BEING ESSENTIAL

Kirsten Levitt and trays of red beets with onions, garlic, lemongrass, and lots of other spices.

“Pssst, Harry! I found a way out of the fence.”

“You did, Aussie? Where?”

“Here, at the bottom of the yard. The wires got loose, see? Let’s go!”

“Wait a minute, Aussie. Are you essential personnel?”

“Am I what?”

“Essential personnel. Are you an essential dog? Only essential dogs are allowed out of quarantine.”

“Of course I’m essential, Harry.”

“What kind of essential work are you doing, Auss?”

“I’m teaching you how to bury marrow bones. I’m teaching you how to chase deer. I’m teaching you how to find your way home from the woods. Most important, I’m teaching you how to run away. What could be more essential than that?”

“You’re right, Aussie. You’re definitely essential.”

What’s the essential thing to do right now? All around me people say stay put, don’t increase the chances of contagion, don’t pass the virus to one person after another. But last Friday afternoon I drove to Greenfield and helped cut vegetables for the Stone Soup Café’s Saturday lunch. I was concerned that their usually large number of volunteers would stay away.

Stone Soup Café continues to serve its weekly pay-what-you-can multi-course hot luncheons. Saturday’s meal consisted of mushroom bisque (I love cutting up mushrooms), tomato and avocado salad, roast carrots (not too crazy about cutting up carrots), roast squash, rice, black beans and pepper steak, and coconut macaroons. If you subscribe to its newsletter, you’ll get the menu by Friday each week. Everyone is welcome to eat there regardless of ability to pay. You can’t eat there now, you can pick up food.

But to work there? Two of us each stood at each end of an 8-foot table wearing gloves, aprons, and hair nets. Two folks wore masks. There was music, talk, lots of laughter. Big boxes of peppers, beets, onions and carrots came out of the kitchen to be cut in the service area (crowding in the kitchen was verboten). The next day no one could come into the building; instead, meals were served in two Styrofoam containers placed in beautiful bags.

“Do you know how many folks will come?” I asked Kirsten Levitt, the chef and head of the Café. The streets of Greenfield had been lonely and empty the previous week.

“No idea. We’re going to set up in a tent outside with monitors making sure that people are standing 6 feet apart. I’m assuming that those who come for the meal will want to bring some home too. I told everybody—I don’t care if people ask for one meal or two or three or even four, they get as many as they ask for.”

I came home feeling tired but well. Five days later, I still feel well.

Was it the right thing to do? The wrong thing?

The poet Jane Hirschfield wrote:

The world asks of us

Only the strength we have and we give it.

Then it asks more, and we give it.

Do right and wrong have much to do with it? Give things your best, and if you fail, as a friend of mine said, fail wholeheartedly. Don’t second-guess your life.