Saturday, 29 March 2014

A Life Well Chosen

     Our dining room table is longer than most.  It stretches eight feet and can comfortably sit 12.  It is the heart of our home, where secrets are unveiled and life choices are debated.   It is a solid piece, narrow in width which only serves to bring its diners closer together. The long beaten planks of pine have absorbed tears of grief and uncontrollable laughter.  It bears the markings and scars of many a glass of wine spilled and platter dropped.  It is where unsolicited counsel is given and joys are celebrated long into the night.
     But mostly, it is where the members of our intercultural, intergenerational, blended and extended family come together to break bread and mend hearts.  We are 14 in all, our six collective kids, their partners, biological mother and our new treasured grandbaby who is passed down the chain of arms with the same ease as the bowl of peas.
     Meals at this table are far from elegant sit-down affairs.  They are raucous and chaotic events where steaming plates of food are carried over the heads of wrestling young men and gossiping women.  Where beer and homemade wine flow as freely as the uncensored conversation that runs from wedding arrangements to hemorrhoid treatments to the feasibility of time travel.
     Sara* is a long-time friend who recently spent an afternoon at this same table tearily recounting the impending dissolution of her marriage.  She had just given birth to her third child and was in that all too familiar phase of readjusting marital expectations.
     “But it wasn’t supposed to be like this.  I didn’t know.  It was supposed to be different!” I take a sip of my coffee to quiet my tongue.  I cannot help but wonder how she ever thought a forty year old man whose mother continued to buy his socks and underwear would easily give up his bachelor lifestyle to change the diapers of the children he had reluctantly agreed to have.  But my heart went out to her as she sat there trying to reconcile the life she had imagined with the one she had created.
     I try to remember my own visions of the future.  As teenagers my friends and I could spend hours talking about our dreams of what our lives would become. We would run these dreams like reels of film in our starry-eyed minds.  I would leave home to study journalism and would promptly begin a skyrocketing career, traveling the world bringing light to the brutal humanitarian stories of those less fortunate. (It was the 80s.  I watched a lot of 60 Minutes….)
     Later, I would settle in some cosmopolitan city and quickly land a job as a columnist for some well-respected newspaper.  I could picture myself strutting to the office every morning, latte in hand while the theme from St. Elmo’s Fire played in the background. (Somehow in my adolescent imaginings I inexplicably became Caucasian and full-lipped, a cross between a well-fed Angelina and a 1986 Molly Ringwald…). I would rise in the ranks, passionately putting in long hours at a job I loved.  After hours I would banter cleverly with colleagues at the local bar like some rerun of LA Law.
     I would marry a man not unlike myself, a mirror of my own ambitions and interests, a suit-wearing nine-to-fiver who would read the Times with me Sunday mornings before we would head out to brunch and a new art exhibit with our equally hip young couple friends, a man who amazingly knew every Indigo Girls song by heart and would lead guests in a moving sing-a-long on his battered acoustic guitar at parties.
     Once established in our careers, we would go on to have a couple of children.  On weekends, between driving the kids to soccer games and ballet recitals, we’d host fabulous dinners.  While my metrosexual-looking husband artfully whipped up an impressive meal of leek soufflé and home-made crème caramel in the kitchen, I’d copy Martha Stewart table settings that creatively reflected the season and coordinated perfectly with our stylish home furnishings. (Note to self: At next session, ask therapist why in my dreams I seem to have married a character from Will and Grace. I’m also not quite sure how we managed to get all this done in a twenty-four hour day. Interestingly in my teenage version of my future, I had clearly managed to learn how to bend time…it was a futuristic vision after all.)
     (Obscure aside: This reminds me of one of my favorite jokes.  How many Martha Stewarts does it take to change a light bulb? None, because if you carefully use an Exacto knife to score out a quadrangle  from the front of the bulb, fill it with tufts of tissue and chiffon and hang it with a silk ribbon in your garden, you can turn it into a lovely birdfeeder...)
     But life isn’t a John Hughes movie.  It’s a series of karmic forks in the road that present us with choices.  Sometimes the choices induce stomach–churning nausea in their obvious life-altering importance.  But sometimes the seemingly innocuous opportunities are those which most alter our paths- the day you opt to take the bus to work and end up meeting a new job contact in the subway; the choice to buy a cup of a coffee where you run into an old friend you thought you would never see again; the last minute decision to go for an afternoon walk during which you end up meeting your future husband. Each choice leads to another, like links in the chain of moments that lead to your today. 
     My own choices have brought me far from my Diane Sawyer imaginings, but I am proud to own them as my own. I am neither journalist, nor sophisticated world traveller.  I did not imagine that after many stops and starts I would choose an entirely different career path.  That I would make professional choices that sometimes led to doors opening wide and sometimes to inadvertently jumping off such a career cliff that I’d scrape my shins trying to climb back up.
     I did not imagine a life where at times I would sleep-walk through the work day wondering how the hell I got here, or that I would ever feel fortunate to have a job where amidst the pendulum   of stress and boredom I would be happy for that occasional meeting or moment that has me declare “Well, that was kinda cool.”
     I did not imagine finding myself at mid-life, faced with the choice of stepping over decades of paying my dues to completely reboot my career into the teasing potential of the unknown.
     I did not imagine being barely out of school and falling head over heels for an older man.  A man with four children of his own, not much younger than me.  I did not imagine I would fall as hard for them as I did their father, or that I would eventually find myself happily embracing their mother as family.
     I did not imagine that the only art displays I would visit would be those in my children’s elementary classroom or that I could revel in the infinite possibilities of macaroni sculptures.
     I did not imagine choosing to marry he who is at once my complete opposite and my completion.
     I did not imagine I could be...
    ... so happy.
     We are no Norman Rockwell family. In fact tonight, as I carry out steaming plates of chicken curry and gluten free tofu balls (NONE of which were home-cooked by anyone) over the clatter of my rag-tag clan, I can’t help but think our eclectic menu reflects the eclectic mix of characters gathered at our long table.  There are groans and giggles as my eldest daughter reads out puns from her smart phone.
     “Two peanuts were walking down a dark alley.  One was assaulted.”
     I snort and pull up a chair.  Reaching over to grab a nearby bottle of wine I scan the faces of this rainbow coloured Brady Bunch I proudly call my family, and I cannot help but grin, not at the life I imagined…
     ...but at this life I have chosen.
*names and some details have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

