Peer Group

You can stare at something for a decade and still not see it for what it is. Like, say, your therapist, whose charming spiritual community might be a cult.

November 17, 2016

Jay Smith is an Edmonton-based writer, poet, and editor. Her work has appeared in Reader's Digest, the LA Times, the Walrus, and newspapers and...

For years after my own grandmother died, my therapist was a grandmotherly New York Jew who had recently moved to Edmonton. Perle.* Perle had studied at the Jung Institute in New York. Rail-thin, with olive skin roped with veins and a soft Jewfro of silver hair, she bore something of a physical resemblance to my grandmother, too. I found this comforting, even if it was an obvious sort of comfort, the sort that psychotherapy is meant to unravel. Every other Tuesday for the better part of ten years, I cycled to the west end of town, past the gay village, past the Mountain Equipment Co-op, past my dentist, to the dusty walk-up commercial building where Perle had her office. And, once there, I talked about myself.

Through the bits and pieces of personal information I gathered at the beginnings and ends of our sessions together, however, I discovered things about Perle. I learned she and her husband had sold everything they owned to come to Edmonton. A lifetime of stuff. Perle had marvelled about how quickly you could get rid of everything. Within days of making their decision to relocate here—her husband was also a Jungian analyst, he was enthusiastic about the move, too—she said they had donated all their books to a woman’s prison. Given their furniture to some program for transitioning homeless people. Their clothes and tchotchkes to more shelters and Goodwill.

“What about your kids?” I asked. “Didn’t they care?”

“We gave them some gifts, some art, but they know that all of that is just stuff. Material possessions do not define our relationship,” said Perle in her gushing, enthusiastic tones, her accent round and maybe a little smug.

Because these conversations were meant to be about me, I didn’t ask why a couple in their late sixties would give up all their earthy possessions, their comfortable home in New York City and their proximity to their family to live in Northern Canada. I had too much to talk about. At first, the tumult of my twenties. Then an unexpected pregnancy. I quit grad school. Then the death of my partner’s dad two weeks before I gave birth. Eventually we talked about my work at a marketing company, where I felt I was subtly told, over and over again, that my worth was related to my fuckability. The boss at the dysfunctional little marketing agency invited me into his palatial office one frigid November morning, when the rest of the once-upon-a-time art gallery was so draughty we were wrapped in blankets. He shut the door and angled the space heaters towards my legs. The Beatles had finally let Apple sell their albums on iTunes, he told me. What did I think of the graphic design on the Apple homepage, the fab four in monochrome against a white background? It was so clean, wasn’t it? And, by the way, what did I think about Hemingway? About David Foster Wallace. About Mark Strand.

Throughout this period, my therapist did what I’m not sure that most therapists do. Rather than delving into impulses and desire and drives and archetypes, she gave me cheery pep talks. About how great I was as a mother. As a person. My boss was toxic. Stay away from him, look for new work. It all seemed so obvious. It felt too easy.

My friend Ivy,* a Chilean-Canadian, almost-but-not-quite grazed five feet. She had the giant breasts and protruding stomach of an ancient fertility goddess and blunt black bangs. Her parents came from Santiago, in the ’70s, fleeing Pinochet. We met in university, in an undergraduate seminar class entitled “Feminism, Freedom, and the Social.” There we learnt that the nuclear family was the seat of contemporary women’s oppression. The difference between the economic fortunes of men and women aren’t just basic sexism, paying men more for the same work done, but the systemic discrimination of women as mothers within the economic system. There were no actual mothers in the classroom and this only facilitated our theoretical fervour.

In seminar, Ivy gesticulated whenever she spoke. She seemed less short sitting at a table. You could forget how tiny she was. There, she told fabulous non sequiturs: about how in Argentina, there were the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Or about how she was the only woman of colour at 4H growing up.

We went for coffee after the seminar. In the winter, we bought cheap bowls of lentil soup from a hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurant near campus. One day, our hands cupped around hot mugs of three-dollar dhal, she invited me to a potluck at her house. So I went.

Her house was one of those heritage mansions near school, a three-storey home from 1896. There was a historical plaque out front. The sidewalks were unshovelled, the path to the door just snow stomped down with footprints.

When I knocked, another woman I knew, dark-haired Diana who studied environmental economics, answered. She was wearing a shirt with two small holes cut out on each side of her chest, holes through which her nipples poked. Her get-up was thoroughly bested by her best friend, however, who clung to her side and wore nothing on her upper body but a layer of sprayed-on silver silicone.

