There are memories that inhabit you like light. When you go to them the world changes by degree and you become the one you were when you created them, younger, nimbler, stronger, more beautiful perhaps.
And in their light you’re graced with the ability to dream again, to become as naïve or hopeful or determined and gritty as you were back then — and you reclaim yourself.
That’s the gift of living long enough to garner a shelf full of memories. You get to see yourself in all kinds of lights, and if you’re lucky, if you’re very, very lucky, you smile a little wistfully at the people and the places you’ve inhabited along the way.
When I was 12, I had a friend who changed my world. His name was Ricky Lark and he was fast. He was the fastest kid I ever met and for a time he was my best friend.
We lived in a farming community called Mildmay in Bruce County in southwestern Ontario. It was an area of hereditary farms, of land passed on from father to son in a long, unbroken line, of permanence and traditions.
The German families around us had names like Dietz, Schultz and Eckensweiler.
I was the adopted kid and the only Indian in the school. Rick’s mom was single and she and Rick and his sister Rebecca were as odd, in their way, to the staunch farmer families around us as I was.
I guess it was the different nature of our families and the mutual feeling of being outsiders that brought us together and we fell into friendship easily.
Ricky Lark could flat-out run. I never saw him lose a race and, on the baseball field, he stole every base he tried.
We loved baseball. That was the other thing.
For us at 12, baseball was the only game in the universe.
We collected baseball cards, read books and magazines and talked on the phone while watching the Game of the Week every Saturday.
We worked hard at learning the skills of it. There were hours and hours of throwing and hitting and sliding. We needed speed to be the best at it, and Ricky took it upon himself to give it to me.
He’d come to our house in the country and we’d race. The driveway leading to our farmhouse was a couple hundred metres long and we’d run it until it got too dark to see.
It had an upwards cant to it and the running was hard, but we raced until we couldn’t breathe.
Every time I’d stumble towards the finish line to the shouts of Ricky Lark saying, “Come on Wagamese, it’s the bottom of the ninth and we need you home!”
I never beat him. I never even came close.
But he never allowed me to quit, never made anything easier for me by slowing down or easing up at the end.
Instead, he challenged me and in the chasing after him, in the sweat and the grunt and the game of running, I learned to endure and to persist.
We moved when I was 13. My adoptive family moved a lot in those years and my life was a constant set of new faces and new situations.
Ricky Lark was the first and best friend I ever had. But we moved, and after a while the telephone calls got farther and farther apart and our friendship faded into the hubbub and turmoil of adolescence.
I only saw him once more after that. But it was winter then and running was difficult.
When I walked away that last time I found myself wishing for summer.
I’m almost 52 now. I’ve been the only Indian in a lot of situations. I’ve lived and survived most every facet of the life we call Indian, Ojibway or First Nations.
Along the way I’ve reinvented myself a number of times trying to snare that elusive quality called identity.
I’ve taken up the nomadic lifestyle of my ancestors and moved around and lived in a score of towns and cities looking for the place I could feel at home in.
In my travels I’ve seen and felt the hand of racism and I learned to practice the same politics of exclusion — the curious twist of thinking that says only those who look like me are part of me.
It’s a natural enough reaction, I suppose. There’s some degree of protection in surrounding yourself with sameness.
There’s a measure of safety living in a closed community and if you carry a feeling of lostness within you, it can be slaked some by the proximity to people who look like you.
The paradox is that when no one different gets in, your world lacks colour. That process of exclusion only made me lonely, even bitter sometimes and wondering what it is within us that makes us feel different from one another. Or need to be.
When I was 12, there were no white men and there were no Indians. There was only baseball.
There was only life and the friendship of a blue-eyed kid who could run like the wind.
When I go there now the light is the same as I remember it to be. There’s only the subtle shadings of belonging, of sameness, of the love of something beyond ourselves and the joy we found in that together.
That’s the thing, really.
Learning to love something beyond yourself.
When you can do that, when you can expand yourself to include something as foreign as a game, a skill, another person, you find parts of yourself you never knew existed.
In that we’re all the same. All of us. Indian or not.
I can thank Ricky Lark for that.
And the reward is that one day, when my eyes close for the last time, there will be the voice of a blue-eyed kid shouting at me from the finish line saying, “Come on Wagamese, it’s the bottom of the ninth and we need you home!”
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Dream Wheels and Keeper’n Me.