Prairie Storekeeper

We reminisced
the storekeeper and I
in the front room
waiting for supper.

We talked of prairie wind
and storms and snow.
We talked of the fierce sun,
and how the prairie’s like a mountain peak
for all above is sky.

For thirty years
he kept a general store
in a small town near Regina;
a prairie conservative
independent, stubborn,
and not without compassion.
Men learn to work together
on the prairie.
No one can live in that vast loneliness

He mused about his store;
How tough it was to stay in business
when you weren’t a corporation;
Of those who win, and those who are exploited;
the pressures of a foreign market;
the deals he must accept……or else.

We lapsed to silence,
Sharing each other’s company.
The clock ticked softly on the mantleplace.
And then he spoke again
but deeply, far away as if in dream,
as though he spoke from regions in himself
that opened up on powers scarcely dreamt of.
His voice was heavy with authority,
speaking itself through him.
“If young people really knew,” he said, “what an unjust
system it is, they would tear it down in five minutes.”


The Qu’Appelle River runs through the Qu’Appelle Valley in southern Saskatchewan.  So graceful and harmonious is this valley that it reminds the traveler of that visionary homeland where each thing has what it needs to live a beautiful life.  When I first saw the Qu’Appellle Valley, I thought that this place was like the home I might have had if the Great War of 1914-1918 had not cast a violent shadow over the entire twentieth century.

The Qu’Appelle River flows through the Qu’Appelle Valley like a Queen on parade.  Her name, “Qu’Appelle”, is French for “Who calls?”  This is a rough translation of the original Cree words for the river, and there are many stories as to how the river got its name.  One story goes like this:


Long ago a First Nations person was going down the river in his canoe.  One day he heard a voice calling to him.  He stopped paddling, and listened intently.  Again he heard the voice calling, and he called out in his turn.  No one answered him, so he carefully looked around for the tracks of another person.  He couldn’t find any tracks, and from that time the river was known as “Who calls?” (1)

Today we cannot hear the earth speak in the same way as aboriginal people did before the coming of the Europeans.  In the old days the relationship of First Nations people to nature was intense and personal.  Everything in nature had the power to reveal itself as a living presence, should it choose to do so, and should a person be ready to hear or to see.  This relationship went both ways.  Human beings were part of nature as were fish, trees, rocks and grizzly bears.  And because humans were created later than most other creatures, people were often humbly thought of as the younger sisters and brothers.  So did humans see themselves as members of a larger family on a living earth.  Black Elk said, “The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of human beings when they realize their relationship, their oneness, with the universe.”

In our technological, urban world we have lost much of our ability to hear many of the voices in nature.  We long for connection to the beauty we see, and we talk of spirituality rather than formal religion.  Spirituality is about the quality of our relationship to the world.  It is about our ability to see our connection to everything around us, to see the beauty, to hear the voices, to be present to the miracle of that which is simply in front of us.  Chief Seathl, after whom the City of Seattle was named, put it this way:  “Every part of this land is sacred in the view of my people.  Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove….”

We reach out to the people around us with deep caring.  We watch.  We listen.  Rain falls.  The wind is like breathing.  “All real living is meeting,” Martin Buber said.  Life is relationship.  First Nations people close many of their speeches and prayers with the expression, “All my relations.”

In April, 2010, an international conference for the protection of the earth took place in Bolivia.  President Evo Morales of Bolivia invited the peoples of the world to this conference, and more than 30,000 people from over 100 countries came to share their concerns.  President Morales urged the delegates to listen to the voices of indigenous people as they talked about respect for the earth and stewardship.

We can be more aware of the voices around us, and we can start with the people we meet every day.  Can we hear the person who is asking for help?  Eagles fly overhead at many of our ceremonies in the Downtown Eastside.  What are the eagles saying to us?  Waves on the shore of Crab Park have stories to tell. The Oppenheimer Park totem pole speaks to the long history of First Nations on this land, and it also asks us to remember those who have died in the Downtown Eastside, and those who have survived.

The old heritage buidings in our community speak to the early history of Vancouver, and in the streets late at night you can hear the voices of unemployed men during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. They are marching in a snake parade because they are hungry and have no place to sleep.  Chinatown and Japantown have stories to tell of those who fought for dignity and human rights.

So many voices.  So much pain and courage and laughter.  “Who calls?” we ask, and we hear the voice of the other one, reminding us of relationship, or our kinship to the mice in the fields and the stars in the sky.  As Chief Joseph said, “The earth and myself are of one mind.”


