A True Mother: On Breaking the Transgenerational Parenting Cycle

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“Shadows of the past churn and turn towards the light asking us to pay attention to unexpected feelings of ambivalence, comparison, and inadequacy in parenting. Unearthing, and addressing these feelings when they arise unwinds shame and is an essential key to healing our transgenerational attachment legacies”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

I was not always a gentle parent. Although I believed I was doing what was best for my children, my early days as a mother were a tug of war. I loved my children with all my heart, but my notions of parenting were based on what I knew. Transgenerational parenting, in short, means we parent the way we were parented. And in doing so, we often pass down complex ancestral emotional wounds. We all face the same challenge when we stand before the child-rearing fork in the road. We either follow the well-worn path of legacy or we veer off in a completely different direction, vowing to change a pattern that no longer serves us or our children. But the stronghold of that generational biologism is very difficult to break. It requires a certain level of consciousness and the willingness to ask ourselves some important and sometimes painful questions. Above all, it takes a great deal of courage.

When my son and daughter were toddlers, I believed with strong conviction that the best way to guide them was through rigid scheduling and correcting “bad” behavior. Which meant lots of yelling, time outs, talking to’s, threats and even spankings. Because, isn’t exerting control how children learn to behave, to obey and to conform? Isn’t that how we instill the notion of right and wrong? Isn’t that how we ultimately protect them? I wasn’t their friend after all, I was their mother. How many times had I been told that?

The results were detrimental. Most of my arbitrary attempts to control their behavior without trying to understand the emotions behind it was hurtful and confusing for my children and made them resentful. That resentment was either internalized in the form of withdrawal or externalized in the form of acting out, neither of which was the desired outcome. And it quickly became a pattern.

My personal interior tug of war was that I often felt rejected and disrespected. And I constantly felt guilty. And when I felt guilty, I would tap into the little girl in me that remembered just wanting to be loved and try to offer that affection to my children. But without an explanation, exchange, apology, or any real change in my behavior, my children soon learned to mistrust the 360° attempt to sooth away the damage. They would accept my  hugs and I love you’s, but they were left with the disappointment and menacing presence of unresolved feelings.

I was deeply at odds with myself because I didn’t know another way, but I didn’t like myself as a parent. My husband, on the other hand, was a model of patience and a first rate problem-solver who often intervened when I was overwhelmed. I admired him greatly as a father and wanted so much to be more like him. At the same time, I struggled with the resentment I felt at the bond he had with our children, which in turn fed my self-doubt as a parent. Some fundamental understanding of my relationship with my children was missing.

One day, when my patience was extremely low, my voice got loud. Really loud. It boomed and raged and reflected in my children’s frightened eyes. I recognized that voice–the tone, the intonation, the tenor–as that of my father’s, someone I had loved and feared with equal measure. That voice, on good days, could lift me up with  praise and laughter and on bad days and without warning, could plummet me into despair with criticism and disdain–well into my adult years.

Before my father passed away from a long battle with cancer, I  took the risk and asked him some hard questions. How was it possible that former employees, friends, colleagues and strangers described him as nurturing, loving, a great listener, kind and patient, when I knew a whole other side to him that was harsh, critical, rejecting and punishing? Was he even aware of how much he’d hurt me over the years? Did he care? Did he love me?

Well, my father was all those wonderful things that other people saw in him. And he was also the father I knew. He did his best, and of course he loved me. But, he was also a wounded child who grew up to be a wounded adult. As he explained to me in the vulnerable voice of a soul who’s come full circle,  he grew up in a household without love, walled in by strict rules and moral codes that demanded good behavior. He had been largely deprived of compassion and physical affection. “I was incapable,” he’d said. And I believed him.

I had inherited his long legs and his Irish sense of humor, as well as a long lineage of dutiful parenting and the emotional scars that got passed down alongside them. His admission broke my heart, but it also awakened a deep understanding in me that I would no longer be the forward carrier. I would break the cycle.

The first thing I did was get down on the floor. That’s where the change began. Down there, with my children, I could see the world through their eyes, I could imagine how tall I must seem to them, how everything asks to be explored and conquered, how it’s all wonderful and funny and frustrating as hell. Down there, I started to play, to clap, to dance, to sing. To be still. I looked out the window and up at the clouds. Those clouds! I fell asleep on the floor with my children on a bed of legos and books and cinderella shoes. I laughed and I cried. For my father, for myself and for lost time. I listened and I watched and I let the small things go. I spoke, slowly, purposefully and as gently as I could. I practiced. I held their feet, their hands, their heads, their whole small bodies until I knew their separateness by heart.

And when the time was right, I picked myself up off the floor and took care of myself. I engaged in the world. I did one thing, one small thing, every day just for myself. I read about respectful parenting. I tried on compassion and trust with myself and others. I learned how to talk things through rather than react. I learned to inspire rather than insist. I learned to ask questions and listen to the answers without judgement or criticism, regardless of how much time it took and how many other things I had to do.  I meditated. I wrote. And I asked myself a lot of questions about the parent I wanted to be. I didn’t try to be a perfect mother. I aimed to be a true mother. True to my nature, true to my instincts, true to my word and true to my intentions.  I forgave the past. And I learned to forgive myself when I’m not at my best. I would be lying if I said it was easy. It’s not. Every morning I summon patience and kindness to my side. The love is already there. It always has been. And so we move on, together.

Just Curious

 

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I wasn’t very curious as a child.

