Monday, December 07, 2009

The man in the wheelchair

Every evening as I leave the office I walk by a little man sitting in a wheelchair parked on the sidewalk, just out of the way of passersby. He has long scraggly hair, a long scraggly beard, and only one leg. It's hard to tell his age - he's no longer young, but he's not terribly old either. What seems obvious is that he's not altogether there, as he sits, cap in hand, turning his head from side to side, muttering to no one in particular and looking no one in the eye.

At least, that's what I thought, until one day I stopped to offer him a blueberry muffin, and I looked into his face. He seemed startled, maybe because for once someone looked at him and saw a person. I know I was startled, because looking into his eyes I saw a soul.

He took the muffin, nodded and said, "Thank you, dear." He has deep-set, dark blue eyes. I smiled into them for a moment longer and moved on. From that day I've tried to catch his eye every time I pass. One time he recognized me and said, "Nice to see you, ma'am." Most times he's too busy turning his head this way and that - a funny habit of his.

I started to wish that there was something more I could do to help him. And then today as I passed by him I noticed his glove had fallen onto the sidewalk by his wheelchair. I stepped near to him and stooped to pick it up. Again that startled expression, followed by a quick little nod and a thank you.

And it was then that it struck me. As much as we would like to get rid of all the suffering in the world, often this is all we can do for each other. A little treat. A smile. A small act of service. A prayer that the other person has a warm place to go at night. Or - the simplest and yet probably the most important thing - just looking into people's eyes to let them know that you see them, that you know they exist, and are glad that they do. 


Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Excerpt from "The Blessing of Christmas" by J. Ratzinger

Why do we bake and give away sweets at Christmas? "In that day, the mountains will drip sweetness, and the rivers will flow with milk and honey" (An Old Testament verse that is part of the Advent liturgy). People of old found in such words the embodiment of their hopes for a world redeemed. They celebrated Christmas as the day on which God truly came. When he comes at Christmas, he distributes his honey.. truly, the earth must flow with honey on that day: where he is present, all bitterness disappears, and there is harmony between heaven and earth, between God and man. The honey and the sweets are a sign of this peace, of concord and of joy.

This is why Christmas has become the feast of when we give presents, when we imitate the God who has given us his own self and has thereby given us once again that life which truly becomes a gift only when the "milk" of our existence is sweetened by the "honey" of being loved. And this love is not threatened by any death, any infidelity, or any meaninglessness.

Ultimately, all this finds its unity in the joy that God has become a child who encourages us to trust as children trust, and to give and receive gifts...Perhaps the right way to celebrate Advent is to let the signs of God's love that we receive in this period penetrate our soul, without resistance, without questions and quibbling.


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Remembering Lola Alice

My grandmother holding her first grandchild. We were supposed to have the same birthday, but I finally arrived half an hour afer midnight.

Today I'm thinking of my grandmother. Strong, beautiful, spirited and gracious, she was everything I hope I will grow old to be.

Our birthdays come so close together, mine now feels a little incomplete without her around. I've always felt, too, that our birthdays come at a special time of year - maybe because they always fall somewhere around the start of Advent, when what seems like an ending is really a beginning, and light steals softly, quietly back into the world just when it seems most dark.

I've slowly learned that thinking about death on a birthday can bring more peace and joy than sadness, and everything does come full circle, in a cycle of love and faith and hope. It is at this time of year when I most strongly believe that love really is stronger than death, and people we think we've lost are still there for us somehow when we need them most.


Friday, November 27, 2009

Blue Remembered Hills

I'm reading Blue Remembered Hills, Rosemary Sutcliff's memoir of her childhood, and just had to share some of her delicious, wickedly funny quotes, starting with this one:

My mother was the perfect Spartan mother. I have always been able to imagine her telling her sons to return from battle "with their shields or on them." She did actually try it on my father at the start of the Second World War. He didn't take it kindly.

