BY MADONNA HAMEL
Curiosity has taken me to many places. But just as often it’s restlessness that jerks and shoves me around. Sometimes I make a decision based on work or scenery, and often because of a man. As a teen, I never left my room except to descend to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. As an adult, I can’t seem to stay still. This thirst for new vistas could be traced to my nomadic roots, which appeals to me far more than its probable raison d’etre: I am taking the geographical cure.
Born in Dawson Creek, BC, “Mile 0 of the Alaska Highway”, my family moved shortly after to Prince George, BC. Prince George is the “pulp and paper capital of the world”. It has the smell of a pulp and paper capital, with three mills emitting noxious sulphur odours that, on a still day, can induce vomiting. On my fourteenth birthday, we moved to Kelowna BC, from a mill town to Eden, where willows hung over the warm and sand-bottomed lake and fruit trees blossomed in orchards that climbed lazily into the hills. Grape vines dove-tailed into each other on Swamp Rd., the road that wound its way took to our new home on a dead-end street with no street lights and plenty of birds.
But soon I was trying to read and write my way out of adolescence, although at the time I thought I was trying to escape the hedonism of a resort town. I never made the connection: I was entering the world of puberty where one’s sexuality was the biggest concern of the day. What you wore, how much you weighed, what you looked like was everything. I was not prepared for the transition nor the attention. So I hid in my room. Even on the glorious hot days of summer, with a lake and a swimming pool just steps away, I hid. Planning my escape. First I hid in food. Then, I began looking at maps.
My first job was picking fruit with my sisters. It is still my favourite job, outside of writing, perhaps because I could hide among the trees and under arbours and still be outdoors. The season began in July with cherries and stretched all through the summer, going to apricots then plums, apples, pears, peaches and finally grapes. With lots of berries in between. I had a short stint in a hotel gift shop but I hated the tourism industry with its smiling and small talk. My sisters and I were chambermaids as well. It was in that job I learned if you don’t have time to do a thorough job, just polish the faucets for an overall shiny appearance. I designed ads and wrote copy for a travel agency and someone there encouraged me to send a poem to the Capital News. They published it and much later when my grandfather died, someone found that poem folded and faded and stuffed in his wallet.
Other poems followed. And other jobs: I worked in a health clinic writing a brochure on the history of travelling nurses. Later I bought books for their preventive medicine library. One summer, when I was home from school, I worked on my father’s RV lot. I could live in one of these, I told myself. I still dream of living in one of them. I moved to Victoria and worked on my first degree while flipping burgers, pouring beers, serving drunks. I popped popcorn at the university cinema, then slept on the floor to get up for my morning gig as breakfast cook downstairs. I made sandwiches and catered events and started my own ‘ultimate brownie’ company with a friend.
From Victoria, I moved to Vancouver and worked in an antiquarian bookstore assistant, in several coffee shops and as a clerk in a book chain store, and as Miss Information at UBC Bookstore. I worked in Emily Carr’s library and the city library. I painted and did portraits. I performed in galleries, malls and on street corners. I managed a bookstore across the inlet. I sold hand-painted t-shirts and homemade jewellery at festivals.
In 1991 I moved to Memphis for school, but really, for the blues. I began singing and writing longer monologues infused with blues. By this time I’d performed the characters of Mary Magdalene, Lolita at 30, Mud Woman, Sister Jupiter in my monologues. I created Angry Planet at 12h00 in Memphis. I got threats as well as accolades. I pushed forward. I visited New Orleans. I stayed awhile. I travelled all over Tennessee, Louisiana and Georgia.
Back in Vancouver, I painted whirligigs and parade floats. I continued to write. I got some stuff published. I was antsy. I was invited to perform at East Meets West, a festival where Vancouver and Quebec City artists perform together. I met a musician and followed him to the land of my family roots. We formed a band and played his music and my words and got a drummer. We played every Thursday at Pape George in the old port. During the day I taught English at a bookstore. From there I did book reviews for CBC and eventually, CBC invited me to be a researcher, writer-broadcaster and host.
CBC gave me writing and hosting gigs in Montreal, Winnipeg, Windsor, and eventually, Toronto where I lived with my sister, my friend in the film industry ( who once flew me to Sweden to spend a month writing a screenplay together) and with a friend living between Queen and Dundas. For reasons mysterious to me, I got a corner suite at the mother corp and I wrote, edited, interviewed and narrated docs for two flagship shows, and freelanced for others. I wrote book reviews for The Globe & Mail at the same time. I wrote poems, stories, essays and radio. And I drove to Michigan every chance I got to be with my new bluesman beau who eventually gave me a backup vocals job and we toured on and off together. We lived together on and off in California and Michigan.
On and off. That’s been my life. Til I got here, Val Marie via a few other stops along the way. Val Marie is a rest which is, it turns out, better than a change.