Author

Sarah Thomson

Browsing

THE HEART WILL LIVE ON

A soft morning rain has left the island damp. The water is dark, murky green, its surface still and impenetrable – a mask reflecting the dull, grey sky. The mist, a shadow left by the rain, holds on wet and clinging. Thick clouds hang low, their imposing weight holds the air and lake in stillness, muffling and distorting sounds. The air carries the smell of damp pine needles and wet rock. The trees whisper a timeless tale carried from branch to branch, almost within reach. Understanding fettered by thought. My eye wanders from the green, feathery ferns to the dark, glistening tree bark. Rusty pine needles cover the forest floor and cushion each step – a carpet of moist smells meander a trail through the trees. Birch logs lie scattered and broken as if thrown and discarded by an angry child. I look at Mother Nature’s yard and want to pick up the rotting logs, to pile the dead wood neatly to one side. I wonder if this human desire for order might harm the forest by taking away its natural layer of waste. I don’t want to disturb the cycle of life. But how do I fit into it? I remember my aunt’s stone farmhouse. I first saw it about 30 years ago as a child, just before her husband passed away. I remember the huge maple trees that provided shade over the well-clipped lawn that surrounded most of the house. Overflowing flowerbeds were scattered around the edges. Behind the house stood the barn, rickety with a few boards missing here and there. Beyond it were cornfields as far as the eye could see. Over the years, as my aunt grew older and less active, nature claimed back her farm. The old barn boards disappeared into the weeds and vines that grew over them. The rubble foundations cracked and stones tumbled down year after year leaving a grassy mound where the old barn once stood. The clipped lawn grew into a field of wildflowers. The bushes and trees that once provided shade around the house went from lush to smothering. Long branches grew thick and heavy, reaching for any sliver of light available. The sun that once filtered through the tree leaves, splashing in puddles that moved across the living room floor, no longer came in the windows. Gradually the house grew dark, buried beneath a cave of vegetation. My aunt stopped using the large living room, confining herself to the back bedroom and kitchen where electric heat provided more warmth. Mice moved in, burrowing in the settee and moths made dust of the books that filled the shelves. Time began to erode the house from within. It was easy to feel the world living and breathing around you in that house, but it was also easy to feel conquered by Mother Nature. After my aunt passed away, the old house was levelled to make room for more cornfields. The beauty that was once there, the home that she and my uncle had shaped, existed only because they cared enough to create it, to build it with their own hands. The ease with which that beauty came undone gnaws at my mind. Can human endeavors have permanence? I know that straightening a crooked picture frame will last until the next time I walk past, that the flowers I planted this spring will be gone in the fall, but I can’t help doing it. Last month Barry Allen wrote about art, about turning possibilities into reality. When I breathe in the smell of damp earth, of sunlight on the warm dock, so many possibilities arise almost within reach, just an arm’s length away; possibilities that could slip away as easily as they appear. Simple forms, wood, grass, leaves I can shape. The flat smooth surface of stones become in my mind a stepping path to the new cottage. Bits of wood spin out a host of possibilities, it’s as if the very life that was once there inspires creativity. The smooth surface of driftwood calls to be polished, the rough bark on a broken tree branch demands peeling. Possibilities abound. But can I create or add beauty to the world that will last? Beauty that will outlive me? That’s the question of many artists. Perhaps after I’ve edited and perfected every article and advertisement in this issue of the paper, after I type and re-type the words on this page, after I finish straightening the picture frames. The afternoon sun has burned off the layer of mist that crept through the forest surrounding the cottage. Slowly the wind, free from its damp morning weight, rustles the leaves, shaking off the wetness. The sounds of summer fill the breeze. Boats in the distance, children laughing and splashing, waves lapping against the dock. So many possibilities sit within reach, ideas given by nature, full and waiting to be taken. But is there enough time? That’s the thing about Mother Nature; she sits patiently waiting, at times it seems like she’s mocking. Her winds blow against the pyramids, her weather crumbles Stonehenge. The trace of a human life disappears. She destroys without compassion, but still we live on. Surviving with the hope that somehow, if even for the moment, we can shape her bounty into forms that comfort us in this cold harsh world.