On childhood playmates and pranks:

There was Sheila Walker who was six, and who, I am ashamed to say, Jean and I used to terrorize. She did ask for it - she grizzled and told tales - but still, we should not have fed her on dandelion leaves and then told her they were deadly poison. I see that now. At the time, it seemed like a good idea.

On etiquette:

I was in disgrace (because) I had refused to eat my pudding, on the grounds that it both looked and tasted pale grey. I had not meant to be rude; the pudding did look and taste pale grey, and I was simply giving her the true and valid reason for my refusal to eat it. But social lessons had to be learned; one cannot go through life telling one's hostess that her pudding is pale grey, even when it is.

On good behaviour:

(At school) We wore panama hats with red-and-white ribbon round them, and were expected to behave ourselves in the street in a way which would not bring dishonour upon the school, the United Kingdom including Church and Crown, or the British Empire. 


Monday, October 12, 2009

Sizzling Beef

Who says you have to stick to turkey for Thanksgiving? I know that in North America, the following remark will amount to heresy, but turkey is bland and boring, no matter how you dress it up. It also makes everyone sleepy and lazy after eating. Not to mention the everlasting leftovers you are forced to consume.

This is one of the dishes I served for yesterday's dinner, the first-ever Thanksgiving I hosted. The other dish I made earlier in the week, and simply froze it, then put it in the oven to heat up. My aunt brought the carbs - pansit palabok - a family favourite. So I was free to prepare this dish freestyle, making it up as I went along, which is the cooking method I most enjoy. Serving it in a sizzling cast iron pan was a definite wow factor, and guess what? No leftovers.

2 pounds beef short ribs
1/2 cup hoisin sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp sesame oil
2 tsp cooking oil
2 cups shitake mushrooms, sliced
4 green onions, sliced into 4-inch pieces
Sesame seeds

Combine the hoisin sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil and cooking oil. Mix into the beef and marinate for about an hour.

Heat up a cast iron pan until smoking. Add the beef and cook until crisp. Remove from the pan and set aside. Add the mushrooms and cook until just tender. Remove from the pan and set aside. Last, add the green onions and cook until limp and starting to turn brown in spots. Remove from the pan.

When ready to serve, put the beef back into the hot pan, top with the mushrooms and finally the green onions. Sprinkle sesame seeds over all. Don't forget to put a trivet on the table!


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Harvest Salad

This salad combines autumn flavours with the ease and lightness of a meal you would normally serve in hot weather. Perfect for these Indian summer evenings we've been lucky to have lately!

For the Salad:
200 grams smoked chicken or turkey, shredded
4 cups baby spinach
handful of dried cranberries
handful of chopped pecans, roasted and sprinkled with a little salt
1 small Granny Smith apple, diced
1 small carrot, grated
1 small avocado, peeled and diced
1/4 red onion, thinly sliced and soaked in cold water for 10 minutes

Balsamic Vinaigrette
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
3/4 cup olive oil
2 tsp brown sugar
1 clove garlic, crushed
salt and pepper

Combine all the salad ingredients in a large bowl or in individual dishes.
Place all the vinaigrette ingredients in a clean glass jar, put the lid on and give it a good shake. Drizzle over the salad, toss and serve. 


Sunday, September 20, 2009

It's peach time

Mimi came home from Chilliwack last weekend with big juicy peaches, which I turned into Sunday dessert - fresh peach cobbler.

This recipe will make a mini peach cobbler for two. You'll need a small glass oven-proof dish that fits into your toaster oven.

Preheat the toaster oven to 425 degrees.

For the filling:
4 large peaches, ripe but firm (so you can use a vegetable peeler to peel them; if they are soft, you'll need to blanch them in boiling water for 30 seconds then plunge them into ice water to remove the skins)
1/8 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. cornstarch
2 tsps. lemon juice
pinch of salt

Peel the peaches, split each and remove the pit. Quarter each section and put all the pieces in a bowl. Sprinkle the sugar over all and toss gently. Leave for 30 minutes, tossing once in a while. Empty the pieces into a colander and let the peach juice drain into a bowl. Save 1/8 cup of the juice (discard the rest) and whisk in the cornstarch, lemon juice and salt. Add the peaches and toss to coat evenly. Put the peaches into the glass dish and bake until bubbling gently around the edges, about 10 minutes.

