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Sarah Thomson

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Permaculture Design – it’s deep

I just finished an intensive permaculture design course (PDC) through the Caribbean Permaculture Research Institute (CPRI) in Barbados. The course was held at Walkers Reserve (a sand quarry that is being turned into a nature reserve).  My goal was to earn my permaculture design certificate, but I gained so much more. 

The course opened my mind and senses to the natural flow of elements and the man-made obstructions that disturb this flow. I began to understand that resilience to climate change is all about enabling natural processes to work; and that permaculture is more than just a way of farming, it is a philosophical position that is in harmony with our natural ecosystem. 

The formal definition of  permaculture states:

Permaculture it is a set of agricultural design principles that focus on natural ecosystems and simulates patterns found in nature. 

Permaculture principles provide alternative techniques to the destruction caused by intensive commercial farming.

Permaculture includes regenerative agricultural techniques that focus on bringing life (microbes) back to soil destroyed by the use of chemicals (fertilisers and pesticides). Regenerative agriculture strengthens the health of the soil, and healthy soil is much more resilient to extreme weather conditions brought on by climate change. We learned to see that everything living is energy, from dry leaves to grass clippings and all organic material. Mulch is energy that can be used to cover the soil (keep moisture in) and feed the microorganisms below it.  We touched on syntropic agriculture as well, but with so much to learn that topic will be for another course. 

Our instructors – Erle Rahaman Noronha (@FarmerErle) of Wa Samaki Ecosystems and multimedia artist and ecologist Johnny Stollmeyer (@johnstollmeyer) – led us through everything from water harvesting, composting, and root crop planting,  to grafting, layering, and social permaculture. 

We were taught to see patterns in nature, to read the land and use all of our senses to discover them.  We were told about people so tuned-in to nature they could understand bird calls, one predicted the arrival of a red-tailed hawk 10 minutes before it appeared because he could distinguish the warnings sent by other birds.

Understanding natural patterns requires connecting with all of your senses and waking your intuitive perception. 

One morning Erle sent us to find a spot to sit and open our senses to the land around us.   I closed my eyes and could smell the sweet scent of warm grass and hear bees buzzing close by.  I remembered doing this as a child on our farm in southern Ontario. The fields and the smell of the long grass – and running through it with arms stretched wide as an August thunderstorm rumbled in the distance; the chatter of birds and the silence that settled over the woods warning a predator was near.  I caught the scent of the ocean and could just make out the low rumble of waves pounding on the beach in the distance. A cloud passed over the sun and the birdsong lessened, like a pause in music, it pulled me to listen for sounds further off. The tapping of banana leaves and call from a parakeet looking for friends reminded me of the distance I have travelled since those days on our farm. 

I caught hold of something there at Walkers Reserve – something deep inside me, the intuitive voice that informs my perceptions. Years spent surrounded by concrete, traffic, and cement structures has dulled it, but with a little nurturing I will learn to rely on it again.

The course was filled with practical learning as well, but I was drawn to the social side of permaculture. Social permaculture is defined as the art of building community and relationships.  It is about designing social structures that favour beneficial patterns of human behavior – earth care, people care, and fair share are some of its principles.  Climate change is forcing society to adjust our behavior, social permaculture offers an outline on how to do it.

Mother nature has a way of always balancing the earth – we pollute and destroy her ecosystems and she throws extreme weather that lowers food production and forces us to change. 

Someone in the class asked Erle why he didn’t use the word sustainable but instead always seemed to use regenerative. His response,

It depends… would you want a sustainable marriage or a regenerative marriage?

We learned how to create permaculture designs, and were assigned the job of designing for clients who had very unique challenges. As we went about our work  I realized we were able to come up with designs and solutions easily because Erle and Johnny had taught us to see the world differently, to feel it living and breathing around us. 

