MARTIN IN THE KITCHEN
There are many things in life that are not obvious and among the many mysteries are the inner workings of another’s mind. Occasionally I have had the good fortune to interact with people who put what they think and believe into practice but their quiet courage is not easily noticed or appreciated, nor the motives behind their actions. It is only after a number of interactions is one capable of catching a glimpse.
I have to say I have almost always liked differences among people. The almost is there because at the moment of encountering differences the sensations experienced are not always those included in the ‘like’ category. Then there are other occasions in which I have found myself beating my head against the wall (not literally, of course), wondering why people act in such an incomprehensible way. Still, even with all the frustrations and injustices in the world, I seem to prefer that to one in which everyone is the same. But I have to tell you, once in a while when I meet someone who might view things similarly to me, it can be a lovely, if short-lived, relief.
People of different lifestyles and backgrounds or viewpoints hold an attraction for me. At times I break out of my bubble and take the walk over to introduce myself. It could be sitting down next to a Romanian gypsy woman who frequented our neighbourhood with her two boys and occasionally her husband. She’d have her spot that was conveniently located just outside the shopping mall and we’d speak for a little while. My son and I played with her children on occasion, near her, or with her or her husband’s permission, in a nearby park.
There were a few times when I started asking myself what I got myself into, like that time in Montreal. What started to be an innocent conversation with a homeless person in the midst of winter quickly evolved into a situation where I felt morally responsible for his well-being that night. When I left the cozy hotel room earlier that evening, I didn’t expect to return with a man who later started referring to passages in the Bible to back up his paranoid fears and observations. Needless to say I didn’t sleep that night and was looking forward to offering him breakfast at some location conveniently no longer in my hotel room. It’s true it was unpleasant and there were a few slightly scary moments but if I look back at it now, it was only a brief interruption to a normal sequence of days leading into weeks leading into months passing by filled with normal events. So, that one uncomfortable night really didn’t cost me much at all.
I remember one day when I wanted to get to know the parents of two of the children who were active members of that troupe which frequented my apartment to play every Sunday. I knew them both a little, but just a little. It’s true that both of them being from the Ojibway nation made them seem a bit more exotic. I like the idea of different cultures simultaneously living in and sharing the same land but what really attracted me to them was that I liked both of them as people. I liked the way they spoke, how they interacted as a couple, the way they treated their kids. They had a warm, welcoming style spiced with some reasoning that I had yet to appreciate more fully.
So one day I invited them to my apartment.
They came and we proceeded to have a very pleasant visit. It was easy to talk with them and I had the impression the feeling was mutual. We talked about various things and our bonds strengthened as the time passed.
We weren’t all that long into the bonding when Martin lifted himself up off the couch and headed out of the living room. I assumed he wanted to go to the bathroom and he didn’t seem to feel the need to announce his intentions as some do.
He was gone only a short time when I heard some movement in the kitchen. Rather than taking the first left he had brought himself to the room which housed the fridge. I could hear him rustling about and not unlike my cat, my ears were perked up and pointed in the way of the kitchen while maintaining a friendly face towards his wife, Violet. We continued speaking but I couldn’t help dividing my attention between the two. There was Violet, and my face was conveying that I was indeed interested in what she was saying and there was Martin and the sounds he was generating, evoking involuntary facial gestures which showed my transparent confusion and disorientation. My head oscillated between successful and unsuccessful attempts at maintaining some form of control with every new sound. Then an unexpected clang would really test my limits. I can only imagine what Violet saw before her, a man whose face was distorted, terrained with different muscle groups displaying the consequences of those struggles within. I suppose I could have excused myself and left her to investigate what was happening but it seemed rude and untrusting to me. Besides, what possible harm could come from Martin’s explorations in the kitchen?
Our conversation continued but I’m afraid my contributions grew weaker with every new sound emanating from that distant room. What on earth was he doing? I was only barely not succumbing to that terrible urge to abandon Violet where she was and burst into the kitchen with my hands rising palms up.
Sometimes time passes slowly and this was one of them. In reality he couldn’t have been gone more than five, maybe ten minutes, but it seemed much, much longer. Finally the gods deigned to hear my appeals and returned Martin to the living room and my unspoken questions.
Apparently Martin had gotten hungry and decided to fix himself something to eat. I was both bewildered and relieved at the same time. As Martin contently munched his way through his sandwich, I began to collect myself and breathe more easily. The ears were no longer feeling the strain and a smile slowly stretched its way across my cheeks as I politely turned down his invitation to have a bite of his sandwich.
It’s funny how we view ourselves and others, how we come to make judgements and get worked up about some insignificant details. And there’s a pleasure at being released from a previously held belief that needn’t have been adhered to so strongly. That’s not to say that some values are not without their function or their importance. But there are others that we could do without, or at least pull them out only when truly relevant.
