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June Issue Washington Family Magazine

June issue, Washington Family Magazine

Check out this month’s Washington Family Magazine for my freelance work in their June “Father’s Day” issue:

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Cross on Over to Nerdy Book Club!

After teaching The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, I wrote about the experience–and and the man behind it–for Nerdy Book Club. Please read it here and let me know your thoughts!

Finish Strong

The April 1issue of Washington Family Magazine is now available online. Please see my article “Finish Strong“, pages 14-15, with quotes from some of the best teachers I know!

Who’s Your Favorite?

top tenThese “top 10 of this” and “favorite 5 of that” lists are very popular these days. Someone is always posting a list of these types of things on Facebook: list your favorite book (Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier), favorite song (“Your Song” by Elton John), favorite color (pink), favorite day of the week (Sunday), favorite Beatle (Paul), favorite food (cheese), etc. Answering these things on Facebook is supposed to help your “friends” get to know you better. To be honest, I enjoy reading these lists on my friends’ posts every now and then.

jesus and god with holy spiritRecently, one of my husband’s coworkers, a devout Catholic, lost his mother and my husband and I went to the wake. He and his wife are active in their church parish, which is something his wife mentioned about my husband and me when she introduced us to a friend of hers. priest cartoonShe then shared a story with her friend and me. She said she had recently been on a flight seated next to a man dressed in clerical clothing. She asked if he was a priest and he responded that yes, he was a Catholic priest. They chatted amicably for a few minutes, and then she asked him a question. She said that she hoped he wouldn’t think it was irreverent or sacrilegious, but she wanted to know, “Is it okay to have a favorite member of the Holy Trinity?”

whoa“Whoa!” slipped out of my mouth before I could catch it. She laughed and said that the priest had a similar response. As Catholics, we are taught about the Holy Trinity early on in our faith formation: “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, God in three persons, the Holy Trinity.” If they are three in one being, then how could you have a favorite? They can’t be separated that way, or can they?

mary with rosaryIn the weeks that have transpired since that conversation, I have thought about it quite a bit, and then, yesterday morning, after daily Mass, the priest gave a brief reflection after the Mass. He recounted a story to us about praying the rosary in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary, while his father was very ill in the hospital. In the middle of the rosary, he had a feeling of overwhelming spirituality come over him, and he stopped his rosary to pray directly to God the Father. He said it was almost as though Mary had stepped back and away from him in order for him to have this intimate conversation with God the Father. After this brief interlude, he resumed his rosary and felt at piece with the many issues weighing on him involving his father’s illness.

So, this young priest had clearly separated God the Father from the rest of the Holy Trinity. This made me think that perhaps my conversation with this woman at the wake was not that unusual after all.

The story from our priest reminded me about a similar episode in my own prayer life. Sometimes in the early ‘90s, I had just found out some bad news about my mother’s health. I left work and drove home, crying and sobbing over the dismal news. rosaryWhen I got home I went straight to my bedroom and got my rosary from my bedside table. I knelt there at the side of my bed and said the rosary, but somewhere in the middle of a decade of the rosary, I stopped saying a Hail Mary and turned my prayer directly to God the Father. I asked Him to please not take my mother then, to allow her to watch my girls grow up, to give her more time with us. God heavenI talked to Him about how she had struggled in her life and how she had had so many crosses to bear, losing both her parents at a young age, marrying my father and being part of a completely different culture, her many ongoing health issues, and later, losing every single thing she owned in Hurricane Katrina. I told Him everything, and I asked Him for peace in this crisis in my life. A calm came over me and I returned to saying my rosary. Clearly, I had had a spiritual and intimate conversation with God the Father, but until Saturday morning’s reflection, I had not really thought of it in that way.

god the sonAs a regular churchgoer, I think of the Mass in terms of God the Son. He is there, up on the crucifix, up on the altar, present in the Eucharist. We hear His stories in the Old Testament, we are His invited guests at the Last Supper during the Eucharistic Prayer. So, when I am in church, particularly in Mass, I feel that I am having that same spiritual and intimate conversation with God the Son.

holy spiritThat just leaves God the Holy Spirit. Catholic middle school students are told at dances to “leave room for the Holy Spirit” when dancing to slow songs. We’ve all heard the phrase, “It was the Holy Spirit” that did this or that. Last May, I received a call from a friend who told me of a job opening at my parish school, where my daughters were educated, where my husband and I spend so much of our time. I had always wanted to teach there but there was never an opening when the timing was right. This was the third time an opening in my content area and grade level had come up, and this time, I decided I would go in and interview for the position. Changing schools was a challenge, as I had only ever taught at one school for my whole career. Many times, I had taught four or more children from a single family, had watched the whole family grow up, graduate, and go to college. I had (and still have) many dear friends on faculty there. But, I felt the Holy Spirit was calling me to make this change.

