Beloved Toni

Toni Morrison intimidated me.

When I read that she did not write for the white gaze, it shocked me. I didn’t think it was possible to do so. I grew up in a family obsessed with appearances and we were taught, above all, to be respectable and acceptable to the white gaze. This was our supposed path to success.

When you live for the outward gaze, for outward approval, you lose who you are. You forget the song in your heart longing to be released. You become a shadow. A powerless, substance-less shadow. I lived life in the shadows for many years. I sought approval everywhere and found judgement instead. Now, I am so happy I didn’t find approval then, because it would have been based on s shadow, rather than something real.

I loved to hear her speak. I would absorb her interviews when I could find them. She was so bold and confident. She was powerful. I wondered if I would ever find that power to tell my truth the way she told hers.

8 years ago, I began the process of living in a new way, slowly learning my voice and speaking truth as I see it. It takes time, like using muscles that have gone dormant. But it feels good.

I met Mrs. Morrison once, at a book event. I was so tongue tied, I barely strung two coherent words together. She was kind. I was humiliated. I survived.

Now she is at rest, but I am here. Working to make the world better, working to find my voice and speak without apology or need for approval from anyone.

Thank you, Beloved Toni. I am thankful for your work, your example, for YOU.

Milestones

My nephew Caleb turned 18 today. It shocked me deeply. I didn’t realize that he was on the cusp of adulthood until today. He is a young man, no longer a boy. I must adjust the way I see him.

We don’t live in the same town, so I don’t have the visual cues to help me with growth. He is into technology and Marvel/DC worlds. We chat sometimes, mostly about Superman vs Batman. #teamSuperman! He has overcome many challenges and is a marvelous young man. I am a proud aunt!

I am thinking of the importance of celebrating milestones, those important passages in our lives. It is right and just that we celebrate regularly.

Today I celebrate Caleb and all he has triumphed over. I celebrate Caleb’s mom, my sister Karen, for persevering through circumstances that have broken many others. I remember Caleb’s dad, and am a little sad he didn’t live to see Caleb’s 18th. I celebrate Caleb’s siblings, Lauren and Christian, and I am eager to see what adulthood brings them

Our family has gone through a lot of struggle, but I believe the best years of our lives are ahead of us.

Celebrate your victories and milestones! Keep them close to your heart when times become difficult.

Onward and upward!

Preparation

When I was in college, I had a recurring fantasy… that by the first day of class, I would have all of the books needed. No issues with purchasing them, no issues with textbook supply.

It never happened. I always felt unready to start classes. Sometimes, I borrowed textbooks from the library. Sometimes I didn’t have a textbook at all. But I graduated anyway. As unready as I was.

Still, I want to ‘be prepared.’ I wait to write when ‘all of my research is done.’ I wait until I have taken ‘the right photo’ to publish on the blog. What I have done is developed is a very real stalling tactic. Procrastination rather than preparation became the mode of the day.

Important things remain undone in the name of preparation. Planning. Getting in the mood.

I am learning to relax, and just do it, whatever ‘it’ is. For the month of August, I am challenging myself to write in this blog daily. It doesn’t have to be perfect or fancy, but it must be consistent.

See you tomorrow!!!

Instinct

In New York, when I was in the 6th grade, I was walking toward the bus stop with my younger sister and a classmate. On the way, a man asked us to do him a favor and keep a lookout to make sure no one saw him changing clothes. We stayed at the front door of a brownstone while he went upstairs to ‘change.’ In the process he exposed himself to me and my classmate. This man was lying in wait near an elementary school, looking to sexually abuse children. This could have been so much worse for us.

Instinct said don’t do it, but 11 year old me thought his request was ‘reasonable.’ My classmate told her parents and alerted the school. I didn’t say anything to my parents or the school. The next day, my parents were alerted and I had to give a description of the man to the police in the principal’s office but as far as I know, nothing happened to him. Shame silenced me.

That was one of many times I ignored what my instinct told me.

