A Vanishing Opportunity: A Short Story Inspired by 9-11 by Shelley Robinson


The time had come to make the phone call.  He sat watching the pelicans swooping in for their food while he waited for the young Mexican family who ran a grass hut restaurant to prepare him his fish tacos.  Tulum, a town boasting magnificent Mayan ruins on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea, provided him a nice weekend retreat when he decided to come in on Saturdays to collect food and sundries for his week out at the project camp.  He sat not more than a hundred feet away from the brilliant blue waters that entranced the other locals who also sat at wooden tables enjoying Sangria in the shade.  The carefree family always recognized and graciously welcomed him when he arrived and seemed to enjoy making small talk with him and their other regular customers.

Yesterday, Gerald, who must have been feeling guilty about his decision to help him, had approached and said, “Jim, I don’t feel good about this situation anymore.  You’ve been a tremendous help to me on this Millenium Project and I want to keep you when we go further inland, but I think your family should know where you are.”

It had been six months since he had made the single biggest decision of his life.  Gerald had tried to understand Jim’s personal crisis and was desperate for an extra hand on his Mexican project to bring potable water and legal sewage options to the villages surrounding Cancun.  These swelling towns were growing too quickly because of the ballooning tourism of the Yucatan Coast which lacked the infrastructure of Cancun, the region’s only real city.  As a result, people were illegally dumping sewage and destroying the region’s mangrove swamp critical to the nourishment of the area’s very famous reefs.  The panthers, aardvarks, howler monkeys and the many exotic birds relied on this swamp as well.  People also needed to have proper facilities to live functionally in these dense jungles.

Jim had never felt happier and more like he was helping people in his entire life.  He had never had fewer personal responsibilities and material assets before.   He worked hard and slept soundly.  He ate well because this spicy cultural food tasted better as a free man.  The only thing that was not right was that no one knew where he was living or that he was still alive at all.

He recalled the soft fabric of his Armani dress suit as he fiddled with the soft velvet box of his wife’s ring in his pocket on the morning of September eleventh.  He walked out on deck to see the New York skyline in front of him as they traversed the Hudson River.  He sat lost in his thoughts that had propelled him here this morning rather than to his usual routine of the busy throughway and crowded parkade to get to his office in the South World Trade Tower.  His corporate financial law practice had been keeping him up at night with the competitive trading and demands of his clients.  He had finished the last of his sleeping prescription, which without it, left him tired and nervous and with it made him sluggish and depressed.  His hand shook making his coffee spill.

His wife’s demands had escalated lately.  She did not understand his late hours and the market that kept he and his partners hopping, but kept her comfortable in their big house that they shared in Jersey City.  If he and his partners did not jump when they were needed, these multi-million dollar clients would go elsewhere.  She was too dependent on him for every little thing and he wished she would find a hobby or passion that would keep her occupied.

They had fought last night because he arrived late for their tenth wedding anniversary.  Despite her request that they go to dinner and enjoy an entire night out together, his partner Al had asked a favour of him.  He owed Al for some of the work he had done for Jim lately like when he had covered at a meeting last week or placing him at the head of a couple of prestigious accounts. After all of these year, Wendy still did not appreciated these work related obligations and that they afforded her some of her lifestyle.

She had yelled, “I didn’t get married to be alone!”  He surmised that she had forgotten some of the time they had spent together lately like the lawyer’s function that he had brought her to just a couple of months before or the walk that they had taken on her birthday a couple of weeks ago through the park by their home.  She was ungrateful for the things that he did do for her and seemed oblivious to the fact that in order to have their huge mansion, time would need to be sacrificed to pay for it.  When he told her that very sensible point about the house clearly and calmly, she flung a vase at him that missed him and smashed onto the marble tile of their front foyer.  Her blond hair flung around her face as she hurled it.  “You condescending bastard!  You wanted this house, not me!”  She had broken so many of their valuable heirlooms hurling them at him in anger over the past year, that he had lost count.  “Get out!” she kept yelling hysterically in a screech like a wild cat that echoed through their large hallways.

So he had left and stayed at a hotel.  No one should throw things at him, he rationalized.  He had not done enough wrong to deserve that type of treatment.  Her crazy behaviour was her own problem.

He had not slept much and woke early in the unfamiliar and overly firm king sized bed.  He began his trek to Lower Manhattan, but at the last minute took another route that took him to the ferries because he needed to be on the water.  The water was always good for him and needed to take his time getting to work today.  No one was expecting him until noon.  His stomach was churning and in knots from the nervous strain of the previous evening.  Although Wendy was over reacting, he knew his work was also demanding more of him than he had to give these days.  He saw it in his own face when he caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror.  His puffy red eyes with dark shadows underneath and pale complexion glared back at him.  His back was sore from sitting all of the time in front of his computer.  There were periods in his day where he would look up from his computer with blurry eyes to see someone talking to him and not be able to focus on or remember the conversation.  His partners humorously joked about his conscious black outs, but accepted this symptom of gross overwork as a symptom of a true commitment to the company.

