Taking Stock….Of Time, Advent, Jim and Other Matters



In our culture it is common to ‘look back’ at the year just past and soon the inevitable ‘best of 2014′ lists will be out, or maybe they have already been published to spur on the financial madness we call the ‘Christmas shopping season’. In a deeper way, I want to take stock of the past year, but only as it helps to move forward. Yesterday was my “New Year’s Day”, the first Sunday in Advent, and so I pause to ponder the year past.

The last time I posted was in April when I was beginning the Camino de Santiago. Because of technical difficulties I gave up blogging and communicated via email and Facebook with the ones who cared to keep up with the adventures of a quixotic middle-aged man from Nebraska. Many people have asked me to write about my adventures, and misadventures, but the experience was so profound I still cannot find the words. Someday….

I returned from Spain injured, and I was not supposed to walk or wear shoes for about two months. Nevertheless, I begged permission to ride my bicycle and I spent the summer exploring closer territory as unlike the Camino as anything I can imagine, but in the same spirit. As soon as I could I started walking and hiking again, I even hosted a family reunion of sorts at 10,000 feet up in the Rockies, and so life continued to be good.

Although I was not looking for a job, the Nebraska Department of Education contacted me last spring and I began working for them in August. I had come to realize that I had not properly grieved the ending of my full-time teaching career, and it was an opportunity to work in education in a slightly different way. My cards say I am a ‘facilitator’ for a behavior program, but they call me a ‘coach’. Each time my boss refers to me as a ‘coach’ or talks about ‘coaching’ a smile comes to my lips as I think of the number of times I was asked to ‘not coach’ in various schools systems. Irony seems to be a close companion as I age….

And so, after the deepest, most profound experience of my life I am mostly doing things I did before the Camino. I substitute teach, and “coach” for the state, education is never far away. I minister a little less in my parish, and a little more for my diocese, and though it seems little enough, it is still the work I take the most pleasure in, and where I find the deepest meaning. I even had the opportunity to preach a short homily at a retreat to fellow ministers, and a couple of priests, and my comments referred mostly to how much we really know as compared to how much we think we know. I think it was well-received….

When I consider the past year this Advent, one person keeps coming to mind. I met a fellow pilgrim named Jim in Spain. Jim is an Episcopal priest, an intellectual, an amazing speaker, and a superb writer, I just read his latest posting this morning. Jim and I have stayed in touch although half a continent separates us. The older I get the more I believe that humility and gratitude are the only ways to appropriately approach life, and I am humbly grateful for the opportunity to meet, walk, and talk with Jim. If the Camino was the major event of the past year for me, meeting Jim was one of the many things that made it magical.

I made it a habit on the Camino to never look back, the journey was before me. In just the same way, Advent reminds me the year is ahead of me. I am profoundly grateful for the year past, and it was a year of enormous change and adventure in my life. I have no great adventures planned for the new year, but life is adventure enough. Being a husband, father, teacher, ‘coach’, minister, grandfather and any other thing you might mention, is enough to “fill a man’s heart”, and although the context is different, Camus’ words come back to me, “one must imagine Sisyphus happy”.

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My Heart is Very Full…..

I left England in rain and chill this morning and arrived in glorious sunshine and warm weather in St. Jean Pied de Port in the heart of French Basque country. Wild cherry trees with white blossoms are blooming on the mountainsides. I was filled with a profound sense of gratitude that brought tears to my eyes and I tried to hide them from our Formula I caliber driver.

I walked around the medieval part of town and inflicted my terrible French on a very understanding cafe owner and bought some food for the high mountain leg tomorrow known as the Route Napoleon which is finally open and free of snow. My biggest challenge is trying to spend 46 euros worth of coins because I am not carry that extra five pounds on my back.

Tonight I am happy, no, not happy, joyous. I am not sure why but I think it is knowing what a gift I have been given. Today was a wonderful day, and not all Camino days will be like that I am sure. Tomorrow is supposed to be one of the toughest stages. I will try to remember how I felt today because I know true joy is an elusive state of being.

