Author

Sarah Thomson

Browsing

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.

MARCH THAW

The morning sun wakes me. The sky is bright and blue. Last night’s snow storm has vanished and the sun light twinkles on the snow-covered fields beyond my window. Rabbit tracks leave the only blemish in the garden below. A crow calls and I notice birdsong for the first time in months. Something stirs me to open the window and breathe it all in. The air has lost the dry bite of winter; although still cool, it smells of a warm day to come. The huge icicles along the eaves don’t have 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. My parents built our house themselves. It was always under some phase of construction. After getting dressed, I check the room next to mine to see if my twin brother is awake. His room has a dutch-door (the top half opens while the bottom can remain shut.) We shared the room when we were small, but when my eldest sister moved out I inherited her room. This morning my brother’s head is hanging over the edge of the bed and his eyes are closed. I can hear his heavy breathing, not yet a snore. I walk down the hall, passing my other sister’s room. She is reading a novel in bed. My eldest brother is still asleep in his room. The bathroom we share is at the end of the hall, at the top of the stairs. I wash my face and brush the tangles from my hair. In the family room I build a fire in the hearth. The floor is polished concrete. It is dark and warms with the heat from the fire. An oval carpet sits in the center of the room. It feels like rough rope under my feet. I don’t like its shades of mustard and brown. I always walk around it in protest. My dog, Sally, gets up from the couch on the far side of the room and comes to greet me. I notice that she trots around the carpet instead of coming directly across it. We are bonded in our protest. She licks my hand and sits beside me as I ball up a newspaper and pile wood over it. My father designed our house so that the kitchen, dining room and front hall separate the kids’ bedrooms and family room from the adults’ living area. On weekends we have guests; few of them have children. They stay in the adult wing of the house. We’re not allowed beyond the kitchen without permission. Last night, I snuck into the dining room to listen to the adult discussion. I like to lie with my blanket on the soft carpet and listen while they talk in the living room below. I listen to their laughter but don’t understand all of it. I fell asleep, but don’t know how I ended up in my own bed this morning. In the kitchen I grab some bowls, cereal and milk. I put the kettle on for tea and take everything to the table in the family room. The room is cold in the winter because the French doors are not yet in and the polyethylene that hangs in the opening doesn’t insulate very well. But this morning the fire warms the family room quickly. My twin brother comes down the stairs still sleepy. He pours his cereal and milk. He hasn’t brushed his hair and it sticks up at the back of his head. He throws the empty cereal box in the fireplace. We watch it burn. He too feels excitement in the air. Change is coming and he wants to explore and visit the creek at the bottom of our driveway. We leave our dishes in the sink and rush to pull on our coats. The sunlight is bright and makes my brother sneeze. We smell the smoke from our fire. It’s warmer outside than we thought and our coats become a burden. We trudge through the wet snow. Its crisp, dry, crunch is gone, replaced with the wet splashing of our boots in the meltwater. Brown patches of earth appear, wet and muddy in the fields. Last night’s snowfall is melting as quickly as it came. I smell the earth in the air, there is a familiar scent I can’t quite place. It’s the smell of dew on a green leaf. The hint of spring; of life hidden in a damp twig. We walk along the stone wall that borders our apple orchard. The large boulders were pulled from the fields by my father and eldest brother but we can’t remember when. We remember summer afternoons spent working behind the tractor, loading stones from the fields onto a trailer and following it to the wall. Each of us worked to build it. As we grew older and stronger thestones became larger rocks. Over the years we all grew proud of that wall. The stone wall follows our property line until it meets a grove of cedar trees where an old log fence continues down into a swampy marsh. A stream cuts through the marsh under our driveway and empties into a pond on our neighbour’s property. My brother and I stand above a large culvert looking down at the stream below. The melting snow fills the stream, rushing water brown and murky. We find twigs and drop them in, then run to the other side of the driveway to see whose stick will be the first out of the culvert. The chickadees in the cedars call and sing, we think they are congratulating one another for making it through the long winter. We walk past the lower orchard, to an old section of forest to rocky to clear. We come across fence rails pulled down when my parents reclaimed the land and planted the apple orchards. We decide to build a fort with the logs. They are wet and heavy. We build the fort strong and solid, working through lunch and finish late in the afternoon. We want it to last forever since it will be the last fort we build on our farm. We talk about our move in a few weeks. Someone else will own this land. Other children will play in our forts. We wonder if they will discover all of them. My brother remembers a figure that he whittled last fall and stored in the hole of an old apple tree. He wants to go to our hiding spot to see if it is still there. I ask him if he will miss our farm, if he will remember all the secret places we have. “Of course,” he says without the slightest sadness. I’m not as brave as my brother and the thought of change frightens me. But all around me the world is changing. 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; and my fear subsides. Over the years I’ve come to learn that every change brings a whole new set of circumstances and possibilities. And, no matter what happens, I will always have that warm day in March, 1979.

