After the disaster in 2005 I wrote two poems and this piece while I tried to process my feelings (it also resulted in an anthology, Words Upon the Waters and I understand that copies are still available, drop me a note if you are interested). Whenever I read the poems I point out that when poets write pieces about a disaster we hope and fully expect that those pieces will become obsolete. I have a fantastic ďFree Nelson MandelaĒ poem that I never have cause read anymore, and thatís a good thing. The disaster in South Louisiana and Mississippi is ongoing, and Iíve been asked to post this scribbleÖ also there is a good soup recipe (potentially for carnivores or herbivores depending upon your preference). The recipe is at the end if my prose disturbs you.
There are very few mysteries about creating good change in the world. People know what things they need to do; the problem is deciding to do them. Iíd love to write a short piece describing the peace and fellowship to be found in consuming large bowls of my squash soup, but Iím not sure that I believe that such a cure is for everyone.
I take a hearty walk every two days now. Iíd started to look like a female version of a has-been sports icon, only without the spectacular sports career. I did not buy a series of books about quirky diets or an array of DVDs and exercise equipment whose best use is gathering dust. Well, thatís the story Iím telling here. Getting back into shape is dirt simple, increase activity and decrease the consumption of food with no food value. As comforting as the knickknacks are, they are not essential. So I was walking this morning and pondering hurricanes and levees.
It was raining on me during this walk. People I passed, here in temperate San Francisco, seemed astounded that I was walking without an umbrella. I donít carry an umbrella because if I carry them I forget them in cafes, but here not carrying an umbrella is almost an admission of a Martian heritage. Weather in a temperate zone is a suspect force. Sometimes it feels like living in a place peopled with relatives of the Wicked Witch of the West, all fearing the corrosive power of water. This view of weather is making more sense to me these days. Weather is capable of some astounding feats, if not in front of the former home of the Jefferson Airplane than at least in the news. The umbrella becomes an amulet of power. It says that the woman in the beige suit does not need to be effected by the weather. Her sneer is not for the object I refuse to carry, it is for my rejection of her symbol of protection. Just as I am strange for walking actual stairs in the rain, while many of these people will be doing essentially the same thing in a gym later today. The gym, apparently, is the better symbol.
If I sound like Iím going through some kind of existential crisis it may be because I am. Maybe Iím not. Iím not sure. This has been an odd year. My first book came out in December and I have undergone a strange transition. I now have fans that Iíve never met in person. For clarityís sake I should say that I am not the sort of person who inspires the kind of fan that emulates my hairdo, ala Jennifer Aniston. I seriously doubt if it will ever get to the point where anyone is interested in the breeding habits of my ex. I inspire the sort of fan whose letters come with a two page appendix justifying their interest in my writing. This appendix often includes genealogical data. So here I am in March walking off the effects of reading an amazingly flattering and personal letter from a very earnest reader who has outlined for me her every possible connection to anything remotely Native American so that I can begin to understand why she bought my book. Itís sweet and I am certainly susceptible to the flattery. It also says something important about how some Americans view racial differences.
I was in Jordan when Katrina hit. I watched the news of the hurricane on a TV set in Amman with a Texan and a Canadian. It was a very strange sensation. For the rest of my time in Jordan people on the street asked me if I was American and then hoped out loud that my family was safe. Just expressing human goodwill, no justification. When I got back home, there was an invitation to read at a benefit for folks affected by Katrina. I immediately said yes. In that kind of circumstance my family heritage of open-handed donation is manifest. I am not a wealthy person, or even solvent sometimes, after all I am a writer, but if I have an extra jacket, or have been given an umbrella by a concerned passer by, I am thrilled to pass it on to those who need it more. This usually means that I donít have an extra jacket, but in this case all they wanted was for me to read a poem. I always have a poem. The reading was an inspiration. Most of the speakers were poets and most of them were exceptional. Artists had donated pieces for sale. It was a combination town hall and rent party. When it was over I really felt that Iíd been part of something important. It was enormously cathartic. It was also quite clear that it was not going to be enough by a long shot.
