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.

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