Sarah Thomson



November 27, 2008

Last night I had the kind of dream that makes you think about what you ate at dinner. I wished I could have stayed in the dream right up until the rational part of my mind began to alter it. I dreamed that my father came back to life. I haven’t dreamed about that in a long time. I was standing in the middle of a long bridge that spanned a channel between an inlet and the sea. It was a bridge in Florida that I had driven over the previous day. The air was warm and the sun was high in the sky. The sea stretched, glittering, to the horizon. I looked down one side of the bridge but the glare of the sun off the water was so bright I had to squint. I could make out a figure of a lone man walking towards me. His gait seemed familiar yet I couldn’t quite tell who he was.

I looked in the other direction and the bridge fell away to a sandy coastline. All I could see was beach and water for miles, no life, no condos or sign of any civilization at all, accept for the bridge I was on. I turned back to see if the man had reached me and as he came closer, I realised he was my father. He was younger than he was when he died, the way I remember him when I was a child. He smiled at me. I wasn’t puzzled by his presence, but was filled with questions and a thousand things that I wanted to tell him. I felt the happy the way I remember being when I was with him. It was a wonderful moment set in the natural beauty of Florida.

But then we were in my new house and my entire family was there for dinner. They were happy and noisy and nobody was surprised to see my father. They were about to sit down to dinner, but there were two tables, one downstairs where my father and my in-laws sat and one upstairs where my mother, her new man and my siblings were seated. I was worried because I thought my mother was in a bit of a spot. Yet my father sat at his table, not caring about anything. As dreams do, mine took another weird turn. I stood on stairs, halfway between the two dinner tables and listened. I wanted to hear what my father was talking about, to see how he and my husband were getting along.

But as I listened, I suddenly realised that this wasn’t really my father. The man speaking was bland; his words lacked passion. He was docile. My father, on the other hand, had passion running through his veins. He always had a point to make and loved intelligent conversation. He didn’t care much for trivialities. But in my dream, the man I’d taken to be my father was commenting on the weather and saying things like “Isn’t that nice” and “What a lovely day it is.” At this point I knew I was dreaming, but I didn’t want reality taking over. I wanted the father who was there with me on the bridge, not the hollow version of him sitting at the table.

I looked up the stairs and my mother stood at the top, a knowing look on her face. I was just about to tell her he wasn’t real, although I think she already knew, when I woke with a start. My husband was getting out of bed. I looked around the room, unsure of where I was, then remembered that we were on vacation at our condo in Florida. The clock read five after eight. I closed my eyes and thought about my dream. As soon as I’d tried to bring my memory into my current life it had collapsed.

I was thinking about how my rational mind interfered in my dream, how it took my father away the moment I focused on my current world. Suddenly a familiar voice brushed past my ear and whispered “Sarah.” I sat bolt upright but nobody was in the room. I looked back at the clock, seven minutes past eight. My husband walked out of the bathroom. I couldn’t place the voice — maybe my father’s… I looked out the window. A thick fog filled the tennis courts and the palm trees stood still like guardians watching over things. Silence replaced the usual morning sound of tennis balls bouncing in the courts.

It’s been two and a half years since my father died. He died at eight in the morning on a warm sunny day in September. The dreams I used to have of him were more like nightmares. Each would start with a struggle. He’d be in the distance and I’d have to run hard or climb a steep mountain to reach him. I’d get to him excited and wanting to tell him so many things. I’d have thousands of questions to ask him but when he turned to me his eyes would be empty. He’d be an empty shell with no mind inside him. But this dream seemed so different. This time he came to me, I wasn’t scrambling to reach him. His eyes held the life I remember in them and for a very brief moment I found happiness as we stood on the bridge looking out over the sea.

I wonder if Florida triggered the bad twist in my dream? I never feel truly comfortable here. It’s as if the land below my feet is temporary. There’s an emptiness to the place, in the strip malls, fast food joints and trailer parks. The majestic beauty of the ocean pulls me back to Florida every year but the human element seems to lack a soul. It reminds me of Niagara Falls. The beauty of the water has a way of magnifying the man-made emptiness that surrounds it. I’m not sure why I’m trying to find meaning in this dream, it was probably brought on by the lobster I had at dinner last night.


