By: Madonna Hamel
Yesterday I convinced Betty to sit and have a coffee at the Eco-museum/bookstore/gallery/café where I work during tourist season. Some people call Betty our unofficial mayor. She’s a whiz at filling out grant applications/organizing cleaning bees/delegating duties. I’d just finished describing to her my idea for our newly refurbished community hall/movie theatre: a trompe l’oeil theatre window painted on the front door of a movie house with an old western showing on the screen. She slowly raised herself from the table, fixing to leave, headed for her next stop.
“You’re not that old to take that long lifting yourself up, what’s up?” I remarked.
“It’s this weather! It makes me ache.”
At this point in our lives, and in rural economies and geographies where ‘over the hill’ is an expression meant both literally and figuratively, we begin and end our conversations with ‘the weather’. And somewhere in the middle we talk about our health. I’m struggling with my own health issues, which I assume are my old habits of nonstop motion, chasing after unrealized dreams and unresolved hurts and shattered bonds coming back to haunt me. To the point that I get the strange sensation I’m standing over an always-empty grave, like I’m grieving over a past I never actually had!
The Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Han talks about extinguishing delusions in order to give up cravings. Once we choose to not delude ourselves we will be able to live in the present moment, not wondering “what if” nor moaning “if only”, not resenting ourselves for not being the ideal man or woman, nor resenting others for not living up to all our expectations. “ Resentment”, my wiser friends in recovery, are constantly reminding me “is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
Maybe I am manifesting my resentments, my inability to truly forgive, in this new strange rash that is taking over my body. When I woke the other morning, a small voice (one that I am able to hear more often since moving to the stillness and silence of Val Marie) whispered to me upon waking: “you’ve got to learn to be comfortable in your own skin.” I laughed how the body manifests the psyche’s messages so literally, all over my legs and arms in big red blotches.
Poignantly enough, the talk between Betty and I turns to the old cemetery on the hill, across Highway 4, which we can see from the big window before us.
“We need to get out there and do some spring cleaning!” she notes.
“I’ll volunteer. I mean, I can rake and tidy and pick up garbage. I do that anyway when I go for walks along the highway. Pick up tossed out beer cans and bottles. Litterers prefer lite beers, by the way. Apparently, it’s the beer for drivers – lower alcohol content, I guess. That’s conscientious.”
“We usually can get a cleaning bee together, but we haven’t for a while.”
“Well, I can help. I like cemeteries. They are like the lobbies of the Other Side. You know, ‘get used to the idea of dying because we can’t avoid it.”
“People don’t seem to visit the graves of their families much anymore, have you noticed?”
“Oh well, I guess they’re mostly for us living folks anyway, I mean the dead don’t need the tombstone and a tidy piece of grass with flowers, they’re free! We do. We need a place to go to. When my mother died I asked the funeral director if it was possible to split her ashes among us. He gave us each a tiny silver urn, something you might use to store pills or hold a scented candle. On the bottom was a tag that read ‘Made in India’ and I replaced it with one that says ‘Made in Val Marie.’”
My siblings and I can now take mom with us where ever we go- to movies and concerts we have a hunch she’d enjoy, on road trips to places she never got to see. Once, at the Sarnia – Port Huron border crossing, I was sent into the building while a couple of humourless guards rifled through my car and opened the tiny urn, hoping, I suppose to find drugs stashed inside but coming up with bits of teeth instead. When I got back in my car flecks of grey ash lay on the passenger seat.
“Well, I better get on my way. The boys will be wanting lunch,” says Betty draining the last of her coffee. “By the way, I’ve been meaning to tell you, you might want to come with me next time I go to the hot springs for my bones. It’ll be good for that rash, there.”
“So I hear,” I reply, rising from my chair, self-consciously tugging my sleeves back over the hideous red scars and bumps. I constantly rolling up my sleeves out of habit, but I don’t wish to turn anyone off their food.
Initially, when my rash became visible and, out of exasperation, I started showing my arms and feet off, hoping someone had a name for it, knew exactly what it was. But of course, those that don’t have a diagnosis have a theory, or at least a friend or a cousin who had the very same thing! And some of them don’t carry a good prognosis.
Since the rash took off like wild fire the cures have been coming at me. And I’ve tried them all. From obvious remedies like calamine lotion, anti-itch medications, a combination of olive-oil mixed with Gold Bond, green mud, white mud, to Epsom salts in my bath.
At the Senior’s/Community Centre garage sale Joy shared her sure fire cure: “You cover yourself with olive oil and then you wrap yourself in saran wrap and sleep like that. It worked for my son’s warts.” It did prevent me from scratching myself but I worked up quite a sweat. My neighbour Gerald gave me a jar of honey-based hand cream made by a couple from Gravelbourg which is as soft as silk and is the best thing for chapped hands. And, yes, my hands never looked better, but my arms still look like a stormy sky. Laureen gave me tubes of Benadryl cream from her unofficial local pharmacy. My sister-in-law sent me a miracle ointment from Cortez Island. Another swears by vaseline. But my favourite is still the native elder staying at the convent who gave me a jar of bear grease. All of the above lessened the itch and made my skin baby soft. But I am headed back to the doc next week to see a specialist.
I’ve got nothing against specialists nor naturopaths. But I also have a great respect for the way our flagging spirits and aching souls can manifest our neglect of them through our bodies. I’ve been trying to pay more attention to their needs- which are, above all: silence and stillness. Those are what I came looking for when I came to Val Marie, the second time.
The first time I was just passing through, or so I thought, and didn’t realize the urgency of my growing physical and spiritual fatigue. I thought I was taking care of those realms with all my reading and writing. I mean, I certainly was intent on finding solutions in the writings great religious and spiritual traditions. But the real journey to healing is from the head to the heart. And the place where that happens most easily for me is here. When I came to stay awhile, the second time, I knew I had to walk into the wondrous Grasslands and sit on a rock for hours and let the world of nature speak to me, through its ancestors the glacial erratics, and its decedents, the season’s new crocuses, the dramatic nighthawk and the piercing cries of the coyote, and above all, through the silence which, as the monk Martin Laird writes, is not the opposite of sound, but the container of the whole thing.
When I get strung out or frantic-minded, when everything feels urgent and important ( when in fact, most important things aren’t urgent, but eternally, solidly, dependably always there) I know I have to get out onto the land and release my worries into the enormous space around me, big enough to swallow all worries and cares, gentle enough to remind me it’s just life happening, this too will pass.
In her book Dakota, Kathleen Norris describes the Great Plains as a ‘spiritual geography’. And while I love Wendell Berry’s belief about land, saying ‘ALL land is sacred land, it is we who desecrate it’; I think Norris has a point. Of all the places I’ve been so far, the plains seem to make it easier for me to see things clearly, deeply, farther than ever, eternal enough to be important.
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. For comments you can reach Madonna at madonna firstname.lastname@example.org