The two M’s

Autumn-leaves 2

I don’t know what it is about the fall that makes me suddenly and keenly aware of time passing. Maybe it’s the sight of the leaves turning, a bright brave blast of colour before they wither. Everywhere, signs of slow decay. It doesn’t make me sad, but it does make me a bit more reflective. Summer, so eagerly awaited, has now slipped away to the place where all summers go to die. Ahead of us, another cold winter we’ll do our best to survive. But in the meantime, a chance to watch the most beautiful of all the changes of season, and maybe try to become a little better at living in the moment.


Recently I was sitting outside in the sun for a few minutes between meetings and chatting with a friend, when it occurred to me that sometimes we tend to think too much about the past or worry about the future, without realizing that the present moment is actually pretty good. Sometimes what comes to us through our senses is enough to give great pleasure, and make us more receptive to happiness.

I said as much to my friend, and we agreed to try and tell each other 5 things we enjoyed each day—one for each of the senses. I’m hoping it will be a way for us to get into the habit of living mindfully, to appreciate whatever is in front of us right now.


As it turns out, being mindful is also great for getting us out of the autopilot mode our brains are in most of the time, and for developing our powers of observation as well as a stronger sense of motivation about the things we do and why we do them.

So here goes: mindfulness and motivation—the “two Ms,” as Maria Konnikova calls them in her book, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. It seems like a good way to start the season, to get ready for Thanksgiving, and to finish the rest of the year well.


“When people see my images, a lot of times they’ll say, “Oh my God.” Have you ever wondered what that meant? The “oh” means it caught your attention, makes you present, makes you mindful. The “my” means it connects with something deep inside your soul. It creates a gateway for your inner voice to rise up and be heard. And “God”? God is that personal journey we all want to be on, to be inspired, to feel like we’re connected to a universe that celebrates life.” ~ Louie Schwartzberg, cinematographer 

My 15 Favourite Books of All Time

In no particular order.

1) Gone With the Wind

For all the great lines:

“After all, tomorrow is another day.”

“As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.”

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

First read this when I was 9, and even then I thought Ashley was a twit.

Also, Scarlett may have had some major faults, but she was tenacious, practical, loyal to her parents, and unafraid of doing a man’s work in an era when women were supposed to sit at home and look pretty.  Which just goes to show that nobody’s all bad.

2) A Wrinkle in Time and sequels

The first book that made me look at reality differently…made me realize there’s more to it than meets the eye.

3) Wuthering Heights

The only book I know that can be described as both “horrible” and “wonderful.”

4) The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Made me laugh, cry, shudder, and hope. What more can you ask from a book?

For a Mercatornet review of this book, click here.

5) Wives and Daughters

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

6) The Shell Seekers

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

7) The Canterville Ghost

Witty and hauntingly beautiful (pun intended).

8) The Phantom Lover

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

9) Cheaper By the Dozen

Same reason as #8.

10) Eleni

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

11) Letters to a Young Catholic

George Weigel is my favourite journalist. He can explain the most profound realities in the simplest language, without stripping them of truth or splendour.

12) The Nurse Kathy books I read in grade school.

I enjoyed reading about Kathy because she loved nursing and made it sound so interesting, exciting and noble. Also because she dated Steve the hunky fireman.

13) A World of Folk Tales

My parents gave me this beautifully illustrated book of magical tales from around the world for my 8th birthday. I still have it.

14) Merlin’s Mistake

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

15) The Hunchback of Notre Dame

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


Signs of spring


  • Spring used to be my favourite season, from the first snowdrop in February, to the delicate drifts of cherry blossoms, the golden trumpets of daffodils and the uplifted chalices of tulips, all the way to the lush blooming of the lilacs and the first roses. On the west coast of Canada, you can mark time with each new wave of flowers. Here in Montreal, however, winter clings with icy fingers as long as it can, right through April. Then, overnight, the temperature soars to summer heights – though the trees are still leafless and the grass barely green. And when the flowers do bloom in mid-May, they do it at the same time: tulips, lilacs, roses –  all together. It’s all very strange to me.But in this urban jungle where I live now, I’m learning to spot other signs of spring. For one, the Bixi bicycles are back. The park near my place is once again full of children, squeaking swings and bouncing basketballs. People are out on their front stoops and balconies – and everywhere, everyone is smiling more. I’m learning that it takes more than flowers to make a spring. And if I’m attentive, I’ll see signs of hope everywhere.
  • Speaking of springtime and hope, Pope John Paul II will be canonized this weekend. He combined those two words in one of his most well-known themes: the new springtime of Christianity. Like the east coast spring, this spiritual re-awakening can be harder to spot, and sometimes we can even despair of its existence. But it’s there. We just have to look harder.
  • “This first sign of spring – winter’s loss of power and influence – does not guarantee future flourishing, but it does make spring possible. Springtime is not a period of reward but a time of labor. Unworked land will produce acres of weeds rather than rows of wheat. No harvest can be expected if no seed is sown. In the Christian life as well as in business there is such a thing as a missed opportunity. Springtime offers a temporal window in which to invest one’s efforts for future gains. It is a call to earnest effort, not a promise of guaranteed success.” ~ Thomas D. Williams

