Category Archives: self betterment

Saint Peter, a Priest, and a College Student are in a Boat. . .

One summer during college, I went on a retreat with my Catholic youth group. And not just any retreat, but a canoeing retreat. It took place at Canada’s stunningly beautiful Algonquin Provincial Park and I regretted it from the moment I realized I’d have to row a canoe and occasionally even carry that canoe, plus my worldly belongings, over my own head.

It was hot, there were swarms of bees, and you couldn’t even catch a break when we stopped to rest because that was scripture reading time. The campground, when we reached it, wasn’t so much a campground as a small secluded island with no plumbing or electrical outlets to plug your curling iron in. We cooked by fire, put iodine tablets in the river water to cleanse it, and slept on the forest floor in tents.

Despite all that, Algonquin was pretty impressive. I was with my closest friends, had my eye on a handsome Quebecois, and was appreciating the beauty of creation despite myself. You can’t help but feel closer to God when you paddle by a single moose standing in shallow waters with mountains and the setting sun as backdrop. Or when you’re kicking back by the fire with a brewski and some chips.

On the last day of the retreat, after we’d packed up the campsite and put out the fires, we had the opportunity to receive the sacrament of confession. The prospect of dragging out your sins without the benefit of a confessional window to hide behind was daunting to say the least, but our chaplain – Father Sunshine – was a stand-up priest who had good rapport with young people and was always quick with a kind word or joke. Besides, after three days in the woods, we felt humble and changed. One by one, we took the plunge.

I was the last to go and when my turn came, I went to town. There was no end to my transgressions, no sin left behind. Big ones, small ones, I lifted each one individually and cast it off like refuse into the abyss. In the past I’d questioned the necessity of confession as a sacrament, believing that no mediator was needed between me and God. But there is something about laying your faults bare, about lifting them up and giving them away, that is spectacularly liberating. At least, it was very good for me.

Afterward I felt like a new person. My backpack was suddenly lighter, there was a bounce in my step. But even more importantly, I knew that in just six short hours, I’d be showering and sleeping in a real bed. What I didn’t know was that while I was going through my litany, everyone else in the group had paired up. One by one, the canoes and their occupants set off towards home base as the wind picked up and a steady rain began to pour.

Father Sunshine and I were the only two left.

He looked at me, I looked at him.

“I guess we’re buddies” he said.

Next thing you know, I’m in a boat with my confessor. It’s driving rain and I’m doing my best to keep the canoe moving forward in a straight line. Father Sunshine is patient and gives gentle advice, but in his heart of hearts I know he’s marveling at my sins. It’s a predicament to say the least, only made worse by the fact that we’re drifting farther away from the other canoes in the middle of a storm.

The only redeeming thing about the situation is that I’m about to die a saint.

After awhile, even father Sunshine starts looking worried and suggests we ask Saint Peter to keep an eye on us and give us faith. Saint Peter, of course, is the apostle who with God’s help rowed his boat safely ashore in the raging sea of Gallilee while Jesus slept.

Even in my terror, I couldn’t help but notice the poetry of the situation. Especially when, after dispensing his advice, Father Sunshine put down his oars and lit up a Marlboro Light.

“Keep rowing,” he told me, “I have faith in you.”

I don’t know how we made it out alive, but it was the best penance I ever did.

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Will she ever shut up about France?

I braved yet another Maison Francais meeting last month. As you may remember, I tend to be initially enthusiastic about going, but chicken out on the day of. Speaking French when you don’t remember how just takes so much gosh-darned effort. But, like violin lessons, it’s another one of those things we must do to keep our minds sharp.

This meeting was to be a non-threatening dinner/lecture affair. I figured if I could get through the dinner part by sitting next to my friend Lauren and just adding “le” to the beginning of English words, I would be home free.  In retrospect, I believe I should have brushed up on my vocab before leaving the house.