Instinct is crucial. It can keep you safe. It can help you avoid mistakes. It can save you time. It can let you know who to trust (or not.) But we are often pushed to ignore our instinct and follow the ‘experts.’ (This medication’s side effects are worse than the issue I am taking it for, but the doctor said…)

There is great pressure to outsource our instinct to the marketplace. All that does is lessen our ability to hone your instinct and make someone else wealthier. I don’t need to buy another magazine. I need to do the things I know to do, consistently, like exercise, cut out simple carbs and stay off Twitter.

The more you learn to listen to and trust your instincts, the easier it becomes.

Faith-full Woman

My mother wasn’t a feminist. She didn’t long to make her mark in the workplace. She wasn’t a pioneer for social justice. Her desire was to be a wife and mother. She wanted to have six children befire the age of thirty. She gave birth to four. I was number one.

My due date was November 22, 1963, but I was actually born 3 months earlier, on August 22nd. I weighed 2 lbs, 3 oz. and was born with respiratory distress syndrome, known then as hyaline membrane disease. The prognosis was grim, and few newborns survived.

My earliest memory is of my mother reading to me. When my eyes were vacant and I didn’t respond to outside stimuli, she read to me. When doctors told her I would be limited cognatively, she read to me. When she was knocked down when she was 5 months pregnant and I was born 2 weeks later, she read to me instead of accepting the inevitable.

Reading was her way of fighting. She knew I would be well.  

For three years she read to me, with no visible sign of change. My physical milestones were fine,but I wasn’t speaking. I wasn’t responding to verbal or vocal cues. My eyes still had that vacant look. But I was surrounded by her voice, and occasionally the television. 

One day, we went to visit relatives in Englewood, New Jersey.  My father was driving. My mother was in the front, with my baby brother. I was three at the time, in the back seat looking out of the window.  As we passed a Shell gas station, I spoke my first words ever.

“Shell. They sponsor Sputnik.” 

I believe her faith made me whole. For three years, she believed. She fought with the only weapons she had. And that was enough. 

Healing

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I used to have a favorite place to go in Manhattan when I wanted to reflect, to talk to God, to be.  It was the area near the Winter Garden, located just behind the World Trade Center.  I could always find a bench overlooking the Hudson River, and there I would pour out my heart.  I would follow Dianne Reeves’ advice and “come to the river, where the healing waters flow.”

I was there, two weeks before 9/11.  I remember going to the Winter Garden, but also walking on the plaza between the twin towers. I suppose I was saying goodbye without knowing it.  It took me at least 7 or 8 years before I was able to go to that physical site again, and I haven’t been since the Freedom Tower was erected.  I’m not sure I want to go back.

I never found another quiet spot in New York City for prayer and reflection.

I’ve since moved, and I am still in search of places of healing. I find I desire more solitude in this stage of my life. Even if the Winter Garden were still there, it wouldn’t suit my needs now.  

Hopefully we have places where we feel more ourselves, where we gain insight or find the answers we seek.  If we don’t, we need to find them. 

I am beginning a study of America. I want to know her story before European contact, and after.  I want to understand the regions of this country, the people, and the foods - both native and brought here via trade.  I want to know what the land needs, and what it wants to give. I want to understand the ability of the land (and the plants on it) to heal.

Because we are a traumatized nation.  If you doubt it, spend 5 minutes on Twitter. You’ll see it clear as day. This nation is in need of healing. I’m determined to do my wee bit to help.

Tradition

Chocolate soufflé, anyone? 

Chocolate soufflé, anyone? 

When I was growing up, we had lots of family gatherings for Thanksgiving, for Christmas, sometimes Easter.  These were food centered holidays, the obligatory family gatherings.  But when we moved away from New York, and life and death and survival became real, our celebrations disappeared.  Many moves and many years later, I find myself with no lasting traditions from my childhood years.

I wish I had a box of treasured family recipes or photo albums of Thanksgiving pasts. I wish I had my mother’s cast iron dutch oven with the chipped handle or my uncle’s stoneware platter or my grandmother’s yeast roll recipe, but I don’t have any of these things. The things of my past are lost.

