According to an article by Melinda Fakuade, What is the dining room table really for?, dining rooms are a thing of the past. And a quick search on Craig’s List shows how many folks are trying to sell the tables they don’t use.
This makes me sad. It’s not the demise of the dining room that bothers me. Any room that isn’t used regularly is a waste of space and drains us energetically. It’s the living in that makes our houses homes.
Ah, but the dining table — that is different. Dining tables are more than surfaces for eating. They are vessels for living.
As silent housemates, they ask for nothing, and exist only to serve. Here, let me hold your plate and your coffee. Sit beside me and talk. Play a game. Work. Strategize. Put your head on me and cry. Bang your fist. Make plans. Strategize. Write. Solve problems. Create. Deal cards. Visit. Spill your wine? I’ll catch it. Beside me, you will be nourished. Come, fold your hands over me. Eat.
Dining tables hold us together as families. They support all our activities – essential, important, creative, even trivial. And, by extension, they support our souls.
Some of the best moments of my life—and my very favorite memories—happened around dining tables.
Celebrating birthdays. Playing board games. Creating jewelry, making collages, and dabbling in other crafts. Even the childhood memory of my father jabbing my elbow with a fork when it appeared while we were eating is funny. It was always shocking then, but it was a great lesson for me!
Dinners at noon on Grandma’s farm with six to ten kids. Passing bowls of food and being scolded for reaching. Deboning bluegills and sunfish. Watching Grandma eat watermelon with salt and a fork. Drinking tea out of china cups and eating wafer cookies. Buttering toast and wiping up the crumbs. Playing endless games of Rummy.
My mother’s dining room table, after my parents divorced is where we would talk about school, friends, and even her job. Where we ate baked potatoes and corn made in the new microwave. Where we laid out the Christmas cookies before and after baking.
It was around my father and stepmom’s large dining table that my father hosted wine tastings. And where I learned that the secret to hospitality is as simple as the willingness to make room. Clear the clutter and sit down. There is always enough food.
The first thing I purchased for myself when I moved to Idaho was an antique round pedestal oak table that extended to an oval. Every Easter, I spread it open and friends gathered for a large meal and hours of laughter. It was my favorite day of the year. “Spring Thanksgiving,” as it came to be known.
I’ve always loved dinner parties. Eating with others is important to me. Shared food and conversation. Meals made with intention. Restaurants and coffee shops offer too many distractions. But a meal in my home, or that of a friend’s, provides genuine connection.
Today, my dining room table is an old oak square with a wobbly leg and sides that fold down. The three chairs for guests now sit against the windows. In this time of Covid, I’m not sure when I’ll entertain friends again. But someday, possibly.
At the moment, this dining table doubles as my desk. Where I eat breakfast and lunch, where I write, where I Zoom. Papers sit in piles and pens are always falling on the floor. But in a corner, I keep a vase of fresh flowers.
I recently considered purchasing a real desk, something more appropriate for working at home. But I can’t do it. Call it feng shui, nostalgia, or sentimentality. This table anchors me to place.
Dining tables are a symbol of possibility, of community, and a way of living that is deeply nourishing. Whether in a kitchen, on a porch, or in their own special room, dining tables do more than double duty in the myriad of ways we use them. For work, for crafts, for playing, and for eating. Even when we are alone, these tables bring us together.
Take away the dining room but keep a table for dining. Use it any way you need. Underneath the clutter, these tables are a reservoir of memories, support, nourishment, and possibility.
I’m not giving up mine any time soon.
What about you?
Passover begins on Saturday. This year, after a year enduring the harsh realities of the Covid-19, Passover has new meaning for me. The innumerable restrictions on our freedoms feel a bit like enslavement under an evil pharaoh. In unison, we lament. We pray to be free.
Passover reminds us that new life is coming. A promised land is ahead. But we still have a way to go. We will undoubtedly roam a bit in the wilderness before finding our way home.
As one of the most important holidays of Jewish faith, Passover commemorates God’s saving grace.
It also coincides with the beginning of the barley season. As such, it shares a common theme with the Spring Equinox and Easter. All three holy days are rooted in renewal, regeneration, and resurrection. New life. New beginnings. And finding our way home.
In the hero’s journey, there are multiple tests and trials leading to one significant death. Slaying a dragon, a dark night of the soul, trapped in the belly of a whale, relinquishing ego identity, or enduring Covid-19 – all are an end to the previous life we’ve known. But once we’ve done this, we still have a way to go.
New life takes time to sprout and grow. Reborn after our metaphorical death, it takes a while to adjust to our new skin, our new way of being. We are still in darkness, squinting to see. We stumble, we crawl, we fall. We move hesitantly and then with confidence, only to trip and be tested again.
Forty years wandering in the desert after escaping Egypt was much like this. Nearly sixty years after the Civil Rights Act was passed is like this too.
The journey to new life, to a new way of being, doesn’t happen instantly.
We still have a long way to go.
We will never be home until we recognize that the home which we left is not the same to which we are returning.
We have changed. (Without change, there is no hero journey.) The promised home, the home where we are headed, is new.
Even if you are not Jewish, I encourage you to pause on Saturday and meditate on what Passover means. For you. For you this year.
Ritual and remembering help us find meaning. They connect us to the past and provide a path to the future.