Cumulative effects

  • I cut open a tube of lotion this week  — something I do every time I can’t squeeze any more product out of its container. You’d be surprised at how much stuff you’ll find inside an “empty” receptacle, if you only cut it open. There’s usually enough in there to last a few more days. To me, it’s a no-brainer: all it takes is a few seconds and a good pair of scissors (careful with those), and the payback is enormous. Ok, maybe a handful of cream or shampoo doesn’t seem like much, but say you do this eight or ten times. Eight or ten handfuls = a whole new tube or bottle. That’s dollars saved, not to mention one less empty plastic container to end up in a landfill.
  • Never let me go Kazuo IshiguroIn class this week, as an introduction to the novel we’ll be reading for the rest of the semester, we had a discussion about bioethics — “to test our limits,” as our professor put it, of what we find acceptable and unacceptable when it comes to the commodification of the human body. Questions posed: if you were diagnosed with terminal kidney disease and couldn’t get a donated organ to replace yours, would you buy one from a poor man willing to sell his healthy kidney in order to feed his family? What about human trafficking — how did we feel about that? The general consensus seemed to be that the buying and selling of body parts was alright, but not of the whole human person. It was equally clear, though, that many people were unsettled by the whole idea of buying and selling humans, whether in whole or in part, although they couldn’t draw any clear lines as to what would be acceptable, and when. How old am I in the kidney scenario? How poor is the man? How much would a kidney be worth to me? To him? It seems to me that, to find your way out of any ethical or moral morass, it’s best to go back to the roots of the question at hand. Why am I doing this, and what would be the consequences of my actions? In the case of the buying and selling of organs, I’m aware that there already is a huge market out there, mainly feeding on the desperation of people, both buyers and sellers. Ultimately, I believe that saving a life should be a completely free act of love. Once you bring money into it, there is no dignity and no freedom. But moral and philosophical arguments aside, the idea that one action of mine, however small it seems in the relative scheme of things, could have huge consequences in the world at large, should be enough to give at least some pause.
  • Less than two years after the last provincial election in the province of Quebec, another one has been called for April 7. I’m excited, because this is the first time I’ll be able to vote here. But I understand how other people might not be so enthusiastic. Nevertheless, every vote counts. There’s one final example of cumulative effects. If half the population decides to stay home on election day, then they deserve the government they get. So, vote.
  • We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily difference we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee. ~ Marian Wright Edelman

New ways of looking, learning, loving

  • I’ve discovered a new magazine called depict, which provides commentary on Canadiana in the form of infographics and other rich visuals. I’ve always preferred to read text-heavy publications, so depict helps me to see and learn things in different ways.
  • Spring can’t get here fast enough, as far as I’m concerned. But in the meantime, we can brighten things up with flowers, real or otherwise. I’ve never been much good at origami, but this week learned a couple of simple things that even I can whip up in a few seconds flat. (Check out the photos below and click on each image for the instructions.)
  • I helped organize a seminar for single professional women which took place Saturday. The topic: “Finding Mr. Right.” The speaker, Irene Freundorffer, had many interesting insights to share. One that struck me particularly was the idea of being “called to be single.” I’d always thought of the pre-marriage stage as merely a waiting room to the world of “real” love. But people who are stuck in a waiting room aren’t really happy, are they? They aren’t even really there. The recognition of the call to be single, on the other hand, changes everything. You’re not stuck in a waiting room; you are free to live fully in the present and to explore a whole realm of relationships in which you can give of yourself. As Irene put it, “There are so many other ways of experiencing love, not just in marriage.”
  • I love quotes, so I think I will customarily end my Salmagundi posts with one as a parting shot. Here’s one for us to mull over this week: “Our predicament is technological maturity linked with emotional immaturity.” ~ Robert Graves (1960)
photo (5)
Heart corner bookmark
photo (6)
Easy kusudama flower

New Year’s wishes


Growing up, we children were always encouraged to jump, as high as we could, at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. If we did that, we were told, we would be sure to grow tall and strong in the coming year.

