The Sacredness of Things Collapsing

“Thus it is said:

The path into the light seems dark,

the path forward seems to go back,

the direct path seems long”

It was in the dreary Detroit winter of 2013 that I, an environmentalist overachiever and recent college graduate struggling with burnout and cynicism, walked up to the big red doors of the Walter Cohen Downtown Synagogue for a Friday night Shabbat service. I hadn’t gone to a synagogue on my own volition since the end of high school, five years prior, and considered myself on the spectrum somewhere between half-hearted agnostic and spiritual-but-not-religious.

For as long as I’d been alive, Judaism had felt stale at best and sputtering toward death at worst, like those cartoon planes that run out of gas with a “pfft, pfft,” and then go limp, spiraling in a tailspin. More than not liking and not needing organized religion, I’d resented the very concept for years, having left it to its own fucked-up devices like many in my generation following the Christian conservative culture wars of the 90’s and September 11th.

Yet on that night, my bundled hands reached out into the biting wind toward the synagogue’s six-pointed Star-of-David door handle. I wanted to be there and I didn’t know why. Maybe even more than that, I needed to be there. It was instinctual in a way I didn’t know people could feel instinct. I was a salmon.

Ever since, I’ve been wondering... Why did my black dress shoes crunch the icy salted sidewalk that night leading me back to a synagogue? What sequence of events brings anyone back from the brink of a full and utter disavowal of religion? And when we go seeking there, do we find what we’re looking for?

Whatever the answers, it all starts with the pea fields.

The Pea Fields

The summer before my freshman year of college, circa 2008, there was a shift within me that included becoming a vegetarian and committing myself to a career spent fighting for the natural environment. Logically, the first step toward enacting these newfound principles was working on an organic farm, and to my surprise, Mom found one for me the next neighborhood over.

The farmer who worked the land, Margey, was an older woman who’d worked for years in public relations or marketing or something, but she got fed up with the corporate world amidst a nasty divorce and decided to go off the grid. She embraced her new lifestyle as a chance to start over. The dirt covering her bucket hat and clothes proved it, not to mention the dried, crusty mud that snuck up under her formerly manicured fingernails.

The field where I worked was in the back of her house in the shade of a row of trees and an unpaved, stone parking lot. There were a lot of fields on her farm but I suppose Margey chose that one, the strawberry garden, because she wanted to keep watch on a kid as green as an unripe tomato. I was new to the concept of manual labor after a cushy childhood.

“Let’s see if you take to farm work,” she laughed.

For the first few days, at least, I loved that farm. I was awestruck at how alive it all was. I gazed at the ants, spiders, and worms as they ran out from underneath my spade while I dug holes for planting and watched as they wriggled free from clumps of dirt attached to the roots of weeds I yanked out of the ground. My favorite creatures, though, were always the bees. I couldn’t help but gaze at them sometimes, entranced by the rhythmic whir and hum of their wings as they buzzed in and out of plants in their endless search for the best-smelling flower.

When I took a break during the hottest hours of the day, Margey let me come inside for two glasses of water and her daughter taught me how to make walnut pesto. We ate lunch together and laughed. They were so nice.  In the late afternoon, another pleasant shift in the books, I hopped on my bike and left Margey’s house, tired, satisfied, and happy.

Happy, that was, until I got home and showed Mom what I’d earned after a hard day’s labor.

“Mom, look, I got something for our salad tonight.” I held up the bag of snap peas and fava beans.

“They’re so pretty, did you get those at the farm?”

“Yeah. This is what she paid me in today.” I laughed.

Mom’s full smile, one that shone in her bright blue eyes, changed. She looked at me, puzzled, with a hint of dissatisfaction. “She should pay you in money, not vegetables, honey. You’re worth more than that. Tomorrow, ask her to pay you.”

So I did.

“H-h-ey Margey,” I said the next day. “Is it possible that since I’m doing work for your garden, like, that, m-m-aybe I could get paid for it?” It didn’t come out with the triumphant strength and sense of self-worth that I wanted it to, but she got the point.

“You want to be paid?” she almost laughed. “Okay, well, if you want to be paid, I’ve got a different job for you today.” She seemed incredulous, offended even. We walked down to the south side of the farm to a field by the lake unprotected by shade, “We haven’t worked on this bed for months. I need you to clean it up.”

