A few years ago when we lived in New York City, I bought a cake for my wife’s birthday. It wasn’t a pre-made cake from Costco, or a cake in a box from Baskin Robbins. No hate for those cakes, and all my gratitude for the folks who made them (or manned the machines that made them), the drivers that drove them in a freezer truck to multiple locations, and the hands of men and women that stocked the cake shelves.
We had acquired this cake locally. Like all good, responsible, stereotypical lesbian families, we had a weekly farm share where we received a weeks worth of locally grown, organic, seasonal vegetables and fruits. We picked up our share at a church a few blocks from where we lived, where local bakers and artisans also sold their goods. One day, we had the pleasure of tasting a neighbor’s insanely delicious chili chocolate cake. A rich, moist, dark and sweet chocolate cake that melted in our mouths, and was followed by a small wave of heat, a tiny kick of spice at the back of the palate. Mind-blowing. We knew this would make the perfect birthday cake, so we ordered one to be picked up for Wifey’s birthday.
I suppose this story isn’t particularly mind-blowing, but that’s part of the point.
It might have been the gorgeous New York sunshine that spilled over the neighborhood’s garden district, or it could have been the birthday weekend hangover from three hours of shaky alcohol induced sleep after going dancing at the same fantastic bar we held our baby shower months before, where the amazing bartender recognized us and eagerly enabled our sans-baby evening out with really, really full glasses of wine on the house. Either way, I remember, when I was walking the short blocks to pick up the cake on a peaceful (albeit dehydrated) Sunday morning, I had a thought:
“I bought this cake from a woman in my neighborhood, a woman I met in a community space, picking up produce grown in soil only a few hours from where I stand, who made this cake in her kitchen, only a few blocks away from my kitchen, by her own hands, the same hands that I have shook and grasped before in grateful acquaintance as a friendly neighbor.”
In that moment, I was awestruck by what a small footprint my cake order had in the world, and how an action so small, an interaction that takes up so little space and energy, can be so profound.
From a very young age, we are taught to “make our mark” on the world.
Literally – by carving our initials into trees we kiss under with our lovers, to putting mountains into oceans and building buildings where there was no land before. By witnessing manifest destiny, westward expansion, and naming all of our acquired spaces after ourselves, our children, and grandchildren.
And figuratively – by climbing the always growing mountain of success, to DO something that MEANS something, to save the world, to have the world remember us and all the good we do.
I understand. We are all afraid to die.
There is a term in the field of ecology and energy – a “footprint.” There is our carbon footprint (i.e. miles on a jet plane, of which I am guilty of having quite a few), our energy footprint, our ecological footprint, our water footprint. It measures how much energy and space we take up, and we generally aim for a smaller footprint, to take up less of our earth’s finite resources. According to these definitions, when we take a step, we have an effect. Our actions are not ours alone, but involve and affect many others. I think most of us embrace that idea in regards to the earth and how we care for it (except for these folks), but we don’t feel that it applies to us and how we care for ourselves and each other.
How can we ensure that we share our space with others? That we listen and are generous and genuine with our intentions, energy, and efforts? That we remember desperately and with fervor how interconnected we all are, that we, as Martin Luther King said, are caught in “our inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny?”
I understand that we are all afraid to die. We are afraid that when we die, we will be like one leaf falling off of a grand and ancient oak. An ordinary occurrence, gone with only a whisper.
But maybe that’s okay. Maybe we are only, not extraordinary, but extra ordinary. Unique and precious and perfect, but much smaller than we imagine ourselves to be. Even so, I believe that if we can be like a leaf, only taking up just as much space and just enough sunshine to make the whole oak flourish wild with nature’s patterned abandon, I think then we might feel fuller and braver and louder than we ever thought we could. To be just as awake and present as a single leaf, is to see how every action we do ripples wide and that our generosity spreads energy across our whole community; and is to also know with everlasting patience that every season we witness is a gift, before we return to the earth that bore us.