If books were people, and if Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin married 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, and if those two book-people had a baby, it would be Love & Saffron by Kim Fay, and that baby’s godmother would be Ruth Reichl.
I devoured this book in one day. Granted I was in a hotel room with a crying baby in the room on one side of me and a barking dog in the room on the other side of me and the roiling ocean waves off my balcony were the OG white noise machine soothing away my frustration at the poor weather conditions for my short getaway to the beach on my Easter break from teaching.
On my first day at the beach I visited the town’s independent bookstore and purchased one book of fiction (Love & Saffron) and one of nonfiction (Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson). Opting for the fiction first, I started Kim Fay’s short epistolary novel after breakfast this morning. My husband and I took a walk up and down the boardwalk and the wind and chill factor drove us back inside and back to our books. I was not unhappy, lol.
My first epistolary piece of literature, like many, was probably Diary of a Young Girl. When I started teaching, I discovered Karen Cushman’s masterpiece Catherine, Called Birdy. Of course I read Helen Fielding’s bevy of Bridget Jones’ works and stumbled upon a rather dry piece called Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday which was a glorious gem of cinematography when adapted for film starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt. Eventually I discovered The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, and I realized with great clarity that I loved books told through letters or diary entries.
So, perusing the shelves in the bookstore on Monday, I noticed this slim volume on the staff picks’ shelf. The short description drew me in: a story of food and friendship, of love and loss. Yes please.
With its bright cover and clocking in at just 193 pages, you might be fooled into thinking this was a beach read. You would be wrong. Set in the early 1960s with the drama of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the trauma of JFK’s subsequent assassination, Love & Saffron starts off innocently enough with a fan letter from a devoted female reader to a female columnist on the other side of the country. The letter is sent along with a small packet of saffron and a recipe of sorts for mussels steamed in a vermouth and saffron sauce. As the correspondence continues between these two women, much different in age and personality, a true friendship develops. In the span of the four years covered by the novel, we watch the friendship develop into a mutual love and respect for one another. In much the same way that Olive Kitteridge grows and evolves in Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Imogen Fortier, as well as her husband Francis, also grows and evolves as a result of her correspondence with Joan Bergstrom. Imogen realizes that along with her unadventurous palate, she has not really given life a chance. Joan’s openness to foreign cuisines, international travel, and inclusivity begins to work its magic on Imogen. And, as quid pro quo, Joan’s confidence in herself as a writer and as a food expert, blossoms.
No spoilers here. The cover says “A novel of friendship, food, and love,” but there is loss as well and when it comes it tears a hole in your heart. That sadness is worth it, however. Imogen, Francis, and Joan all grow and evolve and live richer lives as a result of that one simple fan letter and a small packet of saffron.
When I started teaching 8th grade English, I had the urge to do some writing for myself. Modeling essay structure for my students became fun, not work. I had many papers to write in my graduate courses for certification to teach, and my instructors would tell me I was a good writer. But, teaching full-time while earning my teaching certificate did not allow much free time for creative writing. Once the certification process was complete, I began to tinker around with short stories and an idea for a young adult novel, but my beta readers all told me the same thing: Too much exposition. Takes too long to get started. You don’t write the way you tell your stories. Your stories are so much more exciting. This was also confirmed when I sent a piece off for a professional critique. The one positive comment: Your dialogue is so realistic!
So, I decided to back up and try a different tactic. Since telling stories seemed to be my strong suit, I decided to concentrate on writing creative non-fiction. So, on December 31, 2014, my daughters helped me create a website, this website, Cajun Girl in a Kilt. I set a goal: An Essay a Week for One Year. My hope was that in that one year of disciplined writing, of putting my work out there for all to see (and hopefully read), my writing would improve. I would learn to get to the point. I would learn to dive into the story rather than dilly dally around it. I would strengthen my ability to write something with a beginning, a middle, and an ending. I would hopefully learn to write the way I tell stories, with more imagery and excitement. Practice makes perfect, right?
My first essay was about our dog, License to Carry. I pushed the “publish” button and the line was drawn in the sand. I’ve never ever given up on anything in my life, so I had no intention of giving up on this goal either.
However, 2015 proved to stretch me to my limits. For some crazy reason I decided to direct High School Musical Jr. for my former school’s spring musical. Rehearsals began in February, and middle schoolers came out in droves. It was the biggest cast ever, almost fifty 7th and 8th graders involved in the production. Think cheerleading uniforms for 25 girls and basketball uniforms for a bunch of boys, the largest number of boys we’d ever had show up for auditions. Balancing the extra workload of directing this mega-musical with teaching full-time, and squeezing out enough time to write an essay each week before my midnight Sunday deadline, was quite the challenge.
