This past Friday was Maha Shivaratri, a holiday especially meaningful to my family since our boy is named for Lord Shiva. My mom and I spent the day fasting, a practice that has grown more and more potent for me as I’ve gotten older. I have a greater respect for discipline than I used to, a greater understanding of what it can accomplish. Discipline, now, is as much about affirmation as it is about denial.
I broke my fast in the evening, after we had performed puja as a family. With my right hand working to portion bites of my mom’s famous aloo parantha, I told Shiv my favorite of the stories associated with Maha Shivaratri. The basic scenario is this: the gods were weak as the result of a curse, and in order to be strengthened, sought out amrita, or nectar of life, which could only found at the bottom of the ocean. Given their weakness, the gods had no choice but to partner with the demons in order to harness adequate power for churning the ocean, the only way to access the nectar.
This part gets complicated, but during the extended retrieval process, an extremely deadly poison emerges—a familiar mythological trope, right? Before you get to the awesome thing you’ve been working so hard for, something super-dangerous comes along. In this case, the poison was so intensely harmful that it threatened to wipe out the already-weakened gods, to say nothing of potentially destroying all of humanity.
Enter Shiva. He agrees to drink the poison, but holds it in his throat, offering it a container and keeping it from harming others. Ultimately—and some versions of the story attribute this to the efforts of his wife, Parvati, or the other gods—the poison also does not harm Shiva, though it does turn his neck (or, in some stories, his whole body) blue.
You can do a lot with this story. I am particularly drawn to the notion that poisonous things cannot necessarily be dispensed with altogether, but that sometimes we have to make room for them. I am inspired by the thought that we can render harmful things harmless by offering them a place inside our own vast capability. In debriefing the story with Shiv, we talked about sacrifice, that it is sometimes necessary to do difficult things for the benefit of others, that Shiva’s actions can inspire all of us to be strong when the time comes to do the right thing.
Earlier in the day, at the Jewish school where I work, our Head of School gave a beautiful d’var torah about that oft-quoted verse from Exodus: “You shall neither wrong a stranger, nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” It’s not unusual for the week’s parsha (text selection) to feel relevant—indeed that is the point of revisiting the text year after year, to connect it to our lives—but wow. This one. Timely.
Tomorrow, Lent begins, another layer of the multi-faceted traditions that make up my personal spiritual life. It’s a season all about sacrifice and discipline, and I welcome its structure each year, but perhaps no more so than I will now, when so much feels uncertain.
On Friday night, as I got him ready for bed, Shiv took his allergy medicine, as usual, then made a funny face, holding his lips together and puffing out his cheeks. “I was tryna hold it in my throat and be strong,” he told me after he’d swallowed it. “Like Lord Shiva.”
SISTER BARBARA’S TUNA JAMBALAYA
Some folks seek out more fish recipes for Lent, so I thought it would be a good time to share this recipe for one of our family’s “old reliables.” Not necessarily the most attractive or showy dish, but it sure is comforting and simple to make. I learned the recipe a long time ago from one of those old-fashioned, Southern, comb-bound cookbooks to which Sister Barbara, whoever she may be, contributed.
I lost the official recipe a while back, but I still know how to make this dish from muscle memory; this is very much a “pantry” dinner, or a “what should I make for dinner?” dinner, provided you’ve grabbed a green bell pepper from the store and always keep celery in your crisper like I do.
None of these measurements are precise/exact; feel free to tinker based on what you have.
Butter and/or vegetable oil
1 yellow onion, diced
1 large green bell pepper, diced
3-4 ribs celery, diced
1-2 cans chunk light tuna in water, drained
1 cup short-grain rice
2 ¼ cups stock (I tend to have chicken on hand; the original recipe called for beef stock)
Salt & pepper
Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning or a similar seasoning blend
Melt a knob of butter (or heat up 1-2 T oil) in a large saute pan over medium heat. Cook the trinity (onion + bell pepper + celery) until soft, about 5 minutes. Season with a bit of salt and pepper, then add a bit more butter before stirring in the rice, cooking it for 1-2 minutes. Pour in the stock, then stir in the tuna. Season again—a few generous shakes of creole seasoning, and perhaps a bit more salt.
Cover the pan with a lid to let the mixture come to a boil; check after a few minutes and turn the heat down as needed, replacing the lid. Cook until the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is fully cooked.* Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Serve & enjoy!
*If your rice is fully cooked but you have more liquid than you want, remove the lid for the remainder of the cooking process. If you’re out of liquid but your rice is still undercooked, add a bit more stock and re-cover the pan.
Grief does not work the same for everyone, but to anyone who’s experienced it, it’s universally recognizable. I know grief when I see it, and I see it in this moment. In the woman who caught my eye in the dressing room at the gym as we both looked away from TV coverage of you-know-what; in the texts between friends to share the acts of resistance and solidarity we have planned for the next 48 hours; in the deep exhalation of my mother’s breath as she hugged me goodnight.
This is my frame of reference, of course; there are lots of people who aren’t grieving, who are celebrating instead, because that’s how ideologies run: two ways. There are those who are “waiting and seeing,” those whose personal issues are so real and primary and in-your-face urgent that they can’t see or be concerned with anything else. I get that.
It’s complicated, and nuance matters more than ever; I know that there are legitimate concerns about the leadership and language and inclusivity of Saturday’s protest efforts; I know that there are many groups of people for whom this grief is old hat, who view these sudden and dramatic showings of outrage as privileged and lacking in self-awareness. I know that demonizing and painting with a broad brush, no matter which side is doing it, is dangerous.
But I’ve been listening to the voices who seem the wisest, both past and present; those who have stood inside of resistance for their entire lives, who have things to teach me and all of us who are interested in learning, who can offer some direction when many of us feel unmoored. Here’s one thing they all seem to agree on: calling things by their proper names.
I may lose some of you with this example, but hear me out. In the Harry Potter series, Lord Voldemort—the power-hungry villain—is commonly referred to as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.” In the first book of the series, Dumbledore, Harry’s mentor, instructs him otherwise:
“Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
That’s one thing we can do. Stop equivocating things that aren’t equivalent. Stop using euphemisms because we’re scared of the truth. Stop wishing our way into cheap optimism.
We are so obsessed with positivity in this culture, to the point that we have and continue to erase narratives of whole swaths of people and refuse to make room for facts that don’t fit inside of our relentlessly cheery outlook. That is part of how we got here, and we have to stop. According to Vincent Harding, and I’m pretty sure he knew, “What is needed is more and more people to stand in the darkness.”
The other thing that I think I’ve learned—and this will seem contradictory, but I find that paradox is usually where the truth of human experience is located—hope is essential. An insistence on joy: not as a blind looking-away, but as a choice. Call the dystopian clown show what it is, then refuse to let it grind you down. Resist the bullshit narratives that want to cocoon you in fear, then go make some art. Let yourself be outraged by that which should generate outrage, even if it happens over and over and over again. Write down what you value, what you believe in—do it right now—so that you will not be normalized into someone your grief wouldn’t recognize. Create community around those values, if you haven’t already, or find one to join. Remember that you are capable of great kindness, and that, while it may not seem like it, care for the self and care for the other is a radical act.
Grief is often monstrous, consuming. But it can also be a teacher. If we’re willing, it can show us that we are all braver than we think.
“Resistance is the secret of joy.”
“[M]ake yourself one small republic of unconquered spirit.”
“You defeat the devil when you hold onto hope.”
[Alice Walker / Rebecca Solnit / Run the Jewels]