On the Nature of the Onion

The Traveling Onion by Naomi Shihab Nye
 
“It is believed that the onion originally came from India. In Egypt it was an object of worship —why I haven’t been able to find out. From Egypt the onion entered Greece and on to Italy, thence into all of Europe.” — Better Living Cookbook
 
When I think how far the onion has traveled
just to enter my stew today, I could kneel and praise
all small forgotten miracles,
crackly paper peeling on the drainboard,
pearly layers in smooth agreement,
the way knife enters onion
and onion falls apart on the chopping block,
a history revealed.
 
And I would never scold the onion
for causing tears.
It is right that tears fall
for something small and forgotten.
How at meal, we sit to eat,
commenting on texture of meat or herbal aroma
but never on the translucence of onion,
now limp, now divided,
or its traditionally honorable career:
For the sake of others,
disappear.

3697037417_b04ebeef9d_z

How do some people do it? Make you, a complete stranger, feel “seen”? Valued, like you are the most welcome person to enter their presence that day? I had that experience last Saturday, as I strolled through the 12th Annual Book Arts Festival at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts.

It was raining outside so, having just arrived, I was dripping wet. I stopped at a table covered in beautifully crafted paper sculptures and handmade books, most in shades of white. I was clearly reluctant to touch anything on that table, but the artist, Regula Russelle, encouraged me to do so anyway. She said, “I believe that book arts are tactile”, touching was practically required. We struck up a brief conversation when she mentioned that she is working on a collaborative show on the theme of “Hospitality” – which is, of course, one of the Mercy values I now carry in my heart.

Regula embodied that value, and it touched me more deeply than she realized, I’m sure. As I wrote last week, I feel bare lately. Every perception lands as if on sensitized skin, every emotion burrows beneath the surface at first breath.  As I lingered at Regula’s table admiring her work (but also just wanting to stay close to her warmth a little longer), I picked up a small hand- printed and -bound volume of poetry. It fell open almost eagerly to the poem above. The poem, the ambience, Regula’s hospitality, brought tears to my eyes.

As you know, the name of this blog is Jenion, the tag-line: Peeling Away The Layers. Last week, my friend Layne, in her inimitable style, asked me, “Are you still peeling away the layers, Jenion? I kinda think we got to the middle a while back.” Well. There’s a long answer to that question and a short answer – and I have been pondering them both since Thursday.

The short answer is “You’re right, we got there a while back”. The original purpose of Jenion was to peel away the layers of denial and shame, in fact, all the layers of muck associated with my disordered thinking and emotions about food and weight. And I believe we have worked through these things together, as so many of you supported my walk through that difficult and emotional labyrinth (some even joined me). I may never be completely content with the number on my scale, but I can, without reservation, claim to be in a sound emotional place regarding my relationship with food and a healthy life.

As for the long answer, I refer to the poem by Naomi Shahib Nye. I can relate to the poem on the surface level, as can anyone who cooks (especially health-conscious food). Onions are in nearly every dish I make – sautéed greens, omelets, casseroles, soups. I work very few recipes that don’t begin with “one medium onion” (chopped, finely diced, or sliced). As an ingredient, I have come to know the onion intimately. Its very omnipresence causes us to overlook its importance to our palates, to the fullness of flavor of much of the food on our table.

That is so often how we relate to the layers of our selves, as well. We see ourselves as ordinary, and we seem so obvious to ourselves that we sometimes forget to look below the surface. The tough papery layer of our skin remains intact even when peeling it off, when revealing parts closer to our hearts, would be in the best interest of self and/or others.

In the beginning, Jenion was the just a clever (at least I thought so) name for my blog. Over time, though, it has become my pseudonym, my alter-ego, and that part of me that remembers there are layers upon layers beneath the seemingly standard surface of my days and activities. And it is the part of me that honors the layered-ness in others as well. Am I still peeling the layers? It is in the nature of the onion.

