Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

We can all learn from children

The blog She Writes, aimed at female writers, recently asked members what inspired them to write. I wrote a post on their site called “Inspire the future — a book on inner change for children.” In it, I discuss my inspiration to write my children’s book, Gracie’s Got a Secret, which MW Books Publishing will publish in the spring of 2011. I love to inspire others. I always encourage people to go after a dream, take a chance, and let their creative, intuitive self out.


Spirituality — a sense of interconnectedness or soulfulness beyond mere ego identity — has been my salvation. In writing Gracie’s Got a Secret, I wanted to pass on spiritual concepts to children. But after many drafts and trying out the story with kids of different ages, I realized that I was targeting too young an age group (five and six) and that I needed to make the story more concrete, rather than try to convey abstract philosophies like “letting go” and “surrender”.  As one adult reader said about my manuscript early on: “It’s hard enough for adults to grasp these concepts, let alone children.”  She was right.


Therefore, I aimed the book at older kids, aged seven to nine. I shifted the book’s message to suggest behaviour changes such as learning to slow down and relax into the moment, rather than forcing events to unfold. I do address the notion of “stillness” at the end of my story. I like to think that my playful tale still offers a subtext of spiritual connection. What I try to show obliquely in the book is that if you take time to open to your Higher Self, and plug into a greater life force, however you perceive it to be (some might call it Source, others intuition), you invite your True Self to emerge, drawing on a vast array of possibilities and creative power.  Any creative soul — artist, musician, writer — knows this, either consciously or unconsciously.


Young children start out naturally in this state of creative wonder and openness — until many adults hammer it out of them. Maybe children aren’t the ones who need the message in my book after all — perhaps I unwittingly targeted it to the adults in their life. Maybe, ultimately, I’ve written it as my own reminder to have patience and trust what comes my way. Life is its own lesson. I’m still learning.

December 26, 2010 at 3:48 pm Comments (0)

What the Dickens? A fun first reading in Vancouver

Who knew that spontaneous combustion was a topic of discussion in 1840s England? Last night, while participating  in an inaugural group reading of A Christmas Carol at the home of friends in Vancouver, I found out that Charles Dickens used this term in his book.  


After hot cider, homemade black bean soup, and lots of tasty cheeses and snacks at a delicious pot luck dinner, my husband Frank and I joined thirteen others on chairs in an informal circle in the living room of our friends Randy and Vicki. Vicki provided two large, modern, hardcover copies of the 1843 Dickens classic; this version, written in the author’s original prose, offered period illustrations by Arthur Rackham, and was published by Arcturus Publishing Ltd in London, Eng., 2009.


Vicki had marked off the text in roughly three-page segments in both books. She began the evening as the first reader, drawing on her theatrical training to emphasize words with her hand in the air, her ever-shifting intonation bringing narration and characters to life. While one person read, the next followed along with the second book, ready to jump in and continue  as soon as the previous reader was through. This two-book approached ensured a seamless transition between every reader.


It was fun to hear how four male voices and ten female voices each added their own spirit and character to Dickens’ self-described “Ghostly little book.” I had never fully appreciated the author’s humour until I heard a roomful of people laughing frequently at his colourful diction and descriptions. I noticed that he used the word “capacious” (roomy) three times. One reader stumbled over the word “execrable,” which is a fancy way of saying “shitty.” As someone said after the reading: “Wordy old bugger, wasn’t he?” Yes, he certainly didn’t follow George Orwell’s much-later rule of not using a ten-dollar word when a five-dollar one will do.


I was surprised at some of Dickens’ phrases, ones that we still use today and might dismiss as cliches, such as “dead as a doornail” and “kith and kin.” He used the word “ain’t” throughout but spelled it without an “i.” Even now, his language still felt vibrant and relevant  — the mark of great literature.


A reading of A Christmas Carol was reportedly Dickens’ farewell performance on March 15, 1870 in London. He died soon after at age 58.

December 19, 2010 at 6:39 pm Comment (1)

Help save Canada’s public radio and television

There’s talk in Parliament about killing our public broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). That’s like taking a knife to the flag and snubbing hockey and maple syrup.
We’ve known for awhile that Stephen Harper has no fondness for the CBC. Last month, Dean Del Mastro, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Canadian Heritage, said publicly: “Maybe it’s time we get out of the broadcasting business.” Since all such public messaging must receive prior approval from the Prime Minister’s Office, we know that this reflects Harper’s sentiment.
On Dec. 6, during Parliamentary debate, Heritage Minister Moore twice refused to dismiss the idea that the government should kill public broadcasting.
We need to show our support for our public broadcaster. Please sign the petition below and forward it to others. Thank you.

