Author

Sarah Thomson

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WHAT WE PASS ON

The lake is quiet now that all the cottagers have gone home after the summer. The morning air is warm and heavy, as if the grey clouds that cover the sky above are pushing down and closing in. Blue jays calls echo across the water. They are busy preparing for the long winter ahead. Their activity is contagious and they make me feel as if I should be preparing more for this tiny baby growing inside me. With less than five weeks until he is due, I’m beginning to wonder if I’m ready for this huge change to come.

I wonder how we will teach him to be strong and good, to care about the world around him, to live every moment to the fullest? Will he pick it up from the way my husband and I behave in the world? Lately, I’m more thoughtful about the way I interact with other people, of how I am in the world and about the way I behave toward those who are close to me. I want to become more patient and less critical of others. I want to be a better person so that this boy will have a good role model. I hope he learns to see my strengths and my weaknesses and eventually grow beyond them. When I look at his father, I hope that our son inherits his patience and strength, his determination to learn and do whatever he sets his mind to, and his kindness. Perhaps that is what parenting is all about – the hope that our best parts will live on in our children.

Here, at the cottage, I try not to think of the renovations underway at our house in the city. But the wasps are buzzing around their nest under the eaves, their last flourish of activity before they die. They are hard-wired to build despite the coming winter and their most certain demise. We discovered that the male wasps die off every year, while the young fertilized females hibernate under the earth over the winter to come out in the spring with a fresh batch of young to carry on. The nest, built over the summer, is left empty and abandoned – if it survives the winter, it exists only as a monument to the work done and the lives that built it.

I want to teach our son to understand the value of good workmanship, to distinguish between things built to last and things patched together to be consumed. I’m going to try to surround him with things that are built well, but is it possible? I inherited a highchair that was my father’s when he was a boy. It is small and wooden and made to be pulled right up to the table. It doesn’t have a plush cushioned seat, or a safety harness, and I wonder if my father fell from it very many times. Even so, I want to use it. I’m pulled to the idea that what worked for my father should work for my son, that the things we surround ourselves with will have a direct impact on the way we live and the attitudes we have towards the world.

I also want to teach our son the importance of love. Of giving yourself to another person and caring for them more at times than you care about yourself. I know he may get hurt, but I also know that hurt builds strength and that without sharing himself fully with another person he won’t get the opportunity of seeing the world through her eyes. And with love he will need to learn the value of hope – I want him to face the world armed with it. I don’t know what sort of things life will throw in his path but I do know that if he has hope, the challenges he faces can be overcome. As Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote, “It is life, not death, that has no limits…”

What sort of a world are we bringing our son into? It hasn’t changed much over the past century. It is a world that is, in many ways, very much like the world of his grandfather. There are still wars tearing countries apart, invaders wanting to bring enlightenment to the backward and the deprived, rich countries overpowering poorer ones. There is still greed, hunger and misery while others live in opulence. Although history seems to repeat itself, I have hope that one day we will get it right. Morality and decency, the fundamentals that keep us civilised, seem to survive despite opulence and greed. Our son will need to learn the same skills his grandfather needed to survive and I think the most important ones will be love, hope and kindness.

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I’d like to welcome a great woman who has joined our team at The Women’s Post. Laurie Simmonds has come on as our new associate publisher. She brings a lot of knowledge, experience and many new ideas to this newspaper, which readers will see implemented over the coming months. I do believe that strong women are changing the world – and she is one of them.

A LETTER TO MYSELF IN 50 YEARS

am you, at 36 years of age. I am writing this letter to you because time seems to be passing so quickly and I want you to remember the small moments that went into making a wonderful life.

If you are reading this it means that you made it to your 86th birthday. Congratulations. I hope that our son has given this to you, as I will instruct him to do when he’s a bit older. Today, as I write this, he is six weeks old.

So far in my life I’ve experienced loss and sorrow, with big stretches of happiness and joy in between. There is a part of my life that is less without my father here and I often wish he were alive to meet my husband and son. I know he would be happy that I have so much love in my life. Even though he is gone, I still feel him around me: In the sawing and hammering I hear as my husband renovates the second floor of our house, in the crackling of the fire and the ticking of the clock as I type this letter. Words, sounds, experiences that I associate with him still exist in my daily life and they work to keep something of him alive in me. Can you remember the way he chuckled when he made a good chess move? Or the way his artist’s hands, with long graceful fingers, handled every object that he touched with gentleness and care? Do you still remember his face and his expressions as vividly as I do now?

