Anne M. Smith-Nochasak:
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Tina is the one for whom I will always grieve. She is gifted, yet only her disability is documented. She is sensitive to the world, yet the world turns against her and breaks her.... Please do not try to lock Tina into your reality. She has her own reality.
In one dream room
I am the dark one.
I am marked. I am hated.
I am their puzzle and the pieces do not fit.
In my dream room
I am myself.
Outside my dream room
No one understands my puzzle.
They cannot see
The pieces all lock into place
And I am a Good Life.
-from Tina’s dream room poem, A Canoer of Shorelines, pp. 250f.
Tina is the one for whom I will always grieve. She is gifted, yet only her disability is documented. She is sensitive to the world, yet the world turns against her and breaks her. Which one of your students is she? She must be from one of those places? Please do not try to lock Tina into your reality. She has her own reality.
Tina is the one on the edges, the one without a partner in gym class, the one with no group on the field trip, the one who does her own project; the one that students avoid or joke about. She is the one that teachers worry over, for in her presence they feel helpless.
Which one of my students is she?
Tina is Every Child.
Every Child is a good starting point for a reflection on Canada Day.
Canada Day is meant to celebrate all that has made this country great. This presupposes that the country was not great before “Canada” came into being through the political machinations of the nineteenth century. The history of disease, exploitative trading practices, environmental degradation, and negligence (particularly in the area of education), however, speaks for itself.
Many people are coming forward and saying that they will not celebrate Canada Day; it feels wrong to cheer and celebrate when every day, more bodies of residential school victims are being revealed. They, like Tina, are Every Child. They look to us, bewildered, trying to understand what they have done to be so hated. They were pieces of the puzzle that did not fit – and for that, they were swept away. They call to us, and until there is justice, how can there be celebration?
So what do we celebrate this day? This can be a learning day, a day on which we stand on the ashes and build. Not rebuild, please, because that sounds like we want to have the same structure again. Instead, listen to the ones who are mourning; sit with them, hear them. Grow from their stories. Prepare to change, for history has many hidden layers, which must be explored. Let this day be a starting point for our entire future. Let this be a day that lives on, that is not shelved and over in a week’s time.
I am reminded of a Grade 8 student, preparing his “poster advertising land in the West for Settlers.” I commented that his draft made it look like the land was empty. Was there no one living there? The eyes narrowed; a mischievous smile played about his lips. The final poster came with the caption: “A deal so good – IT’S A STEAL!!!”
Now that is history! Cree history!
Since Canada has claimed the land, it stands to reason that Canada must take responsibility for the children buried there. We all have a duty to build a world in which children are valued and have a future. We have a duty to celebrate Every Child.
In my last year of teaching, I worked with a very special teacher, always smiling, always with a good word for every student he met. One morning as we were going over educational plans, he shared, still smiling, a few of his “educational experiences.” The smile faded, and he leaned forward, hands clasped, elbows resting on his knees. “Now I ask you,” he said, “was I really such a bad little boy that I deserved to have that done to me?”
That is the voice of Every Child, a puzzle that is beautiful and shining, a Good Life that yearns to be affirmed.
The puzzle of Every Child is a hard one, but oh, it is sweet to see the pieces come together, after hard work and patience, to see the Good Life.
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Years of video and phone interview experience have taught me three things: dress and decorate according to the job, avoid burning the barn before the interview, and keep the dog entertained.
“The job goes, she learns, to a vigorous recent graduate from the Liverpool area. He has enthusiasm, has in-depth knowledge of the curriculum and current policy, is a consultant in internet technologies, and did part of his practicum in Grade 8. He also plays the guitar and is an athlete. He is an excellent match.
Julie is a canoer of shorelines, with big oil bills ahead. In her heart she is an excellent match, but as she plods along the old truck road, she knows that she really is not.”
Julie does not really prepare for the interview. She does not practice sample questions, study documents and current best practices, or gain experiences that demonstrate skill and commitment (such as volunteering.)This week, my speculation is more properly an advice column. Years of video and phone interview experience have taught me three things: dress and decorate according to the job, avoid burning the barn before the interview, and keep the dog entertained. Much as I like these interview formats, so much can – and invariably does – go wrong.
