The Light We See By

Angela's candle for her dad          Were I learning to read today I feel sure my picture books would include children of all skin colors and ethnicity. The closest books about anything outside my everyday experiences of white America that I can remember, was a series about twins of various countries. However, these were not living in my town or even my country. My history lessons were primarily about Europe and even the myths I studied were Greek, Roman or Norse, and all the gods and goddesses had white skin. Black culture or history was not included in my grade school or even High school studies. This in and of itself forms a kind of prejudice against non-whit, non-Europeans.

Prejudice aims at many targets. I remember a comic strip in my youth that featured a white child with a pointed head named Denny Dimwit. As part of the humor he was an object of fun. Today a strip like that would be banned. I also remember there used to be a whole series of jokes about various and sundry ethnic individuals who were portrayed as stupid or in other derogatory ways. Children growing up today may find other targets of prejudice, yet still progress is being made. One thing that may have helped is the integration of all kinds of learners in the classroom.

With the Black lives matter movement in full swing, many of us may be examining our own potential for prejudice, regardless what it may be about. The need for awareness of how it functions today is obvious. The color of a person’s skin is often an occasion for prejudice, usually when we have grown up around those who make derogatory comments about it. However, prejudice comes in many forms and is aimed at many of us. Over time, we have become more aware of this, and now it is more important than ever.

Young children are not naturally prejudiced. They may like or dislike someone, yet their feelings will normally be based on behavior or previous experience than pre judgement. There is a line in a song from South Pacific, a popular musical from 1949 and years afterward, with a line that says: “You’ve got to be taught to hate.” If we really wish to make it real forever that black lives matter, we must begin at an early age to make sure children do not grow up prejudiced about skin color.

The difficulty is that what we believe—black people are…, tints what we perceive. It creates expectations that color what we see and hear. Our perceptions are primarily governed by our beliefs and these are based upon what we have been told as young people. This is a form of “knowledge” we may not be aware we employ to make the decisions that govern our behavior. The light with which we perceive others may distort our view. In addition, the shadows cast by the light may loom large and deceive the eye. If we are mindful, we can often stop the automatic prejudice that may spring to mind. It’s all part of learning and growing. Humanity has an opportunity to take a giant leap forward. May it be so.

How Much Is Enough?

20180829_104856           When I was a young wife in the fifties, my father helped us buy a house in the small town where I had grown up. Just outside my kitchen door was a garbage pail sunk into the ground. I would step on the lid, dump in my orange peels, potato peelings, stale food, etc. and once a week a man would come by with a big truck, pull out the bucket, empty it into his truck, and along with all the other garbage he had collected, take it to feed his pigs.

His piggery was deep in a wooded area and the smell bothered no one because it was quite isolated. I expect that today his pig farm would have been deemed unsanitary and done away with. Then it fitted in with a more appropriate attitude of the time of waste not want not. It made a good thrifty use for what otherwise would go to waste. In those days there was a more sensible attitude toward what we have and what we need, or so it seems to me. The Covid 19 crisis seems to have exacerbated a prevailing need to have more and more.

Not long ago people were treating toilet paper as if it were about to vanish from the earth. One person even spotted a woman loading her SUV with an entire tray of rolls from a Walmart. Other items vanished from shelves as people reacted out of fear of lack. How much I need is one amount. That need springs from a logical, rational approach to having. How much I want may stem from a fear of loss, a desire to own more than I already have, plain greed, or envy driven by a competitive nature.

Need and want are such different conditions. Operating from an awareness of need is different than operating from a feeling of want.   I once read a story told by someone waiting in an airport who overheard a mother and daughter saying goodbye to one another. As they embraced, she overheard one say to the other, “I wish you enough.” The other replied with the same words. At first it seemed a curious thing to say for a farewell. As I reflected, I realized that to have enough is actually an absolutely perfect condition in which to be.

