A taste of cardamom

It’s been a while, hasn’t it…  Last time I posted, it was one week after I arrived home from my two-week jaunt overseas to Sweden and Ireland with one of my best friends.

And then, suddenly…all quiet on the northern front. 

It’s not that I haven’t tried to write.  I really have.  Feverish scribbles in many notebooks record my efforts.  And it’s not that I haven’t had anything to write about, either.  Indeed, I returned home to the love of my life; I left my second job where I worked en electronics retail; I met my love’s family over Canadian Thanksgiving…oh, and I got engaged just before Christmas!  Personal life events aside, there was always the soapbox of some big current issue:  a Canadian perspective on the US elections; another voice in the protest against the patriarchy; more insights on feminine self-perception and the issues women have with their bodies… You name it, I could have written about it.

But I lost my voice after coming back home in September.  It was as if Angela the Writer was struck speechless by that journey and just felt as if there was nothing to write about on the home front that could hold a candle to the wonders of Sweden and Ireland.  (It certainly didn’t help that before  I left my second job in mid-November, I kept having mini-breakdowns everywhere because of how stressed out, anxious, and over-tired I was.)  And so, as I wound myself into a tighter ball of stress and anxiety and fatigue, the Montreal Autumn waltzed by mostly unnoticed.

And then the Montreal Winter arrived.  Cold and dark as it was, the snow didn’t start coming in earnest until just a few weeks ago.  The past two weeks in particular have been bone-chillingly cold with blustery winds and near-white-out snowfalls.

Memory Lane, or as it’s called in Swedish, Nostalgitripp, beckoned to me and called me back to Sweden in particular when the snow finally hit in earnest.  In the midst of this winter I found myself cocooned in memories of blue skies shining over Stockholm, birch-lined paths through Falun, sun-splashed cobblestones in Gamla Stan, exuberant winds coming off the Baltic…and cardamom buns and coffee enjoyed next to window-baskets full of bright flowers whenever it was time for a fika break.

My fiancé recently let me loose with gift money in the cooking section of Indigo as part of my Valentine’s Day present, and in that particular haul is a book called How To Hygge:  The Nordic Secrets to a Happy Life, by Norwegian food writer and chef Signe Johansen.  While it’s more of a lifestyle book than one of cookery, Johansen includes many Nordic recipes in it…and in the chapter on fika, there is a recipe for cardamom buns.

If I ever have to summarize my time in Sweden in terms of food, kardemummabullar from Fabrique Stenugnsbageri is always the first thing I mention.  Kanelbullar, or cinnamon buns, are commonplace enough in North America, and while the kind we get here in abundance is made in the typical American fashion (gigantic, stodgy, and made with too much sugar), their cardamom counterparts are rare treats even in the fanciest boulangeries of my city.  I absolutely love cardamom (many of my favorite tea blends from DavidsTea involve the dried, fragrant green pods) and get noticeably excited when I see it listed on a menu.

Now, hygge (pronounced hoo-ga) is a lifestyle that’s all about cosiness, comfort, companionship, and all the little things in like that bring them to life, and I encountered this concept right in the middle of the time of year that tends to make me feel lethargic, uncomfortable, and lonely.  But as I read the chapter on fika and looked over that recipe for cardamom buns, I remembered not how the Fabrique kardemummabullar tasted but rather how I felt while eating them for the first time.  I’d chosen a rich double espresso to go with it, and as I tucked into this modest little feast I felt all the stiffness, tiredness, and stress of long travel hours melting away.  As I ate I felt ready to take Stockholm head-on like the proper adventurer I wanted to be.

If a cardamom roll could do that once, maybe it could do it again, I thought as I read Johansen’s recipe, curled up on the couch with our British Shorthair purring next to my head while snow fell down outside the window.  We even do have cardamom in the spice cupboard…

I had time this weekend to take on the challenge of home-made bread, and this morning we had a batch of kardemummabullar waiting for us to enjoy in our breakfast.  As I gently tore apart a golden-brown spiral and looked out at the snow that’s piled up on the porch and in the alley below, I felt this long winter brighten a bit with my first taste of the hygge life.

And just as it had done on a side street in Gamla Stan, the taste of fragrant cardamom, fresh bread, and coffee helped me get back on my feet.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot 

Part of me feels like I should be writing something profound and moving on the last night of 2015.