hands on the earthYes, it was a change, fraught with challenge. I have six preps (lesson plans) a day now which is twice as many as I had before. I am teaching 6th grade literature for the first time. At my school, the 5th grade is part of the middle school, and before this year, I was not around 5th grade very much. The student body is very diverse, with students from El Salvador, Peru, Ethiopia, South Sudan, the Philippines, India, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and many more. Learning to pronounce and spell some of the first and last names has been a bit of work, to say the least.

keep calmBut, there have been many blessings as well. All of those cultures blend together to make a very interesting and rich classroom environment. They are lovely children, polite and courteous, full of energy and enthusiasm, the same as children from my old school. I have grown greatly as a teacher, improving in many areas of my classroom skills. With increased preps, I have become much more efficient in my lesson planning and grading; I use my planning periods much more resourcefully. The atmosphere in the hallways and among the faculty is positive and upbeat. There is laughter everywhere. My commute is now only 1.7 miles each way, and I can be at school in about 5 minutes. I am more fully a part of my church parish community. And, I have my friend to thank for it, or do I? We both have commented that it was the Holy Spirit that made this happen, and so I offer prayers of thanksgiving to God the Holy Spirit each day for this opportunity.

gold triangleThe Holy Trinity has been a part of my faith life since I was born and baptized into the Catholic Church, but until that recent conversation at the wake, I’ve never really thought of them as having distinct and separate effects on my life. Saturday’s reflection after Mass has given me new insight into my prayer life and how I view God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, God in three persons, the Holy Trinity.

#LeaningintoLent

lent 40 daysIt’s Lent, and I’m a Catholic school teacher. That means I bring my faith and religion to work with me every day, and I bring my work to my faith and religion every day. At my school, we talk about our Catholic faith a lot, in all classes-not just in religion class.

what to give upMy middle school students were happy to discuss with me in literature class what they were giving up for Lent or what they were adding to their prayer life to make their Lent more meaningful. We were all ready to begin this liturgical season, all of us #LeaningintoLent together.

lent word cloudOur middle school religion teacher is also our assistant principal, and along with her administrative duties to support the principal, she is also our in-house spiritual guide. In our Sunday evening email entitled “This Week”, she outlines the coming week’s calendar and school events, ending it with a prayer, a reflection on a passage of scripture, or a quote from a saint.

ash wednesdayLast Sunday’s email reminded us that even though Wednesday was February 14th and therefore Valentine’s Day, it was also Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and as Catholics, we were to fast and abstain from eating meat. Abstaining from meat is the easy part…it’s the fasting that takes some discipline.

butternut squashI decided to make a big pot of soup to bring to school on Ash Wednesday to share with my colleagues, to help us all out with having a small snack-sized meal at lunch, something to give us the energy to make it through the rest of the school day. My husband had brought home two butternut squash from the grocery store and one of them was crying out to be made into a thick and creamy vegetarian soup!

leanintolentThere are quite a few butternut squash soup recipes simmering away on the internet, and after researching all of them, as usual, I took the things I liked from one, and added them to the things I liked from another, to come up with my own version. My original twists were the addition of herbes de Provence to season the aromatics at the beginning, and dans le style Belge, just before serving, the addition of equal parts of brown sugar and vinegar to brighten the flavors at the end of cooking.

It must have been a hit, because almost five quarts of my butternut squash disappeared that day!

If you need a belly-warming vegetarian meal for your Lenten Fridays, or if you just want to enjoy the last days of soup weather in a healthy way, try my version of butternut soup. Let me know how it turns out!

