Category Archives: healing

Into the Hawthornes

Down on hands and knees

through the door of thorny branches,

just big enough

and into the hawthornes

right in the middle

 

sssshhh…if you can stay quiet

long enough

they come back

the birds, the squirrels

to eat the red berries

 

if you can stay as still as a hawthorne

you can hear the soft wingbeat of a fairy

 

if you can stay quiet

you can catch the scent

of the coyote who slept here last night

you can feel the slow heartbeat of the earth

that is holding you

loving you

back to life

 

Don’t Fence Me In

My friend Carol introduced me to the term “manure meditation”. It is Carol who mucks out the pens at Ravenheart Farms*,  a wonderful equine assisted learning retreat centre and ranch she runs near Kamsack. For Carol, mucking out is a meditative activity. I agree. Farm chores settle me – in part because of the physical work and in part because I love working close to animals. On a day like yesterday, when spring arrives full force and horse manure is in evidence everywhere, “mucking out” is the perfect morning activity.

My late mum, Sylvia, taught us that the smell of horse manure is as wonderful as the tang of salt air or green growing things. When we went birdwatching as a family, Mum would roll down the window, wrinkle her nose like a bunny and go “mmmmm, the beautiful smell of horse manure”. What great early conditioning!! There is no question in my mind that horse manure smells better than most other any other manure I can think of.

There is another reason I am drawn to the horses this morning. Our daughter’s horse, Gatty, has Sweeney Shoulder and has been confined for a few months in a small pen, while her companion Missy can go wherever she likes. Shane and I take turns walking Gatty as well as massaging her, offering her healing touch or brushing her. This daily contact has been a gift to both of us.

I am learning to “listen with” Gatty, to hear the sounds of our farm in a whole new way. As a prey animal, Gatty is alert to each and every sound on the farm – the swish of pigeon’s wings as they fly out of the barn, the cry of the merlin or the moo of neighbour cows, every move of our dogs, the opening and closing of doors, the sounds of vehicles, the croak of a raven, the gurgle of water in the bowl. She does not like the sound of the sleigh full of manure as I move it from her pen across snow and ice. On the other hand, Gatty and Missy seem to love it when I sing, unlike every other member of our family!

I am learning to “listen to” Gatty. To pay attention. To pick up the signals when she indicates “enough already.” Or the lowered head, sleepy eyes and relaxed stance which tells me that she is soaking up the way I am touching or massaging her. The way she yawns and makes goofy horse faces and stretches her gums and sticks out her teeth means that she is releasing endorphins. She is my teacher, an exceedingly patient one.  I like to watch her graze, to observe how her beautiful soft nose guides her to the most succulent (dead) grass found in the pasture. Grazing on a lead is about as free as she gets these days. Sometimes I think she would give all her treats for a good roll in the pasture to get rid of some of her winter hair. It must be itchy!!

I have been thinking of the word “tethered” recently. In light of Gatty, who is “tethered” but also in light of animals tethering us to the farm. Throughout my twenties, my theme song was “don’t fence me in”. Untethered was my modus operandi. Free as the wind. Recently, with our children off on their own, we decided to stop keeping chickens and selling eggs which we had enjoyed for over a dozen years. We did this because we wanted more freedom. We hoped to be less tethered to the farm. As they say, “animals tie you down.” It’s true. They do. My experience this winter with Gatty has helped me understand that I also value being tethered – the company of she and Missy, of our two dogs and of our old barn cat (recently retired to the inside) adds depth and comfort and joy and companionship that I cannot imagine my life without. We are not entirely tethered because we do hope to go away this summer, have someone care for our creatures and return home to see them all again.

With Gatty, these days, there has been another kind of tethering – a different kind. One which most of us are familiar with. It is more like the invisible tie that binds, the gossamer thread of heart to heart connection.  Sometimes I think of her and it is like she is right there. I wait for the day when she can have a larger area to roam in. In my dreams, she is galloping, full steam ahead, moving with no restraint whatsoever.

Gatty - fenced in

Gatty – fenced in

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the manure sled

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Oh give me the land, lots of land
Under starry skies above
Don’t fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open
Country that I love
Don’t fence me in
Let me be by myself in the evening breeze
Listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever but I ask you please
Don’t fence me in

Just turn me loose let me straddle my old saddle
Underneath the western skies
On my cayuse let me wander over yonder
Till I see the mountain rise
I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences
Gaze at the moon till I lose my senses
I can’t look at the hobels and I can’t stand the fences
Don’t fence me in

lyrics by Cole Porter

*Read about an art and horses retreat at Ravenheart farm

 

Truly Home

How do you know when you are well and truly home? Three vignettes from my life in Treaty Four Territory, under the prairie sky.

I.

I am well  and truly home!

Our two farm dogs, Lady (mum) and Herc (son) fell into their own routines when I abandoned them and went to Ontario. That routine involves hunting muskrat in the dugouts, clearly an absorbing task for a pair of canines. I would head off on my morning walk, call the dogs and to my great dismay, nobody came. When I was a few kilometres down the road and on my way back, I would see two distant black dots racing down the road towards me, wearing signs of dugout activity when they arrived. Wet, with flecks of lime green duckweed on their coats!