The bigger part of me feels like I don’t have to if the right words won’t come — and I’m okay with that.

There’s not much I can say about 2015 that I haven’t already written about, so all I’ll say here are the five things my father believed every child should be taught to say in complete sincerity.

To everyone in my life, and to those who have left it but might still come back here to visit…if you know me well, you know what I mean to say to you with each one of these.

Please.

Thank you.

I’m sorry.

I forgive you.

I give you my word.

***   ***   ***

Happy New Year.

The Lifelong Labor of Love

I’m lucky enough to be allowed to plug in to my music at my desk job, which helps immensely when I’m trying to keep my mind off of my personal life while I’m on the clock.  Lately, though, I’ve been listening to C. S. Lewis audiobooks instead of music.

Depending on current circumstances, Lewis speaks to me in different ways.  Certain quotes or passages will jump out at me to touch my life as it is at the exact moment I read or hear them, and sometimes what he writes does move me to tears.  So it was when I was listening to The Four Loves the other day.  Luckily I was already home by then, having been too caught up in that venerable Belfastian baritone to have silenced it on my walk home from work, so nobody had to witness the rather unattractive display of crying.

Discussing St Augustine’s observations that,

All creatures are temporary. It’s the very nature of the universe that all individuals should pass away and make room for others. … To give one’s heart to a created being is therefore to court disaster. If love is to mean in the long run happiness, not misery, it must mean love for the only Beloved that does not pass away;

Lewis went on his discourse of agape, or the love of God for man and man for God, to say, “A broken and contrite heart awaits, most surely, those who follow that road most faithfully.”  This frank statement about the difficulty of loving God above all else made me reflect on another passage he had written in The Screwtape Letters:  “Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

There are many lines of Scripture wherein God tells us that the road to Heaven is not, by any means, easy.  Who hasn’t been made aware of going through narrow gates, chaff being separated from wheat, persecution by armed enemies, testing gold in fiery furnaces, and wandering in the desert?  And who hasn’t been confused by the Word of the Lord in these instances?  Yet God speaks plainly if you listen to Him intently.  Each example illustrates the intense amount of effort it will take for us to overcome the crippling elements of the human condition before we can cross the holy threshold of His door.

But listening intently to God means listening to everything He has to say.  And for every line of Scripture telling us of the hardships of our faith, there’s something to be said about what good will come from enduring each one.  On the other side of the narrow gates lies a city of paradise.  Freed from chaff, wheat may become flour to make nourishing bread.  Those who suffer for God will have their wounds tended by His mercy. Gold becomes pure and dazzlingly beautiful, and shows its true measure of worth and value.  The desert eventually gives way to an oasis, a land flowing with milk and honey.

Plainly put, God gives us fair warning about the difficulties that lie ahead should we choose to follow Him, and lets us decide in the end if we will or if we will not…but He doesn’t just leave it at that even when we cast the dice.

He gives us the milestones and signposts to guide us along that high road home.   They can be found and identified in every level of our existence.  In the mundane tasks of ordinary days, in the ways we pass our spare time, in our friends and families and acquaintances, in the experiences from which we grow and learn, and in the ways we choose to revere and love God through worship and participation in the Sacraments, we are never left entirely to our own devices.  Not even those who neither believe in any higher power nor practise any religion are abandoned:  we all are given some kind of compass to help us on our way.

Of the Four Loves, Lewis states that all wish to call the objects of their affection, “Mine” —  yet is only agape as it comes from God towards His creation that can truly say this.  God is love, and it is out of His perfect love for all creation that He warns us of the difficulties in following Him.   It is out of that same love that He gives all the tools and resources and graces we might need to keep moving forward.  One’s heart may be broken in pursuit of His will, but when that will is fulfilled by a heart purely joyful and joyfully pure that chooses to endure and persevere for the sake of that perfect love…oh, what healing and wholeness surely awaits that broken and contrite heart!

Living my religion

Being a young adult of ardent faith comes with its own set of challenges, especially in today’s society.  It’s no understatement to say that being a young adult practicing any religion is counter-cultural simply because it’s true:  the majority of my peer group does not have a well-developed spiritual formation, if any at all.

