BY MADONNA HAMEL
Hopefully we shall cross paths again, one day, said a fellow walker at the end of our four day walk on the Frenchman Trail, from Mortlach to Gravelbourg. We’d been talking about “callings” and “vocations” versus jobs and work. In that moment it struck me that so much of the art and writing I do is about paths crossing and chance encounters and all the hope and excitement that crossroads bring, with infinite possibilities and options. Walking back to my tent after a refreshing swim in the Shamrock Campground pool, I conjured up the various moments in my life where roads and paths met and a hyper-sensitivity to the very moment made everything light, in both senses of the word – made the world bright and buoyant.
I’ve been accused of being a dilettante, as evidenced in my degree in Interdisciplinary Studies, “whatever that means!” ribs a friend. A “Jill” of all trades, master of none. Incapable of making up her mind, as if it’s a cop-out to say: “but everything fascinates me!” But the truth is, not all things interest me as isolated objects or subjects: I am interested in the juxtapositions of things. I want to be there when the most unlikely of people or animals or cultures and cultural artifacts intersect, brush up against each other, share the same restaurant booth or train car or roadside bar, unplanned, unanticipated. I am, I decide, a crossroads scholar.
Collage creates instant magical crossroads. Collage, the sublime singer Lhasa de Sela, once reminded me, is all about taking this world from here and that one from there and voila! You have made a new world, a new story. In her collages the animals are always bigger than the people. We laughed outright at the possibilities of pirates sharing a mollusk house with foxes and Edwardian children carrying lanterns on licorice sticks. The miracle of collage is that creatures who never ever met before are suddenly sharing a new home wide open to new vistas, new perspectives, scents, sounds and allegiances, thanks to their new living mates.
You can cross centuries and continents and even species with collage. The one sitting on my desk right now is of a recording session in an old studio with mics hanging from the ceiling. In the centre a woman in a cashmere sweater and a poodle skirt and red lips sings her heart out while a lizard, a spaniel and a seal back her on drums, guitar and stand-up bass.
In a collage called ‘Crossroads’ I gathered a gleaner, a Cree girl, an NWMP officer and a long-haired ghost around an upturned painted turtle. They are staring at it in bafflement and wonder, not quite sure what to do. The colours and shapes on the turtle’s belly are hypnotic, and the magic of the moment has bound the unlikely witnesses together. The turtle is the only game in town, as it were, and even the turtle knows and waits, suspended in this unlikely situation. My brother-in-law, once a high school counselor, would call the turtle the ‘mediating object’; it draws tension away from the individuals and allows them to deal with a situation obliquely, through a shared view. It’s like talking about a troubled relationship when you’re driving at night with your boyfriend. Somehow it’s just easier when you’re both staring at the road ahead, not glaring at each other. It eases the journey.
When we meet out there, on a road, in a field, we are on neutral ground. It doesn’t matter what you drive, how much money you make, how many staff you have working for you. I didn’t know for two days that the gentle, quiet young man I was talking to about aprons, poets and Americana was the arch bishop of the diocese. Nor did I know that the woman on the other side of me was Cree wisdom-keeper. Maybe if I’d had I would have shut up. But maybe I wouldn’t have: wiser people always seem comfortable with silence, after all, they have nothing to prove. But they also refrain from shaming those of us still insecure in our bodies, talking out of nerves.Their presence was so pleasant and companionable that all my defenses were down and I just wanted to connect in every way that mattered in the short time we would be together. We learn by listening, but we also talk to heal.
I am Interested, it turns out, most of all, in the places where the most unlikely meetings occur – where paths cross, delightfully but unexpectedly. The chance encounter. The simple, mundane interchange at the cash register with a woman who comments on your necklace, who wants to hear the story behind it. Or maybe just smiles a smile so generous and unbidden and undemanding that you scurry away just in time to sob. Her brief gesture forces you to realize that you have slowly been polluted by a dominant assumption that everybody has a hidden agenda, that their motives are suspect.
I have talked and written a great deal about going to the Crossroads in the Southern States where Highways 61 and 49 meet and where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to become the world’s greatest blues man. I have hinted at something I found there- something I dreamed about the night before. Physical crossroads are easier to spot than emotional or spiritual or psychological ones. I get a thrill when I see a sign alerting to me a crossing up ahead. I wish I could be as aware of the big meeting points just around the bend in my head and heart. I do believe there are warnings and alerts and heads-up going on all around us, but I’m not astute enough to pick up on them until a long time after they’ve passed. But I do know that encounters at the crossroads do not require us to sell ourselves short. They need not be collisions or catastrophes, they can be as magical and whimsical as a two people on a country road, out walking, stopping to marvel at a nighthawk or a snipe or each other’s smile.