When you eat the food of another culture it opens a small, brilliant window into their world. My lust for flavor aside, I enjoy the gustatory opportunity to explore. Food is life, and the taste of food reflects the flavor of a people. Food is where we restore and refresh ourselves, where we gather, where we commune with one another, sharing the vital elements of a shared life.
Through food, Radical Love carries our guests away for an hour with the smells and tastes of other worlds. Recent adventures have taken us from Syria to Portugal to Brazil. This week, it was Palestine with the main dish, rummmaneyye, coming from the Gaza region.
I especially enjoy sharing food with others from parts of the world where people are in situations of great distress, countries that may be getting a not-so-pleasant reputation when viewed through the eyes of American media. As an activist, I relish the opportunity to hand someone a plate of something wonderful while saying the name of some place they have come to suspect, or fear, or hate, mostly from lack of complete or correct information. A beautiful, delicious plate of food is like a handshake, a hug, a smiling introduction that promises to lift and satisfy. What better way to open the door to relationships and peace.
With fresh, wholesome contributions from Lower Columbia School Gardens and Willow Grove Gardens & Pumpkin Patch , our crew did a brilliant job of bringing together a beautiful, nutritious, delicious Palestinian meal.
We arrived, as usual, in a flurry. The parking lot was already full of faces. Some were long time friends, but many were faces from our Saturday potluck, or faces from other meal shares, people we had met and invited who were coming to share our meal for the first time. Others were faces from the community, people from other worlds we inhabit, faces from the school gardens, faces from the Muslim community, from Love Overwhelming, from my own church. We had a full house, and the church’s caretaker had not yet come to open the door.
My head swirled. I was dizzy. I had a phone number. Where could I find it? What name was it under… the church? The caretaker? I looked at my phone but I couldn’t really see it. I poked at it, like a child poking at some suspicious object with a stick. Odd, distantly familiar screens flashed and slid, the words on them obscured through the bars of my descending cage of panic. My heart started to squeeze. We couldn’t get in the door. A wave of fear rose up like a hand from behind me and pressed me down. I slumped in the open door of my car and looked around. In the distance, the voice of children traveled across the little road from the Methodist Church next door. The door of my mind blew open and a swirl of thoughts came in. What if they forgot? What if we don’t get in? What if people are upset with me? Getting angry? Will we have to eat in the parking lot? What if it all comes apart?
Nested in my car seat, under the car port, I lifted my face. Patches of color peppered with familiar eyes undulated around me. The arch of my vision sparkled with blues and greens and greys and browns. Weary gems caught the sun as they flickered in their tired brown faces. Some opened toward me and I said their names. In the watercolors of my world, I found Irene.
“What do I do? I don’t know what to do.”
Irene smiled in her placid, even way. “It’s ok. Someone will come.”
Inside me was an emergency. My heart pounded like a fist against the inside of my ribs. My mouth was dry. My head turned towards the sound of the children. In my watercolor, I found Gary. The sun lit through the playful curls framing his eyes. I spoke to them through my liquid world. “The church. There’s people there. Please, go tell them no one has opened the door.”
A few kicks against the current, a pivot in the soup of my panic, and I was facing the door. I swam past Joshua. “Maybe there’s been an accident,” I said. He shrugged slightly. “Maybe someone got some bad news,” I added. Josh nodded. The emergency inside of me didn’t seem to be reflected by those around me. A ripple in front of me. It was Caleb, from Love Overwhelming. I spoke to him,”I don’t have to panic, right? It’s going to be alright? This is not one of those times where things are going to just fall apart?” Caleb shook his head, “It’s fine,” he said, “In fact, here he comes now.”
Within moments, the door was open. Within moments, hands reached out and, together, the tribe ushered our feast through the door. The tendrils of the complicated net that surrounds me, that keeps me from hitting the ground, swooped gently up and fluttered in the ripples from the Slipstream. Arms were hugging. Dishes went through the door, hand to hand. Voices mingled and there was laughter among them. The life from the food, the energy of our communion, spun through the crowd as we uttered our incantation. Magic. And soon our meal was taking shape.
