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Archive for the ‘THE HOLE IN OUR PARACHUTE’ Category

For several years now, I’ve had the pleasure of managing a wonderful online writing group called The Writing Bridge. Every month, we post a poetry challenge. Compared to many on the site, my poetry skills are mediocre at best, but we were low on entries, so I decided to write something on the one topic that occupies my mind right now: my hopes for our future. As it turns out, composing the poem couldn’t have been more timely. That future begins today.

“A Verandah View.”

A verandah wraps around
the tiny place we’ll someday call home.
From it, we’ll watch the seasons pass.
Beside its rail, tulips and golden forsythia
will herald spring.
Fat peonies will hang low,
colonies of ants opening the petals wide.
And daisies. There will be daisies.

On warm mornings, we’ll drink coffee
on a verandah swing.
We’ll count chickadees,
and shoo away greedy blue jays
monopolizing the feeder.
We’ll pass the local newspaper between us
and plan our day.
Weight of worry lifted, we’ll be light as air,
free to write, to paint, to imagine.

On afternoons, we’ll walk by store windows
displaying local wares: crafts and art and homemade soap;
vegetables and fruit from the farmers’ fields.
The smell of fresh bread will lure us
to the village bakery; caving to temptation,
we’ll choose cinnamon buns or rhubarb pie
cooling in the window.

We’ll linger there with others,
laugh and philosophize
over the decadence of our favourite pastries;
the best places to travel; the latest production of
the local theatre group.

The importance of
“LIVING IN THE MOMENT.”

And in the evening, when dinner and dishes are done,
and we grow tired,
we’ll return to our verandah and
the gentle rhythm of the swing.
Chickadees gone, we’ll count shooting stars instead,
relax to the songbirds’ lullaby and
think the same thought each night:
“Aging is inevitable. To grow wiser,
we needed a verandah view.”

Spring has made a huge impact on the real estate market where we live. Suddenly this weekend, potential buyers descended upon us in record numbers. Yesterday, an offer came in. After three hours of negotiations, the deal was complete. While conditional on the sale of their home, it still carried an emotional impact. Suddenly, all of this is very real.

After months of trying to sell our home, actually signing the acceptance was surreal. The respective agents shook my hand in congratulations, but I felt no sense of happiness. We met the young couple who would soon call our home of twenty-four years theirs, and were surprised to learn we already knew them (sworn to secrecy on this for a while but more will be revealed later). I couldn’t help but be happy for them and their obvious excitement.

They left, and then it hit me. I bawled my eyes out.

Change is always a challenge, but it’s particularly difficult when it’s under duress – not so much a real choice, but something crucial to your future. In our case, there isn’t a whole lot of time left to improve our financial footing for our retirement years.

What’s amazing, though, is that once you step out of your comfort zone, the choices available to you seem endless. Where do you go? Do you rent or buy? Buy something temporary, with an eye to a retirement move, or buy something you will want to live in forever? What about house-sitting? A small piece of land up north with a plan to build later on? A fixer-upper?

Having our roots ripped from the ground is a huge adjustment, but maybe, just maybe, it will allow us to feel more adventurous, less encumbered. Free of preconcieved notions about our future, we may end up re-inventing ourselves in the process. And if we’re lucky, maybe someday there will be the perfect little home with a verandah view.

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I’ve never really been a morning person. Sure, I can fake it when I have to, jumping out of bed at the first sound of the alarm, and moving through my “to-do” checklist like a “Stepford Wife” model of efficiency. But I’m moving just to stay awake. Sit me down for two minutes and I’m apt to nod off again. If it’s up to me, it’s late to bed, later to rise – usually a very civilized nine-thirty.

For the past ten days, I’ve had no choice in the matter. My husband has started a new job, and since he’s still on crutches, he needs my help in the morning. Otherwise, he’ll end up “ass over teakettle,” as his dear mum used to say. And because this will be his schedule indefinitely, I’m forcing myself to stick to it too. It gives me more time to think.

Now that spring is here, our home is on the market again, and I spend my days either compulsively cleaning the house to impress prospective buyers, or searching online for our next place to live. I feel like an anxious little mother robin, trying to figure out where to build her next nest.

