As a small girl, I loved to wrap my arms around the trunks of birch trees and look way up, way up their slender trunk, through the canopy of their green leaves to the blue sky above.
It is that moment just before a crashing thunderstorm, clouds on the move, thunder in the distance, electricity in the air…and we are out dancing in our nighties. Exhilarated, ecstatic, free, full of joy and and wonder and spontaneity and dancing! We are 17 years old, having the summer of our lives… for many of us the first summer away from family. A summer in the bush full of swimming, hard physical work, blueberry pies, blueberry pancakes, loons… together with 17 year old girls from all across Ontario.
This is Elaine, dancing. As one of her friends now writes, Elaine radiated childlike curiosity and wonder for life, natural beauty and the love she so graciously extends to the world.* Standing somewhere off to the side is Lise, with her camera in hand, an observer amongst the dancing girls, ready to receive this moment of beauty and record it. I took no pictures that summer, but must have begged Lise for this one, because for 42 years, it has resided in my book of treasures, simply called “the Spirit of McConnell”, which was the name of lake we lived beside for those two months.
Forty two years later, to my amazement and joy, I have reconnected with both Elaine and Lise.
This is the image I want to share while thousands of women all over the world are walking to Washington (Women’s March on Washington)… women coming together to speak out against oppression and discrimination, women coming together to claim their voice, to claim their rightful place and in some cases to wear “pussyhats” created by another woman somewhere; women celebrating being women together. Women rising up!
I am moved by the words of Richard Rohr, who writes, ”You learn to positively ignore and withdraw your energy from evil or stupid things rather than fight them directly. You fight things only when you are directly called and equipped to do so. We all become well-disguised mirror images of anything that we fight too long or too directly. That which we oppose determines the energy and frames the questions after a while.”
We can resist in a myriad of creative, sometimes cheeky and always life-giving ways. We can march. We can knit. We can come together in silence, as thousands of Turkish protesters did recently (baffling the police). We can listen. What would happen, for example, if we truly listened to those who have a different world view than our own? We can still our hearts and listen to the whispers of the trees or prairie grasses. We can take time to listen to those who live on the edges, and who have so very much to teach us. If invited, we can take part in a pipe ceremony on the shores of a lake, and honour the sacred water as it laps gently on the shore. We can install colourful crocheted flowers on chain link fences in the middle of the night. We can laugh from the belly. We can buy less. We can barter more. We can ponder inconvenience. We can sing with others. We can study issues more deeply. We can take part in parades we were not invited to join. We can learn the true history of our country and wrestle with the deep shadows of our collective past, and the continuing implications for our fractured present. We can dare to get outside our own comfort zones. We can examine our own privilege. We can be “chroniclers of wonder”. We can acknowledge the great grief and sadness that we often feel in these cataclysmic times. We can taking our breaking hearts, and create art. We can find small ways to support those on the front lines. We can thank a tree. We can learn to speak up when we see injustice, whether it be in the line up at the grocery store or a violation to our precious earth. We can fly kites. We can rise up, rise up! We can pray. If you have read this far, I know that you can add to the list. Please do!
We can dance in the rain with joy and abandon. We can record and celebrate beauty, wherever we find it. We can deeply treasure something that touches our spirit. We can search out and reconnect with old friends. We can celebrate new friends. We can take time to be with those who cannot dance in the rain, or who cannot find it in their heart to celebrate beauty. Each and every small action matters.
Today, while women all over the world are marching, I will be skating on our outdoor ice rink. I will be skating this prayer; that girls and boys everywhere will know the beautiful spirit embodied in the image above, might even for a moment know the joy and freedom of dancing in the rain, and of feeling at one with all creation. I will be praying that sometimes someone notices and celebrates these moments with the rest of us in song or art or dance or words. I will be praying that we pay attention. I will be giving thanks. Today, while women all over the world are marching, I will be marching with them as I skate my prayers. I will be wearing my purple hat, knit by a woman I do not know.