Last night we had our staff Christmas party. Do you remember the great times we had starting The Women’s Post? I’m expecting it will be a national daily newspaper by the time you read this letter. But now, as I write, the newspaper is going into its third year. Our team is small, but efficient. Even now we have the best writers in the country and we are all very close. Last night’s party was filled with excellent conversation and much laughter.

Today I sit in our half-finished living room with our son sleeping in the bassinet beside me. I doubt very much that I’ll be living here in 50 years. Do you remember the house? It sits on a corner lot and the living room has an alcove of windows on the south wall and another row of windows on the east wall. The ceilings are high and there is dark wood panelling covering the lower half of the room. The panelling isn’t quite finished and my husband still has to build the bookshelves and the mantle for the fireplace. There is a fire burning now and an old clock ticks in the front hall. The Christmas tree sits in the window alcove.

Our mother has just left after spending the night here. I hate to imagine the future without her, but in 50 years I know she will be gone from my life and I want you to read this and remember the way she was this morning at breakfast. Her hair is cropped short and she looks as carefree as she behaves. No perhaps carefree isn’t the word, it’s more that she is filled with life and interested in each moment. She enjoys every conversation she has and seems to find something good in everyone. By the time you read this I hope I have learned to be as graceful and strong as she is.

I wonder if Greg will still be alive if I reach 86? If you are reading this letter and he isn’t, then at this point your eyes will probably fill with tears. Mine are right now just thinking about it. But try to think of all the joy-filled moments. Do you remember how he taught you to ski at Mont Tremblant? You woke up one morning to a snowstorm and decided to ski down the north side. The wind was whipping the snow up at the top of the mountain but the view was beautiful. Every tree branch was covered in snow. It was the perfect winter wonderland.

Or remember the winter holidays spent at the cottage, the stillness of the forest broken by the call of a chickadee, the crackle of the fire burning in the hearth and the smell of hot apple cider after a day of skating. Remember the way Greg used to fall asleep in his chair by the fire with a book in his hand.

Can you remember what you felt the day that your son was born? Can you picture Greg walking into the operating room? His eyes were filled with worry and when he asked how I was, I told him I was horny and the worry on his face vanished instantly as he broke into a smile. Do you remember the music they played in the operating room? It was Enya. You should get your son to play it for you. Do you remember how delicate and tiny your son looked when they placed him in your arms? And how life suddenly seemed much more dangerous than ever before?

My father used to say that there is nothing good about growing old and that the only way to handle it is to do it as gracefully as possible. At 36 I still see more ahead of me than behind. I hope that when you read this, you’ll be able to see further in both directions.

CALLING ALL ANGELS

I can’t remember when I first got the idea into my head that I was going to change the world, but I’ve always believed that by doing good things, and working hard, anything is possible. I’ve never been one to accept things as they are and I often dream of a world free of war, greed and hatred; a world where the air quality doesn’t need to be monitored, where forests are treasured, not destroyed; a world where compassion and intellectual pursuit flourish.

In my younger years I thought I could find answers in the philosophers and studied Socrates and Descartes, Nietzsche and Kant. But I learned that they too were searching for answers and hadn’t found any solutions. The world was far more complex than I’d ever imagined. I read about different societies – their histories, cultures and beliefs – and learned that in democracy, more than any other system of government, debate and discussion must prevail, otherwise corruption can and will spread like a disease. I saw how conviction could take the place of wisdom, how poverty pushed young adults directly into the hands of powerful tyrants. I cried when hatred destroyed innocent lives, when the communists destroyed the temples in Tibet. But I learned to find comfort in human emotion – in the love and compassion – that thrives despite the turmoil in our world.

I noticed that women were influencing decisions both in the home and in society more than ever before. I also noticed that men and women collected information differently; that women often wanted more context and narrative with their information than the dry facts that men seem to prefer. I began to realise that most of the news I read simply delivered facts without giving the narrative or context that I needed and used to make my judgements. I’d often read about events in the news and wonder what part of the story was missing – and what the real story was.

I decided to create a newspaper that was different, one that focused on the stories around the facts and delivered information in a narrative format that would allow readers to see clearly the position of the writer and make their own judgements about what they read. I wanted to carry columns that would make the reader think, and also make them feel. I believed that by producing a newspaper that caused debate and stimulated discussion, I could, in some small way, help reinforce democracy in this country.

Without doing any research, or creating a business plan, I set about publishing an independent newspaper in Toronto – one of the most competitive and saturated newspaper markets in the country. Despite that, I succeeded, and The Women’s Post is now going into our third year. We owe much of our success to the writers and advertisers who also share in the vision of this paper; they are all people who want to make a difference.

