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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.