Clarity in the time of the coronavirus

Susannah Israel _artodyssey (9)
The Apothecary.  Terracotta sculpture by Susannah Israel


I live alone, and as a full-time, independent creative, I cherish that. I am also part of a vital and affectionate community, and I love the dynamic exchanges we enjoy. In these past months, under conditions of severely enforced solitude, I have found myself reaching down deep for calmness and balance. I find surprising resources emerging out of the philosophical underpinnings of my early years.

Yesterday, I was preparing a mixture of fresh cilantro and parsley, which I chop finely and put on top of everything – soup, rice, beans, salad, you name it. I stripped off all the leaves, patting out the moisture before putting them into the refrigerator; the stems get minced and bagged also, for soup. It is not a quick process.

I have probably thought about cleaning cilantro like this a hundred times, in the past, but now I am actually doing so. Clearly I have the luxury of time. In addition,  I can only make weekly trips to buy food, and only to the nearby grocery store, on foot, so it behooves me to be frugal and plan well. But there is a profound quality of calmness, and clarity, that comes with the practice. This is not really new. My childhood elders called it stewardship.

I am the child of social experiment. Growing up, I was far more likely to be found climbing a tree or jumping into the forbidden reservoir than in the kitchen. I disdained romantic tales for wilderness stories, and wore ‘boy’s clothes’ by preference. But when summer canning time came in Maine, I would be hard at work in the kitchen with my mother and my aunties.

Everything was boiling. We had to boil the canning jars, the tomatoes, peaches, plums and green beans; sweat streamed down our faces and soaked into our clothing. The small windows fogged over completely from the steam. When we stepped outside, the hot, humid air of late summer felt like a cooling breeze. I was a big strong child, and I was expected to help refill the boiling pans, take the jars out of steaming pots with tongs, and haul baskets of fresh fruit and vegetables from the root cellar up to the kitchen.

The women carried out a fast-paced dance routine, expertly conducted with great skill. Added thrills came with the very real danger that was always lurking. This was a no-contact sport, played out in a small space full of hazards. I adored my aunties and my beautiful, sassy mother,and admired them as they whirled and bent so deftly with their burdens, always laughing and teasing each other.

There were pies made too, and piecrusts, and somehow dinner emerged nightly, right on time. Shooed from the kitchen at the end of the day, I often got a special reward, in the form of a tiny cherry pie, and I could sit in the late afternoon shade in the plastic chairs behind the kitchen, to cool off and eat it. I don’t remember anyone in that kitchen ever lecturing about community, or the rewards of hard work shared, or the stewardship of resources, or the value of service. I do remember that joyful dance in the hot August kitchen, and the lessons that came with it.

I learned how to plant in spring. I knew how to find the eggs the chickens had hidden. I could shell peas and shuck summer corn as fast as a grown-up. The year had its own rhythms, and at harvest time we had new chores, when it was time to prepare for winter.  I dreaded having to loosen the dry kernels from the corncobs, because it made my hands sore, and because no matter how I tried, I was no good at doing it. It was a necessary thing, since the dried kernels were fed to the animals through the harsh winter months, and had to be removed from the cobs first. But from year to year I never seemed to improve.

The end of summer was a very special time, when we always had family visiting from the city,  bringing the group of older cousins whom we so adored. My favorite above all was Lita. Among the half-dozen big, beautiful teens with their city style and confidence, she radiated a serene independence. She read voraciously and approved my love of books, making me feel special among a family of athletes. She had plans for herself, and they included changing the world to make it a better place for people everywhere. If there was a space next to her, I was sure to sit there, whatever we were doing.

The year I was eleven, I had grown very tall, towering over the whole grade at school, teased for my height, my hair, my bookish ways and glasses. My young siblings and cousins didn’t treat me any differently, at least, but I was no longer interested in hide and seek, or scaring the birds out of their nests, or running barefoot on gravel to see whose feet were toughest. I took my bushel basket to the end of the porch, determined to give it my best try.

