Telling stories

“Don’t tell stories.” How many times did my mother say those words to me? What she meant was “Tell the truth.” My mother had no time for fantasy or tolerance for lies. Life was black and white for Phyllis Snobelen. She was too busy and practical to wade through the complications of nuance.

There were hard truths in our family that were determined by our religious beliefs that provided her solid ground from which she could pronounce what was right and what was wrong.

Right here I’m stuck. Where do I go with this? Many of you are probably saying, “But if you were Christian isn’t your entire religion based on stories?”

Exactly. And the Bible provides some of the most popular stories in the western world. Stories from which my mother extracted her black and white, but that’s for another discussion at another time time. And then there’s Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

Not to diminish the importance of the stories I was raised with but we’ve come a long way since the late 50s and 60s when I was a child. Stories are not the opposite of truth. Stories are not “just” stories. They are the way humans have communicated with each other since we had language.

I’m thankful my mother lived long enough to hear me tell stories and to read some of the stories I had written. While she liked them she could never truly understand the point of it. From her perspective if a story wasn’t God’s story then it was of hugely diminished importance.

But when dementia began blurring the hard lines she had drawn in her life I spent hours with my mother telling her stories. Simple stories about buying a pair of boots or visiting an old friend kept her entertained. She told me stories that were a collage of her childhood and my childhood mixed with, perhaps, utter fantasy. She kept me entertained.

As her dementia progressed she struggled to remember even her closest friends. When a very dear family acquaintance died she had no recollection of him at all. It wasn’t until I recreated into a story something she had experienced dozens of times that she connected.

“Remember at the church on Sunday nights, Mom,” I said. “George (name change) the door man, with his long, dour face, paced across the back of the hall. He watched the second hand of the clock tick until it reached the 12 at 7:30…precisely 7:30. Then he shut the doors and sat down ready for the meeting to begin. Remember wondering why he never smiled?”

“Oh yes,” she said. “But he had a lovely wife who had a beautiful big smile for everyone.”

Stories didn’t just entertain my mother, they helped her connect to me, to her life and to the world. Stories aren’t just stories, they communicate the essence of what it means to be human.

The art of making space

And then there’s the paint dress.

Winston Churchill said, “First we make our houses and then our houses make us.” He wasn’t talking about our private homes but it’s true. We have a reciprocal relationship with where we live. We start by painting the rooms to match our furniture, or the other way around. We set up our photos and hang our art. We nestle in our favourite corner of the sofa and arrange the bookshelf (or TV remote) so it’s an arm’s distance away. Nothing feels better than breathing in the scent of our favourite meal and listening to the sounds of our personal lives…music, children’s voices, video games, conversation…

Whether our house is a mansion, an apartment or a tiny room…we begin making our space at the same time our space begins making us. Our home is where we feel safe (or not). It is where we learn, love and rejuvenate ourselves. It is where we laugh and cry, where we experience our greatest joy and where we suffer our most heart wrenching struggles. It is where we become who we are.

Our home is an expression of ourselves. It is, in a way, our primary art form. It is creative, not just in its decoration but in its function…in how it relates to us and us to it. We are both becoming.

Preparing the Lodge for guests made me think about the relationship between the visitors and the space and what role we play, as innkeepers, in that interaction.

I was laughing with a woman from Vancouver who was staying for a few days. “I have become a maid,” I said. “It’s a long way from the heady work I used to do…changing the world.”

“But it’s important,” she said. “Creating a sanctuary where people can spend a few days in peace, where they can feel valued and respected, where they can learn something and share something. Or where they can disappear in the garden or in their room, whatever they need at the time.”

And, as my son, Adam, said the last time he was here. “The Lodge is good medicine.”

Preparing that medicine has become our art form. We are making the space while at the same time the space is making us and it is helping to make the people who come to find peace of mind, serenity of spirit and simple enjoyment.

This is as high as I’ll go. Thankfully an Island painter is coming to do the top floor.

A new relationship

The last glorious bouquet of hydrangeas from the garden

Six months ago Tex and I had the privilege to become the owners of the Saturna Lodge. It is a grand old house that’s foundations were built in the 1920s but has had several total facelifts and reincarnations since. It is on Saturna Island perched on the hill at the toe of Boot Cove looking down the inlet to Navy Channel.

While we had shares in the Lodge earlier it wasn’t until February this year that our relationship truly got off the ground—the Lodge and us. Madison, my 19-year-old granddaughter, best describes our initial feelings. On her first visit she walked in and circled around. She nodded her head while checking it out.

“Wow, Grandma,” she said. “This is a thing. And it’s a lot.”

Once we got over the muchness of our purchase we began looking for words to describe our connection—steward, custodian, caretaker. The Lodge required us to rethink the idea of ownership. In many ways we felt that we had formed a partnership with the building and property—that the Lodge, itself, was the third party to a new liaison.

