Why I’m Not Crying

I wake up at 4:30 in the morning and my brain starts ticking through what needs to happen today. By sunrise I am out on the gravel path at the edge of town, making my normal rounds. I come back to wake my sleeping children, get out the cast-iron frying pan and melt some generous chunks of butter. We’re having fried porridge (leftover, congealed porridge fried in butter and topped with maple syrup). A special breakfast for a special day.

After going through the same 5 outfits we’d debated on last night, Vivian finally settles on a dress Belén bought for her with billows of light pink tulle and a bow at the waist. Susanna thinks it’s over-the- top and Belén gives Vivian important last-minute instructions like breathe with your mouth closed and then we are off. We rush passed Roger, our friend who walks by our place at 8 o’clock every morning, and he exclaims over Vivi, who normally waves to him from the other side of the living room window.

“We can’t be late today,” I say to Roger over my shoulder and keep walking to catch up with Susanna who is holding Vivian’s hand.

I snap some pictures at the bus stop, run home, throw on a helmet and grab my bike. The front tire is low but I don’t have time to fill it. I want to get across town before the bus arrives at the school so I can usher Vivi into the school like all the other kindergarten parents.

Everything goes as expected. Vivi figures out which is her locker, how to hang her backpack and fasten the velcro of her new indoor runners. Some moms take pictures and others hang back, watching their little ones colour the printed handouts ready at the tables. One mom is dabbing her eyes with a tissue and pats her daughter’s head while her husband motions towards the door, telling her it’s time to leave.

“Are you crying?” my mother texts me when I send her the photos from the bus stop.

“Nope,” I answer, then add, “I’m elated.”

I’m elated because Vivian and I have been watching her sisters get on the bus for the last 5 years. I’m elated because I’ve spent almost a decade-and-a- half at home with my preschool children. I’ve worn pyjamas til noon, worn out the couch cushions and worn out my voice. I’ve suckled, fed, bathed, wiped, nuzzled, spanked, listened, ignored, imagined, waited, rushed, doodled, read, explored, painted, run, jumped, skipped with my kids–and a lot of other people’s kids–and now we are here. At the end of this long, hard beautiful season.

My last child, my little girl, my bonus baby, is going to school.

But there are no tears. Instead of crying, I feel like an eighteen-year-old throwing my cap and tassel into the air. I did it! It’s not just the first day of kindergarten folks, it’s also mommys’ graduation day! We made it!

When I get home I’ll review my to-do list that I made at 5 am, when I was lucid enough to write but still in dream-state…

  • certify as a doula
  • become a licensed chaplain
  • grow garlic from seed instead of cloves
  • make tomato sauce
  • apply for mentorship program with Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild
  • teach grades 6-8
  • teach kindergarten
  • teach high school
  • teach adults creative writing
  • sweep my laundry room
  • write poetry
  • plant an apple tree in the front yard
  • finish writing my book
  • walk for miles
  • pray
  • read fine writing
  • do Wonderscape
  • foster children
  • move my family overseas
  • build up nutrients in our garden soil
  • package honey in jars

The list is long, which is why I don’t reach for a tissue or stay in the classroom for an extra hug. I don’t have time.

I push out the heavy doors of the school, get on my bike and start pedalling. Fast. Under the over pass, leaning into the curve at the roundabout, passed the courthouse with the pretty fuchsia petunias, down Myrtle Avenue where the flax mill smells of oil, nuts, green and dirt. Over the train tracks and up the hill I go, standing to pedal now, my orange windbreaker flapping behind me, like the swish of a blue gown crossing a stage.


At 7:30 pm, shafts of sunlight filter through the spruce boughs at the western edge of our yard. Belén is bouncing on the trampoline then jumps down to the stump-step and walks barefoot across our stone patio.

Stan has just come home from a 12-hour workday at the mine. He is lifting a cob of corn to his mouth, butter dripping off the end, when Belén makes a suggestion.

“This is the perfect night for rowing. Can we go?”

I look over at Stan. He looks at me. Without speaking he sets his corncob back onto his plate, half-eaten. The golden kernels will have to wait. His teenage daughter has made an invitation he can’t refuse.

In fifteen minutes, both father and daughter have changed and are unloading the rowing shell from the van. They carry it to the shore and roll it off their shoulders onto the lake. Belén holds both oars with her left hand, to steady the boat, and steps into the skull carefully for her first time. Stan gives instructions while standing calf-deep in the slimy water (among plenty of leeches), which is the least of his concerns. He is focused on coaching her how to slide and reach forward at the catch to maximize her power. Belén pulls back on the oars hesitantly and the boat wobbles like a newborn fawn just learning to walk.