I WILL REMEMBER

The lake is calm and still in the cold morning air. The warm muggy days of August are gone and September brings fall to our island early this year. I can’t quite see my breath, but at some point during the night a chill crept into the boathouse. I smell smoke, which means someone has lit a fire at the old cottage. My husband is down below on the dock, just about to have his morning swim. He’s quick to jump in and out again. Over the last week the cold nights have caused the temperature of the lake to drop rapidly. Our kayak slides quietly over the water. We decide to circle a large island with a forest of dense trees on its north shore. The surface of the lake is like glass, a transparent window to the hidden world below us. I snuggle against my husband as he paddles. His strong arms surround me and I can feel his stomach muscles tighten as the kayak moves over the water. We glide and listen to the morning sounds. A train whistle in the distance, the constant hum of traffic far away. A fish jumps near a rock close to shore, startling us back to our current surroundings. The chickadees call, their song echoes through the forest. Suddenly there is a commotion a short distance ahead of us. A huge turkey vulture leaps up from the water’s edge and flies to a tree further off. We pass by a dead beaver, bloated and rocking against the fallen logs on the shore. I think of this lake in the winter, of the cold winds and crushing ice. The shoreline is littered with fallen trees, broken stumps and twisted branches. Huge cedars lean out from the land, their branches reaching for precious sunlight. Lake Rosseau seems harmless in the soft light of dawn, yet the tree stumps and weathered rocks show its hidden strength. A large tree lies fallen, its branches stick out of the water and block our path. We steer around it and move on to the south end of the island where cottages are built up. Most of the cottages are quiet, their occupants still sleeping. We pass a woman reading on her dock and try not to disturb her but she smiles and comments on the beauty of our kayak. Its polished wood surface and elegant frame took my husband months build. As we paddle, a crow flies so low that we hear its wings beat. We continue our journey around the island. A monstrous orange cottage looms over us. It ruins the grandness of the large rock it sits on. I wonder about the kind of person who would build something so ugly. My guess is a middle-aged man, probably the kind who fills a quiet restaurant with loud boasting. My guess is that he came from a farm and made a fortune in the stock market. But he desperately wants attention. We reach the boathouse of the monstrosity and a man stands on the balcony pissing into the lake. My husband whispers that the man will be embarrassed when he sees us. I can’t help thinking that he’s pissing into the drinking water of every cottage on the lake. It is now almost lunch time. The wind has picked up and the sun makes the lake shimmer with activity. It reminds me of September 14, 1999 the day my father died. I remember the cold early morning when I drove to the hospital to sit at his bedside. I could see Lake Ontario from his hospital room. I remember the horizon lighting up with dawn and the black arches of seagulls in the clear sky. I can still feel the worry, the weight of it and knowing that so much would be lost. I had a thousand questions I still needed to ask him. I remember the peace that filled the room as the sunrose and the moment I looked up at the lake and knew he was gone even before he stopped breathing. I remember thinking he was out there in the sunlight that glistened on the water. I’d felt left behind. I thought about how beautiful the day was, the blue sky and sunshine twinkling on the lake. My father taught me to reach out into the world and find comfort in its beauty. I will always remember. I remember another sunny September day. The morning was beautiful and busy with people scurrying to work. I remember the sight of the planes crashing into the twin towers. I remember the weight that seemed to sit like a heavy invisible burden on the shoulders of everyone I looked at; and the fear, so obvious in the children. I remember the sorrow, the anger and the huge loss and I feel the sorrow again. Tears glide smoothly, like our kayak, without making a sound. I search for meaning, as if there is a secret to life that is out there, at the horizon. Sorrow has a way of magnifying happiness. Do I feel more now than I once did. Happiness doesn’t come from being so busy you forget to listen to the sound of the earth breathing. I haven’t found it in the rush of our current culture. Although a movie or melody can cause an immediate smile, it doesn’t last or travel deep inside me. I’ve searched for happiness in people, in games and in music. They all have an impact on me, but what I’ve discovered is that happiness is in me. Sometimes it’s hidden,sometimes it gets buried in sad circumstances, but at other times it’s out front leading the way.

EMBRACING CHANGE

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

LOVE IN THE TIME OF OPRAH

This month I asked our columnists to write a few lines about the most romantic thing they have done in the last few years. Many of them had trouble with this subject.

One of our editorial mandates is to carry intimate, first-person narrative pieces. I didn’t understand how hard the romantic challenge was until I began to write mine.

A few weeks ago a relative asked me why my journals no longer focus on the love I have for my husband, the way they did when we were first married. I hadn’t noticed the change, but after reading some back issues I see that he is indeed right.

I suppose it is because we’re still in the process of learning what marriage is all about. I find that writing about the personal, intimate details of my life – which wasn’t a problem before marriage – is much harder now that there is someone else sharing in my aspirations and mistakes. Although I was raised in a family that always spoke openly about our problems – airing our dirty laundry without restraint – my life is now joined to a man who doesn’t care to have his private life hung out on the line. He is strong and decisive, and also shy and reserved. The voice inside me, my writing voice, is learning to speak in ways that won’t embarrass him, but it’s a long process and at times I need a little more editing than I once did.

