A steady mind before a steady hand (what I learned from a jewelry maker)


This past weekend, I made my annual pilgrimage to the Winnipeg Folk Festival. I’ve been going for 30 years and I’ll probably keep going for 30 more, because it fills me up, inspires me, and nourishes my creative spirit. Four days of great music, surrounded by tall trees, big prairie skies, and interesting people is a little like what I imagine heaven to be.

Inspired by all there is to see and hear, I always come home with a collection of jewels – little pieces of lyrics scribbled on my program, stories gathered from conversations with friends or strangers, colourful photos of the bubble man or the stilt-walkers, new cds of my latest favourite artist, and a trinket or two from the handmade village.

Everything inspires me, and when I return home, I feel like I need a week to digest it all.

Most of the quotes I pour over afterward come from the singer-songwriters. But this year’s gem comes from the artisan who made the beautiful necklace I brought home.

Ro Walton (of Windy Tree) makes one-of-a-kind jewelry from branches of the arbutus tree (which I saw plenty of when I was on Whidbey Island in May). Each one has a unique design, carved free-hand on a scroll saw.

Marveling at the intricate designs in his pieces, I remarked “you must have a steady hand.”

Ro’s response: “It’s more about having a steady mind.”

“If my mind’s not in the right place,” he continued, “I have to do other things like cutting and sanding. Only when my mind is steady can I approach the scroll saw for the intricate work.”

I’ve been thinking about that ever since. Only when we do the work of steadying our minds can we do our most intricate work.

That’s what I’m focusing on during the month of July – my own quest for a steady mind. Work-wise, Winter and Spring were a bit of a whirlwind, and then some things in my personal life got a little shaky, so I am doing my best to seek some stillness so that the really deep and intense art that wants to grow out of me can do so.

I’ll be going away next week for a few days of intense writing, trying to wrap up the book that I’ve come back to after putting it on a shelf for a couple of years. I have found that the only way I can really dive into that kind of writing is to go away and be silent, so I will do that for a few days. In between the writing, I’ll wander the beach, play with art supplies, and read good books. All of these things help me maintain the kind of steady mind that lets me write.

The necklace that I bought from Ro depicts a tree hanging from the edge of a cliff. (The tree is cut through the wood so that the design shows through on the back as well.) This is the one that appealed to me most because of the challenge and improbability of a strong and healthy tree rooting itself in such a precarious place. I imagine that far below it, the waves are crashing against the rock and above it, the storms are rolling in. In the middle of all of this chaos, the tree remains firmly rooted.

Somehow, the tiny seed that planted itself in the crack of a rock found enough stillness and sunlight and rainwater to grow into a strong tree. After all of the hard work it took to flourish there, that tree now offers a rare place to rest for the birds flying overhead.

This is the story I want to tell of my life – a story of rootedness and strength, despite the chaos all around me, despite the fact that sometimes I feel like I’m clinging to the edge of a cliff. This is what I want to be – a place of solace and support for those who’ve been tossed by the wind and the waves.

To live that story, I must make sure I put down strong roots and that I practice having a “steady mind” in the midst of chaos. That’s what next week is about.

I encourage you to do the same. Find a way to steady your mind, whether that means staying off social media for awhile, going on retreat to a friend’s cabin, taking long walks every morning, attending a music festival, doing yoga, or committing to some art playtime every week. And plant your roots deeply into the rock that is the God of your understanding.

Giving yourself that kind of time and nourishment is not selfish, it’s essential if you want to do your best work. Whether you are an artist, a teacher, a business owner, a hospice worker, or a stay-at-home parent, you need a steady mind, a steady heart, and a steady body. You’ll only get that when you give yourself what you need.

Then, and only then, will you be the kind of tree the birds can rest in after their long flight.

Be good to yourself this summer. Plant your roots, steady your mind, and give yourself the nourishment you need.

If you’re looking for something to nourish you, perhaps Mandala Discovery might help? It starts again in August.

Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free ebook, A Path to Connection. I send out weekly newsletters and updates on my work.

My amazing journey

I am home after nearly two weeks of journeying across the prairies. It was amazing. I am replenished, encouraged, and feeling full of the goodness of this earth and the people on it.

I am still on a bit of a high and not entirely sure that I have the right words to articulate what this journey meant for me, but I’m going to try anyway, before it slips too far into the past and is lost in a sea of other stories that want to be told.