The next stroke is steadier and on the third, both blades dig in at nearly the same moment, surging the boat backwards. The sudden glide surprises Belén. Her eyes widen and she grins quickly before concentrating on her next task.

Then she is off. Back and forth across the lake. Her dad standing tall near shore, watching the whole time.


Vivi’s hands are at 10 and 2 o’clock on the steering wheel. She turns toward me when I open the driver’s door of our van and tightens her grip.

“It’s my turn Mom!”

I try to take her seriously even though her feet can’t touch the floor and her ice cream flip-flops dangle from her 5-year-old toes.

“Susanna and Belén got to drive on the way here.” She lifts her chin and waits, then turns her head and stares forward. “I can do it too, Mom! I promise.”

I open the back door, where her booster is waiting, then reach forward to extract her from the driver’s seat.

“It won’t be long before you get the chance. Only ten short years.” I am not being facetious.


Dear one,

This is harder than you expected, isn’t it?

Come now, sit right here. There’s a space beside me on the couch. I can see that you are tired and not yourself. And now you are crying.

But it’s okay. Because even though having a baby has changed your life and everything is chaos, you are still made for this. You are brave and strong. This is a refining fire that will make you even more beautiful. I know this is true.

So sit awhile. Rest. You are going to make it through. You are not alone. See? I wrote this poem just for you.

With love,



The thing about having a baby,
or tumbling through a dark hole night after night
not knowing which way is up or down,
feeling like you’ve lost your way
and definitely your mind,
with bile and breast milk stains on your shirt,
is that someday your baby will be fourteen.

She’ll help you paint your walls,
and dip the roller in the tray
without making a mess.
She’ll play her music and you’ll sing along to every song,
except the French ones,
and when you ask about the lyrics
she’ll translate for you.
“It’s about guitars and being free,” she’ll say,
pausing with the roller above her head,
“but it’s not as romantic in English as it is in French.”
And you’ll finish the room together wondering
what you’ll listen to after she leaves in a few short years.
Wondering how a nightmare turned into this.

And you’ll want to tell every women
with cracked nipples and crazed eyes:
Hold on.
It won’t always be this deep
or dark
or hard.

Wait for what’s ahead.
Wait for white walls and music.


*First published in Mothers Always Write



For Susanna and Bella

“You zip the suitcases and I’ll start carrying groceries to the car,” I say to my oldest daughters on Friday morning. I bend down and pull on the handles of a plastic bin overflowing with pots, pans, spatulas and other tools. The weight of the load strains my lower back and I remind myself to bend my knees for the second bin. I’ll have to come back for the third one later.

Belén, Susanna and I are getting ready to leave for our biennial “girls weekend”, a getaway offered to any woman in the family older than twelve. Although we’ll only be gone for a little more than 48 hours, it appears as if we’re permanently relocating to another city. We’re hauling almost everything but the kitchen sink. Literally. Our baggage includes three kinds of electric mixers–a bulky food processor, an immersion stick blender and hand-held beaters–as well as multiple pairs of shoes, boots, jackets, games, books and art supplies. Which, considering how we normally travel (with one pair of underwear for a week in the backcountry), all feels very extravagant.

My sister and I have organized the weekend by ourselves and haven’t bothered our mother with booking accommodations or researching entertainment options. When my mom called me a few days before the trip she wanted to know if there were any details left to figure out, or what she should bring.

“What do I need to do?” she asked me on the phone.

“Nothing,” I answered. “You don’t need to do anything except be there and be happy. No complaining allowed!” Of course, she’s more than happy to enjoy the weekend without the planning and I’m not worried she’ll be grumpy. I’m simply stating Rule #1 of our family tradition.

On Friday evening, after checking out our downtown condo, we head to a local bookstore to browse and eat dinner.

“We’re pretty packed,” the host warns us when we approach his kiosk. Biting his lower lip and running his finger down the reservation list he adds, “It’ll be a while before I can get you a table.”

“Great!” I say, still grinning.

“Like an hour and half,” he clarifies, looking at me apologetically. “Do you still want it?”

“Mark us down,” I say. After all, we have no agenda and aren’t in a rush. We all split ways and wander in our own directions. I head to a book launch in one corner of the store, where the poet and musician Scott Nolan will be reading verses he wrote during miles of daily walks. Squeezing between book stacks and audience members milling around with coffee in hand, I find an empty chair beside an an old man sporting a beret and a young women wearing bright red lipstick. Eavesdropping on their conversation, I remember how delicious it is to be out and about in the world by myself.