I was not raised Jewish. There is a good possibility that my mother’s family, two generations before her, were Jews, but I cannot claim this identity. Still, Passover is meaningful for me. And perhaps, this year especially, it may mean something for you too.
On Saturday evening, I will celebrate alone, just as I have spent most of this year alone.
If you feel inclined to recognize this holy day, here are my humble suggestions, completely unorthodox yet rooted in the spirit of this ancient story.
This is not a traditional seder by any means and I hope my Jewish friends will forgive me. But this is a ritual of remembering.
Ritual is intention. Ritual marks the present by remembering the past. Ritual tells a story.
This year is a story worth telling. May this Passover be the beginning of finding our way home.
Daffodils are in a vase on the table where I write and plentiful in the front yards around my neighborhood. Redbud trees are blooming in various shades of pink, purple, and white. A few weeks ago, in Chicago, crocus were popping through the snow. These are happy signs of spring.
Every year when I see these flowers blooming, I hear, “Persephone returns! Persephone returns!”
Persephone is the maiden in Greek mythology who was abducted by Hades and brought to the underworld to be his wife. She went unwillingly, kicking and screaming, so to speak. At least, this is the commonly accepted story of classical mythology.
But since the early 90’s, when I was working in HIV/AIDS, assisting people with living while preparing for their death, I’ve resonated with a different version of this story, one in which Persephone is in charge of her destiny. Where Persephone is transformed by her choice to descend into the darkness and emerges triumphant. She hears the call, she responds to the needs of others, she leaves all that she loves and all that is familiar. She embraces the arduous journey that will, in the end, transform her, and transform the world.
For those of us that have followed Covid-19 guidelines this last year, this story may resonate. Certainly, we didn’t choose this virus, but we did what needed to be done. We stayed home. We wore our masks. We separated ourselves from the familiar and so many that we love. This year has been a heroic journey.
In Charlene Spretnak’s pre-Hellenic version, Persephone was enjoying her life, playing in a meadow and picking flowers with friends, when she heard the moans of the dead.
She was distressed. Was there no one to welcome the spirits when they arrived to their new home? She asked her mother, Demeter, about this. Demeter admitted it was her duty but she was too busy overseeing all things growing above the ground to attend to things below. Persephone understood. She was a young maiden, no longer a child. She was old enough to respond to her destiny. She decided she would go and do what she could. The world of the living would never be right if the spirits of the deceased were not properly received.
Naturally, her mother was bereft. In the classic version, her daughter was taken from her. In Spretnak’s version, while she didn’t want to be parted from her child, she also recognized Persephone was old enough to make this decision. Indeed, the work needed to be done: there could be no harmony among the living while the dead were ignored. Light and darkness both must be blessed. So, Demeter escorted her daughter to the crevice in the rocks where she would descend. They embraced one last time and Persephone left.
In both versions, once Persephone is gone, Demeter is inconsolable.
Parted from the one she loves most in all the world, she is unable to do anything but grieve. She is unable to work and commands all crops and flowers to stop growing. Seeds and plants become dormant and the land becomes barren. For months upon months, Demeter is deeply depressed.
But then one day, after endless days had turned into countless months, something unexpected happened. While walking across the empty land that had once been a beautiful meadow where Persephone had played, blades of grass began sprouting. Then a few more. And more after that. She could hear something. Yes, the grass was singing! What was it they said? “Persephone returns! Persephone returns!”
Sure enough, Demeter looked ahead and her daughter was emerging from the underworld! As they ran towards each other, the meadow sprouted into bloom.
And so, the seasons are marked by Persephone. She returns in the Spring and all things sprout into living. She leaves in Autumn and the leaves begin to fall.
These last twelve months have been an extended winter of sorts. A barren season of sorrow and mourning. For a year we have been burrowed in our houses, separated from family and friends. Loved ones have shed their mortal bodies and crossed over to a place we can’t see. Businesses have died. Learning has stumbled. And work? What can I say about work? Surviving this pandemic has been our work.
No, finally, our long winter may be ending. Signs of spring are emerging. One in six Americans has received the vaccine. Schools are reopening. And safety guidelines are being updated by the CDC.
The earth is rejoicing. Persephone returns!
What a long hard winter these twelve months have been. We have suffered. Suffered greatly. And, hopefully, we have been transformed.
Dear Friends, may this season be a home-coming: a coming home to being alive.
Happy Spring Equinox! Persephone returns!
So, I had made it to Balestrate without being stopped by the police. I was safe in an apartment close to the sea. My car was rented for an entire week. Maybe I could see some things before returning it?
Sure, I knew the entire country was in lockdown but … the reality is that we really don’t know what something means until we are in it. There is knowing and then there is knowing. Intellectually, we understand the words and the concept. But visceral knowing is when it sinks in. And there is a whole world of difference between the two.
A bit like when a kid asks about an adult scenario and receives an answer that is incomprehensible. We understand the words, but the idea is just too far out there that we can’t take it in. (e.g.: Where do babies come from? What??? Daddy does WHAT???)
I was having a hard time understanding what Italy’s complete lockdown really meant.
NO TRAVEL BETWEEN TOWNS WAS ALLOWED. But maybe I could still make it to Marsala to pick up some wine before dropping off my rental car in Palermo. Maybe?
