How to Cook a Wolf

“Use as many fresh things as you can, always, and then trust to luck and your blackout cupboard and what you have decided, inside yourself, about the dignity of man.” – MFK Fisher.

My title is perhaps disarming, as I allude to something more culinary than literary. I want to take a lesson from MFK Fisher here for how to grieve in times of war; how to pull loam from the cracked earth and how to make something out of no-way products. I want to mix genres, at least in this beginning, as the work of grief is always a broken bridge to a past we cannot fathom and a future we cannot yet see.

My mother put The Bluest Eye in my hands when I was thirteen. I am still not sure whether it was for pain or for pleasure. Nevertheless, Toni Morrison opened up the bittersweet of blackness for me; found a language for my girlknowing. In turning the pages of that slim novella, I began to know what was possible. I coveted the passages from that book like salve on the open wound of my girlhood and when bullied by the other girls at school, I whispered “quiet as it’s kept” as if it were some kind of magic curse, a language only I knew or could fathom. I scared them off with feigned insanity. I believed, as we do when we are young and love novels, that the book’s lexicon was for me and no other. For a generation of us raised by wolves and parenting our emotional selves for the most part, she anchored our deepest feeling, gave shape to some of our most fervent nightmares, pulled us from soaking sheets in the heart of summer to read by the waning light. She taught us how to cook a wolf (sorry PETA) in times both lean and fat.

She taught me how to inhabit my blackness – full, funky and yes, dangerous. She taught me how to be a good mother. Not by her example, because I didn’t know her that way; I leave that story for others to tell. She taught me how to be a mother, because of the look in Sula’s eye as she watched her own mother burn. I knew then that if I ever had children, I wouldn’t want them to watch me burn like that: with interest.

As my brother-in-mind, Robert Warrior reminded me when he texted me today, to hold me in my grief, she taught me how to love: “she’s a friend of my mind. She gathers me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them right back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.” Or, to add to that: “Love is never any better than the lover.” Now ain’t that the truth. She taught me that love is the way to recognize black genius.

In the fall of 1986, I rolled out of bed with Audre Lorde and Cherrie Moraga, Simone de Beauvoir and Shulamith Firestone and into Gloria Naylor’s course on African American Women’s Literature. Feckless, but hungry like a starving wolf, I had no idea then what an astounding privilege it was to be in that classroom. It has been a long time since that semester, but during that course, we felt our collective power, the words spilling out of those texts belonged to us and no one else. I was thirteen all over again. The course culminated with a visit by Morrison to our campus. She came to our class; I don’t remember much except gawking with wonder. I was the one designated to bring her the coffee she requested in advance of her reading. I rushed to the International Center coffeehouse on Princeton’s campus, announced that I was procuring coffee for Toni Morrison! and skated to the front of the line. With coffee in hand and in a way that only another Capricorn can understand, I agonized about where to put it: on the podium where it would surely spill or safely below where it might be missed, but still readily available to her. She never got that cup, and years later, she teased me about it and my literary crush was complete.

I remember that day like you recall a picture that hangs in a museum – the viewing of which leaves you so shaken, your nose hairs bristle with the smell of the room and your iris senses  the prism of light catching you now and then again, later. Morrison was reading from her forthcoming novel, Beloved. “124 was spiteful. . . .” I was transfixed and knew that this was no ghost story, but a return and a reckoning. It took me almost another decade to write about that novel. It seized me with a familiar and comforting terror. I knew that the world that my grandmother knew about, but rarely spoke of, had come alive, unfolding like a living thing and that world demanded recognition.

She taught me how to lose everything, except for my freedom. Then she taught me how to be okay with losing that too. For a while.

Years later, after that Beloved essay and the death of a close friend and colleague, I returned to her words in the not-yet-halogen light of Sula’s ending pages: “girlgirlgirlgirlgirl.” And years even after that, in the small corner of a shared room in hospice care, as my mother roared quietly toward the endpoint of her time in this world, we listened together as Toni Morrison read from The Bluest Eye. We didn’t get far that night, but I remember Morrison’s voice. . . “Quiet as it’s kept . . . .”

Toni Morrison, nee Chloe Wofford. Rest in power and in love, knowing you have forged a revolution.

In her acceptance speech for the 2017 best supporting actress Oscar, Viola Davis reminds us, “There’s one place where all the people with the greatest potential are gathered – one place – and that’s the graveyard.” The voices of the undocumented, the ordinary people living their lives who dreamed and are forgotten to us. The power in resurrecting those unknown to us is life changing. This is perhaps what time at University is for – to place our stories next to those unknown to us.

In the aftermath of the events in Charlottesville, and our nation’s once-again consideration of the efficacy of Confederate statues and collective memory, I want to reflect upon the ground my mother, a Tarheel now deceased, walked on as she traversed the short diagonal between Franklin Street and the School of Library Science, before desegregation. One where she confronted every day that same statue that our Chancellor saw fit to erect a barricade around for love or protection, I do not know.

Silent Sam 8.2017

I remember here an ordinary day in this same walk I reference above – a small moment before that infamous graveyard of potential that Viola Davis so eloquently describes – and yes, mourns. A walk where the eternally exhumed meet living generations – where small acts of care exist in the shadow of a past some feel is too hard to reckon with.

Spring 2017. Chapel Hill. UNC gates.

The air is a mix of cold and heat as I walk past the often venerated statue of that Confederate soldier, and as I pass on the diagonal with the statue to my left, I see a family gathered before it. It takes me a minute to understand what they are doing, until I see the camera and the stilted pose. A man behind the camera, what looks like mother and child posing before the statue. She arranges the little girl’s blonde hair; the gesture is tender and I remember my own mother’s hand at my forehead. The man steps back, raises the camera and snaps a few photos. After what seems like silent reflection, they collect themselves and embark upon their journey toward their intended destination.

