Day 198 - Brenda (2nd person I approached)
July 17, 2014 - Today was one of those days when I didn’t know when I was going to meet a stranger. I left my house and walked toward the seawall. It’s always a good place to find people, and I wanted to be by the water where it was a bit cooler with a nice breeze. Brenda must have been thinking the same thing. I saw her sitting near the Plaza of Nations (Expo ’86 legacy), looking out over the water, towards the Olympic Village. When I asked her if she’d chat with me, Brenda seemed a little hesitant. However once I showed her my blog and explained why I’m doing this, she agreed. We chatted for a good hour.
Born in Toronto, Brenda spent a lot of time with her grandmother in the Danforth area.
“I have a younger sister and two younger half sisters. We’re not a close family at all. My half sisters came after my parents separated and we didn’t spend much time together. With my mother being a single parent, I spent half of my time at my grandmother's in the Danforth. It was only about a ten minute walk from our house. But it enabled me to get into a better school because it was in a different catchment area,” said Brenda. In school, she excelled in Math.
“It’s just the way my brain works,” she said.
“It wasn’t like I was so passionate about it that I was good. It used to piss off my teacher, and same with Physics too. I found it so boring, there wasn’t any challenge for me. I’d sit in class and read a book, but my test results were always at the top of the class.” Brenda participated in a pilot project in high-school.
“It was like a ‘Fame’ school kind of thing. The main focus was on drama, and we staged productions, and learned about theatre. It’s funny because I struggled with my English class, yet loved drama and theatre,” she said.
Brenda was kicked out of school in Grade eleven.
“I had moved out of the house and was living on my own, working part time and trying to go to school. I got kicked out for poor attendance. I got a job working in a squash club as a receptionist. Then I started in the bar and eventually moved into the restaurant. I got another job as as server in a restaurant and gained more experience. I ran a few restaurants,” she said.
“Then things got pretty bad. I was fairly messed up with drugs and alcohol, and got caught in a downward spiral. I backed myself into a very dark corner. I knew I had to make a drastic change in my life or I was in serious trouble.” That change came in the form of relocation.
“I got a job in Northern Ontario tree planting. I think I sobbed for the better part of the first week. It was cathartic and a good release. I didn’t mind the work. It’s hard on the body and you have to find a way to make it work. If you’re not successful, then you don’t get paid. They have strict rules about how to plant, where to plant and you get paid based on the work you do. If you don’t do it correctly, then you have to replant. And if you have too many replants, you fail. I didn’t want that. It felt so good to be outdoors and in nature. Tree planting was the single most significant thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was like living a National Geographic photo shoot. I saw places and scenery that I wouldn't have seen in any other job. I hate camping and I don’t hike,” she said with a hearty laugh.
“So I wouldn’t ever have seen any of that part of the country.” Brenda worked in Northern Ontario tree planting for two years.
An opportunity to plant trees on the west coast of British Columbia (BC) was too good to pass up.
“I had a friend that lived on Lasqueti Island (in the Strait of Georgia). I stopped there to visit with her and she wasn’t home. I ended up staying there and got a job at a local restaurant and lived on Lasqueti for five years. I’d go up north and plant trees, but Lasqueti became my base,” she said.
“I got adopted by a cat, and had a nice home. When I’d go tree planting, if I let people know when I was on my way home, I’d arrive to a lit fire and a pot of soup on the stove. It’s a community. I miss that,” said Brenda. In time she moved into other areas of the tree planting experience, working as a cook and then overseeing the planters.
“Some seasons I’d go between Ontario and BC. It wasn’t easy work. We saw great hardships in camp. There’s definitely not much to do after working and so alcohol is an issue there. I’ve seen accidents and deaths. But I’ve also seen sights and had experiences I’ll never forget. There's great beauty there. The scenery, the peace, nature, the Northern Lights!”
“Then I moved here,” she said gruffly. We laughed at how much disdain was in that little sentence.
"I love the city. It’s beautiful and I love coming down here to the seawall and riding my bike everywhere and spending time in the Olympic Village. But it’s getting too big and I think I’m better in smaller places. I'm good at being a visitor in a big city,” she explained. Brenda went back to school as well.
“I got the credits I needed at Vancouver Community College. Then I went to UBC (University of British Columbia). I was going for a double major Bachelor’s degree in Economics and Sciences. But I got sick and it just became too difficult. I stopped going after two years. I’ve dealt with anxiety for years but it became a real issue, especially with regard to exams,” she said.
Changing direction somewhat, Brenda got a job with a food importer based near False Creek (Vancouver).
“I learned a lot during my time with that company. I worked with an independent grocer to establish their imported cheese selections. Then I worked with a chocolate distributor. We’d set up classes on cooking with chocolate for restaurants and stores. I ate some incredible meals while working there. Mmmm hmmm. I enjoyed it, it was a great job. Then after about ten years I became the Director of Operations and it wasn’t fun anymore,” she said with a shake of her head.
Between seasons of tree planting and in her down time on other jobs, Brenda also travelled.
“I went to England with my grandmother and we did the family circuit. She was from England and it was great to see it with her. She was the one who really held our family together. And then she passed away and it’s been left to me to maintain contact. I hate to admit it, but I’m in contact more with my half-sisters because of Facebook then I would have been without it. My sister and I will go for a few days of texting and messaging to catch up and then a few months go by until we do that again,” Brenda said.
“I’ve also been to Ireland, France, South East Asia. After the food importers I went to Turkey, Greece and Italy. I like travelling, taking some time to explore if I can. I was in South East Asia for about four months” she said.
“I have occasionally gone tree planting, although my body doesn’t really do so well with that anymore. I was with the Tree Planters Association for a while, working on their magazine.”
She gave up drugs all together a number of years ago, and has gone for a few years at a time of not drinking.
“I’ll have an occasional glass of wine with dinner, but I don’t enjoy parties or bars anymore. I’m retired now because of my health,” she told me. I asked if she was getting any better.
“No, I’m not. What I’m trying to figure out now is if I’m actually sabotaging myself. Because I’ll get better and then I screw things up again. I’ve worked hard to get to where I am and I feel like I’m holding myself back. And I don’t want to do that anymore. These are the questions I’m exploring right now. That’s what I was sitting here thinking about when you came over,” she said. We talked for a bit about people connecting with strangers and, how or what any individual could do to effect change. I took Brenda’s photograph and thanked her for chatting with me. I felt that we had made a wonderful connection and told her so.
“Yes,” she said.
“It was so nice talking with you. A really great way to end my day. Thank you.” #notastranger