Failure #1: Sleeping

I have it all worked out. If I wake up at 5:30 am everyday, continue to swap baby-sitting with Twila for one morning a week and take Vivi to daycare for another full day, I have 20 hours to myself each week. Twenty long luxurious hours!

I am giddy just thinking about my stockpiled time. I plan on using 5 or 6 hours for walking, running and praying. The rest are ear-marked for blogging, writing and submitting essays, working on a book and Wonderscape.

I set my alarm clock ceremoniously, making sure Stan sees my industrious intentions. He doesn’t comment. (Perhaps this is because he wakes up at 4:30 am everyday without pomp and circumstance.) I fall asleep dutifully at 9:30 pm, just as I had calculated. And then my plan goes awry.

Vivi screams in the middle of the night about “persons” in her bed. I rock. I sing until she asks me to stop singing. I trundle her to my bed. Then I trundle her to Belén and Susanna’s bed where she seems happiest.

An hour later the digital birds start chirping incessantly. I think about all the regular people in this town who get up early to go to the gym. If they can wake up to jostle their bodies around on machines, surely I can slip down the hallway to pick up a pencil and flex my wrist.

It turns out I can’t. Not not this morning. I roll over and go to sleep. I now have 2 hours less to accomplish my dreams.

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*I’m curious about failure. This post is part of an experiment where I observe and record my own mistakes and shortcomings; read more in the introduction to the series here.


An Experiment with Failure

I’m interested in failure lately. I’ve been thinking about it, talking about it, writing about it, and reading about it. All of this has prompted me to experiment on my blog (given its title and all). I’ve decided to record my failures for the next 30 days.

Why would I want to write about my failures?

  • I want to do something that brings me to this spot regularly and briefly. I don’t want to write an essay every time I sit down–just capture a crisp snapshot of something at which I’ve failed, in 250 words or less.
  • It’s something new. I’ve seen dozens of gratitude lists before, written many myself, and see the value of positivity, but I’m a sucker for change. I love new.
  • Autumn is a season that calls for reflection, all the beautiful dying happening around me is the perfect setting for this experiment.
  • It will hone my honesty. (A few people have pointed out lately that I need more of this–but wait, I’ll save the details for an upcoming blog!) There’s a caveat in here of course, so don’t get too excited. I’m not going to share every single failure, and maybe not even the juiciest ones if they expose other people and relationships who haven’t signed up for publication.

Later, after my 30-day trial is over, I’ll take a look at all my shortcomings and mishaps to see what I can learn. Maybe I’ll even pull something meaningful out of this whole experiment, but for now I’m simply observing and recording. As negative as this might sound, I’m thrilled to begin. Come join me on my misadventure!september 015

Seeing the Gifts

When I’m around my children all the time it’s hard to see them for who they are. I get so caught up in making them set the table, practise their instruments, harvest tomatoes, stop fighting with Saron, go to bed and get out of bed, that I lose perspective. Even though it’s all unfolding around me–a daily unwrapping of gifts, skills, intuitions and leanings–I’m too busy dealing with the riffraff at the party of our daily life to ooh and aah over any gifts. It takes a certain kind of distance to do this. Just like I can’t tell how my daughter is growing until I drop her off at school and notice the hem of her pants riding at mid-calf, I need to see things from a few metres, or years, away to get the whole picture.

But sometimes, like when I was in the concert theatre last night holding hands with both of them, I notice stuff. I watch Susanna’s eyes shine while she holds them fast on the fiddle-player; I lean over to Belén and we whisper about the show. These kind of moments make up approximately 2.5% of our family life, but they still happen. It all goes on right before my eyes. Amidst all the herding, huffing, feeding, mediating, nagging, and managing that I do, the gifts are being opened steadily and surely. Layer after layer…

This morning I get get up, eat breakfast, dress, and then flop back into bed. I’m moaning about my headache, plugged sinuses and stomach cramps when Belén follows me and sits on the bed beside me. I lay with my socks draped limply over my stomach while we talk about the day ahead. Mid-discussion, Belén reaches for the wool pair I’m clutching and without saying a word, takes them apart. She holds my right foot and slips the heavy sock over my toes then pulls it up so the heel slides into place. We’re talking about what to put in their lunches and the games we planned for youth-group tonight when she starts with my left foot. It is an act of service that almost feels like a foot-washing. I am warmed.


“Did you see the email your Susanna sent me?” Rebecca asks. When I tell her I don’t know what she’s talking about she goes on to explain the professional nature of Susanna’s correspondence regarding Saron’s fiddle lessons. As her self-appointed teacher, Susanna is taking Saron’s music education very seriously, developing detailed schedules and curriculum for her young protégé. Part of her motivation is her love of music, but a lot of it has to do with her love of simply making things happen. Anything at all. Whether it’s a show, garage sale, “committee meetings” with family, Christmas-gift shopping 10 months ahead of time, or announcements on our oral hygiene, if it requires CEO material, Susanna’s on it.

