Is this how reconciliation happens?
It’s difficult to know how to present this. I have a wealth of past thoughts and a lot of typing accumulated over months —even years. I’ll just start and see what comes out. In chronological order, this is how these thoughts have come to be at the forefront of my mind.
This light came on in early spring of 2015, just after I’d begun a new job at a retail shop in Calgary. One of the terms I use to describe content of the store is gentlemanly badassery. We’re about self care, self respect, respect for others. Razors, straight razors, outdoor knives, axes. At one time this would’ve been strictly about ‘guy things’, but our wares are targeted to the cool in everyone, and to be one of the people touting the product made me feel relevant.
Prior to this I had never sold a thing to anyone in my life. Training for retail sales involves a lot of listening, watching and then emulating the manner and the approach of the people surrounding you. You end up delivering filtered and personalized versions of all the things you’ve heard about the goods you’re touting. I remember being at the axe wall one day when a first nations lady approached. I was talking to another client and mentioned the Hudson Bay axe – it’s a pretty standard axe with a standard head that’s been around forever, and named for its reputation gained at the beginning of the concept of Canada. I reiterated a statement I’d heard from a senior sales person that I thought sounded great, “This is the axe that built Canada. The Hudson Bay axe.’
I described its design – a simple rectangle of metal with a triangle pasted to he front as heel, toe and bit.
The woman asked me to repeat what I’d said.
I looked at her and at that moment I realized the implication of those words. I had no where to go. I said it again, ‘It’s the axe that built our Nation. These are beautiful, they’re made in Sweden…’
She’d already walked away.
I immediately felt her point. At that moment I became aware of the payload that comment held.
I even looked through the shop after I was done with that client. I wanted to say it, “That was wrong. I realize it. I won’t be saying that again.”
I watched the following unfold, wrote it, and I titled the piece “Wisemen.” I felt this was a kind of Christmas gift;
I have to get this down before it fades. There are two men who come into the shop periodically. I’ve dealt with them a few times – they are polite, soft spoken and deliberate in their browsing. They keep to themselves, are never harsh when approached, never sharp or dismissive. They are purposeful and self-assured. They are aboriginal I think – the younger of the two carries some of the dress – braids, some of his clothing, although I wish I could be more specific. Forty-ish, and he wears glasses – eyeglasses in aviator frames – a kind of countrified statement that sets him apart from the more contemporary fashion conscious types you normally see across the display cases.
The other – the elderly man is someone you can’t forget. He has very long brownish grey hair – mostly grey – you can tell it’s clean but it looks so stringy and unkempt that you expect different. I find myself examining his clothing, his hands and his face to match the façade with the expectation. His beard is long – it dangles to the center of his chest – from his chin and his sideburns – figuring a large M in construction – the rest is just missing, not trimmed or formed in any way. It’s so thin in spots and the whole of the thing is so sparse it feels like an afterthought and I would believe that except it takes a commitment to keep something like that clean. He wears a fur hat – ear-pads folded up at the sides and tied at the top.
His face is like an old pumpkin. It’s flat – wrinkled beyond belief – his eyes are set close together and deep brown – like the grooves in, or the inside of cottonwood bark – below the left one there is a concave spot where there is no bone to support the flesh – and in the center of that spot there is a hole.
It’s difficult to describe. It’s black – about the size of a pencil eraser – and you want to look at it. You want to try its depth. It’s disconcerting.
His hands remind me of a fairy-tale wizard – something you imagine from a children’s fable – and it occurs to me I’ve seen them before – the witch from the Disney Snow White I saw as a boy had the same hands – the same skin and the same long, clean fingernails – perfectly shaped, white almonds. I remember them holding an apple.
So – this man is standing in front of me, asking in well spoken, concise language about purchasing a safety razor for his son. I’m looking at him and again, like the last time I spoke to him months ago, I feel his awareness of the threads between us – the persons standing here, both experiencing, seeing – one through a face with a hole in it and one standing in front of that, aware and watching his own awareness.
To me it’s like a feedback loop – a fun-house mirror of propriety and challenge, and I can’t fathom what it is from inside of him.
He has a cold. He’s about three feet away – the distance we’re comfortable being from complete strangers – the bubble of personal safety, and out of the hole in his face there is leaking the stuff of colds.
I’m in my mind now – hands working mechanically mind aware of my voice, and the words are rehearsed – they flow easily and surely – rote – and I’m trying to gauge his pride – his self-awareness and his possible reaction to someone offering relief of any kind to the impending flow. There is much of it – it’s begun to pool, and it’s about to run downward.
He sniffs and I take the opportunity to reach behind me, grab the box of Kleenex we keep at the station for people who are trying creams, balms or beard oil and offer it. I said something like, “Damned colds, here – do you need one of these?” I can’t remember the words exactly.
He thanked me and I bent to the cabinet to get the item he picked out for his son. When I looked up his face wasn’t completely clean – the hole still showed evidence, but he’d made an attempt at something. Maybe just his nose – maybe the sinus had hauled the other back in as a result of vacuum. I don’t know.
