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Proust Q. 5.0 March 2011: Yoga mistress, photographer, occupational therapist Cheryl Hnatiuk

March 11, 2011

-31ºc before wind chill, from Cheryl Hnatiuk's little things series. All rights reserved.

I met Cheryl Hnatiuk when she worked as a photographer at The Gazette. Someone introduced us because we were both from Winnipeg. I liked her immediately. She bounded like a puppy, all sweet and happy. And then she was gone and, I heard, had returned to Winnipeg. I found her on Facebook, still beaming like a portable sun. Then last summer, weepy and sleep deprived as I waited for the elevator to return to my mom’s bedside in the Riverview palliative hospital in Winnipeg, I looked up and saw a lovely women and thought vaguely, “She looks just like Cheryl Hnatiuk.” And then she said “Denise?” And there she was. With a hug that made all the difference. Which is kinda what Cheryl always does, make all the difference. I laughed and “awwwwwwed” a lot reading her answers in this month’s Proust Questionnaire 5.0 (What’s this? Explanation at the end, but what’s your hurry.) Hope you do, too.

Since we are conducting this interview via email, the world is ours for the inventing. If, as I some day hope, money is no object, in what city and establishment would you like this interview to be taking place? In New York for some reason, at a café that may make you almost think you’re in Paris.  If it turns into a beach on  a tropical island  by the end of the interview, I’ll let you know.

Who and what would you be wearing? I’ve been wanting a red dress for a long time so let’s pretend I found it shopping the day before, in New York.  A red knee-length knitted skirt. And black tights. And knee high boots. Black ones. And this would have been the sound track as I approached the café.

And, most importantly, what would we be drinking? You’d get to have wine — red kind — and because I am currently doing a cleanse that involves no sugar, I’d be having green tea.

Okay then. What are the qualities you most admire in others?
I like when people try, despite being super afraid of trying.  I think trying is the most beautiful thing, when people get out of their own way and go for “it” whatever “it” is. I get to see it a lot in the jobs I do, working as an occupational therapist or a yoga instructor. Maybe it’s courage,  but not necessarily the running-into-a-burning-house-to-rescue-the-neighbour’s-dog kind. The little kinds, that are as heroic, but not as dramatic. Maybe it is risking to believe in yourself.

What do you like most about yourself? Being deeply curious about every single thing. Ever.

Least? I’m messy.

What is your greatest achievement? If you’d have asked me this when I was 18, I’d for sure have said being a Beach Patrol at Grand Beach. Basically that was my life goal. Self actualized at 18, I was. When I shared this with a colleague recently, they remarked thoughtfully that the rest has just been the gravy on top. I agreed. I’ve done lots of fun things, because of just being curious. These days though, I think I’m cool if I am balanced and healthy, and making choices that support that. So it’s looking at each component of the whole — work, friends, family and fun, diet and exercise, yoga and maintaining a balance within them all. It’s not just about what you do, but the quality with which you do it.  That transition involved a fair amount of reasoning with myself, but it’s led to so many wonderful things. I am happy I shifted from being achievement-oriented to balance-oriented. I’d say that is my greatest achievement.

Low storm, from Cheryl Hnatiuk's Winnipegia series. All rights reserved

What is your present state of mind? I just did yoga, and went for a run so it is calm.  Underneath that, though, is a restless soul. I’ve accepted that the restlessness will always be there, so it’s just a matter of reining in and directing the energy to where I want it to go in my life. I’ve not had a lot of wonderful experiences without it.

Where and when are/were you happiest?
In general, I sparkle when I have a balance between being part of engaging conversations with lively, bright, playful, fun, creative, thoughtful, adventurous people who  already are or become friends, and the calm and ease  I find on a beach or while doing yoga. … I was in Bali a couple of summers ago, and at the end of every day, I’d set my mat up on the beach and do a practice as the sun set. The little local kids would come by and stare at what I was doing, or just sit there nearby, and play too. Last summer I did an Eastern Canadian Friend Visiting Tour where I got to visit, by night, with all the wonderful people I know and miss and do yoga by day.  Both were sweetly wonderful.