A snapshot and a gesture and certainly a feeling. Something very old commingling with something very young and new. Remembrance and commemoration are nothing new to us, surely. My recollection is very different, as I cannot see that statue without thinking of the black woman who was whipped on the morning, or was it the eve? of its dedication. Her crime: insulting the virtue of a white woman. The psychic life of that moment surrounds memory, remembrance and commemoration, turning our longing for place and heritage, birthright and history into something other. I am sick with remembrance and loss.

That child with the wayward lock received a lesson in history more profound than she will ever know – a way of forgetting what history is or should be. History does not unfold in the singular. When I think of the two sides of this debate around heritage, remembrance and commemoration, I want us to think deeply of the full arc of the intention of our welcoming face to visitors on this campus. What I am asking us to do is to tell the whole story: Julian Carr at the dais, the white men and women gathered, the soldiers on watch, the horse whip in hand, and the black female body’s subjection as a sign of racial power in the wake of a spectacularly failed seditious act decades before.

Right before Viola Davis takes the stage, the award giver observes that the most difficult task in life is “to oppose without hatred.” But we cannot do this without a full accounting, without seeing what our remembrance is for and how it works through us. Viola Davis is right: graveyards are filled with complex stories to be exhumed. For those of us who want to rid our nation of bigotry and hatred, it is time for us to come into the full arc of our story laid at the feet of that statue – silent still.

Perhaps the deepest slippage here is in that difference between monument and statue; the former honors through a likeness, both person and event, the latter pays homage to the one, flattening relationship, obfuscating community and relegating us to that rich loam called the graveyard.

My mother walked past that broken memory on the daily; my grandmother walked past it to see her graduate. I walk past it when I have to and my children have both walked past it.  I want this outrageous denial of our collective history to end. The brave students who are sitting in at its feet wish for our time in the shadow of Silent Sam to end. If the Trustees or Chancellor Folt are confused on this matter, perhaps they can turn to the words of W.E.B. DuBois on the issue of commemorating Robert E. Lee in 1928. That would be a good start and maybe we can end this more-than-a-century-old debate about its efficacy among us and begin discussions about our collective histories that are long overdue.


If you dream of me like I dream of you.

In a place that’s warm and dark.

In a place where I can feel the beating of your heart.

Remembering your touch your kiss your warm embrace.

I’ll find my way back to you, if you’ll be waiting.

— Tracy Chapman, “The Promise

Perhaps it is fitting that I sit here alone, at your bedside – the quilt made for you by the sister-in-law you repudiated, draped over what’s left of the vibrant you. Long ago, in our small cosmos, whittled down by loss of husband-not- father, shrunken further by a world illuminated with integration’s aftermath, it was us against a shattered world. Two hearts, one entwined soul.

How can I write about the you I will miss, without the pain she has caused me? How do I tell your story and mine so there are equal parts, but not equal measure? How will I ever know why I could not find my way back to you, or why you would not let me? You raised me to speak truth to power. Always. No small irony that that truth cost me its giver, then and now. But still I write this – take comfort in my writing knowing I must tell your story and mine.

In the recent now of our time together, the space between us has grown greyer as yourself retreats to some place where I cannot follow. I bring you back, nevertheless, with laughter – our old medicine – and some outrageous silly dancing; snatches of a song. But, I would be lying if I said that this dance was new to me, for my loss came decades ago, in the salty wet aftermath of my father’s death and you, calling me to you in my coming out. Calling me to say, not once, but three times that you wish I hadn’t been born. I know now, see now that those words will remain with me all of the days of my life. Released and captured all at once, I was.

Was it then that our stories diverged? Me, going my queer way, and you into the familiar fold of church and family? As we prepare your house for market, moving old papers and chairs and scraps of things left behind in the wake of your often unexamined life, I come across an album of photos and thumb through it. My looking punctuated by a question mark. Roses and a white dress. Champagne and friends gathered by a fireplace. I am confused at first because I do not recognize the faces – only yours and your late husband – but then the scene becomes familiar and I realize it is your second wedding day. And so now I know your story, or at least part of it and I let it in – the pages, sticky with microbial denigration – fall open at my knee and I cry quietly while my own wife sleeps a gorgeous soundless sleep on the chaise lounge in your family room.

In the last two years of flow between us, I call you out of yourself and get days here and there of pleasantries exchanged. When I look away to my work or to the world beyond the sound of a compressor blowing futile air, my eyes wonder back to you and I find you staring, taking me in. You search my face for something and I give you your release. It is okay, I forgive you, you are going to be alright. Yet, your attention is unnerving because it wants something that cannot be gotten: time.

When we get you back to NC and you are in that quilt, my family comes to you. The oldest one, who meets you for the first time in your silence, is glad to call you “Nana;” her love for me so overwhelming at times in its hope for connection, sustenance, safety. She sees in you a part of me and reaches out to stroke your shoulder. And in that moment of three generations of battered and broken connection, I know that she will never have to know the shape of my shoulders and back rounded against her or the sound of my voice coming sharp, ugly and final over copper wire. I know this because I have learned to both like and love the truth of her whole self.

We are alone again. Another good night, going gentle and the chaplain comes in to make an assessment, to take stock. She wants to know what we need; how we need it; who we need it from. I want to tell her that we need Time that we don’t have, but instead I break my conversation with her to reach out to you and bring you back to me, telling you it’s okay now. It’s okay. She wonders how I know you are in pain; she doesn’t understand why I reach back to touch you softly, to bring you back. I try to explain. You cannot come from someone else’s inside or be put into their loving embrace without being connected to them in some way. Always. Broken though we are, we do not remain so.

On the way to dinner, my daughter puts her hand in mine under a purple setting Carolina sun. She is smooth and round and sweet. I will resist the urge to let her go. Always.

Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 9.16.29 AM

In the wake of national events involving Universities and their Presidents, I think it’s important that I sit down tonight and write you a letter. Your comment to the press in response to past statements about LGBTQI people have really been on my mind of late. I am inclined to believe that you responded with “I have no comment about those lifestyles,” because you were annoyed and tired and just ready to go home. I feel you there – I have compassion for what it must feel like to constantly be under scrutiny. Yet, your words have me thinking beyond your tiredness – not only to your responsibilities as the President of the UNC family, but also to the implications of the words “those lifestyles.” I am inclined to believe that in this day of #blacklivesmatter you don’t really want to go on record as calling an aspect of black life ‘that lifestyle.’ I want to believe that you would (and can) make the strongest public statement possible about the spectacular and quotidian national events that have inspired a generation of community members, college students and beyond.

If you are puzzled by my comments above, then let me explain. I am a Full Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and I identify as an LGBTQI person of African descent. Because my identities are intersectional, how you feel about the queer/black community matters to me. So, I guess my first question to you is about your commitment to both. I have been asked the same question of late by my students and I see no reason not to ask you about yours, especially as someone whose wheelhouse is education.

On my way to teach during summer session II, I passed by Silent Sam. It was the morning after the first time the statue had been defaced. Inside the yellow tape stood a phenotypically white male and two phenotypically black men. The white man was instructing the black men as they carefully washed and sandblasted the statue. I had seen the same scene of instruction and restoration the previous day on Facebook posts and in the media as the State of South Carolina restored the confederate flag that the brave North Carolinian Bree Newsome removed. It was a sobering welcome to my first day of summer teaching. The recent Silent Sam protest brought home that moment and your comments quickly followed (at least from my temporal location).  Not a good week, this.Silent Sam2

I do have some thoughts about the statue and what it represents. Let’s be honest with one another, it does represent the Confederacy. I can’t imagine descendants of abolitionists coming by to remember their ancestors at the feet of Silent Sam. Instead of focusing on the statue and the flag it drags in its psychic wake as a symbol of grief for those whose kindred were associated with its legacies, we might step back and begin to see what the flag not only is, but also does to public space where broader understandings of community hold sway. Many of us were not present (or born) when that statue of commemoration was erected, but we are now and that should remind us that things do change. It is time to acknowledge, as our colleagues in Mississippi and Texas have done, that we too have grown. This is the primary work of the examined life that Socrates, for example, envisioned so clearly for intellectual endeavors. This change is what we are about. Addressing the presence of Silent Sam among us will not stop the confederate mourners from grieving — that private act can and does occur elsewhere; but for the public act of grieving for all of those inevitably changed by the war and the ideologies which engendered the flag’s presence among us, another symbol of our collective mourning must appear. The work of choosing that symbol will be an opportunity for all of us to share in its making. That is the work that intellectual community can and should do.

And speaking of those private acts – acts to which your comment about “those lifestyles” refer – I’d like to invite you to a slice of my life. My question here is: can we separate how we live from the fact that we live? This seems to be the central point of #blacklivesmatter and all struggles for civil liberties in this country. But to that slice of life. . . I live on a road in unincorporated Chapel Hill – a road that used to be called “Old Colored Road.” Why? Because the African-American community has had land in the area since emancipation. My move here was not intentional – I fell in love with the land and the privacy, so I moved. When the kids (almost 4 and 8) are with us, my partner and I usually make kale chips or some leafy green salad for dinner and while one of us cooks the other plays soccer in the living room with the oldest – last night they broke a lamp. I loved that lamp, but laughed anyway when the 8-year-old showed me the broken pieces. Why? Because the night before her Mom and I couldn’t help it and we were playing soccer in the living room and I hit the lamp pretty hard. I think it broke because there was already a stress fracture there. Tonight we danced to the band I grew up with, TroubleFunk – a group featured on one of the stages in this year’s National Folk Festival in Greensboro. Sometimes it’s silliness like “Whip/Nae-Nae,” at others it’s Celia Cruz from the early days. At bedtime, the youngest usually has a meltdown about something and the 8-year-old asks me to tell her a story – one of the requirements of which is that someone get hurt but not enough to die. She makes it easy for me. Later, when the kids and the dogs are tucked in with each other, my partner and I try to watch something on the computer. I usually fall asleep on whatever it is. I love the way she can stay up once the video is on – for me it’s like a lullaby. As for the rest, Macklemore is right, “she keeps me warm.”

To my larger point about “lifestyle.” I don’t know how to live my black life separate from my LGBTQI life, so I assume you referred to both. And, when you get right down to it, the lifestyle – if you refer to that quotidian one – I live is not all that fabulous, really. Just a few people and dogs in the house trying to work their way to loving one another deeply across race and species and generation. The lifestyle – the way in which we live – that I see around me on campus, the one that concerns me the most, is the atmosphere of denial that borders on the unethical.

Let’s do something proactive for once and have a conversation about that lifestyle. Come to my house for dinner – I’ll cook for you, tell me what you like – the kids will be here and that should be interesting, inspiring, and slightly annoying. One of them will most likely be a future tarheel. One who met the President one night over a dinner of kale salad and mung beans while listening to Cruz or Silento . . .  a President who changed her mind about so much after she came to dinner.


Big shout out to Bar Lusconi in Durham, N.C. for hosting the event that occasioned my return to this blog and presented an opportunity to share my work/life story. Shout out to Susan for the fabulous intro and for organizing this fundraiser for the LGBT Center in Durham, to Chris for the stellar BLTs, to Jenn, bartender extraordinaire and to Tim for his enduring friendship.

Bar Lusconi

In a matter of days, the Supreme Court will rule once again on the substance of LGBTQI life. In a matter of days, something will happen to all of us that will be profound. This is an essay on love, but it begins with hate; you need to travel through muddy water to reach dry sand. Sometimes.