And, then God sent me yet another cross. My father in Louisiana became critically ill and was in and out of the hospital and rehab center. Things really escalated in April just before tech week for the musical. I flew to Louisiana to help my brothers manage my father’s care and make many difficult decisions, leaving the production to the care of the teachers on my team. They did a wonderful job of pulling it all together, and I returned to Maryland just in time to see the closing performance, which was a splendid success.
Sadly, my father died less than two weeks later, sending me back to Louisiana for his funeral, at a very busy time in the life of a middle school teacher: exams, graduation, report cards, permanent records, closing up a classroom for the summer. Somehow, in grief, I managed to keep my deadline each week, with several essays being written on my father’s computer. Those essays are still difficult for me to read, but most importantly I continued to pursue my goal, to write and hone my craft.
Fast forward to New Year’s Eve 2015. Hurray, I had reached my goal, 52 essays, one a week for one year, all written and published on my website before midnight each Sunday! Whether out of habit or out of some competitive need to continue on, I continued writing my weekly essays until the end of April of 2016. At this point, a friend said to me, “Stop! You did it, now work on getting published in print!”
But, how? The answer came to me when I happened to pick up a copy of Washington Family Magazine, a regional parenting magazine dropped off at my former school once a month. In the February 2017 issue, I read the article, “Local Mom Profile: Welcome Back to the Table”. It was a great article, but as I was reading it, I thought, “I can do this. I can write an article like this.”
Later that week I queried Washington Family Magazine and asked if they would be interested in a profile of a local mom who had converted her garage into an art studio where she hosts the ever-popular paint night parties and uses her art to promote her social justice causes. After getting the green light to proceed, I signed up for one of her paint parties and subsequently scheduled an interview with her. I submitted the article in March, and then radio silence. In the months that followed, I followed up with the editor periodically while I shopped the article around to some national publications. I received polite rejections, although one did tell me it was well-written and enjoyable to read.
The article, “Local Mom Profile Artist Angie Kilcullen and Barn Again Home” was eventually published in the March 2018 issue of Washington Family Magazine, almost a year later. In the subsequent five months, I am happy to report that I’ve developed an ongoing working relationship with this local magazine:
And, I’ve submitted one for the upcoming September issue.
As with “An Essay a Week for One Year”, I’ve accomplished my goal of getting published in print. Onward to a new goal, to reach outside of this local market and get published in a national publication. I continue to work on my fiction writing as well, having spent some of this summer fine-tuning a short story that takes place at the popular PBS program Antiques Roadshow. I’ve submitted it to a local literary contest. We’ll see. I’ve had good luck locally!
The first time I really felt like a grown-up was when my parents came to spend the weekend with me in my tiny studio apartment. I cleaned like a fiend all week, shopped for all my dad’s favorite foods, changed the sheets and made my bed like a hospital orderly (I would be sleeping on my couch), and planned out every single cup of coffee, snack, and meal. I made sure I had some new magazines on the coffee table for my mom to flip through while watching tv, and I also put a fresh roll of toilet paper on the night table by my bed for her to use to “wrap her hair” before bed. When the weekend had come to an end, after morning Mass on Sunday and a nice lunch out compliments of my dad, I remember feeling completely drained, totally exhausted.
After that first time, and soon married with children, I always loved when they came to visit me, and I always felt so grown-up and responsible, taking care of their needs, taking my mom shopping at her favorite stores, taking them to Mass at our parish church where we knew everyone and everyone knew us. Years and years later, when they came to stay with me for a few weeks after having lost every single thing they owned in Hurricane Katrina, I fretted over them to the same degree, but that time it was out of deep concern and compassion for what they were experiencing. My parents are both gone from this world, hopefully enjoying eternal life and true peace after so much hardship, illness, and personal tragedy.
This past weekend, my husband and I traveled to Pittsburgh to visit our older daughter. We stayed in a hotel Saturday night, had a wonderful meal Saturday night to celebrate Father’s Day and her birthday a bit early, met her for Mass on Sunday morning, and then enjoyed a nice lunch before my husband headed back home to Maryland. I stayed behind and spent the night in her apartment, as we are about to embark on our first ever mother-daughter trip. My daughter has a conference in Niagara Falls, and since I am out of school for the summer, I am tagging along.
