Category Archives: Reflection

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.