teachings from trees

Whenever I need to clear my head, especially in winter, I head for the woods where I know I’ll receive teachings from trees. The hardwood and coniferous community within easy walking distance I frequent, even for no reason, welcomes and energizes me. Peace, tranquility, and a softness descend with the snow. I lay my tobacco with gratitude at the foot of the birch and hemlock trees that guard the entrance, cross the bridge over the stream, and I’m in another world.

The tranquility calms me. The onset of change, relative stillness and solitude I welcomed in the fall, persists. It’s not what I’m used to, however. I’ve always been active and bringing things into being throughout the year. I love this quiet time, but shouldn’t I be doing more?

I explain my dilemma to the trees as I make my way along the path. Rounding a corner, the beauty overwhelms me and I stop to embrace the serenity of the sleeping woods. Silence pervades every space. The air is crisp and clear, cold against my cheeks. I wish I could stay all day. I raise my arms and open my heart to the heavens with a resounding thank you!

The answer dawns on me. This human being is a part of nature just like the trees and animals around me. We’re governed by the same laws of nature, the same cycles of seasons. Longer periods of darkness and cooler temperatures in the fall signal the onset of winter and trigger trees to go dormant. It’s a survival mechanism to conserve energy so they’re ready for growth in spring.

Growing up on the farm, winter was a time for Dad to do equipment maintenance, tree pruning, although that tended to wait until closer to spring, and hanging out with other farmers. It was ludicrous to try and force trees to bear fruit in winter.

Here in the woods it’s the same. Trees need to rest. The Earth needs to rest to provide the bounty we need to survive. We need rest too. But teachings from trees go deeper than that. I need to listen to my inner voice that always guides me true, including times of stillness, energy conservation, and growth. Like the trees towering around me, that’s how I live to my greatest potential, whatever that is!

Lifetime of stories

Mom’s taken to examining her hands lately. Advanced dementia refracts her perception and she can’t grasp that those almost-ninety-four-year-old palms and fingers belong to her. Yet those hands hold a lifetime of stories. With her cognitive filter eroded I wonder if, on some level, she sees more clearly, even if she can’t express it.

Those hands have never been idle. She and her younger siblings toiled on farms to contribute to the family coffers as soon as they were able. She worked her way through a demanding nursing education, including a post-graduate degree. Once married, she and Dad cultivated their dreams on a bedraggled fruit farm, nurturing it to maturity and viability. She returned to part-time nursing to do the work of her heart—and pay the bills. At the same time, she filled an essential role on the farm and raised six active children, all of whom participated in extra-curricular activities. Later, she joined in medical missions delivering eye care in Latin and South America.

Sitting together quietly, I watch her quizzical gaze move to her hands as they catch her attention. I contemplate the wrinkles as a roadmap and ask if she realizes how many people have benefitted from their touch? How many peaches have those hands packed? What about those Saturday morning marathon baking sessions? How many Zwieback (Mennonite buns) have those hands pummelled and formed? How many weeds did they pull from her beloved flower gardens? What have those hands done—or not done—that she regrets?

She was never given to deep introspection, at least not conveying it, and shrugs my question off, much like she would have were she fully lucid. Even though her response is incomprehensible, I like to imagine she takes some of it in and considers how much of a difference those hands have made in making a better world. Maybe it’s more that I want her to know it.

And then I open my palms and imagine my life’s roadmap. How have my hands contributed? Are they doing what they’re meant to do? Are they making the world a better place for current and future beings?

Hands deliver the work of our head and heart. They help us maintain balance by giving and receiving. We can never know how far their touch has reached but we can know with certainty that if we follow our inner guidance, our hands, decorated with scars, blemishes, and wrinkles, tell a lifetime of stories.

glider swing

The whole idea behind carving out time and space for stillness and solitude is to realign internal values with external actions. Cutting back on distractions, evaluating how I spend my time and energy and who I spend it with, and challenging the notion of what’s “productive,” clears the way to hear the voice of my heart.

After taking the backward step and getting clear direction, you’d think next steps would be easy. However, as soon as our ego, our small self, gets wind of a change, it ratchets up the mental chatter. I picture myself as a six- or seven-year-old and call her Lizzie.

The call I heard in Writing-On-Stone Park was simple: listen to the stories of the land and share. But what does that mean?

Travel back to Alberta and prolonged contemplative time in 2020 certainly wasn’t part of my plans.