In this country, the people who are most likely to be out at home or at work are people of color. In this country, the majority of LGBTQI people raising children choose to do so in the south. I am no anomaly. I have published a few books that matter to the intellectual and emotional communities that I serve. I have held several jobs over the 23-year arc of my career and if you hold my CV as a reflection of a single life – mine – then it will give you pause. But until very recently, it hadn’t dawned on me that my reasons for moving from one job to another have the twin explanation of love and hate. Let me explain.

During the course of my career, I was in a 13-year relationship with another woman. Out of love and perhaps, impending disaster, I left one job so that we could be together in a city; I left another so that we could make a parallel move; and I left the last one in an effort to save what I would come to realize was a truly broken thing.

Yes, a casual glimpse at these moves would give one caution, but transparency gives way to the opaque in the matter of LGBTQI life. And this is precisely my point: if I were a man trying to hold a family together by any means necessary, I would be doing what I had to do; as an LGBTQI woman, as a member of three classes of minorities (two legal, the third not-so-much), my motives are suspect. In this version of the story it is not love that has propelled me from one institution to the next, but hate.

The story of love is a nice one, but it also obfuscates what has happened to so many of us over the course of our collective careers. I once had a scholar say to me during an interview: “wow, you’ve left two institutions, both of which were having meltdowns – maybe it’s you.” I didn’t take that job the first time around, but I did on the second try. My bad. It has taken me twenty years to finally see the impression that discrimination has made upon my life; to look it in the eye and to call it by name. It has been my constant companion. Desegregation isn’t something that has happened that we now are fighting to protect and preserve, it is still in its infancy. A friend once eloquently reminded me of the force of the word, “desegregation”:

The challenge – ethical/social more than political – is, I think, desegregation. My Mom always insisted on that word over and against integration, precisely because it was all about how desegregation and the refusal of discrimination was not entrance into an already given world but the end of it. When you step in the room you blow up whatever was going on in the room and we are all supposed to step like that, share that danger while protecting one another.

True that. We have to remember that that civil rights struggle was not something universally agreed upon by the nation’s populace. It took blood, sweat and tears. What do we think is happening to those of us who are pushing the great institutions of this nation to be accountable to their stated core values? How is the work of desegregation actually achieved?

Despite not having federal protection or legal recognition, LGBTQI peoples go to work every day and we speak up, knowing what the consequences might be. A faculty member at my first job once told me: “the chair hates everybody, but she really hates you.” I was supposed to laugh. I was being singled out for being singular. Sometimes redundancy is overwhelming. And here’s the subtler rub: we don’t even have to open our mouths; just the presence of a woman in a tie or braces or oxfords can lead to uncomfortable feeling in the room. What becomes of you when the male faculty member to your left can’t decide whether to ask you out or keep his eye on his partner when you are around? Difference can provoke feelings of disgust and rage. So where does that rage travel? How does an intellectual population being pushed on its understanding of difference at its core, adjust to that one member of the wedding, so to speak? Believe me, ‘justice’ for such a transgression, such a challenge to the order of things is meted out.

Two years ago, I had a drink with dear friends and a faculty member who had been present for what was one of the most homophobic moments in my institutional life was invited to come. Several of us had decided to leave our current place of employment and we had gathered to reflect upon our time there. In medias res, this person arrived and sensing the gist of the conversation, asked me: “So, why are you leaving? What happened to you?” Dear-little-lord-baby-Jesus: thank you for a good bottle of rosé champagne with a bit of bitter and sweet in the mix. I took a sip, shifted my body toward her and recalled for her the incident (one among others): At the end of a faculty retreat, during the part of the agenda where we were to reflect upon our year and offer ways in which we could improve in our support for one another and in our overall mission, I mentioned that our conversations at the table could be more inclusive – I offered that my experience at the University had been rather challenging and that it would be really great if we could think about sexuality, gender and race, to make that black feminist conversation about intersectionality extend from the classroom into the meeting space. What ensued went on for 40 minutes and ended with a threatening email sent to me and my then ex by a member of the faculty and cc’d to three of the most vocal persons in that meeting.

In a subsequent meeting with the Associate Dean I was told that the email was actionable; that I could do something about it. I thought about it for a second. I remember what the earth smelled like as I exited the building, I could hear the sound of college-aged kids drinking beer and blasting music; somewhere to my left a bird fluttered, abandoning its flower-perch. I folded the piece of paper with the email on it, put it in my back pocket and walked away. That was an act of love, that was an act of forgiveness, that was an act for my community. This story is an act of survival, of coming out.

The woman who faced me now did not recall this incident; she did not recall it because after I spoke, when the shit hit the fan, she walked out of the meeting. I wasn’t sure at the time whether her departure meant raw anger or solidarity. But now, at the kitchen counter with me, her nail clicked against the glass stem – she looked bewildered and lost and admitted she had been concerned that I thought she was homophobic. I then told her about the threatening email sent to me and my ex (the “love” mentioned earlier) and that she was cc’d on that correspondence as well. She did not remember that e-mail; she did not remember the details of the retreat. At that point, I almost felt sorry for her, except that I know from the institutional reaction to what happened (the Associate Dean who was also our acting chair was present during the entire event), that the shrug of her shoulders, the shake of her head, the gentle turning away, were normative for what happened after the incident. I am still waiting for an institutional response . . . And when I tell my story, I see shoulders lifted, heads dropping, eyes focused on other things.

What does the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage (AGAIN) really have to do with what I’m talking about here? Everything and nothing at all. Across this country, LGBTQI peoples of conscience are doing the work of desegregation. Our families are sometimes invisible, especially when they do not procreate. Over the years, I have managed to acquire a sister, a brother, a son, a brother-in-law, a daughter-in-law, a granddaughter, and two nieces who feel like my own children without benefit of marriage or blood. When we walk down the street together or introduce one another, we have to explain. Everything. We are painting our way into the landscape of this country – stroke by stroke. What the Court can do for us is simple: take the first and perhaps the second strike at a system of discrimination that works its quiet will. We do need love to conquer hate this time.

