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How Diverse Friendships Elevate Our Family Dinners

And not just because we learn new recipes. Our friendly relations with immigrants and second-generation Americans from all over the world, from casual encounters to long friendships, have benefited each member of my family and our shared dinners together by nourishing us with knowledge, inspiration, cultured openness, and fresh ideas about food, health, cooking, responsibility, gratitude, respect and appreciation for differences, the variety of sensory pleasures available to the human heart and palate, and the sacredness of shared mealtimes. It is tragic to me that so many Americans--white and white-passing and others too--fear racial diversity due to misleading stereotypes and the brutal trauma of institutionalized racism in our nation. 

And maybe, for some, due to some throwback tribalism inherited from way-back, animalistic ancestors who really didn't know how to cook and ate a lot more dirt, sand, and parasite-infested raw meat than what is imagined by fans of 21st century "paleo" diets. Anyway, the fears are both deep-rooted and misguided. Fortunately, my husband is the son of an immigrant who knew better, and I worked hard to extricate myself from a cultlike culture of white supremacy that felt so poisonous and threatening to me as I grew up that everything unfamiliar felt like a window opening onto fresh air--with the scents of flavorful cooking wafting on the breeze. And when I expressed sincere curiosity and interest in the cultures of other people, they welcomed me with a level of warmth and hospitality that I had never experienced from my own kind of people. I learned to love others and myself more deeply than ever before, grew in wisdom and practical knowledge, and learned how to cook better.

My husband and I both grew up with, and benefited from, diverse friendships in ways that are deeply personal and difficult to measure--in other words, priceless. So, unlike the vast majority of educated, white-privileged parents, when we said that we valued diversity in our own family's neighborhood and school system, we meant it. We didn't just want to live near racial and cultural diversity, with "colorful" people populating the backdrop of our lives in a decorative fashion, we wanted to raise our daughter in a diverse community, in full participation. And that has meant developing real, personal relationships with our neighbors, building trust and genuine friendship and directly supporting one another with childcare and yard projects and celebrations and meal sharing. That has meant choosing a diverse school for our daughter, where there is not a numerical white majority, where "soft" pro-social life skills are actually prioritized alongside academics, and where overall test scores and school ratings are deceptively lower because the school leaders and staff genuinely care about the inclusion and welcoming of poor and disabled students rather than gaming the rankings through exclusivity--or worse, by attracting wealthy, white (including "liberal") parents without needing higher test scores, simply by maintaining a white racial majority, knowing that whiter = better in the biased brains of white parents across the political spectrum.


Personally, I have met many local parents, both white and non-white, who struggled with gut feelings drawing them to consider going to great lengths to get into school districts based on nothing other than how exclusive (read: white) the student body is. It's understandable that we have all been trained to equate whiteness with the allocation of resources, because that is still how it goes under systems of institutionalized racism, but it is time for us to get savvy about recognizing opportunities to disrupt those systems in ways that benefit our own children directly and immediately.

Those parents worried by racial demographics that they can't help but view as red flags are often surprised to learn how progressive, friendly, positive, enriching, and supportive my daughter's school is--because isn't that a diverse public school? (Read: underprivileged.) And that is not the whole story. I would characterize my daughter's school as "cosmopolitan" (and trust me, that's not a euphemism, because I have seen the insides of many truly underprivileged schools) and more socially progressive than any of the white-majority "liberal enclave" schools in our metropolitan area. Educated liberals too often suffer from deeply rooted, unconscious biases that lead them to choose segregated schools, segregated neighborhoods, or segregated social and economic bubbles inside of diverse neighborhoods, even when those choices provide them no real benefits. Meanwhile, our kids soak up the social values we are teaching them with our actions more than with our words and our bumper stickers. Kids have amazing radar for hypocrisy and subtext.

We didn't want to send our daughter to a dangerous or struggling school just to expose her to racial diversity, but fortunately, we didn't have to make such a binary choice. There are successfully integrated schools all over this beautiful country, and finding them is well worth the thoughtful effort.