My knot of fear gently softened, melting slightly into the energy that grew. Still, the vague edges and rippling landscapes of my watercolor remained. I swam forward in it, looking for guests who were here for the first time. It was time to anchor, in these waters, to connect. Erin, from the Lower Columbia School Gardens, was suddenly in front of me. “How can we help?” she asked. Next to her were Shae and Nicole, radiance springing up from them as if from the stalks of bright flowers. They brought forth the beauty of the garden, ready to be a part. The energy of the room hummed through me as I traveled the arc of their smiles. “You can serve!” I told them, leading them to the kitchen. I made the first plate for them as an example, then, with confidence, let that task go. With all three of them personing the buffet I could turn my attention to other things.
In the colors of the kitchen, I found two more friends. The Emam, Brian, and his mother, from the Kelso Longview Islamic Community, had been friends of ours for some time. My son and I had been attending Friday prayers to learn about our neighbors’ faith and to build community with them. The loving company we had been sharing for months had suddenly broken through the confines of the masjid door and come into another facet of our world. I greeted my friends with enthusiastic embraces. From their bags emerged delicious, nutritious foods brought to share with our guests, including a warm white bag filled with freshly boiled eggs. As Brian’s mother, Mona, placed the eggs in my hands I felt their warmth travel through me. I looked into Mona’s open, shining face and my heart pressed up with emotion and gratitude. This was why we were here. Community. Connection. I threw my arms around her, again, and pressed her to me. Her loving, motherly embrace held me to her heart. We paused there, taking in the depth of our fellowship, before continuing to unpack her bags.
“We are so glad to be here,” she told me as she sat out bagged portions of dog food and treats. I held the warm eggs as I looked at the bags, kibble with biscuits, then up to the faces of my friends. Animal friends who struggle with homelessness are often even more forgotten than their human companions, but my loving friend from the masjid had remembered them. These beautiful people coming to our shared table for the first time had set another place, one for our animal companions. The arms of our family opened even wider. The energy of our communion surged, again, as my son joyfully carried her gift out into the room.
Through the colors, I swam, greeting friends, welcoming newcomers, arms and arms and eyes and faces, all swirled through and peppered with plates bright with flavor, and health, and life. Bright blue bachelor buttons lit up the deep red of the muhammara and the room filled with happy talk and laughter. Soon, with the crowd served, all of us found a seat at the table. Mother Kathleen and one of our new guests swapped recipes. Our friends from the school gardens shared their meal with Tempest, and some of our other long time friends. Brian and Mona settled near some new friends we at met at Feed the Need. And I, drifting eagerly around in my net, rode the gentle current around the room.
Near the kitchen, I found Caleb. He was holding his empty plate, eyes round and shining. I grabbed his arm excitedly, “How do you like it??” I asked him, anxiously, indicating our collection of guests. “How was your food?” Over the top of my head, he took in the room. “This is amazing,” he said, scanning the crowd. “There is nothing like this. There is no restaurant in town where you can get food this good, get these flavors.” I laughed out loud.
The colors in my painting shimmered as I took that in. In my eyes, my hands, my mouth, at this communal table, I am alive. Alive in my fingers as skin touches skin, my hand on an arm soft with delicate, sun bleached hair and crisp with the dry salt of sweat. Alive in the faces, our garden of flowers, blue and brown and green and grey, lifting their petals up for light. Alive in the arms, heart pressed against heart, resting in an other’s embrace. Alive in the tears. In their stories. In their names. Alive in the meal we share, as we taste the same flavors and lift the same cup, excited and entertained by flavor and color. Maybe we aren’t the best restaurant in town, but it fills me to overflowing to serve people so often forgotten a spectacular, healthful meal.
