Dear Johanna: Sweet Like Onions: A Lesson on Knowing and Being Known

Dear Johanna,

You are six years old (nearly seven) and well on your way to developing a sense of self. There are some things that you believe are “more Johanna” than others—the color pink, the princess Elsa, and the Eiffel Tower, for example (though I may have had something to do with that last one)—and there are ways that you believe other people should treat you simply because you are you. They should know that you are sensitive. They should watch when you perform, but not before you are ready. They should think about your feelings when they’re doling out gifts to your siblings. They should have tissues on hand for when you get upset and need to dry your tears.

I am like this too, Jo, only more so, as I have had many more years to form opinions about who I am and how I should be treated. Though you have always been Johanna (the way that I have always been Amanda), your thoughts about who you are and what that means will change as you get older. Then they will start to solidify. This is perfectly normal. But it can also be dangerous. While it is good to embrace your uniqueness, and a gift to share that with others, sometimes we get so stuck in believing that we are a certain kind of person that we fail to think we could ever be different.


Several weeks ago, I was on a date with someone I have known for a few months. We had dinner and went to a play and then later went back to his apartment to drink tea and curl up on a couch. At one point he turned to me and said with a smile, “You know, you’re really sweet.”

I did not smile back.

I just sat there, sipping my tea.

It was a perfectly fine thing to say, but it made my stomach turn. It made me want to put down my tea and get up and leave.

It isn’t that “sweet” is an insult. It just isn’t me.

“Sweet” isn’t the way that I think of myself and I don’t think it’s the way that my friends think of me either. When I’m in a relationship I don’t want to be flattered. I want to be known. I want to be seen and recognized for who I am—and who I am is not innately sweet. I am not saccharine, good-natured, agreeable, or pleasant. At least, that is what I had come to believe, and it is what I have taught others to believe about me as well.

Here is a lesson, Jo. If you tell someone the same story enough times, they will begin to believe it is true, whether or not it really is. Especially if that someone is you. Sometimes we start to tell stories about ourselves based on a single experience or a particular period in our lives, and then we continue to believe them and encourage others to believe along with us, without giving ourselves space to grow or to change.

Right now, Jo, you are a girl who loves dancing and performing and putting on boots. Those things may be true about you for a very long time, or they may change in two weeks, two months, or by the time you are ten. That is the amazing thing about humans—their ability to change, to become something and someone who is still the same as always and yet totally transformed, a person who has learned to exercise her talents and overcome her vices.

onion-slice-knife-food-37912.jpegLast night I was caramelizing onions. Have you ever had caramelized onions, Jo? They are divine, especially with gooey baked brie, crusty baguette, and fresh-picked thyme. Onions, like people, are layered and diverse. They can be salty, strong, aromatic, or acidic. Often an onion is so potent when you first slice into it that it cuts through the kitchen and brings tears to your eyes. Some people avoid onions merely for this fact, but then they miss out on the marvel of cooking them.

The longer you cook an onion, the sweeter it gets. This is absolute magic. It is also a thermochemical reaction called pyrolysis, which is a fancy word for the change that happens when an organic substance (like an onion) breaks down under the influence of heat. Given enough time, attention, and fire, potent, pungent, burn-your-eyes onions will become soft and brown and full of sweet flavor.

But you cannot just throw onions over fire and expect for the magic to happen. That would cause them to burn and would ruin them entirely. In order for an onion to become something sweet, you must simmer it slowly, allowing it to sweat out all of its water-bound structure for what typically seems like a terribly long time. You must attend to your onion at regular intervals, giving it time and space to go through transformation, stirring its slices as they experience molecular break down.

bette lee crosby

Onions are really not that different from people in this way. We are all of us transformed by the fires of life, affected by the progression of physical and spiritual breakdown. Many are burned in the process. But some are made sweet in their suffering.

If I can be that sort of sweet, Jo, then I think that I will claim it. I will learn to live into this trait and absorb it into my concept of self. This is something I hope you will learn too.

When someone offers an assessment of you that doesn’t quite match your own, you would do better to call that image into question than to dismiss it altogether on account of your presuppositions. What that means, simply, is that all of us change, whether or not we give ourselves the space to do so, which is something we must remember and something we must learn how to see.

I look forward to watching your spirit grow as you become ever more the person that you have been all along—whether she is potently pungent or cloyingly sweet or some combination of both.

Much Love,

Auntie Amanda