November 28, 2008

Dear Fred Eaglesmith, I am now sitting in my study; an old grandfather clock ticks away time in the hall outside my door and I try to imagine sitting once again with you and our columnist Kevin Somers in your shack in Port Dover. I think of the large tugboats moored just outside your door and the grey storm clouds rolling in over the lake; the sound of halyards clanging against a mast and the moan of a foghorn in the distance. I can almost smell the smoke from your wood stove. The sense of peace that permeates your shack — peace that comes after a long day of honest work — still resonates in me. And the music we listened to, music full of sorrow and love. Did the music guide our discussion or did our discussion guide the choice of the music we heard? I can’t seem to remember the ebb and flow. But what I do remember is your curiosity and your energy; you have a passion for life that seems to cascade out of you. You are a musician who has built his own generator from scratch, whose farm is completely off the hydro grid, who paints and has plans to restore an old sailboat. You lost your business and have picked up the pieces and re-worked them into an expansive life. What I see in you is a man who has lost everything and “built it up again with worn out tools” as Kipling wrote. Our discussion that day is one that I hope will continue. Do you remember that we talked about our different beliefs, your belief in Buddhism and my commitment to the idea of love? You suggested that my idea of love might not be as encompassing as the Dharma (Buddhist teachings). Not only did this instill in me the desire to prove you wrong, but it challenged me to brush up on my Buddhism. Thanks to you I’ve been reading such things as The Way to Freedom by the Dalai Lama, who writes, “all beings have a natural tendency to wish for happiness and freedom from suffering. Knowing this and still working only for our own liberation makes the accomplishment a small one. But if our underlying motivation is to be able to help others, we can attain the omniscient state and with it the capacity to benefit every living being.” I can’t help but agree with such wisdom. I believe that true achievement in life comes from helping others. But I think that trying to do it alone generates only a small flame, whereas a loving union has the possibility of generating enough positive energy to light an entire town. I’m a romantic at heart. I always thought of marriage as a path to happiness and knowledge. Having to give up the “me” for the “we” is both challenging and enlightening. Unfortunately, the current prevailing belief is that we must maintain ourselves as separate individuals. Giving up the self is viewed as a sacrifice rather than a purer way of being. I think many marriages fail because of this. A marriage built on commitment to the union (something larger than yourself) is something to learn from. I hope that I can learn to let go of my personal desires, to overcome anger, jealousy, pride, hatred and greed. I’m reading another book, The Tao of Relationships, written by Ray Grigg, a teacher of history, arts and religion. It has me thinking that my belief in love isn’t too far removed from Buddhist views. He writes, “The union of man and woman teaches that the becoming between them is between everything.” His book dedicates a whole chapter to the union between a man and a woman. I still have a lot to learn about Buddhism, but thank you, Fred, for getting me focused on it. It seems that we all set out on our own paths, some paths criss-cross, others merge into a larger path, and still others veer off in a solitary trek through the wilderness. Thank you for introducing me to Mickey Newbury. And for playing his song Lovers when we talked about what love is all about. I’m listening to him now and the lines “When will we learn what lovin’ is? It’s not what you get in return but what you give…” brings back the discussion in your shack quite vividly. And thank you for allowing Kevin and me to hear your newest song — the strings said what words can’t. Thank you for the memory I have now of a blanket around my shoulders, of dark storm clouds rolling in off the lake, and of the peace I found in a shack by the docks in Port Dover.


December 3, 2008

There is a bite in the air this morning. My four-year-old son plays on the floor in front of the fire with an old bolt inside a small empty box. He zooms his make-believe sled over the carpet. This home is a warm, safe place for my boys to learn and grow. But lately I feel like something is amiss, as if there were an iceberg floating ahead of us, just under the surface.

Winston Churchill said “the further back I look, the further forward I can see,” and so I’m brushing up on the history of the Great Depression. There are some similarities between the stock market crash of 2008 and the crash of 1929 … but there are many more differences.

North America has experienced the same sort of boom era as in the Roaring ’20s, with the mass consumption of goods and huge demand for credit by over-extended consumers. But that is about all that is similar. Through most of the 1920s there was a huge crisis in the farming industry. Farmers were supplying more food than was consumed and were unable to compete in an over-supplied market. The land went fallow and drought wreaked havoc throughout the Prairies. But today farming is stable, technology allows us to work around drought, and globalization connects supplies of food to the demands of a climbing world population.

Today governments understand that they must stimulate an economy gone flat. They are pumping billions into the economy, and have created regulatory backstops like guarantees on bank accounts that protect people from losing everything.