Soon, the colors of my world swirled toward the door. I grabbed a few friends, made a few more introductions, and gave hugs and kisses to friends as they left. Tempest thanked me excitedly as he headed down the walk. Halfway to the parking lot he turned, and raised his fists in the air. “I even got to POOP!” he cried, and we shared a laugh as he disappeared beyond the trees.
The chaos inside of me hums with the electric energy of our communion. I am intoxicated with the power generated when we come together. That day, so many different colors from our community, joined together for a meal. We sat down together, a deliberate family, and made the circle wider. We made room at the table, opened the doors to deeper relationship, built even more strongly the foundations of the community we share. I was overcome by it.
I am an outlier. An outcast. A misfit. I come from a culture underground. Communion, community, has not been a feature of my existence. Yet, somehow, I have become a hub.
Worn completely, we made our way home. We would make a quick stop at the Grocery Outlet, then I was heading to bed. My son, good friends with many of the workers there, burst through the door ahead of me as I limped in behind. The voices of friends shaped my name. My gentle net shifted beneath me. Another home. Anxious to get to bed, I called for my son. From behind me a voice said, “He’s in the break room with Scott.”
Scott is a dear friend of ours. He loves my son and makes lots of room for his enthusiasm and desire to connect. They have worked together many times, stocking shelves, crushing boxes. Every time we go to Grocery Outlet the question comes, “If Scott is there, can I help?” I was sure I would find him with Scott.
The swirling colors of my world had slowed. The edges gently lapped around me as I went to retrieve my son. When we moved to this community four and a half years ago, we hadn’t intended to stay. This was to be a jumping off place into something else. I wanted to get closer to other outliers, find a way, at last, to belong. I wanted to find a place for me, as me, a place where what I am, as I am, could be embraced. Maybe even an asset. Not in spite of. Because of. Where it was o.k. to be broken. Where it was o.k. to need help. Where people could really see me. Where the best of what I had could be held forward along with all the rest of the swirling colors that come out of me from my frenetic insides, an offering, a plea, an exultation.
My son was in the break room with Scott. I had gone from the loving hands of our family at the meal into the loving hands of another. In this store, we were surrounded by loving friends. Scott, at that moment, was being a friend and role model for my son. With each slow, limping step I took forward, this new realization inside of me rose. We were surrounded. Friends, purpose, community. My beautiful net, trembling at the edges, catching not only me inside of it, but a whole community of friends.
I turned the corner to the break room. There they were. Scott and my son were sharing another communal table. Scott ate his dinner, offering my son a spoon and a pint of ice cream. “Try it,” he encouraged. My son removed the lid and dug inside. His little boys’ eyes lit with pleasure as the chocolate melted in his mouth. “Do you like it?” Scott asked him. “This? This ice cream? I love it!” my son answered. Scott stirred at his plate, “It’s for you,” he said. “For me?!” my son, excited, gathered it up. Scott stood as we prepared to go. I wrapped my arms around him.
“You know, when we first came here we did not come to stay. We found this community cold and unwelcoming. For the first six months or longer, no one even looked at us. I cried everyday. But I just realized, as I was walking here, that after four and a half years we have built community. Thank you for being a friend and a brother. Thank you for being a part of our family.” We hugged, there at the mouth of the break room, then turned for home, riding the slow and easy currents of color that come at the end of a well-lived day.
Exhausted. Overcome. In my depletion, restored. Behind my eyes, from the peace of my bed, I watched the colors of my memories flow. The sound of water from my neighbor’s fountain trickled through me in the dark. What began with a few plates of food shared from a Queersgiving potluck had grown into a family gathered at a table of sisterhood, of brotherhood, of community. And there, at the table, being a part of it all, was me.
Through Radical Love, there is room for everyone at the table. By favor of Allah, there is even room for me.
“The companion who is the best to Allah is the one who is best to his companion. And the neighbor that is the best to Allah is the one that is best to his neighbor.” [Tirmidhi]