Am I actually causing harm?

The early transitions into winter have been very difficult on me mentally and emotionally. I always follow my personal rhythms at this time, but this year, there are some really deep internal shifts taking place, and I feel they are immensely important for me to talk about in a public space.

I have learned that expressing vulnerability has done wonders for my self-confidence and even how I view myself. I am prone to dwelling and brooding and really overthinking, and I used to get really angry all the time; with myself, with others. My dearest friends know all about the rage blackouts that dominated my teens and early twenties. I really, truly, hated that about myself - that I could erupt and lose control.

I remember waking up one morning, grabbing my cello and coffee after a particularly rough night, and sitting down to play as winter cooed outside. I was in front of my bedroom mirror, and I caught a glimpse of myself, fucking up the grip of my frog on my bow. It was something so small, but I still had all the venom in my stomach from the night before. I whipped the bow across the room, broke a special trinket I had just brought pack from Paris - got even more upset - and then slammed my fists down onto an open drawer I had forgot to close on my dresser. The drawer came unhinged, crashed to the floor, and sent my socks and old bras all over the hardwood at my feet.

I was huffing and puffing. My heart was racing. And there I was back in front of my mirror. I was wearing high-rise black jeans and the extra-long zipper had broke a couple days before. I had mangled it as I sewed it back together, and I repeated in my head over and over that it was because I had a fucking gunt and I was such a disgusting cow that even my jeans were peeling off me.

I can't imagine ever uttering something like that to another person. Why was it OK to think to myself?

I was in my bra - the only one that fit after my breast reduction. A cheap little thing from Victoria Secret from a trip to Minneapolis after my surgery. All my expensive $300 bras that used to hold up my HHH cup were scattered at my feet, useless. But they were so expensive (I'm sure other heavy-chested women will feel my woes at how expensive good bras are), so I couldn't just toss them... I didn't even want to donate them because that seemed weird to me. But they were literally useless to me now.

More rage.

My - now seemingly little - DD's stared back at me, all their stretch marks still in tact behind dinky little Vicky Secret. And more mean thoughts started to flood me... You better be really good at something because you are nothing to look at. All people will ever see is a disgusting, scarred, mangled, cancer face. Why don't you go put on some more fake eyelashes to hide behind? That face screams cancer. You're pathetic. You're getting fat. No one wants you. Is that cancer's fault, too? And you're not even smart. What do you have to offer? Go read another book.

"Everything OK, Vaness?" my roommate asked while giving a gentle tap on my door.

I am very lucky to have had my friend Brenlee at this awful time in my life, because she is one of those rare people who are incredibly sunny, even when it's overcast. And she knew when not to poke the bear.

"Yeah, sorry. Just changing."
"Wanna grab breakfast at Fresh?"
"..."
"Vaness?"
"Yeah... OK. Um. Give me two."

Maybe a little bit of her sun caught me on the other side of the door that morning, because when I turned back to the mirror, I think a little piece of my authentic self took the reigns; a moment of clarity amongst all the blackness.

And I just felt sad. Not mad. Sad. It was the first time I really felt sad amidst all that anger. I had started to feel like a bad person - you know how you screw up but inside you think, "Well, at least I'm still a good person..." - I had lost that. I didn't even have that anymore. I felt like I had nothing.


Actually, you guys, "cancer face" was one of the worst things to happen to me, second to losing my dad to cancer when I was a tween, but it was also one of the best. I feel like I can pin a lot of my rage on cancer - having cancer, losing my dad to cancer, watching friends and family die from cancer, my sister's husband having cancer, Derek's mom dying from cancer, all the little kids I watched die from cancer... specifically, watching four-year-old Devon die from cancer after a long battle, and a nine-month-old die in her mom's arms during afternoon chemo.

But.

I continue to grow and honour those inquisitive parts of myself, questioning why, for me, cancer is such a prevalence in my life. Questioning why, for me, I am so dominated by passionate emotions that explode into rage blackouts. I let myself fall deep into science. I let myself fall deep into medicine.

And I let myself fall deep into spirituality.

As I continue down this road of growing and honouring and learning things about myself, dealing with the things that fire me up, the things that make me cringe, the things that hurt - it's now behoove of me to tell you that I have been contributing to cultural appropriation on this resource. There have been many mad months. And then... sad ones.

