By Robin Enns
December 10, 1998
Roy had Mariann with him, and his bass guitarist -- Adrian. Adrian was the person who, 20 years ago, got Roy into recording, and who 'produces' the music, does the sound coordination. Mariann plays an Indian drum that she made, herself, and sings both rich and full and gentle and high and weaving in and out of Roy's music and on her own too.
Roy did the songs of his story, with scripts written for class members who narrated the voices of Roy's experiences -- his great-great grandfather, his grandmother (No-o-kum, she was there), the Indian agent, his uncle who used to sing to him when he was very young (and who drowned in their lake at age 19). In between those stories, Roy sang songs from his Eagle Eyes tape. To hear him sing and to hear them all work together and to hear the results live and to be fifteen feet away is such a contrast to hearing it on my car stereo.
After they had finished, they asked if anyone else had any requests or would like to sing -- and Marcy, an aboriginal lady from Peguis, in my own Seminar class, came out and sang a song of her own music therapy. Also very beautiful, very fine, with Adrian bringing the base gently like the filling of the moon's rays on a dark lost night. So, so very embracing, those base notes from that old Fender guitar, so non-intrusive, so comforting.
And then Mariann called to me and said 'sing with me'. She said 'Roy said you like to do descants and harmonies'. and I said 'I only do that in the car when no one can hear me.' and she beckoned and I understood, but I needed my own instruments with me. There is a comfort in my old guitar and the Acadian wooden spoons that I keep in the old woollen sock in the guitar case.
I said I'd be back. So I went downstairs and got my guitar case from the office, and I came back up and I went into the class through a side door, and reappeared where I had been sitting, and listened to them singing another song, and very quietly brought out my spoons and began to play a soft single beat hollownote syncopation to their sound, and caught just eyebrows lifted from Mariann and Adrian saying 'welcome'. Without much of a pause they finished that song and segued into another, and Mariann came over to me while singing a soft sound into her mike, and led me by the hand over to the other vocal mike and gestured, 'sing Robin'. and I felt that I could. There was a gentleness to her and to the three of them together that made my eyes wet (and again now as I type this, so I know that someThing is there where I want to be).
So I did. I didn't know the song but I intuited where it could go next, and then my voice just lifted by itself in an ooooo sound and flew like a bird's shadow across her music, mixing, blending, harmonies, euphonies and shivering my own spine with the blend. I just knew, I knew, oh how it was, yes, oh how it was.
Then the song finished and I tried another one which didn’t feel as good, but Mariann apologized for it not working because it was too hard a song and one she had not really memorized yet. I didn't feel badly, I could just tell that I had a ways to go, so I didn't sing for much of it.
While I was still there at the mike, there was quiet, total.
into the silence
as I stood there
and somehow in the
embrace of the single
the old bass guitar
oh so soft
so sad and sweet
started -- an old old
so silky filling
the bass ..
a downy steel
the voice ..
lifting a quiet
question .. me?
and the bass
saying .. hey
ya, ya .. you
and the voice ..
a tiny light
a thread, wavering,
trying out the frame
from the bass
scaffolding the spirit
and the voice ..
waning and gaining
and finding his question
how many times oh
yes how many times
of the voice ..
of the question
how many, oh, how many
does it take
til we know
that too many
oh, too many
the voice ..
power and pain
and growth and truth
with the old old run
of the bass
and single notes
and timeless hopes
the voice ..
the choice ..
of the bass
What an experience, a .. gift .. another turning point for me .. to sing with them. My voice just knew where to go, held a clear pure tiny note for so long without running out of breath. I am the voice.
Sweat: a Teaching
by Robin Enns
I tell this story to open a white cultural fear of an aboriginal mystery. Fear leads to dysfunction. Opening can help.
It is 1.30, in June 2001, and I get into the truck and make my way along Princess to 26th to Victoria to the West End IGA and park away from other vehicles because it is easier to manoeuver when leaving. I wonder should I wear my Tilley hat in the 33-degree sun, but do not. I walk through the doors, take a cart and start through the bakery section. I wheel to the breads and buy a multigrain loaf. I head for the fruit, by-pass the melons, and get a big container of strawberries and a wonderful cascade of seedless green grapes. I look at bananas, but something says not. I walk through the veggies and ignore them.
I leave the parking lot carefully, my truck by now having a white VW van snuggled up beside it, the licence plate of which reads AY YAA. Even machines have a sense of humour. At the house I gather what I need: suntan lotion, Imodium, some headache pills (white person’s panacea), and two litres of water in bottles. I put my better shorts away, and dig out my oldest pair of soft faded blue jeans, recently relegated to third best pair. I flat them down on the freezer top and take out my regular shorts again for a measure of length. I go upstairs to get the super-sharp scissors and come back down and cut the old jeans into new shorts. I put them on. My preferred green t-shirts (forest and algae and lime) are not in the drawer. There are only the two red ones left. I take the darker, and black socks. I get out my oldest Tilley hat, the one I got on my 50th birthday, with the Cranberry Portage pin in the crown, pull the soft green cord through to make sure it’ll stay on in the brisk wind, and put on my sandals. Then I take an extra set of clothes to change into when the ceremony is over, and put them all in an Atlantic Lotto bag. I say goodbye to my 19 year old who is downstairs in front of the TV. The night owl has just started her day.
I head out, after taking my orange-veined black Amisk Lake granite stone from the truck seat and putting it in the Lotto bag. I follow the directions south on highway 10 out of the city. I turn west; do the conversion of 3 miles into 5 kms. I travel the dusty gravel road in the AWD setting at 80 kph, and soon get to the first landmark (a particular house). I pass a brobdinagian farm implement pulled by a gargantuan tractor, much higher than I in my tall-riding blue truck. Shortly after that I see the maple-lined driveway and pull in to the 100-year-old house yard. I park opposite the fat white cat sleeping on the window ledge and see a sign on the screen door, expecting it to be directions. It says don't let the dogs out. My mind trips over to the TV ad for “don’t let the dawgs out”.
I am standing there wondering where to go when a man with a large CBC camera comes toward me. He says they are all over there by the lake (it sounds like lake, anyway). He turns and looks back over his shoulder. I wonder what he is doing here. And I head across the grass, along his epaulette’s line of sight, through the tall maple and oak tree glades over the track to the west and there is a couple-of-acre-wide treed-in area, with grass mowed at one end, and a sweat lodge tucked into a corner. I see Arlene, looking dishevelled, carrying a large piece of firewood.
I walk over to Arlene and there are another two women with her. One she introduces as her sister Marcella who says she has recently moved here to live. Another is Yvette, now doing her Science degree at BU. From the Opaskwayak area. We sit beside the beginnings of a fire. They smoke. I say simply that I am Robin. I learn that Yvette’s science degree is her second one. Her first was in arts from U of M. She had wanted to be a medical doctor but liked to go out too much, so it took her five years to do a three-year degree. She is precise of language, quick to intuit. I see her future: a Ph.D.
Later, on the dark way home on this longest day of the year, I am giving her a ride because she rode here on her bike from the north hill, and following my question on her experiences in white Brandon, she tells me of her frustration at always being treated as an ignorant native at the walk-in clinic she goes to. Why be a part of a system that doesn't work, she asks me. There is calm to her, even at 25 (my guess at her age). She will change the system, I predict. One person can move a mountain.
The sweat lodge is built from willow and other slender branches, tied together with strips of cotton coloured cloth, in a crosswork of Buckminster Fuller lines, covered with what I can only call “blankies” -- soft, faded much-used and much-loved comforters, blankets, duvets; and covered again with heavy tan and dark green tarpaulins. The entrance faces the north. This I gather is unusual. Most open to the east. Also to the north, about 20 feet away, a fire to heat stones is being built. The bottom layer, already mostly in place, looks to be arranged in a group of seven. There are six there when I arrive, and I lift out my stone and say it is from Amisk Lake, and since they all nod that they know Amisk Lake, I don’t need to say that it is south of Flin Flon on the Saskatchewan side. I say it carries my prayers for connection with the times at Amisk Lake, its streams and purple-sanded shores. I am invited to put the stone in at the seventh space. It sits in the southwest corner, pulled close to the other stones by Arlene’s rake.
