One morning in the spring of 1987, a few weeks after our house burned to the ground, my young family and I were camped out under donated blankets on the floor of my studio. I looked up and saw the image I had recently drawn to promote the upcoming Stein Valley Survival gathering, organized by a coalition of native groups and conservationists to protest the proposed logging of the Stein Valley. This valley, the largest undeveloped watershed in southwestern B.C., was under unresolved native land claims. The provincial government, heavily populated by forest industry allies, was seemingly deaf to our concerns. I had created the image--smoke rising from the heart of the darkness into four prayerful hands reaching toward the eagle—as a symbol of hope rising from despair. I now considered our family’s situation--insurance coverage denied, no home, no money, no work, few possessions--and I believed that the Spirit was telling us, through this image, to take heart.
The night before the fire, I had a dream. I am wandering through a huge room of office cubicles, feeling utterly alienated and alone. Then I am wandering through a vast classroom of students at desks, and then through a huge supermarket of endless aisles. I see a couple I think I know, and try in vain to catch up to them as they rush off through a maze of hallways and stairs. Suddenly I come face to face with a being I know is an angel. She is speaking to me; but in spite of straining to understand, I cannot make out a word. Finally, I hear her say, “Courage is the key.” The dream melts away, and with it, the feelings of alienation.
The next morning we drove our normal hour-and-twenty-minute trip to Meeting for Worship in Vernon, B.C. I started settling into the silence by closing my eyes and “looking” at each person in the small circle. I knew them all well, and in my mind’s eye I could see the challenges that each one of them was facing—sick children, financial concerns, the difficulties of aging. I went around the circle a second time, and this time I had a sense of the unique form of courage that had arisen in each person to meet her or his particular challenges. The third time that I scanned the circle with my inner eye, I saw but one large circle of Light.
On the highway on our way back home after Meeting, we passed the entourage of Rick Hansen’s Man in Motion World Tour, a wheelchair ride around the world to raise awareness and funds for spinal cord injury research. We placed our two young children, Reykia and Galen, on the hood of our car. As Hansen approached, his head was bent low, focused on the physical effort required. As he passed, he looked up directly at us and smiled. The entourage passed, and as we drove on I said to our children, “Do you know what that teaches us? It teaches us that with courage we can do anything.”
We arrived home shortly afterwards to find our home reduced to smoking ashes. And within a week or two, learned that the insurance companies were refusing to cover us. The story of our struggle to survive over the next months is a long and complicated one, and I would be happy to let a lot of the details fade from my memory. For me, the real story is what happened to us on the inside.
1987 happened to be the International Year of the Homeless, so we felt in good company. I recalled that many aboriginal groups had some form of the give-away ceremony. In one culture, if parents experienced the loss of a child, they gave away everything they owned except for the clothes they were wearing. We had not intended to give everything way, it just happened. But I came to see the stripping away of all our possessions and of our sense of security as a deeply spiritual event; and the teachings we gained were ones that transformed our lives.
Because of things in my upbringing, giving and receiving often felt confusing and messy. Gifts received often seem to come with emotional strings attached, and could encumber me with reciprocal obligations. Offering of unwanted help could be taken as an insult to the other’s sense of self-sufficiency. At the same time, I remembered the disappointment I had felt in years past when my offers of help to a struggling sibling were refused. How can there be giving, I had asked myself, if there is no receiving? As well, I remembered how gifts I had recently given to certain of our friends in the aboriginal community had been received with a simple and sincere word of thanks. How clean and friendly it felt!
If one’s house burns down, and one has nothing—no means to feed, clothe or shelter one’s family—when a gift is offered, there is no use in rebuffing it by saying everything is fine. Your situation is an open book for all to read. Again and again I observed the happiness and relief people felt when they could help us out. I realized that being a good receiver was in fact another way of giving--a role to be fulfilled with dignity and grace.
This time I tried to just say thanks and honour the gifts we received by letting them lift me up, not weigh me down.
I also saw my reaction to different styles of giving: the single box full of thoughtfully assembled emergency items, versus multiple bags and boxes of old and musty clothes, nowhere near our size, pulled out of someone’s attic and placed by our door. I observed how different I felt when I was offered expressions of pity rather than compassion. It helped me became clearer about how I might try to give support to others in the future.
Perhaps the most transformative event was the birth of our third child, Lilia. She was conceived four days after the second insurance company notified us that we had been denied coverage. Even prior to the fire, we had been living in considerable poverty. Now our poverty was compounded by the losses of the fire, and I struggled to imagine how we could support a third child.
Some months later, still before her birth, the weekend of the Stein Valley Survival gathering arrived. I was at a early morning prayer circle led by Thomas Banyacya, a spokesman for the Hopi elders in Arizona. I looked across the circle at the people on the other side and saw the drawing from my studio wall, reproduced on the festival T-shirts they were wearing. The shape of the four hands reaching up towards the white eagle reminded me of a lily, the symbol of hope and rebirth. The Spirit seemed to be assuring me again everything would work out.
Lilia was born to us not long after, with an exuberant sunniness that mocked our pain and anxiety. Her courageous spirit still inspires us; and her name reminds us that our family was pulled up from the ashes by the helping hands of many people. The prophetic drawing, the dream of the angel, the circle of Light in Quaker Meeting, the smile from Rick Hansen—these memories intimate that the world is a deep and mysterious place, and that we are given both the challenges and the strength we need in order to learn what life wants to teach us.
The Stein Valley, by way of footnote, was eventually protected by the creation of a provincial park.