When to speak and when be silent…..

Well, i’m back from my retreat – turns out I am in fact a 46 year old Geography teacher from Belfast. However, it also seems that i’m actually ok with that. It was a wonderful experience and I game back genuinely enriched and relaxed.

Unfortunately, all that silence also left me a lot of time for observing my fellow retreatants. After a very sort time it became clear that even people of a journey to their essential selves are as competitive as the general population!

For example, when teachers get together the competition usually rages between who has the crapest timetable and the fewest resources. As we were allowed to speak at mealtimes the stage was set for some hardcore ‘Out Jesusing’

These actually are mine. Named Lady Antonia’s beads, because they were found outside the church in London where Mother and Pasty (my grandmother) once sat behind Lady Antonia Fraser at Mass

Once everyone’s bona fides had been established – who was at school with your cousin etc – the conversation slipped seamlessly into ‘what priests do you know?’ (not in the Fleabag, sexy priest sort of the way) and the game begins. It could be compared to a very delicate game of Top Trumps. For example:

  • ‘Spiritual not Religious’ – no points for the liturgical lightweights
  • ‘I heard at Mass on Sunday…..’ ohhhh good opening – regular attender
  • ‘I find morning Mass a great way to start the day’ – now this is really upping the ante
  • ‘ She sits beside me at the Rosary after morning Mass’ – points here for doing something extra
  • ‘ I love the Holy Hour’ – now this is hardcore holiness – for the Holy Hour you have to go back to church
  • ‘Holy Hour is lovely but I prefer the peace of Adoration’ (Adoration is spending time with the blessed Eucharist – it’s lovely)’I go every Thursday Morning’ – now this is big – a regular slot at a ceremony which is optional
  • ‘Oh, I love Adoration – I do the 2-3 am slot on a Saturday night’ – and we have a winner!

A subset of this competition runs around the theme of Pilgrimages. Like most good church stories – there’s a schism. Is it better to have visited more shrines e.g. Lourdes, Knock, Fatima….. or visit the same shrine many times? This is a picture I took on one of my nine visits to Lourdes so far, so my thoughts are pretty clear on the matter.

Later on in the evening – once the ‘silence’ was over for the day, the tone of the competition changes and a new theme is introduced.

Misery

This is a good one – the closer you can link your life to a character from ‘Riders to the Sea’ or ‘ Les Mis’ (though not your dame who married Eddie Redmayne with his rich Granda), the better. If you are a regular reader of this blog you will know that the last year alone would get me straight to he semi-finals. Add to this the long dead Da and the sick child and I could have started engraving my name on the cup there and then. In a departure from form I avoided all of this and went to bed and read my book.

In fact I was so chilled and mellow after the retreat that I ‘lost’ my car for two hours on Monday afternoon despite having taken a photo of where I left it.

This diffidence was particularly out of character as we are a family of ‘speaker outers’ and we all learned from the Master – Patsy.

Patsy is my Maternal Grandmother she died a few years ago and this week would have been her 101st birthday. She styled herself on the late Queen Mother (this is her 90th Birthday photograph) and was an absolute legend with an opinion on EVERYTHING

Patsy was not a woman to allow anyone’s sensitivities or indeed Canon Law to get in the way of her thoughts.

She felt that I got married far too young (I was 23 – I told you she was a wise woman). On the morning I was leaving for my honeymoon, I called in home to say cheerio. As I was walking out the door she called me back – a hug? Nope. Some important marital advice.

‘The Pope (John Paul II, known for his conservatism and hard line on contraception) said in The Universe (ultra right wing Catholic Newspaper – big fans of the Pope – read by Patsy and definitely not me) that you can be on The Pill for two years after you get married (bollocks).

When, two years later (I know!!) my son was born naturally I called home to share the good news. I had taken care to register his birth before I phoned – this is because the name my parents chose for me was not in fact ‘Patricia’ it was something quite different. However on the arrival of Patsy to see me and in response to her wobbly voiced request (she was a master) about my name – suddenly I was Patricia.