My daughter is a bright child with various privileges, and she is excelling at her diverse school both academically and--more importantly to me and her father--in developing the social and life skills that kids today desperately need in a world that is becoming more complicated to navigate as the economy and job sectors go through rapid, chaotic changes. I know that achieving high test scores in math, while awesome, isn't enough to ensure that my daughter has a happy, healthy, and financially stable future. And I know that obtaining well-paying employment isn't the only, or even necessarily the most important, ingredient in a well-lived human life. (Her father and I, for example, have never been high earners! We're more like high savers, but we've provided our daughter with a healthier, happier, safer childhood than either of us had, because we make better decisions with the money we have than our parents or grandparents were able to make.) I am confident that, based on how my daughter behaves at our dinner table, she is receiving a well-rounded and truly relevant education at her diverse school.

In a literal sense, our daughter has diverse enough tastes that we don't have to worry about her physical nutrition, and some of that is thanks to her exposure to diverse culinary traditions. Americans are not known for our awesome eating habits. Our culture is famous around the world for our exports of extremely salty and sweet and chemically flavor-enhanced convenience foods... not so much for the wholesomeness of our diets or our cooking and eating habits. Immigrants from Latin America, Asia, Africa, the Mediterranean, the Middle East--almost everywhere in the world--tend to arrive in the U.S. with fewer diet-related health problems than the average American, and their health deteriorates over time, with exposure to our convenient and addictive junk foods. I've heard numerous anecdotal stories about the switch to American foods causing constipation and stomach pain right away, because our typical diet is lacking in fiber and loaded with sugar and other inflammatory ingredients. 

And I'm guessing it's also hard on the digestion to gulp down takeout over the sink or smash a chemlab burger in the car while high-stress hustling from one sedentary activity to another. The typical American horks down loads of low-quality, high-calorie mystery meats mindlessly, within a stressful yet sedentary lifestyle that isn't kind to digestion in general. It isn't every day that a typical American takes the time to shop for wholesome ingredients, cook dinner with care, and enjoy it at a relaxed pace at a table shared with socially engaged companions.

And then there's diet culture, which drives disordered eating in desperate, shame-filled attempts at losing enough weight to more closely resemble the bizarre, alien-like digital character images that pose as real human models on social media. We are a people of exhaustion-prompted impulse, anxiety, and body dysmorphia. There are structural and behavioral and social and psychological dimensions to our poor eating habits that can devastate the health of an individual within months and continue to degrade the health of whole families for generations.

To put a maraschino cherry on top of that constipation sandwich, the typical white American diet is also terrible for the planet, causing additional health problems for our people through air pollution and the effects of climate change. My husband is the son of an immigrant who put effort into passing as white, and "white American" is the culinary culture that both of our families raised us on.

As adults, we discovered that we could break the cycle, reclaiming our own health and raising our child with better dietary habits, by looking back into our own pre-U.S. family traditions and around at our friends' and neighbors' traditions to find an abundance of healthier alternatives to the typical American illness spiral. Adopting healthy habits and attitudes and recipes into our daily lives has had a profound effect--my husband lost about 100 pounds in early adulthood, and both of us reversed supposedly chronic health conditions--without us having to swear off any of our favorite American treats. Practicing a healthy lifestyle is not about obsessing over forbidden fruits and self-denial (a staple of diet culture), it's about attention to deep, whole-person nourishment (a staple of Blue Zones living). We can have our American pie and eat healthy too. We can be a white American family and share the company and healthy habits of all the beautiful humans around us too, regardless of race or ethnicity or class or favorite sportsball team.

