Saturday, April 28, 2012

Political Roots, Vegetable Roots, Southern Roots

Today is the birthday of so many writers who have been important to me.  Carolyn Forche was born today, and a few years ago, I wrote a longer post about how groundbreaking she was, how vital her work has been to me.  Her work has been strongly rooted in the political, and I'll always be grateful to her for showing how many ways it can be done.

Today is also the birthday of Alice Waters, most famous for founding Chez Panisse, a restaurant dedicated to local and fresh food.  I will be forever grateful that she brought us ideas of slowing down and enjoying our food.  I love that she's shown us how delicious a plate of perfectly prepared vegetables can be.

We shouldn't overlook the fact that she's an activist too.  She's created the idea of an Edible Schoolyard, bringing gardening to many schools.  I'd argue that knowing how to grow food and working in a garden will serve many students better than P.E. courses where students play dodgeball.  She's advocated organic food.

I've been a variety of vegetarian for a very long time; I first started experimenting with vegetarian food when I was 16.  Chefs like Alice Waters paved the way for my own experiments.  I can no longer claim to be a vegetarian, alas.  On Thursday night, I ate a delicious pork chop for dinner.  But many days, I eat no meat, and I can go for many days eating nothing but fruit, vegetables, and beans.  Yum.

Today is also the birthday of Harper Lee, who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird and helped Truman Capote research the events that would be told in the book In Cold Blood, and then retired into a rarely broken silence.

Of course, once you've written a book as perfect as To Kill a Mockingbird, why write anything else?  And the transition of the book to film is about as perfect as can be too.  Even now, over 50 years after this book was published, this work feels relevant in all kinds of ways, no small accomplishment.

I will always love the spunkiness of Scout, the wisdom of Atticus, the kindness of Calpurnia.  How wonderful to have a big brother like Jem.  I love that Lee could address issues of social justice without descending into stereotype or preachiness.  I love that the flawed characters are not beyond redemption.  I admire Lee's decision to give us a realistic ending to the trial.

It's a powerful lesson:  sometimes you have truth on your side, but you won't be successful.  Sometimes you can't transcend your time period.

And the book reminds us that even with that knowledge, we must try.  We are not excused.  I would argue that all of these female authors--Forche, Waters, and Lee, along with so many others--call us to speak out for a better world, even if the odds of success are slim to none.  With some issues, like Waters with food, we may make successful strides.  With some, like racism, we will find ourselves moving forward and sliding backward.  With some, like the situation in El Salvador, it's too early to tell.

But witness is important.  Effort is vital.  We are like those medieval Cathedral builders, working on projects we may not live to see completed.  But we must play our part.