Endings and beginnings

The gathering of students, faculty and alumni who came together for my last Residency Gala Dinner as MCM Director, at Trius Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake. A lovely night. I was very grateful.

Sometimes we immerse ourselves so completely in something, that we don’t see the years roll by, focused as we are on the exciting task at hand.

That has been my experience of the last eight years, during which I was director of the Master of Communications Management program, offered by McMaster University in partnership with the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

I am very proud of the great work our MCM team has done during my directorship. I took over from the MCM’s founder, Dr. Terry Flynn, who was academic director until 2011. When I became director, the program was in its fifth year of existence. we had 9 alumni and 17 students enrolled. The program was young and had a great foundation, laid by Terry and the first pathfinding cohorts of students. It was a success story waiting to be built.

While director, I was happy and proud to work with Terry, my friend and research collaborator Dr. Philip Savage (who served as Acting Director whilst I was on research leave after my first term in 2015-16), my friend and right-hand person Janice Peltier (MCM Program Administrator) and the rest of the MCM team to build it during my mandate.

Now, in 2019, as I leave the directorship, we have reached a consistent steady state of 40-45 students enrolled, and recently achieved the milestone of graduating our 100th alum (we are now up to 115!) — none other than Martin Waxman, whose brilliant capstone project on “Putting the AI in PR” I supervised. The MCM was recently ranked as the 13th best corporate communications graduate program in North America, against some heavy competition. Not bad for an upstart!

Above all, I am proud of the professional community of friends and mutual supporters we have built. As director, I really felt like a facilitator, uniting the forces of our students, faculty, staff and growing alumni community to achieve our common goals. It is beautiful to see how everyone worked together to build MCM into Canada’s leading graduate degree and professional learning community in the communications and related fields.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge my amazing partner in managing the MCM, our program administrator, Janice Peltier. She was my right hand throuhgout the eight years – a sage advisor, friend and tireless advocate for the program. I will truly miss working with her in the day-to-day. Janice is a gem.

I would also like the acknowledge the wonderful marketing communications specialists with whom I have had the pleasure of working: Sarah Parent, Melonie Fullick, Dusting Manley, APR, and, very briefly, Morgan Myles. Each of them made a significant contribution to building the MCM brand and community. I am grateful to each of them.

I got to work with some amazing faculty during my time as director: Ira Basen, Michael Meath, Dr. Paul Bates, Aislinn Mosher, MCM, Jacquie Hoornweg, MCM, Heather Pullen, MCM, Cynthia Breen, MCM, Martin Waxman, MCM, Dr. Haniyeh Yousofpourfard, Dave Scholz, Mark John Stewart, Adam Prokop, Peter Vilks, Adine Carter, MCM, and Don Smith, MCM. I feel like these great people have become my friends and family. I look forward to many future professional and personal contacts with them!

One of the innovations I introduced as director was tutorial assistants for each class. This became a wonderful way for MCM alumni to continue to participate in the program. All of our TAs are MCM alumni now! This amazing group of people has also become a community of friends for me: Josie Cassano-Rizzuti, MCM, Paola Morrone, MCM, Rita Chen, MCM, Rebecca Edgar, MCM, Peter Bailey, MCM, Gerald Mak, MCM, Victor Vrsnik, MCM. Some of the faculty in the previous paragraph started out as MCM TAs!

I was also happy to formalize two traditions during my mandate as director: the Saturday Night Residency Gala Dinner and the Wednesday MCM-CPRS Hamilton Master Class. Both of these have become a tradition that students look forward to, and a great way of honouring the many industry masters in the public relations, journalism, advertising, marketing and data science/market research fields. The two speaker series have attracted a who’s who of Canadian professionals and entrepreneurs. Just to name a few: Linda Kuhn, Linda Andross, Tina McCorkindale, Terry O’Reilly, John Clinton, John Delacourt, Andrew Laing, Neil Parmenter, Jonathon Harris, Nik Nanos, Terry Fallis, Elaine Kunda, Christine Szustaczek, MCM, Frank Vassallo, MCM, Tanya Seajay, MCM, and many others!

