Saturday, 27 October 2012

Man of La Mancha

I just rewatched Man of La Mancha with Peter O'Toole. It's low budget, more suited to the stage than film, and overly theatrical, and I absolutely adore it. The glorious music is going to be running through my head for days. Peter O'Toole has the most beautiful eyes and voice. And I still cry when Don Quixote dies at the end, no matter how many times I've seen it. It shows the impact one man's dream can have on everyone around him. How we have to strive for life the way it should be, the way it's meant to be, and not settle for what is. How a simple act of kindness can change someone forever. It got me thinking about the importance of quests.

In cultures around the world, adolescents are given rites of passage into adulthood. Some are given quests or missions to accomplish before they are considered adults. Some undergo rituals or formal ceremonies when a certain milestone in life is met. Others are given a "man's job to do," such as taking part in helping to support the family. All of these mark the adolescent as having "arrived" at a certain readiness to become part of the adult group, and they are pronounced adults in a formal way.

In western culture, however, we tend to scramble to find meaningful events by which to mark a child's passage into adulthood, mostly contrived or arbitrary milestones, such as the first job, obtaining a driver's licence, graduation from high school, the first time leaving home, or the arrival at legal drinking age. These contrived rites of passage may have little or nothing to do with the child's actual level of maturity or readiness to take on adult responsibilities. Some leave home because it's expected when they are not yet ready and experience failure or disappointment and return home. How many stories have we heard of kids going off to school, spending the first semester in an alcoholic stupor, and subsequently flunking out? Obviously they were not yet at the required maturity level.

Youth in western culture have reacted to this arbitrariness by establishing their own indications of adulthood: loss of virginity, inclusion in certain gangs or peer groups, the use of alcohol or drugs, the performance of some expected act of violence required by the group. Passage into adulthood is seen as a time, not of self affirmation, but of rebellion against authority or social strictures. Western youth are typically not given true quests or missions or challenges by which to prove themselves adults. We are not holding up any standard by which adolescents can measure themselves and their maturity. How do they know when they've arrived? They decide for themselves, and inform the parents and society at large that they are no longer to be treated as children. This declaration may come in many forms, not all of them verbal: the first ignored curfew, the first skipped class, the first body piercing, the first arrest.

And as their parents, we look at each other edgily and wonder if we, ourselves, are quite ready for this thing called adulthood.  We remember that we ourselves have never quite found that golden fleece.

So quests serve an important purpose. Attaining something worthwhile gives us not only meaning, but a milestone by which to measure ourselves. Someone has said that the purpose of life is to live a life of purpose. We need to determine for ourselves what quest we will pursue, what cause we will take up. What value and meaning our lives will have. No one will pronounce it for us. It is up to us to decide how we will change ourselves and our world.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Picking a Puppy

So lately I've been feeling the need to get another dog. The one I have is sweet and lovable, but he's more like a squirrel - aloof, doesn't like to be touched, basically ignores you. It's the breed, but I opted for non-shedding and easily-washed over personality, and now I'm feeling the need to branch out a little. I'd also like to get a companion for him, so they can keep each other company if we're away. I've always had large dogs before, and this one is the first small breed I've owned. And yeah, well, I still prefer large breeds.

I picture myself with something a bit more athletic, who can jog with me and haul me home when I conk out a mile from home. Something I can tramp the fields with and paddle in rivers with. Something that likes and returns affection. Something bigger than a hamster. Something with an IQ above that of a radish.

There is every kind of breed available. I prefer mixed breeds, but there are so many designer combinations now! And most seem to have poodles in them. Shi-poo cockapoo goldiepoo malti-poo...a whole lot of poo out there from the sound of it. I guess everyone dislikes the shedding, because really, that's the only thing that can recommend a poodle. Every breed I consider has advantages and drawbacks. Every person I meet has an opinion about the particular breed I'm considering. Boxers are great, Boxers are terrible. Goldendoodles are wonderful, Goldendoodles have skin and health problems. This one is too big. That one drools too much. That one is prone to hip problems or blindness. This one is difficult to train. That one is too hyper. Huskies are "massively destructive." Beagles don't like to be left alone. Yada yada yada.

