What is reconciliation? Purple and white

In this life I’ve felt a touch, whispering of cloth against my skin; big sky flowing over me, an endless blanket of twinkling lights, round white moon floating there, caught in a tangle of branches and clouds. At the height of summer, I’ve walked at night in a stand of pines; the forest is small, but trees become deep and endless in darkness, and I wander there. I once found a clearing where women danced, their dresses swaying and jingling; the bells on their skirts gleaming silver in the pearly light. I’ve always wanted to dance like them, to circle round and round under branches of jack pines, on ground covered with soft, scented needles; round and round to the distant sound of drums.

In this country I’ve walked forests where leaves and needles sway softly, walked under spruce, pine, cedar, tamarack, maple, poplar, birch—walked over clear cuts too, over charred ground, as far as my eyes could see, with a shovel in my hand and saplings in my pockets. In northern B.C., near Cranberry River junction, I watched the sun set at nearly 11 o’clock, listened at night for the sounds of Cranberry River as I lay in my tent. But I never heard or saw it, only imagined the water, narrow and fast-running, bubbling over rocks, fed by cold melting snow running into a rocky bed every spring season, a river descending, always southward.

When I was a girl, I snowshoed in the forest on my grandparents’ land with my Grandpa, under the pine and spruce boughs. I watched him haul out logs, stood nearby as he cut and split them for firewood to heat the big cast iron stove in the kitchen, where a kettle of water always simmered, ready for tea. My grandparents had a swing set across from the old house, and in summer, I would swing as high as I could, watching the sun glint on the tin roof of their home, feeling the coolness of dark evergreens rising behind me. Toward sunset, the mosquitoes would bite my cousins and I as we flew back and forth, watching the sun descend, glinting on the thousands of smooth round stones mixed in the sand and soil of the driveway.

In the city there are pathways too, places where you can wear down the asphalt; I’ve added my footsteps along routes near my house, my boots rising and falling to the rhythm of rush hour traffic. I’ve packed down snow in winter and added my breath, smoky vapour in the freezing air. The big city feels small sometimes—for all its steel and concrete, at times it seems like little more than clusters of houses and office towers hunching along a southern border. Canada, our vast and powerful country, clinging tenuously to warmth and light, while our sleep is disturbed by dreams of driving off the road into darkness, of unexpected blizzards that bury us in snow drifts, of sitting there behind the wheel, frozen and silent until spring. Sometimes we dream of twisting roads leading to nowhere, of rutted gravel ending at the sites of closed down uranium and diamond mines, or an empty oil field, or a vast patch of razed ground. The truth is we only want a little bit of the wild, not too much. It reminds us painfully of all we’ve stolen from the land to feed our cities; of how we can’t manage there, or survive. We just want to live in safety, wrapped in our country Canada, that place of peace, order and good government.

The stand of pines where the drums reverberate, where I’ve walked at night, belongs to a people, the Onkwehonwe people at Kanehsatà:ke, every tree top and root, every needle-covered path. When I walk there it feels like someone’s home, like you could stand all night in a clearing where the moonlight washes over the branches, and pours over our heads, as mosquitoes bite us and the coolness of the woods drifts down upon us.  I’d give it all up, the comfortable, polite neighbourhoods, the friendly faces of Canadians, the peacekeepers, our smug satisfaction. I’d give up the dream and cross over, follow the river currents in my memory. Extend my hands and feel the weight of wampum beads pressing into my skin, the weight of broken treaties, the smoothness of purple and white beads, row upon row, a sea of peace and friendship once offered. But I’m still wandering each day further away from my old home and onto the land; out of Canada and into the world, wide-open places, shimmering with stories, overgrown with relations.

What is reconciliation? The ricochet

His words have a ricochet. He casts them out, they strike and on the rebound, start to make sense. They pick up grit and dirt from skittering on roads. Bits of wood from striking against walls and glancing off trees. Words and strings of words: constellations and courage; Newfoundland dogs, a great black plate of ice. Something called winterfighter in Thompson, Manitoba, breezes turning to rivulets and treasures buried, the Paris of the prairies.

