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, 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. I once found a clearing where 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.
For such a long time, we have been doing the same things over and over. Refusing to share the land. Discrediting the other nations in our borders. Misunderstanding on purpose treaties we signed. Building our houses in disputed territories. Hiding the evidence of how we tried to wipe out the old cultures. If we can’t hide it, dismissing our ancestors, saying how ignorant they were; how much better we are now. And if we allow old songs and stories of this place, we try to orchestrate them. To show how kind and accepting we are. As much as possible, we settle differences our way, with the power of the Crown and our justice system that tips most often in our favour.
As we repeat the same mistakes we create a dystopia. The lakes and rivers, mountains and forests become places where we are lost and drown. Our maps blow away on the wind, swept out of our hands into the wild. Animals turn from us, and predators attack. This is the chasm between us. It’s spreading: the place full of thorns and dead ground.
But still, we repeat broken stories of how we triumphed; how it was all for the best, while we stand on the ground of other nations. We think, how ridiculous: Indians having countries. The Indians who could have ruled countries are long dead and gone. There are no real Indians anymore.
We think this place could never seep in and grow through us, green and alive. It could never be so vast. Starlight doesn’t sing in valleys and light up the highest leaves or turn deep green pine needles to shades of blue. If we dream in our beds of open rooms where a starry sky appears each night, then it is only dreaming. If we wake from sleep and sit by the window to smell wet earth and the perfume of summer flowers. If we hear someone else singing in a soft voice from their yard. If we see the golden square of another window lighting up. Hear the coyote breathing as he searches through our garbage. We are not the only ones awake. If we could know these things. If we wake from dreaming; if we could know what would be.
When you say you are sorry, a door opens and something new begins. The door may open to a different place where sad stories and tragedies fill only a few rooms in a great, sprawling house. A house also filled with laughter and the smells of supper cooking, the quiet murmur of voices in prayer. Someone’s fingers tapping on a keyboard, writing a story; someone else singing, another sewing. Listen to the sounds of children practicing their language. Hear them running in and out of the house, playing hide and seek in a field, gathering wood for the bonfire. They remember and dream as you do, memories and dreams of their own; mysteries falling from the stars, sparks of light shimmering among trees in summer. This house has always been here. But you belonged to a people that painted over the door. A whole other life. You never saw it until now.
Dusk was coming to the balcony of our Montreal apartment. We could see lights flickering in the windows of the city below the cliff. We lit cigarettes using the gas ring on the stove and I singed my hair. Standing way up high, I saw smoke and lights; streetlamps, flickering neon signs and high-beams of cars; my friend and her brother. He was visiting from his cabin in the woods near Peterborough. A small cabin with a wood stove that never gave enough heat; where one night, an owl swooped down and startled him, just after he had put the campfire out. A cabin near a place called Silent Lake; a little place not far from Curve Lake and the petroglyphs. The air is fresh up there and feels gentle and warm because summer is coming.
Back then, just after the Good Friday agreement, Ireland was on our minds; the beginning of the end of the Troubles. Mohawks from Kanehsatake invited the Nothern Irish to speak of troubles and struggles, so much like home: disputed borders and broken promises, guns threatening to fire; soldiers and police guarding all rights of way; armed checkpoints on the roads. Gerry Adams spoke in Montreal and people gave him a standing ovation, but I stayed in my seat. I knew he lived in a house surrounded by a fortress. How could he be a man of peace? I suspected him. Afterwards, we had a beer at the nearby pub, in a private room, with Gerry Adams a few tables away. The whole time I waited for an explosion.
Years later, I visited Saskatchewan and a different friend, who took me walking on a flat, silent expanse of land covered in sage and short grasses. He showed me a tipi ring he had found near his home, and I stood in the circle. After dark, we sat by the campfire in the backyard, such a long way from the Ontario woods. No trees blocked the night sky; it went on and on forever. Near his home, so many medicine wheels and stones mark a year’s passing. They reminded us that we were sitting under a slowly spinning night as we listened to the crackling fire. Under a wheeling sky, our thoughts turned around and around the memory of stones.
