How to Remind Yourself of Who You Want to Be

A sense of dread and awkwardness fills the van as we pull up to the reunion.

“Why are we coming to this thing?” one daughter asks, pulling suitcases from the trunk. “We should’ve stayed home or gone to Grandma’s house.”

“Yah, we’ve never even been to South America!” adds another one.

Our kids are here because we made them come. Stan and I are here because, along with everyone else at this gathering, we volunteered with Mennonite Central Committee in Bolivia. Some attendees overlapped with our terms of service (1999-2004) but many others are from different eras.

“This will be great,” I say halfheartedly, while sweat trickles down my chest. I push my sunglasses on top of my head so I can greet people in a few moments, but even I’m starting to wonder why we made the trip when I open the doors to the retreat centre. The lobby is full of people, most of whom I’ve never met, and our family of five maneuvers through the crowd to get to the registration table and pick up a key to our room as quickly as possible. It feels like we need to regroup already.

Once we unlock our door, the kids and I survey the space; worn grey carpets, thin mattresses, a bulky TV from the eighties, plain grey walls with no pictures and a line of cabinets, circa 1960.

“Mmm, this is authentic,” I say. “It’s hot out and the hotel is just a wee bit nicer than most hotels we stayed at in Boli.”

Susanna is checking out the linoleum tile and pokes her head out of the bathroom. “Well I never want to go to Bolivia then!”

After gathering to eat, after singing a prayer together (a doxology in 4-part harmony almost like this:) ), after group introductions and watching row after row of people come forward to talk about the small villages and cities where they volunteered in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s, after catching up with people I hadn’t seen in more than 15 years, memories begin to stir…

The setting sun throwing shadows on the San Juan mountainside; how the hills became a giant piece of emerald velour carpet, crumpled with canyons and creeks, vines and trees. The smell of baking bread in a wood-fired clay oven, a mix of yeast, hot clay and smoke. The fresh milk squirted straight into my cup under the cow’s teat–immediately mixed with a shot of alcohol and sugar. The nausea of 12-hour bus-rides; winding through switchbacks up and down the infamous Inca Wasi to get to our home in Taperillas. The kiss-and-hug greeting in the city, the traditional arms-length pat-pat in the villages. The red dirt in which we grew Lab-Lab beans and tomatoes. Making almuerzo with our roommate Juan, squatting on the cement floor slicing onions. The wild honey. The walking. And walking. And more walking. The women who became my mothers, sisters, friends and confidantes when I had never felt more alone. The chicha, oh the ubiquitous chicha–a sweet, fermented drink made of chewed corn and saliva. The horse races in the chaco. The day-trips to town for a backpack full of grocery staples.

The next evening of the retreat is filled with stories and Bolivian folk songs. “Viva Santa Cruz!” we all stand up and shout, while looking out at the Winnipeg river and the Canadian shield. Stan sings and plays his favourite taquirari, Sombrero de Sao. Rene holds his hands high and claps when Brisa and Helena sing the cueca Moto Mendez; another lady waves a white handkerchief to the rhythm. Later that night, while getting ready for bed, my three-year-old sits on the potty and sings earnestly. It’s all gibberish, with a rhyme or two, and a melody I don’t recognize. I raise my eyebrows and look at Stan.

“She’s singing in Spanish, just like everyone else,” he informs me.

By this time it’s beginning to dawn on my why we came to the retreat. We came because we need to remind ourselves who we are and what has shaped us. We came because we wanted to be inspired by the farmers, professors, artists, business people, kids and wanderers who landed up in Bolivia alongside, or before, us. We came because we wanted to speak Spanish and eat empanadas. We came because we wanted to rub shoulders again with adventurers, dreamers and doers who are willing to explore other cultures. We came because we needed to visit with people who are passionate about social justice. We came because we wanted our children to see that there is more to this world than the small, prairie town where we currently live.

And yet, when someone asks me if we will take our family to live abroad, I’m not sure what to say.

