Topic: Richard Wagamese

One Native Life: Lemon Pie & Finding Ali

There are nights that stay with you forever. There are nights that come to you all uncontrolled and wild, bearing images that stamp themselves upon your consciousness, unrelenting and immune to the fading of years. You re-enter those nights like stepping into known rooms, the country of their being a territory, a landscape your skin remembers.

February 25th, 1964. It was deep winter in northern Ontario and the nights descended like judgments, all dark and deliberate, final almost. I shared a room with my foster brother, Bill Tacknyk, and my bed was the lower of the two bunks. When bedtime came I always fell asleep to the sound of his radio playing softly in the darkness.

That night he was listening to a boxing match. Cassius Clay was fighting Sonny Liston in a place called Miami. You could hear the crowd behind the announcer’s voice. It was like a sea, roaring then murmuring then crashing into silence. The announcer was excited and his words came out of the darkness like the jabs and combinations of the fight itself.

Clay was lightning quick and he pounded the lumbering Liston. He opened a cut over his eye and there was blood everywhere. The crowd noise was enormous and it filled the corners of that dark room and when Bill’s legs draped over the edge of the bunk, I sat up too. We were galvanized by the details of that fight.

I swear I could smell the sweat of it. As the fight progressed I could feel the thud of blows landing and in my mind’s eye I could see the younger, faster Clay wheeling around the ring taunting Liston, hitting him at will. I began to cheer for him. He was blinded by something for awhile and Liston began to win.

But he recovered and as I huddled in my bunk, arms clenched around my knees rocking, I clenched my fists and willed him on. In the end when a battered Liston refused to come out and fight again the crowd cheered and booed and raged and Bill and I celebrated the new heavyweight champion of the world. My foster mother had to come in and tell us to get to sleep.

Well, Clay changed his name about the same time I did and in my new home I got to see some of his fights on television. He was beautiful. He was outrageous. He was a warrior poet and when he crashed over refusal to fight in Viet Nam I hurt for him. In my mind he was a giant and the idea of Muhammad Ali never changed.

But my life changed. My adopted home was a fiasco from day one. No one told my new family about the history of abuse I came from. No one told them about the terror I’d faced as a kid and the horrific physical abuse I’d suffered. No one knew then that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder wasn’t just a soldier’s pain – that it could happen to a kid too.

When I was strapped and beaten it only exacerbated the trauma in me. When I was banished to my room it only embedded the isolation I felt. When I reacted out of all that fear and trauma and found it difficult to fit it and become the kid they wanted me to be there were always clashes. Physical punishment was the rule in that home and because of where I came from it was the last thing I needed.

But they never knew that. My life there was a constant bombardment of old pain, unrecognized, untreated and unhealed. I ran away a few times and when I was fifteen I emptied my bank account of paper route money and found my way to Miami Beach. It was February and I wanted to be somewhere warm. More than anything I just wanted to be away.

I lived with a pair of old hippies and got a job at a cafeteria as a bus boy. We smoked weed and hung out on the beach hitting up tourists and swiping drinks from tables. But when I couldn’t produce a social security number the cafeteria let me go and I wandered Miami Beach all lost and hurt and hopeless.

One day I found myself at a lunch counter on Fifth Street and Washington Avenue. I was lonely and I wanted to cry. But they served lemon meringue pie at that lunch counter and I ordered a piece in hopes that a childhood favorite might make me feel better. It was marvelous. A man came and sat beside me and I bent my head out of shyness.

Well, he ordered apiece of pie like mine and the waitress asked him if he was allowed to have it. He laughed and said he could eat whatever he wanted. He was the Champ, after all. I looked up and saw Muhammad Ali beside me. His training gym was right above that lunch counter and he came in often.

He bought me a piece of pie when he ordered another and a chocolate shake. We ate together and he smiled at me and rubbed my head like a brother. When he was leaving I asked him for an autograph and he signed my napkin. Muhammad Ali. A giant. A warrior poet. I felt honored. Watching him walk away I felt healed, like I could bear up and when the police found me eventually and shipped me back to my adopted home I held onto the sight of him.

