Category Archives: Writing. Loving.

Grief. Anger. Exhaustion. Faith.

I’m taking time out from my usual words.

Grief is our heartbreak when a five-year-old tearfully asks (after being called the n-word), “Why do they hate us?”

Grief is acknowledging a 14-year-old girl in 1962 trying to buy stockings and make up for the first time knowing all the while that “flesh-colored” did not include her smooth, chocolate brown skin.

Grief is a 19-year-old woman in her first job. Hired and fired on the same day because a white woman told a lie. She burned with humiliation and anger as the owner smirked, “It’s her [Caucasian] word against yours [Black woman].”

Grief is fuel for the anxiety that people of color live with every day in their minds and bodies, day after day absorbing the toxicity of microaggressions at their jobs, in school, or when buying a goddamned pair of sneakers, for God’s sake.

Grief is seeing, fearing, experiencing racially instigated murder.

Grief is standing as a witness to the destruction of Native American lands and sacred burial grounds for the sake of a pipeline. Grief is the recognition of the historical genocide of Native American tribes.

Grief is being a witness to Mexican children separated from their asylum-seeking parents at our southern borders and put in cages. Grief is not being able to help.

We grieve without forgiving.

We grieve for all the children who are born without hate or prejudice and grow to become bitter and hate-filled adults. We grieve when those adults commit crimes against humanity.

The one who grieves seeks healing.

We grieve and are tired of Grief.

Our anger is fed by grief. We are enraged.

We are outraged, our throats are raw from screaming.

Some of us choose to burn the world around us.

Anger moves us to action.

We are outraged at the silence that meets our grieving.

We are outraged at racist strategies developed to persecute Black, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Jews, Native Americans, and Brown people from India and the Middle East. We are outraged at voter suppression, the caging of children, refusal to support DACA, and the banning of Muslim immigrants.

Until now, our grief has been met with bone-chilling silence.

I never imagined a day when hundreds of thousands around the world would stand up and say, “Enough! Black lives matter!”

We are exhausted.

Exhausted with anger. Exhausted with grieving. Exhausted with body-mind trauma.

Exhausted with having to give our children “the talk.”

Exhausted with a focus on surviving rather than thriving.

Exhausted with facing silence.

Exhausted with the lists of the names of the dead.

And yet.

We have faith.

Faith in our resilience.

Faith in our action. Faith in our unity of vision.

Faith in our commitment to a world of respect between all people.

Faith in a bright and healthy future.

Faith that light will indeed overcome the darkness.

As I write this, the Dakota Pipeline has been ordered to shut down. The Supreme Court has determined that much of Eastern Oklahoma is Indian Land including much of Tulsa.

Faith.

Where We Are Gathered

My writing has been lagging, my blog posts few. I just could not get back to the page. I’ve been weepy. Enraged. Demanding answers about our political controversies and wondering, “How did we get here?” 

One afternoon, I was listening to Joan Baez sing “Brothers in Arms,” an antiwar song. I became distraught again as I remembered my days as a young political activist. How did we get here? The following is one of the recent experiences that has motivated me to write again─ with respect and an open heart.

The woman comes into the church social hall, dressed like she always does.  She wears a dark brown coat pulled tightly around her. Is it wool? I’m not sure. She’s been wearing it since the early fall, and it matches the dark brown, unkempt wig she wears. The wig’s ends are stiff and push out from under the brown hat pulled over her head for warmth. She walks timidly as if she’s ashamed to be with us ─ all of us, volunteers and pantry guests alike. Some of us are both.

For more than a year I’ve volunteered at this church food pantry where some sort of alchemy takes place in the social hall. I’ve put my frustration about increased partisan politics aside as I help arrange the tables with vegetables, fruit, baked goods, meat and eggs, and I find myself smiling. Thanks to the generosity of local grocery vendors in our area, this particular food pantry is transformed into a glorious market.  There are bouquets of flowers. Loaves of bread. Bread and Roses. When we are done arranging and sorting, the social hall looks amazing.

I watch the brown coat woman grab a cup of coffee. She almost never talks and sits with her eyes directed toward her coffee and snacks. She surprises me by asking, “Is there more sugar and cream?” Of course, there is. The minister makes sure there’s plenty of everything: coffee and tea, sometimes orange juice. A kitchen volunteer assembles platters of cake, cookies, and small fruit as a breakfast snack for the guests.

As I measure coffee and tea into food storage bags, I repeat a prayer for comfort to myself. Coffee, tea and the snacks help some of the guests start their day on a high note and, perhaps, will pull them out of the sadness of their situations.

It’s hard for me to stay angry about American politics in the presence of sacred work. I watch the minister who directs a steady gaze to the eyes of every person she speaks with. She comforts. I am moved by her dedication. To my knowledge, she has never closed the pantry for any reason. Twenty-four inches of snow? There will be food and the pantry will be open. She may be challenged but not daunted.  Her mission is to comfort and serve.

There is magic in this community of humanity. Service is a healing balm and a saving grace. For three hours each week, the heartless politicians in Washington who have sought to undermine and destroy the tenets of the United States Constitution become background noise, the least of my worries.

Still, I wonder, “How did we get here?”

As the summer wanes and October brings chillier weather, gold leaves, and rain, I take refuge in the cascade of apples brought to the church. There are enough apples for 100 people to each fill a small bag if he or she wanted. And I feel something. The motivation to write again.

I feel something else, too. Love.

Wherever two or more of us are gathered in the sacred name, serving each other and receiving, I know we’ll be okay. The woman in the brown coat smiles into her cup. We will be okay.

Home

The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.  Maya Angelou

The birds were soooooo loud that, had they been human, I would have complained. And yet, I’d been waiting all winter for their song. The sky, a soft pearly gray, was on the cusp of becoming dawn. I smiled. I had recently been reflecting on my life choices and wondered what my life would have been had I married, raised children and settled in one place that I could call home. I don’t think I was regretful exactly because, given my life experiences, I would make the same choices again. For the moment, with the birdsong, all was well.

I lay in bed reading My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life, a memoir by Ruth Reichl. She is one of my favorite food memoirists. Her heartwarming stories are insights into food as a vocation. Reading about the discovery, cooking, and sharing of food usually draws me into a joyful place. But this was not the case that morning. Instead, I placed the book on my chest and became reflective. What was I feeling? Yearning.

As the warm colors of the dawn sky filled my window, I wanted to get on with my day, to put those uneasy feelings out of my mind. Encouraged by Reichl’s sensual writing, I got up to fix breakfast. I knew exactly what I wanted: banana pancakes, homemade blueberry syrup, vegetarian sausage, and a boiled egg. Such a treat. I had been making kale smoothies for breakfast, and the sweetness of the bananas mixed with the blueberries was a delicious change!

The steady, rhythmic activity of making blueberry syrup and pancake batter was meditative, giving me time to focus on what I was feeling. Then, like a fog clearing, it came to me. I was feeling homesick. I felt as if I had missed something very important in my life.

Homesick. The word repeated itself inside like bubbles floating in the air. Where, I wondered, was home? I had left so many places behind. Beautiful cities, emerald mountains, oceans. Where was that place to which I could return for complete acceptance and safety?

After breakfast, I watched an episode of Chefs Table, a Netflix series that documents the lives of chefs and their paths to culinary vocations. This particular episode examined the life of Mashama Bailey, an African American chef in Savannah, Georgia, and her return to home. The landscape of rivers, rural farms and the relationship among southern cooking, culture, and home deepened my sadness. I missed the summers of southern beauty that I shared so often with my family. Growing up, I loved the food. I hated the racist, violent South. Still, the gatherings at meals were safe, healthy moments. Then, as I watched Chef Bailey’s story, I surprised myself: tears. Where was that place that was, as Maya Angelou said, a “safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned”?  Watching Chef Bailey’s story, I had tears, but I did not have an answer.

During my initial crisis with CIDP ─ chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy ─ I was placed in a skilled nursing facility (still working on that essay…). I could not raise my arms nor use my hands. I could barely walk. One of the occupational therapists said to me “You should accept this. All those complicated meals you cooked in the past are probably over.” She was trying to be kind, even helpful, but she had poked the bear. My rage shut down conversation in the room. “Don’t you ever tell me what I won’t be able to do!” When she returned from the administrator’s office, I was assigned a new occupational therapist who had no better understanding of my condition or what my abilities might be than the first. I moved to a different facility with therapists who had a broader understanding of the importance of cooking. In doing so, I really began to understand something that is an essential part of me: I feel safe and free when I am exploring the culinary world. Food is major to my sense of feeling at home.

