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The Day After Orange Shirt Day

It was Orange Shirt Day yesterday and I had words with someone I care about. I choose to see the words and ideas that came tumbling out, so different from my own, instead as, help me understand.

Last night I tried to sleep with this all spinning inside of me. And because writing is what I do when I need to say something, I wrote this down.

I was a year younger than Phyllis Jack Webstad, the woman responsible for Orange Shirt Day. I’ve never met Phyllis but I see that in September of 1973 we both went to school for the first time. I went to Austin Road Elementary School in Prince George, BC and Phyllis went to the residential school in Williams Lake, BC, a few hundred kilometers away, wearing her new orange shirt.

Orange must have been the thing that year. My mother made me a dress with knitted orange sleeves, which was kind of itchy because it was wool, but she’d knitted the sleeves herself. If you read Phyllis’s story you will know how excited she was to choose such a beautiful shirt to wear to school, and how her grandmother had managed to scrape enough money together to take her shopping to buy her such a treasure to wear to her first day of school.

When Phyllis went to the Residential School that day with her orange shirt, she did not know that they would strip her of her clothes and take the orange shirt away. And never give it back.

I went to school with my dress with the orange sleeves and all the teachers asked if my mother had made my dress and they smiled in a way that I knew meant they thought my mother was lovely for making that dress with the orange sleeves.

I remembered that dress yesterday for the first time in decades, I’m sure. I’d thought about the colour orange yesterday as the people gathered proudly in the park wearing their orange. Once I realized that Phyllis was about my age, I wondered if I’d had an orange shirt back then, too.

And then I remembered the dress. I knew I had a photo of me wearing it but I wasn’t sure where in the last few decades years it had gone.

Last night I couldn’t fall asleep, and I could feel that photo calling me. So down I went to the crawl space and searched until I found it.

And there I was with my knitted orange sleeves.

But what caught my breath was the doll in my arms – a indigenous doll which I called an “Indian Girl” back then. My mother’s niece and her husband, who was a kind indigenous man, had come to visit in 1973, not long before this photo was taken. They brought me this doll. Which I loved. They were in their twenties, kids of the 60s, wearing long flowy skirts, smelling of patchouli perfume, talking about freedom and responsibility and lives mattering. It was a little edgy in my house to have such a doll, but I loved it anyway. I think I may have packed that doll around day in and day out specifically because it stirred the place up.

I was going through an edgy stage. As you can see, I’d given myself a haircut the day before, which you will note is not too bad for a five-year-old standing on the bathroom counter with the door locked. My mother almost fainted when I came out. I remember that feeling as clearly as if it was yesterday, the doll and the stir it caused, the hippie visitors from away, the cutting off of my own hair, the stir that was in the air in 1973, the beginnings of my sense of self, separate from my parents.

But here’s the part that matters. When I got home from school that day, I was still wearing my orange sleeved dress, hand knit by mother, carrying my doll up to my room in our beautiful house that looked out over the mountains. I had a lot of clothes in my closet, pretty Raggedy Anne wallpaper and a matching bedspread. We had a piano and Sunday dinners and two televisions. We had a pool table and a formal entrance. We had china and a chandelier.

I didn’t know then that not far away from me, Phyllis and other indigenous children like her were living in trauma, poverty and addiction because of what Canadians had done and had put their families through. The story that was alive in my world, school and home was a very different one. (Forgive my use of the word Indian. I have chosen to use it because it positions this writing in time, which I think matters. If you are reading this and you do not know how to properly refer to the Indigenous People of Canada, you can use the word “indigenous” as a general term or one of the three identifying titles for the three distinct Indigenous peoples of Canada: First Nations, Inuit and Metis.)

The old story of my childhood – told in simple enough terms – went something like this:
The explorers found a new land which had plenty of room for everyone. They made friends with the Indians and agreed to live together in this amazing country. They gave the Indians places to live and money so they could buy food and look after their families. Before the government helped them the Indians had no money. They built schools to teach their children to read and write so they could have jobs when they grew up. And they brought Jesus to the families so they could be saved. And alcohol, which was not a good idea because Indians could not drink alcohol very well, so they became addicted. But they should have learned to control themselves.

Here’s what I learned – in simple enough terms – when I got older:
The explorers could see that this country was rich with resources, and they could take it for themselves. There were Indians but they would get rid of them as best they could. It would take a while. After the wars and diseases had not killed the Indians out, they had to round them up and put them somewhere to at least contain them. They made Reservations – which were kind of like game parks only small – and told them to get inside. The Indians were upset and angry and sad. They told the Canadians they couldn’t survive there without being able to hunt and gather and fish, living their lives the way they had for thousands of years. The Canadians said don’t bother, you stay home and watch TV instead and we’ll give you a bit of money for food. And we can sell you booze, which we know works well to numb what you’re going to go through. Sit down on the couch and relax for the rest of your lives. Cause there’s no way out of here, gang.

