Friday, November 25, 2016

Thanksgiving Memories

Six years ago, when we started this blog, we were aware that the four of us came from different backgrounds and cultures.  We were drawn to each other by our love of the written word and our passion for education and for kids.  Our love for each other and for what we have in common often overshadows the diversity that we bring to this space.  So for this week, all four of us will reflect on the upcoming holiday to explore what we have in common and what unique insights we can bring to the table about family, celebration and traditions.

On the Thanksgiving Table 
by: Susan
I LOVE Thanksgiving!  It is my favorite American holiday.  I did not grow up celebrating it, but I do come from a culture that cherishes family get togethers and food.  So a couple of years after arriving in the US, we started celebrating Thanksgiving like everyone else.  There was always a turkey, usually bought smoked because no one really knew how to roast a turkey.  But there are some amazing cooks in my family so the rest of the table would be set with an array of Persian rices and side dishes:  Plum chicken, roasted eggplant and garlic spread, yogurt with cucumber and mint. About fifteen years ago, when it was my turn to host, I realized that no one in my family had ever tasted dressing or cranberry sauce or any other of the traditional dishes that are served at this time of the year.  So I offered to give everyone the experience of these very American foods.  My relatives offered to bring something and I politely asked them not to, because I wanted to maintain a certain flavor in the whole menu.  I did ask my mother to make Shirin Polo, which I thought was a great Persian contribution to the Thanksgiving table.  It is basmati rice with slivered almonds, pistachios, currants and shredded carrots, flavored with saffron.  The sweet and savory flavors can play the role of the dressing to the turkey I figured.  Despite my protestations, on Thanksgiving day, my aunt did arrive with a crockpot full of Aash-e-reshte, a very popular thick soup of legumes, greens and noodles; think minestrone without the tomato influence.  As I called people to my table of a perfectly roasted turkey, corn bread stuffing, homemade cranberry sauce, green bean casserole and sweet potatoes, the guests noticed the Aash and enthusiastically went for it first.  I was so disappointed that fifteen years later I still talk about it!  It wasn't so much about feeling that my cooking was rejected. It was and still is about my desire to invite all those around me to taste each others' cultures, to break the wall of insularity and engage fully with their neighbors. When I lived in Latin America, I was amazed at some American families who lived in the bubble of their expatriate communities, never learning the language, rarely making friends with the local people and seldom engaging in the day to day life of their adopted city.  I know my life has been richer by playing the chameleon wherever I have lived.  It has helped me distill the best of my original culture and add flavors from others that I have met along the way.  This Thanksgiving, I am grateful for friendships and family that know no borders or limitations imposed by distance, language and culture.

Passing the Torch 
by Carolyn

In the thirty years since our mother died, my sister and I have shared the role of family matriarch. In this role, we have alternated the hosting of Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings. Although she hates to cook, she does enjoy hosting family events. I love to cook, so it has never been a hardship to me. However, time has marched on inexorably, changing us and our roles. My sister has, for the last several years, been ready to abdicate the role of holiday hostess, hoping to turn that duty over to our respective daughters-in-law (and their husbands, of course). I have been a little less eager to do so, wanting to hold on to the way things have been. However, because of some physical limitations, neither my sister or I am capable of playing hostess this year. So, for the first time ever, my older son and his wife will be hosting the family Thanksgiving gathering this year. I have mixed feelings about that. In my family, the hostess makes some (maybe most) of the food, but everyone else also contributes to the meal. So I am only making two dishes to take, not four or five. That isn't so much of a burden. Also on the plus side, I am very relieved not to have been cleaning my house for the last four days. I am also remembering just now that the lonely cleanup after everyone else has gone is a pain in the tuckus. I won't have to do that this year, either. Hmm. Not so bad. From a practical standpoint, this is a positive move. From a sentimental standpoint, not so much. My life is changing. My place in life in changing. Change is hard. Change is inevitable. The blessings continue.