We’ll be downsizing, and the verdict is out on whether we’ll move further into the country, where homes are less expensive, or closer to urban centres, where there are more job opportunities. Weighing the pros and cons of each is exhausting, and it’s tinged with a sense of loss. This move is based on practicality, not simple wanderlust, and so far nothing I’ve seen online makes the decision any easier.

It was beautiful outside this morning, and a moment of lucidity hit me when I carried my husband’s coffee to his car and reminded him to drive safely. The reality is that each day that passes is one less in this much-loved country home, and I’m not taking the time to appreciate it. So I walked inside, poured myself a coffee, grabbed the novel “Precious,” and joined my dog, Cadeau, and cat, Cleo, on our backyard deck. I’m glad I did.

By now, everyone knows the story of Precious, based on the attention generated by the screenplay. It is a story about survival against all odds, and the power of self-esteem. The heroine picks herself up from the worst of circumstances and begins to build a new life for herself. The last few pages of the book are pieces written by the girl and by her classmates, other young women struggling to get on track. I read those last pages this morning, and it set the perfect tone for my day.

I closed the book and looked around me, trying to remember the last time I gave myself permission to do this, just sit outside on an early spring day rather than plant myself in front of the computer or rush to finish chores. Why have I wasted these so many mornings when I could have been here, feeling the sun and listening to the birds on my backyard deck?

On our first day in this home, I remember waking to their singing. It was a striking change from the city, and I wondered if I’d ever be able to sleep through their early morning cacophony. Over the years, I’ve come to take their concert for granted, but today, I heard them again as if for the first time. I tried to identify the source of the diverse dialects. A blackbird atop the birch? The small yellow songbirds high in the willows? The killdeer on the slope at the back? The robins near the front of the house, gathering materials for their nest? There were so many more whose names I never bothered to learn.

I felt a wave of regret, but shook it off. Like the heroine Precious, we all move through different chapters in our lives. Sometimes, we’re pulled there, kicking all the way. Leaving the familiar for the unfamiliar is never easy, but it comes down to this: we can choose to remain mired in the past and mourn its loss, or we can rejoice in all the blessings we still have and look to the future. No matter how uncertain life can be, there will always be sunny April mornings, and the birds will still be singing their morning song.

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831299_human_spiritThose years in our first home went smoothly. Our expenses were reasonable, our income steady. Best of all, we lived in a town that posed very few temptations when it came to spending. There was a single movie theatre, two small malls, and a few modest restaurants and a string of fast food places – that’s all. If we were in the mood for something more, we had to drive to Toronto, an hour south of us. That happened only rarely. We were content to have a quiet, simple life, and it did wonders for our marriage.

Neither of us had been particularly ambitious when we first met, but gradually, that seemed to change. The same spirit that brought my husband trouble in school began to work in his favour now, and promotions came his way. Inevitably, he began to dream of bigger and better things. I couldn’t help but be excited for him, though in the back of my mind, I always feared the insecurity of his business ideas.

Those dreams came to fruition on one particular fall weekend, when he and another mechanic went to check out a garage in Toronto. Their intention was to rent it on Saturdays, where they would do repairs to supplement their regular income. He was gone for hours and arrived home on a cloud of euphoria.

“I’m starting a business,” he said.

“When?” I asked.

“On Monday,” he answered.

My jaw hit the floor. I wasn’t happy about it, but he’d made the decision already and there was no going back. I didn’t know it then, but it was the first in a series of impulsive career changes my husband would have throughout our marriage. Each time, I’d be blind-sided, but the truth was, his ambition and faith in himself, in contrast to my own rather limited self-confidence, amazed me. It felt wrong to squash his enthusiasm because of my own ingrained fear of risk. I felt powerless to do anything but close my eyes and hope for the best.

The move to his own business came with no plan and no extra money for the equipment he felt he had to have. Somehow, we managed, though not without going into debt. I became pregnant, and he sold his precious Mustang, saying it wasn’t appropriate for a newborn baby to ride in. The money helped keep us afloat for a while longer, until finally he gave the business up and returned to the job he’d left the year before.

