In Search of Higher Education

grad cap

Over the years, whenever I’ve come to a crossroads in my life, I’ve entertained the idea of going back to school to finish a degree I halfheartedly started after high school. For one reason or another it has never happened and now, at fifty, I’m pretty sure it never will. I have no regrets though, because I know that if it was meant to be it would have happened. My friend Karen, however, came to a point in her life, at 47, and realized that she did want to further her education. Growing up in Saskatchewan, Karen’s mom didn’t have a formal post secondary school education and as a single mother she struggled. Seeing that, Karen knew from an early age that she wanted more for herself. She would go to university, get an education and have a career. It was never a question, it was just something she would do. Her life has taken some twists and turns along the way but the desire to better herself has never faded. At 50 years of age she is five months away from earning her MBA.

After high school Karen earned a degree in Commerce and Computer Science at the University of Saskatchewan then took a year off and travelled in Southeast Asia. At the end of that year she needed to make a decision on what to do and where to go. “I sat in a bar in Bangkok and tried to decide if I should go to Australia or the UK”. Although the lure of beaches and surfing was strong, the UK won out. Securing a work visa, she headed to London. Even though she had her degree, she was in her early twenties and had no real life work experience so she joined a temp secretarial pool. Her programming background and her wicked typing skills got her plenty of jobs and within a few months she was offered a full time programming position. There’s no doubt in my mind that it wasn’t just her university degree that propelled her into this job. Karen has, what I would call, moxy.

Okay, so quick life segway…..While working in London Karen met her soon to be husband. They returned to Canada and had two boys who are now 18 and 16. She took a programming position at a telecommunications company and continued to move up the corporate ladder. About 2002 she met me. (Okay, so maybe that’s not really a “life moment” but it was at a time that her life was changing so I’m putting it in the story). A few years later she found herself going through a divorce. Having been through a divorce, I know how all consuming it can be. From what I saw, Karen took it all in stride. She put her head down, worked hard and raised her sons. All the while continuing to better herself personally and professionally. I truly admire that.

Getting an executive MBA requires a lot of things. Working for an organization that believes in people is a great place to start, and Karen’s employer has been behind her all the way. But ultimately you need to have a full support team. Work peers, friends and family. At one point in her first year Karen was struggling to juggle work, school and parenting . Feeling like she was, perhaps, not fully there for one of her sons as he reported a less than stellar grade, she said to him, “I think I should just quit this and be more available for you.” As her eyes filled with tears she recalled that her son had adamantly told her, no way was she going to quit. They were behind her 100%. Now if only she could get them to study as much as she did. Unfortunately it hasn’t all been as good as that. “I wish that women would support women more.” She’s left friendships behind because some friends, female friends, couldn’t support, or understand, what she would gain from this venture. Feeling that there was no room for negativity in her life, she has forced to moved on.

A big part of the program she is enrolled in involves working in teams and networking. Some of the members of her team are VPs of huge corporations and are well connected men and women in Vancouver business. At first she was a bit intimidated, but then one night over beers she realized she was just as smart, if not smarter, than most of them. Hey, she thought, I could do your job. One day she probably will. As she gets ready to travel to Mexico next month to complete the International portion of her degree, she thinks about how good it will feel to be done. She has specific goals in mind for her future and opportunities and connections that will take her anywhere she wants to go.

This is the reason I write this blog. Exploring other people’s Best Things in Life and searching for mine over the last nine months has shown me so many different approaches to doing what you love. So many different ways to be happy. I will not go back to school. It’s not in me. But I admire Karen so much for what she is doing and I think that not only will she succeed in all that she does, but along the way she will teach others a thing or two. She has taught me that some things are really hard to achieve. Sometimes the road to them is long, winding and full of pot holes. But if you can navigate that road, as Karen has, great things await you. The Best Thing in Life await you.

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Coincidence or Kismet?

piano

Do you every think that things are just meant to happen when they happen? That the universe has a plan and you just don’t know about it? Today was one of those days for me. At a time when I was lacking motivation, questioning my decisions and wondering if the direction I was going in was leading me the right way, I had an Oprah moment. You know the one. The quintessential “aha” moment. I wasn’t unhappy, I was just unsure of where things were going or if they even needed to go anywhere. Should I soldier on or reevaluate and make a change? I felt I was lacking a focus. Then I had lunch with a very wise and lovely friend that I had been trying to connect with for months. Coincidence?

