Making Up for Lost Soup

On the topic of soup.

I’m making chicken soup for my daughter who is sick with a cold. She is napping. While she has been napping, I have eaten a bowl of cheese puffs, a slice of actual cheese, a slice of turkey, three stalks of celery, and two chocolate chip cookies. Other people’s stuff is always tastier, in my opinion, although I worry that her six-year sons will notice the erosion of their cheese puff stash. They’re at school, happily, so I didn’t have to share nor silence their protests.

I like making chicken soup. I usually use the leftover bones and whatnot from a roast chicken but this soup has original chicken in it, five big plump thighs. I first made non-leftover chicken chicken soup a year or so ago for street outreach. It was insanely below zero and so I thought chicken soup would be perfect for homeless people not thinking very long about how it would instantly go cold even in a styrofoam cup wrapped in tin foil. When the outreach team leader later told me that a woman thought my soup was “divine,” it was life changing. So much so that I am now permanently on this course of full body chicken soup.

My goal when I was a young woman was to be an earth mother with a long flowing skirt and flowers behind my ear. I thought I should mix potions from rose hips and grow my own sprouts. I did grow my own sprouts but failed on the flowing skirt front because that look didn’t work with high-heeled boots and the boots were essential to walking on the wild side, as they used to say. So as much as I wish I had, I never made homemade chicken soup when my daughter was a child. I opened a can of Campbell’s.

There’s no taking that fact back. And, although I’d like to, there’s no chance of creating a new narrative of my daughter’s childhood by pretending that I always made chicken soup from scratch. I could put a new slant on a lot of things that happened with her when she was little, give the facts a new interpretation, do a bit of parental gaslighting, “remember when I used to make this for you when you were a kid?” But it wouldn’t work. She remembers the can.

Unconditional Soup

I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to convince people to give my little organization, Time of the Month Club, money to buy homeless women tampons and pads which, once used, will be heaved into some landfill along with disposable diapers and other unpleasant detritus of lives lived in the city.

If one subscribes to the notion that teaching a man (or woman) to fish is superior to giving them fish, then I ought to be doing something more substantial, more enduring that handing somebody a freezer bag of 20 tampons which will be used and tossed in a week’s time. Next month the same woman will need 20 more and the month after that and the month after that. It’s endless.

It’s the challenge that food pantries and meal programs face. The same people come in week after week, nothing really changes. Your good soup served up doesn’t change the reality of poverty. It’s just soup, not an elixir. It functions only in the moment and doesn’t build anything, lead anyone anywhere, teach them how not be a person needing soup. It is just soup.

Frustrated by the limitations of soup, some do-gooders decide to make receipt of their soup conditional, as in, I will give you soup if you come to this employment workshop or I will give you soup if you sign up for food stamps (presumably so you will not longer need donated soup). The conditions are intended to generate progress, a changed, improved state in which one is no longer dependent on the generosity of do-gooders to get by. And that is a good thing, I guess.

But it puts me, the do-gooder, in the driver’s seat of a car I don’t own.

It’s not up to me to hold tampons and pads – or soup if I peddled soup – hostage, pending someone’s compliance with what I think they ought to do with their lives. It’s also not up to me to judge anyone, to decide that some people are more worthy of my precious tampons and pads than others. The parameters around what I do through my wee organization are very tightly drawn. I give homeless women tampons and pads and walk away.

They don’t owe me anything. You see, I’m not giving people menstrual supplies in order to changes their lives. I’m doing it because the thought of women having to scrounge up toilet paper or paper towels or socks to deal with their periods is awful, just on its own, not as a symptom of anything else. The lack of menstrual supplies readily lends itself to a systemic analysis of gender bias and ten thousand other terrible, cosmic things but I don’t think about that. I just think about some poor girl stuck in a stall in a public bathroom with no clue how she’s going to pull herself together and walk out into the world. There’s no ambitious change envisioned by helping her with tampons and pads. The goal is just to help her get out of the stall with her pants and dignity intact.