You are invited. Of course!
- paraphrased from Gail Wilen who sees these same qualities in Elaine now. Thanks Gail!
I want to share this simple, sweet story.
One of things I like about hosting my own art show is that I witness when a person falls in love with a piece of art. On the second day of my show, my friend Alma told me that she loved a watercolour painting called “Four Directions” and that maybe she could afford to buy it in September. This was a painting I had begun for a specific project. Partway through painting this piece I learned that my art was not what the client had in mind. Funny thing, this piece had moved right into me, stirred me up and I needed to finish it for myself – project or no project. I couldn’t not finish it! I was so delighted that it touched Alma.
I woke up the next morning with one thought. It seemed to me that the painting should be Alma’s. When I arrived at the show, I put a “sold” marker on it.
Enter my friend Dolores. When Dolores first saw “Four Directions”, her hand went to her heart and she said, ” I want to buy this painting. I just love it.” I told her about Alma.
I pondered this the next few days and phoned Dolores with a proposition to loan her the painting for four months until Alma’s birthday, at which time I would offer it to Alma.
I intended to pick it up from Dolores and deliver to Alma, as a surprise. Then I had a better idea. These two women had at least two things in common, so I asked Alma to come and meet my friend Dolores, which she did. She didn’t even ask why!
It was the sweetest get together. These two elders have each meant so much to me, as friends and as teachers. Alma is also my relative now, by the sweet virtue of my daughter and her grandson falling in love. Alma was the presiding elder at the first women’s sweats I ever attended. We have known each other for many years. Alma offers her wisdom and knowledge, her love for her native Cree language and the teaching embedded in it to many people of all ages and all nations. Alma’s voice soothes and gentles me. My friend Dolores epitomizes hospitality, the generous heart. I can talk to her about almost anything. Her hospitality comes as naturally as breath. She is a listener. I always leave her home feeling nurtured and treasured, not to mention well-fed. To sit in Dolores’s welcoming home, enjoying cookies and tea while these two wonderful women got to know each other was more dear than I can say.
Dolores gave Alma homemade socks. We shared stories. We took a selfie! Alma carefully carried away her painting wrapped in the garbage bag Dolores had given her. The gratitude and warmth I felt for these moments and the gifts of these two women in my life expanded into the next day, and the next, and today as well.
This post is dedicated to my own mum, Alice Sylvia Frith Bland, who died 20 years ago on Hallowe’en. I feel her presence and love often. I am grateful to all the mother figures who have blessed my life, and who continue to bless it. Thank you. Hiy Hiy.
Having just spent two days playing with paper with others, one day being a collage PLAYshop at the Qu’Appelle Valley Centre for the Arts, and the second day taking place here at the farm (Scrap basket free for all), I can honestly say, I would love to spend a whole week like this. Except I might not still be married! My patient husband had to borrow a chair to sit down to eat lunch, his current reading material was hidden under a scrap basket and his usual paths had detours but he managed with good humour. It is all cleaned up now and I am still married.
Following are photos from the PLAYshop and scrap basket adventure. A few highlights first:
- I liked that we had people from age 9 to over 70, grandmothers and granddaughters, mothers and daughters, aunties and nieces, good friends, people who had come before and people who gave it their first try.
- Joanne brought a beautiful paper wasps nest, and this paper was used for many creations. See if you can spot them.
- We visited but sometimes were so absorbed and other than music in the background all you could hear were so many pairs of scissors as they cut through paper.
- It was November 7th and 8th and “the sun poured in like butterscotch and stuck to all our senses .” (thanks Joni Mitchell). Who could believe this weather in November? The sun was so bright I was uanble to get a picture of Sunday morning’s scrap basket crew.
- On Saturday, we got to pop in at the pop up market!!
Do you have the patience to wait
Till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
Till the right action arises by itself?
