Puzzle pieces, being stuck and reading through the works of Richard Wagamese

If you’ve followed along on my very sporadic blogging adventures of late, you’ll know that the last two years have been filled with big changes in my life including a huge family move and a wonderful new job. In the midst of the move, I reached out to one of my professors, Vicki, because I had a small gift for her and wanted to ensure the gift was delivered before it was lost in the chaos of moving. It just so happened that we ended up having a long conversation over dinner as a result, and a new phase of learning for me began.

To add a bit of context, when I did my graduate coursework, one strand of research was Métis and Cree epistemologies. This continues to be a topic of deep interest and meaningful connection for me. I have come to wonder if my hunger to know about traditional indigenous ways is proportional to the knowledge lost or hidden away by my great-grandmother’s time at residential school. The phrase ‘blood will out’ comes to mind. While I still have a passion to learn about my other two thesis topics (art and how to use arts-based methods with my students and my reluctant fascination with technology and digital citizenship), my continued exploration into indigenous learning sits at a different level. It’s more personal. More meaningful. More conflicted. Certainly much more complicated.

I left dinner with a long list of things to do (mostly people to meet and books to read). I think of that list as a solid chunk of informal post-graduate coursework and trust that Vicki is leading me in a direction I need to go. One thing she recommended was that I read all books written by Richard Wagamese, in order, beginning with his first book, Keeper’n’ Me.

Ever the eager student, I quickly began reading through the books. Not surprisingly to me, knowing Vicki (one of the most quietly and humbly brilliant people you could ever meet), I loved Keeper’n’ Me and wondered how it was that I’d never read any of his books before. I’d read parts of Indian Horse with my older son when he was in Grade Ten English, and I had been lucky enough to see Richard Wagamese at a conference as he was the keynote, years ago. I knew of him, but reading Keeper’n’ Me felt like coming home. It had a sense of discovery and comfort at the same time and I absolutely loved the story. I quickly moved on to the next book I could find, A Quality of Light (very different from Keeper’n’ Me), and then For Joshua.

I’ve been careful to read the books slowly and thoughtfully. While they’ve all stayed with me, a few (Keeper’n’ Me, Dream Wheels and Ragged Company, so far) worked into my heart and soul. I feel that I carry those closely. They’ve become a part of me, clicking like puzzle pieces to the edges of the indigenous blood that finds itself mixed into the outer edges of the Irish, Scottish, Métis and Cree puzzle that is my identity.

I think one reason those particular books stay close is that they are stories. Richard Wagamese wrote stories, short stories and essays but it’s the stories that I prefer and that stay. Perhaps that’s because storytelling is a traditional way to pass along knowledge so that method resonates the most. It’s an ancient tradition and remains powerful largely because, I think, our brains evolved to learn in this way. Storytelling certainly resonates with my students, but that’s another topic for another day, and now that I think about it, the times that I remember Nanny, my great-grandmother, actually talking about her past, she told stories. She rarely spoke about her childhood or early adult life but when she did, it was framed as a story.

Today I had the luxury of a professional development ‘flex’ day and chose to spend it with One Story, One Song, the Wagamese book I’m currently reading. I’ve been ‘currently reading’ it for months now. I was stuck in the middle of it, an unfamiliar feeling for me as I prefer to avoid not finishing books. Unfinished books are unfinished business and things like that nag at my conscience. So, because of the flex day and the need to complete some self-directed pro-d today, I forced myself to re-engage with the book.

I realized awhile ago that the reason I was stuck was because of one of the essays in the book called The Path to Healing. In this essay, Wagamese speaks to being a victim of Canada’s residential school system. I’ve been stuck by this topic before during my MEd year with Vicki at SFU. Sometimes the distance of generations and time isn’t enough to cushion the hurt felt when thinking about residential schools.  As soon as I start reading or thinking about residential schools, my mind turns to my great-grandmother. I imagine how it must have been for Nanny, then nine, to leave her family and her home and never return. I imagine her mother, her father, her Cree grandmother, my family, grieving her absence. I think about the fact that if Nanny hadn’t kept her Cree blood a secret, that my grandmother and her sister, and then, if they’d still been born, my mother and her sister, would have been forced to attend residential school as well. It sounds strange, but it hurts, physically and emotionally when my mind goes to that place. So I avoid it, out of self-preservation, and, maybe, out of a need for extra time to process.

After dreading returning to the book, I was happy to find that I really enjoyed reading his words and experiencing his powerful but smooth writer’s voice once again. I love his writing for many reasons and will finish the book tonight. It will be good to move onto his next book and move past the point where I was stuck. I realize now, after reading today, and thinking, and writing this, that it’s because there is a piece of me, or a few of those puzzle pieces I mentioned earlier, that also connect, indirectly of course, through Nanny, to being a victim of Canada’s residential school system.

If you’ve read through, thank you. And if you find yourself stuck in life, maybe it’s because there’s a lesson to be learned and some insight to gain that can help with self-discovery, a tiny ‘aha’ moment, or a powerful bit of learning.


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