Permanent Astonishment – By Tomson Highway – Positive and Universal

The temptation in reviewing the wonderfully rich and intensely human book, Permanent Astonishment, (Doubleday Canada, 2021), by Canadian Cree writer Tomson Highway, is to first list the current tropes about the allegedly cruel and oppressive Indigenous experience in Canada, and in particular residential schools, that Canadians have had mercilessly drilled into them in recent years, and then to describe how Permanent Astonishment  convincingly demonstrates how shallow, nuance-free, decontextualized, often just plain false, and in any event, how largely irrelevant to Mr. Highway’s experience of and outlook on life these negative tropes are.

The better course of action is to try to follow the example Tomson Highway sets in his book.  Don’t be thrown off by them. They are not primarily relevant to the author, so why dwell on them in the review? Focus, as Mr. Highway does in this book about his happy early life, including his happy experiences at the Guy Hill Residential School near The Pas, Manitoba, on the amazing, the beautiful and the positive in life- on the perpetually astonishing freakish, miraculous reality of all our singular existences as living, thinking, loving and creating human beings.

After a press interview several years ago Mr. Highway found himself sidelined by Indigenous and media power elites for his apostacy in saying in essence that some good things came out of residential schools. He said:

 “Nine of the happiest years of my life were spent at that school…You may have heard stories from 7000 witnesses that were negative. But what you haven’t heard are the 7000 stories that were positive stories. There are very many successful people today that went to those schools and have brilliant careers and are very functional people like myself. I have a thriving international career, and it wouldn’t have happened without that school. You have to remember that I came from so far north and there were no schools there.”

Mr. Highway’s expressed view was shamefully ignored as being inconvenient by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in its Summary, (the only part of the Report anyone ever reads), politicians and the media And Mr. Highway himself, a talented, humane, brilliant, and disciplined aesthete, (in the best sense of the word) has been forsaken by the Indian grievance industry generally for being a human being first and an Indigenous Canadian second, and thus a discomforting embarrassment and of no use to them. For Mr. Highway, but not for these people, the beautiful in life must never be subordinated to the mere, grim, guilt-based, race-based, pursuit of money and power.

 Permanent Astonishment puts hopeful and inspiring flesh on Mr. Highway’s strong but bare-boned 7000 positive stories assertion and, in its loving portrait of his parents, his family, his friends, his classmates and teachers at his residential school, of meeting the challenges of the harsh but beautiful wilderness he grew up in, and generally, its portrait of everybody and everything that made him who he is today, Permanent Astonishment is a work of transcendental, universalist power that, like all great works of art, if only during the startling, “astonishing” moments when the reader is in the near-ecstatic grip of it, dissolves superficial boundaries that divide us as humans and that dangerously separate us from nature. It acknowledges failings and wrongs, (one priest fondled young boys in their dormitory beds), but, by way of the author’s example, urges that they should not be life-defining.

Permanent Astonishment is too capacious to be fairly described in a book review. It’s too overflowing with stories and anecdotes about diverse human characters humorously and generously portrayed, botanical, zoological, geographic and even astronomical details of the natural world, Indigenous food and recipe descriptions- too overflowing with the infinite complexity and variety of all human and natural-world life itself- to fairly encapsulate in a book review.

This book lifts you out of your dragged-down, “here and now”, getting and spending reality and takes you to a better intellectual, emotional and spiritual place. For me that better place is the world of universalist art and the transcendental, inspiring, humanity-as-an-interconnected-whole thoughts and feelings experienced when in the presence of it.

Mr. Tomson is joyfully gay- “two-spirited”- and he sensed it from very early in his life. He says that he only had one godparent, a woman, “one reason for the pronounced femininity of my persona.” He writes:

“I am a two-spirit. Like Charles Darwin’s animals, plants and even minerals and ancient Greece’s god/goddess Hermaphrodite-son/daughter of gods Hermes and Aphrodite-I was born a hybrid of both male and female…two spiritedness is a biological normality…”

He writes of his father’s total acceptance of this:

“When I think back to it, even the fact that I am a “girl” does not faze Dad. He sees me playing “girlie” games- putting on Mom’s apron for example, and pretending it’s a skirt- but to him, it makes no difference…Where too many men would beat the woman out of their effeminate boys to turn them into “men”, thus destroying the lives of those boys, the lives of their families, and most blindly, their own, the world’s most athletic , most masculine man, world-champion dogsled racer Joe Lapstan Highway, loves me even more.

This passage brought to my mind a beautiful and true passage from Vasily Grossman’s brilliant Life and Fate, the Russian War and Peace of the 20th century, a passage all the more poignant and compelling because it was written during Russia’s era of cruel and inhuman Stalinist State terror:

“Human groupings have one main purpose: to assert everyone’s right to be different, to be special, to think, feel, and live in his or her own way. People join together in order to win or defend this right. But this is where a terrible, fateful error is born: the belief that these groupings in the name of a race, a God, a party or a State are the very purpose of life and not simply a means to an end. No! The only true and lasting meaning of the struggle for life lies in the individual, in his modest peculiarities and in his right to these peculiarities.”