He went on deck because he needed to feel the crisp morning wind on his face so that it numbed his body and mind from the pain he felt.  He had grabbed another coffee and the warmth of the Styrofoam on his lips contrasted with the cold on his face.  Someone yelled, “Look!  A plane is going to hit the tower!” and he looked up to see a plane heading for and then crashing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.  People around him began to scream, “What was that?  Oh my God!”  A flash of fire ripped out of the prominent city icon.  The frenzied speculation of the dozen or so people surrounding him kept his eyes carefully focussed on the twin towers as one began to burn and the other—his tower–remained unmarred by the disaster.  The ferry stopped dead in the water as the captain and everyone speculated on the disaster unfolding in front of them.  He instinctually called his broker.  When he got through he yelled at Simon, “Sell it all now!” he ordered.  Simon who was not familiar with this tone from Jim, did not question him.  Instead he took Jim’s rapid orders for his financial transactions.  When Simon started explaining to Jim about the news of the World Trade Center Tower being hit, Jim shouted, “I know, I’m here!  That’s why I’m calling you!”  He hung up.

Shortly after, another plane appeared in the morning sky and floated silently to its target of the South Tower.  “Christ, there’s another one!” someone yelled.  The experience unfolding in front of him was a surreal visual accompanied by horrified screams and gasps from the early morning travellers.  A flash of fire tore out of the second twin tower.  The city was under attack and his stomach convulsed in fear at this realization.  In the midst of it he felt the smooth ring box in his pocket and realized he had not given Wendy her anniversary ring of ten diamonds placed evenly over a dainty platinum band last night.  Thoughts of her angered him and he was drawn out of the thoughts of his burning marriage to the reality of the inferno of his office tower.  The plane had struck close to where his team would be working this morning.

He leaned on the railing and let his face rest in his fingers as he peeked through at the billowing smoke that started out snow white at the base of the flames and became coal black as it entered the sky.  What should he do?  Should he call the office?  He envisioned the screams of those still trapped in the wounded pinnacle and realized he was helpless to do anything for them.  Everyone in the world would think he was also in the tower with them.  He crowded around a young man who had become instantly popular with his ghetto blaster as he turned from rap to the news station whose broadcaster announced the news in an agitated voice.  The earlier suggestions of the first plane being an accident were replaced with speculation that the second plane hitting the second tower was an act of terrorism.  Total strangers turned to one another and cried.  Women clung to each other in horror.  Jim listened incredulously as the news rattled on details about the first hijacked passenger jet, American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston, Massachusetts, and then the second exploding United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston.  Both buildings burned in front of him while the announcer narrated the disaster and gave minute-by-minute updates of what they had learned about the hijackings.

And then even more horrifying, his building dropped to the ground.  It seemed like a calculated and grotesque plan of a city demolition crew the way that it quickly and efficiently disappeared out of sight.  The sight of dust and ash mushrooming into the air like a nuclear bomb was accompanied by the phenomenal bellow of thunder.  This nightmare was a reality.  Everyone he knew and cared for eleven hours a day would now be crushed into dust.  Survival appeared impossible. His work as he knew it was obliterated.  However, something from deep inside of him surfaced that was even more uncomfortable than this panic and horror lying in front of him.  It was the morbid and very unexpected relief that now he would not have to go there anymore.

His idea came in the middle of this disaster.  He stopped hearing the panicked screams of the people around him.  One woman began wailing like a fire alarm and he tuned her out as his mind clamped down on his new opportunity to vanish into thin air with the building.  This chance to just disappear from his life jumped out at him like a winning million-dollar lottery ticket.  The second building then tumbled down and joined its sister tower. The inferno of building dominoes falling had begun.  It was at this point that their ferry turned around and headed back to Jersey.  He made the decision and pulled out his sim card from his phone, cracked it in half and then threw it and his phone into the river.

The details of how and where he would escape fell into place in the ensuing days as he drove like he was in a trance further and further from New York across the United States.  He drove instinctually like a migrating bird to the border of Mexico and rehearsed his plea to Gerald to support his escape.  Gerald owed him and although he knew he would help him, he knew it would be a difficult request.  He accessed his private international bank account and prepared to start a new life, but with his same name, Jim Jones.  How many Jim Jones’ inhabited the universe?  He was anonymous without the building that had given him prominence and power.

The windshield time gave him a chance to rationalize his mid-life crisis decision.  The fantasies about his new life, new women, and new experiences were his compelling companion on this long drive through the Appalachian Mountains and then the swamps of the Deep South.  These thoughts squelched any hesitations that he had to escape his overly stressed and unsatisfying life in New York.  He stopped in Houston to pawn the ring he had intended for Wendy, but changed his mind.  He was not quite ready to give it up.

When he reached Brownsville, Texas to cross the border, he felt no urge to turn around, call Wendy or his family, or do anything other than drive to his new life he imagined by the sea where he would be free of everything that had started to hang around his neck like an albatross.  Shedding skin and starting again without any connection to the past was an opportunity that few people had.  The Mexican authorities would not care who he was.  He would be absorbed into the Mexican population under Gerald’s project work visa.  How illegal was it to not tell anyone you were still alive after a disaster like this in New York?  The focus would be the thousands lost and not the one who got away.  He would claim shock.  He was in shock, wasn’t he?  Maybe this was what a nervous breakdown did to people.

The hardest part had been as he had predicted, convincing Gerald of his idea.  He wanted to start a new life and help Gerald with his water and sewage project for this impoverished community that lived beside some of the wealthiest resorts in the world.  Jim had always been sickened by the contrast between rich and poor in this country whenever he had visited there on holidays.  Poor people lived in slums with virtually no modern day amenities while tourists lounged in opulence.

