If this were any other year, there’s so much I’d want to show you and tell you about. About the first roasted tomatoes of the season, bubbling under their blistered skins, devoured three days in a row for lunch or dinner because why. would anyone. ever. eat anything. else. About the pillow-soft figs, how the cracked and too-tender ones are the sweetest ones. About the sunset that drenched the sky in the same aching amber as the ripening peaches.
I’m two months into my fourth annual stay at Myrtle Glen Farm in southern Oregon, and this time, for the first time, my girlfriend Lauren is here to work with me. I’d want to tell you about that, about her grinning at me from her lopsided perch on the top branches of the Gravenstein apple tree. I’d want to tell you about the snaked patterns on the underbelly of the bark that split from the wood we chopped in the forest, the caterpillar the color of cucumber peels, the walk to the waterfall. The stupid-silly song we created at the dinner table with Dan and Micha, my friends, now also Lauren’s friends, and the owners of this place.
But now it feels…wrong? icky? iffy? to share anything that’s not purposeful.
No, that’s not it. That’s the internalized capitalism, that prioritization of purpose and function.
Last week’s Good Food Jobs newsletter included a list of ways (there are many) that “White dominant culture [controls] the dialogue” around what we consider “successful” or desirable in a professional setting, i.e. “taking personal pride in being obsessively punctual, adhering to tight deadlines, being extroverted, and emphasizing the written word.” All standard job postings seem to make the same request for an “organized self-starter,” don’t they? For the capacity to multi-task and to move at a fast pace?
Of course these qualities might be valuable. But to place them on pedestals is to dismiss the “depth, complexity, wealth of knowledge and richness that comes with different viewpoints and experiences,” as Dorothy and Taylor, the Good Food Jobs co-founders and newsletter writers, said. It is to assume that there’s one right way to work; it is to structure a narrative of professionalism and efficiency that leaves no room for certain sorts of bodies, brains and hearts.
It is to propose that to make a contribution, one must satisfy a checklist that’s been prewritten by…well, by American work culture. By American culture. By culture that’s anchored in capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, and white supremacy, that’s anchored in violence, and that perpetuates that violence on many, many bodies, brains and hearts on micro and macro scales, regularly.
To survive within this culture, we comply with it, which keeps us small, or not quite our true selves, stressed and scrambling. And in choosing our survival, we support the system’s survival. This makes my brain hurt.
It’s not that I don’t believe in agency, but that agency is contingent on access, which is inequitably distributed. It’s not that we don’t manage to do magnificent things within this systemic constriction, but that some of us have a lot more hurdles to jump first.
That more should be magnificent.
On Tuesday morning, we were building compost, which means that Lauren was mowing a chunk of the lawn while I cleaned the goat barn. I used a pitchfork to heave damp, stinky hay into my favorite wheelbarrow, then switched to a wide shovel to lift the lingering scoops of shit from the ground to the mounting pile. The same refrain kept repeating in my head, as the sweat streaked my forehead and the sweet ache settled into my arms: “My body was born for this. My body was born for this.” As I pushed the wobbly wheelbarrow toward the compost bin, “My body was born for this.”
What I meant was, my body was born to move, to move things, to be moved by the weight of the tangible world. To be muddied, soggy, sticky, frizzy, entangled with the tangible ingredients of nature. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve written slightly different variations of that same sentiment in my iPhone notes or journal. It seems revelatory every time it lands on me. Magnificent.
After I dumped two heaping wheelbarrows into the compost bin, I went to get the second lawnmower, so I could help Lauren tackle the grass. We needed two layers of green bits — nitrogen — to balance out the layers of carbon-rich manure, so I could move onto cleaning the next barn stall.
But whatever joyous presence I’d had in my body, I dropped somewhere in the lawn, I guess. Lauren and I got in a fight about mowing. About the most efficient way to mow. This began with my unsolicited delivery of advice, repeated a couple of times, and ended with us pissed at each other, picking blueberries from several meters apart that afternoon because we were both still steamy, still tender. Lauren plugged in her headphones to listen to a podcast; I listened to myself, to the clunky refrains tumbling over and over each other in my head: my way is more efficient, I know what I saw, the job had to get done, my way is more efficient, my way is more efficient, the job had to get done, I was trying to get the job done.
Lauren came up behind me, put her hand on my waist, and I edged myself sideways. “You’re pulling away from me,” she said.
“I’m upset. It takes me a while to bounce back.”
“I haven’t bounced back,” she responded, her eyes glistening. “I haven’t bounced back. I’m just choosing warmth. I can choose warmth because I love you, because I still love you, even when something has happened, even when it’s hard, I can choose to love you with warmth.”
You know what’s efficient? That.
That same Good Food Jobs newsletter also quoted Resmaa Menakem, the psychotherapist and author of My Grandmother’s Hands, which I’ve been chewing my way through slowly over the last month or so. Resmaa talks a lot about how we have to “build culture around abolishing white supremacy.” What he means, as I understand him, is that we can’t destroy racism by reading books. This is, of course, what a lot of us are trying to do: to demolish it with the force of our conscious minds. To just…learn stuff that might make racism go away. And book club discussions aren’t much better, if we’re just talking in circles. We have to take these things out of the safe circles and off the page.
We have to actually investigate the ways that white supremacy thrives in the dim corners of our everyday lives, the ways we unconsciously sustain it through our social norms, our lingo, our memes, our meals. Our assumptions. How we perpetuate it through all the things we don’t have to think through, because they just are who we are and what we do.
Culture is what we have in common. Culture is the trend that’s rooted in a shared belief, is the fad that reflects a known that needs not be explained.
