This is a personal and collaborative photo essay project that explores the intricacies, pleasures and responsibilities of being relative. Through portraiture, storytelling, conversation and reflection, I am exploring 'being' as an amalgamation of various forms of 'others', with a focus on particular land, women and substances. Themes underlying this work include: perceptions and experiences of relatedness and relationality, death and dying, roses, fire and dreaming.
This is an ongoing, forever incomplete project that began many years ago out of a fear of and fascination with death and dying. Growing up in a family that does not follow predominant perceptions of medicalized or physical death as something final, I approach this project as a means of working through the sense of loss that accompanies physical death, while also exploring connection beyond the body. Through this practice, I intend to (re)turn my sense and attention to the dispersal of Spirit and interconnection of our related forms.
This is a sample of the project.
From up the Inlet
Salt water in our veins.
This Kinship Collage is composed of a web of people, animals, landscapes, plants, elements, oral histories, dreams and stories, cultures, traditions, ideas, beliefs, books, movies, music, and objects, and will continue to grow and change. It is largely expressed from my personal perspective, in consultation and conversation with those entangled. Within this web we are great grandmothers-grandmothers-grandfathers-moms-dads-aunties-uncles-children-siblings-cousins-friends, living and dead (and infinite combinations of these). We intersect at many and multiple points, and we perceive from many and multiple positions as well.
God was a frightful figure to me, as a small girl.
Although my mother eagerly sought to Catholicize us kids, as had been done to her in residential school, I never wanted to meet or know God. At least, not the God that was described to me.
I used to dream about God taking me away in the night.
It. was. terrrrrifying.
In the dream I would be asleep, peacefully, on the bluffs in a tent - I loved it there, above the water on the three bays. But in this dream, while sleeping in the tent, a looming dark figure would fly over the sky, swoop down, scoop me up and carry me away, tent and all.
It was soooo scary.
No. I didn't really want to meet that God.
Even now I much prefer the Mother Creator that I know and revere.
Our dreams are what bind us, in spirit and intention, to each other and to worlds we do not perceive. Dreaming is a way to stay in touch with each other, with ourselves, and with Creator and Mother Earth (and/or God for some). Within my family there is a dreaming practice. Our dreams have been a point for discussion at our gatherings, and act as a significant point of connection. We have shared dreams, visiting dreams, lucid dreams and dreams that provide guidance and carry messages. We help each other interpret our dreams, tell stories about and with our dreams, and describe the ways that dreams have shaped our paths. This practice has been so ordinary, that for most of my life it has eluded my attention.
Mickey, Bernice, Bunny
We were chatting over breaky one morning
Me: "Did I ever know auntie Roxy?"
Nana: "No baby... She never met you. But she still loves you, you know."
Me: "It's so weird because even though I never knew her, I feel like I do. Or that I did. I guess I've heard so much about her that it's like I knew her."
Just then Bunny walks in and joins us
Bunny: "I've been thinking about Roxy a lot day today."
Nana: "Me too. I'm really missing her lately."
A few moments later,
Mickey arrives home from work
Mickey: "I had a dream about Roxy last night. It's been a while since she last visited, it was so nice to see her!"
Me: "I guess auntie Roxy is nearby. She's on everyone's mind today."
Bunny: "Yeah, I'll say."
Nana: "No fair! She hasn't visited me in weeks! But I guess I'll be seeing her soon..."
Bunny: "Mom stop! Mickey, get outta here!"
"There is neither source nor end, for all things are in the Center of Time. As all the stars may be reflected in a round raindrop falling in the night: so too do all the stars reflect the raindrop. There is neither darkness nor death, for all things are, in the light of the Moment, and their end and beginning are one."
(Ursula K. Le Guin 2000)
Auntie Bunny is a gentle, kind soul. Maybe that's why I started calling her auntie Bunny instead of Robin when I was a child. Even though we don't spend much time talking, I have always felt deeply connected with this strong woman and grateful for knowing her. She is sensitive and artistic, and has a calming presence. I think I have inherited these qualities from her. She has three powerful and successful children, Andrea, Stacy and Peter, who are more siblings than cousins to me.