Anniversaries generally mark happy occasions – an exchange of vows, a remembrance of life given, a marking of time passed in friendship or intimate relation. To celebrate an anniversary, the greeting card aisle of my local drugstore provides an array of missives available to send to a loved one in order of kinship obligation. There are cards to send to your mother and father, sister and brother, husband and wife, niece and nephew. Some are funny, others are more serious and still more are in need of an English major’s aid.

Hallmark tpt

For those awfully prosaic lines remarking upon a loss, you will have to go to the section on sympathy where kinship relations are again reiterated in an array of sentiment that marks the finality of death.

Anniversaries are for the living, not for the dead.

Today is the silver anniversary of my father’s death. His presence is in my visage and my laugh, even though its edges perhaps are defined by the outline of my mother’s people. Death came by his own hand, marking for those who survived a passage that can be grieved surely, but not mourned. Suicide is a theoretical conundrum, presenting the aggrieved with an opportunity for sympathy, but denying them the understanding that usually comes with it. This understanding produces the work of mourning. Simple, open, compassionate. Suicide provides the opportunity for dis-ease because the aggrieved cannot know, cannot communicate the details that bring closure in the wake of death. At the end of the day, people want to know what happened and if you can be honest, you tell them. But what can they say really? Death requires explanation. In the end you both know that there is simply no hallmark card, no home training for such an event.

Over a decade ago, I allowed myself to say goodbye to him. I stopped marking the before and after of his coming and going. I let myself be okay with remembering if I wanted, and forgetting if I chose. It gave me peace to connect the dots of my life in a pattern without a full stop in the middle. I became whole again.

But on this silver anniversary, I remember him with love and affection. I allow myself to mourn. My grandmother once said that time heals all wounds. I know now that she is right, but it does not help me miss him any less. So I introduce you to my father, “Flip”: avid reader, drunken seaman, serious diagnostician, great compounder of medical remedies, passionate dog lover and rescuer, nervous stutterer, confirmed genius and yes, a terrible father in many ways. I love you nonetheless. I love you still.

Me & DadSo many of us have known several deaths by hands no longer willing to put off the desperation of loneliness and despair, or by hands staving off the pronouncement by a family physician of an end to life as we know it. These anniversaries are experienced as unmarked territory. This is a love letter for those who must find a way to mourn for loved ones who have left us of their own accord, those who cannot be named or marked, and in some cases, recognized as ancestors from whom one can draw strength and confidence. But we should remember them anyway because they have made their mark upon us and I, for one, am glad of it.

One day in my very small town, I will walk the hallmark aisle and there, among the Anniversary greetings, will be a card for us. And it goes something like this:

I am deeply sorry for your loss.

Take courage in what you do know, worry not about what you don’t.

Allow yourself to forget if you need to,

But remember that it’s okay (and sometimes hilarious) to cry in public.

And know this:

Someone else is finding a way to remember too.

Someone like you is thinking of lighting a candle or writing a line of prose.

But most of all: congratulations!

Every anniversary means that you have survived; that you will survive.

Hast thou given the horse strength?

Hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?

Job 39:19


How dare I write to you about accident before love . . .

The auto correct for oxycodone is oxymoron.  I will have to tell friends that my trouble is not a literary one.  The ground comes up quickly below me and I am not stunned, but indignant. Fuckityfuckfuck am I really going down?  Where is he?  How far to my right?  Will my outstretched leg catch his panicked hindquarter? This could end very badly, I think, but before I hit the ground I take a calculated risk, triangulate the vectors and decide to twist my body toward the horse.  Avoiding the face plant and head injury, I choose my shoulder – am lucky to choose.



I spring up and in the corner of my eye I see the foamy backend of Petey, all sixteen hands moving away from me at a long-stride canter with a few bucks thrown in for good measure or for scorn – I cannot say because he is not mine and at this point never will be. Nonetheless, I notice the sheen of his coat and mourn for our fleeting partnership.

What happened?

An oxymoron




I get up so fast that my trainer cheers – I turn to her after seeing Petey galloping down the far fence-line and I raise my right arm for the thumbs-up.  When I go to lift my left arm, something between brain and shoulder breaks down completely. I point to the general region of my collarbone and shake my head, her voice begins to come from far away; I am broken and starting to get high on my personal stash of endogenous morphine.

Help. To Morristown regional hospital for the verdict: I am indeed broken – a wing that cannot be fixed without incident . . . my x-ray is a vision of small bones shattered like glass. I need to see a specialist. I hear the soundtrack to the bionic woman playing in my head and smile. Nice, very nice, I think, as the Demerol begins to make me drool; I tell my trainer that I love her, really and the nurse too and the little boy by the front desk who stares at me in wide-eyed panic, clutching his mother for dear life against the woman with the shredded shirt and paper bag of hydrocodone and the mud stains down the left side of her riding pants.

I will have surgery in five days, in the interim, I teach my class in a sling, cook dinner for a friend reminding myself to not move my wing that little ½ inch to the right and forego all attempts to read books as I have the attention span of a 12-year-old boy. My left eye now possesses a horse’s vision. I see my enemies from two separate flanks and rapid movement makes me rear.

Recipe for repair of a shattered wing: Do I want pins or screws and a plate? The latter. Do I have people who can be with me? Absolutely. Am I allergic to any meds? What? Do I intend to ride again? Yes. Am I insane? Probably. My surgeon comes in and with military precision, he marks the spot where the plate will go, noting the fall of my undershirt. His hands are delicate and seriously clean. He wants to make his mark, but not leave it.

