The tradition of eating together

I once overheard a teenager tell her friend that she and her mother had not eaten a meal together in four years, though they lived in the same house. “She’s on some kind of diet, so we just eat what we like, whenever we like,” she said with a shrug.

I don’t mean to sound judgemental or unkind, but in Reverence: A Forgotten Virtue, Paul Woodruff likens this behaviour to that of the family pet going to its feeding dish whenever it feels hungry. “Something is missing from these people, something that makes a difference between feeding time and meal time, between a home and a kennel,” Woodruff writes. “If you ask them why, they will answer, ‘Who has time for family dinner? It’s only an empty ritual, after all.’ True. Without reverence, rituals are empty.”

Speaking of rituals, my mother and sister and I have a new one: Sunday evenings watching an episode or two of Downton Abbey. There is much I find admirable about this show and the era in which it takes place, not the least of which is the oh-so-genteel habit of dressing for dinner. Life is a lot more informal these days, and (thank heaven) it’s no longer necessary to don evening gowns to eat dinner in one’s own home. But this doesn’t mean that families should no longer gather round a table to eat at least one meal a day with each other. For my family, dinner was always our meal together, but why not another meal if it suits your family’s schedule better? When my mother was growing up, my grandfather often had to attend evening social functions for work, so the family meal together was breakfast.

Flash forward to the other night. Friday night often means sushi for my mom and me. I headed to our regular place after work, got there early, was seated by our usual smiling server. She went off to get me a pot of tea, and I opened my book, but was distracted by a little girl coming in with her father. Dad helped his little lady off with her coat and got her settled in her chair. The sight of them reminded me of my own dinner dates with my dad—our “one-on-ones” we used to call them. We used to go for sushi too, and it was one of the deepest sources of security for me, to know that I had a couple of hours alone with my dad when I could tell him anything.

A family that prays together, stays together. So does one that eats together, I say.

The tradition of prayer

From the title you might be led to think that the stuff of this post is going to be something ephemeral, abstract, and perhaps not to your taste, as the idea of prayer often is to many people—including, sometimes, me.

Moreover, it’s Christmas—a season I recently heard described as the season of Christian joy and secular madness; an occasion to celebrate one of the greatest mysteries of the universe, and yet becomes particularly  difficult, perhaps even impossible, to have a moment of peace and quiet, let alone pray. Spiritual obligations often get usurped by material ones, and it takes extra effort to find time to remember and give thanks for the Reason why we celebrate at all. But this week I was reminded that the effort is worth it.

For one thing, there are the nativity scenes that blossom in every church and in many homes as well. When was the last time you peered into the stable to see the Child nestled in his bed of straw? Some scenes are simple, like the ones my family always had at home—a few figures clustered around a single focal point: the baby in the manger. Others are quite elaborate. I remember a great-aunt of mine whose belen took up nearly half of her living room. She set up mountains, villages, even a sandy desert (complete with tents, caravans, and an oasis). It took some time to find the holy family in their humble hut.  For us children it was great entertainment. Only now do I realize that there is a higher purpose to the nativity scene than to evoke smiles of delight and warm fuzzy feelings.

The truth is, Christmas is all about materialism: the positive kind, which points the way to what is truly lasting, beautiful, and good. I invite you to think of the gifts we give each other, the lights and decorations we put up, the feasts of special dishes…and then draw your own conclusions. Perhaps you might even find yourself drawn into prayer.

As for me, I’ve resolved that every time I’m tempted to think that talking to God is something ephemeral, abstract, and altogether too difficult, I’ll just steal away to gaze at the Child in his crib.

The tradition of becoming a grown-up

I’m writing this on the eve of my 38th birthday, which is a good time, I suppose, to be thinking about becoming a grown-up.

