Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Signs of spoilage

Monday, 5/21
She told me it would be dirty work. I couldn’t pretend I didn’t remember that, as though I believed I would just bake brownies every day. In my interview we talked about how much gleaning I would do and what exactly “gleaning” entailed: sorting through boxes of past-their-prime fruits and vegetables to see what we could use in our meals. I knew what I was getting myself into.

Somehow, though, this recognition does not make the smell of 300 pounds of half-rotten vegetables any easier to tolerate. My car smells like tomato wine, or it would if tomato wine existed. I roll my windows down, but it doesn’t help much; the 90-degree heat holds everything about the rot in my nose, my senses, my consciousness.

What am I doing? I ask myself on the drive back to the office. I know what led me here, at least; I wanted this job because I love food, and I hoped I could translate that love into meaningful work. I am quickly realizing that I actually just love fresh food, the kind I buy from Whole Foods or a farmer’s market, or at this point, any place where the food doesn’t have visible mold on it. I am also realizing that while I love making food for my friends—hosting elaborate dinner parties for a dozen people or so—planning and executing four meals a week for 75-100 people does not hold quite the same charm.

I pull up to the back door of our building. Reflection time is over. My coworkers come out to help me carry everything in from my car, and I sort, weigh, and record my haul. 32 pounds of peaches, 56 of corn, 47 of tomatoes, endless squash and zucchini. About half of everything I picked up is unusable, so into the compost bin it goes.

Ah, the compost bin. From far away it looks almost beautiful, a rainbow of refuse. The closer I get, though, the more I see the signs of spoilage:  mold, flies, the occasional small animal casing the joint. I go out there two, three times every day, but I try my best to make those visits as quick as possible. Sometimes I hold my breath for the 15 seconds it takes to dump a boxful into the muck.

Of course, Mondays are the hardest. As soon as I’ve sorted and weighed what I’ve gleaned, recorded it, and composted the bad stuff, volunteers show up to help me process it all. The same group comes every Monday, 10 or 15 young adults with developmental disabilities. Working with them is not my strong point, to say the least. I’m terrible at it. I’m impatient, nervous, unsure of what they can and cannot do and how I should talk to them. I know they know I’m uncomfortable, but I can’t quite figure out how to hide it, or better yet, get over it.

Jack, a thin blonde guy with a crooked nose, has a habit of asking, “Why?” no matter what I tell him to do.

“Jack, take these tomatoes out of this bin and put them on this pallet.” “Why?” “Because they need to go on a pallet.”

“Jack, take the husks off of the corn, then put the husks in here and the corn in here.” “Why?” “Because people can eat the corn but they can’t eat the husks.”

“Jack, sort through these squash and put the hard ones here and the squishy ones there.” “Why?” “Because that’s what I need you to do right now!

“So sorry,” Jack says, in a swift, instinctive way, a way that makes it clear he’s been apologizing his whole life.

What am I doing?

Almost as soon as Jack and his friends get here, though, they are gone. I walk into our kitchen and take my lunch out of the refrigerator, my lunch. It’s healthy (enough), fresh, and expensive: a beet and arugula salad with sheep’s milk feta, roasted pecans, and a white wine vinaigrette I made myself. Fresh crusty bread, toasted and slathered with butter. As much watermelon as I can fit into an old yogurt container. I eat like this every damn day. And I love it. Do I want everyone to be able to eat like this, to choose what they want, buy it, cook it, and eat it? Yes. Would I compromise my comfort to make that happen? It would appear not.

But I try not to think about this right now. I try to put everything out of my mind except my lunch; I lean against the counter and relax into my meal. This, I think—this is what I love about food.

Anne, my supervisor, comes in just as I swallow my last bite. We go over all of the salvageable produce I gleaned, divide it among industrial-sized blue bins, and store it wherever we can find fridge space. We talk about what we’ll do with all this stuff, all these quickly-decomposing-but-still-usable fruits and vegetables. We talk about potential recipes for the week, we fold aprons and hand towels, and we pull out meat from the freezer. I tell her about the kale salad I made for dinner last night, and she tells me about the lime, basil, and gin cocktail she mixed up on Saturday. When I talk to her, I love this job. In fact, when I talk to anyone I work with I love it. I’m not here for the rotten squash; I’m here hoping I can soak up some of their goodness. But I feel like a fraud.

Friday, 8/10
I love working on Fridays. Normally I don’t come in; Anne usually works alone to plan next week’s meals. But this week—my last week—she’s on vacation, so I’m filling in for her. I chat with the Friday morning cooks, check out the contents of the freezer and the pantry, and piece together menus based on what we have in stock. It’s like a word problem:  you have 33 pounds of chicken, 27 pounds of ground beef, 15 pounds of rice, and 3 bins of vegetables. How many people can you feed?