Over the next few weeks of relocation and clean up I found myself irritated with the tone of the discussion. When the Tsunami hit I donít recall a massive hustle to claim intimate knowledge of the area, nor comments suggesting that the inhabitants of those islands might have wanted to move anyway. I remember botched food and water shipments, but not commentary about the cultural significance of those errors. The reportage on Katrina was embarrassing. I mean, hey, in keeping with my faded sports star physique, I too have framed for drywall. I own a hammer. I can afford nails. There was work to do. Letís get to it. Iím in. Road trip anyone? I suppose Iím a bit of a poser because I didnít actually get to Mississippi and help rebuild. I didnít have the money to fly and I couldnít talk anyone else into dropping work for a month to drive out there. Many of my chosen targets cited their lack of knowledge of the area as a reason to stay put in California. Well, Iím no expert on the area either, but I still think a few more experienced hammers could have done some good. I mean, even a few brooms might have helped. It all reminded me of my fans, for whom I am eternally grateful, but who generally seem to feel the need for some footnote worthy connection before they can enjoy my work. I donít really think we need those connections before we can be interested in reading someoneís book or in helping people clean up a disaster. I think I understand the problem though.
I taught in the Collage of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University for a few years. My shiny new students used to file through my class with their penny bright, just out of high school desire to learn about cultural constructions that they may not have encountered previously. It was almost life threatening for some of them when Iíd start my class by announcing that everyone in the room who wasnít Ohlone was knowingly in receipt of stolen goods as part of the ongoing colonial effort. Iíd further point out that this behavior is on the books as illegal and is at least immoral. I donít think that many of my students really heard my third observation: that I was in it with them, because as a relocated Cherokee I had no business in San Francisco either. Judging by their reactions, this commentary coaxed more guilt than self-awareness. Americans do not like to hear that the sins of the past have repercussions in the present. Even less do they want to hear of ongoing and unself-aware sins. The well meaning among them do not know how to react when the lack of funding to a thing like a levee causes the disproportionately high death count among the children of slaves and Native Americans. They want to believe that this sort of thing doesnít happen anymore. How on earth can you look someone in the eye knowing that your absurdly large car and your ability to drive to the site of the tragedy to help was one of the justifications for the war that sapped the money from the budget for the upkeep on the levee to begin with? This might seem difficult even if you were carrying a hammer or a broom. Guilt is rarely a productive emotion.
My great-grandma was an amazing cook. She used to keep a pot of beans on the stove at all times. If asked why she would say, ĎBecause kids are hungry and beans are cheap.í She was like that. It strikes me that we could use some of that kind of practical sense when dealing with one anotherís state of being these days. Maybe squash soup is the cure for the ills of the world. Iím willing to give it a shot. If everyone who makes this soup shares it with someone they have never cooked for before, maybe that would help us deal with one another. Dinner is a connection, after all. None of the ingredients are terribly expensive. It isnít difficult to make. The sharing may well be the hardest part. Iím just asking everyone to try.
About four cups of cooked winter squash (pumpkin, acorn squash, something of that nature)
About eight cups of soup stock (any kind)
Four or five medium sized potatoes peeled and cubed
Corn from three or four ears, off the cob
Two cups of hominy
Spices: I like nutmeg, a small dash of clove and a healthy helping of ginger, but suit your own tastes
Put the soup stock and squash into a large pot and warm. Add the potatoes and cook until soft. Stir it from time to time. Add the hominy and corn and heat until cooked. Add spices.
I throw all sorts of things into this soup: wild rice, pine nuts, sweet potatoes and jalapenos are some of the things that have found their way into the pot. Iíve described how to make it a thick soup, but feel free to add more stock to thin it out. Personalize it. Enjoy it. Be kind to each other.