Training for the bad stuff
The stoics have this practice called “negative visualization.” It’s the stoic principle I’ve struggled the most with because in some ways, it feels a bit like dwelling on the negative, which just can’t be good for mental health right? But it turns out, this is more like training. It’s both practice for what to do when things go badly, and practice in acknowledging how much worse things could be and how good it actually is.
Seems a bit counterintuitive but I see where they’re going with it. And today, I decided I should try my hand at it. See, I had a “bad” day (I mean, I’ve already put bad in quotation marks, it’s already working!). On the grand scheme of things, it was nothing, but I was frustrated and angry in the moment (okay, let’s be honest, several moments), reacting poorly to things out of my control—to the gap between expectations and reality, and immediately was staring down an existential crisis. I am past the emotions now so I can easily laugh about it, but perhaps, just perhaps, if I had trained for that moment, I could have avoided the emotional pitfalls that come with the expectation that the world and everyone in it should shape their behavior to suit me.
It's an interesting thought experiment anyway. Seems simple sitting this far from my emotional reaction. But how in the world do you visualize every little thing that could go wrong? I mean, geez, that could really take you to some dark places. But maybe I’ll give it small scale try anyway, and see if I manage to ever have a “bad” day again.
You know, other than basic literacy skills, I never quite understood why we pushed kids to read just any kind of book. I didn’t understand that reading comprehension is a skill that can be improved even through fiction. I mean, I loved getting prizes for reading as a youth, don’t get me wrong, but it was well into my adulthood before I understood the real purpose of getting kids to read yet another Nancy Drew book.
In fact, it was probably when I read the Harry Potter series as an adult. Because it was Harry Potter who taught my grown adult self that the idiomatic expression “for all intents and purposes” was not, in fact, “for all intensive purposes.”
Those are two very different concepts. I mean, intensive purposes reek of blood, sweat, and tears, of focus and determination and mind over matter, etc., which is all fine and dandy for someone with intensive purpose, but sometimes you just want a more casual gathering of intents, and maybe some purposes too. You know, if you want to, totally optional, sort of thing.
It makes sense that in my youth I would have heard “intensive purpose”. After all, we’re just sort of figuring out who we are and what our purpose is and that can be awful intense. We lean heavy into absolutes before we discover there’s no such thing (I love how I just switched subjects there with the assumption that this happens to everyone in their youth. Maybe it was just me, but I doubt it, and I didn’t want to feel so lonely I guess, so I switched to “we”, but I’ll switch back now because I’m pretty sure thinking the idiomatic expression was “intensive purposes” is not quite as universal). So “intensive purpose” must have resonated with my youthful self until well into adulthood when I finally got to read Harry Potter and experience the casual, voluntary joy of a truly well written story and learned the proper use of an age-old idiomatic expression. And so yes, we can learn, even in adulthood, from fiction.
I never understood brand loyalty. I just bought the cheapest version of whatever every time and thought nothing about it. Until I needed things to last, or be right, or something that relied on me talking to a human about a problem I was having with their product. I discovered that “cheapest” often means absence of said human. You’re on your own, buyer beware, etc.
I discovered the value of customer service. I learned that sometimes it’s worth paying a little bit more for the security of knowing I’ll be taken care of if I ever have a problem. I see complaints in many of my market farming forums about how “expensive” Johnny’s seeds is, which is one of my favorite seed companies. But Johnny’s Seeds is the company that discovered through another customer that their pea seeds had been damaged by weevils in the warehouse and reached out to me to credit and replace those seeds before I even opened the package.
We were having trouble with some of our wholesale labels not sticking to the boxes, which wasn’t a problem I had encountered before. I reached out to the label printing company and not only did they, without question, replace the labels, but they also wouldn’t let me pay for the replacement labels!
The Nantahala River is extremely cold. Our first descent down that river left my teeth chattering in the middle of July. So in plenty of time before our next trip down that river, I ordered a dry top. The company sent the wrong item. I contacted the company, who sent a return label, but didn’t mail the replacement correct item until they got shipping notification of the return item. Then there was some hitch in shipping (not the company’s fault) that informed us that the replacement dry top would not arrive in time for our trip. So the company (Outdoor Play if anyone is interested in my brand loyalty), overnighted ANOTHER dry top to ensure it arrived before our trip before the original replacement dry top arrived. Talk about correcting a mistake! (We did return the second dry top when it arrived).
And so, not only am I brand loyal to these and other companies because of customer service, I’ve learned to hold them up as examples in my own business. Because here’s the thing: companies are made up of working humans, and humans make mistakes. And humans have relationships and business is really about relationships. So when humans make a mistake and are given an opportunity to fix that mistake and they REALLY make it right, I feel seen and cared about and I develop loyalty to that relationship. I want those humans who care about me and my satisfaction with their product to be able to keep doing that good work and that is worth paying a little bit more for. Hence, brand loyalty.
Formerly known as catastrophic
Ten years ago I would have shaken my fist to the sky and despaired. I would have questioned all the choices that led me to this moment and wondered how I was to go on. Today, however, barely warranted a shoulder shrug and, perhaps, a slight eye roll.