There were days when I felt like giving up, days when I wasn’t sure how we were going to make payroll, or if we’d even be in business the next week. I leaned on my husband a lot back then and he was always encouraging, but what carried me through the tough times were the letters and e-mail I received from readers. Like the woman who wrote me last week and told me about all the sadness she had in her life, but a column that she had read had given her hope and she knew that no matter what life threw at her, she still had more ahead to look forward to. It’s letters like hers that make me realise that The Women’s Post is making a difference.

Like a small child, this newspaper has gone from crawling to walking – and we are now ready to run. We are printing 50,000 copies in Toronto, with another 10,000 in Vancouver, and aiming to put another 25,000 into Calgary. We have acquired some of the best writers in the country and it is time for us to expand further, to reach out to more people, to create more debate and discussion.

But this will require key people to help us get to the next stage. We are forming an advisory board and are looking for people who share our vision of a world where compassion, debate, discussion and intellectual growth can flourish. If you would like to become involved with The Women’s Post please give me a call or send me an email.

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Sarah Thomson’s e-mail ispublisher@womenspost.ca

A TIME OF TRANSITION

The sunlight streams in my window, reflecting off the polished wood floor. It fills my bedroom with so much light it’s impossible to sleep. Last night’s snow storm has vanished and the morning sun twinkles on the fresh, snow-covered fields beyond my window on the second floor of an old stone farmhouse. The room is warm and I push at the old frame window, lifting it enough to shove a book under it to let in some fresh air. A crow calls and I notice birdsong for the first time in months. The air has lost the dry bite of winter. Although still cool, it smells of a warm day to come. The long icicles along the eaves that have formed over the weeks have lost their frosty surface. They shine as the sun melts them. I listen as they drip. I hear sounds of water trickling. This is March, 1979 and I am 11 years old.

I remember this day because it was the last day of my country life and the first day of my life as an urbanite. It was a day that marked a distinct change in my life.

We began it with a breakfast of cereal eaten quickly – and with a little more silence at the table than usual. My twin brother and I were excited about moving into a new home but also worried about what this change would bring to our lives. We finished breakfast and began loading the farm truck and my elder brother’s car. His car filled quickly and he was instructed to take us to the new house, drive carefully, and treat us to a special lunch on the way.

We drove down the road, looking back for a last glimpse of the house. My twin brother said what we were both thinking, “Goodbye home,” and then kept saying goodbye to everything we passed. “Goodbye pond filled with leaches where our raft sits rotting. Goodbye raft. Goodbye church camp with the prayer wagon that we flour-bombed when we were eight years old. Goodbye neighbours with the dogs that bit my brother’s butt. Goodbye pigs who chased our friend’s mother down the road. Goodbye smelly house with the old lady with too many cats. Goodbye lonely church at the top of the hill. Goodbye general store that we were not allowed to ride our bikes to, but did anyway.”

My brother’s sense of humour was always at its peak in sad times. I looked out the window and said goodbye to the trees and the fields; to the smell of damp earth in the spring; to the feel of the long field-grass on my legs; to the stillness of the forest in the winter.

We ate our first fast-food hamburger that day, pulling up to a pick-up window for the first time in our lives. My eldest brother swore that Wendy’s had the best hamburgers although my twin brother and I had heard that McDonald’s was the place to go. I remember taking my first bite into that hamburger covered with every topping they had, plus extra pickles. It was the best food I had ever tasted.

After eating our lunch in the parking lot we headed over to our new house. We left the commercial area of town and entered a very run-down neighbourhood. The houses were old brick homes and many of them were boarded up. We pulled into the driveway of one home that didn’t have boards over the windows. We looked at our older brother in horror. “You’re joking,” we both exclaimed. He shook his head and told us to be positive as our father was going to show up any minute.

The house was a small triplex in need of some major renovations. When my parents arrived they started unloading and we were told to stay out of the way. My mother suggested we walk down to the lake – which was a few blocks away – and warned us to look both ways before crossing the streets.

The wind had picked up and the warm sunny morning had changed to a blustery day with a cold wind coming off the lake. We took our time, making our way down a tree-lined street, peering into all the houses we passed. A cat meowed to us from the top step of a front porch and we wondered if we could go up and pet it – we had no idea of city etiquette. Dark clouds were rolling in over the lake. My brother became thoughtful and once again said what we were both thinking. “We’ve hit rock bottom.”

We crossed the final street and walked through a muddy field to the waterfront. Huge waves crashed against the break wall. We played “stand in one spot and see if a wave will land on you.” Many did, but the water was warm compared to the cold air. We walked along a pebble beach that seemed to stretch out for miles and skipped rocks over the surface of the water. We discovered large sand dunes that blocked out the noise of the traffic and ay in them listening to the waves and seagulls calling in the sky above us. We talked about losing our farm to the bank, about moving into such a small house. However, our talk soon turned to the possibilities this new place offered, like going to the beach every single day in the summer. And the boarded-up houses made our country tree forts seem boring in comparison. We returned home dripping wet, but happy with our discoveries.

