Snow Day Crumbs

While vacuuming the last crumbs of Snow Day, I wasn’t sure it was worth it. I wasn’t convinced all the planning, hauling, setting up, and then cleaning up, was something I would ever want to do again. When my sister called to ask me how it went, I answered, “It was a lot of work.” Because it was. Now, a few weeks later, I still remember gripping the bottom of our heavy burgundy couch while maneuvering it into the clubhouse (Stan helped me move our living room furniture because I wanted a cozy atmosphere) but I also remember other moments. And these are the images that remind my why I wanted to do it in the first place…

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“We can’t come out fo the retreat but we can help you get ready for it,” Sheena offers in her easy Jamaican accent. I haven’t known Sheena and her family for long and, even though I feel a tiny bit bad accepting their help, I am grateful. When they get to the clubhouse the night before the retreat I hand her a pile of neatly folded saris and she understands intuitively what I envision. “It will be a swoopy, airy effect,” she says while gesturing where they should hang. Meanwhile her husband Mark climbs a step ladder and starts discussing with my daughter what colour of sari they should start with.

My other friend Rebecca has come too, along with Stan, Belén and Susanna. Rebecca strings lights, moves tables and chairs, prepares a coffee station and lays drop cloths with the girls. Stan cuts wood for ice-lantern stands, throws down sand on the icy walkway and reaches the heating vent near the ceiling (when no one else can) to attach the last of the filmy fabric. Three hours later the space is transformed into an arts studio. I am the last to leave and all I can think about is how I love being surprised by the goodness in people. I hadn’t asked anyone to come tonight to help and yet I am not sure what I would’ve done without them. I turn off the lights and wait for tomorrow.

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Dion comes into the clubhouse with his computer and, after a rushed hello, he  chooses his spot in the far corner of the room next to a large window. He opens his laptop and before I start with the welcome or any introductions he is already typing. Laura too, is busy, and so is Crystal. Each of them have claimed a window of their own and they’re set up with a view of snow, sky, spruce, and naked trees. Pens scratch paper. Fingers fly over keyboards. Vague ideas are shaped, carved, and trimmed by letters and words until they are almost real enough to touch.

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People trail through the buffet, a few at a time, filling their bowls with hot soup. There is no designated lunch-break as I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of the day. In any other room full of friends, acquaintances, and strangers, I’d feel obliged to make the rounds and be social, but today is different. I wear my Silence is Golden sticker on my chest, like a few others, and bring spoonfuls of lemony lentil soup to my mouth while I devour Mary Oliver’s poems at the same time. Her book Owls and Other Fantasies is propped in front of me and I linger over lines like “I think this is the prettiest world–so long as you don’t mind a little dying” from her poem The Kingfisher. The entire book is about birds, and it’s odd that I’m so enchanted with it, given the fact I’ve never been a birder or even pretended to be, but her poems make me want to sit by a saltwater marsh forever to see what she sees. I copy The Kingfisher into my notebook before the last of my broth is finished. Perhaps if I recite her words while I write them down some of their elegance will infuse itself into my own vocabulary.

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Anne is here because, as she said during the introductions, she “wants to help people get outside and on the ski trails”. She outfits a group of mothers, daughters, cousins, and friends with skis, poles and boots. It is time to break away from the writing, the sketching, the studying and the reading. It’s time to breath a little fresh air. And laugh.

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The sun shifts in the sky and so does the atmosphere inside the clubhouse.  People clean up their paints, wood, leather, fabric, yarn, books, computers and paper. Tables are pushed together, covered with cloths, and candles are lit. Adam pulls the lids off of his art, which is our dinner. Greek Chicken. Rice Pilaf. Mediterranean Salad. Roasted Vegetables. While we savour the food I ask participants to share about their day. People are brave, funny and honest. One woman reads from her memoir-in-the-making about her journey with anxiety; another explains how she is using up plastic grocery bags to make sleeping mats for homeless people. Twila talks about painting with her hands and how it’s like eating Indian cuisine that tastes better when you can touch the food. She also speaks about being absorbed in the process and truly listening to her work and the Spirit while she creates. I smile and nod and try to remember the words she is using to describe her experience.

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And this: fiddle music, harmonies, and acoustic guitar…

Thank you Wool Tree Grove, fiddlers, and dancers!

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Find out more about Wonderscape Retreats here.