I have not been careful with my language - something, as a writer, I value and cherish so much - and it's important that I adjust my actions accordingly, and apologize. I'm sorry to have done this. 

I need to learn and keep growing, especially as my writing and awareness grows because with more eyes on your work, I feel more responsibility comes, too.

I'm at a place in my life where when I look in the mirror, I still battle with verbiage that is maybe a little hard on myself, but I'm also aware of when I'm wrong. And it is a terrible terrible feeling. People used to blast me for standing my guard forever, even well past defeat - never giving in, blinded by rage and never admitting to when I was wrong. And... I hate that previous and even current people in my life still view me that way, and that I branded myself like that. I have a lot of work to do in order to totally undo those personal trademarks.

Obviously, I'm someone who has a lot of "feelings" within, even if I can mask the surface, and my natural way to react is through anger. It's my default. I've been grooming and grooming myself, but it is an immense task. And I want to continue to work toward shaping myself into something my son and future children, husband and family can admire. I don't want "my things" to just be cancer and anger. Isn't there more to me than that?

So I want to tell you about where I've wronged, what I'm doing to rebalance what I've set off kilter through cultural appropriation and why I do feel passionately about it.


WHAT IS CULTURAL APPROPRIATION?

Cultural appropriation is when a dominant culture - white culture - begins to adopt ideas, clothing, rituals, etc, from a minority culture - without permission - and knowingly or unknowingly alters the original meaning behind something that is sacred to someone else, consequently, harming the minority culture in question. We should care about this. This is a really great, eloquent article that puts this idea in easy language, making it real and easy to understand. Please read it. Perhaps while reading it, we may each be surprised at something we're doing that is unintentionally hurting another, and we can all learn and grow by bringing more awareness to this subject.

I watched some really great stand up by Michael Che - on Netflix! - and he made a joke that was really important: Brooklyn, New York, used to be his worst nightmare. But white women came in with the mindset, "This is mine's now," and white-washed it into something they wanted. It was no longer scary. He expressed just how powerful white women actually were, whether they really understood it or not, because they could swoop in anywhere and take things over... even while dancing at a bar and wanting a guy's hat. White girls just walk over and take it. "This is mine's now!"

I have spiralled into that grief - oh God, why do I have to be white? - that is impossible to explain without making yourself seem like a total asshole. I've wanted to quit and hide and lock myself up in my tiny place in the woods and just live my life.

But I am the problem. White women in "new age/spiritual" professions are a large part of the problem.

Here are some of my words last month about the subject.


SMUDGE

I have been pouring through hundreds of these posts, eliminating the word smudge (a formal practice that belongs to Native American cultures) from the content. Though I have always known what smudging is and respect the sacredness behind it, I have used the word interchangeably with smoke cleansing and smoke bathing. Where I meant "cleansing through smoke," for example, as a way to remove impurities from crystals or a space, I would use the word smudge interchangeably. This is incorrect, and I do not want to promote that others incorrectly use this word as well. Smoke cleansing is a way to remove negativity and impurity from objects and spaces, and smudging ceremonies are often inviting spirit to be present for their rituals. These are very different things, and smudging does not belong to the white women who have immersed themselves in new age spirituality. We need to do our best to consciously stop saying smudging when we are actually smoke bathing. Cleansing energy by burning smoke or ingesting herbs is something that is found cross-culturally around the globe. Some cultures smoke herbs; some ingest herbs, some burn them; collectively, we all use plant material in some way for ritual. I think intuitively, we deeply understand this. Smudging is the name indigenous cultures give their specific ritual when they use their plant material. For me, when I think of it this way, it seems silly to adopt the ritual that belongs to another culture that I am not specifically a part of. It feels beautiful to observe it and appreciate it for what it is. It then inspires me to dissect my own culture and discover the rituals that belong to my people.

But I think a lot of white women, and perhaps others, find ourselves asking… “Well, what is my culture?”


WHITE SAGE, ROSEWOOD, PALO SANTO...

