Yesterday I got a text from Hayley, a young local who is doing her first year of university in Saskatoon. It’s also her first year away from home. Every weekend she high tails it back to be with family and farm. As pretty as Saskatoon is, she says, it’s still a city: noisy, busy and too much artificial light. I remember that transition, pulling out of the driveway of the family home, mom hugging herself in the crisp dewy morning of an Okanagan autumn, wearing one of her long velour housecoats. As I pulled onto the main road, I took one last look back. She was waving that child-wave of hers, palm open, heart-line facing the world. And then, she bent over her marigolds. She’s checking for frost, I thought. The intimate knowing of her gesture cracked me. “Oh god, I can’t do this!” I blubbered, propelled onward only by momentum, not preference.
But of course, I could. And did. In fact, I’ve had more than my fair share of pulling away from the people I love, while leaving on the curb, at the airport gate, in the bus depot, on the front stoop and often, still sleeping, the thought of a parting kiss far too sad to bear. My last relationship was long distance. For nine years we seesawed between joyful reunions and tearful goodbyes. And the time spent in between was mostly planning when we’d see each other again- not something you need to give a second thought to when you live in the same town. Usually I was the one who drove away. I tried to keep him in my sights as long as I could. But that just made it hurt more inside, until finally, at yet another good-bye he whispered in my ear: “Don’t look back.” But of course I did, and still do.
Wiser people than I tell me, when it comes to taking an inventory of my life: look back, but don’t stare. It’s just like driving. (And while you’re at it- you only need to look ahead as far as your headlights will illuminate. You can’t see all the way to the end of the road, but you can see far enough to get you there!) The trick for me is not to get hooked into the habit of hurt. You can get a ‘hit’ from hurt, I’ve come to realize, just like you can get a hit from adrenaline, or risky behaviours, or any number of substances. The Buddhist nun and author Pema Chodron talks about the ‘habit of hate’ and suggests turning off the sound on your T.V. and watching the news. You might see a terrorist or a protester or a presidential candidate or an activist but the rage and anger on the faces all results in the same angry energy. The goal may be peace or pre-emptive bombs, but the path to peace is peace. And the path to war is war.
Another nun, this time a recovering alcoholic circuit speaker, suggests I “Utilize, don’t analyze!” Take as long as it takes to record the recurring themes in your life where hurt, hate, anger, depression reared their nasty little heads, but then move into new behaviours. Utilize the tools that help you become emotionally sober, spiritually mature, and of some use to the world. Don’t hang around in the minutiae of the past, wondering ‘why,’ soaked in resentment, hanging out in that clever, rationalizing and justifying brain of yours that got you into trouble in the first place. Thanks sis.
I take all this good advice when I enter into my own writing about the past. I try to focus on examples of remarkable feats of heroism, survival, kindness and ingenuity when I unearth the stories of ancestors, settlers, first nations, and indigenous creatures. But I also want to know about mistakes that were made, accidents or injuries which could have been avoided or healed and yet were ignored, hidden or erased, doomed to be repeated. I want to know what to look out for so I don’t repeat bad behaviour, or at least not as often, nor as horrifically. Given that I’m human I’ll fumble. But I can be vigilant, just not hyper-vigilant, nor a vigilante. What’s hard is not getting yanked into the vortex of interminable hurt and hate often generated by an examination of history. If the only reason to re-tell painful stories is to become a constant ‘shamer’ then we’ve, none of us, learned or gained anything. And there is something to be learned and gained – and loosened and dropped- when looking at our histories, at History.
Hayley’s text read: “Do you have any good sources or information about the effect of the Depression on the Prairies.” What first jumped to mind was a conversation I had with my friend Tony, a farmer-rancher who lived through the Depression. We were sitting on the steps of the Nativity of the BVM. Talk revolved around the usual old-timer topics: “Kids today aren’t taught about the Depression, they have no idea what it means to ‘do without.’ They don’t work for years to earn the money to get what they want – everything is instant. It’s not their fault, their parents don’t feel the need to teach them the old values. They don’t even bother going to church anymore. They’ve been blind-sided by prosperity.” What do you think it will take to bring them back? I asked. “Another Depression.”
It’s not as though Tony is looking forward to ‘another Depression.’ Nor is church meant to be a last ditch resort. And it’s not exempt from the lure of ‘prosperity.’ In fact it might take ‘another Depression’ to get churches back to their original function as places to break bread together and nurture the spirit, to reassess how much prosperity is required to lead a happy, simple life. But one thing that did become quite clear: I needed to do a little more investigating into the stories of lives lived during the Great Depression and find out what made it so “great,” ie: have such a great big huge impact on the psyche and identity of an entire generation and nation.
The most riveting account of the Depression came from a self-published book by a retired farmer who became, like so many in Saskatchewan, a prolific writer of farm memoirs. His name is Jacob M. Fehr and I discovered his books at the Swift Current SPCA Bookstore. My favourite is “Prairie Tales & Gopher Trails”. The story “Railroad Bums” reveals the hardship of the Depression like nothing I’d heard before.
It was 1927 and farm kids were picking up cow chips to use as fuel. Their parents couldn’t afford coffee so they’d go into the elevators to scrap up barley and roast it to drink. Two brothers, Issac and Jake, decided to go west and find work. Everywhere they went there were others looking for work, too.
Writes Fehr: “Along the river [Fraser] there were hundreds of shacks built of wood, tin or cardboard. The government stepped in and said, this is enough and the shacks were all burned to the ground … there are no jobs … at one place they were told by the foreman, he would have to first get rid of some of the workers he now had and he didn’t have any ammunition for that.” So they hopped a train and “had traveled some six hundred miles at twenty-five miles an hour when the train pulls into Cochrane, Alberta. Here the bums were greeted by police with revolvers. The next morning hundreds of men were in court. They would either pay a $5.00 fine or else go to Lethbridge area and work in the sugar beet fields for thirty days. Isaac and Jake pay the fine but Isaac is mad. First he says ‘we travel a thousand miles to try and earn a few measly dollars to get off the government’s back and then they turn around and fine you for what ever. On top of that we have to try to make it home on foot if we don’t starve, what kind of rotten set up is this anyway.”
Eventually the brothers return home: “Isaac and Jake are now walking along the trans Canada on their way back to Saskatchewan and would you believe it, a police car pulls up and tells them to get off the road. They both stand in the middle of the ditch and stare at the Mounties until their car turns around and heads back to Calgary.”
One of my favourite artists is a fellow performer from art school days named Trisha Keith. One day, in the late 1990’s, driving out of Vancouver, I passed her on a highway overpass, walking along a narrow cement wall. She was dressed in a pink tutu and carrying a sign like a tight-rope walker would an umbrella. I looked up at my rear view mirror to read the sign. It said: Take Care Looking Back!
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.
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