Meeting and admiring and loving people from all over the world has positively influenced my family's minds, hearts, souls, and bodies. Even when nobody actively set out to teach us a new recipe, we've picked up better cooking and eating habits. All we've had to do is stay open to new ideas and experiences and to consciously develop good taste.When you spend time with friends who also want to be their best selves, beyond boundaries of identity and family history, you influence each other for good in all directions, not just one way. We also share fresh ideas and perspectives with our diverse friends, which benefits their lives in ways we aren't always aware of right away. And when we appreciate each other's cultures and family backgrounds, we feel a renewed sense of pride in our own heritage. Sometimes things we take for granted, or even feel a little ashamed of, in our own family histories--strange recipes forged out of necessity in the Depression, for example--can transform into sources of pride and wisdom, held up to the light of an outside perspective. Appreciating another person's heritage, with genuine respect and admiration, can sometimes nurture that person's latent pride in the resilience of their ancestors.

In my opinion, the constant flow of immigration from all corners of the world is one of the main ingredients in whatever greatness the United States of America can legitimately claim. Cultural sharing is natural and beneficial to all when it's loving, respectful, freely offered, and gratefully accepted. Nutritional diversity makes our bodies stronger. Genetic diversity enhances our descendants' immune systems. Cultural diversity gives us opportunities to grow in wisdom and the expansion of human enjoyment of life. I am grateful that my family has not wasted our various privileges and blessings in a misguided attempt to hoard them from "others." 

What the Buddha said about lighting each other's candles and all that.

How Immigrants Have Contributed to Our Table, Specifically

Different Mealtime Schedules

People around the world don't all eat three square meals of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They don't all divide up amounts of protein, grains, and produce among their meals in the same ratios. We have learned from this to experiment with when and how much of which macro-nutrients to eat at each meal of the day. One practice we've consistently adopted (and adapted) is the idea of British teatime. I like to eat a light breakfast, brunch, and lunch (sorta hobbit style) and then prepare a big, hearty meal after my daughter gets out of school, in the late afternoon, followed by only a light snack in the evening. This helps us to digest our food better and to sleep better at night.

Direct Sharing of Foods and Recipes

My husband's father was a Holocaust survivor with a confounding background. His mother came from a family of Asian tribal nomads, mostly of the Siberian region with mixed Muscovite Russian, Mongolian, and Chinese heritage. They migrated into Slavic Europe and became settled farmers who specialized in kosher dairy. My husband's grandmother was the only survivor of seventeen siblings who went down one by one as they, in turn, picked off Nazis as resistance fighters in the Holocaust. My husband's biological grandfather was a Ukrainian with roots in the Middle East and South Asia. My father-in-law was raised by his mother, who gave birth to him in a work camp and managed to keep and smuggle him alive overseas, and a Hungarian stepfather in Hamtramck, Michigan (after a brief sojourn in illegal slavery on a Canadian cucumber farm), where he learned to speak several Eastern European languages before he learned English as an older child. We aren't sure how many languages my father-in-law could converse in to some degree--sometimes he knew words and phrases without remembering what language they were from. In some contexts, he could pass as a swarthy, ambiguously ethnic white man, but he found that he could also pass as Latino (melting seamlessly into migrant worker political organizations, where he carried on his family's tradition of revolutionary resistance) and was sometimes recognized as Asian, especially during the O.J. Simpson trial, when people noted his resemblance to Judge Lance Ito.

My husband's mother's heritage is roughly half Italian and half Western European, and her skin, hair, and eye colors are strikingly fair compared to the rest of her immediate family. My husband inherited enough of her appearance that he passes as white. His family made a conscious effort to assimilate into white American culture (and developed serious diet-related health conditions for a time), but they were also deeply involved with immigrant families from all over the world. My husband grew up around multilingual people and mixed cultural traditions, in a neighborhood without a white racial majority, in a family that deeply understood power and privilege and how those differ from right and wrong, good and evil, survival and pride, happiness and militant dominance.

Now my husband manages a bicycle shop near the local university, and many of his customers are scholars from around the world. He often delights his customers with his delicate skill in identifying accents and his ability to greet and thank people in many languages, even though he is only fluent in English. The way he speaks to people with genuine warmth and interest in intercultural etiquette transforms their body language and facial expressions like magic. It's wonderful to see people come in with careful, guarded body language and quiet, precise English speech and then open up like time-lapse flowers blooming when my husband extends himself in this way. (I don't dare try this myself or recommend that anyone else does--it's extremely awkward and potentially offensive to guess wrong!)

