What Heather Benning and Wonderscape Have in Common

Heather Benning* is walking up my front steps and I’m not sure what to expect. I’ve invited her to my house for coffee because I heard she was in town doing studio visits with visual artists, but I’m not a visual artist and all of a sudden I’m wondering why I volunteered to host her. But here she is, on the other side of the front door window, so I can’t back out now. I unlock the door and throw it open with the warmest smile I can muster.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” I say as she steps inside. This isn’t really a lie. I am glad she’s here even though I don’t exactly know why she’s here. My strategy to avoid any potential awkwardness is to ask her questions about her herself and her art. I’ve learned this works in almost any situation, as people generally love talking about themselves, and I’m usually genuinely interested. And in this particular case that won’t be a problem. I’d heard about Heather erecting a life-size doll house in an abandoned farm house years earlier and my curiosity is already piqued. Plus, she’s an internationally successful artist who chooses to practice in rural Saskatchewan which, in itself, is enough conversational fodder.

“Come in,” I say leading her to my kitchen table. We pass the four paintings Belén and I created, of a tree in each season, and then the aqua canvas with the letters h-o-m-e that Susanna designed (at age 3) and I painted. Finally Heather pulls out a chair and I cringe at her choice. When she sits down she’ll be looking straight at the painting my husband I made 15 years ago. The one of a too-skinny girl playing a violin, with a teapot pouring liquid from the sky, inspired by a Leonard Cohen song. 

I clear my throat. I’m nervous she might notice all the homemade artwork and assume we want her to engage in a professional critique of our novice attempts. “Did Don, the director of the art gallery, tell you what I do? That I’m not a visual artist?” I ask her.

“Oh yes. I looked at your website last night,” Heather says.

I let out a sigh of relief.

“Tell me about Wonderscape,” she says. “How did it start?”

She opens up her notebook, leans forward with her pen poised and suddenly, instead of interviewing her I’m launching into my own story: why I started Wonderscape, who it’s for, who comes, what happens, how many times I’ve applied for grants, how many times I’ve been declined grants and how many more times I should apply for grants. She asks a slew of questions.  Where are you advertising? How do you feel about the time you’re putting into this? What about your own personal craft?

I tell her about my writing and my goals. She gives me names of artists who might be interested in Wonderscape. We talk about promotion strategies. She suggests organizations and galleries who might help me. And this is how it goes for an hour and a half; it is an unexpected gift.  Now I realize why she is here. She explains her mandate– to connect with rural artists, visit them where they work, understand their barriers, help them network and give them ideas and support–but it’s already obvious to me. If empowerment is one of her target outcomes, she is bang on today.

This feeling, elicited by a visit with a Very Important Artist who works with a Very Important Organization, is a bit of a novelty for me. Often I feel the opposite. Which, I am learning, comes with the territory of making something new from the ground up. When I make cold-calls to artists, newspapers, radio stations or people that have never heard of Wonderscape, I scramble for the right words, grasping for a foothold in the conversation.

But this morning at my table it’s different. And the one thought that keeps returning to me is this is what I want Wonderscape to be like. May it be a place for artists to mentor and propel each other onward. Whether through hands-on experiences (like working on a large soapstone carving or making music together), or by simply asking others about their practices, suggesting contacts, being willing to make introductions and dreaming together.

So this fall, can we be Heather Benning for each other? Can we listen? Can we help each other prioritize? Can we exchange ideas and generate new ones? Can we give feedback and insight? Can we celebrate what is powerful and moving and life-giving in each other’s work? Can we encourage each other to keep going?