This New Year’s Eve, I won’t be making that eager, hope-filled jump — at least, not literally. I will, however, be praying and wishing for all kinds of growth, for myself and for all of us: growth in faith, compassion, generosity, gratitude, wisdom, respect and love for one another.

“May Light always surround you;
Hope kindle and rebound you.
May your Hurts turn to Healing;
Your Heart embrace Feeling.
May Wounds become Wisdom;
Every Kindness a Prism.
May Laughter infect you;
Your Passion resurrect you.
May Goodness inspire
your Deepest Desires.
Through all that you Reach For,
May your arms Never Tire.”

Happy New Year

Manigong bagong taon / Bonne année / Felice anno nuovo / Feliz año nuevo

to all!

Letter to my teacher


Dear Mrs. O,

You used to stride into class, balancing your generous curves and armload of books on a pair of dainty high heels, and immediately the room of thirty-plus girls would settle down into quiet anticipation. English Lit with you was our favourite class. Well, at least, it was mine. I sit here now, trying to recall all the novels and plays and poems you introduced to us, and for the first time I realize their astonishing variety. To Kill a MockingbirdOthello. The House of Bernarda Alba. Trojan Women. A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen. Short stories: The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs, Long Walk to Forever by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., May Day Eve by Nick Joaquin. The poems of Walt Whitman, Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert Frost.

From you I learned a lot about what and how to read, but also a lot about what and how to be. You stand out in my life as one of those unforgettable characters: gregarious and charming, yet sharply intelligent; a firm disciplinarian, but always fair; courageously outspoken, but never unkind. Everything about you seemed larger than life, from the huge gold medallion that you always wore, to your sweeping, expansive gestures and your infectious laugh.

I deeply respected and admired you, Mrs. O, but because I was, in those days, diffident and shy, I never really got to know you beyond your persona as a teacher. This will always remain one of my biggest regrets, because I think that if I had given myself the chance to know you better, I would have been less in awe of you and learned a whole lot more. And I would have so much more to remember now than a few lines on a page and the sound of your laughter.

At first I thought that the news of your passing was terribly sad to receive on Christmas Eve. I think of your family and my heart goes out to them. If I feel your loss so keenly, what must your own children be going through?

But now I think that maybe—just maybe—it’s something that I needed to hear at this very moment.

I’ve been wondering, lately, if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew: starting a challenging new job and learning French and going back to school in the new year. But I find myself wishing, now, that I could have told you about the degree I’m working towards: a joint specialization in literature and history. I think you would be proud.

So, for many reasons, but today, especially for you, Mrs. O, I’m firming up my commitment to this next venture of mine.

I have beside me an old notebook in which I copied some of those old poems. Here’s a snippet from Letters to a Young Poet:

How should we be able to
forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of
all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last
moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons
of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see
us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything
terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that
wants help from us.

For you must not be frightened, if a sadness rises up
before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a
restiveness, like light and cloud-shadow, passes over
your hands and over all you do. You must think that
something is happening with you, that life has not
forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand;
it will not
you fall…

Just as I looked forward to your classes, I’ll look forward to seeing you again one day.


The things that endure

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It’s become my practice to cast a look back and try to find a common theme or thread that links the events of the past week. It’s not an easy exercise, but I do it because it forces me to think things through, helps me make sense of what bewilders me, or remember moments that otherwise just get lost in the shuffle of time. And often, I do manage to come up with a few thoughts that are coherent enough to share with others.

This week, though, it’s been particularly difficult to make sense of anything at all.

Last Friday the super typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda hit the Philippines, wreaking unprecedented havoc in my already hobbled home country. Over 10,000 dead. 1.9 million people homeless. My heart aches, but at the same time it’s warmed by all the stories of so many people doing whatever they can to help. It seems that the whole world has converged on the Philippines. Even my friend’s husband Mark, a telecom engineer based in Montreal, will be flying over after Christmas, to look after the communications system of the UN clusters deployed to offer humanitarian aid in this latest disaster.

