Apr 29, 2016

Life Lessons

Modern society can be a major drag. We are bombarded with people telling us what to think and how to behave (and publicly shaming us if we dare to disagree); news feeds tell us what is "trending" and therefore "important"; we use emojis instead of words or deeds to express ourselves; we need constant approval in the form of "friends" and "followers"  (and, oh, how I resist that word) as validation that we are worthwhile. We're living online instead of out there in the world. But out there in the world, a world that is frequently hostile and dangerous, yes, but also infinitely lovely and vital, is where the real lessons are learned, the sorts of lessons that stick, even if you don't recognize their value at the time.

Here are 9 things I learned when I was a child as a result of actually experiencing things:

When you are standing in the middle of a field, with nothing around you but golden waves of prairie grass and the endless blue of the cloudless summer sky, you see the arc of the horizon and understand instinctively that the earth is round. Lesson #1: Science is right.

This girl sitting in this wheelchair, with her gnarled hands and lolling head and crooked spine, her unintelligible moans and grunts, this girl you spend mandatory time with twice a week at school, this girl who is two years older than you but who cannot read or learn her times tables or run around outside at recess, this girl who will probably never kiss a boy or eat with a fork but who can still laugh, this girl is just a girl, a girl like you but with really bad luck. Lesson #2: Life is not fair.

Dogs will form packs, and they will grow wild and daring and dangerous, and they will roam the streets of your prairie city searching for anything smaller than they are to attack (the neighbourhood cats, or your younger brother, maybe, or you), until someone (your father, maybe) bashes the alpha male's skull in with a baseball bat, and then they will disband, or at least stay away from your part of town. Lesson #3: Pack mentality is dangerous, in dogs and in humans.  

On your last day in Calgary before you move to Saskatchewan again, you finally learn to ride your bike. You are 8 years old, and you ride around and around and around the block while your parents load boxes into the old blue trailer, the summer breeze on your face, nothing but you and this old blue bike and this new-found feeling of freedom, and you wonder why you let the fear of falling, of a bump or a scrape or a bruise, prevent you from learning before now. Lesson #4: Don't be afraid to get hurt a little. It's probably worth the risk.

You watch half-hour videos of the trickster in Native History class, whisper "chickadee-dee-dee-dee-dee" to the cute boy who sits beside you, the boy with the long black hair and golden-brown skin, to make him laugh. You can't play together after school because he gets bused back to the reserve. Adults complain about the stupid Indians, the thieves and drunks and criminals, but this boy is your friend. Lesson #5: Racism exists in the world, and it is ugly.

A group of older girls relentlessly teases your best friend, these girls push her and pinch her and call her names, although for some reason they leave you alone. One day, while walking home from school, these girls confront your friend, who is in a cast, start yelling and shoving, and you are angrier than you ever thought you could possibly be at the way they are picking on someone weaker than they, someone you care about, so you look around for a weapon and pick up a large rock, fully intending to smash one of them in the face, send blood spurting and bone flying, but an adult arrives and breaks things up. Lesson #6: You are human, and therefore capable of great violence.

When your mother is sad, she will play "I Want to Know What Love Is," by Foreigner, over and over again on the stereo, and then she won't be as sad anymore. Lesson #7: Music helps.

When you are sad, sitting in an old wooden chair with the rope seat fraying beneath your bum, knees pulled up, crying into your hands, your old black cat, Fats, who is blind in one eye from that time your parents sent him away to a farm but he wouldn't let you get away that easily, so he showed up again a year later, skinny and with that one milky eye, and stared at the place where the food dish used to be like nothing had happened, so then there was no way you could ever get rid of him again because he obviously belongs to you, will come over and look up at you and meow and you know he is asking if you're okay, he doesn't want anything, doesn't want food or to go out, he just wants to comfort you. Lesson #8: Life is better with a cat around.

Pippi breaks the rules if they don't make any sense and you better not mess with her because she's way stronger than you. Lucy is adventurous and brave and compassionate, and she knows that other worlds than this exist out there. Laura wants to be a good girl for her Pa, but she sometimes can't help getting into trouble. Mary is lonely but doesn't let that stop her from doing amazing things, like bringing a whole garden back from the dead and helping a boy learn to walk again. Anne will never stop dreaming, even if she does have red hair. Lesson #9: Reading is good for you.

(I suppose you could argue that sitting still and reading books is not really being out there in the world, but then you have probably forgotten about what it means to play. The experiences of these characters became mine, and in my imagination, at play, I was every one of them. I would not be the woman I am today without these girls.)

The world is pretty shitty a lot of the time, but it can be pretty wonderful, too. Riot on.