Monday, May 14, 2012

When Struggling Mothers Praise

When our homes are muddied and untidy,
Let's praise the Lord in His Sanctuary
When you smell something sickly in the oven,
Praise him in His mighty Heaven!
When our little kidlets refuse to shower,
Praise Him for His acts of power
As mums we know, (how we know!) our weaknesses,
Praise Him for His surpassing greatnesses
Ignored, slighted, resigned we will get,
Praise Him with the sound of trumpet
When they speak unkindly, indifferent, full of ire,
Praise Him still with harp and lyre
Dwell not on his laziness nor her lying,
Praise Jesus with timbrel and dancing
Cease the endless worry throughout the night,
The better praise is with strings, flute and pipe
This passing phase will soon come to settle,
By praising Him with clash of cymbals,
Praising Him with resounding cymbals.
The sounds of our praise will wake our deafened child to God.
Let all struggling moms who has breath give praise to her Lord.
Look out you, dark enemy of our soul,
For He, worthy of praise, is our goal.

Based on the Psalm 150.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The charm of the letter is the heart of the sender

“It’s curious how emblematic a single letter can be, how it can encapsulate an era or sum up a complex relationship.” – Jennifer Williams, Writing Personal notes and letters.

The beauty of being written to is the sense of importance it gives the receiver. It is immensely pleasing and flattering to be singled out and acknowledged as someone worthy of a letter. A letter shows that you’ve chosen to make friendship and the arduousness of sitting down a priority. It is an idoneous gift of time and affection that emailing rarely achieves and never attempts.
            When I was thirteen, I recall a strange phase whereby I would write letters to my best friend who sat in front of me in class. Never mind we saw each other every single day, talked during every recess hour and walked to the same bus stop in tandem. She would hand me an envelope (usually pink and sweet smelling) with at least several sheets of matching stock paper to speed me up to date with everything that was au courant in her life. Considering we were at that age where an acne breakout is front page-worthy, I look back and wonder what else we could’ve filled reams of paper with such secretive gratification? I had spent a small fortune on paper and envelopes writing out thoughts and feelings that were consistent with my theory of symptomatic existentialism. If I feel it, it’s important write it down to share it with another soul. It was through letter-writing therapy that I understood the mechanics, aesthetics and value of human individuality and our persistent need to seek to be heard and understood.
            Letter-writing was first threatened when the telegraph was first born in 1825 and significantly improved by Samuel Morse (who gave us the morse code) around 1835.  That was followed thirty odd years later by the first telephonic utterance “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you” which heralded the new era of transmitting and receiving sound, effectively dealing a lethal blow to the romance of letter writing. With email, instant messaging, FaceBook and Twitter upping the ante on our state of brevity, we have exchanged haikus for billet-doux; post-its for letters; 10Q for Thank you.  Who did the research on writing 140 words on Twitter? Why 140? Pinterest allows you 200 words to truncate who you are. We may e-card it, text it, netspeak it all in lieu of notation, longhand, and snail mail. Contrary to Polonious’ opinion, I don’t think brevity is the soul of wit. More like BITSOW. That’s more like it. Give it a week and it might turn up on Urban Dic after someone texts
[[Best diss I heard 2day dude. #bitsow.]]

When I was in my early 20s, I used to carry a dip pen and an old world jar of Parker’s Quink to write letters even though Papermates were the new fountain pen. I would carry cockled onion skin paper and stamps everywhere I went so that when the mood strikes I would have the wherewithal to plunge into composition. You can write sitting in a Parisian cafe- in a quiet corner without an electronic doodad. You can pen it on a plane, transcribe it on a train, fabricate it in front of a fireplace. Once I climbed 11, 782 feet to Jungfraujoch (aka the top of Europe...hello, in an electric tram) near Interlaken, Switzerland so that I can jot down three or four sentences on a postcard to a friend.  It’s not just the novelty of being able to send something from that particular place, but the concreteness of having this realia travel from your hand into some sack, sack to carrier vehicle, vehicle to processing and distribution centre, then to air mail centre, followed by the passing of many more trolleys into many more hands, to the destination delivery unit to the sorter, to mailbag, to truck, to carrier, to letter box, and into the hand of your delighted friend. I know that only too well because I was that delighted friend upon which many a postperson had delivered rutilant heart-warmers.         

