“When you touch minds, people are willing to walk a dozen miles for you; and when you touch hearts, people are willing to walk a thousand miles for you; but when you touch souls, people are willing to walk a million miles for you.”
― Matshona Dhliwayo (Zimbabwe born Canadian philosopher)
An Eye-Opening Exercise
A few years ago I was part of a project sponsored by the Florida Humanities Council that featured a quilt project by the Apopka Farmworkers Association. The quilt had been made by African-American farmworkers who had created it much in the fashion of the famed AIDS Quilt. Its handstitched squares told the stories of the lives of the farmworkers who once lived, loved and worked in the mucklands on the north shore of Lake Apopka and who had since died, many of them from rare cancers that were epidemic in a community long exposed unknowingly to carcinogenic chemicals used in the fields they worked.
The quilt came with its own story tellers, elderly women who remembered those whose squares bore their life stories in cross-stitch and regaled their audiences with stories which made these workers fully present and fully human, if just for a moment.
The sessions always began with a little exercise. Jeannie Economos, the project organizer from the Farmworker Association of Florida, would begin by holding up an orange and then tossing it to a person in the front row of her audience. She would invite the recipient to hold the orange, feeling its texture, smelling its sweet aroma, looking at the brilliant orange surface, before passing it to the person sitting next to them. This would continue until everyone in the audience had held the orange at which point it was tossed back to Jeannie.
Then she would ask, “So how many hands touched that orange before you did?” Inevitably there would be a long silence before the first person would volunteer. “The worker at the Publix,” would often be the first response. But Jeannie would push her audience. “OK. But before them.”
This would continue until a long chain of custody would be created that would stretch back to the worker who planted the seed that grew the tree that produced this orange among many others. Along the way there would be the workers who watered the seedling, transplanted it into a grove, fertilized the sapling, sprayed it with chemicals to keep away insects and diseases, shaped the trees by pruning, fired the groves on the occasional cold nights, hoed around the trees to keep the weeds from taking over, and then waited….waited for the burst of aromatic blossoms that would fill the air with perfume and draw the bees that would pollinate the blossoms…waited for six months as the tiny fruit grew, fleshed out and ripened.
Only then would the harvest come by workers wearing long sleeve shirts in the Florida heat to protect them from the thorns on the trees, loading their crates awaiting the tractor to come pick them up, headed to packing houses where the fruit would be sorted and loaded into new crates and loaded onto trucks driven to distribution warehouses and only then to the grocery stores where they would be unloaded and placed on the displays in the produce section.
Finally, Jeannie would say, “OK, so how many hands touched this piece of fruit before you did?”
Our Feast From Their Hands….
That project was one of the many gifts to my life that the Florida Humanities Council has provided me over many years for which I am grateful on this Eve of Thanksgiving. But besides giving me a chance to participate in a project that enriched our community, it also served to wake me up. What began to occur to me as I considered the chain of custody and care that had produced the piece of fruit I held that day was that this was true of every aspect of my life and everyone else’s as well.
Tomorrow, most of us will sit down at tables loaded with wonderful foods from turkeys to pies. There will be our favorite casseroles that came from fields bearing green beans, mushrooms and onions and stuffings that were produced in part in vast expanses of wheat fields in the heart of our country. If we began to count the hands that had touched the foods that we would enjoy tomorrow, we would not eat for hours. And yet, without them, this feast which we take for granted, often seen as a prelude to a season of often mindless consumption, would never have been possible.
Might that not be reason to give thanks?
Hands That Have Shaped Us
And that was just the beginning….
Now consider all the other hands that have touched your life since. Think of the medical people who have provided care for your body if your family was fortunate enough to be able to afford it. Think of the members of your family who protected you, ensuring that you would survive to adulthood.
Think of the teachers who offered you the opportunity to learn, the mentors who offered you their example and wisdom. Think of the cafeteria ladies who insured you had a healthy lunch to eat, the tired, poorly paid workers at the
fast-food joints who met your demands for instant gratification, the preparers of the Thanksgiving feast you are about to eat and everyone along that food chain who produced those raw materials.
Consider those who loved you even when you were not terribly loveable. Consider those who built the home in which you live. Consider those whose hands will dispose of your remains when you have died.
And consider those along the way whose harsh treatment bruised your body and scarred your soul. Even those hands you learned from and the scars they left behind define the person you have come to be.
And that is just the beginning of the list….
There Are No Self-Made Human Beings
[Image: Okan Yilmaz. “Alone on the road” (2012)]
One of the many ideologies under which we labor in America is the notion of the rugged individual aka the self-made man. The problem is, that ideology is ultimately a caricature of actual human beings, a lie we tell ourselves to boost our egos and perhaps to rationalize our self-focus, our indifference to the needy and our lack of gratitude. The truth is no adult human being is ever self-made. All of us are the products of countless people and communities who have unknowingly conspired to create the individual who is reading these words right now - a composite of all their contributions rolled up into one human being.
Hardly self-made. And hardly rugged.
Tomorrow, on the day officially designated for giving thanks, might not all of these hands which have touched you and shaped your life be worthy of your remembrance?
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.
[Image: Tómas Freyr Kristjánsson, “Embracing the sunset: Sunset at Kirkjufell” (2014)]
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
Those who believe religion and politics aren't connected don't understand either. – Mahatma Gandhi
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? - Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993)
© Harry Coverston, 2022