By Madonna Hamel
I was in Humpty’s the other night, enjoying one of my two-for-one steaks and absorbed in Jacob Fehr’s “Prairie Tails and Gopher Trails” when a couple came up to me and said: “We don’t mean to disturb you, but did you know that Mr. Fehr lives right here in Swift Current?”
“No, I didn’t! You mean he’s still around. He must be in his 90s!” What I wanted to ask was if Susie in the story titled: “Fond Memories Become More Special” was still around. Because Susie is my hero.
I read Susie’s story over and over, often to girlfriends whose childhoods never even remotely resembled that of my hero’s. I usually begin where Susie, after doing her baking and canning chores, is alone on a neighbour’s roof, tarring down the shingles. She’s just finishing up when a storm arrives on the horizon; she can see lightning hitting the ground not far in the distance. She finishes up and heads toward the ladder, but it’s not there, and all the men have left. She jokes, “I had never jumped off a roof before but down I went. It was then I decided starting a job at the top could have its complications!”
Well, they were all having “a good laugh” over the ladder incident when “the next thing you know mother asked me into the kitchen and I found out I was hired starting the next morning to flip eggs, fry bacon and bake Saskatoon pies” for a local rancher. After lunch “I was out there on horseback roping calves,” and then the next minute “I was back in the kitchen getting supper ready.”
Then Susie got the notion to do some gold panning, so, “come late fall” she decides to “look for treasure” while “checking her trap line.” Her trap line! The trap line is just a throw away, a casual aside. And her parents response to her announcement that she was heading out and would be back in a few days was responded to almost as casually. From mom: “Just remember, everything that glitters is not gold!” From dad: “Susie, you are one sharp cookie, but do be careful.”
The first day out, she writes, “I am walking along the CN right of way when I see a huge buck, his one horn all tangled up in the wire fence. Its hind legs were bloody and it looked like the poor animal was half starved. Nearby were its mate and two young ones hopping back and forth through or over the fence. Then I heard a noise and quickly looking around I see this wolf sneaking away. I reached for my two-thirty-two and Bang. That wolf would be a threat no more and I had done my hunting for the day… I drove to the ranch and borrowed a fence cutter and a lariat and I brought part of a hay bale on a sleigh. I caught the buck’s hind leg and tied the rope as tight as I could to a nearby tree. Now I went to work with the wire cutter. I never saw such a mess. This animal was snorting and fighting and I am twisting and turning trying to get those cutters in place, so I went to get a pail of water and you should have seen that animal drink. The pail stuck on its head and I went to work, snip snip and the buck was loose and took off. I loaded the wolf onto my sleigh and at a distance I could see those animals huddled saying, sure was a good thing Susie used those cutters and not that two-thirty-two. My pockets were still empty but somehow I felt I had found my gold treasure and a special feeling no one could take from me.”
Susie was 13.
I am enthralled by the character of a girl child in the ’30s with the kind of agency beyond that of girls I know today. Not to mention women. I am stunned, enamoured, in awe. And disturbed by what we seem to have lost since then: To be able to say: “be back in a few days” and have the self-confidence to mean it. To know you are able to fend for yourself. To feel so connected to the earth, which, in the culture of the First Nations, is an extension of your own self, your mother the planet, as well as your mother back home, who is awaiting you and who won’t sleep well until you get back. “But, oh well, what can you do. The girl has a mind of her own.”
The girl has a mind of her own. Not yet shaped by the hammer of pop culture, the lurid descriptions and prescriptions for what makes a female desirable and visible. Not seduced by her own seductive capacities. Not shamed into hate for her body or her big nose or her small breasts or her horsey laugh. I wish I could meet that girl today: I’d take notes, I’d follow her around, I’d ask her to be my mentor.
I am drawn to the story of this girl and girls like her for the same reasons I am drawn to the lives of the mystic men and women, the Essene ascetics, of whom it is believed Christ was one when he disappeared for decades in the desert: to get quiet, breathe the clean air, watch the sky change, sit and be and commune with their own spiritedness. With Godness before God got institutionalized and went from being “the verb that moves us” to “the stern judge overhead.
I am impressed that this girl, like the early mystics and the earlier indigenous vision questers, knew how to remove herself from the trappings of the world. But then, the world in 1934 Saskatchewan had no other ‘trappings’ to flaunt than ‘traplines’. In 2017, I am learning if you remove yourself from the fray long enough, you can actually discharge the power culture has over Spirit. If you stop drinking the water you eventually can clean your system out. If you slow down, eventually the spinning energy of addictive desire will dissipate. If you see the subtle dance of wind in grass, you may be able to waltz back in to the world again.
Whereas I once raged against the ways women have been getting pinched and squished into ill-fitting and limited ideas of “desirability”; now I just want to head back for the hills. I’ve gone from being bewildered to befuddled to sometimes even bored by what passes as alluring. I doubt I’ll ever be blasé though. And maybe that’s a good thing: it means I haven’t stopped caring. It means I haven’t forgotten my own susceptibilities to trying to fit in. Thanks to time spent away from media, advertising, “the scene” and aspects of internet, thanks to time spent in the natural world, the predominant models of what apparently makes the genders appealing hold less and less interest to me.
The Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron defines being genuine as simply: “not pretending to be something you’re not.” If I want authenticity, if I want to get to the heart of the matter, the soul of things, if I really want to be “true to mine own self” (and “not be false to any other man”) then I have to stop pretending. But then, I’d have to be conscious of any pretence to begin with. Tricky, when “pretending to be something we’re not” is pretty much the goal and lifeblood of consumerism and its shifting social trends that define the latest pretension: talking, dressing, working, relating, or not talking, dressing, working, relating a certain way.
Joseph Campbell says, authenticity comes from “following your bliss”. He came to the formula “follow your bliss” this way: “In Sanskrit, which is the great spiritual language of the world, there are three terms that represent the brink, the jumping-off place to the ocean of transcendence: sat-chit-ananda. The word Sat means being. Chit means consciousness. Ananda means bliss or rapture. I thought, “I don’t know whether my consciousness is proper consciousness or not; I don’t know whether what I know of my being is my proper being or not; but I do know where my rapture is. So let me hang on to rapture, and that will bring me both my consciousness and my being.”
Sometimes I just think of humans as mostly “a bunch of really nice people buying into a bunch of really big lies.” There is very little motivation in the material world to be “authentic”. Even “authenticity” is being sold as a product, authenticity for authenticity’s sake: “genuine leather seats”, “authentic Chinese cuisine”, “the real deal”. Sometimes, I think, to get authentic we have to close our eyes. Look inside. Authenticity is honesty and leads to sanity, peace of mind, and connection to the subtle, nuanced joys of living. Eventually. Meanwhile, stay alert. And check the trap lines.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.