Category Archives: Story telling

Two in one month? No. Tow.

Praise the elements and the angels. Fresh air, sunshine, and a chance to get some outdoor exercise with my physical therapist…

Whoa! What’s this?

“I’m not going to jail!!!”

The short, stocky woman stood toe to toe with the young police officer. He looked confused. He had to do his job; he also had to be respectful. Had he threatened to arrest her?

“Ma’am, this is a handicapped zone.”

The truth be told, the woman screaming didn’t own the car. I don’t know how she got into this thing. But, by now, a crowd of senior and elderly citizens had gathered, and they were not happy.

I, on the other hand — and foot — was happy. I had been cooped up in my apartment for more than 40 days. This was the third day of sunlight and warm temperatures in a winter that almost had me believing in Armageddon. If I could have danced without falling — well, let me just say “I’m workin’ on it.”

“Please don’t tow my car!”

The woman in the (very comfortable looking I might add) pink robe was terrified.

“This is a handicapped zone.”

A young woman visiting her mother patiently repeated this fact to anyone who would listen. The tow truck line was attached to the car. It’s a cosmic fact. Once the line is attached, it’s a done deal. There were five — yes, I counted them — five police cars with the officers facing this angry group. It was a little dramatic.

“Please…”

I live in this lovely place because I, too, now qualify as a senior. You have no idea how much angst went into this revelation. But I suppose that with a serious illness comes the willingness to let go of façades. One after another the veils drop, and  secrets are left open for examination by anyone who chooses to peek. It doesn’t matter if people say my skin looks so smooth, my face so young, and my attitude youthful. Illness can bring, if one is willing, a new and glorious embrace of the present. I can now ride the commuter train for $1.

It’s a new place, barely eight years old. My apartment faces the woods of a college campus across the road. My first week here I saw a fox. And during this horrifically snowy season, I had the pleasure of watching cross-country skiers on the trail that will be hidden once the trees bloom in the spring.

Sometimes, in the quiet of night, I hear the cries of some small animal or bird that is meeting it’s fate as dinner. It’s eerie; that pitiful cry and then silence. But then the morning comes.

This dramatization around an illegally parked car seemed to play into the predator/prey story. Except that everyone felt they were prey. No one in the situation wanted to be there. The faces of those young officers, all white, revealed their discomfort. They wanted to be anywhere else on the planet: chasing drunk drivers, arresting bank robbers, responding to fire emergencies — anywhere but here with five cop cars for a handful of senior citizens. The young white tow truck driver looked fearful as he talked with his supervisor on his cell phone.

The seniors, with the exception of one, were all black. The situation was, I suppose for some, um, awkward.

I am more warped. Oh, the thrill of it! Not only was I outside; I was being entertained. And I suppose, on some level, I knew the situation would be resolved amicably. Why? Because it’s an amicable community, within and outside of the complex. And no one —  believe me, no one — wanted to be on the evening news.

I’ve been listening to people complain about cabin fever this winter. Yes, the temperatures have been in the single digits, the snow has been up to 10 inches deep — more in some places — and spring seems too far away. But after a year of living mostly indoors, I am finding it hard to have one ounce of pity. The extent of my travels has been the tedious act of using a wheelchair or walker to move from one room to another. For those with physical limitations, we’d give anything to walk into the frigid air or put our feet into the snow.

“Ma’am,” an exasperated, but patient, officer repeated. “This is a handicapped zone.”

My physical therapist and I had work to do and went about our business: my learning to use the walker as I stepped off a curb and walked on the pathway between the building and the parking lot.

Whoa. What’s this?

A miracle of the modern world occurred. The tow truck driver unhitched his line.

The young girl, as a gesture of kindness to the car owner, moved the car to its designated parking space. It seemed that everyone was going to have a happy ending. The woman in the pink robe came to each of us individually to thank us for praying for her (I admit that I was not owed this thanks). The police were so ready to go look for real trouble. The tow truck driver, having not been attacked by a bunch of old folks, climbed into his truck to leave.

