Tag Archives: optimism

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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Truth. Apathy.

Truth-ApathyThe other day I contributed comments to a political blog. It’s kind of out of character for me and something I rarely do. I prefer story telling. But I was moved to address the apathy, yes apathy, of some Americans and  the lack of participation in our political process. Of course, being a Democrat, I was addressing my disappointment in the last election. But it’s so much deeper than any particular political party and so much bigger than money.

 

Now. (Yes, “now” with a period. It’s a complete statement. I learned it from my mother and it has infinite meaning. More on that another time.)

Now. (again) These are the things I am passionate about.

Optimism. Compassion and loving kindness. Service. Food (always.) And — owning the political process. Speaking truth to power. WE are the power.

I can’t help but wonder how an astonishingly astute population can languish in such an astoundingly apathetic civic consciousness (Nope. that was not a two syllable sentence). Not until the current demonstrations — extraordinary in the tens of thousands — about police shootings of unarmed black men have I seen such a conscious unified movement. Folks are actually protesting for human rights issues in the United States. It reminds me of my own coming of age in the 60’s and, by God, it makes my heart glad!

Now let’s see…

Apathy: Indifference. Lack of concern. Lack of interest.

Truth: Webster defines it as a case or idea accepted as true or a statement of fact.

Well. Here is a statement of fact. We have become a nation filled with pitifully apathetic people who do not or cannot understand that our participation in the political process is as necessary as breath is for life. Eating, sleeping or, er um, copulating is not required for political freedom; showing up is the requirement. We vote. We try to educate other voters. We help build a free and democratic society brick by intentional brick.

All this talk — blah, blah, blah — about speaking truth to power can be so much wasted oxygen. We help speak truth to power by being a part of the process.

Sigh.

City Council, Mayor, and elected local leadership; County leadership; State leadership; national representation; president. Brick by effing brick. It’s not enough just to vote for the president.

What we have to understand is that folks are ignorant of how democracy works. Over decades, folks have come to believe that all they need to do is vote for the top.

Sigh. The presidential vote is not the sum total of our responsibility for living in a democracy. No matter what barriers are erected (district redistribution, voter ID laws, etc. –and folks will try to stop you) to negatively impact potential nonwhite and non wealthy voters, we who care about the quality of the political process and how that process affects our lives on a daily basis cannot underestimate the importance of participating in local to national elections of our legislators.

But folks don’t know how our political process works. I love this website: https://www.icivics.org/

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is the chairperson of the board of this organization that helps folks understand the way our system works. Please pass it on.

“Speak truth to power” is a great principle. But a great principle is only great when the folks living by that principle make it so. Speak truth to power. We are the power, folks.  The truth shall set us free.

That’s my story and I’m stickin to it.

 

 

Sanguine

An apple. A cup of grapes. A banana. Pineapple chunks. Flax seed and kale. There’s nothing remarkable about blending fruit and vegetables. What’s remarkable is the power of these drinks in my healing. I am gaining strength and experiencing so much more vitality each day. Raw, blended food seems to be reducing my body’s inflammation. The experience keeps me quite optimistic. I remain sanguine with CIDP.

Sanguine. As an adjective: “Optimistic or positive, especially in an apparently bad or difficult situation.”

Sanguine.

In the middle of one of the most challenging segments of my life, I wake up optimistic. In the middle of one of the most challenging times in American history, a new “Reconstruction,” we must remain sanguine.

Americans are being intellectually and physically terrorized by Americans. From Florida to Ferguson, Missouri to Congress, extremist thought has infiltrated the political process in a frightening way.

We cannot allow ourselves to be frightened.

The inevitability of a shift in demographics in this country has led some citizens and lawmakers to lose their minds. Now, the only way elected Tea Party/Republican officials advance their agenda is by spreading the poison of ethnic hatred. Fascism is a very nasty word.

When we are complacent–and you know who you are–about voting, we get what we got. The deaths in American history, all to ensure the right to vote, are the colors we wear (did I mention sanguine is also a color: blood red?). It’s beyond stupid. It’s dangerously dumb to not vote. I remain sanguine and angry with folks who do not vote.

Yet. Despite it all (and African and Native Americans in this country have seen it all), people of good heart continue to fall in love, plan families, raise children, vote, complete educations, play sports, work hard, create music and art and–like Michelangelo with his blocks of marble–see the potential in the ordinary. We live socially just, compassionate, and joyful lives. We are sanguine about the future. Yes, today’s America still holds more than a splash of optimism.

Once again, summer has surrendered to a shiny autumn moon. Meteorologists forecast a hard winter. But we always expect the best outcomes.

Home 001

There is an ancient potency, a fertile, tender marriage between Spirit and optimism. Spring will come again. It’s guaranteed. We will survive autumn rains, the inevitable snow, and a neo-fascist Tea Party/Republican majority in Congress.

We are sanguine.

Oh, oh. It’s 6 am.  Time to think about blended smoothies and juicing. I’m optimistic that more and more folks will examine the long held beliefs that keep them from becoming truly authentic, love based, socially responsible people. Because, in the final analysis, we are responsible to each other, and Love–that’s right–is supremely present. Enya sings, “When Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?”

Sanguine.

I come by it honestly.  The book under my elbows is The Little Red Caboose.  

“I think I can, I think I can…”

Yours truly,

All rights reserved Sala G. Wyman

All rights reserved Sala G. Wyman

P.S.  Sorry to be late with the post this month…I will be better.  I remain sanguine.