Gifts from unexpected places


Almond Tree; Photo credit: Yves Remedios

As my birthday approaches, (stalks is more what it feels like), I look back on the year past and try to figure out some direction for the upcoming year. Lately, I want to add "should I make it that long." It's not been an easy year or a particularly good one. Family relations strained, hopefully not beyond repair. Illness and death the too-familiar companions of the second half of life seem near by, maybe nearer than is comfortable. Just yesterday I learned of the shocking and horrific death of Jeff Ohanneson, a farmer in Bakersfield. This quiet, gentle man (at least he seemed so to me) died in an accident on the farm. His untimely death will be excruciating for all his close and extended family in the midst of birthdays and holiday preparations. Our hearts break for them. 

The one time I met Cheryl's husband was a year ago, at Christmas time. Caleb and I ran into Cheryl and Jeff in the parking lot of the local grocery store. What struck me was that this couple, married 30+ years, I think, were walking arm-in-arm like newlyweds. At Christmas. Going grocery shopping. To me, that is nothing short of inspirational. One other couple showed me a model for staying in love later in a marriage like that, and that was Linda and Stephen.

Each Christmas we'd have holiday lunch with "Sze's girls" my father-in-law's pediatric office staff. Cheryl walked into his office when he was a newly-minted doctor and she a newly-minted high school grad and she has worked for him ever since. She's more than a head nurse all these decades later, more like part of the family. Now her daughter works there, too. That's how they do things in Bakersfield. It's something sort of Capra-esque about that life. I both don't get it and long for it. At least parts of it. But, then military brats often have a hazy, wistful notion of that thing called a "hometown". Do we miss it or just the notion of it? I think the promise of that powerful sense of belonging is what we think we miss. But how can one know?

What I know I belong to is a town larger than Bedford Falls or Bakersfield. I belong to world, spun from equal parts hard work and good fortune. When I had the great pleasure of meeting Arie McFarlen this summer I felt a new chapter opened in my professional life. I was interviewing her for my book on heritage pig farmers. I also felt a shift internally, as I began to confirm that writing is what I'm happiest doing. I'm most alive when I'm telling the stories I'm sure others will find delightful, too. I've been very lucky to get feedback from unexpected places (an editor, an author) and in thrilling ways (Monterey conference, Alaska media tour). Meeting Arie and other farmers there at Slow Food, I felt a sense of possibility and that is intoxicating.

After the devastating fire at Arie's Maveric Heritage Ranch just before Thanksgiving, I remembered another important thing that anchors me to this world. I rediscovered Marge Piercy's "To Be of Use" when I was figuring out how to help Arie. I look forward to flying to South Dakota to help them rebuild. I offered to come right away but two things happened. First, I realized I had no way to get there - no miles, no money. Second, she learned of other volunteers and their schedules, making my visit more useful later, in the Spring.

Then, two remarkable women reached out to me from across the Internet, food writers I've never met and only corresponded with. Each of them offered me miles to fly to Arie's farm to help out. Virtual strangers but true friends. Arie continues to be inspirational as she valiantly cleans up the remains of her farm and begins rebuilding, sharing her pain but also her joy at the discovery of generous offers of help and encouragement. I am moved by the generosity of these new friends, Arie for sharing in her way, Eddie & Claire in theirs.

Once in a while I get an unexpected note from a reader saying something I wrote tickled them or moved them, taught them something, or just caused them to think. When someone takes the time to let you know that, it's such a gift! A pig farmer I spoke with thanked me for my praise about his pork and we remarked how it was the same for both of us. He sends his pork out into the world, reasonably confident someone will enjoy it and appreciate it. I do the same with words. But often we never know, we never hear those words, or get that affirmation back.

I try to remember to do the same, let someone know when they've written something that touched me or grown something I've enjoyed.

The illnesses, deaths and other challenges of those close to me and those friends I've just met, have proven to me that these connections are my home. I try live it fully, authentically and try to be a good friend to others. I fear I fall short too often, even with best intentions.

In a world that can leave the heartiest of us feeling untethered and sometimes very alone, when we find these opportunities to remember how lucky we are, we really must pause and be grateful. It is a wonderful life, even if in real life George would've been prosecuted for theft regardless of his friends' repayment of the lost sum. Bad things happen to good people, true. But unexpected joy is there, too. Kindness from strangers. Gifts that people like Jeff never knew he gave me, the image of a loving couple in a happy marriage. The twinkle in Stephen's eye when he looked Linda's way. Generous offers of miles to enable me to go help Arie. These are unexpected gifts that, in a hard year, feel like lifesavers.

This year, resolve, if you do such things, to tell someone when they've given you encouragement. Even if they didn't know they did so. Say a kind word. Take two seconds to tell someone what they did, mattered to you. That's the least we can do, and the most. It costs nothing, means everything.

L'chaim (to life!). Happy Birthday (to me). Happy holidays - to all!

[Ed Note:  Just after I posted this my niece sent me a link to this wonderful story in the New York Times about a Depression Era Anonymous Donor, it's quite moving and entirely in the spirit of my holiday wishes this year, and this post. I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I do. Hard Times, a Helping Hand.]