Posts Tagged ‘Cameroon’

Cross-Cultural Respect

May 1, 2018

It looks like I can no longer avoid wading into the culture wars. Not that I couldn’t continue to ignore most aspects of the current, often ugly, social debate but that I find myself up against a personal limit, the same one that requires that on occasion, no matter the cost, I “speak truth to power.” Some actions cannot be let go without objection.

I just read an opinion piece  by Josh Campbell entitled “An FBI Director, Two Prosecutors and a Priest Walk into a Bar.” It links James Comey, Preet Bharara, Sally Yates, and Chaplain Patrick Conroy as casualties of, or in his view heroes of, ethical public service in the current era of self-serving lack of moral character. They each stood up to political pressure asking them to compromise principles and standards that have a long and respected history, and which are now under attack.

The issue that has pushed me to write is not political in this sense, but it is in its own way a matter that calls for “drawing a line in the sand” of what has become the desert of cross-cultural discourse. The other article I read this morning was the account of a Caucasian Utah high school teen who chose to wear a traditional Chinese dress to her senior prom, and posted pictures on Twitter that included one in which she posed with friends with their hands together in a traditional Asian gesture of respect. Keziah Daum is, from the photos, a lovely young woman who garnered many thousand followers on Twitter but also an onslaught of ugly accusations of “closet racism” and “cultural appropriation”. She defended herself well, and I am not writing to add to that defense, but to take on the – sorry I find no other word for it than “idiocy” of the concept of cultural appropriation.

I am Caucasian, of Jewish heritage, with a German-born father and a Russian-born maternal grandfather. I grew up living in Vietnam and France, have been married to a mixed Black and Native American man, a New Mexican Hispanic and am now married to an African from Cameroon. I speak several languages, cook cuisines from many more countries, and have enjoyed a lifetime of learning other cultures. I have taken comparative religion courses, attended ceremonies in many different churches, temples, synagogues and other places of worship. In homes around the world, and with students studying locally from dozens of different countries, I have shared  meals, conversation, traditions and customs that have helped us all to bridge the differences we were raised with. It has been a rich and enriching life experience.

How can anyone be so narrow-minded as to critique wearing a dress from a different culture, opening a restaurant that serves food not native to the upbringing of the owner, performing a gesture of respect that is not usually made by a Westerner, or any other honest expression of appreciation for an aspect of another culture? Would the protesters against the artificial concept of cultural appropriation want to see us all in our little isolated boxes, unknowing of and uncaring about the tastes and talents and costumes of any other group? Taken to its logical conclusion, if I cannot cook your food, speak your dialect, wear your clothes, to whom will you show them off, market them, or communicate?

Perhaps that is in fact what is desired – that we all cease to communicate and descend into anarchy? The loudest voices now seem to be declaring, “My way or the highway” and castigating anyone who tries to show appreciation for a blended approach to cultures.

I refuse to let any accusation of so called cultural appropriation pass unchallenged. In fact, I challenge the concept of cultural appropriation altogether, stating that it is a fallacy and an artificial, meaningless construct, a distortion of cultural appreciation that should not be given countenance in our society.

Happily I am not on Twitter and rarely look at Facebook, so if I now become subject to vitriol, I won’t know it. This is far from the first time I will have spoken up when I’ve felt it necessary. I rather doubt it will be the last. I also do not doubt that I will survive and continue to thrive. For certain, I am expressing Truth as I perceive it, and that is always a rewarding endeavor.

Three cheers for Keziah Daum and all who, like her, are able to appreciate, enjoy and share in aspects of cultures with which they were not raised!

A Solitary Cat

January 24, 2018

In the small hours of the morning I lie awake, thoughts and feelings flooding through me in delayed response to the previous day’s news, which brought about a shift in my daily life patterns. A death, unexpected, the necessary response to which has once again made salient a frequent awareness that I have, in the past, repeatedly sought to ignore or overturn.

If required to pick a single word to describe my life experience, I would unquestioningly choose “solitary”. Seemingly odd, for someone who has spent nearly 40 years in the married state, but nonetheless accurate. With a few more words I would say my life experience has been that of an outsider, looking at others, families and couples, living normal lives of mutual engagement. Not necessarily happy engagement, because I clearly see the tensions, the jealousies that make relationships – especially sibling ones – difficult.

Difficult or easy, the relationship ties are strong, and the interactions engaging. And I am on the outside, looking on.

I was the only child of an only child mother, and a father who was so estranged from his two siblings that I did not know they were still alive until I was in my mid-teens. So no siblings, no cousins, virtually no family at all except my maternal grandfather. My mother was mentally ill, my father shy, distant, emotionally withdrawn. I vividly remember nights (rather like this one) when I would waken from a few hours sleep, and lie in bed feeling deep solitude. Then, my cry expressed itself as “why can’t we be a family like other families are?”. I would imagine that I had been adopted, and somewhere – out there – were sisters and a brother I could belong to, if only I could find out how to identify them.

But I was not adopted, I was born into a loveless marriage that had been founded on illusion and was sustained by obligation. I benefited from the circumstances in that I was made to learn quickly how to be flexible and self reliant. I set myself a goal in those early years, to make for myself a home, which I then defined from a poem studied in school as “the place, where when you come there, they have to take you in, a place you don’t have to deserve.”

I achieved that goal in the early 1970s when I bought my first “house” – a 150 year old railroad boxcar, on property rented from the railroad, with only cold running water, and two out houses in lieu of a bathroom. An adobe addition had been added to the boxcar in the past, but the roof had fallen in and the walls partially eroded. I paid $500 for the place, then invested a few thousand more, and a lot of hard labor, to install a toilet, hot water heater and tub, run propane in for the water heater and a cook stove, clean out the debris and re-roof the addition, and lay down a flagstone floor in what became the living room, with a sleeping loft above part of it. I had my home.

