Tag Archives: community

Water Chestnuts

Water chestnuts, throughout most of the American Midwest, usually come in cans. They appear as one of the many “vegetable” items in certain Asian dishes and, to the untrained palate, seem to offer little more than extra crunch to any given entree.

I like crunch, thus I like water chestnuts. To my way of thinking and in the context of Asian cuisine, water chestnuts have always been relatively mild cousins to the likes of canned bamboo shoots—positively crunchy and fairly innocuous in terms of taste.

A friend of mine tells a story from his childhood, not about canned water chestnuts but about canned peas. At the home of a relative, the hostess was in the process of serving up a side of peas (another non-vegetable vegetable) for him when he declared quite diplomatically, “I am not a pea fan.”

Spirituality
Spirituality

This simple statement, from the perspective of a child, underscores the fact that canned peas are a distant and somewhat challenged cousin—in terms of flavor and texture—to both flash frozen peas or the Vanderbilt of legumes fresh peas.

Fresh, flash frozen or canned? My own relationship with water chestnuts changed radically one year, after our family moved to a Big-Ten-University town. This university’s extensive Asian population supported not one Asian specialty supermarket—but four large, dedicated Asian grocers, where water chestnuts were flown-in regularly and could be purchased fresh.

Fresh water chestnuts are a completely different animal, as the expression goes, when compared to their canned cousins. Fresh water chestnuts are incredibly nutty, with a delightful depth of flavor that is not replicated in any other “vegetable” I know. And, they are crisp and ungrainy—like some of the very best fall, apple varieties. I fell in love. Who knew that an issue of processing could so radically change the nature of a simple “vegetable”—water chestnut or pea?

In thinking about this issue of changed states with processing—whether meeting a food item for the first time or, in a cataclysmic mental leap, acquainting ourselves with the personality of an individual for the first time—I wonder about what we are actually experiencing when we encounter something or someone who is not in their most authentic state of Being—not fresh.

It could be that the person we are encountering for the first time has been flash frozen by life circumstances. Flash frozen is close to fresh, but it is not fresh. And, life processing is going to change the metaphorical flavor, texture, appearance and nutritive value of any sentient being.

Or, what if—after ten years of being “canned” in the pressure cooker of her parents’ home—the hardened child has had the natural vibrancy drained from her character and/or her contributory capacities compromised to the extent that she causes problems in a classroom?

I bring this up because, when we come to encounter that person on the street who makes us want to turn away, we must behave like we know that that person is relating to the world in a processed state. Each of us should be wondering or at least curious about what another person (or we) might be like, if he (we) were able to return to an unprocessed, fresh state.

A canned water chestnut or pea can never turn back into a fresh version of itself. And, yet, the miraculous thing about people is that there are opportunities in every one of our lives to do just that—to become fresh, authentic, true. But that journey of reverse processing, if you will, in order to return to one’s freshest state is sometimes a long, challenging or seemingly impossible.

So, we need to be here for one another—with patience, kindness, good listening skills and compassion. Each one of us is in possession of a depth and breadth and set of  gifts, our unique flavors, which would benefit us all, if only they could be tasted and shared.

Spiritual Seasons

A large, mature black-walnut tree stretches its limbs to embrace the sky.

In our backyard, this tree’s trunk is so substantial that, for the tree itself to be embraced, two people would need to reach out, press the sides of their faces and their unguarded hearts against the tree’s bark to clasp hands. Only then would another circle of awareness be able to touch the tree’s Being.

Spirituality
Spirituality

Some urban yard keepers consider the black walnut a high-maintenance tree. During good years, the walnut bears large seeds, with nut meats firmly ensconced in hard protective shells, guarded by yet another layer or husk of a pithy bright green.

All of this fruit is of a substantial diameter and mowing becomes impossible without its timely collection. In addition to black walnuts, every autumnal season, our yard fills with a layer of detritus from the tree’s fine, needle-like leaf stems or petioles (black walnuts have a composite leaf structure), as well as a traditional cascade of deciduous leaves.

One of the walnut tree’s functions, as a “community citizen” engaged in selfless service, is that of neighborhood fresh-food market. When there is a good year or season, this tree produces enough walnuts to help sustain, not only a thriving community of squirrels, but our own.

We collect and fill gigantic tubs with the unhulled walnuts, which may be sold to a local processing facility. This processing facility, in turn, sells the shelled black walnuts back to the community. There is not a great deal of money to be made in this endeavor, but the collection of the walnuts is part of honoring the tree’s natural labor and the more general circle-of-life.

The act of producing fruit is not an annual constant. We have lived through two years of severe drought with this tree, thinking there might be few walnuts during those years. Nonetheless, during the years of severest drought, we were surprised to observe the tree ramp up nut “production” to bring forth not one but two bumper crops.

For two consecutive years, the black walnut seemed to produce something out of nothing—fleshy moistness out of the earth’s brittle dryness, as if striving to reaffirm its own life as well as the lives of those around and seeming to draw from its own internal stores of water to give more than it received.

Sometimes, when our own lives are endangered, we push our children forth into the world to take our places—whether we sink our roots deeply into the soil to commit to serving in one location or roam the earth to find our place of service, while walking on just two legs.

During the drought years, as I observed the phenomenon of this tree’s abundant fruit-bearing with amazement, I could not help but be reminded of the European Jews who were recorded throwing their babies to the outstretched arms of other Jews fortunate enough to be leaving Europe on departing ships at the outset of World War II.

In reality, the walnut tree standing in our yard is not “ours.” We share a place in the world with this tree, and this black walnut shares itself with us and our outdoor neighbors, the squirrels.

The tree stands as a source of food, shade, playful respite and shelter. In our own ways, “we”—the squirrels and members of our household—each try to give back in support of the tree by assisting the walnut with its process of propagation.

Gathering and planting black walnuts in the soil, where they hope the seeds will winter-over and become late-winter or spring meals, the squirrels busy themselves with the act of putting food by, all autumn long. Sometimes these walnuts become breakfast, lunch or dinner; sometimes these walnuts are forgotten and, in remaining unclaimed, take root in the soil to become seedlings.

For our part in the process of propagation, whenever our household is able, we dig these seedlings, pot them and eventually drive to replant them in remote places on rural land. It might be stealth reforestation or guerilla forestry. It is part of a spiritual practice which assuages feelings of modern isolation or urban disconnectedness from the natural world.

Looking for sunlight amid an opening in an already full canopy of foliage outside of the city, we plant seedlings where they might thrive. It is a process of hike, search, dig, plant, water, then, retreat. We say farewells, “We wish you well. Grow tall, majestic, become who you were meant to become,” because, after all is said and done, that is what each of us was brought here to do—affirm one another’s lives in the context of Community.

Remembering Who We Are

Leaving the house in search of some downtime, I take a chance on spending part of the late afternoon at a charitable thrift store.

Pulling into the parking lot of one of this area’s largest stores, I find only two spaces remaining. Balloons and special signs tell me today is a serious sale day. People are everywhere, arriving, leaving and milling about.

Over the years I have lived here, I have come to recognize a few of this community’s most serious secondhand shoppers-not by name but by appearance. And, when I begin to bump into any one of them frequently, it is a signal that I need a few months off from my own charitable-thrift-store “ministry.”

Spirituality
Spirituality

This afternoon’s trip is about getting out of the house to regroup, ground and center, rather than being about hunting for something in particular. Walking into the warehouse-sized store, oldies blare through the PA. My mood, which is upbeat, elevates even more. And, though the store is very busy, the racks are full enough for the methodical shifting of garments in front of my chasséing body. I will be able to regain center amid the chaos of people.

