Topping: A mountain of lessons on holiday

21 August 2018

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

“Daddy, I can’t walk any more.”

So complained my 10-year-old son. I admit I was inwardly beaming. Triumphs come so infrequently to us parents. I revelled not, of course, because a thorn protruded from my son’s big toe. Nor did I delight in the thin lightining streaks of blood that crisscrossed my seven-year-old son’s legs. My smile formed for other reasons. It swelled up because of the wonder I felt at the beautiful lessons that hung, like ripe hanging fruit, waiting to be plucked during these long holiday afternoons.

Our family has never visited Disneyland, but we’ve always delighted in holidays. Looking back over the years, our summer vacations have virtually all revolved around my work, our relatives, or some pilgrimage.

This summer was no different. Our destination was the far coast of British Columbia. Our three-day trek through the Rocky Mountains had brought us to the shadow of Vedder Mountain, about an hour’s drive east of Vancouver, and to my wife’s hometown. And this afternoon we were splashing in the mountain-fed river.

The sun had been relentless all week, perfect for ripening berries which now rested triumphantly upon the arms of their mother plants. We had finished our swim, and during our walk back along the dike to grandma’s house my sons and I were lulled from our destination by the sight and smell of delicious fruit. So began that day’s lesson.

There are few sybaritic pleasures equal to the picking of the blackberry. Rubus ursinus, that enticing bramble known as the Trailing Blackberry, is as pleasing to the eye and tongue as it is painful to the flesh.

With vigour the children dove into the bushes, pulling, pinching and popping the succulent berries into their faces which shone beet-red under the delirium of the late afternoon heat. It was as though we had tumbled back into Eden; so intense was the pleasure that we felt that, like Joshua’s army, the Lord had caused the sun itself to rest from its motion so we might finish our errand in triumph.

But alas, nothing gold can stay. Within a few moments cries not only of delight were heard. I shouted, “Slow down, boys!” For I too have known the frenzy of this world’s luscious fruits. “Watch for the thorns,” was another call that only half penetrated their distracted brains. It was like watching the Fall in slow motion.

For a few brief moments in the face of our children did the hope of pleasure mix with the pain of disappointment just like the flush that our first parents’ must have known in their moment of intoxication. As the lips of my boys became stained in dark juice, so did their limbs grow with the faint lines of their own blood.

When all was over, on our walk back to the house, conversation turned to sober thoughts. “Life is like that berry bush,” I proposed. “If you seek pleasures in the wrong way, at the wrong time, those pleasures will bring nothing but pain.”

It was too hot for conversation so as we walked the words hung there without inviting a reply. A few kids just kept shuffling along; others nodded in grave assent, of the sort that can only be given when thought has mixed with suffering.

That afternoon delivered a memorable lesson, though our summer holiday brought many others. A few days ago, as we poured over eggs just cooked in our bacon’s sizzling fat, on our last morning in the mountains, I asked the boys to list any lessons they thought they had learned the past weeks. Among them, the kids said they had learned: how far a bottle of bear spray can shoot (about seven metres); the danger of a brown-recluse spider bite (great-grandpa was just recovering from one); how many Saskatoon berries you can eat before getting sick (my 12-year-old had found out); they learned also what it was like for great-grandma to escape to Canada via Paraguay from the Nazis (she had been retelling old stories again one afternoon), what it feels like to be trapped on a log that rested on the water that was about to tip you into the water (my six-year-old had experimented with this), the best ways to keep a fire alive (a cause for endless study), how to tie knots, what a grizzly with two cubs looks like; and on and on.

To think that learning only occurs while a child is strapped into some state-approved desk under a fluorescent bulb is perhaps one of the more wildly foolish ideas about education that has plagued us moderns who, on the whole, have too often adopted the most foolishly wild ideas about education that can be swallowed. So I say, embrace the holidays with all its lessons.

Dr. Ryan N.S. Topping is vice-president and academic dean of Newman Theological College in Edmonton. His most recent book on education is The Case for Catholic Education. His forthcoming book is The Gift of the Church: How the Catholic Church Transformed the History and Soul of the West. This article was originally published on