Sunday, May 26, 2013

Urban Garden

During the summer of 2011, while Sudi was home for a visit, I cooked up vegetables straight from the garden for dinner and made a tomato salad with tomatoes picked that day. I have so many tomatoes in the summer that I make a tomato salad with dinner every night. It consists of sliced tomatoes, chopped basil, a touch of onion powder, olive oil drizzled over the top, and a spritz of red wine vinegar. Delicious. While eating the cooked garden veggies and the tomato salad, Sudi commented that he thought it would be cool to grow vegetables behind his apartment in Oakland. I took him at his word and gave him a pot, dirt, and a tomato cage for Christmas that year. When spring rolled around, I provided a tomato plant (with a companion basil plant) for the pot.

Pleased with his new project, Sudi put the tomato plant on his back porch at his apartment at 40th and Telegraph and it grew and grew and produced yummy tomatoes. When he moved  to a new place at 38th and Market in August, the tomato plant had grown too large to fit in his car, so he pushed it the few blocks to the new apartment on his skateboard. The tomato then took up residence in a tiny concrete-and-gravel plot behind the new apartment. Sudi and his three roommates enjoyed the tomatoes right through to November. One of his roommates told me he had never eaten such tasty tomatoes. That young man was raised in Chicago and had never had a family garden, probably never ate a tomato straight off the vine.

This past winter, Sudi and I talked about plans for another tomato plant. He said that his roommates wanted to try to make a little urban garden on the concrete slab behind their apartment. One roommate in particular had begun learning about growing vegetables and was keen on giving it a shot. And Sudi grew up with a garden, of course. I told Sudi I would help him and his roommates create a garden space. I started some veggies for them from seed in February and when I bought my own garden starts at the college ag department sale in early May I also bought starts for the guys. I shopped around (for a good price, and scrounged from my local nursery) to assemble a dozen large plastic pots, bought some more tomato cages, and mentioned the impending project to our family friend Linda, who is a professional gardener. Linda loved the idea and offered to buy the soil and to provide help starting the garden.

This past Thursday afternoon, Linda and I met with Sudi and his roommates and we all worked together to set up the urban garden. We transplanted veggie starts into the large pots and we transplanted herbs and lettuce into a nifty planter that Linda provided. Although the “yard” is tiny, we managed to fit into it 6 varieties of tomato (Early Girl, Celebrity, Black Krim, Brandywine, Orange Slicer, and Sweet 100s cherry tomatoes), 2 zucchini, 2 lemon cucumber, 1 standard cucumber, 2 patty pan squash, 1 pie pumpkin, 5 bush green beans (2 purple and 3 green), half a dozen lettuce, 3 varieties of basil, Greek oregano, and spearmint.

Linda provided instructions for tending the new garden and answered their questions. The guys started brainstorming and were soon full of ideas about how to improve their garden area with a bench, chairs, BBQ grill, and other amenities. I expect that they will spend many hours communing with their vegetables over the course of the summer. One of the roommates is a furniture maker so he is brimming with plans for lawn furniture. Before I left, they had already moved gravel to cover up unsightly weeds and they were taking empty paint buckets out of the area and putting them into the trash.

They have transformed a miniscule and unsightly concrete-and-gravel spot surrounded by two-story low-rent apartments into a space conducive to reflection and serenity. If they tend their garden conscientiously, in a few weeks they will be eating delicious organic homegrown food. Our young people are resilient and creative beyond imagining. They are problem-solvers and innovators. I’m proud of the guys for their initiative and vision and so pleased that I was able to contribute so much to the project. As for my Sudi, who loves his urban lifestyle, well, to quote an old cliché, you can take the man out of the country, but you can never take the country out of the man. Hooray for gardening. Hooray for transformation.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Celebration Time: Graduation of My Youngest from College

Yesterday my baby graduated from college. He will always be my baby, even though he is a man with a blossoming career as a musician, a BFA degree (woo-hoo), and a full and productive life in the San Francisco Bay Area. I continue to try to wrap my mind around the fact that we managed to put three children through college without experiencing the collapse of our fragile financial house-of-cards. Although I still help my children financially according to their individual and changing needs (and my ability), I am remarkably relieved to have arrived at this moment when I feel confident that my children are capable of supporting themselves and making their way in life without my financial support. An enormous load has lifted from my shoulders. I had no idea how much weight I was carrying around until I put the burden down.