The love I have for Greg is the most important thing in my life. The intimate issues that I might have written about revolve around the challenges we face in making our love important every day. Our issues are probably similar to those that most couples go through in their first year of marriage. With deadlines, meetings and social events it’s easy to put romance and passion on the back burner. But passion can boil over and we’ve found that our love needs to be tended with careful hands.

The romantic scenarios of prime-time television don’t even come close to portraying the harmony between passion and friendship that steers us through our days. When I fumble to understand what a romantic action is I can’t help thinking of those two things: passion and friendship.

What I view as romantic are gestures that show deep understanding for the other person’s desires. So although I may want bum rubs and intimate conversation, I know that my husband doesn’t desire the same sort of thing. My ways of being romantic with him are based on what I believe he desires: cooking his favourite dinner and suggesting a game of foosball, or dinner at the pub down the street where we watch the hockey game. I find that desiring to do something that he enjoys, and developing a passion for it in myself, is one of the most romantic things that I can do for him.

As we grow closer, I am beginning to understand what will embarrass my husband and what won’t. Like the futile months of fertility clinics and doctor’s offices we’ve faced together over the past year. After months of hormone injections, mood swings and ultrasounds, we finally decided to take a break from it all. The instant flashes of anger that came with the hormones are now gone. And we’re both feeling as if we managed to survive a monster that invaded our home. I smashed more of my husband’s beer glasses than I care to admit, and I’ve never bought as many new ones as I did after the hormone therapy ended.

We both feel as if we are in a state of calm, the calm after a huge storm has blown over. We looked around to see if there was any damage but found that together we are stronger than ever before.

We’ve decided to try a new Chinese herbal therapy program that involves acupuncture. Lying side by side in the doctor’s office the other day with needles poked into our stomachs was, for me, romantic. I doubt others would agree, but the passion and desire in the act of trying to create something together is extremely intimate. And I never would have imagined how sexy this mission of trying to make a baby is.

I’m not sure if I should write about the tender moments that come after a huge fight, when we are both a little bruised but want desperately to get inside the other, to make our connection as strong and deep as it was before. Should I write about the emptiness I feel each month when I learn I’m not pregnant and I know that a child is one of the things that Greg wants most? Or should I write about the way he can make me feel so completely loved that I don’t want to breathe for fear the moment will end? There are so many things I might write about and so many that I’m slowly learning are just for us.

Last night I woke with his body curved up tight against mine. I listened to his steady breathing and lay still, soaking up the feeling. The warmth of his body, the strength of his arm as it curved around me. My version of heaven would involve hours upon hours of that moment. That feeling of love, of being loved and loving intensely is what romance is all about.

THE RETURN OF MY GRANDMOTHER

This morning I lay in bed in that not quite awake state, with my eyes shut but listening to the birds chattering outside. The light changed ever so slightly in the room, as if someone had walked past the window and I looked up to see my grandmother sitting in the armchair in the corner of my bedroom. The morning sun shone on the floor at her feet and tiny particles of dust swirled in its path. For a minute I thought of pulling the covers over my head. But my curiosity took over.

She looked just as she had when she died 30 years ago. Her grey hair pulled back in a tight bun, her glasses sitting on the bridge of her nose, with a book resting in her hands on her lap. “Good morning Sarah, I’ve come to see how you are doing. It looks like you’ve finally married. Any children?” I felt a little embarrassed dressed in only a t-shirt with Greg fast asleep beside me. Sitting up, I pulled the covers close to my chin. “No, I’m not married and I don’t yet have children.” “Well who’s this man next to you? And why hasn’t he asked you to marry him?” “This is Greg, my partner, and we are living together first before we jump into marriage.” My grandmother looked him over with a disapproving gaze. “Well I suppose the times must change but is it really a good thing? If the man’s getting everything he wants without marrying you what motivates him to make the commitment?” “Nana, I think living together is a good thing, it gives two people a chance to learn about each other. I like knowing that a man is with me because he loves me, not because he’s married to me.

My grandmother shook her head in disagreement. “But what stops people from leaving as soon as the going gets tough? How do they grow together as a couple if they have the option of simply packing up and moving on to the next person? I should worry that nobody ever makes a serious commitment to each other, that they never learn what it takes for strong love to flourish. If you don’t marry how will you ever experience what it is like to give a part of yourself to the bigger entity of the marriage. How can you grow together as one?”