In the documentary, Chef Bailey poignantly made the connection between food and her relationship to home. Her heart was in Savannah where she’d spent so much of her early childhood. In later years, after failing as a social worker in New York, she went on to study the culinary arts with Anne Willan, founder of the prestigious École de Cuisine La Varenne in France and Gabrielle Hamilton at Prune in New York. With that experience and the memory of the warmth generated by food, culture, and community in her native Savannah, things eventually became clear. Returning to Savannah with its fresh seafood, local farms, and lush green marshes, she met her business partner, John Morisano.

Together they turned a formerly segregated Jim Crow era bus station into The Grey, one of Savannah’s premier restaurants. Chef Bailey’s business acumen and talent won her the prestigious James Beard Award. Her love for food and joy at being where she considers home is changing hearts, plate by plate.

I know what that warmth of being at home feels like, particularly in relationship to the South and the sumptuous summers I spent there. I embrace my Gullah heritage, and I am joyful when in harmony with my Southern traditions. I revere the farmland and farmers. But. The South is not my home; it was my parents’ home.

Later, I prepared a lunch of roasted chicken, baked potato, a tossed salad, and roasted Brussels sprouts. As I washed and sliced the sprouts, the physical connection to home grew stronger and stronger. The warmth of the oven, the peace and serenity of music, the afternoon spring light streaming through a window. There it was, that place of safety where I could be all of who I am.

There was no one sharing those moments with me, and yet, in that space in time, the yearning was gone. Cooking had brought me back to the place that is my home. My heart.

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.”

Friends

  

While dining with a friend, I reflected out loud, “I want a lot of softness around me.” It was a prayer released into the air. I was so tired of the drama with folks who felt that aggression was the way to success. In that moment, a few seconds felt like I was frozen in time.

When I became aware of the movement around me again—people bussing trays and the café filled with noisy chatter—I knew I had hit on a significant truth about myself. Apparently, my friend understood completely because she nodded her head and said “yes!”. It was a desire for fewer disagreements, more kindness, honest listening, and deeper sharing with friends and family. With her recognition of this desire, I didn’t feel alone anymore.

 January 2018 had started with a bundle of newness: new writing, new personal insights, and a new food management plan. Then Mom died.

It was not unexpected. She’d had Alzheimer’s for several years and was a month short of 96. Attending her funeral would be my first travel experience since I had been diagnosed with Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy (CIDP) in 2013, a condition that had, at that time, left me paralyzed and weak in the legs for many months. I was nervous about the journey, but after all my years of progressive recovery, I felt strong and ready.

In going to Washington, D.C. for nine days, I would be surrounded by relatives I hadn’t seen in decades. There would be dinners with siblings and other family and a funeral repast with old family acquaintances and neighbors. I’d be stretching myself to the limit with travel by train, social interactions, and using Uber to go between the hotel and my brother’s home where there were too many steps for me to stay there. The physical effort meant being outside in sub-freezing weather, pulling luggage, and staying up until 11 every night as my siblings and I worked on funeral details.

The likelihood of staying on my new meal plan was doomed. Pizzas, fried chicken, and breakfast pastries became the daily cuisine—fast, filling, and cooked by someone else. I wanted—and needed—someone to walk with me; someone who could hold me up and carry my heart gently in his or her hands. Someone, perhaps, who really knew me.

My family is stoical. We do not “do” feelings. This is something that’s bothered me for as far back as I can remember. I’ve always been envious of families that can mourn together, folks who can physically embrace each other while shedding tears. In our family, my tendency to express feelings has earned me the label of “emotional.”

Overnight, the five of us had become orphans, and yet we did not share that familial intimacy. Perhaps this was why I felt desperate for a friend with whom I could share the thoughts close to my heart. But is there a friendship that can meet such a need? Every person has a boundary when it comes to openness and vulnerability. In choosing friends, I have made some mistakes.

