“Henry Rackmeyer, you tell us what is important.” “A shaft of sunlight at the end of a dark afternoon, a note of music, and the way the back of a baby’s neck smells if its mother keeps it tidy,” answered Henry. “Correct,” said Stuart.
-Stuart Little, by E.B. White
In the off chance you have not read Stuart Little recently, let me put the above excerpt in context: Stuart is a mouse, born into a human family. His family adores him as they would any new child, and though he never grows taller than 2.5 inches he is accepted and admired wherever he goes (except by the family cat). After Stuart leaves home to search of his bird-friend Margalo, he comes across a dejected looking man sitting on the curb of a sidewalk. The man tells Stuart he is a school principal, but one of his school’s teachers is sick and there is no one to replace her. Stuart, being the hero he is, steps in and saves the day.
In the classroom, Stuart asks zips through the day’s regular lessons. Spelling? Use a dictionary. Arithmetic? Who needs it. Social Studies? Never heard of it.
He does what any good teacher would do, and asks the students what they want to talk about. He nudges the conversation, of course… which leads to the question:
WHAT IS IMPORTANT?
It is an utterly beautiful bit of storytelling, and as I read it I thought how much better the world would be if every kid got Stuart Little for a teacher.
Then, last week, I participated in a workshop called The Art of Hosting. For three days, the 50 of us involved stepped forward to hold the conversations that were burning inside of us. Some of us spoke in specifics, but I tended to gravitate towards the all-encompassing conversations. The best I can do to label them is something to the effect of, “conversations about healing the world’s deepening crevasse of pain and separation so that we humans can start working together to fix this mess we’re in.”
Of course, it is very easy to get lost in a topic like this, but we learned that getting lost is actually the point. It’s in wading patiently and open-heartedly through the stories that we shift perspective, shift direction and shift the problems we are trying to “solve.” Questions are critical, answers are multiple, and outcomes are unforeseeable.
What is important?
The question just kept coming to me.
I feel like it’s pretty good question to put forward when we find ourselves stuck in a state of conflict.
I feel like it is a question that can lead us, eventually, to common ground.
We all want to have food on the table, but really… don’t we also want food that has a smell and taste to fill our hearts?
We all want a roof over our heads, but don’t we also really want a place that feels like home, that feels comfortable and maybe even inspires us just a little?
We all want to feel safe and secure, but so much more than that, right? Loved. Connected. Valued.
And really, what kind of person would not agree to the importance of the smell of a baby’s neck?
Curiosity, beauty, love… I’m sure we’ll find them if we take the time and the risk of diving into the messy stuff of life.
Maybe, like E.B. White (author of Stuart Little), we’ll even come out of it with a good story. After writing Charlotte’s Web he apparently said, “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.”
If we move forward with intention like that, I don’t think we can go wrong.
“Come on, get your rain pants on, we’re going to go see the Prime Minister!”
It was a rainy Thursday and the kids had barely had a moment to wind down after school and daycare, but we had a ferry to catch and a protest to attend.
“I hate rain pants!” Declared my six-year old. He’s a determined warrior against weather-appropriate clothing.
“Me too!” Echoed his little sister, adding, “You’re a poopy!”
Neither particularly cared about the Prime Minister. Climate change, and the importance of stopping it didn’t peak much interest either.
I managed to get some fried egg into them, and packed a cloth grocery bag with hats, mitts and rain gear. I might have bribed the kids with another pick from their halloween loot, but I did manage to get them strapped into their car seats and and across Howe Sound.
We arrived at the entrance to Gleneagles Golf Course to find forty or so people standing silently and holding large and banners that said things like, “BC LNG is One Big Lie,” or “Trudeau Pull Your Socks Up on Climate Change.” Police officers milled about, politely ensuring that everyone knew the rules of engagement. Part of me thought, “Hey, maybe this is what democracy looks like?” Another part of me thought the scene was so polite and demure, that it was actually a little awkward.
Then the kids settled into the scene. They started twirling their umbrellas, jousting and laughing. Someone started playing a drum. My daughter happily seized a pot and a spatula from my hand and started banging away. This was starting to feel like a proper protest.
Talk among us banner holders turned to Trudeau and his expected cavalcade of black SUVs.
Did we have an ETA for him? Would he come from the highway, or would he drive past all the coastal mansions? It was possible, someone said, that, he’d arrive through a back entrance.
Maybe, he’d want to stop and hang out, maybe even seek out a few high-fives?
