Friday, January 9, 2009

Bright lights, big city

Image courtesy of

I'm off to the big city tomorrow. It's my first weekend away since we moved here. That's not entirely true -- I've left the farm to visit family and friends but I've always had the kids with me.

But this time I'm going solo. And I'm really looking forward to it.

Don't get me wrong -- I truly love this place. But I'm spending the weekend with some girlfriends who I've known since God was a boy. I went to grade school with three of them, and junior kindergarten with one of them.

What amazes me most is that regardless of the different paths life has take us and all the moves, jobs, marriages, births, illnesses and stresses we've collectively gone through, we've stayed friends. I guess you just can't replace that kind of history.

There's only one downside: I've got to head into the Big Smoke to see them. And I'm pretty grumpy about it.

I know, I know -- Toronto is one of the most multicultural places in the world, it's a place of opportunity, a leading economic centre and home to an amazing array museums, schools, diverse neighbourhoods -- I know the spiel firsthand. I spent my first 17 years living there (and another two years in my twenties when I went back to school.)

But now I find there's too many cars/people/shops/houses/noises/smells/messes/stresses.

Just Too Much.

So how did this city girl go all country? To be honest, I'm still trying to figure that out. (I think my dad is too.) But for one thing, I know I've always been passionate about wide open spaces and the outdoors.

And I've got the artwork to prove it.

Just before our move, I found this undated poem. Given the meticulous writing, I'm assuming it was in primary school, perhaps grade five or six, before my handwriting went completely to hell and morphed into the scrawling mess it is now.

If you can't read, it goes like this:

I said in my heart, "I can't stand the indoors. I need some freedom to run and play. I'm going outside where the leaves are deep and feel the cold breeze on my face all day." Summer is gone and fall is here. The leaves are falling to the ground. Children are out to romp in the sun. It's the best time of year around. The End. By Fiona C."

I'm the first to admit it's a good thing I left my poetry to my grade school self but the essential sentiments, about the outdoors and freedom, remain true to this day.

As adults, I think we've got to remember the things that made us really happy as kids. I mean that blissful, fully-present-in-the-moment, absolutely-exuberant kind of happy. And yet it's too easy to forget what was once important. I know I almost did.

After university (the first time), armed with a degree in international development and history (a major and minor, both of which I loved), I wasn't sure what to do next. But the boy I was completely enamoured with at the time (and still am) knew he wanted to go back to college. So I said since I wasn't sure I was ready to join CUSO or go gallivanting overseas just now, if he went to school, I'd work.

A friend of ours heard that I was looking for a good paying job and his firm was hiring. So I applied and got my first real job. I even had a fancy title: Tax Group Coordinator.

Yep, I worked in an accounting firm where the stereotypes were all true. It lasted three months. Looking back, I'm surprised I made it that long.

One day I was kvetching to a friend, the one that I've known since kindergarten, about my miserable dilemma and she said that if I was serious about quitting, her firm was hiring. It'd be a two hour commute, each way (one hour drive, one hour train) but it was good pay and great opportunity. Plus, we'd get to work together.

I applied and got my second real job, this time as an assistant at a investment firm. Can't you just picture it? Nylon stockings, heels, suits -- the works. I looked all grown-up. I figured I was well on my way to becoming a capital "P" professional. And I was good at my job. So much so that within six months the biggest producer (= most successful advisor) in the branch wanted me on his team.

Here I go, I thought -- I'm moving up. This is the way it's supposed to be, right?

I lasted an entire year with him-- and again, I can't believe I made it that long. Even then, fresh out of university, I knew something was wrong when the person I worked for had a picture of his house on his desk instead of his family. He'd brag about his $4,000 suits and tailor-made dress shirts and yet he'd asked me to lie to his kids when they called and asked when daddy was coming home.

Then one night, after working late again, I had to take a bus part way home as the trains were no longer running. I started talking with the man sitting next to me. He was young (probably early 30s), immaculately dressed and a corporate lawyer with one of the big Bay Street firms.

He was a capital "P" professional with the wife and two kids, a designer house with a matching designer dog -- and he was absolutely miserable. He told me he hated his job -- the long hours, how different the practice of law was from the theory, how cut-throat and competitive it all was -- but he was trapped by "golden handcuffs," he said. That was the first time I'd heard that phrase and I remember thinking, I never want to be like that.

Then along came an opportunity to move to another branch, closer to home, with an advisor who I really liked and respected. He had a great sense of humour, he was fun and he believed in a good work-life balance. It meant I'd no longer get to work with my kindergarten bud -- the one part of my job that I loved -- but it was a chance at happiness I couldn't pass up. I thought maybe working for a better boss would be the difference and that I could make this "good" life work for me.

So I moved to the new branch, worked closer to home (by then, we'd gotten married, that boy and I, and we decided to split the commute) and I met some new fabulous girlfriends. I'd take walks by the lake at lunchtime or on rainy days, I'd visit the library. My boss, an Ironman finisher several times over, even inspired me to take up running.

And yet, I was still miserable. I couldn't shake the feeling that this was it, this is what I'd be doing the rest of my life? I had a great boss, a "good" job with a bright future (I'd just been offered a big raise and a promotion) and yet it wasn't enough. Not for me.

Now, I'm not trying to trash the world I worked in. I have many dear friends in the investment business who are lovely people, good citizens and all that, and they're still very, very good at their jobs. It's just I couldn't find my happiness there. And when you spend 50 hours a week (or more) in a place, it was too high a price for me to pay.

"You can do anything," my boss would always tell me.

So, I quit. And this time, it was my turn to go back to school. Journalism school, of all things. I'd always love to learn, to read and to write. I joked I had the attention span of a gnat and that I could never commit to a single profession because I was interested in too many things. Writing gave me a chance to explore my world and perhaps bring a deeper understanding to my place in it.

I replaced a secure job, good pay, great benefits and a bright future to with a freelance writing life characterized by insecurity, poor pay, no benefits and an uncertain future. (Hmm, seeing the cold hard truth of my decision, I can't believe Lucas didn't try and shake some sense into me. But he didn't, and I thank him for it.)

If you met me for the first time today, you'd never dream that I'd once been climbing the corporate ladder. The only clue is that I still do some writing for business publications (but more often than not, there's some kind of 'green' slant to them.)

I've traded my heels for wellie boots and my suits for smelly coveralls. I still go for walks at lunchtime but the destination has become the barn, not the lake or library. And my benefits and bonuses are no longer monetary -- but I've been able to stay home with our kids. I'd trade dental coverage for that privilege any day.

The neat thing is, once you leave "security" for "insecurity", any subsequent exits -- like when Lucas quit his job and went freelance too -- seem a little less scary. I think that's partly why we're here today.

So while this is by no means the first time that I've gone back to the big city since I left at 17, it's the first time I've been back since we moved to the farm.

It's a chance to come full circle, to go back to the place where I came from that was once home, spend 24 hours with a group of ladies that I love and say goodbye to it at the end of the weekend.

For I know by the time Sunday afternoon comes, I'll be sorely missing not just my kids, but the clear skies, the fresh air, the wide open spaces and the freedom of the countryside.

And when you ache to return to a place, you know that place has become home.

So to quote John Denver, who's much better at poetry than I ever was:

Well I wouldn’t trade my life for diamonds and jewels
I never was one of them money hungry fools
I'd rather have my fiddle and my farmin’ tools
Thank God I’m a country boy

Yeah, city folk drivin’ in a black limousine
A lotta sad people thinkin’ that’s mighty keen
Son, let me tell ya now exactly what I mean
Thank God I’m a country boy

Thank god, I'm a country girl!

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