adversity · culture · dreams · education · life · memoir

Chasing Success

“With your mathematical aptitude, you should consider a career in accounting.” My guidance counselor has called me in for an interview concerning my post-secondary plans.

You should be the Treasurer for a large corporation, I hear my father echoing.

“I am not interested in math.”  Blunt.

The counselor leans back in his chair, drops his pen, and runs his fingers through his thinning hair.

“And what would it be that does interest you?”

“Children.  I want to work with children.  I was thinking maybe as an Early Childhood Educator.”

He picks up my report again.

“Your grades indicate you can do much better.  How about psychiatry?  This aptitude test you completed also suggests this is a good field for you.”

“Maybe, but I’d rather be a teacher.”

“Not many people have your academic capabilities.  You can potentially be very successful.”

I can feel myself shutting down.  How many times have I been through this?

* * *

I am eight years old, and the school has called my parents for a meeting with the teacher, Principal, and a woman from the Board office who has been conducting tests.

“We want to accelerate your daughter,”  the woman explains.  “Testing shows that she is gifted, and we believe her educational needs would be better served by sending her to a different school, where she will be with peers of her intellectual equal.”

I sit in the room, like a fly on the wall, and listen as the adults passionately discuss my future.  The educators clearly have the upper hand – they are talking about what they know.  My uneducated parents (neither attended school beyond grade eight) are clearly out of their element – my mother worried, my father not knowing what to think.  He turns to me.

“What do you want to do?”

“Go to the new school.”  It is easy for me.  I am game for adventure.  Success is miles away; not something I need worry about now.

* * *

“We called this meeting to discuss V.J.’s course selection for high school.”

My mother has come alone this time, and as usual, is daunted by the professionals that sit before her.

“What seems to be the problem?”

“As you are aware, V.J. has signed up for Art next year.”


“I won the Art award this year.”

“That is all well and good, V.J. , but you are an academic student, and while Art has its merits, it is not a course of study recommended for a student of your caliber.  We would like you to consider taking something more in line with your future success.”

I drop Art.

* * *

“What do you want to do with your life?”  my mother asks on the way home.

“I don’t know, Mom.  There is really only one thing I’ve ever wanted and that’s to be married with children.”

“I don’t know, Veej,” my mother shakes her head.  “Men don’t like smart women, and from everything the school says, you could be much more successful.”

“Yeah, and alone, right Mom?”

“Well, I just can’t see who will put up with you, to be honest.”

* * * *

“Why are you here?  Not why are you here in this group, at this moment, but why are you here in University, studying psychology, or whatever other major you have signed on for?  Who are you serving by being here – yourself, or your parents?”

The group is mandatory group therapy, part of our first year Psychology credit.  Lead by a tall pear-shaped woman, with long stringy blond hair, and a gangly young man with a blonde beard.  Psychologists.

The question makes me uncomfortable, because to be honest, I don’t know the answer.

“I used to think I knew what I wanted,” I answer, “but my life feels like it’s always a game of tug-of-war, with me at one end and everybody who knows better at the other.”

“Go on,” the woman encourages.  “Tell us why you feel that way.”

“Well, I feel like there are things I could do with my life, you know, worthwhile things, and at the same time, all I really aspire to is normalcy – if that makes any sense.  I mean, my mother certainly didn’t want me to be here; she thinks it’s a waste of a woman’s time to get an education, but my father, he’s kind of proud of me, and I like that….”   I am rambling, not even sure where I’m going with this.

“My parents want me to be educated,” another student pipes in.  “They say that you can’t be successful without it.”

“But what does that mean?” the lanky leader questions.  “How do you define, success?”

“Exactly,” I continue.  “Are we ever successful when we follow someone else’s script for us?  Or is rebellion the only answer?”

“Rebellion can be self-destructive.”

“No doubt, but if we follow our own path, isn’t that what we are doing?”

“How about you?” the woman turns the conversation over to another, and before I can speak further the class is over, but the questions linger with me.

They linger on into the next week and the week after that, and by April, I have made my decision:  I am not here for the right reasons.

I drop out and get married.

And ‘success’, or any concept of success becomes even more elusive.

Divorce follows within two years, and I realize that maybe my mother was right:  maybe I am not loveable.

I jump in again, this time more committed; this time bearing three children and feeling a semblance of completion.

And it ends, and I am alone again, and broke and struggling, and I begin to wonder if others really did know what was best for me after all.  And as a divorced mother of three, I definitely know that had I pursued higher education and a more suitable career the struggles would be lessened, and I would at least have financial security.