(1)               River in a Dry Land, by Trevor Harriot, published by Stoddart, 2000, page 12.



Last Poem

(Jean’s note:  I found this poem on Sandy’s desk a few days after he died.  It was in draft form and hard to read but this is what I could make out)


Do not weep for me
when I have gone
and you are lonely
in the quiet night
sitting where we
used to sit together.

Do not weep for me
for I am closer
to you now than I
have ever been before.

Wind caresses you—I am the wind.
I am the sun’s warmth.
I am the sweetness of the summer flowers.
I am the smell of gentle rain.

The I of which I talk
is not the tiny I
that is born and dies
but the I that ever was,
the “I” that says “before Abraham was, I am.”

The I of which I speak
is not the I of me
but the I that lives at
this exact moment and forever.

Do not weep for me
when I have gone
and you are lonely in the quiet night.
for I am closer to you now
than I have ever been before.

A Mystery at Beaver Lake

A Mystery at Beaver Lake, Illustration by Diane Wood

A Mystery at Beaver Lake, Illustration by Diane Wood

Jean and I often go to Beaver Lake in Stanley Park. We go in the morning to feel the quietness of the lake, and to avoid the crowds that come to the park in the afternoon.

One morning we were standing on the wooden platform at the north end of Beaver Lake, watching the ducks swim among the water lilies. A faint mist covered the south end of the lake, and the trees appeared and disappeared in the mist. Jean, whose eyes are better than mine, said, “There’s something at the south end of the lake that looks strange.”

“I can’t see anything, especially with this mist,” I replied. “Where should I look?”

“Look in the direction of the place where we picked a ripe blueberry on May 25th last year,” Jean said.

“I remember. You gave me the blueberry as a birthday present. I see only mist there now.”

“Be patient,” Jean said. “The mist will move away, and then you have to watch for something that doesn’t belong there.”

The mist curled gracefully among the trees, revealing the place where we had found the ripe blueberry. I saw a grey shape about six feet tall. It was absolutely still.

“Am I looking at an abominable snowman?” I asked.

“No, not here,” Jean replied. “Let’s move closer,” and we walked south on the path on the west side of Beaver Lake. “It seems to have feathers,” Jean whispered as we got closer to this strange apparition.

“It looks like it’s been painted on a piece of wood.”

“It doesn’t seem to have a head, and it’s not six feet tall. The mist made it look bigger,” I whispered back to Jean as though we were in church. From this point on, we would move as quietly as the mist that was disappearing as the sun rose higher in the sky.

We walked slowly, stealthily, and deliberately toward the mystery. We could see that it was between four and five feet tall, blue-grey in colour, and it had magnificent feathers on its back and neck.

“I see its head,” Jean said. “It’s tucked between its shoulders, and its bill is pointing away from us.”
“A heron!” I exclaimed. “A Great Blue Heron! The biggest one I’ve ever seen. He’s standing on his own land as if he has stood there forever.”

“Herons have lived on this earth a lot longer than humans,” Jean said.

“Yes,” I replied, “and the oldest known heron colony in British Columbia is right here in Stanley Park. But today the herons are a species at risk.”

“How beautiful you are,” Jean said to the heron.

Just then the heron moved its head, and we could see its long dagger bill. It spread its enormous wings, and with a  harsh, croaking cry, it lifted itself into the air and circled the lake. With its long neck folded back, its legs trailing behind it, and its powerful wings flapping slowly, it looked like an ancient messenger from long ago when the earth was young. “Your destiny is connected to mine,” it seemed to be telling us. “If you destroy my living space, you will destroy your own.”

We watched the heron disappear in the forest, and we were left with its message and the memory of what we had seen.

“He is our older brother,” I said.

“We have to change the way we live,” Jean said.

~ by Sandy Cameron

The Salmon Run at Maple Wood Creek

The Salmon Run at Maple Wood Creek, Illustration by Diane Wood

The Salmon Run at Maple Wood Creek, Illustration by Diane Wood

Jean, Devon, who is Jean’s grandson, and I, went to Maple Wood Creek in North Vancouver to see the Chum salmon return to the place where they were born after about five years in the Pacific Ocean. They came to lay eggs and to fertilize them in the loose gravel of Maple Wood Creek, and they came to die. Their deaths were part of the dance of Life which contains both birth and death. The salmon died, and yet they rise again.

