Savouring the ‘Journey Home Artist Retreat’ Experience
By SUSAN HURRELL
It had been a hectic week. Other than knowing we were driving up into the Riding Mountain Escarpment area, finding a farmhouse called Journey Home Artist Retreat, owned by a couple named Sherry and Robert, and that my partner Jacinthe and I would be fed home- cooked food and sleep in a yurt – we had no preconceived ideas of what the weekend would involve.
The drive was pleasant, just long enough to process the week that was and fall into a comfortable silence, punctuated by map and diagram checking and confirming we were on the right route:
Highway 1 to the Yellowhead. Turn onto 260, then dogleg turn on 265, and then get back on 260
They really meant “the next left”; what we thought was a just lane was actually the unnumbered municipal road that led to the farmstead. We rolled right past it at 15 km/h and had to turn back and turn right. AH! There’s a sign! It needs some solar lighting at night to make it more visible when approached from the south.
We could see farmyard lights in the distance as we drove past a field of hay bales. The road became a gently curving lane following the river, and we continued along another 100 or so metres until we turned into the yard proper, where a warmly lit farmhouse was waiting for us. You can’t miss the yurts – two big round white buildings with brightly painted doors. We parked, and were immediately greeted by Sherry, who emerged from the house with a big smile. Dinner was ready when we were, but did we want to see the yurt first?
I had the feeling that people were always curious to see the yurt first – a traditional Mongolian circular dwelling made of felted yak wool, horse hair ropes, wooden lattice, and hand painted support beams. Because of the nature of our winters, there is an extra wrapping of Tyvek paper between the felt and the traditional canvas cover. (To learn more about yurts, visit groovyyurts.com.)
We approached the beautifully painted door. I immediately felt that the first outer door offered more than protection from the elements. It swung open to reveal a second set of beautifully painted, glass paned doors within. Entering through this double gateway made me mindful that opening – whether a set of physical doors or, internally, to the mystery within ourselves – sometimes could prove to be unexpected work. Duck down, pilgrim, and don’t hit your head on the painted lintel – a barrier between the worlds, and your head and heaven.
The first step in took my breath away. There was a pair of poles in the centre that help support the structure, with a skylight window (covered from the exterior) that in a traditionally inhabited yurt would provide ventilation for the cook stove. The sparse western furniture did not detract from the sense of entering a different world – a dwelling place infused with the history of a people from a distinctly different culture than my own.
The room was perfectly round. I realized that I had felt this way before when entering traditional First Nations’ tipis. I, like most of you, live in a series of connected boxes. I ride to work in a box or a rectangle on wheels. I work in another set of connected boxes in a city laid out in a grid of right angle streets, avenues and boulevards – rivers permitting. I find that entering a round room causes me to feel different – as though my personal energy expands and yet is contained in a place where there is nowhere to hide.
There is a pleasant, earthy smell from the wool and the horse hair. There is a profound stillness, a lack of air movement that is not at all unpleasant. Without forced heating and cooling, there is only a natural wind-sourced breathing that the yurt seems to do; not that it is drafty – it is snug, and still, and quiet.
Sherry just stood by with a big grin while we took it all in, oohed and awed and put down our luggage. (Amazing how much stuff you think you need for a two-night stay. Seriously. Stupid. Pack lightly.)
We headed to the 100-year-old farmhouse, which has been tastefully renovated for contemporary comfort. Our hosts, Sherry Lynn and her partner, the artist and Shaman, Robert Christiani, are friendly and inviting. We feel like long-lost cousins being welcomed back to a family homestead for the first time (contradiction intended). They are both careful to not enforce an intimacy and are the perfect hosts. Both allow their guests to guide the initial conversations and pay close attention.
There was much friendly chatter as we sat down to a delicious late supper of homemade soup, fresh bread still warm from the oven and a baked berry crumble.
