It’s been a year since a group of us began writing our life stories at a workshop in a cozy room at the library in Swift Current. I called the workshop: Ask Your Life. My desire was to encourage people to get their memories down in writing.
Even if certain details may be sketchy, because it’s been so long since you “got lost in the dust storm, but the dog knew the way home and saved some lives that day”. Or you’re not quite sure if it was your aunt or your older cousin who decided to “keep the general store open late that Christmas Eve, to wait for a delivery of skates for two little Indian brothers who, unbeknownst to them, were about to be given the skates instead of just putting them on the shelf”.
Or, maybe you don’t want to offend anyone. Or betray a confidence, but you want to clear the air about those missing months when you “were sent to an aunt’s to deliver a baby conceived out of wedlock”. It sounds like “less of a big deal now, but then it was the source of great shame for my family. I don’t want any young woman to ever feel shame about such things again!”
I feel an urge to contact all the folks gathered around that table to see what we’ve got. Because even one sentence is plenty. James Joyce often spent an entire day writing and erasing and rewriting the same line, over and over.
But what a line it was! And at the end of the day, he left his desk happy with that one single line. A good day’s work. A job well done. In fact, when I think about the books that have made a huge impression upon me, whether they be fiction or nonfiction – including essays, letters, self-published memoirs – what I usually come away with, and what sticks for years onward, are not the names of characters, the setting or even the plot line!
What sticks is one or two stellar lines, a sentence that pivots my stance ever-so-slightly to see the world in a huge new way I’d never before considered. One well-crafted sentence, which more often than not means a well-captured quote, will make a whole story memorable. When we say we love a story we often mean we love how it was told.
When we tell the story exactly as we felt or saw it, we move away from the cliché. The cliché may have a ring of truth, but it’s a phrase over-used, and so it lulls us right on by. We don’t notice it. We don’t stop and marvel. And nobody, nobody lives a cliché.
There are two weather-worn, finger-waving signs outside the Nativity of the BVM church in our village. They are posted just off highway 4, on the way leading down to Montana. One sign admonishes young women for having abortions, but offers no consolation or safe haven. And the other sign reminds us that the lives of the unborn child, the elderly and the crippled are all sacred.
There is a strong implication in these signs that the worldly world sees abortion and euthanasia as viable options for the inconvenience of being born or having to die.
The sentiment and warnings implicit in these signs aren’t the problem, it’s the cliched shaming and righteousness, the statement of the obvious: Life is sacred. I hasten to add that even parishioners have stopped ‘seeing’ those billboards. Probably because nobody in our parish talks like that, not anymore. Not that I’ve heard or heard tell.
Every few weeks I want to gather my paints and head over to those two billboards and paint something new. Something less judgmental, less excluding. Less cliché.
We ask why the numbers are so low in congregations, but we wag our fingers at the rest of the world, playing an old mishapen God with his list of criteria for entry. I want to paint Pope Francis lifting his fingers not in a wag but in a peace sign, the mystic’s and medicine man’s sign of benediction, that says “we come in peace” and quote his latest words: “Who am I to judge?”
The idea of saying old things in a new way struck me the other day when I was writing about an attitude, a behaviour, that one character thought was fresh new and unique. “Oh that old chestnut,” I wrote, “it’s as old as the hills.” But “old as the hills is as old as the hills”, so old I don’t stop to consider its point.
The point of poetry, besides going out into the field to fetch us, to bring us home before it gets too dark and cold, is to find new words for old ills. So, I wrote, instead, “as old as rain.” Think of something old, so old you never considered it young. Or never not having been there.
When writing a story, this open letter, this collection of observations, I need to find a familiar chord and strum it. There needs to be something common, something shared, here.
Even if it’s a private, squirmy fear. You can feel at home with a restless feeling as much as you can feel comfortable with an old song. A collection of well-chosen words are like mashed potatoes and gravy, or a pillow punched and jostled into place every night before resting your head and falling asleep. Rosanne Cash once said, if a song tells a true story, hits the right chord, has a haunting melody, “it’s as if its always been there.” As old as rain.
Yesterday and the day before I spent the afternoons with Eugene and Don, clearing out and cleaning up the old elevator office. We’re experiencing a new excitement around its revival.
The room was laden in dust and bone-cold like a root cellar, but Don drove his truck over with a generator in the back and we began vacuuming away the years of neglect. We uncovered over twenty versions of watering, gas and coal oil cans.
Every one of them, down to the spout or spigot, had a unique and elegant shape to them. There were old thermoses for holding a day’s worth of water or soup, a couple with temperature gauges and one, apparently used for making moonshine.
We moved a glass case near the door to serve as a future welcoming desk and behind it we found a poster warning how ‘bad drying’ will result in a loaf of bread barely risen. There was a sign announcing a “nightly check, today” and a warning not to smoke anywhere near the premises, laying just under the standing ashtray.
Also in the mix were a variety of machine parts, their uses unknown to me: “What’s this?” What would you use this for?” “Is this connected to that?” My constant questions were tabled by Eugene and Don, although they didn’t always agree on the answer. My guesses were rarely correct.
My goal by the end of the day was to scrub and polish the big red circle of floor tile that embraced the giant F in the middle of the room. “What’s the F?” I asked? They looked up with blank stares. “No. No, I don’t mean WTF! I mean, what does that F stand for, again?” I say pointing to the floor. “And don’t say ‘floor’!”
“ That’s for Federal Grain Ltd. They would have run it before it was taken over locally in 1972.”
Truth is, I change the meaning of that F every time I look at it. It could stand for Farm. Or Family. Or Farine. In 1923 The French Architect, Le Corbusier, designer of such edifices as the United Nations building in New York and the chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in France, hailed grain elevators as the magnificent fruits of an age.
Here, in this tiny office with its art-deco ceramic coal-wood stove, its tin roof and it’s mini samples of every kind of grain that would have passed through its chutes, we hope to revive the stories by asking the questions that will get people talking.
What better way to ignite a conversation and warm the chilly little room than with stories about a way of life that has been replaced by larger-scale, faster-moving, centrally-located machinery which one day will, very likely, not even be operated by human hands.
At one point in the cleaning and moving I pulled a piece of plywood away from a wall. It was heavier than I’d expected. It turned out to be a slate board. And on the other side were the train arrival and departure times. It was a thrilling discovery, from a time when the tracks were still running alongside town and up to the elevator.
When, as one story goes, the kooks and hobos had to disembark because we were the end of the line. “I can explain in one sentence”, an old guy once told me when I moved here and marveled aloud at the number of eccentrics living here. “We’re the last stop before nowhere.”
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.