If his words come to you, they may create an image in your mind’s eye, a feeling in your heart about living here, on this land and in the city, with your feet on the street, under trees and streetlamps, beneath satellites that circle around the world and back to you.

He offered poems and songs for our country’s trove of treasures and courage along the way. Sparks from a campfire, leaving behind flames that smoulder and catch on, enter our imagination and make us see things from the outside – bigger, more mysterious.

His words have a ricochet. He throws them as hard as he can into the air and fears they will make no sense. But you are alert and quick, so you catch them, close your hands before they hurtle onward. You feel them bouncing against your palms, see light sparkling through openings in your fingers. The energy of words seeps through your skin, helping you understand the country, the people, your own heart. The words slow down and become softer – like a goose feather that drifts into your hand, or milkweed that flutters around your feet as you wander a field behind your house.

It was urgent for him to get the words out, to use them all up, so he sent them hurtling. But really, he only needed open his hands and blow softly to release his butterfly of wings and meanings. We were always there, holding out our hands, waiting for them to brush our palms.

Now his work is over. He left a job for the reconcilers: to be gentle and quiet so that as a dragonfly, an idea might alight and emerge. A thought about being more tender with one another. So that when words and songs take flight through the atmosphere, making no sense, they will encounter listeners, who hear and understand, and are made gentle by them.

What is reconciliation? The pendant

I got a pendant from a silversmith and I wear it every day. Because of Gord. He writes the names of people he loves on his hands so he can remember. His memory for things close to the surface is bad. Like names of friends or his favourite place to meet for a coffee. He speaks slowly, leaving lots of space to breathe between words. You could break into his thoughts then, or you could wait and see what comes next. It takes a while for his ideas to form, each one unfolding like a flower. On the pendant, there is a heart, and inside the heart, Gord’s name. I could write it on my hand, but it would wash away, and what I’ve learned from him stays with me: how I have always been on an adventure. Tinged with the lightness of having returned from a trip where I did not worry or work too hard, where I found new things each day. I’m sure it’s sentimental, this circle of silver. But sentimentality and gentleness get confused. Anyway, Gord. This jewel is a shimmering reminder. He lost memories but still finds and keeps words: on his skin, on sheets of paper folded in his pockets, in recordings of his voice. He uses them to map all the new days of his adventure.

On the adventure

 

I think it was Algonquin park
It was so cold and winter dark
A promised hibernation high
Took me across the great black plate of ice

From “The Bear”
—The Tragically Hip

In the weeks leading up to the final Tragically Hip concert, I’d been reading Gord’s lyrics, watching him on video doing his weird salsa dances, wiping his face with a hankie, singing about Thompson, Saskatoon, Kingston and New Orleans. On the day of the last concert, we were travelling to south-western Ontario. All day long, every radio station played the Hip. As we drove through Kingston, it was “Tragically Hip Day” with 27,000 people celebrating the band at the stadium, in the parks and on the streets of their hometown.

Gord was reminding me how I once thought my country was that place just outside of here, where wind lifts up the waves on Lake Ontario and on Huron, the freshwater sea. How we live along the north’s southern edge, with Canada geese, deer, coyotes, chickadees, and pelicans that fly overhead like an air force squadron in the Saskatchewan summer. Even the groundhogs and squirrels seem freer just north of here—two hours north of Ottawa, four hours north of Toronto, 20 minutes north of Regina.

I used to think this country could be as soft and sweet as young bluebirds learning to fly on prairie fields, dipped in the colour of azure sky. I thought it was about us helping each other survive on the edge of land we settlers mostly can’t live on, where we would not set out alone but always with a friend to keep each other safe—self-reliance being an illusion in vast, cold places.

Then I started to see fewer stars and more satellites up above, fewer horizons and more steel transmission towers marching in lockstep into the cities, more highways with line after line of cars. Our country was under the power of a pinched, stodgy and secretive government, casting a grey pall.

