Monday, October 8, 2012

Giving Thanks . . . and Being Honest . . .


Photos of the colourful blooms, leaves, and berries enlivening my autumn garden.

So much to be thankful for. We had our Thanksgiving dinner here on Saturday evening to accommodate the working schedule of New Daughter-in-Law. The newlyweds were accompanied by DIL's brother to round out our table nicely and help compensate for the absence of our other three couples who chose to celebrate the holiday together in Vancouver. Ferry travel gets crazy on this long weekend with long line-ups and sailing waits, so we're especially pleased to have one of ours still on Vancouver Island, even if there are 90 driving minutes between us.

Grateful as I was with our meal, the company, my overall good fortune, I recognize a small voice of the young woman [edited to clarify: the young woman is my younger self] who wonders if I should host a bigger and better table. The ones I remember our parents hosting, all china and silverware and every chair shanghaied into service, a kids' table off to the side, pies of several varieties rather than my single apple tarte. Dishes hand-washed for what seemed like hours afterward by the family's females who chatted and gossiped and laughed together. I did a version of that meal for many years while raising our four, sometimes inviting others to join us, sometimes just savouring our own table of six, then 7, 8, 9, 10, as the kids added their partners, 11 when Nola entered the world. Every time we raised our glasses in gratitude around such a meal, I felt a profound satisfaction for being and doing what I was raised to do. The tradition was sustaining me, and I was doing my part, in turn, to sustain it for another generation. Every year, the experience affirmed the richness of a full family life.

We could have got much closer to that experience this weekend if I weren't still working.

That sentence, or some variety of it, often floats into my consciousness. Or interrupts more rudely than "floats" implies. Sometimes it drifts gently at the edge of my vision; sometimes it explodes insistently to apparently solve a logistical challenge. This career that I began preparing for in my 40s, took up full-time in my 50s, and will grumble about while being absorbed by in my 60s -- there's no question that it keeps me from being the wife, mother, grandmother, and friend that part of me still believes I should be . . . and wishes I could be.

The sentence troubles, insists, convinces me of its truth, even though my husband has cooked most of the Thanksgiving meal for several years now. I've even entrusted him with my dad's stuffing recipe, although he'd be the first to concede that he doesn't quite get the results I do. His gravy was perfection on Saturday.  And he complains not a word that I marked papers for several hours while he shopped and then chopped. Instead, he raves about the pie I made as if it were the most significant contribution to the day's feast. It's only "that woman"'s voice that wonders if I shouldn't have been the one to peel and slice and measure and stir . . . and to put everything on the table while beaming at everyone gathered around. Either as a super-woman who does that in between the marking OR as a woman who puts family first and lets go of the satisfactions of a separate career.

I'm being Grateful today. I truly am. But in the interest of honesty, I have to layer my little voice into the equation. Luckily, "She" doesn't speak up too often nor too audibly.  We had a lovely meal with my son, his new wife, and her brother. We wouldn't have had the same closeness with them if everyone had been here. And we know that our other 3 gathered their families together happily in Vancouver. (And the family of the new daughter I'm so grateful to have met this summer is surely enjoying their own Thanksgiving traditional meal this weekend as well) If I weren't still working, I would surely have brought them to a huge table where all would be one joyous unity. Since I am, they're all coping quite well and developing their own independent traditions -- including us, or not, as the occasion allows.

And I? Am grateful there are copious turkey leftovers in the fridge. Not so grateful that I am heading back to the marking pile. But grateful that there are no classes today, so that a Nap (yes, with a capital "N"!) is a distinct possibility today.
Happy Thanksgiving, my fellow Canadians! And the rest of you are welcome to celebrate some gratitude as well. . . .even if, like me, you can't resist troubling it just a little . . .




27 comments:

  1. Perfection is highly over rated...
    I try to enjoy and savour real moments honestly without guilt.
    That "voice" is one that many of us have chattering inside our heads and I have tried to put a muzzle mine!

    Happy Thanksgiving.

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    1. Exactly! Thanks. I do try to keep that woman silent, but every once in a while she comes along and mutters . . .
      Hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving -- isn't the weather splendid?!