Like in any new relationship we needed to listen and learn who the Lodge was and how she functioned (she is definitely and graciously a she). We got to know how quietly she weathers gale force winds, how the sun sidles down the cove and finds her late in the morning, how she presides over the garden as if she is grounded in beauty. And overwhelmingly we came to know how much care she needed from us…the immediate repairs to the old deck, outdoor stairs, porches and siding…the protective painting …the energy saving remediations…

We found out that the Saturna community felt a sense of ownership of the Lodge. It was as if everyone we met had either worked there, stayed there, been married there, had dinner there, had great ideas for what could happen there, had wanted to buy it…but didn’t. We did. Now what?

We had ideas. The space seemed perfectly suited for small events—board meetings, training sessions, workshops, family gatherings… We thought that we might host a dozen or so such occasions a year. It was a manageable business plan and still is.

But many islanders told us that the Lodge needed to reopen for short-term guests. The island didn’t have enough accommodations.

The Lodge herself seemed to agree. She wasn’t built to be a private dwelling. She was designed for short term lodgers…a bed and breakfast. Lovely rooms, comfortable shared indoor and covered outdoor space and gardens to live in.

Tex, is the quintessential innkeeper, the congenial host, the world travelled, genteel hotelier who loves to meet and greet people so it was easy for him to agree.

At first I didn’t want to think about operating a B&B; cleaning, changing beds, cleaning, making breakfast, cleaning… And besides that the Lodge wasn’t prepared. There was too much to do to get her guest-ready. She needed work.

But we agreed, perhaps all of us together, that we should open the door and slowly let people in. In April Tex said yes when a woman called. She was working on the island and needed a room for two nights.

She was from Surrey. She had two teenagers at the madness stage. She hadn’t been feeling well lately. She wasn’t sure about her husband anymore but his folks lived downstairs and that was the only way they could afford their house. The whole thing made her tired.

After she dragged her bags into her room she took her cans of cider out to the hot tub that is nestled in the trees overlooking the garden. A few hours later I got worried. Are we supposed to make sure our guests are okay? The mother in me said, go find her. It was dark and cold. She was blissfully listening to music oblivious to the hours that had passed.

“Thank you so much for letting me stay here,” she said. “I feel calm, serene, peaceful. I haven’t felt that way in a long time. This place has a special tranquility about it. I really needed it.”

A psychiatrist who stayed a few weeks ago said the same thing, “If there is one thing people need these days it’s serenity. And that’s what you have here. This place is a gift.”

The sun is half way down the hill on the other side of the Cove. It’s time to put breakfast on the bar. We are painting the exterior and as Maddy said, “It’s a lot.”

There are beautiful twin boys and their parents staying in the family room downstairs. They will be up soon looking for something to eat. People say this is our fourth quarter, Tex and I. Perhaps. I hope it’s not our final inning. But I think it might be our last big play and if it is, it’s sure a hell of a gig. One thing is for sure…the Lodge is getting ready for whatever is coming her way.

Welcome to our Saturna House

Sometime in the morning of April 8, 2021 after a few weeks of negotiations we received a call from Caroline, our lawyer, to tell us that Tex and I, along with our partners Elizabeth May and John Kidder were the owners of the Saturna Lodge located on Saturna Island, one of the Southern Gulf Islands in the Salish Sea.

It was only a few weeks before, that the four of us had decided to look into purchasing a place together. None of us were sure what that would look like but once we visited the Lodge we knew that we had found our home. The news that our hastily made plans were now a reality felt like pure possibility. Suddenly there were five of us in the mix, two couples and a grand old lady perched on a gracefully tiered hillside overlooking the calm, sparkling Boot Cove.

First the house would become our home— Elizabeth and John wanted to live there full time; Tex and I, part time. Almost immediately we faced our first challenge. They moved in lock, stock and barrel out of their apartment in Sidney, but the previous owners had left everything from dish towels (some still dirty) and bedroom furniture to a loaded pantry with stuff like a dozen or so bottles of HP sauce, half eaten boxes of Stoned Wheat Thins and jars of peanut butter in the fridge. Our first tasks were to clean, expunge and make space.

Colin Kwok, an architect and friend from Vancouver, came with Joyce, his wife, to get to know our fifth partner and advise us on adaptations we can make so the five of us can live together peacefully.

Never before have I felt more reverence towards a house and a place. Never before have I had such an immediately wonderful relationship with a house and felt such a deep responsibility to enhance and protect her, knowing she will do the same for me.

It’s been only 3 months so we are still settling in to all these relationships. It’s been a long time since any of us have had roommates but we are excited about in our new experience of collaboration, sharing and adventure.

One thing all five of us agree on is that we want many of you to come and visit and share the peace and the beauty. It’ll take time but stay tuned.

The bench welcomes you at the front door