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Snow Day by Wonderscape Retreats was sponsored in part by Artists in Communities, a joint initiative of the Saskatchewan Arts Board and SaskCulture Inc., and is supported by funding provided by the Saskatchewan Lotteries Trust Fund for Sport, Culture and Recreation

The Story of Wonderscape 2016

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.

Tricia

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Me, speaking during the Artist Blessing session

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Bonnie, looking at the magazines and books people brought for our weekend library

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Mariana Brito and Madison Sutcliffe working their culinary magic

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Arts educator Twila Napleoni leading a painting workshop

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painting in the sunshine

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Jenny Gates telling us why on earth she picked Winnipeg, MB over Sydney, Australia… and much more

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After her show, Amber Epp shows Bonnie a few tricks on the piano

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Here I am leading the Hike and Write workshop

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Bonnie’s Ditch

“Come on, I have to show you something!” Bonnie grabs my arm and steers me down her driveway. My childhood friend has traveled Europe and sailed the Caribbean, she has lived in the tundra, prairies, and mountains. Now she is here; showing me around her scrubby acreage surrounded by huge tracts of farmland and swamp. I scan the property but can’t see anything promising. Maybe there’s a hidden gully nearby. Or perhaps a steep ravine with an icy brook?

We walk to the end of her lane, cross the highway, and reach the edge of the shoulder when she stops. I wait to see which direction she’ll take me next. Then she announces, “This is it!”

I look down the length of road in both directions and finally back at her. We are standing in a ditch, and not a very wide or especially deep one.

“You wouldn’t believe how many frogs and crayfish we find after the snow melts and how tall the grass grows in summer.” Bonnie takes a few steps toward the fenced pasture on the other side of the ditch and continues, “Just the other day I cross-country skied from here all the way to my neighbors.” She breathes deep and then asks, “Isn’t it great?”

I am not sure how to respond. I realize I was expecting something more; something not so, well, ditch-like.

“Yeah, your kids must love it,” I say, hoping I sound sincere.

“My kids?” She laughs. “I love it!”

Her enthusiasm baffles me at first. Alpine vistas and ocean shorelines are one thing, but a snowy ditch? Ditches are as banal as my back alley, yet she speaks like an explorer reporting on a thrilling discovery and the way she honours the ground we stand on, instead of pining for distant places, makes me wonder what I might discover in the margins of my own every-day environment. We turn around and head inside, but not before I glance back at Bonnie’s inspiration; a dip of land between pavement and frozen pasture.

*I wrote a longer essay, with the above story nested inside it, several years ago. Last fall, after reading a call for submissions for flash non-fiction pieces under 350 words, I slashed, chopped, and whittled away at my original essay until I found what I am sharing here. This flash non-fiction piece first appeared in Geez Magazine (41), Spring 2016, The Watershed Issue. Click here to find out more about Geez.

Issue 41

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On a different note, look who is coming to Wonderscape!

Head chef of The Backyard, Mariana Brito hails from Tijuana, Mexico, where she attended the Escuela de Arte Culinario before training in Spain, New York, and South Carolina, under chefs of Michelin starred restaurants. Joining her global background with a passion for organic food and her strong relationships with local producers, Mariana centres the flavours of modern Mexican cuisine in the landscape of the Canadian prairie. Every ingredient is fresh, ethically sourced, and organic whenever possible.

Wonderscape

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Thanks so much for spreading the word! (See my last post if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) I just wanted to let you know that I’ve gotten lots of positive feedback and registrations are starting to come in. If you know this is something you want to attend do not delay in registering. I don’t want you to miss out!

Click here to go to Wonderscape website.

Have a great weekend!

Tricia

Ps. Stan took his ice-boat out today. It worked! He’s learning to sail the prairie way… on ice!

 

Ideas Are Like Cats

Ideas are like cats, seemingly calm and peaceful from afar but suddenly ferocious once you start toying with them. I say this because I know how it feels to be the squeaky toy mouse clenched between the teeth of a crazy-house-cat possibility. One moment I’m innocently dreaming up an idea and the next moment–just when I’m deciding whether to commit–it pounces and bats me around with all its power.

It all starts benignly enough. I’m out cross-country skiing one night in January and with every lunge I think about poems, words, and essay hooks. By the last hill I might be able to write a thousand pages if someone would just hand me a pen and paper. Of course, instead of penning a masterpiece after clicking out of my skis, I go home; home to a kitchen sink with rotting lettuce floating in dirty water, home to two daughters asking me to lay down with them until they fall asleep, home to a pile of utility bills yet to be paid. I know then the clever phrases will have to wait until tomorrow when I will have more time, or next weekend, or next month, or when the kids leave home. And that’s when the idea is born.