I wandered to the kitchen to find Ivy.

“Oh,” said Ivy nonchalantly, stirring some curried vegetables sizzling on a stovetop wok, when I asked. “It’s Jenna’s* ‘sexy spin the bottle night.’” Jenna was Ivy’s roommate, a tall, wide-hipped woman who studied anthropology.

“You said it was a potluck with friends!” I yelped. I slapped my tupperware of hummus on the table.

“Well, it is. No one said you had to participate in sexy spin the bottle. I’m not going to.” She added some soy milk to the curry, tasted the result, and made a funny face. “Besides, it will be fun to watch, no?”

On the couch sat a hairy, softish man in a wife beater and jeans which had dangerously revealing slits in the crotch and backside. His legs lolled wide as he drank a beer. Two plain women in slips wore garish makeup and had conspicuously unshaven armpits. Jenna, who was recently back from India, again, went braless in a brightly patterned halter top and transluscent billowing pants. I was pretty sure she wasn’t wearing underwear. No one could compete with the woman covered in silver silicon. She shone. I turned my attention to the hummus.

As more guests filtered in, the party divided neatly into those Ivy had invited and those she had not. The latter, Jenna’s friends, arrived in lurid and revealing clothing and were eager to drink. Ivy’s friends took one look and fled to the kitchen, exaggerating concern about the state of the hors d’oeuvres.

From the other room, Jenna explained the rules of the game. She stood at the centre of a circle of cushions. You said what you wanted done to you, spun the bottle, and whomever it landed on had to do that thing to you. Nothing, nothing at all, was off-limits! Everyone in the living room formed an obedient circle on the ground, roughly aligning with the cushions she had set out. Those of us in the kitchen made sure that we had good sight lines through the door into the living room.

Jenna offered to go first, declaring, squeezing her eyes tightly shut as if she were wishing on a lucky penny, that she would like a kiss on the cheek. I rolled my eyes involuntarily. Theatrically, she spun the wine bottle, which happened to stop at a not-unattractive blonde man who jumped up, eagerly, to pay her a peck.

Then it was his turn to spin the bottle. And it went on. From the kitchen, where I crouched near the door, a beer in hand, with the others tricked into attending the event, I was unimpressed. The “nothing off-limits” business was entirely unnecessary. Everyone was tame in their requests. The room tittered when one guy asked for two women to sit on his lap and make out. The two women so chosen, the hairy-armpit-slip girls, blushing fantastically, completed the task with professional efficiency. I wondered if they kissed when no one was watching, too.

Not long after that, one of the men, the guy wearing terrifyingly torn-up jeans, had a turn. He announced that he wanted to be bitten. Hard. And spanked, too. At the same time. Eagerly, he spun the bottle. Hard.

The room was silent until, as the bottle slowed, there was a sudden collapse of people. Everyone pushed each other over to get out of the way. A third of the circle had collapsed onto itself when the bottle finally stopped, slowly, painfully, its nose pointing through the door that separated the kitchen from the living room. As those of us in the kitchen realized what was happening, a similar fight broke out, Ivy crushing against the stove, a guest simply walking out the back door to the yard. In blank horror, I realized the bottle was pointing straight at me.

“But... but...” I sputtered. “I’m not even playing! That’s why I was sitting in the kitchen!”

Jenna ruled immediately against me. “No such luck, my dear.”

I groaned. She came over and physically accompanied me to where he was kneeling. Skin bulged out from the slits in his jeans. “So, um, where do you want to be bitten?” I asked, a gruesome flavour in my mouth. He gestured to his neck.

“Also,” he said, “pinch my nipple while you do this. I like that.”

He tasted salty. His neck was spongey, his skin coated with tacky sweat. My teeth left subtle pink indentations. When I spanked him, tentatively, embarrassed, he said it wasn’t hard enough. I had to do it again. I felt no eros. I started laughing, mostly out of nervousness, then others laughed a little too. And then, after that seemingly unendurable duration that was no doubt only a minute, spanking, spanking, biting, spanking, tweaking, it was over. My turn. Gah.

I don’t remember what I requested when I spun the bottle. Something even chaster than the chastest of the previous requests. Afterwards, I scampered back to the kitchen and scooped up a mouthful of hummus. I felt braced by the garlic, gratefully unscathed. The other women there offered their meek consolations. In the other room, the game continued.