When I have enough, I have the space to put it. When I have more than enough, whether food needing refrigeration or clothing to find room for in our shared closet, I have to become creative about fitting whatever it is in. I may end up shoving things to the back of the refrigerator and losing sight of them, or into the back of the closet and doing the same. Then what I have lost sight of may become either moldy or essentially useless. It is said that much food goes to waste in this country, and no doubt leftovers may be a large part of that food.

Raised in a New England family by a thrifty German mother, I try to be very mindful not only about my leftovers but also my wardrobe. My beloved, however was raised by a mother who enjoyed abundance and showered it on her family. Sometimes we experience minor conflict around our divergent opinions. As the days go by, my refrigerator goes from full to empty and back again. Our closet, too has its moments. What matters to me is that we work out what constitutes enough for each of us, and that we make peace with our different opinions.

 

Comments? Questions? Suggestions? Write me at tashahal@gmail.com

Satisfaction Guaranteed

Flowers at the bank 3Do you take satisfaction in what you may have accomplished? Or do you tell yourself you could have done whatever it was better, or done more? Most of us have a critical voice inside that will not let us be satisfied with what we may have done, even though we may well deserve it. That critical voice can originate early in life from a parent, a teacher, or a boss. Now it has become a part of us as adults, and it robs us of the joy we might take from our satisfaction. To be satisfied may actually take courage, the courage to admit we have done something worthwhile.

It is easier to take satisfaction from small accomplishments. My mother used to find it very satisfying to hang up a basket of laundry on the clothesline in her back yard. When she finished, she’d stand back, sigh, and then smile as she beheld the washing flapping in the breeze. It gave her a feeling of accomplishment. I understand how she felt. When I have done some cleaning, or tidied a bureau drawer, I get a similar feeling. The good thing about these small tasks is that they can be done relatively quickly, providing instant joy. Unfortunately, even they are subject to that critical inner voice.

I have encountered that niggling voice all too often in the past, especially when it was connected to a major accomplishment. I have also learned from it to stop, recollect my effort, and remember to pat myself on the back. When you feel good about what you have accomplished, it is vitally important to pat yourself on the back. That unkind voice might tell you not to. It is not a voice from the heart but one from the past. The person voicing those words may have felt it was unwise to praise you for fear you would rest on your laurels and grow lazy. My mother’s mother passed on that way of thinking to my mother.

Many years ago, I taught myself to play my guitar. Proudly I played my mother a song I had just learned. “That was nice,” she said, ‘Now when will you write your own songs?” To say I was disappointed is an understatement. Though eventually I did write my own songs, it wasn’t because of what she had said, but perhaps in spite of it. Praise by oneself for oneself is an important act of self love. The more we love ourselves, the bigger our heart grows, and more we can love others. The more grateful and appreciative we are of our own efforts, the more we can enjoy those of others.

Taking satisfaction is a conscious decision. It may start with or end with contentment. When I look at my clean kitchen floor, I can be content and satisfied with how it looks, and how it is for me to have made it look this way. Even if I notice a smudge I may have missed, I can still feel satisfaction, because I have done my best, and then I can wipe up that smudge. However, this does not have to change my sense of satisfaction. I can still feel good about my efforts. Were I so inclined, I could criticize myself and say, “Look at you! You missed that spot. See? You didn’t do a good job!” Or I could say to myself, “Because I did such a good job, the floor is so clean that small smudge became obvious. Now I have made it look even better; good for me! I feel satisfied and content.”

 

Polishing the Pots

Pots and pans 1In the fifties, when I was a young mother with two small daughters, my friends and I often gathered in one another’s kitchens for visits and chitchat. One day one of my friends looked at me, shook her head and said, “You are so brave, hanging your copper-bottomed pots for all to see without polishing them. Most women wouldn’t dare.” I smiled at her. “It doesn’t seem important to polish them,” I told her. “I’d rather play with my children or read to them.”

Today many mothers do not have that opportunity. Most families these days require two incomes for survival. This has not always been true, and it is also true that some mothers sacrifice the income and make do in order to be with their children while they are young. However, at that time, many young mothers did not work outside of the home, and instead put their diligence into their housekeeping and their children. Their pride was put into their homes and its appearance.