Someone once told me that she “loved” phone interviews because she could sit back in her pajamas and relax. I was raised on a farm, and lounging in pajamas was a privilege reserved for acute bouts of influenza. One greeted the morning, and one’s chores, dressed. Besides, the clothes that you wear for the phone interview permeate the phone line; dress professionally if you want to sound professional. My friend eventually sacrificed the bunny slippers for low heels, and experienced success.
Additional attention is needed for a video interview. Prior to my first video interview, a friend and I did a “practice run.” This was wise, as she pointed out that the unmade bed and heaps of books on the floor were distracting. I improvised an attractive blanket screen for a background (This was before those wonderful backgrounds), and all started well. Two minutes into the interview, the panel members turned to one another. “We lost her,” they said. “I am still here!” I called out, as they rose as one and exited the room, chatting about trying the phone. An assistant entered, placing a hand on either side of the screen. She gasped, and in that instant I knew the feeling of a squirrel, staring back from a live trap. However, for two minutes they had seen an attractive, neat background – not an unmade bed. I was still able to describe my resources on the phone, and a week later I drove off into a snowstorm to my new contract.
Yet, you can prepare for hours, setting the stage, and then find yourself huddled in a dog hair packed car, on a lone hill, at the height of a thunderstorm, seeking an internet signal. Lightning bolts flash around you as you wave and give a thumbs up to passing cars, or they will rap on your window offering chains, gasoline, or cell phones. We look after one another out here. The interview panel stares without expression, and then quick notes are penned. Prepare, but accept the exceptions that the elements send.
My favourite interview of all time was a phone interview, arranged for late on a weekday morning. I was dressed for school, with documents and sample materials at my fingertips. My teenage son was, I believe, mowing out front. Two nights before this, we had burned out the foundation of the old barn, and I had earlier checked for any hot spots. All was well. The phone rang and the interview began.
I was confident; I felt in charge. Then a thick plume of white smoke coiled past the window. I scanned the yard for my son, willing him to race for the garden hose and dose the smouldering straw. “Could you please repeat the question?” I asked in a poised and professional voice. The smoke thickened and my heart sank.
A car rolled down the driveway, lurching to a stop near the barn site. Two women in their Sunday best scrambled from the car. One dropped her briefcase and seized the hose. The other wobbled through the high grass in her dress shoes to the faucet. There in the rising wind, skirts and hair billowing, they hosed down the straw. I am not sure what the interview panel thought when I said that the barn was on fire but it was under control now. Perhaps they thought it was an example of Maritime humour.
Recently, a local journalist interviewed me about my writing and publishing journey. I set up my props – media kit open on the computer screen, a Word document of the book body ready for quick searches of relevant passages and quotes. I was nervous, because this was a new type of interview experience for me, but I was prepared -- and in full business casual attire. I did not factor in the dog’s love of phone calls.
The interviewer was kind, providing prompts and allowing me processing time. Then, the dog settled beside me and pressed one ear to the phone. The computer screen turned blue. The message assured me that, although something was wrong, “we” were compiling an error report and would restart the computer. The dog began to paw my arm, announcing that she wanted the phone. I rose and paced; the dog followed, tugging at my sleeve. I closed my eyes, focusing on the voice, avoiding the “Oops” on my still blue screen. The dog sank her teeth into my sleeve, a dead weight now, dragging beside me. I will always be grateful to the interviewer, who kept me on track.
When I put the phone down, the dog marched to the treat cabinet and turned hopeful eyes to me. “I did not bark. I deserve a reward, don’t you think?”
These illustrations lead me to three pieces of advice:
Above all, be honest with the interviewer. My nervousness was based on the newness of the experience, and I did admit that. I wish, sometimes, that I had also shared the dog’s eagerness to participate. The antics were, to me, very endearing.
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Alice, wise woman arriving, closes her eyes and smiles. “This is a new memory,” she says.
And thus the afternoon begins. Alice drowses, Julie paces, Tim alternately enthuses and falls silent, and Theo twitches, his eyes on the lake. He longs to be on the lake, for there he will see her. She will shine, and she will be singing.
