Category Archives: Reflection

On: Strength

Strength

It was never intended for these pages to trickle into a diary.  You know—”today I did this, yesterday I did that.”  But it’s Spring.  I’ve been through autumn and winter, and I realize that for six months I’ve been living a life I never saw coming.  So, I find myself using these pages to write about a world that I would rather ignore because it helps me keep some semblance of sanity.  The words I’ve written have felt, a little too often, dark even when the words themselves are bright.

But I wanna track back to the beginning, to the color, vision, and power of language. So in a hopscotch fashion, I have leaped around to land on: Strength.

Endurance, vigor, physical power, potency.  How to define the ability to withstand and overcome the curve balls of life?  I am not the only one with diary-producing issues.  At least three people I know have lost parents; another had a serious operation; and yet, another has been trying to heal in the wake of separation from a 35-year-old marriage.

What, I ask my God, do you want us to learn?  Could it be how to maintain equanimity under pressure? Perhaps it’s a subtle directive to keep our hearts open in spite of the ignoramuses we encounter (see?). Perhaps it’s as simple as a desire and need to find love within our courage.

I asked a minister if his faith was ever tested.

“Yes.  Every day.”

“What do you do?”

No, I’m not a skeptic.  I just want to hear what I know is the answer.

“Pray without ceasing.”

That’s all I wanted to hear.

I’ve been depending on the view from my window to help fill me up.  In the morning, I watch the clouds gather. They are snuggled together like sheep, or like cotton balls with soft, tangerine colored edges.  Some days they are scary in their weighted grayness.  And some days, the sky has no clouds at all.  I admit it: those are great days.

In the wee morning hours, say one ‘o clock, before clouds take visible form in the black-but-really-deep-blue sky, I watch the Moon through the same windows where the clouds will soon be. The Moon, in her guardianship of millenia of human genius and ignorance, is a tremendous comfort.

I willingly relinquish control to the sky, to the stars, to the deep blue infinity. In doing so, I somehow feel stronger.  The time I spend trying to control what I cannot control is like fighting an undertow.

We cannot control the death of parents, and even though we try our best, we cannot control the destiny of our bodies.  In spite of all the efforts we put into commitment, sometimes our partners will not be committed.

And so, I am taught to admit that great strength lies in surrender.  There’s something zen about that, but I don’t really know what it is.

Yet.

On eggs and the fragility of the human heart

I was running out of patience.

“May I have potato salad?” No.

“Boiled egg?” No.

“Pizza for heaven’s sake?”

How the hell did my name get on the cardiac diet list? Perhaps it was the high blood pressure.  But when it came to anything that tasted good, boy, I got nothin’. It’s amazing how contrary a person can be when told “no” about food.

“Where’s the dietician? I want to speak to the nutritionist!”

Was it too much to ask? An omelette with cheese, mushrooms, and spinach? Maybe some French toast? It’s been a long haul from veganism to dairy and, now that I’ve made the trek, I’m out of patience with egg substitutes, salt-free steamed veggies, and bland breakfast cereals.

But this is not really about the eggs. It’s about feeling that I’ve lost control to some of life’s most basic decisions: Pancakes or frittata and toast? Then there was this reflection (I know, I know…) that the egg represents the strength and tenderness of the human spirit.

I started thinking about how the fragile yolk is the source of necessary nutrients; the shell, protection.  Then I reflected on the heart as the source of spiritual nutrients; the awareness of the heart, its shell of protection.

I’m not smart enough to come up with these ideas. There are sages with wisdom that I do not possess. I keep trying.

When I was about 11, I watched my paternal grandfather kill a snake that had gotten into the chicken coop. For that unfortunate reptile, the meal was so not worth the effort. As granddaddy beat it with a heavy stick and held its body in the air for us to see, I was stupefied to see the sun-yellow yolk, mixed with bits of shell and egg white, drip from the mouth of the predator.

Recently I received an email from someone who revealed that something I said had hurt her deeply. Added to that was her discomfort with the fact that I did not remember the incident. Hearing her story was like watching the yolk fall from the mouth of the snake. I had moved away from one of life’s most important choices:  be aware or unaware.

I felt bad about it. It’s a thin wire we walk; learning to acknowledge personal power and largeness of spirit, while ensuring that every interaction is respectful and empathetic.

Keep the snake out of the chicken coop.  Keep the eggs on the plate.

