Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

Are you part of the millionth circle?

“When a critical number of people change how they think and behave, a new era will begin.”

Jean Shinoda Bolen, The Millionth Circle

Two SoulCollage cards in the Council Suit: the Sacred spiral

I would like to reaffirm and reclaim the true, symbolic power of the circle. The phrase “going in circles” implies that someone is lost, has no clarity, has not found a focus on a linear path. Yet, as we know, life is not a linear process at all: like a circle, it is a continuum of beginnings and endings and new beginnings.


The circle, one of our oldest symbols on the planet, represents wholeness and integration. Within a circle, there is no hierarchy; we are all equal. A woman I know in Vancouver, who facilitates workshops with executives, says that some CEOs she’s worked with have a hard time sitting in a circle. To them, it’s a scary concept; they no longer stand out or appear to have authority over others when they’re in a circle. Her comment shocked me; after all, kids in kindergarten sit in a circle almost every day. Do we need to relearn how to find our power within a circle?

Jean Houston at the 2012 Women of Wisdom conference in Seattle

At a recent Women of Wisdom conference in Seattle, author and Jungian analyst Jean Shinoda Bolen shared her concept of the millionth circle. Drawn from the concept of “the hundredth monkey,” it refers to a circle of people whose awareness, activism, and group collaboration shift global consciousness. Bolen and Jean Houston, another conference presenter and a leader in today’s human potential movement, see women as playing a deciding role in this evolution. In their view, grassroots circles of self-aware women are spreading the power of the sacred feminine around the world.


Yahoo! We need that kind of resounding inspiration right now, especially while U.S. Republican candidate Rick Santorum and others of his ilk are trying to drag women back to Neanderthal days of control and submission.

Tsawaysia Spukwus (Alice Guss) at the drum-making workshop at the Sunshine Coast Museum

Yesterday, while at a drum-making workshop in Gibsons, BC with Squamish nation educator Tsawaysia Spukwus (Alice Guss), I had to give my full attention to a 14-inch wooden circle in front of me. Ten of us (eight women and two men) were lacing deer hide around a circular wooden frame, trying to weave it over and under another double-looped circle of twine that we had knotted and placed inside the frame.

Each time I pulled on the long, thick cord that I was using as thread, the loose inner circle of twine within the frame got pulled out of shape and I had to keep repositioning it. At first, this was very frustrating, until enough woven loops were in place around it that the inner circle kept its form.

What a metaphor for life, I thought. We can each choose to find our own circle, inner and outer, and give it shape in a way that provides form and meaning for us. Then, we can use this circle (drum) to share our voice and vision with others. This circle reaches within and out to others across communities and nations and the planet in one ongoing, holographic sphere of interconnectedness.

Two of my SoulCollage Council Suit Cards: The Mandala (top) includes an aerial view of the Roberts Creek mandala and a photo of the Sam Mandala salmon fish design that I created several years ago. The bottom image is The Sacred Circle.

For most of my life, I have felt drawn to circles. In recent years, labyrinths and mandalas and spiral forms have held a strong attraction for me. I love the mandala at the pier in my home community of Roberts Creek, which gets created anew and repainted as a community project every year.

My SoulCollage card The Labyrinth shows the labyrinth where my husband and I were married, and our wedding cake. 

I was married in an 11-circuit labyrinth and continue to seek out labyrinths wherever I travel. I use circles and spirals as repeat motifs on the SoulCollage cards that I create, and group people in a circle during my SoulCollage workshops. I look forward to many more years of meeting with others in circles of all kinds, using my drum as an outward symbol of my own creative voice.

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March 4, 2012 at 12:12 pm Comments (0)

Simple spiritual writing can reach all ages

Recently, I was invited to be a guest contributor to the blog Spiritually Speaking, which I didn’t even know existed. It’s produced through the Times Colonist in Victoria, BC. I decided to write about my children’s book and the challenges of expressing spiritual concepts in simple, concrete terms that will be meaningful to kids.

If you’d like to read my post, please click here. I invite you to leave a comment on this blog and/or the Spiritually Speaking one.