Writing that sentence feels both liberating and profoundly sad. The truth is, I was curious. Of course I was. But I quickly learned that there was little value in it.

Like most children, I was taught to stay inside the box (because it really was there to protect me), to color within the lines, not to read ahead in the history books, not to  speak unless I was called upon. I learned in school that information must be administered, monitored, measured and validated by adults in positions of authority. I was led to believe that I was categorically bad at math, but a star speller, so I excelled where I was praised and became ill when faced with numbers. I learned that if it’s not in a book or on a test it’s not worth learning, and that my physical and emotional needs were secondary to the material at hand. These messages, although never overtly stated, were reinforced daily by the routine and repetition of what constituted learning, namely, the unquestioning obedience to instruction.

The children we often hear about–the ones who retreat to their rooms, who don’t feel like telling their parents what they learned at school, who don’t seem to have any interests, the children who are labelled “sullen” or “introverted” or “dispassionate”  –these children are not part of a slacker generation, or emotionally void, or brain-fried from too much screen time. They are not, in fact, anomalies. They may just not know how to identify or explore their passions in the absence of prescriptive learning, or possibly even how to communicate without being prompted. They have learned to avoid anything that is not assigned or solicited. Most importantly, they have forgotten how to be curious. And this is when they get lost, to themselves and to us.

All children are born hungry to explore the world with their five senses on high alert. And since literally everything is unknown to a child when they are born, what a thrilling state to be in! The unreigned joy, the innocence of failure, the confident determination as they take their first steps, clap their hands or discover that dirt doesn’t taste very good. Isn’t that what stirs our own adrenaline and wonder as parents? Isn’t that what allows us to see the world with new eyes, what challenges us to be a little more curious ourselves? It’s what makes diaper changes, getting spit up on and sleepless nights bearable. We want to be around that joy, those pure discoveries, capture the grace and muck, document it and dream about it, and wake up wanting more.

But then one day, and increasingly too soon, most of us willingly hand  our children over to an institution in order to be “educated,” divesting them of the very same curiosity and wonder we so valued up to that point, and depriving ourselves in the process of the great privilege of witnessing our children truly alive.

People often ask me why I homeschool my children.  It isn’t because I hate school. It’s because I embrace choice.  I believe my children learn better by being free to ask questions at all hours of the day, and empowered to discover the answers at their own pace.  And I see great value in talking to and learning from other children as well as adults, and sometimes questioning their authority. I encourage my children to read ahead, to try ahead and to try again when they fail.  It’s because I now understand the fundamental difference between the deep knowledge we gain from being curious and the mere distribution of information. But it’s also because I’m a bit selfish. I’ve become addicted to my children’s curiosity. I want to be around it all the time. It’s worn off on me, inspired me and challenged the life I was taught to live. Depending on the day, It serves as either a kick in the ass or a healing tonic.

Life is an inexhaustible subject.

The Santa Mom

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“Mom, I have a really important question to ask you.”

My son has a serious look on his face, so I stop what I’m doing. At ten, his questions are not always easy (why do certain cells divide faster than others? How do coral fish change their sex? Is there enough room on the planet for everyone to live?). So I put my coffee down and close my laptop.

“O.K.,” I say. “Shoot.”

“Before I ask, you have to promise me, pinky swear, that you’ll tell me the truth.”

I crook my little finger and hold it out to him, a little tentatively.

“Does Santa really exist?”

And there it is. The moment of truth. The question I’ve been waiting for, anticipating, dreading since leaving that first plate of cookies by the tree and later eating them, untidily, crumbs floating in milk as evidence. (Of course, Santa dunks.) Since mailing that first illegibly scrawled letter to the North Pole. (Of course it will get there.) Since that first trip to the mall to wait in line for a photo. (Of course that’s really Santa.)

This time I know I can’t dodge the answer with my evasive standby, “If you believe, then he exists.” This time, he’s figured it out, has probably suspected for a while.

I wonder if the fall of Santa is my fault. As the years have gone by, perhaps I’ve toppled him little by little, gotten somewhat slack, a bit sloppy, a tad lazy in the Father Christmas department. Maybe I didn’t vary Santa’s handwriting enough from my own on the gift tags. Maybe the glass of milk was left untouched on the counter because I just couldn’t stomach dairy at two in the morning. Maybe Santa’s presents were piled in right alongside the others in the closet. On the shelf that was once too high, when you were too young to turn the door handle.

Or maybe, I’ve stopped believing.

My son deserves an honest answer. So I say it. “No sweetheart. Santa is not real.” I let it sink in, expecting tears, or worse, outrage. But he is silent, reflective.

“So who put the candy canes and sparkles all over the tree?”

“Me.”

“And  the presents? All the notes?”

“That was me too.”

“But what about those reindeer prints in the yard that time? That couldn’t have been . . .”

“Yep. Me. Powdered sugar. Remember all the ants?”

“And the cookies? You didn’t . . . That was . . .”

“Your father. Your father ate the cookies.”

My husband and I had the great Santa debate before our children were born. He was against perpetuating the “greatest lie a parent can tell their children.” I was all for fostering “the most magical time in a child’s life.”  It was a matter of perspective. For my husband, Christmas smacked of divorce, a father an ocean away, hard times and unfulfilled wishes. Christmas stung.