Some might call this resilience, and perhaps it is. I call it being old (er). I have to add the “er” lest my elders anger to the implication that I am as wise as they are. That is not, in fact, what I claim today. Today, I am simply much older and more experienced than I was ten years ago. This is no longer my first rodeo, so to speak. It’s no longer the first dreadful weather event. It’s not even the first time this particular structure was damaged. And still here we are farming.
You know, I’ve been spending a lot of time over the past several years “working on myself.” It’s funny how I grew into that. In my youth, I was ever the sensitive soul, quick to anger or despair. I was, in the words of the father of positive psychology Martin Seligman, a “catastrophizer.” Even though I knew my sensitivity was a character flaw, it never occurred to me that I could change it. Isn’t that strange? George Bernard Shaw declared “youth is wasted on the young.” Never was a truer statement made, I don’t think.
But the last several years have taught me things that my elders had been telling me with blue faces, but that I had, for some strange yet inevitable reason, to come by on my own. Things like: worrying or despairing over something doesn’t influence said thing at all; life will go on; and everything will be okay. Twenty years of farming has taught me that no matter what mother nature throws at us (this is NOT a challenge, mother nature), we’ll probably still be here farming. Age has taught me that if not, it will still all probably be okay.
These lessons, and the change in me that they instilled, has opened me up to a joy I never fathomed as a youth. My elders, in all their wisdom, never quite conveyed the delight of middle age. I suppose I should keep this surprise to myself as well. For perhaps surprise is the great enhancer of the very joy of which I’m confessing. Ah well, too late, the cat’s out of the bag. The young won’t listen anyway.
I was never an overachiever. In most realms, I didn’t like to challenge myself. In high school, I took AP classes but never took the exams to get the actual college credits. In college, I baffled some of my gen ed professors because I preferred to take classes below my skill level rather than test out. I don’t know why I was that way, it’s just something I recognize now as a personality quirk. While I’m still not exactly an overachiever, I no longer shy away from challenges.
Learning to roll a whitewater kayak has been the most frustrating thing I’ve tried to do in a long time. I mean, tears, nervous stomach. I would get it and lose it and get it and lose it. And this was just in a nice warm, safe, flat pool. Every time I flipped over in a river, I just popped out of my boat and swam before I could even think about rolling back over. This, of course, was made entirely more frustrating because Jason, who began in exactly the same place as me, progressed much quicker. I watched him hit every roll in the pool in any boat he got in. I was proud and happy for him, but let’s be honest: it increased my frustration that I just wasn’t getting it.
And then came Sunday. We finally went to the extremely intimidating and challenging whitewater center so I could demo a different kayak than the one I’ve been paddling. I flipped over in virtually the very first rapid and lo! I rolled right back up! Oh! The momentous feeling of surprise and glory that overcame me will be difficult to forget. I rolled my kayak up in a rapid!
Life seems to be all about moments. “That moment when…” Our memories of these moments are essentially all we have. What I’ve learned from life and specifically from whitewater kayaking is that if you never step out of your comfort zone, if you never try something new (knowing you’re going to be terrible at it in the beginning or for maybe longer than you’d like), if you never experience frustration and fear and try it anyway, you never get to experience this moment of glory and joy when you finally succeed. It’s heady, that moment, and I will no longer trade it for the comfort zone.
International Haiku Day
I can find faces
In unexpected places
And post them on-line
Trying to live life
To its fullest potential
I find exhaustion
I’m surprised how much
Joy is found in middle age
Older is wiser
You know exactly
When you become middle age
Robot vacuum joy
I always seem to
Catch delight in every day
When gratitude reigns
It is time to start
Harvest, washing, pack, repeat
Spring is in the air
I’m in the office
Only one day per week, but
Field work is better
Are beneficial like our
The Onion Metaphor
Living in the moment is all the rage. Now, don’t get me wrong, I can see the benefit of that to some extent, but it feels a bit over hyped. I mean, we can’t do anything to change the past right? So letting it go seems the obvious choice. But we are borne of the past, forged in the crucible of not only our own history, but the history of everything.
I’ll tell you the story that has influenced this line of thinking for me. I’m not a fan of the whole “red vs. blue” forced dichotomous language and thinking, but I’m about to use that language here just to tell the following story. There is a blue belt across the otherwise solidly red south. It coincides with the location of a prehistoric inland sea. Yep, prehistoric, you read that right. The explanation for this blue belt is that said inland sea left large flat swaths very fertile land that were later turned into huge plantations that brought in massive amounts of slaves. This population affects our current political map, if you will, and thus, the PREHISTORIC inland sea affects our current political map.
See what I mean? The past is the past and I get that we’re not changing it, but we’re holding on to the residue of that past whether we acknowledge it or not. Or maybe the past is holding on to us, while we try in vain to cut the cords that bind us together.
This is how I’ve become a big fan of onion seedlings. They don’t pretend to leave the seed from which they emerged behind, they just carry it with them into the present. It’s a full acknowledgement that they are a product of history, and I, of course, love the metaphor.
