leo rozema and taking flight

The sky that illustrates the curve of this mountain is an impossible blue. Cloudless, it becomes at once near enough to touch and as distant as a…

The sky that illustrates the curve of this mountain is an impossible blue.

Cloudless, it becomes at once near enough to touch and as distant as a star.

You could fall into it. That’s how it feels. And in that tumbling, cartwheel spin into eternity you could feel yourself loosen the bounds of earth and become star stuff again.

It’s entrancing. Within it are secrets, mysteries and wishes. That’s why we stare at it so. That’s why in the grip of the glory that are sunsets, we come to the edges of our world to watch, be awed and feel like kids again, enraptured, allured, calmed some by the look and feel and wash of a common, enduring magic.

Maybe something in us understands how much of it we carry. Perhaps there’s an elemental memory of comets, stardust, whirlwinds and cosmic particles deep inside us that make us one with sky and one with space.

I wonder if, as my people say, Star People graced us with teachings once and part of us recalls it.

When I was 13 my adopted family moved to the city from the small southwestern Ontario farm where we’d lived for three years. I’d been close to happy there. The land was healing and I spent long solitary hours with it.

The move to St. Catherine’s, Ontario, was fraught with anxiety for me. It was 1969 and since 1965 when I was adopted, it would be my fourth move.

I never got the chance to settle. I never got the chance to experience sanctuary, the measure of refuge that comes when you can wrap a home, a place, a geography around you.

Leaving that farm was a tragedy of acute proportions and there was nothing I could say about it.

But I had writing. I don’t know how many stories and poems I committed to paper those first months. It was summer, school was out and if you didn’t have a circle of friends, you were out of the loop. It was incredibly lonely and sad. But I had writing.

They never really got that. My adopted parents were pragmatic, concrete thinkers and there were no grey areas or room for flights of fancy or imagination. Everything was regimen. Everything was an obdurate discipline.

For them my poetry was ‘flowery’ worthy of a giggle, a man penning silly verse. My stories were ‘wild’ not worthy of consideration beyond a belly laugh.

They never got that I found freedom there. They never got that in my wild stories and flowery verse I could return to the feelings of worthiness and equality I found on the land and under the sky.

They never got that what was left of the Indian in me found its expression in creativity or that if I could imagine permanence I could believe it existed.

When I got to Grade 8 that fall I was ushered into the world of big city teens. It was incredible. The farm kids I’d come to know had little use for fashion, pose and attitude.

Their world was simple and straightforward. But here, life was a jumble of motion, of necessity, of learning the code and adopting it. I felt isolated and lonely again.

So I did what every lonely, scared kid would do in order to fit in. I did what everyone else was doing. I hung out on the corner and smoked cigarettes. I talked trash and acted hip.

I paid more attention to the acceptance of my peers than the marks I was bringing home. But the more I worked at fitting in the more trouble brewed at home. It wasn’t long before I was restricted in everything.

My life became a walk to school and back. Then, it was four hours in my room each night to study. Except that I didn’t study. I wrote. I wrote stories and plays and poems about the kind of life I imagined every other kid was having, a life that wasn’t restricted to the cloister of a small room, stories of hopes, dreams, happy endings and skies boundless and impossibly blue.

And I never showed them any of them.

But my teacher that year was a man named Leo Rozema. He was Dutch and still held a smidgen of the accent. He had a big nose and grey hair and all the kids made fun of him.

His white shirts leaned to grey. His ties were out of fashion and he smelled of cigarettes. But there was something about Mr. Rozema that I trusted, maybe something in the fact that he had to work so hard at being accepted, that he had to fight to be himself, too. So I showed him my stories.

One day there was a brown envelope on my desk. When I opened it there was a letter along with my stories. Mr. Rozema wrote out in longhand a poem called High Flight. It described a pilot’s fascination with the sky.

“And while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod, the high untrespassed sanctity of space, put out my hand and touched the face of God.”

That’s how the poem went and he wrote about how my writing reminded him of that. He called me a great writer because I could make him feel things. He praised me and told me to keep going. I did.

I am a writer today because of Leo Rozema. He was the first adult in my adopted life that actually saw me, heard me, got me.

From my writing he gleaned the ache I carried and he offered the salve of praise and recognition. He knew my struggle and he was wise enough to separate the kid from the report card.

We live with pieces of the sky inside us. In our cells is the very mystery of space. We take flight when we’re shown it and the arc of our travel is wonderful to see, the trail of it incandescent, joined to an impossible blue. 

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

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