Improbable

I went for a walk last summer, then came home and scribbled my impressions in my notebook. In November, while flipping through my “vomit drafts”, I found a few of those images and strung them together to write a poem.

It was a hot July morning
but my three-year-old insisted on wearing snow boots.
She settled into the stroller, still in pajamas,
for our normal spin through the prairie.
I didn’t stop until she begged to get out,
to step off the path
to grab a handful of Saskatoon berries,
to stand by the pond and yell
over the deafening chorus
of red-winged blackbirds,
to pinch off wild chamomile flowers and stick them up her nostrils
like an old woman inhaling smelling salts

Near the end of our walk we went through the cemetery.
A truck was parked in our path…

Literary Mama published it this week. Click here to read the rest.

DSCN2058_The most delicious thing about being published is that a stranger thought my work was worth sharing. It means that it is somewhat accessible, even if you don’t know who Spunky was (my childhood dog) or anything else about me. I’ve submitted other pieces to Literary Mama, but for some reason this one made it. And today I’ve got an extra lilt in my step!

 

Influence

So.

Susan didn’t bite on my proposal.

The day after publishing my previous blog post I called her on the phone and got as far as her administration assistant, a nice lady named Thao. Thao thought that Susan, the Senior VP of marketing at Canadian Tire, would indeed like to review my pitch. I started calculating, right away, how much I would charge for each article, how I might have to re-arrange my writing priorities and how my life would change as the author of “The Bucket People.”

When I tell my older daughters that Susan was, in fact, not interested in my stories, Belén is relieved. She wasn’t keen on being branded as a bucket person anyway. Susanna, on the other hand, is miffed. Hours later she’s still mulling it over and while we trudge through snow, delivering her papers, she comes up with a new plan.

“I know! How about Belén and I–and Rebecca!–start writing horrible stories about Canadian Tire buckets. Awful stories! The quality of our writing will be so poor that Canadian Tire will be desperate for someone to counter it with great writing. That someone will be you!”

I smile at her thoughtfulness and then share what I learned from my friend Kirsten who once attended a Very Important Writing Conference with Very Important People. During a brief appointment with a Very Important Editor, Kirsten learned more about what kind of writing attracts publishing houses. The Very Important Editor told Kirsten it didn’t matter whether her manuscript was the most brilliant, astonishing piece of literature he’d ever held in his hands. What mattered was the size of her following. The Very Important Editor said they were only willing to work with Very Important Writers who had Very Important Audiences.

“What’s a Very Important Audience?” Susanna asks.

“Hundreds of thousands of people you influence on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and who knows what else.”

“Oh,” she says.

We split ways. She keeps walking on one side of the street and I cross over to the mailboxes on the other.

I think about the wise people who had suggested I build a presence on Instagram to interest Canadian Tire in my platform. They were right, of course. Except that I hate Instagramming. For one, my thumbs are too wide. By the time I enter all those crazy hashtags I may as well write an essay on a real keyboard. Instagram, in itself, isn’t bad. It’s a wonderful way to share and connect for many of you, but it’s not the way for me to hustle right now. Even if that’s what it takes to sell my writing to Canadian Tire.

The next Sunday we visit my parents and the church I grew up attending. I remember sitting in the pews as a child, staring at old men and the backs of their necks, fascinated by the criss-cross of wrinkles and diamond shapes made by the folds of their skin. Especially if they had brush-cuts. I do the the same this morning, like I did when I was six-years old. Then, when the offering plates are passed I study the ushers walking down the aisles and look around the small sanctuary.

Over the years I’ve attended all kinds of churches; some with professional music teams and fog machines, some with liturgies and traditions as awe-inspiring as their ornate ceilings. The church I’m sitting in right now, is neither of these. There’s no hype, no grandeur and no hoopla. And yet, it is one of the most authentic and transformative communities I’ve ever been a part of.

