People don’t resist change; people resist loss.
Though it’s been over a year since Pastor Robert Yutzy shared this line with members of our congregation, I continue to think on it every few days, so profound it struck me. Of course, he went on to say, the two are closely related, as every change brings about loss.
Back in 2008 our nation was invited to back “Change we [could] believe in.” I believed and, for the most part, I wasn’t disappointed. But perhaps I didn’t have enough at stake to know any better. Now, eight years later, I mourn the direction this country seems headed. I resent the systems that enabled Donald Trump to become president. Mostly, I fear the consequences of this decision for so many people all around the world, not the least of which are my own three precious children.
This year I (and I believe Will too) have been confronted on a new level by the changes I see at work within myself.
I would not have expected to struggle with identity as a 40-year-old. And I wouldn’t really say I struggle with it, but I sure have contemplated it a lot this year. I’ve contemplated what it means to look back and see significant changes between who [I think] I am, and who [I always thought] I was. That progression strikes me as more than just maturity that comes with age.
At some point in the last calendar year, I filled out standard paperwork: medical forms or insurance, I don’t know exactly what. I got to the blank marked “Occupation” and for the first time, I wrote “farmer” in that blank. It felt significant; it had been a long time coming.
Some twenty-odd years ago, I entered college knowing what I wanted to do. I wasn’t one of the statistical frequent major-changers. My goals were clear. I would be writing “Professor” in that occupation blank. For a time, I flirted with pastoral ministry or some sort of further education in music in worship. When we moved to South Dakota, I downgraded to “private piano instructor” and “housewife,” and didn’t feel in the least like I was sacrificing anything by doing so; please know that I still don’t.
As a child, my parents milked cows. Especially at certain times of the year, my mom did much of the milking while Dad was busy with field work. But I never considered my mom a farmer.
An annual highlight of my childhood was Labor Day weekend, when my hometown hosted a huge steam engine show known regionally as The Old Threshers Reunion. A visit to OT always included the obligatory amble through “Museum A” and “Museum B,” large gravel-floored machine shed-type structures that housed vendors and wares from across the nation, as well as agricultural exhibits. I can still picture the larger-than-life photographs that comprised the featured exhibit about women working the land. As a girl staring at the photos, I felt like a celebrity because I went to church with not one, but two of those women. They were portrayed as helpmates on the farm, but I never considered them farmers.
I always loved riding tractor with my dad, and took special pride in those jobs for which I could drive myself. When Will and I married and made plans to return to the farm, I had grand illusions of being “that” wife: the wife who mowed the hay ahead of her husband’s rake (I’d never heard of a windrower), the wife who could combine as straight, or buck as many bales, or get the stubborn calf to suck as well as any man. It didn’t take me long to realize that, with three men now in the operation, my services would rarely, if ever, be needed. I might be asked to haul an occasional load of silage from the field, but mine was clearly a supporting role. I chose my words carefully: I was “married to Will, a farmer.” I “lived on a farm” with my husband. It would have felt disingenuous to say I actually farmed too.
Somewhere along the line, that has changed. Will has been telling me for awhile already that if I weren’t around, he wouldn’t be able to do all on the farm that he is. He has never undervalued my contributions to the operation. He has never treated me or referred to me as less than an equal partner.
But this year felt different. Having earlier agreed to make 2016 an “experimental year” in the berry patch, Will, niece Kelsey and I had a mid-winter huddle and concluded that, since most of the daily labor and management of the patch would fall to Kelsey and me, so could most of the decision-making. We trimmed the size of the patch by just over half, and backed away from the u-pick side of things to allow ourselves space to experiment in peace. It was me who chose the varieties and ordered the plants, figured out the row/plant spacing and hooked up the irrigation, selected the widths and thicknesses of paper mulch and made sure they were organic-compliant, researched the companion plants most effective for upping yield, chose the floral cocktail to attract pollinators, and visited by phone with our plant vendor/consultant as the season progressed.
We learned some important things along the way:
1. it would seem more efficient to first lay mulch with a tractor and then plant by hand rather than the other way around. Don’t let the fact that you own a mechanical planter and you do not own a mechanical mulch-layer deter you from trusting your gut on this.
