Category Archives: Essay

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.

Advertisements

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.

♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

“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.

♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

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.