tribal wisdom


Copyright 2012 Susan Weller. All Rights Reserved.

During this last visit to Rancho La Puerta I got a little hooked on this one dinner game.  The evening meals there are long and leisurely and without electronics and distractions at the table, there is ample room for conversation.  I like to take advantage of it.

I’m finding that as I get older, I’m less interested or adept at small talk.  In thinking about this this morning, I realized what I’m actually more interested in is smaller talk.  The kind that comes out quietly, sometimes in a whisper.  The kind of intimacy that gets shared when layers are peeled away and Truths are revealed.  Sometimes the talk itself is the peeling of the layer.  Not lofty ideas although they are often born from this kind of conversation but the soul stirring events of one’s life.  Or even the hidden little details that maybe seem meaningless at one point but provide a trampoline of fascination for someone else much later.

I started asking the question of the table “What is something no one at this table knows about you?”.  Then there’s an inevitable recoiling or nervous laughter followed by uprolled eyes to the left and silence as everyone thinks back.  “It can be an interest, a talent, a place you’ve longed to travel to, something about your personality, a dream you’ve always had, an event from your past”.  It’s so interesting to just watch this question ripple around the circle.  I don’t think I’ve ever asked it with a preconceived answer myself.  I enjoy the journey of discovery which is part of the reason I ask in the first place.  Oh and I learned on Thanksgiving Day that my father can say the alphabet backward!  And he proved it!


When I’d asked this question one evening there at The Ranch, I was seated at a table where I believe I’d only met one person other than Sebastian who dined with me nearly every night.  It may have been his last night there, this one.  By the time the question arose we all knew the basics about each other, names, where we were from, what we were loving about our week, things like that.  I also had learned that three of the women were together and one was the other two’s niece. Two aunts and a niece. That kind of came as a surprise to me as I would have guessed they were all near the same age, more like cousins, but they sure had an undeniable connection.

The question first lands on the niece of their trio.  She shares that she knows how to make hundreds of balloon animals.  That once she took a job as a balloon animal maker for kid’s parties and taught herself to do it and, with a natural affinity, became exceedingly skilled at it.  Her face just lit up talking about these balloon animals and we were all on the edges of our seats asking how she taught herself, which were the most popular, which did she make up herself, which were her favorites.  Who would have thought a topic of balloon animals would generate that much curiosity and fascination?


The question then rolled to one of the aunts next to her.  She paused then looked toward the niece and asked a question something like “Should I tell the story about finding you?”.  The niece, a kind of quiet shy kind of person, nodded her  head looking around the table and said “sure”.  Maybe she just gave the table a cursory glance to make sure she was in safe territory.  Now that I’m writing this I sure am visualizing that small gesture which at this moment feels very profound to me.  It’s good to know where your safety zones are.  More on that later.

So Aunt #1 goes on to tell a tale that has us all wide eyed and so much farther perched on the edges of our seats I’m surprised we didn’t all topple over.

She starts at the end in a way I guess telling us that their niece was born to their sister who had put her up for adoption when she was a teenager.  They were much younger than this oldest sister so they had really no say in the whole situation.  They just knew that their sister had gotten pregnant, was sent away for awhile, came back and no baby ever came with her.  And that they were to never breathe a word of it.  So they didn’t.

They all grew up, naturally, without this member of their family ever acknowledged.  It was probably around the point of this story that aunt #2 started chiming in and at some point it evolved in to a symphony of three voices reciting this story in perfect harmony.

Both the niece and the aunts had decided they wanted to search each other out.  Well for the niece, it was more searching her birth mother I think, not knowing about what extended family she had.  On both ends there was very little to no information to be found for some reason.

The aunts stopped all of our breathing momentarily when they told us, they didn’t even have her correct birth date.  Their sister, the teen mother, had blocked this event so totally that she didn’t even remember the date she’d given birth to this baby.  I do remember tears in my eyes hearing the poignancy of that.

Now mind you, she wasn’t the one searching.  Her younger sisters were.  Their mother wasn’t but she plays a huge role.  The aunts’ mother, the teen mother’s mother, the grandmother of this now balloon artist also had blocked the day her own daughter had given birth to her first grandbaby.

“One of our other sisters is even a private investigator” Aunt #2 said.  “She could have easily found her for us if all we’d had was that birth date”.

Think of it, all the babies to unwed mothers who have gathered together in some Home of some kind, decades ago.  How would they ever sort out what baby went with who and there apparently were no records.

