It’s a weeknight at around 7:00 PM, somewhere in a sub-urban neighborhood, sheltered by commercial box stores and busy sidewalk lined streets. I can hear traffic, and smell food cooking. We are outside a pub, and I am listening to a few other women carry on a conversation about motorcycles, because they like to ride but prefer different makes and models. What is special about this group of women, is they are a gathering of women electricians. This is one of our first gatherings.
“…..You see I have an innate preference for Harleys, ’cause my first husband is a Harley mechanic. So if you see demonstrated enough the power of a Harley throttle, you never forget it. Granted he spent all his time with those Harleys, so you think I’d resent them. That was essentially what ensured our separation actually. His love for the bikes out-weighed his love for me and our son….”
This is Jean. She’s a role model of mine not only because she’s older and been a journeywoman already for years, but also because she was my first year teacher. She has a habit of rambling on and not letting anyone else get a word in edgewise, but Darla pipes in:
‘I ride a Triumph, it’s a great little bike. I really enjoy working on it.’
‘Triumphs are beautiful bikes.’
I chime in. I have been silent until now. Not having ever ridden a motorcycle myself, except in my day dreams of course, I haven’t much to add other than my opinions on aesthetics. I am also feeling shy in this group, trying to sort out whether I am feeling I want to be these women, or date them.
Suddenly, as if just remembering I am standing next to her, Jean then turns to me, and says;
‘Girl, you are my favorite treeplanter electrician yet.’
She gives me a great big smile. She remembers how I introduced myself to the class two years ago, as a treeplanter that had been traveling aimlessly and who has now decided to pursue a career. I smile back at the compliment, but tilt my head to the side questioningly.
The group of women yammer on again, and other female electricians come out of the pub after paying for their meal to join in. We’re starting to become a large crowd in the parking lot now. I stand there and politely listen, but find I cannot concentrate on the conversation at hand. I am elsewhere in my memory for a time.
I have gone back to tree planting. A flood of mixed emotions washes over me.
I remember sending the initial email to Joseph.
‘Joseph, I would love to treeplant on your crew this season, will you hire me?’
The reply back is affirmative.
‘Yes, I would love to take you on. I’m hiring Alysa too. If you can get along, you’re hired.’
The surprising catch. The person I credit with gifting me strong feelings of a varied spectrum will also be planting on his crew. I assure him this will be no problem. A none issue. I am lying.
Luckily this is only an email and he cannot see the fear and horror I’m probably gushing with. I consider giving the whole idea up.
Alysa is my ex-girlfriend. We had been together a year and I had adored her completely, with infatuated gusto. She could do no wrong. I had set aside every passion and interest of mine to seek her affection and give her happiness. To her credit, I was lost, she was a perfect escape, and she certainly did not intend for me to fall so deeply for her. This time in my life was full of soul-searching. I caged my emotions, never let on how I felt about her, admired her in secret. I wanted to be good at something, instead of mediocre at many things. To be known and admired for my passion at something. But what?
Alysa was attractive because she delved into things she was interested in fearlessly, and seemed a natural at everything. I had been trying on many hats to see which one fit the best during our time together. Bike mechanic. naw. Librarian or bookstore nerd. Nope. Events organizer and co-ordinator. Naw. Farmer. No. Custodian. NO. Political activist. Not really. Printing press worker. Nope. Home care worker. Nope. Artist. Not really. Lover. apparently not even that. It wasn’t that I wasn’t good at these things, it was more so that I wasn’t great nor truly captivated by the work that bothered me. I found myself waking up everyday slightly disengaged, only able to plan for the next day. Alysa grew tired of me and started to look towards other people for affection. In the end, I felt that she knew nothing about me, not even that I deeply loved her.
Her last sentiments about me were:
‘Huh, here I am naked in a hot tub with my girlfriend, and I’m not the least bit attracted to her.’
We were the only two people in the hot tub and she was making eye contact with me.
