Of Good Deed & High Hats

In the poem I posted yesterday I wrote about a hand-me-down dress. Though I’ve changed the circumstances, I did have a particular story in mind. Years ago I read a memoir by Maria Campbell, called HALFBREED. She gives a little history of her people and then tells of her own life as a Métis woman in a predominantly white world. it’s quite a history!

QUICK FACTS

When the white men came from Europe, a number of them married – or lived with – native women. Their offspring became a group in their own right, the Métis people and they initially settled along the Red River in Manitoba. The government signed treaties with the indigenous people and settled them on reservations, but the Métis, being neither this nor that, got no special favours from Canadian or Manitoba governments. In fact, after the Riel Rebellion they were driven off their farms and many migrated to northern Saskatchewan. Some did start up farms; others survived however they could.

Maria was born in the settlement around Prince Albert, SK, to a couple who were scraping by, but rich in their love for each other and their family. Her mother died young (before Maria was a teen, as I recall) and her father never remarried. So the children grew up with their grandmother filling in as much as she could, but they missed out by not having a mother’s care and teaching.

BOXING DAY GIFTS

Boxing Day back in merry old England was a time to give the servants and/or “the poor among us,” a treat or gift, often food. It was boxed up in a nice package and handed over to servants or carried to the elderly and infirm. This practice was more common years back and Canada has kept the day, if not the practice.

Anyway, this event was still carried on by the women’s groups in Maria’s area. Feeling sympathy for the poor native children, community women would make up boxes with goodies and clothing their children didn’t want anymore or had outgrown. After Christmas they’d go around to the native and Métis communities and hand these out. Every year Maria’s family would get several of these boxes.

Her father would burn them. Oh, the children would wail! They knew from their friends that there was candy and good food inside and they wanted it.

Perhaps her father was a proud man who didn’t want any kind of charity, but as she got older Maria began to see what he’d spared them by burning those boxes. When native and Métis children wore those hand-me-down clothes to school, the white children would mock them. Maria would hear sarcastic comments like, “I see you’re wearing my old dress. I got a new one.”

In my poem I had the little girl tear up her dress and stuff it under a bush, tired of being mocked by the childish former wearer.

It’s interesting how many words and expressions there are in English for looking down on others. Snobbish; snooty; top-lofty, high hat. Do we need so many terms because there’s so much of it done?

HIGH HATS COME IN EVERY SHADE

And children love trying them out. On one hand a child can seem so accepting that his parents are delighted; the next time the child will act so arrogant his parents are dismayed. Though we try to teach our children tolerance for others, and for different ways of doing things, “We’re better than you,” is a refrain some of them love to chant.

It’s a challenge to teach children! Accepting others who are different doesn’t come naturally. To make matters worse, the more you draw attention to the differences in people and stress how “we must accept them,” the more unnatural it becomes. And children are quick to spot the difference between what parents are saying and what they do.

Maria writes about “the white people” and the Métis, but her account would read much the same if it were whites versus blacks, the English versus the Irish, one religion versus another, or the rich versus the poor anywhere in the world. This isn’t a new problem.

“SECOND-HAND” TODAY

Genuinely good deeds are prompted by a concern for our fellow human beings and people do appreciate kindness. I buy at Value Village myself. But so much of what they receive is shipped overseas. Are we making ourselves feel good while disrupting the economy in other countries?

Perhaps we need to check our attitudes when we buy ourselves nice new duds and ship our old stuff to charity —  “Let’s send this to the poor people in Africa” is coming to an end; they’re starting to reject our charity.

Respect + Self-Respect

The Word of the Day Prompt this morning was RESPECT.

To me this is such an inspiring, healthy, upbeat word that I want to write something about it before my day is done.

I was thinking about a fellow Canadian we have a lot of respect for: journalist and author Conrad Black. When he writes, his articles are informative and what my husband and I consider to be a fair and sensible take on his subjects.

