A couple of months ago I had the opportunity to attend a Welcome event for Community Cooks, a Somerville-based organization that seeks to connects neighborhood cooks to neighbors in need. A friend of mine had recently started serving with the organization and invited me along. While I had been serving with the organization for over two years at that point I felt I still didn’t know much about them. I also hadn’t been able to attend a welcome event yet.
My friend and I arrived that evening with questions and expectations. Mainly, since most of our food prep and contributions for the group are done in isolation, we hoped to meet other cooks in the network and get to know those we served with.
We were greeted with a warm hello and an invitation to help ourselves to a dinner catered by Bertucci’s. Feeling a little sheepish at the thought of taking food when we were working to provide it for others, at the same time we savored the feeling of being taken care of unexpectedly. We settled into our seats and got to know those seated around us.
There were cooks who had been preparing meals for months and those who hadn’t yet begun to serve. Several served on a team of people and would cook their portion of the meal before dropping it off to a drop off location or directly at the center they served. Even cooks on the same team rarely ran into each other. My friend served in that type of role. I have been serving in another capacity — providing a complete sandwich dinner once a month to an after school tutoring group. I knew there were others who provided the dinner on other days, but for my particular assignment I was the entire team.
For the woman to my left, the isolation was grating. She wanted to serve but worried that her contribution wasn’t good enough. After a lot of stress in the kitchen where she sometimes would remake the side dish she contributed to the meal, she dropped the food off alone. She craved feedback and connection. She even confessed that she might stop participating because it felt so unrewarding. I scaled my feelings against hers and decided that while I wasn’t ready to jump ship, it would be nice to have a little boost of gratitude. Each preparation and delivery does feel like a sacrifice, and I figured having a sense of community would reassure me and keep me in the boat.
As the official presentation began and we learned more about the history of the organization, our feelings softened, and our questions seemed less urgent. Founded by a few Somerville neighbors in 1990, Community Cooks has experienced incredible growth. About 4-5 years ago they were supported by about 450 cooks. Today, they utilize over 900 cooks in 61 Greater Boston cities and towns to support 46 partner nonprofit human service agencies (and counting). This network provides home-cooked meals to 4,600 neighbors in need every month.
The project director flashed the logos of the nonprofits provided for through our efforts. The images, as they always do, spoke more than words. Logo after logo meant people being fed, people being cared for. Logo after logo represented the number of services available, the staggering number of ways clients might need help.
The program director acknowledged that while we might feel like we work in isolation, she hoped that in hearing about how our contributions fit into the larger picture that we too might feel like something bigger than ourselves. It takes each and every one of us to play a part. She acknowledged that it can be hard to feel satisfied in service when you don’t get feedback or see results (like seeing the clients enjoying the meal). In an attempt to provide that satisfaction they passed along these point of feedback from the staff at the nonprofits:
”You’re the best volunteers -- you just drop off the food and leave.”
“The food you provide draws people to the programs, letting them take advantage of services available.”
“The food you provide frees up a staff person to do the work for the purpose of their organization without needing to take the time to also prep the food.”
In short, she reaffirmed, “you are appreciated, even if you don’t always get feedback.”
A few short weeks later I was given rare feedback. One of the staff members at the organization I serve told me that she had a student who always looked forward to the chicken cutlet sandwiches I bring. I was so pleased and excited that I could provide something the student could look forward to eating.
Still, even prior to hearing those words, my friend and I left the welcome event determined to stick with it. I may or may not seek out the company of others engaged in this work in my community. But I will keep cooking for the organization I serve.
After a nerve-wracking audition in September, I was fortunate enough to make the choir for the Highrock Christmas Benefit Concert and begin rehearsals. After two months of weekly practices and frequent battles with laryngitis, I ascended the risers with about 60 other singers for our Friday night opening show. With adrenaline running and the remnants of Ricola lozenges in my system, I gave it as much as I could while cognizant of saving my voice for the remaining five shows yet to perform. Our choir and band were rewarded at the end as the audience rose to clap and dance along with us to the final song. We left that night feeling accomplished, though tired.
My real test came on Saturday when we had three shows in a row. The thirty guests I had invited to the concert were all meant to attend the middle show. I prayed they would all make it, and as I climbed the risers for that performance I searched the audience for their faces. I found most of them, worried momentarily for the others, and then lost myself in the songs as our choir director said we should.
“I try to change it up every time,” he had told us ahead of time, “and I want you to do the same. Listen to the words. Remember what you are singing about. Let this be worship.”
So I did. And I added my worship to the voices around me.
“There’s something that has taken me a long time to learn,” our pastor shared prior to the show. “And I’m a little embarrassed that it’s taken me this long because it’s really very simple.” And he paused to hold our attention. “God is always here. He is always present. There are just certain times when he chooses to reveal himself to us, like when Moses saw the burning bush. I pray that we can be a burning bush tonight so the people who came can see God.”
