June 2008



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


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.”


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…”


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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