The Hats That I Have Worn by Shelley Robinson

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I have spent much of my life wearing many hats, both literally and figuratively.  I have never really been fond of them.  First of all, they never seemed to feel very comfortable, nor remain on my head very long.  They were often hot and hid my face, or did not suit the various occasions that I attended.  Instead, I liked the freedom of letting my hair hang down recklessly curly (and often uncombed) around my face.  However, I think back over my lifetime and smile at the times where hats served a purpose, and defined some of my experiences.

Childhood Hats:  My mother used to knit me warm toques that I would wear in the winter time.  I had one for years that was dark blue.  The boys used to steal it off of my head and make me chase them in order to get it back.  It would often end up in a mud puddle, or a snow bank.  Finally, it ended up in the mailbox where I could not retrieve it.

I sported a brown felt beret for three months when I attended brownies in first grade.  I could not stand the hat, the uniform, nor the ceremonial dancing around the mushrooms that we did under the guidance of some good female leaders (mothers) known as brown owl and snowy owl.  In retrospect, doing tasks that identified me as a productive female, like cooking and cleaning to get badges to sew on my uncomfortable uniform did not motivate me.  Even before I knew what I disliked about it, I resisted it.  My mother quickly relented and put me out of my misery by signing me out of the organization so that I could go back to playing soccer with the boys in the evenings.  I never wore nor saw this little brown hat again.

I was never dressed up as, nor pretended to be a princess with a crown.  I did have one hat that I liked very much in Grade Six.  It had a bit of personality to it and fit my rather large head.  It was a blue “Gatsby” style cap that suited my tom-boy ways.  I wore it everywhere, and it was probably the only time in my life where I truly identified with a hat.  I have so many pictures of me sporting it with my dark glasses, and my mischievous smile.   I do not know what became of that hat, or the cheeky girl that used to wear it.

Stylish Hats:    Through my teens, I wore a few caps, toques, fedoras, boater hats, cowboy hats and so forth depending on the weather or the occasion and my mood to do so.  I usually took them off as soon as I could as they seemed to serve little purpose other than to hide me underneath of them or get in the way.

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As I got older, I continued to explore different styles of hats hoping for something fashionable for my professional life, such as wool casquette caps, felt bucket or cloche hats, and even a rabbit felt Australian Akubra (and I regret that 20 bunnies died to make it).  Of course, I wore a wedding veil cap, stylish in the late 80’s that hid my face as I walked down the aisle and eerily represented how I felt (naively veiled) going into my first marriage.

I kept almost all of my highly unused hats hoping that someday I would feel compelled to bring them back to life when the style to wear them reignited my effort to do so.  I thought it might be an older person’s preoccupation, so, instead, I bought my father interesting hats from all over the world as gifts to him from my travels.  He was always amused by them and kept them on his dresser, and even went so far as to wear the English Ascot Cap with which he became rather fond.

Figurative Hats:  The Roles in My Life:  What became more important to me in my professional world was wearing the various leadership hats that I needed to wear in my daily life.  I remember reading an article about the six hats of leadership back in the 80’s by Edward de Bono (see picture).

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My assistant superintendent, at the time, explained to me that all of these hats were required in a successful organization.  We needed to welcome all of these roles around a meeting table, and to not be afraid of them which I was at the time, as welcoming conflict into an organization was new to me.  It was early on in my career that I learned to respect the person who innately gravitated toward being the black hatter in the group.  This person often questioned the status quo; typically played devil’s advocate; and in my mind, had a bit of a cynical Eeyore (Milne) quality to him or her.  I typically wore the green hat (the creative innovator), but got used to wearing the other five when I had to do so.

As well, if I were to think of the roles in my life as hats, I wore many:  mother, teacher, administrator, friend, advocate, wife, writer, composer and family member.  Later in my career, when having compelling conversations as an administrator with students, teachers or parents, I would typically tell them that I was going to take off my principal hat, and put on my mother hat.  It was the hat that served me well throughout most of my career.  I felt most comfortable giving people advice wearing it and people seemed to welcome information from me more openly when I announced it.  With it securely on my head, I would speak openly from my heart, and with my female intuition in mind.  It was interesting how important having the opportunity to wear a mother’s hat has changed my life for the better, albeit, it was a hard-earned hat to keep squarely on my head.  Being an empty-nester, I still take it out of my drawer every so often when called to do so.

