July 29, 2013

Fumbling Toward Independence

In some of the older books I have read like Little Women and Anne of Green Gables, young characters of talent who did not come from a family of means would have to go without a formal education once they reached a certain age, unless some wealthy aunt chose to take them abroad to study art or died and left them a bequest, which usually happened in a moment of crisis for the main character. Before the days of student loans, the future of young people was basically determined by their situation in life and whether their parents needed them to help provide for the family by going out into the world and finding suitable work. Now, whatever our social demographic our children generally live with us until they are finished high school, and in some cases, a local college course, and university is open to anyone with decent grades and the ability to apply for a loan.

When the student loan program was introduced in Canada in 1964 it provided thousands of young people from families of modest means, like myself, the opportunity to pursue their educational dreams. Most students lived as frugally as possible in sparse accommodations using milk crates as furniture and eating tuna and peanut butter to get by until their next care package from home arrived. They found jobs in summer, which rarely paid enough to fund another complete year of education, but they saved as much as possible and supplemented their savings with another loan. When the four years or more were over, they found work in their field and began their careers, paying off their loans month by month and gradually saving up for that first car that wasn't a rusty Datsun 210 or first home which was often their last home until they retired. Student life was simple and a bit of a struggle, but it was also fun and didn't seem to carry quite the financial weight that it seems to now. Paying for one's education provided an excellent transition into adult life and its inherent responsibilities.

If the television commercials of the past decade or so are to be believed, the onus is now on parents to save for their children's post-secondary education. One such ad depicts a man running and jumping over financial obstacles. A narrator says, "At fifty I didn't think I could ever retire. I had a mortgage, a struggling business to keep afloat and kids to put through university. But with the help of (insert financial institution here) I finally did it."  Apparently, it is no longer perceived to be enough to house, clothe and feed one's children until they reach the age of majority, we are expected to provide for them beyond that in order to save them from accruing massive debts of their own. Here is where I hold up my hand and say, 'Wait a minute,' because unless I win the lottery, my kids are paying their own way through life, and I should not have to feel guilty about that.

I advised my boys to begin saving for college in Grade eleven, putting half of their income from their jobs in a savings account. After his high school graduation, my eldest son, Ian had the wonderful opportunity to spend five weeks in Europe. The invitation came quite suddenly from a friend and he decided to spend his savings to go on the trip of a lifetime. We contributed what we could afford, which wasn't much, but he appreciated us helping him with the cost of his food. The trip was a life-changing experience for him and he came home not quite sure what to do next. He very much wanted to move to the city before too long, so, taking my advice he decided to take a year off, stay home and work to save again for college. He managed to find work in a local coffee place and by the following September he only had to take out a small loan to help fund his first term. He found a part time job at a music store in the city to help with his living expenses, but then was unfortunately laid off from his job in the low season. Through friends, we found him a good temporary job, and on a trip to visit him, we treated him to supper at a favourite Italian pizza place. He informed us that he had decided not to return to the college after Christmas. He resented the idea of borrowing more money for another term of college courses he felt he was just taking for the experience of it. He told us that unless he knew exactly why he was taking courses he didn't see the point in going into more debt. The news was a bit tough for me to swallow, but his dad and I understood his reasons for his decision. He wanted to work and be free to pursue his musical ambitions in the city. He knew what college was like, believed it had provided him with a good introduction to life on his own, and could go back at some point if he knew it would benefit him in a real way. When he came home for Christmas he received a call from his former workplace, the music store. He was offered a full time job. He took the job and has since been very active and happy doing what he is doing at this stage of his life.

Our second son will be off with his prized violin to study orchestral performance at a university in Vancouver this fall. Between the scholarships and bursaries he earned in high school and all the savings he has accrued working at a local cafe during his year off, he will be able to fund his first year. After that, he will most likely have to rely on student loans. Each year it will cost him many thousands of dollars and I know he will apply for whatever scholarships become available. He will also work in the summers and save as much as possible. It will certainly not be easy. The average summer job earns a student ten to twelve dollars per hour, and they are lucky to save enough over the summers to cover their tuition and books. Living expenses in Vancouver are high and I certainly feel the pressure to help our son in any way I can.

