Sunday, November 17, 2013

Creative revelation

It always surprising to me how quickly the transition from long days to long nights happens.  It's a crisp Sunday morning, almost 8 am, and the sun is still struggling to make its presence known.  I'm grateful that winter held off as long as it did, arriving much later than the previous year, giving the construction workers a few bonus weeks to make additional progress on our all-important bridges which are finally nearing completion.

We don't have much snow yet, unlike our neighbours to the south who have been pummelled by a number of storms and the requisite havoc they caused on the highways.  Our ground is snow covered, but that's about it.

On Monday, it will have been four weeks since the election.  I want to thank all of you for reaching out in the aftermath of that unexpected result.  Your words of encouragement, your care and concern, were very appreciated, treasured really.  It took a couple of days to work through the emotions, but I quickly recovered and reframed what happened as being a gift.  I know that might sound a little disingenuous, but I really see it that way.  I was given a three year education in municipal governance working with a great team, both on council and at the municipality, and now I get to leverage that learning in a multitude of ways, free of the conflict of actually being a councillor.  I'm excited about the present and the future, full of opportunities and options.

Having time on my hands, I picked up the brush again, after a hiatus of almost two years.  I spent wonderful hours with Malcolm Gladwell, Lou Reed and Ian McKellen.

I went exploring the complexity of a child's grief in the aftermath of the typhoon in the Philippines.

Painting again felt like the right thing to do, both as a way to recover my strength and focus my resolve.  It still feels right, as I have a blank slate ahead of me on this Sunday. I feel another painting coming on.  I also know a rather important football game is looming this afternoon, which provides a great excuse to sit at the dining room table and create.

In the process of returning to my painting, I rediscovered something about myself: that I do my best work after a time of personal trauma or loss.  It's a pattern that has repeated itself numerous times in my life, including in the months after Dad's surgery in 2011 when I did a series of watercolour portraits.  It was only during this recent creative explosion that I made the connection between that output, my father's cancer diagnosis, and the emotional impact it had on me.

We tried something fun at the dinner table the other night.  Heather, Ben and I took a photograph from the 1800's and drew it.  The rule was simple: we could use whatever we wanted - pen, pencil, marker, etc. - but we could only draw for five minutes.  It was so interesting how differently each of us approached the same image.

I took the same exercise and attempted to get the creative souls in my Facebook community to try it.  This was all in preparation for an event called "Let's Get Sketchy!" that we're doing at the end of the month, an event where artists of all skill levels sketch actor models dressed in period garb.  I was in the process of designing a poster and needed some inspiration.  It was then that a Troll stepped in and hijacked the conversation (Troll - someone who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, mean-spirited, or off-topic messages in an online community, either accidentally or with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion).

With much credit to my nephew Isaac, and others, this troll who shall not be named was put in his place every which way from Sunday.  Isaac also took up the 5-minute challenge and delivered a brilliant drawing.

On the professional side of things, I'm working toward getting Arts Council Wood Buffalo moving forward.  I'm encouraged by the level of interest we've had from amazing people who want to serve on the board and the energy around the arts in general.  There is no question that 2014 is still going to be a building year, but I'm confident we'll be building in the right direction, with strong governance in place and a collective vision.  I'll have decisions to make in the coming months, as my secondment comes to an end in May. Do I apply for the permanent executive director position?  Do I pursue other opportunities?  Right now, I'm trusting that the wind will blow me in the right direction.

Meanwhile, I'm going to be doing more facilitation work, delivering a series of workshops for the social profit sector, and potentially building a suite of sessions that I can market to other organizations.  Someone suggested that I should consider motivational speaking as an option.  That idea resonates with me, so it will be added to a growing list of itches I intend to scratch in the coming days and months.

Heather is in the middle of delivering a Reiki, Level One course with six participants, passing along her knowledge and passion to an appreciative and growing learning community.  She is teaching yoga in a number of different facilities now, including newly opened Oranj Fitness, a business that we've made a small investment in.

Dylan has successfully transitioned to Composite High School and continues to connect with like-minded people in the filmmaking and gaming community.  He recently participated in the Extra Life Challenge, playing video games for 25 hours with a couple of friends to raise money for the Stollery Children's Hospital in Edmonton, a facility that has factored greatly in his life.  He gets particularly excited about the monthly workshops offered by the filmmaking association, anticipating their arrival weeks in advance.

He also continues working on his singing voice.  He has been listening to a Frank Sinatra Greatest Hits collection over and over again, learning the words, and picking up the fascinating style of Ole Blue Eyes.

When Ben is not running around the yard singing the songs from Les Mis at the top of his lungs, he's inside building these incredible paper gun creations.  He goes through an enormous amount of scotch tape.

