Category Archives: Commentary

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.

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Pause

pause

Pause. The deliciously blue sky where you are. The color of the sea at your favorite vacation spot.  A calming color.

Pause.

I have done just that over the last three months. As I review W.O.R.D.S. and how it can transition and grow, I have taken a–pause. The stories remain, and yet, I, inside have changed.

A new post with new stories is coming in a week. In the meantime, think about–pause.

Soup and Empathy

New Food 001

It’s official.

Summer’s over. The reds, peaches, and blues of summer fruit are making way for the greens, burnt oranges, and purples of winter’s warming vegetables. Beautiful, isn’t it? Soup. Yum.

In my healing process, I’ve become more committed than ever to eating according to season. The soup pictured above was so easy to make, filled with the brilliance of the changing season. Sitting in my flannel nightgown and looking out at the nature trail, I feel secure.

The United States Department of Agriculture has a term for people and communities without access to affordable, nutritious food. food insecurity. Let that sink in for a moment. Food. Insecurity. The USDA attributes this to lack of money. Really, it’s more than that.

Five years ago I was visiting relatives in Delaware. We stopped at a large chain grocery for supplies and, as we were leaving, I saw an employee tossing bags of unsold bagels into a trash bin. I was, to say the least, interested.

“Are you giving that to a homeless shelter? A women’s halfway house? An orphanage?”

“It’s against the law. Liability.”

What? Someone might choke on a free bagel?

In some of our poorest communities, liquor stores—with a high-priced fare of wilted greens, squishy tomatoes, old, brown meats and yellowed chickens—are often the only access to food. In those same communities, some grocery chains have refused to open businesses claiming unprofitability. Now, I find that, in some places, giving unsold food to the hungry is against the law. Liability they say.

My father taught me empathy. We were a large family with limited income, and my parents were no strangers to nights sucked into the black hole of insecurity. But we were lucky. There was always food on the table thanks to relatives who farmed and owned produce stores. My father had a garden in the back yard. For us, the bear of hunger was never a guest at our table.

A deeply religious man who had served in the Pacific Theater during World War II, and suffered emotionally because of that experience, Daddy knew the meaning of empathy. In spite of his personal demons and contradictions, he cared for others and passed along the wisdom that has stayed with me all these years.

“Never judge another man unless you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.”

I learned, at the table, that the rigorous road to freedom is paved with empathy and compassion. It is impossible to think of my father without those words whipping around in my mind like a line full of laundry in an autumn wind.

One sunny, summer afternoon in Berkeley, California, I was exiting the subway. A man, woman, and child were sitting in the entrance. The man asked for money. I told him that all I had was the lunch I was carrying. It was simple fare: a sandwich I’d made, some fruit, maybe some chips and a soda.  I don’t remember it all.  I asked if he would like it.

Yes, he said. I will never forget his eyes. His wife cried as he accepted the bag. I am moved to tears whenever I think of the incident. Since that experience, I have been generous with my lunch bags.

Every major spiritual path invites us to live empathetic lives and to take empathy to the next level: compassionate action. We’re invited to change things, to make things better. The palette of life offers a rainbow of opportunities for compassionate action: serving at a soup kitchen, making and delivering meals, passing a lunch along to someone, creating and sustaining community vegetable gardens, mentoring young people to become urban farmers, or teaching children what it means to select good food and eat well. From the White House to celebrity chefs, it’s happening.

I’ve said what I have to say this morning. Now, let’s eat. And share a meal with someone.

 

 

On: Rethinking “Provincial”

If we’re lucky, we receive a kind of grace—a mercy or blessing you might say—that helps us let go of old, limited views, so that we can see how our biased loyalties harm ourselves as well as others. Today, I feel lucky.

I’ve ranted for years about insular communities spawning folk whose blind loyalties to narrow ideologies cause harm, exploit people, and breed hatred. I once wrote in these pages, “The provincial promises safety, but there is no reality in it.”

I’m not even sure what I meant by that, outside of understanding that I’ve vehemently disliked insular communities. Now, I’m changing my view. The fact that many parochial, narrow-minded communities are pariahs of the human race does not cancel out the fact that other small communities provide safety from exploitation and bigotry. The kind of thinking that led to the massacre of nine people in a South Carolina church this month is an example of the first; the openhearted warmth traditionally found in Southern black churches is an example of the second.

This morning, as I sip tea and watch hawks circle the air in search of something that died in the night, I’m reflecting on my limited understanding of provincialism. My perceived open-mindedness of urban sophistication is gone.

Three years ago I was diagnosed with Guillain Barre Syndrome, a condition that developed into chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, most commonly known as CIDP. I was unable to walk, hold anything in my hands, or go to the bathroom unassisted. My community became a closed world of doctors and medical practitioners, hospitals and rehab facilities, and friends as I learned that only one to eight in a million are diagnosed with CIDP. The insular nature of a serious illness can offer new perspectives.

Provincial in space

A parochial mind can exist anywhere—in a family, among school friends, even in the heart of New York City—and, while I’m embarrassed to admit it, my own ideas about insular communities provided a false sense of security that, over time, became bricks in my wall of arrogance.

It’s been almost two years since my last serious relapse. I’m stable and a little wiser. I’ve had time for reflection.  Not too long ago, I met a woman who is a talented needlework artist. She’d been working at the same job for 52 years, something I was never able to imagine for myself. In contrast to my life of weaving in and out of communities on this or that coast, she’d remained planted in the community where she grew up. She married well, and looking at her needlework it was clear that she was inspired by a broader outlook on the world. Yet, she was still connected to her community. She knew the people and their families, their histories, and I would not call her provincial.

Who are the provincial? Is it the uneducated hill woman in the mountains of West Virginia who saved me from bleeding all over the countryside? Is it the “sophisticated” urban professional who, as a supervisor, makes work life impossible for a subordinate? Are they the bluegrass and blues musicians hidden away in a back woods holler, welcoming everyone attending their gatherings with openhearted acceptance, or are they the religious zealots who insist at all costs that every person live as they live?

I can no longer paint the provincial with a single brush stroke. It’s become a heart-to-heart negotiation.

I think I’m finding an answer.

This Is What We Do. Be Responsible. Vote.

Jimmie Lee Jackson: December 16, 1938–February 26, 1965

Ensuring our freedom in a democracy. This is what we do.

Selma 2

Selma 4

On June 26, 2013 in a 5 to 4 decision, United States Supreme Court justices ruled that nine states with a history of racial discrimination no longer have to obtain federal approval for changes to voting rules.

Our work never, ever stops.  For every citizen — a vote.

Rev James Reeb: January 1, 1927, March 11, 1965

Viola Liuzzo: April 11, 1925, : March 25, 1965

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.