When I was little, growing up was – at least in my mind – an actual, geographical place. When I noticed my parents dressing up to go out, I’d ask where they were going, hoping that I’d be taken along. Sometimes I would be. But other times, the answer was, “We’re going to pagtanda,” a Tagalog word which means maturity, old age. To me personally, it translated to a place for grown-ups, somewhere you can go when you are older.

Growing up, for me, happened in stages. There were certain things I had to wait until I was a certain age to do: wear nail polish, make-up, high heels; carry a real leather handbag; go to mixed parties; have a later curfew. I look around now and see toddlers with painted finger and toe nails, and ten-year-olds wearing make-up, and I think – sadly – that growing up seems to have become a lost tradition. There are too many young girls and boys today who are much too old for their years…perhaps through no fault of their own. What child doesn’t long to grow up? But every child needs to be told, “Not yet.” It’s not cruel, but a good and wise thing to be made to wait.

So at 38, am I finally grown-up? Truth be told, I never thought I’d make it this far. Not that I thought I’d die young, but when you are a teenager, your thirties – somewhere far off in the misty future – seem to be the pinnacle of ripe old age. I’m looking now at a photo of myself and my friends taken at my 18th birthday, and I’m smiling at how dressed-up we were and how grown-up we felt – and how little we really knew.

Well, we’ve all had our growing pains — and now we’re starting to reap the rewards that come after much struggle. Growing up is indeed a privilege that’s earned.

18 was a good year, but 18 + 20 is even better.

The tradition of sincerity, straightforwardness, and substance

Christy Wampole, an assistant professor at Princeton, wrote this piece on the dangers of today’s ethos of irony, about which my mom and I just had a lively discussion over Sunday breakfast. Irony, we concluded, does have its uses as an artistic or literary device, but when wielded in daily life, it can only do damage.

“The ironic frame functions as a shield against criticism,” Ms. Wampole writes. “The same goes for ironic living. Irony is the most self-defensive mode, as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices, aesthetic and otherwise…This ironic ethos can lead to a vacuity and vapidity of the individual and collective psyche.”

To counter-act this trend, she suggests, for a start, “saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks. It means undertaking the cultivation of sincerity, humility and self-effacement, and demoting the frivolous and the kitschy on our collective scale of values.”

Her words strike a deep chord. My dad always told us, “Let your yes be a yes, and your no be a no,” which meant that we needed to stand by our decisions, and that promises, once made, were expected to be kept.

My mom also had strong views on sincerity. She took every opportunity to make it clear that the worst thing you could do to her was tell her a lie. For me, this meant owning up when I dropped the handset of our new-fangled cordless phone and broke it, and when I mistakenly plugged the TV into a high-voltage socket and blew the TV up. It also meant being honest about where I was going, with whom, and what we would be doing there. Because in the end, her anger at our wrongdoing was nothing compared to her wrath when she found out that we had lied about it.

Looking back, I realize something else: we all got our share of tongue-lashings from our parents, but one thing they never inflicted on us was sarcasm. Although we siblings love verbal sparring and could have a field day being sarcastic towards each other, it’s rarely our weapon of choice—I suppose because we instinctively know that it’s rude, hurtful, and demeaning.

Both teachers, my parents frowned on vacuity and vapidity. Although my dad was a very funny guy and liked to hear his kids laughing, as soon as he sensed we were getting too hysterically silly, he’d say, “Ok, that’s enough now. Don’t be frivolous.” When I reached high school and got sucked into the breathless, sickly sweet world of teen romance novels, both Mom and Pops were understandably dismayed. To their credit, they never took a book out of my hands, but they did their best to steer me towards real literature. And in my defense, I did read The Lord of the RingsLittle Women, and Wuthering Heights with more lasting enjoyment than I did the annals of Sweet Valley High.

