I was standing on Highway 4, looking south. “This road leads to the Montana border,” I told myself, a year and a half ago. “I’ll just keep walking into the sunset.” Of course, in Val Marie mid-summer, the sun sets late. But that iconic western image of “riding off into the sunset” was stuck in my head. To head into the light, dying as it might be, meant a slow and steady relinquishment of the world’s hassles and pettiness. I didn’t have a horse or a truck, but I had my legs and walking as always lifted my spirits.
Keirkegaarde wrote: walk long enough and you walk off the soul sickness. I had just moved into an apartment, my first fixed address in six years. And I was desperately lonely. And I felt isolated, a misfit. I begin doubting my decision to move to this place. Maybe this was just another escape, a geographical cure.
The silence and stillness of the evening was broken only by the birds. Meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds, mourning doves and a great-horned owl. And my favourite, the mysterious ghostly whoosh of the wind through the tail-feathers of the nighthawk as they dove for food. But not even the song of the vesper sparrow could restore my soul to calm equanimity.
I knew the answer to my downheartedness was simple acceptance rather than resistance. I wake often, in Val Marie with a single word ringing in my brain. I am eager to get up and start the day, word in hand and mouth, and see what it tells me and where it takes me. That morning, in my slough of despond, I did not want to get out of bed. Instead, I yearned to return to an old dream wherein I was received an enchanting benediction.
In the dream I am with my youngest sister Michele. We are in Toronto and we are riding in a red rocket, the city’s snail’s pace street car. We are rolling steadily down a busy street reminiscent of Queen or Spadina, one with lots of street vendors with food and art and jewelry spilling over the edges of booths and wagons. It is a summer evening. There is a warm breeze and it is getting dark. The sidewalk is crammed with people talking, laughing, bartering, and gesticulating. Some are riding bikes, clinking their bells to warn the others and the odd animal, to get out of their path. It’s a noisy, hypnotic scene. The colours come from another place, somewhere I’ve never been, the hues are of saffron and curry and pomegranate. Fruit is piled in pyramids, spices overflow from barrels, fabrics layer on tables. It’s a feast for the senses from some other souk in some far warmer clime.
My sister and I are leaning into the window, elbows out, chins in hand, noses pressed to the glass, entranced by the raucous activity, the coming and going of creatures. Then, as the rocket squeals slowly to a stop at a street light, we see him: long and thin, with a long, thin beard to match. He is dressed in old and weathered rags. Everything about him is perfectly still, calm, and gentle, except his eyes. They are on fire. A blue flame, a slow burn at the centre of the irises. They pierce me with their fierce joy. We stare, my sister and I, at this old hermit from yet another place and time.
Then, just as the crawling rocket gives its little jolt backward, before gaining momentum to continue forward on its trajectory, the hermit lifts his hand, and slowly, holding his first two fingers together, slowly but surely, he blesses us.
I fall back on my seat, silent until the spell is broken. “Wow,” I say, “now there’s something you don’t see every day!”
To which my little sister replies: “Really? I see it all the time!”
After getting out of bed that morning, having failed to summon up that glorious feeling of the Hermit Blessing Dream, I wandered aimlessly doing chores, half-hearted in my commitment to any of them. It was evening by the time I realized that only a good long walk would shift my mood. I made it as far as the turn off to 70 Mile Butte before turning around and heading back into town. Just past the road sign on the village limits a truck pulled out onto the highway. Silhouetted against a setting sun and bulging golden clouds was the truck, a cowboy hat and a long lean arm held in a suspended wave, for a full couple of seconds.
And then, the sun broke through the cloud and the hand was back in the vehicle and the truck disappeared into the light. I do not know who he was, or why he cared to greet me like an old friend he’d just been discussing cattle prices with at the feed lot. I wasn’t alone anymore. And then I realized, I’d been blessed. I’d been given the rural benediction.
Weeks later, I was trolling the net for images of desert mothers and fathers, those early men and women who went to the desert to mediate and pray and get real. Scholars believe that Christ was one, that the missing years, between childhood and his heavily scrutinized last three years of his life, were spent in the desert, where he prepared himself for the various temptations of fame and fortune and all the wordly candy that comes with it.
It was then that I saw him, my hermit monk. I mean, it was him to a T, right down to the flaming blue eyes. A rush of energy, a wind ploughed through me, and I fall back in my chair. He is St. Sergius Radonezh, 14th century. He lived in the forests of Russia and by his own labour. Calm enough to gentle beasts, he fed starving grizzly bears his daily bread, then blessed them on their way. His kindness and calmness influenced his fellow monks to establish 40 different monasteries in intentionally remote and isolated places.
I recently read an article by an urbanite bemoaning the loss of the wave, recalling how in his hometown in rural America, everybody gave you a nod or tipped their hat. Well, I’m proud to report that we still do that up here – whether it’s the two fingered lift off the steering wheel, or the childlike full palmed wiper wave. The ‘rule’ is, if you’re headed to Swift Current, you stop waving after Cadillac. But everything below the town line is greetin’ country.
I embrace the Prairie custom and am consistently amazed how such a simple gesture can lift me out of my, often self-imposed, sense of isolation and habitual navel-gazing. I don’t tell too many people I feel blessed by their automatic acknowledgement. Just to be seen, to be very briefly present and accounted for – sometimes that all we want. I don’t need to offend anybody with the spiritual connotations I have made it my quest to discover embedded within our secular and daily habits and occupations. I simply bask in it. To me, it’s a kind and gentle bestowal in an often brusque and rude world.
I spent Christmas that year in Kelowna with my older sister and my father. After midnight mass I gave the parish priest, Fr. Pat, a copy of the image of St. Serge. It was the same image I found surfing the net months earlier – a painting by contemporary Russian painter Sergei Kirillov. Fr. Pat preaches mostly about “belonging” and “acceptance,” about not “spending our grace” on petty things. Before entering the priesthood he’d seen and caused his fair share of trouble. He once told the congregation that his parents warned him: Pat, you’re either going to end up a priest or in jail.
I told him the story behind the image of the old hermit, and how the benediction dream helped me realize that, back in Val Marie, every time a vehicle passes and I get that simple wave, I’m being blessed. I’m getting my rural benediction.
“Well, just don’t tell them that’s what you call it”, he warned, from the side of his mouth. “They just might stop doing it!”
I don’t care. Does a person even need to know that, when they are being nice or opening doors or tipping their hat or smiling at a stranger, they are blessing me?
Madonna Hamel is an artist and writer. She lives in Val Marie, Sask. She works at the Harvest Moon Café and the local eco-museum and as a freelance writer-broadcaster for CBC radio. On Aug. 3 she performed at the Val Marie Hotel from her collection of stories based on her PWSS exhibit, ‘My Mother’s Apron,’ including three new songs.