"Do you build those guns from a YouTube video?" I asked.

"Well, three years ago when I built my first one I did," he said.  "Now, I create them on my own."

While Dylan, Ben and I are anticipating the beginning of rehearsals in December, Heather is not quite so excited.  She's anticipating a very different household for a couple of months as we dash off on most evenings and weekends to work on the show.  We appreciate that she is giving us this indulgence, as being a part of the Les Miserables experience is going to be extraordinary.  For Dylan and Ben, it will be their first chance to go through a production process from top to bottom.  Trying to quantify the value to them and the other younger members of the cast is impossible.

Over the past two weeks I've been reminded of the preciousness of life, as a long-time colleague and friend struggled to hold on to hers.  Christina's body finally acquiesced last Wednesday night and she went on to a better place, free from the pain she had been enduring for far too long.

As we laid her to rest in a beautiful cemetery just outside of Plamondon, about two and a half hours south of here, the sky opened up and the warming sun emerged.  From a small portable audio unit, the sound of Vince Gill singing "Go rest high on that mountain" pierced the silence, with thousands of Canada geese resting in the adjacent field, as if waiting to carry her spirit away into the heavens.  It was a beautiful moment.  She was 38.

On a closing note, thank you for taking the time to read these Wood Buffalo Updates.  It is our attempt to stay connected over the miles and through the passing months and years.  Have a remarkable day!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

One Week to E-Day

I would guess that each of us that is married, with a partner, or in love with someone, has a song that reaches into the depths of our hearts and pulls out the range of sweeping and powerful emotions that reside there, connected to that special someone.  I recently shared with Heather that her song (for me), the one that I would sing and play for her if I had those skills, is "Tomorrow in Her Eyes" by Ron Sexsmith.

It was the song that sustained me when she not well and the doctors struggled to find a way to reduce her discomfort and pain back a couple of years ago.  It is the song that sustains me today, when we are away from each other.

I see tomorrow in her eyes
And where my future lies
So I don't need a crystal ball
At all because I've seen tomorrow In her eyes

Whenever life tears us away
I'll hold on to the words we say
And if I have to wait awhile
Then I'll be dreaming of tomorrow
And her smile

We went to see Ron Sexsmith at Keyano Theatre last night, on the eve of our 11th wedding anniversary.  I had sent him a message on Twitter about an hour before the show: Welcome to Fort McMurray! See you soon. "Tomorrow in Her Eyes" for Heather if you feel inspired. Our anniversary tomorrow.

He responded almost immediately with I'll certainly try - RS.  He puts his initials at the end of any tweet that he writes, as opposed to the ones crafted by his communications people.

Ron was in fine form last night, singing a mix of songs from his long career that stretches back to the mid 1980s. Near the middle of the show, he had all his band members leave the stage and he sat down at the piano for the first time.

"Shortly before the show," he said, "I had a special request.  This song is for Heather.  It is a beautiful love song."

I got all choked up, Heather's head snuggled into my shoulder, listening to her song.  It was a magical moment and a great way to acknowledge and celebrate the gift of having Heather in our lives, in my life. Happy anniversary Honey!


I was flying back from Calgary last weekend, having attended a two-day conference with non-profit leaders from across Canada, feeling the incredible fatigue and weight associated with an election campaign that has been littered with emotional ups and downs.  It started off with fireworks on day one as a former Minister, MLA, Mayor and Councillor decided to run for a seat in our ward with the reasoning being that he was hearing that "the inmates are running the asylum".  I took offence to the comment and wrote a rebuttal piece on my blog which I then forwarded on to the media.  For the next week I was in the eye of the proverbial storm being pitted against this unusual suspect who came out of the woodwork to the shock of most of us.

As I sat on the plane reflecting on the past three weeks, and the assorted non-election things that have also been happening, I said to myself that I needed to draw how I felt.  The pen started in the middle and went from quadrant to quadrant, almost by magic, contrasting the negative and cold vibrations that have seemed so predominant, with the soft and warming curves of the foundations of my life, centred and rooted by family.  I felt so much better by the time the pilot announced that we were "making our final descent into Fort McMurray."

"Excuse me, but is that a mind map you were drawing," said the passenger who was seated behind me on the Sunjet, Suncor's corporate bird that was taking us all home.

"Uhh, yes," I said tentatively, not realizing that someone had been watching.

"I've never seen one being drawn in real life," he said.  "That is quite a skill, one that I wish I had."

I gave him a closer look at the finished product, thanked him, got off the plane, collected my bags, and happily headed home.  It was good to be back.


While I had been away, Dylan had gone with his mom to see Boeing Boeing at Keyano Theatre, a raucous comedy that Heather and I had enjoyed the weekend before.  An innocent question about what he thought of the show triggered a flood of feelings that he had been holding back for quite some time.  A trickle became a torrent and he purged for several hours about how unhappy he has been at his new school, feeling isolated and alone, unable to connect.

