I found the first few weeks of the pandemic exhilarating, even while measures taken to restrict the advance of COVID19 caused so many untold suffering: overworked healthcare workers, under-slept business owners, stressed out parents of young children, bumbling politicians not sure of their next move, unemployed workers unable to pay bills, and above all those fighting for their lives in ICUs.
But it was precisely because of those high stakes that the March 11, 2020 WHO announcement was so energizing. Would this invisible, potentially lethal threat be the catalyst for the human community to completely reimagine what it means to share life together on our little blue planet swirling in space?
The narrative that formed in the earliest days of the pandemic was promising. World leaders were being called on to set aside differences and come together around the singular purpose of holding this common enemy in check. Social distancing measures were a type of sacrifice asked of all for the sake of the common good. Everyone was in this together.
Overnight a volunteer helpline sprang up on Facebook in our community-minded end of the city Anyone with a practical resulting from the upending circumstances of lockdown was welcome to post, and anyone with the wherewithal was welcome to respond. There was no bureaucracy. It was grass-roots community-building at its best. Neighbours helping neighbour (socially distanced of course!) Everyone living generously. Giving what they could.
So while Italians sang arias from balconies across empty city streets, and while dolphins swam in the Bosphorus for the first time in a century, and while memes capturing the absurdity of social distancing (eg. Jesus sitting alone at Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper) circulated, I was in my element biking around my East Vancouver delivering groceries to immunocompromised neighbours and seniors under stay-at-home orders.
It’s how I met Margaret, the 89-year-old living in subsidized seniors housing a few streets over. She gave me her grocery list over the phone: “14 Hungry Man TV dinners if you wouldn’t mind, dear.”
“Fourteen?” I, who had never bought a TV dinner in my life, clarified.
“Yes, dear,” she went on in a nervous, apologetic voice, “One dinner does me for both lunch and supper, so fourteen will keep me going for two weeks.”
Her request came at a cost to my personal principles as regards ethical eating (over-packaged, over-priced, nutrient-deficient etc.) What was more I had to endure scowls from fellow shoppers in the frozen food section of No Frills who assumed I was one of those hoarders they’d heard about on the news, to say nothing of the challenge of bungee-cording the pile of teetering frozen dinners to the back of my bike and transporting them across the neighbourhood.
But no matter! I was part of the narrative. In on the war effort! According to my mom, my British-raised great-grandfather used to ask at the dinner table “So what have you done today for king and country?” He would have been proud.
But it wasn’t just the helpline and the grocery runs. In those first weeks of the pandemic the narrative was unfolding on cue at every turn. Community connections were everywhere. There was the pot-banging with neighbours at 7:00 to acknowledge frontline workers (some streets struck up whole bands and made an evening of it). And the waving to drivers in passing buses thanking them for their essential service, and their honking back in return. And the heavy tipping for deliveries to the front door. And the zoom calls reconnecting family who hadn’t talked in years.
The Psalmist wasn’t so far off the mark after all when describing community-living as “a fine oil dripping off the beard of Aaron”. The poet understood the dripping sensuousness that comes with human connection. It can be almost intoxicating. And that’s how it was. In the early days of the pandemic.
But it didn’t last.
Hardly a month had passed before it was rumoured that cycling groceries around the neighbourhood was putting meal-delivery businesses out of work. And the helpline was plagued with fraudulent requests preying on people’s generosity. The service was discontinued. And apparently, the banging of pots became an irritant to frontline health care workers who would rather efforts be put to keeping people off ventilators. And in time the zoom fatigued relatives drifted back to Netflix-on-demand and the stress-free zone of their couches.
Even more paralyzing, however, was how starkly the underbelly of the free market economy in a time of scarcity exposed itself. The narrative was shifting beyond repair and it seemed like our small efforts at community building could do little to stop it. We weren’t a global community united under the shared banner of a common enemy, after all. When it came to accessing PPE, ventilators, vaccines, working from home options etc. we were a world profoundly divided into the haves and the have-nots. Suddenly thanking the check-out clerk for their essential service felt more like social condescension than meaningful gratitude.
It’s been almost two years now since the heady rise and sudden fall of our attempts at community in a pandemic.
I give Margaret a call to find out how she is doing. “Fine, dear, fine”, though she hasn’t left her apartment in twenty months. We’ve promised to have her over for a proper home-cooked meal once all restrictions are lifted.
And over the course of our conversation I realize something about community building. That even in a pandemic, it is about what it’s always been about: living consistently, intentionally and relationally in the slow-lane. There are no quick fixes to overcome the distances that separate us – not a pandemic, not climate disruption, not even aliens invading from another planet. The work of community will always be about the long haul, staying with the little things, like going through the front door and greeting my ornery next-door neighbour rather than slipping in through the back gate and avoiding contact, or running the left-over cake from supper up the street to the new Muslim family from Afghanistan. And the bigger things like confronting the shadow side of capitalism by putting my privilege to work for long-term systemic change like changing where I bank, or lobbying politicians on behalf of refugee rights, or risking arrest for sustainable energy.
If my great-grandfather were to adapt his question to a post-pandemic world he might well ask. “So what have you done today to make the global village a kinder place?
