Tag Archives: creative nonfiction

plu•ral•ism

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.

The book

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…”

Right.

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.

Any solutions?

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.

Curious.

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.

Guanyin of the Southern Sea [Nelson – Atkins Museum of Art]

No Angry God

The pepper buds in the photo I snapped look so much larger than they are in reality. Since then, more have bloomed. Still no peppers.

I am waiting. For the tomatoes to bloom and the peppers to flower. For the sweet fruit of community peace. I don’t say world peace; that feels too big in the moment. World peace? It’s all I can do to garner peace on my windowsill; to keep the herbs growing. To keep them alive.

ln the beginning, there were seven teensy basil seeds. Meticulously, I put all of them in a pot of soil. I had doubts that the basil seeds would take root. Like I have doubts that I’ll wake one morning to find that the world has righted itself and the emboldened fascists in all countries have vanished. The basil grew and erased my doubts. My doubts about the world remain.

Within 14 days, the tiniest of leaves, so tiny I could barely see them, had sprouted. Thus (yes, I used the word “thus.”) began a cycle of magic. I received planted gifts from neighbors and friends: two cilantro plants, a mature basil plant, potted rosemary, two cherry tomato plants, and the pepper.  Will I ever see fruit from the pepper or tomatoes? I want to think that where there are buds, there is hope. My other plants, the spider plant, dracaena, jade, and lucky bamboo seem to welcome the herbs with joy. They grow as if on steroids.

I watch these plants, talk to them like I talk to the trees.  I have read that talking to plants lets them know we love them. One thing’s for sure. When I’m focused on my herbs, I’m not focused on chronically angry liars. This leads me to my rant of the week.

One has the power to choose tenderness over anger. Respect over disrespect. To choose the truth over a lie. Sadly, in countries throughout the world including the United States, folks have chosen the lie.  In the U.S., it’s The Big Lie. It’s a very, very rough time for humanity.

Chronic anger terrorizes. Chronic anger hijacks the truth. Hearing the shouts of chronically angry people has taken my gaze from the pepper plant. For a moment.  The chronically angry have done unbearable damage to our democratic structure.  We know who they are. Some are friends. Some are family. They are people who get pissed off about everything, particularly anything that seems to make another person’s life easier, better; particularly things that show compassion and respect for their fellow human beings. Like masks.

They lie about the earth’s catastrophic climate change. People are dying from the heat. They lie about the fires in California and Greece. They lie about and spread conspiracy theories about life-saving vaccines and about COVID infections. They lie about the January 6th insurrection at the United States Capitol. They die in hospitals insisting they have pneumonia and not COVID. They lie.

In my wanderings throughout the United States, I’ve learned some things. Contrary to the angry screaming of fundamentalists about a punishing God, all of this dis-ease, physical and mental suffering, is a sign of ingratitude and disrespect for the life around us: Animals. Vegetation. The air we breathe. Disrespect for human beings who inhabit every corner of this earth peacefully going about their day-to-day business and loving each other.

God is not angry with his/her creation. I don’t believe, not for one holy second, that we live under the auspices of an angry God. Amid our terrors, trials, and obstacles, people of all identities ─ spiritual, gender, racial, even political ─ are falling in love. Babies are being born. The kind-hearted and empathetic are feeding the hungry. Many Christians are following the teachings of Christ. Families are being sustained. Art is being made. Chefs are creating cuisine.  Peppers are growing on a windowsill.

We do find our way, don’t we?

For the past few minutes, I’ve watched as a red spider builds her web outside on my window screen. I squirted water on her web and she scooted away.  I didn’t want to kill her, I didn’t spray water out of anger. I just let her know that she needed to find another place to build her web.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “You cannot live here.”

She returned, just as the love of God always returns when we become aware of ourselves falling into the black hole of anger. She came back to start over. The stillness of the morning and the focus with which she does her work tells me there is no angry God.

I want to be able to clearly define the anxiety, muck, and division I feel whenever I use the word “hate.”  The word itself is exhausting. I wonder, sometimes, if the paralysis I experienced with the onset of Guillain Barre Syndrome so many years ago was a connection to my anger and the rigidity in the body. Anger: fists clenched, torso stiffened, jaw tightened, and breath held.  Anger. Do I know I am breathing? What does the word hate even mean? Merriam -Webster defines it as “intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury.” (Italics are mine.) Who injured the chronically angry one? What does she fear? As a child of the Baptist church, I know about choosing Holy words to instill fear. And yet, the waters of my Baptism at age ten changed my experience of the Bible. I would open the pages and find words of love. There is no angry God.

