Sunday, 5 June 2011

Mothers Journey: Quesnel River to Yellowknife

Photo by Cherie Dimaline
 In 2006 I received some funding to write a second book of essays, and I have been working on it ever since. One of my bright ideas was, I'd like to hear/read more about indigenous women's experiences of childbirth, breastfeeding, mothering-- I was writing a lot about these things, from a personal perspective, and wanting to call in other words, voices, stories, to learn, too, from the experiences of others.

I had a bit of a crisis, funding in hand, when I tried to square who I am-- a shy, nervous, quirky, opinionated person-- with the idea of asking probing personal questions of some of Canada's top matriarchs of indigenous lit.  As is often a good idea, in times of crisis, I turned to my friends, and through discussions came upon a plan... I piled all the kids & husband into my husband's van, and we used the money to do a road trip, allowing many of my children to meet their grandfather and uncles and great-uncles in Manitoba for the first time.  En route, we stopped by to visit Marie-Micheline Hamelin and Art Hamelin in Penticton, Sharron Proulx-Turner and her family in Calgary, some of my aunties and cousins in Saskatchewan, having long conversations about writing, birthing, mothering wounds & mothering gifts, culminating in a visit with Maria Campbell. I also consulted a lot with Connie Fife, and Lee Maracle, both before and after setting out on this journey.

By the time I got to Maria's place in Saskatchewan, I had an idea of how we might move forward with encouraging many more stories into the world. Maria liked the idea of doing a retreat for aboriginal mothers and grandmothers, no cost to participants, and refined the ideas for the gathering. "You organize it, I'll lead it," she said. Christi Belcourt was visiting at the same time, and Maria put us together, and thus began my straight-up learning curve for project development for events involving more than one or two authors.
 
Louise Profeit-Leblanc, in Ottawa, and Cathi Charles Wherri, in Victoria, were very patient and kind informants, assisting us in the formation of an organizing group-- The Aunties Collective.  We put out a call for artists interested in participating in a week-long writing master class. The idea was, in part, to present a course of a caliber expected in the finest universities, and to present it without cost, without prerequisite, to include all of those gifted people who may not fit into an academic environment-- like me, for instance. To present something very fine, to a group of women who would make the most of the opportunity, whether or not they had the means to buy such things.

~

Of course, we could not accommodate all of the applicants. A jury of three volunteers was formed to create as diverse a shortlist as possible from the total submissions, and the shortlisted applicants' works were passed on to Maria for final selection.

We rented a funky house alongside the Quesnel River, and we had a beautiful-- life altering, transformative, very productive-- week together.

Bren Kolson, Sharron Proulx-Turner, Kelly Benning, Joanne Arnott
That first gathering happened in 2007. Our writings from that gathering have been the focus of an anthology project, Notokwematchiwin: Old Lady Hunting. Although it is not yet published, I had the pleasure of reading from it this week.

I am writing from Yellowknife NWT, where seven of the original twelve writers have gathered under the name, Wausnodeh Collective, to re-focus and refine an independent ongoing collective of Mothers Journey graduates/participants. Bren Kolson, author of Myth of the Barrens, is our host in Yellowknife, and we have together presented our first formal public presentation, as part of the very well-attended North Words Festival.

Many of us-- Jane Marston, Cherie Dimaline, Sharron Proulx-Turner, Bren Kolson, Renee Abram, Kelly Benning, and myself-- read work that we had written while together with Maria, Kim Anderson, Christi Belcourt, Catherine Richards, and Harmony Rice, by the Quesnel River. I shared two birth poems that will be in the anthology, very different in mood, and my usual song, Rock.  Here are the two poems that I shared:


a story of birth

through the course of time
woman has been impregnated
by swallowing stones
by speaking with fish
by becoming intimate
with winds, forests, rivers
in this story
a woman becomes impregnated
by fucking a man

& in this story
the child will not be born
from her forehead
nor from the side of father's head
the child will be formed
right there in her belly
between her breasts and her vulva
between her laughter-shaken bellyskin
and the stack of bones that holds
her head
so high

when the new life
is fully gathered
has collected itself
& ripened through the course
of time
the child will choose
in this story
to escape through
her vulva

the child will stop halfway out
head and shoulders born
arms free
to reflect a little while
to consider

the mother, a little crass, will say
what's going on back there? are you having 
a tea party?

and Mary, the midwife this time, will say
baby is taking a rest, just checking us out, 
baby is looking around

as the new child considers whether he/she
is really prepared for the new life she/he
is taking on

the mother will be wondering
when she can sit on her own bottom
once more

the luxury of it

& how long she will need to wait
before settling this intense craving
for a cigarette

this combination
of his hesitation
and her impatience

will mark the dance that unfolds
between them
for many years

~

tender is the day

tender is the day i am weeping, a newborn child beside me
my ignorance long and wide and deep, i am all unburdened
by the wild ride of giving birth to you

as my tears fall across my hot breasts that burgeon with a flood
of milk, blood, each in their individual passages, my breasts
are an unfamilliar land upon my chest

i do not know what to do, my dreams of violence are undoing
all the strength built up so far, i am alone with an aching bottom
a cascade of visitors swirling by

the mattress on the floor below the wide expanse of window
the curtains are pulled wide on the advice of my midwife and
caregiver, a hand on my pillow

i weep the hot tears of loss and the profound confusion of living
inhabiting my body like a child in the early days of freedom
shaking grief like salt until the shaker empties

each time a song croons from my chest and belly
each time you open your eyes and in full trust you
gaze upon me, tender

is the day, is the night, is the woman
allowing her perceptions of life
to open to bliss, birthing, healing, nursing, you


More about the Wausnodeh Collective Project, Old Lady Hunting anthology, and participating artists can be found over time at our new blog site, Old Lady Hunting Aboriginal Writers Group

With thanks to our funders, the Canada Council Aboriginal Peoples Collaborative Exchange for both The Aunties Collective & The Wausnodeh Collective projects, and to First Peoples Heritage, Language & Culture Council (BC) for support of the germinating Mothers Journey project.


Thanks to Cherie Dimaline for use of her beautiful photographs taken in NWT Yellowknife.

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