We are the stronghold

 I was married to this guy from Winnipeg’s north end.

His dad was a white guy, a trucker with big personality and a bigger anger management/drinking problem. His mom Joann was Metis, a “Roy”, five foot nothing, warm and golden as a pool of melted butter. She loved the grandchildren that her son and I had together with a fervour and a tenderness and an anxiety that betrayed both the size of her heart and the depth of the losses she’d faced in her life.  She didn’t dwell on stuff like that: she never told me much about what the exact causes of her anguish were, but she did talk about how when her kids were small, there were hard times, like when her drunk husband forgot to pay the rent, forgot to come home for a week, and she, mom with three kids, had to pull them on a sled through a Winnipeg blizzard to her mothers’s house because she didn’t have bus fare.

So: when Joann made her grandchildren their Sunday pancake breakfasts in the house she’d finally managed to make safe, she’d make a spectacular fuss over everything, and sit the kids in their very own plushy chairs that she kept just for them, and they felt like a billion bucks as they ate their pancakes and smiled back at their grandma with identical round cheeks and cute little ‘butt chins’, and it was scrumptious. 

But Joann’s son did not give me that kind of access to his heart. At first: yes, I was treated like a queen and he offered me more grown-up variations of deluxe pancake breakfasts. He was a touring musician and everywhere we went, people who knew him for a day or two at a time just adored him. He was brilliant, charming, hilarious. By day three, his energy  would start to flag and we’d move on. I grew to know the other guy, the Day Four guy, the one whom his dad had taught him to be: a person so in thrall to his own impulses that there was no emotional regulation whatsoever. 

You could say he suffered from grandiosity, or narcissism: whatever. While capable of the grandest and most extravagant gestures, he was also capable of stunning cruelty. He was impervious to the pain of others because his own pain was so searing and his denial of it so emphatic. Anything, from losing a pair of reading glasses to not being able to find his wallet, could trigger full blown fits of rage in which tables got thrown across the room and the kids and I would retreat to a corner and huddle until the storm passed. Yet : if the phone would ring in the middle of one of his rages he’d answer it, say a totally normal ‘hello’, and within a second or two he’d be cracking jokes and laughing. It was eerie as shit. 

His superpower was telling stories, most of which were insanely exaggerated or outright lies but: when he started galloping along on that story horse, we all wanted to go along with him. When he put that extremism shit into his guitar it was alchemy, but more often than not he put that extremism all over me, and all over the kids, because he had no interest in this skill called temperance. He had no choke, it was just throttle throttle throttle. Like his trucker dad. 

After running myself ragged, single parenting in this so-called ‘relationship’, I got so sick I nearly died. Waking up in my hospital bed, I realized that I could have a whole life, not a half-life in the shadow of this unfettered ego boy, and I walked. So fractured was our communication that we never even managed to get a divorce. 

So: fast forward 20 years to now. I’m in the midst of a wild few weeks of work trying to understand, and tease out ways to tell, a very old and very painful story of the ways our government, my country, is trying to crush the uprising of a group of highly conscientious and honour-bound Indigenous leaders who are trying to carry out their ancestral duties to take care of the land. Unfortunately their story, though outrageous, is not an exaggeration. 

One day I get a phone call from this woman, who has a voice like a clear bell on the other end of the line. She tells me about a vision she and her band-mates have,  of setting up benefit concerts to support the Wet’suwet’en in carrying out their ancestral duties and enforcing their laws while they face invasion, eviction, and violent displacement from the land. She wants to gather people together under the banner #WeAreTheStronghold,  and join forces across the country in pushing back against the brutal Canadian state that seems intent on dragging Indigenous people from their homeland to push through an unwanted fracked gas pipeline.

She describes this #WeAreTheStronghold idea as a circle of protection, to be woven around the warriors on the front lines: a circle that anyone can stand and be a part of from wherever they are in the world. She has me convinced at about sentence three, and I’m willing to do just about anything to help her by the time she’s finished. 

She tells me her crew are kicking off the movement with a series of benefit concerts: the first one will be in Toronto, in just over a week. Naturally I get a plane, and go. 

A week later I’m standing at the door of the theatre, looking over the attendance lists and planning how we’re going to deliver the news that the show is sold out to a bunch of people who have travelled through a snowstorm to attend.

