The Humble Vegetable
October 12, 2021 2:28 AM   Subscribe

I have started volunteering once a week at a local farm stand. This is for many reasons — not least of which is I get a box of free vegetables in exchange for my time, which I will admit is what drew me to the gig in the first place — but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t mostly because it’s reminding me how to exist as a person in the world. [Pandemic related/via]
posted by ellieBOA (25 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
This rang true. I volunteered to prepare and distribute food for staff at a large vaccination site and found it unexpectedly therapeutic for similar reasons, so much so that I took unpaid time off to work additional shifts. It helped me
understand what was missing from my newly remote day job and map my way out of a mid-pandemic funk.
posted by scottjlowe at 3:28 AM on October 12 [1 favorite]

My CSA used to set up its distribution center in the outside dining space of a restaurant here in Brooklyn. They would enlist us all to chip in one week out of the year as one of the volunteer staff - we would turn up early, meet the four coordinators and each other, and set up tables and pick which table we would hand things out at and then we'd welcome in the rest of the CSA members, each of us manning our respective tables for two hours or so and handing things out to the sleepy other members rocking up with their different bags. One year I called dibs on the table where they were handing out basil and garlic both, and stood there with an enormous grin on my face, nodding enthusiastically in agreement as everyone walked up marveling "God, this smells so GOOD over here!"

Other weeks, when I wasn't on duty and was one of the sleepy stuff-picker-uppers, I would sometimes pitch in if the person behind whatever table was falling behind on getting stuff set out - an extra person to weigh out a half pound of peas or to set out pints of blueberries or what have you. Or if someone was puzzled by a particular vegetable and how to prepare it, and I knew a recipe, I'd share it, or I'd ask about recipes myself; some of the best "how do I cook this" advice I ever got came from another member who shrugged and said "you know, when it comes to vegetables, I always say that when in doubt, saute it with some garlic."

During the pandemic, though, they have closed down the mix-and-mingle distribution - the coordinators now set a table up just outside the restaurant patio, and the four of them show up early themselves to frantically stuff bags with the shares on offer, with one person waiting at the table to hand each member their bags. We all each had to sign up for a specific half-hour window within the distribution time during which we would show up, so as to spread out the crowd. I've been a member of the CSA for ten years now, so the members always give me a warm hello, but my visit is still over within under a minute - we say our hellos, they drop a paper bag of vegetables into my canvas bag and balance a bag of fruit and a carton of six eggs on top, and I take my leave.

I miss the old way.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:02 AM on October 12 [13 favorites]

I hadn't read Good Bones, linked in the FPP, but it's quite good.
posted by Harald74 at 5:04 AM on October 12 [5 favorites]

One of my favourite poems:
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
posted by ellieBOA at 5:07 AM on October 12 [51 favorites]

I know enough people with food co-op experience that trading labor for food never raised any labor rights concerns for me before a few years ago. But there’s a local comic book/games/used book and CD store near me that seems to mainly get its staff through a similar “volunteer” setup where folks then get a discount on any items that the store has for sale (from what I’ve heard, it is just a discount, not getting a certain value of goods for free - I would not be shocked if it ended up making the store money). The same place has other shady labor practices too, like I’ve heard that they fired an employee(*) who came out to the owners as trans. (* I don’t know if that person was getting paid fully or had one of these employee discount situations.) And while I know of some great WWOOF setups, I’ve also heard of exploitative ones. So now whenever I hear or read about people working for a business but not getting paid in money, I find myself much more suspicious of the setup. I’m glad it worked out well for this author!
posted by eviemath at 5:24 AM on October 12 [4 favorites]

Yesterday I had an encounter with a service worker who pulled up her shirt in the middle of our conversation, scratching her bare belly with abandon, only to look at me with abrupt, abject horror upon realizing what she was doing.

So one problem with working from home all the time, alone in my little makeshift office, is that I've gotten used to just letting fly with farts & belches. And now that I’m going into my actual office a few times a month, I do mostly remember not to fart in my cube at work, but the belching, well...

