Thursday, June 30, 2011

Limits and limitations

I have a friend who is likely to interrupt protests or hesitation with an accusation that one is simply defending one's limitations. Of course, he is often right. Often we do defend our limitations with passion and perseverance. We like to know who we are, even when it means we cannot win.

On the other hand. . .

Once upon a time, I faced a scholarship panel who asked "If you can do math, why do you want to take English?" And I was as impassioned as only a very young person can be in defence of not having to do something simply because I was capable of doing it. In the end, I did take one university math course (theoretical calculus) but I did eleven years of university English. I picked the language that talked about the things that were important to me.

At the seashore, there are no limits, and the water washes endlessly against the shore and draws back again. The river runs between its limits, and moves. . . to the sea.

I love English literature and it speaks to all of me. I love the fine play of logic in mathematical thinking. I choose my limits and love to move within them.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

One day in Paris

We thought it would rain this morning so we decided that it was a good day for the Musee d'Orsay since both mom and I love it. There is no direct way to get there from the hotel by Metro, so we thought we would is mostly downhill.

On the way, we admired shoe stores and patisseries with equal enthusiasm. I had started tube day by crossing the street and buying a small baguette studded with chocolate. We had it with tea in our room. We bought the kettle yesterday because I do not feel pampered if I want a large mug of tea and can't have one.

A market had appeared where none was before. I should have bought scarves but it was still so early in the day. I should have bought the little pink dress with smocking for at least one of the baby girls who will be in my life this fall. I have some commitment issues.

We made our way down towards Shakespeare and Company - not to buy books or even to go in, but just because it is there. We found the street with the oldest church in Paris and flyErs for a Chopin concert tonight. We will be on our way there soon. A few doors down we found the jazz club we will visit one evening. And then it was time for coffee. Mom fed the pastry crumbs to the sparrows.

By the time we arrived at the d'Orsay the line was at least an hour long. It was worth the wait, even with the real possibility of rain. I discovered large parts of the collection that I had missed before and visited some old friends. Then to the Tuilleries for gelato. Then to l'Orangerie so I could gaze into the gaze of Monet as he gazed at water lilies and discovered a shifting beautiful thoughtful world.

We wandered from there to the Madeleine, where we arrived in time for a performance by a youth orchestra from New Orleans led by a conductor from Haiti who murmured his introductions into the microphone.

The patisserie across the street was as crowded when we stopped in for quiche as it was first thing this morning.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Golfing with My Dad

When I was about 13, old enough to feel quite grown up but not old enough for a summer job, I started playing golf.

That's not quite true. When I was 13, golf became a serious activity I did with my dad. Before that, we had several summers of wonder at a tiny golf club where it was perfectly safe for kids under 12 to take off for 9 holes without parents. I don't remember much about the golf at Briarwood: I remember mothers sitting by the pool, and kids playing for hours and hours and hours.

Golf with my dad might also take hours, but it was a different experience. Golf was serious, and I often ended up as the only kid in a foursome of men. We played at Credit Valley Golf Club in Mississauga. During the week, I learned with kids. On the weekend, my dad and I went out into the blazing valley heat to be golfers.

It was tense. First, I couldn't hit the ball very hard, so I was always "up" and always worried about holding things up. Second, there is a lot of water at Credit Valley, and my dad was not pleased if I had to give up after putting three or four consecutive shots into the middle of the river. Third, there were rules over and above the rules of golf. Rules like "neatness counts" that meant remembering every zipper always needed to be zipped up tight.

It's hard to remember that it was also something I loved. I loved it so much, that it was years before I realized I don't really like being out in the blazing sun. I loved it so much, that even now I am proud that I have a good swing (when I occasionally get out to hit some balls). I loved the hours with my dad in a beautiful setting, just walking. I even loved hearing my dad explain to my mom that if I was going to be a golfer, I would have to be allowed to say "shit!"

There's not much better than a long walk with your dad. It's worth the aggravation of hitting small white balls in erratic patterns according to Byzantine rules. It's worth the risk of sun stroke to share the best lemonade in the world before teeing off on the 10th. It's worth the sinking filling when everyone is watching as the ball skitters off the heel of your club.

Happy Father's Day.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

In search of something undefined

Once upon a time, as it has happened many times, a young man set out to seek his fortune. He was lucky that he lived in a time when people set out to find their fortune by walking. Walking changes what you see and what you think. It gives you time to notice things you would miss from a car or an airplane.