I remember her flowing white dress with green apples on it, and the Pölsa she would make when we were all together. And I remember playing Bingo together, often, along with my mom, Nana, and Peter. Auntie Bunny always seemed to win. She has "horse-shoes up her ass," my mom would say. She is also known to find four leaf clovers, just by spotting them while walking or while sitting outside. One time, while at the beach, she got swept away in a wave. It was unfortunate and hilarious. She was fine, but the paper documents that she had with her were not.
My favorite memory is a continuous one, just hanging out and laughing together, playing cards, and talking about our dreams, cosmic messages and our witchy senses at the family home in Sechelt.
"My elders say that the dream world is a reality, just as vivid, just as vibrant, just as alive as the physical world. Dreams are not illusory things. They are meant to teach us, guide us. They ask us to use our intuition to interpret them. That's their biggest gift - returning us to our intuition, our highest level of thought."
(Richard Wagamese 2016)
I often fly in my dreams, and for years I dreamt about soaring over the Sunshine Coast. I would be flying over Silver Sands, Selma Park, Halfmoon Bay, always towards Madeira Park. In this one dream, it really freaked Bob out, I was flying from West Sechelt on the highway. And it was from across the police that I realized there were two main roads into Sechelt. We used have only the one highway there, through town. Cowrie street, it's called. You know, the one that goes along the back, up by the high school. But as I flew over there was another road and I was confused. In the morning, I told Bob I thought they might have put in another road, he said I was crazy. But sure enough, when we went over there was the new road, Teredo is now there as well. How could I have known that? It wasn’t even that long ago that they put it in, 2009 I think. For the Olympics probably.
I always knew I would be coming home one day, I knew I’d be back in Sechelt. It’s like the land has been calling me home through my dreams. It’s too bad that prices have gone up so much, I can’t really afford to live here anymore. I’ll probably have to move to the Island when the house sells. I really don’t want to leave the, this is home.
"Always trust your gut. It's your compass, it leads you to where you need to go.
We have the sight, which means we just know things. It's how my mother always knew when daddy was coming home, or when my older brothers were coming over. She would suddenly start tidying up, preparing food and putting the kettle to boil. It's how she prepared herself for the death of her first husband and first child, who were lost at sea. She knew when they left that they weren't coming home.
She begged them not to go, and said goodbye for the last time that morning. Forewarned is forearmed.
Trust in who we are, nothing else matters"
(Bernice Hanson, 2017)
Life can be heavy sometimes, but uncle Peter has a way of making everything light and putting you at ease. His humour and playful spirit reminds us not to take things too seriously and to remember to have fun. He used to tell us wild stories of his youth, the pranks he pulled, and the adventures he had growing up on the Sunshine Coast. The stories were entertaining and carried lessons about respect, honesty, and listening to our elders. One of our favorites was about his pony, Skita, who would trot up to the house and tap the door for her morning toast each day. Often you can't tell which stories are true and which are made up to test your gullibility and lighten the mood. And, as much as he tells stories he also likes to hear a good story. Many of us enjoy cracking him up with our own tales. He has the kind of laughter that you can't help but laugh with, it's therapeutic and healing. But more than humour, uncle Peter is the kind of person who is always there for you, forever opening his home to everyone. He takes after Papa in all the best ways.
We were born before the wind
Also, younger than the sun
'Ere the bonnie boat was won
As we sailed into the mystic
Hark now, hear the sailors cry
Smell the sea and feel the sky
Let your soul and spirit fly
Into the mystic
(Into the Mystic by Van Morrison, a family favourite)
Oil painting by Andrea Padilla
Mickey: After Roxy died, she visited me a lot. Nana wasn’t having any visiting dreams from Roxy, but she knew I was. In the dream we would be talking and then Roxy’d get up and give me a big hug and say, “Okay, I gotta go. It’s 1:00.” Then I’d wake up and it’d be 1:00, she was always right! Nana would be sitting at the edge of my bed, staring at me. It freaked me out. I hated waking up to someone startling me. Eventually I came to expect it, but it was still freaky.