My parents never let us simply scratch the surface of an experience. Whenever we watched a movie, went on a trip, or tried something new, they asked us questions. What had we seen, heard, tasted? More important, what did we think? Did we like it or hate it, and why? Often my dad asked us to write essays about our experiences, especially at the end of a trip. I’m not going to lie (haha)—more often than not, we rolled our eyes at these interrogations and academic exercises, feeling they sucked the fun out of everything. But now, as an adult, surprise surprise—I ask myself those very same questions. In fact I fill journals and craft blog posts with the answers, and I’m trying to make a living out of writing about experience.

I think this is one of those cases where it’s permissible to appreciate the irony. As with so many life lessons, I’m appreciating only now the greater significance of  what I thought were just annoying and incovenient parental idiosyncrasies. They were trying to raise us to become sincere, straightforward men and women of substance.

Thanks to their efforts, and those of other like-minded parents, perhaps some of us will turn out better equipped to rise to the challenge of being counter-cultural in this age of irony.

Let’s talk tradition

Newly arrrived in Montreal, I went out one fine late-summer morning for breakfast with my sister. On our way back up St Catherine to the metro, we passed a second-hand bookstore. Of course, we had to go in and check it out. It was small but well-stocked, and in their bargain section (4 books for $15) we found some treasures: Longitude by Dava Sobel; The King in the Window by Adam Gopnik (which we promptly sent to my nephew and which he was thrilled to receive and couldn’t put down); the wickedly funny Hotel Bemelmans (stories for grown-ups, written by the author of the Madeline books); and a little book called The Seventeen Traditions by Ralph Nader (with the added bonus of the author’s signature on the title page).

When I finished reading The Seventeen Traditions, I couldn’t help thinking how much my dad would have enjoyed it—and how much I would have enjoyed discussing it with him. Mr. Nader’s stories of his childhood and of his family’s traditions resonated deeply, calling to mind my own upbringing and my own recognition, as an adult, of how important it is for each family to form a sort of “culture of the home”—based on solid principles, bolstered by mutual self-giving and sacrifice, and nourished with lots of laughter and good food. I can’t imagine a richer legacy for parents to leave their children.

The book got me thinking about my own family’s traditions. Many of them are similar to the Naders’, and some of them are all our own.

I’ve been thinking, too, that soon it will be my nephew’s and my dad’s shared birthday, and two days after that, it’ll be a year since my dad died. And it’ll be Christmas soon. All in all, a good time to be dusting off and polishing up those good old traditions and sharing them with others.

So after mulling it over for a few days, I’ve come up with seventeen traditions of my own. Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. The tradition of meals together
  2. The tradition of order
  3. The tradition of reading
  4. The tradition of learning
  5. The tradition of letter-writing
  6. The tradition of prayer
  7. The tradition of travel
  8. The tradition of good humor
  9. The tradition of quality
  10. The tradition of forgiveness
  11. The tradition of moderation
  12. The tradition of excellence
  13. The tradition of hospitality
  14. The tradition of rising to the occasion
  15. The tradition of sincerity
  16. The tradition of conversation
  17. The tradition of becoming a grown-up

I’ll be elaborating on each one, likewise in no particular order, starting with: The tradition of sincerity.

The best thing about being my age

Last weekend I read a newspaper story about how one woman, growing dissatisfied with her book club for its lack of meaningful conversation, gave it up and formed, instead, a bookless club: quite simply, a round-table dinner discussion, with intelligent and interesting people, answering pre-formed questions designed to provoke thought, spark dialogue, encourage the sharing of ideas, and generally enrich the lives of all involved.

This woman, fired up with the success of  her bookless club’s first meeting, generously shared their next list of  questions with readers.

When did you really and truly feel like a grown-up for the first time?

What was the nicest thing a stranger ever did for you?

Do you still, sometimes, drink milk from the carton?

What’s the best thing about being the age you are right now?

I was instantly intrigued but lacked the time to form any immediate answers. It’s been a mad few weeks. I simultaneously finished an intense, year-long diploma program, packed up my belongings to move to another province, and said goodbye to family, friends, and the city I’ve called home for twenty years. But all the while, in the back of my mind, I’ve been turning these questions over and over against each other, like Chinese soothing stones, achieving the same calming effect on my often-shattered nerves.

