Girl Power

medieval times field trip

It’s mid-third quarter of this school year and I am knee-deep teaching two novels set in England nearly six hundred years apart. The 7th grade is reading Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, the diary of a girl in medieval times during the reign of Edward I, covering the span of one year of her life, 1290-1291. My 8th grade literature class is reading The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle which is set in 1889. Even though I’ve read both books many times, I was struck anew this year when the class discussions in both 7th and 8th grades turned to the roles and rights of women during those time periods. Inevitably the comparison was made to the roles and rights of women today, this being an election year with Hillary Clinton appearing to be the nominee for the Democratic Party. If that happens, and if she is successful, she will be the first woman president of the United States of America. In the year 2016.

catherineKaren Cushman used her research skills and knowledge of the Middle Ages to craft her first book, which was awarded the Newberry Honor in 1995. Catherine is the only daughter of a domineering country knight who has decided in September of 1290 that Catherine is of marrying age, although she is not yet fourteen, which always draws gasps from my 7th grade girls. She resists being betrothed against her wishes with all her might and successfully chases off suitor after suitor, until finally she must use the acceptance of a betrothal to someone she despises as a bargaining chip to win something she desires even more, the freedom of a bear who has been kept in captivity and abused for entertainment at a village fair.

fishing for vocab

7th grade girls “fish” for vocab from the Middle Ages

Throughout the book as she runs from being promised to a man that she does not love and does not wish to marry, she dreams of being someone or something else: a villager, a Jewish boy traveling out of England, Perkin the goat boy, her Uncle George the crusading knight, a sausage maker, a monk like her brother Edward who copies holy books in the scriptorium of the abbey. An old Jewish woman admonishes her, “Little Bird, in the world to come, you will not be asked ‘Why were you not George?’ or ‘Why were you not Perkin?’ but ‘Why were you not Catherine?’” It is sound advice, for the time period, as it is not possible for Catherine to be “Catherine” because she does not wish to be the subservient daughter of a not-so-wealthy knight who has to spend her days spinning and sewing and doctoring, and in the end be married off to a stinky, smelly old man just because her father says so.

HoundThe Hound of the Baskervilles is set during the reign of Queen Victoria, who did much to expand her realm so that “the sun never sets on the British empire”. She made an enormous impact on almost every facet of British society from parenting to entertainment, from religion to fashion, from the etiquette of eating to the etiquette of mourning. Yet, the roles and rights of women had not progressed that far from Catherine’s time. The story revolves around an ancient curse against the heirs of Baskerville Hall, who all die mysterious deaths. The origin of the curse is the story of Sir Hugo Baskerville, who kidnaps a young maiden from her father’s farm on the moor and takes her back to Baskerville Hall. She escapes and he promises that he would “that very night render his body and soul to the Powers of Evil if he might but overtake the wench” but instead he is attacked by a “giant beast of a hound” and has his throat torn out. The “coming of the hound” has plagued the family ever since, from the time of the Great Rebellion (1642-1651) until the present day setting of the novel, 1889.

manuscriptThe legend itself was documented in a manuscript dated 1742 and written by Sir Hugo Baskerville, a scion of the evil Sir Hugo. It contained the origin of the legend along with the warning to not go on the moor at night for fear of a reprisal of the attack of the hound of the Baskervilles. It was written specifically for his sons, Rodger and John, with instructions “that they say nothing to their sister Elizabeth”. Poor girl, my 8th grade students bemoaned, she was to know nothing of the family curse, she was not to be warned about going on the moor at night? I explained to them that a girl in 1742 would not have gone anywhere without a male escort, certainly not at night, and certainly not on the moor. She would not have had the freedom her brothers enjoyed, and she would not be the target of the curse as she would never be able to inherit anything of the Baskerville estate.

downtonAh, England, and their archaic rules of inheritance. Fast forward to 1912 and Season One of Downton Abbey (let us pause in a moment of silence as this majestic series comes to an end-in America, that is-next Sunday, March 6,  2016), where we learn that the future heir of Downton who is also to be the future husband of the oldest daughter, Lady Mary, dies tragically aboard the Titanic. Thus launches the conflict for the entire series: no male heir for Downton, no money for the three daughters to inherit as it is all part of an entail created when their American millionairess mother married Lord Robert Grantham and saved him from being an aristocratic pauper.

