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The zealot’s daughter

Don Snobelen

When I was in grade eleven there was the it-guy in grade twelve—handsome, athletic, surrounded by it-girls and other it-guys. I didn’t know him and he never gave me as much as a glance. One day, in a semi empty hall he walked up to me and stopped, “Are you Sylvia?” I don’t remember his name or even exactly what he looked like, but I can still hear “Sylvia”. I’m surprised that I heard anything over the buzz in my ears. Maybe I didn’t hear it as much as I felt it in my knees and the pit of my stomach.

I’m sure I mumbled some sort of acknowledgement although I don’t remember.

“I met your dad last night. He picked me up at Elk Lake and drove me all the way home to Lands End.”

He smiled with a look that I’d seen before in other people who had encountered my father.

“What a great guy. He went so far out of his way to give me a ride,” pause, “he’s,” pause, “interesting.”

What could I say? The buzz turned to numb.

The it-guy was right. We lived only minutes from Elk Lake and the trip to Lands End gave my father at least half an hour with his captive audience.

It’s true my Father was a great guy. He had a handsome, loving, charming smile. He genuinely liked people. He was generous and gregarious. He was unpretentious and kind. He thought he was funny and told all the same eye-rolling, dad jokes that other dads told in those days. And my father believed in his daughters. He told us that we could do anything his sons could do and probably better. That was a gift most girls did not receive from their fathers in the 1950s and 60s.

But I knew that the it-guy didn’t mean my father was interesting. He thought he was interesting and that was different.

When he walked away I was mortified (a word my mother used when referring to my father’s behaviour).

My father was a zealot. He was an uncompromising believer, a preacher, a prophet and perhaps the most enthusiastic evangelist you could ever encounter. The Bible was his book, the promises to Abraham, Issac and Jacob were his mission statement and the return of Jesus to rule over a 1000-year earthly kingdom was his vision and his endgame.

I knew father could fill the it-guy in on that part in about 15 minutes. He had another 15 minutes to cover the evils of ‘the world’, to convince him that we were living in the ‘time of the end’ and persuade him to start reading the Bible soon so he didn’t miss out on the opportunity to be saved.

I’m sure the it-guy has told this story as well—the night a guy picked him up and gave him a ride all the way home so that he could preach to him. He might say that the guy was crazy. But I doubt it. He probably says the same thing he said to me “What a great guy.”

Because my father was a great guy. When he died, in his late 80s, hundreds of people attended his funeral. Kids he had hired in our greenhouses. Paper boys who were now fathers themselves. Store clerks. Customers. Neighbours. Our school friends. His mechanic, nurses and anyone he had encountered. And most of them would have had a similar story to the it-guy.

There are many things about being the zealot’s daughter that don’t go away. It’s okay to be different. I mean really different and not the cool sort of different. It’s okay to believe weird things that other people don’t believe in. It’s okay to trust people and let them into your life without living in fear. It’s okay to truly dance to your own drummer and to sing like nobody is listening. Father was not even like the others in his very, very conservative church…he was as different from them as he was from the people he met in ‘the world’. And that’s okay.

And it’s better than okay to really love, to really be generous, to really not be burdened by popular opinion, to really smile and to really like people. Thanks dad for it all.

Human beings

Ron Martin and his sister Louise

You ask me for a solution—for some advice that will help the problem of racism towards me? Towards Indigenous people? That’s easy. I am not an Indian. I am not an Indigenous person. I am not a person with a disability. I am Koous. I am a human being. I am a human being in exactly the same way you are a human being. If people saw me as a human being—if people treated me like a human being I would receive the help and respectful care I need.

(Ron Martin, Mukwila, Tla o qui aht First Nation)

Ron Martin is a friend of mine. In our earlier lives we both married into the same family so we became relatives, of a sort. In the 1990s we worked together in the field of First Nations administration and travelled throughout the province. I heard Ron’s stories about being Nuu chah nulth and from Tla o qui aht. His family’s traditional lands include the world famous Long Beach near Tofino. We spent time on the beach imagining the life before. He told me the names of his ancestors going back more than 20 generations (reciting not reading their names—astounding).

Ten years ago Ron had a stroke. We no longer work together, but Ron was and still is one of my teachers. I asked him the other day if I could share this quote of what he told a class of nurses from UVIC while we were doing a workshop with them in the late 90s. His answer was, “Of course yes.”