Part 1: Journey to myself

“In solitude, at last, we’re able to let God define us the way we are always supposed to be defined—by relationship: the I-thou relationship, in relation to a Presence that demands nothing of us but presence itself. Not performance but presence.” – Richard Rohr

Though I could have easily gotten to Calgary with one long day of driving (and have done it many times), I chose to make the trip in two days so that I could savour the trip and enjoy a night of camping by myself. As Richard Rohr writes in Falling Upward, the older I get and the more I learn to love and understand myself, the more I enjoy my own company.

From the moment I left the city limits, I knew there was going to be something special about this journey. It was a stunningly beautiful day, with the kind of fluffy, storybook clouds artists and photographers pine for. It was also the perfect season, when there are still rich summer greens mixed with subtle autumn golds, browns and reds.  The canola and flax are in full bloom, the wheat and barley fields are readying themselves for harvest, the round bales are beginning to be laid out across golden hay fields, and the calves born in early summer are strong, virile, and rambunctious.IMG_2027

Everywhere I looked, the prairies seemed to be laying out their finery for me. I couldn’t resist stopping for photos of bright red barns set against bold blue skies, fields where flax flowers flowed like the waves on a peaceful sea, and ditches where butterflies and dragonflies danced from wildflower to wildflower.

When I pulled into Regina, I stopped for a bottle of wine and a cheap plastic wine glass (to enhance the picnic I’d brought from home) and headed to my campsite by a lake. The first thing I spotted at the campsite was a shiny loonie (dollar) on the ground – like someone had left it as a good luck charm.

Pushing through a broad strip of clover that stood higher than my head and smelled of heaven, I came to the lake. There in front of me, for no reason I could ascertain, was a picnic table half submerged in water. I waded out to the table and sat on it for awhile, snapping photos of fishermen, seagulls and rocks. The sun was about two hours from sunset, as far as I could tell, but I didn’t want to miss a moment of its setting. So I brought my picnic lunch and journal to the table and spent the next two hours on my little wooden island in the lake, hidden from view from most people by the huge stand of clover along the shore.

Those two hours were magical. My senses were heightened after a day full of prairie beauty, and every angle, every bit of light, every shadow, every rock, every bird, every line, and every reflection was drenched in beauty. For two hours I sat in awe, watching the light change on the lake and the clouds glow in the sky. God’s presence was palpable. It was one of those thin places that the Celts talk about, where heaven and earth collide.IMG_5909

After the sun set, and night began to drift across the lake, I lit a fire at my campsite and had another magical hour of capturing light of a different kind – orange, glowing, flickering, pushing against the darkness. From the largeness of the sunset sky to the smallness of my cast iron fire pit – I was mesmerized by light.

The next day was much like the one before, with equally piercing blue skies and impossibly white clouds. I wandered on the beach, took pictures of more birds, feathers, and rocks, and then started the drive to Calgary. At one point, a storm rolled in, and the clouds changed to dark and dramatic. After two days of beauty, I wasn’t surprised to see a rainbow show up.

By the end of the day, I felt like I had just been courted by a devoted lover who was doing everything s/he could to make me feel special. In the words of Richard Rohr in the quote above, I was very much in “the I-thou relationship, in relation to a Presence that demands nothing of us but presence itself.” I found God on the prairies and God laid out the finest that the prairies had to offer to make sure I felt loved.IMG_2668
For more photos of my prairie journey, here’s a little video I put together.

Part 2: Journey to my family

“Always remember, there was nothing worth sharing
Like the love that let us share our name.” – The Avett Brothers

The purpose for my trip to Calgary was to visit my oldest brother, Brad, who’d been diagnosed with cancer a few weeks earlier and had had a three foot section of his colon removed the week before. When I’d heard about his cancer, I’d felt an intense need to spend time with him, and so I took advantage of the opportunity. It’s been a hard year for our family, after losing Mom to cancer in November, so the bond between us feels especially important.

If you met my big brother, you might marvel at the many ways that our world views are different, and – on the surface level – you might even question how we find common ground. His politics lean further right than mine do, he’d rather spend the afternoon in a hockey rink while I’d choose an art studio, and he doesn’t see the point in much of the self-discovery or community-building reading and writing I do while I’d be bored to tears with the kind of detail-oriented computer coding he does. (It almost seems like a cliche that he has a degree in math and I have a degree in literature.)

And yet… if you looked at only those things, you’d be missing a lot. For one thing, there’s something about 47 years of shared history, stories, jokes, faith, questions, and grief that creates a common language that few people in the world can understand. There is great safety and comfort in that common language, especially after you’ve lost a few of the only people on earth who know it. When you are in a place where you can speak that language and ask those questions without fear of judgement, it is worth more than gold.

