Recognized, but not that way

The Daily Prompt asks, “As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? How close or far are you from that vision?”

Famous. I wanted to be famous. I blame the acting classes, and the modicum of success I experienced in the grade nine musical theatre production. Oh and I’m sure all those piano lessons were a contributing factor. To be honest, I wasn’t very specific about what I wanted to be famous at. So long as I was famous.

At some point in my early 20s I do recall pausing to reflect on how I would know when I had achieved fame, and I came up with an elegantly simple measure. For me, being famous meant that people I didn’t know personally would recognize me  and know who I was.

So thirty years later how am I doing?

To begin with, having spent so much of my career teaching in one form or another, I have amassed three decades worth of former students. One thing about being a teacher is that there is generally one of me with a whole roomful of students, multiplied by class after class, year after year. And, to be brutally honest, unless you were really exceptional (either for good or ill), the odds of me remembering your name fifteen or twenty years later are a little iffy. But you remember me, because I was the one performing at the front of the room. So when you rush up to me in the mall to say hi, I must admit that I experience that moment as if someone I don’t know has recognized me. It’s flattering, but a little disconcerting, especially when I really don’t remember any details of our time together.

Secondly, because of a series of management roles I have held, both in the independent high school where I taught, and more recently in the public service, my name has, for years, appeared publicly. I have, for at least two-thirds of my working life, been the person who is named as being officially in charge of something. Consequently, over the years there have been particular contexts in which I could introduce myself and anticipate a response of “Oh, I know who you are!”

Andy Warhol said everyone is famous for fifteen minutes, and I have managed to pull off a few fifteen minute stints of fame for my writing. Not Margaret Atwood  or Ernest Hemingway fame. Just the kind of modest fame that lets you go to bed grinning with self-satisfaction, but leaves you still needing to haul yourself off to the day job in the morning. I’ve read my work on the radio and been published in academic journals. I’ve written study guides for a local theatre and actually been paid to do it. And twice now, in the eight months I’ve been blogging here, the lovely editors at WordPress have seen fit to Freshly Press my work. I’m still riding the wave of the most recent Fresh Press, and I have to confess that it brings out in me that same impulse that long ago made me dream of fame. It’s thrilling to watch my stats spike, to count the likes (thank you!) and tally the new follows (Welcome!) Comments mean a great deal, especially the ones where the commenter has added their own thoughts,  and the biggest reward of all is when someone re-posts what I have written.

Because the truth is, I’m no longer looking for my old vision of fame. I no longer care if, when I meet you on the street, you recognize my face or know my name. What matters to me at this stage of my life is that something I did made a difference to you. When you re-post my blog, you are telling me that you thought I said something worth reading– that it mattered to you in some way, and therefore might matter to the people who read your blog.  And that matters a great deal to me.

 

 

 

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Happiness is… not quite what I expected

happinessIf you are old enough you will likely remember this little book by Charles Shultz, creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip. This simple little book put the phrase “happiness is…” into daily vernacular decades ago.  It was first published in 1962, but since I was an infant at the time, my introduction to the book more likely correlates with its 1970 paperback release. The simple notions of happiness presented in the book by Shultz’s familiar characters would certainly have resonated with a nine-year old.

Or an eight-year old, like the one who threw me for a bit of a loop the other day when she asked me what was the happiest moment of my life.

Normally I would dodge a question like that. I tend to resist the whole notion of choosing a “best” of anything.  I have marvellous friends, but I would not be able to say so-and-so is my best friend. Favourite song? Changes by the minute. Favourite movie? I’ll give you a list. Favourite book? How much time do you have?

But in this instance it suddenly felt very important that I not only come up with an answer, but that it be the right answer. Because I was very conscious that this particular eight-year old was, at that particular moment, experiencing a colossal truck-load of very legitimate unhappiness.

Let me tell you, it’s not easy doing deep personal reflection while your questioner is staring up at you, unblinking, waiting breathlessly for your response.

The first thought that came to mind was the birth of my children. But that didn’t seem quite right because, for one thing, that’s automatically two moments. Furthermore, as soon as I thought about it for a few seconds I began to realize that there were a lot of moments in which  my children have brought me great happiness, and how could I say that the happiness I felt at the moment of their birth was greater than, say, the happiness I feel when they accomplish something wonderful or demonstrate their cleverness or their compassion? I couldn’t think of any source of happiness that I could narrow down to a specific point in time.

The closest I could come was the moment, nearly fifteen years ago, when I knew that I would be leaving the hospital and going home to my family. When I knew that we were finally beating the illness that nearly killed me. When I knew that the next family event would be my daughter’s second birthday and not, as we had all feared, my funeral.

But what surprised me, as I wrapped my mind around this memory and struggled to package it in an answer that would make sense to my young interrogator, was that the root source of that happiness was not about being glad I had survived. It wasn’t about me at all. When I tried to name the moment of my greatest happiness it wasn’t a moment at all, but rather a lifetime of moments, all of which revolved around the particular way my family has of rallying in a crisis.