The destruction that humans are doing to the natural world, the loss of wildlife, and topsoil; the pollution and devastation humanity has caused … can be very depressing,  but learning about permaculture as helped me see that there is hope. There are others who care and they have found a way to regenerate the soil we have killed, and the ecosystems we destroyed.

If you are feeling a little short on hope please take the time to find a permaculture course near you, learn how to use all your senses, and build healthy relationships and communities. 


Wasamaki Permaculture in Trinidad is currently offering internships and you can also earn your Permaculture Design Certificate here: https://www.wasamakipermaculture.org/internships

CPRI will be offering a Syntropy course next spring. For more information: https://www.cpribarbados.com/  

Thanksgiving in Barbados

Today Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving, and those of us living abroad are planning our turkey dinners. It is a day to think about what we have to be thankful for.  

I am thankful to be living in Barbados.

Living here I am constantly reminded of the similarities and differences between our countries. While we both started with British rule, the history of slavery is much different.

In Barbados, wealthy landholders wanted obedient slaves. They used religion to teach conformity and servitude.  As a result, ingenuity and open dialogue were shunned. Education provided by the church guaranteed that those who conformed were rewarded, and those who didn’t were shunned.  

In comparison Canada was the place known as the last stop in the underground railroad.  In 1825 with the population in Upper Canada just under 160,000, the influx of 40,000 freedom seekers who wanted to make Canada their home had a big impact.

Courageous people who came to Canada through the underground railroad influenced the way we thought about equality, freedom and minorities.

As a result, Canada has a history of protecting and defending human rights through open dialogue.

Canadian John Peters Humphrey was the principal author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and prepared the first preliminary draft of it.  It established that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and that “rights are not conferred by government; they are the birthright of all people.” No matter what the country, or cultural beliefs, human rights must first.

Courageous outspoken people in Canada willing to stand up for minority groups changed not only the laws but the hearts and minds of people in communities across Canada.  As a result, there are millions of LGBT citizens able to live freely and participate fully in the political, economic, and social lives of their communities. 

In Barbados this is sadly not the case.   Open discussion of ideas isn’t common. Instead word travels through whispers.

People are unwilling to stand up for minorities, and the LGBT community is constantly discriminated against.

But there are many Canadians living in Barbados with a humble desire to contribute to the community.  Some of us descended from a courageous stock of people who fought for freedom. For us, contributing means sharing ideas and pushing for progress.  

When it comes to human rights, progress starts with an honest and open discussion.  

The rights of the LGBT community in Barbados are ignored by people who cite religious or cultural values to justify their discrimination.  Similar to justifications given for violent practices towards women, like genital mutilation, which was believed to be sanctioned by God. Today, because individuals stood up for human rights, these practices are unacceptable. 

Criminalizing the status of LGBT people, and expelling them from schools, is completely unacceptable. 

The immigration policy in Barbados is responsible for limiting the islands ability to attract community builders. It was set up to attract the wealthy. Updates to the policy were designed to attract large corporations (that mostly wanted to avoid paying taxes) not entrepreneurs.

In Canada the immigration policy was designed to attract ingenuity. Our “start-up” residency program targets entrepreneurs to the country by offering residency status. This allows them to work in their business without having to get a work permit. They end up bringing all their wealth into the country. And they contribute significantly to their community.

Here in Barbados wealthy opportunists attracted by low taxes have contributed little to the island. One built a school for his children, but turned it into a business willing to discriminate against any kid who threatens their profits.

The progress here in Barbados is driven mostly by local residents and a small group of caring immigrants. But they are up against opportunists willing to use cultural intolerance as an excuse to ignore human rights and protect their profit.

This Thanksgiving I am thankful to be a Canadian living in Barbados. I am thankful for the friends I have made. They are very smart and courageous Barbadians trying to build culture and a progressive community.

