Our birthplaces have significance—they determine our citizenship for one!—even if we move from that spot immediately after our birth. I was born in Steinbach, Manitoba and spent my first six years of life on a farm about six miles north of there. Then after moving a few hours west with my family I traveled back to the area to visit relatives occasionally but I also had a lot of spiteful humor about it during those years, thankful I had left the Mennonite Mecca. In light of that it is perhaps ironic that Steinbach became significant in my spiritual journey during young adulthood. My motives for attending Steinbach Bible College were mixed. I had just graduated from high school and was not having success in my fall job hunt. I was looking for a job in the area and dropped in at the college to see a girl I had liked at camp that summer. I saw the excitement of students beginning the new adventure of college life. It was God speaking! By the end of that week I was registered and starting classes.

For the next three years Steinbach was my home for most of every year. Steinbach hosted a number of important milestones in my life. I graduated with my first of four post-secondary degrees. I bought my first car: a royal blue Olds Omega with mag wheels, and also got my first bank loan in order to make it happen. I met my first steady girlfriend there and a year later experienced my first romantic heartbreak there when she broke up with me. I got my first independent apartment in Steinbach. I had three different jobs in Steinbach: car jockey at an auto dealership [where I found my car], guitar instructor for a music store [where I met the young woman], and forklift driver for a truss manufacturer [which paid for my apartment]. I won’t go into detail on any of the adventures surrounding the above milestones. All this to say that Steinbach was not only my birthplace but also became a sacred place where I grew in my independence: spiritually, intellectually, financially, and socially. Steinbach was the place where I became an adult.

The following poem is about middle adulthood, the time when we rework our past and embrace our new maturing selves. Author Miriam Toews was also born in Steinbach and spent her formative years there. Her book, A Complicated Kindness, is a work of fiction about a teenage protagonist living in East Village but to me it had some obvious autobiographical references. East Village was a reference to Steinbach, the largest town in the East Reserve, one of two parcels of land given to Mennonite settlers in 1874. I not only knew many of the locations described in the book but I could also relate to the rebellious teenage years of the protagonist. However, my theory is that the book is actually the story of Miriam Toews’ midlife journey of coming to terms with her past. I was in the midst of this journey myself when I read the book. I had a clever idea to put my midlife journey in the form of a humorous poem written like a fan letter to her. The love and hate are personifications of the love/hate relationship we have with ourselves and our past lives.

I submitted the poem to Rhubarb: A Magazine of New Mennonite Writing but unfortunately they did not seem to understand that poetry is metaphorical and published it in the “letters” section making it look like I was a Miriam Toews stalker! I received some venomous hate-mail from one very literate reader who also did not get it. So for the public record, I had and have no desire to have a relationship with Miriam Toews but good art always provokes identification, and her writing is good art. My poem may not be the best art but after the previous incident I feel I have to explain the poem just to make sure people don’t misunderstand. It’s a poem about my sacred place in Manitoba, even if I [and Miriam Toews] have left that place both literally and figuratively.

LETTER TO MIRIAM TOEWS

I love you, Miriam Toews

that mole on your cheek

your straw straight hair

those Baltic blue eyes

mischievous

deep sadness in behind

and that self-deprecating smile

the Menno drawl

(just like me)

I love you, Miriam Toews

I hate you, Miriam Toews

you soiled the bed

that I was born in

I used to like chicken

(especially breasts)

but now I’ve flown the coop

(just like you)

with my own evisceration

and I’m all embarrassed

to be who I am

lonely on my bedroom floor

I hate you, Miriam Toews

I love you, Miriam Toews

we cried together in triage

drowned in the same gravel pits

slid down suicide hill

excommunicated,

we escaped the hatchet line

I thank-you for your cruel kindness

now breathe your burning breath

on my frigid fingers

writing

I love you, Miriam Toews

 

Saskatchewan has a bad reputation for geography. People make jokes about driving through it at night because there is nothing to see anyway. People think of it as merely miles and miles of flat grassland now turned into wheat and now canola fields. Thus, many people do not get off the Trans-Canada highway to explore this diverse province. Even if staying on this legendary highway there is diversity from the aspen forests, ponds, swamps, and valleys in the east to the open prairie around Regina—which fits the stereotype—to the salt lakes and flats, and then the grand rolling hills growing bigger and grander from Moose Jaw to the Alberta border. And this is only a small slice of the south! We have not yet mentioned the absolutely stunning Saskatchewan or Qu’Appelle River valleys or the top half of the province that is lake and forest country. So give Saskatchewan a chance! This summer we had to fly over it in our annual trip to Manitoba and I missed it.

