Friday was record warm and rainy so many of our streams and rivers are at flood stage. Yesterday was cold with heavy snow and a thick blanket of new snow has covered the briefly bare ground. This morning brought bright blue sky and sun, the landscape ablaze with light and deep shadow.

We are at mid-month in January, and days such as this take on a decidedly French Impressionist tone, the play of light and shadow enhancing the subtle colors of the winter landscape. During thaws, the landscape bare of snow, the world seems drab and colorless.

I’m reading Sara Maitland for the first time in years, and discovering what I’ve missed: a lot. She writes in an enchanting prose style, a sort of subtle magic realism infusing even her essays. I’m sampling and loving it, alternating between Maitland and Sherman Alexie, between two very different views of displacement and loss.

Both authors are concerned with the impacts of colonialism and the erasure of culture and ecosystem. Alexie is funny and angry, Maitland subtle, quiet, and thoughtful. Reading them concurrently creates a rich conversation between two brilliant writers, a dialog reaching across gender and culture to explore and examine the ongoing loss of what is precious.

Near the end of his memoir Alexie realizes, with the help of a friend, that his parents refused to teach him his tribal language because they loved him. They were among the last fluent speakers of the Coeur d’Alene language, and Alexie imagines they wanted to spare their children the burden of holding a dying language. He also wonders whether they hoped to ease their children’s entry into a fiercely racist world.

Reading this passage I was reminded once again of a dream I had years ago in which my father’s mother came to me and explained she, her mother, and her mother’s mother had erased our Native heritage so that we, the children, could be safe. This dream remains a bittersweet marker in my journey and an explanation for displacement.

Perhaps displacement is simply part of the human condition, brought on by war, climate change, and simple greed, a sanitized word for expulsion and loss. Perhaps we humans have always been on the move, forever seeking home. Maybe, just maybe, we are all moments away from becoming the wandering stranger, the crip, the homeless.

I wonder whether difference threatens us because we know we, too, are subject to the whims of fate, that tomorrow we might find ourselves cast loose from the safety of an intact body or home, that we are each and all a moment away from loss, exile, and desperation. Perhaps it is simply too painful to remain aware of that, to see in others’ lives that which may befall us.



11 thoughts on “Strangers

  1. These writers sound like some interesting read, Michael.
    I think, that must have been difficult to get erased ones family past and existence, no matter the reason for doing so. I’m sure, that the erasing people did this to spare their family for extra sorrows, but still difficult. Our world are ever changing and not necessarily in the way, we would wish for.

  2. Your explanation could be true – but I think it is equally possible that people choose to accept and give refuge to those who are displaced, who are different in a multitude of ways but still possess the core human needs and desires, because we know we could be walking in their shoes. I have been thinking a lot about the hypocrisy of our country’s world view, our founding value of being a refuge for the world’s people seeking freedom and democratic governance – against the horrors that took place against the native people. How do we address the inherent conflict when people come to a new land to find freedom, but the native culture is conflicted about the invasion. (also think Europe and the Syrians). I can’t figure this problem out in a linear, logical manner. We seem to be in the middle of a paradigm shift where globalism is taxing our dominate culture of fences and ownership. Or was this always the case – did the British come here seeking freedom or as invading Colonist. As you said, there is a very long history of people on the move – either to seek refuge or to seek wealth.

    1. Pat, your thoughts are well taken. I was mostly thinking about the current government and our long history of rejecting those in greatest need, including European Jews in the Thirties. Demonizing others is seldom useful. Yes, a large and glaring question is how many people can a community take in without being destabilized. Given the likelihood that over a billion people will be displaced by climate change alone in the coming years, we need to sort this out and quickly.

    1. Andrea, assimilation is apparently always based on erasure. There must be a better way to build community.
      I have enjoyed Sara Maitland ever since I chanced upon “Three Times Table.”

  3. Seeking wealth, seeking power, seems to be a way that some people think that they will be secure in an unsafe world. But what if the world is not “unsafe”, it just is what it is? What if you could live without the attachment to modes of “security”? What if you were free to simply live, lovingly, and felt you were absolutely fine, no matter what happened? These are the questions that Buddhism asks. It’s an eye-opening exercise.

    1. These are also the questions many Indigenous cultures have historically asked. Community and family, creativity and intimacy are often essential aspects of Indigenous culture. It is not that we can’t be mean. Rather, it is just that these things are also deeply valued.

      1. Here’s a big question: how do we invite a cultural change at the deepest level? What can motivate people to slow down and think about moral perspective instead of being distracted by consumerism and “small fires”?

      2. OR sports and entertainment. Not that I’m immune. Indeed, sometimes I desperately appreciate a diversion, even more so if it engages me. I often wonder how we are to build compassion, empathy, and relatedness in an epoch that seems so resonant with Rome at its worst. Tour questions seem both crucially contemporary and timeless.

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