Category Archives: Reflection

Breaking My Sound Barrier, Singin’ In The Kitchen

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Chop. Breathe. Chop. Breathe.

Sing out loud. Swing those hips.

There was a time when original songs flew out of my mouth like candy from a broken pinata.  Not so much anymore. I’ve projected that energy into my kitchen. I put the rhythms into my knives. I put the results on my hips.

Chop, chop, chop. Breathe.

The collard greens disintegrate under the blade. They become two-inch, then one, then quarter-inch strips. The strips are almost mashed as they reach the size of popcorn kernels.

What do I plan to do with these greens? Part of the mound will be put in a salad. I’m supposed to be eating more raw food. Part of them will be juiced or blended into a green smoothie with pineapple, banana, blueberries, and flaxseed. That smoothie is one of the best parts of my day. I’ll throw the remainder into a pot with spices so expertly added that no one on the planet would miss the ham hocks or turkey wings. That’s how good I am.

But no one except me will taste these collards. The last fifteen months of COVID restrictions and lockdowns put a harness on the joy of sharing food with my friends. Of all things, this lack of sharing has been a particular sadness for me. However, the isolation has been an easy and welcome ride. So much so that I’m going to continue to isolate even as restrictions are loosened.

I spent many years with an ashram, engaging in spiritual practices like silence, practices that left me feeling comfortable being alone. And I was alone during the lockdown. With no family in the area, without visits from friends, and unable to have neighbors drop-in, I had no one to whom I could feed the homemade sushi rolls and blueberry muffins.

So what did I do during this long, quiet time? I watched food shows on Netflix. I became the online ordering maven, increasing my share of sheets, shoes, and groceries. I read food memoirs. I saved a lot of money not having to put gas in my car because there was nowhere to go. I’ve been writing, working on a book, a meandering path but one that keeps me uplifted. I discovered Zoom.

And, last but not least, I’ve had time to think about all the things my younger me wanted. I had time to do this, right? She wanted to learn how to dance ballet. (To this day, I literally get goosebumps at the sight, feel, and smell of leotards and tights.)

She thought she wanted to marry and have (whoa, Nellie!!!) eight children. 

That young girl thought she would live on a farm. Is there anything more magical than watching life springing from life over and over again?

As an empathic child, I struggled ─ too much ─ to repress my nature. Obstacles of poverty and racism pulled me away from the things I loved: music, poetry, dance. Making the world a better place.

The family holiday gatherings and church picnics, generous with the best of our gardens, farms, and cooking intelligence, only increased my feelings of love for humanity and allowed my empathy to surge. We sang. We fed each other.

Over the years, and all the things and worlds I’ve dabbled in, I’ve come to realize that cooking is a great love. This was never made more clear than during the past year and one half of my COVID safety lifestyle.

The farming thing? Well, I created that in a different form. I have an indoor hydroponic garden for herbs and small vegetables like cherry tomatoes.

I don’t feel alone.

If a camera had been placed on the cubicles above my microwave, it might have caught me dancing. It might have heard me singing a jazz tune by Sarah Vaughn or a folk song by Joni Mitchell. It certainly would have caught me shaking my behind to Sly and the Family Stone (outing my age) or old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll while chopping those collards. It might have found me listening to hymns of Annapurna, the Hindu goddess of food. With tens of millions going without food, I am grateful to the bone for these greens.

Chop. Breathe. Shake my behind. Sing. Living a version of my younger self’s dreams.

Those collards were good.

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.

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.