Over the years, I moved on – started afresh with 11 acres and a mobile home onto which I added rooms and a workshop, then sold that to move to my present, smaller but more efficient home on four acres, with solar heating supplemented by wood and propane, relatively easy to maintain and to keep me comfortable in both heat and cold.

I’ve shared these homes with others – obviously, since I’ve been married much of the time. But the marriages were not “traditional” and included 8 years of being alone while my then husband was imprisoned. More years were functionally alone, for various reasons – ill health, poor choices, incompatibility. The reasons don’t matter, the effect is what I now recognize as my life’s path, to be consistently and solely responsible for all that occurs in my life without recourse to anyone to depend on, no partner or – I love the old fashioned word – helpmate.

Until about four years ago, that is.

Whether from the lessons of early childhood, from innate nature, or from Divine intent, I am in essence “the cat who walks by itself.” I have long recognized that I am uncomfortable in larger social groups, unless I have a role to fulfill – teacher or hostess being the two most frequent. In small dinner parties of 3-4 people, I can relax and talk, enjoying an exchange of ideas with my companions. As soon as the group gets larger, I am inclined to stay quiet, sit slightly apart, observe and rarely speak – once again taking on the position of an outsider looking in to family/group life going on beside me, including when my husband’s country-mates gather for a meal, discussion of soccer, and of the troublesome politics at home.

I am comfortable with silence. Living alone I may talk to my pets, and put on the radio to listen to the news (though rarely these days, there being nothing I care to hear). I equally rarely play music, or feel any need for sound to fill a void I do not experience. It has, you may conclude, therefore been an interesting adaptation to live with my current husband, who grew amidst the constant uproar of a large family in a culture that non-Africans perceive as “noisy”. He plays music even when studying. I’ve learned to enjoy most of his selections, only occasionally asking him to turn the sound down so I can think.

For the four years now that we have been together, I have experienced more of the meaning of family life than in all my years before. I thought I might get to enjoy having a sister but that has not proven true. I have come to deeply appreciate my husband’s unique character, his depth of understanding of his siblings, his learned skill at managing his responsibilities as designated successor to his father and head of the family. I am offering what I can by way of experience and supervision to his/our children with whom we are able to talk daily, thanks to the wonders of a technology that did not exist when I was, at age 12, taken halfway around the world and away from the emotional anchor of weekly visits with my grandfather. Blessings be for What’sApp.

Now, suddenly, I am faced with renewed solitude. Not for long, only about six weeks, but sufficient to make me vividly aware of the way in which I have, over so many years, persistently sought and not found a permanent sense of belonging. What first came to mind, at 3:30 AM, was a story told by my spiritual teacher, of the wealthy ruler who had all the riches of a full and engaged life, but instructed that when he died he should be buried with one open hand left extended above the earth, to show to his people that no matter how much we have in life, no matter how close we are with family and friends, we leave this world empty-handed. Elsewhere, we are reminded that we come into life alone, and leave it alone. Not exactly ashes to ashes and dust to dust, but echoed in the song refrain “all we are is dust in the wind”.

I have no doubt that I will manage my work, my health, my home responsibilities alone while my husband is in his home country attending to the family needs which have just arisen. Political unrest there precludes me accompanying him, as I might otherwise have done. “You will be a target, it is too unsafe.” The U.S, and British embassies have already instructed their citizens in the country not to venture outside the capital city, and we would be traveling to a small village in the heart of the “rebel” region. I am aware that managing life here on my own is not the challenge facing me. I can do that easily enough. Instead, my basic concern is for my husband’s safety and the stress of living day to day with an underlying current of uneasiness, waiting for the next phone call to update me on how he is managing, and to reassure me that he is safe and not, as a recent returnee from the West, targeted to be a hostage in the political upheaval.

I did not find it easy, four years ago, to learn to accept help, a partner, support, suggestions, redirection. But I realize now that I have done that adapting, have relaxed into it, and deeply enjoy it. In consequence, returning to self-reliance, while quite doable is not particularly desirable. I find myself wondering, in the small hours of the night, whether this experience is meant to remind me not to become too dependent on another person? Or simply to give me the opportunity to reflect back on my life overall? Or perhaps both of these, plus the most important reason which is to reinforce the teachings of my Master that the first and only place to look for guidance and support is “in and up” to one’s own Divine essence , as revealed through the grace and the training of the Master. With my attention where it needs to be placed, all else will be as it should be.

Baraka bashad.

Patience and Attention

January 31, 2017

The two new members of our family are Akirri, a now-four-month old Akita/German shepherd cross puppy and Miss Kitty, also about four months old and now to have her name enhanced to Miss Patience Kitty.

As the picture posted a few days ago clearly shows, she’s a fraction of Akirri’s size, but in little over a week she’s established ground rules for their interactions and is “on top” of the relationship.

Akirri, which means Christmas in my husband’s tribal language of Ngie, is smart and learning to sit, and stay down (not jump up on me with muddy paws) but has not yet made much progress with ‘come’. Particularly not when the chickens are clustered to be fed and it’s such fun to run through them and watch them scatter.

Miss Kitty, on the other hand has already successfully trained me to have her breakfast tin of food open and ready for her no later than 7:30 AM, and her evening dry ration on her plate by 5:30. Her added name of Patience does NOT come from her attitude toward being fed. Rather, it’s a reflection of the way in which she tolerates being turned into a play toy by Akirri, emerging often from the encounters wet from doggy kisses, and looking slightly chewed over. When she’s had enough, she freezes in one place, hunkered down beneath Akirri and no longer fun to play with. Indeed, it’s as though she’s recognized that being boring is a sure way to cause Akirri to turn elsewhere for amusement. Looked at from a slightly different point of view, Miss Patience Kitty clearly knows and implements the basic lesson of disciplining – ignore the misbehavior and reward the good behavior and you’ll fairly quickly have a well behaved… animal or… child… or person?