In the silence, I asked why the photographer. Arlene replied he was here at the behest of Oxford University Press, which was doing a book on world religions. Somehow they had heard of Arlene, and wanted to take photos of her doing a sweat. I said are you now a world religion? She replied that she had not wanted to do this, that the photographer had been pestering her for two weeks, that she had finally consulted with her elders who encouraged her to do it so long as the photographer and the people he represented would honour the traditions. So she agreed. She said that I had just missed getting my picture in a book on world religions. I was thinking that that might have been a little more public than I wanted to be at this stage in my spiritual journey, and that the creator had brought me to her house at exactly the right time. And then I thought of being televised a month before, dressed in my carmine and black academic gown and hood, giving the invocation at Convocation, a very public statement of my spirit.
I ask Arlene what I can do to help. She says there's a station wagon near the house. We need the wood piled in it. Will I please drive it over here and unload it. I think to myself, oh what a perfect thing to ask me to do. I had seen the old wood-sider wagon as I walked into the glade, and wondered about it. I think it was a ’79, the year we moved to the Maritimes; the year I met Gilberte after whom my daughter is middle-named. Gilberte drove a sedan version of the same vehicle. It was two-tone blue. This one is brown. Are the keys in it, I asked. She replied they were. I walk back through the grass to the car. It smells of gas, a comforting barn smell from when I was a kid on my uncles' farms. I reach under the front seat to the lever and push it back, get in, feel the seat receive me like an old friend, put my foot on the brake, turn the key and it starts immediately. No trick to this one. It is carrying lots of weight in the back but I drive it easily and slowly through the gate and over to the rocks, now piling higher. I reverse so the gate of the car backs onto them.
There is now a cairn of 48 stones and maybe a few more. I ask how many and am told this will be a 12 stone sweat. Twelve new stones for each of the four directions. Start in the east, and then the south, then the west (in my mind’s ear, I hear my Ojibwa teacher Roy chanting weh haaa we ha-a we ha, I-i sing my so-o-o-ong, to-o the north,) and my learnings connect. The women murmur, oh a 12 stone sweat, that is a lot for a summer sweat, that is a winter sweat. Arlene says Stephen wanted a baking sweat. His usual 7 stone sweats are too easy. Stephen, I learn, is an elder from the Valley who has been teasing the ladies that their normal sweats are too easy. That he really wants to bake! So they have said they will cook him, and they smile, and laugh at the coming sight of Stephen exiting this sweat satisfied that he has really sweat! He is to come later in the afternoon, but never does arrive.
I ask if there is more I can do. Arlene says we will build the fire and pray over the natural world of the stones, who accept the fire and give their 10,000 years of memories so that we may sweat today. We will build a cone of raspberry cane around the 48-stone cairn. Here, Robin, take these. I move to the right, the west, to lean them against the castled granite. We add the canes where we want, but we always add in the circle of the earth about the sun. Begin in the east, move to the south then the west and finally the north. We leave a doorway at the north and the south so the wind spirit knows where to enter the fire to stoke a heated upward draft.
I say that a limestone rock may explode if it is superheated. Arlene replies that she doesn't think a limestone rock is in the fire, but you never can tell from the colours of the stones. Some have been here and used before and look white and the stones are empowered to be the way they need to be to bring us what they wish to bring.
With Yvette and Marcella and Arlene, I pile the cane on, moving from east to south to west to north. Then, outside the cane, bigger logs at the base, leaning up and all around except for the north and south doorways. And upon the bigger base of logs, slightly smaller logs too, until we get to the top and Arlene says it is a tipi shape that the elders say is the shape of the volcano that originally brought fire to us. The station wagon is empty, now, and Arlene says to me that we need sustaining wood because the fire has to be maintained long enough to keep the stones hot through four rounds. She says go back to the pile of oak on the other side of the house, and bring the sustaining logs. I say that it will likely take more than the wagon can carry in one load, so I will use my truck. She says fine, use your truck. I want to involve my truck in building the sacred fire because I have a relationship with the strength of my truck and I want to have the association in my heart whenever I climb into the truck. I back the truck to the oaken pile, and start to load. It goes in symmetrically and smoothly and I move 200 pieces of oak and do not get a single splinter. I have asked my spirit to help me not get a splinter, so I do not and I give thanks.
I drive the truck over to the stone sacred fire, and back it in and unload. Where I pile the pieces, Arlene with worn leather gloves moves them to the fire in a separate final outer layer and there is deep wooden cairn now, neat and tidy and awaiting the match.
I finish piling the wood, with some in a further place because it will be used to start another sweat next time. The big blue truck has shown me once again its immense strength and I am aware and grateful for being able to ride in this truck to the north and to the south and through the Rockies and the precious cargo it carries with me.
And we talk and along comes another woman. Dressed simply (as we all are) not minding the earth and the charcoal black and the grass green and the elemental brown under our fingernails and toenails. Her name is Linda. I have known her for fourteen summers. She worked with PENT when I arrived in Brandon. She did her M.Ed. in Counselling with us and took Scholarly Writing with me and learned that the poetry in her has value far beyond what she had been told with her F's in previous writing courses. She has now an instructional position in the First Nations and Aboriginal Counselling degree program. I find that I am not self-conscious to be participating with Linda here.
There is a low pile of earth between the fire and the entrance to the lodge. In the earth is an eagle feather just like mine. It is a moulting feather; not the beautiful black and white fluffy feather that you typically see. Arlene says that you get those feathers by killing the eagle. Instead, the moulting feathers honour the bird because they shed them as part of their own changes, and give them to those who find them, symbolic of growth. Leaning on the pile of earth is a red, longer-than-wide pouch, which I learn later, inside the lodge, is Arlene's medicine pipe container. A pouch of tobacco is there too, to draw from and to sprinkle the ground, a gifting to the earth. A clear plastic re-sealable bag contains an herb mix to throw on the fire. Finally, there is a long braid of sweetgrass, the purpose of which I learn later.
Another woman arrives driving a red Toyota utility vehicle. Margaret is her name. I recognize her from a class I was observing last year. I remember her, too, from the memorial service for the fourteen women who were murdered at Concordia University that was held at city hall two years ago. She was the elder who did the ceremonial smudging at that time. Margaret, I learned then, is now doing her FNAC counselling degree. She will be co-leading the sweat with Arlene. Later it is she who prepares me for what will happen during the sweat.
It is now near 4 PM. We talk some more. Arlene and I find we have crossed paths many times. Her PhD is from Dalhousie University, where, in 1989, the one doctoral thesis student I have supervised was granted her PhD. Arlene recently visited the Helen Betty Osborne site at the airport pump house in The Pas, within days of my being there, too, a place where the music of the melting ice pieces greeted my ears and where I buried an acorn from the site of the medicine wheel at The Forks and where the tall white cross for Betty Osborne stood. We talked about that and how the aboriginal people saw that as a much less gross memorial than the heavy rock sculpture that guilt built somewhere else in The Pas.
While we were waiting for the fire to heat the stones, there was wind coming from the tall treetops, but there was also a calm in the corner of the glade. In the stillness numerous flies and ants and spiders (the crawlers, Arlene called them) gathered, too. I did my usual and twitched them away, as did the others, except for Arlene. At this time, she said to me (about the heat and whether it would be too much for me, echoing what Margaret later said in the tent) that there would be as much heat as I needed. That I could do with it what I wanted. I told her the story of what Jack said to me in Malawi last November -- that I could let the humid heat get to me or not. It was a decision, he said, not an inevitability. I transferred that, in that moment, to the insects crawling on me. I could let them bug me or not. Linda said they were a nuisance. Arlene said that's what they were there for. I took all that together with the materials I had been reading recently on the Seat of the Soul and the reminders from my teachers, and saw that this was an opportunity to go down a back trail in my experience and make a different decision, a practice decision for the heat to come. I could be annoyed and be continually twitching the bugs away, or not. It was my choice and not inevitable that they would bother me. So… I stopped letting it bother me. Flies and ants and mosquitoes and spiders crawled on me and I had decided they would not be a bother, so… they were not. I felt good about being able to do this -- first consciously and then automatically. I continued the conversation only aware sometimes of the bugs, and then not again.