It has been an honour and a privilege to build and serve the MCM community as director. Now I will be happy to continue to work in the program (and in our undergraduate communication studies program) as a researcher and professor.

If you are interested in joining the MCM, Canada’s leading community of professional communicators, you should contact Terry to see if it is for you!

A New Adventure: MCM Labs

I am on research leave from McMaster University for six months from today, July 1, 2019 until January 1, 2020. During my leave, I will focus on research and writing — I have two co-authored book projects that I really want to complete!

As well, I have teamed up with my good friend and colleague Dr. Philip Savage to reboot our old Communication Metrics Lab, under a new identity: MCM Labs (McMaster Communications Management Labs). It will be a place where we store and analyze quantitative and qualitative data for the purposes of academic and professional research as well as for teaching applied research methods in a hands-on fashion.

MCM Labs will also be a place where our alumni are welcome to participate in research to continue their MCM experience as scholar-practitioners. They will be able to do research in partnership with McMaster University faculty and with our industry partners.

The lab will work with industry partners to store and analyse datasets and produce research articles published in peer-reviewed journals, as well as reports and practical guides useful to the practice.

Dr. Savage and I also hope that MCM Labs will attract other researchers interested in communications management from across McMaster, Canada and internationally.

A final word

Life is sequence of endings and beginnings. I was very happy to serve as MCM director for eight years and to help build the program during that time. I gained many insights about the practice that I now want to dig into and publish. I really feel a need to add some bricks to the wall of scholarship and theory in communications management and public relations. I look forward to a little more work-life balance, with time to read and think quietly and peacefully. I also look forward to taking care of myself a little, getting fit again and finding my center.

Above all, I look forward to writing. How I have missed it!


An uncanny conversation en route to dinner

I was in Ottawa last week and had the pleasure of having dinner with my friend Lars, who works on the Hill. We had plans to go and have a quick dinner at the food court in the Rideau Centre – I am partial to the Amaya chain for quick vegan and they have a particularly good outlet there. On the way there, we had an encounter that marked me.

We were going through the underpath on Wellington that lets you get from Metcalf over to the Centre. It was a chilly evening, so we were walking briskly and chatting along the way.

As we entered the underpass, a voice hailed us. I turned my head and saw a man bundled up in his sleeping bag. He asked us how we are doing. I said hello back, but he held my eye – I could tell he wanted to speak further.

He said that many alcoholics and drug users favoured the underpass, so he had to compete with them for space. He told me that he was a starving artist. Now, this man didn’t look very rough to me. He had sparkling, liquid eyes and very good posture. I was intrigued. He challenged us, asking if we knew what a starving artist is. I answered that yes, I did. He then challenged me to say my definition. I said: “I think a starving artist is a person whose art is quite selling enough for them to support themselves.”

His demeanour changed quickly. His face softened and his eyes welled up with tears. “That’s about right, friend,” he told me, “that’s about right.” He then told us the most extraordinary story.

He introduced himself as Leo from Iqaluit, Nunavut. He told us that he is a carver and worked in a gallery in Ottawa before things went south for him, financially. He showed us works of art on his phone that he admired and dresses that his mother had sewn, which were displayed in an Ottawa gallery. He then pulled out what he said was his last remaining piece of his creation – an inukshuk he had made of lapis lazuli. He said it was for sale.

He said that times were tough for him in Ottawa and that he wanted to get back on his feet. He assured us that he was not an alcoholic, but that he enjoyed the odd beer and smoked some weed on occasion (but not in front of kids).

He showed us some ancient carvings that he liked and told us about how these dated from when Inuit people didn’t have names, but were numbered by the the Government of Canada’s representatives, because their names were hard to pronounce and keep track of. He said this was a difficult memory because names are important. I agreed that they are.

As our conversation wound down, he said he had to get back to what he was reading on his phone. He didn’t ask for money. He said he hoped we dropped by again, that he had enjoyed the conversation. He seemed enlivened and happy for some human contact. Lars and I shook hands with him and walked off, continuing on our journey to the food court at Rideau.

