Tag Archives: Life Stories

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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Bring Me a Cup

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

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

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                      Grandmother Mahoney WordPress_0018

 

 

“Bring me a cup of water.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

2016. Relax.

Kuan Yin

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

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

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

Relax.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soup and Empathy

New Food 001

It’s official.

Summer’s over. The reds, peaches, and blues of summer fruit are making way for the greens, burnt oranges, and purples of winter’s warming vegetables. Beautiful, isn’t it? Soup. Yum.

In my healing process, I’ve become more committed than ever to eating according to season. The soup pictured above was so easy to make, filled with the brilliance of the changing season. Sitting in my flannel nightgown and looking out at the nature trail, I feel secure.

The United States Department of Agriculture has a term for people and communities without access to affordable, nutritious food. food insecurity. Let that sink in for a moment. Food. Insecurity. The USDA attributes this to lack of money. Really, it’s more than that.

Five years ago I was visiting relatives in Delaware. We stopped at a large chain grocery for supplies and, as we were leaving, I saw an employee tossing bags of unsold bagels into a trash bin. I was, to say the least, interested.

“Are you giving that to a homeless shelter? A women’s halfway house? An orphanage?”

“It’s against the law. Liability.”

What? Someone might choke on a free bagel?

In some of our poorest communities, liquor stores—with a high-priced fare of wilted greens, squishy tomatoes, old, brown meats and yellowed chickens—are often the only access to food. In those same communities, some grocery chains have refused to open businesses claiming unprofitability. Now, I find that, in some places, giving unsold food to the hungry is against the law. Liability they say.

My father taught me empathy. We were a large family with limited income, and my parents were no strangers to nights sucked into the black hole of insecurity. But we were lucky. There was always food on the table thanks to relatives who farmed and owned produce stores. My father had a garden in the back yard. For us, the bear of hunger was never a guest at our table.

A deeply religious man who had served in the Pacific Theater during World War II, and suffered emotionally because of that experience, Daddy knew the meaning of empathy. In spite of his personal demons and contradictions, he cared for others and passed along the wisdom that has stayed with me all these years.

“Never judge another man unless you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.”

I learned, at the table, that the rigorous road to freedom is paved with empathy and compassion. It is impossible to think of my father without those words whipping around in my mind like a line full of laundry in an autumn wind.

One sunny, summer afternoon in Berkeley, California, I was exiting the subway. A man, woman, and child were sitting in the entrance. The man asked for money. I told him that all I had was the lunch I was carrying. It was simple fare: a sandwich I’d made, some fruit, maybe some chips and a soda.  I don’t remember it all.  I asked if he would like it.

Yes, he said. I will never forget his eyes. His wife cried as he accepted the bag. I am moved to tears whenever I think of the incident. Since that experience, I have been generous with my lunch bags.

Every major spiritual path invites us to live empathetic lives and to take empathy to the next level: compassionate action. We’re invited to change things, to make things better. The palette of life offers a rainbow of opportunities for compassionate action: serving at a soup kitchen, making and delivering meals, passing a lunch along to someone, creating and sustaining community vegetable gardens, mentoring young people to become urban farmers, or teaching children what it means to select good food and eat well. From the White House to celebrity chefs, it’s happening.

I’ve said what I have to say this morning. Now, let’s eat. And share a meal with someone.

 

 

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.

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.

 

 

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.

 

In Search of Balance

Yin-Yang

 

 

Yin: feminine, shadowy, receptive, compassionate.

 

At this moment, slicing pears for a vinaigrette dressing, I think that cooking is yin. I feel like I am receiving the grace of Annapurna, the goddess of kitchens and food. Kitchen wisdom has traditionally been thought of as feminine.

Not being a scholar, I don’t thoroughly understand the concepts of yin and yang. Years ago, a therapist told me I was too yang, that I needed to be or have more yin, more feminine energy. I did not tell her to go to Hades. That would have been too yang. But when a boyfriend told me that the only time I was soft was in the bedroom, I did not bite my tongue. Is it yin to express my personal thoughts, or is it aggressively yang?

What did that therapist mean? Was I too aggressive in my desire to be liked? Was it my anger (and at that time I was quite the angry woman)? Too pushy in my efforts to participate in an unbalanced culture while looking for work? I did not see myself as having such an overabundance of male energy. I thought I was pretty soft. Truth is, it seemed like I was unhappy a lot of the time. Ah. Shadowy.

I’ve thought about her words over the past couple of years. A serious illness puts a certain spin on things. Thanks to my overabundance of aggressive energy, I have been able to stay afloat emotionally and physically. (Lord knows, the health teams in the nursing facilities I experienced were not capable of helping folks to really heal.) Thanks to my compassion, a yin quality, I was able to help make things better for other patients.

I think this therapist meant to say, “you are out of balance.” She saw my aggression in my efforts to not have people take advantage of me. I went overboard and gave up my ability to receive the good that was being offered. The world appeared to be all or nothing, a flip-flop between angry defensiveness and tearful resignation.