On resolutions


I have been craving sweets. Pecan pie, sweet muffins, and creamy mango ice cream. I wish I could have champagne. Artist friends are encouraging me to take the leap into…um…that would be food writing. Literary goulash. Poetic pie. A bowl of sautéed, chewy sentence structure. I’m told that there is magic in it.
 

First resolution: hold on to the magic in life.

After a horrendous summer that became a worse fall, I need an abracadabra on my view of resolutions. Gone are the weight loss aspirations; the obsession with changing my diet. I’m grateful for having an appetite again. Into the cosmic trash goes a daily commute made bearable by books and my iPod. A pox on those sorry promises to keep my apartment showroom spotless–anyone who knows me knows that promise could never be kept.

Second resolution: Make resolutions easy. Make ‘em realistic. Make ‘em something I really care about, that way they’ll stick.

I was thrilled on New Year’s Day to find that I had taken yet another step on my path to healing. I cooked dinner. My hands worked. Vegetarian Hoppin’ John. Cornbread. Greens. Rice. But there’s something I need to remember.

Third resolution: I’m still healing. Sitting is a good way to chop vegetables.

There are some things I know I’ll be doing for the rest of my life. Eating. Cooking. Singing. Laughing. Loving.

Fourth resolution:  These are the things I must write about.

Over the past few months, some people have dropped from my world and others have become closer. It’s so nourishing to know who your friends are. Like a warm pudding. Comforting. Sweet. Sticks to the ribs.

Fifth resolution: Being grounded about how I spend my time and who I spend time with.

Easy enough. Simple. Like magic.

May your resolutions be nourishing, easy, and real. 

champagne

 

On Being Stardust – a.k.a. Science Confirms What God Knew All the Time.

I LOVE it when science and God kiss.

Merry Christmas.

Happy Kwanza.

Happy New Year.

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6jlw-Y4WhEg

On… Sound and Silence

 Super bitch. It was intended as a term of endearment from a friend who observed that being ill has not stifled my feistiness. I guess others were shocked, but I recognized the love intended in the label.

Words and sounds have power according to the listener, I suppose. The wrong sound, innocent as it may appear, can easily catapult me into a “pity pot.” Take a squawking crow for instance.

“Caw!”

I was physically uncomfortable and only wanted to sleep. There are dozens of telephone lines on this block, but clearly, the one outside my window was special.

“Caw! Caw!”

Such a loud sound from such a small creature. The super bitch (that would be me) whispered, “Go the [bleep] away!”

As the daily racket of trucks, cars, trains, and my neighbor with the bells on her door revved up, the sounds became more vibrant, larger, and rakishly colorful. Super bitch was frustrated; she just wanted some rest.

The neurologist had diagnosed my condition as Guillain-Barré syndrome. It’s a condition I had never heard of that, for me anyway, brings with it a great deal of anxiety and the need for a gargantuan exertion of will to follow my daily routine.  But I’ve had a series of IVIG treatments and am encouraged by my increased energy and ravenous appetite. Carpal tunnel surgery suddenly seems like a common cold.

“Do you know what caused it?” asked my brother.

“I think my immune system was compromised by the surgery.”

But no one really knows for sure. I pray for miracles like: I wake up one morning and my hands and feet function fully, and the tightness around my rib cage is gone. Oh yeah, that part is supposedly connected to the hiatal hernia.

I both fear the silence and at the same time look for the peace within syllables, the silence within the music, the balance in conversations, and the laughter in silly words like “super bitch.” My intention today is to write: my work and my creative words. And yet, I awoke understanding that I had to follow the natural order of things. The crow was doing what crows do: they caw.

I once had a  beautiful experience of silence. One early morning, the city of Oakland, California was brilliant with activity:  cars that were stalled in traffic blared their horns, folks chattered and shouted in the streets on their ways to wherever, and buses with bad brakes made their usual stops. I had just completed my morning meditation and was staring out the window.

In spite of the activity, it seemed as if everything had lowered its volume and moved in slow motion. I felt content, and at ease with the movement of things. Birds and squirrels danced their morning minuet on the telephone lines, and it made no difference to me.

I have been caught off guard. So, the question I’m asking myself is “How do I reclaim the hidden silence in the sounds?” The sounds will not stop; nor should they. How will I experience the healing color, power, and vision in the words?