And there’s another thing… unleash us in the mountains, on the prairies, or by the seashore with our cameras, and both of us can wander happily for hours. (Or – in the case this week – lament the fact that we can’t wander for hours due to a recently broken foot and major surgery.) And then we can sit together on the couch for another couple of hours going through the pictures to find the few in which we’ve captured the light just right.

In those things, there is plenty of common ground to make a trip across two provinces after a cancer scare an indescribably worthwhile thing to do.

I didn’t know how this visit would go, and frankly, I was a little worried to see what cancer was doing to my normally energetic and adventurous brother. On top of that, my sister-in-law (whom I also love dearly, and would easily cross two provinces for as well), has been dealing with some pretty heavy things this year, and my teenage niece has had an interesting recent time of learning more about her identity as well.

I expected their home to be full of turmoil and sadness… and yet… it wasn’t. There was a surprising amount of peace and grace in their home, not to mention a whole lot of love. My brother has a remarkable capacity for accepting life as it is and enjoying every moment that he can, and my sister-in-love has a remarkable capacity for making meaning of what is and articulating it in a way that shines new light into it. Plus they both have a deep faith that sustains them and gives them hope.IMG_2773

One of the most poignant moments of the visit was when I stood next to my brother in church (yes, he’s stubborn enough to go to church two days after being released from the hospital) and sang “Come Thou Fount”, a song that has a rich history in our family and was sung at both of our parents’ funerals. “Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come; and I hope, by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.” The Bible verse that those lines are inspired by was made into a wall hanging for Mom and Dad’s 25th anniversary, and hung in their home for twenty-three years after that until Dad died and the farm was sold.

Another poignant moment was standing at the shores of Lake Louise on a drive into the mountains. My recently broken foot and his surgery wounds meant that we couldn’t walk far, but it felt like a moment of grace to be able to stand there with him and Sue, enjoying the beauty around us. We are all broken people, heading inevitably to our deaths, and yet there are moments of beauty, grace, and light, and for that we carry on in this journey.IMG_2740

Part 3: The journey to others

“In helping others, we shall help ourselves, for whatever good we give out completes the circle and comes back to us.”   ~ Flora Edwards

The final destination on this journey was a small prairie town, perched on the border between Saskatchewan and North Dakota, that looked a lot like the prairie town I grew up in. In North Portal, people trust each other enough to not only leave their doors unlocked but to leave the border unlocked. When you go golfing, you start out in one country and end in another, and they trust you to leave the parking lot through the same entrance (Canadian or American) that you entered through – no passport required. There used to be churches on either side of the border, but when their numbers dwindled, they joined and now meet in the new Canadian church in winter and in the older American church in summer.

In that town, there is an old school building that looks a lot like the place I spent the first nine years of my school life. There are not enough kids in town to fill it anymore, so they started bussing the kids to another town and sold the building to one of the townsfolk who put a friendly neighbourhood bar in one classroom and rents the other classrooms out to artists, healers, and others who need space.

In that building, Visions Art Guild holds their annual retreat. It’s a blissful week of summer camp for artists, with the local church ladies catering their meals, and everyone pitching in to do the dishes and keep the place clean. During the day, they make lots of art, have occasional inspirational sessions, and encourage each others’ creativity. In the evenings, they drink wine, make a little more art if they feel like it, and have a few good belly laughs (especially on the night of Frida Fest, when everyone dresses as their favourite Frida Kahlo painting or photo).

Every second year, they bring in a facilitator to inspire them in some area of growth. This year I was that lucky facilitator. On the theme of journey, I was invited to do three full sessions (a couple of hours each), three mini-sessions (about 45 minutes each), and one-on-one coaching sessions for anyone who wanted them (nine sessions). In between I got to make my own art and wander from station to station being inspired by the different styles and different mediums. Some worked in acrylics, watercolour, and oil, one added tiny twirly stitches to art prints, one did beautiful beadwork, one made fanciful beings out of found objects, one played with adding fabric prints of her prairie photos to her loomed rugs, one incorporated hand-dyed paper with natural objects, and one worked on a complex mixed media collage backdrop for her fanciful raven drawings. I dabbled with acrylics, watercolours, and mandalas, and took a lot of photos.