In the adult realm, I wrote an essay several years ago called Dharma by the Dozen: The Art of Spiritual Writing. Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, here are a few suggestions for tackling this genre, in particular:

  • Embrace metaphors and similes that relate to the natural world.
  • Apply a light touch.
  • Use simple language.
  • Draw from personal experience.
  • Create images of beauty and resonance.
  • Write to inspire.


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February 11, 2012 at 2:45 pm Comments (0)

Utah needs to keep cougar

I usually support politically correct language but the recent decision by a Utah school district to forego the use of “cougar” as a mascot is too much. The district, based in Salt Lake City, thought that using a cougar mascot for a new high school would suggest unwanted connotations with the word’s other meaning: a forty-something woman who sleeps with younger men. Is there some adult projection going on here?

At least three schools in Utah, including Brigham Young University, already use a cougar as a mascot. If conservative Mormons find this acceptable, why can’t it work for a high school? Instead, the district has chosen the bland, more abstract term “Chargers.”

A concrete word like “cougar” carries far more evocative weight and cachet than “charger.” By not using “cougar,” the district is denying teens the opportunity to use the power and symbolism of a sleek and powerful hunter. What’s next? Will stories for young children no longer have a fairy godmother, because “fairy” is a derogatory term for a gay male?

Meanwhile, are there any cougars (the non-human kind) left in Utah?



January 23, 2012 at 3:01 pm Comments (2)

Are you ready to call a minga?

In the last few weeks, I’ve learned a new word: minga. (My husband joked that it must be some version of Mingus, as in Charles, and started doing some free-form jazz on an air trombone.) A Quechan term, it roughly translates to “a community coming together to work for the benefit of all.” I came across it in the book Me to We, by Craig and Marc Kielburger. The authors describe a dilemma they had in Ecuador in a remote, mountain village, where they had come to build a school for local children. Due to delayed transport and delivery of supplies, their rate of construction was lagging far behind their schedule. Reluctantly, they realized that they would have to leave the needy community with the school only half-built.

That’s when they went to the village chief, the oldest woman in the community, for help. Through a translator, she told them: “No problem, I’ll just call a minga.” She took a few steps outside her simple hut and hollered, in Quecha: “Tomorrow . . .there will be a . . . minga.” The next morning, hundreds of people were in the village square. Women had arrived with infants on their backs, men had left their fields at prime harvest time, and young children were standing with eager eyes. They had come to build the school, walking countless kilometres to get there. Many of the kids who showed up lived too far away to even attend the school, but they came anyway. None of these people expected anything in return. They had  brought food and shared it with the authors and their volunteers. The authors state: “In a matter of hours, they did what would have taken us days, if not weeks, to accomplish.” Immediately after the new school was completed, all of these people participated in a lively celebration to honour the new building, then quietly disappeared.

A minga: “Upon hearing the word, people stop everything for individual gain, no matter how important, to come together for the collective good.” The authors tried to think of an equivalent English term, and other than “barn raising”,  the closest they got was “a riot, but for good.” What does this lack of such terminology say about our culture and language?

One reason that I love my community (Roberts Creek on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast), is its minga-like sensibility. People readily pitch in to benefit others in the area, whether it’s volunteering to paint the local Legion, to host a fundraiser for Japan’s tsunami victims or hold a silent auction to give financial support to a neighbour with cancer.

Yet, the dominant culture in the West still clings to a fierce “Me first” philosophy, valuing getting ahead and competing with one’s neighbour far more than mutual support and cooperation. The reality show The Survivor exemplifies this perfectly; ironically, while in this Ecuadorean village, the authors met one of the participants of the first Survivor show. He was so put off by the hype and papparazzi and image-based associations of the show, that he chose to get as far away from that as possible and flew to live in this remote part of the Andes.

I recommend the book Me to We to everyone. I think that it should be required reading in schools. (The authors co-founded the global activist organizations Free the Children and Me to We.) Their book encourages people to take an issue that they care deeply about, then imagine calling a minga to get people to help. They suggest the following:

“Make a list of how you could call one [a minga] in your community. Ask yourself:

  • Who would help me? Friends? Parents? Coworkers?
  • What tasks would I need help with?
  • How would I call my minga? By sending out a group email? By making a presentation to my faith group? By posting a hand-printed notice in my office?