Yesterday after my husband left us, we went out to do a bit of shopping. She took me to the two places I needed to go to pick up items I had mentioned I wanted, knitting needles and flip flops. Neither was absolutely necessary but she drove me around and waited patiently while I made my purchases. After a lovely dinner at the home of her friend’s parents, we returned to her apartment and watched tv and chatted. She fussed over me, made me a cup of tea, and after some wrangling, I convinced her to let me sleep on the couch since she had to rise early and dress for work today.
Today I have enjoyed a quiet and peaceful day alone in her lovely apartment, reading and doing a bit of writing. While saying my morning prayers, I prayed for my brother-in-law who is ill, in thanksgiving for my husband’s safe return home, and for my parents whom I miss greatly. As always, I also thanked God for the gift of my two beautiful daughters, now grown-ups living off on their own, far away from home, working and making a life for themselves. Being a guest in my daughter’s apartment has brought me much joy and a fond remembrance of hosting my own parents over the years. The tables have indeed turned.
My spring break is drawing to a close. For once I made sure I could really relax and not have a ton of school work hanging over my head the whole time. It made a huge difference. I had a great visit with my older daughter, did a bit of spring cleaning, baked an elaborate from-scratch chocolate cake for my husband’s birthday, had long walks with my dog each day, finished a short story I’ve been working on, did some other writing, and read a lot. This morning I slept in and then read for a while, a cozy mystery by an Australian author. It’s my first book of hers and it is enjoyable, light reading. At one point the characters, who have formed an Agatha Christie Book Club of all things, have afternoon tea together, and being mid-morning, I decided to have a cup of tea and a bit to eat.
My husband and I have all but eliminated bread in our house but that’s what I really wanted. Tea and toast. Staring into the abyss that is a nearly empty fridge I saw the leftover buttermilk from the chocolate birthday cake recipe. Hmm, buttermilk. That made me think of Irish soda bread. Irish soda bread is a snap to make and goes really great with a steaming cup of tea, Irish or not. So, I grabbed my Baking with Julia cookbook and headed to the kitchen.
Because of the low-carb mandate we have been living with, I had almost no all-purpose flour, having used three cups for the birthday cake earlier in the week. So, with a nod to Marion Cunningham’s original recipe, I had to improvise and substitute a bit to produce a half-recipe of her Irish soda bread. And, since I was in a hurry to get back to my book with the tea and toast, I baked it in a muffin tin to speed things up a bit. I set up a tea tray with good Irish butter and my homemade orange marmalade. The end result? Yummy!
Irish Soda Bread in a Hurry
1 cup of all-purpose flour
1 cup of self-rising flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
½ cup raisins
1 cup of buttermilk
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Spray muffin tin with vegetable cooking spray and set aside.
Put all ingredients in bowl of stand mixer except for buttermilk. Mix briefly to combine.
With mixer on low, slowly drizzle in buttermilk. Mix on low-medium until dough comes together and forms around paddle. If too sticky, add a tablespoon of flour until ball of dough forms. (Likewise, if too dry, add a few drops of buttermilk until ball of dough forms.)
Using an ice cream scoop, divide dough evenly between 12 muffin cups.
Bake at 375 degrees for 18-20 minutes, until tops are golden and toothpick comes out clean from center of dough.
Recently I was reading the latest issue of Writer’s Digest magazine when I came across an interview with Drew Daywalt, who was featured on the cover. I had not yet heard of him (sorry, Mr. Daywalt) but the image of his two children’s books on the first page of the article caught my eye so I read on. Intrigued, I did a bit of research on him and found that he was also featured on one of my favorite websites, Nerdy Book Club. It didn’t take me long to get the 4-1-1 on Drew Daywalt.
By all accounts, Drew Daywalt has had quite a varied career, even at the current age of only 46. He graduated from Emerson College with a double major in screenwriting and children’s lit, leaving the door wide-open as to future plans. He headed to Hollywood with a friend after graduation, using his screenwriting degree to work for the likes of Disney, Universal, Quinton Tarantino, and Jerry Bruckheimer, a charmed life for sure. In 2003, with his wife pregnant with their first child, he sat down at his desk to write a children’s book. His goal was to write something that his kids could read some day, because his work so far had been in horror films, certainly not bedtime-reading material, even in Hollywood.
As he surveyed his desktop of the grown-up tools of a writer, he spotted a box of crayons, which he dumped out on his desk. His creative wheels started to turn and from that box of well-used crayons came the 2013 book The Day the Crayons Quit, illustrated by celebrated artist and Emmy winner Oliver Jeffers. Daywalt’s first venture in children’s literature remained on the New York Times bestseller for two years, and was followed by the sequel, The Day the Crayons Came Home, published in August of 2015 to critical acclaim as well.
