More Questions than Answers

deadline countdownI did it. I really did it. This essay marks the finish line, the accomplishment of a goal, the completion of a commitment I made one year ago on New Year’s Eve, 2014, when I, with the help of my two tech-savvy and very creative daughters, developed a website on Word Press—Cajun Girl in a Kilt—and published my first essay, “License to Carry”, about my dog Puccini. A week later, during one of my planning periods at school, I posted another essay, entitled “What Makes a Writer a Writer?” That second essay was to affirm my commitment to this project I had cooked up—to draw a line in the sand, so to speak, and to establish the guidelines for my yearlong project to becoming a writer.

acropolis
Aunt Helen, walking the ruins of the Acropolis, Athens, Greece, 1973

I know myself all too well. Many times in my life I’ve started something with the best of intentions and for various reasons did not follow through, so the accomplishment of this goal is significant for me. A perfect example of this is taking on new hobbies, which I inherited genetically from my dad’s sister, Helen Blanchard Songy. My dear Aunt Helen loved learning new things; she loved the excitement of gathering all of the materials and equipment, the very best of everything, required for her new hobby. She would then bring in an expert, someone accomplished in that area to teach her this new thing. She would invite friends and family members over, including my mom, serve food and drink, and in the confines of a party atmosphere, she would learn her new hobby. Over the years, she tried just about everything, hand-painted porcelain, oil painting, quilting, tatting, smocking, knitting, and many others. She was very talented and had a high degree of artistic skills. She took such an interest in ceramics that she had my Uncle Guy purchase a kiln for her and install it in a vacant rental house he owned. She lined the walls of that little house with molds, ceramic tools, and jugs of slip, the liquid used to create ceramic pieces.

Queen Nefertiti
Nefertiti bust, made by Aunt Helen (undated)

I am lucky enough to have several pieces she made for me, before her interest in ceramics waned and she moved on to the next new thing on the horizon. Some may have seen her lack of completion of some projects as a failure to follow through on a commitment, but I don’t believe that was it at all. For her, the finishing of a project was not the goal; it was the learning of a new skill or the developing of a new talent. She didn’t want to become a ceramic artist; she just wanted to learn how to do it. Martha Stewart has built an entire empire on that very notion; it’s a good thing.

Breakfast in London
Aunt Helen at breakfast on the first day of our European tour, London, 1973

In a previous essay, “Living and Loving Life as a Lifelong Learner”, I talked about what I accomplished over my summer break from teaching. I taught myself how to make jam. I haven’t made any jam since the new school year started but now I have all the necessary equipment and I am confident in my jam-making abilities. There’s a good bit of Aunt Helen in me, and my self-identification as a lifelong learner comes from her. She loved to travel and to see new things, taste new foods, meet new people. She chaperoned both my high school trip to Europe and my senior class trip to the Bahamas.

Aboard the Flavia with the Wine Steward
Aunt Helen aboard The Flavia with the wine steward, sailing to the Bahamas, 1974

Around young people, she knew how to strike the perfect balance, that of a fun and interesting adult who also, when needed, knew how to establish authority at the drop of a hat. As a middle school teacher, I try every day to strike that balance with my students, to give them a love for learning in fun and interesting ways, while also recognizing that as adolescents they need and want, if unknowingly, an authority figure.

My commitment to this writing project has been very fulfilling in many ways. My goal was to become a writer. Am I a writer now, 52 weeks later? I still haven’t sold anything and some people say being paid to write makes a person a writer. Others say just being published makes a person a writer. I’ve published 53 essays on my website, and I’ve written guest posts for three other websites. I’ve had many articles published in a regional newspaper. I had an essay published in a print anthology of ultra-short memoirs. Still, I wonder, am I a writer yet?

Persian Cat
Ceramic Persian cat, made by Aunt Helen (undated)

Another goal of my project was to strengthen my writing skills. I am fortunate to have a family of beta readers, my husband and two grown daughters, all three being intelligent, well-educated, and brilliant writers themselves. They read my essays before I publish them, give me their thoughts, make line edits, and sometimes, push me to worker harder on a particular piece. I know I am a stronger writer for their efforts.

