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A soul food feast---why food was the best celebration of life

(Photo by Scott Peterson.)

Yesterday a good friend dropped by my house and said, "Come over for dinner later. I feel like cooking and having people over. Wear a swimsuit."

"What can I bring?" I asked.

"Anything you like. We're eating what makes us feel good," she said, "I already asked Friend and Other Friend. They're bringing side dishes and desserts."

"So like an appetizer?"

"Sure. Just come. I need to cook. I need to entertain."

"Okay," I said.

This friend's father passed away a couple of weeks ago. It was a surprise/not surprise. He'd been suffering strokes for years and---despite really effective treatment that not only prolonged his life, but also prolonged the quality of his life by minimizing the effects of the strokes---doctors had warned the family quite some time ago that the next big one would likely be fatal. So they knew that death loomed.

When her father passed away, as her friend, I felt simultaneously sad for her and relieved for her. No loss is worth the loss, in and of itself. I'd feel fatuous to tell her it was better that he was gone. Of course I see the reason there, but the truth is that it would be better if her father was alive and healthy, not living debilitated by strokes for years and now totally gone. So I stuck to, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry you lost him," because even though I know, in a way, that they lost him by degrees starting a while back, I also know that now that loss is absolute and final.

I rode my bike over to her house the day she was packing to fly home for the funeral. When I arrived, I found that two other friends had the same idea. My friend is the sort who will pull good from this, instead of feeling imposed upon, and I believed being surrounded by friends made it easier to pack to go home, and carried on helping as she dealt with family gathering to say goodbye to her father. We, her friends, know this about her, and so we each decided to be there.

I thought about how I'd feel in her situation. I think I'd want more to be alone. I think I'd need that to process---wrap my mind around it all, be able to reframe my world.

There's such a protocol for what to do and how to be, for almost every type of situation. I don't deliberately swim against the current on this, it's simply how I am for the most part. My life has been a series of people telling me I don't/shouldn't think and feel as I do. It created a sort of self-loathing and outward loathing, too. Each time I face a challenge, I think, "I think and feel this way, but I'm sure people will expect me to be that way," and I am often right, often enough to anticipate it to the level of defensiveness, "I wish they wouldn't. I wish people accepted who I am and how I am, how I do things, instead of always telling me I need to fit some mold."

On the other hand, this has built in me an acceptance and understanding of others when they are not in the mold.

It's the thing that enabled me to say to my friend, who called---one week after returning home from her father's funeral---feeling guilty that she didn't feel guilty about enjoying herself with the kids at the camp. She knew already what she needed to know, but she needed to hear someone reflect it back to her.

"Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," I said.

"I know," she said, still a slight tinge of defensiveness hovering around her, "I know, and I'm loving it. I'm tired, but this is good." Then she shared the actual voice behind her guilt, and as is typical, it was not her own---it was the voice of the Should Do, coming from someone else. It's meant well, it's meant lovingly, but it is insidious in its insistence that you pay attention to it instead of to yourself.

I try to encourage and validate people in who they are and how they feel, in themselves, versus by meeting a prescribed criteria (random and arbitrary as it is). If I had always fit the mold, I wonder if I would be as understanding, or if I'd be more rote---well-intentioned and gentle, but nonetheless always endeavoring to firmly herd people back within the lines. However, do not mistake me for a yes man.

My friend let go of her guilt. After talking with me, she remembered that she survives by living this way, and that---despite a protocol that prefers some sort of prostrate with grief in order to care for one's self---what she was doing was, in fact, caring for herself because giving to others and being with others is how she feeds her soul.

That's why she had a soul food feast last night. She'd let others care for her with food for a couple of weeks. She'd gratefully accepted people dropping off casseroles, grabbing her shopping list as they ran to the store. But what she really wanted now was to feed others. She made hearty, tasty food: rich thick grilled steaks, with either a tangy cilantro topping or a smooth tomato ginger chutney; three cheeses to accompany two kinds of mushrooms; sweet onions and carmelized onions; multi-grain knot rolls; and a huge salad.

I piled chutney, goat cheese, carmelized onions and grilled red peppers on top of each other and smashed it all in a knot roll. It was decadently good. "Try the goat cheese, mushrooms and carmelized onions together," I called out happily. "The cilantro on the steak is delicious," someone else said. "Oooh the blue cheese and sugar snap peas!" "Sweet onions and cilantro relish, YUM!" With so many choices, we spoiled ourselves with un poco de todo.