During the discussion the students asked Ron if he could point to one thing that gets in the way of improving relations between Indigenous people and other Canadians. His answer was:

“We don’t know each other.”

There are a myriad of reasons why—all are understandable. That was 25 years ago. Hopefully we are getting to know each other better today.

I am not sure. Are we really listening to each other? Is it a two-way conversation? Are the minds and hearts open on both sides? Are we moving closer together or further apart?

But I am hopeful. My sense is that we will not move ahead in a good way, as a country, until we get do get to know each other and perhaps we are starting on that journey.

There’s a lot of “getting real” happening. Canada’s real history is becoming clearer. Canadian’s are getting over the façade of being the “good-guys” and getting real about the nasty side of our nature and our relationship with Indigenous people. Indigenous people are taking their place and thriving in every sector of society. They are thrivers, not just survivors—that’s real. White people (or whatever we call everyone who is not Indigenous) are not all bad, or all guilty, or all anything—that’s real. None of us have all the answers—that’s also real. We all need each other and to be compassionate with each other—that’s the most real of all.

Interviews

Thank you thank you Christopher Walker/Cabinboy knits for this interview

The book is out. The interviews are coming in. Why did you take the tour? Why did you write the book? What surprised you? What do you know now that you didn’t know before? First we took went on a road trip. Then I wrote the book. And now…there’s a whole other level of reflection.

            To start…a word about the publisher; Douglas & McIntyre does a great job of promotions. I am surprised at how much interest they have gathered—how many interviews they’ve scheduled. I had never imagined that a knitting road trip book would be on the BC best sellers’ list for the first two weeks it is out.

            My next surprise? As I’ve said before, a lot of people are interested in knitting…millions of them. But I am beginning to think that everyone has someone who loves to knit—someone who they want to buy the book for. Or perhaps I am right when I facetiously say that there are only two kinds of people in the world—people who knit and people who wish they could knit.

            And then there’s the roadtrippers. The book is only partly about knitting. It’s equally or even more about the road trip. And who, especially during COVID, doesn’t wish they could go on a road trip?

             Finally a word about the interviewers. I have been interviewed many times on various topics. I always hope for the best—that the interviewer is interested and somewhat knowledgeable—that he or she has done some research on the topic. What do I know now that I didn’t know before? There are a lot of interviewers who are fascinated by the idea of a knitting road trip and if they are any indication of the general interest then it’s no wonder this book is doing much better than I had ever expected.

My second road trip

Thanks Douglas & McIntyre for the image

When we pulled out of the driveway on April 29th, 2015 I had one thing in mind—getting to Newfoundland in six weeks. I couldn’t have imagined that six years later, almost to the day, I would be sharing the story with you.

Six weeks felt like a dauntingly long time. But we had over 7000 kilometres to drive, 60 or so workshops to deliver and 40 or so destinations to visit. “We’ll just take it one day at a time,” Tex told me. We met hundreds of knitters. We told stories. We listened to stories. I met sweaters and examined their stitches, yarn and designs. I made note of their frayed edges and people’s earnest attempts to fix the holes and give the beloved garments a few more years of service.

Somewhere around Kenora, Tex started to question what he’d gotten himself into. “I had no idea knitting was such a big thing.” If he said it once he said it a dozen times.

Knitting is a big thing, but I was struck by the expanse of Canada…bigger…much bigger than knitting. The country is truly awesome. It is all the things you already know…the coasts, mountains, prairies, lakes, farms, forests…stop me…I don’t want to get started on the superlatives. It’s all been said so many times before and said much better than I can say it. But I never grew tired of the changing landscapes. Even when we finally visited the tiny outports in Newfoundland, exhausted and eager to return home, I was fascinated by the craggy coastline and the temperament of the Atlantic Ocean.

I hadn’t intended to write a book about the road trip. I was writing my Phd dissertation at the time and that was enough to put me off writing altogether. But once I graduated and put the gruelling project behind me I began revisiting in my mind the places we’d been and as the experiences moved into the past they became story…a story I wanted to tell.

Writing the book was much like the road trip itself—daunting but fascinating. I was peering out the window again. I could hear the hum of the road and feel the wheels turning. But this time they weren’t taking me through wheat fields and stopping so I could wonder about the height of land or the red rock outcroppings. This time they were taking me through the questions I had about my country. The wheels stopped at issues of race, naming, colonization, business, gender, privilege…so I could reassess the social, economic and political aspects of being Canadian. I ended up a less critical Canadian and a more self-reflective, patient and hopeful one.

