Category Archives: Essay

No Angry God

The pepper buds in the photo I snapped look so much larger than they are in reality. Since then, more have bloomed. Still no peppers.

I am waiting. For the tomatoes to bloom and the peppers to flower. For the sweet fruit of community peace. I don’t say world peace; that feels too big in the moment. World peace? It’s all I can do to garner peace on my windowsill; to keep the herbs growing. To keep them alive.

ln the beginning, there were seven teensy basil seeds. Meticulously, I put all of them in a pot of soil. I had doubts that the basil seeds would take root. Like I have doubts that I’ll wake one morning to find that the world has righted itself and the emboldened fascists in all countries have vanished. The basil grew and erased my doubts. My doubts about the world remain.

Within 14 days, the tiniest of leaves, so tiny I could barely see them, had sprouted. Thus (yes, I used the word “thus.”) began a cycle of magic. I received planted gifts from neighbors and friends: two cilantro plants, a mature basil plant, potted rosemary, two cherry tomato plants, and the pepper.  Will I ever see fruit from the pepper or tomatoes? I want to think that where there are buds, there is hope. My other plants, the spider plant, dracaena, jade, and lucky bamboo seem to welcome the herbs with joy. They grow as if on steroids.

I watch these plants, talk to them like I talk to the trees.  I have read that talking to plants lets them know we love them. One thing’s for sure. When I’m focused on my herbs, I’m not focused on chronically angry liars. This leads me to my rant of the week.

One has the power to choose tenderness over anger. Respect over disrespect. To choose the truth over a lie. Sadly, in countries throughout the world including the United States, folks have chosen the lie.  In the U.S., it’s The Big Lie. It’s a very, very rough time for humanity.

Chronic anger terrorizes. Chronic anger hijacks the truth. Hearing the shouts of chronically angry people has taken my gaze from the pepper plant. For a moment.  The chronically angry have done unbearable damage to our democratic structure.  We know who they are. Some are friends. Some are family. They are people who get pissed off about everything, particularly anything that seems to make another person’s life easier, better; particularly things that show compassion and respect for their fellow human beings. Like masks.

They lie about the earth’s catastrophic climate change. People are dying from the heat. They lie about the fires in California and Greece. They lie about and spread conspiracy theories about life-saving vaccines and about COVID infections. They lie about the January 6th insurrection at the United States Capitol. They die in hospitals insisting they have pneumonia and not COVID. They lie.

In my wanderings throughout the United States, I’ve learned some things. Contrary to the angry screaming of fundamentalists about a punishing God, all of this dis-ease, physical and mental suffering, is a sign of ingratitude and disrespect for the life around us: Animals. Vegetation. The air we breathe. Disrespect for human beings who inhabit every corner of this earth peacefully going about their day-to-day business and loving each other.

God is not angry with his/her creation. I don’t believe, not for one holy second, that we live under the auspices of an angry God. Amid our terrors, trials, and obstacles, people of all identities ─ spiritual, gender, racial, even political ─ are falling in love. Babies are being born. The kind-hearted and empathetic are feeding the hungry. Many Christians are following the teachings of Christ. Families are being sustained. Art is being made. Chefs are creating cuisine.  Peppers are growing on a windowsill.

We do find our way, don’t we?

For the past few minutes, I’ve watched as a red spider builds her web outside on my window screen. I squirted water on her web and she scooted away.  I didn’t want to kill her, I didn’t spray water out of anger. I just let her know that she needed to find another place to build her web.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “You cannot live here.”

She returned, just as the love of God always returns when we become aware of ourselves falling into the black hole of anger. She came back to start over. The stillness of the morning and the focus with which she does her work tells me there is no angry God.

I want to be able to clearly define the anxiety, muck, and division I feel whenever I use the word “hate.”  The word itself is exhausting. I wonder, sometimes, if the paralysis I experienced with the onset of Guillain Barre Syndrome so many years ago was a connection to my anger and the rigidity in the body. Anger: fists clenched, torso stiffened, jaw tightened, and breath held.  Anger. Do I know I am breathing? What does the word hate even mean? Merriam -Webster defines it as “intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury.” (Italics are mine.) Who injured the chronically angry one? What does she fear? As a child of the Baptist church, I know about choosing Holy words to instill fear. And yet, the waters of my Baptism at age ten changed my experience of the Bible. I would open the pages and find words of love. There is no angry God.

Xenophobia. Conspiracies and misinformation about COVID. Lies against the vaccines. The backlash against the facts of science. The unbelievably unhinged revisions to the truths about slavery and the formation of American capitalism. The denial of the genocide of Native citizens. We are facing a huge humanitarian crisis.  Still, one has the power to choose tenderness over anger, truth over falsehood, justice over injustice.   

My maternal grandparents were farmers. They grew fields of vegetables, tended grapevines, picked peaches from their trees, and prayed at four and five o’clock in the morning.  My mother once told me what my grandfather said about pesticides: “If you put that in the dirt, the plants soak it up and then you eat it.”  Science.  And the tenderness of God.

I wave my hands to the Great Invisible. And the Great Invisible answers. “Your pepper plant needs watering.”

There is no angry God.

January 2020 to January 2021. Yes, We Will Find Joy.

It’s a snowy day in February 2021. I am complaining. January 2020 was the beginning of a year that I could never have imagined.

At the end of that month, I was sharing a home-baked, red velvet birthday cake with friends. I had just turned 72, and the celebration deserved one of my friend Bob’s elegant cakes.

“Oh my God!”

Vinny checked his cell phone and put his beverage down. The helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and their friends, had fallen out of the sky. Bryant had been a beloved local personality, and it felt like the air was sucked out of the room. As we pivoted from celebration to sorrow, I could hardly believe that, once again, we were looking at the sudden death of a vibrant man known for his devoted support of young people, while some of the meanest, vilest politicians in our country seemed impervious to death.

Bryant’s death began a traumatizing year, one that would test the heartiest among us. A month later, as the stories about a new virus began to dominate the media, people hunched their shoulders and started wearing masks. My friends and I were asking, “How can we elect a new president?” because we were sure he’d caused the problem in the States. To answer this question, I participated in activities to get people out to vote.

I released my home health aide after she told me I was “overthinking” the virus, and fretted for a bit about all the tasks I would have to take on. Now alone, with no one visiting my home, I did what it made sense to do when humanity seems out of control: I turned to nature, to the trees in the forest across the road.

While the television droned in the background and I chopped celery and onions into cubes, maybe for a salad, or mashed potatoes, or perhaps, a lentil shepherd’s pie, I wondered out loud to the trees: Is it self-indulgent to write food stories?

Colorful bowls overflowing with fruit were testimony to the beauty of living in a global world: oranges from South Africa. Apples from New Zealand. Avocados from Mexico. Blueberries from Peru. And tomatoes…ahhh. Beautiful Canada.

I prayed that my anger would not affect the food. You see, I believe this to be the truth: whatever my mood, that energy goes directly from my mind and heart to my arms to my hands and into the food. I did not want to eat these negative vibrations.

Oh, the trees. My relationship with trees is mysterious. I watch them as if they are my children. From the first buds of spring to the death of their leaves when they are bombarded by sleet and buffeted by the wind, they are my constant companions. I “feel” them speak to me. Before you shake your head in pity, listen.

Several years ago, I lived next to a city park, which gave my second-floor apartment the feeling of being in a treehouse. Many years before that, I lived in an apartment along the Willamette River in Oregon. Trees surrounded the apartment. There have always been the trees.

One morning, during meditation in my “treehouse” apartment, I heard a message inside my heart.

“Don’t worry. We are your protection.”

I believed then, and I do now, that the spirit of the trees spoke to me.  