I remember how my mom used to worry about its future, wondering “if the church would die” as farm families retire and children look for work in urban areas. It seemed like such an ominous thing and I tried to imagine what a church gasping for its last breaths would look like. But the church never did die. People grew up and left the valley farmland and spruce-covered hills, but others stayed. And still others came. Today the church is full of life. And the growth isn’t just church-y people moving from one congregation to another, it’s because of people who were searching. Who start attending and brought their children. Then their siblings and their siblings’ children. And their parents.

I think how David Johnson, the pastor for over 20 years, has been instrumental in this vitality. He’s not loud or flashy, I’m not sure he’s got a Twitter or Instagram account, and his weekly audience hovers around 100, rather than 100 k, but he is a powerful influencer. Not the kind of influencer that would make a Very Important Editor blink an eyelid, but the kind of influencer that changes lives and generations. He’s doing the work he’s called to do and he’s being faithful.

People make it to the padded orange-fabric pews on Sunday mornings not because their grandparents did or because they were brought up in church, but because Pastor Dave invites them to look at Jesus. They come because he asks questions instead of forcing answers. They come for the same reason I consulted him, years ago, when I felt caught in the throes of a moral decision. I emailed Dave with the specifics and although I felt silly bothering him with my conundrum I was curious how he would advise me. Always err on the side of grace is the only line I remember from his response. I’ll never forget it.

When he hands communion bread to the congregation I see regular people with complicated stories at the table. Not a bunch of parishioners pretending to be religious. This is what influence is like, I think. Hundreds of miles away from any mega church or Important Publisher, this man is making a difference. This is how I want to be faithful.

This doesn’t mean I want to become a pastor. (Please God, no!) But it speaks to me on a very practical level; I realize I don’t need to give more time to social media than I already do. I still have creative goals and dreams but I want to remember Dave and his church when it comes to evaluating influence and audience.

The next week I will write two poems and submit them different places. I will send off another essay, edit a friend’s manuscript and someone else’s short story. I will play puppy-dog and memory. I will read Maya Angelou, Sally Ito and Lorna Crozier. I will insist on music practice, warm jackets and veggies. I will sprinkle coarse salt on roasted sweet potatoes and put more leaves in our table. Guests will sit on the floor and drink out of measuring cups because there are more people than dishes. I will write this blog. I will walk many miles. This is how I will be faithful, by tending to my audience–the ones already here, including my own body.

So dear believers, skeptics and agnostics: find your sanctuary. Find someone who reflects the kind of influence you want to wield. Someone who reminds you of what you’re willing to give up and what you won’t trade for anything.

Happy Thanksgiving Season (again).

Tricia

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The Bucket People

I snip a clump of grapes and the leaves shake, showering me with dew. My husband, Stan, kneels in the dirt beside me and buries his head in the foliage, pulling out more grapes and dumping them in the bucket between us. It’s Sunday, 8 am, and the kids are sleeping in. The sky is grey, we’re wearing toques and our fingers are freezing, but it’s harvest time. This is what we’ve been waiting for all season long; our garden darling—the grape vine–is finally ready. Dark purple fruit spill over our bucket like a Thanksgiving cornucopia.

“I’ll be right back,” I say to Stan, and return a few seconds later with a camera swinging from my neck. I take a few shots as quickly and quietly as possible. My husband is a practical man and has little patience for staging pictures and recording moments for social media.

“We need another bucket,” he calls from underneath the leaves.012

“Okay, just a second… this is so picturesque,” I say while tamping down weeds and thistles. That’s when I notice the bright red Canadian Tire logo and twist the bucket to hide it before snapping the last couple photos.

Soon we are are crushing the grapes in an applesauce press. The ripening fruit have fueled great debate on juicing strategies over the last few weeks as both of us are determined to do justice to the grapes.

“All I know is we can’t boil them. That’s what you did last year and it tasted like tea. We’re not doing that again,” Stan says.

“Well, what then? That’s what all the recipes indicate on-line.” I’m feeling defensive but he’s right. We’d even dumped some of the hard-earned juice down the drain because no one wanted to drink it after the novelty had worn off.

So here we are, running them through an apple mill, no hot water involved. Stan cranks the handle while I fill the hopper, but my mind isn’t on juice anymore. I’ve got an idea.024

“You know, we could use those pictures,” I murmur.