I haven’t read Daywalt’s books, although they are currently on order from Amazon, but from reading about them, I am intrigued. The first book is a series of letters from the individual crayons to an unseen little boy named Duncan. Apparently, each crayon has a beef with its owner. It’s this use of personification that interests me, that each crayon has written the boy with complaints about his use (or non-use) of them.
I also have boxes of crayons, markers, and colored pencils at my disposal. In 7th and 8th grade language arts, we normally express ourselves in essays about the literature we are reading. However, after studying Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, I realized the value in allowing students the opportunity to express themselves in a more artistic way, with the creation of posters or brochures to accompany oral presentations.
It was only a small step from thinking of the crayons as individuals quitting their job for a variety of different reasons to considering my middle school students as a box of crayons. John Mayer said once in an interview that he considered himself a box of 64-crayons, although a few were missing. I’m not 100% clear on what he meant by this but I like the visual image his quote calls to mind. We are all individuals, each one of us unique and one-of-a-kind, yet we have many of the same facets of others mixed in to our unique blend. And, to extend the metaphor a bit more, we do all have to live together in one box, like it or not.
In the 1994 film Forrest Gump, the lead character, played by Tom Hanks, says “Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Sometimes I think of my classroom full of students as a box of chocolates, the assorted ones that come without the labels on the lid of the box to tell you what is inside of each one.
As the school year begins, you have no idea what is inside each chocolate, but slowly, through class discussions, graded work, creative writing, field trips, and after-school activities, you get to know each student as an individual. Each one has strengths and weaknesses. Some have well-developed senses of humor and a firm handle on irony and sarcasm while others are more literal and sensitive. Some feel more at home in a math or science classroom and can’t match my enthusiasm for reading or writing about literature. A few students each year remind me of myself at that age, a book at the ready in case there is any down time in the school day or the opportunity to escape back into the story they are half-way through. Some are fledgling writers while others have already found their voice and are well on their way to being able to write coherent and pertinent analytical essays. Many list “recess” as their favorite subject, followed by PE as a close second. My school is very sports-oriented and as a result I have had to step up my game and learn some sports lingo to better communicate with them. I now have, with the help of my husband, some sports analogies that help with grammar rules as well as classroom discussions about characterization and plot. While talking about sports is not my strong suit, I am okay with them knowing that they have the upper hand in this area. It evens the playing field a bit.
Since my school is a traditional co-ed K-8 Catholic school, I also observe daily the many differences between adolescent boys and adolescent girls, not the least of which is the differences in their maturity levels. It is interesting to see how even when we end up in the same place, with the same answer as to the dominant theme of this work or that, the approach the boys and girls take is quite different. I have girls who are quiet and reticent to participate in class discussions but I also have girls who are strong and confident, not concerned with what the boys may think about their comments in the class discussions. The same goes for the boys, a fair mixture of those who avoid contact when I am looking for an answer as well as those ready to debate anything and everything at the drop of a hat.
Whether I use the box of crayons or the box of chocolates as my metaphor, my days are segmented into 40-minute periods with a revolving door of unique individuals coming and going. It is my job to find out what is inside each one, much like the assorted chocolates, peel back the wrapper a bit and figure out how best to reach and teach that individual. With 18-23 in each of my six classes, that seems next to impossible. But, to the contrary, I am energized by it and, even now, in my ninth year of teaching, I can honestly say I absolutely love teaching. At the end of each school day, I am most often content with my work for the day, even if it meant I was successful with making a substantial connection with only a few that day. Each day starts anew, and at 8:20 each morning, I start with a clean slate and a new lesson plan, albeit the same goal: to share with them my love of literature and the importance of reading and writing well.
One 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.
Tonight, 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”.
The 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.
I’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.
May 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!
I did it. I really did it. This essay marks the finish line, the accomplishment of a goal, the completion of a commitment I made one year ago on New Year’s Eve, 2014, when I, with the help of my two tech-savvy and very creative daughters, developed a website on Word Press—Cajun Girl in a Kilt—and published my first essay, “License to Carry”, about my dog Puccini. A week later, during one of my planning periods at school, I posted another essay, entitled “What Makes a Writer a Writer?” That second essay was to affirm my commitment to this project I had cooked up—to draw a line in the sand, so to speak, and to establish the guidelines for my yearlong project to becoming a writer.
