New Beginnings, New Adventures

When we are young, life presents so many milestones

Sometimes a few weeks can utterly change the direction your life is taking. When this is happening, I think it is important to stop, reflect and write.

I have had a pretty significant writer’s block this summer. Although I was able to get two posts off about our incredible adventure during the Tour de Mont Blanc, I was missing some inspiration.

As you get older sometimes you have to create your own milestones. For us, that was the Tour du Mont Blanc this past summer

That has changed pretty significantly in the past week. I am learning and experiencing again and I am compelled to keep some record of what is happening in our lives.

First and most importantly our first-born Liam was just married. For four wonderfully hectic days, we celebrated the life and love of Liam and Claire with all their friends and family. Nothing can prepare you for such an occasion and I already know that words are failing me when I write about how such a life celebration can really swoop you up and carry you to a new enchanted place.

Then life presents new, wonderful moments – Liam and friends with Mairi before the wedding

As you get older, it is understandable to think that life’s milestones and adventures can become less frequent. You have had your first job, your first child, your first almost everything. But, there are new beginnings. Something as simple and at the same time grand as the marriage of a child can shake you to your foundations in a way that is beautiful.

What is the collection of life’s adventures and challenges that leads to the meeting of two young people who fall in love and make the commitment to share their lives together? Being an intimate witness to this new adventure is enough to take your breath away.

Now, it would have been easy to return to a settled quiet life – everyone returns to work or study and I get to go back to the quiet, retired life alongside a new physical training regime for our next climb. But that is not happening.

On one incredible day last week, I was offered two teaching opportunities at the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa. The same day, I was invited to take part in a 3-day training on how to design, write and assess three-dimensional units for science education in the United States.

None of this was expected, I was planning my escape from the cold and winds of another Eastern Ontario fall by trekking in Italy for six weeks. No more!

A rapid transformation of circumstances can really play with the mind! I now have to give up quiet retirement and look to a schedule this fall that looks almost full-time. I never really thought I would be in a situation like this again and while I do mourn the loss of a great trekking opportunity in Italy, the hills of Tuscany are not going anywhere and right now I am beginning to feel my batteries recharge for a really new and unexpected adventure.

I love teaching and I really love working with new teachers. This is what I will be doing.  Yes, I need to learn how to write a syllabus and plan on ways to teach Intermediate History to prospective teachers, but I am very happy to leave the quiet and set out again. Who knew?

This is what life is all about. When I am graced with a new opportunity I need to embrace it. Life is an on-going adventure. Either I am the active witness in the case of Liam’s beautiful wedding, or I am being thrown back into a dynamic teaching and learning situation.

Life can still be full of adventure

This blog is about to get much busier. When life takes a radical change learning happens that really should be accompanied by reflection. Things now are so new I really don’t know enough to reflect, but I think that will change pretty quickly.

I really enjoy writing when new things come up. I actually learn as I write. If you read this I hope there is something in here that helps you. Maybe my new students will find something useful here!

September dawns with wonderful memories and new adventures around every corner. Life is really good!

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Your Professional Life is Declining and It’s About Time

I have been rummaging around for something to write about for a few weeks now. Our trek around Mt. Blanc starts later this week, so soon, there will be lots to write about soon. Then, a friend sent me this great essay by Arthur Brooks entitled Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think. This is a great essay and if you are over the age of 20, I suggest that you read it.

There is lots of wisdom here and a fair amount of positive self-talk. Arthur Brooks is 51 and very accomplished. The essay reads a little like a therapy session for someone approaching the inevitable mid-life crisis. But it is the crisis of the accomplished written from the perspective of one who knows that they have done great things.

I don’t know if I can totally relate to what he is writing here, but he is a wonderful writer and I do think anyone can benefit from his perspective on growing older and going through transitions.

It is interesting that we live in a society that demographically, is growing older. The baby boom bulge still moves through the fair outdistancing in numbers the young generations that follow. Funny, in advertising, movies and media, in general, it is the young who triumph, but this is not a reflection of reality.

But, I digress. Brooks focusses in the essay on an encounter on an airplane with a man who enjoyed glory and recognition but now languishes in relative obscurity. He listens in as the man despairs of his life and the loss of fame and importance:

I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but couldn’t help it. I listened with morbid fascination, forming an image of the man in my head as they talked. I imagined someone who had worked hard all his life in relative obscurity, someone with unfulfilled dreams—perhaps of the degree he never attained, the career he never pursued, the company he never started.