For me, it sang. Christmas was a  Norman Rockwell scene complete with yule tide guests, walnut-studded cheddar logs, sugar cookies and mugs of mulled spices. Carolers  congregating in front of our house holding sheet music, the baritone warming the notes deep in his chest, the soprano rounding her mouth into a chilly, fluted O. And there was midnight mass (the warm torpor), tapered candles in green and red on a mantle lined with hand-written cards. A stained-glass window of a Christmas tree whose branches democratically mingled bangles and baubles in silver and gold, blown glass and delicately painted spheres with the less noble popsicle sticks, garlands of gluey, glittered construction paper, threaded popcorn and slivers of molding dried oranges.

I wondered how two people could experience Christmas so differently.

We eventually compromised. As the years went on and my father passed away, I understood my husband’s sense of loss. As the years went on and he saw the magic through our children’s eyes, he understood my joy. And Christmas became ours, a shared middle ground–a lot less extravagant than my memories, a lot less melancholy than his reality. We tamed  the tinsel and decorated the banana tree in our yard. We made most of our gifts. We walked on the beach, a broad hearth for the sun. We celebrated life.

For all those years, I was the Santa mom. How easily I slipped into the persona of the secret giver, the teller of little untruths, the steadfast believer, the noiseless magician. Suddenly, I feel a sense of loss that my role has come to an end. Until I remember that his little sister doesn’t know, or hasn’t admitted it. We can pretend a little longer.

My son isn’t disappointed or sad or angry as I’d feared. He’s stronger than me. Instead, he’s curious, wondering how it all happened, calling up details and memories that I don’t even remember.

“What about that time when I lost my stuffed animal and he showed up all dirty under the tree with a note? How did you get him back?”

“I honestly don’t know,” I tell him. Some things are still a mystery.

Flight of the Ephemerals

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photo credit: endless-nightmare.tumblr.com

There’s a restaurant in the village where we take the kids when they are in need of the kind of comfort that only a good pizza can provide. This establishment makes a respectable one baked crispy and thin in a half-moon brick oven.  Although they have a full menu offering a variety of options, whenever I inquire about anything other than pizza, I am told, “We are out of that tonight, Madame.” So pizza it is.

The proprietor of this establishment is a 50-ish Frenchman named Jacques who has a thick shock of white hair and a penchant for Hawaiian shirts. On this particular night, he has clearly overindulged and is asleep at the bar when we arrive. We approach gingerly, not knowing whether to clear our throats, or turn around and leave. Thankfully (for us, not him), the young Senegalese waitress, Fatu, emerges from the kitchen and slaps him on the back of the head. He sits up abruptly, his bloodshot eyes rolling about, attempting focus.

“Oh”, he says. “I was wondering where you were.” I can only imagine by “you”, he means any customer in general–the restaurant is empty.

“Right ziss way, my ‘merican frenz,” Jacques says with an exaggerated wink in my direction. Scrutinizing the room as though he is hard-pressed to find a table, he ushers us to one near the open door, hands two large menus to Sunny and Jamie and pulls out my chair to seat me. As he leans in, my nose is affronted by an afternoon’s worth of Pastis and stale cigarettes. He returns a few minutes later and places eight wine glasses on the table.

“I don’t think we’ll be needing all these glasses,” my husband says. Jacques looks at the four of us, then the table and finally says, “Oui, oui, oui, pardon,” removing one of the glasses. This man is clearly drunk. Careening back to the bar, he puts both hands around the cup of coffee Fatu has poured for him as though it were a buoy in the middle of the ocean.

Several tables fill up over the course of our meal and the place takes on a convivial ambiance with layered notes of several languages. I can discern the two most obvious: French and Wolof, but also catch bits of Italian, a cockneyed British and Serer, the language of Cassamance to the South. I love this about Senegal–the small cosmos that gathers at any given moment. Tonight it is unexpected in this rainy season, in this little-known eatery with it’s checkered table cloths and plastic palm tree salt and pepper shakers; it’s poorly rendered murals of Africans running to catch the bus with baskets of fish on their heads–their noses, breasts and feet large and caricatured. But it feels comfortable at this moment, this ordinary evening.

As darkness falls, several winged bugs begin drifting in through the open door. They are silent and delicate, resembling dragonflies with a short rounded body. Soon, there are twenty or thirty hovering around us, landing on the table, alighting on fork tines and shirt sleeves, only to take off again towards the ceiling. No one seems concerned but us. My son Jamie, who is particularly bug-phobic, is standing on his chair, screeching and waving his hands about, ducking the onslaught. Jacques comes over and says, “Don’t worry, it’s just the ephemerals. This will all be over in a few minutes. Regardez!” Perching again on his barstool, he gestures in a wide arc at the swarm, as though he has arranged this spectacle for our entertainment. My daughter wonders aloud if they are fairies.

These insects are born during the rainy season and live for a single day. Not many people get the chance to witness their struggled, short life span. It takes them the better part of a day to hatch and they are fully formed only at dusk. Tonight, they have come to our restaurant, attracted by the single bright overhanging bulb near our table. They ascend slowly and purposefully, their wings beating furiously towards their beacon. But just as they reach the summit, they lose their top set of wings and fall fast to the ground, where they struggle for a minute or two, then exhausted, surrender. The life cycle that we are witnessing is narrated  by an old Senegalese man sitting at the table next to us. I ask if these insects exist elsewhere and he tells me he doesn’t know. He has never left Senegal.