I’ve been considering whether there isn’t a parallel to be drawn between the training going on just outside my front door (on the enclosed porch and the larger yard and pastures), and what might be effective on the political scene. Not that unconstitutional edicts can be ignored exactly, but they can simply not be followed, as has already happened with the scientists who will not be gagged, thet acting attorney general who determined to follow the Constitution, and the federal judges who have countermanded the recent “barred from entry” immigration edict.

Patience Kitty has other means to dominate Akirri. She easily achieves heights that put her out of Akirri’s reach. And she’s able to fit into or thorough small places where Akirri cannot follow. When she’s ‘had enough’ she slips through a narrow opening into a large enclosed area under the porch, and clearly enjoys taunting Akirri from her impenetrable safety zone.

So far, neither of the two has used her “weapons of war” – sharp doggy teeth and strong jaws, or equally sharp and lightening quick claws. Hopefully, they’ve already formed enough of a bond that this ‘nuclear option’ will not be called upon.

A line in a book I just finished (Deborah Crombie’s “A Finer End”) resonated with my concerns for “the times we are facing”. The story is set against the sense of ancient powers that pervade Glastonbury England, and how that elemental energy can interact with human failings to produce violence. An historian and expert on paganism, Goddess worship, and their integration into very early Christianity was asked in the narrative, why anyone would want to upset the balance of the powers of light and darkness. The line that caught me was her answer, “I am a Jew my dear. During the war I lost every member of my family to the camps. If you ask me what I believe, I can tell you that those atrocities were an incontrovertible example of the power of chaos, magnifying and abetting a very human evil.”

Akirri charging at the chickens generates chaos. Their fluttering panic encourages her to charge and charge again. Patience Kitty sheltering in place quickly stops Akirri’s rough-housing.

Strident panic, and flurries of media attention, in response to every new use/misuse of power would seem, similarly, to lend authority to their author. Calm counter measures akin to sheltering in place – standing witness, standing up for truth and our constitutional values, walking out of a hearing to prevent it going forward, would seem to be appropriate responses well worth pursuing.

My spiritual teacher tells us that “attention is food”. Give your attention to what you want to manifest in your life, and take your attention away from what you want to diminish and disappear. Our present national fearless (fearful? fearsome?) leader has made it plain how essential attention is to him. He must have his daily, even hourly doses of it.

So, in addition to taking steps to de-fund what we do not support (and pay for what we want – money=attention=food) should we not also be insisting that the news media, which most immediately direct our attention, give that attention to the actions, events, people and values we consider important? They contributed largely to the present chaos, giving undue attention to every showy bit of bluster in the name of reaching a wider audience and hence making more money. They surely have a responsibility now to introduce some balance, to try to undo some of the damage they were active participants in creating.

I can only imagine the tantrums that would be thrown if, for merely a day, there were a total media black-out on everything originating in the new presidential regime. I would love to imagine the tantrums being thrown because the press (and the social media) did indeed have the patience and courage to impose such a blackout!

Trump et al are doing their best to muzzle all opposition. How would they behave if given a taste of their own medicine? I’d love to find out.

A Way Forward

January 27, 2017

One of my followers, and fellow bloggers, recently inquired after my well-being, not having seen a post from me in quite some time. I appreciate the concern – am in general okay – but recognize that in subtle ways I have not been myself, or at least not the self who reflects and blogs.

Now that I’m coming out of the blank space, I can see that it was:
1) real (not an alternate fact),
2) somewhat akin to depression,
3) also at least partially rooted in a doctor-ordered change in thyroid treatment,
4) definitely influenced by political ugliness in both the U.S. and Cameroon,
5) full of flashbacks, or recognition of old patterns and feelings that no longer have a place in my current life, and
6) clearly an opportunity to process and release residual mental patterns that do me no good.

I know that some of the threads I pulled from the tangle included a deep anger that our society still values a sorry excuse for a man over an intelligent and accomplished woman – an anger that eased on January 21st.

Another thread was a profound fatigue, best reflected in one of the signs carried on January 21st by an older woman. “I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit.” Really, do I have to do this all again, fifty years later?

Yet another thread was a vivid remembrance of my college years, in the infamous sixties, marching in protest against the war in Vietnam and in support of civil rights, dating an African fellow student and later marrying a Black American, living integration on a day to day basis at a time when that marriage was still considered illegal in several southern states. Today we have an Oscar nominee in a new movie about the legal case that ended miscegenation laws, but also an upsurge in attacks on mixed race couples and their children, legitimized by the new administration’s ugly rhetoric.

Yet another thread from the past woven into the present was my own feeling of limitation in what I could say or do to protest domination by values with which I profoundly disagreed. In my youth, that limitation resided in the fact that my father was an officer in the nation’s diplomatic corps and I was made to understand that my conduct could not undermine his position and responsibilities. He had written reports in the mid-1950s, warning of the quagmire into which the U.S. would fall if it followed the course of action then being dictated in southeast Asia. He was ignored, and then told to stick to economic reporting. He was back Stateside, and assigned to an academic setting, when I attended the very first march on Washington to protest the start of the Vietnam War. He warned me to be very careful where I went and what I said, just starting out on my working life, in order not to prematurely curtail my options – and also in order not to bring more censure down on him.

I was not then, and am still not now, a demonstrator in the public crowd sense. I tend rather to make my statement of values in the choices of how I live my daily life. I’ve become comfortable having friends from a variety of backgrounds, working in a helping profession (Care Coordinator for an MCO with Medicaid recipients as my caseload), married now to a Cameroonian studying here, and living in a “rural frontier” community in a state known for its multicultural heritage (Hispanic, Native America, Anglo and with a small but historically significant black population) that has also welcomed many Vietnamese and, lately, Tibetan and Middle Eastern immigrants.

