I've considered many ways to begin this entry. Ideas have been percolating for a few months now and yet I still sighed heavily as my fingers hit the keyboard. How do I, someone who prefers to not discuss deep, meaningful, and personal feelings, give enough of myself to write what I want to say while keeping my truth held close to my chest?
Sometimes I write with reckless abandon and see what happens at the end but I don't feel this piece deserves that kind of mindless writing. And so I must gather myself together, sit up straight, and move forward with as much reflection as I have ever given to anything in my life.
I'll begin with an apology if I say something incorrectly. A bit of time has passed, which was necessary for my thoughts to settle, and I'm sorry for the details that are somewhat hazy.
Earlier this year I was honored with an invitation to hear an incredible storyteller speak about the devastation caused by Canada’s Residential School system. This has been a heavy topic in my area, especially over the past couple of years as people who were mistreated, or their ancestors who've kept the stories to private conversations, have rightfully abandoned their silence in favor of educating the world about what really happened. This is an important piece of history and I'm sorry I don't know more about it.
I'm not going to tell you details of the story I heard that day; it's not my story to tell. Instead I'm going to reflect on the feelings the stories stirred inside of my (sometimes) resigned heart.
The day of the storytelling I woke to discover snow had once again thrown its miserable blanket on the ground. The week prior had been warm and sunny and I was disappointed to see we weren't done with winter just yet. I was irritated at the persistence of the cooler weather and feeling impatient for summer. Shortly before the storyteller began, I took my seat and noticed the perfect view I had of my snowy nemesis outside the window. I cursed inwardly as the total whiteness of the ground mocked my summertime dreams.
A local Elder was invited to give opening remarks for the invitation-only event and as he stood I exchanged my weather woes for worries that I was out of my element. As grateful, truly and wholeheartedly, as I felt to be part of this event, I couldn't help but wonder if I had any right to be there. The Elder opened with a prayer of thanks, but not in the religious sense of prayer I was used to hearing. He thanked Mother Earth for gifting us with her sparkling layer of snow, because traditionally storytelling is done in the winter and what better day could there be to hear this story? Silently I admonished myself for my selfish adult-sized tantrum over the weather. I was immediately appreciative for the reminder to get out of my head for a minute and consider what the snow meant beyond the unavoidable annoyance it caused during my morning commute.
As the Elder continued his heartfelt thanks, all I could think was that the Indigenous people in the room seemed to understand the meaning behind living a grateful life on a far deeper level than anything I can imagine. In my early 20s, I kept a gratitude journal to help me to focus on what was good in this world. Before going to bed I'd write three things I was thankful for that day. It was clear to me the people in that room didn't need to train themselves to be more gracious. They live it. They teach it. They are it.
In a lot of ways an Indigenous storyteller is much like the parent in the teller-listener relationship. I, the listener, am the teenaged child who prefers to listen to my friends over my parents, and she, the storyteller, is the parent with years more experience who wants to share her wisdom with me so that I may live better by learning from her experiences. Those of us with children can especially understand the dynamics of this relationship and what it's like to be that parent who desperately wants to impart our knowledge on our children so they can learn from our mistakes, saving them the horribly emotional gutting we received when we were their age.
The storyteller opened with an apology. I immediately threw down my teenaged listener façade and decided I needed to soak up her knowledge. She apologized for all the things she didn't know and all I could think was, "What about everything I don't know?" I kept thinking I should be the one apologizing to her, certainly not the other way around. Understanding that traditions are different, cultures are different, her apology was meant to explain if she inadvertently insulted anyone in the room it was because her culture is different, not because she meant any disrespect. My apology to you, my readers, is me intentionally taking my cue from her. I had a vision of getting a tattoo that says, "I'm sorry for all the things I don't know," but I wondered if even that would be enough of an apology for my ignorance. Would any apology ever be enough?
Occasionally I looked around the somber room, recognizing our sorrow was brought on for different reasons. Tears were shed for the life endured by those forced to attend Residential Schools and the sorrow still felt by their ancestors. I shed tears for the words that crossed my lips before I truly knew what they meant. For the thoughts that permeated my mind, planted there by ignorance and unawareness.
A deep sadness set upon my chest. Later, a heavy heart walked me out of the building and carried me through the rest of the day. Until that night when it knocked on my tired body and timidly spoke, "Hello? Will you listen to me for just a moment?"
The sadness I feel isn't for me. My sadness isn't even completely for them. I struggle to articulate its truth. These inexplicable feelings are for the amazing people who carry around centuries of hurt and anger, yet their hearts remain full of love. Their spirits remain entirely grateful. Their eyes remain ever crinkled with smiles. Their stories are told with humility and grace. And humor.
The storyteller knows something we should all know. She is aspirational in her bravery. She is the teacher, the parent, and the hero. She gave us all a gift that day, a gift immeasurable in its greatness. She didn't simply cite facts and toss around words haphazardly, hoping we'd get something out of her being there. She was strategic in her thoughts and her movements. Her expressions weren't practiced nor were her gestures pre-planned. She was completely genuine in her desire to aid in our healing, not hers.
When I went to thank her for everything she'd given us that day, she showed me the notes she gathered from her thoughts so she could maintain a visual as she told; they were written into a spiral, repeatedly going around the page in a circular motion. Again, I was in awe of how clever she is. How creatively eloquent even her telling notes are, though as I sat captivated by her words and her spirit I never saw her glance at that page.
There are moments in our lives where we can go through the motions and get by just fine, but we must pay attention to the spectacular moments that remind us how alive we are. When I woke up to snow that morning, angered by the inconvenient reminder of winter, I never imagined I would truly awake in my life later that day.
That night I barely slept. Not because I wasn't tired, or because I was channeling my inner insomniac, but because I felt deeply alive in the centre of my being. I felt humbled and somehow freed by the experience. My soul was listening to the world through new ears and the incredible sounds of birds chirping, light waves crashing against the rocks, fireworks on a clear night resonated through me all at once.
I was finally awake.