Orchids in Syria

Yaseen points decidedly at the fuchsia phalaenopsis orchid at the grocery store.

We’re getting the last few items we need before heading off to the television studio. I’ve selected a bouquet of autumn flowers; the usual chrysanthemums and daisies, all russet and gold, something to bring fall color to the table.

I ask Yaseen what he thinks of the bouquet. He smiles in his polite way, which tells me he doesn’t like it. He then walks over to the orchid display, and chooses the brightest one there.

Into the cart it goes, despite the price tag, and a few minutes later, we are back in the car, on our way.

Yaseen has been tasked with holding the orchid, and I think he has fallen in love with it. He gazes at it, gently touches its petals. He pulls out his phone, and snaps picture after picture of it.

I ask him if he has ever seen an orchid before, if they even exist in Syria.

He shakes his head, not once taking his eyes off the blooms.

I try to explain to him as best as I can that it’s called a phalaenopsis orchid, because it looks like a butterfly. I don’t know the Arabic word for butterfly, and I’m not sure Yaseen knows what it is in English. We are at an impasse.

It doesn’t seem to matter that he can’t understand what I am trying to say. He is under the orchid’s spell, and I’m too busy trying to get us to the studio on time.

It dawns on me that orchids must be exotic to him, but for me, they are almost weeds. They thrive in the warm humid climate of Hawaii, so much so, that I swore I would never have orchids in my wedding bouquet.

In the arid world of Syria, I think it must be a different story.

In Yaseen’s world, his home was bomb into oblivion. Seven of his siblings are now scattered throughout the world, and the eighth remains in prison in Syria for criticizing the government.

Yaseen’s universe shrank to four years in a refugee camp in Jordan, where his youngest child was born. It was a place of tents and “temporary” shelters that stretched row upon row, as far as the eye can see. It was a sprawl with no privacy, and definitely no delicate flowers. The only thing flowering there were the noxious blooms of uncertainty, good only for weighing the spirit down.

Yaseen’s sphere now is an apartment in Tukwila, where he and his family are carving out a new life. Paved roads, a supermarket right down the street, passenger (not fighter) jets roaring overhead and a place for his children to play have replaced the dismal camp.

I see why he stares at this orchid so raptly. I understand why he drinks in its beauty. A year ago, he was in a camp, awaiting permission from the world. And now, he holds an orchid. It must be a bit surreal for him.

I keep my eyes on the road. I smile, because I feel Yaseen’s joy. I peek at the orchid again, and it is indeed beautiful.

Roots

 

The fickle fruits of summer are fading now. Green goes to gold, soft petals give way to durable seeds under clouds that sweep lower and darker in the sky.

Autumn makes her burnished entrance. No springy pastels or summery glitter herald her arrival. Instead, gloriously muted shades of russets, orange and fading green move into the center of the palate, act as her calling card.

Who knew aging and decay could be so gorgeous?

Have you ever tried to count the infinite shades of brown that fall from trees, nestle amongst stones, and huddle in ditches? Like the nap on a yard of velvet, a slight change in direction reveals the tonal richness of these humble colors.

After the shiny brightness of summer, our senses walk a more measured pace in the calming act of change, hibernation and loss. The blithe warm days snap sharply on the first frosty morning.

Fair-weather foliage may wither and tumble, but the roots remain strong and steadfast. Hidden deep in mute brown soil, they knot and brace for harsher months ahead.

These roots are like that one faithful friend you have. You know her; she’s quietly present, isn’t the gregarious type. And yet, when the weather turns colder and the winds threaten to topple us, her calmness keeps us grounded and steady. She’s the one that holds the umbrella over you when everyone has dashed indoors to shelter from the rain. She hands you chocolate, wine, a doughnut when life threatens your clarity. She talks you off emotional ledges, reduces scary monsters to shadow puppets on the wall.

You don’t have someone like that in your world, you say?

But you do.

Look in the mirror. She’s standing right in front of you, and try as you might, you will never get her to leave you.