And I’d probably respond that I haven’t done everything, but neither have I done nothing. I’m guessing he would approve.
“But soon we shall die and all memory of the five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough, all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
– Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey
Much is made these days of parents who keep their children trapped in molds that have more to do with the needs and ambitions of the parents than with those of the child. This is that story, only in reverse.
It has taken a lifetime, and a pandemic, for me to learn to love my dad for the man that he is and not for the man I’ve imagined or needed him to be.
Growing up everything Dad did seemed larger than life. I all but worshipped him. Where it began I can’t say. I’m no psychologist.
Maybe it was with the Thoreau-inspired cabin he built with Mom in the backwoods of Ontario while I was still in diapers. (Typical to how my parents operated they prioritized the view over the more practical matter of access to water and to this day you have to climb down a steep ledge and whack through brush to get a bucket of water for cooking and washing.)
Or maybe it was the teaching role Dad assumed at a secondary school in the Kikuyu highlands in central Kenya when I was only five. We arrived in the port of Mombasa after a 22-day ocean voyage around the Cape, a part of the so-called “new wave” of nation-building missionaries, energized by the spirit of harambee in post-colonial Africa.
Maybe it was the simple things like Dad going outevery morning to milk his cow in the roshishio (rolling mist) behind our little stone house, or the character-rich stories of his childhood on the Bullock farm at Young’s Point in some far-off place called Ontario, or the swirls of smoke from his pipe and lingering smell of Old Port tobacco in the air, or Dad’s weekly ritual of giving me and my three brothers “the workings over”: deep muscle tickles, wrestling locks, bear hugs and whisker rubs that left us breathless with laughter, squealing, and begging for mercy.
Maybe it was Dad’s meal time prayers, full of grounding refrains and pauses in all the right places: “Thank you for your blessings.” “Teach us to love.” “Forgive us our sins.”
Or maybe it was the tidy stack of books to the side of his desk that always included a New York Times bestselling novel, a tome on world history or cultural anthropology, a classic of English (often Canadian) literature, and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.
Of course it could have been the move to the deserts of Northeast Province when I was twelve and Dad became the founding director of the Garissa Community Services Centre:
a revolutionary experiment in intertribal and interfaith communal living where Kikuyus and Somalis, Muslims and Christians, Canadians and Africans committed to a simple way of life – living in thatched huts, eating together, praying together, and after the evening meal, laying outside on straw mats to count slow-moving satellites and identify constellations in a sky dense with stars together.
Perhaps the parent-worship (Is there a term for this condition?) began with Dad’s seemingly endless capacity for new initiatives to improve the quality of life for the poorest of the poor: his province-wide program to eradicate tuberculosis among the nomadic Somali, his partnering with World Vision to pay the school fees of thousands of Somali children, his irrigation projects that defied the odds for farming the desert by pumping water up from the Tana River, his dream of a House of Prayer to be shared by Muslims and Christians with a resource library to mitigate stereotypes and counter centuries of Christian-Muslim antagonism and bloodshed.
Or maybe it had something to do with Dad’s height and the way he walked across the desert sand in his ma’awis (traditional Somali wrap) and sandals. He was easy to spot and everywhere Dad went bystanders and children stopped and turned, calling out his Somali name: “Ali Dheri, Ali Dheri” (literally Tall Ali).
All I know is that by the time I left Africa in 1982 to start my undergrad at Trent University I found myself the daughter of a living legend. This was a huge source of motivation and pride for me as I ventured into my early adult years. I strove to live a life as large as his had been.
Then, only six years later, abruptly and without warning (for reasons outside the scope of this narrative), my parents left Africa and returned to restart their lives in Canada.
And almost immediately the myth of Ronald Ward began to unravel.
Of course I didn’t notice at first. The unravelling happened slowly and over time, and besides I had my head buried deep in my own life on the other side of the country.
Nor was it a case of Dad not finding meaningful work back in the land of his birth. Indeed, he was as innovative as ever in reimagining his life back in Canada. But it was never quite the same.
First he tried to interest the Toronto churches in the Somali diaspora at their doorstep but the results were meagre, the divide too great.
He shifted his focus to peace work in the Horn of Africa and initiated negotiations between guerrilla insurgents, church organizations, and embassy staff. But peace work is notoriously difficult and he didn’t have the diplomatic credentials to make a lasting impact.
Meanwhile back in Northeast Kenya, the interfaith community that he had established, and that was to be the breakthrough in Muslim/Christian relations, split down tribal and religious fault lines and disbanded. When I took my two young children and husband to Garissa in 2005 all that was left to show of my childhood home was a cement pad half-hidden by drifting sand.
Dad’s final initiative was to invest in a herd of thirty-five camels. He rallied stakeholders in Canada to back his vision for a dairy transporting anogel (camel milk) from Northeast Kenya to the growing population of Somalis in Montreal, Toronto, and Edmonton. But Dad was in over his head. The bureaucracy imposed by Agriculture Canada was confounding and his camels succumbed to famine and disease. In a single season he lost the whole herd. The dairy never materialized.