“Which pictures?” he asks.

“All the pictures we take with our Canadian Tire buckets… portaging them through the woods during canoe trips, loading them with broken concrete from our house renos, or filling them with liquid honey straight from the hive. I could write stories–like I’m already doing–and just keep the logo in the pictures!”

“Mmm… Here, try this.” Stan holds a cup under the spout where juice is flowing and then hands it over for a taste test. He’s ignoring me.

I’ve been reading about storytelling and how major brands are using authentic ways to promote their products through well-written stories that stand on their own; the product isn’t the focus of these stories but simply part of the narrative. I’m not interested in reviewing products on my blog for sponsors or cheating readers with cheesy advertisements. I want to write real stories, the best way I know how, and collaborate with Canadian Tire to share them with a larger audience. My mind hops around the possibilities. Do I need to book a flight to Toronto, right now, to meet with the executives? And would the top dogs of a huge conglomerate want to know about an ordinary family with a penchant for story, adventure and DIY projects?

“Can you humour me by posing for one more picture?” I ask my husband. I know it’s a stretch just getting him to look up for the camera. I probably wouldn’t even consider this—Stan is no showboat or salesman–but the fact is we have an awful lot of stories involving buckets. “And it’s not like we’d be selling our souls or faking it, we use them all the time,” I add. Although my husband makes many things from scratch, he hasn’t come up with an alternative to the five-gallon plastic bucket.

The first time I brought him home for Christmas, Stan shattered our regular way of doing things. My mom was dumping a package of seasoning mix into ground beef when she realized she didn’t have any tortillas. While she reached for her keys and wallet, Stan announced, “Oh no, we’ll make some.” The cheese was grated, lettuce shredded and the drinks poured. I watched them both from the dining room table–my mom still clutching her keys while Stan riffled through cupboards looking for flour.

“Why would we make them when we can just buy them?” my mom countered.

Stan’s motto has always been the opposite; never buy what you can make. Since then, he’s fashioned everything from our wedding rings to Halloween costumes, bunk beds, chairs, boats, pottery wheels and honey extractors. Even our children’s mouths haven’t escaped him as he’s attempted his own in-house dental work. In fact, nothing seems too overwhelming to tackle.025

I call my 12-year-old daughter outside. “Here, take the camera, we need a picture!” I demand when she opens the screen door, still in pyjamas.

“Huh?”

“Just do it. It’s for an important project,” I say, grinning and yanking off Stan’s over-sized plaid jacket to expose my better-fitting shell underneath.

“Maybe you should pick the black grape skins out of your teeth too,” Stan suggests while I pluck off his toque.

Days later I google Susan O’Brien, the VP of Marketing at Canadian Tire. How can I convince her they need high-quality literary content to leverage their branding campaign? Will she be moved by the fact my readers are sitting on pins and needles waiting for her reaction? Could the stories turn into a series with a name like “The Bucket People”? Which publishing platform would work best? And who will do the social media promotion?

Before the details bog me down and squash inspiration I decide to start writing. I close my lap top and reach for a pencil and paper, which is how all my stories begin.

As for the grape juice, it’s better than last year’s, just a little grassy from grinding the seeds. We forgot to take it to my mom’s for Thanksgiving dinner; no one was too disappointed.

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What do you think dear readers? Have I caught a bad case of pitching-fever? Does anyone know Susan? Or a friend of a friend of someone who might help? Are you curious about what happens next? Or should we just turn that grape juice into wine and forget I ever wrote this?

Wonderscape the Teenager

Bill Bunn stands beside the whiteboard and waves his coffee cup in the air. He’s talking about following our joy, about ideas as balance beams that support us if we keep one foot in front of the other, about falling off when the idea gets flabby and soft and about finding our way back to the beam. The metaphor sings to me and I scribble notes, like everyone else around me in the circle. Next, he invites us to do a six-minute free write.

