September 25, 2009

Walls and Windows

Last week I was rifling through my CD collection, looking for something different, when I found Paul Simon's Graceland album. I put it on and was struck by the poetry of the lyrics. Each song painted a different picture and every day, when I listened to the album I heard more and more in it - a far cry from my response in 1986 when the album first came out. Back then I was carried away by the African rhythms and the words were, to me, more of a prop than anything. The fourth song on the album, called 'Gumboots' has a particularly fantastic line. I even posted the line on my Facebook page: "Believing I had supernatural powers I slammed into a brick wall." I believe the song is about love but the line stands alone for me like a mantra. A few Facebook friends, one now in Toronto, one in Salt Lake City, one in Vancouver recognized the lyric and responded like the album really meant something to them too. I love when that happens - when a little community comes together for a moment over a joke or a shared passion for something. I guess that's the beauty of these 'social networking' things.

Anyway, last week, after I had found the album I put it on and started cooking dinner. (My kids, who had never heard the album, asked if it was some of my 80's music and then scattered.) That line about slamming into a brick wall jumped out at me and I've been thinking about it ever since. Now I think I know why. When I was younger, a lot younger, I didn't exactly put bath towel capes over my shoulders and leap off the shed roof, but I did want, like many kids, to be, to do, so many things. In many ways I wished I had been born a boy, because I believed they had much more fun than girls. My closest sibling in age was a boy, two years older than me, and he and I played together most of the time. I always got along well with boys because I found them less complicated than girls. When I was eleven and twelve I used to wear cut off jeans and baseball shirts and kept my hair short. I remember going into Woolworth's to use the bathroom, and when I asked for the key, the woman at the counter said, "Um...would that be girl's bathroom?" She really wasn't sure. Not too long after that, when I was walking with my friend, Toni, who was extremely pretty, some boys called out, "Toni's got a boyfriend!" That was my first 'brick wall'. I knew that even I could not be both a girl and a boy, and since I was 'at that age' I was pretty sure I preferred to be recognized as a girl. When my mom took me shopping for grade eight clothes I let her buy me a flowered blouse. Even so, my young life continued to include a series of attempts to be something I was not destined to be. Granted, I had many successes, but I would invariably take on too many extracurricular activities, and then crash hard when I could not handle my superhuman efforts.

After my high school graduation I took a trip by train to visit my sisters in Winnipeg. Travelling alone was so unnerving that I stayed in the one car the entire time, even though I knew one could move around most of the train - so I did what came easily. I introduced myself to the only person my age on the car and he and I stayed up almost all night talking. During my third year of post-secondary education I decided that I should go to Europe. After all, everyone else was doing it, my friends were all well travelled, and it seemed like a rite of passage for college students. My sister, Clare and her friend had recently come back from four months in New Zealand and Australia and I wanted to be able to do what she had done. I began saving money and looking around for someone to travel with. When none of my friends proved to be available, I began to think about going alone. The more I thought about it, the more I knew I couldn't do it. Every fibre of my being told me it was a bad idea. The travelling given up for now I decided to try treeplanting - my brother was making loads of money and I had UBC to save up for now. One day on a slashburnt slope - seven hours of pure torture - was all I managed. I came home after the first day with badly stretched achilles tendons and could barely walk for a week. Oh, the humiliation! And yet another brick wall. A few days later, my mother's friend offered me a job working for her at the Kootenay Lake Summer School of the Arts as an administrative assistant. She had told my mom that if she had known I was going to try treeplanting, she would have talked me out of it. She had once owned a treeplanting company and knew it would not be the right kind of work for 'someone like me'. I was choked when I heard that, but relieved about the admin. position, a job I loved and held for three summers.

Last week my 19 year old neice, Hailey took a train trip to Toronto with a friend. Her friend stayed in Toronto and Hailey flew to Prague. She was going to travel around Eastern Europe and even had some family connections to visit in Croatia and Italy. I had just seen her in August and knew she was very nervous about her upcoming trip. I even laughed and reassured her that if she wasn't nervous about travelling by herself in a foreign country there would be something wrong. After landing in Prague, Hailey discovered she was unable to use her credit card anywhere, and Prague was packed with visitors in preparation for a Papal visit. She must have found an internet cafe because she updated her status on Facebook with "What the heck am I doing here?" Having not slept in days she called relatives for help. Another aunt came to her rescue, and offered her own credit card number so Hailey could fly back to Canada. This morning I read Hailey's newest facebook status update: "defeated...but in an odd way, relieved." Do I know that feeling! 'Brick walls' are hard on us but in the end, can prove to be our greatest friends. There is that old saying after all: "When a door is closed, somewhere a window opens," usually a window into our own natures and our limits, with a better view of the path we are meant to be on.
Thank you Paul Simon.

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