December 14, 2010 at 1:54 pm Comments (0)

Got a late library book? You could go to jail — if you live in Massachusetts

For the love of books . . .

Fines for overdue library books are one thing, but facing arrest and jail time are indeed another. Just ask my husband: a Massachusetts lawyer who had a librarian in Gloucester, Mass. threaten him with a subpoena for a late book.


First, the law. Back in 1990, Massachusetts adopted a law that imposed a maximum fine of $500 for an overdue book. Non-payment of the fine could result in arrest and imprisonment. The state brought in this law, under Democrat Michael Dukakis, after  librarians lobbied for a change. (The previous law, dating from 1883, provided a fine of only $25 for an overdue book.) Communities across the state were collectively losing roughly $1.1 million a year in library materials. The small town of Shrewsbury, with a population of 23,000, was losing $12,000 a year from non-returned books and materials.


Today, a police officer in Massachusetts can arrest without warrant anyone that he or she has probable cause to believe has violated this law. What’s worse, a librarian or any library employee, as long as they’re 18 or over,  just has to say that a certain person has violated this law, and this will constitute probable cause for arrest.  That’s a lot of power in a state that has banned and burned books in the past. (If you’re into legalese, check out the law under Massachusetts General Laws, chapter 266, section 100.) 


My husband Frank’s related “crime” began in the City of Gloucester. In its library, he found a copy of a manual, published in the 1960s by the U.S. Interior, which gave the proper protocols for replacing, duplicating, preserving, and repairing various architectural elements. He needed it as a member of the OId and Historic Marblehead District Commission, whose mandate is to preserve the historic part of Marblehead, Mass., a coastal town northeast of Boston, incorporated in 1624.


This paperback, roughly 120 pages, was in horrible condition with a torn cover and handwriting in the margins, and had obviously suffered much abuse. Since it was the only copy that Frank could find north of New York City Public Library, he decided that it was a book worth preserving.


He opted to have it repaired and bound according to library binding standards and approached a professional bookbinding shop in Lynn, Mass. This seventh- or eighth-generation operation was dusty and dark with huge iron machines and stacks of large manuscripts. Frank notified the librarian in Gloucester of his plan, who requested red binding and gave him the correct library numbers to appear on the book’s new binding.


The bookbinder was “notoriously slow,” says Frank, who figured that the job would take about six months. At least a year later, Frank received a note from the Gloucester Public Library asking him to return the book. Frank ignored the letter; he figured that a computer or underling had automatically produced it, unaware of his discussion with the librarian.


He called the bookbinder, who did not return his call. A few months later, Frank received another request from the Gloucester library. When he called them, a new librarian told him: “I don’t know anything about that. You better go get it (the book).” When Frank talked to the bookbinder, the man said that it was in the loop and would be done when he got to it.


After waiting a few more months, Frank received a letter from the librarian’s office, threatening to issue a subpoena for his arrest if he didn’t return the book. In the meantime, the new librarian was imposing a fine on Frank for the overdue book, which was now up to about $300. Frank was aware of the Massachusetts law and realized that he could end up having to appear before the state’s Board of Bar Overseers, their version of  the B.C. Law Society.


He called the bookbinder, who interrupted a massive job to finally get to the book, and stitched the book back together, reviving it with a bright red canvas binder, acid-free board and end papers. “It was beautiful,” says Frank.


Newly bound book in hand, my husband returned to the Gloucester Library, walked into the librarian’s office and said to him: “You’re going to wipe out my fine and not issue a subpoena.” The librarian agreed, without a thank you. “He had the power of subpoena and thought he was a king.”

December 12, 2010 at 5:09 pm Comments (0)

From Kenya to the Creek: it takes courage to save a forest

We might not live in Kenya, but we have something in Roberts Creek, BC unique to the world: 1,000-year-old yellow cedars in ancient coastal rainforest that has never been logged. Like Wangari Maathai, founder of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, we face a challenge to stop logging of these untouched forests on local Crown land.


For more than 30 years, Maathai endured army-led beatings, police harassment, public humiliation, and condemnation as an enemy of her Kenyan government, all because she led a grassroots movement to plant trees in her native land. Founder of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement and 2004 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Maathai is inspirational proof of the impact that one courageous and determined woman can have.


Few people would imagine a link between this East African activist, who has saved Kenya’s dwindling forests and launched the planting there of more than three million trees a year, with a logging issue in upper Roberts Creek, BC. But on Dec. 3, about three dozen locals learned of the disturbing parallels between Maathai’s environmental struggle and our own here on the Sunshine Coast.


