BY MADONNA HAMEL
I recently made a quick foray into Facebook to upload the latest column-Page of Mother’s Apron, the The trick with fb is to get in, get out. And no monkey business. Otherwise you’ll find yourself comparing your insides to someone else’s outsides. While fb has helped me connect with a group of cousins who have an uncanny resemblance to me and my own sisters, as well as with old art school, radio and travelling pals, fb was also where I learned of my ex’s wedding and another ex’s bizarre extra-curricular activities. I also learned of the deaths of a couple of hard-core, big-hearted friends – real friends, not warm-and-fuzzy easy-come-easy-go erztaz ‘friends’ you can ‘unfriend’ with click. (If you haven’t met, touched, or troubled each other with late night panic attack phone calls then are you really friends?)
Friends, the poet David Whyte reminds us, are there not simply to cheer on accomplishments, but exist as witnesses to fiascos, bad displays of temper, and lesser-angel pettinesses. They say: ‘let’s go for coffee’ or ‘what’s really going on?’ or ‘wow, you crashed and burned on that one, eh?’ What they are saying, of course, is: ‘you’re stuck with me. We are brothers and sisters in this as long as we’re breathing and when we’re not I’ll be looking for you on the other side’.
And sometimes those brothers and sisters are blood family. In my case, having moved around so many times, as much out of restlessness as curiousity, the one true compass in my life has been family.
Even when I didn’t realize it: My sibs and I have done our best to keep each other tethered to a kind of common sense decency tinged with mysticism. And that mysticism comes from an innate awareness of the lessons taught by the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms.
We have manouvered, fumbled, danced, staggered, knocked and balked through life’s hurts and triumphs manfully, pitifully,doubtfully and hopefully. Most always fully, if not prettily. We were schooled to be charitable and forgiving toward others, to work hard at whatever job befalls us. Mostly, we have been asked to be on good terms with others as far as is possible. While we have rarely lived up to our own self-harassing expectations, our criticisms are short-lived. We apologize in long sobs and laugh til dawn when all else fails.
We are, in short, lucky. My father tells us that over and over. He says: That was your mother. I had so little to do with your upbringing. But he took us to church on Sunday mornings and all the midnight masses. He led Hail Mary’s in the car, heading out on vacations, and paid extra to send us to rundown Catholic schools run by nuns.
In light of today’s residential school revelations it’s understandable that Catholic school would be considered more a punishment than a privilege. The Church has much to be accountable for – I can’t see how it will ever be able to atone for its numerous and heinous sins: to native children, to herbalist women, to poor families, etc etc. But we somehow we managed to acquire the never-ending yearning and longing for a deeper experience of living, perhaps because our nuns were Irish songstresses and science nerds, they were strict but fair. They were even smouldering feminists, as I recall, expecting the girls to thrive as much as the boys.
Somehow I came away from those formative years with a belief, still intact, that we are all brothers and sisters. When my black band mates from Chicago refered to me as sister, or when my friend Joseph Naytowhow, an emerging Cree elder does the same, I felt and feel honoured. I try my best to live up to a familial status. I also try to maintain a family-feeling-bond with my Buddhist, Muslim, Bahia, New Age and atheist friends, as well. I even try to suspend judgment of my born-again Christian friends.
So when I read the comments recently posted on Facebook referring to the story a black man posted about losing his job because he was a Christian, I was disturbed by the easy way so many self-proclaimed liberals dismissed his hurt. Get over it, they said. Now you know what it feels like for thousands of others, they said. They displayed not a shred of compassion. In short, they judged a man who came from a culture of judgment, and in doing became the very thing they despised. I get how that happens: I constantly catch myself judging the judgers.
I left my childhood faith for thirty years and was drawn to Buddhism, mostly because it was a faith that did not believe in conversion. Everything about it felt healthy, respectful, kind and mature. Then I made the mistake of telling the monk I was studying meditation with about the long history of nuns in the family. He suggested that I go back and look at my religious inheritance and find out why there were so many incarnations of nuns and priests and monks. You were born into Catholicism for a reason, better figure that one out, he said. Seriously? Are you kidding me?
What he was trying to tell me was not to romanticize the fresh new religion, nor vilify the familar one. We are all just people, muddling through life with the tools we’ve been given. It is not a good idea to ump from faith to faith when the going gets rough, he warned; it’s better to sit tight and mine the teachings for the core values that exist in every religion and live by those. Start where you are, start with what you’ve been given.
Now I realize, if we spend sixty years in a tradition we will inevitably see all its sides- good and bad, light and dark. Comparing might be inevitable, but if we compare the very worst of a tradition to the very best of another, it’s like comparing a freshly picked apple to a rotten orange. Best to simply remember: we are all brothers and sisters.