Drive-By Shooting, Saskatchewan Style

Saskatchewan is ridiculously beautiful even on the rainiest of days.

I am heart-broken that torrential rain is falling – and scheduled to keep doing so – for the three days we’re meant to camp in Grasslands National Park. I have saved some of the best for last, a coveted new stop before we make the final push home to Ottawa after a summer on the road.

I make the mental calculation and already know the outcome: Four kids, two adults, two potentially drenched tents and a wet camera, a fully-loaded van with four inches (max) of clearance and zero off-road capability. Sigh. We will have to keep this part of Saskatchewan for another day. Thank goodness we had time in the Great Sand Hills and Manitou Beach and some excellent back-of-beyond wandering on the way through, as well as the memories of a previous trip that included the Cypress Hills, Qu’Appelle Valley, and the tunnels at Moose Jaw. Never enough time to do everything on my list.

I relinquish driving duties to Husband and crawl up into the passenger seat to sulk. But how can I sulk when I see THIS through the rain-streaked window glass?

SaskatchewanDriveByShootingScenery-12 SaskatchewanDriveByShootingScenery-11 SaskatchewanDriveByShootingScenery-10 SaskatchewanDriveByShootingScenery-9 SaskatchewanDriveByShootingScenery-4 SaskatchewanDriveByShootingScenery-3 SaskatchewanDriveByShootingScenery-2



Dear Guy in the Tan Sedan:

What I want to know is this:

Was it worth speeding down the main street in our village to catch up to the three cars who were already over the swing bridge? Was it worth ignoring the one-lane bridge protocol of stop-and-wait-then-go-and-wave to shave thirty seconds off your trip? Or the 10 km/h speed limit on a structure that’s been around since the mid-1800’s?

Was it worth hearing my honking horn and rant about bloody well slowing down? Was it worth giving me your well-practiced smug look? What about flat-out lying to my face about not seeing me after I clearly watched you speed up and fly onto the bridge?

I’ve crossed that bridge thousands of times and, honestly, today is the first time I’ve witnessed that stunt. I know others have done something similar in the past because my neighbour once found a dead body in the cab of a half-submerged pick-up that failed to negotiate that curve you drove today.

I can tell you it wasn’t worth it for me. I lost my temper and with it  my dignity. I feel ashamed. Your impatience wasn’t an excuse for mine. I’m sorry for calling you a weirdo.

Would it have killed me to have waited for one more car after waving through the other three? No. It would have cost me nothing.  On a gorgeous sunny day I would have had thirty more seconds to breathe in the million dollar view of the river and the stunning palette of changing leaves. I would have driven home smiling instead of buried in a frowning, angry cloud.

I think of you tonight and will again tomorrow and the next day and the next when I’m stuck in traffic, in line at the supermarket, or waiting for the endless things we wait for as humans. I will pull out today’s embarrassment, hold it up, turn it over, and take a good, hard look at it’s ugly face. Then I’ll tuck it away – not too far away – as a reminder of what I don’t want to be.

So thanks for the lesson. Maybe it was worth it after all.




Literary Houses: Emily Carr

Emily Carr (December 13, 1871 – March 2, 1945) was a Canadian artist and writer heavily inspired by the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast.1

A moment’s quiver of homesickness for Canada strangled the Art longing in me. To ease it I began to hum, humming turned into singing, singing into that special favourite of mine, “Consider the Lilies.” Whenever I let that song sing itself in me, it jumped me back to our wild-lily field at home. I could see the lilies, smell, touch, love them. I could see the old meandering snake fence round the field’s edge, the pine trees overtop, the red substantial cow, knee-deep and chewing among the lilies.  2

By the time I tour Emily Carr’s childhood home the spring glory of Victoria’s wild lilies is long gone. The enclosed field she affectionately recalls is ancient history, having succumbed to the pressures of development and the need to sell off land to support a growing family.  The old house in the Italianate villa style, built in 1863 and now fully restored as a museum and event space, sits on a fraction of its original ten acres. Many respected and wealthy families eventually built in the neighbourhood, but in the beginning, when the Carrs arrived from England via California, it was wilderness.

Emily was the youngest of nine children, frequently grouped with her two youngest sisters and separated from the elder girls by the death of three brothers and a two-decade age gap from top to bottom. Her father, Richard, was a Presbyterian who ruled with a heavy bible and iron fist. Rigid piety filled the place where his heart might have been. Her mother, Emily Sr,. acted as counterweight as best as she could, but society was patriarchal, conservative, and, in Victoria’s case, striving to be “more English than England.” Her mother died when Emily was twelve and her father two years later. Her eldest sister, Edith (Dede), took over the reigns as head of household and life at home became unbearable.

