That impulse to leave first tracks is what I wish for all of you.
This story began when the first-born among you was old enough to find her way to the beach at the break of dawn. And now all but the youngest of you — my magnificent eight grandchildren or “dear hearts” as I like to call you — join in the same summertime tradition. You creep into my room at the cottage on Baie-des-Chaleurs in northern New Brunswick and nudge me awake, rub sleep out of your eyes and say, “Come on, Nanny. It’s time. Come quickly, quickly, Nanny. It’s dawn.” And the ritual begins.
We tiptoe out of the bedroom, hushing those who speak out loud — magic requires quiet, you see — whispering our way to the sliding door that opens onto the beach. Then, as if you have wings on your sweet shoulders, you fly across the deck, down the steps and onto the shore. Running into the beams of early light, leaping across rocks and shells like gazelles, the wind blowing your hair and the frothy waves splashing your pyjamas, you race to leave your footprints in the sand and let the world know you are ready, awake, watching and learning.
Some of you aren’t old enough yet to have left first tracks in the sand — maybe this summer. But that impulse to leave first tracks is what I wish for all of you: the curiosity to seek the unmarked place. The fun of finding your way with friends. The excitement and anticipation of new starts. The daring to leave your mark. And the enduring joy of tradition.
As you grow, my dear hearts, I watch the tracks you make not only at home, at school and on journeys away from the familiar, but also on the ski hill and at the gym, in the swimming pool and at the drawing board. But it is your thrill at leaving first tracks on the beach that has taught me the most about what I want for you.
At your little ages, between three years and nine years, you need to mind the lessons of first tracks: the freedom to run and the wisdom to check behind to see what mark you made. First tracks are honest harbingers — remember that. Be cautious around those who would make false tracks. Avoid those who would take shortcuts or wipe away your marks. Seek those who see the creativity in putting down tracks — call them inventors or adventurers or dreamers; they are all first trackers. Spare a thought for the ones whose tracks were here before yours.
And don’t forget the magic — the opportunities that come to you every day just as surely as dawn brings a wide-open beach with only seagulls and sandpipers and, if you’re lucky, a great blue heron waiting for you to leave first tracks in the sand.
Sally Armstrong’s most recent book, Ascent of Women: A New Age Is Dawning for Every Mother’s Daughter, was published in 2014.
Illustration by Jeannie Phan
At this moment, we human beings are truly walking along the razor’s edge
For you, in the future,
What can I tell you about “the future,” dear imagined great-grandchildren? There is no “the future” as such: there are many possible futures, and I don’t know which future you will be alive in. Nobody knows: all we can do is make informed guesses. But we can safely say that, barring a comet striking the Earth, the conditions you’ll be facing in “the future” will result from the decisions your ancestors have made in the past — the past that is my own present tense.
Let’s hope you — and the human race — will be alive, in this “future” we must pretend to believe in. Let’s hope, therefore, that the decision-makers of the early 21st century made at least some of the right decisions. That they avoided acidifying and poisoning the oceans, thus allowing the marine algae to continue to manufacture the oxygen we need to breathe. And that they took steps to remove the plastic particles that are now so numerous in the water that they are affecting marine life, not to mention human fertility.
Let’s hope they deployed new sources of energy that did not result in a carbon-saturated atmosphere that drove our planet’s temperature past the point of no return.
Let’s hope they made it through the era of the droughts and floods of the early 21st century that decreased the world’s food supply and increased forced labour and sex trafficking, and mass migrations, as people competed for resources and took advantage of social chaos. Let’s hope also that decision-makers recognized the connection between environmental degradation and poverty. And that they acknowledged Indigenous peoples around the world as traditional keepers of the land, and assisted them in their ongoing efforts to protect vulnerable ecosystems.
Let’s hope that, worldwide, all peoples will have finally recognized women and girls as full human beings with great potential to contribute to economic development.
That’s a lot of hope. What are the chances of even one of these hopes being realized? Higher today than they were even 10 years ago, I’d say. But the challenges are also more severe. At this moment, we human beings are truly walking along the razor’s edge.
