I'm not sure if you've noticed my social media bio but it says this:
Artist | called to create, in any form necessary | wrestling fear, chasing beauty, pursuing peace | learning to rest at Jesus' feet
That last part - learning to rest at Jesus' feet - goes back to the account of Mary and Martha. It's a story I revisit often and one that I continue to receive the gift of fresh revelation as the years unfold. Two years ago I wrote about it here. And as we enter the season of Lent, I have been brought back to lovely Martha with fresh eyes (for I do think she is lovely, although misunderstood and quickly judged). I see afresh that the retreat happens in the midst of the to-do list. In the middle of preparing for the guests, in the middle of busy lives, in the middle of the mess, in the middle of our weaknesses... that is where the resting at Jesus' feet happens. I often considered it an all or nothing type scenario that had me wondering, "Who cleans the toilets if everyone's with Jesus?!" As much as I know it is so good to hang out in the garden, retreating with Jesus, I am convinced there's a way to also sit as His feet, receiving His peace, while I'm scrubbing away. Now I'm trying to navigate exactly what that looks like.
Tomorrow is the beginning of Lent: the 40 days before Easter (not including the Sundays). This season serves as a time of preparation and a reflection on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. What a perfect time to retreat. I am choosing to carve out more quiet space in my day and spend more reflective time in the studio. All of which will require a very intentional look at my schedule and a very mindful shift in perspective. I still have obligations and responsibilities and deadlines and demands and requests, but I'm determined to retreat in the middle of it all. The key to this, for me, is taking this time to create quietly. I've decided I'm not going to share what I'm creating... at least not during this lenten season. And perhaps, it will continue to be an entirely personal project - we shall see! I'm going to let it all unfold each day and savour those moments, unconcerned with perfection or a business plan. I'm not checking out, I'm just taking another step back in retreat. I'll still be checking messages and working, meeting those deadlines and interacting with fine folks - I'm just shifting gears for 40 days and hoping to learn a little more about resting at Jesus' feet.
Then Jesus said, “Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.”
"The birds they sang
at the break of day
I heard them say
Don't dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
You can add up the parts
but you won't have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee."
Leonard Cohen "Anthem" (excerpts)
I've spent the last months working on a special commission for the Scarlett family. Constance and I met for lunch one day last summer as we savoured being back in the city and oozed with gratitude for a million little things. Between bites of sandwich we talked about loss, heartache, hope, faith and healing. Her family had lost their home to the Horse River wildfire and I was being invited to create an artwork for them, using the precious few items that had been recovered. We were united in the desire to find beauty among the ashes.
I wanted to know what had been on her and her husband's heart and mind throughout the evacuation - if there were any quotes or recurring thoughts that resonated with them in everything they had been through. That's where "Anthem" by Leonard Cohen came in. And then, as she shared with me the broken and charred pieces, each having it's own story to tell, I found my imagination running wild with how they could tell a new story that rang louder of renewal than tragedy.
The first piece I began to work on was the nest. Each length of uncoated wire creating a growing foundation, representing the fragility and temporary nature of "home". Knitted into the wires was one half of a silver compact mirror given to Constance by her brothers, her Mom's baby spoon that had been given to her daughter, her baby bracelet, a coin, a ring, two more bracelets and the spring from her husband's firearm. I thought of how birds carefully select each piece, finding the best place to intertwine what they bring home to create a place of shelter and safety. The birds, sculpted and finished in layers of black leaf became symbols of faith, hope and the courage to leave the nest to start anew. The birds represent their family unit, all having been refined through their experiences.
The next piece to be completed was the lantern. A pre-existing frame was deconstructed, stripped and re-fabricated with many custom adaptations made. Layers of plaster and paint were built up to ensure that this lantern had been through the journey too. The desire to create a lamp/lantern was the first image that came to mind in this project, representing the light required to lead them out of the darkness. It was a symbol of hope and faith, of God's faithfulness, knowing that their experiences and circumstances all work together to tell a bigger story. It was the longing for direction in how to move forward in healing. The lantern also sparked the name for the piece:
Lead Us Home.
