Ain’t I a Woman?

Many, many years ago I read a speech that left an indelible impression on my young mind. It was a speech written by an escaped slave, a woman, more than a century and a half ago. Soujourner Truth’s Ain’t I a Woman speech was delivered in Akron, Ohio in 1851 at a Women’s Rights Convention and has been quoted often over the years. Although there is some controversy over parts of the actual text, the gist of the speech has never been questioned.

Besides being a noted advocate for abolition and equal rights, Truth is also known for being the first black woman to sue a white man and win. She sued her former owner, John Dumont of New York, for illegally selling her five-year-old son, Peter, after the state had passed the Anti-Slavery Law, and triumphed.

Truth was born Isabella Baumfree, taking the last name of her owner as was the common practice, but later changed her name to Soujourner Truth to reflect her mission when she began to travel and spread the gospel, and speak out against slavery and for equal rights causes. She worked tirelessly to uplift the lives of slaves during her long life, 86 or 105 years, depending on the source. Her work, especially during the Civil War, attracted the attention of President Abraham Lincoln and gained her an audience with him at the White House. She was a woman not only for her time, but for all time.

Here is her speech that moved, and still moves me.

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) “Ain’t I A Woman?” Delivered at the 1851 Women’s Convention, Akron, Ohio

 Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?

Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman?

I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman?

I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.

There is Another Purpose for Everything Under the Sun

Repurposing

Can I reuse this?

I ask myself each trash day.

Single use? No way!

I am not a hoarder, and yes, I do recycle most glass jars, or plastics these days mainly because I have saved and repurposed enough for my needs.

I look around my home and I see former instant coffee glass jars now filled with dried beans, or bulk spices. A large Quality Street candy container now holds dishwasher detergent cubes. Empty peanut butter jars give new homes to rubber bands or paper clips, much sturdier than the packaging they came in, and the zippered bags that bore comforters now store my Christmas gifting supplies. Boy Scouts popcorn tins hold rice and flour, and I keep cookie cutters in a Cadbury Christmas Cookie tin.

I picked up this habit unconsciously from childhood. The words reduce, reuse, recycle were never used but were practiced in daily life. Not so much recycling because there was not much left to recycle.

Old newspapers lined market baskets and were good for wrapping fish and lining shelves. Cans that once bore biscuits (or crackers) were used to store rice and flour, and these, along with 5-lb margarine tins were often cut down to make baking pans. The jute bags that held enormous amounts of rice were fashioned into hammocks, and the large flour sacks made the softest sheets and coverlets, and even hammocks.

I read an article on how flour manufactures in the United States, during the Great Depression, when they heard that desperate customers were making clothes out of their flour sacks, started imprinting colorful designs on the sacks, https://littlethings.com/ . They were labeled in washable ink so the entire sack could be used. It was a heartwarming read.

I am not sure how many people repurpose items anymore for it seems that products are made specifically for predetermined uses, and perhaps customers use them mainly according to their labeled function. I was tempted at times to get those canister sets that are supposed to hold flour, sugar, tea etc. because of their attractive designs, but upon closer examination I saw that they could never function as well as my repurposed containers.

Shroud

Shroud

A shroud of pure snow

over death’s inelegance.

Erasing decay.

Yesterday the predominant colors of the ground were brown, muddy rust and pale yellow, the colors of death and decay, of dead leaves, sleeping grass, and mud, typical of fall and early winter. Then it snowed last night. A full twelve inches, enough to hide all the signs of vile death that lay under.

I was glad for the cover of fresh snow over the dismal state of the ground. That was not a pretty sight. But then I remembered the whole cycle of life lesson, that the new leaves and buds of spring could not occur without the death and decay of leaves that had lived their lives, done what they were meant to do in this life, then continued their purpose after death, to nourish the soil and foster new life.

Then I remembered that this was true not just for leaves.

Aged Food aka Leftovers

Aged Food

Aged wine, aged cheeses,

are revered for being old.

Why fear leftovers?

I just enjoyed a most delicious dinner of baked pasta from yesterday. To me it tasted better today than when it was freshly cooked. Maybe the flavors had time to meld together and bring out the best in each other. A few decades ago, my attitude towards leftovers was quite different.

I had always heard of the joys of having Thanksgiving leftovers, cold pizza the next morning, and yesterday’s meatloaf, so that is why I was surprised when some friends, retirees like me, recently mentioned that their husbands were loath to eat leftovers. As I recall, one even termed it “used food.” And this is in America!

