By Madonna Hamel
It takes a while before the lessons sink in, and that may be because life’s most precious learning comes indirectly, obliquely and often despite great resistance. Or, so it is in my case. Although, if approaching 60 has taught me anything it’s that you can’t force the river. Patience, openness and willingness to see what treasures each moment renders up are all hard won attributes. “I don’t have time to be patient!” I once blurted when all I had was time! And openness felt threatening, like someone was going to force me to listen to their ideas and theories that made absolutely no sense and lacked integrity. And as for willingness, I thought I already was – aren’t I exhibiting willingness just by showing up?
Of course, none of the above actually exist until you throw honesty in the mix. And honesty with oneself might be the hardest lesson of all: no, I can’t actually accomplish all those tasks in one afternoon, even if I do have the best of intentions. And no, I didn’t “just eat an apple for lunch,” I snacked on this and that all afternoon. And no, I don’t always keep my loaded opinions to myself. Making statements with a question mark at the end such as: “Don’t you think it would be wiser if they waited until after May Long before they planted?” qualifies as an opinion. OK, it’s a tepid remark, but I’m not about to reveal my darker opinions about human behavior, at least not here. However, as long as I’m honest with myself that I am as capable and prone to gossip as the next person, I think I’ve made my point.
Going into a situation with one’s intentions clear is a noble aspiration. Leaving a challenging situation feeling enriched beyond one’s wildest plans and schemes is damn near a miracle! As was the case with my two weeks in Regina as artist in residence. While there I wondered if I could possibly perform to the best of the material: a stack of notes and bookmarked books and revised poems and constantly replaying new songs, running through my head, establishing a rhythm and flow to each. And all of it was telling me: “There’s more! This territory is replete with stories and songs as dramatic as the landscape and the weather, grab it all, don’t omit a smidgen!”
I did manage to get some of it down on paper and then out into the audience. There are some stories that just follow you around the room. And characters too, long after you have given them their moment on the stage, they remain with you, they ride along in your pocket – be it jeans or apron – like a seed or a feather you found on the ground. A unique one that survived the winter, or drifted down from some far off place. It stays in your pocket, forgotten by you, until you reach down into it for warmth or to stop fidgeting or to deposit some other must-keep. And then it sings at you:
“You are on foot, you raise your thumb/You are a wanderer; you stayed at home/There is a need for all these things/But in the end they’re only dreams/There is a hunger/There is a loss/Upon an ocean/We all get tossed/We all do somethings we say we must/But in the end, my friend/They’re all just Love and Dust.”
Well, that’s nice, you think. And don’t think anything more about it, because it comes out of nowhere, or so you think. It was never part of the plan, a song with no musicians, something that was built on the rhythm of my treading feet, is all. But it insists itself into the day’s pace, and eventually into your sleep and it dawns on you that it is the gift of age. I call these tangential bijou “seam gleanings”, because they can so easily get lost in the cracks, and yet, those cracks are actually seams – are the very stitches that end up holding the fabric of our lives together.
Love & Dust is now a theme song for life. What remains, what we were born from and end up being is a heap of Love & Dust. Well, the dust part, anyway. The love part takes a little more effort, takes realizing that life is all about relationships. But – and here’s the beautiful part about aging, for me – the effort to end up with a pocketful of Love is not huge nor is it annoying, because it floats on the very air we breathe and in the unchecked laughter and wonder of children and the children within us. If we are honest, open, willing and patient.
To be all of the above, I learned in Regina, means to be silent. It’s an odd lesson to leave a city with. Silence was the biggest bonanza of my moving to Val Marie. But giving silence a chance when a room full of people have paid to hear you ‘perform’ is a whole other exercise in trust. In this case, I trusted my host, the dancer Robin Poitras. Over tea she reminded me: you don’t have to reveal everything. By leaving spaces for simple, nuanced but considered gesture, buoyed up by silence, we trust others to their own stories – we give them a place to enter and have their own experiences. These weren’t her exact words, but they are what I left with that day, returning to the chapel-gallery and allowing myself to form a relationship with the territory.
Yesterday I was a wedding guest. Let me tell you, one way to move gracefully through Mother’s Day after your mom has left the planet is to attend a celebration of new beginnings (although we call funerals “a celebration of life” these days, I personally don’t feel like celebrating at them). A wedding – especially one where kids are running under your feet and, if you’re lucky, like I was, asking “Can I do your hair? I’ll give you 100 braids! No… Fifteen…I mean… Fifty-six… And I’ll put flowers in your braids and it’ll be so cool!” – gives Love predominance over dust. Unless of course the wind lifts and you’re near a freshly plowed field.
After the vows we went into a greenhouse for more pictures and wandered around with my six-year-old pal-hair-dresser looking at plants, lingering over our preferred blooms and leaves. Hers were the tiny succulents and my eye caught an exotic hanging begonia the shade of her antique peach-coloured dress. Her grandfather watched us “oohing” and “aahing” over the endless rows of flowers and plants and ended up buying us each our favourites. It seemed the day was replete with riches and so many of them were unexpected. Even my fortunate cookie at the Chinese Restaurant affirmed as much: many pleasant days lie ahead, it said.
I have a dear friend in her 70s I wish I could spend more time with, but she lives in another town in B.C. If I could I would tag along behind her, taking notes all day long as she drops pearls of wisdom like rose petals. One of the things she said to me before I moved here was: I think you’ll find that the degree to which you accept life on life’s terms – reality as it is in front of you – is the degree to which you will experience serenity. I remember her words when I try to force solutions or events to go my way, or when I adjudicate my life according to some vague criteria. That could mean how I expect a performance on a stage, a day off, a piece of art developing in front of me that wants to shed half its elements or a script that prefers to sit in silence or an aging body that simply cannot stay up that late, drink that much wine, cram that much work into a day or careen that wildly into the night, or a deadline.
And I’m learning that every time I surrender those expectations of how I think things should turn out, there is always some wondrous, more pertinent replacement in the wings, just waiting for a chance to come to life. Accepting that I’m on the down slope of life means removing a stack of options off the table, and a stack of books I’ll never get round to reading, off the shelf. Leaves more room for Love and less for dust-gathering.
I miss my mom, especially on Mother’s Day. But by “living with the reality of the moment”, I see I am surrounded by moms. Last night I sat with several, and one told me stories of the territory all the way home as we sat together in the back seat of the car, while the men in front talked about the usual things men talk about on a long drive home, under stars, after a special “do” in town. Arriving home at the end of the day with seventeen braids and a giant peach begonia, I was richer in ways I never could have planned.
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.