The Extraordinary Kind of Ordinary – A wee ode to my sister

Blythe hall of fame“Of two sisters one is always the watcher, one the dancer.” ― Louise Glück

Name: Blythe Hartley
Age: Dirty Thirty (+1)
Hometown: Calgary, AB
Occupation: HR Advisor, ARC Resource
Education: BA Communications and Business, University of Southern California
Relationship Status: Single, but if you even think of stepping, you have to pass me first
Hobbies: Hip hop dance every Tuesday

My sister. Lucky girl. She loved it. When I was 16 and bored I decided to abandon my own perfectly good bedroom and move into hers. Our one alarm clock was on her side of the room. She had to wake up earlier than me and would re-set it so that I would not sleep through class. Invariably, everyday she had to run back up the stairs to turn it off while I stayed under the covers like a hibernating bear, too lazy to get up. Amazingly, if you let any noise go on long enough, it can start to sound good.

198932_5367085411_7282_nBlythe is the only person that I remember being born (including my daughter, but that’s selective memory).  I was 3, got to wear my brand new pink track suit and go on a field trip with my brothers. I don’t remember bringing her home and the next couple years are a blur, but the significance of that day was unmistakable. It remains one of my earliest memories.

This weekend, my little sister was inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame. The next day, she ran a half marathon (just for fun in 1:39) with a group of 40 people who fundraised over $8,000 for a charity in our brother’s name.

blythe6I know very little about what the Hall of Fame said about her. Getting her to talk about herself is like pulling teeth. She is frustratingly self-deprecating. I speculate they honoured her 12 years on the Canadian National Diving Team, 25 National Titles, 2 World Champion Titles,1 World Record, 5 Commonwealth medals, Olympic medal, 5 NCAA Titles, Pan American, Goodwill and World Cup medals. Something like that.

It goes without saying that Blythe is one of the highest achievers I have ever known. Growing up, she was better than me at absolutely everything. She remains the most gifted athlete I have ever met, I am certain she could have gone to the Olympics in any sport. By 6 she had dozens of swimming records. Her elementary school high jump and track records still stand. Her report cards sparkled. Teachers loved her, she was popular and made good choices. At 12 she appeared on the cover of the Vancouver Sun under the title “So Good, So Young”.  She had set a record as the youngest person to ever win a medal at the Senior National level. I cut it out and put it in my diary to remind myself I had the same genes.

Strachan's wedding in 2007, 6 weeks before we lost him

Strachan’s wedding 6 weeks before we lost him

She retired in 2008 after her third Olympics. 2007 was brutal for the Hartleys.  We lost Strachan in July after an all-consuming 21 month battle with cancer. It was exhausting and devastating. We were each left wasted to the full extent of the word. We lost one of our limbs. It took me at least a year to pick myself up and begin to limp forward. It happened only because day after day the sun continued to rise, regardless of how I felt. Eventually, I had no choice but to put one foot in front of the other.

blythe2That Blythe found fresh motivation through her loss made for a great media vignette and pulled on a lot of heart strings. But that says nothing of how hard it was. She once had to sprint to the bathroom to vomit after opening her closet and seeing Strachan’s sweatshirt. Another time, she drove all the way to the pool only to sit crying in the parking lot before heading home. While a whole lot of sympathetic friends and colleagues accepted that I could only half ass my way through life until I was good and ready, Blythe rose up and committed herself to an endeavour that demanded her absolute best. In the public eye, wearing a bathing suit on high definition television.

She went on to have a career best season, including a 4th place finish in her final Olympics. We watched in the stands with baited breath, 4th can be the toughest place. We released a collective sigh of relief and cheered our asses off when we saw her huge, genuine, beaming smile.

Auntie Blythee

Auntie Blythee

She later told me that the key to that year was to stop caring altogether.  She was competing for herself, her family and teammates. The only measure for achievement was whether she did her very best. She did. She gave her career best performance. That 3 people had even better days or that her scores would have medalled at any other Olympics in history had no bearing. It is every woman’s unattainable dream – to stop caring what others think and start using the right barometers for success, peace and happiness. Chalk it up to yet another impossible feat that Blythe has achieved.

She has since retired gracefully from sport and transitioned seamlessly into civilian life. Needless to say, she continues to excel. The last time I visited her office, her Vice President was so enthused about her that he high-fived me. She surrounds herself with outstanding friends, has chili cook-offs, plays flag football and finds pleasure in simple things. Her priorities are in tact, she is unpretentious and refreshingly humble.  Most importantly for me, she has the best laugh, sits on my feet when they are cold and I am always at home in her company.

Such an honourable maid

Such an honourable maid

Watching someone grow up from the beginning is the most remarkable journey.  Since my earliest memories, I have watched Blythe in angst and in wonder. I still do. I have worried about every risk, wished I could protect her from every hurt and beamed with pride at every reward.  I apologize if you have barfed in your mouth while reading this, but knowing that the very person I have watched grow up since birth is the one who has lived the best life helps me believe that I matter.

So Blythe, before you fly across the world to kick my ass for writing this, know that nothing has made me more proud than the person you have become. Congratulations on the Hall of Fame; they have great taste.

