Category Archives: Life Stories

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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Bring Me a Cup

““Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”  Marcel Proust, 1871 – 1922

On the Web and in social media, you can’t throw a tomato in any direction without hitting a food writer. There are gazillions. A zillion more of us are wannabes. I’ve spent years trying to figure out how to be a good food writer. What does a great food writer have that makes me want to live the culinary good life? I once thought it was about the food. Now, I know better. It’s about relationships.

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                      Grandmother Mahoney WordPress_0018

 

 

“Bring me a cup of water.”

It was both a request and a command. At 11, I understood that “please” was not a  part of my grandmother’s vocabulary. But I did not need a “please.” I adored her.

I studied her steady movements in the kitchen. She moved with intention. Every muscle and tendon had a purpose; there was no wasted energy.  She’d place a hook into the rim of the metal plate on the stove, lift the plate, shove a log in, start the fire, and replace the plate. When the fire was at its peak, she’d place a coffee pot on the stove. The heat from the fire was fierce, and the small kitchen became too hot in too short of a time. It was summer. Rivulets of perspiration bathed Grandmother’s ebony face. A cool drink of water was the remedy.

“Bring me a cup of water.” That’s all she needed to say as she wiped the sweat away with the tip of her apron. Outside, the sounds of squealing pigs, mooing cows, clucking chickens, and crowing roosters blended with the sound of crackling firewood. One of those animals could be on the table by dinnertime if Granddaddy had his way. A rank scent of manure and dew-soaked fields made my heart beat fast. And there was a slab of bacon on the table, testimony to the alchemy about to take place.

Dipping the long-handled aluminum cup into a bucket of well water–I’d proudly pumped that water myself–I asked a question.

“Can I have a glass of water, Grandmother?”

She nodded and I grabbed one of the jelly glasses we often used for drinking. I still remember the taste of that water. I watched her in silence, sipping my water as she sipped hers. I wondered what she was thinking as she prepared to make breakfast. Standing away from the stove and staring at the kitchen table, she may have been creating the breakfast menu and counting the slices of bacon she would need for the 11 mouths that would soon be around the table.

Breakfast would be simple: homemade biscuits slathered with butter and homemade jam, eggs we had gathered together, creamy grits, and, of course, bacon.

As people began to move around, chamber pots were taken out and emptied, faces and hands washed in basins, and teeth brushed outside. Around the table, we were a Rockwell painting in black: Grandmother, Granddaddy, my parents, my brothers and sister, cousins, aunt and uncle. As we basked in the warmth and fragrance of the meal, Granddaddy offered a prayer of thanks to the God that kept us together.

Over the years, as I traveled around the country trying to “find myself,” I missed my grandmother’s funeral. Decades later, I’ve found that elusive “self.” But it’s  not as I imagined. It’s in memory and lessons learned from being around a wood-burning stove and a woman with pure intention.

I’m back to the beginning. It’s not about the food itself. It’s about relationships.

 

 

2016. Relax.

Kuan Yin

A poster of Kuan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of compassion and mercy, hangs in my living room. She looks relaxed, at ease, overlooking the worldly chaos that we endure daily. “Relax,” she seems to radiate. Okay. I think I will.

The new year is always a pretty high time for me. This year, it all began with a Christmas tree. For the first time in, oh, say 30 years, I bought a small tree a few days before Christmas. It came with lights and, I have to say, was pretty cute. I decorated the artificial leaves with paper ornaments downloaded from the Internet and added a few more lights to brighten the room. It brought me great joy. Each morning, I plodded around in my red flannel nightgown feeling, well, relaxed.

Nice. No urgency, no panic. Could it be that making that last payment on my living room furniture could bring such calm? No. It was deeper than that. I had begun to take charge of my life in this strange world of recovery from CIDP in a more confident way.

Relax.

Like the calming voice of a hypnotist, everything seemed to be repeating that word, and the word itself seemed to be swathed in a soft blue light. “Okay,” I thought.

One morning, I plugged in the tree and (using my new Roku television app!) found a virtual fireplace with Christmas music. Standing back and looking at the fireplace and the tree, I was once again struck by how relaxed I felt. I’ve had such rare moments of this kind of peace that I had to take it all in one moment at a time. I felt warm, cozy, and ready for 2016. How would I begin this year?

I emptied a pack of raw cranberries into a saucepan, added some sugar, and stood stirring and watching as the red berries began to bubble. There were three things that came to mind that would make this a year of relaxation: cooking, writing, and— crocheting. Crocheting? More about that later.

Cooking puts me in my happy place. It’s one of the few areas in my life where I am totally at ease, content. This explains why, when I lost my ability to feel with my hands or lift things, I panicked. The kitchen is my sacred space. And this is something I got from my parents and extended family, both men and women. In the kitchen, secrets were shared, hearts were healed, and great food was made. Perhaps this is why, when I think of the peaceful times in my family, it has to do with food.

