I’ve been thinking about tomatoes. Not the uniformly red tomatoes of about the same size and shape that you can buy in the produce aisle at your local grocery store. No, I have been thinking about late summer tomatoes grown in a backyard garden, the gloriously uneven and brilliantly colored globes sheltered from the midmorning sun by the lacey leaves of plants that creep through the garden beds, leaning into the territory of the beets and carrots and zucchini with joyful abundance. The enthusiasm with which one plant will provide more fruit than you know what to do with, until you are roasting tomatoes, chopping tomatoes, drying and freezing tomatoes. Making pasta and pizza and salsa—isn’t everything made with a tomato a celebration of flavor? The taste an encapsulation of the way the sun crawls over the edge of the world every morning all summer long, heating the air and the soil with unceasing and unrelenting energy?
This summer we planted far too many tomatoes. To be honest, we got a little carried away. A neighbor began dozens of heirloom plants in the early spring when the weather outside was more like winter, tending them through frost and freeze, and then offering them to any who wanted to garden. And these were gorgeous plants—thick green stems and strong leaves, and names like black cherry, and brandywine, and sunset horizon. We could not resist just a few, and then maybe a couple more, and then just this last one, as my husband and my daughter and I, dug in the warm earth, the day filled with rich, loamy scents as we set one plant after another in neat rows in their garden beds.
And now it is fall and the garden is overrun with fruits of purple and gold and red, orange and green, mottled and striped, a brilliant collection of fruit to harvest and prepare. But it is hot, and with fall comes school and work and sports and plans and schedules to follow, and the dreams I had in the spring to cook and preserve have been mostly tossed by the wayside. No, it is my daughter who forages in the garden every day, who weeds and trims and harvests, who slices and chops and roasts. Who digs through recipe books for pizza sauce and pasta sauce and herbed tomato sauce. Who makes salsa for her family and her friends and her neighbors. And this is why I have been thinking about tomatoes.
I have always jumped into things with both feet. All enthusiasm and earnestness and plans for the future. Yet so often I have found that we plant things we hope others will learn to harvest. It becomes more than a solitary effort, this gardening. Like my neighbor who started plants that I planted and my daughter harvests. We are seeking after knowledge, not for ourselves, but for our families and our friends and our communities. We are seeking good and delicious days with an abundant harvest. And I can’t help but think that women are uniquely situated to the task of tending and gardening and learning and harvesting—becoming catchers of weeds and wisdom.
One thing I miss about the days when I was a mother to small children is the convenient cover I found for the way I wander and wonder through the world—the act of ‘explaining things to my children’—rambling through days, contemplating meaning and majesty and understanding. As I think about those days it feels to me that as women, our real work lies not in the dishes or the laundry, although there are always dishes and laundry to be done. It is not the schoolwork or the after school activities or the projects that need to be finished. It is not the PTA or church class or carpool. Our real work is found in the moments in between—the opportunities to connect and teach and learn from one another. To tend our gardens and share the fruits of our labors. It is our service and our love and our presence in the community—the unspoken lessons our children learn as they observe our interactions with others. Our real work lies in the moments that are powerful not despite but because they are unseen.
There is a line in The Glass Menagerie that says, “I didn’t go to the moon. I went much further, for time is the longest distance between two places.” This is part of the wisdom we, as women, have to offer. Time. Love. Service. The honest efforts of our hands lifting one another when our lives are difficult and challenging, but also full of love and peace and even joy.
There is a useful distinction here between knowledge and wisdom. A distinction found in the idea of abundance. It is this—that learning, real learning, comes not only from classrooms and books, although it can be found there. It comes not solely from those with formal training and accreditations. Often, learning comes from a particular way of serving, of being needed, of fulfilling the responsibilities of our lives. It is deeply rooted in generational knowledge and the histories of our families and friends and communities—it is found in the way we come together to wrap protective arms around the smallest and newest of us, the suffering and the starving, the way we reach out our arms, and although we can reach only a few, together we can reach a few more as we find ways to witness and heal and mourn together.
When we approach our responsibilities through a lens of abundance we begin to connect our lived life experiences with our values, and when we begin to see all the things we do not know, we open ourselves more fully to the experiences of others. Our knowledge begins to have not only depth but breadth—the ability to touch others and connect in real and authentic ways. Martin Luther King Jr. once said we should seek for more than length in our endeavours—our work, or in this case learning lasts and becomes something that we get better at over the course of our lifetime, but we should seek also devotion and dedication—the ability to touch others and to nourish and satisfy our bodies and souls.
And this is what I have been thinking, as the long summer days begin to shorten and cool, as the sun dips behind the horizon earlier each evening, as the chill air begins to brush the edges of the plants we have tended all summer, promising fall and frost and freeze, as my daughter comes in every morning with her harvest to preserve and pack like a prize— as I have been thinking about tomatoes.