I was happy to be home with my children. My mother was an artist. I had not been raised to work outside the home, or to have a career in the wider world. My ambition was to be a writer, and I pursued my craft any way I could, writing publicity for the various organizations I belonged to, and sending my poetry off to magazines. Housework was not my first concern. I even wrote and sang a humorous song about how the housework could wait until my children grew up. I recall one husband of our acquaintance remarking to the children’s father that he felt I was out of line with my sentiments. Truth be told, I was happy to avoid housework any way I could.

One of the main reasons I disliked it so much was that once I began cleaning, it was difficult for me to stop until I was completely finished. Yet finishing was a goal that often eluded me because I kept thinking of more, I could do to make whatever I was cleaning perfect. One day I ran across a magazine article that suggested limiting a task to twenty minutes at a time. This helped somewhat, and I began to attempt to put this regimen into practice. I still suffer from this condition to a degree. I’m not sure why, and I look upon it as one of my opportunities to be mindful rather than go on automatic and be carried on the tide of my forward motion.

I haven’t polished the bottoms of my pots for many a year. My housekeeping duties have changed considerably, nor do I any longer have little children to mind. I can usually sit down to write whenever I like. I truly cherish this freedom, once so rare. Remembering those happy days I spent with my little ones, I do feel for mothers who  have to work outside the home, and who don’t have the time to spend with their young children that I and many of my generation had. Rather than spend my free moments polishing, I do my best to find the time for fun that brings me joy, whether it’s watching movies with Stephen, taking a walk in the good weather, or simply sitting and allowing myself to relax and listen to music. Polishing the pots for show is the least of my concerns, and I most likely will never hear anyone comment on them again.

 

Competition Versus Cooperation

chickens.jpgI’ve never been a competitive person. Usually a sense of competition kicks in around the age of four, when a child gains a clear understanding of “me” and “mine.” Even then there is often a desire to share unless the child is surrounded by competitors. When I was growing up competition was the rule and the idea of a game that required cooperation instead was unknown. I did not enjoy the competitive world I grew up in.

Even as a child I disliked competition in sports. One reason was that I wasn’t very agile or well-coordinated and thus most often chosen last for any team. Another was that it made me sad that someone had to lose in order for someone to win. I played board games yet not with a keen desire to win. For instance, Parcheesi which was a popular game when I was young was best won by blocking opponents and rendering them helpless. I never enjoyed doing that. For me, that was like punishing someone or hurting them.

My mother was a fierce competitor. She loved games and was good at them. She played Bridge and Mahjong with her friends. With me she played card games and Chinese checkers, which she played without mercy, making no allowances for youth or inexperience. She played to win, regardless. As a result, I did learn to play a good game of Chinese checkers. Fast forward to my adulthood. I still resisted competition when I could. Unfortunately, my children invariably made me enter the tired Mothers Race at the fourth of July games. in the town where they grew up. I came in last no matter how hard I tried.

My children’s father was very competitive. He encouraged the children while they were still quite young to play on teams and to compete. He even started a girls’ softball league in the town where we lived.  My daughters and then my sons all strove to do well in order to make him happy. He cherished their ribbons and trophies and often coached their various teams to victory. As a loyal mom I used to attend their tennis matches and their and baseball and ice hockey games, cheering along with the other parents and trembling for fear they would lose and be sad.

Regardless whether or not they won, I was glad whenever the games or matches were over. Certainly, my children learned much from their years playing tennis, hockey, and baseball. They had fun and met other children they would not have met otherwise. I am not regretful for them, though I do feel there are other ways to have fun that they might have enjoyed as well. I was too busy keeping up with household and child caring duties to do much about that.

Competition is said to be a good learning experience for children. Today even little ones barely out of toddler years are put on teams to play at various sports. For competitive people that’s good. For those like me, not so much. On the other hand, it is possible to play games in the spirit of cooperation. Team efforts in sports are only one way. There is also a cooperative way to play many games, and that is to play to see how high the score can rise. Scrabble can be played that way, and I know that’s how I would prefer to play it.