The young man set off in spring, when the sun was shining and the air was soft. Sometimes it rained. The grass was brightly green, and the trees were newly green, and there were birds and flowers and smiles all around. It was good times, and some days he almost forgot to seek his fortune because it was almost enough just to be alive and walking in the springtime.

Summer came, and the ground grew drier and the air grew hot and damp. The young man started to think that he had been a lot of places and he still had no idea what his fortune would look like or where he would find it. He dreamed of his fortune every day while he walked, and every day it looked different to him. Sometimes he looked around, surprised to find himself in a forest or a village. He had been dreaming so vividly, he lost track of where he was walking.

The young man decided he needed to know more about what he was looking for. He would choose his fortune and then look until he found it. He decided that his fortune was a blue gemstone, a stone the colour of a lake on a perfect summer day. He began to ask everyone he met if they had ever seen such a stone. A few had seen it but could not remember where. Others just shook their heads. Some of them told stories about the stones they had held or polished or seen at a distance. As much as he tried to put all this information together, he could not tell if he was getting closer to finding his fortune.

That evening, he camped in a clearing on the stony shores of a lake. He walked to the edge of the water and watched the sun get lower in the sky and thought about his fortune. Without thinking, he reached for a stone and skipped it across the water. Before long, he forgot his fortune as he looked for the best stones to skip across the water. Sometimes he chose well, sometimes he threw well, sometimes the stone sank with a heavy plop. He was as intense and happy as a child.

And then he stopped. He stopped because he suddenly noticed the shape and weight of the stone in his hand. It felt exactly right. It was not blue and it was not a gemstone, but he knew at once that this stone was meant for him. He held it, balanced it, tossed it, held it again. It was just an ordinary stone from the shore of this lake, and it was his fortune.

When he woke the next morning, he watched the early light on the ripples of the lake. He felt the breeze pick up just a little, and he stretched. He began the long walk home, with his fortune in his hand and his eyes wide open.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Running things from the field

When I was in high school, there was no girls soccer program. While women's soccer was growing rapidly in the club system, it had yet to find its way into the high schools. By the time I was in grade 12, I was playing and coaching soccer all summer. I wanted to play at school, too.

I decided it was time to launch a school tournament. I was 17, and I was playing and coaching rep soccer. I was in charge of publicity for our local club and I was a qualified referee. I had passed the first level of the national coaching program (at the time, that involved a written test, a practical test, and a referee's test). Running a tournament was in reach. All I needed was a staff sponsor. A friendly history teacher agreed to become our "coach."

We began a round of communication with the local club and with other schools. I don't remember how many teams entered, or who won the tournament.

I remember standing on the back line of one field, playing defence. I was also coaching (managing the bench and the on-field motivation) and watching two other fields to be sure that referees had arrived and games were being played. I remember that moment when I was tracking three different roles and loving all three.

It's funny what we remember. I don't remember much of the process or the tournament results. I don't remember how well we played. I remember that the local club gave us great support (and referees). And I remember standing on the back line, ready for kickoff while shouting instructions as a coach and monitoring two other fields.

And in that moment, I remember that I was not multi-tasking. I was just one person in one place, stretching my awareness and making connections so that I could notice that I was enjoying the thing I wanted–a high school soccer tournament for girls.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

When I think about the happiest days in my life

I have been blessed. I have been happy for long stretches in different parts of my life. When I think about happy days, lots come to mind.

The happiest came when my boys were very small. I remember days and days when my first kid did happy all day long. I remember that it was a revelation that happy was not just something that happened to people (like good luck or chicken pox): it was something that could engage all one's attention and action. Toddlers do happy with all their minds and bodies and giggles.

The next time that bubbles to the surface is quite different. Many of us remember our undergraduate university days with affection. My time at Trent was a period of such rapid and joyful awakening to both a wide, wide world and a deeper self. I chose Trent because it had a great English department, a great record for producing excellence in the arts (not just starting with it as many programs still do), and small classes where people learned by talking to each other. I chose it with head and heart.

And, it might be that I have a vague memory of encountering some handsome, gentle young men who were students at Trent. That wasn't a deciding factor, but it was a nice fringe benefit.

I was right on all counts. Trent was an amazing place and I was amazed and happy and passionate and growing all the time I was there. A few of my memories are tough (a friend died while we were there) and some are anxious (I pushed myself hard to excel) but most are of having lots and lots of time to talk and listen and laugh. I remember walks under lamplight in magical snowfalls, and evenings by the fireplace (we had fireplaces in classrooms where we could gather on the weekends) and professors who were so very present with us.