She created the food and the camaraderie, and it fed us but it also fed her. That's sweet wisdom.

For the Hump Day Hmm this week, what do you do to feed your soul? What renews you? How does that fit in with the cultural protocol?

Write about it, link here, and come add your link to the list on Wednesday.

Copyright 2008 Julie Pippert. Do not reprint or reproduce without permission.
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kaliroz said…
Man, what a different experience your friend had.

Both of my mother's parents died, two years apart, unexpectedly. My grandfather went into the hospital with what we thought was pneumonia and died of pulmonary fibrosis that had gone undiagnosed for years. My grandmother was diagnosed with liver cancer I think only months after his death. It was pretty hard on her.

But I think, like your friend, my mother got to a point where she needed to return all she'd received while grieving. My daughter was born in between my grandparents deaths so, I think, a lot of love has been lavished on her because of that.

The struggle with my mom, what haunts her more than their deaths, is we had grandma on hospice in the end. Mom still feels like we killed grandma because of it; because she was diabetic and, in the end, stopped giving her her meds. Simply made her comfortable. I think she feels like we murdered grandma in a way. That's not how I see it, but she wasn't my mother.

Grief is a hard thing. But I think when you have people around who you can talk to, be open and honest with about how you're feeling, I think it helps. I think being able to talk is what finally got my mom through most of it. It still eats at her, but I don't think as much as it used to.
Gwen said…
Completely off point, but you'll forgive, since I've been across the pond, right?

You're going to BlogHer! Score!
thailandchani said…
The way I feed my soul is by reading books that present a worldview that feeds my soul. I feed it by talking with and being around people who understand the basic concepts behind the way I live. I hang on mightily to the understanding and knowledge that everything is impermanent, including our relationships with people.

As you know, I lost my father a little over a year ago but I haven't "grieved" in the culturally mandated way and I couldn't. It doesn't fit who I am or the way I believe.

It doesn't matter whether the culture accepts my way. It matters that those who matter accept it. They do. I accept all ways of grieving as long as I don't see someone being deliberately self-destructive (drinking too much, using drugs, acting out). I might try to intervene if I see something like that going on with someone I care about.

Good for your friend. She knew what would work for her and acted on it.

Liv said…
how did you just take this gorgeous post and turn it all into a question, dearie?

for that, i love you.
le35 said…
I think that one of the biggest mold breakers are the people who don't even see the mold. They see the inner beauty of people. When we begin to truly look for inner beauty, the mold doesn't matter so much anymore.
Anonymous said…
how can I think with visions of carmelized onions and goat cheese dancing in my head? I cannot.
flutter said…
food is love baby, food is love
crazymumma said…
I totally understand the kind of solace cooking a feast would bring.

as to cultural protocol? I think people who love each other, who care about each other understand and accept the passage the griever must go thru. There should be no rules i suppose.
niobe said…
You've touched on something that bothers me a lot. There's no really acceptable way to say or even to think something along the lines of "those twins that died? Yes, I was sad. But I don't really think of them as babies and, still less, as my son and daughter. If they had lived, I would have come to love them. But, as things turned out, I just. . . don't. And I never will."
This post gave me goosebumps.

Reminds me of Like Water For Chocolate.

Food nourishes in so many ways.
Kat said…
Sometimes all you can say is I'm sorry.
Wonderful post!
Anonymous said…
What a wonderful example of community and friendship.
Aliki2006 said…
Cooking feeds my soul and comforts me...maybe this isn't right, but it works!
Christine said…
isn't it amazing how food can mean so much to us socially, emotionally, and even intellectually? I've often wanted to write a blog post just about food and what it means to me.


your friend is lucky to have you, j. really.
Jennifer S said…
There's a bit of grace that food gives us, I think, in that we need to eat to live. (Though it's hard to be grateful for that when an excess of food has negative effects on our health.)

But a feast like that, with good friends and delicious food, is such a beautiful way to move through grief when the time is right. And that moment is different for everyone, and maybe doesn't happen for a lot of people. Still, it's valid and wonderful.
Sukhaloka said…
Huh, typed in a nice comment with a link to my post and other stuff... then the OpenID sign-in refused to work. So I'm posting from my Blogger ID anyway.
Here's the post(on my Wordpress blog. so much for anonymity on WP) -

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