Raising Bi-cultural, Bi-racial Children

Yesterday, my piece on raising bi-cultural, bi-racial children appeared in the Facts and Arguments section of the Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s national newspapers.

Raising Bi-Cultural ChildrenIt was really a treat to be involved in the editing process, and I’m thrilled with how the article ended up, except for the title, which presumably had to be catchy and slightly edgy. I’m not a big user of the word ‘hate’, and the article was not meant entirely as a reaction against the phrase we are often greeted with, ‘one of each’. Rather, it is about the multiplicity of identity, and the ways in which culture, ethnicity and religion can sometimes intertwine, though clearly culture is not ethnicity, nor is it a monolithic, fixed entity.

It is also about the tendency I’m seeing in Canada towards monoculture, not only in the sense of the Code of Secularism and the hesitance surrounding displays of faith, but in the de-culturing of school winter concerts away from multicultural winter solstice celebrations of light towards a more decontextualized Disney pantomime that often does not even reference the season of winter.

Finally, it is about the personal journey of identity and how I hope to be sharing positively in that with my kids, and their bi-racial, bi-cultural context.

Here’s the link to the article:  Two of a Kind

Ritual Remembered

It was at camp I felt first the intensity of friendship, the expansive continence of a piece of land that one knows by tramping its paths, and the nerve-tingling power of collective ritual.

The boundaries of Camp Oconto were defined on two sides by sacred space: the outdoor chapel at one end, tucked in the forest between eagle section and the stables; and the tribal council ring at the furthest flung area to the West. Of the two, the council ring was the most sacred to me, because it was a place we never went except within the pageantry of that one ritual: the commemoration of the peace talks of Hiawatha.

As twilight descended, we walked single file in processional silence, past all the tan tents on square wooden decks in which we lived, toward the bare ring surrounded by tightly placed, spiked branches, like an old native fortification. Along the path, the Quarter Counselors stood frozen in torch-lit scenes. They posed mute in fringed leather costumes while 300 girls, draped in wool blankets, filed past. As I moved beyond the last group of tents, up over the rise and down into an open pasture, the first scene glowed out of the darkness. A girl stood, tomahawk raised in a struggle against a warrior. We trod slowly, the solemnity of the depictions only enriched by the smell of burning kerosene and the fizzling of a torch up ahead. Around the next bend, a girl was poised mid-step at the side of an unsaddled, dappled horse. We continued on in the cool dark of the spaces in between, half expectant of what was to come, and half savouring the respite of the lacy shadows of lonely poplars. A glimmer on the path ahead eventually revealed two figures crouching over a large animal skin they were scraping clean. Finally the walls of the council ring rose in front of us, and in a moment we were inside, seated in large concentric circles for the peace games.

After the games we proceeded back to the beach by the flagpole where a lone canoe was already halfway out to snake island. There the legendary Hiawatha would build a fire as we stood on the beach to witness the beginning of his solitary journey. And finally, the peak moment came. Hiawatha called out over the still, black lake towards the beach, to bid farewell to his love, as he continued his journey to unite the six tribes of the Iroquois nation.

“I Hiawatha begin this journey, not knowing if I will ever return.”

“Go in peace, Hiawatha. We, your people, await your return.”

Their voices echoed, and I shivered at the first falsetto note, even though my tent mate Leslie and I were huddled together under both blankets now, our arms over each others’ shoulders, opposite hands clutching the blankets beneath our chins. Nothing could top tribal council.

Nothing except the cherished but dreaded sharing of the flame, a procession that took place on the last night of camp, from the chapel all the way down to the flagpole beach. Sitting in the outdoor chapel on half-log benches, we endured the closing remarks waiting until finally it was time to light the candles and get into position for the walk of friendship and good byes. Girls lined the path on both sides as we walked through the middle, dipping our flame into those of girls on either side so that for a moment, the flames became one.

“Oh no, not you, I can’t!” The girl in front of me exclaimed, bursting into a howling sob as she hurled herself into the arms of the friend she had to pass.

