Tag Archives: Reflections

Friends

  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just Pass the Grits. Okay?

 

 

It happened last week.  A neighbor uttered two words that don’t go together: “cauliflower grits.”

 

Nooo. Cauliflower is not grits and never will be.

I understand concerns about diet and health.  Lord knows it’s been a daily struggle for me, especially since living with complications from Guillain-Barre Syndrome. Sixteen months in a wheelchair can pack on pounds.

Still.

I’m a gal with strong southern roots. I would not trade a bowl of stewed tomatoes and grits, cheese grits or grits with liver and gravy for cauliflower “grits.”

As my nieces would say, “That’s just wrong.”

For anyone without southern roots, I can forgive the confusion. My neighbor is a woman of solid culinary tastes.  She eats at fancy Italian restaurants and thrills over Vietnamese cuisine. She is also a cauliflower devotee.

“You will love it,” she gushes.

No.  I will not love it because I have never loved cauliflower, a vegetable that I choose to call white broccoli.  Seriously, I’d walk barefoot over hot rocks before subbing cauliflower for grits.

I don’t just cook for nourishment. I cook for joy, otherwise what’s the point? Love of food and the kitchen makes me happy.

My mother died this month.  When I was asked to write some words for her obituary, I wrote about her love for God and how she instilled that love in each of her children.  But really, I could have written about her prowess as a home chef with exemplary imagination and culinary skill.  Everything we learned about food came from her southern roots: her kitchen, our grandmothers’ kitchens, and our aunts’ kitchens. Food and kitchens make me happy.

There were childhood breakfasts with bowls of hot grits, fried chicken livers and onions, and hot biscuits. If for no other reason than the legacy of southern cooking, I take full affront to the idea of replacing grits, rice or potatoes with a ground-up vegetable.

This morning, I sautéed onions, kale (in homage to the green veggie craze), garlic, and mock sausage. I mixed all the veggies into a creamy pot of grits and added cheese. As I watched it all come together with a kind of brown gravy tint, I felt sorry for folks who will never enjoy the warm belly comfort of real grits or rice.

“Cauliflower tastes just like rice” says my neighbor.

No. It doesn’t taste just like rice.

There are real reasons that some folks are choosing cauliflower instead of starchy grains. Recently, concerns have been expressed about rice. Where is it grown? Does the soil have arsenic?  Is it from the southern United States or Vietnam?  White rice is high on the glycemic index and can contribute to blood sugar level spikes.  I acknowledge these concerns, but a good rice pudding or cream of potato soup ain’t the same with cauliflower.

Just sayin’.

When I was a child, foods like grits, kale, and collards were standard southern fare. However things have changed, and with change I find myself in a world where organic collards, once almost free for the picking, are three dollars a bunch and grits are nouvelle cuisine.  With change comes a cultural temptation to make things “better,” healthier, to explore new tastes.

“Have you tried the cauliflower pizza crust?”

No. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The more my friend yammered on about cauliflower rice, the stronger was my pull for a dish of rice covered with a rich chicken stew.  So, I followed the urge and─

  • Seasoned and braised two chicken backs in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil.
  • Chopped onion, carrots, celery, fresh ginger, six or seven cloves of garlic, red bell peppers, and some young spinach leaves. I added the vegetables to the braised chicken.
  • Cooked a cup of white rice.
  • Added salt, pepper, turmeric, red chilis, and red bell peppers to the mix.
  • Threw in three cups of homemade veggie broth.
  • Let it all cook down to a thicker broth and added heavy cream. When it was thickened to my liking, I ladled this amazing goodness over a steaming plate of rice.

“Cauliflower would have been good in that stew!”

Sheesh.

 

Gardens and Empathy

I was in physical therapy when a patient opened her mouth and said: “Today’s world? It’s the Apocalypse. It’s Armageddon. These are our last days.”

 

The room became quite still as folks who had been talking about another mass shooting ended the conversation. I kept my mouth shut, zipped it because as annoying as her words were, the words on my tongue were worse. My words would have been vicious, cruel, and demeaning. Mean. Yes.

As far back as I can remember (which is pretty far), people have been saying that it’s the End of Times. Sigh. In my view, apocalyptic pronouncements are anchored in fear and resignation, a resignation that there is nothing left to do but wait for death and dissolution. God, save me from fear and resignation.

Here’s what I believe. Floods, fires, diseases, earthquakes, and political lunacy provide me a chance to reconnect with the quality that makes us human: empathy.

However, in that moment, knowing that I believed she lived in fear, I did not feel an ounce of compassion and certainly not empathy. I felt lodged between a rock and a hard place, between a desire towards empathy and compassion and the fire of anger.

