A literary Experiment

Geez Magazine has just published an essay of mine on their site. You can find me over there today:)…

Photo Credit: James White

I don’t have time to write an essay. I don’t have time to outline my points, think of a snappy ending, or edit several drafts until it’s ready for submission. Rather than staring out my window while I let ideas take shape I should be washing last night’s supper dishes or running to the store to get toilet-bowl cleaner. But instead I give in to my craving, jot down the time, 8:43 p.m., and start scribbling.

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Happening Here

Susanna pounds out the Russian Sailor Dance on our upright piano. She plays it about five times faster, and eight times louder, than necessary. Our living area echoes with minor chords until no one hears what anyone else is saying even though we are all shouting. I marvel at the sheer quantity of sound produced by this piece of wood and metal, well over 100 years old. Once I sit down to play the teacher duet part with the bass notes, neither of us want to stop. We play it over and over, faster and faster, louder and louder, laughing and thrilled with ourselves. A half-hour later we will forget our excitement and camaraderie. A half-hour later the moment will have evaporated into anger. She will cry. I will lose my temper. She will refuse to change her attitude. I will yell. But for now we are dancing together with the ivory keys.

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Stan is bee crazy right now. He’s ordering all the supplies and bees he needs to try bee-keeping again this spring. (The wild hive he captured a few years back didn’t make it through their first winter). He spends hours researching, contacting bee-keepers and chuckling about all the honey we’ll be harvesting. His buddy Kevin is in on it with him, and they scheme and text each other like two teenagers.

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I wonder if the famous lines of Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day are often taken out of context. The way I read it, she’s not asking people what their career plans are, what they want to stroke off their bucket list, or how they will use their influence, fame or money to leave their mark on this world. In fact, the poem is not really about doing anything but, rather, just being. It makes me happy to look at the words on our chalkboard even if nobody else who reads them has ever seen the rest of the poem.

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Registration is now open for Wonderscape on the Prairie and I feel like I’ve just jumped off the high diving board. I’ve spent hours planning, researching venues, contacting artists and musicians, writing emails, putting details together on the website and now my role changes. As people sign up it becomes more of an experience created by the community of participants and less of the-project-that-lives-inside-my-head. Come to Last Mountain Lake, SK and be a part of it. I’d love to meet you!

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Susanna carefully draws the mini-greenhouse and adds the label watermelon to 3 squares on our map. She and I have each made a few concessions; she gets to plant flowers and watermelon again (she insists the fruit were huge and sweet last year, I remember them as a puny waste of garden space), and I get to plant more than my share of basil and tomatoes. After all the seeds are covered and set in the sun we stare at the earthy possibility of tomatoe sauce, fresh bouquets, and dessert. A few days later I hear a shopper complaining about the price of cucumbers. “Why are they $2.50 here? They’re only a dollar at Walmart right now! ” he informs the Superstore employee. Has this man ever saved seed from a rotting cucumber? Has he ever covered this seed with a blanket of dirt and waited for it to burst forth with life? Or set his transplants out, an hour a day, to harden them to the reality of the outdoors? How many hours has he weeded and watered, then weeded some more? And what about the harvesting and cleaning? Has he stopped to think about all this while he holds a long, perfectly shaped cucumber, in the middle of March, that only costs two dollars and fifty cents?

A couple days after seeding, the first sprouts appear. We try to guess whose plants came up first; I’m rooting for the basil, Susanna hopes it’s one of hers. We consult the map and identify them as morning glories! Susanna is thrilled and so am I. They’re not edible, but they’re still a green miracle.

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“Who wants to go for a walk?” Rebecca asks.

“I do!” Belén answers emphatically. She’s been busy lately with play practise, guitar lessons, piano lessons and youth group and is relieved to have an evening off with nothing to do but walk to nowhere. By the time they are ready to leave the house their group has swelled from two to eight walkers, ages 2 to 39. None of us want to stay inside when it is almost 7 o’clock and still light outside. Once we get out of town I shout, “Who wants to run?”