Monday, 3 March 2014



“Tell me your story. For that’s where I’ll find your heart.” – James Simmons 
The question was: High heels, Pencil skirt, 1 km to the post office, 15 minutes before I had to be back in the boardroom for my next meeting.  Could I make it?
As usual, I had left things to the last minute. I am an artful procrastinator who has unconsciously made “Works well under pressure” a personal mantra. I am forever rushing out during my lunch hour to try to bite off a morsel of my never-ending list of personal chores. On this particular day, my chosen destination was the post office, where I hoped to mail off a stack of soon-to-be-due bill payments.
Off I went, the clickety clack of my heels accompanying the rhythm of my panicked heartbeat as I flew down the hill to the main street. (Ok, ok, “flew” might be a slight exaggeration.  I admit my skirt had me doing more of a thigh-chafing shuffle than any kind of graceful gazelle-like stride…)
My mind raced faster than my feet. If I didn’t get back in time for my meeting, my boss would think I was irresponsible. If I didn’t mail off my car registration it would expire in two days.  Without a car I’d have to take the bus to work.  If I had to take public transit I’d be an hour later to the office every morning.  If I was late every day I would lose my job.  If I had to look for a new job, I’d have to explain why I got fired…and so on and so on.
My hyperactive brain barely registered the shops or passers-by that streamed by me.  There’s the eclectic corner store that sells cigarettes and sushi.  Here comes the neighborhood dog-walker (Hmm, I wonder how much a dog-walker makes?  An alternate career if I got fired…?) There’s the ‘artisan’ bakery that sells $5 cake-pops (Is it just me, or is someone making a whole lot of cash off ten cent donut holes...?) Here's that Goth-styled street kid, laughing it up with her friend.
And that’s when I skid to a stop.                          
At first, I wasn’t even sure what it was that made me take a second look.  I had seen this homeless teen plenty of times before.  She sat outside the pharmacy most days and stood out on this trendy street with her worn army surplus fashion, charcoal lipstick and requisite piercings. Her scraggily-looking dog rested his chin faithfully on her lap. Goth Girl was a fixture on this corner.  Most passers-by bent their heads to avoid eye-contact. Sometimes I would dig in my purse to drop a few coins in her black manicured hand.  Other days I uttered an awkward “Sorry, not today” as I strode past.  But this day I stopped.
I had never heard her laugh before. Though her ever changing cardboard signs sometimes hinted at a hidden sense of humor; “Bet you a dollar you read this sign”, “Spent my last cash on this cardboard and marker", “Obama ain’t the only one who wants change,” I had always taken her defeated cynical expression for granted. But today her eyes lit up as she recounted some hilarious episode to the young woman beside her.
From where I stood, I couldn’t hear what she was saying.  Was she explaining how she ended up here and where she slept at night?  She had not always been here on this street corner.  Once, she was like any other child.  Like my child.  I pictured her as a baby, being held by her mother. I imagined the butterflies in her stomach on the first day of kindergarten. I saw her close her eyes to blow wishes over her birthday cake. She, like all of us, had her own story. I glanced at today’s cardboard billboard. 
Have you ever felt invisible before?” 
I felt the weight of her words in my chest. But the truth is, it was neither her painfully honest question nor her unexpected laughter that stopped me in my tracks. In fact it wasn’t even Goth Girl herself at all. It was her companion.
Goth Girl’s friend was no street-kid. I estimated that her recently highlighted hairdo must have taken a good 45 minutes with a high-end flatiron to achieve. And here she was, parked unselfconsciously on the grimy pavement in her pristine pink Lululemon pants. She had torn her ham sandwich in half to share, all the while listening intently to Goth Girl’s animated tale.
It was her story that really piqued my curiosity.  Were they friends from before?  She struck me as half of the oddest lunch date ever. I wondered what chapter of her past compelled her to squat and randomly chat with a homeless kid on the sidewalk. Was it just some instinctual adolescent affinity or was there an event in her own story that had shown her with clarity what really matters.
Mostly, I wondered how she knew that hope could be found in half a ham and cheese and that all it took to expose another’s heart was to stop for a minute and ask that simplest of questions,
“Tell me your story.”