How to reconcile the giving up of the vegetable deliveries? I am sitting at the kitchen table cradling a cup of tea, and thinking, we simply can’t afford it. Between going hungry and going unethical, we have, being human, chosen of course the latter: not because we are by nature unethical beings, but because we are by nature a species who competes, who strives for survival, and who, when needs must, compromises.
Here’s what happened. It is happy news: S and A are engaged! We’re excited for them; they glow, they invite us to the wedding, they move in together. And, though I’ve never known the house at a time when S lived there full-time, day-and-night, now her clothing is gone from the bedroom, her books pulled from the shelves, and a faint emptiness steals through the spaces that crave, but at present lack, inhabitance. She continues to rent her old study—“the midden”, it’s called, for the literary chaos on desks and chairs, the smell of old books, the sound of papers fluttering, crumpling, lovingly abandoned to a life of running free through a jungle of very academic words—but X hasn’t seen her in weeks, he says.
Then, on an October afternoon that toys with becoming cold, despite the fiery red and orange colours blazing in the trees, S sends word that she’s transferred the vegetable order we shared with her from her old address to her new one. That’s it: the transition is complete. No more little cardboard boxes on the doorstep every Tuesday.
We will not put in an order of our own. X is covering all the rent until I can move in come January; and though he smiles at me as readily as always, the burden weighs heavily. Sitting cross-legged upon our messy little bed, framed on each side with an old wood chair piled high with books, I say tentatively:
“Well, perhaps we can just wait and then—reinstate the tradition when I’m back for good.”
I can feel his relief: perhaps he expected me to adhere to my morals more fiercely (perhaps even I expected to do so).
“Yeah yeah,” he says. “It’s just—at the moment—too much.”
Too much: I know what he means. Too much food. Too much cost. Too much bother. I don’t think either of us is one to bend easily, but what can you do when it all gets to be too much?
What, indeed. Do you try to make it up in other ways? Do you assuage your gently nagging guilt by assuring yourself that, come springtime, when you’ve saved up enough, you’ll rejoin the ranks of the worthy, you’ll redouble your efforts! Do you content yourself to know that for many long, meaningful months, you were good?
I’m a perpetual, insistent, insolent worrier, it’s true. When X says, “It’s just too much” in that resigned voice, shoulders slightly hunched from trying to scrape up rent, my mind, in its worrying little way, goes immediately to the things I’d written months previous. “I’m such a hypocrite,” I fluster, flush-cheeked, brows furrowed. Have I lost, I fret, my right to write about this?
Good intentions, after all, cannot alone suffice. They are, yes, a crucial baby-step. They are the foundation for everything else: like a writer’s credibility. No self-respecting author could rely solely upon his honest reputation (he must also have message, mastery of prose, an audience, a dream)—but without that foundation of ethos, everything he does subsequently is meaningless.
So, I think again, what can we do? And it stops being about easing the guilt, at a certain point, and starts again being about the problem at hand. I remember presently that not having Abel & Cole drop off our groceries each week is not actually the end of the world. It’s hardly even a hiccup. We can still eat well: in a way that nourishes us, and the planet, and the local producers. It won’t be in a neat package, tied with shoestring, for a few months. True. But so?
So we’ll have to work a bit harder to make it to the covered market before closing time. We’ll have to read labels more closely. We’ll have to do our own research to discover what products are local, what fruits and vegetables are in season, which ones are grown organically and not packaged in a thousand layers of plastic. Perhaps—people have done this for centuries, after all—we shall even start tend to our garden with more seriousness, and more regularity.
Midweek, and our kitchen is bare. We have no bread for toast, and no coffee, because neither of those things was delivered on Tuesday. All that remains of last week’s box is a collection of unwashed potatoes and a bowl full of little lovely apples. I chew my lower lip hungrily. X and I are both developing a slight but annoying cold; fall is in full swing, and though the sun shines brightly this fine morning, our window is shut tight against the autumnal chill. We emerge to a street that smells wonderfully of chimney smoke and changing leaves and pumpkin pie; the light is gentle, and warm, and hazy. We can hear snippets of people’s conversations as we step down the street, and the hum of music from houses. Someone has been sick on the narrow sidewalk; I have to jump to avoid stepping in the remnant of last night’s revelry. X and I wear thick jumpers and hold hands.
The little shop on Magdalen Road reminds me of going into someone’s overstocked pantry: fruits and vegetables, crisps, chocolate bars, a hundred varieties of sodas and juices stacked in no particular order in the refrigerator; milk, cream, cheese, butter; jams and peanut butter and marmite. Everything is slightly dusty; the chaos is warm, and inviting. We gather up our goods: the cheapest, simplest goods we can get. Plain sliced white bread (a half loaf so it doesn’t go off before we have the chance to finish it), milk for our tea, butter for our toast, tawny marmalade, orange juice.
Back at home, we make toast, cup our hands round our tea to keep warm, open the back door to let the smell of fall in. I do my best not to feel guilty about our illicit feast: bread that was baked far from Oxfordshire, juice from Florida, milk that isn’t organic. I spy the all-natural washing up soap by the sink and am briefly cheered; but that gnawing, itching, tingling worry…
Then, in the midst of my third cup of tea (trying to will away my headache and soothe my slightly scratchy throat), I remember something my parents used to tell me: everything in moderation. So today, I think, we woke up, we felt slightly rotten, though happy, and we were very, very hungry, and we went down to the little corner shop and bought some inorganic foodstuffs. Well, so what. We are not to be defined by our missteps. We mean well. We, for the most part, do well. The relative poverty of our youth makes it harder—but there are millions far worse off than us. For now, we’ve put rent before organic vegetable deliveries. But, I’m very happy to say, we’re also keeping our values very much in mind.