I’ve been working for weeks to curate an experience where this might be possible. Where makers can collaborate. I’ve spent sleepless nights thinking about who would be just the right artist-in-residents, how to format an Art Mash-Up or when we should eat on Saturday evening. The stage is set. All I need now is a whole bunch of Heather Benning-ish people to come. Will you join us?** wonderscape poster

 

*Heather Benning is a travelling mentor with CARFAC Saskatchewan. She completed a bachelor of fine arts arts degree from Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 2004, and a master of sculpture at Edinburgh College of Art in 2009. Between her degrees Benning returned to Saskatchewan, where she completed several large-scale, site-specific installations. She has had numerous solo and group shows throughout Canada and abroad. Heather’s work has been reviewed in Canadian Art magazine, Sculpture magazine, Galleries West, Espace, Uppercase Magazine, Studio Magazine, The Paris Review, and The Nation Post, among others.

If you want to discuss your art practice with a dynamic professional who understands the challenges and rewards of working in Saskatchewan contact CARFAC SASK for more information or to arrange a visit: carfac2@sasktel.net.

**Check out www.wonderscape.org for to start planning for it!

NOTE: Heather is not involved or affiliated with Wonderscape. This post was meant to honour her, not implicate her. 🙂

Snow Sculpture 2019

I’ve been wearing my toque for months. Seriously. It started snowing September 21 of last year and I’m not sure I’ve taken it off since. I know this because the other day, when I washed and brushed my hair–and let it dry without jamming a wool hat on my head, I was showered with compliments.

“Did you get your hair cut?” someone asked. “It looks so… so bouncy… or different today,” someone else commented.

On the other hand, I showed up at church this past Sunday wearing Nordic boots and ski pants and no one said a word. (I had come straight from a ski clinic and didn’t have the time, will-power or physical strength to change.) The marvelous thing about my outfit is that no one batted an eye. Not one person.Five months of winter will do that to a community. And I think it’s wonderful. Which is kind of what this year’s snow sculpture on our front lawn is about. The magic of winter.

Now, that last sentence might have made some of you gag or click the little “x” in the right-hand corner of your screen. Given the weather over the last half-year, that is a legitimate response.

But. If you’re still here, this snow sculpture is for you! You are the kind of person who would ski in a snow-covered ditch and talk about it as ebulliently as your last trip to Paris (Bonnie). You are the kind who would wade through snowdrifts with me for an hour, during a blizzard, just for a breath of fresh air (Shannon). You are the kind who grew up in the tropics but are teaching your kids how to thrive in what feels like the Arctic. (Anna Lissa) Here you are friends:

Stan does most of the work, the rest of us help shovel, carve a little and give a lot of critique from the curb

Don’t Got Time For That

“I am sorry to inform you that the jury convened to adjudicate the applications did not approve your project for a grant.”

I read the line over twice to make sure I understand it. Wonderscape didn’t get the grant from the Saskatchewan Arts Board. The proposal I had spent days writing had failed! I had wondered, while crunching numbers, requesting testimonials and writing motherhood statements, is this worth it? Does it make sense to while away time when I’m not sure of the outcome? Shouldn’t I be working on my own writing projects, or something valiant like scrubbing the bathtub?

I call my sister, which is what one does in these kind of situations, when I find out about the refusal.

“Should I still try to form a non-profit now that the application has been rejected?” I ask her. “It’ll take so much time and paperwork,” I moan.

There is silence on the other end so I keep going. “Plus, I know nothing about bylaws or articles of incorporation.”

In the end I decide to incorporate. This means filing paperwork with the government, multiple meetings with the director of the local art gallery, writing articles and bylaws, finding board members, scheduling an AGM, printing financial reports and budgets and preparing agendas. It’s all overwhelming, mostly because I keep ruminating over the same questions: What’s the point? Is this worth it? Do I have time for this?

*

Anne Lamott tells the story of when she went shopping with a dear friend who was dying of cancer. The friend brought along her six-year-old daughter to help Anne buy a new dress. Anne stepped out of the change room, adjusting the neck line and pulling on the skirt, while the young daughter skittered and skipped around her mom who was in a wheelchair. Anne tugged on the fabric and complained about looking fat. She wondered, too, whether the dress made her arms look flabby.

Her friend, who would die three weeks later, looked at her from her chair for a long time. Then she said, “Anne, you don’t got time for that.”