Academic Hats:  The hardest earned hats that I ever wore were my ceremonial academic ones.  In my under-graduate and graduate ceremonies, I wore mortar boards where we would move the tassels from the right to the left side upon graduation.  When I completed my post-graduate degree, I purchased the stylish black velvet tam and my alma mater blue and red gown from the University of Calgary.  I wore it very proudly for the academic ceremony that I knew would be my last.

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These have been hats that people find contentious if I wear them.  Unfortunately, they are not always seen for what they represent which is a life dedicated to research, study and teaching.  In some schools where I have worked, I have been told by my superiors not to even speak of my degrees as it might be seen as being pretentious and unwelcome.  Therefore, I rarely wear these hats in public, except when asked to do so.  I am puzzled why these hats make people uncomfortable in my professional world; especially in the area of education when we are promoting some of these types of academic accomplishments.  I hope in time, I can dust them off and wear them proudly.

Wear Our Hats:   I have always wondered what it would be like to wear a crown and lead a nation, or to wear a fireman’s hat and rescue people from burning buildings.  A hat says so much about who we are when we wear them.  I still get nervous when a policeman with a full uniform walks into the building.  His/her uniform commands attention and respect.  Perhaps we all need to remember to take some of our hats out of our drawers and wear them with pride, and not embarrassment.  They are there to protect us from the elements; build our sense of style; and to remind us of some of the roles that we have in life.  Sometimes, by taking one off and putting another one on, we get a fresh perspective about how we view the world, and how the world sees us.

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On the Other Side of Comfortable by Shelley Robinson

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Crossing Over from 2016 to 2017:  As I transition into a new year, I realize that 2016 was challenging for me because this was the first year where I have experimented living very differently than I have done for the first 50 years of my life.  Recently, my new husband and I decided to take a hiatus from my work life in the big and busy buildings of the education system.  Because of his job opportunity, I moved to the small town of Powell River which is land locked and at, what feels like, the edge of the world.  In doing so, I left the comfortable role that I have always had in the sheltered world of a school, inside the confines of my classroom, or my office.

I welcomed meeting people on their own terms outside of my business world.  I had spent my formative school years, and my undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate degrees within the context of a school or post-secondary school system.  Then I had worked as a public teacher and administrator for my entire life.  I no longer wanted to associate 90 percent of my day with people because I needed them either as a student to get the right grade or the best school reference; or because I was paid to teach them or to manage them as an administrator.  What was it like out there?

The pension that always served as a carrot for me, was no longer meaningful enough to keep me hooked in to the magic retirement age formula that is calculated based on my age, earning years and other.  After having a brush with a couple of medical issues, I realized that the costs to my health were too great to wait for life, and especially the kind of life that would be interesting, adventurous and potentially rigorous.   Waiting to live my life after I retired, or after I paid off the mortgage was fraught with the possibility that I may not be healthy, agile, or live long enough to enjoy the fruits of my labour.  In embracing the present, I wanted to learn about the world at large with its own realities and challenges beyond the walls of the establishment–now.

Big Busy Buildings:  As I grew up, I was sheltered and “domesticated” (Ruiz, 1997) in my safe little world in Calgary, Alberta.  I went to school (institutionalized); I then went to university (more of the same); and then I entered the workforce as a teacher (running the  system).  Being a student and then a school teacher afforded me the surreal movie set world like like the setting of the movie The Truman Show (Weir, 1998).  It was not until the protagonist, Truman Burbank reached the outside of his world and broke through the ceiling sky of his bubble world that he saw the weird fake world in which he had been cast.  Like the massive TV set of this story, our bubble of an education world is governed by its own set of senior managers who direct all of the school districts within it under the education laws known as the School Act.  In turn, every school district develops a set of policies and procedures.  And then, every teacher in every classroom, develops their own set of rules and expectations.

For the most part, students and educators are governed by grades (assessment and evaluation) and the evidence of student success.  To meet this educational bottom line, schools have become highly systemized, attempting to be as efficient and effective as possible, marked by the automatic settings of bells announcing class time and three minute breaks to make it to the next class.  Because of the busy schedule, relationships are formed on the run with quick coffees in the staffroom or a short conversation in the hallways.  As a result, the connections we make with people in the school often stop at the door, and they resume in the building again the next day as we spend our evening with family, or worse yet, marking and preparing for the next school day.

Static Relationships:  For those of us who have moved on from one school to another, we realize that once we leave the impregnable walls of one building, we are quickly consumed by the next.  We keep ourselves so busy that we rarely stay in touch with the people that we leave behind, and if we do remain in contact, it is likely because we worked with them for quite awhile or for intensive periods of time.  In fact, what I am now learning is that our perceived “real lives”, at least in my line of work, are really only the pseudo-real school lives of an 8 to 10 hour work day consisting of 90 minute classes.

