The Key to Being a Great House Guest

They say traveling fosters appreciation for your own home; I say having the right kind of guests can do the same thing. We just had family from Pennsylvania stay with us for a week and their visit was an eye-opener for us. A huge pour of vitality into our sense of place. Yes, this is what Canada is like! Yep, this is the prairies! Welcome to our piece of it! every conversation seemed to say, because they were gracious enough to appreciate the nuances we take for granted and show interest in our lives.

The day before our guests arrive my daughters and I are driving home from the lake, trying to mentally prepare for their visit. We are thinking of tips to send them as they embark on their Saskatchewan vacation. Susanna has a scrap of paper and is jotting down our ideas as we come up with them.

“There’s a subtle beauty here,” I say. “It’s not a fast-food, cheap kinda love.” Susanna scribbles it down. “You won’t be bowled over by mountains and oceans and forest.” The big sky, train whistles, and open space grow on you slowly until, one day, you find your attachment to this place goes as deep as the alfalfa roots that chisel through the soil.

We pass by a derelict farmyard. And then another. The canola is in full bloom now and green wheat carpets the fields. A clutch of old grain bins stand together, dying on the land. The wood is aged and rotting and there are gaping holes where the harvest was once kept safe. I think of the picturesque towns of Lancaster County–where our family is coming from–the antique brick buildings, tidy gardens and picket fences. “How do we describe the oldness around here?” I ask the girls. “It’s not a quaint kind of look, but more of a collapsing-in-a-swamp abandonment.”

We pencil in a few more notes and Belén suddenly comments, “You know what’s weird? All of these things sound horrible but when you put them together they describe a place I love.”

Dave, Katrina, and Eli arrive before we complete the list.  Dave helps Stan trench in electrical lines for our new workshop. Katrina makes herself at home in my garden and serves up kale and lemon balm smoothies on a daily basis. Eli slides into routine around here as if getting into an old pair of slippers: eat, play ball, read, repeat. We take them to “our” lake, go for early morning walks on the flats, and play guitar, banjo, fiddle, and the spoons. We build a stage, paint murals and host a house concert together. They have tea with our neighbour, play checkers in the park, and run errands with my girls. The whole time I am learning from them what it means to be a guest.

full patio listening to Kim de Laforest and Greg Simm

When we travel we often stay with friends or family along the way. It’s on these trips that I notice what makes a great host… fresh flowers, comfy pillows, relaxed, no-fuss attitudes. We all love how Uncle Herb and Aunt Vera offer an island full of cheeses, dips, crackers and fruit for grazing. (“Herb and Vera’s” has become common lingo in our house for putting out snacks.) Now, as we host, I am reminding myself how I want to be as a guest.

Dave, Katrina and Eli stay seven days. Seven days can be a long time. It’s 21 meals and shared bathrooms, couches and morning routines. Seven days can seem like an interminable visit or a short week, depending on the dynamics. In our case, it’s the latter and here’s why: they care about the life we are making. They show interest in our home, garden, friends, projects, weather, politics, economy, favourite books, food, and just about everything else.

I realize the most important thing you can do for your hosts is appreciate their home. This doesn’t mean pretending to like it more than your own, where corn on the cob is ready 2 months earlier and the lush countryside is as charming as a page from a storybook. It doesn’t require feigned compliments or making comparisons. It means trying to understand the culture and the community. It means asking questions. About the dragonflies, about the climate, about the plants. It means observing all you can. It means commenting on what is life-giving so that your hosts see their place with new eyes. All of this converts burden into blessing and makes your visit an honour.

Dave and Stan serenading someone to sleep?

Katrina harvesting spinach

Happy travels this summer. Now go notice and bless!


PS. Here’s a link to Kim de Laforest and Greg Simm (the musicians we hosted) playing in a very COOL location!

PSS. And another to Katrina’s Soulful Community page 🙂




Being Forty

I couldn’t wait to turn 40. This is what it is like so far…

* * *

Being 40 is running with my daughter and lagging behind. She lopes on easily and seems surprised when I can’t keep up. “What’s wrong? ” she asks. “You’re not really trying,” she suggests kindly. “You could run this fast if you wanted to.”

