After pulling this word out of Hayley’s envelope, I spent a few minutes muttering under my breath, cursing her for emphasizing the challenge aspect of this writing challenge. Mix? What the hell can I write about mix?
Phrases started popping into my head, as phrases do. Cake mix? No, I can’t write about my utter inability to make cakes—it’s just too painful. Mix and match? No, that makes me think of articles about the 10 must-have pieces to buy this season, and I’m definitely not qualified to write about fashion. Mixed bag?
That was the phrase I needed. It reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend about how we see our lives. When I was a teenager, I used to complain to my brother about my dull and boring life. Until my friend and I had this conversation, I had never updated that opinion.
I haven’t traveled much and the traveling I’ve done has been—except for one nightmare trip to England with my mother—close to home. I haven’t had a proper career; for many years I haven’t even had a “real” job. I’ve never been in the newspaper, apart from a story I wrote in about 5th grade (written from the point of view of a Christmas tree that no one wanted). I haven’t done anything big to change the world. Pretty blah, I’d say.
But my friend sees my life completely differently. Apparently, I’m one of the most interesting people she knows—and that’s not because she’s a hermit who doesn’t get out much.
She’s lived most of her life in one town. She sees this as boring; I see it as having roots. I’ve lived in four cities—five if you count the one I was born in, although I don’t remember it at all, or six if you count another that I lived in for just a month. I’m a citizen of two countries and through high school I spent the school years in one and the summers in the other. I see this as having no true sense of home; she sees it as having a wider view of the world.
We both went to university. She did a teaching degree, which I see as following a passion. I went to university for 15 years (yes, that’s 15 years) and did four degrees in two fields. Avoiding the real world? Unable to find my passion? Not according to her. She sees me as having a wide range of interests and being willing to pursue them (and a little crazy for going to school for 15 years).
Before having kids, she was a very successful elementary-school teacher. Now, years later, she runs into teenagers who tell her what an impact she had on them. I’ve worked as a nanny, a waitress, a bookkeeper, a secretary, a tutor, a university instructor, a writer, and an editor—and that’s just what I’ve done for pay. As a volunteer, I’ve worked in libraries, managed the production of a monthly newsletter, served on boards, run fundraisers, led a kids’ community service club and a troop of Brownies, and piloted a reading program at an elementary school. In my current work as an editor, I haven’t followed the often-advised path of specializing in a niche market. No, my work is all over the map (literally). I never know what kind of job I might be doing next: wine labels, journal articles on fuel cell technology or dementia, a book on food allergies or the Canadian political system or finding your soulmate, a children’s story. Who knows what the next email or phone call will bring? I’ve thought of myself as scattered, unable to follow either a single path or the rules. She sees me as well-rounded, willing to take advantage of opportunities that come up, and able to do a lot of different things.
This friend loves to hear stories about my past. I never thought of myself as having interesting stories. But when I stop and think about it, my childhood was full of experiences that most kids don’t have, from working in a soup kitchen to being best friends with one of the daughters of the first African American family in our neighborhood (at a time when that was not considered a good thing) to moving a thousand miles away from one of my parents. And I had rather a . . . um . . . colorful adolescence. Then there’s my extended family. You could make a three-part miniseries about us—adventures, accomplishments, doomed romances, traumas, illnesses, and more than one skeleton partying in the closet.
A mixed bag—that’s what I am (with the emphasis on mixed, please, not on bag). I could look at myself as someone who has no real home; who has failed in doing what she was supposed to do—climb up the academic ladder to that tenured professorship; who has lived a dull and boring life, doing this and that but nothing in particular. Or I could look at myself through my friend’s eyes.
We’re all mixed bags of circumstances and experiences, which, combined, give us our stories. And whether those stories are part of an interesting adventure book or a dusty, boring tome is really just a matter of how we look at them.