These are items that, largely because of my culture’s fascination and sometimes obsessive nature, are being over-harvested. The reason we should care about this is because over-harvesting can lead to extinction, and these are items that are absolutely sacred to specific cultures. They would never be in danger if we left them alone, because these other cultures don't mass harvest them the way we do. With everything. Our culture loves to learn… and then we fixate, become fascinated, and sometimes through this fascination we cause harm. Many times, we have good intentions, but our own excitement can sometimes be stronger than our perception of the Other. These items, specifically, aren't traditionally sacred to my culture in the same way - because we do not practice the authentic spiritual beliefs that come with them because we don't understand them. In our own individual and personal rituals, we may intuitively recognize the sacredness in these items. But we then try to blend them with our collective culture, sticking them in the place of something we are missing in our own spiritualness, and our own culture. I think because of our desire to feel whole and reconnect with our culture’s spirituality, we sometimes miss that we are actually just taking what is someone else’s, and calling it mine. We pluck bits and pieces from different cultures, and turn them into something else, unintentionally. But we are not complementing these other cultures by "borrowing" these items. To me, a complement would be to give, and not to take. I ask myself, what can I give the Other in order to let them know I appreciate them and they inspire me? Because to me, when we take, I gain something and someone else loses. So what could I give in order to spread love?

I used to sell herbs. I wanted to give something back. But I used the wrong language, and contributed to something my culture has struggled to realize. For me, it would feel better if I helped in some way - any way at all - and because I am a writer, to me it should be through writing; not as a guide or a dissertation on how my culture should do things. But a documentation of my personal experience. For me, it is OK to be wrong so long as I acknowledge the error and apologize. What is not OK, is to be wrong, and stay wrong. Or to buck against and fight the reality. I have been placed in a human experience with immense privilege, and I am able to be wrong and try again whereas many others do not get this luxury. To me, it would be disrespectful of me if I did not consider this luxury and take it seriously. I find myself saying, “No great mind or individual began in greatness. They made many mistakes to get there. In those mistakes lies the wisdom I need to consider.”

I will no longer be carrying white sage in our smoke cleansing blends, and no longer carrying palo santo wands.


LEAVING BUNDLES BEHIND

Ah. Our smoke bath sticks, incorrectly labeled as smudge sticks. I am wrong here. Rogue Wood will no longer carry white sage based smoke bath sticks, because I feel they "borrow" too strongly from the way Native American cultures gather their herbs to burn in their ceremony. It feels OK for me to use plant material for my personal rituals, but maybe it would feel better if I grew them myself and simply showed others how I use them, rather than trying to help others by selling them to others. I feel in my heart this is truer to what I practice with smoke bathing, and I feel it lends support to cease using the word smudge incorrectly, when a person means cleansing through smoke. I don’t actually know what I will do about this long term, but I think it’s OK that I don’t know.

100% of the proceeds from the remainder of our smoke bath sticks are being donated to Thunderbird House in Winnipeg, as a way to attempt rebalancing that I took something that was never for sale, thus, contributing to something unhealthy that needs more awareness: cultural appropriation.

I really want to underscore the practice of smoke cleansing with herbs as a way to neutralize the energy in a space, crystal or object while advocating the difference between smudging and why we should not use these words interchangeably. For me, I like to call cleansing smoke "smoke bathing" and this is what I mean when I say this pairing of words. Admittedly, at this time, I’m not sure if this is correct. I feel reluctance around being certain with what is right and wrong. But there are many purifying herbs out there to choose from. After all, all sage is purifying, not specifically white sage. So get some bad ass pineapple sage if you want. Maybe you could grow it? Maybe that would feel even more special to us - reestablishing the connection to the land we are experiencing through gardening.

The characteristics and traits I apply to plants comes from Celtic, Pagan, even Wiccan rituals. Do these things belong to my culture? The honest answer is, at this time I’m not sure. I do know, that many other people in my culture scoff at these influences. Many of us have felt wounded by religious structures. I know I feel that some religious ideas from my French Catholic upbringing taught me that these things were bad. I found myself feeling bad about who I am and who I come from (even if I didn’t understand it), and I started wondering if that was why I looked to other cultures to inspire me. Did my culture teach me to feel shame about who I am and the culture I belong to? Did that in some way, deeply, push me away, looking for solace in another culture? I don’t know.