In 2003 I moved to Philadelphia. It seemed like a good choice. Being in Philly was close to the Washington, D.C. area where most of my (oh, so dysfunctional) family resides, and the location was almost equidistant between D.C. and New York City. It seemed perfect. I sublet an apartment in a pleasant part of the city—lots of trees and single family homes with gardens. I’d found the listing on the board of a food co-op, a place where I loved to hang out. For some reason (which had no basis in reality) I thought a listing in the co-op ensured a safe and stable place. Once in the apartment, I understood why the previous tenant, a young woman, had moved.

The building held, maybe, 200 tenants and was one of several brick buildings on a block in the neighborhood. The metal fire escape outside my bathroom window, which was covered with a heavy screen, faced the fire escape of a brick building across the way. My bedroom window, in the back of the building, looked out across the alley on—yes, another brick building. I was not a happy camper. Now, you might ask if I had looked at the apartment before renting. The honest-to-God truth is that I don’t remember doing so. In my anxiety about being back on the East Coast, I must have visited the place. But like I said…

My immediate neighbor turned out to be a 17-year-old boy, a hopeful rap musician who played his music so loud it shook the floors and walls of my apartment. The woman-hating lyrics and aggressive drum and bass rhythms spilled out of his windows into the summer air and saturated the hallways and our wing of the building. There was not a single day when, due to the stress of it, I did not ask myself, What the fuck?!

My stomach vibrated inside like one of those salon massage chairs. I developed a stiff walk and a defensive stance with my shoulders hunched up all the time. I could not sleep and stuffed bits of cotton balls in my ears to stop the sound, but the floor vibrations went through my feet, up my body, through my arms, and into my head. I was angry and scared. I cried a lot and felt reduced to the role of victim. I hated that kid.

Finally, I got the nerve to knock on his door. He stared at me as if I were offering him a plate of dog poop and agreed to lower the volume. As soon as the door closed, he increased the volume. I called the management company.

“What am I supposed to do about it? You’re not getting out of that lease because of noise!”

Caught off guard, I said something like “I just moved here to the city. I don’t think your behavior is very welcoming.”

Her response was a fast and furious cynicism intended to humiliate.

“Ooohhh.  So now I’m supposed to be the welcome wagon!” Then she laughed and hung up.

I cried some more and talked to a minister. I was certain that God had banished me to Hell and that Hell was Philadelphia. There was no garden in the complex, no place to dig in the soil and save tender vegetables from weeds. I always identified with and felt empathy for the young plants. I wanted to see them grow to fullness without harm. Sometimes in dreams, I would see myself being stripped of weeds, weeds that I identified on waking as fears and resignations. To this day, I connect gardening with empathy.

There was some respite from the noisy teen. During the day, I took long walks around the neighborhood. About two blocks beyond the brick complexes, I passed by beautiful gardens, well-tended by people who were clearly proud of their homes. I felt a little sorry for myself because I couldn’t see any possibility, at my age, of ever owning a home with gardens like those I saw.

 

Sherri’s swiss chard

My friends, Sherri and Tim, have a rich, organic garden in Oakland, California. They’ve spent decades cultivating space and soil in their yard for a bountiful harvest of potatoes, onions, a variety of greens, peppers, tomatoes, squash, Japanese eggplant, asparagus, blackberries, and apples. Over the years I’ve enjoyed days of weeding, harvesting, and cooking with Sherri or alone. Being in their garden is being in Heaven.

As I walked, I thought a lot about Sherri’s and Tim’s garden and my experiences there. I remembered a garden of my own in a small house in Eugene, Oregon. I also remembered the summers my family spent on the farms in South Carolina, immersing ourselves in harvesting food for the day’s meals and canning vegetables and fruit for winter. I’ve learned a lot about empathy through planting, harvesting, preparing, and sharing food. Sharing food is the practice of empathy. If I could have offered that kid a meal, would it have made a difference? Perhaps. But my empathy was gone.

“If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him… the people who give you their food give you their heart.” Cesar Chavez

When I was in college, I paid room and board to a bitter, stingy so-called Christian woman who didn’t want to share the contents of her overloaded pantry and packed refrigerator with people she deemed unworthy. I happened to be one of those people, a student activist with ideas she deemed too radical for the minds of her children.  Her lips were tight, her face frowny, and her eyes hard.  She did not garden and seemed to have no empathy.

I remembered all of these things as I walked. I listened to mid-day buzz—cars, bees, dogs barking, and the voices coming from homes and parks. I dropped back in memory to the buzz of insects and the rustling of leaves in the wind. Listening is such a major part of empathy. I listened closely to nature when I gardened. In the silence of my walk, I could almost hear the chunk, chunk, chunk of a spade against the soil. The memory of the wind against my cheeks as I squatted and the rhythm of my breathing and weeding, weeding and breathing helped stop the shivering in my stomach.

