I have been thirsty for silence. Silence like seltzer from a just-cracked can, the fizz stinging the tongue on its way towards the long glug. Like a steaming shower on jittery limbs. Like when you’ve just gotten out of the ocean with tentacled hair clinging to pink shoulders, and you reach for a sun-squashed, sand-battered plastic water bottle, and the warm water tastes syrupy-sweet, and you realize that water has had flavor this whole time. Thirsty.
Farming is a great job for auditory learners and lovers of podcasts and audiobooks. You weed, or prune apple trees, or crouch and bend and reach in the multi-hour picking of blueberries, and your headphones or speaker keep your mind occupied alongside your moving hands. Usually, this is a thing I especially treasure about this work: it uniquely allows me to move my body and digest interesting information at the same time.
But this farming season, I’ve been so, so thirsty. Often, I try pressing play on a podcast episode, and within minutes, my body says “No.” Something clenches and closes in my chest. The talk is too much. Or is cluttering something sacred that’s happening between me and the present moment, or between me and me.
My podcast queue piles higher and higher, and Lauren plugs in her headphones to listen alone, as I keep thinking, Not right now. Right now, I just need breeze and birds and breath. Like I’m trying to hear what my own mind has to say, and to follow its strange, sideways wanders with more attention. Like I’m also in communion with the blueberries and apple trees.
Mama Nay whistles, clucks, and chuckles with a wink. From every direction, there’s a pssst with something precious on the other side. I don’t want to miss it. I need it to soften me.
A few weeks ago at a small event, I was sitting around an outdoor table with a handful of people when this one person, a stranger, started saying some blatantly racist bullshit. Jaws hung and clenched, hung and clenched, but nobody interrupted.
(A few days ago, I was cleaning the goat barn, and I met eyes with a hen who had perched herself in one of the hay boxes. Her waddle pulsed as her beak bounced slightly, but no sound came out, like her vocal chords were broken. She might have been doing that for the whole half-hour, trying and failing to shoo me away from her egg-laying perch with her desperate but silent clucks of no, no, no.)
There are all sorts of reasons why nobody spoke up. I’ll name mine: I didn’t know the person the way other people in the circle did, so I assumed they’d speak up first. I recognized that the person’s racist perspective was complicated by their own marginalized identity. The talking was fast, with barely an inhale as a moment of potential intervention, and the tangent veered suddenly in a different direction before my own mouth could manage to form words of response. I was shocked. And I didn’t feel safe.
But there are always reasons.
Later, in a follow-up conversation, the rest of us processed. We set boundaries and discussed best steps forward. But I keep thinking about how I couldn’t manage to interrupt in the actual moment. As if I don’t know how to interrupt. As if it would have been so hard to say, “No. You can’t do that here.”
Am I even telling this story right? I’ve gone over it five, six, seven times. Am I being too precious? Too protective?
Did I make myself look bad? Did I make myself look too good? What about everyone else?
Is the story too complicated to tell in typed words, or far simpler than I’ve made it out to be? Should it be told at all?
Last summer in Los Angeles, just before the last time I came to visit the farm, I got in a fight with my barista.
We bumbled into each other on the street one night, outside a bar that was sprawling lazily and loopily onto the sidewalk. I was on my way home from drinks with a friend down the block, and he was stepping out for a cigarette.
After a surprised, “Woah, hey,” I asked him something about the cafe where he worked, which was one of my near-daily go-to spots for long stints of freelancing via laptop. I learned that he was also the manager there. He asked me how I liked living in Silverlake, because I told him I was new to the neighborhood. I said something about how I liked it a lot — I loved its edgy fashion and rainbow flags and vegan brunch, and my favorite tu-no melt on the planet was just a few storefronts down, with the tiny bouquets on every table — but how I was troubled by what felt to me like an overwhelmingly white facade to this progressive quirkiness. I was part of the problem.
What proceeded was a tense discourse in which this man — this white man with a well-groomed beard and a hand-rolled cigarette between his fingers, with a wry sense of humor and an established expertise on espresso — told me that gentrification is not a real concern and white privilege is not a thing, or if it is, it’s not his problem, not something he thinks about when making hiring decisions or contemplating the role of his business in the local community. He also said something about how it’s futile to attempt change, so fuck it, we should just have fun.
I was livid. And loud. I tried debating him rationally, then emotionally. I most definitely yelled. He interrupted all my sentences, which were probably easy to interrupt, since they were as scattered as fireworks.
Eventually, I marched towards home, steaming. The noise from the main strip of Sunset Boulevard hushed as I climbed the steep side streets, which were all stillness and shadows. A few meters from my house, I hurled my keychain at the ground and heard the car key split apart as it hit asphalt. I crawled around on hands and knees to pick up the pieces.
I felt hot for hours after, and thirsty, so thirsty for something I couldn’t access.
I never went back to that cafe — the ultimate silent treatment, maybe. It was a statement made with my silence (and the withdrawal of my money), though I realize now that I could and should have done better. That was provocation, not transformation. The latter is much slower work. It requires more listening.
Whether by nature or nurture, I’m generally conflict-averse, or I used to think I was. I’m continuously learning to challenge and oppose — not just in writing, but in unedited, spontaneous speech, which is much harder for me. The first few times, I had no idea how to assert myself without shattering.
Confrontation in a group context, rather than one on one, is harder still. People are watching. What if I mess up and they witness it? What if I make myself wronger than the person who said the first wrong thing?
If no one else is saying anything, am I not hearing straight in the first place? Or are we all gaslighting each other with our fear of looking stupid or sensitive or incorrect?