Even when you ignored her, she was there. She whispered to you, asking you to try, just one more time. She ignited your resolved, tipped your chin up and wheeled you forward. She helped you don your battle armor, and celebrated success, failure and life with you. Just as importantly, she told you when to walk away, to regroup and choose another path. She protected you.

She was your root.

She still is.

She always will be.

I’m firmly middle aged now. My glossy summer season is behind me. Oh, there are flashes of it, like the last rose that blooms just before the first hard frost of the season. But the shadows relentlessly get longer and the sun travels lower in my heavens. Less glitter, more velvet; that’s the fabric of my world.

Things are calmer, slower and lovelier than ever before. Less distracts me, and so I see the woman in the mirror more clearly. Together we trace every wrinkle, worry over every gray hair, and push up each sagging chin line. We toast our victories with thimbles of champagne. We giggle loudly, because somehow, we can now that we’re older. We rage against the cruelties of the world, and we resolve to make the world kinder.

We make a pact that we will make every day count, and that we will forgive ourselves more.  We will take guiltless joy in both days where we beard the lion, and in days spent counting grass leaves. We will comfortable with our strength.

In this autumn, she is my root.

She always has been.

She always will be.

The Spaces In-Between

The true art of lace is not the lace itself; it is the empty spaces in between that give a spool of thread its definition. The magic happens in the nothingness between the floss. And as magic goes, it is invisible.

The beauty of Nothing is too often overlooked. Because there is nothing to see, we ignore it.

But Nothing is there and present. It gives emphasis to the Somethings in our world. It defines the boundaries, traces the outlines and sharpens the focus of all the things with which we fill our lives.

We fear Nothing. We dread the void. We run through our days, filling every minute to avoid the stillness. We run on a treadmill of emotional highs and sensory delights. We celebrate the mediocre to justify our adoration and our need to have a brimming cup of Fool’s Gold, to feel like we belong.

And yet, in the quiet is where the important work happens. Seeds germinate under the blanket of soil. The field looks barren, a Kingdom of Nothing. But in reality, seeds need to break their covering in order to sprout. Destruction of the boundary, of the shell is necessary for construction. And this takes place under the disguise of Nothing happening oh so silently.

Wounds don’t heal with constant prodding. At some point, they need the miracle of Nothing to form ugly scabs, to re-knit and mend. When it looks like nothing is happening, everything important really is. We hide those scars on our skin, in our souls. But why, when those scars are trophies of some of our hardest-won victories?

Nothing gives us time to correct, to grow, to make sense of the chaos that spins us around. The empty space lets us hear the echoes, see the shadows and make sense of the senseless. Even a muddy pond can become a clear pool if left to settle undisturbed, the miracle of Nothing.

I have learned to love Nothing. I thrill at the way it gives definition to a full life, the way the tang of lemons offset the sweetness of meringue in pie. Nothing is like a soaking rain after a long dry spell. Everyone wants the sweet and the happy, but without a pause in between, even sweet and happy deteriorate to monotony. In cooking, and in life, a drop of vinegar can take good to extraordinary.

Sometimes I get into my car at the end of a long day, and just sit to listen to the silence before I start the motor and head back home. Before I let the chatter of the radio and the pandemonium of traffic take over the next hour of my life, I sit, just exist, and let the muddy pool in my head calm down.

 

 

 

Step It Up

Curiosity finally got the better of me tonight.

I’ve walked by the different classes in the gym so often, thinking how fun they look. I’ve told myself a million times that one day I would try one.

Tonight, the stars aligned, traffic was kind and I made it in time for a “power step” class.

Side note: I can’t dance, and I have no sense of rhythm, so spoiler alert here, this may not end well.

The music starts, LOUD and pumping. The students select their step benches from the stack against the wall and position them around the studio. They are all old hands at this. I sink a little into myself as I see this. I choose a spot on the end, close to the window, hopefully out of the teacher’s direct line of vision.

She sees me anyway, smiles, sort of, and away we go!

No gentle warm up, this is not yoga. It’s STEP STEP STEP, turn, STEP STEP kick turn STEP STEP STEP! I can barely make out what she is saying through the crackly microphone over the pulsing beat. I am so out of step from the very first count.