Seeing me hunched miserably over a bushel of corncobs, trying to pry the stiff kernels free, Lita came to sit with me. She brought her own basket over and sat down, tossing her hair and giving me a hug. Lita had grown taller too, that year.  She wore four woven leather bracelets on one arm that she called friendship bracelets. Her thick hair was long, and she had woven little beads into it. She took the corn gently out of my hand.

“It’s just like people,” she said, looking intently at me. Like my own, her eyes were brown and green together, a color called hazel. She stripped the dried husk from the corn and pried a kernel from the end with her thumb. Lita was left-handed, like me.

“The sinister children,” my uncle called us. For me, this was a dreadful reminder of my first day writing cursive at a tiny school in rural New Hampshire.

I liked school, which was always changing. Kindergarten was Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, where our bosomy teacher Mrs Angelheart was given to affectionate hugs and long rambling stories. She told these stories to us as we fidgeted on our blankets, trying to feel sleepy on the floor in the middle of the day, Naps were a thing of the distant past for most of us.

Her name, she told us one day at naptime, was Engelhart, from the German. I knew the word german, meaning brother, from my father. I loved the linguistic polyphony that characterized gatherings at our house, but I hadn’t yet heard anything about German. I added it to my list. In her kindly way she pronounced me a bright and well-socialized child, heady stuff indeed. I spent that year learning to be still on the smooth, polished wooden floor, unable to sleep and resigned to remaining motionless, but free inside my head.

First grade was in a three-story brick school in a fishing town along the Hudson River, filled to the brim with kids and noise. I had new friends who spoke Portuguese and liked playing with my hair, and reading was on the curriculum.  In this rowdy, cheerful place the library was a paradise, a dream world with limitless books lining the shelves, world upon world of escape and adventure, available for the price of my name written in stubby pencil on a loan card. Here the teachers were vaguely interested that I could already read. To assure that my borrowed books would not be misused, I was brought to the library on a Saturday to be tested. I read aloud from several books to satisfy the fierce and tiny librarian, while my mother waited at the front desk. She was impatient to be gone, and responded to the librarian’s praise of me politely but without enthusiasm. I didn’t care. I had my keys to the kingdom.

I was not at that school for long. I know now that my fiery mother, a rebel whose flame showed in her red hair, found the town unbearably dull. Hoping to help free  the people through education, she took a high school teaching job, out in the woods of New Hampshire. Here I joined the second-graders, who were expected to keep our skirts down, our heads up and our mouths shut. There were a lot of rules, all new to me. I learned that boys got to wear pants but girls didn’t. But the question of school dress didn’t interest me or my mother much, and my baby sister was happily not involved.

My aunt complained to my mother that I looked dowdy, another new word. Couldn’t she at least try to find me something attractive for school? My mother dismissed this. Neither of us gave a tinker’s damn (more new words) about the school’s rules and since I was happy to wear bargain clothes, she wasn’t going to spend money she didn’t have.

On my first day I was assigned to a back row because of my height, in an new, itchy wool skirt, to learn the mysteries of cursive writing. Each child got a workbook, with dotted lines indicating the perfect curves we were to copy, repeating a single letter dozens of times. It looked fussy and uninteresting, but I took my pencil, holding it carefully between thumb and finger as instructed, and began. It was much harder than it looked.

The room got very quiet and I looked up to find the teacher standing in front of me, holding a wooden ruler and looking angry. The other students were careful not to look as she grabbed my hand. She splayed it out flat, facing up as if she were examining it for dirt.

“We are Americans here!” she announced angrily. “I will not allow this in my classroom!”

She smacked the ruler down across my palm, hard. The sudden burning feeling was beyond my comprehension. I stared at the red, swelling stripe across my left hand, shocked by the awful pain and the awful disfigurement. The pain got worse by the second. Tears started from my eyes. I was frozen in fear, horrified to find myself the prisoner of a madwoman. I cried quietly through the lecture she delivered to the rest of the class. At home, I did my best to soothe my hand with water and waited for my mother to come home from work.

My mother put my hand in ice and finally, the pain was gone. Reassured by her hugs and comfortable at last, I listened to her talking on the phone as I munched a cookie. No, she wasn’t going to go see the teacher, she said, because there would be bloody murder done if she set one foot in that godforsaken place. The child would just have to use her right hand in school. Fortunately, I was ambidextrous, she said. My inner librarian took more notes.