We find ourselves riveted, cheering them up and on towards the light. “Go, go, up, fly!” As they fall, Jamie, who is no longer afraid for himself, but deeply sad on these creatures’ behalf, tries to catch them before they fall in hopes of saving them. But nature would have it otherwise. Within minutes, these beautiful ephemerals have lived their short lives and their bodies lie motionless on the floor. Only their delicate, transparent wings remain, floating through the air, taking flight again, independent of their host, on the current the ceiling fan provides. They descend slowly only to be lifted again into the air.

As we leave the restaurant, we turn to see Fatu sweeping the remains of the ephemerals out the door along with the sand and crumbs of the day. We walk home through the village with a flashlight. People are out on their stoops, chatting and singing in low voices. The electricity has gone out and the street is dark. But there are candles everywhere illuminating our path and the stars are bright and numerous.

Coming Back Home

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The summer after my junior year in High School, while all my friends were working fast food jobs at the mall or hanging out at the pool, I was taking typing lessons. To the best of my memory, there were six of us–all girls–and none of us wanted to be there in that hot, low-ceilinged room while “everybody else” was making pocket money or meeting boys. There was a lot of gum-snapping and heavy sighing during those four weeks of keyboard drills.

It was my mother’s idea. Being of a certain generation, she believed that every young girl should know how to type (and cook and eventually make a proper Martini). I like to think she had high hopes for me. As she pointed out (and rightly so), “even the most successful women have to start at the bottom.” So I went, begrudgingly, lacking the maturity to understand what a gift she had given me. At the time, it felt like some twisted, antiquated form of torture.

Our teacher was a slim, tireless woman with a voice like Wilma Flinstone. The repetition, my god, the repetition. “j,j,j,j,j,j,j,j,i,i,i,i,i,k,k,k,k,k.” The act of typing felt aggressive to me somehow, each key reaching up and striking the paper, recording our successes and failures.

“Come back home,” she would say after each practice drill, referring to the position of the hands on the keys, the two index fingers poised lightly on j and f. Home was extremely important: if the hands were just one key off, “duck” would become “fivl” and all hell would break loose. Home was where hands and thoughts were allowed to rest.

Like many young girls, I kept a hand-written diary at the time to record my deep thoughts and hormone-ridden rantings along with banal entries about the weather and my obsession with getting my ears pierced. I soon abandoned my pink-ink pen and plastic-padded diary and began typing. By the time I had finished the course, I could finger 60 words a minute. I now had a means to record my thoughts as fast as they came. Fluidly, madly, I wrote. Short stories, dialogue, life snip-its and still those deep thoughts.

What I remember most about those four weeks of typing lessons has to do with mastering a skill, but also about making mistakes.

If you’ve ever typed on a real typewriter, you know that mistakes were a much bigger deal and required a little effort to correct. Backspace didn’t exist in 1982. You’d be typing along at a steady clip and perhaps your mind would drift off, wondering what your friends were doing or what was for dinner, and inevitably, you’d hit a wrong key. And have to stop. Roll the page up. Erase the mistake either with correction tape or white-out. Roll it back up. Hoping that the page didn’t slip, willing it to find its former position. And try again. If you didn’t instictively feel the mistake as you were making it, you might even get to the bottom of the page, catch an unfixable gaff, which meant you had to start all over again . . . if you wanted it to be right.

Because it wasn’t so easy to correct my mistakes, I practiced harder, I vowed not to make them again. Because correcting them was hard and time-consuming and somehow slightly painful. But I learned from them.

As I’m typing this on my mac notebook, and my fingers are flying across the keyboard, hitting backspace, cutting and pasting, deleting entire sentences because they don’t feel right, I wonder if the ability to erase our mistakes so easily is such a good idea. It’s certainly convenient, and efficient and time-saving. But I worry about my kids. I don’t want “backspace” to become their default mechanism for coping with inconvenience.

I want them to feel the caloused pleasure of writing with a pen, know how to spell words in their entirety, not just use an acronym because it’s faster. I want them to know the musty smell of old books, the feel of pages turned by the hands and minds of past lovers of words.

I want them to know how to slow down, know what its like to eat a meal with people you love that lasts for three hours because there’s so much to talk about. I want them to spend days, many of them, with no set plans.

I want them to be aware of the greater world out there and the impact they can and do have on it. The solutions to many of our current problems may well lie in their hands . . . their capable, purposeful hands.

When they’re confronted with their mistakes, in language, life or in love, I want the solution to be a little bit hard, require a little reflection. In our fast-paced world, we all need to “come back home” from time to time, poised for whatever comes next.

Mud in Black and White

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“The world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful.” E.E. Cummings

Mud is two very different elements coming together. Earth and water. Rained on dirt. Water soaked soil.

No longer liquid, but not quite solid. Until baked by the sun into sinewy continents.

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Then it can become bricks.

Molded and poured, shaped and baked, turbid then opaque. Mud can make,

a house. An adobe abode.

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Mud can be worked.
But mud can be tricky and maleable.
Mud lays in wait for something or someone to change it.

When you least expect it,

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the rain can reign down and carve out crevices,
wash away walls,
and muddy your whole bloody life.

Just when you thought it was solid.

But you are not made of mud, although you melt in a puddle for a mired while.
Then your hero pulls you to your feet and tells you to breathe, but it’s hard.
Lots of doubt and mud-slinging. Can you feel it stick?

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So you walk the hard path together because it circles back to home.

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And you make better bricks from the fallen mass. Repurposed, relived, repaired.
Learned.