The year rolled on, and on May 25, I watched as a reptile in human skin – sworn to protect the public – put his knee on a man’s neck and stared into the camera for eight minutes and 46 seconds. He did not remove his knee until George Floyd was dead.

The raindrops on the trees outside my window clung to the branches like tears. I cried too. In July I posted about police abuses. I did not write about food. Would we ever again find joy?

2020 dragged on. Christmas was, thankfully, quiet. No guests. No poultry or stuffing. No hand-crafted pie. New Year’s eve, without the college students across the way, was still. There was no disturbance of fireworks. More than 300,000 people had died from the virus. I thanked God that 2020 was over and that we had a new president.

January 1, 2021, I received a phone call. My 90-year-old uncle died that morning from COVID-19. I did not cook the New Year black eye peas called Hoppin’ John, I didn’t make collard greens laced with onions, garlic, and turkey wings. I did not bake cornbread.  Instead, I contemplated his being the last in a generation of maternal elders, and what it meant to lose them.

On January 6, terrorists staged an insurrection against the United States. They breached the United States Capitol Building. They terrorized police officers, defecated and urinated in offices, stole items. They searched for legislators and the Vice-President with assassination intentions. These criminals wanted to disrupt the certification of legitimate election results and the peaceful transfer of presidential power. They failed.

I recognized a Truth. As we struggle to make it through these times – and we will struggle – we have to eat; we must find joy.  Although for many of us, our food stories will not be found around the table, we will have joyful stories to share. Through the miracle of technology, folks are learning new recipes, discovering new winter soups, baking new breads. A friend is making homemade yogurt, canning and pickling, and sharing these experiments through video technology. We’ll continue to bake Cornish hens and roast chickens. And we’ll brunch Zoom with buddies over the weekend.

I looked out at my snow-covered trees with the answer. Food is what we need to live. Joy makes us resilient. Stories are what give us joy. It is not self-indulgent to write about food.

Thanksgiving 2018

 

Three of us, our personalities as diverse as the meal we shared, sat around the table laughing and celebrating food, company and, each in her own way, a commitment to spiritual life.

 

“Will you give the blessing?”

Wait, what? 

The meal was at my home and, when I thought about it later, the host usually offers the blessing. In recent years, however, I’d fallen into a habit of silent blessings ─ or no blessing at all ─ over meals with friends.

We closed our eyes.  I opened one eye to peek at Sandra. She was the one, after all, who had asked for the blessing. She was — waiting.

I am not unfamiliar with saying grace. Praying before eating was a three-times-a-day practice in my childhood. Not a crumb would pass our lips before prayer. To attempt to sneak a bite was, at the very least, foolhardy. A spoon or fork could be sent flying if a child did not wait for the Lord’s blessing.

I remember my grandfather saying grace. He was a deacon and a very devout man who would repeat a prayer before every meal. The morning grace was the hardest. We’d listen patiently as he spoke the familiar lines before beginning his improvisation. His improvising, it should be known, was the place where hot food went to die — to become cold. But here’s the thing: his purity of heart and love for God was on that table. We could feel protection covering the food. His power was that palpable. Even as, in our minds eye, we could see the melted butter hardening again, we also knew that no malevolent force would dare approach our food. Granddaddy had a spiritual power that drew God’s protection for his family.

Saying grace is not a mystery. The willingness to be present and grateful for the present moment draws the power.

With Sandra’s request, I tried to remember the grace my parents used to say.

“Heavenly Father, we thank thee for this food to nourish the body though not the soul…” And that was all I could remember. It felt too far in the past.

When I was diagnosed with Guillain Barré syndrome (GBS) in 2012, the disease took away my ability to use my hands. I love cooking and sharing my meals with others. It’s a joyful task. But with GBS, I could not comb my hair, let alone knead dough, chop vegetables, or make a soup.

That too is now in the past. Today, I can make biscuits, roast a turkey, and or juice apples. And I can look back on 2018 and see blessings in everything, large and small: my physical healing; my mothers’ death and reconnecting with estranged family; new friends and neighbors; the ever expanding awareness of love in the world even as citizens panic in and recoil from the vortex of Trumpism; and still, the wonder of being grateful.

