Mirror, Mirror: Gazing Through Ancestral Eyes – Taya Mâ Shere
When I was 4, I drew a dot on a piece of paper and told my mom it should be hung in an art museum. She asked my nursery school teacher if she should be concerned that my self-esteem was too high, and my teacher said, definitely not, keep doing what you are doing, the world will do everything it can to beat it out of her soon enough. My parents convinced me that I was the most beautiful creature, and I entirely believed them for the first 11 years of my life. Then Aaron MacNab started calling me witch-chin. I was a safety patrol, and he was my friend’s little brother who had issues with authority. Suddenly, I realized that I didn’t look like the models in the magazines I read or like the Barbie dolls who were my fantasy playmates. Relatively speaking, witch-chin is not such a bad insult, and was, in retrospect, prescient ~ a placing of me with my people. But the name was devastating to me back then. For the first time, I considered that I wasn’t as beautiful – and thus as powerful – as the folks close to me proclaimed, or as I myself had thought. I suddenly realized that my face is flat, my chin protrudes, my right cheek has a frozen quality, my eyes almost close when I smile, and that smile is asymmetric. I went from thinking I was a treasure to being embarrassed in pictures and for anyone to look at me. After years of beaming at myself in the mirror, I began to cringe and avoid mirrors altogether, floored by the dissonance I felt between inside and out. I imagined no one else was inside of a similar dissonance. And I had no awareness that systemic oppressions were at play in making me feel less than and question my worthiness.
While the mirror was a place of distress, I would stare for hours at the few photos we had of my great-grandparents and feel deeply relieved that my features come from somewhere, that the round and flat and olive-y thick of me make sense, that all the ways in which I look like I emerged from the earth are there for a reason. I found deepest relief in recognizing myself as a fractal of my lines before me.
The living elders I knew, when asked, offered words like Russia, Poland, the old country ~ with a toss of the hand that suggested an irrelevance of distinction. As if to say: you know, those lands that people in power were always changing the name of, while we called it something entirely different and weren’t safe there anyway. Were there just long enough to obscure the names of the places before.
Inside of each toss of their hand, I received their clear transmission. It matters entirely where you come from: us. But the land where we lived most recently before here doesn’t tell you that much. We were closer to the soil then, and to each other, but we weren’t safe there either, and we are going to do everything we can to simultaneously remember and forget that. So that you understand that there is nowhere but to each other that we belong.
When people I don’t know ask me where I’m from, which happens often, they rarely accept the simple answer of my birthplace. I know what they are asking. Why do I look the way I look? Where are my people from that make my face shape, my skin tone, my eyes, my energy, my curves the way they are? I don’t have the easy answer they want to hear – something to place me from a country that will have my appearance make sense to them.
When I respond to their pushback with “Do you mean where are my great-grandparents from? They were Jews living in what is now called Russia, Poland and the Ukraine,” no one is satisfied. They may cease their questions, but they look at me quizzically, as if there is something important I didn’t say.
Because there is. They, like my ancestors, are not satisfied with my response. Perhaps they even hear my people whispering loudly beyond and within me, as I do, “We are from other places before that. That was not our deep home.” Which is affirmed by glimmers in DNA tests, but which I mostly know to be to be true from tales whispered but not confirmed, from the gap I sense in my bones when I stop the story only 200 years back, and from the rememberings as a child that helped me make sense of the world when nothing else did.
It has mattered to me to actively claim my heritage as a Jew with ancestors from the Pale of Settlement because in the relatively recent aftermath of the Holocaust, honoring those places of devastation and loss mattered so much. But it has always felt like one sliver of the story. The nuance of my particular peoples includes strands of mystery which I lean into and let myself awe about. Their stories are the stuff of deep dreams and I stalk them with steadfast devotion. They often glimmer brilliantly in response. I do my best to show up for and tend what I know, while not publically or harmfully claiming what I don’t.
The mirror remains a portal to the ancient strands that shape me. When I flatten the fractal that I am, the belittling voices echo back and dismantle me, short-circuiting the power flowing through my lineages and my veins. I prefer to access a multi-dimensional lens, remembering and being curious about not only where I come from, but who I come from, the myriad creatures – stone, bone, flesh, sacred song and story and sex – that have gone into making me. I hear the heartbeat of my people’s drum, feel the cool river water that washed their skin, taste the sweet bitter of the plants that kept them well.
When I look in the mirror with a liminal gaze, these strands of them pepper my every expression, shine through the dance in my kohl-outlined eyes, animate the glow in my asymmetrical smile, sculpt every line of my witch-chin. What has ridiculed, oppressed or sought to erase vanishes into the deep well of praise for and from my people, fades amidst immense appreciation of their resilience, pales in the face of my desire for connection and my kiss-the-ground gratitude to be one of the ones of them who is alive now.
TAYA MÂ SHERE
Taya Shere (Taya Mâ) is a senior teacher in the Ancestral Medicine model and is Visiting Assistant Professor of Organic Multireligious Ritual at Starr King School for the Ministry where she trains emergent clergy in multi-religious ritual and ancestral practice. She teaches Ancestral Lineage Healing workshops across the U.S. and offers session work online. Her chant albums have been heralded as “cutting-edge mystic medicine music.”