There is cold, still air at the tops of pines and firs rising up along Highway 7 north to Peterborough and Highway 60 up to Killaloe. There are deep-dark green and blue lakes. But what about the shacks that pass for houses in those little towns where no one driving through can figure out how you’d make a living? For us city dwellers, these towns among the wild, open spaces represent our dreams—of living differently, leaving behind traffic and the grind of work, day after day. But maybe there, the wind that feels so fresh to us is nothing special. The pines and firs not worth thinking about. The wild strawberries for the birds. Maybe in a quiet little town north of here, you’d be looking for a signal from the shiny cities, a new transmission and current of life.

This country was meant to provide food and furs to the Empire, which sent off its merchants and soldiers for that purpose. Behind them came refugees and immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, England, France, Germany, Poland and Iceland; people stolen from Africa who came north to defend the Empire in exchange for land. Is that our heritage? Beaver pelts and fish? Timber and diamonds; uranium and oil?

What about a cold stillness that hovers above the highest branches of a crooked jack pine? Or the feeling of washing away from shore in a freshwater sea nobody can see the end of?

What about the Mik’maq, the Innu, the Haudenosaunee—the Mohawk, Cayuga, Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga and Tuscarora? The Algonquins, Saulteaux, Dakota, Siksika, Dene, Haisla, Heiltsuk, Haida, Tlingit, Shuswap, Nlaka’pamux, and on and on? They have always been here. Since before Columbus and Cartier, and the shiploads of people searching for home; people who mistook the land for an empty place. People who saw fields for growing wheat and potatoes instead of for hunting and fishing or for gathering medicines. People wanting fences and roads, treaties and land deeds, cows, pigs and sheep. Not buffalo or even Canada geese.

Gord is my example: he lived each day as an adventure, travelling between the towns and cities strung like pearls along the country’s edge. He happened upon wonder in roadside motels, dug up miracles hidden in shells on the shores of Lake Ontario. I think of Gord and I’m reminded of the Canada I used to love. It reappeared after a long absence: a place that listened to the Hip all day, where 11 million people tuned into a concert.

I used to admire the idea of Canada. Not the constitution,  smug multiculturalism or nice houses and safe streets for fortunate ones. But what’s here, on the edge of things, just below where the north begins.

In fall, my son and I walk our dog on the street at dusk and, looking up, we see thousands of bats beginning their night travels. We hear their wings whisper, their dark singing flight, never knowing where they go or how they come back.

Gord didn’t know what Canada is any more than I do. He wrote about it anyway so he could stay on the adventure. He found himself on a ferry covered in ice in the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. He held hands with the girl from Thompson, Manitoba—she was so rosy-cheeked with her hair flying under the edges of her toque. He met polar bears, black bears and black ice; black and white checkerboard floors; one-third of his country singing for him in darkened halls, taverns and city streets on a Saturday night.

The adventure is touching the icy border where it all begins, feeling cold air come down from the roof of the forest. The adventure is driving to unexpected places, where little towns are falling apart and no one can figure it out, how do they survive up here? What do they hear in the wind?

With love,
Jennifer

August 26, 2016
Ottawa, Ontario

Beginnings

…startling unexpectedness is inherent in all beginnings … The fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable. And this again is possible only because each man is unique, so that with each birth something uniquely new comes into the world.

Hannah Arendt,
The Human Condition

…startling unexpectedness is inherent in all beginnings … The fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable. And this again is possible only because each man is unique, so that with each birth something uniquely new comes into the world.

Hannah Arendt,
The Human Condition

 

http://cowbird.com/embed/story/100939/

Wayfarers

I recently read a Smithsonian article on Hawaiian voyaging canoe, the Hōkūleʻa, which circumnavigated the globe using traditional Polynesian navigation techniques.