Four mosaic sections were assembled, with the first positioned on the inside ceiling of the lantern. This section was created with her daughter's baby Bunnykins bowl as well as the other half of the silver compact mirror. I thought of the resiliency of her young daughter and the joy that she brings to their family - I thought of how hope rises and leads to healing. The other three mosaics, placed along the outer sides, were assembled from two beautiful dishes: a Greek coffee cup given to Constance by her Yiayia (Grandmother) and a tea cup saucer from her Baba (her Ukrainian Grandmother).
The ornamental top of the lantern was part of a teapot, one that had been given to Constance by her Yiayia as a Grad school graduation gift. The handle is a bracelet and tucked inside is a tiny teacup bottom and a ring, both gifts from her Baba. A plaque from her daughter's baby spoon, as well as a number of coins adorned the next section. A beautiful lock from her husband's firearm became a feature on the front and inspired the colour of the lantern. Once the nest and birds were laid inside, the final element was a key from her Yiayia's house in New York.
The individual pieces each came with its own memory of who it belonged to, who had given it, how it had been used and where it had its place in their home. And now they come together to remind the Scarlett family what they've been through but that all is not lost. The gathered pieces are proof of their resilience and that faith is stronger than despair on the long road of healing. Thank you Constance, Mike and Kassia for giving me the honour and privilege of creating this work for you.
"Our sorrows are all, like ourselves, mortal. There are no immortal sorrows for immortal souls. They come, but blessed be God, they also go. Like birds of the air, they fly over our heads. But they cannot make their abode in our souls. We suffer today, but we shall rejoice tomorrow.”
I'm excited to announce that I have partnered with local shop owner, Melanie Ference of Chocolates & Candlelight, to bring you a new limited edition series! There are currently three of my favourite boreal forest birdies in store and I will only be offering a 5 print run of each of these images.
Those who know me will recognize that I love my time outside, and certainly enjoy the company of fine-feathered friends. Waiting quietly, listening to their song, and watching them in their world, I am a grateful spectator. Creating these images soothes my soul and I hope you will love them too.
Framed and printed on board with a matte finish, each image is sleek, modern and ready to hang. Head into Chocolates & Candlelight (on Millennium, behind Boston Pizza) to see the framed prints in person and bring a little piece of the boreal forest home with you.
Since May 3rd we've each taken roughly 2.9 million breaths. Some sharp, some deep, others gasps and most we've taken for granted. But that marvellous breath in our lungs keeps us alive. And the story behind each of those breaths intrigues me. That's why Take A Deep Breath is the theme I chose for upcoming Issue 16 of NorthWord. Early this spring, when I was invited to be the guest editor for this issue, I could have never guessed how fitting this theme would become.
Our breaths have been expelled in release and inhaled in preparation. Each one has been individual yet collective. We are unified in this time of trial but solitary in our personal experience. Although we have a long road ahead of us as the upheaval continues here in Wood Buffalo, the change in seasons also marks a time of renewal and fresh starts - a time of healing and recovery. After months of resilience, we are watching the weary forest turn gold and release its leaves. What a beautiful lesson for us all.
I invite you to enter this new season with me and begin anew. It doesn't require that everything is organized neatly. We don't have to have everything figured out in order to move forward -- what a relief that is to know! Won't you join me on an autumnal creative journey? Grab a favourite pen, purchase a new journal, pop into Starbucks for a steaming cup of coffee and most importantly, carve out a few minutes each day to write. Throughout the month of October I'll post writing prompts on my Facebook page to keep you motivated. Once the month is up, don't fret; they will be posted below! We'll explore the theme together and if you're feeling inspired, you can also work towards the goal of submitting a polished piece for NorthWord's Issue 16 October 30th deadline. (By the way, when you send your work into email@example.com your name is removed throughout the selection process - how freeing!)
Let's take a deep breath... and write.
Did you miss the 30 DAYS OF CREATIVE WRITING?
