I know nothing about the art and skill required to ascend the heights of stone. I don’t fit the picture of daredevil wannabes scaling vertical precipices, but I discovered there is a rock climbing role given expression in the word: ‘belayer’. The verb belay – the noun, belayer.
At my age, there is no desire or will sufficiently strong enough to compel me to rappel. (Oh the joys of the English language!) Most of us do not climb literal mountains, but we scale daily figurative mountains; obstacles that hinder what we believe should be our way forward. Whether managing the same set of stairs for 20 years until the day you slip and fall and really hurt yourself, or struggle to change the habits of a lifetime, they are just hills to most, but to me they are as stone upon stone my thoughts construct and I imagine that is partly why this new-found word, belayer brings such appeal.
With it there comes the awareness my best self lives today and not tomorrow or yesterday and that my best self climbs mountains safeguarded by the belayer who holds the rope at the base of every climb. Between us a sacred trust is growing because I never climb alone. Each toe hold I discover and lean in to for support, is guided by a slow release of rope, fed to encourage advance and secured by the belayer who threads my way as I lead the pitch. It is less and less possible to remain in the same place, advance or perish. We are a team. I can only go higher when I let go of my fearful idealistic principles and under a watchful eye, reach for the vision of the summit. As I learn to trust the skill of the one who holds the rope and who will carry my weight when I fall, my reach exceeds my grasp and I discover what a heaven is for.
In a television advertisement this month, Oprah – the great maven of all things positive – compels us (as she gazes intently at the camera) to “Let 2016 be our best body year.” I think this is a commendable entreaty. When she tells me she’s not getting ready for some Red Carpet event, she doesn’t have some fancy outfit she’s gearing her weight loss toward, but simply – wants us to have our best body year, I think – hmmm… nice, she cares – for all women, everywhere – for all of us. All of us out there in television land who are struggling with having a best anything, let alone a best body year. I think it would mean a great deal more to me if I did NOT know she had just purchased a 10% share of Weight Watchers – the sponsor of her entreaty. Kind of puts a little different slant on things. Weight Watcher stock went through the roof by the way.
A recent devotion headline states: “This could be the year.” We use the modal, “can” to make a general statement about what is possible and “could” for the past tense of “can”, or to state that in the future something is possible, but not certain; expressing an idea that something has a possibility, but may or may not happen. I like to include that grammar moment to qualify any resolution I attempt, being loathe to even speak the resolution out loud.
I’m resolving this year: 1. To talk less – listen more. 2. To surrender my will more, as in: “My utmost for His highest.” 3. To walk 4. No drink, cheese or soda. 5. To eat well.
My preparation to date and I am aware of good ole Ben’s warning:
My purchase of a scale to weigh my progress and to assess my body composition is just one of the components of my planning. That being said, the first order of business was to establish the parameters of age, gender and height so that this marvelous piece of technology could assist in my resolution objective. Perhaps I could consider it an omen, but after flashing my current weight, the scale should then display my body composition – as in percentage of fat vs. percentage of muscle mass. A careful read of the instruction booklet tells me a wee burst of electrical current shoots its way through those layers and pronounces the result on the viewing window at my feet.
You can imagine my confusion when the display read: ” ERRCL “. What was I to determine from that message? Back to the instruction booklet and the last page explains that if the fat percentage is beyond the ability of the scale to measure, ERRCL will indicate this error. So, I am beyond measure. This guide to the weight conscious cannot participate in my fitness recovery because I am, shall we say – “Just too much”. Well now – this is something I’ve known for a very long time. I cannot be measured. Perhaps my pride could be wounded. Perhaps I could reconsider this whole affair and return to the world of the blithely overweight. Allow me a moment to think about that. Nope.
I have just handed over $80 and there was no other model of scale available to purchase at the store. Therefore, I am sorting through a week’s worth of garbage, to find the receipt I did not believe I would need. I could consider this physical activity and add it to the required energy expenditure, the one where I lose at least one pound per week by increasing 500 calories output per day. Now there’s a could I can get behind.
Stay tuned. The journey continues.
My son told me I should write. He is far too young to know why I do not, though I confess, I can. I cannot write in the genre he prescribes – the web blog; the potential money making endeavor that gets followed and shared and becomes popular both from a profit and loss perspective and a therapeutic one. Instead, I find myself lingering in the shop window of the antique Underwood, the enameled keys and cloth inked ribbon waiting for inspiration to peck at it with possibilities of storytelling and intrigue that keeps a reader reading.
I am old. I think. My life thus far has been filled and until this phase brought comparison, I did not realize it was filled. I worked. I created things. I fed children, kept a house, and ran down the road with sneakers on, pretending to get fit. In wonder I remember Winter stand offs with snow plows in the early morning darkness as I vied for my place on the pavement, my eyelashes heavy with ice crystals, my breath, a frozen tunnel in my throat. Who was that woman? Where did she go?
