Author

Sarah Thomson

Browsing

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.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE

I have a weakness that I’ve fought to hide all my life. It’s a fear that I’ll be trapped within a group and I’ll disappear. Every so often, in bank line-ups, fire drills or shopping malls, I get the urge to bah like a sheep. When I was in high school, I used to feel the fear as I filed in and out of my classes, until finally, one day I stood up in class and walked out, never to return.

The freedom I felt that day, realizing that I could be independent, that I could walk alone, was exhilarating. Last week I began to notice the old anxiety creeping back, but couldn’t place where it was coming from, until one morning as I crossed a busy street on my way to work, I found myself part of the moving mass of workers rushing to their offices. The tension welled up, all around me was a sea of empty faces. But a crazy man with a garbage can lid on his head rescued me as he chanted and tapped the lid. Our eyes met and I smiled. He smiled back. That exchange let us know we still existed. The rest of the week I avoided the morning rush but it didn’t calm the gnawing worry.

Yesterday my husband decided that we both needed a visit to the cottage for a quiet weekend away from the city. In no time we had packed our skis, sweaters, extras socks, cocoa and marshmallows into the car and were on the road by mid-morning. North of Barrie the dirty gray slush disappeared and a thick, white blanket of snow covered every branch and limb. Its heavy layers were stiff from the bitter cold; they sat like folded meringue seeping over the chiseled rock walls along the highway.

We reached the lake to find a huge patch of ice cleared of snow and a hockey game in progress. Snowmobile tracks crossed each other, braiding paths through the snow in all directions. The sky was gray and a few cross-country skiers glided far out on the frozen lake. Pulling on our ski pants and sweaters, we rushed to dig our cross-country skis from the car and load up our knapsacks.

In the distance, we could see our cottage, nestled in the trees on a small island. The island is dominated by a huge, bald rock outcropping. It was nicknamed Baldy years ago after a fire burned down all the trees on the top of it. The trees are slowly growing back, but the name has stuck. One side of the rock has a sheer face reaching up to the sky. We could see that Baldy was covered with patches of white snow, although its steep walls of dark rock were still bare.

With heavy knapsacks on our backs, we rushed to ski down the small hill leading to the edge of the frozen lake. We followed snowmobile tracks across the thick snow that covered the ice. About halfway along our route the snow turned to slush for a few meters where a deep channel passes between Cedar Island and our island. My heart began to race. I knew we were crossing the deepest section of water, where currents were probably running swiftly under the ice. I thought of the huge cruise boats that tour through this channel in the summer. We stopped to listen. The silence wrapped around us.

We made our way around the slush to the white, hard snow a few meters beyond. But from then on, we stopped every few minutes to listen for sounds in the stillness. We reached the island to find the dock covered with a few feet of snow. As we neared shore the ice began to crack. Backing up slowly, we reached out to the edge of the dock — finding its safety familiar. Pulling ourselves onto the dock, we took off our skis and sat with our boots hanging over the edge. The last time we sat there, our feet had been skimming the surface of the water. We listened for sounds we might recognize. But the familiar sound of water lapping against the dock was noticeably missing. A blue jay called out, his cry seemed to welcome us and we wondered if he might be the same jay that had heckled us all summer long. The deep snow made the climb from the boathouse to the cottage slow.

Halfway up we stopped to catch our breath and take in the snow-covered forest around us. A woodpecker tapped in a tree high above. We found the cottage colder than the outside air. Ice crystals had formed on the windows and we could barely see in. We lit a roaring fire and turned on all the heaters. Gradually the cottage began to warm and the ice melted from the windows. We ate supper in front of the fire, bundled in electric blankets. We could still see our breath. We spent the evening reading in front of the crackling fire. I was reading White Lotus by John Hersey. The story is about slavery, about people crammed into ships, with their identity taken and their freedom stripped away. The slavery and the loss of self-worth in the story played on my recent anxieties. I kept comparing the slave life to that of a corporate employee. It was hard to find differences

My husband nods off over his book and the fire spits. A scratch at the window startles us. We listen to the stillness, nothing. We look out the window but the light carries only a few feet, the blackness beyond is impenetrable. We listen to the stillness for a few minutes. Then we hear a low growl, it sounds like a very big, angry cat. We turn off all the lights and search the darkness, but the night is pitch-black. We can see only the faint outline of white snow. Again a silence fills the forest and we decide to snuggle into a warm bed and look for clues of the scuffle the next day.

