Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Inspiration and Challenge of Vacant Rows

I’ve always been fascinated by second acts – people who intentionally or serendipitously reinvented themselves for a subsequent chapter of their life.  I think of people like Ina Garten who was working as a nuclear budget analyst in the White House when she bought a small food store in Westhampton Beach, NY called “The Barefoot Contessa” – the moniker by which she has ever since been known through her television cooking shows and string of published cookbooks.

I think of JK Rowling who started out adulthood as a researcher, later taught English as a second language in Portugal, eventually becoming a single mom on welfare when she began to write stories of a young wizard orphan boy named Harry Potter.

There are politicians, like John Glenn who first orbited the earth as an astronaut and later walked the halls of the Senate chambers. Like Elizabeth Warren who was an elementary school teacher before she went to law school, practiced law out of her home, and after a few more turns was elected to the United States Senate.  And like Ronald Reagan who was a radio sports broadcaster before becoming a film actor and ultimately President of the United States.

There are business types, like Jeff Bezos who had a computer science career on Wall Street before launching Amazon.

There are star athletes who reinvent themselves, like OJ Simpson…. OK, maybe he’s not the best example.

And there are ordinary types like Clara Peller who was a manicurist in Chicago when she was hired as a temporary manicurist for a television commercial.  One thing led to another and, after starring in a Wendy’s Hamburger commercial asking the famous question, “Where’s the beef?”, went on to enjoy a second career as a character actor.

Second acts.  Explosive second careers.  Loving second marriages.  “Re-wirements”, as a friend of mine once put it, instead of “retirements”.  Putting oneself first to one use and then another.  Less, "and finally;" more, "and then."  Perhaps something like a preacher becoming a farmer.

Perhaps something like the garlic rows in the garden.  Planted last October in a 12-row section in one zone of the garden and an 8-row “spillover” in another zone of the garden, we harvested the mature bulbs this week.  It’s a satisfying feeling, after all these months, to finally dig and pull and bundle all those aromatically bulbous stalks onto the empty shelves of the greenhouse to cure for storage.  But it leaves a big vacancy in the garden – a mere half-way through the season.

We could, of course, start to coast.  We could simply retire those sections until next year.  After all, there is plenty growing in the other reaches of the garden.  We have more than enough to do with what remains – weeding and watering, watching for bugs or diseases, gathering into the kitchen a thing or two as they ripen.  And we have other interests and projects to occupy our time and imaginations.  But leaving those spaces fallow seems like missed opportunity.  There is still time before late autumn frosts.  There is yet fertility in the soil.  There are storage crops we would later appreciate.  I ponder the question of stewardship and how we responsibly use ourselves and our resources.

And I’m haunted by the sound of Clara Peller’s voice, asking over the image of that vast and empty bun, “where’s the beef?”; knowing that ultimately she’s not talking about hamburgers at all.

And so we planted seeds in those vacant rows – beets and carrots, turnips and parsnips, fall cauliflower – and already salivate with the anticipation of a subsequent harvest.

A second act.

And wonder about seeds and empty rows of other and different and more significant sorts.

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