By Clara B. Jones
Last year, in the Appalacian mountains, I attended a lecture on “spirituality”, delivered by a Christian female minister. “Spirituality” is a word that I rarely use, preferring, “enlightenment” or “self-realization” or “restraint”, terms commonly spoken by my two Hindu teachers. For reasons unclear to me, the idea of “spirituality” occupied my thinking for several months in 2012, and I actively sought a definition of the concept that I could understand and embrace. When the reverend began to describe her journey of healing and spiritual growth, I felt a strong connection with her clear definitions and examples. The teacher’s talk was a running narrative summarizing her own challenges on a path to personal wholeness, providing a list of terms identified with her ongoing process of religious and secular revelations.
This reflective woman’s list included: meaning, hope, gratitude, connection, wonder, love, and peace. Considering these words, I realized that I had been seeking to describe a tension gripping me since my divorce in 1974. Hearing the minister’s words, I was able to imagine a personal path on which conscious decisions made every day, every hour, reflect “healing and spiritual growth”.
Some Eastern religious traditions expound a belief in the afterlife as a way to acknowledge that enlightenment, a progressive attempt to abandon “craving” and “self-referencing”, cannot be achieved in one lifetime. This view embodies the Christian precepts, humility, love, and respect of others and of self. Though I do not affiliate with an organized religion, I appreciated the minister’s ability to translate her beliefs into a concrete form. Her words were communicated in a manner permitting me and, probably, others in her audience, to capture, in common language, personal “meanings” of the word, “spirituality”. Now, I rarely experience intense guilt and shame about events surrounding my divorce. I no longer crave a different ending to that story. I have surrendered to the past, trying to be increasingly intentional in the present, one conscious decision at a time.
Food heals self and others
Each of us can associate food with sensations, particularly, taste, sight, and smell. Some of these sensations transmit negative emotions. I recall, for example, tasting a piece of pound cake and hearing the sentence, “I went to a lawyer.”, spoken by my husband in 1973. On another occasion, often repressed, I recall the familiar odor of a lasagna baked for guests attending Mother’s cremation. Later in my life, the taste of warm beer soothed my surprise after a group of piranhas nipped my legs while I was bathing in the Rio Negro, a tributary of the Amazon. Odors and tastes associated with positive events are said by many to persist longer than negative ones, and I have found that to be the case. I recall, especially, feelings of “connection” and “gratitude” when entering my grandmother, Clara’s kitchen, when sharing her meals, experiences providing “peace” in spaces divorced from my parents’ turbulent household.
Even today, I wonder what herbs and spices perfumed my grandmother’s oven-braised chicken. I have approximated the poultry’s ethereal odor and taste using carrots, celery, onion, garlic, and Herbes de Provence, adding, also, a bit of dried, crushed lavender. Grandmother cooked with hand-churned, salted butter, and the rich taste of cream poured from the top of glass bottles was unmistakable in many of her dishes. I remember standing in the doorway of her pungent kitchen with a sense of calm very different than the feelings of concern experienced by my daughter watching me stare into a smoky Franklin stove in the family room of our home in the countryside of Ithaca, New York after a hurried dinner of tuna salad on burned toast. Both of these little girls, my daughter and me, bravely managed challenging feelings in spaces infused with emotions and odors. The smells and sights and tastes were as lasting as wounds, some healing in a “meaningful” present, some remaining exposed to an uncertain future.
“There must be food for the soul.” Dorothy Day, social activist
My mother was the soul of my nuclear family, but her spirit was broken because of lost dreams and desires. She was, at one time, a model of order and leadership worthy of respect. Mother’s signature dish was Tomato Aspic, but she never adjusted to a structured domestic life. As a chemistry graduate student with a bachelor’s degree in biology, she hoped to attain a medical degree as entry into scientific research. It has never been clear to me why her plans for life changed. But, after the birth of my brother, she seemed to retreat into a nervous space. In retrospect, I wonder whether she felt as I did when I abandoned all motivation to be a great “stay-at-home” mom. Surely, neither of us was at “peace” with our lives.