Devon watched the salmon intently. “They’re wild,” he said. “They’re dying, but they go through the water like lightning.”

“Yes,” Jean said. “The intensity of their efforts to create a new generation of salmon is awesome. I don’t know how they can find Maple Wood Creek after spending five years in the ocean. They leave the fresh water creek as very small fry, and they return from the salt water sea as large fish weighing 10 pounds or so. Some people say that the salmon use the sun and stars as a guide, and others say the salmon can smell their home creek. I don’t know how they find their way home, but I’m thankful that they’re here.”

“I see, and smell, many dead salmon on the banks of Maple Wood Creek, and that saddens me,” I said, “but I, too, thank the salmon for their gift of new life. In the spring thousands upon thousands of small fry will make their way through the gravel and head out to sea.”

“Do you remember going to see the salmon when you were very young?” Jean asked Devon.

“I remember,” Devon replied. “I couldn’t say the word “fish”, so when I wanted to visit the salmon, I would make an “O” with my mouth the way the fish do. Then you would take me to Maple Wood Creek. I remember how the salmon would gather in a big bunch at the place where Maple Wood Creek runs into the Seymour River.”

“They were waiting for rain so there would be enough water in the creek for them to swim to their spawning grounds,” Jean said. “They didn’t have to wait for the rain this year.”

“Look there, the stream is so shallow that the salmon are half out of the water, but they just keep going,” Devon said.

“They’re going home,” I said, “and they have something to do so that the next generation might live. That reminds me of something the First Nations’ spiritual teacher, Black Elk, said. He said that we should live our lives so that the people might live.”

“I see a Chum digging a hole in the gravel with her tail. She’s getting ready to lay her eggs,” Jean said.

“Maybe we should move back,” Devon said. “They don’t like it when we get too close.” We moved back out of respect for the salmon, and we gave thanks to the Keepers of the Stream who had built rock fish ladders so that the salmon could swim up Maple Wood Creek more easily. “I thank all the people who understand that the life of the salmon and the life of human beings are connected. If we destroy the salmon, we are on our way to destroying ourselves,” I said.

“I agree,” Jean said. “Both the salmon and poor people are under threat from unrestrained greed. Caring for the salmon, and caring for people, is not simply a question of technology or another quick-fix program. It is a way of being in the world.”

“The salmon can teach us,” I said.

“The salmon dance in the water,” Devon said.

“We share this world together,” Jean said.

“Brother salmon, sister salmon,” I said. “We stand on sacred ground, here in the middle of the city. Life is richer at this place. We thank the salmon.”

When Orcas Play

Some time ago I was taking the ferry to Victoria, and as we were passing through the Gulf Islands, the captain announced that we were about to join a large group of orcas.

Everyone rushed to the railings, both port and starboard, where we could see the whales rising silently from the deep, shining silently, a huge fin in the water here, a whale breaching there in a glitter of white foam.  The orcas swam with such effortless grace and surges of power that we were transformed.

Children were beside themselves with excitement.  They called to the whales, not in words for words are a second level of experience, but in upre, joyful song that the unperceptimve would call screaming. Those mighty, moving, mysterious beings touched the children, and the rest of us too, in some deep, hidden part of our being that is the source of joy.

We were amazed at the beauty and power of those whales.  Something in us rose high when they burst into sunlight, and dived deep when they sank beneath the water.  We felt intensely alive, and it was the orcas who were giving us this gift.  We held them in awe. We loved them.  We understood, if only for a few seconds, that we and the whales were linked together, and that we had been linked together for eons and eons.

After a short time the orcas went their way, and the ferry went its way.  We returned to our seats, our newspapers, our coffee, and our French fries. Our eyes were a little bright, though, and we talked to each other in a more open way than usual.

“Maybe we humans really are a living part of Nature,” I mused, “and maybe that economic stuff about us being isolated and hedonistic creatures who pursue our own self interest in the so-called market is absolutely wrong.”

“Maybe that sense of reaching out, of standing in awe, of feeling related to, is an expession of our truest self. Maybe those orcas are our older brothers and sisters, and maybe we have much to learn from them – before it’s too late.”

Intentionality, Mindfulness, Gratitude, Compassion, Community

I got shingles at the end of January, 2006.  It was misdiagnosed and it turned into post herpetic neuralgia.  My life stopped dead at that point, and I asked myself some questions.  What is this illness trying to tell me?  What’s wrong with the way I’ve been living?  Why didn’t my immune system take care of this?  I knew that I couldn’t let the pain take over, and that attitude was important in controlling it.