FENG SHUI

Being placed in Canada, I find there is a growing awareness about cultural appropriation toward the indigenous communities and practices here. Since my husband and son are Indigenous, I, too, feel passionate about keeping the sacredness of these cultures alive - even if currently, I'm unsure how to NOT "white-wash" my son, simply based on the fact that I am white. I've been speaking with many indigenous people who have been white-washed - some of them growing up in homes that are racist toward their biological background, and I'm growing more and more aware of the magnitude of harm we have caused.

I remember at age 14, my very first boyfriend, an indigenous man, telling me about how his dad refused to participate in any indigenous traditions because he had been so badly beaten for it by others. But how his grandmother still took him and his siblings to powwows, even if his dad wouldn’t go.

In my 14-year-old mind, I never actually considered that my boyfriend and I were different. And you know, I’m not sure he considered we were different either. I would love to talk to him about it now.

While it's great that we are growing in awareness around this particular culture, this awareness should still apply to other cultures. Many practices from Chinese culture are celebrated - but misrepresented - by my culture and it is the exact same thing happening to Native American communities. How many people use the word feng shui loosely? I have on this website. I ching. Tao te ching. I have shared lessons from Lillian Too, but have not always stated that is where they came from. And this is important. Credit should always be given back to an authentic person from the specific culture the wisdom comes from. Not me, another white woman.

If we're inspired and want moccasins - wouldn’t it be great to buy them from an indigenous woman - not a store in the mall?

I find fashion and music particularly hard to navigate. If we want a kimono, maybe we shouldn’t buy from the white woman selling them on Etsy... even if she is a small business and we want to support her. I'm a small business! I get it! Fashion, specifically, can be inspired by other cultures, and I realize some may have a hard time distinguishing a healthy way not to appropriate other cultures in this area. But a white woman on Etsy (this is no one specific, I'm just giving an example), what if we took inspiration from the kimono, and called it… a duster? A chic robe, or slouchy shawl. Cape. Over-sized cardi. I’m not sure.

Because is there a specific way to make a traditional kimono? I don’t know.
Is there a specific time a traditional kimono is worn? I don’t know.
Is there a specific fabric the kimono is made with? I don’t know.

But I bet you people in that culture know.

Why is it so bad to not know?

I have a feng shui category on this website, and even though I don't feel this has received as much awareness as smudging has, in my heart I do believe it is equally important. In 2017, our feng shui category will dissolve and will simply turn into a "healthy home" zone for you guys, because that is what we are actually saying and we want to correct the mistake of contributing to cultural appropriation. Since this area of the website is such a beast and requires so much deleting and altering, I have disabled much of the content here. I ask that you're patient with me as I continue to navigate through it. This is a large website.


BIRCH

In 2017, I hope you'll keep your eyes open for my words on birch. My home, Pleasant House on the Prairie, is tucked in the heart of a birch forest. I don't think this was an accident. I have such a special relationship with my home's spirit and our land here, and as soon as I turn down our gravel road and the surrounding papery white bark begins to come into view, I can feel my tense shoulders soften. Here is some great wisdom on birch (that also feels poetic to satiate my inner poet), and this offers some of the cultural aspects of trees from old myths and traditions. After being gifted a song from a pink flower during one of my spiritual lessons on plants, (I shared this - bizarre! - experience on IG) I started tapping into that current with the plants at my home more regularly.


It's been a big job - it continues to be. And while it would be easier to dissolve, I don't think that's part of my nature. Of course there are "business logistics" and all these other complications that are gross like business cards! packaging! supplies! biographies! pinterest links!, but at the end of the day, I want to do something that I believe in. Even if that means I need to do all the "gross" work, too.

There is still much to tend to on this website, but I plan to tackle the lot of it over this internal time of year. Mercury is going retrograde, so I'm certain there will be a lot of revisiting, but we will get there. I want to keep growing. Keep writing. Keep learning. And I want to help build a better place for the future.

And if I screw up - when I screw up (I'm not perfect) because I will - I want to be strong enough to admit it.

I screwed up.



Vanessa Kunderman is a writer and poet, mother, smoke bath addict and cancer survivor. She created Rogue Wood Supply after reconnecting and rediscovering her spirit self; a surprising side effect of surviving her cancer diagnosis at sixteen years old. She plays six instruments, loves a smooth honey bourbon, and starts each day with a warm fire.