The Canadians were pretty clued in by now… this wasn’t going to be easy – the surviving Indians were resilient. Hmmm, they thought, if we can keep the parents at home on the couch and start with their kids, we can erase this Indian nonsense. We can turn them into the servants and labourers we need, like we did with the Africans. They need a bit of education to fit in, enough to read menus and count up hay bales, and they need to stop thinking of themselves as Indians so all this cultural nonsense disappears.

Then, they thought, it’s not just education they need, that won’t quite do it.
They need something else. Something more powerful.
Shame.
Yes, they need to feel shame.
We need them to be ashamed of their parents and of themselves and of their culture. It’s the only way to completely take over.
We need them to be servants, so they need to be compliant and grateful.
Shame. Yes. That’s the magic. We need to shame them.

And so, they built schools and took the children. The children would learn from day one that it was shameful to be an Indian. It was shameful to speak their language and to love the way their parents had lived and their lives back home.

This would be the most important lesson in Residential Schools.

Yes, they would also learn to read, but the real lesson was to be ashamed of themselves. Once this was accomplished, they would be fit to work in the households and the fields and serve at tables just like the Africans had learned to do in England.

The Canadians who came later would also learn to feel disgust and judgement towards indigenous peoples , they would help to continue the shame. Shame would go on through all of Canadian society for many, many years. It was a masterful plan.

More Information When You Need to Understand

You can find information about this in many places online via Google or you can use this link: https://www.facinghistory.org/stolen-lives-indigenous-peoples-canada-and-indian-residential-schools/historical-background/who-are-indigenous-peoples-canada

I will tell you upfront that the link I have provided has a strong point of view in seeking to represent the historical background in a particular way. All sources of history, however, come with bias. This is the nature of history: the story comes out differently depending on who is telling it. I am providing this link because this is the perspective that was missing from my childhood. The other perspective had been communicated loudly and clearly already. I have included the missing one instead.

For those of you who won’t bother going to the link I’m including a few bits and pieces anyway.

When you read these sections, please know that the word assimilate means: to become like us, to fit in with the society we are building here on the land we took. Assimilate is not let’s find a good blend of it all, assimilate means you stop being you so you can become who we need you to be.

“As Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald said in 1887, after the residential schools began to operate, “The great aim of our legislation has been to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominion as speedily as they are fit to change.” Yet despite this high talk of Indian enfranchisement, the official process designed to assimilate indigenous people as soon as possible, Indigenous Peoples in Canada could not vote until the 1960s.”

“After Indians were no longer useful for economic or military purposes, the government established a system of reserves designed to “protect and civilize” native people in order that they might eventually assimilate. The policy was to settle the Indians on the land and, over time, develop them into “productive citizens.” In theory, Indians were to learn to exercise [individual] self-determination and assume responsibilities for their own affairs. Missionaries, educators, Indian agents, judges, and police were sent to the reserves to facilitate the transition from savagery to civilization. The Indians themselves had little to say about the process because there was no political structure within which they could operate effectively.”

“Because of his radical position, it is easy to understand why he – Scott – is often associated with the saying “Kill the Indian, save the man.” In the discussion about whether the Canadian assimilation policies and the Indian Residential Schools constitute, this approach is often key evidence. Scott summarized the prevailing attitudes of Canadian officials: the First Peoples, despite many agreements with the Crown that guaranteed their independence, were to be eradicated as distinct nations and cultures.” (*eradicated means wiped out)

“While Scott did not think that education alone was sufficient for civilizing the Indigenous Peoples of Canada, he pushed heavily for it. When he mandated school attendance in 1920, he stated, “I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone…Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department, that is the whole object of this Bill.” (Here’s how to read this: We need to get rid of the Indian problem. We need this problem to go away.)

And while the most significant damage of the Residential schools was in shaming the children about being Indians, the day to day life was pretty terrible, too:

“That night, just before she turned the lights off, Sister Maura taught us how to pray on our knees with our hands folded. Then she told us about devils. She said they were waiting with chains under our beds to drag us into the fires of hell if we got up and left our beds during the night. When she turned the lights off I was scared to move, even to breathe. I knew those devils would come and get me if I made a sound. I kept really still. . . . Someone was crying. A long time later, I was still afraid to get up and use the bathroom. In the morning my bed was wet and Sister Superior strapped me. I had to wear a sign . . . saying, I was a dirty wetbed.”