Ah. Desperately seeking balance. I’m following the foggy path, pushing aside emotional weeds, and looking for the bright clearing. Yin and yang are the male and female of all things:  light and dark, positive and negative, sunny and cloudy. We exist in a world of opposites; sometimes opposites attract, sometimes they repel. But we cannot exist without both.

If we are to survive and thrive, we must be balanced. It seems to me that balance is an inside out proposition. There can’t be balance on the outside if it doesn’t exist within.

I once left a retreat pissed off at the expressions of unconscious racism. Things were out of balance. There were only a few African-Americans present, and I have always been impatient with the fact that white people assumed we all lived the same kind of lives in the mid-20th century. We did not, oh, we did not; our lives were very different. Things were not equal. Communities were separate. And so, I lost my patience, not only with the expressions of yet more unconscious assumptions, but with trying to be an educator.

So. I drove to a spot near the bay and screamed at the sea, the rocks, and the trees that had bent almost to the ground from surrender to the wind. Surrender. The trees were able to surrender, and they bore their evidence of — beautiful, too — survival. There was balance in that surrender. But to what would I surrender?

I could not scream at people and achieve what I wanted to achieve, so I screamed and cursed at the sea. I got out of my car. I got back in my car. I got out of my car. There were a million stars in the black sky. The mist wetting my face was cold. The night was both scary and lovely.

I was fed up with trying to please everyone around me. I was tired of trying to replace people’s ignorance with information. I was angry and wanted to receive — something. What? Everyone around me seemed aggressive, and hard — filled with what I identified as male energy.

“I just want softness around me.”

That was my voice. It wasn’t the first time I heard my voice and those words. “…softness around me.”  Softness, compassion, the ability to receive and accept love. A little more yin. Perhaps that’s what the therapist was saying.

The night provided a quiet opening, a soft space wherein I recognized both my power and my surrender. As the ocean was both yang and yin, so was I. Balance. Before that night, I loved the ocean. Now, I swore to worship her.

Ours is a society of pushing and aggression, an amazing hermetically sealed bubble in which we are prone to swing to extremes: prohibition or uncontrolled excess; compassionate sharing or the complete hoarding of resources so that only the wealthy thrive. We have not been raised to live in balance. It is a concept as foreign as yin or yang.

I, for one, am of the opinion that in the stillness of making pear vinaigrette dressing lies surrender to the softness of balance.

 

Fecund

The word means fertile, fruitful, abundant. Ours is a fecund world of 7 billion — old, young, and all in between — giving birth to new life in all forms: a child, a poem, a work of fiction or history, music. Somewhere, someone is giving birth to secular or spiritual knowledge. More often than not— no matter the opinions of the chicken little doom and gloomers — our experiences, even the negative ones, and productivity serve to enrich and enliven the heart.

Take the writers who choose to birth memoir for example. Forged from a lot of work and soul searching, good memoir is rich with life experiences that, with any luck and grace, make our paths in this world a little bit — or a lot — brighter. How do they do it, these writers? How do they dip so deeply into the well of their own fertility to transform lives?

As I continue to reach for that lofty goal, I find that, in the heat of daily life, it’s easy to overlook or miss the fertility of experience— ensuring that it will be forgotten.

Bluefield, West Virginia

In 1967 I enrolled in a small college in the picturesque town of Bluefield, West Virginia. In retrospect, my application to the school wasn’t so much about academics as it was about leaving home. My high school grades were abysmal at best, but I was young, curious, and enthusiastic with a high school counselor who worked on my behalf. Lucky to get in is an understatement. I looked forward with gratitude to my new life.

Bordered by Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and Virginia, with Bluefield at its southernmost tip, West Virginia is definitely, most definitely the south. Bluefield is less than 70 miles from North Carolina. Having spent my childhood summers in South Carolina, I was familiar, to say the least, with the South and its culture. Remember, this was 1967.

But I wasn’t really thinking about that.

I was thrilled to be attending a school that was an historically black college. Once named Bluefield Colored Institute, the college became Bluefield State Teachers College—now Bluefield State College. I did not know that, at the time, it was in the throes of a designed shift in racial demographics.  (http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2013/10/18/236345546/the-whitest-historically-black-college-in-america) National Public Radio.)

(I also did not know that a nemesis from high school was a student at the college, that she would steal my full-length red suede coat that I had sweated at the phone company to buy, and that I would have yet another lesson in standing up to a bully and getting my possessions back. My name was even written inside the coat. Seriously Sharon? All the way in West Virginia?)
 

Pastoral scenery. An all-black campus. These were my desires. I’d spent so much time in rural countryside that I deeply looked forward to the nature of things. I love this country landscape. But this is what I do not understand: with all of my love for the rural, how have I always resided so close to the city? More on that another time, but the fruit of my fertilization by both cultures cannot be underestimated.

 

John Denver’s Country Roads only begins to lionize the West Virginia landscape that greeted me. The hearts of the people I encountered planted within me a seed of service and understanding that continues to grow in my life.