And because we practicing young adults are going against popular culture, our own lives can become quite confusing from time to time.  We are still humans living in the day-to-day world.  We are still faced with the same challenges, ordeals, and events that everyone else encounters – but we have faith.  And while faith is on the whole an incredibly reliable compass, when the expectations of faith clash with the expectations of popular culture we do get thrown off-course.  It’s especially hard to live and express faith openly when popular culture perpetuates religion-based stereotypes, particularly the ones wherein anyone who is an ardent believer and faithful follower is portrayed as an uncontrollable, unlikable zealot out to convert the entire world by force.

Uniting uncommon faith with popular society is a tricky business.  It’s hard for those of us who have it to understand it, so believe me when I say that I get that the non-believer has a hard time understanding it too.  I’m a practicing Roman Catholic who had a crisis of faith in late adolescence and young adulthood, so really:  I understand both sides of the story.  And I do need to point out that the world through the eyes of faith is not necessarily black-and-white.  There are many shades of grey on all subjects of morality – and those spaces in between the extremes of what is blatantly wrong and what is infallibly right are where our faith is truly tested.

I’m still figuring out my faith and who I am as a daughter of God.  I’ll probably spend a great deal of the rest of my life trying to figure it out.  But in the twenty-four years that I have lived, loved, lost, and regained my faith, I have come to understand a little better three key aspects of my belief system.

Let me be clear that my intention here is not to preach on these three points, but rather to share how I have come to understand them – and for a few reasons.  First, not every religion names the Bible, either in entirety or in part, as its holy scripture.  Second, there are several versions of the Bible and the way I know the Word of God is not necessarily the way others would know it.  Third, the written word – even as it pertains to faith and religion – is always subject to human interpretation, and therefore can be read in many different ways even among those who know the same version of the Bible.  (See what I meant when I said it’s not all black-and-white?)

But there are common threads among all kinds of faith, and maybe if you’re a young man or young woman of a faith different to mine you’ll see those threads of my spiritual life intertwining with yours.

***

“Love the sinner, hate the sin,” is not carte-blanche for you to do whatever you want and think you’ll get off scott-free.  Catholics have this thing called Confession.  Otherwise known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it’s hinged upon the belief and teaching that no matter how grave the transgression, the sinner is still worthy of love and forgiveness.  (Actually, it’s what the entire religion is hinged upon.  After all, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ as a means of salvation for all of humanity is pretty much how this all started.)  And this is pretty good.  It means we can be human and make mistakes, but we have a chance to start anew and head back into the world with a stronger resolve.

It’s a component of Catholicism that is so integral and intrinsic to the entire belief system that sometimes it becomes a loophole or a crutch.  Personally, I have lost track of the number of times I have said to myself, “I can do whatever I want, because as long as I go to Confession I’ll be alright.  But that’s not entirely true.  “Confession is a covenant, and requires conviction to keep us from condemnation,” as my father once told me (how’s that for a Catholic tongue-twister?), and as such, it can’t be taken as a “get out of jail free” card that we can whip out every time we’re faced with a moral quandary.

But in terms of the world outside the confessional, loving the sinner and hating the sin goes beyond one’s own personal relationship with God.  As I’ve grown in my faith and in my limited understanding thereof, I’ve come to realise that the concept applies to my real-world relationships and that in these circumstances it applies in both directions.  To love the sinner and hate the sin is to “forgive those who trespass against us” and to do it with faith so that we may see the inherent good in others and help them overcome the challenges presented by their own weaknesses and shortcomings.  It is to remind us to forgive without losing accountability – either to ourselves or to others – and to forgive with conviction so as to strengthen ourselves and others.

 “Let those without sin cast the first stone,” is not an invitation towards passivity or inaction.  Spiritual lukewarmness has its own Gospel passage wherein it is struck down and criticized – and rightly so.  Faith requires conviction – not just when it comes to asking for forgiveness and forgiving others, but rather in every single one of its components.

Only God has the power to judge and condemn, but once again this isn’t an excuse to do whatever the heck we want and think we can get away with it.  This is yet another situation wherein accountability to oneself is intertwined with one’s accountability to others.   Refraining from casting the first stone does not mean remaining an uninvolved bystander.  Yes, we should make a conscious effort to avoid passing judgment (especially when we know little or nothing about the situation), but we should not avoid the opportunity presented to us in these circumstances to help another person grow positively.

Whether or not another person in my life shares my faith and even whether or not they believe in anything at all should not dictate how I choose to live my faith within that relationship.  I believe that I am held accountable not only for my actions but for my inaction as well.  It is not enough to merely refrain from casting the first stone:  the hand that drops the stone should be extended to help another back to their feet.

