The breeze is steady and thick with cotton that blankets my garden. An errant puff sticks to my housecoat and I imagine cottonwoods springing up from my arms. The seeds cling to my toast. They land in my coffee. I sneeze. Suddenly, a rabbit makes a break for it, bolting to safety under the deck where I rock and survey the land. I tip forward to look for her to emerge from the other side and balance there until I’m satisfied that she won’t. As I sink back into my chair, I’m startled again, this time by the beast that set off the chain reaction.
Olive is a good dog.
“Isn’t it great to be alive!” She says, trying to wiggle her way into my lap while restraining herself at the same time. “Join us for a walk?”
“Good morning, Olive!” I say, matching her cheerfulness.
A voice calls her from in front of the house.
“Catch you later!” She says before darting out of sight.
Pulling little trees from the garden is a constant chore, but most of those seeds suspended all around me will never sprout. They’ll land on pink housecoats, in a cup of coffee or on a piece of wheat toast with jam where they won’t have a chance. Likewise, it’s hard to say why of the kerjillions of ideas swirling in the air between them, some take and others don’t.
I can’t pinpoint why, but I do remember when. I was wearing my winter coat.
“The season is over. Who wants coffee grounds in October?”
The manager at Cosmic Coffee would be the first to say yes and the one who would determine how it would work.
“Two times a week, you bring me a clean five-gallon bucket and I’ll give you one full of coffee grounds.”
Some ideas take a long time to germinate, making the “Why this one?” all that more difficult to say. Eons before walking into Cosmic, Brian woke me up to read an article from the paper. Searching my face for a reaction the way he might have saved for giving me a diamond procured in a heist, he read, “‘We’re keeping the nutrients in the neighborhood’…”
Raising his eyebrows for effect, he continued, “[The Compostadores] are working with the city of Minneapolis to establish and fund a network of interns on bikes to collect food scraps at restaurants and coffee shops…” The plan was to compost the material at community gardens.
“You ought to meet them!” He said.
My heroes didn’t recognize me as a kindred spirit. Instead, being the only one to show for the workshop, I felt like an intruder hampering the real conversation people wanted to have. While I was happy to learn about Will Allen’s composting methods and remain a fan of the people and the dedication I saw that day, I left feeling no less isolated in the pursuit of a nutty idea; I wanted to create a demand for coffee grounds and organics in general such that wasting these resources would become unimaginable, no less than pouring rationed gasoline into the crumbling streets of a city jammed with cars on their last gallon. Fantasies of partners in crime aside, it was a good experience. It led to the next thing.
At Merriam Station Community Garden where I serve in a leadership role, the shoe is on the other foot. Losing good people feels like failure; I worry about it. How can we foster relationships? Invite engagement? Cultivate an environment of belonging? Leverage skills? Listen? Lay the ground for personal investment? Trust? Be trusted? Prevent burnout? Recognize and nurture intrinsic motivation without getting in the way and let go of the rest of it without judgment? Sheer force of will can only go so far. So, unless your ambitious ideas are well-funded, others will need to see what you see and lend not just words, but reliable hands of support. And even money can’t replace the belief that something is worth doing.
Most businesses were quick to help us and this magnified the stupidity of the rejections. When I hit up the Starbuck’s at the Midway Target store, I was redirected to the “Donations Manager.” That couldn’t be good. He’d have to check with the Health Department. I explained that Starbuck’s everywhere, including one that was contributing to our project, routinely set aside used coffee grounds for gardeners. Unlike the enthusiastic employees who had pointed me to him, the manager didn’t have the experience to be anything but bewildered by my request. I might as well have asked him for a spare cashier. “We don’t want to jeopardize the corn.” I would explain. “The Gods must be appeased! And we all know where this self-checkout thing is going. Right?” Out of politeness he took my card but never called back.
By the end of my first day drumming up businesses, I would have six takers. By the end of the year, Cosmic Coffee would go out of business, something I would discover in the course of my collection route. There is a music shop there now.
By February a volunteer stepped up to give me a break from my rounds one day a week. Spring brought more help to be followed by another winter lull.
By the time October rolls around again, it will be two years since I found myself in a big box carefully considering which bins to use. Like the trees in my garden that have escaped a routine plucking, this project has had a chance to get established. It is strong, even tenacious but mostly vulnerable. If I stepped away, it would go away. It’s not the majestic poplar with its catkins that had set free its tufts of seeds to parachute into my yard; cutting it down would spur deliberation before anyone would be allowed to fire up a chainsaw. People would grieve the loss of such a tree. But who would shed a tear for the end of this obsession? You can’t climb it and you can’t sit under it. Had I fully considered this, I might have been dissuaded from trying. What’s the point of starting something that cannot last?
Instead, all I could think was, “They said yes! So now what?”