It’s drizzly and cold when we stop the car on the side of the road on our way to Wonderscape. Belén sprints across the highway, towards the bushes in the ditch, and I open the trunk to get the pruning shears. I’ve been worrying about the table centrepieces for months. Stories? I can tell them. Contracting artists? No problem. Booking a venue? Done. But centrepieces, oh the centrepieces, how I dread tackling this overwhelming problem. And so, I leave it for the very last minute. Until I am on the road, centrepiece-less, driving to the retreat I am about to facilitate. Which is when we see them waiting for us, perfect branches with leaves turning from papaya-orange to apple-red. I cut them down and stuff them into our car. Tell me, what else should I have done?*
It turns out my mom is the oldest person attending the retreat and my daughter Belén, the youngest. Last year, the first time I tried organizing a Wonderscape retreat, Belén begged to join us. “Please,” she said. “I’ll eat the crumbs that fall from your table,” she said. “You won’t notice me, I promise,” she said. Her pleas didn’t work then because I was too nervous and preoccupied, but this year I am more relaxed. She and her friend Ainsly don’t eat the crumbs off our table but they do sketch, read, collage, run, walk, write, and paint feverishly all weekend. I admit, I lowered the registration age to 13 just for them. Tell me, what else should I have done?
Lesley stokes the fire and lights the candles and I call everyone to gather for our first session. I’ve been looking forward to introducing the artists I’ve hired for a long time. Each one fascinates, impresses and inspires me and I can’t wait to present them to the group. But even more interesting is hearing everyone else introduce themselves. I want to know: Why are you here? Where are you from? How did you find out about this? What gifts are you bringing? I know there are painters, poets, story-tellers, community-builders, movers-and-shakers, photographers, potters, knitters, bee-keepers, musicians and more. It takes time for all 33 people to introduce themselves and I have to strike other things off my agenda to make room for it. Tell me, what else should I have done?
On Saturday morning I wake up at 5 am. My mind is racing as I envision how the day will unfold. By 6 am I’m dressed and slip out of my room to the lounge. The fire is out and the coals are black. I slide past the books in our weekend library with a longing glance. So many good books, so little time. I head downstairs, past the gallery with Kate’s poetry, paintings and tee-shirts. I am almost past the “giving tree”–where we left offerings to encourage our fellow makers–when I stop to stare at the bounty. Between us all we have so much wealth to share.
I push out the doors and head to the beach to scope out a route for my Hike n’ Write workshop. Soon I am following a path that lines sloughs and field on one side, and the lake on the other. At the end of my walk I see the lights are on in the old church where Kate and Daisy are busy working. They show me the canvases textured with drywall mud and tell me about the next step of the process. How they’ll cover the mud with black paint, and how it’s a metaphor for grief and pain. How sponging off most of the dark paint transforms the painting into something deeper, like a relief map. How loss and sadness lessen but continue to shape our story. How adding paint to the contours gives us joy. I think of their own story of grief–losing a husband and father in a tragic accident–and others here who have lost their own husbands and dads. I wipe my eyes with my fleece gloves. I cannot speak. Tell me, what else should I have done?
When I first thought about planning a retreat such as this one, I expected I would literally “retreat”. I envisioned myself doing whatever I wanted and my schedule would look something like this: Walk, write, eat. Paddle, write, eat. Repeat. Of course, this is not what happens. I am realizing that my creative project is designing and executing the experience itself. I take pictures of Krista playing the ukulele while “Stand by Me” and laughter surround her. I catch snippets of conversations. About organizing Lawn Artz and harvesting sea buck-thorn berries, about publishing poetry and illustrating children’s books, about connecting first nations people from different continents and travelling abroad. I have no time for making anything except this thing that is happening right now. Tell me, what else should I have done?
After a farm-to-table dinner we listen to Sweet Saturday begin their set with a Civil Wars cover. Their harmonies are perfectly-fitted puzzle pieces, they pause at all the right moments and I know it’s going to be a good night. At one point they perform an original tune they’d never rehearsed before–they want to show us how their creative process works instead of tell us about it. One plays the mandolin, the others focus on each other and try to find their harmonies. They stop, start and try again, laying bare the raw process of collaboration. When their concert is over we ask for an encore. Then another. The band glances at me for direction. One of the them laughs about not having any songs left. I hold up my index finger. We want more, I mouth. When they hesitate I announce, “I have 35 women to back me up.” Tell me, what else should I have done?
Before our final meal on Sunday I tell the story of Babette’s Feast, the tale of the French refugee who flees to Norway to work for two spinster sisters. When the maid, Babette, wins the lottery she spends the entire sum on a decadent French feast for the sisters and their friends. She uses every cent to prepare a single meal, holding nothing back; no wine is too expensive, no delicacy out of reach for Babette. She is an artist, compelled to share her gift, if only for her own sake.
I have the notes from the story in my hand, but I hold them to my chest the whole time. I have no need for them. I almost forget I am in the room with the other woman and can nearly feel the snowflakes falling in the fjords of Norway. I take my time, savouring each image, and fall deeper into the story. When I feel the peak of the narrative coming, like a wave swelling in the distance, I begin to tremble. I catch Shannon’s eye. Even though she’s probably read this story a hundred times her eyes are shinning and I can tell it’s carrying her too. When I interrupt myself to explain the pause she keeps nodding and speaks for the rest of the audience, “I know… I know… I know…” Suddenly I can’t coax my voice out of my throat and there are tears in its place. Tell me, what else should I have done?
At the very end, just before we read the artist blessing I wrote for the group, I disclose that I cannot untangle my creativity from my spirituality. I explain that I am swept away by the story of Jesus and redemption and that it’s impossible for me to contain all the abundance of the Creator. I tell them that the more I write, the more ideas I get; the more I use and give away, the more inspiration floods and fills the cracks. I bear witness to my source of ideas, dreams, visions and seeds. Even so, when I hand out the words for the blessing I tell them to interpret it according to their own sensibilities and worldviews. Tell me, what else should I have done?
I write cheques out to artists, pay for the venue rental and mentally calculate what is left over. I haven’t tallied the hours spent making Facebook posts, researching locations, processing registrations, collecting materials and programming. It might be too discouraging and it’s clear that if I wanted to follow common sense I wouldn’t be blogging about Wonderscape right now. I wouldn’t have stayed up in the middle of the night, proposing the idea to friends a couple years ago. I wouldn’t have paid attention to a whim that would grow into a place where strangers gather from hundreds of kilometres away. But tell me… What else should I have done?
*If you know Mary Oliver, you’ll recognize the line from her poem “Summer Day” repeated throughout this post. I used the poem as a primer in the Hike n’ Write workshop and it seemed like it wanted to get in on this piece too.
**Follow Wonderscape Retreats on Facebook to see more pictures and updates on upcoming events.
**A huge thank you to the Saskatchewan Arts Board and Sask Culture for supporting Wonderscape 2017!