It’s amazing how many people in our lives are ready to help out . . . all they need is someone to ask them.”

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September 5, 2011 at 10:11 am Comments (0)

Sustainability: Love it and live it


                                                                                                                                                                                                 — visual by Avril Orloff  

This week, the Sunshine Coast Regional District (SCRD) asked 75 green-minded people their view of what’s critical to launching a successful community sustainability program. In a four-hour interactive session, held at the Cedars Inn motel in Gibsons, British Columbia, Canada, here’s how some people responded:


Have a sense of urgency. Be bold. Acknowledge risk.
Have strong leadership. Take action and do it with enthusiasm.
Make it personal and engaging.
Understand people’s motivations and value. Recognize their differences.
Demonstrate concrete examples of sustainability and their benefits.
Involve youth and multi-generations.
Reassure people.


The SCRD, the local governing body for about 30,000 people who live along the coast northwest of Vancouver, hosted the fun event, which included a free vegetarian dinner and live music by local band Sweet Cascadia. Facilitator Julie Clark, the education and outreach coordinator for the SCRD waste management program, invited participants to respond to three questions:


1.  Thinking like the whole coast (region), what do you believe should be the goals of a sustainability education and outreach program?

2.  Think about a time when you experienced fabulous community engagement in action. What were the important elements?

3.  Think about a friend or neighbour who is not involved in the sustainability movement. What suggestions do you have to engage this person in sustainable behaviour?


As participants, we discussed responses with three different sets of people, rotating to a new table for each question. We summarized our answers as individual groups, then shared them with the whole group. A wonderfully creative artist, Avril Orloff, wrote our responses on a series of wallboards, using eye-catching imagery and lettering with a variety of coloured felt markers.


This process invited maximum participation and allowed us to meet three times as many new people than we would have if we had stayed at our respective tables. Although I was skeptical at first about how effective this method would be in producing practical and meaningful answers, I enjoyed the interaction and brainstorming and found it valuable. I discovered later that we were following World Cafe Guidelines, which I had never known about. The World Cafe Community website defines its approach as “a natural & effective way to host meaningful conversations that awaken collective wisdom & engage collaborative action.”


I enjoyed hearing the suggestions from each group; some sought immediate, localized changes, others took a broader outlook, emphasizing life philosophy and motivation more than specific actions. In my first group, I thought that defining sustainability would be a good place to start, since it has become such a buzz word and means different things to many people. Some people prefer the term “stewardship.”


A woman in my group recommended the definition offered by Jennifer Sumner, author of the book Sustainability and the Civil Commons: Rural Communities in the Age of Globalization, published by University of Toronto Press in 2005. Sumner thinks that since sustainability is such a vague concept, the forces of corporate globalization can co-opt it. She recommends a new understanding of the term, seeing sustainability as “a set of structures and processes that help build the civil commons.” Sumner defines the latter as “any co-operative human construction that protects/or enables the universal access to life goods” as distinct from market relations. She suggests a new term of “sustainable globalization.”


Julie Clark cited the 1987 Brundtland Report , also known as Our Common Future, published by an international group of politicians, civil servants and experts on the environment and development. This report defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The report highlighted three key aspects of sustainable development: environmental protection, economic growth, and social equity


The SCRD is putting its sustainability focus on three main areas: water conservation; solid waste (e.g. using it as a resource), and energy and emissions. As if to emphasize how our choices now will affect the next generation, participant Georgina Brandon gave the children who attended an eco-minded art project. She had them draw and paint signs that they paraded through the meeting area: giant vertical footprint outlines that cautioned us to limit our contribution to carbon emissions; a long, horizontal shelf of plastic water bottles, reminding us of landfill clutter and nonrecyclables, and outlines of chickens that encouraged food security and control over one’s own food supply.