In 1929, the stock market crash turned confident optimism to defeat and despair, which lingered a decade until the war came along. Economists believe that the infusion of capital by the Roosevelt government for the war effort took North America out of the Depression, but the war also gave people a cause to rally around, giving North Americans an opportunity to rise out of despair.

The U.S. government has given billions to most of the large banks, hoping they will free up lending enough to stimulate the economy. Nobody knows if shoring up the big companies is good or bad. People need a reason to believe in the future. They need to be inspired and it will take both passionate leadership and tenacity to rebuild confidence in the system. Instead of focusing on big business, what if the government focused subsidies on small to mid-sized businesses?

Small businesses account for about half of all private sector employees and have generated 60-80 percent of net new jobs over the last decade.

A campaign designed to focus on small businesses in Canada is the key to changing public spirit. Government investment in people, innovation, training, research, and strengthening small businesses could go a long way towards building a stronger economy.

The government must begin to treat “subsidies” as investments rather than bail-outs.

Backing small business puts the money into the hands of people who have a stake in the economy, people who are passionate and driven. Throwing it to big corporations does little but pay off the debt their poor management practices have built up over the years. It buys employees their jobs for a few more months, but little more. Instead, government must approach this as any good investor would: Diversify the investments to minimize loss.

Instead of worrying about how this country will hold on, we should be investing in skill, training, and innovation, building a stronger future. Today’s slogan should be, “Invest in small business, it is our future.”

*** Our goal is to inspire women to be all they can be. This holiday I do hope you will help us by purchasing a subscription to Women’s Post for the dynamic women in your life. Call 416-964-5850 for details.

Sarah Thomson can be reached at

Religious bigotry in our school system

This article was originally published on April 17, 2008.

I’ve had just about enough of funding the religious school system. By the religious school system, of course, I mean the secular humanist one known as “public” that seeks to impose its views on people of other religious faiths. Don’t get me wrong here; it’s not that I’m against religion, it’s just that if parents want their children to be raised as atheists who worship at the shrine of moral relativism and receive the sacrament of materialism they should really stop asking me and my comrades to pay the bill.

I refer satirically, of course, to October’s Ontario election and the way in which an entirely modest proposal to allow Christian, Muslim, Jewish and other people of faith to direct their taxes to their own schools was rejected as being “segregation” and “divisive’. It really was a denial of education choice as well as a nasty example of organized bigotry.

Taxes are ours and we have a right to decide what happens to them. This already happens with Roman Catholics and other religious groups are merely asking for the same. Be warned, however, that the Separate system is moribund largely due to such funding. Roman Catholic schools in Ontario routinely turn out kids who know next to nothing about their faith and have received an education little different from that of the atheistic system.

And atheistic is what it is. Goodness me, the ignorance of some on this subject is almost laughable. History and reality teach you that nothing is neutral and that even lack of religion is itself a religion.

The public system was originally Protestant, with a strong ethos of Christian ethics. With the decline of mainline Protestantism and the post-1960s attack of education by liberalism, the public schools became, ironically, much more religious. But the faith they now taught was lack of belief, dismissal of God, abandonment of universal truth.

What can be heard from some critics is that people can be religious in their spare time. Be religious at home or on Sunday or in your place of worship. Rather like being good only at home or on Sunday or in your place of worship.

True faith informs everything someone does, from rising in the morning to sleeping at night. Only someone who has no understanding of genuine belief would say that religion is a private matter. Private is precisely what it is not. If it is only private if it is not religion at all.
Odd too that people who go on so much about the right to choose and tolerance of others seem determined to prevent religious minorities from being allowed to have control over their own money when it comes to education.

Actually, it’s just about being Canadian. As good Canadians, we people of faith have no objection to atheists having their own schools. Please be as fair, and as Canadian, to us – because it would be dreadful if people outside the country mistook Ontarians and their government for a bunch of bigots.

