I often think about children in December. A lifetime ago, I worked at our community school. I remember the fraught, exciting, and sometimes magical time leading up to Christmas as we tried to make the best possible memories for our kids. Being a parent is frequently overwhelming, and in the period before Christmas, the Overwhelm Factor looms LARGE. I recall the struggle of many parents, myself included, who could not afford many gifts, and the societal pressure to give more. And more.
Working every day with children, I sensed an acute longing that ran deep beneath seasonal shifts. What every child most needed was the truly attentive presence of at least one adult. “Don’t worry so much about all the gifts,” I wanted to say. “Spend time with your kids. Ordinary time, and special times, too.” Of course, often the advice we give, is the advice we ourselves need. As a parent myself, I knew how hard being truly present to my children could be. Some days, I could hardly be present to myself! But there were moments…perhaps on a walk, or cuddled together reading a book. Baking together. Learning to skate together. Stopping to watch a snowy owl on the way home. If December is about children, in our rush to “get it all done”, we often overlook the gift of simple (and not so simple) presence and attention that every child needs and longs for.
September 30, 2021
Continuing to think about children, I travel back in my mind to September 30th, 2021 – the first ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. A day set aside for survivors and intergenerational survivors of Indian Residential Schools to ask Canadians “to see us, to hear us and to believe us,” after unmarked graves were unearthed and confirmed at former residential schools across the land. As this day approaches, my husband and I are spending a few days along the shores of Lake Superior. I feel a heaviness welling up inside me as September 30th approaches. How will I mark this day? I intended to be at home, joining a walk from the present Okanese School to the site of the former United Church run residential school, both on the same reserve. As we drive, we listen to the stories of survivors on the radio. I think about the people I know – family, friends, neighbours of all ages- who have been deeply affected by the legacy of these “schools”.
That evening, I collect random pebbles as I walk the beach. Each is so beautiful and unique. Long smoothed by the motion of water over sand, they come in beautiful colours – dusty rose, slate gray, white, ochre. I get an idea. I drop to my knees and smooth out a circle on the beach with the palm of my hand. Smoothing sand is soothing. Listening to the rhythmic sound of the waves rolling in calms me. I remember many contented moments as a child, doing just this, smoothing sand and arranging pebbles. Absorbed.
I collect more pebbles. I choose slate gray pebbles to spell the word “EVERY” in capitals in the circle. Slate gray gives emphasis to this word. No child is left out.
For the word “child” , I use all the colours of pebbles spelled in lower case letters. Somehow, lower case letters seem vulnerable, like children are vulnerable. With each pebble I place, I think of a child I have known or who I know now. Some are thriving, others are getting along. Too many died way before their time from violence or suicide, drugs or a car accident. A legacy not only of residential schools, but also our colonial and genocidal actions, past and present. I notice how the sand quickly covers some pebbles, rendering them almost invisible. I clean the sand off each pebble, so that each can be seen, can takes its proud place in forming this word.
The verb “MATTERS“, I spell out in capital letters in dusty rose – the colour of the heart. I think of the many ways we invisibilize children, especially those children who are not “easy”. I remember the times I have dismissed a child’s feelings. I consider how the unmarked graves are material (matter) evidence for something Indigenous people have always known.
Around the edge of the circle, I poke clusters of pine needles into the sand. The pine needles provide a border, some protection maybe, but what is inside the circle is now open to the air. All wounds need air in order to begin the process of healing. I find two wrapped orange lollipops which are from a feast I attended in honour of children who never made it home. These go on either side of the word “child” signifying the pleasures of childhood these lost children missed. Spelling these words, smoothing the sand, and thinking about so many friends and relatives allows the heaviness in me to shift a little. Creating this beach art feels exactly like a prayer.
The Orange Shirt at the End of Our Lane – Every Child Matters
When we returned home, our daughters welcomed us with an orange shirt at the end of our lane. The orange shirt remains there. Each time I see it, I feel a slight jolt inside. It has blown in the wind, fallen on the ground and been hung again. Each day it changes. I don’t want to get used to the orange shirt. I don’t want to forget.
The orange shirt reminds me….
EVERY child MATTERS Every child matters. See us, hear us, believe us. Truth before reconciliation.
Listen. Learn what I can. Unlearn what I grew up knowing. Learn about past injustices but learn also about present injustices. Learn from the brilliance and wisdom of Indigenous people. Listen.
I can offer my support in practical and respectful ways as our neighbours and friends begin a ground search for lost children at the former Lebret Indian Residential School. Volunteers, food, money are needed. I can also offer my prayers.
Back when I worked in the community school, we had pins that said “It takes a village to raise a child.” So many wonderful people and creatures helped us raise our children. Can I be part of that village? Can I give back? Can I help lighten the load for other parents and grandparents? I can try.
Every day the orange shirt reminds me that I need to live as if “every child matters”. Every day, the orange shirt challenges me.
I am alert for the openings that help me truly live as if every child matters.
Every child matters … every day.