The book is available on line and will be in your bookstore this week. Thanks to Douglas & McIntyre for their hard work and awesome team…and you really need to get this book so you will be able to see for yourself its very very cool cover (even if I do say so myself). I designed and hand knit it in the mood of the book. The review in the photo is in the April edition of Chatelaine Magazine.

Appreciation

Receiving the drum and shawl in appreciation for my work–thank you thank you thank you–I got it COVID style

It’s so easy to be thankful. Waking up in the morning is enough to fill our hearts with thanks…for life…for love…for a place to live…for daffodils. Then there are the everyday things for which we give thanks. Thanks for taking out the garbage. Thanks for washing the dishes. Thanks for remembering my birthday.

The older I get the more I find myself expressing my thankfulness. Thanks for smiling and laughing out loud, it brings such joy into the world.

It’s also easy to receive thanks. I love to hear “Thank you” for taking out the garbage or doing the dishes (on those seldom occasions).

I’m not as good at receiving expressions of appreciation for the big things I do. I have a strange need to undermine my work and deflect attention away. Maybe it was my mother who taught us that pride was not just wrong but it was the worst of all moral failings. Or maybe it was the church that buried any exceptionalness of women under the accomplishments of men (other than our ability to cook and the like). Or maybe it’s my whiteness and having worked in First Nations all my life it’s never been my place to call attention to my work.

Whatever it is I find accepting big expressions of appreciation much harder to receive than to give. But I’m embracing this one. Here’s the story.

I’ve been working with the most amazing team—five First Nations people from around the province (Doug Harris, Niki Lindstrom, Marilyn Johnny, Bev Smith and Mona Bill) on an engagement project—talking about the upcoming changes in housing and infrastructure in First Nations. After almost a year I’m passing the project along to someone else and moving on.

The team showed me huge appreciation…an Orca drum, a shawl and words and words and words of gratitude. I felt it and I thank them back.

Thank you for thanking me.

Elizabeth, Cate and I

Finally finished. The last photo credit in. The last edit made. Growing up Elizabeth is now a thing. You can even preorder it at Orca. Cate and I are wiping our brows and getting excited about launch events…stay tuned.

As with all books, this was a labour of love. Hundreds of hours of labour to birth a little story (this one with over a hundred photos). While getting the details right was gruelling work, collaborating with Cate and Elizabeth was all pleasure.

Working with Shauna White and the kids at Bayside Middle School was fun, inspiring and encouraging. For those of you who bemoan the next generation, I think we have nothing to fear. They may not be like us, and I am thankful for that, but many of them are eagle-eye focused on making the world a better place. I hope they don’t lose their vision, like we did.

And, as always, I can’t write about writing this book without mentioning Jean Jordan, who’s idea it was. I cursed you at times along the way…why did you get me into this? But it was a story you wanted kids to hear and you were right…thank you thank you thank you.

Happy Birthday Adam

The family that knits together

I know it’s your day but right now I can’t get over thinking about me. I’m the mother of a 45-year-old son. That’s something. Once I’m over obsessing about how old that makes me I’m going to celebrate your wonderful human beingness.

I only wanted one thing for my children—that they should change the world. I realized early that didn’t mean the whole entire world for all time. It meant their world, our world, and as much of the bigger world they could affect.

Adam started doing that at a very, very young age. He could talk before he could walk. He shared interesting ideas before he was out of diapers (don’t go there…he was trained before he was three, I’m sure). He began to read as soon as he saw words. He entertained us with stand up comedy routines before he went to school. He wrote political papers in middle school. He discussed books he’d read on anarchy and Marx and religion and more and debated philosophy in the smoking pit in high school. He was an interesting and wonderful kid.

Adam slammed into life when he was a teenager and beat it up for years trying to make sense out of the human condition. He did a deep dive…not fun for his mother nor for him and others, I’m sure.

But he didn’t just survive, he thrived and that’s his story to tell. My story is that I’m grateful for how he has changed my world. I’m grateful for how he unapologetically takes on the bigger crazy world we are all trying to navigate. He’s right sometimes, he’s wrong sometimes, but he’s real all the time and I’m grateful for that the most.