Anyway, some of those customers turn into instant friends, and they bring my husband "tips" of meaningful objects, homemade foods, or rare (in the U.S.) varieties of tea or herbs from other countries. He treasures these gifts and often brings them home and incorporates them into our home pantry.

Sometimes, even after people leave the university area, connections we've made remain. Last winter, during the gloom of pandemic, a vibrant and fascinating artist and champion of heritage food production and culinary traditions with a Jewish Turkish background, whom we befriended after my husband met her at the bike shop, sent us a care package of wondrous treats, including a jar of mahalep, a gorgeous spice which I had never used before.

And earlier in the pandemic, she organized and included us in a virtual "dinner party" in which women with roots in many different cultures shared traditional, wholesome and comforting recipes that we all attempted to cook in our own homes. This was back in the days of lockdown, when we were afraid to venture out to the grocery store more than a couple of times a month, but I found that I already had most of the ingredients for the dinner party's recipes--various kinds of lentils, spices, grains, herbs, etc.--stocked in my kitchen already, after a couple decades of eagerly incorporating healthy and delicious global recipes into my regular meal rotation.

Some of our best friends from high school have strong international family connections, too. My own best friend is a smart, hardworking, artistic, politically active, joyfully single and child-free Mexican-American woman with a youthful personality, who shares interests and personal styles with my daughter so deeply that they actually have a lot of the same clothing and accessories. For a while, they both wore the exact same pair of bright pink glasses. My bestie has brought me on long stays with her extended family in Mexico twice and taught me the glories of real Mexican food. One of my husband's oldest friends is a fellow second-generation child of Asian and Italian-American parents. He is generous and kind and loves sharing his personal pleasures, so he brings us back the best kinds of nori, noodles, and other treats when he visits extended family in Okinawa.

The Good Kind of Peer Pressure

We choose to send our daughter to a school and extracurricular activities where she can learn directly from people of different cultural traditions and racial and ethnic backgrounds. Peer pressure has positively influenced her to expand her tastes and even learn how to prepare different healthy foods.

My daughter has grown up with friends and playmates of diverse races and cultural backgrounds, and she is rarely in majority-white social situations. My husband and I also grew up with some racially diverse friends, but we spent significant portions of our childhoods in majority-white contexts with a person of color included here and there, which is not the same. We have noticed marked differences in social dynamics between how it is to have one BIPOC friend who is trying to fit in with all the white kids vs. being the only white kid in a group. "Being the only one" is a valuable experience that many white people go their whole lives without ever experiencing, and it's enlightening. It can be rough (like when my husband was sometimes bullied as a child in contexts of toxic racial tension) or amazing (all the times when my husband and I, and our daughter, are warmly welcomed and invited into the embrace of a different culture or subculture on its own terms). Either way, it can provide a basis for greater intercultural wisdom and compassion--but only if those interracial experiences are not mostly negative. It's important to find healthy, diverse contexts.

The neighborhood where we chose to settle has a significant amount of poverty in it, but our township does a better job than the nearby inner city of making sure low-income families have their basic needs met and can participate in the life of the community without shame. Many of the non-white people we are acquainted with in our neighborhood have higher standards of living and levels of education than my husband and I do, so our daughter has grown up without automatically associating certain races with poverty and pity. We often witness her and her diverse friends being good influences on each other, and though I am not so naive to entertain the fantasy that she and her friends might be completely free from the racial biases imparted to them from society at large and the media, they all clearly have positive attitudes about each other and close, supportive friendships. That is invaluable.

I can see evidence that these kids believe in intercultural welcoming as a good thing and not a threat to some kind of uptight, puritanical vibe. My daughter agrees that everyone should learn English if they move to the U.S., but she doesn't believe that nobody should ever speak any other language once they land here, or that they should be made to feel ashamed of being different until they learn to fit in. When she heard that a girl from a Spanish-speaking country was transferring to her class, she asked me to teach her "hello" and some other friendly phrases in Spanish so that the girl wouldn't feel lonely until she became fluent in English. My daughter said "hola" to the new girl when she first saw her in the hallway, and the girl broke into a delighted smile. I am not just proud of my daughter for being kind; I am pleased that she has an interest in learning about and from others, because skills like bilingual fluency are good for everyone's brain and quality of life. Honestly, what's fancier or more impressive or more linguistically exciting than being able to converse at the dinner table in multiple languages?