“Such strict discipline, which was often just another name for abuse, added to the isolation and separation students felt once they were severed from their families. Many students reported a loveless childhood, coupled with humiliation and degradation by school staff. Hunger, poor nutrition, and repetitive food items were common complaints. As one student remembered: “I was always hungry. . . . At school, it was porridge, porridge, porridge, and if it wasn’t that, it was boiled barley or beans, and thick slices of bread spread with lard. Weeks went by without the taste of meat or fish. Such things as sugar or butter or jam only appeared on our tables on feast days, and sometimes not even then . . . I believe I was hungry for all seven of the years I was at school.”
Over and above the daily sufferings, the schools proved to be a breeding ground for all manner of sadistic verbal, physical, and sexual abuses. Poorly supervised priests, nuns, and laymen often used their positions of power to carry out assaults on the bodies of defenseless children. These experiences had many detrimental effects for the students who attended the schools. They continue to torment not only the former residential school students themselves but also their families and communities.”

A Poem for the Day After Orange Shirt Day

We didn’t do anything
To the Natives.
It was long before us.
I don’t know what
All this fuss is about.
I lie down in the forest
Wearing the dress my mother made,
With the knitted orange sleeves.
There are two hummingbirds buzzing above me
They land on my wrists and pick at the wool
Of my orange sleeves
Until it releases.
They fly away with it in their beaks
Unravelling stitch by stitch
What my mother has knit together.
She’s going to be mad,
I think to myself.
But I let them go.
They fly through the forest
Back through time
Past the Indian children
Hungry, afraid, and ashamed.
Trapped at the residential schools.
They fly past the grandparents and the parents
Being taken to the reservation
Which is the small piece of land
They were allowed to keep.
Their new spot
Means they cannot live
Like they have for thousands of years,
Hunting and fishing, gathering.
Young men suddenly so old.
But we will get a Walmart someday
And a McDonald’s and a Tim Horton’s
If all goes as planned.
The hummingbirds fly
Past the tribes of people
Dying of diseases brought here from over there.
They fly to that moment
When the railway was finished,
The last spike, over the Rockies,
In 1885
Which meant there was no stopping
The takeover now.
Soon machines would come and dig the place up.
Knock down the trees
And pour chemicals into the water.
The hummingbirds land there
On the metal tie
At the end of the railway
With the orange wool from my sleeves in their beaks.
I think they are asleep at first.
But they have died.
And the wool from my orange sleeves
Has reached the end.
My mother is going to be mad
When she sees
How far it actually reaches.

Prince George, BC

I became a writer because I wanted to change the world. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t overcome by an inflated sense of my own importance or a misguided naiveté about how this would work. But I’m a passionate person, and I believe that writers are given stories for which we are responsible. We’re responsible to tell those stories, to release them into the world to find their own way. As a writer who writes to make a difference, it’s enough to know that your words changed the world in some small way for the handful of people who read your article, or blog post or book. Literally, the greatest reward for many writers is knowing that your work made a difference for someone.

What I did not expect, after the release of my book, “Fireflies: Finding Light in a Dark World” last summer, was everything that would happen next. I did not expect to have launched the Jim Young Foundation so thoroughly in such a short period of time. I did not know that I would Mr_PG_-_Prince_George_-_British_Columbiareturn to Prince George, several months in, and be so deeply, warmly welcomed. It was the last thing I expected. It’s hard to imagine writing honestly and critically about your experiences in your home town and also being able to go back to have so many, many people there to welcome you.

“Fireflies”, in part, tells the story of my brother Jim and his struggle with mental health and addiction. On May 28, 2016 —  24 years to the day after Jim’s tragic death —  I read from “Fireflies” at Books and Co in Prince George and I shared the Jim Young Foundation with the people who came. I did not expect the room to be filled with people from our childhood, teary eyed and hopeful, some sharing for the first time their own experiences that paralleled my brother’s. I did not expect to be so forever impacted by the sight of this enormous room filled with caring people talking together, hugging and exchanging email addresses afterwards. But the most impactful and life changing moment for me was to stop and notice, in the midst of it all, the young boys we grew up with, now grown men, opening up their lives to one another, sharing and embracing their own stories together, lives that had been filled, like Jim’s, with many difficult twists in the road. I did not expect to be gifted such a day in my lifetime: a day in which you see right before your eyes something you’d written making a difference.

After that reading, an unexpected flurry happened. One of the “kids from school”, Allan Fox, who is now an amazing community leader, started a Facebook group and people rushed to join in, talking and sharing photos, remembering together in a joyful way. And because it was such a great opportunity to reconnect, he hosted a wonderful reunion party earlier this month in Prince George.

RUOK_SpeechBubble_LogoIn the meantime, the Jim Young Foundation began to unfold its vision to bring the Australian project, “R U OK? Day” home to Canada. R U OK? Day is an annual day dedicated to reminding people to ask family, friends, colleagues and even strangers the question, “R U OK?” in a meaningful way.  Connecting regularly and meaningfully is one thing everyone can do to make a difference to anyone who might be struggling. It’s a project that serves to protect against suicide by fostering social connectedness. The vision of the Jim Young Foundation is to see RUOK? Day become an important annual event all across Canada.