It turns out that the sweet voiced woman from the phone call, Shoshona, runs a little thing called the Indigenous Music Summit, and her network includes some of the biggest names and talents in the country. She’s brought together a star studded line-up and absolutely everyone, from the roadies to the T-shirt squeegie crew to the production managers to the hoop dancers to the headliners, is working for free. Every person running around — with a tinge of panic as 7 o’clock rolls around and the audience line-up snakes down the stairs and out the door — is working flat out to make this show happen, all to benefit a Nation more than 3000 miles away, all to draw a line against the age-old oppressive tactics of the colonial state, and circle the wagons to make sure justice is upheld and peaceful land protectors are listened to. 

It’s actually stunning… it’s hard to take it all in but the mood is one of slightly crazed joy. 

At 7 we start to let people in. My job is to keep track of the guest list:  I look at piece of paper and there, in the middle of the page, is this familiar name that I haven’t seen for a long time. “Ace”. My husband. 

Holy shit.

I’d heard that he might be in Toronto: it’s been four or five years since I’ve seen or even talked to him. But, glancing down the stairs along the line up, there he is. His hair is longer, grayer, and he sees me and smiles that auto-charm smile that once got me so hooked in. Surprisingly, I am genuinely happy to see him. I think: well, I can tell the kids he’s alive. They’ll be relieved: they’re always so worried about him, because when they talk on the phone and ask him how things are going, he talks about his highs, but he also rants about his lows, and they believe him when he says things like , “Ive been homeless for a year” or “People are trying to kill me”.  

We hug. It’s a pretty good one. He goes into the ballroom and I think, ‘that went well’.

But later, I’m up on the balcony looking down at the 450 people who are gathered in front of a stage draped with a banner that reads “STRONGHOLD”. Between the performances of the eight headlining bands, the crew must reconfigure the sound setup, so the organizers invite up dancers, poets, and medicine singers to fill the space with ceremony. 

A woman in a red cloak with a round deerskin drum steps up to the mic. She tells us she’s glad to be able to be here, and to share medicine with us, because today has been a mixed-up, painful day. She’s got an eagle feather on her drum: she tells us it’s there in honour of her son, who was, as she puts it bluntly,  senselessly murdered on this day, four years ago. As tears fall from our eyes, she begins her song and it fills the theatre and goes right into the bones of the building so I can feel her drum vibrating in my hands through the railing I’m holding onto. Her song takes me out of the headlong rush of the past few weeks and sinks me down into this exact moment. Her courage as the eagle feather spins and dances to her song floors me. It roots me to my own family and to the brokenness we are all trying to sing through.  I think of my son Marly and the father wound he, also, carries I think wow, I’m glad Ace is somewhere here, hearing this song. I hope this reaches him. I hope it heals him. 

450 people are washed by this holy song. When she’s done, I turn to go back downstairs and there’s my husband Ace standing right there. I lean in close and say, “I’m really glad you’re here.” Then I find myself saying “I wanna tell Marly I saw you but I can’t, it would just make him so sad.” Ace gives a little sob and comes out of his charming persona for a moment and I feel and see his real self. Oh, yeah. 

He says, “I’ll call him in the morning.”  “And,” I say, “You and I really need to get a divorce!” We both laugh, he gives me his number, and  Spirit ticks one off her list. 

The rest of the night has magic like this, threaded all the way through, different for each person but strong and good. 

At the very end, Amanda and Shoshana wrap me in a blanket. It’s so beautiful, it’s the colour of indigo night and there’s stars on it, and the golden yellow of my kids grandma Joann’s pancake butter is woven right into that thing. 

I walk home through the snow, long past midnight, Carrying my bundle of blanket in my arms, crying the whole way.  I get to my own bed, lay the blanket out on it, and climb underneath. And I cry some more, and they are really good tears, from a place way down inside that is past the anger and the hardness and even past the affection and forgiveness. The place of a love that endures no matter what opened up and it said to me, ‘you are home’.  

That’s the kind of love we need to get through this time, as a country and as peoples with histories as extreme as the ones we’ve put each other through, and that we’ve been put through.  Spells were cast that snowy night in Toronto, magic was conjured that is powerful beyond measure. We can only face the really deep stuff,  the painful skeletons of broken family/broken community, the stuff deep in the boneyard that is scary to dig through but so essential to the work of peacemaking and of healing – we can only face that when we are held in a stronghold of love.  

Thank you for making that stronghold. And for inviting me to step in.