A life less ordinary…

Image taken from polywogy69's photostream on Flickr under Creative Commons License


Film and literature drum into us that to live a full and meaningful life, we must avoid the ordinary.

Everything from Robert Frost’s The Road not Taken to more recent films like Dead Poets Society, where Mr Keating implores his students to seize the day, tell us to make our lives extraordinary.

Remember that scene near the beginning of the film where Keating takes the boys down to see the old boy photos, whispering in their ears like the ghosts of the past?

Keating: They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? — Carpe — hear it? — Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.

On shows like Mad Men and films like Revolutionary Road, we see the lives of ordinary house wives spread before us, and their yearning for something more extraordinary.

In Revolutionary Road April’s dream of fleeing suburbia and taking her family to France, breaking the mould and being the primary breadwinner, brings a breath of fresh air to the film. You feel things beginning to turn around.  But it is not to be and the dream is crushed and they revert to ‘ordinary’ life.

When I was in high school I embraced the ordinary.

I went to a selective school, and by embracing the ordinary and aiming for universities like UWS or Macquarie, I wasn’t the same as the majority, heading off to Sydney Uni for law or medicine, or knuckling down to business studies or accounting. I aspired to do horticulture or teaching. I dropped my earlier ‘lofty’ dreams of physio. The ordinary was extraordinary.

Seeking out the ordinary wasn’t conscious, but I think I did want to be different, and the ordinary was a way to do that then. Deep down I think I also thought that I was never made of the stuff that would let me ‘make my life extraordinary’.

Who was I to try?

In my late 20s I realised my pattern of life was to rarely take breath.

I had always jumped from one thing to another, without pausing for air. When I was in one part of my life, I rarely appreciated the moment I was in – I was too busy hatching my next move. And so I jumped from school into uni, from undergrad into honours, from honours into a PhD and from PhD (well technically this was an overlapping phase) into marriage. A dog, kids and my first full time job followed soon after.

Now, time spent in the same spot has forced me to breathe. I’ve been in my marriage 8 years, had kids for 6 years, been in the same job for 5 years, and lived in our house for 4 years. And now, after taking a breath, I long for my life to be less ordinary.

But how do you make your life extraordinary when you’re in your 30s and beginning to get grey hairs? Now, when it feels too late, I yearn for excitement and grandeur. I don’t regret what I have at all, but I want to be more, and do more.

After jumping from life phase to life phase without pausing, I feel like I’ve reached a rock in my river crossing that is in the middle of nowhere. I’ve either got to set up camp on this tiny rock island for the next 30 years till the retirement boat comes to pick me up and take me across the river, hop a few rocks backwards and change route, or dive in and swim.

Most of us still dream of breaking free.

We have plans for tree changes and sea changes. But as a 30+ year old, it feels like the reality of a career change is that you have to take steps backwards, retrain and start again.

We often envy people who choose to dive from their rock and swim across the river. To break out of a life rut and ‘risk it all at one turn of pitch and toss’. There are people who do this with kids and a mortgage. Start the business idea they’ve always had in the back of their head, or pack up and get a job overseas.

But what is worse?

Not to try and to never know if you could ‘live the dream’, or to dive in a fall badly, your home and family going for the ride? It’s a hard call to make.

I dream of being a writer and having a house in a seaside hamlet. I dream of moving to New York City, or Washington or Boston, not forever, but for a while. I dream of being an academic. I dream of being a stay at home mum on a property out of Lismore growing veges. I dream of studying at Oxford or Cambridge. Heck I even dream of the mythical casting agent stopping me in the street and telling me I have to star in their movie (and anyone who knows me will think that is funny!).

I don’t dream of sitting in front of a computer working for the government.

So where do we take solace – all us folk who work Monday – Friday, day in, day out? Who live in ordinary houses, in ordinary suburbs, and raise our families in ordinary ways.

I try to remind myself that what I have is amazing.

Living close to work and being home 10 mins after you leave is a blessing. Having a flexible work place so I really share my life with my children has been amazing.   But someone also recently described this flexiblity as golden handcuffs: because you are tied to your job – albeit with shiny jewel encrusted cuffs.

I try to give myself the reality check that having enough food to eat, clean water and a roof over your head is to be among the fortunate in the world. And I am truly grateful for that. But I also can’t but help my thoughts returning to the world I am in, and the battle between ordinary and extraordinary.