It’s hard to let go of our plans. When life throws a curveball, we still want to swing.
It would take several admonishments from Italians for reality to sink in. Italy was in complete lockdown and I was in lockdown with it. For longer than I knew.
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When I arrived in Rome on March 4, 2020, I was excited. I was in Italy!!
Despite travel warnings, I had not canceled my trip.
Now, just to recap: when I arrived, Italy had the highest rate of Covid-19 infection in all of Europe. In fact, Italy had the highest rate of infection in the world, outside of China. Almost 28,000 people were infected with the virus and over 2,000 had died.[i]
And, just to be clear: During the first few weeks of March, people in Italy were not wearing masks. NO ONE was wearing a mask, except a few riders on Metro trains. Italians were deeply concerned about the coronavirus but were still largely unsure what to do about it. Those with whom I spoke were mostly concerned about business. The normal crowds of tourists, even in off-season, were nowhere to be found.
Of course, the lack of tourists was perfect for me. I hate crowds, which is, in part, why I had planned my trip for March. I expected the normal crowds to make me crazy. But of course, since I was flying into Rome, there were things I had to see. Six days would allow me to rest between excursions. Time to regroup and breathe. Then the rest of my trip would be small towns and municipalities, the countryside and Sicily.
But with the normal crowds not in Rome, every excursion was easy. I was free to stroll, to take my time, to read signs, and take it all in. I could feel the energy of the place. It was amazing, like a hum in the air. It vibrated in the ruins, in the streets. And the ruins were everywhere. I was enraptured and enthralled. I was in Rome! Finally! I was in Italy!!
Over the course of four days, I walked everywhere, clocking up to ten miles a day. I visited Villa Borghese Park, the Imperial Fora, the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, and every church I encountered. (Churches are everywhere in Rome.) I explored neighborhoods and toured the Colosseum. I ate at restaurants that were virtually empty. I entered the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Cathedral without standing in line. (As in, literally NO ONE in line, or no more than a few!) How many people were at Palatine Hill and The Forum? Maybe 200, maybe double? That’s a small amount in such a large space. Humans only dotted the landscape, rather than consuming it. Only at Trevi Fountain did I encounter a crowd too large for me. No problem. I turned and walked down another street.
Everyone says you MUST get lost in Italy in order to truly experience it. I absolutely agree.
I got lost a LOT in Rome. Each time, it was deeply unsettling. I tried to tell myself it was glorious but the truth is, I panicked.
As tales go, this was classic foreshadowing. (I should have known.)
Bottom line, the whole point of the trip was not to be a tourist but to experience the country. The lack of tourists was helping this goal significantly. Still, I really wanted to mingle with locals. I needed connection.
Online, I found a Couchsurfing meetup. It was in an area outside of the historic center, somewhere I hadn’t yet visited, and would require taking the Metro. I hesitated. I was tired. I might get lost again. But the gathering was at a restaurant and I needed to eat. So, I massaged my aching legs with Arnica cream, did a little yoga, and took a short nap. Then I put on my only pair of jeans, changed into a clean sweater, and donned my grey-heeled booties. Lastly, I reviewed some conversational Italian phrases. Alright, let’s do this! I was ready to meet some strangers.
In retrospect, this evening could have killed me. I was foolish, careless, and naïve.
That evening was a solid reason to go into quarantine. Two days later, the panic would almost crush me.
[i] In comparison, the United States had only 41 deaths and 1,678 infections on March 11, 2020.
Decades ago, when I lived in San Diego, I was hired as a legal secretary based purely on one thing: I was from Chicago. Confused, I asked for an explanation. He replied, “People from Chicago are hard workers, so I know you’ll work hard.” And that was it. I got the job.
The truth is, we make generalizations about people based on where they are from. They are never completely accurate (let’s face it, we’re complex creatures), and perhaps in some ways unfair, and yet, they are always undeniably partially true. Places shape us, much like families do.
Our hometown is an identifier, a way by which we are known. The accent in voices, the dialect, the lingo. In the mid-80s as a PBX phone operator in San Francisco, I would answer the phone, “Hyatt Regency, this is Jan.” And my nasal pronunciation of my name always gave me away. It seemed like every other day a caller would say, “Jaan, are you from Chicago?”
Our hometown’s history is our history. The town’s pride is our pride. When folks ask me about Chicago, I still mention Mayor Daley – the original Mayor Daley – who lived a few blocks away. And Comisky Park, where I attended many games. For no good reason other than I grew up in Bridgeport, the White Sox will always be my baseball team, even if I never really followed the sport. Disco demolition day, which tore up the field between a double header with the Detroit Tigers, will always be a day I remember fondly. And when the White Sox won the World Series in 2005, you can bet I was watching! From a ranch in Idaho, having just been thrown from a horse and with frozen peas on my legs, I still managed to watch the winning game.
The places where we grow up become imprinted in us. The physicality seeps into our bones. The sounds and smells. The architecture and skylines. The weather, the sky.
The Chicago of my youth was the smell of stockyards and trains, sweat from crowds and foul odors from the streets. Winters of dirty snow, biting winds, and grey skies. Summers of concrete, construction, jackhammers, and tar. Hot dogs with mustard and Old Style beer. Italian Ice and pizza cut in squares. Low-riders with loud booming music rocking their cars and shaking the air. Brick buildings and potholes. The Sears Tower and Hancock crowning the skyline. A curving Lake Shore Drive. Humidity. The temperature? Always cooler by the lake. This is the Chicago I know, the Chicago still inside me.
Our hometown is always part of us, even when we move away, even if it no longer feels like home. It is almost part of our genetic history. We come from this family. We are part of this tribe.
So with all this in mind, I wish Chicago a very happy birthday! Founded in 1837, Chicago is 184 years old this month.
Seventeen years ago, a local news station paid homage with the following:
Below is Carl Sandburg’s poem, in full. Written when Chicago was only 77 years old. Reading this again, I’m struck by how much of a working man’s city Chicago has always been. (no gender bias) And it makes me think, as family structures go, Pittsburgh and Chicago must be siblings, or at least cousins. What do you think?
Where are you from?
How does your hometown define you?
Chicago by Carl Sandburg
Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.
First published in 1914, this poem is now in the public domain. Bold highlights are my own.
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One year ago today, I left Tulsa, Oklahoma, for a six-week trip to Italy. Seventeen weeks later, I returned.
I spent six months planning this trip and when I embarked, there were still gaps in my itinerary. That was okay. I had enough bookings for air travel and lodgings reserved to frame the overall itinerary; enough to soothe my natural anxiety about needing to have plans in advance.
Overall, I’m not a spontaneous person. Spontaneity has never worked out for me. The “let’s play it by ear” and “we’ll figure it out when the time comes” has always left me frustrated and sad. I end up alone or the plans become too expensive, or too complicated. Without plans, I have a tendency to do nothing, to simply stay home. Plans force me out of my comfortable little world. Plans propel me forward.
As the Scottish explorer William Hutchinson Murray famously said, “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back.”[i] Plans make me commit.
And so it was with this trip. I HAD to go to Italy. Nothing was going to keep me from this adventure. Not a limited amount of funds, not unemployment, not even a world-wide health crisis.
When I left the United States, Italy had the highest rate of Covid-19 in all of Europe. But the cases were confined to the north. And I had no plans to go north. Despite my love of the humanities, despite all the admonishments that I simply must visit Florence and Venice, I had definitively decided I would stay South. I didn’t want to be a tourist. I didn’t need to see art or visit museums. I didn’t need a pilgrimage to the holy grails of history.
Rather, I wanted to experience Italy. I wanted to travel, to explore places I knew nothing about. I needed a transformational experience. And that couldn’t happen if I restrained myself to the safety of the typical Italian itinerary.
I also knew this trip had to happen exactly at the time I had planned for it. It had to be at the very beginning of March, 2020. I didn’t know why exactly—though I had several reasonable explanations to deter the endless questions from friends—I only knew that I felt this with an unshakeable certainty. This trip was an absolute necessity and it had to begin exactly when I had planned.
As it turned out, I was right. I could never have had the adventure I desired at any other time in history. My trip was transformative precisely because I trusted my instincts. I was present to a profound moment in history. I wasn’t watching it on TV from the comfort of my home, I was living it.
Of course, I didn’t know this until six days into my journey.
The hero’s journey always begins with a departure from the familiar. When we leave that which is comfortable behind. Sometimes this begins with a “call” – a voice inside telling us to go; an inner knowing urging us forward. Other times, we are kicked out. Something propels us out of our all-too familiar existence. We resist, wailing and screaming, as we bounce to the curb.
My journey included both. It began in 2019 when I was absolutely miserable in my job. Of course I have had jobs before where I wasn’t completely happy. Jobs where there was conflict or it didn’t feel like a great fit. But this job, well, this job was pure misery. I hated it. In theory, I should have loved it. I loved where I lived, I admired the institution where I worked, and I really liked my co-workers. But I was miserable. I was depressed. My body started rebelling. I cried constantly. There were days when I didn’t trust myself to drive. Something desperately needed to change. And it was in the midst of all this that I began planning my trip to Italy.
Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, after all, how we spend our lives.”
I remembered this quote at the height of my misery—as I sat sobbing and rocking in my discomfort—and decided this was not how I wanted to spend my life. This could not be my life.
But I didn’t trust the voice that told me what my life could be. What I could be. It scared me. I was a single woman in her fifties. Alone. Surrounded by so much love from friends, yes, that being alone didn’t bother me. In fact, for the most part, I truly relished my independence. But it weighed on me. I knew there were people who would take me in if something tragic happened but still… I was responsible for my life. I had to pay my bills. I had to feed myself. I had to work. There was no one else with which to share this burden. It was all up to me.
So while I couldn’t wrap my arms around the bigger possibility of a life that was waiting for me, I could at least see one thing: I needed a trip to Italy.
This is how my adventure began. With one 21” carry-on and one under-the-seat duffle bag, I left my home on March 3, 2020, and traveled to Italy.
What happened next, I could never have imagined, I could never have planned.
And therein lies the beauty.
My trip was a hero’s journey. What dragons did I slay? What boon did I capture?
Join me on my adventure and find out.