“Of course, that was the plan,” I say. “It’s always been the plan, but somehow it’s not happening.” I pause. “My wanderlust has a hyper-local focus these days.” It’s true that I’m more interested in the bacteria growing in my compost pile, or the neighbour who just immigrated to Canada, than moving across the world. In fact, it seems unlikely we’ll be going anywhere when there is so much happening right where we are.

The person who asked the question nods and seems to understands, even though he took his own children to live in Bolivia.

We need to gather in groups like this where it’s easy to understand and be understood. To find our people. Whether they be scrap-bookers, gamers, Young Living distributors or whatever. In fact, if you’re like me “your people” aren’t constituted by a single group. Some are likely family members or classmates from years gone by. Some might be work buddies or old friends. Where ever they are they remind you of who you are and what you want.

My people certainly aren’t perfect, and this particular reunion wasn’t even that long. And yes, the first few moments were painful. Yes, it took energy to meet and greet and reconnect. Yes, I got tired of talking. But it was worth it. I remembered again who I want to be.

An adventurer.

Passionate for social justice.

All because of Jesus.

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Taperillas community store, 2002; Don Pascual and I are helping with accounting.

Thanks to all of you at MCC who taught me and continue to inspire me!

 

 

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On Jesus and Indoctrinating Your Children

An open letter/blog to any parent considering sending their child to Bible camp…

When the camp director asks me to speak for a week at camp this summer I am totally surprised. How did my name come up? And why would they want me to speak? My first inclination is to say no; partly because of the time it will take to prepare and partly because I don’t feel like I’m a good fit–you know, the rah-rah preacher raising the chapel roof. It’s not that I don’t identify with the core beliefs of the camp, but I’ve never been comfortable selling Christianity. In general, I can smell a sales pitch from a mile away and feel violated when someone targets me as a potential client, whether they’re pushing a political view, Tupperware or the Watch Tower. It all makes me want to run the other direction.

While on the phone with director, asking him about details, I’m also thinking about conversations I’ve had with multiple parents and their distaste for Bible camp. Particularly the emotionally-charged services where vulnerable children, many away from home for the first time, are subjected to religious manipulation. Now I was being asked to be a major player in this? To stand at the front of the chapel, preaching to the sunburned, mosquito-bitten, hyper children who come for a week of fun but go home indoctrinated?

***

I’m driving with 4 other teenagers in my car and listening to their animated conversation.

“She told me I was going to hell on judgement day! Can you believe that?”

A burst of laughter erupts in the back seat.

“Yeah, it’s just a bunch of rules. Outdated and boring.”

“I once had to say the Hail Mary, like, 59 times. I hated it!”

“Religion is so repulsive,” says another.

More laughter.

My hands grip the steering wheel and I bite my lip. I can see there has been a terrible misunderstanding. The programs, curriculum, traditions, institutions and well-meaning followers are eclipsing their centre, their very heart. Which is what happens when people see Christianity instead of Jesus. A religion, instead of a person.

Soon the conversation skips to another topic, but my insides ache while I process my unspoken response:

Have you read the book of Matthew lately? Or even just chapters 5, 6 and 7?

Have you watched him turn water into wine? Water to wine! Not the other way around.

Have you listened to his stories of mustard seeds and outcasts and rebel sons who return home?

Have you seen him bend low to draw in the dirt to save a desperate woman?

Did you hear his whisper at the cross, his compassion for the criminal hanging beside him?

You can complain all you want to me about religion and I will probably agree with most of it. But show me Jesus and I come undone.

***

I decide I will speak at camp. Every hour I spend drafting and researching, I get more excited. I still couldn’t care less whether your children go to church every Sunday or have never sat in a pew. Whether they Muslim or Christian, cynics or charismatics. I’m not in the business of selling Christianity, nor of converting, convincing or conniving. That is impossible. And as absurd as forcing someone to feel the rhythm of a song, gape at the northern lights or fall in love with a person.

You can sell things or even ideas, but you don’t sell people; you introduce people, you connect people, or maybe even match-make people. So dear parents, don’t worry about me indoctrinating your children. I’m not the least bit interested in that. My only agenda is to show them Jesus. And, if you’ve ever heard music, looked at the night sky, or felt the spark of romance, you’ll understand that most of this has nothing to do with me anyway.

