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 salt water 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 peopleget 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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This is 39

Vivian is screaming because she doesn’t want to shampoo her hair; Saron is screaming because she wants to shampoo her hair. When I come to their rescue Saron informs me, “I want the the blue towel, the one with the hood!” I run to Vivi’s room, grab both coveted towels and rush back to plunge Vivi’s hair under the water–whether she likes it or not. She makes it apparent that, indeed, she does not. All the while, Susanna trails behind me asking for my credit card number.

“I want to buy you and dad a Christmas gift on-line,” she insists. I don’t answer her right away, partly because I can’t hear her, partly because I’m ignoring her. But her tenacity is formidable and by the time she has repeated herself at least six times her request finally sinks in.

“You can’t have my credit card. You’re ten.”

She is unfazed, “Everyone gets something in their stockings at Christmas and I want you and dad to have something too. And I want it to be a surprise. And I want to buy it on Amazon. And I need your credit card.” Her persistence will stand her in good stead someday, but not now. Now I want her to turn off the rice before it boils over, set the table, and stop asking me anything about credit cards.

When I emerge from the bathroom with two, now giggly and sufficiently hooded girls, I see Belén and her friend flitting around the computer with safety goggles. They’re supposed to be creating a flying machine for science class, but they’re mostly just talking about creating a flying machine and wondering when they might get together again to actually create a flying machine. Stan, on the other hand, has two projects going on at once and has no time for talking. He’s running up and down the basement steps, testing out different materials for their capacity for flight (anyone who picks Belén as a partner for science class lucks out big time), while simultaneously working on the neck of of his home-made banjo.

With a good bit of relief I realize Susanna isn’t hanging around me anymore and hear her reading to the two little ones. I start washing a few greasy pans while waiting for the sweet-and-sour meatballs to cook when I remember I was in the middle of a Facebook conversation. I dry my hands, type my opinion about how we can help our friends move, and then get back to the warm dish-water pooling with fat.

“Someone light a candle. And set the table!” I call out.

Warm food is soon placed on stained and burnt hot pads. (Susanna recently conducted an experiment where she turned on the stove, placed the fabric hot pad directly on the element, and timed it to see how long it would take for it to burn. As I recounted this to her father he looked pleased and when I asked him why he was so happy he said, “That gives me hope; at least she’s curious.”)

The candle flame flickers. We pray because we are thankful and because we need to pause. I begin to wonder if I could hack a life without prayer because what would I do without the three seconds where nobody says anything? After a couple spoonfuls someone makes a comment about the food. It is not a compliment. Then Saron, who normally loves my rice and meatballs, echos the comment with an extra dose of drama in her voice. She ends up eating seven meatballs anyway.

After supper, three different people stop by. We send kids to their own homes, talk about taxes, check emails, research light-weight levitation, sing lullabies and threaten our children to sleep. At 9:47 I step over the suitcase and piles of laundry blocking the path to my bed, turn off the bed-side lamp, and smile in the darkness. This is quiet. This is exactly where I want to be. This is the end of an ordinary day. This is 39.

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Here are some pictures of a few not-so-ordinary days in the last months…

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Setting up camp by the fishing spot

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our last fishing day

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the best part—shore lunch with Max and Andrew (Ben, Laurie, and Peter are busy catching?)

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Halloween bonfire with friends in our front yard

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Grandma and Grandpa come to visit and it snows in early October!

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Belén waits for her x-country race to begin… can you see Grandpa shivering in the background?

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butchering the deer in our beautiful new shed! Thanks Grandpa!

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hiking along Lake Superior with my sister, her family, and my parents

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We surprise my sister and her family who live 14 hours away. They have enough bikes on hand to outfit all of us–including Grandma and Grandpa!!

 

Here

Here

I’ve hiked Andean mountain passes that plunge into lush jungle
I’ve followed wild rivers through the tundra and bathed in their remote falls
I’ve canoed on pristine lakes alongside moose, eagles, and river otters
I’ve poked at anemones and starfish in Pacific tidal pools
I’ve driven down red dirt roads of Prince Edward Island
I’ve posed for photo ops in front of the Swiss Alps
I’ve played in the aquamarine waters of the Caribbean sea

And yet

a long blade
of dying grass
curled
and golden
in the autumn sun
is as beautiful a thing as I have ever seen

-Tricia Friesen Reed

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The Story of Wonderscape 2016

I grip the steering wheel and force myself to take several deep breaths. We’re only a few miles away now from Riding Mountain National Park and my stomach feels pickled–as if I ate something too acidic–while my chest tightens with nerves. “As long as there’s enough room in the main cabin for the meals and all our sessions everything will be okay, ” I tell my friend Shalain, who is in the seat next to me. I’m speaking to Shalain, but mostly trying to talk myself out of worrying. I’ve spent months dreaming and planning for the retreat but now that it’s finally here I’m starting to panic.

Minutes later, when we turn the key to the main cabin, neither of us say a word. I survey the laminate wood floors, the plain kitchen, the stone fireplace and the cathedral ceilings.  There’s enough space but it doesn’t feel quite right. Both of us are calculating what we need to do next; the participants will be arriving in only a couple of hours.

“This corner needs something,” Shalain says. She strides past the couch to a table nestled against the log walls and french doors.

“And it’s too dark in here, ” I add, “but I think it’s gonna work.” We yank the curtains off all the windows. Shalain finds a glass pitcher and fills it with branches, to which green and amber leaves still cling. We turn up the heat. We re-arrange furniture. We jam beeswax candles into old glass bottles and set them on the mantel. We grind coffee. We light the fire log. And the afternoon light fades into the first evening of Wonderscape.

