Monday, July 30, 2007

What I learned from Sister Albertine

Even though there was a time in my life when I was a teacher, I realize now that I have always been a "learner." More so now, perhaps, then ever before. And my greatest learning experiences, upon reflection, happened to me when I was in grade school, especially in the second grade with Sr. Albertine.

I was privileged to go to parocchial schools all the way from the first grade through high school. I therefore had the distinct pleasure to having women religious (aka-nuns) all the way through. But If you think you are going to read a diatribe about how abusive they were and how I am now a "fallen away" because of their classroom "terror" tactics, you are going to be sadly disappointed.

In 1948, at the tender age of 6, I met Sr. Albertine.... second grade teacher at St. Mary's Academy. The Daughters of Wisdom wore real habits in those days. She kinda' looked like the Dutch Cleanser lady. ( You are really old if you can remember the Dutch Cleanser lady!) Tall and slender (she seemed to be 8 feet tall to me), she wore metal rimmed glasses that perched perilously on the edge of her long, gallic nose. She spoke French fluently, and when we were disorderly, a stream of beautifully sounding though fiercely pronounced words would come forth. Whatever disarray was ongoing, immediately ceased when Sister spoke French. We new it was a danger signal.

Thirty-six children in one 2nd grade classroom. No resouce special assistants...just Sr. Albertine. It was 36 to 1, but with Sr. Albertine in charge, we were outnumbered big time. So what did my wonderful year with Sr. Albertine teach me? Several things:

1) Management skills- it is possible to control large groups of individuals simply with the force of a presence, a fierce glance and a few well chosen French phrases.

2) Organizational skills- My bookbag looked like my room when I began second grade. But Sr. Albertine would periodically do "search and seizure" missions. Ones book bag had better been organized to pass muster. God forbid a left over "PB&J" or small toy be found lurking in the bag's folds and corners. No student ever wanted to be on the receiving end of one of Sr. Albertine's piercing glances. By the time May rolled around, I had a bookbag that a bank exec would have been proud of.

3) Timeliness- Sister never bought into "the dog ate my homework," or some of the other feeble excuses we could craft.. When it was due, by God it was due! Late getting to school? Even if the d$%# bus broke down, she was not happy... No excuses! Just ask my children if the indelible time and date stamp implanted by Sr. Albertine has not lasted until this very day?

4) Line skills- Having to line up or even waiting in lines, has never bothered me. Parochial school trained me well. We lined up to go to class, go to recess, go to the boys room, go to lunch , go home at day's end. And the lines had to be straight-woe betide any rambunctious lad who squirmed out of position. "But Sistah, I got ADD" would have been useless, even if it had even been tried!

5) Last but not least, the Faith--Oh how very grateful I am to Sr. Albertine and all of the consecrated women who taught me the Catholic Faith over those years. What a gift I received, since most of those in the post Vatican II era grew up basically uncatechised! From Question #1 in Grade 1 to Question #479 in Grade 8, the Baltimore Catechism helped form a solid basis for my fledgeling Catholic Faith.

So, don't take me to a production of Nunsense..or force me to watch Whoopie Goldberg in a nun's habit demeaning the women who gave up their entire life to make sure that I not only learned how to read and write, but more importantly, that I learn Question #1 --that indeed, God is the Supreme Being who made all things. And as if that were not enough, I learned the answer to Question #2 ---He made me to know, love and serve Him, in this world so that I can be happy with Him in this life and in the next. -----Thank you, Sr. Albertine.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Confessions of an i Pod Addict

For Father's Day, each of my 8 children contributed the princely sum of $25 so that I could purchase an i Pod. This is an unlikely gift for a 65-year-old who used to constantly berate "yutes" for listening to those things seemingly 24/7, with no regard to the "existential realities" going on around them. Our culture is already too isolationist and self-absorbed. I Pods, for me, signal the end of civilization as we know it.

And besides: when would I ever use the thing? A lot of old people like me use it while jogging at the gym. But I use that time for saying my rosary...the i Pod would interfere with my already bedraggled prayer life. In the car? But I have XM Radio. Over 125 channels covering every possible taste. At home? After all my lectures about listening to an i Pod in the presence of another with whom meaningful dialogue might ensue? It would be hypocritical. "T'will gather dust," or so I thought.