Aunt Helen, walking the ruins of the Acropolis, Athens, Greece, 1973
I know myself all too well. Many times in my life I’ve started something with the best of intentions and for various reasons did not follow through, so the accomplishment of this goal is significant for me. A perfect example of this is taking on new hobbies, which I inherited genetically from my dad’s sister, Helen Blanchard Songy. My dear Aunt Helen loved learning new things; she loved the excitement of gathering all of the materials and equipment, the very best of everything, required for her new hobby. She would then bring in an expert, someone accomplished in that area to teach her this new thing. She would invite friends and family members over, including my mom, serve food and drink, and in the confines of a party atmosphere, she would learn her new hobby. Over the years, she tried just about everything, hand-painted porcelain, oil painting, quilting, tatting, smocking, knitting, and many others. She was very talented and had a high degree of artistic skills. She took such an interest in ceramics that she had my Uncle Guy purchase a kiln for her and install it in a vacant rental house he owned. She lined the walls of that little house with molds, ceramic tools, and jugs of slip, the liquid used to create ceramic pieces.
Nefertiti bust, made by Aunt Helen (undated)
I am lucky enough to have several pieces she made for me, before her interest in ceramics waned and she moved on to the next new thing on the horizon. Some may have seen her lack of completion of some projects as a failure to follow through on a commitment, but I don’t believe that was it at all. For her, the finishing of a project was not the goal; it was the learning of a new skill or the developing of a new talent. She didn’t want to become a ceramic artist; she just wanted to learn how to do it. Martha Stewart has built an entire empire on that very notion; it’s a good thing.
Aunt Helen at breakfast on the first day of our European tour, London, 1973
In a previous essay, “Living and Loving Life as a Lifelong Learner”, I talked about what I accomplished over my summer break from teaching. I taught myself how to make jam. I haven’t made any jam since the new school year started but now I have all the necessary equipment and I am confident in my jam-making abilities. There’s a good bit of Aunt Helen in me, and my self-identification as a lifelong learner comes from her. She loved to travel and to see new things, taste new foods, meet new people. She chaperoned both my high school trip to Europe and my senior class trip to the Bahamas.
Aunt Helen aboard The Flavia with the wine steward, sailing to the Bahamas, 1974
Around young people, she knew how to strike the perfect balance, that of a fun and interesting adult who also, when needed, knew how to establish authority at the drop of a hat. As a middle school teacher, I try every day to strike that balance with my students, to give them a love for learning in fun and interesting ways, while also recognizing that as adolescents they need and want, if unknowingly, an authority figure.
My commitment to this writing project has been very fulfilling in many ways. My goal was to become a writer. Am I a writer now, 52 weeks later? I still haven’t sold anything and some people say being paid to write makes a person a writer. Others say just being published makes a person a writer. I’ve published 53 essays on my website, and I’ve written guest posts for three other websites. I’ve had many articles published in a regional newspaper. I had an essay published in a print anthology of ultra-short memoirs. Still, I wonder, am I a writer yet?
Ceramic Persian cat, made by Aunt Helen (undated)
Another goal of my project was to strengthen my writing skills. I am fortunate to have a family of beta readers, my husband and two grown daughters, all three being intelligent, well-educated, and brilliant writers themselves. They read my essays before I publish them, give me their thoughts, make line edits, and sometimes, push me to worker harder on a particular piece. I know I am a stronger writer for their efforts.
Southern Belle, made by my mom in Aunt Helen’s kiln, 1987
Two side benefits of this project were both unexpected and gratifying. One is that I’ve received a lot of positive feedback, some on my website and more on Facebook, from friends and family members who have enjoyed my essays. Reading their comments encouraged me to keep writing and to keep sharing my work on my website and on Facebook. As the finish line for my project was coming into sight, several people have asked me, “What next?” and “Don’t stop, keep going!” I’ve also received some good feedback from people outside my circle of family and friends, via Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, and my website. Word Press allows website owners to check their stats, to observe the number of visits to the website and number of views of each particular post. The stats are also identified by country of origin of the viewer, and that has been fascinating to watch as well, to see people from many different foreign countries reading my work.
Piano Baby, made by my mom in my Aunt Helen’s kiln, 1989
Another benefit has been the creative process itself. At the start of this process, I thought it might be tough to come up with an idea of what to write about. Yes, some weeks have been tougher than others, but if I cleared my mind and sat quietly, often staring at my bookshelves, an idea would come to me. I would sit down at my laptop to write and sometimes the essay would tumble out, much as I had planned in my head. Other weeks, I would come up with an idea, sit down to write it, and find myself a thousand words later with a completely different essay than what I had imagined. It’s also been interesting to find my childhood memories creeping into my work, often when I had not planned on that week’s essay being particularly memoir-driven. One close friend remarked to me that she feels as though she knows me so much better after having read all of my essays. While unintended, this has been a positive result of this project.
