Tuesday, November 01, 2016

So Many Little Ones

That first Sunday in Mish, we worked on posters about the activities going on during the week. The outlying hamlets of Ace Lake, Eric Lake and Ten Houses were invited by email. It is harder for the people in these smaller communities to get to activities on the main reserve, so we wanted to reach out and include the children there, and the band kindly provided us with a school bus and driver for the week.

On Monday morning the children arrived--bright eyed, excited, full of anticipation. They poured from the bus and cars that had gone to pick them up--all ages, heights and sizes--about 100 children.

I was at the dining table when they arrived, editing some photos on my laptop. Susan had given me the grand sounding title of "Writer and Photographer in Residence," on this team.  On my last trip I had worked in the kitchen--hospitality, writing and photography are my comfort zone. I feel inexplicably shy and awkward around children so the task I'd been assigned this time was a good one.

Holly came in from the sunshine and I noticed certain look in her eyes--not quite panic--but a mute intensity as though they were signalling, "Help!" in emotional Morse code. I closed the laptop and grabbed my camera. 

Outside there was a need for every pair of hands on deck, and the children; the smart, strong, funny, resilient and independent children; didn't care if you were an introvert, they just saw another friend to help them make giant bubbles, thread beads onto a string, or take their photo to the shout of, "Picture me!" 

We learned on our feet. For the rest of the week we realized that we had to break the children into age groups, with those 4-8 years old on Tuesday and Thursday, and age 9 and up on Wednesday and Friday. We had more manageable numbers from there on. 

I went on the bus each morning and afternoon for the rest of the week, and that first day to my dismay, as the big yellow bus slowly ambled its way around the streets of the reserve, I realized that it was one thing to pick up children waiting at the curb in the morning, and quite another to drop them off at the right place in the afternoon, especially the very young ones who didn't seem to know for sure where they should get off. The older kids didn't always help--their mischievous sense of humour left me wondering if anyone got home to the right house at the end of that first day and it was to my fervent prayers that they got off the bus.

So many small humans with open hearts, and happy with small things. If they were fishers of hearts, mine was caught 100 times over.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Foundational Things

I felt beneath my pillow for my iPod. It read 6.00 a.m., although it was actually 5.00. It hadn't automatically adjusted to the correct time for Mish, but I thought that it being an hour ahead might serve as an advantage for the week, as long as I bore it in mind.

Surrounding me lay 8 air mattresses and their cargo--a sea of people in sleeping bags scattered over the floor of the large, empty classroom. I rolled over and got up as gracefully as a seal waddling from the sea.

In the dim morning light, I gripped my orange backpack filled with toiletries, and negotiated my way to the door of the classroom, trying not to disturb my friends. I left their soft breathing, and gentle stirrings behind as I gripped the handle of the classroom door and exited, as careful as a burglar.

I had found a small desk the night before, in a secluded corner of an adjoining classroom--the perfect place to have a quiet hour before each day began. I clung to this time tenaciously, knowing that there was nothing more important that I could do, and that from this time would flow any strength, grace and wisdom I could hope for. 

The first day being a Sunday, after breakfast, quick plans were made by some of us to go to Pickle Lake, for church. After a 30 minute drive from Mish, our vehicles pulled into the quiet parking lot of Pickle Lake Gospel Chapel,10 minutes late for the 10.00 a.m. service. Several cars were neatly parked outside the unadorned, white building with its backdrop of dark green boreal forest. Into the hush of a church that had gathered and settled in for service we tiptoed in as quietly as possible, but there were too many of us not to be noticed. Welcoming glances and smiles greeted us though.


Photo:  Paul and I made our way to a couple of seats beside a snazzy looking lady of about my age, sporting dangling earrings that matched her turquoise suit. I was still embarrassed at the disruption, and whispered to the sea of faces in a hushed voice, "I'm sorry we're late," and Snazzy Lady, whom I later learned is named Kathy Koper, gently punched me in the arm as I sat down next to her, and said, "That doesn't matter, we're glad you're here." 

Photo: Her welcoming words touched me. I heard in them the heart of Jesus--and our own--when some far away time in the future, we may be surprised in heaven by the late arrival of someone dear to our heart and long prayed for. I could imagine saying through tears, "It doesn't matter that you're late--you're here."  

“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community... Let him who is not in community beware of being alone... Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.” 
― Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

First Things

 The evening's priorities were taken care of: inflating 15 air mattresses and setting up the kitchen--sleep and food being among the essentials of life, after all. But the first priority for some of us was finding out the wifi password. Our friend Kendra gave sobering news--the internet at the school had been turned off for the summer. It was a moment of some adjustment to discover that fact. That is a bit of an understatement.

Paul was so exhausted by the preparations and journey that he sank onto his air-mattress the moment it was blown up and was not heard from until the next morning, but Susan pulled the rest of us together around the yellow oil-cloth covered dining table, for an initial meeting. 

First we talked about about our group's approach. This is our 12th year of connection with Mish. We go with an agenda to befriend, support and show love to the community in any way we can, sometimes responding to specific needs they mention. Our discipline is to show our faith rather than tell it. 

