Eight days, but who’s counting?

I found my precious tiny sleeping bag by searching in three messy closets. I found my precious hospitalera scarf by poking around in my poetry notes ( what was it doing there?) My task for today is to book a train ticket from Lisbon to Porto and to figure out how to get from the Lisbon airport to my first night’s loging. It seems that Portuguese sites don’t like Canadian postal codes.

Important items!

So, it’s really happening. The last couple of weeks have been so charged, so full of errands, of important things that really had to be done like filing my taxes, a dental procedure, other medical appointments, researching and buying travel insurance, oh, I know how boring it all sounds but it would be a hell of a lot more boring if I didn’t do these things. To top it off the condo association scheduled the yearly meeting for the evening before I leave!

More important, and more heartwarming has been the many visits and invitations of my friends, my brother, my grandkids. Now if I could just figure out which of the three Portuguese routes would be best.

I still haven’t got the train ticket…. but I will get it!

Timing -it really is important

Red sky in the morning

The building is a banal condo block. The bare trees are part of the boundary of the big park a few steps from my own condo block. And the sky? A minor miracle that, given the right combination of mysterious atmospheric conditions, reminds me of the beauty and joy in this world. If I want to capture it I have to be conscious and present. I have to take the picture because, in a few seconds it will be different. It will still be beautiful, but not quite this glorious. Timing, the right moment to take a picture, to speak that word, to open the door.

A Good Memory

A Surprise

This is a famous Polish beer. Some know that I taught in Poland in the mid 90’s. That’s the mid 1990’s and that’s when Poland was emerging from? Into what? That’s for another day.

I taught college students who wanted to be English teachers in the mountain town of Zakopane. Some of the students at that college wanted to be German teachers, something that initially surprised me. As a Canadian with a big powerful neighbour I should have had more insight. My students needed to improve their English vocabulary. I remember plaintive cries of, “ But Isobel, I don’t even know the name of that tree…flower…animal in Polish!”

“We’ll, learn it in both languages then!” I was not really such a dragon as evidenced by the many kind invitations I received from my students in my second year of teaching. In the first year a perfect and distant politeness was maintained. After all, this was post-Communist Poland and they had to figure out if I was fair, a snitch, crazy…. Well two out of three.

Even in the third year I refused invitations in spite of a pretty severe level of loneliness. I wanted to avoid any appearance of favouritism.

Besides teaching core language skills I had to teach methodology. Since I had very little actual teaching experience but a fresh Bachelor of Education degree I approached this task with the boundless enthusiasm of the ignorant. Conducting a whole lesson in French or Greek seemed a practical way of letting my students feel the panic of a novice language learner. Sticking gold stars on random exercise books reinforced the idea of intrinsic vs outward rewards. “How much,oh,how much I did hate Agniezka because of one Mickey Mouze sticker, Isobel” was the impassioned cry of a stickerless student. Point taken!

One of the most enthusiastic and joyful of my students was Anya. The day I arrived in the little mountain town where I taught for two years she was pressed into service. The elegant and autocratic principal of the college ordered her to carry a heavy metal electric radiator across the courtyard to the room in the dorm building where I was to stay. With her boundless energy and infectious smile she brushed off any protest or attempt to help.

“Get to the beer” you say? Anya was from the town of Zywiec and she was among the first of my students to invite me to stay for a weekend at her home. She told me that the local river supplied the high quality water that was the secret of the wonderful beer. True to my word, I did not visit any of my students until my contract was up. Anya was the first to whom I payed a visit. Since I am not a beer drinker, the main delight of the town for me was floating down its swift stream in an inner tube. On an early hot June day a good number of the townsfolk enjoyed this innocent pass time, hauling the inner tubes up to the setting off point and drifting down stream again and again. It was typical of Anya’s playful spirit that she thought it a perfect occupation to share with her prof…. I could only heartily agree

Mind my Place

On the bulletin board at a Montreal library

I was amused and intrigued to see a whole bulletin board of items readers had left in books returned to the library. As a teen I had the habit of using dollar bills ( I know, it was a long time ago) to mark my place in a book. Sometimes in a moment of broke desperation I would sit on my bedroom floor thumbing through my books in hopes of finding a stray dollar or two. Even now I notice that one of my fellow citizens resorted to a stray bill. I see a red Barbadian dollar down at the bottom of the display. Leaves, business cards, holy pictures and a bus ticket are among the oddities people left in their library books. What I found endearing was that some library employee kept these bookmarks. They took the time to pay homage to the humble bookmark. This display from the Cote des Neiges public library here in Montreal.

A Shy Spring Moon

A Long Time Coming

Clouds, rain, an obscure sky for so many, how many days. It is always wonderful to see the beautiful moon rise in early evening. Does it mean Spring is coming? It is coming, moon or not but after a dark and cloudy winter the whole town searches for every hopeful sign. This moon, like a shy young girl creeps up the sky. In a few moments she shines, shines like the wonder she is.

Lent Begins

Of the World and out of this World

It has been a gloomy winter. Winter decided to brighten things up with almost 24 hours of snow. Lent is starting. On Monday and Tuesday night the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete is read and chanted in Orthodox churches and so it was this week. On my way out of the Tuesday service I thought how beautiful the sign outside church looked. It was carved about thirty years ago by a talented woman who lives in the United States. Nature outlines the fluid lines of the carving.

Now that I look at the image I see that it is divited into three distinct parts. On the left, the traffic and the lights of a modern city. then with a distinct divide the sign, outilined in fresh snow and on the right the structure of the building of the church itself. The distinctions are so clear that it seemed to me a metaphor for our life on earth, split as it is into the material world, the spiritual sphere and the institution of organized religion. An image from which we can take as much as we need here at the beginning of a season of reflection.

Sun in Winter

Glistening at the top of the spire

This picture is taken from the top of the little hill just where Old Montreal starts. It is almost a week old. That’s unusual for me. Usually if I like an image I use it the same day. I’ve been busy with many sad and difficult moments this week and so I never used it. I don’t know the name of that church but the shining top of the spire caught my eye. it was mid afternoon and now with the agonizingly slow lengthening of days I am starting to notice things like this. Today it was bitterly cold and yet the sun was strong enough to melt snow on steps and sidewalks. I took one walking pole to get to the gym.

Still very cold

I’m still glad of my faithful coat that keeps out wind and cold. Things are glittery around us and I suppose we have to find the glittery parts inside too. It is not original to say living is a mystery but it is as true as breath. It is late and this is a mixed up post. I will do better tomorrow.

You are here

You are here

Says the little red drop on the map of my neighbourhood park. You are here in the unseasonable sun, the snow melting around you and the sky as blue and clear as the dome of heaven can be. You are here and yet someone who unexpectedly hugged you tight two days ago is not. She died suddenly and will never be here again. On Sunday when I went to church to hear the gospel of the Prodigal Son, a woman I knew came to speak to me during coffee hour. She was happy and celebrating the tenth anniversary of her son having been declared cancer free. He is still a young man. She is…was ten years younger than I am now. We talked a little about coping with bringing up a child with health issues. As I was leaving she suddenly hugged me close. There was a tremendous warmth in that unsolicited hug. When I found out that she had died, on Facebook, if you please, I put on my boots and went out to walk in that miraculously beautiful afternoon. I wanted to be sure I was “ here” I slipped as I walked on a patch of ice and my walking poles “ saved” me. I was still here and still upright. A man was clearing a heart shape on a pond. Why? To show his Valentine? The ice held and he didn’t fall in. He was still here. How fragile everything felt.

Here I am

People called me about Maria when I got home I learned things about her that I never knew. I knew she was sweet natured and kind. I hadn’t really thought about her courage, her endurance in helping her children. I hadn’t been “ here” in her presence the other times that we had just passed the time of day in church. Where is she? Where is the signpost? I’m still here…. for the moment.

My Neighbors

Ducks in my Pond

It’s the park pond after all. The pond is almost frozen over except where running water is pumped into a pool leading to a stream that flows under a bridge. I have to cross that bridge when I walk to the Metro. This morning I was going to church because today is the Sunday of the parable of the Prodigal Son. I have also been much affected by news of the earthquake in Turkey and Syria and so needed to go to church. I often don’t go to church because my teen- aged grandchildren have developed the habit of sleeping over on Saturday night. It’s hard to detach from them in time for church. This morning I managed it.


And here on the way were many ducks, out of the water and exceptionally wandering around on the path. I often thought of this flock of ducks during our harsh winter and particularly during the intense cold of last weekend. Their webbed feet, their difficulty in finding food, all nagged at me. And here they were, rushing towards me asking for food, it seemed to me! I didn’t have anything to give them and so, foolishly perhaps, I promised them that I would bring them something from church.

Church was wonderful but a little tiring. I was the only soprano, and I felt a bit submerged by two young altos and two male singers. We had a talented and courageous fill-in conductor so I was on my toes all during service. Basically the soprano’s job is to carry the tune and I lost the plot a few times so that some unusual harmony only versions of well known pieces emerged.

The Prodigal Son and his father and brother sustained me. I admit sometimes to wondering what Mum was up to and to a deep sympathy for the older brother. Of course, the turning point of the story is when the ( anti) hero “ came to himself”. The awakening, the realization that things can be fixed, that courage, action, humility can cause a wonderful outcome, is such an electrifying moment for me.

Back to the ducks… I had to keep my promise and I did. I gave them blessed bread from church. Traditionally one takes a piece of this bread for someone at home, someone who cannot take communion. I don’t really understand why water is blessed. I think it’s such a blessing and in fact, blesses us all the time. In the same way, ducks don’t take communion but they’re in communion all the time, I think. I’ll bring them more ordinary bread tomorrow. I have to salute their courage , after all.

PS those are the new boots, by the way!

49 Days, but Who’s Counting?

Good Old Brierley

Two hundred and fifty kilometres from Porto to Santiago de Compostela… nothing, right? Certainly nothing much compared to the Camino Frances at almost 800 km. After I finish the Portuguese Camino I plan to walk to the coast and back and that should take a week or so. Suddenly I’ve started to count the days. I’m anxious to enjoy the packing, the preparation, the route. It starts to feel real.

All those cliches about how the Camino gets under your skin, how it haunts you, calls you back again and again are true. There are other cliches that I reject” The Camino Provides” when I walked in 2021 I provided for myself. For the scatterbrain that I am, I did fine in keeping all my belongings together, not getting robbed, not getting too seriously lost. Well, there was that time in Zubiri when I was shell shocked from the hellish descent and there was no place to sleep and somebody found me a private room and the owner of the place hugged me like I was her long-lost sister and…. Or that time in Leon when I was sitting at a table at a sidewalk cafe with three of the most incompatible ( for me) people I could imagine and this charming guy whom I had met in Zubiri, in fact, came sauntering down the street and I jumped up and ran and hugged him and whispered in his ear “ save me, save me from these people!” and he did. ..Or the time I fell and smashed my knee as I gazed up at some ceiling paintings in a cathedral and I was sure the Camino was over for me, but then I remembered some PCV cream I had bought for the outrageous sum of 50 euros in Pamplona and I dug it out of the depths of my pack and smeared it on and the next day my knee was just fine….Or the time I got to the Cruz de Fer where you are supposed to have a stone that you bring from home to leave at the cross as a symbol of leaving your burdens except that I didn’t believe in such things until I got to the Cruz de Fer and all of a sudden there was a crystal at my feet and right beside it a wild flower that bore the name of the woman who, we’ll never mind about that, but I picked the flower and put it with the crystal and part of what needed to be left behind was left there. But I don’t really believe that the Camino provides.

Before I walk I will do two weeks as “ hospitalera” in an albergue in Porto. I don’t even know what I will be required to do. Not cook… I told them I can’t cook. I suppose I will greet them, stamp their documents, change beds, clean toilets.., all in English or French since a couple of weeks of Duolingo Portugese has embedded about twenty words in my brain along with the conviction that Portugese operates under a deranged pronunciation code. I only just found out that Duolingo teaches Brazilian Portuguese so my twenty words will come across in a South Wales valley sing-song.

I walk in the gym and today for the first time in ages I walked in the big park very near my home. The sun was strong and some enormous icicles, built up ( or down) during a vicious cold spell, came crashing down with a roar like thunder.

So this is how I count down the days. These days are precious and interesting too. Count with me.