In between, our marriage faced some personal challenges. We wanted to have children, and that proved to be a problem. It was a time when everyone seemed fertile but me. The joke I often heard was “I wish I had your problem,” or “I get pregnant every time my husband passes me in the hallway.” The idea of having a child of my own consumed me. After two years of trying, we saw fertility experts and I was put on clomid. Three months later, I was pregnant, and on cloud nine. Nine months aftere that, just one week past the baby’s due date, her heart stopped en utero, and my labour was induced. I never even got the chance to hold her, and I never really got over the loss. I’m not sure you can.

Having a baby became my obsession. I may, I was preganant again, but miscarried in August. I got pregnant in October, but miscarried in December. Two wweeks later I was preganat, but this time a I was under the care of a guynecologist who gave me propgesterone injections oince a week to heelp maintain the pregnancy. My son was born in September of 1977, and until he was walking and talking, I’m not sure I believed he was real. I was still in mourning for my daughter, though I didn’t know that then.

We quickly moved to a bigger, better house in Pickering, so Steve could be closer to his next job. Eight months into the job, we knew nit was not going to pan ou. We also found out I was pregant again, and accepted the fact that to make it financially, we had to take a few steps back and move to a smaller home in Brampton.

Soon Steve was promoted again, and at the age of twenty-eight, he became the youngest service manager at any Ford dealership in Ontario. Leadership came naturally to him. Within a year, he was president of the Ford Professional Service Managers’ Association. For the next fourteen years, there was the occasional roadblock, and sometimes a step backwards for a short while, but overall, his career flourished and he continued to be recognized as a bit of a maverick. He was chosen by General Motors to help develop the first automotive dealership college programme in Ontario. He represented his company at Rotary and sat on the executive. He initiated the General Motors Service Managers Association for Ontario. He won trips every year based on his department’s productivity and customer satisfaction ratings, and we travelled to places we’d never dreamed we’d see: Rio de Janeiro, Acapulco, the Canary Islands, London, the Pacific Coast of Mexico. In each case, we were treated like royalty; we ate in the best restaurants, saw 5-star theatre performances, stood in the courtyard of Blenheim Palace drinking mulled wine and watching the Queen’s Royal Guard march to “O Canada” in our honour. A private plane took us to Lanzarotte, where my husband snagged contraband volcanic rock to bring home (ironically, he has frequently blamed that rock for our bad luck since). On one particular trip, we were invited, out of the hundred and fifty other couples there, to sit with the top executives from General Motors Canada. People called him “a diamond in the rough,” and we both fully believed that nothing could stop him.

I can only write from my perspective in all this, because even though I often seemed in the background, I had some influence. Though I had less ambition than he did, I thrilled at his accomplishments. I had no trouble adjusting to the role of a woman married to a successful man, particularly when his colleagues seemed so warm towards me. I didn’t feel that I was spoiled, but looking back now, I was definitely living well. My husband told me constantly that I deserved it, and if I was dressed well, or spoiled in another way, he saw it as a reflection of his own success. It made him happy.

Perhaps you can hear it in my voice as you read this, but a subtle change came over me during those years. I’d married a mechanic, but he’d evolved into a true force of nature in the automobile business. I remember listening toithe song “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer,” then saying I can’t imagine loving someone who was incapable of dreaming. My husband had been the underdog in school, and as a teacher, I loved nothing better than to see an underdog surpass everyone’s expectations – particularly those who’d put them down.

In some ways, you could say that my husband became my “project,” my prized pupil. I was in awe of his success. My role came to be one of support for him because it seemed that if I helped him, made his home life perfect rather than forging ahead on my own career, his success would come more easily, and would surely outshine anything I could accomplish as a teacher. I effectively “tied my horse to his wagon.” I stayed home, raising our two sons, and taking care of the mundane things that didn’t interest him: homemaking, cooking, cleaning, handling the bills. A couple of times I ventured out into the working world: two years in human resources and a year in social services. Then we moved to the home we’d always dreamed about, a country place still close to the city, and I fell into occasional supply-teaching assignments at my sons’ school.

It all felt perfect, until a particular day a year later when my husband called to tell me that he’d be home early, that he’d been released from his job of six years. The reasons for his dismissal were really never clear. He was told he’d done nothing wrong and was given a fair severance and letters of reference. The disappointment was that he’d believed that it would be his lifelong job. He was devastated.

A week later, in mid-October, the principal from my sons’ school called to ask me to take over a class whose teacher had gone AWOL. I had no time to think of the all the reasons why I really didn’t want to do it. I felt I had no choice. I said yes.