Growing up in Guyana, leftovers were practically unheard of. Families cooked just enough for that day and if any was left it went to the family dog or cat. This was partly because of limited resources for some, but the primary reason was that there was no place to store leftovers since the majority of families did not have refrigerators. Even those that had them mainly used the refrigerators for cooling drinks or making ice and continued to cook just enough fresh food each day.

The tradition of not eating leftovers or stale food, dates back to the ancient practice of Ayurvedic medicine which termed such foods tamasic, meaning that they were less than ideal. Being unaccustomed to having leftovers proved to be a problem for schoolgirls in a home economics class when the teacher asked their thoughts on how to use leftover food to help stretch a budget. She was met with dead silence, and no surprise. The textbook she was using was the assigned one from England, where I believe having leftovers was a more familiar concept.

There were ways that families were able to keep food unspoiled in the tropical heat. The food that was packed for the workers in the sugar cane fields and for children who attended school far from home, was placed in tin saucepans with tight-fitting lids immediately after cooking. These were not opened until the food was ready to be eaten. I have not known of a single case where the food spoiled before lunchtime.

Each generation who has come to America, or other first world countries, from rural Guyana has had initial doubts about having the same food the next day but soon acclimatized and accepted that it was good, and often more delicious after a day. This hesitancy and suspicion of leftovers I can understand, but not from those who were born and raised with refrigeration and who had undoubtedly enjoyed leftovers before. Could there be another reason for this attitude towards leftovers?

My Confession

The Literal Mind

Some of us can read

between the lines, others need

clear explanations.

The other day someone started a sentence with “I confess…”. Every time I hear the phrases “I confess…” or “I have a confession…” my mind travels back to my confession to God at the time of my confirmation.

In the Anglican Church the only time members were required to make confession was just before confirmation. I was ten when I received this sacrament, and at that age, being raised in a strict household where one did as one was told, I followed the instructions to the letter when we were told to make a list of all our sins so that we could ask God’s forgiveness for every misdeed. Here is an excerpt from my memoir that describes that episode of my childhood.

As we stood in line to enter the church, the bishop passed by and tried to make small talk. He asked if we had our lists (of sins) ready. Everyone held up theirs. Most lists had four or five sins. Six tops. Mine had forty. Did I miss something?

I was ashamed of the amount of sinning I had done compared to everyone else, especially because I was sure I had forgotten some. One in particular that I chose to leave out was the fact that I was more excited to taste the communion wafer than to be fully accepted into the faith. That sacred body of God, whom only the initiated could receive would soon be in my hands.

When it was my turn to confess, I read out the first few sins, but I had trouble with one. That was the time I took Irene’s brand-new fountain pen without asking. I liked shade of ink she had; the bright blue was so much nicer than the Parker’s blue-black that was the staple at our home. I only wanted to write my name in that pretty color and put back the pen. I did not ask because Irene was all show-offy with it so I knew she would say no. But then the nib broke, and Irene was on her way back from the bathroom. In a panic, I shoved the pen in my book bag and pretended not to hear when Irene asked where her pen was.

If Irene knew that I broke her pen I would have to tell my sister (who was my adoptive mother) and ask her for money to pay for it. Worst of all, there would be a lecture. A long one. Trouble was, my bookbag was made of clear plastic. Irene looked over at the growing bright blue stain on my exercise book in the bag and she knew. I had to tell my sister, endure the lecture, and replace the pen. Irene did not speak to me for days.

My ten-year-old self was confused about how to define this sin to the bishop. In my mind I neither stole nor coveted the pen. I did not want it. I stayed quiet when Irene asked about it, so I did not tell a lie. And I paid for it. It was a sin I knew, but since there was no commandment or solid term I could apply to it, I had to relate the whole incident to the bishop. And so I did, in every detail. I was about to start on the rest of the list when a thought flew into my mind. Like a miracle. I asked God to forgive ALL my sins and ALL my trespasses and since he was God, he would know every bad thing I had done and forgive them all. I thanked The Lord in advance.

I think the bishop must have thanked The Lord also.

This Book is Mine

My Book

My name brands my book,

announcing to the world that

it belongs to me.

These days I no longer do something that I once did with great pride. I no longer write my name in books that I own.

Every now and then when I peruse the offerings in a second-hand bookstore or a library sale of donated books, I would come upon a tome that bears the name of the owner in neat penmanship. I cannot help but think that they must have had the same emotions I did when I wrote my name in MY books, that of pride of ownership.