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  2. Interesting. I have the twin opposite of your voice in my head. PhD very young, academic career in prestigious institutions, prizes, scholarships, the whole doo da. And in my early 40s I have turned my back on it all, knowing in my heart of hearts that I either won't, or can't (as I intend to take a career break of a decade which is professional suicide in my field) every return to it. As a feminist I do feel guilty. Have I let the sisterhood down? Having smashed through a few glass ceilings only to abandon it all for something which, frankly, and I whisper this to myself with considerable guilt, gives me far more profound satisfaction at a cellular level than any of my academic plaudits? I think we need at least three lives, run simultaneously, to fulfil all that we are capable of and desire to explore.
    There are no answers, dammit, just a fumbling, muddling through to one's own unique fulcrum of identity, which seems to take on-going decades to fathom out. With certainty I do know that that fulcrum is not something solid, as I once envisaged it ('Career' or some other single compact entity). It's a shifting body of metaphysical essence, a kaleidoscope of intertwined strands that alter as we progress through life and, by conscious choice and by serendipitous encounter, shape our selves.

    That was doubtless absolutely no help to you whatsoever! Sorry.

    Hester

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    1. No, damnit, no answers at all. I had my oldest when I was only 23, and although I worked (taught piano, music theory, history, etc.) while I raised my four, and although I felt good about being there for their early years, by choice, I always struggled against the perception (mine and others) of what else I could and should be doing. Letting the sisterhood down? Perhaps something like that. So getting a chance to enter a new and interesting career at this stage after getting my PhD post-50 -- something I'm not ready to give up yet. But there are so many other values and interests I hold, ones that an academic life expects one to put aside. And having a richness of life/family experience by my ripe old age, I'm often loath to do so. . . But yes, a shifting body, a continual negotiated with a myriad, a kaleidoscope of interwined strands. . . yes, it's helpful just to know others grapple, are troubled, engage, do our best, and carry on . . .

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    2. I had an epiphany in my mid 30s when observing the boss of my boss, who was about to go on to be promoted yet further in another institution to the very top of the tree. The relentless demands of others on her time - responsible for 500 staff, attending endless evening functions on behalf of her work, the juggling of her personal life (no children but a partner she rarely saw on account of work demands) and I decided then and there that getting the the very top was not the be all and end all, the nirvana that I had imagined it to be. Not having a family does not automatically mean that one's time becomes one's 'own', other non-blood kin just hog it instead! And 'success' is something different for everyone, I realised then that one should take care to sit down and work out for one's own unique self the parameters of achievement, not live according to an off-the-shelf template.
      I think for myself there is definitely a fantasy that somewhere out there is the perfect solution, the perfect life, that someone has it figured out to a T, where as actually, everyone muddles through. And as LPC sagely notes, we are so often the hardest of all on ourselves. Neither my husband nor my offspring mind when i am pressed into writing a consultancy report on an ad hoc basis and have to disappear into my study for a few days, baby clasped to bosom as I think and type. They are far more adaptive and accepting than I give them credit for!
      And I often underestimate how happy it makes them to see me creatively and intellectually engaged in a way that yes, also makes my soul sing, even though that work is no longer my regular life. The occasional change of mind scene away from mothering does energise an otherwise dormant part of me and my son and husband seem to enjoy enjoy that added zing and sparkle that is in the air at home when that happens. At such times i'm inhabiting a topsy turvy world in which my husband, very senior in his own field (which helpfully enables him to be in charge of his own schedule) sits outside the meeting place in the car holding the baby. Networks (safety nets?) of all sorts are essential in order to facilitate tightrope walking and acrobatic juggling and tumbling. My hb & son support me because they love me, which yet again demonstrates how intertwined the differing strands of our lives are and how the personal/family is in fact deeply bound up with the successful professional.
      Hester

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  3. love this pics and also your blog! It's so nice!!! I follow you!
    Pass to my blog and if it likes you follow me too, I will be so glad :D
    kisses
    http://francescagiusti.blogspot.com/

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  4. But I have to ask. If no one else asks these questions, why do you? I mean, who then sets the standards, if not the ones you love?