He is shocked later to realize that the man is not labouring in obscurity, but is world famous! Here’s the rub – those who achieve great things in life are doomed to suffer later obscurity – unless, and this is the theme of the essay – they avoid the trap of not seeing their way into some new version of themselves.

In the essay, he writes about two people who have come down to us as great thinkers and creators – Charles Darwin and J.S. Bach. One Darwin grew increasingly unhappy and dissatisfied with his life the older he got. The other Bach transformed himself from a performer to a teacher. His later years were happy and he continued to work right to the end.

Depressed in his later years, he wrote to a close friend, “I have not the heart or strength at my age to begin any investigation lasting years, which is the only thing which I enjoy.”

The difference between the two was how they dealt with transition in life. Many of the most innovative and creative thinkers actually experience decline relatively early in life. Brooks writes that as a young performer, he was a gifted French-horn player. Early on, he had visions of being a great, famous player. This was not to be. By the age of 20, he already saw evidence that his performing skills were in decline:

But then, in my early 20s, a strange thing happened: I started getting worse. To this day, I have no idea why. My technique began to suffer, and I had no explanation for it. Nothing helped. I visited great teachers and practiced more, but I couldn’t get back to where I had been. Pieces that had been easy to play became hard; pieces that had been hard became impossible.

While he continued to play professionally for another 10 years, he never recovered the lustre of his early playing days. At the age of 30, he abandoned his musical career and returned to school.

From this time on he started learning a really valuable lesson. Sometimes it is truly wise to leave before you really think you are ready, before you think your time is up. To be able to transition on to the next stage in life, you have to move on, you can’t linger.

This is a really hard thing to do. For so many of us, we are defined by what we do. Our profession can define our lives, our status gives us our value. To move beyond this can mean a loss of self and a loss of status.

I understand this. Maybe this article was written for me. Leaving education at the top of my game has often made me wonder if I did the right thing. There is certainly some status that comes with being a principal. People pay attention to you. You are sought after because you are seen as a leader in the education system. When you leave, that status quickly dissipates.

This is OK if you realize you need to make a transition to another stage of life. You can’t be like the man on the plane or Charles Darwin lamenting that your best years are behind you. You have to remake yourself.

Brooks writes about the four stages in life or ashramas in the Hindu tradition. The key is to move through the stages and not get stuck in the middle. It is the second stage – Grihastha where people can get overly attached to power, fame, status and all that comes with it. In Brooks’ analysis, Darwin got stuck in the second stage and never grew from there.

What I want to learn more about is the third phase – Vanaprastha, meaning retirement or ‘into the forest. Vanaprastha calls for a shift in focus away from the status that defines us earlier in life towards a focus on spirituality, service and wisdom. We can’t make it to this important stage unless we let go, possibly at the height of our status. To hang on only leads to stagnation:

But the wisdom of Hindu philosophy—and indeed the wisdom of many philosophical traditions—suggests that you should be prepared to walk away from these rewards before you feel ready. Even if you’re at the height of your professional prestige, you probably need to scale back your career ambitions in order to scale up your metaphysical ones.

This really speaks to me and maybe this will be a guidepost for the future. I can’t hold on to the past and clinging to what I did before in education results in the frustration of diminishing returns. Education is not my life anymore and I need to progress and focus more on what challenges exist in developing wisdom and learning how to serve better.

Brooks finishes off with four goals that he is going to work on. I think I will borrow these and see where it takes me. First, – Jump – walk away on your own terms. In other words, don’t wait to be pushed out!

Next – Serve – I think I am getting this one figured out. There is no question (as we pack our bags) that there is a true richness to the work we are doing in developing the Climb for Kids project. We leave in a day for 14 days of trekking around Mont Blanc and our group is getting close to the $35,000 mark in funds raised for recreational programming for inner city kids here in Ottawa.

The next two – Worship and Connect – are a work in progress, but I see the wisdom in both of these goals. I really see the need to connect better with people. Not necessarily more people, but connect more deeply with family and some friends. I do need to work on Worship – one of the institutions I have left behind as I transition is the traditional church – here is a goal that needs more attention and thought on my part.

I am writing this post mainly for myself. Like Brooks, I think I am engaging in some positive self-talk. Life is a wonderful journey, but you have to keep moving and continually grow. The sticky point has been reached and I am slowly moving to new ground.

Lots to think about as I saunter through the mountains in the next two weeks.