He had always envied Gerald’s work and his powerfully optimistic outlook on life.  Gerald had agreed to help him on the condition that Jim would eventually tell Wendy.  ‘Get your headspace together.  Your life sounds like a bitch, but you can’t hide out here forever.”  Neither of them had mentioned the fact that Gerald owed Jim.  Years ago Jim had covered for him in an investment deal that had gone sour when he had represented his investment company.  Gerald had come to him in the middle of the night begging for help, and Jim had been there.

“I’m not hiding.  I’m starting a new life.  I was already dead back there.”

“Why don’t you just tell Wendy?”  Gerald, Wendy and Jim had gone to school together.

“It would be too complicated because divorces are emotionally and financially messy.  This way she won’t think that I just left her for no reason.”  He had wanted to admit that this way he would actually cause her more pain and guilt, but left that darker side of himself hidden behind his words.  “My family won’t question my actions.  My company won’t harass me.  Everyone will grieve and move on.  It’s better this way.”  He didn’t mention that this way, there would be no legal disclosures, and he could keep some of his overseas accounts without her knowing about it.  It was the ultimate pay back to Wendy who had restricted him for so many years.  He finally had his control back and maybe she would regret her demanding actions now that she thought he was dead.

Gerald had reluctantly agreed but said, “I think you owe her an explanation.”

“What do I owe her?”  Jim was surprised by Gerald’s sudden empathy for Wendy.  “She will have everything she’ll ever need. The insurance policies will kick in.”  He did not say, ‘She’ll inherit everything except what she does not know about.’

“You’ll probably want to go home after a while anyway,” Gerald grumbled under his breath as he tried to move past the tension between them and onto another topic.

But Jim did not want to go home even after he had been there six months.  In fact, he had started to design other projects with Gerald and managed many of them himself.  He liked the climate, the people and his new lifestyle.  Gerald had commented on his work commitment.  The community had accepted him because of his dedication.  He had made himself invaluable with the hopes that Gerald would forget the deal that they had made for Jim to eventually contact home.  He was no longer exhausted day after day as had been in his other job.  Instead, he was invigorated.   He had his own time at the end of the day to collect his thoughts and do things that felt good for him, like going for a run, or fishing.  He felt more himself than he had in years and he started to recognize himself in his tiny bathroom mirror again.

Gerald’s conscience must have been bothering him because Gerald reminded him before he left yesterday, “You don’t have to let the authorities know, but you’ve got to tell Wendy the truth tomorrow.  It’s just not right to let your family think you’re dead.  I just can’t keep you here under these conditions.”  His face demonstrated his strong conviction over this matter, but when Jim raised his eyebrow, Gerald looked away, embarrassed by the fact that he knew that he owed Jim.

“This will freak her out!” Jim argued, realizing that the consequences for his actions would be grave at this point.  Insurance polices would have kicked in.  Funeral costs would have come out of the settlement.  He had often contemplated the memorial service that would have been held in his honour without a body.  Would Wendy have been sad?  There had not been a lot of love or passion between them in the last three years.  In fact, he had not spent much time grieving his past life at all except for a very few fleeting happy memories from his childhood before his parents had passed away and his initial courtship with Wendy which had also been laden with red flags and conflict.  His remaining family consisted of one engineering brother Larry who lived in Yellowknife who rarely called him.  Would Larry have attended the funeral?  Would he have wished that he had spent more time with Jim?  They kept in touch at Christmas and that was it.  It served him right to lose a brother he never contacted.  No, it was better this way if Jim just let it be, and yet he had made this ridiculous promise to Gerald and without Gerald’s support and work visa, working in Mexico would get complicated.  He had not grappled yet with a plan to be independent of Gerald.

He drove back to the project camp where he had set himself up nicely in a mobile home overlooking a dense jungle valley outside of Coba.  The sunset announced that he should make the call soon, but he let another hour pass dreading the angry, hurt conversation to come.  He heard the squabbling of the jungle birds and the monkeys that announced that nightfall was arriving, and still he could not make the call.  It would be 11:30 p.m. her time and still he stalled.

He finally dialled and waited.  A familiar voice answered “Who is this?”, obviously being woken from his sleep.  It was his partner Al: the Al who had paid him lots of favours at work, but favours that had a personal price tag keeping Jim very busy; the Al that had admired Wendy openly at their last dinner party; the Al that had been on a business trip the night before September 11 requiring Jim to work late at his office and making it necessary to delay his anniversary night.  He hung up flushed with a vile anger that needed releasing.  Violence flew out of him as he knocked his pot off the stove and threw his dishes off the counter.  How dare Al move in on Wendy this quickly.  His body was not even cold in the grave.  He continued to fling things around the room.

He eventually stopped his tirade in exhaustion and he sat down on one of the chairs left standing.  He was not dead.  He had run away and had essentially given Wendy permission to do whatever she wanted with her life, and as a result he would never know what happened before or after his “death” and why she had made the choices that she had made.  He would never know whether she and Al had been having an affair.  He left his life and he would simply never know anything without revealing his secret.  But the cost of revealing his secret was too great.  He liked the feeling of having no past and this pull to keep his anonymity was too powerful.

What he did know by this one phone call was that the people in his life had moved on in their lives without him.  The image of the grieving widow that had given him so much satisfaction, was shattered and he felt small and insignificant as a result of this discovery.  He had wanted to hurt Wendy, but it had backfired.  He was not being grieved and revered by his wife.  Instead, he was now just one of the millions of Jim Jones’ whose only worth was what they felt about themselves while they lived each day to its end.  He sat on the floor and thought as he watched a beetle walk slowly across the kitchen floor.