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When Belen comes home exhausted from a long day of cross-country, volleyball, guitar practise and baby-sitting (all of this besides school), Susanna dances around and questions her about the details. Her sister is overwhelmed and not in the mood to talk about any of it. Susanna sighs and says, “I wish I could be so busy. I keep trying to fill up my schedule but there’s never enough to do.”


It’s 4:30 pm and I am determined Susanna will put in a decent practise instead of flitting room to room with her violin, making up little ditties, as she usually does. She resists, at first, when I set her in front of the sheet music but soon she is playing Ashokan Farewell with the same timing and feeling as the old guy on YouTube. She has figured out most of the song by the time Stan arrives home from his hunting trip. He drops his backpacks and gun to the floor and comes into the kitchen without taking off his muddy boots. I can smell the wood smoke on his fluorescent orange toque and camo sweatshirt as he nears Susanna and me. It’s only been about 15 minutes since she started learning the tune but Stan says, “This is the kind of music that can bring you to tears.” Which is the same thing I was thinking.


Belén and I edge to the start line and take off once the clump of runners ahead of us begins to move. This is the first 5k race I’ve run in many years and I’ve practised for months. I tell my daughter, childishly, that she has to stick with me the whole time. She does. Until the very end when she starts to push hard. I push too but my legs don’t seem to work like hers. She sails past, like a horse heading towards the barn. I arrive at the finish line red-faced and unable to talk, hoping I don’t collapse or faint and cause a scene. Belén looks like she’s just getting started.


Before I leave all three daughters with my parents for the weekend I take Belén aside and tell her seriously, “I don’t want Grandma to have any extra work with Vivi, okay? You make sure you get her up on Sunday morning, brush her hair, dress her, wipe her face and get her out the door to church. She is entirely your responsibility.”

Belen looks confused during my last-minute pep-talk.

“What?” I ask. Is she overwhelmed by her task? Will she balk at the burden of caring for her younger sister?

“Mom,  I do that every week.”

I’m a bit stunned by the truth of it. I’m not sure whether to feel good (I’ve got such a helpful daughter) or bad (Why can’t I get myself together enough to look after my own children?), but she’s right. She’s always ready first. She gets us out the door, whether it’s packing sand toys for the beach, getting snacks or hauling suitcases to the car.


Susanna was born with an itch to move a bow across strings, pound chords on the piano, dance and buy gifts for people. All of this is as effortless for her as it is for Belén to run 5k or braid Vivi’s hair. These gifts aren’t things I’ve taught them. They come free, along with a whole host of other miracles, including cell-division, starting with their stint in amniotic fluid. And although they haven’t worked for these inclinations and talents I hope they work with them to become something deeper and richer. But that is beside the point right now. Right now I’m concentrating on their gifts and what I can see from where I am today. I’m celebrating the seeds, impulses and soul-material that would show up no matter how I raised them.

What are you noticing in your family and friends? Imagine yourself in an entirely different world with those people. Which traits and gifts would show up in the ones you love? I guarantee, if we were living in a garbage dump without money for music lessons, Susanna would still be banging tin cans together. And Belén? She’d be organizing our hut, then getting us out there when the pickin’ was good.


Susanna; canoe trip 2017


Belén; canoe trip 2017

Happy belated 13th birthday Belén.

Cheers to your 11th Susanna!

Love Mom


Wonderscape 2017

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?

Chef Mariana Brito intructing a culinary workshop

Daisy – mixed media workshop instructor

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?

Hike n’ Write

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Shannon Shakotko leading the vocal/ukulele workhsop

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?

Sweet Saturday

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!

Harvest Question

This morning I heard refugees from Myanmar talk about attackers burning their children, raping their women, and beheading their men.

A friend posts about fleeing Hurricane Irma before it bears down on her home, while the earth quakes under Mexican sandals.

And for some reason I am lucky enough to be sitting beside my dad in his combine.

He’s bringing in the harvest, like he’s done every season for most of his seventy-five years. My daughter sits on the plastic lunch cooler by his feet and grabs for his leg when the header lurches, hungry for bounty.

Later, we climb off the John Deere and head to the tailgate to look for more cheesecake. I lick strawberries off my spoon, feel the canola stubble pricking my jeans and reach for my camera to capture the sunset. How is it I can take a second helping of desert and snap pictures of the horizon while the same sun rises over Burma?


cousins in the combine



Forgotten Things: Our family canoe trip on the Churchill

Evan in front of Robertson Falls (Photo credit: Kevin or Carol Kohlert)

After paddling three kilometres from the boat launch in Missinipe I remember that I left our first night’s supper back in the van. Days earlier I had cut up chunks of pork, frozen them in a marinade and was intending to skewer them with veggies for the freshest–and most bulky–meal on our menu. (We dehydrated the rest of our meals ahead of time.) Instead, we split the following day’s lunch in half. Before eating our shishkabob-less supper we go swimming to wash off our paddling sweat. Everyone throws on their swimsuits except for Vivi, because she doesn’t have one. Her missing swimsuit is one more thing I had forgotten to pack and for the rest of the week she lounges bare-bummed on the bald granite. The next morning the sun rises and our tent is as bright as a glow-bowling ball. I roll my black toque down over my eyes to block out the 5 am sun. When I rally enough to get dressed I discover my third mistake. I cannot find my underwear. I pull out each counted and precious item from our dry bags and realize I had forgotten ALL my panties in a neat pile on my couch. Which is approximately 800 km due south. I have, of course, the pair I am wearing and I continue to wear it, wash it and roast it over the fire to dry, for the next seven days.

