You Give What You Have

By the end of this week I will have been in Val Marie, at the convent, two months. Originally, I asked for a month. But when the first thirty days rolled around and I informed Mette that I’d been here that long she said: ‘Well, you’re the only one who’s counting”. It’s that kind of place.


view of altar from desk

It’s also the kind of place where, if you get lost looking for an unpublicized buffalo jump and you wave down a truck or a farmer and ask for directions, you’re apt be given a free map. And not just any map, one of those township maps with geographical sites and parcels of farms marked off like squares at a big country wedding buffet- something at which I’ve both attended and worked since arriving).

“You drive here, turn here, go through this gate, end up here”, said the bearded man who left me with his pen and his map spread open on my car hood.

“Wait! You forgot your map…and your pen!” I yelled, a couple of times, above the wind.

he got into his truck, stuck his head out his window and grinned. “Keep it! You need it more than me!” Then he waved and drove off, leaving me with a map, the land, and a lump in my throat.

buffalo jump

A guest from Mexico, nestled into one of the sitting room couches, confided in me one night: ” I like it here, it reminds me of Mexico. People don’t give you what they have extra. They Give you what they have! It’s sure not like that everywhere.”

As for writing: it has never been this easy for me to write eight hours straight. The silence in this room expands beyond the borders of the building; it’s not as though I am in a tiny enclave of quiet with the busyness of Toronto or Chicago swirling around outside of me, pressing to get in. The silence extends and expands inward and outward.


So, this has indeed become a place to begin practising in earnest the disciplines of the desert mothers and fathers, the monks of Gethsemane, the sisters of Assumption: the disciplines of Silence, Solitude, Stillness, Fasting (I’m on again off again on that count. On a day at the Harvest Moon Café, where I’ve been asked to work the occasional shift due to a sudden loss of staff, I tend to accept the generous meal that comes with it), Prayer, and Slowness.

Although I’ve tried to lay low, I can’t resist invitations to meals, hikes, jam sessions. Sundays I run across the highway (highway 4 is a narrow paved road, as opposed to the wide gravel thoroughfare that is Centre Street) in time for mass and after we try to have a coffee, even a potluck, to bring back fellowship and community. Theresa leads the hymns. Caspar rings the bell. Tony mows the lawns and keeps the sparrows from nesting under the church doors and pooping on parishioners.

20140628_183304 Therese & Caspar

Wing night is every second Wednesday at the Val Marie Hotel, a kind of saloon, where there’s a ‘no cameras aloud’ policy ever since the ladies curling team from Montana came up and apparently behaved lasciviously after a bonspiel here. People come from all over for Aline’s four kinds of wings. I’m partial to the salt&pepper ones. It’s a good night to catch up on stories, both old and recent, and drink cheap beer. When I first arrived Theresa and Caspar took me to wing night to help me meet folks who may have known my mother. They are not rich folks, so the gesture was incredibly generous and sweet and typical. People give what they have around here, not just what they give extra.



I’ve made it to the convent, to Val Marie, where I believe I was headed all along.


In 1995 I passed this way, narrowly escaping the allure of my mother’s childhood village. But I was not ready for it then. I would have not appreciated the silence…and all that comes with it. I would have been too fidgety, agitated, too haunted by my own ambitions and desires and the ghosts with whom I had yet to contend.

I was on my way to Quebec City. To new relationships, one with a man, another with Art, another with French, and yet another with Spirit. Despite all warnings from well-meaning west coast friends about the slim chance of making a living in Quebec, I would get the best paying job of my life, (which says something), as a writer-broadcaster for CBC radio.

But, that June, just barely across the Alberta border, into Saskatchewan, Rosie, my car, started lurching. The nearest town was Gull Lake and I just barely rolled her into the nearest garage.

“If it’s the pump, well, you won’t get you very far, ” explained the mechanic, a tall thin older fellow. “But, if it’s just the filter, this should get you to Montreal.”

“How did you know I was headed to Quebec?”

He just nodded silently, toward my car my car, and the big red box on top, covered in paintings of smiling, cheeky suns and alligators and a moose, then shrugged.

