Time: Who’s Side Is It On?

My work life, right now, is pretty great. I just started a new part-time contract job with the Minnesota Historical Society to produce a daily radio feature called “MN90: Minnesota History in 90 Seconds.” It’ll include fresh, funny, interesting, disturbing, and enlightening tidbits about Minnesota history. Great for those water cooler conversations. In any case, I’m thrilled to take on this new project, and I’m also aware that it’s a huge time commitment–one that won’t allow for the sort of “wiggle room” I currently have in my schedule. Thus, it’s time to take a cold, hard look at my schedule. How well am I spending my time?

Lucky for me, my husband is good at this stuff. This morning, Eric had me hash out all of my current time commitments and ask myself which are flexible, which are not, and how much time each of those things really, truly takes to accomplish. I even took into account travel time, if you can believe it.

I won’t bore you with the details of our little session, but I will say that I find this type of self-management both incredibly challenging, and life-saving. There’s something so freeing about knowing that all my time is accounted for, and that if I just stick to the plan, everything I want to get done, will get done. This type of thing, while hardly romantic, is crucial to the sort of varied life I want to have. I simply have to have time in my life for getting my hands in the dirt, just as I need time for paying bills, cooking dinner, eating dinner, making art, transcribing hours of audio, being with good friends, etc. Who knew though that I’d need a whiteboard in order to do all that?

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What Happened to the Story Farm?

“What’s going on with the Story Farm?” a friend asked the other day, reminding me yet again that the Story Farm exists not just in Eric and my imaginations, but also in the minds of so many friends, who seem to be even more determined than we are to make it a reality.

“It’s been on hold, I guess.” Really it depends on how you define the Story Farm. We haven’t sent out seed packets in months (sorry Cassandra… yours is coming), Soup and Bread has been lingering on our “to make happen” list, and we haven’t been planning any sort of farm-based collaborative storytelling parties… so what have we been doing, exactly?

Well, we’ve been making a home. In March, Eric and I packed up our cat, our loveseat,  two bookshelves and way too many books, and drove away from Northern California, land of amber-colored light, and drop-dead-gorgeous hikes, and perfect lattes, and so many people who simply “get it.” Yep, we did that. We left there. When I close my eyes and think of California, I see the view of the Claremont Hotel we had from our street in Berkeley, that stately white building nestled in the hills, romantic and bathed in orange light. Every once in awhile I do miss California.

But today I sit on the front porch of our new home, seven blocks from the Mississippi, in Minneapolis. From here, I see perennials bursting forth from our front yard–right now the purple coneflowers are in bloom, and the maroon-colored lilies, and some sweet yellow flowers that I haven’t yet identified. I’ve probably spent a hundred hours in that yard already, digging out invasives, relocating perennials, shoveling mulch, planting perennials I’ve been gifted from friends and neighbors. We’ve got a heck of a lot of lawn here, but slowly we’ve been turning it into garden, and one day, our house will be nestled behind a messy tableau of mature plants, with nary a blade of grass in sight. To tell you that I love working in our garden would be a drastic understatement. Having a piece of the earth to tend, avidly and with love, has brought a peace and satisfaction to my life that I have been craving so long I’d forgotten what to call it. The garden gives me a place to learn simple natural truths– that each plant has its preferences and its quirks, that time is as essential to growing things as water and soil. My appetite for this kind of knowledge is insatiable.

Meanwhile, our little blue house is slowly turning into more than just a  shelter. Our colorful belongings, in boxes for so long, have been finding their way onto shelves and windowsills. Drawings and photographs that just didn’t fit on the walls in our various apartments are getting the attention they deserve. Slowly, as we can afford to, we add furniture. We have a great futon in our second bedroom and guests are the whole purpose of this place, so please visit.

We got a dog recently. His name’s Wendell, and his sense of joy and abandon fills up every corner of this place. We chose Wendell over the other adorable shelter dogs because he was less interested in wrestling, and more interested in snuggling and licking our faces. Turns out he was just drugged up from his recent surgery, and he does in fact, have plenty of spunk in him. But in general he’s a floppy little guy who loves nothing more than to rest his chin on your leg, gaze upward, and be loved in a really simple way. Dogs just “get it,” don’t they?

