The subject of personal truth is one that I’ve written about a number of times on this blog, especially recently. In Midwinter in Our Souls, I considered the idea of New Year’s resolutions and measuring ourselves against various standards of worth. In Journal Prompt, I suggested that the five year-old child that lives within each of us has little to no issue with the idea of authenticity, and in Love Storm, I offered the reminder that our most important relationship is the one we’re in with ourselves. The common thread that runs through all these posts is that they refer to a truth that belongs to us, and not to someone else. Whether that truth is whispering quietly or in a full on shriek, the decision to acknowledge or confine it is, for the most part, ours alone. This process of keeping our truth silenced by choice differs vastly from the kind of external constraint that Maya Angelou, one of America’s great female writers, speaks about in her poem Caged Bird. By contrasting two metaphors, one of a free bird that “leaps on the back of the wind and floats downstream till the current ends,” and an imprisoned bird with clipped wings that “stalks down his narrow cage [who] can seldom see through his bars of rage,” Angelou perfectly captures the agony of race-based oppression. Although this is a subject to which very few of us can personally relate, the power of Angelou’s writing, especially as it pertains to the differences between the two birds, invites us into that enlightened space where empathy can begin and understanding can follow.
Once we arrive in this place, we are able to contemplate the following question: what obligation, if any, do we have to our fellow human beings? If we have learned anything in the past two years, it is that we do not do well in isolation. We are, without question, bound by an invisible connection at the collective level that most definitely demands our attention. Is the answer as simple as compassion? Possibly, but because we are members of a highly cynical society, this answer does not suffice. We insist that it has to be more complicated. The great Buddhist monk, teacher, and writer, Thich Nhat Hanh, whose name often appears alongside Maya Angelou’s on the list of modern humanitarians, believes that although the answer really is that basic, we constantly struggle to see it. Without compassion, the path to love remains littered with conditions and obstacles that impede us from ever experiencing love at a higher level. In one of his teachings, Nhat Hanh asks us to consider what would happen if a cup of salt is poured into a glass of water. The water would, of course, become undrinkable. He then presents the idea of that same cup of salt being poured into a river. In this case, there would be very little consequence because the river would simply absorb the salt into its vastness. If we allow our hearts to remain small, they will never be able to release all the struggles we have with our fellow human beings. If we allow our hearts to expand with compassion, however, they will mimic the river’s ability to neutralize negativity before its presence ever registers.
It is certainly fair to say that Caged Bird is a commentary on an extremely difficult chapter of our country’s history that is, unfortunately, still being written. It is equally fair to say that a great writer like Maya Angelou would expect us to bring her metaphor of the caged bird into our own lives where we could examine it from a personal perspective. In terms of our own unspoken truth, we all have stories that we set free and others that we keep locked away. In that capacity, the birds make perfect sense to us. But what about the untold stories that are held deep within the hearts of others? Do we have a responsibility to help set their stories free? If we circle back to Nhat Hanh’s writing, we will find that he expands on his idea of compassion by telling us that “understanding someone’s suffering is the best gift you can give another person. Understanding is love’s other name. If you don’t understand, you can’t love.” Can you imagine what our lives would be like if we tried to put this into practice every single day? We would have to begin by disposing of everything that we think we know about people, including those who reside in our innermost circle. We would have to approach them as if we were an empty cup, waiting to be filled with all they are willing to share. We would have to be ready to listen to the song of their caged bird as he sings “with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still… for [that] caged bird sings of freedom.” It is true that there can be no greater gift we could possibly give to another person than to allow them to shift the weight of their heaviest story right into our hearts, where we receive it without judgment, hold it without constraint, keep it sacred and understood, and listen as it transforms from a fearful trill of longing into a beautiful song of truth.
Today’s cocktail is one that I’ve created for Recklesstown Farm Distillery where our current menu features drinks developed to celebrate Women’s History Month. For Maya Angelou, I began by researching a drink called a Yellow Bird that was created in the 1960s. The time period was perfect because it marked the beginning of the push for racial equality in our country, although we still have very far to go. I loved the fact that the drink was already named for a bird, and I also loved that yellow just happens to be the color that symbolizes compassion and understanding. The main flavors in the drink come from a blend of spirits that include two different rums, as well as Curaçao and Galliano. The base spirits were not a problem since we have acquired Cooper River Distillers’ Rye Oak Reserve rum, and because our Dust Settler vodka is a beautiful stand-in for white rum in most cocktails. The other spirits presented me with a creative challenge that I know very well. As a New Jersey distillery, we cannot serve any spirits that we do not make onsite, therefore both the Galliano and Curaçao are both house made. if you know anything about spirits, then you know that this is not something that is done easily or quickly. Lime and orange were the original citrus components in the drink, and I kept them, but adjusted the amounts just a bit. One thing that was missing was any kind of simple syrup, but I amended that as well. It’s not unusual to see tiki style drinks without syrups because they often rely upon the high amount of spirits to render a boozy sweetness. I’ve never been a fan of this practice, and this cocktail was no exception. I love the way the drink has such an obvious flavor profile, but its many layers also create a great deal of subtlety as well. Maya Angelou liked to think of herself as a woman who shared stories and spoke plainly, but we know that the tremendous amount of nuanced meaning in her writing is the very thing that causes it to resonate so deeply and to truly shift her readers toward understanding. In this way, I thought the cocktail suited her perfectly. The final glorious element is the sugar cage that garnishes the drink, created for me by our distiller Ben Donia. As with most things I need at Recklesstown, I ask, and he makes them appear in front of me. I am working tonight from 6 until closing, and there is nothing that would make me happier than to serve this drink to you. Come visit me! Here is the link for further information about us. Cheers everyone! Happy Friday. As always, thank you so much for reading.
The Caged Bird Sings
.75 oz CDR Rye Oak Reserve rum
.75 oz RFD Dust Settler vodka
.5 Curaçao (house made)
.25 Galliano (house made)
1.25 orange juice
.5 lime juice
.75 coconut simple
Dump into Collins glass.
Garnish with a spun sugar cage.
Here is the link to Caged Bird in case you missed it above.
Click here to read more about Thich Nhat Hanh.