All Is Vanity
Shortly after that Dad woke up one day and said “I’m done”, and just like that he was retired. When we visited that summer he was in a state of profound discouragement and spoke openly about failure. “Vanity, vanity. All is vanity,” he said on more than one occasion, and took to quoting William Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair.
Instead of letting Dad grieve his losses or, more to the point, instead of grieving them myself I pushed back. “There are other ways to measure success, Dad,” I’d say, trying to get the narrative back on track. My own kids were young then, listening on. I didn’t want them to experience their grandfather as a defeated old man.
And thus began my self-imposed and exhausting midlife work of shoring up Dad’s legacy which, possessively, I felt belonged as much to the next generations as to him. The legacy wasn’t his to squander. All our lives were tied up with it. It needed to be safe-guarded.
The next dimension of Dad’s life to start crumbling was his health. Radiation treatments for prostate cancer destroyed his thighs and the man who had once walked-with-camels now needed help standing up and sitting down. I ordered handle bars for the toilet and became a ready expert at wiping urine from the bathroom floor when we would visit from Vancouver. I couldn’t bear to see my kids plugging their noses behind their grandfather’s back.
Next it was the breakup of his marriage. Mom moved to Toronto to liberate herself from the patriarchy and into life on her own terms, and Dad was left alone rambling around in the Anchorage, our heritage home on the Otonabee River. This shook the legacy to its very foundations. I became skilled at finding euphemisms for the word “divorce” when answering my kids questions about why their grandparents weren’t together anymore: “Oh, they just have different interests.” etc.
When Dad took to drinking an extra glass of sherry in the evenings I became quite the expert at hiding the empties before the children could see them, and when he took to smoking a hookah pipe I was right there to clean up the ash trays and deodorize the sickly-smelling air in his second floor office. Even the stories Dad would tell the kids about Africa sounded eccentric. Unattached to anything real. I found our holiday time in Ontario exhausting. I was in a state of perpetual damage control.
One day Dad phoned to tell me that his doctor had given him “a few years at most”. I mention this because I distinctly remember the sense of relief I felt. Maybe death was the one thing that would keep him from driving his life any further into the ground. Maybe a well-attended funeral service with all the right anecdotes could salvage the vestiges of his former glory. Maybe there was still time for the myth of Ron Ward to be salvaged.
But the doctor had it wrong. Dad lived on, and the losses continued.
After Mom’s departure Dad was unable to cover the re-mortgage payments on the Anchorage and in the summer of 2015, the year I turned 50, our family home was sold. My kids and husband came out from Vancouver to help with the move, carrying boxes of Dad’s things across the village to a rundown, two-bedroom on Strickland St. The shame of it hung in the air and I made sure there was no opportunity for anyone to speak of it. Not in front of the children. I kept everything upbeat.
When we said good-bye the end of that summer I remember thinking how like a stranger the old man sitting alone in his wing-backed chair was to me. For the next five years contact with Dad was minimal, reduced to weekly (if that) phone calls across the country. My kids had entered their teen years and with camps and entry-level jobs their summers were spoken for. Their memory of their grandfather was fading.
Then came the pandemic and the phone call late on the morning of November 27, 2020: Dad had suffered a stroke. With hospital wards at capacity and long-term care homes in crisis, options for the 24/7 supervision he needed were limited. Before I got off the phone I knew that I would go to Lakefield and care for Dad myself.
The next day I flew across the country and before falling into an exhausted sleep on the couch in Dad’s spare room googled “how to change a catheter”.
I was awakened in the night by Dad, disoriented and tottery, his tall frame filling the doorway. I scrambled to steady him and discovered his long-john underwear was soaked through, cold and clammy on his skin. I hadn’t set the catheter properly. I helped him pull his long-sleeved shirt over his head then had him balance himself on the back of a chair while I carefully pulled the bottoms over the tubing down the legs. At the end I was on my knees coaching him on how to lift his heavy feet, one at a time, out of each leg hole.
There were no scripted-for-TV lines, no heroic moments to recount at a funeral. Just Dad standing there, naked and shivering, and me on the ground with his urine-soaked clothing. Outside the window light on snow cast a glow across his face and I saw that his cheeks were wet with tears.
“It’s okay, Dad. I’m right here, Dad. I won’t leave you.”
I got him into dry sleepwear, changed his sheets, and settled him back into bed. When he was asleep I pulled out my laptop again and googled “how to give an old man a sponge bath”
And thus began our daily routine:
Me preparing a steaming basin of water and bathing Dad before he got out of bed every morning;
Him getting settled into his wing-backed chair for the day then combing his hair;
Me cooking eggs and mashed potatoes and other simple salt and pepper seasoned meals;
Him sitting in his wing-backed chair, nodding in and out of sleep;
Me emptying his catheter every few hours;
Him shuffling up and down the hall with his walker for daily exercise;
Me tucking him into bed and turning out his light at night;
Him taking my hand and giving it a squeeze.
As Dad’s speech and general orientation returned we added looking-through-boxes-of-family-archives to our daily routine. I laid the eras of our life as a family on the floor in front of him and together we worked our way through them all, acknowledging the accomplishments that stood for a time then faded away, mulling over events out of our control, marvelling at moments of beauty and goodness and, above all, pondering the miracle of family and friendships and the gift of life weaving its way through everything.