Now, some weeks and many morning walks later, the dogs have caught on and have let the dugout go in favour of a morning walk.(Muskrat relief, to be sure!) They can barely contain their joy when I come out the door. All the way down the lane, they do doggie backflips, fall over each other, contort their bodies and tails in movements of joy and excitement and anticipation. Lady even smiles, a kind of ugly but sweet grimace. They trip over each other. Sometimes I can barely move down the lane. I occasionally remember kicking one of these dogs predecessors once because I was so frustrated that I could not move. (Shame!) The walk down the lane is a good a barometer of how crusty (or not) I might be feeling in the morning.

Two things: I am grateful that we have a short lane. The dog’s antics fill my heart with joy and are the best beginning to a morning walk.IMG_1681 IMG_1686 IMG_1698

I am now able to walk across the south field because it has been combined. Field walking is even more pleasurable than walking down the road. I like the unexpected dips and swells, the curves and surprises of walking across the fields. I like the wild untouched areas – a grove of willows here, a wetland there, an unexpected rise over here. The dogs follow their noses, read each other’s body language, their tails erect and a certain tension in their body when they pick up a scent. They bound ahead, disappearing at times, surprising me later by coming up from behind. Their movement is like a dance, is like the swoop of the grass birds as they fly hither, is like the curve of the land itself, under this vast bowl of sky.

II.

watercolour - Pheasant Creek Coulee

watercolour – Pheasant Creek Coulee

Last week, I was able to visit Pheasant Creek Coulee almost every day, sometimes with my paints, sometimes not. Colours are just beginning to change. The pinks of the bluestem grass on the hills is astonishing. This morning when I arrived, there were four Swainson’s hawks flying just over the hill where I often sit. I stopped and sat and watched them, listened to their sharp cries, wondered if they were a family or just a group of hawks who liked to hang out. The cry of a hawk is like the pungent scent of sage – no matter how many times you have heard it or smelled it, it catches you unawares, urges you to wake up, pay attention!

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I come to Grandfather Rock, a place where  I have painted often. In a certain way, trying to paint in this place is a way to come to know it better, to see all the shades alive in the pink of the bluestem, to wrestle with all of the troublesome yet beautiful greens. After some attempts to catch the feel and colour of the day, I return to what it is that I love most about this place – how to paint  the shape and curve of the land – the skeleton, the bones  beneath these hills.

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III.

Treaty Four Powwow, under the arbour. Flashing colours of dancers everywhere. Sound of drums beating here and there. A beautiful fall day nestled by Mission Lake in the folds of the hills of the Qu’Appelle Valley. Garbage floating off in the wind, or trampled underground. The smell of sweetgrass, of home fries, of deep frying. Powwow announcers trying to get people to come for the Grand Entry.

jingle skirts, Treaty Four Powwow. Photo courtesy of Kate Herberger,http://movingforwardlookingforthejoy.blogspot.ca

jingle skirts, Treaty Four Powwow. Photo courtesy of Kate Hersberger, http://movingforwardlookingforthejoy.blogspot.ca

I have just been to see our daughters, Jessie and Marina, and their horses Missy and Gatty. They have camped out here all weekend with other riders who made the trip here on horseback to honour the late Chief Irvin StarBlanket. Marina tells me that they have been asked to take part in the Horse Ceremony which will occur before the Special (Dance Competition) in honour of Chief Irvin. She is nervous. Gatty will do fine, she tells me. She is worried about riding in front of such a big crowd.

I am sitting directly across from where the riders will enter the powwow arena. Elder Mike Pinay, the announcer, shares something about the Horse Ceremony, and then says that two girls from outside the community have been asked to take part in this ceremony, to ride for the mothers and for the grandmothers. He goes on to say that it is unusual to ask outsiders to take part but that these girls are great friends of the community, and know some of  the ways of the community. It is a great honour for them to take part in this ceremony.

Mike then asks the StarBlanket Juniors drum group to begin their song and all of us stand. I stand tall, full of prayer, or pride, of love for these two daughters and the great honour they have of taking part in this. Marina nods in my direction as she rides by.The five horses circle the arbour four times, going slowly the first time around, then trotting, then loping. Drums beat, hooves beat, hearts beat…. I think of their grandmothers and great grandmothers….They look beautiful. Our daughters sit tall in the saddle.

When they are finished, I see them heading off towards the hills to let the horses have a good run, to let the horses loose. I have been proud of these girls many times before, but never like this.

These are not photos of the horse ceremony, but of the last part of the Memorial Ride.

These are not photos of the horse ceremony, but of the last part of the Memorial Ride.

some of the many riders and horses at Treaty Four

some of the many riders and horses at Treaty Four

 

Remembering Gerry Starr

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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.

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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.

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Good Medicine

*"Poached Egg Woman is Nesting" Photo by Cherie Westmoreland

*”Poached Egg Woman is Nesting” Photo by Cherie Westmoreland

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.Dessert at Debra's - food to nourish 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.