More from the zealot’s daughter

In my family the two things that were inevitable were not death and taxes. The first absolute certainty was the cataclysmic end of the world that would be heralded in by the literal return of Jesus Christ. The second was the establishment of a kingdom on earth led by Jesus himself and managed by God’s chosen people. You could be one of the chosen if, at the great judgment, you were deemed a sheep not a goat.

Thus, from the cradle, I was raised to be an end-of-the-worlder.

“We are living in the end times,” my father would say with the same sort of enthusiastic anticipation he had when he was announcing a family holiday or a visit from an old friend. The end times, meant that the apocalypse was imminent. To me it meant doom was just around the corner—that THE END would be the next important event in my life.

After THE END things got a bit fuzzy. While the kingdom was supposed to be a good time the story was complicated by 1000 years of cleansing the earth. This was to take place under the management of the sheep, which, if you’d gotten it all right during your lifetime, would include you. I remember being skeptical. When I looked around at the people in our religion, the ones aiming to be a sheep, the chosen, and thus lined up for the management positions in the kingdom, they didn’t look like a good crew for such a job. I knew from a very, very young age that being a sheep wasn’t a good quality for leadership. Don’t worry, I was told. God will work that out. I hoped so.

As a child my family read the Bible twice a day. We followed the Daily Bible Companion that set out a plan for reading the Old Testament once and New Testament twice each year. On top of that we were encouraged to do personal Bible study—to mark up our Bibles with explanatory notes prepared by church leaders. While not strictly forbidden, we were discouraged from reading anything other than the Bible or Bible related books that were written by men from the church. We had a few Nancy Drew and Bobbsey Twins books in the house although I don’t remember reading them. My oldest sister hid her romance novels under her bed. That was the extent of my worldly literary education.

The single most important message I got from my early life was that it would end. Soon. I remember wondering if I would ever reach double digits. Being 10 seemed out of reach given the imminency of THE END. I worried about whether I would become a teenager. Would Christ’s return give me time to get my driver’s license? Turning 20 was something I assumed would never happen. Each new stage in life came as a surprise and I was completely unprepared. Without realizing it I was a living example of Dolly Parton’s “One day at a time, sweet Jesus”.

Other than doing what the Bible instructed in preparation for the judgment where I would hopefully achieve sheep status what was the point in making plans? Education, career, travel; these things had little value. If Jesus held off his return giving me a chance to grow older I assumed I would get married and have children.

Bleak as this worldview sounds it provided certainty; God was in control and he had a plan. There was comfort in that idea. The trouble was that no matter how bizarre the plan sounded your job was to believe; it wasn’t your place to question God.

For many of my church peers the plan made sense. Daily Bible readings, followed by personal Bible study, augmented with three or four church meetings a week left them with no time to question anything except themselves. Would they please God in the end? Were they sheeply enough? It was a constant worry.

I wasn’t willing to question myself without questioning everything else as well. I  started with “Why would God make such a strange plan?” and then “How could such a plan succeed?” Given the evidence I could see of how badly God’s first creation was turning out for humans and the planet and I was unconvinced his next plan would be any more successful.

Looking inward I was pretty confident that God would not choose me to be a sheep. Sunday school teachers taught us early-on the difference between sheep and goats. Goats, they said, are naturally curious and independent. Goats love to escape the herd and head off solo. They will try and outwit and challenge the herder. We were told that these were not characteristics God was looking for in his chosen people.

Sheep, on the other hand, have a strong flocking instinct. They don’t like to be separated from the flock and are much easier to handle than goats. Sheep are less likely to challenge the shepherd and are more prone to follow and do as they are told.

I was pretty certain that I did not have the sheep-like qualities God wanted. Challenging God and questioning his plan was the only way I could make peace with what appeared to be my lot in life. But with THE END coming just around the corner and seeing myself much more of a goat than a sheep, challenging the Bible, the teachings and God himself didn’t result in peace, it became an obsession. This journey culminated during five or six years in my mid thirties. I became absorbed in an internal theological debate that spiraled into a personal existential crisis. Was there a God? If so, what did he want from human beings? If anything, what was I supposed to do about it?

As one strange interpretation of the Bible after the other fell away from my worldview I was left in what felt like the Biblical beginning…without form and void. The one thing that remained in place was the belief that human existence, as we know it on planet earth, was barreling towards some sort of end. I wish that wasn’t the belief that stuck with me. It’s no fun.

In my youth being an end-of-the-worlder was uncommon. Not anymore. Today most people either believe in some sort of THE END or are actively denying it. Most people are either eating, drinking and making merry, as it says in the Bible, or are trying to save us all before it is too late.

While I have recently been firmly in the “save it” camp I am revisiting the existential crisis of my 30’s. This time my journey is not in search of a relationship with God and my goal isn’t really to save myself or to save the world. My goal is the same as it has always been…to understand the human condition.

This time I’m exploring the relationship between humans and our fellow beings…animate and inanimate. This time, rather than examining the worldview held by my father where man has dominion over the entire creation to destroy or to save, I am drawing on my son’s perspective. His worldview comes from teachings from his indigenous family and holds that we are all relatives…insects, mountains, islands, fish, human beings…all of us…relatives. That perspective changes everything right down to the core of being itself.

I have no tidy conclusion to this post. It’s pause time. Time to be. More later.

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.