by Harmony Button
My one and only experience with church camp was on a sleep-away youth group retreat. The camp was in the Adirondacks, at the edge of a lake. I was new to youth group, having aced my way through confirmation class on brain power (and a tendency to make up sacrilegious songs to remember the books of the bible: The dude in Deuteronomy named Joshua Judge… Is Ruth the first for Samuel or is there another…).
I was thirteen years old and went to hippie school where nobody made fun of me for not wearing a bra or blue jeans. The other girls in my cabin at church camp, however, were all from the local junior high. Even the words “junior high” sounded glamorous and slightly illicit, like “training bra” and “maxi pad.” These girls came to camp equipped with both of the above, as well opaque little bottles of hair product and hand lotion. They wore pants without elastic waistbands and left their flowery underthings strewn about the cabin as if they weren’t ashamed of their own bodies.
And then there was me, raised in purple paisley, cradled in a library of floor to ceiling bookcases populated mostly by volumes of 1970’s feminist theory and Stephen Hawking-esque contemplations of the universe. There was no room in my childhood for Bath & Body Works. It was safe to say that I did not fit in.
Sitting around the campfire, singing songs of lovingkindness, I was an outcast. It wasn’t that the other girls were cruel, the way that I’ve seen teenage girls be cruel. It’s just that I didn’t get their jokes, didn’t know their pop songs, and couldn’t compare tips on how to take off your bra underneath your t-shirt.
Most of all, they just seemed so very much in control of their bodies, walking with just the right amount of swagger, never tripping or running or getting a little wacky on the swing set — where I hung out, a lot, by myself. They choreographed these little dance numbers, for fun, and would practice them on the grass, flipping their hair in unison and doing unimaginable things with their hips. At dinner, they said grace with their little hands clasped, their pearly polished fingernails aligned in what God could only interpret as the symmetry of sincerity. I sat, oafish, and mouthed silently along, miserable in the knowledge that I was an imposter: I didn’t even say grace right.
My family said a simple grace before we ate, which always perplexed me. Shouldn’t the grace be said during the eating, not beforehand? Why give thanks for something before it has been enjoyed, instead of in midst of the enjoying? Besides, our habitual grace smacked of something corporate, from the 50s:
God is great,
God is good,
Let us thank him for our food.
This, however, was not the grace I learned. From a very young age, this is what I heard my parents chanting before dinnertime:
Lettuce thank imported food.
The irony of this misunderstanding is not lost on me. When I realized how I had misinterpreted my family’s pre-dinner ritual, I felt betrayed by grace. All these years, I had been calling down the invocation – Goddess Great! – when in fact, we were trudging along with the traditional old subject-verb-object: God is good.
The second night of camp, I ate some bad tomato sauce that, in combination with some social anxiety reflux, gave me a case of the shits that was not to be denied. I was down at the lake when the affliction struck.
Is there a more desperate situation for a teenage girl at church camp? Forget finding Jesus: I just really, really needed to find an outhouse, and the nearest one was a half a mile away. I considered copping a squat in the intervening field, but there was only Queen Anne’s lace to shelter me, and the rest of the camp was in sight. I contemplated throwing myself in the lake, but something told me that even the lake couldn’t wash away the particular sin that was rapidly burning its way through my lower GI tract. So, instead, I ran toward the cabin and tried to contain the situation.
The situation was not contained.
The situation was in my pants.
The smell was unbearable. When the other girls came in, my humiliation was complete. God had forsaken me. Not even Goddess Great came down to intervene, to shade my shame with lettuce and thanks. No, there was no way around it: I had been burned.
I didn’t eat tomatoes for a decade.
Even after I realized my misunderstanding, I continued to say grace my way: Goddess great, goddess good. Nobody ever noticed. And really, is there anything more divine than lettuce? It is the single most life-affirming growth I know – not that vampiric, iceberg business, but the good, dark leafed stuff. When red lettuce sprouts its fat, veiny leaves, they spill out like broad tongues in the mouths of the world. When I said lettuce thank imported food, I was thanking the chards and kales, the red leaf lettuce, the spring medley with arugula and baby spinach. If we’re going to import our food, at least let us thank them.
But as soon as I left my childhood family unit and ventured out into the world on my own, I found myself in search of a new kind of grace, one that showed appreciation and gratitude, but also celebrated the joy of eating. Food is one of the greatest pleasures that we get to experience on a daily basis: why not talk back to it?
To be honest, my exodus from organized religion was not quite so sudden and violent as the church camp story suggests. It was nuanced, painful, and complicated. But the Tomatoes of Shame experience is a pretty accurate analogy: there was something rotten in the middle, something that didn’t seem to bother anyone else, but turned me inside out.
I came home from Shame Camp fully disillusioned by the songs, the prayers, the falsehood of lovingkindness that could be so quickly undercut by bodily malfunctions. I came home done with youth group, done with adolescence and coming of age and all that crap. I came home vowing instead to make up a newer, better religion, one where Goddess did more laughing and less smiting, and nobody had to wear stockings to church.