Follow me at https://findinghome.substack.com/. I will be revisiting my trip, one year later, through paid subscriber content ($6 a month, $46 for the year). I will dive into all the trials and fears, insights and surprises, that I didn’t reveal in previous posts during my stay. More than travel writing, I will explore home and the hero journey: calls to adventure, terrifying trials (including one recurring dark night of the soul), helpers along the way, and the inevitable return home. No sports, no fencing, no revenge, but plenty of monsters, torture, escapes, true love, and miracles. In other words, I’ll do my best to keep you awake.[ii] Please, I hope you’ll join me.
This is me at the airport and my original *planned* itinerary.
My mother was born in 1934 and would have been 87 years old next month. A few years before she died, she started writing down her memories of home as a kid. The following seems fitting to share before February is over. The cultural ignorance and accepted White narrative of the past is not acceptable today. I think inherently she knew that even when she was young. And yet, there it was, and she was a part of it. These memories will make you cringe.
Our homes shape us but they do not need to define us. By the late 1960’s, my mother was marching for Civil Rights. In various ways, she challenged the Lutheran Church to acknowledge and denounce racism. In this, she went against the norm. The Church was the home of her faith and a large part of her identity. She recognized her participation in the problem and strove to do better as an adult. As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Here are my mother’s memories of growing up in Saginaw, Michigan in the 1930’s and 40’s:
We only went into the Fourth Ward for two reasons.
The Fourth Ward was the Black Ward in Saginaw. The “Negro” Ward we called it in the 1940s. All the Negroes in town lived in it.
It was directly north of downtown. On the East Side. A street that turned into the main highway between Saginaw and Bay City went through it. We called it the “River Road” because it followed the Saginaw River up to Bay City.
As I said, we used that road only for two reasons.
One was to have a picnic along the Saginaw River north of town. There were picnic grounds for miles and miles along the river and we used them some Sunday afternoons.
To get to the picnic sites along the Saginaw River, we had to drive to downtown on the East Side, and then north through the Fourth Ward. And as soon as we entered the ward, my father would tell us to lock our doors and roll up the windows. Negroes, or “Darkies,” had knives. They may not use them, but all males had them. In a time when carrying any weapon was limited to criminals, this was a frightening thought. So we never drove through the Fourth Ward with a window open—no matter how hot the day.
The housing in the Fourth Ward was run down—old, unpainted, rickety apartment buildings and houses. Yet the blacks on the street were dressed to the nines. The contrast was exceptional. In my naivete, I could not understand why Black men and women spent money on clothes rather than fixing up their homes. Why did they dress up in finery and parade back and forth down the main street? They didn’t walk, they pranced. From my closed car window, I was in awe. These people looked so happy. They greeted each other with big smiles, outstretched arms, and hugs. Yet how could they be so joyous? They lived in dirty poverty. I didn’t understand it.
One trip through the ward, I asked my father why the people lived in such terrible buildings. Why didn’t they fix them up?. He said, “They aren’t allowed to live in white people’s neighborhoods, Alice.” He didn’t give a reason, but I figured it out.. “Why fix up buildings that you can never buy?” Why, indeed?
No one I knew ever called African-Americans “Niggers,” but “Darkies” was ok. They were dark; they were different. They couldn’t get the same jobs as white people, so they couldn’t earn as much money. It would be a waste of money to “dress up” the houses they rented. The only thing they could dress up was themselves. They could look good! And they did. The ward seemed like another world. People living in abstract poverty, but dressed to impress. Each other. I could only gawk.
The other reason we ventured into this ward was to buy shoes. A few blocks north of downtown was a very, very old shoe store. The building was 19th century, and no doubt the shoe store had been there long before the ward turned black. White people continued to venture into the ward to buy shoes. But I never saw a Black in the store.
Racism—especially against Blacks—was everywhere.
Although we never called Blacks “Niggers,” the word was elsewhere in our vocabulary. Brazil nuts were “Nigger toes.” Black baby-shaped gumdrops were “Nigger Babies.” And we chose up sides for a game or jumped rope to the rhyme: “Eene, meenie, minie moe. Catch a Nigger by the toe. If he hollers, let him go. Eene, meenie, minie moe.” Did I say we couldn’t use the word Nigger at home, school, anywhere? Wrong. We could, and did. We didn’t give it a second thought. This was true among Whites across America at the time.
In the 1930s and early 40s Holy Cross Church put on minstrel shows. My dad directed both the acting and the music. “Mr. Interlocutor” was white; all the other characters were black-faced. Mr. Interlocutor was the leader who stood in the middle of a horizontal line on stage and questioned the “end” men. The whole show was a series of jokes and funny stories passed between the characters. “Mr. Interlocutor?” a blackfaced character would say. “Yes,” replied the white man. And so the conversation began. The humor was very much like the radio show “Amos and Andy” or black and white movies of that time that included Blacks. People laughed at the foolishness and ignorance of the black characters. Only the white man, Mr. Interlocutor, was smart.
Minstrel shows also included special musical acts and choruses. Their words, too, usually poked fun at Negroes. Once, on a visit to Fort Wayne, I remember finding a piece of sheet music in my Grandfather Stolper’s piano bench titled, “If the Man in the Moon Were a Coon.” I was startled. It wasn’t funny. It was blatant racism. It had been written about 1908. But I never suspected that the Minstrel shows I saw as a young child were anything but funny. Al Jolson had made a career out of being blackface. A Jew, a son of a rabbi, was blackface and sang “Mammy” on Broadway.