Tao Te Ching
a joint blog entry by Sue Bland and Debra Brown
Sue : I am not a patient person. Mostly, I do not have the patience to wait until my mud settles and the water is clear. To remain unmoving is very difficult for me. More often than not, I rush ahead with plans and lists and schemes. The wisdom of the twenty seven words above seems written for me.
Last year, when I was searching for venues to hold my art retreats and PLAYshops and my friend Debra was considering opening her farm home in the Eastern Qu’Appelle Valley for retreats, we wondered, slowly, tentatively…is this something we could do together?
This simple question, and the eventual answer to it, has taken us on a journey together , something we both came to see as a ceremony of sorts.
We talked about the question, let it rest, dreamed about it and slept on it. In time, the answer to our question arose, and it was YES. When would we hold it? We thought about May, dilly dallied, rejected May. Somehow, late August felt exactly right to both of us.
Together we came up with the title – Immersed in Nature: An Art Retreat at Valley View Farm.
We prepared, each in our own way.
Debra: I sorted, cleared, reorganized more layers of 75+ years of family habitation. While this challenged me on many levels, I never lost the clear knowing that offering this retreat with Sue was a gift, the right “next step” to explore the long-held dream of offering sacred space for people at the farm.
Sue: I am so moved by the beautiful hills and valleys, grasses, woods and wetlands at Valley View Farm. How could this sacred place change and inform the way I offered a PLAYshop or an art retreat? If I truly listened, what did the natural world have to say about how we might approach our time together? I wanted our art to emerge from the nature were were immersed in. I wanted to offer exercises that might shift, ever so slightly, the way we see, experience and respond to the natural world. I practised close to home – in my beloved Pheasant Creek Coulee. There I sketched and painted, or simply sat and took in the beauty. There, I considered the visual elements of line, shape and colour.
Our enthusiasms and efforts were buoyed by registrations and expressions of interest. As we got closer to the weekend, a few people cancelled. Should we go ahead? Doubts surfaced. What if everybody cancelled? We determined that we would go ahead, no matter what. The ceremony of this joint venture was well underway, and even if it was just the two of us, we would see it through until the end because we very much wanted to.
Happily, we had three participants, each of who brought her own special gifts and interests to our shared weekend. What follows are some “moments” that stood out for each of us.
Sue: Coming downstairs to see guests each with a dark coffee in tow in the sunporch, a book or journal nearby; companionable silence.
Debra: the land being received with such appreciation and delight on our introductory misty-wet walk up the hill, and throughout the weekend
Sue: a silent walk, sharing wonder and delight with others, but not using words
Debra: women moving and creating in their own rhythms, filling the house with waves of peaceful silence and rich conversation
Sue: the smells coming from the kitchen, as Debra created magic… with plates of such aesthetic beauty and such fresh taste, you could die and go to heaven
Debra: the radiance of one participant, after a final pre-departure walk (and drenching) in the hills
Sue: the sound of charcoal on paper as we drew
Debra: the insistent presence of Nature throughout the program. ‘Immersed’ we were [or was that baptized and blessed?] by the rain, the shimmering dew on the grasses and verdant forest
Would we do it again? When the weekend was over, we really weren’t sure. A week later we met and talked about all we had learned, what we would change, what we would celebrate. Then, with the need to follow the insistent thrum in her core, Debra said, “There is something new rising in me”. That insistent rising is the seed of Sweet Darkness: A Mid-Winter Silent Retreat . And so, this ‘ceremony’ continues to ripple through our lives and into the world.
All my life, I have believed in the “little people”. As a girl, I loved making them small homes of moss, birchbark, sticks, shells, berries, seeds and leaves. My daughters also created these places for the fairies in the garden.
The past few days have seen me creating fairies – one for my favourite tree planter called “Tree Planting Fairy”, and a second for a dear friend who is in the midst of the adventure of moving called “Moving Fairy”.