My sacred place in the province is hills overlooking the Saskatchewan River at Saskatchewan Landing, a few minutes’ drive north of Swift Current where we lived. They have since made a national park out of similar terrain south of Swift Current: Grasslands National Park. This geography has a haunting beauty all its own. From a distance they are but dry hills and rolling prairies, which have a haunting beauty all their own, but if you look closely at the right time of year you can see blooming cacti the colour of the most glorious sunshine. That is the juxtaposition of life: sometimes the times of suffering make us more beautiful people. This place became sacred for me because it corresponded with a particular geography of my soul that I was experiencing at the time. It was a time of transition, confusion, and lack of clear direction. I often went to these hills for solace and to cry out my longing for redemption and healing. The depth of my experience in these hills inspired more poetry than all of the other provinces combined. Sometimes people have chuckled when I read this poem because all they know are the Saskatchewan stereotypes but they don’t know my soul or the sacred beauty of the place.

Saskatchewan,

a naked barren land

and domineering sky—

heat, dust, wind, smoke sweeping

over ridged and rugged yellow grayish skin

stretching on endlessly.

Is there anywhere to go here?

Is there any destination?

It’s all so open-ended,

seeing forever

yet seeing nothing.

 

We have lived in five Canadian provinces so I will choose one place from each of those provinces. Each province has its own beauty geographically and in each province I have had unique encounters with God. I began with my present in BC so I will move from west to east and backwards in time chronologically.

My first impression of Lake Louise was a line-up of cars and a large over-crowded parking lot befitting a super-mall in a big city. I wondered whether it would really be worth fighting all the crowds. Then I saw it and I knew why millions of people from around the world flock to gawk at the view across Lake Louise toward the glacier framed symmetrically by mountain slopes. A gaze of few minutes is simply not enough! Just as Moses at the burning bush, one has to take off their shoes to put their feet in, or dip a paddle from a red canoe, or take a hike for different vantages. As I heard the mixture of many languages from around the world all gazing at the mountain scene, the vision of Isaiah came into my mind and heart.

The mountain of the Lord’s temple

will be established as the highest of the mountains;

it will be exalted above the hills,

and all nations will stream to it.

Many peoples will come and say,

“Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord.

He will teach us his ways so that we may walk in his paths.”

God will judge between the nations

and will settle disputes for many peoples.

They will beat their swords into plowshares

and their spears into pruning hooks.

Nation will not take up sword against nation,

nor will they train for war anymore.

 

I have taken a monthly retreat day for almost 30 years now. One of my special places for retreat since living in Abbotsford has been Fraser River Heritage Park in Mission, BC. The view to the south is spectacular: the wide Fraser River, the fertile and expansive valley, forested hills, and Mount Baker’s snow-covered peak in the distance. It is not difficult to experience the Creator’s closeness here and yet the place is also marked by spiritual pain–story boards were added a few years ago to commemorate the sad chapter of a residential school on the site. I have written numerous poems from this vantage point and this latest one illustrates a few of the layers from prehistoric times to my present that make this a sacred place.

STORY BOARDS

Coagulating story boards

Markers of days gone by

Sheltered by shade of trees with eyes

What stories could they tell?

In the distance a dormant cone

Now covered all with snow

A deep rainforest lies below

A river flowing by

Teeming large with salmon plenteous

Ancient home of STO:LO

Hemlock and fir and cedar grow

Gray rain and cloudy sky

Foreign explorers found their way

With alcohol and gun

Built a school: St. Mary’s Mission

Christendom is to blame

So much pain these cracked foundations

Dignity and pride like mist

What can anyone say to this?

We hang our heads in shame

Now there’s a new and winding path

Nearer to death than birth

Will something fresh ever come forth?

Or does one pause to rest?

Coagulating story boards

From ancient fire till now

List! Listen to the leaves and bow

Your story may be next

 

As a mini-series within my summer series of Canadiana blogs, I want to write about some “sacred places” in Canada. What makes a place sacred? In some ways I believe there is no such thing as one place on earth that is any more sacred than the rest. Divine encounter transcends political boundaries, religious temples, and geographical barriers. The ancient people of Israel learned this in their wilderness wanderings and even “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” The mission of Jesus, God incarnate, was to bring together heaven and earth for whomever and whenever and wherever. Yet sometimes places become sacred because of repeated divine encounters there. In the Bible a pile of stones was often set up to mark a divine encounter and so the place itself took on spiritual significance—it became a holy place. More recently, the ancient Celts believed that there were “thin places” where the line between things of earth and things of heaven was a bit “thinner” than elsewhere. One of these places that I have visited is the Isle of Iona; and indeed, I experienced it as a thin place where I encountered God in a new way. Is it perhaps that it is remote, stark, barren, and away from the distractions of centres of power and commerce?