Southern Belle
Southern Belle, made by my mom in Aunt Helen’s kiln, 1987

Two side benefits of this project were both unexpected and gratifying. One is that I’ve received a lot of positive feedback, some on my website and more on Facebook, from friends and family members who have enjoyed my essays. Reading their comments encouraged me to keep writing and to keep sharing my work on my website and on Facebook. As the finish line for my project was coming into sight, several people have asked me, “What next?” and “Don’t stop, keep going!” I’ve also received some good feedback from people outside my circle of family and friends, via Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, and my website. Word Press allows website owners to check their stats, to observe the number of visits to the website and number of views of each particular post. The stats are also identified by country of origin of the viewer, and that has been fascinating to watch as well, to see people from many different foreign countries reading my work.

Piano Baby
Piano Baby, made by my mom in my Aunt Helen’s kiln, 1989

Another benefit has been the creative process itself. At the start of this process, I thought it might be tough to come up with an idea of what to write about. Yes, some weeks have been tougher than others, but if I cleared my mind and sat quietly, often staring at my bookshelves, an idea would come to me. I would sit down at my laptop to write and sometimes the essay would tumble out, much as I had planned in my head. Other weeks, I would come up with an idea, sit down to write it, and find myself a thousand words later with a completely different essay than what I had imagined. It’s also been interesting to find my childhood memories creeping into my work, often when I had not planned on that week’s essay being particularly memoir-driven. One close friend remarked to me that she feels as though she knows me so much better after having read all of my essays. While unintended, this has been a positive result of this project.

So, where to next? Do I continue with my essay a week schedule? Do I switch gears and try something new? One friend has suggested that I publish a different recipe each week, and she also proposed a title for the new project, “Fifty-Two Weeks of Fabulous Food”. My younger daughter says that my writing is much stronger when I write about food like in my essay “Preserving Old Traditions”; she says that is where my voice really comes alive. I’m not sure, though, because one of the great things about this project was the freedom to just write about anything, and not be tied to a theme or be limited to a particular part of my life. As a lifelong learner, I enjoy being able to write about my many different interests.

Originally, I thought that when the year was over, I would close out the project with a final essay and then move on to fiction. I have this story in my head—about a missing suitcase, loosely based upon a real-life event of a friend of mine. black rolling suitcaseMy protagonist from this story has changed and developed over the several years that I have been mulling over this story line, and I like who she has become. Before starting “an essay a week for one year”, I had tried several times to get this story out of my head and onto paper but I felt stuck, as though in quicksand, unable to find my voice for fiction. After a solid year of consistently writing, revising, editing, and publishing creative non-fiction, will I have better luck at fiction now? Will this character and that damn suitcase finally find a place in print?

Popular author, blogger, and public speaker Michael Hyatt wrote an essay on how long it takes to make a habit stick. The popular thought was that three weeks, just 21 days of doing something, was enough to make it a habit. In his essay “How to Make a New Habit Stick: Why It’s Harder than You Thought—and What to Do about It”, he documents studies that say it is much longer than three weeks, that it is more like 66 days, and for some, closer to 250 days. As of New Year’s Eve 2015, I will be at 365 days for this project, an essay a week. I can definitely say that I feel a difference in my own thoughts about writing. The pattern for me has been established. I have a sense for how long it will take me to get an essay written once I have an idea in mind. I know about how long it will take to revise and edit it until it is where I want it, the point where I push “publish” on my website. And, I’ve been able to do this without fail, for a whole year, not just during summer break when I have very few limitations on my time, but also while teaching full time, grading papers, and making lesson plans. I’ve followed through in the darkest of times, writing several essays from my father’s computer while he was in the nursing home or in hospice care at my brother’s home, and writing several over the weeks surrounding his funeral.

santa vase
Ceramic Santa vase, made by my mom in my Aunt Helen’s kiln, 1999

Somehow I think that at the end of next week, I will subconsciously be thinking about an essay topic, and out of habit, will return to that genre, and if that is the case, then this isn’t my final essay. If you would like to offer up your opinion on what I should do next, whether it’s one of the options I’ve presented herein or some ideas of your own, you can share those thoughts in the little survey I put together for this final essay. I look forward to seeing your responses, as well as your comments on my completion of my yearlong project! Stand by; let’s see where Cajun Girl in a Kilt goes from here!