So once I’ve delivered menstrual supplies and they’re received, the transaction is complete. No one owes anyone anything. No one has a hold over anyone else. Everyone is free to make their next move in the world. I like that way of thinking an awful lot. It feels like respect to me, like what I would want if I was stuck in a bathroom stall or needed a bowl of soup.

Fruitful

He came up to me in the lunch line, sidled in, taking cuts as we used to say in high school so we could talk. He told me he’d taken time out from our writing roundtable to finish his memoir. He was thinner than I remembered, not having seen him in a year or so, but conversational and so interesting. He was a writer I connected with in our group at Red Oak Writing. He was smart, agile as a storyteller, very descriptive in his writing but not cumbersomely so, able to toggle back and forth between his youth and his agedness in an introspective, almost celebratory way. I liked it immensely when he told me, just as we were next in the buffet line, that he really liked my writing.

We were both at the Wisconsin Writers Association annual conference, gathered up at a monastery – maybe former, maybe not, not sure – outside of Madison. I’d come to the conference because I’d won a 1st prize for humor and an honorable mention for nonfiction in the WWA annual writing contest called the Jade Ring. I actually won a jade ring. I could choose between receiving the actual ring or $100. I chose the ring because it seemed more durable than the hundred bucks which I would have used to pay the gas bill or buy ‘high performance’ dog food for our sled dog who doesn’t pull sleds anymore.

I loved getting the ring, I have to say.

After the winners were announced, the Association President asked who wanted to read their pieces to the group. Of course, I raised my hand. We were cautioned to only read a few paragraphs of our winning pieces so that’s what I did. It bothered me that I had to stop before the really funny parts. There were smiles when I stopped but no guffaws. It wasn’t a guffaw kind of piece, though, subtle humor it was. Really subtle. But prize winning, just the same.

Then my friend who had joined me in line got up to read his piece. And I listened. Listened hard. But I was in the back of the room and had to strain because, you see, even though I have a cochlear implant and a hearing aid, I’m not fully capable when it comes to hearing and there are times that whole lives are described right in front of me and I come away thinking someone sailed to France when they really sold shoes at the mall. It’s happened more than once.

But I heard him.

He read his cancer treatment story, of buying LED light bulbs, how long they would last versus how long he would live. He did the math – he might outlive the bulbs but he would be very old. And lucky, it sounds. Very lucky. His essay revealed the peril he was facing but in a way that was quiet and matter of fact, a calculus of time, of odds. It was a remarkable, understated piece, clear and frank.

It is the magic of writing – people showing the hidden parts of themselves in small slivers of words that become art. After my friend and his LED bulb/cancer story, there were poets and humor writers and storytellers, all of us reading our words like perfect apples just picked from a tree. If you never read your work to other people, if you stay to yourself and hide what you have written, if you are afraid of what people will think, you won’t ever hold all that perfect fruit in your hands. I say that as one writer to another.

That was the beauty of today.

Eviction Notice Friday Round-Up

The folks camping at our local Tent City are getting the boot. Each one was handed a letter today from the State Department of Transportation (on whose land beneath the freeway they are camping) saying they have until October 31st to skedaddle. My usual reflex would be to get pretty irked but no more. Now I think of these impossibly difficult conflicts as one group’s “rock and a hard place” running up against another group’s “rock and a hard place.” There isn’t always a villain. Sometimes, people just get jammed and don’t have a lot of choices – bureaucrats and homeless people alike.

What do I think about Brandt Jean forgiving his brother’s murderer, Amber Guyger? I think it was remarkable and Christ-like. And deeply personal and something on his own soul that us spectators will never understand. His hugging of Amber Guyger was so much what we, as white people, want, forgiveness for everything that has happened. We don’t say that, of course, because it would be unreasonable, but it is what we yearn for, to be washed clean of the volumes of wrongdoing – both centuries and minutes old. Would that it were so easy.

My husband turned the heat on because it was 51 degrees in the house. That’s astonishing and maybe symptomatic since he typically doesn’t turn on the heat until extremities are threatened. This, from a guy who an hour ago was napping in his shorts with the bedroom window wide open. Hormones.