Following the reunion in Prince George, a very dedicated team of volunteers joined together to launch the first R U OK? Day in Canada with the support of the Jim Young Foundation. Because of those amazing human beings in Prince George — and because Prince George is a very special place filled with people who are go-getters and leaders and make-it-happen kind of people — on October 20, 2016, Prince George, BC will begin the very first R U OK? Day in Canada. The enthusiasm and joy that is buzzing around Prince George about this event is thrilling. On October 20, I will return to Prince George to speak at the dinner event at Fore Restaurant.

How on earth am I this blessed?

And here’s what I’ve learned: If you want to change the world, use whatever is in your hand. If it’s words, write. If it’s songs, sing. If it’s kindness, reach out. If it’s strength, lead. Step into the stream. Maybe the small thing you do will be the very thing that someone else needed to help them step in, too. Together, we will change the world.

Heather Gordon-Young is the author of “Fireflies: Finding Light in a Dark World. View the book trailer by clicking here.  Fireflies is available through Amazon or any online book store in paperback or kindle and other e-formats, or ask your local bookshop to order in a copy. 

 

Winter Hummingbird: Anticipating 2016

 

I catch the last glimpse of the huhummingbirdmmingbird in the winter sun on this, the last evening of the year. This is not my photo, to be clear, but it’s a beautiful image of what my iphone cannot capture.  She’s stunning in real life. Her wings remind me of myself, somehow. Lately, I find myself awake at night, my mind humming, buzzing like this little bird, through anxious thoughts. Our son leaves for university to Australia in four days. We’ll see him every year, of course, but this is the beginning of the next part of our lives, both his and ours. It’s time – of course it’s time. I know this.

But there I am awake. And one by one, the four usual questions march towards me along the thin beam of moon light coming in between the opening in the curtains as I sleep: Will he be lonely? Will he be all right? Does he have enough to go on? Will his heart break? 

I stare them down, these recalcitrant little beasts. Firmly. I’ve rehearsed the answer a hundred times.  He. Will. Be. Fine. I know this is true. Still, they appear each night.

Then last night, each one stepped aside and, there they were as if they’d been there all along, four others – perhaps the real questions all along – appeared: Will I be lonely? Will I be all right? Do I have enough to go on? Will my heart break?

This afternoon I had a meaningful conversation with an old friend I hadn’t talked to in 35 years. He shared how, having come through some troubled waters, he’d learned about stillness; he had begun to understand the meaning of that Psalm 46 passage, Be still and know that I am God. “It was that deep stillness that allowed me to heal,” he said.

Yes, I thought, I ought to practice that in the deepest parts of the night; I ought to practice being still in that deep-in-the-presence-of-God-way as I sleep.

It’s amazing the kinds of things that can stir an anxious mind awake. In fact, sometimes I even worry about that hummingbird, here in Canada long after she should be. There’s very little for her to eat, and I feel responsible for her staying. You see, we planted a spindly little gum tree in our yard – mostly as a joke or a wish or just because it reminded my husband of Australia – ten years ago and now it has become a magnificent tree that shapes the horizon we see from our kitchen window. IMG_2581We have all fallen in love with that tree, not only because of its determination to survive in a place it should not, but because it blossoms in December and January. This miracle, in the midst of a cold and dark winter, reminds us of all that is possible. Trees, like people, survive such conditions.

But the hummingbird, who stays now through the winters, does so, I think, because of our tree. Hummingbirds need to eat three times their body weight in food each day! This is the equivalent of a human being eating a pickup truck’s load of food daily. How on earth can she survive? Is our gum tree enough? The cold and the wind whip past her as she perches on the clothesline and I want to run out to her with a scarf!

Today I read about this predicament. Our little bird survives because of something called torpor. Torpor is a deep state of rest that a hummingbird can enter daily, she shuts all her engines down and flips the thermostat to a level that is 95% below her ordinary body temperature, a temperature that is just above the level at which she would not survive, and rests. By doing this she reduces the energy she needs to survive. She does not even sleep during torpor, for the functions of the body that happen as we sleep do not happen during her torpor. All of her systems are shut down. In the morning, it will take her twenty minutes of tiny, shivery, twitching movements to wake herself, gradually warming the temperature of her blood by minute levels until she is warm enough to attempt movement. This is how she survives here. The secret is torpor. She can survive here in the north until the spring because she is still.

This is the thought I take with me into 2016: Find torpor. Be still in the presence of God and know that God provides. Even when it seems unlikely and impossible, even when it’s December  and what you need are blossoms, God provides.

Still perplexed about Thanksgiving

We live in a great little house built in 1910. The center of the house is our dining room table that seats eight comfortably and has gathered many beloved friends and family over the years.19564_227200433733_8064792_n When both the kids were home, our Thanksgiving table often had twelve of us, squished elbow to elbow, and seated on various stools and chairs with pillows.

“Pretend you’re on an airplane,” I’d say.

