Safe at Home
After five-plus years of unstable housing and powering through what felt like a personal horror movie, I moved into an apartment of my own. And I woke up each morning hoping to feel at home. For most of the first year, disbelief greeted me daily. I'd kept it together while living in loud, chaotic shelters in Manhattan and the Bronx for almost three years. After signing the lease, I unlocked and locked my door for months, listening for someone coming up the stairs to kick me out. My logical mind knew I wasn't homeless anymore, but getting the rest of my hypervigilant body on board took some time.
I pieced together my very own headquarters for The Gay Agenda, one calming blue, plantain-yellow, and pimiento-orange-pink paint stroke at a time. I bought a ballet barre, a mint green bookcase, and a desk for procrastinating in a very organized way. But even after acquiring an entire Rhythm Nation of plants (R.I.P. Shug Avery, Miss Celie, Starkeisha, and Mary Clarence) and investing in a fancy mattress and colorful furniture that matches my personality, I still longed for the safety, joy, and community I'd felt in the sanctuaries I grew up in–of my childhood home in Hampton, Virginia and, my grandmother's across town. Both had houseplants and carryout containers aplenty.
Things didn't click for me until I heard my grandmother's voice while I was working on a béchamel sauce for butternut squash macaroni and cheese. I was sweating in the kitchen beside my friend Darby as we prepared a holiday-level spread for our merry squad of homos and trans sisters.
We usually keep in touch through regular group video chat check-ins, a virtual village that has been a lifeline amidst the pandemic. We've seen each other in the mud and also in moments of glory. We've cried and created together. But this was one of the first times we were able to connect in person, and I was overjoyed to finally share the fruits of the experimentation and growth they'd witnessed me nourishing in the kitchen on our calls over the previous year.
But this was my first time cooking for loved ones in my own place. Reaching for the salt after adding roasted squash puree to my béchamel, I could hear my grandma's lilted Panamanian accent telling me to taste my food every step of the way.
This crew knew that I had been making quiches, berry pies, and galettes to work through the dough-making anxiety that I'd held about tarnishing my grandmother's empanada legacy. Grandma's empanadas were golden, with a crisp, turmeric-hued crust; she baked them nearly all of her life, starting in her early twenties, and her process took two days: Meat on one day, dough and assembly the next. To lessen my stress, rather than striving to recreate her flavors, I carved out my own lane. I made sweet potato cinnamon rolls, orange meringue pie, blackberry, raspberry, and blueberry curd. But what freed me was finding a simple shortcrust recipe that I could grasp and adapt. I graduated to crusts for quiches, adding fresh thyme, garlic, turmeric, and such, expanding on the color and flavors of grandma's beef patties. The required focus, tangible growth, joy, and reward of improving my process helps my soul glow.
"If you don't like it, they ain't gon' like it either."
When I had been at my lowest point several years earlier, my therapist suggested I start a "Reasons to Live" list in my journal. I had struggled to see my life past the end of the day or as worth something more than what I could provide to others, so after some tears and silence, I wrote, "To have somewhere to have a good day, and not kill myself, in peace."
When I was unhoused, I never bought a plant or thought to infuse joy or a splash of color into the sparse, dorm-like room at the shelters because I didn't want to get too comfortable amidst the fistfighting neighbors and shit-smeared walls of the shared bathrooms. I couldn't spend 30 minutes stirring grits with love, because eight floors of residents shared—and occasionally tussled over—four burners and one oven.
Now, as I made magic over my own oven, I realized I feel the most alive in my kitchen. It's the place where I am firmly planted in the land of the living, and I feel connected to my mother and grandmother. I hear my mother reminding me to add flavor to my food when I add smoked turkey necks to collard greens. Her voice interrupts the dark thoughts that shadow my daydreams. The gratification from slicing into a colorful galette, brought to life in a flaky, buttery crust I flavored, mixed, rolled, and crafted, cuts through the most hateful self-deprecation. Each person I feed also feeds me. I could never have envisioned that hosting a house of happy sissies would be my reason to live, but here we were.
I've seen my mom and grandmother sink into a post-gathering sigh of relief, satisfaction, and exhaustion after sending people home with plates of food. Surviving to cackle, debrief, and celebrate victory with Darby like my grandmother did countless times with her good friend Ms. Violetta, I was finally convinced that I'm safe in my own sanctuary. I had stressed over not having a grand dinner table to accommodate my village. But all that mattered was a room full of love.
If you or someone you love are dealing with thoughts of depression or suicide, our colleagues at Verywell Mind have a list of resources that may help you.