The Story Pool – by Madonna Hamel
My ‘service provider’ has unexpectedly stopped providing its services. And I have neither phone nor internet connection. Living in Val Marie makes such an abrupt disruption keenly felt; most of my professional work and family life is lived via text and internet. After a couple of days of scrambling, borrowing a friend’s computer, letting folks know what’s up, I find myself relaxing into the silence and stillness that I came here for, in the first place.
The truth is, no matter how far beyond the fringes of urban life we go, our various digital devices and cyber-connections keep us wired and hooked in. In this “age of access”, as Jeremy Rifkin describes the 21st century, we have undergone a “shift from geographies to cyberspace, from industrial to cultural capitalism, from ownership to access”. And while this may, at first glance, look like a highly beneficial and democratic shift for the greater number of people, it also shifts our sense of privacy out the window. For every bit of access we acquire, we are also giving others access to us.
When I moved to this remote village I assumed I would be beyond the grasp of the busy world of cities and lights and advertising and traffic and noise and blah blah blah. But my work involves using a computer to research and then send my writing to places far from here. Getting online and offline quickly is a choice I need to make daily, or I get sucked into the great vortex of cyberspace before I know what’s happening to me.
The same tool that allows me to write a column from a remote place, also informs me of the latest bad behaviour of a celebrity, political candidate, or angry employee on a rampage. Whether I want to be stimulated or not, my cell phone connection connects not just with my family, friends and editor, but with online shopping sites tailored to the kind of books I like to read, places I dream of visiting, and, unfortunately, the antics of people I would prefer to never see or hear about again in this, or any other lifetime! I am reminded constantly of something Russell Banks said in an interview about America: The peddlar has entered our lives, our homes, even our children’s bedrooms.
It was right around the Ghomeshi trial that I got reeled in. Headlines popped up every time I went online. It was changing my mood. Making me skittish. Emotionally jangled. Truncated like these sentences. As erratic and disjointed as the ads themselves: flipping, switching, flashing, unbidden. Is it any wonder there are more diagnosed cases of ADD in our culture when we advertise in this manner?
I hadn’t realized how jangled my nerves were by the latest news of abuses of power by a celebrity until I visited my friend Page and immediately picked a fight. The poor man was peacefully clearing his garden of stones. I entered the yard ranting about how the law is rarely about justice and never about mercy.
He managed to keep his cool, hands immersed in the soil, he continued sorting stones.
I was ramped up, going full steam: “You know, this all just a ratings grab! Nobody cares about justi-“ when the sudden readjustment to priorites kicked in: “ hey, is that your garlic? Wow! It’s looking good? What kind is that anyway?”
That’s why I am here! For the garden, and the garlic and the latest, breaking news of spring. Across from me, as I sit and write, three new calves are gamboling in circles around their mom on the way to their morning feed. The sun is on the rise, highlighting the clouds above it with streaks of molten gold. After this, I’m going looking “for news of the little world”, as Dylan Thomas would say. I’ll get right-sized again, humbled by the ways that owls burrow and meadowlarks sing and beavers build homes on the water.
I’ll leave the Big Names to themselves and the pandering press. Any information derived from the world of infotainment will not be wisdom gained from experience, but reports of insane people doing the same things over and over and getting the same results in the form of headlines. Be it Gomeschi, Trump or that other Madonna, in each case, the sense of entitlement that comes with fame gets bolstered by the mad scrambling of the press to cover the story. And the excuses most given by my fellow journalists for cow towing to attention-seeking celebrities is: ratings are low and stories like these are what boost them.
In other words, we are the reason for the inane stories that get chosen as headliners. Apparently, we, the public like to be shocked by bad behaviour. We demand to be kept abreast of every breech of human decency, every flouting of common courtesy and respect.
I don’t know about you, but I always walk away from exposure to these un-newsworthy stories feeling like I need a good prairie wind to scour my skull clean of all the useless information dumped into it. When I get hooked into how we pit good guy against bad guy, as if we live in a spaghetti western, when in fact everybody involved could use a good dressing down from someone’s ‘mama’; I am thankful that I don’t work in a media environment anymore.
I loved my life with CBC’s radio 2 music department, until all the visionaries were ‘let go’. At the time I had a corner office a few doors down from Mr. Ghomeshi and the Q team of hip, young producers. I got exhausted just watching them! The shows for which I was the documentary producer were dedicated to orchestral music and opera. The stories I ‘dug up’ were about composers and musicians. They were literary journalism, reflective and non-reactionary. I was lucky.
I am starting to see my service provider’s sudden new policy as a blessing in disguise. (I won’t be using them for long, mind you. I still need to be able to talk to my family and bosses. But I don’t need the unwanted ‘news’ flashes.) I have returned to priority sequencing. Today, I will go for a walk in Grasslands National Park. I will sit on a stone and watch the bison feed, the hawks swirl overhead and the occasional coyote cross my path. The prairie dogs will be chit-chatting about the weather and critiquing my sweater choice, the meadowlarks will be singing their hearts out. It will probably be windy, which is a good thing. I will hopefully clear my head of the useless noise of the 24/7 news cycle, a noise I have come to believe is the soundtrack to the decline of the American Empire.
But I have my own steady decline to attend to. I can lift my spirits by returning to the silence of this place, so readily available. I can re-examine my priorities. I can choose my battles. I can remind myself of the ways folks lived in this geography before cyberspace took over. Before we let the peddlars into our homes and our brains.
In coming columns I will be sharing some of the stories I’ve come across in the many self-published memoirs of prairie people. What strikes me most when reading these stories is the nature of both their work and play. There is a scene in Jean A. Stav’s “Barefoot Boy From Val Marie” where he is helping his father prepare the field for sowing. His brother and he would take turns following the plough, removing stones. “Between turns,” he wrote, “I would lie in the cool new earth of the furrow and listen to the meadowlarks, gophers and the whisper of breeze in the grass.”
I am certain there are kids in this territory who still lie in furrows and listen. And I am certain there are adults who yearn to do the same. I know I need to keep my connection with the living land, if I don’t want to be driven mad by the cognitive disconnection that comes from ‘living’ in cyberspace.
Page managed to calm me down by suggesting I dig out stones with him in his garden. I apologized for my hyped-up energy and behaviour. He shrugged. I pulled up a pail, turned it over, sat down and started digging. After half an hour of sorting rocks, I could feel the tension leave my body. I decided to go back home and continue writing. Walking up the sidewalk I spotted the elegant spear-shaped leaves swirling upward out of the ground under my windows. I couldn’t text Page so I ran back to tell him in person:
“Hey Page! Guess what, my tulips are up!”
“Now that’s news!”
Madonna was a CBC writer-broadcaster for a couple decades and won awards for music documentaries. She lives in Val Marie, working on a book and continues singing and songwriting. She also welcomes comments regarding Prairie Expressions. For comments you can reach Madonna at firstname.lastname@example.org