Where I grew up in Guyana there were no libraries. In my elementary school, in Orealla, the makeshift library we had was run by the school and the books available were donated by kindhearted residents of first world countries such as The United States, Canada, and England. Even our textbooks were hand-me-down unless you were the first child in the family to be a student in that class. The name of the first user would be crossed out, then replaced with the names of subsequent users of that textbook. Luckily for parents, most textbooks were used year after year in the same school, so they did not have to foot the draining expenses of new ones each August. Enterprising teenage friends formed their own libraries. They would each purchase a different copy of Mills and Boon romances (Harlequin, in the United States), then exchange with each other.

The writing of my name in my very own book was ceremonial for me. The impermanence of pencil would never do, my name had to be written in ink. And not just any ink, Parker Blue-Black was the ink of choice, the best that one could buy in our village. And not just any fountain pen would do, for heaven forbid there would be a leak or uneven flow that would mar my name. I chose the best pen I could find, Parker of course, even if I had to borrow it, then carefully, deliberately, I would use my best penmanship to seal my ownership. When I won a book in an essay-writing contest at age eleven, before I even scanned the pages (it was Treasure Island), I penned my name in it; owning the book took precedence over its contents.

Judging from the handwritten names I see in older books in America I believe that owners took similar pride in their books in bygone days. Maybe, like it was for us, books were not just possessions but treasured possessions. I have no doubt that people today still love their books, I know that I do, but I no longer write my name in those I own. The easy accessibility of books in so many different forms, from electronic to books on tape, to print, and relative affordability, has undoubtedly influenced this change, but the decades-old memory of being the owner of the few books that were mine, all mine, still fills me with pride of ownership.

Playing Our Part

What Can I Do?

Some can change the world,

some can redirect nations,

some can help a friend.

Yesterday we celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader who changed the course of U.S. history in his fight for racial equality and justice. His efforts affected not just the United States, but the world. Dr. King aimed to achieve his goals through non-violent means, and for this he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

Not all of us are gifted with the talents and drive of Dr. King to bring about sweeping nationwide or worldwide change, but each of us can make a difference for the better within our capacity and means. LeBron James, NBA legend and a native of Akron, Ohio has not forgotten or given up on his hometown. James, who was raised in poverty by a single mother, is dedicated to making life better for disadvantaged children in Akron. He has provided secure, stable housing, and superior educational opportunities and resources up to the college level for those who otherwise may never have had the chance to achieve such goals.

Although we may lack the fiery personality of Dr. King or the resources of LeBron James, that does not mean that we do not have the capacity to make life better for many. Residents of nursing facilities or hospices always welcome a bit of cheer. Visitation may be restricted at this time but sending greeting cards is one way of sharing joy. A donation to the local foodbank or animal shelter will help with food and care for many. Closer to home, being a good neighbor, especially if your neighbors are elderly, will bring a sense of security and connection to someone who may be desperate for it.

Whatever we do, however little it might seem, would go a long way to forge connections and unite us to each other, especially if our actions generate a chain reaction.

Grandmother’s Clock

Grandmother’s Clock

The clock in the hall

was a mystery to Grandma,

but she had nature.

The clock that stood in my grandfather’s house was imposing. Tall and made of highly polished wood, its hypnotic pendulum endlessly swinging, its brass face reflecting light from the nearby window, it was the first thing that drew one’s attention upon entering the room. Since it had Roman numerals, however, the only ones who could use that clock to tell time were Grandfather and other males in the family who had covered the higher classes in school where they learned Roman numerals.

As I heard it, none of the females in the house ever learned to read that clock. Their education stopped before the classes that taught Roman numerals. Maybe they were just not interested or saw no use in learning to read that clock for brothers and cousins could have taught them.

Grandmother never learned to read or write. That was standard for girls in her time. Learning the fundamentals of keeping house was as far as her education went. Yet, she managed the household effectively except for a bit of miscalculating here and there, and most of these miscalculations involved telling time.

The family rooster announced when it was time for Grandma to wake her daughters-in-law to begin preparing breakfast, and lunch for the farm workers to pack when they went to work in the rice fields. Grandma supervised the entire production. Every food had to be made from scratch, no store-bought bread or lunch meat to rely on. Things went smoothly for the most part for the rooster was reliable but then, even he had his off days. On those days breakfast would be really early or really late, depending.

During the day the sun and its shadows would cue Grandma as to when to begin dinner preparations. Using either the position of the sun or the shadow cast by the house Grandma would know it was time to round up the troops. That was around three o’ clock if one was using a clock. But then there were rainy, overcast days. On those days dinner would be ready really early or really late, depending.

I am not sure why Grandma never asked Grandfather to let her know the time even when he was home, and why he never volunteered. Could it be pride on her part, and him not wanting to hurt her pride? Grandma was able to run a large, extended household with its share of problems, and raise five children successfully except for minor glitches along the way. I wonder how much better she, and the other women in our family would have done in their time if they were allowed to further their education.