Their grandmother of course knew all about this too.  Not the grandmother of the baby, the Aunts’ grandmother.  But she knew far more than any of them ever suspected.

Apparently the teen mom was very close to her grandmother.

Because, after the grandmother, the balloon artist baby’s great grandmother passed, Aunt #2 found herself sifting through her belongings.  “She kept every card I think anyone ever sent her in her whole life.  So I don’t know what possessed me to open that of many shoeboxes and go through all of those cards”.

Swaddled inside Christmas and birthday greetings from God knows who, was an empty envelope with the baby’s great grandmother’s scrawl on it.

On that envelope used as scratch paper were all the details about the baby.  Her first great granddaughter.

Their sister, after having given birth, called their grandmother unbeknownst to anyone to reveal these details over the telephone.

There it was, plain as day, the birth date, the length of the baby, the weight, the gender and I don’t know what other details written in a small list then tucked away safely among the other salutations of love.

Yes at this point there were tears and gasps all around the table.

The Aunts used that information to track down their niece, their niece who was also unbeknownst to herself, searching for them too.  And from that point on, the search was seamless and easy and they found her.

The niece then took over describing getting off the plane, the first time she went to meet them (not her mother, her aunts).  She said something like this “I spent my whole life looking for people who look like me.  Where are the people who look like me?  I stepped off that plane and saw their faces and said ‘that is my family'”.

The aunts described the exact same feeling.  All tearing up, remembering.

The odd note at this stage of the story is I found myself at that moment through my own teary eyes scanning all of their faces and thinking , to me, they didn’t look alike at all, physically.  Which makes this recognition all the more deep and special to me.  They were seeing and recognizing something beyond their physical faces.  They were finding a lost member of their tribe.  Sebastian and I later talked about this and he had the same impression.  We wouldn’t have naturally looked at these three like obvious family members yet that was their experience 1000%.  Like just a given. It was so sweet.

The niece then went on to share that although she truly loves her adoptive family and knows she was lucky to have been raised there, that she always felt on some level like a fish out of water–she was talking about specific interests and tastes in things and personality traits.  I’ll never forget her describing her relationship with her aunts and their world travels together (this trio literally has traveled the world together for years at this point) “we have the same tastes in food, we like the same clothes, we all love Latin America”.  Uniquely specific things like that.

She spoke about how all her life she’d had an interest in South America writing essays on it as a child, etc.  And then she finds out all of her birth mother and aunts were raised in Chile, although American.


I think though the most deeply moving part of her story, to me, was when she described talking to her grandmother, the mother of her teenage mother, for the first time on the phone and this woman who had held this secret all those years said in her first words to her granddaughter “there is not one day that has gone by since you were born that I’ve not thought of you”.

Talk about medicine right there.

This story was so unexpected, so captivating that we all were both spellbound and stopped in our tracks and breathless.  And it was born out of a “smaller talk” type question “tell us something you think no one here knows about you”.

How interesting though now that I think about it that aunt #1 knew two other people obviously knew this story but chose that one to tell.  She told it because the rest of us needed to hear it.

There was an of course elephant standing in the middle of the table after the telling of this story and one I’m sure you’re noticing yourself right in the center of this blog about now.

What happened to her actual birth mother?  Why was she not included in this story?

Well let me tell you how brave this trio is.  They acknowledged this delicate question which I asked in some fashion.  And they all just calmly said she didn’t embrace this connection in the way the three of them have and it was all ok.  This niece came to find her aunts, not her mother.  Who would have guessed?  Her aunts are her tribal family but not her birth mother.  And they were all completely ok with this fact without judgment.  And they have forged ahead together without apology or awkwardness but total gratitude for finding each other.   Beautiful.


I know we all were profoundly affected by this story of healing and belonging and miracles.  Sebastian and I talked about it much later that evening over wine.

I didn’t interact with those ladies again the next two days although I saw them around.  It was like a quiet nod was exchanged between us.  It was almost so intimate that we just wanted to leave it on that note.  I don’t know how else to describe it.  You can’t go back to superficial small talk once something like that has been laid bare.


On the very last day though, as I was walking out of the front lobby area after taking care of some business I ran in to this trio.  I asked which bus they were taking back and they were actually waiting for a cab.  I told them safe travels and how much I enjoyed meeting them and thanked them for sharing their story.

