I’m losing track of how many winters I’ve spent working on this novel. I think 2017 marked the fourth. And while that manuscript sits on my computer awaiting my attention, an outline for a new book is growing like a fungus on my desk, taking shape regardless of the lack of time and sunlight I’m able to give it. And when that starts to happen, I grow anxious to finish the existing manuscript
But time is lacking. I didn’t get as much as I wanted last winter. Between Mom’s surgery, and all the farm transition demands, and of course, the normal daylight hours that went to homeschooling, I fell behind on the one thing that is truly mine in a murky sea of shared family responsibilities, business transactions, and resources: my writing.
“What I need is one retreat. Just one. Thirty days, tops,” I’m telling Bob on our morning walk home from Mallet Pond. The dogs are running up ahead of us as we climb the steep dirt road. When he doesn’t respond, more words spill from my mouth. “And I’m certain, if I could disappear for thirty days, I’d be so desperate to get back home to everyone, I’d finish the thing in two weeks. I wouldn’t do another thing. I’d just write and work until it was finally done.”
When he responds, his voice is slow, contemplative. “Well, let’s see. If you go away for 30 days, we’d go broke. We’d have to sell the farm. And then of course, there’d be nothing to eat. So we’d eat the children.”
I know he’s being funny. But suddenly its as though someone hit a pause button, and we freeze in place: man and woman, walking side by side up a dirt road in the Catskill mountains. Two dogs just ahead, two children back at the house, making breakfast. Even the jays go still & the crickets silent while I back up and consider the scene.
I blame the book of feminist essays I read recently. In it, women talk about the cultural training they received that pushed them toward marriage and children. Those who thwarted the pressure talk about their liberating lives, opting out of these things; about choosing career sucess, triple creme brie, fine chocolate and wine fireside in metropolitan apartments, free from the detritus of family. Family can be an unnecessary yoke, they argue. We can be liberated from it, if we choose to open our eyes and see that we’re merely programed to think we want it. Maybe, in reality, we don’t.
And as I stare at this scene where my husband ponders if he’ll need to eat the children, I wonder: Have I fallen for it? I thought I wanted those things: the husband, the children, the extended family, the farm, the community. But here it all is, laid out in broad daylight: none of that is mine. It is all ours. And what is ours is slowing my attainment of what would be mine. Have I become a slave? Is this what I wanted? Or did my culture tell me I wanted it?
And then the next thought slams me from behind: What about my daughters? I’ve taught them to cook and clean. I’ve modeled staying home and being their teacher. I’ve taught them that there is little room for mine in this world. I’ve taught them that it is all ours. My working premise has been that I am giving them a different kind of freedom and independence: one where they don’t have to move across the world to chase a job, where they can define their days by their passions, guided by pragmatic business sense. I’ve worked to build a farm business where they can choose their own directions, supported by loving family.
But is it all bullshit?
Did I buy into the cultural conditioning so much that I’ve stripped my own daughters of their agency in this world? Are they merely feminine servants to a family vision?
While the scene is frozen, I mentally shift my position and navigate it until I am looking at the world through Bob’s eyes: the staid bachelor who gave up his life on the coast of Maine to start a life with a younger woman who wouldn’t leave her Catskill Mountain farm; the man who, in his thirties, declared that children were “vile beasts from hell,” who then became a father to two daughters in his forties, because his wife wanted them. This is the same man who has taken all his savings and earnings and invested them into a family and business that he married into….The one who dreams of sea kayaking, but settles for a morning walk to Mallet pond instead. Backing up from the road, I think about my mother and father, who worked 50-60 hours per week at careers to pay off Sap Bush Hollow, nearly tearing themselves apart so that my brother and I could grow up on a farm, far away from suburban culture. I consider their constant investment of their pensions and savings into Sap Bush Hollow, their life mission to keep it a business available to the next generation.
If I’ve been culturally conditioned to buy into the marriage and family package, then the rest of them have, too. One or two feminists, I realize, might see this as all a giant sink hole, designed to keep women from lucrative careers and quiet, self-determined fireside nights with brie and chocolate. The writers might see it as the sink hole that killed the novel.
But as much as I’m a feminist, I think I’m more of a farminist. Brie and chocolate don’t exist without farms. And in most cases, when social justice and good stewardship are involved, farms don’t exist without families. It’s not about masculine versus feminine in farm culture. It’s about the intertwining of everyone’s skills and strengths, the collective ownership of everyone’s weaknesses and problems. A farminist believes that there is a place for me and mine, but it comes after us and ours. It is not incumbent upon my daughters to accept that, but it happens to be the curriculum on the menu. And its the menu that I chose.
But in choosing it, I’ve also chosen that there will be at least one morning every week during the growing season when I rise early and write a story. And there will be another winter where I rise while it’s still dark to chip away at my novel. And then there will be another winter for another book after that. The hours may be short, but they will still be mine. My husband, my children and my parents will see to that. And in exchange, I have assurance that no one will eat my children.