Papal Fever: Say Two Prayers and Call Me in the Morning

papal fever searchA quick search on the internet brings up over four million hits about the latest “epidemic” to hit the United States: Papal Fever. Since the moment the Holy Father, Pope Francis, went wheels up in Cuba, America has been swept up in a frenzy of enthusiastic support of this soft-spoken and humble man in his Fiat. It appears this phenomenon affects those of many different beliefs. Papal Fever has taken hold of the young as well as the old, and everyone in between.

walk with francis newspaperWhen we returned to school in late August, our principal told the faculty that we would be making a video about our canned goods food drive as part of the efforts to welcome Pope Francis to Washington. After the short impromptu video, from the corner of my eye I saw the school librarian doing what looked like a soft-shoe dance. Then I heard her singing “We’re walking on sunshine, yeah”. She had this great idea to change the words of the Katrina and the Waves hit single to “We’re walking with Francis, yeah”. I told them both it was a great idea and the principal said, “Tell your screenwriter daughter to get on it!” So, my daughter the screenwriter changed the words to the song to fit the occasion and a school parent with a film production company followed us around for a few days catching everyone “Walking with Francis”. Our music teacher, a lovely, trained soprano, went to a recording studio to record the audio which the talented parent then put together with our video. https://youtu.be/KmJgsJlIpXI walking with francis videoBoth students and faculty seemed to have an extra spring in their step as everyone went about their day, singing “Walking with Francis, yeah!”

walkwithfrancis wrist bandThe Catholic Schools Office sent each student and faculty member a soft wrist band emblazoned with #WalkwithFrancis, asking us each to register for the Walk with Francis Pledge. My parish church announced that some of the tickets allotted to the parish for the Papal Mass would be distributed via a random drawing of those who had turned in Walk with Francis pledge cards. Given the scarcity of the Papal Mass tickets, I didn’t think I had a chance of getting one, but I filled out the pledge card, even though I had pledged online at the beginning of the school year.walkwithfrancis pledge

Several weeks later I was asked to serve on the parish council for my church. I hesitated because of the time commitment, weighing it against my already hectic school days, grading language arts tests, quizzes, essays, and projects for the 35 7th graders and 45 8th graders I teach. Add to that the two plays I direct a year for the school, a straight play in the fall and a musical in the spring, and I really doubted whether I had the time for serving on the parish council. But, in the end, after two weeks of mulling it over, I did say yes. Little did I know what that “yes” would mean! A few days later, papal mass ticketsI received a phone call from one of the parish priests, offering me two tickets to the Papal Mass as a new member of the parish council. Papal Fever reached 9-1-1 status in my household as I scrambled to find a substitute teacher.

My husband and I studied the pamphlet that came with the tickets and plotted out our course of action for the day of the Mass: leave around 9:00, take the Metro, find something to eat after we arrived, and then sit and wait for the Mass. Parking at the Metro and the ride itself was a snap, and a lunch tent was set up near the lawn where the Mass would take place and it was organized and efficient. The line to get through security was quite long and slow but while waiting in it (for almost three hours) we chatted with the people around us. Behind us was a couple chatting with a priest from California. I could hear the conversation, mostly about education, as all three had been teachers. Juniperro-serraThe priest had come from Mission San Buenaventura, one of the mission churches established by Father Junípero Serra, who was canonized by Pope Francis at the Papal Mass.

The people in front of us, three women and a man, had also come from California. A minivan of nine people had driven the entire 44 hours to Washington, DC, without tickets to any of the Papal activities. They had spent the night in the parking lot of the Franciscan Monastery in DC and then walked to Catholic University of America’s campus to wait along the parade route to see the Holy Father in his Popemobile. They spotted a familiar face from their own diocese, San Bernardino in Palm Desert, and he offered them his last four tickets. He told them that he had been standing there waiting for God to tell him who to give them to. The four people in line with us were the four lucky ones to get the tickets.

