Less is so much more

My husband and I are not minimalists by any means. Personally, my version of hell is a white room that has a white rug, three pieces of white or clear furniture, a lamp, and one or two succulents in it, but nothing else.   I’m not bashing anyone who loves this particular style and who can live happily in it – all I’m saying is that I don’t and I can’t. I can appreciate how clean and bright it looks but what I can’t wrap my head around is living in a space that brings to mind that white room in The Matrix.

Together, my husband and I didn’t exactly do the entire KonMari method, but we did keep things that we love and that make us feel cosy and happy in our home. And while we aren’t minimalists by any means, we are happy that paring down our possessions has allowed us to style our home in a way that truly reflects who we are. In the great purge we discovered old treasures that had been hidden away for years and made rom for them out in the open so that we can enjoy them every day and share them with our guests.

But getting to this point has been pretty much as long as our entire marriage.

By the time my husband and I were married and living together, we had been living on our own or with college roommates for about ten years each. Our households collided in the most spectacular domestic train wreck imaginable. When we were finally able to start sorting through everything after all my belongings were moved in, we discovered that we had way too much mismatched flatware, four hair dryers (two of which my husband didn’t even realize he still had), two toasters, two fondue sets (still in the box), six incomplete or mismatched sets of measuring cups and spoons, and more chairs than the maximum number of people we could ever have over at one time.

Fast forward about a year later to us sitting together in our tiny bathroom – me on the toilet, him on the edge of the tub, our cat on his lap and our dog at my feet – as we stared at a positive pregnancy test and realized: there’s no way we can have a baby here. Not only was our third-floor row house walk-up not really the greatest in terms of construction and size, we just had too many things and hadn’t had enough time or space since I’d moved in to really get rid of what really had to go.

A few months later, we were packing up again to move to a new apartment that was a little bit bigger and a lot better for our changing needs – and doing the biggest purge either of us have ever done of our belongings so that we could fit into a new apartment. Even an upgrade up to 900 square feet of indoor space with bigger balconies and more storage space (fun fact: we had only two cramped closets in the old place) we knew we had to be merciless in getting rid of belongings. In July 2018 we moved everything that made it past the first cut into our new place, and promptly realized we still had a lot to get rid of before we would be able to actually feel like we had a proper home.

When I went on maternity leave in October 2018, we were able to fully repaint and furnish the baby’s room, get rid of a few more boxes, and do two or three more trips to the donation center. Then our son arrived, and we were swept up into the sleep-deprived whirlwind of being first-time parents.

The last leg of our tidying up journey lasted from March of this year to just a few weeks ago. I still had boxes and bins staring at me from our shared home office, as well as one last huge box of clothes. I set myself a deadline: celebrating my husband’s 30th birthday (also my son’s 5th month milestone) in April. I strung up a motivational carrot: having my mother, sister, and brother-in-law over for coffee and cake. I motivated myself: watching some organization and cleaning routine videos on YouTube, and pep talking myself into a good headspace for getting work done.

Then I stared down my foes, and like Teddy Roosevelt I charged up the hill.

Sitting now in my clean, fresh home three weeks after that last push towards domestic tidiness, I am quite happy with the progress we’ve made and what we’ve accomplished in our home. I’m also particularly proud of myself for getting rid of so many things, including things that I’ve been lugging around since 2008 (or longer!) that I really didn’t need anymore – including journals that only seemed to have anger and sadness recorded in hem, textbooks that I barely used after I had finished the courses for which I’d bought them, and clothes that had never fit me at any stage of physical fitness.

Saying goodbye to things that were souvenirs of who I was during chameleonic and moody phases has actually helped me appreciate the experiences that formed me into the woman I am now, and realize that I didn’t need to hold on to every last artifact of my existence to feel whole anymore.  I just need the ones that continue to teach me, help me grow, and be happy where I am now.

The Rainy Road To Dublin

It’s been a week since I arrived home from two weeks abroad, and I’ve yet to write about the last leg of the journey:  Dublin.  Mea culpa. Being thrown back into normal life seems to have thrown me off-kilter slightly, but hopefully a week later I can still properly convey all those wonderful experiences packed into my last days in Ireland.

We only took one full day in Dublin, since we felt the hustle and bustle of a city under construction and 1916-centric tourism might be a bit too far from the relaxing finish we wanted to our two-week holiday (especially after Donegal and Galway).  Arriving on Monday afternoon from Galway after a rainy ride on the bus (and, indeed, a rainy week thus far in Ireland, which in September should be expected by anyone vaguely familiar with the Emerald Isle), Camille and I checked into our last Airbnb in Drumcondra, north of Dublin centre, before heading out on foot to Saint Stephen’s Green and Grafton Street.

Following four days of hearty full Irish breakfasts and pub grub on the West Coast, I dove with gusto into the Chinese vegetable stir-fry with tofu and shrimps alongside veggie noodles on our first night in Dublin.  Next morning, we parted ways in the city centre after breakfast at Murray’s on O’Connell Street, and I trotted off to the hallowed wooden doors of Trinity College to meet up with another old, dear friend and his wife.

Gary and Jenn welcomed me with open arms to Dublin, and we went on a grand adventure that lasted the entire day.  Starting with a visit to the Book of Kells and the Long Room at Trinity so I could pay homage to the biggest research project of my undergraduate degree, we spent the day talking, laughing, and enjoying fantastic company, food, and beer.