*

A teacher from Susanna’s French immersion school emails us asking if Stan would be interested in making a snow sculpture outside the school for French Education week. I read through her note and think about all the electrical work in the basement, the flooring that needs to be installed and the ceiling tiles we ordered last week. We definitely don’t have time for that, is my immediate thought after reading her request, but I wait to ask Stan before responding.

I bring it up as soon as he comes home from work and he immediately says, “Sure!” without hesitating.

What one person ain’t got time for, the next person does.

*

The morning of the first Wonderscape AGM I wake up at six with a feeling of dread. I had been dreaming about Robert’s Rules of Orders and my inexperience chairing formal meetings. I get up and review the stack of papers I’ve prepared for the new board members. Some of them, who are coming from over 100 miles away, will soon be on their way.

Hours later, when we sit at my table, I remember how I had met each one of them:

I found Shannon in 2016 at the Kenosee Lake Kitchen Party, where I spotted her wearing her dark-rimmed glasses. I knew I had to get to know Shannon and had a hunch by the way she smiled, sang, talked and moved that she would know a thing or two about arts and connecting people. I asked her to meet me one afternoon outside my cottage in the forest where I had set up my laptop on a make-shift table to work on the first Wonderscape retreat. She listened to me talk for a long time. Then I listened to her. And I knew I had found exactly who I  needed. Now she’s here, taking minutes and reminding me what I wanted Wonderscape to be in the first place.

Marea sits beside her. I met Marea on the side of the road. Well, not exactly the side of the road, but in her pottery shack, which runs on an honour-system, at the side of the road. She came out to meet us just as we were about to leave money in her cash box in exchange for a beautiful bowl. We started chatting and laughing, which is easy to do with Marea, and that’s when I felt another little nudge. Should I ask this stranger if she wants to come to Wonderscape? Finally, right before I left,  I got brave enough. “I’m trying this new thing,” I said, faltering. “A creative arts retreat… you might be interested?”

Rebecca is next to Marea. She invited our family over for a bonfire the first day we moved to Saskatchewan almost 10 years ago. We ate hummus and stared at the flames and I thought, What are the chances that someone who likes the outdoors and art and neighbours lives just down the street?

An acquaintance gave me Sarah’s name. They said she was an artist and even had her own TV show. I called her immediately and told her she had to come to my house. She did.

Twila and I spoke in Spanish the first time we met as she had recently returned from a decade of living in Guatamala. We’ve since become family friends and raise each other’s children.

Gillian is here because Sarah thought she would fit the Wonderscape team. She’s a pianist and vocalist and though I’ve only met her once before I already agree with Sarah.

These are the people who traveled through a January storm to get here. Who bring their experience and talent to the table. We establish quorum then spoon coconut chickpea curry over basmati rice. We make motions, second and carry them. We eat brownies. We talk about creativity and artists-in-residence and vision and values and fund-raising and nature and painters and writers and photographers. The snow accumulates on their vehicles while the candle flickers before us. Surrounded by these woman I am infected by their enthusiasm and decide it is already worth it.

*

Life is short. We may have more than three weeks left, but we still have to pick and choose how we’ll spend our minutes and our mental energy. The next time I look disapprovingly in a mirror I’ll hear Anne Lamott’s friend say “You don’t got time for that”. I’ll hear it when I wonder if I should do the dishes instead of write the next paragraph. When I languish on Facebook instead of going outside. When I stay on the beach instead of swim. When I organize my closet instead of planting my garden. When Stan rummages around for his snow-sculpting tools and I wonder when he’ll run the wires. When I start complaining about the hours I put into Wonderscape.

I don’t got time for that.

We don’t have time to pass up on the things that make us flourish. The things that might overwhelm us, make us cold, exhausted or even unavailable to do other things, but that make our life richer and wider and deeper.

When will you hear it?

*

Notes:

*Thanks, Katrina, for always being interested. I wrote this in response to your FB message asking me about the AGM.

*I heard Anne Lamott tell the aforementioned story to Kelly Corrigan on this podcast as I was priming our basement walls.