My mother taught me to make a bed, protect my modesty and struggle with place; my place in the world. I watched her do that, struggle with place. Like her, I laughed too loud and often talked too much. Even now, other women tell me our times are filled with them listening while I talk. I try very hard to make that something else, to be thoughtful and intuitive, and to wait. But my mind speeds ahead of me, of them and conscious effort makes futile the attempt to remain connected to someone else’s pace. Now I find myself pacing the halls of my house wondering what to do with the rest of each day.
The season has changed the leaves and I watch from the window how brilliant colors have faded and floated to the ground. The river signals the coming Winter as hues deepen with the change in the air. A lone kayaker paddles in the late morning, a great bright banana gliding across the water’s surface. I have been before this window for what seems a life time. I have sat watching and waiting in front of this window for friends to come in their parents’ car and take me with them, devastated when they didn’t show. I have drawn its curtains, and trashed those same curtains once the sun had reduced the fabric to shreds. I have pushed in nails around its frame to hold scores of Christmas trees, trimmed it with twinkling lights. I have watched hundreds of runners run past this window. Thinking I should join them I would lace up my sneakers and puff through a distance, but it would never stick. The hedge planted five years ago, grows high enough to block the view of the driveway and I’m happy to let it grow high enough to block the view of the road, to see only the river. I won’t know whether someone is running down the road any more.
From a point where life loomed ahead it now closes in. My children are no longer children; the level of care has changed. This is as it should be yet all that time those efforts required is now a gaping hole. I managed, organized, ordered, arranged, prepared, and dictated first to a husband, then to children. It was as I thought it should be, how my mother showed me. But her marriage ended in divorce, and so too did mine. And I am here, about to turn 55. I think about the raging grannies, those old women who break the aging stereotypes. I think about the Red Hat Society, and the frivolity of having far too much free time on your hands. I think about an 82 year old Alice Munro winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. And I think about me standing in front of this window, season after season.
She’s off – into the world of work and I’m torn between despair it would never happen and sadness that it has. “You’re not supposed to wear yoga pants, but everybody does. I’m the rookie, so I can’t” She had just given me a sideways glance, now she stared straight ahead as she talked in the car. “I don’t want to go” she said flatly. “I haven’t been paid yet so it seems like I’m working for nothing. Maybe it’ll be better once I get paid”. “What is it?” I asked. “Is it you don’t want to work, or you don’t want to be a rookie at work?” Even though she thought it was rookie anxiety, I could sense it was more than that.
She had just graduated but school hadn’t prepared her for work. Her loyal girl circle had acquainted her with the idea of work, but at the age of 18, she had never really experienced it first hand. Cleaning one’s room and doing one’s own laundry were paltry facsimiles offering up no pay and little reward even if your mother insisted on the minimum of standards. Years of advice on how to dress modestly, how to express your own opinion and be kind, how to follow something through to the end had not given any motivation for finding employment. In fact, from the eyes of a teenager, it was far more logical to ask your father to cover extracurricular expenses, knowing he would always come through.
I was instructed to pull the car up to the back parking lot, behind the building, facing the staff entrance. We were early. Like the guitar lesson that began on the hour, a ten minute margin of punctuality was deemed ill-timed as one cannot arrive that early. I instructed her on the laws that govern parents driving children to jobs. “Joe says not to put my backpack in the lockers ’cause all the geeks do that. She says I should put mine in the bathroom cubby. But when I opened one of the cubbies, it was filled with all this junk and what happens if someone’s in the bathroom and you need your backpack?” Advice from a trusted source didn’t make it trustworthy advice. I told her to use her own common sense and to trust she could make choices based on her sense of right and wrong.
She was smart enough to realize that university wasn’t what she wanted right now. I wanted her to take a leap and leave home, trying out life in another city. I tried to convince her that an arts degree could help her find her way. No, it would not necessarily assure her of employment, but life is about more than employment. So I guess that makes me to blame for her sitting in the car on the drive to her first official employment trying to convince her that her attitude was all she had. With the face she made, standing there in her new black dress pants that she claimed were too big, she did her best to promise she wouldn’t be hard to get along with. I knew she wouldn’t be. But it was more than just that. She knew she needed to get going. Get her life going; step out, find out what working was about. It was time. As she held the car door, I leaned over from the driver’s seat, squinting up at her. “You can’t control what comes to you. All you have is your attitude, how you respond.” I hoped it was enough. I watched from the car as she approached the staff entrance. Backpack complete with lunch – amazing in its own right.
For a moment I was transported to the airport where she met up with the other members of the gymnastics team for a cross country competition. I was the interloper then, watching as if it would confirm she would be safe. Now I sit in the car, making sure they open the door for her before I leave as if she needed me to wait. She had pronounced her shift ended at 4:30 as if to impress upon me the importance of punctuality. I think my heart went in that door with her. I know it will be waiting for her in the parking lot after work.
I think if anyone ever doubted or chaffed against the designation of females in the Bible, one only needs to look at the prostitute Rahab and then perhaps to Esther. I’m sure there are many other women in the Bible who have made significant contributions, but really, the purpose here for me is to marvel at the position of Esther and the position of Mordecai, her cousin.