What is your first memory? Four-way tie among:

  1. Escaping from an oxygen tent and booking it down the hospital hallway in yellow flannel pyjamas  when I was hospitalized with pneumonia when I was little.
  2. Watching snowflakes land on my crocheted turquoise jacket and crying when they melted.
  3. Taking crayon end bits that I had stored in my toy wallet and placing them on the inside window sill for the birds to eat, pretending the crayons  were bird food.
  4. And finally, speaking or birds, watching chickens run around with their heads cut off at my grandparents’  farm. For sure the most vivid memory.

What, currently, do you most love doing? Yoga. And teaching it.

What was your worst job?
Don’t tell anybody, but I jumped to the pump, at Domo for three weeks. People aren’t very nice when you are putting gas in their car. Like they think they are cool or something. As a result of those three weeks, I make best friends with every single person that puts gas in my tank.

Your favourite colour? Blue

What is your idea of perfect happiness?Movement.


Of misery?
Sitting, under flourescent lighting, in a room with no window, with nobody to talk to, no music, and filing papers.

If not yourself, who or what would you be? Someone just like me except with innate organizational skills? I dunno. Whenever I get that feeling of wanting to have the experience of someone else’s life, I take that jealousy feeling, or envy feeling, as a sign that I should maybe bring whatever that thing, quality, or skill is into my life too. I think envy is one of the clues your heart gives you to teach you something about yourself.

Where would you like to live?
Can I get back to you on this? Winnipeg is nice, but I miss living in Montreal too.  There is magic in the air there. The energy of a larger centre with the diversity in languages and culture so apparent in your day-to-day is so enriching. A beach somewhere on the ocean also would be fine. … Hmmm, clearly, I’ve not reined in my restlessness on this one.   Place is just the setting for the life you live, friends, activities and perceptions create the quality,  but  different places lend difference nuances to the experience of your life. That’s what I know, but I  am not sure of the answer to this one yet.

What is your favourite journey? So far, I think it was the trip I took to Albania, when I was on a vacation when I was on working on contract as a photojournalist at the Toronto Star. It was one of those experiences where everything just fell into place. I had been generously gifted a ticket to Rome, where I arrived to bump into a friend’s friend, on the platform of the train station there – the only other person on the platform. I was invited to stay with his family friends that night, and served a home-cooked Italian meal in downtown Rome. The next day I took a train down to Brindisi and sat with the most handsome sweet Italian gentlemen, who would kiss me goodbye after I declined his invite to go dancing with him and his friends, as I had to catch the Ferry to Albania that night.

That night I would sleep among Albanian and/or Kosovar expats returning home to join the Kosovo Liberation Army. I was too cheap to book a cabin, so I was in the passenger area. More than once, I questioned myself for not going dancing with the cute Italian. But then,  I met a nice Jesuit priest and two nuns, separately. Turns out they were looking for each other.  I introduced them all, and they gave me a ride into Tirana, where I would score a free hotel room, and then a ride up to the Boarder between Kosovo and Albania. I got another free room from a Danish news crew, and would meet two photogs from New York, who took good care of me from there. Many many more serendipitous events would follow. One of the New York photogs would later meet the friend who gifted me the ticket to Rome while taking cover in a ditch in Palestine. The New York photog had asked the question, “Do you know  a photographer named Cheryl from Canada?” when my friend had said where he was from.  They are nwo best friends, practically. And I take full credit.

I was just talking about this the other day, in one of my yoga classes. Turns out the lesson is to remain open to the life you want, experiences you want and they ‘ll come. Easily even, when you line yourself up.

The things I would see and shoot and feel on that trip would be a pivotal experience in my choice to eventually return to school to do a Masters in Occupational Therapy,  which would then lead to me becoming an occupational therapist and a yoga instructor.

It’s been a pretty great journey so far.

What is your favourite or most memorable meal and when is the last time you indulged? When I lived in Montreal, my friend Jessica and I would invent salads. We made this one salad one day that had a mix of tart mixed leafy greens like arugula, and dandelion,  and sweet strawberries , and honeydew melon. And sprouts. And I think sweet peas too. Mango for sure. We invented a  dill dressing that was mint green in colour, and when it was all prepared we went and sat out on her balcony, on the ground and watched her plants grow. They were little seeds just sprouting up through the dirt.  It was spring. I think that was a once in a lifetime meal. The feeling of it all, the freshness. We still talk about that salad.