It is particularly unseemly as in isolation I developed the habit of belching out the word "barf" because a friend's boyfriend used to do it when we were like 15 and I thought it was the funniest thing ever. And the other day I just barely managed to stop myself from doing that, sitting in my cube at my VERY QUIET (though by no means deserted) office.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:33 AM on October 12 [12 favorites]

Although (slightly contradicting my last thought in my previous comment), the author’s take on human interaction being an ability that they think should just come naturally and be hard to forget makes me suspect that they are neurotypical and don’t have any neurodivergent close friends or family, and that they have not experienced significant bullying, oppression, or abuse. We should hope for the latter situation for everyone! But we should also hope for the cultivation of understanding that others have different life experiences. The poem the author describes at the end, that (from their description) seems to be about the poet trying to keep her kids ignorant of any badness in the world for as long as possible, is an understandable impulse in a parent who hasn’t developed the skills necessary to relate to people less fortunate than them, but is the wrong approach to developing thoughtful and compassionate human beings and thence a better society. There are ways to introduce kids to the harms of society in age-appropriate ways, and such considerations are of course also important. But kids from more fortunate families also need to know that their peers might be experiencing hurtful circumstances, and need to learn how to cultivate empathy and develop the ability to provide useful support. This has the also important side benefit of teaching kids the skills and resilience to deal with negative situations when they eventually do run into them as teens or adults. And the additional side benefit of helping people maintain those social skills through periods of lower or just unusual social interaction (the main topic of the essay), by having learned to be more intentional in their social interactions.
posted by eviemath at 5:38 AM on October 12 [2 favorites]

A similar experience to the author's can be had by volunteering at a soup kitchen or food pantry. I used to do this through church, which did much of the organizing for me. All I had to do was sign up and show up. I reject the theology but I miss the community. Obviously you can (and I do) do similar work of your own volition, but it's more friction in a busy life.

Art criticism is subjective but Good Bones isn't imo about keeping things from your children, it's about how to not give in to despair. It makes me cry and the other poems in the book it is from are interestig too.
posted by Wretch729 at 6:19 AM on October 12 [9 favorites]

Having retired recently, I volunteer for one or two shifts a week at the central warehouse of a large foodbank operation. I'm doing this for a number of reasons: I've always been concerned with the issues of food insecurity and food waste in the western world, the physical exercise is great (better than a gym membership), the atmosphere is friendly and positive, and they serve a great lunch to volunteers every day. Win-win as far as I'm concerned, and I highly recommend this sort of volunteer activity to anyone with the time to spare.

This is not exactly what the OP is doing, but there's the same sense of getting just a bit more involved and connected with the community.
posted by Artful Codger at 7:22 AM on October 12 [4 favorites]

Art criticism is subjective but Good Bones isn't imo about keeping things from your children, it's about how to not give in to despair. It makes me cry and the other poems in the book it is from are interestig too.

I should perhaps read the original poem and not just this authors summary of what they got out of the poem.
posted by eviemath at 7:34 AM on October 12

(the poem is both linked and posted in full in this thread)
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:02 AM on October 12 [1 favorite]

I developed the habit of belching out the word "barf" because a friend's boyfriend used to do it when we were like 15 and I thought it was the funniest thing ever.

Ha! I picked up the same lifelong habit from a friend, at about the same age. I wonder if that's actually more common than we realize.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:45 AM on October 12 [1 favorite]

I wonder if that's actually more common than we realize.

From observing when/where our cat chooses to break wind, I'd say such things are instinctive. Nature vs nurture.
posted by Artful Codger at 9:57 AM on October 12

....Wait, it's possible to consciously schedule instances of breaking wind?....
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:17 AM on October 12

I just got home from my weekly session as the dropoff site coordinator for a local farm market's CSA. I spend a chunk of time hanging out with my farmer friend, handing people their assigned shares for the week and saying things like "try roasting it!" and "that celery was just cut this morning" and "the apples are Macoun this week" to the customers and chatting with my friend in between. It is truly one of the highlights of my week, especially now that my kids are back in school in person and I'm home by myself. I love Maggie Smith's poem and have thought of it often since the Before Times, but wouldn't have thought to link it to this weekly experience I get to have.
posted by SeedStitch at 10:36 AM on October 12 [2 favorites]