I never really have defined success for myself, apart from wanting happiness, and maybe this has been the problem.

What is your concept of success?

education · life · nonfiction

One Thing

Sipping my second cup of morning tea, I breathe in the solitude that nature dropped on my doorstep overnight:  great mounds of white, silently commanding the world to a halt.  The tea is extra sweet and warming when accompanied by the luxury of leisure time.

Shaking off the frayed edges of yesterday’s insanity, I contemplate a more relaxed day – some laundry that has needed tending to all week, a few hours of schoolwork, and maybe even an apple crumble.

The snow continues to fall outside my window, softly, without a sign of letting up and I rise from my last sip and stretch, lingering to revel in the majestic beauty of the landscape before me.

Yesterday, everything was chaos, or so it seemed.  The wind was howling and a cold sleet constantly beat against the windows, and indoors, the students were restless, hyper, inattentive, and I was short on patience.  There is always a multitude of things happening at any time in my room:  students writing tests, students working on past due assignments, students looking for refuge from out of control classrooms, and, of course, my own class.  My own class, who would not settle; could not settle, as it was Friday, and the weather report promised snow, and it is only a month to Christmas, and Do we really have to read?!   And as I hushed them for the third or fourth time, all hell broke loose as a face pressed up against our classroom window: the face of a missing member of my flock, not warm and contained in my room, but running wild outside with two other truants.

I sigh, and glance outside again at the marvel that is the first snowfall.  Untouched purity.  And I cozy inside.

The laundry is scattered about the house in various stages of completion.  Some sorted and ready  for washing, some wrinkled in the dryer awaiting rescue, and some folded in baskets wishing to be put away.  It is symbolic of my life, I realize, that nothing ever really gets completed.  The too many demands of my job eat away at my attention until there is nothing left to offer any one task, and so none of it is done properly, and I am left exhausted, and discontented, wondering if anything I do is of value.

Today, I will finish the laundry, and not leave any remnants, and I will clean up the kitchen, and bake that crumble, and get work done, because I can.  And I will feel the satisfaction that comes with being able to do one thing at a time:  the satisfaction of completing a task.

Thank goodness for Mother Nature’s intervention, and the subtle reminder to value the simple times.

If only I could bring this serenity into my everyday life.


Day 182 “Mystic Virtue”

I lost my temper today.  I am not proud of it, and the image of the redden-face of my cornered victim haunts me.  But there it is.

Today’s reflection cautions against being: “possessive, flaunting, and dominating.”  Ever since I came to this school, three years ago, I have tried to emulate the virtue of which Derek Lin writes; to be “productive, action-oriented, and nurturing.”

When first transferred to this school, I ignored the letter my colleagues wrote asking that I be placed in another department, for the benefit of the students, recognizing that they knew nothing of my capabilities.  Instead, I focused on productivity.

I tried to brush off the comment, by my then department head, that people over fifty are “useless”, choosing to do what I do best:  offer nurturing support to the special needs children we work with daily.

And when a colleague from outside my department criticized the way we conducted ourselves in the Resource room, I reflected and took action to better our operation.

It was when that same teacher spoke harshly to a student in my care that I lost it.  Storming, I confronted her.  What business was it of hers, questioning our students? I demanded to know.  My sense of righteousness led the tirade, and she was effectively reduced to a cower.

Way to go!  my new boss exclaimed.

Didn’t see that coming, other friends confessed, undeniably impressed.

I was a momentary hero…..for some.

Whenever there is power over love cannot exist, the words of a former teacher echo in my heart.  I demonstrated power over – there is no doubt.  The more the woman cringed, the larger I grew, and in retrospect, it was unfair.  I accused her of being unprofessional, but then, what was I?

Where was the compassion that nurtured a growing relationship?  Where was the productivity in that moment of sheer rage?

My mystic virtue continues to be a work in progress.


Day 181 “Leaving Nothing Undone”

“I spotted a shelf in a little shop downtown that will be perfect for the laundry room,”  my cousin tells me.  “And I’m going to replace the thermostat.  We want one that can be preset, instead of having to change the temperature manually.  Beverley…”  His catches himself then doubles over in grief.

Beverley died two days ago.

“It’s okay,” I offer, unsure.  It is all so raw.

“There are still a few things we haven’t got right,” he continues.  He and Beverley moved into the condo at the end of May.  They had it built for her, so that she would have one floor living.  After ten years the cancer was settling in and taking over.  Getting around became harder and harder.