Being 40 is growing food, buying food, preparing food, serving food, packing food, storing food and thinking about food.

Being 40 is keeping the extra leaves in the dining room table and surplus chairs nearby for last-minute guests.

Being 40 is hanging on to your brother’s shoulder while watching the the birth of his new baby girl. It is weeping at the beauty of her glorious entrance, her head full of black hair, and the way she moves her lips as if she is trying out her mouth for the first time. Which she kinda is.

Being 40 is knowing more about–but never taming–mother nature. It is puzzling over dead watermelon transplants, shriveled beans, and spotty spinach; it is showing off my heavily-mulched garden paths, and glowing with pride over ruby-red strawberries and an early lettuce crop.

Being 40 is staunchly supporting my local library with over-due book fines. (Besides protesting provincial funding cuts by lobbying government offices.)

Being 40 is watching my husband lift a frame full of honeybees, gently scraping off the burr comb while talking to “his girls” (the bees), and wondering if there is anyone more creative, curious, and productive than the person I married.

Being 40 is craving solitude and silence and long walks alone when I can listen to the wind in the poplars.

Being 40 is dressing, feeding, serving, wiping, directing, disciplining, consoling, talking and listening to other people nearly all of my waking moments.

Being 40 is wondering what to say when my child dives into her bed, sobbing on her pillow while your heart breaks beside hers.

Being 40 is sitting on a beach with friends, who by now almost qualify for the homey title of “old friends”, talking about traditions we have started together with our families.

Being 40 is sliding into my chair at the restaurant, overhearing my mom point out to the waitress that I am the “birthday child”.

Being 40 is feeling grateful that someone still cares for and thinks of me as a child.

Being 40 is inhaling the morning-breath of my two-year old, thankful I still have a child with whom I share a mutual enthusiasm for physical affection.

Being 40 is buying a mini-van at long last and driving around the neighbourhood while my kids roll down the windows of their cavernous ride, shouting the good news of our purchase to all passersby.

Being 40 is remembering what it was like to turn 25 when I lived in Bolivia and ate a gluten-filled cake for the very last time.

Being 40 is taking ridiculously long, hot showers as a small act of rebellion in the face of the conservationist, socially-responsible life we try to lead.

Being 40 is choosing lemonade and water over any cocktail, wine or beer because I still hate the taste of alcohol.

Being 40 is wearing my experience on my skin. It is finding new saggy spots, like the eyelids that don’t stick to my eye-sockets as well as they used to.

Being 40 is strenuously weighing simple decisions while a parade of people marches through my mind. “How will she feel? Will he be happy?” I ask as I consider each person in the clamour and how they will be affected by my choices.

Being 40 is feeling like 17 one day and 57 the next.

Being 40 is waking up on an ordinary day flush with miracles. Breath. The colour green. And candles that mean I’m still alive on this spinning earth.




How to Build a Garage and Deceive Everyone Around You

I am continually amazed by other people’s perceptions of our life. For example, a nice lady who regularly disc-golfs in the park behind our house struck up a conversation with Stan last night. He was working on our new workshop, applying a final coat of sealant to the concrete. “You know,” she said, “I just love watching each stage of the build and how your whole family is working together on this project. You’re creating such special memories for your children!”

Later, Stan relays her comment to me I burst out laughing. Her words are hilarious because they take me by surprise and I know the reality behind the scenes she views from the park. I don’t blame her though; I might very well say the same about another family in another time or place. And when she walks by and sees a young girl up on the roof with her father, both of them laying down shingles in the late afternoon sun while their faces glow with dedication to a common goal (or is it impatience and frustration), it must be truly heartwarming. Why wouldn’t she be sentimental when she catches a glimpse of the husband-and-wife team handling sheets of OSB together, carefully securing them to the roof overhead. For all she knows they could be teasing each other lovingly as they dance around the saws and scaffolding, talking about their courting days or their dreams for the future.

