By: Madonna Hamel
Surely not. Surely there’s more that needs gathering, preparing, arranging, sorting, perfecting. Especially perfecting. Everything has to be perfect to manifest the ideal scenario. Everything must be well-oiled or nothing’s going nowhere. That’s the kind of all or nothing thinking I’ve come up against more times than I’ve had hot dinners. Despite the numbers of times I’ve been reminded that “always” and “never” talking pretty much negates any credibility. I find myself retreating into absolutistisms with alarming frequency: He’s always late. You’re always hungry. I’m never wrong. She never misses a thing.
Recently I’ve been circling the keyboard like an animal of prey waiting for the perfect moment to pounce knowing full well the perfect moment is now. Writers are people whose success rate is calculated by number of hours of bums in seats. Writers must write. Funny, that. There’s just no way around it. Ah, but writers read, too. And I can always find one more book I should consult before I commit myself to paper. Ask Judy or Marilyn, my librarians. I take books out by the box load, even though I have more books in my home than I have years left to read them all.
The truth is perfectionism is a set-up for paralysis. And procrastination is the number one warning sign that I am hiding in the attic of my head where perfectionism reigns supreme. My body, however, goes where it must and where it can and does the best job possible considering its strengths and weaknesses. Here’s what I’ve learned by simply sitting down to the keyboard ( or typewriter or blank page): all new behaviours begin in the body – you act yourself into new thinking and not the reverse. Clever people die all the time because they can’t think themselves out of what’s good for themselves, or rationalize what’s wrong. I don’t have to know what I’m going to write, I simply have to show up.
When I first arrived in Val Marie I threw a little call to the heavens for an inspiring word just before drifting to sleep every night. I’d been reading about the desert mothers and fathers who, in training, would go to their mentors and say, “Give me a word.” And upon that word they would ruminate. When I’m lucky, I waken to a word softly spoken from the still, small voice within, or from a character left hanging around in the vestiges of a rich and goofy dream. One word is all it takes to prime the pump. Lately my word has been “shit!” ( I woke too late) or “coffee” (I’m trying to kick the habit) or “uh-oh” (I forgot to turn off the sprinkler). My words have been pretty mundane, and yet, if I were a writer worth my salt I should still be able to make something out of even a simple syllable.
This morning I woke to “time”. The first thing I did was check the time. I lay there listening to the birds. One, with it’s string of staccato stutters reminded me of the vesper sparrow. But vespers are sung at dusk. Not dawn. Vespers are a time for communing with the spirit in things and creatures. They are part of a series of pauses in a monk’s day to keep them in contemplative mode, to prevent mundane and annoying distractions from becoming the focus of the day. Interestingly, Vatican II (which is known mostly for its loosening of strict rules and regulations that seem to have very little to do with actually living a life of self-reflection, deep appreciation and kindly service) re-initiated the practice of filling one’s day full of prayer or prayerful reading. The modern Liturgy of the Hours is a collection of readings or recitations designed to re-invigorate a relationship with the great mystery to be divided over the day and named, respectively, Matins, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. I love the sound of these words and how they parcel time into various stops of interest along the day’s wandering path. Perhaps the thinking was this: when meaning becomes a moveable feast, and gets apportioned according to consumer trends, a time-release liturgy could provide some deeper, consistent and stable nourishment.
This year July 1st marked a time to acknowledge one hundred and fifty years of confederation. Although the Confederation of Indigenous tribes is far older and a true confederation of regions has yet to come, I was willing to celebrate the fact of my citizenship. We ( Heather, my assistant at Prairie Wind and Silver Sage, and I) dressed in red and white and drew tattoos on our our arms and faces using red lipstick (“catwalk red”, says the tube on the bottom). We handed out free flag pins with the intention to “let the discussion begin”. What do you have to say about being a registered Canadian? What is a typically great or annoying or dark or delightful trait that earmarks you as a Canadian? Let’s talk love. Let’s talk struggles. Let’s talk deep disappointment. But let’s talk. Because, and this is not a trait to take lightly: we can! You don’t have to go far to feel the feelers of surveillance creep into your own personal space and have the results show up in a subpoena or a knock on the door or a request to look at your job performance report at work. (Try crossing the border stateside, in fact, after having had the nerve to contest a war or two.)
Let’s talk because we can, we do anyway- in grumbling complaints and nasty gossip. But also because it’s time. Just last week three people told me it was time. One was a man with whom I’ve had the privilege of working with as a performer. It’s been years since I’ve had a series of big dreams (and most of them took place in the American South, for what that’s worth.) My Native friend, in hearing the dreams just smiles and nods and this drives me nuts because I want Great Big Huge interpretations packed with extra special meaning and, above all, immediate directives. Well, now he’s telling me it’s time. Then, another life-long student and teacher of yoga living nearby sent me a letter pertaining to acknowledging one’s own privilege and responsibility as an older woman with experience and knowledge that would be helpful to rudderless young women. She too tells me it’s time. My neighbours, a couple who never stop promoting their own love of all things prairie, remind me that they actually have me on tape as saying the Prairies have a staggeringly powerful and entrenched tradition of ruggedly physical-mystical storytellers who have long been overlooked, underestimated and undiscovered but who are now taking the world by storm (the prairie kind that builds and swells and crashes and flashes and reduces us to teeny tiny pieces of humble pie). Because it’s time.
Buddhist nun Pema Chodron wrote a book for the 21st century called “No Time to Lose.” She reminded me that the people who make a positive difference in the world have big hearts. They know how to talk to large groups of people and crack open their hearts, not tighten them with the vice-grips of fear, derision and anger. Because of a well-developed habit of compassion, bolstered by “tender-hearted bravery”, ruthless honesty and steady use of their “unbiased flexible wisdom-mind”, they continue to do their part in trying to drive the sorrows from the world. I personally am not good at this skill, although I do try to put an instant halt to my own perfected habit of hurt – a tendency to feel easily slighted and another excuse to procrastinate. But at this time, I am willing to change,
I got a call from Ervin on Canada Day asking if I wanted to go up to the fair after he baled and I got off work at the museum. The town is doing nothing to celebrate and it just seems like we ought to be doing something for our 150th, he mused. By the time we got there it was close to eight and the exhibits were beginning to shut down. But the blacksmith shop in the heritage town was still open and the smithy was demonstrating the use of the forge. We stood watching for a good half hour, despite the heat. “You know what I like?”, I said, leaning across to share my thoughts with Ervin over the noise of hammer on anvil. His face had that now familiar no-I-don’t-but-I’m-sure-you’ll-tell-me look.
“I love how the word ‘temper’ comes from time. Temps is French for time. It’s all about time or timing. A combination of proportions dispensed over time.” Yep, he says. to indicate he’s listening, although he may not be as excited by the whole etymological adventure of the event and doesn’t really need to hear me expound out loud any further.
I’m sitting at my desk, at the moment. Still writing around the theme of time. Waiting for a roast in the oven that is best cooked according to a formula that adds minutes for every pound. Time-wise I’m late: with this past-deadline column, with my wrought-over book, with my desire to find My Metis roots, with acts of tender-hearted bravery. But it’s time.
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.