My daughter is doing a micro-credit service project in the Dominican Republic. She’s getting a fat taste of American-NGO-volunteer-in-third-world-setting. It might be a formative moment. She’s frustrated by the productivity, or lack, of her group as they stumble over translation issues as if nobody actually thought this thing through.
For example, how do you talk to a group of women steeped in poverty about the concept of “savings”? The barriers are linguistic (I’ve worked through translators, and it’s always an imperfect conversation) as well as cultural.
The group of kids who’ve gone down for this from Hiram College to Boca Chica, an hour from Santo Domingo, are split into three groups. The nursing students are offering health screenings and giving away personal hygiene kits. Giardia is endemic. You can’t drink the tap water. One boy who looked much younger than his age—malnutrition will stunt growth—had difficulty understanding the hygiene kit was his to keep. Children on the street and on the beach hawk the family wares. One skinny, heavily bruised girl came around with a huge bunch of bananas. The translator told the students the girl’s mother beats her if she doesn’t sell enough. One student bought the whole bunch from her and passed around bananas. There are emaciated dogs wandering the streets hungry for food and attention.
I’ve been listening to Cornell West on the radio lately, whenever I’m lucky enough to stumble into his and Tavis Smiley’s public radio broadcast. I saw him on Tavis’ PBS show late one night. He’s been in the news. West had the nerve to call out Barack Obama on some stuff a lot of us have been thinking. Same stuff my friend Rose Smith, a fine poet from Columbus Ohio, recently wrote about. Like, how is he standing up for poor and working people? How is he pushing back against corporate greed in this country?
I don’t know (or much care) whether West is truly as eccentric as he makes out, or whether he loves the limelight enough to say weird stuff just to get it back. I like the way he stirs the pot. I don’t always agree with him, though often enough, I do. I love someone who has the courage to speak truth to power even when there’s a populist sheen to that power. And I love anybody still talking about working folk in this country in the twenty-first century, against the collective insomnia of how unions built the middle class, and how every single progressive change in this country was fought and paid for with the sacrifice and usually the blood of working folks and those who stand with them. There is no freedom that cannot be taken away from us. Cornell West is one voice raised to remind us of that immutable fact.
I’m way too busy and a lot of the time I’m working against fatigue. I don’t cook much these days and I haven’t baked in months. This weekend I was cranking to catch up on production runs and some overdue website work. So I pulled out the brown sugar, the oats, the whole wheat flour and dark chocolate chips. I pulled down my Aunt Janet’s blackened baking pan from the cabinet over the fridge, and got to work. If we wait for the right time to do some things—baking scones, having a kid, getting that book written—they will never happen. Now’s as good a time as any.
I came into her upstate New York kitchen one day and found my Aunt Janet smoking at the counter, playing a game of solitaire. Most of the time after they got home from the store they ran, Janet would keep company in the den where my uncle had the TV tuned to whatever game was on, reading her book or doing needlepoint. I sat down beside her aat the counter that day and picked at whatever was there. It might have been a batch of cookies or blueberry muffins, or a pecan pie. Janet grew up in Shreveport Louisiana, and her sister sent a huge tin of pecans to her every year, which Janet would patiently shell for her pies.
When I complimented her baking, she peered over her reading glasses, the card she was about to put down poised midair — stop me if you’ve heard this one. “Baking is easy,” she said. “A chimpanzee could do it. You just follow the recipe.”
My aunt was soft spoken and rarely offered an opinion. After she died my uncle begged me to take whatever I wanted from her kitchen. He was dying, too. She’d just beat him to the punch. “I want you to have whatever you want before the vultures descend,” he told me. There was a bit of nasty business after my grandmother died. People can get caught up in the possession of things. Maybe possessions of the dead loved one are a kind of amulet, a talisman against their own mortality.
I wound up with some of my grandmother’s everyday dishes, the ones I remember eating off of as a child, flat pea green plates and cinnamon brown coffee cups, which are as close to “good china” as you’ll find in my house. A couple of towels which have long since bitten the dust, that brought back the narrow single bathroom with its claw foot tub. My grandmother made root beer in that bathtub, so I’m told.
My aunt took my grandmother’s cookware and mixing bowls and some of these in turn came to me after Janet passed. It’s hard to explain what these objects mean to me. The depth of emotion they evoked, for years, when I drew them out to use. It was my aunt who emboldened me to bake, with her caustic refusal of my compliment. She was one of those soft-on-the-outside, tough-inside women of her generation, who spoke truth when she knew her audience could handle it. I figured if she said it was easy, it was easy.
The difference between her baking and mine is that the recipes held me only briefly. I soon discovered I could go off-reservation and fiddle with them almost any old which-way. I’ll stipulate this is a genetic tendency from my dad’s line. When I was a kid, he cobbled together some bookcases for his mom, pretty much without planning it out. One had a tilted bottom shelf, so that the spines of the books tipped toward someone stooped over to see them. My daughter makes clothing, she’s sewn everything from vests to skirts to reconfigured T-shirt-into-a-dress. Once she tried to make herself a pattern first, but she soon gave up and just winged it. When she was about four I watched her with my jaw hanging open, as she cut out from construction paper the shape of a clearly recognizable dog, in one quick, fluid motion.
I’m an innate improviser. I can’t stay inside the lines if you pay me. When I painted I often worked on found materials. I utilized gorgeous paints, tacky gouache and high grade oils, in ways they were not designed to sustain. Some of it worked and a lot of it was highly impermanent. I have an abiding affection for all kinds of outliers. Like Cornell West. Like pretty much all of my friends.
When my daughter told me she was shocked by conditions in the Dominican Republic I reminded her that her school usually takes students down to Haiti for these service projects. But conditions on the ground, on that side of Hispanola, are so daunting it is not considered safe for American college students. It is hard for Americans raised in what most of the world would consider extreme wealth, to comprehend typical living conditions in poor countries, never mind how badly everything can fall apart in the face of major crises like the earthquake in Haiti.
The world is getting smaller. We have fewer and fewer excuses for any lack of sympathy, as the global economy and social media bring news of the lives, the suffering, the courage of others right into our living rooms, our cars, our computer screens. There’s never any good time, in the busy lives we lead, to jump in and try to improve the world. Today’s as good as any day, even if starting amounts to punching up a podcast by Cornell West, signing a petition against union-busting, switching to Fair Trade coffee.
More on unions another time. Scones are mostly gone, and I have manuscripts to fold. Another submission just came in over the transom.
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