                                                                                                                    — visual by Avril Orloff


Although this event didn’t result in any earthshaking revolution or instant change, it did provide inspiration, validation, and options for initiating change at a local level. Regardless of what definitions we use for sustainability, only actions will make the difference. I think that concrete goals, such as setting dates for achieving specific reductions of  greenhouse gas emissions, make a good rallying point. Make any efforts solution-oriented rather than harping on problems. The overriding question that Julie Clark posed was the perennial challenge: How do you engage the silent majority?

April 3, 2010 at 7:40 pm Comments (0)

Don’t agonize — subvertise


                                                                                                                  — photo by The Blackbird

I was delighted to come across the above photo at an exhibition at W2 Community Media Arts Centre at 112 West Hastings in Vancouver, BC. A photographer and poet in the city, known as The Blackbird, created this image as an example of subvertising. (Wikipedia defines this practice as “making spoofs or parodies of corporate and political advertisements to make a statement.”)

In his accompanying artist’s statement, The Blackbird said that he was wondering: “How do I combine the cute and mascot dolls with the harsh socioeconomic and political realities of playing host to the [Olympic] Games while 1) not diminishing the mascots’ accessibility as products of popular culture intended for mass consumption and 2) not making light of serious problems such as Vancouver’s homelessness crisis, the drafting of bylaws that restrict guaranteed Constitutional freedoms in the interests of a corporate elite, and the complete militarization of a peaceful democratic metropolis?”

I had just created a sillier, more whimsical version of subvertising with a similar Olympic theme (see my post below called “Introducing Quarotchety . . .”). It was a wonderful moment of synchronicity to discover this image taken on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. It depicts beautifully the startling difference between the cutesie, moneyed version of life, as per Olympics advertising, and the reality of a dumpster diver in Canada’s showcase coastal city. What better way to convey that than use a primary Olympic icon? Well done.

February 13, 2010 at 10:35 pm Comment (1)


Canada and cross-border culture

I recently completed a master’s degree in creative nonfiction writing at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland. The program has excellent faculty, including Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Tom French, Suzannah Lessard, author of a New York Times bestseller and former New Yorker writer, and Richard Todd, former executive editor of Atlantic Monthly.


Before attending and meeting the faculty, I feared that they might have huge egos and tell pompous, insufferable stories. Boy, was I wrong. The humility and down-to-earth nature of the professors/mentors in this program, not to mention their humor and good will, were an endearing delight. It was a joy to learn with them. As a whole, the faculty all seemed genuinely caring about each student’s project, wanting to nurture it to its best possible form.  


I truly valued the camaraderie and support among the students. The program attracts highly capable and much-published writers, yet no one lorded it over anyone else. We all strived to give our best to our own and each other’s works. I never felt that someone was vying against me; it felt more like having a close-knit group of friends to provide succor and ideas when needed.  


Although we had excellent assigned reading material for the two-year degree program, it was sometimes challenging as a Canadian to read so much U.S.-based writing and hear solely American perspectives. I would have preferred a more multicultural choice of content, with creative nonfiction voices from different countries and continents.


At times, it seemed as if few people knew or cared what writers say or do above the 49th parallel. Sure, I know that all great literature surpasses national boundaries but doesn’t knowing about your neighboring nation help to enrich your views and knowledge of your own country? (Sadly, Canada offers no master’s degree programs devoted solely to creative nonfiction.)


Too often, Canada emerges in American culture as “a country not considered,” to borrow a term from Ken Kesey. Even in U.S. movies, we rarely appear, usually only as an oblique reference. In the celluloid world, we’re that vast, unformed space, the Great White North, where guys on the lam escape to, like a chillier version of Mexico. The impression on screen always seems to be that once any U.S. fugitive crosses into Canada, he or she is as good as gone. No one will ever find ’em up here. It’s all just igloos and melting ice floes, right?


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The death of literature?