Kindred Spirits, Cattail Mittens and Geographical Skill Sets

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It’s a mild winter afternoon and I’ve just picked up Belén from basketball practice when she points to a stranger on the sidewalk.

“Hey mom, that lady looks like she could be your friend,” she says.

“That one?” I ask, even though there aren’t any other pedestrians besides a woman with ski pants and a huge, fur-lined hood. “Why?”

“You look like you’d get along. She likes ski pants as much as you do.”

I’m not sure that every well-insulated individual is kindred spirit material but Belén is right about the last part; I love my ski pants. I’ve taken to shouting Bible verses at my children (well, only Proverbs 31:21; “She is not afraid of snow for her household, for all her household are clothed in double thickness”) while they skip out the door without toques, bare ankles showing. Try as I might to empathize with how hard it is to wear a hat and keep the perfect messy bun, or the nuisance of pulling on ski pants, I can’t do it. It’s simply been too many years since I cared more about fashion than fending off frostbite.

“How many toques do you have anyway?” Belén asked me accusingly the other day when we were cleaning our entryway.

“You never know when a friend might need some extra clothing,” I said, justifying the tangle of scarves, mittens and hats falling out of my basket.

I’ve always been a glutton when it comes to collecting outdoor gear. When I was child, my sister and I gathered bag-fulls of cattail fuzz from the pond, convinced we were going to sew our own mittens and stuff them with the downy material. Even though we never made the mittens I couldn’t bring myself to throw the bags away, just in case. Just in case it was cold. Just in case cattails went extinct. Just in case we needed those mittens. My mom finally pitched the cattail fuzz long after I’d left home and was living in South America.

Tonight the forecast calls for -38 C with a breeze that will make it feel more like -46 C. I wish had me some cattail mittens.

Stay warm,

Tricia

PS. Nature Writing just re-published a piece I posted here a year ago called “Geographical Skill Sets”. Obviously, dressing in layers is in my geographical skill set. What’s in yours?

…”Did you all bring your hats?” my husband Stan asks, looking in the rear-view mirror.

We pull into the trail-head parking lot and brace ourselves before opening the doors of our air-conditioned vehicle. My daughter, Susanna, hesitates for a bit, looking at the prickly vegetation surrounding us. “It all looks so… so,” she says slowly then finishes, “so hot!”

I wonder if this is how our friends from Iran, Venezuela or Ethiopia feel when we invite them to go ice-fishing, skiing or sailing with us in Canada. Do they, too, steel themselves in the parking lot for what lies ahead? Later that night, we sit outside my parents’ trailer while the sun silhouettes palm-trees in their 55-plus park. We’re talking about which bio-region would’ve been easier on the first nations people, settlers and explorers: central Canada or the South-West. “I’d take forest and streams any day of the week, ” I say, “even if it means mosquitoes and brutal winters.”

Then my brother-in-law makes a wise comment, “Well, you need to build a certain kind of skill set for wherever you live…”

Read the rest here!

 

 

 

Improbable

I went for a walk last summer, then came home and scribbled my impressions in my notebook. In November, while flipping through my “vomit drafts”, I found a few of those images and strung them together to write a poem.

It was a hot July morning
but my three-year-old insisted on wearing snow boots.
She settled into the stroller, still in pajamas,
for our normal spin through the prairie.
I didn’t stop until she begged to get out,
to step off the path
to grab a handful of Saskatoon berries,
to stand by the pond and yell
over the deafening chorus
of red-winged blackbirds,
to pinch off wild chamomile flowers and stick them up her nostrils
like an old woman inhaling smelling salts

Near the end of our walk we went through the cemetery.
A truck was parked in our path…

Literary Mama published it this week. Click here to read the rest.

DSCN2058_The most delicious thing about being published is that a stranger thought my work was worth sharing. It means that it is somewhat accessible, even if you don’t know who Spunky was (my childhood dog) or anything else about me. I’ve submitted other pieces to Literary Mama, but for some reason this one made it. And today I’ve got an extra lilt in my step!