I was walking Wendell a couple days ago, in the woods along the river, where I take him so I can feel pretend Huck Finn on a long river journey, and I was thinking about The Story Farm. We conceived of it originally as a physical place, which we still hope and plan to create in the next 5-7 years. In the nearer term, we’ve got lots of ideas about ways to integrate storytelling with community-building with food-growing. More on those soon. But since life gets busy, and since life is sometimes just as much about squeezing in trips to the grocery store as it is about making big plans, I hope to share here my thoughts on some of the less ambitious aspects of building that Farm. Things I’m learning about home, about building and fixing, about having neighbors, about taking a walk in the same place every day as the seasons change, about doing meaningful work, and finding purpose, and making a living, and being young and married and eager to learn. All of that, eventually, will grow the Story Farm, don’t you think?

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Blogger’s Apology

I’ve always found it sort of amusing when people abandon their blogs for months, and then return and write a breathless apology, explaining that life just got so CRAZY—they couldn’t keep up. And then they don’t write their next post until about two months later, and it’s the same thing—an apology. Cracks me up, for some reason. Maybe because it’s just so inevitable. Isn’t life always crazy? Do we really EVER have time for blogging? So, I’ll resist the urge to apologize here (and yes, I do have the urge).

Instead, I’ll tell you that despite our inability to keep up with the Story Farm blog, according to our metrics, which at one point we tracked obsessively, we still get about 50 hits a day. But sadly, it’s not because people are yearning for the Story Farm, dying to hear what will come next. It’s because people are searching for “money trees” and “pigs in the mud.”

See, if you browse through the Story Farm archives you’ll see that we’ve used all kinds of illustrations and photos to go with our posts (not particularly legally, but um, that’s another post). Anyway, at some point we used a pig in the mud, probably to talk about wanting to get our feet dirty, and at another point we used a money tree, probably to talk about how to raise funds for the Story Farm. And the “alt tags” attached to those images show up in Google Image results. (Try Googling “money tree,” and you’ll find us on the very first page).

Nevermind that we don’t necessarily want to be associated with money trees, or muddy pigs, not that there’s anything wrong with either. What fascinates me is what appears to be an international desire for images of muddy pigs and money trees. According to our stats, people who speak languages I don’t even recognize have searched for these pigs and trees. We can hope, I guess, that when they stumbled upon our site, they changed their minds. Never mind money trees, they thought. How about a farm in the Midwest that grows stories?

We leave in 10 days for Minneapolis, and I’m really, really sad to leave. It doesn’t help that it’s somehow spring in Berkeley now (huh?), and the cherry blossoms and jasmine and honeysuckle are firing off their scents, making me feel that indescribable springy feeling… newness and desire and contentment and curiosity and hunger for nothing in particular. Luckily, we get to experience springtime again, in Minnesota, in, um, a few months….

Due to some paperwork issues I won’t bother going into, we won’t be moving into our new (old) house until April. Somehow that makes it harder to go “home”—the fact that we’ll be staying at Eric’s folks’ house in the suburbs. It’ll be a funny little interrim time…. cold and full of many trips to the Dunn Bros coffee drive-through in Long Lake. I’ll probably forget about spring.

But then it’ll come, again… and we’ll be in our house, and at some point the snow will melt (it does melt, right? I can’t remember), and we’ll see our front yard for the first time… and whatever the heck is growing there. I can’t wait to find out—will there will be hostas? Ground cover? Shrubs? Weeds? Is that little tree in the backyard an apple tree? Or a honey locust?

Maybe it’s a money tree. We’ll have to wait for spring to find out.

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The Doubting Farmer

I once said to a friend of mine, with the crystal clarity that hits you sometimes in the middle of winter when you are 15 and laying in the center of an ice rink, staring at the sky: “If you don’t do anything, nothing happens.”

It sounds to me now like some kind of mystical aphorism, but it was really just a plain-as-day observation I happened to be making in that moment about that moment. Of course, as any mystic worth his weight in aphoristic simplicity will tell you, there really is no difference. Simplicity is mystical.

I mention it here on the Story Farm page, because, well, I’ve not been doing anything lately – Story Farm related, anyway – and, gee whiz, nothing has been happening. Sure, we had the penultimate East Bay Soup and Bread Thing last Sunday. Sure, Andi and I made mention of the Story Farm on a walk in Berkeley’s Cesar Chavez Park last Saturday (walks seem to be where the Story Farm comes alive most).  But, ‘taint like it was, way back when, in those heady days of our Wisconsin mini-moon, the hour it was first conceived, when we made beautiful, long and detailed lists of what we’d need to make it come alive.

