Sustenance, or The Importance of Showing Up
I’m lucky. I can walk to work. I go up the street past two cafés and a bakery, then down a long flight of stairs that cuts through a park built into a hillside; down another street past two schools, a pharmacy, a laundromat; across the boulevard, through the outdoor market on Tuesdays and Fridays; and into the building complex that houses my office.
I could give you the GPS version of this walk — street names, distances, right and left turns. But I could also tell you the who, instead of the what: the café owner wiping down his tables; the man on the park stairs, left arm shrivelled close to his chest, left leg stiff, right hand gripping the bannister, pulling himself up one step at at time; the Chinese women all in a row, moving to flute music in slow unison and matching purple sweatshirts, brandishing fans; the crossing guard with her fluorescent orange vest and ping-pong-paddle stop sign; the concierge at my office building, sorting mail, soothing tenants, eyeing the coming and going.
I don’t interact with all of these people. I say hello to a few of them, or wave. (I only glance at the Chinese women, with their formidable concentration.) But seeing them again and again, rain or shine, has become part of what keeps me going. Life would go on if one day they were not in their usual places, but every time they are, I feel a little better. I grab a slip of strength from their presence, as you might grab some warmth from a few seconds of sunshine.
I recently had the pleasure of watching The Gleaners and I, a documentary film by French director Agnès Varda that looks at the French tradition of collecting vegetables left lying in fields that have just been harvested. People with access to farmland glean potatoes, cabbages, fruit; seaside residents glean oysters; their urban counterparts glean perfectly edible foodstuffs from supermarket trash bins, or objects from the street which they then repair or repurpose.
If the activity of gleaning is getting or making something out of what has been left behind, then you might say I’m a gleaner of resolve. The café owner, the crossing guard, the guy doing his own daily rehab on that long flight of stairs all leave a trail of resolve in their wake, not by trying to give or teach or show me anything, but just by showing up and doing what they do, with integrity. Their resolve is there for the picking, if I’m attentive enough to notice it. I could ignore them, or find them annoying. Instead they sustain me.
Sustenance (from the Latin sub tenere: to hold from below) is any essential support for life or health. There’s food of course. And air. But beyond the basics, what sustains you? When you’re in pain, when you have doubts, when you think the world is going to hell in a handbasket, when you’re not sure you see the point of it all, when you’re tired tired tired and food and air aren’t enough: what sustenance can you glean from what’s around you? Whose path do you cross? What are they leaving behind them as they go? Especially in cities, where we spend so much time knocking against each other, why not turn some of that banging around into a source of support rather than depletion?
Of course it works both ways. If other people’s presence supports you, then your presence can do the same for them, whether you know it or not. You are both gleaner and gleaned. Do not underestimate the importance of showing up. Of bothering to get out of bed and get to where you have to be and do what you decided you would do. It doesn’t have to be earth-shaking. These days you hear so much about doing what you love, following your passion, living a life you don’t need a vacation from – as though if you’re not having an orgasm with every activity you undertake, you’re doing something wrong, you’re on the wrong path, you’re an unrealized, unenlightened, underacheiving grunt.
Wipe your table, dance your dance, pull yourself up the next step. Showing up – consistently, humbly, with care and interest – is a gift. It’s sustenance. For you, and for the people who cross your path, if you only take the time to realize it.
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