“Well,” said Jenna, after it was all said and done, her cheeks flushed, “that was steamy.”

At one point, my therapist disappeared on a pilgrimage to somewhere, she said, that had “great spiritual significance.” Perle wouldn’t say where, except that it wasn’t Israel, which I found strange. But, then, she never seemed particularly concerned by Judaism. She wasn’t quite one of those “I’ll eat bacon for breakfast and feel no regret” Jews—there were a handful that hung out in the philosophy department at school—but she had an indifference towards the goings-on at the Jewish Family Services, and Judaism in general, that I found even more outré. Once she said, for instance, “They will probably want to shut down for the High Holidays.” What Jew doesn’t want to celebrate the High Holidays? (Even the bacon-eating Jews I knew did!)

Her ability not to be mired in things was mystifying. Take her husband. At one appointment, I was the last patient of the day and he came to pick her up. We ended up in the elevator together, the three of us, and she introduced me to him. Carl. He was a bent-over man, ancient, dressed in a brown suit, with pale soft skin and infinitely wrinkled. He didn’t look unlike Jung himself, his tufts of salt-and-pepper ear hair, the smear of a mustache over his lip, and vague wave of a comb over. How could Perle be so tough, so compact, so mentally sharp, so fit—I saw her once power walking through the river valley; her elbows were formidable—while he was this doddering old man?

Ivy and I called it the staring cult. That was because its leader, John, was this superior spiritual being who didn’t need to talk to you, or to anyone. He only needed to stare at you to communicate his divine wisdom. 

Then he had a stroke. I hadn’t seen her for at least half a year—I might have been off travelling, I can’t remember now—and she told me about how she had tried to take care of him for a few months at home. Then she gave up and put him in an assisted living facility. He was gone, the Carl that she knew, she explained. So that was that. He was being well-cared-for. He was not unhappy. Not long after, she went on her pilgrimage.

Anyway, I didn’t think much about any of this because this was when I became, rather unexpectedly, pregnant with my daughter. I had been seeing her father for a while but not so long. I tried to book an appointment with Perle but instead I was told to talk with the woman who was filling in for Perle while she was away on pilgrimage. So I went, and I talked about my anxieties about being kicked out of grad school. My worries about how I was going to support myself since the university had refused to honour my mat leave.

This woman, one of those impossibly cheerful people, didn’t answer at first. She reached over and picked up a picture frame that was sitting on her desk. A picture of a little baby. Newborn-ish. Ridiculously fat, ridiculously cute.

“But just think!” she cooed. “That’s what’s growing inside of you! And once your baby is born, none of this other stuff will matter!” She smiled sunnily at her blatant falsehood. It took me a minute to realize that the kid was the stock image that came with the picture frame.

Around the time that we were all finishing up our undergraduate degrees, Jenna joined a cult. The cult. The only cult in town. She had gone, she said, with her robust anthropologist’s mindset, and morphed, in one slippery moment, from participant-observer to platitude-spinning convert.

Those of us who were not part of it, like Ivy and I, called it the staring cult. That was because its leader, John, we were told, was this superior spiritual being who didn’t need to talk to you, or to anyone. He only needed to stare at you to communicate his divine wisdom. John, a blonde guy with a beard, blue eyes, was so transcendental. His gaze! His acolytes assembled in a room and he sat on a chair in front of them, just staring out at the crowd. People, mostly women, apparently cried at the profundity. Sometimes he would say things, sure, but mostly it was just this. Staring.

“Jesus,” Ivy muttered to me as we opened our books in our seminar entitled Phantasmatic Children: Literature, Childhood, and Psychoanalysis. “Of course a white man looking to increase his appeal as a spiritual leader would grow a beard and long hair and have blue eyes.”

When I asked Jenna about what made it worth bothering to carpool all the way out to the west end twice a week, she couldn’t quite answer. The response, she finally argued—I think she cited William James classifying this as one of the aspects of a religious experience—couldn’t be rendered in language without being purely cliché. She said things like: It is the warmth of being acknowledged. The pleasure of feeling time slow and curdle around you. A universal embrace.

When I probed, nothing that she said John did or said seemed particularly profound. She tried one of his koans out on me: “You are not your pain.”