Left! No, wait, the OTHER left. No wait, what? That original left! Dang it. I’m lost again. And now you want me to TURN? Dip! Stomp, walk it out. STEP STEP STEP!

The students step and stretch furiously. They twirl and pirouette. I try, too, and almost end up spinning into the innocent barbells quietly sitting against the wall next to me. I am dizzy, but still trying desperately to keep up. I am NOT quitting, oh hell, no.

It takes me half the class to realize that I should NOT be watching the teacher in the mirror, because she’s a mirror image! Duh. No wonder I’m stepping off with my left foot when everyone else is prancing with their right. Sigh…….

I sweat furiously. I’m embarrassed, but also laughing because, in truth, it’s simply a lot of fun. I have no idea where I am in the sequence of this “step dance” but at some point, I don’t care and I just hop along as best as I can.

I feel successful at the end of the hour because I haven’t run into the wall, or tripped over the step, or lost my cookies with exertion. My legs are killing me, I’m giggling to myself at what a ludicrous show I must have made. And then the instructor looks directly at me, and tells me “good job!”

I think it’s because I didn’t give up and walk out halfway through. No matter, I’ll take that compliment!

As I make my way to the locker room, it dawns on me. This is what it must feel like for my students just starting to learn English.

The words must rush over their heads, and swirl around their ears, too quick to catch. At some point, I wonder if they know which way is up or down as the chain of sentences binds them up and spins them around. Do they just march in place, trying to keep time?

I think, too, that just like I got everything reversed in the mirror, it must be discombobulating to try to write from left to right, when all your life, you have started from the other direction. At some point, does it all become just a kaleidoscope of dots and dashes? Does anything make sense?

Flailing about tonight, being lost and trying to hang on was a good reminder for me. To be out of my element, to be the one turning left when everyone else is going right.

Yeah, I needed that.

I’ll be back for more classes. And maybe, just maybe, while I’m searching for another way to get my students to understand my English, I’ll be counting a one two step step step beat in my head.

 

 

 

 

Finishing a Chapter

 

(Lisa’s note: this happened on November 19, 2016, when I decided to close the restaurant part of my business. The wholesale part is still going strong. Thanks everyone!)

They file in on cue, awkwardly, hesitantly, a bit suspicious of what is to come.

Nine gentlemen walk through the door of the restaurant. They will be our final guests before we shut the doors for good.

I made the decision to walk away from the restaurant world three months earlier. For someone who worked most of her career to finally pilot her own ship, it was an unimaginably hard decision to make.

I lived and breathed restaurants for almost twenty years.

My brain taps along to the Morse code of the ticket machine. My heart pulses with the hum and swoosh of the dish machine. My head pivots to sound of the bell ringing, calling servers to come get the food. My soul loves the sound of utensils clinking on plates.

But now it feels like preparing for death. In a way, it is. I am saying goodbye to a way of life that I have embraced for so long. And like anyone facing death, I wonder if there is life on the other side of the Styx. I wonder if it will hurt. I wonder what I will do next, if there is indeed life after….

I do know one thing. I don’t want to slink away at the end of the night. I don’t want to post a note on the door for my employees telling them we are no more. I don’t want to just disappear.

I want to go out proud, and with dignity.

I want the last meal I serve to the public to be one that means something, that will make people remember us kindly, perhaps. I want to use my restaurant one last time to be a part of the neighborhood and do good.

The nine men walking in the door are key players in this. They are from a organization in the neighborhood that helps people deal with HIV. And these nine men have been living with HIV for a long time now.

Tonight, they will do me the honor of being my last guests.

Of course, I cook way too much food. Of course, they don’t eat half of what I think they will. We end up distributing care packages of food around the park to the unseen people, the ones that are forgotten, the homeless.

The men sit, a bit nervous, not sure of this largess that is being thrown their way. But they eat, and as they eat, they begin to open up.