I asked Bill to lead a writing workshop at Wonderscape precisely because I wanted to participate in a writing workshop at Wonderscape. But now that it’s time to participate, I can’t do it. I’ve got nothing. I hear Marea’s laugh in the hallway, the cooks preparing lunch, people breathing around the room and pencils marking paper, but my pen is as heavy as a mule that won’t budge.

It gets even worse when I consider handling clay, picking up a paintbrush or plunging fabric into natural dye. Producing anything creative seems about as preposterous as launching a kayak and rolling it in the icy lake outside the lodge. Although I’m the organizer and facilitator of this arts retreat I have never felt like more of a poser. About halfway through the weekend it dawns on me;  I’m too consumed with watching it come to life to do anything else. Like a mother gawking at her beautiful teenager coming into her own–all limbs and taller than she’d ever dreamed, with a distinct and separate personality–I can’t stop staring at what’s happened to my baby.

This mix of awe, surprise, confusion and curiosity visits me before the weekend ever begins, when registrations roll in from across the country, and continues right on into the retreat. While I listen to the writer, the journalist, the potter and the painter confess their failures and share their successes with the group, while spontaneous, late-night jam sessions by the fire send everyone to bed humming “Black Bird”, while artists bring dazzling pieces to show and sell and while strangers recognize kindred spirits.082028046

I try to capture it, try to document it all on my 195-dollar Canon point-and-shoot, but I can’t get close enough. I wish I could get right in Sarah’s face as she lectures about horizons and painting and depth. I wish I could capture the rainbow of speckles on her black apron, her jiggy dance and how it feels to watch her pull oil landscapes (painted in the Arctic) out of her hand-made wooden box with the leather strap.058065069080

My camera doesn’t record Marea’s generous laughter and her even more generous instruction. The way she shoves her feet, covered in plastic grocery bags into her Birkenstocks, to walk through the snow to her hand-building session. And it certainly doesn’t record the absence of complaints about the weather in general. How I apologized to Micheal in the breakfast line, knowing he’d driven for hours from northern Saskatchewan to attend the retreat for the first time.

“I’m sorry you can’t see how pretty it is here,” I say. “If it weren’t so foggy and snowy you’d see the water, sand and rocks—all just steps away from where we’re standing now.”

“Ah, it’s okay. I’m just happy knowing that it’s there,” he says, and goes on to talk about the jam from the night before. “Besides, I’ve found my people.”049

Before we all leave on Sunday we gather for the Artist Blessing. Usually this is my responsibility. In the past, I’ve thought about it for weeks, even months, ahead of time. I’ve laboured over each word and written a verse we all stand up and speak to each other. This time is different. Today, Shannon takes inspiration from the “Blessing Board”, a place where participants were encouraged to add their own phrases, thoughts and drawings. It’s more of a wild card this time. Will people write down anything on the board? Will Shannon be able to shape it into a song? Will this work? Will my baby fly?

Shannon sits down at the keyboard and reads us the words to the chorus. Something from nothing is now a song; ideas that were loose and wild are now held tight by chords and notes. She plays it slowly and we practice. Then we repeat it. Only this time it’s a performance, a performance just for us. She sings the verses alone, the ones she’s just composed, and we join her on the chorus. Well, mostly everyone joins her, except for the ones like me whose emotion seizes their voices.

When the last note is played I don’t want to clap. Don’t want to break the spell. Neither does anyone else. The room is silent. And still. I stand to face the group. It’s my job to facilitate, to hustle them through the lunch buffet and to wrap this thing up, but it seems impossible.

“Food,” I say, “there is is food. Food downstairs.” Still, people remain in their seats. No one responds. No one even looks like they’re considering moving.

I understand. I feel the same way.

And then comes the flurry of packing, of gathering surveys, of emails and phone calls full of feedback and more ideas. We brainstorm about how it could be better and what it could become. I jot down notes. I can feel something happening; this isn’t Tricia’s baby anymore, it isn’t toddling around my knees, grabbing onto the hem of my pants. Wonderscape is stretching out, like any leggy teenager, growing into her place in this world.IMG_5333

If you still want more of this, check out Wonderscape Retreats on Facebook or Instagram. The venue is already booked for the next gathering: September 27-29, 2019

 

Notes on Generosity, Writing and Change

I’m wearing gloves and wielding a knife. Jalapeños litter my cutting board and papery garlic skins float along the counter. My mom is dumping a bowl of green peppers into the food processor when the phone company technician opens our back door and sniffs.