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Memories awash and days float by
as you play in the mud with abandon.

Mucky joy over all the possibilities . . .

the alchemy of life can bring.

originally posted at http://senegalease.blogspot.com/

The Extra Layer

photo credit: favim.com

photo credit: favim.com

A mother I know lost her son this week, her oldest child. He was sixteen. First he was missing. Then he was found by a search team alongside the road where he had apparently been hit by a car in the early morning darkness. The details are still unclear. But do they really matter? He is gone. Somehow I imagine that knowing must be better than missing because missing means uncertainty. And in the face of uncertainty, we imagine the worst. And hope for the best. But in knowing, we reach the truth, the depth of death and loss that we all experience differently. And although we may sink into that pain like fresh mud, at least we are not floating away. And when we are ready, there is the pulling grace of goodbye, the loveliness of memories. The detail of the lips moving, the voice like honey, thick and soothing, buzzing still.

My husband’s cousin, a painter, did a series of works in which he illustrates that we each carry with us all the disappointments, cruelties and losses of our lives as bricks. The proverbial baggage. Some of these bricks fall away as we get older–the self-doubts, the useless criticisms, the rejections that no longer serve us. But I believe certain losses never leave us. We don’t “get over” them, we simply learn to lift ourselves up with them, walk with them, adapt to their weight and presence, perhaps occasionally forget they are there. Shift them about. Maybe even soar with them in a moment of laughter. But never, never put them down. I have always hated the saying “time heals all wounds,” which implies that we are responsible to open our eyes on some undetermined bright morning and find the wound scarred over, run our fingers over a place that was once raw and bottomless to find a bumpy ridge of dullness. The forgetting. I have not lost a child. But I have lost my father and a dear friend and I prefer to think of them as always with me, not as a burden of grief, but an extra layer.

This woman who lost her son is a friend of a friend. Someone you love by extension, because your friend does. I met and spent three days with her several years ago. We walked 49.5 miles together with several other friends to raise money for breast cancer. We crossed Chicago together. I guess when you walk that many miles with someone, the “getting to know you” process is accelerated. Sweat and blisters cut through the veil of appearances and you have no choice but to be yourself. I have a vivid image of Deborah, long legs and girlish braids, a glamorous Pippy Longstocking who I had trouble keeping up with. And although I haven’t kept in touch with her regularly or ever met her family, I know about them. Which is enough. It’s enough to know.

During our walk, we women shared the details of our lives, some mundane–what sports our kids played and how our husbands made us crazy, which recipes we’d tried lately, the music we liked, what we were like in college. And some more poignant–a birth story, relationship worries, a battle with cancer. The miles and the time passed until we reached the next rest point where we could stop and eat, drink water, stretch, rest. Getting up again was always the hardest part, exhaustion anchoring us to the ground, the grass, the dirt, the ants. Deborah was always the first to say, “Ok, time’s up, let’s get going.” And up she got, the rest of us struggling to our feet to catch up. Keep going.

The following year, another good friend who walked with us died unexpectedly of coronary thrombosis. I flew from Africa to her funeral in Michigan with the numbness of grief and no warm clothes. It was early January, deep drifts of snow covered the ground. Deborah sent me a sweater in the suitcase of our mutual friend — a long, soft, gray blanket of a sweater. A new sweater, an expensive sweater, which she pulled off the shelf of her clothing store–because she thought of me–which is an extraordinary gesture for many reasons and one I’ll never forget. I wore that sweater during the funeral, I slept in that sweater, wrapped it around my shoulders, my waist. It became both a shield and an embrace. I slipped it over my head on the airplane going back to Africa, not because I was cold, but because I needed to feel the familiar drape. It had become a different sort of extra layer, threads of comfort woven into the fibers. The comfort that comes from being with good friends who loved the person you miss, the talk, the smells, the touches and tears. Even the laugh that escapes unexpectedly and uncontrollably–that first inevitable laugh that feels like a betrayal, but is really the soul of your friend, or father, or son, or mother telling you it’s ok to live on.

When I woke up this morning, it was cool, maybe not worthy of a sweater, but I put it on anyway. The sleeves are now stretched past my fingertips and the hem is dotted with pilled knobs of worn wool. I sat on my bed and pulled the sweater over my knees and tried to send my thoughts across the ocean to someone who once showed me kindness. But the tragedy felt too large and far away, like I could travel and travel and never reach an understanding. A child gone. I thought that maybe I should send the sweater to Deborah, that somehow it would help. But what if it didn’t feel the same to her, if it didn’t fit, couldn’t comfort? In all the certain gestures of family, friends, neighbors and even strangers, I hope she’ll find her own extra layer. And when she does, it will make a small difference. It will.

Pluck: A Poultry Tale + Recipe


“The best way to execute French cooking is to get good and loaded and whack the hell out of a chicken. Bon appétit. ”

— Julia Child

There was a time not so long ago when, if I didn’t feel like cooking, I would drive a good distance from our house in Savannah to The Fresh Market to pick up dinner. On those evenings, I would grab a basket, walk straight past the wooden tables displaying woven wicker crates bursting with gigantic blush pink apples, baby spinach and arugula. I would shoot past the acrylic, lift-top candy bins and the international chocolate shelf, the artisinal cheese display, the barrels of aromatic coffee beans and the nut grinding station, then weave my way through the biscotti and imported “biscuits” aisle, which brought me to the gourmet deli section. And that’s when I would smell it. What I had come for. The rotisserie chicken.