The First Nations peoples have a history of devastating wounds and abuse by those who came in the name of Jesus. They disrespected their culture, silenced their languages, and scorned their spiritual practices--generations of family bonds were broken almost beyond repair and unspeakable things were done to helpless children. 

So while some of us come in his Name, we come with stilled tongues but open arms. In doing so we have discovered the deep spirituality of the people, and many who have faith in Christ, in spite of everything. At times there are opportunities to pray with people, or give bibles to children, as we did this year, but we are careful, and work to be respectful of a people who are too polite to push back against pushy people. And it isn't hard to "simply love."

We thanked everyone who had joined the team and acknowledged what it meant that they had come. To a person there had been sacrifice--for some, precious, paid work was given up--yet everyone was ready to serve with all their heart.  It felt like a commissioning when we told the 7 young people that being here was a privilege, that they were about to get a better education in Aboriginal Studies than any they could get in school, and that they would have a responsibility to bear witness to what they saw over the week--to tell the truth when they heard facts distorted and prejudiced words spoken.

Next each person shared why they were there--what they hoped to gain from being on this trip. As we listened, we got to know one another better. One young person made me smile, and nod in agreement, when he said that going a week without electronics would, he thought, be, "cleansing." 

I had been on the team two years before and it had felt like a physical and spiritual boot camp. The intensity of the long days, and being together with people in such close quarters, surfaced every weakness and selfishness. I shared that experience with the team that evening to be helpful, but felt immediately as though I had been a giant wet blanket! I wished that I had not been so unintentionally negative in my "encouragement." For the rest of the evening I worked through letting go of "Me," and being as forgiving of myself as I try to be of others. Oh my! It was really time to get a good night's sleep. The waves lapped quietly on the shores of the Albany River as our air mattresses rustled and squeaked us all to sleep. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

So Many Eyes

As I continue my stories about our trip to Mishkeegogang this August, I feel it important to say that these reflections are limited to my point of view. There were 15 pairs of eyes on this trip, each with a unique perspective. Seven belonged to young people, eyes wide open, some belonged to adults who had never been on a First Nations reserve before, and some of us came with history and learning under our belts, but always learning more.

I am sure that each person could share their own interesting impressions and epiphanies and I wish you could read a broader cross section of these perspectives here. For now, though, it's my personal viewpoint and not the definitive story of the Mish trip. In visiting Mish on the web, I just discovered a fact that I did not know, and that is that it is halfway between two oceans, which you can see at the bottom of the page reached by clicking here!

About 12 hours after the journey began for those of us who flew, the long grey road from Ignace led us to signs that heralded Mishkeegogamang First Nation. Sudden energy filled each vehicle as we turned right at the corner onto Sandy Road, and peered out--our first sight of Mish. 

Sandy Road is about 4 kilometers or so long and is a bendy hill, that takes you from the community centre, past houses lining either side of the road, and eventually reaches Missabay School. 

 We passed the remnants of a burned out house, a chilling sight. We learned later, that when it caught fire there was no one home, thank God. All too often that is not the case and too many children and adults have died in house fires, something I wrote about here, For Serenity and Neesh, two years ago.

Pretty soon we had a canine welcoming committee/escort.

 The Burston name is immortalized in Mish, with our very own bend in the road--Burston's Bend. We were so honoured to see the sign still proudly up--with its warning to "proceed with caution," something Peter Burston neglected to do the year before, and learned to his everlasting embarrassment how not to navigate a hairpin bend, with a full truck. Image result for peter burston

 The first sight of the school that was to be our home for the next week, as evening drew in.

 The view from the school, that changes in every light, going from glory to glory.

Our friend, Kendra, who had ordered a Big Mac and coffee from Thunder Bay, and didn't care that it was cold. She taunted friends in the community with photos of her prizes!
I have more to tell about our first evening in Mish, but I'm going to stop here and post this for now. At least we are "there!"

Monday, September 12, 2016

Traffic Signs

The wipers kept a rhythmic beat against the September rain that gathered relentlessly on my windshield. The rain didn't bother me, though--I was grateful for the more leisurely pace of a Saturday morning as I drove down Highway 400 towards the city. 
Casually I glanced over to my right, and noticed with curiosity a silver van whose license plate had only three letters: N-U-H. 
"NUH," I thought to myself, turning the letters over in my mind, while considering their possible significance. A friend to whom I was telling this story later, guessed at, "Nothing Under Heaven;"  someone else might think they represented: Image result for no  , but to me at that moment, they rhymed with Gnu, a slope-backed type of antelope, and therefore were pronounced, "New."

"New," I said to myself..."I'm new," or "I'm new here," trying out various possibilities. 

It made me think of my own life, and how new I am in some ways lately--"new" because I finally gave up endless efforts to make myself over, and asked for heavenly help.  "I want to do this," I said to God, naming my struggle, "but I've tried so many times and failed--would you please help me?" And then I tried going into each day with my part being the "wanting to," and his part being the "helping me to." A hand-in-hand kind of thing.