law school men to womenIn both 7th and 8th grade classes these discussions ran their normal course, talking about how girls today can grow up to be whatever they want to be, right? I noted that one girl’s dad is an architect but so is her mom. Another girl’s dad is a Ph.D. but her mom is a medical doctor. One of our career day speakers was a man who is a biomedical engineer but another speaker was a woman who is a chemical engineer. Times have changed. Women can pursue any field of study they desire. In 1980, I was a freshman at LSU Law School, and I was one of only five girls in my section of 75 students. Today the percentage of women to men enrolled in law school has increased drastically, 47.8% women to 52.2% men for the 2012-2013 Academic Year.

hillaryHowever, we have yet to elect a woman as leader of America, to serve as Commander in Chief. Will this be the year? Could Hillary Clinton in fact be the one to take a hammer to that glass ceiling of the White House? From all outward appearances, it seems that she has what it takes. She has been brutal in the debates, taking all the blows on the chin and returning fire. She has the right credentials: First Lady of both the State of Arkansas and the United States, Senator of New York, Secretary of State. She has a brilliant legal mind and is a compelling public speaker. She is not my candidate of choice, because I cannot stand by her pro-choice beliefs, I don’t think she has always been entirely truthful, and I don’t admire her “stand by my man” policies either.

girls at lunchBut, she has played the cards dealt to her each step along the way, and she has played them well; and even though she lost the Democratic nomination in 2008, she did not give up. She took full advantage of a great education and has used every single opportunity and life experience to further her own ambitions in pursuit of her goals. THAT is the lesson America’s young girls of today need to take heed of. Work hard. Study hard. Take calculated risks. Never give up. You are not Catherine or Lady Mary. You can be whatever you want to be. Girl power.

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Together Forever

valentine flowersHappy Valentine’s Day! Today is the 28th Valentine’s Day my husband and I have celebrated together and we graced it with a nice day at home and then dinner out at a local French bistro. As usual, our gifts to one another were small tokens marking the day. I received a lovely bouquet of flowers and a beautiful pair of gold earrings, and in turn I managed to valentine socksfind dark blue dress socks with tiny red hearts to replace the ones that I gave him years and years ago when we were first married. After dinner we walked the dog and then separated into separate television viewing rooms for our respective Sunday night favorites: Downton Abbey for me and Walking Dead for him.

wedding photo boothLady Mary on Downton Abbey had a far less desirable Valentine’s Day, living through the nightmare of her new beau in his racing car being involved in a horrific accident at the track, leaving his racing partner dead in his burning motor car. The incident brought back far too many tragic memories for her, as her first husband Matthew died in his own motorcar, racing home from the hospital after the birth of their firstborn son and future heir to the grand estate of Downton Abbey. At the end of tonight’s episode, she broke off her relationship with Henry Talbot, leaving Tom Branson to counsel her that you can’t stop living just because you don’t want to get hurt. He should know, having had his heart broken and his world ruined in Season 3.

dating photoLife is hard and there are many obstacles along the way that interrupt happiness and bring much sadness to our lives: sickness of loved ones, losing a parent, difficulties at work, financial problems. Finding that one soulmate to walk with and traverse the ups and downs of this journey is critical. While I don’t live in a castle or have a household of servants, I still count myself as one of the lucky ones, someone who has been successful in that quest. My husband and I share our Catholic faith, family values, and much more. We shared household chores and parenting tasks as we raised our two daughters. We were there for each other, as we said we would, in good times and in bad. We may argue and bicker over the day-to-day annoyances of life but we are, as Annie and Daddy Warbucks sing, together forever.

valentine cardsLast year for Valentine’s Day I scoured the internet for ideas of something personal and homemade I could present to my husband as a token of my love. On Pinterest I found the perfect idea: a complete deck of cards, each one emblazoned with one of the 52 things I love about him. 52 things I love about youThis exercise of creating this list and of typing out each of the 52 things I love about him made me realize that it is indeed the small things, the everyday little things, that really count. He was genuinely touched by this simple homemade gift and vowed to read one a day until he had made his way to the end of the deck of cards.