These techniques include navigating by the stars, the rising and setting of the sun, as well as the ocean swells. This voyage is a culmination of many journeys using these techniques, dismissing once and for all the European skeptics who thought that it was impossible for Polynesians to travel so far without technologies like those of the European explorers.

What strikes me about this story is that is shows how a people use their own bodies – their eyes, ears, sense of balance, memory, ability to communicate amongst each other – to navigate the vast oceans of the earth. They do it independent of any navigation technologies. This independence and freedom that comes from relying on your own body and mind for orientation is very inspiring.

It is always an overstatement to say anything about all of western culture, but there is a tendency in westerners to privilege the intellect over the body, and thought over feeling. We are encouraged to ignore the signals that our bodies and feelings send us in order to work longer, or perform better in whatever it is we do. We push away signals of physical and emotional distress because we don’t think we are permitted to have distress. We must not be normal to feel such things.

There is a strong tendency to try and solve problems by thinking about them and by collecting and analyzing information. The internet makes this tendency very easy to follow, since it offers up vast reams of information on almost any subject, albeit without the context of experience, and very often with crucial elements missing.

Perhaps westerners actually create problems by trying to solve them; by perceiving something as a problem that must be solved when it is not; when it is actually a state of being: a message from the body or the emotions, signalling a need to change directions, or to attend to changes around us. It’s as if we don’t understand the language our bodies and feelings speak, and sometimes become very disturbed by the intensity of the signals we receive.

We think our bodies and feelings should behave and be orderly. We expect that by following a logical path we will reach the destination we predicted with our brain, even though we have ignored input from our body and our feelings.

These Hawaiian wayfarers are different. They find the path they need to take by feeling with all their senses – they feel in their bodies the swells of the ocean against the sides of the canoe, they see with their eyes the stars and sun in the sky above, feel with their skin and smell with their noses and hear with their ears the winds, the birds and the life of the seas. And they remember with their minds everything they have learned from their teachers and from their experiences. They apply full intelligence to wayfaring.

I am a wayfarer, and each day, in order to navigate successfully, I pay attention to the signals I receive: the weather – is it hot or cold, is there wind, rain, sun, snow? The light in the sky is fall coming closer? The mood of my family, the speed of the bus I take to work, the pace of activity at the office, how tired I feel, how alert, whether there is any anxiety, or sadness, if there is a feeling of joy that needs to take a walk outside under the green trees, if there is pain anywhere in my body, or a burst of energy needing release. I see a news article about a child who has been killed, or a mother who’s been run over by a dump truck during a bike race—then suddenly a feeling of intense fear! What if it happens to my child, or to me? And in the shopping centre,  – bright pieces of jewellery, sweets, clothes, gadgets, noise, people everywhere. Each day I navigate the physical, the emotional and the intellectual. To succeed and not be blindsided, I need all my senses, and every emotion – a full intelligence that flows through the body and the heart.

Being Human – Love, loyalty and friendship

 

Being Human - Love, loyalty and friendship
“You could say we’re all from different parts of the same country.” – Mitchell, Being Human

Imagine if some unspeakable change took place in your life, and you found yourself on the outside during every moment of every day? This is the story of Being Human, the story of a ghost named Annie, a vampire (Mitchell) and a werewolf  (George) who become roommates in a rundown flat in Bristol.  As Annie says, “we’ve driven off the edge of the map but we’re still travelling.”

When you’ve driven off the edge of the world, fallen out of human society so completely that you cannot find your way back, your redemption becomes the company of others who are also on the outside: your companions in an unbelievable world, a world you have been thrown into. You come to  know each other and love each other more than ordinary humans ever could.

The BBC 3 program Being Human explores the lives of three characters who are no longer human. They have been cast out, but they find each other, as Annie says: “So. What have we got left to look forward to? Us refugees. The flotsam and jetsam of death. Maybe, if we still deserve such a thing as mercy, we find each other.”