While the peaches are baking, assemble the topping:
1 cup Bisquick mix
4 1/2 tsps. sugar
5 tbsps. cold butter, cut into small pieces
1/3 cup plain yogurt
pinch of salt

Stir the sugar and salt into the Bisquick. Use a whisk to mix well. Add the butter and rub into the Bisquick mixture with your fingers until it resembles coarse meal. With a rubber spatula, stir in the yogurt until the dough sticks together. (Do not overwork the dough or the biscuits will be tough. All it needs is a few gentle pats and turns with the spatula.)

When the peaches are bubbling, remove from the toaster oven and spoon the biscuit mixture on top into separate mounds about 1/2 inch apart. The mounds must not touch each other. Put the whole thing back into the toaster oven and bake for 15 minutes more, or until the fruit is bubbling and the biscuits are golden brown on top. Serve warm with ice cream or whipped cream. 


Friday, September 18, 2009

Let's bring back the family dinner!

When my mom and her sisters were growing up, my grandmother always insisted they eat at least one meal a day all together. Since my grandfather often had business functions to attend in the evening, for them the family meal was breakfast. Not only did her own children benefit from this healthy, happy tradition, so did we of the next generation. Many of my happy memories of home take place around the dining table. Thanks, Mom and Pops, for working hard to put great food on the table, and even more important, for showing us that you really enjoyed your children's company, that you looked forward to us coming home for dinner, and were interested in everything we had to say.

Sitting down to supper together
Father Raymond J. de Souza, National Post
Published: Thursday, September 17, 2009

It's been a couple of years since I last wrote about "National Family Dinner Night." Tonight is the fifth annual occurrence of the venture launched by MacVoisin, proprietor of M&M Meat Shops, to encourage families to sit down and have dinner together. No TV, no cellphones, no text messaging, no BlackBerrys, no iPhones -- just family dinner. Food to eat and conversations to be had. You don't have to eat M&M products to have a family dinner, of course, but if you register your participation with M&M they make a contribution to the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of Canada. The family dinner promotion has contributed to the more than $18-million which M&M has raised for the charity.

I have returned to this subject more than once because I think the regular family dinner is a powerful support to family unity and the successful raising of children. Last week I wrote in this space about my own parents as an example of a successful immigrant family. Regular family dinner and family prayer were key parts of that. The old saying went that the family that prays together stays together. The family that doesn't eat together likely won't get a chance to pray together either.

It's easy enough to bang on about how things were better when life was simpler, so I was pleased to read in a Toronto newspaper this past weekend about recent studies that appear to link family dining to better brain development in teens.

Adolescence is a time of significant brain development and integration, especially for boys. Dr. Tomas Paus, a neuroscientist working in the Saguenay region of Quebec, has done brain scans and interviews with some 600 teenage volunteers. His studies have examined the impact on brain development of "positive youth development." He summarizes that in terms of five Cs: connectedness with friends and families, character, caring, competence and confidence. Dr. Paus' team thinks that family meals together can boost all five Cs and lead to better brain development, more successful teenage outcomes and fewer psychiatric problems.

It's always good to find experimental science confirming what common sense and traditional wisdom hold, if only because common sense is not all that common, and traditions of all kinds are weakening. You shouldn't need a neuroscientist to convince you to have dinner regularly with your kids, but if it helps, no harm is done.

Children today are in an unusual state. Fewer and fewer of them are ever allowed to do anything truly independent, like walk to school or take a bus across town with their friends. Their parents, motivated as parents are by the best of intentions, hover over them at all times. Few children have any extended periods of unsupervised play. Yet at the same time, studies tell us that parents and children spend remarkably little time actually talking to each other. The child often gets the worst of both worlds -- his parents are always around, but he doesn't actually converse with them.

