Authors: Richard Wagamese
“I hope that when Joshua does eventually read this book, he has the maturity to appreciate his father’s act of bravery, and to learn from it. For the rest of us,
is a fascinating and moving portrayal of one man’s search for his heritage, his true place in the world, and in the process, his discovery of himself.”
“The writer who did not know himself—and who blamed ‘the white man’ for his troubles—has become the man who understands how things happened and who resolves to go forward. This well-written and perceptive book shows that it is possible for aboriginal people—for any person—to get back from there to here.”
Quill & Quire
“Real … honest …Those familiar with the native community will be nodding their heads in understanding. Those not very familiar will get a 228-page snapshot of the darker side … a darker side with a light in the distance that Wagamese seems to be constantly trying to find.… Wagamese writes his story with the spirit of a poet. In particular, the presence of Charles Bukowski can be seen coaching his prose from the sidelines as Wagamese revisits old haunts.”
—Drew Hayden Taylor,
The Globe and Mail
“Paper-cut sharp, linear slices of a life lived in omission.… It’s a deep, dark path Wagamese sets out on, one he admits is an ongoing process, a circle he learns more from with each revolution.”
“Graceful and reverberating.… A harrowing life story but also a ceremony, a gathering of traditional knowledge, and a love letter across the generations,
is a book we need, a book we can all treasure.”
—Warren Cariou, author of
Lake of the Prairies
An absence of identity, and the struggle to attain it, lies at the heart of this powerful autobiography, in which Wagamese lays bare a disastrous life.… Dark and disturbing, still [Joshua] brims with emotion, touching chords of sympathy, even when empathy fails.”
ALSO BY RICHARD WAGAMESE
A Quality of Light
Copyright © Richard Wagamese 2002
Anchor Canada edition 2003
All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication, reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system without the prior written consent of the publisher—or, in the case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a license from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency—is an infringement of the copyright law.
Anchor Canada and colophon are trademarks.
National Library of Canada Cataloguing in Publication
For Joshua : an Ojibway father teaches his son / Richard Wagamese.
1. Wagamese, Richard–Correspondence. 2. Authors, Canadian (English)–Correspondence. 3. Wagamese, Richard–Alcohol use.
4. Ojibwa Indians. I. Title.
PS8595.A363Z547 2003 C813′.54 C2003-900638-7
Published in Canada by
Anchor Canada, a division of
Random House of Canada Limited
Visit Random House of Canada Limited’s website:
I was created to be
—Indian Man. Thus, I was born Ojibway. I emerged onto Mother Earth as a human being gifted with this identity—male Ojibway human being. Since 1955, learning to be who I was created to be has been my journey, my trial, my ongoing process of creation.
This thing we call Native, Indian, First Nations, Aboriginal, Indigenous, or Original Peoples cannot be found in any one place. It is a cosmology, a belief, a way of being, unconstrained by geography, politics or even time itself. It is too immense to be contained in one simple definition. Only with the utmost simplification can one say,
“This is what it means to be Indian.”
The lives of Native people in Canada are ones of endless toil, frustration and heartache. This they have borne with great good humour, grace, and dignity. To say that I am one of them is my greatest pride.
But I am only one—and this is but the story of one Native life, as experienced against the flux and flow of Canada over forty-six years. If it teaches, that is grace. If it evokes empathy, that is blessing. Should it enable one person, Native or not, to step forward towards who they were created to be, that would be reward enough for one Native life.
Once there was a lonely little boy. He had no idea where he belonged in the world. The boy had no knowledge about where his family was or where he’d come from. So he began to dream. He imagined a glorious life with a mother and father, sisters and brothers, grandfathers and grandmothers. He put his dreams down on paper and filled the pages with drawings, stories, poems, and songs of the people he missed so much but could not remember. But he always awoke, the stories and poems always ended, and the songs faded off into the night.
As he grew, the boy carried this emptiness around inside him. Everywhere he went, it was his constant companion. Many people took turns caring for the boy, and many people tried to fill that hole, but no one ever could. Through all the homes he drifted the boy began to realize that all that ever really changed about him were his clothes.
One day, the people around him said that he was old enough to go and find
. It was a magical place, this place called
, because everyone got to choose where
would be for them.
was difficult. The boy took many roads, many turns, many long lonely journeys trying to find it. He grew older. He lived in many places and with many different people. But inside himself he was still a lonely little boy who could only ever dream dreams, create stories and poems and songs about the kingdom of
Then one day he met a kind, gentle old man on one of the twisted, narrow roads he was travelling. This old man had been everywhere and seen many things. He was wise and liked the young man very much. As they sat together by the side of that long, narrow road, the old man began to tell him stories about all of his travels, and especially about how good it felt to return from those journeys.
the young man asked.
