It was the burnished icon hour, where all feels forgiven, and all outcomes can only be for the good: the child walking across the village campground behind my home, on the way to his supper, the dust-throwing truck returning from a day at the farm, the eagle, golden, drifting slow and soundless, toward the top of the cottonwood tree, all are glazed in an amber benediction. In Quebec they call this entre chien et loup, between the dog and the wolf. Crepuscule, is another word for it. Filmmakers call it magic hour. As a child, if I looked up at clouds at dusk or after rain and saw them limned platinum with solid rays streaming forth, I was told that was hands from Heaven.
Susan, from the cozy ‘resort’ on the edge of the Grasslands called The Crossing, came by to claim her collage, the one she bought from my exhibit which I took down last week. We sat in my living room, the power flickering on and off, as we watched an approaching storm. I ground some coffee beans for our visit but also for the next morning in case the power went out for another twenty-one hours, like it had just two days earlier. I did a quick search for my flash-lights and pulled out my camp stove. Susan suggested I also fill my tub with water.
My back door, all glass, revealed the golden setting sun, too bright to stare at. Through the front window loomed a dark indigo sky, with torn bits of pink, and sudden forks of lightning. There were two men outside taking pictures, strangers. They were waving and pointing, and I stepped outside for a minute to see why the kerfuffle. “You better brace yourself for a big one!”, one of them hollered. Really? I thought, because we’ve only had one storm this summer, and maybe a few nights of lightning, but none of them amounted to much more. But I didn’t say anything. And sure enough, it passed without a drop.
While we sat in my living room, between the gold front yard and the black back, Susan and I spoke of “betweenness”. It’s why I wanted your piece, she said, indicating the collage entitled “Crossroads”. The image consists of a young Cree girl, a Gleaner woman, an RCMP officer, circled around a painted turtle, up-side down, holding them in awe. As I was making the collage I was thinking about the phrase “when worlds collide”, and how fear and its false front, bravado, have a way of causing collisions, whereas a sense of wonder and curiosity allows for a less imposing encounter. Is there a way I can create images that consider what happens when cultures conjoin, conspire, collude, co-exist? Not that I want to re-create history and give it a cozy veneer, but I do yearn to take stock of where we are with less bombast and defensiveness and more subtle awareness and acknowledgment of the many legitimate ways we could experience the world.
When Susan first set eyes on the collage she said: That’s the labyrinth! All summer Susan and her husband Neil worked, with an international team of builders, on a labyrinth of standing stones erected in a back field. She engaged a local farmer and his backhoe and became friends with his family. The team helped clear and place stones during one of the hottest and driest summers on record. Last winter, when the labyrinth was still a dream, we walked the spot she chose for its home and lay in the centre and I felt the earth suck my sad energy from me.
My own experience of a labyrinth- not to be confused with a maze which is a higgelty-piggelty confusion of walls and doorways- was once in a church nave and several other times in front of the Eaton Centre, one of Toronto’s busiest locations. Moving physically from the outer circle to the heart of the circle was an invitation to also move from the outside to the inside, consciously. The physical space and time required to make one’s way to the centre allows for conscious consideration of mental, outer chatter and gives us an opportunity to let it drop away, or at least get quieter, and move to a place of authentic self deeper within, under the noise, where an inner peace awaits, at the centre. Or so I’ve been told!.
What draws me to the experience of walking a labyrinth is the same thing that draws me to look from the golden back yard sky to the black front yard sky: there seems to be a wealth of potential energy in that moment of passage between outside and inside. If we have enough time to notice that pregnant possibility, we can become aware of the many times we are standing on thresholds, at crossroads in our lives, and we can make more proactive creative decisions and maybe not have so many reactive responses.
The Crossroads is a threshold. While living in Memphis I had the opportunity to go on a road trip that was a paradigm-shifting, I dare say, life-changing, experience. It involved heading for the Mississippi crossroads of Highways 61 and 49. It also involved a dream spurred by a late night reading of Black Elk speaks, a dead turtle, a couple dozen baby frogs, a truck with a faulty starter, a bandanna and a bottle of Dr. Japo’s un-hexing oil from Schwabbs dry goods store on Beale Street. Blues lovers recognize the crossroads as the spot where blues man Robert Johnson purportedly sold his soul to the devil to become the greatest ever blues man. I won’t go into all that transpired, except to say that at the spot where myth and reality merged, where legend and life co-mingled, my own dreamworld and daily life also came together, face-to-face, and then did a little dance. It was dumbfounding, exhilarating, intense, momentous and very spooky.
The one thing I remember from my Greek mythology class at university was not the names of the major players, but the fact of the numens of places, the “gods of a twinkling of an eye”, as they were called, who stand present at transitional moments, and are held responsible for the smoothness or rockiness of the transitions underway. I’m just glad we found the crossroads before the giant plastic guitars were installed. I imagine the gods or spirits scrambling for the hills or the mighty Mississippi, away from all the commercial static.
There is confusion when worlds collide, and the uneasiness that confusion creates makes living in the in-between uncomfortable. The rush to pin things down, name them, give them their rightful place in our world is part of the need for certainty in a reality that will always be uncertain. The buddhist nun Pema Chodron writes “when we find ourselves in a place of discomfort and fear, when we’re in a dispute, when the doctor says we need tests to see what’s wrong, we’ll find we want to blame, to take sides, to stand our ground. We feel we must have some resolution. We want to hold our familiar view.” But, she continues, being “right” is just an extreme- as extreme as being “wrong”. Deep inside is an innate wisdom, as she calls it, that will allow us to reside in the middle, a place that is a “juicy”, “fruitful” place to be because, eventually, we begin to experience the present moment in all its clarity and freshness.
Some people call that: “living in the paradox”. Before I heard that term I was coming to the daily conclusion that the only predictable thing about people was they were unpredictable, they contradict themselves constantly. Walt Whitman would say: hey, so what, I contradict myself, “I am huge, I contain multitudes. “That’s all very well, Walt, I would say, but then how do I rely on you, or anyone else, for that matter? (It hadn’t occurred to me, yet, to include myself in the mix). But paradox is just another word for contradiction, a word less spoiling for a fight, capable of resting in-between, more willing to be pleasantly surprised.
As the collage passed from my hands to Susan’s, I felt a pang of tenderness for the crossroads characters in the frame: girl, man, ghost, peasant, and, the uniting force of the turtle- a creature who lives between land and water, tender neck peeking outside and protected body inside his hard shell. She drove away in the gold-black evening light and I reached, once again for my guitar, and the song I am practicing for my part in an upcoming musical drama at the Lyric Theatre. There’s a part in the song that requires delicate but precise phrasing, and I want to do it justice. It goes: “I was caught between two different worlds, one old and one in the making, one for giving and one for taking…and I don’t understand all the reasons I was caught between two different worlds, just like the changing of the seasons.”
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. Madonna will be giving an artists talk in Maple Creek about the stories behind her art and sources Sun., Nov. 5 at 2 p.m. at the Jasper Cultural & Historical Centre.