I am here, with memories, but without the ‘things.’ I’ve had to learn to live without the things that tie me to my past. My memories are more powerful than the ‘things.’

My grandmother didn’t want anyone to have her yeast roll recipe, so that knowledge is gone. But her desire to set a good table, her insistence on proper manners is in me, even if I choose not to follow her lead. My mother’s candied yam recipe eludes me, probably because I can’t bear to use the amount of sugar that is required, but the desire to perfect family favorites keeps me searching. My uncle’s desire to provide a place for those without family to celebrate lives within me as well.

I find myself in a position to create some traditions, and the only person I have to please is me. I am in a new state, and a new state of mind. This holiday season is the perfect time to form meaningful traditions based on my life now. I get to build on the past and create new memories.

Maybe I’ll start with something chocolate...

Recipes are not enough

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I’ve been rethinking my eating habits. I’ve been frustrated for years with what I cook and the offerings in the restaurants I’ve frequented. I get some inspiration from shows or documentaries or cookbooks, but nothing has jelled so far. I want more than a few recipes to spruce things up. I am looking for my personal food philosophy.

Last month, I attended a meeting of vegans in DC. Usually, I run screaming from such a gathering, but I was drawn by two things.  I met a number of people that looked vibrant and healthy. They were full of energy, with impeccable skin and evangelical zeal.  The food was well-seasoned and delicious. I was pleasantly surprised by the entire gathering.

I came away convinced that my diet should be primarily plant-based, supplemented by meat purchased from humanely raised, sustainable sources pastured close to me. (No, I’m not turning vegetarian or vegan!)

People have been preaching that for years. That’s nothing new.

Organic veggies and humanely raised meat are just about the quality of ingredients, though. Ingredients alone aren’t transformative. Having the best ingredients elevates cooking, but that isn’t enough for me. Parsnips are just parsnips until they meet loving hands and herbs and butter and salt and love and taste buds and conversation. Parsnips are transformed, becoming something that is so much more than calories, vitamins and fiber.

My body needs fuel, but my soul and spirit need an intangible something that’s been missing. I’ve been eating too much food prepared by hands and hearts that don’t love me.

That’s why I need to cook again. I need to prepare my own food. I need to love myself through food. I need to learn what spices and seasonings please me. I have a few memories of family dinners as a child, but I haven’t made memories and traditions of my own. I’m changing that. Right now.

I’m off to the wilds of Virginia for inspiration. I’ll be sharing my ‘small starts’ in changing the way I eat right here.

Markets

I’m watching Chef’s Table on Netflix and Massimo Bottura is shopping. There is something leveling about watching a world class chef at the same market everyone uses in Modena, Italy. He and grandma rub elbows in the market and use the same mushrooms, the same Parmigiano Reggiano, the same balsamic vinegar. Perhaps this is why the home cook is so revered in Italy, and why Bottura had such a difficult time with Modena accepting his restaurant at first.


I visited a similar, smaller market last winter in Chinon, France. The market was full of cabbages and radishes, citrus, mushrooms and pears. The food radiated with vibrancy and life. Mushrooms were calling “Take me home, I’m delicious!” I was tempted. I don’t like mushrooms... or at least I don’t like the mushrooms I’ve had here.


I am filled with longing. American supermarkets do not inspire me in this way, with its mountains of waxed apples devoid of scent and tepid tasting watermelon in the height if summer.  We settle for this because we don’t know any other way. We have forgotten what true agricultural bounty is. We’ve forgotten how to cook because we have packaged alternatives with consistent taste, plentiful fast food, and because the food we do have is a shell of its former glory.


Place matters. Terroir matters. This, more than carbon footprint, is why local is important, why diversity of crops are important. We need more than 2 or 3 varieties of tomato, corn, potatoes and peppers. If one strain is susceptible to disease, what happens to out food sources? We need larger and smaller independent farmers. We need to stop shipping produce halfway around the world, only to have it go to waste because of our expectation of visual displays of plenty. The condition of our food markets determine the condition of our people. Boxed mac and cheese might appeal because we have forgotten the taste of a tree-ripened plum.


