Monday Morning Musings

Posted on May 20, 2019 under Storytelling with one comment

Me and one of my favourite traveling companions, Jan Bader from Heidelberg, Germany.

Three days ago, my walk was along one of the more nondescript sections of the Camino. It passed through an Industrial Park where Jan and I sat and had freshly squeezed orange juice. This was the high point.The trail continued alongside a busy highway through small towns that seemed to lack character. It was cold , windy and rained a bit. Not whining…just stating the facts.

I wasn’t the least bit concerned having trained in much worse conditions in Nova Scotia. But something strange happened along the way that is still leaving me shaking my head. Last week, in my hometown in Nova Scotia, Canada, a woman in her early 40’s died suddenly and unexpectedly. I sent condolences to a close family friend of the deceased.

I’m walking in the middle of nowhere with all my data turned off on my phone.I’m trying to be a purist on the Camino! I did have the volume on as I still keep the phone lines open for any emergencies. I was very startled to hear my phone ping. My friend was on the way to the funeral and was replying to my condolences through Messenger. How could this possibly happen? People who know me understand that, at the best of times, technology eludes me. I’m still shaking my head.

I stayed in a very large Alburgue that evening. One of the rooms that held 30 bunk beds was nearly empty, a rarity on the Camino.

The communal dining area was busy with the handful of pilgrims who had also checked in. Everyone was journaling, checking their guide books for the next day’s walk and checking social media.

I need you to use your imagination. At one table, there were six of us, three on either side. Some were drinking beer. Others were drinking fine red wine from Leon at 3 Euros (about $4.50 Canadian). Guido, from Italy was sitting to my right and a woman from Germany was on my left. Three pilgrims faced us on the other side of the table.

The German lady asked if she could borrow a guidebook. I was drinking a cold beer. Guido reached across in front of me, thrusting the book to the grateful pilgrim.However, so enchanted was he of this middle aged woman, that he kept his arm extended after passing her the book. His armpit was literally in my face and his arm was between me and my beer.

The people across from me were watching with grins on their faces. I delicately passed my hand under Guido’s arm and brought it up and over his arm in order to get a mouthful of ale. Guido remained unconscious of my predicament. I started pointing at his armpit to the three people across the table suggesting he had body odour, which he didn’t. This little charade continued for a full five minutes. When their grins turned to laughter, Guido finally realized that he was the subject of everyone’s attention. We all had a great chuckle.

Later at communal dinner, I struck up a conversation with a retired Anglican minister from Northern Ontario and a computer programmer from London, England She looked my age and the other chap was in his 20’s. I asked the minister if she felt safe traveling alone. “I’m on a mission of trust” was her reply. No question that her Camino was a spiritual journey. If she visits every church on the Camino, they might need to send out a search party for her later this Fall.

We had this amazing discussion about organized religion, spirituality, the after life, same sex marriage and so forth.

I am going to be very embarrassed if I show up at home after the Camino having gained weight after a 700K walk and about 1.2 million steps. Walking 25-35k everyday requires a lot of fuel. The eternal quest for pilgrims is food and drink… at all hours of the day. Some days, I am appalled when I think about my consumption which includes sweets and other junk food.

For example, on Saturday, I had already had consumed about 5000 calories before dinner. I went into this Spanish restaurant. There was a fixed price meal which, of course, included wine. The waiter opened a bottle of red and delivered fresh crusty bread. The seafood paella was exquisite followed by meatballs in a “green sauce.” Dessert and coffee… (the wine was limitless- I showed great restraint and showed my Canadian manners).Total bill? 11 Euros or approximately $16. I would be grossly overweight and an alcoholic if I lived in Spain.
Have a great week.
P.S. Jan Bader is a fine young man. I like to think that I have a pretty good sense of humour. He has been me matching insult for insult. His humour and generally good mood will carry him far in life. Unless someone supplants him, he will receive my Camino award for “pilgrim with the best sense of humour”.