Nothing was off the table. We spoke of it all. And drank coffee. And watched the American election and NHL hockey games with no spectators in the stands. I kept my arm through Dad’s and felt a tenderness and love for him like I had never known before. Echoes of long ago prayers hung in the air: “Thank you for your blessings.” “Teach us to love.” “Forgive us our sins.”
Then came the phone call saying a place had opened up for Dad in long-term care. I was shocked. I hadn’t expected him to move up the waitlists this quickly. I had thought we’d have months together yet. We had been given twenty-four hours to decide. After a call with my brothers I knew it was the care Dad needed.
I sobbed the day we moved him from his Strickland St. apartment to his new room in long-term care. With COVID-19 restrictions in place we weren’t allowed inside. The intake nurse dressed Dad in full PPE at the entrance and led him away down a hall painted pastel yellow.
My kids flew out from Vancouver to help me pack up their grandfather’s apartment.
I assumed the role of family storyteller and took them on driving tours of Dad’s childhood haunts: the Bullock farm in Young’s Point, the Sweeting Farm on the 10th line of Smith Township, 622 Donegal St. in Peterborough where Dad had lived with his Aunt Gertie during WW II. I knew Dad would want his grandchildren to know about these places.
After lunch the three of us walked through the snow-covered village and over the bridge to Dad’s window at the back of the Lakefield Extendicare. I let the kids go ahead so that they could have time with their grandfather on their own. The gap in the window was only six-inches wide and icicles hung menacingly off the eavestrough above. Still I heard the laughter and the easy banter and witnessed the hands to the heart and other signs of deep affection that passed between them.
And as I watched my near-grown children interact with Dad it occurred to me that for the first time in their lives they were encountering their grandfather for who he was, not for who I wanted them to imagine him to be.
One of my lifelong mentors, Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says that “Love is the attraction of all things toward all things, a universal language and underlying energy that keeps showing itself despite our best efforts to resist it.”
There are probably as many ways to resist love as there are people on this planet. We all have our defences, hidden or otherwise. I’m grateful love got past mine. There are few freedoms like the freedom of no longer having to protect yourself from the journey your heart longs to take you on.
The pre-dawn text lights up our shoebox of a bedroom. I roll off the side of the bed so as not to wake my husband, grab my work clothes from a hook on the back of the door and get dressed in the living room to the light of the Christmas tree.
Let it be a girl. Please let it be a girl.
Thankfully science is on side. The genetic engineering seems to be working. Almost all live births now are girls. If it’s a boy we’ll send notice and the buyers will come to take him away.
My face looks back at me out the living room window, superimposed over the lights of Vancouver’s distant downtown. I use the reflection to pin back my bangs and notice my car at street level below entombed in a layer of ice.
The universe maintains its indifference and I begin rummaging around the living room for a makeshift ice scraper.
People often ask how we can be so cruel as to send the boys away. I explain that Hammingview is a females-only world. “Theoretically we could sustain ourselves for a hundred years without a male in sight.” The next line of scrutiny is predictable and I try not to sound callous. “Sperm is stored in the deep freeze. It has no expiry date.”
So if Pif’s firstborn is a male I’ll do what I do every time a boy is born at Hammingview- I’ll rub my thumb over his cheek while he chugs down a bottle of colostrum, his eyes rolling to the back of his head with pleasure. Then I’ll step to the side when they come for him and remain willfully ignorant of how he meets his end.
People persist. They want to know if the mothers object when their newborns are taken. “Some do”.We endure them crying out as we work. But most are conditioned to look the other way, their eyes large and silent, revealing nothing.
I circumvent further interrogation by redirecting focus to the Hammingview nursery. “A room chock-a-block full of baby girl cuteness,” I gush. “It’s hard to keep track of whose daughter is whose.”
The first time I walked through the nursery my eyes smarted. Yvonne was touched by my entry-level sentimentality. Hammingview 101. Then she hastened to warn me not to get over-attached. “They don’t all make it,” she said with feigned objectivity.
Within 24 hours I was over-attached.It’s a mandatory pitfall for novices at Hammingview. A rite-of-passage for the uninitiated, if you will.
The newborn responsible for breaching the low-lying defences of my heart arrived into this world before the sun was up on January 6. I named her for the day on the Christian calendar when the three kings were said to have visited the Christ Child: Epiphany.
Pif for short.
The bond between Pif and me developed on the side like a secret between friends. She’d await my arrival each day and when Yvonne wasn’t looking I’d spoil her with cuddles, warmed-up milk, and extra rations of cereal. But most of all Epiphany loved it when I sang her dredged up and half-remembered folksongs from my childhood though I’d be careful to stop short of the end verses when things take a turn for the worst. Like when my darling Clementine drowns in a vat of brine down in verse six:
Ruby lips above the water, blowing bubbles soft and fine.
But alas, I was no swimmer, so I lost my Clementine.
While my attachment to Pif deepened so did a growing unease that I was setting her above the rule of law at Hammingview. “She’s got attitude alright,” a colleague offered when I asked. At Hammingview “attitude” is code for trouble. So as Pif and her cohort turned the corner on adolescence and prepared to move in with the other Hammingview teenagers I decided to make the break. There was no final good-bye. I simply didn’t show up for work the day of the move. Epiphany had come of age. This would be a new chapter in her life.