Truth be told, I could have filled several decks of cards with reasons I love him, and I doubt if any of them would have impressed Lady Mary Crawley very much. As much as I love this grand British soap opera/period piece, I do not envy either the upstairs or downstairs inhabitants of the real life Highclere Castle. Lord and Lady Grantham have three grandchildren and they are hardly ever seen. valentine dessertThis is not due to budget restrictions, child labor laws, or finding talented children to play these roles. Children of this time period were raised by the nanny and the governess and spent little time with their parents. I would not trade my time with my daughters for anything in the world, not one minute of the time they were crying babies, crawling toddlers, sassy adolescents, or the wonderful young women they have become today.

With only two more episodes of Downton Abbey left to savor, I wonder how creator Julian Fellowes will leave us in the end. Will Downton Abbey survive the change of times, the fall of grand country estates full of servants? Will Lady Mary find happiness and true love again? Will the series end with her the melancholy young widow but strong heiress running the estate alone, with only her son George at her side?

valentine selfieAs this Valentine’s Day comes to a close, I once again say a prayer of thanksgiving for a whisper in my ear a Sunday evening Mass 29 years ago, when my neighbor and good friend Susan leaned in to tell me, “I think he’s the one. You should go out with him.” He was the one. He is the one. My one and only. My valentine.

The Art of Creating

discover screen shotOne week ago today I posted my last essay in my “essay a week for one year” project that I started on New Year’s Eve 2014. At the time of posting my last essay “More Questions than Answers”, I was unsure of my next step for my Cajun Girl in a Kilt website. Shortly after posting that last essay, on New Year’s Eve 2015, my website and my “essay a week for one year” project was featured in a round-up of year-end accomplishments on the WordPress site on the Discover page with an intro by Cheri Lucas Rowlands. Since the feature was published, I’ve received quite a bit of traffic to my website and acquired many new followers. Still my next step was unclear.

downton ornamentTonight, promptly at 9:00, I stopped doing laundry and school work and preparing for my first week back at work as a teacher after a two-week Christmas break, to sit and watch the first episode of the sixth and final season of Downton Abbey. To say this is a great series is an understatement. It is the most glorious thing I’ve ever seen on television. It is rich with the colors, characters, costumes, and great country estates of the times, painstakingly accurate in every historical detail. It takes us into that world, as Mrs. Hughes said in tonight’s episode, “warts and all”.

Monarch of the Glen film locationThe father of this masterpiece of television drama is Julian Fellowes, who is the creator, writer, and executive producer of Downton Abbey. Long before Downton Abbey’s conception, I knew him as a major character on another of my favorite British series, Monarch of the Glen, where he played neighbor and frenemy Kilwillie. Monarch of the Glen also takes place on a grand country estate, Ardverikie in the Scottish highlands. With my own ties to Scotland, my maternal grandparents were born and raised in Glasgow, watching Monarch of the Glen and the beautiful landscape of the highlands, made me dream of visiting Scotland again.

Downton Abbey film locationI’ve been filled with mixed feelings all day about the start of this sixth and final season of Downton Abbey, which is filmed at Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England. I’ve been waiting (almost) patiently for this day for what seemed like an eternity, when I have Sunday nights reserved for watching the show and finding out what Julian Fellowes has in store for these characters that I have come to know so well. Tonight as the opening credits began playing, I was also filled with dread, anxiety that there are only nine episodes left, and then I will be left with nothing but reruns and the reputed promise of feature length movies in the future.

The opening scene of tonight’s first episode (no spoilers, you are safe to continue reading if you haven’t seen it yet) is that of a typical country hunt, members of the Crawley household, friends, and neighbors riding on horseback with their hunting dogs in chase of a fox. As the scene unfolded, I was struck at how one man created all of this, a fictional world that millions of viewers have fallen for, head over heels. He made up this whole thing, wrote it all out, created characters and gave them voices and lines to speak. He decided who would live and who would die on the Titanic, in World War I, of the Spanish Flu, in childbirth. He decided who would marry and who would be left at the altar, who would marry and who would be widowed, who would love but not marry, who would bear a child and who would miscarry. He decided it all with his words, thought up one by one, and put on paper, whether it be in longhand with a fountain pen or on an IBM Selectric typewriter or on a Mac.