The absence of a white majority at my daughter's elementary school means freedom from the teasing and bullying that immigrant and second-generation kids sometimes experience in the lunchroom, over the different kinds of foods in their lunchboxes. There isn't as much pressure to assimilate into a dominant culture at my daughter's school, so the kids seem to feel free to share and express open curiosity about each other's tastes in food. My daughter's willingness to try new foods, especially vegetables and fruits, blossomed overnight when she started eating in a diverse school cafeteria. She came home one day and declared that she had learned to like salads!

Sometimes my daughter has developed an interest in another culture in a non-food context that has led her to explore that culture's healthy food traditions on her own. Before the pandemic, we enrolled her in karate lessons by my husband's buddy's Okinawan father, the celebrated Shorin Ryu Shidokan master Sensei Seikichi Iha. 

Our daughter loved the warm, friendly, yet reverent and highly disciplined atmosphere of the dojo, and it sparked a deep interest in Japanese culture that has lasted for years. Shortly after my daughter began her lessons, a new family joined the dojo, with two boys a little bit older than my daughter (and therefore automatically cool) who have some Okinawan heritage and could speak fluently in Okinawan dialect Japanese with each other and with Sensei while also being 100% fluent in English. In addition, their father speaks fluent Chinese. My daughter was profoundly impressed and fascinated. She and the younger of the two brothers formed an immediate friendship connection that led to hanging out a couple times outside of lessons, and she became so enthralled with the sounds and symbols of the Japanese language that she has been studying it independently through a language learning app. (The outside of my house is currently covered in Japanese characters written in chalk!) All of this led, also, to watching anime films (her all-time faves are Spirited Away, Okko's Inn, and Weathering with You), which inspired her to learn how to use chopsticks and to taste tofu and sushi. 

The photo at the top of this post shows her first stab at making her own sushi rolls. Her first taste of nori challenged her palate so much that it was difficult for her to swallow, but she was so determined to learn to like it that she soldiered on until she got used to the flavor and texture and could proudly claim to have developed a taste for it. Peer pressure has motivated her to learn how to prepare and integrate new highly nutritious foods into her diet, even in a meandering, indirect fashion. I love it!

During the pandemic, the karate boys' mom earned a certification in nutrition coaching and started a blog full of healthy meal ideas, inspired by a recent trip to visit relatives in Japan and realizing that she had become used to less healthy American ways of living. Now I follow her blog for more direct ideas too. 

After the pandemic hit, my daughter, like many adolescents, delved deeply into online worlds--Roblox, Minecraft, YouTube fandoms. Her favorite YouTubers are the Krew, a set of Canadian siblings with immigrant parents who have instilled in my daughter new interests in poutine, hiking, punky hair dye, and being "thicc and fashionable," which I think means having body confidence without being skinny all over and having a cool street style. Not everything kids watch on YouTube is a bad influence!

Sometimes the positive influences mix in synergistic ways. A couple weeks ago, my daughter celebrated the birthday of her longtime friend whose back yard is connected with ours by attending a small, socially distanced barbecue. Her back yard buddy has an African-American mother with deep U.S. roots and a father who immigrated from Ghana. He is a phenomenal cook who blends American and Ghanaian cuisines and grills the best chicken we've ever tasted, among his other culinary talents. His generous sharing with our daughter has already increased her tolerance for and appreciation of spicy food. And now he and his wife are passing along their skills to their children; the 10th birthday girl showed off some of her own talent with a delicious cake she had baked for herself. 