At nine o’ clock all of us reunite over candles, flat bread pizza and West African peanut soup. The soup is underwhelming and tastes like diluted pumpkin puré, Susanna finds a curly black hair baked into the crust and Bella is exhausted after waking up at dawn and travelling all day to meet us. Still, we are together. The youngest two, especially, have been looking forward to this initiation for years.

“I feel so old,” Susanna repeats throughout the evening, without a single complaint about her pizza strewn with arugula. And not even a rogue hair can dim the shine for her.

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The next morning we walk a couple kilometres to an Etsy Maker fair. About halfway there we stop at The Don, a breakfast diner with a German Mennonite menu owned by a Korean family.

“What are the cracklings like?” I ask the waitress, trying to recall vague memories of my grandma serving them.

“They’re rendered pork fat fried in oil,” she replies, poised with her pencil and pad of paper. “People say they have a distinct flavour.”

“But you’ve never eaten them yourself?” I press.

“No,” she adds, shifting her weight, “but they’re really popular.”

“You used to love cracklings!” my mom interjects. “Or at least your brothers did.”

I order a plate for everyone to share while my mom launches into an explanation of our Mennonite heritage for the waitress. Once our food arrives, including the crispy pork fat that is just as good as my brothers always thought it was, we turn to Belén, Susanna and Bella for some conversation. What are their classes like? Their friends? What are the best parts of their days? The worst?

Listening more and talking less is something I’ve noticed in the generations who have gone before me. I remember my Grandma Mary sitting in her rocker, hands folded in her lap, silent in the midst of my aunts, uncles and cousins who gathered in her home regularly on Sunday evenings. My Grandpa Hans and Grandma Susie behaved similarly while hosting weekend reunions in hotels, listening to their kids and grandchildren visit and play games around them. I had observed their quiet and wondered if they didn’t participate because they couldn’t hear. Or was it because they couldn’t relate to the topics in the conversation? Perhaps, as people age they are less inclined to be the center of attention? Whatever the reason, I sense the same shift in who’s “got the floor” as my own family grows older.

The next morning I find Belén, Susanna and Bella huddled in the kitchen. They are talking in low voices and I draw closer to find out what is going on.

“Ha!” Belén laughs when I get too near. “Look who wants to listen-in now!”

“What to you mean?”

“Well, adults are always whispering and talking about things we’re not supposed hear. Now it’s our turn.”

Yes indeed.

I assume their conversation has something do do with the meal they’ve volunteered to prepare for us. My mom, sister and I are shooed out of the condo for a 2-hour walk while they work. They’ve already spent long hours on the phone deciding on a menu and figuring who would bring what. Susanna printed off recipes she’d found online and made colour-coded grocery lists. Days earlier I had dropped her off at the store so she could pick up the top-secret ingredients and when I’d returned home from my own errands I knew something was missing but couldn’t think of what it might be. Then I remembered Susanna. Backing out the driveway and returning to Superstore I found her, still combing the aisles for ingredients like fennel seed and and almond flour.

Now preparations for the feast are in full swing.

“Don’t look! Don’t come to the kitchen! You can’t see what we’re doing,” yells Susanna when we return too early from our walk. I flop on the bed and close my eyes while traces of citrus and chocolate, mingled with basil, waft into my room. Finally we are served freshly-squeezed lemonade, spaghetti with marinara sauce, salad and a buffet of handmade macarons.

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Besides the no-complaining rule there is one other tenet of the Girls Weekend: No Parenting Allowed. This means no rushing, nagging, pushing, cajoling, or telling anyone else what do. Although I cherish my role as a mother, the weekend is a vacation from that role, from all the orchestrating, programming, and managing of other humans. No one is in charge of what anyone else eats or drinks, when they wake up or go to sleep or what they do in between. We are all on an even playing field and it gives me a taste of what it might be like to have have adult children and enjoy their adult company.

“Pretend you are 21-year-old university students,” we explain to the twelve-year-olds at the beginning, “and we’re all just hanging out as friends.”

It’s not that I don’t want to be their mom–I’ll never give up that identity–but it’s refreshing to take a break from some of our normal interactions. Instead of forcing violin practice or reminding them to do their laundry we can all relax into simply being in each other’s company. And when we do, it’s a little easier for me to remember that I like these individuals just for who they are. Not as daughters or students or little mini-me’s but as the people they are becoming.

On Sunday morning everyone sleeps in and there is no time for anything besides packing. Once all of our kitchen paraphernalia has been stowed and our bags are ready we take one last look around the sparse, but stylish, space.