Before me lay the gnarliest-looking pea shoot jungle I’d ever seen. When I’d thought about a pea plant before, I imagined the kind we had in the little garden plot behind our house, all dainty, viney, delicate, green and easy. These peas though; they weren’t nice. They had deep, thick, fibrous roots, speckled purple and red amidst the green as if warning someone not to mess with them. But it was my job to mess with them, so mess with them I did, as diligently as I could.

I hacked at the roots hour after hour, tossing the hoe that Margey gave me over my head and swinging down at the fibrous stalks like an indiscriminate axe murderer. Every once in awhile Margey came back to the field to see how I was doing. I wasn’t doing well, but I didn’t say anything. I had a job to do.

It must have been the hottest day of the year. Sweat dripped down my nose, down my arms, and down my back, which hurt from all of the swinging and the yanking and the pulling. My palms felt like they’d been strangled because I kept on wrapping those stubborn pea shoots around them and pulling up but they wouldn’t budge. Only over my dead, defeated body would they leave the Carolina red clay soil.  

Seven hours later, I returned to Margey’s house from the pea fields, exhausted, at last the task complete. I announced my success to her and her daughter. “Not a single pea shoot left in the ground. Field’s ready for planting. Even harvested the peas and placed them in the buckets, just like you said.”

Margey nodded with approval. “Thank you.” But she didn’t invite me in for two glasses of water, not even one, and there was no walnut pesto. She pulled out her wallet and gave me $35. Then came the pink slip. “You did a good job today but I can’t afford a farm hand. You’ll have to find work somewhere else. I know a guy who might need some help over in Yadkinville…”

When we finished talking, I felt a pit in my stomach.

...I think I just got fired.

I looked at the piece of paper with the phone number of the guy in Yadkinville.

When I left the garden and biked home, the late afternoon sun was still gracefully falling in the sky but I was exhausted. My back ached as I pedalled up the hill from Margey’s farm to my neighborhood. As I shot down into my cul-de-sac, the air whooshed by my sweat-speckled, dirt-crusted face. I hopped off my bike, parked it in the garage, and stripped down to my underwear before entering the house under strict orders from Mom (“You do NOT enter my house with your farm clothes on”). I still had that uneasy feeling in my stomach as I hopped in the shower, brown streams rushing down my body into the drain. Something had just gone horribly wrong but I didn’t have a clue as to what.

Senior year of college is, in a way, a rite of passage where early twentysomethings are systematically transported from the strawberry garden into the pea fields. In our four years of college, we can enjoy our work. We dig holes in pursuit of planting our interests and watch them sprout. We get grades and experience in return for our labor, college’s equivalent of ripe snap peas that adorn our delicious egos. We return home after a semester, tired but satisfied. In that world, we get two glasses of water and learn how to make pesto. But for those of us who didn’t have to work during the semester to survive, there wasn’t as much a need for money to be involved in the equation, and because of it, it wasn’t real.

Until the career fair that changed everything. We seniors had just started to unpack our clothes, buy our books, and shuffle to 9 a.m. classes when the first bomb dropped, an email that began: “Tips to Ace your Interview at Columbia’s First Career Fair of 2011-2012.”

It was a drop-everything-and-head-to-the-bunker kind of email, the kind that triggered the ominous shroud of uncertainty and its accoutrement, noisy fear and simmering anxiety. I was thankful I’d been preparing for this moment for years, ever since my older brother Rob graduated in the midst of the Great Recession of 2009 without a job. On that unseasonably warm and sunny spring day, amidst loud “Wooooo’s!,” cheery staccato clapping, and joyous cap tossing, his celebration was incomplete.

I remember our family went to a restaurant in Downtown Poughkeepsie following the ceremony. I watched a waiter bring out a bottle of wine and pour a little in Dad’s glass, which he swirled and sipped before giving the waiter the go-ahead to begin emptying the bottle. Those who were of drinking age raised their wine glasses. The bright red liquid lit up like maroon fire in the late afternoon sun streaming in through the restaurant’s giant windows.

“Water cheers,” I laughed, raising my clear glass speckled with little pieces of ice. “Hey Dad, can I try some?” I whispered quietly to him afterwards, gesturing toward his wine.

“Honey, no.” Mom disapproved.

Dad let me sip from his wine glass anyway.  