Meanwhile, without her pain, or whatever it was, Jenna was slipping away, at least from our university crowd. She still went to class, but she didn’t waste time with us anymore. She seemed flatter, more guarded; her emotional centre was always somewhere else. Little creases appeared at the corners of her mouth.

After she joined the cult, she stopped throwing those raucous parties. She still had potlucks, but they were no longer of the sexy variety. The few times I did end up at their place, it was usually thanks to an invitation from Ivy. She had a strange relationship with these events considering she thought the cult was nuts; Ivy had the same sort of bewildered concern others might have when their best friends dive into drug addiction. So we bore uncomfortable witness. The conversations at these “parties” were always exaggeratedly proper, the way I imagined church groups talked. Everyone seemed I’ve-been-drugged slow. They chewed their food thoroughly. John believed alcohol polluted the body, Jenna informed me, and consequently no one ever drank. More often than not, they discussed John’s teachings.

“My heart simply responded to what I most love. It’s most wonderfully, irresistibly choiceless. I simply love to be sitting at the feet of Truth,” an Australian guy who used to surf competitively and had somehow ended up in the middle of the prairies enthused. Now he was a scruffy Neil Young, salt-and-pepper hair thinning at the top, in a worn-out t-shirt.

Just as we had at the sexy parties, Ivy and I took refuge in the kitchen. Sometimes, dull-eyed and earnest, Jenna’s new friends would approach us. They asked us why they had never seen us before at the meetings. When we explained that we didn’t go, they assured us that they too once felt the same way. Without fail, those who were sucked into the cult always talked about how they didn’t choose to join. They had simply gone out of curiosity and ended up converted. It was a significant part of the narrative, how each of the conversion stories began. The ex-surfer, his chin flecked with silver stubble, summed it up while sipping his Holy Basil tea: “When love enters the ring, the fighter falls in love.”

The cult members themselves were, on the whole, an eclectic bunch. A ponytailed classical guitarist who always wore the same faded black chinos with pleats in the front. A tiny South African blonde, with wide blue eyes, who married another member almost immediately upon arriving in Canada and became instantly pregnant. Her belly swelled over the summer and produced a baby that, by the next summer, was fat, while she was thin again.

I ran into this woman for years afterward. She swelled seasonally, producing a baby in the fall as the leaves were browning, reemerging in the springtime at the playground already thickening around the waist and beginning to waddle. This woman had childlike features, was tiny and naturally slim when she wasn’t pregnant. She was the sort people call elfin. She withered over the course of those years. Her skin became dry, her face became lined, and her stomach, when she finished with the breeding at last, when her cult husband moved on to another woman and she was left alone with the four children, and she lived off of a hastily acquired job as a cashier at the local IGA, her stomach was permanently softened.

“Don’t ask,” she said to me once, in a rare moment of acknowledgement when she rang through my yogurt and frozen berries and bread one afternoon at the grocery store, “I’m not expecting again. People keep asking me. I’m not.”

“No,” I muttered, “I never thought to ask.”

When Perle returned, we fell back into our rhythm of a visit every month or two. I felt light, leaving my sessions with Perle. Unbruised.

Maybe that was the point. Because I didn’t feel unbruised much of the rest of the time. My relationship with my partner, my kid’s dad, was crumbling. Both of us had failed at academia. His father collapsed from an aneurysm while jogging up the seventeen flights of stairs to his penthouse condo. Afterward, his sister’s functional alcoholism transformed into heroin addiction. No one could deal with her except him, so he did.

And so we fought, his anger stoked if I didn’t seal the bag of coffee beans air tight, or continued to drink water or juice out of stemmed glasses, even though sometimes they’d tip over and break and I wouldn’t mop the floors well enough afterward to pick up all the shards of glass.

This is the difference between the stories that you tell and the stories as they actually happened. 

Throughout this, I had it in my mind that it was imperative that I never lose my temper. Not just because the disagreements always seemed so trivial to me. But because when a woman loses her temper, she becomes hysterical. I knew this because he told me so. So when he provoked me, I would quietly ask for time to cool off. He’d follow me around the house, shouting and insisting that we sort things out now, that I wasn’t allowed to put things off anymore. That I always did this, that I was trying my old tricks of evading conversation. Refusing to discuss my culpability.

One day he was following me up the stairs to our room when something occurred to me. This was all just a play. His yelling, his following me around the house. I was a part in a play. Someone else’s recursive tempest. I turned around and stared at him, his livid dark eyes. There was an opacity to his pupils, unknowable. He paused for a moment, then, prompted by whatever internal script, started yelling louder.

