We had big plans for the Daniel’s week in Val Marie, most of them revolving around hiking into the hills, watching animals for hours on end. But weather did not oblige us. I should have known better than to make plans in this season of changing weather. Weather was even a character in one of my monologues, perched on the edge of my bed, it leaned in to inform me, upon awakening: “Here’s what I have planned for you today!”. The same thing happened exactly one year ago, when I drove my sister Celeste down for her 60th birthday: a snow storm made exploring inadvisable and downright miserable, so we were reduced to reading, napping, drinking tea and filling each other in on our lives.
One of the things that makes my nephew such a lovable guy is how amenable he is. Even when I woke early and crack the silence with the whir of my coffee bean grinder, his waking words were: “I love the simple sounds of domestic life!” But, sound is his metier after all. His musical compositions, whether on my out-of-tune guitar or the hotel’s ancient honky-tonk stand up, bob and weave like wild birds or stealthy cats, or whales diving deep, crying to their kind, underwater.
As a child he wanted to be a zoologist or veterinarian, his room was full of nature books and animal atlases. For a string of Christmases I shared with him, and his brother Eric, the latest antics in an ongoing bedtime story I improvised called “Last Train to Animalville”. I took all the characters from Dan’s science books. (Today the only character I can recall is Mike the Spider, because Eric, who was going to be Spiderman when he grew up, insisted that Mike be there to keep the train safe from attacks.) Today, the animals show up in Dan’s music. As does his unconditional love of the world. Even when it cuts and wounds its own kind.
The morning I cut the stillness with the grinder, Dan was laying on a foamy in my living room staring up at one of my shelves while recounting last night’s dream. Members of my family have a habit of pulling books from shelves and reading from the first page that falls open and using it as a technique to view whatever is happening inside ourselves at the time. It’s not meant to be a form of fortune-telling or prophesying as much as a delightful way to call ourselves to attention. It’s a form of juxtaposing worlds, having them brush up against each other, the way a collage is made with, say, an image of a pirate cut from an old encyclopedia next to a photo of a coyote from last week’s Western Producer. You sit with the two ‘realties’ until a story emerges. By showing us what we consciously choose to believe about our selves in any given situation, these creative visualizations can be even more powerful than subconscious thoughts, says Carl Jung.
Jung also created the term “synchronicity”. The author Carol Lee Flinders describes her own evolving understanding of the term when she calls it “the curious way in which ordinary, external reality can suddenly click into alignment with one’s inner, archetypal world.” Synchronicity as a force in the world will either frighten or thrill. Some might say this is evidence of angels or guardians in the room. I simply choose to see it as evidence that wherever I’m headed I’ll stick to my trajectory; I’m on the right track.
But of course, nothing happens if we’re not open, and willing to let the words speak before we clamp down on the freshness they might bring to our preformed assumptions and ideas. Because of his openness, and his willingness to be pleasantly surprised by life, Dan often is. We were talking about the meaning of “wisdom” when he pulled the book Original Blessing ( a play on the term ‘original sin’ ) from the shelf and began to read: “…the first name Jesus was given in the New Testament was Sophia, meaning wisdom, as well as the principle of eros and creativity.” Our eyes bugged open and we began to laugh.
Later that day, I went to work and Dan decided to take a cup of tea to the town square on main street and sit on the bench and watch our little world go by, which basically amounts to Patsy driving the hundred feet for coffee at the hotel, a stray cat making it’s way to dinner at Diana’s, and Caspar picking up his mail. Once, I sat for an hour in that same spot, and all that passed was a tumbleweed, at high noon, as if on cue. Eventually Page drove by and invited Dan over for coffee. Some time between Dan sitting and Page passing someone decided that Dan was suspicious. Was it the flower in his lapel? Was it his long dark hair? His earring? Was it his white felt boater hat? ( Yes, Madonna! joked Ervin later, it’s those dam silly hats you give him! Quit giving him those crazy hats!) I got the call from the police at work.
The officer knew my name and number and that Dan was visiting. The school, he said, was in lock-down until he could confirm the person in question was my nephew. He was apologetic, I was indignant. Someone was frightened. I searched for a reason for the knee-jerk reaction to “a stranger in town”. Is this about “ looking different” or “acting different”? Just because locals don’t actually sit on the town square bench should a stranger ( most always male) be reported for using it? Haven’t we had record numbers of “strangers”, visitors to the park, all summer? How many “normal”-looking citizens got reported? How many drunken locals or crews did we leave-be because they were just “having a little fun”, stumbling home or into their trucks after another night closing the hotel? Why does “other” have to mean “dangerous”?
But the truth is, we all know fear of “other”. I’ll cross a city street at night if a big, burly tattooed man is walking toward me. But I also won’t also assume a conventionally “good-looking” dude is safe. In fact, I’ve seen many celebrities get away with trespasses because of their good looks, status, fame and charisma. It’s worth asking ourselves what exactly is our criteria for fear. Don’t we have to be exhibiting strange behaviour to warrant a call to the cops?
Some will say, it’s just the price you pay for deciding to dress oddly. Others will say: what was so odd? He looks like my kid! The “kid” himself won’t know what you’re talking about, because he always dressed like this. Contrary to popular belief, artists, actual working artists, not poseurs, are less concerned about fitting-in than feeling drawn to the numinous, sentimental and inspirational (hence the “silly” hat from his Aunty and the earring, an old favourite of his mom’s, it’s matching one long lost in a move, and the suspenders once belonging to a grandfather ). Artists aren’t “trying” to be different; but they often feel “cursed” for being so. They are trying to stay true to themselves. Sometimes artists get nudged by loved ones; while out shopping my youngest sister, dressed in baggy pants and a paint-splattered top, my appearance elicited the now-immortalized statement from her: “When we get home we’re burning those pants!”
I went from being pissed off about the call to the police, to feeling hurt, to going cold. I took it personally. Whatever expansive warmth I felt for my village shrank back, again. I heard a voice inside me say: it’s not “your” village. It will never be your village. You will never “belong”. I began believing this voice, even though I knew it was an old voice just finding a new situation in which to assert itself. “When your world shrinks to the size of a postage stamp,” says the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, and someone criticizes your work or your appearance or your child, you get a familiar sensation. “You feel like this experience has been happening forever. You are ‘hooked’, ‘stuck’, you have ‘that sticky feeling.’ At the subtlest level, there’s a tightening, a tensing, a sense of closing down. Then a sense of withdrawing, not wanting to be where we are. That’s the hooked quality. That tight feeling has the power to hook us into self-denigration, blame, anger, jealousy and emotions which lead to words and actions that end up poisoning us.”
I think about the times my ex got pulled over for “driving while black”. Or myself, walking late at night in a place where I was blamed by an officer for, as I called it, “walking while female”. But I don’t want to live in this sticky, closed down feeling. I want to respond wisely to this situation, so I’m taking Chodron’s advice to breathe some space around it, loosen my grip. I’m recalling the synchronistic morning when wisdom got equated with “eros and creativity”. When we laughed and chased our fears from the room. And I recall Dan’s musical animals, crying to each other: we are all each others’ kind.
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