A classically trained pianist who grew up in, of all places, Prince George, Stephanie and I met when our kids attended the same pre-school. She started playing the piano when she was two and her piano teacher recognized her talent early on. By the time she was fourteen she was flying down to Vancouver once a month for lessons. She was accepted to Juliard, Peabody and Eastman – the creme de la creme of music schools in the US. After choosing and studying at Eastman she was destined for a career as a concert pianist. She, however, had a defining moment when her panic attacks started to get the best of her. She also never felt the pull that many performers feel for an adoring audience or a standing ovation. Many performers continue for the ego boost, but she realized that the direction she was heading was not meant to be. What was meant to be, was to bring the pure joy of music, that she felt, to others. As a teacher.

Her approach to teaching is truly organic. As I ate the delicious spicy Mexican soup she had made us for lunch, I listened to her explaining how learning music is not just about the notes and the technique, but the feeling you get from playing. She has been known to tell a student to “go and watch water”. The point being, to teach the lightness and finesse of playing the notes. To mimic the way the water flows and bubbles. “Some kids get it, some don’t”. She went on to say, that teaching young kids comes with a unique opportunity to mold the way they approach playing and practicing. Most would start with the easy stuff and go on from there. She encourages them to start with the most challenging part. That is a difficult thing for anybody to do at any age.

water

The most important thing she tries to instill in her students is that music should come from a place of happiness – not from a place of ego. You could win a hundred music competitions and still not understand the meaning of the music you have played. Some of the best musicians play for the pure love of it. If they are able to make a living doing it, then it really is just icing on the cake. The need for a gold star or, in my case, verification that somebody is reading my blogs and that I am making a difference, is a huge stumbling block for me. She reminded me that perhaps there was somebody out there reading my blog and thinking “wow, that’s exactly how I’m feeling too”. I could be making somebody think a different way or see a different side to something. Maybe I’m just allowing somebody to steal a few minutes from their day, read a story and enjoy the way it makes them feel.  Like a piece of music.

As usual I went into this situation with one idea and came away with a completely different point if view. I started out being envious of my friend’s passion for music and the way that she had been able to take that and use it to teach children and left feeling like maybe, just maybe, I too had a path to follow. An opportunity to catch up and learn about her music career turned into a life lesson for me. Go figure. I left her house feeling inspired, rejuvenated and happy to have reconnected with such a kind and insightful friend. Even if nobody is reading my blog, I am doing what makes me happy. Perhaps I am not “over achieving” but my family is happy too. I need to live my life for the joy and not for the gold star. The Best Thing in Life is just letting things happen the way the universe wants them to happen and enjoying the kismet.

November Challenge Completed

The life you want begins when you start embracing the life you already have.The Best Things in Life are right in front of you

At the beginning of November I challenged myself to find one of the Best Things in Life every day and document it on Twitter. So, the first day I did it and thought, piece of cake. Day two I forgot and had to get out if bed at midnight and find my phone and send a tweet. The next day I set up an auto reminder on my phone so that every day at 5:00 pm until November 30 I would be reminded to stick to the challenge. That was the only hard part. Finding something each day seemed to just…..happen. Some days it was obvious and some days I had to think about for 10 seconds before it came to me.

The tweets were quite different day to day. Some were simple little things like a cup of cucumber mint tea.

One was recognition of my son turning eighteen. Truly a huge moment in both of our lives.

Sometimes the Best Things in Life turned bad.

Looking back it seems that a lot of things were outside.

A few months ago I wrote a post about being happy. One of the ideas I talked about was called 100 days of Happiness. It’s a similar idea to what I have done but it’s longer and you email your daily happiness point to somebody you don’t know. This, I felt, was a bit more personal for me but also allowed me to share it with my followers. (I always find it weird saying that I have “followers”). At the end of the day it has made me realize that it is extraordinarily easy to find some small things in each day of your life that are special, unique, personal, meaningful and just one of the Best Things in Life. I am resetting the auto reminder on my phone to “never”.  Follow me on Twitter here and see where this takes me.

Elvis is in the Closet

elvisSo there I was sitting in the den surfing the net and thinking about what to write about this week. Sometimes it’s easy and the words and ideas come quickly and effortlessly. Other times the brick wall in my mind is close to ten feet tall and completely impassable. Today was a brick wall day. I wasn’t particularly worried though, as I sipped my tea and watched the last of the leaves fall off the Japanese Maple in the back yard. And then it jumped up at me. Literally, jumped up at me. My eleven year old cat was looking for some attention and I was the only one home.