It is fall, the time of the year I shed all pretense of gardening. It is the most liberating feeling on earth. Having leaves turn brown, plants get all leggy and sparse, it all signals to me the end of obligation. And it’s luscious. I feel like a just-paid babysitter walking home with a wad of ones in my pocket. I did my job. They all went to bed.

Our dog, Swirl, yearns to lay on the loveseat but he is deterred by two pillows. This is a dog who, until last spring, leaped on top of his wooden dog house whenever he pleased, along with the other 200 dogs in the dog yard who leapt up and down as if they ruled the world. Now he is citified. He walks on rugs, goes to sleep on his big soft bed, the cushion of which is in the dryer as we speak. He will, however, get on his hind legs, peer into the sink, and gently pick up a cup or a bowl and carry it elsewhere to lick. The pillows, though, are a different matter. They have the power to make him stand down. It is fascinating and lovely in a strange way.

The Nakedness of Reading

The practice at my writing workshop is that each writer reads their piece aloud to the other writers present. While the reader reads, the listeners jot notes and the reader tries to ignore their jotting, hoping that it is all praise and not harsh phrases like “reword this,” a stiff rebuke I remember from college to which I always wanted to respond, “I already picked the best words I know.”

Today at my writing workshop, I read a piece I have brought at least twice before. It is a long essay, for me, 1,500 words, that talks about my tangled relationship with one of my children. Some in the group, certainly the leader, might suspect that the essay is itself my therapy, my way of working out the tangles, the way I was taught to put olive oil on a snarled gold necklace to make it sleek and straight again.

It was okay today. I didn’t have that catch in my voice that I’ve had in the past. Maybe because now I know how things turned out or are turning out, everything always in motion in life until it isn’t. I caught one woman looking at me from across the room and she had such warmth and sympathy in her eyes, I wanted to leave and go down the hall to the bathroom or get up and make a cup of coffee in the Keurig on the counter, anything to stay writer-like and not mother-like.

Reading aloud is precious. Sometimes I read things to my husband while we are riding in the car. My daughter, the former newspaper reporter, told me long ago, to read all of my work aloud before sending it to the world and this works in so many ways. You can hear the cadence of a piece, appreciate its pace and wording, know when you’ve stalled and are about to run out of gas, expose yourself to the air and its judgment. Because, you know, that is the fundamental thing about writing — the sound of the words on your heart.

Well-Armed

I was taught to fall on my sword immediately.

No stalling. No waiting around for an alternative truth to become available. An immediate, full falling on my sword was imperative if I had been caught in an episode of incompetence, conniving, or dirty dealing. You notice I don’t include lying because I never lie.

I learned about the benefits of quickly and fully falling on one’s sword at my first real job at an anti-poverty agency in Milwaukee. If you screwed up and you didn’t own up to it instantly, the scorn, derision, shunning, and swearing would rain down on you like an explosion in a landfill – months old dirty diapers, cartons of curdled milk, buckets of cigarette butts would collect around your sorry feet. Hideous.

But falling on one’s sword – no matter how bloody and messy – brought immediate forgiveness. I could see that when other people screwed up. You were righteous if you stood up on a chair at the end of the conference room and told everyone what a terrible thing you’d done. You were honest, brave, and humble (all the things you probably weren’t when you screwed up so badly) and people loved you for it.

But not if you blamed other people for your mistakes. Or complained that other folks had done worse things and didn’t have to fall on their swords. Or tried to make yourself a big hero for coming clean. Or cried or sniveled. People who fall on their swords aren’t criers.

I think of my early training and how it has served me so well over the past forty years. There haven’t been many sword fallings but there have been enough in that time for me to remember the deep pain of admission and the profound relief that followed. And I appreciate how those times built my career, made me known as a person of integrity. The value of that, looking back, is immeasurable to me. I pity the poor souls who never learned this lesson. There seems to be a lot of them – here, in Washington, everywhere.