(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, July 11, 2020)

You can tell some kids just about anything, so if you’re bored this summer tell them that people couldn’t see colour until the 1960s. Before this, everything in the world looked black-and-white.

I once told this to my own kids, which is probably one reason why their mother never asked me to home-school them. Even so, a good black-and-white photo has some wonder to it. Some magic dust.

For example, here’s a portrait of a young man. His eyes, with his bow tie, apparently need some help. Some straightening. The unseen adults nearby, dressing and parading him like adults love to do, probably lied to him too. I can hear them now – “Such a smart-looking boy!” – when, in truth, he looks sympathetic enough, sure, but also rather lost.

“Where am I? Who’s my family? What language do I speak?” This boy might ask these questions because I know something about his story, and I know this photo was taken soon after he got off the boat (well, the plane) to have a fresh go of things in the freedom of Canada.

By the way, since we’re talking about freedom and summer and telling lies, remember Freedom 55, that alluring insurance campaign? Boomers remember. The rest of you, follow me.

It’s winter and you’re running after a bus, when, next thing, you’re on some beach jogging alongside your future self. “Hey,” you say. Then you talk with your future self.  You look good. The beach is wide with palm trees. Life at 55 looks grand. Why? Because you’ve planned early and invested for this future freedom.

Of course, these days retirement can look more like Freedom 95. Which gives more time to think about important matters like truth and lies and collecting photos, some of which, naturally, should be black-and-white.

This is what I’d tell this young man. Keep your chin up. Life, after all, is filled with chance. We tend to think we’re in control, but this is just an illusion. Consider how we’re each born into a certain time and place, a certain race, a certain family, none of our choosing. We meet other travellers on the way, also somewhat randomly. Dying isn’t really our top choice either.

Yes, life is but a breath, a puff of wind, and no investment or insurance can change this.

On the other hand (remember, I’m cheering up this boy) I’d tell him that, by chance, other things might happen. “Maybe you’ll marry up,” I’d say. And maybe other lines for this boy will fall in pleasant places. Why wouldn’t they? After all, isn’t he, like you, worth more than a million stars?

In other words, freedom is a frame of mind more than a particular lot in life. Don’t get caught in a cage thinking otherwise, even a golden cage. See your struggles and fears, along with your joys, for what they are. This, after all, is the purpose and meaning of story. And isn’t your life, more than anything, a story?

I think it is. This is what I tell my students. Stories – the good ones, anyway – can help us see in a way that’s not just more colourful, but more whole and gracious, more full and meaningful.

Finally, about the beach. It’s a fine place to go. But given the choice between a life of leisure or one of service with that purpose and meaning, go with the latter. This will nourish you, which is your bigger need.

One last thing about this lost-looking boy. By now you likely realize he’s Yours Truly, that is my past self. You might have also guessed that I’m now (in three days, anyway) turning 55.

Which is why I’m appreciating the light and nuance, the shade and shadow of this boy’s life, and photo. It was recently gifted to me by a dear aunt, my Tante Ruth, who helped care for me at that time.

So Happy Birthday to the young man with the crooked bow tie. Don’t worry, life will straighten out. And while you may feel lost, you will surely be found. Yes, I can assure you that the lines will often fall in pleasant places for you. So look up and cheer up. And change. We’re going to the beach.