Admittedly, sometimes I wish my husband and I could afford to put our kids through school, to give them a financial headstart, but I know such a plan is unrealistic for us and the way we have chosen to live and support each other. Furthermore, and at the risk of appearing callous, I ask why we parents keep extending the rights of our children to claim us as their source of funding when they are adults?  If we truly have the means to fund their educations, pay for their fancy weddings and give them a down payment on their first home, then perhaps we should, but if we do not, then I would argue against the belief that we should feel obligated to sacrifice our own happiness to do so. My husband I have done and are doing our best to live good quality lives with our children - putting them in sports, music and drama lessons, feeding them nutritious homemade food, spending time with them and supporting them emotionally - while putting away a little for our own retirement. I had to make my way through school and make decisions in my young adult life based on the reality of my own financial situation, so why should not my children? My husband agrees. He started working in high school to pay room and board to his single mother, worked his way up into a successful retail career and then finally went to college at the age of twenty-seven.

As parents of moderate means we will support our children in the following ways as they enter the realm of adulthood: we will deliver the occasional care package to our sons, and if they run short of money for reasons other than they have spent too much on unnecessary things, we will do our best to help them. We will attend as many of their concerts and events as we can and cheer them on unobtrusively from our seats. We will let them know it is lovely to have them home for the Christmas holidays and will cook their favourite things. We will let them live at home rent-free in the summer if they choose to come home to work and save for the next year of college or university. We will be here for them if they need to call home and talk out a problem or give us some good news. In other words, we will continue to be their mom and dad who love them.

Yes, life is hard for kids in these days of pricey educations and an uncertain job market, but it was a lot harder before social programs, student loans, and flexible course schedules came along. My kids, like many others out there, are smart, creative and full of energy. They can do this! And I'm going to let them.

July 18, 2013

A World of Music, with Small Town Roots

A few weeks into our relocation from a semi-remote rustic lodge on the rocky lake shore of central Vancouver Island to the lowland agricultural community we now call home my mother phoned to see how it was going.

I told her I was enjoying anonymity for the time being after living among a small collection of families who lived and worked at the outdoor education facility. I also told her I was a bit worried about finding a place for myself in this small town where, from what I had seen, it seemed that maintaining perfect lawns and power washing their houses' vinyl siding, driveways and vehicles were the chosen past times of its residents. 'Don't worry', she said. 'The artists are there. They're hiding. They'll reveal themselves sooner or later'. That conversation took place ten years ago.

A few miles north of our town was Harrison Hot Springs, a little hamlet of a resort community built up around a large hotel, my husband's workplace and the reason we had relocated. We thought the village was a magical little spot and visited often that first summer. We had left a lake shore community and it seemed important to visit our new nearby lake as often as possible. The Island was still very fresh in our minds and hearts and we were reluctant to pledge allegiance to our new home. Spending time by the water connected us to our recent past and helped bridge our lives between the two places.

By the fall I had discovered the presence of a little art gallery in a former forest ranger station on the east shore of Harrison Bay, just outside of the village center, and soon after, through a connection of my sister who was heavily involved in the arts community in her town of Prince Rupert, I found myself introduced to, and then elected as the secretary of, the executive of the small district arts council. The former ranger station was also home to the offices of The Harrison Festival of the Arts. The arts council and the Festival Society were separate organizations fulfilling different needs in the community but we shared the facility and the society helped us with running the gallery. Over the next couple of years I got to know the Creative Director of the Festival, Phyllis Stenson and the General Manager, her husband Ed Stenson, as well as their right hand man, Kevin Jones. Within two years of moving to the area I was working for them coordinating the festival Children's Day, a position I held for five years.

