Last week Betty dropped by to ask me if I’d removed the sunflowers from the garden yet. “Robert says he’ll come and till it on Friday, so you gotta get them out,” she winks. “And those beets and carrots, and whatever else is left. I don’t suppose there’s any potatoes.”
“Not a one,” I say, as I sink down on the front step and she pulls up the white folding camp chair for a visit.
“I”ll do my best. We’re leaving Friday morning for a wedding in Calgary and then we go to my sister’s in The Hat for supper and the day after that I’m at the Jasper Centre with my collages and my aprons. And then I’ll be glad to get home.”
We talked a bit more about the garden, the weather, our health. The important things. Then she rises to leave. “Well, I should get going, the boys will be wanting dinner”. She walks to her car, opens the door, then turns and says: “You said: “home”. “
“I know. It just came out. Naturally”.
And I go back in to my “home”, my “sanctuary”, my “library”, my “pile of bones”, “Santa’s workshop”, and start my own dinner, which here, means lunch. A lunch is what you have after midnight at the dance or the wedding.
At the wedding in Calgary we had poutine for lunch. I sat with Ervin and his parents and relatives, most of whom I have given up tracking backwards, like pulling a loose thread from an unravelling sweater, leading all the way back up some family tree. Monique and Tony I’d met at the funeral of his brother. (“Have you noticed how old people don’t cry at funerals. They are all cried out,” whispered Ervin once, at a funeral for a local rancher. It made me think of my dad: a stalwart friend and neighbour, always showing up at funerals. And at the bedsides of the sick and dying. Once he paid for a woman’s funeral, although he didn’t want any of us to know, mom proudly informed me. Dad took his Good Provider role seriously.) Monique paints abstracts and we scrolled through her latest creations on her cell phone and spoke of the feeling that happens when we pick up a pen or a brush and enter a world of creative endeavour when everything drops away, especially concerns of self, with all its expectations, delusions and neediness.
The Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Han talks about extinguishing delusions in order to give up cravings. Once we choose to not delude ourselves we will be able to live in the present moment, not worrying over “what if” nor moaning “if only”, not resenting ourselves for not being the ideal man or woman, nor resenting others for not living up to all our expectations. “ Resentment”, my wiser friends in recovery, are constantly reminding me “ is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” If I can approach a story or a piece of art with no, or few, expectations of how it should turn out, I can end up with something that is more a response to life than a reaction, less a prescription than a description. Making art, I have learned, is a good way to avoid doing something stupid and having to “make up” later. The real journey of healing (ie: of growing wise as well as old) is from the head to the heart. And the place where that happens most easily for me is here. At my desk looking outward…to the far horizon.
Driving back from Calgary, The Hat and finally, Maple Creek- the big cities – with my nephew Daniel in the back seat, I felt the land take over, and slowly relinquish me of the need to do all the talking. My nearest and dearest had, for three days, have been tolerating my pre-performance behaviours, absorbed as I am with my own words, with an acute imperative to make the performance worth people’s while. They have come out into the chilly wind, after all. Have climbed the creaky stairs of the venerable old museum, and are willing to sit in folding chairs for nearly an hour while this woman talks, nonstop. I have done this kind of work for thirty-three years now, so I know once I “get them in the door”, they’ll be fine. Because the stories I am telling are, as the mythologist Joseph Campbell once said: “old stories that are still good”, or as I like to say: “good stories that are still old”. And to those who thank me for them, I say: these are yours. This is your life, our life. This is our song. Let’s take them. And use them. And pass them along.
There is something about the prairie that keeps our egos in check. The same people who remind me to avoid falling into resentment, also suggest that staying humble is a good way to do that. How does one get humble? By “getting right-sized”, they reply. In this vast and open expanse, this empty bottom of an ancient sea, this wilderness, ‘right-sized’ is right small. Wallace Stegner once wrote that this country was no place for humble people. And I understand that, in many ways. We stick out when we walk down highway 4 or along an allowance road, a solitary figure walking nowhere, seemingly lost, moving in increments toward eternity. We are not humble the way Texans aren’t humble, because life looms large here, elicits bragging, even if it’s about the huge hits we’ve taken, the enormous losses due to wind and hail and snow and lightning.
Driving toward the Transcanada Ervin points out to a big patch of black grass that was probably lit afire, instantly, sudden as a cough, sudden as a spark from fallen bearing. Man meets Nature and Nature almost always wins. The Prairie works on a person this way: through a subtle but discombobulating shift in your gaze your eyes lift from the task at hand, from close-in and familiar, to whatever fire is rising from the ground. It could be the spark hitting the dry grass, or a recent lightning hit, or it could be the brash flame of sunset as the evening dies. You go from near romance of your own little life to the far horizon. There will always be necessary humiliations in Nature’s realm and under Nature’s rules. And thank heaven for it. But we must stay bold- because death comes early to the meek and fools. That’s what I think Stegner meant.
Silence falls. It is a constant companion, in these parts. It’s why I stayed, working as I have in the talking industry. In radio, after all, “dead air is death”. Many a time my producer has had to pull pantomine taffy with both hands, beseeching me to stretch my monologue at the mic, while he finds a tune, because our guest is late or a no show. Filling the silence is an “occupational hazard”, a “deformation professionale”, as they say in french, and not one I necessarily even enjoy. The monk Martin Laird writes: Silence is not the opposite of sound, but the container of it – and everything else, as well.
To reside in a comfortable silence with others is to be truly at home in the world. And the land out here, where the wild still rules, south of the Divide, is the best teacher of living silently.
When I get strung out or frantic-minded, when everything feels urgent and important (which, in fact, most important things aren’t) I know I have to take myself for a silent walk. In her book Dakota, Kathleen Norris describes the Great Plains as a ‘spiritual geography’. And while I love Wendell Berry’s belief about land, saying ‘ALL land is sacred land, it is we who desecrate it’; I think Norris has a point. Of all the places I’ve been so far, the plains seem to make it easier for me to see things clearly, deeply, farther than ever, eternal enough to be important.
Stegner also wrote: “ I may not know who I am, but I know where I am from. I can say to myself that a good part of my private and social character, the kinds of scenery and people and weather and humour I respond to, the prejudices I wear like dishonourable scars…., the way I adjudicate between personal desire and personal responsibility, have been in good part scored into me by that little womb-like village and by the lovely, lonely, exposed prairie of the homestead.”
I was not born here, and my character has been shaped by myriad landscapes and people: northern BC working class culture, Okanagan fruit-growing resort sun-lovers, west coast artists, hikers and ocean-gazers, Gothic blues poets of the American South, proud, bawdy, laughter-loving Quebeckers, and the smart, stylish, bookish urbanites of Toronto. But my parents come from here. And my father’s uncomplaining work ethic combined with my mother’s wistful folk songs full of plaintif notes inform me daily, and make it, if not always easy, natural to call this place home.
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. Madonna will be doing a presentation at the Jasper Cultural and Historical Centre in celebration of Women’s History Month from Oct. 1 – Nov. 5