Everything inside is a memory
In a wooden Crabtree and Evelyn box once crammed with morsels of tea biscuits are letters written to me from a boyfriend. He was a graphic designer who loved to declare very profound feelings of love and desire with colour, wit and 3-D spangles. Throughout our courtship, I’ve squirreled every whit of writing he has ever written to me creatively on crepe paper, cardboard, handmade mingei (Japanese folksy mulberry paper) and gorgeous vellum. He is still the only man who hand-stitched his own version of Baedeker for what I would need to do on my five-week long trip to Europe without him. He wrote three letters a week to me every week I was in England, France and Ireland. Does it surprise you I ended up marrying him? 

Menus, Happy Wednesday card, postcards, store-bought, homemade, napkins, rags, ribbons, strings.

Some of you might want to try but get befuddled before you begin. Here are some prudent blandishments to launch your letter-writing career. Your best friend will thank me for it. 
How to start a letter:
1. Write exactly what you were doing 5 minutes before actually writing.
2. List what are presently on your table.
3. Imagine where your friend is while reading the letter you are penning.
4. Introduce your  peeve #1. Why nobody writes letters anymore, for example.  
5. 3 random facts: What day is today? What the weather is like? How much ink is left in the pen?

The way to write a letter using different moods, personalities:
1. Lampooning voice
2. Playful
3. Creatively ungrammatical and borderline saucy.
4. In someone else’s point of view. Try the family pet’s.
5. Channel Clement Freud’s personality: verbose, spoken in low, measured tones, highly observant about visible details and proprietarily snobbish. Write the way a parent speaks or draw a picture of your lunch instead of describing it. Paste a newspaper clipping or better still, fold an origami rhino and sign it off, thick-skinnedly yours…

Type only if you are using something not from this century.

Maybe the Rhino origami was too farouche. Here are other ways to sign off:
1. Yours through time and eternity,…Civil war General George Custer ended a love letter to his wife Elizabeth this way
2. Remembrances to your mother, your affectionate, …. John Keats to his sweet Fanny Brawne scored points to include his remembrances to her mum
3. Love and luck,…Patsy Cline to one of her fans. Platonic, yet not entirely loveless.
4. Yours, as ever…
5. Love you more than (insert your favourite food),…Tina Francis, on all her TGIF posts on Shelovesmagazine.

I fear we may have come full circle to a new problem where our next generation no longer knows how to write for the sake of loving to communicate. It is not for the want of filling in a text box or fulfilling a quota of x number of words. This is why I am such a zealot for heart-to-heart compositions. Make your best investment this spring by purchasing your first refillable fountain pen, a stack of lightly ruled or 7x10 Monarch sheets from Crane and Company. After you’ve penned your tenth letter, you’re ready to take on monogrammed ones complete with wax and seal.

oxo shirl


Friday, May 04, 2012

A tribute to my Father-in-law

The first time I met my father-in-law in his home was sometime in mid-1990. I remembered chiefly because when he opened the door, he was dressed in his boxers and a white singlet. Well, why wouldn't he on a hot day in his own home? While his wife and son fussed about him putting on "proper clothes",  I time stamped in my memory what I felt his comfort around me indicated.
1. Unpretentiousness
2. Acceptance of me into his family

Those two characteristic traits have been the backbone of my relationship with my husband's family since day one. My father-in-law's name is Wong Choon Ong. He has O's in every word in his name the same way I have E's in mine. He has a few other monikers like Henry and Feiba. I felt it was very wrong to call him Henry because I have friends called that and he wasn't like that at all. But "Feiba" was something all his children called him primarily because he was slightly pyknic. (Feiba literally means "fat dad"). It took me a while (at least a whole *minute* of intense struggling) because well, wasn't that just *rude*? But it never did sound rude when his children called him that. It was a term of deep endearment. That's another one of the remarkable things about Feiba- he was wonderfully endearing.

