Friday, May 30, 2014

Revolutionaries, Transcendentalists, and Some Thoughts from Farming

The farm where I work as an apprentice is on the Minuteman National Park, in Concord, MA. As I go to and from the work and about the fields, I spend more than a little time thinking about how revolutions start, how the shapes and ways of the world change.

I also spend a goodly amount of time listening to NPR as I commute, alone in my car. This morning, I heard the tail end of a report about how the coal industry is arguing that they can’t upgrade to more efficient and cleaner ways of burning coal—that to do so would wreck the United States economy.

The next bit of news, probably an unintentional juxtaposition, was the Marketplace Morning report. At that moment, U.S. stock futures were trading in the negative.

So…we’re sticking with a dirty and dangerous way of being because we’re afraid that it will ruin our economy, and that economy is currently an exercise in negative futures?

As with all things, I am more concerned about the poetic implications of the words as I am about the economics or the science of a report. Those two news blurbs, taken together, contain enormous, bone deep truths.

It was with this idea of how to leave an old and no longer appropriate system, prognostications of a failed future that I drove past numerous historic markers of the Revolutionary War and arrived at the fun and vibrant and busy little farm where I work.

We planted today. We filled up newly tilled and shaped beds in three different fields with peppers and tomatoes and eggplant and flowers. I think we planted 1,800 pepper plants and I lost count of everything else. My hands are delightfully sore from all the digging, and despite best efforts, I still have some new patches of sunburn. We weeded the potato field, and one of the farmers plowed under a failed crop of onions (maggots, due to excess moisture, probably, they tell me—I am continually excited about how much I do not know about the world of food, which is strange as I have been eating food for many years now). We finished that day at the local ice cream shop. It was a great day.

I want the world to change, to be more like the kind and small and complex world of something like a farm or any of the other little worlds I’ve lived in. I want that so badly I cry myself to sleep some nights and I believe in the possibility of change so fully that I wake up some mornings on fire with the hope that the revolution will happen before lunch. 

And, more and more, I believe that change is happening, that the revolution can almost be said to be in progress. Does my working on a local organic CSA with a complex land lease permit from the National Park Service do anything to stop Nigerian schoolgirls from being kidnapped, or mass shootings, or climate change, or the violence of politics, of life, in Syria or Ukraine?

No, and I won’t pretend that it does in anything so grand in a practical manner. I wish it were that simple. However, last week, I looked down at the rows of tiny beet seedlings, just poking through the dirt and thought suddenly of all the life in that small patch. Then I looked up at the boundless sky and thought of all the life that is tucked in under those layers and layers of air and cloud. This perspective of scales of being changed nothing, geopolitically, except I felt incredibly humble and ferociously happy to be part of the world. There was a sense of braided joy and connection and responsibility that I am trying to carry with me and abide in. I believe even that small awareness of the world and one’s place and size within its fantastic scope is a step towards a better world for everyone.

And, truly, good and practical changes are happening: we’re—more of us than we even know—living our lives with the knowledge that it doesn’t have to be like “they” tell us it is. Again, I am literally cultivating the soil of revolutionaries and Transcendentalists. The revolutionaries rebelled against the way of being imposed upon their lives by an empire that was mostly focused on its own profits, not the quality of life of its worker bees and consumers. The Transcendentalists followed and explored ideas of personal knowledge and freedom. (They were also kind of nutters in how their ideals played out practically, but as I never had to winter at Fruitlands under the thumb of Bronson Alcott or been emotionally manipulated by Emerson like Margaret Fuller was, I am happy to just learn from their collective misadventures and learned lessons as I make my own weird little journey through life.)

We need to boldly recognize ourselves as the heirs to these lineages. These heroes of history were just people—eyes, noses, mouths, hearts, hopes and dreams and nightmares and loves and struggles—who gathered together to go against the grain. History hasn’t stopped yet, life on this sweet planet is not over, so we might as well put more care and attention and intention into how we are to live. We must revolt, revolve, evolve, love, transcend—whatever word you like for embracing life and the future rather than clinging to the past and the devastating patterns of the past that are negating the future.

I’m not advocating for violently taking arms against the rather nasty corporations who have a vested interest in our continuing to live fossil fuel addicted lives while the world melts. I assume that even corporate nasties have people who love them and I don’t think the world needs more violence or sadness than it comes to without my advocacy.

What I am advocating, though, is taking strong and scared and unsure and joyful steps towards what seems right. There isn’t a one-size fits all answer to this. Right means different things to different people at different times, and I know that even having the time to learn to listen to whatever place that works as your ethical barometer is a luxury that not everyone can afford.

However, your heart and soul are free—in every sense of the word. I believe that listening to, learning, the tenor and tone of yourself above all else is one of the hardest and also most necessary responsibilities of being a good human. What injustices and hardships can you withstand, and what can you not live with? What is that you do that makes you feel happy and clean and whole? When are you kindest, and how do you show your love for your people, your world?