And we did.

The placemats and glasses and cutlery were sometimes mismatched – who has matching placemats for twelve!? – but we laughed and told stories and ate wonderful meals and enjoyed being together. For this I am thankful.

The_Mayflower_Compact_1620_cph.3g07155But it’s Thanksgiving again, and I find myself still perplexed. What’s it all about? I wonder sometimes.

In spite of the tragic beginnings of the first Thanksgiving, it’s a holiday that is now an important part of our North American cultural framework. Let’s face it, a holiday celebrating the take-over of someone else’s land is a bit odd. It’s a tradition of feasting in gratefulness at arriving safely, but uninvited (let’s not kid ourselves), on foreign shores after a perilous journey across the Atlantic. It’s bound to be complicated. We could have done it so much better.

But here we are. Thanksgiving is a cultural cornerstone for those of us in North America.

And yet I am still baffled by it.

For many years I believed it was for God, strangely. I must have misunderstood. It took me a long time to work out that God does not actually need me to be thankful or grateful. God is not someone’s Great Aunt who checks the letterbox daily, growing anxious and cross, awaiting a thank-you card in response to the gift she’d sent. God is not needy. And yet this “thankful heart” business seems to be genuinely important to God. In fact, gratitude is important in all of the world’s major religions.

Overheard at Starbucks:
Person A: “We’re taking the kids to help serve at the soup kitchen again this year.”

Person B: “Wow, that’s a wonderful thing to do!”

Person A (puffing-up): “Yes, well it’s good for them to see how the rest of the world lives, you know, so they appreciate what they have. We’ve got so much to be thankful for.”

Person B: “Yes, that’s so important, kids these days have no idea what they’ve got.”

Is this what it’s about? I wonder. A special holiday so that we can take time to be aware of how much we’ve got, counting our blessings like coins in an underground vault? So that we can celebrate how much better off we are than so many others? Be thankful for all the things you do have, mister. Is that it?

Somehow I think it’s meant to be more than this. Thanksgiving is a time to be aware that the source of the goodness we experience is not our selves. It’s beyond us. The Originator of our blessings is not us; most of this life is completely out of our control.

We have somehow — perhaps by historical or geographical accident — tumbled onto the earth in this place and time and the fact that we have wound up living with food, clean water, electricity and medicine is a miraculous and astounding occurrence for which we can claim no responsibility. We gaze up with our jaws dropped wide open and revel in the fact that we’re here. We do have a lot to be thankful for.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There’s been a lot of footage of people in over-crowded boats fleeing disaster in Syria and risking the dangerous journey across the water in hopes of arriving to freedom on the shores of Kos. But in one video there is a young man who looks to be about the age of my son. My heart stops when I notice him. He looks about 19. He is sitting in the bottom of the boat with his knees to his chest, holding himself tightly, his head down and eyes closed, maybe praying. When the coast guard begins to fire shots at the boat and revs the engine to swamp it with waves, the young man squeezes his legs tightly; his chest shakes as he starts to sob. There’s not a doubt in my mind that he is frightened to death right then.06migrants3-web-master675-675x318

There’s not a doubt in my mind that he has a mother somewhere praying for him, her
heart breaking because she may never see her boy again. There is a chance he will make it to start a new life; there is a chance he will find a home somewhere safe, she thinks. She will imagine him with children and a wife and a home. Even if it’s not true, she will still imagine this. She must. She will not let herself think about what could happen instead.

When no one is looking, when she is alone, she gets on her knees and lets herself cry.

I watch the video of this boy over and over. At the end you can see that the boat has made it to shore. I watch carefully for the boy. A young man leaps from the boat into the water shouting for joy. I think it’s him. The crowd of people are shouting and crying. They hold their children high in the air and thank God for them. I lose sight of the boy in the clip, but I think of his mother. I pray for her. I pray that she will feel it in her heart, that she will know that her boy is safe for now. He will make his way.

I couldn’t read the writing on the raft in which they arrived. Perhaps it was called the Mayflower. This Thanksgiving, I hope we remember how badly we have all behaved as humans beings at various times in history. I hope we get better at this.LandingAnon

Heather Gordon-Young is the author of Fireflies: Finding Light in a Dark World, a memoir of faith, loss and family. View the book trailer video  by clicking here.

How to be an elephant in a small town

This morning I watched the little video (which I’ve included at the end of this post) that went viral in May of this year as it captured the herd of elephants crossing the road in Kruger National Park. In the video, a young elephant lies down right there, right in the middle of the road and won’t get up. Some say the elephant collapsed, but most people think that’s not the case. Is he being reckless or is he exhausted? Maybe he’s just given up, it’s not clear. People have been making up lots of stories about what happened – he ate something poisonous; he’s having a tantrum; he’s dying and knows he’s a burden to the herd – but the truth is we just don’t know. Whatever’s going on for that little guy, the one thing the elephants agree about is that he’s not safe and he needs their help.