For better or worse

I raise a toast to our significant others—the one or two bubble buddies who have gone the distance with us and are still here. And a toast of appreciation to Tex…he’s the special guy who has not just put up with me but has made my life wonderful in spite of it all.

When Tex and I got married three years ago we said something about for better or worse, in sickness and in health and for richer or poorer. But we didn’t commit to spending 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 12 months or 52 weeks of the year together, just the two of us, excluding any and every one else. We didn’t sign up for that. We had never even thought of such a thing.

Tex and I met on the road. We spent our relationship shunting each other back and forth to the airport or ferry checking our schedules to plan when we would see each other again and how many days we would spend together.

As an example…three days after our wedding Tex kissed me goodbye in Calgary, where I spent the first month of our marriage in an artist in residence program, and he drove off across the country. That was our relationship…we loved it.

COVID isolation hasn’t been easy on any of us. We all have a story about how it has impacted our lives in a specific way. I’m thinking we should all turn to our bubble buddies and raise a glass in honour of their unique struggle and name the thing they have put up with and put out there to make this crazy time work.

Take Tex, for instance. He was a footloose, self-made, curious world traveller, deliberately never married, deliberately never becoming a father…stubbornly independent. Getting married was a huge departure from his plan…and then becoming Grandpa Tex to 8 kids…another huge departure. Two years later add the 24/7 thing of COVID…where he almost literally has had his feet nailed to the floor. No more travel, co making everything and where we don’t even know what independence means anymore…it is currently undergoing a complete rethink…never mind the hit COVID itself had on his big, strong, previously healthy body.

Thanks Troy More for the photo

I’m acknowledging his struggle and celebrating the growth in our relationship. For us, this has been the worst and the best of times. Thank you thank you thank you, my love, for climbing into and over this mountain with me.

Even if I had known what this strange and intense reality would be like, I would have chosen you to be my bubble buddy.

May good will bring peace on earth

My seasonal wish for my friends and for the world:

“May 2021 bring an intense desire in each person’s heart and a policy imperative on every governing table that the year will focus on the pursuit of good will.”

It sounds heady but without good will we have chaos and 2020 brought us as close to chaos as my stomach can tolerate.

I’ve always wanted something more for the season than Merry Christmas or even happy holidays. It’s not surprising. I am a 60s girl and we didn’t just want a good day or even a good season, we wanted bigger. Merry and happy are not enough, not when you are looking to change the world. Peace on earth was our banner mantra.

The trouble with Peace on Earth as a Christmas greeting is that the birth of Jesus didn’t bring it about as the angels predicted. In fact, the Bible itself says that Jesus would also bring conflict and even the sword, which history has liberally demonstrated.

On the other hand, even though the earth doesn’t look anything like the peace I dreamed of, we’ve made some successes since the 60s. Science Today says that humans are less likely to die in conflict today than 100 years ago (at least from a Eurocentric point of view). So Peace on Earth is still worth repeating over and over, year after year.

However I think the greeting “Peace on earth and good will towards man” is back to front. There must be good will first if we are going to have a hope of peace. The western world’s reduction of military conflicts may give us reason to celebrate but recently good will has suffered a full frontal attack. Even the simple instruction from our mothers “be nice to each other” has been replaced with “be nice to people like you” and, further, “be nice to people you like.”

The pursuit and defence of individual rights has trumped (pun intended) our intuitive sense that we are not islands. We are social creatures and need to have the necessary skills to work together. And that requires good will. Yet we are drawing lines around ourselves/our groups and retreating behind the chants, the hash tags, the memes that support our side. We strike out at others’ indiscretions with the venom and self -righteousness of our pitch-fork wielding, witch-hunting Puritanical or other intolerant ancestors. We have now given power to the crowd to determine who is and who isn’t okay. Kids at school know how that can hurt.

I see these characteristics in myself. My tolerance for arguments I disagree with is waning. I find myself resorting to judgemental conclusions like “that is simply ignorant” and “they must be completely stupid” way more than I would like. Watching the US presidential side-show leaves me with a profound sense of disorientation—humans are worse than I had ever imagined and I already had an ambivalent relationship with the masses.

So this season I’m pitching good will. I am concentrating on sharing, kindness, tolerance, gentleness, concern, compassion, humility… I’m breathing deeply, slowing down and taking time. I don’t need to understand you. I just want to acknowledge you as you are and extend to you good will—that intangible thing that brings our lives, and could bring the earth, peace.

