I know so little

We call them bodies, the lakes. Bodies of water. Great and larger lakes, oceans, straights and inland seas are bodies. I’ve amended my understanding of this term through travel in the world in a learned understanding that context is all-important.

The largest lake in Ireland, Lough Neagh, is about one fortieth the size of Georgian Bay, upon whose shores I spent my tween and teenage years (and where my tiny cabin is now). Compared to the other Great Lakes, Georgian Bay is little – just a bay, even though it covers more area than Northern Ireland.

Context is all. All six Great Lakes have been ten minutes or a few hours away by foot or car throughout most of my life. Huron, Ontario, Erie, Michigan, Superior, Georgian Bay. The land I live on and travel through is full of rivers and waterfalls that feed the lakes with groundwater and snowmelt. Water’s pretty high this year, we say to one another, yep, just like the ’80s. Had to raise the dock again. Every one of the locals has a favourite spot on a favourite shoreline; we mark the days with sunsets or sunrises over the lake.

As a kid I believed that the whole world was just like it is here – abundant and generous with water. As an adult I came to understand that my soul and my white female body is forever linked to these enormous freshwater seas we call The Great Lakes, bodies that for 10,000 years and more have had other names. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

The older names sound like the beginning of a long and complex story; full of a kind of wisdom I’ve always longed for: Waaseyaagami-wiikwed, Shining Waters Bay. I begin to learn that story in my middle age, and just how much of a recent anomaly I am within it, me with my white female body.

Yesterday I listened to the long version of the excellent, compassionate and enlightened Krista Tippet’s interview with a man whose name sounds like the beginning of another good story I can learn from: Resmaa Menakem, a trauma therapist from Minneapolis. The interview occurred in the On Being studios just before our pandemic lockdown. I could hear Resmaa observing Krista’s white body cringe as they discussed racism and white supremacy. I could hear the squirm he was seeing in her voice, as she struggled with choice points about what to ask him, how to ask him… for help with what she doesn’t and cannot understand about being black, from her experience in a white woman’s body.

I’m grateful for this interview because this is my struggle too, especially and specifically right now right here. If you’re white, I recommend you give yourself a good hour to listen to it, then another hour to walk through the park with what you’ve just heard.

Good Lord, but it’s well beyond time to pick up the burden of my white person inheritance and feel its’ actual weight. More appropriately, to take the weight off the backs of the BIPOC people who have been carrying it for me all my life. To observe what I have assumed without question, and how this has translated into behaviour through fifty seven years of living in a white body. In a system where to be white is to be supreme and privileged over all other people of colour.

Start there, says Resmaa Menakem. Say it, white-bodied people: White Supremacy. Look straight at what that means, and how you benefit from and support the system. Then stop talking. Just notice what happens in your body. It’s your job to change the system, but not just with patchwork policies, empty slogans, and lists of books you’ve read that prove how enlightened you are. You need to do this from a place of real, embodied understanding.

I know so little, but I learn, daily. Overwhelmed by the news, the full display of blatant callousness, rage and brutality from white people in power. How different that behaviour is from the intense but peaceful protests organized by BLM.

There’s a great deal more for us well-meaning white folk to learn about this long-rotted white supremacist system, a great deal of listening to do. Changing to do, in right action: for a start, my taxes over-fund the police, when they should be funding universal basic income. A start when I ask good but difficult questions, and make my wishes known in the system that has benefited me and my white body while excluding and punishing all other bodies. It’s not activism, it’s being human.

And it’s simple: if I don’t ask the questions and make my wishes known, I support the rotted system.

My story, and every story is valid, but it’s more important to hear the one that came up in my fb feed this morning.

Please read on. If you’re in a white body in a predominantly white neighbourhood, don’t just file it afterward and move on to make another coffee. Give yourself some moments to sit with Kyra’s childhood experience and notice how your body feels. Notice if you’re squirming, like Krista Tippet does in the interview. It’s okay to squirm. That’s how you know something’s wrong.

Ask yourself what you want to do about this.

In a rural population area of 350,000, a mere handful of the locals I grew up with were black. Two Anishnabe reservations were within a 40 minute drive but I remember little to no interaction between first nations people and the white people of Owen Sound. This is changing now, but we still have a long way to go.