But there was something just beneath the surface of the toasts and cheery mood. I could feel it, the submerged questions that nobody wanted to bring to the surface.

...Would Rob be okay? What would he do next?

I must have internalized the anxiety that day, somehow breathed in particles of sadness and confusion like secondhand smoke that lodged in my lungs and never left. It’s why my resume was not only perfectly formatted and typo-free from trips to the Career Center but also bursting at the seams with internships, awards, and leadership positions that I’d hunted, gathered, and sorted away like a doomsday prepper, waiting, waiting, waiting until the day of shock and awe. Which was coming, and soon. 

It’s also why I spent hours on the Friday night before the career fair learning how to tie a full windsor knot. “It’s the most professional of all knots,” a friend had told me. “It’s bigger than the other ones. It signals confidence.”

...Would a half-windsor signal to an employer that I wasn’t confident? Shit.

I stood in front of my computer that night with a youtube tutorial playing on loop.

“You cross the fat end of the tie over the skinny end to form an X.”

I crossed the fat end over the skinny end. It formed an X.

“The X becomes the knot, so I’m going to call the hand that holds the X, the ‘knot hand.’ Choose which hand you want to be the ‘knot hand’ to hold the X.”

Outside my window, I heard Friday night revelers laughing and yelling boisterously.

...Stupid freshmen.

I twisted and looped the soft silk between my fingers. I yanked it this way and that but couldn’t… get it… right.

...Fucking tie, I cursed under my breath.

“What’re you up to, dudelikus?” My suitemate, Sean Cox returned from the bar where all of my friends had been that evening. He peered his head in through the door and saw me standing in boxer briefs and a white t-shirt with a half-balled up, extremely wrinkled tie around my neck and a red balloon of exasperation temporarily replacing my face.

“You’re tying a tie?”

“Yeah. I’m trying to learn how to tie a full windsor.”

“Oh yeah, that’s a tough one. I can help.” He walked up to me, his breath tinged with the beer smell.

“Yeah, you need to go under here.”

He guided my hands.

“Heyyyyoooo! You have it.” Sean stood back and smiled.

“Thanks, Sean.”

My large silk knot beamed with confidence in between the dark blue curves of the suit Mom had bought me for this very occasion. I stood amongst a crowd of us who’d gathered before the career fair auditorium had even opened, overachievers amongst overachievers, milling about in the hall that now echoed with nervous murmurs.

I tried to make small talk with a person in line behind me, a young woman dressed in a sharp, earth-toned business suit.

“How are you feeling?”

“Ready,” she said matter-of-factly and flashed a smile. She removed her Columbia-branded, leather-bound folder from underneath her armpit and held it in front of her, as if to say, “See?”

My folder was one of those shiny paper ones, Columbia-branded too but not nearly quite as fancy.

“Nice. It’s a little nerve-wracking, right?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I feel like either you prepared or you didn’t.”

...I prepared and I’m still nervous.

“Hey, check this out.” She whipped out a small box from her purse and opened it. She handed me a business card. On it was her name, number, email, and a branding statement that said something like Results-driven, mission-oriented leader.

“You made business cards for this?”

“Yeah.”

“Wow.”

...Should I have made business cards? No. That’s ridiculous. You only get business cards if you work for somebody already…….. Right?

We didn’t talk much more after that.

The line began moving and the nervous talking escalated into a rumbling roar. We all marched forward toward the registration tables, beneath the surface of our stolid masks a mixture of fear, anxiety, and desire. We were veterans of past career fair campaigns full of missteps that wouldn’t happen this time around. This year we wouldn’t stumble over our qualifications or give sweaty, dead-fish handshakes. This year was the year that mattered.

The career fair staffers handed out booklets containing the names of our future overlords employers. They suggested we step aside before entering the hall and mark off a few names of the companies we wanted to talk to. I walked to the side, pulled out one of the three pens I’d brought (...you never know which ones are going to run out of ink at the wrong moment), and marked little x’s by the names of a few.

...Alright, here we go.

I entered the auditorium. Normally filled with thousands of chairs, there were now rows upon rows of booths. Recruiters stood behind them.

One of them shouted at me almost immediately. “You look like you want some free candy!” I looked over and saw some mini-Snickers on his table, along with free sunglasses and other little tchotchkes. I’d been trained my whole life to avoid strangers offering candy and this time was no different. “No, thank you.”