Xenophobia. Conspiracies and misinformation about COVID. Lies against the vaccines. The backlash against the facts of science. The unbelievably unhinged revisions to the truths about slavery and the formation of American capitalism. The denial of the genocide of Native citizens. We are facing a huge humanitarian crisis.  Still, one has the power to choose tenderness over anger, truth over falsehood, justice over injustice.   

My maternal grandparents were farmers. They grew fields of vegetables, tended grapevines, picked peaches from their trees, and prayed at four and five o’clock in the morning.  My mother once told me what my grandfather said about pesticides: “If you put that in the dirt, the plants soak it up and then you eat it.”  Science.  And the tenderness of God.

I wave my hands to the Great Invisible. And the Great Invisible answers. “Your pepper plant needs watering.”

There is no angry God.

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.

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.

Thanksgiving 2018

 

Three of us, our personalities as diverse as the meal we shared, sat around the table laughing and celebrating food, company and, each in her own way, a commitment to spiritual life.

 

“Will you give the blessing?”

Wait, what? 

The meal was at my home and, when I thought about it later, the host usually offers the blessing. In recent years, however, I’d fallen into a habit of silent blessings ─ or no blessing at all ─ over meals with friends.

We closed our eyes.  I opened one eye to peek at Sandra. She was the one, after all, who had asked for the blessing. She was — waiting.

I am not unfamiliar with saying grace. Praying before eating was a three-times-a-day practice in my childhood. Not a crumb would pass our lips before prayer. To attempt to sneak a bite was, at the very least, foolhardy. A spoon or fork could be sent flying if a child did not wait for the Lord’s blessing.

I remember my grandfather saying grace. He was a deacon and a very devout man who would repeat a prayer before every meal. The morning grace was the hardest. We’d listen patiently as he spoke the familiar lines before beginning his improvisation. His improvising, it should be known, was the place where hot food went to die — to become cold. But here’s the thing: his purity of heart and love for God was on that table. We could feel protection covering the food. His power was that palpable. Even as, in our minds eye, we could see the melted butter hardening again, we also knew that no malevolent force would dare approach our food. Granddaddy had a spiritual power that drew God’s protection for his family.

Saying grace is not a mystery. The willingness to be present and grateful for the present moment draws the power.

With Sandra’s request, I tried to remember the grace my parents used to say.

“Heavenly Father, we thank thee for this food to nourish the body though not the soul…” And that was all I could remember. It felt too far in the past.

When I was diagnosed with Guillain Barré syndrome (GBS) in 2012, the disease took away my ability to use my hands. I love cooking and sharing my meals with others. It’s a joyful task. But with GBS, I could not comb my hair, let alone knead dough, chop vegetables, or make a soup.

That too is now in the past. Today, I can make biscuits, roast a turkey, and or juice apples. And I can look back on 2018 and see blessings in everything, large and small: my physical healing; my mothers’ death and reconnecting with estranged family; new friends and neighbors; the ever expanding awareness of love in the world even as citizens panic in and recoil from the vortex of Trumpism; and still, the wonder of being grateful.

The instant I connected with gratitude, self-consciousness dropped away.

“Thank you, father/mother God, for this meal to which we have all contributed. Thank you for this glorious abundance of friendship that we are about to share. And thank you, most of all, for that which has brought us together in gratitude on this day. Amen.”

Sandra was pleased.

“Let’s eat.”

Friends

  

While dining with a friend, I reflected out loud, “I want a lot of softness around me.” It was a prayer released into the air. I was so tired of the drama with folks who felt that aggression was the way to success. In that moment, a few seconds felt like I was frozen in time.

When I became aware of the movement around me again—people bussing trays and the café filled with noisy chatter—I knew I had hit on a significant truth about myself. Apparently, my friend understood completely because she nodded her head and said “yes!”. It was a desire for fewer disagreements, more kindness, honest listening, and deeper sharing with friends and family. With her recognition of this desire, I didn’t feel alone anymore.

 January 2018 had started with a bundle of newness: new writing, new personal insights, and a new food management plan. Then Mom died.

It was not unexpected. She’d had Alzheimer’s for several years and was a month short of 96. Attending her funeral would be my first travel experience since I had been diagnosed with Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy (CIDP) in 2013, a condition that had, at that time, left me paralyzed and weak in the legs for many months. I was nervous about the journey, but after all my years of progressive recovery, I felt strong and ready.

