Welcome to Midweek Dinner. There’s a whole story behind that name, something about the way Wednesday creeps up on you, and you have to cobble together a meal out of whatever you can scrounge from the fridge. And yes, sometimes there is talk of food in this place. But mostly it’s about what I’ve been reading, in print and online; or what I’ve been thinking, in clarity and confusion; or what I am hoping, in fear and in joy. And you are always invited to join in.
—— The best conversations take place around the dinner table. — —
In Ligaya Mishan’s NYTimes piece “The Lure of H Mart, Where the Shelves Can Seem as Wide as Asia,” even the title takes up a lot of room. Mishan writes:
The theme is abundance — chiles from fat little thumbs to witchy fingers, bulk bins of fish balls, live lobsters brooding in blue tanks, a library of tofu.
Besides my appreciation for those brilliant descriptions (A Library! Of Tofu!), I loved this article because I’ve been thinking about abundance so much lately, especially as it pertains to our care for young people. But our understanding of abundance also creeps into politics, community organizing, education, and yes, to food.
I’ve never been in an H Mart or any of the numerous Asian Markets in my mid-sized Southern town. And though I know my anxiety is keeping me from an experience worth having, I’ve always been afraid of doing it wrong. So I just don’t. This article is making me reconsider that fear, and making me think more — again, still? — about the definition of abundance and our response to it.
In Mishan’s article, there’s a photo of an H Mart storefront, and the caption reads,
The first H Mart opened in 1982 in Woodside, Queens, under the name Han Ah Reum — in Korean, “an armful,” in the sense of an embrace — which the store still bears today.
“An armful” is the literal translation, but the phrase carries the connotation of comfort, of tenderness, and of natural human limits. This is not the armful you might imagine from The Hunger Games as wild-eyed children dash away from the Cornucopia of weaponry. This is the armful of a fat-rolled baby, or a sleeping puppy, or the armful that is your friends and family after months of physical distance. It is an abundance without greed, an abundance that assures. There is no need to hoard or grasp because there is always plenty. It is impossible to take more than your share if you are expected to carry it in your very arms.
I’ve never been inside an H Mart, but I have stood in line behind Costco customers with multiple flatbed carts full of oversized items. Often, I attempt to construct a story, a reason for that much stuff. Perhaps they run a group home for children in the foster care system, always short on money and always in need of more cheap calories. Possible, but perhaps not likely. While toilet paper and gasoline have shown up on the front page lately, it doesn’t take a pandemic or a pipeline hack to fill our carts. Instead, our everyday shopping can prove us to be a people who believe in getting while the getting’s good because you never know when you might not be able to. The message of scarcity is in the very heartbeat of our culture.
And it is a lie.
Of course, there are real instances of scarcity, ones that threaten our very existence, ones that tread more heavily on certain populations, ones that can be helped if only we will act. And in individual households across the country and around the world, food insecurity is a real threat.
But for many, we have abundant resources — food, money, shelter, support — and still operate from a model of scarcity. We buy more than we need, we heat and cool and clean and maintain more square footage than we need, we eat more than our bodies need, and work more hours to make more money than we need — and it all feels so necessary. And what do we do with that surplus? Do we offer our extra room (or house?) to someone facing homelessness? Do we set a strict budget and then give away the rest? Of course we don’t (but can you imagine the good we could do if we did?) because we might need it ourselves one day.
We have bought the lie that says we don’t have enough, and the only way to feel secure is to always be buying. This is part of the same trick that transformed our identities from makers and doers into consumers. It’s planned obsolescence and instagram influencers. It’s the argument over skinny jeans and the argument over the color of your text message bubbles.
Worse than all the stuff, though, is the way this constant sense of lacking makes us turn away from others. I can’t give you my coat because it is my only coat, and it is freezing where I live is an understandable response to someone else’s need. We are bent toward survival, and sacrifice does not happen easily. But I can’t give you my coat because it’s the one that goes with my favorite dress that doesn’t fit anymore but still hangs in my closet is an absurdity and still all-too-familiar.