After the “first date – getting to know you” chit-chat, the conversation shifts to what Jacinthe and I want from the weekend. “What will make your heart sing?” is how Sherry asks it. I pause to give this some consideration because usually I am the one asking the hard questions of experiential workshop participants. Now it is Jacinthe and I who get to experience “the mystery” that will be shaped by our hopes and desires for the weekend, guided gently by our hosts, and punctuated by two nights of sleeping in the round. We talk about some goals, some hopes and dreams and share a bit of our personal journey to help put our desires for the weekend into context.
Journey Home Artist Retreat had its birth in a heart song written by Sherry over a decade ago when she was running a daycare facility and allowing herself to dream what her future would hold. She is a skilled body worker in Reiki, Therapeutic Touch and Access Consciousness therapies. Her orchard and garden provide much of the produce, herbs and fruit she transforms into delicious meals in her cozy country kitchen.
The house is full of Robert’s art: paintings and sculptures of a spiritual nature. He has worked as an artist and art instructor for most of his professional life. His work is beautiful, and the gold antlered mask with its dreamcatcher in the middle of the rack nearly took me to my knees; I have stags horns and the triple moon tattooed on my back. A good omen for the spiritual journey ahead. Hail, Herne the Hunter!
There is a sitting room with a big bookcase full of books that to me were a welcome mix of old friends and potential new acquaintances. The big farm-style dining table has a view of where the lane and the road run in winding parallel. There is a wood stove with a rocking and reading chair, set a bit apart within the open concept dining room, creating a semi-private space.
Let’s talk about the food. There is a questionnaire for guests that you submit as part of your registration to give Sherry an idea of food preferences and to identify allergies. We decided that part of our weekend was the relinquishing of control and a letting go of “managing life.” Other than specifying two life-threatening food allergies, we were open to enjoy whatever was put on the table. Knowing that our needs would be met with healthy, flavourful, nutritious food was an integral part of being cared for.
Yurt-dwelling guests have their own fastidiously clean private bathroom with tub and shower, tucked just inside the farmhouse, off the kitchen. It is yours to use for the duration of your stay – leave your toiletries there. Flashlights are provided for any middle of the night bathroom jaunts. The barn cats will be out mousing under the moon if you make that little trip from yurt to house under the stars. They also run across the roof of the yurt in the night, but you likely won’t hear them. We also didn’t hear the coyotes that were serenading us as we slept.
Every person’s experience at Journey Home will be unique, because each guest experience is custom tailored to that guest’s requirements. The experience is as diverse as the guests who arrive and is shaped, guided or provided for as required. For example, guests can experience:
A silent retreat, with food delivered to, and dirty dishes picked up at, the yurt door. Be seen only to use the washroom.
Creative block-busting for artists, writers and musicians, gently guided by Robert to open up the creative process. But you don’t need to be an artist – don’t let the name fool you. Let your creative spirit come out to play.
Honeymoon-style couple time, with long trail walks, maybe some bodywork and late night bonfires under the stars. All couples welcome.
Culinary Adventuring. Learn to cook vegetarian international cuisine – a house specialty. If the season is right, learn how to do old-fashioned canning and preserving, a vanishing art.
Grieving Space. Many guests have found a healing balance between the solitude of the yurt, walking the land, sitting in the big room of the farmhouse, reading by the wood burning furnace, and being provided with tea (and tissues) as needed. No extra charge for the compassionate listening that may be required.
Spiritual Seekers can devote their time to deep shamanic work, gently and safely guided by Robert on a vision quest, with plenty of time to process the results of that journey before returning to their daily routine.
Family time for mini-reunions, taking up both yurts, and maybe bringing a tent or two, to experience time together without the distraction of “real life” intruding (no cooking, no dishes, no shopping, prep or planning.)
Whatever you need, if it is within Robert and Sherry’s ability to create, facilitate or enable, it can be yours – as interactive or as solitary as you need it to be. Spend a weekend doing a big jigsaw puzzle to clear your mind, learn to carve soapstone, write a novel in a week, sing around the dinner table or howl at the moon, under the stars. It’s all there for you.