I stared back at her a bit, then averted my eyes to the scenery. It took a while to process what she really was saying to me. And I was certain it meant much less to her than to me, because she still had herself in the relationship, and I had let myself disappear. Our paths were now going to go separate ways. I felt the shock of loss. The realization that I was lost without her direction. The world around me suddenly felt distant and vague. What had I let myself become?
My inevitable go-to for bad feelings was to get drunk. I got so drunk that evening, as the sun descended, I suddenly could only cry out sad Italian singsong ballads to the sheep our trailer was situated in a field of. We were over and the pain I felt inside started bubbling out of me in embarrassing whisky fueled ways. My tears were flowing as uncontrollably as the horrible noises loudly escaping my throat. (Side note: I do not speak a word of Italian, and not even the sheep could look me in the eyes.)
I was gone from our life together the next day in my defeated, rejected stupor, feeling so sorry for myself I couldn’t even bring myself to say goodbye. All my meager belongings in one backpack, I was heartbroken and devastated. My lust for life had disintegrated, the only love for myself I found in a bottle. I felt numb and hated being sober. I was very disappointed in myself, felt extremely sorry for myself, and felt especially alone. Not liking where this sad story was headed, I quickly opted to run away from life, and flew on a one way ticket to San Jose, Costa Rica. In Costa Rica I could ramble around and find myself, while basking in the permanent summers’ glory. It forced the fight or flight mode in my brain to surface, reviving the need to survive over all else. It was a rough start, but survival mode enabled me to make friends, see sights, spend entire days drawing and even start day dreaming again. My Spanish was terrible so it helped that I didn’t really have to talk to anyone. It didn’t, however, take long for running away to paradise to get old, and for me to feel restless. Only a month into the ramble, I opted to try to rebuild a life back home and emailed Joseph.
It had only been a month since Alysa and I had parted ways, and now our paths were being driven to cross again. I discovered in closing my email with Joseph, that I was mortified, angry and disappointed in myself that I could forget myself to such an extent, and let someone else have so much control over my feelings. I gave every bit of myself away gracelessly, to someone who had not earned the privilege, nor deserved the selflessness. My self-loathing turned me completely against Alysa. I vowed to not let her win. Even though I was well aware I had naively defeated myself in that relationship, I felt strongly the urge to prove myself as no beaten rat, opting to face this horrible feeling in my guts and bravely challenge myself to not let her get the best of me. There was hope inside of me yet. As well as some burning desire to prove myself. I soon organized to travel back up to BC and got ready for the next thing I would try: treeplanting. With a broken heart.
When I got to site, I realized I could not avoid her. There were only 15 people on our crew, and we all kept close quarters. The tension was so high between us it affected everyone else. We couldn’t share space in the vehicles that drove us to the block or a table to eat at, the anxious hostility between us so thick. I hated her so much, for rejecting me initially, but also for now forcing so many feelings up from deep inside of me every time I saw her, or heard her voice. Trying to wash away these feelings when the day was done, I would guzzle back a whole bottle of whisky until I blacked out. Fuck her, I resolved. Treeplanting would be something I was finally good at, and she would regret ever letting me go. It was a job with bitter vengeance fueling me.
Treeplanting became a game that I had to win. I had to be better than her. After a few days, when I sobered up enough to start to get the hang of it, I had heard she wasn’t catching on very fast. This brightened my spirits. She wouldn’t make it. I knew her. Either she was great at something right off the bat or she quit. Or maybe it was our anxious tension that finally broke her. Either way, after two long weeks she had quit, and I had won. I felt like a twisted conqueror as I sat in my tent rejoicing alone! My low self-esteem glowed over this. I became one of the best planters on our crew that season, no small feat for a new planter. I realized I was no longer afraid to put my all into something, because I had felt so low I felt there was nothing more to lose. And was surprised and pleased with the results of this risk I had taken. I realized this wasn’t fair, to be so happy about someone else’s failure. But I had no energy left to shame myself. It felt like time for me to be selfish for once, to plan my life for me, to achieve personal goals. Something had changed and grown inside of me.