At the beginning of our week together, one of the retreatants helped me make a labyrinth in the grass, and that became the foundation of our exploration into the theme of journey. On the second day, I read Dr. Seuss’ “Oh the Places You’ll Go”, made road signs for the twelve places in the journey from the book (the prickly perch, the waiting place, etc.), and added those to the labyrinth. In addition, I’d collaged the words they’d sent me in response to some advance journal prompts onto a long piece of paper that represented the journey we were on for the week, and that piece of paper became a group art project that we added to throughout the week. We also made prayer flags to represent the things we most want to invite into our lives, our art, and our relationships.

What can I say about that week? For starters, it was SO MUCH FUN!  Hanging out with artists and being inspired by their creative techniques and their capacity to see beauty made my own artist heart soar. For another thing, it was SO RELAXING! Yes, I was facilitating and coaching, but there was just so little pressure and the women in the group were delightful to work with and host in circle. They were receptive and responsive to my questions, they jumped into my activities with their whole hearts, and they embraced me as one of their own. And for another thing, it was very, very FULFILLING. In the coaching conversations, when I saw their faces soften with some new wisdom that was growing in them, and in the circle when I saw them opening themselves to new stories that will help them walk in the world with new courage, I knew that God was working through me to create safe space for their authenticity to show up.IMG_6087

This is my absolute favourite kind of work – gathering women in circle and fostering their growth, creativity, and leadership. This is the kind of work that feels so much like play I almost feel guilty when they pay me at the end of the week.

I left that little prairie border town feeling like I was floating on a cloud. That beautiful circle of women gifted me with more than I could have possibly gifted them. They gave me tangible gifts (shoes, jewelry, a hand-woven rug, artist trading cards, and more), but the intangible gifts were far greater. They gave me love, acceptance, inspiration, and trust.IMG_6065

Part 4: The scary part of the journey that reminds me of the value of all the rest

“If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I would never have to live without you.”  ~Winnie the Pooh

This part of the journey was so brief it hardly bears mentioning, and yet it was so impactful it belongs on this page.

About an hour before I got home, driving along a single lane highway, a half-ton truck coming toward me swerved into my lane when it was only about 100 metres away and came at me full speed. I swerved onto the gravel shoulder on my right, and then the truck swerved there too, looking like the driver was determined to kill me. I swerved left (thankfully there was no other traffic), missed the speeding truck by mere inches, and then started spinning out of control, convinced I would end up rolling in the ditch. I finally came to a stop in the middle of the road, and turned back into my lane.

In the rearview mirror, I could see that the truck had turned around and was coming toward me again. I took off as quickly as I could, not interested in sticking around to see if they were coming to check if I was okay and apologize or try to kill me again.

The rest of the way home, my heart was racing, and I kept bursting into spontaneous tears. Just the day before, while still at the retreat, I’d gotten an email from Brad saying that the prognosis on his cancer is not good, that it has spread to his liver and possibly his lungs, and that – even with chemo and surgery – there is an 80% chance the cancer will kill him within 5 years. Between my near-death moment and the knowledge that I might soon lose my brother, life started feeling exceedingly fragile.

When I got home, hugs from my kids and a hot bath helped calm me down. I had to host a call for Lead with Your Wild Heart, so I did what I could to centre myself and be present for whoever showed up. Fortunately, the call morphed into a delightful hour-long conversation about the value of hosting meaningful conversations in circle, and I became energized talking about the work that most inspires me. That call also inspired me to write the following on Facebook:

Life is short. I know it sounds cliched, but believe me – it is. One day you find out there is an 80% chance your brother’s cancer may kill him in less than 5 years, and the next day a crazy driver tries to kill you, and then you find out a dear friend is having eye and kidney complications far away in South Africa and you can’t hug her, and everything just feels so fragile that you want to gather everyone around you and hug them and tell them to BE REAL, BE PRESENT, and BE GOOD TO EACH OTHER. There is just NO DAMN POINT in wasting your time doing things that are not authentic and full of love and true to the purpose God put you on this earth for.

Please… do me a favour, and stop wasting your time with lies and masks and artificial lives. Stop trying to please the people who don’t have your best interests at heart. Stop trying to live up to an unrealistic ideal that has nothing to do with who you are. Stop trying to find your happiness in money and possessions and fake happiness. Find people who believe in the beauty that is in you, hang onto them, and don’t stop holding each other until you all emerge with more courage to do the things the world is longing for you to do. And then hold onto each other some more, until you have spread every last bit of love God has put in you to spread and your work on this earth is done.

