Saturday, June 26, 2010

Quiet Time

I thought I’d have a quiet day today—a writing day. With one teenage son out of town on a school trip, the other one enjoying the beginning of his summer break (which means sleeping), and my husband at the office, I’d set aside the day to work on my novel.

Two hours into my writing, Matt’s band “HOF” began to arrive. “We have to practice for our gig tomorrow night,” he said. “Oh, I thought you’d practiced enough on Tuesday when my bridge group was here.” I have to admire their diligence.

My peaceful day was soon infiltrated by the pounding reverberations felt and heard through the basement ceiling. Drums, saxophones, trumpets, bass guitars, and aggressive vocals combined to entertain with their lovely Indie punk rock melodies.

Working at the computer in the kitchen, I was soon visited by band members requiring snacks and drinks and offering congenial conversation. The 15 to 17-year-old boy (and one girl) band take their music seriously. They play, they break to eat, drink, and chat for a few minutes, and then they play some more. Three hours of live Indie rock music in the background while trying to write fiction makes for an interesting writing challenge, my characters likely saying and doing things they wouldn’t normally have said or done.

But how can I complain? Was it not me who convinced Matt to have the band practice here instead of at his friend’s, so we wouldn’t have to continually schlep his drum kit back and forth? I’ve always enjoyed having our kids’ friends at the house and this musical entourage is particularly interesting. An eclectic group who dance to their own beat and have their own style, they come with Mohawk haircuts, long rocker tresses, blond curly locks, and preppy coifs. Polite, good-humoured, talented and smart, I must say, these kids are a pleasure to have around despite the interruption to my Chapter Sixteen.

After attempting to write amidst the background (or should I say, underground) entertainment, I decided to try my luck in the backyard, where I anticipated the sounds of birds chirping, the feel of the breeze blowing, and the sight of our dog and rabbit happily—and quietly—romping around the grass. Most of all, I looked forward to stealing away for a few hours of peace and quiet on a perfect summer day.

None of this was to be. Here I sit, on my comfortable deck, reclined in the chair, listening to our next-door neighbour’s incessant barking dog, our back-door neighbour’s screaming children, and the piercing drilling and sawing noises from another’s home renovation. I’d be a hypocrite to complain without acknowledging my own past offenses. I once had screaming children (who now don’t scream, but play loud musical instruments) and a barking dog (who barked so much that the neighbour yelled across the fence, “Give your dog a valium, will ya?), not to mention a noisy construction project or two.

The G20 Summit is here in Toronto and I just got off the phone with my husband who is working downtown. “It’s a ghost town here,” he said. “Only about 30% of our office came in, probably more than most—driving was a breeze and parking was half price.”

Maybe I should have left the suburbs and trekked downtown for my peaceful day of writing; I might have had better luck finishing Chapter Sixteen.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

How Busy Are You?

“Hi! How are you? Seems so long since we last talked.
Yes, it’s been ages. I’m good. Busy though.
Me too. I can’t believe how fast time is flying by. We’ve got to get together to catch up.
Absolutely. Let’s connect via email.”

And so the conversation goes. Have you ever had one like that? Did you actually email each other and make plans to meet for coffee or lunch? And not cancel the day before?

Life is busy. We’re all busy. Sometimes too busy to see family, connect with friends, walk the dog, or pick up the phone.

A while ago I read a clip in a magazine about busy people. It said that when we tell others how busy we are, it’s really a type of social bragging. Of course we’re busy. Who isn’t? But when we say it, we feel important. Like we have so much to do and so little to say, except that we’re busy.

People like to compare notes. We like to say how much we crammed into our day. Some busy folks will start with their morning routine: “I took the kids to school, walked the dog, had a bite, grabbed the paper, drove two miles, forgot my cell phone, drove back home to get it,” and then follow with the rest of their day:

“I got to work, had meetings, did some damage control, ripped my nylons on the metal part of the boardroom chair, had to run to the store to get a new pair, made sales calls in the afternoon, found out my daughter had her school music recital that evening, had to be home by six to make supper and drop her off by 6:30, whipped home, drove my son to soccer, returned to the recital and circled around for twenty minutes looking for a parking space, was late for the concert as was my husband, who was supposed to meet me there, got home at 8:30, cleaned the kitchen, threw some laundry in the machine, reviewed my notes for my presentation the next day, and out of sheer desperation for mindless diversion, watched The Bachelorette until 10:00, at which time I fell asleep without brushing my teeth.”