The thing that makes me happiest, I tried to explain, is knowing that even though bad things will happen, I can always count on my family for support.  That no matter what the bad thing is — how big or how long or how monstrously scary — there are people I know I can always count on to drop everything and organize whatever help needs to be organized.

Happiness is knowing in the midst of the crisis that you are not alone.

Maybe it doesn’t feel like happiness at the time, but in hindsight it is the joy that comes of walking accompanied through the valley that stands out far more than the joy of celebrating on the mountain-top.

I’m not sure that was the answer she was looking for. It felt like the right answer.

 

Envirothon: “It’s a life thing”

I’ve just spent two hours driving down the Trans Canada highway with four 16-year-old girls. We were on our way home from a province-wide competition in which they (together with a fifth team-mate) placed third, and they spent much of the ride doing some intense debriefing. When they weren’t doing that they were, with equal intensity, already planning their strategy for next year’s competition. And then, as we drew closer to the outskirts of the city, this happened:

“Do you remember that really nice shelterbelt we saw on the way out of the city? I really want to see it again.”

“There?”

“Yes that’s it! Look at it! Isn’t it beautiful?”

Whereupon my carload of city-kids proceeded to enthuse over the characteristics of a well- planted, well-tended shelterbelt until we hit city limits. And all I could think was, “This. This is why I think Envirothon is just about the most amazing thing ever to hit high school.”

What is this is phenomenon that had my suburban crew chatting animatedly about the finer points of agricultural land-use practices? The Manitoba Forestry Association website explains:

For 17 years the Manitoba Forestry Association has offered the Manitoba Envirothon which has provided Manitoba’s high school students a unique and fun way to learn about the environment and current issues. Envirothon is a hands-on learning program which helps students develop important skills such as critical thinking, study skills and team work.

There are two components to the Envirothon competition, a field test and an orals competition. The trail test is a hands on activity, students apply their knowledge to answer questions in the field. The oral competition combines public speaking with the students’ learning experiences to develop and present a solution to a current environmental issue.

I  have twice been fortunate to be able to accompany my daughter’s team to the provincial competition and view first hand the tremendous talent that kids from across the province bring to this activity —  as well as the equally tremendous effort and dedication on the part of the team of organizers and volunteers who toil year-round developing curriculum, designing field tests, and planning multiple events in order to maximize the number of kids who are able to benefit from participation.envirothon

When I talk about my daughter’s experience with Envirothon, I get every bit as excited as my young passengers did about that lovely shelterbelt (which, even without their level of technical knowledge, I could appreciate was quite spectacular.) I’ve watched these kids grow, not only in their knowledge of how to responsibly manage the world they live in, but also in how to strive for a goal, care for your team-mates, and think on your feet. I have witnessed these young women learn together to approach their defeats with perspective and resolve, and their victories with humility and grace. It is, as one of the organizers reflects in this video, “a life thing.”

The size of now

The future is a very big place.

I know this to be true, because I have spent a lot of time there– typically getting lost in the big-ness of it.

It’s an easy place in which to get lost, in part because there are no reliable maps. Geographically speaking, the future is akin to those oceanic margins that cartographers of old so helpfully labelled “Here be Dragons.” Indeed, there may well be dragons. Or baby unicorns. Or giant radioactive sea slugs. A big problem with navigating the future is that, not only is it immeasurably big, it is also many. If I start from the point in time where I stand right now, I can see a multitude of possible futures, each one uncharted, each one spinning off into infinite combinations and permutations that shift and sway with each forward step.

here-be-dragons

Granted some of those possible futures are more probable than others. Given what I remember about the science of probability from high school math, I would put my money on the giant radioactive sea slugs before I would trust in the odds of a big lottery win. Especially since I don’t buy lottery tickets. But the fact remains that even the most well-informed prediction is no guarantee that something I anticipate is actually going to happen. And as for wishes

I’ve made a lot of wishes. I’ve wished on stars, wished on birthday candles, wished on trains going over bridges and coins thrown in fountains. I’ve wished away a lot of perfectly good nows in pursuit of some pretty nebulous what-ifs.

You know what I mean, because you’ve done it too.

Things will be better when…

I would be happier if…

I just need to hang on until…

But the future is a big place. So big that we can wander there forever without ever finding our way to the precise whens and ifs and untils on which we have staked our happiness.

herebedragons

“Here be dragons” was intended as a caution to the wayward mariner who dared wander beyond that which was known. It has taken me into my 50s to embrace the realization that all I can ever know for certain is now.

And, unlike the future, now is a very small place. Small, and surprisingly manageable.

It took me five decades of wandering lost through the dragon-territory of what-if and if-only to fully appreciate the size of now.

Now is the size of a single footstep.  Now is the size of the first word of the conversation you are dreading. Now is the size of the registration form for that course about that thing you’ve always imagined learning how to do.  Now is the size of picking up the phone to call the travel agent, the real estate agent, the divorce lawyer, the tattoo artist, the friend you had the falling out with. Now is the size of a single push-up. Now is the size of the word “no” when you would previously have said “yes.” Now is the size of the word “yes” when you would previously have said “no.”

