Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker: Okelle’s Career Path

A gentleman I’ve never met but would like to some day asked on Facebook, “What was your strangest job?”

It wasn’t my strangest job, but my most memorable and also my first real-paycheck job: ushering for the Palace Theater in Stamford, Connecticut. The pay was crap — some people actually just volunteered in exchange for watching the shows — but its rewards have stayed with me through the decades. I saw Ella Fitzgerald (twice), Chuck Berry, Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, George Carlin, and countless plays, operas, ballets, and symphonies. And I didn’t appreciate it a bit. Well — maybe a little bit. God knows I do now.

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The Move (Introduction)

On a bright, cool day in December I packed up all my things and took the fool’s journey into a new cohabitation. The fool will say “it’s different this time,” but the wise fool knows when it’s actually true.

What follows are excerpts from my journal entries written before, during, and after the move.

Saturday 12/10/2011

The dream:

A tent full of women in folding chairs,
a table at the front

a buffet served over beds of ice

Me introducing,
talking about the interplay between dreams/words and reality,
the inner and the outer life

how this very event starts as a dream,
started as words on paper,
and moved through them into reality

how reality and our experience of it
sparks our inner life —> poetry

the experience of a bite of food
or running into a friend by chance
or hearing someone else’s words read aloud

informs our own inner life

the idea of delicious food served over beds of ice
and wildflowers perched in mason jars
and a room full of women — all these beautiful women!
young, old, mothers, crones, fat and skinny, smooth and blemished —
listening and speaking

it’s important that some of the
women have short hair

Pepper Spray, Football, and Other Words that Don’t Mean What We Think They Mean

Last night, as Army Guy and I sat down for a late dinner at Galway House, tables filled with (mostly) large (mostly) men shouted at the plasma screens as men in tight pants ran around and jumped on each other*. Eating at Galway House is like eating in your uncle’s rec room, if your uncle were Irish and liked Pabst Blue Ribbon and had a lot of boozers for friends — and liked to cook you really tasty food.

This was the first time I’ve been there during Monday Night Football season. Football, cheerleaders, and NASCAR aren’t really my thing, but I do love the Galway, in part because you’re as likely to find a Lesbian Avenger at the booth next to you as you are a member of the IBEW. And as Jamaica Plain follows the same path of gentrification that Cambridge and Somerville have, I find myself more and more drawn to the places I avoided when I was younger and upwardly mobile.

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This Is Your Hair on Henna

Starting in college, my naturally golden locks started to darken. When I overheard someone describing me as having brown hair (it’s dirty blonde, thank you very much), I finally took the plunge and dyed it red. I look great as a redhead, and at one point had shoulder-length red hair. Unfortunately, chemical dyes are murder on anyone’s hair. Since I’m spoiled with naturally thick and mostly healthy hair, I really noticed the difference when it started to frizz out. Eventually I allowed my natural color to grow back in. Last summer, though, grey hairs started making serious inroads into the faded blonde. When I cut it short, I decided to take the plunge and go red again. Chemical dyes worked okay for a few months, but once again my hair started to frizz, break, and whimper. I wanted to grow my hair long again, but knew that if I kept dying it I’d end up with a full, thick head of damaged, faded red hair and obvious roots.

I’d heard about henna, but had been warned about the difficulty of finding a quality supply. The henna they sell in supermarkets and beauty supply shops isn’t pure henna, and it’s often mixed with unnamed chemicals that can do all sorts of damage to your hair, especially if you’ve already dyed it with something else. Then I discovered that a friend of mine with gorgeous, long, glossy curls uses henna, and I asked her where she gets it.

“I use henna from Yemen,” she said, and sent me a link to Catherine Cartwright-Jones’s online henna empire. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my curly-haired friend sent me to one of the only reliable sources of 100% pure all-natural henna. The website isn’t the easiest thing to navigate, but that’s for the best of reasons: It’s host to a wealth of information about the history and uses of henna. And it’s a home-grown business without the budget to hire an information architect and UX designer.

After a fair amount of perusing, I ordered a 200-gram packet of henna from Pakistan. I opted for the Pakistan henna because it was described as having a lower dye content than the Yemen variety, and I was hoping for a more coppery red.

When I got the package, I was really excited to try it, but also wanted to make sure I paid attention to what I was doing. It’s not difficult to prepare Mehandi henna paste in advance, but it does require some planning. You have to mix the henna powder with a mildly acidic liquid (lemon juice, for instance) and let it sit for at least 12 hours in order for the dye to be fully released. You also have to leave it in for at least twice as long as a standard chemical dye.

My first attempt was less than perfect: I only used about half of a 200-gram packet, mixed with orange juice, and didn’t have quite enough paste to coat my hair in the recommended “mud-mask” fashion. In spite of the shortage, the results were quite impressive.

Here’s my hair before the henna:

Photo of my hair before using henna

And here it is afterward:

Photo of my hair after using henna

This time, inspired by the individual mixes posted by various women, I decided to get more creative. In particular, I wanted something to mellow the smell of uncut henna, which I find vaguely reminiscent of dried blood.

