In Honour Of Lifelong Learning, on this Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos

With love to Margaret, and all my many beautiful teachers. You are the Gift.

Today, I am an adult.

I read, long ago, that Cherokee people count 52 as the age of majority, when one attains to the full rights/responsibilities of adulthood. It resonated with me, the notion that, by 52, one’s had kids (if that’s on the cards), made a career of a calling, and experienced enough of the ups and downs, kicks and kudos that come to us all, to be expected to have something to offer in terms of taking care of the larger community.

Am I ready for that? We’ll see.

I find myself the oldest still alive, of my family of birth. My father passed when I was 19, my elder brother when I was 20. I sat the night watch with my sister when she passed, and we were in our 30s. This spring, I said my mother’s rosary prayers for her as she settled to sleep for the final time. It was solemn, and I am still solemnly absorbing the meaning of these changes.

But one thing I’m sure of: today, I am an adult.

Does that mean I know it all? Not at all. Not by a long shot.

It does mean that I am fully free and responsible to bring that solemnity to bear in my words and actions going forward. I have both birthed and buried, and I stand on the ground of measured, considered action, that comes from having blundered and soared through decades of experiences big and small.

When I was a young woman, my prayers for direction were answered with a job in Mexico. There, I experienced the Day of the Dead, and found what pop psychologists might want to label closure, regarding my father’s and brother’s sudden deaths. It wasn’t that, though; rather, it was a sense of the living validity of not seeking to close off parts of our life, our experience, our deepest connections.

Dia de los Muertos gives the dead a place at the party.

That’s resonant for me, too. I don’t want to forget the gifts their lives gave me, the lessons I may yet learn from their walks of life, as I continue along my own.

It matters to learn.

It mattered to my grandfather, in early 20th century Poland. His family kept a tutor in the basement in the winters so he could learn to read and write, during a dark time in Polish history. He brought that understanding that even a peasant ought to read and write with him to Canada. My mom remembered using newspapers to help him learn English in his adult years.

His own wife, my wise and beautiful grandmother, was illiterate. Never having learned to read in Polish, she never learned to read English either. She was wise in so many ways, but also, she suffered, from the isolation of not being able to share her story or to partake of the stories that flew all around her on the printed page, and in the language she could only ever use in urgent moments.

Learning mattered to my father, cut off from Anishinabemowin by the cursed Church schools. He walked into the bush aged 12, and went to work with his uncles. Among the things they taught him, after they chased off the truant officers (a tale i heard from my brother, not many years ago), was to never stop learning, anything he could, in any way he could.

I remember him teaching himself new songs on fiddle and guitar. Sometimes, he’d engage me in the task of moving the needle back a phrase or two, repeatedly, so he could hear, repeat, hear, repeat, learning by ear. He never, that I know of, read a page of music in his life, but he had a powerful ear, and a knack for rhythm. I’m told that I do, too, and I’m proud of that. I’m also proud, I can say now, that in my own life, I’ve taken on the challenge of learning to read music, in the hope of writing music. I’ve composed a few songs; but I’m as yet unable to write them down so that others can play for and with me the complex imagined settings in my head.

So, this fall, I figured I’d better step that up a notch. I joined a choir, to study under jazz masters. It’s early days, but I’ve already learned a lot. And I know, I might not learn swiftly, at my age, how to read music, but I can and will get there if I keep at it.

Persistence matters, too, when it comes to learning. Some people have tried to shame me, for not knowing. They’ve implied that, as a university graduate who’s made my way for several years now, I ought to know this or that by now. I’ve been blessed to work with so many people, in so many contexts, who resist that shame, who dare to ask, and who seize the responsibility to risk ridicule and rejection, and say, I don’t know. If you do, please teach me. 

I’ve been an adult beginner, and learned to laugh at that, to recognise it as a blessed state.

One of the greatest gifts of my advancing maturity is my own increasing confidence in saying, with those people and my beloved departed, for all the things they tried to do, for all the risks they took, for all they never gave up trying to learn:

“Well, I don’t know. Don’t shame me for that. Teach me.”

Now, as an adult, I pledge to the world to share what I know, with respect and kindness, with those who ask. And I pledge to share what I don’t know, too, because how else am I ever going to learn?

All My Relations



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