owing a pig a debt/cont'd

or learning as art, part 2

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Continued from part one: It was that pig that got me looking more deeply at animal harvest. I remember having long conversations with my mentor, a lifelong farmer that harvested all of his own animals. We muddled though those murky, complicated waters of what is humane and what is simply buffering for the human psyche. We spoke of technique, of the grace we bestow with a quick hand and skill. We spoke a lot about what it means to take the life of an animal you care for and hold deep reverence at the same time. And then, I stopped talking, went to his ranch, and started actively participating in the harvesting and the butchering and the farming. Each of those, tied into the other, as it should be.

It was on those prairie grasslands, alongside one of the most beautiful humans I have ever been blessed to call “friend”, that I came to learn so much about what shapes me now. He, with his keen eye, taught me how to judge the “finish” on a beef animal so that what we eat is as delicious as can be. He pointed out hawks overheard and bugs below our boots. He taught me more than I could ever convey in one little essay. His mind and his experience were a new universe to me. Doors flung open, paths were illuminated by sunbeams. All I could do was witness and absorb with humility. I brought to him my knowledge and education about nutrition and he tied it into the rumen and the soil. We compared the biome of the earth with the biome in us. Again and again, we drew out the magical threads that connected us to all of life until we were hardly able to distinguish which was which at all.

Bet you didn’t know I was a calendar girl, eh? Harvesting bison on the shortgrass prairie in 2010. So hot I made it into the 2011 farmer’s calendar. Notice best-dog-ever eating eyeballs by my feet. He knew where the good stuff was.

For the curious, every answer comes with ten fold more questions. There’s always more to learn and experience. I am cognisant of the finite time I have and I want to participate in what this physical world has to offer and contribute what I’m here to give.

 Far and away, the biggest question or comment I get on instagram goes something like this, ”HOW DO YOU LEARN ALL THIS STUFF!!??? UGGGGGHHHHH IT SEEMS SO IMPOSSIBLE!” Usually these messages are accompanied by a little emoji blowing smoke out its nose or one that is wailing in pain. 

Look, I get it, I really do. If you look at where you are and where you think you need to be it can feel pretty insurmountable. But maybe that’s where we should stop and consider that if how we are thinking about something is bringing such despair, it might be our thinking that’s causing the problem. Or maybe it’s the over-saturation of thinking with too little doing. We are products of a jointly dysfunctional goal-driven+perfectionist culture that delivers angst in spades. We hold this idea that success comes when X happens, missing all of the opportunities and paths that show up along the way because we are so singularly focused on that one thing. What if, instead, we we just started following our interests and noticed all the bonuses along the way. What if we learn to hone our ears to our own frequency, following our unique interests, developing our own God-given talents?

I’ve never quite understood the draw to learning things in silos. I suppose it’s just not the way my mind works. I’m glad we are all different and there are those that focus on the discipline and mastery of one thing throughout their lives. It’s awe inspiring to see what can be done when your whole life is focused on truly mastering a skill. Maybe you’re the master and I’m a generalist. How could I tell you how to learn? What do I possibly know of the talents you have been given, the ones meant to share with the world? We need to forget what our “educations” educated us to believe about education and really, deeply start participating in the learning of our lives. In our way.

 Consider, if you will. I remember walking into a traditional German bakery in my 20s. The smells and the steamy windows were heated from the wood fired ovens they used. I felt like I was stepping into an alternate universe. Everyone was speaking German, even the customers. I didn’t know what I was doing or what I wanted. There were rows of sausages and cheeses and I watched as the lady before me ordered a loaf of steaming bread, so hot that it couldn’t be held with naked hands. I ordered the same.

The woman at the counter said, “That’s organic spelt bread. Sourdough. You know sourdough?” She went on to explain the difference between traditional sourdough bread and yeast leavened bread. I had never heard of such a thing. I left, balancing my baby on one hip and a cardboard box with bread in it on the other. When we got home, that same little babe and I sat on a blanket on the floor and pulled off big hunks of still steaming bread. We dipped our bread in soft butter and stared into each other’s eyes with big smiles on our faces while all sorts of enraptured moans of delight bubbled up and out of our lips.