When we moved into our house my son was six and he desperately wanted a pet. I had been promising him for months that once we moved from our rental into our own house we could get a cat. Day one. “So can we go get our cat today?” Sigh. Every day for the next month I was asked if today was the day we could get our cat. Finally I couldn’t put it off any longer and I started to make some calls. I remember my son and I having some discussions about what kind of cat we might get and what we might name a cat. “If we get an orange cat I’m going to name it cheese.” He said. Note to self; do not get an orange cat.

When the clerk at the pet store brought the two cats into the room he put them both down in the middle of the floor. “They’re brothers.” He said. (probably hoping we would take both) One was completely black and the other was what we now know is a tuxedo cat. Black with white paws, chest and half a white nose. The all black one retreated to a corner and sat down to wash itself. The tuxedo cat stood up and walked straight over to us with his tail straight up in the air. “That’s the one I want”. My son said. I couldn’t have agreed more. We couldn’t bring him home that day but went home excited that in a couple of days we could come back and pick him up. I remember when we did bring him home and he tore around on the hard wood floors bumping into the walls. I’m not sure if it was the fact that my husband was, at the time, working in Memphis or of it was just because he was such a cool cat, but we ended up named him Elvis.

Life with Elvis as a kitten was not boring or easy. We made the decision that he would be an inside cat. We live in an area close to a forest that is full of racoons, coyotes and the occasional cougar and it just didn’t make sense to put him out on the front doorstep. We tried a collar and leash, but really he was just bait at that point. The problem was that he was bound and determine to get outside. We had a Swiss student staying with us that summer who quite often stayed out late and came home mildly intoxicated leaving the front door ajar. I can’t tell you how many times I chased that God damn cat up and down our street with a flashlight in my hand. The neighbors must have thought his name was Stupid not Elvis. (at least I didn’t have to call him Cheese). Then there was the day that he escaped and bolted up the tree in the neighbors backyard. I managed to get up to him without incident but coming back down I missed a branch and had a wicked bruise in my thigh for a month. God damn cat.

He has mellowed out in his older years. He now sleeps in our closet and some days doesn’t wander out until mid morning. His attempts to sleep on my head did not gain much admiration from me and I may have thrown a pillow or two at him in the middle of the night. The closet was just a safer option. He rarely tries to escape anymore. The look on his face says, “meh, it’s just too much effort.” With my husband away as much as he is, I am happy for his warm furry comfort in the evenings. Although his habit of patting my face (with his claws out) when I stop paying attention to him, can be a tad annoying.

So here I am with Elvis curled up in my lap thinking about all the crazy things he’s done and how over the years we have laughed and cursed at him too many times to count. He’s purring softly and probably having a cat dream about tuna or the yummy kitty treats we occasionally give him. I’m grateful to have the time to sit and let him nap for a few more minutes but then the day must go on for me. The Best Things in Life for Elvis is that he can just head upstairs and go back to the closet to sleep.

Being Kind

As she parked in the parking lot the nerves started to grow. She hadn’t seen some of these people in years. Would they even know who she was? Would she recognize anybody? The receptionist directed her upstairs to the banquet rooms. She made a quick stop in the bathroom to check her hair and makeup. Did she really need to impress anybody? She was happily married with two great kids and a loving husband. Old habits die hard she told herself. When she finally made her way to the room where her twentieth high school reunion was being held, her nerves seemed to disappear and all she felt was excitement.

At the door to the banquet room there was a table covered in name tags and a dark haired woman was bent over putting them in order. She looked up suddenly and squealed. “Oh my god it’s so great to see you. How are you? You look great. Here, I have your name tag. Wow, it’s been so long but you look just the same. I would know that smile anywhere.” As the greeter rattled on she thought “She has no idea who I am.” You could have knocked her over with a feather. She stood before the table smiling and nodding and remembering. The greeter looked just the same too. She would never forget her. Not after that day so many years ago.

It was grade five and she was in Mr. McBride’s class at West Bay Elementary School. She had been outside at lunch playing dodge ball in the courtyard with a bunch of other kids. A silly school yard game but hey, she was in grade five and that’s what they did at lunch time. When the bell rang she ran up the stairs past the library and janitors room to her classroom. As she entered the room she saw one of her girlfriends and said hi. Her friend looked at her, but then quickly looked away and whispered something to the girl beside her. That’s a bit weird, she thought and took her seat. During the rest of the afternoon she caught them whispering a few more times. She even noticed them whispering to another friend as they came back from art class. Hm, wonder what’s up? She thought.