“Love one another as I have loved you” and “do unto others as you would have done unto yourself” – if these truly lie at the heart of my faith, then dropping the stone is to try loving as my Savior loves, and extending my hand in aid is to treat another as I would want them to treat me.  The call I have answered through my faith is not a call to jury duty.  It is a call to the witness stand where I can testify to the good in everyone and everything.  If I drop the stone but remain a bystander, I am not testifying to my faith:  I am failing to live by the standards of humanity in which I believe.

“Turn the other cheek,” is not another way of saying, “take it lying down.”  My mother often says, “Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice.”  That is to say, the general (and ideal) Catholic propensity towards openness, compassion, and forgiveness is often either mistaken as a loophole to bash the religion as a whole for the mistakes and shortcomings of its individuals, or mistaken as passivity, complacency, or obliviousness to reality.

God created man in His image.  Catechism taught me that God is love; therefore, because I am made in His image I too am called to embody love.  And while my spiritual propensity towards love does exist, my human one towards pride causes a great internal conflict.  I have learned, though, that there is a great difference between having pride in myself and being prideful.  The former is to acknowledge and stand up for my worth as a person – as an individual, unique, and irreplaceable creation.  The latter is to believe that my individuality and my uniqueness place me above anyone else.

To me, turning the other cheek is relinquishing one’s pride enough so as to allow room for growth and improvement in both parties involved, but not letting go of it entirely so as to become a willing doormat or scapegoat for one’s opponents.  To take any unwarranted or excessive attack lying down is to be lukewarm or indifferent to one’s faith and to one’s own inherent value.

I know the reality of human nature includes unsavory qualities and harmful tendencies, but I also know that the reality of spiritual nature gives every man, woman, and child a measure of worth.  Every person’s inherent value is worth fighting for, but I firmly believe that we are called to fight for our worth in ways that are not vengeful or harmful towards our aggressors.  Rather, we are called to fight for our worth in ways that would reflect the worth of others.

***

Of course this is all easier said than done, but another integral part of faith is the battle to overcome human weaknesses and failings.  The struggle is real, but my personal failures and shortcomings do not define me.  I am defined by how I abandon myself to my faith and how I live it in my daily life.

Reflections of a Former “Doormat” Girlfriend

As far as relationships go, in the past I’ve tended to really suck at them.  Let’s face it:  we all tend to suck at them at one point or another in our lives, and even good, solid relationships have their fair share of rough patches.  The trick is to start learning from our past mistakes before they become habits – easier said than done, I know, but it’s only once we’re finally able to look at ourselves and accept that we’ve screwed up that we’re able to grow.

I remember that, on the night of first-ever breakup, my mother asked me, “Why did you break up with him?”  And even back then, my seventeen-year-old self knew the real reason:  forget that he was living in Europe at the time, or that he had a female friend with whom he’d been getting a little too cosy, or that we were teenagers who thought they knew more about life and love than anyone else in the world.  Our two-year adolescent relationship hadn’t been working well for the better part of a year, and I had finally seen it for what it was:  a dead end.  I ended it with him because I knew that he wasn’t going to be able to give me what I wanted, which was the kind of love and life shared by my parents.

Call it old-fashioned.  Call it naïve.  Call it wishful thinking.  Call it whatever you want but that’s the truth.  My parents had an amazing life together and, as saccharinely Disney as it sounds, they really had a once-in-a-million years kind of love.  And who doesn’t want that?

I had gone into that first relationship with the faith of a child because I was a child, and it wasn’t exactly the easiest first relationship to deal with either.  I had spent most of my time with him trying to change him from who he was into what I thought he should be, and that was my contribution to the eventual demise of our relationship.  I thought his professions of love (or perhaps it’s more apt to say “love-like feelings”) included an inherent desire to make sure I was always happy, and that he would go about ensuring my happiness by giving in to each and every last one of my petty, childish demands.  (Naturally, my chosen adjectives here are bestowed in retrospect:  at the time, they all seemed reasonable.)