The instant I connected with gratitude, self-consciousness dropped away.

“Thank you, father/mother God, for this meal to which we have all contributed. Thank you for this glorious abundance of friendship that we are about to share. And thank you, most of all, for that which has brought us together in gratitude on this day. Amen.”

Sandra was pleased.

“Let’s eat.”

Just Pass the Grits. Okay?

 

 

It happened last week.  A neighbor uttered two words that don’t go together: “cauliflower grits.”

 

Nooo. Cauliflower is not grits and never will be.

I understand concerns about diet and health.  Lord knows it’s been a daily struggle for me, especially since living with complications from Guillain-Barre Syndrome. Sixteen months in a wheelchair can pack on pounds.

Still.

I’m a gal with strong southern roots. I would not trade a bowl of stewed tomatoes and grits, cheese grits or grits with liver and gravy for cauliflower “grits.”

As my nieces would say, “That’s just wrong.”

For anyone without southern roots, I can forgive the confusion. My neighbor is a woman of solid culinary tastes.  She eats at fancy Italian restaurants and thrills over Vietnamese cuisine. She is also a cauliflower devotee.

“You will love it,” she gushes.

No.  I will not love it because I have never loved cauliflower, a vegetable that I choose to call white broccoli.  Seriously, I’d walk barefoot over hot rocks before subbing cauliflower for grits.

I don’t just cook for nourishment. I cook for joy, otherwise what’s the point? Love of food and the kitchen makes me happy.

My mother died this month.  When I was asked to write some words for her obituary, I wrote about her love for God and how she instilled that love in each of her children.  But really, I could have written about her prowess as a home chef with exemplary imagination and culinary skill.  Everything we learned about food came from her southern roots: her kitchen, our grandmothers’ kitchens, and our aunts’ kitchens. Food and kitchens make me happy.

There were childhood breakfasts with bowls of hot grits, fried chicken livers and onions, and hot biscuits. If for no other reason than the legacy of southern cooking, I take full affront to the idea of replacing grits, rice or potatoes with a ground-up vegetable.

This morning, I sautéed onions, kale (in homage to the green veggie craze), garlic, and mock sausage. I mixed all the veggies into a creamy pot of grits and added cheese. As I watched it all come together with a kind of brown gravy tint, I felt sorry for folks who will never enjoy the warm belly comfort of real grits or rice.

“Cauliflower tastes just like rice” says my neighbor.

No. It doesn’t taste just like rice.

There are real reasons that some folks are choosing cauliflower instead of starchy grains. Recently, concerns have been expressed about rice. Where is it grown? Does the soil have arsenic?  Is it from the southern United States or Vietnam?  White rice is high on the glycemic index and can contribute to blood sugar level spikes.  I acknowledge these concerns, but a good rice pudding or cream of potato soup ain’t the same with cauliflower.

Just sayin’.

When I was a child, foods like grits, kale, and collards were standard southern fare. However things have changed, and with change I find myself in a world where organic collards, once almost free for the picking, are three dollars a bunch and grits are nouvelle cuisine.  With change comes a cultural temptation to make things “better,” healthier, to explore new tastes.

“Have you tried the cauliflower pizza crust?”

No. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The more my friend yammered on about cauliflower rice, the stronger was my pull for a dish of rice covered with a rich chicken stew.  So, I followed the urge and─

  • Seasoned and braised two chicken backs in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil.
  • Chopped onion, carrots, celery, fresh ginger, six or seven cloves of garlic, red bell peppers, and some young spinach leaves. I added the vegetables to the braised chicken.
  • Cooked a cup of white rice.
  • Added salt, pepper, turmeric, red chilis, and red bell peppers to the mix.
  • Threw in three cups of homemade veggie broth.
  • Let it all cook down to a thicker broth and added heavy cream. When it was thickened to my liking, I ladled this amazing goodness over a steaming plate of rice.