“We don’t really like the countertop the way it is here,” he points to the breakfast bar.  Then he stops, checking himself again, and shaking his head.

“I don’t know,”  he whispers.  “Does it really all matter now?  Do I even want to continue to live here?”

“It’s too early to make any decisions yet.”

“I know.  I know.”  His eyes look right through me at a reality that no longer exists.

The phone rings and as David answers, I walk away, and position myself before the sliding glass doors.  The rain outside is almost horizontal and the wind is howling – even Nature is mourning.  I wipe away my own tears and try to be strong.

“We are planning a trip in January,”  I hear David say.  “Were planning…..well, I think I’ll still go….oh dear….. I keep saying we.”

It’s okay to say we, isn’t it?” he asks me after hanging up.  “I mean, I am still going to keep doing the things we planned.”

I hug him.  “Keep doing what you’re doing.”

But I wonder.  What happens when everything’s done.


Day 180 “Being Distinguished”

“Yer okaaay,”  my cousin slurred as he leaned into me.

“You’re okay, too,”  I said trying to shift out from under his weight.  I was tired.  It was late.  I just wanted to go to bed.

“No, you don’t understand!”  he persisted.  “Everybody always hated you, but actually yer normal.”

He was drunk.  I was sober, and the words that he spoke stung because I knew they were true.  Everybody hated me.  They hated me because my father, who was reluctant to praise me to my face, gushed to everyone who would listen about his prodigy daughter.  People hated me, because they couldn’t stand to hear about me.

“Yer not even bad looking,”  my cousin went on.  “If you weren’t related to me, I’d even sleep with you.”

Now I was disgusted.  I only stayed awake with him so that he didn’t fall into the pool and drown.  Many years my senior, he was a known drinker and always loose with sexual comments.  I had never been comfortable in his company.  Yet, everyone loved Brucie!  He was the life of the party.

But the party had long since ended, and here I was, the woman despised for her intelligence, and the man loved for his lack of it.

The family had gathered for a reunion, honouring my eldest sister, whose health had been failing in the past year.  I hosted it, as I had the largest home and a pool for entertaining.  No one seemed reluctant to partake of my hospitality.  Brucie’s comments left me with a bitter taste in my mouth.

I learned at an early age the importance of being humble.  I was embarrassed by the comments my parents would make when they thought I wasn’t listening, and at the same, I yearned for them to tell me directly.  Achievement has always made me uncomfortable.

It’s why I never promote myself when it comes to a job interview, or taking credit for work well done.  The little girl in me still tells herself:  “No one wants to know.” The adult in me worries that my efforts go unnoticed.

“(A)chieve quiet excellence in your work,” Derek Lin writes. “…..let your work speak volumes on your behalf.”

Good advice, and reassuring.


aging · culture · life · Love · media · nonfiction · women's issues

Divine Self

I am letting my hair go grey.

“It will age you ten years!” My daughters and hairdresser protest.

“No, it won’t,” I smile.  “I will still be the same age.”

I am doing it to make a statement.

When my seventeen year relationship with my children’s father ended abruptly, I lost forty pounds in two months. Previously a dowdy mother of three, men would stop mid stride to open doors for me.   Heads turned and smiles of appreciation showered me.  I was no longer invisible.  I felt curiously vibrant in the midst of personal darkness.  I also felt like a fraud.

Growing up, I was the third youngest sister in a house with only two mirrors.  My mother would insist that I brush my hair, but it was impossible to find an opportunity to view my efforts, so I usually did a haphazard job.

“Who is ever going to love you?”  my mother would shake her head.

I was confused.  Was love only accessible to those with well preened looks?  No wonder my sisters spent so much time looking at themselves.

Vanity, I decided, was not going to be my precursor to love.  I wanted someone who would love me for what was on the inside.  So I read more, and wrote, and designed, and played, focusing on developing a personality that included empathy, compassion, a sense of humour, and intelligence.

“No man wants to marry a woman who is smarter than him,”   my mother warned.

Not sure I believed her, I started to pay attention.  Wives of important men, I noted, were attractive, and for the most part silent.  Intelligence was associated with the bra-burning feminists, and everybody knew they were radicals and bitches…..and single.

So I dumbed myself down, but continued to be nice, and outgoing, and fun.  I did, after all, desire to be loved too.