They tell their stories. They talk about their pain. They recount their daily lives. And all through the dinner, in the quiet camaraderie, they simply are. It’s wonderful to see.

I don’t go out to talk to them. I am too shy, and I don’t want to them to feel obligated to thank me or anything like that. I want them to eat and enjoy, to let me, let us do what we do best: feed and serve.

I’m holding myself together pretty well, like a lighted firecracker bound together with duct tape. Despite the emotions of the night, my stern impermeable facade stands tough.

And then as they get up to leave, one of the men hands me a silver dollar. He gives each of us one. He calls them his worry coins, says he keeps one in his pocket to turn over and spin when he feels nervous.

Another man, actually several of them tell me thanks, and say how this was their Thanksgiving dinner, since for many, they are estranged from their families.

I crumble. I feel like I failed. I wish I had thought about it more, about their circumstances. Had I realized that this would be their holiday dinner, I would have made a turkey, a traditional feast. I feel thoughtless and foolish.

But they smile radiantly at me, and my staff and I take comfort in that. We may have filled their stomachs; they have filled our souls.

After they leave, I lock the front door. We clear up the dining room, and I make one last family meal. Because this staff, these people who are still here with me, they are family now. We eat, laugh, cry a little.

I touch the silver dollar in my pocket, now my talisman for luck.

I get home, walk through the door into the dark living room. I pick up the dog and sit, hugging her like a rag doll.

It’s been a good chapter.

It’s been a great story, so far. It’s not over yet.

Tomorrow, I sharpen my quills and start writing the next page.

 

 

 

If Wishes Were Fishes

“Plip, plip, plip.”

It’s the sound of hundreds of minnows leaping out of the tide and throwing themselves like silver pebbles to skim the waves. They smack the water as they free-fall out of their aerial acrobatics back into their liquid world. There is no choreography to their dance, each fish is performing its own solo. And yet, there is an odd staccato rhythm, set to the pulse of a saline beat.

The dance starts, as most dances do, when the sun hovers over the horizon. The light changes on the ocean, going from shiny gold to burnished copper, antique rose and tarnished silver. As the sky blushes a furious crimson, the “boiling” of the sea begins in earnest.

Suddenly, a much larger splash is heard, like timpani drums over the trilling piscine piccolo. The bigger fish have come out to feed, and in their hunt for dinner, leap out of the water to chase their fleeing prey.

We hurry down to the beach, navigating our way carefully on the stony shingles that cover the shore. We cast our lures out into the water and reel them in. Over and over we do this, mimicking the minnows’ mad dash to straddle air and water.

We are fishing for striped bass.

This is a very different kind of fishing for me. Growing up, we used bamboo poles and frozen squid. Simple and elementary, not a reel in sight. We didn’t cast our lines repeatedly. We made our way to the edge of a deep tide pool at sunrise or sunset, searched out a promising hidey-hole and plopped our bait in front of it. And then we waited.

Sometimes it was a few minutes, sometimes longer. Most often we hooked opapalu, but on the odd memorable occasion, a sea cucumber would fall for our charms.

The fishing was good. In an hour or two, we could catch more than enough for dinner. It was easy and peaceful.

Not so with the hunt for striped bass. Cast, cast and cast again is how you do it. And after three nights of faithful casting, we came up empty-handed.

Faithless bass.

But before you think it was a miserable time, let me put you to rights.

It was calm and soothing, barring the neighbor’s wild Saturday night party way down the point, complete with band doing covers of Uptown Funk. Sure, a few illicit fireworks from around the bay to celebrate the end of summer may have been a bit jarring, but also magically beautiful to see reflected in the mirrored water.

The ocean itself was inviting, and oddly enough, got warmer as I waded knee-deep in to free my lure and hook from the protruding rock that was determined to become my next pet. The minnows darted around my legs, oblivious to my teetering on uneven purchase as I tried not to fall in and become the Summer Story of 2017, the one that family would rehash at every holiday.

My fishing companions were within talking distance, and yet, we kept to comfortable silence, taking shelter in the dark night and under the red sliver of the setting moon. The air was silken, salty and delicious against my skin and my nerves.

