Out of Place

Published online: Dec 17, 2020 Below the Surface Tyrell Marchant, editor
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This column appears in the December 2018 issue of Potato Grower.

And, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.

            —Matthew 2:9

Do you ever get the feeling, when you walk in someplace, that you don’t quite fit in? Or worse, that you stick out like a sore thumb and everyone is staring with veiled scorn at you, the outsider? Boy, I sure do—quite often. In fact, I anticipate it happening here in a couple weeks when I walk into the deliciously, overwhelmingly aromatic alcove that is Bath & Body Works to buy my wife a Christmas present that, yes, may be a little predictable but is also a can’t-miss. I’ll meander around a bit, trying not to raise my eyebrows too obviously at the price tag on a 4-ounce bottle of Winter Berry Wonder sugar scrub (whatever that is), and hope that whichever helpful associate notices and takes pity on me is empathetic to my plight.

It’s probably just my own insecurities talking, but I often feel the same way when I’m invited out to a grower’s field. To be clear, I’ve only ever been received with friendly smiles and firm handshakes by every grower I’ve had the privilege to visit. But I just can’t help but wonder: If this were my place, would I want some punk with a recorder and a camera coming around asking me questions? Do I really belong here? To what extent?

You know who else I bet tried and failed in their attempt not to draw attention to themselves? The Wise Men of the New Testament. Like a yuppie in a feed store, I guarantee those guys were not nearly as inconspicuous as they thought they were. Most scholars figure it took the Magi at least a year or two to make their way to Bethlehem, so they must have come from a long ways away. If they were indeed dressed the way we depict them in our modern movies and nativity sets, there’s no way they made that trip unnoticed.

Just imagine you’re the keeper of the livery stable at a lonely desert outpost. You’re shooting the bull with your neighbor Joshua, just about to close up for the night, when in waltzes some guy swathed in purple and scarlet silk, smelling like myrrh (the Winter Berry Wonder sugar scrub of the day), and wanting to know where he and his friends can get enough water for half a dozen camels. You give him directions to the well and sell him a hunk of goat cheese, and ultimately let your curiosity get the best of you. Despite old Josh’s silently vociferous gestures begging you not to, you ask your obviously foreign customer, “So, stranger, where ya from? Where ya headed?”

And then he tells you: He and his friends are from Babylon or Samarkand or Mumbai. A while back, they saw a new star in the heavens, and they’re following it because, they believe, it’ll lead them to, of all things, a baby. But not just any baby—a newborn Messiah, the Son of God, the savior of the world. With a grin, he invites you and Joshua to join the caravan. You hesitate a moment before telling the stranger no, but good luck.

As he marches out the door in his swish of finery, Joshua mutters, “Man, that was weird. What a nut job, right?”

You don’t immediately answer. Your eyes are glued on the door your strange, bold customer just walked out of. Something about the earnestness in his voice and the clarity of his eyes makes you wonder….      

Surely, the vast majority of people the Wise Men ran into on their long road to the Christ child thought they were crazy. What kind of harebrained wild goose chase were they on, anyway? Well, they didn’t let other people’s skepticism deter them one bit. They carried on doing what they knew in their deepest hearts was the right thing to do, and we know how the story ends. 

Ever since then, we’ve made a tradition of doing crazy things at Christmastime. Yes, the holiday has evolved from the very humblest of beginnings into a gaudy storm of commercialism. But can’t we take some comfort in the knowledge that this commercialization is fed by the very best of the human experience—the desire to give and make someone else happy? Some people might have a less-than-kind perception of the agriculture industry, but ultimately, it’s all for the chance to give your family and posterity a chance to do something fewer and fewer people are able to do with each passing year. It’s for the same reason you’ll spend all night Christmas Eve putting together a Taiwanese-made bike with instructions translated from Swedish, and the same reason a guy in faded jeans and a sweat-stained ball cap will find himself staring at an intimidating wall of lotions and perfumes, trying not to look too foolish.

Merry Christmas.