Considering Layne’s question has brought about intense focus on the image of the onion. Almost tangentially it has occurred to me that an onion (in addition to being a metaphor for soul-searching) may also be a perfect symbol of hospitality. It offers itself to us, layer by layer. It flavors our meals, it accepts our tears, it nourishes us – and asks nothing in return. The poet says, “For the sake of others, disappear.” Hospitality may not require disappearance, exactly, but it does require that one place the “flavors” (needs, presence) of others in the central, starring role. What a gift that is to give another soul – and what a joy to receive.

Repository of Memory

I sometimes astound my friends with stories about my childhood – their surprise generally surrounds either the fact that my five siblings and I never killed anyone or the concept that I was allowed to go places without my parents. Yes, friends, I am that old – I grew up in a time when no one was worried about children being snatched.

We lived, back then, in a house on a bluff, overlooking the Mississippi River and the flat valley it had carved into the landscape. The downtown, and many places of significance in my childhood, were located in those flats. Most forays both within and outside of my neighborhood involved negotiating either steep streets or flights of endless stairs carved into the bluffside.

Two blocks from my house, at a point where the street turned a corner and opened into a spectacular view of the city and river below, there stood a curious handrail. In the street itself, surrounding a hole in the pavement. As one approached closer to the hole, stairs could be seen, disappearing under a graceful arch of carved limestone blocks. At the bottom of those stairs, a walker was forced to navigate about half a block of very steep sidewalk, often broken and littered with glass, before reaching flat land. Positioned exactly there, an immense and imposing edifice became one of the happiest locations of my childhood.

The Carnegie-Stout Public Library. (click to see an old postcard of the edifice)

I can remember my mom coaching me the first time I was allowed to go to the library by myself. I was never very confident doing things on my own, so it is a measure of my desire that I was unwilling to wait for a parent or siblings to make the trip. Down through the hole in the street I went, taking my time on the stairs and the steep sidewalk (if I remember correctly, mom was watching from the street above, and I wanted to prove my maturity by not running and, inevitably, falling.)

I always chose the grand main entrance, though the side door led directly to my final destination. However, I loved those broad stairs, colonnades, and the stone lions guarding the massive wood doors. Inside, the reading rooms flanking the main hall, beckoned. One had comfy, overstuffed leather furniture, the other library tables with reading lamps. But I was afraid of the serious old men in these rooms, perusing their big city newpapers, so I generally passed through quickly. I always visited the adult literature section, not because I wanted to check out the books, but because of the winding iron staircase leading to the glass-floored loft in that section. I loved the surprise of the glass floor, the tall black stacks full of books, the iron railings which allowed a view of the open main floor and its lofty ceilings from a higher vantage point.

The second floor was not officially off-limits, but it was filled with offices and meeting rooms. Adults I didn’t know always asked if they could help me, and I got the impression from their tones that children weren’t completely welcome on that level. Typically, I scampered back down the marble stairs fairly quickly. Straight down to the basement where, as far as I was concerned, the real magic happened: the children’s room.

The room was bright, if shabby, and full of stories waiting for me to discover them. The librarians knew me, and knew what would interest me: at first, stories about pixies and fairies; then chapter books about families like “The Five Little Peppers”. Eventually, books and authors I could sink my teeth into. Frances Hodgson Burnett (A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, Little Lord Fauntleroy). The Boxcar Children. Nancy Drew. Any- and every- thing ever written by Louisa May Alcott.

As a child, I had many fancies about my world: our yard, our neighborhood, our town. This helped to make the world feel intimate and comfortable. As I grew older, I realized that the world was huge and not particularly cozy. Its vastness began to frighten me. When I discovered reading, particularly novels, I found that there was another, equally vast, world inside my own imagination. In this vastness, whether the setting was familiar or alien, I was always safe – if sometimes challenged to be more or think more deeply and broadly than before.

