What We Learned From What We Lost

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Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness…

…Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

It is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.

     —from “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye

In 2008, the city I live in experienced a catastrophic flood. It surprised us, the waters rising fast and destroying so much of what made our town unique. I’ll always be haunted by the memory of cresting the hill on the south side of town, after the main flood waters had passed, to discover the very heart of the city enveloped in darkness. The sorrow and loss of it.

For eight years, many people labored to not only bring the city back but to make it better, stronger, more distinctive until you could literally feel the energy of creativity and new growth.

And then the unthinkable: another flood threatened the city in the very same way. This time, we had some warning, a little time to prepare. And the people, remembering, rolled up their sleeves and got to work saving our city and each other. It was inspiring, and it was humbling – and it was an example of what we are capable of when we forget our differences in the midst of what we share.

We still have our differences. We still have our critics. We still have our imperfections. (I myself will still complain that there’s not even a decent cup of coffee to be had after 4:00 p.m. on Sundays.) However, what we learned from what we lost is ours now – we own it, and it has changed us for the better.

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.

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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.