My daughter filled up on more than delicious food at the cookout. She ran home and declared that she needed to up her game in the kitchen right away. She and her best friends all have a slightly competitive dynamic with each other, whether they're comparing test scores from school or playing video games or holding "art contests" or showing off their athletic and life skills to each other in person or over a video chat. So far it seems healthy; instead of putting each other down, they delight in helping each other to learn tips and techniques, and they admire each other's different strengths and talents. So it made me smile to see my daughter frantic to figure out a way to level up her kitchen skills in response to being served a wonderful homemade meal.

"What can I do to help you make dinner?" she demanded. "Anything, I'll do anything!" 

I had already started to take out ingredients to make a cottage pie from Un-Cook Yourself, the book released by comedic Australian viral pandemic chef "Nat's What I Reckon." My daughter picked up a knife (which we've already taught her how to use to safely chop vegetables) and insisted that she be the one to slice up the onion, just because she'd never had the experience of an onion making her eyes water. (She was thrilled when it happened and only slightly disappointed that her eyes didn't become visibly swollen and red.) It's so adorable how she's inherited my love of trying new things solely for the experience of newness!

Exposure to the cooking and eating habits of people from other cultures has certainly inspired our daughter to become a more adventurous eater and cook.

THAT'S a Knife

We don't personally know any Australians, but we are fans of Nat and various other jovial Australian celebrities. As my daughter enthusiastically cut up an onion to help learn how to cook an Australian dish, she did have one complaint--the slight dullness of the worn ceramic knife we've been using. "My friend's mom cut her cake with a really nice steel knife. Why don't we have any knives like that?" She described the knife to me, and it did indeed sound like a high quality chef's knife. I also giggled to myself when this exchange reminded me of the classic line from Crocodile Dundee.

My husband has been lusting after high quality kitchen knives online for a while now, and when he heard that, it pushed him over the edge of indecision, and he ordered a Miyabi santoku knife with a three-figure price tag justified as a 14-year wedding anniversary gift for all of us to enjoy.

And we do! Wow does it feel good to use a real good knife. We like to purchase American-made products, but we also appreciate the quality control of a German knife company and the traditional artisanship of a Japanese blade. And do we avoid German products because my husband descends from Nazi hunters? No way. Germany is more than Nazis; my great-grandfather immigrated from Germany and went back in World War I to fight against Germany, and his son, my grandfather, was a decorated Nazi-fighting hero who earned multiple awards, one for incredible valor in a death-defying battle situation, in World War II. Many of their relations and former German neighbors back home participated in the resistance as well. Nazis are a disease of German culture, not the culture itself--just as racism is a disease of American culture, not what America is or should be. Anyway, fine craftsmanship has no nationality. And instinctually, we feel that it is important for our kind, loving daughter to also have mad knife skills. For nutritional purposes. Mostly.

Grace and Gratitude

Some of our diverse friendships and extended family relationships involve different religious beliefs, and those beliefs can inform what and how people eat. We've learned about kosher and halal foods and under which circumstances we might prefer to buy ingredients that meet those standards, even though we don't share the religious reasons for those choices.

Our Christian religious family and friends often begin meals, especially holiday dinners, by saying grace. We sent our daughter to the Catholic preschool in our neighborhood for a couple of years, where she learned to say a prayer of gratitude before meals. We don't regularly say grace at home, but we participate when we are with observantly religious dinner companions. Saying grace formally once in a while reminds us that mealtimes can be sacred when we stay mindful of gratitude for the abundance of delicious and nutritious foods we enjoy and the company of others with whom we share the joys of this abundance.

The Values of Cooking and Savoring and Sharing

White Americans don't always value food production and cooking skills. Many white Americans think that farming, "burger flipping," and other food-related jobs are for losers who can't do anything else. Upwardly mobile Americans brag about being too busy to cook. White women often see kitchen work and gardening as symbols of sexist gender roles, associated with oppression. Not having to cook for oneself or anyone else is a status symbol in our culture.