How Sixteen Pounds Changed My Life

In the fall of 2011, I was driving to work, chatting happily with my car pool. Even though my daughters were both away at college, I ferried two high school girls, family friends of ours, to the neighborhood where I teach so they could walk to their school each morning. One day in the school neighborhood, we saw a woman walking her dog and I remarked, “Look at that adorable dog. I’ve always wanted a Westie.” One of the girls then responded that they knew someone looking for a good home for a Westie. Would I be interested?

My mind raced. I had always been told that Westies were very territorial and being a terrier, had been bred to hunt for small furry things, so a Westie plus a cat normally does not equal a happy household. I also thought of my husband and his reaction to this proposal. We had talked about having a dog before, and he had always been opposed to it.

I’ve always been a cat person. It seems there was always a cat in my life, even as a little girl. We had an outdoor cat named Pencil when I was growing up. His name came from the scar on his forehead, which was shaped exactly like a pencil. Pencil was very unusual in that he did not care for cat food, but loved leftover vegetables from our family dinners. I remember bringing out a paper plate of broccoli for him many times.

I also had a white Persian cat named Princess. She was most definitely an indoor cat, with regal bearing to match her name, and beautiful long hair that shed everywhere. My mother had always been opposed to having an indoor pet, but once she was given to me, it was obvious that she had to be kept indoors, and she was resigned to my bedroom. One morning as my dad left for work, she unknowingly crept out with him, and fell in the drainage canal behind our house. She was found later, covered in oil. She did not survive her foray into the outdoors.

We had another cat, whose name escapes me, when one of my brothers was still in diapers. My mother had developed a system for taking his dirty cloth diapers out of the house; she would open the kitchen door to the garage and throw the diaper the short distance to the washing machine, where she would leave the washing machine lid open. Once she had accumulated enough for a load, she would then go into the garage, add soap, close the lid, and turn the machine on. One day, she followed her procedure, but within minutes of the washing machine filling with hot water and starting to agitate, we could hear a terrible noise coming from the garage. My mother knew instantly what had happened. The cat had crawled up inside the back of the washing machine and was caught in the machinery. She ran out to the garage and turned the washing machine off. The cat screeching continued.

We were all crying and carrying on and my dad was away at work so she called my Uncle Guy, who owned a grocery store in my hometown. My Uncle Guy told her it was probably too late to save the cat, and since it was late in the day, she should just wait for my dad to get home. Eventually the cat screeching stopped, and our own screeching became louder and louder, knowing what this meant.

My dad was not happy to come home from a long day at work to this news. The situation worsened when she told him that the washing machine was full of dirty diapers, detergent, and now tepid water. He changed clothes and went out to the garage, cursing and muttering about the task at hand of first emptying the washer and then turning it on its side to sort out the mangled cat remains that await him. He set a bucket on the garage floor next to the washer and opened the lid of the washing machine to start removing the dirty diapers. Out flew the cat, soaking wet and very smelly, clawing my dad in the process of making his escape. He had been inside the washer the whole time, not mangled in the machinery.

In the early 80s I arrived at my office for work early one morning. I unlocked the front door and went in, heading straight for the coffee pot, to start the first pot of the day. I could hear a soft mewing sound coming from the ladies’ bathroom near the coffee station. There to my surprise I found a beautiful Persian cat. I called the local vets to see if anyone had reported a lost cat and then took her home with me, after purchasing a litter box and cat food. I put signs up in the neighborhood surrounding the office building, but received no calls. The cleaning people reported that the cat was always hanging around the office building in the late afternoons when they were coming in to clean and she must have snuck in when they were bringing in their cleaning supplies. I named her Muffin and had her checked out by the vet, who said she was either a full pedigree or close to it. She was a Russian blue and absolutely beautiful.