They had a little table set up at the entrance where you were supposed to pick up your name tag and pay for your ticket, so I marched right up and said “Bonsoir! Je suis Rima Rama.” The lady behind the table responded with a jumble of French words that I could make neither head nor tail of. And since it would have killed me to ask her to repeat herself, I decided that she had welcomed me and invited me to go inside.  So I said:

“Merci beaucoup!”

And then she said, “Do you speak French?”

So that was a real confidence builder.

I found my friend inside and we struck up a conversation.  Thankfully, the room was like a sauna and we were able to kill a lot of time just talking about the weather.

“Il fait chaud ici, n’est-pas?”

“Oui! Il fait vraiment chaud.”

“Je suis sweating like a pig.’

“Vraiment?”

“Oui.”

I find that it’s much easier to ease into speaking le Francais when you drink a glass of wine and wade in slowly using Frenglish. So after Lauren and I helped ourselves to some vin and hors-d’oeuvres, we burdened the two women sitting on either side of us with our textbook language skills.

Luckily, one was a teacher who spoke French like a Rosetta Stone CD and was used to hearing a lot of stuttering. The other was a native speaker whose language skills had atrophied over time. She was very patient with me as I took it upon myself to opine about Stephen Hawking and Black Hole Theory.  Because if you haven’t spoken a language in going on two years and wish to ease the tongue gently into its waters, you’re going to want to begin by talking about quantum physics.

An old familiar thing started happening the more I spoke: neurotransmitters that hadn’t seen action since 2008 started firing away, re-energizing pathways long dusty with disuse.  Words, phrases, figures of speech began coming back to me and I realized I was no longer hunt and peck translating words, I was thinking in French.  I was no longer a self deprecating housewife and wanna-be writer, I was a French speaking self deprecating housewife and wanna be writer! Which makes all the difference.

In the spirit of accurate reporting, I feel I must tell you that the lecture portion of the meeting was a bust.  They had a prof from the Sorbonne talking about an archeological dig he did in Lebanon, but his presentation was on the dry side, especially for those of us who couldn’t understand a word he was saying. He had a pretty good slide presentation, but I was sitting off to the side and his assistant was blocking my view.  It took a lot of exaggerated and passive-aggressive neck craning on my part to get her to move over, and by that time it was time to go home.

The moral of this story is you should occasionally do things you’re afraid of.  Because it’s always worth it.

N‘est-ce pas?

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How’s it going with those personal training sessions, Rima?

Much to my chagrin, J.B. was not my personal trainer, only the overlord who sold the sessions.  He assigned me to one of his minions, a genial young woman named Amy. Amy was great, but she made me do a lot of hard things I didn’t like and she had no pity. One time I fell down in the middle of a set of push-ups and refused to get back up, but she still made me complete the set. Another time I told her that if I had to do one more shoulder press, both my arms would fall right out of their sockets and roll across the floor. I had to complete that set, too. I am typing this with my nose.

Amy also liked to keep the conversation flowing during my sessions, where conversation equals Amy asking me a bunch of senseless questions about my life, like, “What did you do last weekend?” Which wouldn’t have been a problem if I hadn’t gone to a wedding in Southern Ohio where I ate two pieces of cake and a fried chicken leg, drank keg beer, and did Peanut Butter and Jelly shots. It was exhausting trying to make up healthy menu items to list when she’d ask me what I’d been eating all week.  She always wanted me to show her my food journal, but I kept forgetting it in my locker.

Amy also had a propensity to ask her questions at the height of my physical distress. Say I was doing football drills while holding a ten pound weight in each arm, sweating a river, gasping for air and feeling like my legs could give out any second.  Amy would be standing there with her little timer and say something like, “Tell me about when you lived in France.”