2. Don’t believe for a moment any website that claims weeder geese won’t touch borage.
3. Ditto for any website that claims a coon hound won’t touch the geese.
4. Once Gary starts weeding at one end of the patch, he will not quit until the patch is completed, regardless of your concern for his well-being or your growing suspicion of his OCD; he is old enough to make his own decisions.
5. Fresh strawberries taste just as good in August, September, October and (yes) November as they do for two weeks in June. Our last picking date this year was November 10!
In addition to the berries, I also felt a bit of an arrival with the chickens. I helped roast soybeans and I ground feed for the first time when Will tweaked his back and was unable to lift much. I fixed the odd waterer and occasionally jury-rigged a this or a that in the barn instead of automatically speed-dialing #2. I soloed on the vast majority of weekly egg deliveries to Sioux Falls and continued to develop relationships with our businesses there; we are up to seven, in addition to three local businesses. In total they account for 3-400 dozen each week, depending on the season. One never knows what one will encounter during egg delivery. During summer the two youngest boys and I had a front row seat to a minor car accident. More recently, we got to notify some folks we had known in a former life that their barn was on fire.
Tangent: As the egg business has grown, we’ve sought to streamline the cleaning process. In November we decided it was time to upgrade from our immersion washer, which washed 10 dozen at a time but required handling each individual egg, to a mechanical washer that uses a fraction of the water and also candles and dries the eggs. Will found a real sweet machine demo clip on YouTube and contacted the number listed. And so we came to know Linden Sutcliffe. Linden was a great salesman: friendly, helpful, knowledgeable, and lived relatively close by. Will ordered the machine, requested it by New Year’s and sent the payment.
The second week of January, he checked in on progress. Linden had wanted to make a few improvements—a stronger bulb, some basic wiring. (Sounded good to us.) It would delay delivery a bit. (Sure, understandable.) Soon though, it became apparent that this was going to be a struggle. Throughout the month, Will’s hounding and Linden’s dodging intensified and we had visions of purchasing the Mazda all over again (see Christmas letter 2012).
By February, Will was emailing and calling Linden every day. The time between leaving messages was spent in prayer. A call to the Better Business Bureau, revealed that Linden held the lowest rating they issue. We grew less hopeful when Will discovered multiple online reviews by other customers that read something like, “Sent payment. Never got the machine.”
A call to the CEO of the manufacturing plant was telling. As Will described our difficulty, the man broke in with, “Oh, you must be dealing with Linden Sutcliffe.” Will’s messages became more threatening and started to include the word “sheriff.” When all went unanswered, he lowered the boom: “I’m driving down tomorrow. If you are not there, I will wait.”
Would you know, Linden was planning a trip this way that very day and would be happy to deliver! And then began round #2 of stalling. He didn’t show on Thursday. Or Friday. Not feeling well. Miscommunication with the U-haul. Got backed into by a van in the parking lot of the local hardware store and needs a day to recuperate. (Well, I mean, who wouldn’t?) Saturday. Sunday. He finally made it Monday morning. To his credit, the machine reflects superior craftsmanship and has worked exactly as billed.
But back to considering myself a farmer. It was on egg delivery that I was first publicly identified as such. I was walking by the check-out counter in one of our stores as the clerk rang up a carton of Berrybrook eggs for a customer. “This is your farmer,” she told the customer. In spite of my own insecurities about being called such, it was clear that Julie and the customer had none whatsoever. That was validating to me and I find myself increasingly comfortable wearing the title.
So what loss comes with identifying primarily as a farmer? Over the last several years, I’ve come to recognize a pattern in myself: 1) I become over-committed and overwhelmed, 2) I mentally prioritize all my activities and obligations, 3) one such obligation emerges as the logical next thing to go, although I previously would never have entertained giving it up.
So it went with Advancement Associates three and a half years ago. Working for AAI revealed writing as a true passion and served up one of very few regrets thus far in life, namely not picking up a communications major back in the day. I haven’t found the time to divert those skills into the farm operation as I’d hoped. I chose the change willingly, but continue to experience the accompanying loss.
Earlier this year, I ended a seven-year stint on the board of Central Plains Mennonite Conference. Again, I enjoyed it while it lasted, but I reached the point where I was ready to let it go.