My father always said that when you show someone a photograph you have taken, they will not marvel at the technical ability of the photographer. Instead, their level of interest is determined by whether they themselves are in the photograph. This is what I see in Esther for of late, I have questioned God because I don’t understand so much of my current circumstance and I see myself in Esther’s place.
In chapter four Mordecai is answering a question asked by Esther. She is afraid for her life. She has uncovered information – a plot, that would see her people wiped out – killed. Esther is a queen and she is reminding Mordecai that even queens are subjects of the king, governed as it were, by the rules of the court that forbid them from coming to the King without first being summoned. But she has this information. Of course, it would be a very different scenario if she was completely unaware of the plot and it would be highly unlikely anything would be requested of her if she were the gardener for the king and not his queen. So it is by happy or unhappy circumstance that she is the queen and she knows her people are at risk. The question then becomes, what will she do? Does she chance coming to the king unannounced? If you read the first few chapters of Esther and discover how Esther became the queen in the first place, you will understand why she is hesitant to come before a king who has not asked her to make an appearance. Add to this dilemma the fact that the King is not Jewish and Esther is, only he does not know she is.
So Mordecai in a sense, is acting as Esther’s conscience. He’s telling her that she can step up to the plate – or not. If she doesn’t take the risk, he is sure her people will be saved even without her help but it will look real bad for her when it’s discovered she knew about the plot all along. There is an alternative. She can trust God. This too is her choice. The thing is, if she chooses to trust God, it is not merely trusting God to save her people, she is trusting God to spare her life. She knows that saving her people might mean forfeiting her life. Before she accepts the risk of stepping forward, she must accept the fact she could die. As I read this, Paul’s words echo in my head; “For me to live is Christ, but to die is gain.”
I really want to believe that in the moments Esther takes to make this decision the tipping point comes when Mordecai tells her; “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” There it is. That’s the turning point we all face – every day. The next verses outline the how. Esther doesn’t just flip a coin, she does her homework. She gets everybody on board or as it were, on their knees. All the Jews pray. All the Jews fast. She and her attendants pray and fast and then she steps out in faith. She plans to pray and then makes a plan.
It’s a fascinating story – you should read how it turns out. As Esther was positioned in the royal court, Mordecai was positioned at the front gates; great wealth on one hand and abject poverty on the other. Mordecai was abused, ridiculed, hated and threatened, but I believe he knew this was where he was supposed to be so that he could be there when Esther needed to hear; “… for such a time as this.”
I drove to town the other day and the sky hung low with cloud cover. Not that one looks up a lot while driving, but Winter has tried best to hang on to leap year and make Spring seem like a myth someone conjured up to relieve the boredom.
The car in grungy and cold. My seat gets warmed electrically and I shift through the slush and snow. It would have been an uneventful drive had it not been for one thing. I looked up. In low hanging clouds pregnant with snow, there is not much to see. Greyish white, no sun, one seamless expanse of blank atop the trees. You would believe there is nothing there. You can’t see anything. In the valley before the next hill, for an ever so brief moment, there appeared a jetliner. That’s it. One second. It was there, and it was gone. I stared into the space where it had appeared and vanished and I heard God’s voice.
“You see” He said, “I am here. You may not see me, but I am here.”
I knew this. In some deep fathom of myself, like the airliner that can fly at all – so massive an engineering miracle sustaining flight in the air above us; I know this. On a practical, rational level, we all know airplanes can fly. Aviators have trusted this fact with their lives; yet it does not diminish the awe with which we see them ascend into the heavens, or descend back to earth. The split of clouds, the glimpse of wing tip; Is it suspended there? Is it flying? What about the people on board?
“I am here.” He said to me and I knew, wherever one must know these things, I knew He had allowed me to see this marvel. That I needed to see this miracle of flight, suspended hidden above me, yet even so – present.
“Vocatvs atque non Vocatvs deus aderit.” Bidden or Not bidden. God is there.
Listen to ole wives’ tales while wearing mother’s blood red gloves.
Patch up dreams with hope from ages past.
The stars they will not fall today though their light may briefly dim.
The bus, the bus, I’m riding this Bus
and my pen gets to the page.
Coffee hot and shiny, sipped between radio calls
The driver more plump than the last time.
Tis cold, tis cold and my toes protest.
I alone sit across from “Flight” and “Vivamus mea Claudia”
- Poetry on the Way; I could do that I think and
scratch and scratch without glasses.
The sun beams and warms my face
How brilliant it peeks through highway trees
I am warmed, my card punched, my thoughts my own.
The Lamb of God the scripture read
This morning John proclaimed His right to praise and worship,
Fear not, for I am with thee – even to the ends of the earth.
I know, I know – not because the Bible tells me.
I know because the sun warms my face and the bus ride is short
and I write.
She was leaving today. Not so much unlike other trips; vacations, school, or to hang out with friends. She had her bags packed and any attempt to persuade her not to sandwich her laptop between her beach towel and her clothes went unheeded. I had to let her decide. However much I tried to influence, there was that point I had to let her decide. Plenty of help got her bags to the car and she settled in beside me for the drive to the airport.