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The Longest Day

Posted on March 28, 2019 under Storytelling with 4 comments

Thanks to the yearbook staff (1976) at SAJH for the picture and to Gerard MacDonald for posting this photo a few days ago which resulted in this flashback.

We’ve all had them.

Have you ever had one of those days when you wondered if it would ever end? I’ve witnessed labour and delivery of a child.  Four to be exact. Surely this is one of the greatest tests of endurance and perseverance. Writing final exams would be high on my personal list, especially when we wrote provincial exams in high school where your entire year was riding on the results. Anybody who has traveled from North America to far flung places like Australia or India can attest to utter exhaustion after 40 hours of cars, buses and planes.

While weddings are mostly joyous occasions, it can test the boundaries of patience.  Completing the Boston Marathon is another example of a very long day, especially when you haven’t slept the previous 48 hours wondering if you could do it.

A three hour root canal is right up there too.

Most people of my vintage have had at least one (?) altercation with alcohol and came out on the losing end.

The year was 1976. After a less than stellar performance during my undergraduate years, I went back to university to get a Bachelor of Education. I took the secondary program and made some lifelong friends who toiled with me to learn how to become  English teachers. It was a memorable year. Especially the last day.

When I did my undergraduate degree, I didn’t stick around for graduation so I missed all of the grad week functions. Speaking of long days, is there anything longer and duller than sitting through graduation exercises? So when grad week came along in May of 1976, I took in all of the festivities.

I had done my practice teaching at St.Andrew Junior High. (SAJH) It was a great school and my supervising teacher (KF) was a gem. Prior to graduation, I had secured a commitment for a full time teaching assignment in the Peace River country of Alberta in September. With a newly polished degree tucked under my arm, I decided to put my name on the substitution list in Antigonish to see if I could pick up a few days of paid teaching before heading out west.

I remember the graduation clearly but the ensuing 12 hours is a bit of a blur. We danced and we drank but mostly we drank. At 6:00 a.m. the morning after convocation, a handful of my buddies and me were perched on the very top row of the grandstands at Oland Stadium. The sun was coming up.

Luckily I only lived a short distance from my mother’s home where I was living at the time. I crawled home around and was fast asleep by 6:30.

“Wake up. Wake up. You have to teach today.” Was this a voice from Hades? No. It was my mother. “I just had a call from St.Andrew Junior High and they want you to come to work,” is what I thought I heard through a boozy haze. I was tempted to say that I had already been offered a contract in the fall but mom was quick to point out that she told the principal that I would be there in 20 minutes. I recoiled in horror.

I had the quickest shower on record and struck out across the same turf that I had trod less than two hours ago. SAJH was just a stone’s throw from the football stadium. As I was walking past the stadium, I glanced up and could see a row of beer bottles on the top row of the bleachers, an honour guard of sorts.

I made my way to the principal’s office. Staggering might be more apt as I was still well over acceptable breathalyzer levels. Through bloodshot eye, I listened in wonderment and I heard the principal say the following: “You will be instructing the sheet metal class today.”

My English methods course during my education year consisted of writing, grammar, methods, philosophy and measurement. There was never a mention of sheet metal.

I’m not very good with my hands when I’m sober and alert. Putting me in a room with young adolescents and dangerous equipment while intoxicated sounded like a recipe for disaster. I thought of the doctors’ Hippocratic Oath: “Primum non nocere. First, do no harm.” Luckily, the young people in this class were right in their element and didn’t need me. I tried not to breathe on anyone and was forced to consume several cups of coffee throughout the day to maintain consciousness.

Normally when the bell rings at the end of the day, it is the students who are most joyous. On this day, one of the longest in my life, the sound of the bell was akin to a boxing ring at the end of a twelve round bout. I felt beat up but somehow survived.

It was an inauspicious beginning to my teaching career.