Joe Highway- fisherman, bushman, dogsled champion, devout Catholic, tireless laborer, faithful husband to Balazee, with no formal schooling and unable to read and write, father of twelve children, of which Tomson was the eleventh, gave this remarkable gift of unequivocal love and acceptance to this son of his, and allowed him to be the individual– the sometimes “modestly peculiar” individual- he was born to be: classical pianist, playwright, author, two-spirited, transcendentalist trickster funny man, and to me, a prime example of the undisputed fact that an Indigenous Canadian, without the burden of the Indian Act and reserves and all the life limitations they entail, can assimilate with and integrate into 21st century Canadian society while still celebrating, retaining and even strengthening his or her core Indigenous identity. Permanent Astonishment confirms that.

Transcending but not losing one’s personal cultural of origin- to live the reality that individual humans have feet, in addition to roots- is one of the underlying themes of Permanent Astonishment.

Joe and Balazee Highway were remarkable in this regard as well. They could see that cultural change, represented only in part by the bush plane, the transistor radio and the outboard motor, was unavoidably upon them. Joe Highway’s world “is on the cusp of leaping five generations in one…his people have to be ready.” To Joe and Balazee that means education. And, by the time Tomson and his beloved younger brother Rene are born, “Mom and Dad have seen so much death among their progeny that they are willing to give their lives to save their last two, in particular from dying.” (He describes as “brutal” the infant mortality rate at the time on remote reserves.)

Tomson and his siblings must be sent to residential school. And so unfolds an affecting, beautifully written scene of the author and two of his siblings, along with nine other kids from the reserve, their families at the dock to “bid their children a fond farewell”, on September 1, 1958, being handed by their fathers one by one to the pilot standing on the pontoon of his silver Norseman, who lifts them and their suitcases up into the plane, in which they are flown south, to, as Tomson imagines his father thinking, “accomplish marvels.” Ever faithful to his father, he does. Nine years later he graduates at the top of his class from the Guy Hill Residential School, a school which he describes as pulsating “with pride, a sense of accomplishment, a sense of self-worth.”

Humanity’s unhealthy and dangerous break from nature is a growing threat to our existence. Permanent Astonishment, with its chapters alternating between descriptions of the author increasingly being happily gripped by non-Indigenous “civilization” at his residential school, on the one hand, and his vivid descriptions of his soul-defining experiences in the wilderness during the summers of his youth, exemplify this dichotomy. In a beautiful passage reminiscent of a similar hallucinatory, infinity-revelatory passage in Moby Dick, the reader experiences the reality, always forgotten during the days of our getting and spending, that we are basically still living in and totally dependent upon the life-sustaining womb of nature, that we are an inextricable part of it, and that we must find our way back to a state of equilibrium with it.

Tomson, four of his siblings and his parents are crossing Reindeer Lake at night. The motor conks out. His Dad can’t fix it. His parents start paddling. Tomson is lying on the bottom of the boat, all covered up, looking at the stars:

“What catches my eye hangs high above me. There, ten trillion miles into that night sky shine ten trillion stars, the arc of the dome they hang from flawless in its roundness, the only sound a ripple-paddles dipping in Reindeer Lake, water swirling in response to their movement, then sliding back out, dipping, swirling, sliding back out…As by a magnet, the silver light that is the sky reaches down for me, grabs my heart, and, by such means, pulls me up to a sitting position. And there in the water all around the drifting canoe and stretching out into infinity is the exact same dome of ten trillion stars, a perfect reflection of the sky above.

But for that moment when I, in essence, am still half-sleeping, still half-dreaming, we are floating, my family and I, through the heart of this gigantic sphere made exclusively of the purest, most perfect of lights, Wynken, Blynken and Nod sailing off in a wooden shoe to some far country, as a song I learned in grade one last spring goes. And I know then, at age seven, that no matter what happens to me in life, I will float through the “orb” of that privileged life, float, that is, through the heart of the universe in a little magic boat illuminated by achaag-wak a trillion strong. (Achaag-wak has two meanings: “stars” and “spirits”.”