The moments in life that appear while we are attending to the business of living, can be much like speed bumps, designed in a way to slow us down, stop our hurry, force us to pause and it is in those moments our hearts can fill with thanksgiving or dread, or something caught between the two but defies explanation. Maybe it is a sadness that time will not wait for you as we fluster about attending to the business of living we forget.
Her passion had turned toward rugby in high school and she struggled only briefly with inadequacy. She was impatient to become an expert. All of her ran down that field clutching that ball, not just her head filled with passing advice, not just her legs conditioned from years of gymnastics, not only her heart and lungs, protesting her lack of capacity, but all of her. Every fibre, every nerve, every sinew grabbed that opposing player to tackle, hovered in the wings to assess the play, ran when her time arrived and despaired when performance fell short of some inner expectation that pushed her for better. And she played. If the photo captured what it was, it was the same essence the coaches saw, because she played in every game in most of the minutes in every game and she only wore the scrum cap because her mother warned her the next concussion she suffered would be in the last rugby game she ever played.
I looked at her in the passenger seat and realized how much I wished I could have been like her when I was sixteen. But assessing the past with a measure of what might have been only deepens sadness and at this moment, I only wanted her to share a sense of what I was feeling so I launched into the story of my father driving me to the airport not all that long ago. I was going to Italy. A dream. So much in life had eclipsed for me by then, the trip became pivotal to my personal liberation. It wasn’t an accident then that my husband had gone to work, my children had gone to school and my father came to drive me to the airport. He had lugged all four suitcases to the trunk of his car and I sat where my daughter was sitting now. I had no way of knowing he had but a couple of years to live. When all was arranged and my time to enter the passengers lounge approached, he stood with his hands in the pockets of his jacket, the one it seemed he never took off and the look on his face was a mixture of hope and pride, love and dreams and I hugged him goodbye, wishing he would just go already. Typically, I was impatient to begin the adventure and now I realize I missed what might have been the most important part.
I had never known my father to spend money frivolously. He recorded every amount ever spent; fearful to the end there would be enough to see him off. But he gave me a thousand dollars to spend on my trip. An astronomical amount even then. He presented me with a National Geographic coffee table edition of the Vatican and had slipped inside the cover a neatly typed, one page epistle on his sentiments about Roman history and the Popes and how the auspicious occasion of my trip to the seat of the Roman Catholic church demanded a certain reverence. “Love Dad” he had written in pen at the bottom.
My daughter sat patiently while I wove the story to the point where I mentioned one thousand dollars and wide eyed with amazement she repeated the amount, just to be certain she understood. “Did he give you a thousand dollars to help pay for your trip?” she asked. “No. He gave me a thousand dollars just to spend.” I tried to get past the money part and express the sadness I felt at my impatience with my father. I needn’t have bothered. We parked the car and from my change purse, I began to extract the change I would need for the meter when it occurred to me. I walked back from the meter to the car. She was heaving the suitcase from the trunk, collecting her sports bag from the back seat. “Should I put all my change in the meter?” I asked her. The flight didn’t leave until eleven o’clock and it was now quarter to ten. She understood. “If we go in there and all of your friends are there, will you want me to wait with you?” She didn’t have to reply. I understood. I wonder what my father had done. I never bothered to ask, it never occurred to him to ask me. I put all my money in the meter.
We walked together to the entrance. I carried her sports bag, she dragged her suitcase. Once inside it was obvious from the row of rugby hoodies that we would hug our goodbyes then and I would not blurt out all the hope and pride, love and dreams but quietly whisper in her ear that I loved her, be safe and I will pray for you. I did not anticipate the tears, mine. How very strange it was to leave and drive home alone. How my father must have felt from a lifetime of seeing me off, tending to my wounds, making sure I was safe. I can’t be sure he knows how it has made me. My daughter will know, because I’ll continue to tell her his stories. Somehow they have become our story.
The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
‘O lovely Pussy! O Pussy my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
What a beautiful Pussy you are!’
Pussy said to the Owl, ‘You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?’
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.
‘Dear pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?’ Said the Piggy, ‘I will.’
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.
King James Bible Matthew 16:18 Jesus says to Peter;
“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
I’ve always understood that verse from the perspective of Hell’s gates. I have no idea why but the picture of Hell’s gates conjured up something impenetrable, colossal in height and width. Massive planks of oaken wood, secured together with the strongest of iron clasps. Should I picture myself approaching such stature, I would be dwarfed by comparison and any chance of entry or exit would be beyond the realm of mere physical ability. To imagine the occasion in which I would be standing before said gates, would conjure up the depths of fear and trembling. Even if one possessed the strength to physically assault such a behemoth, already the heart would be weak with doubt. I hazard it would be not unlike David approaching Goliath. Adding my own lack of confidence in any knowledge of the supernatural world, serves only to heighten my despair and I would collapse from foreboding.