I was struck by how challenging he was as we walked by, hailing us and posing a question to me. Even more striking was how much he obviously enjoyed the conversation and the opportunity to share his favourite Inuit works of art (he had excellent taste, by the way). This was a man who went from relevance in a previous life to irrelevance because of his social condition. I imagine that most would walk by him and not stop, or dismiss his challenging voice as they walked by, hunching their shoulders and looking down at their shoes.

Leo wanted connection — a chance to share his creativity, his ideas, his knowledge and feelings about his People’s history. I encourage you to stop when you hear a voice challenge you to a conversation. Open your mind to the mind before you. Perhaps it will take a few moments of your time or even make you slightly late for your next appointment, but remember that it may make someone else feel included in your world, if only for the briefest of moments. That is a gift you can give freely, but it is so very precious for someone who is used to being ignored and passed by.

New Year’s Resolutions 2019

In 2018, I pretty much kept my resolultions (except for those concerning fitness – that was a sad failure.).

I established plant-based living as my permanent lifestyle, banishing all animal products from my pantry, and experimented with many vegan cooking styles. I also made progress towards a liberal, progressive Roman Catholic lifestyle. I refreshed my knowledge of artificial intelligence, data science and familiarized myself with how startups work in that area. I haven’t found an osteopath yet, but I did finish one book manuscript which will publish in March (Understanding Human Communication, 4th Canadian Edition). It was a productive year.

Here are this year’s resolutions…

During the past few years, I simplified my resolutions. This year, I will continue in the same trend, perhaps because I am getting a better sense of what really motivates me.

  1. Research and Write. This is the year I work towards spreading my thoughts on how data, communications, culture and commerce intersect. I have a book to write on social media in Canada. To this end, I will ressurect our McMaster Communications Metrics Lab in some form as well.
  2. Startup. I have had a startup-sized splinter in my mind for several years now. This year I will develop the IP necessary to make it a reality and begin developing a minimum viable product.
  3. Get fit. Well, I will use the treadmill as much as possible, running on Zwift, swimming at the pool and maybe even doing some weights. I will only set one measurable objective: Progress from my current weight of 185lbs to 165lbs. I will attempt to achieve this without hurting myself.

So here goes a New Year 2019. Wish me luck, I certainly wish you all the best…

A wake up call to end 2018

I had a powerful experience this morning in a Starbucks in Niagara Falls, Canada.

I sat in my car enjoying the overnight oats that I made the day before, in front of the Starbucks where I intended to set up to prepare for a meeting later in the morning. My mind was full of concerns: was there a supercharger nearby? did I have change to leave a tip at the counter? Did I pack my charging cable or did I forget it in my rush?

I thought these were serious concerns. I was wrong.

As I left my car, a man of short stature approaced me and inquired about my car. He was scruffy-looking and shuffled along, pushing his cart full of scrap metal. He was knowledgeable about cars and asked me a lot of good questions about electrification.

Then he came into the Starbucks and was chatting with customers. He made pleasant conversation, was witting and engaging despite his dirty sweatshirt and face that wore the lines that come of a lifetime of care and worry. He came over to me and started talking about his life, how he was born in San Francisco of a mother from Nova Scotia and an American father. How his father was an alcoholic who gave booze when he was in grade six until he was drunk and his father could joke about his antics. He told me about his successful first life as a truck driver, but how his best friend who owned a bar pressured him into moving from alcoholism to smoking marijuana and then crack cocaine.

As he told me his story, his face softened and changed. I saw hints of a lifetime of pain, rejection and neglect emerge during the long pauses he took when telling me his story. After a while, he went off to use the lavatory.

A minute or two after his entry into the lavatory, two large police officers came. They knocked on the washroom doors until he opened. They were kind, but firm. They searched the washroom for drugs and found nothing. They asked him if he was carrying drugs and he said no, that he was clean. Then they kindly and firmly escorted him out of the Starbucks.

He came back in after a few minutes and gently, in a quiet voice, claimed discrimination to the Starbucks employee working the counter. He asked him if it was him who called the police and the employee say yes, he had. He asked him why and the employee told him was blocking the door, disturbing customers.