It’s Hearty Soup Weather

2014-09-16 15.36.53 During most of history, people ate what they had put away for the winter in their cellars and barns. In Colonial New England, unless someone had a greenhouse a midwinter salad was unheard of. In the Middle Ages in Europe and Russia, fasting during Lent was a necessity because what little food was available to most by late winter had to be hoarded and used carefully. People ate with the seasons. Forty years ago on a late spring trip to Russia with my mother I recall cabbage being served to us daily. It keeps well if properly stored.

Root vegetables can stay fresh for months. Turnips, Carrots, Rutabagas and winter squashes keep when in a cold place. I recall the root cellar in my Great Aunt Alice’s large garden—a deep hole with a wooden cover where vegetables could be safely stored for the winter months. I prefer to eat with the seasons. I feel healthier eating root vegetables often in fall and winter.

One thing special thing about fall is that my appetite returns and I can eat more without gaining weight. Those extra calories burn to keep me warm. However I do not eat more empty calories: i.e. desserts, snacks, sweets. Instead I eat more vegetables and healthy carbohydrates. Soup calories are always good fuel for the body. Hearty fall and winter soups are made with root vegetables, winter squash, beans, and other appropriate ingredients.

Sturdy herbs like thyme, oregano, rosemary and tarragon add flavor and food value to these soups as well. I begin most of my soup recipes by sautéing chopped onion, finely chopped celery, and ground garlic (not garlic powder, that has less flavor) in butter and olive oil. The mung beans in this recipe can be found at any health food store if your market does not carry them, and are a nice change from the more commonly used lentils or other kinds of beans.

My mung bean soup is a little different from the average bean soup. For this hearty recipe sauté ½ cup onion and 1 cup celery chopped small in 2 Tbs olive oil and 2 Tbs butter until transparent. Add 1 tsp each of thyme, rosemary, curry powder, and ground garlic . Stir in 2 cups peeled, chopped firm potatoes and 1 cup or more sliced carrots. Add 2 cups beef broth, and 4 cups water. Bring to a boil and simmer for an hour or so, until vegetables are tender and soup is tasty.

Cauliflower has become popular lately. I have seen versions of it prepared in many ways. This is my cauliflower soup: Thinly slice ½ to ¾ of a large cauliflower and 1 or 2 large carrots. Simmer in 2 cups water until soft. Meanwhile, Sauté 1 medium onion and 6 cloves garlic chopped, black pepper and your choice of seasonings in olive oil. Mash simmered vegetables and add sautéed ones. Add 2 cups chicken broth. If desired, thicken with leftover mashed potato or a roux made from 2 Tbs butter and 2 Tbs flour stirred over medium heat, with 1 cup added liquid of your choice stirred until smooth and thick.

Agreeing to Disagree

2014-09-16 15.36.53My parents frequently discussed decisions, disagreed often and usually did so at the tops of their voices. They were a fiery couple and yelled their feelings vociferously. We did not have any neighbors nearby and no one could hear them but me. Though there was never any physical violence between them, I do remember the day my mother hurled a plate of scrambled eggs at my father. He ducked and it sailed into the closed window behind him, breaking through it, to land and shatter on the stone terrace beneath, breaking through the wood.

Their fights were scary for me. As a young child I found their loud discussions difficult to bear. I vowed I would never do that to my family. When I married my late first husband it was with that thought in mind. I worked extra hard to keep the peace. I made sure we did not fight or even disagree  in front of or within hearing of our children.  Also, he was not one to express his feelings anyway. Actually, he did not like to discuss them at all. He made the rules. Our marriage did not survive the rough waters of silent dismay and disagreement.

When Stephen and I first got together I told him that if our relationship were to last it must be based on honesty. As I explained it, what that meant was that when one of us had negative feelings to express or was uncomfortable about something, that person must be able to talk about it freely. He agreed to this and our relationship just passed its forty second year.