“Mmm, smells good,” he says with an accent. Indian, maybe? He nods appreciatively and  heads down the basement stairs, pulling wires behind him.

“It’s a lot of garlic and onions,” I say. “We’re making salsa.”

Each trip he makes to his truck in the alley he inspects my yard with interest. When he comes back in he asks me about the raspberries, plums, grapes and other plants. Then, just before he leaves I hand him a plastic grocery bag, throwing it into the air to puff it out. “Here. Do you eat tomatoes? Hot peppers? Take all you want!”

I turn around and get back to work. For the next 15 minutes I’m in a dark corner of my basement, sorting through canning jars and looking for lids. At the same time he is stuffing the bag I gave him, harvesting every ripe and juicy tomato on the property. His shopping bag bulges to overflowing with produce. When I come upstairs with my load of jars he is gone.

“Well he certainly took your word for it. He grabbed as much as he wanted,” my mom comments while looking out the kitchen window at the garden.

The heirloom Brandywine tomatoes I was waiting for, heavy on the vine but not quite ready, are gone. As are the romas–the ones destined for another batch of sauce and the beefsteaks. “Mmm,” I respond at first, not too bothered. But then I start thinking of all the hours of labour, of starting seeds from scratch in my window, gingerly handling the transplants, mulching with last season’s leaves, of watering and tending. That’s when I get a little ornery. I had, after all, expected him to say “Oh thank you so much” and take a dozen or so back to his wife in Saskatoon. I had not expected him to ravage every last plant.

I’ve been reading Braiding Sweetgrass  by Robin Wall Kimmerer and loved her essay on generosity and gift economy. It gave me such warm fuzzy feelings in my armchair. I had murmured in agreement and savoured every word. Obviously, the philosophy of lavish generosity is easier for me to swallow than the practise.

The earth on the other hand, especially at this time of year, seems to stick to the “no holds barred” motto. We spin out honey, stuff moose sausage, make wine, dry garlic, catch fish and yet we still can’t keep up to her. Gifts spill over and around us.

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plums, melons and grapes are now in season on our lot

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PREFACE- Six days. Three boats. Four adults. Six kids. Five portages. Three bears. Zero attacks.

On the way to meet my sister and her family for our adventure I say to the kids, “So there will be more portaging on this trip than we’ve ever done before but we’ll just enjoy the hiking. Maybe stop for snacks, you know, or sketch wildflowers…”

Stan shifts in his seat and reaches his hand to adjust the rear-view mirror. “Well, we don’t want it to be too easy do we? We still want it to be character-building.”

EPILOGUE – I lay in bed for 2 days after the trip. I thought I had maybe caught a bug–my whole body ached and my fingers felt arthritic. Turns out I was just recuperating from all the character-building portages.

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before the launch

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Tara and I paddled with 4 kids. Our canoe was dubbed the “voyageur school bus” or the “party canoe”.  The men and two other kids traveled with the gear.

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totally posed at the beginning of an arduous portage

In a few years those delicate bodies pictured above will be strapping young men and women able to shoulder most of our weight. What a day that will be! They owe us a canoe trip or two.

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Day 6

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Back to school. Back to routine. Back to sticking around our home. Summer is fast, furious and fleeting like the heat. “You can sleep in winter; we don’t have time for that in summer,” I tell the kids when they tire of our pack-go-unpack-repack routine. With all of this going it has been hard to squeeze in writing. I still want to find words for speaking at camp, kitchen parties and growing food but am not sure when it will happen. I have started an essay about canoe tripping and listening. I will submit it somewhere eventually, because that’s writers do.

