blank journals.

When I was a kid I loved journals. My mother often took me and my brothers to the local bookstore and I would sneak over to the isles of fancy notebooks while my brothers picked out picture books, or more often, played with the trains. Gingerly running my fingers over their leather spines I imagined how it would feel to fill their textured pages with my words, thoughts and feelings.

Eventually my mom caught on and over several Christmases and birthdays I amassed a small collection of them – some leather, some embroidered, some enveloped with amazing photography. I treasured the books for years, but I never wrote in them.

Occasionally, I sat down with a pen and opened one. I explored the distinct coolness of its cover and the grains of its pages. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to write, imagining it unfolding across the page; then I put my pen down, shelved the book, and headed outside to play.

That was during my preteen years. Those years after blissful, naive childhood but before the grueling, time-consuming academics of high school. It was a time when I could still afford to be creative but was starting to forget how.

Children are born with unapologetic creativity. The kind of “creativity” I am talking about is the kind that strives to understand the world through engaging all six senses and a curiosity that doesn’t know the meaning of embarrassment. Kids dance, play, sing, draw, paint, without any reserve. I was definitely a good example. But there comes a time in a child’s education where the capacity for undisciplined creativity is lost. For me, I encountered that transition at the end of elementary school – when the concepts of perfection and order were introduced. By the end of middle school, raw and unrestrained creativity was all but shut out of my learning. There was no longer room for self expression, and more importantly, no more room for failure.

When I opened those journals I had an idea in my head of what the final product would look like; my handwriting, the format, the substance of my words. In those instances where the pen hovered over the paper the pressure of my own expectations frightened me. On the rare instances when I actually wrote something I never made it more than a few pages; I lost the pen I was using, I forgot the correct heading format, the words I was writing felt all wrong, or even, sometimes, I simply made a spelling mistake. No matter what the project and situation was, if it was no longer perfect, I abandoned it.

Sometimes I wonder if our education system is teaching children that perfection should be revered while failure should be condemned. This setup leaves no room for creative thinking or exploratory learning; in fact, it punishes children for these actions unless they happen to achieve perfection on the first try. For me, the lesson that failure is unacceptable seeped so deep into my world that it began to affect even the most private area of my life – personal journaling. If I couldn’t be creative there then I couldn’t be creative anywhere. I was setting myself up to live a life of constant personal disappointment.

Ultimately, I got extremely lucky. I landed several amazing, unconventional, teachers during those crucial years. In high school I joined a community theater, a place dedicated to reteaching children and young adults how to express themselves. While there, I forgot the stifling expectations of an accelerated high school experience by reminding myself daily that failure is the mode by which you discover who you are and how you learn.

But not all children will have the opportunities I had or be exposed to the same experiences. I don’t know what the answer is, or really how to define the problem, but it is something that merits attention. First of all, we can’t sustain a society on a fear of failure because it implies fears of experimentation and innovation which are the base of all positive change and problem solving. But almost more importantly, raw creativity and the exploration of self-expression are the two most beautiful ways to experience life, and no child should ever, ever be afraid of them.

what we all hope for.

The last week of strawberry season I worked the stand by myself most days. One particularly hot and slow day there were only a handful of people in the fields, one was an older couple that I couldn’t help but watch. They had brought buckets upon buckets to fill, the woman asserting that she aimed to make 100 jars of jam; “It’s an all day affair,” she confided. Through the early afternoon their laughs rang across the still fields like a pair of perfectly harmonized song birds.

The man came with his third round of strawberries. He set it on the table, breathing heavily and leaning on the table slightly. As I weighed up the flat and added it to their ever growing list he asked me about our raspberry fields. I repeated my well practiced speech on why we weren’t opening them for U-Pick this year.

“You know,” he said as I handed him his berries, “Black raspberries are so much better than red ones anyways.” He leaned closer and lowered his tone, “We used to have a ton of bushes but she made me cut them down, you know, so she could have a lawn.”

“I needed space for a garden,” his wife asserted, appearing out of nowhere, visibly affronted.

He jumped in surprise and turned towards her. They locked gaze for a few long seconds, his eyes narrowed, her eyebrows raised. Then he grunted in her general direction, and scuffled back towards the truck with his flat.

She signed and turned to me, “You know, we’ve only been married 35 years.”

I laughed, “I can tell.”

Her face fell and she looked flustered, “No I mean we’re best friends.”

“That’s what I can tell.”

Glancing off towards the truck where her husband was loading the berries, her face softened and her eyes took on a brighter shade of green. “My heart still leaps when I see him when I’m not supposed to… well, you know, when he surprises me.”