I, fully exhilarated, returned to my apartment.

May your days be free of tow trucks. And—if you have an inclination to do it because you’ll only be there for a few minutes — DON’T. Don’t park in a handicapped zone. It’s rude. It’s inconsiderate. It will cost you up to $200. And it costs taxpayers money to send the police when you take a space that rightfully belongs to someone else.

Okay. I’m done. Peace out.

On: Equalization and TMI

“Stop.”

There was no mistaking her voice. My sister’s pretty clear when she doesn’t want to hear something.

And there’s plenty to hear about. The chefs are amazing. Last night I had the best turkey Tetrazzini and cherry crisp for dinner. Then, there is my roommate who cried for three nights straight because she didn’t want to be here (here being one of the best physical rehab hospitals in the country). I also could’ve gone on and on about how excited I was that two (did you get that?) of my doctors are active musicians.

I could talk about my physical and occupational therapists who are so familiar with CIDP that they gave me information I had never heard anywhere else.

Even more, I could talk about the equalizing effect that disability rehab has on all of our particular biases. Racism? Gone in the equality of learning how to walk again. Sexism? Ceases to exist when you’re trying to stand up straight or speak your words clearly without drooling. Homophobia? Everyone’s working hard here, and no one — at least no one I’ve seen — has the time or inclination to care about anyone else’s sex life. Christian,  Muslim, Jew, Sikh, Hindu, etc.? All are learning to stand again.

“I’m learning to drive,” quipped the woman practicing in a power wheelchair.

“I’m learning to walk,” quipped the gentleman who passed her with a grin.

The focus here is: get the body working again. It takes total concentration, exercise, and effort. In my view, physical disability can be a great equalizer. All  one’s energy is put into healing and rehabilitation.

So I could have talked about that. But I didn’t. Instead I told her about another equalizer. Everyone in every room is concerned about the same thing because we hear it every day from every nurse.

“Did you have a bowel movement?”

My sister was not amused. She has a sensitive stomach.

The truth is, being in bed a lot of the time is a constipating experience. How much time can you spend hating the person next to you because of his or her race, sex, or other beingness when your bowels are backed up to your diaphragm? Not much I can tell you. One’s work is immediate.

This place is beautiful. Sprawling acres landscaped to perfection. Simple and attractive rooms that are cheerful and clean. Nurses and nursing aides that are respectful, kind, and willing to help. And excellent chefs — did I mention the excellent chefs?

“Stop!”

Too Much Information.  Please, no words about my consumption of copious quantities of Miralax and prunes. It doesn’t matter that what goes in must come out.

What is important is that here, everything points to equality. The rest is TMI.

On: Tenderness

Dignity

What was it that Otis Redding said? Oh yes.

Try a little tenderness.

Tenderness.

Why is it so challenging to bask in the love that we all desire? I believe that it is everyone’s intention to surround themselves with the softness of life. By that I don’t mean the softness of material things, the silks and satins and cashmere of life. I mean the softness that comes with peace of being… Soft. Tenderness.

It’s a quiet summer afternoon. I’m looking out the window and watching butterflies circle the backyard. They seem completely at ease. Is it because, amazingly, the black cat with the strange green eyes is at ease? Is she practicing cat tenderness?  She doesn’t move from her perch as the butterflies and birds flit around her. Only the gray squirrel raises a racket. There is no threat. Softness abounds.

Sunlight fills crevices like liquid. My soul is filled with tenderness. And I, who thrive on seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, want to believe that every human being loves the sun.

The poets, romantics, musicians, spiritual teachers — even scientists — testify to the healing power of tenderness. Go ahead, say it isn’t so. But you’ll find yourself in some very isolated company.

I’m reminded of mornings on my grandparents’ farms. Both maternal and paternal grandparents knew the power of tenderness and peace. My own memories allow me to understand why my mother, in her dementia, retreats to a place of softness and safety.