This is what I put in my second batch:
300 grams henna (Lawsonia inermis) (half from the last packet, plus one full packet)
about 20 grams senna (Cassia obovata)
Enough orange juice to give the mix the consistency of stirred-up yogurt
~1/2 C ground cloves
a righteous sprinkle of ground ginger root
cinnamon
frankincense (I’ve always wanted an excuse to put frankincense in my hair!)

I let the mix sit for almost 24 hours, and while the smell of the henna was definitely still there, the other spices masked it well. More than 24 hours after rinsing out the dye, my hair still smells richly of cloves and the other spices I used. It’s a deeper, richer red than the last application. The texture is glossy and smooth, rather than the frizzy, damaged mess that chemical dyes produce.

For my next batch, I’m thinking about reversing the proportion of senna and henna for a more subtle color. I’ll probably use less cloves (they darken the dye) and more cinnamon and ginger root. I may use some cardamom as well, and more frankincense if I have time to replenish my stash (I’ve had a bottle of frankincense on my altar for about 10 years. I don’t think my ancestors mind.)

If you’re interested in learning more about henna, its history and uses, there’s a free e-book on the Henna for Hair website.

I found the historical information fascinating and feel like I’m connecting with an ancient tradition that goes back thousands of years, even while I wrap my head in plastic wrap and watch Netflix videos while the henna sets.

Sadness Comes Apart in the Water

I met up with some of my circle sisters last Thursday night at the Forest Hills Lantern Festival. There are actually about three different events of this type in Jamaica Plain every year. It’s inspired by a Japanese Buddhist tradition that honors the spirits of the ancestors and is very well-attended. The image of hundreds of hand-decorated lanterns floating across the waters of the pond as the light leaves the sky is really magical. Lots of people bring cameras on tripods to capture the event. My friend Butterfly took a photo on her camera phone and emailed it to me, but I refrained from taking any myself, partly because I knew I wouldn’t be able to get a good shot with my camera phone, and partly because I wanted to experience the event myself without the intervention of technology. There are tons of photos of the lantern festival on the web. I found Innusa‘s and ReallyStrangeGirl‘s flickr sets to be particularly beautiful. Still, nothing captures the experience like being in the middle of it.

I took the Orange Line from Green Street to Forest Hills and followed the stream of people heading toward the festival. It was one of those hot, heavy, dreamlike evenings we get in July, and the grounds around the pond were filled with people on blankets. My circle sisters had camped out right in front of the performance space, and it was such a wonderful feeling to arrive to see a group of women holding a space for me. By the time I arrived, the festival had been going on for about an hour and a half. I attempted to get a lantern for myself, but by the time I got to the tent where you could purchase a lantern and have a calligrapher paint a word on the rice paper, there was a huge crowd. I didn’t feel like waiting in line, so I returned to the blanket to watch the tail end of the Taiko Drummers’ performance. I wish I’d gotten there earlier so I could have watched the entire thing; Japanese culture fascinates me, especially the traditional forms.

My circle sisters made beautiful drawings on their lanterns. Although this tradition is meant to honor the ancestors, people at this festival seem to use it as a way of sending out all kinds of energy and prayers. Each of my sisters has something fairly major to release right now: one of them is going through a divorce, the other just split up with her long-term fiance, one is embarking on a new romance, and the last has been recovering from cancer surgery. But for the first time in a couple of years, I have really nothing to release. I have good news. I am in love, my job is going well, and I am overall very happy. I was nice to have some good news to share with the circle and to be able to listen and give my support about my sisters’ own tragedies. The Wheel keeps turning.

When everyone walked down to the water’s edge to place their lanterns in the water, I stayed on the blanket. I watched the many kinds of people milling around and soaked in the atmosphere of Jamaica Plain. Each neighborhood and community in the Boston Metro Area has its own unique flavor. The prevailing wisdom among people who do not live in Jamaica Plain is that it’s geographically isolated and difficult to get to. There is definitely a truth to that, but in the past few months I’ve found that getting there is not nearly as difficult as people make it out to be. And the neighborhood itself is quite wonderful. I’ve been considering moving there at some point. Of course, I’d hate to give up my lovely and affordable apartment in Cambervilleton (Cambridge/Somerville/Arlington), but I find the atmosphere of the neighborhood much more appealing.

I lay back and looked up at the sky as people milled around me. It was a blue-green, tinged at the edges with the burnt orange of approaching sunset. Trees ringed the edges of my vision.

Once the sun was down completely, the crowds dissipated. The five of us made a circuit of the pond, watching the slowly changing spectacle of the lanterns on the water. They followed the invisible lines of current and wind, and as the daylight faded away they looked like a line of souls marching into the other world.

It would have been nice to paint “forgiveness” on a lantern and send that message off to my father’s spirit beyond the veil. But there will be other opportunities to do so. That night was meant for other people’s releases.

Sadness comes apart in the water. Over the course of the last two years, though, my sadness has come apart on dry land. I have no grieving left to do, and nothing to share but joy.