I was thinking about the concept of “softness around me” on the day I returned from my mother’s funeral. Feeling sad, I called a woman that I considered a new friend since moving to Pennsylvania. In the past, we had talked about politics, philosophy, and where to find good men. We had cooked together and shared family pictures during holiday meals. So…when I got back to town, I rang her up. Phone calls were not returned. Neither were text messages or emails. Weeks later when I heard from her, I was stunned to learn that she thought our “expectations for friendship are different.” I did not know what she meant.

I was hurt, but also angry. Faced with the realization that I had somehow unwittingly made someone uncomfortable, I had to look at how I choose friends and what my expectations are. Clearly, my inner “friend-picker” needed repair.  I was now faced with another new task for the New Year: Approaching my seventies, I would have to learn how to choose new friends.

When I graduated from high school, my classmates and I used to write a common verse in each other’s yearbooks. Love many, trust few; learn to paddle your own canoe.

My need for deep friendship on any given day can remain securely hidden behind the pots and spices in my kitchen. But need has a way of breaking out of hiding places. When it does, judgment dissolves.

A good friend, like good food, is a reliable source of comfort. I use great care when selecting ingredients for cooking. Will I be able to, going forward, choose friends in the same way? Some friendships I thought would last for years, end or fade. And, of course, I change. Understanding this, the future stands before me with thoughtful  friendship  experiences and more  “softness around me.”

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.

“Invictus” A New Year’s Reflection

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul…

             Excerpt from the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley (1849–1903)

On a warm day, during the Christmas holiday, I, the cook who usually whines about winter, was feeling content. But a little more than a month before, on November 9th, I didn’t feel so content.

I had stopped cooking, felt as if I could barely breathe, and teetered on the abyss of lost faith. Damn it. Who were those people that did not vote? The United States Election Project estimated that approximately 56.9 percent of eligible voters actually cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election. A fellow writer declared it a national disgrace. I agree. So I asked anyone who would listen, “who are these people?” The answers I got taught me about some of the people in my world. There’ll be some changes made.

As November became December, my anger, frustration, and fear receded. Anger and fear are (for me) such immobilizing forces. I needed to reconnect with that part of me that is unconquered by fear.

So, on that warm morning, I did what I needed to do.  I thanked God for a new day, stared into an empty skillet, and got started with a holiday meal. I needed to turn my attention to the things that mattered in my life: good health, good food, productive thought, writing, and spiritual nourishment. I needed to not be afraid.

I decided to roast a whole chicken in an attempt to make up for a horrifying Thanksgiving turkey disaster. While I’m certain kitchen life is not what Henley had in mind, I needed to keep going. I might have easily given up and cooked pasta because, truth be told, I could’ve killed a prize fighter with the drum sticks from that Thanksgiving bird. But I would not be conquered. With some trepidation, I pushed forward with “Invictus” going around and around in my brain the whole time.

Long ago, a boss of mine said with amazement, “God, you’re tenacious.” Hmm. If he only knew. I read that “Invictus” inspired Nelson Mandela every day of his 27 year imprisonment. I understand why. The words light a fire of conviction in my heart. Keep going.

Not so long ago, I was rifling through some old journals and came upon an essay I wrote about one of the most unconquerable souls I know: my mother. I know that if she had known this poem she would have repeated these lines to herself:

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul…

One evening, as she sank into the warmth of her favorite chair, she nibbled on a piece of sweet potato pie. I watched and listened as she smacked her lips with deliberate and stubborn enjoyment. I shivered inside at how much I feared her. Who else could eat pie with such authority?

We’d just had a discussion—or was it an argument?—in which she, once again, silenced me with her eyes. Never mind the documented facts of what we were discussing. Only one fact mattered: she was the mother; I was the child (even though I was well into my 50s).

“So stubborn,” I thought to myself. She smacked her lips in satisfaction.

“Mom. Have you always been this way? So stubborn?”

This was my pitiful attempt at regaining some kind of self-dignity.

“Yes!”

She smacked with impenetrable–I dare say unconquerable–glee. Her life hadn’t seen much glee. But once she found it, she would not let her glee be suppressed. Our roles are complete. Mother. Daughter. This is the way things are and always will be, even after we are both long gone from the planet. This is who I learned from. I’ve inherited this great stubbornness, this unconquerability. This certain kind of fearlessness. This trait has served me well.