We lost ourselves in time, thinking only a few minutes had passed by. But in truth, we returned to a dark house every night.

A good pour of bourbon soothed the regret of the “one that got away”, as we toasted the stripers for evading us for another day. We watched the lighthouse guard the fish as it winked at us every six seconds. We sipped in the good spirits.

One last pass over the water with the flashlight revealed the minnows still jumping and leaping, their silvery scales reflecting the yellow beam like tiny frenetic disco balls. A few crickets practiced the cello in the background. A family of raccoons stared back at us with laser eyes.

We said goodnight to the wildlife around us waiting patiently for us to leave them to their nocturnal recital. The fish swam off, laughing, as the lighthouse cheerfully blinked goodbye to us.

The Equalizer

A simple question to Taghreed: why does eggplant feature so prominently in Iraqi cuisine?

Other Iraqis have told me that the eggplant has a somewhat humble status in their food world, and is a staple of those who can’t afford meat.

I want to hear another point of view, see if indeed this is the case for this photogenic but often ignored vegetable.

“True”, replies Taghreed.

For lower income people, eggplant was the mainstay of meals. Often simply fried, then served between bread with tomato and basil, it was the substitute for meat.

“It was always a delicious and beloved vegetable”, a minor player unless you couldn’t buy meat, she added. But the humble eggplant achieved superhero status in the nineties.

With the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq, food became scarce and meat prohibitively expensive. Food imports trickled to a halt, and suddenly all those old family recipes for eggplant moved to the center stage.

I sit there, listening to her tell me about the eggplant dishes of Iraq. It is incongruous, that she is relating to me true anecdotes about how people half a world away from me found a way to make do, as I sip my cappuccino with a perfect head of foam.

It’s not just any cappuccino. This IS Seattle, after all.

I had a choice between medium or dark roasted beans, whole milk, skim milk, soy milk and almond milk. I designed it to fit my tastes exactly.

In this shop, there are a dozen different flavors of macarons to tempt the palate. The cakes in the case wink and wave as I gaze at each one longingly. The croissants look so delicate, like a mere glance at them will cause them to shatter. Everything beckons, tempts and whispers buttery seduction.

Waves of people queue up and leave, constantly swirling around us, enviously eyeing our table where we are camped. There are bevies of giggling co-eds, dressed up to be seen on a Sunday morning. Mothers in yoga pants and fathers in cargo shorts juggle children, beverages and their precious pastry loot as they wheel oversized strollers against the steady stream of humanity trying to make their way into the shop. An occasional guy in biking gear clip clops in with that curious gait biking shoes cause. Everyone is here for pastries and coffee. No one is thinking about eggplants, much less economic hardships two decades ago in a faraway land.

And yet, all I can think about is a whole nation surviving on eggplants. It is a stark contrast to my present surroundings. I am hearing first-hand about how our government sanctions have, and are affecting real people.

I remember the day the troops started mobilizing and shipping out back in the nineties. I was living in Atlanta, Georgia at the time. It was a normal errand day for me, you know, picking up groceries, dry cleaning and the like. Except for the long convoys of military trucks lumbering down the interstate. And the groups and clumps of people on the overpasses and sidewalks, waving the American flag and shouting out how proud they are, and God Bless.

It was still impersonal. I had no one in my close circle in the armed forces. The nearest I got to any soldiers heading out was when they were on flights I was working. I couldn’t and didn’t visualize what it must be like on other side to see America’s military coming at you; for me, it was just “would you care for a beverage?” and “thank you for flying Delta!”

Now there is a face to that nation of people our government declared the enemy, and she has a name. Suddenly, it IS personal, as close as Taghreed is from me, a mere two feet away.

I feel embarrassed, and ashamed. I feel bloated and spoiled and ignorant. I am humbled and in awe. Around me is the detritus of nothing more harmful than a few shards of croissant crumbs. I sit in safety, cosseted by the excess we consider necessary in our world as I listen to stories of survival during war

Taghreed tells me how the eggplant, a background singer in the all-star line-up of vegetables here, has become the “pan monster” and “hero” of the Iraqi diet. It is the understudy that finally gets its big break. It rescues the show and saves the day. It keeps Iraqi families fed and going.