In going to Washington, D.C. for nine days, I would be surrounded by relatives I hadn’t seen in decades. There would be dinners with siblings and other family and a funeral repast with old family acquaintances and neighbors. I’d be stretching myself to the limit with travel by train, social interactions, and using Uber to go between the hotel and my brother’s home where there were too many steps for me to stay there. The physical effort meant being outside in sub-freezing weather, pulling luggage, and staying up until 11 every night as my siblings and I worked on funeral details.

The likelihood of staying on my new meal plan was doomed. Pizzas, fried chicken, and breakfast pastries became the daily cuisine—fast, filling, and cooked by someone else. I wanted—and needed—someone to walk with me; someone who could hold me up and carry my heart gently in his or her hands. Someone, perhaps, who really knew me.

My family is stoical. We do not “do” feelings. This is something that’s bothered me for as far back as I can remember. I’ve always been envious of families that can mourn together, folks who can physically embrace each other while shedding tears. In our family, my tendency to express feelings has earned me the label of “emotional.”

Overnight, the five of us had become orphans, and yet we did not share that familial intimacy. Perhaps this was why I felt desperate for a friend with whom I could share the thoughts close to my heart. But is there a friendship that can meet such a need? Every person has a boundary when it comes to openness and vulnerability. In choosing friends, I have made some mistakes.

I was thinking about the concept of “softness around me” on the day I returned from my mother’s funeral. Feeling sad, I called a woman that I considered a new friend since moving to Pennsylvania. In the past, we had talked about politics, philosophy, and where to find good men. We had cooked together and shared family pictures during holiday meals. So…when I got back to town, I rang her up. Phone calls were not returned. Neither were text messages or emails. Weeks later when I heard from her, I was stunned to learn that she thought our “expectations for friendship are different.” I did not know what she meant.

I was hurt, but also angry. Faced with the realization that I had somehow unwittingly made someone uncomfortable, I had to look at how I choose friends and what my expectations are. Clearly, my inner “friend-picker” needed repair.  I was now faced with another new task for the New Year: Approaching my seventies, I would have to learn how to choose new friends.

When I graduated from high school, my classmates and I used to write a common verse in each other’s yearbooks. Love many, trust few; learn to paddle your own canoe.

My need for deep friendship on any given day can remain securely hidden behind the pots and spices in my kitchen. But need has a way of breaking out of hiding places. When it does, judgment dissolves.

A good friend, like good food, is a reliable source of comfort. I use great care when selecting ingredients for cooking. Will I be able to, going forward, choose friends in the same way? Some friendships I thought would last for years, end or fade. And, of course, I change. Understanding this, the future stands before me with thoughtful  friendship  experiences and more  “softness around me.”

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.

Change. Again.

I’ve been filled with yearning.

I’ve been needing change. I’ve been wanting to see new people, and experience new life, open hearts, new songs, out-of-the-box thinking, and new courage. Yes, courage. So, God bless me, I went to the organic market and bought…

a basil plant.

Er?

Well, for one thing, with a plant I knew I would see change in the form of vibrant growth and an abundance of leaves. With a plant, I’d see time in motion. Visiting the local organic market reminded me of something very important. Change is good.

It’s time to change my blog, again, and renew my commitment to stay current. I began this blog with weekly posts. What an exciting time that was! Then, when I was admitted to the hospital, I posted once a month (or was it every six weeks?). I took that as a challenge from God, the universe, or whatever folks call their higher power these days. Do I really want to write? How transparent do I want to be? Do I want to be confined to stories about family and friends? It became more challenging, and the frequency shifted to every two months, then three—until today.

There are so many reasons for the delay. Well, at least I like to think there are. It’s not because my family has become less interesting, although there are times when I wish they were less interesting. It’s certainly not because there’s less to say about food and my peculiar food interests. And it’s not because of the weather, as much as I would like to blame my lethargy on the almost 40-degree drop in weather (from 90 and humid to 50-something and raining. What can I say? It’s Philadelphia after all). No, the delay is not due to any of those things.

Here’s the thing. I’m working on a novel. You heard it first here. And here’s another secret. I turned 69 this year, and I kept hearing the tiniest whisper in the trees—okay, maybe it was that precious basil plant—”if not now, when?” I’ve also signed up for an online writing course and, although I’m not a matriculated student, the amount of coursework would break a horse at the Kentucky Derby.

