We meet a varied assortment of people in our time here. Some come and go almost casually and leave little behind but small pools of recollection. Others walk into our lives boldly, trumpeting great things that maybe shake us to our cores and change things so that our lives are never the same again. Still others arrive elegantly, their energy a smooth confluence with our own, like the meeting of streams.
That’s the wonderful thing about living. My elders say that ‘all we are is the story of our time here’. When we’re finished and we carry on in our spirit journey, all we take with us is that story. So, they say, the important thing is to learn to create a beautiful one. That’s as true for individuals as it is for communities, municipalities, societies, nations and our species. Our job is to create a wonderful enduring tale of our time here.
As a lifelong loner, it’s been hard to learn how to reach out to people. Now that I do my life has become enriched by a plethora of wonderful individuals. But there’s a conceit to being a loner. You get to thinking that you’ve always been alone, that no one has ever affected you in any meaningful way, or that nothing of the world has influenced you. When you get to the truth of things you realize how many people helped you create the story of your life.
For instance, I met Norval Morrisseau in the early fall of 1987. I was freelancing for a native newspaper in Southern Alberta and they wanted a story on the famous Ojibway painter. It took awhile to track him down but when he heard that I was an Ojibway journalist he agreed to do the interview. He was staying in the ritzy Jasper Lodge and I drove up there from Calgaryto meet him.
Earlier that spring there had been much made in the media about Morrisseau being discovered drunk and wanderingVancouver’s downtownEast Side. There was television footage of him crawling out of bushes bedraggled, unkempt and far from sober. He was an Order of Canada holder and it was big news.
Morrisseau was a painter and a traditional teacher. He was a recluse and an odd sort of character who emanated mystic energy and a magical power that was magnetic. When we talked it seemed to me that time just disappeared. We spent a whole afternoon and evening together and even now I have trouble understanding how the notion of time absolutely disappeared in his presence.
The strange thing is that we never got around to speaking about the Vancouver episode. Instead, Morrisseau invited me into his world of shamanism and the rich Ojibway heritage that he had carried all his life. He talked of being raised by his grandfather and the stories he was given as a boy. He spoke about the way traditional and cultural teachings were presented to him and how he felt the magic within them and how attractive the pull of that magic was.
He seemed to recognize the need I carried for connection to myself and my identity. So he told me stories. He told me the great rambling tale about the Ojibway migration from the eastern sea to the north, about trickster spirits and the root of our traditions. He told me about shamans and the need for principles to guide our actions. He spoke quietly and eloquently and I didn’t miss a word. It was an amazing experience.
Then he talked about his art and the visions that spawned it that had made him famous. He told me how it was spirit that made it possible and how the blazing hot colors of his canvases were meant to heal, and the hard black lines meant to serve as contrast in order to teach us to see.
Morrisseau was a true original. He wasn’t afraid to go beyond convention or to think outside the box. His art resides in a special place – the gallery of magic where visionaries let us see beyond what we think we know of the world.
He’s gone now but his art remains to teach us. All he ever wanted us to do was to learn to see and he used color and the stark images of his culture to train our eyes, to let us develop our own vision and in that way create our own lives artfully. I am more for having met him.
He guided me to being a better storyteller. He influenced the way I work and as the loner sits in his writer’s space and pecks away at a keyboard, it’s the influence of Norval Morrisseau that often drives me. People. Our greatest resource. They come along when we need them most. Always – and we create a better story.