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.

Holding on to what I’ve got

At various points in my life, I’ve felt like certain songs defined exactly what I was going through at that exact phase of my life. We’ve all experienced this phenomenon before and we all have a mixtape of songs that for one reason or another we felt were all about ourselves.  Now, I’m not entirely sure what song defined my life at the end of 2015, but I can tell you what happened and how I emerged in 2016 to be howling “Livin’ on a Prayer” into my hairbrush while powerstancing on my bed.

In the last few months of 2015, I actually went through a crisis of faith. Having already gone through similar experiences twice before, you’d think I would have figured out how to prevent them from happening again – especially with all the tools and formation I received from growing up in a devout Catholic household steeped long in theology, philosophy, and Catechism. Having faith was just as normal to us as breathing and the reminder to “just keep praying” was heard as often as “clean your room.”

But I was and still sometimes am a spoiled and rebellious child, and when things don’t go my way I get upset with God. And, depending on what didn’t turn out the way I wanted and how it didn’t turn out, I can get pretty temperamental and stubborn. Yes – right up to the point of throwing in the towel on my faith and going off to a dark corner to sulk and ignore God. “You gave me free will,” I once said in a Parthian shot to Him, “so I’m going to use it the way I want to.”

This last year in particular, on the two bookending occasions of 2015 that broke my heart, the pain I really encountered after abandoning my post at the Foot of the Cross was far greater than the pain I thought I’d had while abandoning myself to the Lord. During Advent, a season in the Liturgical year during which the rest of the Christian world is preparing to greet the Holy Child at Christmas, the hours I once spent on prayer were given over to weeping and gnashing of teeth.  (No, really — I think I cried more in 2015 than I ever have in all the other years of my life put together.) For the first time in many years I didn’t receive Communion at Christmas Mass or on New Year’s Day, and for the first time ever I found myself really considering just breaking off from Catholicism altogether and giving up entirely on religion.

But I couldn’t jump off that side of the ledge upon which I teetered for many weeks, because if there was one thing I learned from my human father it was that even if your faith is in shreds, if you can find a piece of it that’s still big enough to hold on to you really should. And if there was one thing I learned how to do in 2015, it was how to look at something for what it really was and discern if it really ought to be in my life – to use logic and rationale instead of just blind faith to figure stuff out.

I’m definitely no expert at it because hey, I kind of just started doing it, but I’m beginning to at least get enough of a handle on it to start using this skill more often in my life. And when I took that long, hard look at myself on Epiphany Sunday, I realized I was a little too good at letting go: too good, because up until now the rejection, betrayal, or pain from one person was enough to make me let go of everyone in my life – including God.

After all, pure logic would dictate that if I believed God put people into my life for some unknown but good reason, then I should believe He took some of them out of my life for an equally unknown but supposedly still good reason. Along that same line of thought, twisted logic would say that if I wasn’t happy with anything, including God, I should just chuck it all overboard. But that didn’t make sense to me when I thought about it, because in a way that was saying I believed in free will but only when it was convenient – in other words, only when good things happened – and that whenever one of my choices, even a good one, cut me to the core it wasn’t on my hands but on God’s.

Once I figured that out, I spent most of Epiphany Sunday this year in dialogue with myself about all of this. I moved through the day talking myself through all the reasons why I kept abandoning my Catholicism when relationships didn’t work out, when I lost meaningful and formative friendships, or when I didn’t succeed at something I set out to do. I tried to determine why failed relationships and soured friendships had the effect of pulling me away from God so much to the point where the inevitable crash-and-burn in these instances unfailingly results in me uprooting myself from my Catholicism and putting my relationship with God on hold while I try to deal on my own.

The answer, in a nutshell, was that my efforts for others were often fuelled by fear – of being left behind, inadequate, forgotten, or expendable; of being seen as imperfect or ordinary; of being perceived as too outspoken and needy. I bent over backwards for many people who, in retrospect, I can now see as people who took me for granted, overlooked me anyway, or didn’t appreciate my acts of love beyond seeing them as things that got done for them.