Music and my youth

Never come between a girl and her music!

Never come between a girl and her music!

I woke up today thinking of songs from my childhood. My father was musical, playing trumpet and French horn. He loved jazz and classical music - especially Beethoven. Most of the music I love is rooted in these art forms. 

I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s. Lots of ballads, lots of instrumentation. Bands were big. Hair was big. Moustaches were big. The music was ambitious. There was much to respect, even with songs I didn’t care for, like American Pie or California Girls. 

My boy band was the Jackson 5.  My first concert was at the Apollo Theatre. The Sylvers were playing. The first album I brought for myself was Brother to Brother by Gino Vannelli. The last concert I saw was Gino Vannelli at Domaine Forget in Saint Irénée, Charlevoix, in Quebec, (or maybe it was Tuck & Patti in Boston???)

 Here’s a playlist with some of my early favorites.  I hope you enjoy listening as much as I enjoyed putting it together! 

https://open.spotify.com/user/olivia.cornell/playlist/5bjdirUEAYZ5JrcpzP0dF1?si=kjssn32gQN6VayYBGQIztQ 

 

Lost Knowledge

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One day I had a taste for a pound cake. A traditional southern pound cake. When I have a taste for something, I’m not happy until I get it. I tried purchasing some, and it didn’t satisfy. I looked up a recipe from a highly regarded cake-themed cookbook, and prepared it as directed. Fail. It was far too sweet.  The recipe called for two sticks of butter and 3 cups of sugar. I blinked when I saw that ratio, but I made the recipe anyway. I couldn’t eat it. 

I decided to check for a pound cake recipe from Edna Louis and found her vanilla pound cake recipe from The Taste of Country Cooking. Her recipe called for two sticks of butter  and 1-2/3 cups of sugar - a little more than half the amount of sugar in the first recipe. 

The cake was wonderful.  It was much closer to the elusive taste I wanted...

Edna Lewis was born in 1916. That puts her squarely in the generation of both of my grandmothers. Nana was born in 1906, and my maternal grandmother, Mary, was born in 1913. 

If you read Edna Lewis’ recipes, she is meticulous about technique. You cook through her eyes. Nana could smell salt when cooking and know when something was overly salted by smell. Grandmommy (Mary) made candy without thermometers. She knew by sight, smell and experience when caramel or brittle was done. 

I lament this loss of experience. Nana, Grandmommy and Edna Lewis are all gone now. We have the cookbooks of Edna Lewis for a guide, but there is no one to tell me how to make Nana’s prized yeast rolls or Grandmommy’s pecan caramel candy. I want to recover the knowledge of the Grandmothers, the continuity of culture within the family. 

We know about social media and craft beer and streaming and cosplay, but what have we forgotten? My grandmothers would have been children during the time frame covered in the show Downton Abbey. They would have experienced the advent of electricity in the home, indoor plumbing, the telephone, the invention of the copy machine, the supermarket and the tv dinner (which arguably is responsible for the downfall of modern civilization!)  They lived through world wars, the Depression, Jim Crow,  death and interment camps, reservations, unbelievably male dominated business environments, and a different understanding of marriage and the roles within.

Our grandmothers have much to teach us. Join me as I seek to recover what our grandmothers knew. 

Don’t Settle

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When Nana found an apartment, a Harlem Co-Op on 147th Street with a southern view from the twenty-first floor that encompassed the Harlem River, Central Park, the Empire State Building and Riverside Church, she was quite pleased with her find. She was less pleased when her cousin Monica (whom we call Aunt Bee) moved into the very same apartment complex, two buildings over, on the twenty-third floor, in an apartment with the exact same floor plan!