Being Human - Love, loyalty and friendship

Being Human is a courageous program – like its characters, it drives off the map and encounters its audience there, in a strange, unbelievable world. But even if a vampire, and werewolf and a ghost are not human, they turn out to be more human than we are. Like three strangers who meet on a train and have only a few hours to connect before parting ways forever, in a short time, these characters come to love each other as deeply as life-long companions. They reveal everything. They are already broken beyond repair, and are freed of the need to prove their worth to others.

The premise of this show—that these characters are thrown here as the flotsam and jetsam of death—reminds me of Heidegger’s description of the human condition in the twentieth century. “We are thrown into the world,” he says. We don’t emerge from a tradition, since traditions have broken down. We are not a part of an eternal and orderly fabric created by an all-knowing God, because that God is dead. And in His place is a God that Walter Wink, an American theologian, tells us is trapped in a cage by the brokenness of creation. God made this world, but God is not its master. When we pray, we rattle God’s cage; we wake him up, call on him to break himself free.

Mitchell: “God made man in His own image. What if that included His rage? And His spite. And His indifference. And His cruelty. What if God made us too? We’re all his children, you see. God’s a bit of a bastard. Look at us both. Covered in other people’s blood and talking about morality.”

In this world where we cannot call on God the all-knowing, God the arbiter of right and wrong, our actions take precedence. We act out our love for one another; we rescue each other from the ends of the earth with our compassion. God is found in these moments of grace, as when Sister Helen Préjean says to the condemned prisoner when he’s about to be executed in the movie Dead Man Walking: “I want the last face you see in this world to be the face of love, so you look at me when they do this thing. I’ll be the face of love for you.”

As when the character Mitchell crosses into Purgatory to rescue Annie and bring her back, not to the world of the living, but back into the knot of love that binds the three friends together, like blood vessels intertwined—warm, pulsing and enveloping.

Or like the eternal Celtic knot of love, loyalty and friendship. The ghost, the vampire and the werewolf are cold out there on the edge of the world, but they are transformed by their humanity, which, it turns out, is no longer about being biologically human, or even alive in the usual sense. It is an ineffable connection that emerges as more than the sum of all its parts.

Maybe I should write a letter to Toby Whithouse, the creator of this show, to thank him for showing me that television can be a platform for such a courageous art form. I was raised on a steady diet of American commercial television, with a little CBC and BBC thrown in.  American TV can rarely, if ever,  match programs like Being Human, which despite a small budget,  has wonderful script writing, carefully designed sets, and is permeated with a sense of the importance of nurturing the humanity of its characters as well as the audience. Little, if anything, that appears in the show is there by accident. Every prop, costume element and relationship serves a purpose.

Having read bell hooks, I learned to critique American mainstream television, which seems to be afflicted by an inability to move beyond certain racial tropes that it plays out again and again. For example, the African-American as confidante to the white protagonist; the African American who has special spiritual powers (e.g. Guinan in Star Trek, played by Whoopi Goldberg); the tendency to kill off African-American characters within the opening moments of many programs; the African-American as criminal. The total absence of Arab (or Arab-seeming) characters who are not terrorists.  The repeated rape and/or murder of women and the the avenging these crimes, without any sense of pushing back against the source of the violence. The endlessly-repeated theme of redemptive violence permeates pretty much everything:

“The myth of redemptive violence is the simplest, laziest, most exciting, uncomplicated, irrational and primitive depiction of evil the world has ever known.

According to this myth, life is combat. Any form of order is preferable to chaos. Ours is neither a perfect nor perfectible world; it is theatre of perpetual conflict in which the prize goes to the strong. Peace through war, security through strength: these are the core convictions that arise from this ancient historical religion, and they form the solid bedrock on which the Domination System is founded in every society.” – Walter Wink

Lack of attention is part of the myth of redemptive violence. Instead of attending to the other, you attack the other. Instead of risking disorder, you preserve certainty by deferring to the violence that ensures security and predictability. You never attend to the disorderly facts of real life and their meaning.

