Kindness. Compromise. Empathy.
In 2011, I started a blog as a sort of writing practice. How hard could it be? Choose a word. Write some stuff. Post.
A friend in my writing group generously offered to create the banner with my title for the blog and splashed bright, colorful, bold letters across the top of the page: W.O.R.D.S. Have color. Have vision. Have power. I gave it a subtitle: Stories about life and sometimes food. I forged ahead.
Photographs of my father and grandmother were awful, but I didn’t think they’d be offended. Both had long since passed on. A story about making pizza at home with my nieces netted me a lucrative writing contract.
It’s been said that if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.
In November 2012, I was blindsided by a diagnosis of Guillain-Barré Syndrome. I quit my music performance group and, in 2013, as a result of complications, spent six months in hospitals and rehab. For a short time, I was completely incapacitated without use of my arms or hands. I could not walk and was confined to a wheelchair. But I had my laptop and dictation software. I kept posting.
As much as I tried to avoid the excrement of politics ─ the racism, classism, sexism, and religious nationalism ─ there were days when the poop landed square on my pages. Circumstances, of course, will compel me to step into the mess again. Still, honor, generosity, and love — genuine goodness and human kindness — are real. Inner conflicts are powerful. But here’s the reality. When I focus on the good, I write from joy.
Focus on living a food inspired life.
I clung to this like a mantra, a talisman, a life raft. Sometimes I wrote about what I ate or what I cooked.
I promised myself to write about contemporary Black chefs and their approaches to food. Feeling overwhelmed with my body mass index, I joined Weight Watchers. I explored new recipes, and I started feeling at ease. I realized that mine was already a food inspired life.
“Doggone it! There’s always something,” my mother used to say.
In March 2020, as the lockdown began, my monthly intravenous immune suppressing infusions were put on hold for the first time in nine years.
“It’s unsafe,” said the nurse coming to my apartment, “to continue to administer in your home.” She worked in a hospital flooded with COVID. My neurologist said, “Let’s see how you get on. If necessary, you can go to the hospital.”
“Um. Aren’t people in hospitals dying of COVID? No thanks.”
On the bright side, it seemed that the whole world was returning to the joy of cooking and eating at home. The stillness of roads without tires slapping cement and the silence of streets without human chatter filled me with pleasure. Across the street on the college grounds and nature walk, I saw a fox. Deer, unmolested by our human presence, returned to nibble plants. Scores of butterflies and moths fluttered in the trees across the road and in the trees outside my window.
The Canal Grande, in Venice, Italy, became so clear that you could see dolphins, octopus, and crabs in the waters. This had me whooping for joy.
“Keep the visitors away,” I said. “Keep the big cruisers out of the canals!” For me, the lockdown presented an image of paradise. I relaxed in the fluctuating winds, rain, snow, and sunny days. Contemplating food prep, I watched cooking shows, read food memoirs, and researched food writers. It was a sloooow-down time, making way for delights like the writings of Gullah culinary anthropologist Verta Mae Grosvenor and the food adventures of Peter Mayle.
I put aside concerns about the pandemic as my food inspired life consumed me.
If I may say so myself ─ and I do ─ my tiny kitchen is a chef-worthy kitchen. Two heavy duty juicers cram against each other and line up near the microwave where spiralizer and electric kettle are squished near the edge of the counter. A large food processor nestles near a high-powered blender (one that converts grains to flour) and an air fryer. The pressure cooker/instant pot, rice cooker, and bread machine are jammed into remaining space. And still, I desire more…a standing mixer perhaps?
My wonderful friend Rae, an amazing artist, writer, and food enthusiast, sent me a gift: a hydroponic planter. Now, I thought, I can fancy myself a “farm to table” cook. There was no space for the 6″ x 14″ planter in the kitchen, so I tucked it on a side table between the sofa and the living room wall.
For starters, I put basil, Bibb lettuce, cherry tomatoes, and spinach into the germination sponges.
In just a short time, I had two very large lettuce plants, enough for salad.
Magical! I pinched a leaf and placed it on my tongue. It was tender, delicate in flavor and almost weightless. The basil grew like a wild thing, while the spinach took its sweet time. The tomatoes? This was something really special. In almost no time, I had to re-pot the basil and the tomatoes.
Farm to table? Perhaps not. But it’s settled. Mine is already a food inspired life.
Pluralism. I like the sound of the word. The syllables coat my tongue like chocolate. Sweet and easy. But pluralism is not so easy to understand. America boasts a pluralistic society, so gloriously diverse in race, religion, culture, and ethnicity and yet, we continue to divide ourselves in ways destructive and heartbreaking. For me, one of the great human mysteries is how we can look about, see so much beautiful diversity and continue to treat each other so very badly. No one, as far as I know, has come up with a conclusive answer. It’s been suggested that I read the Pulitzer Prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond for context on the subject.
I have been experiencing anxiety about the backlash to the expanding multicultural population in the United States, and I talked with my therapist about it. She questioned me about my use of the word pluralism.
“What do you mean by the term pluralism? What do you mean by a successful pluralistic society?”