I was gone for good a short time later and my life became a road. These days, thirty six years later, I still remember the feel of his big hand on my head and the taste of that lemon pie. Finding Ali saved me, allowed me the strength to carry on and I guess that’s what heroes do – imbue us with the gold dust of their courage.

Ali made me a fighter and I’ve come out for every round since then. Battered, bruised some, nearly beat, I’ve always stood up – it’s the meringue on the pie of my life.

Dream Woman

I never imagined myself being fifty six. I turned that age recently and frankly, it amazes me. Back a handful of decades I couldn’t see myself being thirty or heaven forbid, a crusty old dinosaur of forty. But here I am. I can get a senior’s discount in some places now and lawn bowling is starting to look really appealing. There’s a touch of arthritis in one of my fingers, I don’t run as fast as I used to and the term, old-timer’s league, has a romantic resonance and alluring cachet.

I’m at a point in my life now where there’s likely more years behind me than in front of me. I’m okay with that because it’s been a thrilling journey up to this point and I’ve managed to learn a few things along the way to being me. I don’t know if I would necessarily say that I’m wiser but I do confess to being less susceptible to being fooled – by others or more often by myself.

The trick of getting older is being able and willing to take the time to look back and see the trail. For me it’s how I learn to appreciate the gifts that come my way and how the hand of Creator looks taking care of my life. It’s valuable. I’ve made a lot of plans through my life and I’m more than glad that most of them didn’t come to fruition. They say that life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans and that’s startlingly true in my case.

Like the other day I was thinking about how my mind has changed over the years. I swore up and down that I was a dyed-in-the-wool bachelor. I believed that I couldn’t possibly find someone who would ‘get’ me or the things that mattered to me most. But I’m married now and living a darn good life. But there were times that I thought that I would never meet the one person who could make it all worthwhile.

That woman would be spectacular. Not only would she be sensitive to my needs but attuned to my dreams. I called her Dream Woman. She was going to be the one who finally ‘get’ me, the one who understood implicitly the things that moved me, motivated me, thrilled me and made me the man that I was. She would be the ultimate partner because she cared about everything important to me.

Dream Woman would care, for instance, that the starting infield for the 1965 Boston Red Sox – the year I became a fan – was Lee Thomas, Felix Mantilla, Rico Petrocelli and Frank Malzone. That would matter to Dream Woman because well, she was Dream Woman. I love baseball and I love the Red Sox and to me, Fenway Park (where I’ve never been) is the green cathedral of hope. She would know all that and be there with a crying towel when they lost and a hug, a kiss and a cheer when they won. Dream Women do that sort of thing.

She would also care deeply that the bass player for the 60s rock group Moby Grape was a guy named Bob Mosely or that the origin of the banjo was the Gambra River in Africa, made from a hollowed-out gourd and gut strings. Recorded music is one of my passions and Dream Woman would know that the Hanks – Williams, Mobley and Ballard – are part of the ongoing rhythm section of my life. Oh, and she would also know that Hawkshaw Hawkins wasn’t a character from the L’il Abner comic strip.

Dream Woman would care immensely that the thirteen primary poles in a tipi stand for a principle meant to guide the lives of the family that lived there. She’d care that the ribs of a sweat lodge represent the same things to guide our prayers and petitions.

I always thought Dream Woman would be like that. She would be the female version of me, and the perfect partner because of it. She’d glean the spiritual connection between a knuckle curveball and an honor song and know that Kraft Dinner with a can of tuna thrown in is the bachelor’s casserole. That’s what the younger version of me thought was vital.

Well, nowadays I look at my wife, busy with the things that drive and motivate her, watch as she becomes, every day, a more fully fleshed vision of who she wants to be and I can’t help but be thankful for her. Her full life fills out mine. Her joy over the things she appreciates and adores have become important to me.

I see now that my Dream Woman doesn’t necessarily need to care about things like baseball, music, books and the nature of First Nations politics and spirituality. It only matters that she cares that I do. Ain’t aging grand?