Coffee and Conversation
by Esmeralda Lara

Traditional turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and ham make their debut on the counter in my mom’s kitchen.  The pumpkin cheesecake pie and pecan pie proudly sit at the dessert table with turkey cupcakes on display.  Food is a big deal for any occasion in my family.  Birthday, holidays, Sundays.  Food brings us together, but the love and conversations keep us at the table.  

Although the food is amazing, and the preparation of the meal always leads to laughter, its what happens after the meal that stays with me long after the turkey pounds have been shed.  When the coffee is poured into mismatching coffee cups, and the dessert comes out, the deep conversation starts to pour out.  We discuss my grandmother’s childhood, or how she and my grandfather’s courtship came to be.  I learn about my aunts as young girls, and then more as young women.  Sometimes there are tears, most of the time because we can’t stop laughing at some statement someone has said.  All of the time however, there is nothing but love.  The knowledge I have gained during our coffee talks is more than just folktales and memories handed down.  They have taught me how to be strong, to never give up.  They have shown me the kind of person I strive to be.  I am fully convinced I know and am related to the strongest women.  Ones that smile through struggles, and pray for those who have harmed them.

Today on the day designated to giving thanks, I am thankful for table talk, coffee and conversations, and seven women who I am eternally grateful for.

Macaroni & Cheese and Other Claims to Fame
By Andrea 

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because of the food.  I absolutely love cooking all of the traditional foods of my family, my community.  It is one of few times a year that I pull up my Southern African-American roots in the kitchen.  Cornbread, collard greens, mashed potatoes, rice, gravy, buttered sweet corn, green beans, potato salad, baked ham and roasted turkey, sometimes fried fish and chicken wings, cheesecake, sweet potatoes baked into pies and made into candied yams, as we call them.  And, of course, no Thanksgiving dinner would be complete without a deep -dish, bubbling baked macaroni and cheese.  On most tables, the turkey is the star.  This is not so for any of the Southern black families I can think of.  Though I am always quite proud of my turkey, my family is no different.  The baked macaroni is the most desired part of the meal.  And here is the thing about mac and cheese.  Every cook thinks hers (or his) is the best!  So when you have more than one "cook in the kitchen" for family gatherings this can get a little precarious because each wants to bring his or her signature mac to the gathering.  This year, we had five heads-of-households at our family dinner. However, we gathered at MY house so making MY macaroni and cheese was the one thing I insisted on.  It is the BEST macaroni and cheese, made the way I was taught by my mother and grandmother and attested to by my family and friends.  I use a blend of three cheeses, pure organic butter, milk and eggs, salt and pepper to perfectly dense, not too greasy with a balanced blend of pasta and hot, melted cheese in every bite.  Each of the heads-of-household at our gathering made his or her second and third signature dishes to contribute to an absolutely tantalizing smorgasbord of food plentiful enough to feed a small nation.  With our bellies filled and egos stroked with overflowing compliments for prized dishes, stories from yesterdays, laughs of todays and memories for tomorrows flowed freely. When I am gone, my children may say that their mom made the best mac and cheese. I pray, however, what they will remember more than anything is that food and Thanksgiving were vehicles for building our family and making family out of friends. And this will be our truest claim to fame.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Conversation With Fear

By:  Susan

My favorite question to ask these days is
“What are you afraid of?” 
If I can name my fear,
I can loosen its grip on my body. 
I can untangle its claws from around my neck
and set it down in front me. 
When I name my fear,
and set it in front me,
I can look at it in the face and ask:
Are you for real?
Show me your credentials? 
What proof do you have that you are actually legit? 
Show me. 
Count the times you’ve been right.
See, you can’t.
You are a fake,
an impostor
conjured up by my ignorance,
my prejudices,
my insecurities,
my past mistakes.
Once I make you show your hand
You begin to melt into the ground
Like the wicked witch of the East.
But you come back
Jump on my back
Sit on my chest
Echo in my ears
So I try to talk to you nicely this time:
I hear you
You’re trying to protect me
You’ve got my best interest at heart
But how about you let me breathe a little
Let me see things with my own eyes
Know things with my own mind
Just for a few days
Maybe a week,
Maybe two.
How about you just sit in this closet
And wait for me
I promise I will check on you
Maybe in a week
Maybe in two.
And if you are legit,
I’ll listen to you.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

How to Bribe Me

By:  Susan

It always surprises me when I see rewards offered for reading.  For me, reading has always been the reward.  