…life at home was neither easy nor peaceful. Outsiders saw our life all smoothed on top by a good deal of mid-Victorian kissing and a palaver of family devotion; the hypocrisy galled me. I was the disturbing  element of the family. The others were prim, orthodox, religious. My sister’s rule was dictatorial, hard…I would not sham, pretending that we were a nest of doves, knowing well that in our home bitterness and resentment writhed. We younger ones had no rights in the home at all. Our house had been left by my father as a home for us all but everything was in big sister’s name. We younger ones did not exist.3

Emily found solace in the family’s barnyard animals and other wild creatures that roamed the property. She escaped the crushing social mores of “townies”  on the back of her ex-circus pony, Johnny, pushing deep into the silent woods.  At sixteen she secretly solicited permission and modest financial support from the family’s legal guardian and set sail for art school in San Francisco. When she was called home to begin “serious work” she gave art lessons to children, and accompanied a missionary to Ucluelet for her first immersive – and formative – experience with Nuu-Chah-Nulth culture.  A French painter and his wife came to Victoria to work but, disappointed with the scenery, they hurriedly returned home. Emily was again left without peers.

Artists from the Old World said our West was crude, unpaintable. Its bigness angered, its vastness and wild spaces terrified them.4

To advance her studies she moved to London and Paris and was plagued by crippling health issues.  Her physicians said that Canadians never fared well in the crowded, dirty cities of the Old World. Emily returned home to the wild spaces of British Columbia but home exacted a terrible price: Her work was roundly denounced. Unable to earn a living from her art, she stopped painting for fifteen years as she built her House of All Sorts and let rooms to make ends meet.

She was born in the right place at the wrong time, a pioneer of modernist painting stuck in an artistic backwater. It would be decades before she would find her creative tribe and literary/artistic success.

The Bible as centre of the house
A hand-painted floorcloth
A few of her painting supplies
The Sitting Room/Archives
View into the Drawing Room/Parlour
Restored hallway/stairway
Enclosed porch/tearoom
Details from Emily’s reproduction caravan named “Elephant”
Emily and her entourage in “Elephant”
Her father’s beloved “Isabella” grapevine


Further reading:

The Book of Small

Klee Wyck

Growing Pains

The House of All Sorts

Reading Emily Carr at Goldstream Provincial Park, Victoria, B.C.
One of the choicest spots to read Emily: in the forest at Goldstream Provincial Park in Victoria, B.C.



  2. Growing Pains: “Nellie and the Lily Field”,  pp. 49 

  3. Growing Pains, pp. 34 

  4. Growing Pains, pp. 107 


The Art & Science of Being a House Guest

Fish and visitors smell in three days. ~Benjamin Franklin
If it were not for guests all houses would be graves. ~Khalil Gibran


I have been a bad house guest in my time.

A few years back I attended a conference in a major metropolitan centre, bunking in with a friend and her large dog. At the end of a long first day I had dinner downtown then returned home after dark. I walked the dog then double-locked the apartment, first with the key then by flicking the switch on the mildly archaic hardware. The dog lay down to sleep and so did I, slipping in earplugs to keep the building’s sounds at bay.

The next morning my friend recounted how she’d returned late and couldn’t unlock that second switch I had so dutifully employed. The dog barked and barked at her attempts and she had to wake the super for the master key and a screwdriver when I failed to materialize.

In my backpacker days my sins were numerous: I have arrived unannounced, overstayed my welcome, used up all the hot water, left my stuff lying around, been an all-around lazy ass and cheapskate, and – the kicker – introduced fleas to my friend’s apartment.

But like most things in life, it could have been much, much worse (except for the fleas, of course). All manner of disastrous bodily functions, sex, thievery and crimes against guest towels topped the list when Reddit readers were asked “What’s the worst thing a house guest has done in your home?”


When people ask about my recent eight-week summer roadtrip with kids, I say that it was great. For the starry-eyed and uninitiated I add this nugget of wisdom: Vacation is life, but on the road.