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The barrel-vaulted ceiling of the Long Room at Trinity College Dublin, flanked with countless shelves groaning under the hallowed weight of old books of all shapes and sizes.

 

Though we did stop in at the fabled Foggy Dew, I didn’t actually touch a single drop of Guinness (*gasp*) whilst in Ireland — and that’s because I kept up in Ireland the trend I’d started in Sweden of drinking beers that aren’t readily available in Canada.  I did stick to darker beers though, from amber and brown ales to stouts and porters, and I don’t feel like I really missed out on a “proper” Guinness.  Guinness is everywhere in Montreal and my favourite pub serves the best pint of it in the city, so why try comparing when there are so many good ones to try that I won’t get at home?

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Kepler the stuffed German Shepherd poses with a pint of Buried At Sea, a complex and chocolaty stout from Galway Brewery. (@kep.the.shep on Instagram)

 

The final pint on this whirlwind tour of Irish beers was taken at The Black Sheep (61 Capel Street, Dublin Northside), rather late in the evening after a leisurely stroll up and down the Liffey. By the time we hugged goodnight and bid each other farewell at my Airbnb, I’d had a tour of Dublin City that most tourists don’t get.  It’s the kind where old friends who are practically family take you off the beaten paths of shopping districts and group tours visiting every historical site so that you can see their city.  Sure, you discover and experience new things together (excellent coffee in a boutique café or Mongolian food in the middle of the Temple Bar district, for example, or even a national treasure in Trinity College they haven’t gotten around to seeing yet) but for the most part you’ll circumvent the tourist traps and see a version of the city you won’t get on a bus tour.

But the best part of any trip that involves meeting up with lifelong friends is that not only do you arrive with a strong bond already there, you also leave with that bond reinforced to the point of it being a true bridge — a bridge that can be crossed in both directions, and a bridge that leads to a home on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.  I left such a bridge between Montreal and Sweden, and now one between Montreal and Ireland joins it.

How truly wonderful it is to know that for me there’ll always be a road to Dublin that brings me over the Atlantic and the Liffey, right back to Gary and Jenn’s door.

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The Liffey at sunset, viewed from the Ha’penny Bridge…a beautiful end to a fantastic and full, rich day in the company of wonderful friends. 

‘Round the Salthill Prom

Once again, the only time I’ve found to write real posts is in transit — there’s not much else to do after a while when you’re only an hour in on a three-hour journey between one Irish city and the next.  We’re on our way to Dublin now, the last of five stops on our two-week journey through Sweden and Ireland.  I can’t believe how wonderful everything has been so far, and am excited to finally be in Dublin at the end of this adventure.

We’re leaving Galway today, and it was our longest stop in Ireland:  arriving on Friday afternoon, we then spent two full days in the small coastal city before boarding a bus this Monday morning at 10:30 to head onwards to the Republic’s capital. And what a lovely weekend it was, indeed.  Though we left Donegal in utterly miserable weather, it did clear up quite nicely by the time we got into Galway City on Friday afternoon and it lasted well into Saturday before the wind blew the clouds back in.  Sunday was full of blustery winds and clouds, although the rain didn’t come back until late last night.  So, weather-wise for the West Coast of Ireland, Galway was rather kind to us.

 

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Low tide below the Spanish Arches looking out onto Galway Bay.

If the Salthill looked anything like it did a couple of days ago when the girl from the song met the boy, I don’t blame him for falling madly in love with her right then and there.  I mean, look at it on a beautiful sunny morning:

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I do love Galway and am glad we took two full days in this small city.  Our B&B this time around did, naturally, include an Irish fry-up with black and white pudding — both of which proved that when done right, a breakfast pud can be quite tasty and highly enjoyable to eat. At any rate, we were always well-fed first thing in the morning and made ready for long hours of exploring.  And, for a city so small, there’s still lots to see and do.

This region is home to the world-famous Claddagh Ring — the heart, crown, and hands symbolizing love, loyalty, and friendship — and, as such, Galway City is full of souvenir shops selling this particular ware as well as numerous family-owned jewellery shops where the rings are still hand-crafted in small batches of each family’s distinct designs.  My travel partner got hers up at Thomas Dillon’s Claddagh Gold  and I found mine down at Claddagh & Celtic.  Wherever you do decide to get yours, one of these is probably your best bet for a fair price for hand-crafted silver and gold; other stores ranging from tourist shops to high-end jewellers didn’t seem to have quite the same caliber of quality for the prices listed, and either shop we went to you’ll be treated to the more intimate experience of meeting the crafters who make it their business, literally, to keep a strong Galway tradition alive and authentic.

If bookshops of the world are your thing, Charlie Byrne’s is your best bet.  With stock ranging from antique (World Book 1865, full set) to hot bestsellers from last week’s New York Times, and covering every topic, genre, and area of interest you can imagine, Charlie Byrne’s offers bookworms from all over a haven from tourist traps and large crowds.  Floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall shelves groan with knowledge and wonder and endless hours of potential.  This is where I found a beautiful green leather-bound edition of the works of Tennyson for the princely sum of €4.  Given more time, money, and room in my luggage I would have bought more. Way more.