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…And then some things never change

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I will always be a mother. Even when we’re out of pink rubber boots and sparkles. Even when my kids are 43 and 51 and 53.

Stan heard this song on the radio, on his way home from work, and made the girls listen to it. They learned it a couple days before Mother’s day, and instead of breakfast-in-bed they sang it while I was still in my pajamas. I made them repeat it at least 4 times. I’ve since played Brandi Carlile’s video over and over, and requested they perform the song at an upcoming coffee house. Both of them think that would be weird, since they are 11 and 13 and neither are mothers. I told them it doesn’t matter and please sing it and play guitar and fiddle and harmonize and make me cry! They are not convinced.

Here’s the official video since you might never hear it from them.

The Mother
Welcome to the end of being alone inside your mind
You’re tethered to another and you’re worried all the time
You always knew the melody but you never heard it rhyme
She’s fair and she is quiet, Lord, she doesn’t look like me
She made me love the morning, she’s a holiday at sea
The New York streets are busy as they always used to be
But I am the mother of Evangeline
The first things that she took from me were selfishness and sleep
She broke a thousand heirlooms I was never meant to keep
She filled my life with color, canceled plans, and trashed my car
But none of that was ever who we are… (see video for more)
Songwriters: Brandi M. Carlile / Phillip John Hanseroth / Timothy Jay Hanseroth
Ps. This post is an addendum to the previous post, titled Change.

Spring Ritual

Vivi swings the door open, wearing her rubber boats, with a snack in hand. We’re about to go on a walk but it’s not just any walk, it’s a hunt. We’re on a mission to find a robin. We’ve been desperate to see one ever since Scoops (the local ice-cream stand) opened this season. Desperate because, according to our family by-laws, no one is allowed out for ice-cream until the first robin sighting. And whoever sees the robin decides where we go for treats.

I’m beginning to feel like a lily-handed city girl as friends and neighbours report their own sightings. “We’ve had them around the farm for weeks,” says Violet. Krista tells me she saw five in her backyard and another neighbour can’t believe we haven’t seen any. “Now it’s our turn,” I announce to Vivi as she eats lunch in the stroller and we wheel onto our regular route.

About a 100 metres along I see movement on my left. Under the pine, behind a stand of red-osier dogwood appears potential. I steal away from the stroller, pacing the perimeter of the bushes, then drop to my knees to get a better look. Vivi tries to get out of the stroller just when a gust of wind sends both of them sailing. She yelps and I quickly put my finger to my lips–this is no time for screaming, not now when I’m just about to close in. All I need is a flash of the bird’s signature red breast.

I see Vivi squinting her eyes at me and grinning. I have a feeling the most exciting part, for her, has nothing to do with our avian search. Vivian is so used to seeing the back of my head while I drive the van; my rear end while I stand at the kitchen sink; my calves tangled around the stool while I sit in front of the laptop, that my current posture is curiously thrilling for her. She crouches beside me, both of us pressing knees and hands into muddy grass, craning for a better look.

“There it is! There it is! Do you see it, Vivi?”

Vivian turns to face me. “Boo Boo Bubble” she whispers loudly, confirming the sighting with her favourite ice-cream flavour. Mission accomplished.

Once we offer the robins sunflower seeds and other residual crumbs from the stroller, thanking them for returning north, we celebrate our victory. “We did it,” I cry, giving Vivian a high-five. “We’re the first ones to see a robin!”

That evening, the wind blows cold while we walk to Scoops. We wear long underwear, toques, mitts and winter parkas. (Belén urges me to please take off my fur-lined hood when we walk past the skate park.) No other customers are at the ice-cream stand when we arrive. Yesterday would have been more pleasant, and certainly the more sensible day for cold treats, but it simply wasn’t an option. Not according to the ritual.

Vivian does, indeed, order Boo Boo Bubble–most of it ending up on her jacket, the cement and the garbage can. I don’t order anything at all; I don’t even like ice cream. Sometimes the anticipation, the wait, the hype associated with a ritual is better than the ritual itself.

Happy Spring009

 

What’s Your Geographical Skill-Set?

