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So, we are in the final countdown. Finish today and Monday, make it through “circus day” (no, really, a circus is coming to my school) on Tuesday, and half-day on Wednesday…and then, EASTER BREAK. As a full-time teacher, I am 100% qualified to tell you who looks forward to school breaks more, students or teachers: TEACHERS. I had a terrible cold/virus/ickiness over Christmas break and I lost the second week of freedom from grading and lesson planning, so I NEED THIS BREAK. I want to sleep in, read for hours at a time, cook a big meal for my family, organize my spring/summer clothes, see a movie, spend quality time with my husband, take long walks with my dog, do some writing, and so much more over the 7-1/2 school days I have off.
But, and this is a big one, this year Easter Break is really more about the culmination of my Lent. I went BIG this year. I gave up, I gave in, and I gave more.
First, the giving up. I gave up Facebook and diet soda. Giving up Facebook was like having a paper cut. Periodically through the day, I felt it, but I could easily forget it. Slap a band-aid on it and keep going. After deleting the app from my phone, I really didn’t think too much about Facebook. I don’t think I’ll put the app back on my phone after Lent. I’ll still check Facebook periodically from my laptop, but I’m not going to be on it from my phone.
The diet soda was a whole other thing, though. A few years ago, when I had a health scare, I gave up diet soda altogether. I ordered iced tea (or an adult beverage) in restaurants, or I just drank water. I get my caffeine intake from coffee in the morning and I have hot tea periodically throughout the day, so I never depended on diet soda for the jolt to get going. But, two years ago I changed schools and my current school has a vending machine in the faculty room. Guess who fell right back into the habit of having a Diet Coke or a Diet Dr. Pepper with lunch? Yep, just like falling off a horse. Got right back on with no difficulties.
I didn’t just want to give up things that aren’t really that good for me, though. So, I re-instituted a religious exercise I used to do before marriage and kids, going to Mass every day of Lent. So, every school day (except the school days where we had school Mass at 9:00), I have gone to 6:30 AM Mass. My husband and I go to 8:30 Mass on Saturdays. It’s been really hard training myself to get up an hour and a half earlier than on a normal school day. It’s been even harder training myself to go to bed earlier to make up for that.
The first week of Lent I was exhausted and cranky. I felt like my Lenten sacrifices were crushing me.
Monday of the second week, I told my daughter, “9 is the new 11,” and headed off to bed at 9:00 PM. I got used to being asleep by 10 and wasn’t so exhausted or so cranky. Some mornings I work up just before my alarm (I still hit the snooze the first time, though). I got my favorite parking space. I began to enjoy the 30 minutes or so of quiet time in my classroom before other teachers arrived for the day. I had oatmeal and coffee after Mass while checking email and getting my materials ready for the day.
Most importantly, however, a quiet calm came over me each morning sitting in Mass. I began to view the readings as literature, unfolding a story, one chapter at a time. I’m easily distracted in Sunday Mass, but in a huge church with only 30-40 people spread out in it, I am much less distracted and much more focused on the liturgy. The homilies have been much-needed fuel to help me with the final piece of my Lenten goals: have a more spiritual life. Daily Mass short homilies typically speak only to the liturgy of the word for that Mass, and I come away refreshed and reflective during my short walk to my classroom. It’s sort of like going to a really useful, meaningful professional development workshop: something you can use the very next day in your classroom.
This weekend is Palm Sunday, the official beginning of Holy Week. The blessing of the palm branches, which will be used for next year’s ashes on Ash Wednesday, foreshadows the coming events: the Triidum. This year I’m leaning in (thanks Sheryl Sandburg), observing it full-out, like the way I teach, like the way I cook, like the way I live. After all my work this Lent, both spiritual and personal, I’m not wasting it by being lackadaisical now. I’m ending this Lent with a bang. Easter Sunday will be so much more meaningful to me this year.
May this Holy Week and this coming Easter season bring you reflection, refreshment, and renewal. May God’s blessing be upon you and your loved ones.
Sunday, March 17, 2019:
This morning, the Second Sunday in Lent, Fr. Gabriel, our parochial vicar, began his homily at 10:30 Mass with, “How is your Lent going?” For the first time in a very long time, I felt as though I was fully prepared to say, “Good!” For a few weeks before Ash Wednesday, I thought about Lent and how I would live it this year. I wanted to enter Lent fully prepared to get as much as possible out of it. One of my New Year’s resolutions was to live a more prayerful life, and for me, that meant approaching Lent slightly differently than in the past.
