Author

Sarah Thomson

Browsing

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.

TO BE ALL THAT YOU CAN BE

My son had his first birthday yesterday. I watch him now playing with my husband on the living room floor. The fire in our hearth burns warm and my head is filled with plans for building this newspaper. Should I begin with designing a simplified distribution system or develop plans for a women’s coffee club series? My son rides around the room on his new tricycle — he can’t quite reach the pedals so his father pushes him. Like my son, this newspaper is growing out of its infancy stage. It is now learning how to walk on its own. The greatest thing about having a young child, and a young business, is that they force you to look at your primary aim in life.

Last night I imagined my own funeral. I thought about what I would want my husband, my son, my family, my friends, my employees and even my customers to think of me once I’m gone. I found that I had a common desire with each of them. I want to be known as someone who inspired them, someone who cared enough to help them believe in themselves so that they could live to their full potential. I’m not sure where this desire came from. They say childhood experiences shape the person you become, and the most life-changing event I had as a child occurred in the late seventies.

I was 11 years old, and my family — like so many other families at that time — lost our farm when a bank manager decided that because of the rise in interest rates and the fall in real-estate values, my parents were suddenly a high risk. The bank called in the mortgage giving my parents 30 days to pay it back. And back then, if a bank called in your mortgage no other bank would touch you. The bank sold our home to the first bidder that came along, for a fifth of its value. My parents lost almost everything they had over the course of a few weeks. Suddenly they went from building a farm, to being flat broke without a roof over them. They had no idea where they were going to live, or what they were going to do. The future looked quite bleak and my father seemed to have lost his purpose. I remember the hushed whispers and the emptiness that hung over us.

But then some close friends of my parents learned that we had lost our home and they immediately stepped in to help. They suggested my father find a house to purchase and they mortgaged their own house to finance it. They showed my father that they believed in him. They listened, they gave him their time and he went from a man who had lost everything to one who still had potential to do great things. Over the years my parents were able to pay them back, but I wonder if those friends know the effect their actions had on us?

Although I was only 11, their selfless action had such an impact on me that I decided that helping people to believe in themselves and to see a bright future was one of the grandest things anyone could do with their life.

At that age I didn’t have anything tangible to give, but looking back I think that is when I began truly listening to people, hearing their stories and their problems. I guess that I was trying to give the only thing I had – which was my time and attention. In return I learned so much more than I ever could have without giving the time.

I remember having intimate talks with my classmates and when I finally moved away, my mother got a letter from my teacher a few weeks later. He said that each morning I used to talk to all my classmates before the lessons began and since I’d left, his class was much harder to get going, they weren’t as open. He wasn’t sure what I’d done, but he’d noticed something missing. That was the first time I realised that my actions could have an effect, and that my aim to help people was actually possible.

Today I realise that this newspaper is a reflection of my primary aim. In each issue we try to carry intimate articles that inspire women. I want to make people think, grow, and learn. If this newspaper gives even one person the desire to look to the future, if it gives them hope, then I will have passed on what those friends gave to my family so many years ago.

And now I must sit down and figure out how to get this newspaper into the hands of as many readers as I can. I will have to grow the business and constantly adapt to the changes in the market. I’ve learned that our readers are professional women over 30 who want more than the glossy fashion magazines offer. They seem to appreciate the thought and emotion that goes into each article we carry.

As this newspaper grows I grow with it. I’m learning to step back from the daily problems and see the bigger goal. I also see the opportunities that others have missed. This newspaper is being read by thousands of professional women. They are women that all the other publications haven’t been able to consistently reach. And yet we’ve managed to attract them and it’s because we’re doing it the same way I did as a kid: We’re listening, giving our attention to issues that matter, speaking intimately about those issues and working to inspire each and every individual reader to be all that they can be.

*********************

With this issue I would like to welcome Michael Gerber to our pages. His column will focus on the issues and struggles facing entrepreneurs. With over 80 percent of small businesses today being started by women, I believe Mr. Gerber’s insights will inspire many of our readers. Mr. Gerber is author of the best-selling book The E-Myth. He is also a renowned motivational speaker and president of E-Myth worldwide.