So, having registered my precious bundle I made my was to the payphone (this was 20 years ago before we all had mobiles). In Craigavon Hospital the phones were along way from the single rooms (Patsy had organised a private birth and single room). After a C – Section there is a very special walk which prepares you for the multi tasking ahead. It’s a slow, painful shuffle – made more difficult by the fact you are trying to see over your enormous swollen boobs. One hand is occupied literally holding your guts in while the other is holding the wall because you are wazzed on painkillers. Add to this that there is oozing from every orifice and the smell of gently cooking cabbage, if you have chosen to cool your boobs with their leaves, overall its a good look.

Having completed this odyssey I put my coins into the phone and dialled home. Mother answered and after the initial – weight and wellness questions we got round to the BIG QUESTION. I had chosen a very Catholicly name for my son – not Emmanuel but to be honest not far off. It’s a beautiful name and it really suits him. However, Patsy was not initially a fan.

Once Mother shared the news I could hear Patsy screeching from the other side of the room (and it was not a small room).

‘ ********* (insert name) ********** (insert name again). The last *********** I heard of was getting let out of Long Kesh, he’ll never get a job!!!!!!!!’

Well, that was me told – but ahh ha – he was already registered so it was too late.

As soon as Patsy met the baby they both fell in love. They had a beautiful relationship and all the children miss her very much.

A few days before she died she spoke to EC (Don Corleone style [definitely not like Tony Soprano – Patsy would never go to a therapist]) to make him the ‘Head of the Family’ completely ignoring the fact that she had a daughter and granddaughter!!!!

Next week I shall tell you all about how my children have happily assumed the mantle of Patsy’s forthrightness.

I’ve been to paradise…. (or, get thee to a nunnery)

Hello again! Have you spent the whole week wondering what I’m getting up to?????

Well, while you are reading this I shall be three days into a silent retreat at a local monastery. I know!!!!

When I told friends and family of this particular plan it was greeted with chortles, guffaws and even a couple of snorts (Mary O’G, I’m talking about you!!). It would be fair to say that I would generally be described as – talkative, loquacious, voluble, chattering, gabby, wordy and usually just plain loud. Some of my school reports also reflect my inability to shut up!

So why a silent retreat?

Firstly, this weekend represents a magical moment in the school year. The exam classes have just left and the internal exams, external marking and all the crap jobs that we have been putting off to the end of the year have not yet started. So its a perfect time for a bit of headspace.

Secondly, I’m seeing a ‘great woman’ at the minute (counsellor not romantic liaison). She keeps talking about ‘finding my essential self’ – which is probably not a bad idea. To try to do this in a house full of three very opinionated children, Rosa the childminder, JY and Mother on the end of the phone is a touch challenging. So I decided to ‘book in’ somewhere.

All this thinking put me in mind of the Johari Window (you know the one Donald Rumsfeld caused all the confusion with a few years ago).

It was all the rage in education a while back. Around the time we were all obsessed about which of Dr de Bono’s hats to wear (personally I don’t think you can go past a silk turban with an ostrich feather)

Lot’s of people had gone on courses and were bursting to share their wisdom with us. On one particular occasion we were gathered in the hall while a speaker in the vanguard of educational thinking showed us the Johari Window and told us we should be incorporating it into our classroom practice. Any school staff is a widely diverse bunch, but on that particular day a single thought rose into the ether like a cloud.

Mercifully the educational gurus have moved onto something else – these days I think it’s ‘brain based humanism’ and the window is firmly closed – at least as far as work is concerned.

But, I digress – I think my ‘great woman’ might even be so bold as to suggest a touch of displacement!

Years ago a singer called Charlene (not Kylie Minogue – this was her actual name) sung a pleasing ditty entitled ‘ I’ve been to paradise, but I’ve never been to me’. I’m just a wee bit concerned that after all the whale music and the navel gazing I might not like what I find!! Or, God forbid, I don’t find anything at all!! It might turn out that I’m a 46 year old Geography teacher from suburban Belfast…… and that would never do!

I’ll let you know how I get on……

Happy Valley? Happy Valley? Happy Valley my ****

Hello – Happy Bank Holiday Weekend.

