Monday, April 13, 2009

Any Farmers Here? by Shelley Gillespie

In early February, I attended a UCSB conference on Food Security and Sustainability that addressed food issues through interdisciplinary approaches - literature, history, social sciences, film. My kind of conference. In a packed room on the sixth floor of the Humanities building, a speaker asked the audience, "Are any of you farmers?" Close to the last row, I raised my hand. Very few others raised their hands. This conference was based in academia, after all. Later in the day, another speaker asked, "Can I see a show of hands, how many people here are farmers?" I held my cup of tea and didn't raise my hand.

I became a farmer in Costa Rica. I made my way at the age of twenty to live in a small, coffee-farming, mountain town. How? First, I fell in love in the States with a man from Costa Rica. I proceeded to drop out of college to accompany him home with our dream of farming organically. We drove thousands of miles across Mexico, into Central America. We reached Arturo's town and his parent's house on a foggy afternoon, waking them from their siesta. His parents were overjoyed with the return of their black sheep son and with me,the young - se ve tan joven, tan joven - gringa wife.

I didn't fully understand until later, when I spoke Spanish more fluently and had absorbed cultural nuances, that by joining the men in the fields I defied the accepted role of a woman. This was 1995. Women harvested coffee and collected coffee wood for cook fires, but carry a back pack sprayer or prune the bananas or thin the coffee sprouts? Rarely, if ever. Much less the daughter-in-law of Egerico Segura, the hard working, respected, land-owning, coffee cooperative board member. Still, this family I married into valued hard work above anything else and despite the town gossip, I won my place in the field with don Egerico and his sons.

I remember my first day in the field. I marveled at the shiny dark green leaves of the coffee plants that rose six feet around me. The day's work: pruning the banana plants that grew among the coffee bushes, reducing the banana clumps to three stalks. Banana plants create folds of fibrous layers to form their stalks and when cut release a sap that stains your clothes and hands. Some of the stalks were as big around as my waist. I whacked at the stalks, turning them to pulp, splattering myself with sap. There is an art to cutting down a banana plant and I needed this first lesson. Arturo's brother appeared by my side. He must have heard the whack-whack-whack of my machete and not the clear cracking of a falling banana. He pointed to his eyes and then back at the plants. Look. I spoke very little Spanish and he refused to speak the little English he'd learned on a restaurant stint in New Jersey. I wasn't sure if my presence in the field was humorous or annoying to him. He aimed his glinting machete at the top of the thick stalk. He sliced down at a forty five degree angle. He aimed his machete up at another forty five degree angle, to cut a wedge out of the banana. Slowly, he cut more of the wedge until he could knock the top part of the plant onto the dirt. Then he took aim at the lower section and with strong, swift strikes of his machete sliced the stalk into sap-oozing sections. He motioned that I shouldn't let the stalks fall onto the coffee plants. Later in the day, Arturo gave me my second lesson: use the weight of the machete to guide your strike otherwise your muscles won't last a day in the field. I already knew, with all of my heart, I wanted to last more than a day.

I memorized the weather of the region. Black clouds barreled into the valley from the Pacific, fierce with lightening, dropping the ocean in a thunderous downpour, often before we could make it home. In the dry season, the hawks shrieked and Egerico said, "Summer is coming." The dry heat could fry thoughts right out of me as I left droplets of sweat on the soil. I felt sexy in my thick-soled black rubber boots, the shoe of choice for every campesino. Shovels and machetes, rock bars and desbajadores became extensions of my own body. We sculpted the terrain in our constant efforts to save the soil's fertility, terracing acres of hillside. Mid-morning breaks became a ritual I savored. Sitting in the shade, drinking lemonade out of recycled Coke liters, and chatting. At the end of the break, the machetes were sharpened; little flakes of steel fell from the blade. The Dota valley and those hillsides and the teachings of Egerico, Henry, Arturo and all of the other men I worked with, turned me into a farmer.

I'm still telling this story today, even after I left the farm over four years ago. I raised my hand at that conference because my experience as a farmer formed me. I am a farmer.

But wait, when was the last time I strapped the leather machete sheath around my waist? When was the last time the back pack sprayer with the faulty lid sloshed its 16 liters of fish emulsion down my back? When was the last time, thinking about my vegetable farming in the States, that I hauled irrigation tubes across hot sandy soil? When was the last time my hands were so callused they snagged on my clothes? I couldn't raise my hand again in the afternoon.

In the spring of 2007, I agonized over a decision that seemed immanent. I had to leave farming and my friends' farm I'd been working on. I was waking up every morning with numb hands. I desperately wanted a new challenge. I cried every day. If I walked away from this work, who would I be? I couldn't see any other story to tell about myself. I can not claim to be a farmer if I am not active in the field. At the same time, I see now, farming, like writing, influences how I experience the world and what I care about. The physical labor with its just fruits is only one element. I've also learned a way of observing from farming, a close eye for "the gleam of particulars" as poet Naomi Shihab Nye puts it.