One of my neighbors found out I had adopted a Persian and asked if I was interested in breeding as he had a pedigree male. Eventually Muffin was declared pregnant and gave birth to two miniscule things that did not look like kittens at all. Not only did I think they looked like aliens, she thought so, too, and abandoned them at the bottom of my stairs, near the return vent for the air conditioner. I put them in a shoe box and brought them to the vet who told me they were weak and sickly, which is why she abandoned them. I fed them with an eyedropper day and night for several days before they both died.

My neighbor was not put off by this, not surprising since he hadn’t handfed those little creatures for several days only to have them die. Eventually we tried again, and this time Muffin proved to be a very attentive mother to four absolutely beautiful Persian kittens, three white like their father, and one Russian blue like his mother. I kept him and named him Mozart, as I had just recently seen the 1984 Academy Award winning movie Amadeus. He proved to be as irascible as Tom Hulce’s representation of the famous composer. One day, upon arriving home from work, I found my Christmas tree lying on its side, ornaments rolling around everywhere, and one charcoal grey ball of fur still clinging to the bark of the tree. Muffin was perched on the arm of the sofa, an apparently innocent bystander, as if to say to me, “I had nothing to do with that.”

muffin and mozart

Muffin and Mozart

He was my baby, though, long before I had babies of my own. While Muffin had always been somewhat aloof, typical of most cats, Mozart was very affectionate and very much aware that I had been sitting on the floor next to the box the minute he was born. When I drove up the driveway of my house after work, he would be waiting at the front door, and when I opened that door, I better be ready to catch him, because he would leap up into my arms. He would crawl up so that he could rub his head against my face, putting his paws around my neck like he was hugging me.

When Muffin died in 1992, he became even more attached to me, even though I had a two-year old and a newborn baby to care for.  Timing could not have been worse. I had been visiting a friend one Saturday when I was nine months pregnant with my second daughter. When I returned home, my husband sat me down at the dining room table and gave me a grilled cheese sandwich. I told him I wasn’t really hungry, as I had already had lunch, but he insisted that I eat at least some of it. (Somehow, the grilled cheese sandwich was supposed to make the impending bad news easier to swallow.) He then told me that he had brought Muffin to the vet because he had found her lying next to the washing machine (those damn washing machines) in a very strange position and somewhat non-responsive. The vet had examined her and said that she was in pain with a mass in her stomach. So off to the vet we went, with me nearly hysterical over the death of my cat, and full of late pregnancy hormones. Maddie was born on Monday morning, amidst tears of joy of a safe delivery, relief over a healthy baby, and grief over my sweet Muffin, all mingling together.

Mozart met the same fate as his mother, although the mass in his stomach was preceded by kidney and heart disease, and at one point, he was taking the same blood pressure medication and fluid pills as my mother. After he died, I found it difficult to walk into my bedroom in the evening, imagining him asleep in the rocking chair where I nursed my daughters and rocked them to sleep. We eventually adopted Smokey, another charcoal grey Persian, who had the distinction of accompanying us overseas for our two years in Belgium, making his transatlantic flights in his carrier under the seat in front of me.

PucciniSmokey was eleven years old when my high school friends told me about this “Westie” that was up for adoption. The Westie was supposedly two years old and very sweet. Initially my husband said no to the whole idea, firing away with all the obvious reasons not to get a dog: who will walk him, what will we do with him when we go out of town, how would he get along with Smokey? My young friends soon reported back that a home had been found for the Westie so the matter was put to rest. For a brief period, that is.

we three

The ubiquitous “selfie”

Several weeks went by when they reported one morning in the car that the original plan had fallen through and the dog was still up for adoption. Oh, and his name was Puccini. This is when I thought that fate was knocking at my door. I had named a cat Mozart, after all. My husband had studied music in college as a voice major. This dog was in perfect health, was being given away with all of his accoutrements, our friends had always dog-sat for him when the owner had gone out of town, and they said they would continue to do so for us as well. It seemed too good to be true, so we decided to investigate further.

