Life is like music in this way, one song is not any more melodious or somber than another. We understand pains the same way we synthesize songs; we are moved by tunes based on preferences formed from personal experiences. The meandering pathways of our travels are not made easier nor our tribulations lessened by comparing our narratives to the travails of others. All of us endure growing pains as we try to understand this world through hard lessons and earn wisdom through arduous passages.
I write this motivated by the moving story of Marcus Samuelsson after listening to his story on Anthony Bourdain’s show last evening. Marcus is a celebrated chef now; but like the rest of us, he had his dance with heartache long before he became a world acclaimed culinary artist. His story is at once gut wrenching and inspiring. Born Kassahun Tsegie in Ethiopia on January 25th, 1971, misfortune struck his family at an early age as Marcus’s mother passed away from tuberculosis in 1974. That same year, a coup d’etat dethroned Emperor Haile Selassie and witnessed the rise of a ruthless dictator Mengistu Hailemariam.
Fate and tribulation dislocated Marcus from Ethiopia but redemption found him in the arms of his adoptive parents Ann Marie and Lennart Samuelsson. Marcus and his sibling left their homeland which was in turmoil and relocated to the safety of Sweden. He grew up loved by Ann and Lennart Samuelsson who encouraged Marcus and his sister Linda to pursue their dreams and to think audaciously. Yet, no amount of love can completely cover the void that come with being torn from home and wondering what life would be like if things turned out differently. More poignantly, no amount of providence can heal the scars of a love that left us before we could remember losing her.
I grew up in a home with two loving parents who sacrificed in order to provide for my siblings and me. Hearing of Marcus’s bereavement and his journey to find purpose and understand his identity away from home and his birth parents initially made me think I had no right to complain about my childhood. Yet, we all go through these challenging moments; we have different measures but we nonetheless have a commonality of adversities. Just like Marcus, I too felt the sorrow of seeking refuge as an immigrant and dealing with the challenges of fitting in as a foreigner in a new land. This is a universal human experience; we were all cleaved from a place we once called home–we all strive to mend in our broken places.Marcus found his mending by healing others through cooking. Motivated at a young age to cook due to the influences of his grandmother in Sweden, he went on to attend the Culinary Institute of Göteborg in his hometown. From there, Macus would go on to apprentice in Sweden and Austria before arriving in America to work at the illustrious Restaurant Aquavit. Cooking is an art; it’s not just about recipes and measurements. There is almost a magical component to being a chef; those blessed with a gift possess hands that can turn the most ordinary meals into soaring feasts. It did not take the world a long time to realize that Marcus was Houdini in the kitchen.
After toiling in anonymity for a while, eventually the sous chef Marcus bloomed into the culinary maestro who is now regularly spotlighted on various TV shows and publications. Marcus would go on to open up his first restaurant, Red Rooster, in Harlem, New York. If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. Marcus is proof positive of this adage; after thriving in Harlem, he would go on to become a preeminent chef on the global stage. The list of Marcus’s achievements and charitable involvement is as numerable as the awards and honors he has been conferred throughout the years. From a journey of hardship, Marcus became a testimony of resilience.
While we can’t compare pains for the sake of elevating or devaluing our struggles, we can nonetheless learn from each other and understand that we are not alone in our sojourns. We live in a time where, too often, the default mode seems to be to tear each other down. Imagine this world if we all shared our songs instead of casting stones at one another. The same way the song of Marcus is one of renewal after going through an exodus, each of us have hymns we can share as testimonies to this world. Though obstacles might be placed in our paths, we can still rise to be champions. Marcus not only rose to become a champion, he has made it his purpose to be a champion for others to follow as he nourishes people with his hands and his heart. Marcus eventually found his way back home. Marcus found love in Maya Haile who is a renowned Ethiopian model. Marcus left Ethiopia in sorrow but returned in happiness as he and Maya tied the knot in Addis Abeba in 2010. From hardship, Marcus found the gift to feed others; from an exodus he eventually found his soul mate. This is the soundtrack of life; music that was once mournful eventually gives way to melodies of fortunes. The fortune I speak of is not monetary; dollars come and go but the duality of loss and love are treasures that makes life worth living. It’s all perspective and how we choose understand our adversities. When life gave Marcus lemons, he made a meringue pie from it. #SongOfMarcus
“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” ~ Henry David Thoreau
Below is a Ghion Cast where I talked further about the journeys we all go through and the adversities that end up becoming the pathway for our destinies.
Originally from Ethiopia with roots to Atse Tewodros II, Lij Teodrose is a former community organizer whose writing was incorporated into Barack Obama's South Carolina primary victory speech in 2008. He pivoted away from politics and decided to stand for collective justice after experiencing the reality of the forgotten masses. His writing defies conventional wisdom and challenges readers to look outside the constraints of labels and ideologies that serve to splinter the people. Lij Teodrose uses his pen to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak truth to power.