Free starts counting, “One, two, three…” and we are off. Clomping, skipping, and shuffling in snow boots, galoshes, heeled boots, and runners. We risk breaking through paper-thin ice and slide on frozen puddles, we cartwheel on a mat of dead grass, and we look at the clouds. We are like children waiting for their parents to wake up on Christmas morning. Wake up world! Wake up dead grass! The light is coming back! It’s time to wake up!

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Susanna’s Ukrainian Easter eggs. More to come…

Becoming Family

My friend Free, her daughter Saron, Vivi, and I are wandering around Seedy Saturday together. I’ve been volunteering at the seed swap but now I want to take a look at all the other vendors before the event closes. We stop at a table selling popcorn and soon the lady behind the table is giving Saron a piece of gum. Saron pops it in her mouth, her eyes sparkling, and then asks the vendor a question. The lady doesn’t hear her at first so she asks louder, “Can I please have a another piece for my sister?”

I am holding Vivi on my hip when she makes the request and smile because I know what is coming next. Saron doesn’t have any biological siblings and her relatives live half-a-world away in Addis Ababa, but the lady doesn’t know that.

“Of course!” the lady replies and gently shakes her Dentyne container so that a shiny little square falls into Saron’s open hand. Saron quickly wraps her fingers around it, ducks behind her mom and appears before Vivian and me with an outstretched arm. “Here’s your gum Vivi! You have to chew, chew, chew!” Saron says, half-shouting like she always does when she’s excited, which is just about all the time.

“Oh,” the lady starts, looking confused and surprised, “I thought maybe you were going to take it home to your sister.”

Free and I both laugh. “We are family,” I say, but don’t explain anything more. Perhaps she thinks we are a couple; one black mom, one white mom and their blended children. Neither of us offer more information and we walk away from the table, both girls chawing vigorously.

When Free first came to Canada a year ago she wouldn’t stop cleaning my house. Whenever I begged her to put away the broom she would tell me firmly. “No Tree-sha. Like sistah.” At that point I appreciated the sentiment and was touched by her open heart, but didn’t really consider our relationship to be sister-like. Then as the months passed something changed. It happened slowly. While she and Saron slept over many nights, while her daughter fell asleep in my arms, while she taught Belén how to braid Saron’s hair, while she became Vivi’s safest place outside of our home, while we tried roasting coffee the Ethiopian way on our back step (and failed), while eating injera and kolo together, while going to doctor’s appointments, while talking on the phone with her relatives in Ethiopia, while crying together, praying together and trying to read each other’s Bibles together, while applying for jobs, while cheering on Belén’s basketball team, and of course, while cleaning together.

When the school bus is cancelled due to a blizzard, Free and Saron wade a block-and-a-half through the snow to spend the day with us. After playing a few games, watching the kids perform dance routines, and drinking tea with honey, Free tells me, “Now it’s time to go downstairs and work.” I don’t even protest because I know it’s futile; she’s already heard me talk about my to-do list for the day. “What I’m gonna do?” she says as we survey the laundry piles, boxes of material, cheese-making supplies, bags of recycling, fermenting wine, and everything else in between. I tell her I have the same question, but soon she starts organizing all my canning paraphernalia. Somehow, in the darkest corner of my basement, she manages to bring order, throwing out buckets of dried herbs and medicinal flowers, and arranging jars and lids according to size. While we work we listen to Ethiopian music, talking a little, but mostly just comfortable not saying anything at all.

When we do talk we learn a lot from each other. I tell her about our most recent trip to DC and visiting Mount Vernon, (George Washington’s estate). When I get to the part about our kids meeting a costumed interpreter dressed as a slave, I ask her if she’s familiar with American history. She is not. I wince when I talk about slave ships, cotton plantations, and then abolition. In a later conversation climate change comes up. I explain the concept of the greenhouse effect and why we choose to walk and re-use dishes whenever we can.

She isn’t the only one learning. I am fascinated by her experiences and harrowing adventures. She tells me what it was like to work for one of the wealthiest families in Yemen. How she learned Arabic, how her madam shared her husband with three other wives, and how she never told anyone about her secret church. She tells me about how she has seen the hand of God work miracles and heard his voice. She reminds me that our way of life is crazy when she makes observations about her new country. “Why don’t you talk with your neighbours more?” she asks. And, “There’s food everywhere here; at the bank, at church, in the middle of the day, at night, at meetings, anytime! Everywhere you go people are eating, and they’re not even thanking God for it.”