Earlier in the day I had remarked to my husband that I wondered whether I would see anyone I knew. This turned out to be quite humorous as the day went on and I saw so many people I knew from my parish as well as neighboring parishes, other Catholic school teachers, and so many priests I knew from the Archdiocese of Washington. Even though there were 25,000 ticket holders on the grounds of The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, it felt like a much smaller crowd.

david muirJust before the Mass started, someone spotted David Muir, news anchor for ABC World News Tonight, who was broadcasting live from the Mass. I stepped over to the fence to take his picture and began chatting with a woman also standing at the fence. She told me the Holy Father would be coming down the street just on the other side of the fence in the parade. As we chatted we realized that we had many mutual friends. Even though we were fortunate to have seats for the Mass, they were in the last section of seats and quite a distance from the altar. view of altarThe Jumbotron was obscured by a tree, so I decided my best opportunity for a good view of the Pope was to wait at the fence for the parade to pass. As the street was emptied and the sidelines closed off to pedestrian traffic, the energy of the crowd at the fence grew and grew. As the Popemobile approached I began taking pictures on my phone, until he was looking straight at me…I completely froze. the popemobile round oneIt is difficult to explain the actual feeling that passed over and through me as it appeared that he was looking straight at me. The Popemobile continued on with him turning to the other side to wave at the people across the street from me. We all staggered off to our seats and then someone screamed, “He’s coming back!” The Popemobile had made a u-turn and was returning along the same fence I had been standing at. My husband thought I had a better view from the lawn near our seats so I stood there with my phone at the ready, hoping to get another chance to take his picture looking in my direction. the popemobile round twoAs the Popemobile continued on past me, I was struck by the way the crowd moved as well, running along the fence as though they could not bear to let him go on without them. As people returned to their seats, many were crying and everyone was smiling widely.

Once Mass started, the atmosphere drastically changed. This enormous crowd of 25,000 people all fell silent and hung on every word from the mouth of Pope Francis. Many of us could not understand him, as the Mass was being celebrated in Spanish, in recognition of Father Junípero Serra’s native tongue. English subtitles were displayed on the Jumbotron, but because our view of it was obscured, I followed along in the program to the Mass. It was a beautiful Mass, with the Papal Choir and musicians adding so much to the liturgy.

tom and michelleAfter the Mass, we lingered for a bit to take pictures of the altar and to let the crowd disperse. We decided to have dinner across the street from the CUA campus and talk about the events of the day. Many of the diners in the crowded and popular restaurant had also come from the Mass. The atmosphere was again congenial and enthusiastic.

three popesI’ve been blessed to have now seen three popes in my lifetime. My family attended Mass in St. Peter’s Square in Rome on April 11, 2004, the Easter Sunday one year before Pope John Paul II died. He was weak and frail but his voice rang out through the square. On April 17, 2008, my family attended the Papal Mass of Pope Benedict XVI held at the home of the Washington Nationals. I’ve only been to two professional baseball games in my life, and have never seen the Nationals play, but I’ve been to Mass in their stadium. So, September 23, 2015, was my third Papal Mass. It was also the first canonization that I have witnessed, and quite possibly my only one.

As I type, the Holy Father is wheels up heading back to Rome. Things in DC have returned to “normal” and so have NYC and Philadelphia no doubt. Fevers have cooled, and I’m sure the soft blue rubber wrist bands will be seen less and less. The local and national news programs will return to their standard mix of crime, politics, and sports. The soft-spoken and humble man and his Fiat will return to his good works in the Holy See. Katrina and the Waves will get their song back, but I will be Walking with Francis for a long time to come.

Drowning, But Don’t Save Me — Yet

back to schoolAt the annual Back to School Night last week I introduced myself to the parents of my 7th graders with my usual background information: “This is my 9th year teaching and my 9th year at this school. I came to education as a second career after twenty years in the legal field. After leaving my corporate job to move overseas with my family in 2002, I spent two years volunteering and substitute teaching in the international school my daughters attended. I loved working with students and the energy and atmosphere of a middle school so much I decided when we returned home I would become a teacher. I love teaching, and I love teaching here at this school.”

All of this is true. The two years I spent as a parent, volunteer, teacher’s aide, library assistant, and substitute teacher at the St. John’s International School in Waterloo, Belgium, were wonderful. I made so many good friends during those two years abroad, and I did rediscover within myself my creative side, a part of me that I had tamped down with business dealnever-ending conference calls, acrid negotiations, brain-numbing legal writing, terse interoffice relationships, and high-pressure business deals.

A good friend and co-worker said to me many, many times while we were working together in a large shopping center development company, “You should get out of this job. You should find something else to do. You are too creative for this work.” I didn’t really understand what she meant because I was very caught up in my work identity. I had worked extremely hard, without a law degree, to climb up the legal ladder and become successful at drafting and negotiating legal documents. It was a tough job but I loved it. I enjoyed some flexibility with my work hours and had quite a bit of autonomy within the workplace. I had five weeks of vacation leave a year, was bonus-eligible, had received stock options, and earned a very healthy salary. I loved my job and I was confident in my abilities to do it well. So, when the opportunity presented itself for us to move overseasinternational school for two years and give our daughters the experience of living, traveling, and going to school in Europe, I went to my boss and asked for a leave of absence. She said no, that it was too long a period of time, but they would welcome me back if a position were open upon my return. I was crushed.

