Tag Archives: story telling

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.

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.

 

What. If.

More views from my window.

More views from my window.

If ever the great unknown should provide a sliding board into its waiting mouth, the words “what if” might be the metal from which the board is built.

What if I had married that guy David that my parents tried to arrange for me?  My life would have been so different. Air Force bases all over the world. Babies, maybe five or six. Church every Sunday just like when I grew up.

There would have been no opportunities to have the exciting adventures and to meet the glorious people that are in my life. I would have been — like my mother — an unhappy and unfulfilled woman following someone else’s definition of duty.

What if I had avoided those two carpal tunnel surgeries — two weeks in succession? Could I have avoided what I presume was the infection that led to Guillain Barre Syndrome and then CIDP?

What if I had followed a childhood dream to totally serve God by becoming a nun or a monk? (Stop laughing.) What would my life have been? Have I missed something in not following that pull? Truthfully, no. I don’t think so. For I have embraced a monk’s life in street clothing— with partying on the side.

These  thoughts played in my mind like angry bees. The problem was that I was trying to meditate.

I’ve been blessed with a fairly upbeat nature; positive and very on the edge of Pollyanna. I’ve been held in the palm of Spirit, generous with protection. It’s rare that I swim in the murky puddles of what feels like regret. And so, I was surprised by the forest of thoughts and the blossoms of “what ifs” in my mind. I had to get out of the woods. I got up and took a sharp detour. I wanted to focus on something mellow. Something more sunny-Sunday afternoon like.

What if I just enjoyed the day?

So I went to a place that brings me endless delight and feels so ever like home. The kitchen.

When I was in the skilled nursing facilities, the occupational therapists there kept wanting me to practice my cooking skills by making boxed brownies. Excuse me? One of them actually told me I might never again cook the way I like to cook. She expressly said that my creativity in the kitchen would be limited to maybe 20% of what I had done before. I was enraged.

With exercises that consisted of picking up marbles , flipping over playing cards, bouncing little balls back and forth, and squeezing putty, there was no way I would ever strengthen my hands enough to peel an orange. The bar was set so low that anyone, with any dreams at all or hopes for recovery, could be discouraged. And this was why I released the full force of my anger. She left the room to find the facility administrator.

“Don’t you ever minimize my abilities!”

“I don’t care what the insurance companies say. I’m in charge of my healing. You’re in charge of function. And baking box brownies is not function.”

“Don’t ever tell me what I will not be able to do!”

And so, revved up by the memory of my rant against people who want to enshrine human limitation and, stung, in my meditation, by the angry bees of regret, I went to my kitchen.

Have I shared with you my memories of the kitchen? About the love I experienced in the warmth and smell of my grandparents’ and my mother’s kitchens. I probable have. I come from a lineage of culinary talent that is among the best of cooking royalty. We don’t need awards. We just eat. Relatives of all shapes and sizes were and are masters at their stoves and ovens.

All four of my grandparents, and their families, thrived within the abundant generosity of the South Eastern soil. From the wildlife in the rural woods to the fruit trees, vines, and produce they grew to raising livestock, they were  the creators of the life we watch nostalgically on television shows today. I loved watching both grandmothers knead dough; their rich, dark hands against the white flour that soon become biscuits lighter than the air that I breathe.

We were raised organic. My mother has told me that when pesticides were becoming popular my grandfather refused to use them. He said that whatever was put in the ground would be taken in by the plant, and we would eat the plants and ingest the pesticides. So. We squeamishly picked fat worms and bugs from our collards and cut them from our apples instead. The meals were delicious.

So that Sunday, to still the buzzing bees of thoughts, I went to my refrigerator and pulled out mushrooms, ginger, almond milk, butter, and onions. And I made the best cream of mushroom soup ever. These are testy–and tasty–times. Being able to  cook is a healing gift.

“What if you’re never able to cook like you did before?” she had challenged. Then she ran from my rage.