The silences in the campsite grow, and finally they simply are—feeling the moment, savouring it, not looking back, not looking ahead. It is not a return to Kedge times, it is the arrival of something new, perhaps unexpected. Something surprising and necessary.
-A Canoer of Shorelines, p. 297
In the novel, the Martins come together for a special family camping trip. They share this time in hope, but a shadow still hovers over their future. As they go through the motions, it is not the settings or the foods or the actions that hold them. It is the sharing of one another’s presence. This is a gift.
Summer is approaching. The Third Wave of the CoVid pandemic appears to be receding. We are eager to reclaim the elusive normal. We are tired of living in the shadows; we want to get out there and have fun.
We have earned it, surely.
The restrictions that have governed our lives are relaxing. It is time to prove that we are comfortable and not “nervous of CoVid.” We want to gobble ice cream in a food court with all our friends, twirling our masks and laughing. We want to roam across borders for the pure exhilaration of crossing. The world is ours, and we revel in our freedom.
I listen to the radio, and only one death is announced. This is progress. Only one is dead. We can accept one. Most of us are still here. At first, I am relieved.
Then I am not.
I see an older couple, perhaps reclining on deck chairs as the lake breeze fans the flies away. I like to think that he turns to her, a gentle smile in his eyes as he touches her hand. The summer has passed too suddenly, and the lake is fading into memory. “Next summer,” they vow. “Next summer it will be our time again.”
Perhaps they have passed a quiet late winter evening reviewing old albums, recalling the times when they and their family were young and the lake was all in all to them. Next summer, they promise, they will walk in those memories, and it will be sweet.
I do not know how it begins – perhaps a little fever, a general feeling that something is misplaced in the body. Soon it is a trip to the hospital, a precaution, and soon again it has passed. They will be home in a few days, and summer is coming. The lake calls.
I do not know how it ends, or why. Perhaps it is the virus, perhaps something that came after, but now one person is gone. The other will sit alone on a deck chair, the hand empty. There is no “only” when the one death comes. It invades that family, and it impacts the world.
On the James Bay coast, the pandemic has burst upon the world. Cases mount and escalate, but this is not 1918, and this is not the Spanish flu, and we know so much more, so why are people still sick? Are they not trying hard enough? we wonder. Don’t they know enough to sanitize and social distance and wash all points of contact?
They do. What they need is opportunity. One cannot sanitize when the water is dirty. One cannot social distance when one has no space.
When health has been compromised over the generations by the impacts of colonization, and when people are packed into substandard housing with their health weakened on so many levels, without clean water and sanitation, sickness tends to spread. It is real. It is immediate. It is a call to action.
Elsewhere in the world, the flames also spread. If we travel into the world, perhaps we will bear witness to people who would love to have a sheltered life, enough space to social distance, and doorknobs to scrub. Their pandemic is not over, and I doubt that they are excited this day. Millions of people are grieving the death of someone, someone who was their life.
So I must take note of that, and cherish each person who touches my life, because we share the world. I have a responsibility to each person who touches my life, and that includes everyone. in the world. Every moment touches everyone. Every death, everywhere, touches me.
To be still, and listen to the life of all creation, is a gift. To feel the grief and the joy of the earth, in all its little moments, is a rare thing. It is not something we work for, but something which might come upon us – a moment surprising, and necessary.
And then we can begin.
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Joe walks on the pine needles, doing a little hunting and fishing, a little cutting. And at the back of his mind always, always, there is Jacob, spinning in space as he falls, or lying crushed or burnt, or all of these. Joe raises his Winchester to his cheek and the dawn is still and Jacob will never do this, will never know this, and the leaves flame along the island but not for Jacob. Oh, Jacob. Oh, Joe.
-A Canoer of Shorelines, p. 200
Every day, every moment, Joe has to get his mind around his son Jacob. Every day, every moment, Jacob moves a little closer to the right, or leans down to tie his boot, and the cable fans past him. He lets out his breath in a great rush. Sometimes, he laughs. He pulls away his hard hat for a moment, pushing back his thick hair while the rest of the crew gather close, clapping his back, needing to touch him because he has come so close but he is fine. And yet, every day, every moment, Joe kneels beside Jacob’s coffin and it is closed because the cable did not fan past that time, the real time.
