Like Never Before
On March 26th 2016, I wrote a three-page long “story” in anticipation of the next few weeks of my life working on a farm in Alaska. Alaska: An Invitation was hopeful; so naive, yet so, so hopeful. I was wholeheartedly convinced I was going to find myself–my true identity–through the physical work and labor I was about to endure. I knew it was going to be difficult, but every motivational quote I had ever read led me to believe that a farm on Alaska would fix me.
The six weeks on the farm were awful. It was isolating and hard and lonely and strange and foreign and everything I didn’t need at that time in my life. I lived in a small “apartment” – as it was advertised—attached to a large farmhouse. I attempted to make some sort of home out of the few square feet shelter. The farm owner and his wife, who were incredible people, did their best to make me feel comfortable. We had dinner together most nights, and at some point during the first week, I remember Vern (the farmer) turned to me and said: “Mary, if you don’t find a man by 25, you might as well just let yourself go. I mean, look at us. We’re 34 and we let ourselves go a long time ago.” I looked forward to dinner conversations from that point on.
A series of life-threatening backroads eventually led to the farm. Their farmhouse met the mountains, which met the skyline, in the most incredible way. When shit seemed to really hit the fan, I would sit at the end of the driveway watching that skyline until I was reminded just how fortunate I am to have a goddamn pulse and heartbeat. Those are the moments I think we should all remember. Those images that ground us—where we find Heaven in the mundane. The loneliness and lingering numbness never went away, but I always had that majestic, elemental, raw and beautiful view. I had the farmhouse.
I wish I had stories to tell about the hard work and effort I put into making the farm better. I was banned from planting tomatoes after I overwatered about 500 of them (oops). It also took me three times as long as it took Vern to move any of the equipment, so nothing about me exactly screamed productivity. Yet, Vern was nothing but grateful and appreciative. I could stop right here and now and extract a million and one life lessons just from Vern and the way he interacted with the world. Even with only a mere 21 years of life experience under my belt, I feel confident saying that Vern is one of the kindest, forgiving, and generous people I have ever met. For a man I have nearly nothing in common with, he has set one hell of a standard for human gratitude and kindness.
I left the farm after six weeks having made (marginal) positive contributions. Sometimes I wonder just how much of a difference I made in their tomato production and profit that year. While six weeks is a rather weak frame of reference, my god did I gain perspective on the grueling and tedious realities of farming. Farmers are the foundation of our lives; the suppliers of our existence.
Before the farm, I never put myself in a situation where I was forced to appreciate the beauty and power of individual stillness within a world of surrounding chaos. Humbling are the things (and the farmers) that have the power to be still in the midst of the inescapable volatility of our lives. Even within everyone’s individual perception of reality, I think we all have an Alaska farmhouse. We all have something–be it a person, place, or thing– that forces us to exist in a way so foreign to anything we’ve ever known. I think we all so desperately and hopelessly want to know what it would be like to live the life we didn’t choose. What it’s him, her and them– the people we can know so much about but no understanding of whatsoever.
So, to Vern, Sal, and their beautiful, quaint, lonely and isolating farmhouse, consider this the thank you letter I never mailed. A year and a half later, I’ve seen the farmhouse appear in various shapes and forms, often in the quiet, reflective moments alone or in the first few minutes of the morning. Sometimes it’s beautiful and nostalgic, but often it’s still lonely and a little bit awful. The farmhouse never seems to move, nor does it feel the need to. Much like the figure in the middle of shaken snow globe, the stillness of the farmhouse was, and still is, absolutely remarkable.