 I nearly died on the highway today, and that moment shook me to the core, but at least I can say one thing… I would have spent my last week on earth doing EXACTLY the kind of work that I was put on this earth for – hosting REAL people in circle, giving them a safe space to be authentic, encouraging their creativity, and inviting them to live to their most beautiful potential.

I will keep doing this work and spreading this love until my time is done. Are you with me?IMG_6166

And with that, I end this part of my journey but continue on with the ongoing journey of my life, loving the people around me, living in the beauty that God is making of me, and serving the world with the gifts that have been entrusted to me with whatever time is left for me on this earth.

If you’re on a similar journey to a deeper place, and could use a guide to help you, consider signing up for one of my “Back to School” coaching sessions.


Holding other people’s dreams tenderly

Yesterday was a powerful day. One of those days that leaves you vibrating with energy when it’s all over.

In the morning, I was a guest in a design class in the School of Art at the University of Manitoba. My friend ‘Segun teaches design there. He’d asked me to share the manuscript for my memoir with his students, so that they could design it as one of their assignments. My visit to the classroom was for the purpose of giving them feedback on their designs, so that they have some experience in working with a client in the design process.

I expected to see design concepts on a screen. I wasn’t expecting to hold copies of MY BOOK in my hands. Wow! What an amazing feeling that was! And these weren’t ordinary designs – they were all beautiful! The students are in their third year of art school, so their talent is exceptional. Suddenly my long time dream of becoming a published author began to feel like a very real possibility.

The book (at this point, at least) is called Butterfly at the Grave. Here are some of the possibilities of what it might look like.

What felt especially powerful about the morning was the way that these students had so tenderly treated my words and ideas, honouring them with art, photography, and beautiful treatment of text. Each one of them explained the way they’d interpreted my words and translated them into art, demonstrating a real sensitivity in their approaches.

In return, I held their creations tenderly in my hands, gave them gentle (and hopefully helpful) feedback, and encouraged them in their pursuit of art.

The afternoon was similar in some ways, and yet very different. As a board member of UNPAC (a feminist organization that works to empower and advocate for women), I’d been asked to serve as a mentor for our Changemakers program. In this program, women are mentored to become leaders in their communities. The target audience is largely marginalized women who live in the inner-city.

I sat with three of the women for most of the afternoon. Throughout the course of the program, they have to work on developing some personal project that they are passionate about – either some business idea that they want to grow, or a community leadership role they want to take initiative on. I served as their advisor, giving them feedback on their ideas and helping them bring more clarity and focus to their plans.

I listened deeply, trying to give each woman the tender and honest respect and encouragement that they need. I would like nothing more than to see these women succeed in their plans.

After our smaller advisory circles, we all joined in a closing circle to offer our final thoughts for the day. There are few things I like more than sitting in a circle of women – especially when those women are talking about stepping into leadership in new ways.

I’m sure that people who saw me on the bus on my way home wondered why I was smiling the whole time.

I was smiling because I’d been touched by so many people throughout the day. First there were the students who’d tenderly held my dream in their hands (and I’d tenderly held theirs in mine), and then there were the women (most of whom have lived difficult lives where trust can not be assumed) who trusted me enough to let me hold their dreams for even a brief moment and offer ideas on how to shape them.

It all felt so very powerful.

This is the way that dreams grow. We plant seeds, add dirt, and then we have to trust other people to help us water those tender shoots when they start to grow.

This is the way that communities grow. We honour each other, give helpful feedback, take risks in trusting each other, and believe in each other’s projects.

This is the way that love grows. We share, we listen, we help, and we give, until each of us shines more beautifully than we did before.

Artist-Healer – a new name I call myself

I work under a lot of different titles. Teacher. Writer. Facilitator. Consultant. Conversation Host. Advisor. Coach. Mentor. Creative Midwife.

I have a new title to add to the list.


Gulp. That’s not a name I ever thought I’d call myself. Both “artist” and “healer” are a little problematic for the stories I carry about who I am.

When Hali Karla first invited me to be part of her Artist-Healer series, my first thought was “but… that’s not what I do. You must have me mixed up with someone else.”

And then I had a rather profound experience with a mandala discovery client who, through the course of four sessions, went from a place of deep woundedness to a place of returning hope. And I thought, “maybe it IS what I do.”

To learn more about why I now call myself an artist-healer, and to hear a story I’ve only shared with a few people (about how I got called to be a healer about 11 years ago), check out the video I created for Hali Karla’s series. I’m rather fond of the video and I’d be very pleased if you’d take some time to watch it.