Free and Saron live just down the street with our dear friend Rebecca and sometimes we joke that we are one family who happen to live in 2 houses. Our little intentional community has been such an unexpected and heartwarming blessing for me, but it isn’t always easy. I make mistakes, feel bad for things I’ve said or done, and blunder through our cultural differences. When Saron yells at her mom from the back-seat of the van, I slam on the breaks and react as if it’s my own child. When the noise reaches a dangerous decibel level (Stan’s measured it), Free asks what the orange, spongy things are sticking out of Stan’s ears. “Oh, those are just ear plugs,” I explain, adding that he’s used them regularly since the children were born to help keep him calm. Which is true.

Becoming family hasn’t been quiet, quick, or easy. It certainly wasn’t expected or anticipated. But now, being family for each other is as natural as asking for another piece of gum.

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Snow Day Crumbs

While vacuuming the last crumbs of Snow Day, I wasn’t sure it was worth it. I wasn’t convinced all the planning, hauling, setting up, and then cleaning up, was something I would ever want to do again. When my sister called to ask me how it went, I answered, “It was a lot of work.” Because it was. Now, a few weeks later, I still remember gripping the bottom of our heavy burgundy couch while maneuvering it into the clubhouse (Stan helped me move our living room furniture because I wanted a cozy atmosphere) but I also remember other moments. And these are the images that remind my why I wanted to do it in the first place…

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“We can’t come out fo the retreat but we can help you get ready for it,” Sheena offers in her easy Jamaican accent. I haven’t known Sheena and her family for long and, even though I feel a tiny bit bad accepting their help, I am grateful. When they get to the clubhouse the night before the retreat I hand her a pile of neatly folded saris and she understands intuitively what I envision. “It will be a swoopy, airy effect,” she says while gesturing where they should hang. Meanwhile her husband Mark climbs a step ladder and starts discussing with my daughter what colour of sari they should start with.

My other friend Rebecca has come too, along with Stan, Belén and Susanna. Rebecca strings lights, moves tables and chairs, prepares a coffee station and lays drop cloths with the girls. Stan cuts wood for ice-lantern stands, throws down sand on the icy walkway and reaches the heating vent near the ceiling (when no one else can) to attach the last of the filmy fabric. Three hours later the space is transformed into an arts studio. I am the last to leave and all I can think about is how I love being surprised by the goodness in people. I hadn’t asked anyone to come tonight to help and yet I am not sure what I would’ve done without them. I turn off the lights and wait for tomorrow.

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Dion comes into the clubhouse with his computer and, after a rushed hello, he  chooses his spot in the far corner of the room next to a large window. He opens his laptop and before I start with the welcome or any introductions he is already typing. Laura too, is busy, and so is Crystal. Each of them have claimed a window of their own and they’re set up with a view of snow, sky, spruce, and naked trees. Pens scratch paper. Fingers fly over keyboards. Vague ideas are shaped, carved, and trimmed by letters and words until they are almost real enough to touch.

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People trail through the buffet, a few at a time, filling their bowls with hot soup. There is no designated lunch-break as I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of the day. In any other room full of friends, acquaintances, and strangers, I’d feel obliged to make the rounds and be social, but today is different. I wear my Silence is Golden sticker on my chest, like a few others, and bring spoonfuls of lemony lentil soup to my mouth while I devour Mary Oliver’s poems at the same time. Her book Owls and Other Fantasies is propped in front of me and I linger over lines like “I think this is the prettiest world–so long as you don’t mind a little dying” from her poem The Kingfisher. The entire book is about birds, and it’s odd that I’m so enchanted with it, given the fact I’ve never been a birder or even pretended to be, but her poems make me want to sit by a saltwater marsh forever to see what she sees. I copy The Kingfisher into my notebook before the last of my broth is finished. Perhaps if I recite her words while I write them down some of their elegance will infuse itself into my own vocabulary.

