I had been dealing with a lot of stress and anxiety since we moved back to the States. It had become so bad that I was beginning to see physical ailments directly related to the stress I was carrying. I decided to force myself to do more of what I enjoy each day as a way of staving off anxiety. One thing I felt I could commit to doing was taking at least a 10 minute walk every day.
But I didn’t want to. I was feeling overwhelmed and decided not to walk during my lunch break. But something told me to get up and start walking. So I did. My office is located directly across the street from a huge community garden and park. I figured I could kick my shoes off and walk a few laps around the lake. That would definitely make me feel better.
When I got to the garden, I walked around a bit and decided to snap some photos. I came upon some raised beds that were flourishing with vegetables and pulled out my phone. Just then, an older Black man headed straight for me. “Did you come to work?”, he said. I told him that I wasn’t dressed for work. He looked like he could be in his early 70's but he had a light in his step that let me know the garden wasn't the only activity he enjoyed. His face was weathered but his energy was youthful. “Well, whatchu come here for if you ain't gon' work? Even a person in a white shirt and tie can do this right here.” He led me to two raised beds and handed me a water hose. “Here, water these right here. How much time you got?” 28 minutes, I said. “Alright, well you spend 28 minutes soaking this dirt.” And that’s exactly what I did. In my maxi dress and ballet flats, I stood in the sun and watered those garden beds. He asked me about my background, where I was from, why I moved away from Phoenix. He told me I should never go back to Africa because this was the greatest country on Earth. He asked me about my husband and whether he was a man who liked working with his hands. He told me about his daughter’s best friend’s wedding to an African and how they took turns playing R&B and Afro beat but he just stayed in the middle and danced. He asked me if I ate goat like the other Africans do. He asked me lots of questions and gave me advice on a little bit of everything. Some of his comments might have seemed offensive in another space and time, but he was old enough to be my father and I knew where he was coming from. He didn't have the filter of political correctness but there was a transparency there that didn't allow me to feel offended. His prying was endearing. I love elders and his way of speaking reminded me of the old people back home.
“Your 28 minutes up?” Yes, just about, I need to head back to the office. He offered to walk me halfway. “It's a lot of men out here and they might be looking. I don’t think you want that so I’ll get you almost there.” On the way, he said “you want some greens?” I did. Leafy greens are my favorite kind of vegetable; I remember once paying $15 for two bunches in Jeddah. He went over to a nearby bed of rainbow chard and picked a nice big bunch. “This should feed you, your husband, and your kids, right?” Yes, it would. “Lemme add a little more 'cause your husband is African and I know they like vegetables. You know how to cook this here?” I ran down my tried and true recipe for steamed chard. (Add a little water to the pot. Chop up a finger size pieced of ginger. Add some onion and garlic. A tiny pinch of salt and pepper. Let it boil. Add the greens. Take them out when they look "alive".) “Yeah, there you go, you got it. Cook it ‘til it’s bright green, that’s all.” He gave me the bunch.
As we got to the gate of the garden, he asked, "are you Muslim or Christian?” I sighed. I was hoping we would avoid this line of questioning; it seemed invasive, even after our half-hour chat. The last thing I wanted was to explain my religion when I was already feeling down. I’m Muslim, I said. "So you went from being raised Pentecostal to worshiping Allah" (I had not told him my grandmother was a Pentecostal ...but she was) “Well, who is Allah?” I told him. “And who is Jehovah?” I told him. “And who is Isa?” He smiled. I smiled. How did he know the name Isa? “Isa is the Arabic name for Jesus”, I said. He grinned. “That’s me, my name is Isa. Most folks don’t know that Isa is the same as Jesus. But I know you know.” He thanked me for working and told me my job on my lunch break from now on is to come and water the beds. Isa said I should bring Mohammed and the children to come and work in the garden whenever we had extra time.
I walked back to the office smiling, feeling full. It could have been because of the fresh air, the feeling of dirt on my feet mid-workday, or the bright sun shining down. Or it could have been because of the accidental meeting with a kind elder who took the time to talk to me and help me out of my sadness. Meeting ‘Jesus’ in the garden felt like the Universe welcoming me home, welcoming my strangeness with a sense of love and familiarity. He reminded me that I have people, even strangers, who understand who I am. Jesus/Isa reminded me of my father, who died when I was 16, and the wonderment of elders who pull you back in when you feel melancholy taking you out. The community garden that once stood at Central and Indian School is gone now but every time I drive by, I remember why I came home.