By Herbert, Saskatchewan Rosie was struggling. She could only yank me as far as the Lone Eagle Garage. Where, I was told, I could find Desi, the mechanic over at the Lone Eagle Restaurant. He informed me that he’d have to order the fuel pump from Swift Current and they’d deliver it the next day. Meanwhile, I could get a room at the Lone Eagle Motel.


That night I sat down on my Lone Eagle bed and pulled out a map. Gull Lake and Herbert were along the TransCanada Highway. To get on number 4 Highway you take a left at Swift Current. And the number 4, headed directly south, would have taken me to Val Marie, where my mother lived with her homesteading parents and seven other siblings on a farm six miles from the convent-school house, where I sit now, in the chapel, writing this story.

I picked up the phone to tell my mom where I was and my adventures with Rosie. Gull Lake was Uncle George’s parish, it’s where they held the funeral, she whispered. Just then a train rushed by just outside my room and I had to get up to close the door.

“What happened, mom?” But, she never knew. Or so she said. Uncle George was my mother’s brother and the only boy in Val Marie to grow up to be a priest. To me, he had an air of resigned despair, a pair of eyes that seemed to plead: get me out of here. He was a natural musician, like my mother. They sang duets, or she would sing and he would play the clarinet. The nuns taught them music, here, just down the hall, in the Sitting Room.

Georges ended up becoming the parish priest for all the tiny villages around here, until he died. He never left the farm. one talks about his violent end.
So, I took the left turn at Swift Current, on Friday, June 7, 2014.


Last October I was getting close. But in Medicine Hat, on Thanksgiving Day, I got a call that my dad, who I just left a couple of days earlier, with meals in the fridge and fresh laundry, was in intensive care with blood poisoning. The night before I left I had taken him to emergency with a fever and severe internal pain. This was the third time in two months. Every time he was diagnosed with acid reflux. Turned out it was his gall bladder. I rushed back to B. C. My precious month of writing on the prairie in the Convent Inn, once the country school to which my mother walked six miles every day, would have to wait.

Over the last nine months my father and I decided it was time he moved into a retirement home, give up the big house and property, and maybe I should consider getting back into the world again. Maybe I’d been hiding from life a little too long, nursing my wounded pride and broken heart like they were both long term care patients (which I suppose they are).

So we set about the emotional task of selling the family home of 43 years. When it finally sold, after I mopped the kitchen floor for the last time and washed the last cup and spoon, I called the Convent keepers and asked if it were possible to try again.

Could I come and write this book for which I’ve been gathering notes ever since that prescient trip with the gator and the moose and the sunlight shedding rays all the way to Quebec City and beyond, into fifteen years in the future, when my beau innocently placed a history book in my hands which would commit me forever to a path my ancestors began 400 years ago? And their mystic sisters before them?cropped-20140617_231330.jpg

I learned that day, in that book, that the first nun born in Canada was my ancestor, on my mother’s side, Marie Morin. And the last nun in the family was Aunt Cecile, who died last year. My generation was the first to not have a girl go into the holy orders. And yet, it began me wondering, to what groups, gangs, committees, communities, fellowships do we belong? What habits, orders and vows do we follow, break, maintain, inhabit?

With which words do I still wrestle, late into the night, across the table, on my knees, behind the wheel, in front the stove, spoon in hand? Which do I chose to redeem, when, warns Marcus Borg, even ‘redemption’ suffers at the hands of literalists? Which deserve reckoning not willing to throw out the baby Jesus with the holy water? Which words are the ‘scary’ ones, as Kathleen Norris calls them, and which have been given a ‘bad name’?

Here in Val Marie, I’ve decided to look at the idea of cultural heritage in terms of spiritual heritage, religious bequests. To glean from years of lectio divina, and visual divina, aural divina, divine touch, as well. To really contemplate all holy longing, human yearning, enduring cravings, brief respites. In this most silent of all places in North America- ranked so by visiting acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton- I can begin attempting in earnest the discipline of Silence.


On the edge of The Grasslands, in Val Marie, named by it’s first priest, putting it under the protection of the Virgin Mary, always under Father Sky, The Keepers said: Come. And I came. And I am here. In the Convent. Where I was headed. All along.