Author Archives: Nicole Conner

Origins

In a few months time I will be trekking via a hellhole, known as economy class, to the home of my patriarchal ancestors. I will be visiting a part of Poland which was once known as East Prussia. Arriving in Warsaw, the beloved and I will hire a car and navigate the Polish roads to the city of Elk, once known as Lyck. It was here, around 1944, that all sorts of horrendous dramas unfolded for my grandmother and her children as they fled the Red Army at the end of WW2 (my grandfather had died in the battle of Stalingrad).

IMG_0152 (1) My grandparents: Ilse & Leo Meyer

I have found the genealogical research a very troublesome process, not just because of the countless documents that have been destroyed. It has also been difficult to read the heart wrenching, historical narrative of desperate people caught up in the horrors of WW2, no matter what ‘side’ they were from.  The more I dig, the more I wonder: “Why am I doing this?” Hours of work may result, if I am fortunate, with a minuscule detail of information that may or may not further the progress of discovering some of my heritage.

31357_k1_Atlm0ErRmQz0BBQWlVS

My research took me to a “Church of ‘Jesus Christ’ of Latter Day Saints” near my home, which provides access to thousands of documents to assist those tracing the footsteps of their ancestors. I was welcomed by a lady who bore an uncanny resemblance to Professor Trelawney. In the course of conversation she mentioned that she spends nearly every day of the week here and has managed to trace her family history to the 7th century. It was a strange conversation as she gushed forth detailed information about her lineage with that mad gleam of a genealogical zealot in her eyes; eyes that were boring into my soul, wanting me to grasp the magnitude of the importance of her obsession. Desperately trying to remain interested I kept being distracted by the giant teacup by her computer, wondering whether there were traces of tealeaves at the bottom? In my head I was thinking, “A friggin’ name, lady, I am just after one elusive name.”

34A9950A-9A6E-46D3-961A-274F7EC2CFF8

So what exactly drives someone like this charming, ancestral extremist to embark on this magnitude of research? And what has made genealogical research one of the most popular hobbies and a global phenomenon?

The fascination with our lineage seems to go back into antiquity. Some have argued that it is a sense of feeling connected to others that is the motivation behind the hours of research work. Eviatar Zerubavel, in his book, ‘Ancestors & Relatives: Genealogy, Identity and Community’, challenges the way we look at genealogy. Rather than simply documenting who our ancestors were, it is a process of constructing a narrative to link ourselves to our ancestors.

Genealogies, he argues, aren’t simply a straightforward account of our ancestries, rather they are the heavily curated social constructions of our imagined values.”No other animals have ‘second cousins once removed,'” Zerubavel points out, “or are aware of having had great-great-great-grandparents”. Only humans have the ability to expand family trees and accrue large numbers of ‘optional’ relatives. We construct our genealogies by choosing, out of a nearly endless array of possibly important or interesting ancestors, the ones who matter to us.

So is our search for origin simply a search for meaning? And do we use distant relatives to construct a narrative that in some way feeds the need to discover meaning in our lives?  I would say this idea certainly plays a factor into my research. That, and sheer curiosity. If Zerubavel is correct in his argument, then is it any wonder in a world of disconnection, suspicion and tribal disintergration, people take to studying their ancestors – looking for stories that bring meaning to existence? Do genealogical studies provide a little bit of comfort for the existential angst that gnaws in each of us? And perhaps that is why, generally speaking, we have a love affair with fairytales? Because like our own historical narrative, they help us dream and imagine stories of greatness and mystery.

Since water still flows, though we cut it with swords,
And sorrow returns, though we drown it with wine,
Since the world can in no way satisfy our cravings,
Let us loosen our hair tomorrow and go fishing. 

–Li Po

Concerning Mugwumps

Perhaps most readers would associate the word ‘mugwump’ with Albus Dumbledore of the much loved Harry Potter series. Dumbledore was the Supreme Mugwump, head of the Wizengamot, the International Confederation of Wizards – except in the fifth book where his cohort suspects he is totally nuts (don’t worry, he is restored to his position by the end of the book).

4C5C6658-80B7-498A-BCD1-31DAC0A93838

The word ‘mugwump’ originates from the Algonquian dialect of Native American in Massachusetts and means ‘war leader’. It was first used as a humorous word in English, depicting a bigwig or grand panjandrum. During the US Presidential elections in 1884 it was used to describe Republicans who changed sides (God forbid); they became known as little mugwumps or turncoats. The most notorious of these was Mark Twain who famously said: “I was a mugwump. We, the mugwumps, a little company made up of the unenslaved of both parties, the very best men to be found in the two great parties – that was our idea of it … Our principles were high, and very definite. We were not a party; we had no candidates; we had no axes to grind. Our vote laid upon the man we cast it for no obligation of any kind. By our rule we could not ask for office; we could not accept office. When voting, it was our duty to vote for the best man, regardless of his party name. We had no other creed. Vote the best man – that was creed enough.”

– Mark Twain’s Autobiography (North American Review, Dec. 21, 1906)

98B289F2-541F-4F46-9917-632258EE7F29

Today, the word mugwump is most commonly used in reference to someone removed from party politics and somewhat of an independent thinker – which makes them rather dangerous on many levels, not the least in that some observers would say they are nuts…just like dear Dumbledore.

So welcome to the mugwump blog of the independent, slightly offbeat, thinkers 🙂 This blog will serve as a place where a mugwump with attitude will throw some stuff on the table; reflections on history, spirituality, political bollocks, human rights, things that grow in my garden, animals, the merit of red wine even when you have developed an allergy that could kill you, the wonder of myth and ‘thin places’, and how annoying some people can be.

Look forward to our discussions – as mugwumps we will attempt to not kill each other in that process, but practice the art of listening closely and engaging keyboard response with respect.