“Cauliflower would have been good in that stew!”

Sheesh.

 

Gardens and Empathy

I was in physical therapy when a patient opened her mouth and said: “Today’s world? It’s the Apocalypse. It’s Armageddon. These are our last days.”

 

The room became quite still as folks who had been talking about another mass shooting ended the conversation. I kept my mouth shut, zipped it because as annoying as her words were, the words on my tongue were worse. My words would have been vicious, cruel, and demeaning. Mean. Yes.

As far back as I can remember (which is pretty far), people have been saying that it’s the End of Times. Sigh. In my view, apocalyptic pronouncements are anchored in fear and resignation, a resignation that there is nothing left to do but wait for death and dissolution. God, save me from fear and resignation.

Here’s what I believe. Floods, fires, diseases, earthquakes, and political lunacy provide me a chance to reconnect with the quality that makes us human: empathy.

However, in that moment, knowing that I believed she lived in fear, I did not feel an ounce of compassion and certainly not empathy. I felt lodged between a rock and a hard place, between a desire towards empathy and compassion and the fire of anger.

In 2003 I moved to Philadelphia. It seemed like a good choice. Being in Philly was close to the Washington, D.C. area where most of my (oh, so dysfunctional) family resides, and the location was almost equidistant between D.C. and New York City. It seemed perfect. I sublet an apartment in a pleasant part of the city—lots of trees and single family homes with gardens. I’d found the listing on the board of a food co-op, a place where I loved to hang out. For some reason (which had no basis in reality) I thought a listing in the co-op ensured a safe and stable place. Once in the apartment, I understood why the previous tenant, a young woman, had moved.

The building held, maybe, 200 tenants and was one of several brick buildings on a block in the neighborhood. The metal fire escape outside my bathroom window, which was covered with a heavy screen, faced the fire escape of a brick building across the way. My bedroom window, in the back of the building, looked out across the alley on—yes, another brick building. I was not a happy camper. Now, you might ask if I had looked at the apartment before renting. The honest-to-God truth is that I don’t remember doing so. In my anxiety about being back on the East Coast, I must have visited the place. But like I said…

My immediate neighbor turned out to be a 17-year-old boy, a hopeful rap musician who played his music so loud it shook the floors and walls of my apartment. The woman-hating lyrics and aggressive drum and bass rhythms spilled out of his windows into the summer air and saturated the hallways and our wing of the building. There was not a single day when, due to the stress of it, I did not ask myself, What the fuck?!

My stomach vibrated inside like one of those salon massage chairs. I developed a stiff walk and a defensive stance with my shoulders hunched up all the time. I could not sleep and stuffed bits of cotton balls in my ears to stop the sound, but the floor vibrations went through my feet, up my body, through my arms, and into my head. I was angry and scared. I cried a lot and felt reduced to the role of victim. I hated that kid.

Finally, I got the nerve to knock on his door. He stared at me as if I were offering him a plate of dog poop and agreed to lower the volume. As soon as the door closed, he increased the volume. I called the management company.

“What am I supposed to do about it? You’re not getting out of that lease because of noise!”

Caught off guard, I said something like “I just moved here to the city. I don’t think your behavior is very welcoming.”

Her response was a fast and furious cynicism intended to humiliate.

“Ooohhh.  So now I’m supposed to be the welcome wagon!” Then she laughed and hung up.

I cried some more and talked to a minister. I was certain that God had banished me to Hell and that Hell was Philadelphia. There was no garden in the complex, no place to dig in the soil and save tender vegetables from weeds. I always identified with and felt empathy for the young plants. I wanted to see them grow to fullness without harm. Sometimes in dreams, I would see myself being stripped of weeds, weeds that I identified on waking as fears and resignations. To this day, I connect gardening with empathy.