Centuries from now, an anthropologist will study our culture and conclude that the dog was at the top of the hierarchy and we humans were its servants. After all, who is following whom around, carrying a bag of whose poop? You don't see anyone following me around, carrying mine. I send my kids to First Choice Haircutters for ten-dollar buzz cuts, yet cheerfully plop down seventy bucks for my dog's haircut. Humans live off Kraft Dinner and Mr. Noodles while Fluffy dines on roasted lamb and wild rice. No, argue all you like, but the dog is definitely at the top.

I sit back and ask myself what my real motive is in looking for another dog. Is it that my current dog isn't affectionate enough? Or it is really that I'm missing my granddaughter and my arms just feel a tad too empty? Am I really intending to go jogging that much? Or is it a whim that will fade along with the resolve not to eat late at night...? If I am honest, I have no fields to tramp in and no river to paddle in. I want a rural dog for a rural lifestyle I don't have. Getting the spaniel or hound won't give me the rural life I want. I have to face the fact that I live a suburban life, and the Shih Tzu I have is perfectly adequate and suitable for a suburban lifestyle. It's not my current dog I have to reconcile myself to; it's my life.

Having said that, there's always room in my heart for one more friend. So I think I'm going to wait and see what the universe brings. Maybe the right dog will find me.

Choosing a Story

After twenty-six years of marriage, I've finally figured out the fundamental difference between the way I think and the way my husband thinks. He observes the situation he is in and then adapts accordingly. He molds himself to suit his circumstances. He acknowledges whatever is going on and fits himself neatly into whatever it is. He doesn't fight those circumstances or rage against fate or wail when things don't go the way he anticipated or wanted. In fact, I don't think he wants. He simply, neatly, and quietly just goes about his daily business. He is in the moment, and doesn't waste energy wishing things were otherwise. He accepts and then just gets on with it. If you ask his opinion, he doesn't have one readily available.

I, on the other hand, am never in the moment. I am irretrievably somewhere else all the time. I constantly live in my head, where I am bombarded every moment with stories. I see a house for sale, and instantly I envision living in it. I see a dog for sale and instantly I'm jogging on a deserted beach at sunrise with it. I hear of a fun-sounding career and bingo! in my head I'm doing it. A cool place to vacation? I'm there in a flash. A neat name? I imagine having a kid to name that. Because of this, I rarely stop to observe the situation I'm actually in, and when I do bump up rudely against reality and look around, I realize my life doesn't match the life I have going on in my head at that particular moment. It's very disorienting, sometimes, to look up and see what and who and where I actually am.

But I am crushed at the thought that, of all those stories, I can only live one. Ultimately I only have so many years on this planet and so many resources. So I look at where I am now and think "This is it. This is all there's going to be." And I want to rail against the unfairness of it. This is life as I have managed to create it (or fall into it, or however it is I got here). I will not, no matter how long I live, be able to live all of those stories I've imagined, all of those stories that are floating around out there in the world. And sometimes I wonder why I've been given these dreams if I can't possibly fulfill them all. It's sort of a cruel joke, like holding a cookie in front of a child but not letting him have it. You can sniff it, you can maybe even lick it a little, but you can't eat the whole thing. I suppose this might be what they call a mid-life crisis, when you pause and look around and say "So this is it?" Except I've been doing it my whole life, so I can't blame it on that. And if I can only have one, which one is the right one for me?

I can't complain about my life as it is, really. I've done a lot of the things I wanted to. I had a charmed childhood. I have all I need, I have a wonderful family, three kids I adore, a patient, gentle and wise husband, a beautiful country to live in, and a job that - for all its mindnumbingness - puts food on the table. I can't pinpoint anything wrong with my life. It just isn't other.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Harvest Season on the Urban Farm

The air has turned cold, the frost hit this week, and leaves are falling. Time to put the backyard to bed. Patio furniture, hoses, pool, flowerpots, windchimes, lawnmowers, tools, all tucked away. Lemon trees and oleanders brought indoors. I spent about seven hours yesterday digging, washing, peeling, blanching, and freezing carrots. Of course I didn't thin them well enough in the spring, so many of them are about three inches long, which makes peeling ridiculous. But they are so sweet and tender and golden and good! Nothing like the woody, bitter, but beautiful ones you buy in the store. It feels good to know the freezer is full and we can enjoy them in the winter.