Suppose that all my hopes are realized, and that by the time you are reading this the human species will be within reach of a stable and prosperous future.
What then? No matter how different your technological and material culture is from that of 2017, you will still be pondering the questions human beings seem always to have pondered: What is my purpose? Why am I on the planet? What is a “good” life? What are my responsibilities to my fellow human beings?
Science can tell you what you are, in material terms. It can measure you, it can analyze your DNA and your biochemistry. But it can’t make ethical decisions for you. You must make those for yourself.
For my final hope, I hope you’ll be living at a time when such questions can still be meaningfully asked. That you’ll no longer be living in an era of fake news and “truthiness,” but in one in which facts and evidence are accepted. And I hope you’ll have among you enough brave and principled people to keep your society from succumbing either to totalitarian or mass mob rule. Perhaps you yourself will be one of these brave and principled people, in which case I wish you strength, luck and steadfast friends.
Dear imagined great-grandchildren of the future: soon you will no longer be thought experiments, but real people. Live well and prosper.
Margaret Atwood’s latest book, Angel Catbird Volume 2, was published in February.
Illustration by Jeannie Phan
I often remember my mother telling me in Low German, ‘Son, be thankful.’
Dear Sylvia and Anna and Camilo and Rocio,
Throughout 2017, we will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of our country, Canada. And when I think of our homeland, my first thought is of you, my beloved grandchildren. We are a three-generation family of 10 people, but less than a century ago our various ancestors lived as far from each other as it is possible to be on Earth. One of your fathers was a political refugee from civil war in Chile; one of you was born into orphan poverty in China; both your grandmother’s father and your great-grandparents (my parents) fled Russia because of violent revolution and religious persecution. None of us had any choice about who our parents were, or when or where we were born; but now here we are, together, a close and loving family making plans for a summer wedding when an English-German-Romanian branch will be added to our family tree. How is this possible?
I often remember my mother telling me in Low German, the Mennonite language we spoke, “Jung, sie dankboa” (Boy/son, be thankful). For I was her youngest of seven children, born on our homestead in northern Saskatchewan, and all I knew of their escape from Russia were the many stories they told: stories of how they departed their Orenburg Mennonite village in November 1929 for Moscow, 1,500 kilometres away, in a desperate attempt to leave Russia; stories of the 16,000 refugees already there, all clamouring to get out; of the 11,000 people — including my father’s two brothers and their large families — forced to return to their villages or to prison labour camps; stories of how, suddenly, without explanation on Dec. 1, 3,800 Mennonites — including my parents and their five children — were allowed to leave by train for Germany. And the story of how my family was among the even smaller group of 1,344 persons accepted by Canada. On the CPR ship Metagama, steaming for Saint John, N.B., my brothers Dan, then 9, and Abe, then 12, sang German hymns for the sailors. Eighty years later, Dan tells me, “They gave us thick slices of bread with lots of strawberry jam. Did we ever enjoy that.”
On March 4, 1930, they arrived in Didsbury, Alta., the home of my mother’s aunt who sponsored them. I inherited the yellow German documents — torn and taped, covered with official stamps — that declared them “stateless,” along with their identity pictures. My mother, only 34, looks worn beyond 60.
My parents could never explain why they were seven of the few who “got out over Moscow” or why they were accepted as refugees by the best of all countries, Canada.
Luck? They didn’t believe in it. They had faith in God, in the goodness of God’s mercy, in prayer, in the daily evidence of miracle. And because of that, they were thankful to God every day of their lives.
My sweet grandchildren: through no effort of our own, we are blessed to live in a great nation of peace and human dignity. The Aboriginal people, here long before us, taught that they are the children of a good Creator who loves and cares for them. These were the teachings of Jesus as well, and all my life I personally have tried to live that understanding and that faith. And I believe that, if you are truly thankful, you will discover for yourselves, in your own lives, the meaning of these profound teachings.
May the Creator bless and keep you.
Rudy Wiebe’s latest book, Where the Truth Lies: Selected Essays, was published in 2016.