He’d had a good week, after all. The roll-out of the national carbon tax might have stopped instantly the moment the governments of Saskatchewan and Ontario announced they would not play along, but Trudeau skilfully wooed the citizens of both provinces. After announcing that people in those provinces would get rebates, support for the tax climbed by eighteen points in Saskatchewan and to 54% across the country.
Personally, I will take news of a successful climate change fighting initiative when I can get one. I need this news, in an emotional sense. That said, I want to see even braver leadership and bolder initiatives. To me, the plan to spend $4.5 billion in tax dollars on a pipeline to facilitate the flow of fossil fuel is both gutting and absurd.
The world’s top scientists have told us we’re headed for catastrophic global temperature rises within twelve years, and if we are going to stop it we need to cut emissions by 50% within that time frame. Yet we’re all stuck in the hamster wheel of business as usual. It’s like being told you have a treatable but deadly form of cancer, and then being shuffled around to different appointments where the doctors offer little more than a pat on the back and gentle reassurance.
What does leadership look like in this scenario?
I see it in 15 year-old Greta Thurnberg. Instead of going to school this September she decided to sit on the steps of the Swedish Parliament and demand climate action for three weeks. She did go back to class after that, but kept taking Fridays off to make sure the politicians didn’t forget about her. Apparently Greta’s parents were rather annoyed with her, but they have clearly followed her lead somewhat: her mother gave up her international career and stopped flying, the family bought an electric car but barely use it as they all prefer to travel by bicycle.
Recently, Thurnberg spoke to a crowd of 10,000 who had gathered in Helsinki, Finland, to demand that politicians commit to zero emissions by 2035.
Now, I’m glad that Trudeau managed to swing a majority of Canadians in favour of a carbon tax, but I’m not sure the way he did it sets us up very well for making the changes we’ll need to make to stop, or even slow climate change.
So when I sat down to think about why I would bother dragging my kids out to a protest, this is what I came up with: I want our Prime Minister, and all our leaders to know that I am willing to give up my time, my comfort, and my energy to clean up the mess we’ve made. I’m also volunteering my kids to be a part of that effort. I’d like our leaders to deliver the corresponding policy changes to make effective change. The future that scientists have been talking about since before I was born (and before Justin Trudeau was born) is here. There is no time to waste. As a country, as a species, we need to quit our addiction to fossil fuels.
We never did get a glimpse of Trudeau. I’m told he arrived at the golf course at 8:50, one hour exactly after our departure. Sure, we felt a little disappointed, wet, hungry and tired, but we actually had a pretty great time. We sang, we banged on pots and flossed our hearts out.
And on the way home, I heard tiny voices chanting from the back seat:
If there was any excitement at the birth of a new calf to the dwindling population of Southern Resident Orcas on July 24th, it was short-lived. The baby died just half an hour after birth, and its mother, known as Tahlequah, made sure the world knew it.If somehow you missed it, Tahlequah carried that baby for 17 days.
The general consensus is that the mama whale was sending us a message and plenty of writers and researchers have made speculations about the contents of that message.
I’ve been wondering what it was that hit us so hard about Tahlequah’s “grief tour.”
Is it the fact that we cannot un-see that limp and yellowing corpse, the baby whose life we should be celebrating?
Maybe it’s not just the grief, but the injustice that gets us. Yes, babies die, but Tahlequah’s shouldn’t have and we know it. What we felt watching Tahlequah carry her child around was the same devastation we felt seeing images of a child’s body washed ashore because his parents tried to take him to a safer place. It was the same gut-sick feeling we held for the children taken from their parents by immigration officials at the US-Mexican border earlier this summer. It’s the same horror we feel when we hear about a teenager in our own city dying of “professional indifference.”
The more I learn about these whales, though, the more convinced I am that our grief is even deeper than this. We are bearing witness to the death of birth*, to extinction.
In an interview by Mark Leiren-Young in his orca-focused podcast, Skaana, researcher Ken Balcomb laid out the hard truth about this population:
There have been dead babies in the past and there will be dead babies in the future, and the problem is, there will be no successful reproduction if we don’t have a viable ecosystem for them to live in. That’s the problem.
Just look at the past few years in the life of these whales, and you’d be inclined to think Balcomb is on to something.
In 2014, an eighteen year-old named Rhapsody was found dead near Comox, an autopsy revealed she was pregnant.
In February, 2016, a whale named Nigel disappeared, researchers say his ribs were showing on the last day they saw him.
