BY MADONNA HAMEL
Yesterday the temperature plummeted to -46. I was expected in Gravelbourg to tell some stories to a group of “tots” at the library. I managed to talk my pal Page to come along. “And hey, let’s take your car, what with its heated seats and functioning defroster!” I suggested. One of Canada’s finest nature photographers, Page spends hours observing the animals he photographs. In fact, observing him subjugate all plans and schemes to the meanderings and behaviours of his subjects has changed my theory that the camera creates a buffer between us and the world. In his case, the camera is his ticket into the world, it’s what holds him in a meditative state as much as a measured breath or a repeated mantra. His camera is a story-telling device.
On the drive to Gravelbourg I asked if he’d listen to the story I plan to tell the kids.
“Go for it”, he said, lowering the blast of the car heater.
“Ok. Here goes: ‘I like turtles. Actually, I love turtles. I like most animals, but Turtle became a Big Love when she came into my life one night, in a dream. She came to me as a drawing, a cartoon. She came to me and has never left.
I was living in Memphis, Tennessee. I like to listen to a kind of music called the blues which is very simple and beautiful and often sad, sung by people we often forget. The stories in the songs are honest and not perfect- like, sometimes the words change or the singer’s voice cracks or the story goes on and on and on, into the night. But the singer mostly feels better, maybe even free, after the song is sung.’”
“Complex thoughts. Maybe have to, you know, make it more kid-friendly.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know. I’ll play it as it goes. The ages could be anywhere from five to fifteen. I just want to say: that I remembered thinking in those bars on Beale Street every night- don’t worry I won’t mention the bars- that it was honesty that brought me close to freedom, not perfection. May I continue?”
I continued telling my story about the man who wanted to the be the best blues musician in the world. How he would do anything to be the best and win the love of everyone- other musicians, beautiful women and music producers who would pay him so they could record his music for the world. He just had to do one thing: he has to sell his soul to the devil.
“The devil bit might be tricky.”
“I know. I have to finesse that. But you gotta have a devil to be counterpoint to the soul, right?”
“Right. You couldn’t just read them ‘If You Give A Pig A Pancake’? Not esoteric enough? How about the Piper From the Gates of Dawn Section in ‘Wind in the Willows’? That’s pretty out there!”
I continued. “He goes to the place where two roads meet, he sells his soul, and it works: he becomes famous almost overnight. His most famous song is ‘Standing at the Crossroads’. He is suddenly attractive to everyone and his guitar playing makes everyone weep happy and sad tears. Imagine being so good you can make people feel everything they can possibly feel in one song. And then he dies, very young. Poisoned by a jealous man. But the story lives on.
“ I got it into my head that I wanted to go to this place, the very spot in Mississippi where highway 49 crosses highway 61. So I asked my friend Mike and he said let’s go tomorrow! I was very excited about the trip and couldn’t sleep so I picked up ‘Black Elk Speaks’, a book I just started reading, about a Sioux Indian Holy Man. In the story Black Elk has a dream where horses lead him to a place where two roads meet. The horses remind him that every animal is there for a reason. They repeat these words: ‘They are appearing, may you behold’. Which means, take a long look at what is in front of you.”
I read til I fell asleep, with my glasses on and my book fallen on my face. I had a beautiful dream and the first thing I did when I woke was grab a pen and draw what I saw in my dream onto my bandanna. I saw a Turtle, a cartoon turtle, just a circle with a head and tail and feet, sitting in the middle of a bigger circle, with wavy lines coming out in four directions. ‘How do you do, Turtle’, I whispered as I tied my bandanna around my head. ‘I have a feeling we are going to be good friends’.
In Black Elk’s dream the plants and animals taught him how, by making friends with them and watching, listening, waiting patiently, we will learn all we need to know.
That morning Mike and I drove through small towns in Mike’s old blue truck. Kids and dogs played in fields, people stopped what they were doing and watched as we passed. It started to thunder but there was no lightning and no rain. We stopped for ice-cold cokes.
Just before it got dark we found the old 49 highway. Then where it met 61. We sat in the truck for a bit. I felt like we pulled up to the North Pole and were waiting for Santa to wave us over for a look at what the elves have been up to.
Eventually, I shoved the truck door open and jumped to the ground. I fell forward. I got my balance, lifted a foot and there it was. A turtle. Dead in her shell.
‘Holy cow!’ I shouted to Mike.’Look! I dreamt this.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Look!’ And I yanked my bandanna off my head to show him the drawing.”
“In Memphis I used this animal deck.” I showed Page some cards with pictures of animals and descriptions of their totemic powers according to North American indigenous teachings. The idea is that every animal has a power, gift, lesson, strength. By pulling a card from the deck you can use that animal as a for the day. “ Turtle is the card for Mother Earth. Our home.”
Just then Page spotted the fifth snowy owl of the drive. “May you behold.”