The only things left to process are the onions, cabbages, and ground cherries, which are still determinedly producing despite the cold. And the rabbits, of course. They zip away from under my feet, scaring the bejeebers out of me every time. I assume they'll find somewhere warm to stay for the winter, burrowed into the straw or under the hedge. Goodness knows it looks like the mice have already taken up sanctuary in the shed.

We've put away the fountain, and yesterday we watched a miffed little bird hopping around where it used to be, looking for a drink. "I could swear it was right here!" Hop hop to look at it from another angle. "Nope, not here either!"  We'll have to rig up something else for them that won't freeze.

I used to detest the Canadian winter, the six or seven months of gray and bitter cold. The interminable putting on and taking off of layers of clothing. The mounds of steaming boots in the hallway. The eyelashes frozen together by the time the bus arrives at the stop. The darkness of it all. Three things changed my attitude toward the season, though: a) peri-menopause ("Six months of sub-zero temperatures? Bring it on! I'll get out my shorts and flip-flops!" b) heavy doses of vitamin D all winter, which works wonders for my semi-Seasonal Affective Disorder, and c) gardening. I put so much energy into my garden now in the summer that I'm thoroughly worn thin and wrung out by the time autumn comes. I've gotten my money's worth. I've gotten my fill. I don't resent having to put the garden away and go indoors because by then I am thoroughly satiated with the tastes and smells and textures of summer. It's enough to sustain me through the dark hours until spring. I can relax and wait and know that there's nothing outside demanding my attention (well, except shoveling snow, but that's what teenage sons are for). In winter, I can rest.

Until about February, of course, when the seed catalogues arrive and I start scrawling plans on graph paper. After all, a man's dreams should exceed his reach, or what's a garden for?

Sunday, 7 October 2012


I just finished reading Joy for Beginners by Erica Bauermeister, which is about how a group of women support and help each other through changes in their lives - divorce, death, cancer, the birth of twins. I was really touched by how they formed a tight circle around each other and didn't let go. It was gently and beautifully written.

I have not always appreciated the value of friendship or how vital it is to our well-being. I grew up with lots of acquaintances and people to hang out with, and cousins everywhere I turned. But when I was fifteen, I left high school early and went to university, and suddenly I was surrounded by peers who were not really peers - these people were primarily grad students, married, with kids. I had pigtails and braces and a curfew. I could no longer relate to kids my own age, who were caught up in proms and drama and high school football games. But I couldn't relate to these older students either, whose lives and concerns seemed so different from mine. So I became quite solitary, more than I ordinarily was. I spent all my time with books, isolated, where I was comfortable. Social interaction was painful to me. I married my husband partly because he didn't make me date him.

I married at nineteen and went straight from Mom and Dad's house to his. He was and is my best friend in the world...but to the exclusion of other friends for many years. I knew lots of people, but there was no one I'd get together with, no one to talk to but him. The few female friends I felt closer to didn't seem as interested as I was in keeping in touch. Things were compounded when we moved to Canada where I didn't know a soul, far from my sisters, where the only people to interact with were co-workers and fellow church members, who - for the most part - had very different backgrounds and languages from mine. We were friendly toward each other, but there was always a reluctance on my part to get too attached, to put myself out too much. I saw people as transitory and unreliable. I did make one good friend through my work, but he turned out to be unhealthy, and he ended up betraying me horribly. In the end I had to cut off association with him to preserve any shred of self esteem.

And then three women entered my life, quite by accident, through the band we all belong to. Instantly they drew me into their circle and made me feel I had sisters again. It was unquestioning and determined on their part. I still can't fathom why they like me - but I sense they do. They don't seem to notice my social awkwardness, my tentativeness. They just haul me along with them, including me, loving no matter what, and I can feel myself begin to thaw and expand and warm under their influence. I have my own circle I can rely on now, and I would do anything for any of them. Their happiness is vital to me. I don't understand it, but I am beginning to trust it. And I'm beginning to experience for myself the importance of friendship, of breaking out of isolation, of letting joy in.