Throughout that summer, researchers followed 23 year-old named Polaris and her young son, Dipper. The pair appeared to be starving, and in October of that year, they disappeared.
Researchers announced the loss of Granny, believed by some to be more than 100 years old, shortly thereafter.
In the past month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been trying to help three year-old Scarlet, who is also starving, but these efforts have ground to a halt now that she’s in Canadian waters.
In an article about the current situation, and his struggle to get answers from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Leiren-Young writes:
Governor Jay Inslee could order the breaching of the Lower Snake River dams assisting in the recovery of salmon populations and cut Washington State’s tanker traffic. Premier John Horgan could let the licenses for 20 open-net salmon farms expire, and he could encourage the federal government to cut the allowable catch for the commercial chinook fishery by more than 25%. Prime Minister Trudeau could come up with a better way to spend $4.5 billion in taxpayer dollars than to twin the Trans Mountain pipeline (especially now that the Canadian courts have rejected the legitimacy of the project’s approval).
If these things happened and the Southern Residents made a miraculous comeback, we could celebrate these leaders as heroes.
If their action are weak and ineffective, can we hold them responsible for the subsequent deaths?
I’ve left voicemail messages urging these leaders to act, and intend to follow up in writing (I’m better in writing). Honestly, my efforts feel scant and futile. The chances are low, I figure, that our leaders will take more than half-measures. A determined policy shift aimed at protecting our Southern Resident friends and rejuvenating the ecosystem they live in would probably be pretty disruptive to the status quo, and let’s face it, the status quo is quite comfy for most of us.
If every last Southern Resident disappears into the deep abyss of the ocean, we will mourn their passing and carry heavy hearts on our sleeves, but I doubt we will change much. As J.M. Cotzee writes in his novel Waiting for the Barbarians: The jackal rips out the hare’s bowels, but the world rolls on.
I finished Cotzee’s book last week. Although it was written in 1980, I felt like it was incredibly timely. It’s about empire and oppression, but it’s also about seeing the future and making a half-baked attempt to change its course. The unnamed protagonist is an aging, lecherous man who holds (at the beginning at least) a position of relative power. The protagonist makes muffled protests against the injustice he sees around him, but ultimately, he is a party to the crimes of his empire.
The same could be said for most of us, myself included.
If our leaders take half-measures and turn our whale friends from living, breathing, sentient gems into artifacts for natural history museums, they are guilty. If the rest of us fail to speak up with the required force, we’re guilty too.
The good news is, we’re not at the end of the story yet. We still have Tahlequah and her fellow chinook-eating orca swimming the ocean. We still have the chance to listen when they send us a message. As far as I know, there’s no single solution to bringing this population back to health, but hope for these whales lies in a genuine commitment to saving them. A commitment to saving is also a commitment to saving their ecosystem and our own. If there was ever a challenge worth stepping up for, here it is.
We might not succeed, but also, we might, and when we do there will be babies to celebrate.
“The Death of Birth” is a chapter in Paul Hawken’s book, “The Ecology of Commerce,” but I think that EO Wilson is the one who coined the phrase.
Feel like making some calls or writing some letters?
Premier John Horgan:
Telephone:(250) 387-1715 (Legislature number)
Prime Minster Justin Trudeau
Telephone: 613 992-4211
Canadian Minister of Oceans, Fisheries and Coast Guard 604.775.6333
102 W 3 Street
North Vancouver, British Columbia
Governor Jay Inslee
Telephone: 360-902-4111 | Fax: 360-753-4110
“As I see it,” she told us, “We’re not at the reconciliation phase yet, we’re still soaking in the truth, and also, I think it’s our job as settlers to know our place.”
Lee Maracle doesn’t much like the word “reconciliation” either, at least not the way it’s being thrown around lately. Maracle is the author of My Conversations with Canadians,the book that kicked off my participation in the Knowing Our Place Book Club. Her response to the question, What is reconciliation to you? Goes like this:
Well stop killing us, that would be a good place to begin… then maybe stop plundering our resources, end colonial domination–return our lands, and then we can have a talk about being friends.
I can imagine this woman, this voice in my head for the past 137 pages standing up on stage and taking a breath before offering up the answer. Her answer is so straightforward it is awkward-making, and there is an edge of humour in it too. Yet I can see this response being received like an exploding bomb, as an imagined attack on a well-meaning, wide-eyed innocent.
This passage mirrors the tone of Maracle’s book, and several book club members seemed put-off by it, stating their sense that she was being “divisive.”