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As I write, it’s the first day of 2004. We decided to spend this week in Vermont skiing with our family, but today my muscles are sore and the wind is bitter cold. Last night we listened to the wind whip down the mountainside, shaking the house as it rushed past. Just before midnight we turned out the lights and watched as it swayed the trees under the moonlight. The sky was filled with stars and the half moon shone bright, casting dark shadows across the snow. I thought of wolves that might be hiding in the woods beyond the field, but the only sound we could hear was the wind. This morning the wind still blows, but the house is warm and smells of hot coffee. I’m not sure where the idea came that the New Year is a time for reflection, for casting one’s mind both back and forward, but that’s exactly what I feel like doing today. There is one New Year’s in particular that stands out from my childhood. It was just after we lost our farm and had moved into an old stone farmhouse that our neighbours (who used it as their summer home) had offered us when they heard the bad news. I was almost 11-years-old. That Christmas was quiet and the rain forced us inside. After Christmas the rain turned to snow and hail. By New Year’s Eve a thick layer of ice had formed over the surface of the snow and as the day wore on, the sky cleared and the temperature dropped. We all stayed up until midnight playing board games while my parents talked with friends in front of a roaring fire. I’m guessing they consumed many bottles of wine because just before midnight someone suggested howling at the moon. We bundled up and went out into the cold night, the snow crunching under our feet. The old apple trees around us, with withered branches reaching to the stars, looked like witches frozen in the moonlight. We climbed to the top of a hill, following quietly in single file, the men breaking a trail until we reached the crest. From there we looked down on the farm where we’d spent 10 years of our lives. It was the only home my brother and I had known. We could see the wall of stone that we’d all worked to build carving a straight path beside the fields we had cleared of stones each summer. We could see the woods where my brother and I had built dozens of forts. We could see the house our parents had built with their own hands, every wall and cement block they had set. But the lights in the windows reminded us of the other family now living there. Suddenly my father began to howl and we all joined in like wolves. We howled for our home, our land and our loss. But then someone began to laugh and we were all laughing. I remember it so clearly, a reflection of how we learned to deal with life. At that moment we all decided to let go of our home. We took one last look at our farm, turned and trudged back down that moonlit field. Each of us broke our own path through the ice-crusted snow. We spoke of our dreams for the future. I was going to marry Prince Charming and live on a farm in the country. I was going to spend my life raising our six children and writing books. I planned on making huge dinners where our family would all be together forever and always. Life hasn’t yet turned out quite the way I’d pictured it. Although I did find my Prince Charming and I’ve done a bit of scribbling, I’m a little behind on the family scene. But who knows what the year ahead will bring? I may yet have those six children, although now I’d rather have a few less. Getting my sisters and brothers all together is harder than I could ever have imagined as a child. But back then, I never thought our family would be scattered across the country. When I think of my future I don’t envision it with the same clarity I had as a child. Time has taught me that circumstance is part of life and that I can’t know with any accuracy where I might be in one year, let alone 10 years. And it’s also taught me to live each moment to its fullest, to have passion for all that I do and to keep my curiosity alive. I’ve come to believe that passion drives our imagination and that curiosity leads us out into the world. In the year ahead I want to wake the passion that has been lulled by my busy life. I want to untangle myself from the distractions our society has created, like television, movies and sporting events. I’m worried that my passion isn’t as focused as it once was and that my imagination is dulling. Instead of producing beauty in the world, they get used up in consuming various things. There are so many things that could distract me from accomplishing something with my life – spas, shopping centers and outlet malls, dance clubs, casinos, golf, Bingo and bowling – the list seems endless. The world is filled with distractions. There are pills to numb our pains and barrels of alcohol to put us to sleep. They can fill the empty spaces in a passionless solitary life. But do all these distractions hinder the passion and imagination in a life that isn’t solitary? Could they be interfering in my life with my husband? We don’t get drugged up, go to dance clubs or play much Bingo, although we do enjoy skiing and tennis and movies and a host of other entertainments. Sometimes it’s a struggle to find moments that really count, moments that help us focus, enhancing our curiosity and stirring our dreams, like dusk at the cottage, a walk in the woods, an early morning kayak or a winter evening in front of a roaring fire, but something tells me that those are the times we must reach for. In the year ahead I plan to slow down and explore the world with the curiosity I had as a child. I’ll re-kindle my passion, awaken my imagination and once again burst with excitement over the sight of a fresh snowfall or the smell of spring in the air.

Newly uncovered Evan Cassidy

American Tune

Evan Cassidy

Blix Street Records

Evan Cassidy, died far too soon at age 33, and American Tune may be the final testament to her remarkable voice. American Tune is comprised of  five tracks of newly uncovered rehearsal tapes, three live recordings, a demo and an early recording of that too-covered tune (but not here),  the Lennon-McCartney standard Yesterday.