She returned to the present and realized she was talking out loud. A bit embarrassed, she grinned sheepishly and turned towards the fields. As she walked away I muttered to myself as much as to her, “That’s how it should be, what we all hope for.”

sweet, sticky red.

strawberries

The end of June drowns in a chaotic sea of sweet, sticky red. The beginning of strawberry season means the end of everything else – forget laundry, forget friends, forget sleep. This sensual berry seems to celebrate the end of school, feed the excitement of July 4th, fend away cold days and lure the sun closer to the earth. People flood any open U-Pick fields, terrified of missing the most fleeting but sweetest aspect of the summer months. For strawberry farmers, or more accurately strawberry servants, hours, days and weeks are lost to the berry’s conceited demands. To make matters more stressful, it marks the arrival of half the other harvests. Peas, beans, potatoes, zucchini, squash and cucumber roll in as though seduced by the strawberry’s grace; a grace not lost on humans as they spend hours bent in uncomfortable positions, in the scalding hot sun, laboring for the chance to preserve the strawberry’s romance, its embodiment of summer beauty, for the cold, dark, winter months. It is little wonder that the strawberry is the fruit of choice in Hardy’s foreshadowing of Tess’s sexual experiences in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

Yet, as with all seasons, the strawberry must dwindle in numbers. As the berry season relaxes so does summer. The heat settles in and the world adjusts to it. July 4th wraps up and the neighbors finally stop setting off fireworks. The buzz attributed to the beginning of summer subsides to a low hum. The chaos of the season in the fields dissipates and the fields become quiet and still. It is a time for reflection and recovery. The berries, once overflowing unbridled in the fields, now instigate a therapeutic game of hide-and-seek with the pickers.

Then, in the calm, hot, dead of summer, they disappear; they recede into memory until the labor they demanded is forgotten and overtaken completely by the tortuous memory of their allure.

Pictures taken from the Fairwinds Farm Facebook Page! Check out the website here too. 

sperry enlightening.

I swore to myself and slammed the refrigerator door in the middle of my dessert selection process. I forgot to feed the pigs. It was getting dark and starting to rain. I tossed aside my daily sandals, rain in mind, and grabbed my old Sperrys from the back of the closet. I pulled them on as I hopped out the door and headed for the wooded path to the pen. My bare feet slide into the leather shoes – instantly, a wave of familiarity flooded through me.

My Sperrys are old and falling apart: the soles are smooth with use, the leather wearing, the stitching has even unraveled on one of them. To be honest they aren’t even real Sperrys. I never wanted boat shoes, but when my Birkenstocks fell apart the Goodwill Sperry mimics in our spare closet were my only immediate option. The shoes have been loved despite my aversion toward them.

The next two years of my life are etched in their wear and tear – winters and summers both. I never did buy new shoes. When I went to Tanzania I regretfully closeted them. Bringing them wasn’t practical. Six months later, hurrying to do chores, I slipped them on absentmindedly. Unknowingly, I slipped on more than shoes. I slipped on a version of myself I had forgotten – a self from six months ago that I suddenly understood is no longer me.

Senses have a way of stirring up old memories you forget you have. Usually it is smell that triggers mine; every person, place and thing has a specific aroma I will always remember. But when I slipped my Sperrys on I experienced the same sensation through touch: my feet tingled with an acute awareness long forgotten. The memory I conjured wasn’t a thought, perception or attitude. It was the memory of a feeling. I simply relived how it felt to be me before I went abroad; a mixture of anxiety, insecurity, pride and love.

When I got back to America I wrote a multitude of journal entries, spent hours reflecting, experienced countless epiphanies – all that normal cultural transition stuff. Yet, it took a pair of shoes for me to understand. My Sperrys showed me exactly how Africa changed me: for just a few seconds I became who I had been, as a result I learned who I have become.

the much loved Sperrys on vacation at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival last summer.

the much loved Sperrys on vacation at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival last summer.

hoeing through history.

I was assigned to weed the squash field with my coworker Ana. The rest of the crew had gone to another of the farm’s properties. Once the roar of the rototiller died down it was near silent. No machinery, no cars, no people talking. We hoed in silence as we listened to the wind, the birds and the river flowing nearby.

We weeded for three hours. A repetitive motion like that leaves space for the mind to wander. I found myself thinking about hoeing (and not the selling my body kind, stop that). First I noticed how my body seemed to be built for the motion – the bend of my knees, the strength of my back, the continuous fluid movement of my arms.

Then, after a few hours, my upper back muscles started to protest softly, irritated with the strain. It occurred to me that this pain, the soreness of my muscles from tending the soil, is an ancient pain. It is a soreness that people from pasts forgotten, cultures I have never heard of, felt too. Centuries of people cultivated food using the same motion I use every day at my job. Centuries of people went to bed with the same sore bodies. And centuries of people consumed the harvests their labor sowed.

The hoe is an ancient technology mentioned in documents that go back to 18th century BC, such as the Code of Hammurabi (a Babylonian law code). They were probably preceded only by the digging stick and originally made from flinted stones and simple metal work.