Of course I noticed Maracle’s bite, but was too eager to keep reading to let it bother me. By the end of the book, I wanted to become friends with Maracle. I say this, though, realizing that if it ever happened she would probably mock me relentlessly, on good days. On bad days, she’d tear me into tiny shreds for my ignorance. I would like to envision myself persevering in this relationship, but truthfully I am pretty fragile. How far would I really get?
I’m not sure I would have felt this way a few years ago but I’m also not entirely sure what’s changed for me. As I contemplate this, my friend Chris Corrigan walks into the coffee shop where I sit with my computer. Chris spends his days thinking and talking about this kind of thing, so we dive into the topic.
“It’s the job of settlers to feel unsettled,” he says. “Being unsettled, if you can admit to that, it makes you vulnerable. It is through that vulnerability that you can start to build relationship with the people that you’ve unsettled.”
Chris describes Maracle’s anger as “authentic rage.” He says he’s felt the blunt force of that kind of rage more than a few times, and then brings up a moment last summer when a CBC reporter named Julie Van Dusen got hammered with it during a press conference on missing and murdered Indigenous women.
The reporter asked the group of women on stage whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had a better track record on Indigenous affairs than Stephen Harper. Jocelyn Wabano-Iahtail, from Attawapiskat First Nation, quickly informed Van Dusen that the question itself was inappropriate, and disrespectful. After several re-iterations of the question (despite pleas from the press conference hosts to “just stop”) one of Van Dusen’s male colleagues stepped in to defend her, repeating the question, escalating the conflict. Here’s how Wabano-lahtail wrapped things up:
Chris describes the escalation, the defence made by the male reporter, as pure patriarchy. This may be so, but my first instinct is to side with Van Dusen. It’s easy for me to see the world through her eyes. I’ve been a reporter and made plenty of mistakes that I’ve been called out on, it feels terrible. The idea of being called out so harshly, so publicly, well it’s my nightmare.
Standing at my safe distance, I toy with perspective and suddenly Wabano-Iahtail’s rage makes sense to me. The women standing up at the press conference that day were brought to the stage by a nightmare more real, and a thousand times more devastating than my own: their sisters and mothers and daughters have been going missing and turning up dead for decades. The women who organized the press conference did so because they had something to say and needed to be heard, not because they wanted to play politics. Were the reporters gathered around them that day actually listening? If they were, they were too focused on their own agenda, too entrenched in their own perspective, to consider the problematic nature of the question they insisted be answered.
I doubt Lee Maracle was surprised to hear about this conversation gone awry. Her book, after all, is an attempt to push her own conversations with Canadians forward to a place of improved understanding. She could’ve spared us her rage and allowed us a more comfortable read, but that would have denied us her truths. Her rage explained is a gift, and if that makes us uncomfortable, maybe we need to face, explore and even explain our own feelings.
Maracle’s anger and sometimes harsh retorts may leave some feeling hopeless, but I find hope in the fact that this book was written at all. While Maracle may have rejected “reconciliation” outright, she clearly has not abandoned the idea of progress, of healing and the potential for human connection. How could she? There’s too much at stake for indigenous people in this country. She sees the pathway to that strengthened humanity in art, and by delving in and sharing, we all stand to benefit – and our conversations do, too.
Listening to CBC Radio the other day, I heard this piece of advice from a writer being interviewed: the only way to move forward creatively, is to allow yourself to be judged.
Ding, ding! That statement spoke my truth and my struggle.
So, here I am writing this first blog post feeling EXPOSED, feeling VULNERABLE, feeling like instead of writing I should really put some more damned clothes on (you know, like hide the feeling with a cloak of silliness).
Journalism has served as a handy cloak for me over the years. For me, at least, it is way easier to tell someone else’s story than it is to tell my own. It’s easier for me to be the platform than the person standing on it.
As the editor of a newspaper, I owed my readers some vulnerability, a sliver of it at least. Without all the people willing to put their stories out there through me, there would’ve been no paper. Also… people willing to actually step up and write their truths in print made the paper infinitely better. I appreciated these rare occasions, in stark contrast with endless rants and raves on social media.
I spent a lot of time wondering about the difference between the two platforms: what made the newspaper seem so weighty and terrifying to people who would happily rant indiscriminately on Facebook? I decided that this particular form of terror is actually a good thing, and that I want to work with people to get through the terror so they can start to write what’s important to them, but to do so in a way that they would actually WANT to see those words published.
So, that’s where I’m headed.
And for now I’ll be here: filtered, but still exposed.