Fortunately for me, my son Nathaniel set the unit up on the computer. If such an enterprise depended on me, the unit now would indeed be rather dusty. It started simply enough. One short organ Toccata by Widor. One song to which, surprisingly, I listened to again and again. I must say, I was proud of myself for at least getting it on the unit. Best 99 cents I ever spent.

But even Widor gets old after 45 renditions. So lo and behold, there was this entire album: The Last Night of the Proms. Only $9.99! 15 songs by the BBC Orchestra. Well, at least I'll have something more than Widor to listen to. And so I did it. A few buttons and my American Express bill was just a little bit heavier. OOO, so easy. Too easy.

I was finding I had lots of opportunites to listen to the thing. But then again, one cannot live on "God Save the Queen" forever.! More exploration on what was becoming my favorite place to shop, the iTunes Store, opened up a whole new world of opportunities. And presently, in less than 6 weeks, I sit with $114.00 on my American Express card and 20% of my "gigs" used up. I was getting am hooked!

And what do I use it for? Well, it has become a dandy aid to my prayer life, oddly enough. I pray the Office and have spiritual reading selections each day and so:

I have the monks of Solemns Abbey chanting Gregorian during Morning Prayer.

For my "spirtual reading," The Roots of Christian Mysticism by Clement), I listen to the the energetic chanting of a choir of monks from a Russian Orthodox Monastery. You haven't lived until you have heard the bass line sung by a Russian Orthodox monk. It defies description!

Evening prayer has become a real delight. I have two albums of "New Age" music by Steven Halpern. They are designed for peaceful yoga meditation, but, heck. Throw a little holy water on them and claim them for Christ, I say! Since the electronic piano and organ is generally centered around one note, I can chant the psalms and create some pretty good harmonies. (Why is it that my wife frowns when she walks past? I'm having a great time.)

And even though it probably violates some law, I find myself listening to my array of 44 Country hits when behind the wheel. (Allison Kraus, Toby Keith and even a couple of Willie Nelsons, et al.)

So there you have it. My true confession. Who would have thought that this device would be such a vital part of my life? I only hope that this blog might be read by the holy monks on Mt. Athos. With an i Pod they could make such quantum leaps in their prayer life!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

What I am learning from my Dad

My father now lives with me and has for the last 2 years. Before that time, he lived in Norfolk, Va in the same house for 62 years, had been married to my mother for 53 years until she died and had worked for the same company for 46 years until he retired at 65. As one can see, consistency and constancy are the bedrocks of his character.

Even though I lived in the same house with him until I went to college, I can honestly say, I really didn't know him very well. He was quiet, laconic and very athletic. I was loud, verbose and couldn't hit a baseball if my life depended on it. We just didn't have a lot in common, or so it seemed to me. And so life went on. I moved around a great deal and contact with him was only 25 words or less during a periodic phone call.

As I mentioned before, Dad was a man of steel..physically and morally. He wasn't a church goer, but having been raised in a Masonic orphanage in Richmond, he was grounded in Christian values. It was these values that formed his solid character, a character that I have only now begun to fully discover and appreciate.

Since Dad is a diabetic, circulation problems recently cost him his left leg. It has been a struggle to adjust to this challenge, but he never ceases to amaze me. Using his prosthetic leg, he has astounded the Physical Therapist with his progress. But then again, Dad is a "jock." Even at 92. Here is a guy that shot his age (83) until by-pass surgery forced him to give up golf.

Seeing him in his present circumstance has been painful for me. But he continues to teach me, even as he did when I was too young to appreciate it. And what have I learned from him? Many things:

Never complain--Dad has yet to ever complain that he has gotten a raw deal. On the contrary, he quietly adjusts his life to his challenges and simply does what he has to do to be as self-sufficient as possible.

Appreciate each moment-- "It looks like its going to be a great day," he tells me as I help him to his potty chair.

Be patient-- Patience has never been my strong suit. It has always been one of his virtues. If he is lying on the bed wating for me to wheel him to dinner or elsewhere, he doesn't call out or fuss about the delay. "I knew you'd be in here sometime. No problem."

Love--and this is the big lesson. When you are around him, you know you are in the presence of a man who loves. We were never affectionate with each other. No hugs. Men of his generation just didn't do that. But I always knew that he was there for me..he would support me..he would encourage me. Although I would not have verbalized it then, I now can say he loved me. And so each evening as I give him his last dosage of pills for the day, I pull the covers up under his chin. "Snug me in," he says with a smile. I pat his right leg as I walk from the room. "Thanks, Big Guy," he says. "See ya tomorrow."