The intensity of keeping up with it all is what sent me to the organic market. There, I filled my culinary yearning by fondling those little plastic containers of pesto, hummus, and dips. I sighed softly as I held blocks of cheeses from all over the world, cupping them in my hands as if they were rocks of gold—or maybe a lover’s face. (I won’t purchase the cheese, mind you, I’m off dairy—doctors orders.) Then, there were those whole organic, free-range chickens—at half the price of other markets in the area. I guess food will always be a part of my story.

And so, I bought the very fragrant basil plant. It filled my apartment with the smell of newness, of spring, of purpose. After all, if I’m going to change, begin a new cycle, I want nature to support me.

Over the winter, I’ve been stuffing my intellectual belly with books by and about women who grow, harvest, and love food and the graceful generosity that cooking and sharing meals creates. I’ve been (probably) growing my newly diagnosed cataracts by constantly reading about writing, spirituality, and race relations. I’ve been sticking my foot in the waters of book reviews and learning that even if I don’t like a book, there is always something positive to highlight. I’ve been busy.

Perhaps it’s because, in my gardening experience, I’ve learned to respect the time it takes to nurture the seeds of new growth. Respecting that time makes me feel less anxious about my yearning, and it makes me want to be more disciplined about my writing. I’m writing a novel. But I told you that already.

So here I am, tending my basil plant, thinking about the prospects of an apartment vegetable garden, and focusing on a story worth two to three hundred pages. While it takes away from my blog time, the promise of new growth is exciting.

Change is good.

“Invictus” A New Year’s Reflection

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul…

             Excerpt from the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley (1849–1903)

On a warm day, during the Christmas holiday, I, the cook who usually whines about winter, was feeling content. But a little more than a month before, on November 9th, I didn’t feel so content.

I had stopped cooking, felt as if I could barely breathe, and teetered on the abyss of lost faith. Damn it. Who were those people that did not vote? The United States Election Project estimated that approximately 56.9 percent of eligible voters actually cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election. A fellow writer declared it a national disgrace. I agree. So I asked anyone who would listen, “who are these people?” The answers I got taught me about some of the people in my world. There’ll be some changes made.

As November became December, my anger, frustration, and fear receded. Anger and fear are (for me) such immobilizing forces. I needed to reconnect with that part of me that is unconquered by fear.

So, on that warm morning, I did what I needed to do.  I thanked God for a new day, stared into an empty skillet, and got started with a holiday meal. I needed to turn my attention to the things that mattered in my life: good health, good food, productive thought, writing, and spiritual nourishment. I needed to not be afraid.

I decided to roast a whole chicken in an attempt to make up for a horrifying Thanksgiving turkey disaster. While I’m certain kitchen life is not what Henley had in mind, I needed to keep going. I might have easily given up and cooked pasta because, truth be told, I could’ve killed a prize fighter with the drum sticks from that Thanksgiving bird. But I would not be conquered. With some trepidation, I pushed forward with “Invictus” going around and around in my brain the whole time.

Long ago, a boss of mine said with amazement, “God, you’re tenacious.” Hmm. If he only knew. I read that “Invictus” inspired Nelson Mandela every day of his 27 year imprisonment. I understand why. The words light a fire of conviction in my heart. Keep going.

Not so long ago, I was rifling through some old journals and came upon an essay I wrote about one of the most unconquerable souls I know: my mother. I know that if she had known this poem she would have repeated these lines to herself:

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul…

One evening, as she sank into the warmth of her favorite chair, she nibbled on a piece of sweet potato pie. I watched and listened as she smacked her lips with deliberate and stubborn enjoyment. I shivered inside at how much I feared her. Who else could eat pie with such authority?

We’d just had a discussion—or was it an argument?—in which she, once again, silenced me with her eyes. Never mind the documented facts of what we were discussing. Only one fact mattered: she was the mother; I was the child (even though I was well into my 50s).

“So stubborn,” I thought to myself. She smacked her lips in satisfaction.

“Mom. Have you always been this way? So stubborn?”

This was my pitiful attempt at regaining some kind of self-dignity.

“Yes!”

She smacked with impenetrable–I dare say unconquerable–glee. Her life hadn’t seen much glee. But once she found it, she would not let her glee be suppressed. Our roles are complete. Mother. Daughter. This is the way things are and always will be, even after we are both long gone from the planet. This is who I learned from. I’ve inherited this great stubbornness, this unconquerability. This certain kind of fearlessness. This trait has served me well.

