Since I moved to Val Marie I’ve dedicated myself to the one thing that, paradoxically, causes the most joy and agony in my life: writing. Once immersed in writing, I lose track of time. Rising from my table after dedicating a healthy chunk of time to a composition wherein made a valiant effort at honesty, I feel serene, clean, even taller. It may be a dog’s breakfast on the page. It may feel tender and tentative, not quite what I meant, but lingering on the periphery is what must be said. If I keep coming back to the page, to the words at hand, they eventually settle down and form some semblance of a story. Like little critters needing attention, my words oblige by getting themselves into line. And, line by line, they reveal a story I could never have anticipated when I first sat down to gather them together.
The moment when a writer or artist suddenly comes to a profound revelation while deeply involved in the act of creation is often refereed to as an ‘epiphany’. The writer James Joyce named a series of ‘snapshots’ and vignettes based on his boyhood ‘epiphanies’. The word itself comes from the story of the three magi, the three kings as they are popularly known. Coming from different locations in the far east ( although purported, by Marco Polo, to be buried in Iran) each magus spent his life studying the stars. When they matched one particularly bright one with several prophecies of the day they decided to follow it and, so the story goes, they came across Baby Jesus and his family. Seeing the baby and the finally was a life-changing experience for all three of them. They felt they were in the presence of something divine, transcendent, and it linked them with divinity itself, it transformed them.
If it hadn’t been for Glen and Catherine deciding to celebrate Epiphany with a glass of wine and a piece of ham-potato pie on a slow Saturday at the cafe, I may have just missed it. I’d been sporadic about church; I’m going through another phase of self-righteousness and contempt for a so-called faith that is contemptuous and self-righteous Christians who believe we all need belong to their holy club if we are to be recognized by their very old white man God.
Still, I love Epiphany; I love a feast day that celebrates insight, paradigm shifts, the possibility of a sudden change of heart and mind. I’m banking on it. Even as a secular celebration, culminating in twelve drummers drumming, I imagine them playing strangely, yet personally familiar “measured” music, coming from someplace “far away”, not unlike the magi, on those different drums Thoreau writes about. I imagine them as Martin Luther King’s drum majors for love and justice, drumming up motivation and drumming away fear and loneliness. Whether my version of epiphany is based on a song or a bible story, it ends in a packed room, standing room only. And either pipers are piping and drummers are drumming or cattle are lowing and are singing. But everyone is there, witnessing the beginning of something radically new.
Whatever “folklore of the day you subscribe to”, said Fr. Joe behind the pulpit Sunday morning, “the point of this day is that transformation, transcendence, peace and true joy happens when you fix your sights not on the falling stars of power, fame, money, etcetera. It comes when you follow the fixed and brilliantly burning star of Love.” “Spend less money on things and more time with your family”, he said, taking a page out of Pope Francis’ New Year’s address to the world.
Another definition of epiphany is an aha insight that stirs and thrills the spirit. This might be what some call a moment of grace, it comes unexpected and even unbidden. The writer Annie Lamott says “grace bats last” so don’t quit too early. I think of that Indian adage: everything will be alright in the end so if it is not alright its not the end. To feel moved by an epiphany is not a full-on conversion to another way of living, but a momentary insight, when you thought you saw the thing fully and clearly. For know-it-alls-like me they are essential to keeping my assumed intellect in check. I have a mentor who reminds me not to practice contempt prior to investigation, (which I sometimes misquote as “condemnation prior to investigation which reveals even more about my arrogance”.) If I neglect or decline to investigate the only hope I have of escaping contempt is an epiphany.
My Epiphany epiphany for me came, in all places, at the Val Marie hotel. I stopped in one evening while on a walk on one of the particularly cold days before Christmas. I wanted to catch a childhood magical Christmas buzz from their no-holds-barred seasonal decorations. At a table was a group of guys and a couple of young women. One was with her boyfriend. While I waited for my tea I listened to them talking and laughing. The banter was full of the usual sexual innuendo. The kind where eyebrows are lifted up and down, elbows rib, snickers are followed by guffaws because somebody said a word that could be taken two ways. Being a fan of puns I can appreciate a play on words, but so often the language is not playful but a creepy normalization of an attitude toward women that makes my skin crawl.
I watched the young women give one of two classic responses: a look of mock horror followed by a “that’s soooo rude”, or a simple eye-rolling that says: “you’re so predictable” or “boring”. Of course, I didn’t say anything, because I wasn’t part of the conversation, but I don’t know if I would have anyway. I know many, maybe most, women don’t enjoy the humour; they “put up with it”. They don’t want to be a “downer”. Constant sexual innuendo is “normal” because we normalize the fact that we’re never going to feel completely comfortable, safe, entertained, or respected around a sense of humour and definition of “sexy” that makes the female body the butt (yeah, yeah, I know) of the joke or the buttress of a false masculine self. We expect to have someone turn an innocent remark into a knee-jerk joke, thereby dropping our trajectory of thought, and aborting any chance of a potentially interesting conversation. I headed back out on my walk.
Back in the 1990’s when I was working on a performance piece Lolita @ 40, a speculation on the later life of a fictional character; I asked a range of women this question: “Would would be the worst thing that would happen to you if you said ‘no’?” The answers were that they would be called a prude or sexually repressed, be exposed to a range of angry behaviours from yelling to physical harm, or be left alone, which, in the minds of some, meant they would be rendered virtually invisible. The information I gleaned revealed to me the anxiety women were feeling about their responses to an increasingly porn-informed world that in turn informed their own ways of talking with men and responding to their overtures. And I’m not talking about strangers or acquaintances; I’m talking about the men they loved and with whom they shared their lives. They didn’t want to lose their men. They didn’t want to be called anti-sex. The solution we came to in our conversations was to simply say: “Define sex.” “Whose sex are we talking about?” “Define your terms”. And while you’re at it: “Define Funny”. “And must it be at someone else’s expense?”
Leaving the hotel that night I was determined to not let my thoughts nor yank me out of my twinkly Christmassy feeling. But the bell had been rung, and I couldn’t unring it. I shifted my focus to the reality of the moment- a sky crowded with bright stars on a cold and clear night. The poet David Whyte talks about “the conversational nature of reality”, how reality exists where the story teller and the listener meet. They are essential to each others’ existence. Whyte helps me realize that my own words, whether obsessive chatter or hammering attempts at elucidation, can send others from the room as well, preventing them from having conversational epiphanies.
Sometimes humour is “harmless”, and yet certain remarks can hijack or halt a conversation, exclude others entirely. I don’t want to keep leaving the room. My love of puns, metaphors and euphemisms will continue; language is as much mine to play with as anyone else’s. I’m not interested in sanitizing language. But I am a fan of a spirited talk that is neither mean-spirited or spirit-less. So I’m considering the notion of “spiritual innuendo”. So, for example: every time someone asks if I have a “dirty” mind I will affirm my lifelong love of mud and soil, my fascination with dust storms, my god of dirt.
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.