When I think of March I think of the old winter snow melting away, of the sound of the icicles dripping, water trickling and the fresh new scent of uncovered earth.

It is a time of change and I remember that day so many years ago with my twin brother, when I learned that with every change comes a whole new set of circumstances and possibilities.

EMBRACING CHANGE

Why publish a “Women’s” newspaper? I get asked this question frequently. ^The Women’s Post~ was not created to exclude men, it wasn’t created as a political soapbox for militant feminists, and it wasn’t created to be a fluffy fashion tabloid. Our most basic ambition is to contribute to the engines of change that drive social behaviour. Recent studies have shown that on average women tend to read more than men do, that women have more spending money and control more of the large purchase decisions than ever before. ^The Women’s Post~ intends to support and encourage creativity and inclusive attitudes – the fundamentals that got women where we are today. By encouraging intelligent and interesting columnists to debate ideas and by discussing the changes occurring in the world, we intend to create an atmosphere that embraces and unites the very differences that have, for too long, divided people. Our pages promote an atmosphere that welcomes debate. I’ve always believed that social change begins with one person behaving differently. This newspaper began as a celebration of such people. We hope to continue that. The other day a woman said to me “I can’t stand Pakastanis.” She said it in anger, without thinking. She didn’t know how strongly opposed I am to racism. But the worst thing about it is that she didn’t think her words were fundamentally wrong. In her limited world, racism, when expressed in a low voice, is acceptable. Does that mean she has her own moral code that is right for her alone? Do we each have our own moral code that governs – one for cannibals, another for fascists – or should morality have a strongerconnection to truth and knowledge? I tend to believe that our morals govern us as individuals and that a larger, social morality governs society, and if our own personal moral codes aren’t in line with the governing social morality, then we’re standing on very unstable ground. Ideas that enhance knowledge, adding to our civil community, are moral and anything that detracts from the community isn’t. But is this just my set of beliefs or is there a greater judge? Does circumstance impose a set of rules on us? In this issue we have a guest columnist, C.G.Prado, discussing what morality means in our current world. One of my personal mandates is never to exclude others because of sex, race or status. I’ve always believed it important to fight against exclusion. I find it impossible to simply ignore racist or sexist people and I find it difficult to distinguish between them; both exclude because of differences and both are defended by clinging social traditions. Over the past hundred years our society has changed dramatically. People no longer have to sit at the back of the streetcar because of their skin colour; women have the right to vote and work outside of their home; and it has finally become politically incorrect to exclude people because of their colour or sex. But women are still predominantly excluded on the golf course and in many boardrooms; people are still judged because of their skin colour; and differences are still being used by the weak and narrow-minded. Exclusivity breeds like a virus. It creates a climate in which differences are shunned. Exclusion is wrong because it limits us from personal growth and social development – but this, unfortunately, is my personal belief, or could it be part of a larger, social morality? “Our success is based on inclusivity,” writes George Cohon, CEO of McDonalds Canada, in his book ^To Russia with Fries~. Is his knowledge something many choose to ignore? There will always be narrow-minded people, there will always be those that simply go along with the status quo, and I hope there will always be people who stand up and defend right from wrong. “Exclusion will get us all killed, inclusion is what will allow us to survive and flourish,” says Gale Zoe Garnett (author of ^Transient Dancing~) in an interview with this paper (to be carried in our next issue). More and more people are beginning to realize the need for an inclusive philosophy. I’ve always admired those who speak out against the norm, especially those who become social outcasts by doing so. I admire the individual and believe that individuals are the impetus of change. The future looks promising, the young adults of today give me hope. They are much more inclusive than their parents and I think that in itself will make them much more knowledgeable. The older I get, the less I want to interact with sexist or racist people. But that leaves me with the fact that I’m excluding them from my life and my own philosophy won’t allow me to do that. So I share my wine with all; at times I sit uncomfortably in a crowd of people who insist on clinging to their traditions, at other times I mix with thoughtful people struggling to change the world. What’s important is that I learn things from both and that I’m open to listening and debate.

NATURAL BEAUTY: INSIDE AND OUT

The rain patters gently on the boathouse roof. Below me I can hear the boats bumping against the dock, pulling at their ropes as the waves toss them about. From the window the lake looks grey and cold. Whitecaps form in the open water. The clouds are low in the sky, weighing down the morning like a soggy sweater.

