The Substance of Words


A vast array of words and images and sounds flow to us and around us, indeed, saturate us with their possibilities, but we cling to the superficial for reasons unfathomable. The great mysteries and wonders of life: the building of a home, the crafting of a living, the making of love, the finding of joy – these are reduced to the banal. As if the purchase of a sofa will have to stand in for the idea that home is the centre of life, the place that nurtures us and nourishes us to take our place in the world with confidence and quiet certitude of own worth. That a paycheque should take the place of a slow mastery of craft or trade or vocation, of years spent in the immensely satisfying pursuit of knowledge or technique or art. That celebrities become the models for desire; love does require a willingness to enter in to the spirit of discovery over and over again, while desire requires only a new object for itself. That entertainment is the way we persuade ourselves we are happy, rather than finding joy in the day’s, or season’s simple pleasures…

We are mostly all in the same boat, we humans – life is a mystery to be experienced. There is no prescription, no playbook, no golden road to follow…but we do not talk about these things. We do not talk about these things in significant communal or cultural ways; indeed, we do not much make a habit of talking about these things as individuals, except perhaps in the most intimate of conversations with carefully-chosen others. And this seems to me to be a matter of great sorrow and distress.

There are those who would have us believe that there is a rule book, and perhaps that is why we have come to accept words over substance…or why some of us have, at any rate. As for me, my imaginary friend, I want the meal that follows the menu, and I want the substance of what the words convey. We must have some notion of what home, work, love mean to us as individuals, and to have meaningful conversations about this as individuals. Without the conversations, we feel ourselves playing outside the rules – we mark ourselves as unhappy because we have not followed the rules. Truth is, western culture is deeply unhappy…and if the rule book once existed, it has become obsolete. It is clearly so pervasive as to be far beyond the individual…and yet, the paradox is that we can perhaps only resolve this by the individual conversations we create and participate in.

As always, your conversation is welcome here.

Love Letter to a Cowboy

Why do I love you? You, the very particular you, cowboy?  Ah, you are funny. You are kind. You ask questions about what you don’t understand, which shows a depth of intelligence many do not possess. You have a quiet confidence – oh, I am not sure if that is the right word – a sureness, maybe, of yourself and what you can do that is so very marvelous. You pick up on emotional nuances – I would say you are sensitive, though I wonder if you will like that word. Your voice is beautiful, and makes me shiver. Your honeyed sweetness washes over me and I desire you, always.

Love between men and women in this western culture is suffused with ideas of romance that prove hard to dispel. “I love you” means “I want to marry you.” Or, “I want you to provide for me.” Maybe, “You will take care of all my emotional needs.” Sometimes it merely means “I do not want to be alone.” Romantic love is supposed to be gifts and surprises, roses on Valentine’s Day; diamonds, sexy lingerie, and flowers for no reason…oh, I could go on and on. If happily ever after is the goal, no wonder so many romantic relationships fail: the weight of cultural shoulds and expectations smothering the wild joy that arises in being held by love. That love becomes mere role playing to a set of gender-specific, culturally-mediated behaviours…

Well, anyway, my imaginary friend asks, why is this important? Because my love is very personal, yes? Yes, my love is personal to me, but my love, your love, his love, her love, all loves, really, are one. It is the essence of love, I believe, to make oneself vulnerable. The vulnerability of sharing one’s deepest regret and shame, as well as one’s greatest elation, the most prosaic aspects of our daily lives. To be exquisitely vulnerable: to say what one wants and needs, knowing that one might not get it. To be open: not closed off, fearful, or bound by rules of romance. This is when we become most human, most ourselves…and both life and love become sweeter beyond measure.

I do not know what the future holds, though I say this: let’s do that wild joy thing and see what happens. Flowers are optional.


Santa Claus, North Pole H0H 0H0 (2014)





Dear Santa,

I have made several attempts at this letter to you, which is rather unlike me, so I shall try to keep it simpler. I suppose I should tell you that I have been a good girl this year. I am happier in the mornings now that I eat breakfast, and more patient, mostly, and always, I try to be kind. True, there have been some naughty bits, best skipped over.

What I would like, Santa, is more. More of my new understandings of myself, my sense that life gets ever sweeter, and oh, my delight in living it. For this is how life is meant to be, is it not? Enough simple happiness to know deep in one’s bones that one can live through the trying times…I see very clearly that asking for something for myself is hard, so very hard, and I should like to change that. So yes, please, a little more.