I began to come out of my blank space when I read that my college Swarthmore, in Pennsylvania, has declared itself a sanctuary school. Santa Fe (NM), near my home, has declared itself committed to remaining a sanctuary city. I wear a safety pin on my outer garments ever since I learned of the act as a symbol that others, of whatever type, are safe with me. It seems that I’ve needed time to find my way into the acts that allow me to express my resistance to the present state of the nation. Because I am under constraints now, as I was all those decades ago. Again now, as then, people whom I care about can be harmed if I become too outspoken.

Am I truly having to go through this yet again? How could the nation have regressed so far, so fast?

I have not been writing, and therefore not posting, while I work through my response to what seems to be the undoing of everything I have cared about and supported my entire, many decades long, adult life. Living my values in my small corner of the state is necessary, but has not felt sufficient. I’m signing petitions, but ignoring the constant demand for cash contributions to fund more protests, because I don’t have the cash to donate (if I did, I wouldn’t still be working full time at long past retirement age). I’ve been seeking what would feel like an appropriate expression of my objections to the so-called swamp which, instead of being drained, has been broadened and deepened to cover the entire nation with greed and egotism and petulant childish tantrums and threats to our most fundamental Constitutional freedoms.

Today, when I heard that federal funds will be cut off to any entity that resists the government’s attack on immigrants, I remembered another piece of my past – tax resistance. As a Quaker, I refused to pay for war when I was young. Might I now refuse to pay for a wall, and a registry, and an immigration ban? Might I give my tax money directly to Santa Fe schools that will need it, instead of to the Federal government to spend on taking this country backward a century or more?

I don’t know how this idea will unfold, but it is clear to me that identifying a form of protest congruent with my life experience has been necessary to bring me the rest of the way out of my funk. Now let’s see if it also ends my silence.

Revisioning

May 29, 2016

A much needed break from my day job has just come to an end. Returning to work, I could feel the familiar skin of tension wrap itself around me, its confining pressure made up of having to be “on” at all times, a plethora of deadlines, and the need to adapt to constantly changing requirements. Knowing that the work is stressful and trying the usual tricks to reduce the impact of that stress – the vacation trip being one – still didn’t prepare me for the visceral reaction I experienced when I returned to work a few days ago.

Knowing about the stress, and intimately experiencing its descent upon me, are very different levels of awareness. The latter has motivated me to rededicate myself to living by my spiritual Master’s will, leaving control of how each day unfolds to wiser guidance than that of my own mind.

In practice this means I’m coming back to work intent on “redoing” my approach to my responsibilities so that I can use the awareness of the tense extra skin as a red flag – when I sense it, I know to stop, release the mental straightjacket into which I’ve wedged myself, and give control of my Self back to the Master. I already know that when I function from no-mind, all goes well, the work gets done, and I have energy left for the rest of my life interests.

As with any habit, I will need to implement this release repeatedly, until I no longer wear the tension sheath at all. My health will, I know, immediately improve, as it did during the short vacation break.

The second half of my vacation trip was also a redoing – or perhaps more correctly an undoing of a previous negative experience, replacing it with a positive one.

Some 15 years ago I made a similar trip across the Midwest to see a former getaway student – to Fargo rather than Rochester, my UWC student/temporary daughter then a Senegalese rather than an Asian. In the first instance my companion was, unknown to me, strung out on heroin and pretending not to be. As a result, when we were supposed to be enjoying a sightseeing return trip, he was too sick to do anything but insist we make it home as fast as possible. It was summer, so hot my Subaru’s AC couldn’t keep us any cooler than 90 and all I wanted was out of the heat and away from the anger and harsh attitude in my passenger seat. We drove within sight of the Crazy Horse monument, but did not see Mt. Rushmore, nor any of the other attractions of the Black Hills area.

This trip has been so different – relaxed conversation, enjoyment of the densely varied shades of green in Nebraska, Minnesota, and South Dakota with subtle differences between the three states noticeable to eyes attuned to grabbing whatever green can be found in New Mexico’s desert tans. We passed through areas of rolling hills which my husband said look like the area around Bamenda in his native Cameroon. We also passed a number of windfarms in Minnesota, the clean white towers with their sedately turning blades overlapping into the distance like a giant mobile decorating the sky. Farming continued between and below the strong white pillars, corn for biofuels being produced on the same lands as electricity from wind.

Following a warm family-feeling graduation/anniversary/birthday event in Minnesota, we drove back through South Dakota and down through the Black Hills, snapping pictures of the Mt. Rushmore faces and spending time in the museum at the Crazy Horse monument. The museum’s assembled collection of native crafts from all across the country provides visitors with an opportunity to appreciate differences in design, perhaps reflective of differences in perception and world view, between tribes. I particularly noticed a 150 year old beaded pouch from the Winnebago tribe with a floral design that put me immediately in mind of Georgia O’Keefe’s flower paintings. Distinctively different from the straight lined geometry I previously have associated with Native beadwork.

Recent astrology patterns suggest this spring to have been a period of review, with the opportunity to renew and revise one’s goals, as well as to set new patterns of social interaction. Eric Francis of PlanetWaves pointed out that each time of reconsideration (planets in retrograde) appears as an upheaval on the larger social scene, as we are collectively subjected to pressure to make changes. No surprise then, that we are looking at a political scene which has totally confounded the pollsters. And no surprise that I’ve been given the opportunity to make changes also, creating new memories and finding new and healthier ways to carry on with daily obligations.

Model of what is to be

Model of what is to be

 

The familiar that is

The familiar that is

 

En Famille

En Famille

One of a Kind

April 4, 2015

Standing at the kitchen counter, I lop off each end of a large green plantain, cut a slit down the spine of the fruit, the insert my thumb under the edge of the skin to peel it back. My goal is to undress the plantain without breaking the skin. As I succeed, I give thanks to Susan, the massage therapist who advised me, more than 30 years ago, to base as much as possible of my liquid intake on deionized water. At that time I was already experiencing some arthritis in my fingers and hands. In the decades since, not only has the arthritis not advanced, it seems to have reduced, leaving me with strong fingers and with thumbs able to peel plantains efficiently.