The American philosopher, William James, wrote,  “The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes.”

Over a number of months I discovered five words that would help me find meaning in this new situation.  The first word is “Intentionality”.  It means making a commitment to a goal.  My long range commitment is to turn roadblock into challenge, and fate into journey.  Intentionality also means discipline and perseverance.  Living is a bit like driving a car at night.  The journey is long, but the headlights light up only a small part of the road.  As we drive on, the headlights illuminate a new section of the road – and so on until we reach our destination.  The point is we have to keep going.

The second word is “Mindfulness”.  A book that helped me with this word is called “Coming To Our Senses – Healing Ourselves And the World Through Mindfulness,” by Jon Kabat-Zinn.  Mindfulness means attention.  It means being awake.  It means deep breathing, meditation, and prayer.  A French mystic, Simone Weil, wrote that attention without an object is prayer in its highest form.  When an anthropologist asked the Lakota Chief Standing Bear what his people taught their children, Standing Bear replied, “We teach our children to look when there is nothing to see, and to listen when there is nothing to hear.”  That’s mindfulness.  Mindfulness is at the centre of a balanced life.  It helps me control pain.  It helps me wake up and see the beauty around me, and when I see that beauty I am astonished.  Astonishment is a cornerstone of gratitude.

The third word is “Gratitude”.  I pray almost constantly – giving thanks for the sun, the stars, and the people I meet.  Here’s a quote from a poem called “Listen”, by W.S. Merwin:

“with the night falling we are saying thank you –
back from a series of hospitals, back from a mugging,
after funerals we are saying thank you,
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you,
in a culture up to its neck in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you,
over telephones we are saying thank you,
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators,”

The fourth word is “Compassion”.  When I see intensely, when I listen intensely, I am open to the pain of another person, and I care for that person.  And now I am in pain, and belong to the community of those who live in pain.  This experience has deepened my compassion.  The writer, Margaret Atwood, said, “The world seen clearly is seen through tears.” When I care, I am present for the other.  I hear her words.  As the Spanish philosopher, Miguel De Unamuno, said, “Bodies may be attracted by pleasure, but souls are attracted by pain.”

That brings us to the fifth word – “Community”.  It seems to me that the community of those who live in pain includes just about everyone.  We need each other.  Human beings are gregarious animals, and caring and co-operation are more important for survival than competition and selfishness.  In my view, women usually have a deeper understanding of caring relationships than men do, and Life is relationship – or as the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber said, “Life is meeting,” and meeting builds community.  But it only builds community if we can see and hear with mindfulness.

Here are the five words that have helped me find a way to live with pain.  Intentionality, Mindfulness,  Gratitude,  Compassion, and Community.  You will have other words that have helped you.  Putting words down on paper is one way of finding out what we actually think about something, and sharing those words is a good way to start a dialogue.

~ Sandy Cameron

We Need a New Map

The map we inherited
isn’t any good.
The old roads mislead
and the landscape keeps changing.
People are confused
and drift from place to place,
clothes scorched by fire
eyes red with smoke.

The old map tells us
to look for gold
in the city,
so we go to the city
and find the garbage dump.
We need a new map
with new roads
and a new destination.

Some people fear a new map, and
they cling to the old one
like flies to fly paper.
But the old map leads to pepper spray
tear gas
and the end of the world.

I don’t have a new map,
so I write stories.
The stories draw lines
dig holes
and above all, remember.
“Let people know who we are;
tell them what happened to us,”
an old Mayan woman
in Guatemala said. (1)
“I seem not to speak
the official language, “ the poet
Adrianne Rich said, so
she created an unofficial language,
the language of the heart.

Drawing a new map
is like singing.
Voicehandler asked Loon
why she talked so much
and Loon replied,
“Well, Sir, I’m not just talking
to my own ears.
The spirit-beings tell me
they have no place to live.
That’s the reason I keep talking.” (2)
Loon sings the sacred
into the world
and creates a new map.

Sing your song, friend.
Tell your story.
The map we inherited
isn’t any good.
The old roads mislead.
We need a new map.

~ Sandy Cameron

* * *

(1)   A Beauty That Hurts—Life and Death in Guatemala, by George Lovell, Between The Lines, 2000.

(2)  A Story as Sharp as a Knife—The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World, by Robert Bringhurst, Douglas and MacIntyre, 1999.