As with any tourist stop in Ireland, Galway is full of pubs and restaurants. We took two dinners at The Daíl Bar for our Ireland pub-grub-and-pint fix, and one dinner at Eastern Tandoori to break up Isles meat-and-stodge with the aromatic spices and tender meats of Indian cuisine.  Both are equally enjoyable (the seafood chowder at the Daíl is amazing and chock-full of sea-fresh fare, while classic dishes like balti and patala at Eastern Tandoori are flavourful masterpieces that serve as a lovely departure from pub f00d).  On a longer trip with a deeper pocketbook, there are many other places dubbed “foodie stops” for you to try, and so if you do go to Galway City I’d highly encourage you to look up the restaurants online and try a few new ones for yourself as well.

On Sunday after Mass at the Galway Cathedral I had “alone time” in the city, and I had vague romantic notions of going down to the Salthill and finding a large rock on the beach upon which to perch and write some postcards and more entries in my travel journal.  However, the wind literally blew all those fancies out of my head as soon as I hit the Salthill, and I made a valiant effort indeed in walking as far as I did on the beach before making a hasty retreat back into town towards hot tea — and, because bracing oneself against gales off the sea actually does use up a lot of energy, a nice lunch.

My travel companion has been to Galway before and already knew some of its delicious secrets — in the case of Cupán Tae, quite literally – and I’m happy that she was eager to share them with me. In the case of this cosy, shabby-chic tea house facing the bay, I was so enamoured after one round of hot tea and fruit scones that after coming back form the Salthill on Sunday afternoon I beelined straight for the shop to enjoy another full pot of tea, a scone sandwich, and a slice of carrot cake during a long, leisurely lunch. Heaven on Earth does exist if you look hard enough, and I’m rather convinced that a corner of it is to be found at Cupán Tae.

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A pot of Emerald Isle brew (black tea with notes of whiskey and cocoa, followed by a creamy vanilla finish) and fruit scones for round one at Cupán Tae.

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Ham-and-cheese sandwich served with greens, red onion, and tomato on a savoury rosemary scone — perfect for lunch with a pot of Dreamy Creamy Galway bend (black tea with roasted coffee beans and jasmine flowers, with a creamy-smooth and aromatic finish).

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What else do you do when you’ve finished your lunch but still have half a pot of tea left?  Indulging in a slice of homemade carrot cake was a perfect way to finish my solo experience at Cupán Tae.  It came highly recommended by one of the serves who hailed it as her favourite slice in the whole shop, and I’m inclined to agree with her.  www.cupantae.eu for more info and to order online, if you can’t wait to get there in person, and @cupantaegalway for social media.

All in all, Galway was good to us — so good, in fact, that it will definitely be a permanent stop on all future tours of the Emerald Isle I’ll be taking in the future.  As we head into Dublin for the final stretch of our journey, I’m leaving Galway with many fond memories and the added bonus of seeing this small city in the September sunshine.

 

Discovering Donegal

And so, we are in Ireland.  Precisely, at the time I’m writing this we’re somewhere in the countryside between Donegal and Galway. Having bussed our way through the North from Dublin to Donegal on Wednesday afternoon, I’m taking a break from watching green fields dotted with cattle and sheep and the occasional pony in order to catch up on blogging and photo editing.  When I need time to collect my thoughts into some coherent expression, the rolling grey clouds above patchwork greens provides a calming focal point for my wild, excited mind.

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We stayed in Donegal two nights and one full day, arriving in the early evening of Wednesday and leaving late this Friday morning.  True to stereotype, it’s been rainy the whole time; on-and-off at the very best during the daytime and rather steadily once evening sets in.

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Abbey ruins provide a unique site for a cemetery, and this one actually also looks over the water.

Nonetheless, we’ve made quite a solid go of Ireland so far. I’ve even managed to find a little piece of Ireland for everyone back home on my souvenirs list, including a small token for my boyfriend’s parents so that I won’t arrive empty-handed when I finally get to meet them in October. As for my own self, a pop into a shop just off the main square (called The Diamond) called Wool’n’Things yielded two skeins of fine, locally grown-and-spun Donegal tweed in heather purple and forest green, and a pair of crimson wristlets of the same woollen tweed to wear over Pharmaprix HotPaws gloves back home in Montreal this winter.  I much preferred Wool’n’Things to the other larger souvenir shops on The Diamond proper, mostly because the old proprietor of Wool’n’Things indulged my curiosity to learn more about Donegal wool and brought me back into the storeroom to help me find end-of-batch skeins to buy and knit up myself once I’m home.

Staying in a proper Irish bed-and-breakfast is also something I highly recommend when you get it into your head to visit a small town over here and really want a “local” experience.  Forego the larger hotels in the town centres and find yourself a place like Haywood’s B&B that’ll serve you a full Irish breakfast and provide you with insider opinions on where to go and what to buy in town.  At Haywood’s in particular, an en-suite room provided us a lovely balance of privacy when we needed downtime when paired with chatting in the common dining room with other guests and the proprietors during the course of breakfast.

