Sunday, 31 July 2011


The angst began on a gentle summer eve, my birthday dinner. A fun-filled, lavish affair with worldly pleasures aplenty. Since that night, however, I have been plagued by one concern: my life of excess and its global impact. More specifically, can I continue to live a rich and hedonistic lifestyle, and still feel good about myself?
Here’s how it happened. In the midst of the merry making, my cousin casually snatched the bottle of wine my husband I were sharing. She proceeded to drain the last bit into her glass. As she still had wine left in her own bottle, I assumed she’d gotten confused, so I informed her, “Sarah, that’s our bottle.” To which she replied, “Oh, I see. You don’t like to share.” 
Now, the fact that it was my birthday notwithstanding, this little comment stung. It has thrown me into utter crisis, rendering me unable to enjoy even the most basic of material pleasures. It obviously touched on some inner turmoil of which, until that night, I had been blissfully unaware. How do I know how much I’m allowed? 
So I did the only thing a rational, mentally healthy person would do. I made a detailed list proving my selflessness. The list contained charities to which I donate, international foster children I support, gifts I’ve purchased, everything I do for my husband-my kids- their friends- my dog, people I’ve fed, hospital visits I’ve made, world crisis’ I’ve reached out to in my own limited way. And the ultimate “do-gooder” clincher; door to door canvassing. 
Sacrifice upon sacrifice. 
  I proudly presented the list to my therapist. She was not impressed. 
Throw out the list she said. We don’t place value on ourselves by listing our charitable contributions. So, throw out the list I did. I would need to tackle the dilemma in a different way.
This is easier said than done, for I have the added complication of menopause, supposedly a time to shake off the shackles of martyrdom. I am washing estrogen, the caretaker hormone, down the drain at a startling rate, and with it my need to sacrifice. How to reconcile a life of generousity with my menopausal goal of defining boundaries, exerting my needs? What about time alone, finding pleasure in daily existence? Will all this have to go? Will every waking moment be spent visiting widows and invalids? Will my own life become completely inconsequential? Where will “I” start and “they”, all these needy people, end? 
And what about my cousin’s need for yet more wine. Will this too become my responsibility? 
I then came up with a brilliant solution, a win- win. I decided I would perform a good deed per day. This way I get all that giving stuff over with and can go on in my self-interested way; guilt free. I consulted some wise and wonderful women in my life about this plan. They said it sounded like a good idea and could be fun. I explained that it may be a good idea but the point was it wasn’t supposed to be fun. It was supposed to hurt, to be a painful sacrifice or else it doesn’t count. 
Catherine replied, “Oh, the hair shirt.” 
Yeah, I thought. That sounds right. 
So, am I giving to give or just to punish myself in some “hair-shirt sort- of way”? My friend Sue wants me to research this further. This is a woman who can accomplish more in one hour than I can in a well planned month. I thought she knew everything. Turns out this is a subject that stumps her. 
“When are you being generous and when are you just being a doormat?” she asked.
Beats me.
“Keep writing,” she told me, “and when you figure it out, let me know.” 
Shirley, (the kind of woman who waves her optimism like a golden wand with blazing sun atop), summarized. “You give when it feels good.”
“That’s the only time?”  I asked, aghast.
“Yep.” She said.
I’m now finding that generousity sort of erupts spontaneously, organically. I don’t know if I’m always a generous person but I am given to acts of generousity; fits if you will. 
Enter, again, my therapist. If you can give without resentment, she says, fine. No one wants your resentment. 
AND... it’s okay to give to myself. In fact, she says, it’s imperative. Because only then can I truly give to others.
  What a relief. It’s the first time I’ve relaxed since my birthday. I think today’s good deed may involve a little gift to myself. A bottle of wine perhaps? 
As a result of all this pathetic rumination, the African Dinner book club was born. It seemed a perfect combo of my love of friends, love of cooking and an urgent midlife desire to contribute a little something. Here, we have a night of African food, in solidarity with the women we were hoping to help.  I had a display set out describing the plight of women in Chad and Darfur. And in what unexpectedly turned out to be a brilliant maneuver, I had my two adorable little nieces in charge of taking the donations. What I didn’t foresee was that my nieces allowed no one to enter the party until they had handed over a sizable donation. Any attempt to forestall the giving was met with tears and contempt by my young humanitarians. Anyway, I can only hope the women of Chad and Darfur benefited by my nieces’ enthusiasm and adorability. 
I am now completely in love with African food, though admittedly my knowledge is limited to North Africa. After many hours researching the net, here is the menu I adapted. (stayed in next post!!) 

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