Sister Marie and Puccini

Sister Marie and Puccini

An appointment was made for us to meet Puccini and his owner, Sister Marie, a Catholic nun who was returning to her convent in Connecticut after living and working in the DC area. The dog, which we learned was not a Westie but a Maltipoo, was four years old, not two. Sister Marie brought him over for a visit, and then a few days later, she brought him to us to keep him over the 2011 Thanksgiving holiday as a test run. She wanted to be sure we were the right family for him, especially since we had not owned a dog before, and we all wanted to see if he and Smokey would get along.

Puccini and Smokey on stairs

Stand-off on the stairs: Smokey vs. Puccini

The trial run went well. He is an adorable little scamp and very entertaining. Our girls came home from college and we all enjoyed playing with him. His number one priority, however, was eating the cat’s food, and mucking about in Smokey’s litter box. We had to purchase baby gates and devise elaborate systems to keep him out of Smokey’s area. We also had to ensure they were not left alone together because Puccini desperately wanted to get up close and personal, and Smokey wanted absolutely none of it.

standoff

Agree to disagree, napping in the afternoon sun

The spitting and hissing did not seem to deter Puccini, and they frequently were in stand-off positions on opposite sides of the sofa in the den, or at opposite ends of the stairs.

Again, however, timing could not be worse, and as we were packing our car to drive to Pittsburgh for our older daughter’s college graduation, with our elderly fathers in tow, we found Smokey lying in that now familiar awkward position, not wanting to get up to eat or drink. We waited at the vet’s for the doors to open and one of the technicians called the vet at home to discuss the situation. The vet said he was on his way in to examine him, and ordered an x-ray in the meantime, when Smokey passed away.

puccini in my lap

What a sweetie!

And then there was one. He is now the king of the household, the little prince as my husband sometimes calls him. Four years on, he has us all wrapped around his little paw. He is smart as a whip and very protective of our house and yard. He loves everyone he meets, with the exception of anyone in a mail truck or walking the neighborhood carrying a mail bag.

puccini and Fr Gill

Puccini and Fr. Ken Gill, after the blessing of the animals

He is on a daily mission to catch a squirrel, scare away the deer that frequent our yard, advise us, with fierce growls, of any new lawn decorations or suspicious garbage containers that appear on our street, and always, on red alert for any brown dogs. He is sixteen pounds of pure energy and charming personality.

Puccini Prince of WalesA year ago when I embarked on this “essay a week for one year” project, my first essay published on my brand new website was about Puccini. It’s only fitting that, as my year-long mission to becoming a writer comes to a close, I write about Puccini once more. As I write my essays each Sunday, he is on the love seat in our home office, my constant companion, my little shadow. He follows me from room to room all day long and sleeps pressed up against my side each night.

while i write

My shadow, watching me write

While I will always love cats, as evidenced by the cat knickknacks and art work displayed all around my house, he has turned me into a dog person, and he has hands down won the heart of my husband as well. He is the reason this die-hard couch potato goes out for walks in all sorts of weather, which has helped me improve my own health. daily walkAnd, even more significantly, even though we had lived in our house for seven years when we first adopted him, we knew almost no one on our street. Now, with our many doggie walks throughout the day, we have become friendly with our neighbors up and down the street, both those with dogs and those without.  We gave him a home, but he made us at home in our own neighborhood.

What’s in a Name?

hurricane flossyMichelle Ann Monica Blanchard Ardillo. That’s my full name. In a previous essay I noted my dad’s first suggestion for the name of his first born baby girl was Flossy, after the hurricane in late September of the year I was born. While only a Category 1 hurricane, Flossy caused major beach erosion and flooding in southeast Louisiana, including the overtopping of the eastern seawall of New Orleans, submerging a 2.5 square mile area. His second choice was Candy Denise, which thankfully my mother also vetoed. (It suits my red mica Mazda 5 much better.) She then offered her own suggestion, which my father acceded to easily: Michelle, a French name to go with Blanchard, and Ann, after her sister who was to be my godmother. She also declared that since Michelle Blanchard was long enough, it would be Ann without the “e”.

saint monicaThe name “Monica” is my Confirmation name. In the Catholic faith, adolescents receive the Sacrament of Confirmation where they accept responsibility for their faith, much as in the bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah ceremony for Jewish adolescents. Part of the faith formation for Confirmation is to study the lives of the saints and to select a saint to emulate, and you are given that name at Confirmation. Since I teach 8th grade, and that is the year the students at my Catholic school receive the Sacrament of Confirmation, I hear a lot of discussions about which saint each student is choosing and why. I am always fascinated by this, perhaps because we have so little say in something that is a significant part of our identity.

