It’s July 2023 in the United States, the planet’s on fire everywhere, all dire predictions about climate change are coming true even faster than scientists predicted, and I’m right out straight.
It’s Maine-speak for flustered, overwhelmed, at a loss for words. Reading the news these days has me right out straight.
Toxic air from uncontrolled Canadian forest fires, flash flooding in Vermont, aphid swarms in New York. . . the mind reels, the brain melts. (In the background, I imagine John Cleese humming “Aphids in Paris,” as he serves up some roadkill at Fawlty Towers. . . sometimes black humor is the only way to get through a day.) The surrealistic juxtaposition in the news of the tragic and the trivial flattens our affect and chokes off our natural impulse to feel empathy and terror as we read about the deaths of hundreds of immigrants jammed into an overcrowded boat off the shores of Greece, followed by the next article about the top picks for Amazon Prime Day. Followed by pieces on Syrian refugees in Turkey, or ongoing conflicts in Sudan, in Israel, land mines in Ukraine, followed by articles about thong bikinis and the dangers of plastic surgery, and this is the New York Times! It’s not possible to take it all in. And yet. One cannot look away, frazzled neurons feebly groping for meaning and hope. Student debt canceled! Or maybe not!
It’s a dilemma I haven’t solved, but the potential draining of our ability to care and respond through overexposure and incongruous juxtapositions is a frightening phenomenon. Yes, I give to Doctors Without Borders, and APO Herorats who find landmines, and PBS, and a women’s clinic in Bangor, and the United Farmworkers. . . but it’s never enough and all too often I imagine a Judgment Day when I will be examined and found wanting. The prospect of a bad outcome to the 2024 elections already has me quaking in my sandals.
In Candide, Voltaire admonished that we should cultivate our own gardens. And yes, I’m finding some escape from doomscrolling in my current role as manager of our newly-established downtown Farmers’ and Artisans’ market; it’s my passion project to help bring the community together, economically and socially. It’s a heavy lift. I’m trying to keep a record of the ups and downs.
June 3, 2023. Dread and foreboding have me huddled under my bedclothes. But it’s not the Last Supper, it’s just my first Farmers’ Market, the one I’ve spent a year planning. Pleading, cajoling, threatening, networking, emailing, phoning. Those sorts of things are not really in my wheelhouse, as they say, but I’m determined to make it happen, and everyone else wants it to happen—or so they tell me.
6:45 on a Saturday morning. Be careful what you ask for. I want to be there for the set-up, from 8-9 a.m. I already know the Amish farmer is not coming—he called me yesterday, courteously, to say that because of our chilly spring here in Northern Maine, his produce yield is low and he won’t be coming for at least two weeks.
Out of bed, pour coffee, feed cat. A text from our other local farmer/vendor: the pigs got out of the barn so they’ll be late coming.
Getting dressed in layers: lots of lumberjack red and black. My flannel shirt. A raincoat. It’s 40 degrees colder than it was two days ago (90 Fahrenheit!). But at least it’s not raining. Another text: Too chilly for one crafts vendor. She’ll come next week.
I text my associate, who is out placing Farmers’ Market directional signs: “Can you bring some flowers from your garden? I’m bringing a glass pitcher.” This is going to be a class act if it kills me.
Out the door. Arriving at our site to find the candle guy and the local honey vendor are already setting up. She has an adorable bright yellow plush honey bee on her table to draw attention. It works.
I set up my market manager’s table with free cookbooks donated by Hannaford’s, the flowers in a clear glass pitcher and some newly made black and red fridge magnets (courtesy of AARP) with a carefully curated selection of current emergency numbers. Those should be snapped up quickly. It took months to get the town officials to decide on what to include. But they’re done.
Another text: our local farmer is too worried about their frisky pigs situation. They’ve decided not to come at all this week.
Promptly at 9 a.m. a family group of eight hikers in bright down jackets appears; I walk over to chat. They’re from New York. Me too! I say, apologizing for our low vendor turnout. They gamely stroll over to the honey stand and as they are leaving I ask if I can take their picture. They brandish two jars of honey, smiling, and we exchange information so I can Air Drop the photos to them. Their presence proves my point—summer visitors will come to the market! Downtown can be revived! What’s not to love?
For the next three hours, the market is visited by an assortment of locals of all ages and one well-dressed couple here for the summer asking for sourdough bread. The new owner of the hikers’ hostel across the street strolls over and buys a 100 dollars’ worth of candles. (Candle guy is over the moon).
Somehow, we had a farmers’ market with no farmers.
11:45 a.m. My fingers are numb but my heart is warm. Next week will surely be better, pigs and weather permitting.
The next weeks were indeed better! (In spite of being rained out on two of the Saturdays since June 3.)
The local farmer, Chiron Farms, came with wild strawberry muffins (made by the farmer’s young son and daughter from berries they picked themselves) eggs in hues to shame Martha Stewart ($2 for half a dozen), ginger/peach/apple jam and maple-cured bacon. We had live music from two different guitarists, and people brought blankets to spread on the grass so their babies could snooze in the shade. We had quilted and crocheted items and maple syrup and honey and candles. The fire chief’s dog only peed on the hanging dish towels of one vendor, and it only took me a week to recover from the black fly bites after a visit to the clinic for extra strong antihistamine pills. (The bites turned into blisters that were like an unholy marriage of poison ivy and vicious mosquito bites).
Next Saturday the Amish farmer has promised to show up with produce including tomatoes and zucchinis and grass-fed beef, home-made knives and baskets. It’s been a cold, wet spring and he didn’t have enough of a yield to make the hour-long trip from Smyrna before now. I’m already scanning my weather app, which indicates a 50% chance of rain on the 22nd. If we’re lucky, it will rain after 12 noon. I’ll have to make that call around 8 a.m. that morning. And I never used to pay any attention to the weather!
Milan Kundera, April 1, 1929— July 11, 2023, Age 94
And for comparison:
R.M. Rilke, Dec. 4, 1875—Dec. 29, 1926, Age 51
Franz Kafka, July 3, 1883—June 3, 1924, Age 40
Complicated Czechs, all of them. Setting a pretty high bar for timeless work. In July of 1984, I had just finished reading the New Yorker installment of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, when I met the Czech émigré filmmaker to whom I was then married for 22 years. I’m still unravelling the compelling mysteries of the Central European mindset. I had no idea what I was getting into.
As it happens, this month I’ve been reading the Library of America volume of Philip Roth’s Collected Nonfiction, and I highlighted a passage from Roth’s two condensed interviews, conducted with Kundera in London and Connecticut, and published in 1980:
“This is the great private problem of man: death as the loss of self. But what is this self? It is the sum of everything we remember. Thus, what terrifies us about death is not the loss of the future but the loss of the past. Forgetting is a form of death ever present within life.”
Stay aware, stay safe, stay hopeful. Watch Fawlty Towers if you find yourself brooding too much. Donate to your favorite charity. Listen to Guys and Dolls. Write a poem. Pet a cat.
Don’t read Kafka.
Photo provided by the author.