Good. I had stuffed the blasted genie back into the bottle. As other patients and therapists looked on, I puffed out my chest. And she — the harbinger of low expectations — vanished from my presence.

Blasting away the threat of limitation. Chasing away the angry bees of regret, doubt, and speculation. What if I lived my life this way every day?

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

Two in one month? No. Tow.

Praise the elements and the angels. Fresh air, sunshine, and a chance to get some outdoor exercise with my physical therapist…

Whoa! What’s this?

“I’m not going to jail!!!”

The short, stocky woman stood toe to toe with the young police officer. He looked confused. He had to do his job; he also had to be respectful. Had he threatened to arrest her?

“Ma’am, this is a handicapped zone.”

The truth be told, the woman screaming didn’t own the car. I don’t know how she got into this thing. But, by now, a crowd of senior and elderly citizens had gathered, and they were not happy.

I, on the other hand — and foot — was happy. I had been cooped up in my apartment for more than 40 days. This was the third day of sunlight and warm temperatures in a winter that almost had me believing in Armageddon. If I could have danced without falling — well, let me just say “I’m workin’ on it.”

“Please don’t tow my car!”

The woman in the (very comfortable looking I might add) pink robe was terrified.

“This is a handicapped zone.”

A young woman visiting her mother patiently repeated this fact to anyone who would listen. The tow truck line was attached to the car. It’s a cosmic fact. Once the line is attached, it’s a done deal. There were five — yes, I counted them — five police cars with the officers facing this angry group. It was a little dramatic.

“Please…”

I live in this lovely place because I, too, now qualify as a senior. You have no idea how much angst went into this revelation. But I suppose that with a serious illness comes the willingness to let go of façades. One after another the veils drop, and  secrets are left open for examination by anyone who chooses to peek. It doesn’t matter if people say my skin looks so smooth, my face so young, and my attitude youthful. Illness can bring, if one is willing, a new and glorious embrace of the present. I can now ride the commuter train for $1.

It’s a new place, barely eight years old. My apartment faces the woods of a college campus across the road. My first week here I saw a fox. And during this horrifically snowy season, I had the pleasure of watching cross-country skiers on the trail that will be hidden once the trees bloom in the spring.

Sometimes, in the quiet of night, I hear the cries of some small animal or bird that is meeting it’s fate as dinner. It’s eerie; that pitiful cry and then silence. But then the morning comes.

This dramatization around an illegally parked car seemed to play into the predator/prey story. Except that everyone felt they were prey. No one in the situation wanted to be there. The faces of those young officers, all white, revealed their discomfort. They wanted to be anywhere else on the planet: chasing drunk drivers, arresting bank robbers, responding to fire emergencies — anywhere but here with five cop cars for a handful of senior citizens. The young white tow truck driver looked fearful as he talked with his supervisor on his cell phone.

The seniors, with the exception of one, were all black. The situation was, I suppose for some, um, awkward.

I am more warped. Oh, the thrill of it! Not only was I outside; I was being entertained. And I suppose, on some level, I knew the situation would be resolved amicably. Why? Because it’s an amicable community, within and outside of the complex. And no one —  believe me, no one — wanted to be on the evening news.

I’ve been listening to people complain about cabin fever this winter. Yes, the temperatures have been in the single digits, the snow has been up to 10 inches deep — more in some places — and spring seems too far away. But after a year of living mostly indoors, I am finding it hard to have one ounce of pity. The extent of my travels has been the tedious act of using a wheelchair or walker to move from one room to another. For those with physical limitations, we’d give anything to walk into the frigid air or put our feet into the snow.

“Ma’am,” an exasperated, but patient, officer repeated. “This is a handicapped zone.”

My physical therapist and I had work to do and went about our business: my learning to use the walker as I stepped off a curb and walked on the pathway between the building and the parking lot.

Whoa. What’s this?

A miracle of the modern world occurred. The tow truck driver unhitched his line.