This is not exactly my life, but an example of a working person’s typical day. If you asked this fictional character how she was doing, she’d probably say, “Busy.” And she wouldn’t be exaggerating.

Tuesday’s Globe and Mail reported that Canadians are so busy these days that they barely have time to eat with their kids. “The hours that Canadians spend refreshing their minds and their bodies through leisure and cultural activities – and moments shared with family – are being condensed and it’s affecting their well-being,” the article states. Furthermore, “Canada has become a society operating 24 hours a day and, as a result, more people are working odd hours...That has cut into the time they would normally spend with their spouses and their children and doing the things they really like to do. And that can lead to burnout.”

My very good friend Karen McKnight is a Life Coach and an Executive Coach at Transitions’ Edge in Toronto. She helps people achieve better balance in their lives. She herself is one of the busiest people I know. I don’t know how she does it. Her schedule is not dissimilar to the one outlined above, multiplied by two...or three. I’ve often said that she is like two people packed into one.

Karen says, “People need to be clear about what they want from the particular stage of life they are at – and also have a clear vision of how they want to ‘be’ – how they ‘show up’ in terms of all the roles they play in life. It is also vital for people to know what ‘centred’ feels like – and this is a very individual thing. The more awareness someone has about their particular version of balance, the quicker they are to notice if they have been knocked off and thus the quicker they are to ‘right’ themselves...and then just when you figure out what balance means, chances are a variable will change in your life that means a redefinition of priorities, which then impacts how you allocate your time.”

For Karen to feel like she is functioning optimally, she prefers for all her energy quadrants (physical, mental, emotional and intellectual) to be in full gear and to know and feel that she is contributing in a variety of different ways in the world around her. When she gets depleted, which feels like a ‘crash’ to her, she knows it’s time to pull back, regroup, and recharge. Then, when she re-enters, she can approach things with full energy again. “The key,” she says, “is for people to take the time to learn about their preferences and their relationship to ‘busy’ and what makes for a fulfilled life (at this time).”

Most of us like to be busy, and we like making a contribution. Busyness can be of our own making or imposed upon us. Particularly upon those who are working hard, raising children and caring for elderly parents all at the same time. And not everyone has a partner to share the burdens with.

When I look at my life schedule, it’s relatively packed. I’m constantly trying to re-jig my priorities so I don’t feel so tired all the time, and it’s a challenge. Is my life any busier than yours? I doubt it. In fact, it’s probably a day in the park compared to some of your schedules.

My point is this: we are all busy. We all have responsibilities and we are all doing our best to live balanced lives. Let’s take that B word out of our conversations and instead of answering the question, “How are you?” with the proverbial response, “BUSY,” how about taking a deep breath and sharing a smidgeon more about our lives. And the next time we say, “We’ve got to get together sometime,” let’s pull out our BlackBerries or calendars and make an actual date…that we keep.

And if you catch me saying the B word, please call me on it!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Leading From the Grave

To lead from the grave is a remarkable feat. Martin Luther King Jr. still speaks to us with his "I had a dream" speech, and no one can forget John F. Kennedy’s statement “Think not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Christians consider Jesus to be the greatest leader of all time, and his instruction to “Love your neighbour as yourself,” the quintessential directive for mankind. These leaders walked their talk, which gives their teachings credence. They sent out a call to mission and for many, their powerful words and actions will always resonate.

The story that I want to share is about a leader in my life, who died forty years ago—my grandmother. If there is any one person who has influenced me personally from the grave, it would be her. My grandmother never led a large group of people to action, but she led her family to survival. Her courage and determination became an inspiration to all who knew her. I was only eight when she died, but what I remember about her and what I came to learn about her later in life have often spurred me on during tough times.