Now, this is not to say that every past experience was wholly negative. In every relationship and friendship I’ve had that’s now just a memory, there really are good times. But the pain of the bad times and my own selfishness prevented me from keeping what was good and finding solace in the blessings I had received in being with those people. And because I couldn’t see the blessings I’d been given, I could not see God’s goodness – and so I abandoned Him, too, when I abandoned those relationships.

Before evening Mass on Epiphany Sunday, I went to Confession for the first time in many months and, perhaps for the first time in many years, I made it a good and thorough one. (I apologise profusely to the rest of the line – but if they haven’t experienced this kind of Reconciliation before I hope one day they will, because such a Confession can be one of the most beautiful and liberating experiences in life.) After I did my Penance I remained in prayer, taking the time to be in conversation with the Father I had ignored for so long to ask him for the grace I needed to do three important things.

One To rebuild and strengthen the good relationships that had been damaged by conflict with and fallout from others, because these were the people who stuck by me when I was too selfish and too wrapped up in my own pain to see the gifts of comfort they were trying to give me.

Two To see which connections in my life were damaging and toxic to the good relationships I was trying to heal and repair, and to eliminate them from my immediate sphere of concern – but without malice and without anger.

Three: To learn how to recognize good people when they came into my life as people intended to enrich my experiences and bring out the best in me – people who would inspire me through their own ways of giving to give of my time, talent, and treasure to others not for my own security and assurance, but for the greater good and well-being of others.

My father taught me to believe and to have faith, but my life experiences have taught me to question and discern, and writing has taught me that the simplest questions lead you to the most complete answers. So if I still believe in God and still have faith, then what I have to do with it is ask myself: what has God given me, who has God given me, why these blessings have been put into my life, where I can use them to fix my life, and how I can use them to bring joy into the lives of others?

All three things have been going rather well since Epiphany Sunday, and I’m glad to say that the third in particular has already brought blessings into my life in the form of new friends who encourage me to bring forward what’s best about myself and inspire me to share my authentic self with them and the rest of the world. I’m really looking forward to connecting more often with them and to building up strong friendships with these incredible individuals. I truly do believe their paths crossed mine at this moment in time for good reasons, and I know that it’s up to me to make something good come out of these encounters and connections. Some of them believe in the same things I do and others believe in very different things, but I appreciate them and love them all the same because they each bring out the same good qualities and talents in me I’ve ignored or kept hidden until now.

So how does this all lead to me singing Bon Jovi into a hairbrush while standing in a powerstance on my bed, and why is “Livin’ on a Prayer” the song that defines my life of renewed faith, hope, and love?

Well, even though Bon Jovi didn’t mean it as a song of praise, it rather succinctly sums up how I’m moving forward with my life: holding on to what I’ve got, understanding that what I do have really is quite a lot, and remembering that inasmuch as I can and should take agency of my own life I do need my faith and keep praying. I can’t live on just a prayer indefinitely, but when everything else disappears there’s always a way to find it all again through keeping my faith.

Watering my mustard seeds

The other day, a very old and very dear friend of mine shared a humour post on Facebook – “30 Ways to Win a Catholic Girl’s Heart.”  It actually was pretty funny and I’m sure I’m not the only reader who can relate to several of the points on this list — though I really do think that you do have to have some working/practicing knowledge of the system to really understand why I had a giggle fit over “Become a Swiss Guard.”

Humour aside, though, the whole thing did get me thinking about this whole “being a single practicing Catholic” thing I’ve got going on.

I turned twenty-five a couple of months ago, passing that particular milestone with the experience of a few long-term relationships and various short-lived ventures into dating. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert because I so totally am not one, but I’ve loved enough and lost enough by now to have a pretty good idea of what it takes to win over this particular Catholic heart.

Some people I know think that the most fulfilling relationship I could possibly have would be one with a practicing Catholic guy. However after my last turn around the LTR block with one, I can tell you that being of the same religious background and having a reasonably comparable level of faith formation is no guarantee to everlasting marital-worthy happiness. Sure, it makes things easier sometimes, and I definitely have peers whose young marriages are working out rather nicely due to shared faith, but castles in the air of any kind are simply that until they’re grounded in your reality.