Working with Phyllis and Ed was like being a cog in a well oiled machine. Phyllis and I soon discovered we were both detail-oriented people. Phyllis shared her strategies with me on how to cope with the many small, but important aspects of putting on the event, which were, basically, to be super organized, work away steadily, and if things go sideways to repeat her mantra: 'If my family is well, I've got my health and they can't put me in jail, then everything is alright.' Ed, ever steady, always willing to share in the humour of any situation, helpful, encouraging, relaxed and realistic, was the rock that worriers  like me needed to lean against when the going got tough.

From our early days in the area, we attended the Festival, a ten day celebration of world and roots music and art. Soon, we were all volunteering, my husband, our four kids and myself after I had handed the Children's Day reins to someone else. From annual festival to annual festival we began to see a pattern. Not only did every year's festival shine with some unexpected performances such as the gospel-punk band Reverent Peyton from Lousiana, and the eleven piece very loud theatrical folk band Bellowhead from Britain, and some expected excellent ones like uber-guitarist David Lindley and traditional Cape Breton group Beolach or the dance band Rastrillos from Mexico, it also shone with the coming together of locals and non locals alike who shared a love for great music. People from every walk of life attended the free concerts on the beach stage. Enjoying the lake breezes in the shade of the willow trees and the Festival tents, young families, teenagers, high income people, low income people, elderly people and those with special needs sat on lawn chairs or blankets on the grass in front of the stage. And there were also those people who, having not expected to do anything but walk by the spectacle, found themselves spellbound by the sights and sounds and vibrations of energy emanating from the performers on the stage. As the Festival regulars met at the start of each day's concerts they asked each other, "Did you see the concert last night? Wasn't he/she/they amazing?" or even shared critiques: "I didn't care for that performer. Every song sounded the same to me."

The famous willow tree by the beach stage

Every July the Festival spans two full weekends of beach stage and hall performances as well as an all-day art market set up all along the esplanade. The Friday and Saturday night concerts are generally rousing and dance-able giving everyone a chance to cut loose and 'leave it all on the dance floor'. Sunday evening's concerts start earlier in the evening than the other nights' and are generally more thoughtful or stirring, and are generated to put everyone back together before normal, non festival life resumes. This planning of who should perform when and where is no accident. Over the years, Phyllis has fine-tuned her performance schedule, working with performers' agents to keep as many variables in mind as possible, which is an art in itself. Ed and his helpers run the production side of things to keep the Festival running smoothly, troubleshooting along the way and coming up with umpteen creative solutions. Our eldest was one of those hired stage hands last summer and saw first hand how well the event was run. Of course, very little of an event of this magnitude would be possible without hundreds of volunteer hours. It is to Ed and Phyllis' credit that volunteers like us clamor for an opportunity to become involved in the festival.  After all, we are treated so well, given a free pass to all ten of the evening hall shows (which are the only events in the festival that require purchased tickets) and have a party thrown for us at the end in thanks for our services. Well, we do work pretty hard sometimes.

This year's Harrison Festival of the Arts was the 35th annual, and Phyllis and Ed's last. Phyllis and Ed are retiring, and Kevin is moving on to other projects. In keeping with the way things work around the Festival, succession planning was well under way over a year ago, and come September two new people will be at the helm of the event. The festival society board will continue on providing continuity, focus, and support, but the new directors, who are younger and bring different skills and talents with them will undoubtedly put their own stamp on the event we have all come to love and look forward to each year.

There is no doubt that I consider the Harrison Festival to be one of the main reasons I began to feel at home here in this valley. I have met several friends through the festival, found work and made connections that have proven valuable to my sense of community. The Festival has also become a family affair, and I know my children will go out into the world seeking and perhaps even helping to create similar positive and uplifting community events wherever they choose to call home in the future. Long live the Festival! And a big thanks to Phyllis and Ed, and Kevin, who have worked so hard for many, many years to bring a rich and diverse world of music and art to all of us in this quiet corner of the upper Fraser Valley.

As someone out there said, the 'earth' without 'art' is just 'eh'.

The title of this post is taken from the theme of the Harrison Festival: World Music and Art, Small Town Roots.

I have taken a little summer hiatus from blogging and reading blogs but it is apparent that it is now over. See you soon! 