The contrast between life here and life there is stark, loud and brutal.

When a nation paid for the sins of its leaders, a plebeian vegetable underdog filled the void, and their bellies.

Rich or poor, they ate eggplant. It was the Equalizer.

Halfway There

The frustration hits me like a brick wall.

It’s a solid, heavy, full-frontal assault. This week marks the halfway point for this session. While the apprentices are progressing, I find myself still repeating and echoing the same admonishments over and over again.

“Say behind. No metal on cutting boards. Hold knives against your body, point down. Work NEAT, no exceptions.”

I feel like a nag.

My tolerance for the constant back and forth of translating has evaporated. I force the issue of speaking and understanding English. I propel the apprentices out of their comfort zone.

Indeed, my acceptance of anything less than excellent is gone. At this point in the game, I expect, no, I demand that they practice the skills I have been trying to teach them. Perfectly diced potatoes should be standard. Prep lists should be automatically written. There should be no standing around, waiting for me to tell them what to do. I set the bar as high as I think they can reach, and then just a little higher.

After five hours of pushing, pulling and growing another set of eyes in the back of my head, the apprentices leave for the day. I do a few more hours of prep work and then I head out to get supplies for a catering event tomorrow. I feel heavy as I climb into my car and plop into the driver’s seat.

About ten minutes down the road, I pull into the parking lot of Saar’s. I’ve never been here before. This store is not what I imagined it would be. I thought it was a quiet Mom and Pop corner grocery store. But instead, I am greeted by a large modern supermarket.

The clientele inside is varied. This is not the polar fleece-wearing, SUV-driving crowd that I encounter at the more manicured stores in my neighborhood. Instead, I see a plethora of Latino families, and quite a few women wearing hijabs. There are lots of brown faces, and I feel like I blend right in.

A young Caucasian woman comes in, wearing red combat boots. A middle-aged Caucasian man is buying his lonely dinner of potato salad and Oreo cookies. They are the minority.

I’m not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

I wander down the aisles, looking for sumac and injera. The store is divided into sections: Hispanic, Eastern European, Middle Eastern and Asian. It resembles a haphazard edible United Nations assembly.

I lose myself in the array of spices from the Middle East, the different snack foods and crackers from each continent, and marvel at how many teas, pickles and jams there seems to be in existence. I’m in no hurry; I start to relax as I pick up jars and cans to read labels, puzzle out what they contain. Some people go to spas, but this is my paradise.

I find the sumac, and the injera, too. I refrain from buying some delicious-looking flatbread, and a seductive fig jam. I give the mangoes a longing glance, and then another, but I move on to check out and go home.

The cashier is a tall African American woman with fuschia hair and lipstick. Her name is Tiffany, and she greets each customer at her register with a friendly hello and tells them she’ll see them soon as they leave. It is a stark contrast to the cashier yesterday in my stomping grounds, the one that couldn’t stop his conversation with his colleague to even look at me, much less say hello.

And then it hits me as I make my way to my car.

My world has expanded. That whole adage of how foods breaks down barriers? I’m living it. All the aggravation, frustration and weariness is not just because I’m pushing the apprentices to greater heights. I, too, am changing and widening my world.

Growth is taxing. To constantly be reshaping thoughts, values, ideas and perceptions is draining. There are days when I want to crawl back into my comfortable shell. I want to escape the foreignness, to be able to speak without pantomiming madly to be understood.

I want to just rest.

And then a little thing happens, to remind me that this world is bigger than that, and that no, you can never go back again. A little thing, like a walk down a grocery store aisle in Tukwila.

 

 

 

A Declaration of Independence

“Teacher, what is date?” she asks me. Another innocuous question in a endless string of simple questions. I face a barrage of them from her. The queries are easy to answer, and I could utter the solutions in seconds without even looking up.

