There’s an old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Interesting, of course, can often mean traumatic, uncertain and oft-changing. Coming from South Africa (which was going through the end of the Apartheid era – we left in 1992), to Newfoundland (when the Cod fishing industry died almost immediately after we arrived), and then to Illinois (when the industry in town had just died), it seemed to characterize my childhood in a lot of ways. In big and small ways, I learned to survive adversity, or as I like to think about it, the adventure that was my childhood. In a way, I had it lucky. My parents and I were the center of calm – everything else around us would be falling apart, and we would deal with it.
But, then again, life is an adventure. It’s the only way to think about things – it’s another version of making lemonade out of lemons. A small example sticks out in my mind. In the middle of high school, turned out my school district was out of money and needed to pass a referendum in order to keep any of the honors classes (or the majority of teachers in the district). A similar referendum had failed just six months before, and we were petrified that it wouldn’t pass again. As demanding as it was to be an honors student in high school with lots of extracurriculars, it was terrifying to potentially be without all of that. My mom and I planned classes I could take at the local community college and getting me out of high school as quickly as possible. I was only barely 17 when I graduated anyway, so it was really terrifying to think that I could be graduating at barely 16. Luckily for everyone, the last-ditch referendum passed and we didn’t have to put plan D into operation.
We operated that way though. Something bad happens? Plans, alternate plans, plan C and plan D, all with the hope that one of them would work. It was rough on a kid. I was, in fact, a very tense teenager, in part having to do with the strange circumstances that I had grown up with.
In the end though, I learned a lot of valuable life lessons, chief among them how to deal with less than ideal circumstances. I remember clearly the days and weeks when my mom would talk about our great adventure, and specifically dealing with lemons and lemonade. Sometimes, it’s just about the attitude. Calling it an adventure made it less scary, and helped me focus on the positive aspects of what we were living through. Talking about turning lemons into lemonade made it an exercise in creativity, in exerting control where we could, as best we could and not just accepting a given situation. It also helped me understand, in a fundamental way, that we can make a difference in the world. If I can make my own life better, in rather undesirable circumstances, then I can make a difference in other ways through my own efforts.
So – I try to make a difference in the world. Because I can. Because my mother taught me I can. And you can too.