I don’t know what to write about today. It seems like I have a hundred different ideas cluttering my head. I want to write about beauty, but where to start? I remember a philosophy course I took years ago. We discussed the idea of intrinsic beauty: Does beauty exist out in the world waiting for us to discover it? Or is it a human idea, an artefact that requires both knowledge and understanding?

I glance at a photo of my husband and son that sits on top of a pile of pictures on the table beside my laptop. Their heads touch side by side on the floor; my husband is looking directly at the camera, while my son smiles at something to the side of it. In my husband’s eyes I see so much of who he is. He’s not the type of person to rush into anything without thinking it through. It’s hard to make him angry because he prefers to be happy. He’s inquisitive, yet shy. There is confidence in his eyes, but he holds back from showing his emotions. My son, on the other hand, is about to burst into laughter. Like his father he’s happy most of the time, and he has the same blue eyes and thoughtful nature — most of the time. But, at other times I see a bit of me in him, such as when he expresses each and every emotion the instant it flies through him.

In this picture my husband and son are both beautiful. It captures what our new beauty columnist, Yanka Van der Kolk, would describe as their essence (page 18.)

When I think of natural beauty I connect it to serenity. I think of the lake at dawn, with its still, smooth surface; or at night when moonlight shines a path over the waves to my feet. Or when we lie on the dock and watch the sky for falling stars while crickets fill the night air with their calls. I don’t think you can separate the idea of serenity from beauty in the natural world.

Last weekend I was sitting with my son at the cottage under the shade of a pine tree. We were looking at the branches of the tree above us, the dark green needles contrasted against the clear blue sky. A slight breeze whispered through the pines and birdsong echoed from the forest. It was a beautiful moment and I wondered if my son felt the same sense of awe and serenity that I was feeling.

I watched him stare at the tree above, it seemed to quiet him, but just as I began to think he was sharing the beauty with me, he became fascinated with the buckle that secured him to his chair and tried to eat it. I am now of the opinion that beauty is a human construction that requires knowledge and the capacity to form and connect ideas.

I’m not sure how old I was when I first began to notice beauty in things. I think my earliest memory of beauty was when I was about five or maybe six. It was a hot summer day and my brother and I had wandered into a neighbour’s field. The tall grass came up to our waists and so naturally we were pretending to be explorers hacking through the jungle. After traveling imagined miles we stopped for a rest and lay down in the tall grass. I still remember the sweet smell of the grass and the coolness of the ground and trying to see shapes in the puffy clouds that floated above us. I remember feeling as if I never wanted to leave that moment.

The wind has changed and the rain no longer patters on the roof over my head. The clouds have lifted and the sun breaks through, promising a warm afternoon. Shafts of sunlight create patches over the steel grey lake. Here, at the cottage, beauty surrounds me, but maybe it’s simply that I have time to sit, to think, to listen and to notice what the world has to offer.

CHANGING TIMES, DIFFERENT MINDS

My goal for The Women’s Postis to become the best newspaper for women in North America within the next 10 years. The key to achieving this is to deliver the news in a format that recognises the differences in the way women and men gather and process information.

Over the years, through feedback we receive from our readers, I’ve discovered that women prefer more context in the news they get than men seem to require. While a man may want to know the number of people killed in a bombing and the time and place it occurred, a woman often wants to know more than just those facts, like how it happened and how those involved were feeling or what they were thinking.

I’ve also found that women want to know more about the person giving the information. They judge the source and require more description. Female readers seem to want more of the story surrounding the news. No longer are the basic journalistic facts that cover who, what, when, where and why enough.

The success of The Women’s Post in gaining female readers is in part due to the fact that we are providing more information, more discussion and commentary for women whose vision reaches past what was conventionally designated as “female interest sections” such as fashion and home décor. The daily newspapers cling to the belief that special sections will attract female readers, thus creating style sections that poorly imitate fashion magazines, or décor sections that focus on nothing more than what is trendy. They mistakenly think that women aren’t as interested in news about the world around us – without realising that women’s interests are as diverse as men’s.

I believe that the format, or the way the news is delivered, is more the issue and that by changing the format we will gain more female readers as we deliver news with context. Women want to get all the news, but they enjoy it most when it is delivered in a way that is written for them, in a way that captivates them and allows them to judge both the source and the circumstances surrounding the facts.

I believe that the tradition of “just the facts” reporting that has prevailed over the past century is slowly losing credibility. My hope is that journalism will shake free of this “facts only” style of news reporting that is entrenched in our schools and media – a style that presents itself with authority, but often lacks objectivity and integrity.

