Language Learned, Passport Packed

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.

foreign languageLast 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?

passportIn 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. scotlandWhen 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!”

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My Nanny Pat

nanny patMy aunt, Ann Patricia Harvey Tomancik, passed away on Friday, May 18, 2018, just 28 days after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. After spending all weekend doing lesson plans and prepping for missing school, my husband and I flew to Louisiana early Monday morning for the wake on Monday, the funeral on Tuesday, a quick visit with my almost 92-year-old father-in-law Tuesday night, and then we flew  back to DC early Wednesday morning. While in Louisiana, I was able to spend time with my cousins and their families, with both of my brothers, my sister-in-law, my nephews, my husband’s brother and his wife and their two sons. Over the course of those whirlwind days and nights, I learned two important things: (1) it is wonderful spending time with family even in sad times, and (2) grief is exhausting.

On Wednesday, after coming home from the airport, I took a nap, did a bit of school work, and went to bed early, only to awaken on Thursday feeling exhausted and numb. Another nap on Thursday after school did not help, and I found myself half-asleep long before my normal bedtime. Thankfully, we had no school on Friday. After sleeping in late yesterday and today, I finally feel “normal”, although I am still feeling in a very personal way the loss of someone very dear to me. You see, she wasn’t just my aunt, and I felt an incredible and overwhelming need to express this. My cousin graciously allowed me to read my own eulogy to my aunt at the family luncheon that was held after the funeral and burial. Here it is.

To all of you, she was Mom, or Grandma, or Pat, but to me she was my Nanny Pat, my godmother, my mother’s only sibling. I was the flower girl at her wedding to Uncle Frank, and she has always been dear to me. As a little girl I remember our pilgrimages to Baton Rouge to spend a weekend with the Tomanciks, where I would be glued at the hip to my first cousin, Elizabeth, or as I have always called her, Lizard. When the Tomanciks came to visit us in Port Sulphur, I always knew there would be a tin of her little miniature pecan tarts coming out of that car.

One of the best birthday presents I ever received was my very own subscription to Reader’s Digest magazine. I was an avid reader even as a young child, and I had discovered the little magazine filled with stories in the bathroom of Nanny Pat’s house in Baton Rouge. Months later, near my birthday, I received one in the mail, with my very own name on the label. I believe I was 11 or 12 years old at the time, and I could not believe I was going to get one of these wonderful little magazines every single month for a whole year.

One summer we went to Baton Rouge for an entire week. My mom went to help Nanny Pat after she had surgery on the veins in her legs. During the day, my brothers and I went to Vacation Bible School with our cousins. I remember having so much fun that week. Another time, just after Michael was born, we went to Baton Rouge and collected Richard, who was a young toddler. He came home with us to Port Sulphur for a short while to give Nanny Pat time to recover with the new baby and the two older children, Lizard and Steve. My dad set up the baby bed in my brothers’ room and every morning Richard would wake early and stand in the baby bed, shaking the rails back and forth, singing the Batman theme song at the top of his lungs. If we shushed him, he would just whistle it instead. We would finally fish him out of the baby bed and bring him to the kitchen where he would happily eat or drink anything we put in front of him, shouting out, “I do, I do,” when we asked, “Who wants chocolate milk, who wants eggs, who wants toast?”

When I married into the Ardillo family in Amite, Louisiana, Nanny Pat married in as well, coming to visit my in-laws whenever we flew to Louisiana for Christmas or Easter. She loved eating at my father-in-law’s restaurant and having coffee or tea with my mother-in-law in her kitchen. Whenever one of my husband’s relatives was in the hospital in Baton Rouge, there would be Nanny Pat, sitting in the waiting room with them, keeping them company, praying with them, helping take their minds off of things. Just this past Christmas, she sent my father-in-law a Christmas card with a little note, which he kept on the kitchen table to show me at Easter.

My Nanny Pat loved my daughters, always asking right away when we talked, “How are the girls?” For birthdays and holidays, we always received thoughtful gifts in the mail, always things with ties to our Louisiana roots. She loved sharing pictures of her friends and family, especially her grandchildren, whenever we were together to visit. She wrote me long letters, many pages long, filling me in on the whole family and all of her friends, many of whom I had never met nor would ever meet. I always knew what was going on at Woods and Waters and in her church groups. She loved sending me clippings from the newspapers with recipes or articles about people I knew from Louisiana. It seemed like she was always thinking of me.

