Last week at market, rushing to set up as we had been up later than we should picking strawberries (yet again), I was tucked away behind our booth hastily arranging some boquets before I had to make a run back to the farm to feed chickens, cut more flowers, and make sure the sheep had not escaped yet (again).
Kneeling on the sidewalk behind our booth, I was not in front-customer mode at all, a bit in a flower reverie even as I moved as fast as possible, parceling daisies and bachelor’s buttons between vases. So I was surprised when a pair of feet advancing toward me from the side of our neighbor Lindsay’s booth were accompanied by a loud, rather gruff voice saying “Hey! Yeah, you, I was talking to you. THAT’s what I have been looking for!” As I looked up in surprise, I found the voice matched by a pointed finger on a long-haired grey-bearded man in a black sleeveless t-shirt who was fast approaching my little sidewalk flower workshop. Trying to compute, I asked “flowers?” to confirm I was understanding correctly. I know better than to judge what people might buy by their appearances, but this was certainly not the stereotypical bouquet customer. His equally large and grizzled compatriot smiled amusedly at the scene from the other side of Lindsay’s booth, as the first man confirmed “yeah, I’ve been looking all over for flowers and nobody had ‘em yet.” I explained I was just getting some ready to set out. “Are any ready right now?” “Well, if you can wait just a minute or two, I can finish one up for you right now. Which do you like?” I asked, pointing out the foundations of the 5 or 6 arrangements I had started. “That one.” He pointed to the sweet peas, and while I was internally noting that he certainly had some good judgement, he became less gruff and began to explain more: “We come here every saturday, on our way to visit mom. She has dementia, but she just loves her flowers. We had to get her some.”
A shiver ran through me and I froze, briefly, a calendula hanging in mid-air above the vase. Do I say it? Should I share? I snapped out of the freeze, stuffed flowers even more vigorously for a moment, then did quietly, a little shyly, explain that I too have watched dementia erode away parts of someone very close to me, over these last few years. As I spoke, I choose the flowers even more carefully, though still moving fast. She loves her flowers, she must need some daisies. Sweet peas for fragrance, old fashioned, that's good. Bachelor’s buttons, something blue, very bright blue, has to go in. I was no longer building the boquet just for a table display, but for a woman, a mom who loves her flowers, whose days may be hazy now but flowers still are clear.
I won't tell you who in my life has dementia, because it would become the only thing that most of you know about her. Of all the traits and skills and experiences and wonderful facets of her life, it is the last one I want you to think of if you hear of her or meet her. It dominates now, but it is not who she is. Still, this man’s mother existed for me in only a handful of facts: she had dementia, she loved flowers, and she had a son visiting her that morning. I tried to put it all into that mason-jar boquet. When it seemed full enough, I stood up and held it out to him, “How’s this?” I asked. “It’s perfect.” he replied, then the question I had already been puzzling over: “How much?”
I paused. Given our shared experience, I wanted to give him these flowers. Because really, I wanted that bouquet to fix it all. To clear her mind, to ease his sadness, and solve my own. To fix the thousand broken hurting things in all of us. But I know that it can’t. Instead, I mumbled a price half what I usually charge. He raised his eyebrows, clearly on to me, and handed me a $20, saying, “just 10 back” accurately guessing the normal price. I thanked him and took it, because of course, it won’t fix everything, and he wanted to help too.
The flowers don’t fix the broken. But if anything, the handoff, the interaction, the 4-minute conversation about a common experience, might have made the both of just a little less fallen-apart. It was one of those moments that makes me so grateful for the market, for being a farmer, for direct sales to real people in my town. There have been a couple of articles circulating lately about how farmers are suffering because people treat the market more as a carnival or social hang-out than a place to buy food. They lament the hipsters coming for coffee and pastries, wielding camera phones to feed their social media without buying any produce. And while there can be real issues with that, worth going into another time, I think those articles were missing something good about the modern market atmosphere, too.
Friday morning as I listened to the news over coffee and planning, a few tears fell onto the harvest sheet. I heard friends and communities mourning brokkennes and violence, crying out for a need to do something. We have to do better. We must fix this. I wondered if I was selfish for just wanting to go out and harvest flowers, tend to carrots, plant more beans. What am I doing, to help? What am I doing, at all?
But also I thought of community, of gathering, of how our market brings a range of ages, backgrounds, and viewpoints all together in a few blocks for a few hours each week. Our favorite thing is when you talk to each other in our booth. Sometimes is is old friends greeting each other in a surprise encounter at market, but often it is conversations between strangers, emboldened to talk to someone they have never met because we are all gathered here around the garlic scapes. Sometimes it is a ringing endorsement of arugula pesto, or a fierce debate about how to best use beets, or whether our egg pice is a scandal or a steal of a deal. But in any case, you are here, we are all out here together, connecting in some way. And that makes our community, in the tiniest bits, over and over again a little less broken. So bring it on: lattes and breakfast burritoes and baguettes and beets. Whatever it is that brings you out, into your town and next to your neighbors. Come join the gruff and grizzled dudes in their biker shirts and the sleekly manicured ladies cheek to jowl in the booth; just come on out and just be together.
It won't fix everything. It won’t undo anyone’s hurt or heal the families who are mourning someone lost because of the way they looked, the way they loved, or the uniform they wore. Just like my flowers won’t fix it, the beautiful heads of romaine won’t fix it. But gathering together, being people together may help keep us all just a little less fallen apart. And sometimes that, just that, is what we can do.
Everybody eats. Come on out and join us.