I start. It’s Oliver standing in the hallway, his pyjama bottoms hanging off his lanky 16-year-old waist.
When I tell him about the text his eyebrows lift. He knows what Pif means to me.
Oliver was alarmed when he first heard that I had a job at Hammingview. Hires from the outside are rare for the industry. I had always worked in the non-profit sector with organizations designed to set society’s hard-done-by back on their feet. When burnout set in I craved manual labour that paid by the hour, gave me back my weekends, and asked little of my heart.
Which is how I mustered the courage to walk up the drive of Hammingview Farms unannounced and inquire about employment. Standing against a bleak November sky Yvonne looked at me suspiciously. “You aren’t one of those activists with a camera hidden inside your coat, are you?” The question confused me.I thought I was applying to work in the most benevolent industry known to humankind.
My naivety served me well. Yvonne offered me a job on the spot and in keeping with expectations my first few days at Hammingview were exhilarating. The primal connection with this improbable community of lactating mothers was immediate and all in the context of the rhythmic pulsing of the pumps and the steaming-warm sloshing of life’s most sustaining miracle: milk. It had been years since I had weaned Oliver yet the travail of breastfeeding came back to me as though it were yesterday: the involuntary let-down, the frustrations with latching, the cracked and bleeding nipples that never get a break, the ever-lurking risk of mastitis, the engorged mammary glands when milking is delayed, hard as rocks and painful as hell.
“That industrial grade spatula might work,” Oliver proposes as a solution to my ice-removal conundrum before disappearing into the bathroom.
When he was four a Mexican playmate convinced him to set a basin of water and a shoe outside the back door on the eve of Epiphany. “While you are sleeping the Three Kings will stop by your house to give their camels a drink,” insisted his young friend. The next morning Oliver awoke to a tipped and emptied water basin and a shoe spilling with candy. He stood silent for a long time looking out through the slats on our back porch pondering all that had transpired in the darkness on our soggy, East Van lawn.
When he emerges from the bathroom he offers to scrape the car off for me.
“I’ve got it, buddy. You go back to bed.”
For months my decision to cut ties with Epiphany seemed sound. I stuck to the discipline of it, attending to the flow of new arrivals into the nursery as a way of filling the space made empty by Pif’s departure.
Then mid-morning on no-day-in-particular my resolve came up short. This was all the excuse I needed to abandon whatever it was I was doing in the nursery and go in search of her.She wasn’t difficult to find, lying on the grass with a few friends, her black and white coat glinting in the early summer sun. It occurred to me then how clueless she was about what lay ahead and how these would be the most carefree days of her life at Hammingview. It didn’t seem right to interfere. I turned my back and walked away, glancing over my shoulder for one final look, and there she was!Standing apart from the others, looking at me.
My half-whisper anticipated a well-deserved snub.
Instead Epiphany tossed her head and ran at me with such force I had no time to brace myself for the 700-lb display of adolescent affection. I was knocked to the ground on contact. Laughing I got to my knees and, just like in the movies, threw my arms around her neck promising never to abandon her again.
I wasn’t present when she was inseminated and only learned of her pregnancy when I saw her name on the board. It was in a list with others under the word “confirmed”. While this news meant that her unstructured days of running in a pack and watching the fields turn colour were at an end it also, and more importantly, meant she’d be allowed to stay on at Hammingview. At least for now. Some of the girls “don’t take”. Their names appear on the board under the word “open”. If too many open months pass their names are erased and that’s the last we see of them.
Oliver watches me pull on my boots.
“You okay?” he asks. He knows what’s at stake.
Hammingview stories are dinner fare at our house. He’s well acquainted with the shortlist of potential outcomes, each with its own variation on misfortune.
There’s Tilly whose daughter was stillborn and Jewel whose wasn’t. Yet where Tilly let milk flow like a tributary of the Fraser River in spring, Jewel wouldn’t relinquish an ounce. No amount of pleading could switch on the oxytocin release mechanism in her brain. A week later the count was out and I knew Jewel had been taken.
Agnes stories are a favourite. I refer to her fondly as the Mother Superior for having given a lifetime of service. Her badge of honour is a limp. It won’t be long before the truck comes for Agnes.
Then there is Dori. Oliver knows it would please me if Pif had even an ounce of Dori’s spunk. She is legend at Hammingview for staging a revolt. It seems she had no intention of being impregnated a second time. Alerted by the syringe and latex gloves neatly laid out on the dispensary table she made a spontaneous break for freedom that left an air gate dangling by a hinge. We found her later that morning at the neighbours’ and had her home by lunch. The next day Dori was “done” and now her belly, like a ripening sadness, grows fuller and heavier by the day.
“Yah. I’m okay.” I give Oliver a muted smile. “Thanks for asking.”
On my way to the door I stop on impulse at the alcove where our nativity scene is displayed through the Christmas season. The god-baby looks placidly out at the world from his fabled bed of straw.
“You shouldn’t have come,“ I say sullenly. “This world doesn’t do well with ambiguity.”