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Visit the Olde Castle Bar for hearty fare (like wild venison pie or the pub staple of fish-and-chips) and a pint of Donegal Brewing Co’s Red Hugh Pale Ale, or pop into Dom’s Pier One for live Irish music every night of the summer season, a bowl of seafood chowder caught off the coast just a few miles down, and a pint of more Donegal Brewing Co’s craft beer (the Atlantic Amber Ale comes highly recommended).

But most importantly, while you’re in Donegal make sure to take a stroll along the Blue Stack Way, and best be sure to take it at a leisurely pace.  Rugged wild Ireland is, after all, a place of mysteries and old ways; you never know when you might bump into them.

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“…for there you have been and there you will long to return.”

Leonardo, writing in Italy on the subject of man taking flight, was still right:  once you’ve been somewhere and found more of yourself and your heart outside of wherever you call “home,” you’ll always want to go back.

And so it is with Sweden.  A few days now into Ireland and I’m still catching up with photo editing and journalling, and therefore still stuck on Sweden particularly in terms of my writing.  My heart is happy to be on the Emerald Isle at long last, but it’s also already yearning to beat once again in time with Swedens’s old, wise heart.  Luckily for me, my other half is looking forward to coming along next time, and I’ll only be too happy to oblige and indulge his own curiosities by bringing him back to places in Stockholm and Falun that I found and fell in love with on my own.

After returning to Stockholm from our weekend “at home” in Falun, we spent much of our time once again in Gamla Stan as well as Djugården Island, the former to revisit some of the more interesting and peculiar shops we’d discovered on our first outing as well as to visit the Kungligastottet (the Royal Palace) and the latter to see the Vasa Museum. We were blessed once more with beautiful weather and countless more discoveries and little marvels along the way.

As we drive now through a rainy Irish countryside to make more memories and gain new experiences of the world, images of “my” Stockholm keep a firm hold on the pieces of my heart that I found there.  I say “my” Stockholm for the way it was when I first walked upon its venerable stones will never be that way again; I will return to this northern city more knowledgeable of its ways and privy to some of its secrets, and I’m sure I will always find something new to love there — but it will be like coming back to a familiar friend who has also grown and changed in the interim, and therefore Stockholm as she showed herself to me when I first met her will always be uniquely mine.

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View of Strandvägen from Djurgårdsbron, the bridge that takes you from Stockholm proper into Djurgården.

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Stockholm, you are beautiful! 

 

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One of the quirkier shops in Gamla Stan. We don’t know its name or how anyone manages to find something to buy in here or how it’s still open. It’s as if everyone in Sweden came with a box from the attic and dumped it out in this shop.

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One of my favourite window displays ever, in any city I’ve ever been in!  A candy shop called Polkagris Kokeri in Gamlastsan (Lilla Nygatan 10) combines old books, vintage luggage, and greenery with their home-made candies and confections to create an eye-catching, whimsical, and utterly beautiful display.  @gamlastanpolkagriskokeri on Instagram for photos, and http://www.gamlastanpolkagriskokeri.se for more info.

The Food of Love

Most of my defining moments happened around the family dinner table, mainly because my parents raised my siblings and me on a steady diet of hearty home-cooked meals eaten as a single family unit every night of the week.  The family dinner table was where I learned life skills like the art of conversation, proper mealtime etiquette, and how to appreciate every morsel of food put in front of me — especially when I did not like it.  It was also where I learned how to value the time and effort of others, and how to give back to them in kind.

The dinner table of my childhood still stands in my mother’s home today and is a stately piece carved from narra wood, the national tree of the Philippines, that my parents shipped over from the Philippines to Canada when we emigrated in 1992.  I find it rather poignant and highly suitable that a Filipino family gathered daily around a table made from our homeland’s national tree, especially considering that everyone who’s taken a seat around it has helped build and strengthen the bridge between the old world and the new.

No matter where they started, family discussions always ended around the dinner table.  Get-togethers with friends and extended family also inevitably ended there, particularly during the summer months when the conversations of day-long barbecues outlasted the last encore of crickets.  Holidays never really saw us leaving it, except of course to clear away empty serving dishes and dirty plates only to return with more food and clean flatware. We ate around it as a family in both immediate and extended forms, adding not one but two leaves on countless occasions to accommodate more guests.  As a baby my nephew crawled on it in between mealtimes, we older folks standing on all sides to keep him from zooming off its polished top; as a toddler, he crawled and then ran under it before whacking his head one day on the edge.  Our dogs sat beneath it as we ate, often indulging in morsels that fell (or were surreptitiously held) under it.  We presented new friends and partners to one another around it, the “others” sizing “us” up against the yardsticks which we ourselves had measured our own progress as sociable human beings.  ((And, when not in use for its original function, my mother used it to sew clothes and curtains and sheets while we put together school projects.))

Nowadays, eating out is a slightly more frequent occurrence than it used to be during my youth and I don’t get many chances to join my mother and BigSis (and now, her boyfriend) around any table, but the family dinner is still integral to our relationship.  More recently than my BigSis, I too have started bringing my own new boyfriend along to dinner, and seeing his face around our table along with the faces of those who know me and love me best warms my heart immensely.