It comes as no surprise. The answer lies in a single word: gratitude.

On… The sweetness of a name

This blog is quivery and yellow–  like pineapple Jell-O.  It shimmies and shakes as I struggle through what has become an extraordinary array of challenges.

From carpal tunnel to feet that require the use of a cane or walker, I have been traveling the road to patience and health. It hasn’t been easy, but I have the support of friends and a basically happy outlook. I am also inclined to whine a bit.

With that said, I recognize the need to keep jabbering away. Silence is not acceptable for a blog. This week in particular was an ecstatic one for me as my choice for the American presidency won the race. I am thrilled that President Obama won his second term. And now, we can get to work, the real work, of equal opportunity for all.

Now for this week’s word: names.

I, for one, am intimately connected with the experience of names, having spent years accepting or rejecting several of my own. I was my father’s firstborn, and as such, my birth name reflected his joy and prayers. My birth name meant “gracious gift of God,” and both the name and its meaning lifted me up in good and trying times. I never abandoned the name — not really. Its meaning allowed me to, at least inside my head, recognize myself as a beloved daughter of God, a belief that has revealed itself to me in good times and been hidden away in times of stress or fear.

Given that, in so many cultures, the child’s name describes a dominant personality trait, and with cousins that had nicknames like Cunning or Bossy, I figured I lucked out.

Still, over the years, I have tried on new names like a judge at a dessert tasting contest. How I started the journey is unclear, but there was this point in my development where I felt that my name was restrictive, a sentence to an impenetrable goody-two-shoes life. By the time I moved into a small apartment (and I mean small!) in San Francisco in 1969, I had decided to try out the name of Susan.

Right.

“Susan” was the name of business and surety and normalcy. But anyone who knows me will tell you that I am not a Susan, and that shirt would not fit. So, I abandoned Susan when I returned to the East Coast, started working in theater, and eventually met a troop of African-American actors where we all took African names. The name Sala came out of that experience. My father said “you will always be what I named you.” This was significant because there were times when I felt he did not like me. But his statement said that, to him, I would always be a gracious gift of God.

What was I looking for? What identity did I feel was missing? In India, I asked a meditation master to give me a new name. She told me to keep my own name. This began the inner work of trying to know who I am beyond the labels I use to describe myself: a woman, African-American, creative. I was the pound cake waiting to be drenched in the liquid lemony frosting of my own nature. After several years, I received a name from the meditation master. And, in the end, I discovered that all the names I lived with had essentially the same meaning. And the river of God ran through every single one of them.

Sala meant gentle or peace. Gloria Jean, my birth name, meant gracious gift of God, and the blessing I received from my teacher was the name of Gopi, which meant that I was to be a lover of God in all his forms. I had been bathed in the lemony frosting of my nature for my whole life, but couldn’t taste its sweetness.

Finally, I am enjoying the taste of my own nature. There’s more to come.  Yum.

On Pie

There were a couple of comments about the sweet potato pie. The exact recipe? By now, I have forgotten. What I remember is the creamy, comforting richness.

Disclaimer: you try this at your own risk.

Mom would cook the sweet potatoes, add a pinch of salt, then mash them until not a lump could be found. She added the other ingredients one at a time. When I was a child, we did not have electric mixers. We used those hand held rotary beaters to create those stiff peaks from egg whites and cream.We developed strong arms from using those beaters.

So, we’d beat the whole eggs. Was it two or three? We’d add them to the potatoes; then, we’d add about a stick of butter. Mind you, there were a lot of sweet potatoes. Mix ’til smooth. Now comes the cream. I call it cream because that was when real milk came with cream settled on the top. Shake the bottle (yes, milk came in bottles). It was better than half and half.

Whatever happened to milk bottles?  True, they were heavy; but you could see the cream gathered on top of the milk like a thick icing. And there was no concern about the landfill. Bottles went back to the dairy and were sterilized and refilled.

The milk/cream was added and then the brown sugar and — corn syrup? To tell you the truth, I can’t remember. But, I’ll tell you this: it was sweet.

By now, our mouths were drooling over the pudding like consistency. Cinnamon. Nutmeg. Vanilla. Am I missing something?

We children were such pigs. We’d stick our fingers in the bowls and get chased away.  “Get your dirty hands out of here!” It didn’t matter what kind of pie. Peach. Blueberry. Apple. Pear. Hovering like humming birds and annoying as ants, we’d taste and get chased away.