This morning (Thursday, July 25th) I learned that Gerry Starr passed away. I was preparing for a visit from my aunt and my cousins but the news about Gerry caused me stop and have a good cry. As soon as I was done preparing food, I went down to the lake to think about Gerry and to wait for my visitors. In Gerry’s memory, I made a small circle of stones on the beach, noticing after I did so that half the stones were in the water and half were not. Along with the stones, I picked a shiny piece of shell, because for me Gerry had a quiet kind of shine. While I waited, a family of loons fished just a ways off shore. A large osprey (also known as fish eagle) soared way out on the lake, also fishing. This made me think straight away of Edith, Gerry’s wife and my friend, who always looked for the eagle to accompany us on each day of a canoe trip we took.
I was grateful for this quiet moment and this peaceful lake where I could remember Gerry. As I sat, the water lapping the sand slowly shifted my circle of stones.
Gerry always called me Sue Bland, never just Sue like most people!! Together, he and his wife Edith were unfailingly kind and hospitable and generous to my family and I. Gerry was the dad of my great friend Gail, and her sisters Danette, Geraldine, a sister I have not yet met, and the late Jean. He was the moshum of my goddaughter Janaye and her sister Taye, and a whole bunch of boys. He had three beloved great granddaughters who lit up his face and warmed his heart. He was a respected Elder in his home community of StarBlanket, and beyond.
I did not know Gerry when he was a young capable athlete, or the hardworking manager of the large StarBlanket Farm. Gerry’s health was never great when I knew him and he usually used a walker. It always amazed me how many things he attended despite his great difficulty moving around. I remember him as a quiet, very intelligent, very observant man – nobody’s fool. I don’t think Gerry missed much.
Although he was quiet, when he did have something to say, nothing could stop him from saying it. I remember a couple of those occasions. Once when StarBlanket Cree Nation held a day to commemorate residential school survivors at Lebret, Edith was supposed to speak. When the time came she could not. But with the help of his daughters and Edith, Gerry purposefully made his way to the front and he spoke powerfully about his residential school experience at Lebret. I wrote down what he said, but what sticks with me now is how indignant he was (incredulous really) when he remembered that the priests expected them to pray before breakfast, after breakfast – just about every minute of the day. How there was absolutely no recognition at all that the spiritual ways of his grandfather meant something. He would return home in the summer to go into the bush to learn his grandfather’s ways, then back to boarding school for 10 months learning that those ways were wrong.
On a happier occasion, at Gail and Sonny’s wedding, he called me over to explain that Edith was crying (with joy) because Sonny had gifted him with his best mare and foal, and because this was a return to the way it had been a long time ago. During the traditional ceremony, he spoke at length about this, and very eloquently. He was very moved by Sonny’s gift, and what it represented – regaining the old ways that had been forbidden and made illegal by my people.
My fondest memory of Gerry – one that always brings a smile to my face – took place at the Wahpimoostoosis Healing ceremonies that were held each year in August. I had taken part in a Sweatlodge Ceremony that morning, and was participating in the Feast where Gerry was one of the Elders that afternoon. During the feast, I could hardly keep my head up, and kept yawning – I was so sleepy from my time in the Sweat. After the feast was over, I was shaking the hands of the Elders and when I got to Gerry, he convulsed with laughter and told me how hilarious it was to watch this white girl almost fall asleep during the feast because the Sweat had been too much for me. He teased me without mercy! Honestly, I would have been insulted except that his glee and laughter was so darn contagious, I just cracked up too. I laugh every time I think of it.
Last year, Gail and I spoke a number of times together. I spoke trying to encourage other Canadians to attend the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. Gail had the hard part – she spoke as an intergenerational survivor – both her parents had attended residential schools and Gail shared how deeply this affected her. I learned a great deal about Gerry and about the powerful bond between Gerry and Gail – but these are Gail’s tales to tell, not mine. I am thinking about these stories as I remember Gerry today. I learned what a complex man Gerry Starr was, and something of his influence on many, many people.