I keep coming back to this list of characteristics of white supremacy culture from Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun. The list includes a fear of open conflict: white supremacy glorifies “politeness” and condemns those who voice problems for causing discomfort, rather than examining the problems themselves. It also includes perfectionism, with a tendency to see mistakes as personal and to equate doing wrong with being wrong.
I also keep coming back to something I heard Brene Brown say on a recent podcast episode, which is this phrase she repeats to herself when she’s called out for a mistake (i.e. an accidental racist statement) and catches herself reaching for defensiveness (which also appears on the aforementioned list): I’m here to get it right, I’m not here to be right. I’m here to get it right, I’m not here to be right.
I guess sometimes getting it right means being wrong, and recovering. Sometimes getting it right means shutting up, and sometimes it means opening up. Sometimes we can do wrong and still be right. It’s complicated. We have to soften ourselves to what’s complicated, so we can hear the nuance.
The spread: there were purple-top turnips that I cut into rounds and baked until the edges curled and crisped like chips. To dip them in, Lauren made a big bowl of velvety baba ganoush, but with broiled zucchini — two mammoth zucchinis that crackled in our small countertop oven in multiple batches while we processed coriander in the barn — instead of eggplant. I seared broccoli and green beans on a skillet, then dappled the platter with black sesame seeds, imperfectly minced chives, delicate flames of calendula petals, and sweet, salty bits of sautéed garlic. Micha plated an exquisite salad of leaf-thin cucumber slices and peaches (a trade from the neighbors, in exchange for blueberries), with lemon verbena leaves as confetti. She also roasted onions and tomatoes and served them straight from the sheet pan, the metal heavy with the big mess of them, collapsed in their own juice, but charred in all the right spots. And there was a mason jar of homemade zhoug, green like joy.
Once our plates were piled with the cacophony of spice and sauce and muddled color, we started discussing the different tones to last week’s Democratic National Convention speeches. We got to talking about the balance between hope and cynicism. Where do we fall on the spectrum, Micha asked?
Lauren said she’d been cynical as a kid and reflected on how easily cynicism can become a personality and a point of pride. And it’s fun, Micha added, and we all nodded and yes’ed, because it is — it can feel clever and snappy and smart. It’s a thing of quick zings. It’s a joke rooted in hard truth that can stunt the pain of uncertainty. It’s fun.
(It’s futile to attempt change, so fuck it, we should just have fun.)
But as I’ve gotten older, Lauren continued, I’ve realized that cynicism isn’t smart or impressive. It’s just the easy choice, and less interesting. There’s no complexity to it. To choose hope is to choose the harder route, to feel things more fully, to actually engage.
We all nodded and yes’ed again, but a little softer.
I said that I almost feel like I’ve gone through the opposite process. As a kid, I think I too easily turned to simple hope. The flat kind. As I get older, I’m learning to allow for a little bit of cynicism — no, not quite cynicism, but skepticism. I’m learning to question and critique more harshly, to say things that are harder to hear instead of trying to placate everyone around me with a treacherous sort of soothing ease. In doing so, I’m molding the same kind of hope that Lauren was talking about: hope that’s receptive to conflict and discomfort, and that focuses on healing what it can.
Hope thrives on a small, local scale, I think. Sometimes, accessing hope just requires reducing the scale of the problem. It looks hopeless until you hone in: this plot of soil, this coffeeshop, this community meeting. This, that we can see, smell, touch, hear — this, we can work on.
We started talking about how hope begets solutions, while cynicism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I looked at Dan and Micha across the table, and at Lauren next to me, and out the window at the flower garden, at the rogue chicken pecking for bugs in the grass, at all the hand-built, hand-sown beds of vegetables we were now eating for dinner, at the ancient oak tree with its acorn-pimpled limbs unfurled for shade. At the things hope can make happen.
This was an essay about speaking up and staying silent, but I guess now it’s an essay about hope. Hope does that. It interrupts and asserts itself when we listen.
Maybe we can nourish hope in silence, because in silence, there’s attentiveness. There’s presence, and with presence, possibility. Maybe that’s why I’ve been craving it so bad. I’ve been doing so much thinking, so much writing and talking, so much reading and digesting, so much learning, so much, there is so much, so much to make one scared and sad and cynical. Maybe hope comes in with the breath.
But hope needs voicing, too. Hope can be the voice that says, “yes, we can,” but it can also be the voice that says, “no.” No, you can’t do that here. No, we can’t let things be this way. No, we deserve better than this. It’s the brave boundary, built on belief in better.
Monday had been too packed. I was slammed with an unexpected freelance assignment that morning, which I crammed into the small spaces before and between and after the farming hours. By 8pm, when I finished, my back and neck were double-sore — first from pruning pear trees, and then from hunching over my laptop, with no real moments of rest or recovery in between. I was frustrated and grumpy. My cheeks were hot.
For half an hour after, I just walked swirls around the farm. I watched the light shift like melting butter on the lace of evergreen trees that border the property. A wild turkey gobbled somewhere, and a cat meowed as it threaded through my legs, and a dog whined — to acknowledge, to be acknowledged.
I moved slowly down the long driveway. The Queen Anne’s Lace bobbed and bowed as I passed. The breeze trickled through the tall grasses, harmonizing with the textured hums of crickets and katydids, and I smelled the honeyed hay and crushed blackberries that the day’s sun had baked into the air. It felt like fabric on my bare, dirt-crumbed legs.
Back in the front yard, I laid down, spread like a snow angel, so I could watch the swallows ice skate on sky. This is their pre-bed ritual, and a delightfully noisy one, all chirps like cheers. I don’t usually pause to bear witness. It was a perfect performance, begun and ended in ten exuberant minutes.
Breeze, birds, breath. Something quenched. Something softened, to make space.