The fire was started. It whooshed through its doorways and up its funnelling tipi shape and burned hotter and hotter and hotter and hotter until the stones turned white like barbeque charcoal. I walked to the truck, which was parked on the north side of the fire, and was just putting up the gate, when whomp -- a large explosion and the fire was blown apart. There was a deep silence among us and then I glanced at the side of the truck facing the fire and saw … nothing; not a mark. Yet the fire had been blown apart. Arlene quietly said time to rebuild the fire. On went her heavy gloves and she picked up her rake
and started to move rocks back into place and logs over top. Then she used her pitchfork to put three smaller pieces of limestone rock back into the fire. She said to me the exploded stone threw to the east, threw to the south and threw to the west. She had found three pieces of the stone, one in each of those directions, but none to the north. The truck, which was well within the radius of the exploded pieces, was protected. I told her that my season of strength is winter. She smiled.
I went back to talking with her about her experience teaching in the education faculties in various universities, and in a non sequitur asked would I be able to leave the sweat if it got too hot? She said, we will pray for you if that happens. She said we will direct our energies to you, and it is likely that you will find it to be all right.
Then from inside the lodge came Margaret's voice. Robin, come in, she said. I will tell you. So I remove my sandals and socks and hat and crawl through the north portal into the lodge. There were other blankies on the floor with a two-foot fire pit in the center. Margaret is taking from a 1940s small suitcase the pieces of her inner altar. She had a small red blanket made of flannel and sewn onto it all in black thread were a bear, fishes and birds. This she hung from the willow near the south back of the lodge. On the altar she put out several eagle feathers, a bag of herbs and spices, 7 crystals, her pipe and other things that because of the angle, I could not see.
She said to me -- sit where you are comfortable but likely nearer the entrance. Remember that if you need it the air is cooler near the floor. Remember too that the fire is as hot as you need it to be, as your spirits need it to be with you. She said that you decide how hot the stones feel. It is your choice how hot they are. For each of us the heat differs. We will do four rounds. One for each direction. The first is to pray to the spirits to tell them why you are here; the second prays to the stones. I will be doing the praying for all of us to the stones. The third round is a prayer to the trees, the birds, the crawlers, the animals who join us, and the fourth is to ourselves. This is a healing lodge. We pray always for healing what is known and what is not, what is inside and what is outside, what is spoken and what is unspoken.
During each round there will be a smoking of the pipe. It is your decision to take part or not, to inhale or not. Each time you touch the pipe, you turn it in the four directions with the bowl at the centre. If you are not going to smoke it, you touch the pipe to each of your shoulders, thus, across your chest once and pass it to the person beside you.
We will start soon, she said.
When I was back outside, Arlene also said to me that we would be starting soon. Soon the drum (also at the outer altar, and three inside the lodge too) sounded: toom toom toom .. toom toom toom .. toom toom toom. I was about to enter, when Arlene said oh I forget to tell you there can be no metal in the lodge. So I shed my denim shorts, thinking that I had known, somehow, back home, this could happen, but that I had no un-be-metalled shorts. Later in the sweat, I came to be glad I had worn travel underclothing because it shed the perspiration so easily. She pointed to my wedding ring and offered me some bear grease to see if it would come off, but it would not. The bear grease was in a small vial and had a pleasant fragrance to it. There was some chat about it being the last of their supply; that it had come from Saskatchewan; that the fragrance came from the petals mixed in with it; that more was needed soon. The afternoon's work had swollen my fingers to such an extent that I could not get the ring over my knuckle, even after cooling my finger in a water bucket.
When I entered this time, Arlene said to take my amulet rawhide with the fossil from Clearwater Lake in it and hang it above my head from the branches. She also said to hang my prayer strip there too. While we were waiting for the fire to heat the rocks, they showed me how to make a string prayer strip holding encased tobacco in different coloured cloths. Each piece of the seven swatches was a different colour, my choice, to represent the earth (the start) the four directions and then my spirit colour and finally the sky (the end). I began with the purple of my third eye and ended with a pale blue. They showed me a knot for doing the tie easily, and I said oh a clove hitch. And they said what is it called, and I repeated, a clove hitch.
I settle inside on the northeast side. Linda is about three feet away from me and offers me her spare towel, saying I will need it. To her left in the south is Margaret. To her left in the west will be Arlene. To her left, lying down is Marcella, and to her left, on the other side of the north portal, is Yvette.
There is movement through the doorway and in comes a pitchfork with a hot stone on it. In the semi-dark the hot stone becomes deep, deep red in colour. Margaret pulls forward two deer antlers to use as holders and directors of the hot stones. She pulls them from the pitchfork, and settles them into a place on the floor of the sunken fire pit. And again, the same process. I can feel rosy warmth from the pit and see there the red power of the stone. It looks like pictures you see of smelting furnaces. Again, and again. I see in front of me five buckets (large ones) of water, and beside each bucket a smaller two-litre container of drinking water. The buckets in front of Margaret and Arlene are metal, with big ladles hanging inside them. This is for splashing water onto the stones to increase the heat spread. Soon there are 12 stones in the pit. At the delivery of the 12th stone, Arlene says to me Robin, this is your stone.
Margaret moves outside and covers over the entranceway and it is very dark in side.
We are inside the lodge. It is pitch black. There are no lights, none seeping under the edge.
Before closing the door, Margaret lights her pipe. She sings, blessing the start of the sweat. She pulls on the pipe and the smoke curls into the bowl and she releases it through her mouth and nose. She sings some more. She smokes some more. She pivots the pipe bowl in her hand pausing in the four directions. She draws again on it, sings some more. She dips her head, passes the pipe to Arlene, who does her own rituals of welcome with the pipe. She does not sing. Margaret drops a spill of drinking water into the ground (I notice that she does this every time she takes a drink – honouring the earth with life-giving water, I believe) and there is a faint hiss as the stones accept the blessing and then she takes a drink. Arlene passes the pipe to Marcella who sits up to smoke, and then on to Yvette, who needs to light it because it has gone out.
The match scratches across the box, held between her toes. This is a practised move. She is fast, and passes it on to me. I have been watching, readying myself for the moment, thinking of my teacher Roy, the pipe-carrier. The bowl is hot; I shift my hand back from it and put the stem in my mouth. It is dry on my lips. I draw and there is nothing. I take the matches and do the same thing as Yvette does, holding the matchbox case so I can scratch it. I remember from 30 years ago when I had a pipe and cherry-blend tobacco and sometimes used to smoke it, too. I know to let the flame hover and climb the wood of the match. I know where the bowl is intuitively and draw the flame from an inch above the bowl into it and into the tobacco. The flame concurs and drops down. I make my own mini-ceremony and draw the smoke into my mouth. I discover it is not tobacco. I can taste sweetgrass and cedar and lavender and sage, and my nose tastes it too. I rather clumsily rotate the stem around the pivot of the bowl through the 4 directions, honouring in my mind the north, the winter, the capacity to dwell in the center of things, to take the middle way, and pass it along the Linda. I find the taste in my mouth to be refreshing, not at all like the remembered tang of tobacco taste.
The pipe returns through Linda to Margaret, who somehow moves across the room beyond the threshold of my seeing and closes over the entrance. The room is pure palpable blackness. There is a rustle as people settle. I have my back to the east wall leaning against a piece of branch, which somehow curves to match my spine. My knees are wide apart, my elbows thereupon. I am relaxed. I suddenly hear the hussssshhhhh of the water being ladled onto the stones and smell a pungency of herbs. It is not unpleasant. They are healing herbs. The glow of the stones bespeaks the heart of the oldest in the lodge, the stones.