 

Losing Out: The Christmas Narrative

It’s Thursday, December 13, 2018 and I think I see Mary and Joseph at Superstore.

I’m loading my groceries on the conveyor when I notice them. “Mary” wears an over-sized hoodie draping off her narrow shoulders. Her chin is small and she has an overbite. Greasy blond hair, with dark roots showing, clings to her neck. The boy walks alongside and has one hand on the cart beside hers. A tattoo snakes around his skinny forearm and his baggy jeans are frayed and dirty at the hems. I’m guessing they’re 16 or 17.

Both of them lean forward to pore over their newborn buckled in the infant seat. Underneath are their groceries: a couple boxes of chocolate, Coke, some bananas, milk, pasta and diapers. Have these two dropped out of high school? And is either working? A helpless baby with parents who are mere children themselves seems like such a fragile beginning.

I don’t know how often the real Mary and Joseph washed their hair, whether or not they liked sweets or exactly how poor they were, but I’m reminded now of another fragile beginning. A dirty barn. Two young kids. And a baby sucking colostrum.

*

A fifty-some-year-old lady, named Pam*, sits down beside me. Both of us are early for the meeting and no one else is here so we have time to chat. She begins to tell me about traveling to Thailand earlier this year.

“Wow! What was it like?” I ask.

She gives me a vague answer and seems hesitant.

“What did you go for?” I ask. “Tourism?”

“Mostly,” She says, taking off her scarf and black-rimmed glasses that are still fogged up.

I wait for her to explain.

“Well,” she says, “…also the Buddhist thing.”

“Oh?” I ask.

“Yeah,” she answers quickly, “but don’t tell anyone.”

Now I’m confused. I’m not supposed to tell anyone she she went to Thailand? Or that she’s Buddhist? I’m grinning, but she looks serious, so I stop. Then she continues.

“I’ve been exploring Buddhism for about 15 years, and, well, I’m really into to it now.” She looks at the door. I look too. “But don’t repeat this,” she says, nervously.

“Oh, don’t worry!” I say, wanting to reassure that I’m not shocked. “I have a lot of friends who believe many different things.”

“It’s just with my job and everything I need to stay neutral. Parents are crazy these days. Once a child was pulled from my class just because I was coaching the kids with deep breathing.” She leans forward and whispers. “This town,” she says while tapping her finger on the board room table in front of us, “is a very evangelical town.” She spits out the word evangelical like it stings her tongue.

“Really?” I say. “I thought it was mostly Catholic.”

“Oh no!” She glances around the room again. “We’re only one pulpit speech away from a hate crime.”

“Mmm,” I say, still digesting her opinion.

Then she leans back in her chair and shrugs off her coat. “Well, it’s not as bad as what’s going on south of the border. But still. That’s not far off.”

We hear noise in the hallway moving in our direction.

“It’s okay,” Pam says. “I won’t be here for long. I’ve never fit in this town anyways. I’ll retire soon and move to where there are more of my ilk.”

*

Questions I have about the nativity:

  1. How long did Mary push for?
  2. Did Joseph catch the wet, slippery body in his hands or did they get help from a local midwife?
  3. Was it hard for Jesus to latch on to Mary’s breast or did his tongue and lips catch on to the act of survival right away?
  4. Who cleaned up the straw and the afterbirth?
  5. And the shepherds! Those crazy shepherds! Were they ever the same afterward? If I could be anyone in all of history I would choose to be one of them: a nobody—with no influence, power or success— warming myself by the fire when the Universe lets me in on the great cosmic secret. Those hillbilly outsiders must be laughing still.

*

The board room fills up, the meeting starts and an hour later it adjourns. We are walking in the parking lot when Pam picks up right where we left off. “And you?” she says, taking her car keys from her pocket. “What denomination are you?”

“I’m fascinated by Jesus.”

Pam doesn’t seem surprised. Then I add, “I’m a Christian.”