The younger of the two is behind him now and he’s looking at me. I can’t tell from his expression whether he was witness to any of the few previous minutes, but I get this feeling that there is a soup of humanity here that I’m both a part of, and unwelcome in.
I go on with explanation and offer some blades for the razor, go through the rest of the motions of a sales-guy and then steer them away to the cash desk.
Neither of them ever smile, they always seem content, they always speak to me, they’re never impolite or harsh and they’re never demanding or curt. They’re like two ghosts – shades that exist, discuss and perhaps over tea document the meaning of the journey their adventures have taken them on today – sometime later when the sun is down and there is nothing left to do.
I was in the audience at a Wordfest event when the idea of reconciliation was discussed. The meeting began with a statement of gratitude for the Treaty Seven Nations, on whose land we were meeting —Calgary.
It was a group of seven or ten authors, a common thread was their connection to Indigenous writing, either through invented character, a setting, or their own history and experience. The discussion began with a moderator gently starting things off and people in turn began to describe their experiences —their thought process —with an elevated sense of propriety. Everyone was milling around in their ideas but the discussion wasn’t particularly enlightening. There was no ‘wow’ moment.
And then one of the authors offered his thoughts (I’ve quoted here, but it’s a remembrance);
‘The term reconciliation is being batted around and you hear it from politicians and clergy, and multiple other sources, but no one is attempting to define the end-game or the term itself. What is reconciliation? What does satisfaction look like? The idea of reconciliation can’t be defined by an offering from those at the source of the wrongdoing. It has to be an idea of completion in the mind of the aggrieved. That is the very nature of the word. You don’t ask a bully whether or not he is a bully. Reconciliation cannot be defined by colonials.’
I took that feeling forward, considered it and filed it. After a time, it came back in response to a post on Facebook. There was a display of art in one of the local museums in this city which was taken down after a request by an indigenous group. They claimed that the images were inaccurate and disrespectful. To me they were lovely paintings of elders – indigenous elders —and I could see no problem with that.
The outcry was profound. Immediately there was a thread of remarks defending the right of artists to render things as seen, or as interpreted. I distilled my experience at that lecture, and appended it to the Facebook post;
From my point of view the removal of these images doesn’t feel right. But, I’m learning that in order to honour different cultures – specifically to allow reconciliation on terms that are meaningful, I’m going to have to give those cultures leeway to dictate what is and is not appropriate for them. For a period of time this may feel inequitable. And for it to spill onto what I see as beautiful art is particularly painful. But nevertheless that quarter is what’s required for the outcome to be truly just. I find it sad that it comes to this, I see a place for discussion and objective thinking, and I also think that without it, this is going to be a hard road.
Hard doesn’t scare me. Misunderstanding scares me.
Radio silence. There wasn’t a single retort. Not a peep. Normally you would expect a lot of trolling, disrespect and crazies jumping on board to fire up controversy. I don’t know why that didn’t happen, and I have thought that through as well. It was a thread compiled by art lovers and artists. Perhaps that demographic represents people capable of seeing things from multiple points of view. That’s all I could come up with.
Destin used to work at our sister store. An incredibly smart, energetic, young, first nations man. He would leave occasionally —to take care of his grandparents who lived on Rez, whenever they needed help. I admired that commitment to family. His friendship is something that brushed against me, and while I respected him greatly and always enjoyed his company, I sometimes found myself nervous. I questioned my motives, I watched myself too much. I once used the term ‘crown land’ with him and I’ve since discovered that ‘unceded’ is a more appropriate term. He didn’t mention it, he would never make a person feel uncomfortable for that. But I know he heard it.
I felt real respect for this mans drive, intelligence and his gentle demeanor. I should have asked him more questions.
I recently watched an anthropological presentation on Netflix concerning human migration. I was moved by it and I wrote this (and be aware – this is purely my interpretation of the presented facts);
I don’t know what this means but the notion that the Clovis people are thought to have migrated across the Bering Straight before the end of the last ice age —ancestors to North America’s first peoples, and the fact that Norse settlers eventually found their way across the North Atlantic in the 10th century CE—to eventually (and serendipitously) meet themselves in the middle gives me joy. It’s a DNA string separated perfectly from itself, traveling in two directions —one end becoming industrial, and the other existing in harmony with its surroundings —accepting Mother Earth as the arbiter of belief instead of technology. We’re the same people. We see life from different points of view, but I don’t think they have to be opposing.
I don’t know what reconciliation looks like, but as time goes by I’m thinking more about possibilities —situations, end-games and the distance between people who are engaged in determining those. I don’t mull over the end-game itself, not ‘who deserves what and where that might lead’, but instead ‘who are these (we) people and are they (we) doing enough thinking?’
I believe you can tell how much consideration has gone into something by the number of paths taken. Depth on a single route, or intensity of emotion doesn’t guarantee accuracy (although it’s often cited as being sufficient in scope or worse as a benchmark). But scope implies breadth, and breadth is a product of investigating things that at the outset seem unlikely, uncertain, uncomfortable, or even impossible.
It’s almost as if I’m being shown something.
I want to have another conversation with that woman at the axe wall.
I want to ask Destin some more questions.
What’s next for me?
That question seems to be my place.