Lying in his dormitory at residential school he has another panoptic dream/vision- shards of his present life and of his life to come- of he and Rene flying high on the backs of eagles:

“…We look down at the earth with eyes semi-paralysed with permanent astonishment. There the thirty green islands of Seeseep Lake with their golden beaches, there the sandy eskers winding their way to Inuit country, there the Cochrane River long, blue and sinuous winding its way south to Brochet, the bays, the beaches, and the five thousand islands of Reindeer Lake, the bears, the moose, the skeins of geese, the schools of fish, the beaver dams,…the great herds of caribou, the Arctic, the North Pole, Norway, France, Italy, the Vatican, the African desert and the African jungle, the Indian Ocean, the elephants of India…Antarctica… the South Pole, the human heart, its complex network of veins and blood, its million molecules, its pulse, its rhythm, we see it all…”

Here the author channels the finest of universal human spiritualism. Through meditation his ego is diminished to the extent that he is only dimly aware of the boundaries between himself and the infinite, external world around him.  He feels the reality of race-free human commonality and unity. He feels the reality that he and nature are one and the same. He time travels. He feels the cosmic truths expressed in Oglala Sioux visionary and healer Black Elk’s mountaintop dream/vision of the unity of humanity and Earth:

“Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the centre grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.”

(From Black Elk Speaks, John G. Reinhardt, University of Nebraska Press, First printing 1932.)

Another strong manifestation of Mr. Highway’s pan-cultural spiritualism that permeates Permanent Astonishment are the virtues of gentleness, forgiveness, kindness and gratitude.

The brilliant trans-gender, two-spirited Welsh writer, Jan Morris, born James Morris, who experienced all manner of human dysfunction and intolerance in his/her long life, summed up the situation in one of her last books, Thinking Again, this way:

“Worst of all (the problems of the world) though, has been the way humanity has turned upon itself…We have no certainties anymore, no heroes to trust, no Way (in mystic capital letters) and no Destination. But perhaps you will forgive me, if I propagate an old thesis of my own once more. It is this: that the simplest and easiest of virtues, Kindness, can offer all of us not only a Way through the imbroglio, but a Destination too.”

This is Tomson Highway’s Way throughout Permanent Astonishment.

He thanks Sister St. Aramaa for giving him the gift of the piano. He thanks his 200 classmates “for all they have given me all these years- companionship, laughter, and yes, love, in all its richness. I love them to death. I love them to pieces.” He forgives his classmate Stanley Blackbird who punched him on the side of the head because he was a “sissy”. He compliments his staff and teachers, “kind” Mrs. Rasmussen, “kind” Mr. Bouchard, and thanks them all.

Several times during the reading of this rich book I was reminded of Margarite Yourcenar’s brilliant and transcendental Memoirs of Hadrian.

With the advance and ultimate dominance of European civilization in Canada the distant forefathers of today’s Indigenous Canadians lost their old way of life forever. Their generation, like Joe Highway’s, “leaped five generations in one.” The reserve system and the Indian Act, the establishment of which has to be seen in hindsight as a big mistake, set up a system designed to ensure the failure of Indigenous Canadians to adapt to the new reality that had tragically overwhelmed them. This state of general failure continues today.

Rebecca West, a brilliant author who, like Tomson Highway, did not allow her writings to be predetermined or markedly influenced by her gender, wrote in her classic 1941 book about the Balkans, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, about the negative psychological effects on the descendants of a once proud and independent people- now diminished but still basically intact- of nursing old grievances, which words unfortunately apply, with some modifications due to context, to Canadian Indigenous leaders today, who abjure the message and example of Tomson Highway, and generally, in all ways, stubbornly and tragically (for their peoples) resist joining the rest of Canada as equals:

“A proud people acquire a habit of resistance to foreign oppression, and by the time they have driven out their oppressors they have forgotten that agreement is a pleasure and that a society which has attained tranquillity will be able to pursue many delightful ends. There they continue to wrangle, finding abundant material in the odds and ends of injustices that are left over from the period of tyranny and need to be tied up in one way or another. Such politics are a leak in the community. Generous passion, pure art, abstract thought, run through it and are lost. There remain only the obstinate solids which cannot be dissolved by argument or love, the rubble of hate and prejudice and malice, which are of no price. The process is never absolute, since in all lands some people are born with the inherent sweetness which closes that leak, but it can exist to a degree that alarms by the threat of privation affecting all the most essential goods of life.”

Tomson Highway and Permanent Astonishment possess the inherent sweetness to stop the poisonous leak of the “obstinate solids” of useless bitterness, impossible demands and divisive accusations against their fellow Canadians that continually emanate from Canada’s Indigenous elites, and which are shamefully acquiesced in by our non-Indigenous elites.

Mr. Highway writes that he is dedicating his life to dismantling “that hateful, destructive two-gender structure that arrived on our continent in 1492”.  

But if the old social rigidities around sex and gender identification should be loosened, shouldn’t the old social, political, and legal rigidities around race be loosened as well? Shouldn’t “race” become equally irrelevant?

Tomson Highway and Permanent Astonishment show that race can and should be irrelevant.

The kind, tolerant, forgiving, forward-looking, and celebratory Permanent Astonishment shows not only the Way through this Indigenous-non-Indigenous imbroglio bedevilling Canada today, but it shows the united, race-free Destination.

Peter Best


January 5th, 2022

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