Once there was a little girl whose country was fair as snow.
That was the way she saw it.
That was the way she felt it.
And most importantly, that was the way she was told that it was.
Feelings confirmed by words, thoughts confirmed by actions, and the influences of everyone she trusted. Her parents said, “This is a great place to live. Be grateful for all you have.” Her teachers said, “Let’s examine our history, which almost always concludes that this is a country that treats people fairly, where people are kind, where people matter to each other.” Even the immigrant families living nearby had lives that looked like hers.
But she only had one set of eyes to look through. She thought the way she saw things, and the way she was told that things were, were the way that they were.
As she grew older, and traveled the world a little more, she came to see her home country even more clearly as the ideal place for living. She came to see how dirty other places could be, how corrupt, how unsafe. She wore her flag proudly the world over, because she had been told “others are proud of that flag, too.” A flag that always flew on the right side of a war. A flag worn by peacekeepers. A flag others borrowed. A flag representing nature, multicultural tolerance and coexistence, space and beauty and love of the land.
Living and traveling abroad, she first navigated persistent homesickness for the sake of adventure and experience. Of course, she also came to see how other places had traditions and practices she wanted to borrow for herself. In Korea, where food is always shared, she began to find it strange how a person could order a whole meal just for oneself. In Thailand, when they used bags of sand to hold down signs, she realized that everyone does their best with what they have and she began to see whatever place she was a little more clearly. In the Middle East, where dates dripped off the grocery store shelves and tea was served with a spoonful of sugar, she realized that “news” and “reality” have a complex relationship. In Central America, she saw that fear of a neighbour is an image that causes such deep wounds in a system from the bottom to the top, and that the fear in her own heart did not have anything to do with what happened or didn’t happen on the street.
The friends she made, so often so different than her, became close without needing words for communication. She was always helped to speak; given time, support and correction. Then one of those friends traveled to her homeland, where he was bombarded with impatience, frustration and disdain each time he opened his mouth.
She began to realize that the fair, fair snow hid so many unspoken truths beneath. How does one grieve the loss of a place that never existed?
* * * * *
The national book competition – Canada Reads – takes place this month. The theme: One Book to Open your Eyes. And open they are becoming. Between these readings and related national news coverage, I have learned that my beautiful country does not provide pads for every woman in jail – especially if they are black. I have learned that there are doctors teaching lessons on how indigenous patients feel less pain, and doling insufficient care to those appearing intoxicated, even when ‘intoxication’ symptoms are caused by a head injury. In CANADA. Which I type in capital letters with much trepidation and recognition of the deep privilege that allows me to be the least bit shocked by any of this.
The problems are everywhere, and no country is perfect. Why, then, did I leave school and leave my homeland with the persistent feeling that we were handling our challenges so well? For so long, Canada has struggled, and continues to struggle, to be defined as separate from the US. But our world is not defined by lines on a map any longer. We are interconnected; the undercurrents of today’s collective consciousness more strongly and rapidly connect us than ever before.
The solutions are everywhere, too. One of the greatest things about my country remains the national dialogue that allows this literary competition, and this radio programming, to reach me in Guatemala so my eyes can be opened to what is happening at home and I can continue to make connections between here and there and everywhere. There is a new collective consciousness at work in our world and I work to be part of it. If it means letting go of my long-held images, of my ego’s needs, of what I would rather be true but isn’t, I am more willing than ever to take on that challenge.
Things have changed so much since my youth, which was truly not that long ago. And I am now out in the world, a grown up, perhaps ‘future-shocked’ student, that was only somewhat adequately prepared by a well-meaning, even fairly benign, public education. And as educators the world over attempt to prepare students for an unknown future of their own, we are all so well aware that learning cannot take place only between 9:00 and 3:00. My education continued with travel, and an overdue love of public radio, and by getting to know people who challenged my views. I have always reached for new opportunities to learn, but perhaps I am finally conscious that to unlearn, and relearn, may be the most important work of all.