Also you might sprinkle a little extra magic dust on the house of my love, for he is very special. Not only is he special to me, but to many others, and he makes the world a more magical place. Delight, wonder, joy, and visions of sugar plums for my love.

I love you, Santa, and there is cake here for you. I never tire of your magic, and I shall endeavour to hold it in my heart all year round.

Wishing you a splendid journey, kisses for the reindeer,


Santa Claus, North Pole H0H 0H0


Dear Santa,

This is an occasion, for here is my fiftieth letter to you. I have kept faith all these years, though others jeer and scorn. There are those that say you are naught but a commercial creation, or a mockery of religion, or merely a peculiar manifestation of an old myth. There are always unbelievers, or perhaps those whose hearts are too small. But every year you have brought marvellous gifts to me.

There are presents I remember, and presents forgotten,  but I can recall each and every one of fifty years worth of gifts. The gift of family – how lucky I was there! and the gift of friends, and feasting. The shining eyes, and happy smiles, and the full hearts of those who gather together and know themselves blessed. Which, of course, has nothing to do with presents, and everything to do with gifting. Gifts of time, and love, and memory.

I am alone this Christmas Eve, Santa, and so memory must serve to light the friendly Yule fire. For all that, love may travel the greatest distances, and so I have a full heart knowing myself blessed. The joy and laughter of those that I am not with, and those that have gone over there, echo through my rooms as surely as ever. I love, I am loved.

I have been a pretty good girl this year, although I am cranky if bothered before nine a.m., and I weary of those whose small lives give them delight in banal gossip and vulgar habits of indifference. So I shall ask for a gift – well, two gifts – if I am on your list of nice… I should like a little more understanding, if you please, of those that cannot seem to see beyond their own confining set. And it would be marvelous, would it not, if habits of indifference could become habits of active choosing?

Sigh. I am in desperate need of understanding. For as ever, many seek the joy and magic of Christmas in the mall, and try as I might, I cannot find it there.

Merry Christmas. I love you. There is chocolate cake for you here.



My Garden

Signs of Spring everywhere: buds fat on the forsythia, peonies pushing up, crocuses beginning to bloom, and although a glorious day of spring-like weather has yielded to a miserable, chill, and windy day with wet snow flurries predicted – yet, my mood turns to Spring, maybe. A ghostly fragment of a poem keeps coming to mind:

Something’s up, young Hank

Something green

Is beginning to push its way

through the crap and crud of reality…


My apologies to the author, who is, I think, Adela Rogers St John. This, a fragment typed onto a note on a fridge door a long time ago, echoes in my memory but perhaps imperfectly. There is a story there, for certain, but not today, and I write not of the weather today except metaphorically.

 I have been deep in thought these past weeks, deep in reading learned treatises, deep in attempting to answer my burning question. The lack of being able to articulate that burning question precisely has no doubt hampered my quest for the answers, but I believe the essence of it is this: Why are humans so wary of those who are different? I am aware of those who posit this as an evolutionary advantage, a necessity of tribal life: this person is the tribe, that person is not and distinguishing the difference between the two might well have marked the difference between life and death. So perhaps this question is not really more central to our times than those more savage past times. Do we have more freedom, or less, in the sense of our social structures as compared to, say, a feudal society? Not a question that can answered definitively. Many historians assert, for example, that a feudal peasant would have worked less hours than the average Canadian or American of today – this is in contrast to the popularly held view, of course.

 In any event, I can only ask the question from my perspective of my time on earth, and it seems to me that the parameters of social behaviour have become much narrower, more tight-fitting, and for me, they begin to chafe. Not just for me though: in my local paper last week a woman wrote in to say how much she had enjoyed a night out dancing, which was however marred by the sheer number of strangers who had to come and tell her that it was great to see her dancing “at her age.” I do not know the woman, or what her age is, but I can feel for her. Sometimes I would like to jump and skip and express my delight and exuberance but I find it provokes reaction. Speaking directly provokes reaction. Having a third drink provokes reaction. Asking for seconds provokes reaction. Anyway, my imaginary friend, it’s not so much that I don’t understand these little rules of social decorum as that I don’t care to be characterized or guided by them. How sad that joy and exuberance and pleasure in being alive should place one beyond the pale, so to speak. Or at any rate, out of the ordinary.