There were no Blacks in our Lutheran school because none lived outside the Fourth Ward. (The Fourth Ward had its own school, with an all-white faculty.) And there certainly were no Jews at Holy Cross. Why would they attend a Lutheran school? They were in Arthur Hill High School, I’m sure, but I never had any idea who they were. Frankly, I didn’t think much about Jews. My world was limited to my neighborhood, school, and church.
Stereotypes of Jews abounded. We were never taught that they were Christ-haters or that they could be blamed for Jesus’ death (our sins were the cause of that), but people said they might cheat you and so you should always be on guard. A racist expression people used freely then was “Jewing someone down” It meant to trick someone into lowering their price—to trick them into giving more value than what was paid for.
We didn’t know any Asians, not even any Italians or Irish. But at the beginning of World War II, we became extremely racist regarding the Japanese—“Japs,” as they were called. We were afraid of them. They were monsters, barbarous torturers of American GIs. I had a coloring book of Japanese children before WWII began in which I had carefully colored a few pictures of girls in fancy dresses carrying parasols. After the war began, I decided to throw the coloring book away. I couldn’t stand to look at it. But first I scribbled all the pages. I slashed all the beautiful pictures with bold black strokes! I was seven years old.
In the early 1970’s my mother wrote the following poem. It was featured in the monthly magazine of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod.
By This Shall All Men Know… © Alice Stolper Peppler
We decided to list his crimes
. . . the “Negro . . .
We began in black graphite for his color
and continued in red ink for his violence.
And we were most thorough.
Year after year
from babes to aged
We gathered our evidence
and continued our condemnation.
Lifting our heads to heaven, we stood unbent.
“God, we thank you that we are not like him.”
And the Creator looked down
and saw no color
. . . save black . . .
black skins, black hearts,
the black He created, the black we created
and in all . . . sin . . . self-Self-SELF!
Theirs, ours, it was one to Him,
one cancer of maggots!
Some fool shouted, “But God,
Everyone knows we are better!”
But a wise man trembled…
And watching the heavens,
he waited the holocaust,
the just reply . . .
No fire came! No hail!
No bomb! . . . nothing,
just drops of blood . . .
Blood that covered the black . . . the white.
Love! . . . the healing pool . .
The wise man fell, stricken.
He cried copiously.
Prostrate, he begged,
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
Discolor! Discolor us all!”
Be we walked indifferently into the pool
. . . our lists in hand . . .
Never noticing THEY were there too.
We took His love graciously
. . . condescendingly . . .
And when it came time to pray,
We stood erect.
“God, we thank You we are not like them.”
Above our list . . . the unrealized letterhead:
Love one another, even as I have loved you . . .
By this shall all men know that you are My disciples . . .
A new friend recently gifted me with the book, Between Silence and Light: Spirit in the Architecture of Louis I. Kahn, by John Lobell.
I vaguely knew about Kahn. He is the subject of the 2003 documentary, My Architect, and he designed the Kimball Art Museum in Ft. Worth, TX that I’ve been meaning to visit. Other than that, my knowledge was slim. Now that I’ve read more about him and re-watched the documentary, I still won’t do him justice with my words, so I won’t even try. He was a complicated man. Just as we all are.
But there are passages from this book that I want to share. Things that have me thinking about who we are. How we each come into this world as unique individuals. How we need to honor our individuality: we need to recognize the holiness in our uniqueness. And how that spirit extends to our homes and everything around us.
Kahn lived during a new “time of uncertainty and loss of spirit, a time of corporate anonymity and bureaucratic banality…. So he turned instead to the eternal, to that which transcends the circumstances of any given moment, where he found Order and from which he brought Spirit back into our world.” (p3)
I think this is true of us today as well. Each of us, in some way and to varying degrees and at different times, feels uncertainty in a world of banality. Conforming to the norms of our culture. Trying to make our lives fit into what is expected, even celebrated, by the masses.
Too often, we don’t listen to Spirit. The spirit inside us and all around us. We make ourselves small. We do not allow the silence, the time, or the space to hear the uniqueness in our beings or in our surroundings.
Consider the nature of the brick… You say to brick, “What do you want, brick?” Brick says to you, “I like an arch.” If you say to brick, “Arches are expensive, and I can use a concrete lintel over an opening. What do you think of that, brick?” Brick says, “I like an arch.”
It is important that you honor the material you use.”
“The beauty of what you create comes if you honor the material for what it really is.”
We are each unique. And every home is special. Honor the material, be that body or brick. Therein lies the beauty.
Between silence and light is Spirit. Listen to what it has to say.
Honor what It is. Honor what It wants to become.
If you are considering building your own home, check out Always by Design (AxD). Ed Barnhart is an architect in the spirit of Kahn. He is present to the spirit of home.
“The place where you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5)
There is a saying that the body is a temple, usually referred to when considering what we consume or the activities in which we engage. But what about where our body temple resides?
