There are moments here when the light comes to fill you. When the sun floods across the peak of the far mountain and everything is thrown into a veil of red you can feel it enter you, lift you, become you.
Or storm mornings when grey is the desolate cloak of the world and you can feel it slip between your ribs, roil there, become your breath.
There are moments too, when the air inhabits you. Times when clarity rules and the fine line between air and light vanishes so that when you close your eyes you can feel yourself drifting, inflated with it, becoming stardust again, weightless, glittering, eternal.
I don’t know what it is about this seamless blend of air and light that compels me, only that something in me understands that to stand in it, if even briefly, allows me grace enough to live one day. So I come here on these mountain mornings of the world to commune, assume and carry on.
For a long time there was a particular shade of grey, a specific tone of light that perplexed me. It resided at the edges of mornings like these and I could feel it like a chill spearing its way inside me.
It sat there cold and desolate making me always a little afraid of mornings, always a little skittish over the grey of dawn, ever vigilant over aloneness.
It was never constant. That was the confusing thing. Only sometimes, only on occasion, only making random appearances and rattling me with the intensity of its ache.
I thought for a time that I was crazy. I’d heard of phengophobia, the fear of daylight, but it didn’t express the woe that certain shades of light struck me with. I was filled with a purple feeling, all sad, heavy and lonely.
Through therapy I discovered the root of it.
When I was small my family lived in the bush of northern Ontario. It was 1958 and I was two. They were struggling to hang on to a nomadic cultural way that time, change and the accumulated wounds of it had inflicted on them.
They’d survived the residential schools but bore the sting of the whips in their hearts and minds. The bush and bush living had become their hope.
But unhealed pain is toxic pain. It’s inflicted on those around us, those closest to us, the ones we love.
My family struggled with an awesome burden. They’d had the Indian stripped off of them, made to feel lessened, helpless, ignorant, savage, dumb and powerless.
They’d been reduced to a spiritual beggary, kneeling at the feet of the nuns and priests, beseeching direction, acknowledgment and fulfillment. It was given, a dollop at a time, in the form of rigorous discipline, harsh punishment and steep religious fear.
They were told their way was dead and that the new world had no room for Indians, only obedient servants of the white God. They were told their beliefs were wrong and that nothing in their worldview worked anymore.
They were told that to live as a savage was an abomination and they needed to be cleansed of it. So they were washed in the blood of the Lamb, astringent, scouring, lethal.
In the bush they wrestled with demons. They were haunted by the image of those days just as they were haunted by the parts of themselves that had atrophied, shrunk and died. If they drank to exorcise those demons, to drown the ache of whips and beatings and abuses, it’s understandable.
One day in February of 1958 it all came to a head. There was a load of furs to be sold. The money was still good back then and there was plenty to go around.
We were camped across the bay from Minaki, a tiny railroad stop along the Winnipeg River 80 miles north of the Lake of the Woods. They left us kids at camp to head to town for supplies.
My sister Jane says that there was a good supply of firewood and food so at first it was OK. Then days passed. The firewood dwindled and the food was gone. I was crying from the cold and hunger. Still they didn’t return.
The days stretched on and Jane and Jack, who were the oldest, got worried. It was deep winter in the North and without firewood we would freeze to death.
So one morning they piled Charles and me on a toboggan, covered us with furs and blankets and pulled us across the snow and ice. It took hours to cross that bay. It was a grey morning, cold and bleak and my sister says it was only the effort of pulling us that kept her and Jack alive. I lay on my back with only my face stuck out in the freeze, huddled against my brother for warmth.
When we reached Minaki they hauled us up to the railroad station. The wind was bitter. We found a corner away from the cut of the wind and huddled there together. By the time the Ontario Provincial Police found us we were next to frozen. They picked us up and turned us over to the care of the Children’s Aid Society.
The woe that was triggered by the pallid light of dawn was the despair of a toddler abandoned in the bush. It was the cry of a child, helpless, frozen, hungry and afraid. It was the grief of a separation never understood, never explained and never resolved. When I touched it again I wept.
My family has never acknowledged the truth and they never will; that they got drunk and forgot about us. Owning it hurts too much and dealing with hurt was something they were never taught in those schools meant to save them. Instead, they carry on trusting in the absolution of years but the wounds still fester.
Me? I wake up to the glory of all the mornings of the world. There is no room or time for blame, only forgiveness and this seamless blend of light and air filling me, lifting me, healing me, recovering me.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.