APPLES, MUSIC, AND NOSTALGIA

We went apple picking with friends today. There were only a few apples left on the trees. The puddles in the lane had a thin cover of ice on them. The noise from a tractor just over the hill, combined with the smell of apples rotting in the field, and the cold, fresh air with the sun casting long shadows through the orchard was a moment I wanted to capture and hold on to. There is something magical about the Honeycrisp apple. Grown in Ontario and best from mid-October to early November, it is an apple like no other — it tastes like honey mixed with fresh morning dew.

The sound of classical music on a Sunday morning brings balance to the day. It has a way of explaining life with all the tragedy, chaos, love, and heartache that make humanity so beautiful. Today, Sibelius’ String Quartets pull me into his story; it is a tale of life, filled with frivolity, sorrow, happiness, and ambition. A young violin flirts with life while her older and wiser companions watch. They smile in memory of youth untouched by sorrow, nodding and following as life pushes and pulls the young woman to maturity. She remains brave through tragedy and sorrow; growing stronger, she encounters beauty and love, experience begins to shape her, adding depth and edge, but her voice never loses hope and the desire to add to the world around her. Do I read too much of my own thoughts in the music?

I met an old friend today who is one of those people who seems to get better with age. He’s done very well for himself and has grown from a mid-sized company to a very large business. I find myself studying him, wanting to discover how he does things, and how he’s become so successful. He is one part connector, one part achiever (with a huge drive to succeed). But there is also a part of him that wants, like the rest of us, to matter. He gives much of his time to charity. As well, he tells me that he loves to gamble and is pulled by the immediate gratification of the instant win-or-lose situation. He is a risk taker with very good judgment. If he were music he would be Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 because he is a man who seems to celebrate all that life has to offer.

Having closed up the cottage for the winter, we are back to spending most weekends renovating our home. We bought this old house six years ago and every winter we try to tackle a few rooms. Today, we finished the kitchen and I’m suddenly feeling nostalgic. I remember coming home from work to find our newborn son asleep in his car seat on the kitchen table, and my husband making dinner, with his customary glass of wine and notepad beside it on the counter. I remember our two boys playing hide-and-seek with the littlest hiding in the kitchen cupboard, giggles giving his presence away the minute I walked into the room.

Old houses are like people — they weather and are changed by time, and by those who have touched them.

Sarah Thomson can be reached at publisher@womenspost.ca

A QUEST FOR KNOWLEDGE

The rain pounded in torrents on the boathouse roof last night. I fell asleep before it ended and woke up sometime after midnight to the stillness. I could hear a loon calling in the distance, its yearning voice searching for something lost. The moonlight, reflecting off the lake, made oily shapes on the ceiling. The shapes kept melting just before forming something my mind could identify – their dance was alluring – the patterns seemed to carry knowledge just out of my reach, like a conversation spoken in a strange tongue.

I’ve always hoped to get a firm hold on knowledge, to be able to identify it clearly and have it sit solidly in my hands, like a dictionary or a book, but I seem to rush past it as I whirl along consumed with one project or another.

If knowledge could form into a shape it would look like a withered old apple tree standing alone in a farmer’s field, dropping fruit that rots on the ground. Occasionally a child comes to play in its branches. She reaches for an apple and bites into the sharp fruit. She explores the deep cracks in the bark and hides things in the hollows of its trunk. But life pulls her away, and she forgets about her hidden treasures. She remembers the tree from time to time, and dreams of its branches reaching up to the sky. As time passes she drives her children by the old tree, but they don’t have time to stop. The malls are just down the road. Nobody notices the old apple tree and it may get cut down soon to make room for a subdivision.

Can we lose the knowledge we have? I read somewhere that we have lost the knowledge and skill that built the great cathedrals across Europe. Our stone masons, our tilemakers, our craftsmen have lost the knowledge previously handed down through years of apprenticeship. New technology is introduced every week, but can it replace the old?