 This cookie-cutter life, this idea that we ought be pleased by the same things, enjoy the same entertainment (but not too exuberantly), share the same goals in life (marriage, children, and accumulation),  and talk only of the ordinary and the superficial; why, perhaps it was unleashed upon us by mass marketing and advertising, but it remains with us because we simply cannot face our fears. That may or may not be true for us as individuals, but it is most certainly true of our socially-constructed worlds. I see no choice but to resist the fear. Dance a jig. Say shit very loudly when warranted, and when you mean shit, not manure. Live your joy when you feel it. Maybe the crap and crud of reality shall become the garden’s compost.

Coming of Age

Ah yes, they were strong elder women. They had to be, you know, life was hard, then. Quick-tempered they were, and tongues that could wound very deeply. Then there was another generation of mostly girls (the story of the boys is their own to tell), and they too were ‘strong’. And that generation of beautiful women raised yet another generation of ‘strong’ girls.

Being ‘strong’ had different connotations in different generations, but always it meant being the perfect princess. Smile! Work hard. When your family comes to visit, show them you are in control by being the perfect hostess with the perfect home and perfect children, naturally. Feelings are irrelevant, not important, and must be ground down at any cost. It is the appearance of things that counts, and smile, smile for the camera. For if the camera records a happy, smiling family, then it is a happy, smiling family, right?

 Sadness, fear, or anxiety are not manifestations of the perfect princess, and therefore will not be expressed, upon pain of punishment. Sometimes physical punishment, but more often shaming: look at her, she is being sad and clearly there is no reason to be sad and so we will push her to the outside of the family circle for awhile, that will teach her. Every family gathering for unbroken spans of decades begins with an argument, and hurtful rejoinders are flung about, but that is no reason to be sad. If it seems paradoxical that anger is expressed, why, just think of all those natural human feelings being hidden. Anger is strong!

Playing favourites among your children – letting the others know that no matter what they do, they can never be the favourite – that is another way to ensure control of the family. The dysfunctional family archetypes of the scapegoat, the lost child, the hero, and the mascot reveal themselves in personalities at a young age, for they are the means of coping with the bad feelings of the family dynamic. Everywhere and in everyone there is evidence of the feelings being suppressed and sublimated in a myriad of ways such as alcohol and substance abuse, overeating, overworking. Often, all of these. It is never anyone’s fault, what happens to them, always the fault of someone else. To own otherwise would have to be to own the pain and vulnerability of being fully human, of being imperfect, of making one’s way in an imperfect world. It  is just too hard. No matter: for this is a strong family, a happy family, and the pictures say so.

For the small, sad little girl there – in the corner almost – there is no regard, she is not playing the game. It is to that small, sad little girl – and there were many of them – that I write. As gently as I can, I want to tell you that you are not imagining things, that everything is not okay, and that it is healthy to express sadness over what is bad. That vulnerability, expressing your innermost feelings is painful, but that vulnerability is “the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, and love…”

I know this is hard, but please watch Brene Brown in her Ted Talk. Understand that your emotional honesty will cost you, but that it is preferable to living a life dampened of joy and spontaneity. Emotional honesty may feel like betrayal to members of your family who have not gotten there yet; maybe they never will. Emotional honesty is not cruel or spiteful, not derogatory or shaming or belittling – it is honesty about your own feelings, not the presumption of speaking for another, and above all, it is not blaming. I just want to say it again because it is so important, and so liberating:


Vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, and love.


 To that small, sad little girl: I love you. You will be okay, even though it will be terribly difficult. Contrary to everything you have been taught, it is the most vulnerable amongst us who are the strongest. Wholeheartedly, I wish you joy.

Santa Claus, North Pole, H0H 0H0

Dear Santa,

Here it is Christmas Eve, and I know you are busy on your rounds. Last I heard you were just leaving the Sandwich Islands, but that was an hour or so back. Anyway, it is the traditional time for writing letters to Santa, although the old story says that the letter is supposed to be tossed into the fireplace, and as it burns, the pieces will fly up and magically reassemble themselves as they wend their way to the North Pole…

Alas, no fireplace here. But still, you do have a Canadian postal code, and I am pretty sure you will read my letter. There is no point telling you I have been a good girl, I suppose. I have been impatient, as usual, with stupidity and willful ignorance, and I am not very cheerful in the mornings. I have tried to be kind, and thoughtful of others, and sometimes I have succeeded.  I think I have done my best, but goodness knows that is not enough.

In years past I used to ask for such gifts as world peace, and an end to starvation, and all manner of things of social justice. I have come to realize, though, that your magic is of a different sort: the kind of magic that works one child, or one adult who believes with the purity of a child, at a time. But it is powerful magic, for all that it is not what I once believed it to be.