But the reason we watch this video is not really about the young elephant. We watch it because we are fascinated by the response of the herd to this little one. We can hardly believe our eyes when they start arriving, the whole community of elephants, helping out, stopping traffic, Elephant Herdgathering round, pushing and pulling with their trunks, trying to get this kid to safety. Perhaps it fascinates us because we’ve been there before. Certainly, I’ve been that elephant on the road, down for the count, not sure I’d ever get up again. I’d say every one of us has either been there ourselves or has had someone close to us in that place. Some of us have been lucky with families and friends arriving just to be there, just to stand next to us in the middle of it all. And some of us live in small towns, which can be both a blessing and curse when the going gets tough.

I don’t think there was a lot of whispering from the bush about this young elephant on the road. I don’t think there was a lot of calling into question his character, his choices, his upbringing. No, I don’t think elephants are that way inclined. I think elephants just come because it’s what they do. It’s their instinct to do the right thing. They stop traffic, call in the herd, talk it out, coax, whisper. It’s not safe, you need to get up, you’ll be okay.

What we don’t see in this little clip is the rest of the herd, just off camera. We don’t see the community of elephants gathered nearby but I can tell you, they’re not far away, watching to see what happens, ready to charge the first vehicle that creeps forward. I’ve been in such a situation in Zimbabwe a few times with elephant herds crossing roads. Any decent guide will tell you, you don’t rush a herd – you keep your distance and stay well out of the way. An elephant can charge and flip a vehicle in seconds if they feel unsafe. Don’t think for a moment the whole herd isn’t paying close attention off camera. That’s what elephants do – they protect each other.

This week the son of a good friend of mine found himself in a bit of trouble – well, a lot of trouble, in fact. And because my friend has had a public profile for many years, the media frenzy around the circumstances surrounding her boy is just as expected: shrewd, scheming, opportunistic and unfair. One of the things I admire about this woman, and her family, is their ability to soldier on and hold their heads up high in the midst of some pretty difficult times. We live in a small town. The people who are there for you are close by if you need them. But there are also people with hearts that are a few sizes too small with whom we share this small town. These are the people who whisper about you in the cafe and pretend they don’t see you in the grocery store; people who forget what it means to be a mother with a son in a tough place.

I intend to be an elephant in my small town. I intend to stand off camera, watching from a distance just in case, always believing, always hoping, never judging, and not just because this woman is my friend, but because I’m a mother, too.  Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. 1 Corinthians 13:7

Heather Gordon Young is the author of Fireflies:Finding Light in a Dark World. View the book trailer here.

Remembering the boy

It’s pretty hard to un-hear something, I know. How do you un-think a thought? It’s a trick of the mind to force your brain cells to do this. Take, for example, that favorite childhood song, Puff the Magic Dragon. When we were little we loved that song even though we didn’t really understand it. Somehow we knew it was about growing up and leaving things behind, and when we sang it we felt sad without really knowing why. I have vivid memories of my brother and me aboard the old red fire engine at Fort George Park, pretending it was an ancient wooden ship, pretending we were sailing into the raging sea holding out for the dragon we knew would come, puff the magic dragonJimmy singing out every word and me chiming in with the only part I could remember: Puff the Magic Dragon lived by the Sea, and frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honalee… We didn’t know then, how much we would need a magic dragon in the years ahead.

Then when I was an adult someone said the song was actually about drugs. I was crushed! That was our song! How could anyone say that?? But from then on I couldn’t think of the song any other way. It was as if someone had vandalized that song with spray paint. For a long time I couldn’t even hear the song, all I could see was the spray paint.

So here’s what I decided to do: I decided to un-paint the graffiti. I decided to un-hear what people said about the song and remember it as it once was in our lives: a gentle, playful song about growing up. I decided to rescue the goodness, to remember Puff as a magic dragon that lived by the sea.

When bad things happen in our lives they tend to spill over, staining everything else, spoiling our memories, so that what was once real and beautiful is no longer visible. You should know here, that I lost my brother in 1992. When my brother, Jimmy, took his own life, it was terrible and tragic; it was as if the world itself had come to an end.

And here we are. August 7, 2015. Today is Jimmy’s birthday. He would have turned 50 years old today. Gosh, I would have liked to spend today with him. So for a few moments I hope to un-hear the tragic ending of Jim’s life and remember the boy, kind and gentle. I hope to remember his life without remembering first his death. I hope you have a few minutes to enjoy this video honoring that great kid. Happy Birthday, Jim.

Heather Gordon-Young is the author of the new book Fireflies: Finding Light in a Dark World that tells this story. Ask your local bookstore to order it or buy it online through Amazon or Indigo. Available in Kindle and Kobo. 

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please call 1-800-784-2433 (1-800-SUICIDE), or call your local crisis centre. 