In her usual eclectic fashion, Cassidy raids the vaults of rhythm & blues (Ray Charles’s Hallelujah I Love Him So), Philadelphia soul  (the Gamble-Huff Drowning in the Sea of Love), pop (Cyndi Lauper’s lovely True Colors), folk (an exquisite reading of the traditional The Water is Wide) and jazz (Duke Ellington’s It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing). One can only hope that there are still more Cassidyean treasures yet to be uncovered.

Travelin’ with Traveler

If you don’t know Colin James’s work (and unless you’re a blues diehard, you probably don’t; he doesn’t get the radio play he deserves) you’re missing one of Canada’s too-little-sung musical treasures. James is a superb blues guitarist, a fine, gritty vocalist, often an inventive songwriter, and a musician unafraid to venture in new directions.


The Saskatchewan native was a high-school dropout; he heard the call of the blues early, moved to Winnipeg to form the HoodDoo Men and opened for the late great Stevie Ray Vaughan who, legend has it, had Colin James Munn shorten his stage name because it sounded as if they were saying “mud” every time they announced his name over the P.A. system.


His first two albums, the eponymous Colin James (1988) and Sudden Stop

(1990) were hits in Canada. Then James became an early convert to the swing revival with the brilliant neo-swing-blues-jazz Colin James & the Little Big Band (1993), six years later, after two more albums, following it up with a second retro-swing sortie that may have been even better.


I’m not disappointed by Traveler but was expecting more. It is, in some ways, a return to the blues, with a bit of power funk and Motown-inflected grooves punching up the thoughtful mellowness in many of the 11 tracks.


Most of the tunes are written by James, ballads such as I Know What Love Is and up-tempo, but somehow slightly subdued, rockers like She Can’t Do No

Wrong (the literate James showing off his drop-out status?). Throughout, his voice is in fine rasp and his axework, as always, is superb. Maybe I find the energy a bit low.


That’s not the case, though, on the opening and closing cover numbers, they are almost leisurely, but smouldering, covers of John Lennon’s I’m Losing You and Jimi Hendrix’s Rainy Day, Dream Away, in which James gets to make his guitar gently sweep.


A lot of people will like this album, and they should. Me, I’m going do some swinging to Cha Shooky Doo a classic from his 93 album.


No dissing this

Where We Live

A compilation of Various Artists

I’m not usually a fan of music made for occasions. And you’d think that a compilation of 16 artists lending their voices and instruments to Earthjustice, an organization devoted to “the universal right to clean air and clean water,” would drip drip drip with sanctimony. Or be slapdash, piecemeal, tossed off.


But no! Benefit album it may be, but Where We Live is full of musical delight, of pop performers finding the inner gospel singer who’s been struggling to get out all these years. For what we get is largely churchy in feel, but it’s been secularized in the smithy of the ecological soul.


There’s not really a bad turn on the CD, but a few tracks particularly stand out: Pop divas Maria Muldaur and Bonnie Raitt collaborate on the Southern-gospelly It’s a Blessing; the still smouldering Tina Turner does a supercharged version of  A Change Is Gonna Come (Robert Cray on guitar) which almost matches that of its great originator, Sam Cooke;  Karen Savoca’s Two Little Feet is purringly innocent but sexy; Pop Staples takes the 1960s protest chestnut I Shall Not Be Moved and really makes you feel as if he is going to glory on the wings of his own perfect pitch and Ry Cooder’s slide guitar. Bob Dylan revives a 1971 tune that never should have died; Watching the River Flow must be about the Mississippi, for it has an infectious Professor Longhair New Orleans piano-roll .


Then there are Nora Jones’s sultry-sweet Peace, Los Lobos’s credibly passionate version of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Willie Nelson’s laconically touching Living in the Promised Land and the Neville Brothers funkified chug-chug, Sister Rosa. Dan Zanes and Friends, with the help of Lou Reed (taking a walk on the sweet side), do a post-hippyish version of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World; Mose Allison gives us a jazz hipster Getting There; John Hammond (witnessed by Tom Waits) testifies that I Know I’ve Been There; the lovely harmonies of the activist group Sweet Honey in the Rock turns More Than a Paycheck into an environmental protest; Michael Franti and Spearhead offer a folk-reggae Yes I Will, while Ruben Blades’s Estampa lends a latinate stamp to the enterprise. As a truly weird coda, the one and only Captain Beefheart croaks out Happy Earthday.


This one warrants repeated listens and it’ll be a while before I automatically diss a project like this again.