One Native Life: Riding With the Cartwrights

I’ve discovered, in my life as a tribal person, that rituals ground you. They don’t need to be elaborate in their solemnity or deeply devotional in their application to affect you that way. No, rituals, no matter how slight or insignificant, have the power to let you feel the ground on which you stand, connect you to the people you share your home and planet with, allow you the freedom to breathe.

Little rituals today keep me rooted. Walking the dog in the early morning by the lake, washing dishes right after supper, getting the morning coffee ready the night before or making the lunch my partner will eat at work that day. All of them plant me squarely in my life just like the more traditional rituals of prayer, smudging or sweat lodges.

Like everyone I learned about those little rituals early. When I was six or seven Sunday nights were a ritual. It was the mid 60s and if times were a little slower then, it made everything all that much more perfect.

I was living in my second foster home and those Sunday evenings were the first thing in my life that gave me a sense of family, of togetherness, of sharing. Everyone gathered in the living room. The lights were turned low and the telephone, if it rang, was never answered. I still recall the excitement as the old Philips TV in the corner sprang to life.

It began with The Thunderbirds. They were animated puppets riding in Super Car, a magical machine that could dive under water and fly through the air at jet speed. We watched it together every week. Then, as the credits rolled, we arranged the TV trays that dinner was served on. We did it quickly because the big show was next.

It was Walt Disney. Every week it seemed like Disney offered up amazing journeys like Spin & Marty, Flubber, Sammy the Way Out Seal and the usual gang of Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy. It was charming television. There was an ease to the storytelling that’s lost these days and everyone regardless of age could sink themselves into it and disappear for an hour.

Then it was the Ed Sullivan Show. The dishes were cleared for washing up later and we sat and watched the entertainers presented each week. There were still vaudeville performers around then, tap dancers, magicians, ventriloquists and singers. They were show people, raised on the old boards and taught to work a crowd, offer up the spirit of their art humbly and generously and it was captivating. I saw the Beatles in 1964, Elvis, Liberace, Ethel Merman, Sherry Lewis and Lamb Chop and the great Edgar Bergen.

But it was after that weekly spectacle that the night truly became magical.

At nine o’clock Bonanza came on. It was the highlight of the week for everyone. We rode the west with Ben and Hoss, Little Joe and Adam. We rode the length and breadth of the Ponderosa each week, could almost smell those pines, feel the sway of horses beneath us and the Cartwrights gave us adventure and romance and the feeling of family. We never missed it.

Rding with the Cartwrights was absolutely engaging. We all had our favorites. Mine was Little Joe and his beautiful paint horse. And we all had our favorite episodes that we talked about and argued over. Mine was a hilarious episode called Hoss and the Leprechauns. But every week we were lifted out of our chairs and our lives and taken away on sweeping journeys we shared together.

Then, later, alone in my bed, I would go back over all that I’d seen. Drifting off to sleep, filled with images of hope and warmth, community and adventure, generosity of spirit and storytelling, I couldn’t wait for the replay of that ritual in seven days time. Those few hours in front of the television, huddled together in the living room were a ritual that framed my early childhood, made me forget that I was a foster kid, a displaced person, filled with hurts I hadn’t found the words for yet.

I left that foster home when I was nine, went to a different family in a different place who didn’t have rituals like that. Television was restricted to a few hours a week and meals were never eaten away from the table. I was nine and introduced to the rituals of discipline, responsibility, punishment, studiousness and a hard Presbyterian ethic. There were no magic times. I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if there’d been a time of gathering like those special Sunday nights.

Television has changed now. It’s like the charm has gone. There was an innocence and a humility to TV then that’s missing now. There are no Ed Sullivans, no grand production numbers of dance and orchestra, no vocal chorales or ebullient entertainers who learned their chops and riffs in small vaudeville theaters, no real spellbinders, no Red Skeltons, Maurice Chevaliers, Carmen McRaes or Cyd Charisse – and there’s no one like the Cartwrights.

But what’s missing the most is the living room, a gathering place. We’d be such stronger homes and communities if we could find a way to recreate that – a place where magic is shared whether it’s a TV, a radio, a guitar, a book or a favorite story retold for the thousandth time.