 

To Be a Pilgrim

Who would true valour see, Let him come hither
One here will constant be, Come wind, come weather.
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent His first avowed intent,
To be a pilgrim

John Bunyan

Pilgrim – person who journeys to a sacred place; a traveller or wanderer.

Lightfoot Companion to the Via Francigena

symbol for the Via Francigena

Retirement is a funny thing. After decades of defining oneself by an occupation, the time comes where your definition needs to come from somewhere else. It is a different journey with fewer signposts.

After two and a half years, I think I am putting some of the pieces together. While there is work from time to time, retirement for me is becoming defined by the sojourn. This was not the plan, but it seems to resonate.

Two years ago I climbed to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro and entered the world of thin air and extreme trekking. Later, I travelled the old military roads of the Scottish Highlands with my daughter Colleen. The following year, on our first Climb for Kids trek, we climbed the sacred ground around Ausangate in Peru.

Colleen finds the Braveheart Car Park on the West Highland Way

My son Liam and I followed this up by walking the Pathway of the Gods in Amalfi. We also traced ancient Roman ruins at Pompeii and Rome. Very soon, our second Climb for Kids group will be trekking 170 km around Mont Blanc.

Liam and I starting another trek on the Amalfi Coast

Now I am starting to plan for my longest journey, part of the Via Francigena next October. We are also actively planning for Year III of Climb for Kids. The next trek will be an epic climb, but we won’t announce this one until the end of the summer.

I think what is happening here is that in my retirement I am becoming a pilgrim. There is an ‘avowed intent’ that is linking all of these walks. I think the most important intent is to connect or reconnect with people. On my treks in Scotland and Italy, I had the wonderful privilege of travelling first with my daughter Colleen then with my son Liam.

There is a true beauty in reconnecting with your adult children. We all change as we grow older and we all need to take the time to make sure our relationships stay vital and fresh. You can do this really well by walking and talking or sometimes just travelling in silence.

Climb for Kids is a wonderful experience for all sorts of reasons. I wrote about Year II last week and you can see that post here – Communities Move Mountains. This trek is about connecting too. Most importantly I get to travel and plan with my wonderful partner Heather Swail. We did our first high-altitude trek together last year in Peru and we experienced the beauty of the mountain together. After so many years together, it is still possible to learn things about your partner, especially when you are trekking under conditions of high physical stress.

Heather reaches the high pass at 5200 m with her buddy Beth

We have a great group this year and we will learn a great deal about each other as we travel around the highest mountain in Europe. Mountains take you to another place. They help you to hold others who travel with you in higher regard. They help you to gain a greater respect for yourself and for what you are able to do. The mountains truly make you a pilgrim.

There is a really good story that John Muir told about trekking. He never used the word hike and neither do I. He liked the word saunter because of its connection to an ancient practice.

Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, “A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.

John Muir

A Parable of Sauntering

So this is my saunter. It is defining much of what I do these days, although until now I didn’t know if I had put this together. I still have to start writing about the Via Francigena and I will either soon or after the TMB. There is so much to learn and a world to saunter in. Each journey takes me to another holy land and I guess that makes me a pilgrim.

Acclimatization camp on Mt. Kilimanjaro

Measuring Retirement in Stories

When I retired from my last school, this building was barely started. Now I think it is the tallest building in the city, a soon-to-be-open condo high-rise in Little Italy.

We took part in a Jane Jacobs Walk in Ottawa this morning, one of sixty planned for this weekend. A pretty wonderful to start a weekend and expand one’s horizons.

After a long really dreadful winter here, it was very good to get out. Our guide was Luciano Pradal, a 77-year-old human repository of the cultural history of Little Italy. I remember Luciano from my time as principal at St. Anthony School. We were looking for ways to install new gardens to grow food at our school and Luciano came in to talk to me about what we might be able to put together.

This project never took off, but Luciano was a real treat to meet. He introduced me to his book, Chronicles of a Chestnut Lover and I learned more about this wonderful part of the city.

My time at St. Anthony’s was full of encounters like this one and taking part in this Jane’s Walk reminded me of the wonderful people I encountered while I worked here. Today, I took a picture of the tower because it is a good reminder of how much has happened since I left. Our son Liam gave me the title to go with the photo and it really fits.

This neighbourhood is full of great stories. Not only of its Italian past but also of its current immigrant population which now is mainly from Asia. It is also a very high-risk neighbourhood with many rooming houses and drop-in centres for the homeless. It is such a diverse setting for a Jane Jacobs Walk and it truly represents what a livable city can be. It is culturally diverse with a tradition of housing groups of new Canadians that find their collective grounding and move on.