July 2, 2013

A Room of my Own

The summer after I graduated from high school I took a train from Revelstoke to Winnipeg to spend the summer with my sisters who lived in that fair city of the Canadian prairies back then. That summer of '87 was filled with touring around the city visiting sites and cafes, and of staying up late on humid nights. Of looking after the house plants of a friend of my eldest sister and riding my bike down Portage Avenue using hand signals to change lanes in the not-too-busy traffic. Of helping my eldest sister Monica cook - she was pregnant and ill at the sight of any meat whatsoever. Of keeping the attentions of an older guy named Garth at bay: 'No thank you' said with a smile.

Monica and her husband and daughter were moving back to our hometown in BC at the end of August, so, after my summer away I returned home with them. In those days you could just show up to our local college at the end of summer and register, so on the advice of my Dad, I did just that. He put a quick stop to my ideas of taking a gap year to 'you know, just work' saying: you will be bored.

I was the youngest of six children in a three bedroom house and now that the last of my siblings had moved out I finally had a room of my own. My mom suggested we redecorate it in the weeks before classes would start. We went down to the hardware store and chose a paint colour called Apple White, which was a pale, pale shade of green like the Transparent variety of apple. It took four thick coats to cover the wallpaper - taking it down would have also brought the plaster down so we didn't dare try - and I brushed and rolled on those four coats accompanied by a cassette tape of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony which echoed in that empty room with its Victorian era high ceilings. The floor of my room was hardwood in need of refinishing, so instead of undertaking that multi-stepped process we simply scrubbed the existing dark brown carpet on our hands and knees and brought it back to soft and fluffy life. I had inherited a very pretty glass topped antique white dresser from my Granny, I had a double futon bed from who-knows-where and a little painted desk. I put up art posters and dance posters, china masks and a little curio shelf also inherited from my Granny. White and muted green curtains framed my window which looked out on the back yard cherry tree over the kitchen roof. When the work was done, I sat on my bed with the blankets and pillows arranged 'just so' to view the final effect - and saw that it was good. Not too cluttered, bright yet calming and airy. Just right for a girl starting her post-secondary education.

I wrote countless essays at my desk in that pale green room, dreamed my girlhood dreams, cried my girlhood tears, ached my girlhood heartaches. My room was at the top of the winding staircase, next to the bathroom.Often, on their way up the stairs members of my family would poke their heads into my room to make a favourable comment about my new decor or to ask me something. Kiko, our black cat with the little white patch under his chin made many visits to me in my room, looking for someone to curl up with. My Quebec exchange student partner, Nadine stayed with me in that room as well as my sister Clare when she returned home temporarily from a four month trip to New Zealand and Australia, waking me up from my customary deep sleep to surprise me. One fall I gave my room over to my eldest sister Monica and her family while they stayed with us between houses, my cherubic little niece Gisele's white-blonde curls glowing in the sunlight from my window.

When I left home for good, my parents put a new green carpet, a few shades darker than the walls, in my room and turned it into a library/study. It also serves as a guest room for single guests sometimes. Sadly, the cherry tree which bloomed into glorious pinky whiteness each spring had to be taken down. Its former ground is now a part of my parents' large and productive garden, the view still lovely with climbing roses on the fence and honeysuckle against the garden shed.

Last summer, my eldest daughter also got a room of her own. We chose a pale shade of sky blue for the walls and rented a carpet cleaner to give new life to the cream coloured wool carpet. She has decorated her room in her own style, which is somewhat similar to mine but updated, of course, and with her own treasures. My youngest daughter also has her own room now. Slowly, with her sister's help she is making it into her own little space in which to dream, read, and practice her lines. Hopefully, the girlhood tears and heartaches will be at a minimum, but I'm not counting on it.  Apples don't fall far from trees, as they say. However, when they do happen we will be here with comforting words, guidance and cups of tea, just as my family was for me when I was growing up.

The delightful painting above is:  'a girl writing' by Henriette Brown (1829-1901). It lives at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.