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In the realm of grief, says author Helen Knott, is “this magic that happens when you are completely stripped down to your most humble self and just surrender to Creator because you have lost so much, and you no longer know who you are and from that space you can become anything.”
Knott is of Dane Zaa, Cree, Métis, and mixed European descent. She currently lives in her home territories in northeastern British Columbia in Fort St. John.
Knott’s second memoir, Becoming a Matriarch, is rife with grief and awakening. It recounts her considerable loss as her mother and grandmother passed away within six months of each other.
When Knott recently spoke with Windspeaker.com she recalled an incident from her book tour on a stop in Ontario.
Her memoir had just been chosen as one of Indigo’s Best Books of the Year and she was at an Indigo’s store on Bloor Street in Toronto. A woman walking by, glanced at her phone, then the books in the store window, and then saw Knott. She had planned to stop in the store to buy a copy of Becoming a Matriarch as she was going to Knott’s reading at the Toronto Public Library that evening.
“She told me about what she had been going through and she cried, and we talked for a really long time. And it was just this beautiful moment of ‘Helen, you’re right where you’re supposed to be for these moments, these openings, and (these) human-to-human connections.’ I was so very grateful to be in that space,” said Knott.
She had similar encounters with other women, all speaking “this language of shared grief, and I was able to hold hands and talk with people. Some of them talked about the breaking down and becoming again.”
Emotions shouldn’t be polarized, says Knott, into good or bad because “they just are. And when we learn that, we can move through them and experience them gracefully.”
Grief, she says, for many Indigenous people is trauma that is compounded and connected to the land.
It’s something Knott examines in the connection she makes between the violence Indigenous women experience and the violence the land experiences. She poetically paints that connection between a woman’s body and the land when she writes of herself: “The span of my hips is a landscape unto itself, and it has seen its own wars and made its own offerings for peace.”
“I’ve done work in our territory looking at violence against Indigenous lands and how it’s been connected to violence against Indigenous women. I feel like the two are related,” she told Windspeaker.com. “Once we start upholding the relationship with land, that relationship with Indigenous women or with women will also start being upheld. I feel because those parallels are there that it just makes sense to write about it in that way.”
That connection between body and land is also how Knott writes about the loss of her mother Shirley, who she calls “my first country. Her skin was the first map that my fingers learned. She was a physical manifestation of medicine. She was sustenance and birdsong, and she was the mountains that protect and the waters that give of themselves…”
Writing Becoming a Matriarch provided Knott an opportunity to connect with her mother and Asu (grandmother) Junie Bigfoot.
“Every time I sat down to write, I would invite my mom and my grandma in spirit to write with me. There was a period towards the end of the book that I stopped doing it and I wrote that on my own, more like unconsciously, allowing myself to come to that final piece on my own,” she said.
By that point in her journey, says Knott, it was as if her matriarchs had stepped back allowing her to navigate the world as her own woman and come to her own decisions.
In writing this memoir, Knott says she discovered unexpected truths.
“I didn’t know I was in a co-dependent relationship with my family,” she said. That understanding created a “big shift” for her.
She also came to understand the “cycles of martyrdom,” something she chronicles in her memoir as she puts the needs of others first, eventually resulting in extreme “blow outs” later. Now she tries to lead a balanced life, taking care of herself first so she can do “whatever work is called on me in the world.”
While she is not always successful in striking that balance, admits Knott, it has allowed her to have more extended periods of time where she cares for herself and doesn’t “over give.”
She has also learned to have more compassion for her failures and view them from a “healing perspective” instead of regressive behaviour.
There were also truths Knott realized in writing about this part of her life that she chose not to include in the pages, unlike her 2019 work In My Own Moccasins: A Memoir of Resilience.
“I learned after writing the first memoir that there were some things I wanted to hold on to for myself,” she said.
As for filling the role of matriarch left behind with the passing of her mother and grandmother, and her mother’s eldest sister this past September, Knott says she’s making it her own and not simply sliding into old patterns of what was modeled for her when she was growing up.
“Once (my auntie) was gone, I was in a new state of, ‘Oh, now these are my responsibilities. I’m the person to ask for these things.’ So there was a new way of being in the world and I think I’m growing into these spaces still, and I don’t know exactly how until the moment approaches,” said Knott.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever fully be in a state of an actualized matriarch. I feel like we’re always in states of becoming.”
And as she becomes, Knott says, she won’t be on her own. She and her “smallest auntie” (so dubbed because she’s the shortest auntie) will continue their critical thinking in their new positions, getting their strength and their wellness through the land. For her auntie, it’s the forest. For Knott, it’s the water.
Surrendering to the Creator in her grief, she says, has allowed her to not hold on to herself so tightly.
“I can let go of things a little more easily or move at will and not be attached to this idea of who I am in the world. I think that is being able to move in the world with the magic of reinvention. And that was something that grace has taught me,” said Knott.
Becoming a Matriarch is published by Knopf Canada. It is available through https://www.amazon.ca/Becoming-Matriarch-Helen-Knott/dp/0385697775. It is also available as an audio book.
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