Last week we all went out to Junior, a Filipino restaurant on Rue Notre-Dame .  It was a grand occasion, mostly because MiddleSis and Nephew are in town as well.  As a kid I grew up desperately wanting to eat the North American fare that my classmates and neighbour-kids always tucked into instead of the dishes of islands I couldn’t even remember, but these days my more matured palate can’t get enough of the flavours and textures packed into Filipino food. I love the crisp saltiness of lechon kawali mixing with the tangy sweetness of Mang Tomas sauce; the heat and crunch of a sizzling sisig tempered only slightly by mayo and white rice; the limey zing of a fried bangus served whole, minus the needle-sharp bones of course.  Even the alarmingly sweetness and chewiness of sticky suman dipped into matamis na bao or the cold crunch of shaved ice mixed with ice cream, evaporated milk, sweet beans, young coconut flesh, fruit jellies, and jackfruit – in other words, halo-halo – seem to hit the spot on my cravings so much more accurately than North American desserts these days.

What  I loved most about this latest outing to Junior was that my new boyfriend – an Xth generation Quebecois from Sherbrooke whose Irish, French, and German roots stretch back a few centuries – is a good eater who thoroughly enjoyed the best of my homeland’s cuisine.  Of course it helps immensely that Junior is hands-down the best Filipino food you can get in the city, but even the greatest  and tastiest dishes can be lost on an unappreciative palate. I’ve witnessed it before with past boyfriends:  the polite smile with a barely-discernible trace of apprehension or even dismay at what’s on the Filipino table; the thinly-veiled suspicion of any meat that isn’t instantly recognizable as beef, pork, chicken, or fish; the staunch refusal to even try one mouthful of something new.  That is definitely not the case with this one, which in my book makes him a true keeper.

My family is somewhat leery of picky eaters, and not without good reason. Clearly, since I’ve just spent a few hundred words on the subject, our family dinner is a sacred and precious ritual, and those we invite to partake in food, drink, and company are not only invited to witness them but are indeed being welcomed into our family’s most intimate and telling moments.

But for me, having grown up with one foot in Canada and one occasionally still on the boat back to the Philippines, it means the world to have a non-Filipino partner with whom I can share my cultural roots on every level – especially when it comes to the weird food I have grown to love and re-adopt as “my own.”

The story of my family was written around that narra table; the story of the Philippines, by Spain’s use of the islands as a gateway to the New World.  In both cases food played a huge role in the shaping of such narratives, the exploration and development of which appeal to me as both an amateur writer and as an enthusiastic food-lover.  I can’t help but feel incredibly lucky and rather blessed to have grown up at a table that always had homemade meals upon it, especially from a cuisine that like the table itself was brought over from the home islands to the True North, Strong and Free more than twenty years ago.  And I certainly can’t help but feel extremely proud to share that table now, in all its laden groaning glory, with a person who will add his own words – his own chapter of the story – to that warm and loving narrative.

Shakespeare called music the food of love, but in this family the food of love is the food itself as well as the company we keep when we partake of it around our narra table.

Moonlight and memories

I wrote briefly the other day about what was on my mind leading up to Father’s Day 2016, and here I am again…tapping out another post on my phone, curled up on the bed of my childhood in the guest bedroom at my mother’s house as I reflect upon this evening. And yes, my dad is on my mind again, because without the example of his love for knowledge and for the pursuit thereof I probably wouldn’t be the such a dork.

Being a dork as a kid and as a teenager was tough, but as an adult it’s not so bad – especially when you find other people who share your interests to either the same or greater level. Now, I hop in and out of many different geekdoms but one thing that surprises people is that I’m really into outer space…and not just in a Star Wars kind of way.

Years and years ago, my favourite second brother got a simple telescope for his birthday. We used to aim it at the night sky outside my window in childish attempts to see it in greater detail. The Moon was obviously the easiest target, and even at its limited capacity the little telescope we had could bring out a few of the major details. I loved that telescope, because I already loved looking up at the night sky above our rural childhood home and seeing the Moon and stars in all their glowing glory…and that telescope brought at least the former a little bit closer.

Fast forward to just a few months ago, when I walked with a colleague from Job2 from the workplace to the bus stop and discovered a kindred spirit in astronomy – though clearly, he wins the dork competition here because he has his own telescope and recently made an astrolabe from scratch. And fast forward a little more to today, when a relatively clear night , his telescope, and his generosity with his time and knowledge allowed me to see the night sky in a whole new way with my own eyes.


I saw the Moon tonight in a waxing gibbous, its terminator line a jagged edge of greyscale craters against a black, black sky. I saw star clusters that we city folks can’t see with our naked eyes for all the light pollution our homes emit. I saw Jupiter and its four Galilean Moons. I saw Saturn with its rings accompanied by Titan just outside the bright circle of moonlight.

And in my mind’s eye I saw my father in a memory. He’s standing in the back doorway of my childhood home in his bathrobe and pyjamas, calling out from the back steps to a pair of tents pitched in the far corner of the lawn where five hyper children – my two brothers, two of my cousins, and I – have literally been howling at the stars and Moon. It’s now just after four in the morning and a rousing cacophony of these five voices singing different songs under this late-summer sky. He’s telling us to be quiet, and to try and go back to sleep; he doesn’t want to be dealing with disgruntled neighbours.

A few hours later, I’m the first to leave the tents and go inside to sit with my father at the breakfast table. He doesn’t scold me for the noise; instead he asks me, “What did you see?”

