By Sara Pippus
“Kitimākēyimiso,” I heard him call to me as we pulled away from the old school house, so many summers ago. Be kind to yourself — what a beautiful way to say goodbye. I can close my eyes and be back there and feel the midsummer sun putting endless freckles across my nose and helping turn the crops around the yard a golden hue.
I have not forgotten him or the summers we spent chasing grasshoppers and each other all over the dusty prairie. The smell of wild clover drifts through the yard mingling with laughter from the bouncy kids on the trampoline. I remember the crazy made up games – the kind you play when there isn’t much to do. The witch’s cauldron and aspirin game that made you laugh and then giddy with fear. I can still hear the kids on the swings – the same set you ran under trying to defend me from the bigger boys who liked to chase me and call me names. The swing seat gave you a black eye. You didn’t see it coming, you were so mad. Your good friend Grant, who was bigger than the big kids, soon put a stop to all that teasing. I felt guarded and protected. I guess that’s when we all started running. It felt free to run and it was something to do. You were taller than me and faster or at least you used to brag that you could beat me. We raced everyone around the old school house that year and eventually we grew bored of that and chased each other instead. The chase meant one of us would finally give up and we would fall down, breathing hard on to the grass, hoping for a bit of shade. Catching each other, we soon found, was what we wanted more than to be chased. The rest of our free time, we spent together. Only having the summer to get to know each other, we talked some nights long after the rest of the kids had gone to bed. The tall yard light was the only thing watching over the shared secrets and tales of our lives. Comparing notes. Finding out how much we were the same. One Creator. I asked him a thousand questions eager to know him. I wanted to know how to say all sorts of things in Cree and he bashfully taught me and giggled at my attempts.
We met by accident that summer or that’s what I thought, but nothing is really ever an accident. His name was James and we were 12. He was beautiful and not in the tacky preteen sort of way; he was just stunning. His skin was a copper colour and his hair was deep black and ran down the back of his t-shirt. But his eyes caught me first. I loved the shyness in them and how they seemed to have so much to say, but held back. He was looking at me from the tall cement steps of the old school when I first arrived. I must have been a sight after riding in the hot car on grid roads with the windows down: sweaty and crazy red hair blown into a mess. He said later it was hard not to notice me. Ha! Those eyes were so kind and gentle and became protective and sad at summer’s end. I have held those days in the dearest part of my heart my whole life. I don’t have to struggle to recall or wonder how it all was. Deep kinship was born that summer.
It had been a series of summers of learning about people and about myself. Kinship was an idea that runs deep in our family. Just a few summers before…
My auntie was made of chocolate or at least that’s what my earliest memory of her was. She was tiny, I was almost as tall as her and I was only 10. She was a deep beautiful chocolate brown and I was pale and freckled. Auntie became one of the biggest people in my memory during summer camp. Being 10 was hard. It seemed like everything I did that summer was confusing. I had cut my hair off super short to try something different. Tired of being overheated, I chose a short cut and ran around like a tomboy, which suited me just fine. I wasn’t much for girlie stuff anyway. But then, of course, I cried because I had never had short hair before and instantly hated it. It sounds juvenile now, but the cares of being 10 chased me around all summer. I thought about me, Me, ME on those fantastic school-free days. Overjoyed by being free to be outdoors, I loved everything about those days but I did not like me. I wanted to be someone else, not to have red hair and freckles and not be so easy to tease. Bullies had followed me around most of my elementary school life and I was a great target. I whined and complained about not being able to get a tan like the pretty girls and I thought about dying my hair. By the time I arrived at my week of summer camp, I had become a whiny snit-fitting pre-teen who my auntie hardly recognized. I hugged her hello and she asked about what I did with my hair, of course. So I started to whine and complain about dying my hair and asking her about what she thought of tanning beds. She looked at me like I had lost my mind and waved me away to settle into my cabin and to catch up with my camp friends. After supper, auntie said she had something she wanted to talk to me about. I walked into her cabin and plopped down on the end of her bed. She began to tell me all about her life. We talked about where she was from and how she ended up a part of our family. My auntie wasn’t made of chocolate – big shock there I know – but she was from East India. It was a place I didn’t know much about. She had always been a part of our family, but I had never been alone with her before. Now she was talking to me like a grown up. India, and the places she had been, came to life for me as we visited for hours about how she grew up. The people, the colours, the spices, the smells, and sounds all danced around the little room. I loved that she wanted me to know who she was. Her life growing up was very different from mine. Then she opened her Bible to Psalm 139 – still my favourite scripture – and asked me to read it out loud to her. So I did. She didn’t preach at me and didn’t scold me about my attitude. When I finished reading she said, “Now, Sara dear, who made you?” One question. That’s it. I looked back at her. I got it loud and clear and from a source that loved me. I had been suffering from too much ME. She hugged me and shooed me off to my cabin. She gave me the gift of herself, she gave my easy life new perspective. Auntie sternly remind me I was insulting my Creator most with my displeasure in myself. She changed me. Deep kinship was born with her that evening.
Stories are nice and these two stories are my shared history with my first best friend and my auntie’s guiding hand. But these are not just nice little stories. They, along with hundreds of other ideas, are packed in my heart and mind to serve as tools in future relationships. All of us carry ideas forward. We come to a new situation and we mentally try new people out against what we know. This is true of everyone.
But these stories serve a mightier purpose, which is to tell you how I first met a person from another race. Lately in an effort to affect change around me, many discussions have turned to answering a solution-geared question: how do you learn about people who are not like you? This question is broader than race but the answer forms the foundation for how you interact in the world.
Now with all questions we can dissect what is meant by ‘race’ or ‘different’ or ‘learn about’ but that’s not the goal here. We can label and identify, but we come up short; we are not a science experiment. Dissecting still ends with something being dead and static. An answer I keep circling back to is both simplistic and complicated; maybe why it is overlooked.
Kinship is an old word and has several definitions, but the one I want to really focus on has a host of synonyms like affinity, sympathy, rapport, harmony, understanding, empathy, closeness, fellow feeling, bond, compatibility and similarity. Kinship stands in stark contrast to the current trend in relationships, standing behind walls of media and comment sections. The screens-in-between world we live in is a powerful platform, but cannot replace entirely the rich gift of togetherness. The complexity of it all means we also can ‘have our say’ and comment about people we know little or nothing about. My relationships have been suffering from the static-ness of this way of interacting. We say something, but we have not really said it to anyone in particular. We get nowhere. It may seem obvious and old school, but we need to start talking to each other again. And when we talk can we fuel kinship in all our new relationships. What if I begin asking – how can I find kinship with her/him?
Some of the most beautiful friendships I have ever had in my life have been with people who were not the same as me. Our fears, which keep us from each other, can only be addressed with a new level of intimacy that drives away the fear, it also helps us admit our role in the problem, and relationship creates that kind of knowing.
There are no easy or quick answers, but perhaps the simplicity of kinship can intentionally replace fear and shift thinking in every budding relationships and then that attitude can be spread and spread in favour of more affinity, sympathy, rapport, harmony, understanding, empathy, closeness, fellow feeling, bond, compatibility and similarity. I want to carry this idea forward.