Sunday, June 29, 2014

Il faut cultiver notre jardin

Three days later and this eggplant was exponentially bigger. Now that's what I call a monitoring & evaluation plan.
After a long day of work recently, I headed out to the community garden to do some watering and weeding. As tempting as it was crash at home, I always end up enjoying doing some mindless physical work outside. There’s a Zen satisfaction in plucking individual blades of grass from my rows of peppers and tomatoes, and I love feeling the sticky heat of the day give way to cooler evening breezes.

In my line of work, we deal with big, entrenched problems that don’t have easy answers. The heady early days of the Arab Spring have given way to something more complicated and less optimistic, to authoritarian backsliding in Egypt and fresh militia-driven conflict in Libya. It's also hard to define impact in the abstract work of democracy & governance - we're supporting democracy, not delivering x number of vaccines. And even if NDI could solve all the world’s problems, my role in the organization is a modest one. As much as I like to think that I’m single-handedly responsible for the successes (not to jinx it) of the Tunisian democratic transition, much of my work is administrative, a degree removed from the awesome activities in the field that it ultimately supports. 

So it’s nice to come to the garden to deal with concrete, solvable problems, one weed at a time, and to see short-term progress in the form of growing eggplants and reddening tomatoes.

As I was mulling the problem of the day (on this occasion, slavery in Mauritania), the words “Il faut cultivar notre jardin” from Voltaire’s Candide popped into my head. If my memory of high school French class can be trusted, it’s one of the last lines in the book, spoken after the characters have endured various trials and tribulations and gone in circles debating big existential questions. Depending on how you interpret it, it’s a call to pull back from the affairs of the world, or at least to stop with the endless philosophizing, and focus on the little patch of ground around you.

It also made me think of a book I recently read, Homeward Bound: Why Women are Embracing the New Domesticity, about the newfound interest in gardening and canning and knitting and cooking. Matchar argues that the trend is born out of frustration with a system that has failed us. If you don’t trust the safety of the food system and abysmal family policies make it all but impossible to “have it all,” leaving the workplace, growing your own food, and homeschooling your kids becomes incredibly appealing. Matchar expressed concerned that privileged, Whole Foods-shopping folks see personal lifestyle changes as the solution, instead of spending their energy advocating for change to the system that would benefit everyone.

I definitely see what she’s getting at, but I think that concern is overblown. I think we can both work towards solving the big problems—whether it’s by supporting democratic institutions in North Africa or tackling homelessness in DC or advocating to improve farm policy in the US—and doing what we can, where we are, to make the world a better place—whether by growing a garden or helping a new immigrant learn English. And in fact, I think that balance is a key ingredient for a satisfying life. Those personal actions may not result in the structural change we need, but they give us the satisfaction of seeing immediate impacts, forging new connections, and gaining a sense of control over our lives. They fuel us to take on the bigger challenges.

So go take on the big abstract problems of the world during the day, and in the evening, come home and cultivate your garden.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

On Building Community

On Memorial Day, I joined a meet-up group for a nine-mile hike in the southern part of Rock Creek Park. I had been wanting to do more hiking but didn’t know where to start, so it was an awesome way to jump in. It was a great group of people, and when we stopped for a lunch that I hadn’t packed for, my fellow hikers shared theirs.

After an iced latte and some time in the air conditioning, I headed out to the community garden to continue preparing the soil for planting, hard but satisfying work. In the process, I met the woman in my neighboring plot, a nice older lady who gave me a thumbs-up and told me I was doing a good job. When she saw me awkwardly balancing my camera on my bag to take a self-timer picture of myself in action (because I’m a huge dork), she offered to take one for me and the result was this great photo.

All in all, it was a day that made me thankful for the kindness of strangers.

My Catholic elementary/middle/high school ascribed to five goals of the Sacred Heart that infused almost everything we did. This spring, I went to an alumnae retreat themed around the goals. In a breakout discussion of Goal IV, “the building of community as a Christian value,” I talked about the challenges of building community in these post-college years. In a school setting, you work and play (and sometimes live) with the same people, and you are embedded within a framework of shared values—whether it was the goals at Stone Ridge, or the international/environmentalist/ ethos of Middlebury. Now, I have great friends from high school, college, and work, but with everyone spread out across DC and across the country, it’s harder to identify my “community.” (Though with a shared mission and lots of awesome people, my work comes close to one.)