Expert Panel on Sustainable Finance warns International investors are leaving Canada

Sustainable finance is focused on harnessing the financial sector to assist and enable companies and allocate capital in a more climate aware manner to mitigate and adapt to climate change. It grew from making investments in green technology to financing companies and communities transitioning to low-carbon environments.  The goal is to build resilience to the widespread impacts of climate change and prevent further exacerbation. The industry has grown significantly with international regulators beginning to add climate change to their risk assessments. Unfortunately, according to the federally appointed nonpartisan Expert Panel on Sustainable Finance, the system as a whole has been far too slow to act, resulting in a significant risk that Canadian companies and communities fall behind in making necessary adjustments transitioning to low-carbon economies.  The lack of focus on climate change exacerbates risks and overlooks opportunities available to Canadian companies.

Canadian companies slow to transition to low-emissions operations are finding it hard to compete internationally.

The panel calls for “a concrete vision and capital plan for Canada’s course toward a competitive low-emissions, climate-smart economy; offering Canadian businesses, financial firms and individuals the ability to connect with that vision through investment and savings; and ensuring that government and industry join forces to pursue opportunity and manage risk.”  

The Expert Panel on Sustainable Finance created a roadmap for the public and private sectors by prioritizing a number of accountable steps needed to make Canada more likely to experience a smooth and successful transition to lower carbon. This involves decoupling economic growth from growth in emissions, protecting our savings and investments, and insuring that our infrastructure can handle the changes ahead – this will position Canada well in the global arena  

The panel is made up of Royal Bank of Canada board director Andy Chisholm; former Bank of Canada deputy governor Tiff Macklem (Dean of Rotman School of Management); Kim Thomassin, executive vice-president at the Caisse de Dépôt et Placement du Québec; and Barbara Zvan, chief risk and strategy officer at the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.

Some highlights from the report include:  The need for a long-term vision for a climate-smart economy; the need to include climate related risk into regulation of Canada’s financial system; the need for broader awareness and education in the retail investment space; and the need to accelerate the development of a building retrofit market. 

The report is thorough and offers 15 recommendations with detailed strategy and suggestions on who might lead each initiative. Below is a brief synopsis of the report, written around three “pillars” to building a stronger, sustainable vision for the country. 

Pillar I: Ways to turn climate change into an opportunity for all Canadians.  

  1. Map Canada’s long-term path to a low-emissions, climate-smart economy, sector by sector, with an associated capital plan. 
  2. Provide Canadians the opportunity and incentive to connect their savings to climate change objectives.
  3. Establish a standing Canadian Sustainable Finance Action Council (SFAC) with a cross-departmental secretariat, to advise and assist the federal government in implementing the Panel’s recommendations. 

Pillar II:  Building blocks for mainstream engagement on sustainable finance in Canada.

  1. Establish the Canadian Centre for Climate Information and Analytics (C3IA) as an authoritative source of climate information and decision analysis. 
  2. Define and pursue a Canadian approach to financial disclosure of climate related issues utilizing the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD). 
  3. Clarify the scope of fiduciary duty in the context of climate change. 
  4. Promote a knowledgeable financial support ecosystem – a shortage of professional training, education and collaborative exploration on topics related to sustainable finance is causing a critical proficiency gap.
  5. Embed climate-related risk into monitoring, regulation and supervision of Canada’s financial system. 

Pillar III: Developing and scaling market structures and financial products that could offer transformative economic benefit to Canada in building a low-emissions, climate-smart future.

  1. Expand Canada’s green fixed income market, and set a global standard for transition-oriented financing. 
  2. Promote sustainable investment as ‘business as usual’ within Canada’s asset management community.
  3.  Define Canada’s clean technology market advantage and financing strategy.
  4. Support Canada’s Oil and Natural Gas industry in building a low-emissions, globally competitive future.
  5. Accelerate the development of a vibrant private building retrofit market.
  6. Align Canada’s infrastructure strategy with its long-term sustainable growth objectives and leverage private capital in its delivery.
  7. Engage institutional investors in the financing of Canada’s electricity grid of the future