THE FUNERAL ON THE HILL

I went to my aunt’s funeral. It was a beautiful funeral held in a small old church, on a hill, looking over the sea. I could see Vancouver across the bay. The day began wet and misty. By mid-morning the sun had burned off most of the cloud, although thin wisps still lingered in the mountains, snagged by the peaks. My twin brother and his fiancée spend most of the morning preparing sandwiches and hors d’oeuvres. My eldest sister and brother-in-law pack plastic spoons, paper napkins and plates in boxes. We rehearse and go over our plans for the day. A nervous sadness hangs over us. We try to shake it off. My brother-in-law’s usual laugh is reeled in this morning. My sister seems tight, drawn up to full strength, her sadness lurks inside her. We talk about life, we remember our childhood. Although time has stepped between us, we are familiar. We are all still the same people, older, with grey streaks in our hair. When I look at them, I see the brothers who filled my childhood with laughter and the sister who, at times, seemed more like a mother with her love for us. We are all more thoughtful today. Our window looks out over North Vancouver and the mountain ridge beyond. Steamy white threads of mist rise out of the mountainside, unwinding, gently tugged by the rising sun. We wait for my brother to arrive, wondering if he will be late. But he is on time when things have meaning. We wrestle with ourselves, wanting to place meaning on the emptiness we feel. We notice the bright blue sky as we leave the condo with packed boxes under our arms. The sun is warm, although the air holds a coolness. We arrive at the tiny old church just as a dance class ends. Young women file out and we rush in to set up the tables and chairs. The one-room church has a square piano in the corner. Bare wooden dance rails run up both sides of the church. Above, huge beams and rafters are filled with cobwebs. A large, stained-glass window occupies the front wall and shines blue, green and red patches of sunlight on the bare wooden floor. Although it is noon, it still feels like morning. Fresh, cool, mountain air blows through the doors. Guests arrive. We stand around, drinks in hand. Everyone sits and the eulogy begins. We remember my aunt Liz. The treasures of shells, rocks and stories she brought back from her trips to exotic, far-away lands. The pleasure she took in teaching and the struggles she went through. Tears fill my sister’s eyes as she speaks; she lets her sorrow out. My brother-in-law steps up beside her, there for her, but unobtrusive. We listen to Highland music. We celebrate the life of Elizabeth O’Connor. We are glad we were part of it. She will live on in us. Old women, with gentle smiles and soft condolences, pick at the food. My brothers and I drink most of the wine. The sun dances in coloured patches on the floor. Long shadows signal a change in the day. Morning has slipped to late afternoon and we must pack up and be out of the small church before another dance class rushes in. We drop off the left-over food at the condo and head to a trail that my aunt Liz loved to hike. The wet forest reminds us of illustrations from the storybooks of our childhood. Green moss covers the rocks, logs and bark on the trees. The wet wood is filled with magic and fairies play, just out of sight. Moss hangs from limbs and huge pines block out the sky. Enchantment and beauty surround us. We stop at a small lake. The forest is reflected on its still surface. We circle around another lake and come to an opening in the forest. In the distance, a huge snow-covered mountain reflects bright sunlight into our eyes. A stone landmark tells of a plane wreck decades ago that was just recently discovered. We think about how precarious life is and marvel that we ever made it through childhood. The sun is low, the day is ending. We go back to the condo and sit and talk about our lives, our dreams and our futures. We don’t bother to turn on any lights. My brother-in-law lies on the floor at my sister’s feet. My twin and his fiancée curl up on the couch. We watch as the mountains turn from green to dark grey, with glints of pink at their peaks where the last rays of sunlight touch. Lone birds fly, black specks high in the empty sky. I mention the moment we are in. I love the peace. My brothers make fun of me. I tell them off. Some things don’t change, we are the same, but older. We are family, together again for this moment, in our love. On the plane home I think about my own death. I don’t put much faith in life after death. I think we only get one chance at life. I hope part of me lives on in the things I have managed to do during my life. There are so many things I’d want to say to my family and friends before I die. I’d want to tell my husband that I love him more and more every minute. That even though we fight sometimes, I love his determination and tenacity. That I haven’t felt the warmth, security and peace that we have in our home since I was a child living under my parents’ love. What we’ve got isn’t simply the newlywed kind of love, it feels more like something we’re both creating and keeping vital. Like a flower we’re watering and caring for that will live for as long as we do. At times I feel in awe of his strength and desire to learn, and his curiosity in the world around him. I love to watch him think; he stores away each idea. I love the way he researches things that interest his friends and family. The way he studies up on Grade 10 math in order to help his nephew. It’s hard to think of him with another woman. But if I were gone, I wouldn’t want him to be alone. I think that we learn so much from deep, loving relationships and I’d want him to keep himself open to love. I’d want him to keep growing, to keep being curious and alive. I’d want him to splash through the puddles in a summer thunderstorm; to climb a tree on a windy day and sing, “Born free, as free as the wind blows, as free as the grass grows…” at the top of his lungs. I’d also want him to dive into the lake at dawn on September 21 (no matter how cold) and let out a scream like we did on the morning of our wedding. I’d want him to know how much I love him and to know that when he misses me I’ll be in the wind whispering in the pines, in the butterfly that lands on the dock, in the sound of the rain on the roof. There is so much I want to say to my family and friends. Some I miss and wish they were living closer, but I love that we can pick up a conversation that we’ve left off months ago and continue without a pause. I’d want to say goodbye to each and celebrate what great people they are. But that’s another day. Today I am healthy and alive. I’m not passing up the opportunity to focus on what is important and I’m awfully glad I went to my aunt’s funeral in that tiny church overlooking the sea.