As a child, I suffered from chronic tonsillitis.  I remember getting a penicillin shot almost every other week.  This was back in the early sixties in Iran where disposable needles weren’t available yet.  I remember climbing the stairs to the top floor of the pharmacy where a man in a white coat would take out a giant metal injector and place it in a steel container with boiling water to sterilize it.  He would then approach me, who was being restrained by a mother or a father and probably screaming.  Next thing I remember, I am walking up the stairs of my house rubbing my sore behind.  To encourage me to endure these painful experiences and to show up for the next one, I was bribed with books.  Every time I had to get a shot, my mother would buy me a book!  By age five, when I finally had my tonsils removed, I had amassed quite a library.  In second grade
when I came down with a severe case of the measles, my one request was a copy of a children’s book I had seen on the children’s story hour on television.  The book was Kaduye Ghelghele Zan or the Rolly Polly Pumpkin, about an old lady who tricks some wild animals by hiding inside a pumpkin as a mode of transportation.  I remember lying miserable and feverish in my parent’s dark bedroom and my father coming home with a hardback copy of that book.  I know he had to have searched for it all over town.  Of all the things I left behind when I came to this country, I miss my collection of children’s books the most.

When I was in fifth grade, I wanted to join the newly established library in my local park.  I had to get permission from my parents and my school principal in order to join.  The principal refused to consent because he thought outside reading would interfere with my academic performance.  My elementary school did not have a library.  The one at my high school was used as the detention hall until a blessed soul took away the locks and let us check out the books.  At fifteen when I stepped into a public library in Houston, Texas for the first time, I could not believe that there were no locks and I did not need anyone’s permission to get a library card.  That was incentive enough for me to try to adjust to a new country and a new culture.

During the years I lived in Venezuela, my reward was the small, dank and dusty library at the Church that was set up decades ago by the Standard Oil Company to meet the needs of the expatriates living in that far off post.  I read every Agatha Christie mystery they owned, as I fed and rocked my four children who were born there.  Once, I found a tiny kiosk tucked away in a narrow hallway of a shopping center next to the bakery I frequented.  The young woman and her mother who owned the store were the only source of quality children’s literature in that town.  They did it for the pure joy of it, for God knows it wasn’t for the money. Finding that little bookstore was like finding a treasure.

Once I became a teacher, every time I read The Miraculous  Journey of Edward Tulane, my students would burst into applause at the end of the last page.  Kids have come in voluntarily during their lunch period to listen to Esperanza Rising How to Steal a Dog and The One and Only Ivan bring tears to my eyes and theirs.

I don’t think we need to reward anyone for reading but by reading.  The story is the prize.  The words are the bribe.  

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

On Promises by Carolyn

"We live in a society that over-promises and under-delivers."

I can't take credit for the line - it's from an insurance commercial that airs on my favorite radio station - but it is so true.

That line has made me think about promises.

Merriam Webster's dictionary defines a promise as "a statement telling someone that you will definitely do something or that something will definitely happen in the future".

Watching the conventions put on by the Republicans and the Democrats has reminded me, once again, that no president has ever been able to fulfill the promises made on the campaign trail. Let's be realistic - if it were that easy to fix all of our nation's problems, someone would have done it long ago. If we buy into the rhetoric offered by  politicians, we are destined to feel the disappointment that comes with over-promising and under-delivering. "Promises and pie crust are made to be broken." (Jonathan Swift)

Likewise the constant bombardment of advertisements for products that promise us perfect health, a long life, flawless skin, lustrous hair, sparklingly white teeth, and miraculous weight loss - all without much effort on our own part. Another instance of over-promising and under-delivering. Yet we keep falling for it. "Promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement." (Samuel Johnson)

Parents (or spouses or friends) sometimes do the same thing. Maybe they are busy with work or distracted by something in their own lives. "We'll do something special next weekend, Sweetie," they promise. Next weekend comes. Busy-ness happens again. "I'll make it up to you, honey, I promise" becomes the continual refrain. Childhood (or the relationship) passes in a cycle of over-promising and under-delivering. Trust withers.