I saw the summer constellations and satellites zipping through them. I saw a shooting star and I saw the sky turn around Polaris. I saw just how small I was in the grander scheme of things and I saw just how much there was yet to learn and discover.

And at that breakfast table, I saw my father: calm, quiet, and attentive, slicing fruit for me as I told him about all these things I saw in the sky. I saw him beginning to stoop with the early onset of age brought on by illness, I saw the early tremors in his hands, and I saw the love in his eyes when he finally passed me a small plate with my helping of bananas, apples, and oranges.

He knew what to be angry about – and being woken at four in the morning by children shouting and singing at the dark grey sky was not one of those things. No, in this case my father’s wisdom held his temper in check, for he knew that there had to be some bigger reason behind our energy and excitement.

Yeah, maybe it was the fact that we kids were allowed to camp out in the backyard and that our cousins had been left behind on our whim to sleep over. Yeah, maybe it was the fact that my favourite first brother had brought out a book called Mysteries of the Unexplained and scared us all with accounts of the paranormal and supernatural. Yeah, maybe it was the sugar from the marshmallows and chocolate and graham crackers we’d stuffed into our faces.

But maybe, just maybe…maybe we were all just enchanted by the night sky. I know I was. That night and all its astronomical wonder has stayed with me all these years. And tonight, for the first time in a long, long time, I was utterly delighted and totally captivated by the heaven we can see on a clear, warm summer’s night.

When a knife in my back starts to twinge and turn

It’s been a month since I actually posted anything, which doesn’t really seem to fit the definition of “being back.” Mea culpa. Life has been pretty crazy in the last little while – when it rains in my life, it really does pour – and I’ve been fighting to keep my head up above the rising flood. But now spring has actually arrived, my life is calming down enough for me to write in earnest again, and I’m finding footing on dry land once more. And I’m more in love with life now than I ever have been.

One of the bigger things I’ve wrestled with in the last year-and-a-bit of my life was learning how to let go – of things, of people, of what never was meant to be. I was holding on to far too much of what lay behind me that I had no way to grasp the things I needed for the journey ahead.

And yes, I was holding on to a lot of pain. Far too much pain, really, but I held on to it because I was utterly terrified – of what, I’m not sure.

Was I terrified of not feeling anything at all? Was I terrified of what I might feel instead? Was I terrified of forgetting the hard lessons I had learned?

I don’t know. I was being pretty irrational about holding on to the hurt, to the point where I still can’t explain why I did…or why I kept it all hidden away and bottled up inside.

Then before Christmas last year, some of it bubbled over. Before I even fully realized what I was doing or saying, I blurted out to an old friend that I felt as though there was something wrong with me.

No, he assured me – there wasn’t, and there never had been.

And when I bubbled and blurted a little more about why I felt all wrong, he said, “Knives in the back are there for a reason. For us to learn and move on… It’s life.”

I chewed on that thought for a while after, and the next time I felt one of those knives in my back twinging and turning, I took a deep breath and pulled it out. It was the knife of a toxic connection that was starting to affect a couple of the longer, more meaningful relationships in my life. It was doing nothing to improve my life and instead making everything so much harder with all the negativity and anger it was attracting.

What filled the wound left behind was a better kind of love from others who mattered more and meant more than that one connection. I found myself standing a little straighter in my emotional state, and feeling stronger than before. I’d done it: I’d felt a knife in my back, I’d learned what it was trying to teach me, and I’d pulled it out and let go.

And it felt so good.

I’ve gone and pulled a few more out since then and done the necessary emotional first aid to patch myself up and get on with the business of life. Sometimes the process has involved letting go of something physically, such as a trinket or memento from some long-ago friendship or relationship; sometimes it’s involved taking a constant source of pain and turning it into fuel for a particularly grueling workout. But no matter what the extraction looks like, it’s as though I’m being given another chance to stand up for myself. Each new decision to pull out another knife turns the wound from a source of pain into a channel by which something better can flow into me.

I do see now why we need knives in our backs, but they don’t have to stay there. They’re more use to us in our hands than buried hilt-deep in our backs. Once we’ve pulled one out, it we can use it to cut loose something else that’s holding us down or holding us back. And while we’re doing that for ourselves, we’re reminded too that we shouldn’t be doing any more of our own back-stabbing.

In Pursuit of Happiness, #10: Three Valentines

One of my favourite pop culture depictions of Valentine’s Day comes from Frasier.  But in the real world, Valentine’s Day can be a pretty tough deal for a lot of people – arguably a tougher one for those of us who are single, but I’d say it’s just as rough for people in couples depending on what kind of relationship they have and/or how each half of it views the (most useless) holiday itself.

I’m not a fan of Valentine’s Day, whether or not I happen to be in a relationship when it rolls around.  In fact, in each of my past long-term relationships, I’ve only actually spent one – count ’em, one – Valentine’s Day with the other half.  All the others were spent miles apart from Whichever Guy I Was In A Long-Distance Relationship With At The Time. 

Add that to the fact that I’m already snarky and jaded to begin with, and you’ll see why I’m not a fan of the day…and probably also be confused as to why the three things making me happy this week are three Valentines.

So I might as well start explaining myself.  Enjoy!