The young girl, as a gesture of kindness to the car owner, moved the car to its designated parking space. It seemed that everyone was going to have a happy ending. The woman in the pink robe came to each of us individually to thank us for praying for her (I admit that I was not owed this thanks). The police were so ready to go look for real trouble. The tow truck driver, having not been attacked by a bunch of old folks, climbed into his truck to leave.

I, fully exhilarated, returned to my apartment.

May your days be free of tow trucks. And—if you have an inclination to do it because you’ll only be there for a few minutes — DON’T. Don’t park in a handicapped zone. It’s rude. It’s inconsiderate. It will cost you up to $200. And it costs taxpayers money to send the police when you take a space that rightfully belongs to someone else.

Okay. I’m done. Peace out.

On: Tenderness

Dignity

What was it that Otis Redding said? Oh yes.

Try a little tenderness.

Tenderness.

Why is it so challenging to bask in the love that we all desire? I believe that it is everyone’s intention to surround themselves with the softness of life. By that I don’t mean the softness of material things, the silks and satins and cashmere of life. I mean the softness that comes with peace of being… Soft. Tenderness.

It’s a quiet summer afternoon. I’m looking out the window and watching butterflies circle the backyard. They seem completely at ease. Is it because, amazingly, the black cat with the strange green eyes is at ease? Is she practicing cat tenderness?  She doesn’t move from her perch as the butterflies and birds flit around her. Only the gray squirrel raises a racket. There is no threat. Softness abounds.

Sunlight fills crevices like liquid. My soul is filled with tenderness. And I, who thrive on seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, want to believe that every human being loves the sun.

The poets, romantics, musicians, spiritual teachers — even scientists — testify to the healing power of tenderness. Go ahead, say it isn’t so. But you’ll find yourself in some very isolated company.

I’m reminded of mornings on my grandparents’ farms. Both maternal and paternal grandparents knew the power of tenderness and peace. My own memories allow me to understand why my mother, in her dementia, retreats to a place of softness and safety.

Not too long ago, I was asked by a health practitioner to remember what that tenderness feels like in my body. I was happy to revisit that glorious childhood experience. Vacations were watercolor mornings, filled with strolls amid the corn, watermelon, and tomato fields with paternal and maternal grandfathers. For me, our small farms and communities played in my mind as barricades against treacherous white men whose daily bread filled them with the hatred required to circle the south looking for unarmed black men and boys.

“Remember what that tenderness felt like,” they say. It’s because currently my life requires the wondrous gift of tenderness: regular rest, naps, real food and more proteins (did I tell you I now eat poultry as well as fish? Gone, gone are those days of self-righteous food Puritanism!) I eat vigilantly, and monitor my emotions. “Get eight hours sleep,” said my dear physiatrist Dr. J.

For 40 years when I thought of South Carolina away from my grandparents’ homes, I thought of a place contaminated with murder and the blood and bones of enslaved black people. With my maternal grandparents gone, their home and land sold, and my estrangement from the conservative religious views of the South, there was no reason to return to that place. History suffocated tenderness.

Then I attended a family reunion in Myrtle Beach and the feelings flooded back. The signs on stores, restaurants, and bathrooms and drinking fountains — “colored” and “white, ” placed there to kill the human spirit while threatening the physical body — were gone.

Those signs had pitted my tender heart against my gentle maternal grandfather. When I was about 10 years old, he took us into the city of Sumter to run errands and buy sweets. As if in slow motion, I found myself bowing my head to drink from a fountain clearly marked “white only.” My grandfather did what he had to do to protect me.

He grabbed me by the collar with such force I thought I would choke. My lips never touched the water. Later on, sitting on the porch in his arms, surrounded by the night songs of frogs and crickets in a dark so black you could not see the outline of trees, and the smell of the forest so sweet I wanted to wrap it around my skin, I came to understand three things:

the incredible love and tenderness in the heart of the man forced to take such action;  the incredible love and tenderness in the heart of the man saddened by his own action and; the incredible love and tenderness in my own heart that allowed me to keep loving him.