So, where to next? Do I continue with my essay a week schedule? Do I switch gears and try something new? One friend has suggested that I publish a different recipe each week, and she also proposed a title for the new project, “Fifty-Two Weeks of Fabulous Food”. My younger daughter says that my writing is much stronger when I write about food like in my essay “Preserving Old Traditions”; she says that is where my voice really comes alive. I’m not sure, though, because one of the great things about this project was the freedom to just write about anything, and not be tied to a theme or be limited to a particular part of my life. As a lifelong learner, I enjoy being able to write about my many different interests.
Originally, I thought that when the year was over, I would close out the project with a final essay and then move on to fiction. I have this story in my head—about a missing suitcase, loosely based upon a real-life event of a friend of mine. My protagonist from this story has changed and developed over the several years that I have been mulling over this story line, and I like who she has become. Before starting “an essay a week for one year”, I had tried several times to get this story out of my head and onto paper but I felt stuck, as though in quicksand, unable to find my voice for fiction. After a solid year of consistently writing, revising, editing, and publishing creative non-fiction, will I have better luck at fiction now? Will this character and that damn suitcase finally find a place in print?
Popular author, blogger, and public speaker Michael Hyatt wrote an essay on how long it takes to make a habit stick. The popular thought was that three weeks, just 21 days of doing something, was enough to make it a habit. In his essay “How to Make a New Habit Stick: Why It’s Harder than You Thought—and What to Do about It”, he documents studies that say it is much longer than three weeks, that it is more like 66 days, and for some, closer to 250 days. As of New Year’s Eve 2015, I will be at 365 days for this project, an essay a week. I can definitely say that I feel a difference in my own thoughts about writing. The pattern for me has been established. I have a sense for how long it will take me to get an essay written once I have an idea in mind. I know about how long it will take to revise and edit it until it is where I want it, the point where I push “publish” on my website. And, I’ve been able to do this without fail, for a whole year, not just during summer break when I have very few limitations on my time, but also while teaching full time, grading papers, and making lesson plans. I’ve followed through in the darkest of times, writing several essays from my father’s computer while he was in the nursing home or in hospice care at my brother’s home, and writing several over the weeks surrounding his funeral.
Ceramic Santa vase, made by my mom in my Aunt Helen’s kiln, 1999
Somehow I think that at the end of next week, I will subconsciously be thinking about an essay topic, and out of habit, will return to that genre, and if that is the case, then this isn’t my final essay. If you would like to offer up your opinion on what I should do next, whether it’s one of the options I’ve presented herein or some ideas of your own, you can share those thoughts in the little survey I put together for this final essay. I look forward to seeing your responses, as well as your comments on my completion of my yearlong project! Stand by; let’s see where Cajun Girl in a Kilt goes from here!
At the annual Back to School Night last week I introduced myself to the parents of my 7th graders with my usual background information: “This is my 9th year teaching and my 9th year at this school. I came to education as a second career after twenty years in the legal field. After leaving my corporate job to move overseas with my family in 2002, I spent two years volunteering and substitute teaching in the international school my daughters attended. I loved working with students and the energy and atmosphere of a middle school so much I decided when we returned home I would become a teacher. I love teaching, and I love teaching here at this school.”
All of this is true. The two years I spent as a parent, volunteer, teacher’s aide, library assistant, and substitute teacher at the St. John’s International School in Waterloo, Belgium, were wonderful. I made so many good friends during those two years abroad, and I did rediscover within myself my creative side, a part of me that I had tamped down with never-ending conference calls, acrid negotiations, brain-numbing legal writing, terse interoffice relationships, and high-pressure business deals.
A good friend and co-worker said to me many, many times while we were working together in a large shopping center development company, “You should get out of this job. You should find something else to do. You are too creative for this work.” I didn’t really understand what she meant because I was very caught up in my work identity. I had worked extremely hard, without a law degree, to climb up the legal ladder and become successful at drafting and negotiating legal documents. It was a tough job but I loved it. I enjoyed some flexibility with my work hours and had quite a bit of autonomy within the workplace. I had five weeks of vacation leave a year, was bonus-eligible, had received stock options, and earned a very healthy salary. I loved my job and I was confident in my abilities to do it well. So, when the opportunity presented itself for us to move overseas for two years and give our daughters the experience of living, traveling, and going to school in Europe, I went to my boss and asked for a leave of absence. She said no, that it was too long a period of time, but they would welcome me back if a position were open upon my return. I was crushed.