What if I don’t have to wait until I’m seventy-five? What if I set aside a weekend, just one weekend, where I have space and time to create without the distractions of normal life? I swoop into my kids’ room with kisses for both of them, adding that I can’t lay with them tonight because I have something important to discuss with their dad instead. I run out to the garage where Stan is bent over plywood and parts of an old bed frame (he’s constructing an ice-boat which deserves a separate post of its own) and share my idea while my cheeks are still red from my ski. He keeps working while I talk, asking a few questions but not saying much, which isn’t out of the ordinary–he likes grappling with wood and steel more than half-thought-out ideas. I interpret his neutral response as full-blown encouragement.

The next morning I wake long before dawn and start a new page in my notebook titled Wonderscape; A Creative Wellness Retreat. The idea has now taken on the frenzied cat persona. For weeks I lie in bed at night unable to sleep. I try deep breathing, praying, and stretching to trick myself into slumber but all I can think about are the singer/songwriters I want to invite, the fresh cinnamon buns I’ll serve, and hiking in the October sun. One night, when sleep proves elusive I turn on the computer even though I know I shouldn’t. “Dear women whose opinion I value…” I type, addressing a few of my close friends, and then pitch my idea:

“Imagine hours to commit to your craft, whether it’s writing, origami, song-writing, painting, or juggling. Imagine doing it after a run or hike through the boreal forest. Imagine an inspiring speaker, or evening festival of art. Imagine choosing from 2 or3 workshops to learn something new, or hone your skills.”

The next few days responses trickle in and fuel my excitement. Maybe I’m not crazy! Maybe I can really do this! I start talking about it with almost everyone I run into, casting my net wide in hopes of snagging other leads. I gather names of people I should contact, venue options, and all kinds of other suggestions. During one of these brainstorming sessions with an acquaintance in public I see another woman sitting within earshot of our conversation. I cock my head in her direction and raise my eyebrows while whispering to my friend, “What about her? Do you know her? Would she be interested or have ideas?”

My friend shrugs her shoulders, which is all I need. Soon I am introducing myself to the strange lady and when I finish my spiel I sense I may have just ambushed her.

“Wow,” she says slowly, like she’s buying herself more time to come up with an appropriate response. “That’s really, um…” Long pause. “That’s really artsy-fartsy.”

I smile weakly and try to lighten the mood, wishing I had just told her about schlepping my kids to soccer practise instead of baring my passion.

Both of my older daughters are beside me and witness the entire exchange. Belén looks at me, looks at the other woman, and then looks away. I can’t tell if she’s embarrassed or bored. Later Susanna chides me, “But mom, you don’t even know for sure if you’re going to do this. What if you don’t? What if nothing happens?”

“Well then I’ll just tell people I had a good idea but I changed my mind. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t it great to have ideas?”

Neither daughter looks convinced and I don’t blame them. I’m not really convinced myself, but I can’t stop from moving forward. Sharing my idea with the world is risky–I might look silly after all–but not pursuing the inspiration would be even worse than looking silly. How will I know if this kind of retreat could work if I never even try it?

Slowly my scrambled notes turn into budget pages, schedule outlines, and session details. I get confirmations from an accomplished jazz singer, a storyteller, and other artists. I create a website, print posters, and even file for a business name. Then I sit back in my rocking chair and wait. The cat is still there but it’s a little calmer. It even jumps onto my lap and I pet it for awhile. Yes, I think while I relax for a moment, this idea is going to work out just fine.

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Now I need your feedback. Have you been to something like this before? Do you have any suggestions? Wanna come? Can you share this with others who would love a weekend like Wonderscape? Please feel free to post links on your social media platforms to help me get the word out.

https://wonderscaperetreat.wordpress.com/

https://www.facebook.com/wonderscaperetreat

Finally, I’m still looking for a caterer for the farm-to-table dinner on Saturday evening, October 1. Is cooking your art form? Would you like to create a meal for 25ish people? Do you know someone who might be excited about this? If so, leave a comment or contact me at wonderscaperetreat@gmail.com and I will get back to you with the financial details.

So grateful for ideas and opportunities to share them,

Tricia