Then the man left. He stood by the window and signalled to me to come out and chat. I did. He told me his name was Jack. That’s when he told me the rest of his story. He told me of methadone clinics and his daily struggle to find a warm place to sleep. He told me that the hardest thing about being homeless, and addicted to drugs, and HIV-positive, and Hep-C positive was that he couldn’t find anyone with whom to have a conversation.

We chatted for many minutes more. He told me that he went to a Catholic high school and finished college. He went to Brock for a year. He had been married, but didn’t have any kids. He wished that he had learned a second language, preferably French.

Then I had to go and get ready for my meeting. I settled into my writing at the Starbucks.

He came back after a while and the Starbucks employees let him use the washroom. He left alone.

This man was alone. He was just over a year older than me. He wouldn’t live for too much longer. He longed to be included and accepted. He longed for a quiet, warm place to sit and read a magazine. He longed for a wooden floor, rather than linoleum. He longed for a caring conversation.

I firmly believe that we are judged by how we treat those who have little, who struggle, who face trouble. Neither the Starbucks employees nor the police treated this man badly. Rather, they were quite gentle with him.

It is our society that has failed him. We have failed him.

The human heart is broken through rejection and loneliness. When we are hurt we cry out to others. We hurt ourselves, sometimes very grievously. We do embarrassing things. We are out of control.

None of this is strange. It’s just human.

We all live and walk a few steps from when Jack now lives. We have all felt moments in our lives when we teetered on the precipice of committing dangerous, destructive or self-destructive acts. What held us back was, for some of us, our will, but most of us were saved by our support system: family, friends, neighbourhood.

Imagine you had none of those supports around you when felt most blue or desperate. Worse, imagine those people around you were chaotic and destructive themselves. What a different path your life could have taken.

You could easily have been Jack.

It is time to cast aside the fallacy that each person is fully responsible for their outcome. Rather, it is time to take responsibility for our neighbours. The answers can’t be just hand-waving.

We must commit to building a more loving society in which people are supported through their troubles, not cast away like a tool that has lost its usefulness.

People aren’t tools. We are not the sum of our choices or actions. We are not the sum of what we own or earn.

We are just human.

We are fragile and we seek, above all else, to be loved, to be included. We long to be able to say to someone else “I am grateful for your kindness”, because then we have the warm feeling of someone having extended kindness to us.

Remember, included doesn’t mean equal. It just means a society that says: “you are welcome here” and “we cared for you”.

We aren’t even doing that right now.

We need to be a society where Jack, who asks for so little, can have a warm place to sleep on New Year’s Eve.

Think about that as you usher in 2019 tonight. Think about how we can build a better, more human society where weakness is not reviled or punished.

A society where we can all feel included and feel truly human.

PS – The magic of this is that when we include others, we feel safer and more included ourselves. It isn’t a cost, it’s a benefit.

A new project: 52 weeks on the Bruce Trail

I have always be an avid hiker, a habit that I gained from my father, who would take me on long hikes after church on Sunday afternoon in the Hockley Valley north of Toronto. We would go to Mass, have lunch and then drive the 80 or so minutes from our home in King City to hills and vales of Mono Township where the Hockley Valley lies in all its splendour.

The Hockley Valley, photo credit: Toronto Life.

I always looked forward to it, because the drive itself yields many dramatic views as the terrain was quite hilly. In the fall, there were two or three crossroads which, after a long drive up the hill, yielded a spectacular tapestry of warm autumn reds, ochres, yellows and brown beneath us. After the drive came my favourite part, the hike. We would walk, fairly quickly usually, and with long woodsman’s strides, landing on the balls of our feet to minimize the noise we were making. Sometimes we walked for hours in silence, other times we had conversations about philosophy, religion, mathematics and language. My father would also share his extensive, almost encyclopaedic knowledge of flora and fauna with me. He would point out plants as they sprouted, leaves of unusual or invasive species, and spots where the deer had rested, leaving an indentation in leaves or ferns. He taught me to identify animal tracks, which led me to imagine a world of animal societies interacting and conducting their business along these forest highways. Sometimes he would pause and we would listen to the music of the wind rustling through a stand of trees. He loves that sound, and always remarks that it is the most beautiful melody he has ever heard. I grew to love it too, in fact, I remember it as the song of my childhood.