Something tells me that our society isn’t getting any wiser. I may know how to use certain computer programs, how to drive a car or how to handle certain tools, but I’d struggle in the world of my grandmother – a world where every herb and plant had a use, where every bird and shrub could be identified and where even the slightest change in the weather was noticed. The more knowledge one had the easier life was. I believe this is still the case, although it isn’t as noticeable now. Knowledge has changed, but is the change for the better?

I often blame time for my lack of knowledge. I don’t have time to read all the books I should, to study the weather, to improve my understanding of the world around me. But I have just as much time as my grandmother had. When did life lose its simplicity? The world expects things a little faster than it once did, but I can still walk at my own pace. I have to force myself to slow down, stop and read a book, perhaps I’ll pick up Carl Honoré’s new book titled Slow (Random House). It looks at the new trends such as slow foods and other ways to slow things down.

This newspaper pushes me to learn and drives me to think; I hope it also does that for others. We try to base every issue around a theme. This month the focus is on work. Does our society still work in order to live well or are we living in order to work?

My work is my life and without it who would I be? I can’t honestly call what I do work. It doesn’t feel like work, although I do have time commitments, scheduled meetings and a list of things that must get done each month. I don’t feel as if I’m punching a clock because the clock doesn’t separate my life from my work, I work from home, from the cottage and from the office. Whether it’s meeting a new client, responding to e-mail, writing an article, searching for financial backing, or editing a column, I love every aspect of what I do. To know that I can publish words that will, in some small way, pass on knowledge is perhaps the strongest driving force.

In the publishing industry there is one requirement that a person must have to become a publisher: She must be a little nuts – not completely nuts – but a little. I’ve noticed the trait in publishers of both small and large publications. There is an element – a passion – that drives them to print words and thoughts, to get ideas out into the realm of conversation. But the passion is consuming. It devours the separation between home and office, between night and day, between rich and poor. While there might be some financial reward at the end of the road, most publishers don’t do it for that.

Lately, I’ve wondered if the passion gets lost with mergers and acquisitions? So many newspapers seem to lose their unique voices and the eccentricities that make them a vibrant part of their communities when they get bought out by larger media organisations.

The passion of the publisher disappears from the pages. I wonder if a publisher of 10 newspapers has as much passion for each of them as I do for mine?

I’ve talked with the presidents of international corporations, with artists, musicians, and writers and what I’ve found is that those with passion don’t separate their work from the rest of their life. Instead, what they do is an integrated part of who they are.

This newspaper was a challenge from the start. I put far more of my life and passion into it than anything I ever did before. I used up most of my savings, rented out my home, moved in with my mother, lived without holidays, new clothes or even a car. I leaned on friends and family, and with their help I was able to build a newspaper that is finally self-sustaining.

I didn’t do it to become rich, but for the reward of knowing that little by little we’re spreading knowledge. By making people think, by debating ideas and discussing issues, by capturing a unique moment and passing it on, this newspaper is doing something good in the world.

I must thank the writers involved, and the advertisers that make it possible – without them we couldn’t afford to print and distribute the 60,000 copies we publish each month. I encourage you to support our advertisers. Please call TD Canada Trust at 1-866-228-8881 to find out how to win $100,000. Their continued support is allowing us to grow.

MOTHERHOOD ISSUES

The morning is sunny and warm. Outside my window tiny buds have formed at the tips of the tree branches. The magnolia tree across the street is in bloom. My desk sits in a large bay window and the sun streams in, not yet filtered by the leaves that will soon shade and hinder my view. On the sidewalk far below I can see parents walking their children to school; the lawns have turned green, and yellow daffodils dot their edges.