The last winter we were in school together, Jenna, Ivy and I, we decided on a spur-of-the-moment trip to the mountains. It was ill-fated. We left on a Friday after we finished exams, driving Jenna’s grandmother’s yacht of a car, Big Red, into a snow globe snowstorm. One of those blizzards in which the sharp snowflakes fly horizontally. A curtain of thick white. We probably shouldn’t have been on the highways.

As we crawled through white flakes blitzing in the headlights, we sang along to the oldies on the Yellowhead AM radio station. Our plan was to stay at the Athabasca hotel, the cheapest accommodation in Jasper. Forty-five dollars got you one room just large enough to hold a double bed. The shared washrooms and showers were down the hall. It was so cheap that it attracted people like us who were intent on cramming three people into a space hardly big enough for two. Knowing this, the Athabee made it very clear that only two people were allowed to stay in each room. So we lied. The women at the front desk made us swear up and down that we were not planning to stay three in a room. One of us was staying with a friend in town, we insisted. We never said which one of us. We were bad liars.

We were also bad at posturing. Twenty minutes later, Ivy and I went out to the car to get things we had forgotten and we were caught knocking on the locked door of the room. The cleaning woman asked the good question: if we were staying just two to a room, who’s on the inside?

Into the minus-thirty night I went. I slept in the car, wrapped in three sleeping bags. It wasn’t bad at all. I slept well.

This is the difference between the stories that you tell and the stories as they actually happened. Jenna and Ivy have always told this part of the story as the beginning of the tragedy of our trip. I thought about things like this in relation to therapy. In the hours that I spent talking about myself over the years to Perle, I evolved a guilt about being the protagonist in all these stories, that my project was inadvertently convincing her that I was guiltless. Certainly, I was not! My kid’s dad didn’t trust the therapy because, in response to anything that she said to me, he would point out she was only getting one half of the story. So I increased my efforts to tell his side of the story, too. But still Perle sided with me. How do you convince someone not to side with you? How do you convince someone of objective fact? Where is the objective fact? Why were there sides anyway?

Anyway, that night in the middle of winter, in the snowstorm in Jasper, I didn’t feel much cold. You get used to the cold when you spend time outside. Eventually it doesn’t really bother you that much anymore. I’m not sure how the three of us would have fit on that double bed anyway.

The next day, Jenna broke her arm skiing downhill. I froze my toes purple while out skiing cross country with Ivy. It took years for them to recover. Jenna’s arm was fractured and at the hospital they put her in a cast. She also had a concussion. We packed our bags to go home a day early.

Except Jenna couldn’t drive with her arm. I still didn’t have my license. This left Ivy. Ivy was 4’11”. Jenna was 5’11”. Big Red’s driver’s seat was permanently adjusted to Jenna’s height. Ivy had to tuck two pillows behind her so that her feet could reach the pedals.

It all went okay enough, Ivy driving like the old Chilean grandmother she was no doubt destined to become, thirty kilometres under the speed limit the entire time, until we were outside of Hinton. It was snowing again. The wind snaked plumes of blowing snow across the highway. The mountains dissolved into white clouds which in turn dissolved into sky. Jenna’s father lived on an acreage somewhere around there—though I never figured out why or what he did so far away from everything—and Jenna was feeling upset about her arm. She wanted to visit. As Ivy drove, I heard her and Jenna speaking in hushed tones about the cult. Jenna’s dad was threatening to withdraw the money he had been giving her for university if she didn’t stop going. But she did only have six credits left to do once this semester was over. Maybe he would change his mind if he saw how well she was doing? He didn't like that she had gone to school only to become a zombie, but she was no zombie, was she?

The second Ivy navigated onto the range roads, she slowed the car to a crawl. A giant pickup truck, one of those hopped-up ones with enormous wheels, honked to pass us. In response, Ivy softly and slowly drifted into the ditch with the same precision with which she did everything, plumply, exactly, with an air of inevitability.

Two hours later, Jenna’s dad managed to haul us out. He was a nice enough guy, tall, bald, unruffled like Jenna. We spent the night on his acreage. He didn’t seem the saviour sort. Or the sort who’d have a daughter who would join a cult.

One day, at the end of my session with Perle, when we were scheduling my next appointment, she mentioned that she was going on another retreat, for three weeks.