Me: Haha, why would she be sitting there? Was she watching you sleep?
Mickey: She knew I was seeing Roxy, so she wanted to know what she said. I think that when someone dies, we put up walls to help us deal with the pain of grief. But these walls also block them from being able to visit us. I think they try, but we are hurting so it’s hard for them to reach us.
Me: Have you seen Nana or Papa lately?
Mickey: No, but Haley has. She said she had a nice visit with Papa, he gave her a big hug. I’ve been seeing MIB though, and so has Heather! She is looks really good. It seems she’s worked through everything she needed to and can now visit. I wish I could see mom and dad though. Maybe we need to do another smudge and put their ashes to rest since we couldn’t do it last year when we were supposed to.
Me: Yeah, it really sucked that we weren’t able to have the ceremony and return their ashes to the inlet. Hopefully this year.
"The loss these dramas lament exceeds any of the stories told; it overflows from one story to another, it transforms and is never resolved. It is as if that history were dreaming itself through me by the effect of a transference. Born in the 'sphere of the moon,' my dream is also someone else's."
(Stefania Pandolfo 1997)
The rose is a significant symbol for many of us.
Nana began a tradition, to be shared between the women in our family, of getting a rose tattoo. She intended for this to be a sort of initiation
into adulthood, and hoped to accompany each of her "kids" to the get their iteration.
Nana has many tattoos, but of them her favorite and the one that is most meaningful to her is the rose on her shoulder blade. To her, the rose represents the area she grew up in: Pender Harbour B.C. Wild roses are prominent in this area and are believed to be entangled with our history and our ancestors, and this inspires a special connection with the flower. It was a way for her to maintain connection to this particular land and her family.
Following this tradition, many of the women in my family have also tattooed a rose on their shoulder blades, often designed in personal ways to reference the nuances of their identities. Some have adapted the rose with Celtic aesthetics, and some have added other figures or personal references such as a faery or bumble bee. This act of tattooing has been a bonding ritual and helps to keep our connections alive; allowing us to carry on the body a reminder of and connection to place: land, people, and history.
"Put it on the wind... child."
(xwu’p’a’lich, Barbara Higgins 2017)
Death and Dying:
To talk about Life we need to recognize our relationship to the concept of Death. Death defines Life and vice versa. We measure our Life according to our movement towards an eventual, immanent "Death." I have come to think of Death as a form of Life, and Life as a process of Death. Everything is a circle, mom says. For me, Life is marked by the journey of discovery and important lessons to be learned before we move on to something else. Dreaming is a significant process through which we learn, it's how we cut across our cultural systems of organization such as time and space and connect with ourselves, family, and beyond. I have also begun to think of Death as an opening and a multiplying, and I wonder why we are taught (or enculturated) to fear this. I believe fear distracts from the important lessons we need to learn, fear masks the movement and activity of Death. I perceive the Life we are doing, living, as part of the journey through to another world, phase, or experience. Death is a door.
After witnessing the Death of two grandparents (ten years apart) I noticed similarities with the event of birth (which I have also witnessed). It seems like Life is akin to the way many people understand fetal development in the womb, with the birth being thought of as a beginning. So, I wonder, is physical Life a developmental stage of existence, a gestation?
Many believe that Life is dependent on our ability to breathe. Social scholars suggest that our breath, and breathing, may present a point of connection between various beings. While I appreciate this, I also wonder: why do we need to locate an ultimate point of connection or difference? I believe that things are much more complicated. Could our breath but one of many points of connection and distinction? We do not need a battle for the perfect metaphor, we need to open our language and perceptions. The questions that lead to such metaphors reflect our compulsion to identify and classify things, our search for origins. But these questions are unanswerable, particularly with our current level of understanding. We need to learn to allow the fleeting, indescribable, and barely perceptible to have meaning without the need of an explanation or the search for a definitive origin. I'm suggesting that we permit the vast difference of experiences and the incomprehensible to be, or to "Let the mystery remain a mystery" (as Richard Wagamese says).