We left that town before winter, not waiting for school to end. My mother declared she was fed up. Since it was so late in the year, we went to stay with her sister in Maine until after New Year. While thick snow fell, I read to my little sister and cousins on the couch, and dreamed about a family of wolves roaming out there in the pine woods, who would know me as their own.

Now I was much older. My restless mother moved twice a year, so I had attended two third grades and two fourth and fifth grades, in six different places. Nobody had ever struck me again. In just a few more weeks, when this summer ended, we would be in Fishkill, New York where my mother was going to be a teacher, and I was going to be in the sixth grade. Each summer we had lived in Maine with my mother’s older sister, where I danced in the kitchen with my mother, in canning season, and struggled with stripping dried corncobs.

Now Lita was looking at me very seriously, her eyes fixed on mine, to be sure I understood the importance of what she was telling me. Her braids swung forward as she moved and I smelled the faint scents of cinnamon and vanilla.

“You know about solidarity, don’t you?”

I wanted very badly to nod or to say yes. But I knew that if I did that, she would move on with no more explanation, accepting my response. That was her way. So I gazed back at her worshipfully, smiling as I shook my head.

Lita began to pry a kernel of corn from the end of the stiff, dry cob in her hand. She picked it loose, flipped it into the bowl I held, and used her fingernail to loosen the next one in the row.

“People,” she went on, “always need to stand together in solidarity. When we do that, we all support each other. It makes us strong. At the demonstration last fall, remember how many people there were, marching all together?”

Now I did nod my head. Yes, I remembered that rainy night well. A march for peace and justice. The long parade of people, my parents, my uncles, my cousins, neighbors, people from my school, and countless people I had never even seen before moved along the streets, singing and chanting. Above us the streetlights caught the falling rain, in front of us were the whirling, brilliant lights of the police cars. The motion of the crowd, disciplined and purposeful, had seemed stronger than the police, stronger than the darkness and the rain. Was that solidarity? I remembered, too, the calls, over and over, and the words we repeated as we moved along.

“El pueblo unido,” I said, “ jamás será vencido.”

“That’s exactly right!” she told me. “These corn kernels, all together here, standing side by side, are just like people. When you try to move them, you can’t do it.”

She finished pulling the kernels free from the row she was picking out. A pale line ran between the remaining kernels, showing the fuzzy-looking surface of the cob beneath. I knew corncobs well, of course. We saved them too. After the kernels were removed for feed, the corncobs were also given to the animals. There wasn’t much nutrition left in cobs, but they enjoyed chewing them.

I watched Lita finish. Her brown hands were strong, her arms graceful and muscular. I could smell the coconut lotion she used. She inspected her handiwork, then took the corn in both hands.

“Watch closely,” she advised me. “I’m squeezing with both hands, like this. Now I twist my hands, like this” – she moved her hands they way we would wring a washcloth dry. The stubborn kernels fell free, pattering into the bowl I held. A few more twists , and the empty cob was tossed into the bushel basket on the side.

“You see?” she asked me. “When we stand together, shoulder to shoulder, we can’t be moved, and we are strong. When we are divided, if we argue and fight, and lose our solidarity, we are weak, and we can be defeated, just like this corn.”

I understood. It must be wonderful to know so much, I thought, as we finished stripping the corncobs. Proudly I carried the bowl of dried kernels into the kitchen, tipping them into a big glass jar under the approving eyes of my aunties. My mother hugged me when I told her that Lita had showed me how. Then I took the bushel of cobs to the barn and put it in the feed room with the others already there.

I held some of the cobs through the fence for the two horses, so they could bite off the ends and chew them up. They snorted with pleasure and let me pet their velvet noses. I thought about solidarity, and people undefeated, and being a teenager soon. I decided to ask my mother for some coconut skin lotion, when we went back home.

Susannah Israel
Oakland, California

-to be continued


Published by Susannah Israel

City kid, public education powerhouse, activist from birth. Thinking about life in all its vast complexity.

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