The birds woke me this morning. I think they are building nests in the eaves. Spring has a way of bringing life right in the front door without knocking. It feels like a long-awaited visitor, and so too does this baby growing inside my belly. I’m now 12 weeks pregnant. The ultrasound this week showed our tiny baby – six centimetres long – scratching its head. I am still a little dazzled by it all. After trying to get pregnant for over a year, after giving up on months of fertility drugs, suddenly finding that a new life is forming inside me seems a little miraculous. It’s as if nature didn’t want us to tamper with her, but it also reminds me of how large a role circumstance plays in life.

I can see why some people believe that life is predetermined, that we all have a destiny we are bound to live out. With such randomness, the mind needs some form of stability. But the more I think on it, the more I find it hard to believe that the future is etched in stone. There are too many circumstantial events, too many random acts colliding, for any explanation, religious or otherwise, to apply. But believing in an explanation can, in a big way, ease our mind about life’s precariousness.

A friend I work with has breast cancer. Over the last few weeks she has learned that she will have to have surgery; she is scheduled for her operation in a few weeks. We work together. Over the months, I’ve grown to respect her work and her outlook on life, but most of all she reminds me to value every moment and the people that bring happiness to my life. I have slowed down enough to notice the changing sounds that the rain makes, the birds singing at dawn and the happiness that stirs me when I wake to see my husband sleeping soundly next to me.

I try not to worry about her, but not worrying is an impossible task. Worry has a way of settling over you – it’s a weight that pulls on your emotions and tugs at your mind. Another friend told me that with children, the weight of worry never goes away. It is a weight I must learn to carry.

How will I teach our child to navigate such an unpredictable world? I want it to cherish life and the world we live in, to try to make the world more beautiful, to give something back for all it receives, and to treasure each moment they are alive. But how do you teach this? How do I become a good mother?

I can look to the two mothers I have in my life to guide me. My own mother, whom I admire most for her strength and grace, and my husband’s mother, who is filled with gentleness and love.

When I look at my own mother I remember my childhood and the times spent with her. I remember summer days at the lake where my twin brother and I learned to swim. I remember singing with her in the car and the way she would speed the car up as we approached a small hill on a country road in order to make our stomachs rise along with our giggles of glee. I remember the way she would read bedtime stories to us as we snuggled in under each of her arms. The more I think about her, the more I realize that she taught us to value life and contribute to it by the way she lives her life. My mother always seems to notice the colour in the sky and the sound the wind makes in the trees. She directs our gaze from the room we are in to the world outside us in the way she looks beyond herself and treats others in her life.

When I look at my mother-in-law I see a woman who can see beauty in everything around her. She cherishes the time she spends with her family and can love so easily it seems to spill out of her. She cares about the people in her life so much that at times I think the worry weighs her down. But with so much compassion inside her, I think she draws strength from her ability to love them. When I think of her, I think of the way she can laugh at herself, of her smile and the joy she takes in the little things life brings her way.

Will I be as good a mother? I know I will read to our child as my mother did. I will cuddle and keep it safe. I will love it without question, but will I be able to teach it how to cope in this world that seems more perilous now than ever before?

When I remember the freedom of my childhood, disappearing for most summer days in the woods, playing without supervision in the park, or exploring the city until the street lights came on, I realise that our child will grow up in a very different world.

If I can pass on what the two mothers in my life have given to me, if I can teach this child to find strength in love, to embrace the world and everything that’s in it, then I think this baby growing inside me will have a good chance to flourish no matter how precarious this world becomes.

THE RAMBLINGS OF A LOVESTRUCK WOMAN

Something strange is happening to me, and it’s more than this flu I’ve caught. Lately I’ve felt like my senses have come alive, from the pounding of my head to the beating of my heart. Every sight, texture and smell has intensified and it isn’t the Sinutab that’s doing it. Colours seem richer, tastes more piquant, even the sound of the wind howling round the eaves seems full of promise. I’ve also noticed a strange desire in me to be more graceful. Instead of running up the front stairs and tackling Greg in a bear hug when I get home, I’ve caught myself walking one step at a time and hanging up my hat and coat before making my way to his office. And I’ve noticed that my accomplishments seem to matter more now than they ever did.