Gerry was waiting for his residential school hearing. Like many Elders before him, he passed away before that could happen. I feel so sad about that. I am not sure that those hearings always offer much healing, but perhaps for some they offer a kind of closure. It seems ironic that today, all across Canada, has been designated by Indigenous people in Canada as NATIONAL DAY OF PRAYER: HONOUR THE APOLOGY. The intention is to honour the children lost to and the adult survivors of residential schools, and to push the federal government to turn over all documentation related to the residential schools to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (as ordered by the courts). I deeply wish that our Canadian government would honour the words of the Apology made in 2008.
Sometimes I have watched a dying person do great healing during their last days. I don’t know if that was the case with Gerry. I hope it was.
I have been feeling Gerry’s absence all day today. The world is a different place without him. I cannot imagine the Starr family without Gerry in their midst. I am feeling the difficulty of having two homes – this being my birth home and Saskatchewan being my chosen home. I want to be able to hug Gail and Edith and family, to take my brown buns (the buns that Gerry loved) and a good farm chicken, to be present as they honour this very special man in time honoured ways. I want to hear what is said, and I want to learn more who this complicated and special man was to others in his family, and in his community. I am 2800 kilometers away, which feels pretty far. But if I can’t be in Saskatchewan, this place where I feel the presence of my own ancestors, where I feel close to earth and lake and sky, is the next best place to give thanks for Gerry’s life, and to offer prayers of healing and peace for him and his big circle of love and family. I feel gratitude for knowing Gerry.
I am an introvert (albeit a noisy one sometimes), so after my art show, I arranged to retreat, to curl up in my nest , breathe deeply, move into a quiet space and just be. Glenn Zimmer of the Qu’Appelle House of Prayer (one of my favourite places to retreat) likes to call this “useless sitting”.
This retreat however, I am headed to the farm my friend Debra shares with her brother. I first visited Debra’s farm two years ago, during the memorable spring of 2011, when much of Saskatchewan overflowed and gushed with water everywhere. Debra’s farm, situated in the Qu’Appelle Valley, has natural springs coursing down the hill through woods of burr oak and other deciduous trees. I remember how amazing it felt on that first visit to stand on her back step – the back step of an almost 100 year old prairie farm home and hear gushing, gurgling water!! I could not get over it. Prairie farm, abundant water. Flowing water, prairie farm. I don’t usually put those two things together.
This year, I can still hear the gurgle of the spring flowing by her back door, but it is not as loud. Arriving here two years ago, I felt as if I had somehow come home. Something inside of me lets down a bit, I sigh, and my body begins to relax. This is sacred ground.
I am here as a guinea pig of sorts. Debra is considering opening her home to people like me, people looking for a place of quiet and stillness. Previously I have visited as a friend. I am still here as a friend, of course, but we have had to change the rules somewhat. As I hope to enjoy what is mostly a silent retreat, we agree on when we will be silent, and when we might visit. We agree that Debra will prepare meals and clean up after. We agree on what I might pay her.
The first morning, I rise early and head out for a walk down the road. Or so I think!! The beautiful Qu’Appelle River beckons and the field looks dry enough, so instead I follow its contours singing a song of thankfulness at the top of my lungs! I am carrying my cell phone (my timepiece- I do not wear a watch) and I receive a text from Angela Bishop. One word – LOVE! I am feeling it, girl. The river is moving quickly, slowed down by bushes here and there. Splash… a cow moose sees me and in her gangly way disappears further into the bush. I head up the hill. All around the trees are bursting forth with their fresh tender new green. Even so, here on the north side of the Valley there is still a huge snow bank. I can’t help it. I slip off my runners and run across feeling the tingly snow in between my toes! I sit and let my feet dry in the morning sun. I begin to cross the hills when I see a large healthy coyote busy with something in the hollow beneath me. Something tells me to change course, and I do, but not until I have had a good look at her. She sees me, seems unconcerned. Further down the road, I bend down and pick up a clod of wet prairie clay thinking about the story of Creation I heard a few weeks ago. In this version, it is the humble muskrat who dives deeply enough to get the mud to put in turtle’s back to create Turtle Island. In another version, it is Otter. The mud feels wonderful and I spread it all over my hands remembering the springs when our eldest daughters would take off all their clothes and enjoy a mud bath. The mud eventually dries. Down the road a grader is coming. I do not want him to think I am a crazy person, so I stoop down at a puddle to wash my hands off.
