Tomatoes of Hope
A few days ago, hope was a conglomerate of tomatoes, a stockpile of onions. Today, hope was a smorgasbord made up of the pitter-patter of raindrops, one stranger’s tears and another’s charismatic, intermittent smile.
Fourteen years, eleven years ago, hope was a baby girl, tiny fingers wrapped around mine, full of promise, trust and a love I had not believed possible.
Twenty years ago, hope a middle schooler boy’s sincere exclamation, “I’m gonna frame this,” upon reading a handwritten letter from me to him at the end of the program I’d volunteered to teach.
Thirty years ago—thirty years ago, hope was books. Reading them, writing them, dreaming of them. Hope was the friendship imaginary, pretend characters offered me.
It was Friday the girls and I were shopping for groceries. I intended on spending $300 (I went over by $11: story of my life = going cautiously overboard, but that’s a rabbit trail for another day). Friday, I thought I was just fine (also another rabbit trail); no unexplained tears, no night terrors that had jolted me out of sleep in a sweat, no catastrophes. And, while there was a heaviness, a sadness, hanging over me, weighting me down, I had yet to put my finger on its source. I blamed it on exhaustion and needing a treatment soon. So, in we go to Publix and we always start in the produce section and meander through the other aisles.
Alight ran off to grab some Cran Grape juice.
I was fine.
Until I saw the tomatoes. A piece of my heart unraveled. Look at all these tomatoes. I thought. Seriously, I can’t even count them all. I picked one up, saw a discoloration on its otherwise plump side and put it back down. Because I can. Because I can choose a better one.
Truly, I know I am crazy. Imaginary people talk to me on a regular basis. I know I’m not normal. So I tried to ignore it, the wind of sentimentality. I moved on down the row and saw this:
I came unglued. I mean, really. Look at all that food! Would you like an onion? What kind? Yellow? White? Big? Small? Shiny? One? A dozen? See the plastic bags? I literally could package up as many of these things as I wanted. And, if I didn’t want onions at all, or tomatoes, I could just walk an aisle over for some bananas. Alight found herself a chocolate milk, opened it and drank it. Because she knew we could pay for it. Cereal? Which kind? There’s like 100 different flavors two aisles to the left.
A survivor of the Holocaust once said, The angel of death of Lodz was hunger. 11,300 people died in that ghetto in 6 months’ time: 30% of those deaths were because of starvation. There is a story of a woman in Auschwitz whose only bit of bread fell into the filthy toilet. It was retrieve that filthy piece of bread or die. $300 would have saved the lives of many.
And yet, here I stand, thoughtlessly refusing a tomato because a small patch of it is slightly discolored. I choose which loaf of bread to buy by squeezing it to see which is softest.
I was so overcome with gratefulness, and overwhelmed by the bounty before me, that I took the two pictures because I didn’t want to forget how blessed I am.
Even when I am scared.
Even when I am hurting.
Even when I am worried.
Today, someone asked me, “When did you know you were a writer?” Before I was a writer, I was a reader. Claudia, Stacy, all the girls from The Baby-Sitters Club series were truly my friends. I laughed with them, I cried for them. They made me feel like I knew where I belonged: in a storyland. But I think I knew I was a writer when I wrote the first Mickey book. The characters felt like extensions of the girls in the Baby-Sitters Club that had become my friends. Mickey, Michael, Victoria—I knew them.
And, when I wrote, I felt better.
Whether it was a happy book or a sad one, the act of writing felt like home, like that mythical place where you’re accepted, where you’re loved for no other reason than you are you. Acceptance isn’t based on what you can give, it’s based on the fact that you are. When I am writing, I feel free. Inevitably, that conjures up hope.
The rain started last night and has continued throughout the day, pitter-patting first on our window-panes, then at the Southern Festival of Books where I was lucky enough to be able to sign.
Alight has been working on a cross-stitch of a Wolf for about a month; she enjoys it a lot. Early this morning, before our busy day started, she joined me on the front porch. Me, drinking a signature Dr. Pepper and Light Light covered in her favorite gray blanket, showing me the ins and outs of cross stitching. It was a Jane Austen kind of morning; one dreary, yet alive with hope. Later, Breathe’s eyes sparkled as she gushed over the book she’s reading right now, The Hate You Give. Breathe is not a natural lover of language, as I am; it is hard for her to find a book that really gets her attention. Yet, when one does, the passionate way she talks about it makes my heart light. Because I know all the intangible, but invaluable, things a good book can give.
The rain continued as I made my way eventually from teaching to the book festival. I was the only one in the tent for awhile—except for a stranger who started crying when I told her what the books were about and another stranger who shared more than he probably meant to, but lit my day with hope.
I need your autograph, I teased, after learning he writes, too, giving him my phone so he could sign for the credit card purchase of one of my most priceless possessions. He pretended to be hurt. What? After that chat with a perfect stranger, I thought a hug would be sufficient but no, I see how it is. I get a bill instead. I laughed. You are making my whole weekend, I told him. And so two, neither really knowing anything about the other except that they shared a horrendous pain, felt hope stir because both of them have come out optimists.
I was fourteen or so when a stranger held a door open for me. It reminded me in a time I really, really needed it that good people existed. That hope isn’t fiction. It wasn’t too long after my baby girl was born that I saw a flower growing in concrete. How? I wondered. But persistence, courage and time. Sometimes, my girls still call my name, in essence saying, Mama, look! Look what’s important to me! They still like it when I sit with them and chat. And this gives me strength, peace and hope. And, where far too many have their dreams dashed by careless adults, my dreams were protected by everyone who mattered to m; my dreams were God-ordered.
There are as many ways of coping with pain, loneliness, anxiety and fear as there are human beings. Many of them, though, attempt to deal with the hurt by covering it up. Self-harm is a prime example. But me? I’ve found the most helpful thing is being an active detective, continuously searching for and cataloguing any mundane moments of joy, seeing them for what they really are: reasons for hope.