God bless him for being able to open up and begin to process what he was going through.  Being a true extrovert, he needed to vocalize and share in order to find a way out of the funk he was in.  Conversations with us, with his Fort McKay family, a school counsellor, and friends confirmed and reinforced his eventual decision to transfer from Holy Trinity to Composite High School, adjacent to Keyano College.   He signed in and started yesterday morning.  The effect was immediate.

Apparently, as he walked down the halls, heads were turning left, right and centre.  "What the?" was followed by "Was that Dylan?"

He was back on familiar territory, with his tribe, his gang from Dr. Clark School who had made the leap to Composite back in September.

He owned the decision to go to Trinity, and he owned the decision to transfer.  We are grateful to everyone who supported him through this transition and thankful for the courage he showed in facing his feelings and making the tough decision of how best to move forward.


As the clock winds down on the election campaign - the votes will be counted next Monday, October 21st - Dylan, Ben and I are anxiously awaiting the start of rehearsals for Les Misérables.  We were all delighted to find out that we had been cast in the show that will be opening in February 2014.

Ben will be a member of the youth gang.  Dylan will be one of the thugs in Monsieur Thenardier's gang.  I get to play the lascivious, lecherous and loutish "Master of the House".  We are all thrilled, especially because Claude will be returning to direct.


We hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend, that you are able to pause and reflect on the gifts we have been given in this life, and the people who make is so special.  Lots of love from all of us to all of you.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Summer's Gone

The sun slices through the early morning mist at this time of year, straight up the valley from the east, right into my study.  On the last day of summer holidays - Ben and Dylan will both be in school tomorrow - it is going to be a perfect day, sunny at 28-degrees.  Everything is still green and lush, though the growth of the grass has slowed considerably, and the leaves are ready to make their colourful transition to the painted forest.

We've had a great summer: July spent here at home, a week traveling to Kamsack and Calgary, a week of interPLAY, and two weeks in Ontario.  In our travels we connected with 43 family members.  I counted, on our flight home last week, as I couldn't sleep and I needed something to do. I also listed the name of every single person that I could remember from Mindcamp, Canada's creativity conference, five days that closed out our Ontario excursions.  Remarkably, that number ended up around 75.

Meeting people and spending time with family are awesome, but the measure for me of a great holiday is experiencing the sensation that time is standing still and mentally disconnecting with the world back home.  As I look back, one week felt like two and two felt like four, so time did indeed slow down.  And while I had to deal with one or two things that came up back at home, I felt mentally present throughout our travels.  It was a great vacation.

I thought I'd do something different with this edition of the Wood Buffalo Update.  Rather than writing from memory, I'm going to use photographs as memory triggers and sharing whatever stories they inspire.  How does that sound?


We drove 1,300 kilometres on that first leg of our holiday, driving the northern route from Fort McMurray to Kamsack.  As we were getting close, a beautiful sunset was developing and I insisted we stop a couple of times so I could snap a few pictures.

Justifiably, Heather was getting tired of pulling over for me, so rather than asking a third time, I opened up the sunroof, carefully positioned my iPhone in the jet stream, holding tightly, and snapped a picture of the sky as the sun made its final descent.

I think it was worth it, don't you?  You can see the reflection on the roof of the car in the foreground.  Stunning!


I leaf my way through the stack of local newspapers when I get home to Kamsack.  I have done it religiously going back to the mid-1980s when I returned for the first time from university in Saskatoon.

Mom and Dad are great about resisting the urge to toss the growing pile of yellowed newsprint in the garbage until both Doug and I have had a chance to go through them.

There were two items, apart from the one celebrating Dad's volunteer efforts in the community, that really jumped out to me.  One was the obituary for John Friday, a fellow who was quite a bully when we were little.  Playing football on the site that is now the RCMP detachment, likely in 1979 or 1980, he bullied us for the last time as I finally pushed back, and punched a few times.  Seeing that he is gone reminds me that he was somebody's son, brother, father and grandfather.  He was only 45.

The other was the obituary for Lawrence.  He was always around, from the time I was knee-high to a grasshopper, the local Mr. Fix-It who had every tool under the sun and the skill to fix or build pretty much anything.  A lifelong bachelor, Lawrence was always friendly, eternally helpful and a fixture in the community.  It seems surreal that he is gone, though he lived a good long life passing away at 84.


It was so nice to see everyone, smiling, talking, reconnecting.  It was great to see Dad doing incredibly well.  Here are a few pictures that are worth sharing that capture brilliantly the spirit of the three days we spent in Kamsack.