Oh, how I miss that rotisserie chicken: White Wine Herb, Lemon Rosemary, Butter Garlic, Honey and Thyme or Natural (which, they should call “elegantly simple”, for that is indeed what it is.) I loved to watch them turning ever- so-slowly on their sabers, the top one dripping it’s flavorful cooking juices onto the one below, creating a cascade of savory essence, basting, coating, dripping until each golden droplet suspended and finally splattered and sizzled into the pan below. Watching this process, I theorized that the chicken on the very bottom must be the most flavorful and tender, as it had received all of the drippings from the rungs above. On those occasions when I timed it right and could pick my own chicken right off the rotisserie, that’s the one I chose. My piping hot, herb-encrusted chicken nestled inside the foil-insulated bag in my basket, I would wind my way back through the vegetables and fruits (ok, and maybe the international chocolates) to complete my dinner. Those were the days.

In Senegal, I usually dig a chicken out of the freezer chest at our local grocery and dump it into an insulated bag (to keep it cold this time) as quickly as possible. Those suckers are really, really cold. And heavy. Then I met a Senegalese man who raises and sells organic chickens. I ordered one to be delivered the day I was having a dinner party. I would be making Zuni Cafe’s famous Roasted Chicken and Bread Salad for one of Richard’s new clients and his wife.

On the morning of the party, I was on a roll–I had decided that this time, I was not going to let myself get stressed out. Instead I would be organized, ready, cool and calm. I would have dinner prepared, the table set, my kids bathed, the animals fed and the kitchen cleaned, leaving myself enough time to actually shower and have a much-deserved glass of wine well in advance of our guests arrival at 7:30.

All was going well. I had the bread salad ready at 2:00, or as ready as possible, as the final step is to pour the hot pan drippings over the cubed and grilled bread chunks and then toss with arugula. I had the table set, dessert made, the wine chilling, the green beans trimmed and the orange gremolata ready to pour over the beans once they were cooked. All I needed was the chicken. At 4:00, just as I was putting Sunny and Jamie in the bath, I heard the clip-clop of a horse cart pull up outside. Yes, the chicken. I ran and opened up the gate and there indeed was my organic chicken man, right on time.

He pulled an old rice bag from the back of his cart and reached inside, pulling out a fully-feathered, just killed bird.

“No, no, no”, I said, shaking my head. “There must be some mistake. The chicken I ordered is plucked, cleaned and has no head or feet,” and, I thought to myself, doesn’t look like Ginger the Hen in “Chicken Run” which I had unfortunately watched with my kids the day before.

He laughed and tried to hand me the chicken, but I backed away. “Madame,” he said, “you ordered a chicken and that is what I have brought you. You’re lucky I killed it for you.” With that, he carefully placed the chicken at my feet, got back in his cart and clopped away. I ran after him, hauling the chicken along by the feet, shouting, “but how do I get the feathers off?!! Wait!! Don’t go!!”

In situations like this one, (i.e. an entire three pound chicken that needed to be de-headed, de-clawed, plucked, “voided”, washed, prepared and roasted in two and a half hours), I have been known to succumb to something akin to Tourette’s Syndrome. Sunny and Jamie ran outside with towels on to see why Mommy was standing in the courtyard shouting obscenities, holding a dead chicken by the neck.

“Get your father on the phone, now! . . . Please.”

As I tried not to hyperventilate, I heard Sunny, who loves nothing more than to push the #1 button on my cellphone to call her Papa, leaving Richard a message:

“Papa, it’s me, Sunny. You better get home soon. Mama’s cursing at a chicken. She used the really bad word.”

I frantically Googled “how to pluck a chicken”. A surprising number of results popped up. I decided to skip the Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church video on YouTube entitled “Ms. Dudley Shows How to Pluck the Chicken” because it was seven minutes long and I didn’t have seven minutes. I did however bookmark it for later viewing. Scrolling down, I learned fairly quickly that one only need place the chicken in a pot of boiling water and let it sit until the feathers loosened and could be easily removed.

While the chicken sat in it’s pre-pluming bath, I thought it would be a good idea to sample the wine. Two glasses later, I reached into the pot, pulled out the chicken and realized it would be easier if I got the neck/head and feet off first. I somehow managed to do this rather smoothly, finding the joints easily. That accomplished, I took a deep breath, reached into the pot (which had now cooled slightly) and began ripping feathers out. The downy ones came out quite easily, but the wing feathers were more stubborn, so I asked Jamie to please find my eyebrow tweezers. By now, our three cats had become very interested in what I was doing and had climbed onto the counter and were pacing like circus tigers. Tweezers in hand, I began to tug at the more difficult quills. As my hands were wet, I was covered in chicken feathers which were plastering themselves all the way up my arm. Sunny had pulled up a stool next to me and was cheering me on. “You’re doing a great job Mom.” She kept asking me if I didn’t want another glass of wine.

At 6:00, the chicken was naked as a . . . well, you know, and I braced myself for removing the innards. I got a scrap bowl out, cut the skin around the cavity and reached in. I don’t know that I could identify what I pulled out, but I placed it all in the bowl to cook later for the cats. I scrubbed my hands, arms and the chicken clean, inside and out, and placed it in a roasting dish. It looked just like it was supposed to! I felt triumphant, giddy, plucky even!