Industrious, serious-looking Columbia Career Services representatives swarmed the stage where a capella groups usually crooned and dance troupes jumped and shimmied. Behind them, an endless reel of sponsors, supporters, and advertisements ran on repeat.

The room pulsed with the energetic hum of a million serious conversations. I looked around at all of the tables but didn’t know who to talk to. There were eyes on me from tables with limited traffic, hopeful eyes begging, and students swarmed others and surrounded them on all sides in disorderly semi-circles. It was the banks and consulting firms. They were uncluttered aside from a few analytical-looking brochures filled with tables and charts, free of tchotchkes and candy.

The people who swarmed these tables were the ones who’d majored in useful things, who’d listened to their parents when they suggested, “you should major in economics.” Mom had similarly mentioned that I should consider going into law. “You’re such a great leader, honey. You should think about politics,” she said over the phone.

But I was a committed environmentalist and devout change-maker, not another lying politician or corporate sell-out with an Ivy-League degree. But on the day of the career fair, for whatever reason (envy, curiosity, pride?) I wanted to see what it felt like to walk up to one of consulting tables.

I patiently waited in line, eavesdropping on the people ahead of me who laughed and bantered with the consultant recruiters as if we were in a country club. Could I get one of these jobs if I really wanted it?

Then it was my turn.

The recruiter consultant was a good-looking white guy with a side part in his dark brown hair. He wore a sharp blue suit, an unwrinkled, white button-up shirt underneath. He looked impeccably inoffensive.

        I asked him, “Does your consulting firm do anything in clean energy or environmental sustainability?

“No,” he responded. “Not really. Every once in awhile we get a major utility or energy company,” (...oil or natural gas, I said silently) “but if you really want to work in that industry, we’re not the right ones for you.” He said it with an objective, dispassionate tone.

“Who are your clients, usually?”

“It ranges, but usually your big Fortune 500 companies. We do a lot of financial services work. Infrastructure. Technology.”

I repressed the urge to tell him he was evil.

“Thank you,” I said instead.

“You’re welcome,” he responded. “Hey, just in case, take my business card.” He gave me the tiny piece of paper with his email and phone number on it. I shook his hand and looked him straight in the eyes, just like Dad taught me to do in the living room where we’d practiced a few summers ago.

“Wow, you have a really firm handshake,” the consultant responded. I flashed a beaming, confident smile.

I kept on walking through the endless aisles like a cow through a stockyard, scanning the tables and reading the messages. “Your time to change things is now.” “Discover your passion with us.” They handed me job descriptions with words like Associate and Analyst that sounded nice, but what was the difference between a project manager and a program manager, and just how proficient did I have to be to claim “proficiency in excel?” I didn’t know what I was doing. Did they know that?

And everywhere were the tschotskes, on every table a little lure that they hoped we’d bite on so they could reel us in like little fishies. I think we would have screeched if we had voices, but we just flopped and gasped for air, moving our mouths while talking to them but nothing real came out.

 I could feel myself shrinking behind my proud silk knot and had the vague sense that I wanted to disappear, but something primal in me kicked in and I continued through the maze of booths. Everywhere I looked were students whose thoughts (if they were like mine) rippled in a swirling pool of anxiety, but tried not to show it. On the surface our false confidence looked steady like the surface of a silent lake. We’d painted on our smiles, and like mimes, kept going through the motions. 

I didn’t learn the bigger lesson until much later, at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Sanctuary in Boca Raton, Florida, where a sign on the wall taught me that 999 sea turtles out of every thousand who crawl out of their shells die, either in their desperate crawl toward the ocean or when they move toward headlights they think are the glint of the moon shining on the ocean’s glassy surface. Sea turtles don’t get a choice of when they’re born. They just have to meet life where it is, in all of its beauty, horror, and suddenness.

The senior year job search strikes me as somewhat like that blind rush. There’s no choice but to try and keep trying, doing everything you can to reach the water. Hell, even when you’re in the water it’s not safe because once you have a job, you have to keep it. I think that’s why I’ve forgiven everyone, from the consultants to the economics majors, to the manipulative marketers and the recruiters behind the table. I’ve even forgiven myself. We were all just doing what we needed to do to survive. There was no other choice.