I’m led to reflect on the range of steps I’ve taken over the years to address health concerns in “old folk rather than “modern medicine” ways. Old folkways from many cultures and continents, in that I use acupuncture regularly, Asian herbs to calm an irritated colon and to treat the spring allergy symptoms which many of us are experiencing now. This morning I added a generous dose of new world herbs to my breakfast – notably parsley to be a diuretic since I’ve eaten a bit too much starchy food lately. In my body, starch functions to retain fluid. When I see a three pound weight gain from one day to the next I know I need both parsley and a change in diet.

My reflection moves on to the plethora of different, often conflicting, diets promoted in the popular press. Sober judges of “what is good for you” usually insist that all those that actually work do so because they reduce caloric intake, while they warn against lopsided programs which label certain types of food (carbohydrates for example) as bad. I begin to suspect that the multiplicity of possible diet regimens is an unconscious acknowledgement that we are all, individually, very different in how our metabolisms work. Although each of the diets still presents itself as a one-size-fits-all remedy, the existence of so many conflicting paths to the goal of a healthy weight indicates to me that there is no such thing as one size fits all. Indeed, over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that we each must learn enough about how our own bodies deal with what we put into them, to make reasoned choices and to each ultimately design our own “diet for life.”

An element of that culinary life pattern that is almost never mentioned, so far as I’ve seen, relates to the role of emotion in changing body metabolism. It’s not just that some emotions push us to eat (or to avoid food) in unhealthy ways we need to recognize. I’m recognizing that some emotions change the way in which bodies process different foods. For certain, the recent dramatic increase in my happiness with my life contributed substantially to my successful weight loss, a loss which occurred despite minimal change in my pattern of eating and exercise. I can’t prove, but feel certain, that being happy changed my metabolism from one of “hanging on for dear life” to every calorie, to a more relaxed “easy come easy go” burning off of unneeded fuel. Yes, I hear those of you who are now yelling “Cortisol levels, check your cortisol levels.” I suspect you may be right that stress produces cortisol which has the property of preparing the body for battle, including slowing metabolism to conserve calories and promote endurance. The processes may not be so simple, as I know it is possible to be both happy and stressed at the same time. Undoubtedly I have much to learn about the relationships between endorphins and cortisol and which one outweighs the effects of the other under differing circumstances.

I probably also need to read more deeply into the research on allergens such as that which has recently produced the suggestion that children be exposed to peanuts in order to build up a tolerance, instead of having all potential allergens removed from their diets. The development of drug-resistant infections indicates that too many of us have taken the “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” adage out of context, and thrown several pounds of cure at situations where just the one ounce would have been enough. Similarly, with each discovery of a cause and effect relationship between some aspect of living in this world and a health or sickness outcome, we tend to overreact and generalize and simplify to the point that the parameters of that cause and effect relationship are destroyed.

Desensitization is a technique sometimes used to treat phobias. A person excessively fearful of cats, for example, wanting to overcome this limitation, might use desensitization as a small step by small step process for learning to be calm in the presence of a picture of a cat, then while seeing a cat through a locked window, then in the same room with a cat that is tethered on a leash, etc. Each exposure involves allowing the fears to manifest and then experiencing the fact that none of the feared and fearful outcomes occur. Relaxation and calming follows this perception, and a new connection is made between cat and non-fearful status which can gradually be strengthened to the point that the subject is able to encounter an unrestrained cat with only minimal discomfort.

Exposing children to minimal doses of allergens in order to build up tolerance is an identical desensitization process, carried out on the physical rather than the emotional body. Just as some phobias or compulsive reactions are too strong for desensitization to work, I’m sure some allergies are too immediately life-threatening to try a dietary desensitization process. On the other hand, because a few situations are not appropriate to the technique does not mean parents should avoid trying the process with their children. Again, the fallacy lies in a “one size fits all” assumption that is no more appropriate to eating patterns than it is to latex gloves.

Which brings me back to the challenge facing each of us, to learn the unique and individual ways our bodies and minds function, in order to adjust our diets and our lifestyles to what gives us each the best odds of achieving our goals. I know I can’t hope to succeed in this on-going, lifetime study, without a healthy dose of introspection and an equally strong commitment to listening to the wisdom coming through me from my Divine Teacher. For me, that means slowing down both body and mind with periods of stillness and contemplation every day. Without that sort of reflective space in my life, I am certain I would not have truly heard Susan’s suggestion all those years ago, and would not now be able to peel plantains with ease.

I’m curious what my next contemplation may reveal to me that will show its relevance thirty years hence. And oh, in case you’re wondering, yes I’m making porridge plantains again, and I’m pleased to know that – per the assessment of the six Cameroonians who ate my cooking last weekend – I’ve graduated from neophyte to proficient at doing so.

Which means you can teach an old dog new tricks, as was ably illustrated by scientific research cited in the sermon given recently by Reverend Frank Yates at Las Vegas’ First United Presbyterian Church. But that’s a blog topic for another day.

In Later Years

In Later Years

 

Still Learning and Teaching

Still Learning and Teaching

There but for the Grace…

March 7, 2015

Several of the blogs I follow have focused of late on technology – whether changing TV viewing habits because of a change in connectivity or lamenting the lost memory of a lost phone. And then there’s my friend who told his story of being at the gathering following a family funeral, and wanting to talk to some of the younger generation he had not been able to know, only to observe them quite incapable of simple conversation. They instead spent their time with busy thumbs, texting.

Meanwhile, I’ve been helping my new sister-in-law in Cameroon with an on-line course she is taking, by summarizing some of the articles on technology in the classroom that are related to her thesis topic. One of them refers to the physical changes in brain development which can be observed when children engage in a lot of “screen” time (TV and computers). Another addresses psychological issues which arise for children who, already uncomfortable with social interactions, choose to spend their time on social media sites and substitute Net “friends” for real life ones. A third spoke of the addictive nature of our relationship with computers and technological tools.