The metaphor really becomes horrific when you realize how often what we are hoarding is power and what we are unwilling to share is an individual’s right to identify as they choose.
I can’t give you my coat becomes you aren’t allowed to use the girl’s restroom at school because your birth certificate indicates you were identified as male at birth.
I can’t give you my coat becomes you can’t feel safe as a Black person in this country because I need to feel safe in my gated community.
I can’t give you my coat becomes you can’t be given water while waiting in line to vote because you are more likely to vote for people and provisions that threaten my power.
But safety and identity and selfhood and acceptance are not in finite supply. They are renewable resources. They can be taken up by the armful and never leave anyone wanting.
A few years ago at a school I know well, the dining hall staff decided to eliminate trays. Students (and faculty) could only take from the serving area what they could carry in their two hands. If they wanted or needed more, they could always make a second trip. By all accounts, this cut down on food waste dramatically. It possibly also affected student health and the overall cleanliness of the dining area, though this would be difficult to prove.
It was a small shift, and it frustrated many. And then, gradually, they adapted, absorbing the change and its outcomes. One important clarification: It was possible because no one ever thought the dining hall would run out of food. Everything was abundant.
Our ability to trust the abundance can change so much. If we truly believe human goodwill is abundant, we can approach one another without fear and prioritize community building over policing. If we trust that empowering all people lifts us all, we can eliminate harmful policies that aim to preserve white supremacy. If we know that every story can (and should) be told in countless ways, we can stop insisting on one version of history as The Truth. If we believe that democratic engagement strengthens our nation, we will make voting easier not harder.
The goodness available to us is embarrassing in its abundance, and when we believe in that abundance, we will take only what we can carry. An armful is enough.
Here are a few more things I found fascinating this week:
— This interactive map that shows the unequal distribution of broadband-speed internet access across the country.
— This optical illusion that is also a lesson in humility and a reminder that data is not the same thing as information.
— For my fellow writing teachers (and racial justice warriors), this 2015 McSweeney’s piece resurfaced lately, and all I can say is author Vijith Assar is my hero.
— I think John Mulaney is stunningly funny, and I really appreciated this take on the work he has ahead of him as he recreates himself on stage.
— This interview with Radiolab producer Annie McEwen doesn’t always make sense, but it is often perfect, such as when she offers the following advice for the problem of mice in your house:
Imagine they’re wearing waistcoats. They’re rushing home. They really are late. Maybe they’re forming a union, and it’s very exciting. This guy has a speech to make. It’s a very strong speech.
I feel like I saw a mouse wearing a waistcoat once. Did I imagine it? He had a briefcase. He wants to learn as much as he possibly can.
At night they’re wearing little caps and nightgowns. They have little toothbrushes they take out. They have pet dragonflies they take on walks. Use them as falcons.
The Department of Unexpected Joy (and maybe also terror?):
The Department of Shameless Self Promotion:
A few weeks ago, I launched a hare-brained scheme to read and provide commentary on ALL 99 of the titles that have been awarded the Newbery Medal in advance of the 100th Anniversary in 2022. Here’s the list of titles to date:
The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem Van Loon
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson
When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller
Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary
Also, in Sunday Poetry, I read a most amazing anthology of poetry for young women called You Don’t Have to be Everything.
I’ve been conducting interviews over at YALSA’s The Hub, and some of them have been really tremendous. Here’s a few examples that I’m really proud of:
T. J. Klune, author of The House in the Cerulean Sea (which was unbelievably delightful - why did I never write about it?)
And finally, here’s a Q&A with debut author Heather Truett on Chapter 16.
The Department of Classified Information1:
Thanks as always for reading and thinking with me. If you have thoughts to share, just hit reply! I welcome your conversation and promise a response.
My sister is the only one who can read these messages. They are for her only. But she is on vacation currently. Will she see this? Does she even care? Does she understand that it has been quite long enough and she should probably come home now?