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    1. It's a good question. The answer might be as simple as me wishing I could do -- not all, but more of the things I love. To do any of them well, though, seems to mean choices.
      And my Catholic, Mother, Eldest-child-of-a-large-family overlapping guilts kick into gear if the choices conflict with some of my programming. I can rationalize myself back to okay fairly well, but occasionally the conflict exposes more regrets than I'm normally aware of.
      You're right, though. The ones I love seem to fare very well, and apparently I'm not even the centre of their universe! ;-)

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  5. i've been contemplating these questions recently too as i prepare to get back into some kind of career after a decade out of work to start off a late-in-life family.

    i feel the guilt of betraying the sisterhood after an incredible education, degree, career options, PhD - turning my back on all of that for a sure academic career-suicide for what? motherhood? are you crazy??? a lot of women would give their all for what you've been handed?

    and then there's the guilt at not being there for the family i chose to have before it was too late and my ovaries shrivelled. mummy's busy with homework/running a small business/work experience internship ... no, she won't be there for your school run ... she'll try to be there for shared reading but she can't promise ... can you guys make yourself dinner tonight cos I need to be out ... the guilt of making our family breadwinner cook at the weekends so he knows where things are in the kitchen ... i haven't had the time to gather groceries ... i'm sorry but i need to cut down on volunteering ... i don't know when i'll have the time ...

    it seems endless and relentless and i don't think it will get easier but i know that others have managed and survived and i think i can make it work for the boys and perhaps even for me.

    peace

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    1. Your position strikes me as being so frustrating, compounded as it is by your continental move. Yet your bravery and your creativity shine through in your new life, and you do carry that earlier education forward, even if it doesn't seem to "count" at the moment.
      But you make me feel better for sharing my little voice, at least, because I think there is sometimes an illusion that the next decision 'round the corner will make it all make sense, and instead, in my experience, there will yet lurk more, different senselessness. I don't think the illusions are helpful -- what does help, for me, is knowing that we give up in order to have, all of us. Or at least, that's what I'm saying this minute. this sentence . . .

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    2. yes - i did come back to re-read the comments and what an amazing dialogue. thank you

      and thank you too for your encouragement. after a week of sulking i'm back crafting my resume and hurling myself out there. i'm glad i made you feel better about sharing your voice too - it is so important, especially to women i think, that we give voice to what's going on in our heads and lives as we try to make sense of it all for ourselves and our families. the duality of self and family is not something IMO that men have to navigate, and it's something that a lot of women feel ashamed to admit. until it's out there in the open, gender parity and equally-shared parenting and family life will always be playing catch up.

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    3. it's true, isn't it? We don't necessarily have to make sense of it, but just putting it out there is helpful. Knowing the variety of experiences helps me; hearing resonances in others' stories, I begin to understand my own narrative.

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  6. A thoughtful post, clear. With not so clear answers. Fumbling is something I'm good at. I wish there were easy answers.

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    1. Oh, me too! Fumbling. . . As for easy answers, I can't even find easy questions!

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  7. This is such an interesting post and interesting comments. I have never had the opportunity to have an academic career but I have carved out a career. I enjoy it most of the time but make it hard on myself by being a perfectionist. Having had the summer off I have had time, the first time in my life as an adult to experience some of the things that make me who I am outside of work. Work became me and it is not the whole of me. There are so many things in life that are simple and important yet we also have to fight hard to do all the other things that make us who we are, in terms of work. We do have choices but we do also have to make decisions. I was only thinking about your posts this week. I like your blog and sharing your life. I was wondering how you do balance it all. I do not know that may women who have as much as you do in their life. Most I know have made some choices, no children but a career, career but no children. I actually don't know that many women who work and enjoy their work. Thank you for raising your points. I hope you find an answer, there is alot you seem happy with but maybe more to come? Much admiration for a PHD in your 50s. I am quite interested in returning to academics at some point so if I could do it in my 50s I would be very happy.

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    1. Yes! "to experience some of the things that make me who I am outside of work"
      As Hester's comments show, an academic life often imposes a sanction against those experiences -- there really isn't supposed to be much that matters outside of work.

      I'm glad that I posted this, if it dispels the sense that I have it all balanced. There are always trade-offs, and for now, mine are worthwhile, but sometimes what gets sacrificed becomes naggingly obvious.

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  8. What a fascinating post and such thoughtful comments. I think we tend to be hardest on ourselves, wishing always for that which we are not quite managing to pull off, although I suspect that no one notices nearly as much as we do ourselves.

    I had an interesting conversation this past weekend with a friend whose husband was also considerably older than herself, he passed away a few years ago, and we talked about how much calmer we were after living through the experience of caring for people going through life-changing and life-ending struggles. It increasingly seems that the petty squabbles that drive people apart, and the internal struggles with ourselves about all we think we think we should be really just drive us apart and make life harder. OF course I am still working on trying to savor the moments, but it does seem that it is the moments of connection that are important not really all the other things, necessary as they may seem.

    Sorry, I'm not particularly coherent here, but that is the case much of the time.