My reality contains within it a highly secularized demographic of peers who, while perhaps not being so ardent in their natal religions as I am, are still wonderful, decent, and amazing people. And I’m not about to whittle away all my options down to a small handful of churchgoing, God-fearing guys (who I know by appearance alone because the only time I see them is during Sunday Mass) simply because I’m Catholic.

I can stand on my own two feet in my faith.  My mustard tree, though small yet and still sometimes desperately thirsty for grace, is sturdy enough that there’s no danger of me uprooting it from that nourishing soil to please somebody else.  If I am meant to share my life with another person, then I know that I will be able to freely and happily share everything about myself with them – including my faith and all the experiences that I have had because of it. But I will never beat somebody over the head with my old Baltimore Catechism, make full conversion or RCIA a dealbreaker, or drag somebody by the scruff to Mass. That’s no way to win a non-Catholic heart, and that’s also kind of hypocritical (you know, that whole “Free Will” deal and all).

I’ve come to realize that what makes things easier for me is mutual respect, honesty, and openness. If a guy can respect that I have my faith and my beliefs, and doesn’t ridicule me, put me down, or insult me because I am a practicing Catholic, then I can return to him a sizeable measure of respect. If a guy can be honest with me about why he’s lapsed, doesn’t believe in God, or doesn’t understand the whole religion thing, then I am happy to share the little I know to help bring further clarity. And if a guy can be open with me about what’s in his own heart and what his intentions are, then I can find it in my heart to return the gesture.

I’d much rather be alone and happy than be trapped in a relationship of religious convenience.  I would rather be loved, cherished, and respected for everything that I am, not just wanted because of the religion into which I was baptized and which I practice willingly as an adult.  And that’s what would warm and win this particular Catholic heart, because the end of the day, being able to share my faith with my partner on any level would be a precious blessing and I would treasure it…and I honestly believe there are many ways to share faith – many ways to grow together in faith, hope, and love, even as a “mixed” couple. If that’s what’s in store for me, then I gladly welcome it and will eagerly walk that path alongside whatever upright, just, and decent man God sends along that same way.

Love over everything else

The United States legalized gay marriage nationwide today, and I’m not afraid to say that I’ve hit “Like” on more than one friend’s status update and on more than one news service’s headline about this social milestone.

I’m also not above sharing the fact that a person I’ve known and called a friend for some time now sent me a text message asking me why on earth would I give this breaking news a thumbs-up, remarking by way of justification that,

“…it’s wrong and goes against what we believe in, and as a woman who someday wants a family you ought to think hard about how this threatens your future position as a mother in a society that accepts this sort of thing.  Your hypocrisy is disappointing, to say the least. ”

Anyone who follows this blog knows I wear my faith and my views on my sleeve, and I do tend to get a lot of mixed feedback about doing so.  That’s only to be expected, though, since the Internet is public — but that’s besides the point.  Of all the negative messages I’ve received about my more worldly views, this is probably the one that angers and hurts me the most.

It’s not just because I have a lot good friends who are homosexual and a few who are bisexual.  It’s not just because  a good friend of mine is a heterosexual whose divorced parents are both now with same-sex partners.  It’s not just because one of my closest friends came out to me before they came out to anyone else, including their own parents.  It’s not just because a dear friend of mine is searching for a way to make their homosexuality coincide with their faith, determined not to give up or abandon either one because they believe both are equally important to who they are as an individual.

It’s also because I have never, ever believed in using my sexual orientation, religious affiliation, or gender to say that I am in any way “better” or “holier” or “more deserving” than anyone else – and it pains me to know that members of my faith community (both immediate and extended) so easily forget what the Lord says about love.

And He has quite a lot to say on the subject, but perhaps the most familiar points to just about anyone  are, “Let those without sin cast the first stone,” as well as, “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.”  He also asked us to, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Oh, and while we’re considering those points, it would serve us all in good stead to remember that “Christian” means “follower of Christ,” and “Catholic” means “universal.”