My idealistic vision of a peaceful, love-each-other society is something I’ve been struggling with for decades. Her question encouraged me to delve deeper into a concept that I believe I had misunderstood.
Merriam-Webster lists several definitions of pluralism. Among them: “a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain and develop their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization”
Right. Our common civilization is one that exists under the commitment to equal rights and justice for every individual under the Constitution of the United States.
In 1955, a book of photos from an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, was published. The book, created by Edward Steichen, contained 503 pictures from 58 countries and was titled, The Family of Man.
A friend gave me a copy of the book shortly after I had returned from a year in San Francisco. I had fallen in love with the Bay Area, its people and the progressive politics of the time. This was in the late 1960s during that era’s Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the Nixon administration and its involvement in the overthrow of democratically elected Latin American leaders.
My friend knew of my dreams for a multiracial, multifaith, multicultural society where people treated each other with respect and tolerance. I was 22 at the time, and I often wondered, like so many young people, “What is wrong with humanity?”
The Family of Man became one of my favorites and graced my bookshelf for years. I would flip through the pages leisurely, marveling at the diversity and beauty of humanity. Also during this time, Tony Bennett’s I Left My Heart In San Francisco became a louder and louder siren song. So loud that in 1973, I packed my things and moved back to the West Coast. I never looked back. But I lost the book. I didn’t even think about The Family of Man until I returned to the East Coast decades later.
A fragile dream of multiculturalism
This morning, disgruntled by the disheartening political discourse and the corrosive Big Lie, I resorted to one of my two faithful companions ─ food. The other is prayer. I devoured an unhealthful breakfast of syrupy sweet coffee and a hunk of overly cheesy macaroni and cheese. I had added cream cheese to the other three kinds of cheese I used ─ sharp cheddar, provolone, and Monterey jack. I had used coconut cream instead of regular milk and went heavy on the butter. No eggs. One hunk became two, then three until the pan was almost empty. It was delicious. It was soothing. I felt ─ calm. Then I felt drawn inward. That would be the other companion. Prayer.
I considered pluralistic societies and how successful these societies could or could not be. There’s more to be studied on this, but for now…
In the midst of the media focus on those sowing the hatred and division we are experiencing, I have come to consider that my personal vision of pluralism has been based on unrealistic idealism. My understanding of our particular pluralistic society has changed as we struggle to create a more tolerant and peaceful one. We are not the vaunted “melting pot,” but more like a “tossed salad.”
I found a quote the other day while researching that seemed to state my vision beautifully. (Dear fellow Democrats, let me accept the message if not the messenger!) In his farewell speech, President Ronald Reagan said “…I’ve spoken of the Shining City all my political life. … a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace…”
Reagan didn’t actualize his ideals with his failed trickle-down economic policies, union-busting, and incendiary racial rhetoric. Things got worse. But this phrase haunts me because it is a part of my vision of the United States, “teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace.”
A return to where I ran from
In 2001 I moved to upstate New York, and in 2003, because of my mother’s illness, I moved to Philadelphia. There, I was referred for an informational interview where the interviewer, a woman, looked at my resume and scowled. Then she said:
You spent a lot of time out west. I don’t like it there. All the cultures mixing and whatnot. I like it right here where I am in West Philly. I don’t want to be around people who are not like me.”
So much for brotherly [or sisterly] love. That’s what she said, and my enthusiasm evaporated. All I could think about was what a horrible human being she was.
Shortly after that meeting, I was “garage sailing,” the term I used for sidewalk sales in those days. At one of those sidewalk sales, I found a water-damaged copy of — you guessed it — The Family of Man. I was delighted, re-inspired, and rejuvenated. In my heart, I knew I was right about multiculturalism. The Universe had spoken! The woman at the interview was irreversibly wrong.
So here we are again. Living our lives like a scratch on a broken record. We are stuck. We move forward a little and then we hit that damned scratch. We eat Asian cuisine. We salivate for Mexican and Latinx food. We like Russian, Italian, Indian, and African foods. We are exploring the health benefits of Native American cuisine. Our eating habits, for most of us, reflect our acceptance of a pluralistic society. We also get treated by physicians, taught by professors, and interact with people during business and leisure with people from various countries, cultures, ethnicities, and religions.
Many continue to balk at accepting a reality of a vast and diverse population, spewing hatred and division among us. Fact: we are becoming a more and more beautifully diverse society every day. The latest census report revealed that 57.8% of Americans identify as White, a decrease from 63.7% in 2010. The rest of us are everything else.
Today, as I was listening to an interview with the U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, I was moved by her depth of empathy for people of all colors and cultures. As a Native American and, in my view a social warrior, she uses the poet’s platform to tirelessly bless and protect the native peoples by bringing their stories and history to the front of American consciousness. She’s doing the work to bring tolerance and cultural acceptance. She is encouraging.
We have the potential to become that shining example of peaceful pluralism.
Posted in Commentary, Essay, Political reflection, Writing from the heart
Tagged Commentary, creative nonfiction, essay, Humanity, Kindness, Reflections, values and spirituality, world view