The cranberries had boiled into a thick, sugary sauce. Yes, cooking would definitely contribute to a peaceful year. Then, I thought about writing. Ahh. Writing. It is no exaggeration to say that writing has saved my life. But my resolution is not about discipline; I can always use more discipline. It’s about staying in touch with that fire that kept me going in my journals when I thought everything was lost. It’s about using it to connect my personal history, my ancestry, and food.

Yum. I knew that I was gonna have a glorious holiday breakfast. The virtual fireplace was roaring, the choir was singing “Angels We Have Heard On High,” and the tree sparkled against the dawn.

I sliced a hunk of cranberry speckled cornbread and put it in the toaster oven to heat. Now, about this crochet madness. Really, Sala? Really?

When I was child living with six other people in a two bedroom apartment, my mother (very much a southern woman) ensured that my sister and I learn needlework, crochet, and a little sewing. While my sister seemed to take to sewing like a duck in water, I rebelled (my middle name).  In my young adult years, however, I came back to crocheting. It seemed that even several straight rows, unrecognizable as anything usable, appeared to erase the passage of time. An added benefit was that sitting at a party with yarn and a crochet needle drew the guys to my corner like bees to honey. They considered me “deep.”

The cornbread was hot and I slathered it with my newly made cranberry sauce and butter. Nope. Watching my weight was not even in the list for the new year. Next were fried apples, heavily seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg, and dates for sweetener. Of course I cooked them in butter; I’m not stupid!

Standing over the stove and plating the food filled me with an inner sweetness matched only by the odors filling my apartment. Like a ghost, the smells slipped under the door and out into the building hallway. I’m sure that everyone on my floor knew I had cinnamon for breakfast.

This morning, post-New Year’s celebrations and all, I have the urge to crochet a wall hanging and frame it. I’ll let y’all know how that goes. Joy is the greatest gift we have, and for some outlandish reason, I feel that  relaxed joy is the most important part of my resolution for 2016. Not weight loss; not changing my style; not a spreadsheet with tips about exercise. All this is important, but the most important is joy.

Relaxation and joy. That’s what I want for the new year. And that’s what I wish for you.

Cowgirls

Stagecoach Mary (Fields)

Stagecoach Mary (Fields)

 

 

 

So. I was thinking about cowgirls. Whaaat?

 

 

Yep, cowgirls.

I was thinking about cowgirls and remembering a picture I found of my father as a young man. He was dressed, all six feet plus of him, in full cowboy regalia.He had on the fringe shirt, the pants, the boots, and a holster with two fake six guns at his hips. He had on a cowboy hat, and his hands were at his hips with both thumbs hooked onto the holster. Tough guy.

Cowboys. A symbol for me, at that age anyway, of tough goodness. Righteous goodness. The courage to take on the bad guys and make the world a better place.

That was a theme in our household. Make the world a better place. It came from the cowboy. As a child, I wanted—so badly—to take on the bad guys. And in our world of make-believe, we did just that.

My sister and I were among the few girls in our neighborhood who pretended to be cowgirls. If our brothers got cap guns, my sister and I got cap guns. If our brothers got cowboy hats…You betcha.  My sister and I got cowboy hats.

Now, for sure, we were pretty feminine girls, schooled in many of the traditional tasks girls with southern roots were expected to  learn.  We embroidered. We crocheted. We made dresses with crinolines and large brimmed hats for the dolls that Mom sold to make extra money. We learned to cook — and I mean cook:  perfect pies and cakes, succulent roast beef with biscuits and gravy. We put up vegetables and fruit in big Mason jars. There wasn’t a lack of things for good girls to learn.

But there was something exciting—creative—about things the boys got to do. Things like building model airplanes and navy aircraft carriers; things like putting together trains and train tracks. I loved that stuff. And for a moment— just a moment—I thought I would join the Armed Forces when I grew up. I can still feel the tiny pieces of gray plastic and the cellophane numbers for the ships beneath my fingers.

I can still smell the powder from the cap guns. Do they still sell cap guns, I wonder. Do children today know how to pretend? It seems like so many children who should be pretending are shooting for real these days. Where is the power of imagination and make-believe?

I wanted to be a cowgirl. A cowgirl had righteous business to take care of, and she took care of her business: Annie Oakley and Stagecoach Mary (one of the few historically documented black women of the old west). I’d bet my cowgirl holster and two cap guns that neither of those women ever picked up an embroidery hoop.

Today, I don’t own, nor do I want to own, a pistol—not even a cap gun.

I, my sister, and so many others still have a cowgirl’s heart. We want to make the world a better place. And while we may not actually be cowgirls, we are heroines in our ordinary lives, changing things daily and making the world a safer, kinder place. There is righteous business to take care of, and we can take care of business.

Yeah.  A cowgirl’s heart.