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Camino de Santiago: A Magnificent Obsession….

Yes, I know I have written about the Camino before, and my longing to make an attempt. It is different now, it is real. Two weeks from today will be my first day on the Camino, and from everything I have heard and read, one of the toughest. My destination that day is at the end of a 15 mile walk and 3,000 ft climb, and right now the snow is described as ‘knee high’ at Roncevalles.

The closer I get to leaving the more questions I get. The questions I hear range from the incredulous, “You want to do WHAT?”, to the obscene, “Are you out of your f@#*ing mind?” and finally, the hardest to answer, “Why?”

The symbol of the Camino de Santiago de Compostel

The symbol of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.

I have so read so much about the Camino over the years that all the stories, pictures, comments, and quotable lines run together in my memory. Somewhere I remember reading “you don’t know why you are doing the Camino until you are done, and then you can’t explain it.” I have had the similar experience of trying to describe what my Marine experience was like: civilians who have never done it can’t understand, and fellow veterans already know.

Some things are becoming clearer to me. A former pastor asked me “why?” and the first thing that popped out of my mouth was “to listen” and he seemed satisfied with that answer. I thought about it, and it seems a good answer. Daily life, even retired daily life, is cluttered with little things to do, and a constant white noise that never seems to go away. A little time out might be in order.

My current pastor gave an impassioned homily yesterday about how saying the rosary, or observing certain rites and rituals, or even going on pilgrimage (looking straight at me), were not the things that led to a good Christian life, and I quite agree. I am not doing this journey to become a better person, but perhaps to look at the person I see if I take a good, hard look.

My motivations might seem  a collection of paradoxes. I am not pushed to go because of my past or anything melodramatic. Rather I am called, and I have never felt so strong a call to action in my life. I am not running away, I am running ‘toward’. I have no idea of what I am running towards, and that is as it should be, or it wouldn’t be a journey of faith. I communicate with pilgrims past and future, and they all describe the feeling as being called, so I am not alone. It is not ‘sensible’, and yet following the deepest longings of one’s heart seems eminently sensible to those who have done so.

Perhaps the best paradox is that they say “the real pilgrimage begins, not ends, when one arrives in Santiago.” What that means is another thing I can’t explain.

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“Time Keeps Slippin’, Slippin….”

Somehow I thought when I retired I would be writing more, at least that was one of my goals. Instead, in my first semester of retirement,  I taught just about half-time as a substitute for my old district, and I started doing more as a pastoral minister for my church. People often mention to me about ‘all the time you have now’, and not always kindly.

It took me the first semester to truly separate myself from my old job. Substituting so much was part of it, and I appreciate the trust and the money that goes with being a sub, but I often felt like a retired ranch owner who had sold out only to go back to work as a hired hand on the old place. It just wasn’t the same, nor should it be.

Now I have achieved some emotional separation and one reason is the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. I have written about it before, but in a strange twist of fate, being ‘retired’ earned me more money than I would have made had I stayed fully employed by the same district. People have been driven near crazy with my focus on the pilgrimage: some have been supportive, some just think I am crazy. It is fair to say I have been a little obsessive at the thought I might really live it rather than dream it. I have saved enough money that I bought tickets, and made arrangements, and upped the daily walking mileage, but who was it that said “Man proposes, God disposes”?

A couple of days ago a test showed I might have a serious medical condition. I have received a ‘false positive’ on the same test before, but it is one that can’t be ignored. While various bureaucracies have fought for several days about scheduling and paying for the test, I have pondered about losing my trip, and losing my life. Of course, being a normal human being, losing the trip seems much more likely, and yet the other is inevitable, sooner or later.

Somehow since I retired time moves faster, not slower for me. I am conscious of the fact that I have ‘more yesterdays than tomorrows’ in a way that is much more real to me than it used to be. This is not to say that I am morbid about my life, quite the contrary! I am just very determined to use my time wisely.