If we could each bring the magic of happiness to one person this Christmas, what a transformation there would be in the world! The happiness that comes from being special in someone’s eyes, of being treasured, of being seen for who one is.The magic of simple human fellowship, of the fabled good cheer, of the visions of sugar plums that actually come to be in one’s hand. The magic of the old and familiar stories, and maybe room for some person who is new to our world. The magic that sees the glow of love on someone’s face, and remembers the echoes of love from those departed this earth. The magic that looks and sees not a silly and funny old present, but the look of anticipation on the giver’s face, and the radiance of the joy that elevates the gift to so much more than its prosaic origins.

I believe with all my heart, Santa, and so I guess what I am asking for is a more liberal sprinkling of your magic dust this year. The earth and her children – and we are all her children – need you so very much. I know the supply is not unlimited, but a large sprinkle this year might just help us over the hump. Anyway, so I humbly ask.

There are cookies for you here. I love you. Merry Christmas.


Are You Ready for Christmas?

I am thinking deeply and intently on Christmas at the moment, memories of a conversation being stirred up by a chance remark while out shopping: “Are you ready for Christmas?” It was somewhere about December 1st, I believe, when a well-meaning, kindly sort of middle-aged woman asked me that question. The memories I refer to here are of a delicious conversational rant I enjoyed with a friend – oh, probably a few years back. She was irritated at the assumptions implicit in the question, not to mention the ubiquitous banality of it, as was I. As if Christmas consists of X, Y, and Z purchases which will ensure the requisite readiness.

 Neither my friend or I celebrate Christmas as Christians, for that is not our religion, which is true for many millions of people. On the other hand, most of the world celebrates some sort of festival at this time of year, and those traditions of the Northern Hemisphere are well-ingrained for many of us. So while it is perhaps a touch insensitive to blithely assume all your fellow shoppers do celebrate Christmas, I am not about to embark on a deconstruction of the politically correct holiday address. Call it Christmas, call it what you will, we set aside a day at the beginning of the winter season to celebrate, and that is a beautiful thing.

What I was shopping for on that day was lined paper, and you, my imaginary friend, will be pleased to know that I am sitting in my favourite 1940s library chair writing on said paper, whilst sipping a cup of Kick Ass coffee. Cogitating on Christmas. That shall be my last purchase other than food necessities until January, for I cannot bear to be a part of the dysfunctional ritual shopping farce that Christmas has apparently become for some. I am curious (and ever hopeful) to see if more people shall disconnect themselves this year. It simply cannot be bought, the magic and charm of the season.

 I was, I think, five years old when my cousin told me that there was no such being as Santa, but I never really believed her, for I could see the spirit of Santa Claus in everyone and everything. The bright lights and beautiful decorations, the special foods and feasting, the treats, the happy, smiling people everywhere and many visitors, the ordinary cares of the world set aside for a few days. Silver-shining blessed moments such as these could only be invoked by magic, I reasoned then and still do.

 Most of my Christmases have been spent with the family I grew up with, though not all for we live far apart. But those moments preserved as memories of the very best of times mysteriously bind us together in ways that cannot be reckoned logically. A couple of gifts stand out: a big box of second-hand books, one year (we are all book lovers), and another – a pony. The entire neighbourhood came out on their doorsteps on Christmas Day to clap and cheer as I rode my pony through the gently falling snow. What a picture postcard scene to hold fast to my heart: my family, my friends, my community showing their joy at my joy.

There is much more I want to tell you, my imaginary friend – yes, it will be a book, and it will be ready next year about this time, I think. I am hoping you will forget this, though, as they are likely to be next year’s gifts. And I am not telling you what this year’s gifts are, although I have been working on them for months. When I finish this I shall start on making some special cakes for friends and family…Christmas here will be full of simple feasts and simple pleasures and simple good cheer. No frantic shopping required.

 Maybe I shall end here with a vignette of Rudolph, who is about fifty-six years old – older than me, anyway!







Originally Rudolph pranced about in the snow (oh, that marvelous fake snow that looked so real!) with his team mates and sleigh and Santa, all encased in a golden sort of cage. It was a table ornament, I guess, and I loved it with a fierceness that still surprises me. Sadly, a few years ago the thing pretty much disintegrated, and my mommy gave me Rudolph as a keepsake. You know, when I look at him I remember just how he used to look, proudly leading his sleigh. Never shall that vision tarnish, for it is my symbol of everything Christmas.

 Joy. Goodwill. Peace on Earth.

 Yes, I am ready for Christmas.