Very rarely have we had what could be termed a fight. We do bicker, and we do discuss, and sometimes we need to just say, “I hear you,” and let it go.  No matter how much you may love them it is impossible to agree on everything with one’s loved one. For instance, Stephen finds it easy to ignore his piles of various possessions, clothes, papers, etc.. He doesn’t care how much they accumulate and though he may try to be neat, it’s just not one of his priorities.

We differ radically on this. To my way of thinking , insofar as I am able, to arrange it there’s a place for everything and everything goes into its place. This often creates opportunities for discussion between us. However, because frequent communication is the bedrock of a good relationship, this is good. Talking about how we feel keeps the feelings from piling up and becoming negative behavior. Mutual respect keeps conversation civil, and when we agree to disagree, love prevails and so does harmony.

Though you may not agree with everything a loved one says or does, when you love him or her wholeheartedly you can respect his or her opinions enough to allow him or her to keep them. That does not mean there is nothing to discuss. That discussion is the glue that keeps rhe relationship together. It is important to express your own feelings as well as to allow those of your loved one to be heard. Most importantly, it is vital to speak with tact and gentleness rather than sarcasm and bitterness. The eyes and ears of love are kind.

Helping Out Friends and Neighbors

grandmothers 6 cake

 

My father, my grandmother and even my great aunt did a lot of volunteer work. I remember my grandmother telling me about rolling bandages during World War II. My great aunt was a Girl Scout leader. My father volunteered his services to the radio for the blind as well as serving as treasurer to some of the organizations to which he belonged. My mother taught small children in her studio when she lived in the Cayman Islands. Volunteering comes naturally when you grow up with it. Many of us do what we can to be of help.

Some years ago a friend of mine and her mother began making pillowslip dresses for young ladies in third world countries. Made from two lengths of material sewn together and tied at the shoulders, these simple inexpensively produced dresses, have supplied a great many girls and young women with modest colorful clothing. Since then the mother and daughter have had many other people join them in their efforts. It brings all who participate a sense of joy as well as the sense of satisfaction that comes from being of help to others.

There are countless ways to share effort. Most churches, senior organizations and even listserves offer opportunities. Giving rides, doing errands, bringing meals, or just being a friendly person to the aged and housebound is one simple, easily found one. Most soup kitchens welcome your help as often as you can manage. Many organizations look for volunteers to assist staff. Helping out a young mother in your neighborhood with child minding while she goes grocery shopping can be a boon. Even the small act of holding the door for the person coming along behind you can bring a smile to that person.

“It is in giving we receive,” said St. Francis of Assisi in his famous prayer for peace. From the time most of are small we are taught to share, to think of others, perhaps to put them first, and to avoid taking the biggest piece of cake or the last cookie. Because it comes when we are very young, this guidance often becomes part of us. We may thrive on the opportunity to do so. However, if I rely solely on the good feeling I get from helping others and neglect to take care of my own needs, I am apt to feel resentment or even neglect when I do not receive what feels like sufficient gratitude for my help

It is vital not to make sacrifices that I cannot afford, however, I need not expect thanks, nor feel neglected when I remember to acknowledge my own efforts to myself.  I need not depend on anyone else’s gratefulness, because I can feel inner gratitude to have been able to help. The act of giving brings with it a natural source of uplift to the heart. This fountain of joy flows freely when we look into ourselves for the acknowledgement we deserve for our efforts. It is lovely to be thanked, and I try to remember to do it often. It is also good when we feel that as an echo of our own inner sense of gratitude.

 

Small Blessings Bring Joy

Dandelion and pebblesKittens grow up and become cats. They learn to use their claws on the furniture, and then they reach a point where if we do not pay attention, they may produce more kittens. Snow falls, gets turned by snowmen by eager, mittened fingers, and then when the sun comes out and the cold retreats, they melt. I wash the dishes, polish up the burners on the stove and sigh, remembering that there will soon be more dishes to wash and something will fall on the cooking surface and smell of burning if I don’t notice it before I begin to cook again.

It is important to me to take notice of how nice it is to have an empty sink and a clean stove. If all I do is think about doing it over again I will miss the feeling of how nice it is to have done with my small tasks. They can become routine, done without thinking, and without appreciation for the effort as well as for the result. When I take the time to notice, I feel better about myself and about my life in general.