I think it has something to do with the fact that this Valentine’s Day, I’ve got a sweetheart. He is tall and handsome, kind and honest, strong and sensitive, and what he thinks of me matters more than anything else. We met last spring at a book launch. I had met Greg’s sister at several other events and she introduced me to him. He was the best looking man in the room. It’s been almost nine months since then and he gets better looking every day. I’ve learned many things about him. I’ve learned that he is one of the smartest men I’ve ever met; that’s because he listens and never assumes he’s right, although he often is. I’ve learned that he is strong-willed but that he’ll listen to reason. I’ve learned that he is conservative in his behaviour but loves spontaneity. He is one of the few men I’ve known who knows the words to most of the songs from musicals like “Song & Dance” and “The Lion King.” He collects almost everything, from beer caps to pennies and wine corks, but his music collection is by far the biggest I’ve ever come across. He can name almost any song just from the tune and can usually tell you who wrote it. There are so many things I’ve learned about him and so many more yet to learn.

Evening has come and Greg is once again sitting at his computer, typing away at his music charts. During the past week, while I’ve been coughing and sputtering, he’s made breakfast, lunch and dinner for us every day. This morning I found him on the web looking up symptoms for pneumonia and by this afternoon he had me at the doctor’s office. He is a man that cares more than he lets on. He has a huge heart. Each day seems to pass so quickly.

I can’t remember which of us said the “L word” first. Did I say it while being swept away in a moment of pure bliss? Did he say it while we spoke seriously about our future? The last nine months has passed quickly but there are moments that seem to last forever. I remember a song from a musical he sang to me on our first weekend together. The line I like the most goes: “ Love can make the summer fly or the night seem like a lifetime. Yes love, love changes everything…” And has it ever!

Last February I was a single woman, living with my mother, dating here and there, and waiting for Mr. Right. And today I sit in the apartment we share, his cat is asleep on our bed, and I’ve got a plant on the kitchen-window ledge.

Tonight, as I sit typing this column, I remember a walk on a beach in 10 years ago. I was walking with an older man who was dying of cancer. He asked me what I wanted most in life. I told him I wanted to have real love, the kind that lasts forever. I knew that others thought it sounded romantic and foolish but I believe that every so often it happens to a few lucky people. The older gentleman didn’t think I was foolish and hoped someday I’d find what I was looking for. He too was from Toronto and he told me to look him up when I returned from .

Life got busy and I never did look him up. The man died a few years after our walk and long before I met his son Greg. I sometimes wonder if he’s smiling down on us. Love isn’t the subject of very many Saturday night party discussions and I’ve an inkling that it’s because so few couples have found the real thing. I’ve only had the luck to know three or maybe four couples that have absolute, unquestionable love. They truly care more about their partner’s well-being and happiness than they do their own. They were people who had lived through a long life together. I wonder if the rest of us are working towards this kind of love. With a bit of luck we meet someone who complements us, who makes us stronger and better than we can be on our own. But how do we prepare ourselves for them?

ROAMING FOR ROMANCE IN ARIZONA

Unforgiving, relentless, scorching light. In Arizona the sun pentrates, burns and shrivels all but the toughest plants. Its brightness is piercing and its intensity withering. In a dry desert setting, surrounded by mountains, sits Phoenix, the capital city of Arizona. Here the sun brings simmering heat and the darkened rooms offer more than just shade and air conditioning.

As I sit in the plane, 26,000 feet above the earth, my partner sleeps with his mouth open in the seat beside me. I roll my new ring around on my finger and think of placing the ring in his open mouth, or perhaps a few drops from the tiny bottle of Tabasco sauce that came with this morning’s breakfast at the Arizona Biltmore. But he looks so peaceful. I recline the seat back and think about the past few days.

Four days ago we landed in Phoenix, dressed in pants and sweaters far too hot for the warm day. We changed into shorts and packed up our sweaters. Renting a jeep, we headed north to Flagstaff. The highway from Phoenix rises out of the desert and climbs steadily up to the Mogollan Plateau. Small towns along the highway are filled with flat, square, pueblo-type homes. Built of sun-dried brick and mortar, they are made to protect the inhabitants from the simmering heat. Southwest walls are bare and empty of windows; anything to keep out the penetrating sun. Blinds and thick heavy curtains are drawn over every window to stop even the smallest amount of light from entering a room.

Our first stop is Walnut Canyon, three hours north of Phoenix. The canyon is the site of 87 cave-like cliff dwellings built into the walls of a 400-foot deep limestone gorge. As we climbed in elevation, we began to notice small patches of snow in the gullies. By the time we reached Walnut Canyon, snow was falling heavily. We unpacked our sweaters and scurried into the visitors centre to take a look at the trail maps. The centre sits on the edge of the canyon. A large glass window takes up most of one wall, but the snow flurries created a sheet of whiteness that cut off the view completely.

As we watched the snow swirling below us, my partner reached for my hand. I looked up from the window to meet his eyes. He stroked my cheek and a serious expression came over his face. His eyes were warm. “Sarah.” He paused and looked down at my hands. “Will you…” The park ranger leaned over a railing just above us and announced, “The visitors centre is closing now. We hope you’ll come back tomorrow.”

We hurried through the snow back to our jeep and drove into Flagstaff on Route 66. Our reservations that night were at The Inn at 410 in Flagstaff. Owned and operated by Howard and Sally Krueger, the Inn sits on a hill just off the main street of the town. Built in 1894, the old house was converted to a bed and breakfast in 1991. We were greeted by an open door and a smiling young man who rushed to take our bags. He showed us to the “Southwest room,” located in the original section of the old house. Fully renovated, the room has a private bath, gas fireplace and over-sized Jacuzzi tub. The snow was still falling and the day had been long.

Curious about my partner’s question at Walnut Canyon, I was determined to salvage the romantic mood disrupted earlier in the day. I filled the Jacuzzi and poured two glasses of wine. We got into the large tub and my partner reached over me to turn on the jets. But nothing happened. He pushed the button, I pushed the button. Nothing. Frustrated, he got out of the tub and wrapped himself in a large terrycloth bathrobe provided by the Inn. He went searching for another switch, a button, anything to get the jets working, but found nothing. He called the front desk for help and before I could finish my wine, jump from the tub and climb into the other robe, our innkeeper was knocking at our door. We didn’t have time to turn the lights on. Firelight flickered and danced on the walls. Soft music played in the background. I tightened my robe and went to meet Howard, the innkeeper. He was kind and a little more embarrassed than we were. He couldn’t get the tub to work and apologised profusely.

The next morning we woke to the smell of hot rolls cooking in the oven. Thirsty and hungry, we dressed and hurried to the dining room, where they served fresh fruit with coffee and orange juice, followed by baked oatmeal with cranberries, cream and the fresh home-made rolls we could smell from our room. When Howard learned we were heading to the Grand Canyon, he fetched his maps and showed us the route he and his wife, Sally, travelled. The dining room was elegant and combined with Howard’s friendly personality our morning was relaxed and enjoyable.

Following Howard’s instructions we drove northeast. The change of vegetation is stunning. From barren desert with dust bowls, rolling tumbleweed and cacti, to pine forest and dry mountain settings with vegetation clinging to life amid rock and rubble. We followed the highway north as it wound its way through the San Francisco Mountains. Once past the mountains, we crossed the Coconino Plateau. At the rim of the plateau, the land drops off and slopes down to meet the Painted Desert below. The desert is surrounded by eroded sedimentary hills. Colours of every shade paint the hills and sweep down into the desert, where rain and snow have washed different colours of sediment out over the flat plain.