“Ah,” she laughs. “Did you meet your husband at Bible College?”

Now I’m laughing. She almost has me pegged, but not quite. “Nope, but it starts with B and it’s almost as bad. We met in Bolivia. He was designing potable water systems and I was teaching school.”

We’re both standing at our cars, now, which are parked beside each other but neither of us gets in.

“Must have been mission work,” she concludes. Then she adds kindly, “Well, it’s unfortunate all the politicians, intolerance and violence have given you Christians a bad name.”

Snow is falling and I dust my windshield with one hand and pluck the wipers to make sure they aren’t frozen to the glass with the other. Thwack. Thwack.

*

I’ve noticed a lot of people seem to feel alone, without community. And, if they do belong to a network of like-minds, they still act like underdogs, as if their community is somehow endangered. I sense this in both Christians and New Agers, gay and straight, conservatives and liberals, indigenous and settlers, and the rich and poor. It seems like the only thing that unifies everyone is an “us” versus “them” mentality and the fear of losing rights, losing control, losing currency, losing status, losing power and losing out.

*

“If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life… if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.

Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.” (The Message Translation of Philippians 2: 1-8 from the Bible)

*

I swipe my credit card through the machine and watch “Mary and Joseph” in the express lane. Their baby starts crying. “Mary” unloads the chocolate and diapers while “Joseph” rolls the cart back and forth in an effort to calm the baby. This is the side of Christmas I wish Pam could see. A bizarre twist in history where Divinity becomes the underdog. How the beginning of Christendom was paved with donkey shit and some teenage outcasts, not the political prowess, prestige and violence for which it’s criticized. I dream about being a shepherd with smoke in my hair, grass on my clothes and a wildly-beating heart. Rushing toward a barn that holds a promise; a Promise who chooses to lose rights, lose control, lose power and lose out to find us.

*

cell phone dec 20 2018 032

Yesterday’s sunrise, around 9:30 am. I’m going to miss this elegant winter light in a few months.

Merry Christmas and Happy Solstice.

Tricia

NOTE: Pam is not the real name of the person in this post. Other identifying details have also been changed. I forwarded a draft of this post to Pam before publishing it. Her response was to thank me for maintaining her anonymity and confirmed the fact that as a perceived member of several minority communities, she doesn’t feel safe in our town.

Also, I didn’t plan to write this when I sat down with my computer today. My most faithful follower has been begging me for a family update. I meant to comply with some newsy stories but this happened instead. Sorry Susanna, maybe next time!

Influence

So.

Susan didn’t bite on my proposal.

The day after publishing my previous blog post I called her on the phone and got as far as her administration assistant, a nice lady named Thao. Thao thought that Susan, the Senior VP of marketing at Canadian Tire, would indeed like to review my pitch. I started calculating, right away, how much I would charge for each article, how I might have to re-arrange my writing priorities and how my life would change as the author of “The Bucket People.”

When I tell my older daughters that Susan was, in fact, not interested in my stories, Belén is relieved. She wasn’t keen on being branded as a bucket person anyway. Susanna, on the other hand, is miffed. Hours later she’s still mulling it over and while we trudge through snow, delivering her papers, she comes up with a new plan.

“I know! How about Belén and I–and Rebecca!–start writing horrible stories about Canadian Tire buckets. Awful stories! The quality of our writing will be so poor that Canadian Tire will be desperate for someone to counter it with great writing. That someone will be you!”

I smile at her thoughtfulness and then share what I learned from my friend Kirsten who once attended a Very Important Writing Conference with Very Important People. During a brief appointment with a Very Important Editor, Kirsten learned more about what kind of writing attracts publishing houses. The Very Important Editor told Kirsten it didn’t matter whether her manuscript was the most brilliant, astonishing piece of literature he’d ever held in his hands. What mattered was the size of her following. The Very Important Editor said they were only willing to work with Very Important Writers who had Very Important Audiences.

“What’s a Very Important Audience?” Susanna asks.

