Finding one’s roots (literally)

When I grow up, I want to be a farmer.

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This is what farming life is like, right?

I was sitting on an airplane, reading Jen Sincero’s “You Are a Badass”, when this realization first struck me. To that point, I had dabbled in spring and summer gardening, casting “ooohs” and “aahhs” as seedlings emerged from the soil and pollinated flowers transforming into peppers and tomatoes. Owning the title of “green thumb” still felt far in my future. Yet, I savored the moments spent in the dirt, checking each plant’s progress, and nurturing those in need of extra care due to rising temperatures or a hookworm infestation.

I want to have a farm that provides organic, healthy, local food.

I laughed at myself, embarrassed, after a beat. What did I know about farming? I had never even set foot on one to that point. Besides the three years of backyard gardening and the occasional interaction at the Durham Farmer’s Market, I was as green as the crops I so badly wanted to yield.

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This sums up the amount of interaction I had with farm animals to that point. Is that how one properly holds a sheep?

I want to create a place where young people can work, acquire skills, earn an income, and reconnect with the earth.

This pursuit, while ever evolving, stems from my core values of connection to earth, animals, and people; stewardship of natural resources; promotion of well-being; and access to one’s humanity and the skills, values, and temperament to build stronger communities.

During my time teaching in Vance County, my students became intrigued with the various fruits and vegetables I packed for lunch. Upon seeing a bag full of red bell pepper slices, one of my students, Ahmad, gasped: “You’re going to eat those?”

“Yes…?” I responded with that questioning lilt trailing off to signfy my confusion.

“Aren’t those hot?”

I smiled and opened the bag, letting Ahmad know that these red bell peppers slices were far from hot; in fact, they were sweet and crisp. He warily eyed the slice he plucked from the bag, looked at me once more for reassurance, and then took his first bite.

He smiled. “No, these aren’t hot at all!”

Such interactions with Miss Paulson’s lunch offerings took place with jicama, mangoes, and sugar snap peas. While most students lived in a rural county, their ability to access fresh food was minimum. Nearly 1/4 of Vance County residents are below the federal poverty line and 30% of children live in food insecure homes. But, don’t worry folks: there are dozens of fast food restaurants in the county seat of Henderson:

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I’ve thought about my students, their families, and the broader Vance County community a lot since leaving in 2009. Often, these reflections are tinged with guilt and sadness. I left. I had the choice to leave, and I did without hesitation. On the surface, I became an example of “white privilege tour of poverty” levied at Teach For America.

But, I promise you that while I physically left Henderson, I’ve never forgotten it.

Back to the plane: here I am, seeking out my purpose. And images of Vance County surged from my past and plopped down on the tray table in front of me, wriggling with anticipation. What if such a place could exist in Vance County, partnering with the school system, community leaders, and other organizations? Do such programs and projects already exist within Vance County or in surrounding places that I could support and learn from?

I want to create a place where young people have the opportunity to learn and demonstrate empathy and compassion to creatures and crops.

I want to develop a platform for them to build strength — physical, mental, and spiritual. I want to give them the tools to cultivate the earth at their homes and churches to transform our food system from reliance on processed, transactional products to homegrown, transformational produce. 

This lightbulb moment took place two years ago. At first, it was easy for me to shrug off taking further action. Between work and professional commitments, I was too busy. There wasn’t enough time; I didn’t have enough energy.

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I’ve done two volunteer shifts at the Piedmont Animal Farm Refuge in Pittsboro. Nothing says getting more hand’s on experience than cleaning out goat barns!

Alas, I have cast those constraints to the side. The call rings louder and louder each day for me to do something to work towards this dream. This past week, I finished Will Allen’s “The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities” about his project to transform the food system starting in his Milwaukee home. There are a multitude of stories similar to Will’s where people just starting doing. He emphasized that call-to-action in his book on several occasions.

Just start doing.

One theme I heard from two of the #NonprofitSTRONG Summit conference breakout sessions I attended involved honoring one’s roots. Our ancestral histories can be fraught and painful. And, they are still part of us.

I’m sorry that I know so little of my family lineage. One thing I do know is that I come from a line of agricultural stock. In fact, I still have extended family members operating farms in Minnesota. Perhaps the seeds of my dream were planted for me by past generations. Perhaps it’s part of the social awakening that the systems we have to nourish and feed us are failing us instead. Perhaps its a selfish quest to marry all of my passions — education, food, conservation, mentorship — under one perfect umbrella.

Perhaps it will all be a bust. But I won’t know if I don’t do.

Airport etiquette (an oxymoron?)

In pursuit of professional development (and crossing off another city from Aaron’s travel bucket list), we ventured to Austin, TX so I could attend the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference (#15NTC) – I will geek out on this experience in a future post.

While we didn’t fly out together on this particular trip, Aaron and I often watch (and lament) our fellow passengers throughout the entire air travel process. I admire (but don’t envy) people who spend a great deal of their time traveling through the friendly skies. Because, from my experience, these skies are not so friendly. And, they certainly do not offer the opportunities to see humanity act in its finest form.

Why is that? What about boarding a metal cage with wings and some inflatable sides causes people to turn from this:

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to this:

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Is it the confined space? The narrow aisles? The layovers? Hangovers? Or, is it simply because this type of activity fully reveals that most of us are selfish creatures who lack empathy and awareness? Aaron opined about our travels last year during a particularly time-crunched deplaning opportunity. One of the flight attendants kindly asked folks who didn’t have a connection to “stay seated, allowing those passengers with connections the opportunity to exit the plane quickly.” Take a wild guess how many people stayed seated on that flight?