THE SON, THE MAN, AND THE STORY TELLER

He climbed the hill yesterday and looked out over the lake. The leaves have begun to change and the air has a chill that warns of colder days ahead. Fall is here and the leaves drop, matting the forest floor with various colours. They feed the earth and the circle of life continues.

We sat on the warm rock at the top of the hill and I watched our 11-month-old son pull the seeds off the tall grass around us. He has so much of life ahead of him — and in my belly I feel the kick of another baby, due in February. I think of the days ahead when all four of us will climb this hill and look out over the lake. We’ll take one of those family shots with the lake and the bright colours of fall in the background landscape. My husband has a picture of his family taken long ago, on the same hill. I want this circle of life to continue.

I think about all the things we must teach our son to make him strong. I want him to be honest and true, and I hope he grows up with the same sense of inner confidence that guides his father through life. I think my husband’s confidence comes from his accomplishments, and perhaps, more importantly, from constantly living up to the values he holds inside.

I’ve always thought that the best way to teach is through storytelling. So perhaps when our son is older I will tell him the story of a man I once knew. It’s the story of a man who lacked inner confidence because he avoided facing the truth.

The story starts with the man as a small boy, born the youngest in a large family. The boy was very funny and loved to make his sisters and brothers laugh at his antics. Unfortunately, the boy’s father was a man who continually had to prove himself. He didn’t know how to handle the boy and grew jealous of him. He kept telling the boy he was foolish, until one day the boy believed him. From then on the boy decided he had to make the rest of the world think he was smart and so he began to tell lies.

He became very good at telling lies, incorporating partial truths to lend them validity. He took experiences that others had and pretended they were his own. The lies he told made people think he was clever and experienced.

As the years passed, the boy learned how to do many things but his capabilities could never keep up to the fictitious man he pretended to be. He fabricated a past that made him seem exciting to others and surrounded himself with friends who didn’t know any better. But the more lies he told the harder it was to live with his true past, and so he moved far away.

The man didn’t believe any woman would love him for who he was, but only for what he made her believe he was. And so he continued to lie, and the more he lied the weaker he grew inside. He thrived on the feeling of pride that came when people admired him for who they thought he was. But this pride had a way of undermining his self-confidence and he began to drink heavily to feel better at the end of each day.

Then one day he met a woman who demanded the truth from him. He confessed and told her that he was a compulsive liar. And despite his flaws she wanted to help him. She could see the man he wanted to be, the man he was deep inside — and she fell in love with that man. They married and dreamed of having a large family, of exploring the world together and creating many happy memories.

But life is never easy. They struggled with mortgage payments and working long hours. The man found that being honest wasn’t easy. It was very difficult to admit that he made mistakes. He was afraid his wife would begin to see him as the fool he thought he was. His wife, however, was very strong and insisted on the truth. She forced him to live up to his promises and keep his word no matter how trivial the issue. At times the man grew frustrated and annoyed. He didn’t understand why he had to do things the hard way. Over the years he’d grown lazy and didn’t want to bother learning to do things when a good story would make people believe that he could anyway. The emotional turmoil his wife put him through was almost more than he could take. His wife insisted on the truth, threatening to leave him without it, and so the man worked at becoming honest.

Over the years his wife’s determination paid off and one day the man found that it had become easier for him to tell the truth. He didn’t have to keep track of the truth the way he had to with his lies. He began to feel stronger inside and realised that he wasn’t the fool that he had always believed himself to be. By being honest and living up to the morality inside him he had gained a sense of strength that nobody could take away.

His wife and family loved him for who he was. Eventually the man went back to school and learned to become a writer. All the years he had spent telling stories had sharpened his imagination and so he decided to write children’s stories and became a best-selling author. He had many admirers, but for the first time in his life he didn’t need them.