What is reconciliation? Purple and white

Sometimes in this life, I’ve felt a touch, soft and faint against my skin; the quiet whisper of cloth. I look up, and there it is: an endless blanket of twinkling lights rippling above; big sky flowing over; the round white moon floating there, caught in a tangle of branches and clouds. At the height of summer, in a tiny Mohawk place, I have walked at night in a stand of pines that I love; the forest is small, but its trees become tall and endless in darkness, and I wander there. During a pow wow, I once found a clearing where Seminole women danced, their dresses swaying and jingling; the bells on their skirts gleaming silver in pearly light. I’ve always wanted to dance like them, to circle round and round under the branches of the jack pines, ground covered with their soft, scented needles; round and round, to the distant sound of drums.

Specks of light flow in my blood, like tiny clouds of silvery fish, flickering, sending me back and back, far into the past, until the constellations change and my head swims in the humid night, and my fingers drip with sweat from holding hands in endless rounds of dances, circles within circles. Sweat mingling and steps crossing over onto each other’s paths, until our way is one. My way and your way, at unexpected times, one foot on asphalt, one foot on pine needles; soft, bronze needles, smooth under me.

I’d be willing to give up this Canadian life, the small world of cities clinging to the southern border, full of houses huddled for safety; the friendly faces, the order and good government, the satisfaction. I’d give it up and cross over, just to follow the silver current in my blood. I’d extend my hands, feel the weight of wampum beads pressing onto them, white and purple, row upon row, a sea of peace and friendship. I’m wandering each day further away from my old home and into the forest; out of Canada and into the world, a wide open land, shimmering with stories, overgrown with relations.

What is reconciliation? The ricochet

His words have a ricochet. They go out, hit their literal meaning and halfway back to you, they start to make sense. By the time they arrive, you have a picture in your mind’s eye and feeling in your heart, that’s all about living here, in this landscape, this city, with your feet on the asphalt of your street, under a tree, under a streetlamp, beneath a satellite that circles around the world and back to you.

His words have a ricochet. He throws them as hard as he can into the air and he fears they will make no sense. But then you catch them in mid-sentence and save the words as you save goose feathers drifting in the field behind your house, or strands of milkweed that flutter in the sun.

This is a job for the artist. To open his hands and blow softly, releasing a butterfly of many wings and meanings. And this is a job for you: to hold out your hand and let wings brush softly on your palm as the butterfly alights.

This is the job of the reconcilers. To make themselves soft and quiet, so that like a dragonfly, an idea might emerge or alight. So that words and songs, when they take flight through the atmosphere, making no sense, encounter the listeners, who hear and speak them back.

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

On the day of the final Tragically Hip concert, we were travelling to south-western Ontario. All day, every radio station was playing the Hip. As we drove through Kingston, it was “Tragically Hip Day” with 27,000 people coming to celebrate the band. I’ve been reading Gord’s lyrics lately, watching him on video doing his weird salsa dances, singing about Thompson, Saskatoon, Kingston and New Orleans.

“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.” – The Tragically Hip

On the day of the final Tragically Hip concert, we were travelling to south-western Ontario. All day, every radio station was playing the Hip. As we drove through Kingston, it was “Tragically Hip Day” with 27,000 people coming to celebrate the band. I’ve been reading Gord’s lyrics lately, watching him on video doing his weird salsa dances, wiping his face with a hankie, singing about Thompson, Saskatoon, Kingston and New Orleans.

Gordie’s been 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 where pelicans fly overhead like an air force squadron in the Saskatchewan summer. Even the groundhogs and squirrels seem freer two hours north of Ottawa, four hours north of Toronto, 20 minutes north of Regina.

I used to think that place 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 you mostly can’t live on. That 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. A pinched, stodgy and secretive government casting a grey pall.

Round Lake, Killaloe
Round Lake in Killaloe, Ontario

There is cold, still air at the tops of pines and firs that rise up along Highway 7 north to Peterborough and along 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? Maybe there, the wind is nothing. Pines and firs not worth thinking about. Wild strawberries are for the birds. You’d be looking for a signal from the cities, a new transmission, currents of life.

This country was meant to provide gold 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, Ukraine, Iceland, China, Japan, India; folks from Africa who came to escape slavery and fight for that Empire in exchange for land. Is that our heritage? Beaver pelts and gold mines? Timber and diamonds; uranium and oil?

But 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 east coast Mik’maq; the Haudenosaunee—the Mohawk, Cayuga, Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga and Tuscarora? The Algonquins of Ontario and Quebec? The Mississauga? The Cree of Quebec, Ontario and the prairies? The Saulteaux, the Dakota, the Siksika, the Dene, the Haisla, Heiltsuk, Haida, Tlingit, Shuswap, Nlaka’pamux, and on and on and on? They have always been here. Since before Columbus and Cartier, and shiploads of people searching for home; people who mistook the land for an empty place, and friends for enemies; saw fields for growing wheat and potatoes instead of wide-open space. People wanting fences and roads; treaties and land deeds; cows, pigs and sheep. Not buffalo or even Canada geese.

Gordie makes me think of a Canada I used to love; one that listens to the Hip all day, where 11 million people tune into a concert. I used to admire the idea of Canada. Not the constitution; or 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.

Gordie doesn’t know what Canada is any more than I do. He writes about it anyway; goes on the adventure, and finds himself on a ferry covered in ice in the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. He holds hands with the girl from Thompson, Manitoba; so rosy-cheeked with her hair flying under the edges of her toque. He meets polar bears, black bears, 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; driving to unexpected places, where little towns are falling apart and no one can figure it out, how do they survive up there; 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

 

“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 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.

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 at the end of the Oka Crisis, 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. I didn’t know where that country came from as I sat in Joe’s yard, behind his little house. 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