After the Martin-in-the-kitchen affair I got to know them both better. While it was not done frequently, we became more familiar with each other’s homes and ways. I learned that if I am in theirs, I am expected to truly make myself comfortable there and should I find myself thirsty or hungry, then I am to give no more thought to helping myself as I would to taking the initiative in going to the bathroom. It was a little unusual at first, this attitude being granted only to family members or very close friends in my white culture. (By the way, this white culture I’m referring to is easily made up of the full spectrum of shades and hues of different colours. To me I view it as modern western ways of doing thing. If a not-so-white person fully adopts those difficult to define ways, then I would consider he or she to be somewhat white as well.) And I suppose as in all cultures, there are some individuals who take advantage of situations more than other, more prudent people. Still, it was a lovely idea and I encouraged it further with my own friends. I do have to admit, though, that most of the models set were of me doing the encouraging while they were in my home. I felt uncomfortable doing the same in theirs.
I guess it is hypocritical in a way. On one hand I don’t want to impose my values on others (or at least not a lot of them). Yet I also don’t like it when some insist on repeatedly paying for my meals, for example. It may be a genuine act of generosity on their behalf, not expecting anything in return, including recognition of their moral superiority. It may be out of convenience, with me being a poor university student and the other in a well-paid job who simply wants us to spend some time together which may occasionally include doing something or being somewhere that involves a greater cost that I am capable of meeting. Even in these cases my pride and urges to maintain self-dignity & independence compel me to pitch in and pay my way, at least to the extent that I am able. It also comes from a sense of preservation of individuality, allowing me a voice when a future occasion arises and I feel my opinion should be given equal recognition.
So Martin showed me a simpler way. He merely went to the kitchen and made himself a sandwich. He broke the ice and he didn’t make me feel he was morally superior. It was I who had much to learn.
I often feel ‘generous’ but I have to keep it under rein as it may interfere with others’ domains, and I sometimes see it not coming across as intended. Again, I admire Martin’s approach. Whether it was deliberately intended for my education or to encourage something he believed in, or he just naturally fell into it, he showed me a number of things that could easily be overlooked or underestimated. Over time I came to see more of what his wife saw and respected in him. And what he saw and respected in her.
Because I’m a nervous person in my constitution (but one who seeks and appreciates peace in mind and movement), I found it difficult to put into practice what Martin did so easily. Perhaps it was brave of him to encounter and cross cultural frontiers as he did but this would entail knowing of what dilemmas occupied his mind and heart. I cannot pretend to have known him that well.
One day, though, we were talking about cultural expectations and he mentioned that he felt pressures not only from the white man, but from his own people as well. Both he and his wife saw how they and their children could enrich some aspects of their lives with some of the benefits of the white culture and weren’t afraid to pursue them. Going to university was one of them. Learning the ways of law, for example, better equipped them to face some of the injustices back on their reservation originating from the whites. Yet after a few years of leaving the reservation during the academic months of university, they came to be regarded as whites themselves, or at least contaminated to some extent. It was difficult finding one’s way among the various constraints and attractions of different cultures. Martin and Violet felt they could better defend their people’s rights and ways of life by learning from the whites as well. Yet they were often called upon to defend themselves from accusations of being a traitor, for example. At first glance you wouldn’t think that the road they had chosen was such a difficult one, but they travelled a rocky road and still somehow managed to find a calm approach to it all.
They invited me to stay with them on their reservation in Pickle Lake, Ontario. I would be able to see firsthand how it was to be in such a land and to come and help them pick the wild rice I had come to love so much. I had never seen or tasted it before being invited to have supper with them and they didn’t withhold the ingredients or the process of preparing such a delightful dish. And yes, I was definitely interested in joining them at their reservation. But when the time neared, they advised it might not be the best for a white man to be walking about the premises, at least for the time being. There was a lot of recent tension and some had to return to their homes to defend them against those who wished to wreak havoc. As with any culture, there is a mixture of good and bad, but it was not the time for me to mix with theirs.
Martin & his family and I continued to hang out and come across further discoveries in our adventures together. And I came to a better understanding of how he saw and why he did what he did.
I never did make it to Pickle Lake, and like many friendships, we eventually lost contact and continued on in our separate ways. But the memories and influences of Martin & Violet & their family live on inside me. They reflect not only the easy friendly companionship, but from the experiences we’ve shared, I found myself relearning that there is indeed more than one way to look at something, or even to encounter life. And a peaceful and more relaxed approach when entering a potentially tumultuous or risky set of events can encourage more options than originally anticipated.