Some musicians are like surgeons. They wield their soulfulness like scalpels and when they play they slice through the fat of our living to reveal the white, glistening bone of truth in everything.
It’s why we return to them. To become shattered again by the force of that extreme vulnerability — the neat laying open to what lies beneath.
There’s an economy to such honesty. Only the very special ones have it. There’s a leanness, a spareness to it where only the muscle moves and the fluidity creates that very particular magic of music — to create silence in us.
Miles Davis had that for me. When his horn cut through the air I felt opened up, exposed and the pure, vibrato-less keening of that trumpet was a healing force in my life.
The economy of it became something I sought to create in my living — that driving, non-wavering note, triumphant and clear.
My life had been the opposite for a long time. It had its beginning just after I was born.
My family lived in the bush and struggled to maintain the vestige of a traditional Ojibway life. They were seasonal gypsies moving about our traditional territory according to need and game.
All of them, those generations just after my great-grandparents, had been dislocated and placed in residential schools.
There, the process of excising the Indian had robbed them of their soul and they returned to the land hollowed, incapable anymore of relating to it in a holistic way.
Instead, they moved about it like ghosts prowling a mourning ground, wandering around waiting for the land to heal them.
It didn’t. It couldn’t.
Rather, they became embittered, angry and drunk. When I was born our tribal life had mutated into something ugly and different and we kids were neglected often, abandoned and abused.
The great spiritual way of the Ojibway had been expunged by the nuns and priests and in its place was only hurt, terrible, unhealed and vented on the closest ones.
The note of my life was muted, weak and unsustained.
When I was still a toddler I was assaulted. My left arm was shattered and torn from its socket, the shoulder joint broken.
It was 1955, and the doctors at the hospital in Kenora had little time for another Indian kid from the bush and they attended to me in only the most cursory way.
As a result my left arm hung backwards, the palm of my hand turned outward and it atrophied and shrunk.
By the time I was five it was next to useless. When I was seven the Children’s Aid Society finally chose to try and help me. They sent me to the hospital in Thunder Bay where doctors rebroke my shoulder joint, turned the arm around so it would hang properly and attached a tendon from my ring finger to my thumb.
It had atrophied so badly I still have no thumb muscle today and the tendon was so I could move it normally.
It was an advanced surgery for 1963.
My left arm was suddenly mobile and I could flex my elbow and my fingers and for the first time I could play like an ordinary kid. But the muscles were gone and would never grow back.
My left arm was a stick arm. As I grew it stayed the same except for length and I became ashamed and secretive and went to great lengths to hide it as best I could.
I refused to wear short sleeved shirts and I wore a jacket even in the hottest weather.
In photographs I always tried to turn my right side to the camera.
For me, my left arm was the sign of my inadequacy. There was always a mirror, always a reflective surface that showed me the great, indisputable truth of my lack, of my inability to ever measure up, to be normal.
To hide it was the only way I could feel secure and that was always fleeting at best.
See, I never knew what happened to me. It was only in my 40s when the truth came out and I came to understand how my arm had become so ruined. Up until then it was a mystery and I felt ugly, unworthy and incomplete.
I had no truth and I created elaborate falsehoods about the nature of my handicap. With each denial the acceptance that nurtures healing was impossible.
My left arm remained ugly until I learned to see it differently. It took a therapist to get me there. Together we worked through the dense clouds of memory, all the name-calling, insults and pitying looks from people that had created the identity of ugliness in me.
I learned to see all the things that I had learned to do despite the great wounding.
I’d become a good athlete. I’d learned to play guitar without a thumb muscle and a tendon in my ring finger.
I’d learned to type. I rode horses, canoed, fished, hunted, worked in heavy labour and performed the routine day-in, day-out acts of living.
My left arm wasn’t a handicap — it was a motivator to normal living.
It’s a scar of residential schools, really. It came from there. Even though I’m a generation away from direct impact I was still affected and my life was turned on its axis because of their presence in our country’s history.
But we heal. Indian and non, we heal. It takes great talk and risk and vulnerability to get to the glistening bone of truth — that we are all responsible for our own healing.
No one else can get us there and there certainly isn’t enough money anywhere to achieve it for us.
These days, I think my left arm is beautiful. It’s no longer a sign of my inadequacy. Rather, it’s a sign of my enduring spirit, of my ability to triumph over adversity, to become all that I can be, to win against all odds, to survive and reach my maximum potential, to live in my identity.
It’s the pure, vibrato-less note of my living, residential schools or not.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.