Home is a holy place. Some traditions recognize this more than others. The Jewish mezuzah is a small decorative case approximately 3” tall containing consecrated prayers and blessings. It is secured to the frame in each doorway (at the very least, the home’s entrance) and is touched or “kissed” with the fingers when arriving, as a reminder that one is entering sacred space, a place where God resides.
Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit: Bidden or not bidden, God is present. Carl Jung had these words inscribed at his front door.
Have you ever thought of why we ask children to use their “inside voice”? I like to think it is out of reverence for the tenderness of home, so as not to bruise it with shouting.
Mircea Eliade notes in his book, The Sacred and The Profane, that there are many rites specific to entering a home – “a bow, a prostration, a pious touch of the hand, and so on.” These actions acknowledge not only the entrance into sacred space but also the spirit guardians at doorways who forbid entrance to human enemies, demons, curses, and disease.[i]
Removing your shoes before entering a home, or immediately inside the entranceway, is one such custom. Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims all remove footwear before entering a temple or mosque, and also their homes. This is more than maintaining cleanliness. This simple action observes the holiness of the place being entered. The place where the Divine is present. It leaves that which is “unclean” or unholy outside. The doorway of the home is the threshold between the worlds. When we enter our home, we leave the common world behind.
A place where the Divine is present is known as temenos—a Greek word used by the ancients for the lands dedicated to gods: rivers, groves, hilltops, and temples. But certainly any place can be home to the holy, a dwelling of the Divine. As Yahweh told Moses at the burning bush, “The place where you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).
Every home in Ancient Greece was the residence of the Goddess Hestia. She was the hearth fire, the soul of the home. Her fire transformed a dwelling, feeding both the body and the spirit. She was the burning bush. Home was temenos because She was there.
Homes have always been an axis mundi – an intersection between the heavens and the earth, a place where the everyday meets the sacred. Traditionally, the smoke rising from a fireplace, the home’s hearth, serves as the vertical connection to the heavens. The home fire feeds us, warms us, comforts us. Connecting the spiritual with the physical: the sacred and the profane. At this axis, we have direct contact with something greater than ourselves, that which provides us focus and, even, a center. As Mircea Eliade says,
“Our homes. . . present as completely different from the norm, set apart from everything else, so deeply special because something happens when we are in these places, we feel differently. . . connected to something greater.”[ii]
Our homes can be temenos. Our homes can be holy.
But we must start with that intention. And we must constantly tend to its fire to keep it warm and maintain the sacred within.
How is your home an axis mundi? How do you maintain temenos within the place where you live? Is there one room that feels more special than others? What reminds you that your home is sacred? What rituals or traditions do you observe? Is your home a haven of respite and renewal? If not, do you think it could be? What would it take for you to feel the embrace of the holy in the place which you call home?
When I bought my home in Picabo, Idaho, I did several things to imbue it with temenos. First, I hung mezuzahs at each entrance. Then, I held a formal house blessing with friends, in which every room was visited, a candle lit, and a prayer—specific to that room—was shared. I asked friends and family who were present, as well as those who were not, to create an individual prayer flag panel that I later strung together and hung from my front porch. These personalized blessings for the world were a powerful and constant reminder of God present. It’s a ritual I would love to do again.
Some of the prayer panels that friends and family made.
[i] The Sacred and The Profane by Mircea Eliade, Harcourt, 1987. Page 25
[ii] The Sacred and The Profane, Page 12
“Winter must be cold for those with no warm memories.”– Anne Bradstreet (Puritan Colonialist, poet, mother of eight, (1612-1672)
When I was growing up, kids were allowed to play outside unsupervised. In fact, it was the norm. Even the expectation. No questions asked. Just the offhand instruction of “Don’t get into trouble,” followed by, “Be home for dinner.”
But of course, we got into trouble. Like the time I cut my hand on a fence running from cops after a friend’s younger brothers threw snowballs at cars, causing them to crash. Pretty stupid. And hey, that’s the kind stuff that kids often do. Not smart, but makes for great memories.
My favorite winter memory though is skitching. Grabbing onto the bumper of a slowly passing car and catching a ride, a free and dangerous slide, for as long as the ice and car would take you. Truth is, this is the kind of thing that can kill you. Or at least, seriously maim you. And — it is fun as hell, especially to a kid.
Honestly, I only did this once. I wish I had done it more but I’ve never been a thrill-seeker and always err on the side of caution, even as a kid. But oh, that one glorious night! New Year’s Eve 1978, when a blizzard brought 8.5” of snow to Chicago. I was with my best friends, Lisa and Margie, and after spending much of the night rescuing cars from snowbanks, we started skitching free rides on their bumpers, laughing hysterically over the thrill. Of course, this is back when cars had real rubber bumpers. I wonder if skitching is the reason these no longer exist. Because the bumpers we have now are useless. But I digress.
Other than this one glorious night of falling snow and skitching on Sunnyside Street, I have no memories of playing in the snow. I only remember shoveling.
The Chicago winter of 1978-79 brought almost ninety inches of snow: 89.7” to be exact. The worst of it was two days in mid-January when twenty inches fell. The city went on complete lockdown for over two weeks. For those of us who had cars parked in garages, there was no way to get out. Alleys were never plowed. Buses stopped running. Schools were closed. Parents couldn’t get to work. We were stuck inside. Cabin fever was all over the news and running rampant in our homes.