About a year ago, one of my friends suggested that I read an article about the Japanese practice of “forest bathing” or shinrin-yoku in Japanese. In a nutshell, the idea is that we gain great health benefits from spending time wandering in the forest, breathing in the air tinged with the scent of trees and ferns and the other wonderful things that grow in the forest. Indeed, I was skeptical at first, but there has been some fairly extensive scientific research into the matter, sponsored by the Japanese government, which suggests that forest bathing is an effective way of calming one’s mind and improving one’s well-being.

A snowy spring in April, 2018.

At the time, I was in a particularly stressful moment, with much to do professionally and a lot of travel, which I find exhausting. I started to notice that my walks along the forest trail behind my house did seem to be a salve for my anxious and sometimes racing mind. I looked forward to my walks and even started to schedule meeting with my graduate students or social occasions with friends as walking rendezvous on the trail. I find this a congenial and engaging way of interacting, better than awkwardly sitting in front of one another across a desk or table in an office, café or the campus pub. These walks made me feel better, helping me focus my mind and loosen my body.

When I bought a fitness watch, a Garmin Fenix 5 model, I was astonished to see empirical evidence that these walks were having a remarkable effect on my well-being. Each hike improved my anaerobic and aerobic fitness, burned about 600 calories and dropped my stress level for the rest of the day. As an aside, I have grown to love my Garmin watch and wear it constantly, displacing the other watches in my collection, but that will be the subject of another post.

Indeed, the ability to walk five minutes to the Bruce Trail that was one of the greatest selling points of the new house I bought three years ago. Since moving in, I have walked or run the trail hundreds of times through all four seasons, watching nature change around me, the seasons start and finish, animals emerge and then recede to hibernate. It has been beautiful.

I have shared pictures and snippets of video from my walks on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. My friends have reacted very positively to these posts, encouraging me to continue sharing them, telling me that such and such an image calmed them or that the sounds of the babbling brook brought them joy as they navigated the crowded platform at Bloor and Yonge. As well, I have noticed that pictures I take document serve as a sort of documentary of the cycle of life on along the forest trail.

This year, I have decided to document my trail hikes and runs through a weekly blog post. I will try to share some of the thoughts and feelings that I have had as I amble, trudge, slip, slide and sprint my way around the loops of the Bruce Trail behind my house in Ancaster, Ontario.

I hope you enjoy them and they bring you a little peace, as they do for me. I also hope that they encourage you to get out on a trail near your home and start to experience the joys of forest and field, as well as the benefits they provide to your mind and body.


What makes the McMaster-Syracuse MCM program so special?

Last week, I was happy to host my 17th residency as director of the Master of Communications Management program, offered in partnership McMaster University and the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. It was, as they all have been, a beautiful, warm, exciting and fascinating experience.

Most of the 11th MCM cohort! #mcm11

The MCM program and community is very special.

We developed the MCM as a school for leaders in the area of professional communications, marketing communications, and related fields.

We saw a need in the Canadian market for a new credential that combines the core courses of the MBA (accounting, finance, marketing, strategy, business ethics, etc.) with core strategic communications courses (organizational communications, market research methods, strategic communications management, digital communications).

To this core, we add amazing electives: negotiation and conflict resolution, data science and analytics, investor relations, strategic reputation management, strategic brand management, advertising law, government and political communications, crisis communications, and executive leadership, among many others.

We teach all of this important, stimulating material using a hybrid learning model, which allows each cohort of MCM students to work fulltime and study at the same time. That means that our students don’t have to put their careers on hold for two years while they achieve their master’s degree.

To further the MCM as a community and as a conversation among professionals, our program’s motto is “The MCM program seeks to develop a learning community based on collaboration, not competition.”

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How does MCM work?

MCM is organized around a magical combination of cohort-based recruitment, in-person residencies, and structured online learning. We admit approximately 20 students every year, from a competitive pool of applicants. They come together from across Canada and the Americas: in the two cohorts currently doing the MCM, we have every Canadian province and territory represented, except Nunavut and the Yukon (but we are working on it!).