Post-breakup reflections led me to the following conclusion:  I wouldn’t be pushy and bratty in my next relationship.  (Obviously, this occurred after enough time had passed for me to believe that my poor broken heard really could mend enough for me to think about making another attempt at love…but I digress.)  I was determined to never be “that girl” ever again.  My next boyfriend would enjoy a nagging-free experience with me, and I would be a girlfriend who wouldn’t need to be told to “chill out” all the time.  No, sir!  I would be the girlfriend that would make his buddies wish they had girlfriends like me, simply by being selfless enough to cater to his needs – and, in turn, he would totally return the favour and be accommodating of all of mine.  Naturally.

Naturally, those of us who have gone around the proverbial block know that none of this happened.  To quote my mother, we all know none of this happened because

“the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

I assure you, although “Hell” might seem a tad melodramatic here, that’s actually a pretty good description for my second relationship.  Being the “cool” girlfriend quickly spiralled down, alarmingly fast, into a place where I became the “doormat” girlfriend.  In our on-again/off-again relationship (a two-year ordeal during with our time together was punctuated by increasingly worse fights and “being on breaks”), I was so desperate to please him.  I was, in fact, so desperate that I actually ended up giving him the power to deconstruct me, piece by piece, until I was emotionally small enough to be completely beneath him.  Or wrapped around his finger.  Or under his thumb.  Or completely out of sight (but nonetheless always available).

Essentially, I allowed one person to manipulate and sweet-talk me into compromising my ideals, my self-worth, and my entire self.  And, by the time I realised it, I was not only desperate to keep him, but desperate to do so in order to prove everyone wrong.  Because by this time, everyone in my life who genuinely cared about me could see that he did not.

Ancient Greek mythology is rife with stories that deal with the concept of hubris.  It’s one of those foreign-language (not to mention ancient) words that has no direct-to-English translation.  Often mistaken as pride, hubris is actually the dire consequences of pride – the lesson, if you will, or perhaps the fall that cometh after.  And in an agonisingly twisted way, I still had some pride – albeit the wrong kind – when it came to the sorry state of my second relationship.  I didn’t want to admit that I’d failed again at being a “good” girlfriend.  For starters, I’d done everything differently this time, so how could it be possible that things weren’t working out?  My pride decreed that I stick with it as long as necessary.  It told me that it would not end because of any lack of trying on my part.

In short, I had to go down with the ship.

My tale of hubris began with a horrific fight (the worst night of my life, actually) that preceded the revelation that nobody in a relationship ever wants to have:  despite all my efforts, he had been seeing somebody behind my back ever since our last break-and-make-up some months before.  In a strange way, though, our last fight had been so emotionally raw that this discovery was oddly cathartic.  In its wake, I actually realised several things about this relationship, as well as about its predecessor.

First, it hit me that despite these two different experiences, I would eventually be able to muster up the courage to allow myself to fall in love again – I just needed to figure out my own self and deal with my own issues before that could happen.  Second, I realised I’d had all the right nuggets of ideas in both relationships – it had been my approach in both that had helped derail everything.

I’m not saying that either of these guys is blameless:  evidently, neither can be described as such.  But yes, I was a contributor in my own right – a catalyst to a host of problems.  Instead of trying to find a common ground or agreeable midpoint with either of them, I polarised myself.  Yes – a good relationship includes wanting the other half to be happy.  Yes – a good relationship changes you in many ways.  Yes – a good relationship has a lot of giving in it.

But these things have to mutual, and constantly so; none of them are the exclusive, sole responsibility of one half.  To expect and to demand that a relationship operate on the grounds of the latter is both selfish and cruel.  A good relationship is not a 50/50 deal or any other division of effort that totals 100.  A good relationship is two people each giving 100% of themselves in order to make things work.

Being in love is sometimes equated to being drunk:  you do and say things that you wouldn’t under sober circumstances, and sometimes things seem beyond your control.  But maybe you’ve heard the advice that when you’re drunk, you should try sleeping with one foot on the floor because it’ll help with the dizziness (and yes, this totally works).  The same goes for being in love:  you have to keep one foot firmly planted on a solid foundation, and if your other half really and truly cares for you they won’t demand that you change what that foundation is made of, or ask that you jump off it altogether.  Nor should you expect that of them.

Because in the end, any relationship is built on the foundations that come with both parties involved…and any good relationship combines those foundations so that each half of it can build up the other.  And yes, while all relationships have their own problems the difference is that in a good one, both sides are on equal footing and work together to sort it out.

I mean, life is had enough – why make it harder?  Why let the one person who should always be in your corner go to the other side of the ring?