Vipassana: A not-too-Christmassy story on the occasion of Christmas

New Work

By Thomas Trofimuk 

The ridge of snow on the veranda railing is six inches and more snow is coming down. Nicholai watches the snow falling past the only dark object in his view – a boulder of exposed granite that marks the bottom of the slope behind the house. The slope continues to rise up into the peaks of Cloud Mountain. At least it’s not too cold, he thinks. “I bet you still don’t want to go out there,” he says, petting the cat, or letting the cat self-pet herself against his hand. Nicholai has been struggling. It seems this claustrophobic weather allows for time to reflect. He wants to be more mindful in his life. He’s pretty good at giving, but he wants his giving to have new meaning. He wants layers of nuanced gratefulness, not just for those who receive gifts, but more for those giving the gifts. He wants to be grateful about giving. He has no idea how to make this happen.

Trofimuk christmas card 2013Nicholai finds a Buddhist Vipassana retreat on Saltspring Island. He winds up at their website by mistake. He was looking for a Tibetan singing bowl. He has no idea why he was looking for a singing bowl. He reads about the Vipassana retreat. It’s about learning to accept all of life’s changing aspects – pain, fear and joy – with increased balance, with increased sensitivity, stability and kindness. This is exactly what he needs. He signs up for a retreat that begins in a few weeks and surprisingly; they’ve had a cancellation. He gets in.

The green of Saltspring Island is a bit of a shock. Where he lives, it’s white on white, grey, and then more white. It was snowing well and hard when he left. Here, it is grey and raining and so green. The air smells green. A woman named Sunshine greets him at the ferry.

“I’m Sunshine,” she says.

“But of course you are,” Nicholai says, smiling. This is a line from a James Bond movie. A beautiful woman looks at James Bond and says her name is Plenty, and he says but of course you are. Sunshine smiles back at him and loads his bags into the back of a Jeep. Nicholai can’t tell if she knew the reference or not. It was back when things were pretty sexist. James Bond would pat women on their bums all the time – as if they were always being dismissed so that the men could get things done. Men were always doing that sort of thing in James Bond movies.

Sunshine is wearing a small golden Winnie-the-Pooh on a chain around her neck. Nicholai notices it as she drives. He remembers a quiet and steady voice reading the Winnie-the-Pooh stories to him when he was a child.

“Winnie-the-Pooh,” he says. “I remember those stories. My mother read them to me.” He remembers the sound of her voice and the scent of chamomile tea and it makes him sad. He’s not sure why. Is it a wound? A loss? The Winnie-the-Pooh stories were a small prayer in his life – a loving touchstone.

“Oh, yes,” she says, touching her finger-tips to the fob. “My mom gave this to me before she passed.” Sunshine clears her throat. “Before she died. She had it made because we loved reading those stories. I’ve actually never taken it off.”

“I’m sorry,” Nicholai says. “I’m sorry to hear about your mom.”

They drive a road that is a gentle series of curves under a canopy of green. There’s a mist hanging in the treetops. Sunshine drops him off at his cabin, a one-room hut surrounded by old-growth forest.

“We think that tree is over six-hundred years old,” she says, pointing at a massive Douglas fir. “There’s a welcome dinner tonight. Someone will come and get you.”

“Thanks,” he says. As Nicholai picks up his bags and turns, Sunshine pats his butt.

He turns toward her, starts to say something but her smile is enough. She apparently got the James Bond reference.


He settles into the routine of the retreat. He does not crave meat, though he misses bacon. His living quarters are spare but comfortable. He left his laptop, the books he was reading, and his journal at home. His phone was powered off and buried in his bag. There was no need. He lives in silence. He does not speak. No one at the retreat speaks. There are daily meditation sessions and talks on a variety of topics – How we hinder ourselves, Metta, The Four Noble Truths, and so on. Of course the person giving the talk speaks. On his second morning, during a meditation session, Nicholai falls asleep. He is sitting tall on his borrowed meditation pillow, leaned slightly forward, breathing each moment, exhaling each moment – and he falls asleep.