In fact, agricultural workers and line cooks are among the most exploited, undervalued, disrespected workers in our economy. They have suffered inordinately from the pandemic. Their ranks are filled by immigrants who come from places where the work of growing and preparing food (and caring for the elderly, and childcare, and cleaning, etc.) isn't shameful, where everyone is expected to have some familiarity with those basic life skills. We perpetuate a social narrative that anyone stupid enough to stay in those jobs as opposed to, I dunno, going to achieve their CEO certificate, deserves to die on the job making an unlivable wage. This is a horrible tragedy and a poor recipe for America's sustainable survival.

In the world's Blue Zones, people who are mostly poor by our standards, people who don't have any of the status symbols that Americans tend to lust after, people who value time spent on activities that generate health rather than income or fame--like cooking wholesome meals, savoring food, and sharing unstructured quality time with loved ones--live longer, happier, more fulfilling lives than most white Americans, with a tiny ecological footprint.

There's nothing wrong with being a white American or enjoying the occasional cheeseburger or slice of pie. But there is something very wrong with white supremacy and bigotry against immigrants and BIPOC (Black/Indigenous/People of Color--not all of whom are immigrants, obviously), and it's hurting white Americans as well as everyone else. It makes us sadder, stupider, less healthy, and less dignified. It robs us of full participation in human life and the ability to reach our full potentials as individuals. So everything we do to turn it around within our own hearts and families to replace bad habits with better ones, fears with adventures, and suspicions with friendships, helps to create stronger individual Americans, stronger families, and a stronger social fabric. And it's just a more enjoyable way to live.

Each of us only gets one life here on earth (unless you believe in reincarnation, in which case... watch your karma!), but that life can be so much richer and more interesting when we invite all kinds of people to share their stories and their passions and their tables with us. Connecting with people from all over the world can open our hearts and minds and allow us to feel how big, how generous, how abundant in love and sensory pleasure the human world can be. My husband and I encourage our daughter to be nourished by human wisdom and cultural gifts of every color and texture and flavor, by setting an example in our own personal lives and by nurturing her own intercultural friendships and interests. 

Even when we're alone at home together for our little family dinners, still deeply isolated in the middle of a pandemic, we are influenced by the positive values and pleasurable habits and skills and tastes we've picked up from our diverse loved ones and acquaintances over past years as we cook, eat, and have interesting conversations among the three of us. 

Immigrants often come to America seeking opportunities that they couldn't find in their nations of origin, but they also bring opportunities to those of us already here, to learn and grow and choose healthier ways of living. I hope that as we ease back into more and more of public life and socializing outside of our little pod-bubbles, we all learn to appreciate and enjoy each other in broader and deeper ways than ever before. Nobody knows how much time they have left, but we are all endowed with the ability to savor what we have and appreciate the people around us. I truly believe that gratitude, savoring, adventurousness, and resourcefulness--all critical to providing and enjoying family dinners--are among the most important life skills for today's children to learn as they inherit a rapidly changing, fragile and unpredictable world.

Jean Michelle Miernik is the author of Leirah and the Wild Man: A Tale of Obsession and Survival at the Edges of the Byzantine World.


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Oh, the buoyant thrill of a sparkly new idea! Ooh, the giddy joy of starting in on it--like planting the first footprint on a blanket of new-fallen snow, or drawing the first line on a clean sheet of paper, or sweeping the first brushstroke of slick, wet paint across a wall! Of course, it takes follow-through to manifest a dream through the sweaty, dirty, messy middle of any big project. But when you know you can do it, you can hold onto that shiny new feeling to sustain you all the way to the finish. Here I am chiseling away at the remains of my old kitchen back in the spring, when my new kitchen lived only in my imagination. My husband and I have been working on our kitchen (with my parents' help early on) for four months now. Our summer has been a marathon of hard, sweaty, dirty work littered with setbacks, frustrations, and frequent changes of plans--including the decision to redo our main bathroom at the same time, while we're at it! Anyone who has repaired or remodeled a

