BY MADONNA HAMEL
In Medicine Hat I sleep in the room with the pryamid-shaped turret, the bedroom that is still my nephew’s when he comes home to visit. On these nights my dream life is always rich and active. I know that magic and pyramids are linked, but I’m not exactly certain how. Or perhaps the dreams are informed by the creative energy still lingering in the room, the energy of a young man now living in Berlin, playing his piano, falling in love, attracting the interest of record labels and young hearts.
Or perhaps it’s the bed with the blonde-wood headstand, a rare piece of ancestral antiquity. Or maybe it’s the fact I am sandwiched between clean soft sheets and buried under quilts on the eve of my sixty-first birthday, tucked-in by a younger sister, despite her bad shoulder, with sing-song wishes for sweet dreams. I am a small bird in a warm nest.
Or perhaps it’s the balcony-porch that sits in the trees, reminding me of a B&B in New Orleans, where guests sat and read the Times-Picayune and drank strong coffee across from others doing the same on their wrought-iron balconies all the way down jazz-infused Royal Ave in the French Quarter.
Throughout the night I move between wake and sleep, stirred by the thrum of the trains in the yard, big engines like the beating hearts of beasts of burden at rest before another long haul. For some reason the engines of trains running all night long do not bother me the way the engines of trucks idling outside my window have annoyed me in cities of my past. The trains, when they do shunt and shuttle through the town, are so powerful the house shakes and I have a vague image, in my half-sleep, of being curled up and rocked inside a shuddering church bell.
I am in The Hat to visit my sister and brother-in-law as a birthday gift to myself. I also like to spend hours in the archives room at The Esplanade. I give the clerk my wish list: Any diaries of a) camp cooks, b) boarding houses owners and c) astronomers working with the border survey between 1850 and 1895, would be joyously received. He comes back with stacks of papers listing everything from trip diaries by Mounties headed west from Ontario, to a bricklayer’s meticulous itinerary of his journey to Canada via the S.S. Tunisian from Liverpool, to a daily journal of a river raft trip taken by George Herbert England from Medicine Hat to Empress in the beginning of the 1900s.
While the clerk prints the lists I peruse the books on the shelves. I find a photograph of my sister’s house, the massive trees out front with roots climbing over the driveway and their branches fingering their way across the turret porch, are mere saplings in this image. I recall living in Quebec and how history bequeathed to me a sense of connected-ness whenever I came across images of my own apartments surrounded by trees, with horses parked out front and women in bustles and corsets boarding buggies to take them to the river or the market. On my birthday the thought occurs to me how these images, like the stories from elders, become more and more valuable to me because they help me find my place in the world, not apart from it, nor above it. I realize, somewhat sheepishly, that I have not been teachable for most of my life because I have been busy trying to impress people with my uniqueness. A sense of history, among other things, keeps us right-sized. A sense of history is teaching me to stop talking and start listening.
The land will teach the same lesson. Even though I was away from Val Marie for only five days, I felt a deep need for the silence and space, like a hiker needs water. Now that the sky is full of big fluffy clouds again, and their shadows and shapes highlight the distance between them and a horizon that never comes, all I want is to keep driving. From all the research on Metis I am beginning to wonder if my nomadic tendencies aren’t bred in the bone. I seem to need to climb into a vehicle every five or six days in the same way I just want to head for the hills on a long walk every four or five hours. Am I behaving like an ancestor or am I just running?
No one else can answer that question but me. And believe me I try.
I pull over to get gas and jot in my journal. I pull over once more to quell a rising grief, un-nameable but connected to the inescapable fact of aging and all the dreams surrendered to the unavoidably lost years of youth. Un-nameable, yet inevitable and familiar to us all.
I write: “Only by driving down down down to the grasslands and the isolated village and away from lights and towns and streets and signs, down over the ridges and into the valley, across the mystical Divide, can some divining rod strike my breastbone and divert water all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
“Only a space this huge and dry and ’empty’ is capable of sucking sorrow from the pores.
“Only in a space this quiet can you hear the heavens urge you to ‘Hand it over!’ when for years your pleas of ‘Take it from me!’ have failed. The Land becomes the Beloved, with more than enough of it to go around, with more than one way to ease loneliness from the bone. It may with-hold harvest from one farm and yield to the next, but it will always stir the soul, because we are all swallowed by the same sky and caught in the same shards of gold as the earth rolls away from the sun.
Out here you can get your dignity back, just by watching your projections disintegrate in the open; with no mirrors and porous fences they are carried away on the wind.”