Supporters of this type of journalism, from teachers to professionals, insist that its objective style creates a “purer” form of news. But truth requires context. Without it, facts can be omitted or distorted to such a degree that bias and self-interest often prevail. Hiding the position of the writer and limiting her voice, doesn’t allow the reader to judge the person giving the report. For example, if I report simple facts like “two American soldiers were killed by unfriendly fire in Iraq” without reporting the full context of the story – that the soldiers open fired on a group of wandering refugees, killing five of them before the refugees finally shot back in defence – I haven’t given the full context and the truth doesn’t surface – or eventually does, to our horror, as we are learning of late.

An honest editor or writer will admit that the very act of writing or editing requires subjective decisions that end up influencing the information the reader is given. Without all the details, without the story that the facts live in, judgments can be made by the reader that are often terribly wrong.

I believe that a writer must always make his point of view known to the reader and by avoiding the pretence to purely objective journalism, by giving more narrative, context and description in the news we discuss, The Women’s Postwill allow the reader to judge not only the facts, but also the source of those facts. If the position of the writer is obvious, then the information they supply can be judged for what it is worth. In doing this we will strive to become the best newspaper in the country.

Readers of The Women’s Postwill notice that our journalists write in a first-person narrative style. They talk to the reader on an intimate level without posturing or pretension. Our editorial mandate is to provide good judgments based on fact, to avoid presenting factual data with unwarranted authority and have passion in every article we print. Our writers must produce an emotion in readers, making them angry, happy, sad or thoughtful. Their goal is to give the reader something to take away, a universal idea discussed on an intimate level, informative facts delivered in full context, a feeling or a beautiful moment captured in time. The reader must know that the writer is offering her judgment, and the writer’s voice must be strong, obvious and open, in contrast to the almost non-existent, beige voices that fill many of the daily papers.

Our editorial style is gaining us more and more readers and we have also managed to gain investors, despite the predictions of a few narrow-minded bankers who blindly preached that women occupy a “small niche market” – ignorant of the fact that there are currently more women than men in every major city in Canada, and that women now control over 80% of purchase decisions in North America.

I was asked the other day if I started The Women’s Post as a feminist vehicle. My answer was: absolutely not. I don’t even believe in feminism as I’ve always believed that “isms” become “wasms.” I believe there are huge differences between men and women, but I don’t believe those differences – or racial and religious differences for that matter – should be used to segregate or alienate anyone. I didn’t start The Women’s Post to alienate men and I’m proud that we have both male and female writers and readers, but I did want to create a newspaper that recognized that women and men think and approach issues differently, one that offers readers more context and narrative than the current newspapers are supplying and one that might have a chance at causing fundamental changes to the way we gain information about the world around us.

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I encourage readers to support our advertisers who support us. If you are in need of financial advice Doug Lamb provides his thoughts on Finance page. He can be reached at 416-886-1555

DOES ART REQUIRE BEAUTY?

It’s another hot and muggy day at the cottage. We took the week off and have spent the past few days working on different projects – weeding the pathways, filling the bird feeders, sweeping the decks and power spraying the boathouse to free it of the algae that the wet weather has helped along.

This is the first year I’ve spent so much time cleaning off the screened-in porches. Each spring a coating of yellow pollen covers everything heavily during the first few weeks of June and I usually mop it up a few times over the month. But this year I’m careful to watch out for small objects on the floor, worried that our eight-month-old son might choke on them. My search turns up a marble, a number of old golf balls and a rock collection – each and every stone seems dangerous. As I look at them more closely I see why one of my nephews collected them. Here a pink one, there a shiny black one; each has something beautiful about it. I don’t remember when I stopped long enough to look for beauty in a stone. I think I’ll start a rock collection of my own.

Rushing from one room to another, I fall over another collection of wood thrown beside a doorway (we are a family of collectors). Cursing the existence of the wood, for an instant I think of throwing it all back into the forest, but as my anger at my clumsiness subsides I crawl back over to it and begin to sort through each piece. The pile has grown from a few great walking sticks to over 20 pieces of wood. For each piece of wood, I spot the reason it was taken from the forest floor. One is large and heavy with a perfect v-shape at the top – it is solid and might make a good slingshot or crutch. Another has a web of grooves in a beautiful design chiselled out by an insect; still another is shaped like an animal. Each piece is unique and beautiful in its own way. I remember how I used to collect rocks and shells for their beauty. I think the first seeds for appreciating beauty come from these objects a child picks up. I move the wood to a corner of the porch away from the doorway, yet still within reach.

The wood and the rock collections are treasures gathered by the boys. They are the first step to valuing things of beauty. I wonder what the next step will be? I hope they never lose the sense of wonder they had when they first picked them up.

