BY MADONNA HAMEL
“We tell ourselves stories to keep ourselves alive”, writes essayist and novelist Joan Didion. This appears to be her most-often quoted phrase. Didion writes about her disenchantment with the world while at the same time inhabiting it in all its paradoxical splendour. She can’t imagine not writing about it. Even when her husband died suddenly while seated at the dining room table, she wrote intimately about the experience. In ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ she followed her grief right into the autopsy room of her departed loved one. She has that kind of detached reporter’s eye. But her motive was sheer love. And hope. She kept his shoes for a year, because: “He might need them when he gets back.”
The tenth anniversary of my own mother’s death just passed. As for all of us who have lost someone we cannot live without, it seems like yesterday. And, at the same time, it seems like she’s been gone forever, because there have been so many times I’ve reached for my phone to talk about a new Masterpiece Theatre Series; assure her the old homestead is still standing, though sunken; ask the name of a composer; get her crumble recipe; shoot the breeze; make plans for a visit. ( One summer, on a whim, I drove from Vancouver to Kelowna, leaving at four in the afternoon, arriving after nine that night. I rang the doorbell and she squealed with delight at the surprise and we watched the remainder of ‘Foyle’s War’ and drank a glass of wine, my father having long ago retired to bed.)
I recall all this because our community just lost a dear man. There are few men like Mel Olson. Even though I hardly knew him, I know quality when I meet it. I am thankful I worked with him on canteen shift last bonspeil. I wrote about it in a previous column, about how he could situate us listeners in a story about this place. By telling us about the summer of the salamanders, the scarcity of water, the wedding of the parents of one the young women listening at the canteen counter, he pulled together all the important pieces – animals, weather, family – and painted a portrait of place. And, for a brief second I viscerally understood the immense importance of people telling stories that link us all and pull us forward into today. People who can do that don’t know they are doing it. But they are, for the listener, at the centre of that portrait.
Last night I went for my walk and decided to go up the cemetery road, head off into the sunset, like a good westerner would. I recalled a February night I first arrived in Val Marie, walking along the same road. I was missing my mom something fierce and grumbled my discomfort to her, because, where ever she was, in whatever shape or form her spirit had taken, I chose to believe she could hear me.
“You were supposed to give me a sign! I need a sign! I can’t heeeaaar you!”
At that point I turned and headed back home. And staggered backwards. The northern lights were putting on a show, a great big green, blue and purple grand finale type show.
“Wow, “ I laughed out loud, “that’s pretty good, mom.” But then, it hit me, and it sacred me a bit, realizing how personalized the moment actually was. Her name is Aurore, her singing name Aurora. The Aurora Borealis had reached in and squeezed my heart. And I let it.
I have no idea what happens after we die. I don’t think any of us do. The only thing I’m certain is uncertainty. Uncertainty keeps us open to others, their stories and their contradictions. Keeps us humble, teaches us to live in the paradox that is life. I don’t trust people who are certain, who are expected by their clergy and their leaders to “know”, beyond a doubt, with fervour and conviction. You may believe in Christ, but even he doubted his own ability to drink from the cup, go through with his murder on Golgotha. I’m more comfortable living and roaming around in the Mystery.
I don’t expect any human to explain to me why some people are taken over others, and “why so soon?” I don’t believe any human can calm the soul’s riot when tragedy hits. But I do believe we are capable of standing stalwart for our friends while they crumble in our arms. I still see, in my heart’s eye, my brother’s buddies, Bill and Pat, at my mother’s wake, standing against the walls in the hall and the kitchen, like secret service agents, watching over us all, whispering into their sleeve cuffs: “Crying woman at twelve o’clock.” And I still believe we can grieve through stories; we can use stories to remind us why we bothered loving at all.
Next Sunday The Elevator Committee is putting on a pancake breakfast at the Senior’s Centre, also known as the Prairie Community Centre (there’s a story there). The idea, as it’s been evolving, is to keep alive a project begun last year when the village’s young and old got together in the Centre, thanks to the help of a Intangible Heritage project co-coordinator, and shared stories. There were different perspectives, different versions of stories. Depending on values, interests, age and recall, we highlight parts of stories and forget others.
I hope some of you will come and keep the story of this place and these people alive. And keep our rural communities alive as a reminder that, in a fragmented and disconnected world, villages like ours provide continuity. And, if we are lucky, we have people like Mel who can pull all the pieces together in the story of his own rich life lived, right here, because, as he said “Why would I go anywhere else?”
In reviving old stories, in keeping stories alive we do keep ourselves alive, as Didion says. But, perhaps to remove some of the taint of alienation from the statement, I’d like to say: “We listen to each others stories to keep ourselves alive,” as well. I also think we tell stories to keep our “dear departed” hovering near, helping us get the story right.