By: Madonna Hamel
Have you ever watched your mother or grandmother set the last bowl or casserole dish on the table and step back, and with a sigh and an unconscious wipe of hands on apron, consider the spread and the long day’s work that got her there? Have you ridden hills and valleys, herding creatures along, turning back to collect the strays, returning them to the herd, all the while moving them in the right direction, only to stop and pause the journey taken thus far? And how many parents or grandparents sit back and watch their children play, swearing they are growing up before their very eyes, recalling events that brought tears to their eyes, rapid heartbeat, a bosom swollen with pride?
I like to step back and look at poems and collages and marvel at where they began and how they ended up, with hearts and shapes all their own, needing only a pen or pencil to jolt them from the imagination all the way down from the brain to the hand. Once jolted they bolt, sometimes like lightning striking the highest point of the page, other times like unruly wild creatures bolting for open territory, but eventually, if you stay near – but not too near – and gently herd and nudge them into something comprehensible and universally understood, they clean up real good, they group up. They may you shiver, weep or swell with a kind of parental pride.
Just yesterday my old friend Avril and I drove from Medicine Hat via Maple Creek and Cypress Hills. Several times along the way we got out to stretch and surveyed the landscape, marveling at the changing cloud formations and the dark shadows they cast on the land beneath them, creating whole new views. At the same time we recapped our lives, telling stories on each other, remembering things differently or more colourfully, or not at all.
“What?! You don’t remember that time you handed me the envelop because you were too nervous to read the answer?”
“Oh wait a minute…was that when I applied for art school?”
“Yeah, then too, but I’m talking about when the divorce was final.”
“Oh right. But it always turned out to be good news so I got you to read the letters to me.”
The whole while we were talking it became evident how different our worlds had become – hers working brutal hours in the film industry, mine living on the edge of the Grasslands, writing and working summers in the local café, feeding ranchers and farmers with brutal hours of their own, making hay while the sun shines. She is building a cabin in Val Marie as a place to retreat from the noise and bustle of the east. However, things are moving slower than planned and so she decided to join me on my trip to meet my dad and his brother as they do their own trip down memory lane to visit their homestead in Fox Valley.
This little jaunt reminds me of my arrival in Val Marie and my urgent need to move into my apartment at Shady Lane Villa. A washer, dryer and stove sat on my living floor while the housing committee decided where to move them next. At one point I was advised to slow down to ‘prairie time’. I decided I’d abandon my schedule and go for a long drive and contemplate how to approach this new cultural habitat of mine with grace, warmth and humour. To that requires space, means ‘road trip’.
As a group of locals stood around the piece of ground where Avril’s new sewer was meant to be, giving advice suggesting the best method sharing their opinions, I see her stress mounting.
“I don’t think anything is going to happen until everyone has weighed in on the situation, including six year old Dominic up the street. Wanna come on a road trip?”
We stop in the Jasper Museum in Maple Creek, a place in which I could spend hours and have. The theme-based rooms are crammed with history, creating atmospheres you’d normally find in heavily funded provincial museums. I love the post office and the parlour but my favourite is a room full of Charles Russell drawings and paintings. Although they are not originals, it hardly matters. What is stunning is the deftness of his brush and pen and the seer number of them.
I also appreciate the many renditions of settler and native encounters. I am trying to explore abutments of all kinds with my work without defaulting to loaded phrases around culture that involve words like: clash, or collision, or war. I am not saying harsh and unfair collisions did not occur, I am digging for examples of exemplary behaviour: of friendships and exchanges wherein curiosity trumped hostility and wonder won over us all. I stand next to one of the volunteer curators and say so.
“Do all cultures necessarily have to collide?” I ask. “ Couldn’t we just rub up against each other? Co-exist? Even Collude? Doubtless we confuse, confiscate, conspire and contrast? But maybe, too we could convene? Connect? Even Commune? Seeing as we’re all here anyway?”
Not long ago I came across a business management and leadership manual written to help bosses work in a culturally diverse environment. His opening story bears repeating: “I was once in charge of an English language summer course in North Wales for adult students from three countries—Italy, Japan, and Finland. I had scheduled an excursion trip up a mountain on a particular Wednesday, but on the Tuesday evening it rained heavily. Around 10 o’clock that night, a dozen or so Finns approached me and suggested that we cancel the excursion, as it would be no fun climbing the muddy slopes of Snowdon in heavy rain. I, of course, agreed and announced the cancellation. Immediately I was surrounded by protesting Italians disputing the decision. Why cancel the trip—they had been looking forward to it, they had paid for it in their all-inclusive fee, a little rain would not hurt anyone and what was the matter with the Finns anyway—weren’t they supposed to be tough people? A little embarrassed, I consulted the Japanese contingent. They were very, very nice. If the Italians wanted to go, they would go, too. If, on the other hand, we cancelled the trip they would be quite happy to stay in and take more lessons. The Italians jeered at the Finns, the Finns mumbled and scowled, and eventually, in order not to lose face, agreed they would go. The excursion was declared on. It rained torrentially all night and also while I took a quick breakfast. The bus was scheduled to leave at half past eight, and at twenty-five past, taking my umbrella in the downpour, I ran to the vehicle. Inside were 18 scowling Finns, 12 smiling Japanese, and no Italians. We left on time and had a terrible day. The rain never let up, we lunched in cloud at the summit, and returned covered in mud at 5 o’clock, in time to see the Italians taking tea and chocolate biscuits. They had sensibly stayed in bed. When the Finns asked them why, they said because it was raining.”
The reason for telling the story was to point out the different styles of living and being in the world. We can hardly say one is better than the other any more than we can claim to have better taste than the other. He goes on to describe the different types: There’s “linear-actives” who plan, schedule, organize, pursue action chains, do one thing at a time. Germans and Swiss are in this group. Then there are “multi-actives”: lively, loquacious peoples who do many things at once, planning their priorities not according to a time schedule, but according to the relative thrill or importance that each appointment brings with it. Italians, Latin Americans and Arabs, he claims, are members of this group. And then there’s “reactives”—those cultures that prioritize courtesy and respect, listening quietly and calmly to their interlocutors and reacting carefully to the other side’s proposals. Chinese, Japanese and Finns are in this group.
His theories may not make any sense, but they help me remember how we all maneuver through life in our own learned ways. Getting back in the car to continue on our way I have to carry that fact with me as I enter the next few days journey into the prairie pasts of my father and uncle.
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.