The shuttle bus lurches around a corner and we cling to the metal railing while exclaiming over the catci. “That a saguaro,” I point out to my daughters, “and there’s a bougainvillea!” We crane our necks, taking in as much possible during our first minutes on the ground in Arizona. Everything is so rocky and colourful, and so different than the winterscape we left behind.

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Grand Canyon

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We hiked down about 1.5 miles

A few days later, on our way to hike in the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix, we eye the scenery with the same awe. “We’ll have to lather on sunscreen as soon as we step out of the van,” I murmur nervously to no one in particular. “Did you all bring your hats?” 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. “It looks so… so…” Susanna hesitates for a bit, looking at the prickly vegetation surrounding us, “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?

 

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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, 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. My brother-in-law, Derek, makes a wise comment, “You need to build a certain kind of skill-set for wherever you live.

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Stan and my mom, tasting oil at an olive farm in AZ

Days later I’m reminded of that skill-set when we pass caravans of farm labourers on the highway to San Deigo. The first bus is packed and pulls a trailer with three faded porta-potties. I stare at the bus windows to get a glimpse of the people inside. Are these workers undocumented, underpaid or ill-treated? I’m shamefully curious. Who are the people who harvest the lettuce that makes it all the way to my fridge in mid-winter? Old men, young women and teenagers are dozing with their heads tilted back. Many look Latino, are wearing straw hats and some even have scarves around their necks and chins to shield themselves from the sun. As our own vehicle climbs out of the irrigated desert and into the rocky coastal range, I imagine what their lives must be like. I wonder at the skill-set these agricultural soldiers have honed for survival.

Our second day in San Diego we head to the touristy enclave of La Jolla. I’ve rented 2 kayks and envision my parents and family exploring caves, taking pictures of sea-lions and paddling in a calm cove. I am terribly mistaken. As soon as my parents see the waves crashing on shore they decide to use their kayak as a bench on the sand. I don’t blame them–the ocean looks wild. Nothing like I’d imagined while reserving the kayaks over the phone, watching snow fall gently outside my kitchen window. Stan and Belén stare at the froth for a few minutes, get in the kayak and then beat their way through the surf. The rest of us squint our eyes and try to keep track of them.

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Something must be distorted in this picture… it was way worse than it appears here:)

While Vivi chases seagulls and squishes wet sand between her fingers I start worrying. Why are they going so far out! What could happen if they tip? The swells are so big, will Belén ever make it back on the boat? Will the kayak get swept away? What about sharks? I’m not sure if it’s because I’m sick with the flu, or simply scared of the ocean, that everything suddenly seems ominous.

I interrupt a kayak guide who is admiring a freshly-caught fish, which is about the size of my eleven-year-old daughter. Under normal circumstances I might ask a few questions, congratulate the fisherman, or at least wait until they’re finished talking. But these are not normal circumstances. My husband and child are being tossed around in the open sea, likely about to drown or be eaten by sharks. I can already imagine identifying their bodies and returning to Canada as a widow.

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Some of us choose to stay on shore and eat chips instead

“What happens if someone who rents a kayak gets in trouble?” I ask urgently. The guide, with curly brown hair is laughing and doesn’t hear me. I try again. “My husband is out there with my daughter and they’re not with a tour group or anything, will they be okay?” What I want to know is when I should call 911 or a helicopter or some kind of SWAT team. He grins, asks a few questions and assures me that everything will be fine, even though it’s “a gnarly day out there”. He looks about 25. I think I must look about 75, with my huge sun-hat and worried eyes. “Thanks,” I say and try to smile. I also add something lame about being used to canoeing in flat-water.

An hour later Belén and Stan return, shooting through the surf onto the shore. They are whole, unscathed and breathing. Just as I predicted to my parents who have been worrying with me, both Stan and Belén are shocked I was concerned at all. It is imminently clear I have no skill-set for ocean-side living.