800px-Saint_Augustine_and_Saint_MonicaMy own Confirmation name is that of a significant saint in the Catholic Church, not just for her own worthiness, but also that of her son. Monica was born in 331 in North Africa in what is now Algeria. Upon reaching marriage age, her parents married her off to a pagan who had a violent temper. She endured his outbursts with patience. They had three children who survived infancy, the eldest being Augustine, who followed his father in his pagan ways. Monica prayed day and night for her son’s conversion, weeping many tears over him, and he not only became a Christian, he became a Doctor of the Church, the great St. Augustine of Hippo. The beautiful beachfront city, Santa Monica, is said to be named after her, with the nearby springs resembling the tears she wept for her wayward son Augustine. She is the patron saint of married women, motherhood, and widows.

saint veronicaClearly, when studying my faith and preparing for the Sacrament of Confirmation, I read about Saint Monica in my copy of Lives of the Saints edited by Rev. Hugo Hoever. WRONG. My first choice for a saint’s name was Veronica. When I presented my choice to my mother she said quite firmly, “No.” She went on to explain to me that she knew exactly why I wanted to choose Saint Veronica as my Confirmation name, because of the Archie comic books strewn about my room. She then told me to choose again and to make my choice carefully because it was the saint I wished to emulate. I was absolutely shocked that she made this connection (mostly because it was true) and went off to my room to pout.

confirmation photoSo what is a nine-year old to do when presented with a “no” to Plan A? Naturally, Plan B was to find a saint whose name most closely resembled my first choice, and thus, after studying the table of contents of my Lives of the Saints, I came up with Saint Monica. My mother raised an eyebrow when I presented her with my second choice but allowed it.

Maddieinhospital (2)It wasn’t for years and years that I realized what a fine choice I had made in selecting Monica for my Confirmation name. I wished my whole life to become a mother, and while I made a somewhat late entry into this hallowed club, having my first child just three months before my 34th birthday, and my second child just three months from my 36th birthday, those two days are the highlights of my life. Nothing will ever compare to those first precious moments after their births, with my husband standing at my side, holding those precious little bundles.

wordleChoosing names for my daughters felt like an awesome responsibility. My husband and I had very little discussion about my older daughter’s first name, Margaret, as I had always said I would name my first daughter after my mother. When I was a little girl, my mom said I would line up my dolls on the sofa and tell her to come and meet my “babies”. I would then introduce them to her, “This is my baby Margaret. This is my baby Margaret. This is my baby Margaret.” Still, when I called to tell her the results of the sonogram at twenty weeks with my first pregnancy, and announced to her it was a girl, and that I would name her Margaret, she was surprised.

blank nametagThe discussions for her middle name went on for quite a bit. I was steadfast in my desire to give her something from each of our mothers, and since Margaret was my mother’s name, her middle name had to come from his mother. I had decided that her middle name should be Bellavia, my mother-in-law’s maiden name. I loved the name, it sounded beautiful to me, figuratively and literally, as it means beautiful way in Italian. My husband was not a fan of the maiden name as a middle name plan, but his father told him that since I was giving birth, I should have the final say. It was a done deal, and I know my mother-in-law was very happy.