In the first few minutes of the first round, I am soon sitting in rivulets of sweat. It pours down me, and my eyes, my mouth all feel and taste saline. My hands however, didn't try to move it away from me, because as it dripped through the hair on my arms and chest and legs, it felt exactly the way the bugs on my skin felt earlier. I had learned from the bugs not to try to evade the experience of the sweat. I wasn't intent on stopping it, and without being bothered, I immerse myself in the heat. The sweat quickly soaked the travel underclothing, and in the time that we had between the rounds, they dried.
Margaret begins a prayer telling the Great Creator why she is here. There is a ritual set of words to it that passes through the stones, the crawlers, the animals and the plants and ends with a blessing to the group and of the group. Then Arlene does her prayer, then Marcella, Yvette and then me. I say that I am no longer at the start of my spiritual journey, that I have seen much that tells me that I am on the right path, that I have set aside all things administrative at the university to engage more fully in my quest and to participate more fully in the teachings. I say that I am honoured to be invited to be here and that I have asked that my spirit reveal himself to me in some form. That I believe him to be a tall dark male figure – maybe an obsidian angel. I ask that he be revealed to me, or that he let me know he is there. I say that I have hesitated for more than two years to call him to me, and this is the first time that I have called him to me with full (let’s say 98%) intent, because I have seen many many many signs of his presence, which I accept, too, as being in his presence. Without saying it, I also accept that this may not happen, but for the first time I hope positively if a little nervously that he will manifest in some way.
I say “all my family”, which I quickly change to "all my relations" that the aboriginal people say when they have completed a prayer. Parenthetically this is interesting because I have a book of that title on my shelf. I hadn’t made that connection when I bought it. Linda and then Yvette take up the prayer. All this time, there is the drumming: toom toom ... toom toom. Margaret closes us off by saying says hit your chest with your fist to release the energy. I hear splats all around me and do likewise. And the East round of the sweat is completed. Someone says, voiced more loudly than the prayers, open the door. The door becomes opened, and we spill out into the sunlight and the cool of the warm evening air. The others have their blankets spread on the grass and they lay on them, breathing deeply.
I walk over to my truck and get the white blanket that I bought in Regina at the Good Will store for $2 and had dry-cleaned for $7, which has traveled with me over many a northern and mountain mile since then, and bring it back and spread it on the ground. Linda says to me, lying on her back, Robin can you feel the energy of the earth? I wait til my heart has slowed down (not in any danger, but I couldn't hear the earth over my own sounds), and then I hear the earth in synchronization with my reiki energy. And I say yes Linda, I do. I roll onto my back and look at the sky -- blue with scudding puffy clouds, and I let my eyes gaze into second sight, and see red powder mixed into the blue. Like someone had blown red talcum powder over the blue sky -- just a dusting. I blinked to go back to normal sight and it disappeared. I blinked again to go to 2nd sight and the red powder was still there.
Soon the call from Arlene, time to shift the stones again. I watch from outside this time and Arlene digs the stones from the fire and Yvette carries them on a pitchfork and ladles them into the fire pit and Margaret uses the antlers to put them in their places. But I see something different now. The sweetgrass is used to brush the surface of the hot stones and they spark and sift sweetsmoke into the air. This is to bless the stones and to honour them for their gift to us, bringing their 10,000 years of experience to our healing. The 12 stone goes in and we follow.
The entrance closed and the rosy red rocks were all we could see. This time there was some joking among the people. We had not yet started but were finding our positions, when Arlene said I see red thunder, I hear the spirits say to me red thunder in the lodge. Does this mean anything to anyone? There is silence.
Into my mind flows the redpink dust I see just a few minutes before as I lie on my back on the green of the gladefloor with my white woolen travel blanket beneath me. I say I saw redness in the blue sky as I looked up, and then I add I can always see red cars on the highway long before I can even really see the car on its way near me. I can see red cars way before I see any other car. Arlene says then that is a message for you my brother Robin. You are “_________”. She then started her prayer to the animals, the crawlers, the fish, the plants and finished with the names of the people in the lodge, calling me “________” and thanking the spirits for identifying me with a name. Again, drumming as she speaks.
I feel the drips of sweat trickle down me and sit for most of this round, except toward the end I find myself leaning down to the ground to see if the air is cooler lower down, and it is. I am grateful for this respite and stay that way for a little while. We finish and again there is a call to open the entrance and with no sound or movement it is open, and I go outside in a rush with the others and we sprawl on the blankets outside and look at the tall sky above us. There is some talk and I hear “________” and Robin but don't make out the rest. I lie on my tummy after a while to feel the heartbeat of the earth beneath me.
I was lying on the ground looking up to the blue scudding clouds when I heard Robin, are you ready to take your turn? I asked, to deliver the stones? Yes, I was told, to deliver the stones. I said yes, I was ready to deliver the stones. Ought I get dressed again? Yes I was told, get dressed again. I pulled on my denim shorts, and my red t-shirt and my black socks and my sandals and went over to take the pitchfork. There on the ground, raked out of the shimmering redpink fire, was a stone. I was told to get the stone on the fork and balance it so it would not wobble off then take it to the entrance to the sweat and then to push it forward (like an offering) to the firepit where Margaret would, with her deer antlers, rake it off into a place in the fire. I remembered suddenly what my father had taught me about lifting heavy stuff with a shovel, so you leave none behind, kind of with a thrust under
the stuff to be picked up and a backward tilt of the shovel blade so it doesn't get away on you. That worked fine with the fork and the hot stone. It did not wobble and soon I had my first stone on its way to the lodge. Linda brushed it with sweetgrass on its way as I paused for her to do that. Then I continued to the south through the entrance there to meet Margaret as she raked the stone into place. Once, then back to the fire where Arlene had raked out another stone to me. I got under it, thrust, lifted, tilted, carried to Linda who brushed it, then to the opening and Margaret raked it into the place for it in the pit. Back, only this time clockwise further around to Arlene, thrust, lift, tilt, carry, brush, rake, and then again and again, again and again.
How many, someone called, and I replied six; we are halfway. Back to Arlene, thrust, lift, tilt, carry, brush, rake, and back, 7 and at 8, Arlene said here is the exploded stone; the three pieces. They had cooled and we could see it was a limestone rock. We said we had just had that conversation earlier about limestone, and then it happened, boom just like we said. And on to 9, and 10-11 because I carried two at a time this time (9 had wobbled off and I took 3-4 times to get it balanced) and finally the last one. Thrust, lift, tilt, carry, brush, rake and done. Everyone said twelve, that's twelve now. I take the pitchfork back to Arlene and remove my metals again, back to the basics and enter the lodge.
The doorway closed, and herbs are thrown on the stones and this time something different, as some start coughing. Something bitter in the smoke. I feel a sharp tickle in the back of my throat. I cough too. Nor race nor gender matter, I cough. The spirits take us all in the same way. The water spatters the rocks, many times many. The heat rises. This is the hottest it has been; and I move down to the cooler level and adjust myself. There are only 5 of us now in here. Marcella has said she has had enough. Twelve stone rounds are too much for her she says. She will go to the house and begin to prepare the feast. There is more room now and I stretch out, touching Linda even so in the dark, so I pull back. She snickers and says it is all right. We find positions shuffling where we are not touching. I am along the base of the wall. The drum continues, and I see Mennolly learning from Olodkey on Pern. And the chant in another language this time. I presume it is Cree, though it could be Maliseet because that is the language of Margaret.
I consciously decide not to be conspicuously looking for or awaiting something to happen. This is the third round and I have had nothing from the spirits, that I can see. I drift to the sound and suddenly the drum pitch echoes deep inside my heart like I am the drum. I resonate with the sound, I boom I boom I boom I boom, I vibrate. Then I lose it when I become aware of it. It goes back to toom toom toom. and I let go and again it resonates inside me. And too soon that part stops and the hand splashes more water into the stones and we move to the end piece and the prayer repeats in English with Arlene's voice asking the blessings and I hear her sanction my presence in the lodge (my brother “______”) and now it is really hot and I have my nose to the lowest ground level and I am comfortable in the heat as I soak. For the 10th time I open my bottle of water and take two sips, and the water has very little coolness to it. I feel the heat on my higher side and move my t-shirt (which has been off from the first round) over to my tummy and pour water on it and wrap it around my face to cool myself a little more.
