There are a couple memories I recall with vivid detail from my middle school years in regards to my personal heritage. So you know, I am Scottish and Welsh on one side of the family (Taylors, Powells, and a smattering of “Mac” names floating around there) and Scottish, German, and a touch of English on the other side (Mearses, Hursts, Schweinfurths, Unterwagners, and Bennetts — believe it or not, I have Elizabeth, Jane, Mary, and a Catherine Bennett in my family tree. Take that Jane Austen; they all lived at the turn of 18th century as well, early 1800s. But I digress).
I remember when I started learning World War 2 history. Among other notable quirks of the American education system, that education began with Pearl Harbor and ended with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which in hindsight is frankly ridiculous. When I learned what Germany did, what the Nazis did, I freaked. I wanted to slash off the German branches of my family tree, I felt such horrendous guilt. I had much the same reaction when I learned of slavery and what the colonists did to the Native Americans. My dad’s side of the family settled in the South, and I have no illusions that they owned slaves. I was 12, and perhaps the guilt was irrational, as I never sent any Jews to a concentration camp or a gas chamber, and I never owned any slaves or thought it was anything short of repugnant, but it wormed its way in side of me anyway. Maybe that shock-therapy of a history lesson is what made me ultimately pursue a history major, move to Poland, and spend more time at Auschwitz than most people would think sufficient for a lifetime.
Somewhere in that time frame of middle school, I stumbled across what was at the time a rather hefty book called A String in the Harp, by Nancy Bond. The story is about a trio of American children who are plunked into a Welsh village after the death of their mother, only for one of them to discover an ancient harp key that shows him glimpses of the bard Taliesin’s history.
Hook, line, and sinker.
Around that time, I also devoured Lloyd Alexander‘s Chronicles of Prydain. I wanted to be Eilonwy, with her red-gold hair and golden bauble that lit up. I couldn’t get enough of Welsh mythology. Imagine how I felt when I discovered that I was Welsh, that I had a connection to that mythology. Until that point, I hadn’t much cared for genealogy. It’d never crossed my mind. Then it ate me up and spit me out a Celt. I delved into my Scottish heritage after doing a presentation on the ancient Celtic and Pictish warriors of Scotland — probably the sole time in my secondary education when I was able to perform a speech in front of my peers without wanting to vomit or cry. These were warriors. These were people who traced their bloodlines through the women of their clans, which spoke to me. These people had magic and a fierce determination to be free and maintain their culture even when faced with opposition from a much stronger nation (mostly England, but the Picts fought off the Romans and frightened them so much that Emperor Hadrian built a wall to keep those crazy tattooed barbarians out of his empire — or possibly just to say nanny-nanny-boo-boo at them).
After the shocks of learning about mass genocide and my misplaced-but-understandable guilt, my Celtic heritage fused a sense of pride in me, a sense of power and connection. It’s no mystery why my first trip abroad plunked me in Scotland, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a sense of magical belonging the second my feet hit the tarmac at the Glasgow Prestwick airport that June day in 2004. Considering that Scotland has brought me the best and most perfect kind of friendship and sense of self anyone could ever have, I look back to the days of middle school with no little amount of wonder.
It’s a New Year, and I certainly have goals. One thing I’ve come up with and put words to for the first time is a set of rewards to go with my goals, modeled loosely on a Celtic system of rewards. In some clans, the laird or chieftain was merely the holder of wealth — his responsibility was to hold it in trust for the good of his people, and he would use it to reward them for service or to lavish upon the clan on days of celebration or feasting. Prowess in battle and service to the chieftain were rewarded with treasures, a mark of status.
One dream I’ve had for some time is to learn to fight. I want to master — or at least become adept at — sword fighting. Not fencing, broadswords and daggers. My reward for that will be a gold torc, something that shows that I can protect myself and my family from zombies or whatever. I hope to never have to follow in the footsteps of that Maryland person who ran an intruder through with a katana, but you never know.
Another goal I have is to become stronger and more fit. Part of that is losing fat (notice I didn’t say weight), and another part of that is because I have a tendency toward high blood pressure already. I want to be able to do at least 10 — preferably 15 — chin-ups. I say that because I know that is a lofty goal for me. I think I can do two. It requires a lot of upper body and core strength, and it will take a lot of work to get to that level of fitness. But it should help with the sword-y goal as well as endurance. My reward for this would be a tattoo — either one of the ogham bands I want to get around my right ankle or left upper arm — or a claymore.
For smaller goals, I would reward myself with other Celtic trinkets that have meaning for me. Usually reproductions of ancient artifacts, because that’s just how I roll.
What do you use to motivate yourself? Do you draw on your heritage in your daily life for inspiration? Have you ever felt guilt or pride about your ancestry?
I also ought to note, gentle viewers, that I have absolved myself of guilt for the crimes of Hitler and his company — I am unendingly grateful for the opportunities I have had to meet and converse with survivors of that dark and horrible era of human history, and I will ensure to the best of my ability that we do not forget, that we never repeat the scale and scope of murder that occurred between 1939 and 1945. I believe that every human being should one day set foot through those black iron gates at Auschwitz and visit the striking and sober chunk of truncated railroad track at Birkenau that marked the end of the line for so many souls. The images of the crematoria, the piles of human hair and shoes, the massive mound of human ashes at Majdanek — these are pictures seared onto my retinas for the rest of my days.
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