When I think of what the revolution I want looks like, I picture people being kinder to and more aware of themselves and each other, putting their hearts and bodies and hours into the people and work that brings something like joy into light. And I don’t know how to start this revolution—I have the strong and lovely sense some days that I’m joining what’s been in process for a long, long time—but trusting our better selves, turning towards them fully, and going forward, that seems like a good place to start.

Daily, I go to a place where revolutions have already been lived out and I labor over learning how to grow new generations of old plants. On that evidence, every day I trust a little more that change is possible. We just have to make it so. 

(Photo is from, as I have been too busy and my paws too dirty to take my own dang photo of the place.)

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Simple and Complex

Today, I accidentally broke the handle off the pull-cord of a tractor-mower while mowing around one of the newly planted fields of the farm where I’m working.

The broken cord whipped back into the engine. One of the farmers got out her tools and put it all back together.

Last week, we spent several hours ripping damp rotting muddy burlap out of fields that remain too wet to be planted. Other tasks have included unrolling huge sheets of what feels like enormous dryer sheets to cover newly planted seedlings and seeding fields in a palimpsestuous parody of every peasant to ever sow a crop. 

All in all, I couldn’t personally be happier with this mix of mechanical and physical and green-growing skills. Basic capability is assumed, which is the fastest way to grow it, I have found. I have entered complicated little worlds before and love them, although so much seems new that I am overwhelmed by the seeming complexity of it all. 

As the farm is in Concord, MA, I find the giggling ghost of Thoreau on the edges of the field. Particularly, his often quoted and misquoted advice to “simplify, simplify.”

With all due respect, I think this is bad advice. Or rather, just poorly interpreted.

Nothing is simpler than how we live, most of us. With enough money, really, I could get anything in the world delivered to my home, and make my home anything, anywhere I’d like it to be. There are ways to live without lifting a single finger.

What could be simpler than this?

It certainly seems that this way of living is viewed as a goal for many people. Simple, easy, microwave everything, drive everywhere, swaddle ourselves from any reality that might be disagreeable—from climate change to social justice to our own sneaking suspicions that this ease of living isn’t all that it promised to be.

For a semester in college, I lived in a cluster of yurts on the edge of a lake. We had solar panels and a water pump and it was as messy an experiment in off-the-grid living as I could hope for. Taking a shower was one of the most complex operations I’ve participated in. First, you went down the dock and grabbed a 5-gallon bucket of lake water. You lugged the bucket up to the main site, treading over short stumps set down to make footing easier—this had mixed results. At the shower stall, you poured whatever water hadn’t sloshed out into a very large pot and lifted it up to a propane burner. Five or four gallons of lake water takes a long time to heat up, and I rarely had the patience for more than tepid. When your patience ran out, you lifted the warm-ish water off the stove and poured it into another 5-gallon bucket. This second bucket had a nozzle in the bottom with a handle to control the water, and a slightly reinforced bucket handle so you could attach it to a pulley over the open-air shower stall and hoist to an appropriate height.

Once the water bucket was hanging over your head, you hopped into the little plywood cell, looked up at the hemlock trees, and fiddled with the nozzle until a weasel-drool thin stream of tepid lake water leaked out over you.

It is far simpler to take a shower at my apartment. And far more comfortable. The water is hot and plentiful and I can be in and out and clean in less time than it took to lug the water from the lake to the burner.

So, I think that “simple” is maybe the wrong goal to strive for. There was something in the labor of that system that connected me to the world, took me in as a member of a complex web of labor and time and effort and resource and reward.

I think the same as I learn how deliciously complicated growing food turns out to be—there are machines with gears and teeth and purpose. There are plans and equations and chemical compounds of dirt and seeds to compute. There are weather patterns to take into account and untold varieties of challenges to be met. There is my own body as a tool to keep strong and healthy to do this work.

None of it is pure or simple. Honest and clear and complex—these are better words of advice for how to be in the world, how to be with ourselves, perhaps.

On the radio last weekend, I heard a bit about Stanford University divesting their endowment from the fossil fuel industry. This is excellent. One of the sound bytes I caught was “climate change solutions must come from the private sector.”

How true.

Not the private sector of business and commerce—although if that’s where your gifts and passions and talents lie, go for it—but the deeper private sectors of our own hearts and minds.

The solutions are staring us in the face. They are simple in the clarity of their truth, their obviousness, their proven ability to make us less reliant on fossil fuels, to make our lives less crisscrossed with unseen, unknown costs and infrastructures. The solutions are in the moments of clarity and the imagination to believe in our heart of hearts at the times when the world and our places within it actually, briefly, makes sense. And in the courage to act in service to that clarity and imagination and hope.

What we need to do, what we are doing in so many ways and places and corners of society is the complex daily work and effort that brings these simple ideas to life. To our lives, and for the life and livelihood of whatever we each hold dear.