Why not start it now? Take a little time for 30 days to reflect, write and let your imagination run wild!
I absolutely adore installation art. Walking into a space where the entire room is a work unto itself is so captivating to me. Environmental art is an installation that becomes part of an outdoor environment and I was really excited to create within this realm. Working with Alma Louise Visscher, who is currently working within installation art, has been an invaluable opportunity. She was generous to share so much of her own process with all of us, holding workshops to show us how she uses fabric and working with us one on one as well. Many of us were inspired to take what we learned and the fabric we dyed into our own practice. For me, the process of naturally dying fabric fit perfectly within the body of work that I already had in progress.
The bundle dying technique began with the gathering of found wildflowers, which became a bit of an experiment to see how different colours, textures, parts of the plant, and plant species, responded to the dying process. I have been particularly enamoured with the vibrancy of the clover in our region this summer so I knew I wanted to grab big bundles of these purple and blue flowers. I also added dried lavender, rose and hibiscus petals that created a more defined texture. After arranging the flowers on prepared fabric, it was tightly bundled and steamed. Unrolling the piping hot bundle was an exciting part of the process - we could finally see how our "experiment" turned out!
And after it was dry and all the fragments shaken off, our fabric became the new "canvas" for our creations. Some used it just like a canvas, painting over it, others used it as clothing, and another artist framed it as is. Mine was used to create another part of my mountain work, cut and shaped into pyramids - approaching the mountain range with yet another point of view and fragmentation. These little mountains were completed and installed in Jasper National Park, bringing my Fort McMurray studio journey full circle into the Rockies themselves. I even strapped one of them to my backpack as I hiked up Wilcox Pass.
Being drawn to natural elements and processes, I loved having this beautiful fabric to create the fragile pyramids. The next step was to install the work among the trees, with the goal of recording how the created work interacted with and related to it's natural surroundings - especially concerning a variety of light conditions. Serendipitously, the trees in our campsite were perfectly spaced for me to create my environmental installation within the comfort and safety of our own space. Strewn from rough twine, they were hung among the trees, and LED tea lights were carefully placed inside for me to document the warm evening light changing to darkness. I found the transparency and colour of the fabric allowed the work to change, blend and compliment its surroundings - it felt as if they were meant to be there! Creating my own installation sparked a desire to continue to push my creative limits in so many ways.
The entire residency was a creative retreat in the midst of a time of transition - a welcome time of refinement and exploration. It was a blessing to be able to glean from our two mentors, and to dive into these six weeks in the studio with them. I was stretched and rejuvenated and oh, so grateful to have had this experience.
“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” ― Kurt Vonnegut
The fifth piece in the processing series is a diorama created with pieces of mountain photographs I have taken in the Rockies, transferred to foam core and arranged in a shadow box. I have had a million ideas percolating with the shadow box/diorama/photograph techniques and finally had the right venue to really start to work with it. Our mentor artist, Alma, showed me a new way to do photo transfers that proved to be much better for my purposes and I've been running with it ever since. I'm quite excited for some future project ideas! I just love how experimenting can spark a whole host of new ideas and options; which is one of the main reasons I do not stick to one medium or technique. There is such a freedom is mixing mediums and disciplines.
In this piece, I utilized the photo transfer technique to fragment the mountain range even further, as well as the tea painting from the first two works of the series. I loved how the natural teas complimented the natural rock from my photographs... something that wouldn't have worked quite the same if I had used watercolour or gouache. Drawing from the first four projects, this one was yet another variation of the main theme - a similarity I can recognize from my musical background. Aren't the arts lovely, how they can weave together? And gleaning from both of our mentor artists, Alma Louise Visscher and Kritsana Naowahkun, who create in different ways and mediums, was an incredibly enriching experience. Being in an environment where we could watch them at work, as well as get real-time feedback and ask questions, made the entire process so organic. The room oozed with inspiration and I know this experience will continue to fuel my practice for quite some time!