My gut started telling me last year that piano lessons would be the next thing to go. I came dangerously close to quitting them altogether this year. As it was, I released nearly half of my students into the wild with a few recommendations of other teachers. Against my better judgment, I retained more students than I intended to, but that has given me some clarity for moving forward.
Up to this point I’ve resisted giving up lessons because “it keeps my skills up.” But who am I kidding? Teaching “Song for a Scarecrow” and “Spanish Caballero” for the twenty-sixth time really has very little bearing on my skills. You know what actually keeps my skills up? Playing piano. And that’s something I have precious little time for anymore. Fortunately, I caught Cousin Mory at a weak moment and he foolishly agreed to another duo-piano recital set for next Mother’s Day.
People don’t resist change; people resist loss. This has been for me, in the words of the Reverend John Ames, “a remarkable thing to consider.”
This character from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead reminds me of my own Iowan reverend grandfather, though more measured and contemplative. A cousin’s recent Facebook post noted that Grandpa would have turned 100 this year. I enjoyed thinking about him as I read Gilead this year, one of few books I’ve read for pleasure since having Liam 10 years ago.
Ten years. That puts Liam in 5th grade. He is still at Freeman Academy and is doing well in school, but having to learn the hard way the consequences of not checking his assignment book . . . or checking it but not remembering to bring home the notes . . . or bringing home the notes but not actually studying them . . . or studying them but not studying them well enough. You get the idea. The subject matter has never seemed too difficult for Liam, but the responsibility sure can be a bitch!
Liam really enjoys playing piano and added trombone this year. But his lasting love is sports of any kind. He’s a huge Denver Broncos fan and will throw a football with anyone willing. Last winter he garnered the “Most Improved” player award for the joint Freeman Public-Freeman Academy 4th-5th grade basketball team and just started his first season as a “Bearcat,” under the Academy’s new athletic co-op with Marion Public. He played baseball again this summer; I like the chance it affords him to interact with the town kids, most of whom attend the public school. But the schedule is really tough with farm life and it is almost impossible for Will to take in any games so I’d call the future of baseball “uncertain” at best. On the way to his final game, he told us he hoped to get hit by a ball. When I asked why on earth he’d ever want that, he confided that he just “wanted to take one for the team.” I insisted there were other (and better) ways to prove your worth to your teammates and I think after taking not one, but two balls to the back/shoulder during that game, he was inclined to agree.
Solomon, 8, is in 3rd grade. While he resembles me facially, our interests could not be more divergent. He is an incurable dog-lover and regularly checks the Sioux Falls Humane Society website for a replacement for Abby, the bosomy 5-year-old coon hound we got him for his birthday. The strength of her breed (namely, ridding this farm of pests) was also her weakness (i.e. she barked incessantly and roamed further and further to satisfy her coon lust), and we bid her a tearful good-bye and returned her to the pound the day before we left on vacation.
Solomon loves Classic Rock, hates piano, and tried robotics with the local club this fall. Solomon is also a complete motor head and is always fantasizing about a hovercraft or a go-kart or a motor scooter. He resists any chore that does not rely on something automated. On the other hand, he is always game to haul away tree branches with the loader tractor, or mow the lawn, or run the weed eater, or pick up corn cobs with the little Kubota. He and Liam were proud members of the silage chopping crew this summer, always game to rise at 4 a.m. with the men and take turns hauling (with supervision) empty silage wagons to the field and bringing full ones back to the yard. Perhaps Solomon’s all-time highest moment came when he found himself in the field with Grandpa Ortman and Uncle Stan at the end of the final hay cutting. There were three implements to bring home from the field and Grandpa Ortman suggested that Solomon drive the 4020 home pulling the Rowse merger. (Notice how I sounded like a real farmer right there.) It was two miles. Including highway. And shifting of gears. All alone. My heart skipped a beat to see him come past the window as I was washing dishes. But the smile on that boy’s face and the pride in his eyes as he burst through the door…well, I could cry a little thinking about it.
And then there is Christian. When Christian came along, I thought, “How interesting can the third boy really be?” I could not have been more naïve. Our 6-year-old has turned us into the parents who wince when his hand goes up during the children’s story at church; the parents who die a little inside when he strikes up a conversation with complete stranger who is in the middle of brushing his teeth at the campground bathhouse; the parents who suppress their giggles and exchange a wide-eyed look as he lays his string-bean body on the floor clad only in underwear, and makes repeated fart noises by cupping one hand behind each kneecap and wildly pumping his legs; the parents who just shake their heads and sigh when we receive emails like this one: Today in Music class, Christian had Oreo cookies in his pocket that he was trying to eat during Music class. Some of his classmates gave him friendly reminders about not eating in class, but Christian chose to continue.
