Tag Archives: spirituality

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.

On Being Stardust – a.k.a. Science Confirms What God Knew All the Time.

I LOVE it when science and God kiss.

Merry Christmas.

Happy Kwanza.

Happy New Year.





I love s words.  Ssssssssssss.  Especially this one.

May all young girls grow up to be sassy women.  Don’t take no stuff.  May they not let anyone put them down or define them in words that aren’t their own words.  I don’t care who they might be.  Father.  Husband.  Mother.  Sister.  Boss. Minister or priest.  Girlfriends.

Sassy.  Sometimes it takes decades to get to that place of courage.  But get there, prayerfully, we will.  Easter is coming.  It’s a time of rebirth.  Let us as people, and especially as women, be reborn to the magnificence of the light within us.

I’ve always loved Easter because of the powerful theme of rebirth.  It means we have the chance to begin anew.  We can armor ourselves (I know…it’s an aggressive word) in the truth of rebirth.  We can honor ourselves with rebirth.  Rebirth is our protection and our weapon because it holds the magic and power of our personal strength.

Dang.  What, you may be asking, set her off this time?

If you have happened across this blog for any length of time, you know that I can get pretty passionate about things that inspire self-respect and inner strength. Today, my passion lies in the insistence that young girls grow up confident in their ability to hold their own in all things.  Being sassy is not an easy path.

Sassy.  I define myself for myself.  No one else defines me.  No matter what words they use.  No matter who they are.

Not too long ago, I was sitting in a group of women. We were a multi-cultural group of varying ages.  A young woman and mother stated that she was feeling pushed to go into a career that she didn’t like because of the money she would make.  She wanted an artistic career.  She wanted to explore her options.  All of a sudden, some of the women — women who had crushed their own dreams and desires — were all over this girl, blabbering all the things we have heard all of our lives.  Be practical.  There’s no money in the arts.  Make a living.  And..did I already say this? — be practical.   I saw the light of doubt flicker in her eyes, and I thought of all the times I chose practicality over my heart.

Well.  Folks who know me know that when it comes to women’s dreams, I’m going to go on the aggressive.  And I was all over these folks like white on rice as I defended her right to decide for herself how she would make a living, and explained lovingly —  to her directly — that only she could decide, but that she had the right to her dream.  She had family support.  Why not?

The women reminded me of too many misery filled women of my generation who made the wrong choices, and now want others to swim in the waters they’re drowning in.  In the end, my message is: Young women, define your selves, and, if you are aware, do not make choices out of fear.

Women.  We, too often, say yes when we mean no.  We become afraid of being alone and think that alone means lonely.  Women.  We, too often, play coy and lead people to the belief that they have to take care of us and that we are willing to go along when — really — we are not willing to go along.  Women.  We may tell someone that she looks just great when she has spinach in her teeth.  Where do we learn these passive aggressive behaviors?  Sad to say, but it’s often from other women.  Our inability to stand in the truth of our own strength leaves us feeling like limp celery in the important areas of our lives.  We just won’t call back rather than saying “don’t talk to me that way.”

A friend showed me a trick the other day . Cut off the bottom of a piece of limp celery, and stick that thing in a glass of water.  It firms up again.  Rebirth.

I know.  Men have issues, too.  But in so many ways, society has given them a foot ahead of the starting line.  No one — no exceptions — can define a person better than that person herself.  We are as we see ourselves to be.

Be Sassy.  Tell the truth.  Be sexy.  Be creative.  Be talented.  Be all that we can be.  God put that energy inside of us.  S/he placed those desires within. S/he doesn’t intend for the fire to be put out.

Use the s word.  Sassy.  Sassy begins with an S.  Rebirth begins with an R.  S follows R in the dictionary.  Be Reborn.  Be Sassy.  Have a glorious rebirth and a magnificent spring!