The afternoon dragged on forever but when the bell finally rang she grabbed her bag and coat and headed for the door. “Forgetting something?” Darn, she had forgotten that Mr. McBride had asked her to stay and go over her multiplication tables. She really needed to know what was going in with her friends so she told a small lie and said that she forgot she had piano that day. “Okay, but tomorrow for sure?” Sure, she said, and turned away quickly, feeling guilty. She burst out the door and ran straight into a group of her friends. “Hey, what’s up? What is everybody whispering about?” They all turned to look at her but only one person spoke. “You. We’re talking about you.” The dark haired girl said. Me, why would they be talking about me she wondered? “We’re all really sick of how immature you are. We saw you today on the playground jumping around like a preschooler. What is wrong with you?”

She looked around at the group of fourth grade girls now surrounding her. Some of them looked away, some of them looked at the girl speaking and some looked back at her blankly. Acting immature? She had been playing dodgeball? She stammered trying to find the words to explain what she had done. What she had done? She hadn’t DONE anything. What was going on? She looked at each of them for some kind of explanation. Her face was suddenly hot and her hands were shaking. She turned away and ran towards the bathrooms. She stayed in one of the stalls for what seemed like hours. When she finally ventured out the halls were quiet and empty. She walked home that day feeling hurt, embarrassed and confused.

It was all flooding back as she stood there at the entrance to the banquet room. It was years ago, but at this moment it seemed like just yesterday. The greeter apparently didn’t remember, as she had already moved on to the next person coming down the hall. It hadn’t happened again after that day but she would never forget the hurtful words directed at her. The embarrassment of being singled out and that the dark haired girl had, for that moment, turned her friends against her. She would never know why and it truly didn’t matter. The damage was done with just a few words in only a matter of moments. As she stepped into the room full of her school friends she reminded herself that The Best Thing in Life is to teach your kids to be kind.

Honesty

“Honesty refers to a facet of moral character and connotes positive and virtuous attributes such as integrity, truthfulness, and straightforwardness, including straightforwardness of conduct, along with the absence of lying, cheating, theft, etc. Furthermore, honesty means being trustworthy, loyal, fair, and sincere. Honesty is valued in many ethnic and religious cultures. “Honesty is the best policy” is a proverb of Benjamin Franklin and the quote “Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom” is attributed to Thomas Jefferson.”

I value honesty above pretty much every other personal trait, so when I am faced with a loved one being dishonest I tend to get a bit crazy. I’ve been in relationships based on lies and filled with lies. No happiness can come from a relationship like that. The truth hurts. Yes, it does, but that is not an excuse for doing it. And, might I add, it is never okay to blame a lie on somebody else’s actions. As in, I lied because I knew the truth would hurt you. (Lamest excuse ever.) Lying is never the answer. Some people say that they lie to avoid confrontation, but the reality is that the truth always come out and by that time the original confrontation has been compounded by the lie. So why not just fess up? Fear? Most likely. That minuscule chance that the truth won’t come out and you can actually get away with it? Bit of a crap shoot really, but some are willing to take that chance.

Right, so now I will come down off my high horse and admit that this has become a hard post to write because, as nutty as I am about being honest, I can’t say that I have always been 100% honest with everybody in my life. So, am I a hypocrite? What have I lied about? Say I am faced with not wanting to do something, I have been known to make up an excuse why I can’t do it. “Sorry I can’t make it to your party but I have other plans”. My other plans involve a glass of wine, pajamas and a book. A white lie some would say. Is there a difference? Is there a line that separates little lies from big lies? Or are all lies just that. Lies. Is it better to be a bit dishonest in order to be politically correct? “Yes, that style of dress looks great on you.” Or are you just as guilty as the guy who lies on his tax return?

Have you ever seen the Jim Carey movie, Liar Liar. A man is cursed by a wish from his son so that he can not tell a lie. A funny premise, but could it actually work in real life? Being honest (I prefer to call it being authentic) has certainly gotten me in trouble in the past. I don’t always sugar coat things. If I don’t like you or something you have said I’m typically going to let you know. I’m also not going to pretend that everything is okay when it’s not. If something is bugging me, you will know. Do I worry about hurting people’s feelings? Sure, and I’m pretty sure I have probably done that in the past. Would it be better to not tell them what I think? Is that different from telling an outright lie?

So, having completely talked myself in a circle the question remains unanswered. Is it ever okay to be dishonest? The Best Thing in Life is being truthful in admitting that life is hard to navigate sometimes and knowing what is right and what is wrong isn’t always clear.