(For the full detailed report click here)

The expert panel believes that “Canada has the financial expertise, technological capacity and resource wealth to emerge as a “global leader in climate-smart economic growth.” But they point out that it is more than just an opportunity, it is an imperative. Canada is competing with international companies in a race to supply the world with low-cost clean energy solutions and low-emissions natural resources. Through innovation and investment this can be a Canadian standard that we are all proud of. It is environmentally sensitive, socially responsible, and low cost – but in order to achieve this we must allocate capital and investments accordingly.  Investors are looking to greener shores and without an accelerated push, Canada will become less and less competitive on the world stage.

The arts industry in Barbados



I’ve always believed that artists hold a special role in society. Their desire to make the world just a little more beautiful has a way of inspiring those around them. I’ve become fascinated by the role that artists play in rejuvenating communities and creating societies that are open to new ideas and embracing change.

I grew up in the core of a small city in Canada. It was the late 70s and many city centres were suffering because big box stores and sprawling suburbs had pulled people out of the city core. In our city, most of the old homes were boarded up and the tree-lined streets had seen much better days. Our local government was desperate to find a way to rejuvenate the city and had thrown all their funds behind an arts centre. It was the best decision they could have made.

The art centre acted like a beacon, drawing people in from the sprawling suburbs. It attracted all ages with programs in painting, ceramics, weaving etc. The classes were the normal arts offerings you might expect, but what we didn’t expect was the way the centre worked to ignite creativity within the community.  Over just a few years the boarded up homes started to be fixed up, people moved back in from the suburbs. The video arcades and discount stores that had taken over the main street were replaced by restaurants and high-end boutique shops. The families that moved into our neighbourhood were entrepreneurial and creative.

There is a lot of research on the impact the arts have on cities, but what caught my attention were the articles on struggling communities that improved significantly simply because a non-profit, or a social enterprise, created an art centre for creative learning.

Like the small town in Canada where I grew up, many communities around the world have felt the positive economic impact that creative education stirs up. Take for example Ballycastle in Northern Ireland. Ballinglen Arts Foundation was founded by an Amercian couple who wanted to “boost local confidence and economic security by bringing international art practitioners to stay and work in the area.” They offered residency programs attracting artists from all over the world. Over the years hundreds came, people moved into the area and the local economy grew. There are hundreds of stories of small towns that have created learning opportunities in the arts, that have invested in culture, and have become stronger and more sustainable because of their investment.  

A study done by the University of Pennsylvania found that  “In lower-income neighborhoods, cultural resources are “significantly” linked to better health, schooling, and security.” Studies in education have shown a direct connection between success in academic subjects and the participation in arts programs.

There is something very powerful that happens when people learn the arts. The process of learning creativity opens people to new ideas, to new ways of thinking, and questioning the world around them.

The arts and culture industry also enhance support for environmental initiatives. When a community is open to ideas, and working collaboratively, they become a cleaner and greener community.

There are many places that still cling to old colonial views of the arts as a charitable endeavor rather than a strong economic industry. And these communities all seem to suffer under the belief that their children must become doctors or lawyers or they will be failures. It is no wonder they also lack entrepreneurs and the creative thinking that contributes to a strong economy.

Now that we are living in Barbados I find there is a feelingof hope that seems to be igniting change, not just at the government level but within the community. I have visited Barbados for over 3 decades, and never has the drive for change been as strong as it is now. Where the arts were once viewed as an endeavor needing charitable support, the industry is just starting to be recognised for the economic value it produces.

My family and I moved to the island last year to explore the possibility of creating an environment centre, but what we found was that the need for an arts centre to feed the community desire for creativity was a much more pressing issue. With the government struggling to carry the massive debt burdening the island, there is little funding available to sustain an arts centre.

Research on changes in the tourism industry has found that both culture and environment experiences are big draws for travellers. So we decided to combine them at a centre where  travellers and the community will come together. By building a centre that offers environmental programming  and arts workshops, we can attract local participants and affluent travellers and by combining this with a boutique hotel we can sustain the centre.