Curried Coconut Butternut Squash Soup with Apples

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium leek, well-cleaned and rinsed, dark green parts discarded and light green/white parts finely chopped
  • 1 bunch green onions, dark green parts discarded and light green/white parts finely sliced
  • 1 red bell pepper, cored and seeded, diced
  • 3 stalks of celery, finely diced
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
  • ¼ tsp herbes de Provence
  • 1 tsp curry powder
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 medium-size butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1” inch cubes
  • 2 medium-sized Granny Smith apples, peeled and cored, diced
  • 1 14-ounce (414 ml) can light coconut milk
  • 2 32-ounce cartons of vegetable broth
  • 1 tbsp brown sugar (light or dark, either is fine)
  • 1 tbsp apple cider vinegar

Instructions

  1. Heat oil in a large, heavy pot (5 quart or larger) over medium heat.
  2. Once hot, add leeks, green onions, bell pepper, and celery. Season with salt, pepper, crushed red pepper flakes, herbes de Provence, curry powder, and cumin. Sauté until vegetables are soft, about 2 minutes, stirring frequently.
  3. Add butternut squash and apples. Stir to coat. Then cover and cook for 4 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  4. Add coconut milk and vegetable broth. Stir well.
  5. Bring to a low boil over medium heat and then reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes or until butternut squash is fork tender.
  6. Use an immersion blender, or transfer soup to a blender, and purée on high until creamy and smooth. If using a blender, return soup back to pot.
  7. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding more curry powder, salt, or chili paste (or sriracha for heat). Continue cooking for 10 minutes over medium heat.
  8. Just before serving, add apple cider vinegar and brown sugar. Stir well. Serve as is or with garnishes of choice (toasted pumpkin seeds, grated fresh coconut, chili paste, etc.). Store leftovers covered in the refrigerator for 3-4 days or in the freezer up to 1 month.

The Big One

It’s my birthday. Not just any birthday, either. It’s the big one. The big 6-0. As in, senior citizen discount at some places. As in AARP stuff in the mail EVERY SINGLE DAY.

birthday-streamers

My classroom

I had a great day. My classroom was decorated with streamers, lots of little goodies and treats found their way to my desk, students brought in cards and gift cards, room parents brought in a cake, a large pumpkin spice latte, a beautiful plant, and colleagues dropped by throughout the day with well-wishes and lovely gifts. One daughter gave me a gift bag full of birthday treasures and the other daughter sent the most beautiful arrangement of autumn flowers. My husband gave me a lovely glass and crystal cross, as well as a well-planned vacation for us in the near future.

 

flowers-from-maddie

Flowers from my daughter, Maddie

In spite of all of this, however, I’ve been thinking about this birthday with trepidation for about a year. I had trouble in my late fifties keeping the numbers straight. Am I 57 or 58? Sometimes I literally had to do the math. As in, “2014 minus 1956 equals 58. Yeah, that’s right, I’m 58.”

 

It’s not that I was in denial; I just didn’t care. The numbers didn’t seem to mean anything to me. I didn’t feel any differently at 56 than I did at 55 or 53 for that matter, so 57 and 58 really didn’t matter. BUT, and this is a big but, 59 hit me hard. On the morning of my 59th birthday, the first thing I thought was, “In one year I will be SIXTY.”

charles-dickens-action-figure

Charles Dickens action figure from my daughter, Margaret

There is no doubt about it. Sixty carries a certain degree of gravitas with it. My dad was 60 when his first grandchild, my older daughter, was born. Two years later, when my younger daughter was born, my mother was 60, and for her, that is when it all went to hell. She had a physical breakdown after enduring a very stressful incident where my baby brother was lost (and subsequently found, thank God) on the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico during a historic ice storm. She nearly died, and in the ensuing tests, was discovered to need bypass surgery on several arteries to her heart, renal bypass surgery as a result of untreated high blood pressure, and a cone biopsy for cervical cancer.

twitter-birthday-wishes

Birthday balloons from Twitter!

The bypass surgery and cone biopsy went well, but the renal bypass did not, and she came out of that operation on dialysis and on the kidney transplant list. For two years she endured dialysis and poor health until my aunt, her sister, gave her the gift of life with one of her very own kidneys. This selfless act of love gave my family twelve additional years with my mother, twelve years we would not have had were it not for Nanny Pat and her perfect match.

 

So, I was thinking last year on this day, how can I be one year from all of that? Luckily, just before my 59th birthday, a very brusque cardiologist stopped me dead in my tracks, and said one sentence filled with words that had taken me a lifetime to hear, a lifetime of yoyo dieting, faux exercising, and moaning over the fact that I could not lose weight, a lifetime to finally get, “Have you read your own medical history? If you continue on this path, you will be giving yourself insulin in a year, with more challenging health issues to follow.”

