I’ve been reading this quite wonderful book. It’s called “Not Becoming my Mother … and other things she taught me along the way.” The author, Ruth Reichl, proudly begins by telling us that she’s written and spoken a lot about her mother; telling “Mim” (her mother’s name was Miriam) Tales á la stand up comedy routine. Then she comes upon a box filled with notes her mother’s written and letters she’d kept and suddenly she realized that she’d never really known who her mother was and that everything she did – and it does sound like she was a bit wacko – was to tell her daughter not to settle for less than she could be.
Why am I telling you this? I’ve been reading the book slowly: I read a few pages and then I take as much time as I need to process the way “Mim” is revealed bit by bit and then think about relationships in my own family. One of the effects of all of this is that I’ve been reminded how very fortunate I am to have a mother and sisters who have travelled life with me and have become such good friends. That’s a lucky thing for sure.
I’m going to digress into the past for a few paragraphs. Feel free to just skip ahead a bit (I’ve made it easy by identifying THE CONTEXT, INTO THE PAST and BACK TO THE PRESENT sub-titles) when you hit “read more”.
THE CONTEXT: I am one of four sisters in my family. I’m the 2nd in birth order; Fran’s my older sister (okay … she’s not going to like that I used her name and the word “older” in the same sentence so I apologize) and I have two younger sisters as well – Molly (who’s my partner in this blog) and Debbie. Here are three of us with my mother at her 80th birthday party. That’s me on the left, then Mom, Molly and Fran.
My big sister Fran has always been someone who I’ve looked up to (although she’s actually a few inches shorter than I am) and who has been a role model for ever-so-many things. I love her very much and, perhaps more important than that, I really do like her and admire many of the things she’s accomplished in her life. Like me, Fran’s had a rather far-ranging professional life. She was once upon a time a social worker, then an interior designer, and now a glass artist. This most recent incarnation as an artist really took root after she retired from her business life which she did, I think, mostly so that she could spend more time with her grandchildren. Reinventing yourself is one of the ways Fran’s been a great role model for me.
INTO THE PAST: Let me go back a few years to our childhood. Fran was always good. That’s her with our mother and sister Molly. She was a good student and a good daughter, a good friend and a good sister. It became clear to me well before I entered adolescence that there was no point at all in my trying to “out-good” my big sister; she had the corner on the goodness market for sure. So, being of what I’m going to call “strong character”, I knew that I’d have to find another way to carve out a niche for myself. If Fran was going to be “the good one”, that left me with a number of choices which unfortunately weren’t too appealing; after all, who wants to be “the bad one”? I decided (consciously or otherwise) that I’d be the rebel. This seemed like a pretty good choice. After all, my father – difficult man that he was – you see him here as a young boy himself and then years later with my beautiful mother – was also someone whose approval I desperately wanted, and since he really wanted sons not daughters I’d always prided myself on being as close to a son as he was going to get. He was a rebel himself. Sylvia the rebel it would be!
It wasn’t hard for me to don this mantle. Critical analysis just comes naturally to me, so becoming a bit of a social critic (yup, pretty much similar to rebel in action at least) just happened. Even as a young child I was inclined to question the status quo and work to change things for the better. My high school years were pretty much a mystery to my family; they didn’t know what I was up to (I wonder if they appreciate how much easier that made their lives) and didn’t really try to find out too much. As a teenager I remember thinking how foolish it was of my mother not to question me more about what I did when I was out of the house. It was only when my own children became teenagers and insisted on telling me much of what they were up to that I realized just how very, very wise my mother was in her approach. I’m guessing she slept better through my adolescence than I did through my childrens’ .