I have spent the past year meeting with community organizations, artists, and business leaders and the support, advice and encouragement they have given is overwhelming.

We have formed Canvas and Cave as a social enterprise with a mission to ignite creative education in the community, inspire entrepreneurs, and build the foundations Barbados needs to become self-sustaining. I know that we won’t succeed without support and direction from the community. When I look at the future, I believe that the process of creative learning will unlock ideas within the community, build collaboration, and inspire entrepreneurs to address the larger challenges facing Barbados.

Forward. Together.

First published in Visual Arts Barbados April 2019 Edition

Bruce Poon-Tip: The giver


Usually in the Women’s Post our profiles focus on amazing women, but every now and then we make an exception by profiling men who go above and beyond in supporting women.

Did you ever have someone in your life who impacted it more than they will ever know?

Over 20 years ago I met Bruce Poon-Tip. We met backstage at an entrepreneurial awards event. As we were waiting to receive our awards,  he told me all about his company GAP (now G-Adventures) He explained that it was a social enterprise set up to do social good by offering adventure travellers the opportunity to explore countries and have a positive impact on the countries doing things like picking up garbage or helping small businesses. He explained it as doing a social good while making high returns for his investors. His concept fascinated me and we kept in touch over the years while he built G-Adventures into the largest adventure travel company in the world.

When I ran for Mayor of Toronto in 2010, he asked me to help with a team-building event at base-camp (his head office ). The event was high energy to say the least.  And I saw why Bruce was such a good leader. He moved around the crowded room with ease, knowing every employee by name (there were hundreds). He had a way of connecting with each of them, inspiring them to move out of their comfort zone, to step forward and step onto the stage. I still remember the way he made them feel – as if standing up and trying your best was all that mattered. I think even the shyest would have stepped onto the stage to dance or sing if he asked them to, heck had he asked me I know I would have!

I hadn’t seen Bruce since 2010 but in 2013 I read his book, Looptail,How One Company Changed the World by Reinventing Business and was surprised and honoured to see that he had mentioned my help back in 2010 with his team-building event.  In his book he wrote about the struggles he faced launching his business and the people who helped him along the way. I purchased a few dozen copies of his book and have since given it out to dozens of people hoping that I might in a small way help him give back to the world.

The significant impact Bruce had on my life occurred when I reached out to see if I might run a business idea past him.  When we met I told him about my dream to build a social enterprise – Canvas and Cave. It will be an eco-arts centre and hotel in Barbados with the mission to further creative education in the country and build the creative foundations needed to develop entrepreneurs.  I explained how I wanted to prove the concept in Barbados and then duplicate it on other islands that were also struggling to sustain themselves.

Most people in your life will tell you what you can’t do, but Bruce Poon-Tip is the kind of person who will tell you that you can do it.  

He told me that he believed in me and would support my idea. I went home and wrote a note in my journal that began “Bruce shook my hand, he believes in me!”

I wrote about all the ways we might provide another revenue stream for him.  How the experiences we would create for visitors would appeal to his customers who might be looking for unique experiences that didn’t involve as much physical travel.

The confidence Bruce instilled in me ignited my creative side. We needed a way to attract two different demographics – the local community that we hoped to serve at the arts centre, and international travellers staying at the hotel.  I began reaching out to famous artists, writers, actors and musicians with the idea of getting one a week to attend Canvas and Cave to speak or teach. And I think the confidence I exuded caused many of them to agree. The ideas keep coming but it all started with Bruce telling me that he believed in me.

An entrepreneur who is just launching her business needs the trust and support of friends and family who believe in her. The entrepreneurs in Barbados aren’t able to get support from friends and family simply because the culture hasn’t learned to support creativity. With the help of people like Bruce Poon-Tip we will build the creative education the community needs to recognise and empower entrepreneurial ideas. Bruce is a true giver.