Before I ventured into the 3-dimensional diorama, I wanted to create 2-D studies to experiment with various materials and techniques, like layering or using colour. The possibilities are endless but revealing the image for the first time has to be the part that is the most fun! ;)
Early next week I'll be sharing the last part of my residency work, an environmental installation that has sparked a whole new love for installation art. And if you're in Fort McMurray, don't forget to head down to MacDonald Island to see the entire group exhibition!
In the midst of the tea mania, I began work on another part of the series. This is also the point where my "processing" theme came clearly into view. With so many ideas and directions swirling in my head - with limited time and a mentorship opportunity that I wanted to make the most of - I had to keep reining things in and figure out how it would all connect. This is where I decided that the work would be limited to the mountain and all other projects would be studies to assist these main works. (And I would revisit the other pieces after the residency.)
This 3-dimensional project was quite thrilling to work on. I planned to create a miniature version as a test piece but soon realized that if I truly wanted to know how the materials would behave, I had to dive into the large piece. The miniature version emerged again about half-way through its big brother's completion.
Using recycled cardboard, the mountain faces began to take form. Each piece of the puzzle measured, bent and formed into the next. It was taking shape as I had envisioned! I loved it just like this but knew it wasn't done yet.
The next step was to seal the cardboard and prep it for its next layers. And here, my project underwent an overhaul. I loved the all white version and wrestled with whether or not to continue. But, realizing that I was facing the fear of ruining it, I decided to dive right back in. I wasn't here to play it safe. So, I dove in and... loathed how it was unfolding. Later that afternoon we had a small group critique and even after everyone's encouragement, I knew that I had to shift gears and immediately afterward began to therapeutically scrape off what I had done. (I hated it so much I won't even show you that mess!)
Seeing the mountain range again in white, I had a personal artistic epiphany. I had an awareness of depth and light and shadows like never before. Everything came into focus. The miniature wood panel then became a study in gradient light and colour as I examined how the natural light hit and reflected off of the 3-dimensional work.
After a study in mixing neutrals and creating a proper gradient (thanks, Alma!) each colour was mixed and applied based on the natural light study, but with a greater range. Here I had flashbacks to my time with "Foxy Loxy" where I would think I was finished but after the paint dried I'd see areas that needed touching up, wouldn't have enough paint to do so, and would have to mix more paint to match the first coats - another test of patience and precision!
I am so glad that I was able to discern what was fear and when to listen to that inner critic. Working in a studio with other artists this summer confirmed my suspicions that we've all got that inner chatterbox, critiquing and questioning things at every stage. It's hard to "unsee" your work, viewing with fresh and unbiased eyes... and it's very ease to rip it apart. But knowing when to listen to that voice and when to silence it is an integral part of the process. Having mentors and fellow artists to talk through the process is even better.
Coming this week: part three of my artist in residency experience!
I've just wrapped up Six Weeks In The Studio, a mentored artist residency through the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. I had applied for the first session, that was to take place in May/June; which had to be cancelled due to our city's evacuation. When we returned I was given the opportunity to reapply for a revamped session and I'm so glad that, even in these crazy times, I jumped into it with both feet. It has been a most beautiful way to start anew.
Two mentor artists, Alma Louise Visscher and Kritsana Naowakhun, offered group sessions as well as met with us one-on-one to challenge and refine us. I am so grateful for everything they poured into us as I took full advantage of this opportunity in front of me. Gleaning from artists I admire, as well as being able to get real-time feedback in the studio was invaluable. They both have a way in coming alongside of you, pushing us to be better but still allowing us to stay true to our artistic voice and vision.
I came into the program with goals to explore light, shadows, depth and colour on a more intensive level. And with a short time frame, I knew I'd need to focus my projects as soon as possible so I could dive in and experiment but also know where I was headed. My artistic approach is much more thematic based, rather than medium based. I allow each piece to dictate the best medium to use - that freedom is incredibly fulfilling!
Over the next days I will share the finished works, some works that never made it to the final exhibition and pieces of the process behind the scenes. I began to rework and experiment with ideas that I had been exploring over the past months, seeing where it would take me and running with the ideas that came to mind. "The process" became my guiding concept, with the mountain serving as my visual metaphor.