The very thought of this was inspirational enough to lead me to the conclusion that I will continue writing and continue with my Cajun Girl in a Kilt work, for the sheer pleasure of creating something on paper each week, that someone somewhere might read and enjoy. This essay, on the art of creating, will be the first of this new year; it will be my entry into 2016 and wherever my writing leads me this year. In the coming weeks you may notice some new pages on my website, some saplings taking root and spreading their wings, where I can write about two of my passions: food and literature. Whatever it may be tumbling around in “my little grey cells” on Sunday afternoon will find itself somewhere on Cajun Girl in a Kilt. I hope you follow along and I hope you enjoy it. I also resolve to work on my fiction, a story about a missing suitcase, with the goal of getting it on paper, edited, reviewed, and published. As always, I welcome your feedback in the comment section below on any of my work.

Whedon quoteMay you find your own inspiration for the art of creating, using your own unique talents and interests. Best wishes to you for a happy and healthy 2016! Cheers!

Obsession: Calvin Klein Has Nothing on Me

Obsession: ob·ses·sion (əbˈseSHən) noun; plural noun: obsessions; (1) the state of being obsessed with someone or something. Ex: “she cared for him with a devotion bordering on obsession”; (2) an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind. Ex: “he was in the grip of an obsession he was powerless to resist”. Synonyms: fixation, ruling/consuming passion, passion, mania, idée-fixe, compulsion, preoccupation, infatuation, addiction, fetish, craze, hobbyhorse.

I have a long history of becoming obsessed with a topic and holding onto it until I have sated my appetite by reading every single thing I can about it. This “condition” sometimes comes at the expense of attending a social obligation, having clean underwear, putting food in the refrigerator, taking even a modicum of exercise, and of course, engaging in real conversations with real people.

An analysis of my book bag after a trip to my public library would reflect one of two extremes: (1) 15-20 books, about half being non-fiction with each on a different topic or subject, and the other half being a mixture of classics, contemporary fiction, and young adult fiction; or (2) 15-20 books all on the exact same topic or subject. A quick glance at the bookshelves in several rooms of our house will also verify this.

When under the spell of one of my obsessions, it is all I want to talk about over dinner with my family, while in the car with one of my daughters, or while out with my husband walking the dog. It matters not at all that no one else in my family shares the obsession du jour or is in the least bit interested. Because they love me (or because I am very persuasive in wanting to talk about it), they listen and ask questions as though they cared. I love them for that.

Sir Arthur Conan DoyleWhile taking undergraduate and graduate courses to become certified to teach English (as my second career), I was taking an undergraduate class on world literature. My advisor for the certification program suggested I take it at my local community college, for convenience and cost savings. So, I was, by far, the oldest student in the room, and older than the professor as well. After reading a plethora of short stories and two novellas, all by foreign authors, we were given our final assignment: choose any international author and do a presentation on them. My husband strongly suggested I choose an author I was already covering in my middle school classroom to cut down on the research involved in the project. So, I did. I chose Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the inventor of the great Sherlock Holmes. I was already quite familiar with Conan Doyle as a writer but I felt to do the project justice I should do a “bit” of research to round out his life story. Twelve books later I had my story: born in Edinburgh, went to medical school, worked as a ship’s doctor on a cargo ship, served as a medic during the Second Anglo Boer War, vehemently opposed to the atrocities committed by King Leopold in the Belgian Congo, became very interested in the occult and faeries, and yes, after being bored by his mediocre practice as an ophthalmologist, was the inventor of the great Sherlock Holmes. (My PowerPoint was well-received, and the afternoon tea of scones, cucumber sandwiches, and piping hot tea made to order in a college classroom didn’t hurt.)