Perhaps our battle with ordinariness explains why one of the most cherished Australian films is The Castle.

The Castle is the one film where we get to hero-worship a (very) ordinary Australian family for remaining just who they are. And we can celebrate the Kerrigan’s right down to their shiny blue bug zappers.

So am I going to sit on my rock for another 30 years?

I don’t know. Right now I’m sticking my toe in and seeing how cold the water is, and making sure I brought floaties with me so the kids don’t sink if I chuck them in (or even better teaching them to swim). Plus I’m the kind of girl who’ll probably only jump in if I take my partner with me.

So for now, I’m off to find my comfort in music. Because that’s where I can seek inspiration from Man of La Mancha and ‘Dream the Impossible Dream’ and take solace in the best classical piece that pays tribute  to us ordinary folk – Fanfare for the Common Man.

Do you dream of breaking free? Do you think you will ever get there?

Image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/polywog/4431363268/sizes/l/in/photostream/ with thanks to polywogy69.

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About greenleftyidealist

Green, left and idealistic. A mum, a runner, a rogainer, a public servant and wanna be writer. My dog is golden.
This entry was posted in psychology, women, work and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A life less ordinary…

  1. Ken Coulter says:

    Before entering the world of government, I spent 25 years working in the nonprofit and charitable sector. Mydream, my goal has always been to “leave it better than you found it”….what ever “it” is. Charity work allowed me to do just that, working with the most vulunerable, helping organizations improve their programs and services.

    When I came to work for the Province of Ontario in Canada, I believed I could still live up to the challenge of leaving it better than I found it. After all, that should be the mantra of any government, shouldn’t it? But the unfortunate truth of things is that bureaucracies are often focused on short term goals established by political masters that have little to do with making things better in a tangible way. So, now I find myself in my second career, doubting my decisions, wondering if I should be making a break.

    This would be a simple decision if it were not for the fact that my life has changed dramatically in the past few months with the arrival of my daughter. Now, my future plans need to include the provision of security and comfort for my family. It’s not just about me any more. Now, I’m thinking my goal of leaving things better than I found them could be achieved by raising a socially conscious, loving, empathetic and confident woman who can make the world a better place in her own way, in her own time. But, is this putting too much pressure on her to subscribe to my views and live the life I wanted to live? Is it fair to my child to try to live vicariously through her? Or, is it in fact our moral responsibility to instil in her my most closely held values and do my utmost to ensure she embraces the concepts of justice and social responsibility?

    I would not be happier if my daughter grew to become a social activist, a vegetarian, a believer in non-violent civil disobedience. I would feel that I had achieved my dream, I would be leaving this place better than I found it with my daughter continuing to push for change. I could say that I had crossed the river…but would I be accomplishing this at the expense of my daughter’s free will to choose the life she wants to live?

    • Thanks for your beautiful thoughts Ken.

      It is amazing the differences to your decision making once you have kids. And there are so many arguments about how these decisions should be made. Some people are advocates for just doing what you want with your life, stressing that it’s important for kids to have happy parents and to see you valuing your own life. Others say the crucial early years of a kids life need stabilty, and that it is our duty as a parent to provide that as selflessly as possible. Certainly there are far more considerations than just yourself.

      I take a bit of solace in knowing I’m trying to adopt an approach where I at least try to weight all the different arguments, and make an informed choice. I may not be entirely happy with my employment at the moment, but I am happy that I have the flexiblity to be around for my kids, and place a high value on that. And hopefully whilst we still work for government we can keep trying to do our part in making headway in encouraging longer term, bipartisan thinking to solve the complex issues in front of us.

  2. Helen Kemp says:

    Great post!
    This is something that’s been haunting me a bit recently…
    One of my oldest friends recently announced she and her husband were pregnant, triggering all kinds of responses in me (mostly along the lines of “I WANT THAT!”). Thankfully, however, these initial feelings gave way to more rational thoughts of “there’s still time for all that, what can you do now that you won’t be able to do (as easily) when that happens?”

    So, yep. I’m jumping.

    I’m quitting my (also comfortable-desk-bound-government) job half way through this year to travel around Australia (and maybe further afield) WWOOFING.
    http://www.wwoof.com.au/

    I am a bit scared, I’ve always tended to be someone that’s erred on the side of stability and security, but I also know it’s something I need to do. And if not now, when??

    I can’t wait 🙂

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