Now with giant condo projects, one of the main threats to this neighbourhood is gentrification as it also has become one of the most fashionable parts of the city.

As a principal, I saw it as my role to get to know everything I could about this community. It was thrilling to work in such a rich and exciting part of the city and I really wanted our school to be an active part of the fabric of little Italy. If I miss anything about my teaching career, I miss this place.

The streets of Little Italy. New condos and derelict buildings waiting to turn a big profit.

There is something that can get lost once you retire. Your world can grow a little small. As a principal, I saw it as my role to get to know this area very well. Meetings with people like Luciano were opportunities to connect and learn where I was. Walking along Preston and Booth streets today was a good reminder.

You need – or maybe I should say – I need – to stay connected. I need to walk the streets and see how my city may be changing. Whole blocks of social housing have been demolished since I left the school. Acres of old federal buildings are about to be repurposed for mixed residential use. This could be a really cool development for Ottawa!

At the end of the walk, I made a point to visit the bust of Dante that sits across from my old school. This bust used to stand right next to the school. It now sits in a little piazza directly across from the church.


St. Anthony’s started out as Dante Academy and the church across from the school celebrated its 100 anniversary in 2013. We have seen wonderful old photos of celebratory masses and marches past the school and the church during religious festivals. The community has changed since these days but there are still Italian celebrations every year that include an old car show, a gala, a great bike race, and lots of other festivities.

Dante Academy class 1925

I remember recovering the memorial to students who fought in the Second World War that had been on loan to the local church. It now (I hope) still hangs in the main hall of the school, a testament to the long history of the two schools in the community.

It is amazing that a walk can stir up so many memories of the past and expectations for the future. After a long winter, we all need to get involved in some purposeful walking. Get out and see what is out there still. Take a morning or a whole day to extend yourself into the community we are all still a part of.

Learn and listen and don’t become small. Yes, I am retired and my world does seem a little small sometimes. But a walk with twenty people you don’t know but who share a love of the city is a good way to stretch into a new season, one where winter has finally retreated.

Luciano finishes the walk in front of St. Anthony’s Church

The Changing Role of an Educator

This is not a post on how technology is changing life in the classroom. There are already way too many articles on this topic and I am really not all that interested in how Flipgrid is revolutionizing education.

This more about a different path for an educator – me.

I retired as an active educator, a principal almost two years ago. I didn’t retire because I couldn’t do the job anymore. I loved the chaos and energy that came with being an elementary principal. I retired because of the unrelenting pressure put on me by a vindictive school board that was committed to turning me out any time I tried to do something different. The last straw for them had to do with my efforts to update lists of eligible FSL teaching candidates for principals on a Google Doc.

In my last year, I was called into the superintendent’s office for a little ‘talk to’ even before the year started. My resignation letter was a defence against senior officials who were set on intimidation.

This, however, is not the main subject of this post. While I am still angry with the school board, there is nowhere to go with this so I just bury it in a dark place, unresolved.

More positively, I am finding my life as an educator continues. Now I have the wonderful responsibility of looking after my 91-year-old mom who moved to Ottawa from  Montreal at the end of the summer.

mom celebrating her first day in Ottawa!

What a wonderful situation. I am freed up from the day to day struggle of being a public (separate) school principal to focus on the woman who raised me and formed me. What a gift this is.

My mom’s residence is just five minutes from our house. She loves it there. One day I arrived to see her sitting on their lovely broad porch sunning herself in the early autumn sun. Eyes closed, big smile, she was so happy and at peace. She said ‘I just love to be outside’.

After a month in the new wonderful residence, she had a series of falls, one resulting in a fractured hip. The hospital was just a few minutes from the residence and I was able to be there within a few hours of the fall and sat with her as she went through all the preliminaries leading up to an operation to fix the hip.

We were at the Ottawa General, and I can’t say enough about the level of care and respect we receive there. I met at least four doctors before the surgery who carefully explained the procedure to me. The chief of emergency medicine talked to me about a procedure they were about to perform. He was a former student I worked with at Holy Trinity High School when I worked on the school’s leadership camp program. Now, many years later, he is a wonderful kind, gentle man who reassured us that my mom would be ok.

Now a month later, I go to the hospital almost every day. I am meeting with care providers, nurses, doctors, physiotherapists and occupational therapists. They have become our happy medical family and they treat my mom with beautiful dignity and loving care. They have even set her up with a radio she can listen to in the hallway so she doesn’t miss any of the action.

Mom at the Ottawa General. She loves this place and the care she receives is first rate. We love it too!

This is my new life as an educator. Now, I am focusing on just one person and doing my best to support all the medical and health care workers who are helping my mom. It is far from the roles I played in the school system, but I am part of a system and I can see how all these people work together for the care of the elderly.

Family dynamics still play a role in all this. All the members of our family here in Ottawa help out. They visit mom when I need a break. But families are strange. While everyone here is a great help, my one brother living in Toronto refuses to have any contact with any of us and has shut himself off from any information on my mother’s condition. Again, as an educator, this is something I saw when working through difficult family situations. The only difference now is that this is happening within my own family.

Today there are lots of meetings to attend and phone calls to make as we arrange the transition of my mom back to her residence. We have a great, effective team working through this. I was getting emails about the transition as late as 8:30 last night – how great is that!

I am learning lots. We are so fortunate to have such an excellent health care system here in Ontario. We are doubly blessed to have a system that shows so much respect for the elderly.

I love my new role as an educator. I retired into a new role as a caregiver and I feel like I am doing something special.

That deep, dark place recedes more every day. There is so much good out there when you have the opportunity to look for it.

 

What happens when we are not defined by work?

This is a topic I am learning about.

A year and a half ago I retired from a very active job as an elementary school principal. It was a good decision and I don’t regret taking it.

For the first time in 31 years, I am learning and experiencing lots of new things. I have trekked to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro through the Western Highlands of Scotland and most recently the Ausangate Range in Peru.

I am much fitter than I was when I had a regular job. Before I was just too busy to keep in good shape and I am a bit shocked how little real exercise I got. My moods were really affected by my work and it took way too long to return to a calm state after the strains of a long school year.

My pace is not so crazy anymore. Apart from my training, I write a lot more, I read and listen more too. I listen especially to lots of podcasts on VoicEd Radio and I really enjoy the work I am doing to help Stephen Hurley and this wonderful venture into the world of internet radio.

There is another side to this which I find interesting. I saw someone last week that I used to work with when I was a principal. She asked what I was doing these days and before I could answer, she made the reply.

Nothing?

I didn’t really bother to correct her, there didn’t seem to be much of a point. When you don’t have a regular job people sometimes don’t know what to do with you.

This is an interesting part of retirement, or it might just be the result of getting older. It is easier when you are not defined by your job to be discounted by others. It is easier to disappear.

It is interesting how quiet things can get. I volunteered to act as a supply principal for my school board when I retired – silence. I have volunteered and applied for other jobs with the same result.

A school in our neighbourhood doesn’t have a regular principal or VP, but because I am from a different school board I can’t even offer my services. I used to do lots of work for the local faculty of education here in our city – that work dried up as soon as I was no longer an active principal.

Other things just don’t make much sense. I visit my mother in the hospital almost daily, but my brother won’t answer my notes to him on how she is doing. It’s almost as if this work is unnecessary and irrelevant.  Friends, many of them retired as well, don’t reach out. Opportunities seem to dry up. It is a little like you begin to disappear.

This could go on for a while, as long as I define myself by who I was. At 60, I doubt that I will ever be actively employed again. This is a world that is dominated everywhere by youth – there is still little value placed on the older ones in our society.

To counter this, I need to find my new value. I need to look for the positive opportunity whenever it comes up. I don’t think conventional employers like school boards and universities will change. In some ways that is too bad because I think I have a great deal to offer – especially when a school has no administrators!

Instead, I need to find meaning and value in my own projects or in projects where the door is still open. VoicEd Radio is terrific that way and the creative work within this growing community is wonderful.

some of the wonderful podcasts that are available daily on VoicEd Radio

The work we are doing with Christie Lake Climb for Kids is a challenge and has the potential to channel more financial support to children who really need a positive change in their lives. This project was started last year when we took our first group of trekkers into the Peruvian Andes up to 5200m. The group trained and fundraised for a year and we made almost $28,000 for Christie Lake Kids programming.

So the future will be defined by the projects that work and the people who are open to what I can still offer. This is a new path.

I am no longer defined by a job I did for 31 years and how I define myself now has to be based on other factors, many that were not all that important when I was working full time. This is a work in progress, one that I don’t often read about but one that is probably worthy of further discussion.

It is interesting with more and more people retiring all the time that this doesn’t seem to be a topic that gets much attention. Do we have any sense of the social capital out there that still has great value?

Maybe this should change. Maybe we should talk more about this.

 

 

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