The prayer stops and the drum stops and Linda opens the doorway and says that she is going to help Marcella, and we crawl out to the air. I have no idea what time it is, but the sun is now westering and shining bright egg yellow through the maple-oak lattice of leaves.
While Arlene is tending the fire, I get up from my white blanket and look at the heavens and walk the glade in my bare feet. I stand in the deepening sun with my arms out, weaving a small ballet in unison with the soaring birds, my body partly in the dappled shade of the oak-mapled leaves, and I remember the druids’ venerations and the oaken tree I found beside Willow Creek at the behest of Johnson Mason, and I stretch my arms wider to embrace the sunlight, the leaves and the feeling of the glade. Arlene called over and said people would certainly get a different perspective on Robin Enns if they could see him now! I call back that now is when the photographer should be here!
The door is left open. This time a new pipe is lit. Arlene's pipe. It is one long orange-yellow strip with a bowl at the bottom. I don't recall any beadwork on it, attached like Margaret's pipe. I am reminded of Adrian's flute, the one he carved and plays so exquisitely. I get up from my desk in the office, now, to get the CD of Native American flute to play on the computer CD Rom drive. She scratches a match; the flame flares into the space and the pipe draws. Again, the chant, the draw, the rotation. She pushes some smoke from her mouth onto the left hand palm then her right hand palm. The pipe is reversed 180 degrees with the stem point in my direction. Is it at me or to the east? I don't know nor do I ask.
The high-flung native flute echoes beside me and I am transported to where the flute has had meaning in space and in time. The making of meaning. I have been thinking about that this morning as I left the truck parked under the tree on 19th that leans over the parking lot. The making of meaning of the metaphors the creator brings us through every crawler, fish, animal, plant around us. There is a teaching in every one and a learning many times many ways times many if I want to look, if I want to see, listen, scent, taste. And then there is effortless meaning-making. I ... am. I become one with my environment -- I do not *try* to make meaning. I perform unintellected sense. How to do that? Just to be, so that I depart the parking lot and I arrive at the door to the education building with no awareness that I have walked 500 steps. How to slip into that unawareness. Now I am unaware. Yet it bothers me not to be doing anything, accomplishing anything, until I remember that this is the state I was seeking. I got what I asked for. Now … to be open while unaware and to see and accept the teachings.
The smoke leans out the door into the sunlight, moving the prayer out and up and there is William Blake's classic reaching godhand, stretching wraith of grey smoke showing the black of the inside of the lodge and the multicoloured ribbons tying everything into place, flowing just so very tiny geometries, like nasal cilia allowing the smoke to flow through and out and up. Her legs in the cross folded in front of her, her feet black with the earth of feeding the fire outside, her face red from the fire inside, her cotton shift limp on her sweating body, her braids messy and tight at once and hanging 24 inches down, she smokes, she exhales, the prayer carrier eddying in the room, leaning into the doorway. Arlene, Ph.D., elemental wise woman, two eyes shut and one, in the centre, wide.
She reaches out across the firepit and hands me the pipe. I take it, cradle it, draw on it and smoke travels into my mouth, across my tongue -- I taste the tobacco -- no herbs now, through my nose and out. And again and again. I turn the stem on the bowl in the four directions pausing at each point, trying this out, as I have yet no ritual myself. Will I have my own pipe? Will I wear this practice? Will I do this again? What is the teaching, the learning?
I pass the pipe to Yvette and she, after her ritual, to Margaret and to Arlene again. Now we are four. I am north, now, Yvette east, Margaret south and Arlene west. I am north. North. “______” is north. Arlene speaks. She says the spirits say “______” on the horizon. The horizon? I say I can see red cars on the highway horizon many miles away. Arlene says again, I am being sent “______” on the horizon. I quietly connect with the redband of light rays that I can see better than any other colour and so far away and always right. Is there
more to this? I reply to my inner self, yes there is more even if I don't see the horizon now. There is more, I whisper.
Now as I look into Arlene's face, I see the same prominent apple-red round cheekbones as I see in my mother's face. My mother persists. She is trying to get my attention about something. She appears to me through the faces of women who are bringing me wisdom. So what is she trying to bring to me? How will I open to her? How will I hear her?
The door closes. Arlene prays. This is the round about the self. She prays and I do not remember what she prays, or maybe she prayed in Cree. Then it is my turn. I pray and remember some of what I say. I thank my sisters in the sweat; I say the creator says there is no gender in that dimension, the creator's dimension, that I am female in the lodge too and they are male in the lodge. I say there is no race in the creator, and I have felt there is no race in the lodge. I am aboriginal, they are white, we are aboriginal, we are white, we have no race, we have no gender, we exist in the darkness as close as closeness is. I am hot, now, wet beyond even the memory of dry. Now three days after the sweat, I remember Margaret saying that a first sweat experience is like being born again. We re-experience our births. If the birth was difficult, we re-experience and clear our birth time, and are free from them and the hold they have on our lives. I am at last unbound.
The feeling of freedom in all that sweat and warmth is so good, so very very good: the tympani in slow cadence across the lodge; the thick of the tobacco, the herbs, the sweetgrass, the lavender, the sage, the other unnamed fragrances, honouring the people in the lodge. Again, in the prayers, I heard “______”, our brother. I drifted semi-conscious in the heat, hearing only my name. I counted the prayers and the voices and realized we were heading to the end. I lay on my back with my arms at my side and felt the final splashes of heat uplifted from the stones. I felt as if someone was giving me an all over hug, from the
top of my head to the tips of my toes. I stretched my arms out and my arms were warmed too. I said to Arlene, after, when we were cleaning up, that I hadn't wanted to leave the lodge and that I felt this huge all-length hug and she said that is what you needed. Soon the drum toomed its last and the way opened. I went to the door and decided not to be outside the lodge, so I went back in and curled again on the blankies. No one went outside yet.
The pipe passes across the firepit to me. I am more practiced now. I find it still burning; I have no need to relight it. I draw deeply and find that it is tobacco now. The gray curl swirls, unfurls, tendrils whisper, a gyre of prayer.
I went to the stump near where my clothes bag waited, and I looked over to where Arlene was forking the fire to make sure there were no stones that had been missed on the journey to the lodge firepit. Without thought, I went over to her, picked up the rake and started also to rake through the fire. I had put on no more clothes, nothing on my feet. I walked quite close to the fire, closer than when I had been there before to move the stones into the lodge. The oddest thing is that the ground underneath was not hot to my soles. I didn't actually walk on the hot coals, but I was near the fire and felt no fire. I did find two or three stones, smaller ones, which Arlene scooped up and took inside. There Margaret was slowly and methodically putting away her altar with its sacred pieces and I went back in and lied down where I had been before. It was good to be in the lodge. There was some comment about maybe spending the night in the lodge, because the stones would be warm for many more hours. I asked if they used the same site in the wintertime. I was told yes, and in fact they celebrated the winter equinox on December 22 with a 12-stone round and it was as warm as it had been today. It was at this point that I was invited to invite myself anytime to a sweat.
Arlene said she had invited many people in the past two years but few seemed to actually come to her sweats. There was always something at the last minute, even if they said yes to begin with, which meant that they did not come. I thought, then, that it had to do with the essential alienness of the sweat. It is more participatory than the essentially spectator Christian or other-religioned mind. It is so elemental, so basic, so pagan, so connected. People can be open-minded in principle, and that is a good thing. Much better than being close-minded. But the immediacy of the sweat lodge keeps them, I thought then, from following up on their agreement to the invitation.
Now, I think it has something also to do with trust. There is a line from Mahavagga (the book of how the Buddha attained supreme enlightenment and preached his doctrines for the welfare and happiness of the people) that says: Trust in the Lord and He will guide you aright. One who has this trust need fear nothing. He can be at perfect peace and happiness, for he will be guided aright. Later in the passage, it says: Trust is having confidence that the right thing will come about without trying to control it or make it happen.