I've been studying smoke to think about the movement of Spirit and our spirits. Watching smoke billow makes me wonder about how we might become more when we "die" or "transition." I wonder if we experience a sort of multiplous reality. On the other hand, we could ask, what if nothing exists at all, what if it’s all a figment of our collective imagination? What if the world is dreaming us? I sometimes think about how we see strangers in our dreams and I wonder, do they see us in theirs? Are our dreams “real,” or is this reality a “dream”? Those in my family would probably say yes to both. Particularly, the former question, they would say, is true to certain degrees and in certain ways. When our relatives visit in dreams there are ways of sensing whether it’s a dream about them, or if they are really there. So, does that mean that dreams are tangible things? Or, are they intangible? Material? Immaterial? Or are they something in-between? I'm not really searching for any answers. Like I already said, I'm interested in pushing perceptions and opening up.
Smoke is interesting this way because it gives shape to air and breath, and animates its movement. As a collection (or collective) of particles, it catches streams, traces currents, and colours breath. Smoke rises and swirls and snakes and disperses. There are countless practices involving smoke. Those that involve creating it intentionally and those that produce it second-hand from heat, fire, sparks, embers. Some ingest and consume smoke for spiritual, cultural, and social reasons. Like deep breathing, smok-ing alters our minds and bodies, conjuring different sensations, perceptions, and states of being. Smoke is sticky and clings to things, space, bodies, lungs. Often, it's born from a spark, and in turn has the power to extinguish life.
As Nana struggled to breathe her last night, we struggled with her. We found ourselves circling her. An amber light from the other room and the rising moon had cast a warm glow over the room. It was soothing. With our hands on her limbs, we tried to comfort her through each wave of struggle. I ran my fingers over her face, tracing the outlines, and then wondered aloud if we were all driving her crazy, which managed to cut through the tension by causing everyone to laugh and take a breath. Auntie Bunny leaned over and told Nana, “Nadine’s being a character.” Then we moved around, again, rearranging our circle as the process continued. The entire week leading up to her last moments felt never-ending, yet at the same time everything wafted over us quickly and in a haze. We oscillated with her as she fought to take in air and release it, and we echoed words of encouragement and love in tandem. As she gasped for air, we held our breathe; as she struggled to inhale, our breath too caught in our throats, and with her final efforts we were left in suspense as she made a change of worlds. When the memory of this scene pops up, uninvited, obliging me to re-live this experience over and over at random, I sometimes imagine things differently to kind of re-remember something else. I envision a silky swirl of smoke rising from her mouth, giving shape to her spirit as it expands from her body; I picture it floating up above us in the room, as if she left before she could feel the labour of dying; I imagine the smoke reaching and dispersing in the space like coaxing fingers, becoming multiple and weaving into the different bodies nearby (human, plant, animal, and stone); and I see her smokey breath unfurling out the hospital window and traveling to the face of the full moon, from where she can watch over us.
Smoke is intangible, but sensible. We can see and feel it but cannot hold it, at least not for long because it's in constant transformation. When we breathe it, it carries a part of us, and it extends us in part. It intertwines with other flows, breaths, and bodies (humans and non-human, physical and non-physical). It's hypnotic.
After Nana passed in the Squamish hospital, our Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) relatives held a sacred fire to guide her spirit to the next realm. Like breath, smoke and fire inspire attention to the movement of Spirit and the interconnection of all things. So, in the spirit of "keeping a fire" (in Daniel Health Justice's words), this sample of our Kinship Collage ends with a meditation on the creative, cleansing, and connecting properties of the smoke that rises from smudge.
Daniel Health Justice. Why Indigenous Literatures Matter. Wilfred Laurier University Press. 2018.
Richard Wagamese. Embers: One Ojibway's Meditations. Douglas & McIntyre. 2016.
Stafania Pandolfo. Impasse of the Angels: Scenes from a Moroccan Space of Memory. The University of Chicago Press. 1997
Ursula K. Le Guin. The Left Hand of Darkness. Ace Books. 1969.
xwu’p’a’lich, Barbara Higgins. Etched in My Memory: My Life as a shíshálh Rememberer. Creator's Touch Press. 2017