He suddenly got up and scoured through the cupboard tossing nails and paper all over the floor.  He came across the ring box and opened it to see the beautiful ring he had intended for Wendy who had tried in many ways to connect with him over the years.  Ironically, this incident produced a new perspective of the marriage now that it was officially over.  The marriage had been a challenging one for her.  The diamonds shone out at him and reminded him of his wealthy past.  Ironically he now knew that Wendy would have preferred spending the few hours of time that he had to work to pay for the ring instead of the ring itself.  He now let himself see her determination to communicate and spend time with him as a positive effort rather than the nagging behaviour that he focussed on for the last few months.

He had found so many excuses for his workaholic behaviour and his greed.   He shook his head.  It had been easier to remember her as the villain.   He held the ring and pondered his next move.  This beautiful ring was a symbol of his past and for some reason he had held on to it looking at it periodically like a science specimen in a glass container that he was trying to keep alive.  Memories splashed through his mind filling the next few hours with a piercing realization of his responsibility for the death of his marriage and then the death of his past life.

Early the next morning, after a sleepless night, he leafed through his filing cabinet and found an envelope, addressed it and made a plan to send the package to her anonymously.  This anniversary ring belonged to Wendy.  It was a final connection with his past that he decided now to break.  She did deserve better.  Sending it to her anonymously—cleverly and untraceably by a string of couriers, would be his last silent good-bye.   He now had a second chance to design his future free of the baggage that had kept him running from himself and the people around him in his first life.  From this point forward he would be a new man and he would forge a new path ahead with or without Gerald.


Yes, Travelling Solo is Possible by Shelley Robinson


Observations about Can and Can’t People:  Before I discuss my thoughts on travelling solo, there seems to be, for me, a key philosophical premise behind why people travel on their own, and why they do not.  This idea is grounded in a philosophical principal of “efficacy” which means essentially that people believe that they can make a difference in their own lives.  Where people believe that they can travel, they often do travel and find ways to make it happen.  If they think that they can embark on these journeys on their own, they will.

I have observed in my life journey and have adopted my own theory that there are Can people and Can’t people.  To distinguish these terms, Can people spend more time talking themselves into their highest life force activities rather than talking themselves out of these activities than Can’t people do. Disappointingly, I have met far more people who do the latter.  Can and Can’t people rarely get along as they spend most of their time convincing the other that “it CAN be done”, or “No, it CAN’T be done”.  As well, neither strong Can people or strong Can’t people are very popular as no one likes to hear either’s strong opinions about why things can or cannot happen. The Can people can be overbearingly, and sometimes naively optimistic although they have often positively influenced people who are receptive to new ideas. The Can’t people are often dogmatically negative, although they are thoughtful and can teach others to be careful while appreciating what they do have and what they should safeguard in their lives.

Both can become entrenched in their mindsets as they often need to be right in their belief systems. These mindsets are whom they identify themselves to be and probably have been propelled to become more like in the presence of their opposites at different times in their lives. Can’t people operate out of fear. Extreme Can people operate out of fear as well. Both trigger the other to believe more strongly in what they, themselves, believe. Can people often live longer. They just simply believe they can. Occasionally, Can’t people live a long time too because they are simply too afraid to die. However, if you remove the FEAR out of the equation, you have less polarizing between the two. Sometimes the attitude of Can tempers Can’t and visa versa, and they have the potential, when together, to understand a new perspective. However, it is my experience that Can and Can’t people can rub each other the wrong way, and most often like-minded philosophies work best together.

Solo Travelling:  What has this got to do with embarking on solo travelling?  The essential work of people wanting to have a one-to-one and intimate relationship with different places around the world is our understanding of our own desire to do so.  It also involves being brave enough to be truly present in new environments, such as eating alone in an Italian bistro and eat Fettuccine Vongole in white wine sauce, or to drink a Guinness in Dublin as an outsider to the bawdy crowd.  If we have self-dialogue that talks us out of wanting to take the plunge into the solo travel experience, we are unlikely to go anywhere out of our comfort zones in the first place; and secondly, we are less likely to be as open to the experience as we could be.  So, the first step of the solo traveller is to not only believe that we can hike to the top of a Mount Ryokan, Takayama, Japan, but to take the steps to make it happen.

It takes a lot of initiative, confidence, and resiliency to do believe in ourselves enough to travel on our own.  Many of us have excuses.  Our families need us.  Wouldn’t it be selfish to spend money on ourselves while everyone else stays home?  It wouldn’t be the same without being able to share it with someone.  The obstacles often seem insurmountable to some people, and they choose instead to sit enviously on the sidelines and watch other people take the steps of getting out of their daily routines to go somewhere else.  Married couples, in particular, often will not consider going anywhere without the other.  It would seem to so many married people like an abandonment or a betrayal, when the mere matter of time apart and distance can allow healthy relationships to grow and become even stronger.  When we allow ourselves to be independent, our ability to be interdependent in our relationships gets even stronger.  However, people need to trust that this is so.  They need to value it in order to make it happen.  They need to practice it regularly or they lose their awareness of its importance.