The balance of responsibility in our marriage shifted. For three months, my husband took over the homemaking duties, and I returned to the role of full-time classroom teacher after an absence of eleven years. We expected it to be temporary, over at the end of that school year. Fate had a different plan.

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People talk about the difficulties of youth – their struggle to not only find themselves, but settle on goals and work towards them. Once done, they think there is nothing but smooth sailing ahead, particularly if a few darling little children have already rounded out and enriched their lives.

Don’t be embarrassed by your naivete. I felt exactly the same way at your age. Life was full of promise. Because we’d had some heartbreak in our first few years of marriage, I firmly believed our share was spent, that life could only get better from that point on. It was self-delusion in its grandest form and it predicted a perfect future.

I’m here to be a wet blanket, someone to tell you what you don’t want to hear – at least I didn’t want to at your age. The truth is this. You can set goals and plan and do all the right things, but if you grow too comfortable and rest on your laurels, your nice little life can all be pulled out from under you in the blink of an eye. In the worst of cases, your health or that of a loved one can fail. Sometimes, it’s one or two bad decisions on your part; sometimes it’s the people who decide you’re not “right,” and work to make a case against you. Often it’s the young up-and-coming executive who decide to protect his ass over yours. Yes, some people lie or choose to forget the truth, even people you thought were your friends, because when push comes to shove, the future of their career is usually more important than yours anyday, dear friend.

Hence, this poem written a few years back about a similar person who single-handledly started the 8-ball ruling that triggered the end of my husband’s corporate career.

MR. POLITICALLY CORRECT

He is really nothing special,
down deep feels it too, you know,
so he’s learned to play the charmer,
see how far the game can go.

His shoes are always shiny,
his suit pants nicely pressed,
his golf score breaks a ninety,
his very life seems blessed.

He flatters all the ladies,
he “yes, sirs” all he can,
finds a way to flee the radar
when the feces hit the fan.

He knows to smile when needed,
seems modest with his blush,
feigns innocence to save his hide,
maintains his Midas touch.

He’s young and climbing upward,
he’s old and scared to fall,
friend or not, you can’t trust him,
when his back’s against the wall

A year in employment limbo, a downsized positon where he was set up to fail, and finally, the pink slip. Six years later and we’re still feeling the effects, both monetarily anad psychologically, of that one momentous loss.

When you’re young, you can start out on a path where it seems you are invincible. Employers convince you that you have a brilliant future ahead of you as long as you “stick with the programme, and toe the line.” It’s a horrible thing to suddenly realize that you’ve planned poorly; that you’ve underestimated everyone else’s ambition and overestimated their loyalty to you. You’ve suddenly missed the boat; that in the game of musical chairs, you’re one of the people left standing. What’s even worse is knowing you’re 58 or 59, and your chances of regaining what you’ve lost are unlikely.

The one good thing we have gained, though, is that we’re much more realistic now. We’ve been through hell in the past six years and proven we are tough enough to endure just about anything. It’s a difficult transition, not knowing what comes next. We just have to rely on ourselves to make something happen, because it’s more and more obvious every day that no former colleague is going to turn this situation around and make it right for us. In fact, former colleagues seem to avoid us, perhaps victims of survivor guilt. For one or two people, it’s possibly even justified.

Everyone thinks it’s hard for young people who are just starting out in the work force, but at least they have years ahead, to win through trial and error. We have no time to waste, no time to completely fix what’s wrong.

I just keep telling myself “if it is to be, it’s up to me.” If we all say that, something good has to happen, don’t you think?

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weddingRight from the start, my husband and I realized we shared a similar philosophy towards money: it couldn’t buy happiness, but it was definitely meant to be enjoyed. Now, that doesn’t sound too unusual, until you consider the fact that together, we put a higher value on enjoying our money than we did on saving it. Until recently, I didn’t really consider the reasons for that shared view. To be honest, I was too busy just trying to make everything “work.” But in going through a situation like the one we’re in, you inevitably come to a point where you can no longer blame only circumstances. You begin to blame yourself. Self-recrimination is all part of the “mourning” process, but it can only go on so long, and once it was over, I had a lingering need to understand “why” we’d made some of our choices over the years. After all, we weren’t stupid. We weren’t extravagant. And to be honest, we weren’t terribly materialistic. So how did we get to this point in our lives, when we’re nearing sixty?

