Tales From the Counter #4: Peace, Love, Neighbors, Strangers, and Dinosaurs
Photos and text by Jenny Wonderling
In High Falls and other small towns of America, unlike the villages and cities of Europe, Latin America and elsewhere whose thoughtful and visionary urban planners integrated the town square or piazza as an essential priority for the health of a community and individuals, most Americans must make due with stores and restaurants, the workplace and places of activities like gyms and studios to gather, exchange wares and stories, validate one another, see and be seen. So at Nectar we really have done our very best to keep things lively, to inspire, engage, and even validate our clients, taking the idea of "service" as far as we could.
12.15.17 It’s December, the month that I love especially because for twelve years, Nectar has been not merely a retail shop during the bustle of the holidays but a watering hole where neighbors gather and exchange news firsthand. Do you know how many babies I have seen grow (including my own in the mix there), how many people battle through illnesses and other life challenges, fall apart, fall in love, and everything else? In my shops, all the world truly was a stage, and I was such a grateful and adoring audience and student!
12.10.17 A few weeks before closing the shop, I received a joyous visitor, one I hadn’t seen in a long while. Veronica and her husband Jack would arrive every few months for a visit, emerging across my threshold with beatific smiles, laughing easily, sharing stories of their own travels, full of enthusiasm for Nectar’s exotic items. I always found their rare love for each other an inspiration. This time she had arrived with a woman friend and introduced her. As we caught up in a superficial way, I studied the tee-shirt Veronica wore, brandishing a photo of her with husband, heads thrown back in laughter. Then I asked about Jack.
“He died,” she said peacefully, completely devoid of visible grief. I marveled at how this woman who loved her husband in such a rare way could not have more attachment to the loss.
“I’m so sorry, Veronica!” I said, meaning it, and I swooped in for a hug. “Forgive me but I must ask, knowing how much you loved Jack, how is it that you are getting through so gracefully?”
“First of all, that's why you haven't seen me in a while, I was grieving," she said. "But it's also because we lived every single moment together to the absolute fullest!" she continued. "We never took our time together for granted, and that’s because right from the start, we knew it was limited. I met Jack at a party and immediately when we met we were instantly so connected, we could not stop talking. I slept over our friends' house and in the morning, Jack surprised me with coffee and a photograph he had taken of me, printed and framed to preserve the first night we met! He also brought his photo album so I could meet his whole family right away, he didn't waste any time!" She said, laughing. "After we had our first date (he took me to see Bowling For Columbine and I thought, well this is different kind of guy!) and we hugged, I could feel through his clothes that he had a port, like for chemo. I used to be a phlebotomist and so perhaps was more aware of this. Jack told me then that he had an incurable illness, one that meant he probably had only a year or two to live. He lived eight. We met in 2002, were married in 2005. Nearly nine years of bliss; we did not take one moment for granted." After a pause of reflection she added, "We so loved coming here, Jenny. It was always such an inspiration.”
“Thanks, but YOU are the inspiration, Veronica!” I said, hugging her again. Then I served us up some tea, teary eyed, so grateful for my teachers who have arrived in many unique forms.
How many would run from such a love because of fear rather than embrace it for the gifts it could be? Do any of us ever know how much time we have? How do we take our own lives for granted, our loved ones?
12.12.17 December, my first month after closing my last remaining retail shop and though I’m enlivened by the free weekends I now have with my family and the extra time I will finally have to reflect on and write my “Tales From the Counter,” admittedly I worry that as more and more stores resort to sales solely online, we will collectively be doing our small towns as well as our bigger cities a great disservice. By writing down more of my personal experiences with my clients over the last years, I hope to reveal some of the exquisite humanity I have witnessed, yes even when we are all constantly hearing how “terrible humans are,” and how hopeless so many feel.
Nectar has shown me, for more than a decade, almost without exception, a different breed entirely. Maybe it is where we are based: a rural town bathed in the fecund natural abundance and 4 diverse seasons of the Hudson Valley. Is it possible that people here are gifted a greater sense of respect for nature, and with it perhaps, a greater tolerance and sense of hope? Maybe it was all that, combined with some alchemical magic of offering up such a visceral experience at Nectar (as many other wonderful small businesses do and that make quaint towns unique); something that will simply never be achieved online. Or maybe, more probably, it is that absolutely everyone carries amazing stories and a need for deeper connection, but the environment must be inviting and safe enough to let these things unfurl. I really love a good story, and I am also oriented from the unusual perspective that if we can be patient enough, we can also find a connection, hence more good stories and more connections.