And, the way my mind works, this absence of peak energy for the project absolutely, positively has to mean something – more precisely, something baaaaad.

Like:

The Story Farm was a bad idea to start with.

It wasn’t meant to be.

It was never really going to happen anyway.

But does it mean any of this? Objectively, no. Of course not. That’s absurd. But, then, why does the mind, my mind, have to go there so suddenly, so certainly, so strongly? Why does it have to be so grandiose, so fatalistic? The answer, I suppose, is buried somewhere deep in my psyche – in the causes and conditions of my life – and I’m not at all convinced that if some kind of direct cause for such thinking could be revealed, that it would automatically prevent me from having doubts.

So what is the appropriate response to such doubt? Do I have to chant each morning that the existence of the Story Farm is fated or inevitable? Do I have to protect myself with the view that things like this fail more often than they succeed? Do I just have to lighten up, let go and let whatever happens happen. None of these approach satisfies. The first is pollyannaism. The second, cynicism. The third, irresponsibility.

Realism works best, I think: The Story Farm might one day come into existence. It also might never come into existence. Furthermore, I could probably guess what sorts of things I might do to increase the likelihood of its coming into existence and what things I might do to decrease the likelihood of its coming into existence. Maintaining the blog would fall on the list of things to do. Not maintaining the blog, on the other hand …

Loving the Story Farm, loving that idea, that original vision, doesn’t mean that I should be in love with it all the time. Loving, after all, is what you decide to do after the natural state of being in love has worn off. In other words, if I just waited around for the feeling of being in love with the Story Farm, or any idea, to befall me, I would be in trouble. I have to put energy into The Story Farm if I want it to generate energy for me.

I mean: If I had a brilliant plan for a garden and, in my enthusiasm, planted the thing, I wouldn’t really have the luxury to debate whether or not it was a good idea. I’d be too busy tending to the thing, giving it what it needed and protecting it from what threatened it.

This idea that I’ve been walking around with – the passive philosophizing farmer – isn’t really cutting it anymore.

And so I sat down to write this post. Now, let’s see if something happens.

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A Place to Plant My Feet

Thirty-seven days left until we make the drive back to Minneapolis, and it’s starting to feel like we really are leaving this place. The Bay Area– I had so many notions about this place before we arrived. I imagined Berkeley to be like Boulder, Colorado and was disappointed. It was grittier, more spread out, harder to figure out in one long afternoon walk. In fact, I still haven’t figured Berkeley out, though I’ve been here long enough now to love certain things about it. I will miss the hills, the elevated feeling I have every time I find myself driving down a big hill, pointed towards vast expanse of the bay, with views of Marin, and the Golden Gate, of the monster cranes at the Port of Oakland, and the countless nondescript towns all around. Those blue mountains, shrouded in fog, framing this place so romantically. Inspiration is always so easy to find here.

What’s harder to find is that certain indescribable something that makes a place feel like home. As long as we’ve been in the Bay Area, it has felt like we’re in a suspended state– suspended in our youth, caught inside a sunny day that won’t turn gray, won’t turn to night. What a beautiful day it is, it’s true, but I’m ready for what’s next.

For two and a half years now, Eric and I both have tried to pin down what exactly it is that makes a place feel like home– what is the Bay Area missing for us? Those of you who’ve looked at us like we’re crazy for leaving– logically, you are absolutely correct. This place has it all– the charm, the diversity, the possibilities, the depth. For those of you who really do feel like this is home, I feel a certain envy.

And yet, despite all my protests as a teenager growing up in suburban Illinois, the Midwest truly is home to me. All that I hated about it as a kid is true– it has its cookie-cutter neighborhoods, and it’s awfully flat, and it certainly doesn’t feel like you’re in the middle of the action the way you do in New York City, or the Mission.

But Minneapolis, in particular, and many other towns and cities on “The Third Coast,” as we like to say, have a vibrancy, a sense of possibility, of accessibility. They are humble and yet have high aspirations. They are flat, yes, but oh to see Lake Calhoun on the first snowy winter day– the whole scene painted white, and rendered silent. Or to hear the crackle of leaves underfoot on the first real autumn morning. It is what reminds me that time is passing, that all things are impermanent, that no matter how much I might get caught up in my thoughts sometimes, I too am part of the larger order of things.

