On Christmas Eve, I was driving home from finishing my shopping when Ginger called to tell me to expect to see a man in our front yard raking leaves. We had lots of leaves. Tim had knocked on our door asking for work so he could have Christmas with his daughter. When I got home, I took him a bottle of water and wrote down his phone number for future reference. He was doing a great job. He’s been unemployed for two months and thought yard work might be a way to get back on his feet. He had a gentle manner and a sweet spirit. When I came back in, Ginger said, “Once he showed up it felt like Christmas.”
A couple of hours later, I was in Harris Teeter (one of our local supermarkets) with Jay getting groceries for Christmas dinner. As I came to the end of the row, a man in a wheelchair turned to enter. We both stopped. I motioned for him to go ahead and he said, “Please, you first.” When I got even with him, I realized it was Reynolds Price, an author who has meant a great deal to me over the years, in particular for his books Three Gospels and A Serious Way of Wondering: The Ethics of Jesus Imagined. He smiled and I said, “Dr. Price?” He nodded and I continued, “My name is Milton Brash – actually that doesn’t matter. What I want to say is you have befriended me for many years through your books and I’m grateful.” He thanked me and we both went on our ways.
Today I worked the lunch shift at the restaurant. Evan is one of the guys I work with. He is the Sous Chef, and another quiet and gentle guy. In small conversations over the past couple of weeks, I’ve learned he as a philosophy degree from college and couldn’t figure out what he wanted to do, so he started cooking, which he’s been doing for a decade. He’s often a man of few words, but as we were doing prep work today, he asked me how I started cooking in restaurants. I gave him the short version (or as short as I can tell it) of how I fell into a clinical depression after my treatment for sleep apnea unmasked it and how, after doing my best to just get out of bed and get through the day for about eighteen months, Ginger helped me get out of the house since I needed to make some money. I started driving around the South Shore of Massachusetts, looking for something I wanted to do. I got a part-time summer job as security at the South Shore Music Circus, which meant I got to hear good music for free, and I talked my way into a cooking job at a small restaurant that was just opening.
I could see the resonance in his eyes when I mentioned I lived with depression. I could also see the connection when I said I had found the kitchen to be a depression free zone. However deep the gathering gloom, the light shines in the kitchen and the darkness can’t extinguish it. We talked about the theories we have of why it’s true: the very tactile, hands on work; the pace and busy-ness; the concentration required; the sense of accomplishment and the fairly immediate gratification in seeing your meal go out to those who came to eat; the sense of community that grows out of working together to make the place function well.
A month ago, I’d never met these guys. (OK, I did go to a Reynolds Price book signing in Boston years ago, but I’d never met him in his natural habitat.) I know them now because I entered their world, not they mine – they were here first. I’m new to this orbit. Here’s how life gets colored in: through chance meetings, incidental contact, meaningful coincidence. And in some cases, souls stick to one another – even in small ways – and we create something that wasn’t there before. I can see the seedlings of friendship taking root in my conversations with Evan. I feel compelled to keep in contact with Tim. I find it interesting, therefore, that I thought it wasn’t important to tell Reynolds Price my name. I was aiming to bounce off of him like a billiard ball, I guess; I wasn’t trying to be friends. I didn’t want to impose.
Friendships thrive on imposition, however, and give birth to good and unexpected things. In the summer of 2005, I met an old friend, Nancy, at the UCC Synod in Atlanta. The meeting was a surprise to us both since we had both been Baptists the last time we were around each other: she had been my pastor in Dallas. We found time to catch up and I learned she was a UCC pastor in Charlotte (at the home church of the associate pastor of our church here in Durham). She learned about my depression and my cooking and my trying to figure out a way to write. She responded by telling me about our friend Gordon’s blog, Real Live Preacher. I had never heard of a blog and I hadn’t talked to Gordon in a long time (our connections go way back as well), so I called to impose and learn. Thanks to his friendship and patience, don’t eat alone was born two years ago today.
The blog has fed me much like the time I spend cooking because I’m writing regularly, I’m working on my writing, and I’m doing it in the context of community. Whether you are a commenter or not, that you are reading is another inextinguishable light in my darkness. My aim has been to write about one thousand words a day (except when I write poetry) and to write at least 250 posts a year, which means I’ve stacked up almost a half a million words in the past two years, writing at first in the cracks of my life and then learning how to carve out time and keep my promises to myself. In the incidental contact that comes through these web pages, I’ve seen some friendship seedlings take root as well, nourishing me in ways I had not expected.
My depression has beaten me like a rented mule this past week. I’m hopeful it’s a seasonal thing rather than another long ride on the monster. However deep the darkness, I don’t eat alone and I don’t write alone: I am not alone.
I am not alone.
I know that tonight. I’m going to have to impose on you to keep reminding me.