That was the year I convinced my mom to buy me a powder blue ski jacket and black puffy ski pants. Not that I would ever ski, but theoretically so I could play in the snow with my friends. But I couldn’t get to my friends. I couldn’t even get past my front door. So, I shoveled.
I shoveled the front steps and then I shoveled the walk up to the house. I shoveled the path to the garage. I even shoveled the roof. The threat of roof damage was real from all that heavy snow, so as the lightest and the smallest in the family, I was sent to the roof to remove it. I shoveled and shoveled and shoveled.
And then, I looked down at all that snow in the back yard and… I jumped. It looked so soft and fluffy. So inviting. The snow asked me to play and I accepted. Only, it tricked me. It wasn’t soft. It was hard and packed and dangerous. I was stuck in its icy embrace. My brother, either grumbling or laughing (I can’t remember which), had to shovel a path to get me out. But hey, that’s the stupid stuff that kids do. And it made for a great memory.
I lived in Idaho for fourteen years, at an elevation of 5,850’. It was beautiful. It reminded me of the small town in Michigan where I was born and spent my summers as a kid. Except for the winters. The winters were rough. So much shoveling of copious amounts of snow. Sandbags in my car to keep from sliding. And too many falls on the ice while walking my dog. I tried to create new fun memories in the snow, but my nose leaked endlessly when cross-country skiing and I post-holed too many times while snowshoeing. Admittedly, part of my desire to leave Blaine County was snow fatigue.
For over two years now, I’ve lived in Tulsa and I love it. It feels like small Midwest city-town, only, in the South, where it is typically warmer. Except this morning it was -8 degrees and we have snow, with more on the way. This is not typical. This is extraordinary. Unprecedented. My little dog, Mazie, is confused each time I open the door. The snow gets stuck in her paws. She doesn’t know where to potty. It’s unsettling. We’ve been inside for a week. I’m warm (enough) and grateful, and – admittedly- I’m a bit stir-crazy.
The places that feel like home are the places where we laughed and played as children. The settings for those good memories – houses, landscapes, weather – become imprinted on us. They nestle into our hearts and psyches. As adults, we long for similarities in our surroundings to make us feel at home.
Winter cold and snow do not feel like home to me. I don’t have enough of those playful memories.
Ah, but for everyone who DID play in the snow as a kid, for everyone who has fond memories of seeing their breath in the air, of bundling up and laughing, of throwing snowballs, crafting snowmen, and making snow angels… may you tap into your inner child and enjoy these spectacular winter days! Go outside and play!
And if you see someone shoveling, maybe you can pull them into your play too. ⛄️❄️
Photos of me from January 1979, family collection. Photo of Chicago alley is courtesy of Brian LoCicero.
As the new year begins, it looks a lot like the year that just ended.
Yes, we have a vaccine now for Covid19, but the success of it will take many months to change our current situation. And that is only if everyone gets the vaccine. And, if it works on virus mutations.
At the moment, Covid19 deaths and infections are still soaring. Many of us are still working from home, if we are even still working. Our kids are still learning from home. Broadway is still canceled. Restaurants are still going out of business. At the beginning of January, things still look pretty bleak.
Except that it IS a new year. And this month is named for a Roman god who can guide us, if we’re willing.
Janus is the god with two faces. More than two faces, he appears the same from the front as he does from the back. In this way, he looks the same both coming and going. Which is exactly what 2020 and 2021 look like right now. We stand on the threshold of what has been and what will be, and it looks very much the same.
Ah, but we ARE at a threshold.
Ovid, in his treatise on Roman holidays, tells us most of what we know about Janus. How the ancients called him Chaos because he was present at the beginning, when all the elements were together in one single heap. And when fire, air, earth, and water separated, Janus took form. As testament to his own beginning, his two faces see the confusion from whence he came and the possibility of what is to come.
And that, more than anything, seems prophetically important right now.
2020 was chaos. Utter chaos.
I don’t need to recount for you everything you already know. How death in all its forms ravaged nations. How it attacked our lands, our people, and our traditions. The millions of acres scorched by wildfires. The millions of people who have died. Millions more that have been sick. Millions more who lives are forever altered. Entire communities. Countries. Everything that was familiar and comfortable has been turned upside down: our sense of security and safety and order, our habits, our social enjoyments.
From inside our homes, we observe the world outside. We struggle within as the world struggles without.
Janus is with us. He stands at the doorway, observing both. His dominion is both the public and the private. And, as the god of doorways, he carries the key. The key with which to open and close doors. The key to understanding.
As we welcome a new year, we would do well to remember Janus.
May we look ahead while not losing sight of the path that brought us here.
May look inside ourselves, as well as outside. And may we care for each equally.
May we remember that the truth of our future lies in the truth of our past. May we recognize these truths and see them clearly.
We stand at a threshold.
Looking forward, looking back.
We hold the keys.
As Janus tells Ovid in Fausti, “Beginnings set the tone for things.” How we begin this new year is critical.
Let us begin with clear sight. Let us move out of the chaos. Let us step wisely into what lies ahead.
Ovid’s Fausti, Translated by Betty Rose Nagle, Indiana University Press, 1995
Illustration is from Manual of Mythology, by Alexander S. Murray, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1885