What the nice disc-golfer doesn’t know is that this man’s alarm goes at 4:30 am so he can get to work at the mine and then return home to put in another few hours building before falling back into bed. Or that the wife feels pulled in a thousand directions and that she’s useless with the drill and does everything twice as slow as she should. Or that the children have been nagged, threatened and forced to work by ultimatums.

Which is why I find the casual conversation between my husband and the lady so fascinating. Honestly, wouldn’t it be great to be in the life that other people assume you are living? As far as the memory-making sentiment goes, I can only hope the patina of time photo-shops these moments into how the on-lookers perceive them. Then, one day, I will saunter down a back lane, perhaps wearing a sun-visor with my frisbee under my arm, and see a family hard at work together. And I will think, Ahh… those were the days. What precious memories they must be making.

Stan’s parents came from Indiana to help us! Here Stan and his dad are discussing the next steps…

digging a trench to insulate the concrete

I’m sorry there are no pictures of my beautiful children at work. I’m often too busy shouting at them to pick up my camera.

All Business

Disclosure: The following post includes a recipe, an advertisement, a book recommendation, and more propaganda…

Nathanael crouches and drops bean seeds into the trench I made with my hoe. Vivian is there beside him and throws her handful into a pile and begins to cover them up, all lumped together. When I protest, Nathanael squints up at me and stares.

“Why are you wearing that?” He is looking at the huge hat I just put on to cover my huge head. “Are you a farmer?”

I straighten up and throw my shoulders back. I am pleased with this four-year-old’s question. “Yes,” I say, spreading my arms to point to the  budding raspberries, quivering garlic stalks, blooming cherry and plum, trailing strawberries and spiking asparagus. “This is my farm.”

Nathaneal isn’t convinced. “You can’t be a farmer because you don’t have a barn,” he concludes. I agree with him partly–barns and outbuildings are very useful things for farmers to have, and then we keep working.

After we finish planting the beans he helps me unload a few wheelbarrow loads of mulch and waters the emerging snap peas.  By the time his older brother gets off the bus he’s changed his mind about my title. Still holding the watering can, he waves it at his brother and shouts, “Look Josiah, she’s a farmer!”

Right now we’re harvesting asparagus, green onions, rhubarb, and dandelion roots on our “farm”. It is a pleasant sort of vindication to pull foot-long roots out of the earth, knowing they will become a smooth part of my spring morning ritual. Turning them into coffee is the best way to up-cycle these medicinal plants in my opinion. (And believe me, I’ve tried all manner of recipes.) In fact, if I was inclined to market goods I might actually sell this stuff, but instead I’ll try to sell you on this retreat…

There are a few spots left and early bird pricing lasts until next week. Come be a part of it! Watch this short interview on CTV News to get a better idea of what it’s about. (I come on at 13:25 minutes.)

This book.

Image result for annie dillard the writing life

I  have 3 hours to myself every week when Vivi goes to daycare. During these mornings alone I only do Very Important Things, which usually means walking, praying, and writing. Last week I used 30 precious minutes to copy passages from Annie Dillard’s book. Here is one of my favourites:

“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

And finally, one last advertisement.

No automatic alt text available.No automatic alt text available.

My nieces and nephews have started their own business, Three Huggers, creating sustainable beeswax wraps with the help of their parents. I love wrapping my children’s sandwiches in them; their fabric designs almost transform lunch prep into a festivity instead of a mad rush to throw some ham between two slices of bread. Here’s their FB page and Etsy account where you can flood them with orders 🙂

Have a wonderful weekend ahead!

Last wkd was mostly all backbreaking work except for Sunday afternoon, which was mostly all about water, fresh fish, fire, and friends.

PS. If you haven’t been getting notified when I post (and you’ve signed up for email notification) try entering your email address again. If that doesn’t work, leave a comment and let me know!

