November is a busy month for me! Check out my new article in Baltimore’s Child!
Please check out my latest article in Washington Family!
Check out my guest post on the Nerdy Book Club website!
Silence. As a former middle school teacher, I have often thought, “How can you hear me if you are talking?” Or, “Weren’t you listening? I just explained how to do this.” As adults and educational professionals who spend all day in noisy, busy classrooms, is it possible for even us to listen and talk at the same time? Are we not all guilty of daydreaming or making a mental to-do list during a meeting only to find out later that some big news was announced that we totally missed?
Silence. For some of us, the very word “silence” causes anxiety. Many of us judge our successes based on how busy we are. We go 100 miles an hour from sunrise to sunset. We are all busy being spouses, or adult children caring for elderly parents, or parenting our own children, or taking care of our home. When do we make time to just stop and listen? When we pray, do we bombard God with requests and prayer intentions and then carry on with our day, or do we take the time to just sit and listen?
Mother Teresa has written many beautiful reflections on silence, and in this passage, she ties it to prayer and service.
“God is the friend of silence, in that silence He will listen to us; there He will speak to our soul, and there we will hear His voice. The fruit of silence is faith. The fruit of faith is prayer, the fruit of prayer is love, the fruit of love is service and the fruit of service is silence.”
This of course is not as easy as it sounds. It means we have to step away from our busy lives, put down the smartphone, turn off the TV, stop doing chores, and even stop grading papers or lesson planning. The laundry will wait. The kitchen floor can be mopped tomorrow. Maybe it means that we don’t check off every single thing on today’s to-do list so we have time to be still and listen for God in the silence.
I was once offered the opportunity to go with a friend on a contemplative retreat, where we would be in total silence for a whole weekend, talking was only allowed during meals. I was too busy to go, I told my friend, but deep down inside I didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t think I could be silent for an entire weekend, but now I wish I would have gone and experienced it. What might I have heard in the silence?
St. John Paul II often went away to a quiet place to sit in prayer and in silence. He told his people in the Vatican that he was emulating Jesus, who also broke away from the crowds and even his own disciples to be alone and sit in silence. In his homily at his inauguration as pope, John Paul II said,
“So let us leave aside words. Let there remain just great silence before God, the silence that becomes prayer.”
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI also spoke of silence, establishing a connection between silence and prayer,
“In our prayers, we often find ourselves facing the silence of God. We almost experience a sense of abandonment; it seems that God does not listen and does not respond. But this silence, as happened to Jesus, does not signify absence. Christians know that the Lord is present and listens, even in moments of darkness and pain, of rejection and solitude. Jesus assures His disciples and each one of us that God is well aware of our needs at every moment of our lives.”
In John 3:30, Jesus comes to be baptized as an act of solidarity with the sinners who have gathered, John the Baptist is the first to recognize Jesus as the One to come. Later when Jesus’ ministry is drawing followers away from John the Baptist, John calms his own anxious disciples by announcing,
“This joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase; I must decrease. The One from Heaven.”
Silence. We should make the time in our busy lives for silence. We should be still and know that God is near. If we can decrease, He will increase. He will speak to our soul. We will hear His voice.
If high school football is classified as a religion in Texas, then food is certainly a religion in Louisiana where it is always a prime topic of conversation. While enjoying a delicious meal, someone will inevitably say, “What y’all want to eat tomorrow?”
I grew up in southeast Louisiana, where from a young age I was schooled on the true meaning of good food. Friday nights meant no meat, which was no sacrifice for us living in the Mississippi delta. We congregated at my dad’s sister Helen’s house for supper, eating whatever my Uncle Guy caught that day at “the cut”, the local fishing hole, frying up crispy strips of catfish or redfish lightly dredged in Zatarain’s Fish-Fri. I can see him coming in from his outdoor kitchen with each batch of fried fish, a frosted mug of beer in one hand and a cigarette dangling from his lips. Often, he would trade a bag of groceries from his store for a sack of oysters or an ice chest filled with Gulf shrimp. There was always Aunt Helen’s seafood gumbo in a pot big enough to bathe a toddler in. My mom’s contribution would be macaroni salad or potato salad, Louisiana-style, almost the consistency of mashed potatoes. My cousin Penny made the best desserts. I never knew how good I had it until I ordered my first seafood dinner as a college student…utterly shocked at paying for fried shrimp for the first time in my life.
Occasionally someone would go duck hunting and gift us three or four cleaned ducks. My mom, born to Scottish immigrants, wasn’t raised on Cajun food, but that didn’t stop her from making the best roast duck in the world. Stuffed with quartered onions and Louisiana navel oranges, seasoned with ordinary salt and pepper, she roasted them in a low oven for hours. The meat was tender and juicy while the skin was ebony-colored and crisp.