Years ago, in my first career job after college, I was inspired by my roommate to attend daily Mass during Lent. For an early riser like my roommate, this didn’t seem to me like much of a sacrifice, but for a first-class night owl like myself, it was huge. I maintained this practice during Lent for many years after, but eventually, it fell by the wayside, partly aided by the birth of my two children. So, this year, on Mardi Gras night, I stunned my family by announcing that I would be getting up at 5:00 every day to go to daily Mass before school. I don’t think for a single moment they believed me.
After a week and a half of attending 6:30 AM Mass, and sitting in a relatively empty church filled with silence, I found myself really tuning in to the homilies. At morning Mass, particularly the 6:30 Mass, the homilies are shorter and much more focused. The celebrant’s main point has been sharpened and honed, better for sending out to people on their way to work. Much like poetry, these homilies demonstrate the idea that every word must count.
Last weekend, our pastor Fr. Lee said something in his homily that really struck me: “The language of heaven is prayer.” As a language arts teacher, the metaphor of learning a language before traveling to a foreign place was not lost on me. If we, as Christians, are all on our path to heaven, and we’ve never been there before, do we need to learn a foreign language before arriving? Is learning how to pray our instructional course for our journey to heaven?
In a subsequent morning Mass, Fr. Gabriel extended the metaphor. He first spoke of how important a passport is, particularly a US passport when traveling abroad. He said that if we were going to be traveling to another shore, a shore of perfection, we must be sure to have our passports in order. I reflected on his homily on my quick walk next door to school. The travel metaphor is an effective tool for my own Lenten journey.
In today’s second reading, Paul said to the Philippians (3:17-4:1), “Their minds are occupied with earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven…” As Christians, we all want to “go to Heaven,” something we’ve been taught since we were very young. Connecting this abstract idea to something concrete like traveling to another country is a bit easier. When I traveled with my parents to Scotland in 2000, where my maternal grandparents were born and raised, I got a passport, made flight reservations, purchased good walking shoes, and chose my weeks’ worth of clothing very carefully. I made sure to pack something wrinkle free and dressier to meet my mother’s extended family. I filled my carry-on with snacks and a book to read on the long plane ride. I brought small hospitality presents to hand out to our hosts.
I planned seriously for that one-week trip. These Lenten readings and homilies have made me think: am I planning seriously for my journey to Heaven? Have I learned the language of Heaven? Have I prepared carefully for my trip? Will my passport be in order?
Working for twenty years in the legal field, I did not think of prayer much during the day. I worked hard all day drafting and negotiating contracts and legal documents. My daily goals were quite different, finalize legal documents that would protect my employer. Sure, I said my prayers at night, and I went to Mass every Sunday, but was I actively learning the language of Heaven? Since becoming a Catholic school teacher in 2007, however, I pray many times throughout the day: morning prayer after the Pledge, the Angelus at noon, and the Act of Contrition before dismissal. We have school Mass every Friday at 9:00. Going to Adoration on Thursdays is just a few steps away in the convent chapel before I get in my car to head home. All school year, we receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation the last Monday afternoon of every month. Every Friday during Lent, we walk around the church following the Stations of the Cross. My prayer life has been enriched greatly through my vocation as a Catholic school teacher. My daily goals now are to help make our students saints, to teach them how to navigate the path to Heaven.
Even though we are still early on in this season of Lent, I already feel that the blessings I am receiving outweigh my sacrifices. I do feel that I am preparing for my journey to Heaven. I practice daily the language of Heaven and my passport is in order. I receive the Eucharist daily to sustain me on my way. My response to Fr. Gabriel’s question this morning, “How is your Lent going” is most decidedly, “Good!”
Dear friends and followers, today is Ash Wednesday, and for Christians, the beginning of Lent. For these forty days of Lent, I will try to focus my writings and thoughts on more spiritual things, helping me to center myself on these three things: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
For so long, Catholics were asked to give up something for Lent; the theory being that the sacrifice of withholding one of our small pleasures in life would help us to prepare for Holy Week and the Passion of Christ. Now, the Church teachings have shifted to asking us to add something instead. Pray more. Fast more. Give more. I shall endeavor to do all three.