Chocolate feet and Vanilla Ears

It feels like I’ve had a long day already and I check the clock to confirm my suspicion. Unbelievably it reads 10:09, which means it’s still mid-morning, not even late morning! Saron and Vivi are at home with me and acting like two and five-year-olds. They want snacks, they want help with their shoes, they want me to go outside with them, they want me to come back inside with them, and the problem with this is not that they want so much, but that I do. Besides looking after them, I have my own agenda for the day. Unfortunately our agendas don’t complement each other very well. The grant application that needs to be finished, the phone call to Napa Auto for car parts, the basil that needs transplanting, or the pizza dough that needs mixing aren’t top priority for the vocal majority. When I feel myself becoming a little unhinged I know it’s time to sit and read a book with them.

“It’s Saron’s turn to pick,” I say.

Saron brings The Arrival, the book she always chooses, to the couch where she hops up beside me. When I see her choice I groan inwardly. It’s one of my favourites but it’s a graphic short story, the kind with beautiful drawings and NO WORDS, which means I have to make up the narration as we go along. Which means I don’t get to think about my to-do list as I drone on about Amelia Bedelia or Strawberry Shortcake. Which means I actually have to be engaged.

The story opens with a father leaving his home country for a new land. We talk about long journeys, learning a new language, eating strange foods, fleeing and finding a new home, migrants and refugees. When we get to the last page, the one with the migrant’s daughter helping someone else who has just arrived, we pause for a long time. Mostly because the story is so beautiful, but partly because it’s hard to know what to do with the next moment after finishing a good book.

My eyes drift to Saron’s and Vivi’s feet sticking straight off of the couch. Their toenails are long and dirty from all this barefoot weather.

“Ew! That’s disgusting. We need to cut your nails.” Nobody responds or moves as we all stare ahead, still subdued from the book.

After a bit Vivi says something and it’s far more diplomatic than my comment.

“I love your chocolate feet Saron.”

Saron looks at her feet thoughtfully. Then she looks across my lap at Vivi.

“I love your vanilla feet. And… and,” her eyes trail up and down Vivian’s body, “… your… vanilla EARS!”

Then they lean across my lap to to press their foreheads together and bathe in their mutual affection. Perhaps even they know the warm fuzzy feeling won’t last long. In the next 15 minutes they will be fighting over the trike or vying for the biggest cookie but this moment redeems my morning. It’s only 10:27 am and the day suddenly carries a little more potential.

Wishing you love for all flavours of ears and toes and moments that make your day move a little faster,



Belén and I stand beside each other, peering through the bus depot windows to get a glimpse of my sister. A Greyhound bus, headed west to Vancouver, has just pulled up and the lights flicker on while passengers grabbing pillows and backpacks wait to get off.

“There she is!” Belén says. We see a slim figure with long hair waving at us from inside the bus. Belén jumps up and down and I rise on tip-toes, both of us grinning and waving back.

This is the beginning of our biennial girl-get-away and it’s a first for Belén. The family tradition started about a decade ago and all our daughters know they’ll be invited when they are twelve; Belén is thrilled it’s finally her turn.

Once all four of us–my mom, sister, daughter and I–settle into our hotel room Tara cracks open a box of Du Soleil macarons. I have never tasted anything quite like them. What I thought would be dry and sickly sweet is smooth and surprising. We read from the legend of flavours and pause over each one, as if choosing from a box of artisanal chocolates.

“Aren’t we lucky to be here with these two?” my mother asks Belén while gesturing toward my sister and me.

“Yeah,” Belén agrees, biting into a London Fog macaron. “It’s my mom and Auntie Tara who are the icing. We’re the stuff on either end.”


All of us are giddy to be together. I reminisce about dubbing my mom and sister “Mommy #2” and “Mommy #3” after Belén was born. Stan and I had just returned after years of volunteering in Bolivia, Tara and her husband were between their own global adventures, and all of us were living under one roof, including my dad, younger brother, and cousin Larry–who had come to help with the harvest. While the men spent their days and nights on the wheat fields, Tara and my mom (who was teaching full-time) took turns feeding everyone and looking after the new baby and her blubbering mother.

Now, with Belen snuggled between us on the couch, her legs as long as my own, it all seems blurry and distant.  My mom and sister are joking about who was really number two or three when I interrupt them,

“I think we need some sort of ritual to induct Belén into the weekend. Maybe a ceremony to mark her rite-of-passage? What else could we do to recognize her as a woman of our clan?”