Unless you go to an all inclusive resort or hotel without kids, there is no such thing as a ‘no work’ vacation option. There’s always work – clean up, shopping, cooking, laundry, research, scheduling and balancing the needs of all the players.  And bunking in with friends or family? It can be complicated and free it is not.*

Don’t ask “Can I help you clean up?” Find the dish soap, find the sink and start scrubbing, motherfucker, because that’s what the perfect guest does.1

There are at least a hundred articles on the internet describing how to be the perfect houseguest. Here’s the consensus on how to behave if you want to maintain a relationship with your host friends/family and be asked back:

1. Arrive and depart according to an established plan

2. Research your destination, entertain yourself, share your schedule with your host, include them in your plans

3. Arrange and pay for your own transportation

4. Clean up after yourself

5. Shop for groceries and/or cook and/or take your host out for dinner(s); BYO alcohol

6. Pitch in

7. Mind your business and be respectful of the space and the schedules/habits of the host; keep the critiques of the house/accommodations/city to yourself

8. Make use of a pet hotel unless your host is explicitly pet-friendly

9.  Bring a gift, send a thank-you, offer a reciprocal stay

10. Unless commiseration is the prime purpose of your visit, bring your best and charming self with you. Treat Debbie Downer to her own vacation.

Special rules apply if your host has young kids, is in her final trimester, or if you’re bringing children of your own. Naptimes, habits, temperaments, prized possessions and general territorialism require due consideration. And regardless of how genuinely well-behaved your children are, this is what you will sound like: “Take your shoes off. Take your shoes off. Take your shoes off. Take your shoes off. It’s not our house.”

There’s a fine line between persistent anxiety and enjoying time with people in their space. You will know how well you’ve tread that line when you’ve loaded up and pulled away.

*Because as an adult you know there’s no such thing as free.


Was Mr. Franklin just a logical man of science, favouring the rational over the emotional?  Or does his exhortation reflect a  truth that we choose to ignore at our own peril? Experience says: it depends.

Brevity offers a particular magic that arises from the urgency of a hyper-finite schedule, while the blessing of extended time is revelation and depth. So the question, really, is this: How much do you want to know about the people you are staying with?

Apparently there is science to back up Mr. Franklin’s wisdom. According to researchers Norton, Ariely and Frost in their paper Less is More: The Lure of Ambiguity, or Why Familiarity Breeds Contempt, we put people we haven’t met, or hardly know, up on a pedestal. Then, as we get to know them, with all their habits and peculiarities, the familiar contempt creeps in.

We place such a heavy role on similarity as our proposed mechanism for two reasons. First, similarity to the self—from shared personality traits and values to trivial factors such as shared birthdays — has been shown repeatedly to be highly diagnostic of liking. Second, as with liking, perceptions of similarity are relatively high early in the acquaintanceship process, both because people (falsely) assume similarity with others in the absence of other information and because people tend to emphasize or exaggerate their similarities with others when preparing to meet.2

So three days or less – a Friday to Sunday weekend – is a short enough period for a no-holds-barred love-in with acquaintances or friends you don’t see very often. It’s short enough to ignore the unexpected discomfort or awkwardness of almost any situation. It’s easy to be the bon vivant or Miss Fun ‘n Clever so long as the masks remain in place.  More than three days, things start to slip, and less charming traits – impatience, narcissism, contempt, passivity –  appear.  If we bunk in with friends for shorter periods, we get to learn about them in easily digestible bite-sized pieces.

But sometimes more is, well, more. If you opt for a longer stay there can be a magnificent pot of gold waiting at the end of that rainbow. Extended time allows for mistakes to happen and be corrected, meaningful conversations to unfold, longstanding issues to be hashed through, trust and empathy to be built,  the quirky bits of our individuality to be appreciated, and the simple pleasure of waking up to the people we love. We get to slow down, breathe, and live as our true selves.

As for family? I can only come up with one reliable generalization: Every family has it’s own dynamic based on complex common history. The calm before the storm may be shorter or longer than three days, but it is stunningly predictable: For most of us it will come.


I have this notion about house swapping. I would like to implement regular weekend swaps with friends and friends-of-friends in places not too far from home. Toronto for film festival? Montreal for weekend markets? New York for a concert? Hiking in Vermont? It’s neither a new nor particularly innovative idea; we’ve used AirBNB a number of times for paid stays in local homes and I’ve heard great things about companies like  It seems ridiculous to have an idle asset – an empty house –  that isn’t being used to give pleasure to friends, expand our social network, and reduce our travel costs. My inner Mary Sunshine screams “Great Idea!!!”

It’s thrilling to pack an overnight bag, do a quick grocery shop, and walk into a fully-stocked house without the Big Prep and weather-sensitivity of camping. Bikes! Kayaks! Books! Veggie gardens! Pots and pans! Beds! How generous and amazing to have a bounty awaiting one’s arrival. It is one of the most intimate, satisfying gifts we can offer one another.