. . . and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
Wait just a moment. Could this be a reference to the strength of the Church Jesus would build and not to the gates of hell? Here now we have a body of believers. Just mere mortals like Peter who couldn’t keep his mouth shut. Who fought among themselves for the right to be first. Who struggled to understand the stories Jesus told them, and yet. Jesus is telling Peter; “. . . upon this rock I will build my church . . .” and not even the gates of Hell can (has the ability to) stand up to His church. Well now. That changes everything. I am a member of that body. I am a part of His church, this rock, this stronghold, this strength that not even the gates of Hell can withstand. Not some puny little weakling getting ready to run for cover, but built upon a rock and none other than Jesus himself has assured me; you have no need to be afraid.
I remember a song from childhood that told the story of His death and subsequent supernatural (somehow I always thought, underground…) visit to free prisoners from Hell, The words went something like this:
He yielded Himself to the death of the cross,
cried “It’s finished” and slumped to die.
In the regions of hell the devil celebrated,
we’ve destroyed the King, they cried.
In the midst of the celebration
footsteps were heard,
walking the corridors of hell.
Then the shouting stopped
when a voice rang out,
a voice that rang like a bell.
Satan then trembled
as he recognized Him,
He came to deliver His own.
Shut the gates, He cried,
He must not ascend to his throne.
Then the gates swung shut
in the face of the King
to prove God’s salvation untrue,
but He shook hell’s gates, and cried,
lift up your heads, the King is coming through.
Then out of the devil’s prison house
came a procession led by the King,
shouting, Now oh grave where is thy victory
and death, where is thy sting?
A throw back to the Baby Boomer generation would name it the Unemployment office, but in the political correctness of the day, it is now the Employment office. Makes a certain sense I think. You go there looking for work not unemployment, although you wouldn’t go there is you were employed. The likes of life’s ambiguities always catch my attention. I don’t think it’s because I’m special. I don’t possess any peculiar gift of intuition. It used to be something I couldn’t wait to share with my father, having in common that same quirky sense of reality. Some might even call it humor, or maybe irony. But now that he’s gone, it’s rather lonely to sit and chuckle all by oneself. The very definition of irony conveys opposition, something seen that is often not what it seems. Like the receptionist at the Employment office. I couldn’t say with any more than a passing glance that she struck me, until I’d taken a seat to wait for an employment counselor to speak with me. A wonderful vantage point.
The waiting room wasn’t filled, there was no real flurry of activity, yet she met every person who approached her counter with a mouthful of food, gingerly fingering the morsels that attempted escape, pushing and shoving them between the muffle of words she would try to voice at the same time she chewed. How very odd I thought. The spectacle drew my focus downward for it was hardly possible to ignore the cut of her dress. I love the phrase “ample bosom” all by itself that phrase creates a visual. You can imagine, without encouragement, what an ample bosom would do if restrained inadequately by a neckline meant for an after hours soiree. It might have been in the moment she checked herself in the mirror that morning; it might have been in the car, when she pressed her lipstick to her lips in the rear view mirror, the neckline might have passed muster, for it only allowed an inch or two of cleavage to peek atop the straight cutaway of her dress. It all might have worked if not for the fact her job moving was in her job description. Bend over. Straighten up again. Turn around. Lean back. This was her plight. Little imagination needed. She simultaneously pushed the food back, checked appropriate responses to repetitive questions, and kept the girls at bay, oblivious to talent that could rival a circus clown juggling as if his life depended on it.
I would have dismissed the whole affair as a “one off”. You know, those occasions where training facilitators convince you the customer service received by their company was an exception to the prescribed exemplary behaviour; very close to not really ever having happened at all. On this occasion it made me think about being the one there for employment help, while clearly this woman needed help. I would have ignored it if it were not for having occasion to be in the same office the following week.
By ten o’clock in the morning that day, it was already hot. Stepping inside the double set of heavy doors, anyone having to wait was grateful for the air conditioning. I had slipped into a permit parking spot rationalizing that if ticketed I could plead necessity, for the visitors’ parking lot was already full. A police cruiser was pulling up as I entered, joining another already parked outside the main doors. The reason became evident the moment I stepped inside. To my right, in my peripheral view two officers were snug up alongside a young heavy set man with short dark hair. I vaguely recall his offsetting, straight ahead focus.
In crisp sharp black uniforms, they crowded him and he bolted. Striking out like a wild horse in the last moments before inevitable capture. I made a wide circle around the melee where the officers had him to the cool of the stone floor, face first at their feet, hands behind his back. A flash of shiny chrome as the handcuffs were employed. I had reached the receptionist counter where at least a dozen people were standing in awe of the proceedings, not really sure how to respond. Many backed away. A few expletives betrayed the surprise, most were on their feet or standing at a safe distance.
At this moment the receptionist stands behind the safety of her counter and turns her attention to whatever the commotion might be. “Someone call the police!” she cries with a great deal of authority. “They are the police.” came the meek reply from a young girl protecting her coffee cup.
I wasted no time to find the room where I was to join the seminar. I lingered no longer than it took to confirm the young man was in custody and the remainder of his day would not go as he may have planned when he got out of bed that morning.