This evening, however, I’m thinking of one particular aspect of his life: the experiences he had during the time he was an inmate in one of Uncle Sam’s jails.

A bit of background:
Conrad Black once owned a chain of newspapers in Canada, some in the US, with shares in the Telegraph group in England and a couple of newspapers in Australia. He was living and working in the States when he was arrested and according to Google, “convicted in July 2007 on three counts of mail and wire fraud and one count of obstruction of justice”
Mr Black spent 29 months in a Florida prison before being granted bail. When his case came before the Supreme Court, the Court declared the statute under which he was convicted to be unconstitutional. Charges against him were dismissed and he returned to Canada. However, the case against him is not relevant to the direction of this post.

So what does a journalist do when he’s incarcerated? He writes about it, naturally. I read several articles he wrote while he was in prison, and one in particular has stayed with me. That’s where I want to go with this post.

While he was in prison, he just didn’t sit around writing articles. He spend a fair bit of his time teaching other prisoners to read and write — and in giving an education, he got an education. In interacting with the other prisoners, he got a better picture of the workings of the US justice system. In particular, how it works for poor, illiterate men.

Needless to say, he didn’t come away with a high regard for the education system where so many underprivileged children fall through the cracks. This isn’t always the fault of the schools; sometimes there’s just no encouragement from home — no home even. But it’s sad to see that North American schools have been abandoning the basics in favor of the fluff and passing on those who really need help. Illiteracy among Canadians born and raised and schooled here is shocking.

Mr Black, after listening to his fellow inmates, concluded that if you haven’t got the smarts to defend yourself in a court of law, your chances of being convicted are definitely higher. I’ve read a few stories about poor illiterate blacks who barely understood the proceedings being falsely convicted, especially in the South. I don’t think this is so very rare.

He also wrote that if you haven’t got a basic education so you can get a job and earn a decent wage, your chances of ending up in jail are a lot higher. And re-offending. No news there.

Which comes back to my point about respect. Respect for others comes from learning about them as real people. Self-respect, the ability to stand up and face the world, to get ahead, comes from learning, too. It’s pretty hard to keep your head above water if you don’t have a solid rock to stand on. Like basic “Readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic.”

I’ve seen this. I’ve a cousin who can’t read her bank statement or a business letter, and couldn’t begin to understand this post. Medical issues are total confusion. When her purse was stolen she didn’t report it because she’s scared of dealing with the police, in case they ask her questions she can’t understand. Lack of remedial classes and a poor home combined to hinder her schooling.

I respect Mr Black for his efforts to work with these men and to give them the basics — and the self-respect — they’d need to build a life outside the prison walls. And I respect and applaud all the folks out there who have taken the time to teach, to mentor, to work with, folks who need a helping hand. They are a mighty army, working unseen.

Which brings me to my friend Margaret’s poem. I’m using it with the confidence that if my dear friend were alive, she’d give her permission. She and her husband Milton were just such people as she describes here.

Quiet Folk
by Margaret Penner Toews

Some folks there are who, quiet, go about
Unseen, unheard, unknown
sowing kernels
digging wells
building bridges
picking stones
raising altars

…planting poignant thoughts in ordinary talk about His Presence,
…dig, and leave no signature, while others draw and drink,
…building bridges over chasms, deeply cut by hate and color, creed and prejudice
…removing stumbling stones of cruelty, indifference and scorn along the road, so those who walk in darkness will not fall
…erecting altars by their hearths, in secret closets, or on busy thoroughfares.

Quietly these folks ‘deliver cities’ (Ecclesiastes 9:14-15)
but no one knows
and no one will remember…
(most certainly not they themselves)

…Except for God…and He will never be a debtor.
He takes a leisurely eternity to give rewards.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
From her book, First A Fire
© 1993 by Margaret Penner Toews
Available from PrairieView Press

Baby Bird Shuffle

One Boy’s Efforts to Correct Nature’s Shortcomings

Finding herself an impoverished widow at the beginning of the Great Depression, Maida (Parlow) Knowles moved back to the old homestead her grandparents had established on the banks of the St Lawrence River. This abandoned farm had a large apple orchard, but the trees had been neglected for years. Rather than living in a seedy, cockroach-infested apartment and leaving her three young sons to roam the streets of Toronto while she tried to hold down a job, she wanted to bring the orchard back into production and earn a living for herself and her boys.