But more than anything else, moving to Minneapolis for us simply represents choosing a place. In some ways, it doesn’t matter which place. These days we have too much choice of where to make a home. If we wish, we can hop from job to job, city to city, leaving each place right when we might really have started to become a part of it. I have enjoyed this freedom of movement; I am grateful for it– I owe my adventures in Alaska, and Texas, and Virginia, and here in the Bay Area, to that freedom, and I am a much more interesting person because each of those places is in me.

But sometimes we modern humans have to make choices that used to be made for us. And I know that right now that choice means saying “no” to many places, in order to say “yes” to one. I want a place to be invested in, a place that will be invested in me.

I came across a quote this morning, from Archimedes:

“Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth.”

I hope I do Minnesota justice by putting down roots just deep enough to allow me to reach further out than I ever have.

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Hurrying Home

I’ve been in a hurry to own a home for as long as I can remember. In my preteens, I remember discussing with my younger brother what I would do with the money if I won the lottery. I decided I would buy seven different houses, all of them quirky and old, and I would live in each of them for a week at a time, in rotation. It gave me this giddy little feeling inside to imagine that scenario– All the nooks and crannies! All the different windows to look through! The different angles at which to place my bed! The different colors, the window seats, the porches… and on and on. As my mom can attest, I dealt with this early home-buying urge by rearranging my room. Over and over again. I still do that.

We might be on the verge of satisfying my craving in a more literal way now though: yesterday, we made an offer on a house. It’s the little blue one you see here– with a wraparound porch, and so many lovely features inside that I won’t torture myself by going into detail. It’s a lovely old home, and if I weren’t afraid to jinx our good fortune, I’d tell you all about it.

Instead, I’ll tell you about how strange it is to be on the precipice of achieving or acquiring something that I’ve wanted my whole life: my own home. I’m noticing how many of my other dreams have been contingent, to some extent, on home ownership. My dreams of a big vegetable garden, a dog, a big dining table made out of a barn door, a front porch on which to sit and listen to the crickets with a bottle of Bell’s Two Hearted Ale in hand. Of course, none of these things are contingent upon owning a home– I’ve certainly found ways to serve these desires up until now. But now that a piece of our own turf might be within reach, these urges are flooding in– all of the many visions I’ve had, lacking expression for so long, may be about to be splashed upon the empty canvas of this home. It makes me feel so domestic… and a little naive. Isn’t “home” just a practical concern? Isn’t just a matter of keeping the rain off of your head? Why do I have to OWN this place? What happened to the spirit of community and collaboration? Why aren’t we joining a commune?

It’s fitting that I’m reading Michael Pollan’s book A Place of My Own right now. He too, was confounded by his own desire to have his own place. For clues, he goes back to his childhood, many hours of which he spent in the treehouse his father had built for him. Children, better than anyone, he says, seem to understand the deep primordial draw of having one’s own space. Hence the desire to make “forts” out of a bedsheet and two chairs. (I remember feeling giddy thinking about those plastic Disney tents designed to go over a twin-sized bed. Imagine that! Windows and a door, surrounding you while you’re sleeping!) Referring to the forts he and his sisters built throughout his childhood home, Pollan says, “Though these huts were firmly held in the embrace of our parent’s house, they formed another interior deep inside it, a second, more comprehensible frontier of inside and out, private and public, self and world, that we children could control.”

More than anything, I guess I’ve desired a place that I could shape into a reflection of my values and personality, a place to put the “me-ness” I’ve been carrying around. As though by externalizing my sense of self, I can make it more fixed. (Which, as the Buddhists know, is an unachievable thing, but hey). A truly lived-in home, in my estimation, can be a living symbol of what really makes me come alive. So that as far as I might stray, geographically or emotionally, from that truth, there will always be a bookmark, holding my place in the world.

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The Next Story Farmer: Cassandra Labairon

And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for: the announcement of the winner of our Best Excuse contest for a free Story Farm membership. It’s Cassandra Labairon, a fellow Midwesterner, farm-lover, and dreamer who has her own great, big ideas for a place where art and plants would grow side by side. Read her fabulous excuse here.

Congrats, Cassandra! Your Story Seeds are on their way.

We’d also like to award an Honorable Mention to Annie Blackwell, for her fabulously hairy excuse. We hope Patrick wins the battle against his beard.

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