That being said, I am still giving up something for Lent. First the easy one, Diet Coke. I’ve cut way back over the past few years but I’ve slowly crept back to drinking a bit more, especially since my school has a soda vending machine in the faculty lounge. The more difficult one, though, is Facebook. Today, I posted my declaration to abstain from Facebook throughout the forty days of Lent. I’ve deleted the app from my phone as my final salvo. I will try to use the time I waste on Facebook each day to pray more and to write more, especially more spiritual things. Why is this so difficult? Primarily, because it is the only contact I have with many of my friends from back home, from pre-Katrina days, from high school and college. Wish me luck as I tamp down two bad habits while attempting to live a more prayerful life. Peace and prayers to all!
Some people flip through photo albums to fondly remember past vacations. Others, in today’s social media-crazed society, may look back over their Instagram posts to see snaps of time spent away with family or friends, in some exotic location, or just for a short getaway. Me? I just pull up my Goodreads list of books read, and I can happily remember great trips or time spent with family by seeing a book title and the date I completed it. I’ve been an avid reader my whole life, and my bookshelves can vouch for that. Here are some of my favorites.
- Metamorphosis of Me into a Literary Reader: A 1987 Thanksgiving break visit to my future husband while he was in grad school in Charlottesville, Virginia, opened my eyes to Franz Kafka’s classic The Metamorphosis. Just barely surpassing a frat house for cleanliness and style, I enjoyed the quiet of his apartment and his English major roommate’s bookshelf.
- Hunting for Something to Read: Over Christmas break in 1999 in Louisiana, awake in the middle of the night with nothing to read, I borrowed Hunt for Red October from my brother-in-law’s bookshelf, my first and last Tom Clancy.
- Tea Time Will Make You Fat: Living overseas for two years allowed us the ability to travel around Europe inexpensively. In the fall of 2002, just after unpacking and getting ourselves settled, we traveled to Glasgow, Scotland, to see my mother’s cousins and extended family. We spent a lovely day at Edinburgh Castle and shopped on the Royal Mile that afternoon, where I stumbled upon the Cooks Bookshop, owned by Clarissa Dickson Wright, one of the pair of British cooking celebs I knew from a PBS cooking show. We went in and naturally I had to buy the first of their cookbooks that accompanied the PBS series, Two Fat Ladies.
- James Bond a la Provence: In the summer of 2003, while living for two years in Belgium, my family spent a week in Cavalaire-sur-Mer, Provence, France. In advance of the trip, I visited the high school library of the international school my daughters attended to check out some books to bring along. One book was an omnibus edition of five Ian Fleming novels. I have such fond memories sitting on the balcony of the rental apartment, reading this hardback while sipping a cool drink and listening to the waves.
- No Hunger, Too Busy Reading to Eat: Easter break of 2012, I read an entire book in the bathtub of a Pittsburgh Marriott Courtyard hotel room. I was just going to relax in the tub and read a few pages of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, but I ended up adding hot water repeatedly until I finished the whole book.
- 24 Hour Getaway: In October of 2012, my hubby and I drove to Lewes, Delaware, for my birthday weekend. While there, I managed to squeeze in enough reading to nearly get through Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. Part mystery, part puzzle, part homage to bookstores, this is still a favorite of mine.
- Rocky Read of Rowling: In the summer of 2014, my husband and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary with a trip to Kennebunkport, Maine. With high winds and rough seas, our water activities were canceled several times, but I happily sat on the sunny porch of the inn where we stayed, reading (J. K. Rowling’s alter ego) Robert Galbraith’s second detective mystery novel in the Cormoran Strike series, The Silkworm. Note: book 2 is decidedly creepier and more graphic than book 1 but not nearly as creepy and graphic as book 3. I’ll need a brightly lit room and a stiff drink to make it through book 4.
- First Anniversary of Baby Bird being Gone: My younger daughter moved to Los Angelos over Easter break of 2016 to pursue her dream of being a screenwriter. While on this life-changing trip to drop her off, I read Liane Moriarty’s The Last Anniversary, my first of her novels. The tone and mood perfectly matched my own bittersweet feelings of the time.
