Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Belonging and Being Canadian

In 2004, when I first came to Vancouver from Australia many things took my breath away. Perhaps to you kangaroos, kookaburras, and koalas might seem just as strange, but the first time I saw a bear and her cubs, a deer, skunks, a family of racoons crossing a busy street and people stopping traffic to let them; snow-capped mountains at the edge of the city, and snow in my front yard, I had to stop and make sure I was awake and not watching something out of National Geographic.

And many things confused me: Traffic going the wrong way with signal lights on the other side of the intersections (did that throw off my depth perception or what!), lilting accents, 25 cent coins, what a loonie was and why, and what ice hockey was all about.

Seasons passed and I became comfortable with the main difference between my previous homeland and my new one; Australians are loud and laid-back, Canadians are polite and laid-back. (Of course this is a generalisation, there are always exceptions) But one true thing eluded me: what it meant to be a Canadian. Before I could call myself one, I had to know what that meant. Not just my compilation of what Canadians do.

To live in this country, to commit to this country, I had to include more than being in a relationship with a Canadian in my reasoning.

I paid attention to provincial and federal politics, watched the news and read opinions, and after a few years of observation, many library searches, and asking my friends complex and disconcerting questions, all I had to show for my effort was a picture that really didn’t make any sense. After all this time and research I’d only figured out what Canadians weren’t and didn’t do.

It seemed to me that Canada was a collection of individuals scattered between three oceans. Individual people and individual provinces who appeared to be going in different directions. I couldn’t understand what had held it together for all this time. Reading ‘Ocean to Ocean’ by Iggy’s great-grandpa Sandford Fleming certainly didn’t help. (although it did make for some interesting reading all by itself)

Then I spent a couple of weeks watching the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The legacy of the Games will be debated here in Vancouver and in the hearts of political movers and shakers, heatedly and quietly, for a while yet, but that’s not I’m writing about, others will do that. I alternated between mushy tears and amazement as I wallowed in the stories and achievements of those wonderful athletes. But it was only half the picture.

Apart from all the hype, the lack of new snow on the mountain, and the sheer emotional steamroller-effect of the whole spectacle, I saw something rather startling emerge from within the people around me.

With my red maple leaf mittens on I went out into the streets and looked into the faces of the crowds who filled the pavements to overflowing. I saw them on TV in P.E.I and Nunavut, Saskatchewan and my own back yard, B.C.

I saw a whole people wear their hearts on their sleeves for a little while. They’d dusted them off and polished ‘em bright. With a big grin and yes, a flag to wave, not only did they say, “I’m a Canadian” but also “I’m an individual, and my racial heritage may spring from all parts of the world, but I choose to live here, bury my roots here, and I belong here”.

And after the circus packed up its tents and snow finally fell on Cypress mountain, the hearts were lovingly wrapped in tissue and put back in the hope chests for next time.

But now I know they are there, and I know that I too, belong.

I get it now.

P.S. I get ice hockey too. Almost!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Names ... and the importance of Naming things ...

I was reading a blog the other day when the author reminded me of a poem I read quite a few years ago now, on a continent way across the Pacific Ocean. It was ‘The Invitation’ by Oriah Mountain Dreamer and was all the rage at the time for fast-tracking a romance from the ‘getting to know you’ phase to ‘wild and satisfying sex’, sometimes in the span of a single night. This was in the days before the internet and you actually had to go out to dances and other communal gathering places for the purposes of getting laid.

It was also the most profound piece of writing I’ve ever read.

Anyway, back to the blog ... the author stated that he valued the poem in spite of it being written by some with such an outré name.

That got me to thinking of the importance we give names, and to the naming of things, ourselves, children, cats and dogs, inanimate objects. Who among us hasn’t given their favourite inanimate object (computer, car, motorbike, screwdriver) a name?

Why? Because names help us personalise a world that is increasingly impersonal. It helps demystify the unknowable so that even though its still unknowable, we can still have a personal and workable relationship with it.

Then there’s that ‘first impression’ thing. One version of a first impression is visual, what someone/thing looks like (how we interpret and judge what we are looking at is a whole ‘nuther kettle of kittens) Another version of a first impression happens when we haven’t yet met the person in real life, but see their name, like an author perhaps, and built a whole image around our interpretation of it. How often have you said, “But she doesn’t look like a Millicent.” (A whole ‘nuther ‘nuther kettle full) Getting the name just right is a multi-billion dollar business; ask any advertising executive!

The blog writer had a preconceived set of notions of what a woman poets name should be and I guess Oriah didn’t fit the bill. When he took a second look though, he found a gem.

So, when Billy Shakespeare asked us to ponder ...

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet”

Romeo and Juliet (Act 2, scene 2)

.. we can truthfully answer ...

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Hamlet Act 1, scene 5