And now, with nothing to do but simply sit back and fly, I can finally answer them.

I’ll start with the last one.

What’s the best thing about being the age you are right now?

I finished re-reading The Good Earth recently, and there’s a great line about one of the characters who managed to achieve a graceful middle-age: “Youth and age were equally far from her.” It never struck me with the same force as it did now.

In this era of extended longevity, it seems to me that age is become more and more a relative concept. My recently widowed mother is told by everyone, “But you are still young!” She’s in her mid-fifties. So, both comparatively and chronologically, I am younger still. And yet I am no longer a spring chicken. Babies I diapered, my younger siblings and cousins, are now acquiring drivers licenses, getting married, having their own children. This, more than anything else, makes me feel my age.

So that line of Pearl S. Buck’s puts things neatly into perspective. No longer young, but certainly not old. Old enough to have learned a few things about life, but still young enough to realize that there are so many things I have yet to know. Old enough to have put down deep roots in a place I love, but young enough to start over in a new city and be eager to explore the entire world.

Maybe the best thing about being this age—about being any age—is the ability to combine the very best of whatever ages we’ve been so far.

I like to think that I have a thirty-something brain and a seventeen-year-old heart.

The brain warns me about any potentially risky decisions.

And the heart tells me which risks I should take.

Stronger than death

I buried my father a week ago.

In the days since, I’ve been helping my mother and my siblings sort out his affairs and belongings, receive countless telephone calls and emails, and write dozens of thank you notes.

At times, it’s as if a bright, shining light has gone out of our lives.

But there are other moments when I feel as if I’m finding parts of my father that I never knew existed. For instance, an old friend of his wrote us the following email:

I was Vic’s classmate since first grade all through high school, and was deeply shaken to hear of his passing.

The last time I saw him was in the late 80’s. I had resettled in Iloilo and it was tough starting a family and adapting to the new surroundings. Vic had arrived on the same flight as my visiting Dad and shouted out a childhood jeer at the airport’s baggage claim area. We had dinner together that night after he took care of business commitments, and I will always remember that night because Vic’s infectious confidence and spirit helped refresh my commitment to make a go of my new life in the province.

It’s been several decades since that night, and I now live a comfortable, happy life in Iloilo. My resolve would have been shaken a few more times had I not met your Dad back then, and for that I will always be grateful. My deepest sympathies and prayers go out to your family, and I look forward to meeting Vic again.

If I could ask my dad now about that meeting, his face would probably light up with a grin, and I can just hear the affection in his voice, because that’s the way he talked about all his old school buddies. He truly thought of them as his own brothers. But I don’t think he would ever mention how much his good cheer helped his friend make a success of his new life. I don’t think he would even have suspected how much of a difference he had made.

But I’m happy to think that now, he knows how much everyone who knew him really loved him, from us his family, to his friends, to the pharmacists who served him and the doctors and nurses who looked after him, to the clients he continued to assist and advise, even after he officially retired.

My mom and my sister and I chose a headstone for his grave today. Just a simple block of dark granite, etched with a Latin phrase he liked to repeat to us, especially when we were freaking out about one thing or other. Omnia in bonum. Everything for the good.

And I wondered how a man who started life in a tropical country across the ocean could come to end his days in a cold northern city, and be laid to rest on a windy hilltop surrounded by winter trees. Nothing to show for a life but a block of stone on a piece of earth. It all seemed rather bleak, until I thought of a phrase I had just come across in a book I was reading.

“…the only thing which makes it possible to regard this world we live in without disgust is the beauty which now and then men create out of the chaos. The pictures they paint, the music they compose, the books they write, and the lives they lead. Of all these the richest in beauty is the beautiful life. That is the perfect work of art.”

A beautiful life. This is my dad’s legacy, and the best one I could ever have hoped for.