Empowerment through Language...

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Satisfaction is a Renewable Resource

Satisfaction is an elusive emotion. Yet it truly takes so little to have the warm wave wash over the body and soothe tension and longing. Instead of striving for "happiness"  in my endeavors, of late, I have been seeking satisfaction and contentment. It is so much more definable and attainable, at least as I see it, live it.

One of the greatest satisfactions in my life is constantly harvested from teaching. I love to teach. Although I did not follow the traditional path of this profession, I actively engage in teaching regularly and there is such a reward every time I lead a class to discover new thoughts, new ways of looking at the world, and new ways to engage in themselves.

Teaching is not just instruction; it is performance art. Teaching is an endeavor that requires full investment in one's own knowledge and confidence, but also in the full implementation of listening and intuition. A good teacher also becomes the master of improvisation, known in the field as "embracing the teachable moment."

Yesterday, I taught two very different classes, one in the Honors Program at Syracuse University and the other at the Syracuse YMCA's Downtown Writers Center. The morning class is a small group of vibrant young women who join me on an investigation of arts in society titled Viewing the World through Changing Lenses. Although we started this week's class furthering our views on dance, media glitches (I love the modern classroom!!) drove the discussion and videos to watch to the incomparable Lily Yeh, a personal hero. After sharing what I know of Lily, who I believe should be honored with a Nobel Peace Prize, we looked at images of her beautiful face and some of her public art. Then we watched a video of a project in which Lily worked with a community in Rwanda to create a memorial to replace a bleak, impersonal mass grave. At the end of the video, I was tearful and nearly speechless. My students were moved, of course. We were experiencing the proof that art affects change. We were witnessing that the clear intention of one determined human can change lives and communities. This is the kind of human I want to be and I keep my eyes on those who are so much more able to meet the goal so I keep myself moving forward. Click to see for yourself: Lily Yeh in Rwanda.

In the evening, I was with a class of adults pursuing the craft of writing in my DWC Foundations of Poetry class. We had an active conversation centered on questions the students had as a result of the first 4 weeks of class and all that I have thrown at them in rapid fire. We talked about the endless choices a poet faces in molding a poem from the original intention to the revision that finally satisfies the poet well enough to let the poem rest. We barely had enough time to get through five of the key questions and still hear new work from members at the table. The fact that one of the students was chomping at the bit to share a poem she had been revising since the summer course she took with me washed me in a warm wave of satisfaction. She is really excited about poetry and it is joyous to see this wonderful woman discover something new in herself.

The adage is true: teach what you want to learn. The more I have to articulate my views and intention, my patterns and habits, the better I am at exercising them in my own expression as a poet, writer, artist, human. Teaching requires lots of time to prepare, buckets full of both energy and patience, compassion for others, and enthusiasm for the responsibility. When I was a child, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I have discovered that the traditional path to that dream, that goal, was not my path. But I have been actively teaching for nearly 20 years and I can say that I love it more now than I did when I started. It is never static, always inspiring, and it is good service to the world. 

Today, I delare: I am satisfied... 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Solace in the Kitchen

There are times when the best therapy is found in my kitchen. Not in stuffing my face with unneeded food but in preparing food, concocting amazing and satisfying flavors and textures, meals that soothe, dishes that garner compliments and heal. 

Sunday it was bitter cold. There was no reason to leave the house. I decided I would try making gnocchi again to see if I could manage it better than my previous, infrequent attempts. The evening before, I took one of Nonna's cookbooks off the shelf and started flipping through. The largest bookmark was nestled into the page for gnocchi, very telling. That was the moment I decided I was ready to figure it out.

I thought I would have to spend a good portion of the day involved in the process. Silly me. I had everything I needed, not that you need much to make gnocchi. I baked the potatoes Saturday night. I even have a potato ricer. In spite of the periodic comments from folks that I should pare down the kitchen gadgets, I always have what I need, even if it is only once in 5 years that I will utilize the tool.

I mashed the potatoes with one of Nonna's forks, added the flour, egg, and salt, kneaded the dough, rolled it out with my  fingers, cut the little nubs. Then to figure out the best technique of rolling the nubs into nuggets of potato pasta to go with the sauce in the fridge. It was all about the curve of the tines, the slight pressure and release.

It was slow at first, each oddly sized and a bit ragtag. But I got my stride and they just took form quicker and quicker. I could feel Nonna's breath guiding me until I could say, "I've got this!" In less than 90 minutes, I had mixed and divvied up all the raw dough while developing another skill that will last me the rest of this incarnation. The test was going to be in the cooking and eating later that afternoon.

There is a family history that comforts me constantly in my kitchen. There are ancestors talking softly. I have my Grandfather Popoff's cast iron skillets and oval restaurant sandwich plates, Grandma Popoff's five surviving Fiestaware dishes and one well-worn tea ball. I have Nana McConnell's apron, Nonna Laurey's sauce pot and flatware, the salt shaker and pepper grinder that my mother used daily. There is a 1920s era electric toaster from my paternal great-grandmother. Hand-painted plates by my dear friend, Lilyan Hoare, who made me earn my place as helper in her Denton, MD, kitchen. It is a legacy that I will pass along someday, I hope. 

Nothing gives me more pleasure than to fuss and flutter to create a meal for those I love, parties when I am sweating over the stove mixing something up for the next course while there is chatter and laughter from the front of the house. Some people think it is an imposition, that I am being taxed. I am actually being fed. It is how I was raised. It is my mother's open door policy and busy kitchen tattooed on me. It is the echo of the dining room table in Sandy Creek when I was a toddler, the conversation at Aunt Barbara's table with the endless stream of kids and neighbors stopping by, the gleaming copper bottoms of Revereware hanging on pegboard hooks in Grandma Sechrengost's Levittown kitchen, or the Sunday dinner extravaganzas at Grandma Irenze's in Huntington. It is the resounding ripple of all the years that I have turned out amazing meals from skimpy pickings in the cupboards before payday. Just the other day as I put the final touches on a Caesar salad, my friend Jill exclaimed, "Really, you just happen to have homemade croutons in the cupboard?!" Of course! What else does one do with stale bread, other than let it crisp to the point that it will be rendered crumbs in my sister-in-law's mother's Cuisinart that Susan gave me a couple of years ago? 

I am changing my relationship with food, naturally and organically. I will likely reflect on this more in the near future once I see the fullness of my transition. But the kitchen is the first room I saw when I was considering this house for purchase. I walked in the back door, took one look, and declared internally, "This is my house." It is where I dance and dream. The kitchen is where I fashion wellness and love for others and commune with those who have gone before me into the void. It is where I honor myself. The kitchen is the heart of my home and where my heart feels healthy and vibrant. Today, in spite of arctic cold, my kitchen is full of sun and safety. And now it is time for lunch...

Nonna with my nephew Joe, who is now in middle school. This photo hangs on the side of my refrigerator so I can see her as I cook and wash my dishes.