Name the person who influenced you most and how. I am pretty sure every single interaction I have is meaningful, and rich with lessons or ideas. Because I like to talk so much, I participate in a lot of really wonderful conversations, rich with ideas, and considerations. I can’t really say there is only one person, but a series of people that have luckily shown up, just  when I needed them to. When I was learning to be a photographer, shy about it, and really not that good, someone said I’d be working with the pros one day. It was said in a way that suggested they gently knew something I didn’t.  The way they said it made me believe in what they believed more than anything. Because of  that,  it ended up happening.

Another series of conversations started with me wondering what Buddhists monks do with their ego. This lead to me realizing that I am much better off investing my ego in creating a balanced life, more than hanging my self-worth on the products of my profession. Basically I think I’m cool if all the pieces of my life are in harmony with the other parts. Profession is a part of that, but it’s not the only thing, and happiness is created not because of just one thing, but of many things being in harmony. This shift in perception was so freeing, and has created a different quality in how I go through my days. The ease it allows for  has  created so many opportunities,  that never would have occurred had I held on to what was not really working for me. This conversation lead to this shift in attitude, which is kinda a big deal.

Name the film/song/book/art that influenced you most and why?

Film:  Anything Antonioni.  I learned a lot about photographic composition studying his films. I also learned from his films how to see beauty in the ugliest of places. He was big on industry and technology, and factory kind of settings.  I was confused by this, and struggled with the idea of this places being beautiful. On a drive through a Winnipeg industrial park, I understood that all those smoke stacks, cement factories, they all came from someone’s imagination. They didn’t exist until someone dreamed them up. Somehow that made those sorts of things less ugly to me. I smile to think that  someone imagined a cement factory. And that I learned from Antonioni films to see beauty that way.

Photography: Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment made me decide that I should be a photographer.

Glass, from Cheryl Hnatiuk's Winnipegia series. All rights reserved.

Song: Bob Dylan’s It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding). It’s an anthem for sucking it up,  and not wasting time sulking when things appear to be not going your way. Just keep going, and you’ll be fine, kind of song. Not a wasted word in it. Here:

Art: I look at yoga as art . While I took pictures and wrote creatively before doing yoga, I realize that I never actually understood art, and where it came from, how to harness the energy of creativity until I experienced it through movement, and then stillness of yoga. To me, yoga lines you up through movement, with stillness, as you move from posture to posture. That stillness place is where art comes from. Art, when done well, can make you feel love. Yoga has lined me up with all that. It can be in whatever you do.

In this or any time, which real-life figure(s) do you most admire? In general, I mostly admire the wrongly accused and convicted who never give up on seeing to it that their truth is heard. They are pushing against the weight of  what others believe to be true with what they know to be true.

Who is your favourite fictional hero? Rudolf.

What fault can you most easily forgive? Messiness. Sooooooo easily. I love forgiving that one. I’m kinda that friend people don’t have to feel like that have to clean the house up for when I visit.

What fault can you not forgive? People who bully. Or pick on people not their own size. Even writing about it is making me angry. I’ve picked more than one fight at the check-out stand with people who are mean to cashiers.

What is your motto? There’s more than one way to skin a cat.

How would you hope to die? Like how I live, excited about what is coming next. And with no regret, having learned from every single mistake I ever made. Talking probably, too.

Anything I haven’t asked about that you’d like to volunteer? Deep dark secret? Well… In the winter, after I finish my run, I look both ways and if there is no one around I flop down into the snow and leave a snow angel. Then? I imagine that there is someone who walks along that trail and says to him- or herself, “Hey, there is Snow Angel again!!” And then I imagine they wonder who left it, and wonder what it means to be seeing snow angeks whenever they go for walks all over the place.

Any last words? Never. Oh, and we’re at a beach on a tropical island, now.

Admit it. You read those celebrity Q&As and you know you’re easily as worthy of being profiled. I know I do, but my friends are way more interesting. So, with nods to the “confession albums” of the late 1800s  made famous by the fabulous Marcel Proust’s answers, to French TV host Bernard Pivot who adapted the questionnaire, to Inside the Actors Studio host James Lipton who gave it another spin and to Vanity Fair, which uses its own elegantly spun version to anchor the magazine’s back pages, I submit for your entertainment and enlightenment, my own version of the Proust Questionnaire, re-retooled for a blog age.

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