At the beginning of September, I set off on a new adventure: I’m traveling around the country over the coming months, living and volunteering on a variety of small-scale organic farms through WWOOF. This essay is about my first stop: Shannon Farm in Afton, Virginia.
It was that one August week in Brooklyn when the lumpy bags of trash stewed and steamed on the sidewalks, when the sirens spooned the thick air like pudding, when everything and everyone dripped. I was subletting a friend’s apartment for a 12-day stay, and the place had air conditioning, plus a dishwasher — transformative luxuries I never experienced in my own Brooklyn abodes over the past three years. In this city, extra layers of sweat and suds and soggy skin had always seemed inevitable.
I arrive at my childhood home in Maryland for a two-week visit at the same time as a sinkhole starts stewing in the street outside the house, eking pools of yellow-green murk into the gutter. The sanitation department sends its team of night workers one weekday evening, and at 9pm, they upturn the earth with noisy trucks and tools, seeking the source of the leak so they can sew it back together again.
We’re forbidden from turning on our faucets while they toy with the pipes, so my dad drives to the store to buy plastic bottles of water. Dirty dinner dishes are left to languish in perilous piles in the sink.
Later, we assemble on the couch, attempting to relax: my younger sister here for the summer in between two years of grad school, my parents, and me, with our senile dog whining angstily around us. Our family tree is temporarily replanted, but with the surrounding ground rumbling and crumbling and caving in.
Every so often, we take turns traipsing barefoot into the front yard, asking questions. The construction men just keep saying, “Soon.” Still, we peek out the blinds at the trucks and bulldozers and deep holes in the gravel and grass. It reminds me of the way New Yorkers — myself included — tend to stand at the edges of subway platforms and crane impatient heads down the tunnels to look for the lights of an emerging train. Rationally, we know we’re going to have to wait several more minutes, like the boards say in their red digitized numerals, and we know our yearning can’t force time forward. But that doesn’t stop us from ferreting for some hint, however small, of progress.
I spent the second weekend of July at a yoga retreat. In addition to practicing vinyasas and meditations, we learned some chanting, which is a fancy term for singing Sanskrit phrases whose spellings are unfathomable and meanings incomprehensible. There’s one particular tune that got stuck fluttering between my skull and rib cage, so I Googled the words. Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu: May all beings everywhere be happy and free.
After the retreat, I took a train up to Vermont, where I spent two weeks volunteering at an art and wellness center with a vast organic garden. I wrenched weeds from the soil and greeted glimmering earth worms and bumblebees and gem-winged beetles. I picked blueberries and currants, harvested garlic and oregano, and hauled woodchips up the hill to expand the paths between the different patches where green vines outstretched like giddy limbs.
At the end of each day, I was splotched with dirt, soggy, frizzy-haired, sun-spent — and smiling. Every evening shower was the best shower of my life, even though I was never able to remove the brown grit from underneath my nails. My forearms remain etched with thorn scratches, and there’s a blue bruise on my bicep where I got punctured by a wild rose. My knees got stung by nettles twice over.
Still, while I worked, scattering droplets of sweat like glitter, I couldn’t seem to stop humming that Sanskrit blessing under my breath instinctively. Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu.
“The world is a violent and mercurial — it will have its way with you. We are saved only by love — love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.” – Tennessee Williams
The bedroom had two sunny windows that opened up to a red fire escape. Below stretched a busy sidewalk and a bustling street, like coursing veins between my building and the ones across the way: a deli, a garden store, more apartments. Diagonally down the block, a shiny silver diner’s neon sign blinked silently, its name pulsing in pink cursive.
I planned to position my bed in the corner, next to one window, where I could sit propped against pillows on weekend mornings to sip slices of sky with my coffee. My desk was going to go in front of the other window so I could daydream between scribbling sentences, looking down at the scrambled, scattered currents of anonymous strangers, coming and going while I sat rooted in my chair.
The landlord let me pick the paint color for the kitchen, which had two windows of its own. I chose baby blue. It matched the tiny tiles on the wall behind the sink. There was a deep, wide sill in the bathroom that I imagined propping with potted greenery — a few long-fingered ferns, maybe, with their little leaves lapping up the leftover shower steam.
From the outside, it was nothing special. The front door of the building was pimpled with graffiti, and not the artistic kind — just ugly, aimless scrawls. It sat above an uncharismatic Dunkin’ Donuts. But on the inside, it was perfect. It had the sunlight, the space, the simple abundances I needed. It was the place to replant myself, the way 20somethings must so often do as the seasons shift — as jobs and roommates and rent rates change — in order to continue to grow. It would be the permeable, permutable setting for the next chapter of my story.