Luckily, I had a recurrence of vertigo after my session last week. (Yup. I started using Q-Tips again.) I’m not really sure if it was the vertigo or the workout, but I felt pretty sick afterward, kind of like the time in ninth grade when our Art Teacher turned track coach made me run the 800 meter when I had only ever trained for the 50 meter sprint and I puked in the bushes after the race.  It was the perfect opportunity to do the right thing and tell Amy my true feelings about personal training, womano y womano so naturally I went home and sent her an email under a cloak of invisibility.

Amy emailed me back to tell me that she would take me off her schedule, but she was pretty sure I had a contractual obligation to complete three months of sessions.  Reading between the lines of her message I was also able to decipher the following encrypted phrase: “Good luck trying to whittle down that booty by yourself, you chicken livered little wuss.”

But I don’t consider myself a quitter – unless you count piano, gymnastics, Lithuanian harp lessons, Jazzercise, and now this – because I still went to the gym today and did a hearty workout. I didn’t have to talk to a soul and when I started feeling a little dizzy, I took a break and watched Guiding Light.  I know how to use the weight equipment now and am finding that I really love it, so from here on out I’m going to be working out to my own personal fitness compass. Don’t be surprised if the next time you see me, I have rubbed myself down with coconut oil and have a size 22 neck.

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If You Have to Straddle Your Violin to Tune It, You Haven’t Been Practicing Enough

One thing about a violin is that it gets more out of tune the longer you don’t play it. My violin stared at me reproachfully all summer from its dusty case in the living room until the day arrived for my first lesson with my new teacher. I woke up late and scrambled to get in some practice time, but first I had to tune my instrument. I had to tune it quite vigorously because each string was off by at least two whole notes, and while I was doing this, one of the strings snapped off.  I didn’t know how to re-string it and had no time for a pit stop at Ye Olde Violin Shoppe, so I headed off to my first lesson with only half a violin.

“Hi, I’m Rima!” I said to my new teacher. “I’m here for my first lesson. But I have to tell you that I’m missing an A, and my G string is hanging on by a thread.”

There is not much you can play in your Level One Suzuki book without an A, but my teacher was very pragmatic and had me try an Allegro where instead of playing the notes on the A, I had to sing them.  And not only that, but here are the words to the song:

Head head, ears ears, shoulders shoulder, nose nose,
Waist waist, knees knees, ankles ankles, clap!
Head head, ears ears, shoulders shoulder, nose nose,
Waist waist, knees knees, ankles ankles, clap!
Lightly swaying, lightly swaying, as the music gently flows . . .
Head head, ears ears, shoulders shoulder, nose nose,
Waist waist, knees knees, ankles ankles, clap!

I rather liked it.  And instead of getting all up in my grill and re-arranging my limbs into various poses while I’m playing like my first teacher used to do, this one keeps her hands offa me while I complete the entire piece, and then she’ll say something very encouraging, like, “That’s it!” or, “You got it!” or, “Wonderful!” She even said I have great intonation, at which point I started purring and rubbing my ears on her ankles.

I don’t regret the time I spent with my first teacher, because in addition to a good Suzuki foundation, she also gave me psychoanalysis. But I think I knew from the beginning that we were not a good fit. Lorrie is a talented musician, but a little too intense for a non-traditional slacker like me who just wants to play some tunes by the Christmas tree. When you’re all grown up and paying for your own violin lessons out of your husband’s checkbook, you really want a teacher who will make you feel as though learning a challenging string instrument when you’re pushing forty is worth it.

I had the perfect opportunity to quit this summer when Lorrie took a month long teaching break and I didn’t have childcare because the kids were out of school.  And I’m not sure why I didn’t. My experience last year wasn’t very rewarding. Lorrie was always standing me up and I really didn’t feel like I was making any progress because she taught using the Suzuki method, which focuses on proper form and developing an ear at the expense (it seemed to me) of learning to read the music and make it sound pretty. Which is all I really want to do.

So I’m glad I switched teachers and gave it one more chance. If nothing else, I’m hoping that learning violin will prevent me from becoming demented in my old age. Forget Itzak Perlman! I just want to be Pa Ingalls.

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