The Way is Made by Walking

field of stones

Bare details don’t tell it all: Bær to Lundur, 17 km, Oddsstadir to Fitjar, 12.2. There is a map, but no obvious trail. Elínborg, Hulda and Floki, with few others, dream of a trail walked by Icelanders and others, to mark faith, and history, and friendship. They have planted posts over the years to help guide the way. But unlike the Camino, unlike even St Olaf’s, here there is rarely a visible path. A Spanish poet wrote that “the way is made by walking”. And isn’t that the way it is with life? The way is made by walking. And so is the trust, and the faith, and the community, and the hope. And the pilgrim.

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fording the stream

map of route

Sir John A’s birthday and the ‘Indians’

John_A_Macdonald_(ca._1875)

So.

Sir John A. Macdonald – he of the vest, the big nose, the whiskey bottle, and the reins of government – is 200 today. This afternoon in Kingston Ontario’s city hall, Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave a speech to kick off the year-long 200th anniversary celebrations of the birth of Canada’s first prime minister.

Such anniversaries are always political, especially in an election year. But with luck, this anniversary will also be a learning opportunity. Especially for those, like me, who are “settler”, or “newcomer” Canadians, there’s a chance this year to find out just how wrong is our founding myth of the kinder, gentler, Canada. In retrospect, Sir John A. fits right in with some who are pushing to remember Canada as a military, conquering nation. Because, against the First Nations, under Macdonald and others, we were all that, and worse.

To mark the 200th anniversary, you might want to get a copy of “Clearing the Plains”, by James Daschuk. It’s a riveting and disorienting re-telling of Canadian history. From Chapter Six onward, Macdonald figures prominently. For example: “On 24 March 1882, the prime minister announced to Parliament that all Indians in the territory of Assiniboia would be removed, by force if necessary, from the land south of the proposed railway.” Growing up in southern Saskatchewan, I came to wonder why there were no aboriginal people around. Now I know. Reading Daschuk’s book, you realize that they were systematically lied to, starved, beaten, cheated, and forcefully relocated. The treaties, once signed, were ignored, since the true goal was to clear the land for European settlement, for the railway, and for the (often Montreal) investors who were looking for a profit.

Macdonald was the architect behind much of this terrible attack. But he was not the only one. The Liberals, when they were in power during that period, were even harsher in their treatment of First Nations. Some have even argued that, judged in the light of the time, Macdonald was better than most. Disturbingly, both Liberals and Conservatives hid their power and money-grabbing behind ideals of so-called “Christian statesmanship”.

Daschuk concludes his book with this telling statement: “The effects of the state-sponsored attack on indigenous communities that began in the 1880s haunt us as a nation still.” This summer, I’m hoping, with a group of others, to walk the North West Mounted Police Trail, a 275 km half-forgotten path that was crucial to that 1875-85 clearing of the plains. That will be our small way to mark this ambiguous anniversary.

Winter Walking

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I love a public road: few sights there are

That please me more – such object has had power

O’er my imagination since the dawn

Of childhood, when its disappearing line

Seen daily afar off, on one bare steep

Beyond the limits which my feet had trod,

Was like a guide into eternity,

At least to things unknown and without bound.

                                                                                                            Wordsworth

 

 

The snow is falling. Ice has formed on the sidewalks and walking is becoming, if not impossible, at least treacherous. My 4 km path from home to office has been transformed into an obstacle course. Not so much harder, I guess, than some of the summer’s more difficult wanderings, but requiring much sturdier dress. And even in its warmth, the city was harsher than Norway and Scotland’s hedgerows and mountain trails. There are no wild flowers along the way, no trout rising in any stream through Verdun, no herons kicking into the air to greet my passing. Now there are gusts of needle-sharp air around the frozen concrete corners of walk-ups. There is the way the wind plays a winter song on the wires, calling the pigeons out to find the bread crumbs someone left on the snow. And there is N-, the homeless man on the bench he stubbornly, nonsensically prefers to a warm bed, his nose dripping even as he speaks to me in the most reasonable, cultured, and educated of tones about his degree in English literature. “I can’t leave,” he tells me, “they asked me to be here in this place when they come, which should be any day now.” He shifts his legs and adjusts the plastic bags around him. I look at his boots. Such is mental illness. But then, it was a kind of rootlessness I aspired to not many months ago. I buy him snow pants and worry about him on nights like last night, when it drops to 28 below. I think of my sons and know he is someone’s. Calling the police is an option.

There is garbage in the gutter, the smell of oil and tomato sauce unexpectedly tinging the vacuum of air behind the pizzeria, the hiss of the plastic Frosty the Snowman who lifts out of his inner tube once every thirty seconds as the air pump builds him again and again to greet a street that is empty except for me. Later a car rolls slowly by, a foreign creature, windows shadowed, the sound of its tires compressing the snow loud in my ears, muffled bass beating like a heart buried deep within.

Peregrination seems far away from this winter world. Against the cold and dark of the city, life has settled into whatever warm niches it can find, leaving little above the surface. But there is life nevertheless. Different eyes are needed for walking this way, different rhythms to keep from falling on this pilgrim route. There is a different loneliness and a different cost.  In my doorway I take off my gloves and the back of my hands is red and raw, the skin threatening to break open from dryness. The only hand cream I can find stings.

