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.