It’s nearing the end of January; we have a new president. This past weekend over a million women  and their supporters marched in protest of the new administration and its proposed policies. My friend Sherri said, “Democracy in action! Warriors strengthen yourselves; prepare yourself for battle. This is Medieval.”

Unconquerable.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.

I’ll not be conquered by fear.

Oh, about that chicken… I could’ve shaved nails with the breast of that bird. But I’ll keep working at it.

No Weeping

I do not weep at the world. I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.  Zora Neale Hurston

We sharpened our knives. Not for oysters, but fish.

“Improvise!”

Ms. Hurston’s words seemed to be my father’s modus operandi. At 6’3’’, 200-plus pounds and muscular, Daddy commanded the attention of everyone around him. The world busied itself with issues of poverty, race, war, and class, things that affected our segregated lives directly. Eating together as family offered respite.

In creating a meal, Daddy made it up as he went along, singing or whistling most of the time. His resonant bass seemed almost too big for our tiny apartment; it saturated the walls of the small kitchen along with the smell of hot sauce and onions.

We are from a Gullah tradition, descendants of West African slaves who settled along the South Carolina coast building a proud and distinct culture. They called us geechee, a once pejorative term. For us, everything began with rice. One of us would put the pot of rice on, and Daddy would decide what vegetables and spices would be going into the fish or meat dish. We were curious, and each of us showed our curiosity in different ways.

As the eldest daughter, I offered a frowning face. I  knew my sister and I would be assigned the job of gutting, scaling, and taking the heads off the trout, perch, croaker, or whatever he and his friends brought back from their day of tossing lines and hooks. If we happened to find a fish belly full of roe (which I would not eat, thank you very much), Daddy was very, very happy.

While I frowned, my mother, an exemplary cook accustomed to Daddy’s larger-than-life show of enthusiasm, rolled her eyes.  My sister, an adventurous eater, could not wait. Hungry with curiosity, she could not hide her excitement about culinary exploration (that hasn’t changed. Alligator meat?! Sigh…) I vaguely remember my brothers in the background, watching and learning what it took to be a man adept in the kitchen. My father’s example was a strong one; every one of my brothers became an excellent cook.

“Does any meal stand out as a favorite for you?”

I waited in silence as my sister, 3000 miles away, surfed her memory.  Fish was usually fried or grilled, and often accompanied by savory brown gravy.

“Yes. It was like a stew.  Not the ordinary fish and gravy.  It was a rich broth, thick with lots of flavor.”

I could almost taste her fondness for the meal in my mouth.  Fish stew. Of course. That’s what happened with all of those fish heads.

Somehow, the things that were the least irritating and the most comforting have masked or chased away experiences that were the most frightening and least understood. The shadow in our lives was alcohol. Daddy drank.

A survivor of World War II and the Pacific Theater, he suffered nightmares for years, I am told. Alcohol dammed his weeping on those days when he would drive 30 or more miles into Maryland for a brick masonry job only to be told that they weren’t hiring “coloreds” that day. I only remember seeing him weep once, when a dear, dear friend of his died.

But this morning, my mental snapshot is of Daddy standing over the stove, his arms in the air, and a world-engulfing, rapturous delight on his face.

He was fatherly in the best of ways: pretending to be a horse so the children, cousins and all, could get rides on his back; taking us to the carnivals that his volunteer fire department put on every summer—rides and cotton candy included.

Going to the circus, I wanted to grow up and become a part of the magic. Baseball games, finally integrated, inspired my interest in the athletic, even though I felt closer to dance. But I still have my father’s baseball. And, while it is almost a cliché, I stood on his feet as he taught me the cha-cha and whirled me around the room. White hatred could not reach us in these places. He was never MIA (missing in action) like too many fathers. They don’t know what they are giving up.

“Improvise!”

Some salt, hot pepper, greens and onions. The meals, seafood or meat, weren’t complicated. His eighth-grade education and life experience made him an excellent philosopher and improviser. Daddy was bold in his flavors and his life. He faced things as they came along, following an internal compass about people, life, and food. No one in the family, immediate or extended, would ever lack food. I can’t and won’t speak for anyone else, but I intuited that he wanted me to live by the heart.

“Improvise!”

A few days after his funeral, I had a dream. He was in formation with other soldiers, and as I walked up to him, he stepped out of formation, turned to me, and saluted.

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