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    1. Mardel, sorry, I'm hogging the comments section here, but your post really resonated with me. My 'moment of epiphany' about how I wanted my life to be was triggered by the sudden death of a close friend my age (then 31). However long I was given, at the end, would I be content with my life choices? Then, it was a resounding 'no' - there was a lot missing. Above all, an absence of relationship: with myself, with a significant other whom I could envisage as a life-long partner, with children of my own, with members of a local and/or like-minded community.
      Very recently, ten years on, another close friend died, my age, 41, and it prompted me to check in with myself - am I now on the right path for me, if it should all end today? A resounding 'yes!' echoed in my head. Reminding oneself daily that today might be all there is is a very useful focus, not morbid at all, surprisingly life affirming actually. It sorts out the 'small stuff' from the 'big stuff'.
      Hester

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    2. No apologies necessary for a richness of comments, please! I think that entering academe after raising my four children (at least, I started back part-time when my youngest was 5, my oldest 14, but they were all out in the world by the time I got my doc.) meant that I always had a set of priorities that questioned those of the research office. And sometimes that set of values -- which get expressed and experienced in the quotidian domestic, in many ways, at least for me -- pulls me back. Unlike you and ebbandflo, though, if I walk away from my teaching position at my later age (almost 60), I'm walking away for good. And I'm not ready to do that yet. I think. . .

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  9. I like Hester's idea of three lives, run simultaneously in order to fulfill all the lives I want to live. Living in an age such as this where we women have so much choice is beyond wonderful, but brings with it "that other woman's voice" who questions our choices. We are not our mothers. I have to remember that, and I have to tell my own daughters the same thing. But is the turmoil avoidable?

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    1. Yes. The difficulty is not so much that I feel guilty about what I'm not doing as that much of it I really wish I could do. I would enjoy doing it. I just don't have the physical energy to do all of it. To live one of the lives, I have to choose to let go part of the others.
      And yes, thinking of what possibilities I model for my daughters and granddaughters is very, very important for me.
      Do you think some women manage to keep the turmoil in their peripheral vision only? At late middle age (and I guess I'm stretching that definition), I don't think the turmoil is avoidable for me. . . although I keep hoping that maybe peace will come with maturity any day now. . . ;-)

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  10. First, I love that picture of the Boston Ivy. The light, the glow of color...just gorgeous.

    Second, I can really relate to this post. My MIL who passed away just over a year ago, was the family "cornerstone." She hosted all of the big family events, often cooking for days beforehand (she was a great cook, too) and even during the years before she retired, managed to work part time and still do all of this. None of us are able (or in some cases, willing) to pick up this role, either due to space or time constraints. I just hosted our traditional Yom Kippur "break fast" (as in "Breaking the Fast") dinner for about 15 people two weeks ago, and knew better than to even try to match what she'd done. I kept it casual. I prepared a few simple dishes but asked everyone to bring something. And you know what, it was still a wonderful gathering. We all do the best we can with where we are.

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    1. Exactly -- this is what I've learned to do with Thanksgiving. I would love to be able to have everyone together, but instead we adjust, we make what we can manage be the best it can be in the ways that matter. I'm sure the spirit of your MIL (whom I feel honoured to have spent a lovely afternoon with -- a charming woman) infused that dinner in part because of your flexibility and your casual warmth.

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  11. Read Penelope Trunk's blog posts on women 'having it all'.
    That is myth.
    We have to choose.
    Lucky and rare is the woman who doesn't suffer ambivalence, after having done so.

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    1. I'll go find those posts, thank you! Yes, I agree that choosing is imperative -- and with that choice will come ambivalence, at some point. It may be an ambivalence that can be reconciled, rationalised, but it's rare that it won't pop up at least occasionally.
      At least, now, we do have a richness of choices, and I try to remember to celebrate that, to remember that I have chosen/am choosing.

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  12. We can only feel gratitude if we prize what we have. There will always be more one could do, be, have... but only when we permit ourselves to rest in the arms of "enough" can we feel wholly grateful.

    This is hard for women (like you, and like me, too) who so easily can get into expecting ourselves (or being expected by others) to do more, give more, be more.

    And on a more practical level, it is another transition when families atomize.

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    1. Oh, yes, this is so much the issue, this last practical one. . . I want to be with them all and not just my own kids and their families, but with my sibs, our parents, etc.
      Always a wish for more. . . but I do try to appreciate enough as well. . .Thanks for helping me sort out.

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I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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