I am fascinated by the realization that despite centuries of innovation here I am, still hoeing, every day. It’s a humbling realization, and a humanizing one. Through the simple motion of breaking the ground I can relate to the centuries of people who inhabited this planet before I did. I am reminded that future generations will most likely do the same. And despite any differences between people then, now and in the future – food is the inescapable thread that binds us.

 

quack cracked.

duck eggThe other day at the farm my coworker turned to me and asked if I wanted duck eggs. Um yeah. Apparently his ducks were producing so many he didn’t know what to do with them.

Duck eggs are the single best kept secret in all of food. That or I live under a rock. I also might be exaggerating a little bit, but really, I was that surprised. They are huge, cool colors, a project to crack and have more flavor than any chicken egg I have ever eaten (farm fresh or otherwise). I cracked the first one on to the frying pan and stared at in awe as the hugest yolk I have ever seen slid out of the shell. I don’t even like fried eggs usually and I ate it just as it was, and it was amazing.

I just looked them up, as I’m sure you could do, but to save you the time I collected a little information on them. First, as you can imagine, the huge yolk adds to the nutritional value as well as the fat content of the egg. duck eggs contain one-third more calcium than chicken eggs, fives time the about of B-vitamins, three time as much iron, twice as much Vitamin A and folate, as well as more protein selenium and potassium. However, they also contain about one whole day’s worth of Cholersterol… if you worry about that kind of thing.

For me, despite my love for chicken eggs, the duck eggs might win the battle, they’re more delicious, healthy, and filling. When I have my own place I will most certainly have ducks. Then maybe I can be an official employee of the farm, considering all of my fellow coworkers have them… who knew!?

Oh and one last thing – substitute one duck egg for two chicken eggs in any baking project and you will be blown out of the water (best kept chef’s secret, seriously).

tick tock.

I work in a supermarket deli.
I was bagging the daily bread delivery. It was early in the morning on a Sunday, few people were in the store. The scale beeped away and spit out tags at me. I slapped them on the bread bags while I chatted amiably with my morning coworkers, one of my favorite crews to work with. I glanced up at the clock, 9:00 am. I’ve really only been here an hour?

I work on a farm.
I was kneeling in the fields. My un-sunscreened shoulders protested in the glare. Three of us labored away, fighting a small war with the weeds that threatened to overtake the lettuce. We had been weeding since after we finished transplanting the tomato plants, whenever that was. One of us asked if anyone had a watch, complaining of hunger. We looked around and each shook our heads. The we joked, looking at the sun and determining it was oh, probably 11:15?  Just as we put our heads back down to the task at hand the others drove up in the truck. “Hey!” they yelled from the vehicle, “You guys gonna work through lunch?” Jeesh, 12pm came fast. 

There is one major difference between my two jobs. It isn’t the location, or the kind of work, or the people I work with. It is the presence of a clock.

Time is everywhere. It is on our wrists, in our cars, in our phones, on our microwaves and walls. We watch time with anxiety. No matter where we are or what we are doing we almost always want it to go faster. We impatiently watch the seconds pass as we work, as we hang out with friends, as we do errands, as we work out, as we go to events and do hobbies. We constantly live in the future. It doesn’t matter what we are doing or how much we enjoy it, we are always anxious to get on to the next thing. A day’s success is based  on how much stuff we get done in the hours we are given. The quality of the activity done in those hours rarely matters more than the quantity; and it definitely doesn’t matter whether or not we enjoyed what we did. Its only output, output, output.

I love both my jobs. There is rarely a day when I leave complaining that I wish I hadn’t come in. Yet, at the supermarket, just like most places, there is a clock in my face the whole day. Do I look at it? Of course I do. How could I not? Regardless of how well a shift is going, how content I am to be there, the presence of the clock always makes me feel like I should be somewhere else, like I should be anxious for the shift to end so I can get on to the next thing. In contrast, the farm fields are one of the few places I have found that provide refuge from time. I get to work at 8. I leave my phone in the car. My boss finds me when it’s lunch time. It is a comfort realizing that when I am done I will be done, how much time has passed and how much time remain are irrelevant. Instead of watching the clock I watch the landscape. I feel sunlight move, I watch the sky change, I feel the moisture in the soil change with the heat of the day.

Be where you are when you’re there – you’ll enjoy it more, no matter what it is. Get rid of daily expectations. When we let go of time, when we let go of productivity, we can relax, be present and allow ourselves to indulge in the moment.

note: transitioning.

Hey everyone!

So this blog post is the last to conclude my blog about Tanzania and the first to begin my blog for the summer. Before I get into that, however, I want to thank each and every person who followed me through my experience. I know I have said this a million times but keeping my blog was an amazing way for me to process my trip and maintain my emotional stability, but truthfully it meant even more because I realized people actually cared to listen. So thank you for reading, commenting and asking me questions – it far beyond exceeded any expectations I had for this project.