In our paths are opportunities. Arlene put an opportunity in my path. I have began to see that I can ask the Creator for help and have begun to see that I can make better decisions (absurd decisions from some points of view), and act on them in relation to my path of positive karma. So I have some small history, but dependable history, now, of accepting the invitations and opportunities that come my way. I trust. It's that simple, and at the same time, that difficult, because there is no sense to the decisions. It is all intuition. At least, that is the word we have that most proximates what this is. But at least we have a word for it! The fire is banked. The cotton blankies are taken out. My prayer beads are put into the fire. My amulet is back around my neck. My clothes are back on me. My watch is on my wrist, my keys in my pocket. My shirt and long jeans are on. I feel like I'd like to be back inside the lodge in the warm dark hug of the sweat. But it's a good feeling to be dressed, too. I help fold the blankies into the big clear bags and pack them into Margaret’s old red Toyota. I take part, one of them, now. One of us.
I take a wheelbarrow, a red one, over to the shed, piled high with blankies for which there was no room in the red Toyota. I get almost all the way there, when my own Lotto 649 bag topples, but I don't stop, I keep on keepin' on. Leave the stuff and the wheelbarrow in the shed and make my way to the kitchen of the house. There are dishes everywhere, and plates and food on the table and stuff in pans and pots on the stove. The ceiling is high, the wallpaper old, the counter and cupboards, definitely from the 1950s. The house is a century old. An earlier black and white photograph of it hangs on the wall opposite me. Then the house has a full porch of gingerbread cut wood. It looks good in the photo. With a wooden spoon, I fill my plate with carrots and some salmon steaks; with my fingers I take from a tall spinach salad. I have some bread, with butter. I eat with the others using a fork to butter my bread, too. There is some conversation, but I don't remember any of it. I am tired. I learn that Yvette has cycled over and they ask me to put her bike in the back of my truck and take her closer to home. I offer to take her all the way home. Linda gets up first. It is near 11 PM. Her daughter is asleep in her car with the seat back reclined, under a blanket. She must be about 11. I remember seeing her when she was about 3, at Mort’s Mini-Golf course on the north hill. As Linda goes to the door, I stand up and say to Yvette that I'm tired and I'd like to go, too, now. She agrees, and gets up, and Arlene says are you going, and Yvette replies my ride is going. I again say I am tired. I look tired, I know. I go outside while they hug goodbye and put Yvette's lightweight Norco bike into the back of the truck. I go back inside and give and receive goodbye hugs, and thank Arlene again, and we take the big blue truck down the driveway, to the gravel road, thence to highway 10 and as far as across the Assiniboine bridge in Brandon and up past Kirkaldy School to Yvette's house. Then I drive back across the city to my corner of town.
A Week Later
I have been writing this for a week now. The first draft I did by Sunday, three days after the sweat. Now, it is three days later.
I had no vision of my spirit guide. I saw no obsidian presence other than the blackness in the lodge; and I accept that this darkness could have been the presence of my spirit guide. This is the first time I have thought this could be the case. Were that so, like the hematite ring I wear since starting the Manual of the Peacemaker in early May, I would have much to reflect around. I see in writing this that I have started. However, I did feel my normal knowing of my spirit guide, the cool lick of wind on my forehead when there is no wind anywhere, while I lay looking upward in the glade on my white blanket. I did call and she came; and even yesterday, when I was putting my canoe, Ravenswing, on my truck, and asked for the wind to stop, she did so long enough for me to toss the blue strap over the red hull, and not blow off.
“______” on the horizon. I meet myself coming back. It makes me smile. I see down the road and am down the road being seen at the same time. I walk my back trail and make new decisions. I also wait, with nothing to do, no plans, no questions; grateful now for the gifts of uninvolvement without disinterest; open to see and to accept the teachings.
By Robin Enns
December 1, 2002
The lot was icy. The sky was grey. It was cold. Youthful voices, urgent, strident could be heard across the lot, punctuated by pucks rapping off the dull white painted rink boards. Cars pulled slowly up the ramp and onto the lot. A sparkling midnight blue Cadillac stopped in front of the Community Hall and a good-looking young man wearing a dark ski-jacket stepped casually out of the driver’s seat, waved a thumb’s-up and said “nice wheels” in my direction as we rolled by. I think he is my youngest cousin, John Enns, named after my dad. He went around and opened the door for my Aunt Terry and Uncle Harry. Other well-dressed people stepped gingerly on the parking lot ice, and made their way to the base and up the stairs, into the Glen Lee Hall. Shortly after having to go back because I had forgotten my disposable camera, we joined the line leading to a receiving table where our names were checked surreptitiously against a list by a smiling parliamentary aide, and then went into a cloak room to hang up our coats. Not for the first time, I muttered about hangers that you can’t take off the racks.
Coats suspended, we moved to the table near the front where my aunt and uncle were seated. After some negotiating about who would sit where (Carol beside Terry, I beside Harry, leave two seats round the end for Dad and Elaine, and two more at my end for Professor and Mrs. Searle, of whom the professor was the nominator and would in a few minutes be introducing Dad to the assembly, one of twenty recipients in the Saint Boniface federal riding.
Some catch-up talk – grandchildren and children, location, health, Christmas shopping, the cold snap, did you drive in today, are you going home right after. An auxiliary member with a big smile puts a dish of salty goodies on the table, and hands, like hungry fish, dive in. Perhaps our 2 PM peckishness was sufficiently evident that shortly after, the sweet goodies arrived too.
On a long table at the very front was a pile of dark green folders. Beside them was a long rectangular set of dark blue cases, each displaying a colourful Queen’s Jubilee Medal. At the table sat a regal elder lady, silver-haired, dressed in royal purple and looking like the part, watching the room fill with a benign smile. I felt somehow that if I had to sit beside her at a do like this, she would be an interesting neighbour. The Member of Parliament, Raymond Simard, came to the lectern and spoke in both French and English, which was a bit of a surprise, because we didn’t know that St. Vital, where my dad lives, is under the Saint Boniface riding wing. The French was definitely Manitoban with that bit of a twang, and yet was easy, after a bit of ear-tuning, to understand. Mr. Simard explained the selection process, introduced the committee who had made the decisions of which twenty of the many nominees would receive the awards. After the afternoon concluded, one of these committee members sought me out, identified himself as someone who had gone to school with Neil and Sharon, and said that he was pleased to make the connection with three generations of our family, now. He had just finished his BA at the College de Saint-Boniface and was starting law school.
Mr. Simard introduced a beautifully-dressed and poised 11- or 12-year old who, with music provided by a tape deck in behind, sang, in a much older voice, O Canada and God Save the Queen, in both French and English. Then the presentations started. The lady dressed in purple proved to be the Mistress of Ceremonies. She announced the Introducers, who came forward, with prepared stories of the reasons the recipients were nominated. I don’t recall other than general details, but the recipients spanned ages of 25 to 85, I would guess. They must have felt, as we did, that it was an august set of individuals, from all walks of life – a woman who had provided incredible hours of service to maintaining the Ukrainian community; a woman who against all odds and who, with multiple sclerosis, asking for no help, single-handedly brought up her family; to a priest whose influenced changed the lives of many wrong-side of the tracks kids, such that his nominator was now a high school teacher, and wept in the midst of his speech of introduction.
Dad was fifth to be presented, since it was done alphabetically. Dr. Searle spoke of his service as an RCAF pilot member, “who served with distinguished gallantry” in WWII, and who has maintained a 60-year association with Canada’s military, through the Canadian Legion, the World Wartime Officers and Pilots Association, and now as Honorary Colonel of the #415 Squadron, based on Greenwood, Nova Scotia. He mentioned Dad’s work in schools in Manitoba to answer K-12 kids’ questions about war. He referred to the lengthy and moving file Dad has of letters of thanks from these same kids, even before the increase in the public’s appreciation of the military following the tragic 9/11 events in New York. Dad had tears in his eyes.
When he returned to his seat at our table, he circulated the medal and the statement, signed by Adrienne Clarkson. The description from the Canadian government webpage says:
The Medal is awarded to Canadians who have made a significant contribution to their fellow citizens, their community or to Canada.