I’m one of the lucky ones I thought as I found a chair close to the front of the room. I wasn’t taken away in a police cruiser that morning. I didn’t freak out at a government clerk trying to explain some convoluted policy of reimbursement or re-training. I wasn’t the government clerk. I wasn’t the angry young man. And more grateful I was than any of those in attendance that morning, I was not the gainfully employed, fully benefited, duly trained and utterly unaware receptionist.
The lesson was not taught in her grade ten class, it was learned in my mother’s grade nine class sixty years ago. You might think it odd to have such a memorable lesson skip a generation, rather the lesson was learned through a generation and will probably continue to be learned long after I am gone.
“Barbara you laugh like a horse.” Her teacher had declared one day over the din in the classroom. If you were Barbara in that moment I imagine you’d cling to a faint hope the stinging barb would be lost in the calliope of noise that is a grade nine class. More than likely Barbara should have been doing something other than what she was doing and this would contribute to the frustration of the teacher. Otherwise it is hard to imagine why any adult given charge over children would compare a young girl or more precisely, the laughter of a young girl to that of a horse. Big stain topped teeth, enormous lips, sloppy saliva, horses don’t actually laugh, but neigh and whinny; who knows why, certainly not because they have found humor in their wild oats. Barbara expressed her boredom with education by practicing the art of English typeface, the anatomy of which required painstaking attention to craft the ascenders, descenders, serifs and stems. Fluid and flowing bowls and bars measured up to invisible lines that kept them straight and for Barbara, marked the beginning of her favorite prose; “I’m a lean dog, a keen dog, a wild dog, and lone.” Page after page. Much like her hands’ ability to fly over any keyboard for she already heard the music, it was just a matter of getting the keys to repeat what she felt, or sing her harmonies to the songs she grew up believing.
He was right you know – really, for she did laugh. Not the measured restraint of polite society, but the stuff of deep bellies, head thrown back, mouth wide open - laugh. I suppose it was not very lady-like back then. I’m sure her straight laced mother disapproved. Barbara spoke bluntly, loved fiercely and more often than not, her humor bordered on the bawdy. She was not a submissive, quiet type. She had no need to find her voice, it had pretty much found her and once settled in, spoke with frequent passion and as she aged, often with regret. She was never afraid to laugh, whether at embarrassment she herself had caused, or at the foibles of others who were often at her mercy. Grade nine marked the end of her scholastic career.
That story was often repeated as I grew up. Or maybe not – maybe it was only told once and the memory just stuck. Children can manufacture absolutes at will, believing in a moment a thing accomplished only once is a thing that was always done so the story might have been always or only once but it’s too late to say. I don’t remember for I’ve lived that story for a lifetime. My own had no horses but brief quiet lapses of time where silence hung before it was snatched away by the jerk who exclaimed; “Ya think you could say that louder?” Recollection saves my ego for I’ve lost count of the number of chances I was given as stories were told, jokes repeated, sympathy was shared. A combination of symbols recognized too late; the hand at shoulder height, elbow bent, brushing the air up and down alternatively bringing forefinger to lips in a plea to keep it down and a shushing motion to just be quiet. I would sense rather than know it was coming, always after the punch line or the story’s finish. I couldn’t take the words back and try again with decorum but I’d vow the next time, the next time I would know or stop or be somebody else before it went too far, before the eyes darted away from my face to the faces of others looking for a place to escape. There was always the unseen authority hovering overhead like a trip wire that if ignored, would bring a ton of bricks down on your head. The authority had those unspoken (yes they were always unspoken) set of rules that meant you were not to talk a lot, preferably not at all; in the schoolroom, in the workplace, in the choir practice, over drinks. I tried so hard for so long to be that somebody who politely shook my head in acknowledgement of a conversation going on around me instead of jumping in with both feet – yes, I must say it – usually in my mouth.
After years of practice one day she came home and said; “My teacher asked me today if I had to talk that loud.” My heart sank. Progressive grades had seen a jigsaw puzzle of desk displacements, always to temper the chatter, reorganize classroom dynamics, shift focus – still the tongue. Out of the class. In the hallway. In the principal’s office. Stop talking. Other parents shared the back seats of their cars for their little girls to chatter, but mine would be asked to lower her voice.
I hate art. Art doesn’t matter. Who cares if I do the assignment on perspective? What difference does it make if I pass in the shading homework? Two weeks for vacation and missed art assignments and no attempt to catch up. Who asked you if you had to talk that loud? The art teacher. And then I hear from the art teacher.
“Up until yesterday your daughter has done no work or made any effort to catch up on the work she missed when she went away. She’s now making an effort to do the currently assigned work. She is welcome to come in at noon or after school to get caught up with her pen and ink drawing and the “wall paper” assignment. I’m here all lunch hour except for Tuesday and Friday when I do 20 minutes of duty. I’m here most days after school until 5 pm. She should have an “A” in this class. She’s more than capable but needs to put in the effort to complete assignments.”
I thought about Barbara. I thought about her a lot and then I wrote to the art teacher;
“Thank you for letting me know how my daughter is doing in your art class. I think it’s obvious you care about how she is doing or you would not have taken the time to write. I think it’s safe to say you probably care about all your students, or you would not be teaching art. Because you care about her, I’d like to share a bit of background with you so I’ll ask for your indulgence for just a moment.