It’s nearing the end of January; we have a new president. This past weekend over a million women  and their supporters marched in protest of the new administration and its proposed policies. My friend Sherri said, “Democracy in action! Warriors strengthen yourselves; prepare yourself for battle. This is Medieval.”

Unconquerable.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.

I’ll not be conquered by fear.

Oh, about that chicken… I could’ve shaved nails with the breast of that bird. But I’ll keep working at it.

No Weeping

I do not weep at the world. I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.  Zora Neale Hurston

We sharpened our knives. Not for oysters, but fish.

“Improvise!”

Ms. Hurston’s words seemed to be my father’s modus operandi. At 6’3’’, 200-plus pounds and muscular, Daddy commanded the attention of everyone around him. The world busied itself with issues of poverty, race, war, and class, things that affected our segregated lives directly. Eating together as family offered respite.

In creating a meal, Daddy made it up as he went along, singing or whistling most of the time. His resonant bass seemed almost too big for our tiny apartment; it saturated the walls of the small kitchen along with the smell of hot sauce and onions.

We are from a Gullah tradition, descendants of West African slaves who settled along the South Carolina coast building a proud and distinct culture. They called us geechee, a once pejorative term. For us, everything began with rice. One of us would put the pot of rice on, and Daddy would decide what vegetables and spices would be going into the fish or meat dish. We were curious, and each of us showed our curiosity in different ways.

As the eldest daughter, I offered a frowning face. I  knew my sister and I would be assigned the job of gutting, scaling, and taking the heads off the trout, perch, croaker, or whatever he and his friends brought back from their day of tossing lines and hooks. If we happened to find a fish belly full of roe (which I would not eat, thank you very much), Daddy was very, very happy.

While I frowned, my mother, an exemplary cook accustomed to Daddy’s larger-than-life show of enthusiasm, rolled her eyes.  My sister, an adventurous eater, could not wait. Hungry with curiosity, she could not hide her excitement about culinary exploration (that hasn’t changed. Alligator meat?! Sigh…) I vaguely remember my brothers in the background, watching and learning what it took to be a man adept in the kitchen. My father’s example was a strong one; every one of my brothers became an excellent cook.

“Does any meal stand out as a favorite for you?”

I waited in silence as my sister, 3000 miles away, surfed her memory.  Fish was usually fried or grilled, and often accompanied by savory brown gravy.

“Yes. It was like a stew.  Not the ordinary fish and gravy.  It was a rich broth, thick with lots of flavor.”

I could almost taste her fondness for the meal in my mouth.  Fish stew. Of course. That’s what happened with all of those fish heads.

Somehow, the things that were the least irritating and the most comforting have masked or chased away experiences that were the most frightening and least understood. The shadow in our lives was alcohol. Daddy drank.

A survivor of World War II and the Pacific Theater, he suffered nightmares for years, I am told. Alcohol dammed his weeping on those days when he would drive 30 or more miles into Maryland for a brick masonry job only to be told that they weren’t hiring “coloreds” that day. I only remember seeing him weep once, when a dear, dear friend of his died.

But this morning, my mental snapshot is of Daddy standing over the stove, his arms in the air, and a world-engulfing, rapturous delight on his face.

He was fatherly in the best of ways: pretending to be a horse so the children, cousins and all, could get rides on his back; taking us to the carnivals that his volunteer fire department put on every summer—rides and cotton candy included.

Going to the circus, I wanted to grow up and become a part of the magic. Baseball games, finally integrated, inspired my interest in the athletic, even though I felt closer to dance. But I still have my father’s baseball. And, while it is almost a cliché, I stood on his feet as he taught me the cha-cha and whirled me around the room. White hatred could not reach us in these places. He was never MIA (missing in action) like too many fathers. They don’t know what they are giving up.

“Improvise!”

Some salt, hot pepper, greens and onions. The meals, seafood or meat, weren’t complicated. His eighth-grade education and life experience made him an excellent philosopher and improviser. Daddy was bold in his flavors and his life. He faced things as they came along, following an internal compass about people, life, and food. No one in the family, immediate or extended, would ever lack food. I can’t and won’t speak for anyone else, but I intuited that he wanted me to live by the heart.

“Improvise!”

A few days after his funeral, I had a dream. He was in formation with other soldiers, and as I walked up to him, he stepped out of formation, turned to me, and saluted.

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