They have a little boy who’ll be turning a year old soon. When you have a small child, to be absent from his life for even just one day, is to miss out on a lot. Mark will be in the Philippines for a month. So I thank him, in advance and on behalf of Filipinos, for spending this precious time away from his family, and for the good work he will do.


Suffering. I guess that could be the theme for this week. On Thursday I attended a lecture given by Dr. Cheryl Kinney, a female gynaecologist with a literary bent, on women’s health care in the time of Jane Austen. Dr. Kinney also discussed how Jane Austen used illness in her female characters to drive her plots, and how she inserted commentaries on the medical profession into her novels, especially in Persuasion.

It was a unique angle from which to view these well-beloved novels, although some of the descriptions of the medical procedures were pretty horrific. “In the history of humanity as written, the saddest part concerns the treatment of women,” wrote the 19th-century philosopher Herbert Spencer. This was made graphically clear during Dr. Kinney’s lecture: mastectomies without anaesthesia, one out of ten mothers dying from childbirth, wanton blood-letting as a cure-all, not to mention women’s complete lack of say in their own medical treatment…the good doctor had grown men audibly wincing.

So it was all the more amazing that the whole thing ended on an uplifting note, as will this post.

As barbaric as these treatments might seem to us, said Dr. Kinney, one can only imagine what doctors will be saying 200 hundred years from now about the practice of medicine in our own times. Neither suffering nor the technology designed to relieve it, will stand the test of time. In the end, beauty and truth, generosity and courage—such as can be found in the novels of Jane Austen and, I daresay, in the hearts of good people everywhere—are the things that endure.

A uniquely portable magic

My idea of heaven looks a little like this.

“Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers,” goes one of my favourite lines from one of my very favourite books, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. “How delightful if that were true.”

I believe it is true. When I go into a book shop to browse, I rarely have a title in mind. I just wander up and down the aisles, running my finger over the book spines, occasionally pulling one out to look at the cover. I’m in no hurry. I know sooner or later, I will come to the book that’s been waiting for me. It doesn’t exactly float off the shelf and into my hands—but the moment of encounter is magical, just the same. In fact, that’s what Stephen King calls books: a uniquely portable magic.

I thought I’d share with you some of the books that have found me recently.


In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

Before the Titanic, there was the Essex. This is the true story of the tragic fate of the Nantucket whale ship, which later inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. It’s not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach, but this tale of the high seas is well worth the read. It opened my eyes to a chapter in history and to a way of life I never knew existed, giving me a new appreciation for the optimism, tenacity—and foolhardiness—of the human spirit.

P.S. It’s being made into a film by Ron Howard, to be released in 2014.


In Triumph’s Wake by Julia Gelardi

I’ve never outgrown my love for stories about princesses. But now I read stories about real-life princesses, and I know that they very rarely lived happily ever after. And yet, because they are true, they are all the more fascinating and inspiring.

Independent historian Julia Gelardi specializes in European history and royalty, particularly queens and princesses. Her richly detailed narratives make the otherwise dry and dusty pages of history bloom into life. In Triumph’s Wake is about three mother-daughter pairs: Isabella of Castile and Catherine of Aragon; Maria Theresa of Austria and Marie Antoinette of France; and Victoria, Queen of England and Vicky, the German Empress Frederick. The mothers were great rulers who sadly could not prevent misfortune and tragedy from entering the lives of their offspring.

Gelardi has two other books: From Splendor to Revolution (about the women of the Romanov dynasty) and Born to Rule (about five granddaughters of the prolific Queen Victoria). As far as I’m concerned, she can’t write them fast enough; I’m looking forward to her next project.


The Big House by George Howe Colt

This is a WASP family memoir, told by one of their own—the lives and loves of multiple generations, anchored by their ancestral summer home on Cape Cod. It’s made all the more poignant because it’s written during the last summer the author will spend there. Colt writes about his family’s eccentricities, tragedies, achievements and foibles with the same unflinching honesty and quiet good humour, interspersing sepia-toned scenes from the past with the wisdom and simple joy of his six-year-old daughter, Susannah.


So there you have it. As you can see, I’m not into fiction these days—true stories are so much more interesting.

Speaking of family memoirs—I might start writing one of my own sometime soon. But that’s another story!