One of the alums, a few years older than me, commented, “Building community doesn’t have to be one big party.” It happens in the individual interactions – in strengthening friendships, reaching out to acquaintances, being kind to a difficult person at work. That was a lightbulb moment for me, and I’ve thought about it ever since.

I was happy to realize that what happened on the hike and in the garden was community-building in the true spirit of Goal IV – one individual interaction at a time.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Commuting Gardener

For the second year in a row, I’m gardening at the Mamie D. Lee community garden by the Fort Totten metro station. Having my own organic garden has probably been my longest-running dream (it was always part of the dream that it would be organic). I remember playing “farm” in the backyard as a kid and telling high school dates that I wanted a garden.  Middlebury had an organic garden that you could volunteer in, but for whatever reason I never did. After college, though, I followed that dream to Turkey to go WWOOFing on two organic farms. It was definitely one of my favorite things I’ve ever done, and it gave me a real-life taste of farming.

Last summer, back in DC with time and a little income to spare, I dove right in. I took an awesome class at the Mamie D. Lee garden through an organization called the Neighborhood Farm Initiative. In biweekly classes, they walked us through all the steps of creating a garden, and they supplied us each with a 12x12 plot, compost and wood chips, seeds and seedlings, straw and bamboo. They set up an irrigation system so you didn’t even have to worry about watering. It was great to have all that information and support as I jumped into gardening... and now I am totally, totally obsessed.

This year, I’m flying solo with my own 12x24 plot – twice as large as last year! During the class, I didn’t have to do much supply gathering. So this year has come with lots of start-up work – clearing the plot of cover crops and turning the soil, hauling compost from Lowe’s, buying seedlings. My dad provided the car and the sweat equity to transport the compost (thanks Dad!), but since then, I’ve been schlepping my garden supplies and my baby seedlings by public transit. (As I was struggling through the turnstile on the way to the garden from Home Depot, a Metro employee struck up a conversation about my jalapeno seedlings and whether I was planting too late in the season. It was fun to talk shop, but not a good time, dude.)

Growing your own food is a pretty magical thing. Like every other yuppie/hipster, I hate that so much of our food is trucked from so far away and grown with so many chemicals, and I love that my actions can make a (very) small difference. My only carbon footprint will come from carrying the vegetables back on the metro to my apartment, the same route I came with them as seedlings.

Community gardening definitely some drawbacks—when I got my plot this year, it was full of trash and garden junk, including some buried sunglasses. And I look forward to having a house one day and gardening in my own yard. It would be awesome to walk out my back door with a cup of coffee to check on my plants, or to plant strawberries and asparagus and invest in summers future.

But mostly, I love the community aspect. In addition to the trash in my plot, there were also beautiful strawberry plants producing beautiful strawberries, along with garlic and mint and lettuce, all planted by a previous plot-holder and now being eaten by me. There are wheelbarrows, compost bins, and other tools on-site. If I ever need help, there’s lots of support from a diverse group of gardeners much more knowledgeable than me. It’s pretty cool to be part of a diverse space growing food sustainably in the nation’s capital.

Now that I have some knowledge and experience under my belt, I am excited to learn from my past mistakes and to see what I can grow this year. I am so excited to see what this summer in the garden will hold.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

A Clear Midnight

I was at the office late the other night, and walking back through Chinatown to the Metro, I flashed back to walking back from the library at college after it closed at 1 in the morning. Up the hill towards Mead Chapel, stars above and mountains behind. In my memory there's snow on the ground, which is more accurate than not, save for those few precious warm nights in September and May. A college campus is never completely deserted, but that walk was always quiet, and it gave me a few moments alone with my thoughts between studying and bed -- "away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done."

So much of the college experience is about the people you're with -- the professors whose words you remember more than any book they assigned you, the friends you drank with and played Quidditch with and were silly in the dining hall with, and all the other classmates who formed the backdrop. So much of what matters to us about places in general is the people in them. So it's nice to remember a little pocket of the college experience that was just mine.