The family dinner can correct something of that. Obviously Mom can't ask Junior about what he did during the day if she has been driving him everywhere, but the kitchen table can be a place where children are not so much supervised as they are encouraged to be contributing participants. The family dinner is a remarkably egalitarian institution; it permits the young ones to tell their stories to adults who listen, and teaches children (not without difficulties!) to listen to each other. The family dinner, presided over by cheerful but firm parents, also channels one of nature's primal urges -- the desire to eat -- into a social grace, complete with manners and courtesy.

Family dinner can also be a regular teacher of how everyone should contribute to the family. Even little children can help set the table, and older ones can take their turns doing the dishes, taking out the garbage or cleaning up the kitchen. With the range of easy-to-prepare meals available, teenagers can even help with the cooking, such as it is.

But talking about family dinner in terms of character development and brain chemistry is to put secondary things first. Family dinner, with parents and children (grandma too in our family's case), and friends on occasion, is for the happy family simple, inexpensive, wholesome, good fun. And what family could not use more of that? 


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Chicken with Beer

A friend of mine who knew me when I was a sweet little girl of seventeen is surprised to learn I now drink beer. This is thanks to another friend who on learning I didn't like beer, suggested I just hadn't found the right one. After many experimental sips I found a few beers that actually did the trick for me: from cool, pale Stella Artois and Grolsch, to caramelly Sleeman's Honey Lager, to rich dark Guinness, served double-cold.

Before I ever started drinking beer though, I was cooking with it. Chicken with beer is a recipe I adapted years ago from James Barber's Urban Peasant series. Yesterday I made it for dinner. My roomie was intrigued as she watched me pour Stella over the chicken browning in the pan, and I was gratified when she kept dipping into the dish for "just one more."

1 pound chicken wings
2 tbsp butter
1 large shallot, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
355 ml (1 can) beer (any kind will do)
1 tbsp soy sauce, preferably Tamari
Dash of sesame oil
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tbsps sesame seeds, toasted

In a heavy-bottomed skillet, heat the butter until it stops sizzling and turns golden brown. Add the minced shallot and garlic and saute until soft and semi-transparent. Add the chicken, toss evenly to coat with the butter, and cook until starting to turn golden. Pour the beer over all. Lower the heat and simmer until the liquid starts to thicken. Add the soy sauce, sesame oil, salt and pepper. If serving over rice, remove from the heat while the sauce is still a bit runny. If serving as a finger food, cook until the beer caramelizes completely and each piece is sticky and dark golden brown. Sprinkle with sesame seeds before serving. 


Sunday, August 09, 2009

Preserving lemons

It's August now and after a prolonged heatwave in July, the weather has suddenly turned cool and nippy. Night is falling remorselessly earlier every day, and the first leaves are starting to turn. But instead of mourning summer, I've decided to try and capture a little bit of its making preserved lemons.

Nothing says summer to me more than a bowlful of lemons sitting on the kitchen counter, right beside an icy pitcher of lemonade. Even if lemons (and many other produce) are available all year round, there is nothing so delicious as fruits and vegetables harvested, prepared, and eaten at the peak of their proper season. Tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes...freshly picked berries...peaches, corn, and of course, lemons.

Preserving summer lemons ensures that you have a way to add a bright note to many meals well into the fall and winter. As the weeks go by, the yellow colour deepens, so that the jar looks like it's full of congealed sunshine. And when you open the jar, you get a whiff of concentrated lemon fragrance, combined with a certain sweet saltiness, which to me is the very essence of summer.

Preserved lemons

I've had this magazine clipping on preserved lemons for years. Unfortunately I didn't keep the publication info. I'm hoping this method is universal enough that it doesn't need attribution.