My small self responds frantically, knowing all the right buttons to push. “You can’t stop now. You’re just getting going with your book promotion. You’ve put so much into it, how can you drop it now? You’ll lose momentum and readers. How will you make ends meet? You’ll look like a failure. Like you’re not worthy. Or that you gave up. Or that your story wasn’t interesting or meaningful. Where exactly will you go? How will you pay for it? What will you do?” The questions are relentless and arise from outdated, limiting stories.

I trust the voice of my heart.

The farm my parents bought when I was two, came with a pale green wooden glider swing. It sat outside the dining room window on the lawn inside a lush green triangle formed by two gnarly sweet cherry trees and a towering walnut. I loved spending time there, especially when the cherry trees were profuse with delicate white blossoms and the fragrant lily-of-the-valley carpeted the ground under the walnut.

The swing is long gone, until I close my eyes and envision how it was. It’s where I go now when I need to settle Lizzie down. We go out to the glider and sit on the side with our backs to one cherry tree, facing the walnut and the orchards beyond. I put my arm around her, reassure her that all is well, and we swing.

As we do, the quiet returns and with it, in time, the next steps. Often, they’re answers I would never have considered and they’re far richer and more effective—and fun— than I could have imagined.

It doesn’t take many back-and-forths on the glider swing before peace, calm, and balance return. As surely as those cherry blossoms will produce an abundance of fruit without my interference, so too will my work produce results, even through ways I don’t understand.

We all have a glider swing. Where’s yours? Tell us in the comments.

Photo credit: Cléa, Flickr

backward step
Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park, Alberta

When someone calls our name, we turn in their direction. We look back, not ahead to see who’s calling and what they want. The same thing applies to an inner calling, that yearning that doesn’t go away. Looking ahead for something doesn’t work. Understanding where it’s coming from requires us to look within, towards the source.

Zen Buddhism refers to this as taking the backward step — exploring and understanding that longing that wants us to act or move in a certain direction. Doing so requires regular practice, stillness and quiet, accessible only when we dial down the mental chatter and external stimuli.

Last year I decided it would be interesting to follow my Ancestral Trail back 500 years in 2020, ship my motorcycle to Europe and visit the lands of my ancestors in Russia/(now Ukraine), Poland/Prussia, Germany. Perhaps my experiences would be the fodder for my next book.

In September 2019, while on a three-month moto-book tour, a stop at Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park in south eastern Alberta changed that. I was already questioning whether that big trip (to Russia) was the best use of my time and energy. Sure, it would be fun, exciting, and heart-quenching, but something undefinable niggled in the background.

My answer came while walking through the hoodoos. Clearly, the land spoke, telling me overseas travel in 2020 wasn’t the best way for me to serve. She had stories I needed to hear and share. It was time to be more contemplative rather than taking a moto-adventure in Europe. Although there was plenty more I could learn about my ancestors, I’d learned what I needed (for now).

When I set out on my original quest in 2014, I had several questions:

  • Who was I before my culture told me who I was, and how did the experiences of my ancestors live in me?
  • How did the experiences from the lands my ancestors and I walked, shape me?

During that stroll through the hoodoos, I realized I’d completed part one but the second part remained outstanding.

So, this summer I will again load up Trudy (my motorcycle) and head west, to southern Alberta. It’s where I crashed my motorcycle (not Trudy). Both sets of grandparents crashed there too as they struggled to start a new life in Canada. It’s where eleven-year-old Dad left his heart when they moved east. (Read Crash Landing.)

It’s the land that calls me to return, take the backward step, and listen.

I have a concept of what that may look like, but realistically have no idea where my path will lead. “I Trust,” said Dad as he lay dying, the best parting words he could endow me with. It comes to mind daily and will guide me into unknown territory. The greatest challenges are listening, then acting on my guidance.

The voice of my heart has never steered me wrong. Undertaking this calling, the backward step into an adventure of the body, mind, and soul, will be no exception.

From the oasis

Winter solstice occurs this weekend in the northern hemisphere, marking the end of the descent into night. Winter officially begins and the light starts to gently elongate the day as darkness wanes. It’s nature’s time for deep rest and renewal. Wanting to stay somewhat connected, it feels like time for a dispatch from the snowy oasis.

Profound and sometimes painful lessons have taught me to heed the voice telling me it was time for a break after the Long Road Home tour. I’ve learned to put to rest those old stories telling me I couldn’t take time off. Ironically, this necessary period is not time off.

Just as I knew I was guided throughout the planning, preparation, and realization of an incredible journey, I’m equally certain that for an undefined time, it’s time for (relative) solitude, quiet, and stillness. It’s like arriving at an oasis after a long, exciting, albeit arduous trek. I’ll stay until it’s time to go.