When I look at the 26 women, many of them strangers from all across western Canada,  gathered around me–some sitting on the floor by the fireplace, some on folding chairs, my childhood friend Bonnie beside my mom and clasping the hand of another childhood friend’s mom–I know exactly how I need to begin.

“Thank you,” I start. I am honoured; honoured these women have chosen to spend their time, their most precious resource, with us this weekend. I am amazed; amazed by the talent, experience and geography represented in our little gathering. I am also excited; excited to give birth to my “baby”, this idea of a creative wellness retreat I’ve carried for the last nine months. And I am still nervous.

But as the evening wears on I relax. The words and stories I rehearsed earlier seem to slip out naturally. I don’t look at my notes as often as I thought I would. It’s more fun than I’d expected. When we break up for discussion the room is loud, almost too loud, with animated voices and laughter. When we listen to Michelle share of music and vocation and love and death, the room is quiet, almost too quiet, as her vulnerability fills the space. By the time she plays the song she composed any pretense that might still be hanging in the room is shattered.

Part of the reason I designed Wonderscape as a multidisciplinary experience is for this purpose. It’s hard to be uppity or find a pecking order when there is so much diversity in craft and experience. If the attendees were all writers, or all painters, it might be more tempting to figure out who’s who; who’s more talented, more connected, or more successful. But what do singers know of crocheting roosters, painters of fiddling, or writers of embalming? (And these were only a few of the interests of the participants!)

On Saturday the group disperses. The night before I had urged people to do what they came here to do, whatever that might look like. Some people bike, some hike, some fiddle, some weave, some scrapbook, some swim in the chilly waters of Clear Lake, some photograph, some meditate, some knit, some sing, and some paint with Twila Napoleoni of Bara’ Academy of the Arts. I lead a Hike and Write workshop through a marsh where algae, sprinkled like confetti on the water, and cattails warming in the sun hear our pens scratch against paper.

“How are you feeling?” I ask the group after a period of silent writing. I wonder if they are bored, maybe frustrated with their task, or perhaps ready to move on. No one answers for a long moment and I realize they are still soaking in their words and thoughts. “Does anyone want to share?” I ask.

A woman reads what is in front of her, even as the fresh ink dries on the paper. Her risky offering is honoured. We listen. Tears fall. Another woman introduces the poem she just wrote with a good dose of self-deprecating humour but when she begins the first stanza no one is laughing. The words settle around the boardwalk, the reeds, the evergreens, and the blue sky as if from an old classic.

By supper time I am hungry. Mariana Brito and Madison Sutcliffe of The Backyard bend over their artwork using the pecorino cheese, tomatillo sauce, and sunflower petals from their palette. Partway through dinner, head chef Mariana explains the story behind each locally-sourced, organic ingredient like she does every meal. We listen with starry eyes and full stomachs. We are falling in love. In love with her ingredients, with her dreams, with her accent, with her global experience, with her leek roots fried in bacon fat, and with her passion.

Storyteller Jenny Gates and jazz singer Amber Epp are up next. I am not sure what to expect of either, but at this point–after Mariana’s food, I’m not concerned. Amber sings in English, Spanish, and Portugese. She rumbles low then sails high through her music, evocative one moment and making us laugh the next. Jenny stands in front of the group with no props other than her honesty and sense of humour. When they are done it’s my turn to wrap up the evening and I am almost without words. Almost, but not quite.

“I’m not sure I can do this again,” I say, “I mean, I want to plan another retreat, but how could it top this one?” On Sunday, after lunch and the final Artist Blessing someone suggests we repeat the whole thing next year; the same people have to come again, speak the same words, make the same connections, and do the exact same thing they did this time. Of course we know it’s impossible. We can’t repeat something we’ve already lived through, and if we tried, it would feel different.

But change has an allure of its own. The unknown and unexpected carries potential. The thrilling part of Wonderscape 2016 was that I didn’t know how it was going to turn out. I couldn’t have forecast the ways strangers would connect and participate, or imagined the unique presence each individual would bring to my project. And this gives me hope for what is ahead. I don’t know where Wonderscape will be next time. I don’t know if it will be a workshop or a day or a weekend retreat. I don’t know the artists with whom I will collaborate. I don’t know who will show up or how it will change us. I don’t know any of this but I can’t wait to find out.

During our first session together on Friday evening, while my own stomach was doing flip-flops I read the following excerpt:


“Nerves are God’s gift to you, reminding you that your life is not passing you by. Make friends with the butterflies. Welcome them when they come, revel in them, enjoy them, and if they go away do whatever it takes to put yourself in a position where they return. Better to have a stomach full of butterflies than to feel like your life is passing you by.” (Rob Bell, How to Be Here)

Wonderscape 2016 is over. The butterflies came and went away. Now it’s time to look for them again.

Tricia

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Me, speaking during the Artist Blessing session

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Bonnie, looking at the magazines and books people brought for our weekend library

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Mariana Brito and Madison Sutcliffe working their culinary magic

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Arts educator Twila Napleoni leading a painting workshop

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painting in the sunshine

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Jenny Gates telling us why on earth she picked Winnipeg, MB over Sydney, Australia… and much more

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After her show, Amber Epp shows Bonnie a few tricks on the piano

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Here I am leading the Hike and Write workshop

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