A cold autumn morning in my first year of high school, a girl named “Ang” taught me how to smoke. Ang was fourteen, and I thought she had it all; she was pretty, swore like a trucker straight to her parents face, and all the boys liked her. One morning before school she offered me a cigarette.
Now, I’d never smoked a cigarette in my life before this, I didn’t know what to do! I was twelve and all of my smoking references involved Popeye and a can of spinach. Nevertheless, I “lit up” and started puffing away.
Ang laughed out loud, pointed at me and shouted, “You’re not even smoking!” This caught the attention of a bunch of the older students, who gathered around and started watching us.
“Here: first inhale the smoke and then you exhale like this…” she demonstrated. Ang held the cigarette between her two perfectly manicured nails, brought her pouty pink lips together like she was kissing the air and blew the smoke out in a perfect stream. I just stood there disgusted and blinking while all the boys just stared at her; dumbfounded, smiling and speechless with their mouths gaping open.
Totally naive and wanting some attention too, I imitated her. Two seconds later my eyes welled up with tears and I proceeded to hack up a lung, choking for breath right there on Brant Ave. Ang and a bunch of the older students laughed out loud, shook their heads at me and walked away.
I tossed the cigarette into the street totally humiliated. I felt like Molly Shannon’s ‘Mary Catherine Gallagher’ from “Superstar”. In a passionate “made for teenage TV” moment, I looked at Ang happily walking down the street followed by a pack of boys, and vowed someday I would get her back.
So I picked up a smoking habit which eventually morphed into a full fledged addiction that followed me through college, university and into motherhood. I worked my way up from a cigarette at school during lunch hour, to half a pack per day for 12 years.
At some point in this story, the provincial government launched a ‘truth campaign’ and started labelling cigarettes with warnings and graphic images. I didn’t realize it then, but every time I smoked a cigarette, I allowed an uneducated decision I made at twelve continue to impact my daily life through to adulthood. If it wasn’t for the ‘truth campaign’ labels on cigarette packages I might not have realized smoking can be deadly. The point is, after I recognized smoking was wrong and that I was offending my own body, I was able to decide to quit for good. I am now eight years as a non-smoker and counting.
It is the time of year for new beginnings. For some that means making a New Years resolution, and for many in the Haudenosaunee community it means Stirring Ashes during Midwinter ceremonies. Both beginnings require the foundational work of a repentant spirit.
Repentance is a funny thing. We have this unfortunate image of a person walking into a weird wooden booth and confessing through a weird screen to a weird priest. But it is so much more than a religious rite. True repentance requires first, an awareness of what is right and wrong. Next it requires an inner conviction, that pulling on your conscience that you did something wrong. Finally, true repentance requires a commitment inside of each one’s spirit to stop doing the wrong thing, turn around and begin doing the right thing from that point forward. That is when you get to the part of new beginnings. Only then can a person, or a nation for that matter, work toward reconciliation.
Because true repentance takes place in the spirit of an individual, there isn’t a one-size fits all corporate answer. Had I not been informed smoking cigarettes was so unhealthy, I might still be smoking to this day. However, there are many people who are offended by those same images on the cover of their smokes. Sadly, some people are more happy turning a blind eye to things that make them uncomfortable.
For those of us who are willing to look, walking out repentance is a matter that brings everlasting spiritual change one day at a time. It is a deep conversion of thought and principle. Perhaps we Ongwehowe are in a parallel situation in our relationship with the citizens of Canada. Here’s some food for thought: why isn’t it called the Truth, Repentance and Reconciliation Commission? I have an inkling that if we speak truth unabridged to the citizens of Canada about our shared history, we just might bring about the corporate repentance needed to make reconciliation between Canada and indigenous people everywhere a reality.
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