  • 1 quart Mason jar
  • 6-8 organic lemons, plus a few more for juice; washed thoroughly
  • 1 cup coarse Kosher or sea salt
  1. Sterilize the jar or run it through a complete dishwasher cycle. Make sure the inside is thoroughly dry before starting.
  2. Place enough salt in the jar to cover the bottom.
  3. Remove the stem from each lemon and slice into quarters, but don't go all the way through the stem end. Leave about 1/4 inch uncut.
  4. Holding the lemon over a bowl, pry it open gently and pack the inside with salt. Rub salt over the outside as well. Put each lemon into the jar as soon as it has been salted.
  5. Pack the lemons tightly into the jar so that the juice runs out. Add more juice if necessary, covering the lemons completely.
  6. Seal the jar and let it stand at room temperature for a couple of days, then transfer to the refrigerator for about 3 weeks, turning it upside down from time to time.
  7. When the lemons are ready to use, remove from the jar as needed with a wooden spoon, chopstick or skewer. Wash before using and remove seeds. The entire lemon - rind and pulp - can be used. It will have a salty, sweet, sour flavour. Chop into stuffings for roasts, or add to salads, rice, couscous, vegetable dishes...the list goes on and on!
  8. As long as you are careful not to introduce any bacteria into the jar, the lemons will keep six months or more in the fridge. Just make sure they are always covered with lemon juice. Top up as needed.


The delights of anticipation

Last summer Mimi and I almost killed this blueberry bush out of neglect. In fact, we had already given it up for dead. But lo and behold, this spring it put out leaves...then flowers...then finally, fruit!!! There is nothing so mouthwatering as watching these green globules ripen to a dusky purple, day by summer day. When they were finally ripe, we went out with a small bowl to take in our precious harvest. The next day we enjoyed the blueberries on top of vanilla icecream, drizzled with a bit of white balsamic vinegar syrup. Perhaps if we all learned to grow at least some of our own vegetables and fruit, we would learn a lot about patience, the delights of anticipation, and the satisfaction of attaining something that we have worked for, taken care of, and finally gives itself to us in its proper time and due season. What a contrast to instant, empty gratification!


Friday, July 17, 2009

Who says you can't have a feast for a midweek office lunch?

Next time you find yourself in the situation I was in today - no dinner leftovers to brown-bag for tomorrow's lunch - skip the food court and go to the nearest deli or grocery store instead. Lots of simple, tasty, heart-healthy choices. I went to the downtown IGA and picked up juicy ripe tomatoes, olives, roasted marinated eggplant, and a package of proscuitto di San Daniele (hey, it's a feast day). Perfect with your choice of a cold San Pelligrino beverage - I like the limonata. Sit in the sun, have a picnic, and enjoy a few minutes of la dolce vita without leaving town. If you can't go to Italy, this is the next best thing.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Cold noodles, anyone?

My roomie has introduced me to the simple and delicious joys of Japanese home cooking. This past winter we warmed up our cold hungry tummies with hot-pot and soups. But on this July day, Mimi-san made us some cold noodles for dinner. I must admit I had my doubts at first - cold noodles did not sound very appetizing - but they turned out to be light and refreshing. Served alongside a variety of cold meat and pickled veggies, they make the perfect, no-fuss summer meal.

Use soba (brown or white) - prepare according to package directions, then plunge into ice water.

Mince some peeled ginger and green onions very finely. Also slice up some cold roast pork - we used Chinese barbecued pork that Mimi's mom made last weekend.

Set out pickled eggplant and garlic in small serving bowls. (I love garlic pickled in red miso - although unsuspecting people will doubtless be aghast to see me popping the whole cloves. Not to worry - pickling makes garlic sweet, crisp and nutty. No garlic breath afterwards, either.)

Also a note about the pickled eggplant - if you go looking for them in a Japanese store, you'll find that they are small, round and blue. Don't ask me what makes them blue. I just know they look weird but taste great.

Grab some dried seaweed and hydrate in a cup of water, then splash on some citrus or basil-infused soy sauce.