I’m grateful to Kyra Nankivell who writes here about what it was like to grow up black in the same place I grew up white:

Kyra Nankivell is with Erick Baptiste.

JtSpeune 5 ato mSn11fsnmurof:rg2l0h eidSueAatdM  · Black in a White Town – SHARE THIS PLEASEFor context, my full name is Emma Kyra Nankivell and I started going by my middle name in grade 10 to “feel more black” among other reasons. I want to share my experiences because I’ve been told that it really helped people recognize their ignorance and try to understand. So here it goes…I’ve always described my experience growing up in Centre Wellington by this simple line, “The first time I saw a black person in school was like grade 9.”Although, I never fully understood my situation until Erick (my bf) looked at my CWDHS 2018 yearbook and saw pages and pages of white kids in every grade. He was just in awe. And honestly I never saw my yearbook like that… That was a “wow” moment. Like holy sh*t I actually grew up in that environment. Obviously I wasn’t an idiot and there was racism but it became so NORMAL to me.Here are some very specific experiences:

1. Finding out my best friend had a confederate flag in her basement
2. Being asked countless times to punch “N****r cards” so people could say the word.
3. My school invited a group from Brampton to perform for black history month and they didn’t even invite me to the assembly. On top of that, everyone was asking me who the group was and why they were at my school. AS IF I KNEW.
4. Getting my hair braided and having almost every TEACHER ask me if I went on vacation.
5. Going to track & field meets in Guelph and actually seeing black people was the first time I felt NORMAL.
6. PEOPLE TOUCHING MY HAIR 24/7 and people asking why I don’t straighten my hair.
7. TAKING INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS AND HAVING CLASS DISCUSSIONS ON ISSUES IN DEVELOPING COUNTRIES WAS LIKE ME AGAINST EVERYONE. “Why don’t they just raise minimum wage”
8. Someone drew swatstikas on the bathroom stalls
9. Having a black friend over, walking around Elora and getting 628379191 texts the next day saying “who was that”
10. Countless black jokes that weren’t funny at all. “Hey Emma what sound does a chainsaw make? Run nikkaa-nikkaaa-nikkaaa”
11. Explaining to people what black history month is, then explaining black history
12. BEING TOLD EMMA IS A WHITE NAME. “Seriously your name is Emma??” *confused look*
13. Always being “the only one” or at least feeling like it!!
14. BEING CONFUSED WITH THE ONLY OTHER NON WHITE GIRL IN THE ROOM BY PEOPLE & CUSTOMERS AT WORK HOLYYY. Like no I’m not that person.
15. People assuming the only other black or even just non white person is related to me. Like whattt?¿
16. Never seeing a shred of my culture displayed, understood, spoken about. Only ever talking about Jamaica when “those poor nations” came up.
17. People comparing their skin to mine after a sunny day/week. “Omg I’m almost as tan as you hahahaha”
18. Being told I look “aggressive” with my hair braided
19. “Where are you from” ummm I was born in Guelph “no like where are you actually from?!”
20. I played hockey for 10 years of my life and I can count the number of black people I saw on my FINGERS. It was super discouraging and you best believe that when people “talk sh*t” racism was fuel for the fire. “Monkey” “N***r” “Why r you even playing hockey?” “Do your parents have the money for this?” “Why don’t you go back to Africa”
21. I was nicknamed “Mocha” on one of the teams I played for.
22. WHEN I WORKED AT MCDONALDS IN FERGUS SOMEONE ACTUALLY REFUSED TO LET ME TAKE THEIR ORDER. THEY ASKED FOR A WHITE PERSON. THAT WAS 2017.
23. Girls at my high school asking me to hook them up with my black friends… As if it was something on their bucket list.
24. People trying to guess where I’m from, like it’s some kind of fun game.
25. I actually tried to switch schools after crying to my parents and saying “I hate it here, no one understands me.” I remember going on a tour of the new school and the guidance counsellor asked me my main reason for switching, I said “There’s not enough diversity at my school” and then we spent a couple weeks trying to figure out how to “legitimize” my reason so the board would allow the transfer. CRAZY.