In a world of rapid mobility and human displacement, there is new interest in the importance of place [See Leonard Hjalmarson’s No Home Like Place]. Perhaps this is especially true for Europeans who are known for global exploration and colonialization, and even truer for my ancestors, the Dutch Mennonites, who moved from the northwestern lowlands of Europe to the Danzig delta of Poland to the steppes of Ukraine to the plains of North America. What is a sacred place for people on the move? We are learning the importance of place from the indigenous people of North America who became displaced due to the occupation of their land by European conquerors and settlers.

Are there sacred places in Canada? My blogs will focus primarily on places that have become sacred for me because of my experience there but often my experience is only one layer of many spiritual experiences of generations before me. I was reminded of that this summer as we celebrated 100 years of my wife’s family farming the same piece of land in the Red River Valley. The place has fed and sheltered—with the planting of trees—five generations of Penner families. It has become sacred space for them as they have depended on God and the weather for their sustenance: from the first Penner who lost his wife at 46 and farmed the land as a widower with ten children to the present generation who face huge debts in uncertain economic times. Yet it was sacred space long before it was divided into English style section, township, and range which now define the farm. It is Treaty 1 territory, the home of Dakota and Ojibway nations who hunted bison here for thousands of years before a European plow carved up the land. They also depended on the land for food—and also had to shelter themselves from the cruel winds of a prairie winter.

In the spirit of this connection to the land, to place, and to the recognition of God’s often mysterious work in those places, I will present most of my blogs in the form of poetry written while at a place, about a place, and experiencing God in that place—a geography of the Canadian soul, so to speak. After all, poetry is heart language; it is language that uses metaphor: something that is known, tangible, and sensual to speak about something that is less known, intangible, and often mysterious.

 

Source: Celebrating Canadian Popular Music

My Top Ten Canadian Popular Music Artists/Bands:

  1. Bruce Cockburn: He is a rare combination: profound poet, guitar instrumentalist, creative songwriter, world traveler, with both spiritual depth and political sensitivity, spanning musical genres: folk, country, jazz, rock, pop, blues… and all the while a polite and self-deprecating Canadian with French lyrics included on every album.
  2. Blue Rodeo: Again, spanning musical genres similar to Cockburn. The song-writing and harmonizing duo of Cuddy & Keelor is our version of Lennon & McCartney and they’ve stayed together like Canadians do!
  3. Gordon Lightfoot: A folk troubadour who stayed in Canada with a string of gentle but catchy songs with lots of uniquely Canadian themes, e.g. The Wreck of the Edmund Fizgerald. He is an inspiring Canadian even in his 70’s.
  4. Neil Young: He could rock with the best in the free world and could also make your heart cry with his ballads. He has lived mostly in the USA but he remains true to his roots with albums like “Prairie Wind.”
  5. Leonard Cohen: Too many cover versions of Hallelujah aside, his profoundly spiritual and romantic lyrics and unique gravelly voice make him a true Canadian icon.
  6. Joni Mitchell: Rolling Stone called her “one of the greatest song-writers ever” and I would not argue.
  7. The Guess Who: The original Canadian rock’n roll band from Winnipeg with the dynamic duo of Cummings & Bachman. They did not stay together long enough but the list of classic hits is impressive including the anti-American anthem with one of the best guitar intros!
  8. Bachman Turner Overdrive: Straight ahead rock’n roll; they knew how to take care of business—speaking of great guitar intros!
  9. Jann Arden: The ultimate Canadian crooner: sensitive, real, self-deprecating, and fun.
  10. Stompin’ Tom Connors: I had to include a country singer and his down-home Canadian themes from across the country make him a must on this list.
  11. Honourable mentions that almost made it and/or would probably make other people’s lists: Great Big Sea, Anne Murray, The Tragically Hip, Sarah McLachlan, Paul Brandt, Rush, The Rankin Family, KD Lang, April Wine, Diana Krall, Tom Cochrane, Ian & Sylvia Tyson, Great Lake Swimmers…Who did I miss? There are so many!