As Thoreau also says, "Things do not change; we change." Let's. And let's be clear and complex. And have fun. And save the world and ourselves. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

On Fear, Bravery, and Leaping

No one else can tell you how to be brave.

In all of this—the vaguely organized and invisibly tendoned revolution of living cleanly and joyfully in hope and faith that such acts of daily affirmation and resistance to an unhappy and unhealthy status quo will bring us to the present and future we believe is possible—there are moments of fear and doubt and where a great leap is required.

The greatness of the leap is usually the smallest act, the often invisible motion of making one small decision. And yet, these are the times when bravery is required, when you can no longer put off what you know is truly right—for you. No one can do this for you.The moments that strike abject terror into the heart of one person can be as breezily easy as breathing for another. There is no accounting for where we each choose to make our stands, for what path our journey requires the first step upon.

I often say—with what might be misconstrued as arrogance if I didn’t mean it more honestly than anything else I ever say—that I am friends with, love and am loved by, the greatest people on earth. When I think of the scope of talent and passion and skill those near and dear and faraway but I love them anyway, I would be staggered by their brilliance if I weren’t too busy grinning and dancing around about how, with all that talent on our side, there can be no defeat.

And yet, I know plainly in some cases—and suspect in others—that there are deep holes and fears inside each of these wonderoos who are out and about in the world being amazing in countless sung and unsung ways. None of us, I believe can see how utterly remarkable we each are—one of my dear friends who is a writer, a musician, an actor and all around Wonder Woman looked at me this summer and said, “I wish I was good at things.” It took a few seconds before the absurdity set in and we laughed like hyenas. I think, though, most of us are so normalized to our own hearts and their shapes that we forget how lovely and unique they are, we are. Also, from the outside, most of our soft spots and sensitivities and doubts are hidden.

Daily life, more often then not, requires a certain girding of the loins, of waking up and jumping back into the thick and thin of it every morning, covering up the soft spots and making do. It’s hard, and there are times when to bring your best face or true face—or any face—into the world requires a certain amount of daring.

I find, rather boringly, that a certain amount of bravery is required for the mundane logistics of actually pulling a dream off. Bravery is supposed to be for fighting dragons, not making choices in the grocery store. The big ideas, these are easy, not quite a dime a dozen, but certainly come fast and furious some days. All of the flights of fancy, the “what ifs…” the imaginings and the wisps of possibility that come and go through our heads in the day and night…one can dwell for a long time in possibility. And, truly, I believe that so much is possible—a practical idealist with an imagination is far more happily overwhelmed and in love with life than a kid in a candy store.

To even type the word “commitment” makes my feet cold and toes curl up, When I think about what my life would look like if I committed to one of the half-formed day dreams that swirl around, my stomach goes choppy and I add to the ever growing list of things to do instead of work on this or that project. I can’t seem to sit down and say “Yes. How do I truly begin, how can I organize the logistics of my life to make this the, a, focus?” to even the most persistent of the hopes and dreams. The planning required to bring an idea to life is daunting. It’s not the leap, but how long will I be aloft, what does it look like where I land, will anyone be there to catch me, will I break my legs falling, etc.

To say nothing of the fear that, if I fail at something I’ve long thought of, I will no longer have the pleasure of its untapped possibility.

This, I believe, is where bravery comes in. Which is why no one else can tell you how to be brave. Or at least, not exactly. We’re each of us our own little hot mess—different heartbeats and different boundaries and barriers and needs and hopes and sources of faith and fear. In that, I think there is also the distinct possibility that no one either can or needs to do in the world what dreams burn in your heart of hearts. I think that I’d rather try and fail than never try. I’ve thought that for years, so perhaps it is time to live that way more fully.

I like to think that people who have made the first leap, who are living their dream, have a different glow about them than most. I find a common sense of innocent defiance, a subversive joy, in people who are living by their own rules. Simply, they have bowed out of the safe game of easier answers, of tidier lives (or the cruel myth of such thing). It may be scarier out there, in the lives build on dreams and birthed by courage, but I suspect it is a happier place.

I would rather try and fail at everything I dream than live in such a way that shuts out the hope of that encompassing happiness. In the logistics and striving by the light of an idea, this is where I believe grace can be found. A life made seems painted in colors a little richer than a life accepted.

Here is the other thing—I don’t believe we get just one shot, just one dream, just one chance. As a friend used to say in college, helpfully, “just because you make one decision doesn’t mean you can’t make another.” Just because you commit to one dream now, doesn’t mean you can’t have another later down the road, failure or success notwithstanding. It’s not that people make their own luck but rather, in finding the courage to try something once, there is the great comforting well of finding your own resilience, and the resilience of the people around you.

Those who have gone before are waiting to catch you as they can help your landing and the construction of your dreams. If you reach, those in the air with you will hold your hand through the leap. And those watching as you boldly commit to your leap—you are showing what greater ways are possible. 

Laboring thus together for the dreams of our individual hearts—I can think of no better or braver way to live.