Wednesday, May 5, 2021

No One Teaches You

(still editing this. But publishing it anyway.)

Last week, we lost a student in my college. I knew the person only a little bit, but the staff, our students, our community has all been devastated by this incalculable, unimaginable loss, which comes during a time of so much other loss, on top of the stress of the end of the term, not to mention a year in which systemic racism has been a constant conversation and many people are re-living traumas on a regular basis. It has just all been so much.

I debated whether to tell the small part of the student's story that I know, the window into what happened over the span of just a few days, and the awful feeling in my stomach when I knew in my gut what I didn't want to know in my head, but decided that it is not my story to tell. What is my story to tell, though, is that this past week has made me so grateful for the ALI community that I met through his blog.

There are no words that can offer any comfort to a parent who has lost their only child. This isn't how it's supposed to go; you're supposed to have children (multiple children), and live a long happy life to see them grow up and have their children. That's the story we are told.

Of course, we know that this story has many different and difficult endings, or at least that it unfolds in many different and difficult and sometimes tragic and devastating ways.

As a nation, as a culture, we are not very good at dealing with death. We don't like to talk about it because it reminds us that we're not immortal, hat the narrative is flawed, and we're are an optimistic country, so mortality is not something we like spending time considering. If you want proof, just look at how we dealt with the pandemic. If we were really understood and accepted mortality, maybe we would have taken more precautions collectively, looked out for each other.

On top of that, we're also not very good about talking about mental illness. While it's better than it was when I was a teenager, there are still stigmas around anxiety and depression that make it difficult for people to seek and get the treatment they need. 

So when mortality and mental illness collide, you can imagine how this goes. We come up pretty short. We want to make it go away. We don't even like to say, publicly, that this death was a suicide, because it feels like there is some shame in this act. We question ourselves, wonder what else we could have done, try to find someone or something to blame. All of this makes talking about it very hard.

Over the years, the ALI community gave me vocabulary and a way to sit with people who are grieving, people whose lives are not following the traditional script. We talk about death and loss in very public ways, we mourn together, we comfort each other, speaking the names of children we have lost. I learned the word "abide" here, even though we are rarely together in person to experience the solace of three dimensional companionship. Oddly enough, I learned here, in a space where we share words, that it's OK to not have any. I learned to sit in silence and presence.

I never want to have to have the kinds of conversations I've had last week. I don't think I've done it all right, or done enough, because those are impossible things to achieve. But I do know that I have been able to sit (virtually) in a space where I have no words, to abide (at a distance) with people who have experienced an unimaginable loss, and try my very best to simply be present, to bear witness. And I owe that to you.

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Sunday, May 2, 2021

The Empty Tub and Sri Lankan Dal

Almost a week and a half ago, I got my second vaccination. My husband is now more than two weeks out.

We've been following the CDC guidelines to the letter for the past year, masking everywhere, minimizing our exposure, reducing our grocery shopping. We sent the kids to hybrid school, so there was a risk, but there has been no in-school transmission. The kids haven't played with friends inside at all, and even when they're outside, they mask in close contact--no mater how brief--with everyone. Unfortunately, this has pretty much ruined my daughter's relationships with everyone on the street, who no longer ring our doorbell and ask her to play.

When this all started, my husband and I filled a plastic tub with two weeks' worth of nonperishable food, things that the kids could even cook if need be: pasta, beans, canned vegetables. There was extra toilet paper and tissues, cereal, applesauce and canned fruit. Flour for making bread in the breadmaker. We imagined what would happen if we both became ill, and no one else was able to come help. And for a year, the green plastic tub stayed in the corner of the kitchen, occasionally refreshed with a new box of cereal or bag of flour. Even in the corner, it was like an unspoken threat, more visible than the wills we updated in April.

This week, with a week to go until I was fully vaccinated, knowing that we wouldn't work through any of the groceries over the next week and that they'd still be around, I started to empty the tub, to put things away in cabinets where they'd normally go. The likelihood now of both my husband and me getting sick at the same time was much lower. We could get by on the things we usually keep in the pantry. It was a strange moment, exhiliarating and disorienting at the same time.

I know that we're not out of the woods. We will still mask, we will still be cautious, we know that it's not just about us but about protecting our whole community, especially given the new variants out there and the fact that right down the street in a town not far away the infection rates are still very high because people are living in much closer proximity without the privileges of protection (like the ability to work remotely) that I enjoy. The kids can't be vaccinated yet, and it's not clear when or if that will happen.

But for a moment, looking at the empty corner made me feel like maybe there is a light at the end of what has been a very dark tunnel.

Sri Lankan Dal
This is one of the recipes we discovered this past year; it's a good go-to that uses pantry staples, and is particularly warming and comforting, sort of like the lentil version of rice pudding, especially if you omit the turmeric and hot pepper, 

1 lb. red lentils
4 t. coconut oil
3 cardamom pods, cracked
1 cinnamon stick
3 whole cloves
1 large brown onion, peeled and thinly sliced
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1/2 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
2 green finger chillies, finely sliced (optional)
4 1/2 c. water
1/3 teaspoon ground turmeric (optional)
7 oz (3/4 c + 2 T.) coconut milk
1 1/2 t. sea salt

Place lentils into a sieve and wash until water runs clear. Place lentils into a large bowl, cover with water and set aside while continuing with the recipe. 

Heat the coconut oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until hot, add the cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. Stir-fry for about a minute, or until fragrant. Add the onions, cook for about 10 minutes stirring frequently, or until onions are soft and golden brown.

Next, add in the garlic, ginger and green chili, stir-fry for about 2 minutes.

Drain the lentils and place into the saucepan. Add the ground turmeric (I sort of like it without ... it tastes a bit more "homey" and sweet) and pour in water. Increase the heat and bring to a boil then turn heat to a simmer. Cook the lentils for about 20 minutes, or until soft. Once cooked pour in the coconut milk and add the sea salt to the lentils, stir and cook for a further 5 minutes. Remove from heat, cover and keep warm.

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