Moving through one section of the store, I notice a mother-daughter pair, whom I have not seen in a long while. The daughter is a mature woman, and her mother looks more frail than she did the last time I saw them bargain hunting. More frail or not, the mother maintains her general sparkle—a sparkliness of countenance which I love seeing.

Two sections later and with a one-half-hour between us, all three of us end up in the same area. To bypass the lines at the dressing rooms, I use a full-length mirror to try a dress on over my clothing.

Setting her frail body down on a steam trunk which is for sale, the mother glances my way. “It looks like a fit!” she announces. (Supportive, team shopping is not uncommon in this area.)

Struggling to release the hem of the garment from the grip of my blue jeans, I answer, “Well, almost. I need to drop the hem to make sure.”

We talk a little more—idle chit chat of the girl variety. I am reminded that this type of banter is a luxury, a gift representing a certain amount of leisure time. We are fortunate. Having finally dropped the hem, I zip the dress up. It fits in a lumpy manner over my clothing, but it is good enough to take home and retry. Unzipping the garment, I slip it over my head and fold it, placing it on the small stack of items I have.

Readying myself to leave, I stop briefly in front of the elderly mother, with whom I have been conversing.

“Where have you been?” I ask frankly. “I have not seen you or your daughter out for a long while.”

“Oh, I have had such adventures this year,” she replies. “First I had a mild heart attack, then, a mild stroke. After that, I was mending.”

Worn into her daughter’s face are the lines of an exceptional care-giver. Every new line has been translated.

“Oh, my. You have had quite a year,” I respond simply.

Then, reaching for my hand, she takes it into the smooth cradle of both of her soft-skinned arthritic hands, saying, “You look like a praying woman. Please pray for me. Pray for my health.”

She has granted me a blessing. The blessing of being seen.

As she releases my hand, I assure her that I will add her to my prayers.

Exposed

Travelling through the “headwaters” of the American South, I stop at one of my favorite stores to pick up a few items for a thick lentil soup. I am on my way to see family who now live even further afield from the Upper-Midwestern region we used to call home.

Walking the aisles, after a few hours of driving, I fill my shopping basket with millet, brown rice and large, locally grown produce—onions, tomatoes, cabbage and greens. As I shop, I notice someone in the store has been working extra hard to introduce some levity into the store’s shopping environment.

Spirituality
Spirituality

Alongside the jasmine rice, there is a highly-colored cartoon image of a princess; and, in the dried-bean section of the store, an image of a popular musical act is next to a stack of black-eyed peas. The visual puns and light humor are a welcoming phenomenon in contrast to the linear look of a dull, itemized grocery-store list.

Then, as I round the corner of another aisle, the soft smile of amusement—which had formed almost involuntarily on my face–leaves quite suddenly. Next to an area with seeds and beans for sprouting, I see an image of the African-American, child actor who played the character of Buckwheat in Hal Roach’s “The Little Rascals.” He is covered in a spray of white flour, and his hair is in an unkempt afro towering above his head. Inside of me, some invisible line has been crossed—where humor does not reside. The image does not strike me as funny.

Taking my basket to the checkout, I pay for my things as I attempt to sort through the emotions of my internal reaction. While walking to the vehicle to load my groceries, I try to decide exactly what it is, if I were even remotely centered, I might be lead to do.

Something. Not nothing. Have a conversation. Keep it light. Open a conceptual door.

Turning to lock my vehicle, I walk back into the store and ask whether a manager is available. Our conversation goes something like this:

—Hello. Do you have a moment?

—What can I do for you?

—I wanted to tell you that I love to visit this store. You always have all of the things I am looking for, the dry items I need and the produce.

—Good to hear.

—I also appreciate a lot of the visual puns you have been placing through out the store. They add some levity and fun to the shopping experience. Could we walk over here?

Stopping in front of the image of the childhood actor, Billie Thomas, portraying Buckwheat in “The Little Rascals,” I turn to face the manager.

—You know, I’m not so sure about this one image.

—How so?