Turning west, the highway meanders along a ledge between the rim of the Plateau to the desert below. We discovered an abandoned dirt road leading from the highway towards the desert. Weeds, cacti and brush camouflaged the road. Parking the jeep, we hiked down towards the desert. Dirt and prickly pear filled our shoes. Huge gullies dropped away from the trail. It came to a sudden end as if the land had been swept away. A deep, dry, gulch separated us from the road as it continued its way down the hillside. The sun was hot and the air still. Shade was hard to find. We listened for sounds of life, a bird, a rustle, the murmur of a bug. Nothing. I threw a rock and its sound disappeared into the vast empty desert below us. My partner stood beside me. His camera shutter clicked. Again the sound disappeared into the silence. Beautiful in a stark and eerie way.

The highway rose up onto the Plateau and wound its way along the edge of the Grand Canyon. We stopped at many of the lookouts to peer down on the Colorado river far below. Reaching the Grand Canyon village by late afternoon, we were too late to hike down the canyon or dine at the hotel for lunch. We snapped some photos, enjoyed a cold beer and left; both of us try to avoid tourist-filled areas.

Heading south to Sedona, we found the perfect setting for a car chase. The highway (89A) zigzags down the side of a huge canyon. There are switchbacks every few hundred yards. A tiny creek winds through a valley filled with cottonwood, willow and oak trees. Sedona sits at the end of the canyon where it opens out to the desert beyond. Our reservations for the night were at Canyon Villa Inn, located just south of Sedona.

We arrived just as the sun was setting and our innkeeper, Les Belch, gave us a brief tour, taking us poolside for a glimpse of a Sedona sunset. Les pointed to the east and told us that in Sedona the greatest views aren’t found looking towards the sun but away from it. He pointed to Bell Rock, a huge spire rising out of the dusty desert setting. The red rocks glowed as the setting sun touched their peaks. Night approached quickly and Les showed us to the “Spanish Bayonet” room — the most romantic room at the Inn. Our balcony faced Bell Rock with the Courthouse Butte (pronounced beaut as in beauty) across from it. With king-sized bed, gas burning fireplace, and a Jacuzzi tub I hoped for the best. We were invited for hors-d’ouevres and cocktails in the dining room and he left us to unpack and get comfortable. That evening we drove into Sedona for a romantic dinner. The night was chilly and we went back to Canyon Villa to enjoy the fire and the warm jets of the Jacuzzi — they worked beautifully.

Next morning we dined with other guests in the dining room. We were pleased to meet another couple from Toronto and four people from New York. All suggested we take a path from the Inn that connects with trails leading to the Buttes and Red Rocks beyond. The day was gorgeous; not a cloud in the sky. We hiked and climbed, the red sand covering our shoes and filling our pockets. Enjoying the view from the flat surface of one rock outcrop, we listened to the stillness of the desert. A slight breeze brought the sound of someone chanting a few buttes away. Sedona is known for its holistic community. Aging hippies and palm readers fill the shops. The majestic buttes and spires give it a magical quality.

Leaving Sedona late in the afternoon, and dusty from our hike, we headed to the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix. Arriving early in the evening, in hiking boots, shorts and t-shirts, we felt a little out of place. But the manager took no notice and gave us a brief tour of the grounds, treating us like royalty. Inspired by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the Biltmore first opened in 1929. It boasts a 92-foot-long water slide, an 18-hole championship putting course and a 22,000-square-foot spa, fitness centre and beauty salon. With 736 guest rooms, it’s the largest resort in Arizona. We were shown to our suite with living room, dining area, and full kitchen. The marble bath with double sinks was larger than my dining room.

After taking in the grounds and wishing to spend more time at the resort, we tried to get our flight changed. But alas, luck and the airline were not on our side. We dined at Wrights, the Biltmore’s fine dining restaurant, where executive chef John Zaner has created a fresh, flavourful menu of New American cuisine. My rack of lamb was exceptional and the strawberry banana soufflé was ecstasy in a bowl. Waddling out of the restaurant and into the cool evening, we noticed steam rising from the hot tub beside the pool. In no time, we had our heads propped on the edge of the tub, our legs floating in front of us and our gaze resting on the stars glittering above. My partner put his arm around my shoulder and kissed my cheek. He leaned close to whisper into my ear and I knew this was the moment. He spoke softly. “Sarah. Wake up. The plane has landed.”

