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The way to the Old Ones

There are silences that come to inhabit you, fill you, colour you, reside in you like a dream undreamed.

There are silences that come to inhabit you, fill you, colour you, reside in you like a dream undreamed.

They are deep and profound and personal and you come to store them like pocket treasures, the edges worn smooth with years, comforting in their heft.

I have found them at the edges of great precipices in the Rockies or on the glassine surface of a northern lake, watching the bottom over the bow of the canoe, the movement like flying.

Or the quiet that descends at the end of a good talk, the gap of it, sudden and compelling, telling you more than all the spoken words.

Some silences you come to wear like an old blanket, all loose and familiar, threadbare in places, but warming and nurturing, like love is.

It’s a big old noisy world and the clatter of it disrupts you, displaces you. But a remembered silence takes you away from all that, returns you to a time, a moment, a place when all you knew of life was where you stood — and it was enough.

My life was full of noise for a long, long time. I carried an internal clamour built on fear, abandonment and displacement.

I carried the cries of a scared and lonely foster kid and they rang in everything I tried, and everywhere I went I unpacked them like luggage.

When I was 24 I found silence.

I’d spent a hard eight years searching for a place to fit, trying on places and people, looking for the peg to hang my life on.

I’d been across the country a few times, worked at various things, quit and moved on, prowling Canada like a cat burglar, searching for a point of entry.

My brother had tracked me down through adoption records and when we met he introduced me to traditional people.

There was an elder he’d been travelling with who had an entourage of apprentices and followers who were all keen on learning traditional Ojibway spirituality.

I’d never met traditional people before and the idea of Indian ceremony was fraught with fear and anxiety for me.

I had no experience with it, no knowledge and I believed that the lack of it showed on me, made me less, made me unworthy, meant I didn’t belong.

See, back then I thought that you had to qualify as native, Indian, Ojibway. I thought people were measured by the degree of their identity, by the Indian-ness they wore on their sleeve, by their ability to carry themselves like an Indian, to represent.

Nothing about me measured up in that regard.

But they welcomed me. When I was introduced, I was greeted warmly and kindly and made to feel included.

They knew that I was one of the lost ones, one of the disappeared and vanished ones that were slowly making their way back to their original homes, their original territories, their original people and way of being.

They understood the difficulty in that and they tried as best they could to make the transition easier for me.

Still I was anxious and, when they took me to a ceremony, I wanted to run.

Everything I’d heard of native ceremony was built on superstition and fear. I’d heard gossip of shape shifters, bad spirits, Bear Walkers and hallucinatory visions.

I’d heard of bad medicine and I was fearful that my lack of anything remotely resembling Ojibway would set me up for the black powers.

What I found was the total opposite of all that.

We gathered in a circle in someone’s living room.

We sat quietly and respectfully while the elder prepared and as I looked around at the faces of those people I was struck by the calm there, silence, whole and absolute.

One of the apprentices began to make his way around the circle with a large abalone bowl that held a pile of smouldering material and we all stood.

The elder explained that we would purify ourselves with the smoke from that bowl. We would pass it over ourselves, smudge ourselves, and cleanse the detritus of living from our minds, emotions, bodies and spirits.

In this way, he said, we would return ourselves to the innocence we were born in, the humility that is the foundation of everything.

We are watched over he said. Always. We are guided and protected by our grandmothers and grandfathers in the Spirit World, our ancestors, the Old Ones who love us regardless.

The smoke as it rises from the bowl carries our thoughts, feelings and prayers to the Spirit World and they are heard.

I watched as others smudged and when it came my turn I did as they had done. I passed the smoke over my head and over my heart, the smell of it pungent and sweet at the same time, an old smell, ancient and comforting.

When I closed my eyes to pass it over my head again I found the silence I’d been searching for all my life.

There was only breath in it. There was only the slow beating of my heart like a drum in the darkness and the feel of the presence of something warm, safe and eternal wafting around my shoulders, lifting me, cocooning me, sheltering me.

There was only the feel of hands, wrinkled and lined by time, and softened by rest and calm that touched my face and offered comfort.

I’d never believed in magic. Never put much stock in the spiritual or religious.

But in the depths of that incredible silence I came to believe that there was more to me than I’d ever dreamed, ever considered and that I’d never needed to qualify, to prove myself worthy, that I was Ojibway, that I was Indian and that I was home.

I found the Old Ones in that silence, found a balm for the clamour of my life and I’ve always felt compelled to return to it, wrap myself up in it again and again and carry on.

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