The risks seem high, but, in my experience, the rewards are higher.  The internal work is the biggest part of the whole experience of solo travel.  Some people might use this argument as an excuse to delay going anywhere as they would indicate that they need to work on their own “stuff” before they are confident enough to travel solo.  However, this is not my message.  In fact, all life experiences are not linear and in straight lines.  There are no real pre-requisites for travel journeys other than to be healthy and capable of handling (financially, physically and emotionally) the type of journey on which we embark.  For example, new travellers would be wise to go on longer more complex trips to countries (where culture shock is more likely to happen for them) later in their travelling careers.  However, every destination has a continuum of what is easy and difficult, inexpensive or costly, etc. within a breadth of possibilities.  It is just a matter of choosing carefully, and modifying the experience along the way.  Waiting to travel is like waiting for life to happen.  The time to travel is now.

Trapeze Metaphor:  I often refer to the trapeze metaphor on which Blank (2004) has based her book Between Trapezes.  The best trapeze artists are those who do not cling to the wrung on which they are holding as they prepare for their jump from one wrung to the next.  They do not fixate on what is below them in terms of their safety net that they might fall onto should their flip in between wrungs go awry.  Nor do they obsess over grasping the wrung waiting for them at the other side.  Instead, the best trapeze artists are those who embrace the “in between” that is that delicious space of uncertainty of flipping between the wrungs.  They relish in the graceful summersaults they execute into thin air with the absolute faith that the other side will be safely waiting for them.

Taking the Leap:  How true this is of our lives in general when we decide to take a leap and do something differently.  How liberating it is to not feel the need to drag someone along as our security nets.  So many times, this false sense of security in having a travel companion is an ever-present reminder that we may enjoy a truer meditative travel experience if we had only travelled lighter, and left some of our stuff out of our backpacks, and/or, better yet, leave an unwilling or less-motivated travelling companion at home.  It is nice to have the security of meeting up with an organized travel tour while travelling on our own, and I did quite a bit of this when I first started to to travel by myself.  Little by little, I extended the time at the beginning of the tour and/or at the end of the trip to explore destinations ahead of the tour by myself.  Eventually, I started making my own touring itinerary.

I remember my first trip as a solo traveller was going to an all-inclusive trip to Mazatlan, Mexico.  This type of travelling was a good place to start.  I learned to be on the airplanes and navigate transportation on my own while having a definitive home base of the hotel from which I could navigate sight-seeing.  Later, I did trips to Spain, Thailand and Egypt where I organized my excursion through Adventure Trek, and I would meet up with travelling groups to hike with people from all over the world.  It was really nice to feel some of my own planning in the safety of a larger group itinerary.  Eventually, I found it inhibiting to be corralled and then led around like cattle, and so I would sometimes break away from the groups to see some of the excursions on my own, using my own travel resources.  Finally, I now love the idea of creating my own itinerary.  For example, when I went to Greece, I felt liberated when I explored all of Athens and then Nafplion, experiencing the food, culture and architecture uninterrupted, while also meeting and spending some time with people that I met along the way.

Be Intentional:  Occasionally we are fortunate enough to have just the right person who is equally equipped and motivated to share an adventure with us.  This sharing a journey with a like-minded individual can be a special experience.  Recently, I became married to a man who loves travelling as much as I do.  We have travelled to the Dominican Republic and then Vietnam in our first year together.  In a month, we plan on travelling to Morocco.  It has been very new for me to have an open itinerary with a fellow traveller who is as interested in some of the things about the travelling as I am.  Sometimes, we plan ahead and sometimes, we make spontaneous decisions as we go.  Both kinds of structured and open-ended travelling make for an interesting trip.  It is important to be flexible because travelling is never predictable.  It wouldn’t be an adventure if we knew what was going to happen all of the time.  Aside from the normal travelling negotiations to be made together under the stress of missing a bus, or food, or not being able to sleep, travelling with my husband has been very positive.  I love the fact that he and I will always be able to look back and reminisce about the things that we saw together in these countries.

However, I would still encourage people to be intentional about travelling solo because the experience of doing so on our own is very different than doing it in the company of another.  It challenges us to grow in so many important ways that can be distracted from by having people from home (even the very best travel buddies or partners) needing similar and different things while they travel with us.  Often, when we bring someone along, we typically focus on making the relationship work with our travelling companions in the throes of the experience rather than the immersion into the travel experience itself.  Instead, sometimes we need to focus on the trip, and be very present with ourselves in order to savour all that solo travelling experiences have to offer.  My husband knew when he first met me that my passion in life is to travel, and he asked to share in this experience together, but he also offered for me to continue to travel on my own on occasion.  He said, “I will never stand in the way of you travelling because it makes you happy.”  He recognizes that with his work and responsibilities, he cannot always join me, nor can we afford to go everywhere together, and he encourages me (as I encourage him) to see the world as not only our oyster, but my oyster to seek out the treasures that are waiting to be found at the end of an airplane ride.

Paying for Post-Secondary Education by Shelley Robinson



Walking the Stage

My son recently graduated with his Bachelor of Arts in Sociology.  Watching him cross the stage was a huge relief to me for a number of reasons, the dominant one being that he accomplished a major feat of graduating with a university degree along with 26% of Canadians aged 25 to 64 (Press and Smith, 2013, np).  I recognize that it is sometimes very difficult for people to achieve post-secondary certification, but having been a teacher and a university instructor, I have observed people of divergent backgrounds and aptitudes completing college and university programs as a result of their tenacity to do so. I was also proud about the fact that he completed his degree without acquiring any financial debt.  Student loans can be an unwelcome reminder at the end of the program that post-secondary education is a costly enterprise.  I was also a bit relieved to consider that I would no longer be financially connected to his education.  It was a moment of triumph to celebrate his accomplishments as a result of his hard work, and it also felt good to know that he and I had survived this post-secondary journey together because it had been a financially demanding one for both of us.