This lack of attention is at the heart of a great many American TV programs. Instead of creating detail and having deference for a unique story and characters, there is formula: each episode the same as the last. The triumph of order over chaos, safety over danger, again and again. Simple and dumb, in the sense of being unable to speak to the heart.

Outside of the borders of the myth of redemptive violence, we find a wealth of stories, like those of Being Human, tracing acts of courage and love. They are so numerous they cannot be contained. We find these stories on television, in theatres, in books, on the stage, on canvas, in galleries, music halls, churches, temples—everywhere.  Small acts of love that need only to be noticed in order for them to become miracles.

Being Human - Love, loyalty and friendship

A visit to Pass Control

This morning I went to Pass Control. I waited in line until the commissionaire called me forward on his intercom. He pushed open a metal drawer, where I placed my forms and ID. He closed the drawer and did the paperwork to get me a temporary pass, which he slid into the metal drawer. I took the card and sat back in my seat. A little while later, an old gentleman in uniform came to the entrance and called out “Pass Control! Anyone for Pass Control?” I got up and went with him. We passed through two sets of security doors, turned right, and then passed through another door. It had a Men’s Washroom sign on it. I was starting to feel a little nervous. Once through the Men’s Washroom door, we walked past the men’s and women’s washrooms and arrived at an elevator. Then we went down, down, down until we reached Pass Control. The old man left me there and I took a number. On a bulletin board nearby were posters advertising wanted men and posters offering rewards for information leading to the arrest of a variety of murderers and kidnappers. It was called the Military Police board. When my number was called, the clerk said “No. You need the person whose name is on this card (she handed me a business card) to approve this other person’s signature.” Back to my seat to wait for the elderly man in uniform, then up, up, up, and through the Men’s Washroom door, back out through the security doors and into the line-up. I slid my temporary pass once again into the metal drawer, got back my own ID and left the building.

What is reconciliation? In the country

I got lost in Indian country. Don’t know when exactly. Maybe a few weeks after the Oka Crisis ended and traditional people walked out of the treatment centre in Kanehsatake, holding up sacred masks. It could have been on a trip up north in the middle of winter, riding in a cold van, sipping my Haisla friend’s twist shandy, listening to him strum guitar. We got out along the way and looked up at the stars. They were so bright, as if they had been plugged into a socket on overload. I could feel the shock. Somebody picked me up out of the snow where I was lying, gazing skyward. Brushed off the ice. We got back in the van and drove north.

Once I went out to Kanehsatake and sat among the Pines by myself, a lone figure in a grove of trees planted by the ancestors of the Mohawk people. I buried a silver bracelet under a pine tree and said a prayer for the little forest. That was years ago. Surely an animal has made off with it by now. Then I walked a road for a long time, looking for my friend’s place. Somebody stopped, gave me a lift to Joe’s tiny house perched on a hill above hayfields. I was definitely in Indian country then, among fields shimmering in the sun, lush with summer. Since that day, Joe has passed on, his ashes scattered over Blue Mountain near his home. He was behind the barricades until the last day of the siege of Kanehsatake (the Oka Crisis). He walked out to the army’s perimeter, climbed into a waiting bus and was driven to prison.

Joe and other Mohawks who stayed behind the razor wire until the end were eventually released pending trial. We used to talk on the phone sometimes about how to raise funds for their defense. He warned me that his line was tapped by the RCMP, but we talked anyway, about fund-raising, the Lord of the Rings (a favourite book for us both), and how anxious he was—he didn’t want to come out of the house some days. On that blue-sky day when I visited, I sat with him on his front steps, drinking grape juice, and then watched the sun shimmer over the fields as he raked grass. Had dinner with him and his girlfriend in the yard, back of his place. As I sat in Joe’s yard, behind his little house, I didn’t know where that country came from. I can’t enter Indian country at will. Maybe it’s an illusion as deep as hayfields in summer. There might be only one country, growing through me, filled with electric shock and pine roots and the dust of old friends.

Photo of Joe David, taken in Kanehsatake, courtesy of Elizabeth Sacca