Sunday, August 1, 2010

Pay it backward

As I waited for the guys at the bike shop to give me a call back this afternoon with the verdict on Ollie's rear hub, I was out digging around in my backyard garden plot. I proudly observed my little darlings peeking up through the topsoil on this pleasant, slightly overcast day. It's not the most lush of gardens -- at least not yet -- but I'm pretty proud of my spunky little bean and squash plants. Aren't they lovely? Oooh, I'm already daydreaming about homegrown crookneck squash ratatouille and bacon-wrapped roasted green beans. Mmmm.

As I stood admiring my little Eden in the City, over the fence I heard a man's voice calling me. "Hello, Miss, I heard you were starting a garden." It was Quentin, an older gentleman peering over the divider, offering me tomato and watermelon seedlings. Really?? It was our very first conversation. After all of the kindness of strangers along my round-the-country odyssey, here again I am humbled by a simple gift from a man I've lived next door to for the better part of the last 3 years and never met until today.

It's not like I dislike my neighbors, but somehow during my previous life I was always running around too much to pause and chit chat. Between work, social engagements, cooking, keeping up with friends on the phone, if I wasn't asleep I was always going, going, going. Why is that? What's the rush? I find myself wondering now. (Of course, being unemployed these days I have more time to reflect on these sorts of things.) I do know Henry, who has lived on the other side of me, and who has even contributed to the compost bin from time to time, and Bev and Marcelo down the block have had me for dinner a couple of times. But I just met Sonny the other day. He's lived on my street since before I was born, I think, and is the unofficial neighborhood watchman from his front porch lookout. I need to bring that man some baked goods. Quentin's overdue for some as well. (I seem to be logging a lot of hours over the stove as I procrastinate, putting off the task of distilling what exactly it is that I accomplished over the past year and a half into some kind of coherent paragraph on a resume, so I'd expect a few dozen cookies or mini quiches to find their way into neighbors' hands soon.)

A few years ago I saw the movie Pay it Forward. It's a drama about a young boy who decides to change the world one person and one kind act at a time. He begins by doing something to help three people who must in turn each do good deeds for three other people, who then each reach out to three other people, and on and on. A steadily growing, one-person-at-a-time revolution -- right up my alley. Admittedly, it was a bit sentimental (and the film did not have to end that way!) but I think the idea's been percolating in my subconscious for years. In a less structured way, I've been trying to pay it forward, helping people out whenever and however I can. But considering all of the food and hugs and shelter I've been freely and openly offered by people all around the country, and help here in the District since my return, I'll be paying it backward for some time. Maybe for the rest of my life.

One of the things I have been trying to focus on since devoting myself to learning about food and community is, well, taking time to engage with the community. I'm not running off to start a commune or anything, but I am not a fan of the trend toward insulation and isolation that seems to be swallowing our country. So I'm starting my own revolution. In our normal, everyday lives it's time we look each other in the eye and smile instead of scurrying past with our heads down. Share a cup of coffee and a recipe. Offer encouragement and consolation and help. Give people the benefit of the doubt and maybe a little space in the bike lane for a change. Grow things and cook things with friends (and not-yet-friends). Maybe that's how I'm meant to give back. Cooking my way to a better world... I like it.

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