downton-birthday-humor

Downton silliness from a co-worker

After emptying my purse of any and all edible items while standing at the parking pay station that afternoon, I cradled my iPhone on my shoulder while telling my husband, “I’m done. That’s it. The foolishness is over. DO NOT purchase or bring home anything from the following list: pasta, bread, white potatoes, rice, dessert.” Instead, we eat primarily from a new list: lean protein, low-fat dairy, seeds and nuts, fruits and vegetables, and beans.

array-of-cards-and-notes

An array of cards and notes from students and teachers

A little over a year later, I am not just a sixty-year-old woman, I am a new person. After a lifetime of having little to no willpower, I now understand that my everyday routine does not have to include large amounts of carbohydrates, which turn into sugar, which is a bad thing for me. I managed to lose a significant amount of weight, and successfully make it through major holidays, two birthdays, three vacations, daily trips to the faculty room, otherwise known as carbohydrate central, and much, much more. My husband and I have changed so much about how we eat, how we order food in a restaurant, how we grocery shop, how we treat ourselves.

hubby-birthday-gift

Crystal and glass cross from my husband

Late this summer I joined a gym. When I walked into Planet Fitness for the first time, it was my first time in a gym. I was grossly intimidated by the shiny machines, by the endless spandex, by the stoic way in which everyone was just going about their own business getting it done. With the help of a friend and my husband, I made myself comfortable on a few of the machines and began the process of slowly getting into better shape. This was made easier by the several years of dog-walking, where I slowly increased my daily steps from dismal to not too embarrassing.

birthday-macarons

French macarons and gifts from co-workers

Shopping for clothing in the last few months as I have continued to tone up a bit even when not losing any new pounds has become less of a dreadful experience, where I now leave with things that I “love”, not things that just “fit”. Everything I already own fits better, and a few things actually fall into that previously unknown category of “too big”. This summer I bought a bathing suit that I actually was happy with, and wore it in Florida to actually go swimming—without a cover-up.

birthday-plant-and-cards

Birthday surprises everywhere!

It’s the little things, right, but my blood work is not a little thing. With a modest weight loss of just a little over 10% of my starting point, I reversed all my bad numbers and increased all my good numbers. I am no longer pre-diabetic and I do not at this time need a statin or cholesterol-lowering drug.

pumpkin-spice-latte-and-cards

Gift cards and a pumpkin spice latte, my favorite!

Do I still have work to do? Absolutely. My next weight-loss goal is to lose enough to weigh the “lie” on my driver’s license. My next fitness goal is to tone up my arms so I can wear sleeveless dresses and tops, especially when my husband and I go to Puerto Rico in November, which was my big 60th birthday present. I can’t wait. Flying is so much more comfortable since I’ve trimmed down a bit, and I have no fear that the seat belt won’t buckle or that I will feel like I’m spilling out of my seat onto my neighbor. Going to Puerto Rico has been a dream of mine since second grade, when my good friend Patty moved there because of her dad’s work. I can’t wait!

birthday-dinner-with-margaret

Daughter Margaret and me at birthday dinner #2

And so as my big day, my big 60th birthday day, comes to a close, I feel content and at peace with my new age. I don’t think I will have trouble remembering how old I am this year, and not because I feel panicky about being this old. I feel really good about where I am right now, both personally and professionally.

birthday-dinner-with-belgian-friends

My husband and me at birthday dinner #1

My husband, who is my best friend in the whole world, worked really hard to make this birthday really special. I’ve gone out for a birthday dinner every single day since Friday! Some dining choices this long weekend have been healthier than others, but have no fear, I’m back on the wagon tomorrow! I’ll also be making a visit to Planet Fitness this week to work off some of this birthday glory before things get out of hand.

birthday-cake-at-school

Birthday cake from my students

My daughters have been so thoughtful and kind, just a reminder of what wonderful young women they have become. I am so incredibly proud of both of them; and while we miss having them at home with us, we are happy they are happily out on their own, making their own path through life.

maddie-at-joans-on-third

Daughter Maddie sent birthday wishes from LA!

This is my tenth year of teaching, and six weeks in, it feels like it will be my best one yet. My eighth grade class this year is unbelievable, a wonderful group of smart, hard-working, sweet, young men and women who really want to do well. They have re-inspired me to be the best teacher I can be, both for myself as well as for them.

mark-twain-quoteIn closing, I leave you with a favorite quote of the great American author, Mark Twain, who never took himself too seriously. As I start my next (seventh, YIKES) decade, I will try to remember this. I’ll keep working on my health and fitness goals, continue to grow spiritually and professionally, cherish my family and friends, and try not to take myself, or my age, too seriously. Cheers, à votre santé!

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.”