This turning point in the evolution of our family deserves a pause for celebration. Although nothing extravagant (no fireworks or pony carts), we hosted a party in Oakland attended by a few close friends and together we took a moment to jump up and shout about this milestone. We viewed some of Sudi’s film work and we danced. Sudi’s siblings came to watch him “walk” at the grad ceremony in San Francisco yesterday afternoon. I baked my popular whiskey cake as well as a chocolate cake, and the cakes reminded me of my friend Nanette, who passed away in 2006.

Nan was big on celebrating and her hallmark celebration contribution was always a wild huge cake. For birthdays, anniversaries, and other life events, she would bake chocolate cake and decorate it with live flowers, plastic toys, sculpture, art work, and a frightening number of candles. Then she would set the cake aflame (get out your fire extinguisher) and demand that all those present “put blessings” into the cake. Once we managed to douse the conflagration, Nan would carve up the cake and give everyone a piece. My children used to complain that they found bugs crawling out of the flowers on their plate. One never knew what one would find in that piece of cake. But one thing was for sure, one would certainly find a lot of love, and blessings. Nan was a brilliant artist, who had studied printmaking at California College of the Arts herself back in the day when CCA was still called California College of Arts and Crafts. CCA is Sudi’s alma mater now too. Nan would have so loved to be with us at our celebration of Sudi’s graduation in person, but she was certainly there in spirit. She would have loved the fact that Sudi and his brother Akili both completed college degrees in the arts. She contributed to their creativity with all the projects she brought to the Ranch for them to do when they were growing up.

Ron and I instilled in our children a recognition of the importance of celebration, and Nan had a hand in that. She also demonstrated what it meant to live the artist’s life, to embrace creativity with all that it brings. We and many of our adult friends encouraged our children to bring their creativity to the celebratory experience. Once we had a tropical vacation theme for our Labor Day Weekend Bash at the Ranch and our children made colorful hilarious signs that they posted on the property to support the theme. And we dressed up and cooked tropical food and played tropical music and all that. Just one example.

On the occasion of the graduation of my youngest from college, I take a moment to appreciate the celebratory experience. Our time here together is relatively brief, and is filled with so many painful things that bring us to our knees, that we must remember to create a space in which to dance and rejoice when we are blessed with goodness. Hooray.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Lies from My Youth

When I was fourteen or fifteen years old, a Jewish foreign student from South Africa spoke at my synagogue. The year was around 1969. The S. African was in her early twenties. She was in a foreign exchange program at the local college and the rabbi invited her to speak to a group of teens. During her presentation, she applauded apartheid and explained to us that black S. Africans were not capable of running a country. She stated that no black S. African had ever planted a tree or built a house. I was stunned. During questions and answers, someone asked her why she thought this. She said it was printed in her textbooks in school and that it was therefore common knowledge. I then realized that her teachers and her government had brainwashed her with lies. I was so embarrassed for her, that she was repeating such falsehoods, that she believed them to be true. I pitied her for her ignorance and the ways in which this ignorance narrowed her life. I remember vividly how I felt about her words and her false perspective. And yet I myself had at that time already bought a false perspective of my own and had been educated to believe lies, although I did not yet know it.

I was taught in my Hebrew School that the creation of the State of Israel was the joyous homecoming of my people, after thousands of years in diaspora. I was not taught that our return to our ancient homeland created a diaspora for the Palestinian Arabs who had lived for generations within the borders of the new Israel. I was taught that when the British withdrew from the region, Israel was left to fight for its life, that it was surrounded by powerful Arab countries that had sworn they would push the Jews into the sea. I looked at a map and surely I could see for myself that tiny Israel was indeed surrounded by enormous Arab countries, that it truly was (as I was taught) a David struggling against a Goliath. But this David-and-Goliath image that was fed to me was false. The Israeli army was stronger than the armies of its foes. In 1948, Israel had the military advantage. It was no little David. What American Jews and Israelis referred to as the War of Independence was referred to by the Palestinian Arabs living within the borders of the new nation as The Catastrophe. (I refer to them as Palestinian Arabs to distinguish them from Palestinian Jews, who have lived in Palestine for thousands of years. Although few in number for centuries after most of the Jews in the region were exiled, Jews have lived in Palestine since long before the birth of Christianity. In fact, Jesus was a Palestinian Jew.)