I’d forgotten how forthright she was. “Nana, it isn’t that people don’t marry anymore, they do. But that doesn’t stop them from living individual lives. Marriage doesn’t force them to give themselves to the union. Of course, that may be why the divorce rate is so high.” My grandmother nodded in agreement. “Yes, no doubt that’s why. Sarah, you have to work at everything, even love, to reap the rewards. It’s the working, the journey, that creates the reward. If you don’t enter into it you’ll never have the love you deserve. You have to give up a part of yourself for the union, but it fills in quickly with so many other things.”

My grandmother had a way of jumping to the root of a problem. “Yes Nana, it sounds all very good but in today’s world people value individuality. They don’t want to give up even a small part of themselves. I’ve come close to marriage a couple of times, but I never quite made it to the commitment stage. I’ve always lived my life as an individual, not so much because I wanted to, but because no one ever wanted or needed anything more from me.”

My grandmother’s brow became furrowed. Her expression more serious. She opened the cover of the book in her hands, but closed it again. I could tell she was thinking over her words. “Sarah, I loved your grandfather very much. But when we first got married we didn’t allow room for the other. Life was very bumpy. We wanted to spend our days living quite differently. I loved having people over for tea or dinner. I wanted to travel and visit friends. I had quite a few friends all over the province. But your grandfather didn’t have as many. He was happiest reading or working in his study. The first year was terribly hard. I wanted to go my way and he wanted to go his. We were both strong individuals pulling and pushing at each other, wanting to hang on to our own ways of living. “Over time we learned to let go of our habits, to give up part of ourselves for the other, and we created a new way of being, of living harmoniously together. We worked at it. I gave up visiting my friends all the time and instead took up reading.”

The shock on my face made my grandmother smile. “You only knew me after I became an avid reader. It was your grandfather who got me into it — a gift he instilled in me. He too gave up part of himself. He stopped working so much in the evenings and the two of us entertained guests. He made some great friendships that he might not have otherwise. We both modified our ways of being. But we both shared similar beliefs. Your grandfather had high standards for himself. He never caused another person to suffer, he never cheated or lied, and he always behaved as a gentleman. I respected him and wanted to be like him.

Sarah, your grandfather and I shared the same ideals. We both believed in love, we both valued it, and I think that allowed us to give ourselves completely to the marriage.” I remembered how my grandparents were before my grandfather died. They were inseparable, the two of them walking together, holding hands after fifty years of marriage. “I believe in love and I value it,” I said, “ but in today’s world my values seem like relics from the past. Independence is the way to be; people place their careers before their marriage, they spend more time at work than they do with their partners.

The idea that two people can grow together seems almost impossible. We’re faced with so many options and individual choices. Giving up our individuality for the union created by a marriage isn’t done much anymore. But I’m hanging on to my values and I hope that when the time comes I’ll be able to do it.” My grandmother nodded and smiled. She closed the book on her lap and vanished. All that was left were the tiny particles of swirling dust dancing in the morning sunlight.

I VOW TO LOVE, HONOUR AND…

It is Saturday evening just before dusk. My study windows are open and I can hear children playing in the yard two doors down. A lone kid on a skateboard flips and circles in the street below. The street lights haven’t come on so he’ll be there for a little while yet. The sounds of spring are everywhere. Birds sing from their nests and a dog barks as someone walks by his porch.

Two weeks ago Greg proposed to me. I said yes before he could finish. Since then I’ve spent hours searching the Web to get an idea of just how wedding vows are composed. We aren’t religious so the old traditional vows, with their commitment to God, won’t work. And the writer in me can’t rationalise using someone else’s words for such an intimate event. The older religious vows view the man and woman as incomplete human beings. The marriage serves to bring two incomplete halves together into one complete entity. The more current wedding vows tend to view each person as an independent individual joining in marriage to fulfill their personal needs and desires. This has me perplexed. Although I’m not religious, I do tend to see marriage as a way of becoming complete.

Ever since my twin brother left my side and began to think rationally and independently (at the age of five, when he finally realized that giving me his ice cream left him empty-handed), I’ve wanted to return to that infant state of co-dependence. Not for the ice cream, but for the vision. Sharing a life with my twin brother enabled me to explore and discover the world through a masculine set of eyes as well as my own. I learned that we saw and approached things very differently, but when both our masculine and feminine perceptions were combined, colours became richer, experiences more interesting, and opportunities abounded. Although I’ve grown to be an individual, part of me remembers that I’ve only got half of what it takes to understand and embrace life.

The trouble is that I can’t quite grasp the masculine point of view that Greg wants captured in our vows. He is a strong, independent individual. Raised to be a perfectionist, he faces the world head on. When I am romantic, he is rational. When I rush about doing three things all at once, he focuses on one. I tend to express all my emotions and he reveals just a few. He takes up new ideas quickly, I tend to question them and prefer those already tried and tested. When it comes to our vows I’m at a loss. Although Greg admits that he comes to the marriage incomplete, he sees it as a way for two people to fulfill their individual needs. My dilemma is that I’m a complete (although incomplete) romantic. I’ve always believed that marriage is a constant evolution towards the unity of both people into one elegant human being.