In this industry, we are very accountable to each other (most of the time), and the codes of conduct are commonly enforced.  There is a soft surveillance of our work with each other, the students and parents through our reporting and meetings.  However, in doing so, dealing with people on these terms makes things very certain.  We know how we are to behave and what our performance indicators need to be.  Integrity is enforced by the system, whether it is intrinsic to our value systems or not.

Social Security:  Because I was in this world my entire life, I never truly realized both the social security and, on the flip side, the limitations that this regimented existence provided me.  It was busily predictable.  It had some rewarding moments within it (and usually because of the students).  It was generally socially safe (except when it was not); but most importantly, it afforded me to pay the bills, raise as son, and take holidays to travel anywhere in the world, preferably where there was less structure and more freedom. My writing has been tinged with this anti-establishment rhetoric for the last few years, but it was not until I completely removed myself from my work, that I started to be exposed to some realities of continuing to live on the grid outside of a work environment.

Life Boats:  Now that I am off of the large ship and in one of the life boats looking for shore, I need to consider what “shore” actually mean?  Where I had thought that everywhere but school would be looser, freer, friendlier and easier, I was disappointed, and then disillusioned.  What I found was that other people within other bureaucracies (companies, industries, organizations) such as banks, insurance companies, contractors, trades people, painters, doctors, realtors, property managers, landlords, travel agents, salespeople, etc. are also laden with their own issues within a set of busy systems that sometimes prevent them from keeping my best interests in mind, and performing optimally (industry standards).  In their defence, they have their own busy 2017 realities that are driven by the technology, and in turn, a current societal philosophy that asks everyone to be everything to all people instantly.

Disappointedly, what my husband and I are starting to learn is that these business people are only bound to us in terms of commitments and communication if they find our financial relationship beneficial to them, or that they have some professional protocol that requires them to keep in touch with us.  For example, getting return phone calls, or having people do what they say that they will do is no longer a common occurrence. Despite our efforts to be clear, polite and patient, many things that we ask of people, even when we are paying them, is not always forthcoming.  Where I used to have some recourse for problems such as this within my Truman-like education world, I no longer have any recourse outside of it when people do not “say what they mean and do what they say” (Robinson, 2009).  Chris and I have to rely on raw faith that a work ethic will be present in our interactions with people and hope that they will honour their working relationship with us.  Essentially, we have jumped off of one ship, and we are needing to get onto other ships to keep afloat on the rocky waves of societal expectations.

Relationships:  Both my husband and I have made friends through our work, but we both agree that we have only managed to truly keep in touch (face-to-face) with a few of them.  Even though Chris and I are not retired, so many of my retired friends have shared with us that one of the big realizations of their emancipation from work is that people with whom they have worked, lose touch with them.  Their friends who continue to work or move away, remain caught up in the inertia of their old (and new jobs) without stopping often to remember relationships that are no longer in the immediate foreground of their everyday lives.  As a result, retirees sometimes feel forgotten, and in turn, staffs occasionally feel forgotten by the people who leave them.

What we are left with socially outside of workplace connections is who we connect with in other parts of our lives (school, hobbies, travelling, dating, clubs, organizations, etc.), and, of course, social media.  When we are strangers in a strange land like my husband and I are moving to a small town, breaking in socially with people who are already firmly established in their own social circles can be challenging.  The norms of behaviour unique to each community are rife with hidden challenges that can go back years, and even generations, long before the time of our arrival.

Situations where people know each other and their families can be complex, and for new people coming into any culture, there are hidden social landmines everywhere waiting for us to say too much, too little, or the right thing at the wrong time.  Some communities are more welcoming and extroverted in their acceptance of newcomers than others, but I am learning that there can be a bit of a misgiving about newcomers by the natives, and trust takes time.  As much as we want to just be able to say who we are, what are intentions are and have people believe us, good relationships do not really happen until there is proof over time of our worth within the social order of things or the social circle of the community.