Now when it comes to the crust, you’re on your own. That’s because when I was growing up, we used lard. For me, that’s not an option anymore. So once you have made your crust — and it will probably  be two or three — fill the pie plates with yummy stuff.

And that’s it. A chilly autumn evening or bright summer afternoon becomes more than alive…

All times are better with pie. On days like today, as we anticipate hurricane Sandy, and I begin to understand the importance of patience in the healing process,  pie is a gift and a sweet comfort.  Baking pie takes patience; savoring pie takes time.

On Autumnal abundance

Autumn is here with its chilly, damp fingers. It comes with a mixture of memories, some good, some bad, and some with rarely a charge at all. It’s raining, and temperatures have dropped, but the reflections I experience are as satisfying and filling as a bowl of hot carrot-ginger soup. Oh, the feelings that autumn colors bring!

I once worked with a frail young woman who feared autumn. She physically trembled as she talked of how the fall reminded her of death. I listened to her speak and watched her for a few moments before I told her my view. Autumn is a reminder of the abundance of life. And yet, I can see her point of view because earthly things come with earthly fears.

Autumn, for me, is a reminder of things that cannot be taken away; kind of like the theme from the Titanic: the things in our hearts always go on.

So what are the things that can’t be taken away? I have some ideas (surprised?).

Spiritual strength. Ah, the goal. Learning to become a spiritual warrior. It’s oh so not the sinkhole of zealotry and dogmatism. Spiritual warriors drive thriving. Where does the mistake take place? How do our honest journeys become paths divested of purity?

At a party, I once pulled a fortune from a jar that contained the word “Coromantee.” I decided to look it up recently because the word on the fortune was combined with the word “warrior.”  I have since learned that the Coromantees from Ghana were warrior tribespeople sold into slavery. They did not go gently.  They were so fierce that it is said an Act was proposed to try to prevent slave traders from shipping them to the West. I’ve  held that word in my heart for many years as my marching orders. Spiritual warriors cannot be enslaved; one will never control a spiritual warrior’s mind.

This morning, I’m also thinking about Victor Frankel’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Once one becomes a spiritual warrior, there is no one — and this is an absolute, NO one — who can take that strength away.

The first taste of sweet potato pie. Whether or not you believe it, this is one of those luscious memories that can never be taken away. And although I’ve tried to replicate that pie in so many vegan ways, I have not found anything to replace that first taste. Sunday after church, after the roast beef, after the collard greens, after the rice, is pie. Not bean. Not pumpkin. Smooth, rich sweet potato.

Education. Complain as bitterly as we might about the loans, the two or three jobs, the exhaustion that comes with writing papers at 3 AM; there is nothing that beats the joy, pride, and security of knowing that no one can take away what we’ve earned and learned. Ever.

Love and our relationship to the Divine. Embrace or deny it, we are wedded to the Great Mystery. Nope. Can’t be taken away.

One’s relationship to one’s ancestors. Conscious or unconscious, acknowledged or not, we owe a debt to those who came before us.

Autumn is a time when we remember abundance. And I could probably fill pages with other examples of abundance — none of which are monetary. I know. It’s boring to talk about leaves in shades of red and gold, of orange and yellow fruit and vegetables; of dark evenings at five o’clock. But it’s exactly this magic in nature that brings an awareness of abundance. As the rains soften the leaves so that they willingly drop from the trees, and as I watch the leaves fall, I am willing and happy to concede that abundance lies in things that cannot be taken away.

What about your autumnal abundance?

On kindness and coastal healing

So now it’s done. I’ve had the surgeries on both hands, and I’m tired. I go back and forth with the focus and energy it takes to heal. I’ve ranted and raved like Job: “What’s the lesson here? You say there’s a reason for all things. Can I have a clue?”

When I moved back to the East and to the Philadelphia area specifically, I felt I was doing the right thing. After all, New York is the publishing capital of the world, and my mother was ill. In 2001, all the right reasons seemed to be in place. I spent two years in an ashram in upstate New York surrounded by love.  But when I moved to the Philadelphia area in 2003, love was replaced by another four letter word — the worst of all four letter words — hate. I hated it here.

