“What happened to you?” my mother asks, turning around to look at the dusty farmer now sitting beside me in the back seat of the blue Valiant. The man is hunched over and emitting small gasps of pain. Raising frightened eyes, he slowly unwinds a stained cloth to reveal his right hand. As the farmer starts to shake and sweat, I catch a glimpse of two severed fingers, covered in blood. I am surprised by how small they are. The man then gathers the stumps back into his handkerchief, and presses the injured parts to his chest. I am not quite six years old.
Despite his terrible accident, the farmer is in some ways lucky, for it is not everyday that a vehicle passes along this remote gravel road in Bruce County, Ontario. My father is behind the wheel, reluctantly taking us to visit my mother’s rural family; he does not like her relatives (nor anyone else for that matter). Given my already evident talent for intense concentration and self-discipline, I am chosen to perform a special task during long road trips. Pointedly passing over my older brother, my father puts me in charge of the back-seat beer provision. Holding an open can at the ready, I must place it into his waiting palm whenever he snaps his fingers. Not only must I expertly replace each empty with a full can, but I also scan the road ahead, methodically looking left and right for police cruisers so that I can warn my father to lower his drink and stop speeding. That is why I am the first one to notice the man standing beside a corn field, desperately waving a red handkerchief. “Stop the car,” my mother commands as my father drives by, snorting in derision. “A farmer would never do that unless it was important,” she states with an authority gained from having been raised on a farm herself. As I look back now, the most unusual thing about that day was the way in which my mother asserted herself. When we finally arrive at the hospital, my father refuses to allow my mother to accompany the suffering man into the emergency room. We never learn what had become of him or his mangled hand. In any case, we kids know better than to ask stupid questions.
I am an eight-year-old girl riddled with uncertainty. I dare not take another risk, especially after following the dangerous short cut to the public pool by myself today, weaving past the townhouses where bad people on welfare live. So I try hard not to look at the baby boy unsteadily perched on a backless wooden bench, wearing only a bulky diaper. I long to place a hand of support behind his vulnerable head and sweaty neck, to prevent him from falling onto the concrete floor of the changing room. Yet I hesitate to act. In my tough neighbourhood it is always best to mind your own business and keep your face blank. I do not blame the big girl who plunked the baby there. About ten or eleven years of age, she is already saddled with the chore of looking after her infant brother or step-brother. Tired of lugging her heavy burden, she has put him down for a few seconds in order to remove her sandals. I note that her shoes are old and worn, not like my new ones that cost $4.99 and were stolen from this change room last week. Like her, I am often stuck with tasks that include cooking, cleaning, and childcare simply for being the oldest girl in the family. I did not have to wait until my first year of university to become angry about the random unfairness of gender discrimination. Then it happens. The baby wobbles and falls backward. I hear a horrible cracking sound as its fragile skull hits the wet floor. The older girl shouts in alarm, scoops up the screaming body and runs towards the toilets even before he starts vomiting onto her shoulders and long hair. I am amazed that she knew exactly what would happen. Even now, more than 35 years later, I shudder when I remember that hot summer day at the pool. The merciless sound of a baby smashing against concrete encapsulates my childhood and the opportunities afforded to most of the kids growing up around me. I was lucky to escape.
I avoid thinking about the past, for good reason. Although the first memory is not particularly traumatic for me—I would not rank it in the top 20—the second one is more difficult. I usually push it firmly away before I start to picture the veins throbbing beneath the delicate skin covering the baby’s skull and hear the sound of puking. Today, however, my guard is down as I sit in a dark sweat lodge, covered in bear grease, deeply breathing in sage scented smoke. I feel other hot bodies, including the feet of an elder woman, pressing against me. After accepting the invitation of a friend to join her sweat family, I am determined to experience it as fully and openly as I can. When more water is thrown onto the heated lava rocks, I repeat my chosen mantra: submit, endure, submit, endure. It’s the same one I use when receiving a painfully deep tissue massage or visiting the athletic therapist who digs his fingers behind my shoulder blades to, in his own words, “rip my arms off.”
Otherwise, I am not a big fan of submission; quite the opposite. I am confident, aggressive, alert, and ready for anything. My sink-or-swim childhood has taught me to be strong and to take what I need, without relying on anyone. Don’t get me wrong. I am not complaining about the experiences that made me the person that I am today. I am admittedly great in a crisis: nothing can phase me anymore. I once recognized the sound of a rifle being assembled in the next room, quietly alerting everyone else in the house before creeping out the back door to run barefoot into the snow. Suffice to say that I appreciate what I have now. Some people my age are frustrated by a lack of achievement; they desperately search for their life’s purpose by cultivating yet another bad relationship, or idly wish for a more fulfilling career. My upbringing has saved me from the luxury of such middle-class disappointment. All the same, I managed to crawl away from the damp stain of my heritage and change (i.e. improve) my class status. White privilege ultimately saved my bacon.
Not all of the outcomes were positive. I will admit to having what Oprah would call “trust issues.” I fight this limitation by saying yes as often as possible. Today I have decided to rely on those people, mostly strangers, who have kindly welcomed me into their sweat lodge, a sacred space of healing. I doubt that I am worthy. Deciding that I want to learn without either idealizing or appropriating Aboriginal culture, I do something that is rather novel for a white person: I shut the fuck up and attentively listen. The sweat leader generously explains the rituals, urging me to leave the smoky hut if I become uncomfortable or afraid. “No, no, never,” I think to myself. He explains that for him the sweat is about self-confidence, self-discipline, and self-worth. It is cleansing, in a spiritual way that I cannot really understand, even as the toxins pour out of my skin and down my back, even as poisonous memories rise and let me taste them again. When I emerge from the lodge three hours later, I touch the butterfly hair band that my friend’s sister has given me, just in case I feel “reborn” after the experience. I am not sure what rebirth would feel like. Does it involve wide open pores and a sore lower back? Does it include a much-needed dose of humility? I thank my hosts and then join them for a feast of rabbit stew, savouring the dark chewy meat while seated inside a family home that is both safe and secure.