Oliver heeds my dip into despair before stepping over by my side. Then, with the deliberation of a chess master, he picks up the lone cow resting outside of the stable behind two sheep, removes the three kings from their place at the centre of the action, and sets the broad-faced matron-of-milking-mothers down in the coveted spot beside the manger within reach of the infant’s outstretched hand.
He holds the cow’s back for a moment as though to check for unforeseen danger. Then, releasing his fingers from the game board, he looks me in the eyes and punctuates the move with a grin.
So this is what I want to know. Why does my response to this 16-year old son of mine fall half-a-life time short of what’s in my heart? Why, when what I want is to give him one of those bear hugs that used to leave him laughing and gasping for mercy as a child; why, when what I want is to find just the right words to thank him for accepting me for the off-script mom that I am; why, when what I want is to let him know how fiercely I love him, do I manage nothing more than to hold up the spatula between us.
It’s not the response of my heart but when he gives the spatula the high five I’m looking for I know it’s response enough. I open the door and head outside into the frosty darkness.
My first trip to the Unist’ot’en resistance camp in BC’s central interior was in the fall of 2015. I had never been to a First Nation’s protest camp. I only knew of it from a friend who told me of a healing centre that was being built in the pathway of a proposed northern pipeline corridor.
At the eleventh hour I gave into my 15-year-old’s pleading to come along. Abigail packed a duffle bag and threw it in the back of the van. The drive from Vancouver, stretch breaks included, was almost seventeen hours. A spotlight was turned on us when we pulled up in the darkness to the barricade across the bridge over the roaring Morice (aka Wedzin Kwah) River. We got out of the van and stood at the blockade waiting for someone to come and question us. We were ill-prepared for the biting cold. Abigail pulled her hoodie over her head and did up the buttons on her jean jacket. Above the night sky was deep with stars in the way the sky is when you get away from city lights. The silhouette of a spruce forest surrounded us, spindly and towering. A field mouse scampered across Abigail’s foot.
Eventually a parka-clad figure emerged from the spotlight across the bridge and came toward us. As he approached we could see that he was a slightly greying First Nations elder whose middle-aged face was hidden in-part behind clouds of breath. He introduced himself as Mel, a guardian of Wet’suwet’en territory. He stayed on script with the formalities yet his voice was welcoming and kind.
He asked us what we knew of the traditional indigenous protocol for entering the territory. We acknowledged that we knew nothing. He went on to explain the distinction between rights “over” a land and responsibility “to” a land. All visitors, he continued, committed to living in relationship to the land are welcome to enter.
After stating our intentions we were welcomed in to camp by Freda Huson, the movement’s low-key yet uncompromising leader who, seven years prior, had given up a government job and a house in town to move back to the land and re-assert her people’s right to their unceded traditional territories. For three days we worked alongside native and non-native allies alike, chopping wood, smoking mountain goat, canning bear, laying insulation around the base of the healing centre and doing whatever other jobs we were given to prepare the camp for a northern winter. We shared cooking and clean-up and ate together, and at night sat out by an open fire where anyone with even a notion of a song was passed a guitar or a hand drum.
I returned to Unist’ot’en the following spring with my 14-year old son to participate in the construction of Phase II of the healing centre. One night, in conversation around the fire I learned from a visiting matriarch that the Catholic church on the Moricetown reserve still held a weekly mass. I was surprised. Given the painful history of the residential school system I had assumed all Catholic churches on First Nations reserves had been de-consecrated long ago. I asked if it would be appropriate for me to attend Sunday mass there the next morning. The elder came at the question sideways: “One day one prayer will tip the balance” is all she said by way of response.
I took that as a nod and left camp at dawn the next morning. The drive took two hours, the first down a logging road through the bush and the second along Highway 16 past Smithers to the small reserve community of Moricetown. The clapboard church was not difficult to spot tucked in amongst a row of bungalows lining the dirt road through town.
I slid into a back pew in the 100-year old sanctuary. A woman next to me introduced herself as Faye. She whispered that the priest had phoned in sick. The smattering of elders who comprised the congregation seemed unfazed by this development. In lieu of mass they spent the next half hour offering up simple prayers of their own.
Their unrehearsed words were singular in focus: for the health and well-being of their young people.
As we exited the church Faye asked if I had time to meet some of the community’s youth. “Yes!“, I blurted with an excess of white, do-gooder enthusiasm. What happened next completely undid me.
Faye took me to the graveyard.
“This is where many of our young people are now”, she explained without sarcasm or guile. She walked me to the foot of one mound of dirt after another. At each Faye told me the names and the stories of the teen whose life had been cut short, most killed in highway accidents, most by peers driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol. “Their attempt,” Faye explained, “to numb unbearable pain they couldn’t escape” – murdered-and-missing sisters and friends, dead-end futures on or off reserve, meaningless employment opportunities. In short, the swath of cultural and spiritual dislocation left in colonization’s destructive wake, the type of pain that no amount of money can fix.
I didn’t know what to say. Faye had invited me into the painful heart of a struggle that I had only read about from the safe distance of a newspaper.
