Brave Face

Her name was Kellie Daanen. We were seven, eight years old. She was one of my best friends. We sat together at lunch every day.

One day, she said, “I’m an Aborigine.”

“No, you’re not,” I told her. “How could you be? You have blue eyes.”

She had incredible blue eyes, as arresting as the famous Afghan girl from the National Geographic magazine cover. Kellie got defensive. “My grandmother is aboriginal.” And I told her with all the confidence I had in my 7 year old knowing of things, that she was not, she definitely was not, and I think I knew this with such certainty because I had seen the occasional clip on television so I knew how black skinned and mostly naked and broad-nosed and desert-dust-covered you had to be, to be an Australian Aborigine. And anyway, even if her grandmother was an aborigine, that only made her one-quarter, so she wasn’t really an aborigine then at all.

What happened after that conversation? I don’t remember. She didn’t punch me in the face or yell at me, as she probably should have to let me know that I had committed an act of violence on her. That it was not just an insult, but an assault. I don’t remember any blow up at all. But I do remember the conversation, so there must be some part of me that registered her hurt, walked away with a little less certainty of my right-ness, wondered about it again, 35 years later, with an uncomfortable feeling in my gut and a furrow in my much-more-deeply-furrowed brow.

Does she remember? Does she remember her friend telling her she was not who she is? Or was it just one in a lifelong series of incidents in which she butted up against racism, ignorance, all the ways in which even kind-hearted and well-meaning people, even ‘”friends”, can undo you, can fail to honour all the things in you, can fail to hold space, can talk over you, explain you to yourself, can be blind and deaf and just one more person standing above you with their foot across your throat?

I imagine myself back in that place. And then, I turn, a notch, to the right. A fraction of awakening on the dial. Click. One micro pivot. One slightly altered perspective.

In 2012 Sheldon Tetreault asked me to work on a writing project for the Winds of Change. They’d secured some grant money from the Whistler Blackcomb Foundation, were thinking about rewriting the original report that had brought community leaders from two villages together. I read it over and over and considered what I could possibly do to improve it? What could be rewritten or edited that wouldn’t erase something important, vital, essential?

We let the report stand. Instead, we started a website. The first posts included a recipe, a quote from Brene Brown about empathy, a copy of a new brochure explaining the Winds of Change. The idea behind the blog was to create a safe place to get to know each other and to share our voices. And 5 years and 1850 posts later, it’s gradually become that – a meeting place visited over 110,000 times. In just the last 6 months, people have shared about their personal struggles with anxiety attacks, menopause, aging, unfulfilling relationships, motherhood, depression. Donald Trump, coming out, CN Rail, or discovering mid-life that you had no idea what your First Nations countryfolk and neighbours had endured – and the braveness and beauty of these contributors has stunned me over and over. We’ll soon welcome our 40th guestagrammer to – and the beautiful way every one of them looks at our little valley makes it feel even more beautiful a place to live.

Turns out, The Wellness Almanac was a reconciliation project. But I didn’t know it at the time. I was 37 when it began, but I was also the girl who’d denied her 8 year old friend her identity because she didn’t look Aboriginal enough. But with each post, I turned a notch more in a new direction, gaining a slightly different perspective, awakening a little bit to my cultural programming, the “colonization” of my own mind. The project attuned me to things I wouldn’t necessarily have paid attention to – blanket ceremonies at the school, or reconciliation courses, videos of elders, or books on the library shelf – and which each inquiry, a little shift happened. In my way of looking at the world.

If Kellie Daanen shared her self with me again, today, I would take a cue from my 4 year old, who responds to a new piece of information with the open-hearted and neutral response: “oh, I did not know that.”

“I did not know that,” I would say. “Thanks for sharing that with me. What’s she like, your grandmother?” and maybe, instead of ending a friendship, I could begin one.

Thanks to the Wellness Almanac, my community has broadened. Become richer.

I have been able to have conversations, real and virtual, with people in this community, about the harder stuff involved in being human. I have a sense now, of how many brave face masks there are around, and how nice it feels when you can take yours off, and leave it hanging at the door, and just connect with someone.

I won’t be writing my column in the Whistler Question as The Wellness Almanac anymore. I’ll just be writing as myself – maskless, now, but emboldened and enriched and altered by my work on that project over the past 5 years.

Community leaders are deciding what the Winds of Change might look like going ahead, and it’s a wonderful discussion for them to be having. It’s a conversation about reconciliation that needs leadership, and that needs grassroots community members, and that needs all our voices, and all our maskless courage.


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