- All the Time in the World to Read: July of 2016 found me in Fort Myers, Florida, visiting a dear friend in her beautiful home. After she left for work each morning, I would have coffee and read on her “lanai”. As the mid-day sun became a bit too much, I’d dive into her pool and swim lazy laps. In stark contrast to this paradise of a setting, I read a friend’s debut novel, All the Time in the World by Caroline Angell, which takes place in the ultra-glamorous Upper East Side of Manhattan.
- Yes, Chef, More Mofongo: Over Thanksgiving break of 2016, my husband took me to Puerto Rico for my 60th birthday. Amidst all the great food we ate there, including mofongo, I devoured Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir Yes, Chef.
- Water, Water, Everywhere: Summer of 2017 found me on my first ever mother-daughter road trip, traveling to Niagara Falls. While my daughter was off at her conference, I sat in an outdoor cafe with a big cup of coffee and Red Kayak by Priscilla Cummings. No waterfalls featured in the story, but all the action takes place on the Chesapeake Bay.
One thing is clear after gathering my photos of the places I have written about in this essay: it seems like I like places near the water as much as I like books!
You know that feeling when you have a bug bite that has scabbed over and you pick at it and pick at it and make it bleed even though it is hurting and you know that you are making it hurt? That’s sort of the feeling I had while reading Stephanie Butland’s novel The Lost for Words Bookshop (St. Martin’s Press, 2017). I knew what I was reading was making me hurt but I kept reading and kept reading and kept reading, picking and bleeding along the way. In a good way. Really.
To be honest, I picked up this book off of the librarian’s choice shelf because of the cover, a bay window with a window seat and a bright red awning, and of course, the word bookshop was in the title. Right away, virtually from the first page, I was thinking about the voice of the protagonist, how it was edgy and young and “millennial” in nature. Curious about the author, about the person who created Loveday Cardew, I turned to the back flap of the book jacket…but no photo of the author there. Her short bio gave me no clue as to age so I googled her. I was shocked to see that she was not in fact a millennial, not someone who could be a contemporary of LJ, yet she had captured the essence of today’s 25-year-old, struggling with being an adult in a world that had been awfully cruel to her.
I haven’t felt this way about discovering an author’s identity to be so different from the voice of her protagonist since the summer of 2012 when I read The Newlyweds (Knopf, 2012). I was so convinced (but oh so wrong) that author Nell Freudenberger had written the book under a pseudonym or under her married name as a woman, who like her protagonist Amina, had immigrated to America from Bangladesh. Fundamentally I understand that writers create worlds and imagine characters that they bring to the printed page with their literary talents, but I am not often left speechless by it being done in such a convincing way.
I read a lot of mysteries, and I watch a lot of British dramas, but I always do so with one eye closed. I don’t really want to figure out what is going on too early, unlike my husband who usually has sussed it all up and become bored with it by the first commercial break. This book, though, this book was different. As the pages flipped by, and the alternating time frames (1999, 2013, and 2016) moved me about, I was trying to figure out what was going on. I even remarked to my younger daughter in a phone conversation, “something happened to this girl, something bad, she’s holding it back but it’s coming out I can tell, maybe she was raped”. (Note: not a spoiler, just what I had imagined that could be in her history.)
I loved this book for many reasons. I loved that it grabbed my interest right away and never let me go, even when I was feeling pained by reading it. I loved the talk of books by people who loved books, who put such value in books. As a literature teacher and lifelong avid reader, that made me very happy. I loved how Butland unfolded the story of Loveday layer by layer, like peeling an onion or tearing away the rind of an orange slowly in one long, continuous, curling strip. I loved that there wasn’t an overload of characters for me to carry along in the story, just enough to make the story work, sort of like the number of words in a good poem, just enough to make it work. I loved that it was set in York, England, with constant talk of the sea, of Cornwall, of Devon, places I haven’t been to but long to see. I loved Butland’s use of imagery to paint a tapestry of scenes in my head, “The water was the blue of inkstained fingertips.” I loved LJ’s vulnerability and the way Butland colored her in, with an armor of tattoos and a mask of contempt for all that makes “normal” people happy and content. I loved how even in her state of absolute fear and confusion, Loveday still tried to excuse Rob because of his mental illness. I loved how Nathan thought he was broken, until he met someone he loved who was more broken than he could ever imagine. I loved how Butland left me speechless and sobbing at the end, how it made me miss my mom even more than I do every single day. But, one of the things I really loved about this book is that I stumbled upon a new author to obsess over.