Blythe1 blythe3

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你可能生活在有趣的时代 – May you Live in Interesting Times (Chinese Proverb)

“If Pavlov tested his cat he would have failed.” — Patrick H.T. Doyle

I want to start this entry with a big thank you to all who have provided such wonderful feedback. I am doing my best to put awkward away and accept it with grace. It still feels indulgent! That said, writing in a public space has been a big and personal step. The positive response has been thoroughly affirming and is actively pushing me toward bigger goals. So thank you, sincerely.

One such comment came from a friend of a friend who shared Ordinary Ubuntu with her network under the description “don’t be fooled by the title, nothing about this woman or this blog is ordinary”.

I reject it. Politely of course.

Again, I am truly flattered. But proudly ordinary. In case it needs to be spelled out, the premise for this blog is that we put all together way too much stock in ‘important’ people and underestimate ourselves and our ability to influence. Ordinary people are in fact the most extraordinary.

In a separate conversation last week, another friend Anna said, almost bashfully, “you really know a lot of interesting people.”

Sam casually swimming in her bikini with a whale

Sam casually swimming in her bikini with a whale. Average day, really.

I was referring her to Sam and Rob, two members of our extended family who live nearby. She is one of the world’s foremost shark experts, he is a ship captain, conservationist and adventurer. They moved to St Francis 2 years ago to run a sustainable seas eco-center after spending 20 building a scuba school on the Mozambique border.  They first had to live on a Zulu chief’s land to gain permission to purchase and develop.  Their two barefoot children have featured in several National Geographic films. Both were diving and and playing with sharks by age 5. By 11, son Luke was the village snake expert and had a collection of over 20 highly poisonous species in the garage. An afternoon on their boat invariably includes some of the best stories you will ever hear.

They sure are interesting. But guess what Anna, so are you.

Boooooring!

Yep, you’re interesting.

You recently moved your whole family to South Africa from New Zealand after losing your home in an earthquake. Your eldest daughter survived it alone in  kindergarten. You opted to use adversity to reassess your priorities, let go of material comforts and choose courage instead. Your husband shut down a successful law practice to ‘Carpe Diem’ and pursue his dream of coaching rugby at the highest level. You have a sweet, gregarious 7 year old, devilishly handsome and clever 5 year old and hilarious 3 year old that tries to stick tampons in his ears. You are unpretentious, genuine and generous and have adjusted to life in a new country with beaming smiles.

kia web graph

The average time spent on a website is 15 seconds

Even if you have them, accolades do not make you interesting. Nor does a wikipedia page. Everybody knows at least a few miserable douchebags with impressive resumes. Ordinary people have insecurities and chubby parts. We make tons of mistakes, give in to fear and wish for things we don’t have. Finding others who share these struggles and encourage us to live funnier, smarter, better; that’s the good stuff.

Kia

One of my girl crushes is on a friend I grew up with. Kia and I met in Grade 3 French immersion. I was banned from her home soon thereafter for allegedly terrorizing a birthday party and breaking household items. In high school, I held steady to said reputation by drinking wine coolers in their hot tub and subsequently barfing them back out in the front yard.

Later still, I was there when Kia met her future husband Greig. I would love to say I introduced them, instead I told her he was gay.

For a couple of summers, I worked with Greig at a coffee shop in Vancouver with mostly gay clientele. He’s hot, so most the customers and staff – of all genders and orientations – had crushes on him. Including the repair man, Randy, who discernibly waited until Greig was on shift before fixing anything. He then spent the whole time convincing everyone within ear shot that Greig was gay and, surely, he stood a chance. I liked both of them and it was all the same to me, so I went with it.

When Kia asked that fateful night at Stone Temple, wink wink nudge nudge, if I knew Greig, I answered smoothly, “He’s definitely great; too bad for you he’s gay”.

Thirteen years and three kids later, they celebrate their 9th wedding anniversary this summer.

In a pumpkin patch to boot

In a pumpkin patch to boot

She oozes energy, happiness and positivity. I enjoy each of her updates and smile at all of her pictures. She’s gorgeous, he’s gorgeous and their kids are gorgeous. They genuinely enjoy each other and their time. They do arts and crafts, grow their own vegetables, go on family hikes and make their own ice rink in the backyard during winter.

2012 reunion. Those men are brave.

2012 reunion. Those men are brave.

In many ways,we are opposites. She has never left Vancouver, went to community college and married a guy from the same high school. She is a stay-at-home Mom with a photography business on the side. He is a plumber. She has kept many of the same friends her whole life, lives within shouting distance of both sets of grandparents and all aunts and uncles. They vacation locally and could probably count the number of times they have left Canada on their hands. I have often used her as a benchmark in my own pursuit of happiness and purpose – one of the most interesting and content people I know has never left our backyard.

When I said this to her in 2012 she shrugged it off, “Interesting, no. But happy, definitely happy.”

Rubbish.

kia wowMy father told me a long time ago that the only way to leave a true legacy is with the people close to you.

That Kia had the grace to come to my brother’s funeral after years without seeing me matters, a lot. That she regularly reminds happiness a choice and not an exotic destination simply by the way she lives, makes her super interesting. Yet completely ordinary –  I choose it any day.