Looking at the ground occasionally to navigate a cedar root, I walked, intent on the illuminated faces of each girl against the rich absorbing browns of the woods. We moved together under the witnessing moon, reverently passing the light of solidarity, present to the tear-soaked faces. We cried, I think, not only for the loss of individual friends, but for the ritual, the tight-knit medieval sense of community, all of the things that, outside of these spaces, was already lost to us.

How to Play Hearts

“It’s easy,” said her mother. “I’ll sit with you for a hand if you like.”

“No, that’s ok. You be the 4th. Just tell me the rules,” she said. They hadn’t been on a family vacation together in years. Now that there were grandkids, the family seemed to coalesce around the idea of spending more time together, and going to further flung places, since they no longer had the cottage. And so Gina found herself at an old oak card table in Maine, surrounded by the glow of a half-dozen Tiffany lamps with her father, mother and 10-year old nephew, Caleb.

“So basically hearts are points,” Caleb explained, “and you don’t want ‘em. And the Queen of Spades is mega points, 13, so you have to avoid her.”

“Ok. How do you avoid getting hearts?”

“We all lay down a card in turn to play a trick,” her mother explained methodically. “The first card leads, and you have to play a card in that suit if you have one or you can throw them your worst if you’re void in that suit. Whoever has played the highest card in the suit that was lead has to take the trick. So the object is to take no tricks with points.”

Rule 1: Play low cards – take no tricks.

“But first we get to pass some junk to our neighbour,” her dad gloated.

“I’ve got some good stuff for you, gramp.”

“I know I can always count on you, Cale.”

“She just gave me the Jack of Diamonds,” complained her mother.

“Not the Jack of Diamonds. That’s worth minus 10. You want to try to keep that.”

“You didn’t tell me that.”

“But sometimes you’re better able to get it if someone else has it, so this could be ok,” her mother reconsidered. “Now you know I have it. Actually, I always lose it if I’m dealt it.”

Rule 2: Read between the lines. Keep the Jack of Diamonds if you happen to have it.

“I dealt, so I start the first round, which is a safe round,” instructed her dad.

“What do you mean a safe round?” she asked.

“It means you can put down our highest cards because no one can play anything worth any points.”

“Ok.”

“Good. So now we really begin. You took that with your ace, so you lead the second trick.”

“We usually lead with low clubs to start. Clubs are usually a safe suit,” her mother chimed in.

Rule 3: Lead with low clubs.

Right after she played the Five of Clubs, her nephew tossed a card on top chanting, “The Queen comes out! The Queen comes out!”

“Am I ever glad I have the Two,” her dad chuckled.

“Oh brother!” her mother exclaimed. “I can’t believe I’m taking this with a measly Six of Clubs! I’m a bad example.”

“I thought you said clubs were a fairly safe suit.”

“I forgot these two try to void clubs. Usually you can’t do that so early in the hand!”

“Caleb gave me a few fairly low clubs, so I guessed he was close,” her dad said. “You can tell a lot by what people pass you.”

Rule 4: You can tell a lot about people by what they pass you.

“This is going to be relaxing – now we don’t have to worry about the Queen,” Cale settled back into his chair with bravado.

“Very good. You did pretty well that hand. This time we pass left.”

“If I get dealt the Queen of Spades, should I pass her or keep her?” she asked.

“Good question.” Her dad loved strategy. “If you have a lot of spades and can protect her, you should keep her and void in another suit so you can slough her off on someone else. If, on the other hand, you don’t have many spades, you should pass her.”

“What do you mean protect her?” she asked.

“Well if you have only one spade, someone like gramps here, will lead spades over and over to try to make someone eat her!” her nephew explained with a wry grin. “That’s happened to me many times.”

“Oh – so if you have no other spades you have to play her on yourself.”

“Yeeeesz,” Cale nodded, his teeth barred. “Vera nasty!”

Rule 5: Pass the Queen if you can’t protect her.

“Now we know you might be passing her, but that’s ok. Training round,” he quipped.

“You took the safe trick again. Now you have to lead,” her mother sighed.

“I thought I was supposed to get rid of my highest stuff on the first trick,” Gina protested.

“Yes, but you also don’t want to lead if possible.”