My work is rooted in natural elements. My practice is in response to what, I believe, is an unfolding story revealed to us through Creation. Drawing inspiration from the natural world, I chose the mountain as my subject of study for this residency. Exploring a variety of techniques, the work was approached as a process, one work leading into the next; breaking a grand mountain range to its simplified forms. Through this process of fragmentation I explored simplified visual elements to approach each project from a different point of view. Throughout the creative process I found that I was drawn to natural and recycled materials, like tea and cardboard. The mountain was both an elemental study and a conceptual metaphor for working through and processing challenges we face.
Early on, the house was filled with the aroma of hundreds of bags of tea being steeped for my artistic purposes. Embroidery thread was dyed in bowls of green tea and cider, berry tea and chai. More thread went for a dunk in simmering pots of dried chamomile and lavender flowers. The liquid was then poured into mason jars to be used to paint canvas and watercolour paper. (The flower liquid went rancid quite quickly... good to know.) Some of my experiments went along as planned or better - and others... well, they led to failure and frustration. But, as Alma encouraged me, sometimes the best art comes from the "failures". Problem solving and adapting to my natural medium's limitations caused some projects to be abandoned down the road and others to morph into something new. I love that about the artistic process.
What resulted is the following two works, a small "watercolour" study using tea as the colour and a larger more intensive work, embroidering the dyed thread onto canvas. These two are available to purchase and on display at the MacDonald Island Community Art Gallery. Stay tuned for numbers 3 and 4 of the series!
An essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail. - Dr. Edwin Land
We've been home for three weeks now and been consumed with all things house related. We are grateful, despite some bumps in the road, to be well on our way to getting things in order. It's been unlike any experience, that's for certain. Even in joy and gratitude, an overarching sadness hangs over us as we consider all that has happened. Friends still have their houses in ruins, covered in a layer of tackifier to keep all that ash from being airborne. Add to those thousands the souls that are living in a state of anxiety ridden limbo, with houses standing but unable to return due to their location or the damage that lies inside. There is so much loss and so much destruction - and we've all had our patience and resolve tested.
But ever so slowly, progress is being made in all of our individual situations - but it's been tough for everyone - there is a collective weariness in our community. Although circumstances, even within a city block, are varied, we are in this together. No one said it would be easy but life moves on - with or without us.
As usual, it's easy for me to get consumed by a project (right now, being the house) so, although my studio is still not ready, it was time to carve out some creative time. I dug out some watercolour supplies and sat on the deck for the first time since the evacuation - and I happily focused on drawing and painting. Even though the wildfire is never far from my thoughts, it was good to be able to turn those musings into artwork.
And rattling around in my brain, for many weeks now, have been thoughts of how differently we deal with times of trouble. There are people who view the glass half full, the glass half empty, the glass overflowing and the glass completely empty, smashed to smithereens. I've witnessed a coming together but also those who choose to segregate and remove themselves from community. The latter grieves me, as I believe it is a dangerous mindset to entertain thoughts that convince you that no one could possibly understand what you are going through. We've all done it at times though, haven't we? Unfortunately, there is no rule book guiding us what to say and do through our trials and the more we can assume the best intentions in others, the better. I feel like we can easily put ourselves in another's shoes if we try but knowing exactly how anyone is feeling and what is going on in the inside - well, that's rather impossible.
We've all been through hard times. We've all struggled. We've all got mountains. Our circumstances and the way we react may be unique to us, but we can unite under the fact that we'll all go through trials and tribulations in this life. There's no value in alienating ourselves or trying to compare the size of these mountains we face - it just makes the climb more difficult. And climbing this particular mountain in my life has opened my eyes to the fact that we've all got those mountains in our lives. We are climbing every single day. Perhaps the challenge isn't in the mountains themselves, but whether or not we are willing to climb together.
a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past,
typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.
Friday, June 3rd: Re-entry day reflection
We're exhausted. But relieved. And grateful.