In 1995, my Nanny Pat gave my family a life-changing gift: she donated a kidney to my mother. My mother had been on dialysis for two years, and she was on the transplant list but she was not doing well. Nobody in my family was a match, not my dad, my brothers, or me. Lizard volunteered but my mother said no, since she was a young mom with two little boys, my mother wouldn’t take the chance that something would go wrong. It wasn’t a good time; Uncle Frank was seriously ill and Nanny Pat was busy taking care of him while worrying about her sister. After Uncle Frank passed away, Nanny Pat quietly went and got tested and then, to our surprise, announced to all of us that she was a perfect match. The surgery was June 20, 1995, and almost immediately my mother’s health improved. She saved my mother’s life and gave all of us twelve additional years with her. When my mother passed away in 2007, my Nanny Pat was at my side, in my parents’ little apartment in Belle Chasse, where they lived after losing everything in Hurricane Katrina. She and I said the rosary together, along with my dad and brothers and my cousin Penny. I was so thankful she was there.

My Nanny Pat never met a stranger, she could make friends at the drop of a hat. She was so cheerful and full of life, even when I last saw her Easter week this year, before she even knew she was so ill. I will miss her so much, but I know I will see her again. For now, she is with Uncle Frank, my mom and dad, her brother, her parents, and all her relatives from Scotland who have gone before her. Thank you for everything, Nanny Pat. May Perpetual Light shine upon you.

Find the Joy – Everywhere and Anywhere

IMG_1040For over a year now, I’ve been ending my tweets and posts on Instagram and Facebook with #findthejoy. Whenever something makes me smile or makes me happy, I snap a pic and tag it #findthejoy. This stemmed from my desire to bring more joy to my social media posts, in an effort to combat the never-ending stream of negativity and sniping that is everywhere today. I also wanted to approach life from a more positive viewpoint, and to just be thankful for the things I have, rather than whining about the things I don’t have.

IMG_1140On April 28, I posted five photos I took while walking my dog after school. They were all taken either in my yard or on my street within a half a block away. I got quite a few comments on the photos on my various social media platforms. I’m far from a professional at photography and these were just quick snaps with my iPhone, holding as steady as possible while my 16-pound Maltipoo jerked my other hand repeatedly to continue walking. IMG_1041

This abnormally high level of traffic to my social media sites made me think about what was so intriguing to my friends about these photos. One possibility is that we had a miserable winter and spring seemed to be taking a leave of absence, so was it that things were blooming and sprouting finally? Was it the #findthejoy caption? Or, is it a sign that others feel similarly about social media: there is too much negativity out there.

IMG_1044My life is not perfect but I am in a very good place right now. I would love to lose some weight, but I weigh less than I have weighed in the past. My knees bother me, especially Mr. Lefty, with his torn ACL, but I don’t think about them that much except when I have to climb a few flights of stairs. I wish I had more free time to read and cook and craft, but I still love teaching and I love my students and the people I work with. I miss my younger daughter terribly (she lives in LA), but my older daughter is back living at home and we are really enjoying her. My aunt, who is also my godmother, is very ill far away in Louisiana, but my father-in-law at the age of 91-1/2 is recovering very well from a heart attack and subsequent treatment for that. I would love to travel overseas again, but I am so very happy at home with my dear hubby cooking a good meal in my new kitchen. So, for me it is very beneficial for me to try to remember to look at the positives in my life.IMG_1042

My conclusion is that we need to find the joy – everywhere and anywhere we can. We need to look for joy, and we need to not focus on our problems. I don’t think it is Pollyanna-ish to say that being in a bad mood breeds dark and melancholy feelings. Being thankful each and every day for the small pleasures of life can help push those negative thoughts aside.

chapelFor me, prayer is a big part of that. I pray frequently throughout the day. Granted, it’s not that difficult when you teach in a Catholic school and the whole school pauses three times a day to pray over the PA system. But I squeeze in other times in my day as well. There’s a lot of talk about mindfulness these days, and it seems to be tied to meditation and Buddhist teachings, things I am not well-schooled on. I do know, however, that when I pray, whether it is for an hour in Mass or during the Angelus at noon at school, I am focused like a laser beam on that prayer, as mindful as I can be that I am in the holy presence of God.