When you come together in a ritual way like that, gather together for the sublime purpose of simply being together and sharing a common magic, the strength of that ritual binds you, shapes you, maybe even saves you one day. I learned that as a foster home kid and these days, as a grown native man of 52, it’s the rituals of coming together that hold the charm and the power for me.

We’re tribal people, the whole magnificent lot of us and we shine best in our togetherness.

Rain

Richard Wagamese (born 1955, near Minaki, Ontario) is an award winning author and journalist from the Ojibway Wabasseemoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario, Canada
rain

There’s thunder rolling in from the southwest. Against the hump of mountain it echoes and rolls across the lake accompanied by a chill, wet-smelling breeze. The aspen leaves tumble on their stems. There is a sough of wind in the branches of the pines like a great bear. Watching storms form and gather is a treat at this elevation and I never really tire of it.

But I’ll remember the spring and early summer of this year for the rain. It’s been relentless. The total number of days going into July when we could sit out in the sun on our deck was four. The rest of the time, the land was drenched and it got to be both tedious and frustrating. Despite the lushness of the lawn and the happy choruses of birds, the tedium of being kept indoors was difficult.

We live in an area that’s supposed to be semi-desert. I usually stop mowing the lawn in July because the heat and the sun will parch everything and nothing grows. If you need to do any kind of work outdoors it has to be done between eight to ten in the morning or early evening. The rest of the time it’s just too hot. I tried working out there several times in the first year. I won’t do it again.
That’s what we’re used to. So the deluge was disheartening to say the least. We human beings have become accustomed to the idea that we can rise above anything. But Mother Earth when she has her own agenda scuttles that notion very easily. It’s the stuff of burgeoning grumpiness to try and overturn her judgment.

Yet there’s something magical about a mountain lake shrouded in mist and the smell of the land all rich and lush everywhere you go. I love the fungal, boggy smell when things are drenched. It’s always been the smell of life to me. As much as I can grouse about the way things are I’m always open to the way things could be.

On a rare day when it wasn’t raining, we went for a hike into the back country. Walking through the thick bush was amazing. Everywhere I looked it seemed as though the land was celebrating. I’d never seen things in such an exuberant state before. Where the heat and dryness normally shrunk and browned things, the ongoing wet expanded and green everything. It was marvelous.

We walked by a river that was swollen with rain and the late melt of snow on the upper elevations. You could hear the roar of it a long way off. Standing there on the boggy bank, seeing that titanic force was thrilling and I was swept up by the raw power of it. There was the low rumble of huge rocks displaced by the hard flume of water and sent careening along the current.

A little later, a few miles downstream, there was a waterfall. It was enormous. The plunge of it was absolutely mesmerizing. The sound of it was nearly deafening. The sight of it rendered us speechless and we could not stop looking at it. I took a few pictures but they seemed dull in comparison to the real thing. The white mist, gray of the rocks, the mercury sheen of the water in the plunge pool collectively could render even the best writer wordless.

It rained again. We walked back through it. The drops were the size of grapes at times and at others, just a relentless perfectly vertical drizzle. But the feeling of seeing the effect of all that water made the soak worthwhile. The earth was drinking. That’s how it felt. The land was filling itself again with the potential of life and to be in it was a healing thing. There wasn’t one of us that wasn’t grateful for the gift of seeing that.

Rain is the tears of Mother Earth. It is cleansing. It is a wash of spirit. It empowers everything. That’s what my people say and I never really understood that until this year. Rain. It is the blood of all of us. Everywhere. Standing there, drenched, drawing the smell of Creation into my being, was to be able to feel the undeniable connection we human beings have to the land and all it contains.
These days when we hear dire environmental news or the impending start of another mega-project on the land or on the water, those of us aware of that connection shudder. We know that environmental disaster starts with the first turn of a spade or a bulldozer blade..
We are of the earth. We belong to her. She belongs to us. What befalls her, befalls us. Something as simple as rain on your face can get you to that if you let it.