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!”

Have Books, Will Travel

bookshelvesSome 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. cooks bookshopWe 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.
  • pittsburghNo 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.
  • lewes24 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. maineWith 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.
  • los angelosFirst 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”. fort myersAs 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.
  • Puerto RicoYes, 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. niagara fallsWhile 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!

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.

Links to Faith and Family

Every morning, I instinrose gold chain and crossctively reach up to feel for the rose gold chain and cross around my neck. I never take it off. It is more than just a sign of my faith; those gold links are a connection to my mother’s family in Scotland.

In 1997 my mother’s first cousin, Anna Liddell, came from Glasgow, Scotland, for one of her visits. She had been traveling from Scotland to Louisiana periodically since 1993, to visit my mother and help care for her after her many surgeries. This time, however, my parents had flown to Maryland in advance of her arrival and they were all going to stay with me for two weeks.

We had a marvelous time, knitting, cooking, shopping, and sharing family stories. Anna was in her late 60’s but spry and fun, full of mischief and energy. I adored her. She had never married, although she had fallen in love when she was young, but sadly, he was protestant, and her Catholic parents would not accept that. Not a trace of bitterness or regret lingered, however, she had made the decision to turn down his proposal of marriage of her own free will, knowing the differences in faith would come between them and their families. Being the only daughter, she remained at home, caring for her parents until their death. After her mother’s death, and her retirement, she began to travel and enjoy her freedom. She and my mother were very close, and my father was very fond of her as well.

One afternoon in my kitchen, she taught me her family’s simple recipe for scones, a staple of the Scottish afternoon tea tray. She complimented me on having a “light hand” with the dough, not kneading it too much or too roughly which would make the scones tough. While they were baking, she reached up around her neck and took off her chain and put it in my hands. She told me her father had given it to her when she was a little girl and she had been wearing it ever since. She insisted I take it, intent on connecting us to one another, across the miles and across the ocean. I’ve worn it ever since.

In May of 2000, my mother in fairly good health, my parents and I traveled to Scotland to visit her. I had traveled overseas as a high school senior, but this was my parents first time outside of the country. It was, as the famous credit card commercial boasted, “priceless”. Anna drove us around Glasgow, pointing out all of the landmarks and sights, but more importantly, the places where my grandparents grew up. We visited St. Agnes Catholic Church, Lambhill, to see where my grandmother made her First Holy Communion. We saw the house where she grew up and the neighborhood where my grandfather lived before he left for America and his job with Freeport Sulphur Company. It saddened me to think that my grandparents never saw their families again after immigrating to America.

We drove through the Highlands, looking over the fields of bluebells and heather, the thistle dancing in the spring breeze. One evening we had a lovely dinner on the shores of Loch Lomond, which Anna told us terrified my grandmother as a young girl. Another day we drove to Edinburgh and toured Edinburgh Castle. While in Edinburgh, we also toured the Royal Yacht Britannia, which had been retired from service by the Royal Family. Anna also took me to the Scottish Opera to see Richard Strauss’s Salome, which was fantastic. We squeezed a lot into that week, spending time in the homes of the families of Anna’s brothers. My parents stayed on for an additional week but I had to return home to my husband, two small children, and work. My mother passed away ten years later, and I am so glad she had that trip to be able to visualize where her parents came from and I was so fortunate to share that experience with her. We all felt very lucky to see Scotland for our first time through Anna’s eyes.

Anna’s cross and chain around my neck is much more than jewelry or a symbol of my faith. It is my link to my Scottish heritage. Someday I hope to pass it down to a granddaughter, putting it in her hands and telling her about Anna, sharing with her our Catholic faith and our Scottish heritage.

Anna’s Scones (sweet)

  • 1 cup self-rising flour
  • 3 tbsp. butter, really cold, cut into small pieces
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 tbsp. sugar
  • ¼ cup raisins or currants
  • ¼ cup milk

 Mix together flour and butter by hand with fork or pastry blender until it resembles a coarse meal. Sprinkle in a pinch of salt, mix well. Add sugar and the raisins or currants. Stir in a little milk at a time until dough forms a ball. Turn dough out onto floured board. Knead lightly about ten times until smooth. Pat or roll out about ½ inch thick. Cut into rounds or triangles and place on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake immediately at 450 degrees in a pre-heated oven for about 10 minutes. Serve with butter or clotted cream and jam or preserves. Yield: about 10 scones

To make these into savory scones, leave out the sugar and raisins (or currants) and add instead ¼ tsp dry mustard powder and ¼ cup grated cheddar cheese. These can be split and served with butter and ham for a light lunch.

Buttered Toast

toastButtered toast.  Buttered toast and a cup of steaming café au lait.  Buttered toast and a cup of English Breakfast tea, with a paper-thin slice of lemon floating delicately on top.  Buttered toast and a cup of homemade chicken noodle soup.  Heck, buttered toast all by itself.  Two ingredients.  Simplicity in itself. Comforting.  Delicious.