After Cecil

You should know that there are some days – like the day I learned about Cecil the lion’s death – I am secretly relieved my brother, Jimmy, isn’t here to know about this. You should know that his LION FINISHED FINALown passion for protecting endangered species was one of the things that killed him in the end. As a wildlife artist he spent his days studying, photographing and painting the world’s amazing creatures. But he spent his nights falling to pieces, drinking, worrying about those majestic creatures, wondering what on earth could be done to halt their extinction, to slow the rate at which our modern world extinguishes them from the planet.

I did not understand, then, what was happening to him. I didn’t know that underneath it all, his mind could not take the passion and pain he experienced and channel his art and his anger. I didn’t know he could not release it. I wanted him to throw open the valve and let it go, pouring out fire-hose-style behind him, making a difference. “Jim, you can’t just be upset about it, you need to find a way to actually do something,” I would say to him in the midst of his blackest depressions, certain he would feel better then, scrambling with my own worry as I watched his mind disintegrate, tugging at the valve which was somehow stuck damn-it why won’t it move? Why won’t this damn thing budge?

Could he see me frustrated and scared? Of course, he could. I did not then understand why he could not just get up out of bed and make a difference, why he could not decide to do whatever he could to change the world. With the rage that lived inside of him he could have torn open the universe with his bare hands to protect animals like Cecil from being snuffed out. Instead, this rage destroyed him.

TALL ELEPHANTWhen my brother took his own life, this is what the world lost: not just a brilliant wildlife artist deeply disappointed with the selfishness of humanity, but the passionate beating heart of an advocate, friend of the animal kingdom, lover of the created world.

This is why the world should care about mental health: not because I lost my brother, but because the gentle souls who feel most deeply, the hearts that beat as moral compass of us all, the voices calling us to do better, to be better, to love better, these are the voices we so often lose to suicide.

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with suicidal thoughts please download this document from Simon Fraser University professionals to help you walk through steps to be safe and get help by clicking here: Coping With Suicidal Thoughts . I wish you peace.

Fireflies: Finding Light in a Dark World by Heather Gordon-Young tells Jim’s story. Please visit her website to view the book trailer: www.heathergordon-young.com Ask your local bookstore to order this book or purchase on-line on Amazon. The images here are Jim’s paintings. Please view his online gallery at Fine-Art America. All proceeds from the purchases of prints and other reproductions go to the Jim Young Foundation, which exists to make the world a safer place for people who struggle with mental health issues.

On Holy Ground at Sea Fair

When something is ‘sacred’ it means it is somehow connected to God. As if – without our even being aware – the mystery of the Divine has stopped right there, right in the midst of our ordinary Starbucks-texting-cell-phone-driven-appointment-crazy lives. It is, I think, a little like a butterfly landing on your shoulder, not impossible but pretty amazing when it happens. And when it does, you stop – stop everything – because in that moment there is nothing else that butterfly on shouldermatters. You hold still, hold your breath, study it’s tiny movements, wishing it to stay for just a moment more. You can see every tiny marking, every painted bright stripe, every lacy edged pattern on those beautiful wings, as if someone had used a tiny brush with the skill of a master painter. And you marvel at this moment, why you? Why now? And then just like that, it’s lifts itself into the sky with the tiniest flutter and it’s gone.

On the weekend, Powell River’s local Sea Fair Festival held on beautiful Willingdon Beach, gave us a chance to take part with a booth set up for my new book, Fireflies. Because so many people had been asking where they could buy it (other than through Amazon) we thought Sea Fair seemed like a great place to connect. And it was.At Sea Fair

But what I had not expected were the people who came – after reading Fireflies or reading about it in the local paper – to share their own stories of healing, loss, and loved ones who struggle. I had not expected that my weekend would allow me incredible moments to look up into the eyes of someone I’d only just met and experience something sacred. With trembling voices and courageous hearts, lovely people came to talk, to reach bravely across universe of our busy lives and grasp my hand, a stranger they’d never met, to say, “Let me stop and tell you my story.” And it happened just like that, on Willingdon Beach, brave butterflies softly landing on my shoulder for just a moment, the sacred passing by, the mystery of the Divine in their eyes. I took off my shoes. Not because it was a beach on a sunny summer day, but because there I stood, butterflies landing gently on my shoulder, on holy ground. I am thankful.

Fireflies: Finding Light in a Dark World, by Heather Gordon-Young is available through your local bookstore or on-line at Amazon.com and Amazon.ca. View the book trailer at: www.heathergordon-young.com.

Launching Dreams

firefliesOn Friday, July 10, 2015, we celebrated the launch of Fireflies: Finding Light in a Dark World in Vancouver. If you’ve read the book, you will know that it’s the true story of my brother, Jim Young, and me. You will know that, in part, it’s the true story of a brother and a sister.  And you will, I hope, have experienced much of the story with me. You will have felt me at times leave him behind in the narrative, and you will know the tremendous ache in my heart looking back. You will know the tragedy of loss that thundered through our lives so many years ago.