I am also at Debra’s to do a little writing. I set up in her beautiful sun porch, a room full of windows, of light, of pale yellow and crisp white. The windows look out onto her front lawn, with trees and labyrinth, across the road to the fields, to the curve of the slate blue Qu’Appelle, the hills beyond. On the west side of the porch, there is a swinging couch. I grew up with a swinging couch on a screen porch located 2000 miles to the East. I have swinging couches deep in my DNA, I think. If you prop the pillows just so on Debra’s swinging couch, you can see the beautiful view – that is until your heavy eyelids shut and are transported off to some dreamland. I call it the “Healing Couch”. I can be sitting at the table when I feel almost magnetically propelled to the “healing couch.” Once there, I sink into a deep sleep sometimes for 5 minutes, sometimes for an hour or two.
I wake to Debra bringing in lunch. Occasionally I feel like I should do dishes or something but this is our arrangement. It feels wonderful to receive. The gifts are many.
Wraps are tied with chive stalks and filled with curried egg salad.The food at Debra’s is organic, freshly made, and presented with the love and care for detail that infuses everything she does. The picture here is of a dessert so beautiful it made me cry. Greek yogurt (the only kind, really), with zest of lime, topped by sliced mango and johnny jump ups. It tasted even better than it looks! Eating in silence means I take my time and taste every morsel. Food for the soul.
While here, I am writing a reflection for a service at the annual meeting of the United Church in Saskatchewan. The subject is the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. I appreciate the opportunity to focus on this one thing, to be freed for a while from the many distractions of daily life with my family. I appreciate that the writing unfolds naturally… I write for a bit, then I do something else. During my walks, thoughts about “right relations” unwind like long skeins of wool. Sitting in the sunporch by my laptop, I write and then gaze out the window watching the birds flit from tree to tree. I write some more. Time for a nap. I head out to the hammock, where I hear the tinkle of the spring, hear the breath of wind in the oaks and have an unfocussed view (glasses off) of the green world around. After supper, we take a silent hike up through the oaks to the flat land above and circle the large slough which is home to many birds and ducks. We watch the sun go down, the moon rise, the white tail of many a doe disappear into the woods.
Our last meal is a surprise – a “blessing meal” Debra calls it. We eat in silence. A blessing meal indeed – bison stew with wild rice and onions, “the three sisters” – squash, beans and corn, fresh bannock and for dessert, three kinds of berries.
Over a fire my last evening we talk. We talk about money. Debra is trying to fix a rate for people who may sometime come here on a retreat. It is difficult to figure out, and yet this income will be a part of Debra’s livelihood, her ability to stay here. How to place a monetary value on what Debra offers here? How to even put it into words? This beautiful place – river, hills, valley, fields, woods, springs, wetlands, sky – and all the creatures who inhabit it. The deep love Debra has for her birth home, the many actions, both big and small, she takes each day to show this love and care. The immense courage of her living here, of her living her dream. A different view to catch the heart out of each window. The small arrangements of beauty found around the house. The healing couch. The delicious meals prepared with love, care and great artistry. All of this, everything here, nourishes the soul. To be cared for in this way is a rare and precious experience. I am deeply grateful. The gift that Debra is offering, it seems to me, is GOOD MEDICINE.