In my stores I have hoped to conjure wanderlust, and to my great satisfaction I often heard my clients enthusiastically exclaim, "I feel like I just traveled somewhere!" Sometimes people I had never seen before would step through the door grim faced, tight lipped, with a "don't bother me, I'm in a hurry" kind of attitude. But left alone, I so often watched the subtle transformation occur with the help of great music and an inviting space to explore. I happily observed this unusual softening in one client after the other through discovery and touch, exposure to new smells, a sample of warm and fragrant tea in hand, feeling all kinds of handmade and traditionally made products, items, teas and candles, things imbibed with stories of their journey to get to our small town or by the local artisans who are our neighbors.
Soon they weren't in such a hurry, faces became more relaxed, a smile sighted during a deep inhale of something new and unusual, or the start of an open conversation might even begin. It was in fact the clients who seemed most resistant at first but finally did resign themselves to the fact that shopping could be relaxing and not stressful, God forbid, even fun who often became some of my favorite clients of all.
And now I am trying to figure out how to translate all of these myriad experiences and observations to a glowing screen with the help of measly plastic keys and electricity. To maintain and transfer some of that truly personal experience to our clients online, even those who don't share the memory of our physical stores, tea with us, the laughter and all the rest. So far, I'm a far cry from what I am hoping for. Maybe that's why I write about it: an attempt at offering human voices, and hearts, within the mechanical and efficient.
What if those exquisite and foreign objects served to remind my clients to keep their hearts open wide, that what we are being taught by our leaders and media to fear, may not all be so terrifying?! For how can the makers of such sensitive and universally beautiful things be made by people so very different from ourselves? Hand loomed textiles, carved wood, handmade pottery and jewelry, fragrant and healing teas, and the rest serve us not just as commodities but to help create connections, even when we are being coaxed to fear the different, the foreign, the strange. These things, hold within their scents, weavings, and wabi-sabi imperfections something mysterious, exciting even. Perhaps they help ignite in us secret yearnings to explore, to invite more adventure, to become more welcoming, less ethnocentric and xenophobic, at least that is my hope.
12.18.17 I called Ruth the other day, a woman I had never met before and owner of Caravanserai in Baltimore, a similarly boho-chic kind of shop and colorful, bountiful multicultural bazaar. I wanted to see if she may want some of the stock of larger items still left from my last brick and mortar store since I closed last month and will now be focusing on smaller, easier to ship items through my site. Ruth and I were communicating for the first time, but as two women who have spent much of their lives traveling, who have both had to ‘rough it’ on occasion and rely on the graciousness of strangers, Ruth was beautifully open-hearted and non-competitive, spilling out hilarious and oh-so-human stories immediately.
We both seem to carry a certain humility and gratitude that is born of the experience of being invited into the home of someone who (truly) barely knows you and has so little, but insists on serving you a meal even if it means they won’t have enough for themselves or their family (though they would never let you know this.) When that “home” of many generations and family members is but one small room, the bathroom a hole in the ground of a dark and fetid enclosed space outback, their access to clean water a very long walk away. There may be religious persecution happening in their village or to “their kind of people,” there may be the threat of war or even greater poverty, of their air and water being dangerously polluted by an imposing multinational that has changed everything in their village. But there they are with their huge smiles and open hearts, grateful for your strange and foreign ways, knowing that because of your visit you will bring new stories and possibility into each others’ homes. Ruth too, my insta-sister has also experienced all this first hand; we don't even need to compare notes, it just is.
We have both known such a moment as this firsthand: It is probable that the piece of chicken you have just been served is the only one they may have eaten for at least a month or two, it is that precious. And so with utter gratitude for your host’s generosity whether it may or may not make you sick, you eat. And while you do, you marvel at the overabundance of America’s stores’ shelves, our restaurants that dispose of our perfectly untouched, absolutely fresh leftovers when so many are hungry at this very moment in our “land of plenty.”
Just last week I was in New Canaan, CT visiting a friend and then grabbed something to go at 5pm at Pain Quotidien. Display cases were still filled with delectable pastries and more. Something caused me to ask what organization they donate to at the end of the day, having just read the sad stat that 1 out of 6 Americans is hungry daily and remembering the work my own restaurant used to do with God’s Love We Deliver in NYC so many years ago when I lived there.
