leaders. The election will be over in less than a month. The work of listening to each other and re-building a civil society is just beginning. Our children are learning from us how to behave. It is up to us t0 journey toward civility and kindness.
What are the wagons we need to make these journeys across the prairies of our discontent? What do we need to store up to journey from this moment, toward the unknown future?
I’m thankful for my ancestors who were willing to set out on journeys so difficult I can’t even imagine. I’m thankful to know some of them were wagon builders, willing to prepare and equip others to make the journey too.
Let’s be wagon builders in the coming days. Stopping to help people broken down on the side of the trail. Building things that will last for the journey. Being useful and helpful in a time of anxiety, uncertainty, and dislocation.
Go to the Limits of your Longing
Rainer Maria Rilke
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
Book of Hours, I 59