There was some respite from the noisy teen. During the day, I took long walks around the neighborhood. About two blocks beyond the brick complexes, I passed by beautiful gardens, well-tended by people who were clearly proud of their homes. I felt a little sorry for myself because I couldn’t see any possibility, at my age, of ever owning a home with gardens like those I saw.

 

Sherri’s swiss chard

My friends, Sherri and Tim, have a rich, organic garden in Oakland, California. They’ve spent decades cultivating space and soil in their yard for a bountiful harvest of potatoes, onions, a variety of greens, peppers, tomatoes, squash, Japanese eggplant, asparagus, blackberries, and apples. Over the years I’ve enjoyed days of weeding, harvesting, and cooking with Sherri or alone. Being in their garden is being in Heaven.

As I walked, I thought a lot about Sherri’s and Tim’s garden and my experiences there. I remembered a garden of my own in a small house in Eugene, Oregon. I also remembered the summers my family spent on the farms in South Carolina, immersing ourselves in harvesting food for the day’s meals and canning vegetables and fruit for winter. I’ve learned a lot about empathy through planting, harvesting, preparing, and sharing food. Sharing food is the practice of empathy. If I could have offered that kid a meal, would it have made a difference? Perhaps. But my empathy was gone.

“If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him… the people who give you their food give you their heart.” Cesar Chavez

When I was in college, I paid room and board to a bitter, stingy so-called Christian woman who didn’t want to share the contents of her overloaded pantry and packed refrigerator with people she deemed unworthy. I happened to be one of those people, a student activist with ideas she deemed too radical for the minds of her children.  Her lips were tight, her face frowny, and her eyes hard.  She did not garden and seemed to have no empathy.

I remembered all of these things as I walked. I listened to mid-day buzz—cars, bees, dogs barking, and the voices coming from homes and parks. I dropped back in memory to the buzz of insects and the rustling of leaves in the wind. Listening is such a major part of empathy. I listened closely to nature when I gardened. In the silence of my walk, I could almost hear the chunk, chunk, chunk of a spade against the soil. The memory of the wind against my cheeks as I squatted and the rhythm of my breathing and weeding, weeding and breathing helped stop the shivering in my stomach.

When I returned home, as I exited the elevator to my floor, I saw a woman entering the apartment next to mine. As is my habit, I wished her a good morning and introduced myself. She was—the mother.

We talked for a few moments. I learned that she was a nurse and single parent whose varied hours kept her away from home days and, too often for her, nights. That morning she was returning from a night shift. She looked tired. I knew that look. My mother? My grandmother? An aunt? A neighborhood woman? She’d heard the complaints about her son all too often, but her soft face seemed open to hearing more. Empathy kicked in.

“Is your son in school?”

“He’s supposed to be. Why? Do you see him during the day?”

I told her about the music. She sighed long and loudly. Her frustration was substantial. She did not invite me inside but asked some questions. She talked freely about her exhaustion and the missing father. I listened; I was glad I’d spent the day listening. She felt her world was spinning out of control. God knows, I knew what that felt like when weeds strangled the very life out of tenderly planted spinach. Then, she surprised me.

“Here are my phone numbers. Home and work. Call me anytime.”

I thanked her. After two days I made the first call. The music stopped. A door slammed. I waited for a knock at my door by an irritated teenager. None. Still, whenever the young man passed me in the hall, he stared as if I held a plate of dog poop. For my part, I made sure my door was always deadbolted. But I was happy. I had reconnected with elements of myself that I recognized. Feeling empathetic and offering service. Lowering the volume of the music served the building, the community, his mother, and me. And I didn’t hate him anymore. In three months, my lease would be up and I’d be moving.

In the meantime, I hung out and volunteered at the co-op, cooked meals, shared food with new people I met and, once again, thrived.

We are being called to thrive through empathy and service. Armageddon and the weeping and gnashing of teeth will be a reality for those who believe in that sort of thing. Yet, I suggest that if people truly believe the world is ending, they use their time engaging in empathy and compassionate service. They will thrive.

Change. Again.

I’ve been filled with yearning.