Lilly


Lilly, a beautiful, heroic, kind, creative, thoughtful, perfect, little girl is in MacMaster’s Children’s hospital, fighting.  I met Lilly, when she started attending The Writers’ Club, three years ago.  In a room of bright, shining stars, Lilly’s twinkle stood out.  

A sick child hits the family, just as hard.  Lilly’s younger sister, Scarlett, who is, only 10, is as brave, talented, and wonderful as her sister.  Their mother, Shelley, has been recording the family’s harrowing journey on Facebook.  The apples fell close to the tree: like her daughters, Shelley is a terrific writer.  Her prose are beautiful and gut wrenching.

https://www.facebook.com/Lillybear19/

In one of Shelley’s most uplifting Facebook posts, she shares the emotional experience of watching Scarlett and Lilly shave their heads, together.  

Sadly, visiting Lilly, at Mac, I knew the route.  My beautiful, wonderful niece, Julia, had been there, too.  Julia, who is now 18, is beyond a cousin to my daughter; they’re best friends.  The two quirky, funny, kind girls are blessed to have each other and it warms our hearts to see them, together.  Julia makes everything better.  

Words can’t express our gratitude for The McMaster Children’s Hospital and the people behind it.  Julia, my sister’s only child, is our family’s miracle.  

Julia has histiocytosis, a horrible, rare affliction, the treatments for which are in the early stages of development.  The disease was aggressive and life threatening, when Julia was a baby and small child.  Julia’s situation was bleak, so, in desperation, she was given cancer treatments and prayers were answered.  I can’t imagine parents, who deny their children the divine miracles of scientific discovery.

Unfair infliction upon an innocent, notwithstanding, David, Lilly’s father, Shelley and I talked about how fortunate we are to be right here, right now.  The people at Mac are saving one child at a time and we don’t know what the impacts will be.  Lilly might save the world.

Piggybacking on her success, Julia’s miraculous recovery enables and encourages further research.  Humans are genius and insatiably curious.  Someday, easily accessible cures and vaccines will be developed and no one will have to endure childhood disease.  Miracles happen.

Sometimes, it takes a child to raise a village.  When Julia was at Mac, the outpouring of support and sympathy was remarkable.  Friends, family, and strangers went out their way to encourage Julia and my sister.  It changed, everything.  

Lilly has had a similar experience.  One of Shelley’s post speaks to the love pouring into Lilly’s room and the impact it has on their (fighting) spirits.  Please, pray, hope, think of, or throw your arms around Lilly.

CHALLENGING THE STATUS QUO

June 15, 2010

Change is never easy to bring about because most people prefer the safety of what they know to the uncertainty of what comes with change.

I’m not sure if it was the short time I spent couch surfing and sleeping on park benches as a teen, or the experiences I have had since, but I have learned that the one and only thing I can truly count on is change.

I remember hitting what I thought was rock bottom when I was just 15 years old. I was demoralized, alone, and realizing that I wasn’t the centre of the universe, and the people who passed by my huddled form in a doorway would go on despite me. It was then that I understood that change would happen with or without me, but the decisions I made would impact it. I could influence change, but I had to own the responsibility of making myself into the person I wanted to be.

I started pumping gas at the age of 16, and at 18 started my own company leasing service stations across Ontario. At 24, I won recognition as the top dealer in Canada and by the time I was 30 I had built a multi-million dollar company that focused on turning around failing service stations and making them successful.

The key to turning around each business came from changing the predominant attitude of failure to an attitude of success.

I wasn’t afraid to challenge the status quo; to change the way things had always been done. I was one of the first to bring a retail component, to break from the traditional products like oil and windshield washer fluid and bring in different items like chips, chocolate bars, and juice. I was highly criticized for it and taunted by my counterparts for being a silly woman who didn’t know what I was doing.