Our second pregnancy was so very different in every way from the first I was convinced it was a boy, so convinced that we chose a boy’s name early on, Andrew Roy. Andrew was a nod to my mother’s Scottish heritage, and Roy was a “twofer”. My father’s name was Roy and my husband’s grandfather’s name (and brother’s name as well) was Roy. The fact that baby #2 kicked and moved about day and night, we were sure we had made a sound choice. The twenty-week sonogram was a shock, and at first, neither of us believed the technician that it was indeed a baby girl. When she was born, I still couldn’t believe the doctor’s announcement, “It’s a girl!” Just before the birth, I had been going through some old papers and found a genealogy report from my father’s family tree. blanchard geneologyMy ancestors who emigrated from France were Jean and Madeleine Livoir Blanchard. We both liked Madeline and proceeded to come up with a middle name. When I suggested my grandmother’s maiden name, Breaux, my husband put his foot down. Not another maiden name as middle name he said; it would also mean that both daughters and I would share the same initials, MBA, which he thought was a bit too much. I acquiesced this time and we continued going through names. I finally suggested Grace, which was what I had engraved inside his wedding ring, meant at the time as just a silly little private joke about being clumsy sometimes. Again, afterthought elevates that engraving to the special grace we have been given as a married couple, celebrating our 26th wedding anniversary last summer.

romeo and julietSo, what’s in a name? Shakespeare built an entire tragedy around names, the very mention of Capulet to a Montegut or vice versa was that of a battle cry. A theme in Rick Riordan’s Lightning Thief is that names have power. first autographI’ve always loved my name, and I’ve always been thankful that my mother’s good taste and logical thought process prevailed in name selection discussions with my father. I have a special affinity for St. Michael the Archangel, given Michelle is the feminine version of that name, and St. Michael’s feast day is September 29th, not too far from my mid-October birthday. with godparents and fish 2 yearsMy godfather, my beloved Uncle Guy, always called me Michelangelo, and I adored hearing him say it. Even hearing “Michelle Ann” shouted when I was in trouble for something brought me a certain joy at hearing my whole name. While I was unsuccessful in being part of Archie’s gang with my Confirmation name, I am blessed with a strong role model and saint to emulate in that of Saint Monica.

three m'sI can’t imagine my daughters with any other names, and their joint childhood nickname of the “M&M Girls” was always met with smiles by all who knew and loved them as they were growing up. Just today we were having a discussion at lunch about our signatures, and our younger daughter bemoaned how difficult signing her name is because of the middle initial G, a tricky letter to connect to others in cursive. My older daughter and I, sharing the same MBA initials, have had minor tussles over usernames in various apps and programs. In that regard, my husband was right to hold firm on a different middle initial, albeit a tricky one, for daughter #2.

The Adventures of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

speckled bandIt’s halfway through the second quarter of the school year and I’ve finally reached my favorite part of 8th grade literature, the beginning of an extended unit on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. First we read his short story, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, which serves as a warm-up to third quarter when we take on one of his four full-length novels featuring his glorious masterpiece of a character, Sherlock Holmes. The Hound of the Baskervilles never fails to intrigue the students, from the moment we find out the true identity of Miss Beryl Stapleton, to Sir Henry Baskerville’s tension-filled “solitary” walk across the moor, Sherlock Holmes’ plan to set a trap with human bait to ensnare the killer.

conan doyle bioSir Arthur Conan Doyle has fascinated me since my first year of teaching when I found “Speckled Band” in the 8th grade literature anthology textbook. I strongly feel that to study a piece of literature one must study the author first. So much can be gleaned from the author’s background, the time period in which he or she lived and wrote, who his or her influences were, and who he or she influenced in return. The two-paragraph bio of Conan Doyle in the textbook wasn’t sufficient for me to use for class so I did some research on him and learned more about his fascinating life, of which Sherlock Holmes was merely a chapter.

scotland vhsBorn and raised in Scotland, like my maternal grandparents, he studied medicine. After finishing medical school, he traveled to Africa in 1885 serving as a ship’s doctor, where he learned firsthand of the atrocities taking place in the Belgian Congo. Upon his return to England, he wrote what he called a long pamphlet on the situation to bring to the public view what he himself had seen there. He dabbled in political writings for a while, as well as writing for medical journals.

He later traveled to Vienna for additional medical training and became an eye doctor. After setting up shop with another doctor, and later a private practice, he found himself bored while waiting in between appointments for patients. He had written some fiction before, but with the extra time on his hands he began to write more and more. One idea he had for a protagonist was based on a professor he had in medical school, Dr. Joseph Bell, whose uncanny powers of deductive reasoning gave him the ability to sometimes diagnose patients from a cursory glance rather than an extended physical examination. deerstalker hatConan Doyle transferred these nearly-super powers to his character Sherlock Holmes, making him a private detective, albeit a slovenly and disorganized one, which brought to Conan Doyle more fame and fortune than his floundering medical practice ever would.