All of the reasons and memories of why I had fled the East Coast and anything remotely connected to it (including the southeast) came flooding back. I only saw the busyness and inflexibility of the culture. I did not feel the warmth in human spirit that seemed to flourish in the rains of the Northwest and the sun of California. Oh. And did I mention the cold and snow? I do not like cold and snow and could not imagine ever finding friends here.

I pegged everyone (especially you former manager from Hades), as a scavenger for money, sex, and devious ways to perpetuate racism, sexism, class prejudice and all the other prejudices one could think of.  I called a monk (priest) and cried. This place was a new low.

It takes time to heal. The severity of my carpal tunnel and the energy to deal with insurance and other issues threatens to take my full attention.  One of the most frustrating experiences has been the delay in posting to my blog as often as I would like. And I had other expectations: I’d be slicing carrots a couple of days after surgery, driving to Trader Joe’s, boiling pots of water for tea or veggies, and back at rehearsal. (I’m coming guys.) But the body has its own ideas.

It also takes time to heal old wounds, and I have plenty of emotional baggage when it comes to the eastern seaboard. But all these considerations have been offset in recent days by the old four letter word — love.

Love brought me home from surgery and stayed for four days cooking meals, washing dishes and sharing hours of conversation. Love referred me to resources that I need.

Love came by to chop the carrots, make the tea, drive me to appointments, and keep my apartment clean. Love stood next to me as I vomited pain medication and recovered from anesthesia. Love went shopping for me, and called me (with different voices) about 10 times a day. Love pulled me out of the apartment to go watch a school football game and sit in the sun rather than stay inside and feel sorry for myself. Love warmed my heart and healed a place that was becoming as chilly as the Pennsylvania winters.

Love, in the form of so many folks, surprised me and talked me through my fear. I didn’t have to do it alone, and that was one of the biggest fears I had when I moved to this place.

Great souls; great hearts. Grace has a way of reminding me that the kindness of others can melt a frozen heart, even here, where I thought no hearts remained. Perhaps that’s the lesson after all.

On touch — and other sense matters

Is it hot? Is it cold? Is it sharp? Is it dull? These are the simple questions.

I was not fully conscious of how finely sensitive my finger tips are — until my sense of touch was compromised by carpal tunnel. And although surgery for CTS is common, I’ve been a holdout. That’s changed. I’m going to have surgery. Because in the process of holding out, I learned what it means to have everything I touch feel like a bowl of sand.

The texture of bread dough? Sand. The round, firm skin of a grape? Sand. The silky smooth flesh of salmon? Sand.  As I comb and brush my hair — that’s right — sand. Paper?  I won’t say it again.

There is the sad fact that I have lost bragging rights to my asbestos hands. I could pick up a veggie burger from a pan and it would not burn my fingers. This is not the case right now, and I don’t like the experience. Touch is an iridescent spoke on the wheel of my world. Touch is why I love to cook. Touch is why I love to hug and cuddle. Touch makes me happy.

A friend of mine charged me with being “touchy-feely.” I embrace that label with love. When I think of my childhood, I go back to the place where I was not raised. I go back to the summers I spent with grandparents in South Carolina. It was there where I connected with the silk of corn, the taste of well water, and the sunny warmth of fresh-cut watermelon on my tongue. It was there where I experienced soundless nights and pink cloud mornings. If I could live to be a thousand years old, I would forever embrace the sense experiences I received from my grandparents’ lands.

When I remember touch in the city, it is not a soft memory — except in the context of food. With food, touch drives memory: squeezing an orange, fluting a pie crust, slicing a melon, or rubbing a roast. When I think of touch in the city, I think of standing in summer rain to cool off from the heat of a small apartment that seven people called home. When I think of touch in the city, it comes with art—the thin press of violin strings, the satiny fit of a leotard.

And when I think of sand, in its own nature, I think of the sea. There is no sea in my kitchen; no sea in my hair.

Yesterday, for the sake of feeling the smoothness of dough, I made a pizza. I like the touch of food:  (haven’t you noticed?) kneading dough, slicing carrots, tearing lettuce, dicing onions or potatoes. But yesterday, I had a spiritual bonding with my food processor as it made the dough, and when I poured it out onto parchment to give it a brief knead…it felt like sand.

I know that this is temporary. But it’s given me pause to reflect on the importance of touch and how much I love the purity of the senses.

I guess there is truth in the saying after all. “In everything is a gift.”