The niece, the shyest of the group, looked up at me in such a humble or innocent or I don’t really have the right adjective way.  It was like she was speaking to me through her eyelashes.  She said “we all discussed how that dinner was our favorite part of the whole week and I wanted to thank you for asking that question”.

We all hugged and then went on our way.


Wow, I didn’t know that whole story in that length was going to spring forth from my mind this morning when I sat down to talk about belonging and finding one’s tribe.  But as I thought about that topic, that’s what arose.

What I want to say is, we know when we find our tribe members.  Maybe as a group, maybe as an individual but we know.  There is a recognition.  And it’s an important one to listen to and follow.


It may not be the people who make the most sense on paper.  It’s deeper than that. It’s a deep body knowing kind of thing.  That sense of rightness.

Haven’t we all gravitated to relationships or groups at one time or another where we feel we should belong but we don’t really feel that deep sense of connection. But we keep trying and keep feeling awkward?

I recently discovered one of those in my sphere and the deep sense of relief when I quickly came to terms with the letting go part.  And instantly what happened was it created a void for those members of my tribe to slip through that open door and claim me again.

I’m pretty sure the mother/child bond is the one that gifts us with that sense of where we belong in the world.  When  that gets stunted early on, as it did with me and my siblings and the niece in this story as well as some of you readers, I think it’s natural there is this sense of longing. Of looking.  Of wishing and hoping.  A natural glitch in our feeling of rightness in the world.


I remember as a kid my favorite book was “Are You My Mother?”.  Well it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one out, right?


I feel lucky to have found members of my tribe all throughout my life. And surrogate mothers.  The ones who you know will accept you no matter what.  The ones you never feel a threat with.  Especially that threat of abandonment.  That’s the worst one.

The flip side of this pondering this morning, this lesson I learned this weekend, is not only to listen to that deep intuitive body voice guiding me toward those who are “My People” but to equally listen to the voice inside that guides me away from those who are not.  Especially the one that is doing that “Warning!  Warning!  Will Robinson!” thing.  And not let that rational , debating mind talk you out of that one.  Ever.  Because you will get stung eventually.   And you always know when it’s there.


When someone walks in to your sphere and your guard goes up, the hair stands up on the back of your neck, even against all reason, it’s the most important thing you need to know right then and there about that relationship.  And it’s the moment to back away slowly.  Or turn and run.

I was reminded of all of these things this past weekend, thankfully.  And the reward I received, well I will just display here in this photo montage from yesterday.  I got reconnected with my tribe again.  Not that they all even know each other necessarily but they all fall in that “these are My People” category.  And some I can’t put on here as images because they were just phone conversations or messages.  But they all came rushing through the doors that opened all around me as I pivoted away from that which is not for me in that deep smaller talk kind of way I crave.


my bff Amy who is one of my surrogate mothers, probably the Mother Superior 😉


Amy’s darling daughters Annabelle and Sophie, sometimes also surrogate mothers.  I jest, kind of. 😉


Marianne’s late night Downton tea party that went til 3am of tea and soul stirring sharing and persimmon cake and Yogi tea

I look at these photos of myself from yesterday and enjoy seeing my face again.  I look like my sparkly relaxed self who sort of slipped away from me for awhile.  I’m glad to see her back.

The main thing is my family drew closer and my support system supported me not even knowing I was needing their support.  What a beautiful thing.

One very seemingly small but huge example of this happened last night.  It has to do with one of my favorite activities I’ve written about before :  Late Night Love at FnB.  I saw the menu for it late Saturday night knowing there was no way I would go as I’d had a late dinner with my family already and I was utterly exhausted after a full day following a night of nearly no sleep.  But I sure was drooling over that menu, an homage to a famous Chef Judy Rogers of Zuni Grill who’d recently passed.  Charleen Badman is a chef who knows how to honor one of her fallen tribe members.


I made a flip comment on the restaurant Facebook page after seeing this menu posted, one in which I was completely joking…well let me go get it and show you what followed.  Be right back.

Kathy Monkman Can you do this again tonite?

See what I mean?  This was a liferaft from my Tribe.  Not knowing I needed it on a conscious level but tossing it anyway.  Just one of many this weekend.

And guess what?  I sure did go in last night and Charleen sure did make me one of those chickens including the polenta which made me want to literally lick the bowl.  I got more comfort food, conversation, Sunday Night Love just offered my way for no reason other than to welcome me back Home.

