It’s interesting to reflect on what a group of kids set out for and what we ended up with.

What sort of life would you choose?

Would you choose a life of glorious highs even if they were coupled with extreme lows?

Perhaps would you prefer a life of security insulated from profound lows but also devoid of superlatives?

Such was the gauntlet tossed down that long ago day. It was a question being bandied about by a clutch of barely adolescent girls. We were up to the task; we were in possession of the wisdom of the ages, in our case, the teen-ages. We were convinced of our sophistication. We dealt only in absolutes. It was lunch time. We were in the bleachers in the school gymnasium eating our brown bag lunches. The girls gathered in inviolable batches. The boys would form their own circles at a distance. There was no cross pollination. That would have been too risky; there was nowhere to take cover, no reasonable ruse.  And so we girls used this time to figure out the case law of how the world worked. 

And so we girls used this time to figure out the case law of how the world worked. 

Amongst the sacrosanct institutions and places in the world – think Mount Olympus, papal conclaves, the UN – the bleachers in my high school were the corridors of power. From these lofty heights edicts were handed down, disciplines enforced, codes unencrypted. Within free throw distance of the basketball hoops, shunnings were deliberated, pecking orders established and merit measured. We would speculate on the private lives of our teachers and gossip about the senior students. Behaviour and display was dissected with something approaching academic rigour.  As much as there were five classes a day, the most serious lessons came during the lunch hour. This was our crucible.

As much as there were five classes a day, the most serious lessons came during the lunch hour. This was our crucible.

Photo of Gymnasium by Fulvio Ambrosanio

I remember the question. I remember my answer. I remember my sandwich.

We sat with our PB&J, or tuna, or cheese and pickle sandwiches balanced on our knees and made our declarations. They weren’t what I was expecting. So much for reckless youth. 

I was mildly shocked that each and every one of us didn’t choose adventure and achievement and epic love even if the price to pay was a degree of despair and desolation. Didn’t we all figure that the negatives would balance themselves out against the glory; that transcendent moments of insight and connection were worth the commensurate dark days? And really? If we were being honest, didn’t each and every one of us want to be famous?!

One of the girls said she just wanted to be happy. She’d forsake apex experiences in exchange for tranquility, even if the price was mediocrity. She chose the middle path. Fat lot of good it did her; she did everything right, that one, but trouble and heartbreak found her, just the same. Another girl said she wanted the peaks and the valleys; suitcases and suitors. Her diary would need double padlocks. That one married her high school sweetheart, moved to a rural community and manages to get her Christmas cards out by the first of December each year. 

Photo by Artem Kniaz

It’s interesting to reflect on what a group of kids set out for and what we ended up with.  On balance, this clutch of young womanhood chose the predictable if it would save them from having to wade through any measure of misery. What we chose, however, proved to have little bearing on the lives we actually got.  

What we chose, however, proved to have little bearing on the lives we actually got.  

My answer to this thorny question all those years ago was that I chose the extremes. I said I wanted to see all the colours. What I’ve learned in the years since those sandwich summits is that, as much as teenagers think you get to choose, you don’t. Very few of us think that our lives are easy and highs and lows are relative.

But choice is an illusion.

The only thing you get to choose is how you walk through the fire.

And you might also get to choose your sandwich.

Cheese and pickle is always nice.

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This week’s question for readers:


Responses to last week’s question:

How are your pandemic projects going? Anything to report?

My project involved windows…at home, in stores, through car windows and windows into history. We couldn’t reach friends/family physically during isolation. I borrowed an Internet project asking people to send pictures of what they saw through their windows during isolation. Our local and international friends and family sent us amazing pictures and we were suddenly closer. Next – still socially distancing – I planned a car club scavenger hunt that involved local history and also supported four businesses. Next, a photo album and diary for my grandnieces, hallmarking iconic Covid sights…line-ups with masks on, etc. Documenting living history.

Laurel Gurnsey

My COVID project is to limit myself to one bottle (355 ml) of shampoo for the entire year of 2021. I cracked it open on New Years Day. It feels like there is about 20% left in the bottle, so on track. A little dab’ll do ya! And no, I am not bald.

John Ydenberg

My project last summer was a variation on the Ross’s: I set running routes taking me across every Metro Vancouver bridge crossing either salt water or the Fraser River (24 by my count). Each experience was distinct: from the structural elegance of the Port Mann, to the rickety grittiness of the Pattullo, the austere isolation of the Alex Fraser, and the simply functionality of the Deerling Island Bridge. Even if you’ve driven over a bridge a thousand times, a walk or run across it will offer new perspectives. It’s nice the pandemic has opened our eyes to such experiences.  