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Vivian is figuring it out (Thanks, James, for the photo)

Ten days after we step into the desert we land back in Regina. While Stan runs to get the car we pull our suitcases off the baggage carousel and root through our bags, pulling out jackets and toques. We wait and wait and wait for Stan to pick us up. It is now almost 2 am and all the other travelers are long gone. I ask a security guard eating a tuna sandwich if the airport stays open all night. And does he have any idea how far away the economy parking lot is? He radios another guard and asks about a man in a tee-shirt (Stan) who might be looking for his van. No news. Finally he radios again and we hear he is on his way. When he finally pulls up to the airport’s sliding doors I ask him what happened. Did he fall? Fight off an attacker? How come he took so long?

“The car was completely iced in. Must’ve melted while we were away and water froze around the wheels. It was totally stuck. Had to chip it out and push.” He closes the trunk and we shiver in our leather seats, waiting for the heater to warm the air.

A few days later I see Vivian’s plush baby-blanket on the floor of the van. It’s dirty and torn with a gaping hole in its middle. I hold it up and Vivi wails, “My blanket!”

“Oh” says Stan casually, “I put it under the wheels for some traction when I was trying to get out of the airport parking lot. Sorry Vivi.” She whimpers a little more, but I don’t feel too sympathetic. It’s not her favourite blankie, and besides, it served as an important tool in Stan’s skill-set for dealing with Saskatchewan.

What kind of skill-set do you need to live where you do? What do you wish you could tell newcomers about the skill-set they need to flourish? Have you ever been in a place where you didn’t possess the required skill-set? Please share!

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Skill-set for SK, includes knowing what do with snow, candles, toques and hot chocolate (March 2018)

 

 

Identifying as a Christian

I drafted an essay, about 4 or 5 years ago, that was a pain to write. I had an idea of what I wanted to get down on paper but the connections were awkward, the structure confusing and the emotion unwieldy. Then, last month, while looking for something else in my writing folder, the essay fell out. I picked it off the floor and sat down to read it with fresh eyes. By the last paragraph, I decided I wanted to salvage it because I still feel the same way, and because it explains what I cannot easily articulate in everyday conversation.

Convivium, an on-line magazine that “fosters rigorous conversation, shares profound stories of faith, and explores some of the most difficult questions of our time”, published it this week…

I don’t believe there’s anything after this,” Connie says. “We get one time around and when we die, it’s all over.” She pauses, then adds, “There’s nothing more, nothing less.”

Lying on my back, staring at the bunk above me, I sense she pities anyone naive enough to rely on a religious crutch to explain our existence. Spiritual leanings, hard-wired into the modern psyche because of evolutionary advantage, are nothing to her but the result of legends used for societal control and group cohesion. The more I listen, the more I dread coming out…

Click to read the rest here!

If, by the end of the article, you still have time and energy to comment, I’d love to know how you relate to the piece. Does it feel familiar? Unsettle you? Surprise you?

Thanks for reading. I’m honoured, as always, that you’re here,

Tricia

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Loppet

If I understood hashtags
or knew why I should use them
I would type out a whole slew:
#myfavouritemonth
#duckmountainloppet
#makethemostofit
#20kmandstillhappy
#crosscountryskilove
#swapyourbabyforakidwhoskis
And it would all be true
expect for the parts that
were left out.

Like when I lost Stan at the start and was left without wax or water or food
and teared up,
partly because I thought we were in this together–
but mostly because of the food.
And then, when I found the girls six kilometres later,
one of them had a breakdown and refused to move an inch farther
and yelled crazy things
and I yelled crazy things back
and smiley men in spandex swished past us, commenting on the
superb day,
while we feigned pleasantries.

But that’s not all that would be missing.
The catchy phrases wouldn’t describe
the wood smoke or braided rugs or sliced oranges
at the warm-up huts.
They wouldn’t ring like the laughter of the hut-host who invited us in for sausage
and gave my thirteen-year-old advice about boys.
Or capture Mary skip-hopping while she skate skis
like a forest nymph or Susanna’s flushed cheeks
or Belén whooping through birch and pine.

Hashtags would certainly be quicker and easier
but sometimes quick and easy isn’t as
satisfying as sore biceps and stiff hips and sweaty necks
and run-on sentences that
become
a poem.

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