I figure it out, come up with recipes, and email Anne:

Hello! I've outlined some possible menus for next week. I'm not sure what days we have dessert donated, but since we have so many peaches and bananas in the freezer I thought it would make sense to use them. As far as meat goes, we have a lot of chicken and smaller amounts of ground meat, beef, and bacon. I took out the chicken and ground meat so that should be ready to go. We also still have a lot of produce in the fridge, mostly peppers and squash/zucchini (some of which is already chopped), plus tomatoes and potatoes. Here’s what I came up with:

Parmesan breaded chicken tenders
Roasted squash
Mashed potatoes

Chili mac with cheddar, tomatoes, and hot peppers
Roasted zucchini

Black beans and rice with peppers (hot/sweet) and onions (and bacon?)
Squash and zucchini with cumin and chili powder
Sliced tomatoes

Beef stew with lots of summer veggies, over rice
Cucumber salad

Possible desserts:
Peach cobbler
Banana cake with chocolate/cinnamon chips

See you soon (very soon, I hope)!

xoxo Sarah

I hit send. Why does this list of simple meals feel so important to me? It’s not exactly a stroke of culinary genius to suggest that we use beef to make beef stew. My pride in this work makes me feel silly for a moment, like I’m six years old again and proud of myself for tying my shoes. Everyone else learned that two years ago? Oh.

Anyway, I don’t dwell on it because it’s time for me to go. Or almost anyway—one more trip to the compost bin. A local farmer dropped an unexpected donation at our doorstep last night, and some of the vegetables will not last until Tuesday. The recent heat wave hasn’t made the task of composting any more appealing, but perhaps because it’s my last week, my last day, I almost feel a premature nostalgia for this act. I even start to think that maybe gleaning wasn’t so bad. I know I’m idealizing, but I want to hold onto everything about this summer as long as I can.

I stand outside for a moment, sweating, staring at the compost. Beauty and color and ripeness—it is all slowly dying, decaying into dirt. And for what? To become the ground we walk on, the soil we grow in. I couldn’t do it, I think. These inanimate objects have me beat. But then I realize that like it or not, I am doing it. We’re all doing it—slipping away, day by day, piece by piece, often quite imperceptibly. But does our slow death birth any new life? Do we make our death worth it? I start to think I could learn something from this compost.

Or maybe it’s just compost.

Then again, maybe so are we.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Growing up

What does it mean to be a grown-up? I haven’t used that word in awhile; somehow it doesn’t seem very grown up to say it. Children call adults grown-ups; grown-ups don’t call themselves that.

But it’s the word I want to use here, because I feel like a kid today. It’s not that I did anything particularly thoughtless or irresponsible, or that I’m experiencing a sense of childlike wonder. No, I don’t feel childish or childlike—I just feel like a kid, a little lost, looking for guidance, in need of someone to tell me what to do. In my experience, this is something grown-ups are loathe to admit—that they (we?) are at a loss, cannot handle things themselves. So, I feel like a kid today.

When I wrote about church, my thoughts turned to why my generation has trouble with it. When I think of “grown-upness,” the same thing happens: the concept calls to mind all that’s been written about how we millennials just can’t seem to grow up in the way the world wants us to, expects us to. Depending on whom you ask, we’re floundering or exploring or procrastinating or freeing ourselves from the status quo. I’m not sure which of these, if any, we’re doing; all I know is it all feels very disorienting.

Every generation thinks they’re the exception, that they’re creating something new. In my experience, when people talk about millennial exceptionalism a mocking tone often creeps in. The term “unique and special snowflake” comes to mind. We’ve been brought up to think we deserve trophies just for showing up, they say. We think that our workplaces should accommodate our schedules rather than the other way around. We’re delaying or disavowing marriage and kids because we’re selfish. We believe the world cares enough about us that they want to see pictures of what we ate for breakfast…they say. And perhaps they’re right. Perhaps many of us do think we’re special snowflakes deserving of trophies and flex time and freedom and perfectly cooked quinoa porridge.

Setting aside that these stereotypes only take into account a very privileged, very white subset of millennials (a subset of which I am, for better or worse, a card-carrying member), they often don’t look at why we feel the need to be unique or what this is doing to us. I said at the beginning of this that I feel like a kid today. A lot of people my age(ish) I talk to feel like this every day, and it’s not because they want to. All of this nonconformity, this throwing off of expectation, betrays our lack of trust in anyone or anything. We’ve watched our parents divorce, our economic system unravel, our politics devolve into deadlock, our institutions become outdated at best and disgraced at worst.

