Benchmark

I have spent Thursday mornings with Mary since 2005. I talked about our visits in my 2018 TEDx Winnipeg talk. Mary gets a mention every time I speak to a group–even this week, she came up several times as I gave workshops to various groups. When I talk about how I learned to talk to myself like a good friend would talk to me as a principal of self compassion, I let people know that I use Mary’s voice to remind me of what a kind conversation looks like.

Susan spent a year of Monday mornings with Mary–and they published a book about it. 53 weeks of meeting on a bench. Enjoying a muffin or an apple–or both together. Chatting. And then getting down to the creative work–Mary is an illustrator and would paint the scene in front of her. Susan is a writer–and she developed her poetry skills with a weekly poem.

They shared their work with each other at the end of each morning. Yesterday, they shared it with the world: Benchmark: Countering COVID through Painting and Poetry, the book, was launched.

The book launch was magical.

Mary Reimer and Susan Moore at microphones for their book launch of Benchmark
Mary and Susan did their book launch of Benchmark, the book, on–where else? A bench!!

I’ve heard Mary talk about their mornings together. Sometimes, she would show me the picture she had painted that week. It was a gift to see the culmination of their year long project yesterday–to celebrate the book–and to buy my own autographed copy!

Cover of "Benchmark: Countering Covid through Painting and Poetry
Book Cover

Mary and Susan began the “Benchmark Project” as a way to deal with the loneliness and isolation of the pandemic. When the going gets rough, Mary gets creative–and anyone having a conversation with her in the moment will get swept up in her creativity. (I have a dozen stories of being in the right place at the right time for Mary’s antics.)

The plan was to admire the views from benches outdoors during the spring and summer of 2020 and then move inside for the winter.

Would they have begun this project if they had known that restrictions would mandate they be outside all winter long?

The project took an unexpected turn when Mary’s husband was in hospital–a serious health crisis that got more critical with an added diagnosis of hospital acquired COVID-19. Mary sat at home alone for weeks and weeks, not being able to visit him, and, in some particularly dark days, fearing he might succumb to his illness.

Monday morning bench time was the one time Mary was with a person–Susan. Other visits–with family, and every Thursday with me–were all on Zoom. Susan sat vigil with Mary as she awaited news of her husband’s health. Mary sat vigil with Susan as long-planned retirement travel dreams fizzled and faded, as health problems worsened with pandemic stress developed.

Poem photo  of Melancholy Interrupted
Poem by Susan Moore
Why is sadness so often the underbelly of beauty?

Last winter was bleak, wasn’t i? It was hard for Mary and Susan too–but the Benchmark Project got them outside every Monday morning from June-June of the first year of the pandemic. Some weeks it was so cold, their ability to create outdoors was thwarted and after 30-40 minutes they went from the park bench to the car seat where the water for Mary’s paints could thaw, and Susan’s fingers could wrap around her pen again.

They write:

During those weeks of not knowing, of long days and nights in isolation, pleading prayer and learning to relinquish control, Benchmark Mondays with Susan were islands of escap3, of looking outward – while complying with the restrictions – and finding creative ways to connect safely….It was the manna I needed to sustain me for all that was happening. Breathing space!

Mary Reimer, from the book, page 112

Both Mary and Susan are women of faith, and in their language, the Monday morning times on benches in Winnipeg, and surrounding areas provided space for lament–for questions, doubts–but not despair. The time on the benches, looking at deer, or having a bird land on their finger were times to find hope.

Illustration of bird on Mary's finger
Mary would often snap a photo during their visit and use that to sketch and paint. Mary’s winter jacket is bright red.

They went to places to write and sketch and paint to all the places we all know and love.

Painting from the Forks Benchmark book
The Forks
King's Park painting in Benchmark book
King’s Park. Please excuse the shadow on the picture–my photo of a page in the book.
HOtel Fort Garry benchmark book
Hotel Fort Garry as seen through Mary’s eyes and hand

The back of the book says this:

The poems and paintings are raw and unedited as they captured a moment in time. Benchmark Mondays became a singular bright spot in a rather overwhelming pandemic year filled with crises of every kind. A unique spiritual practice, Benchmark became a place of grounding, encouragement and deep friendship.

Benchmark back cover

A message from me to Susan:

Susan, we both love Mary. Last year was hard on all of us–and uniquely hard for her. I’m so grateful that she had Benchmark Mondays with you. We are wired for connection–created for deep and meaningful relationship. Those relationships give us routine and rhythm during regular days, and hold us steady when life circumstances threaten to bend us to breaking. The sequoia trees teach us to spread our roots and interconnect with others. Their roots actually “hold hands” with each other to give stability and nourishment during times of struggle. You were an important tree in Mary’s forest last year–giving her strength and hope. Thank you for risking to write your poems and read them to Mary–your courage inspired hers. Susan, I’m so thankful for you.

2 Comments

  • Susan Moore

    Carolyn,
    Thank you so much for this generous “review” of the book. I spent a few days in Sequoia National Park before the pandemic and was amazed at the strength, grandeur and beauty of those trees. Even when burnt on the inside, they stood strong together. It’s a privilege to be part of the root system for our shared friend.

    • Carolyn Klassen

      Thanx, Susan, for your very gracious response here–and for all of that this book has done and will do. The sequoias are indeed remarkably resilient–they inspire me–and you get it! It’s so good to share good friends, isn’t it?

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