Two recipes of hers were reprinted year after year in the local cookbook. Oyster Stew with Spaghetti was one of my dad’s favorites. He always requested it whenever he hosted the men’s card game. Her other specialty was something she called Scottish Potatoes, which was nothing more than a peeled Russet potato wrapped tightly in tin foil with thin slices of onion and thick slabs of butter. The outer layer of the potato caramelized and stuck to the foil while the inside of the potato stayed soft and fluffy. The onion virtually melted into the pool of butter at the bottom of each foil packet. Perfectly simple and simply perfection.
The sight, taste, or smell of a favorite food can conjure up the greatest of our memories. Proust had his madeleines and Laurie Colwin memorialized her mother-in-law’s Latvian bread. While I’ve never successfully replicated my mom’s Scottish Potatoes, my memory of those silvery jeweled orbs lined up in a pan next to the stove in her kitchen remains just as fresh as ever.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which aired from 1970 to 1977, was a sitcom about a young single woman moving to the big city of Minneapolis. The show began my freshman year of high school and lasted through my junior year of college. It was designed as a star vehicle for Mary Tyler Moore (1936-2017), who only four years earlier had finished her five-year run as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. The new show was a very successful move as Moore’s show garnered 29 Emmy Awards and launched three successful spin-off series.
While I loved this show and will still watch the reruns when they are on, I always found it ironic that this show about a single woman moving to a big city with a big job in a traditionally male work environment, dealing with dating and relationships, aired on Saturday nights, which meant that its captive audience was single women all over America home dateless on a Saturday night.
The lyrics to the theme song still come immediately to mind if I happen upon a rerun showing Mary Tyler Moore throwing her hat into the air during the opening credits:
Love is all around, no need to waste it
You can have a town, why don’t you take it
You’re gonna make it after all
You’re gonna make it after all
In March of 1988, I moved from Hammond, Louisiana, to Bethesda, Maryland; just me, my two Persian cats, and all my furniture and belongings, neatly contained in 132 boxes all stamped Security Van Lines. In January of 1988, I had been flown into Washington, DC, for an interview with a large real estate development company based in downtown Bethesda. I was offered the job, a decent starting salary, and a moving allowance. Yes, this was a huge career advancement for me, but the real reason I was moving was to get closer to my then-boyfriend, not yet fiancé, and hopefully future husband, who was a graduate student at the University of Virginia.
The move to the Washington DC suburb was very exciting for me, having stayed in Hammond after college graduation. I was living in a two-bedroom, two-bath condo and quite happy working as a paralegal by day, heavily involved in community theatre by night. Hammond was a small town then, but it was much larger than my hometown, Port Sulphur, a town in southeast Louisiana since devastated by Hurricane Katrina. But along came Mr. Right, and somehow, Hammond no longer captivated me as it had since August of 1974.
My big city life began, moving sight unseen into my apartment on the 14th floor of Triangle Towers on Cordell Avenue. Frightened by the astronomical cost to park a car in my apartment’s garage, I sold it and moved here without a car. So on March 14, 1988, I woke up, got dressed for my first day of work, and stepped out of my apartment’s foyer to walk to work, six city blocks away.
I was ready: dressed for success, navy suit, white silk blouse, pantyhose, and navy and white spectator pumps. I was not ready, however, for the weather . . . it was snowing! This southeast Louisiana girl was totally unprepared for the cold, much less snow; I did not even own an overcoat! My new co-workers filled me on the essentials I would need and that afternoon, on the way walking home from work, I bought an all-weather coat, an umbrella, hat, gloves, and a scarf! I must say, I felt like tossing that brand-new winter hat into the air when I arrived in front of my apartment building a few blocks later. Properly outfitted for the weather, I knew I would make it after all.
My husband Tom is the smartest person I know. Lots of people throw these kinds of platitudes around, but I’m serious. He remembers everything he learned in school, and I don’t mean college or grad school. He remembers science facts from middle school. He remembers the title of every book he was assigned to read all throughout his academic career. There are very few bodies of water or islands that he can’t identify, as well as tell you the military conflicts that settled who has sovereignty over them. He’s a superb writer, has excellent math skills, and has a deep understanding of the ancient Greeks and their literature. I tease him that high school football is the only thing that saved him from being a Class A nerd.
Aside from his book smarts, he has a good head on his shoulders for just basic common sense. This is aided by his sharp analytical skills. Over the course of our three decades together, he’s taught me a few things that I use on a daily basis; yes, these are things I should have been taught somewhere along the way, and maybe I was but wasn’t tuned in when it was presented to me. I always passed these on to my students, because while they are simple and basic, they are very helpful in everyday life. So, today, I pass them on to you. If you know them already, great! If you don’t know them, you can thank Tom!
