The Prairie Thistle

Gardening Know How calls the bull thistle “…a free-seeding weed with a prickly demeanour and rapid spread”. I think they are beautiful. I can’t escape the metaphor dancing around in my thoughts about thistles, how I see myself and how I desire some of my thoughts on life to affect others.

Here’s a poem I wrote after spending time with the prairie thistles in my area:

In the long grass
Down the steep ditch
With soft knees
Squinted eyes
I see the goldenrod on proud display
Timid aster
Buxom milkweed
Common daisy
But I am the Scotsman’s choice
A hardy nuisance
A pretty pest
Strong and sharp
Handle with care

Why am I sharing the poem about the thistles? Guys, I am deep in a three-parter blog post I am no longer happy with. lol To be honest, there’s a lot of stuff I would like to say that I would be tickled if they stuck with you for awhile.

I also think it is important to give you the opportunity to know this author better. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover and if you stick around, I’d like you to know who is coming at you with these ideas and while I’m waiting for those ideas to form satisfactorily, well, I’ve got to post something.

Here is an excerpt from a book idea. This is not fiction; just my creative reflection on the morning I left for a weekend retreat at St. Benedict’s Monastery. Have a read!

I saw a deer the morning I left for the monastery. It was not the first time I’ve seen deer around our rural home. But it was the first time this year I had seen one and when I glimpsed the shock of white tail bouncing through the tall grass, I watched the dog instead of the tawny animal.

I had just started my morning walk with Brown Dog and he, being trunk-deep into the ditch culvert next to the road, did not even register the deer’s presence. The dog thinks more with his nose than his head and if he had scented the deer, the chase would be on. The deer would likely easily escape, for while Brown Dog is big and muscular, the Creator over-blessed him with snout and ears, holding back on speed and agility in the departments of both legs and mind.

The only sound was the hush of the prairie wind, and the occasional snuffle-snort of the dog in the ditch, as the deer leaped from the tall grass at the banks of the canal, up to the gravel road and across the well-travelled, wood-beam bridge to make its escape. This is the bridge I cross multiple times per day, on-foot to get the mail or by vehicle as I bring the children to and from school. I registered a few thoughts of thankfulness for this bridge and its service, even as I noted again how many beams seem to be weathering badly, large splinters disconcertingly decorate its surface and the road shoulders nearby.

I thought again of what I would do if the bridge was ever out and what I had done in the past once before when it was under repair. It had meant a considerable detour, almost seven minutes one-way around and crossing three other bridges, to get to where our kids’ school is, where our church is, and what we consider to be our hometown.

The town of Landmark, Manitoba is notably located on the longitudinal centre of Canada, in the heart of the wide-open prairie grasslands of Canada, where the land is so flat that being in a regional “low spot” means your elevation declines by mere centimetres over roughly 10 kilometres, resulting in a settlement of houses with basements prone to flooding and a population you will most assuredly agree to allow to have their claim to fame as the “Centre of Canada”; there isn’t much else to lay famous claim to around here at all.

It had always interested me how the land here mirrors the land from where the original European immigrants came. One would do well to learn, for the purposes of getting one’s cultural bearings as to what life is like in this part of Canada, about the Mennonites who came here from Holland by way of Russia in the 1920s or 40s. But topographically, I’ve always loved how we live in a part of Manitoba that has deep ditches, diversions, canals, and bridges – imagining them, with wilful naivety, as quaint throwbacks to the Dutch homeland.

Turning from the gravel road with the bridge and rumination, I took the grassy path, which follows one such canal as it curves picturesquely behind our acreage. Brown Dog cocked his head from the deep ditch, ears like satellite dishes honing in on the sound of footfalls transitioning from crunchy gravel to soft grass. He crossed the road, enthusiastically loping along in front of me for awhile before following his nose off the path and bounding down into the longer grasses where the deer, now long gone and safe, had been just moments before.

Our walk usually extends beside the canal for over a mile. Here, the municipally maintained gravel road acting as the canal’s east bank veers further north and the path I was walking on forms the canal’s west bank, flanked by extensive farmland on one side, the dip of the canal and its east bank on the other. The path is almost as wide as a road in some places and if you walk just long enough, you leave all sense of our property, the few surrounding neighbours, and most of civilization behind.

The prairie land, expansive as it is, is dwarfed by the big blue sky and when you lift your eyes, you can feel the earth spinning beneath your feet. Thousands of kilometres from the nearest ocean and I am swallowed by the waves of my smallness.

Defying insignificance, wildflowers grow here in abundance. Queen Anne’s Lace, Goldenrod, Smooth and White Asters, Canada Anemone, and the crowning jewel of the prairies, the wild Prairie Roses, are all blooming fiercely this time of year, as fiercely as the mostly tiny and uncultivated varietals can when they are not blown near flat by the unrelenting prairie winds.