I persisted and eventually others realized that by adding this additional retail component to my locations I was offering convenience to the local area residents and attracting them back. Combine this with cleaning up each location and motivating the staff to be friendly, and it seemed a simple recipe for success.

But the fact is that bringing about change is never simple. It is one of the most challenging tasks one can do, but also one of the most rewarding. Service stations with stores are now common and it is in part because of my desire to change the way that industry went about doing business.

I launched Women’s Post Media, a business publication – in newspaper format – designed specifically for women. I believed that businesswomen wanted and needed something to promote and unite them. I went to industry experts to get their backing, but was told that my venture was a long-shot and not likely to succeed because women were more interested in gardening and fashion.

Again I challenged the status quo, and despite having no experience in the industry, I managed to build a successful company turning the newspaper into a magazine and building a large online community of businesswomen. Today it is a highly sought after community and I am glad I did not listen to the “industry experts” and those who told me I wouldn’t succeed.

And yet, despite my desire to constantly challenge the status quo, in my early twenties I took up the hobby of restoring old homes and have never given up. Maybe it is the stability of returning an old home to its original beauty that attracts me to this hobby. The reassurance of knowing that despite the changes, what lies underneath – the strong foundations – will always remain. Having solid foundations is the key to navigating through the inevitable changes that life entails.

Moments of Beauty

I can hear the wind rustling the palm trees above me. The frogs whistle to each other and for a brief moment I understand the language of the palm trees and the frogs. The outline of the palm trees are dark in contrast to the moonlit sky. I feel as if everything is suddenly connected and right, and I understand the language of the wind. The world is perfectly in line – with what, I don’t know – and then the moment ends, vanishing as quickly as it came. I try to remember what the wind in the trees and frogs were saying, but their conversation is lost to me once more.

Is this what meditation is all about? I’ve had these sorts of moments before, but not often. Some people describe them as religious experiences, but to me they seem to come when I get outside myself, away from my thoughts, my reason, and let my instincts connect with the natural world around me. 

I feel lucky to have had a few of these beautiful moments in my life, and I realize that it takes a little bit of luck and my own determination to let go, be still, listen, and soak in everything.

I remember my first meeting with beauty. I was quite young, and skating with my family at night on an ice rink we had made earlier that day. A sudden drop in temperature over the evening had frozen the rink quickly, making it perfectly smooth, and the cold seemed to cast a stillness over the fields around us.

The night sky was filled with stars and I could hear a farm dog barking far off in the distance. I glided over the surface and for a brief moment I felt as if there was nothing below me, and I was suspended with the stars, held in the beauty of the moment. I was overwhelmed by a universal understanding, and then it was gone. No matter how many times I skated around and around that rink I couldn’t get back to that beautiful spot.

Beauty touched me again in my early 20s, just after seeing a concert. I had spent an hour or so listening to a string quartet play while watching the afternoon sun filter through the trees outside the stained-glass window of the concert hall, making patterns on the floor that seemed to dance to the music.

As I walked home on that warm fall afternoon, I could hear leaves rustling in the breeze, and honking geese flying far overhead. Suddenly the world aligned. It all made sense – the music spoke the same language as the geese and the wind rustling the leaves. My mind knew everything for one brief moment. But when I tried to hold on, it slipped through my fingers like water.

The moon leaves long shadows across the landscape. A dog bark echos over Speightstown another in the distance answers him.

I’ll lie here a little longer but my mind is already filling with other things – the meeting next week, the emails I need to write. The moment of beauty floats further out of reach. Like an old friend I hope it will visit again.

Sarah Thomson can be reached at publisher@womenspost.ca.

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 to do some swinging to Cha Shooky Doo a classic from his 93 album.

 

Passion and curiosity

First published in January 2004

We decided to spend a 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.

The wall of stone that we’d all worked to build carved 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 turned out quite the way I’d pictured it. Although I did find my Prince Charming and I’ve done a bit of scribbling.

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.  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.