Those last few months of work (I had given ample notice) were tough. The winding down of my responsibilities, closing out my files of signed deals, transferring my pending deals to co-workers, goodbye lunches and happy hours, packing up my personal belongings from my office, it was all very difficult. For the first few months in Belgium, I had a lot to do. First, get the girls settled in their new school, reach out and make new friends with some of their classmates, buy school uniforms and school supplies, and find our way around our new town. Then, when our sea shipment arrived, unpacking and getting our house in order filled my days. Eventually though, reality kicked in. I had nowhere to go every day. i'm boredFor the first time since a few months after my college graduation, I had nowhere to go every day. My husband would leave for work, my daughters would board the school bus, and then it was just me and the cat. Except for two C-sections and a back surgery, I had never been away from work for more than a two-week vacation. As many times as I had wished I didn’t have to get up and go to work, I didn’t like it at all.

A notice in the school newsletter saved me: “Help neededhelp wanted in high school library. Volunteers welcome!” That was the open door, or the slippery slope if I’m really honest, that started it all. Shelving and cataloging books led to helping students with research, which led to becoming a teacher’s aide, which led to substitute teaching. And, upon our return to the States, that led me to my current job as a middle school language arts teacher of nine years.

And, yes, I do still love teaching. I have totally reconnected with my creative side, through my work as drama club moderator for my school, directing two school plays a year. And, for seven hours a day, I am on stage, live live performance artperformance art, acting out and reading aloud from the literature, leading lively discussions about the literature, helping students understand the literature and improve their writing. But, still, there is irony, or as we say in this Catholic school where I teach, “God sure has a sense of humor.”

What’s so ironic or funny? Well, tomorrow begins the fourth week of school and I am literally and figuratively drowning in school papersdrowning in a sea of papers. I had not even stopped long enough to realize I was drowning until a teacher friend of mine posted this picture on Facebook, but it perfectly describes my current state of affairs. I am still grading summer reading projects for my eighty students, collected on the first day of school, all the while giving out new essay assignments, covering new material, and giving tests and quizzes. I stay at school three or four hours after the final bell and still bring work home with me each night. I work on the weekends, often spending three or four hours at school on Sunday. I am exhausted, and we have only just finished our third week of school.

So, the irony is that I left the legal field to explore my own creativity, yet I am so drained each day from teaching, grading, lesson planning, and guiding students in their own creativity, I hardly have any time or energy left for my own. This “Essay a Week for One Year” project was a line drawn in the sand, so to speak, an effort to reclaim for myself some outlet for my own creative writing, some tangible sign that I could practice what I preach—read and write more.

Other than a small part in a summer stock production at my daughters’ high school several years ago, I haven’t been on stage since 1987. I miss it. I miss the theatre life, comedy and tragedy masksthe dark and perpetually chilly rooms, the instant family created by a cast in rehearsal for a play, the feel of the lights on my face, and the sound of applause when a scene is exactly as it should be. I miss memorizing lines, working on accents, hunting for props, trying on costumes. A local community theatre group is holding auditions in mid-October for a play that I am very interested in, but if I am entirely honest with myself, I simply don’t have the time to be in it while teaching full-time, especially when the rehearsal schedule overlaps with that of the play I am directing at my school. So, I will pass.

Even though this is only my 9th year of teaching, the reality is that a lot of my college friends are retired or are in the processing of retiring, especially those who have been teaching since graduation. On August 24th this year, the first day of in-service week for the faculty of my school, it's mondaymy college roommate posted this picture on her Facebook page. Hilarious, right? Sure, if you are the little guy in the striped shirt, which she is. She retired last summer so she has already had a year without dragging home the school bag full of papers to grade every night. I’m jealous.

So naturally, I think about it. I think about what it would be like to “retire”, to not teach next year or the year after that. Mostly, though, I think about what it would be like to come home from work, cook dinner, clean the kitchen, and then RELAX until time to go to bed. I think about calling in sick without first calling five different people looking for a substitute teacher and then rushing to email more detailed lesson plans to the school office. I think about what it would be like to read whatever I want whenever I want, and not just read books for school or about school. I think about what it would be like to write every day, just for myself, and not just once a week to have my essay ready to post on this website. But that is when I think about those early months in Belgium in 2002, when I had nowhere to go and nothing to do with my day, and how lost I felt. That is almost always followed by remembering a funny story about a student or a teacher at my school, or about a class period where we discussed the most amazing things from a piece of literature that everyone enjoyed, or about a note a parent sent me thanking me for teaching their son or daughter to be a better writer or a better reader. That’s when I recall telling an adult about a piece of literature that I am teaching and they say, “I wish I was in your class.” That’s when I run into a former student who is in high school, proudly telling me about HONORS ENGLISH, “Can you believe that, Mrs. Ardillo?” Yes, I can believe it. life guardYes, I am happy to have played even a small part in making that happen. Yes, I am making a difference each and every day in the lives of these students. Yes, I am drowning, but I’m not ready to be saved—yet.

