The Garden and the Track: Uncovering the Gift of Need
The second conversation involved the husband of a colleague. I had taught their son, a witty and endearing character, so I made my way over to Harold, who seemed to be at the end of his workout.
“Hello! How are you?” I offered. “How about some lettuce to take home?” I was getting kind of hooked on accosting people with salad evangelism.
“Oh, hey! No thanks,” he replied. “Debbie is out of town for the weekend, and it’s just me. Besides . . . shouldn’t you donate that?”
I explained that the logistics of donating would not work out for this “small batch” harvest.
“Would you eat it, if you had it?” I asked. (This was one of those moments where my father’s history as a sales rep seemed to align with my current-day hippy maneuvers.)
“Um, OK,” Harold said, smiling. The McIlvaines are fabulous smilers.
SOLD. I had somehow convinced Harold that the greens were literally good to go. That brief exchange informed the revelation of my final conversation--the most dramatic and intense--and the one that would motivate me to keep returning to the track.
Another woman wearing earbuds was approaching. She had on a Harvard t-shirt and Harvard shorts. I pitched my semi-practiced, mid-distance invitation in her direction, and she took out one bud to discern what I was saying.
“Can I offer you some lettuce to take home with you today?” I asked. Again, with the smile.
She looked confused, and even annoyed. When she walked closer to me I reiterated the offer and introduced myself.
“No,” she said point-blank. She went on to explain her connections to Penn Charter, and that she lived right next door. She pointed to her house.
"Shouldn’t you be donating this stuff to people who need it?” the woman asked. It was a question that was not posed gently.
I am always intrigued by people who offer ideas as if they are new. It is a personal curiosity for me as a member of a family of dedicated Explainers and Knowers. Over time I have noted that I am also very susceptible to pontificating; I suppose it is a quality that might also connect with my career choice. But I also know, in that way we know the things that are not the best parts of ourselves, that this habit emerges from a universal need to be seen in the world. I had learned from my father that to be a Knower is to be in command of something that others might not have--a shine that people might want to keep looking at.
I explained to the woman that Penn Charter garden produce goes to four different destinations, faithfully shepherded by teams of volunteers: to our own cafeteria, to Whosoever Gospel Mission, to Depaul House, and to SHARE. What stood greening in front of us, however, was a tiny crop that would not permit a special trip to one of these locations.
The woman seemed satisfied, at least, that we were in fact serving People in Need: the lesser, the unfortunate, the hungry, the not-us. I did not mention that some of the lettuce would also be making a trip to Connecticut to regale my favorite aunts and uncles. Or that these specific greens would be perfect with nothing but lemon, oil, salt and pepper. Or that at the annual dinner, my children would take pride in serving the salad course like tiny French waiters, and the aunts would regale me with compliments on their precociousness.
I tried one more time to get the woman’s name. She shook my extended hand but kept tight hold of her secret. She began walking away and then stopped to lift her foot up to the railing and tie her shoe. Then jauntily, sportingly, she lobbed this one back to me:
“Besides . . . I’m more of an arugula person.”
“Ah!” I answered. “Well that’s good to know. I will be sure to grow it for you.”
And I intend to do that. Penn Charter crop seeds are donated each year by Primex Garden Center--exactly 25 packets--and arugula is not generally a favorite of children. But even if I have to go purchase the seeds on a grim day in March, I will grow our neighbor her arugula and look for her again next summer on the track.
Everyone needs greens. More importantly, everyone needs. My colleagues in the lunchroom on a June day at 12:30 may not go hungry, but they need the gesture of love that comes with a delivery of campus-grown vegetables. We should also remember that members of our community need food in the sense that they might not have greens as part of what they consume regularly, and might also have challenges around acquiring food. It is imperative that we remember that our community, across all of its constituencies, encompasses both metaphorical and literal, daily need.
At the track, the contours of need were revealed in the rich ways that emerge from the process of growing things. Sweet Patty and her family deserve the most gorgeous lettuce, and the bit of new conversation that it might inspire at dinner. My colleagues deserve to be regaled in their workplace; we need these gestures of care at least as much as the actual stuff. And finally, our neighbor needs; she needs us in spite of it all, just as we need her on our pathway of continuing revelation, and in ways we can’t fully understand. Being “in need” takes so many more forms than the ones that arise in a food pantry or men’s home. On a summer morning at the track, I gathered all of those gifts that rise up in the gesture of giving away. It is the revelation that seems sprout-new every time it pushes up again.
When we discover the secret of being inwardly at worship while outwardly at work, we find that the soul's silence brings us to God and God to us. Silence takes us beyond the limits of consciousness and into the heart and mind and will of God.
—J. Brent Bill, Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality