By Shawna McCrea
I first met you, Tom Kernaghan, on May 10, 2016, at one of our first BalAnce Storytelling Tuesdays. You had recently made the big move here from Toronto, and it was great to hear you were happy to be in Kelowna. And I remember you were so inspired by Storytelling that you wrote a beautiful blog post about your experience. I was blown away by what an amazing writer you are. You joined the BalAnce Well-Being team as our Spotlight writer in 2017 and since then have created the most wonderful BalAnce Well-Being member profiles. Also, you have been to most of the Storytelling Tuesdays. I’m very thankful to count you as a friend.
What inspired you to come to the Okanagan, and how has your life evolved?
First of all, the friendship feeling is mutual, Shawna. Thank you for your kind words, that warm welcome to the BalAnce community and this Spotlight!
I had an epiphany during a trip here in June of 2015. I was visiting dear Toronto friends of mine who had moved here two years prior. In the span of a few days we hiked, mountain biked, floated down a river, jumped into the lake from the Wibit floating obstacle course, watched open mic comedy and ate great food. Also, it didn’t hurt that every day was sunny, hot and dry. I was sold on those things alone.
And then I read the rhythm of the city and realized there was a thriving and positive entrepreneurial community here—not to mention a more affordable condo market. A lightbulb went on in my head. I could return to my creative life and live more simply, with less stress and more hope for happiness. Toronto is a great city, full of culture and energy, but I had slipped into midlife autopilot mode, had stopped writing, and was living for weekends and vacations, feeling the exhausting strain of the daily urban push.
So I went with the pull instead. Everything about the valley drew me. I felt a spiritual shift, an ineffable call within—a phrasing my younger sarcastic cynic would’ve scoffed at. Ha ha. Plainly put, it was something I just knew I needed to do, and I’m glad I did.
Over the past six years I have created a life more in line with my core passions and vision for living well, for living more consciously. I have embraced the outdoor life and many opportunities to learn, grow, create and make a difference in my own small way. And my timing couldn’t have been better. I arrived to the city just as it was evolving into a vibrant hub with greater diversity, which is important to me after decades of big city life. There have been challenges, of course, but those are another story for another day.
You are an avid hiker, and I really enjoy seeing all your beautiful photos. What drives you to make this a main focus in your life? What are some of your favourite spots and experiences?
Thank you, I’m glad you enjoy them! Reactions like yours are certainly one part of my drive to hike and snap shots. The Okanagan has such a variety of beautiful landscapes, and I love to share them with friends here, back east and overseas. After six years, I feel I’ve only just begun to explore the many trails and landscapes—some inner ones, too. As a lifelong walker and hiker, I’ve found there is very little that either activity can’t resolve. And hey, if I’m going to have a moody or broody day, I might as well get some good photos and exercise out of it. It’s definitely my go-to for well-being.
Wow, I like so many different trails for different reasons. The views from Enderby Cliffs and Spion Kop are simply stunning. Mount Boucherie and Rose Valley offer what I jokingly describe as “good value for the time and money.” Pincushion Mountain is a solid workout from the first step. Black Mountain is where I go for inner peace. And Knox is great for quick upkeep. For an all-around hike, however, the Crawford Lookout Loop at Myra-Bellevue is my perfect local choice. It’s fun for the feet, amazingly varied, and it’s long enough at over four hours to feel like a getaway from the city. Also, doing it for the first time two summers ago was a milestone during my recovery from lingering COVID symptoms, so it has some extra meaning for me.
And I love meeting and chatting with other hikers on the trail. They’re some of the most positive people I’ve ever met. And some have really amazing stories.
You have posted lots of cloud photos. We go through life mindlessly at times—at least I do—so I really appreciate your cloud pics because they make me stop and notice them, and of course I think of you when I see a particularly inspiring sky. What do clouds mean for you?
I’ve also been a sky watcher my whole life. The myriad cloud formations here blow me away, no pun intended. Many of the patterns just don’t happen back east. I remember coming out of Capri Mall shortly after I moved here. I saw a post-rain sunset that stopped me in my tracks. I immediately dropped my bags and took a bunch of pics. Since then, I haven’t stopped scanning and snapping.
After six years, I still find myself surprised by the skies. They make me pause and marvel at beauty that is literally out of reach, beyond our control and universally enjoyable. To your point, I think it’s valuable, even necessary, to turn off the autopilot of our busy days and appreciate the majesty all around us and the mystery of being alive; to maintain a sense of wonder. I’m happy to hear that my photos inspire you and others in any way. I get a kick out of the title “The Cloud Whisperer” some friends have teasingly dubbed me.
Clouds also remind me of never-ending potential through change. They are forever shifting, parting and reforming. Like life itself, they are simultaneously permanent and ephemeral. When I was a kid, adults used to tell me I had my head in the clouds. While they intended this as a playful—or snide—shot, I now carry those comments as a compliment, especially as I also know how to keep my feet on the ground—on or off the hiking trail. And all contemplation aside, sometimes clouds just look freaking cool.
As a big fan of your writing, I would love to hear about how you started on that journey. Were you always passionate about writing?
Thank you. As far back as I can remember I’ve been passionate about stories in all forms. I come from a family of storytellers; it’s how we communicate with each other. And I was often the entertainer on road trips, coming up with characters and funny voices to pass the time, to the baffled amusement of my captive audience. I think stories also alleviated the loneliness and alienation of childhood. In elementary school, I used to write stories and pin them to the class bulletin board. The first time I heard a teacher howl with laughter while reading one of my tales, I knew I’d found something special to hold onto.