Those last few months of work (I had given ample notice) were tough. The winding down of my responsibilities, closing out my files of signed deals, transferring my pending deals to co-workers, goodbye lunches and happy hours, packing up my personal belongings from my office, it was all very difficult. For the first few months in Belgium, I had a lot to do. First, get the girls settled in their new school, reach out and make new friends with some of their classmates, buy school uniforms and school supplies, and find our way around our new town. Then, when our sea shipment arrived, unpacking and getting our house in order filled my days. Eventually though, reality kicked in. I had nowhere to go every day. For the first time since a few months after my college graduation, I had nowhere to go every day. My husband would leave for work, my daughters would board the school bus, and then it was just me and the cat. Except for two C-sections and a back surgery, I had never been away from work for more than a two-week vacation. As many times as I had wished I didn’t have to get up and go to work, I didn’t like it at all.
A notice in the school newsletter saved me: “Help needed in high school library. Volunteers welcome!” That was the open door, or the slippery slope if I’m really honest, that started it all. Shelving and cataloging books led to helping students with research, which led to becoming a teacher’s aide, which led to substitute teaching. And, upon our return to the States, that led me to my current job as a middle school language arts teacher of nine years.
And, yes, I do still love teaching. I have totally reconnected with my creative side, through my work as drama club moderator for my school, directing two school plays a year. And, for seven hours a day, I am on stage, live performance art, acting out and reading aloud from the literature, leading lively discussions about the literature, helping students understand the literature and improve their writing. But, still, there is irony, or as we say in this Catholic school where I teach, “God sure has a sense of humor.”
What’s so ironic or funny? Well, tomorrow begins the fourth week of school and I am literally and figuratively drowning in a sea of papers. I had not even stopped long enough to realize I was drowning until a teacher friend of mine posted this picture on Facebook, but it perfectly describes my current state of affairs. I am still grading summer reading projects for my eighty students, collected on the first day of school, all the while giving out new essay assignments, covering new material, and giving tests and quizzes. I stay at school three or four hours after the final bell and still bring work home with me each night. I work on the weekends, often spending three or four hours at school on Sunday. I am exhausted, and we have only just finished our third week of school.
So, the irony is that I left the legal field to explore my own creativity, yet I am so drained each day from teaching, grading, lesson planning, and guiding students in their own creativity, I hardly have any time or energy left for my own. This “Essay a Week for One Year” project was a line drawn in the sand, so to speak, an effort to reclaim for myself some outlet for my own creative writing, some tangible sign that I could practice what I preach—read and write more.
Other than a small part in a summer stock production at my daughters’ high school several years ago, I haven’t been on stage since 1987. I miss it. I miss the theatre life, the dark and perpetually chilly rooms, the instant family created by a cast in rehearsal for a play, the feel of the lights on my face, and the sound of applause when a scene is exactly as it should be. I miss memorizing lines, working on accents, hunting for props, trying on costumes. A local community theatre group is holding auditions in mid-October for a play that I am very interested in, but if I am entirely honest with myself, I simply don’t have the time to be in it while teaching full-time, especially when the rehearsal schedule overlaps with that of the play I am directing at my school. So, I will pass.
Even though this is only my 9th year of teaching, the reality is that a lot of my college friends are retired or are in the processing of retiring, especially those who have been teaching since graduation. On August 24th this year, the first day of in-service week for the faculty of my school, my college roommate posted this picture on her Facebook page. Hilarious, right? Sure, if you are the little guy in the striped shirt, which she is. She retired last summer so she has already had a year without dragging home the school bag full of papers to grade every night. I’m jealous.
So naturally, I think about it. I think about what it would be like to “retire”, to not teach next year or the year after that. Mostly, though, I think about what it would be like to come home from work, cook dinner, clean the kitchen, and then RELAX until time to go to bed. I think about calling in sick without first calling five different people looking for a substitute teacher and then rushing to email more detailed lesson plans to the school office. I think about what it would be like to read whatever I want whenever I want, and not just read books for school or about school. I think about what it would be like to write every day, just for myself, and not just once a week to have my essay ready to post on this website. But that is when I think about those early months in Belgium in 2002, when I had nowhere to go and nothing to do with my day, and how lost I felt. That is almost always followed by remembering a funny story about a student or a teacher at my school, or about a class period where we discussed the most amazing things from a piece of literature that everyone enjoyed, or about a note a parent sent me thanking me for teaching their son or daughter to be a better writer or a better reader. That’s when I recall telling an adult about a piece of literature that I am teaching and they say, “I wish I was in your class.” That’s when I run into a former student who is in high school, proudly telling me about HONORS ENGLISH, “Can you believe that, Mrs. Ardillo?” Yes, I can believe it. Yes, I am happy to have played even a small part in making that happen. Yes, I am making a difference each and every day in the lives of these students. Yes, I am drowning, but I’m not ready to be saved—yet.