WHAT WILL MAKE THE ROM GREAT?

A friend of mine insists that Frank Lloyd Wright was a great architect who’s designs were exceptional. I disagree. Frank Lloyd Wright designed a few great buildings (Johnson’s Wax Administration Building and the Guggenheim Museum) but he also designed many disasters (Falling Water, the Robie House). I wouldn’t consider him a great architect. He doesn’t belong with those I consider great, like Beethoven, or Michelangelo. But Wright wasn’t a failure either; he was able to sell the idea of architecture to the masses. For that he deserves credit.

But who am I to judge architecture or great art? The daughter of a man who strove to be one of ’s greatest architects, that’s who. He taught me that a good architect considers the form and the function of the building he is designing. One without the other is not architecture. A great architect designs buildings that fit both their form (dictated by the lay of the land and by building materials) and their function elegantly. A building is meant to shelter us and protect us from the elements. That is its primary meaning. Without meaning it’s like a stone standing in a field; there, but lacking human context. Good buildings are those that fit their meaning; a home improves the quality of life for those living in it; an office building improves the ability of employees to work effectively in it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a house, an office tower, a church or a museum; a building must have some sort of function.

With the Guggenheim Museum, Wright was able to design a building, a form that fit its function —which was to display and protect the items within — flawlessly. Perhaps it’s because of something inside him. He was, after all, a great exhibitionist. But his design of the house called Falling Water, in Bear Run, Pennsylvania, played romantically with form, but ignored its function as a home. Its halls were too narrow, its drafts too constant, and the moisture in the rooms, caused by the river below, made the house uninhabitable as a home.

What makes something art? What makes a painting, a sculpture, music, or literature a truly great work of art? I’m sick of hearing that it’s all subjective, that art is self-expression or that it’s whatever we like to hang on our walls. Those words are used by posing artists — with a class in finger painting under their belts — and duped consumers who have lost all sense of aesthetic judgement. The posing artists, too lazy to force a rigorous education on themselves, are as much to blame as our consumer culture. Both are in the business of producing commodities, not art. The disgrace is that a true artist must try to work within the contrived world of artificial art. And they’ve two choices — either they sell out, giving in to the industry of art which dictates that two parts shock value equals an increase in market value — or try to make a living in another field, creating real art when they can find time.

There was a time when people studied and apprenticed themselves to great masters in the arts. A time when a great painter learned biology, history and engineering. A time when a great composer often knew how to play every instrument. A time when great art was created.

Today we have junk labelled art, with ridiculous price tags. There is something substantial about real art, a pull, an aesthetic pull that isn’t in most of the schlock produced today. You can feel it in Beethoven’s music, in Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings, in Henry Moore’s sculptures. The presence of a sculpture can capture you in a dark room. The pull of music can tease you and force you to listen. The aesthetic pull can reassure and comfort. It has taken our society from tribalism to civility — it’s in the choices we make each day. Choices made well adhere to this aesthetic law; they’re in harmony with the physical world. This aesthetic law steers us away from putting an armchair in the middle of a hallway, or a picnic table up in a tree. So many choices are aesthetic and when that pull is ignored, mother nature disciplines — we bang our shins or fall out of trees.

My biggest worry is that real art, the kind that teaches us how to listen and develop our inner aesthetic guide, will get lost. Buried in the waste of junk that currently passes for art. A few weeks ago it was announced that our custodian of aesthetic knowledge, the Royal Ontario Museum, is getting re-designed. Will the design consider aesthetic form and function? Will it be a work of art? Or will it be a sales job, something we’ll be tearing down in twenty years because it didn’t quite work, because the sensation today isn’t aesthetically valid. We won’t know until it’s built, until we’re standing inside it, until the sensitive among us can feel the aesthetic tug of the building itself. For now we’ll have to trust the architect, Daniel Libeskind, with the responsibility of creating a design that is aesthetically valid.