The other day Greg said that there is a possibility that my romantic view of marriage could work. If this weren’t the case he wouldn’t be marrying me. A few simple words but I adore him even more for them.

My Web search turned up the ultimate how-to-write-your-wedding-vows-in-five-easy-steps guide. It was a fill-in-the-blanks type of project. The first step is to write down your favourite line from a book, a song and a musical. Next write down your favourite kind of flower and a favourite line from a poem. Then write down a saying or quote that is meaningful in your relationship. Follow this with the thing you enjoy doing the most with him. Last, write down the trait or traits that you admire most in him. Once this is done, you must combine all your answers into a vow that begins with dearest and ends with their full name and I love you.

Below is what I came up with. My answers are in quotes. Dearest Greg, “It is life more than death that has no limits” (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “Love in the Time of Cholera”) and even though “I never saw blue like that before” (Shawn Colvin, “Never Saw Blue Like That”) I do hope that you will “let the dream begin, let your darker side give in, to the power of the music of the night” (Andrew Lloyd Weber, “Phantom of The Opera”). I hope that we will pick a “daffodil,” nay “a host of golden daffodils/Beside the lake, beneath the trees/Fluttering and dancing in the breeze” (William Wordsworth, “Daffodils”). And as we take this journey together I want to say, “have ya ever seen blue like that!” I hope that we spend the rest of our lives “making love,” because I admire both your persistence and vitality.”

“Gregory Harold Thomson, I love you.” The above vow is ridiculous and I have a feeling it’s because I’m lacking input from the other half of this equation. The passion and emotion necessary for the words to have strength are all in the context; they can’t be borrowed. For this project I’ll have to share the weight of my pen with Greg.

JUNE JOURNAL

November 26, 2008

The sun is shining and once again, from my table in the boathouse, I can watch it dance and sparkle on the lake. The water is dark blue, almost black and there is a slight breeze whispering in the pines. I’m reaching for thoughts to write about today but they are eluding me like a mosquito hovering around my pillow in a dark bedroom. We caught a raccoon at some point in the night. It took three attempts. Each time he’d enter the trap and step daintily over the door-release mechanism, picking up the cracker and peanut butter bait, then slowly backing out. We rigged the trap with a piece of cardboard to camouflage the door-release mechanism and this morning found our bandit curled up in a ball, angry and shivering.

The island we are on is small and the raccoons swim over, but can never find enough food, so they attempt to break into the cottage. During the summer we trap them and, like bandits ourselves, sneak over in our boat to Port Sandfield, which is on the mainland at the juncture of Lake Joseph and Lake Rosseau, and drop them off while entertaining thoughts of them purchasing an ice-cream cone. The trap is supposed to be harmless, but this time the little raccoon tried so hard to get out that he scraped the fur off his paws and head. We drove him over to the mainland this morning and wondered if he’d be back in time for lunch.

I’ve just spent the last half hour sweeping the path from the boathouse to the cottage and hoping for lofty thoughts. All that came to me was frustration with the person who built the path out of asphalt, which is buckling and breaking apart at the seams. Why wouldn’t the builder have made the path with slate tiles laid in fine gravel? Slate’s been used for centuries because it stands up to the constant rise and fall of the land brought about by frost and, if well maintained, it would never need replacing. But asphalt is cheaper and it breaks down faster.

Our cultural climate breeds expediency. I reached the cottage end of the path and decided to sweep the deck, hoping to replace my frustrated thoughts about cheap workmanship with more intellectual conceptions. But alas, the deck that was stained the summer before last is peeling everywhere. As I sweep up large patches of peeling stain, the wood below is uncovered. The peeling is most noticeable under the eaves. The painters obviously used a latex (water-based) stain. It’s much cheaper than an oil but doesn’t stand up to rain so well. Why would workmen do something so cheaply? We have ferns growing wild all over the island. They grow along the forest floor.

Today Greg and I are planning on transplanting some to the new flower bed beside the boathouse. We found some beautiful large ferns yesterday while we were spraying the nests of the tent caterpillars. They destroy the young trees but we destroy them. Are we somehow mucking up the circle of life? The forest was littered with the tall birch trees that the winter winds knocked over. We collected some for firewood, but most are decaying; giving back to the earth that nourished them. More and more I’m amazed at the perfect balance in nature. Mother nature is a craftswoman with high standards.