It’s a new school term and as usual I have started it full of vim and vigour, so I actually did walk every morning this week before school. This has prompted me to share my ‘adventures’ during a walking course last year.

You see, the thing is, I’m not naturally a ‘joiner’ and was often shoved into rooms with other little girls by Mother accompanied by the hissed instructions to ‘be nice, make friends, smile’. Many years later I was to make the same mistake with MC. I decided she wanted to learn ballet (she’s currently training to be a weapons engineer)

Having purchased enough ‘balletania’ to rival Saddlers Wells MC was ‘shoved into a room of little girls and told to make friends’. This is where she and I differ. At the end of whatever torture I was forced to endure (party, Irish dancing class, elocution festival) I would emerge, give Mother a watery smile and say I had a lovely time. MC marched purposefully from the room and calmly announced that she wasn’t going back. In answer to my rather strangled ‘Why?’ (I was thinking of the many many pounds spend on tights, and bags, and skirts……) ‘Because there is no-one there who I want to hold hands with’ – and that was that.

Paradoxically, I’m wild fond of a ‘club and society’ – I was in loads of them at school. I even like their notice boards, they are often found in the older parts of schools with peeling gold lettering – all very non threatening. I was in the Chess Club, the Public Speaking Society (I know – but you aren’t really you when you are public speaking), the Recorder group, the Choir…… What these all have in common is a shared interest which the members can talk about, even better, in the Chess club it was preferable not to talk at all. I’m also very fond of a course – especially if there’s a certificate (serial overachiever). Last year it was the Ottoman Empire, next week I start Ancient Greek.

All this brought me to the point last year when a colleague asked would I be interested in taking a hillwalking leadership course.

This is not as strange as it sounds. I have been involved in the Duke of Edinburgh Award since it began in our school. I even did an abseil from the dome of the local arena to fundraise while I was pregnant with YC. I may not have mentioned this on the risk assessment. I also find walking wonderful therapy when I’m feeling black doggish.

What could possibly go wrong? The fact that I was 13 years olderthan the last time I did a walking qualification, my bod was a playground rather than a temple (Rustler burgers and Pino Grigio rather than anything more risqué ) and I had spent the previous three years eating sausage rolls genuinely didn’t strike me as an issue.

One Friday evening after a long week at work I headed to a Fieldwork Centre in the heart of the Mourne Mountains. I was armed with everything on the kit list (and my knitting). On arrival we were herded into a classroom and required to perform an icebreaker (I should have left at that point) We filled in a slew of forms, most of which could be translated as ‘if you die, it wasn’t our fault’. There was also a medical disclosure form which I completed without much thought.

There were two leaders, one was a large avuncular chap, bordering on geggy – the other was a small, wiry angry little creature (actually quite sexy). |He gave off an ex-special forces vibe and as a result was an Angry Former Soldier (AFS)

The compass, still attached to my pocket as a reminder of my limitations

AFS was teaching navigation. I’ve been a Geography teacher for over twenty years, so do actually know about this stuff. But this guy was something else. He would leap on a bench (demonstrating his pleasing lower body strength [just saying]) point at you and yell, ‘ you are walking for 10k, climbing a total of 50m in windy conditions – how long will it take??????’ ‘I don’t bloody know!!!!!!! – you’re shouting’ He also had something of an obsession about pointing. For 44 years I believed that the index finger of either of my hands was sufficiently pointy – apparently not. He suggested that a ‘thick fingered point’ could lead to a navigation inaccuracy and certain death. I now point at maps, with almost evangelical enthusiasm using the corner or my compass, which is secured to the pocket of my coat (do you know how many people die because their compass falls out of their pocket? – me neither).

We eventually got to bed with a detailed list of instructions – reveille was to be very early. I arrived at the rendezvous point the next morning ready to head to the hills. AFS checked our rucksacks and scrutinised our packing. After this ritual humiliation was complete he did a quick ‘have all the asthmatics got their inhaler’ check, then in a confidential fashion summoned me from the room.

‘I need to talk to you about your medical form’ ‘Oh?’ ‘ There’s one of the drugs we need to explore (explore!!). At the time I was taking anti depressants (and still am). At that point, I was also taking a drug for extreme anxiety (it happened to be an anti-psychotic – but I don’t suffer from psychosis). Fair play AFS, its always better to check. However, even after I had calmly explained my illness and the need for each of the drugs he required more convincing, even questioning if it would be suitable for me to be undertaking this type of course. I was getting to the point of offering to ring my GP for a ‘sanity’ reference. As you can imagine this conversation and the subsequent ‘wary looks’ from the other participants did wonders for my self esteem and wellbeing.

Eventually I was permitted to board the mini bus and driven to a remote car park. It was grim – we walked for hours in the pissing rain. AFS clearly did not subscribe to the mantra that the group moves at the pace of the slowest member (me). Each time I reached a meeting point wheezing like a bulldog, he would immediately head off again at a brisk pace. Bastard! Allegedly we reached the top of Carn Mountain. I couldn’t tell you I was too busy crying with exhaustion and frustration and trying not to die.

Just at the point where I was considering using my credit card to order a helicopter AFS announced we were on our way back. He explained there were two options. A – was shorter but steeper (how could we be on the way back and still going up hill??) B – though slightly longer was flatter and took us through Happy Valley. There are some advantages in spending your days wrangling teenage boys – at the utterance of the word ‘flat’ I took charge of the map and headed purposefully towards Happy Valley – no one else got a say.

If your image of Happy Valley is like mine, sun baked Kenyan Plains, totally unacceptable racism and a young Charles Dance in an evening frock – this Happy Valley is not like that. It was wet, marshy, and long. The only mischief I was indulging in was enduring the chafing caused by my rain and sweat soaked pants – not fun!

After what felt like an interminable walk we reached a fence. In my mind it has been built up like the WALL in Game of Thrones (Charles Dance is rather yummy in that too – even though he must be about 105). In reality (because I have been back since) it is a rather small, innocent, really quite an inoffensive fence. The problem was I couldn’t organise my legs to climb over it. I simply stood bewildered trying to work out what configuration of limbs could get me over. When this became evident to the group – all of whom had simply hopped over – they took pity on me.

If you have ever seen the film ‘The Mission’, imagine that bit near the beginning where the indigenous tribe hoof the Jesuit over the waterfall tied to a cross – just before Jeremy Irons arrives. I simply lay back Christlike and they crowd surfed me over the fence. Scundering.

After a very disturbed night’s sleep we got back into the minibus. We were due to go to the Eastern Mournes this time – someone had observed the previous day that they were flatter. In my dark night of the soul I had translated this to flat (because obviously a mountain leader course would take place on the flat, duhhhhhh). We were divided into two group. I found myself, not unexpectedly, in the group that would be given the fatter pencils and ‘filling in the blanks’ books if we had been at school. We gathered round, led today by Geggy Uncle, and consulted our maps. Even a person with the most rudimentary understanding of cartography could see this route was not flat.

I was done. There was no way I could complete this walk, I had neither the physical nor mental capacity.

I approached Geggy Uncle and explained this. He laughed – he actually laughed. He may have also made some ‘take a chill pill’ type remark. I restated my point – while still laughing he said ‘ we can get you off the hill in 15 minutes’

Through clenched teeth and tears I suggested we save 15 minutes and get me off the mountain now. After a brief standoff I decided to play them at their own game. If they were so concerned about my mental health medication – lets lean into that. I adopted my best ‘Here’s Johnny’ pose and growled that I needed to leave – a minibus was hastily fetched. I am not at all proud of this action. I spend my life campaigning for better understanding of mental health issues and the right of depressed people to recover and not be judged. But on that particular day I really couldn’t see another way to get off that fecking hill. You will note from the photo above that the Field Centre is all boarded up – shortly after my ignominious departure, it closed. Probably better if I don’t comment on that.

Even after this horrible experience I still go walking, in fact I’m heading p the hill with JY as soon as I finish this blog. But I know where my skills lie, and spending time winding yarn for a shawl with a mesmerised dog is much more my cup of tea. I think I’ll focus on stuff like that.

Next week I’m trying something completely different……ohhhhhhh