My sister flies down from Boston with my nieces in tow. The facebook post from the oldest reads: “My crazy auntie got bucked from a horse and we have to go take care of her.” None of us are actually related by blood – we are bloodstrangers.  Twenty-four hours after surgery, they walk into my room with the quiet hum of the ice machine circulating, pumping what is now lukewarm water to the wrap under my arm and around my wound.

“Use of this device cuts down by 50% both pain and swelling after surgery”

I am a mess of sheets and blankets in the apathy of anesthesia ringed by a halo of oxycodone. They are worried. How many did you take . . . no really?  Shite, I am a purist and unused to narcotics. The youngest climbs in bed with me, dragging along her father’s ipad. She knows what to do and the rest follow until we become a collection of mac products fanned out among the bed linens along with the limbs of the dogs, enjoying our togetherness in a haze of cyberlove and the constant bling of notifications.

During my rehab, I read the online results from my rib ex rays and find that they do not describe anyone I know.


1. The cardiac silhouette is unremarkable for the patient’s age.

2. No acute abnormalities in the lungs.

3. Mild scoliosis.”


My oxycodone dreams are vivid and reek of horseflesh. At the barn we often talk about how we think we love to jump and ride . . . until we line up to take the jumps and when our turn comes there is that serious moment of “what the hell is wrong with me, I’m crazy, I can’t jump this 1000 lb. adolescent over that thing.” But then you circle, urge your horse on, kicking just before the jump cycle to get him up and over and when you both leave the ground you are aware of the vulnerability of being alive, the two of you making it work, communicating in a language you have made together. You hit the ground exhilarated beyond ecstasy and pat his neck. He shivers and shakes; his frothing sweat burns your nose as you walk him a bit and dismount. In the barn, saddle off and ready for a rub down, he curls his neck around to nuzzle you just a bit, or to grab that piece of hay dangling from another horse’s feed bag, letting you know that yes, he is hungry and that only together, off the ground can you be close to the gods.

I am pleased to have guest blogger, Jennifer Hong write about food for this month’s post (bio below).

L is for language . . . 

And loss joined hand-in-hand in the kitchen of clashing cultures that inevitably leads to miscommunication and a potentially disastrous meal.

As the sun goes down and my stomach chirps along with the crickets outside, I struggle with a slab of silk tofu, trying to emulate the sleek precision with which my mother usually cuts it. The large butcher knife slips in my hand and the horizontal cut becomes jaggedly diagonal.

“Finished?” My mother comes into the kitchen carrying with her a sizzling wok of nian gao — rice cakes — lightly tinted by soy sauce, scallions, Napa cabbage, and sliced pork. As she places her masterpiece down next to me, I shift to hide the ruined tofu.

“No,” I say lamely.

She peers around my shoulder immediately. She shakes her head, takes the knife away, and finishes the work with deft slices, producing exquisitely chopped cubes of raw, soft tofu. She then drizzles sesame oil and sour black vinegar over it and garnishes it with slits of green onion. Hers are perfect cubes of tofu, except for my malformed chunks falling out of military formation.

“Just one more dish now get me the hao you.”

She’s out the door again before I realize that after she’s told me a million times, I still don’t know what hao you is. I trek outside to the porch where my mother cooks to avoid the smell of oil and soy sauce in the house.

“What’s that again?” I ask.

Hao you,” she repeats. Seeing that I don’t fully understand, she switches to English. “Fish sauce. It’s in the refrigerator. Red…has a panda on it.”

I locate the red panda bottle and look at the label.

It’s oyster sauce.

My mother is an excellent cook who does not limit herself to one region of China or Asia. The home-cooked dishes that I ignorantly assumed to fall under the wide umbrella of Chinese food actually spanned a variety of regions: oyster sauce is often used in Cantonese food, the silken tofu dish that I constantly struggle to make is a variation of Japanese jakopi tofu, and nian gao, which resonates particularly of home for her, is primarily stir-fried in Shanghai and its surrounding regions.

So Chinese cuisine isn’t technically “Chinese” — it’s provincial. Knowing the ingredients in regional cooking is important; a simple slip of tongue and the dish turns into something else entirely. For example, nian gao, generally defined as a sticky rice cake, can be either sweet or salty depending on the regional taste: Shanghai nian gao is sliced white, chewy glutinous rice that is usually stir-fried while Cantonese nian gao is a sweet, dark yellow-brown dessert so sticky that it glues your mouth shut. One mistake and a main dish becomes the dessert.

As an American-born Chinese (ABC), I grew up knowing the words for some ingredients in English and others in Chinese. Unfortunately, I could often never match the terms together. For years, I avoided all dishes with scallions in their descriptions until an awkward conversation with a server (“Can I not have scallions? I don’t like seafood.” “Those are scallops, ma’am.”). I hated bringing mu er to school because its writhing black appearance always piqued questions (“What is that?”) to which the technical definition of “tree fungus” was not a socially acceptable answer. I always replied with a half-truth: “I don’t know what it’s called in English.”

The same applied in reverse. An ABC friend once told me that the only thing you really had to know to get around in China was the menu. Don’t know your foods and you stick out like a sore thumb; a woman who is an obvious foreigner. I tried to keep this in mind when I went back to China three years ago, but for someone whose Mandarin alone is mediocre, traveling in a country where regional dialects screen for foreigners made eating alone impossible. What, indeed, could I order when I didn’t know the reasons behind the particular flavors and culinary styles to each region I visited? The “steamed, roasted, and braised seafood . . . retaining original freshness, tenderness and softness” in my parents’ home province of Zhejiang stems from Zhejiang’s geographic location. Hangzhou’s soy-dark and sweet cooking is the feast of the literati “who mused about the pleasures of eating.” Most notoriously is Sichuan cuisine; as food writer Fuchsia Dunlop writes in Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, “Sichuanese food is the spice girl among Chinese cuisines, bold and lipsticked, with a witty tongue and a thousand lively moods.” The mantra of modern gourmets is “Go to China for food, but for flavor, you must go to Sichuan.” I knew nothing: that it was rude to order red meat in one of Zhejiang’s best seafood restaurants, that Peking Duck in the U.S. is pathetic imitation of its original, and that Sichuan food went beyond just making me the weakest link in the family when it came to spicy foods. The dinner table, which at home served as a reminder of my heritage, ostracized me completely in my motherland.