I’ve been needing change. I’ve been wanting to see new people, and experience new life, open hearts, new songs, out-of-the-box thinking, and new courage. Yes, courage. So, God bless me, I went to the organic market and bought…

a basil plant.

Er?

Well, for one thing, with a plant I knew I would see change in the form of vibrant growth and an abundance of leaves. With a plant, I’d see time in motion. Visiting the local organic market reminded me of something very important. Change is good.

It’s time to change my blog, again, and renew my commitment to stay current. I began this blog with weekly posts. What an exciting time that was! Then, when I was admitted to the hospital, I posted once a month (or was it every six weeks?). I took that as a challenge from God, the universe, or whatever folks call their higher power these days. Do I really want to write? How transparent do I want to be? Do I want to be confined to stories about family and friends? It became more challenging, and the frequency shifted to every two months, then three—until today.

There are so many reasons for the delay. Well, at least I like to think there are. It’s not because my family has become less interesting, although there are times when I wish they were less interesting. It’s certainly not because there’s less to say about food and my peculiar food interests. And it’s not because of the weather, as much as I would like to blame my lethargy on the almost 40-degree drop in weather (from 90 and humid to 50-something and raining. What can I say? It’s Philadelphia after all). No, the delay is not due to any of those things.

Here’s the thing. I’m working on a novel. You heard it first here. And here’s another secret. I turned 69 this year, and I kept hearing the tiniest whisper in the trees—okay, maybe it was that precious basil plant—”if not now, when?” I’ve also signed up for an online writing course and, although I’m not a matriculated student, the amount of coursework would break a horse at the Kentucky Derby.

The intensity of keeping up with it all is what sent me to the organic market. There, I filled my culinary yearning by fondling those little plastic containers of pesto, hummus, and dips. I sighed softly as I held blocks of cheeses from all over the world, cupping them in my hands as if they were rocks of gold—or maybe a lover’s face. (I won’t purchase the cheese, mind you, I’m off dairy—doctors orders.) Then, there were those whole organic, free-range chickens—at half the price of other markets in the area. I guess food will always be a part of my story.

And so, I bought the very fragrant basil plant. It filled my apartment with the smell of newness, of spring, of purpose. After all, if I’m going to change, begin a new cycle, I want nature to support me.

Over the winter, I’ve been stuffing my intellectual belly with books by and about women who grow, harvest, and love food and the graceful generosity that cooking and sharing meals creates. I’ve been (probably) growing my newly diagnosed cataracts by constantly reading about writing, spirituality, and race relations. I’ve been sticking my foot in the waters of book reviews and learning that even if I don’t like a book, there is always something positive to highlight. I’ve been busy.

Perhaps it’s because, in my gardening experience, I’ve learned to respect the time it takes to nurture the seeds of new growth. Respecting that time makes me feel less anxious about my yearning, and it makes me want to be more disciplined about my writing. I’m writing a novel. But I told you that already.

So here I am, tending my basil plant, thinking about the prospects of an apartment vegetable garden, and focusing on a story worth two to three hundred pages. While it takes away from my blog time, the promise of new growth is exciting.

Change is good.

A Valentine’s Day Contemplation

Love. That’s what February is about. Black history month. Valentine’s Day. I’m willing to bet that 60 years from now Valentine’s Day will still exist. Should I place bets on black history month? Maybe. Should I bet that any particular cultural monthly celebration will still exist? Probably not.

However, there is something that I feel compelled to write about because the consequences of unconsciously using words that devastate pull me further and further away from love. I am guilty of what I’m about to address: hate speech.  It’s so subtle, a stealth bomb. Words that dehumanize become habits, even within the race. We use them unconsciously. Of course this discussion has been going on since before rap music. They become so familiar that we don’t hear ourselves using them. But once we hear ourselves, the warm blanket of ignorance slips away and we’re exposed to the cold musings of our own minds.

