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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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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.

daddy-1-wordpress-copy-_0049

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Okra

Hi there. I’ve been away for a while. It scares me because part of me is not clear how two months went by without writing a thing on these pages. Part of me wants to say that it has been my participation in other writing projects, but the other part of me knows better.

Prior to my diagnosis of GBS/CIDP, I was infatuated with my own cooking ability. Now that sounds egotistical, but the truth is: I would kiss myself in the kitchen. Now that I’m getting my strength back and can do some shopping, chopping, and sautéing (thanks to my food processor and Blendtec super machine), life is, I must say, very, very good. Take today, for instance. Do you smell that? It’s chicken livers and onions smothered in gravy. This former vegan is a happy eater.

There’s a lot of healing, and not just physical, that comes with preparing my own food. There’s no mystery to this. Folks have been writing about it for centuries and continue to write about it today. Food is healing, but cooking it yourself is quantum healing.

So about the title. I’ve never liked okra. By the way, that means never. Growing up with Southern food, okra was a major ingredient. There was stewed tomatoes and okra over rice dinner. And gumbo. There was also just plain old fried okra. If there is one vegetable guaranteed to get my gag reflex going, it’s okra. So imagine my surprise — really, I’m not kidding — when I was at the farmers market last week and I found myself reaching for okra. I’d heard that it has lots of anti-inflammatory qualities and vitamins and such, so I fell for it.

Before I go further, I want to point out that I figured out that my temporary separation from the blog was a good thing. I was swimming in the muck of what was wrong with this world. It doesn’t take much to hear it, see it, feel it. It’s all around us. Yet, once I started diving into writing about issues, something amazing happened. I stopped writing. I was depressed.

I know about issues. Look at me. I live in the United States. I know issues aplenty. But my reason for writing had fallen into a sewer of social and political angst. Preachiness, judgment, and— well, you know.

This morning, when I realized why I subconsciously took two months off, I took a photograph of my chicken livers. Damn, that felt good.

9-6 blog

Back to okra. Two childhood foods stand out in my mind: my love for liver and onions and my distaste for okra. So, after I purchased the okra from the farmer, I needed to do something with it. I was moaning to an 80-year-old woman I know about my waste of money when she suggested that I fry them. I remembered frying okra at my mother’s suggestion 20 years ago. That was the last time I cooked okra.

Nevertheless, I gave it a whirl using a mixture of seasoned flour and Italian bread crumbs. Nothing fancy. Just the seasonings, the ghee that I fried them in, and the beautiful cucumber tomato salad on the side.

August 2015 001

I’m no food stylist, and the pictures sure aren’t pretty, but I’ll tell you one thing: I’m out of my funk.

Welcome home, Sala.

On: Rethinking “Provincial”

If we’re lucky, we receive a kind of grace—a mercy or blessing you might say—that helps us let go of old, limited views, so that we can see how our biased loyalties harm ourselves as well as others. Today, I feel lucky.

I’ve ranted for years about insular communities spawning folk whose blind loyalties to narrow ideologies cause harm, exploit people, and breed hatred. I once wrote in these pages, “The provincial promises safety, but there is no reality in it.”

I’m not even sure what I meant by that, outside of understanding that I’ve vehemently disliked insular communities. Now, I’m changing my view. The fact that many parochial, narrow-minded communities are pariahs of the human race does not cancel out the fact that other small communities provide safety from exploitation and bigotry. The kind of thinking that led to the massacre of nine people in a South Carolina church this month is an example of the first; the openhearted warmth traditionally found in Southern black churches is an example of the second.

This morning, as I sip tea and watch hawks circle the air in search of something that died in the night, I’m reflecting on my limited understanding of provincialism. My perceived open-mindedness of urban sophistication is gone.

Three years ago I was diagnosed with Guillain Barre Syndrome, a condition that developed into chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, most commonly known as CIDP. I was unable to walk, hold anything in my hands, or go to the bathroom unassisted. My community became a closed world of doctors and medical practitioners, hospitals and rehab facilities, and friends as I learned that only one to eight in a million are diagnosed with CIDP. The insular nature of a serious illness can offer new perspectives.

Provincial in space

A parochial mind can exist anywhere—in a family, among school friends, even in the heart of New York City—and, while I’m embarrassed to admit it, my own ideas about insular communities provided a false sense of security that, over time, became bricks in my wall of arrogance.