Uncle Lloyd, Shelley and Aunty Lydia
Heather with Anwyn; Dylan and Henry; Ben, Anwyn and Kade; Sophia and Maggie, Dylan and Maggie

Malisa, Greg and Jana; Kade, Dylan and Doug; Kim and Keith; Doug, Mom, Kade and Dad


We have established a summer tradition with the Wagner side of the family that we convene in a new location each year.  As Michael and Kathryn had recently made a big move to Calgary and in respect of the latter being great with child, we decided to use their home as a base of operation for a number of outings in the area.  High flying fun at Calaway Park, fishing on the Bow, playing games and exploring the Glenbow Museum were some of the highlights of our few days in Cowtown.

Julia loved the day at Calaway Park. I enjoyed the fishing in the trout pond.

Games are often in progress, especially between Dylan and Grandma Wager as they often engage in long checkers battles

I can't say enough our our Bow River fly fishing adventure

Ben, Michael, Julia, Susan, Dylan, Neil and Heather outside the Glenbow in downtown Calgary

We got to see the Escher exhibit at the Glenbow, absolutely a highlight

We always enjoy our time during the Wagner reunion, wherever we happen to be, but this year especially so.  Michael and Kathryn's new home is so comfortable and roomy.  I was also delighted to have caught my first fish using a fly rod.  

A Little Piece of Paradise

After traveling across the country, renting a car and braving the 401, there was no better place we could have been than Marcel and Kathy's "farm" near Guelph.  I call it a "farm", though there is only one animal - a lovely dog named Boda - a garden and several fruit trees.  The only other way to describe this place is "a little piece of paradise", which Heather beautifully wrote about in a recent blog post that you can read here.

From the wonderful art on the walls to the conversation-rich gatherings around the long dining table, from the mysterious forest to the refreshing swimming hole, the "farm" is a place of tranquility, connectivity, and abundance.

We were grateful to have spent several days there before heading into Guelph to enjoy Pierre and Robbie's hospitality.  Their new home is gorgeous, with a striking view out the back and lots of room for company.  We had a great gang of us on one night, including Uncle Joe and Aunt Betty.

After telling everyone about my visit to Maryann and JP's dairy farm last fall, the gang was eager to visit for themselves.  We took a drive one afternoon and enjoyed an awesome tour of this beautiful facility and parlour-side seats for the 5 pm milking.  It was awesome.

I took a lot of pictures during the wonderful Guelph portion of our trip.  Here are a few of our favourites.

Heather with baby Juliana and her Aunty Emilie

The boys playing around in Fergus

The beautiful ladies: Heather and Kathy

Cool dudes: Pierre and Dylan

The musician: Erica

We enjoyed several great visits with Uncle Joe and Aunt Betty

Robbie and Pierre are always so full of life

Maryann and Joseph Patrick gave us an awesome tour of their dairy farm

We departed from Guelph, choosing to take the road less traveled, or, at least the one we thought would be so.  Highway 2 runs parallel to the much faster and busier 401, cutting through towns and cities with names like Whitby, Oshawa, Bowmanville, Port Hope and Cobourg.  And no sooner had one place ended another began, towns sitting kiss to kiss, with nary a field between them.  

Chris and Corinne moved to Trenton shortly after the last time we were in Ontario as a family.  And while we don't see them often enough, we sure enjoy our time with them when we do.

They asked what kinds of things we wanted to do when we were there.  We were very explicit that we were quite happy just hanging out and discovering their little community and area.  So, that's exactly what we did.  On one day, we went for a mini-wine tour, through Prince Edward County, tasting some of the local vintages and shopping in some of the out-of-the-way galleries and stores.  

On another day, we discovered the beauty of Lake Ontario, spending time on the beach at Presqu'ile Provincial Park.  I'm still struck by how beautiful it was and how few people were there.  Who needs to go to Mexico when you have a beach like that in your backyard.

Sometimes, everything you need to have an unforgettable time is within your reach.  One evening, Corinne started bringing out her collection of musical instruments: trumpet, saxophone, recorders, cantor (for the pipes), guitar, and pan flute.  We all got into the act, with Ben loving every minute of being surrounded by musical things.

Jonathan, Matthew and Thomas have all grown up since we last saw them.  Matthew is so tall he can touch the sky.  

Jonathan and Dylan ended up finding lots to talk about, as did the two sets of parents - no stone was left unturned by the time we packed up and darted off to our final stop at Mindcamp.  But that's a whole other story that would cause this edition of the Wood Buffalo Update to go on forever.  

As you can see, it was a full summer of travel and fun.  We've logged a lot of miles, but it was worth it to see people that we dearly love, people we don't see often enough.  I hope you've enjoyed looking at the pictures and getting a wee sense of our holiday adventures.