But that's not how it started.

It started with volunteers whisking my boxes and suitcases up to a bare and ugly little room. It started with realizing that men and women would share just one bathroom (including the shower area). It started with my little sister (only 4 years old) crying and heartbroken because it was so wrong to leave me behind. It started with the awkward conversations you have with new people at a new place, and with more than a few tears of my own, alone in my room late at night.

Only one other person from my high school (which had the same population as Trent at the time) came to Trent. I had no friends when I started. I had to leave the baby sister I adored and all the things I took for granted. It was natural and normal and in the way of natural and normal things, it hurt from time to time.

And it was the beginning of a time in my life when I became more myself than ever before, when I learned not only about the world, but about me. It was a time when I was happy. It was normal and natural and then it became extraordinary.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Sand and surprises

The first storyteller I remember hearing, often and vividly, is my mom. Her stories are so much a part of who I am that it's difficult to tell the difference between a memory and a memory of her stories about me and my brothers. The memories of my sister are a little easier, because I was old enough to hold her childhood almost as close and precious as my mom did.

When we were little, we lived in Vancouver and we went to the beach. I remember the coast as a place of surprises, a place where you could wake in warm sunshine and drive high enough into the mountains to toboggan (even in June). I remember the endless suspense of the traffic jams on the way to Stanley Park and gazing longingly at the drive-in. I remember looking for four leaf clovers with my grandfather.

Once we drove south into the States. I remember being sure that 60 degrees farenheit was warm enough for swimming in the ocean. Once we stopped so my brother could be free of the car (he was always carsick), and found a small, fabulous beach covered in driftwood. I was mad that my parents wouldn't let us swim.

And somehow, with my mom's laughter in the background, I remember that my brother ate his peanut butter sandwiches with real sand at the beach.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Two men crossed the finish line at the same time

If you had been standing near the finish line, you would have seen them cross, matching stride for stride, exactly equal. Their finish was so close that you might have imagined they were friends running together. But they were just two men who finished the race within sight of the winners but not winners themselves.

For every race, there are many more finishers than there are leaders or winners. We hear the stories of the ones who win, inspirational stories about how hard they prepared, how much determination they gathered, how focused they stayed. We seldom hear the stories of the two men who finished, within sight of the winners but not winners themselves. We assume that if the finish is the same, the stories are the same.

But if we were to go back to the beginning, we would find that the stories were very different. We would watch one man running for miles with his son on a bike beside him, urging him on. We would watch the other leave a comfortable office to pound the miles alone. We would watch one man give up practice time to sit at the hospital with a dying friend, and the other give up practice time to cheer on a favourite hockey team. We would watch one man decide to have another beer and the other to decide to stay up very late.

If we were to stand with them at the starting line, they would be different again. One would be all focus and determination and professionalism. The other would be relaxed, almost sloppy, only his eyes showing intensity. They would begin with a similar gait, a similar pace. But their focus would be different. One hears his breath and feels the sun on his skin. One is lost in thoughts of what will happen on the other side of a win.

At some point, maybe even the same point, each man would realize that a win was going to be just out of reach. Each would know the bitterness of being so close to the prize without reaching it. Each would feel his legs and heart and breath pound on to the finish. One would hear the voice of a child, cheering. One would hear the voice in his head, punishing. They would look the same, their faces contorted with effort, their muscles stiff with effort.

Two men cross the finish line, exactly in step. They can see the winners, but they are not among the winners. They are so in sync you might think they were friends. But they could never be friends. They are not in the same story. They have not even been running the same race.

They are just two men who happen to cross the line, together.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Searching for a story

I am sitting here with the intention to write a story for my blog. I've just completed The Story Factor by Annette Simmons, and I am resolving to use more stories in my writing, as easily as I use them in a training room.

It's funny, but I don't remember how we picked Charlottetown for our honeymoon. I know we picked Halifax because I wanted to go to Dalhousie but decided, for many reasons, that Western made more sense. So the week before we packed up to move to London, ON, we got married and headed first for Halifax, then for a few days along the southern shore of Nova Scotia, and then to Charlottetown.

My memory of the island begins with my husband's aunt driving us north to meet family, then dropping us off at the side of a road. Presumably she was more confident that the bus would arrive than I felt as I watched her drive away. It's a funny moment for a city kid: standing with luggage in the middle of nowhere, trusting that a bus will come.