My grandmother was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1909, into an affluent and highly respected family. During her early years she had a governess and went to the best schools; the family had maids and cooks and they entertained lavishly. Budapest was a beautiful city, a cultural and intellectual hub of Eastern Europe, and there was no shortage of cultural diversions for them to enjoy. Attending the symphony, the opera, the ballet and society balls was part of their regular lifestyle.

In her late teens my grandmother attended university, uncommon for women in Hungary at the time, and obtained a degree in education. Women in her social class did not work in those days (in or out of the house) and despite her university degree and her intelligence, there were few opportunities to develop a career. But she had a strong moral and social conscience; a good and honest person, she treated others with respect, regardless of social status. In her early twenties, she married my grandfather, a professional engineer, and kept busy with social activities and philanthropic work and began a family. Life was good.

Before long everything changed. The Second World War began and by 1944 chaos reigned. Budapest was bombed, food became scarce, businesses shut down, and properties were destroyed. Their own house was bombed but fortunately, no one was hurt. The family scattered and the children went to live in the country with my grandfather's parents.

But the countryside was not much of a haven. When the Russians advanced they had to return to Budapest, where the family was assigned living quarters. Bombing continued and every day brought new fear. Gas and food were scarce and the best hope for survival was to flee to Austria. My grandfather was able to get the family out of the country despite difficult circumstances. After packing a few belongings and as much food as possible, my grandmother said good-bye to her beloved Hungary, not knowing when, or whether, she would ever return.

At age 36, my grandmother became the main caregiver of her children and her in-laws. She was responsible for their safety, shelter and sustenance, while my grandfather separated from them to work. In the beginning they camped out in a boxcar at a railway station and after three months of cramped living, moved into a small apartment nearby. My grandmother had to be resourceful in finding food; to get by she bartered rationed items like sugar cubes and silk stockings for milk, butter and other necessities. She spent her days visiting refugee camps in different parts of Austria, looking for her own parents, who she hoped had managed to leave Hungary as well. For several months, she didn’t know if my grandfather was dead or alive.

In 1948, my grandfather followed his brother-in-law to Sweden and eventually brought the family over from Austria. With no knowledge of Swedish, they all had to find work to survive—my grandmother labored as a seamstress, my grandfather as a draftsman, and my young teenage mother had various summer jobs. My great-grandparents cared for my uncle, who was a young boy at the time. Again my grandmother was left at the helm while my grandfather tried to make arrangements to immigrate to Canada.

In 1951 they came to Toronto and put a down-payment on a small house, using the proceeds from the sale of my grandmother's most expensive piece of jewelery. The family took whatever jobs they could because they could not speak the language. Even my great-grandmother, a woman of gentility, eventually found work as a housekeeper because she didn't want to be a burden. When their English was proficient enough, my grandfather landed a good engineering job in Montreal designing grain elevators, and my grandmother found work teaching sewing in a high school. After a few years of working very hard, they were finally able to enjoy a decent standard of living.

I’ve always been amazed at how my grandmother coped with the hardships—especially when she was on her own in a foreign country and solely responsible for the welfare of her children and in-laws. When I knew her, she was working full-time and loving it. She sewed her own clothes and always looked sensational. I remember a loving and joyful woman who embraced life with passion. I never heard her complain or lament about the privileged life she’d left behind. Not once did I hear her say anything about ‘the good old days.’ She loved everything about Canada—the forests, the countryside, the lakes, and the people. One of the few things she took issue with was sliced white bread, which she considered tasteless and soulless (Hungarians love their food!).

She died at the age of 62 of a brain tumor. The fact that she never had a chance to enjoy her retirement saddens me; her dream was to travel and reconnect with old friends, many of whom had dispersed to various foreign countries. But judging from the attendance at her funeral you’d never know that she was so far away from her homeland. The church was packed with family and friends, students and colleagues—people whom she touched with her love, her courage, her vitality, and her determination.

My grandmother never gave up on happiness and through her positive attitude, strong will and hard work, the obstacles she faced were not insurmountable. She showed that despite setbacks, challenges and hardships, there is always a way forward. Walking her talk, she demonstrated how great legacies are created. As is the case with the illustrious historical leaders, my grandmother’s spirit will undoubtedly live on for generations to come.