Having lived all their lives in the city, however, she and her three sons were having quite the learning experience getting their run-down farmhouse fixed up, and the apple orchard ready. When they arrived at the farm, she was appalled to see the house’s back porch and its roof lying on the ground. She was also dismayed, those first few nights, to lie in bed and see the stars through the holes in her roof.

One day during that first summer, she was outside picking up some of the porch roof shingles that were scattered. They made great kindling for the old wood stove, on which she was learning to cook their food. Suddenly she heard loud, angry voices and her three sons came along, the oldest two dragging five-year-old Alan by the arms.

“You’ll never guess what he did now, Mom!” The older boys glared in righteous indignation at the tearful transgressor. “He got into the birds’ nests in the apple trees and moved all the eggs and the baby birds around. They’re so mixed up now their poor mothers will never find them!”

“Yeah. Whatever is God thinking about the awful thing you did, Alan Knowles?”

She felt an urge to laugh at the very idea, but stifled it. This was, after all, a major crime to the two oldest boys. The accused hung his head and made no defence. (He told his mother later that he hadn’t dared to explain with his two big brothers screeching and glaring at him so furiously. They weren’t going to listen to a word he said, anyway.)

To defuse the issue a bit she told him he’d best go and tend to the cats so they wouldn’t find out about the confusion in the orchard before the baby birds learned to fly. Happy with his light sentence, he dried his tears and hurried off to the shed where their new cat family lived.

Looking back some years later, he explained to his mother the reason for his actions that day. “I’d been watching the birds coming and going to their nests and I noticed that some mother birds didn’t leave their nests for long; they seemed to grab some food and come back quickly. Others stayed away a lot longer. I was afraid the eggs and babies would get cold when their mothers were gone so long, so I just moved the eggs and baby birds to the nests where the mothers came back sooner, because I thought they’d be better looked after.”

It made perfect sense to him at the time. ☺

This was one of the accounts Maida recorded in the diary she kept during those first years and later published as her memoir: Apples Don’t Just Grow by Maida Parlow (Knowles) French
© 1954 by McClelland & Stewart Ltd

The Typhoon

omiri-gate-story.jpg
Photo by Nicki Elisha Shinow

The storm lasted four days. At first the rain poured down in buckets, later it sounded like the whole heavens was pouring down on the surrounding mountains. Villagers huddled together all through the typhoon, covering their possessions as best they could, praying they wouldn’t be washed or blown away.

The oldest of the elders remembered a deluge like this back in their youth. They recalled the year of hunger and poverty after. But most of the people living in the area had never seen such a storm. They wept to see their precious soil washing down the mountain. The small plateaus that sustained them were sliding into the lake down in the valley. Where would they plant their crops?

It would take many months to haul earth back up the mountain in baskets. The elders nodded. It would be so.

Finally the storm passed. All over the mountain folks shook off their stupor and wandered out to survey the damage. So much had been lost! They were shocked to see how the lake had swallowed up so much of the valley below. Even the Omiri gate stood in water.

They shook their heads. This would bring hardship. Every summer visitors came in droves to stand in this gate where the great prophet had once stood and shared his wisdom with his disciples. The locals had always welcomed the pilgrims. Their coming brought much income to the surrounding villages that hosted and supplied them.

Some despairing, some tearful, the people made their way back to their homes. They could see the churning clouds of hunger on the horizon.

The elders nodded. It would be so.

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Story written in response to today’s The Write Practice exercise. Photo courtesy of Unsplash.com, a site for free images.