The loons were convening last night. The sky was filled with stars, but without a moon the lake was a black pool. Their low, mournful calls were different, altered somehow into high, excited and repetitive announcements, cutting off each song but adding to it at the same time. I’ve never seen more than three loons together, but last night it sounded like five or six distinct voices, maybe more. I stood, a silent observer listening to an ancient ritual performed out in the shadows on the lake.

We alter this earth with every path swept, every tree felled and every habitat disturbed. But each of us has a choice to make. We can add to the craftsmanship of mother nature, we can imitate her example by building, creating or producing things that last and grow and change. We can hold her at bay while allowing her to grow beside us. Or we can insist on fulfilling our immediate needs, and in so doing destroy the natural world around us. In the end, life has a way of balancing everything out. Things built cheaply never last. People living for personal gain, always seem to end up with the short end of the stick. Change is an absolute and over time morality is our only guide. Mother Nature always rules and I’m beginning to wonder if what we humans understand as ethics are her laws.

BEETHOVEN AND LIGHTNING

November 27, 2008

There is a thunderstorm shaking the cottage. It’s the end of a long summer here. In the last few days we’ve said goodbye to each member of our family as they made their way back to the busy world beyond this refuge. A lump developed in my throat during the farewells that took hours to disappear. I know it’s due to realising that time is passing, that we are growing older, and that once we go out into that busy world we never seem to find enough time to see our family as much as we’d like to.

Lightning is filling the sky and sharp cracks feel as if they are striking just outside the cottage. The cat, Kibo, has run to hide under a bed in one of the back rooms. After each sharp crack, a quiet is filled only by the rain pattering gently on the roof and music from the stereo. The sky over the lake is flashing heat and bolt lightning. I’ve just noticed that the music seems to be dancing about the room in unison with the storm. It’s Beethoven, Symphony NO . 6, the thunderstorm/tempest part. We’ve had the stereo on almost every evening for most of the summer. It’s set on random to play various songs, but we’ve listened to nothing but Neil Young and the Beatles, thanks to a determined nine-year-old with a good ear for music. Tonight we changed the playlist to George Winston, Van Morrison, Eric Satie and Beethoven. Music with few words.

We set the cd player on random to select different tracks. At the exact time the thunderstorm swept in, Beethoven’s symphony, composed to imitate and honour the very nature of the storm, randomly played on the stereo. I don’t believe in predetermination; but I do think that everything in the world is connected — although knowing exactly how it is linked could be beyond our comprehension. Perhaps similar things are somehow pulled towards each other, like attracting like. Who knows? Maybe the thunderstorm was toying with randomness, it coerced chance in order to dance with Beethoven’s music. Perhaps it was a performance given for us to watch; perhaps the love in the air attracted them both. This is the stuff legends and myths are made of.

Coincidental things seems to happen so often, in such an orderly way, that I wonder if they are part of the physical world rather than simply in my head. I never took notice of them until my early twenties. The first time occurred on a hot afternoon in Texas. I drove to a well- known deli to buy sandwiches for a group of friends. When I got back to them I received tearful hugs — a gunman had shot over 20 twenty people in the deli I had left within five minutes after my departure.

My father used to say we all have a certain amount of luck in our lives; the trick is to make the most of the good luck and hang on through the bad. Luck, chance, and randomness are all part of the condition we face as conscious beings. All I know for certain is that all living things die and that change will always occur. Everything else, religion, the ideologies warring today and even most of the sciences are based on belief without absolute certainty. My last column on spirituality had some readers encouraging me to believe in their gods; they didn’t understand that my spirituality praises the physical world in all its grandeur.

Our wedding is only weeks away. I’ve got the silly white dress; it isn’t me but it’s the only thing that seemed to fit the occasion. I’m determined to wear running shoes underneath it because a part of me loathes tradition —the part that doesn’t fully understand it. We’ve created our vows and spent a few hours rehearsing them. Every time I try to say the lines my eyes fill with tears. I think I’m hard-wired to respond to deep emotional events with tears. Beginnings and endings — why are they so emotional?

The thunderstorm has come to an end. It was short this evening and the night seems so still now, the music and crackle from the fire the only sound. It’s quiet in this cottage without the kids. I’ve watched them learn and grow all summer. I can see their parents in them. It’s comforting to know that even though we grow old and die a part of us lives on in our children.