Wind demands consideration more than I ever imagined before I moved to a country property. On our small acreage, we have trees lining our yard on the west, north, and east sides, leaving us unfortunate when there is a south wind. Unfortunate because, being a northern country, we endure six months of winter and long for the south winds to bring us relief from the cold, but when they come, they are often strong and unyielding. Late winter, just before spring truly breaks, the south winds seek and find each unresolved siding and window frame crack; our house becomes a sponge for cold and so do the people who live here. Summers are the extreme opposite here reaching temperatures of 30-35 degrees Celsius (higher when factoring in the Red River Valley’s humidity) and the oft-welcomed heat is scorned, ruined by a vicious south wind catalyst that burns worse than the sun. When it is windy, I do not walk.

That morning, with Brown Dog, and the deer he didn’t see, and the sky that swallows me, and the courageous wildflowers, there was no wind and the temperature was mild. It would have been a perfect day to stop at my hay bale.

There is no magical way to describe a bale of hay, long forgotten at the edge of a field, slowly losing corporal stability in its usurpation by prairie grass forces. And of course it is not mine. The ownership is not a literal status, but an emotional alliance. The hay bale appeared on one of my first exploratory walks down the canal’s grassy path, exactly when I had been in need of a good sit and has since provided many a good sit at many more such precise moments when one is acutely needed. This cheeky description is apt for a seat that is not exactly comfortable, but has become a good friend nonetheless. Off the path, down among the roses, she waits to receive me. When I sit, I cannot see over the west bank with its path, but when I am here, I am not here for the view. When I sit, I breathe, I listen, I count, I ground my feet, I pray, and I just exist. I lose track of time and the dog.

But not that morning. At my hay bale, I did not sit but turned promptly around to begin the return trip. Brown Dog did not mind. He has been bored of the hay bale ever since he was told he was not allowed to mark it as his own, unlike the rest of the landscape where everything he sees, hears and noses is obviously his. To make a loop back to our property, we do not follow the path back behind our acreage, but instead turn where the grass path splits heading south conceding to road once again. This is the track we followed on the morning I was scheduled to go to the monastery.

St. Benedict’s Retreat Centre is “bright, spacious, fully equipped and flexible enough to host a wide range of programs or meetings,” so sayeth their website, and I had booked a two-night, silent retreat with spiritual guidance. I am not Catholic. I’m not even sure Benedictines are Catholic. I’m sure they are following a Christian tradition. And I am pretty sure I am a Christian. So I figured it would do, the need being not so much for a retreat that provided the perfect fit theologically speaking, but for the opportunity to connect with others like-minded in the desire to love God and love others. The centre and the nuns who run it offer unreserved hospitality in a place set apart, out of the way of the world, setting the atmosphere for quiet retreat in peaceful surroundings and nature walks, and a communal prayer experience, if I so wished.

I so wished. I had been craving something I couldn’t quite describe for a very long time. I’m still not sure I can describe it, but I’ll try throwing some descriptors out here and see if any of it lands. Hollow, rushed and busy, inconsequential, down. The need for steadiness, peace, a different pace, something of substance, something I could set my back to when my worldview shifts daily, sometimes moment to moment. I had been craving—yes, craving, in all the unglamorous physicality of the word that implies salivating, physical groaning, incapacitating pangs of hunger—information about life, love, and how to live. The taste of yearning poured forth in tears, bursts of anger or lament, and incapacitated days of numbing with mindless consumption of food or media.

I knew how I was living was void of life-giving practises. I knew life had thrown me a few curveballs that deserved legitimate expression of anger or sadness. But I also knew I was at a significant plateau in life and with the various roles I play in its production.

I needed the break in routine and the monastery seemed like a destination symbolically dramatic enough to act as commentary on what I thought of my present state of mind and heart. No girls weekend. No retail therapy. No spa. Nope. To the nunnery!

Every step of our morning walk that day carried me closer to the departure I anticipated with both longing and apprehension. I knew I needed this type of retreat, which was billed as a Personal Self-Directed Retreat (independent, not in a group, and silent, no media or talking to other people), but that didn’t stop me from viewing it with both hope and dread, like a bad-tasting medicine. A wonder cure? No, but perhaps the first step of a treatment plan for the cancer in my soul.

We came upon the driveway with two half-toppled stone walls marking the entry point and we were home. In front of our grey bungalow there are two tall and sprawling elm trees, a rope between them. I tied up Brown Dog; he well knows when it is time to rest and so he pronounced his easy acceptance of the change of pace by flopping down immediately in the shade. I smiled and wondered if I would be able to do likewise, self-directing myself to sleep away my free time on this retreat. To rest when it is offered is a useful habit for creatures of the hunt and Christian sojourn.

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