I recently read a book by Canadian writer Don Bailey, which included his experiences as a new writer in Toronto’s literary scene and media world  in the 1970s. I was amazed at the easy access he had to major writers and editors, who seemed to have welcoming, open-door policies for neophytes and lots of time to nurture and network with beginner scribes. That certainly does not appear to be the case now. I wonder if part of the difference now lies in the exponentially higher numbers of  “writers” around. When I shared my thoughts on this topic with a friend, a Canadian author and English professor, he offered these comments:


“[T]he country was smaller then [in the 1970s], so people around writing were more in touch.  Plus there was a spirit that we were all engaged in the same enterprise–the articulation of a country, Canada, and what it might mean (however we defined its people and its issues).  Once the bubble of Canadian nationalism popped, a much more mean-spirited attitude took control which extends to this day: people think about their writing ‘careers,’ which I NEVER heard mentioned when we set out. 


“Academia is only interested in a very narrow band of the spectrum of contemporary literature–besotted with the essentially whacko ideas of the French ‘theorists’ and their disciples, literary academics (or, as some now prefer to regard themselves, “cultural” theorists) are interested in holding forth on only a few non-narrative, non-representational writers. A basic tenet of these critics and their disciples is that most writers are stupid and venal, and only the critics can point out just HOW stupid and venal a writer’s ideas really are.  So an atmosphere of fear and hate settled over the academic study of literature. You’d have to be stupid or venal yourself to love literature, in the prevailing view–the point is not to love it but to point out and denounce its flaws, sins, crimes.  Ditto language itself.


 “So that dead end has taken literary studies out of the equation, except to speak to each other. Its nasty-minded grads find in the outer world that nobody much is interested in their take on literature, so they either drop these concepts or retreat back to the warm womb of some English Department to teach. Thus the beat goes on. I have some faith that this bizarre cycle is coming to an end, but it make take another entire generation to work its way back to a concept of enjoying literature, of seeing language and literature as meaningful rather than misguided.  Your (or Bailey’s) remembrances of the past underscore just how much has been lost.”


A bleak outlook, dontcha think? I’m an idealist and believe that enthusiastic educators can pass on their love of language and literature to  students regardless of prevailing cultural attitudes. Any children who had a parent read aloud to them while growing up already have a foundation in the play of words and joys of story-telling. Nowadays, I wonder: Are blogs killing language and literature?  


 Want to read more of my writing? Check out the Writing link on my main website.

August 30, 2009 at 5:19 pm Comments (0)

Hello world!

 October 30, 2009

Roberts Creek, BC: The chum are running


It’s a delight to watch chum salmon running at the mouth of Roberts Creek, which empties into the Pacific Ocean near my home in Canada. Some have swum for thousands of miles to get to this spot on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast. Some look hardy and dark, ready to forge through the rapids, while others are white and weak with shredded skin, barely flicking their fins.

Two or three will hover in the shallows below the bridge at the centre of the mouth of the creek, while some linger close to shore. Sometimes they’ll splash and surge over each other and skitter off as if they’ve lost their starting position and need to regroup. (Sure, I know that’s anthropomorphism.)

It’s amazing to consider the endurance of these fish and their ability to battle against fierce currents to spawn. Farther up the creek,  on Lower Road about 75 metres from our home, my husband and I will look over the wooden railing of the bridge and watch the chum waiting to go upstream. It often takes a few seconds to spot their usually dark shapes  among the shadows and underwater rocks. It’s fun to see them; I feel like a silent sports fan urging them on.

But overall, the numbers of sockeye salmon in the Pacific ocean and rivers of British Columbia have dropped dramatically. Some blame overfishing, poor regulation of the commercial industry by federal fisheries, salmon farms, and resulting lice and disease in wild salmon spread from farmed salmon. B.C. resident and whale researcher Alexandra Morton has led a fight to stop salmon farming in B.C. and prevent salmon populations from disappearing in the Pacific Northwest. Find out more about her activities in this New York Times article:


 For a more whimsical, humorous take on a spawning salmon, see my “Sam Mandala” blog post under Creativity.

I’m pleased that this year, pink salmon have returned to nearby Gibsons and Langdale creeks for the first time in many years. A Squamish Nation biologist has said that they likely came from thousands of fry (baby salmon) dumped into Gibsons harbour two years ago. Chapman Creek, part of our watershed, has had the biggest pink salmon run since 1993.