Thus…

Is it truly Christian or Catholic for any person or group of people to say that those who are “different” aren’t worthy of the same rights, privileges, and advantages which “the norm” may claim unopposed?  Do we truly love others as we have been loved by an infinitely wise and loving Creator when we use that same Creator’s words against people who are in some way, shape, or form not exactly like us?  Can we really say we believe love is the greatest virtue when we allow our faith and beliefs and ideologies to get in the way of everyone being able to share their lives with other people in freedom and security?

If being a follower of Christ means following His example in daily life and if being made in God’s image means reflecting some measure His infinite love, then the hypocrisy lies not in being supportive of friends and/or family members whose lives are remarkably different than our own.  The hypocrisy lies in viewing anyone who isn’t heterosexual – and therefore supposedly “normal” – as being unworthy of acceptance, friendship, support, and yes, love. 

And that’s because the bottom line about humanity in this faith, the very heart of this belief system, is that our God became human so that He could die for all of humanity.  The Incarnation and the Crucifixion did not occur to save a select handful of souls, but rather every soul.  That is the extent of Divine Love, and nothing of human design or conception – not even the most deeply entrenched prejudices or misconceptions concerning the diverse complexity of any aspect of humanity – can change that.

Neither Here nor There: Being a Woman in the Middle Ground

You hear a lot of things about the whole “women who don’t want families” debate.  You also hear a lot of things from the “women who are rather young when they settle down and start families” debate.  But what about those of us ladies who fall in between those two extremes – the women who are in their mid- to late-twenties, have career-path jobs, and want to have children?

I am a twenty-something young woman who is gainfully employed, highly educated, and quite independent on several counts, but who also wants to get married and start a family.  Speaking from experience, then, I can tell you that those of us who fall into this middle category tend to have somewhat of a hard time.  We’re on neither one side nor the other of the “modern women and marriage” divide, which means we get flak from both sides of it.

Just because a woman is able to serve a husband and a family doesn’t mean she is unable to be her own person and live her own life.  And just because a woman is able to be herself and make her own life choices doesn’t make her ability to love and nurture a disadvantage or weakness in the real world.

A woman is not demeaning or belittling herself if she gets married and starts a family, but neither is she selfish and cold if she chooses to remain single and works to support herself.

There is more to a woman than her biological capacity to become a mother and raise a family – but there is also more to a woman than her social capacity to be independent and successful.

Those of us females in the mid-ground see these things and understand these things – so why do members of our own sex on both sides of the chasm call us out for being in the middle?  Why are we made to feel like we’re letting down our gender by wanting to compromise and have the best of both worlds that are offered to modern women?

Yes, I want to get married – but I want to have a set of memories and life experiences as an adult that are entirely my own.  Yes, when I start a family I would like to be stay-at-home mother – but that doesn’t mean I can’t contribute to that family’s finances now.  Yes, I am aware of that so-called biological clock ticking away inside me – but just because my body is able to bear children doesn’t mean I have to before the rest of me is ready to have and raise them.  Yes, I want to be the kind of wife my husband is proud to have on his arm and show off – but I want him to be proud because I have made something of myself in this world before deciding to be his wife.

There are many women who choose to be on one side, and one side only, of twenty-first century womanhood and as long as they find fulfilment and happiness in their choices I can respect and admire them for it.  They are doing what they want and what they think is right for them, and taking action for their happiness is what’s commendable.  What isn’t commendable is expecting every woman to fall neatly onto one side or another, because most of us don’t entirely fit the bill for just one side.

I myself would not be entirely fulfilled or happy if I was to choose one side without having been on the other.  I am neither any less feminine nor any less of a feminist for wanting what I think is the best pieces of both worlds.  I think that occupying the middle ground of modern womanhood allows me to be strong, independent, and assertive in feminine ways, while simultaneously being a feminist in ways that are non-abrasive, non-aggressive, and non-misandrist.  I don’t think I would be living my life well if I rushed into marriage without first having been able to become the best individual I can be – because my future family deserves to be given the best of me.  And living in the middle is where I can find that best possible version of myself.