Not too long ago, I was asked by a health practitioner to remember what that tenderness feels like in my body. I was happy to revisit that glorious childhood experience. Vacations were watercolor mornings, filled with strolls amid the corn, watermelon, and tomato fields with paternal and maternal grandfathers. For me, our small farms and communities played in my mind as barricades against treacherous white men whose daily bread filled them with the hatred required to circle the south looking for unarmed black men and boys.

“Remember what that tenderness felt like,” they say. It’s because currently my life requires the wondrous gift of tenderness: regular rest, naps, real food and more proteins (did I tell you I now eat poultry as well as fish? Gone, gone are those days of self-righteous food Puritanism!) I eat vigilantly, and monitor my emotions. “Get eight hours sleep,” said my dear physiatrist Dr. J.

For 40 years when I thought of South Carolina away from my grandparents’ homes, I thought of a place contaminated with murder and the blood and bones of enslaved black people. With my maternal grandparents gone, their home and land sold, and my estrangement from the conservative religious views of the South, there was no reason to return to that place. History suffocated tenderness.

Then I attended a family reunion in Myrtle Beach and the feelings flooded back. The signs on stores, restaurants, and bathrooms and drinking fountains — “colored” and “white, ” placed there to kill the human spirit while threatening the physical body — were gone.

Those signs had pitted my tender heart against my gentle maternal grandfather. When I was about 10 years old, he took us into the city of Sumter to run errands and buy sweets. As if in slow motion, I found myself bowing my head to drink from a fountain clearly marked “white only.” My grandfather did what he had to do to protect me.

He grabbed me by the collar with such force I thought I would choke. My lips never touched the water. Later on, sitting on the porch in his arms, surrounded by the night songs of frogs and crickets in a dark so black you could not see the outline of trees, and the smell of the forest so sweet I wanted to wrap it around my skin, I came to understand three things:

the incredible love and tenderness in the heart of the man forced to take such action;  the incredible love and tenderness in the heart of the man saddened by his own action and; the incredible love and tenderness in my own heart that allowed me to keep loving him.

Tenderness in its myriad forms — family, church, and community — ensured our survival. Tenderness has contributed, in spite of the traumas of living, to the person that I am.

It is a tender summer day and I wonder: If every person, politicians especially, accessed a single memory of tenderness, would the world be a very different place? I, who thrive on seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, would like to think it so.

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 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.”

On saying grace and cooking

I admit it. I shamelessly admit that I’m a person for whom being in my kitchen is an anchor to the heart. I don’t care how scrappy a kitchen it might be, how modest; if I can cook for myself, I am in paradise.

Today, I went to the Farmer’s Market. I bought perfectly green zucchinis, shitake mushrooms, and leeks. Then I went to the natural foods store and bought sweet potatoes, garlic and ginger. I bought cucumbers and peaches. The cucumbers were local and not smeared with wax or petroleum or whatever they put on the big agriculture produce. Ahhh. What am I going to do with all these the peaches? What with work and rehearsal and acupuncture and physical therapy and…I don’t have time for a pie.

I’m thinking…maybe a cucumber and peach salad. What spices?  Maybe a pinch of salt and black pepper. Cumin?  I’ll let you know how it turns out.

It’s 92 degrees and humid, but I turned on the air conditioner and the oven anyway. I chopped the sweet potatoes, tossed them in spices and olive oil, and baked them. I turned on the television for my favorite cooking shows (hint: do NOT come between me and my cooking shows). I pitted cherries, sliced a lemon and put them aside. Raw cherries make my throat itch, so I put them on the stove to cook and added sugar and a little water. When they were soft, I tossed the cherries with the sliced lemon. When they were cool, I covered them with vanilla ice cream.

