The Story Pool – Madonna Hamel
Many of us never get a chance to see our own territory in all its glory until visitors come. And even though I was initially that visitor, I was quickly and somewhat willingly snatched up by the café and the eco-museum and found myself working behind grills and cash machines. I don’t mind the work; it brings me in touch with my fellow villagers in ways not possible from my little desk with a lovely view. I like that I know that Cal takes cream in his coffee, and Maurice takes both, and Gerald takes nothing with his bison burger but a bun. The last time he was in for supper a Webb Pierce song came on and I cranked it up.
“It’s so sweet but it’s sooooo sad,” I mused.
“ There’s nothing wrong with sad songs,” says Gerald. “Especially in a big car driving nowhere.”
Just this morning Cal and I watched the wind lift a few objects five feet down the road. The power was out at his place and had been all morning.
“What can a person get done on a day like this?” I asked, pausing from clearing the tables after everyone else had left. We both watched the dust swirl up main street.
“Nothing but sit in a café and drink a cup of coffee,” answered Cal.
At the café, men without wives and kids have a place to be fed and smiled upon, and I take that responsibility seriously. It may not be a calling for many, but, with a little heart and energy, one can make it a noble function. Maybe I remember how lonely some of my old uncles were, although they never said as much. Many of them were priests and, and contrary to popular kneejerk opinion, were gentle, giving people, taking their calling seriously as spiritual caregivers to the poor, ill and forgotten. They liked to visit the families of their small parishes and brought their musical instruments with them. They always had an invitation for Christmas, but being unattached to any one family, they always went home alone.
On more than one occasion I have found myself alone on Christmas day because all my family lived in another province and I was willing to take the holiday shift to give someone else a chance to be with theirs. I have only myself to blame, my own semi-nomadic behaviour found me in that position. Using the geographical cure as a solution to a deep inner restlessness makes deep bonds impossible. Any intimate connection I foolishly made instantly and often it was a romantic projection rather than a profound growing knowledge of The Other. Growing alongside a friend or lover takes time. And commitment.
“You can’t have intimacy without commitment; people have it all backwards and do ‘intimacy’ first,” my mentor-friend told me the day I left British Columbia for Saskatchewan.”
That one revealing statement was a game-changer for me. More accurately, it was a game-stopper. It was time I quit playing games with myself, delaying the swan dive into reality, wholly, completely, with no provisos or escape clauses.
Today, the way I approach this earthly territory – with its spilled-open self, laid out far into eternity – is to continually recommit to it. Commit to it, whether walking the length of the empty Bear Paw Sea floor, constantly fixing my gaze on the next landmark, or re-staking the tomatoes, or returning to the rocks, ridges, buttes and coulees that hold promise, like a child cupping tightly a salamander, afraid it will jump out, beckoning you to come close a take a peak. Commit. Like a musician to an instrument, a painter to a brush, a writer to a pen. There’s love at first sight, but the real thick, rich, rounded, mounded, crunchy, cloudy, scary, sweet, funny, intimate love comes after commitment. Not before.
I have a friend who refers to Love as ‘God with skin.’ The skin of this prairie God is the soil and grass in all seasons, becoming dust, straw, goopy mud, beflowered alfalfa, nest, cave, burrow and ancient lichen-covered rock. The dividing line between human and land is not a finite spot, because we eat from the skin of God; we are baked by the same sun and refreshed by the same rain and we die and disintegrate back into it. So when the Natives patiently repeat to us the fact that “We Are the Land”, they are not being poetic. They mean it, literally.
My own experience of being the land – not ‘one with’ nor ‘of the’ land is the exact opposite of being worldly or having the world too much with me. I understood this in my marrow last summer when I joined the pilgrimage walk from Wood Mountain to Fort Walsh. The walk was organized by pilgrimage professor Matthew Anderson from Concordia in Montreal. Hugh Henry of Swift Current was our fearless leader, and together we hoofed the NWMP Trail for three weeks. I was not there for the whole trek, but I did make it for parts and the best part for me was our last day before entering the fort.
We were high on a ranch land ridge. We are getting closer to the Cypress Hills so there were a few more ridges before it came time to camp and some dark ominous clouds were building between us and our bedrolls. I was lagging behind, marvelling at a teepee ring. Slowly realizing that there were a dozen of them, I kneeled down and rested a hand on a rock and I felt a sudden rush of ‘knowing’ and then the words: We ARE the land. As I rose from the ground I saw my fellow pilgrims waving at me, I presumed, to hurry up. Lightning was forking down around us and we had to get low. The wind was picking up and their voices were lost in it. But they were not warning me. They were excitedly trying to get me to turn my head and see: a group of seven wild horses materialized behind me. Except for their manes flying in the wind, they were perfectly still. I fell back to my knees, weakened by the beauty of it.
That incident reminded me of a night on a bike in Memphis. I was going stir-crazy, dying to get out into the lush semi-tropical hot Spring southern night, but my friends said the neighbourhood I lived in was not safe for women alone at that time of day. What the hell; I’ll borrow Phil’s bike and ride at top speed, I decided. I need to go down the Mississippi and follow its banks. Things went fine until my return trip and a man stepped out in front of me. I stood up, pedalled faster, and flew by him, laughing. He was yelling and waving his arms, again with a message I couldn’t hear but assumed was menacing. It wasn’t until I was just past him that I caught his words:
“The Moon! Look at the Moon!”
And I looked back over my shoulder at the man, made giddy by Nature, waving both arms, bathed and assumed by a rising giant full moon.
Just recently I experienced the “We ARE the Land” revelation this way: I’ve been struggling with a ridiculously itchy and painful rash. I’ve tried every recommended remedy, paid for expensive allergy tests, creams and medications and am only just now recovering. I will have the strange rust brown scars for months yet, but the itching is gone and the diagnosis is not life threatening. It’s called lichen planus. I laughed outright when the dermatologist told me the second she laid eyes on it. Lichen. Perfect. At their peak nastiness the bumps have a strange lacy ring of white around them that looks a lot like lichen. Lichen on the rocks around here is stunning. It comes in all colours, red, orange, green, yellow and a deep rusty brown like the ‘lichen’ on my body. It grows at approximately a millimeter a year. The giant glacial erratics are covered in it. It takes time to cover those boulders with lacy lichen tablecloth.
And it takes time to remove the lace laid down by years of erratic behaviour frought with stress and risk. I love that my body talks to me in a metaphoric language based on Nature. And that Nature is the place I need to go to get healthy, healthier than I’ve ever been. I’m writing this on a Sunday evening. My friend Avril and I are heading out the door to the park to do some back-country camping. We have had a great visit and still have lots to catch up on. But we will probably spend most of the night and tomorrow in silence, enjoying each others’ presence without having to talk. Turns out, that’s the way we both like it: knowing a friend is near without having to talk and chase away the chance to heal from the beauty and silence of the territory.
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