—Well, you know how people like to share the things they love with the people they love, like good food, where to shop and humor? I was trying to imagine travelling through to shop at this store with some of my husband’s extended family, they are of both European and African heritage—biracial, and I don’t think that they would find this image funny. I think they might even find this one visual pun offensive.

—You really think so?

—Well, the image does not feature an afro from the 1970’s. It isn’t about black power or racial dignity, is it?

—I suppose not.

—You know, I am not of African heritage, and I am from a different region—a different culture. And, if I were to speak truthfully, I would have to say that I find this image offensive. It represents a place in time where we were culturally—once, with our humor. I don’t think we are there anymore nor should we be revisiting the place of this antiquated form of “humor.”

—Hmmm.

I watch the manager’s wheels turning in his mind. He can’t seem to make the conceptual shift to see this image from a different perspective. I wonder whether or not the manager grew up on a diet of Little-Rascals, after-school reruns.

—Contrast this image with the one of the modern, musical group. The modern image is inclusive. The musicians have named themselves. They are performing together, as adults, in roles they have chosen. This other image is quite different. You have a few stores in your chain, right? Maybe the next time you have a group meeting with corporate you could have a conversation about the feedback I have given you and make a decision from there—amongst yourselves.

—Yes. We could certainly do that.

—Yes. Do that. See what kind of feedback you get. Thank you for your time and taking my concern into consideration.

Going Home

Sitting on a bench under the sun at seven-thousand feet, I wait for the bus scheduled to carry me home. My bus happens to be running late today.

Next to me, on the same bench, a Native-American man is waiting to pick someone up. At some point, he begins asking me questions about who I am, where I live and why I am visiting the American Southwest. In way of explanation, I mention that I have come to visit old friends, dear to me since the time we lived in this region almost ten years ago.

Spirituality
Spirituality

In talking about travelling, the man explains that he has not actually travelled much himself, though he helped to raise funds for his son’s travelling expenses. His son has been as far as Georgia to compete in a national contest as an athlete.

“He had the advantage of training in altitude,” I comment at one point early in our conversation.

Then, the man explains, “I am Hopi. I cannot work for myself. I work for the good of my community.” This explains, in part, why he has not travelled extensively. “I helped raise the funds for my son’s travel. His mother travelled with him.”

The concepts of community service and strength over that of individual wealth and stature are philosophical threads common to both the Hopi and Navajo cultures of this region. Given the historically sometimes brutal and definitely difficult nature of self-preservation, farming and hunting in this region, these precepts make complete sense.

The sun is now at its zenith. I feel my skin growing overly warm, yet I stay in the full sun to soak up its rays and breathe the fresh air of the out-of-doors, anticipating the long bus-ride home.

My bench companion continues, “My home reservation is not far from here. Can you believe two teenagers recently beat up an old man and threw him off the mesa? Meth. It’s terrible. We are having to lock our doors. We never had to lock our doors at night.”

Not sure about what to say, I nod my head in silent sympathy.

His face is full of sorrow. “I told my daughters, ‘Watch your little children. These meth users are not right in the head.'”

Finally, I respond, “Meth is ruining a lot of lives.”

More quietly now, he continues, “I am almost afraid to be there—on the Res. It is safer here in town. Isn’t that sad when you’re afraid to go home?”

Learning to Bend

Over head, I watch the edge of the clear, blue sky growing menacingly dark.  A storm is approaching.

Spirituality

After several days of off-season camping in an almost deserted State Park, we choose to strike camp early, with an eye on the weather and an in-town appointment later in the day.  Feeling the cold front coming in, causing the wind, my skin rises to meet the front’s chilly fingers in prickly protest to the abrupt change in ambient temperature.  The dogs are milling restlessly about our legs as we begin the process of packing.

Diagonally across from our site, a lone, older man has moved in, with an aged, harvest-yellow camper.  He, too, is working rapidly at his site while bent over a large, portable grill.  With the number of pots he is tending, it would seem that he is preparing a feast.  As I pack, I wonder whether or not his extended family is arriving later.