I would love to welcome you onto the mandala discovery journey. We can do a one-on-one session, or you can join the next group of ten women who’ll be taking the journey together starting in late May.

Tears + Art + Healing + Birthdays + Murder = Messy, Painful, Beautiful Life

I was standing at my kitchen sink yesterday afternoon when the tears started flowing down my face.

I wasn’t crying because of the drudgery of having to clean the house again, and again, and again. I was crying for the sheer privilege of being able to clean the house for my daughter’s sixteenth birthday.

Wilma Derksen didn’t get to clean the house for her daughter Candace’s sixteenth birthday. When Candace was just thirteen years old, she disappeared on her way home from school. Six weeks later, her body was found, tied up and frozen in a shed not far from the Derksen’s home.

Just last year, twenty-seven years after Candace’s death, her murderer was finally found and convicted.

Yesterday, before cleaning the house, I visited an art show made up mostly of art created by Cliff Derksen and Odia Reimer, father and sister of Candace, during and after the murderer’s trial. Every piece bore marks of pain, anger, guilt, anguish, and love.

The first piece I saw was a set of simple pencil drawings Cliff drew during the trial. There were sketches of the judge, the security guard, the jury, and various other players in the narrative that was their life for those twenty-three days. Mixed into the human characters were images of the guardian angel that protected them throughout, and the demons who were never far from their minds.

The piece that first made me cry was a set of simple black and white photos Odia took of the steps her sister would have taken on her way home from school. Just a simple, ordinary street, with simple, ordinary stories happening all around, and yet those everyday images took on a whole new layer of meaning because they represented her sister’s last view of the earth. Under the images were snippets of text representing the moments and thoughts the family experienced in the days after Candace’s disappearance – the way they’d been treated by police who interpreted their deep faith as religious fanaticism, the day that five plates were set at the table and one had to be put back in the cupboard, the guilt Wilma felt over not picking her daughter up from school that day.

Below the images stood a sculpture that represented Cliff’s anguish. It was titled “Suspicion” and was ostensibly about his youth, growing up on a farm… “how impossible expectation resulting in judgement, created an environment loaded with suspicion and distrust on all sides.” He felt trapped like the first post of a barbed wire fence – something I could immediately recognize, having grown up on a farm with similar expectations. At the bottom of the text, though, was something I had no way of relating to. “Is this symbolic of my 22 years under suspicion?” Imagine… 22 years he lived with the knowledge that some in the police force suspected him of murdering his own daughter.

My own memory flashed back to the day when I’d returned home to the farm after suffering at the hands of a rapist. My father, overcome with emotion and the pain of knowing he’d been unable to protect his own daughter, left the house for a few moments. When he returned, with great pain in his voice, he told the story of a man he’d once known who’d spent five years of his life hunting for the man who’d raped his daughter, with the intent of killing him. “Suddenly,” my pacifist father said, “I know exactly how he felt.” My father was not under suspicion, but like Candace’s father, he probably felt trapped, knowing he could do nothing to change what had happened.

The next piece that caught my attention was one that I’d seen before – 490 crocheted teardrops created by Odia. 70×7 – the number of times the Bible instructs us to forgive those who’ve wronged us. With each teardrop crocheted, I imagine Odia trying to find a drop of forgiveness in her heart for the man who’d taken her sister from her. I’m sure the tears she shed as she crocheted them were more full of rage than they were of forgiveness.

Upstairs in the gallery, two last pieces provided the final frame for the story that the other pieces began. One was a line of six black and white images of feet drawn by Cliff, called Sacred Ground. Each set of feet represented a different member of his immediate family as they sat in the trial waiting to hear the verdict. Most of the feet were barefoot. During the trial, they’d often removed their shoes to remind themselves that, like Moses at the burning bush, they were on Sacred Ground. God was with them in the courtroom and had been with Candace as she lay dying in the shed. What great faith that simple act of removing their shoes must have required!

The final piece moved me even more than the rest, and makes me determined to go back to the gallery so that I can sit quietly in its presence for a little while longer. It’s a set of 23 crocheted circles in red, black, and cream. Each day that Odia sat in the court room, she crocheted a circle. The colours represent the state of her emotions while she sat and listened to the proceedings – cream for neutral, red for pain, black for rage. Some days were mostly cream, other days were a complex mix of all three, and other days were pure black. One day that intrigued me was almost purely cream, with a tiny shock of black. Not unlike my own mandala practice, she brought the complexity of the experience into a simple circle.

