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,

Tricia

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

Resurrection

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: http://www.readybagonline.com/blog/2014/7/8/give-composting-a-try

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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!

*

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.

*

“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!

*

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…

*

“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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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