Our students are diverse, representing Canada’s beautiful mosaic of diversity, including First Peoples, people of colour, and people who are differently abled. As well, we have international students, mostly from Latin America and the United States who add further depth and texture to our MCM community.

Every cohort is different and comes together to form a community of leaders who live and study together during each residency, of which there are three per year: the first in mid-October, the second in mid-February and the third in mid-June.



MCM residency is a magical, intense, exhausting, exhilarating week where students take two courses taught by tenured McMaster and Syracuse professors as well as leading industry executives, entrepreneurs.

During the Fall and Winter semesters, MCM students take one core business administration course, paired with one strategic communications course — one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. That is our left-brain/right-brain approach! These courses are separated by a long lunch so that our students can catch up with work and life.

MCM is not only about studying and courses. It also about great social events at wonderful restaurants and clubs, excursions to the wine country, lunchtime yoga sessions (gentle ones), roller skating by the sparkling waters of Hamilton Bay, hiking on the trails going through the natural wonderland of McMaster Unversity’s beautiful campus, and many other activities that bond students, faculty, alumni and staff into a warm, welcoming and supportive community of professionals who are also friends! Many of our students refer to their “MCM family”!

On Saturday night, we cap the first day of residency with a Residency Gala Dinner to which we invite a leading light of the communications world to give a personal lecture to the MCM community. Our Residency Gala Speaker Series alumni are a who’s who of public relations, marketing, journalism, advertising, politics, fundraising, and startups. On Wednesday, we host our

On Wednesday, we host our MCM Technical Luncheon Lecture, which features a top expert from the market research, digital comms, analytics, self-improvement or advertising worlds who illuminates us with their thoughts on a cutting-edge phenomenon (eg. Google Analytics, media analysis, artificial intelligence, Facebook advertising, executive leadership skills and mindfulness). We also invite the business community to this lecture – in the past we have been joined by members of several professional associations: CPRS Hamiton, Public Affairs Association of Canada, IABC Golden Horsheshoe, Canadian Marketing Association, Innovation Factory, amongst many others.

#MCM alumna Jessica Wooder talks about what our unique residency is like:

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Once residency is finished, our MCM courses move to their online phase. Here, students and faculty get together for webinar sessions that simulate the experience of an in-class seminar. The online period lasts between residencies, and ends on first day of the next residency, called “wrap-up day,” where students present, write exams or simply discuss key learnings from the semester that has just ended.

How do we teach in the MCM?

We follow the classic business education model by using the case-study method. This ensures the theories and facts that students explore in their MCM courses are applicable to real-world business scenarios in the private, public and not-for-profit worlds. We take the applicability of our MCM course materials very seriously. In fact, up to 80% of your assignments in the MCM can be applied to your place of work, if you wish to do so. Our students often call me up in the weeks following their first residency to tell me that their performance at work has already been transformed: they feel a new confidence, strength, and knowledge. And that, only after one residency. That is what I mean by MCM being the School for Leaders!

During their sixth term, MCM students work on their capstone project, which is a work of original research that explores a business challenge, often through a case study method. Students write a thorough lit review and gather data through original field research that they analyse to write a paper that they defend orally. The purpose of the MCM capstone project is to make each MCM alum a thought leader in a particular area. Many of our students’ capstone projects are published and almost all are presented to academic or professional audiences. Several of our students have launched successful startups based on their capstone project research! All of our students take great pride in the fact that the capstone makes them an expert in their chosen area of research.

I warmly invite you to learn more about MCM

I hope I have been able to give you a glimpse into the exciting world of the McMaster-Syracuse MCM program. In fact, I hope that you have understood that it is much more than just a program – it is a community of professional friends who support one another long after their last residency and the successful defense of their capstone projects.

Please do contact me if you think MCM might be for you! It would be my pleasure to discuss it with you further. I can be reached at

Dr. Alex Sévigny, APR (MCM Program Director |

New Year’s Resolutions 2018

2017 – A year of resolutions met

The last few years, I have focused my New Year’s Resolutions on well-being, and I have made progress – in 2017, I built my fitness by doing more cardio, going vegan. I wrote a draft of a book on social media and management, which I hope to get published soon, and have been thinking about another on communication and strategy more generally. I was also definitely more prayerful and mindful in a sustained way. As for building a real life? Well, I discovered that my life is real, just not necessarily as connected to others as I would like it to be – I worked on that and feel much better going into 2018. So in many ways, I feel I met my NYR2017.