 A Verdun Christmas 2012

 

 

 

Snow Angels (a poem)

The Gates of Heaven Jan 1 2012

Snow Angels

High banks, cast up by wind and plow,
heavy as crowd barriers against my thighs.
I lift one leg, then another, an exaggeration of walking,
cheeks red-raw into a westerly, boots somewhere below.
I cannot see my feet.

All I wanted was a photo.

I manage, with clumsy fingers, to put one mitt more or less back on,
then another.
The stone angels are motionless, arms frozen.
As I would be too, were I – just a little lower than them – to linger here,
in the company of January.

The Most Beautiful Thing

South SK River Nov 2012

This is a radio drama I wrote some years ago, that was produced and broadcast by CBC Radio One in the 1990s. It was one of the winners of a “radio drama” script competition….back in the days when there was much more radio drama! My thanks to the actors and the director who made the script come alive. I’m glad to find a home for this piece here on Something Grand. The radio play is 14 minutes long, and you listen by clicking on the title below. I hope you enjoy it!

The Most Beautiful Thing Radio Drama

Vulnerability

They say we’re our own worst critics. I suppose in one sense that’s true. But it’s also a strange and not very comfortable feeling to stand in the semi-darkness at the back of a crowd of people while they’re watching a documentary you’ve been putting your heart into for months, waiting for what they think.

Monday last, on November 19, I had the Concordia University premiere of “Something Grand”. Tons of people showed up; estimates were just shy of 200. We filled the place. Those of us who’d organized the evening – thanks Adan! – kept pinching ourselves as more and more came through the doors. To our amazement the floor chairs were soon full and we were putting viewers into the balconies. Many of the faces were familiar, but not all. Certainly I’d pulled in all the friends and family I could. But there were many, many more as well – students, professors, Camino walkers who’d heard about the film on the radio, others who knew of it through contacts or posters. Three of the pilgrims I’d interviewed in Spain came to Montreal for the premiere. M, from Georgian Bay ON, came with her husband. And the delightful (and fabulous) S and J put on their premiere outfits and diamonds and looked like they could have been walking down a Hollywood runway. They’d come all the way from Florida just to be there with us and acted every inch the “celebrities”.

Luke, the musician we’d hired to play spanish guitar, was excellent. The speeches were….well, they were speeches…but some managed to point quite well to what pilgrimage really is, and the importance of studying this exceptional social and spiritual revival. When the lights finally dimmed, there was a buzz of excitement in the room. Or maybe that was the butterflies in my stomach.

We spend so much of our lives learning to avoid being vulnerable. In elevators and on the street we keep our eyes to ourselves. If we allow ourselves to cry at funerals or films it’s discreetly; we hide our tears. The word “sensitive” isn’t a compliment. But then we try our hand at something “creative” or “artistic”. And surprise, surprise: we then discover that in order to make something good, or true or beautiful we HAVE to open ourselves up to others. We have to FEEL with them. And we have to make ourselves vulnerable too – and show our dreams, ambitions and flaws. Which is to say: we have to risk.

The premiere was a smashing success. Now I want more people to see the documentary. Its strength is clearly not its technical aspects (despite some miracles of editing by M, Z and P). It’s in the relationship I had with the people I interviewed. The author Jonathan Lear, in his book Radical Hope, says that we human beings are “born into the world longingly”. One of the things we long for is real, genuine contact. Both the documentary and the premiere offered a glimpse of that. And that is worth all the vulnerable risk in the world.

Parents’ First Day of School

Parents’ First Day of School

I snapped this photo just down the street from my house, on my way to my first day of university classes this fall. It’s one half of a traditional but heart-wrenching scene: parents waving good bye to their young ones as they go to kindergarten for the first time. It’s that day when we hand our children over to an institution that we know will sometimes be brilliant, often benignly negligent, and occasionally incompetent in the care of our little ones. But even more importantly, this moment marks a new stage of development for the children themselves. From here on they will begin to understand themselves as more autonomous, beginning a process that, parents hope, will lead to responsible and mature adulthood.

I remember the first day I took my daughter, G to kindergarten at a very large downtown Montreal school. She looked so brave with the little piece of paper I had written her name on safety-pinned to her shirt, and her lunch-box in her hand. She had no idea what to expect. Neither did I.

At the end of that day I anxiously arrived at the day-care only to find myself living out a parent’s worst fear: they didn’t know who my daughter was, and had no idea where she might be. This in a school of a thousand students, all of them at that moment moving up and down staircases, running around me, and moving in and out of the school yard in huge crowds that could easily hide a lost child, on a very very busy downtown Montreal street, in the middle of the urban jungle. They didn’t seem all that worried, but I was frantic. As I stood there on the sidewalk, traffic whizzing by, trucks and sirens and delivery vehicles and people of all descriptions crowding by, I was remembering the little child with the note pinned to her shirt who trusted me so completely.

A heart-stopping half-hour later, I found G, sitting calmly in one of the vice-president’s offices, eating her granola bar. The systems that were supposed to be in place to identify and move her had clearly gone wrong, but the safety measures in place to protect any child – even an anonymous one – were still in place.

It was hard, after that first day, to take her back for a second try the next morning. Now she’s a teenager, but I still remember that first day, and how hard it was. There are many types of “first days” of course. Sometimes it’s a child leaving to move to another country, or to take a job, or to become a parent themselves. Part of our task as parents – at any age – is to nurture our children, and then let go. But it’s only human nature – we can’t help waving as we do, and standing on tiptoes, just to see if maybe they’ll wave back.