After Ahmaud Arbery was shot while running, I was genuinely afraid to let my bf run in my neighborhood alone. I still am. I get anxious everytime he goes on a run or bike ride by himself… THIS IS NOT JUST AN “AMERICAN PROBLEM” THIS IS VERY VERY REAL IN CANADA. The fact that people are brushing off RACISM as just some American issue is DISGUSTING. WAKE TF UP PEOPLE. I need everyone to reshare this. I know my following is predominantly white people and it’s hard to admit that you’re part of the problem but it’s NOT ABOUT YOU. Y’all are getting tired of hearing that black lives matter, TRY BEING BLACK. I love everyone, idc if ur black, white or purple. But right now we all need to get behind this because I don’t want to raise black children in the society we live in. #blacklivesmatter#sharethis#blackpower#useyourvoice]

on isolation

I know people who choose to live in forests – with forests, that is, rather than with humans. I am one of these whenever I am able, though I recognize a balancing urge also, to interact in the world of people, thoughts and ideas. So, internet connection, car, art studio, city streets cloth face masks for me, too.

My ex is perhaps still friends with what seemed to me to be an alarming number of men who have ended up in the eddy of inherited? houses they could not afford to maintain, or had no desire to. Each room filled with stuff piled on top of stuff, the whole house and yard choked with stuff so that they are left with only a corner of the old kitchen to live in. Perhaps a different kind of forest, thick and impassable with once-useful things.

Amazing, these worlds that exist outside of what’s considered acceptable in our wealthy consumer culture: old blankets repurposed as blinds to cover windows, yellowed wallpaper and institution green paint left to peel, rusted coffee tins full of square nails and lost tools on top of old newspapers piled two feet high. Some who live this way have dogs, some have books; they all know things most people haven’t considered.

Others I know live on boats and work in solitary construction jobs, are friends with their faraway daughters who visit occasionally, but regularly. They yearn for Scotland, and home.

Some, widowed, sit in a room at a retirement lodge and practice naming the people in the dresser-top photos. When he turned ninety, one friend of mine told me that being in such a place was like being asleep all the time until someone came to visit. He’d been a musician, passionate in connection and love. As a widower in a care home he existed in a kind of almost-death, waking into life and memory only in the presence of an other.

Through injury or illness, some of us exist in a vegetative state. Non-responsive, but physically stable and alive. Some stay in this state for years then emerge, slowly, achingly into interaction with the world.

Neuroscientist Adrian Owen writes about his research into the this liminal place of being alive and yet not in his 2018 book, Into the Grey Zone. It’s been a good thing to read in these strange times, and I agree with The New Yorker review: “Strangely uplifting…the testimonies of people who have returned from the gray zone evoke the mysteries of consciousness and identity with tremendous power”

I’m wondering if these extremes are what we fear, we who live connected to others through children and jobs, the exchange of goods and thoughtful engagement with community and neighbours. To be alone without external interaction, to forget how and who to be, with others. Fear is a great blocker of insight and greater awareness. In our fear of forgetting, what do we miss? What do we not notice?

Ondaatje’s The English Patient; Trumbo’s Johnny Got his Gun are just two of many stories that have fascinated me – both crafted around disconnection from our senses and our memories. Do we identify memory with Self? I am the person who did and felt these things. I am identified by what and whom I can remember.

What a mystery then, that though he had no memory left, my Dad in his last days was still fully present with me, still communicating, responding, as the person I know.

Swing forward twelve and a half months to 8am on this quiet, wet Monday. I’m in the place I’ve been coming to meet myself every morning for many months now. Here is where, pre-dawn, I gather my thoughts with dreams from the night before and put them on the table in front of the third-floor, east-facing window.

As the light seeps slowly into the world so my thoughts and rememberings return to me in different shapes, intertwined. If I’m still enough, If I keep my willful, active self at bay, I can give them form in some appropriate language – words, or pictures, or sounds. I think this morning it will be my cello I go to, to play them through and out.

6:30am, Monday May 18, 2020, upstairs with Mia the cat in the deep rain morning. I dreamed of garbage piled high in the streets, coated with clusterflies. Children were walking over this on their way to school…

We are afraid to be alone with ourselves, maybe. To be unwitnessed by another human is to be without an important anchor of external self-reference. He thinks I’m funny, she loves my smile, they like my work…. I feel permanently fragile in the loss of these warm things. I miss the quickness of laughter, the lift of an eyebrow, the intensity of a lean-forward response. I miss body warmth and touch; I miss the complexity and resonance of in-person humanness.

