Walking in the Steps of History

-By Maggie Wheeler-

After too long away, I am once again walking in the steps of history. And it may surprise you to hear that doing so actually brings the present and future centre stage.

There is an understandable bias among those who do not work with history that those who do—scholar, curator or mystery writer—must work with a rosy vision of the past and an inherent desire to live in bygone eras. But nothing could be further from the truth.

What we do share is an inherent, hard-wired and constant awareness of the spectrum of time. That the present is just a viewing point, and that the past (like the future) actively ebbs and flows around everything we do.

Writing mysteries based on the amazing and poignant history of the St. Lawrence Seaway construction and the Lost Villages history of the 1950s gave me a whole new full-spectrum lens with which to view my own community. I walked in the steps of those who came from “away” to the historic landscape of the Old Fronts on the St. Lawrence River to build the single greatest engineering project on this continent in the 20thcentury. Their success continues to amaze after almost 60 years. I also walked in the steps of those whose families had come from the American Revolution to rebuild along the river under the British Crown generations ago, and the indigenous communities who called the St. Lawrence River Valley home for a millennium. Their losses of land and economy were swift and complete—as was the loss of history and personal landscape that no amount of government compensation could replace.

And now I’m doing it again.

This time, I’m walking farther back to the early days of the 20th century and the closing years of one of the most amazing untold stories of our Canadian history: the British Home Children. From 1869 to 1939, over 130,000 children from Great Britain left its shores for new lives in the colonies as farm and domestic labourers. Here, in Canada, we took in over 100,000 of them. Some fared well, and some did not. But all British Home Children who survived also thrived and contributed to the development of this country in economy, progeny, culture, military service and national spirit. My grandmother was one of them. Today, over 15% of our population traces its ancestry to these children—and most do not know it.

Each time I walk back in history, I find the same thing: resilience. It is a quiet and relatively unsung human quality, without which we have nothing. As Farran Mackenzie says in the new novel All My Worldly Goods, “I sat where my grandmother and great aunt had secretly met to say goodbye as children so long ago and wondered anew how we ever survive what life continues to hand us.” We survive with resilience. Some months ago, in discussion with a family member about some current challenges, my relative said to me, “I think we as people are far more resilient than we give ourselves credit for.” It is a statement that has resonated with me ever since for its profound truth.

This year marks 150 years of Canada as a nation. We know that 150 years is a blink in the eye of time where the living and dying on this continent is concerned, another viewing point on the spectrum. But our sesquicentennial is a milestone to be celebrated nonetheless. Nations are not countries—they are ideas. The idea of Canada continues to develop on the foundations of all the ideas that came before. In terms of European settlement, Canada was forged by people who came here to be left alone, to live in peace away from old hatreds and ebbing ways of thought. To do it, we had to earn our way through the primal forest and build on the Canadian Shield. We did. And we are still here, looking to live in peace on a turbulent planet. That’s because we are a resilient people, keeping the idea alive.

So it continues. As the last of the novel gathers on the page, I keep rising at 5:00 a.m. to write before my work day. I continue to live three lives—mine, Farran’s and that of her ancestors—all at the same time without bumping into furniture or leaving the door unlocked when I go to work. Despite the constant urge to ask myself “Why am I doing this?” I continue. Because I know why. I’m walking in the steps of history again. It’s a privileged path to follow.

I also continue because I can. Like my grandmother, I am resilient.

And thanks to her journey and her resilience, I am Canadian.

From Maternal Ambivalence to Mitzi Bytes: On Being Mom Enough

-By Kerry Clare-

May 2017 will mark eight years since my first daughter’s birth, an experience that both broke me and made me. Made me a mother, but that’s only one facet of what I’m talking about. Becoming a mother made me into lots of things, including someone who is all too aware of her limits, someone who has (mostly) learned that you can’t control it all, someone who reads deeply and widely and asks questions inspired by the stake I now have in humanity’s future. It made me into someone with a deformed abdomen too, but that’s another story.

Of course, there are many experiences by which a person can access the understanding of the world that motherhood permitted me, but for me—with a comfortable, privileged and happy life for the most part—motherhood would be it. Those early days with a baby were the hardest thing I’d ever done, when everything I thought was wrong, and life as I knew it seemed shattered. Which was why, lost as I was, I hung on to binaries, which seemed like the only sure things. Home birth or hospital birth, bottle or breast, co-sleeping or cry-it-out. The world seemed made up of well-ordered camps of this-or-that, which was at least some order at all, and I needed all the order I could get in that haze of new motherhood when the dead of night kept bleeding into early morning and the baby always cried and was nothing like the babies in any of the books I’d read.

I like to joke about it now, observing the excellent and hilarious children galloping around the playground at my youngest daughter’s pre-school. “You can tell,” I will comment to whoever happens to be standing beside me, “which ones were sleep trained, the ways it damaged them.”

The person I’m talking to will look at me a bit confused or horrified. “Really?” they’ll ask, if they don’t get the joke. (“Joke” might be a debatable word here. I acknowledge that I have a weird sense of humour.)

And then I assure them, “Of course not!” It’s the blessing of having older children, second children. You learn that none of it really matters. That all those either/or’s exist to give parents the illusion that they aren’t floating thoroughly unmoored through outer space. That in fact usually everything works out, and sometimes it doesn’t, but the either/or’s have very little to do with any of that.

 

In the years since I’ve found my bearings as a mother, I’ve tried in my writing to complicate those binaries many of us clung to in the early days. I wrote an essay, “Love is a Let-Down,” about maternal ambivalence, which is an idea that still interests me, not because it’s particularly “brave” or edgy, but because ambivalence by definition is about having simultaneously conflicting ideas, and I think we need to learn to make more room for those areas of uncertainty and disagreement in our own feelings and our relations to each other.

My first book, the essay anthology The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood, was a project toward that end, collecting 25 essays about experiences of maternity—traumatic births, infertility, miscarriage, abortion, adoption, only children, multiples, and the choice to not have children at all. The essays had many uncanny connections, but also rubbed up against each other in uncomfortable ways. But what a thing: to put together a group of women’s voices, and they’re not all saying the same thing, and that’s okay.

My new book, the novel Mitzi Bytes, is about a woman whose ideas and proclamations rub many people in uncomfortable ways, about a woman who is a decent human being but who is not particularly fussed about placating other people or getting along to keep the peace. She insists on not yielding, on standing fast in who she is and what she believes in. She sees the possibility for conflicting ideas to simultaneously exist and for the whole world not to explode as a result of that.

It’s funny, really, the simultaneously conflicting ideas about motherhood and womanhood that we do manage to hold onto—that mothers are exceptional and revered, even as they’re derided, annoying and as unfashionable as a bad pair of jeans. Or that women are catty and awful and fated never to really get along, even as many of us know the incredible power of sisterhood, the enduring strength of our friendships.

In her new book, Autumn, Ali Smith writes that, “…whoever makes up the story makes up the world,” and I believe that fervently. Which is why I’ll keep writing stories about ambivalence, uncertainty, in-betweeness, and about the grey areas that are necessary for any of us to ever understand each other.