Guest Entry: Reflections from the Opening of Common Waters

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After you woke up this morning, did you make a coffee? Brush your teeth, have a shower, flush the toilet? I did. Here’s a selection of random thoughts I had while I did those things: we’re almost out of milk; are any of the Raptors actually Canadian?; oh, shoot, the MasterCard bill’s due tomorrow.

I admit that the following series of thoughts doesn’t regularly join the circus of my morning headspace: this water is clean; it’s precious; it connects us all; and it took no effort at all, aside from a flick of my wrist, to access it.

The Idea Exchange and the BRIDGE Centre for Architecture + Design are hosting an important community project this summer. It’s called Common Waters, and it’s an opportunity for us to learn, converse, and reflect on the literal and metaphoric roles of water in our lives. Artists, scientists and activists are among those who have worked together to put this project together, and regular folks like you and me are invited to observe and participate in this series of installations, activities and conversations about our relationship with water and the future we want to create.

I went to Design at Riverside (a lovely historic space in the former Riverside Silk Mill) last Friday evening to take in the first portion of the opening reception for Common Waters. In the gallery, the pieces by artist Cindy Stelmackowich resonated with me - found objects from the shorelines of Hawaii and British Columbia, like shards of plastic and discarded fishing debris, arranged together in a way that evokes both admiration and dismay.

The opening ceremony was facilitated by Christine Lefebvre, who enthusiastically shared many aspects of her Indigenous background, experiences and teachings to a group of about fifty community members. Arranged in a circle, we began by participating in a Smudging Ceremony. The four sacred medicines (tobacco, sage, sweetgrass and cedar) were lit in a bowl, and each participant took a turn to wave the smoke over their faces and bodies with their hands, while Christine fanned the smoke using eagle feathers. This is, from what I understand, a purification ritual; a release of negative energy, a call for gratitude, healing, and an open heart. 

It wasn’t a giant leap to connect the significance of this ritual with the significance of the cleansing properties of water. We need it to wash away our contaminants, to renew ourselves, to heal and nourish our bodies and those of all living things, to physically and mentally provide sustenance and clarity.

Christine engaged the group for nearly two hours. I wish I had taken notes, since I tend to have the memory of a goldfish at times, but based on what I observed, here are a few reflections I wanted to share:

Everything on this planet is connected. Nothing exists in a vacuum; life on this Earth is a continual system of checks and balances. When we alter or contaminate the natural flow of water and the elements, we pay for this in many ways. What is the cost? Our kids, and their descendants too, will feel the effects. And nature (Mother Earth, God, or the Universe – whatever speaks to you) is always trying to put it right.

There’s great influence in stories and traditions. Christine mentioned a shift we’ve experienced in our society: we send our elders to live in nursing homes, we leave our kids in daycares and schools, because we must work to sustain ourselves and our families. The knowledge bonds between these generations – who, until recently, tended to live, work, and sleep in the same space – is breaking down. How do we re-connect ourselves with the wisdom and teachings of our ancestors, who knew and respected the Earth in a way we seem to be forgetting?

The wheel is an incredibly powerful symbol. I’ve recently been reflecting on its implications (maybe middle age has made me a deeper thinker, morning thoughts aside) as it relates to this life: a revolving cycle of positive and negative energy, growth and decay, drought and abundance, learning and teaching. The four quarters of a First Nations’ medicine wheel reinforce that the whole is made up of interconnected parts, such as the four seasons, the four sacred medicines, the four directions, four aspects of our health (body, mind, spirit, emotion), four elements (earth, air, fire, water), and so on. Basic elementary school science teaches us the water cycle: precipitation, collection, evaporation, condensation. The wheel keeps on turning. Let’s make sure the water keeps on flowing.

Scheduling didn’t permit me to attend the second half of Common Waters’ opening reception at the BRIDGE Centre for Architecture + Design, but I know there was no shortage of creativity and positive energy that evening as conversations about our shared roles and responsibilities began. I’m looking forward to the rest of the events planned for the summer ( for the schedule). 

Tomorrow morning (and in the mornings to come), after I’ve cleansed myself in preparation for the day and I’m enjoying my coffee made with fresh water, I’ll remember to take a moment to express my gratitude. I’ll consider how to act now to preserve this gift for all of us later.

And then, I hope I’ll remember to pay the MasterCard bill.

Vanessa is a Cambridge-based photographer and long-time community volunteer, and will be helping Cambridge Art Galleries document Common Waters

Vanessa PejovicComment