And so we believe we have no choice but to start something new—but we, like everyone else, have no idea what that new thing will be. This uncertainty looks a lot like failure, and we feel that, deeply. Almost everyone I know has experienced depression or anxiety serious enough to feel abnormal and in some cases debilitated. Many of those people, myself included, are ashamed to admit this publicly; we know it plays into millennial stereotypes that we can’t handle ourselves, can’t grow up. And believe it or not, most of want to be grown-ups, want to feel some sense of stability. So we keep trying.

We try, with varying degrees of success. Some of us have gotten good enough at “adulting” that we have convinced everyone but ourselves that we know what we’re doing (and yes, we’ve turned the word “adult” into a verb—those who can’t do, conjugate). I even know a few people with a stable job, partner, multiple children, and a house they bought with their own money. Others are still floating, looking for a way to fit their special snowflake shape into the blizzard coming down around them. Most are in between, kids some days and grown-ups others. All of us, from what I can see, are painfully aware of the tenuous balance life in all its forms requires.

I hoped that by the end of this—and I feel that I am nearing the end of it—I would have some conclusion, something to please millennials and our elders alike. We got this! We’re not as selfish or stunted as you or we think we are! We can function in the current adult society! Sorry, no. All I can say is I am truly hopeful that we’ll make something of ourselves and the world we’re inheriting. Yes, I know a lot of people who are anxious and depressed and feel like they’ll never grow up. But here’s the thing: they’re still dreaming, still creating, still doing some really amazing, love-spreading, life-giving, community-changing things.

We might not know what we’re doing, but we’re showing up. Isn’t that all we can ask of each other?

Sunday, January 3, 2016

I'm not going to church today.

It’s 9:57 on a Sunday morning, and I’m not getting ready for church.

It feels like a confession, writing that. Today is Sunday, so what else should I be doing? I went to divinity school, after all, and the church I go to just gave me some money to do a project I really, really want to do. The minister there gives thought-provoking sermons, the music is consistently good, the people kind.

But I have a lingering cold, and Schuyler’s working all day. I want to go for a walk soon, and there have been so many people around lately. I’m still coming off that holiday rush of crowds, noise, fullness. And the church I go to—well, they wouldn’t want me to come to a service just out of guilt. Right?

Right. So why this persistent, nagging anxiety the idea of church and of choosing not to go to it provokes in me? It’s not new, it’s been here for years, and yet I haven’t wrestled it to the ground yet. I should go to church, I like the idea of church, I even like actual church sometimes…but it’s always a struggle, never quite fits. Is it the millennial in me, some unrealistic expectation that everything I do should bring some kind of authentic personal fulfillment into my life? Am I just being too goddamned self-centered? (The number of times I’ve used the word “I” in this so far does not escape me, and yes, I meant to say “goddamned”.)

Perhaps. There is a tendency to navel-gaze in me, a habit of reflecting things into the ground and coming to no useful conclusions in the process. Still, there seems to be something more here, and it’s not only me who thinks so. As a society we’re forgetting how to “do” religion, in some part willfully. This is no new observation: think about how many times you’ve heard the phrase “spiritual but not religious,” how many people you know who care about other people and ethics and God and stories, but just don’t feel at home in organized religion. Depending on who you are, maybe that doesn’t resonate with you, but in the church (whatever that means anymore) this is a big bewildering full-fledged crisis.

And I’m supposed to be one of the few young faithful (believe me, lots of churches have assured me of this), one of the ones who keeps the church alive. It feels like a responsibility, something I’ve been educated and groomed for, and willingly so. I want to be a part of the church, want to lead in some way even, but walking into a room full of strangers and making myself talk to them sounds like the worst way to spend my morning.

I can’t stress enough that this church, the particular church I’m talking about, is wonderful. The people, I mean. (That’s what church is, right?) They care about the things that I care about, those liberal church values: community, authenticity, social justice, openness. They even care about God! Well, most of them…but let’s not get into that right now.

Here’s the thing: those values are all terrifying. Practicing them requires work, discomfort, vulnerability, risk, failure. Just like talking to strangers, which, as I have already noted, is something I hate. (Unfortunately, that’s kind of all Jesus ever did: talk to strangers. How inconvenient. Again, we won’t get into that right now.)

I read an article yesterday that offered some advice that seems to fit here: to live a good life, rather than asking ourselves what we want, we have to ask ourselves what we are willing to struggle for. I guess that’s what I’m trying to figure out here: am I willing to struggle for community, to work to get to know people who will care for and disappoint me, who will make me feel awkward and loved and judged and forgiven? Because that’s what the church does. That’s what people do.

Everyone doesn’t find that community in church. The church hasn’t done a particularly good job of providing it, which probably has a lot to do with that crisis I mentioned earlier. What brings me so much hope and anguish is that I know it can, and can abundantly. And I can play a part in inviting people into that community, welcoming them into the imperfection and the grace.

The only problem is, I have to make myself, let myself go in first. I guess there’s always next Sunday.