 

On my arrival, the campus had changed. Community tension was high as black students protested, and fears were heightened by rumors of Klan activity. My alliances with community activists complicated things for me in the ultraconservative, religious African-American home where I rented a room. God bless the fate of the naïve. I had not counted on the fear-based hostility from some of the local blacks as being a part of the mix. The fear was understandable. In an historic coal mining town where, even today, the black population is only 23%, I had a lot to learn. I was asked to leave, but received a reprieve after a community action leader that the family respected approached them on my behalf.

Judaism. I knew nothing. The Diary of Anne Frank, which I read in high school, was the extent of my knowledge about the Jewish faith and culture. but when I met a young Orthodox couple who invited me to my first Seder, I began to understand things. I learned that the Klan didn’t like them either. And I remember the reverence with which they celebrated the Sabbath. They lovingly shared why and how they separated the silverware. They were not community activists, but my understanding of community expanded.

Hill people. I hate stereotypes. And although the Beverly Hillbillies was a hit on television, it did not picture the simple, heavyset white woman in the hills who stopped the bleeding after I ripped my knee on a barbed wire fence in waist deep snow. I can’t remember why we were in the hills; it wasn’t a particularly safe place to be. But she fed us buttermilk biscuits, chicken with gravy, mashed potatoes, and called the doctor — who gave me a tetanus shot, but would not stitch the wound because he didn’t want to touch black skin. I have the scar to this day.

She was a woman with an open mind and a loving heart. I cannot remember the racist doctor’s face, but I remember hers. I remember the fields surrounding her small home, the snow up to our knees, the cows in the frozen pastures, and the comfort of her living room as she asked about our intentions.

I met students and volunteers committed to making America a better place. My activities got me expelled from school at the end of my first semester, a year before the anger exploded — literally — with the bomb in the gym. But the world had become richer, a more fecund place to be. One in which I would never turn my back on service.

Note: Thank you to the Mercer County Convention and Visitors Bureau for the lovely landscapes!

Committment

Photo by Melinda Zipin Copyright 2014

Photo by Melinda Zipin Copyright 2014

 

“You are a piece of work,” my physical therapist said lovingly.

I would be a liar to deny it.

 

 

Sometimes, this phrase, this being “a piece of work” might be a put down; other times, it is a grand anointing of a strong, deep, and independent spirit.

There are many things to which I am committed. Being a piece of work is one of them. I’m committed to personal growth and to learning how to see with more than the eyes and hear with more than the ears. I’m committed to the mystery of the heart. Yet, there are areas where I have run away from commitment.

He’s a runner and he’ll run away… Woman ain’t been born who can make and stay… Woman get away while you can

Several decades ago, the late singer-songwriter, Laura Nyro wrote these words and sang them. At the time, I embraced the song as an anthem for women who fall in love with men who can’t — or won’t — make a commitment. After a while, it felt like I could apply those words to me.

Ms. Nyro’s song was at the forefront of my mind this morning as I sat with my tea to have a chat with God. Chats with the Divine work for me.

I’ve tended to see romantic commitment rather like the Loma Prieta earthquake that I experienced in the San Francisco Bay area in 1989. Well, maybe that’s a little harsh. It’s more like those subtle movements of the earth that rattled the dishes on my shelf as I sat quietly in the morning. The sounds were enough to get my attention, but not enough to force me to commit to action. In the case of the earthquakes, that would be to move the hell to another state. In relationship to people, it might be to engage in a lasting relationship.

“I just got a call from my girlfriend. I’ve known her since kindergarten.”

I stared at my friend. How on God’s earth could someone know a person since kindergarten? I felt sad. I could not think of one person I was in touch with that I knew since kindergarten. Or middle school. Or high school. Not a single person.

But I remember the kindness of teachers, vice principals, and principles; I remember the compassion of school counselors. I remember Mrs. Bowie in first grade and her kind, generous concern for children like me whose home life had some very rocky places. I remember Mrs. Gaines, the Vice Principal in my middle school. She was a dark skinned woman with short cropped natural hair at a time when such a style was unpopular. Some of the students (nope, don’t remember a single one of their names…) called her King Kong behind her back. But she was kind to me and smiled and encouraged me often. I remember these kindnesses.

And I realize, where my commitment lies. I am committed to the transforming power of kindness.

In 1985, I met a meditation teacher from India, and I found a spiritual path where my heart leaped to commitment. In one moment, everything changed for me. I became committed to meditation, singing songs to God, and offering service to myself, my community, and God. I became more anchored in my commitment to loving kindness.

29 years later, I am still on the path and experiencing commitment to the Heart. However, in order to recognize my commitment to kindness, I have had to make mistakes that were unkind. I have had to rebound, redirect myself to my commitment to do no harm. This includes loving kindness to myself with the words I use (you know, that self talk thing…) and the actions I take.

I am in physical recovery forever. Whether  I walk, run, cook, or perform, I will always be conscious of what I eat, the amount of energy I exert, and of things or people that suck my energy.  I am a piece of work. Healing takes commitment. It takes a commitment to faith and a commitment to action.

Yes, I am a piece of work in progress. I am the rock from which Michelangelo is carving David.