Should I, or should I let her ponder the answer, look around and try to solve the problem herself?

Over the six weeks we have been in the kitchen classroom, I have repeated ad nauseum basic kitchen rules: like goes with like, say behind, label and date, raw chicken on the bottom shelf. I’ve demonstrated, I’ve illustrated and I’ve exhorted.

I stress to her over and again how following these basic rules of kitchen courtesy are so important, that her future employer will expect her to know and observe them. I tell her that what will set her apart from all the cooks in the kitchen is her ability and INITIATIVE to think independently, to show she knows her stuff, that she has a good solid foundation on which her chef can build.

I look at her and return the question to her. “What would you do if I wasn’t here? How would you find the answer if no one was in the kitchen with you?”

I know, it seems heartless of me. Why won’t I answer such an easy question? Why am I making her think about how to find out the answer on her own? What harm could there be in just handing out solutions? It would be so much easier and faster for me to just chirp out answers all the time.

Truth is, this simple question is the symptom of a much deeper issue. And that is the case of someone who has been conditioned to believe she canNOT think, that her opinion doesn’t deserve to be heard, that somehow she is not smart enough or worthy enough of anything more than a cursory education. It is the marker of an infection by someone, many someones really, who have told her over the course of her life that she has to do as they say, that she has to follow their orders, that she has no volition of her own. They have intellectually, emotionally and psychologically crippled her.

In four months, I am trying to take someone who has relied on everyone around her to take care of her, direct her, make decisions for her, and help her claim her power. Her success in the working world will rely less on her technical skills than her ability to think on her feet and to show initiative.

It’s a powerful combination of religion (doesn’t matter which one, all of them can be used to oppress someone else), social views on women, a lack of education and exposure to the world that renders some of these women helpless in daily activity. They may not be able to drive, have their own bank accounts, or do simple math. They are kept as children in adult bodies, reliant on their husbands or other males to make all the decisions.

But she is NOT a child. She is a beautiful female with an agile intellect, on the cusp of learning how strong she is. She lacks confidence and has been taught through the years that she is inferior, that her opinions are not worthy and that education is wasted on her.

Oh, I get it. Part of the constant question asking is a desire to do the right thing, to make ME happy. But it’s not about pleasing me. It’s about developing her drive and confidence to make a decision, even the wrong one.

I’ll be honest. I get frustrated. I don’t understand how someone can let themselves be so reliant on another person. I want to shake her up and tell her to wake up and stop being so subservient. I want to grasp her by shoulders and tell her to rage against her oppressors, to be in command of her own life.

But then, I have had the luxury of freedom of choice of religion, of a good higher education, of millions of women before me marching, protesting, and fighting to get a few more cracks in the glass ceiling. I can wear what I want, know how to drive (and parallel park), and have my own bank account, my own cell phone and email address (yes, these are small but important things for autonomy). I can vote. I move cross-country and around the world alone if I choose to.

I am heard.

She hasn’t. She isn’t.

This class may be her introduction to her own personal declaration of independence. And she’s taken the first steps by enrolling. She may think she signed up to learn how to get a job, but getting and keeping a job is about more than just learning to put Widget A together with Widget B.

This is the hardest thing I teach. How do I make her realize she has the ability to find the keys to her strength within her? How do I push her to stand on her own two feet? How do I help her reach the point where she grasps the idea that she in and of HERSELF is enough, more than enough, and more importantly, worthy of so much better?

So I look at her again, and ask her, “How can you find the answer?”

She pauses, and then says, “mobile.”

I smile and say that yes, that is one way, that’s a great way, and good job.

And I hope that she has discovered through this little exchange how she IS capable of being her own heroine.

 

 

Gifts from My Father

I always wanted a puppy or kitten from my dad. My father always said no when I pleaded with him. So of course, I did what any other kid would do, I consoled myself with goldfish and crickets as pets.

Side note: The crickets lived a life of luxury in a terrarium, with fresh apple slices and spinach every day. They were also loud as f…, and when they had babies, they had about a thousand of them. I’m guessing; I didn’t actually count. The goldfish didn’t fare so well, and went belly up in less than a week.