Just as I was popping my beautifully dressed and tressed chicken into the oven, one of the cats snatched the entrails out the bowl and trailed them across the counter, down the hallway and up onto Sunny’s bed where she proceeded to gnaw on them ferociously and howl at me viciously if I tried to get near her. The resulting mess topped my ‘grossest thing ever’ list, Sunny’s bed had to be changed and Sunny herself needed lots of comforting. She feared that her favorite Hello Kitty sheet (ironic, don’t you think?) would never be the same. And, I found, I needed another sip of wine.

Twenty minutes later, I had just enough time to wash my face, brush my teeth and throw on a dress and some lipstick. My cheeks already had that healthy ‘just plucked a chicken in record time while downing a bottle of wine’ adrenaline glow, so I skipped the blush. The chicken was starting to smell pretty good and, although the recipe doesn’t call for it, I basted it with the remainder of the wine bottle I had so thoroughly sampled. When Richard arrived with our guests, who I was meeting for the first time, I wanted to drag him into a corner and tell him everything that happened, but I would have to save it for later.

Somehow, I got dinner on the table. I nervously waited as our guests took their first bites. No one said anything, so I quickly scooped up a forkfull of chicken and bread salad and was relieved that it had turned out well, really well. The woman turned to me and said, “this chicken is absolutely delicious. Did you use white wine?”

You could say that.

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Actually, it was excellent, which is why I’m sharing the recipe. If you want to impress someone or simply cook the best roasted chicken dish you’ve ever tasted, you should give it a go. I didn’t read the recipe carefully in advance–the chicken is supposed to be brined two days in advance–oh well. This is a link to my absolute favorite cooking blog and the recipe. Enjoy. Oh, and Bon Appetit!

http://smittenkitchen.com/2008/12/zuni-cafe-roast-chicken-bread-salad/

Stories of Serendipity Part II: The Mechanic

When we first moved to Senegal, many fellow expats warned us not to trust the Senegalese, to keep our distance. A give and take relationship was impossible, they assured us, because the Senegalese, gentle as they may seem, were not culturally capable of a reciprocal friendship. I remember thinking, whenever I would hear such admonissions, and they were frequent, that surely these expats were missing something. They weren’t looking deep enough, not able to invest in the time and patience it must take to build a relationship. It seemed like a gross generalization, a dehumanizing one, for all of us. And so, I chose to ignore it.

This story proves them all wrong. It happened to my husband Richard, on a recent ordinary day, which is of course when serendipity is most likely to strike. On this particular occasion, serendipity (such a feminine word) was ushered onto the scene by her ever-watchful companion, karma.

The Mechanic:

A 25-year old Toyota Landcruiser possesses lots of charms, particularly when you live in Africa. Talk about rugged. Talk about sturdy. Talk about able to get us home on a mud path laden with crater sized, rain-drenched pot holes. For all of these reasons and more, we love our car. And everyone knows that an old car, one without computer controls or online manuals, needs a veteran mechanic. A trustworthy mechanic who knows his engines and isn’t afraid to take them apart. It took us a long time to find Babou, but we knew he was the one when he listened to our car the first time and said, “she’s sick. I can fix her.” No technical mumbo jumbo, just a straightforward prognosis with a fair price. He is a professional and an expert–someone we trust.

And so, over the last few months, we’ve recommended him to friends, acquaintences, business owners–anyone in need of a good mechanic. Word of mouth is how most good news travels here and it’s always feels good to know that you are helping all involved.

One day this week, Richard travelled to a remote village to work with an elderly Haitian architect who has built an artist colony. He needed help completing the design and execution of a natural pool, one that uses aquatic plants instead of chlorine, to filter impurities. It wasn’t a big job, but one that Richard was happy to work on out of great respect for this gentleman.

As Richard was leaving in the afternoon, he got as far as the next village and realized he didn’t have much gas. He pulled over to see how much money he had in his wallet- he would need the equivilent of $20 to get him home. To his great horror, he had forgotten his wallet at home. As he stood outside in the morning heat leaning against the car, wondering how he was going to get home, he pulled out his telephone to call me. No credit. (Cellphones in Senegal work on phone cards which you replenish as you go). He didn’t even have the gas required to travel back to his client.

Just then, he heard someone call his name. As he turned around, he saw Babou trotting across the street.

“Babou, what are you doing way out here in the middle of the week?”, Richard asked.

He pointed across the street to a car on the side of the road. “I have a client who lives in this village. His car broke down this morning and he called me to come fix it.”

They were both a long way from home, on the same day, in the same village, on the same street, at the same time.

Richard felt great relief at seeing not only a familiar face, but a friend. He could wait until Babou had fixed the other car and catch a ride back home. He’d somehow have to get back there to pick up our car, but he’d worry about that later. He was about to explain his predicament when Babou patted him on the shoulder and said,

“I’m so glad to see you. I was going to stop by your house later this afternoon.”

“You’re welcome any time Babou, but why did you want to see me?”

“I wanted to thank you. You’ve recommended so many clients to me lately and it has helped my business greatly. I’m no longer struggling. I can sleep at night. You have helped me more than you know.”

“Please” he said, “take this as my way of thanks. I know it’s not much, but maybe you can buy some gas with it.”

With that, Babou handed Richard $20.00.

