Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


Stepping Across the Abyss

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For years I had a dream about walking across a horizontal ladder. Most often it was stretched over darkness, without a start or end point, and rungs were often missing. It was treacherous, and the only certainty was the need to press on. I can still feel the terror—one misstep and I will fall forever.

I haven’t had a ladder dream for a long time, but I had another dream recently that reminded me of it. This time, I am in a futuristic city, all cement and metal. I am to cross from my building to another on a bridge of sorts—basically a set of train tracks (or a ladder without rungs?) four storeys aboveground. I am nervous, but my friend is in the lead, and he’s showing me how to step, cautious but sure-footed, using the rope handrail at each side to maintain balance. I am amazed that this is possible, but I see that he can do it, and I take confidence from that. Step by step by step. As I cross, I see that difficult and dangerous doesn’t mean impossible.

I realize as I wake that the friend in my dream is Gregory Scofield, a poet who weaves together Cree, Metis, Scottish, and Jewish bloodlines in his writing and in his life—and he does so with equal doses of candour and panache. Of course he’s the one ahead of me, patiently crossing this impossible bridge—of course he is! He’s a person who weeps out hymns to missing and murdered indigenous women, and channels the voice of Louis Riel. He’s a person who creates elaborately beaded moccasins and pairs them with a Henderson tartan vest. He’s one of those people who’s absolutely alive. (Curious? Check out Louis: Heretic Poems, and his new one, I, Witness.)

In times like ours, when so many voices around us whip up fear and suspicion and division, I do believe it’s the artists who most clearly see the need for bridges, then set about finding ways to create them. Our confidence is so vulnerable. So often it seems the challenges are too big, the stakes too high, the scars too deep, the injuries too severe, the chances of succeeding too slim—but perhaps the real message, when the deck seems stacked, is that these tasks are too important not to at least make an attempt.

Toni Morrison is a writer of great wisdom and grace who has made her way across many bridges that no one would have thought capable of bearing the weight of a human. She looks at the broken world and observes that “this is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

“I know the world is bruised and bleeding,” she adds, “and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.”

Next to Morrison’s call to arms, I have a pithy alternative, delivered via Facebook by another committed bridge builder, Senator Murray Sinclair: “Good morning. Quit your whining. We have work to do.”

Here was are, heading into 2017. Let’s follow the artists’ lead…

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