My perspective was clearer when I considered my husband’s beginnings.
His family had emigrated to Canada in 1957, in search of a better life than the one they’d left behind in East End London. Nothing came as easily as they’d anticipated, and my husband, just seven on his arrival here, learned quickly that it wasn’t fun to be one of the “have nots.” As soon as they were old enough, he and his siblings had to take on part-time jobs to help support the family, and much to the frustration of his parents, he usually spent his paper route money (on candy or cookies) the minute it was earned, sometimes even before he got home!

Those free-spending ways stayed with him through adulthood, the only difference being that with a wife and sons, there were three more people in his life to spoil.

Understanding my own situation took some serious soul-searching. I was the oldest of seven children, and my parents had to be frugal to feed and clothe so many. We were taught that wanting more was being greedy, and sometimes I found myself resenting the restrictions they lived by. Later, their financial situation improved, but to me, they didn’t reap the benefits of that as much as they could have. They didn’t ever seem to have “fun,” and it frustrated me because I could think of hundreds of things they could afford to do that would bring them pleasure: travel, dinners out, and entertainment, to name a few. I knew I wanted my life to be different. If I was going to work hard, I was also going to play hard. In many ways, the freedom to spend my own money as I wanted, to savour my share of the pleasurable experiences in this world, was a subconscious form of rebellion. And eventually, it led me to take too many financial risks.

The bad habits did not happen right away, possibly because credit cards were not yet a reality. The budget for my engagement ring was modest and would be not one penny more than the $225 my husband received when he sold his guitar amplifier. Our wedding, in July of 1971, was nice, but not extravagant. To save money, we spent the night in our apartment rather than a hotel. Our honeymoon flight was a present from his parents; our spending money, gifts from wedding guests. My going-away outfit, a wool-blend suit bought off-season and discounted by 50%, was a disaster. I sweated buckets and squirmed uncomfortably for the entire six-hour flight to England. I certainly didn’t feel like a big spender when we arrived at Gatwick and boarded the bus for another three-hour trip to our destination!

Actually, it wasn’t until we’d been married for nearly two years and decided to buy a home that we started to take financial risks. It came from a sense of our own “power” – just how much we could actually afford if we put our minds to it, just how “tight” we could live in order to get the things we wanted. Within three months of borrowing $2000 to buy a 1970 Mach I Mustang (gorgeous, by the way), we’d found the house of our dreams, borrowed $500 as a down payment on the house, paid off our car loan, and arranged a “hidden second” mortgage with the builder.

Two years into our marriage, at the ages of just twenty-two and twenty-three, we didn’t have a cent in the bank, but we had a house, and we felt invincible.

Next installment: Sometimes, we succeed despite ourselves.

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215603682_5b2272c0feI haven’t posted a blog entry for over two months now, and you’re probably wondering if I’m just one of those “fly-by-nights” who start blogs with lofty intentions, then abandon them. I promise you, that’s  not what’s happened. It’s “life” that’s gotten in the way, and while the mess and stress of it has given me lots of inspiration, guilt has stood squarely in the way of me sitting down to write.

I envy writers who are able to practice their craft no matter what is going on in their world. I find that “fiction” becomes an impossibility, and the non-fiction I want to write is just too close to home. There are others who would be affected if I wrote about all that’s going on around me, and the last thing I want to do is have them embarassed by my willingness to “bare all”  in my writing.

Recently, I watched a couple on Oprah talk about their downturn since the recession. He was a newscaster, earning well over $200,000 a year. He lost his job due to downsizing and they were quickly in trouble. Now he works as a veterinary assistant, making just $30,000 a year, and he’s happy.

I guess the fact that he’s well-known was the “hook” to draw viewers. It certainly wasn’t because he and his wife had suffered more than others; but they had suffered nonetheless, been humiliated and forced to gratefully accept bailouts from friends. And I thought to myself, if they can go on Oprah and talk freely about what has happened to them, why should I be so hesitant to go public with our ordeal?

To tell the story properly, though, I have to go way back to the beginning, when life was less complicated, and all things seemed possible, as long as you worked hard enough.

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