Ever since I moved to my small, off-grid community in rural Hawaii, I’ve relied less and less on the grocery store for my daily sustenance, and now live to a large extent on food grown or foraged within a short walk of my home.
A record of my meals is a record of my relationships: eggs from George, an heirloom tomato and chayote from Caleb’s garden, Thai eggplant and plantains from Chris, a rack of bananas from Shukamar’s place, a huge jackfruit from Jimmy’s. The wild potatoes and wood ear mushrooms Wanna taught me how to forage, the green papayas in coconut milk Lorien showed me how to cook, the tins of lentils Ninu gave me “for protein” after I described a typical meal of tree spinach and brown rice. My homestead is anything but self-sufficient, and I like it that way. The relationships I enjoy with my neighbors are enriched by the constant giving and receiving of gifts, a pattern of exchange that wouldn’t exist if we all had everything and needed nothing.
Last month, I traveled to Portland, Oregon to visit my friend Willow—my first time visiting a big city in years, and at two and a half weeks, the longest I’d been away from my land since moving there a few years ago. I was nervous about the trip. In my tiny community, every person matters. When somebody goes away for a while, it alters the fabric of life. Belonging to a community like mine is like belonging to an orchestra or soccer team: attendance, while not mandatory, is highly preferred and richly rewarded.
I’d lived in Portland for a couple of years in my early twenties, and remembered it as a time of great loneliness. In my experience, life in the city was as anonymous and isolating as my current life in a farming community is interconnected and warm. There were none of the exchanges that so enliven my life in Hawaii—no sharing of fruit or rides into town, no mutual reliance on one another for entertainment and information, and none of the voluntary simplicity that enables these things to happen in the first place. People in my community in Hawaii truly need one another, and from this need arises a dense web of relationships. In my experience, people in cities did not need one another, and consequently had no reason to know each other—and this lack of need resulted in an epidemic of loneliness.
Yet when I arrived in Portland, I was amazed to discover that Willow’s life in the city was characterized by a web of relationships nearly as dense as my own. On a rainy Friday afternoon, we waited in line outside an elementary school to pick up food which had been gleaned from local grocery stores and would otherwise be thrown away. As we slowly shuffled towards the boxes of still-gorgeous produce and expensive vegan cakes, he chatted with other regulars, catching up on everyone’s news from the recent holidays. A few days later, we went to the local tool library to borrow a circular saw and clamps for a carpentry project, where the volunteer attendant gave us tips on how to achieve our goal of shortening the legs on a table.
Although he could have bought his own groceries and amassed his own collection of tools, Willow had arrived at the same conclusion that I had the very first time a neighbor invited me to pick tangerines off her tree: It’s better to be in relationship with others than to have everything you want and need, all to yourself, all the time.
Willow is part of a large social network of artists and performers who are constantly exchanging resources the same way my neighbors back home constantly exchange favors and food. On my first weekend back in Portland, we went to one’s friend’s house to pick up a bicycle for me to ride while I was in town, while dropping off a stack of puzzles for the household to enjoy. Another day, we picked up an electric sauna which had served tours of duty in no less than three households among this group of friends.
As the designated “man with van” in his community, Willow is frequently called upon to help his friends haul mattresses and other pieces of furniture. Instead of backbreaking errands, these tasks become fun social events during which all participants make new memories and strengthen social bonds. Indeed, it’s better not to have your own van, because that means you can call Willow, and enjoy an hour or two in his company.
This idea—that it’s better not to have it all—is hard to wrap your head around if you grew up in North America. How can it possibly be better to need something from somebody else? How can it be better to rely on the people around you for food, entertainment, transportation, or other resources? Yet there’s no doubt, as you pick tangerines from Wanna’s tree or bounce across Portland in Willow’s van, that if you had it all, you’d be missing out. If you had your own tangerine tree, or your own van, you’d be poorer, lonelier, and less resilient. Far from making you more secure, your wealth would be robbing you of some of the greatest treasures a human being can enjoy.
One of the great paradoxes of life is that when you have too much, you become impoverished; when your basket is too full, you no longer have space to receive. The world’s major spiritual traditions all speak of the importance of emptying oneself in order to cultivate this crucial state of receptivity. In Zen, seekers are told to empty their cups, because a full cup will overflow when you try to pour in the tea. In Christianity, followers learn that it is more difficult for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
These lessons apply in the abstract sense of emptying one’s mind in order to receive spiritual wisdom, but are also very pertinent on the material plane. Think of the joy and gratitude you feel when receiving a gift, as compared to the dullness of purchasing that same item from a store. I don’t think I felt my heart warming the last time I bought eggplants at the grocery store, but this morning when Chris came into my yard to deliver two long, shiny purple ones, along with the latest news about our storm-damaged road, I felt happy for the rest of the day.
In much of Western society, there is anxiety attached to receiving. We worry that accepting a favor will land us in somebody’s debt, or that helping ourselves to a free pile of bananas is shameful as long as we have the means to buy other food. Receiving, in the mind of our culture, is for poor people. Everybody else should purchase their own bananas, maintain their own van, and possess their own arsenal of tools and other objects, no matter how redundant these may be with the arsenals of their neighbors and friends.
In other words, we all strive to be yang, while losing sight of the magic of yin. Our culture as a whole has forgotten that the ability to receive is itself a gift. As outrageous as this may sound to Western ears, I believe that my “needing” eggplants is as much a gift to Chris as the eggplants are to me, and that those runs across town in his ramshackle van are as precious to Willow as they are to the friends whose mattresses and bed frames he’s helping to move.
I could get my own chickens, but then I would miss out on sitting in George’s cozy white-washed kitchen, chatting with him and Trixie over coffee after filling my carton with eggs. I could plant my own chayote patch, but I would miss the beautiful walk to Caleb’s house, and the chance to watch him fix his wood chipper or help him lift a heavy piece of plywood onto his new kitchen wall. My state of benign neediness keeps me in relationship with my neighbors, just as their needs place them into closer relationship with me.
Likewise, I believe my friend in Portland is happier exchanging board games, bicycles, power tools, and electric saunas with his community than he would be if he possessed all these things for his sole use. By leaving space in his life to receive—to some extent by necessity, but also largely by choice—he gains access to the true riches of friendship, community, gratitude, and celebration. Although I didn't know it during my own years in the city, these treasures are available no matter where you live. It's just a matter of choosing them.
This month, reader, may you empty your cup, dust off your gathering basket, and open yourself to receiving—whether you live in an isolated farm village or in the middle of a bustling city.
Hilary Smith, Senior Editor