Above the fireplace in the cottage we’ve just hung a painting by the native painter Norval Morriseau that my brother-in-law purchased for the cottage. It’s a black moose with a pattern of orange, green, and red markings inside it. It sits on a background of dark blue and light blue divided by a black line. There are two circles, one on the bottom left side and one on the top right side of the picture. The circles are joined to the moose with black lines. They tie all the bold colours in the painting together, balancing them. I wonder if there is a story to go along with this painting? I try to find beauty in it. I love the rich colours but I can’t seem to feel anything from it.

I wonder when my idea of beauty changed, when did it take on the need for emotion? I can still see beauty in a rock or a nicely shaped stick, but they seem to have an innate beauty open to my imagination, which allows me to turn a smooth, shaped piece of wood into a deer, or to see the outline of a landscape on the surface of a stone. This painting, however, seems to limit my imagination. It makes me feel as if I’m trying to read a foreign language and haven’t any clues. I suppose I simply don’t understand its language.

Beside the card table in the cottage is another painting by an artist my brother-in-law came across a few years back. The painting is of the canoe dock beside our boathouse. It appeals to me because it captures a beautiful moment. The two canoes that we always put upside down on the dock sit in their usual place. The painting is by Ellen Cowie and although she isn’t as famous as Morriseau, her painting captures the feeling of peace that is here on hot, quiet, summer afternoons.

There is so much natural beauty here at the cottage. The beauty is in the sounds – of the water lapping against the shore, or the wind whispering in the pines. It’s also in the shapes the weather has made of the rock and wood; and in the colours – the green forest contrasting against the blue sky. All of this beauty stirs feelings deep inside me. The sight of the sunrise each morning causes a feeling of anticipation about the day ahead, while the sunset causes me to feel like there are no limits to life.

For me, art has to have beauty in order to be given the designation and thus must also cause a feeling within. It isn’t a coincidence that the mandate for the columnists here at The Women’s Post is that each of their columns must produce an emotion in the reader.

My father used to say that true art must instantiate human significance, and when I look at what our society calls art I see a few creations that do just that, but also quite a few that fall short of it. Is there a middle ground when it comes to art? Every artist is constantly learning and growing and changing, but do all of them aim for beauty? Do all of them want to grow?

There are some people who believe that art does not require beauty and others who say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But I think there is a universal sense of beauty, an aesthetic of balance and harmony, that touches our emotions – which are the essence of our humanity. What is truly significant about humanity is our ability to think and feel.

SUMMER JOURNAL

When I think of August I think of blue skies, hot lazy days and puffy white clouds; of monarch butterflies and fields of Queen Ann’s lace; of storm clouds building from the heat of the day. I also think of hammering and the smell of sawdust, swallows darting through open barn windows and hours spent pulling weeds in the garden. So many of these images stem from childhood memories of growing up on a farm.

Summer is a time to build, but is also a time to slow down and to plan for the future. I remember summers spent putting a roof on the house, framing the barn, and picking stones from the apple orchards. The urge to build things, to create, stemmed from those long summers on the farm. This urge has become a fundamental part of my life. When I’m not creating, even if it’s simply a column, a feeling of guilt seeps over me.

But my process of creating carries with it the idea that whatever I make ought to outlive me: the words I write on this page, this newspaper we put together every month, the house my husband and I are renovating, and the child growing inside me.

I tease my husband by calling him a perfectionist, but I’m just as guilty. I like to think of this as an aesthetic sensibility rather than an egotistical preoccupation. By doing something as well as I possibly can not only am I ensuring that I won’t likely have to redo it, but I’m also leaving my mark on the world, like an ancient handprint on a cave wall.

I think of the farm I grew up on and of what it is like now, 25 years later, with other people living there. It was built to outlive us. I see now how important our family was in creating the vitality that brought the farm to life; we made the material things matter. The houses, the barn, the apple orchards and rock wall we built from stones picked from the fields are all still there. But the apple trees don’t produce fruit, the fields have gone fallow and nature is slowly claiming the farm back. Our dreams and our plans fuelled the farm with an energy that shaped its natural beauty. Our work produced fertile soil. But without the kind of care and compassion we gave to it, nature will slowly take over.

Every now and then I meet people who live in a world they haven’t shaped with their dreams. People who seem to drift, not sure where they fit in or where they are going. It seems a stage of youth that some people never outgrow, or perhaps it is a product of a very impoverished childhood. They seem at odds with their life, displaced and in need of foundations.

