Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Pilgrim's Progress

“Almost there!” the old man enthused.

Palms slapping the water and legs kicking madly, my 12-year old self rallied for the final push to the Styrofoam finish line.

I filled my lungs with air and squeezed shut my eyes, expecting my fingers to make contact with the bobbing white flotation device at any second.

“You’ve got it!”

Slap. Slap. Gasp. Kick.

“Keep going!”

Seeking the encouraging sight of my fingers about to touch wet Styrofoam, I tentatively opened an eye.

Whoa. I stopped kicking and planted my feet in the lake muck. Discovering that I hadn’t spanned the anticipated gap between myself and the flotation-goal would have been grim enough. But even with my admittedly fuzzy vision-- forced as I was to swim without glasses in my pre-contact lens era—it was clear that the goal was more distant than it had ever been before.

“Oh, that Father Bill,” my aunt said of her visiting relation.

“What kind of tricks are you playing on that child?” another lake visitor demanded of the sheepish priest.

“I’m just trying to help build her stamina,” he shrugged innocently.

I have thought of this childhood anecdote from my aunt’s lakeside cottage on many occasions over the past few weeks as I gasped toward the finish line of what I long ago dubbed as “the semester that just won’t end.”

With over 50 pages worth of written material due in the span of a single week, I paced myself by assigning undo significance to a series of inconsequential milestones: the final bibliography, the last page of reading, the capstone assignment for this or that course. Constantly laboring under a premature sense of completion eventually took its toll: I was seeking an endpoint that just kept moving further from my grasp.

But despite setbacks such as the meltdown I had after a particularly gruesome 3 hour bibliography reading (one instructor's idea of a fitting final class), the end finally came—or so I thought. With classes finished and final exams complete, it seemed safe to assume that Spring ’08 was a wrap.

Until I pulled my final grades up online.

Even with my contact-lens enhanced 20/20 vision I had to blink several times, hoping some pesky floaters were responsible for what I took to be the second letter of the alphabet hanging out at the end of a perfect formation of uniform Alphas.

How could this, well, be?

With a perfect average in the bank, I’d turned in a project on The Canterbury Tales that would have made Chaucer cry. It was stamped all over with professor approval. I think she just about kissed my final draft. Really. I know I’m fuzzy with numbers, but this equation hardly seemed mathematically viable.

Without belaboring some very sketchy details, let it suffice to say that somehow this project ended up in a non-approved format, and that in order to improve my lot, I needed to buck up for a return visit to Canterbury.

The goal-shifting priest’s sneaky techniques may have been effective for building physical stamina, but let me assure you, the experience doesn’t translate to the academic realm. On the heels of my mental rigors, I currently have the attention span of a middle school boy at a poetry reading.

I’ll admit to exhibiting signs of a weak psychological fortitude at the prospect of revisiting Canterbury. But then I realized that life is full of many “finish lines” that are really arbitrary at best. Is it more important to “finish” by a certain date, or to appreciate the opportunity to reach a little further for a personal best? Where is this “end” that we’re always striving toward, and what happens once we’re there?

Besides, Chaucer’s pilgrims never even made it to Canterbury, but they still had a good time along the way—spinning yarns and swapping tales, all the while angling for a tasty free lunch.

As for me, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed sharing this story with you, and if you have a tale, just throw a comment my way. I’d love to read it. In the meantime, my daughter is up in the kitchen fixing some homemade tortellini that I’m about to smother in tomatoes and garden-fresh herbs. Like Chaucer’s pilgrims, I’m going to revel in the simple pleasures of tall tales and shared meals, and not worry too much about the rest. After all, Canterbury’s nothing but a short stop on an amazing journey I hope I’m on for a long, long time.

What’s Afoot?
…an update on yesterday’s mishap

“It’s kind of like a preview of when you’re old,” my daughter said, as we pulled out of the Walgreens yesterday, clutching a bag containing first aid tape, ibuprofen, and crayon band-aids (I’m employing the red ones as a sort of alert, to keep a sort of safety buffer around my toe. The rest are for cheer.)

I was fumbling through my change, puzzling over some particulars of the transaction. “Why?” I asked, startled.

“You’re confused, you’re hobbling,” her voice trailed off. “I’ve decided you’ll be quite a handful.”

My daughter had spent the better part of the afternoon shuttling me to Dr. M’s office and then to the hospital for some x-rays. It seems that my toe, although fractured, will be just fine in a week or so. Toes, evidently, are “very forgiving,” according to Dr. M.

And all that nonsense about not running? What a waste of time when I own 21-speed, yellowy-orange mountain bike with great shocks and stellar tires, a package my daughter describes as “pretty intense.” Despite being thrilled to receive it as a gift a couple Christmases ago, it boasts surprisingly little road wear. That’s about to change.

Besides, the running really hasn’t been doing that much for me. It’s time for a little shake up in the routine.


Catherine Wannabe said...

FATHER BILL???? Who is Father Bill? I have NO recollestion of any of this! Where was I?? What aunt are we talkin', anyway? Did you make this up?

Sorry about the toes. At least you are not casted like your nephew.

running_with_letters said...

Dear Catherine,

Here at Running With Letters we adhere to a concept we like to call "authenticity." The non-fiction format of this forum requires that we take allegations of character fraud very seriously. Considering the endless corucopia of interesting people one encounters, we hardly think it necessary to delve into the sloppy, shady business of character contrivance. Father Bill is numbered among our Aunt Nancy's in-laws, although I'll confess that I can't get much more specific than that. Any role I'm tempted to assign him would require him to be a lowercase father rather than a Father of uppercase stature. I have no memories of you at the lake. I believe you were busy watching a lot of Dukes of Hazzard re-runs during that time.

Catherine Wannabe said...

Ah, yes, too true. I was likely either in Dixieland or Narnia. Please excuse my insensitivity. I certainly meant no offense to you. I was shaken by reading a page of your childhood of which I had no personal image to run beside your narrative. Obviously I was so un-nerved that even the conventions of spelling and grammar left me.

running_with_letters said...

LOL... No offense taken, all received in good fun.

This just in via email from Aunt Nancy, who had tech trouble with the blog:

"Yes there is an Uncle Bill Culnane who is a Catholic Priest...He was Bill's fathers brother. He drove everyone crazy trying to teach them how to swim in his own way. He still practices in Wilkes Barre PA. -Preisthood not swimming!"

So there it is :)


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