My house is 125 years old and I can say that the older the house, and the more rural the location, the more quirks and peculiarities are enfolded in its charm. Old homes require an awareness, a finesse that isn’t present in their modern, and urban, counterparts. I pulled out  the house handbook I created a few years ago which is 18 pages long and took several days to compose. The theme of the tome is water management – keeping it in the well, keeping it out of the house –  appropriate being that we’re on well and septic vs. city services. The handbook also covers HVAC, appliances, wildlife, pets, shopping, transportation to and from, using our vehicles, garbage and recycling, things to do in the area, contacts for professionals including the plumber and the vet, and instructions should the cat die in our absence. I ask myself as I read: What’s rational vs. irrational when I’m telling the tale of our house? How much do guests really need to know? I’m satisfied that there’s just enough in there to be well-informed but not terrified.

Most of us are invested emotionally and financially in the form and idea of home; it is our reflection of self, our safe space, our nest egg. Within it we cling to our habits and rituals without recognizing our fixations and resistance to deviations from the norm. Think I exaggerate? Think about your morning coffee.

Think about the cup you choose, where you sit, what time you drink it, alone or in company, indoors or out. Repeat this with all the other prosaic bits of life: How do you stack your dishes, roll and place your toothpaste, make your bed, manage your bathroom schedule, watch tv, read, vacuum, fold bath towels, clip your toenails, deal with spiders, arrange plastic food containers in the drawer, and manage your morning and nighttime regimes? How annoyed are you when these routines are disturbed, when the spoons are in the forks slot, when books are on the wrong shelf, or the kicker, when someone has sex in your bed?  We are an easily-annoyed lot.

Husband is reticent about house swapping. I’ve always chalked this up to conservatism, but I realize his reluctance is a reasonable calculation of “hassle factor”: What is the (potential) cost (pain) vs. (potential) tangible benefits? For me Novelty, Adventure, Meeting Strangers, and The Potential for Magic are at the top of my scale for almost every experience. As he points out his scale is different for a variety of reasons. He’s happiest hanging with the core family and friends and finds comfort in familiar experiences and places. Mainly, though, he doesn’t want his stuff touched. He’s not alone. I know there is risk in everything we do, but there’s risk, too, in clinging to one’s comfort zone.


 And maybe being a houseguest, or lending your house requires this: [A] willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.3 

If Ben Franklin was the dutiful house guest, Khalil Gibran cuts to the heart of the matter: Hosting is about the greatness of having people you love (or want to love) sharing your space and your table, wading through the petty bits to get to the heart of friendship and kinship, which sustains us like no logic can. Friends and family bring our houses alive. It’s why we (usually) miss them so much when they go.





Hidden in Plain Sight

A few weeks back I was taking my morning coffee on the expansive patio of a friend’s house in Winnipeg. My bare feet had graced this space a number of times, but I had not, until just then, grasped the obvious: I was walking on fossils – a LOT of fossils – which are 450 million years old.1

XCTyndallStonePatio Tyndall Stone Patio XCTyndallStonePatio-8 XCTyndallStonePatio-7 XCTyndallStonePatio-6 XCTyndallStonePatio-5 XCTyndallStonePatio-4 XCTyndallStonePatio-3

It’s called Tyndall stone, a dolomitic limestone quarried about 40 kilometres north of the city in the Gillis Quarry at Garson, Manitoba.  It’s famous for its cream colour (the limestone) and striking mottling (the dolomite) caused by the burrowing of marine creatures during its creation.

It contains gastropods, brachiopods, cephalopods, trilobites, coral, and stromatoporoid fossils.2

Several Tyndall stone buildings number among my favourites: the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, the Manitoba Legislature, the Museum of Civilization (History) and the Empress Hotel in Victoria.  So how, I ask myself, can I NOT have known about the fossils? What have I been so busy looking at that they didn’t sink in? My ignorance underwhelms me.

The stone is fascinating and beautiful beyond compare and, apparently, ubiquitous in these parts. Once I knew what I was looking at/for I began to see it on buildings, walls and pavers everywhere.  An architectural tour of Winnipeg’s Tyndall stone buildings can be found here.

Talk about a living museum.

XCWAGTyndallStone-2 XCWAGTyndallStone

Further reading:

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields

Canada Rocks: The Geologic Journey, by Nick Eyles and Andrew Miall

Tyndall Stone, Winnipeg Architecture Foundation 





Exploring the intersection of people, their homes, and communities