I’ve spent parts of my life without any material wealth, without knowing where my next meal might come from, but I never felt poor. Although I had nothing in my pockets I always had dreams and plans in my head. The worst poverty is the lack of ability to dream, to shape the world around your hopes and aspirations. When I think of the stark reality that many people face, days filled with endless torment and strife, it is easy to see how hope itself can die. If children have no future to dream of and the immediate matters more, than true emotional poverty has set in. Is it reversible?

I look at my life now and am surprised by the similarities it has to my childhood. Again I’m living in a house under construction, but now it is my husband and I who are shaping the world around us with our dreams. Together we plan the future of this newspaper and build it into something that we hope will outlive us.

I can’t imagine my life without the plans I have for tomorrow, next week and the coming year. I wonder sometimes where I might be in five years from now, what changes will come into my life and how I will shape them.

For now I must focus on September as we’re gearing up for The Women’s Post’s first marketing campaign; the new staff should be trained and ready to go by then, and so too should the newspaper boxes and our new signage. It’ll soon be October and we should be ready to launch The Women’s Post in Calgary, and soon it will be November and our baby will come and then…

HOPE IN THE DARKEST HOURS

Last night I learned that a dear friend has only a few days left to live. I telephoned the hospital from our cottage to see how he was holding up without knowing what to say. I didn’t find any words to comfort him and could only listen to his words of shock and sadness. I sent him a hug over the phone line and cried after I hung up. My husband wrapped his arms around me and we stood quietly listening to the birds in the forest calling as dusk fell around us. The lonely call of a loon in the distance echoed across the still lake. I thought about hearing a loon call one last time. I wondered what my friend must want to do one last time and I realised there are too many things. Moments that he’ll no longer get to have, treasures given by time.

There are so many tiny moments we string together to make up our lives. Moments I sometimes try to catch and hold in the words on a page. Experiences, feelings, sounds, smells and tastes all go into making each moment a memory. It’s hard to think that these moments will come to an end, that at some point we ourselves will become a fading memory. The “I” that is us, our hands, faces, thoughts, actions and words that make us alive, will eventually vanish. The prospect of death brings us face to face with this harsh reality.

If I had only a few days left to live I’d want to smell the hot sun baking the pine needles that line the path to the cottage, or take in the smell of the wet earth after a rainfall. I’d want to hear the sound of rain pattering on the boathouse roof and the symphony of a thousand frogs on a still spring night. I’d want to feel a rose petal, or the soft texture of a geranium leaf. I’d want to climb the hill at the cottage and lie on soft moss and watch the clouds drift past.

I’d also want to see all those I love. I’d want them with me for one big party. I’d cry with them but I’d want to see them laugh too. The end of the party would be hard — goodbyes always are, but I’d want to see myself in their eyes one last time and feel their love. I’d want to be happy so that they remember me as I usually am. When it was my time to go, I’d want to lie with my head on my husband’s chest and fall asleep there one last time.

Death waits in the shadows. Some of us see it before it comes, some of us don’t. What a frightening thing to see and how hard it is to remain strong facing it.

I think of my father now, of being with him when he died. He knew death was coming for him. I remember his surprise that he had made it through his last day. He struggled to hang on all night despite the weakness of his body. I remember sitting with him, thinking that I’d never get to ask him another question, that I’d never see his smile again. I wished that I could take part of his sickness from him so that he could live longer. I hoped something would happen and he would get better, that he’d make it and everything would go back to the way it once was. I wondered if his face would fade in my memory. I sat studying it as he slept. But it hasn’t faded. I wonder now if I will see the twinkle that my father had in his eye in my unborn son? Will a part of my father be in the boy we will have?

I’ve always used hope to face every struggle, but the doctors didn’t give my friend any of that. He will die, as we all will, but he knows it will be sooner rather than later. He has to face death knowing it is coming for him quickly. It’s a path I may have to take, facing death before I’m ready to go, and I hope I’m as brave. Are we ever ready for it? I want to tell my friend not to give up, to fight to the last minute, even though I know it isn’t rational. When reality is this harsh, though, it’s tempting to throw reason to the wind.

It would take a miracle to stop the progression of his cancer, and yet I hope for one. Is it empty hope I cling to? Life itself seems a miracle, one that involves hope every day we are alive. I think that may be the key to coping with our own mortality, to live with hope no matter how many days we are given. A few years ago a friend I had gave up on life. He’d lost all hope, and without it living itself became too difficult a journey. I’m not sure where or how hope became so strong in me, but I won’t let it go. With hope our own mortality gets pushed aside and we can take in all of life, each and every tiny moment, with our arms wide open.

Today I face the fact that my friend will be gone from our lives and I think of the sorrow that so many will feel. My throat tightens and the tears come back. I don’t want him to give up hope. I believe that he’ll need it to experience the moments he has left with his arms wide open.