Shepherd’s Pie – ¡Olé!

My family lived in Belgium from 2002 to 2004. Before moving, I had researched Catholic churches in the area and found Our Lady of Mercy, a parish consisting of English-speaking expats, operating out of St Anne’s Catholic Church in Uccle. I emailed the parish and was connected to a Swedish woman married to a British man whose daughter was the same age as my older daughter. Upon arrival in Waterloo, Ylva graciously took my daughters and me to lunch to get acquainted. the-snug-waterloo-613554_ptShe took us to The Snug, Waterloo’s very own Irish pub, a casual lunch place where we could eat typical Irish fare or experiment with some of the local Belgian specialties. Trying to help my daughters navigate the menu in French, a language only slightly less foreign to me than to them, I stumbled upon shepherd’s pie: a bed of ground meat in gravy, covered with carrots and peas, and topped with mashed potatoes. Perfect! The girls loved it and this became a staple of our weeknight dinners.

One night I set out to make shepherd’s pie and realized I had no potatoes. I also had no instant mashed potatoes, something I kept in the pantry for just such occasions. So, I scoured the shelves of my cupboards looking for a substitute item to blanket the ground meat and vegetable dish. jiffy cornbread mixI found a box of Jiffy cornbread mix and thought to myself, well, let’s take shepherd’s pie south of the border. My girls love Jiffy cornbread mix and they loved tacos so it seemed to be a match made in heaven.

I sautéed the ground meat in a skillet with a packet of taco seasoning. I added to that canned diced tomatoes and a can of corn, poured it into a casserole dish and topped it with the Jiffy cornbread batter. I baked it according to the directions for the cornbread, and served it with a salad. My husband and I topped ours with grated cheddar cheese and my younger daughter added sliced black olives to hers. It was a smashing hit. Thus, the birth of Mexican Shepherd’s Pie.

mexican shepherd's pie on allrecipesIn 2007 I uploaded the recipe to the popular cooking website, www.allrecipes.com, and soon after, I discovered that my Mexican Shepherd’s Pie was a hit with other families as well. A quick peek today at my posting revealed that I’ve had 402 ratings, with the majority being five stars, and 300 reviews. Yes, many of the reviews include changes to my original recipe, tweakings here and there to make it spicier, or to add more veggies like black beans, but that is a solid representation of a well-liked dish.

oleWith cooler temperatures and the hint of fall in the air, it might be a good time to bake up a dish of Mexican Shepherd’s Pie. You can head on over to http://allrecipes.com/recipe/68806/mexican-shepherds-pie/ and look at all the ways my simple peasant dish has been improved upon, or you can try my original recipe! ¡Buen provecho!

Michelle’s Mexican Shepherd’s Pie

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 pounds ground beef or ground turkey
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • garlic powder to taste
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 (14.5 ounce) can diced tomatoes
  • 1 (1.25 ounce) package taco seasoning mix
  • 3/4 cup hot water
  • 1 (11 ounce) can whole kernel corn, drained
  • 2 (8.5 ounce) packages Jiffy corn muffin mix, prepared per box directions (each box needs one egg and 1/3 cup milk)
  • 1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese (optional)
  • 1 (2.25 ounce) can sliced black olives (optional)

Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C).

Spray a 9×13 inch baking dish with cooking spray. Saute the ground meat and onion in a skillet over medium heat. Season with garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Cook until meat is evenly brown and onion is tender.

While ground meat is cooking, prepare the corn muffin mix according to package directions. Set aside.

When ground meat is evenly brown and the onion is tender, drain any grease in the skillet, add the tomatoes and cook 5 minutes. Stir in the taco seasoning and hot water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and continue cooking 5 minutes, until thickened. Add corn and stir well.

Transfer meat and corn mixture to the prepared baking dish. Spread the corn muffin batter evenly over top. Bake 20 minutes in the preheated oven, or until puffed and golden. Garnish with olives and cheese. Serve with a green salad for a quick weeknight meal!

