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.
Interacting with and being perceived by other people doesn’t seem like the sort of ability a human being should be able to lose track of. It’s not like riding a bike, which, regardless of the famous phrase about it, involves balance and coordination and muscle memory and man-made machines, and so seems, in fact, entirely reasonable to forget. Interacting with other people is more like eating or breathing: doing it is more or less an inevitability of being alive. Sure, there are ways to avoid it, circumstances that can limit our opportunities to do it, reasons we might or might not be able to do it well, but if nothing else, all of us who survive past babyhood do that with the help of another person. Humans aren’t like sea turtles, who are born small but fully mobile, who can and must forge their own path into the ocean without anyone to guide them; we scream our way into life totally helpless, not able to so much as lift our own heads, and even the most independent among us need years of support before we can survive in solitude.
I have, despite this, utterly forgotten how to act with others. I know the knowledge is within me, because it must be, right? Surely I spent decades walking around this planet, exchanging pleasantries and having conversations, without having to puzzle my way through every agonizing step as though attempting it for the first time. This must be true; I remember it, even if that memory is clouded with a haze of unreality, like all my memories of life before time lurched sickeningly out of its track. I was always a little odd, but I know that I once possessed in spades the ability to say things to other people without feeling like ladywithmath.jpeg after every accursed word. It seems wrong on a cosmic scale that I am now reduced to biting back little shrieks of frustrated confusion during every interaction I have, but that’s where I am, and I can see — in their eyes, in the way they carry themselves, in the things that they say — that most of the people I encounter are there, too.
It is hardly the worst of what the pandemic has done to us. The worst, of course, is the millions of deaths, and from there, there is a long and incalculable list of harms and losses which cannot be ordered, a roiling cauldron of grief and despair and anguish and horror. That so many of us have forgotten how to exist amongst each other does not rank on this scale, which is, itself, quite horrible. If I were to go back in time and tell myself at age twenty that someday I and nearly everyone I know would forget the basics of person-to-person interaction, and that, in the scheme of things, this would be a relatively small problem, the twenty-year-old version of myself would have no choice but to conclude that he was hurtling towards the apocalypse. In a way he was; in a way we all were. For all we try to pretend and posture and pontificate about what comes next, the only thing anyone can really say for certain is the world we once lived in is not coming back. It never is, of course — the world is changing every second, and each of us along with it — but it feels particularly stark just now.
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. I don’t mention this because I have any interest in shaming her — honestly it was very relatable — but because the hanging moment of awkwardness between us was like a little memorial for the way things were before. We both knew, in a searing moment of shared clarity, that what had just happened was something that never would have occurred in the reality we used to inhabit, and neither one of us knew how to acknowledge it. In the end, she said, “I, uh, well — yep,” and I said, “Yeah, that’s — no worries,” and we each pretended that we’d communicated something successfully to the other, although, of course, we had not. All we really did was use the first words that came to mind to fill the uncomfortable space between us, into which nothing could be said that would make any semblance of sense. If either one of us had, in that moment, possessed the wherewithal or comfort to admit, “We have become too like the animals we are, released from captivity into a wilderness we no longer recognize,” certainly we would have done so, but we didn’t, and likely still don’t.
Personhood is not easy, and seems sometimes to grow more difficult with every subsequent breath, but I understand vegetables. I understand that a tomato cannot lie to you, and will betray with its flavors its happiness with the conditions and season in which it was raised; I understand that a bell pepper begins life green and bitter, but blushes and sweetens the longer it’s left on the bush. I understand that broccoli and cabbage and kohlrabi and kale are all just different members of the same close-knit family, each merely a brassica encouraged towards different interests, grown to emphasize different parts of the self. I understand that alliums (onions, garlic, shallots, etcetera) are hard to define beyond the acknowledgment that they make almost everything taste better. I understand that a jalapeño is unbearably spicy to some and pathetically mild to others, and that the distinction depends on the person in question, the jalapeño in question, and how much of the rib you leave attached in slicing it. I understand that a carrot is always a carrot, but it’s a better carrot after it’s been roasted.
And so I install myself inside the farm stand every Saturday, and I talk about vegetables. It is uncomplicated and easy; they’re the freshest vegetables I’ve ever eaten, these gorgeous peppers and beans and squashes and greens that are grown mere feet from where I sell them, picked a single day before I find myself packing them into bags and pressing them into the hands of unfamiliar people. I suggest recipes. I offer condolences that various seasons (radish; basil; tomato) have come to an end. I joke and laugh with the other volunteers, and remember what it feels like to meet new people, to make new friends. It is reminding me how to have conversations. It is reminding me how to be a whole person, not just a collection of fears and despairs and hours of waiting, desperately, for a day to unfold that is different — better — than the day which came before. It’s a little thing, a small comfort, but like tomatoes, the best comforts are often small.
There is a poem by Maggie Smith that I think about often, called “Good Bones.” In it, the narrator laments that life is often terrible, explaining that she keeps this and a variety of other harsh realities from her children in the hopes of selling them, so to speak, on the world. It’s been a bad few years, with more heartache sure to come, and, of course, a vegetable is only a vegetable. Even so — and despite the many years it’s been since I was a child myself — I can’t help but think of the final lines of that poem as I look over the baskets of produce every Saturday, overflowing with the ripened culmination of so much careful, loving work: this place could be beautiful, right? You could make this place beautiful.