His father and I separated and divorced when he was four, and so my son and I spent time working through the process of getting him through school, and then post-secondary school as a bit of a team.  As a single mother who worked as a teacher for a living, I did for my son what my parents did not do for me, and set up and grew an RESP account for him for his post-secondary plans from his childhood. I wanted to make things easier for him while giving him some opportunities that I did not have when I went to university.   He appreciated my tuition support, along with some support from his father, and also contributed a large portion of his own earnings as a swimming instructor and music teacher as well.  During all of this process of negotiating how I would support him through his schooling, I learned a few things.  However, I found it challenging, on occasion, to reconcile the financial realities (and my efforts accordingly) of when I went to post-secondary school, and to compare them to how my son and other students today manage the same academic costs and realities.

My Son’s Post-Secondary Experience

Current Academic Financial Challenges:  I recognize the struggles of the children born in the early 90’s into this current decade (Generations Y and Z, according to different definitions).  It is quite difficult to get into some post-secondary schools given that federal and provincial funding for many programs have gone down since 2007 (Universities Canada, 2015).  With this being said, my son got into his music and then sociology program relatively easily with average grades, and then became a student with a part time job.  His grades were not initially high enough for the scholarships he applied for (and applying for scholarships can be a part time job in itself).  Later, his university grades sometimes took a beating when he had to show up for work rather than doing what was expected of a grade-A assignment.  Some of the current program are competitive for students as they seek the highest grades that sets them up for success in school, COOP programs, and careers beyond school (as companies review transcripts).  Some of my students have expressed feeling penalized if they do not have scholarships or wealthy benefactors. For example, I had many conversations with my son where he would say to me, “If I didn’t have to work, my grades would be higher.”  I would respond, “By working and occasionally volunteering, you are setting yourself up for a job by building a resume while you study.”  We got caught in this heated debate numerous times, but the reality was, I only had saved so much money to help him with his studies, and he had to work to afford the rest of it.  In other words, I was unwilling to go into debt and cut into my retirement savings to provide for him all of his schooling costs.  As well, there was this nagging judgment at the back of my mind that kept saying, “…and by the way, I paid for all of my own tuition and other costs when I went to university without any financial assistance…”

Part of his reality was that the student loans programs were prohibitive because his father and I exceeded a certain income bracket.  This financial hurdle puts young adult children of middle to upper class parents in the position where they as students must either work hard before, during or after school to pay for it; and/or they need to take on credit that has extremely high interest rates through credit cards and other; and/or they need grades high enough to compete for scholarships; and/or they must rely on tuition from their parents or other sponsors.  As a result, our society has, in essence, set up parents and their adult children attending school to have financially co-dependent connections.  It was stressful for him to realize that he would have to balance studying, working, and later in his program, living on his own.

As well, once he did graduate, the anxiety he experienced to get a good job (“good” by his estimation) was enormous.  Once he was out of the rigorous but comfortable inertia of academia, he explained that he felt as though he was free falling.  He was grasping to find out what a sociology major could truly do in the “real” world.  Many students who graduate do not always get jobs, or at least in their fields (Universities Canada, 2016), and so the concern that the investment in the education might not ever pay off (loan or otherwise), seems to be a legitimate concern.  I have heard so many of my friends, students and other young adults express that it is now a bit of a calculated risk to assume that a degree will help students set themselves up with a career, and in turn, financial security.   However, with this being said, some of my friends and colleagues of my generation faced the same fears as the economy ebbed and flowed in the success of entering various programs and careers.  I graduated at a time where teachers were, as my father warned me, “a dime a dozen”, and I experienced some of the difficulties of finding a job, and especially one in my specialty of teaching English.

Current Material Realities:  Like the parents before us, we don’t always “get” our children, and our children do not always understand us with these twenty-four or so years that divide us.  Our value systems, work ethics and general knowledge and attitudes about the world at large, can differ, in large part because of the exponential growth of our world and the technology that has driven it until now (D’Amico, 2012).  Some of my confusion was around some (not all) of his material needs compared to mine as a post-secondary student in the 80’s.  I suppose, in his defence, the world at large expects that his generation attending school and finding work has the following things in order to be well-connected, and mobile in a large city:  It is helpful if they have a…1) car; 2) cell phone with a good data plan; 3) reliable computer with a good wifi plan; 4) safe place to live; 5) food; 6) books and other software and programs; 7) parking; 8) tuition; 9) additional programs (enrichment and tutoring); and 10) other (not all necessarily in this order of importance).  To his credit, he lived leanly, worked hard, and managed to study quite a bit, although he described his experience as being frazzled and tiring most of the time.  In the end, he got very good grades and came out of his university program with some solid references and a good girl friend.  As well, he got a taste of the joy of education (despite the hard work) and has left the door open to go back to school to get another degree because his grades are high enough to do so.