My first thought regarding the brain changes was – aha, perhaps that’s why there appears to be so much more ADHD Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) in children these days. More on that later. My second thought was of the boys at the funeral dinner, unable to have a conversation with my friend. My third, albeit more reluctant, thought was of my own changes in behavior noted since I acquired a “smart” phone about six months ago. Also, I see that I am affected by the fact that I work from home and am much more reliant than ever before on email for communicating with my coworkers.

I remember sitting in my office working on projects, able to have a receptionist answer my calls and a “do not disturb” sign on my door. In theory I can do the same now, by letting the phone take messages and resolutely not checking email… but it is remarkably hard to do that. Something about the isolation of working from a home office makes being available and responsive by phone and email seem more critical. Do I think my supervisor or manager will doubt my commitment to work, if she cannot get to me promptly? I know with my rational faculty that that’s not the case… but what about my emotional mind?

Pre-smartphone, I checked personal email only at the end of the day. Now I check it in ‘down’ moments throughout the day, moments that used to be spent on…? Thinking, reflecting, just being still within myself. Now it takes a conscious act of will to not pull the phone out in those small gaps in my busy day. I’m aware that I’ve lost an important sense of pacing, of quiet time. I’ve already begun making a conscious effort to ignore the existence of the ever-connected-to-the-Net phone, even to turn it off on occasion.

Given that I grew up without even a land line phone, and that I’ve lived for periods of my adult life without one, I am vividly aware of how one’s perspective changes with changes in connectivity. Not having a means to know when a partner’s change of plans would mean he would be 2-3 or more hours later coming home than expected was, once, just part of my mind set. I would not start to worry unless the time delay became excessive – 5 hours or more. Contrast that with now, when I may find myself feeling irritated if my call to my husband goes to voice mail, even though he is very good about replying to the indication of a missed call. I don’t actually need (or want?) instant connectivity, but I do see how addictive the concept can be.

Which brings me back around to hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder. If brains are altered by computer interaction, are they also altered by the immediacy of response inherent to those interactions? Might this alteration account for the impatience, the jumping of attention from item to item that are the descriptors of ADHD?
Meditation is known to slow heart rate, improve concentration and provide a number of other health benefits. Meditation is the polar opposite of the connectivity inherent in current technology. It is a wise and talented individual who can achieve a balance between these two diverse tendencies.

Pre-smartphone, I read in the evenings. Lately I’ve been playing Scrabble against the computer, or Free Cell instead. I was shocked to realize recently that a lifelong habit of consuming at least a novel a week had come to a near standstill, replaced by engagement with games. My Scrabble skills have certainly improved, as I consistently beat the computer even when it is set on advanced or hard mode. Do I want to so far outstrip my Scrabble playing friends, that I’m not longer fun to engage with?

Fortunately my regular spiritual practice involves contemplation, so that I’m not totally bereft of the quiet, the relaxed mind, the disengaged and soothing energies which not only heal but inform, infuse with love and acceptance, and enable me to function in my daily life. Not so fortunately, I recognize that even well-armed with knowledge of the addictiveness of technological connectivity, I can succumb to that addiction. With lots of good reasons justifying my behavior, of course.

Except that nothing justifies losing the sense of peace and flow, the ease and pleasure of the only connection necessary for all others to be fulfilled. So I am taking back my quiet moments in the day, setting a schedule for checking work emails, and turning off the phone when I want to read. And I am thanking my Master for the insight, the instruction and the rescue, which seems to have come barely in time to save me from the pain and physical repercussions of severe addiction. All things in their proper time and place. By His Grace.

Wisdom of my Teacher

Wisdom of my Teacher

To Heal a Tummy

January 11, 2015

The weather has been on a crazy whirl this past week – sunny and a spring-like sixty-five one day, icy twelve degree fog the next coating everything in sheaths of white rime. Then another warm day melting it all, to be followed once more by ice rime and black-ice accidents on the highways. We’re projected to have several more of these mood swings in the next week, around which I am trying to plan my work-related travel.

I regularly go up over the mountain (part of the Rockies) from my home to Taos. I have to accommodate my planning not only to the fluctuations of weather as I experience them where I live, but also as they manifest quite differently on “the other side.” Just last week, I spent a warm and lovely day seeing clients in Taos, and did not know it had been a fogged-in and icy day at home until I came back over the ridge in the late afternoon, and looked down onto clouds.

Above the fog

Above the fog

Bodies react to these unpredictable changes in climate. Old injuries begin to ache, remnants of bronchitis flare, sinuses swell and congest, even tummies become sensitive and refuse to function properly. There is a very direct cause and effect for the bone and joint aches – heat soothes and cold aggravates these types of reminders of past incidents. To the extent that the warmth releases pollens, chest and sinus irritations can also be understood as directly related to weather. But tummies?

I’m one of those who are most sensitive to what affects tummies. Mine has been – my husband sweetly calls it fragile – since infancy. I’m more inclined to use harsher words, like irritable, aggravating, infuriating. It’s definitely where any and every stress lands. My mother complained to all who might sympathize, that the only formula I could tolerate as a baby was one which required a great deal of work – a complicated process involving twenty-four hours of advance preparation and multiple periods of cooking. I also had many food allergies, and did not outgrow them until I was well into my teens. Some I have retained all my life, in the form of sensitivities I’ve learned to recognize.

Some days I can eat eggs, other days they make me very sick. And I react horribly to the ‘flu vaccine, incubated in eggs. I love fresh tomatoes, but have to moderate my consumption, and must avoid most cooked tomato products, like spaghetti sauce. Thankfully, I can usually enjoy strawberries, and most thankfully I’ve never, as an adult, re-experienced hives from eating hard-shell seafood. I am gluten intolerant, have probably been so all my life but have only accepted and adjusted to that limitation in more recent years… hmm… nearly ten years now.