Stillness doesn’t mean absence of action. We need look no further than nature for powerful, yet humble teachers, like the tiny hummingbird. They hover while gathering the sweetest nectar, appearing motionless as their wings flap from twelve to more than eighty times a second. While at the “oasis”, they need to recharge and build stamina for the next long journey. Running out of energy half way across the Gulf of Mexico while migrating is not an option.

Neither is running out of courage to continue their journey. They can’t look down and suddenly develop a fear of heights. Or gravel.

Admittedly, unplugging to a large degree means I’ve missed the usual contact with friends, especially with those from far away. I haven’t missed the distractions of social platforms and even keep radio time to a minimum. It’s amazing how much you can hear and see when you turn down the background noise and incessant sensory bombardment. Gradually, everything becomes clearer.

Recharging has meant focusing time and energy where it’s most needed. Decluttering, with gratitude, has opened nourishing space. Aside from having things in my closet and shelves that I don’t use, there are people in my community that are cold or homeless and could use a warm sweater or cozy flannelette sheets.

Furniture with unpleasant memories and heavy energy that I’ve carried for four decades has been sold or donated. One or two pieces may get replaced but it’s amazing to feel how much better I can breathe.

I’m grateful for the woods where I walk most days. Trees are good listeners. Nature reminds me to walk gently on the earth, use only what I need, and share my gifts.

Even Trudy’s in on the restorative action with major routine maintenance, a new chain, sprockets, and rear tire. We both need to be ready for whatever awaits when it’s time.

I’m looking forward to a few engagements, beginning with the Motorcycle Supershow in Toronto in January. For now, I’m settled in, taking my cues from nature’s consistent cycles, her teachers, and the voice of my heart.

However you celebrate the return of the Light, I wish you an abundance of joy, peace, and good health!

Photo credit: TAWPhotoArtistry on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

taking a break

For the past four nights I’ve slept in my own bed, yet keep waking up wondering where I am. It’s odd this happens now, but never during the past eleven weeks of camping, staying with friends, and some motelling! In any case, I’m thrilled, excited, and grateful to be back safely after an extraordinary journey.

The impetus for the trip was a cross-country moto-book tour to promote Crash Landing. But to say it was merely a book tour barely scratches the surface of the rich experiences I had from start to finish. The long-distance travel was nothing new. Organizing and orchestrating the book tour portion pushed me out of my comfort zone beginning with the planning. Nonetheless, I knew with certainty this was a calling and I’d be guided throughout the twists and turns of the journey.

The inherent value of a trip like this is not in the distances covered, books sold, or events scheduled. It’s in learning to trust that voice that guides me on, even when I don’t know where I’m headed. As I prepared, I set my intentions and then did my part to realize them. Along the way, I practiced letting go of expectations, attachment to outcome, and trust, even when things didn’t go as planned.

Readers and potential readers shared remarkable personal stories (often in the most unusual places—like gas stations and parking lots). I met a host of new friends and received incredible hospitality from friends along the way. Enroute I faced down personal challenges, dealt with loneliness and fear—my own and others, and managed the unexpected. Trudy, my trusted Triumph Tiger, handled the rigors of the road with characteristic aplomb, including when the wind picked her up and threw her over.

Looking back the whole experience seems surreal. Returning, everything looks the same on the surface, yet nothing is the same. Numerous profound experiences have changed my perspectives and priorities. I need time to process them.

I’m also weary. As invigorating as the trip has been, it’s also been physically, emotionally, and spiritually enervating. For the next while I’m taking my cue from nature and hibernating, honoring current commitments but not starting new projects. I’m also taking a break from social media, blogging, and newsletters. I need the time and relative solitude to renew and nourish myself for whatever comes next, in whatever time.

Pretty sure I’ll come up with a new definition of home, and when I do, will share it and what it means to me.

Photo on Visual hunt

Metis

Winter winds pushed me east towards Winnipeg and my next stop on the Long Road Home moto-book tour. I anticipated a cosmopolitan* audience at McNally Robinson Books—different from the mainly motorcycle crowd I’d met with during the first two-thirds of the trip.

Whereas the clouds mesmerized me as I traveled through the mountains, the openness of the prairie landscape instilled a sense of freedom. As with my time in the peaks and forests of British Columbia and western Alberta, it felt dreamlike. It was as if I was an observer of a pristine landscape. Yet at the same time, I was part of it.

Indigenous people moved freely across this space for thousands of years, their migrations tied to the seasons. Ninety years ago my ancestors came to this landscape, similar to the one they’d left in Ukraine. Here they began a new life and held new dreams. Now my physical and spiritual journey was taking me across the same land on my motorcycle.