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It’s Elementary

Posted on March 21, 2019 under Storytelling with 2 comments

The march from Morrison School to St.Ninian’s Cathedral for communion

(Photo courtesy of Karin Alex Fleuren)

My first experiment with school lasted exactly one day.

I was an August baby and turned five a few weeks before school was about to begin. My mother thought that I might be ready for the rigours of school and sent me off with my brothers and sisters to Morrison School. In those days, everyone who lived in town, walked to school as there were no other options. Our parents were far too busy for those niceties. As  the family got bigger, it became a moot point as the car could not fit eight passengers. The Dodge Caravan had not been invented yet.

Morrison, our elementary school, was only a stone’s throw away from our home on Hillcrest. We could practically see it from our back doorstep. The high school was even closer and the campus of St.Francis Xavier University loomed in the background. For most members of our family, all of our formal education took place on a small footprint of land. Our informal education took place at the bowling alley, the Parish Centre, and the Memorial rink.

I trudged across the open field to the school on a bright September morning. There were plenty of kids playing in the school yard. I swear that half of them were from Hillcrest Street. The bell rang and it was time to begin my educational journey.

My home room teacher was a nun from the religious order called the Congregation of Notre Dame, or CND’s as they were better known. It was not that I had never seen a nun before, living in “The Little Vatican” but I had never really seen one up close, close enough to smell their starched uniforms. Sister M. towered over me, with her pointed hood perched on her head. I remember that she didn’t smile a lot. “Take your seats.” That was a command and not a suggestion.

The rest of that first day is a bit of a blur. The only thing I remember for sure is that I was not a happy camper. Most of this was age related as many elementary teachers would agree that keeping some children back until they are six, is beneficial in the long run. I felt overwhelmed and frightened. Sister M. made it very clear that she was the boss and would broach no insolence from her young charges. She carried a long yard stick by her side and would occasionally smack it on a desk to get our attention.

It seemed that every class started and finished with a prayer. The fear of God was never far away.

I enjoyed recess and lunch break but little else.

In those days, many of us went home for lunch. With an hour to kill and a mere five minutes from school, we marched home at noon to our main meal of the day. Yes. We had dinner at midday which seems odd these days. “Bless us O Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, amen.” Meat, potatoes and some canned vegetables was normal and there was always a freshly baked dessert. “We give Thee thanks for all thy benefits, O almighty God who livest and reignest world without end. Amen”

The last morsel was barely on its way into the stomach, when we were all herded into the living room and dropped to our knees. It was time for the rosary.

Praying the rosary was, and is, a key component of Catholic tradition. It is a time of contemplation, meditation and worship.  The rosary begins with the recitation of the Apostle’s Creed, an Our Father, three Hail Mary’s, and a Glory Be. There are five decades which each begin and end with an Our Father and a Glory Be, and have 10 Hail Mary’s in between. When you pray the rosary, you meditate on the events in Jesus’ life.

Concentration and meditation are not the strong suits of most six year olds and I often found my mind wandering, especially on this, my first day of school. I had prayed entering the school, prayed before and after our noon meal and now a few decades of the rosary. All I could think about was Sister M. and her long stick and dour demeanour.

Dinner didn’t set well as I made my way across the field for the afternoon session at Morrison. And, my knees hurt from 30 minutes of kneeling on the hard living room floor at home. Like any good fighter, I stayed until the final bell. But I felt like I had suffered a TKO, a technical knockout.

My mother was a no nonsense kind of person. It didn’t take her long to realize that sending me to school was a miscalculation and she hastily arranged my withdrawal the following day.

That evening, I got on my PJ’s, brushed my teeth and crawled into bed, with a wave of relief washing over me. Mom had sprung me from jail. A life sentence of one day was over.

“Did you say your prayers?” Mom stood in the doorway with armed across her chest. I crawled down from the top bunk and once again, dropped to my knees. I tried to think of what I would say to my creator. I had done a lot of praying that day.

“Deo Gratias.”


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