As I drove back toward camp I realized that up until that morning I had thought of the Unist’ot’en healing centre as a political move. Now I understood otherwise. This was not a game, political or otherwise. This was about a community for whom all other options had run their course. This was about a handful of mothers and grandmothers taking a stand, maybe even a last stand, in order to keep their young people alive. This was an indigenous community throwing everything down, a gutsy wager to get the youth of their community back onto the land and re-connected to their own spiritual and cultural lifeline.
Freda and the other Wet’suwet’en matriarchs were arrested earlier this month while appealing to the Creator, to their ancestors, to the land around them to intervene. Theirs were prayers that held nothing back. Prayers with nothing left to lose. As I watched the RCMP tearing down the checkpoint across which Mel had welcomed us five years earlier I pictured the little healing centre located deep in the forest out of the public eye. What chance does it stand against the well-oiled machine that is the western industrial complex backed as it is with battalions of police, guns, dogs, and helicopters advancing corporate interests?
Then the elder’s words came to me: “One day one prayer will tip the balance”. It took a Wet’suwet’en matriarch who has survived a century of near cultural genocide to remind me that hope has its own allies.
Tama Ward is a writer, religious educator and the Minister of Children, Youth and Families at Canadian Memorial United Church in Vancouver.
Driving home from the farm recently I heard Michael Pallin interviewed on CBC Radio 1 about his new book Erebus, which recounts the ill-fated attempt of the British Naval Captain Sir John Franklin and the 129 officers, scientists, and crew to find a Northwest Passage through the arctic sea in 1845.
My long-standing intrigue with Europeans out of their depth in their early exploration of Canada was sparked enough that when I got home I went straight to our bookshelf in search of a title I’d held on to while clearing out my Dad’s library some years back. The Search for Franklin: A Narrative of the American Expedition Under Lieutenant Schwatka is one of those distinctively undersized volumes with ink-sketches typical of a 19th century library.
It recounts one of dozens of similar expeditions launched in the mid-to-late 1800s to piece together the fate of Franklin and his crew who were locked in ice for 16-months before abandoning ship and venturing across the frozen expanse in a quest for survival. None of them made it out alive.
Only a few pages into Schwatka’s account I was struck all over again by the pathos of the demise of Franklin’s officers and crew. In hindsight it seems obvious what would have kept these men alive as they staggered half-crazed across a foreboding and frozen landscape on which they had no bearings: accessing the indigenous knowledge base that was all around them!
For his part Schwatka had the common good sense in his search for clues to interview the Inuit. Of course, they were the only potential witnesses to the last days of Franklin and his men.
One such witness was an Inuit woman by the name of Ahlangyah who recounts to Schwatka her firsthand encounter with “ten white men dragging a sledge with a boat on it.” She describes how she and her husband put up a tent near the white men “at the crack in the ice”. Apparently the two parties remained together for five days. “During this time the Inuit killed a number of seals which they gave to the white men.” Ahlangyah’s account goes on:
At the end of five days all started for Adelaide Peninsula, fearing that, if they longer delayed, the ice, being very soft, they would not be able to cross [to the mainland]; and they travelled at night when the sun was low, because the ice would then be a little frozen. The white men followed; but as they dragged their heavy sledge and boat, they could not move as rapidly as the Inuits, who halted and waited for them…
The white men they never saw again, though they waited at Gladman Point….In the following spring, when the ground was almost clear of snow, [Ahlangyah’s party] saw a tent standing on the shore at the head of Terror Bay. There were dead bodies in the tent, and outside lay some covered with sand. There was no flesh on them, nothing but the bones and clothes… Numerous articles were lying around such as knives, forks, spoons, watches, many books, clothing and blankets. (pp. 35-37)
Perhaps the word “stuff” didn’t exist back in the mid 1800s. Or perhaps the Inuit or the British press were too polite to point out the obvious. Either way, it seems clear that Franklin’s naval officers didn’t survive because they were dragging around too much of it.
I get that their boats must have held out for them a fast fading hope of making it back to England alive. But hauling Shakespeare across the tundra? And a full library of scientific tomes?To say nothing of silverware, watches (wouldn’t want to be late for high tea), and rank-confirming uniforms? In hindsight it seems like the full onset of madness.
One can’t help but wonder if the story might have been different if they had only found the courage to let go of the rope that dragged the sledge, that held the boat, that carried the stuff, that gave them the last vestiges of a sense of security. What if they had stopped clinging to their perceived identity and dared to trust that the Inuit could teach them a whole other way of living on the earth. Who knows? Schwatka might just have found a few survivors living among the Inuit who could have told him their tale in full.
I’m not one to point out the obvious but let it be noted that the parallels to our own time are painful. Our attachment to fossil-fuel derived comforts and consumption-driven economies all but rubber stamps our own demise and yet we carry on, dragging around a lifestyle that the earth is incapable of sustaining for 7.53 billion people and counting.
This past fall I organized an event to raise money for RAVEN, an indigenous people’s legal defence fund, and as the evening wrapped up I was surprised to be presented with an eagle feather by Anishinabe land defender, Stacey Gallagher. I’m not sure why I was singled out for this honour. Perhaps because of the stand I took outside the gates of Kinder Morgan alongside other Tsleil Waututh allies, or perhaps because of my vocational commitment to nurturing spiritual resiliency in the lives of children and youth.