Life Off of the Grid:   I am looking to the shores of other opportunities now.   I need to feel the ground of something different beneath me as I travel to new places on my own two feet, learning new languages, eating new foods, smelling new plants, hearing new music, and figuring out different ways of life.  I think it is important for me to understand something other than the complex pseudo-realities invented, operationalized and then automated by the expensive, consumer-driven North American grid.  I need to start advocating for my best interests beyond the grips of our capitalist merchants, insurance companies, banks, real estate companies, lawyers, politicians, medical establishments, government officials, pop culture media, etc.  One could argue that I speak about the failing capitalism and democracy of my country, but I would say that my argument far supersedes this notion that mere politics govern how we operate.  Our fear-based, need for instant gratification values are being impacted by far more than politics (but this is content for another article).  We are each individually and collectively responsible for how we operate within our federal, political and capital systems.

The Nomadic Life:  And so I ask again, “What is it like out there?”

In order to answer this question, I find travelling such a relief in discovering objectivity by distancing myself from the freedom and servitude of the technical, automated society that Canada has become.  For example, I am my most cognitively, socially and emotionally open when I travel, but I am also my most leery.  I have a bit more time to pay attention to help or hurt me.  The matters seem clear when I fend off marketeers from bartering with me too aggressively.  I rely on my intuition when I welcome a good conversation in a hostel with someone from another country who would like to share a meal.  If something does not work out, I move on.  I find a better way to be without being stuck in a system tying me to a life style that no longer works for me.

The statistics show that the nomadic traveller does not need to pay as much money as the rest of us who choose to live in one place (Kepnes, 2015).  When I am on the road, I can set up how to manage, fix, pay for, and insure the property I own.  I do not have to work my life away to pay for the “stuff” and then pay for where to house the “stuff”, and then to insure the “stuff”.   I do not have to pay people to babysit my “stuff” so that I can go away from it for awhile to keep myself entertained beyond the minutia of everyday life.  Instead, my life is interesting in itself as I travel lightly and explore new roads, markets, temples, and cultural events.  When we travel, my husband and I still have to pay for food, shelter, transportation, technology and insurance (all things that we have to manage on the grid); however, finding a means to this end can be challenging, but not impossible.  However, when you run a leaner life, the work opportunities to afford it can be greater.  In essence, the world seems a bit clearer because we are not trying to own it; rather, we are travelling through it to find a way to live, work and enjoy the world on our own terms.  

I am not entirely naive (just a little).  The challenges of travelling beyond the establishment are evident.   When we travel, we are vulnerable, unimportant, and uncertain in the world at large, but at least we have the perks of having a grand adventure at the same time.  The more that I lucidly live on the grid and evaluate and cost out my experience within it, the more I realize that I am also experiencing these same three states in my day-to-day life preparing for retirement.   I am vulnerable to unemployment and financial troubles paying for a lifestyle that is not easily manageable on two incomes, let alone one.  I am unimportant in a series of systems that look out for themselves and their own bottom lines; and I am uncertain because when we are stuck, life does not hold much promise or security, and it can be very stressful.   All in all, we are all on this earth for a short while, and we need to make the best of our experience knowing that we will have these three states regardless.  The questions to ask, however, are which journey will be most rewarding, and which one will kill us most quickly?

My New Year’s Resolution:   And so, I come back to this passage of mine from the year 2016 to 2017 and recognize the emerging themes in my writing above.  Whether we are on the grid, or travelling somewhere off of it, it is my observation that we have three over-arching desires:

  1. We want to be connected.  Isolation is one of the surest ways to die young (Shulevitz, 2013).  “[W]hat’s most momentous about the new biology of loneliness is that it offers concrete proof, obtained through the best empirical means, that the poets and bluesmen and movie directors who for centuries have deplored the ravages of lonesomeness on both body and soul were right all along. As W. H. Auden put it, ‘We must love one another or die'” (n.p.).  For example, we want to be around people who find us important enough to initiate and sustain connections in reciprocally satisfying relationships.
  2. We want to be treated with respect.  We have to find ways to treat ourselves and each other well so that we feel good about our short walk in the universe.  For example, we want to associate with people who communicate with us reliably, and at the least, return their phone calls.
  3. We want to know what it is like to be happy in the world, even when we are hiding inside of it.  We all have an unalienable desire to learn about ourselves and our human condition and learn what it means to be happy, and sometimes that means thinking past the systems and the “stuff”.  “The folly of endless consumerism sends us on a wild goose-chase for happiness through materialism” (McGill, n.d.).

All three of these desires take courage, and require that we not only seek these needs out in our human experience, but that we offer them openly to those around us.  The trick for me seems to be to find like-minded people on the same journey who operate boldly, and think outside of their comfort zones because they are also quickly becoming uncomfortable in this brave new world.

“A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude” (Huxley, Brave New World, 1932)