There was a group of non-profit employees here years ago that were casually conversing with us beneath the packing shed. At one point, one of them said an entire sentence ostensibly in English, and I couldn’t understand a bit of it. Oh, I could understand the words individually, I suppose, but strung together in such a way transformed them into a language I did not, apparently, speak. Now, I’m a fairly well educated person with what I consider to be an above average vocabulary (not Tom Robbins level, but still), so this befuddling moment stands out in my memory. Every group, every profession, every everything it seems, has its own jargon and buzzwords. And that sentence was entirely made up of non-profit jargon and buzzwords.
I’ve realized lately that agriculture is not immune to this phenomenon. I’m not just talking about the technical jargon for soil, amendments, etc. It would appear that agriculture is filled with a rotating dictionary of its own buzzwords. And right now, “regenerative ag” is on top. It’s okay if you have to fight the urge to roll your eyes—I just did. And I guess that makes me a grumpy old woman. I remember when “sustainable” was The Thing. Every young farmer across the nation—including us-- was throwing their hat and their farms into the “sustainable” ring.
Yeah, we had to learn what it meant and how it was different than “organic”. I guess, looking back, that it was a backlash against the large scale organic farms that always seemed to be skirting at least the spirit of organic, if not the law. But organic was (and still is) the only thing with an agreed upon definition and set of agricultural methods. The only thing actually audited. “Sustainable”, when you boil it down, was just another hot buzz word. It’s definition a bit wishy-washy and varied depending on the farm and the perspective.
Twenty years later and there’s a new hot buzz word floating around the agricultural world and it means about as much as “sustainable.” I literally attended a webinar trying to explain what “regenerative ag” was and you know what? It’s as wishy-washy and variable as “sustainable.” Some people think X and some people think Y and there’s no agreed upon definition and my grumpy old woman self harkened back to Utah Phillips saying “no matter how new age you get, old age still gonna kick your butt.”
All this is to say nothing. It’s just another grumpy old woman ranting about “these young whipper-snappers” and their strange language, wishing she could regenerate an old body and attack the work of growing food with the gusto of the young
The Missing Metaphor
We have this tree in our front yard that was supposed to be a weeping cherry tree, but instead is sort of a creeping cherry. Every year the tree creeps a little wider as if it were trying to blanket the whole yard. Jason wants to cut it down (it is a pain to mow around), but I love it with my whole heart. The horticulturists believe the graft was messed up and I just have to love the messed up unique things even when they’re inconvenient.
You see, I really thought I wanted a weeping cherry there close to the red bud to put on a spectacular spring show. But a weeping cherry I did not get. I got this bumbling creeping thing that hardly blooms at all but spreads it’s giant awkward wings and puts on a show of its own, albeit a comedy. A tree that makes me laugh, how’s that for unique? How many of you have trees that make you laugh?
So I was looking for the metaphor here, but perhaps there is none. Perhaps it’s just about finding the small joys in the everyday mundane. A tree that makes me laugh. A daily smile. And that is enough.
Joining the Club
We thought we were immune. We thought it had so much to do with the conscious effort we put into being a great place to work. But it turns out it must have been plain dumb luck. Because here we are mid-March without a full farmily in place. I try hard not to be afraid of the unknown. I know that things always work themselves out. But I can’t help the human part of me that wants to at least influence how those things work out.
So we talk sometimes about exit planning. Usually we talk about it in times of deep stress, which can happen, if infrequently. But I feel like I just learned, after 15 years of being here working this land, not to worry about our future as farmers as much—that we’ll figure out how to survive and keep farming. Farming is a tough career choice. As Americans, we have always paid a much lower percentage of our income for food, which makes growing food a very tight margin to live by. But it is also a deeply satisfying career choice. Feeding people gets you down to the very basis of existence. Your job always feels important on some level. This is one of the things I love about farming.
But now, we too, have fallen victim to the strange economy in which we’re operating. Our costs have risen dramatically, we’re in a record-low unemployment situation, and we’re, for the first time, encountering trouble filling out our fantastic farmily.
Every year offers up a new problem, it seems. Whether it’s a new pest or disease, a new weather pattern such as the 90 inches of rain we received a few years back (for reference, 50 inches is “normal” here), the Covid-19 uncertainty, or what have you. And we’ve pivoted, adapted, learned, and survived. But we have never ever had a dearth of applicants who wish to do this work and participate in this lifestyle. So of course, it’s terrifying. It’s the scariest new problem to arise, borne of our own hubris in thinking we were immune to this common theme because we had “put the work in”.
So here comes the ole’ exit-planning chatter again. “Can we do this with just the current crew?” “Should we downsize?” “Can we go back to working constantly, including nights and weekends?” And the fear of the answers, and the wondering what-in-the-world-else we might do, and back to the scrambling, and “am I too old for this?” Apparently, we have just joined the club of every employer looking to hire. It’s not a club we wanted or intended to join, but here we are, speaking the same language—scrambling to figure out how to get the work done with fewer of us.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.