I was hungry for something, and I didn’t know what, so I looked my teenage years straight in the face and resigned myself to being always, always hungry. I learned to eat salad instead of grilled cheese, even though I knew I would burn over a thousand calories in swim practice that afternoon. I learned to keep my Goddess Great under wraps.
I grew up and went away to college. I spent Sunday mornings in the library. I started reading poetry, and felt something unfurl inside. It was a strange and familiar feeling: an interconnectedness of all things, a glimpse into the heart of faith. I kept eating salads, but I turned them into cornucopias of awesome, piled high in layers of radishes, garbanzo beans, almond slivers, and nutritional yeast.
My first teaching job was at an Episcopalian all girls boarding school in the deep-enough-for-me South. Why I thought this community would be a good match for me, godless English major from Vermont, I don’t know. It became clear very early on that the Goddess Great was not welcome in the chapel at 7 every morning, where we would gather before classes. In fact, Goddess Great was soon demoted to the back of the church, where nobody could see when I tried to abstain discreetly from communion. I’d had quite enough body and blood of Christ, thank you kindly. Besides, he didn’t seem to sit well with my digestive system.
In my house today, we never say grace. Instead, we celebrate the kitchen dance. We sing the sharp cheddar crumble and the saucing song, songs that are usually very simple, relying on basic rhythm, straight rhyme, and gusto. Occasionally, in the quiet moments that I spend chewing my food, I find myself inventing a new verse. The result is that dinnertime conversation looks like this:
Jason: How was work?
Me: Saucing food and saucy fine, I love saucing all the time. Mmm hmm.
Jason: Me, too.
Me: Can I get a hell yeah!
I have long said that food may be the cornerstone of my relationship, but I always thought that this was because Jason is, like me, a vegetarian who believes in “beans!” as the correct answer to any food-based question. We might be food-soul mates because he understands me when I say that spinach is my spirit vegetable, or that peanut butter is my liver’s secret lover. He believes in my ability to cook in a kitchen without animal products or measuring cups. He especially believes in the kitchen dance, which for me usually involves a lot of hip action, and for him, looks vaguely reminiscent of the Super Mario Bros run, after Luigi eats the spotted mushroom that makes him flash invincible.
In my house today, we are digging an ambitious garden – an urban farm on tiered beds – in which to grow mostly spinach and tomatoes and tomato-supporting foodstuffs (basil, onion, garlic, hot peppers). We grow because it is the closest thing to drinking through my feet that I know how to do: I set the soaker hoses carefully among the seedlings, cover them with wood chips generously thick, the way I like my cream cheese frosting on a carrot cake.
Today, I have forty-five tomato sproutlings spawning in my living room in March. We start them from seeds, saved and dried from our favorites of last year’s crop.
This is how you sprout tomatoes: poke three seeds into a moist pellet of peat moss and light soil. Bury just below the surface. Keep pellets damp and warm, preferably covered (I use leftover trays from grocery store cinnamon buns: large black plastic plates with high, clear covers.) In a week, the sprouts will start to surface. Remove the cover. Let them dry almost to crumbling before soaking thoroughly. Water from the bottom, pouring an inch of water into the pan and letting the pellet soak up all it can hold.
Sometimes, even when you know what’s good for you, you’d rather drink it from the ground upwards, absorbing all that you can hold, rather than have the goodness forced upon you from the top down.
When did I come around to the tomato? Around the same year Goddess Great found me single, unemployed, and in the desert. I grew food so I could have a timeline for the future, so I had something to be beholden to. I grew because if I could not drink the sunshine, I wanted to celebrate something that could. I grew to have a garden, a place of worship for the silent tongues of leaves and stems.
Last night, I stood in the back room of my house – a torn up jumble of uninstalled hardwood and dusty underlayment – and I watched the sun set on my backyard garden. Jason pointed out where the new lumber we’d salvaged from somebody’s house would become our new back deck, where the stoop would drop down to the garden path, where the first tier would hold the food we were already in the process of growing, even before we knew for sure we’d have a place to put it.
And this, I realized, was an act of faith – the fact that I sprout gardens every March – and this faith sustains me. I have carried sprouts across the valley in cottage cheese containers, cookie trays, and scavenged tree buckets from nurseries. I have taken them on planes. I have given them to friends with feeding and care instructions. I have planted in sidewalks, in backyards, in abandoned lots, only to see my gardens leveled and paved over. Still, I plant because really, what else can I do?
I believe in singing to your food: as sprouts, as transplants, as heavily laden creatures, and as dinner on my table. Goddess great, goddess good, let us grow our own good food. Amen.
Harmony Button is a contributing editor at Paper Tape Magazine as well as the English Department Chair and Director of Writing at the Waterford School in Utah. Her work has been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Web awards, and has appeared in journals such as Colorado Review, Chicago Quarterly, Southwestern American Lit, Cobalt, Rock & Sling, Bayou, and Drafthorse. Find links to other works at harmonybutton.wordpress.com