It is almost a year since that tragic day on September 11, 2001. Has anything drastically changed? We go about our lives. We rebuild, we go forward a little less than we once were but a little wiser as well. “It is life, more than death, that has no limits.” — Gabriel Garcia Marquez

CH-CH-CH-CHANGES, TURN AND FACE THE STRANGE…

November 27, 2008

I’ve placed my writing desk in an alcove of windows on the third floor of our new home. The view from my window is filled with trees. To my left is a huge maple tree; its branches knock and scrape against the window. Directly in front of me is a large ash; its leaves are still green, although very pale. The rest of the street is lined with trees that have all turned yellow, red and brown. Winter is pushing hard at fall, the cold air tugs urgently and the leaves drop and swirl to the ground in clusters.

To my right the view is clearer, the trees are thinner and I can see over the branches to the street below. There is more traffic than I thought there would be on this street, but the trees muffle the noise. It’s odd, I can hear a leaf blower somewhere down the road, although the bus that just passed below is barely audible. I’m picturing the man standing on his lawn blowing the leaves off his well-clipped grass. Why do I picture a man? I suppose it’s because I’ve never actually seen a woman using one. Why? I wouldn’t use a leaf blower simply because they are so noisy — although I can use a vacuum at 3 a.m. without the slightest hesitation.

Greg has just gone to get us coffee and croissants for a Saturday morning treat. We’ve been through a lot in the last few months. The experts say that the three most stressful things in life are marriage, divorce and moving. We slid through two of those in the last two months — we married in September and bought a house and moved in October — and we gave up ownership of the newspapers amid all these changes. If these are the most stressful things that we’ll face in our lives, then we have a strong foundation to build on. But I’ve never put much faith in experts.

The most stressful experience I’ve had is the illness and death of my father. To feel completely helpless while he lay in his hospital bed wheezing and struggling for each breath and to pray to a god you don’t believe in that you could somehow switch places with him because watching him struggle gets unbearable. To hear “code blue” over the hospital p.a. system and know the doctors are running to his room. Those few minutes while you wait with just a small strand of hope to cling to, those were the longest minutes, the most stress-filled, of my life.

Compared to this, the power outage on our wedding day was nothing to get upset about. We couldn’t shower, but we did have a very cold lake to bath in and our screams on the first jump in will echo in the memories of our family for years to come. I was glad when the power finally came back on, but I know it would have been a wonderful day with or without it. We had choices and solutions and most dilemmas always have a host of them — except for death. And now I’ve a man in my life that I love with all of my heart.

Moving and marriage are joyous compared to the thought that someday the time may come when he falls ill, when the weight of worry comes back to visit once again and stress takes me in its grip. Greg is wonderful and I still can’t believe that he married me. I keep thinking, “My god this amazing man is my husband.” Over the last month he packed everything we have, organized the movers and has spent the last week unpacking while I’ve been working late every night setting up the new offices for the newspaper. He didn’t complain when I missed supper two nights in a row. He didn’t complain when I missed our first Halloween night at the new house.

I’ve suddenly gone from seeing him all day to seeing him for an hour in the morning and an hour or two at night. And yet he doesn’t complain. Not even when two dozen red roses showed up at our door addressed to me, but without a card or note telling who they were from. I’m not sure if someone is trying to unsettle him and I feel a little as if someone was trying to challenge our connection. But Greg laughs and smells the flowers and I know that we have a closeness that no one can touch. Together we are strong and we both thank the flower sender.

Although the newspapers have a new owner, I’ve stayed on as editor and am now working from an office at the corner of King and Yonge. It’s an old building with thick, strong walls and single-paned windows. We’re on the third floor and I can hear the street noises below. The streetcars, sirens, and church bells ringing on Friday evenings bring the life outside in. It’s a good feeling.

A few nights ago, I was working late and I looked down at the rain falling with the cars and street lights and for one brief instant felt as if I was back in the 1920’s. I’m glad I’m not looking down from 20 floors at noiseless movement. The office is divided into three large rooms; an editorial room, our advertising department, and a room we call “the morgue” because of the web programmers who type away in silence all day long. It’s a strange environment, filled with activity, laughter and hard work. But it’s the people who make it such a great place to be.

At times the phones are ringing off the hook; at other times our advertising manager sings, at the top of her lungs, “Don’t go breaking my heart…,” but she has yet to get a reaction from “the morgue.” I can’t help singing back “I won’t go breaking your heart.” The changes fall brings each year are even apparent in this issue of the newspaper. From the new name on the masthead to our size. We’ve moved from a 12-page tab to 20 pages with a clean, glossy cover.

Lately it seems as if all my dreams are coming true. But I can’t help thinking of what my father used to say: “In life we are given a certain amount of good luck and a certain amount of bad. The trick is to make the most of the good and stand strong through the bad.”