The medal carries a contemporary effigy of The Queen on the obverse. The reverse features the design of a stylised maple leaf with CANADA at the bottom and the years 1952 and 2002 on the left and right of the Royal Cypher and Crown. The Medal is worn suspended from a broad royal blue ribbon, with red outer stripes, double white stripes with a red central stripe. The medal carries a contemporary effigy of The Queen on the obverse. The reverse features the design of a stylised maple leaf with CANADA at the bottom and the years 1952 and 2002 on the left and right of the Royal Cypher and Crown. The Medal is worn suspended from a broad royal blue ribbon, with red outer stripes, double white stripes with a red central stripe.
The ceremony wound up near 4 PM, and many photographs were taken, both by the official photographer (who also took at least three shots of every recipient) and by family and friends. Finally a group photo was taken.
It was definitely an afternoon that helped us to feel proud to be Canadians, proud to be a part of the community of St. Vital-Saint Boniface, and proud to be part of John Enns’ family.
Poem at the BU Staff Christmas Luncheon
by Robin Enns
December 16, 2002
For the past twelve or fourteen months, out of a course I was teaching, I have been writing what are known as “Morning Pages”. For the past two weeks, partly out the strength that has come from writing the morning pages, and the warm connection I have made with God through doing so, I have been living a principled life.
I have had an unusually hard time writing what I want to say here this afternoon. So, I decided to read to you my morning pages from today.
I guess I may not, yet I feel somehow that I can, have enough faith to leave this poem in your hands, God – in front of so many people. After all, there is no hill to die on here…. Oh my. … I have just understood what that means: no hill to die on here.
through the ways
of my choice
to have no
As time passes
I wonder …
will I have
to come up
My own Golgotha
whether I can
that I will be given
and the voice
of my choice
to step out of
to walk with the Child
on the water beside me
now and here
from two thousand two years
Yes, God … some words – thank you for them. And I acknowledge my part of the faith, too. Please help me today to keep faith. Put your hand on my shoulder, as I step out of the boat; as I enlarge my coast. I know this is me and You. On Day 4 in a row, now, of living in faith.
An Angel on the Way Home
A Haven story by Robin Enns
You ask how I know when I have had a direct answer from the Divinity? I don’t see lightning strike … no. I don’t hear a celestial choir… no. Something much more ordinary happens – something that, even so, I couldn’t have planned for myself, if all my most comprehensive wishes were to come true. It recently happened this way ….
I tucked away my receipt from the taxi driver after he finished writing in the amount at the Gabriola Island ferry dock where Nanaimo sips at the sea edge. “Just walk over to that shack,” he said, “the ticket prices are on the sign.” I clambered out of the sagging 900,000-plus kilometered yellow cab, and walked around the back to the trunk, limbering up my right leg, stiff from sitting in the too-close front seat for the past twenty minutes. I was grateful when the driver hefted my blue brick of a suitcase over the trunk flange and thumped it down on the asphalt. I still winced at the fluorescent lime “Heavy/Lourd” tag attached to the handle by the ticket counter person at the Winnipeg airport eight hours before. I had actually decided I was going to travel light this trip. After all, I had done two weeks in Malawi, Africa in October, 2000, with a suitcase half the size. Yeah, right; so much for theory, I say to myself, ruefully. Thankful for the wheels on the bottom of the suitcase, I pulled it over to the shack wicket, paid my $5.00 round trip, carefully put it in my shirt pocket where I could find it easily when the all-aboard call came, and surveyed the scene before me.
Ahead was an asphalt apron about the size and length of a football field. Off to my left, white painted lines separated lanes of parked and empty vehicles, all waiting, I surmised, for the ferry. Though why they were empty, I didn’t know. There were probably ten vehicles per row and five or six rows. To my right were more white demarcations, road-wide, and further over yet, a pedestrian walkway, with someone on it – a pair of teenaged girls, each carrying shoulder bags having the same indistinct white shape or logo. They were heading toward what looked like a skating shack – you know, the kind where you change into your skates at a prairie hockey rink. There was a metal chimney rising from its back, a large picture window facing the waiting cars, and a doorway with both stairs and a serpentine ramp leading to it (and from it, depending whether you were coming or going). I headed in that direction, too, the wheels trundling heavily along behind me.
I wasn’t uncomfortable with the setting. It was plainly where my travel agent said I should be to get to my destination. There was a big clear sign with the red half maple leaf flag on it that indicated this was the Canadian ferry system, with the five-leafed clover white and green emblem of the BC ferries, too. My ticket did say Nanaimo Harbour to Gabriola Island “Foot Area” on it. And 19 October 2002, and 16:18. Maybe the 16:18 explained the little trickle of worry at the nape of my neck. I was supposed to have been at this spot four hours earlier. I like to be earlier than is required. It gives me “get-used-to-it” time. I can size up a place, feel the location, acclimatize … you know? Today, that wasn’t to be. Twice we had loaded up passengers and baggage in the big lush Vancouver International Airport, and twice we couldn’t land at Nanaimo because of fog. People went to great lengths to say how unusual this all was and that the summer had been great, weather-wise, and the cloud cover had only prevented a landing once in the past three or four months. Then I overheard clearings in the conversations of others as they said “not rated for instrument landings”, “four million dollars to equip the landing field properly” and “a bloody great hill in the way of the landing field”. The last time we flew out of Vancouver, getting rather blasé about the process, we diverted to the Victoria Airport and landed successfully. They put a bus on for us which drove 90 minutes to the Nanaimo Airport. Following that, for me, was the yellow taxi ride to the ferry, arriving four hours after I expected to be there.
I saw where the young ladies had entered the Foot Area-waiting-shack and followed them in, towing my heavy and unwieldy suitcase behind me, maneuvering it through the doorway, parking the big blue lump near me on the bench. I backed it in like I do my big blue truck at home, the better to have an easy departure when the time came. I did have a book in my pocket, The Shell Seekers, and I had been reading it across the country, but I couldn’t get back into it just then. So I turned around and read the bulletin board behind me. Cars for sale, various services, take this tear-off number with you, phone that number, a fall supper with tomorrow’s date.
Finally I sat there in my silence, vaguely aware of the teenagers talking in a group with two fellows who had come in separately, and who nonetheless knew each other and them. I remember being a little surprised at the respect that they evinced for one of the young men. He was telling them stories of being off-Island for a volleyball tournament where they got their butt kicked, when that shouldn’t have happened. They went in seeded number one and were beaten, and soundly, by the last seeded team.
I found that I was getting warm in the airless shack. Too warm, actually, so I stood up, unconsciously stretching to my 6’6” in height (which may have had something to do with the volleyball player’s height, too), felt my silvering temple hair a little more white than normal, grinned briefly in their direction, thinking of my 20 year-old daughter and her friends, levered open the door and made my way out and down the ramp. There I stood for a minute and looked out over the slate water harbour, seeing a long lean grey shadow curtseying over the water, and thinking that’s odd, there are ravens everywhere, I guess, with my mind flashing to a friend in Flin Flon who is constantly visited by ravens. They peer like big black brats into her kitchen window, they cavort like gymnasts in the air before her, they fly in an east-heading formation by her house every morning to celebrate the rising of the sun. And now one was reminding me of home, where my own water-going vessel, a 16-foot prospector-style canoe, named Ravenswing, rested under the tall pine in the backyard.
I heard a voice, not too far away, ask what is that bird? A reply, too, Gee, I don’t know. Doesn’t look familiar. I wasn’t moved to provide the information that it looked like a raven. I was in my silence, not quite present, kind of distant, out on the water with the bird. I could see a ferry in the distance, feel the wind in my feathers, the delight in the soft lift against my chest and the increasing pressure as I tilted them just a little and banked into a long sweet curve, up, up, and over, higher now than when I started, and then down to land gently on the pylon at the end of the pier. Just that tiny smile inside as I did this, thinking of Merlin teaching young Arthur how a bird feels.