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Anne is here because, as she said during the introductions, she “wants to help people get outside and on the ski trails”. She outfits a group of mothers, daughters, cousins, and friends with skis, poles and boots. It is time to break away from the writing, the sketching, the studying and the reading. It’s time to breath a little fresh air. And laugh.

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The sun shifts in the sky and so does the atmosphere inside the clubhouse.  People clean up their paints, wood, leather, fabric, yarn, books, computers and paper. Tables are pushed together, covered with cloths, and candles are lit. Adam pulls the lids off of his art, which is our dinner. Greek Chicken. Rice Pilaf. Mediterranean Salad. Roasted Vegetables. While we savour the food I ask participants to share about their day. People are brave, funny and honest. One woman reads from her memoir-in-the-making about her journey with anxiety; another explains how she is using up plastic grocery bags to make sleeping mats for homeless people. Twila talks about painting with her hands and how it’s like eating Indian cuisine that tastes better when you can touch the food. She also speaks about being absorbed in the process and truly listening to her work and the Spirit while she creates. I smile and nod and try to remember the words she is using to describe her experience.

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And this: fiddle music, harmonies, and acoustic guitar…

Thank you Wool Tree Grove, fiddlers, and dancers!

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Find out more about Wonderscape Retreats here.

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Snow Day by Wonderscape Retreats was sponsored in part by Artists in Communities, a joint initiative of the Saskatchewan Arts Board and SaskCulture Inc., and is supported by funding provided by the Saskatchewan Lotteries Trust Fund for Sport, Culture and Recreation

Why I Care About a Mouse Tail

The moon is a small sliver and the sky is overcast tonight. Stan is trying to back our small Saturn, and trailer, down a narrow alley that borders a park at the edge of the city. The trailer hitch is short so it’s incredibly hard to back up at the best of times, never-mind doing it in pitch darkness with soft snow ready to swallow the tires. He gets stuck so I get in the driver seat while he pushes. Then we try again; I call out directions while he maneuvers the trailer back towards the fresh snow. (This is the second night of shoveling so we’ve already cleaned off the stuff that is easy to access.) Finally we make it to our destination and I start pushing up piles with the snow scoop while Stan hefts it into the trailer.

I notice a home owner peek his head out of his garage to find out what the commotion is about. He stares for awhile and then retreats and I wonder if he will tell his wife about the crazy people shoveling snow off public land. I also wonder if we actually are a tiny bit crazy.

Sweat starts to trickle down my back–under my tank-top, tee-shirt, sweatshirt and winter parka. I can hear Stan grunting while he heaves snow at his usual frenzied pace. “I wonder,” I call through my scarf that is frozen stiff, “if we’ll be nostalgic about this when we are in the old folks home. Can you imagine sitting around and talking about the days when we used to steal snow for sculpting?”

When the trailer is piled high we lumber down the block-and-a-half to our front yard and half-empty wooden box. About 3 loads later, it’s finally full to the top and ready to sit for a few days while we wait for the snow particles to bond.

About a week later, after Stan has taken the wood form apart and finished 95% of the carving, we spend a couple evenings taking care of the last details. He’s working on the mouse’s nose and teeth and I’m on a step ladder, shaping the feet.  It’s dark and quiet enough to hear the scraping sounds our tools make against the snow. “Just so you know,” I tell my husband, “I would never be doing this if I hadn’t married you.” I’m not unhappy, or even complaining about the -30 temps, I’m just stating the obvious. How marriage affects us in ways we never would have known when standing at the altar. The next night this truth becomes even more apparent.

We’re laying in bed, and just before falling asleep Stan comments, “I think the tail is too wide for the body. It would look less reptilian if we narrowed it.” I agree and roll over. Hours later, in the middle of the night, I awake for no reason. I toss and turn and think about all kinds of stuff, including the mouse’s tail. Suddenly it’s all I can think about: how I’ll need to get the saw out in the morning and shave off the sides, how the mouse’s hind legs are curved, and how the buttocks should partly cover the tail. And then I think, why on earth do I care about a mouse’s butt at stinkin’ four o’clock in the morning?