The noodles are served in a bowl with a sauce made of soy sauce, broth, and mirin. (We used a pre-made sauce that comes in a bottle. It's like a syrup that needs to be diluted with water.) Throw on some of the minced ginger and onion and stir it all up with your chopsticks.



Friday, May 08, 2009

A tribute to cherry blossoms and Easter

It was winter when my family and I first arrived in Canada. Our friends and family in Manila thought we were crazy to make the move in the winter time. “Wait until the summer, when the weather’s warmer,” they urged us. But my mother wanted to spend Christmas with her parents and sisters, who were waiting for us in Vancouver. So on December 10, 1992, after interminable delays due to bad weather, and the final, bumpy flight in an airbus from Seattle, we seven Olagueras landed on Canadian soil.

I don’t know if you remember the winter of 1992. By December 10, it had already snowed, and it continued to snow into the new year. One morning, early, just a few days after we arrived, my father gently shook me awake and led me to the window, and together we watched our first snowfall. I was astonished and delighted to see that the sky was pink, and the thick, feathery flakes turned gold in the light of the street lamps.

For the most part, though, that was a miserable time. In early January, we moved from the comfort and familiarity of my aunt’s house and into a rental in South Burnaby. The house was clean and spacious, but unfurnished, the rooms echoing with emptiness. Our furniture, books and paintings had followed us out from the Philippines by ship and were not due to arrive for another month. The day after we moved in, there was another huge dump of snow which made it impossible for anyone to come out and visit us. But it was a Sunday, and my father and younger sister and I decided we had to try and make it to Mass. I remember standing at the bus stop in the whirling snow, wondering, “What am I doing here?” and feeling colder than I had ever been in my life – both inside and out.

Finally it stopped snowing, but it was still cold and I was stuck with the feeling of not belonging anywhere. Home, to me, was still the white stucco house back in Manila, with its red tile roof, eucalyptus trees and ginger flowers in the garden, and one of my best friends living across the park. But that house was no longer ours and I knew I could never go back.
On the other hand, to call this empty rental house “home” was a joke.

I found a job and started working, telling myself that at least, unlike many immigrants, I already spoke English. But I found that nobody could understand me, as I struggled to get the accent and colloquialisms of Canadian English just right. New friends were few and far between, and I was terribly lonely. But I didn’t want to unburden my woes on my parents, who already had enough to worry about, or my sister, who had started at the local secondary school and had major adjustments of her own to cope with. My other siblings were too young to be confidantes. Besides, they seemed to have taken to our new life with no problems whatsoever. They thought playing in the snow was fun, for heaven’s sake – while I had to trudge up a steep and icy hill to the bus stop and was already thinking of it peevishly as that “d---ed” white stuff. The children’s innocent enjoyment seemed an affront to my misery.

So things sort of limped along – and then, spring came. Miraculously, the snow melted, the sun shone. Best of all, the cherry blossoms appeared. I had never seen cherry blossoms before. Our neighbourhood streets were lined with cherry trees, and walking to the bus stop was no longer penance but pleasure. To this day, the sight of cherry blossoms, pink and white against a blue sky, lifts my heart and my spirit.

By this time, the shipment from Manila had finally arrived. My mother was happily arranging our belongings, and the house looked better everyday. But there were delights outside as well. Whoever had lived here before us had been an avid gardener. As the months progressed, the garden was constantly surprising us with all sorts of unfamiliar but wonderful flowers. Later, I looked in garden books and found out that they were crocuses, daffodils and tulips. I stuck dandelions in the buttonholes of my jacket, not knowing they were weeds. We had apple trees by the back porch, all adrift in white, as if there had been another snowfall, and in the vegetable patch, my youngest sister discovered strawberries.

