It’s Thursday at 5 p.m. You’re walking through downtown Kelowna, about to cross the street. As you step off the sidewalk, you notice the timer that tells you how many seconds you have left and realize you’re almost out …5…4…3… you break into a jog and pass a guy rocking out in his Ford F150 who revs the engine at you to hurry up. You stop and lock eyes, holding your ground a second as the timer runs out. “Pedestrians have the right of way, “ you mouth to him, through tight lips and an Eastwood glare. He can’t read lips but thinks you said something about his hair, so he lurches forward, just an inch, and smiles as you throw your arms up and scream like a toddler, dashing off the street and ducking for cover in Mosaic Books. As you peep out to make sure he’s gone, you can’t help but wonder if this run-in was a cry for some much needed stimulation in your life.

Well, it just so happens that nearby there is a very bohemian restaurant which is filling up, right now, on an unassuming weekday evening, with some of the Okanagan’s best and brightest minds. The group hosting tonight’s reoccurring event is the Okanagan Institute, a collective of creative professionals who, among other things, get together and talk about really cool stuff. And you’re invited to join in. Flip a toonie in the basket at the door and for the next hour or two you can get in on some interesting, inspiring and creative conversations.

I walk in at 5:05. It’s evident that, as well as popular, this group is punctual. I take one of the last seats and try not to disturb Karen Close, one of the co-facilitators, as she intros tonight’s theme. It’s about the healing power of story and she starts by sharing one of her own. Within minutes she has the room in the city of San Miguel de Allende, a Mexican mecca for culture. There, she formed a friendship that fuelled a book, now published and held softly in her hands, fanning her through the warm memories. I order tea and catch smiles across a room of avid listeners, people who have come out to be told stories, to witness healing, to have a drink and be entertained the old fashioned way.

The group meets across the Okanagan and covers all sorts of topics, from publishing to sustainability, from calligraphy to collaborative intelligence. Speakers are brought in to share their experiences and thoughts, and although the topics are deep, the evening is light. It’s about conversation and exchange, not lectured learning.

After Karen, an 80-year-old storyteller shares her memories of performing plays with Robertson Davies. He’s one of my favourite Canadian authors, so I perk up with excitement to meet someone who knew him first hand. I consider asking her to sign my notebook.

Cathryn Wellner is up next, worldwide storyteller and beloved Okanagan blogger. She pulls out a book she loves and reads touching quotes worth recording. I can’t find my pen, so I’m forced to steal a crayon from the kids supply stash near the restaurant menus. It’s hard to look like a serious listener when you have to scrawl your notes with a partially chewed piece of purple wax, but I save face by solemnly sipping my tea and furrowing my brows in a way that says, “I hear you Cathryn, never mind my crayon, tell me more.”

And she does. As with the other speakers, people listen, laugh, ask questions and applaud. Robert MacDonald, the institute founder, wraps it up with a brief commentary and offers info about upcoming shows. Enchanted by the evening, feeling stimulated and creatively well fed, I mingle with the buzzing crowd and enjoy the social end to the night. It may not be San Miguel, but it’s nice to know the Okanagan offers its own valued collection of creative minds.

By Gillianne Richards