Temptation

Temptation

Tantalizing treats

hang just out of reach, taunting

both cats and children.

Grandma had a special way of protecting goodies from both cats and children. Sturdy chains, with giant hooks at the ends, hung from the ceiling. There were three chains in the kitchen and whenever a basket dangled from one, we knew it held treats, either those Aji (paternal grandmother) made, or bought from the market. There could very well be jalebis or gulab jamun or salara or pastries waiting in there, tempting us. Later, when I read about Tantalus, I could relate to his situation.

Aji did share the treats among us, but the children were many and the portions not very generous. We longed for more and we devised many a plan to get to the baskets, but we did not have the courage to disappoint either Aji or parents by such behavior. The cat must have had similar thoughts about raiding the baskets but unless it could walk on the ceiling it just had to continue staring at the one in which it knew freshly fried fish sat.

It was a foolproof way to keep the cat from the fish and us children from the treats that if we ate too much of would give us stomach aches and rot our teeth. Many of us already knew the pain of toothache and had lost several teeth through tooth decay. Maybe dental checkups may have helped but we had never heard of such a thing, one only visited the dentist if a permanent tooth was causing trouble, baby teeth were just yanked out by brave adults who risked their fingers to do the job.

The most delectable treats those baskets held were the cakes that were baked only at Christmas time. Very few homes had ovens so the local bakery would charge a fee per pan to bake cakes. They were always fruit cakes that were liberally studded with maraschino cherries and raisins and citron. I was never a fan of citron so in later years when I baked these cakes, I omitted the citron.

The other, even more coveted Christmas cake was called simply, black cake. Black cake has its roots in the English plum pudding. It is a dense, moist, fruit cake that is loaded with ground dried fruits such as raisins, cherries, prunes, and yes, citron. Bakers in Guyana added a local twist to make this fruit cake their own – they added rum, liberal quantities of rum.

Baking black cake was quite a production. Months before, the dried fruits would be washed and ground, usually by hand using a meat grinder and then soaked in wine and rum. The fruits for the less dense fruit cake would be chopped by hand the day before baking. On baking day ladies would rise early to whip up their batter and pan their cakes so that they could be first in line at Joe Gomes bakery. It was first come, first served, and one wanted to be there early before something went wrong with the oven and their batter ended up wasted because they did not have a refrigerator. It would be some years before I saw a pan that was made specifically to bake cakes in. Typical cake pans were the sawed-off bottoms of butter tins or biscuit tins (salt biscuits were crackers, sweet biscuits were cookies, and they mostly came in tins). The pans were well greased and floured to help the cakes slide out easily.

These cakes, both fruit cake and black cake, were such delicacies that they were doled out a little at a time. We savored every morsel knowing that we would not have this again until the next Christmas. Christmas was also the only time that we had apples and grapes. The stores only stocked these fruits then. They were imported and very expensive, but most families shouldered the cost to make that time of year special. Many older folks still refer to apples, any variety, as Christmas apples.

Why Each Snowflake is Unique

Snowflakes

Snowflakes in my palm,

transform too soon, their shapes

forever unknown.

I once tried catching snowflakes in my palm, without gloves, and as expected, they melted before I could really see their shapes. Since every snowflake is different, the looks of those that landed on my upturned palm will remain forever unknown.

So, is it true that no two snowflakes are alike? According to the Library of Congress “the scientific consensus states that the likelihood of two large snow crystals being identical is zero,” and that this will be difficult to prove because of the sheer number of snowflakes that fall to Earth. There are simply too many variables for each snowflake to be the exact same, from the dust particles around which they form, to the type and amount of water molecules they are comprised of, to the conditions that exist while each is falling from the sky. The full article can be found at  https://www.loc.gov/everyday-mysteries/meteorology-climatology/item/is-it-true-that-no-two-snow-crystals-are-alike/

It makes me think that it is the same with humans, of how we are all different. It is not just genetics that determine our total makeup as a human, but our experiences that shape us to make us unique, in much the same way as a snowflake continues to transform during its journey from sky to earth. Even identical siblings will differ is some way, maybe one has a scar from a fall, or a different haircut, or ear piercings.

So how is one able to really look at a snowflake to see its shape? Scientist recommend catching snowflakes on a frozen glass slide then examining under a microscope. An electron microscope is of course more effective in showing details. The hexagon is the typical shape of snowflakes but an infinite number of patterns is possible. More information is available at https://stemeducationguide.com/snowflakes-under-microscope-science-activity/