That joke about the pair of fish who don’t know they’re in water, because they swim in it, so they can’t see or feel it? That’s culture. That’s where white supremacy ripples and roots.
This is why I shared this reflection recently about what I saw as the problematic nature of the #womensupportingwomen challenge — more specifically, about the way it unfolded in the U.S., de-contextualizing and distorting its activist roots. We live our stories offline, but Instagram is where we tell them; or, the other way around, Instagram is where we make statements about what we believe to be beautiful and interesting and true, and offline is where we go to nurture these beliefs with action.
It’s a space for shaping our individual and collective autobiographies. It reflects culture, then builds upon it.
I worried about the story that #womensupportingwomen seemed to tell: that white women are quick to co-opt what was never ours, and that we yearn to re-center ourselves. I worried about the values it uplifted, under the guise of shared empowerment: performativeness, egoism, influence. Mostly, I worried about what it revealed about our standard pace: whatever is hot and easy, we spread like wildfire, without taking a moment to contemplate what other growth we might be burning to bits in the process.
Do we know how to do the kind of critical thinking and quiet contemplation that’s the necessary foundation for true culture-changing work? And are we maybe too scared of our discomfort — probably because culture has taught us to numb or avoid shame and mistake and rejection at all costs — to dig into our blind spots, to evaluate what’s painful to evaluate, to rip our ingrained habits from our bones? I worry that change is just too hard for a culture steeped in fear.
It’s all fear, somehow. Fear is why billionaires grip to their billions. Fear is why businesses reopen their doors as a pandemic plows forward, because capitalistic fear is often more powerful than fear of actual death. Fear is so closely linked with greed; it thwarts our capacity for kind, collectively-oriented morality. Fear is also why I created a fight with my girlfriend.
I created a fight with my girlfriend because I didn’t think she was mowing the lawn efficiently enough. In the moment, culture co-opted my body, and I thought I was right, and I thought being right was important. When we abandon our bodies, we forget.
My body was made for this. My body was made for this. My body was made for this. For the blisters, the blackberry bramble scratches, the bites. For lifting and lugging, for moving from barn to compost bin to prep room to orchard to hen house and back again.
My body was made for this, but it seems revelatory every time this truth lands on me because culture never taught this to me. Culture taught me exactly what my privilege as a white, cis, upper middle class person was for: good school, good job…I don’t need to outline this for you.
Manual labor was not in the plan; white supremacy forced the hard work of farming on Black and Brown folks from the very start, valued it at zero dollars for decades and now values it at violently little. White supremacy does this to keep Black and Brown folks small, and it also does this to manipulate white folks like me, to keep me out of it, to keep me “in my place,” competitive, deluded about what really matters.
Using my own two hands to rescue and recover small bits of the land that white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism destroy — that was not in the plan constructed by white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism, either. Duh.
I have had to learn to value what is not valued by capitalism. I’m still learning, but my body isn’t. My body knows. I’m always learning to trust what my body knows, what it senses, what it craves. But white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism — they live in my limbs, too. They are insidious and pernicious. They don’t want to be identified in the smaller, milder ways that keep them alive. I can fight with my girlfriend about the most efficient way to mow the lawn, and I can call it “grumpy,” or I can question where my definition of efficiency stems from, why I’m so attached to it, who it serves. Because it most definitely doesn’t serve me.
At the beginning, I said it feels bad to share anything that’s not purposeful. But what I meant was, it feels bad to share anything that’s not meaningful. That’s not complicated. That’s not carefully contemplated.
But I am still trying to distinguish this — this thoughtful contemplation — from obsessive perfectionism. The goal of slowing down is not to increase the likelihood of being right and being celebrated. (Surprise! Capitalism and white supremacy, trying to slip in again!) It’s just…to be present with the messy process of untangling and uprooting, to feel for the signals of truth I can only sense in my belly or throat in surprising moments, to share what’s nuanced and warm.
Let me tell you about the tomatoes.
Micha had them roasting slowly for hours on Friday, first in the outdoor solar oven that bakes with the mirror-reflected heat of the sun alone, and then in the oven in the house, where they blackened, burst, and oozed sweetness into the pan. The air went thick with smoke as sliced zucchinis sizzled on the griddle, and we leapt, laughing, up onto the counter to reach the “off” button on the fire alarm. I carried handfuls of long beans — a multicolored mix of green, buttery yellow, and purple like royal velvet — from the root cellar to the stovetop and seared them with slices of garlic we just finished processing and curing, then added tamari and sesame oil and rice vinegar with spontaneous abandon before slipping them into a ceramic serving bowl, placed on the table with the rest of the bounty.
And we sat — me, Lauren, Dan, and Micha — and we ate. This was one of so many meals quite literally created with the fruits of our labor and shared as celebration, each bite sandwiched between segments of rich conversation — about cancel culture, social media, the election. About potential comedy-horror movie plot lines and stupid song lyrics.
This daily work feeds, strengthens, and satisfies me in multiple ways at once. It houses me next to a creek, carved out from the forest, with my girlfriend and my dear friends. It is earthly, it is honorable, it is vital. All of this compensation is a brilliant alternative to a regular paycheck; it is radical and transformative. This is a privilege I do not take lightly.
I reached a blistered hand under the table to squeeze Lauren’s leg. The tomato juice dripped down my arm. A bumblebee buzzed past the window, then a hummingbird. The sun set as we all kept sitting, kept talking. It was magnificent.
P.S. More reflections on efficiency, specifically learned from Mama Nay, in the 5th “Farm Bits” Story highlight here.