IMG_1045I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid the news, except for a quick glance at headlines on my phone. When driving, I listen to a podcast (What Should I Read Next by Ann Bogel is my favorite, along with Milk Street Kitchen and Bon Appetit) or the PBS classical music station. At home, I watch PBS, Food Network, or HGTV, and if all else fails, I watch a Columbo rerun. I read more now (thanks again to Ann Bogel) and even though I sometimes read things that are dark and gloomy, I am swept away into someone else’s dark and gloomy life, not my own.

Earlier this week, I went back out with dog and phone and snapped a few things that don’t scream out “beautiful”, however, I find them beautiful all the same. Definitely #findthejoy material. What do you think?

So, go on. Go out and find the joy – everywhere and anywhere. The more you look, the more you will find. Use #findthejoy and tag me on one of my social media platforms. Share your joy!

Invite Him to the Storm

imageOne of the things I love most about being Catholic is the ability to practice my faith anywhere, anytime. I’ve attended Mass in nearly every state and country that I’ve visited. Sometimes it has been in a foreign language, and while listening to the homily can be a challenge, I know the parts of the Mass so well I can easily follow along, responding quietly in English. I also always carry my Magnificat with me so I can read the readings and prayers, no matter where I am.

imageWhile visiting a friend in beautiful Fort Myers, Florida, I attended Sunday Mass at the Church of the Resurrection of our Lord. The celebrant was Fr. Oliver Toner, an old (his adjective, not mine) Irish priest, whose lilting accent and demeanor reminded me of one of my favorite priests of all times, Msgr. Oliver McGready, another Irish priest I was blessed to have as pastor of my parish church for over ten years.

imageThe Irish are always ready with a good story to make a point, teach a lesson, or simply just to entertain. Fr. Toner was no exception. The readings for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time were from Genesis and Colossians, with the gospel coming from Luke. The church bulletin advised that the day’s readings were to “address the importance of persistent prayer.” It’s no surprise that this message was especially poignant, given the unrest and discord in the upcoming presidential election as well as the recent spate of violence and brutal killings in my home state of Louisiana, in Florida, in Texas, in Germany, and just recently, in France, where an elderly priest was beheaded while celebrating morning Mass.

imageFr. Toner’s homily focused in on a specific type of prayer, not one of asking but of thanking. His advice was to thank God for the negatives in our lives, not just the positives. In his typically-Irish way of using homey, intimate stories, he illustrated this with several examples. One was that of being called out to give last rites to a woman who had suffered a massive heart attack. The doctor, a golfing buddy of his, advised him that the prognosis was dire as the heart attack had damaged three-quarters of the woman’s heart. On his way out of the emergency room, he was approached by the woman’s husband who was seeking comfort and solace. Fr. Toner told him to pray, and in his prayer, try thanking God for his wife’s heart attack. The man thought it was crazy to do so but felt he had nothing to lose so he did. Months later, Fr. Toner was visited by the man and his wife, who had indeed recovered from the heart attack.

Fr. Toner told several other stories with similar threads, one including a blocked sewer pipe, which brought a laugh from the congregation. He didn’t just tell stories, however, he backed them up with a powerful passage from scripture, 1 Thessalonians 5:18. “In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” In other words, thank God for everything, positive and negative.

imageOn the surface, this seems counter to what we have been taught in our prayer life. As a teacher, when I pray with my students, whether it be before a field trip, before a big exam, or before a rehearsal for the school play, I always tell them to thank God for the blessings He has bestowed on them and only then should they ask for what they need or want. Fr. Toner offered a different template for prayer, one which I will bring back to school with me this fall: ACTS. This simple acronym focuses our prayer efforts in four easy steps. “A” is for acknowledge God as our Father and worship Him in adoration. “C” is for confession of our sins which we bring to Him for healing and mercy. “T” is for thanksgiving, but Fr. Toner shared that perhaps we should think of trust instead, putting our trust in Him to help us through our ordeals. It is at this stage of prayer that Fr. Toner suggested we thank God for the negatives in our lives. Finally, “S” is for supplication, where we turn to God with our requests.

imageWhy should we thank Him for the problems in our lives, for the large and small crosses we feel we have been given to bear? Fr. Toner was ready with the answer to this. He wrapped up his homily by telling the congregation that God is waiting for us to give Him control, for choosing obedience over free will, for allowing Him to embrace the evil and transform it. Fr. Toner said simply, “Bring God into the storms of your life. God can surprise you.”