Resolutions for 2018:

  1. Find and work with a physical trainer and osteopath to actually build sustainable fitness and well-being. I have found that fitness exercise has revealed flaws in my posture and body balance that I can’t fix myself.
  2. Continue with a plant-based diet.
  3. Publish my book manuscript. Write the next one. Continue the scholarly collaborations I have started, by publishing academic articles.
  4. Continue to explore and build my liberal, progressive Roman Catholic faith and practice.
  5. Learn more about startups and entrepreneurship in the AI, communications analytics, and metrics field.
  6. Take a real vacation, away from home – preferably somewhere warm.

So there you have it. Let’s see how I do.

Until 2019.

The first snow – a moment of regret? or an invitation to contemplate?

We spend so much time in the waiting room of life, anticipating a future in which the conditions will be right for us to take action.

The first snow fell today, in silent sprinkles. I am watching its flakes drift and glide in a zig-zag as they fall, in a manner similar to leaves.

I am surprised by the thought of thousands of perfectly formed crystals falling from the sky against the bright grey-white light of the winter morning.

Snow, where I live, is the harbinger of change.

Its arrival means that winter nature will be asleep soon, that Christmas is around the corner and that the clock will soon tick over into a new year.

While a new year is a somewhat arbitrary marker in life’s path, it is significant because we make it so.

I ask myself this morning – how do you face a new year without some nostalgia or regret? It must be possible, but how?

I think the answer is in a daily feeling of “nowness”, or mindfulness in today’s vernacular. I have successfully integrated meditation into my life, mostly due, in an amusing twist, to technology. A dear friend introduced me to the Calm app on my phone and my Garmin watch has a feature where it measures my stress and suggests that I breathe. Both the daily meditation from Calm and the breathing helps me to find my centre for the day, or grants a moment’s respite during a stressful hour.

As some of my readers may know, I am a liberal and progressive, yet faithful Roman Catholic. As such, I have always tried to incorporate daily prayer into my life, with varying success and at different levels of intensity over the years. I find that mechanical repetition of prayer becomes a chore rather than something I look forward to, so have sought to find ways of approaching prayer more mindfully, more contemplatively.

One of the methods I use, is listening to Taizé music. These simple, repetitive chants are very similar to the mantras sung by yogis. The Taizé Community is an ecumenical movement that invites all Christian orders to unite in song and contemplation. Taizé songs are sometimes so beautiful that they bring tears to my eyes, making me feel a great emotional release and spiritual uplift. They seem to open a door to the sanctuary of transcendent feeling that comes of gaining a glimpse of the reflected, warm golden light of love.

Another method that I have used with success is the Ignatian daily examen. This method of practical prayer and contemplation was prescribed by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Order of Jesuits. The examen is simple, yet elegantly effective. At the end of the day, take a moment to:

1. Become aware of God’s presence.
2. Review the day with gratitude.
3. Pay attention to your emotions.
4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it.
5. Look toward to tomorrow.

Obviously, this is a religious approach to mindfulness and that won’t work for many. I do encourage you to check out Taizé and the Ignatian Examen as both can be practised and enjoyed in a secular, fashion as well.

I have found going through this can help open the door to self-examination and awareness. I have found that being in this state can avoid nostalgia and regret in those moments when we become aware of the flight of time’s arrow. They make us more aware of where the arrow is leading us.

Indeed, they possibly allow us to be in sync with our actions enough that we mindfully and willfully shoot an arrow into the future with each of our actions, confident that it will land in a future place that we will be one day happy to inhabit.

On a chill night (and a warm heart)

Sometimes, in the dead of summer, we forget that in a few short months, the heat will be replaced by icy winter paths – shivers, tingling faces and a chill wind blowing around the ears.

What does this changeable environment mean?

Being cold reminds me that I am alive.