That’s when a writer is successful–when she is submitting, not when her article is accepted, not when she’s long-listed for the CBC non-fiction prize (which I wasn’t, Kirsten) and not when an agent hunts her down. She is successful when she cracks open her laptop. When she punches out a jumbled paragraph, when she lands on a metaphor in the shower. A writer is successful when she’s writing.

Can you tell I’m getting ready for Wonderscape? And can you guess what the theme of the retreat is?

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Coming up in 10 days…

Success, Failure and YourCreative Journey(1)

Can’t wait to gather with strangers and friends from around the country. Every year it’s been magical. Hopeful this year will be the same. (There’s been a cancellation; check out this page for your last minute chance!)

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Change is a constant around here. Changing shoe sizes. Changing instruments (cello and trombone have been added to the mix). Changing heights. Changing accents. (Vivian has been experimenting with articulation, specifically her hard Rs. I try to remain non-chalant every time I hear it, but it’s about as sharp and conspicious as a machete.)

One thing that never seems to change is the big girls’ devotion to the little girl. I smile when I remember the well-meaning visitor who came to visit two days after Vivi was born. She watched Susanna and Belén flutter around the baby, sighed and commented knowingly, “This won’t last long. Give them two weeks and the novelty will wear off.”

Well, it’s been four years and here they are, fighting at the table, each older sister desperate to show Vivi how to draw an uppercase E at the same time. This is a kind of bickering for which I am entirely grateful.

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I’ve written so much. Thanks for reading.

T

 

 

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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Nothing World Changing

I sit at our kitchen counter, wearing earmuffs and typing as fast as I can. I’m using industrial hearing protection to block out the constant chatter and humming all around me. Belén is painting a watercolour for her friend Keauna, Susanna is reading on the couch, Stan is sculpting clay and Vivi is looking for attention wherever she can get it.

Turning away from the monitor and sliding my muffs down to my neck I announce, “I’m just about there now! I’ve almost caught it!” Then I explain how writing is like galloping after a wild horse; with every sentence I strain forward in the saddle until I swing the lasso and capture the bucking idea.

Susanna ignores me, Stan keeps massaging the mud, Vivi doesn’t seem to care about my philosophy, and Belén just says, “I fall off the horse, before I get close enough, every time.”

The next day I send the blog draft to my sister with the subject: Can I post this? I also ask Stan to read what I wrote. I want to know if it’s too preachy, too offensive or condescending. Stan affirms that it is all of the above. Tara hesitates on the phone when she calls to give me feedback. She suggests publishing it where nobody I know will read it. Then she asks if I would be willing to say it in a face-to-face conversation with my readers. Now it’s my turn to hesitate.

Shucks.

The problem with the offensive blog piece is that I said exactly what I wanted to say and don’t feel like changing it. Not yet, anyway.

My Auntie Fritz recently asked me if I have a temper. “You write about it in your blog but I’ve never seen you frustrated,” she said. When I assured her that I do, indeed, get hopping mad and am not scared of a little conflict, she nodded her head. “That’s good,” she said, “then you can change the world.”

I liked that.

But how do you know when it’s a good time to change the world or write a blog post or get angry? That’s some tricky business I haven’t yet mastered. I have a feeling that heeding caution from my closest confidantes is a step in the right direction. So I’ll sit tight and let that wild horse of an idea run free a little longer. Changing the world will have to wait.

Instead, I’ll go after something more predictable and safe. Something like a photo-collage, the kind you might get in your mailbox from us if we did that sort of thing. A genteel Happy New Year from our house to yours.

Love Tricia, for the rest

Skating on the pond at Tim and Kristalyn’s with Grandpa

Christmas with my mom’s sisters and our adopted families from Ethiopia and Iran

Belén got henna for Christmas… tatoos all around…

Susie LOVES serving people with her new chocolate fountain

cousins…missing a few very important ones 🙂

Stan and his dad making a pottery wheel from scratch

B and Simon. We didn’t take boots to Indiana because we thought it would be warm and dry. We were wrong.

Auntie Annie and Susanna… so much to do together, so little time

first pottery lesson with Marea, the master