“Canada’s residential school system for Aboriginal children was an education system in name only for much of its existence. These residential schools were created for the purpose of separating Aboriginal children from their families, in order to minimize and weaken family ties and cultural linkages, and to indoctrinate children into a new culture—the culture of the legally dominant Euro-Christian Canadian society…” – Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
Imagine a little boy or girl walking a gravel road on the reserve near home. In your mind’s eye, the Indian agent swoops down, snatches the child and spirits him away over a thousand miles to residential school. The train conductor drives the straight rail all night through bush and swamp, his cars full of children crying for their mothers and grandmothers. Their lonely voices rise and pass through the windows into the moonless sky. He remembers them always.
If such a thing happened to even one of our children we would call the police. It would be a red alert. Search parties sent out. Lights shining in dark places. Every sighting reported. Communications lines glowing red with worry and danger. Rescuers with their lights held high scouring the neighbourhoods, searching for a sign.
In the image above, you can see skelep howling. I can’t tell if he is howling in rage or joy. I think his fierceness includes both. At night, he still visits the place where they kept the children. It’s been closed 40 years, but his sensitive ears still prick up when he hears the voices. He sings with them.
Skelep is still with us, as people in their regalia still dance at pow wows. As fires that went underground rise to the surface, crackling with tobacco and cedar. The shadows of eagles’ wings brush the darkness, bringing clean, cold air to these abandoned rooms of mould and fear.
The train whistle is gone but skelep has always howled at night. He passes through backyards and across suburban streets, sending his voice over the neighbourhoods, waking people from sleep. He walks the broken railroad tracks that come down from the north, and he remembers.
Artwork above by Chris Bose of the Nlaka’pamux nation. The image includes a photograph of the Kamloops residential school building. The Kamloops Indian Residential School was in operation from 1894 to 1977.
They pull and they paw me
They’re seeking to draw me
Away from the roundness
of the life
-I Pity the Country, Willie Dunn
I picture a fine, interwoven web that begins and ends inside of a spider. The spider begins and ends in a web of life that has no beginning or end because it is a circle. Our social and blood relationships are intertwined webs, beginning and ending in each of us, who in turn begin and end in webs of life.
To our simple minds, a circle is a mystery – we can’t find its beginning or end. Circles don’t stretch out across the land as straight lines do, pinning down life with sharp edges. The circle curls up into itself and spreads out, getting in the way of our complicated systems: electrical grids, roads and bridges, telecommunications lines – strung out over the earth. Our straight lines are hard and flat as a sheet of glass pressed down onto a mystery and disturbance; freezing in place tracks of wild animals weaving through forests, running through backyards in the middle of the night; stopping in mid-air all the wings that ride the wind above our houses at dusk. We would pin it all down.
This is the place we call Canada, but this place sees Canada and laughs. The very idea. As if. This place stretches out endlessly, and I am small in it and can’t see the beginning or the end. We have drawn our lines, but we’re lost inside the circle. It’s outside of our outer world, beyond our imagination. It makes up the sky that holds our sky; all our rivers and oceans flow within its firmament of waves. It keeps spreading out every time we think we’ve touched it, taking us further into the wild.
“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.
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?
“Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.” –Doris Lessing.
This quote from the British novelist sums up how I feel about the martial arts. Except, I don’t know if karate is what I am meant to do. It’s just something I started, and have kept close to my heart since the beginning. I am not the best, and don’t bring to it any special talent or physical advantages.
I was really meant to be a famous Canadian poet. Except I’m not. But I probably have some special talents and abilities in that direction. Writing is for me, at times, an act that satisfies a deep need to communicate about essential things, like love and art. But it also carries with it the heavy baggage of expectations, since I was groomed from a young age to succeed as a writer. (For example, there are all kinds of awards I should have won by now, like the National Magazine Award, the Governor General’s Award for poetry, the Archibald Lampman Award, the CBC poetry contest, etc., etc.) Writing’s a good and essential thing, but despite being a great gift, writing is my job.
Karate, on the other hand, is a gift that I received unexpectedly. My husband and son had been doing it, and I finally decided to try it out, because I liked the atmosphere of the dojo, and the attitude of the teachers. So one day I found myself kneeling on the dojo floor, reciting the student creed.
When I first started doing karate, I had no expectations at all, and therefore no baggage. When I was a white belt, I felt that if I managed to get a yellow belt that would be awesome.