My travels have afforded me glimpses into the diverse geographic, demographic, and cultural mosaic that makes up our vast countries. Traversing it on land and stopping for extended visits have given me a new appreciation of regional priorities and perspectives. They arise from the resources and demands of distinct landscapes and the spiritual beliefs of those who occupy them. Stories that informed me came from my Mennonite heritage infused with Indigenous wisdom.

People are people wherever you go, with the same needs, desires, and dreams, tempered by their experiences and the physical setting. So voiced of my audience at McNally Robinson, an intimate gathering of motorcyclists, Mennonites, and Métis, sometimes in the same person.

We may look, talk, and see things differently, but no matter who we are, losing touch with our roots means losing touch with who we are. The sense of longing we feel when our roots aren’t nourished is like a homing device. Rediscovering and reconnecting with our roots brings personal renewal and re-energization. Motorcycles, or as one reader explained, whatever represents motorcycles for you, helps you along the path to self-discovery.

Photo credit: SamuelJohn.de on Visual hunt / CC BY-SA

*Winnipeg is a typical multicultural and multilingual Canadian city. It has the highest population of Métis and more than half of the country’s Mennonites. Eleven percent of the population is of First Nations descent.

stories we carry

One of the greatest joys during this Long Road Home moto-book tour has come not from sharing my story, but from listening to the stories of others. We’ve all got them and we share universal themes. They’re passed down through the generations and form our worldview.

Stories help us thrive and survive; they can also weigh us down, like excess baggage. They operate from our subconscious without our awareness and often don’t surface until we run into a life situation that makes us question them.

Through my travels and conversations, I’ve heard the same themes from people with diverse cultural and religious backgrounds, from South America, the Middle East, and Asia.

It’s hard to recognize influences that have shaped us. Stories don’t have to be delivered orally or in written form; they’re lived through actions and traditions. One person told me she was really lucky that her parents had not influenced her growing up; that they’d allowed their children freedom to be who they were while they spent their time away golfing. What messages did their actions portray, I wondered.

Let me share three examples of how stories shaped me and how I reconciled them. I’ve dissected them but in reality, they’re wound together in a complex web.

Don’t question authority.

As a child, I understood that questioning God and church teachings showed lack of faith and was a sin. That filtered through to parents and anyone in authority. Once I explored this value during my quest, it was easier to understand why it was so deeply engrained. My grandparents survived years of terrorism, famine, and traumatic loss. When your family’s survival and culture’s way of being is threatened, there is no time to question leaders. You retrench and prioritize to survive. I didn’t share those experiences yet those engrained beliefs lived in me. Although my ancestors needed those stories, I did not. By understanding this, I could let old concepts go and write my own story.

Never give up, no matter what.

Perseverance is a major strength, yet it can become a detriment when it’s expected at all costs. Again, this came out of a need to survive extreme hardship in Russia/Ukraine, continuing as they started life in Canada, even with my parents as they struggled to make ends meet. This mantra dogged me for decades to continue an unfulfilling marriage and career. Giving up meant failure. Only when I felt like an empty shell, did I take action in midlife to break free from that story and allow my spirit full expression.

Hide your feelings, wishes, and dreams.

When you’re fleeing adversity, there’s no time for grief, even when you’ve buried your infant daughter the day before you leave the country of your birth forever. When an early frost wipes out the crop, crying or wallowing in self-pity doesn’t bring it back. You’ve got to figure out other ways to feed your family. This tenet mutated into opening your heart and soul to another was dangerous. You could be ridiculed, ostracized, or persecuted. It took decades to extricate myself from this one, but that’s when things really opened up for me.

Only when we’re being who we are can we attract like-minded others in relationships and interests. Only when we understand the stories we were raised with can we understand ourselves, express our gifts, and fulfill our potential.

If you’re interested in exploring the stories that live in you, watch for the next Stories We Carry Workshop, next in Winnipeg on September 27.

Photo credit: Nick Kenrick. on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA

call of nature
Mountains at Lake Louise

The clouds got me first. They mesmerized and drew me in as they shapeshifted around the peaks of Canada’s Rocky Mountains. Set against a clear blue sky, it was Nature at her best.

I’ve been on the road again this week, traveling from New Westminster/Vancouver, British Columbia, to Grande Prairie, Alberta.

Riding a motorcycle demands our first attention. That keeps us focused on the present, processing, and responding to the inputs that come in through our five senses—and keeps us alive! Somehow that opens another space where we feel that connection to the landscape we’re riding through.