With me at the gallery was my friend Gabby with her two small girls – beautiful, vibrant children who made the viewing of the art even more complex and meaningful. While I processed the sadness, little Sadie was busy pulling treasures out of her bag to show me. One was a large plastic sparkly diamond. Surrounded by stories of death, this little girl reminded me of the joy of life. Our stories are messy and complex and the beauty doesn’t stop even when the sadness overwhelms us.

As I stood at my kitchen sink processing the fullness of what I’d seen, I cried for Wilma and Cliff and Odia and the rest of their family. I cried for the day that Candace would have turned sixteen and their basement wasn’t full of the laughter that would soon ring through mine. I cried for the gift that my three daughters continue to bring to my life. I also cried for the sixteenth birthday I will never be able to host for my son Matthew.

Several years ago, I heard Wilma Derksen interviewed on the radio, and she shared a story about the one year anniversary of Candace’s death. She’d been holding her emotions together, when suddenly she’d noticed fingerprints high up on the wall on the way down the stairs. She knew those could only have been Candace’s fingerprints, left there on the many times she’d bounded down the stairs and jumped up to slap the wall above her on her way down.

As I wiped the fingerprints my own children had left around the house yesterday, I thanked God that there will still be fresh fingerprints to wipe off tomorrow, and the day after that, and… I pray… the day after that. I also thanked God for the fingerprints Matthew left on my heart, though he will never leave any on my walls.

A few weeks ago, I heard Wilma Derksen speak at TEDx Manitoba. She said that one of her greatest learnings during the trial was that you can’t hold two things equally in your heart. Though she tried to hold both love and justice during the trial, she knew that there was not enough space for both. And so, for the sake of her family that remained with her, she chose love.

Yesterday, as I prepared to celebrate my daughter, I too chose love. It’s the same choice my dad made after the rapist harmed me. And the same choice I made eleven years ago after human error resulted in the death of my son.

Again and again, I choose love.

Question mandala: A creative process for getting unstuck

I finished the first draft of my memoir in the Spring. The writing flowed freely and quickly, mostly because it was a story that had been simmering and growing for more than ten years since my son Matthew died and then was born.

Once I had about 60,000 words and it felt like I’d reached the end, I set it aside for a couple of months so that I could return with fresh perspective.

But then… every time I tried to return to it, I felt stuck. “Re-writer’s block” you might call it. I knew it needed work, but I didn’t know where to start. I knew I was losing the thread in parts, but I didn’t have a clear enough sense of what the thread was to fix the places where it was broken. Every time I’d come to the page, I’d do a little tweaking here and there, knowing full well that it needed more of an overhaul than a tweak.

Finally, in mid-October, I felt ready to put some serious work into it.

My return to it started in a roundabout way. First I cleaned my studio. Call it a metaphor… “clearing space, clearing mind”. Once there was space for my creativity to blossom again, suddenly I found myself eager to return to the page.

I got back into it and started doing some deeper editing than I’d done before, re-arranging ideas and playing with threads. But something told me I still wasn’t going deeply enough. The primary thread still looked blurry.

That’s when I knew it was time to step away from words and let colour and play do their magic.

I picked up my coloured markers, made space on the floor for a large piece of posterboard, and got busy. Before long, I had the beginnings of a question mandala on the page. Over the next few days, whenever I could find a few minutes of spare time, I’d disappear into my studio, grab my markers, and add a few new elements to the design. I think it’s complete now.

And guess what? I’m unstuck! I found the thread for my book and I know how to weave it more strongly through the weak places! I’ve already begun to rewrite it, and my new goal is to have the next draft completed by the end of 2011.

In case you’re stuck in some project, here’s a bit more information about my process:

What’s a question mandala?  A mandala is a circular art form that is common in Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. It is considered sacred art and is used as a form of meditation and spiritual discipline and awakening. In Jungian psychology, mandalas are seen as representations of the unconscious self and as a way to work toward wholeness in personality.

To create a mandala, you start at the centre and move out to the edges. Different traditions have different meanings and rituals involved in mandala design. In Tibetan mandalas, for example, there is generally a square in the centre (the palace or temple) with four doors (symbolizing the bringing together of the four boundless thoughts namely – loving kindness, compassion, sympathy, and equanimity), surrounded by three concentric circles (representing the spiritual birth, the awakening and the knowledge).

Some mandalas are very symmetrical and follow “sacred geometry”, while others simply look like free-flowing art in the form of a circle.