Stories of Serendipity: The Yellow House



I’ve been thinking alot about serendipity lately. And I’m not the only one. I hear stories all the time about people crossing each other’s paths, resulting in a significant exchange, leaving both people with the distinct impression that they were meant to meet, for reasons big or small. Hearing about these stories is serendipitous in itself. It’s hard to deny that some intangible force, be it God, Allah, Buddha, the Universe, or wherever we place our faith, helps us work things out together. I might be wrong, but it seems to me that these events tend to occur in direct proportion to our current personal and global fragility. Times are tough and scary. Tragedies touch us either personally or distantly, but we hear of or read about them often. The good news is, if we listen, we will also hear about (or hopefully experience) chance meetings, small miracles if you like, that lend a bit of grace and purpose to our day.

Here is one such story:

The Yellow House:
There is a young Senegalese man who often sings at the top of his lungs in what I presume to be a mixture of Wolof and Arabic. Sometimes he wanders out in the bush behind our house, slowly weaving among the giant Baobob trees. But most often he can be seen outside a nearby uninhabited house, wedged into the corner where two outside walls meet. He sings every day, but always at different times. Most days, I’m ashamed to admit, I want to wring his neck, or ducktape his mouth. There is nothing beautiful or particularly comforting about his singing. In fact, it’s rather annoying. But nonetheless plaintive.

This morning I went in search of eggs. As I was walking along the dirt path towards the village, the singer began to wail. I could tell by the direction of his voice that he was in his usual spot, a spot I couldn’t avoid. As uncomfortable as I was, I would have to pass him on my way to the boutique. I’ve always avoided direct contact with this young man, preferring to glimpse him off in the distance. Afterall, anyone who sings that loudly in the middle of nowhere has to be a little off their rocker, right?

As I approached, he suddenly stopped singing, which for some reason made me feel guilty. I had always envisioned a crazed, desperate individual with frantic eyes. Instead, here stood a calm, if not a little embarrassed, young guy wearing surfer shorts and a Bob Marley t-shirt. I said hello and told him not to stop singing on my account. He shuffled his feet a little and looked down at the ground.

“What exactly are you singing about?” I asked.

“My problems,” he replied. “I sing to Allah, but only when there is wind. The wind carries my voice and the echo carries Allah’s message back to me.”

“That’s lovely,” I said. “Does it really work?”

“Sometimes.”

As I couldn’t think of much more to say, I asked his name.

“Moustapha Diouf.”

“Nice to meet you, Moustapha Diouf. My name is Ellen.”

He nodded his head but didn’t make a move, which I took to mean that we had gotten close enough for one day. As I turned to continue along the path, he said,

“Allah has a message for you too.”

I stopped.

“Oh, really?”

Okay, I thought, so the loose screw diagnosis was accurate afterall. Maybe Elvis has got something to say while you’re at it, buddy. But I had stopped, hadn’t I? The jaded Catholic who was hard-pressed to define my “beliefs”, had been stopped in my tracks by the possibility that I had a pending message . . . from Allah. Somehow, if felt oddly comforting.

“What’s the message?” I ventured.

“I don’t know, but you’ll find it at the yellow house.” And with that, he took up his singing again.

The yellow house is an old, wooden, barn-like structure–a small miracle in itself in that it stands at all. I don’t know how old it is, but I often marvel at the fact that termites haven’t devoured it. I pass it every day. It’s beautiful in an inexplicable way. But, I thought as I walked along, if Moustapha is right, today it will have new meaning.

I walk past the house slowly, peering towards the windows, listening. But I don’t really believe, not really. I stop, continue on, circle back. Nothing. No one. This is ridiculous, I tell myself. I linger in front for a few minutes and then decide to try the back. There is no door. The house, afterall, is abandoned. No one inside, only fallen boards with exposed rusted nails, shreds of faded fabric. A couple of pigeons in the rafters. Suddenly I’m crying. It’s like someone has just told me there is no Santa Claus. No Santa, no Easter Bunny, no Tooth Fairy, no God, no Allah. No Magical Yellow House with even the smallest tibit of Wisdom.

I continue on to the boutique where I go every day to stock up on sundries. Abdou tells me he doesn’t have any eggs yet and to try the boutique a little father along in the village. I trudge my way through a sandy street I’m not familiar with and spot the boutique up on the left. As I’m about to enter, a little boy runs up to me and sticks out his hand. “Bonjour toubab,” hello, white lady. He is about four and offers me a sturdy handshake and huge smile. This cheers me up, so I buy him a piece of candy inside the boutique, but no eggs. They haven’t been delivered yet.

When I step outside, the little boy is across the street, leaning against the wall. He has a deflated bicycle wheel in his hand and is studying it carefully, trying to find the hole. He sees me and there is that big smile again. When I hand him the candy he throws his arms around my legs. I ask him where he lives. He points to the gate and says, “fi, kai fi”, here–come with me,” and drags me through the gate.

Inside, there’s a large courtyard filled with chickens and a few goats, and several plastic buckets filled with laundry in different stages of soaking. In the corner is woman, who I assume is his mother, busy packaging the fresh eggs she has collected this morning. She stands to greet me and says, literally translated, “you are welcome here.”

I ask if her eggs are for sale and she says yes, gingerly placing twelve into a piece of cloth. As I hand her the money, I finally take in the house behind her, which is small . . . and crumbling in places . . . but clean and bright. . . . and a lovely shade of yellow.

On my way back home, my eggs tucked into my knapsack, I look for Moustapha. I want to tell him about the yellow house.  I listen for his voice, but he is nowhere to be found. The wind has died down.