The very kind Hispanic woman behind the counter shook her head regretfully then said eloquently, “Though our restaurants donate in NYC and elsewhere, New Canaan will not permit non-profits to distribute our food at the end of day. When I can, I take what I can to my church but its awful and inexcusable how much waste there is in a town of such extreme wealth. Wealth, and yet there is hunger here and everywhere.”
Yes, and it’s not just a hunger for food, though most Americans don’t even know it. When only 3.5% of Americans travel overseas in a given year on average, but we are also force-fed a hearty plate of fear of foreigners, strangers, and difference, we remain hungry for what we could and should be learning from cultures that have been seeped in age-old traditions for generations. I heard sometime back about an African right of passage where a boy becomes a man only after he walks empty handed for many weeks. He will face unfamiliar tribes and village ways, the threat of danger both from humans and wildlife, and must endure hunger. And only after many, many weeks can he return a man, and a humbled, self-reliant, more compassionate and communicative, resourceful man at that. I can only imagine what would happen if (or when) a penniless stranger speaking a foreign tongue (or not) journeys in this country. Do we welcome them to our tables? Would we give them our food even before ourselves, knowing that this empty-handed visitor comes with tangible gifts of experience and mystery. Do enough of us listen to and coax out more of their stories? In fact, most Americans refuse to even make eye contact with strangers when we cross them on our path, let alone invite them to a meal. We are born of a country that has been and still is, sadly and in spite of our extreme abundance, wrapped like a flag in blame and judgement, of mine, and yours.
Our government doesn’t seem to mind being a foreigner in less defended countries of natural abundance, storming in as uninvited guests that take and take and leave a wake of pollution and devastation. This goes against everything I hold to be true and beautiful, and yet now our current government and too many of our citizens are encouraging the construction of a mighty and ominous wall to keep people out, to keep people in. People who want to work hard and learn new things, provide a better life for their loved ones, good mothers and fathers who are willing to pay taxes, even fight on our behalf, are running from the havoc our own government has helped create. Still these travelers are not always invited, their presence not always welcome and so surreptitiously they may enter to partake and survive, contribute and put down roots.
And that is just one more reason why Ruth and I, for example, celebrate handmade crafts and manufacturing that preserve both cultural traditions and the balance of the earth. And there are more of us. It's a growing movement, it's a worldwide awakening. Thankfully, more and more of us are realizing we must be vigilant to protect our earth, to counterbalance the greed, to give, and give, and be of service. There is an urgency that has been ignited because of selfish and greedy leaders protecting corporate interest over what is right, what is true.
Making things sustainably, Fair Trade, by-hand helps transport some of the flavors and scents from far away, and allows for people in marginalized areas an access to a world market and fair wages. In fact, Ruth has spent much more time traveling yearly than most, around 6 months traipsing deep into the hearts of many more countries than even I have explored, and mostly, bravely, she does it alone, a foreign woman, a “stranger.” As I had done, she also created her boutique as an excuse to feed her love of travel, to find treasures from around the world, and to offer people a beautiful space to connect and see life through a more colorful and forgiving lens.
“So, Jenny, are you closing because you want your weekends free again or because you are sick of having your thighs bruised from moving huge pieces of furniture?” she asked as if clairvoyantly, laughing her contagious laugh. "Both," I said truthfully, marveling at our parallels and how I still had literal black and blues on my right thigh from a table I strained to carry last week. But it also has to do with wanting time to write, to commute less and dream more, and to finally create a sustainably, ethically sourced wholesale line.
"I may one day soon, follow suit," Ruth said honestly. "Maybe. It's a crazy and wonderful life we've chosen, and yes, retail is changing as we know it. But so is the world. I went to a party of an extremely wealthy family in England a few years back. The heir to the estate said in a sweeping gesture, all sincerity, "Oh I've heard about people like you- open minded people. I didn't know there were any of you left!" Ruth laughed and laughed, saying, "My son thought it was the funniest thing he had ever heard. "Mom, you're a dinosaur!" he had exclaimed. I guess that makes two of us. But thankfully, I know there are more...
PEACE AND LOVE NEIGHBORS, STRANGERS, AND TO ALL OF US DINOSAURS THIS HOLIDAY SEASON ON OUR BEAUTIFUL AND COMPLEX EARTH IN 2017!!!