On that note, since I enjoyed the blogging experience and want to continue honing my writing skills I have decided to continue this website but section off into a new blog, one I am calling “cultivation.” The title is meant to embody two parts of my summer, first, the amount of time I will spend literally cultivating on a small scale farm in Bowdoinham, Maine; second, what I will personally undergo this summer as I transition back into America and realize exactly what I experienced in Tanzania, therefore cultivating a new perception of the world for myself.

I understand completely if you signed up to get email notifications for the duration of my trip and do not wish to continue receiving emails from me. If that is the case I promise I won’t be offended! Honestly, I have no idea how to reverse it but if there is no option for you do so yourself then let me know and I will see what I can do to get you off my email list. Trust me, I won’t be peeved – I probably hate automatic emails more than you do.

Again, thanks everyone so much. I hope you will enjoy my new blog as much as I plan to enjoy keeping it.

Best,

emily

being mzungu.

I had only been in Tanzania for a week, everything was new – Swahili, Catholicism, the colorful patterns of women’s kangas and kitangas, and most of all the staring. As we joined the migration to the church I was uncomfortably aware of the glances, the giggles and the blatant stares. During the service I tried my best not to notice the turned heads. A little boy, no more than two years old, sat in front of me. He continuously shifted to look at me, wearing a blank expression. I made faces in an attempt to get a reaction out of him but he just stared intently. Then, half way through the sermon, he reached out and grabbed my hand. It wasn’t a gesture of acceptance or appreciation but rather one of a quizzical nature. He took my large white hand in his little black one and turned it over, again and again, grabbing at my skin in confusion.

I’m not African. This I knew from the beginning. I’m a mzungu, through and through. There is no fooling anyone. Despite this knowledge, when I first arrived in Africa, I found myself hyper-aware of my skin. I wasn’t used to standing out, to being different. I was uncomfortable going places with lots of other students and nervous about speaking Swahili. I cringed when kids screamed “jambo” and “mzungu” at me from inside their houses. The first time I met the Maasai a teenage boy asked me for money, when I told him I didn’t have any he replied, “but you’re a mzungu.” I didn’t want to be American. I didn’t want to be perceived as rich and oblivious. I was uncomfortable in my own skin. I wanted to blend in.

As the semester progressed I adjusted to being different. I stopped noticing the stares. I learned to return the sass. Learning Swahili and making African friends helped this transition immensely. I quickly fell in love with Tanzania, with the culture. I learned quickly that knowing Swahili earns you immediate respect and vowed to learn as much of it as I could. I spent increasing amounts of time playing cards, cooking, talking and playing soccer with new friends from town and the staff. I learned about Tanzanian culture, about how people treat each other and how they perceive the world.

My love for Tanzanian culture quickly turned in to jealously. I became frustrated with being American. I felt like I was on the outskirts looking in on a community more intricate than I could understand. My African friends make up a group built on appreciation, love, support and kindness. Everything people do is based around the needs of others. It is a community structure I hungered for, a way of life I wanted to adopt. I was fascinated by the concept of having a tribe as part of your identity. The hardest part of the semester was realizing that no matter how much I wanted to I couldn’t be a part of it, not truly. Instead of wanting to blend in I found myself wanting to fit in, but because I am American I felt this could never be achieved.

Then things started to change. First I started to miss my family. My whole family. I started calling my parents more, I reread letters from my grandparents over and over, I talked to my baby cousins on the phone, I started chatting with my brothers online. Then I started talking about them, all the time. When it was my night to present something about myself I chose to present about my family, showing pictures I hadn’t looked at in years. Then I started talking about Maine. I missed the ocean, the forest, running, swimming. I spent hours showing pictures of my home to my friends, African and American. Finally, I started talking about American culture. I found myself explaining why we shave our legs, why we have factory farming, what organic is, how our school systems work, what folk music is, why we run. The funny thing was, despite how absurd half my explanations sounded and the number of times I said “America ni kicha,” America is crazy, I found myself speaking with a tone of endearment.

America might not be perfect, but it’s mine, it’s who I am. In Tanzanian culture you are not only an individual but part of a tribe, part of a team. There are traditions and values that you are born into, that you willing surrender control over. This group identity gives Africans self confidence and strong senses of identity. In western culture this concept seems constraining, controlling. Yet, I wonder if the western idea of individualism has lead to a higher prevalence of insecurity among our people. If you are ashamed of your past you are ashamed of yourself. During this semester I learned not only how to accept who I am and where I came from but how to embrace it. The culture I come from is not only a part of my past but a part of who I am in a way I can never change whether I like it or not. I learned to recognize it and revel in it, to be proud of everything that has made me, me. Because of this I know I can now fit in anywhere even if I can’t always blend in.