As a child my birthday and Christmas wish lists were filled with chemistry sets, ant farms, microscopes and telescopes. I loved field trips to the swamp behind my elementary school to fill plastic baggies with plant samples and jam jars with microbe-infested water, and the subsequent hours spent in biology labs huddled over glass slides and dissecting trays. In the summertime, many of my days were spent in the woods or in the fields searching for mushrooms, birds nests and animal tracks. As a young reader I lingered longingly–and still do–over descriptions of Faust in his laboratory, of Sherlock Holmes bent over test tubes in his Baker Street rooms, of shadowy eccentrics and alchemists, their libraries and studies filled with mysterious charts, stuffed owls, astrolabes, treatises on the location of the human soul, and an unnerving assortment of specimens floating in formaldehyde-filled jars.
Even now, when there is time on my hands and a good bookstore to grub through, my first and often only stop is the science and nature section. With no particular mental place to go, my eyes and mind tend to rummage magpie-like through the book stacks, picking out a brightly-coloured scrap of paper over here, a bit of shiny foil over there. Countless of my hours have been spent reading about the formation of crystals and minerals, collecting and preserving beetles, the lifecycles of salamanders, nematodes, cockroaches, sea snails and rats. One grimy, poorly lit shop, with a leaky ceiling and a proprietor as approachable as a gila monster, yielded up a treasure trove in the form of a soggy cardboard box filled with old pamphlets and educational literature. There was priceless and no doubt outdated information on such things as egg candling, the bubonic plague, remedies for various forms of animal and insect venom.
Completely lacking the logical, sequential way of organizing the world that is a necessary skill for any serious approach to science, I remain rooted forever at the layman level of scientific understanding. I am an enthusiast rather than a practitioner, a fan rather than a performer. It’s an approach to things that I’ve become used to in my life. A good deal of my time, for instance, is spent listening to recorded music, and I attend live concerts whenever my budget allows. To my mind, the ability to create music is the zenith of human creativity, surpassing all of the other arts in its universality and magical ability to engage both body and mind. I would give up much to have the gift of creating it. Unfortunately, while I can play the guitar a bit, I have little real talent in this area. Despite countless hours of lessons and plucking away in practise, I have none of the intangible essence that true musicianship requires. The same goes for golf, bowling, singing, and painting–all of which I love and none of which I’m particularly brilliant at.
The thing is, though, that my mediocrity in these areas has done nothing to blunt my passion and enthusiasm for them. I have long ago learned to accept the fact (hinted at, in the nicest possible terms, by teachers from kindergarten on) that my contributions in many aspects of life rest more on my enthusiasm than my talent.
None of which is to say that I don’t have any talents or aspirations of my own. I can make people laugh, and I cook a mean bechemel sauce. I’ve been selling poetry, essays, and short stories to a variety of publications for several years now, and have hopes of seeing a book published in the not-too-distant future. I’m working on a play that I also hope will be produced by an amateur theatre group one day. I’m planning to continue my renewed interest in education as far as a doctoral degree, if I can. Also, my painting won’t ever be hanging in the Vancouver Art Gallery, but I think it looks okay on my walls. And I don’t actually get told to leave the room every time I start singing.
Ultimately, though, part of the maturing process for me has been to discover and accept that I am an ordinary human being leading an ordinary life. As a friend of mine once wonderfully put it, this amounts to being “big enough to be small”. And there’s nothing wrong with that.