For years my dad’s breakfast was a cup of coffee and two slices of Sunbeam white sandwich bread, lightly toasted in the toaster oven (not a pop-up, never) and buttered…stacked one on top of the other, laid upon a folded paper towel and cut in half.  At some point after he had retired early to care for my mom, he switched to canned biscuits, and then to frozen biscuits that he could heat up one or two at a time, again in the toaster oven.  My mom loved her buttered toast and for years joined my dad in the customary breakfast but after a triple bypass in 1993 it was recommended to her that she switch to Cheerios instead.

When I was young and stayed home from school sick, my mom would make me buttered toast in the morning.  At lunch I would get a special treat of a frozen chicken pot pie or a bowl of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle or Chicken and Rice.  And when I was just home from the hospital after delivering by c-section my first child, a beautiful baby girl, my mom served me, yes, you guessed it, a cup of tea and buttered toast. I was exhausted just riding in the car home and that cup of tea and buttered toast is still a vivid memory for me. The restorative values aside, it was the absolutely perfect welcome home snack. Boy, do I miss my mother.

Buttered toast is ubiquitous all over the world.  In India, what is naan if not thin bread that has been “toasted” on a hot slab of rock and coated in ghee (clarified butter).  In Italy, ciabatta sliced thinly and grilled with a little butter (or maybe it would be olive oil instead) is the perfect appetizer when topped with chopped tomatoes, garlic and basil.  Admittedly, toast is not de rigueur in France, where you should expect a crisp on the outside but soft and chewy on the inside baguette or warm and still crackly croissant.  But anywhere in the British Isles, you will absolutely get the message loud and clear that buttered toast is the bread product of preference. If you watch any British sitcom with a breakfast scene I can assure you that you will see how important buttered toast is to the British.  Toast must be served in a toast rack, never laid on a paper towel or stacked on a saucer…this would cause steam from the heat of the bottom slice to eek up into the next slice causing it to become SOGGY, which by definition is not what toast is all about.

The toast rack is a strange little houseware item that looks like a letter holder for your outgoing mail, except that instead of bills and birthday cards standing between the slots, you have slice after slice of toast.  Mostly made out of stainless steel, these are on every table in every bed and breakfast in Great Britain.  My dear husband bought me an antique sterling silver Art Deco one at the famous street flea market on Portobello Road in London for our 15th wedding anniversary.  The whole raison d’être for a toast rack is that air circulates between the slices so there is no way it can steam itself and get soggy.  Remember, steam is the enemy of toast.  Each perfectly toasted slice is then cut or torn into smaller pieces where upon copious amounts of marmalade or preserves are then applied.  Or, maybe a drizzle of honey.  My mom (daughter of Scottish immigrants) always put grape jelly on top of buttered toast and on top of this she placed either two strips of crispy bacon or a slice of fried until it’s almost black Oscar Mayer bologna.  Yummmmmmy.  Did I mention the triple bypass?

But, back to the British and their buttered toast, which is washed down with vast quantities of properly made hot tea from a proper tea pot with proper loose tea leaves, not a Lipton’s bag in a mug with the string hanging over the edge.  When we vacationed in Scotland, visiting my mom’s relatives and staying in a bed and breakfast inn, I swear they would have brought out rack after rack of toast until lunch time, as long as we kept eating it!  In Ireland, visiting friends and a retired priest we know, same thing, even on the buffet in the Americanized chain hotel we stayed in, industrial size toast racks with row after row of perfectly toasted white (and wheat) bread.

But here in the good ole US of A, there is little consideration to be given as to what kind of bread the toast is actually made of . . . white sandwich bread, from either a bag with primary colored dots on it or the one with the adorable-if-not-dated little girl with the blonde curls.  I am fully aware of the health benefits of whole grain, but when it comes to buttered toast, well, why in the world are you going to mess around with sticks and twigs?  Then, of course, comes the other ingredient of the buttered toast recipe, the “buttered” part.  You can begin with the top of the food chain, sweet creamery butter, unsalted of course, and work your way down from there.  I personally grew up on Fleishmann’s margarine, in the sticks, the original flavor.  It’s made of corn oil and is supposed to be healthier for you than real butter.  The best thing I can say for it is this; it is always the perfect consistency for spreading on toast, unlike a stick of butter straight from the fridge.  Of course, we could leave it out on the counter like they do all over Europe (and in some reckless homes in the US too) but the food police would be on us in a minute.

Another British invention for buttered toast is a variation called “toast soldiers”.  This is just buttered toast cut into strips; say maybe three evenly sized strips out of each slice of toast.  These are then dunked into a soft-boiled egg that has had its top cut off.  I’m not much of an egg person, so to me, this is just a waste of a good piece of buttered toast, but it seems to be viewed as somewhat of a religious experience in Great Britain.

So next time you are feeling a wee bit peckish, a little bit blue, or maybe just under the weather, give yourself a boost with a couple of slices of toasted white bread, slathered with sweet butter, and wash it down with a cup of tea, or coffee, or even hot chocolate.  You will not be sorry, I promise you.  And remember, you are just one ingredient and a skillet away from that other all-powerful comfort food, the grilled cheese sandwich, but that’s another story altogether!