Why Where You Come From Is Important

One of my favourite Christmas gifts this year was a novel entitled “Whale Song”. It’s written by Cheryl Kaye Tardif, who, in addition to being fantastic writer, is also an old family friend. She went to high school with my older brother Mike, and I’ll always remember, even though I was the bratty, tag-along little sister, that Cheryl was always so sweet and kind to me.

The book is, in my opinion, a must-read for anyone who loves stories that combine coming-of-age, heartwarming family stories, the tragic realities of life, and a little mystery (and I’m not just saying that because I know her!). The story is about a young girl who is displaced with her family from Wyoming to the west coast of Canada. She meets and befriends an Aboriginal family and they teach her about their culture and their way of life. As tremendous adversity befalls her, she uses what she’s learned about native spirituality to guide her through difficult waters.

I devoured this book in a little under 2 days – and for me, that is some kind of record. I couldn’t put it down! For me, it was more than just a story. You see, like me, Cheryl also grew up on the Queen Charlotte Islands (a.k.a. Haida Gwaii); a very small, very remote island on the West Coast of Canada, tucked neatly between Vancouver Island and the Alaska Panhandle. The Charlottes are one of the most unique places on earth – it’s temperate rain-forest climate is home to some of the most scenic landscapes on the planet and many endemic animals and plants.

What made the book really special to me is the references Cheryl makes to the place I grew up. It was these parts that had me reduced to tears on more than one occasion. Recalling these memories over the past few days has taught me an important lesson which I’d like to share here.

The town we lived in, Masset – was unique at that time, in more ways than one. Aside from being set in one of the most beautiful places on Earth, it had one of the most interesting mergings of two cultures I’ve ever seen – the Haida and the military.

I was a base brat for all of my childhood and as such was totally immersed in the military culture. As transient as our life was, we were fortunate to live in Masset for 7 years total – almost unheard of in military life. I was used to my Dad going away for 6 months or so at a time, off to the far regions of the North. The military community is very close, especially on the isolated bases, and since our moving around kept us from seeing my grandparents, aunt and uncle regularly, my parents’ friends were like my immediate family, and their kids, like cousins. We looked out for each other,  in a place that was far away from civilization. There was no McDonalds. No shopping mall. Not even a traffic light. And nearly no TV. But we somehow managed to survive happily.

The military culture was contrasted with a very profound and strong native culture. The Haida Nation is one of the most studied and well known First Nations in Canada. Haida art is featured prominently on our $20 bill, and many documentaries have been made about Haida culture and art. Co-habitating in an isolated place with such a rich native culture had its distinct benefits. Not only are the Haida very generous and welcoming people, they openly shared their culture with everyone in the community. At school, my field trips were not to an art museum to see Emily Carr paintings. They were to the actual place where Emily Carr painted some of her most famous works. My art classes were not focused on how to sketch still life from a picture book. Actual Haida artists would come to my classes and teach us how to draw Haida art. Our history lessons were not taught out of some dusty textbook – they were taught through stories told to us by Haida elders.

When I was 11 years old, I spent a week learning how to survive in the wilderness, then was cast out on my own to spend 24 hours to fend for myself with only 2 matches, a jar of water and a teabag. Like I had learned, I built a shelter just above the tide line, started a (pathetic) fire, and foraged for berries to eat. That was my summer camp.

You may be wondering why I’m bringing all this up. After all, I spend much of my time on this blog talking about technology, social media, and entrepreneurship. How does this story of my childhood fit in? Maybe it’s the fact that Cheryl’s book stirred up so many emotional memories in me. But that’s a good thing – because remembering all of the amazing experiences of my atypical childhood has made me realize the significant impact it had on who I am today.

Living in isolation may be like torture for some people, especially if they’ve only ever been city dwellers. But what it did for me was made me appreciate community on an exponential scale. Back in Masset, we were all connected to each other, and the two very distinct cultures of the Haida and the military lived side by side in harmony. We were friends, neighbours, and family to one another. We helped each other out. We raised money for the town, we raised money for disabled kids. We celebrated together in the good times, and in the bad times, we cried together. We were the very definition of what community is all about.

Is it any wonder why I am so involved in my online communities today? I do think that I’m meant to be here.

The Haida, like all First Nations peoples, are an extraordinarily spiritual people. What I learned from the Haidas growing up has stuck with me in so many ways. It’s shaped my own spiritual experience. I will never forget that night I spent on the beach. I was snuggled in my little lean-to shelter, warm in my sleeping bag. I listened to the waves crash on the beach, the wind blowing through the giant cedar trees, the caw of the Raven and the shriek of the Eagle. At just 11 years old, I suddenly realized my complete connection with all other living things.

In that moment, I understood what the Haida elders had been teaching us at school. I understood what Emily Carr’s paintings were all about. Everything is connected. Connections create energy. And energy is what makes amazing things happen.

The new year is a time of new beginnings. We are all planning, and setting goals, and thinking of the specific things that are going to define our year. Sometimes, people get stuck – I know I do. As exciting as the promise of a new year can be, it can also be overwhelming. So much to do, what if I fail, what if I succeed, what if…what if….

The secret to embracing what the future holds is to think about what has gotten you to this point. Every single experience you’ve had until now has shaped who you are, how you relate to other people. It’s what you do with that life experience will ultimately shape your future success.

Thank you, Cheryl, for writing “Whale Song”. Not only is it a wonderful story, it’s wonderful to see you taking the experiences of your past, shaping them into something new, and through that, living your passion.

If you want to pick up Cheryl’s book, you can still order it online – though I’ve heard that it’s going out of print – so grab your copy soon!

Happy New Year everyone!

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Cheryl Kaye tardif
Cheryl Kaye tardif

Wow, Susan...you are a very gifted writer yourself! Thank you for not only mentioning how Whale Song affected you but for reminding me of the positives we experienced while living in Masset. Your comments brought back great memories for me. I am so glad you enjoyed Whale Song! I'd like to quote some of this and blog about it. May I quote you? Cheryl