I recently applied for a farming position with a local high school. In writing about my experiences in my cover letter, I wondered about the web presence of the farm I built with Arturo and what these potential employers might discover online. I found the website for the farm which Arturo has turned into a collective. There is no mention of my contribution. I have been edited out of the history of Sol Colibri. I felt a shot of anger. I took most of the pictures on the site. I created the logo. So much heart felt labor after so many years of my life. Slowly the anger calmed to contemplation. Does this really matter? Ego says yes. Does it really matter? Not really. In fact, it's interesting. Look closely at what we choose to tell or not tell. Look closely at how attached I am to the stories I tell about myself. In the end, I am a writer through it all, composing lines, deleting lines, in constant effort to tell a good story. I am a farmer, let me tell you, and I am not a farmer, as I sit here at my computer with soft hands, crafting this post.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Paradox of Storytelling

Recently, I attended a dharma talk and meditation led by Steve Armstrong, in which he talked a lot about story: noticing the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, how clinging to our story can cause us suffering, learning to let go of our story. As a good Buddhist, I knew what he meant, but as a writer and storyteller, I found myself analyzing and questioning whether I fully agreed with what he was saying and how I might articulate a more balanced point of view.

Here's the thing: meditators train themselves in awareness. We train ourselves to be mindful of our breath, our thoughts, sensations, feelings, emotions-- whatever comes in and out of our awareness continuously throughout the day. When we are meditating and we notice that another thought-- or more like train of thoughts-- has been passing through our mind, we just note that our minds have once again drifted and come back to our awareness of the breath. We train ourselves to come back to the present moment, and to let go of the constant storyline-- what to do tomorrow, how it went yesterday, what we want to eat for dinner, how annoying that person is, why we are so stupid. Anyone who has ever tried to sit quietly and pay attention to their breath for even five minutes can attest to how hard it is not to think. We are constantly thinking without even realizing it, our minds are on auto-pilot, and most of the time-- if we pay attention-- we will see that our thinking follows certain patterns or storylines-- notably some version of the "I'm not good enough" storyline seems to be a popular one in our culture.

Writing is also a form of awareness training. Through the act of writing (or wanting to write) most of us naturally begin to pay closer attention to everything around us-- people, dialogue, colors, stories. We are constantly on the lookout--whether consciously or unconsciously-- for new seeds, new ideas, new beginnings of new pieces. We learn to notice the small details of our lives. And as we write, we learn to follow our stream-of-conscious thoughts and eventually enter that Zen state of writing-- where we are not thinking or plotting but instead, we are so in the zone that one word effortlessly follows the next and we are no longer in control of our words. It' s almost like channeling-- we allow ourselves to become so empty and open that the words and ideas can pour out and surprise us.

What I'm getting at is quite simple: both meditation and writing can both be forms of awareness practice, and a form of emptying out. With sitting meditation, we are letting go of thoughts, and with writing, we are following them. One is an inward practice, the other is outward and expressive. One dissolves, the other holds forth. Depending on how you look at it, they are either radically different practices or very much the same. It's paradoxical of course-- both are true.

Personally, I need them both. I value the little experience I've had sitting quietly for hours in retreats, and the knowledge that, yes, eventually, I can experience brief moments of nothingness-- no thoughts, no anxiety, no personality, just the peace of being, open, aware, alive. These moments are priceless, and I still consider myself a complete novice when it comes to truly reaping the benefits of such a practice (the longest I ever meditated daily was for one month while I was attending Rodney Smith's beginning class with SIMS- Seattle Insight Meditation-- invaluable; I would recommend it to almost anyone, regardless of your affinity towards Buddhism or spiritual beliefs). BUT, I am primarily and unabashedly a writer, a storyteller, someone who spends hours, months, years of my life exploring, contemplating, and unraveling my own experiences.

I write stories so I can relive experiences and fully understand their impact. I write stories so that I can better understand my relationship to specific places, people, and periods of my life. I write stories to celebrate, to mourn, to pay tribute, to grieve. So much happens in our lives and rarely do we have the time to pay enough attention as it is happening. So much happens, and before we know it, we are already moving on to the next great adventure, hardship, struggle, romance, loss. Through writing I learn to slow down, to pay closer attention, to not let things slip by unnoticed. To listen when a tug of the heart of a flash of an image tells me: write this down. This story needs to be written.

So here's the crux: we need our stories. Not the old, often-triggered, and unexamined stories, but the stories that we've truly taken the time to recall and lay out with full disclosure, without censoring to make ourselves look better, the stories we offer to ourselves and to others with full transparency and acceptance of the roles that we've played. We are never just helpless victims, nor are we ever just evil aggressors. There is always some kind of balance at play, a balance of being acted upon and acting out, simultaneously being affected by the world and affecting the world, absorbing and expressing. Yes, sometimes hard and ugly truths need to come out, but ultimately, we expose these in an effort towards healing, so those truths-- no longer unexamined and thus hidden-- no longer need to shame us. We look closely at ourselves, so that we can let go of old images of self. Again, it's a paradox. The more closely we have examined our stories, the more we can recognize them as just that-- stories. Not hardened, unchangeable definitions of who we are and will always be. But versions of who we once were, a gradual shifting continuum.

Ultimately, I knew I was on the same page as Steve (the dharma teacher), when he said something about mindfulness practice (i.e. meditation) being akin to the practice of grieving skillfully. In both storytelling and meditation, we learn to watch and listen as things arise and fall away, arise and fall away... we learn to mourn the passage of all these thoughts and people and stories. We pay attention, we see things for what they are, and we see how everything is constantly changing, birthing, dying, passing. We are alive, yet one day we will die. The only proper response is to love and to grieve. To honor this passage and to learn to let go of old stories that we no longer need to hold onto. To know that each time we learn to tell a story right-- to to reach that place where when we read or speak the story our hearts resonate with recognition as if we have finally articulated something we've always known inside -- then we are able to let go that story, to grieve its passage, our passage, into this new moment, and new life.


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