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Soul food and heart stories

John Lewis passed away. I relied on him for words of encouragement to keep up the struggle. “'If you're not hopeful and optimistic, then you just give up. You have to take the long hard look and just believe that if you're consistent, you will succeed. . . You must be prepared if you believe in something. If you believe in something, you have to go for it. As individuals, we may not live to see the end.”

My memories are complicated by images of Donald Trump. His attack on Lewis—who risked his life for what he believed in—as “all talk and no action” was so outrageous and unbelievable and in stark contrast to Trump’s life. It still triggers anger and pity toward Trump as a shell of a human being seemingly devoid of heart and soul. But even here Lewis offers hope, ”Hearts can change, and we shouldn't give up on anyone."

My mind drifts back to a session on contemplation and social justice lead by Kamilah Majied in which she asks us to reflect on how our lives have been touched by Black people. This was easy, as my adolescence was filled with Black heroes who inspired me to feel pride in and embrace my own Japanese identity. So at first famous people like Lewis came to mind. But Kamilah nudged us to consider not so famous people who have influenced us.

I remembered Mabel. When I was young man I helped run a day care center in Cambridge Massachusetts, a parent-teacher coop. I hooked up with a government program called Foster Grandparents, in which elderly were paid a small stipend to volunteer at a social service agency. I thought it was a match made in heaven—children and elderly, each with their needs and their gifts. They gave and received from each other. Seeing grandmothers caring for toddlers and little children filled my heart with joy every day.

One of the elderly women was Mabel. Somehow she and I felt connected intimately in a strange way, and she started inviting me to her house for dinner. So I went to see her one winter night in Roxbury, the black community in Boston. She welcomed me into her warm apartment and knocked me off my feet with a Southern meal of soul food. You name it—fried chicken, pork ribs, collard greens, candied yams, cornbread, and after we ate and ate she pulled out the sweet potato pie.

We sat there for hours, drinking a little wine, and she told me stories of growing up in the South, moving up north. Her jobs, her good times, her bad times. And her loves. Her eyes glossed over in reverie as she revealed that there had been another man in her life, before her deceased husband Smitty. But their lives took them in separate directions and she lost touch with him. But I could tell that in her eyes that he was still alive in her heart.

It was getting late and time for me to go. We hugged before I headed out into the cold, dark night for the journey home across town. Mabel was a big, round, soft woman—so warm and loving.

She brought me into an unknown world with her stories. They were her stories—Black, woman, African American, Southerner, migrant, wife. They were also my stories—human, about belonging, love and loss.

I walked down the vibrant city streets past the young people, some on the move, others hanging out. It was freezing outside but I had a glow and sat on the train with a smile. I knew that Mabel’s existence in the world, that alone makes this world and a life in it, meaningful. I was glad to be born, to be alive.

Mabel sensed that I was feeling lost and alone. She offered me hospitality, refuge, “shelter from the storm” of life. She nourished me with her soul food; healed me with her stories. I don’t know what I gave her. In the immaturity of youth, I indulged in her kindness and never thanked her enough. I’m sure she never expected much. But maybe that’s why my lifework became offering hospitality to young folks—I learned from Mabel how to do it and how valuable it is. We may never thank our elders enough, but we can pay them back by paying forward—giving the kindness to others who follow us.

Photo by Alexandar Popovski

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