Rule 6: Don’t play your Ace first thing.

“Why would you lead a low Diamond?” her mother asked exasperated.

“I thought clubs were no good because these two void in clubs!”

“Yes, but you never lead a low Diamond.”

“Why?”

“Because then if someone has the Jack, like the last person to lay down a card in the trick, then they can take it. You want to try to make them give you the Jack, if not with an Ace, King or Queen, by their having to play it at the end, on another suit. Whoever’s leading at the end of the game can sometimes get the Jack by default.”

Rule 7: Never lead low Diamonds! Even if you’re losing you could luck out at the end of the game.

“So that leaves only low Spades, now.”

“That depends. If you’ve got the Two or Three of Clubs, play it.”

“But she’s already played the Diamond, so let’s just continue with that.”

“You see – I didn’t play my Ace, because there’s no guarantee of getting the Jack this early on, so we’ve played right into your father’s hand,” her mother chuckled, shaking her head.

“Thank you very much!”

Rule 8: Playing last in the trick has its advantages.

“Looks like trouble in River City!” Cale called out as he plunked down the Queen of Spades on his grandmothers Four of Clubs.

“The Dirty Lady!”

“What! Don’t tell me – that’s the second time I’ve taken her!”

“The second trick seems a little dangerous.”

“That was the third,” Cale corrected.

“You did the right thing, you see,” her dad offered. “You played your Three and didn’t have to take the Queen. Sometimes early on people try to get rid of middle cards like 8, 9 and 10 to get rid of them while it’s safe.”

“Yeah, but the 10 always takes it!” her nephew warned.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s just an expression,” her dad chuckled. “Cale likes these expressions.”

Rule 9: The 10 always takes it.

Vision

This poem, also published in ASH (Number 3, Volume 1), is written in French. Writing in a second language is an interesting way of trying to get at images that consolidate a feeling or an experience. The writing may be sparser and more immediate.

Here the cigarette butt that continues to glow after having been tossed in damp grass becomes a faithful pilot light. But this human artifact simply reflects the greater backdrop of the rays of setting sun reddening fallen pine needles that catch its light between the trees.

Vision

Au crépuscule, les raies dorées dans la forêt
Le vent dans les pins, cheveux noirs contre les bouleaux
Mon mégot jeté sur l’herbe humide brûle encore
Une veilleuse fidèle dans le bois déjà en flammes

Describing Ourselves into Being

I wrote my first poem at 10, I believe, and interestingly,that poem is very much in keeping with the subjects of my writing today. Around that age, I began asking my parents spiritual questions. My parents were committed to the idea that each person find their own questions and steer their own way toward possible answers. This allowed me a wonderful freedom of exploration, but with only the background materials of literature, nature and the impulse toward finding the sacred in mundane life experience. My family’s quiet retreats in nature were ripe with opportunity for this type of inquiry, and I savoured my connection with the natural world through writing.

Flying was my first published poet, and appeared in ASH: Arts, Sciences and Humanities, Number 2, Volume 1, in 1994. I wrote it while living in Dijon, France, in the fall of 1992. I remember sitting down to write it out at one of the front tables at Café Granjib on the market square in the cobbled city centre . It is a distillation of the experience of viewing the flight path of birds just before a storm from my room in a mansard roof, an old ‘chambre de bonne’, or nanny’s quarters, that offered incredible views out over the rooftops toward the horizon.

Flying

Leaning out the window,
swallows just above my head circle around and around.
I look up and am lost in a spiral of sensations,
transported to the height of my ideas,
spiritual heights just beneath the clouds.
Flapping lower down,
they glide in a swift orbit between the parallel
limestone blocks, here and back and around again,
flapping and chirping,
entranced in a kind of rhythmic ecstasy.
In pairs, and fours,
the swallows play at the height of my rooftop room.
Another electric storm will soon lash out across the sky
cutting the gracefully insistent lasso in mid-flight.
Then, they will rise again.
My eyes mark an imaginary cone.
I am holding the invisible string.
Around and around by the force of the wind,
held in orbit by a central spirit, they are grounded,
yet free to fly.