The sun rises later now. Which means I get up in time to bask in a light that drenches my room in amber. This is my favourite time to write. It is the time of day I feel most friendly with myself: I have yet to say anything thoughtless, nor is my head full of thoughts competing with each other for attention. I harbour no grudges nor slump under the weight of daunting tasks or nameless fears. So I try to get a few words down, use my relatively clear and empty brain before it gears up for the day. Then I go for a walk, drawn by the mysterious mist still hanging in the draws and coulees.
I woke this morning at 4:30. I knew that Ally would already be on her way to Toronto. After a summer spent in Val Marie, she was headed back to university to finish a degree in history, but I know she’ll never forget this place. That’s how it goes here: the summer students come from all directions to work for the park or to do studies on animals and habitat for scientific institutions or, in Ally’s case, to greet and feed visitors at Prairie Wind & Silver Sage, where I work as well. For the summer Ally was an ambassador of sorts for city folk initially disoriented by so much sky and silence and stillness and raw beauty. She made them coffees, got them to gear down into Prairie speed, asked them where they were from, shared with them her newly-acquired knowledge of local history.
The day Ally arrived, it snowed. She didn’t bring the right clothes, she said. Don’t worry, I promised. Tomorrow it’s just as likely to be 30 degrees. That Friday it was wing night at the hotel and I encouraged her to go there for supper.
“And it’s supper, not dinner. Dinner is lunch. Lunch is what you have around midnight at the dance. Don’t do what I did the first time I was invited to dinner and show up five hours late at supper-time.”
“I’d go with you but I’m working at the café. Everyone’ll be at the hotel, though. Wing night is an institution. People come from all over.”
When Ally walked in and scanned the room full of families, ranchers, farmers and research scientists she realized she knew no one. And at a stately 6’2” and flaming red hair, entering a bar unnoticed is not possible. Finally her eyes landed on Pat and Maurice, waving her over to their table. She would come to learn, soon enough, that Pat and Maurice take everyone under their wings, and on what better night than wing night.
Last night, I dropped by to see how the packing was going and asked Ally how she was feeling. We had our café staff dinner the night before where we all got certificates of appreciation from Caitlin. Ally’s was “Most Calm Under Pressure”. When I was cook, I’d begin whining at the sight of “steak” on an order. “You got this,” she’d say. And I’d believe her. (Steaks are not my strong suit. Now, crumbles, that’s another thing. I can crumble the grumpiest diner with a hunk of rhubard-‘stoon. I earned my “Queen of Crumble” certificate.) After dinner she moseyed over to the hotel, this time to bid farewell to all her new friends.
“It was a perfect full circle. This time, instead of knowing no one, I knew most of the people in there.” She visited with folks, moving from table to table, and ended the night talking football with the fellas.
“I got home at 2:45!”
As I write this, sipping tea, enjoying the morning birdsong, I realize the cycles that make up my own life here in Val Marie. To everything there is a season. And these last few have been full of good-byes and thank-yous. Most recently one of the prairie dog teams held a “thank-you Val Marie for ten years of hospitality” barbecue in the village square. One resident looked at the poster and turned to me and said: “We have a village square?”
“Yeah, on the corner across from the hall, that park with the gazebo.”
“We have a gazebo?”
The barbecue was a lovely gathering of long-term and short-term residents (Ervin’s preferred way of describing the village’s shifting population, rather than branding us as either ‘locals’ or ‘blow-ins’.) A glance around the square rendered up a range of ages and backgrounds: there were toddlers colouring ‘official prairie dogologist’ badges, a group of young scientists silk screening t-shirts, parents and grandparents sitting at the picnic table or standing around a plate of chocolate ginger snaps. There were a few lucky tourists who chanced upon the occasion to learn more about the prairie dogs, and even a few ranchers who came despite, as one joked earlier in the week, being someone who “spent their whole life trying to get rid of the varmints so why would I celebrate their thriving population?”
Around the fourth farewell-thank-you-this-isn’t-goodbye-it’s-just-see-you-later gathering I realized I haven’t been living the desert mother existence I came here for. In my first months here, especially when I lived at the convent, I slept in the Mother Superior’s cell and wrote in the chapel, next to the confessional. I just wanted to soak up the silence and disappear under the starry skies. Untethered from the distractions and diversions of urban life, I walked every evening into the prairie sunset. I would intend a brief stroll and be gone for three or four hours, returning feeling saturated in a kind of generous light that was, and still is, made of equal parts buoyancy and luminosity. I would sleep like a baby and in the morning bounce out of bed, clapping my hands like a kid on Christmas, my restless loneliness transforming into contented solitude. Empty never felt so good. Joy never came so readily.
I arrived in Val Marie with a carload of books. One I keep turning to is Henri Nouwen’s “Reaching Out; the Three Movements of the Spiritual Life.” In it he describes the cycles of movement that characterize spiritual growth. Initially it was the just first phase that interested me, the movement from loneliness to solitude. “Here,” he explained, “is where we reach out to our innermost self.”
Having always relished my time alone, my particular brand of loneliness was the kind that came from feeling alone in a group or a crowd, whether that was in a van full of musicians winking as we passed XXX Adult ‘entertainment’ outlets along the highway and knowing if I weren’t with them they’d be pulling over, or sitting uncharacteristically mute while my journalism or art colleagues ridicule or dismiss any reference to religion. My one defense of religious practices happened when, after thirty years away from the church, I returned, at the suggestion of a Buddhist monk, to look at the spiritual gifts and disciplines within my inherited tradition. In the middle of my apologetics a friend stopped me, hand held out and blurted:
“Okay. Wait a minute. Are you telling me you actually believe in God?”
My response came so suddenly it had to have been divinely inspired by one of those desert hermits who, like the Buddhist monks, were famous for puncturing rigid and limiting perspectives on Reality.
“Yes. But don’t worry, I don’t believe in the God you don’t believe in.”
I could also have said that while my unbelief always needs help, I see evidence of God every day. And I should have said: define God. Because, for me, understanding God requires a constant discernment process that deepens and matures with time. A child or a literalist might chose to see God as an old man in a beard, a shamer, a spoiler of fun. But God can also be seen as a kind of Alignment with the world and all its mysteries and creatures, including our own creaturely self, the motivating force behind treating each other, as Martin Buber taught, as a Thou and not an It. And, as Nowuen teaches me: it begins with the movement from Loneliness to Solitude.
But it also involves the movement from ‘Hostility to Hospitality,’ for me a hard path to follow. “Although many strangers in this world become easily the victim of fearful hostility, it is possible for men and women to offer an open and hospitable space where strangers can become our fellow human beings,” writes Nowuen. He continues to describe how welcome strangers become guests bearing gifts. This movement requires humility, and a decision to spot the similarities rather than the differences. In a world often driven by competition, hospitality is not about “tea parties and bland conversations”; it is a radical act.
Everybody needs to feel they belong. That’s why we have church congregations, Buddhist sanghas, recovery fellowships, town squares. Whatever I can do to welcome the stranger, I need to be doing. My season of solitude and long walks and writing past dawn will arrive soon enough. But right now it’s time for hospitality.
Madonna Hamel is an artist and writer. She lives in Val Marie, Sask. She works at the Harvest Moon Café and the local eco-museum and as a freelance writer-broadcaster for CBC radio. On Aug. 3 she performed at the Val Marie Hotel from her collection of stories based on her PWSS exhibit, ‘My Mother’s Apron,’ including three new songs.