It was truly for me a time of new beginnings. Easter Sunday that year was a beautiful sunny day, warm enough for the children to paint Easter eggs on the back porch and have an egg hunt in the garden. Watching them, I found myself smiling, widely and openly, for the first time in months. I had been, both literally and figuratively, in a cold, gray limbo. But spring sunshine and Easter joy are a powerful combination. Suddenly, I was filled with hope for the future, and with the unshakable conviction that I was exactly where God wanted me to be. I was home.

Happy Easter season, everyone!


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Learning to be human from The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid at Stanley Park
The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen was my favourite fairy tale as a child. For reasons I could not then name, I found it deeply satisfying, even if the little mermaid didn't end up with the prince. Revisiting it as an adult, I see now how marvellously rich and complex a story it is. Andersen's lush descriptions and enchanting plot fully capture a child's imagination. At the same time, the story easily resonates with adults because it grapples with the deepest longings of the human heart.

"Far out to sea…" The opening lines of the story sweeps us away with the swiftness of a speedboat to a magical, underwater kingdom inhabited by the mythical mermen. The heroine of the story is the sea-king's daughter. The youngest and fairest of six girls, her fascination with the world above the surface sets her apart from her sisters. Her love for the human prince ultimately causes her to leave her home and loved ones for a painful and uncertain future. Andersen manages to imbue the little mermaid’s alienation with real and intense emotion, translating into her character his own feelings of being an outsider (see Bredsdorff’s excellent biography, Hans Christian Andersen: The Story of His Life and Work).

Andersen also makes the little mermaid a true protagonist, in charge of her own destiny. She is not your usual fairytale princess, the kind that waits for the prince to kiss her awake or for her turn to try on the glass slipper.

First of all, and quite remarkably, the little mermaid saves the prince’s life, rescuing him from a shipwreck. In a valiant attempt to win his love and an immortal soul, she then visits the sea-witch, who strikes a terrible bargain: in exchange for a pair of legs, the little mermaid must give up her voice.

The witch also warns her that the transformation of her tail into legs will feel like being torn into two with a sharp sword, and every step on dry land will be as if she were walking on sharp knives. Even more painful will be the separation from her home and loved ones: never again will she live underwater, and if she fails in her attempt to win the prince, she will turn into sea-foam. The little mermaid agrees to everything, and with characteristic fairytale violence, the witch cuts out her tongue.

The prince of the story, on the other hand, is practically unconscious. He has no idea that the little mermaid was the one who really saved him from drowning. He treats her like a beloved pet, “but to make her his queen did not occur to him at all”.

However, the little mermaid remains faithful and devoted to him to the end. Even after he falls in love with and marries another, she refuses to take advantage of an enchanted knife, kindly provided by the sea-witch, which if plunged into the prince’s heart would cause his blood to splash onto her legs and turn them into a fish-tail once more. The little mermaid would rather face “an endless night without thought or dreams” than kill her love.

The little mermaid doesn’t end up with her prince, but she doesn’t turn into sea-foam either. It is neither a fairy-tale ending nor a tragedy, and features another unique twist: the little mermaid apparently has turned into an angel-like spirit, with a chance to win immortality. Ultimately, it is the only fitting reward for her tremendous love, courage, and selflessness. 


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Meaning of Home

Last November my parents made what is hopefully the last big move of their married life, and left Vancouver for Montreal.

After a tearful goodbye at the airport, I got on the bus that would take me to a Skytrain station, and so on to Surrey, where I had been living for the past year – during the week, anyway. I still went “home” to Aldergrove most weekends – even if they consisted mostly of cleaning up and clearing out while the realtor brought around prospective buyers. As long as my parents still lived in Aldergrove, that was home to me, no matter where I laid my head during the week.