This "partnership" worked so well in the first area in which I tried it, that I added another, then another, as transformations continued, while trusting for ongoing help in maintaining the earlier ones. I decided to keep a special journal in a small oblong, pink book, tied closed with ribbons, and into its pages I have confided my struggles and how God has answered my prayers for help.

As I was contemplating this I looked to my right again, at a sporty beige car with a soft brown roof. I was close enough to see the driver, a heavy-set man with a mustache and dark brown hair. The license plate of his car read, IDID8MWY--I am not kidding: "I did it my way." 

Today I opened my bible to Isaiah 30 and I saw that at some long-ago point I had drawn a big set of brackets around verses 15-19. I'm putting a link to the passage here. It really is profoundly confirming. In it God is reaching out to people determined to do it their way, while all along he waits to show grace and give help, if only they would rest from the futility of human effort.

I don't think I'll run out of areas that I need God's help in conquering anytime soon. My pink book will fill up and I will continue in another, but I pray that the pages will be a continued testament to what God can do if only we give up and give it to him sincerely.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

The True North Strong and Free

We left for the flight from Toronto Pearson Airport  to Thunder Bay, early on Saturday morning. Finally being on the way at last felt good. It was time to let go of preparing and focus forward. 

Below us, the city of Toronto, and then its suburbs, fell away, and we glimpsed fields and farming communities as the plane's powerful engines lifted us high above the clouds. 

In less than two hours we were descending again, and looking down on a beautifully rugged landscape. A river shimmered silver in the sunlight, reflecting the clouds above as it snaked its way through the green and forested landscape.

I was excited at the thought of reconnecting with the rest of the team, but was also looking forward to seeing Harriet Visitor, the grade 8 teacher whom we got to know when she brought her graduates from Mish to visit the south for a week in June. Harriet was going to be away on vacation when we'd be in Mish, and we were disappointed that we wouldn't see her, but the week before we left, Harriet had messaged me to say that she and her family were in Thunder Bay, and asked for our flight details as she wanted to bring her husband and daughter to meet us at the airport.

Before we connected with her though, as we emerged into the arrival lounge, Holly spotted an airport staffer and hailed him like a long lost friend, with a warm, "Hi Bartlett!"

Bartlett looked at her with a slightly embarrassed smile, saying, "I'm searching for a name..."

Holly broke into peals of laughter as she pointed to his identification badge and Bartlett smiled on, relieved, I think, to be off the hook.

And then Harriet and her husband appeared, with their sweet daughter, who was tricked out of her initial shyness by the irrepressible Holly, who engaged her in a spontaneous game of peek-a-boo, which quickly escalated to an ever more boisterous game of tag.

 I thanked Holly later for showing me how easy it is to build rapport with a child. I can feel shy and awkward with little ones, but she demonstrated for me that the secret is to forget myself and just look a child in the eye--making contact! I practiced this lots over the days ahead--relaxing and enjoying the children. This was one of my first gifts of the trip.

 All too soon it was time to say goodbye and get on our way. 

Paul had booked a compact car but when he went to pick it up, the compact cars had all been rented out. For the inconvenience, the dealership upgraded us to a roomier and more luxurious Nissan, which really proved to be a blessing in ferrying people and supplies around. 

Susan, our trip coordinator, gave us last minute instructions on how to get out of Thunder Bay before our convoy set off for our next destination, the small, northern community and river called English River, where Susan's husband, Ron, had suggested we stop for lunch. Ron knows the province well through his profession of Ontario and Canada Land Surveyor, so his recommendations bear weight.

We eventually and gratefully rolled into the parking lot of the Black Spruce Motel and diner. Susan had thoughtfully called them the day before, to forewarn them of the pending invasion of 15 people all at once for lunch, which proved to be a good thing to have done. The waitress managed us all with calm professionalism, while admitting to panic the day before.

 The restaurant proved to be a gem, living up to Ron's recommendation, both in food and ambiance. 
Susan spotted a party of people at one of the tables, with someone she recognized: Judy Maunula, or Chief White Cloud of Lac Des Mille Lacs First Nation, a band with whom Susan's husband has worked professionally.

When I saw that there was home-made pie on the menu, how could I not sample the work of of a fellow pie maker? Susan and I shared this delicious slice of blueberry pie and gave it full marks! 

 We still had far to go, so refreshed, we set off again. At the town of Ignace we left Highway 17, for the secondary highway 599, which would take us all the way to Mish, passing along the way, the Arctic Watershed. North of it, all water drains into Hudson's Bay, while rivers, lakes and streams to the south flow into the Great Lakes. We also entered a new time zone here, one hour behind southern Ontario. We followed a grey road with an ochre ribbon dividing it and boreal forest on either side, for about 4  hours. Along the way, a bear cub ambled out of a ditch and across the road and we spotted a bull moose in the trees at the side of the road. We  were entering a place of much natural beauty and abundant wild-life and within a few hours we would be in Mishkeegogamang--a new place to some of us, but to others a place that we have grown to love over many years. The adventure was truly about to begin.