But I do care. I care because we’ve invested so much time in it already. Because snow is a beautiful thing to work with. Because people like to drive by slow and crane their necks and take pictures. Because my girls look forward to the sculpture on their yard every year. Because creating something–anything at all, even a mouse’s tail–is the opposite of apathy; it affirms that there is meaning and that we have a reason to care. And I care because I married Stan, of course. Which is the main reason why I’m worried about how a mouse’s tail comes out of its butt.

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Stan cuts off a lot of snow blocks when he starts carving–they girls love to use these in their snow forts

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Saron and Free help us pack the snow

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Stuff I Like Right Now

Restoration…Last week I had a bad week. I fought with my children, fought with my husband, and even fought with a stranger. I’ve mostly forgotten the details of the first two incidents, and our community is too small for me to publicly relate the third, but I will say this: each situation was looked after. There was enough care from all (or mostly all) parties to make something better out of the madness. Even though I loomed over my daughter to threaten her, talked to Stan in a way I regret, and let anger get the best of me with the stranger, none of these interactions were simply left to harden. We talked about what went wrong, we asked for forgiveness, and I emailed the stranger to let him know I was disappointed by our conversation and wanted to find some common ground. Relationships were restored. Or, at least in the case of the stranger, I will be able to look him in the eye the next time we meet. I realize again what a wonderful thing it is to wake up to a new day. To start fresh. I remember that I am not into bitterness and stale grudges, I am into restoration. Thankfully, our family life is incredibly fertile ground to grow in this practise. There are unending opportunities to try, try, try again, not for perfection but for restoration.

These two books… The Creative Call; An Artist’s response to the Way of the Spirit

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Anything you Want by Derek Sivers. The first book I’ve ever read on business. I didn’t agree with everything, but raced through it. Thanks Amber for the title!

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It’s a mosaic… On Saturday Stan’s co-worker (from Botswana) drops in for a quick visit. She tells us about leaving Africa and choosing to use her scholarship money to study in Saskatchewan, over anywhere else in the world. After she leaves we walk down the street to check on my friend Claritza (from the Dominican Republic). She still isn’t feeling well so we put her daughter in the stroller with Vivian and head to the City Square where we’ll be meeting Saron and Free (from Ethiopia) for the Santa Claus parade. While standing in line for some hot chocolate we run into Angelo (from Chile) and his wife Twila (who spent over a decade in Guatemala). The next week I will meet a new mother at our play group (from China) and another family (who just immigrated from Jamaica) at the library. Stan and I will go out on a date with our dear friends (from Iran) and few days later he will see his doctor (from Nigeria) whose daughter happens to be Susanna’s friend. All of this makes me very happy. What wealth! What richness! To think we can connect with these far-flung places in our small prairie town. We’ve always imagined we would someday move back overseas with our family to expose our children to the big beautiful world out there; it turns out we need only to walk down the street.

Smoked Paprika… I never knew we needed it until Stan bought some to make Chipotle sauce. It’s good in almost everything.

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Bush trees… This year we cut a Christmas tree down in some forest land (with a permit!) that was too close to another spruce to fully develop. It is the most bare, and yet the most elegant, tree we’ve had in a long time. Nothing beats a bush tree! The spaces between the branches are to Christmas trees what rests are to beautiful music.

Snow Day–What I don’t like is promoting it and trying to sell tickets. (Does this count?) I also don’t like worrying whether anyone else is interested in this kind of thing or if I might be wasting my time or the nagging fear of failure. What I do like is dreaming up the structure for another gathering and imagining what could happen when you throw good food, good snow, good space, good quiet, good creativity, good music and good people together. See Wonderscape Retreats for more details.

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Back yard skating rinksI back away and beckon Vivi to skate towards me, all on her own. She protests and starts to cry. And then, all of a sudden, the blade on her left skate starts moving in spite of herself. She pauses mid-cry and feels her other foot following. Tears rim her eyelids but now her wails are trilling upward until they become giggles. “Push and gide” she repeats after me while I chant instructions. She’s skating all by herself! She’s gliding on the ice, and though she doesn’t know how or why it’s turned her cries to laughter.

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Stan built a circular rink, the shape of our patio, for the girls to practice

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