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Valentine’s Day this year kicked off for me a day early, as I went to see Deadpool with one of my best friends. Yes, he’s really “just a friend,” but the reason why he’s one of my Valentines is because he’s pretty much always there for me when I need him, no questions asked, and he’s one of the few people in my life with whom I can spend most of a two-hour road trip in silence without it being awkward or weird…even when I serenade a Timbit with some cheesy 80s hair ballad.

You see, love takes on all kinds of forms and friendship is a form in which we find it in abundance, and he’s one of the truest and dearest friends I’ve ever had.   We understand each other perfectly in our mixture of Franglais and Meme-Speak. It’s a unique language we’ve constructed over five years of friendship to the point where, whenever we meet in the crowded lobby of the downtown cinema, I have to text him and say, “I’m here. Where exactly are you, because I can’t wander through this place shouting [your totally embarrassing nickname that I gave you and use so often I sometimes have to stop and make sure I still know your real name].”

If that’s not a reason to make one of your best friends your Valentine, I don’t know what is.

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Like many Filipinos who grew up during World War II, my grandfather has always had a great affection for Hershey’s, especially Kisses, and Spam. I think it’s because that’s what the Americans had with them when they liberated occupied territories. Regardless of the reason for his love of the stuff, I know that the reason why I think of my grandfather whenever I eat a couple of Kisses is because for as far back as I can remember he’s always had a bowl of them on hand.

I love my grandfather and I miss him dearly. He moved in with us after my grandmother passed away, and he came to Montreal with my parents to help my mother care for my father. While he was here, though, he didn’t just support my parents: he really supported me through some very difficult moments in my early twenties. It was really hard for me to say good-bye when, after my father passed away, my grandfather had to move back to the West Coast for his own health.

However, thanks to technology and the fact that he’s the most technologically literate senior I know, I’m able to keep in touch with him. We text on iMessage or message chat on Skype almost daily, and at least once a week we use FaceTime to say hello and share a coffee.

Even if all I can say is one or two lines on any given day, I always make sure I tell my grandfather that I love him. He’s getting on in years and despite his apparent longevity I know I won’t have him forever, and I never want to say a last goodbye to any of my loved ones without having said, “I love you” one last time when they could hear it.

On Valentine’s Day this year, I found a handful of Hershey’s Kisses in the cupboard and decided to treat myself. And of course, they reminded me of my grandfather, so I hopped onto Skype and quickly tapped out a message: “Happy Valentine’s Day! I had some Kisses and thought of you, so does this make you my Funny Valentine? I love you!”

His response was, “Happy Valentine’s Day to you too, sweetheart. Thank you for thinking of me. I would love to be your Funny Valentine. You have made my day.”

Yeah, here’s a tissue for you too.

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I wished another man a Happy Valentine’s Day after making plans with my grandfather to FaceTime sometime this week – this time, a longtime friend of literally half my life and one of a small handful of people who know exactly what I looked like as a teenager (and probably has photographic evidence of it that exists nowhere else now). He lives pretty far away and he always has, but that’s never really stopped us from being able to close the gaps with what we’ve got in common.

He never forgets my birthday and always sends me lovely messages during all the important holidays, and when I wished him a Happy Valentine’s Day this year he shared a fun fact with me about February 14 in his country: over there, that day is also the feast day of Saint Trifon Zarezan, the patron saint of all things to do with wine.

“You’ve just made this day so much better for single people,” I said. “I knew there were reasons why I still like you.”

“I thought it was because of my blue eyes.”

“…they’re brown.”

“Just checking to see if you knew.”

“Don’t be a troll.”

“…and you have lovely eyes…they are awesome, especially with that smile.”

“What’s gotten into you?”

“Nothing.  Just wanted to tell you that.  You are a pretty girl and you should hear it more often.”

Now, I can be very self-deprecating and I can’t take a compliment about my looks if my life depended on it. I had a very long “ugly duckling” phase and while all the lovely women in my life are pretty good at reminding me that I’m not ugly, I’m not one of those girls that gets complemented a lot by guys about my looks – my ability to drink half an Irish rugby team under the table, yes, or the fact that I’ve got a great personality, but never my looks.

Bra-burning feminists can torch me all they want but given that I can probably count on one hand the times outside of a relationship where I’ve been complimented on my looks, I’m not above admitting that it more or less makes my entire week when a guy tells me he thinks I’m pretty and ought to be told so more often…especially if he happens to be somebody who knows exactly what I looked like in raccoon eyeliner, oversized band shirts, studs and piercings, and a permanent sulk.

In Pursuit of Happiness, #9: Long Coffees, Small Worlds, and Snowboarding

I’m late again, but at least this time it’s just a day late instead of half a week.  To make things more exciting this week I’m going to ask you, dear readers, to do something for me:  if you decide to hit “Like” on this one on FB and/or share this post on your social media, pretty-please-with-a-cherry-on-top share three things that have made you happy when you do so.  It’s just another way we can make the world a brighter place!

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Long Coffees: I don’t have a whole lot of free time, and even a rare weekday off both jobs doesn’t necessarily mean I have much more of it. Such was the case yesterday: a somewhat pressing need to catch up on appointments with the various health professionals in my life meant that a day off wasn’t spent lounging around my apartment in comfy pants and no bra.