Our society builds up marriage as a promise of happiness. Despite our constant real-life observations or experiences that should lead us to realize marriage is not all sunshine and roses, we are still tempted to believe that it is. Don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-marriage. I hope someday to be married again. I just know that marriage is hard work. A daily state of bliss is not guaranteed. Our culture puts out hype about living happily ever after that over-promises and under-delivers. "You promise heavens free from strife." (William Johnson Cory)

Money. There's another instance of over-promising and under-delivering. We think, "If I just had more money, I'd be happy." or "If I could buy (insert desired item here), everything would be great." Studies have shown that people with more money are no more happy than people with less money. Why do we keep believing the deceitful promise our society makes us that money equals happiness? The only thing money gives us is choices. Again, don't think I am anti-money. I hope someday to have some, along with the choices it brings. But money or no money, my happiness is up to me, not my bank account. "But it is pretty to see what money will do." (Samuel Pepys)

Here's the flip side of the coin: not only do we need to be aware of people and products and circumstances that over-promise and under-deliver, we must also be on guard against being the one who makes the promises and does not follow through. Let our "yes" mean yes and our "no" mean no; let our actions, not our words, speak our intent.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Of Fear and Trust

By: Susan

Note: The word essay really means "an attempt".  Here is an attempt on my part to understand the dynamic that fear and trust have played in my life.  These ideas are by no means scientific or definitive.  So I welcome your comments to help me further clarify my thoughts.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the difference between acting out of fear and acting out of trust.  It started with parenting.  I know that for the most part, my first response when it comes to my children was fear, fear for their safety, for their physical and spiritual well-being.  When they were little I was worried about them getting sick or lost in a crowd.  I spent many years afraid that they were not getting the best education possible.  In their teenage years I worried about what they did when they weren’t with me, afraid of what choices they would make.  Now that they are all young adults, I worry about who they will marry, will they be happy, will they be good parents, will they be financially secure.  A few years back I started trying to replace the fear with trust.  Trust that their father and I have done our best to instill a love of knowledge and learning in them so no matter what school they go to or who their teachers are, they will always learn something.  Trust that we have built a home on the foundations of faith in God and His guidance, so they know the difference between right and wrong.  Trust that they will make mistakes and be tested, but that God will guide them and protect them.  I wish I had learned this approach sooner!  Parenting out of trust is not any easier; it’s just more joyful, more liberating, less claustrophobic (both for the parent and the child). Fear spreads a fog over everyday life.  It smothers happiness.  It suffocates self-knowledge. Acting out of fear is like walking across an abyss on a rope bridge.  Living with trust feels more like walking on solid ground, in the sunshine, with a strong hand on your back, holding you steady.

Even though I may have parented a lot out of fear, I know I taught out of trust.  I started teaching when my last child was in kindergarten.  So I had had about fifteen years of experience raising children.  So I came to the classroom trusting that ALL children would love a good story, that ALL children would want to solve problems and get in touch with their mathematical intuition.  I knew that ALL children were naturally curious and would love learning about their world.  That’s why my years in the classroom were definitely joyful and I want to think that my students felt safe and therefore learned better.  

Living with trust is not about being naive or delusional.  It’s about examining my assumptions. It’s about assuming the best, until proven otherwise.  It’s about believing that there is more to this life than self-preservation.  We can’t completely dissociate ourselves from fear.  It’s a part of our nature and it’s there for a reason.  But it’s the instrument of the lower animal nature.  Trust comes from a higher place, from that part of us that can hope, pray and have faith.  

So I instead of fearing the unknown, I am trusting in the growth that comes from stretching myself in new directions.  Instead of fearing differences, I trust that God in His wisdom created these differences for a purpose, for us to learn to see His image in all the diverse hues of our skins, the varied rhythms of our tongues and the multiple expressions of our souls.