“What sort of retreat?” I asked this time.

“Oh,” she enthused, “a spiritual retreat. I belong to the most wonderful spiritual community.”

I asked her which spiritual community that would be. I expected her to say something like the Shambhala Buddhist centre a few blocks away. But instead, as I was slipping my arms through the sleeves of my jacket, she named the cult. Jenna’s famous, staring-contest cult.

My therapist belonged to a cult.

The cult of John. Occasionally journalists sneak in, and a handful of articles have been published over the years, apparently to the chagrin of the cult. But, I mean, this is a group with an international following—surely they shouldn’t be surprised that the media would drop in every five years or so? The stories charted predictable, if undeniably salacious, cult-y behaviour: John shacking up with a set of sisters, one who had achieved marginal pre-cult fame as a volleyball player on the Canadian Olympic team. Eventually, he dumped the two of them for one blonde, much younger. His background as a Baptist preacher—predictable. As a shoemaker—too corny to be true. His love for expensive off-road vehicles—ridiculous.

There are videos online of John. His silence, his staring, isn’t profound, at least in these videos: it’s accusatory. He furrows his brow a little, as if he is displeased, tilts his head slightly upwards, and glares. Like a gaseous infant, unsure of internal pressures.

Someone in the audience asks: “How to see the speck of gold that has no weight—it is weightless?”

John does not reply. After the incredible pause, and amidst several more improbable gaps in speech, he sputters out the following nuggets of wisdom: “You enjoy knowing the gold directly. It is real to you. The gold. You respond to what you know is golden.” Rickety pauses extend between sentences and sometimes words. There is a lot of staring.

“You see that which is most deeply real in you.”

What was mostly deeply real for Jenna, in the end, was not the cult. She quit the way that most people quit the things that seem unquittable: by changing things up completely. She moved to do her Master’s degree in Vancouver in international relations.

I eventually stopped seeing Perle, but not because she was in a cult. Although my kid’s dad saw her “spiritual community” to be further proof of her dubious professional judgment—the primary proof being he felt that she always “sided with me” in the dissections of my relationship with him—I didn’t really see how it mattered. Our sessions were hardly more than pep-talks, agnostic and ebullient efforts to increase my self-confidence. How was it any different from when I thought she was Jewish?

But then, after nearly a decade of periodic visits, I needed some of her records. I was involved in an injury lawsuit because I had been hit by a car a couple of years earlier while cycling and I needed to show that it was a stressful event by providing accounts of our sessions from the time. At first, she stalled. (“That’s private information!”) I pressured her. Eventually she let me see my file and I discovered she had hardly been keeping any records at all. Just pages of looping, largely undated, observations on foolscap. Partner is inattentive. Or: Motherhood is draining for her. I found an old report, used for the centre’s own funding purposes, that described me as being severely unstable. Intimations of various diagnosable disorders. A moderate danger to myself. I recognized that she had been deliberately hyperbolic on the funding form so as to chart a higher arc of progress as the treatment progressed, but it was, nonetheless, strange to read such harsh judgment from someone I thought liked and respected me. She had told me at almost every session that I was a good person who was coping quite well with my situation!

She offered to let me forge the records myself, but I refused. The lawyer had told me that I wasn’t supposed to collect the documents myself, let alone write them. “You don’t understand how irresponsible this is,” she insisted. “You’ll need those records for the lawsuit!” I wasn’t going to forge them, though, and so I got up to leave her office. As I went to the door, I looked back at her, small and shrunken, Sybil-like. “You’re just not acting in your own self-interest,” she hissed.

My nine-year-old daughter knows how to win at a staring contest. Her typical move is to start out innocently enough. Then, she throws a punch at her competitor’s face, stopping just before contact. Of course the other person blinks.

We went to Lake Louise in May, the worst season to be in the mercurial, hungry bear–patrolled mountains. While the Parks Canada official scolded me for even asking about hikes—hiking season starts in mid-June—my daughter came rushing over.

“I just won a staring contest with a wolf!” she announced.

She was talking about the taxidermied wolf in the building. How do you win a staring contest with an inanimate object?

“Easy,” she said. “I just looked at my reflection in the wolf’s eyes and then squished it between my fingers.”

*Names have been changed.

Jay Smith is an Edmonton-based writer, poet, and editor. Her work has appeared in Reader's Digest, the LA Times, the Walrus, and newspapers and magazines across the country.