It’s been almost two years since my last serious relapse. I’m stable and a little wiser. I’ve had time for reflection.  Not too long ago, I met a woman who is a talented needlework artist. She’d been working at the same job for 52 years, something I was never able to imagine for myself. In contrast to my life of weaving in and out of communities on this or that coast, she’d remained planted in the community where she grew up. She married well, and looking at her needlework it was clear that she was inspired by a broader outlook on the world. Yet, she was still connected to her community. She knew the people and their families, their histories, and I would not call her provincial.

Who are the provincial? Is it the uneducated hill woman in the mountains of West Virginia who saved me from bleeding all over the countryside? Is it the “sophisticated” urban professional who, as a supervisor, makes work life impossible for a subordinate? Are they the bluegrass and blues musicians hidden away in a back woods holler, welcoming everyone attending their gatherings with openhearted acceptance, or are they the religious zealots who insist at all costs that every person live as they live?

I can no longer paint the provincial with a single brush stroke. It’s become a heart-to-heart negotiation.

I think I’m finding an answer.

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.

 

 

A Valentine’s Day Contemplation

Love. That’s what February is about. Black history month. Valentine’s Day. I’m willing to bet that 60 years from now Valentine’s Day will still exist. Should I place bets on black history month? Maybe. Should I bet that any particular cultural monthly celebration will still exist? Probably not.

However, there is something that I feel compelled to write about because the consequences of unconsciously using words that devastate pull me further and further away from love. I am guilty of what I’m about to address: hate speech.  It’s so subtle, a stealth bomb. Words that dehumanize become habits, even within the race. We use them unconsciously. Of course this discussion has been going on since before rap music. They become so familiar that we don’t hear ourselves using them. But once we hear ourselves, the warm blanket of ignorance slips away and we’re exposed to the cold musings of our own minds.

First, I want to say that this is not about you, the invisible you reader who may happen to find these pages. It’s about me. Brrrr. How terrifyingly cold, these glacial waters of public self revelation.

I was talking with a friend about a Republican political figure. My friend, with great vehemence, stated her opinion:  the man is an “oreo.” To my horror and subsequent shame, I felt my mouth open and the words, “Yeah, you have that right…!” came flying out. There was a tug inside, something I chose to ignore; “You know this is wrong” was the tug. But I continued my chat about how this man was no longer a part of the race because he thought differently.

I’ve heard it said that you’re part of the solution or you’re part of the problem. Divisiveness is never part of the solution. With all of our brilliant optimism, historic commitment to unity, rainbow colors, boundless activism, diverse dialects, shining intelligence and creativity, and so forth and so on, we had nothing better to do than criticize this man and summarily write him out of the race.

Ain’t we humans somethin’?

The universe has a way of balancing things. After some time had passed, I was speaking with another friend about another issue. This person’s anger about a public political figure that I had concluded was on “our side” was so explosive that in the person’s description of the politician I heard a description of myself.

Here is what happened inside my body: My mouth became dry, and then an odd taste covered my tongue. My heart beat faster and I felt cold inside. My eyes seemed to lose their focus as sorrow caused me to stop speaking. I was silent. And I was silent for the next week — shell-shocked as it were. In his description of the politician was a description of myself. I had been written out of the race.

Oreo: a disparaging term, used to define someone as not being a part of the black race, i.e., dark on the outside, but white on the inside. Like the cookie.

Some black children learn this term early from the people around them; they don’t realize it’s power to dehumanize. And some of us grown-ups use the term out of habit, without thinking. This is the scary part for me — the familiarity; the not thinking.

♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

“Oreo!” There was a push from behind and someone disappeared.

As I made my way back to my locker, head down to hide my mortification, I felt an arm around my shoulder. The vice principal of the middle school — a gloriously dark woman, almost 6 feet tall, and who wore her hair in a short Afro — long before it was fashionable — smiled at me and looked me in the eyes.

“Keep studying. Do your best. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad. Keep doing what you’re doing.”

To this day, Mrs. Jessup (not her real name) is one of my icons. When I think of positive school experiences, she is at the top. As a dark skinned woman, she’d faced her own struggles growing up during segregation and within the black community. She had probably been written out of the race many times. Some of my classmates, at their peril, would call her names and run around the corner thinking (stupidly, I must add) that she didn’t recognize voices. They would yell, “Godzilla” or “King Kong.” Of course, she was well-equipped to handle racism head on — within and outside of the race.

♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

Over the years, I’ve come to understand that hate speech reveals more about the speaker then the person targeted. Hate speech begins within. Whatever one sees in another is a reflection of what one sees in herself. This is what I was thinking about several days after I found myself disparaging that public figure. I don’t like his politics one bit, but he is still an African American. He is human.

Many, many years ago, a dear friend said to me, “We’re the only people to write someone out of the race because we don’t like how they think, dress, speak, or who they marry.” Although we are not the only people to do so, I got the message. Then I forgot the message. But in remembering the message I’m reconnected with a global truth.

Once we define any person as other than human, we give ourselves permission to injure or destroy him with impunity. Nazism. White supremacy. Gang wars. In Rwanda, the Tutsi and moderate Hutus were called “cockroaches.”

In big and small ways, once we define any person as other than human, we give ourselves permission to injure or destroy him with impunity.

I’m not naive or unrealistic. Hate speech will be around for a long, long while. And perhaps, as subsequent Valentine’s Day generations are born and die, we human beings will get the message of love quite profoundly. In the meantime, however, I can do my part. I can be vigilant about the words circling my insides and vet them before they reach the air.

No more oreos or agreeing to labeling someone as such. Oreos only belong on the grocery shelf.

Cat Valentine

Holiday mercies: memories and miracles

Holiday mercies-Gratitude

 

“Mommy!”

“Mommy!”

My mother turned over in her bed.

“What is it?”

It was Christmas; I was maybe 10 or 11 years old, and the sounds I heard assured me that I was going to witness the miracle — Santa over the roof. I heard them. Sleigh bells. Santa was arriving at our humble two-bedroom city apartment for seven.

How would he get in? There was no chimney. The door? The window? Hopefully no one would call the police.

“Did you hear it, Mommy?”

Glory be. She was tired, and I was treading dangerous waters. It was early, early morning, dark and still. I didn’t have a fever, so sickness could not be my excuse. My mother’s patience for what she considered stupidity — well, no matter.  For better or worse, I’ve inherited this trait.

Anyway, today I am remembering the good stuff. I’m feeling gratitude for the good stuff. Gratitude is a mercy. Gratitude is a belief in miracles. I remember a discussion with a girlfriend, oh, about 20 years ago; she was a young Catholic who angrily did not believe in the miracle of the Annunciation.

“That’s strange,” I said to her. “I’m not even Catholic and I believe the story.”

She could not know that she was speaking to a woman who, as a child, woke her mother in the middle of the night to share the magic of sleigh bells overhead in the night sky. I’ve lost track of the girlfriend, but not my belief in miracles. I am witness to magic. I am witness to miracles. Every day.

It used to be that weeks before Christmas, the air was filled with sacred hymns and choral music. That’s not the tradition so much anymore. Now, in November, the secular music begins. Good stuff, but not so much of miracles.

Back to my story.

In spite of being awakened by her daughter, my mother arose a couple of hours later to make sure that Santa had placed things correctly under the tree, breakfast was started, and the electricity was still on—just in case the payment was late. Today, my mother is recovering from an illness. She is 92. Perhaps that’s why, this Christmas, I am especially moved to remember our little miracles.

Daddy brought the tree home and we decorated the tree before Christmas Eve. We sucked on peppermint canes and ripped open bags of Christmas candy. How did we get all of these things? Where was the money? I am moved to remember the graces that make the Christmas holidays Christmas.  Memories, like the comfort of a sauna, warm my body and spirit. There! In that portion of the brain are aromas of ham, turkey, and baking bread. And there are boxes of fruit, nuts, and candy, gifts from the grandparents. There are the aunts, uncles, cousins. Magic. Where did all the people come from? How did our little apartment hold them?

Gosh. I’m sentimental this morning. Friends are coming. I need to get up and have at it.

Let’s see. New Year’s resolution? Hmm. After an absolutely challenging 2 1/2 years, I resolve to keep discovering the magic in life, health, and spirituality. I am stronger. I cook. I sing. I laugh. I have the faith and ability to express gratitude. I keep learning how to forgive. What does it mean to give and receive mercy?

I could easily get hung up on the scarier memories and depressing media news. The heavier the language, the darker the view. But I’m continually making different choices. I am continually choosing magic and miracles. It’s work.

Today, I choose to remember the word “Merry” in our Christmas greetings and “Happy” in our wishes for the new year. There is magic in this world.

Happy New Year.