We woke to find a fresh layer of snow covering everything. Small flakes were still falling; seeming to dance between the tall tree trunks. The cedars and pines stood still, wrapped in their thin blanket of snow. We explored the island to see what changes winter had brought. The snow-covered landscape creates a different world from the summer island we know so well. Hard ice connects the surrounding wilderness to our safe little island. Deer, fox, bears, wolves, and maybe even cougars have access to this rock. But there are few signs in the snow. A fox seems to have made a home here but his tracks are faint, having been filled in with the recent snowfall. We can’t find any sign of the scuffle we heard the previous night.

In the forest a woodpecker has left wood chips scattered at the base of a tree. As we climb up the steep grade of rock, I place each foot into the unbroken snow and feel strong. I feel the air in my lungs and the blood coursing through my veins. Here, on this rock, we are free. We reach the top of the hill and can see the rest of the lake stretching out for miles in all directions. The wind sweeps through the fir trees, but they shelter us from its bite.

We watch as two ice fishermen walk to the middle of the lake. Their voices carry up to us. They sit down on small folding chairs and work at cutting a hole in the ice. We turn away from them and hike along the ridge following the fox tracks. The pine trees are whispering to each other. We lie on top of the deep snow to listen to them. We hold mitted hands. The snow makes a comfortable cushion beneath us. A plane flies low overhead. We can see the skis it uses to land on the snow. In the distance, a dark sky threatens more snow. We’ll have to pack our things and leave shortly.

As we make our way to the cottage I refuse to follow our footprints back. It’s harder going, but there is something about breaking the smooth snow with your own foot, about creating a single track that shows you exist. It’s like the call of a single chickadee in a quiet forest. It says “I am here.”

CONVOLUTED THOUGHTS

The sun is shining and the lake is calm. Thin clouds form in the sky. It’s a perfect summer day here at the cottage and yet my mind wanders to the story of Mukhtaran Mai that is running on the front page of this newspaper. I try to imagine what she is doing at this moment. Can she leave her home at all, or is she still being persecuted for trying to change her world? I picture her sitting in her back yard, the rain has just ended and the hot sun is drying everything quickly. She is listening to the birds as they sing and go about their busy lives. She is watching them and finding joy in the moment. She doesn’t know if the men who raped her will try to kill her tonight or tomorrow or the next day —she doesn’t know how much time she has to live. But does anyone? She takes care to get the most out of each small moment and treats them like precious gems.

I don’t think she knew that her plight would cause such huge international repercussions. I like to think that her strength and self-sacrifice taught others that one person can stand up for the truth and set the standard for the seeds of civility to grow. I hope that the people in her village see her strength as noble and her actions as worthwhile even though such vision requires knowledge that may not be available to them.

I wonder about the kind of men who raped Mai – about the kind of people who can murder and harm others, people bereft of morality, who lack the values that allow them to love and respect life. In causing such harm they destroy the values within themselves that it takes for love to grow. Values such as integrity, forgiveness and the ability to honour life itself, can’t survive where there is hatred, jealousy or the need for retribution.

I wonder how a soldier is able to keep their values from being destroyed? By telling themselves to follow orders some manage to survive the ordeal, but so many come back from war screwed up, unable to love or find happiness in their lives. I don’t think anyone who can honour life can justify killing. That’s the problem with war, religious or otherwise — honouring life itself is the way one shows respect for the creation of the god to which they bow their head. By killing they destroy the ability within them to honour life and I think that it is directly connected to their ability to love. Those fighting for al-Qaeda believe they are fighting a holy war and will reap their reward in heaven, but for many of them their values, and thus their ability to find happiness in life, is already destroyed. They are picked at a young age, chosen because they can obey, because they refrain from questioning, because they have suffered and want something better for themselves than life has handed them, because they are followers.

I had a dream last night that I wrote to the head of the United Nations, which wasn’t so odd because I often fire off emails to world leaders just to see if I can get something interesting back from them. But this time I wrote telling them that the answer to terrorism is education and what they ought to do is set up “United Nations Schools” in all “at risk” countries. Very similar to those countries that have mandatory army service, the youth from all the “at risk” countries would have to serve their time in United Nations Schools. They would be paid just as al-Qaeda pays their youth, but instead of radical religion, they would be educated in world history, human rights and freedoms, and taught about different cultures around the world. In my dream I received a reply that said the United Nations appreciated my suggestion and was going to have a vote on it sometime in the next 10 years…

I finished reading the latest Harry Potter and again it reminded me that love is stronger than evil, that no matter how many people die, no matter how much fear they live with, love will always survive. It seems the terror that the suicide bombers are trying to spread is bringing people closer together, making them think about love verses evil. It has made me think about the power of knowledge and how important it is that children everywhere get an education – evil sneaks in where empty minds are hungry.