Don’t get me wrong. I will be eternally grateful to this good friend of mine who had offered me not only the extra bedroom and bathroom in her spacious townhouse, but also the space on the landing for my reading lamp, chair, and books; half her linen closet and kitchen storage; and the entire back end of her garage for all my extra stuff. Not to mention the fact that she herself is quiet, orderly, undemanding, and eats anything I cook for her (even the weirdest Pinoy food). I knew that when I got back to “our place” all would be clean, tidy, and peaceful. But as I made my way back to Surrey on that November day, feeling like an abandoned orphan, I was amazed to find that I was also homesick. I wanted to get on the bus that would take me over Langley's long green hills to Aldergrove. I wanted to walk down the street from the bus stop and see the yellow siding and gray shingle roof peeking through the trees that separated our yard from the neighbour’s. I wanted to open the front door and find everything and everyone still there where they belonged – including the dog (and she had been dead for a year).

When you live someplace for a long time, you tend to put down roots, and it’s a wrench to pull them back up. Or worse, leave them behind: the neighbours whose children grew up along with your siblings, all the wonderful folks at church, the cashiers at the supermarket who know you by name, your fellow regulars at the gym, the waitress at the corner Japanese restaurant who doesn't have to give you a menu because she already knows exactly what you’re going to order. The roses and peonies you set out in the garden; the cotoneaster, now running riot, that started out as seven small plants; the lilac bush that over the years became a tree. In the garden outside and in the empty rooms within are the ghosts of small children now grown up and gone, laughter over long-forgotten jokes, and echoes of conversations around a dining table that’s been packed up and moved away.

You know you will always remember them, and wonder if they will remember you.

And after a while you realize that the only cure for homesickness is to put down new roots and start being happy where you are.

To me, the word home will always bring to mind a picture of our happy little yellow house. Fortunately, my parents gave me the blueprints and tools to duplicate it, wherever I happen to be.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

My 15 Favourite Books of All Time

In no particular order.

1) Gone With the Wind
For all the great lines:
"After all, tomorrow is another day."
"As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again."
"Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."
First read this when I was 9, and even then I thought Ashley was a twit.
Also, Scarlett may have had some major faults, but she was tenacious, practical, loyal to her parents, and unafraid of doing a man's work in an era when women were supposed to sit at home and look pretty.  Which just goes to show that nobody's all bad.

2) A Wrinkle in Time and sequels
The first book that made me look at reality differently...made me realize there's more to it than meets the eye.

3) Wuthering Heights
The only book I know that can be described as both "horrible" and "wonderful."

4) The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Made me laugh, cry, shudder, and hope. What more can you ask from a book?
For a Mercatornet review of this book, click here.

5) Wives and Daughters
A big, fat, satisfying wedge of a book - if you overlook the fact that it isn't quite finished! But you can watch the BBC movie to see how they ended it, based on letters and notes written by Elizabeth Gaskell before she died.

6) The Shell Seekers
Rosamunde Pilcher has a marvellous way of making ordinary things sound beautiful, and simple food sound delicious. Her language is simple and elegant. And I love how this story switches back and forth in time so effortlessly.

7) The Canterville Ghost
Witty and hauntingly beautiful (pun intended).

8) The Phantom Lover
Just because it can still make me laugh out loud. A particularly well-written Regency romance, which I'm amazed to find still in print!

9) Cheaper By the Dozen
Same reason as #8.

10) Eleni
True story about a very brave woman, written by her son, after a lifetime of searching for the truth.

11) Letters to a Young Catholic
George Weigel is my favourite journalist. He can explain the most profound realities in the simplest language, without stripping them of truth or splendour.

12) The Nurse Kathy books I read in grade school.
I enjoyed reading about Kathy because she loved nursing and made it sound so interesting, exciting and noble. Also because she dated Steve the hunky fireman.

13) A World of Folk Tales
Mom and Papa gave me this beautifully illustrated book of magical tales from around the world for my 8th birthday. I still have it.

14) Merlin's Mistake
I must have checked this book out of the school library at least half a dozen times. So happy when I found it years later on Amazon Marketplace.  A clever story with a neat twist and a particularly satisfying ending.

15) The Hunchback of Notre Dame
So tragically lovely. The classic love triangle with the ultimate anti-hero. A book that taught me not to be fooled by appearances.

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