BY MADONNA HAMEL
How’s that book coming along? Finished that book of yers yet? When the hell did you start that thing? I know of three farmer-ranchers who have finished their biographies. We sell a handful of self-published personal stories in the store, two of which I dip into periodically. Farmers, it appears write memoirs after they farm; they farm their lives for stories. Over winter they recall other winters. So when one of them asks after my own literary endeavour, I know some of them are showing a genuine interest.
However, I’m also aware that sometimes I’m being teased, maybe even ridiculed. Some folks don’t expect to ever see a book, the arrogant vauntings of my early days, when I was all talk, come back to haunt me. They are saying: put your money where your mouth is, kid. It’s been pointed out to me that “People who get things done don’t talk about what they are going to do; they just do it.” And, anyway, “How hard can it be to write a book?”
How hard, indeed? As a newcomer I had to avoid platitudes about “humble” country folk, the sanity of rural living, the warm and fuzzies of a tiny community. But sometimes you can’t help it; you’re just so darn relieved to step out of the hepped up pace of city life. All the ‘colourful characters’ you ever preconceived and yearned for are just waiting for you, as benign as bunnies and kittens on children’s birthday cards. It never occurs to you that you’ve declawed the inhabitants of the village by rendering them charming or irascible.
It’s easy, as well, in the beginning, when a place is not yet ‘home’, to pass judgment on ‘dicey characters’ who f-bomb over beers about everything and nothing in particular. It’s not difficult, when sitting on the objective perch of the trained reporter, who just blew into town and is still in rambling mode, to describe exactly what one sees without attachment to the back-stories of the sodden and the sullen among us. It’s not hard to write a book from the vantage point of the subjective spy with notebook and pen, nursing a coffee, in the far booth, far from a common humanity. But why bother? It’s been done.
“Only connect!” Wrote EM Forster in Howard’s End, his last novel about two wealthy well-meaning British sisters whose country home, Howard’s End, exposed them to the world of labourers and farmers. They were afforded the opportunity to live up to their belief that class, gender, and race were harmful constructs that should be banished because they prevented people from having genuine relationships with each other and, ultimately, with themselves. “Only connect!”, demanded one of the sisters of her uptight male friend, who seemed as disconnected from his own body as he was from the world around him. “ Only connect the prose and the passion, and both with be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height….Live in fragments no longer.”
Journalistic rigour requires we get our facts right. Artistic rigour requires we tell the true story in a creative and engaging way. But spiritual rigour requires we acknowledge our part in the story, we pull the fragments together when interpreting the material. It requires humanity. It requires the kind of exaltation that comes from genuine connection. If I am to tell true stories I need to portray my community in its full dimensionality. And that’s not easy. Often, it’s not even preferable. Thankfully, as Martin Luther King wrote, “I don’t have to like everyone; I just have to love them”.
Now that I’ve lived in the village for nearly five years, a mere blink, I have come to realize that just because my mom was born here I may know nothing about rural ancestry, but I can connect in shared concerns over, this years failed carrots, last nights storm, the projected sewage crisis and the sweeping generalizations of tourists who refer to some of us as rednecks. And I leave it to the rednecks to self-identify.
A humane telling of a story involves a respect for paradox, an understanding of the cultural influences that inform our own blind sides and ‘dicey’ histories. The paradox of being a ‘blow-in’ , of never truly belonging, is a paradox I can live with; I’ve never really been considered a local because I’ve never stayed anywhere long enough.
The truth is: many self-proclaimed ‘outsiders’ complain about not belonging and yet they turn down every opportunity to contribute to the character and well-being of their community. They don’t want to be “lumped in” with the locals, any more than they wanted to be lumped in with Torontonians when they lived there. I’ve fallen into that behaviour all my life, but the truth is it’s a form of terminal uniqueness that assumes a form of specialness where-e’re they go. The saving grace of such a stance is that genuine connectedness is always readily available because we are all made of skin and bone, we all have passions, speak prose, get sick, get old, get afraid. We are all all-too-human.
“You must miss the humble, decent folk of your village when you are away,” said a city friend recently, sounding like one of Forster’s well-meaning sisters. I’m not sure where she got the impression that prairie villages corner the market on humility and decency, but undoubtedly she’s not spent much time in one. Like most, she bypasses the small communities of North America when traveling the TransCan. I imagine this has as much to do with subconsciously maintaining romanticized ideals of rural living as it has to do with time constraints and disinterest.
What I miss, whenever I’m gone for an extended period, is the pace of life back home. While most people leave cities to vacation in slower, quieter places, when we leave Val Marie the noise and busyness levels escalate. Three times, in ‘the city’ this time, I was rudely honked at while waiting for a street light to change. In one instance the guy lay on his horn for so long I’d wondered if he’d had a heart attack and I checked to make sure he wasn’t slumped on his steering wheel. In Val Marie there are no street lights. If for some reason the truck in front isn’t moving you just take another swig of coffee, then drive around or next to him to see what’s up, because more often than not, he’s talking to someone in the truck beside him.
But mostly, I miss the silence. Where the deeper connection happens. Yes, soon I’ll be roused early by a racket, but it won’t be traffic nor the thump-a-thump of an after hours party. It will be a rabble of birds proclaiming Spring. I’m looking forward to Summer evenings walking cemetery road or the River Walk and noticing that, as noisy as the world is, the dominant sounds are not man-made, but a host of insects, farm animals and birds. Yes, we will be crawling with tourists again; I’ll be back at the museum, recommending books from a growing list of world-class writer-poets from the prairie whose earliest roots are both indigenous and from away. But the majority of tourists do not come to party; they come to sink into one of the last profoundly dark and silent places left on the planet.
And yes, the hotel will be filled with the usual suspects: f-bombers and territorial old-school types who glower at the rest of us and mumble their resentments into their bottles. Who make brash assessments of the new park staff as they tumble in for their first cold drink of the season. They will continue to leave their dubious mark on the community, but they will also continue to be there at 4am in the dead of winter checking the undercarriage of your car for what the problem might be. They will two-step with their grandmothers at the Lion’s supper-dance and bid on yet another barbecue at the school auction. And I will continue to ask after them and their calves although I will steer clear of the hotel after 10pm.
How hard can it be to write a book? It gets harder the more you care about the world you are writing about and the people who inhabit it. It gets nigh impossible when some of the people disturb you, but you know to not write about them would disconnect you from the whole story. Somewhere inside the paradox, the love-hate relationship with neighbours, the writer has to hold fast to a connecting link, no matter how tenuous.
An old-timer gave me a tip on how to catch myself from slipping into full-blown misanthropy. “If you focus on the similarities between you and others, you are probably fairly healthy. But, if you get to a place where all you can see are the differences, look out. You’re on your way to becoming an arrogant prick.” Gotcha.