My porcelain (20 years) publishing anniversary

It all started with my best friend, Diane Harris

I started writing stories 21 years ago. I was a natural story-teller and an inquisitive listener—I loved that part of being an oral historian—but I was not a writer.

My vocabulary consisted of a handful of words and the collection of strange phrases my father used like heebie jeebie, oddie moddie and sixty-fifty. He was a worldly-illiterate Bible reader (almost the only book in our home). But I always loved his wonderfully creative, if unsophisticated, way of communicating. I attended university during the 1990s so I was marginally more literate than him, but when I tried to write I couldn’t find words to fit my ideas. Stringing one sentence after the other, after the other, after the other made my head literally hurt to touch. Worse yet, making sense out of pages of sentences was excruciating.

The only reason I was writing stories 21 years ago was because in 1992 Diane, my sister-in-law, had interviewed more than 70 former students of Kuper Island Residential School. I had gone along to write the notes. She promised the people that we would share their stories—that other people would finally know what went on at Kuper. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. No one did in 1992. What we heard was horrifying. 

But Diane would not let it go until we had fulfilled her promise. She pestered me to write the stories into a book. “I can’t,” I would tell her. “I can write notes. But I can’t write a book. Especially not this book.” Can you even imagine? How could I put such profoundly disturbing and, up until then, almost entirely unwritten stories, onto the page using my pathetic vocabulary and almost non-existent writing skills? From my Bible background I called up the feelings expressed by Moses who also felt inadequate, “Please, Lord, send someone else”.

Fast forward to the late 90s. A group of us decided to write residential school stories for our local school using Diane’s interviews and others we had collected. A long story truncated. I drew the short straw. The writing was left up to me. Difficult does not begin to describe the process. I found an editor to help. A publisher found my stories and offered to publish. I said no. Diane continued to pester me. She had made the promise. This was her way to fulfil it. Finally I conceded. No Time to Say Goodbye: Children’s Stories of Kuper Island Residential School was published in 2001. Twenty years ago.

I had never imagined becoming an author. Being published was the furthest thing from my mind. In fact I found the very idea of people reading my writing terrifying.

Being an author was an odd thing. My name (along with Rita Morris and Ann Sam, who worked on the project) were on the front of the book but they did not, in any way, reflect the crowd of people who made the story. I’ve always been uncomfortable with that. I was a tiny piece of an unimaginably complex and distressing puzzle but I didn’t know where my piece fit. Amazingly, the book is still in print. It has sold many thousands of copies and in 2018 it was put on the BC schools’ curriculum list.

Awful as that experience was I was hooked on writing and I soon began what I call “Stories from my kitchen window”. From where I lived in Tsartlip First Nation I watched my kids and the neighbours’ kids making sense out of their world. The view from my kitchen window was a cross cultural landscape where people got along, where they didn’t get along, where who you were was determined by the colour of your skin and where you were defined by your parentage. As you can imagine my whiteness coloured everything.

My stories were wispy glimpses of kids getting up in the morning and facing the day in the sort of world that I lived in. I crossed cultures. Of course I did. I lived in an adopted home. One where I was never entirely comfortable nor entirely welcome. But I was a mother and it was my kids’ home so it was my home as well and it provided the window from which I observed the world.

I didn’t just write kids’ books and young adult novels, although at that time they were my favourite stories. I dabbled in social commentary, history and personal essays—18 books altogether by 2020.

Twenty years after my first book was published, books number 19 and 20 are finished and will go to press in the spring of 2021—at least that’s the plan. In April, Douglas & McIntyre will publish Unravelling Canada my first travel book. You might have guessed that it’s travel through a knitting lens. In May, Orca Books will publish Growing up Elizabeth May, my first biography (for middle school age kids). COVID might mess with the publication dates so I’ll write more about these books later.

I am celebrating this anniversary in an unusual space for me. I don’t have a book on the go. Don’t worry. I have a textbook to start and an interactive ebook to write, so I’m not out of the business. But I am enjoying a very short calm. For once I am not struggling to find words. Or bewailing the ones I have found. I am riding out 2020 in this empty space. Perhaps not an entirely empty space, you might see more blogs than ever before because, as you can tell, I’m a bit of a writing addict.