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To the heart of the world’s woe

There’s a fire in the woodstove. Against the winter night our home in the mountains is cozy and there’s a fine feeling of being settled, set, rooted in. This is our fourth winter here. We’ve come to appreciate the bite...

There’s a fire in the woodstove. Against the winter night our home in the mountains is cozy and there’s a fine feeling of being settled, set, rooted in.

This is our fourth winter here. We’ve come to appreciate the bite of the wind and the cut of the snow just as much as we’ve come to love the deepness of the darkest of the long nights.

It took us a long time to find this place. Deb and I are both in our early 50s and like a lot of Canadian couples, the road of our lives wound its way through a plethora of experiences and encounters with the country. Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s the plowing through the significant drifts of memory that allows you to occupy space elegantly. It’s either that or the acquired feel of hard work abating gradually.

It’s home. In its sequestered kind of comfort the turmoil in the world can sometimes seem far away. Or it can be strikingly immediate. It amazes me, really, how the world can rear

up and show its feral fangs. It takes you aback and it’s generally sometime before you regain a sense of equilibrium.

See, we visited a school last week. There are usually a handful of calls each year from schools asking me to come and bring my stories, my writing or to come and talk about the writer’s life and how I got there. We’re always glad to go. The energy of students is compelling and it brings out the best in me. I’ve told some of my best tales in a classroom and I love it.

But this school was different. It’s called The Storefront and I think it got its name from the fact that its original home was in an abandoned store. Regardless, it serves as an alternative school for displaced aboriginal youth, kids who for one reason or another, don’t fit and can’t make it in the regular education system.

For me, a high school dropout who only ever completed Grade 9, I can relate to that. So I went with a feeling of great expectation for what I saw as a chance to reach some kids whose histories likely bore stark resemblance to my own. What I encountered made me want to cry.

There were six of them. That was fine. There’s often an intimacy to small groups that evokes wonderful things. But this group was so low key and disengaged that I struggled for something to say.

Normally, I can reach kids pretty easily. I tell jokes and stories until I establish a rapport. But these students would not raise the heads to look at me. They would not engage.

Instead, they sat there as though waiting for the cue to run into the street and away as fast as they could. We could feel the spiritual emptiness, the lack of energy, the hopelessness and it made us want to run away too.

But we stayed. I struggled through as long as I could, until my own energy flagged, until my enthusiasm dried up in the face of that detached cold, that solemn, pervasive malaise. I walked out feeling defeated. Melancholic. A tad on the hopeless side myself.

Those students were somebody’s kids. They were the continuation of a line. They were the future of their families, their bands, their people — and they walked like they bore wet bags of cement on their shoulders. I drove through the streets of town and we began to talk about the feeling that inhabited that place.

We’d both felt it right away. But then both of us are orphans in a way, both raised as someone else’s child, both all too familiar with the shaving of the square peg to fit the round hole. It’s never the pounding in that hurts you. It’s the shaving.

It takes a whole community to raise a child. I heard that somewhere. It struck me then, as it strikes me now, that the writers were not referring to a community in its entirety — they were referring to its collective well being. Whole. Balanced. In harmony. Those kids I saw that day did not spring from the kind of community.

I’m not just saying native kids. I mean all kids. Everyone deserves the right to grow in a community that cares for its own regardless of stripe. The longer we, as a social community, allow kids to suffer in any way, the longer we languish as a spiritually impoverished community.

The problems of this world are not political. They never have been. They are spiritual and it takes spirituality to solve them. That in the end is our gravest challenge. Find a spiritual way to deal with each other and the planet or we die. Kids first.

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, arrives in August from Doubleday. He can be reached at