-A Canoer of Shorelines, p. 271
Joe has lost his son, and all his moments from that time forward will be without him.
My mind turns to a quiet late summer afternoon in Winnipeg, to a little family group strolling home from the matinee, a sudden car weaving onto the sidewalk, the little girl dragged, her tiny shoe empty on the sidewalk, the parents hunched beside the coffin of their beautiful child, the community in grief.
The driver had been drinking. The mother forgave him, as part of her healing, as part of his.
She held a feast when the birthday came, to remember her child and to acknowledge her child’s friends. Her arms spread to the sky as she tossed handfuls of candy for the little ones; her face was beatific.
Yet she feels forever the sword that pierces her heart.
My mind turns now to a quiet spring evening in London, to a little family group strolling as the day cools, a precious family moment to cherish, and suddenly a vehicle is turning and bearing down on them. Moments later, four people are dead; a child is in serious condition in hospital. I am told that this was a deliberate act. Someone turned the wheel and sent their vehicle into this little family group, fully into this precious family moment, and we can never have that moment back to reverse or undo. It is in our history forever.
People walk in fear. They do not know when they will be perceived as a target. They walk, especially, in grief, for this family who shared their vision, their faith, their culture.
These moments are now in our lives. We cannot prevent these moments anymore.
No matter how many ways we imagine events differently, they are done. A little girl lies broken on the pavement; a family lies shattered on the sidewalk. How do we live, going forward?
We teach health and safety, but addictions flourish. There is an underlying pain in our world.
There is rage, too, loose in our world. We teach tolerance and respect, and children still suffer intolerance and hatred. It is often subtle, but it remains. We claim to live by tolerance and respect, but do we?
Do I? Do I not contribute funds, retweet statements supporting cultural awareness and education? Do I, however, speak up when silence should not be an option? If I feel safe, I do. Otherwise, I choose silence. I claim to want balance, yet I hesitate.
These things are with us forever – the world will never know the joy of this little girl grown to adulthood, or the pleasure of this family, a family from the neighbourhood, a family who should have been safe in the neighbourhood, growing old with grandchildren joining the evening walks.
We will never know the joy of two hundred fifteen children and many others, grown to adulthood and passing on the teachings to their descendants.
With every loss, humanity has lost.
When we finally learn to walk with one another and be truly present to each other, we will learn to celebrate one another and grow through each other. Perhaps, then, when the time comes to part, our memories as humanity will be sweeter.
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“The kids would probably shock most of her teachers’ college contemporaries, if the lack of resources did not send them marching back to the plane. The children realized that they were a stepping stone in someone’s career, to be used and discarded and forgotten. Therefore, they planned to shock, to probe out the weaknesses and find if a heart beat there for them, a heart that would care for them and be there for them and accept them and love them as all children, especially stepping-stone children, deserve to be loved. Only then would something called curriculum begin to matter. Love us first as we are, they were pleading, in all our rejection, in all our brokenness. Love that in us, and be with us. Then, we can begin.”
-A Canoer of Shorelines, p. 31
When I started teaching in isolated locations, teaching jobs were few and far between. We sent applications everywhere, and occasionally had interviews. Parts of the North were inundated with resumes; these offered amazing benefits packages and opportunities for development. Some of us wound up in the places with the smaller benefits packages – the places with long term boil-water advisories, the occasional episode of raw sewage backing across the floor outside one’s apartment door, perhaps a need to boost someone out the window to come around and force the portable door…..
We regarded these situations as temporary. We were going to have the brand new three bedroom bungalow overlooking the lake, a broad road winding down to the state of the art school. We had dreams. This was a stop-over.
A stepping stone.
Many of us did move on. I moved on.
I went back, however, not because I like thawing snow to wash my hair, but because the “smaller benefits packages” places had true benefits. We were part of the community there. When a community member died, the staff turned out to cook. When I was broken, the community comforted me. When I needed direction as a teacher, they guided me. There were chances and second chances. There was openness, and there was joy. I am sure that was true in the other places, too, but there we really felt it.