Dear Lord (I always seem to be saying this), I have been too busy. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be still and give thanks for the skill of cooking. I’ve let too many moments go by without offering a prayer for the food I eat. I have forgotten how easy it is to forget — to make time to be close to home.

I sliced zucchini and shiitake mushrooms; I minced ginger and garlic. I added chopped leeks and leftover greens. Throwin’ a little water into the pot, I let the vegetables steam. And while they are steaming, I remember “saying grace.”

“God is great and God is good; and we thank God for our food. By His hands we all are fed; give us Lord our daily bread.”

That was the prayer we said as children until we were old enough to sit quietly through the grown-up prayers. That’s how we began our meals, every meal, everyday, 365 days a year, every year of my life that I lived in my parents’ home.

The stillness in that moment before meals is a potent memory.

As a child, I didn’t particularly like using the time to say grace. Depending on the person praying, it could be three to ten minutes before the food hit our tongues. I’d watch as the steam floating up from the stewed tomatoes became lighter. But the invisible Grace did not care about the tomatoes.

Despite my childish anxiety about food, the act of saying grace had great power.  Power was in the humility dripping from the voices of those giving thanks. Power was in the protection released into the air; a grace.

It has been said that taking the time to pray, to express gratitude, acknowledge each other, or just to sit in silence before eating helps the digestion. I didn’t know that as a child. My thoughts were on the seductive smell of sausages and pancakes. Or the golden river of butter running through the crevices and valleys of fluffy mashed potatoes and homemade buttermilk biscuits.

But I also knew, even as my mind willed the prayers to cease, that there was magic in the air. Those times round the table are the times I remember as the best part of being home; times that I will always hold close to the heart.

My potatoes are done, the shitake-zuchinni vegetables are steamed.  I’ve poured olive oil and Bragg’s aminos over them. I plate it all up with some “vegan” chicken salad and, sigh, I shamelessly indulge in the pleasure of cooking and saying grace.

On Jealousy

Jealousy comes from a certain kind of poverty consciousness.  A jealous person is a hoarder, more concerned with taking than with giving.  And while I’ve planted several vices and faults over a nice swatch of karmic turf, I’m grateful to say that jealousy is not a seed that I have planted.

I do not want what belongs to someone else.  I don’t want what you have.  I don’t want what God gave to you for you.  It’s all that I can do to make space for my own psychic and material stuff.  Why would I want someone else’s?

Time has a way of erasing faces and sometimes names, even if one remembers the incident.  And so, I remember a lovely Sunday morning in a quiet café with a new “friend” that I was getting to know.

“I’m jealous of you,” the woman said.

We had been talking about nice things–music, the weather, etc.  But then, she put on this frowny face.  I want to head for a bomb shelter when I see a frowny face.

“I feel jealous of you. You always seem to get what you want.”

You know how in slapstick comedy, when somebody says something really dumb, the person who’s listening gags on their drink and spits it out?  Okay, so I didn’t spit out my tea.  All I could do was stare and know that this person would not be a friend.  Looking back, I wish I’d been present enough to say, “Do you think you’re woman enough to handle it?”

Now, see (as my mother would say), this is the problem with perception.  We see what someone else has, and even though we have enough, we think that we could use more.  We forget that the person we are envious or jealous of has paid a price for what they got.  But we get mad at them because God allowed them to have it.  Jealousy is stupid–and lives in a hoarding heart.

Like everyone, I’ve had moments when I wanted an easier time of it.  I’ve desired many things:  a problem-free (new?) car, a boyfriend that does the laundry and cooks dinner, more money, a massage once a week—a best seller.  But I will tell anyone in a heartbeat, “I do not want your stuff .”  Because that would mean I want someone else’s life, and really, at this point, I’m pretty content with my own.

Jealousy is a waste of vital energy.  First of all, it’s a tremendous expression of ingratitude.  It’s like saying, “God, you made a mistake with my life.  Can I have hers?”  Ew.