On September 12, 2015, my father would have been 85 years old. On September 8, it will be four months since he passed away. I miss him. I think of him all the time, just like I think of my mother all the time and it has been eight long years since I lost her. One of the things I miss the most is not being able to call them to tell them good news. That’s when I feel my grief the most.
Just a few weeks ago, on August 26th, I received a package in the mail: ten copies of a paperback book called Reflections: Ultra Short Personal Narratives collected by CoCo Harris. The minute I ripped upon that box, I immediately thought of my dad and how much I would have liked to get out my phone and call him to share my good news. An essay I wrote was included in that book. And, that essay is about a lesson my dad taught me many, many years ago.
Last Christmas, when both my daughters were home for the holidays, we talked about my desire to become a writer. I had been writing essays and personal narratives with the hopes of getting them published somewhere. I had sent a few off to contests and magazines but had not been successful in getting my foot in the door anywhere. We talked about different ways I could improve my skills as a writer as well as ways to improve my chances for publication. We decided I needed a platform of my own, so I created my own website, Cajun Girl in a Kilt, purchased my domain name, www.michelleardillo.com, and for my first entry, I selected a short essay I had written about my dog and his off and on difficulties of navigating the stairs in our house, “License to Carry”.
Knowing myself all too well, I knew I needed some sort of plan or goal to motivate me to continue writing and posting essays on my new website. So, I came up with the idea of “an essay a week for one year”. I mean, it worked for Julie Powell. She set out to cook all of the recipes in Julia Child’s tome, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and she set herself a goal of doing it in one year and blogging about it as she cooked her way through it, one recipe at a time. She accomplished her goal and more. Her blog became a book and her book became a movie. And, she became a writer. I was inspired.
It is now September and I have been at it for eight months. I have posted an essay a week while teaching full-time, directing a middle school musical with a cast of 43 7th and 8th graders, coordinating 8th grade graduation, and, last but certainly not least, having my father become very ill and passing away. Through it all, I have never once considered that I would not post my weekly essay. To say I am goal-oriented is an understatement. I simply can’t quit something when I have truly set my mind to it. This I attribute to my father and his steadfast work ethic.
So, when I read about a small publishing company, Telling Our Stories Press, http://tellingourstoriespress.com/telling-our-stories-press-contributing-a, asking for submissions of ultra-short personal narratives where the writer reflects on a lesson learned, I knew mine would be about one of the many lessons I learned from my father. A story from my past popped into my head, a story featuring a legal document and my father’s advice that “honesty is the best policy”. I submitted my essay on May 19th, just days after his funeral. In June, I learned my essay had been selected for publication. And, on August 26th, my package arrived with my copies of the freshly printed book. Oh, how I would have liked to call and tell my mom and dad about it. They weren’t big readers, but I know they would have loved getting a copy of that book in the mail.
Anthologies of personal essays are not the kinds of books that typically fly off the shelves at Amazon’s mega-warehouse or at your local B&N, but I’m still very happy with this stepping stone toward my goal of becoming a writer. This short essay detailing a small fiasco of mine at my former job as a real estate paralegal
marks my first words in print. I’ve been fortunate to be a guest blogger twice on an author’s website, http://www.cindycallaghan.com/the-art-of-the-afternoon-tea-part-1-by-michelle-ardillo/, and then again on a website about reading that has a wide audience, https://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com/2014/12/22/my-kingdom-for-a-lamp-by-michelle-blanchard-ardillo/. And, of course, this essay is #38 in my “essay a week for one year” so I am over half-way there and well on my way to accomplishing my goal. I have no idea where this “essay a week for one year” will lead me but I have enjoyed writing my weekly essays and I know my self-imposed weekly deadline has strengthened my writing skills as well as my discipline for writing.
For those of you out there who have been following me on this journey by reading my weekly essays, let me say thank you. Thank you for your comments, reflections, and encouragement. Thank you for sharing the link on your Facebook page or retweeting it. Thank you for casually mentioning in a conversation something you read in one of my essays and making me feel great. And, if you are so inclined, head over to Amazon and order a copy of “my book”. You’ll find my essay “You Can Handle the Truth” on page 46. Whatever you do, though, keep checking in to see what the Cajun Girl in a Kilt has written and where this journey of becoming a writer will take me. In the meantime, on September 12th I’ll go outside and sit on my porch, raise a glass of red wine, and say, “Happy Birthday, Daddy. Thanks for everything.”