Bringing back what matters

An elder friend once told me how to change the world. I was in my mid 20s and just beginning to become politically active in pursuit of native rights. We were visiting and walking by the river that ran by her home.

An elder friend once told me how to change the world. I was in my mid 20s and just beginning to become politically active in pursuit of native rights. We were visiting and walking by the river that ran by her home. I told her of my frustration in pushing forward our people’s agenda.

She took a pebble and tossed it into the pool we stood beside. We watched the ripples it caused eddy outward in concentric rings and lap the stones at our feet.
“That’s the way you change the world,” she said. “The smallest circles first.”

That was almost 30 years ago and I’m only now beginning to get the intent of her message. I’ve finally experienced enough to come to understand — and that’s why we’ve started a new tradition at our house.

We call it Bringing Back the Living Room. It’s really an old tradition that we’ve dusted off and revived. It harkens back to those days when people would gather in a living room to tell stories, read to each other, sing songs and enjoy the sound of their togetherness. It’s a rustic, charming Saturday night ritual from the days before television, computers and cellphones.

We gathered for a potluck dinner first. That first table was an awesome display and an incredible feast. We helped ourselves and returned to chat with the old friends and new friends arranged all around our home. Everywhere you looked there were people talking and eating and having a great time.

Once we finished the meal, the main event took place. Each of us placed our name in a hat and as I drew a name, that person sat in our antique rocker and did their thing. There were 18 of us that first night and what we saw and heard was amazing.

Most of us had never met before. We were strangers but there was a feeling of safety and community in the living room that night and the effect was a display of openness I have seldom experienced. There were no Indians and there were no white men. There were only people joined by the power of words and music.

Everyone had the chance to tell a story, sing a song, read something they’d written, read something that moved them or introduce us to a piece of recorded music that was special for them. We sat there, in candlelight with the fire in the woodstove crackling behind everything and were awed by what came out.

I heard a touching story about homelessness and setting down roots from a friend who I’ve lived down the road from for almost four years. We’d never even spoken before this, never shaken hands, only nodded at each other when we passed on the road. We were neighbours but we had never sat in a room together.

But his story was riveting. It showed him to be a man much like myself, with a similar history and a similar emotional reaction to it. Without this gathering I would have never had the privilege of hearing his story. I would never have found someone with so much in common with me.

We heard songs sung with a six-string guitar. The roots of them were folk, story songs about people we recognized and feelings we shared. Then we heard an a cappella blues song accompanied only by hand claps. We heard stories about childhood recollections, about the spirituality of fly fishing, the trials of war, and a poem for the earth.

From each voice we found a connection to a part of ourselves. We found community in disparate parts. As the evening progressed people sat deeper in their chairs. There was no need for booze, loud music, video games or other contemporary distractions we so often set up between ourselves. Instead, there was just the old-time feeling of togetherness.

Bringing Back the Livingroom. We’re going to do it every month. We’re going to gather people together for the opportunity to really hear other, to share, to become joined. Everyone who was there left feeling more complete, more attuned to their neighbours, returned to a simpler, fuller time when stories and music brought us all together.

That’s what my elder friend meant when she said, “The smallest circles first.”

Too often we look at the big picture when we’re seeking change. It’s enormous and disheartening because of its sheer magnitude. But when we break it down into smaller, manageable parts, we can do incredible things.

That gathering was just one small circle of humanity. We stripped away all distractions and allowed ourselves the opportunity to just be together. To just be. Together. The night was borne on the sound of our voices sharing stories and we came away changed people.

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He can be reached at

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