When my mother was in grade nine, she became more preoccupied forming intricate old English lettering and practicing the art of calligraphy than her school work and it wasn’t long before that became a problem for her teachers. The story that resounded throughout my adolescence was the one where she was in class one day and in front of all the other students the teacher turned to her and in exasperation declared; “Barbara! You laugh like a horse!” You can imagine how that must have made her feel. The fact that 60 years later, I can still recount that story tells you of its impact. Fast forward to my own school years and I, as I was often told, was very much like my mother. Outgoing, friendly, enthusiastic, moody, animated, talkative (sound familiar?) and I remember vividly the number of occasions I gave people the opportunity to similarly declare how very loud my voice was. It left such an impression on me I have told both of those stories to my daughter many times.
Many years practice have allowed me to distance myself from the resulting inferiority and dismay those comments brought to me. I have learned to love the person God made me to be and when I am now given the chance, I make that love affair what I share with others – and that includes my loudness.
My daughter loves art Ms. Art Teacher. She is an artistic, gifted, sensitive young woman, who loves to express herself, give of herself to others and cares very deeply about how people think of her. I have been adamant and consistent in my attempts to help her be glad for who she is – loudness and all. In time, age and maturity will factor out the loudness and give her the discernment necessary to use that voice of hers when it is most effective.
I am sorry Ms. Art Teacher, but I cannot advise you on how best to coerce my daughter into doing as you instruct in class. I cannot even advise you on how to get her to pass your class, that is up to her. If you love art Ms. Art Teacher, I am sure you will find a way to share that love affair with my daughter.”
I never heard what Ms. Art Teacher thought about my words because she chose not to respond. I know my daughter was mortified that I should write to a teacher of hers. That I would express confidence in an ability she herself did not believe she possessed. “I think you think I’m better than I really am.” she told me. Frankly I was a little offended. I had ridden in on my valiant steed and rescued the fair maiden – all be it a mix up of fairy tales, I did think I had behaved appropriately – for once. A few weeks later when my daughter came home from school she casually mentioned Ms. Art Teacher’s mother had died. I sent her a note of condolence and it too was accepted without recognition.
So be it. Another story filed in the annals of memory, if that were the end it would have been enough. But it was not the end for you see in the weeks before school finished something quite marvellous happened in art class. I only know because amidst guitar lessons and rugby practice my daughter happened to mention that Ms. Art Teacher had given us a different type of assignment. We get to decide what to create; there are only a few guidelines. She said it was more like the art we’ll take in grade eleven. We can use our vision to come up with whatever we imagine. As if that was enough, no wait – there’s more. A week later Ms. Art Teacher caught herself saying; “My! But aren’t you becoming artistic.” I’m not sure how or why my daughter passed grade ten art. I’m not at all sure whether her art appreciation has been expanded or narrowed, but I am sure Barbara taught me more than how to laugh.
. . . a few wise words from Frederick Buechner “Listening to Your Life”
“The way I understood it,” she says, “you were supposed to devote these talks to religious matters. Incarnation and Grace and Salvation were some of the noble words you used.”
I say that feet are very religious too. She says that’s what you think. I say that if you want to know who you are, if you are more than academically interested in that particular mystery, you could do a lot worse than look to your feet for an answer. Introspection in the long run doesn’t get you very far because every time you draw back to look at yourself, you are seeing everything except for the part that drew back, and when you draw back to look at the part that drew back to look at yourself, you see again everything except for what you are really looking for. An so on. Since the possibilities for drawing back seem to be infinite, you are, in your quest to see yourself whole, doomed always to see infinitely less than what there will always remain to see. Thus, when you wake up in the morning, called by God to be a self again, if you want to know who you are, watch your feet. Because where your feet take you, that is who you are.”
Fabulous at fifty. I was looking for enlightenment, the kind a twenty-five year old doesn’t know exists, and the ninety year old remembers fondly, if indeed she can still remember anything at all. Find fulfillment tomorrow, re-passion your life, maneuvering through mid-life; I’m stilling adjusting to the word "senior". Senior moments are supposed to be the sole possession of those who are advanced in years where forgetfulness is legitimized and complimented with gray hair; somewhere between dressing in purple and donning a generously ruby red brimmed hat.
Where is mid life anyway? How do you know if you are on one side or the other of this elusive phase? Men have their crisis – but what do women have, menopause? And what’s with the pause part? There is no pause; this is a drastic and irreversible change. Even if now there are physiological reasons for my forgetfulness, if I have embraced my pear shape, whether or not those black hairs growing on my upper lip are a sign of wisdom and that I am not reverting to some Neanderthal self, I want to know that life is one; not over – and two, has not passed me by.