All of it invigorates without requiring thought. This week the clouds spoke to me in a new way as I rode east from Kamloops to Lake Louise. They form, dissipate, join with other clouds, and make shapes that capture our imagination. None of this requires any human input. It happens by itself, part of nature’s response to co-dependent dynamics like temperature, winds, landscapes, atmospheric conditions—all working together to create visible and invisible form.

Those clouds wouldn’t be there without the mountains. It’s impossible to imagine the forces over time which created those massive peaks, heaving rock through the earth’s crust. Billions of years of history expose themselves through colors, striations, and texture.

What forces shaped the endless patterns of sharp crags and crests, I wondered as I rode up the Columbia Icefields Highway. Or loosened rocks and caused them to tumble onto the roadway. Again, without human input.

Further north, the subalpine landscape gave way to undulating foothills as Highway 40 cut through forested wilderness, taking me to Grande Prairie and Beaverlodge, my primary interest. I saw miles into my past and future, often devoid of other vehicles.

That’s how I easily spotted three black bears and two deer sauntering across the road in front of me. Each time, slowing down in case there were more, gave me a close view without endangering me.

Like the clouds, rocks, and streams, they too were merely responding to natural instincts or laws. It felt dreamlike, as if I was an observer of a pristine landscape, yet at the same time, I was part of it. I felt like I could close my eyes and disappear into the oneness of nature around me. The same peace enveloped me while riding through the dense forests on Mount Hood in Oregon.

Areas of human interaction stood out in stark contrast: massive scars from clear cut logging, pipeline being laid along the shoulder, and terrain gouged and blasted to expand the highway to carry more of earth’s resources to meet an insatiable demand.

Three days of profound and humbling insights reminded me who I am and how I fit in. We are all connected and our actions affect the whole. We, too, are bound by the laws of nature which operate in ways beyond my ability to understand. When we listen, pay attention, and heed the voice of our heart, our Nature guides us to our greatest good.

August 27 went as planned with a group of Reimer cousins meeting for lunch. Within moments of the shutter snapping for the après-lunch photo, everything changed.

Family and Fate
Mom’s Reimer cousins; Hedy on my right.

I’m in Vancouver on the Long Road Home Moto-Book Tour. The nearby city of Abbotsford is a Mennonite enclave, attracted here in the 1930s by agricultural opportunities. That initial wave included siblings of Gerhard Reimer, my maternal grandfather, and their families.

Close in age, Gerhard and his brother Abram were even closer in friendship. In the early 1930s when they lost the farm they shared in Alberta, each followed their wives’ families to greener pastures. Gerhard and Susa moved to Niagara and Abram and Liese to Abbotsford. The sisterly bond between Mom and her cousin Hedy, Abram’s daughter, born two months apart, has lasted for ninety-three years, and counting.

When in town, I love getting together with vivacious Hedy who still drives and only recently gave up tutoring online Spanish. (She’s also fluent in German and French.) Hedy suggested we meet at Abbotsford’s Mennonite Heritage Museum where they serve traditional Borscht and Zwiebach (buns). Per custom, she rounded up a few more relatives who I rarely see.

Lunch, with descendants of four Reimer siblings, was delightful, followed by the requisite photo in the rose garden. Not two minutes later, I turned around to see Hedy lying twisted on the sidewalk. She’d fallen and broken her hip.

What were the odds that I’d be here at this moment and able to lend a hand? Not only that, August 27 was the anniversary of my crash in 2014 and Gerhard and Susa’s 1922 wedding. Definitely a Reimer theme to the day but beyond that I can’t ascribe other meaning to such coincidences. They are what they are. Still, when something happens outside the law of averages, it’s a reminder to pay attention.

Crash Landing, and the theme of this book tour is about excavating and honoring the stories of our ancestors—the stories that have shaped us for better and worse. Oriah, my wise teacher, observed the family theme of crashing and subsequent healing in these random events. Hedy has been an inspiration and still has much to teach me.

In that moment of seeing her on the ground, without knowing how or why, I knew I was meant to be here at this time. I extended my stay and cancelled a weekend event elsewhere. My priority was to be here with family, subbing for Mom who would step in if she could.

The family stories and lessons about healing start with us and don’t ever stop. My Crash Landing journey through the generations has shown me how unplanned events call on the strengths we carry, told through the stories of family and fate.

It’s fitting that August 27, a day that resonates with Reimer family energy, is a good day to honor my ancestors and express gratitude for everything they did to give me the life of peace and freedom I enjoy.

With prayers for a full and speedy recovery for Hedy.