First, I want to say that this is not about you, the invisible you reader who may happen to find these pages. It’s about me. Brrrr. How terrifyingly cold, these glacial waters of public self revelation.

I was talking with a friend about a Republican political figure. My friend, with great vehemence, stated her opinion:  the man is an “oreo.” To my horror and subsequent shame, I felt my mouth open and the words, “Yeah, you have that right…!” came flying out. There was a tug inside, something I chose to ignore; “You know this is wrong” was the tug. But I continued my chat about how this man was no longer a part of the race because he thought differently.

I’ve heard it said that you’re part of the solution or you’re part of the problem. Divisiveness is never part of the solution. With all of our brilliant optimism, historic commitment to unity, rainbow colors, boundless activism, diverse dialects, shining intelligence and creativity, and so forth and so on, we had nothing better to do than criticize this man and summarily write him out of the race.

Ain’t we humans somethin’?

The universe has a way of balancing things. After some time had passed, I was speaking with another friend about another issue. This person’s anger about a public political figure that I had concluded was on “our side” was so explosive that in the person’s description of the politician I heard a description of myself.

Here is what happened inside my body: My mouth became dry, and then an odd taste covered my tongue. My heart beat faster and I felt cold inside. My eyes seemed to lose their focus as sorrow caused me to stop speaking. I was silent. And I was silent for the next week — shell-shocked as it were. In his description of the politician was a description of myself. I had been written out of the race.

Oreo: a disparaging term, used to define someone as not being a part of the black race, i.e., dark on the outside, but white on the inside. Like the cookie.

Some black children learn this term early from the people around them; they don’t realize it’s power to dehumanize. And some of us grown-ups use the term out of habit, without thinking. This is the scary part for me — the familiarity; the not thinking.

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“Oreo!” There was a push from behind and someone disappeared.

As I made my way back to my locker, head down to hide my mortification, I felt an arm around my shoulder. The vice principal of the middle school — a gloriously dark woman, almost 6 feet tall, and who wore her hair in a short Afro — long before it was fashionable — smiled at me and looked me in the eyes.

“Keep studying. Do your best. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad. Keep doing what you’re doing.”

To this day, Mrs. Jessup (not her real name) is one of my icons. When I think of positive school experiences, she is at the top. As a dark skinned woman, she’d faced her own struggles growing up during segregation and within the black community. She had probably been written out of the race many times. Some of my classmates, at their peril, would call her names and run around the corner thinking (stupidly, I must add) that she didn’t recognize voices. They would yell, “Godzilla” or “King Kong.” Of course, she was well-equipped to handle racism head on — within and outside of the race.

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Over the years, I’ve come to understand that hate speech reveals more about the speaker then the person targeted. Hate speech begins within. Whatever one sees in another is a reflection of what one sees in herself. This is what I was thinking about several days after I found myself disparaging that public figure. I don’t like his politics one bit, but he is still an African American. He is human.

Many, many years ago, a dear friend said to me, “We’re the only people to write someone out of the race because we don’t like how they think, dress, speak, or who they marry.” Although we are not the only people to do so, I got the message. Then I forgot the message. But in remembering the message I’m reconnected with a global truth.

Once we define any person as other than human, we give ourselves permission to injure or destroy him with impunity. Nazism. White supremacy. Gang wars. In Rwanda, the Tutsi and moderate Hutus were called “cockroaches.”

In big and small ways, once we define any person as other than human, we give ourselves permission to injure or destroy him with impunity.

I’m not naive or unrealistic. Hate speech will be around for a long, long while. And perhaps, as subsequent Valentine’s Day generations are born and die, we human beings will get the message of love quite profoundly. In the meantime, however, I can do my part. I can be vigilant about the words circling my insides and vet them before they reach the air.

No more oreos or agreeing to labeling someone as such. Oreos only belong on the grocery shelf.

Cat Valentine

My bad

I sent out a post that leads to nowhere.  It was sent in error as I worked out a technical issue.  Please excuse it.  Thanks, and real post coming.