When spring comes and the first bluebells and crocuses poke up through the thawed ground, how wonderful it is. We say, “Spring is here.” And it is. Yet spring turns to summer. Then we rejoice in the longer days and firefly strewn nights, until the hours of daylight begin to shorten again. Fall’s bounty of color comes and then goes.  It is good to appreciate what we have while we have it because as a wise teacher of mine used to say, the only constant is change.

It’s easy to take for granted small blessings that pass quickly. We do it all the time without thinking. We’re actually more likely to take notice of what is wrong than what is right. I’ve read that our brains are wired that way for self-preservation. It’s important to make note of the danger lurking nearby—is that a wild beast? Or see the car coming a little too fast as we are about to cross the street. However, our built in warning system can override our joy.

Just recently the wild roses bloomed. Their sweet smell permeated the air by my back porch. I made sure to take time to enjoy their scent. Now the petals have turned brown and I have to wait until next year to enjoy them again. Still, I do have the memory, and although it does not have an actual scent, it can still bring back the pleasure of what I enjoyed when the petals were fresh.

If I am focused on regret because the roses have passed, it is more difficult for me to remember the joy they brought me. As well, I might not be able to take advantage of some new and pleasant experience that could await my notice. Small blessings do not announce their presence with a shout but rather with a whisper. The bright dandelion by the side of a building might go unseen and unappreciated if I am not aware of its gift. If I am only looking at the trash around it, I might not see it all. Small blessings bring joy.

Lemons are Luscious when Sweetened

Lemons, front and back together.png  There is a wonderful song by the Kingston Trio from the 60’s I believe, about lemons. It contains a real truth concerning them: they must be sweetened to taste good. The chorus goes: “Lemon tree very pretty, and the lemon flower is sweet, but the fruit of the lemon is impossible to eat. Very true, and it is also true that lemons can do all sorts of things besides make good recipes..

Versatile lemons can serve us in so many ways it is impossible to count them. You can use them to polish your furniture or to soften your elbows.  I found a lot about their uses when I was doing research for my book Up to my Neck in Lemons. In the Middle Ages ladies used a special straw brim with holes in it to lighten their hair. They would pull strands of hair through the holes and bleach them by painting them with lemon juice and sitting in the sun.

According to my research, the origin of lemons seems to be a mystery. They may have originated in India or perhaps China and are probably a hybrid of the sour orange and the citron. They were known in Egypt and the Middle East from 1000 AD.  They were used primarily as medicine or as an ornament. Once sailors learned to carry them on ships they prevented a disease called scurvy that comes from a lack of vitamin C. Christopher Columbus brought the seeds to the United States from Genoa, where they had been cultivated and used, though often as ornaments. When I visited southern Italy I saw lemon trees growing in gardens there.

Though as I discovered they have so many other uses, we usually think of lemons as food. Yet unlike most fruit, they are not meant to be eaten plain–like apples, or even peeled and sectioned like oranges.  Rather they make a fine ingredient or a wonderful seasoning. Life’s lemons are equally useful. They can season or sweeten our experience, helping us to make our best use of it to learn and grow. However it does take experience and tenacity both to learn this and to put it into operation.

The first and most important skill to develop is observation. I must first notice how I am looking at my life lemon. Once I see how I perceive it, I can change my perspective and see it differently. For example if I am feeling frustrated because something isn’t working the way I want it to, I can keep pushing against the difficulty or I can look to see if there is another way to approach it or perhaps even how I can use it to my advantage.

I can choose how to use this particular lemon—as a sour taste or as a reminder that something must change in order for me to succeed. Of course this can take time and effort, but so does any good recipe, whether for happy living or lemon meringue pudding or pie. In my new book, Up To My Neck in Lemons, I have many actual lemon recipes together with poems, and essays that provide examples of how I have dealt with some of my life lemons. If you would like a copy, please contact me. I’ll tell you how to get a personally autographed copy.