We watched the documentary Taking Root — the Vision of Wangari Maathai, thanks to the Green Team at Gibsons United Church. This excellent, award-winning film by Lisa Merton and Alan Dater highlights how Maathai’s efforts to teach Kenyan village women to plant trees grew into a nation-wide force to save the environment, defend democracy, and protect human rights.


In the film, Maathai recalls growing up amidst lush forest and mountains (sound familiar?), where a beloved “spirit tree” nearby, centuries old, is logged. Both the forest and the stream, where Maathai played as a kid, disappear. Decades later, when Kenya’s corrupt president Daniel Arap Moi decides to build a glossy skyscraper and four-storey statue of himself in Nairobi’s only park, Maathai and dozens of women, including many grandmothers, launch a hunger strike and sit-in at the park to prevent destruction of the area’s forest. Democracy activists join them, and soon the military move in with their batons, beating defenceless women.


We see Moi’s public shaming of Maathai and his legacy of brutal rule in a country where the average income is a dollar a day. We discover how the profits from sales of timber, logged on Kenya’s Crown land, go to his political cronies. Maathai and other women confront the loggers to prevent the cutting of forests, and again, Moi calls in soldiers to beat and disperse the group. Eventually, after 24 years in power in a country where he outlawed opposition, Moi leaves the presidency in 2004. In Maathai’s words: “It is the people who  must save the environment. It is the people who must make their leaders change. And we cannot be intimidated.”


By then, some of the same soldiers who had once challenged and beaten Maathai and her supporters are now planting trees on military property. As one soldier says, he sees these seedlings as brothers: the trees protect the environment, while the soldiers protect the people. Maathai, the first woman in East Africa to receive a PhD, becomes Kenya’s deputy minister of the environment. (Maathai’s success and Green Belt movement are cited as sources of tremendous hope in Hope’s Edge, written by Frances Moore Lappe and her daughter Anna. Click here to read my review of the book, published in Alive magazine.)


After the film screening, local activist Hans Penner explained how a British colonial system in both Kenya and our own province adopted the same practices and policies: exploit forests as much as possible for profit, ignore traditional, indigenous uses of the land, and don’t acknowledge the negative impact of logging on groundwater and watersheds. 


BC Timber Sales will soon be advertising to sell off chunks of our rare old-growth trees — 1,000-year-old yellow cedars — on Crown land in upper Roberts Creek to private bidders. They have slated three cutblocks on 44 hectares (109 acres) on Mount Elphinstone; in one of these areas, at least 30 families get their water. This never-logged area stands at about 900 metres (3,000 feet) altitude. Two of the cutblocks are within only about a kilometre of the road access to Dakota Ridge ski area.


“A thousand-year-old tree is a real treasure,” said Penner. “The forest that’s there is an irreplaceable heritage. There’s nothing like it on the planet. In this upper-elevation forest, there’s never been a forest there, it’s never been logged. The forest has been living since the last ice age.” He noted that most people have never even seen a forest like this one, which has no stumps.


Sometimes, forestry companies consider ancient trees a hazard and cut them down without even using the wood, said Penner. “They’re mowing the forest right down to the ground,” he told us.


When he and local Ross Muirhead recently snowshoed through two of the proposed cutblocks, they flagged 30 cedar trees, 300 to 400 years old, deemed “culturally modified” because local First Nations people have used their bark as part of their customs and heritage.


“We’re the closest people in the world to this,” said Penner. “We have a special responsibility. “We’re like witnesses to a crime, where we’re standing there.”


Who will take action and who will remain a silent bystander? Penner recommends writing to the following people in government: B.C.’s forestry deputy minister Dana Hayden forests.deputyministersoffice@gov.bc.ca, who has the authority to stop the timber sale ads, B.C. Minister of Forests Pat Bell (pat.bell.mla@leg.bc.ca), and Don Hudson at BC Timber Sales (don.hudson@gov.bc.ca).

You can also contact the deputy minister to the premier, Allan Sekel.  His phone number is 250-356-2209. The government website does not include his email address — how’s that for open government? — but his address is P.O. Box 9041, Stn. Prov. Gov’t, Victoria, BC V8W 9E1.


If you’re on Facebook, you can join the group Elphinstone Logging Focus and/or contact our MLA Nicholas Simons on Facebook. Nicholas is also available at 250-387-3655 or Nicholas.Simons.MLA@leg.bc.ca. For more information about this issue, you can call Ross Muirhead at 604-740-5654 or Hans Penner at 604-885-5730.

December 5, 2010 at 1:18 pm Comments (0)