Federal Guidelines and Extraordinary Expenses (Section 7) for Post-Secondary Adult Children (2014):  It is a mentionable to explain that it is now the Canadian law that if an adult child is attending post-secondary instruction in legitimate programs, both of the parents (in consideration of the child’s capacity for contribution as well) are obligated to help (Canadian Divorce Laws, 2016).  The support can vary depending on the parents’ and students’ academic and financial circumstances, but essentially, the expectation is that both working parents need to keep supporting their children through to the completion of their programs with varying end points.

A few of my friends have experienced some disheartening circumstances when faced with the conflict between each other during the difficult time of separation and divorce while also having to weigh in on the impending costs of their adult children.  This can feel challenging as it takes a cut of their already depleting financial circumstances.  On occasion, the children do away with this expectation and work or get student loans, not wanting to tax their already financially stressed parents.  However, sometimes, there is a derisive legal process that happens to insure that everyone is paying up, and this causes a considerable rift between the already widening gap between parents and children.  This financial obligation seems to be a penalty to the divorcing couples of my generation because married couples who stay together are under no definitely hard and fast legal obligation to support their adult children into university.

My Post-Secondary Experience

Academic Financial Realities:  I remember clearly (because I paid every dime of it) spending approximately $385.00 per class in the early 80’s when I started at the University of Calgary towards an under-graduate degree in education.  I went to school full time taking ten courses a year.  Therefore, (doing the crude math with my humanities mind), add books and parking to the equation, as well as the cost of living and the respective costs of that decade (considering the cost of inflation), this tuition was significant.  Today, depending on the university, Canadian students now pay (specialty courses aside) between 400 and 750 dollars per course (Universities Canada, 2016). Like many of my friends, I purposefully chose a university close to home because living away from home was simply not a possibility, nor was it practical.  My parents (of a lower income bracket) felt very generous by not charging me rent because as conservative Baby Boomer parents tend to be, they had both moved out and worked as soon as they graduated from high school.  I remember that some of their generation got rich or stayed financially viable working hard through hands-on experience.  Often they sent money home to their parents.  Sometimes, these families were families with only one income earner, and as a result, they could not always afford additional costs of post-secondary education for their children.  These Baby Boomers worked their way up in their companies, and sometimes spent large parts of their careers in the same jobs or work places.  My university instructors explained to me in various psychology and sociology courses that a college education was not always considered necessary for Baby Boomers to be financially capable, although, for some, like my parents who participated in college while they worked, it was definitely helpful.

In the 80’s, the enrolment in college and university programs also fluctuated in terms of the entrance requirements and program availability.  For example, I remember that getting into teaching was difficult for an average student like myself.  I was also not eligible for a financial student loan, nor a credit card which was much more difficult to get in those days than it can be now for new high school graduates.  (I remember my son getting letters from different banks along with his high school convocation papers offering him a credit card.)  Therefore, I had the choice to work and attend school, or work and not study.  Getting an education was the only route that I would be able to follow in order to get a job as a teacher.  Fortunately, my parents allowed me to live at home for free. I modified my dreams of studying abroad, and got to the business of passing an affordable degree; moving out of the family home as soon as possible (to get independence), and getting a good job. Their generosity to allow me to live at home, and my limited expenses in doing so (no cell phone or technology, or other debts), helped me out considerably.  Unlike in today’s generation, there were certainly no legal expectations by the government of my parents to pay my way.  My parents’ offer to provide me room and board was strictly voluntary.

Next Steps in My Career:  Like my son, when I did graduate with a degree, I did not have a student loan to pay off; but unlike my son, my grades were not exceptional.  Where he had some tuition support from us (as expected of divorced parents and which I had prepared for regardless) which afforded him the ability to work part time, I was working full time hours while attending full time university.  Having only an average GPA proved to be difficult for me when a few years later, I applied to graduate school. After getting my under-graduate degree and considerable job searching because finding a teaching job in the late 1980’s was like finding a needle in a hay-stack, I got my first teaching job.  As a beginning teaching in rural Alberta, I got paid approximately $1800.00 net pay a month (with benefits and a pension).  Later, I took a pay-cut and a pay-freeze during two teacher strikes, but eventually, I started getting a solid pay cheque comparable to my first year’s pay cheque approximately seven years into my career.  Starting teachers now get approximately one and a half times this pay with similar benefits.

I decided to return to university after working for a few year.  Unfortunately, I had to spend considerable time upgrading in graduate courses to have grades high enough to be eligible to enter and then complete my Masters of Arts in Education.  I completed this graduate program and then went on to complete a PhD in Education while working full time as a single mother.  I did most of my courses and studying in the evenings and on the weekends.  However, I was careful to keep my grades high this time and was proud to graduate in both graduate and post-graduate degrees with a 4.0 GPA.

After all of my educational costs from my various programs, along with some of the professional set-backs with union strikes, along with a maternity leave, I am not certain that I will ever recover all of these school costs.  However, my education opened some doors for me in my career path, and helped me work towards a solid pension program.  It is worth noting that the long hours of work towards these academic goals while being a teacher and parent, took a toll on my health, and it is something that I still struggle with today.  With this being said, I am glad that I achieved these professional and academic goals as I feel that I have grown as a person in doing so, and I modelled to my son throughout his lifetime, the value of a good education.