Language remains the stepping-stone to a cuisine where ingredients are only obtainable at ethnic grocery stores and menus at authentic restaurants have no English translations. When it comes to good Chinese cuisine, hardly any qualified cookbooks exist: cooking good Chinese is a heritable skill, one that cannot be learned from poorly translated cookbooks — never has my mother told me to simmer pork for precisely twenty minutes (“Look at the color, you’ll be able to tell”) nor has she ever told me to add “one teaspoon of soy sauce, then one teaspoon of white sugar” (“It’s trial and error.”) If I did not understand what hao you was or what regional flavor mapo tofu consisted of, I could not even approach making an authentic dish. I was an automatic failure in the kitchen, an outsider with no linguistic or cultural understanding.

I am not alone in my ignorance; a growing percentage of Asian Americans is experiencing a loss of native language in favor of fluency in English, which shows a valuable “acculturation” into Western communities. That precise loss of native language, though, ultimately means loss of culture, especially in the kitchen. If we can’t understand the ingredients and culture documented in cuisine since ancient times, we ABCs will be reduced to deep-frying and serving greasy sesame chicken and monochromatic Moo Shu Gai Pan as poor substitutes for the flavored dishes of our childhood. The future of my dinner table — with white Styrofoam take-out boxes and disposable chopsticks — terrified me.

We’re at a Chinese restaurant on Buford Highway in Atlanta, where the servers are called fu yuan and the empty Lazy Susan spins idly with a pot of steaming ju hua (chrysanthemum) tea as we order. The Chinese menu that I cannot read lays open in my mother’s hands, and as she peruses it with the seriousness of one who is about to make a very important business transaction, she turns to me.

“Do you want anything in particular?” my mom asks me.

I only know one dish. “Yu Xiang eggplant.

Albeit unspectacular, it’s an appropriate choice. Eggplant is generic, but Yu Xiang is a “fragrant fish” seasoning that is often combined with customary garlic, scallions, and ginger.7 Most importantly, it is often used in Sichuan cuisine, giving the dishes a distinct colorful flavor.

Conveniently, the restaurant is named “Little Sichuan.”

L is for learning too.

Jennifer Hong is a rising junior at Duke University, double majoring in Neuroscience and English. She is a lover of good conversation, good people, and good food, which brings all of the above together.


Peccadillo (n.)  a trifling or minor offense; from the Latin, peccare, ‘to sin’

In life, most things are defined by what they are not so that the chafe of negativity blemishes almost every definition.  A peccadillo is, in truth, a small sin – not one for the chipped steel of the penitentiary’s gates or St. Peter’s tiny notebook. It is neither mortal nor venial, but a sin, nonetheless.

Across from the Napa Auto Parts store, behind a grey door on a dead end street, Peccadillo beckons. Virginia sits by the door checking the membership list – the curtain behind her glows with a red light. Inside, the place is a simple rectangle – black with a cream stripe around three sides. The clientele are eclectic. Some come in Carhartt, others in kitchen clogs; both fresh off the line for cocktails, talk and mischief.  Still others come in bespoke, head to toe.  A beat from MC Lyte comes to mind here: Funky-fresh-dressed-to-impress-ready-to-party.  People in this place have been known to talk to strangers – the atmosphere is seriously promiscuous.  But, at Peccadillo, the possibility of a small forgiveness awaits you.

On the night that I happen to come in for the second time in a week, Etta James has passed. Friends and strangers open their conversations with “did you hear . . .” and like all people in the midst of that blinding predicament called fate, we gravitate toward being together. In this tiny corner of the triangle, she lives – singing the blues, throat wide open, mixing with the cocktails and the low chatter.  I am having a glass of Cava and following the movement behind the bar.  Fresh from NYC’s famed Employees Only by way of South Carolina, Tim Neill’s hybrid Australian/New Zealand accent and crisp white jacket take you back to an era when bars were sophisticated and courted their clientele like their wine list, one bottle at a time.

In a matter of weeks, bartender and partner-owner, Neill has turned Peccadillo into a destination.  Tim will serve you only 3 cocktails:  a Martini, a Manhattan and a Negroni.  In a country where variety is paramount, but at a cost, this can be a bit unnerving.  Neill’s tastes are herbaceous and the martini is simply one of the best I have ever had.  At the end of the night, I wanted to pick the piñon from my teeth.  Seriously.  The drink was chilled but not too much, a little dirty from the juice and arrived with a single bright green olive on the finish. Customers here will not have to survive another disappointing pimento-stuffed night.

Neill’s penchant for detail and educated palate will keep you coming back. Settle in with a bottle of wine shared with the people you’ve just met. Peccadillo’s wine list has the spare lines of a Vladimir Kagan design and is heavy on the Spanish influence.  But it changes weekly, so if you stick around, you might find yourself in another region altogether.  Nevertheless, if you’ve had the pleasure of spending any time in Spain, the back of your tongue will recognize soft tannins, mild minerals and fruity perfumes familiar to that special place. Drinks at 100a Brewer are neat, exquisitely sourced and prepared with what appears to be sleight of hand.