But back to the story.

What I did get from my father was far better, in hindsight. The list is immeasurable, but here are three things that I CAN count:

1.) A bike.

With this, he taught me how to try, and try again, despite crashing into the hedges at the end of our drive more times than I care to admit. It gave me freedom to cruise the neighborhood and make friends with the kids around me. It fueled my imagination, as I became the Lone Ranger, racing off to rescue someone. It made me think I was invincible, as I pedalled madly down the street like a streak of five year-old lightning. It gave me bragging rights as we kids argued as to who had the prettiest streamers on their handlebars. It gave me responsibility, because leaving your bike lying in the middle of the driveway was no way to treat a gift.

2.) The thrill of restaurants and food.

Every week, he would take us out for dinner. It was usually the neighborhood coffee shop (where I got my favorite vegetable soup, and yes, it probably came from a can). Sometimes it was McDonald’s, because in Hilo, finally getting a McDonald’s was a huge event. It made us feel like a Big City! Also, the choice of restaurants MY MOTHER WOULD GO TO in Hilo were limited.

On a rare sunny day(it rains, rains, RAINS, in Hilo), it was a bucket of fried chicken and with musubi in Liliuokalani park Afterwards, my sister and I would later roll down the grassy hill or play hide and seek in the bamboo grove.

Other days it was sirloin steaks on the hibachi on the beach, grilled rare and delicious with just a sprinkling of Hawaiian rock salt. After dinner, when we arrived at home, I would ask my mother when dinner was, because my five year-old brain couldn’t grasp a picnic as a proper meal, that we were done eating for the day.

Dad did this for two reasons. He believed that my mother deserved one day off from the kitchen every week. He also wanted us to learn how to behave in public, how to sit through a dinner, how to eat properly, and how to talk to and order from a stranger. Okay, third reason: I also think he really just liked food.

So now food plays a focal role in my life. I love the drama and theatre of a restaurant. There’s an unwritten script that restaurants follow. The stage set changes, the locations are worldwide, but the arc of the story remains unchanged. The high wattage attraction of food is something I learned at an early age.

3.) Most importantly, he gave me an education.

Because knowledge is power. And I’m not talking about just book smarts. Dad was convinced that I should to go to The Mainland (the forty eight contiguous states, to us locals) because I needed to get out of the comfort zone of pidgin English, shorts, tee shirts and life in the very slow lane. He said “the world is run by haoles, you need to learn how to deal with them.”

We weren’t a wealthy family. But Dad managed to send his kids to college. It wasn’t even a question of whether or not we would go. It was more of a WHERE we were going to go when we graduated from high school. There was no try, there was only DO.

He told me that my choice of degree wasn’t the important thing. The real reason I needed to leave the island was to acquire the ability to think critically, to see the bigger world and to be comfortable swimming in the wider seas of society. He was right.

I’ve never used my degree. But I have used those four years at university in other ways that have nothing to do with a dichotomous key or the Krebs cycle. I discovered, the hard way, that no one was going to push me to go to class and no one would pave my path for me. I had to do it myself. The toughest lesson of all to comprehend was no start or finish line; waiting for permission from someone else was a waste of time.

It still is, and I am still mastering this assignment.

Looking back, I see that Dad gave me the opportunity to develop and seize my power. He let me design my own life, draw the silhouette of it and fill in the colors.  He allowed me to find my true north on my compass by giving me the tools to read a map and plot my course.

I’m not sure he thought in terms of women’s liberation, even though I grew up in the seventies, when bra burning and protests against male chauvinism were part of the daily diet of television. He simply wanted his daughter to be strong enough to stand on her own.

I’m standing, Dad. Sometimes my legs have been kicked out from under me, but I’m back on my feet. I’ve gone off-road at times, and doggy-paddled against the tide. I’ve been lost and taken many a detour, but the presents you gave me bring me back on course.

The real gifts of his fatherhood are better than a puppy or a kitten. Thanks, Daddy.

Happy Father’s Day.