However, in between those appointments I had a couple of hours to spare, and I spent them at a great café on the downtown campus of my alma mater in the company of a beautiful, creative soul and wonderful new friend. We met at Job2 and the original purpose of this java jive was to hash out the details of a collaborative project we’re embarking upon.

It was the first time we’d hung out together outside of work, and even at work we don’t get many chances to really talk – but coffee time with her wasn’t awkward at all. We sat down, sipped our coffee, and just talked – about our project, our shared love of animals, our experiences as awkward teenagers evolving into young women in the city, and our individual attempts to make meaningful art.

 

In one of the many BBC historical documentaries for which I have previously professed great affection an observation was made about the impact of coffee and the age of exploration on the intellectual state of Western Europe. Basically, once coffee replaced ale and beer as the daily drink of choice, coffeehouses replaced pubs as the gathering places of academics, philosophers, and dreamers. And because entire cities were no longer inebriated by midday, the literal clarity of the collective mind led to unexpected leaps and bounds in the technological advancements of the western world that had been lost with the fall of the Roman Empire.

 

Sitting in that cozy university coffee shop with my friend I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that the modern café still upholds this rich and meaningful heritage. The Swedish language has a great word for long coffees and great conversations with good friends – Fika – and I felt that this is exactly what I shared with my friend yesterday.

I walked out of that café feeling like not only had I finally started making some real progress in re-harnessing my creativity, but also like I had truly gained a new friend for life.

Small Worlds: I discovered that one of the recipients of a letter from my letter writing campaign – a resident of Belgium, nonetheless – knows my Big Sister’s best friend. I happened to meet him randomly on Instagram when he came across the original post where I proclaimed that I would send a letter to anyone in the world who wanted one, regardless of where they were.

 

I’m not going to deny that the world is a pretty big place when you look at it from certain perspectives, but the world can also be a very small place – especially when physical, emotional, spiritual, and ideological divides are bridged by building connections with other people.

Having been an outcast musician-nerd in my adolescence during the early days of internet discussion forums, I’ve made a lot of friends from all over the world in the last decade or so. From Scandinavia to the United Kingdom and Ireland to just a few stops down the line on the Montreal Metro, talking about common interests online have brought some wonderful people into my life and I’m incredibly happy that it continues to do so.

The world can be a big scary place, but that’s just perspective. If you choose to see instead that this big world can be full of adventure and mystery and wonder, you can start making it a smaller place by figuring out where you belong in it and meeting the people with whom you’re meant to see the world. Right now I’m still working on getting myself into a position where it’s financially intelligent and viable for me to travel, but in the meantime I am very happy and very grateful to be blessed with so many friends around the world who will make these future adventures even more precious and priceless.

Snowboarding: A few years ago, one of my best friends helped me fulfil a dream by teaching me how to snowboard. This weekend, we took a road trip two hours up to Val St-Come, where we spent a day and a half on the slopes in the fresh, crisp air of the northern Quebec. I’ve lost count by now of how many times we’ve gone down mountains together (and how many times I’ve gone down mountains with other snow-junkie friends), but every time we hit the slopes together I’m always reminded of how lucky and blessed I am to have a friend who’s patient and caring enough to slow down, keep an eye out for me on the mountainside, and tell me how I can improve my limited skills on my board.

 

I had the best time ever during this weekend trip to Val St-Come. Having booked an entire weekend off Job2 to do this trip, I am beyond utterly happy that it went so well. Swimming during alone-time on Saturday evening after snowboarding at night helped me relax and get into a fresh state of mind for the fresh powder, bright blue sky, and perfect sense of fearlessness and adventure that Sunday brought.

 

This weekend’s trip to Val St-Come really put into perspective all of the changes and transformations that I’ve experienced – physically, mentally, and emotionally – over the last year. Exactly one year ago on my last snowboarding trip of 2015, I came home feeling lonely, abandoned, and forgotten because it was another life experience I had to go through without the boyfriend I had at the time.

A year ago, I didn’t know how to live for myself because I was so wrapped up in living for another person who, in the end, made me feel like I wasn’t worth keeping promises for and made me feel taken for granted every time I talked to him.

Coming home this year from this weekend away and comparing this year to the last, I couldn’t recognize myself.  It wasn’t just the fact that I’ll definitely need new snowboarding pants next year because these ones are too big (as is the belt I’ve used to keep them up), or that for the first time in my adult life I wore a sporty two-piece swimsuit with utter confidence in a public place. It was the fact that I was truly joyful for a whole weekend – joyful at being able to take an entire weekend off work, joyful at being able to spend such wonderful quality time with my best friend, and joyful at finally being good enough at snowboarding to really enjoy the rush it actually is.

 

Ask me to close my eyes and picture freedom, and this is what I see: above me, nothing but a bright blue sky with a few wisps of white cloud and before me, a seemingly endless slope of fresh powder. It’s below zero, there’s a brisk wind working its way between the woolen strands of the scarf I’ve pulled over my face, and for once my body is about to move in exactly the way I want it to despite being swaddled in layers of warm clothes and being strapped to a board. After a lifetime of being told I was too big to move, let alone be good at any sport, and after strapping myself down to relationships that go nowhere, there is nothing else for me that can describe the feeling of being free better than the pure joy I feel when I’m flying down a mountainside on my snowboard.