Now is a place small enough to navigate without a map, because you can see all the way to the edges from wherever you stand. And you hardly ever see dragons.

 

 

Lizard Skins

lizardMeet my daughter’s lizard. If you’ve  been reading this blog long enough you’ve met him before, because he spent some time as my houseguest back in October.

He’s a skink. A blue-tongued skink, actually. And yes, that means he has a blue tongue. He eats worms and vegetables, and he’s rather partial to strawberries.

And on a regular basis he sheds his skin.

I was thinking about shedding the other day– shedding in the sense of getting rid of psychic and emotional clutter.  Thinking about all the old beliefs and assumptions that I have shed over the years. Thinking about dreams and wishes that were once of utmost importance to me that hardly seem to matter any more. Thinking about how my anxiety for the future dominates my thoughts so much less now that I have learned to live in the present.

When the lizard is getting close to shedding time he gets cranky. The old skin starts to become uncomfortable. When he finally does shed, there is a noticeable increase in his general energy level. And, of course, he’s just a little bigger.

When I am working my way towards shedding my attachment to an old idea, I too get the sense of being uncomfortable in my old skin — the old viewpoint makes me cranky.

And when I finally shed that idea that once fit so well but now feels so constraining, it does seem that, on a spiritual plane. I am just a little bigger.

 

Motherhood: What the “What to Expect” books failed to tell you

You will never get it right. You will twist yourself into knots to be there for your child in every way and at all times, until your child says, “That’s enough! Let me do it myself!” And when you do step back, they will rail at your callous abandonment.

You will be faced on a daily basis with impossible choices. Your life will frequently feel like that moment in the crowded shopping mall when one child ran ahead and one trailed behind, and you felt torn apart at the atomic level trying to cling to two small hands moving in opposite directions at the speed of light. Each child will have a completely different set of lessons to teach you, and the lessons you learned with the first child will help you only marginally with the next.

You will long for them to grow up faster and wish for them to stay small forever, all at the same time. You will watch with pride a young woman drive off at the wheel of your car and still see a tiny hand clutching the handlebars of that brightly coloured tricycle you assembled at midnight one long-ago Christmas eve. You will listen to your teenager belt out a spectacular vocal solo, and hear the faint echo of a kindergarten music concert.

You will discover that any anger you ever felt at any personal hurt or injustice was a mere ripple compared to the tsunami of rage that arises in you over any hurt or injustice directed at your child.  You will understand at a cellular level why it is never wise to step between a mother bear and her cubs, and why a loon will charge a boat many times her size if it threatens  her nest. You will also learn how to hold back the tsunami  when what they need most from you is the right to fight their own battles.

You will be thrilled and astonished when they develop the same interests as you, and astonished and thrilled at all the things they know that are strange to you. You will realize that they will grow up having experiences that you are not a part of, even as babies. This will terrify you. You will learn to live with this terror as though it is simply part of the air you breathe.

You will discover strengths and skills and inner resources you never imagined you possessed. You will question everything you believed about yourself, and everything you believed about the world, as you begin to see it all through they eyes of your children. Things that you previously took for granted will become strange and wonderful. Things that you previously rejected will become comfortable companions. You will think the unthinkable, bear the unbearable, and get up the next morning and do it all again. You will be Alice’s White Queen, doing six impossible things before breakfast, while feeling for all the world like the Mad Hatter.

You will be constantly caught off guard by moments. The random hug. The unsolicited “thanks Mom.” The bouquet of clover picked lovingly while the rest of the six-year-olds were chasing the soccer ball. The bittersweet role reversal of the first time your daughter immediately drops what she is doing because you are sick and need a ride home.

Nothing will be anything like what you expected. In fact, you will learn early on that the mere fact of expecting anything is sure to guarantee that something wildly different will occur. Chances are, even what I have said here will be wrong for you, with your particular child, in this particular time and place.

It will be so unlike anything you could possibly have expected, that most of the time you won’t even be able to talk about what it’s really like. For fear no one would believe you.  For fear you’re the only one who is experiencing quite what you are experiencing. For fear that some might think you crazy for thinking that something that tears you to pieces day after hour after minute is the one thing you would not give up for anything in the universe. Ever.

It will change you. That, you can expect.

me and girls

Guerrilla Aging: Reinventing. Again.

Renee,  who blogs at Life in the Boomer Lane, recently started a  guest-blogging feature she calls Guerrilla Aging: Navigating the Third Half of Life. For a description of her vision for this feature check out this post.

If you are a “woman of a certain age” you should follow Renee’s blog for the Guerrilla Aging feature alone. The bonus treat you will get for doing so is the wry wit of Renee’s own writing!

And today, at Life in the Boomer lane you will find a guest post by me!  Guerrilla Aging: Reinventing. Again..