Otis & Friends 5I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, we are reminded of a multitude of tiny gestures that can add up to a feeling of welcome and beauty. One Prairiewoods guest, who prefers to remain nameless, finds reasons for gratitude in the tiniest details …

Anonymous is alive and well at Prairiewoods. Turning in off Boyson Road, the landscaped explosions of perennial colors show the care provided by volunteers we may not know. Just look at all the giving that enriches this sacred space: quiet conversations, swings, tables and chairs on patios, decks, picnic tables, benches, bird feeders, open space, laughter, mulched pathways, guest houses, silence, the solar installation. The community spirit is everywhere but you have to come frequently to catch someone actually doing the work that keeps Prairiewoods vital.

The floral and nature bouquets set on tables wherever people gather in the Center or Guest House are a subtle but consistent reminder of Anonymous among us. One winter weekend, I participated in a retreat that could have focused only on the exuberantly fresh flowers arranged in a vase on the presenter’s table, a glorious living sculpture the size of a human torso. The bouquet breathed the retreat theme of beauty as a path of worship.

Rita arranging flowersOne morning, I watched Sister Rita Heires trim the wilted flowers and greenery during a session break. Another time I saw several people prepare the Center for a silent retreat with single tables set for each retreatant. Every place held a unique tabletop corsage created by Sister Rita. I love coming to Prairiewoods to see what she has made for us that day.

Recently I walked into the conference room at the Center and out of the corner of my eye, the soft colors mixed in a tall vase on a side table intrigued me. My mind thought “iris” but another mental screen flashed “November.” Surprised, I turned to look more closely. Tall twigs with crisp, ochre leaves impersonated flowers. An evergreen branch held its flat needles like leaves. These simple parts posed in a pastel pink vase refreshed me, clarifying my attention for the contemplative session ahead.

When I asked about her training, Sister Rita laughed at anything so formal. Playing with flowers and natural forms dates back to her childhood on her family’s farm near Carroll. She loved making bouquets, even though her father didn’t like one more thing added to the table set for their large family. Now she roams Prairiewoods to collect what attracts her.

Sometimes her findings are spread out over the dessert table before she assembles her creations, vases and fabric and ribbon alongside hickory nut husks, flowers, greenery, water, and rocks. Intricate fabric swatches complement the complex patterns in seed pods and feathers, dried leaves and acorns. The juxtaposition of shapes, colors, and textures delights us: a centerpiece at lunch last week sported a hosta leaf, some parsley sprigs, and a dainty miniature iris, soft as silk.

The daily tasks of the Prairiewoods staff set the tone for humility and service in the programs, fields, gardens, and forest. You may not know or meet the person who does the work that catches your eye or fills your heart, but until then, you receive the great gift of service for the common good. Their work effortlessly transforms us. “I don’t know what it is about being here,” I’ve overheard people say on their way to the parking lot. “I feel different when I leave.” I think it’s why we keep coming back.

— Anonymous