Now that’s an education! What a marvel! The taste, the texture, the whole experience of a food I knew to be airy and empty suddenly filling me and bringing with it stories of tradition and culture. Messages from my Eastern European ancestors delivered with each bite. Connection and familiarity and ancient foodways. I needed to know more.

I did as I did (and still do). Off to the library I went. There was no internet then (and it’s still crappy, evermore so with censorship, compared to the library). I read books on traditional sourdough, baking, flours. What? It was the peasants that ate the wholemeal flours and the rich oligarchs fattening on white, “pure” flours? And sugar, too? And the rich were getting gout and disease and what of the peasants? More books, different directions. Ancestral foods, diseases of modernity, animal fats. Recipes to try. Histories to familiarise myself with. Lessons to apply in our home.

I mean, doesn’t it seem obvious as to how we start or learn anything? Are you, dear reader, still bumbling around, drool dripping down your chin, smashing blocks together? Would six year old you complain that it was all futile? She, or he, would surely NEVER, EVER learn what it took to be an adult! Tell me all the steps of how you got from six year old you to where you are now. Please, I’m an alien and I must know these things. How did you teach your hand to refine your handwriting like that? How did you figure out what you liked and didn’t like? Why did you start moving in a certain direction in your life? How did you know you liked him, but not so much her? 

See, you already have the answers. You just keep on doing what you’re doing and let interest and passion drive your commitment to learning and then show up and be willing to work for it. Before you realise it, you have collected new skills, relationships, and outlooks with nary a concern for how or the timeline. We learn, as the years go on, that it’s our job to follow the path that unfurls before us with courage and determination, not to control the whole damn narrative before we even start. 

And so it goes with everything. So, to the question “HOW DO I START? I WILL NEVER LEARN ALL THIS?”, it seems trite to say “just start” or “remain curious” or “focus on that one thing you want to learn about and pay attention when other doors open” but it’s true. Stop wasting time with asking “how” and start doing something. Anything. Recognise that waiting for everything to line up is just a stall tactic. Yeah, you’re frustrated, but not because you can’t do anything to move towards what it is that you want, but because you are making the choice not to. School of hard knocks here (ask my kids about that): you are choosing not to. Life is choice. Always. At least give yourself that, even if it feels better to pretend otherwise. There is actual empowerment in recognising you are choosing to think there isn’t.

There are people that I’ve met, virtually and in real life, that are actively participating in the shaping of their lives, even when everything on the outside could be seen as futile, should they have that perspective. But they don’t have that perspective. There are 20-somethings in Brooklyn joining farm buying clubs and volunteering on said farms on their days off. There are young moms, with little ones underfoot, brewing and bubbling all sorts of wondrous concoctions on their cupboard, exploring the wild spaces around them. There are families joining up with people in their communities to share skills and education for their kids and to teach one another things that they have learned like how to hunt or sew or weld.

There is nothing Polyanna about any of it. You can use cynicism to defend inertia, but you at least owe that well of potential within you the good manners of being honest about what you’re up to. Do not drive that knife ever deeper by telling yourself you do not have what it takes. No one is worthy of that kind of cruel disregard, let alone bestowing it upon yourself.

I recognise that my answer isn’t wholly satisfying. Our school system drums out individual interests and a love of learning. It can seem a little foreign to actually follow your own heart’s desire. My answer can seem too ambiguous in a culture that promises immediate satisfaction if you follow their roadmap. But, my answer is honest. I had to untangle from that way of thinking, too. But untangle I did. And untangle we all can. And untangle, especially now, we must.

The world is vast and full of wonders. I would need 103 lifetimes just to touch on the things that interest me. I know that I will die not knowing so much of what I wish I could have experienced, but I choose to focus on what I have collected in my little satchel o’ life. Oh, I don’t know, if nothing else perhaps this essay will become the thing I can point to when I get the wailing emojis before folks even make an attempt at a start. I can simply say, “go read my essay and then go find an old hole in the wall with a busty German matron, buy yourself a loaf of sourdough bread and marvel at the endless universes every bite delivers”. Lots of raw butter for maximum effect.

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