Tenderness in its myriad forms — family, church, and community — ensured our survival. Tenderness has contributed, in spite of the traumas of living, to the person that I am.

It is a tender summer day and I wonder: If every person, politicians especially, accessed a single memory of tenderness, would the world be a very different place? I, who thrive on seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, would like to think it so.

Words On Art, Pizza, and a Joyful Life

People like to use the term “fire in the belly” to define that insatiable passion in pursuit of a dream.  I like to think of the term in its relationship to the pursuit of pure joy.

Artists are messengers of pure joy.  They inspire folks to view the world in radically different ways.  They encourage us to be curious and to take risks.   They encourage us to be joyful.  As in…”make a joyful noise unto the Lord..”  Not threatening.  Not fearful.  Joyful.

Even when an artist’s work is something I’m not particularly fond of, I find that I am turned away from that experience only to be propelled toward a more joyful one. For this reason alone, if I had a million or a billion or a trillion dollars, I would give it to artists.

I recently heard a story about how Erma Bombeck said she would greet God if she met him face to face after death.  The story goes (and I am paraphrasing here) that she imagined God asking her what she had brought back for Him.  She said she would tell Him she had nothing to give; that she had used every gift He had given her, and there was nothing in her pockets to return.

I could only sit in amazed silence.  To live like that, one must live joyfully.

The other day, my sister-in-law, nieces, a couple of other girls, and my cousins were over for a pizza making party.  The children are all talented girls, five to eleven years old and sassy with creativity.  Their interests are diverse.  One loves music, one loves to ice skate, and one–I’m betting on it–will be a famous television chef.

The girls immersed themselves in the project immediately, and my small kitchen crackled with joy as each girl rolled out her dough in her own way and used toppings to suit her imagination.  Every pie was a work of art.  I was inspired by their boldness and generosity.   They even made “take outs” for their siblings who were not there to cook with us.

There were no rules, just a lazy afternoon,  ingredients, and joy in the process.  I had done the prep work the day before.  I had made yeasted dough from scratch and filled bowls and containers with toppings that I thought they would enjoy.  To be honest, I had a pretty joyful experience prepping.  I home roasted and sliced red bell peppers, sliced and sautéed mushrooms, chopped roma tomatoes, and sliced black olives.  I diced pepperoni slices into quarter chunks and made a fruit salad.  As I washed and chopped  strawberries,  pears, and oranges, then sliced bananas and added  blueberries and raspberries, I was in the zone.  I could have purchased any number of the ingredients I used–the mushrooms, the roasted red peppers, and sliced olives–but I was painting my picture of children joyously making pizza from scratch.  I couldn’t have stopped prepping if I wanted to.  I was quite happy.

In 1968, I was in San Francisco for the first time.  It was a dynamic time, filled with the presence of flower children and the so-called love generation.  I remember being amazed that I could walk the entire city from one end to another in a day.  There was no BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), no subways.  It was quite a different city then.

One day while walking–and brooding on how difficult life was, a pastime I thought necessary if I wanted to live as an artist–a beautiful man came up to me.  He was African and so beautiful that I will never forget his face.  In those days, I had no suspicion of strangers.

“Why do you look so sad?”  he asked.

I was taken aback, but before I could open my mouth to respond, he was almost singing.  “You should be happy!  Be Happy!”   He patted me on the shoulder and cheerfully walked off.

It seems that this has been a spiritual theme–a command from the Universe, if you will–wherever I go.  Live joyfully. Empty the pockets. That’s the ticket I’m supposed to buy.

Creativity is mysterious medicine, generating in us the desire to live with a fire in the belly for joy.  We’re inspired by interpretations of life–stories, choreography, theater, music, photographs, paintings, and poetry — that reveal the stages and emotional paths bringing us to the joy that we yearn to experience.

Artists inspire us to get up and do something.  Dance something. Write something.  Sing something.  Cook something new and fabulous—maybe a pizza.

Yes indeed.  It is a very good Friday.