Second, it’s like putting yourself down.  It’s placing someone else above yourself, making their life experience more valuable than your own.  And third, it’s like asking God to give you somebody else’s sorrows in order to experience whatever is perceived as another’s joy.  Again, ew.

When I spend time by myself–writing, for instance–I am happy.  I am quiet.  I feel at ease.   When I am healing my creative self, aware of smiles,  colors, and sounds–I am happy.  When my heart is open,  words, whether hard or soft, flow with the ease of warm honey–I am happy.  It’s taken a long time, but I finally recognize this experience as spending time with my own soul.  It’s private.  It’s soft.  It’s sacred.  It’s healing.  And I wouldn’t trade it for anyone else’s experience.

No one can take those things from me, so being jealous is a waste of vital energy.  Do I get everything I think I want?  No.  But I get what is mine and try to share the best of it.  Hoarding is not my nature.

But hey, if anyone wants what I got, she will have to pay the karmic price.   And I don’t think she’s woman enough to handle it.

On Bread, Laundry, and Morning Routines

I don’t like being away from the blog for too long.  But, I guess it’s good to shake things up every once in a while; break the routine, learn something new or meet new people. It protects one (i.e., me) from narrow-mindedness.  Perhaps, you’ve noticed; I do not like narrow-mindedness.  Narrow-mindedness is anchored in fear.

So, about shaking things up.  Nine years. That’s how long it’s been since I’ve set foot into a public laundry. It’s not been a conscious thing.  It’s just that most rentals now have on-site laundries as a convenience.  They’re safe, you recognize most of your neighbors, and you can count on them (the laundries…) being clean.  The down side is that you may have to wait for machines or pull someone’s laundry out because he or she left the building.

So, the other day, when I ran into one of my neighbors as she returned from the laundromat a few blocks away, I started thinking…

My mornings are pretty routine.  I’m a woman who likes to watch the sun rise.  I like to have tea and write in my journal.  I like my mornings slow, lazy, and quiet–just the way God made ‘em.  The world will bring itself to my psychic door soon enough.  Mornings—particularly weekend mornings—are when I can bake bread at 5 or 6 AM.  Because I want to.

Baking bread is like a meditation:  still and reflective.  I have lots of time to be with my own thoughts.  First, I mix flour, water and yeast.  Then let it rise.  Then, add oil and salt and more flour.  Then let it rise.  Finally, I knead and knead some more, divide the dough into loaves, let it rise again and bake.  By 8 am I have four nice loaves of bread.  The traffic is quiet, the Haverford geese honk overhead, and I can indulge myself in journaling about my “stuff.” You know what “stuff” is, right?

Well, last weekend, I changed my routine.  I packed a plastic IKEA bag full of shirts, sheets, and undies, bought a breakfast bagel sandwich at the bagel place, and headed for the local laundry.  I arrived about fifteen minutes after it had opened.  That would be 7:15.  Lugging my laundry, soap powder, bagel, and a book, I opened the door to find…Men?  Men.  There amid the cacophony of whirling washers and humming dryers was a room of men.

Now–as a child, whenever Mom’s machine broke (which with five kids seemed like all the time), we would go to the neighborhood laundry.  There were never any men there, only mothers towing infants and older children picking on their siblings.  Most of the time, it seemed that a mother’s singular focus was to keep the laundry in the machines and the children out.  Those laundromats were filled with yelling, laughing, and crying children and very harried mothers.  Men?  Never.

Who were these guys?  There was an elderly man with really thick glasses, his cane propped against a bench.  There was an obese fellow with a cap pulled tightly over his head.  His vibe was one that dared anyone to say “good morning.”  I sat on the bench across the room.  Another chunky guy chewed gum, popped it loudly, walked around, sat down, and walked around again.  They all stared at the ceiling.  I could not figure out what was so interesting with that darned ceiling.