Then, sadly, I let it go for many years, focusing instead the academic paths of science and business, to prepare for a life of conventional success and security. You know, that old pickled cliché of art versus practicality. None of the adults in my suburban world lived the creative life, so I regarded it as a hobby, a dalliance, a pipe dream. But personal truth has a way of reasserting itself like a primal scream. Mine did one day after university.
I was home from an overseas backpacking trip, watching a Remembrance Day ceremony on TV and pondering the horror of the soldiers’ stories, when a dizzying realization shot through me: “I have to write.” It felt as though an old friend had burst into the room, seized me in a bro’ hug, and then punched me in the face for having ignored him so long. I found myself reeling from a slam of exhilarating and unquestionable clarity.
So I moved to Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood—then an epicentre of artistic activity (and maybe some poseurs)—and began reading voraciously, taking courses, keeping a journal and hanging with other creative seekers. And I began to write again. I began to find myself on the page.
Since then it’s been a long quest, full of attempts and successes. I’ve learned there is no “right” way to one’s craft and voice. The writing life is a journey of self-discovery, one with its share of lows. But the highs are sweet and they keep you coming back for more, as laughs do for the standup comedian. After many years on this path, I’ve come full circle to re-embrace the spirit of play in writing. I stay open to possibilities on a project as I would steps on a new trail. I’m always learning, always hopeful.
Having worked in the banking industry is something we both have in common, Tom. What did that experience teach you and create in your life?
An interesting question. I’ve worked in a variety of industries since I was twenty years old. My first lesson in banking, or any corporate job I’ve done, is that time and money matter and bills have to be paid—the company’s and mine. The spectre of poverty may motivate some writers and artists, but it doesn’t work that way for me. There’s nothing romantic about fear or thoughts of privation. Those just sap my energy and focus. Besides, it’s hard to type out a tome if the power gets shut off.
My jobs in banking were stressful, but they taught me a new kind of mental endurance and resilience. And they deepened my appreciation for camaraderie and culture in the workplace, as my co-workers were wonderful and supportive in every department. Banking ultimately wasn’t for me, but management tried their best to find a fit and keep me employed, for which I am forever grateful. As always, it’s the people that make the difference.
And those experiences deepened the admiration I already had for people who pull themselves out of bed, battle traffic and transit, and bust their butts to make a living. This motivates me to make my writing as tight, compelling, and entertaining as possible—to make people glad they gave me their attention. That may sound reductionist or transactional, but it’s really a guiding principle of acknowledgement and respect. The reader has a thousand other things they can be doing. Don’t bore them. Don’t waste their time. Bring nothing less than truth and wonder to their world. Make their day better in some small way.
You have helped so many others write their stories. How have those experiences impacted you and them? Can you share a story journey you particularly enjoyed?
A wonderful question. This goes to the heart of what gets ME out of bed in the morning. Helping people tell their stories has been one the most profound, humbling and rewarding set of experiences in my life. I’ve had the privilege of exploring the unique richness of others’ lives as they explore themselves, embrace their truths and find their voices. Being a partner in that process is an honour.
From a craft perspective, I’ve learned that the uniqueness of a person’s life shapes the form and themes of their story, just as body and soul are inextricably interwoven. Certainly there are core principles of storytelling, just as our bodies share a common physiology, but each one of us has a signature shape and walk as we travel through this life. My job is to capture and convey the essence of that journey and, hopefully, its broader meaning.
Wow, which story journey to share … I will share an instance of an experience I’ve had a number of times. A client contacted me and tearfully said, “How did you GET me so deeply? You’ve never even had this experience I’ve gone through!” This speaks to revelatory nature of my work; discovering the potential of human connection and the extent, or limits, of my own empathy. This is fundamental to what I do, and I take it seriously. The joy of seeing someone so moved by being seen so clearly can leave me speechless. It is a shared gift.
History seems to be a focus for you. Why is this important to you, and what occurred for you to start on this journey?
History and story go hand in hand, whether for individuals, companies, communities or entire societies. And the stories we tell ourselves about where we’ve been and what we’ve been through say a lot about who we are … and who we wish to become. I’d say this started for me when I was writing articles for community newspapers in Toronto many years ago. I loved asking people questions to find out what made them tick and why. I still enjoy working that muscle, especially over these past two years of division we’ve all been grappling with. As I often say, your views are less important to me than why you have them. Curiosity can be a superpower.
You always ask us to share something about ourselves many wouldn’t know, so I’ll ask the same of you! Please share a fun fact, interesting perspective or engaging story.
I played the drums growing up. One summer during high school, our conservatory band participated in a Great Lakes music competition in Detroit. We’d prepared a half-hour Beatles medley for the Battle of the Bands portion of the weekend. We were running late, so the more experienced drummer of the previous band let me use his kit. It was way better than mine, but of course it wasn’t set up for my body size and playing style.
Early in our set, I launched into a drum fill, when my right stick caught the upper rim of a tom, went flying end over end, clear over our lead singer’s head—much to his shock—past the spotlights and well into the audience. This had never happened to me before. Without missing a beat, I grabbed another stick from the mounted stick bag and kept playing through my embarrassment and the urge to swear and laugh. I surprised myself.
And I learned a valuable set of life lessons that day: Use your own kit. Connect with the audience—preferably without projectiles. And when s–t happens, just keep going.
This column was submitted as part of BWB Wednesdays.
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