Launching! Everything we need for 7 days (minus the parents)

Strangely, these forgotten things don’t matter as much as I think. We catch plenty of walleye and end the trip with surplus food in in our plastic five-gallon buckets. We swim off private sites where it doesn’t matter who wears what, if anything at all. We wash our clothes almost daily. The details that seem terribly important in other contexts are almost inconsequential here. On the other hand, other things becomes paramount: finding a good potty spot to bury poop and toilet paper, picking up bannock crumbs to keep bears away, monitoring the wind (and celebrating the lack of it), and becoming adept at sealing 5 sleeping bags into a 55 litre dry bag.

Vivian definitely notices the change in priorities and ambiance. Although she seems happy enough with her lot in life, staying out of waterfalls and campfires, she has bouts of homesickness. While she doesn’t complain about the dearth of toys she expresses her disorientation daily. On the last morning she stands at the edge of our island campsite and asks again, “Mommy, where’s the road home?”

I listen to her three-year-old voice pitched against the sound of roaring rapids and tell her, “You’re looking at it, girl!”

The edge of the waterway we are standing on is part of the Churchill River System and has been used for centuries as a highway for First Nations, voyageurs, and now, recreational enthusiasts. Die-hard paddling addicts say it is one of the premier paddling places in the world, and our driver Heidi, who picks us up at the end of the trip, claims she would need more than 3 lifetimes to fully explore it.

Heidi, a guide with Churchill River Canoe Outfitters who has paddled for at least 30 years, has a tanned face and her strawberry-blond braid is interwoven with silver. While she shuttles us back to our vehicle I lean forward in my seat to learn all I can from this formidable woman. She tells us about raising her kids in a boat (solo tripping with a toddler and infant in the backcountry), dealing with bears (“I’ve never had any problems except for that one time in the NWT when a grizzly totally destroyed our canoe.”) and quick-dry underwear (which is of particular interest to me). When we ask about the risks of whitewater and for extra tips she is helpful and informative. At the end of our conversation she adds succinctly, “But, you know, if I’m always thinking about the risks I’d never leave my own living room.”

We meet other paddlers who have come to the same conclusion as Heidi and it’s clear that the northern waters are in their blood. They are smitten by this land–where life can be harsh and the margin for error slim–and its bounty. A place of unlikely generosity where spongy, soft moss grows a foot deep on hard granite, where fish hooks thrown into the foot of raucous falls pull out perfect walleyes, where reindeer lichen grow a few millimetres each year into edible sculptures more delicate than an artist’s dream, where saskatoons, blueberries, raspberries and bearberry provide a buffet for the forager, where pelicans and eagles criss-cross the sky, and where even the hum of mosquitoes rings with abundance.

Although we’ve canoe tripped in other places and provinces this is the farthest north we’ve paddled and it feels like we are on the brink of something new. We buy a thick book called Canoeing the Churchill at the outfitters office before we leave. At the same time we re-calibrate to our regular ways out of the bush. We change into clean clothes. Toilets become important again. We look in the mirror in gas station restrooms and rake our hands through our hair. We check the clock, count hours, and estimate a midnight arrival back home. Priorities change. Life on land with engines, schedules, and infrastructure dictates a rigour altogether different than the water and paddle. Still, we pass the canoeing guide around our rented 15-passenger van and read snippets aloud of legends, voyageurs and possible routes for next summer. We’ve had a small taste and are hungry for more of the wide river, where loons cry as if they know about our forgotten things, mourning as if everything matters.


Photo credit: Kevin/Carol Kohlert

Bare-bones of the Trip

Put-in: Missinipi (5 hours north of Saskatoon, SK)

Take-out: Stanley Mission, SK

Total days on water: 7

Longest paddle day: 19 km

Number of boats: 4

Number of adults: 4

Number of children: 5 (ages 12, 10, 9 and 3)

Portages: 2

Number of days to pack/dehydrate food/gather gear: 3

Number of days to unload and clean up: 1

Supper meals: hot dogs, potatoes and veggies in tinfoil packets, tortilla soup (dehydrated powder base, cheese, sour cream and corn chips), fried fish, bannock, scalloped potatoes (from a box), dehydrated ground beef and gravy, dehydrated frozen veggies, mac n’ cheese, pizza (on naan bread), chili with dehydrated beef, popcorn, apple/berry crisp (dehydrated ingredients)

Breakfast Menu: porridge, dried fruit, pancakes, dehydrated sausage, refried beans, bannock, granola bars, nuts