I’ve repeatedly questioned why, when I mind my diet and adhere to its restrictions, I can still suffer from severe and usually totally unanticipated abdominal distress. It’s too easy to blame the weather, claiming some as yet unrecognized link between storms and digestive upsets. My latest bout was with an actual bug that is going around.

Identified cause, commonly experienced effect.

I treated the episode partially with a special form of deep breathing I’ve learned in Ba Gua, something called empty breathing. The unpleasant symptoms of stomach ‘flu remained present. Empty breathing did not eliminate them, but it did seem to reduce the pain and cramping side effects. And I recovered quickly, for me. Instead of a week of subsequent hypersensitivity, I was able to eat my normal diet by the third day.

Which set me to reflecting further on breathing as a relaxation technique, and breathing helping my tummy recover, relaxation being related to quick recovery… maybe relaxation being related to not being so fragile, going forward?

I’ve begun 2015 focused on doing what arises for me, to the best of my ability, in a flexible way that does not allow for me to berate myself for what is not done – or what is not done as thoroughly as I might like. I’ve even incorporated that goal into the “work-related achievement objective” that I must create as part of my employee evaluation criteria for this new calendar year. My personal achievement objective (another requirement) dovetails, in that I’m committing to a certain number of blog posts, which means committing to a consistent pattern of taking time for myself in quiet reflection.

I’ve learned that if I don’t write, I don’t reflect – and conversely if I don’t take time to reflect, I can’t write. And I’ve also learned that my tummy is less fragile if I’ve reflected more. Because I breathe differently when I reflect? Maybe. Because I release tension when I reflect? Certainly.

Which brings me inexorably to the conclusion that my childhood must have been filled with tensions (gee, I had no idea) and was consequently one of frequent sickness. I learned a pattern then, related to my mother’s fierce dislike of “the sick room”, which was that if I was sick, I was left alone (not harassed, nor subjected to demands). No wonder, for years, when I began to feel overwhelmed, I’d fall ill. Even after I was on my own, and being ill only added to the pressures I was experiencing, rather than providing relief from them.

Then, finally, I recognized that pattern and the need to release it. I came to the realization that if I didn’t take time to care for my spiritual self, I’d get sick several times a year – brought to a halt, confined to bed, enabled to contemplate what had brought me there.

Lesson learned.

As noted above, now I mind my diet, I exercise, I pursue my daily spiritual practice, and I treat myself as respectfully as I treat others. But still there remains that fragile tummy, that I’d like to see be more durable and tolerant, especially when it comes time to travel with my husband to Cameroon.

So it seems I’m being asked to take a next step, to actively and consciously come to recognize the tensions I habitually tuck into my gut, and to stop doing this basically harmful practice.

We all store tension somewhere. If I see my husband stretching his neck, rolling and flexing his shoulders, or holding his head somewhat rigidly when turning to look to the side, I know to ask what family matters are bothering his mind. He quite literally “carries the weight of the world on his shoulders.” I, on the other hand, apparently absorb and “swallow” the cares of others.

People – especially my clients – are inclined to say that they feel better after talking to me. I’m very glad for that ability to help them, and do not want in any way to diminish that form of service to those in need of a listening ear. However, I do want to learn to recognize when I am taking their cares into my body and Being, and to stop doing so, on however subtle a level I internalize their issues.

My Master teaches us about the goal of being “a pure and open channel” for the Shabda, or Divine Soul Current, or Sound, or – to Christians – the Holy Spirit. When one is such a channel, others are enabled to clear their own karmic issues, while the channel remains free of the shadow of those issues. Putting the abstract into a very mundane image, one becomes able to clear the soot from a wood stove without getting that soot on one’s hands and clothes.

I obviously have a way to go, down this new path of understanding. I’m still at a point equivalent to getting soot on my hands when I load wood into the stove for burning. But each time I load that stove, less soot transfers. Each time I notice my tummy being “unhappy with me” I can stop, breathe deeply, and tell it lovingly to release whatever emotional tension I’ve unthinkingly crammed into it. And above all, I can remind myself daily that my job, my busy days, my world are all too big for my puny mind to encompass, let alone control. As soon as I no longer try to control my days, they sort themselves out far more perfectly than I could ever have imagined.

Ice Dance at Sunrise

Ice Dance at Sunrise

THAT is the blessing of not being a human being, but rather “being a Spiritual Being, having a human experience.” (T. de Chardin).

Porridge Plantains

October 18, 2014

Today I had a lesson in Cameroonian cooking.

I’ve been following a blog (Immaculate Bites) posted by a young Cameroonian woman who puts out recipes from a variety of cuisines – African, Caribbean, some middle eastern, some from the southern areas of the USA. I’ve made several of her dishes and enjoyed them.

Today’s preparation was not one of her recipes, but rather one taught to me by my husband. It is a traditional dish, called Porridge Plantains, that we could not prepare until now because we needed some ingredients brought to us from Cameroon, by a friend who visited home over the summer. Specifically, a dried vegetable called bitter leaf, and a particular bullion cube that I have not so far seen in the USA.

The preparation is quite easy – provided one has the few ingredients to hand. We had plantains, but they were too ripe! So we made a quick trip into town to Wal-Mart. With the assistance of a store employee, who brought out a new box of plantains, we acquired a supply that were green and firm and perfect for boiling. Home again, the plantains went into a pot with soaked bitter leaf, the bullion cubes, a little salt, some smoked meat, and red palm oil, to be cooked down until the broth had soaked thoroughly into the plantains and they were soft in the middle. Out of respect for my limited tolerance for HOT spice, my husband only added habanero pepper at the end, to his portion of the meal. See below for the challenges of preparing that pepper!