Mental Health Monday: Making the Best of Depression and Dissociation

Along with most human beings, I experienced some trauma in my childhood, and I can make an educated guess that I've also inherited some genetic risk factors for mental illness; my family includes four or more consecutive generations of women who have been institutionalized for mental health reasons. I also received many opportunities to build resilience as a child; my parents provided me with more love and stability than they had experienced growing up, and they challenged me in positive ways that helped me develop traits of self-mastery and grit that protected me from sliding into addictions and disordered behavior patterns. I practiced acceptance and perseverance to get through episodes of depression, anxiety, and dissociation and to find myself in a better, not worse, situation after each one passed.  When I wrote my novel  Leirah and the Wild Man , I made use of my memories of dissociation and my ways of coping with it and applied them to my grim little title character. I thoug

Pocket of Joy: Generating $1K in 1 Month for Bookstores Just by Writing a Story

What a magical Christmas surprise! Last week, I started to feel pretty depressed after hearing anecdotally and seeing in the media that many people who identify as book lovers have suddenly and catastrophically lost their ability to actually read novels. (Yes, I realize that this is a whimsical thing to be depressed about when there is so much suffering in the world right now, but I'm sad about everything else, and yet I still can't help feeling sad about literacy too. Skip this first paragraph if you can't stand the sound of a tiny violin today--My attitude has already been readjusted.) The story goes that this decline in literacy started at the end of the 20th century with the expansion of internet culture, which wasn't just another distraction but changed people's brains on a neurological level. Then the pandemic's mental fog and toxic stress accelerated the loss of literacy. The story implied that I was a functionally extinct sort of dinosaur for having take

A Beauty, a Beast, a Slayer, and a Priest

I did it again! After the immediate "success" of my first semi-secret pandemic book release (defined as recouping the cost of file uploads to IngramSpark), I have set up another book in both hardcover and ebook formats! I'll promote my books later, if I feel like it, after the idea of holding author events becomes less perilous. For now, it's fun to hit a few buttons to make my books available to my blog readers and local book shops without investing money or time into marketing.  I released my first book, Leirah and the Wild Man , a few months ago and only told my own friends and blog readers about it--but word got out, and several local booksellers contacted me about it. Some took it upon themselves to order copies, display them prominently, and sell them to walk-in customers. And voila, within a month my hardcovers had generated $1,000 for paper-and-ink booksellers, mostly local indie shops! So satisfying. I still have no idea how many ebooks I've sold, because

Pocket of Joy: Queer Eye Season 6

My final post in the 2021 "Pocket of Joy" series, which was inspired by the one and only JVN and his commitment to embracing joyful little moments no matter what else is going on, is all about the premiere of Queer Eye Season 6 on New Year's Eve--tomorrow!! I never get tired of watching these guys swoop in and fairy dust a random person who has become stuck in the mud--one at a time, over and over, like the title character of "The Star Thrower" does, enjoying the singular salvation of each and every one. It reminds me that in every human life there is suffering and difficulty and unfair disadvantage, but there is also a limitless sea of opportunity in which to play. Getting washed up doesn't mean we're done as long as we can accept a little help diving back in there. This show is a fun reminder for everyone who has survived the past couple of years that when we're at our worst, there are so many ways in which things can get better. May we all keep o

Pocket of Joy: Two-Month Belly Dance Challenges (with results from my 20s vs. my 30s)

This summer, I'm beating the bloat and feeling better about my belly! I participated in two 30-day belly dance challenges online, first Jasirah's Belly Challenge and then a summer challenge by Mahtab of Best Belly Dance Workout . I chose these two because of the kind of challenges they were--not strenuous and sweaty but instead technically difficult. I am at a healthy weight that I want to maintain, and I am recovering from moderate to severe anemia, so I wanted to avoid anything exhausting or high-impact. This summer, I worked on balance, joint flexibility, and the kinds of technical skills that work out the brain and nervous system, and I targeted the "corset" muscles that cinch in the waist, deep beneath the outer ab muscles. I've said thanks and goodbye to the visible abs I had in my slimmer 20s, which are now obscured by an age-appropriate skim of subcutaneous belly fat that I don't want to starve myself or go under the knife to banish.  And besides, af