Buy Nothing Day

Today is Buy Nothing Day, as brought to you by Adbusters for the last twenty-five years, apparently. I haven’t been aware of the campaign for that long and I am not writing here about Adbusters in particular, but about what this meme has meant to me. For I do remember that the first Buy Nothing Day I can recall found me shopping. I can’t remember the details, but I am pretty sure I went grocery shopping which I have a tendency to put off until desperate – out of food, or out of coffee, more likely.

I suppose I was already absorbing the lesson of how dependant we North Americans are, all but a very few of us in any event – whether we live in big cities, small towns, or sleepy rural villages – most of us  depend on the work of thousands of people to sustain us: to feed and clothe us, to keep us warm, to transport us around. Should any of these systems fail we are in trouble, and that is rather contrary to the picture we like to paint of ourselves as free citizens exercising a choice. We consume because we have to, so the idea of Buy Nothing Day is an exercise – for a day – of examining what and when and how and why we consume, and I think there are some terribly interesting things to be learned from that.

 Perhaps Buy Nothing Day has been misunderstood as a kind of earnest, lefty rant about consumerism, or maybe even conjures up the crusty old Scrooge or some such image. So I want to be very clear that I am writing about my experiences and what I have learned. I haven’t much interest in writing prescriptions for anyone else, save this: that in the quest for the ‘good life’ it is worth examining everything, I think. (I must insert here that I am irritated to have run out of lined paper to write my first draft on, and have resorted to the keyboard. I really do observe Buy Nothing Day, these days!)

 I will take you back to when this began in earnest for me: I was running a business, a rather successful business with thirty full-time employees and usually another dozen or so part-time, and I simply couldn’t keep up with the demand from consumers. I did not see how I could logically manage more employees, more customers, more, more, more – that is, not if I wished to run a small business that brought me a comfortable living. My business consultant thought I should sell franchises, but that didn’t appeal: I did not have it in mind to be an executive, but a small business owner doing the things I loved. I set about creating a business that sustained a steady range of income, that neither grew too much, nor contracted too much, and that proved much more interesting to manage and required me to be much more creative in my planning too.

 It was inevitable that I would look at my personal life too: I think in those days I spent a fair bit on clothes, and shoes, and cosmetics, and books and CDs and going out for brunch, lunch, dinner for lack of time, often, and I also had a small house. I loved the small house and wasn’t willing to move, so managing stuff took up time, time I resented. It was easier to stop buying some of the stuff in the first place, so I did. Everything I decided to stop buying at first was the obvious stuff; obvious because I didn’t miss it and nothing was missing in my life: just the opposite, I had more time and I wasn’t managing stuff. Naturally I had more money: money that went into a savings account, and money that I could be generous with when it came to charitable donations. That giving gave me a lot of pleasure, I found.

Of course, I am trying to compress here a kind of ongoing game I played for more than 15 years. Did I need it? Did I love it?  These were always the criteria, and it is now an absolute reflex, and ingrained habit for me to ask of myself when buying pretty much anything. These days it is out of necessity that my purchasing is restricted – as is true for so very many of us – but necessity does not feel harder than choosing, paradoxically. True, there are things I must give up in order to drink the fair trade, organic, bird-friendly coffee that I love – Kick Ass Roast from Kicking Horse Coffee – but I love the coffee. It is a morning ritual to prepare it just so, and to spend an hour or so enjoying the flavour and aroma and terroir of the bean. More importantly, it is an integral part of my day that brings me immense pleasure and satisfaction. In the main, that has become the ethos of Buy Nothing Day for me: that I do less, and have less, but what I have and do is so much more intensely pleasurable and joy-constructed.

 We are not what we buy, but what we love. No matter what the marketers tell us, we cannot be defined by our possessions. We cannot be defined by which of the colas we drink, and you know who they are, I refuse to name them, and I do not drink them – or what laptop we purchase or what cell phone we  have. Neither by movies we might care to watch, or books we read, or what brand we purchase. For me, there are ‘right’ choices and ‘not right’ choices, and those choices might be different for you. But if all each of us does is to make the choice that feels good and right to us, that brings us pleasure or brings another pleasure, then we have set out upon our true path to a life of meaning. I think Buy Nothing Day is worth thinking about, and talking about, and reflecting upon for these reasons. We can awake to a sense of both purpose and pleasure in the day ahead of us, as well as constructing our days to bring us joy. I suspect that might mean less is more, for some things, and more, much more, of other things. But I am pretty sure we cannot get there without some deep reflection on the ways we spent our money and the things we do to get that money, and of course, all the things that money cannot buy.