Ah, the comment in which the poem was posted did not give the author and title, nor context. And I had not followed the link to the poem in the article. After reading, I can report that my initial comments that were based on the description of the poem in the article do in fact still hold. I maintain that one shouldn’t let one’s children be ignorant of the suffering of others. (Also, there are far more birds than stones thrown at birds for sure; and while there is too much child abuse, there is quite possibly more love.) But the poem sets up a false dichotomy: the world has sadness and suffering and it has love and kindness and good bones. Being able to take joy in the latter while knowing the former is a skill (necessary to some degree for the practice of empathy without getting burnt out), and apparently one that the poet is not very adept at, given the tone of the poem. Most people aren’t, and of course depression and anxiety particularly get in the way of the practice of that skill, even for folks who have learned it. I hear a touch of depression in the poem, I think.
posted by eviemath at 5:36 PM on October 12

De gustibus non est disputandum.
posted by Wretch729 at 7:38 PM on October 12

As someone who's struggled with depression my entire life, I read an almost desperate optimism into the last lines. When my brain is muttering persuasive toxic nonsense, sometimes another voice will whisper "This place could be beautiful, right? You could make this place beautiful." and I get a breath.
posted by Lexica at 9:07 PM on October 12 [7 favorites]

....Wait, it's possible to consciously schedule instances of breaking wind?....

Exhibit A: hey, pull my finger

posted by Artful Codger at 6:52 AM on October 13 [1 favorite]

Being able to take joy in the latter while knowing the former is a skill (necessary to some degree for the practice of empathy without getting burnt out), and apparently one that the poet is not very adept at

I dunno, for me, I find myself wondering if I might be better at that skill if my mother had spent less time detailing the monstrosities of the world, the thousand ways in which my life could be destroyed forever (and ask her how she knows, with her life--of which I was a big part--being such a lie, a cheat, a failure and sadness), the hopelessness and endlessness of it all... and more time pointing out the good bones.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 7:27 AM on October 13 [3 favorites]

(Maybe I would even want to make the place beautiful, instead of mostly wanting to lie down in a dark room forever)
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 7:30 AM on October 13 [1 favorite]

/Nods/ Yeah, parents can definitely go too far in the doom and gloom direction too. Not also pointing out the “good bones” means not helping one’s children develop the ability to withstand negative events in a socially or emotionally healthier way, so a different failure of the sort of skill set I’m thinking of. (Folks figure this out on their own or with help from other sources, of course, it’s just harder without parental help or modelling.) I can see where the poem would feel more like a necessary balance or antidote from that perspective, though.
posted by eviemath at 8:02 AM on October 13

You tell them when they aren't children anymore, which isn't a process that happens all at once.
posted by subdee at 8:06 AM on October 13 [2 favorites]

and apparently one that the poet is not very adept at

I get that this is your opinion. Which is totally fine. I like the poem, thank you ellieBOA for sharing
posted by elkevelvet at 10:57 AM on October 13 [2 favorites]

The original post spoke to me, and I've loved Maggie Smith's "Good Bones" for years. It's a poem about simultaneously feeling worn and cynical and wanting not to preemptively weigh newcomers down with despair, and in my opinion it uses hyperbole in some lines, and in others, implies a lot more than it flatly says - as poetry often does. It's wry and sweet and dark and it tosses that last hopeful line out in the way that people who are afraid to hope will wrap up hope in a joke. Smith's narrator - who, I assume, may or may not be any kind of reflection of Smith's mental state - has gone through some rough stuff, and is expressing the contradictory desires that emerge from that. The narrator inflicts their doom-laden perspective on us, repeating a fruitless claim that they keep these truths from their children (but of course they can't actually stop their kids from learning the disappointing truths of pain and heartbreak) as one chants a fruitless prayer. And then the fervent wish breaks out at the end, that - in spite of their parent's own failure to have made a nurturing world for them - they will thrive and heal what's broken.

That leap of faith at the end of "The Humble Vegetable" as the author finds growth and connection in service work reminds me of Marge Piercy's poem "To be of use".
posted by brainwane at 10:12 PM on October 13 [3 favorites]

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