Learning the “Write” Way

On September 12, 2015, my father would have been 85 years old. On September 8, it will be four months since he passed away. I miss him. I think of him all the time, just like I think of my mother all the time and it has been eight long years since I lost her. One of the things I miss the most is not being able to call them to tell them good news. That’s when I feel my grief the most.

Reflections front coverJust a few weeks ago, on August 26th, I received a package in the mail: ten copies of a paperback book called Reflections: Ultra Short Personal Narratives collected by CoCo Harris. The minute I ripped upon that box, I immediately thought of my dad and how much I would have liked to get out my phone and call him to share my good news. An essay I wrote was included in that book. And, that essay is about a lesson my dad taught me many, many years ago.

Last Christmas, when both my daughters were home for the holidays, we talked about my desire to become a writer. I had been writing essays and personal narratives with the hopes of getting them published somewhere. I had sent a few off to contests and magazines but had not been successful in getting my foot in the door anywhere. We talked about different ways I could improve my skills as a writer as well as ways to improve my chances for publication. We decided I needed a platform of my own, so I created my own website, Cajun Girl in a Kilt, purchased my domain name, www.michelleardillo.com, and for my first entry, I selected a short essay I had written about my dog and his off and on difficulties of navigating the stairs in our house, “License to Carry”.

Knowing myself all too well, I knew I needed some sort of plan or goal to motivate me to continue writing and posting essays on my new website. So, I came up with the idea of “an essay a week for one year”. I mean, it worked for Julie Powell. She set out to cook all of the recipes in Julia Child’s tome, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and she set herself a goal of doing it in one year and blogging about it as she cooked her way through it, one recipe at a time. She accomplished her goal and more. Her blog became a book and her book became a movie. And, she became a writer. I was inspired.

It is now September and I have been at it for eight months. I have posted an essay a week while teaching full-time, directing a middle school musical with a cast of 43 7th and 8th graders, coordinating 8th grade graduation, and, last but certainly not least, having my father become very ill and passing away. Through it all, I have never once considered that I would not post my weekly essay. To say I am goal-oriented is an understatement. I simply can’t quit something when I have truly set my mind to it. This I attribute to my father and his steadfast work ethic.

telling our stories pressSo, when I read about a small publishing company, Telling Our Stories Press, http://tellingourstoriespress.com/telling-our-stories-press-contributing-a, asking for submissions of ultra-short personal narratives where the writer reflects on a lesson learned, I knew mine would be about one of the many lessons I learned from my father. A story from my past popped into my head, a story featuring a legal document donutsand my father’s advice that “honesty is the best policy”. I submitted my essay on May 19th, just days after his funeral. In June, I learned my essay had been selected for publication. And, on August 26th, my package arrived with my copies of the freshly printed book. Oh, how I would have liked to call and tell my mom and dad about it. They weren’t big readers, but I know they would have loved getting a copy of that book in the mail.

Anthologies of personal essays are not the kinds of books that typically fly off the shelves at Amazon’s mega-warehouse or at your local B&N, but I’m still very happy with this stepping stone toward my goal of becoming a writer. This short essay detailing a small fiasco of mine at my former job as a real estate paralegal
marks my first words in print. I’ve been fortunate to be a guest blogger twice on an author’s website, http://www.cindycallaghan.com/the-art-of-the-afternoon-tea-part-1-by-michelle-ardillo/, and then again on a website about reading that has a wide audience, https://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com/2014/12/22/my-kingdom-for-a-lamp-by-michelle-blanchard-ardillo/. And, of course, this essay is #38 in my “essay a week for one year” so I am over half-way there and well on my way to accomplishing my goal. I have no idea where this “essay a week for one year” will lead me but I have enjoyed writing my weekly essays and I know my self-imposed weekly deadline has strengthened my writing skills as well as my discipline for writing.

For those of you out there who have been following me on this journey by reading my weekly essays, let me say thank you. Thank you for your comments, reflections, and encouragement. Thank you for sharing the link on your Facebook page or retweeting it. Thank you for casually mentioning in a conversation something you read in one of my essays and making me feel great. And, if you are so inclined, head over to Amazon and order a copy of “my book”.  Reflections back coverYou’ll find my essay “You Can Handle the Truth” on page 46. Whatever you do, though, keep checking in to see what the Cajun Girl in a Kilt has written and where this journey of becoming a writer will take me. Michelle and PopsIn the meantime, on September 12th I’ll go outside and sit on my porch, raise a glass of red wine, and say, “Happy Birthday, Daddy. Thanks for everything.”