Two Mexican men talked and laughed until one packed his laundry and moved on.  The other went outside to make a phone call.  I buried myself in my book, munched my bagel sandwich, and remembered a vacation in Tijuana that left me joyous.  I had made my way on public transportation (with limited Spanish) to meet my friends, bought colorful clothes and fabric, drank in a bar where the guys laughed at my name (means living room in Spanish, I learned… “ha, ha, very funny,” I said.) and sauntered in the sun.

I let the sounds wash over me.  Note to self: take Spanish lessons.

In an odd way, the rhythms were the same as baking bread:  put clothes in a machine, sit to read, wait 15-20 minutes, and check its progress.  The Haverford geese honked overhead.  Traffic was quiet.

At 8 o’clock, the door opened and a voice asked sweetly, “Does anyone have change for a twenty?”

“Finally,” I thought.  The men stared.  “No,” I answered.  She left.

But, I had succeeded.  I’d changed up my day.  The sky didn’t fall.  And I’d learned something I never knew before.  Men can, in fact, get up and out in the morning and do laundry.

It is good to shake things up every once in a while.

On Broccoli and Expectations

Common sense.

My grandparents were farmers who, when we visited, involved us in the process of planting and harvesting. They were practical people, with a solid understanding of nature and the folly of rigid expectations.  They planted, made sure they had done their best work, and accepted whatever results nature provided.  Their common sense fed scores of relatives for decades.

Fast forward to their granddaughter—that would be me—as I sat in my own vegetable garden in Oakland, California, dreamily pulling weeds.  With each clump of dandelion or grass, I felt like I was letting go of some unresolved issue. I like to think of it as my Zen moment of gardening.  Inhale, pull a clump, and exhale; inhale, pull a clump and exhale.  By the end of an evening of weeding, I would be—excuse the pun—grounded.  But I didn’t have my grandparents’ wisdom:  whatever grows in the garden, after I have given it my all, is perfectly what is meant to be.  When I think about it, that perspective is a metaphor for living.  But back to vegetables.

In my neighborhood, there were a lot of folks who had gardens overflowing with vegetables and fruit.  One of my best friend’s garden was a cornucopia of kale, peas, asparagus, potatoes (red, white, and blue), squash, green peppers, tomatoes, and corn.  She and her husband had spent years putting in the time and hard work to make their garden organic.  Blackberries and raspberries circled their entire yard.  And, oh yes, the apples really did hang low on the tree.

A few years before learning from my friend about gardening, I had decided to grow some vegetables.  In addition to the peas, tomatoes and lettuce, I thought I’d try some broccoli.  Broccoli, in my mind anyway, is a vegetable of perfection. It’s sweeter than leafy green vegetables and is easy to adapt for recipes.  Little bites of the crown can be dipped in a variety of sauces. The whole stalk can be creamed for broccoli and cheddar cheese soup.  Then there are the salads and–my all time favorite–tempura.

I hoed, raked, and tilled.  I mulched and fertilized.  The vegetables grew strong and basically healthy, and the broccoli was dark green with stalks an inch thick.  I purchased lots of ladybugs to eat the aphids in the garden.  I planted garlic and onions (didn’t have a clue what I was doing).  It rained, and I checked for bugs.  Obsessively.

I found holes on the leaves, signs of critters that ate their veggies.  But I had declared a no-worm manifesto, and I was determined to win.  You know where this is going, right?

One cool evening, I went to the garden and cut some stalks for dinner.  The veggies were beautiful.  Green, shiny and strong.  I checked, washed, and placed the broccoli in a steamer.   About camouflage…

When the time came to serve—I had invited friends over—I opened the pot and screamed. There, fully steamed and swollen like a green hot dog on the top of my beautiful broccoli, was a humongous green worm.  My friends laughed and encouraged me to toss the worm and eat the broccoli.  I couldn’t, but I was told by those who did, that the vegetable was perfection.

Plant, make sure I’ve done my best, and accept the results of whatever nature provides.  Common sense for a great and anxiety free life.

Happy Monday!