October 24, 2009: International Day of Climate Change


                                                                                                                      — Heather Conn photos

Create a 350 world: Reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide to safe levels


I joined hundreds of others in Gibsons, BC to create a 350 world aerial photo. This was part of a same-day movement around the world, from Nepal to Hungary to the Maldives Islands, where people posed in the formation of “350” for a group photo and pledged their commitment to a “350 lifestyle.” (See www.350.org for great global photos and messages shared from mountaintops, underwater, Antarctica, desert plains, urban rooftops, in front of the White House . . .everywhere!)

The 350 refers to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which scientists have identified as the safe upper limit for humanity. However, we are already at 388 ppm and rising. As pledge cards stated at the event: “What will it take to turn this lethal trend around and move as quickly as possible to a 350 world?”




At the event, participants signed pledge cards that indicated what actions they would take, and how often (from daily to once a month) to reduce their carbon footprint and move towards a 350 lifestyle. This included eight choices from enjoying a Buy Nothing Day to not eating meat and refusing to buy or drink bottled water.

We each signed a pledge card, which read: “I am ready for ambitious, fair and binding global climate policies. I call on world leaders to ensure these are grounded in the latest science and strong enough to get us back to 350.” We chose who we wanted to send this pledge card to: Prime Minister Stephen Harper, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell, or our local Tory MP, John Weston. I opted to send mine to Harper, who needs to take climate change far more seriously.

The global day of action was a powerful visual gesture to reinforce that we need to lower carbon emissions and make world leaders accountable for the decisions they make, or fail to, regarding climate change.

As an aside, the United Nations recently voted Gibsons, B.C. the most liveable city (with a population of 20,000 or under) in the world due to its policies of sustainability and commitment to green thinking and living.



Gibsons, BC waterfront at Winegarden Park

Sunshine Coast resident Chris Yeske took the 350 Gibsons photos with a remote-controlled camera mounted on a 40-foot mast. To see what his final photos look like, check out these web links:

Here’s a link to a photo of yours truly at the event, taken by my photography friend Duane Burnett: http://www.flickr.com/photos/duaneburnett/4040203777/in/set-72157622654231932/
September 22, 2009



I took the photos above while visiting Sea to Sky Outdoor School for Sustainability Education on Gambier Island near Vancouver on the Pacific northwest coast in British Columbia, Canada. What a fantastic learning environment, full of inspiration, passion and holistic thought. Founder Tim Turner has a wonderfully creative and provocative approach, nudging people out of their familiar mindsets and enthusiastically inviting them to re-examine their relationship to the planet and their community. While listening to his energetic summaries of the school’s work and goals, I kept thinking: Gee, I wish all educational environments were this fun and forward-thinking.

The school caters to elementary and high-school students, mostly from urban environments. Some who visit Sea to Sky have never even been in a rural setting before. The school’s location and backdrop are stunning: the Pacific Ocean, forests of Douglas fir and cedar, and a skyline of mountains. I would love to have attended such a place when I was a student. I hope that it changes the minds and lives of thousands of students who will make life choices as thoughtful guardians of the planet and caring members of their community.

I was visiting the school as part of a team from Sustainability Television (STV), an environmental web portal in Vancouver.  You can watch a short video about the Sea to Sky School on STV’s home page. When you get there, just click “Sea to Sky” in the left-hand column.

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Raccoons are not rats

A few weeks ago (Aug. 13, 2009), I wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece about raccoons in The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper. Here’s the link to the piece (once you’ve opened the link, you have to scroll down until you see the graphic of the raccoon with a rose in its mouth):


After the article appeared, I was surprised at the vehemence of many readers who posted online comments on The Globe’s website. They either described tales of violence against raccoons, or else advocated violence towards these critters, likening them to rats. I was horrified. I don’t see raccoons that way at all. Are people that eager to eliminate something that interferes with their life in a small way? Perhaps my piece gave the wrong impression, but I had hoped that people would realize I was just kidding.


To read some of my published writing on the environment, please check out my website link.

May 29, 2009 at 10:49 am Comments (0)

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