But I couldn’t hide my natural passion, and aggressive ambition, and impatience with ignorance, forever, and I came to see myself as a dark horse, with unbridled energy and a spirit that needed to be tamed, and I chose a man who would do that for me: put me in a stable and take me out in little jaunts and break me. And it worked.

Until he set me free, and the dark horse in me reawakened, and I vowed never to let her be extinguished again – love or no love.

But I found myself suddenly being that physically alluring woman, and I realized a new sense of power: sexual power, and for a time, I coveted it.  Men noticed me, flirted with me, went out of their way to do things for me, which was soon became tiresome.  None of them knew me.  There was nothing authentic about their actions; it was self-serving:  a primal reaction.  By now, I knew enough from my sisters’ failed affairs that physical attraction does not equate with long-term commitment and love.  It is only a shallow beginning.

Yet, advertisers spend billions of dollars of money to convince us otherwise.  The message is that we can never be too thin, too fit, too young.  Mastering our physical perfection is the key to true happiness, they imply.

Something inside me screams Stop the madness!  Stop it people!  This has all gotten so out of control!

What should matter, in the greater scheme of things, is the person that we are on the inside.  Our achievements, accomplishments, willingness to help others, and the gifts that we bring to this community that is humanity are what really count.  Think about it.

In my times of despair, it was not the fact that someone looked ten years younger that soothed me, it was their willingness to listen patiently, and hold my hand.

When I was wounded and needed surgery, it was not some size zero nurse with the latest do that helped me through, it was the efficiency and expertise of my caregiver.

I have grey hair.  It is part of being fifty-five.  I have wrinkles and a soft belly that protrudes.  They do not make me less of a person, nor do they diminish my capacity to problem-solve, or participate as a successful citizen of life.

So I am making a statement.  To all young women out there who think that they are somehow less than they should be, deficient.  You are perfect the way you are.  Embrace it.

That is divine.

I think it was St. Augustine who said that to reject self is to reject God.


Day 178 “The Tao of Money”

We are in the bank and I am waiting as Thor does his banking and stops to visit with the employees.  He hugs one teller and another near me looks at me with a sorrowful expression.  I don’t clue in until this happens three times, and then I realize the embrace is more intimate than I had thought.  I run into the nearest washroom.  Two women from the bank are present.  “Did you know about this?”  I ask.  They indicate that they did and look at me with pity.  “Is there more”, I ask?  “Yes”, comes the reply.  “He is doing drugs too.”  “How do you know?”  Panic grips at my heart.  “He asked us if we knew anyone who deals in codeine.” I have no choice, I will have to leave him.  Where will I go?

I awake from the dream in sobbing anguish, and then relief as I come to my senses.  The dream had seemed so real, at least the emotional part.  I know that feeling all too well.

Thor has an easier relationship with money than I do.   He sees it simply as a tool, a means to an end.  He seldom worries about it.  “Feed the cat another canary” he will casually say before spending.

My experience is completely different.  Money, I have learned is an instrument of power, and that power is abusive.

My mother’s first husband packed all their possessions into a moving van and left her with an empty house and even emptier pocketbook.  She had four children to care for and no means of doing so.  She married the first man who showed a willingness to take on her plight, and remained forever indebted to him, unable to free herself from the abuse that would follow.  The power that he exerted over us was justified by the fact that he provided for us; he was the breadwinner.  Money made him king.

I was sickened by how my father used money to control my mother.  Until I was fifteen, he would not allow her to work outside the home.  Just when she reached a breaking point, threatening to leave, he would buy her expensive clothes and take her on exotic trips.  Her weakness angered me as much as his ploys.  I hated that money reduced them to such ugliness.  I vowed to live my life differently.

But of course, I didn’t.

When I married and had children, I chose to stay home, putting myself in a position of dependence.  My husband reminded me of that frequently, never allowing me to spend money on myself or the children.  If I wanted something, he would tell me, I had to earn it.  I was trapped between my need to parent my children, and my desire to provide the better things in life for them.  In the end, he moved me out, and abandoned us financially.  Money was the weapon he always used against me.

My daughter now fights a similar battle.  The father of her child, unwilling to take on responsibility, flaunts his new possessions in her face while she struggles to support the two of them.  Money, again, is the root of this evil.

“(C)onsider formulating a new concept of money as a neutral quantity,”  Derek Lin writes in The Tao of Joy Every Day.  I would love to perceive money in a different way, free of the emotional charge it carries for me, but there have been too many painful associations for me to view it lightly.

I confess, when it comes to money, I still feel afraid.