I was taught that the Israeli military leaders begged the Palestinian Arabs to stay in Israel in 1948, that they promised them they would be cared for and treated as equals in the new country, but the Palestinian Arabs insisted on leaving. I was not taught that the Israeli military forced the Palestinian Arabs from their homes at gunpoint, killed many of them, and drove them from their land. I did not learn this in Hebrew School. I did not learn that Jewish Holocaust survivors arriving in Israel from Eastern Europe were given the homes of Palestinian Arabs in which to live; homes still filled with the furniture, clothing, and family photographs of those who had been evicted. These Jewish immigrants were told that the former inhabitants of these homes had fled. I was taught that the Arab refugees who poured out of Israel were purposely kept in refugee camps in the countries that took them in because the Arabs wanted to make an example of them, to show the world how badly they had been treated, that they had been uprooted, to make Israel look bad. I was taught that there was plenty of room for these refugees to find homes and work and start anew in the countries that had taken them in, but no, they were detained in refugee camps. I was taught that Israel extended an open welcome to them to return, whenever they wished, to their homes within Israel’s borders. I was taught that Arab soldiers are cowards. It was all lies. And like the S. African woman who believed that no black person had ever planted a tree or built a house, I believed these lies taught to me in school.

The truth about what my people have done in Israel is so painful to me that I can rarely bring myself to talk about it. Let me be clear, I believe in Israel as a country and as a Jewish homeland. I believe that Israel has a right to exist. So I do not feel comfortable criticizing Israel outside the Jewish community because I never know if I am speaking with someone who acknowledges the right of Israel to exist or not. I never know if I am speaking with someone who is consciously or unconsciously anti-Semitic. I fear the damage I might do by criticizing Israel, because I continue to feel that the safety of my people in the world remains in jeopardy. And yet I do not wish for the security of my people to depend on the oppression of other peoples. I have many friends and relatives who live in Israel and I fear for their safety. But I know that the only way that they will ever be safe, that their children will thrive, is if peace comes to the Middle East. That peace would require such a deep level of compromise by all those involved that I despair of ever seeing it arrive.

I wish that I could believe some of the lies from my youth, the things I was taught in Hebrew School. I wish I could believe that the Israelis have been fair and kind to the Palestinian Arabs. It is so difficult for me to accept the truth, to accept that Israelis, my people, are the oppressor in this situation. It was easier to perceive my people as the oppressed. We have been thrown out of every country on the planet, have we not? We are the victims, right? One would think, one would hope, that a people who has suffered as much as the Jews have suffered would be merciful and just, generous and kind, welcoming to “the other,” and dedicated to resolving conflict through nonviolent means. One would wish it. One would be living in ignorance of the truth.

I was prompted to write this blog because I just read Miko Peled’s book The General’s Son. Peled is the son of one of Israel’s great generals, a man who was a key military leader in the 1948 War of Independence and who had a change of heart and later became a friend of Arab leaders and a great ambassador of peace. I identified with Peled’s description of the “facts” he was taught while growing up and the ways in which reality disintegrated beneath his feet as he learned that these “facts” were not true. I have been reflecting on how my own ignorance has narrowed my life and how it will continue to do so in ways that I may or may not recognize in the future. I am that ignorant person, that S. African woman, whom I pitied in my youthful naiveté. I struggle to shake the stories I have been fed, the untruths. I need to hear from Palestinian Arabs about what they have actually experienced. Because that is the heart of it. It comes down to telling our stories to one another and listening to these stories. The key to peace in the Middle East is these stories, this dialogue. Until Palestinian Jews and Palestinian Arabs speak to one another, they will not make peace.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Cinco de Mayo: Goldfish and Marigolds

Once upon a time Cinco de Mayo meant, for me, too many pet goldfish and the great taste of authentic cactus salad. It meant digging in the dirt and the scent of marigolds. The dirt and the marigolds are still here for me today, but the goldfish and the cactus salad have faded into the past.