It was a beautiful drive to Fort McMurray from Edmonton early yesterday morning. Dew kissed ground and low lying mist, with a sky reflecting neon pink in the clouds before the sun rose... what a peaceful way to start a special day.
Every Fort McMurray road sign caused a lump in my throat - something so familiar, yet we have been prevented from travelling up the highway for a month now. Signs directing us to our city were a beautiful sight. Being a spectator to the media's take on our community has been difficult and there was relief in being allowed to finally follow these signs to our home.
Traffic was not an issue and we were especially grateful for a twinned Highway 63. We expected bumper-to-bumper traffic and long travel times but that wasn't the case. As we got closer to the city, not far from Stony Mountain Road, we were hit with the sight of a charred landscape and the acrid smell of smoke all at once. There wasn't any visible smoke in the area but the smell was undeniable – and unforgettable.
Welcome home signs were seemingly strategically placed to encourage us at the exact moments we felt our hearts sink. "We Will Rebuild" reassured us that we could bravely continue on. On our right, the turnoff to Anzac, Fort McMurray First Nation, and Gregoire Lake Estates, and further up, the airport turnoff and Saprae Creek – areas that are completely out of view but battled the blaze and experienced devastation too. It was almost haunting to think about what lies beyond those turnoffs. And then the city limits... a sign changed to read Welcome Home Fort McMurray. A month ago we drove past these very same landmarks, many of which were smouldering, spot fires still burning. Dense smoke had filled the car, making it hard to breathe. It seemed like an apocalyptic scene from a movie. But now, in the sunlight and the smoke having cleared, we could see the aftermath clearly. It all became real - very quickly.
The word I think I have used most frequently since the evacuation is "surreal". And although it still feels like it has to be a nightmare that we will wake up from, there was no denying the destruction we could clearly see along the highway. Prairie Creek and Gregoire on our right and the Metis office and Centennial RV Park on our left - it was hard to know where to look - familiar landmarks yet so scarred - some spared, others destroyed.
The destruction of Beaconhill was hidden from our sight - with barricades on the berm reminding us that there was so much more destruction to come. I strained to clarify that, indeed, the fire consumed even the lamps on the tops of the streetlights. The moment that we began to descend into the valley, where we normally see historic Waterways, it was no longer surreal. We could see it in all its devastating horror. I gasped at the sight. There are no images, no photographs, and no aerial views that compare to seeing the destruction in person.
But quickly, tears of heartache turned into tears of gratitude as Kevin directed my attention to what was in front of us. With flags raised on their truck ladders, emergency responders were standing on the bridge, waving and welcoming us home. Another perfect placement of encouragement and hope, shifting our gaze to what lies ahead. The reality of what was done by these brave men and women is staggering - especially as we see firsthand the blackened evidence of how the fire roared down the end of Beaconhill but did not consume all of Grayling Terrace. On our right, a section of homes destroyed in a seemingly random attack, where the fire must have leapt across the highway. Yet, the rest of downtown remained intact. What these heroes must have seen and have gone through in those initial days - the choices and sacrifices they made… it chills me to the bone.
We drove by a fairly quiet downtown – certainly not as eerie as the morning after the initial evacuation, as we left our overnight safe haven at a Northern work camp – but a Tim Horton’s with no lineup certainly signalled that something was not as it should be. Restoration company trucks were backed up at business doorways, starting their busy cleanup work. Traffic was light but every regular vehicle was a sign that the city was coming to life again.
On the left, the charred hillside warned of the devastation and danger beyond our view in Abasand, with police and security checkpoints blocking access up the hill. As we headed across the bridge, the view all around the river valley was astonishing. It was here that we could see how the city was surrounded in flames – how it had the power to leap over the Athabasca river. Entire sections were black and brown where it would normally be full of newly emerged buds on trembling aspen, white birch and balsam poplar trees. Yet, there were still patches of vibrant green, incredulously spared by the fire’s insatiable appetite. This green, a powerful metaphor for hope, resilience and renewal, was evident all throughout the city. Hillsides that had only recently been black were now green with new shoots. And even though the land was still so very dry, this new life seemed almost defiant in its ability to grow in these conditions.