In campground culture, complete strangers often sit down to break bread together, creating impromptu “block” parties, while passing overly full plates of extra food along to neighboring campsites or passersby.  This trait or component of camping is one of the things that restores my own feelings that all-is-right-with-the-world-and-God-is-in-the-heavens, even as other manners of people-laced craziness are present in the world.

As I pack, I think, “I do hope that man’s family enjoys his feast.” Even at this distance, I can feel the hole of loneliness in his heart. This hole desperately needs patching.  Then, at some point near the close of our packing, I hear the man call over.

“Hey,” he shouts above a gust of hearty wind, “Do you all need something to eat before your hit the road?”

“Oh,” I call back in surprise. “I, um, well, we—” I fumble in response.

Unable to finish my mutterings, he breaks in, declaring, “I bet you are vege—, vege— …”

“Vegetarians,” I fill in the word for him.

“I knew it!” his words explode through the space between us.  His exclamation is one of triumph.  “I knew yous didn’t eat meat. Well, I’ve got a whole pot of baked beans cooking and green beans, too. The dogs could each have a pork chop to themselves, if you’d like.”

His invitation is sincere, generous and gracious–hopeful.

“I’m not sure that we have the time,” I call back through the whipping wind.  The sky is foreboding, and I know what the high winds in this area can do with the trees, their branches and the two-lane roads.

The gust of Grace, extended to our site through the person of this solitary man retreats in despair.  I feel so small for having further crushed this man’s fragile heart.  We finish our packing in an empty silence, eventually pulling out to head down the road.

There are no broken branches on the two-lane highway on our way home, but a storm of disappointment brews within me. Then, a branch snaps off of the tree within my own heart—for time not spent in properly receiving another’s generous offer of human communion.  I must remember that in the spiritual realm of the world there is time.  Grace always grants us enough time–to be here for one another.

Spiritual Isolation & Connection

In kindergarten or maybe it was first grade, when celebrating my first formal birthday party, I was allowed to invite six or seven children over for games and a slice of angelfood cake. One of the children, whom I invited, was a shy and kind child named T.J.

Spirituality

T.J. and I shared a short ride on the bus afterschool.  We had wonderful conversations about our amazing snow and the even more amazing and seemingly unending bitter cold. We would breathe on the bus windows and draw pictures to share with one another to fill the time on the ride home.

I did not know T.J.’s dad, but I remember thinking he must be unkind because T.J. had to wear his jet black hair in a crewcut. Crewcuts were not in style.  And, then, he had to wear an extra heavy winter cap all through the dead of those harsh winter months.  But, those were his dad’s orders.

T.J. and his mother were new to the area, living just outside of city limits near a house where his paternal grandparents lived. His father was back from serving in Japan and had brought a Japanese bride home to the States.

T.J.’s mother was a stay-at-home mom who waited expectantly for him each day afterschool.  The window, where she waited, carried a more expansive layer of frost than the other windows of the house.  The frost on her window was from her patient and expectant breathing.  As we approached T.J.’s stop, I could feel the terrible loneliness within that house. The house not quite in town and not quite in the country.

At the time, I thought that it must have been difficult having to wait for T.J.’ s return like that every day.

As a child, I did not understand anything about Japanese culture.  But, I can tell you this. T.J.’s birthday present was the most carefully and exquisitely wrapped box among all of my presents. Inside of the box, there were layers upon layers of carefully folded tissue paper, concealing one satiny pair of little-girl underwear–snow-white and with a single rose or cherry-blossom embroidered along the elastic hem of one one leg.  The gift was far too personal, too special and too good ever to be worn.

After opening T.J.’s gift, I was embarassed for my guest,  his being the only boy at the party and his mom having selected such a private gift for him to present in a public setting.  The notion of cultural context entered my understanding for the first time.