My mother was a neglectful parent and worse as a cook. I recall her attempt to roast Thanksgiving turkey, bringing it to the table proudly, half-frozen with giblets still inside, served to her best friend whose two sons would later commit suicide a few years apart. This touching memory exposes a sensitive layer of my mother’s personality that was usually out of reach, a facet revealed over and over when she braised squab and shad roe for me whenever I lost schooldays due to illness. Later, food would, also, become a sign of my own buried concern for hearth and home, initiating an obsession with cooking, fashion, and style that continues to influence my choices. My oldest son, a Cultural Theorist, considers such persons to be philistines, a characterization that I would rather not embrace. Instead, I prefer to think that my mother and I used food as a substitute for what post-modernists term a “lack”, a missing substance veiled by a socially-acceptable alter-identity symbolizing “connection”.
“There is no sincerer love than the love of food.” George Bernard Shaw, playwright
I do not know whether my mother healed, but I am rather certain that she did not progress along a path of “spiritual growth”. I learned from her, observing each of her methods used to cope with sadness, with lost self, with dead dreams. Observational learning theory, a psychological paradigm, may help to explain how I matched my own responses to my mothers’. Some capacity for observational learning is no doubt inborn, entailing imitation of a model, another individual’s behavior, increasing social success. The success of modeling or imitation depends upon attention and memory and “connection”. At the same time, the mental process is hard-wired and driven by personality, like the sensations of little girls “connecting” sights and smells and sounds across otherwise disconnected spaces. Emotion is to memory as primitive is to advanced. Such is the essence of relationships, of history. I have braised squab and, also, shad roe, on many occasions.
“I use the word ‘love’ as a state of grace.” James Baldwin, American writer
I did not understand that to be black and female in the South of the 1940s and l950s was a mark of low status in the context of national intercourse. Race was not discussed in my assimilated, and privileged, family. Within a segregated system, my family modeled the dominant, European culture, patronizing “colored” people. There seemed to be a perverse pride acknowledging that several relatives “passed” for Caucasian, lost to the family but present, nonetheless, as symbols of high rank. My early years were as colorblind as they could have been in an environment dominated by one race.
As a brown figure on a white ground, I was soon aware that my family’s silence was a sign of denial or deception or fear or disrespect or injustice or defiance or independence or “otherness”, or other modes of being. Adrienne Rich might have observed that my parents chose silence over the power to name a culture as it then existed. Even today, I think in non-racial, rather than, racial or post-racial terms. For the most part, my grandmother Clara did not cook “soul food” because of my grandfather’s personal history. Their household regimen was conducted as it might have been in Munich or Antwerp or Cambridge or Lyons. Egg cups and egg spoons were the norm at breakfast, and my grandmother’s signature desert was egg custard. Food became my mental binder as bread crumbs are used as a binder in French cooking, and my own healing experiences were intimately “connected” with my jams and my French loaves, my herb gardens, and my trapped game, as well as, my foraged greens and berries. I have never made tomato aspic or eaten chitlins, and I prefer braised chicken to fried. Such is memory.
“I always say food equals centered behavior.” Marilu Henner, actress
What might “healing and spiritual development” mean to a girl raised by an atheist mother? My grandfather had forsaken religion when two of his daughters died of childhood diseases. My parents were faithful adherents to the Unitarian church for political and social reasons, rather than matters of belief. This introduction to integration in a segregated culture of the 1950s represented an oppositional community, “connected” by a sense that we stood on radical margins of social accountability and interpersonal diversity. In this setting, as in all spiritual spaces, food symbolized commitment to one another. Most Americans recall pot luck dinners on sprawling lawns celebrating the palpable bonds forged by a religious community. Many mothers, like myself, recall sharing food with family and friends at picnics, barbeques, clambakes on the beaches of the Outer Banks, Cape Cod, or the Jersey Shore. Food represents the personal and the social, the mundane and the spiritual. A blueberry pie represents Nutritional Mindfulness cementing human memories, emotional forces that none of us will ever forget. Such are the events that heal us, time and time again.
Clara B. Jones is an academic. She can be contacted via e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org, to arrange short-term, problem-focused coaching. She is a non-traditional mother, grandmother, friend, and acquaintance whose grounding philosophy is Intentional Living. The family photograph was taken around 1953 at a picnic on the lawn of her parents’ first home, showing the author, her mother, her father, her brother, and her grandfather. Current photograph of author by Liz Williams, makemesomeart.com.
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