Tom’s Truth #1: Maps
When looking for a state capital or the capital of a country on a map, look for the star. Texaco, which later merged with Chevron, trained American drivers to look for the star, the great big Texaco star! City and country capitals are usually marked with a star.
Tom’s Truth #2: Elevators
When in an elevator of a building with multiple floors above ground level as well as multiple levels of parking below ground, it can be confusing to find the button that will take you to the lobby. Sometimes it is marked with an “L”, sometimes a “G”, but it is more likely to be marked with, you guessed it, a star. This can be especially helpful in some countries like in the UK where the first floor is not actually the ground floor, but what we would call the second floor.
Tom’s Truth #3: Taking Measurements
When you need a rough measurement but no ruler or meter stick is at hand, use a piece of printer paper or looseleaf. Everyone (in America) knows printer paper and looseleaf is normally 8-1/2 by 11 inches. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve measured a rugor a tablecloth in a store by using a piece of paper! Just be careful with this outside of the US, because elsewhere the standard size of printer paper, called A4, is 8.27 by 11.7 inches.
So, there you have the first batch of Tom’s Truths. Stay tuned, as I’ll share some more with you in the coming months!
I used to sleep like a log every night. I could drink a cup of tea or a cup of coffee and turn out my lamp and fall asleep before I was finished with my prayers. I would wake up whenever forced to, many hours later, often in the exact same position I was in when I fell asleep. No more. Those days are long gone, and not just gone, but a distant memory that I can hardly believe is true.
I’m not sure what it is and then, again, I’m absolutely certain what it is. First, age. Martha Stewart loves to brag about how she only sleeps four or five hours a night and wakes up totally fresh, energized, and ready to make millions. I’m beginning to think I’m channeling Martha Stewart’s sleep habits; alas, I’m not channeling her energy or millions.
Second, the ugly cousin of aging (for women at least), menopause. It changes you. It changes a lot of things that doctors and books don’t tell you about: your hair, your skin, your metabolism, your energy levels. I think part of my current sleep pattern is the after-effects of menopause. I may be finished with it, but it doesn’t seem to be finished with me.
Third, stress. Let’s see, now, just what does Michelle have to be stressed about? I’m so lucky, truly blessed in so many ways. I’m happily married to my best friend for 31 years and counting, I have two beautiful, talented, intelligent daughters, I am (relatively) healthy, and I have food, clothing, and shelter when so many are much less fortunate. I have, most importantly of all, my faith, which has kept me steady and strong through life’s challenges, disappointments, and losses.
But, right now, stress has the better of me, mostly over this pandemic, which has kept me out of my classroom this year, doing something I truly loved. I toss and turn all night, awake more than asleep, but during the brief periods of sleep I find myself dreaming of school, and finally, at 2:30, I am wide awake and unable to settle back to sleep until around 5:30 or so, when very uncharacteristically, I wake up again.
Last night, rather than fight it, I decided to read for a bit. I opened my Kindle and picked up where I had left off in my current novel, Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple, who also wrote Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
Now, there are times when books are put into your hands for a reason. This book was not recommended to me, however. I chose this Maria Semple book simply because it was immediately available for loan on Libby. I enjoyed my first Maria Semple book about Bernadette, and I enjoyed the movie adaptation starring Cate Blanchett. I expected to enjoy this second book of hers as well. What I didn’t expect was advice–just what I needed exactly when I needed it–via one of the characters, an eight-year-old boy no less, coming less than a quarter of my way into the book.
The main character, Eleanor Flood, is about to have a meltdown when her eight-year-old son Timby gives her advice:
“Smell the soup, cool the soup,” Timby said. “Huh?” “It’s what they teach us in school when we’re upset. Smell the soup.” He took a deep breath in. “Cool the soup.” He blew out.”
As I read it, of course, I had to try it. And, it worked. I smelled the soup and cooled the soup about three times and I felt myself relax a little. I read for a while and then slept for a while, alas, waking at 5:30 as my new normal. Yes, I smelled the soup and cooled the soup once, had a sip of water, and drifted off to sleep once again.
It’s too early in Semple’s book to know if I’ll enjoy it as much as Bernadette, but if the only thing I gained was this delightful metaphor for taking a deep breath and letting it out, then, it was time well spent. It’s not the first time I’ve learned a life lesson from a book!
I’ve been tracking my reading on Goodreads since August of 2008, so this month marks twelve years of books I’ve read, books I want to read (my “TBR” list), and sometimes, my thoughts on them. I wish I were better at writing reviews of all the books I read, but maybe this is something I can work on now that I’m home all day.