In the first hour after I had entered Moses' home (and Feiba had put on some "proper clothes"), he had already made me feel at home. There's something very loving about a person who feels breaking the ice early is helpful to make others feel at home. This was how it happened. You'll have to imagine this.

Feiba: "Shirley, Shirley...come, come. I want to tell you something." (I see the others rolling their eyes and looking embarrassed because they know what's coming but there I was, wide eyed and innocently curious...)
I go over there and he whispers in a low voice in both English and Mandarin the story of his going to Vienna as part of a choir and his "retched" reaction to cheese. Well, I show my true colours roaring in raucous, un-ladylike guffaws. Our friendship was sealed. It seemed he had honed his story-telling craft to perfection because he would deliver it with the deadpan face I'd come to expect each time he started with a "Shirley, Shirley...come, come...I want to tell you something..." Mercy.

Feiba had the distinct quality of being emotionally attuned to people. His pastoral heart was well suited to his ability to encourage others. He had been an art teacher for all his work life and his ease in self-taught piano playing always turned heads. He was an adroit painter and musician. He had a wonderful sense of humour and often made faces just to prove his point. Perhaps you can't quite see it but this picture showed Moses, Feiba and I all in our PJs having a BBQ and again, Feiba recounting a joke. After I had joined the Wong family, not only was it okay to wear our PJs all day, we can wear it outdoors as well. Win/ Win.

Another memory I have that is vivid is Feiba's suspenders. It's an old world charm that is very hard to carry off if you didn't have a certain kind of personality. He was not a tie-and-belt man but a bow tie-and-suspenders sort of guy. His past students who used to visit him at his home all loved him for being the down-to-earth easy groomer. I am proud to say that when my own son was four years old, he wanted to wear suspenders like his yeye (paternal grandfather) did. He really had oodles of charm when he wanted to.

When my husband and I lived in Switzerland,  my parents-in-law came to visit and we gave up our bachelor pad so they can stay in our apartment while we camped out at our good friend Dominique's home in the next village. We had an enormously fun time going to Geneva,  Fribourg, Bern, Lucern and Interlaken. Here Feiba and I pretend to be absorbed in a game at the Musee de Jeux outside Lausanne. I look at this photo and recall many things about that trip, now made even more bittersweet since the last person who could reminisce with me is no longer here.

In the later years, Feiba would have the knack of telling his growing repertoire of stories and delivering the punchline in Hokkien- a dialect I didn't understand. So you can imagine my same wide eyed and innocently curious look followed by Feiba lawling as I went around the house asking for the explanation.

When my son Myron was born, he looked just like his dad Moses. Moses also looked like his own dad, so it completely took out the mystery as to what Myron would look like in his 30s and in his 60s. Here is a picture taken a dozen years ago. Behind Myron is his cousin Berakah, who being four years older plays the role of the older sister. So much of the legacy of what Feiba leaves for his grandchildren is the tenderness of heart. Both his grandchildren display this in copious amounts. There is this gift of humility that is very quiet, very unassuming and very underplayed. Of course Feiba had his own struggles not being perfect by any means. Something I had read embodies my father-in-law very well. A.W. Tozer put it in this beautiful nutshell which for my own liberal use, am going to insert my father-in-law's moniker in there.

"A real Christian is an odd number anyway. Feiba feels supreme love for one whom he has never seen, talks familiarly everyday to someone he cannot see, expects to go to Heaven on the virtue of another, empties himself in order to be full, admits he is wrong so he can be declared right, goes down in order to get up, is strongest when he is weakest, richest when he is poorest and happiest when he feels worst. He dies so he can live, forsakes in order to have, gives away so he can keep, sees the invisible, hears the inaudible and knows that which passeth knowledge."

Feiba, I will miss the way you hum and sing when you ironed clothes for the family. I will miss the way you smile and your eyes crinkle the way they do. Thanks for being as jovial and as positive as possible through the heartaches and the storms. My own faith tells me you're too busy being reunited with our loved ones in Heaven to worry about us. That's good because that's what we all want.