I am in the throes of packing for a trip to the big city, and I’m not talking Swift Current, I’m talking ‘down east’- as in: Toronto. And Montreal and Quebec City, as well. I am both excited and filled with trepidation. It’s been a while since I drove the Don Valley Parkway or the 401 through Montreal. When friends return from Swift, or even Regina, complaining about traffic I smile to myself recalling the breakneck speed of Ontarians and Quebeckers who, if enraged, express their displeasure by either flipping the bird or tailgating.
Since leaving the east, I have fallen head over heels in love with Highway 4, but certainly not for its abysmal condition. It’s breathtaking vista, no matter what mood I may be in initially, renders up enough grace to make me somewhat less self-absorbed when I arrive at my destination. On the contrary, the expressways of the east bring up the cussing monster in me. It was only last week, driving Highway 4 in a snow storm in October with my sister, that I finally internalized one of life’s truths: you don’t have to keep up with the pack, run with the herd, or get past the vehicle ahead. I can let them pass me.
I was raised by a heavy-footed dad who took me out in the 1968 Rebel Rambler the day I turned 16. It was a rare father-daughter bonding moment (right up there with the day he bought me my first baseball glove). I sat on a phone book while his arm supported my back. We wound along the Okanagan Mission’s Swamp Road, through orchards and vineyards. So, even though I acquired a taste for speed from my dad, my first driving landscape was rural. Now, I like to unhook from the need to get anywhere fast, to be able to stop along the way to buy a fresh pie or have a cup of coffee at a truck stop and eavesdrop.
But the real challenge for me will be walking around the cities. Walking the busy streets of Toronto or Montreal is a whole nuther ballgame than heading off into the Grasslands or the (soon not to be) public pastures of the PFRA. One of the top three reasons I left the cities was to be finally free of the assaults of advertising. (Cell phones manage to haunt us and track our every taste and move, I know. With WiFi technology we have let the peddler into our bedrooms, as Russell Banks says). I love window shopping, especially along Queen, west of Spadina. Where the independent bookstores and paper makers and designers can still afford window fronts. But the constant barrage of desirable merchandise and advertising begins to fill my brain with noises about ‘need’ and ‘want’ and ‘crave’ that completely derail my deeper desires for contentment and simplicity. Still I walk on, because there are cozy cafes and coffee shops in which to pull out pen and paper and write endless observations.
My favourite spot for people watching in Toronto is a chain coffee shop on the corner of College and Yonge. The window seat faces the crosswalk on a diagonal so you can watch humanity in all shapes and colours til one in the morning if you so choose. Otherwise, Yonge just pisses me off. It’s an endless stretch of billboards and window dressings displaying, exposing and packaging women as merchandise, as Taste Treat, Prey, Dominatrix or School Girl. In each representation her only apparent desire is the man gawking at her. Walking that gauntlet rendered me exhausted and depressed by the time I got home to my inner city sublet. I began choosing other streets to walk down, but there was always a nagging sense that all I was doing was ignoring the deep hurt that the lies of a pornified world kept asking me to buy into.
By the time I left Toronto I’d read enough and interviewed enough authors, many who considered themselves addicts, on the subject, to know that the porn industry is not about empowering sexual relationships between men and women. It’s about making money by re-wiring our brains with imagery that requires constant feeding to stay high. The idea that treating people like objects is how we liberate ourselves, achieve equality, bond with each other is not restricted to Yonge Street’s Porn PR machine, like any thriving business, spends billions on advertising and product placement. The industry makes sure to get mention in TV sitcoms, beverage ads, movies and music videos, with the intention of making it as essential to living as mother’s milk. But those images aren’t assaulting me anymore. When I walk down the middle of Val Marie, the boys in the bar or at home ( or the family picnic, as one technology trade magazine recently boasted) might be accessing them on their phones, but now, when I look up I see a sunset that turns the whole town, and every upturned face in it, a burnished shimmering gold.
That’s a far cry from my last walk down Yonge Street where, for a quarter mile I could not avoid a giant looming billboard at the end of the street. It was of a woman in a mini-skirt made of a fabric that lifted in the wind, so we could see her bare bottom on a windy day. Because her back was to us, she was not aware of her exposed rear. But all of us down on the street were. Whether we wanted to or not. Men could snicker and ogle if they wanted to. The rest of us, I assume, were not taken into account when the ad was created. Either that, or it was assumed we’d find it funny, or at least harmless. Either way, the joke’s on us. The last straw was the Hooters sign erected outside my home. “Oh look how the woman’s boobs fit nicely into the big “O”s!” I said, oozing sarcasm because rage was not acceptable to the man I was walking with, who told me to relax and be a good sport. “I know, Let’s open a restaurant called ‘Balls,’” I suggested. “Or better, ‘Dick’s’ or I know, ‘Dick’s Balls’. Then we can use that bulge in your pants for the ‘l’s’, how’s that?”. He didn’t find it funny. I don’t blame him.
My point is, I guess, that the world is full of distractions and diversions. Or obsessions and compulsions. And what is one man’s meat can be yet another woman’s poison. For many of us, distractions and diversions makes us forget our dreams, or what we value most in life. My mentor tells me that before chasing after something, or someone, ask myself what is my intention. “And sit with that one, “ she hastens to add. “Don’t jump on it. Discern for a while. Is it a quick fix, a cheap thrill, a hit of adrenaline. Are you getting a hit, feeling jazzed up, needing an escape from whatever you’re feeling at the moment?” For me, cities like the ones into which I am about to immerse, are places where artists and authors gather to share creations with each other and the world. Their coffee shops, bookstores, libraries, galleries and music clubs are beacons for me. But I need a “limited time offer”. Otherwise the noise, speed and distractions drown out the whispers of my soul. And the Great Southwest does the opposite; its wind and owls and grasses echo soulful whispers.
Yesterday my friend Page returned from a supply trip to Swift Current. He told me he had a great day. Everyone was so friendly and smiley. “But, of course,” he said, “I was in a good mood. I was aware of the little things in my life that made it great. And I was smiling so they were just mirroring me back at me!” I am aware that my last days living in Toronto were not happy ones. I, too, was mirroring my grief and alienation back at the world before me. But I also know that I’d rather get a text message from Caitlin saying: “There’s a pony and a cat standing in a puddle in front of the café! Only in Val Marie. OIVM!”, than a mysterious one I got in Toronto saying: “Come meet Victoria’s Secret’s angels at the Eaton Mall!”. I’d rather be stomping gumbo off my boots than yanking a high heel out of a sidewalk grate. I’d rather eat stew made from one of three range-fed cows butchered by Ervin this year, than steak from one of three thousand cows butchered in a day and raised on a feed lot. I’d rather wander for hours in the Grasslands with Page, learning about critters and how to photograph them without harming their habitat, than chasing down celebrities for interviews. And I look forward to leaving pavement and returning to dirt, and another epic hike along an ancient empty ocean bed with Caitlin, Sara, Arron and Jacqueline, my idea of empowered women.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie Sask. home.
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