#StayHome is a difficult gift, but a gift nonetheless. The isolation challenges me to be fully here, by gum, without worry or anxiety about how important I am, what I do in the world, how others might respond to me, what I’ll do next. I have no idea about any of these things, after all, nor control over which way the world shifts, since what I remember the world to be is no longer what it is. I can only bear witness, show up into my creative space, respond in whatever way feels right, and stay as open as possible to change.

In these morning moments with the table and the dawn I feel more like dad seemed in his last days – absent to my measured, measuring self, maybe, but entirely and fully present to wonder. Curious.

There, a breeze in the sway of the birch, heavy with catkins. Leaves pushing open at the tops of the big trees. A busy chatter of sparrows and starlings. The through-wet-glass blur of the house across the street.

A seagull angles southward.

Last year, now.

It was a complex spring last year, coloured by the peaceful death of a beloved man. Dad passed in the middle of the night on the 29th, the day before I presented my Masters capstone. I heard a train whistle, Mom texted ten minutes later.

The stream that runs beside the farmhouse where my Mom lives, last year on April 28

The leaves must have been budding, but I wasn’t watching for them. I remember only swans, shiftings, transformations, releases, openings. Ten days later I would sit myself down in the first of many airplanes for a solo trip to Dublin, Lyon, Tuscany, Florence, Edinburgh.

Last year, through my back window

I passed a grand piano in the Brussels airport on my way to the loading gate, wondered at the way we travel, now. So many of us on the move, and no time to play the piano.

The way we travelled, once. Could any of us have imagined this spring.

Brussels Airport, May 2019

I’m happy to say that the seven trumpeter swans I saw in Feb 2019, exhausted on a northbound highway, are all well. They are the central metaphor for the story I presented for my masters capstone, which has now morphed into a tale of transformation about these times we are in now.

I belong to a group of people who share photos and news of trumpeters in Ontario – all of them the result of a successful reintroduction program based in Burlington. There are now thousands of these swans naturalized here, where for 100 years there had been none. One of the greatest joys of this self-isolated spring has been seeing photos of these beautiful birds with their new crop of fuzzy grey cygnets.

The loons are back, too, where they have nested along the quiet shore I know in southern Georgian Bay. Quieter now that the holidayers are not playing with jet skis. The water is high and playful, the sunlight strong and bright through still leafless trees. I stay in my little cabin there while delivering masks to friends and family in my old community of 25 years. Grateful to be in a place that exists outside of human economics, politics, trauma and grief, outside of what we call time. There’s a blissfully poor wifi signal there.

The masks project continues to teach me. Online ordering from small family businesses is possible and preferred. The new Heavy Duty Singer I picked up curbside from the little place that has serviced all my machines comes with tech and service support that the ones you buy from Amazon or Walmart don’t have. She sells me all of her elastic and I can text for advice any time, imagine that. The elastic and batik quilting fabric I order from a little BC company comes with a call from Kevin the owner, who is charging his cost just to keep things going. I tell him about the loons.

It turns out that the masks are better used and valued if they are made and given in neighbourhoods, by neighbours. So I make kits now to send out to people who have sewing machines. People who order two get extras to give to others they know who are high risk.

I’m working more slowly now, steady like a tortoise while also attending to my other work. The orders still come in. Metro workers here have been told they must wear the plastic face shields now, or cloth masks if they can get them somewhere… I’ll make what I can, send out kits, put together a fun how-to video and post it online.

The fact is that for the foreseeable future we are in a world now where mask wearing will be like seatbelts in a car – perhaps not regulated by law, but acknowledged as a sensible and respectful way to be among other humans who could be high risk. I believe it’s possible to do this cheerfully.

Here on the twenty-ninth of April 2020, leaves are emerging from buds on the trees. Like a faint golden green glow on the top of the old giants in Gage Park – a new breathing of air that is freer from chem trails and just generally cleaner than it was a year ago.

A train chugs by through the houses with a bell, but without a whistle. I think of the peace my dad found and surrendered to, a year ago. There is so much to be grateful for, even in these times.