Our experience? Jacinthe walked the river paths and did some meditating and had some bodywork with Sherry. I read, meditated and did some shamanic work with Robert. Together the four of us had long leisurely meals, plates full of food and conversations full of laughter. We sang and drummed together Saturday night. Jacinthe and I slept in, well past our regular weekday 5 AM rising time. Except for some shared research on Sunday morning – we were unplugged. Off the Grid. We rested, and allowed ourselves to be cared for in a way that we seldom experience.
Our hosts were attentive, but never intrusive; I had a coughing spell, and suddenly hot sweet herbal tea appeared. Given our own personal stated goals for the weekend, as established on Friday night, the conversations were deep, philosophical and vibrant, with good questions that pushed our comfort boundaries a bit. We were encouraged, gently, to be reflective, self-aware and clear in communication as we worked over, under, around and finally through some of the internal blockages we had hoped to overcome. No judgement. Much introspection. Robert and Sherry are not counsellors, but they are good listeners and asked amazingly insightful questions, because we gave them permission to.
Any negatives? A brighter sign at the Waldersee intersection to make that immediate left turn. I understand why the retreat is not pet-friendly, but I would have loved to take my dogs. That’s about it. And those of you who know me know I’m nothing if not hypercritical and nitpicky.
There are great plans to expand the services offered at Journey Home Artist Retreat. Sherry offers a Monday Tea Room on a relatively regular basis (check the website, journeyhomeartistretreat.ca). The two participate in local Culture Days celebrations and provide weekday space for “Business Meetings by the River” as an alternative venue for boardroom meetings. Both Robert and Sherry offer classes of different types at Journey Home and other venues in the Parkland region. They hope to winterize the yurts for four-season use by adding wood pellet stoves for winter 2015–2016, permits and budgets permitting.
There are few enough weekends, or week-long vacation periods, in our three seasons of relatively clement weather here in Manitoba. The Journey Home Artist Retreat experience is a “one-guest/couple/family” experience – when you book your time there, no other guests are in residence, unless you give your consent for the second yurt to be occupied as well.
In our opinion, this makes Journey Home Artist Retreat a precious Manitoba Restorative Resource – so few of those who want to go there will have the opportunity. I find it comforting to believe that the lucky ones who book their space and immerse themselves in the experience will be the truly blessed ones. They will receive exactly what so many of us need – a place where our bodies can rest, our minds can wonder and our souls can explore their own Journey Home.
Recommendations for Visitors:
Use the road trip out to decompress as much as you can, so you arrive at Journey Home with as little dominant mental clutter and chatter as possible. Talk it out – sing it out, shout it out – let it go. Maximize the gift of some easy highway driving by letting the road compost your static. Don’t plan to pick it up on the way back to the city.
When you enter the yurt, allow yourself to pause and drink it in. Take at least three deep breaths before speaking, moving around, getting settled in. Let your eyes drink in the magical construction, the rich hand-painted detailing, the sense of inhabiting a differently shaped space than your personal energy field is used to inhabiting.
Allow yourself to be embraced as a “guest-friend” by your hosts. We are not used to being genuinely cared for by strangers that we are paying for room and board. Truth be told, you will only be strangers for the first couple hours. After that, once the tone of the weekend has been determined, you will be co-conspirators and co-creators of your unique weekend experience.
Don’t fuss about food – allow yourself to experience the bounty of the table as presented. Sherry will pick up clues to what will delight your palate. Identify allergies, absolutely – but other than that, prepare to feast on unexpected pleasures.
Select one of their intentional programs – but don’t be afraid of going there for an unstructured experience. I highly recommend the unplugged, unplanned experience. For once in your life, go somewhere to find out “what makes your heart sing” without thinking you know what that is.
Book your return visit before you leave. Why should such a magical experience only be “once in a lifetime?”
Susan Hurrell sees the Sacred in strange and wonderful places in popular culture. Fascinated by new spiritual movements, she is a contributing editor to The Aquarian.