I look at my eight-month old son as he wiggles across the floor. There are so many things we must teach him. To walk, to talk, to read, to value the world around him and the life he has. I will teach him to appreciate his own life enough that he values the lives of others. I wonder how to fortify him against the comforts and enticements that pure belief offers to its followers. I think that if he learns to trust in change as the only true thing in this world that is absolute, and to understand the importance of morality, then he’ll be able to see through the frauds that use religion to gain power over others. I aim to surround my son with love because in the end I believe it will make him strong enough to overcome any challenge life throws at him.

MAGICAL MOMENTS

It rained most of the day yesterday and the downpour lasted through the night. I fell asleep to the patter of rain on the boathouse roof — something I haven’t heard much of this summer. The hot sunny days of July were beautiful and seemed endless, yet they went by in a flash. In a way, my life seems to be a reflection of this summer. So many magical moments that I try to savour, hoping they will last forever, and yet the time passes all too quickly.

It seems like only a few weeks ago that my twin brother and I were 10 years old, dreaming that the neighbour’s pond was an ocean and our raft a boat we were sailing to exotic lands. I remember another morning long ago when we woke up after a winter ice storm and found everything, from the trees in the apple orchards to the toboggan resting against the side of the house, covered in a thick layer of ice. I can still feel the excitement we felt then, and the wonder, and the way our hearts raced at the sight of the ice gleaming off the frozen fields. It was as if our world had changed entirely and every inch of it needed to be rediscovered. We imagined ourselves arctic explorers and spent the day crossing dangerous terrain. I go back to these moments and remember the joy, the beauty, and the wonder. I haven’t lost my ability to feel the moments, but I no longer seem to be able to imagine myself as someone else.

I remember the way my brother was as a child. We both loved to build things, but he had a way of changing the world with his imagination. A snow fort became an igloo that we had to build quickly to save ourselves from the coming snow storm; a race home from the bus stop turned into a race for our lives because a pack of wolves was on our tail and would tear us to shreds if we stopped running. We went from two kids hanging in the upper branches of a tree while a summer thunderstorm blew us to and fro, to sailors being blown about in a north Atlantic gale. I now wonder why he never went into writing stories, as his imagination still seems much more vivid than mine ever was.

As I watch my son stand for the first time I feel joy far deeper than anything that my youthful imagination could have generated. I realise now that I also used my imagination to gain a sense of control over my life in order to make the ever-changing world a little less frightening. But at some point over the years I stopped trying to shape the world to my needs and instead learned to embrace the changes that life threw my way. I began to feel joy in the moments as they came to me. The real world generates deeper feelings than I could have dreamed possible in my youth. I wonder if I will feel even more deeply when I’m 80? It’s as if the more I’ve learned, the more meaningful reality has become.

It all comes back to savouring the real moments that make life wondrous. I suppose that is why the truth is so important. I know now that life will be short and perilous and at times full of sadness, so it seems all the more important to make every moment of it count and to take care that the magical moments don’t get lost, forgotten or missed.

I remember the night that Greg and I were married. Our wedding song came on (Never Saw Blue Like That by Shawn Colvin) and instead of dancing, my husband and I handed roses to every woman in the room. That was a huge magical moment. The song is about seeing the world differently, seeing the colour blue differently for the first time in your life, because someone else has made you look at life from a different perspective. We wanted our friends and family to understand that our love was like that. We married because we wanted to see a more expansive world than our single lives allowed us to have. I will always remember the way Greg looked into me and whispered the last line of the song “I never saw blue like that…”

Then there are the smaller moments that often get overlooked but still offer a sense of joy and wonder… the taste of a fresh peach or the smell of an orange being peeled. It is so easy to take these moments for granted in this world of newer, bigger, better and more, more, more.

I just got my son off to sleep. He’s still at the stage where he falls to sleep while I feed him his bottle. I sing to him as he rests in my lap with his soft hair tickling my chin. There is a peacefulness that we share, a happiness to hold and be held – the bond between mother and child. I’ll store this moment in my memory and save it for when he’s a teenager and disappears with my car and his girlfriend for the weekend.

Then there are the moments that I have with my husband that are etched into my memory. The feel of his hand on my skin, the way he smiles across a crowded room at me, the way he explores the world around him and can find joy in almost anything. I think of how he describes savouring a dish he had in Africa . He always describes it the same way and each time I hear him tell it I watch him savour the moment and try to share it with others. He doesn’t want newer, bigger, or more — he knows that one small experience can be better than a mountain of gold. He values the truth as much as I do because he understands that magical moments don’t come from our imagination or a creative story.

Magical moments come from real experiences that matter, experiences that can be savoured and held with respect, experiences that make life worth living.