Sometime after I left home, the library built and addition and moved all the public spaces into it, closing off the original grand library (turning it into offices and storage rooms). I was incensed by this. Recently, though, the library underwent a renovation. I had an opportunity to visit, and was pleased to see that, in the renovation, someone had cared enough to upgrade while paying homage to the original detail. It isn’t the same, but it evokes similar feeling. The children’s room, in its traditional space in the basement, is bright and interactive. Perhaps today’s children will find magic there, just as I once did. I hope so.

****************************************************************

Friends: I would like to invite any of you who may be interested to submit a guest post to Jenion. Guest posts are a great way to test the blogging waters (for those who’ve wanted to blog but are unsure of the commitment) or, if you already have a blog, to share something that doesn’t fit your own blog’s theme. Here at Jenion, its all about aha moments, personal transformation and/or growth, weight loss, emotional development. Honesty and humor are both welcome! If you have a story along these lines you’d like to share, please email or write a reply to this post and we’ll “talk”!

50 about 50: Books

“This is the way
you have spoken to me, the way – startled –
I find I have heard you. When I need
it, a book or a slip of paper
appears in my hand…
 
…Your spirits relax, —
now she is looking, you say to each
other, now she begins to see.                                                             
 
 –Denise Levertov

Reading has been one of the great pleasures of my life – also, one of the most important means for personal growth. The simple truth is, I am who I am today partly because of the books I’ve read. In how they’ve touched me at the right moment, how I’ve been open to them when I needed to learn something, books have enriched my life immeasurably.

I have read widely and constantly. In second grade, I got in trouble for reading (a novel) in class. In junior high, my mother nearly flat-lined when she discovered me reading Jacqueline Susann’s  Once Is Not Enough. In high school, I read every Barbara Cartland regency romance I could find, as well as all of Thomas Hardy. When people comment about the strange, esoteric bits of trivia in my brain, I often secretly laugh – because I know what low-brow piece of literature I gleaned that tidbit from!

It would be impossible to make a list either of my favorite books or of all the authors whose ideas or themes have instructed me. Instead, today’s list is of books which have become integrated into my own psyche in some important way. I’ve cheated (a little) because there are more than ten books in this list. I could easily have expanded the list far beyond these ten items – it makes me sad, for example, that there are no John Irvings, no poetry, none of my beloved “books that became movies starring Shirley Temple” on the list. Someday perhaps I’ll write a definitive list of the best books I’ve read. Today is not that day! (PS – the list is in chronological order)

1. The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew by Margaret Sidney

I believe I’ve shared this before, but The Five Little Peppers taught me what reading is for. I learned to read with phonics and the Dick and Jane readers. “Run, Dick, Run.”, does not inspire one to develop a life-long love of reading. Story can, though. And this was the first true, long, emotionally satisfying story I ever read. The rest is, as they say, history!

2. Trixie Belden Series by  Julie Campbell Tatham et. al. /Madeline L’Engle’s Books

Trixie Belden and Vicky Austen showed me two young women struggling with a variety of difficult issues: annoying brothers, shady characters with nefarious intent, mysteries and logic puzzles, the death of loved ones, crushes on boys. I loved that both girls worked hard and thought hard about what it meant to be her best self. I never minded that Trixie used exclamations such as, “Gleeps!” She and her friends the Bob-Whites of the Glen, as well as L’Engle’s characters, helped me maintain a moral grounding at times when it could easily have crumbled away.

3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

For many years, this was the only novel I read more than once. And by more than once, I mean 20+ times. Admittedly, on one level it could be read as a longer romance novel, and that is probably why I read it the first few times. Gradually, though, I began to appreciate its finer qualities. It has been many years now that I have considered it one of the finest novels ever written. If you have read it without laughing out loud, you have missed just how clever Jane Austen is as an observer and commenter on personalities and social mores. She is witty and on point, without straying into mean and snarky (most of the time) – definitely qualities I aspire to in myself.

4. Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein

A word that is currently so overused as to make it practically meaningless – EPIC – is the best word to describe both these books and their impact on the trajectory of my reading life. For one, I have remained a true fan of the fantasy genre. In addition:  history, linguistics, folklore, metaphor – my appreciation for each has grown significantly as a result of these books. More importantly, the idea that even the humblest of hobbits has a role to play in the great and dramatic events of the world, has informed my worldview and cemented my temperament as idealist.

5. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The structure of this novel hooked me: the Joads’ story interspersed with chapters describing the injustices (such as produce being allowed to rot rather than feed people) occurring in that turbulent time. My parents were politically involved and aware in the 60’s and 70’s, and while I soaked up that ambience during my childhood, until I read The Grapes of Wrath, I hadn’t understood how powerfully the written word could move me in service to a just cause.

6. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

“Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  Viktor Frankl

The first time I read this memoir, I was young and more inspired by the fact of his survival in the death camps than I was by how Frankl survived. As I have matured, I have worked hard to remember the truth quoted above. Unhappy at work? Bored with your life? Feel like someone is oppressing you? Use your freedom to choose – beginning with how you respond to the person(s) or events involved. I gravitate toward people in my life who intuitively understand and model how to do this.

7. Earthrise: A Personal Responsibility by David Thatcher

I was spending a leisurely morning in the 1990s browsing at my favorite shops on the pedestrian mall in Iowa City. At The Vortex, I lingered in the books section, flipping through whatever caught my eye. Underneath a pile of New Age magazines, I spied a thin, quite worn-looking little book. It appeared to have been read by many, though this was not a used book store. It was so strange, nestled among the many shiny new items – and we all know I cannot resist something strange or unusual. So I sat down to read it on the padded little bench in the store. And literally felt my mind and my worldview expanding as I read. I’ve never met anyone else who has read this book. For a long time, I almost believed only my copy existed, I almost believed it was magically produced just for me to find at that exact moment in my life when I would be most open to it. Basic premise: the human capacity for affecting our world is exponentially greater at the individual level than any of us typically realize, and it is time for us to take responsibility for what we create.

8. Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris/Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver

I read these two novels back-to-back. They were both beautiful and powerful stories, widely different from one another in subject and tone. What struck me, though, was a similar central concept: that perception is reality. In Yellow Raft, the story is told through the perspectives of several generations of women in the same family. Each perceives the events through her own lens, and each responds accordingly. The reader develops a very full picture of what happened, while each character must make choices based on her own, limited, knowledge. In Animal Dreams, a woman returns to her childhood community, having left in late adolescence feeling outcast and incapable of being accepted by those around her. Returning, she discovers that children don’t see or understand very much – in part, because their parents and the other adults around them provide shelter from the more difficult to comprehend things in life. The view she constructed of her family, community, and self was based on this incomplete understanding – and incredibly flawed. Together, these two novels have helped me develop a more sanguine approach to familial relationships – yes, we shared experiences, but there are sound reasons for our differing responses and/or feelings about them. What an eye-opening thought – someone else’s perception of reality, while different than mine, can be equally valid.

9. Desert Pilgrim by Mary Swander

I shared the story of the powerful retreat experience that helped change the course of my life previously in this blog, here. This book was the basis for the retreat, written by the author who served as our retreat leader. One of the many things I loved about Desert Pilgrim, was the strange synchronicity between Swander’s life and mine – the people, communities, places we both know and love. Other than the retreat, our paths had never crossed. But our lives share some quirky people and experiences. As a result of the book, the retreat, and a few other connections in my life, I have adopted San Rafael as my patron saint (along with St. Cecilia, whose name I took at confirmation). While I won’t attempt to articulate what this has meant to me (because it would make this post unbelievably long), suffice it to say that I take hope and comfort from this.

10. Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer

This book was rain on my parched soul, and came to me at a moment of great need. If you are ever at a crisis point regarding your vocation or life purpose, this book is a wonderful companion – especially (though not only) if you have been working in higher education.

Well. It turns out that I am incapable of “short and pithy” when sharing books I love. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post and learning about some of the books that have shaped me. I am particularly interested in hearing about those that have touched you – please share!