After late spring of that year, T.J. and his family moved away to a metropolitan area, a place where school was cancelled whenever it snowed. T.J. and I corresponded for awhile.

When I asked my father why T.J. had to move away, he said something about T.J.’s mother not having a sufficient amount of community in our city. And, I thought in my first-grade way, we need to make an effort to know one another, so that too much frost never builds up on that one window, where we wait expectantly for the one person to return home who is our connection to community.

A House with Children

Walking the dogs through the neighborhood, I appreciate the street’s quiet and fresh air. The dogs and I meet a rare vehicle or two. There is only moderate foot traffic and a few bicycles here and there. Most everyone waves or nods a hello.

What causes the most noise in our neighborhood is what happens domestically in and around the edges of houses. This particular neighborhood suffers terribly from the noise, static and discordant sounds of a multitude of voices in inefficient and angry communication with one another. There are words of harshness, betrayal and abuse.

When we first moved into this region, we had come from the American Southwest where the code of ethics among certain local First-Nation peoples required that extra attention be paid to the issue of speech because, it is believed, a person has the power to talk things into being.

There is also one First-Nation group that follows a no-gossip policy because it is considered unethical to talk about anything which one has not witnessed directly; and, if one has witnessed something, that “something” should not be talked about unless the witness is asked to report about it directly.

Thus, unbeknownst to us at the time, we had spent a full five years—de facto—living in a community which was like an exclusive monastic retreat . This unique culture around speech invited us to reassess our own habituated and inefficient patterns of communication. Thus, on some days in our new location, it seems as though we are growing quieter while the neighborhood around us grows louder.

Spirituality
Spirituality

One day among my many walks stands out above all others, while reveling in the beauty of the weather, breathing deeply and walking with my dogs, I witness two young children come running out of a house into the middle of a quiet street crossing.

There is a lot of shouting coming from the front door that has swung open as a result of the children’s departure. Fear and terror are in the eyes of the older boy. The younger boy has opted out emotionally, working to file this event away somewhere in his clay-like psyche rather than deal with it.  How can he?  The older boy, perhaps six years of age, approaches me. Fear having taken his words away.

“Do you need some help?” I ask him, not really knowing what else to say or do.

He nods at me, still mute with fear.

“Okay, I’ll see what I can do.”

I feel that calm stillness that accompanies me when I am in alignment. So, I decide to proceed to the house with the dogs beside me.

Stepping onto the porch with both dogs, I witness a huge man through the open door. He is perhaps two-hundred and eighty pounds, pinned on the floor of the living room with another huge man and a leaner woman  both on top of the downed man, pummeling the downed man with closed fists and shouting about how the downed man “needs to get his sh*t” out of the house.  An issue regarding rent or living circumstances might be involved. (This is surmised conjecture.)

“Do you folks need some help?” I ask from the open doorway, being careful not to step over the threshold.

For a moment the physical assault stops. The pummeling stops long enough for the man under attack to be able to right himself and run to the back of the house with the other two individuals in close pursuit while the verbal assault continues. At this point, I leave the porch to reenter the street where the older boy is waiting.

“I am sorry that I cannot do more than that,” I tell him. He nods in silence.

The large man under siege is now out of the house and in the process of leaving in his car. The emotion around the incident hangs in the air.

I begin the walk away from the house with my dogs, leaving the violent, confusing, irrational, raw emotion that permeates those people, their circumstances, the house and its vicinity. Calmness returns to me again.

People. Things. Things. People. “People and their sh*t,” as they say. When will we learn to bring our calm, adult Selves to the table?

Perhaps it is unethical for me to report this to you. I have considered that. You did not ask me about my walk on that day or the status of things in parts of my extended neighborhood.

I tell you about this experience because there were children involved—there are children involved. 

We, as human beings, still need a lot of help with basic communication skills, learning how to read and understand our emotions, as well as how to address uncomfortable circumstances and unethical behaviors with diplomacy. We need help with ethics and peace, because there are always children involved-watching and learning.