In his dream, he has a long white beard and there is a woman named Carla, who is standing in a room with a very high ceiling. She is wearing a shearling coat and he struggles to see her face because the light is behind her. There’s an aura about her. It seems that Nicholai has known her for years, if not decades. He knows her full name is Maxine Carla Farnquist. She’s thirty-three years old. Her mom is a dentist. She was married once. She tries to live off the grid. When she was five, she wanted a horse for Christmas. Not a pony; a horse. He does not know why he knows this.

“I don’t know that I can teach you how to be grateful,” she says. Her voice is an oboe – delicate and strong and haunting. This too, seems familiar.

Nicholai wants to talk with Carla. He wants to respond but he can’t. He can’t talk. It’s not a nightmare. It’s not like that. He’s not frightened by this inability to speak. He looks for her eyes. It’s difficult to see her face, let alone her eyes. But he knows what colour her eyes are. They’re hazel.

“The best gifts involve sacrifice. No matter how small, a gift that involves sacrifice is always amazing.” She stops. “But you’re the Claus. You are the symbol of giving. You are the metaphor for parental love. You are tied to the birth of Jesus. You are, for many people, associated with the Solstice.”

He shakes his head. He doesn’t want to be a metaphor, or a symbol. He doesn’t want to be tied to anything. He wants to feel something when he gives – something beyond feeling obligated to buy. Obligated to give. If it’s about feeling obligated to give and there’s no feeling of gratitude, or love, or kindness attached then what’s the point. Nicholai wants to scream.

Of course, she knows what he’s thinking. “If you want to be grateful in your giving, then act as if you are grateful,” she says. “Give only when you feel you truly want to give.” Do you know who I am? he wants to say. I am obligated to give, no matter what. “I know you’re the Claus. I know what you do. Billions of people want to receive from you. All you have to do is be grateful for that gift.”


He falls over. He literally falls onto the floor and this wakes him up. Sunshine helps him get back to sitting. Her hands are as warm as her smile. After a while, he begins to move back into his breathing but his brain keeps pulling him back to the idea that perhaps gratefulness could be simply about making the decision to be grateful.


At the end of the week, as Sunshine is loading his bag into the Jeep to take him to the ferry, he asks her to recommend a bar in Victoria that serves really great single malt scotch.

She giggles. For Nicholai it is like the sound of glacier water over stones. “Was it a difficult week for you?”

“No. I’d just like a drink,” he says. “And I’m fond of whiskey.”

“The Argyle Attic, on Courtney Street. The food’s good too.”

At the ferry drop-off, Nicholai looks at Sunshine. “Thank you,” he says. “For being here this week. For picking me up when I fell over.”

“That happens quite a bit, actually,” she says. “So I wouldn’t worry about it.”

“Listen, even though we didn’t talk, I felt you. All week, I felt you.”

She reaches out to hug him and it is an amazing hug. It’s loving – without any baggage. The last time he felt something like that was his mother. But this was different because he and Sunshine were not blood. There was no familial bond. This was simply about knowing, and giving, and receiving. It was an acknowledgement of shared humanity. Nicholai felt as if she was giving him some of her grace. She steps back and looks into his eyes.

“So long, Nicholai,” she says. “And thank you.” And then she is in the Jeep and driving away with a wave.

On the ferry, he opens his carry-on bag to make sure he’s got his ticket and to retrieve his cell phone, which will need to be plugged in.

Her gift is tucked into the little folio with his boarding pass. It makes his mouth fall open. Sunshine has given him her Winnie-the-Pooh necklace. With no ceremony and no need of thanks or acknowledgement, she has made a gift of something that was precious to her. Nicholai stands up and goes out onto the deck. He stands at the front of the ferry so that the breeze will dry his face.

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Thomas Trofimuk

Thomas Trofimuk’s last novel, Waiting For Columbus, has been published in numerous countries and was nominated for the 2011 IMPAC Dublin literary award. He lives in Edmonton.