After doing kindergarten at home with me last year, this fall Christian joined his brothers at the Academy where he is in first grade. It was time and, aside from occasional bumps like the Oreo incident, he is excelling at school. A recent highlight was hearing Christian (and every last one of his classmates) sing a solo during their Christmas musical. Especially endearing was our boy’s effort to continue singing right through an inhale when his breath support faltered.
After several years off, Will and I both find ourselves quite entrenched at the school. In October I agreed to serve as board chair and am greatly enjoying working with and learning from our interim administrator, Allan Dueck. I am also a member of the search committee for our next “permanent” administrator. Will is president of the Academy Auxiliary, which plans Schmeckfest each year. We both feel hopeful for the future and enjoy thinking together about the ways we can help the Academy navigate challenges and seize opportunities through our respective roles.
Our whole family, including Brent & Esther, enjoyed a trip to Maine this summer in honor of my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Highlights included the boys’ first experience with Amtrak, whale watching, a lumberjack show hosted by a former Survivor contestant, swimming in the ocean, trying lobster, miniature golf (another first for them, as though we don’t have courses available within 35 miles), and ice cream at least once a day!
Will and I each took special trips at some point in the year as well—trips where we beheld face-to-face change and accompanying loss. Mine was a few days in Florida with Brent to visit our uncle and aunt, who suffers from Alzheimers. Will’s was an up-and-back trip just north of Minneapolis with seven schoolmates to attend the wake of a close friend. Don’t text and drive, people; if you do, you might cross the center line and collide head-on with a father and his two young daughters making their way home for Schmeckfest. In this case, that father was beloved native son Lee Waltner, Freeman Academy class of ’95.
Not only did Pastor Robert introduce me to the intimate connection of loss to change, but he also recommended a book that has completely revolutionized the way Will & I view the world. Ishmael by Daniel Quinn is about the second book I remember reading for pleasure from start to finish in a full decade. I devoured it, and spit up enough of it along the way that Will was baited into reading it next. We both think it should be required reading for the whole human race and find ourselves pretty willing disciples of the author. Reading Quinn feels like something of a homecoming, honestly.
I feel like entirely too much of my energy in the past few months has been devoted to restoring damaged relationships. Feelings too long pent-up (not mine), words spoken in haste (once mine), unfair assumptions made (not mine), all leading to big, unfortunate problems between people. People who I respect. People who should know how to get along. Church people, all of them. This and Trump and Quinn and my own wrestling match with identity…well, it’s made for some murky waters. Gilead provided a welcome respite and a fascinating study of someone else navigating a complicated relationship.
I now more fully appreciate my Grandpa Graber’s words, “When you’re through changing, you’re through!” I realize that up till now I’ve interpreted this only softly (i.e. “As long as you’re alive, you will need to adapt to the changes going on around you”). But I have been intrigued this year to come to terms with the ways that I am fundamentally different than I used to be, and certainly than I was raised to be. To wonder how that happens, undetected for so long. To soberly realize that the process will likely continue throughout life. And to ponder the loss that comes with such change—the consequences of shedding entire parts of one’s identity and inviting new, unfamiliar parts to take up residence.
Maybe what I’m describing is textbook mid-life crisis. It has occurred to me that “mid-life crisis” might best characterize the point our nation is at as well. At least I, for one, don’t see how our current path is sustainable for any longer than we’ve been already been at it.
Getting this letter out well after Christmas has afforded me the benefit of including response to a conversation with a dear friend just yesterday. He said some of the issues I’m processing smack of those more typically reserved for members of his generation, those in the second-half-of-life. I hate to think what that suggests about my own life expectancy! Just yesterday I asked Will, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “What are we going to do about all these dreams we’ll never live long enough to realize?” And Will wisely said, “We just keep doing what we can and be content with that.” My friend said much the same: that we encourage one another to enact whatever positive changes we can, no matter how small, for our own little corner of this world that some seem so hell-bent on destroying. God go with us.