Users of Goodreads rate the books they read using a five-star rating system. This system isn’t perfect, no allowances for half-stars or a way to indicate you have abandoned a book you started but didn’t like, but overall it’s a great way to keep track of your reading life. Lots of people use bullet journals and artsy-looking notebooks to track their reading, but I’m much better at keeping track of things on my phone with a few clicks.
Back in the day when libraries were open, you know, in PC (pre-COVID), I would stand in front of the new arrivals bookshelves and add things to my TBR list in Goodreads. It’s easy to do, just by hovering your phone over the barcode of the book (if the library hasn’t pasted its own barcode on top of it) and it automatically adds it to your list! When you start a book, you scan the barcode, and then you can update it as you read, either by number of pages read or percentage of book read if on an e-reader. Now that Amazon has purchased Goodreads, my Kindle automatically connects my e-books purchased through Amazon or downloaded through Libby (library e-book and audio-book loaning app).
One of the things I love most about Goodreads is the Reading Challenge option. Each year you set your own Reading Challenge–how many books you want to read, and as the year goes by, the Reading Challenge tells you if you are on track to meet your goal. If only I paid as much attention to the number of calories I consume each day as I do to the number of books I read each year!
At the beginning of the pandemic, library due dates were deleted from all accounts, and all fines were erased. I had a stack of library books, as I always do, but for weeks and weeks, I could not focus to read them. I was spending so much energy converting my in-class lesson plans to virtual lesson plans, I just could not pick up a book to read for “fun.” There was so much uncertainty, so many disturbing news reports, so many deaths, who could read for fun?
At some point, my love of reading kicked back in, and the first thing I picked up from my stack was the last book I checked out before the pandemic, in fact, my local branch of MCPL was the last public place I visited before the lockdown. Luckily, it was a very compelling story and I whizzed right through it. I was back! From there, I plowed through my stack and then started in on my Kindle, books I had purchased from special deals via BookBub or Modern Mrs. Darcy, or books I checked out from MCPL via Libby.
One of the silver linings of not teaching this year has been extra time to read, and I am reading for myself, not necessarily pre-reading for things I want to teach or recommend to students. Now, if I could just get my little furry friend out of my reading chair…
What is a weekend? In Season 3 of Downton Abbey, the glorious masterpiece of period drama created by genius Julian Fellowes (can you tell how much I love this show?), this question is posed by Dame Maggie Smith’s character.
Now, I’m not a countess or a duchess or a princess, but I am at a strange point in my life where I actually understand this rather curious question. Weekdays and weekend days seem to blur together since I am not teaching full-time this year. Yes, I am tutoring via zoom, so I do have work to do, and I have made a goal to write each and every day, but when what you do is from home and at the time you decide to do it, does it matter if it is Wednesday or Sunday?
The dowager countess Grantham, embodied fully by Maggie Smith, has never “worked” a day in her life. She married well and has been cared for all of her life, even now in her reduced status of “dowager” since her husband passed away and her son inherited the title of Lord Grantham. His wife is the new Lady Grantham, thus Maggie Smith’s demotion to dowager countess. All of her days are equal and all of them are her own to do as she wishes. With no male heirs, Lord Grantham’s distant relative, Matthew Crawley is called to Downton Abbey to learn that he will be the next Lod Grantham. The family is all around dismayed by this and quite shocked that he is a working man. Least you think he is a mail carrier or a carpenter, he is a lawyer, which in America is a respectable and valued professional occupation. But, in England, particularly during the Edwardian period, anyone who has to get up and get dressed and report to an office each day is a working man, not a member of the aristocracy. This is why the family takes a pause from the service of their multi-course evening meal when he mentions that he will continue to work as a lawyer and help Lord Grantham with the running of the estate “on the weekend.”
Downton Abbey is a beautiful series, with lavish costumes, incomparable scenery, and superb acting, but one of the greatest things about this series is how we can all see behind the curtain. We can see how the other side lives. We can also see how their pampered lives are made possible by the people below the stairs.
When I was teaching, I always ended the year with 8th grade with the Victorian novel The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Season 1 of Downton Abbey was a perfect vehicle for teaching my students about the formality of the Victorian Era, and how social class was of utmost importance. Showing them select clips, such as this famous one from Season 3, helped them understand why Holmes and Watson spoke the way they did, why women were often forced into difficult situations because of the inheritance laws in England, and why etiquette and social grace was so important. Even the servants had excellent table manners and spoke with proper English. It was one of my favorite things to teach, where I could bring one of my personal obsessions, the Victorian Era, into the classroom. When they encounter British literature in high school, I hope they think back to these lessons and what they learned from me.
I know that as time goes on I will get my bearings and my days will fall into more of a routine. It’s only been a week since school started, two if you count the teacher in-service days, so it’s early days in my new lifestyle. I won’t be asking “What is a weekend?” for much longer.