Looking back to my childhood years with my abuela in Argentina, my memory can trace her constant movement between solitude and connection. On one end the noisy Sunday lunch table filled with cooing babies, children tugging at her apron strings, adults jostling for a place in the thick layers of conversation happening all at once and on the other end the chair by the parlor window, open to let the scent of gardenias come in on the breeze while she hummed and knit for a whole afternoon.
I remember the quiet mornings spent alone, except for me watching transfixed while she made pasta for homemade ravioli filled with perfectly spiced ground chicken and spinach, set pots to steaming on the stove, her strong arms making the old wooden table shake as she kneaded the dough before rolling it out to cut into squares. But before the cooking, we took trips to the market stalls set up down by the river. There she greeted other women comparing notes on which vendor had the freshest produce or the best prosciutto, sharing bits about their lives, heads nodding in solidarity or agreement. The women cajoled and bartered with the vendors, but not before asking after their families. The market echoed with the noise of connection.
I can’t help but think of my abuela when I go to my local Farmer’s Market. Except for the occasional musicians, the market is quiet – a few children break the stillness with their exuberance and, too often, their mother’s hush them with a stern look or command. People wander alone or in pairs, point at selections for a vendor to bag or wrap, and mumble their thanks before moving on to the next stall. I haven’t done much better.
As an introvert, I’m happy to gather my veggies, snag a jar of organic honey from the beekeeper, maybe some fresh flowers for the dining room table and take all my goodies over to a table by the lemonade stand where I can sip on the tart sweetness while I people watch and make notes in my journal about what I notice. For last month’s trip to the market, I set an intention to stay alert to opportunities to connect – I felt a little nervous about the whole thing, not because I’m shy, but because my introverted nature doesn’t usually do well with “small” talk. It helped me get past the nerves to look at it from a different perspective – there’s nothing small or superficial about people acknowledging one another with smiles, commentary on the weather or what great zucchini such and such a vendor has this year. I didn’t expect to replicate the same experience from my childhood, but I wanted to stay open and curious about what might happen.
I wasn’t disappointed.
I ran into a woman in a beautiful blue Burka trying in vain to clean up her toddler who’d just bitten into an orange wedge and had its juice running down his chin, neck and arms. She and I made eye-contact and her eyes brightened as we exchanged smiles and a little laugh over the scrunched up face her boy made when she tried to run the baby wipe into the chubby crevices of his sticky neck. There was the man who hauls fresh fish in from the coast packed in crushed ice – somehow a smile turned into swapping recipe ideas for the rainbow trout I bought from him. A jazz band, dressed to the nines in “fashionable disrepute,” played around the corner from the rows of farm-fresh eggs. When they noticed me taking pictures, the lead singer pulled his fedora hat over one eye just so, the bass player stood up a little straighter nodding his head to his beat – we didn’t talk but they grinned when I gave them a thumbs up.
And then the bean sprout guy happened.
It’s kind of a miracle. I never stop off at the bean sprout stall. Never. I’ve always said bean sprouts, no matter how they’re prepared, taste like a mixture of dirt, grass and oven cleaner – and I meant it. But there was this guy with a wide-open smile, wearing a seen-better-days tie dyed t-shirt and singing off-key about his bean sprouts, daring anyone passing by to try his bean sprout mix and home-made sauce. I had to smile his way and within sixty seconds, by whatever magic he conjured up, I put a spoonful (not a little bite, a SPOONFUL) of his prized bean sprouts in my mouth and chewed. Inconceivably, my mouth exploded with goodness! My Sweet Man is still in shock that I brought home a huge bag of those sprouts and ate them all within a few days. I told the bean sprout crooner that whether he liked it or not, we were connected for life and that I will find him no matter where he hides if he ever decides to retire. I also told him that each time I buy a bag from him he has to sing or it won’t work.
Like my grandmother, I’ll continue to move between the worlds of solitude and connection. Sometimes I’ll still want to sip lemonade and watch life happening, other times I’ll want to jump in and be part of it. Either way, whatever mood I’m in, I’ll always stop to chat with the fish guy and the bean sprout crooner. Maybe I’ll even ask them their names.