When I returned home, as I exited the elevator to my floor, I saw a woman entering the apartment next to mine. As is my habit, I wished her a good morning and introduced myself. She was—the mother.

We talked for a few moments. I learned that she was a nurse and single parent whose varied hours kept her away from home days and, too often for her, nights. That morning she was returning from a night shift. She looked tired. I knew that look. My mother? My grandmother? An aunt? A neighborhood woman? She’d heard the complaints about her son all too often, but her soft face seemed open to hearing more. Empathy kicked in.

“Is your son in school?”

“He’s supposed to be. Why? Do you see him during the day?”

I told her about the music. She sighed long and loudly. Her frustration was substantial. She did not invite me inside but asked some questions. She talked freely about her exhaustion and the missing father. I listened; I was glad I’d spent the day listening. She felt her world was spinning out of control. God knows, I knew what that felt like when weeds strangled the very life out of tenderly planted spinach. Then, she surprised me.

“Here are my phone numbers. Home and work. Call me anytime.”

I thanked her. After two days I made the first call. The music stopped. A door slammed. I waited for a knock at my door by an irritated teenager. None. Still, whenever the young man passed me in the hall, he stared as if I held a plate of dog poop. For my part, I made sure my door was always deadbolted. But I was happy. I had reconnected with elements of myself that I recognized. Feeling empathetic and offering service. Lowering the volume of the music served the building, the community, his mother, and me. And I didn’t hate him anymore. In three months, my lease would be up and I’d be moving.

In the meantime, I hung out and volunteered at the co-op, cooked meals, shared food with new people I met and, once again, thrived.

We are being called to thrive through empathy and service. Armageddon and the weeping and gnashing of teeth will be a reality for those who believe in that sort of thing. Yet, I suggest that if people truly believe the world is ending, they use their time engaging in empathy and compassionate service. They will thrive.

Change. Again.

I’ve been filled with yearning.

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

a basil plant.

Er?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change is good.

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.

 

 

Philosophical Rant: Pity

I’ve been reflecting on the differences between pity, sympathy, empathy, and compassion for a long, long time. Today, I’m stepping aside from my kitchen and baked salmon to explore the murky waters of that soul sucking scoundrel: Pity.

This is what I know for sure: Pity comes with judgment. Pity ignores the right of a person to make the best choices for herself and presumes that a person is not able to do so. Pity is tainted with the poison of dehumanization. Some folks pity non-white groups or people with physical disabilities.

My mother just turned 94, and  speaks the language of those without memory. Alzheimer’s. I respond to everything with a cheerful “Yes,” and a familiar sadness washes over me. Empathy, not pity, is what’s called for here. In all of the years I’ve known my mother, I have felt  that behind her rigidity and unfriendliness is loneliness.

God, we must lose the pity.

Recently, a person I know—someone who has called me almost daily for more than a year and someone who I now understand offered contact from a place of pity—asked me to do a small writing project, a resume–for pay.  Now, there are reasons that I declined the offer.  One, was a sense that, for this person, “money equals power.” In accepting payment, I’d lose my right to establish boundaries around what I would or would not do. If I did the work for free, my skills would be devalued. And, finally, unlike a typical contract, the expectations were uncomfortably dodgy. I declined.

It’s been a difficult lesson to learn. I sensed that this person, rather than being a real friend, saw me as “needy,” a person in dire need of charity. And, perhaps in the beginning, when I was so blindsided by my condition, I was needy. Yet life offers myriad opportunities to learn from swimming in the muddy waters of pity—both self-pity and that which comes from others.

If you ask or comment, as others have, about how I’m recovering so well, the answer is always the same: I have allowed myself very, very little time for self-pity.

Now, what about sympathy?

Sympathy allows us to truly see pain, but we can remain distant. We may or may not take action, but generally when we do, the action is one that allows us to keep our distance and lets others maintain their dignity. Donating to a non-profit that serves the poor or disenfranchised, working for or in organizations that help others, these are examples of contributing to the greater good in a non–personal way. But, careful.  Sympathy can be a slippery slope to pity.

Then there’s empathy. Ahh, sweet empathy. I learned empathy from my father. Empathy is the ability to feel or identify with another’s pain.  Daddy would always say: “Before you judge another person, walk a mile in his shoes.” He didn’t mean for us to literally walk in another’s sorrow. He meant for us to understand that, as Phil Ochs sang, “there, but for fortune, go you or I.”

That walking puts us on the road to compassion.

Compassion is taking that empathetic feeling, that ability to feel another’s pain, and turning it into true, non-judgmental, loving action. Action coming from love is compassion. Compassion uplifts and heals. Compassion never dehumanizes. Ever.

What a day. I’ve had my rant. It’s time to enjoy some salmon.

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.

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.

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.