Regardless, I was humbled by the honour though, in truth, being a relative newcomer to indigenous spiritual practices, I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I knew if I asked Stacey he’d only say something like “You’ll know what you need to know when you need to know it.” Indigenous spiritual practices are not prescriptive in the same way that Christian practises are. He was dismissive when I thanked him for the feather: “I didn’t give it to you. The feather gave itself to you.”
When I got home I set the gift down on a cockleshell from Santiago de Compostela alongside a devotional book and prayer stool from my own tradition. I then went on with the rest of my life and the feather stayed in place where I had set it.
A month passed. Then two. When opportunities presented themselves I was careful to watch how eagle feathers were used in First Nations ceremony. I had never noticed before. In particular I observed how they were put to work during a smudge to fan the embers of the sage bundle and direct the movement of the smoke toward the person seeking cleansing.
Still, I thought, who am I to assume that role. It felt presumptuous.
One day I phoned Stacey and told him that I had yet to pick up the feather. He laughed (Lesson #1, Don’t take yourself too seriously!) then went on, his response typically indirect. “The eagle is a type of intermediary between earth-dwellers and the Creator. On the strength of his or her wings an eagle carries away the negative energy that we release from our bodies during a smudge.”
Stacey went on to explain how the person doing the smudge will often flick the feather at the end so that the negativity falls to the ground below. The earth, he continued, is capable of absorbing and dissipating our negative energy. A type of spiritual recycling program! “This is how generous our Mother is. She looks after us in every way.”
This was for me an awakening experience, i.e. what in other contexts I would call an “aha” moment. It was like being put in touch with a truth buried deep inside me that chose this moment to reveal itself. Suddenly many things fell into place…. including my cows.
The Givingest of Creatures
For the past three years I’ve spent my (very) early mornings in the company of a herd of dairy cows where I am one of the milkers on the farm. I know the cows well. Each has a name (Sweet Pea and Jean and Tilly to name a few) and recognized personality traits. I’m sure they say the same about us milkers. The point is, I am comfortable in their company as they are in mine.
So here’s the thing. On more mornings than not I’ll start off my dairy routine carrying a lot of negative energy from my life outside of the farm, i.e. worry over whether my daughter will pass Grade 11 pre-calculus or my son will make the basketball team, a heaviness over harsh words exchanged the night before with my husband, dread at the thought of an upcoming work commitment I’m not prepared for, panic over whether we’ll have enough money to make the loan transfers, and general malaise over whether I’m a credible human being or not. You know, the usual stuff.
Then this happens: over the 3 hours that I’m in the company of the cows – rounding them up, scratching their backs, chatting with them (Me: “Did you know that in India cows are considered deities?” Cows: “What?! Really?! No fair?!”), massaging their udders and pre-stripping their teats to stimulate let down – over that span of time my heavy spirit dissipates. And more often than not a sense of inexplicable gratitude, and at times a giddy gladness, rises in its place.
I’ve often wondered at that transformation, and now, after my conversation with Stacey, I understood this exchange for what it was. The cows absorb my negativity and in so doing lay bare my own inner sense of grounding and goodness. I don’t know how else to explain it. The dark clouds of fear and self-doubt and inadequacy and dread are taken from me simply by being in the presence of these givingest of creatures.
This revealed a new dimension of how the earth is caregiver. Up until that point I had primarily understood the earth “as mother” to be about the resources she provides to sustain our physical needs (food, air, fire etc.). Now I saw how the natural world in mystery and silence cares for us spiritually and mentally as well – how the trees absorb our anxiety and how rivers carry our sorrow, how eagles bear away our pain and how ordinary dairy cows hold our ambiguities without judgement.
In my last post I proposed a creed for a low-bar spirituality . One of the tenants of the creed is “I’m an earth-dweller and so are you”. I see now that I hardly know what this means. The world’s First Peoples are the most credible earth-dwellers and the climate crisis has brought the rest of us (on our knees!) to their storehouses of knowledge.
While the temptation will be to pillage and plunder (after all plundering seems to be in our DNA) their nearly-forgotten but now essential earth-dwelling wisdom, the invitation is to listen with hearts open. In my experience, the hoarding of such knowledge is not in their DNA.
My guess is that they will put us to work letting go of those ropes which we are clinging to so desperately in an attempt to haul our lifeboats across the landscape, giving us a false sense of security while all the while being led to our doom.
My daughter to my surprise and without any prompting picked up the eagle feather the other day. It was after our big Father’s Day meal and we were lounging around in the living room doing some drumming and singing – a ukulele and spoons somewhere in the mix – when, with complete spontaneity yet full of respectful intention, Abigail stood up, walked over to my prayer shelf, lit some sage, lifted the feather and came around the room inviting us in turn to smudge.
My astonishment had as much to do with how naturally the act came to Abigail as with the beauty of the gesture itself. Abigail has a Cherokee grandmother in her paternal lineage whom we know almost nothing about. Maybe it was this grandmother’s spirit that came to Abigail in that moment. Maybe the feather was given to me so that it could continue its journey onward into hands more receptive than my own.