Porridge plantain is served at every special event in Cameroon. We had not yet prepared it, not having the special ingredients. So today was our very own “special event”, as I tried for the first time – and my husband enjoyed after too long a gap – a taste of his home.

Porridge plantain has – for me – an interesting and enjoyable flavor, complex, slightly bitter but not excessively so. I think it helps that I love spinach and am one of those people who like anchovies. I’m sure it also helps that I was raised with a rule that I must take a taste of every food prepared. I did not have to eat a whole portion, but I could not skip tasting the – mostly middle-eastern style – foods my mother prepared. By the time I reached Vietnam (at age 13, way back before anyone in the USA had even heard of the country) I was prepared to try the radically different foods I encountered there.

In the years since, I’ve not only enjoyed eating a variety of cuisines, but have also enjoyed learning to prepare them. Preparing pepper sauce for my husband, now, is a challenge of a different sort. He likes the small, orange, extremely hot habanero peppers, cooked down and turned into a sauce that he adds to just about everything. I’ve started preparing the sauce for him – and just about been run out of the house as the cooking peppers put so much “bite” into the air that everyone starts coughing. In warmer weather, with the windows and doors open, it wasn’t a problem, but now that temperatures have dropped, we have become shut in with any irritants in the air. We’ve found a solution – cooking the peppers on a propane-fueled outdoor grill set up in the shelter of the portal attached to the house.

To everything there is a season. For everything there is a seasoning. Some like it hot, some like it sweet, some like it sour (that’s me). How dull it would be if we all liked only the same tastes, activities, hobbies. I wish, for everyone, an openness to experimentation and learning, and the pleasures that come from new experiences. Who knows, I may yet learn to not just prepare but actually to eat habanero sauce!

A habanero chili

Koki

July 1, 2014

Back in the day, when I was attending Swarthmore College in the Philadelphia suburbs that “City of Brotherly Love” held an International Festival featuring informational displays from the 70 some countries of origin of the city’s population. On a lower level of the convention area, each of the countries also had a food booth. One could buy tickets at the entrance and then spend them purchasing a world’s worth of main dishes and “afters” treats, far more than any one person could sample in multiple sittings.

Together with two classmates, I visited the festival with an open mind and an empty stomach. Knowing we could not try everything, my friends and I settled on a category of food – “a filling with some sort of pastry wrapping” – and went from table to table dividing three ways our sampling of whatever each country offered that fit our definition. We found a food to fit the category at every table except the Russian one. There we had to accept a slice of an open-topped fish pie as the closest option to our category. The ladies serving us explained that they were unable to make perogi (if you’re Jewish you’d call them kreplach) properly in the limited cooking space, and so did not try to do it. We ate Mexican tamales, German meat dumplings, French beignets, Chinese eggrolls, Vietnamese vegetable rolls, Greek spanakopita and a host of other tasty treats, some sweet, many savory, all enhanced with a wide variety of spices.

I am certain, even many years later, that we did not encounter what my Cameroonians friends call koki (pronounced like the French coquilles but nothing whatsoever akin as a food). I’m certain, because I helped to prepare, and was taught how to make, koki yesterday. The French homophone is a seafood. The Cameroonian dish would fit within my Philadelphia definition.

Koki begins with an arduous process of rolling black eyed peas between the palms, to loosen and remove the skin holding together the two halves of the dry pea. The halves are then dropped into a basin of water, and allowed to soak overnight. Any flakes of remaining skin float to the top to be skimmed off. The soaked peas are blended together with a small amount of water, onion and habanero peppers making a thin paste. Meanwhile fresh taro leaves are cut into strips, and large plantain banana leaves are soaked to make them flexible. The taro strips are folded into the pea batter, and all of it is poured onto the banana leaves which have been shaped into a bowl. Red palm oil which has been heated, so it will pour easily, is stirred into the packet which is then tied up and placed into a tall pot to be boiled and steamed for at least an hour, long enough to assure that the taro leaves are cooked to softness.

The koki is usually served with boiled, ripe plantain so that the sweetness of the banana contrasts delightfully with the hot spicy taste of the koki. When I commented that koki has the texture of a tamale, I was told that it can be made, like tamales, with a corn-based meal instead of the pureed beans.

I shared with my co-cooks an account of my first experience making tamales – the group of 6 of us sitting around a table, picking up soaked corn husks, plastering them with masa (corn meal paste) on top of which we placed a scoop of pulled pork cooked down to softness in red chile, before rolling the husks and tying off both ends with a shred of corn husk. Over the course of a couple hours, the six of us made more than 10 dozen pork tamales and about half again as many that were filled with corn and squash which had been cooked with fresh green chile. All the tamales were then steamed, in batches, in a huge kettle.

Unlike koki, tamales tolerate being frozen for later use. Preparation of both foods by traditional methods is time-consuming, an opportunity for the cooks (almost always women) to socialize and catch up on family news or, in my case yesterday, to learn by doing in the time-honored way that traditions are passed down from generation to generation.

My experience yesterday was a sort of time reversal, since the woman teaching me – Flora – is much younger than I am. She commented that few of her friends still prepare the peas in the traditional way, and that she would not expect me to spend the necessary time doing so in future. She offered to provide me with peas ready to be ground for the koki. I deeply appreciate the offer, knowing just how much time is involved in peeling the peas. In a corner of my being, however, I feel that I’m betraying a tradition if I don’t complete the entire process, start to finish, as it has been taught over generations.

I have my own special recipes, passed down from grandparents, which I occasionally prepare for guests. None fit my Philadelphia definition – until now. Food often unites us. Think families around a supper table, neighbors gathering for a pot luck, or a community putting together a meal for thousands, as happens each year on Labor Day weekend, when the small village of Wagon Mound, NM celebrates Bean Day. With the addition of koki to my repertoire of traditionally prepared meals, I will be uniting western Africa with the Middle East, eastern Europe and the western United States, adding to and carrying on long-established culinary traditions.

What a delightful, tasty responsibility!


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