We passed the turnoff to Thickwood, Dickensfield and Wood Buffalo, residents in that zone having to wait for their turn to come home the next day. Yet there were many here that would have to wait much longer as their homes have been destroyed. Nearly every neighbourhood has experienced loss and destruction. It's hard to fathom.
And then, finally, we reached the exit that would lead us home. Fire breaks tugged at my heart as familiar stands of trees had been bulldozed to protect as much as they could. That perpetual lump in my throat grew larger as we viewed evidence of the hasty evacuation, with abandoned vehicles still scattered on Confederation Way. Piled up tree trunks, removed from the Birchwood Trails, made me cringe and look away. Reminders everywhere of all the fire and its aftermath had taken – and will continue – to take from us.
Our first stop before heading home was a welcome centre, set-up in a school. Here we checked in with the Red Cross, signed up for ATCO to restore our gas service and asked some questions. It was frustrating to have smiling faces with large signs inviting us to inquire within, yet to discover they knew less than we did. And it was odd to be receiving service from people who didn’t know our community, who mispronounced familiar names of streets and areas as they tried to direct us elsewhere for answers. We still felt like evacuees – home, yet in a strange place.
Home, sweet, home. As we drove the familiar route back to our house, the anticipation was palpable - excited but nervous to see things for ourselves. A number of people were already busy at work in their homes within our neighbourhood, taped up fridges and full garbage bins arranged intermittently along the street. I checked the mailbox and pulled out a lone bill, covered in ash, stinking of smoke. With the smoke damage in our home we could not stay, only visiting long enough to assess the state of things, mow the lawn, wave at the occasional neighbour who had also arrived, and gather a few belongings we wished we had packed for the evacuation. What a strange feeling to be so homesick yet have to leave once again, and with no timeline or idea of when things would be safe enough to return home for good. But we are grateful - so very grateful to have a community to return to.
Update: June 15, 2016
We have made two more trips back up the highway to Fort McMurray since our re-entry day, and each time the city is looking increasingly alive. Despite the desire for normalcy, we know that a new normal has to be our aspiration, navigating through all these changes to find a routine that fits our new reality. Before we began to see burned forest leading into the municipality, signage reminds us to take care of our mental health and that counselling help is available. Even though we’ve already been through the city, those signs still make me brace for seeing it all again. And each time we drive by, more of the destroyed forest has been bulldozed, machinery working away to clean things up.
The city is full of visitors and restoration companies galore, with lots of temporary offices set up to meet the extraordinary demands. The Tim’s lineup is once again long, but with the drive-through closed you can see the line-up winding its way through the store. Restaurants and businesses are opening up and the familiar crowds at hardware stores make it clear that we are all itching to get things in order again - pursuing a new normal...
Helicopters still frequent the skies overhead, a familiar sight but with a noted increased presence. And homes that have been destroyed now have an unsettling whitish grey coating sprayed over them, called tacifier. We wonder about the long and short-term health of our community as we drive by. Some of the destruction is easily within view, like it is in Parsons Creek, as families were allowed to return to their standing homes even when everything is gone across the street. Rubicon crews were set up to sift through the debris, creating a cloud of ash and soot around them. Everything is not normal. Everything is not alright. Yet amazingly, in the middle of all of this chaos and heartbreak, there is a beautiful region, still nestled in the boreal forest, welcoming us back.
These are all signs of a community in transition – in recovery – yet still in the midst of crisis. Not everyone has been welcomed home. And too many have no house to return to. I'm still mourning, and suspect I will for quite some time, elements of the way things were in my beloved Northern community - the way life looked before this catastrophe. So much has changed and I'm feeling rather nostalgic. But I don't hang out in this wistful place for long. It's time to press on and dream new dreams, looking for blessings and beauty in the middle of it all. We cling to hope and will continue to look for every indication that we will be resilient and persevere, coming out of this better than we ever were.