Conan Doyle later wrote to Dr. Joseph Bell and thanked him for serving as inspiration for Sherlock Holmes; however, scholars have long thought that Conan Doyle may have also been influenced by Edgar Allen Poe’s character C. Auguste Dupin, a detective who appeared in three of Poe’s short stories. The first appearance, in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841, is considered by many to be the first example of the sub-genre of detective fiction, one of my favorite for my own leisure reading.

the reigate squiresSherlock Holmes’ first appearance in published work was the novel, A Study in Scarlet in 1887, and Holmes’ career as a private detective continued until 1927, just three years before Conan Doyle’s death at the age of 71. In total, Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories and four full-length novels featuring the great detective and his side-kick, Dr. Watson. Writing story after story about Sherlock Holmes, however, became boring to him, so in 1893 he chose to end it with Holmes plunging to his death in the story “The Final Problem”. Public outcry stormed down upon him until he relented and brought him back to life in his grand novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

columboThe creation of Sherlock Holmes sparked the captivation of many, a captivation that grips audiences to this day. Conan Doyle also managed to influence many creative minds with the conception of characters bearing Holmes’ extraordinary powers of deduction, many of whom grace the small screen on a daily basis: body of proofHercule Poirot (created by another literary genius, Agatha Christie), Perry Mason, Lieutenant Columbo, Adrian Monk, Sean Spencer from Psych, Dr. House, Patrick Jane from The Mentalist, bonesand many others.  While not as apparent as the others, both medical and police dramas offer glimmers of Sherlock Holmes: Rizzoli and Isles, The Mysteries of Laura, Criminal Minds, Castle, Bones, Law & Order, and Body of Proof, to mention only a few. Even the great Walt Disney chose to honor Sherlock Holmes with his 1986 film The Great Mouse Detective.the great mouse detective

In 2010 while taking an undergraduate summer course on world literature that I needed to complete course work for my certification as an English teacher, the assignment for the final project was a presentation on any piece of literature or author studied during the course. One of the things we had been assigned to read was Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. I was not a fan, to say the least, but it did make me revisit the research I had once done on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his time spent as ship’s doctor traveling to Africa. I chose to do a presentation on the similarities between the two authors based upon this small connection. After my power point and presentation about the two authors and the subject of the Belgian Congo, I served my professor and classmates a traditional British cream tea, complete with freshly made scones, strawberry jam, and clotted cream, as well as piping hot tea made from my electric kettle right there in the classroom. It was a success, and while I don’t think I passed on to any of those community college students (all of whom were young enough to be my very own children) my love of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works, it did make my reading and study of Heart of Darkness much more enjoyable.

social-class-and-values-in-the-victorian-era-1-728Teaching Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works to my 8th graders is something I look forward to each year. It gives me a chance to introduce them to the Victorian Era and the many ways in which Queen Victoria’s reign impacted the entire world. During the third quarter, they research and write a paper on a topic of their choice, from anything having to do with the Victorian Era. Over the years I have assigned this project, I’ve had many interesting papers on very creative topics from that period: Victorian mourning clothing, prisons and jails during the Victorian Era, child labor, Victorian entertainment, and of course, Victorian literature.

In a day and time when etiquette, social graces, and standards of proper attire have all but vanished from society, it is important for these teenagers to realize that, with all the advancements in science, medicine, technology, education, women’s rights, equal rights, civil rights, and so much more, we seemed to have lost much in the process. While I am not advocating for the rigid social class system or the many limitations placed on women and minorities of the Victorian Era, we are not amusedI would be in favor of a return of some modicum of manners and social graces in today’s society, including the recognition that clothing choices for the day should be based upon the activity of the day, not just whatever pair of sweatpants or leggings (which are not technically pants, see The Harsh Reality of Truth for my thoughts on this) are clean enough to wear. Until that happens, I will escape the trials and tribulations of 21st century life by reading a Sherlock Holmes’ story and having a nice cup of tea.