I have done all that I can for my family in terms of financial security. I think I have done all that I can to get my children launched into life, and then to not interfere, too much, in how they choose to live. I have made whatever impact I can as a teacher; for good or ill that time is past. I think I provide a service as a pastoral minister, but the parish would survive quite nicely if I did not do what I do. So what to do with my time? Not so much ‘what I want to” as much ‘what I need to’, and I need to go to Spain.

The Camino will take me about 33 days of walking. Counting travel time I may be gone for six weeks. I am not sure why it is so important to me to go, but I know it is important, and if I can get on the plane in 36 days I will. I do not feel the least bit guilty about asking for six weeks out of 57-plus years to do something that is important to me. I feel time is “slippin” and I need to go.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


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Of Boxes and Labels….

One of my favorite things to tell people who do not know me is about how I named myself, and it is a true story.

My mother married and had me before her 19th birthday; she was divorced a few months later. I never knew my biological father. I did not see him again until I was nineteen, and  just once.  My mother remarried and I always went by the name of my stepfather until I reached junior high age and for some reason, I think to do with the government, I needed to start using my ‘legal name’, a name I had never used or gone by.

My mother is a woman of many issues, and she badgered my stepfather into adopting me. I think it was more important to her than me. We met with a lawyer who tried to joke with me and I asked if I wanted to change “anything else” and I said “let’s change all my names.” He was shocked but my father said ‘it’s his name’ and so I changed my label from “Eddy C. Freeborn” to “Edward Charles Montgomery.” Although someone once unkindly said “you are not a blood Montgomery”, that name has been one of my labels ever since, and perhaps explains why I do not like to be called “Eddie”,  as some people try to do.

Since then I have had many labels. I was a football player, a basketball player, a player cut from basketball (twice), a midshipman, a Marine officer, a teacher, a husband, a father, a school administrator, a teacher again, a retired teacher, a substitute teacher, a lay minister, and on and on and on.

What all these labels have in common is cultural expectations. They allow people to put you into a box with stereotypes such as “all Marines….”, or “every teacher I know”, and I have never been comfortable with such easy dismissal. I tried very hard, for a very long time, to fit into those boxes because I thought I was supposed to; I thought it would make my life better. At the same time, I hated being labeled with a passion. It always seemed to me that once labeled, it made it much easier to ignore the individuality, the uniqueness, that makes people so interesting. I was often amused by my students who loudly proclaimed ” I am an individual and I don’t care what other people think!” while they were busy climbing into boxes and accepting labels. There is great cultural pressure to conform and fit in, especially in American schools.

Recently, I began a training program to help ‘lay leaders’ to be more effective team members for the parishes they belong to, and to work more effectively in their ministries. I see this training as a sign that lay ministry might be in the process of being acknowledged and respected so I wanted to be part of it, but therein lies the rub. The first thing they had us do was a ‘personality sorter’ which people seem to love. I think they love these “sorters” so much because they are often used to box-in people by surrounding them with a label and expectations.

Early in my ministry studies I had done another sorter and was given another label, “INFJ” which is the rarest personality type in the world according to this sorter. I accepted the label because I thought it accurately described me, but also because it helped me to understand why I always felt different: I was. I came to terms with the fact that I would probably never be ‘one of the boys’ and that there was nothing wrong with being ‘different’. I think it was the only label I ever thought fit me very well.

The most recent sorter uses a different label. According to a long executive summary I am a “Cs” but the world sees me as an “Sc”. The words used to describe me in the summary were harsh, and they upset me. I was not the only ‘trainee’ who was bothered. I had trouble accepting that upsetting large numbers of people with these ‘executive summaries’ was a useful way to begin team building. I realized that this summary accurately described ‘how’ I worked in certain ways, but not “why” I worked in those ways. It was as far off base as it could get.

I was supposed to discuss this summary with my pastor which presented problems. My newly retired pastor had not wanted to send anyone to the training, and I did not know the new pastor. He is from India, and a Salesian, so I worried that  his insights might be different from a pastor born and raised in my remote and rural diocese, plus, we had never worked together. What to do was a puzzlement to me.

