Honouring the Past…and the Future

BY Cindy Maguire

Someone asked me last week, about my intentions as a writer. What was my goal? Did I expect to earn money with my writing? I stammered and mumbled something about the process being more important than the end result.

It’s a legitimate question though, isn’t it? What do I want to achieve in terms of writing? My answer has already filled several pages of my notebook and that is the key. I write to try and make sense of the world and that is an ongoing process. I picture my writing journey as circular rather than linear. If I am on the right track my writing will flow round the circle that is my life experience and like moving water, it will fill empty spaces and pick up speed or slow down in a natural rhythm. At the centre of this circle is a core belief that writing is important, vital work. I feel like that is an old-fashioned thought and I’m sure there are many people who would disagree. But like E.B. White, co-author of the wonderfully concise writing guide, The Elements of Style, I believe writers are “cultural custodians” and as such have a responsibility to inform but also to inspire and challenge. This doesn’t mean all your writing needs to be serious or high-minded. It just needs to come from your heart. Underlying this idea is my belief that a passion for writing is a gift, passed down through the generations. I think this is true for all of us who write. Without being fully conscious of it, we hold within ourselves a collective wisdom that can inform our writing and make it truly authentic.

One way to tap into this wisdom is by exploring our past. Even if you don’t have access to particular details about your ancestors you can explore elements of the life they may have led. You can ask questions about what it must have felt like to be in a certain place at a certain time in history. In my case, I know some facts about the Maguires who left Ireland in the 1860’s, landed in Montreal and eventually made their way to Muskoka. What I don’t know is how the four children from that original Maguire clan, dealt with their grief and fear when both parents died on the voyage and they were left to fend for themselves in a foreign land. But I have experienced grief and fear; I can dive into the middle of those emotions and imagine what my ancestors must have felt. This is writing that feels important. It is a way to honour the memory of those who have come before me.

My grandmother was in the process of writing a family history when she developed dementia just after she retired from teaching. She wasn’t able to finish what she had started but a number of years ago my Dad began adding to this history. Now, he also has dementia and I have stepped in to help with the process. When I visit him, I take my laptop and type as he tells me what he remembers. On Sunday, as we walked the property on Sparrow Lake where he grew up, he pointed to a stand of cedars: “I remember my father planting those when I was a young boy,” he said. That memory, of a time some 70 odd years ago, has been passed to me now; I write it down.

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a Sister Writes workshop facilitated by poet Souvankham Thammavsonga. She is the author of Found, a book of poems based on a scrapbook her father kept while the family was living in a Laotian refugee camp in Thailand in the 1970’s. Souvankham took this link to the past, explored it and fashioned something new that pays tribute to her father’s experience while allowing her voice to shine through. In Found, father and daughter speak together, creating something that can be passed to future generations.

I also went to hear artist/activist Susan Blight speak at the Bloor Gladstone library last Wednesday evening. Susan’s talk was titled, “Centering the Voices of Indigenous Women”. Near the end of her presentation she mentioned that she is learning the language of her Anishinaabe ancestors so that she will be able to speak directly with the elders. This way, the wisdom they possess will filter down unadulterated. And in turn, she will be able to teach the ancient language to a future generation. The act of honouring the memory of those who came before us circles round and encompasses the idea of honouring our future ancestors.

What is my goal as a writer? To honour the past and…the future.

Here are some writing prompts that focus on childhood memories- one way to begin honouring your past. Take a sheet of paper and your favourite pen and set a timer for 10 minutes:

  1. Do you have a quirky or interesting relative in your family tree? Describe them.
  2. What was your most beloved toy. Describe it’s shape, appearance and texture. What feelings come to mind when you think of that toy?

3.What is your happiest childhood memory? Describe the event and the feelings associated with it.

Til next time, keep writing.