BY MADONNA HAMEL
The 1960s are referred to in many ways: 1967 was “The summer of Love” that preceded 1968 as “The Year That Shook the World”. Some claim they were never so brave, committed nor community-oriented as they were in the 60s. Others say those were the days of true sexual liberation thanks to the pill, still other’s had mind-blowing revelations thanks to pot, ‘shrooms and LSD. It’s even been said that if you can remember the 60s, you really weren’t there!
I was born in 1958 so the sixties were formative- a decade decidedly profound and predisposing in terms of personal, political, spiritual, emotional, and, obviously, physical formation. Most prolific writers will tell you that by the time you are ten you have seen and heard and lived enough life to write a dozen novels.
In those early elementary school years I learned to ride a bike, read a book, write a poem. Like Malcolm Gladwell’s mom, who said to him: “You have a bike, a pen and a library card, what else do you need?”, my mother reminded us all how lucky we were to be born in world where we didn’t have to worry about getting shot going out the door, or going hungry that night. And we did start whining, she would tell us to go run around the block, get rid of some that excess energy in a creative and healthy way.
And so I did. I got on my mustang bike with the purple banana seat and rode toward “Dead Man’s Cliff” where I climbed into an abandoned tree-house ( at least, I never saw anyone in it) and wrote short rhymes in a little orange duo-tang about weeping willows and shadows with voices. Or I would ride over to “The Little Woods” behind the “Hansel & Gretel House” and sit under a pine tree and continue writing about hobos and wandering dogs and singing frogs. I never wrote for long; I could never stay still.
I recall childhood forays because last night, on my 60th, my sister Celeste and I attended a nonviolent communication group meditation in honour of King, Ghandi and the Dalai Lama. We sat in a giant pyramid that sits atop a vineyard in the Okanagan Mission where we grew up. Inside the pyramid, huddled in a torch-lit half-circle, a few dozen of us followed the soft spoken words of a local yogi as he took us on a guided tour of our childhoods, opening the pages of of our respective books of life to find buried treasure of the days when we were infinitely curious and much more open-hearted.
Initially I’d planned to go Memphis to witness the 50th anniversary addresses and commemorations of Martin Luther King’s assassination. I was there in 2008 for the fortieth , my 50th birthday, and the mood was hopeful: a black man was in the running for the presidency, the forty years in the wilderness after King left his people at the top of the mountain en route to the promise land, was ending. A Joshua could bring the people of the prophet home. Finally, they could get some rest and some justice.
But, as King said, quoting abolitionist Theordore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice”. And this year that curve seems headed farther away from earth. I continue to working on my acknowledgment of the arc of King’s influence on my life. When one hits sixty all kinds of influences, assistances, encouragements, challenges, affiliations and affairs come up to claim their due and and remind me who I have become. Which is why, in the end, I chose to take a road trip to my early days; I chose to be with family and thank them how they’ve help keep me true and check my motives.
I drove to The Hat for Easter with my sister and hubby. The prairie under fresh snow provides a blank page on which to begin a new story, paint a new picture of a life about to enter a new phase. On that spare and serene drive I listened to Thomas Keating speak about lectio divina, the practice of reading until a phrase or a word moves you. And how you put down your books and just be with the movement inside of you. The words that move you are also the words that remind you to develop the facilities within to help others less fortunate than yourself. I gave myself over to the words I spent the past year collecting to help me reflect on the process of finally coming of age.
One of the most profound reflections on the creative life came from Paul Auster, the writer. When I was young, he wrote, I wanted to make something beautiful, something that would affect the world greatly. Now, I realize, my job is to “engage all my materials to the best of my ability and keep doing it, every day.” It’s a tough slog, but it’s the one thing we all must do: just show up.
I may not be a best-selling author but, I never wanted to be one. From those early days in the tree house with the orange scribbler I just wanted to “get it all down” with commanding, original and rhyming language. Whenever I feel a niggle of guilt that my words have made me neither famous nor rolling in fortune, I remind myself how little I am motivated by both fame and fortune. Partly because I’ve seen the damage its done to others, partly because it has no lasting, sustaining power, and mostly because it has nothing to do with service.
Another wise reminder came from an old-timer. “ Between the ages of 20 and 40” he said, “we worry about what people think about us. Then, between 40 and 60, well, we just don’t give a dam what anybody thinks about us! Then, after 60, it dawns on us: nobody’s thinking about us! Everybody’s just thinking about themselves.” While I may not care what you think about my sense of style or about the fact that I cut my own hair and buy my clothes at the United Church basement sale, I do care hugely that you might think I’m selfish, arrogant, self-righteous or lazy, (mostly because I always think I could use work in those areas.) “But those defects of character are between you and your God.” the old-timer reminds me, “and you can’t afford to make me or any other knucklehead your God.
The third assurance came the dream of King walking toward me with the letters 26 LIONS in his cupped hands. That was a dream about being courageous with the alphabet, being lion-hearted with every word. It was a dream about the building blocks of a heart-felt exaltation, a convincing exhortation. It was a dream about the constituent parts of solemn vows, the bare bones of a treaty, of what needs fixing here and now. Whether bearing witness or writing a witness impact statement, sharing story or oral history, soothing a beast or tending the mystery; the dream said: Say it as if every letter matters. Because, it does.
If you are going to walk your talk, your talk better have some meat, because you’ve still got a long way to go. Each letter takes courage when telling the truth. Courage takes coeur, takes heart, can’t happen without it. Near the end of his life King received up to forty death threats a day. The only place he felt at ease was in a room without windows. The writer Maya Angelou was King’s friend. She admired his courage.“Of all the virtues courage is the greatest”, she said, “because without it we cannot can’t engage or sustain the other virtues with consistency.”
In 1967, before a college crowd in Michigan, King called for the creation of an International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment. He questioned where “the norm” was taking the world. He proclaimed: I’d rather be creatively maladjusted… because I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few”.
I realize that I prefer to be“creatively maladjusted”, as well. Just as King reminded us Love without power is sentimental and anemic, and Power without Love is reckless and destructive, so too I believe Courage without Love finds ways of justifying reckless destruction for the sake of the few. Courage without conviction is bravado. And Courage without conscience is stupidity.
Sitting beside my sister last night, going on a journey down memory lane with a few dozen other people in a pyramid was undeniably a ‘west-coast experience’, but I was happy to be there. I was not listening to the rousing, rhythmic sermon of a Baptist preacher warn us not to “die together as fools” but, I was being reminded of how fortunate I am to have family and friends whose lives of courage and commitment guide me at every turn in the road.