From 1991 to 2003 my children attended Hopland Elementary School (now closed as a result of school budget cuts). It was the best little school in the world, but that is another story. The annual school fundraiser was a Cinco de Mayo celebration. It was perfect for our school, at which nearly half of the students were Mexican-American. Those mamis sure knew how to cook. Best Mexican food I ever ate. I would dream all year about that cactus salad. I got the recipe, but it never tasted the same when I made it. The festivities took place on the Friday closest to Cinco de Mayo. I always took the day off work and went to help out in the school kitchen, where I attempted to communicate with the cooks in my broken Spanish. I peeled avocados, stirred refried beans, ground strawberries up in the blender, and later, when the guests arrived, I served. Beef, chicken, and vegetarian enchiladas. Beef, pork, and potato tamales. Cactus salad. Guacamole. Three kinds of salsa. Diced lettuce, tomatoes, and onions. Horchata, strawberry juice, and lemonade. And for dessert there was a bake sale, at which my children invariably made me buy the chocolate chip cookies I had baked for the sale. Along with chocolate cupcakes, chocolate brownies, and enormous peanut butter cookies. Is anyone else hungry?

The adults and children in Ballet Folklorico danced, and usually the Pomo children danced too. The student population was nearly 20% Native Pomo, with children coming from families in the nearby Hopland Band of Pomo Indians who lived at the Rancheria just outside Hopland.

There was a silent auction and every year I made a point of bidding just right to win the summer membership at the health club. I got it at a good price (way less than the actual cost) and our family used it to spend the summer swimming in the pool. Over the years I also scored many other useful silent auction items, and one year I won a gift certificate to the grocery store in the raffle. The big raffle prize each year was a quilt, made by some of us moms. I always made a square for it and helped with the quilting sometimes at PTA meetings. They had a theme each year and they gave us quilters a little package of fabric pieces and we had to come up with a square that fit the theme.

There was a fair, of course, with booths and games the children could play using tickets we purchased upon entry. One of the favorites was the jail. You could pay (with tickets) to have someone arrested (like your mom) and then “cops” would go get the person and take them to the “jail” where they would have to stay for a certain amount of time. The children thought it was marvelous to have their parents arrested. My children played every game at the fair and usually won several hapless goldfish who we brought home and put in our little fish tank. Sudi named them all Michael and few if any of them lasted until the next Cinco de Mayo. Goldfish were not our specialty at the Ranch. If we had been better at caring for them I would have insisted that the children find more suitable names for them, but Michael it was across the board. It was cruel and impractical to give away goldfish as prizes, but there was nothing I could do about it and the children were so excited when they won a doomed goldfish. Oh well. My children also won piles of cheap plastic toys that swiftly populated the bottom of the toy box.

So where do the dirt and the marigolds come in? Simple. Planting season. Every year on the first Friday in May the Mendocino College Agricultural Studies Department has its annual plant sale and there is no better place to get wonderful veggies, herbs, and flowers for the summer garden at a reasonable price. The Ag Sale always coincided with Cinco de Mayo. While the children spent the weekend following the event watching their goldfish swim in circles and breaking their cheap plastic toys, I was in the garden digging, digging, digging, and then planting. That part has not changed. Yesterday found me in my yard all day planting. (I went to the Ag Sale on Friday.) I had done all the heavy digging and soil preparation during the previous two weekends. So this weekend was devoted to getting the plants in the ground. Hard work in the heat. But feel-good work.

As gardeners know, marigolds make good companions for tomato plants because the marigolds keep away insects that damage tomatoes. So I planted marigolds as “pets” for the tomatoes. Marigolds have a distinct scent that knocks my socks off every time. Back in the day, before they grew up and left home, I used to get my children to help me with some of the planting. Nowadays I live at a property that has better soil than the tough clay at the Ranch. So I can grow more vegetables. And fruit. This year, much to my delight, Sudi and his roommates in Oakland have decided to try to keep a modest urban garden behind their apartment. So I bought a few plants for them at the Ag Sale and in a couple of weeks I’ll spend a day with the guys creating a container garden of vegetables. Sudi continues the family tradition of growing organic food!

The Cinco de Mayo days at Hopland School are long gone, but in the spring, when I am digging in the gardens and planting for the summer’s bounty, I can still taste that cactus salad in my memory. The taste of good times never dies.