This gave me hope to plan for another project. Maybe I could achieve something bigger, like become an electrician. Getting a trade was something I had always considered but it seemed like too big of a project to take on. Not anymore though. Nothing else felt harder than what I had just gone through. No more would I give myself away to people who would never respect my mind and feelings, and who would not believe in me. The crippling fear of failure that had stopped me from achieving anything challenging before, now felt less daunting, less intimidating.
I had tinkered with electronics textbooks while I was with Alysa, trying to understand the fascinating discovery of electricity while building small projects, such as ripping apart dumpstered VCR’s to try to fix them. I remembered fondly the moments she’d taken to explain what she understood to me, but it just confused me more. Voltage? Resistance? Amperage? How do they all relate? The more questions I asked her, the more stupid she made me feel. How could I not understand this?! she would yell to the world. I could tell the questions were above her scope of knowledge. I needed to know more and learn from experts. I knew I wasn’t stupid. I needed to become an expert.
This became a new focus during planting season and thereafter. Out by myself in the middle of a clear-cut, throwing my shovel in the dirt to spread the top 6″ crust of dirt to slip a baby pine tree sapling in, I fantasized about becoming an electrician and plotted out how I would do it. During my days off I would head to the internet in town, researching what it would take. Math and physics 11 and 12 recommended. Could I actually do this? This was my first big challenge. I had been good at math in elementary school, but once the self-esteem drop of high school had hit, I had given up, and failed math 10. I had to take it again in an easier version just to graduate.
The decision had realistically already been made. It felt like Do or Die by this time. What challenge could upgrading high school math and physics courses be compared to the pain and suffering of unrequited love? I had nothing more to lose. Enduring some personal growth could only build on my disastrously low self-confidence, I wagered. I was certain it couldn’t pull me any lower, I reasoned. Why not try something new. I could already tell treeplanting would not be a sustainable life style choice for me at any rate.
After treeplanting was over I set out on my journey to become an electrician, starting with upgrading my high school math and physics. This took a year. Then I set out to find someone to teach me, and so lived for a time on a hippy farm operating off grid on solar and wind power, and learned what I could from the farm inventor genius. This led me to believe I would prefer a formal education on the matter after all, and decided to seek out schooling. I found a grant for the union first year program, and have been with the Electrical Union ever since.
I came back to being present with the gathering of women electricians outside the pub. I felt safe and honored to be among them. I looked around and studied the dozen or so women scattered in our loose group, then my eyes rested again on Jean, as she was speaking again, drawing in the whole groups attention.
Wow. Her favorite treeplanter electrician. I’m not sure if Jean had any idea what the connection between the two was for me. But I guess it didn’t matter. I liked being liked by her. To me she is a powerful, yet kind woman, clearly able to destroy your already rattled notions of security with her words alone if she chose to, and I rathered her on my side than against me. I rathered the whole union on my side than against me. I was remembering my struggle to get there. In my third year now of electrical apprenticeship. The privilege of being among other women who had probably struggled much more, or differently at least. Our skills as electrical workers linked us, weaving our commonalities and differences into a beautiful, diverse, motley crew. All of us strong enough to endure, hard enough not to show we care, but soft enough to feel the entitlement of femininity among brutes and bullies. We feel a safety in numbers. There truly is a power in numbers when it comes to worker rights, as well as human rights. We are the union’s women electricians. In our meetings we stand in solidarity for our, equal and fair pay, benefits, treatment, training and rights. I have had it pretty easy in my union, if I compare past struggles in history for workers to receive the 8 hour work day, or even a minimum wage, and most people of my generation have no idea the struggle workers went through to get us where we are today. The history books are rich in struggles I take for granted, in my everyday comforts.
I say goodnight to all and head to my car. It’s time to head home to hang out with my dog and get ready for the next days work.