When my daughter was little, I used to read her “Something From Nothing”. It’s a story of a boy whose grandfather, a tailor, makes him a coat. When the coat wears out, he turns it into a vest. When the vest is past its peak, it becomes a tie. As time and the story march along, the tie becomes a handkerchief, and eventually, a button. It is the ultimate story about making the most of the resources at hand, about being clever and persistent.
I had a grandmother who was blessed with the gift of making “something from nothing”. She sewed useful things from scraps, knit countless toys from bits of leftover yarn, and fashioned sweet bouquets from stubborn weeds, but what sticks in my mind is her ability to make dinner from what seemed like random odds and sods. The cupboard could appear bare to the untrained eye, the bits in the fridge were assumed to be lost causes, and yet there would still be food on the table. She relied on a tried and true “once around the fridge” method of cooking. She simply took stock of what was there, sized up the resources available to her, saw possibilities, and got to work. There was nothing fancy about her cuisine, but it was tasty and filling, and nothing went to waste (heaven help anyone who didn’t clear their plate and help her avoid leftovers).
I can’t even begin to count the things that have disappeared in the past 10 months, the aspects of life as we knew it that just aren’t there anymore. I’ve been lucky in that I’m fed, healthy, safe, and employed, but I have to admit that it’s been tempting to slump into a “cupboard is bare” kind of mindset. It’s really, really easy to get stuck in that.
I never imagined I’d see the world grind to a halt at the behest of a virus, but I also didn’t think I’d see people pulling things together the way they have. There’s so much we used to assume was impossible: government assistance programs don’t get put together in a manner of weeks, vaccines take years, not months to develop, education and the arts can’t function online, and we can’t stay connected to others unless we’re in the same space as them.
Before you make puke noises and roll your eyes at me, let me acknowledge that none of this has been particularly pretty or refined. There are long-term costs to all of these things we’ve patched together in haste. I’m not at all impressed that we had to make these sudden changes (I am, in fact, mad as hell about them), but I am inspired that we could. What we’ve done, in essence, is a “once around the fridge” maneuver. We’ve collectively scraped together what we could find, and made something useful from it.
I’ve tried to mirror this in my own life over the past year. Okay, I don’t get to celebrate holidays in a typical way, or go fun places, or get together with people I care about. I’m not free to roam as I please and even small, everyday actions are covered in an extra, heavy layer of planning. I’m an extrovert with monkey brain and chronic wanderlust. Everything about this situation smarts, but I do still have resources at my disposal, things that might have otherwise been not worthy of note. I’m developing a much better sense of what I’ve neglected, and I’ve tried to connect that to my drive to just get things done.
I also have things to give others, ways to help, even from a distance. I can cobble together solutions for problems outside of my own small bubble, and that has been gratifying. As was the case in my grandmother’s kitchen, there’s nothing that can’t be used, no room for leftovers.
What I’m seeing in 2021, what my grandmother, and the tailor in my daughter’s book could see, are possibilities. There are things to be done, people to do them, and tools we can use, all of which have probably been there all along. Maybe it’s true that nothing comes from nothing, but we still have something. We still have lots of somethings, and maybe the clarity and drive to make good use of them.