My new pastor started working in the parish after a sudden trip to India when his mother died. We finally had a talk and he told me that, although he had done the same training, he did not put a lot of faith in the labels produced by the DISC analysis. He said it was more important to spend time with people and to learn about them by caring for them, and “looking at their hearts.” He told me to continue the training but to trust in “the Spirit you have come to know” and the other training I have had. He indicated that no amount of training would replace “loving one another enough to listen to each other.”

I kept those words in mind when I did the next lesson on-line. That lesson consisted of watching short video clips of people and using subjective criteria to label them. Instant feedback was provided as to the accuracy of the label I came up with to describe each person. I doubt that I would have accepted such training, but my pastor’s words helped me a great deal. I hope I never “learn” to “label” people in 30 seconds and to base my working relationships on those labels.

I recently saw a t-shirt that said, “Knowledge speaks, wisdom listens.” I hope I have the wisdom to listen when I go back to the training which continues for another year. I assume there is knowledge that is worth learning in the program. I also hope I have the wisdom to balance that knowledge with the wisdom of my new pastor.

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“Sidney Carton Meet Hilary Mantel….”

Last spring my former employer, a certain school district found a new and different way to make itself worse. For reasons I can only attribute to a deadly mixture of pride and stupidity, my district found itself on the edge of financial collapse, and a charming custom called a “RIF” came out of the closet. A “RIF” (reduction in force) is a process in which a district is made weaker because teachers are eliminated that should not really be eliminated while other positions of dubious value are saved. The process is done by rules that seem reasonable until manipulated by the same incompetent people who caused the problems that necessitated the reduction. There is truth in the dictum that “the fish rots from the head”. Sadly, expecting professionalism, competence, and compassion in a crisis from those who do not demonstrate it in calmer times is a sure route to disappointment.

In a very depressed state of mind my last post described how I had lost hope that I could make much of a difference. But I found a way to make a difference at last: I left.

Sidney Carton is described as ‘brilliant, and self-pitying’, and I have been described as half of that. It was said of Carton that the most impressive thing he did in his life was in how he left it. Perhaps the same could be said of how I left my professional life.

Early on, I spoke to the wife. (The fact that she is my wife is proof that “God is in all things” as my Jesuit teacher would insist.)  We determined that we could, if necessary, live on one salary. In fact, we remembered that we had for many years and we seemed to have survived. I decided that I would resign my job in order to save those of younger, better teachers who were building families and buying houses; those who made our district and community a better place. In the long run, some teachers were offered buyouts if they would ‘retire’ early. The powers-that-be offered me a buyout although I could not claim my pension for another year. I took the buyout anyway. Most people think I walked away with a nice ‘golden parachute’ but in truth the buyout represents a reduced salary spread out over the months until I can claim my retirement. I wavered at one point but I was told that my ‘retirement’ was saving the jobs of 1-2 teachers and, later, I was indiscreetly told the name of one I had ‘saved’.

By coincidence, I was reading “Bring Up the Bodies” during this time, and i was struck by the similarities between Tudor England, and a certain school district. Hilary Mantel has written brilliantly of the political machinations of Thomas Cromwell and her next volume will describe how his ‘politically expedient’ approach resulted in his own demise for the same reasons he dispatched others. In this case, the superintendent left our district and a much larger paycheck. A teacher with two graduate degrees in social studies is teaching remedial reading. A math teacher, art teacher and elementary counselor left in search of greener pastures. One of them expressed the opinion that she could no longer live with how “we do things here” and that she did not want her children going to school here. Several people were emotionally blackmailed into retirement, including the only endorsed librarian.  We have continued a tradition of hiring unqualified people in the absence of qualified applicants.  A Pyrrhic financial victory at best.

Nevertheless, none of the best young teachers in my areas left, and that is a victory.

And so, I am ‘retired’, and the best thing I did for my district might have been leaving it. A young teacher, or two, might be at school today, the first of the year, who would have been gone. Perhaps they are making a difference I could not, or did not.