Today I was in Ottawa, walking along the Mooney’s Bay, late in the evening, feeling the wind penetrate first my coat, then my sweater and finally my shirt, before enveloping my skin, lowering my body temperature.

I looked across the bay and saw sparkling lights strewn across the inky black water, large stars against a black night. The lights danced and bobbed with the wavelets and in the cadence of the cars that passed, obscuring them for a fleeting second, and then letting them wink back into electric flame.

Every day, we see things. Scenes that seem so mundane and boring — the landscapes of the everyday, framed against the sounds and fury of the roads, people’s cries and the general hubbub of the city. We know it so well that it becomes the beat of our lives and eventually goes silent.

What do we replace the noise and sights of the fascinating world around us with, once we no longer notice them?

I think that the answer is that we can never stop noticing them – for it is in this quiet awareness of the world that we draw our own identity. Not only in the rough-hewn categories of sociological or cultural identity, but in the identity that comes of how we appreciate the symphony and counterpoint of the world’s music, urban and rural; in the identity that comes of seeing the forest and its flowers and the light penetrating in beams of light through the branches. In the crackle of snow and ice under our boots as we walk. In the peels of laughter of others reacting to a good joke or a funny situation.

That is the music of life and its visual arts, its tapestries. Our ability to notice and translate what we see and hear is our identity. Our ability to draw inspiration from it is the source of our creativity and, really, our humanity.


On illness, loss and identity

We begin life fresh and surprised at the sensory assault of even the limited confines of the birthing room.

After that initiation into chaos, followed by the first reassuring embrace from our mother, we linger through the slow days of childhood, looking forward with anticipation to our adult years, which we think may signal freedom and independence.

The slow pace of childhood accelerates in our twenties, when we spend much of our time in the world of things thought but unsaid, feelings felt but not exclaimed – often for fear of the shame of rebuke and rejection.

How wrong we were to be so hesitant, we think, as time torques and we are slingshot through our thirties and into our forties, and we réalise that indeed, there was nothing to be afraid of. That others would have welcomed the expression of our candid thoughts, rather than be confined to the lonely towers of our mutual fear of the world.

Alas, this period is often triggered by illness and loss. First the loss of beloved family members, then of mentors and then, perhaps most unnerving, of peers and friends and colleagues.

Sometimes the loss is one of disappearance, sometimes it is of mental ability, other times it is simply debilitating illness that takes away the rhythms and cadence of the life we knew with that person. In any of these, the loss is sad and sometimes shocking, for it makes us  meditate on our mortality and life’s fragility.

When we watch a friend endure a physical trial, struggling to keep strong mind dominant over a weakened body, we are reminded that our strength shouldn’t be reserved for those epic struggles against the force which pulls us toward the night, but rather that strength should be expressed in the moment in every day. Strength should not be epic, rather it should be a force that, deployed in noble and honourable causes makes for a better, more predictable and secure world for us and those around us.

You see, I have had an epiphany amidst the confusion of the losses I have experienced in the last ttwo years.

And it is simple.

Strength comes not of struggling against others or an idea. Indeed, that is weakness and, in fact, a waste of precious time. Rather, strength comes of working for an ideal. It comes of cherishing the lives of those around us, even those with whom we disagree, and working toward making the case for a better world.

I think that when we adopt the idea of recognizing the vulnerability and fragility of those people who disagree with us, then fear and resentment fade. We can love earnestly and with care. We can put thoughts of control and power behind us.. those thoughts which form  an iron cage for our minds and hearts.

The beauty of this is that we are aware of the glorious light of discovery and surprised at the comfort of the caring love of another when we first come into the world. This is indeed a gentle irony to contemplate as we rediscover ease in the midsummer of our lives.

So younger readers, I entreat you to relax your fear of reprisal and express your care for those around you in earnest trust. Youth is a fleeting treasure, like a sun beam across the snow on a grey day in February … a thing to be enjoyed and acted upon.

For those of you closer to my age, may I suggest that you reject fear and insecurity as well as the structures we have put into place in our lives that seems powerful, but now only serve as iron cages of anxiety, stress and fear.

Open this golden door before you are jolted into this realisation by illness and loss.

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