Later in the week, on yet another evening, the throng outside the front door is organized in a familiar smoker’s huddle.  A few UNC undergrads walking through the curve that connects Chapel Hill’s Franklin Street to Carrboro’s Main look down the road wondering what’s happening at the spot. They spy a loose assembly of folks from twenty-somethings to well . . . the officially retired. They move on.  This is no sports bar; you won’t find a TV in the place and the clients are glad for it. The music is just too good to warrant idle attention. As you sip Neill’s deadly fragrant kummel, you notice that one song preserves the slight crackle of a worn 45, taking you back in musical time.  At Peccadillo you feel as if Celia Cruz might actually show up, head encircled by the glow of that one red bulb.

At the end of the street, a woman stands on the corner across from the Taco truck, clutching a cell phone to her ear, cutting the cold with the warmth of her Droid.  “You have got to come to my favorite place to have cocktails.  It is like . . . the best bar ever.”  True that, but as she tries to explain how to get from there to here, she falters and offers to just wait on the corner for her friend’s car to arrive.  In that dress?  I think: good luck with that. We extinguish our refries and shuffle along through the metal door toward the warm light.

The flare of fire against the butt of a lemon rind captivates the trio to my right.  It is midnight and the joint is hopping. The chef du cuisine at a local restaurant shares a nice bottle of ’04 Tempranillo with me and we chat about pâtes.  It is the kind of place where you feel you can fall in love.  Not the love of your college years with more confusion than bliss, but the better love of your mid-to-late 30s: older, wiser and with a sense of humor.

The drinks flow and the laughter is real. The edges here are soft, keeping none of the metal and wire (even the staircase is gone) that was a punk rock venue called the “The Reservoir” – known in cyberspace reviews as “the diviest bar in Chapel Hill.”  As if to test my theory of past and present, hard and soft, on my way out I overhear Tim say “I won’t be happy until there is discarded clothing on the bar . . .” It could happen, because at least here – it’s only a small sin, a minor offense.

My cell phone chimes with the bling of an incoming text.  “Are you at the spot?” asks my foodie friend. I stop with my feet pointed toward my vehicle and spin ‘round. I cross the deserted street with one hand extended toward the door and the other texting, “Hell yeah.  Get over here.”

A River Runs Through It

In the summer of 2011 Cackalacky sent something awful to the citizens of New England: Hurricane Irene.  In advance of the storm my neighbor and I checked the generators, secured water and parked our 4×4 trucks at the top of the road.  I pulled a good bottle of Oregon Pinot for that night’s porch sitting and storm stories.  We waited patiently for Irene only to be stood up.  She lost interest in us fast, though the Outer Banks lured her with its siren call.  Like a fickle lover, she kissed our coast, traveled out into the Atlantic for a little pick-me-up and slammed into New York and then Vermont with a vengeance that has still left its mark. Southern cousins still know how to teach Yankee relatives a thing or two, right?

All over parts of the southern end of Vermont and just outside of Brattleboro, you can see signs of the devastation.  Hiking boots with dusty mud streaks are sold at half price with a sign that reads, “Irene damaged goods.”  Whole sections of road have been closed or pushed further into the mountain or the hill by the River’s swell.

I was in Vermont to visit with my brother, whom I tortured to no end by shopping for antiques the better part of my first day.  On our way home, my brother’s mother (Ingrid) instructed us to drop by the farm stand to pick up a box of “livestock” apples, with a warning to ignore the box with the mostly rotten ones – that we did not want.  We were preparing for our trip to see the horses on Saturday morning.  So, off we went – he complaining about nothing in particular, me about the freakin’ cold.  We selected a box with a good variety of large and small apples with only a few rotten bits and paid six dollars for it.

I have a great respect for antique woodstoves and the generation of women and men who loaded, stoked and cooked on them.  Ingrid has such a stove that warms the kitchen all day long.  She originally bought it for $75 dollars from a friend (new ones cost anywhere from 1,500-7,000) and I was obsessed with it from the moment I entered the house.

I was dying to cook something on it.

When we got home with the apples and my brother’s aching back from hauling it out of the Jeep’s terribly engineered back seat, Ingrid informed us that we were going to cook an apple pie – in the woodstove.  I could see the look on my brother’s face, it said: for Pete’s sake, that will take the better part of an evening.  Dinner looked like it would come to us from a land far far away.

Not at all.  We put that pie together in 18 minutes flat and I am still marveling at the way we did it.  We washed, cored and rough chopped the livestock apples – super hint here: we didn’t need to take the peels off and besides, it’s more nutritious that way, right?  We used store-bought piecrusts – one for the top, the other for the bottom.  We then cut apples until the mound in the center looked just right and sprinkled cinnamon, sugar, nutmeg and cornstarch on the top.  The woodstove was fired at about 375 degrees – in went the pie and we sat down to that night’s crock pot dinner – a luscious beef stew made with a variety of beef stocks held over from other culinary adventures.

The results were eaten a la mode and although there are many ways in which Jacques Pepin and Julia Child might have improved upon our pie, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  The apples were not too sweet and perfectly tart.  We ate and laughed and I marveled at what our ancestors could do and had to do to get dinner, and on those special occasions, dessert on the table.

The next day we took about 1/3 of the box of apples to the horses.  A cruel Vermont wind nipped at my too-thin Cackalacky gloves, but I held the apples anyway as Babe reached over the fence line for one bite to halve it and another to finish it off.  Satiated, with my hands now raw with cold, she stretched out her neck to investigate the newcomer; then she kissed me ever so gently with her surprisingly warm muzzle. When I was a child, I liked nothing more than to go to the barn at my school and be with the horses. Sharing an apple with my horse, leaning on his neck and thinking about nothing in particular still feels like heaven to me.

The river behind Ingrid’s house is closest to the guest bedroom and is slightly menacing, reminding us that a storm is always in the offing.  Bits of rubble from the Builder’s Supply up River still dot its banks, marking the place where the water rose during Irene.  In truth, a river does run through it.

May all our journeys into the madness of the holidays and out of them bring the love of a good horse, the tartness of apples and the smoky warmth of a woodstove like Ingrid’s in Vermont.

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