“Why, it’s to get back to where you started, where you belong,” the old man said.
“What does it mean to
The old man smiled kindly and said, “To
is to feel right. It’s a place where everything fits.”
“How do you get there?” the young man asked.
“Well, getting anywhere means you have to make a journey. But on this journey, to find where you belong, you really only have to travel one direction,” the old man said.
“What direction is that?”
“The toughest direction of all,” the old man said. “You have to travel inside yourself, not down long, narrow roads like this one.”
“Does it hurt?” the young man asked.
“Sometimes. But anyone who makes that journey finds out that no matter how hard the journey is, getting there is the biggest comfort of all.”
The young man thought about the old man’s words. They were mysterious and strange. In fact, they weren’t answers to his questions at all, just more and more questions lined up one behind the other as far as he allowed his mind to wander. But there was something in the gentle way the old man had of talking that made him feel safe—a trust that everything he said was true. Even if he couldn’t understand it all.
“Can I get there from here?” he asked finally.
The old man smiled at him and patted him on the shoulder. “Here is the only place you
I was that lonely little boy, Joshua, and I was the lonely young man who tried so hard to belong. Like him, I have travelled a lot of hard roads searching for the one thing that would allow me to feel safe, secure, and welcome. Some of them led to prison, poverty, drunkenness, drugs, depression, isolation, and thoughts of suicide. But many were glorious roads to travel—the ones that led to sobriety, friendship, music, writing, and the empowering traditional ways of the Ojibway people to whom you and I belong.
There were many teachers on those roads. Always there was someone somewhere who offered things meant to teach me how to see the world and my place in it. But like most of us, I only ever trusted my mind—and my mind always needed proof. The sad thing is that when you spend all your time in a search for proof, you miss the magic of the journey, and I was on those roads a long, long time before I learned the most important lesson of all: that the journey is the teaching, and the proof of the truthfulness of all things comes secretly, mysteriously, when you find yourself smiling when you used to cry, and staying staunchly in place when you used to run away.
I spent many years afraid of the questions. I was afraid of the questions because I was afraid of the answers, and that fear kept me on narrow, twisted roads deep into my life.
My greatest fear was that after the search, after the most arduous of journeys, I would discover, at the end, a me I didn’t like, the me that I was always convinced I was: an unlovable, inadequate, weak, unworthy human being. And at that point of discovery I would be alone. Alone with myself. Alone with my fears. Alone with the one person I had spent so much time and energy trying to run away from.
When I was scared I ran, from darkness to darkness. But flight is futile when the bitterest pain is the memory of the people that get left behind. The innocent ones bearing the hurts and disappointments of our leaving, standing by the wayside watching as we disappear down another sullen highway. They never really understand departure. They can’t. Because we are incapable of explanation. We only know that we need to move on, desperate gypsies seeking the solace of flight, the vague, lingering hope that geography, in some way, might save us.
You are one of the innocent ones. You are six years old at this writing and because of the choices I made during the part of my journey since your birth, we are not together. I chose drink and isolation to deal with my pain, my fear, and the resultant overwhelming sense of inadequacy, and the effect of those choices is a life where son and father cannot live together—perhaps not ever.
Today the ache of your absence is hard.
Because I was there at the very moment you entered the world. I stood beside your mother when she delivered you. I received you from the nurse and held you, afraid that I might press too hard and hurt you, or not press firmly enough and let you tumble from my grasp. I held you like the treasure that you are. When I looked at you that April morning I found myself grateful for a Creator that could fashion such a magnificent being, such a beautiful boy, such a gift to me. Your arrival filled my heart with joy, and it was so great it spilled over into the empty side of my chest and made me more—bigger, stronger, more alive. I didn’t want to give you back to them when they asked to weigh and measure you. I didn’t want to give you back because I didn’t want to surrender that feeling your arrival had created in me.
For a time I felt like a father. I’d never been one before and learning to change your diapers, rock you to sleep, feed you, and get you to giggle were private joys that I still carry in my heart. They are my pocket treasures and even though they’ve been worn smooth from handling over the years, it’s comforting to know that they are there when I need them.
You and I would wander along Danforth Avenue in Toronto. I carried you on my chest in your carrier and
talked to you about where we were going and what we were seeing. We got a lot of strange looks from the people we passed because I was not ashamed to talk to you out loud, laugh, and coax you to make some happy noise. There was a bookstore we’d go into almost every day and I’d read to you from my favourite volumes. We’d go to a small park and I’d sing to you as we swung slowly back and forth on the swing set in the playground. You used to love that. And as we moved together through the great, grand noise that is Toronto I heard nothing but you and felt nothing but the warmth of your body nestled against mine. I can’t enter that city now without a feeling of incredible loss or joy for you.