A FOGGY FRIENDSHIP

November 27, 2008

The concert in Hamilton ended early, the bar was crowded and the group I was with were loud and boisterous. I was tired after a long week but hoped to grab a bite with a friend I’d met a few weeks earlier. I knew my friends liked him and I suggested he join us, but he was cold, distracted and didn’t seem to want anything to do with us. I stood for a moment wondering why I had thought of him as a friend when he obviously didn’t feel the same way. I’m usually a pretty good judge of character. My friends are interesting people, weird in their different ways, but all pretty grounded. I consider myself lucky to have them. Something about this person made me connect with him, we had talked about real things that matter in life. I had thought that his and my husband’s interest in music might blossom into a friendship between them as well. I couldn’t believe that I was so mistaken. I’m not sure why I think that sharing a good conversation with someone automatically makes them my friend. Maybe it is arrogant of me to assume this. After my encounter I didn’t feel like socializing and decided to drive home. The parking lot across from the bar was deserted. It was a foggy night and I got into my car and sat warming it up when the sudden flick of a cigarette lighter in the seat beside me brought my father to life. He looked young, the way he had on our farm when I was a child. “Why so sad, Sarah?” “I haven’t seen you in a while, Dad, what brings you around?” He took a drag from his cigarette, unrolled the window a crack and smiled. “Your need to talk. Now, why the hell are you sitting in the middle of a parking lot in Hamilton of all places?” “I came here to see a musician named Fred Eaglesmith. Kevin Somers got me on to him.” “Kevin Somers? How is he doing? That boy has real talent. He’s still writing for you isn’t he?” “Yes he’s still writing for us. As a matter of fact I’ve got him doing our art column. I think he plans to write about the musician we saw tonight.” He thought for a moment. “How is the newspaper doing, Sarah?” “It’s doing quite well. We’re expanding to Vancouver next month.” His eyes filled with delight and pride. “Vancouver! That’s wonderful. This puts The Women’s Post into the national arena. You’re going to be up against some big players.” The sound of a siren in the distance accentuated the silence around us. “Dad, sometimes I wonder what it’s all for. It’s been so busy lately, one minute I’m talking with bankers and the next I’m flying to Montreal to meet the president of Acme Corp. I haven’t had much time to sit down and write or think. But, just when I feel like I’m caught up in a whirlwind of people who all seem to want something from me, I find myself meeting someone who is open-minded, young at heart and cares about the world around them. We click and we talk and ideas start flowing. I feel like I could stay and talk forever and I think they feel the same way. I leave the meeting thinking that to have met someone like that makes it all worthwhile.” My father looked at me for a long time then nodded. “Yes, that does add a lot of meaning to your life.” He gazed out at the fog rolling across the parking lot. “But remember what matters most isn’t just the people you bring into your life but how you enhance their lives.” “I know, but sometimes it isn’t always easy to know how to do that.” “Who ever said life was easy? What you have is your passion, your integrity and your vitality. They are part of you. Give them freely without imposing them and don’t get caught up waiting to see the results. You have hope, which is the driving force behind change. Without hope we wouldn’t have built the great cathedrals and we might still be living in the dark ages. Without hope the future will always look bleak. The hope in you is something you pass on to everyone you meet whether you realise it or not.” “I think my hope is low tonight. It’s December. Did you know that December has the most suicides of the year? Do you remember when I dated that undertaker? We spent the week before Christmas driving from one garage to another. God, that’s a memory I wish I didn’t have. The garage door wide open with the body fallen half out of the car, left right where their family found them. “I’ve been thinking a lot about the friend who called me the night he took his life. I looked into the crowd tonight for his face. He killed himself here in Hamilton, four years ago. I know I’m not to blame but I wish I’d made time to talk to him that night. I was too busy with work to give him my time. I wish I had told him that no matter what happens, life will change, that change is the one thing you can always count on. I wish I’d given him some of my hope.” “But Sarah, you can’t honestly think you could have helped him? I remember him, you and your brother used to bring him by the house when you were teenagers. He was on all sorts of medication for depression even then.” “Yes. I know. But I’ll always wonder. If I had given him more time when he called, if I’d stopped my work and had a long talk with him, might I have changed his future?” “That you’ll never know.” A car with a loose muffler came up fast along the road beside the parking lot. “I’ve always wondered why I’m drawn to certain people or they are drawn to me. I think maybe it’s the hope that draws us together. Do you think hope has a way of pulling people together Dad?” As I turned my gaze away from the road in front of me I realised that my father was gone. I stared into the fog and could just make out a dark patch that slowly folded in on itself. I rolled up the passenger window and put the car in gear. The fog was lifting and my hope was back. I headed home to Toronto singing a tune I’d heard earlier in the evening, “pick up half a rainbow, throw it over your shoulder, find another rainbow to hook up to, that’s what you’re supposed to do…”