And so on Friday, July 10, if you weren’t able to be there with us all, I want to share a tiny moment of the night with you…

On Friday, July 10, we also celebrated the launch of The Jim Young Foundation – a brand new 11705707_738533459590285_4344568843033091462_ofoundation that exists to make the world a safer place for people who struggle with mental health issues. My brother, Jim Young, was a truly remarkable wildlife artist who took his own life at 26 years of age. For years now my husband and I have been the keepers of his private collection of art in our home, but it’s only now (through the very generous work of Gary Giacamelli who spent countless hours digitalizing Jim’s work) that we have been able to share his work with the world through an online gallery you can find on my website under the Jim Young Fund  and on FineArt America.

The world can now buy prints and images of Jim’s work online at Fine Art America. All of the proceeds go to The Jim Young Foundation to help others who struggle with mental health. I urge you to visit and enjoy viewing his work. The world needs to understand the incredible losses that occur every single day; more than two thousand people on the planet take their own lives every day. My brother’s work is a glimpse at what the world loses when a life ends this way.

And so here’s the moment I want you to know about — once you’ve read the book you’ll understand. On Friday, July 10, in some way that I cannot Firefliesexplain, I felt myself stand next to my brother on stage that night. I felt the world applaud his talent, cheer for his success, and understand his struggle as they had not understood before. I felt my brother smile and blush. And in some strange way that night, I felt I was able to return to that moment in the field of fireflies so many years ago, but this time it was me with a jar of light. I felt myself loosen the lid to let the fireflies fill up the empty glass in his hands.

“You can have mine,” I felt myself whisper.  And we walked together, the two of us, into that magical night with a lantern to share, as if there was no such thing as darkness.

 

 

A small brown duck

10941831_10206192830765355_5982453640606293269_nI’ve just returned home from visiting my daughter in Australia for her 21st birthday party. Turning 21 in Australia is a pretty big deal. My iPhone is bursting with images of kangaroos and beaches and the incredible bird life in the forest behind her house. In the mornings, just as the sun was reaching their branches, the gum trees were busy with noisy, colorful parrots heralding each new day.

Surely in all this color-dance of life, I mused, some dazzling magical creature would emblazon itself on my mind and serve as a kind of talisman of creative genius and hopefulness to hold during the long winter days I would face on my return to Canada. But the one image that stuck with me was a small brown duck, abundantly ordismall brown ducknary, nestled peacefully under low hanging branches near the edge of the water. This duck? This is the magic? Did I feel disappointment that the duck would be what I took home with me?

In a few months time my first book, Fireflies, will come out. It’s a project that has taken me more years than I care to remember. In light of the year ahead, I guess I’d been hoping for a King Parrot to take roost, or a pair of Crimson Rosellas darting across a clear blue sky Wouldn’t that have been more fitting for this of all years? But there she was, silent at the edge of it all, no flash of glorious green or display of fiery crimson in those wings. Nope. She was a plain brown duck. I thought about her all the way home.

There are a lot of us brown ducks in the world. We are ordinary. But maybe that’s something to celebrate. We are perfectly suited for the not-so-Kardashian life we live. We get up in the morning, have a cup of coffee and go to work; we get groceries and put gas the car; we let the dog out and open the mail; we do the dishes and get the garbage ready to be put out the next morning; we have bad hair days and we forget to send Christmas cards on time. But we also light the candles on our children’s birthday cakes; we watch hummingbirds from the window; we see tips of the trees grow red and begin to bud. There will be leaves soon.

We watch our children being born and we pray it will all come out right in the end, having witnessed all those trembling first days of school; the sports-day finish line when there was no one, it seemed, but her out there, jumping as best she could in a big brown sack, as if life itself depended on it. We wait for her by the window after her first job interview, holding our breath; we wait for the phone call to see if she’s been accepted to study law at Wollongong University, as if life itself depended on it.

And then she is 21. I watch her whole world arrive for the party, mostly people we’ve never met, and there she is, greeting guests, smiling and confident, the gracious hostess with silver plates of hors d’oeuvres, welcoming the world, looking for me, her mother, now and again, just to make sure I’m alright. There is no need for me to light the candles on the cake. I nestle in peacefully u10968540_10153086018518734_4245592730673681836_np under the branches, still enough to enjoy it all. I am so darn proud of her.

When I am home, I look again at the photos, us laughing in the field by her house before anyone else arrived, her in her bright pink dress, spinning in this color-dance of life she has fashioned for herself, a dazzling magical creature emblazoned on my mind.

This, I think, this is enough to last a lifetime.

I think that’s what writers do. We find a quiet place in the world and capture the magnificence of the world in which we are deeply privileged to live.