I liked doing it, so I kept going, and since I was mostly working contract, I was able to attend a lot of daytime classes, which made it easier to continue. And so I kept on learning, becoming more fit and getting new belts, until I arrived at the brown belt, with three stripes.
Karate is a gift to me because it’s offered me a space to unfold and transform without pressure. I have worked mostly with Sensei Fortunato who teaches the daytime classes, and his gentle, non-judgmental approach to his students has helped to create this positive atmosphere. And every chance he gets, Sensei Dom reminds us that we are trying to achieve our own personal best, and not to compare ourselves to others. Neither of these outstanding sparring athletes is ever judgmental or impatient with their students. Their approach has helped create a special environment where renewal and self-discovery are possible.
In this place, I’ve been inspired, as I watch people with serious medical conditions become some of the best karateka, and even saw my teacher recover from a potentially career-ending injury with grace and patience. And I know almost everyone who comes to the dojo has their own difficulties, worries and stresses, even if they’re not necessarily obvious.
I suppose I was meant to do karate, because I have done it, and continue to do it, against all my expectations and preconceived notions. And I’m glad I didn’t wait until I was fitter, or weighed less, or had more money. The conditions do seem impossible at times, so it’s important to just show up, however you are feeling, and join all the other miracle workers on the dojo floor.
When I was younger, I was involved with people who were part of the Oka Crisis. At my university, I met Indigenous people from every part of Canada, and many of them told me their stories. Many were too angry for story-telling, or too traumatized. They were veterans of the siege at Kanehsatake: survivors who spent two-and-a-half months surrounded by the Canadian Army, razor wire, military helicopters, soldiers, and the constant threat of imminent death.
During the winter following the Oka Crisis, I travelled with friends to northern Quebec and visited Cree,Innu, Abenaki and Huron communities – stood in a chief’s house in the middle in winter. It was the size of my kitchen and was heated by an oil barrel in the middle of the room. I also sat with friends in a wigwam, eating beaver, ptarmigan and bannock, passing around the salt and a tub of grease – ptarmigan is a dry meat.
Then, just last summer, I sat by the blazing hot sacred fire in Kanehsatake, and said a prayer for my friend’s son, sending it up to God with tobacco and cedar. I walked around greeting old friends, fingering jewellery and beadwork, doing the round dance, sitting in the shade of the Pines, cooling down after the heat.
Being in Indian country gets into your blood. When I meet people who have been there, I can feel it, the way I feel the cold on a person’s skin when they come inside on a winter’s day. Indian country’s such a big place; it’s as powerful as an earthquake, strong as a hurricane. From out of nowhere, it changes everything; it rearranges the earth and stirs up the winds. It doesn’t need anything from you. There is nothing you can do for Indian country. It flows on, day and night, under stars and the sun. I hear it asking me how it can help me. Where is my heart? Do I hear it beating? You won’t ever put it behind you now.
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.
It has often been said that we have the most in common with our enemies. This is, in many ways, true of Israelis and Palestinians. They occupy the same part of the world, have similar desires for nationhood, identity, safety and freedom, and even follow religions that are very similar. With a few changes, this angry letter from an Israeli could have been written by a Palestinian:
“But I will not apologise for surviving. For surviving missiles intended to kill me. The fact they didn’t kill me doesn’t mean they weren’t sent with the intention to murder. I will not apologise for living and surviving thanks to being prepared because we have a culture that celebrates our lives and cherishes them…I will not apologise for having a business, a home, a family and friends here who want normal lives and to live in peace with our neighbors. I will not apologise for existing and I want nothing more than to co-exist quietly with neighbors who accept me here.”
A poem I wrote a few years ago, after a trip to La Fleche caves in late winter.
All my stories are buried under white snow. I walk over them
where they sleep, curled around the roots of red pines. In the cave
we entered, you could see bats by looking up in the darkness.
Training a head lamp on a crevice showed me a dozen, nestled
against limestone, sleeping fur sparkled with frost.
Night time butterflies, wings folded.
Small jewels of time, moving: one second, then another:
each tiny creature taking in, letting out breath. What could I find
under red pine roots if I had vision to see through white wash
of spring snow? My hands turn red as I dig beneath drifts
that have grown deeper through winter. I want to cup something,
a patience held in, and wait there with it until glistening snow turns
to water; wings know it is time to open, roots to descend.