Sunday, 14 December 2014


I have always been a risk-taker. I climbed the tallest trees and crawled out onto the ends of branches so that I could make the tree sway. At 63, I rode bareback and raced with my 14 year old friend across a farmer’s field. In all fairness, we - our family and many others - grew up with risks – as a ten-year-old I was sent to look after my siblings at the creek, we rode on tractor fenders and in combine hoppers, we played unsupervised for hours climbing into lofts, walking on rafters and jumping into grain bins.

Today, I wonder about extreme sports and risk-taking.  How much right does one have to engage in extreme sports? – like base-gliding, mountain-climbing, back-country skiing, running rapids - some of you wouldn’t think of these as extreme sports but hear me out. Is it ethical? Moral? What of the social responsibility of the rest of us? Are we required to bale the participants out when they are lost or seriously injured?

These types of sports not only depend upon a host of suppliers – food, equipment, maybe support teams – but also for the individual, time-consuming practice and often expensive equipment. It means that most of the people engaged in these sports are monied and that a lot of resources are devoted to their sport or, as some say, obsession. Often the honours go to the individual.

The human race metamorphized, developed over some 100,000 years. During that time, people used extreme skills merely to survive. For some, maybe even many today, their survival depends upon their skills.

Are extreme sports the result of a bored dis-connected human race? So far from involvement with the natural activities of daily living that Nature is merely an adversary against which to pit technological gadgets.

What would people have done in eons past? The kinds of back-country white water trips that we have taken on rivers would simply be travel between places, sometimes looking for game or fruit, and the occasional lone or paired vision questers.

Is it ethical or moral to commandeer such a range of resources for the selfish experience of one person? Does the lost back-country skier get hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on him while the woman missing on a city street gets nothing? Is his value greater because he is male or because he is heroically pushing his limits? Worse, is his Everest conquering experience there for all of us to experience vicariously while no one wishes to share the experience of Syrians in refugee camps.

I'm only asking the question, a question about values.

About myself? I now consider consequences – at the time of the horse race, I briefly considered, in mid-gallop, the possibility that I might fall off the horse. I couldn't indulge in fear because I needed to focus on the business of staying on the horse’s back. I dredged up fifty-year old skills and we made it, a mile of stubble later, laughing and breathing as loudly as the horses, to the edge of the field.  By common unspoken consent, we never raced bareback again for that distance.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

What is My Culture?

What is my culture? I envy First Nations that the trip to their history and culture, albeit shredded by mooniyaw (that’s white people) and colonial policies, is still very short. Certainly culture adapts to changing times; but what happens when culture isn’t adapting, it is being imposed upon?

If I must go back to the roots of my culture, I would be time-traveling more than a thousand years. The Dewars (spelt joo-ers) were “Keepers of the Healing Stones” for the Clan McNab. Even at that time women were valued members of households (not as pictured by Western movies which always place the male in absolute dominance – witness movies about the Iroquois). For Celtic women to reclaim their place as partners in society is not feminism – it is cultural.

I think that it is wrong to adopt First Nations spiritual practices as if they are ours. Was sweet grass known to my ancestors? Was sage used for cleansing? Even as their drum circles move our hearts, they are not our drum circles. We can join them but we should not appropriate them. What did the Celts use for purification, for drums? How far into the mists of history do we need to time-travel to find the power of our spiritual journeys? 

In 2000, I did cross over, I used FN practices - largely because I didn't really have any of my own - in preparation to attend the Working Group on Indigenous Peoples in Geneva, I fasted, attended a sweat, placed my words before the Spirit, and then, to my surprise, I was given a prayer by a medicine man. I would be allowed to “perform” it only once. Even as he gave it to me, I knew that the WGIP was not the right place to ask people to join in the prayer – or that I was the right person to lead the assembly in the prayer. An opportunity did come soon after.

Quaker Aboriginal Affairs Committee (represented by me) was asked to present one workshop at Friends General Conference. After consultation, we chose to hold the workshop on the Draft Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. A US Quaker, head of their First Nations committee and a local band member were present. There was one member of the group who claimed to be of FN descent – a kind of a know-it-all blond guy with a pony tail and lots of beads, ribbons, etc – who kept interrupting with trivia. By mid-morning when we had a “nutrition break”, I think that most of us were tired of his monologues.

When we re-grouped, I asked if I could say a prayer that had been given to me. I stood, the words came. The experience was so powerful – I felt that the person who had given it to me had opened the universe. I stood and addressed the four directions and their representations. Unexpectedly, the forty or so participants stood with me and turned with me. I felt connected to a thousand generations. As we sat down, everyone was silent. Not unusual in a Quaker circle but this time when the words came, they came from a changed, uplifted place.

I was given the prayer to use only once. It was frightening and awe-inspiring at the same time. It was like standing on the edge of a cliff, thinking about flying – and suddenly you are flying!

This is what happens in a spiritual journey – finding that sense of awe, being in touch, however briefly with power outside of ourselves, knowing that it is there and then living so that it can become part of everyday life.

What is my spiritual culture? 

I realize that I’ve thrown my lot in with Quakers because silence is the medium by which Quakers find God, the Light, the Spirit within, Allah, or merely the transcendence that occurs when “two or three” meditate together. That is certainly ok for the journey but what of ceremony in my own life?

And what is the difference between a culture of an individual and the culture of a people? My Celtic ancestors were subdued by the Anglo-Saxons but their religion lived on for awhile underground as Pagan; by the time the Dewars were kicked off the land for the enclosures, they were no longer considered Celts.

Finding my personal spiritual culture is my journey of old age. It is the time when we should  be devoting ourselves to our next journey, that of the after-living. Perhaps our sole responsibility is to leave the world in a better condition than we found it. Finding a way to a right relationship with the spirit, with the land and with people rests with us, indivually and culturally. The mooniyaw have a long road to travel.