Nana, not to be outdone, consoled herself with decorating.  She found the perfect sofa - an eight foot Baker beauty, upholstered in a salmon damask print. Everything was ready for the delivery.  Nana, and my older brother, Paul, were there awaiting the sofa’s arrival. 

The delivery men arrived and were able to get the sofa off of the truck, into the building and to the elevator with minimal fuss. The real test was the elevator.  Try as they might, eight feet of sofa couldn’t fit into seven and one-half feet of elevator. 

The sofa had to be walked up twenty-one flights of stairs.

Once the delivery men got the sofa inside and set it up, Nana thanked them profusely for their hard work and fed them a splendidly prepared meal. After the meal, she let them know she was refusing delivery, because the sofa was damaged. The plastic wrapping surrounding the sofa ripped on the way up, and the sofa had either a stain or perhaps a small tear.  Paul (who was 12 at the time) was hiding in the bedroom because he knew Nana was refusing delivery and he couldn’t bear to watch.  Nana never rose her voice, but she wasn’t a woman you crossed. The men had no choice.

The sofa was taken down the same tweety-one flights of stairs that afternoon, and another sofa was re-ordered, from Baker.  A seven foot model that fit in the elevator.

Note: If this story seems remarkable to you, consider that this took place in 1963.  A black woman in her 50’s knew her rights as a consumer and wouldn’t let anything stand in the way of her claiming those rights; not her grandson, the delivery men or twenty-one flights of stairs.

 

Disappointing the Dutchess

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The Duchess of Englewood was terrifying, formidable, elegant. She was a born leader, always imitated.  Her parties were lavish affairs, her place settings perfect.  Her every word was followed and no one wished to displease her, ever.  

This Dutchess was Alice Vivian Wilson Searcy Perry, my Nana.

Because of her, I had no idea green bean casserole existed until I was almost forty years old. I can’t imagine hosting a Thanksgiving dinner without cloth napkins and I still remember her admonition to mind my table manners and to remember that I am a Searcy.

One Thanksgiving, my grandmother frenched green beans. Five pounds. By hand. Frenching requires one to slice the green bean in half lengthwise once the ends are trimmed. If the beans are awkward sizes, drenching makes them a uniform size, which helps the cook in the same length of time. Today, one could french beans with a gadget or use the slicing blade in a food processor .

Frenching five pounds of green beans by hand is truly a labor of love.

Nana prepared the green beans and yeast rolls for dinner. My father and cousin picked her up to take her to dinner.  Once they arrived, she went ahead, leaving my father and cousin to transfer the food upstairs.

As soon as they got off of the elevator, the pot of frenched green beans tumbled down the corridor.  My father and cousin found some cardboard, scraped the green beans back into the pot and proceed as if nothing happened.

If Cousin Wilbur hadn’t confessed, we would have eaten those green beans. 

The Dutchess was displeased.  

Just Mercy

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I finally finished reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.  This book is revelatory in it's simplicity, and captivating.  I've had the book for a couple of years, purchased after I saw his TED talk.  Later I heard him on the Pass the Mic Podcast. In April, I attended the opening of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. 

Timing is everything.

This book shook me in many ways.  Firstly, I was (and still am) woefully ignorant regarding mass incarceration and the rampant injustice experienced by the poor in this nation. The book just gave me a taste of what happens every day to those caught in this system without financial resources.

In reading the stories of those wrongfully accused, wrongfully imprisoned, sentenced too harshly, whose innocence was hushed up and critical evidence ignored, I experienced feelings of anger, hopelessness and betrayal. But within the tempest of feelings something else happened… a seed planted long ago began stirring. The shell cracked and the first buds began to breach the surface of the earth. That seed began with a dream some fifteen years ago, a seed regarding a way forward with respect to the healing of traumatic experiences in community. 

It’s a bit too early for me to share the dream, but I can tell you that this blog will explore the importance of family and healthy community, personal stories, food and nurture, the importance of beauty and creativity and simple ways to build and support healthy brain development. The methodologies here will seem at times to be too simple, too small, too foolish... But that's ok. A small start can lead to lasting change.