Some looked past the children to the “opportunities of the future.” Those who looked and saw these children here and now had unlimited opportunities in the present. The hand of welcome was always there; we had only to receive it. For some of us, this was a slow learning process.
Today, there are more openings for teachers. If a teacher arrives in an isolated community, it is usually by choice. It is not a “stepping stone” move.
Today, many of the teachers are born to the community or to its culture. The teacher is often a cousin, an aunt, an uncle, a parent, grandparent, or a friend of the family. These teachers know their students – their hopes and their fears, their pain and their joy. The children can look up to these teachers, for they can become them. These teachers also have a capacity to embed cultural awareness and joy into every aspect of the lesson. And their students learn!
No stepping stones here, unless you need them to cross the creek on a field trip.
Last week, the remains of 215 children were discovered in a mass grave at the residential school near Kamloops, British Columbia. I have toured the museum. I have walked the grounds. I have seen the wall of graduation photos, the empty eyes that stared into nothing on their graduation day. They were dressed up in graduation attire, but their eyes held no joy.
What had these eyes beheld? The stories come, and they cut deep.
As the horrors resurface for the survivors, I am given a glimpse into their world. And that glimpse is more than I can bear. I have friends who tell the stories, and I cannot bear it. Yet they must. They do not have that chpice.
I have to turn away, and gaze at a photo of two graduates I know, hair tossing back and mouths wide with laughter, for this is what a graduation should be. I have to believe that we have gone beyond stepping stones to annihilation of a culture and stepping stones to a personal future, to stepping stones only to cross the creek on a field trip.
I celebrate the educators who are emerging to teach and to heal their People.
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How do you know that you have arrived when you are not quite sure of your destination?
Can you still arrive, even though your world is falling apart?
Are these even the questions?
One month ago today, I came home from receiving my first dose of the CoVid vaccine and discovered that my novel was now published and available in the FriesenPress Bookstore. This was a moment to celebrate, but instead I took acetaminophen and studied the list of possible vaccination side effects. I sent messages to my friends, and they were so excited for me, but I wanted to sleep.
A few weeks later, I came up to the house from mowing and found four boxes of books, neatly stacked by the door with the dog proud beside them. This was another important moment, but first I had to finish some online work. In my geographical location, that can involve driving around the woods, seeking a consistent signal, and then finding one as the ancient laptop announces that the battery is at a critical low. My mood was dark when I finally slit open the first box, and because we were at the height of the Third Wave of the pandemic, I opened the box alone.
There were moments of stress and confusion those first days, as I threw myself into promoting my book. I worked hard, but not efficiently. Fortunately, I had expert advice and learned to step back sometimes. However, I remained driven; I should be doing more – young authors were getting it done, after all! I would, too!
What is the point of this self-absorbed ramble, you ask? In response, I draw your attention to the image at the top of this page. That is a Greenland kayak paddle, first used when the Husky and I were fleeing a forest fire that had overtaken us while I was musing along the shore. I can close my eyes and still feel the moment – not fear, but the indescribable joy of a good paddle cutting clean and the kayak skimming and the smoke drifting away. And the Husky yodeling her shoreline song as we flew down the lake, so strong and alive. It was a good day, a great day, a day to hold.
The character Rachel in A Canoer of Shorelines strives to create peace in her childhood setting, but she cannot. Along the shoreline, she discovers peace. Peace, like joy, is a response to life. It is recognized, not made. “Joy,” Henri Nouwen tells us in Here and Now, “is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing… can take that love away.” We would do well to remember.
That is why Laila is my favourite character in the novel. She lives in joy because she is fully alive in the present. She affirms the past and lives in hope for the future, but she does not miss the present brooding over either. For her, the measure of success is a satisfied mind. Laila recognizes the good and lives in that recognition. If there is a Laila in your life, treasure that person.
So I have that paddle before me, and as I gaze at it, the little obstacles and duties slip away, and I know now what the question is:
Have I claimed the joy of this moment?
I glide along the shore, and it is sweet to me. I smile, and my hand brushes the water. I sit in my little office, but I am there.
My world is whole, and the journey is all.
Thank you, Laila.