Russian_Imperial_Family_1911When I first learned of the fate of the Romanov family, I spent months reading everything I could find at the public library. I was absolutely horrified at the thought of an entire family being executed en masse in 1918. The long-standing rumor that daughter Anastasia (Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia) had survived the brutal execution of the family kept the story alive for decades until finally, in 2007, her body was found and identified using DNA from England’s Prince Philip, who was a great-nephew of the last Tsarina. This did not stop me, however, from reading books written by the two famous Romanov imposters, Anna Anderson and Eugenia Smith, both of whom were confirmed to be unrelated to the Romanovs using the aforementioned DNA tests.

"The British royal family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace" by Carfax2 - Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“The British royal family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace” by Carfax2 – Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons”

As for the British royal family, well, that obsession is long-standing and shows no sign of slackening. With Prince William and his wife, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and their now two beautiful children, the monarchy, and my obsession, is safe and secure. Within the boundaries of my obsession with the British royal family lies a specialized “sub-obsession” with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the “love story” that nearly brought down the monarchy but in doing so paved the way for the current monarch, Elizabeth II. An earlier essay also documented this obsession, How We Changed the World.

Since obsessions for me frequently spin-off these sub-obsessions, the Romanovs also “hatched” a sub-obsession with Fabergé eggs, the beautiful and intricately decorated and bejeweled “eggs” the Russian Imperial Family gave and received as presents at Easter time. I’ve read extensively on the eggs, jewelry, and other priceless art pieces created by PeHouse_of_Fabergé_-_Rose_Trellis_Eggter Carl Fabergé and his company. Only forty-eight eggs were made and of those forty-three remain. One year for my birthday I requested a jaunt to Richmond to visit the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to see their collection of twelve. A documentary on the eggs and their creator, Faberge: A Life of Its Own, is currently touring movie theatres across the country, and I hope to have the opportunity to see that soon.

Along with millions of others, I am currently obsessed with Downton Abbey, the glorious creation of Julian Fellowes, whiDownton Abbey costume exhibitch dramatizes the upstairs and downstairs of life on an exquisite country estate in England. The series, with its sixth and final season (insert quiet sobbing here), will air in the US this fall. Since I also have an obsession with the Victorian Era, which gave me reason to study British country homes and the lives of the nobility, I was enthralled with this costume drama from the first five minutes of the very first episode, where Lord Grantham learns of the sinking of the Titanic and the loss of the future heir to his estate. For Christmas this past year, I asked for a trip to Wilmington, Delaware, to see an exhibit of costumes from the television show. Thank goodness my husband is tolerant of these road trips to feed these obsessions.

Books on Kennedy familyLest you think all of my obsessions emanate from across the pond, I have also been obsessed with the Kennedy family for most of my life. Aside from the political dynasty, there’s something about the highs and lows of that family, replete with its glorious successes and grave tragedies, which has always intrigued me. My collection of books about the Kennedy family takes up its very own shelf. I’ve traced Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy’s family history and that of the patriarch of the family, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. While President John F. Kennedy and his dazzling wife Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis would garner enough material for a lifetime of reading, I’m equally as interested in JFK’s eight siblings. I’ve studied Rosemary Kennedy’s life story, including the tragic lobotomy which was supposed to have cured her of her mental disability when instead it institutionalized her for the remainder of her life. There’s the sad love story of Kathleen Kennedy Cavendish, widowed at the age of 28 when her husband, of the British nobility, died at the hands of a German sniper in 1944. She herself then perished in an airplane crash in France in 1948. With nine children and many, many grandchildren, the Kennedys have entered into many different arenas of public life. Their stories are fascinating to me.

In preparing for this essay I made a list of things that I have I’ve been obsessed with and read extensively on in search of knowledge and mastery of a subject: gardening; many, many different authors; cooking in general with jam-making being my current obsession; luxury yachts with Aristotle Onassis’s Christina O, in particular; tennis “grand slam” tournaments and some of that sport’s superstar players; Persian cats; famous gems and precious stones; royal families of Scandinavian countries, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and others; and many other things that I researched and devoured and moved on. I don’t necessarily have a shelf-full of books on all of these topics but I’ve read so much on them I am a dangerous opponent in several categories of the board game Trivial Pursuit. And don’t get me started on Jeopardy. That’s another essay entirely.