I saw ahead of me, now, the Foot Area. Others, one or two, were standing in there. One, an aboriginal woman, probably from farther north than my Cree and Ojibwa friends live; she had a suitcase or two, and I remember her from the plane and the bus, too. I didn’t know then that I would soon participate in the gift-giving of her aboriginal name. I may have nodded to her in the Foot Area then; I may have not.
The other person looks like he fits in this setting. And like he could have fitted into this setting thirty years ago, too, with the flower children. He stood a lithe, relaxed six feet tall, with steel tight curls escaping from under a Ukrainian flat black pill-box hat. Red and yellow, turquoise and green cross-stitch merry-go-rounded his head, just a millimetre above the black edge, losing itself in his hair. At the time, I was only vaguely aware of this. At the time, I only glanced at him. I also took in the post-summer season white sneakers, the medium weight bomber-style jacket, the smudged turquoise over-the-shoulder school bag, a style I see often at my own place of work. Now, twenty-three days later, I see it as clearly as if I were back there, intently checking my vision.
I move forward a little and negotiate by the man, toward the edge of the Foot Area, the better to be out of the way should others want entry. I hear a voice say to me as I squeeze by, You look like you’ve been gone a long time. I glance in his direction, wondering who he is talking to, and see him looking genially in my direction. I look behind me and see nothing but the interested eye of the raven. I turn back to the speaker with a quizzical look in my eye. I am about to say something, when he continues. He gestures to my blue wheeled bulk of a suitcase and says, You look like you are coming home. This time, I say No, I’ve never been here before, I just got off the plane, the bus, the taxi. First time, I said. He smiled and went on, You look like you belong here. I shrugged politely and looked out to the waterside to see the raven cock his head at me, and idly wondered whose side he was on. (As I write this I feel my eyes welling and the bridge of my nose wetting with tears, supporting the conclusion, once again, that I reached when I first wrote of this event in my journal the day after my arrival at the Haven.) Feeling the shrug had been rude, I turned back to the man, and made conversation, asking, pointing at the open ramp, if this was the Gabriola Ferry landing. He nodded, and said he was glad to have made this one because the next one was two hours in the future. He said his class had finished early, and he could get home and work on his paper. I had just about run out of things to say, and was not much interested in school-talk right then. I had had enough of school-talk for several whiles; now I was going to be the student and was definitely not going to don an eager-beaver academic role. I was just about incommunicado and was quite deeply into my self. Even so, this was a God-given conversation-continuer. I really was on edge, in spite of trying to be cool. I was tired, too. My seat on the Winnipeg-Vancouver run had me so squished that I had to ask the Stewardess to switch me to an aisle seat. Happily the person on the aisle in the row ahead of me wanted to sit with a friend further back, and somehow a three way switch was made. I still can’t figure out how they made it work. I was grateful to the stewardess, and, in retrospect, wonder if I ought to have tipped her a $20 bill. Does one do that in Canada? I have lived here more than 50 years and all I remember in answer to that one is that my dad used to tip the snowplow drivers in our small community in Quebec not to push snow into the end of our driveway.
I digress. But this is my story, so what the heck, I will take a side-trip if it looks interesting (grin). So I asked him, what are you taking? He readily replied. He said something about a course in the history of marketing communications; an alternate that was acceptable to the college authorities as part of his BA in English. I asked him how far along he was in his studies; he replied that he had taken a few years away to kick around various places, before coming back to stay with his mom on Gabriola Island and at the same time to work on his Degree in contemporary Canadian poetry. With another little nudge from me, he said he was going to finish in the spring of ’03, and that he was a little worried about his next step. His overall average was between a B+ and an A-, and he wanted to go on for a Master’s, but no one on Vancouver Island would look at him without an A average. If he did well in this course, he could help that situation.
I remarked to myself the similarities. Thirty-five years ago, I had done a BA in English Literature, with a focus on poetry. I went on to do a Master’s in English, and first had to do a pair of make-up courses to get my B+ to A- average up to a point where a good university would look at me. This year, 2002, I had finally taken my courage in my hands, and had sent about 20 of my prairie poems to a small new electronic (web) magazine, and had experienced the joy of them publishing four of them (three in the first edition, and one in the third).
By this time, we were well into conversation, the ferry had docked, cars and trucks coming the other way had debarked, and we were all walking up the ramp, I behind the man. I asked him where we went; he said follow me. We walked along the area where the rows of driverless (now drivered, I had noticed, with a look over my shoulder) vehicles would soon be parked, cheek to jowl, for the trip with me. Then we veered to the right, up a sidewalk edge, over a lipped entry that reminded me of the HMCS Abegweit, and her all-season crossings of the Northumberland Strait between New Brunswick and PEI, before they built that 11 km bridge at Cape Tormentine. We walked about midway along the wooden marine-grey-painted seats, and sat across from each other. I maneuvered my suitcase out of the path of others as well as I could, and perched atop it my black Tilley carry-on, oddly like the raven on the post outside at the end of the dock. I could see, about seven or eight seats ahead of us, the pairs of teenagers from the shack, and wondered how they got there and settled in before us.
Our shift of position from landside to waterside, from outside to inside, from standing to sitting, led to a change in activity. Conversation ceased. He pulled a folded photocopy from his packsack, and got out a stickpen. From a pocket, he took a spring-loaded case, and thence a pair of grey semi-octagonal steel-rimmed glasses. These he settled on his nose, tucking the arms under his hat. He settled in for a read, underlining here and there.
I sat and listened to the deep hum of the motors, and tried quietly to sing a harmony to them. I was able to hit more than one, and was quite lost in that, while looking out at the water, when I was aware that he had stopped reading and was looking at me. With us sitting even-heighted, (my height is in my legs), I had my first look into his grey-blue irises, much like my own colour, adapting to the light reflecting from the sea. There was something about his eyes … that made me breathe deeply … and again …. Eyes have always been one of the most powerful ways I have of contacting a class. I seem to be able to see through a person’s eyes into her soul. There is something in a human being’s eyes, and in an animal’s eyes, too, now that I look into it, that enables me to make a special connection. He said My name is Raymond. I said, Robin. He replied, No, Raymond. I laughed, and filled in the missing part: My name is Robin. He replied that it was pretty close to Raymond. An easy relationship between our names. As he talked, our eyes connected, and I could see him seeing into me as I saw into him. I … just got further and further inside his time and space. It felt like smoothing along into a spiralling vortex; and not unpleasant. This was another highly personal relatedness, because my Ojibwa Indian name means spiral, or vortex of snow. I finally broke the contact, but not before I saw the pure gentleness come into his eyes just before I did, almost as if he knew that I was going to do that. In the pause of that space, he asked if I was being met on the other side. I said no, I hadn’t phoned ahead. They knew I was coming in today but not when. He said, with confident knowledge, that I would be met. After that I don’t recollect much. In a few minutes, the ferry’s engines dropped an octave and slowed, and we rumbled gently into the dock. Raymond gathered his paper, reading now finished, and I stood, stretched my stiff legs, arched my arms in a slow ballet, and we went on forward out of the cabin, down the narrow sidewalk past the cars now eager to get off. We climbed up the ramp and down again, and Raymond turned to me, pointing ahead of him. There, he said, see? The first vehicle in the pick-up zone, parked with its tailgate hiked up, was a black Aerostar van, and the side door said Haven by the Sea. The people behind me surged around me, and I was caught in the tide, moving over to the van. Last I saw of Raymond, with a wave to me over his shoulder, he was getting into a half-ton that had stopped beside him on the steep road up from the ferry area.
Following is what I wrote about this experience in my journal early the next morning when I was sitting by myself in the Haven dining room sipping a cup of boiling honey water.
Raymond – what a name for an angel. Close to Robin, he said – Ray. Ray of sunshine like I have seen amazingly spread in the Manitoba sunsets. Ray, like Rei + ki in the Reiki path I am on. His eyes – I could see all of time through them. Just right as a Greeter. Do you have them travelling back and forth on every ferry, Dear Divinity? As I wrote this then, and as I write this now, my eyes spring with tears. My answer, I think!
On To Part II