Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Living in the present

It seems that 93% of what Petra and I spend our time doing these days is planning for the future: Petra, through her studies and networking that are preparing her for her future career; myself, with my job search and recent grad school applications and soon with my own studies as well; and together continuing to try to prepare for our most treasured but hard-to-attain long-term hopes like starting a family and making a home somewhere. It's often hard to give ourselves permission to live in the moment we're in.

This past Saturday (thanks to some hard work planning ahead of time) I took some time off from my own life and helped lead a cleanup of a community garden in Brooklyn. The effort was part of Hands On New York Day, run by New York Cares (an excellent organization with whom I regularly volunteer, the NYC branch of the same org we went to New Orleans with). There were about 85 of us at the garden raking, painting picnic tables, fixing the greenhouse, and the like. As a leader there I didn't spend much time on any one task, but cruised around making sure everyone knew what they were doing, had what they needed, and that the work went smoothly and as intended.

This gave me the fun opportunity to meet just about everyone there: groups included a dozen sorority girls who were keen on tackling the dirtiest and heaviest jobs around while wildly gossiping, and a score of middle-management from an insurance actuarial firm who (reassuringly) worked methodically and with great care at all their tasks, from picking up sticks to weeding. Contrary to "community organizing" stereotypes, the vast majority of volunteers were black, not wealthy, and seemingly conservative: this has consistently been my experience at events like this. It was a delight to work with people who were such good workers and were so dedicated to helping others, and made me wish more white people, wealthy people, and liberals in this community were better at putting their whole selves where their mouths are (no offense to the exceptions to that statement).

I enjoyed a respite from responsibilities for a nice chunk of time when I decided (perhaps selfishly) that what most needed doing was keeping a lonely volunteer company: and so I found myself sitting on an upturned bucket with a truly delightful high-school freshman from New Jersey, sifting compost through some old window screens, commenting on everything from the squeamishness of men regarding worms and the glory of bowling and black and white photography to the degradation of Bella's character throughout the Twilight series. My hands smelled like life as I picked apart a soft dry twig, listening to the chickens warble and coo and the cool rain trickle from the leaves down onto the backs of my hands, the ground soft and rotting beneath my feet. My happiness in that moment, amidst the living fecundity and the bustle of selfless cooperative activity was like fertilizer to my heart, as well as a nourishing reminder of why I continue to commit myself to grassroots NGO work. And that, with herbs and chickens and the good kind of dirt, New York isn't always such a bad place to live.

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