“It feels like there should be some kind of ceremony to celebrate the end of your first girls weekend,” I say to Bella and Susanna, who are putting on their jackets.

There are groans in response.

Then my mom sets down her purse and begins to pray a blessing on each one of the younger generation. It is ceremony enough.


Embroidery, Broken Glass, Wild Honey and Sonja Pawliw

I’m pretending to study the delicate hem of the dress, hanging on the Godfrey Dean Gallery walls, at Sonja Pawliw’s opening. My interest is feigned, not because the work isn’t incredible, but because I’ve already looked at the clothing. I’ve come back to this corner of the gallery only after spotting Pawliw; I want to get close to find out more about her.

Moments earlier I had surveyed the room wondering who, or where, she might be. I scanned attendees gathering around the high-heeled shoes covered in ceramic mosaic, the felted landscapes, alcohol and ink paintings, acrylics and photography and guessed she was the short, silver-haired woman surrounded by a crowd of older ladies fussing over her.

As soon as I move close and start eaves-dropping my suspicion is confirmed. Now that I’ve found her I have more questions. Where did she learn to work with different media? And who inspired her to become such a prolific artist? I can’t help but interrupt her conversation.

“Where do you work?” I ask when she glances my way. “Where’s your studio?”

“Studio?” she says laughing, then grabs my forearm. “My studio? It’s my dining room table! Oh, you should see the mess. Every inch is covered in broken glass, tile and grout. The floor, too! It’s been that way for years.”

I look at the skin around her lips, her eyes and thinning hair and figure she must be close to eighty. “Are you still making things?” I ask cautiously, hoping she’s not offended by my question.

“Of course!” she shoots back before she is steered away for another photo.

I came to the show today because I wanted to meet the woman described on the gallery’s website as a “maker long before the term became popular” and view her diverse body of work. Now I’m more curious than ever and decide I need to see her kitchen table for myself.

A couple months later the gallery director, Don Stein, agrees to introduce me to her. It’s a frosty December morning and I take a picture of her hand-crafted mailbox, covered in a mosaic of broken dishes and drifting snow, before knocking on her door. We step inside the small bungalow and I immediately see her table. It’s right beside the front entry and just like she had described, clearly with a project on the go.cell phone november december 042cell phone november december 043

Christmas carols play in the living room while Ukrainian music comes from the back of the house. She puts a tiny kettle on her stove and I wander around, trying to take in the paintings, macrame, mosaics, paper tole, knitting and art covering every available surface. I pull a stool up to her kitchen counter and ask, “How did you become an artist? How did all of this happen?” They’re loaded questions, ones that will take hours to answer, but Sonja loves telling stories. She talks quickly and takes big breaths so she can carry on with the next phrase.

She tells me about gardening with her grandma (who she refers to as an angel), beekeeping with her grandpa, catching sparrows, snaring rabbits and harvesting wild honey. It reminds me of the exuberant curiosity I sense in her art work. Everything from from her hand-dyed silk scarves to her embroidery to her writing and illustrations embodies her quest—even personal challenge—to curate beauty.cell phone november december 045

I’m trying to imagine how she did it all while she hustles me toward some rocking chairs covered in sheepskins. How did she have time for creativity, as the mother of eight children, while working on the farm and holding a job at the hospital? And what did other folks think when her sprawling art projects took over the home?

“Oh,” she says, grinning, “they thought I was crazy!” She chuckles. “Down right crazy.”

During our visit I’ve been trying to peg her age. Finally, she tells me she is 91.

“Ninety-one?” I echo, not sure I heard correctly. She is, after all, still producing more pieces for an upcoming gallery show in Saskatoon. In fact, she’d just told me she doesn’t have time to relax these days because there is always something she needs to make or do.

Suddenly she gets quiet. She looks down at her hands on her lap, the hands that have sculpted, molded, painted, sewed, gardened and shaped her work for nearly a century. When she looks up I see tears in her eyes.

“You know,” she says, her voice soft with emotion, “I’ve always prayed, Lord, if there are people who aren’t using the energies and talents you gave them, can you pass them on to me?” She pauses and looks at her snowy apricot tree on the other side of the window. My rocker creaks while I finger the knitted scarf she just gifted me. It’s apparent that Sonja Pawliw got what she asked for.cell phone november december 052

Note: I wrote this article for the Godfrey Dean Art Gallery in December 2018. Many thanks to Don Stein for the invitation and Sonja Pawliw for the visit. It is an honour to write about such a remarkable woman… 800 words barely scratches the surface!

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: programs.sask@carfac.ca .

**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