By our third show the tech people had worked out the kinks with the sound system so that our voices blended well with the band. And our souls were united as our choral blend improved as well. Our passion for Christ and our love for our guests in the audience was palpable, at least to me, and I prayed was felt by everyone listening.
After the show I learned that all of my guests were able to make it — despite having young children in tow and despite illness, they were all there. And they all enjoyed the concert, some sharing later how the concert affected them personally.
On Sunday we sang twice more, giving it all we had on the last go around — since it was the last, since the audience was so engaged and since we knew we were being streamed on Facebook Live! Thousands of people watched the show. Thousands of people heard the powerful words of our Christmas carols.
Sometime in the midst of all of it my sister (who saw that middle Saturday show) asked me, “Were you really that happy when you were up there?”
“Yes,” I replied, regretting that she and others hadn’t had more opportunity to see me happy in recent years.
What can I say? Singing is my favorite thing in the world. I also love performing — and sharing Christ’s story as I constantly try to integrate my spiritual and natural lives. I haven’t had a chance in the last 18 years to perform or sing. And yes, being up there, it felt like something missing had been restored.
I have been so blessed lately to have my passions recognized — singing, through the Highrock Christmas Concert, and writing, through this website. I want to thank the thirty guests who personally supported me at the show. And I want to thank the readers of this website — for reading along, for submitting their own comments, for inspiring me with their own ideas and reading suggestions and for recognizing my intent. As one reader put it:
“I was delighted to get your email saying you were starting a blog, and as I've read it I've enjoyed hearing your perspective on books, etc. It feels like the kind of conversation you want to have regularly with people, but often don't find the time and space for it to take place.”
We all need encouragement to pursue our passions, as Rilke knew. Whatever yours might be, I would love to continue this discussion with you any time. Thanks for coming along on the ride with me.
My book club co-founder commented recently that she really enjoys a book with a map because she feels like she is going to travel somewhere. Indeed, that’s how we started our year at the Tipsy Mamas’ Book Club when we read The Little Paris Bookshop and followed Nina George’s characters on a river journey through France.
Two weeks ago I participated in the monthly book club at the O’Neill library where we discussed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. Joyce’s story also features a map — coursing Harold’s walking trek 600-km across England.
In the end, while most of the Christian allegory other readers commented on that night slipped right over my head (I think I have trouble relating religious symbolism to secular characters), I found the journey gripping, even if I was a little disappointed in the main character at the end of the book. Fortunately for me, there is a related title by the same author called The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey which might flesh out the story a bit enough to satisfy. I plan to check it out later this winter.
As sat in the discussion at the library that night I also reflected on my own journey over this past year. I read many books (see below or follow my reading list here), sent all of my kids off to school for the first time, grieved the death of my English golden retriever Sanibel and created space for myself to re-embrace lost passions -- writing (through this website) and singing (through the Highrock Christmas Concert). It’s been an eventful year.
I invite you to read along with me as we forge ahead into 2019.
2018 Reading List:
1. The Little Paris Bookshop (Nina George)
2. Eligible (Curtis Sittenfeld)
3. Say Goodbye to Whining (Turansky and Miller)
4. American Wife (Curtis Sittenfeld)
5. Days Without End (Sebastian Barry)
6. The Power (Naomi Alderman)
7. Difficult Women (Roxanne Gay) (only up to page 82)
8. Killers of the Flower Moon (David Grann)
9. Flight Behavior (Barbara Kingsolver)
10. Crazy Rich Asians (Kevin Kwan)
11. Little Dog, Lost (Marion Dane Bauer)
12. Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Caroline Fraser)
13. Little House in the Big Woods (Laura Ingalls Wilder)
14. The Bait of Satan (John Bevere)
15. The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind (Barbara K. Lipska)
16. Saints for all Occasions (J. Courtney Sullivan)
17. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
18. Siblings Without Rivalry (Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish)
19. Tribe (Sebastian Junger)
20. Pachinko (Min Jin Lee)
21. Beyond Colorblind (Sarah Shin)
22. Sourdough (Robin Sloan)
23. Lilac Girls (Martha Hall Kelly)
24. Everything Here is Beautiful (Mira T. Lee)
25. Barracoon (Zora Neale Hurston)
26. The Cloister (James Carroll)
27. The Mill on the Floss (George Eliot)
28. The Little Virtues (Natalia Ginzburg)
29. Citizen (Claudia Rankine)
30. Heroes of the Frontier (Dave Eggers)
31. My Life in Middlemarch (Rebecca Mead)
32. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows)
33. Prohibition: A Concise History (W.J. Rorabaugh)
34. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Matthew Desmond)
35. Sing, Unburied, Sing (Jesmyn Ward)
36. Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People (Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald)
37. Exit West (Mohsin Hamid)
38. Brown Girl Dreaming (Jacqueline Woodson)
39. The Kindness Challenge (Shaunti Feldhahn)
40 The Unlikely Pilgramage of Harold Fry (Rachel Joyce)
41. An American Marriage (Tayari Jones)
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.