My family all told me ‘you should write more’ although I suspect all of them could write much better than me. I deliberately held off writing because I knew I would not feel ‘retired’ until the first day of school. I sat down today with a different essay in mind, but my fingers protested and wrote this ‘final vent’ instead. As years go by experience has taught me I will develop a more balanced view of my teaching career. It took many years for me to find similar balance in looking back at the Marine Corps, fatherhood, and other important things that occurred in my life, so I can let this particular past ‘go’ easier than when I was younger.

I am a person who is not too sure of much in life, but I am sure that every day I taught, I cared. I am sure I did the best I could to make life better for my students, (who danced with me on my last day),  and my colleagues. Through my work on regional and state levels, I worked very hard to improve education for all students in the state, and that work was valued and respected. I will leave the determination of my successes and failures to the judgment of others. I am certain that retiring was a ‘far, far better thing’ to do, and that knowledge gives me a peace and certainty of ‘rightness’ I never knew while working as a teacher.

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Shaky Faith….

A poet friend of mine once told me “I cannot write a good poem when I am happy”, and I understood. I am most compelled to write when I am depressed, concerned, worried, paranoid, hurt, angry, pick any word you want, but not often “happy”. The blog entries I have written here over the past few years are proof.

I have noticed a recurring theme in my entries. I often match a belief in the importance of trying to do good and right in the world with doubt that it makes any difference in my own life. I absolutely believe that good people can do great things, but I often doubt that I am a good person. I doubt because I see more evidence in the world that I am not going good, and less of the opposite. And yet, isn’t faith supposed to be believing without seeing? “Proof” negates “faith”.

As I near the end of my teaching career, I seem to care more, and accomplish less. If I were my boss I would be wondering why a subordinate of mine always seems to be in the midst of controversy, and why that employee seems to spend a lot of time explaining why good intentions go bad. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, I have laid down more than a few stones.

I know I believe in much less than I did 10 years or so ago. Unlike the early days of school reform, I do not believe that my school district can make itself better.  I do not believe that public education in this country can reform itself. I know why I believe this, and it goes back to ‘proof’. I have no experiential knowledge of it happening. I do not believe I will live to see it happen because people only offer simple solutions to complex problems, and the roots of the dysfunction in my local system, and the national system, lie in deep cultural problems we cannot, or will not address.

American exceptionalism? After a decade in which our government has a lower favorability rating than colonoscopies? After my country decided it was appropriate to invade other countries, to take away the rights of American citizens and to torture non-citizens? My country may be measurably better than others in some respects, but it is also measurably worse in others. The only thing we do exceptionally well is to defend guns and slaughter school children. No, I do not believe in American exceptionalism.

I have no faith in my church as an institution. After the child abuse scandal and the ongoing stupidities of Roman Catholic church politics, I doubt the sanity of anyone who still believes in an institution whose actions can only be seen as the actions of an organization hell-bent on destroying itself. I have no faith in the Church’s ability to reform itself.

Despite the fact that I work with outstanding people, I think that anyone of them could and would be ‘thrown under the bus’ if politically expedient. That says something about moral leadership, but I think the same is true in any organization, educational, religious, governmental, or business. We are nothing special here in that respect, not worse, but not better. Or so I believe. I do not believe in my community, and I do not believe in the parents of the students I teach. This does not mean I think everything is universally bad, but I do think that the odds are stacked against those trying to make a better world.

The last thing I had faith was my students. I believed that if they received enough help, early enough, that despite their backgrounds, problems, tragedies, triumphs, they would be the ones with a fighting chance to make a better world. I believed in their generations much more than my own. I believed that if I cared enough, I could help them despite my many flaws. I have had some evidence that this was true. Now evidence is accumulating that I do more damage than good.

I am not sure I believe in my students’ chances, or abilities, to make better lives for themselves or others anymore. I still hope with the right kind of guidance they can. I am sure however, that my time, if I had a time, has come and gone. I do not believe that I make a difference, and I do not think I can, not anymore.

And yet…….still…..I believe it is important to try…….I believe a difference can be made.

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