“Hundreds of thousands of people you influence on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and who knows what else.”

“Oh,” she says.

We split ways. She keeps walking on one side of the street and I cross over to the mailboxes on the other.

I think about the wise people who had suggested I build a presence on Instagram to interest Canadian Tire in my platform. They were right, of course. Except that I hate Instagramming. For one, my thumbs are too wide. By the time I enter all those crazy hashtags I may as well write an essay on a real keyboard. Instagram, in itself, isn’t bad. It’s a wonderful way to share and connect for many of you, but it’s not the way for me to hustle right now. Even if that’s what it takes to sell my writing to Canadian Tire.

The next Sunday we visit my parents and the church I grew up attending. I remember sitting in the pews as a child, staring at old men and the backs of their necks, fascinated by the criss-cross of wrinkles and diamond shapes made by the folds of their skin. Especially if they had brush-cuts. I do the the same this morning, like I did when I was six-years old. Then, when the offering plates are passed I study the ushers walking down the aisles and look around the small sanctuary.

Over the years I’ve attended all kinds of churches; some with professional music teams and fog machines, some with liturgies and traditions as awe-inspiring as their ornate ceilings. The church I’m sitting in right now, is neither of these. There’s no hype, no grandeur and no hoopla. And yet, it is one of the most authentic and transformative communities I’ve ever been a part of.

I remember how my mom used to worry about its future, wondering “if the church would die” as farm families retire and children look for work in urban areas. It seemed like such an ominous thing and I tried to imagine what a church gasping for its last breaths would look like. But the church never did die. People grew up and left the valley farmland and spruce-covered hills, but others stayed. And still others came. Today the church is full of life. And the growth isn’t just church-y people moving from one congregation to another, it’s because of people who were searching. Who start attending and brought their children. Then their siblings and their siblings’ children. And their parents.

I think how David Johnson, the pastor for over 20 years, has been instrumental in this vitality. He’s not loud or flashy, I’m not sure he’s got a Twitter or Instagram account, and his weekly audience hovers around 100, rather than 100 k, but he is a powerful influencer. Not the kind of influencer that would make a Very Important Editor blink an eyelid, but the kind of influencer that changes lives and generations. He’s doing the work he’s called to do and he’s being faithful.

People make it to the padded orange-fabric pews on Sunday mornings not because their grandparents did or because they were brought up in church, but because Pastor Dave invites them to look at Jesus. They come because he asks questions instead of forcing answers. They come for the same reason I consulted him, years ago, when I felt caught in the throes of a moral decision. I emailed Dave with the specifics and although I felt silly bothering him with my conundrum I was curious how he would advise me. Always err on the side of grace is the only line I remember from his response. I’ll never forget it.

When he hands communion bread to the congregation I see regular people with complicated stories at the table. Not a bunch of parishioners pretending to be religious. This is what influence is like, I think. Hundreds of miles away from any mega church or Important Publisher, this man is making a difference. This is how I want to be faithful.

This doesn’t mean I want to become a pastor. (Please God, no!) But it speaks to me on a very practical level; I realize I don’t need to give more time to social media than I already do. I still have creative goals and dreams but I want to remember Dave and his church when it comes to evaluating influence and audience.

The next week I will write two poems and submit them different places. I will send off another essay, edit a friend’s manuscript and someone else’s short story. I will play puppy-dog and memory. I will read Maya Angelou, Sally Ito and Lorna Crozier. I will insist on music practice, warm jackets and veggies. I will sprinkle coarse salt on roasted sweet potatoes and put more leaves in our table. Guests will sit on the floor and drink out of measuring cups because there are more people than dishes. I will write this blog. I will walk many miles. This is how I will be faithful, by tending to my audience–the ones already here, including my own body.

So dear believers, skeptics and agnostics: find your sanctuary. Find someone who reflects the kind of influence you want to wield. Someone who reminds you of what you’re willing to give up and what you won’t trade for anything.

Happy Thanksgiving Season (again).

Tricia

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