So they say midlife is somewhere between thirty and seventy with the juicy bits between forty and sixty. Sandwiched between children still at home and aging parents to care for, the midlife comes you might say, after and before diapers. I’m what they call a baby boomer, born in the late fifties and imbued with the workaholic drive to have what society told me was a career, as opposed to a job and a sense of motherhood that would give a Japanese Tiger Mom a run for her money. A dynamic impossible to maintain in hindsight but not unrealistic to a girl in her twenties who believed fulfillment came packaged as marriage and kids, a house and a car. My boomer status limped through the seventies when Generation X took over with a "what’s in it for me" attitude and succeeding generations no longer communicated in person but lived vicariously through their cell phones and laptops.
I’m no expert. In fact there are times I question whether I possess even a core competency or two. The other day I volunteered to help a new family open a restaurant. I hadn’t been a waitress since I was sixteen and the memories that swirl around that experience had more to do with teenage angst then waiting on tables. I did survive the experience with this trusted knowledge; the knife goes on the right and the fork goes on the left; valuable instruction for my own children as they balance their pot of soup with accompanying bread, dipping on the way to their bedroom to eat in front of the television set.
Like most experience after fifty, waiting tables gave me something other than the thing I showed up to do. With no practiced routine, no prescribed method, the orchestra of food service that combines cooking talents with standardized methods of delivery were nowhere to be found. My new friends were immigrants to my city and spoke little English. They had never owned a restaurant before and armed with the knowledge of Sushi, Sashimi, and a smorgasbord of Korean and Japanese cuisine, put their heart and soul on their sleeves, rolled them up and set to the business of running a restaurant. All I had to do was wait on tables. The first two days I washed dishes, scrubbed floors, cleaned toilets and served food – not in that order. Food totally unpronounceable and foreign to me with ingredients I neither recognized nor could recite to the customers and when I asked for clarification, understood a little of what they must feel like when an English explanation is given to them in words they don’t understand. That would be the Readers Digest version. In truth, there were moments when my feet kept moving, but my stomach sank to my knees. If you combine a sinking stomach and rising panic with the personality of a control freak, I’m not sure if you get melt down but by the end of the day with enough tips to celebrate with a bottle of wine, I counted myself lucky to have survived.
So here’s the lesson; perhaps lesson number three hundred and two on the road to lesson nine hundred and forty six – keep moving. When I sit down in life metaphorically speaking, it is on the couch that my thoughts revolve solely around me and life is only truly lived when you get outside yourself. Everything inside me screamed "run away" but I chose to stand and deliver. If I could have found a towel, I would have thrown it in. I learned to like Sushi and I learned to like me.
In my search for an authentic research question, it seems I have succeeded only in scattering any remaining gray matter over a myriad of databases and bibliographic citations. Silly ole’ masters student! While avoiding work, I have read more useless blogs, questionable facebook conversation, and emails that come from people whose name I cannot pronounce, selling products I don’t want. I have barked at the telemarketer in the midst of his introduction, proclaiming forcibly that I have already requested he take the number off his call list and this before I even repeat his name.
Silly ole’ telemarketer!
I have used the word “google” as a verb and read so many explanations about how to take a generalized field of inquiry and narrow the focus to increase the depth, so that I can widen my interest and add to the research. The door to my office has opened and closed with such resolution even the dog cannot decide whether to stay or to go. I have turned down the heat and turned up the lights, answered nature’s call for sustenance as well as relief, drank a fair bit and taken my glasses off and on so many times I have no hair remaining close to my scalp as the hinge catches there each time and pulls out a strand, or two or three. I think the most intelligent reading to date has come from the mouth of Winnie the Pooh; “It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like “What about lunch?”
I have no idea how I got here from there. When I acquired that first computer with the cumbersome monitor and gargantuan box, I spent hours learning to cut and paste, not because there was a test or some finish line, but because I thought myself to be quite clever. I would make greeting cards for people and they would look so original with their clipart and fancy fonts. I would call the help desk of my telecommunications company and complain there did not seem to be ever present and immediate response to my plunking of the keyboard, whatever was the matter I proffered. You need high speed they claimed. So I acquired high speed. That only meant I could check my email fifty six times a day. I don’t know fifty six people! Hell – I don’t know six people, where did I think all the emails would be coming from? If that didn’t compensate, I would create a blog and attach a specific email address for each endeavor – nay – two blogs, each with a particular purpose and email.
I would read the blogs of others and wonder how they could garner the following of so many interested people, all with their shiny faces staring from their Google badges. Their formats would contain advertising, neatly lining the edges of brilliant epiphanies and they would wax eloquently and succinctly on their world views and sell their hand crafted creations on the side. The only comment my offering warranted was the complaint from an author whose content I “borrowed” – mind you, being a scholastic sort, I did give credit in the form of a back link. I understand these things to be of great value to Google who sends out hoards of little spiders searching for this type of content to uplift and advance the cause of blogs so inclined to notice. I was quite willing to share with her this knowledge, but she was more interested in having her name there.
This wasn’t supposed to be over 500 words. That advice came from a blog post entitled; “Why I stopped reading your blog”. Okay, so back to a research question. Adult education; second language acquisition; women over 40 going back to school; transformational learning; e-learning and second language acquisition; successful immigration integration and second language learning; self actualization and the fat lady at the beach; I like that last one, but I can’t figure out how to get it past my advisor. Silly ole’ advisor.