For me, mandalas are free-flowing (yet generally fairly symmetrical) and I don’t attach meaning to any particular shape. I simply allow things to evolve as the mandala grows. In recent mandalas, I’ve begun to incorporate questions and words as they come to me, as in my Occupy Love mandala and this most recent mandala (at the top of the page).

How does a mandala “work”? First of all, it’s important to remember that a mandala is not a means to an end. Yes, I used it to help me get unstuck, but I didn’t sit down with a specific problem in mind and expect the mandala to resolve it for me. A mandala, like any form of meditation, is meant to help us step away from our thoughts, logic and problems into a deeper level of the unconscious. Like prayer, it’s a way to clear space for an encounter with the Divine.

How did it help me get unstuck? Words emerge from the left side of the brain, so the writing and re-writing I was doing, though creative, was largely left-brained work. When I get stuck in my left brain processes (logic, analysis, naming, critiquing, defining, judging, fixing), the best solution is to step away from the problem and engage my right brain. That can be done with colour, movement, play, images, and free-flowing creativity – all of which are incorporated into my process. Before long, my left brain is jolted out of the old patterns that got it stuck and begins finding new pathways to unexpected solutions.

How can you make your own question mandala? Your mandala will be as unique as you are. It emerges out of your own brain, so it shouldn’t look like mine. If you’re new to this process, though, and want some guidelines, here are the steps I took for this particular mandala.

1. Start with a large white piece of paper. Something heavier like poster board or watercolour paper works well, especially if you’re using Sharpie markers, as I do. (You could also use paints or pencil crayons. Or if you’re doing this at work – at a board meeting perhaps – use a pen or pencil or whatever you have handy.) I find it best to get down on the floor with the paper and markers and let my body movement around the circle become part of the process.

2. Think about a simple image that is connected with whatever you’re wrestling with, or one that helps you define yourself. In my case, a butterfly is closely connected to the story that emerges in my memoir. For you it might be a candle, a walking stick, a pencil, a book – anything.

3. Draw that image in the centre of the paper. Don’t worry about what it looks like – this process is for you alone and you’ll have to let go of perfection for now. (Note: many mandalas don’t start with an image in the centre, but for this particular process, when I’m wrestling with something specific, it’s where I like to start.)

4. Draw a circle around the image. If you want it to be symmetrical, use a protractor, stencil, or bowl. If you’re not worried about symmetry, simple draw it freestyle.

5. Outside of the circle, begin with whatever shape comes to mind. Don’t over-think this. This is meant to get you out of logic and self-critique, so don’t let yourself get stuck in what will look best. Just draw! If triangles feel right, draw them. If circles feel better, then just go with it. Spirals, boxes, ovals, hexagons, squiggles – whatever. Just choose a shape and repeat it all the way around the edge of the circle.

6. Keep adding new shapes around the edge, always repeating whichever shape you choose around the entire circle.

7. Once you have a fairly substantial circle, begin a spiral of questions. Again, it’s important not to over-think this. Ask whatever pops into your head without sensoring it. (As you can see, I chose to blur out the questions in the image above, because some of them are fairly personal.) Keep writing until no more questions show up.

8. Add a few more rings of shapes outside of the questions.

9. When you feel like it’s almost complete, incorporate a circle of words that represent the themes that began emerging in your mind once you wrote your questions. Again, don’t over-think it. Even if a word seems puzzling or challenging when it shows up, write it down. It might surprise you with some new insight.

10. At the edge, decide intuitively whether you feel it needs closed energy or open energy. If you feel the need to enclose it, draw a complete circle around it and decorate the circle if you wish. If you’d rather have more open energy, finish it with shapes or squiggles or spirals reaching out beyond the page.

In the Tibetan tradition, where monks make elaborate mandalas with coloured sand, they destroy them soon after they’re complete as a meditation on impermanence (a central teaching of Buddhism). The sand is brushed together and placed in a body of running water to spread the blessings of the mandala. Though I haven’t managed to destroy the mandalas I create on paper (I suppose I’m not as evolved as Tibetan monks), I occasionally do body mandalas on my skin (like the one below) that disappear after a few baths.

I love my paper mandalas and find places to hang them on the walls around my studio or in the hallway leading to my studio. They remind me to bring colour and meditation back into my life, and sometimes they surprise me with new insight when I look back over them.

Try it next time you’re stuck. Even if you don’t have a huge epiphany, you might be surprised just how much fun it is to play with markers again.


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