My rebelliousness didn’t end with adolescence and for much of my career I continued to challenge the status quo. As a CEO I once worked for wrote in her thank-you-and-here’s-a-letter-of-recommendation letter:: “Sylvia is the conscience of the department”. She saw that – as I did – as a good thing. Many of the people that I worked for, however, didn’t. I remember the time that the gifted program that I taught in the inner city was being reduced in size while the same program in a more affluent part of town was being expanded. I knew this was wrong, and so I met with some of the parents of my students and talked to them about the need for them to speak up and challenge the board of education’s decision. Not long afterwards I was called into my Principals office where he relayed to me a conversation he’d had earlier that day with my Superintendent. “Somebody’s been talking”, the superintendent had said, “is it Sylvia?” He didn’t stop there though. “If it is, tell her that she’s going to bleed for it!” were his final words. I learned a couple of things from this experience. First, be a little more careful in how you foment resistance. Second, there will be times in life that you just have to eat crow (an idiom that means sometimes you have to be utterly humiliated … see I have been in an ESL classroom most days the past two weeks) and – as that wise Principal told me – when you do it’s best to try to eat all the bones and feathers. Part of my eagerness to retire (I actually did retire on the very first day that I could) was to step outside of restrictiveness in thought and enter a world in which I could set my own agendas.
NOW … BACK TO THE PRESENT: Remember with me for a moment, if you will, a conversation that I had with Fran a few months ago. She was telling me about how incredibly busy she was and how much stress she was living with; her work in glass was turning into much more than mere hobby and with art shows to prepare for there was pressure and there were deadlines. Incidentally, that was at the height of my “retirement = rest days” (I’m kind of missing them to tell the truth). I questioned Fran about why she was choosing to be this busy. “Wouldn’t it be better,” I said “to do less, to rest more and just take care of yourself and your family more?” I was stunned by her answer. “No”, she said, “I like being this busy”. I will admit that when we got off the phone I was a little mystified.. How could she really choose that? What was I missing?
And now I’m finding myself choosing to do much more as well. Today, for example, began at 6 a.m. with toast and a latte and a little time to read the paper. By 7:30 I was out the door and I spent the entire day observing in three different ESL classes (the final hurdle in acquiring certification to teach English as a Second Language to adults). From there I drove back downtown (an hour’s drive) and attended a workshop at Ryerson University on Integrating Theory in Research (this is because I’ve undertaken the development and teaching of a new course for the grad students here on theoretical foundations for thinking about working with young children). After that I did take an hour for a pedicure (I had the funniest delightful conversation with the woman in the chair next to me. Might write about that … look for the word Mignon in an upcoming post title), but then I had to prepare for some practice teaching tomorrow, spend some time writing, and do some work on my soon-to-be-launched website. I also had to review my calendar and sign on for on-call shifts with the Red Cross and respond to emails and phone calls. David worked until 9 o’clock tonight so after some time with him it was 11 by the time I could get to sleep. Tomorrow will start at 6 again; I have a total of 70 hours to “put in” to get that certificate!
I’m feeling the pressure. Not just the stress of running around a lot, but also the stress of not having enough time to do some of the other things I really want to be doing … things like working in my garden, meditating, daydreaming. It’s a trade-off, right? What I realize, though, is that I’m choosing this. Just as Fran has chosen to be busy because it’s who she wants to be and exemplifies what she wants to do be doing, I’m making a similar choice. Am I wrong? Time will tell I guess.
In the meantime, what I’m being vigilant about is making sure that the choices I’m making are consistent with the big picture in my heart. I should be all done with the ESL work by mid-June and then I’ll take a couple of weeks off. I’ll work on preparing that theories course in July (sitting in my backyard; with the sound of my water-rock behind me and birds in the trees and that funny green thing in the garden gently spinning in the wind). If I can find a kayak-trailer to hitch to my car by the end of June then I’ll be spending part of each sunny day out on the river too. August – the first month of being 60 (I’m practicing getting comfortable with that) – I will indulge myself. Then it will be fall. Oh, I forgot to tell you, last night I agreed to volunteer to be the Lead Conference Organizer for a Red Cross Youth Conference in late October. Hopefully there will be more speaking/workshop engagements then too. Yup, then it will be fall.
Five months to go until this first retirement year is over.
I’ll keep you apprised of how this continues to unfold.