It must have come. We must have made the ferry, and then taken another bus to Charlottetown. We stayed at the Dundee Arms, and we went in search of lobster on our first night. I remember we ended up at the Charlottetown hotel, and the lobster was served cold. It wasn't at all what I expected and I wasn't a big fan. It was many years before I learned to love lobster.

We saw a sad play at the Charlottetown festival - not Anne of Green Gables, but something country and sweet and at least a little tragic. The name Johnny Belinda rings bells, and Google shows me that it is, indeed, a PEI play. Funny what sticks over time. That was 1983.

I dont' think we left Charlottetown that trip: we just enjoyed it. It's a very pretty little city with a lovely waterfront. I do remember that we had to take a bus to Summerside to fly home. For some reason, the Charlottetown airport was closed.

We flew out of Charlottetown on the same plane as many cast members from the festival. I have never experienced people being so excited to leave: they cheered when the cabin door closed and again at lift off. I guess high-spirited young people from Toronto found a whole summer in Charlottetown less enthralling than two honeymooners who were only there for a couple of days.

On the plane, we also ran into one of my professors from Trent. We chatted briefly, and he mentioned how many Trent students had a hard time leaving. They tended to stick around Peterborough. He advised me to get away and grow.

And I did. But I still love Trent, and I still enjoy visiting Peterborough. And Charlottetown is one of my favourite places in a world of wonders.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Just hanging out together

It's one of the first hot days of summer (even if the calendar won't catch up for a few weeks), a day that feels like it was made for just hanging out with a good friend. A long walk through a park or along the lakeshore, a patio, a backyard bbq: the perfect way to spend sunshine and heat and green grass. Just thinking about it, you can feel yourself unwind as your mind begins to wind its way back. . .

Do you remember the day you walked and talked and didn't talk, until you stopped for a drink. And then walked some more?

Do you remember sitting outside and eating and drinking and wishing you could stay right where you were?

Do you remember watching the clouds in the sky, and letting your thoughts shift with their shapes?

Whether or not it is sunny and hot as you read this, it has been hot and sunny as you read this. And whether or not we have met, you have been my friend and companion on this perfect, sunny day.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Finding yourself through multiple descriptions

I have been talking to people who train and facilitate about how they know what they are doing is working and how they decide what to change to get better. A wise friend suggested that we all need a mirror. Maybe we all need lots of mirrors.

In one of my favourite fairy tales there is a princess who is beautiful that a thousand mirrors could not show all of her loveliness at once. We are all a little like that princess. We know that parts of ourselves that we know, and there are always lots of aspects of ourselves and our relationships that other people see and we do not see.

There are two factors at work. One is that we inevitable see what we are looking for, not all of what is in front of us. So that even when we are aware of aspects of ourselves or our connections to other people or to contexts, we miss stuff. We see what we are looking at and get distracted from the whole of the picture. What is right in front of us can still be invisible to us.

The other factor is that unconscious process is easier to see in someone else. We can see their expressions, their postures, hear the shifts in their tone, and notice correspondences between what they are saying and what they have said at other times - or what other people have said. None of this is easy to see in ourselves. We are caught up in our meaning, our conscious response, and sometimes in the reactions we think we are seeing in other people. With the best will in the world, we can let other people know parts of us that we do not know ourselves.

And so people who work in front of groups, whether as speakers or as teachers, have only an obstructed view of their performance. To work in front of a group takes a kind of commitment that means you need to know what you know strongly and to rely on your ability to let that commitment carry you through whatever reactions you get from your group. That means that there are some things you are seeing very, very clearly. Whenever you are seeing something clearly, you are missing something else. That is the nature of vision.

Of course, it's scary to open yourself to a mirror, to seek information that might weaken your ability to commit to yourself and your material in front of a room. The mirror will have different information than you have now, but that does not always mean it will have better or more useful information. That's why you might need more than one mirror.

We learn through multiple descriptions of the same thing, by overlapping descriptions until we begin to define the thing itself. Our brains create pathways that represent a thing, and those pathways get deeper through repetition - but repetition is seldom exact, and it is only the parts of the path that get used lots that get stronger. We know ourselves in the same way, through the increasing precision that comes from many multiple descriptions.

We are all in front of a group, searching for more accurate information about ourselves, our relationships and our context. We all need mirrors - because we can never be sure precisely what they will show.