Kevin Hanson

Early pandemic days I found myself sorting family photos. Realizing that our feminine family closets burst with garments that tied us to a personal memory – ordinary days, special days, and bleak days of WW2, I became inspired and so, at age 79 and with no artistic accomplishments, my pandemic project began. With a proper sketch pad, a good artist’s pencil, acrylic paint and a sparkly pen pleasing images emerged. My “sketch space” became my place of peace, transporting me to softer, more colourful days, taking me away from the outside world with daily numbers of illness and death.

Jo-Ann Zador

I thought I was over it. After three non-fiction books that sold moderately and three novels that plunged silently into the depths of Amazon’s pool of 20 million titles, the time to shutter my keyboard had come.  The pandemic halted my travels at 99 countries and I had nothing to write about in the way of travel articles. So, four months into the pandemic I updated my book, Wide World of Cruising: that was hard work.  Weeks later my fingers crawled to the keyboard and another White Rock novel takes shape: that’s fun. Love writing fiction. Can’t stop. Won’t stop

Jim Couper

I treated the pandemic as a gift of time and wrote a memoir of my mother (“On the Cusp of Time”, now published) and a memoir of my father (“Home from Sea and Hill”, in the works as we speak, coming out at Christmas). As an only child of older parents, I spent a lot of time listening to their stories: my mother as a British First World War volunteer overseas in the very first Women’s Army, and later an emigree to Canada; and my father who left home in Parry Sound to come west at the turn of the last century. 

Hilary Clark

Walking throughout Steveston Village my friend and I saw more than usual. Taking my cell phone I recorded pictures of interest. Two stand out – waiting at Phoenix Pond, Hope (a Blue Heron we named) was sitting on a log directly below me. I snapped her picture only to discover I had actually caught her in full flight! The second photo was of an Asian woman playing beautiful music on a Chinese Hulusi flute. As a memento, I made a coffee table book of my pictures.

JoAnn Fox

I got into my pandemic project purely by accident, helping some friends who run NewWestTV. The pandemic was announced on the news that day. I suggested they do a series about ordinary individuals in New Westminster. We will hear about politicians and celebrities, how about ordinary folks? The next day they called to say – why don’t you do it? They provided equipment, taught me to edit film and gave me total creative control. I write for a living, but this was a whole new ball game. Knowing nothing about what this would entail, I thought it would be a distraction during the pandemic and said yes. Thus, Zooming the Pandemic, my 8-part series that ran for a little over a year was born.

Deni Loubert

7 thoughts on “HIGHS AND LOWS”

  1. I’d choose a life with peaks despite the valleys. I am envious of the smart and likeable people whose lives seem to be free of worries. However, the most memorable hikes I have done over the years are the ones with steep uphills and downhills. I think life should be like that as I wouldn’t appreciate the view at the top as much if I did not hike up from the bottom.

  2. Hi Jane, I do enjoy your column. Here is my story.
    I chose a path of peaks and valleys very early in life. We lived in a little war time house on East 28th @ Culloden. In July of 1952 @ the tender age of three I was riding my tricycle in front of the house. My Mom was inside feeding my twin sisters, aged 14 months, their lunch. When she looked out for me I was gone !
    Of course she was frantic and a neighbourhood search was on. My disappearance was aired on the radio. Soon there was a call from a lady who found me in her garden playing with her child. I had cycled all the way to 25 th and Dumfries !
    In 1972 I married Brit who had the travel bug . We have travelled all over the world. We been together for 50 yrs., which has been an adventurous mix of peaks and valleys complemented with respites of the safety and calm of our beautiful province.

  3. Your question will prompt realizations.

    Peaks and valleys in the past have certainly helped me navigate the future, with a view of pot-holes and bumps to avoid. Looking backwards provides me with more certainty of satisfaction moving forwards. A flat easy track behind me would be no help at all, and deciding the future would be by feel of today only.

    On a global scale, if the World wipes out historical peaks and valleys, and we decide the future by instant reactions to millions of diverse feelings today, then we will revert to a jungle.

    Thanks for making me look backwards.

  4. In my youth I was a helpless romantic and tried to embrace life with passion, adventure and a willingness to take risks. My romanticism however, on occasion has propelled me to reach too far with agonizing consequences. The pain and the despair in those moments seemed overwhelming and never ending but invariably I would recover and throw myself back into the flames once again.
    This propensity to subject myself to such anguish is partly explained by the fact that a man’s brain is not fully developed until the age of 25 and what is missing are the planning and consequences functions. Now many years later with a fully developed brain my enthusiasm for suffering is considerably diminished…

  5. My parents raised me to be safe and secure with everything. I will never forget the lessons they taught me. As I got past high school, I realized that I realized that I was seeking some peaks and valleys (perhaps a little rebellion!) What ALWAYS stuck with me was those life lessons that have helped keep me grounded over life’s trail.
    I will forever be in their debt.

    Scot Shelby

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