20131209-104308.jpg 20131209-104317.jpg

I guess I want to end on this note.  If your sphere is being taken up with people who are not those who you really came to connect with, to be loved and supported by, who don’t inspire you to be your greatest self, who you don’t deeply feel that place of recognition with or worse yet feel the Will Robinson thing with; then the people who do fit those definitions can’t get to you.  And in some very important way, you can’t get to yourself.

Yet, the beautiful paradox is, once a crack begins in the constellation of avoidance to journey in to those smaller talk conversations, your tribe will rush in and rescue you.  If it’s what you long for, they will find you.  This I know for sure.

I know it as sure as that niece saw it in the faces of her aunts.  This is my tribe she felt.  Clear as a bell and they reflected it right back.  And she was Home for the first time.


Thank you all out there for bringing me Home over the last few days through comfort food, invitations, dance, a late night tea party and all the soul stirring conversations I ended up having as I navigated the rubble of an earth quake that shook me hard enough to bring me back to myself.  With a lot of beautiful assistance.

I wondered why I’d not been writing for a few weeks, well there’s my answer.  I lost myself there for a minute.  But the finding is made all the sweeter through the being lost.


I feel more alive and connected than I have in a very long time and isn’t that just the best holiday gift I could hope for?

My one regret is that I didn’t lick that polenta bowl.  I’m bookmarking that one for another time.



12 thoughts on “tribal wisdom

  1. “not all who wander are lost” …… a beautiful summation that speakes volumes. It is one of my most favorite passtimes, to wander through thoughts or crowds or letting myself go wherever it takes me.

    A very good post, Kathy. Welcome back. ((((soft hug))))

  2. Shelley

    Excellent post. Yes I know what you mean about “tribe”-! And now, that I am older, I want authentic conversations that are meaningful. Genuine. Glad you are back to your “self” and writing such interesting and thought provoking things.

  3. ami wilson kalisek

    Kathy, I just want you to know I may not comment often, but I pounce on each of these and hide myself away to sink into your words. I love your writing and wish for that same ability in myself. You are slowly inspiring me to find my own voice.

    • That’s fantastic Amy! I started this blog with just one person writing me and saying “you should pursue writing” and told me how to start so I did and you I think will find as soon as you open a “new post” canvas, it just starts flowing. I almost never know the story I’m going to tell, it’s very cathartic and therapeutic. Use that voice girl! New Year’s is a good time to start new things..just sayin!

  4. Zuri

    This post really spoke to me on so many levels. It is one of the best you have ever written IMO. It brought back memories of dealing with “mean girls”, the type that only want to be your friend because of “something” you can do for them. I remember being flattered as this group of women sought me out to be their friend and starting inviting me to all these functions. I was put on the invitation lists of all the high society parties, charity balls, luncheons etc. It felt really nice to be so well liked or so I thought at the time. This one woman, who I thought was a friend, started sabotaging me every single chance she had. It was so hurtful as I had done nothing to her except be nice and friendly to her. She embarrassed me in front of groups every single chance she had. When others joined her in acting mean and spiteful, I decided I had had enough. I walked away. The betrayal, the hurt, the negativity, the mass abandonment (momentary) took a toll until I realized that all this stuff didn’t matter. They didn’t matter. They were not worthy of MY friendship as I am a good friend to those I care about. It opened up a whole new world. A very famous woman opened up her world to me and included me in it. My true blue friends were still there and then some. My mom called those “mean girls” fair weather friends. They had their own agenda which became very apparent to me, which I had wondered about initially. I should have listed to my gut. Those “mean girls”, who had projected onto me all their self loathing, mattered no more and my world is so much better without them. I learned to be more cautious about who I let in, and now heed the warning signs. My life is so much richer without them in it.

    • Wow Zuri, your post has so much resonance for me you can’t imagine. Not knowing the “back story” here which I don’t feel the need to tell, the fact that this triggered that memory in you is part of that synchronicity I crave. I’m not surprised considering the way we connected, across the miles, due to the Alexander trial and our own similar losses. We’ve had many moments of synchronicity haven’t we? I say hello Tribal Sister. 🙂

    • Zuri

      I would love to have you meet her when she comes your way sometime. She is very inspirational, doesn’t crave the spotlight, very smart, classy and beautiful inside and out. Having never met you, just through your writing, you remind me of her in many ways. That is the highest compliment I could pay anyone.

  5. Cyndi Wells Platfoot

    Wow that was a powerful story! smaller talk, love it! I’m blessed with my tribe my bff of 38 yrs! thx for another thought provoking post.

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