Tara turns to Belén. “Do you like it when your mom talks like this?”

“Umm…no, not really. But she’s always kinda weird.”

I don’t protest because this isn’t the first time I’ve heard her say that and I choose to take it as a compliment. Besides, my sister reminds her that she’s got a lot of her mother in her. Belén agrees.

“Oh yeah?” I say. “Like what?” I’m curious to hear what she thinks we have in common.

“Well, I like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, just like you.”

Hmm. Well, that’s a start, I guess.


Tara and Belén

On the way to the MTC theatre to watch a play, my mom discusses her own divergent daughters. We’ve been talking about using beeswax food wraps instead of plastic cling wrap and my mom says, “Honestly Belén, I have no idea where your mom and auntie come from. They certainly don’t get all that gardening, and artsy, earthy stuff from me.”

And that’s when I realize I’ve been framing this weekend all wrong. While running to find our seats at the theatre, soaking in the hot-tub,  and ambling through Osborne village I’ve been telling her what it means to be a Friesen-Wiens woman. Instead I should be shouting:

You belong! No matter who you resemble or what you are interested in. You are a Wiens-Janzen-Friesen-Siemens-Myer-Lefever-Yoder-Reed and you carry traces of each generation in your blood and bones. From the farmers and teachers, carpenters and gypsies, dreamers and do-ers, to those who survived war and fled persecution. All of them have left their mark. Who knows how their passions, fiery tempers, smiles, cancers, laughter, depressions, dimples, fears, senses of humour and impulses have made you who you are. And yet, despite all these genetic influences,  you are a unique creation. You will choose your own way. And when you do, remember that you belong. You belong not because you act, sound, or think like anyone else, but because you are part of something bigger than yourself. Relatives matter and they don’t; they don’t have to dictate who we become but they remind us we are not created in a vacuum. Whether we like it or not, we are linked to a certain chunk of humanity. We are born into community, healthy or otherwise. So go forward, be who you are–even if it’s not a carbon copy of your mother, aunt or grandma–and know you are not alone. You belong to a long line of people who have come before you.



After we spend two or three hours at the Human Rights Museum we all need some fresh air. We find a spot near the river without too much goose poop, throw down a blanket, and dig into the chips, chocolate, nuts, and fruit we brought along. While laying in the sun, someone thanks Belén for her idea to have a picnic. Which, by the way, is the very thing her mother would have suggested.


All winter long we slide across our backyard ice-rink

then trek through the snow, past the naked raspberry canes,

to dispose of our garbage.

Orange peels,

mouldy spaghetti sauce,

used coffee grounds,

rotten potatoes,

and eggshells

create a frozen palette in our compost bin.

When the geese return

and the snow shrinks to reveal the muddy,

beaten grass,

it’s time.



Shalain calls to tell me her 44-year old friend is gone.

They carried her body,

piled with flowers her children laid on her,

out of her home where she died.



The pitch fork stabs through the kitchen slime and

and pulls out a tangle of last year’s tomatoe vines.

I dump in dry leaves, then stop to moisten each layer.

A season’s worth of waste begins to heat.


Five days after I mix the beastly pile

I check for signs of life,

plunging my hand into the rank darkness.

The deeper

I go

the warmer

it gets

until it is

not only warm

but hot

and I squeal at the same old miracle.

From the broken, discarded, trampled and rotten

springs potential.

Billions of microbes pulse with new life.



Sandy’s funeral was last week.

She was too young, too vibrant to go.

Death came anyway.

She smiles in her memorial photograph

with her arms raised triumphantly.

I wonder if any embalmer has arranged

a body in the casket like that.



Six weeks after tackling the pile

I wheelbarrow the fresh compost to its new home.

I would carry it teaspoon by teaspoon if I had to.

When I transfer it to the garden box

not a single crumble slips off my spade.


Everything discarded has become precious.

Bacteria sings the chorus of resurrection.

Easter hums through creation.

Death is not the end.

It never is.

Not even in a pile of garbage.

*Photo credit: