One of the many church groups that meets from month to month is called The Wise Ones and it is for people who retired. The group is facilitated by a capable group of women and men as it brings together people from a diverse number of nationalities and backgrounds for some light discussion, refreshments, and usually homemade cakes.
I enjoy coming to the group as an ‘honorary’ member since it is a while until I reach the age of retirement. (But one can never be so certain nowadays as I recently met a fellow at a wedding reception who told me that he retired at the ripe old age of 38 after inventing some gizmo that computer companies are still interested in using). I love being with the people who have so many interesting stories to tell.
Most months there is a topic that is discussed where memories can be shared and I am fortunate to bask in a collective wisdom. Yesterday the theme was humour (which I spell with a ‘u’ because with out u it wouldn’t be funny). Everyone expresses humour in different styles and forms. I think the group tried to avoid the generalizations that some nations seem to be more appreciative of humour than others, but it is an interesting social phenomenon to look at how humour is used from place to place, and from person to person.
I have come across people who have found themselves living in Germany who have named an inability to use their sense of humour to their full potential and therefore, they feel diminished as a person. Their sense of self shrinks. Not only is there the language hurdle, but humour can be, well, different for cultures and groups than ones own preferred style. German humour, at least what is on the television shows, tends to be very ‘heady’ and often political, and truthfully, some of what is deemed funny just doesn’t tickle my funny bone. If you are someone who loves witticism and word play you may find yourself at a loss. However, during our group discussion the question asked of me, “what is Canadian humour like?” has remained with me, and I am not sure how I could summarize it as it differs from person to person. I do think that some of the funniest things, be they jokes or stories, are ones that emphasize the shortcomings of one own self. To laugh at ones self seems to be important…at least for me. However, I don’t know if that is a particularly Canadian attribute. Certainly we have political satire and slap-stick comedy which appears on tv, and there were comedy shows which often had dreadful comic routines which we watched because we knew that there would be at least one ‘zinger’ that kept you thirsting for more.
In a former parish there was a young woman whom you would be hard pressed to consider a comic genius, as she seemed to be shy, moderately funny but not outwardly so, and to look at her, one could imagine her being an middle level office manager. In reality she was a comic writer for a variety of Canadian comedy shows, like ‘Kids in the Hall.’ One would be hard pressed to see her as one of a team of comedians but she was cutting with her razor sharp wit and observations on life. Be it comic writing, or stand up comedy, her personality would almost change, or morph, once in the limelight.
One of my favourite comedians was Robin Williams, and having met him once while he was hiking with his young family you would never have thought he was funny. He seemed like anyone else a nice parent out with his children, but whilst on stage, or in front of a camera he became something completely different. In some early documentary about William’s life the stage persona and the backroom persona were vastly different. Which makes me recall a quote from Robin Williams that is reflective of a lot of humour and the people that we find ‘funny’, he says, “I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy. Because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anybody else to feel like that.”
The school year is coming to a close and so begins the season of school projects, class parties, and general year-end celebrations. The various activities keep parents busy either attending events where the children proudly show off their projects, or skills; or there is the effort of getting children to different locations be it a forest grillplatz, or a outdoor swimming pool.
For my oldest daughter she is staring in a theatre production where the children have written the script, set the scenery and will be acting out their show for two different groups of parents, family and other school children. As for my youngest daughter, there was the year-end grill party where we all got to say goodbye to one of her much loved teachers who will be moving. A few weeks ago the same daughter performed with her entire school in a circus.
The circus culture is alive and well in Germany with any number of travelling shows that make their way from village to village setting up a large tent in some generous farmers meadow. There are also, to my surprise, professional circus performers that travel from school to school. The children get a week of circus training in areas which they can choose to participate. Students get to sign-up for their top three activities in the hopes that they will get to be part of the team in that particular area. Unfortunately, (or maybe fortunately) ours was not picked for anything she signed up for – the top being fire juggling.
I will admit that my initial reaction was a bit harsh and critical as I heard that there would be no homework, nor classes (in the strictest sense) for a whole week as the children practiced their ‘routines’ in circus training. Maybe I was just a bit jealous of the deal.
A huge amount of effort was put into the production of the circus. Two shows were offered, each show being about 3 hours long (including the 20 minute intermission) and had all that you could think of in a actual circus. There was music, song, trapeze, lion taming (kids in the lion costumes were very funny), clowns (not so funny), rhythm and dance, fire juggling, acrobatics, magic show and even intermission snacks and toys sold by the kids. The large gym hall was full of around 300 parents for each of the two shows, and the decorations around the room were made by a team of kids working as stage hands. The various acts all had special costumes and the adult supervisors were very discreet in their stage presence so as not to detract from the show. After having seen the show, it did occur to me that it was a bit sexist in that all the flame juggling kids were boys, and all the trapeze kids were girls. I guess this is my own resentfulness in not letting my own daughter play with fire.
As for my older daughter who performs in her class production in the evening, she has recently had a two week school trip into the Black-forest. This two week long trip was a forestry practicum where the class learned about the care and maintenance of the forest as a economic resource for the country. As well, the kids had to work every day helping to construct wooden tables and benches that are frequently seen all over the place in parks and forest. The professional foresters helped to supervise and teach, and the day’s were packed with activity and learning. The students returned home with a growing sense of appreciation for the forest and plant-life, as well as, a sense of pride in the work of some basic carpentry skills have all been the result of a two week trip into the woods.
This evening we are set to watch my oldest daughter preform in her class theatre production and I am sure that we will be amazed and entertained at what has been learned, achieved and celebrated.
Despite some of my personal challenges and disagreements with the way the school system works in Germany, on the whole, the process of learning is good. While I still disagree with the ‘streaming’ of kids at an early age that sets them up for a certain path in life; I do appreciate the style of learning which gets the children outdoors and active. The circus week and the forestry practicum have certainly added to the learning accomplishments of our children, and their parents have been entertained and rewarded with all the learning and accomplishment that is put on display at the end of the school year. Lions, and tigers, and trees, Oh my! – we are not in Canada anymore.
In Germany students receive Religious Education as a weekly subject and the classes are usually divided into Roman Catholic and Protestant, with a small group of ‘others’ that have instruction in another religion, or none at all. The classes may be taught by specialized teachers and/or clergy from the local area. I know from my colleagues in the local German churches that a great deal of their time is spent in classrooms. The Religion teacher for my youngest daughter got in contact with me to see if I would be interested in teaching the class about the Anglican Church. I think the words, ‘fear and trepidation’, would nicely describe my agreement to come on a Thursday morning to speak about the Anglican Church.
I spent some time going over what I might like to say. What, in a nut shell, could be something easy enough for both the students to understand, and that I would feel comfortable speaking about in German? Needless to say I steered away from the Doctrine of the Trinity and Atonement theology because even in English I would have a difficult time with explanations.
Well on the morning of the class I packed my laptop into the bag and my daughter and I set off on our bicycles toward school at a little before 7:00 AM. As we sped along the bike path I came up next to my daughter and said, “we can take it slower if you want.” To which she replied, “Why? This is my usual speed.” Well, as we zoomed along with me clearly lagging behind we made it to the school where many of the students gathered at the front door waiting for the classrooms to be unlocked and to greet their teachers.
The Religion teacher greeted both myself, and another father who would be speaking about an ‘Evangelical Free Church’ in the area, as he worked as the youth pastor beyond his usual ‘day-job’ as a health professional. As the classroom door swung open the other father and I were presented with the Audio Visual corner which was a nest of wires and plugs for all sorts of makes and models of computer. Having both laptops tested out and working I graciously let the other father present first. Phew! I though, I don’t have to present first, as I was already nervous as it was.
The students were very well behaved. A ritual of lighting a candle and passing to each person gave the students a chance to say what they were grateful for, and what concerns they may have in their lives. I did not expect to be passed the candle, but soon found myself with it shining brightly in my hands. I stammered out that I was glad to be here, but that I was also a bit nervous speaking German since a great deal of my work is conducted in English. This seemed to break the ice for myself and for the students. One student happened to be a new arrival from elsewhere in Europe and also finds learning German a real challenge. It seemed to brighten this pupils day when an adult made all sorts of grammatical errors. Then it was my turn to feel more relaxed as the other father grasped the small candle and said that he also felt a bit nervous, so we were all a bit on common ground to begin with.
I watched with growing anxiety the first presentation which had a lot of slides and copious notes. I began to think that I had totally underestimated what I should be doing with the class. It was a good presentation with some questions to grill the students and I was not too sure that my work would go over so well. The presentation was going on a long time too, and I wondered as I watched the big school clock which hung over the doorway, exactly how much time I really had before some bell would ring and students would want to change subject lessons. Unfortunately, do to the gremlins that seem to always get into the technology, a video of a church outing did not work, so that seemed to put a spin on the mood of the class as they wanted to see, but could only hear what was going on. That’s when my turn to present happened, and low and behold, the computer still worked for my presentation.
After a brief introduction, and having my daughter stand up beside me to help with any translation that might be useful, students arms were quickly in the air to ask questions. I was stuck with what to do. On the one hand if I let them talk now I may, because of nerves, loose my train of thought. Yet, on the other hand, if the kids talk now it could be like what sometimes happens at church and an overly excited child gives an excellent second sermon about how God has been in their life, which would have the effect in this scenario of using up a lot of my time; which would mean, less speaking by me and more speaking by the kids. In the end I quickly decided to hold off on the questions for the moment until I could at least get to the second ‘slide’.
The old Kodak slide carousel had its day, and could bore people to death over family trips and other adventures. Now with electronic powerpoint presentations we can go on for infinitem with gigabytes of stored photos seeing possibly several hundred slides at a time. So, I won’t bore you with the details of all seven of my slides, but I can say that I opted to have only pictures. A picture speaks a thousand words anyway, plus no one could report me for poor German grammar.
Having briefly taught children at Christ Church Cathedral School in Victoria whilst being the Assistant Curate, I am a big believer in the pedagogical style of thinking like a child so that they learn what I want them to learn. Images, stories and objects all help to make links from what may be called theoretical to the practical. I may have an idea of the Anglican Church, but it just floats around as an idea until you tie it to something that a child can comprehend and then you link the idea or theory, with the practical and experienced.
Well, the photos flashed up on screen and we talked a little about each. More and more hands were shooting into the air so I started to field questions and even got to learn some of the students names in the process. I felt like some kind of relationship was growing and that I could really pull this off. For me, the important picture was a photo of a Mohnschnecke a sweet desert like a cinnamon bun but with sugar and poppy seed.
It is often a familiar lunch item, or treat for kids so they all have an experience. The students all agreed with me that the best part of the pastry is the very centre. So, the Anglican Church with all its long and winding history, its debates and traditions, the best part of it, the central thing, is that we are called to love God, and neighbour, just as God loves us. There were lots of nodding heads.
My presentation wrapped up with an activity in which each student (and the two other adult’s) in the room had to find a partner. I know that the kids play a game in the school ground called, Michael Jackson, where you quickly clap hands together, do silly dances, and swivel your hips like you are playing with a hoola-hoop and then as you pronounce each syllable of ‘Mich-ael-Jack-son’ you swivel your feet outwards making your legs spread further and further apart with each round of the game. The game continues until one, or both people topple over because they cannot spread their legs any further (unless they can do the splits!). In using this fore-knowledge of a fun and silly game, I had all involved use different words, and similar actions to remember that the Anglican Church has ‘Orders’ (Archbishop’s, bishops, priests, deacons), that prayer is very central to our lives, and that reading the Bible is important. The classroom erupted into fits of laughter as the students tried to imitate my daughter and I as we slowly approached the point of tipping over.
In the end, there was a small presentation from the teacher, a round of applause from the students and a small token of thanks which is meant to be a small oasis in the hot days of summer. I tiny message in a bottle to take with me as I left the classroom and would enjoy a more leisurely bike ride to my next appointment.
After making what was a rather hasty visit to Canada I realize that I have not had the time to write for a long time. Much has happened, but little of it is of significance. I recall reading the words of Roald Dahl in “Going Solo” that “A life is made up of a great number of small incidents and a small number of great ones.” As well, what may be “enthralling” to me, is not necessarily memorable for all.
I’ve decided to change the template on the blog, and have considered going to a paid rate to get better services, as well as many other features. Now that the GDPR rules are enforce I wonder if I should write anything at all, and if so, shall I still link them to Facebook, or Twitter. All this is not the real reason I write. The real reason I write is that I have an assignment in a Spiritual Direction course to complete, and well, the procrastination is ever present. I have made several stabs at writing my paper on “How does one grow in intimacy with God?” and I am now in the editing phase.
Intimacy with God is a fickle thing. There are times when some of the basics become just that – too basic – and I search for some other possibilities. I am loth to write an easy answer that sounds like a self-help easy 10 steps to Spiritual Enlightenment. At the moment, along with the classical examples of prayer and Bible reading, I have found running to be a quiet centre where I commune with God.
I have been active in running or jogging since living in Vancouver. As a child I recall loving to run, until a diagnosis of Asthma happened and it felt as though I had a pillow stuffed over my face, or like I was trying to breathe through a thin plastic straw. Eventually, having a lot of time alone and going to university, I was determined to run as some kind of exercise – an activity that was not expensive. Over time, running along with walking became easier and easier. The asthma no longer seemed present and I felt that I could extend my runs for longer periods of time. I participated in the Vancouver Sun Run a number of times, the Grouse Grind Race, various seasonal ‘fun runs’, and several other Vancouver area runs.
The journey back to Canada to visit family was focused and short, but I wanted to include a race to help keep my mind set on some kind of goal. I found that the Shaughnessy 8k was on so I submitted my entry form and fee and waited for the big day. The run had appeal as it was around the area in which I began running in ernest, and it was also a race for the good cause of cancer research. Lapping up the nostalgia as I lapped the neighbourhood was what I was expecting. What I did not remember was how hilly the route was! From a steep initial incline, to the gradual rolling streets, it was a far cry of running for many kilometres down the German side of the Rhein!
My daughters stood on the side of the street screaming at me to run faster as the finish approached, and my father was able to be present for the race as well. After having intended to go for a short run a couple of days prior to the race I became lost (poor signage) and circumnavigated most of a nature park only to return to the parking lot 5 minutes after other family members had finished their 4 km hike to see that I had completed 17 km of running through what was mostly elbow-high grass rather than trail. Having now over-trained prior to the 8k race I felt unprepared and more than just a little winded as I climbed the first hill. Running, with feet pounding the street, breathing paced, and sweat dripping down the forehead, are all paths to growing in intimacy with God. “God, when will this end!”, may have been the prayer at one point in the race, but overall it is a style of meditation that draws me closer to God.
At the end of the race I was shocked to learn that I had won a door prize, and later, that I was called up for winning 3rd place for my age category. And if you are thinking as my brother did; I can tell you there were more than three people in the 40-44 age group.
Now having returned for some weeks to Germany I continue to run on a regular basis looking for scenic routes, for longer and longer distances, or even a quick jog that I can fit into my schedule.
Reading in a German running magazine the responses from various runners when asked if they thought it correct to greet other runners while out on your own run (I think only in Germany would this be an issue) I liked one gentleman’s response, in that he waves to everything but the trees because as he runs through the forests he doesn’t often see other people, so takes every opportunity to wave. So far, of the places I have ventured to run in Europe, I have enjoyed Switzerland the most. The scenery of both the Rhein, the Münsterplatz of old city of Basel, the parks, and the people (all of whom waved), have made it an enjoyable place to grow closer in intimacy with God.
Now that I have probably outdone myself in word-count and run-on-sentences for this blog post it is probably wise to head back to the paper on spiritual direction…or maybe there is still time for another run.
I am sure that clergy the world over could collectively write a book that contains equal parts of great joy, and great sadness.
Today of all days!
Good Friday, has to be the day the printer runs out of ink. In every congregation I have served there have been gremlins at work in the photocopier or printer the very day of some large church celebration. Call it Murphy’s Law, call it the devil, call it God’s will. Whatever you want to call it – it seems to happen on the stress filled days of a lone clergy person with no office staff.
So here I sit, fingers dripping with Cyan.
The people that designed ink jet printers, are I believe, a special breed, that will stand alongside the same people who designed the cheap coffee machines that take coffee ‘pods’. The machines are inexpensive – the pods, or ink, are worth small bricks of gold!
Cyan smudges my fingers. How much is this one thing worth?
So while the rest of humanity seems to be in hiding on Good Friday, as the newspapers have warned against celebrating parties or playing loud music on a day of prayer and fasting; I sit pondering how a small machine has become the sole focus of my day. Small red lights glow from full tanks of ink, and Cyan winks back teasingly. Knowingly. Who knew that you need Cyan, a bright blue, in order to print in a Black and White setting?!
A hammer sits by the door so that at least the gathered community will hear the sound of nails being hammered in later today at the Good Friday worship service.
Cyan marks the handle now.
An early childhood memory comes to mind – my father bent over the rear of an old white Volkswagen Beatle with engine exposed to the tinkering of a ball-peen hammer. Would it work now on my plastic printer?
The seasonal struggles with technology mishaps, I know, are small compared to other sufferings. A collective shout from the audience – ‘FIRST WORLD PROBLEMS!’. In my upset mood I hear my own parenting questions echoing back from my children: “Has anybody died? Is there blood? Well then, don’t worry about it.”
I’d like to reply sarcastically, Yes, someone did die. There is no blood, but my fingers are stained with Cyan! I’ll try not to worry about it, but that is not to say that it hasn’t greatly changed me.
There are few things that seem internationally identifiable as being classically Canadian. During my language classes which where were made up of students from around the world, the one thing that seemed universally known about Canada was that we play hockey.
I had forgotten that Canada and Germany were playing against each other in the Olympic hockey match today and was only able to see the last period of the game. My very devoted hockey daughter called me from the car on the way back from school to tell me the shocking news that Canada was loosing (and spoiler alert) they lost the game. Yelling at the television set has not helped my sore throat, but it has made me realize that I found more interest in another Olympic sport in which both nations competed and suddenly found themselves tied for the gold medal. To think that in the age of advanced time measurements up to several zeros behind a decimal point, that two bobsled team got identical race times is extraordinary!
When our children were younger (I guess I was too) my wife got us tickets to see the Biathlon in Whistler while the Olympics were hosted in Vancouver. The biathlon is my favourite Winter Olympic sport to watch as I am always impressed with the speed, endurance, and then the sudden breath-stopping-control that allows men and women to fire off a .22 round at a tiny target. While I don’t remember who ended up winning that race, I do remember the atmosphere of the crowd – loud, jubilant. I also remember the freezing cold and the new winter boats leaking on both of the children and me putting their ice cold feet on my stomach to warm them up.
I imagine that as the years go by it won’t be so much of a painful loss in todays hockey match, rather I will likely remember the loud screaming at the TV by my eldest daughter, and the sight of two bobsled teams standing on an extended platform to all receive a gold medal. Maybe if I take more German lessons the students will recall two nations standing side by side on the podium. The house is now a little quieter, and the nation of Canada is probably a little humbler.
As an immigrant I do not get to exercise my civic duty in voting in the German electoral system, at least not federally. As a town citizen I do get to vote in municipal elections. A few weeks ago I received a letter from the Burgermeister’s office asking me to participate in some of the town planning. On my invitation I could choose to be in a small group, but that I would need to pick my top three interests from a list of several themes. I ended up placed in Gemienshaft, Integration, Seicherheit (Society, Integration, and Security). Truth be told, my invitation letter sat a long time on my desk, and even made its way to the recycling bin before I pulled it out and filled in the forms and then posted the return letter. I had huge doubts about attending as I believe my German skills are lacking, and I felt particularity vulnerable to any sort of criticism that might occur because I am an immigrant – why should I get a say in the future of this town? I eventually sent in my invitation as I then began to thinking that part of my own integration means participation (at any level) with the community. My observations of the day once it finally arrived were punctuated with urges to run from the room feeling incompetent and inadequate.
The event took place in the Kur Park, a scenic park which is usually full of flowers, strutting Peacocks, and long chains of Nordic Walkers. This morning was damp and cool and no sooner had I entered the doors of the building that I found I was standing under the one area where the roof leaked – cue my desire to leave. Sitting alone and comfortably anonymous amongst the 60 or so people I sat through the initial explanation of the purpose of the day, the welcome by town officials, and 5 minute presentations by the local town staff on the several areas of focus. After the first hour I was about ready to leave again as I felt like the only migrant in the room who struggled to make sense of the talking, reading of the slides and making sense of the various graphs of statistical information being beamed onto a large screen, all in 5 minute bursts.
I stuck around for the entire day, and I am glad I did. I got to ask questions to officials such as – why is society, integration and security all lumped together? It made me feel that, as a foreigner I was somehow a security threat to the German populous. The day gave me some insight on how society functions and how people think. Of the several pin boards anyone could write on different colour coded note paper and then pin up the papers onto the boards for all to see. The colours were Red – for Bad, Yellow – for Idea, and Blue – for Good. Within about 15 minutes the vast majority of the boards were covered with red cards. If I was at a Fussball match there would have been plenty of whistling!
Once separated into our smaller subject groups of about 10 people each, we began to look at some ideas, and some positive remarks. Slowly there became more of a balance of Red, Yellow and Blue cards plastered on the boards. For most the day we remained in our small groups and narrowed down some practical aims and appropriate tasks despite all of us having to struggle with what constituted and aim and a task. The moderator of each group was able to help us formulate a vision statement, and our top 5 priorities. There was argument over the grammar of our vision to which I jokingly said that I wholeheartedly agreed with a incomprehensible compound word – hey, at least some people chuckled. Our information was then presented to the wider group, and then the citizens had the power to place our 7 kleine rote Klebepunkte ( 7 small red stickers) on items we felt were a main priority.
I have to say I was a bit shocked at the end of the day as the small red dots were tallied up and the last point on my groups chart rocketed to the top of the popularity contest. To give you an idea of the range of the list, the top priority in our group was Die Tafel which is the local food bank for lack of a better comparison. I thought this was great as it is a place were all sorts of people gather and a wide range of society meets. A place were strangers may become friends. It is a place I have thought about volunteering at for a couple hours a week so that I can meet new people and aid my own integration into society. In short, Die Tafel was a place that covered our topics of Society, Integration and Security. The last item on our list had to do with security in the form of a Police presence in the town centre – taking on a form of a 24/7 police office.
When the red stickers were counted from the plenary group it came as a surprise that the clear forerunner was 24/7 Police presence in some kind of office in the centre of town. Somehow people seem to think that this is going to make the place a lot safer – not that I was ever concerned with the level of crime in Bad Krozingen to begin with.
At the end of the day we were all applauded for our participation. Out of the 1000 people invited, we represented the 60 -70 people who had found some interest to participate. I realized that there were no visible minorities present. I realized that for all our brainstorming, visions, aims and tasks, a huge amount of trust is given to a bureaucratic process that is already well established. For instance, a civic department would be the place to act out our task. It makes me wonder if we, in fact, thought hard enough on things as it seemed that everything fit nicely into some department or other of the town hall. I was a bit worried to see that for some there was a big sigh of relief that because the tasks had been named and at times a department head was named alongside the task, that somehow we had done our duty. It was a bit like being an armchair athlete as no real grassroots movement seemed necessary. No civic responsibility seemed present to understand that it is the people that make society, the people that help with integration, and the people which leads to a safer and more secure future. It is not just some state department task, we are all responsible.
At the end of the day I feel exhausted having learned a lot about local government processes. I also am glad to have met some very talented and dedicated people. I found the people to be overwhelmingly friendly in my small group so much so that I did not have to eat alone, or stand in a corner wondering what I should say. I am glad I did not leave the event despite the few times I thought I had nothing to contribute as I hope to have a coffee with a few of these people in the future. I hope also to continue practicing my German language skills, meet people at Die Tafel and perhaps show others how I try to adapt to life in Germany. Certainly it is through participation that I find strangers are now neighbours, immigrants are part of the grass-roots of society, and that German society feels a little bit more like home.