Maybe I’m being unfair. I don’t travel by air that often – about five to six times a year, on average. I acknowledge that my experiences wouldn’t qualify as valid data for a research project. But, there’s just something that seems to emerge from even the arguably most practical people upon entering an airport.

Airport travel can be stressful, especially for those of us who like to control situations. You essentially surrender your control in order to fly. This may explain why people are so unwilling to give up even more when asked. For example, because most flights are booked to the gills, overhead bin space becomes a premium. And, if you are not in the first or second boarding group, your bag may not find a home. To counter having to check bags during the board process, airlines have moved towards offering checking your bag at the gate – a great way to circumvent baggage fees (unless you fly Southwest because they still rock the “bags fly free” motto).

Each time I have witnessed this plea from the gate attendants, I see so few people take advantage. Yes, if you check a bag, you will have the additional step of retrieving it at your final destination, which may add another 7 to 10 minutes to your journey. But, how much time will you delay the boarding process if you’re that person who just can’t find a spot to put your bag? Or, the person who starts manipulating items already in the overhead bin in order to make space for theirs? “Oh, I’m sorry sir – can you actually put your bag under your seat? My enormous duffle needs to fit up here.”

I realize this post may be verging on the petty, but I think I just feel an overwhelming sense of disappointment, as I often do when I see a chance for people to put others ahead of them. It’s more than just not checking a bag or staying seated when others are trying to make flights. It’s the avoiding eye contact with people boarding, internally begging them not to sit in that open seat next to you. It’s the carrying on loud conversations in confined spaces on topics not needing to be shared by the public. It’s allowing your children to watch movies with no headphones. If I have to hear that Dora the Explorer song again, I’m pulling that chute.

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What have your air travel experiences been like?

So…now what?

New job?
Check.

New house?
Check.

New relationship status?
Check.

The last few weekends, while despite still having much to do, have offered a change of pace compared to the previous 25+ of 2014: a sense of quiet and satisfaction. There is time now – or at least we have the time available – to enjoy our new home. We have yet to plant our first tree (and – at this point in the game – we might put this on the 2015 to-do list), but we have continued to build out our space in other means.

We’ve broken bread with several friends; connected with our neighbors; hung frames on our walls; and tidied up the bins where things have just lived since July.

I hope this new “free time” includes me making a concerted effort to delve back into the world of writing. Since I last left the blogging sphere, I joined a book club with folks from the area. Our first assignment and subsequent discussion was marvelous (we read Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, which I enjoyed – sci-fi meets religious overtone projection of a post-climate change apocalyptic western US coast). Getting back into literature from a pleasure standpoint (not to mention the other three books that I read during our Honeymoon: Hyperbole and a Half, Dark Places, and And the Mountains Echoed) also ignites the desire to create again. And, not merely the ramblings of “This was my day. It was nice. Maybe I ran?” but deeper, more meaningful (or perhaps how I define meaningful).

While the old flame of prose and pontification continues to burn, I’ll at least share a couple of photos from the day that forever changed my life: September 19.

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2014: The Year of the Stress Test

ImageIn the last two weeks, I’ve bit off nails, developed a reoccurring canker sore, and permanently frozen my shoulders in an upright and locked position. Hello, stress. It was inevitable that the “s” word should appear, although I wasn’t expecting it so soon. See, everything seemed to be sailing smoothly, swimmingly, insert your favorite water metaphor here. Our wedding plans are nearly complete with deposits placed, outfits selected, and key logistics shared. In my forward thinking at the end of 2013, I thought that event of the new year would be the one to cause the ulcers, the headaches, and the “s” word to rear its ugly head.

Alas, that has proven to be the least stressful.

We will be listing the town home for sale in the next two weeks. Granted, I was a young lass when my childhood home donned a “For Sale” sign, but I recall the stringent requirements of maintaining order and cleanliness for months. At that time, all I had to oversee was the 12′ x 12′ chamber dubbed my room. Now, it’s 1200+ square feet that lingers in some almost ready state. This upcoming weekend will involve final staging efforts (kudos to our designer genius friend Lara!) and continued minimizing/storing/hiding/sweeping/dusting/unearthing. The actual steps to show the home have to remain free from my mind a bit longer as visions of me driving around Durham with two cats howling in the backseat begins to attract the formation of hives.

Speaking of homes, our future abode is not progressing as we had expected due to delays with city permits and poor weather. Originally, our target move-in timeline pegged us at late March or early April. Now, it’s May – when in May? Not a clue. We did a drive by last weekend and sadly saw zero foundations poured. Keeping our fingers crossed good news is coming down the chute…(oooo – good one, Katie).

And then, as life loves to do, other things have cropped up: an initial tax review for 2013 leaves me owing the government more than I could have imagined; a cantankerous gum is prompting an early dentist visit next week; oh, and THE CATS STILL DO NOT LET US SLEEP. I even took Milo to the vet, explaining to her with hands thrown up in the air, that nine months of not sleeping past 4:45am was just not cutting it anymore. Could he have a hyperthyroid? Diabetes? Kidney problems? $250 and a battery of tests later, we find that Milo has slightly elevated cholesterol, but other than that, he is peachy keen. Lovely. Answer? Give him more food. One week later, we’re still waking up at 4:40am.

Finally, there are some other potential changes that may require me to make some tough choices – positive choices, for sure, but ones that stoke the flames of guilt. While still a work in progress, it’s also exciting to have unexpected opportunities that may, or may not, come into fruition.

With all that obnoxiousness out of my system, I can say that I’m fortunate to have such a committed, compassionate partner who allows me to vent but also ensures that I recognize the blessings we have in our lives. Still, this year will not be easy, and it may not always be fun. But darnit, this year will be the best of my life so far, and one cannot ask for any more!