scars mark a journeys path

There was a time, my people say, when the animals prepared to abandon man. A time before time, when their role as teachers in living with the world…

There was a time, my people say, when the animals prepared to abandon man.

A time before time, when their role as teachers in living with the world was being ignored and they chose to leave the Human Beings to their fate.

It wasn’t an easy choice. The animals had come to love their human brothers and sisters, their fanciful ways, their dreams, their painful clamour for learning.

They were like cubs and kits and hatchlings and the animals doted over them and taught them to survive.

But they outgrew the love and began to follow their own path.

It hurt the teachers greatly. They’d been instructed by Creator to introduce the People to the world and their disregard caused them anguish.

They knew the results of such a course and when they could not halt them in their path the animals prepared to leave.

But the dog told the Human Beings about the plan and they changed their ways. The animals returned to their role as teachers and the destiny of the People was changed forever.

They live around us still, our greatest teachers, and in their examples lie the teaching ways of harmony, balance, sharing and sacrifice.

I got a haircut the other day. For a few years now I’ve gone without the long hair and braids I lived with for years. I’ve grown accustomed to shorter hair and entering my 50s it felt good and calming.

I learned that the things my long hair represented exist within me now and there’s no need for outward symbols.

So I asked for a brushcut. It was shorter than my other cuts, shaved close to the sides and back and I enjoyed the feel of the barbering. When it was over I held a mirror up to examine the work in the big mirror on the wall. I could see the back of my head clearly.

What I saw were scars, irregular, white, random scars in four or five places on the back of my skull. I knew they were there, I’d just forgotten them, and the starkness of them in the mirror was shocking in a way.

I put my hand back there and ran my palm over them and remembered.

I got the first scar when I was seven. I’d been told not to climb a big birch tree that sat over a large boulder near the foster home where I lived. But it was a challenge to the neighbourhood kids and there were initials scratched into the trunk. The kid whose initials were the highest on that tree was champion.

I climbed that tree one day with a pen knife in my teeth. I made it past the last set of initials and inched upward another foot or so on the thin branches.

Well, the branch I stood on broke and I crashed down the length of that tree and cracked my head on the boulder. It cost me seven stitches and a week or so of grounding.

I got another scar when I was 10. I was playing hockey without a helmet and a high cross-check earned me five stitches and a ban from playing for months.

See, back then the hottest stars in the National Hockey League went without helmets and I wanted to mimic their speed, finesse and courage in my play. So I played a pick-up game without a helmet and earned another scar.

When I was 19 I was helping a friend paint his house in St. Catharines, Ontario. I climbed an extension ladder to paint the gable ends on the third floor.

He’d told me to secure the ladder at the top but I was in a hurry. A hard gust of wind caused me to lose my balance and the ladder slid along the roofline and I crashed onto the veranda roof. That was worth five stitches and a good chewing out from a very worried friend.

There are other scars with a less than elegant history. I was in a bar fight in Winnipeg in the late ‘70s and a baseball bat to the back of the head cut me for nine stitches.

Another time, drunk and staggering, I fell backwards onto the boulders along the river outside of Calgary and gashed myself. That one cost me six stitches and a slight concussion.

The sight of those scars reminded me of all those events. But they aren’t the whole story. There are scars on different parts of my body that have less than elegant histories.

There’s a long curved scar above my left knee where a knife grazed me. That was in Thunder Bay in the ‘80s.

On my right knee is a leaf shaped scar where I landed on a wine bottle in Toronto in 1974 and above my left eye, concealed by my eyebrow, is a scar from a police baton during an office occupation and protest in 1978.

There was a time, my people say, when the animals prepared to abandon man.

As a species we’ve never been too great at listening. It’s always taken the advent of crisis in order to get our attention and return us to order and balance.

For me, I learned too often from injury or hurt or wounding. Sometimes the scars were visible, other times they were buried in my spirit and slower and harder to heal.

I’ve never picked up a scar out of innocence. They’ve all come from pride and arrogance and a willful abandon.

My scars are my map of Canada, everywhere I’ve travelled, everywhere I’ve been. They remind me of times when I lived without the benefit of teachings or chose to disregard them.

These days I live more gracefully. Around me in these mountains are animals that run and jump, crawl and fly, swim and dive.

In their natures I see the way I choose to live with the world, with them as my teachers, their example of harmony, balance, sharing, sacrifice and community my primer, my guide.

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.