Minding the Gap

And so what can be done to bridge the gap between our generations when we have some expressed differences and expectations between us about how we support (or may not being willing or able to support) our adult children’s post-secondary education?  I have learned that it is important to consider a few things when reviewing the options.  Fortunately, some of these I thought of ahead of time and they proved to be successful (with input from friends and family), and other things I learned through trial and error.  I also learned quite a bit from my friends and colleagues as they grappled with finding the right solutions for supporting their adult children in school, and considering their own financial well-being.  Again, there are no one-size-fits-all rules for how to work out a good financial plan for university together, but these are some of my suggestions:

  1. Communication:  It is really important to talk to our children long before they graduate about what they can expect from us in their post-secondary programming.  The more transparent around the financial responsibilities of everyone involved, the less room there is for financial miscommunication when it counts the most.  This way, parents won’t feel that they are being taken advantage of because there are some clear targets and parameters around what they will contribute (room and board, tuition or other support), or what they will not contribute and why.  As well, it is good to be clear about how much parents will contribute and for what purpose;  and how long they will offer these supports.  As a result, their children can then save and plan accordingly.
  2. Set a Budget:  I believe strongly that if supporting tuition is offered, that a set amount of money should be determined and communicated to assist with tuition, books, living expenses, transportation and other.  I indicated to my son that I had X number of dollars for his full program, and that was it.  Too often, student expenses can be like bottomless pits based on the emerging realities of their programs.  It is important for students to work around a set budget allocated by everyone involved; rather than having a flexible budget that works around the costs of the students.  Too many of my friends were surprised to be paying more for their children’s tuition than they had anticipated when their children did not understand some bottom-line realities.
  3. Retirement Planning:  As well, parents should also be very clear with their children about their own retirement planning in terms of RSP’s, CPP contributions, work pensions and other savings so that their children understand the importance of their parents’ long term financial plans for their later years.  I took my son to a financial advisor twice a year until he graduated.  Even though he found the whole process extremely tedious, it was helpful to have a third party explain to him the importance of strong savings programs for both of us.
  4. Conditions of Support:  I set up some clear guidelines around how I provided tuition for my son.  In other words, giving him money was conditional.  If he was in school full time (3 classes or more), or achieved good grades (we negotiated what that looked like), he received more from me for tuition for the next semester, than if he did not do well in a full time program.  Some of my friends set interesting provisions for helping with tuition.  They made it clear that if their children dropped out of school, they had to pay their parents back (very clever in retrospect).  Please let me be clear, I do not endorse taking tuition away and using it as leverage against our adult children; however, I do feel that there needs to be some clear guidelines set up ahead of time about how we will operate together around money.  My expectations were simple:  “If you work hard, and contribute financially to your own tuition, and you are respectful to me (we had some house rules), our financial arrangements will stand.”
  5. Student Loans:  Getting student loans in moderation is not always a bad thing.  In today’s world, establishing a credit reference is extremely important and is done by getting a loan, credit card or line of credit.  I think that it is important to encourage our children to work towards paying their own tuition and to help them successfully manage their own financial matters, perhaps with the assistance of a financial advisor to develop a strategic financial plan for using credit.
  6. Scholarships and Bursary Programs:  I used to be a big proponent of applying for scholarships and bursaries, but I am now tentative in my support of the hundreds of hours that students have to spend on the application packages to get nominal results.  I think it is wise for students to attend career centres and research scholarships associated with their programs of studies; however, where it becomes onerous, it is likely wisest for them to secure some solid hours at a part time job and accumulate the necessary funding because getting scholarships can be a bit of a gamble.
  7. Set Reasonable Goals:  It is pretty common for graduating children to want to go to the finest school in another country for a year, or to live in residence in a specialty program far away from home and hope that their parents will cover it.  However, if some of the financial work as a family has been done (as to the above), clear goals, (including realistic ones) can be established.  Many dreams are possible with the right financial strategies to achieve them, but some of them take hard work to save the money before (or during) the programs so that they are actually possible.  Living frugally is a good experience for students and can be done by cutting out unnecessary expenses while living at home or away.  I have also found having studied in different places, that good teachers make the programs, and good teaching faculty can be found on almost every campus.  Sometimes “a good class is a class is a class” (expression) no matter where you attend school.

The Bottom Line:  When all is said and done, families are all different in how they approach or are capable of supporting the post-secondary aspirations of their children given their economic realities.  However, it is good to be optimistic of the possibility that our children may carry on into post-secondary programs.  It is a life plan that needs to be thought through together long before the end of high school with parents, school counsellors and other mentors.  I suppose my purpose in writing this article is to show that regardless of the academic generation using myself as an example in the 80’s and my son as an example recently, attending post-secondary school has been and continues to be a financially demanding process that he and I handled a bit differently with our families across generations.  We both managed with some proactive planning, ambition and discipline to achieve our academic goals.

My frugal Baby Boomer parents got straight to the point with me early in life.  It was simple.  If I was capable of working while living at home, I needed to pay rent. “There are no free rides in this family” my father would say, except if I was attending full time post-secondary school with a serious game plan.  The family expectations were clear.  There were no surprises, and as a result, there was little to no generation gap for us on this topic of funding my academic program.  We all did our part to make my academic dreams a reality, and my parents now also have enough money in the bank to retire comfortably.

With their mentorship, I also created a good game plan for my son and I.  With some of my support, he graduated with a degree in good standing without incurring any student debt.  Recently, he has also been successful in finding a good job that I would classify as one that will set him up for the future.  As well, because I negotiated a reasonable plan with my son about how to support his university, I remained financially viable.