reflections on a year with farming nuns

It was just a year ago that I began visiting the farm.  Anne and I had taken a trip to Honduras in February, 2009, and on a boat ride there, I had a kind of awakening.  We were on a marine science tour, on a small open boat, scanning for dolphins and whale sharks.  As the chop splashed in over the sides of the boat, the skies opened up, and a brief drizzle turned into a serious rain.  On that little boat, in the midst of all that water, I had a full-bodied realization of how tiny our lives are in relation to this planet, this universe.  We are like a drop of water in an ocean, blanketed by a liquid sky.

And the overwhelming relief and awe that came with that realization were astounding.  I felt like I understood that what mattered was life, that what mattered was living.  I began searching for a new path, one that would allow me to connect deeply with the natural world, to gain some perspective on the great scheme of things, to escape the cycle of anxiety and future-worry that I was embedded in.  And so we came to this farm, run by "eco-nuns" as I jokingly put it--partly to reassure my friends that I wasn't actually really really religious, and to convince them that these nuns were actually really really cool--and, after just a few hours, I was hooked.

So hooked that I started insisting to Anne that we come up every weekend, and so hooked that I even came here without her.  She had long been the religious one, while I polished up a posture of studied disinterest.  Yet, there I was, the one who couldn't bear the thought of getting up early and taking the subway to go to church on Sunday, the one who couldn't get motivated to go on daytrips anywhere.  There I was, getting on Metronorth every weekend I could.  I was surprised, to say the least.

And now it's been a year since that first visit.  And so much has changed.  A year ago, I was despairing about my career--I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, and couldn't envision a place for myself within academia over the long term.  I couldn't sleep at night, and was taking prescription drugs to help me sleep.  I was very aware that I'd be turning 40 pretty soon, and I promised myself that my life would be different by then.  But that promise just stressed me out, because I didn't see the path.

Since that first visit, I've been learning to meditate and sing, and I've been learning to pray the Divine Offices.  I'm learning to plant, transplant, harvest, and prepare many different crops, and to plan out a garden for a full season.  I'm learning about soil, permaculture, mycelia, forest gardening, and nutrient-dense farming. I've read so many books--by Eckhart Tolle on being in the present moment, by Richard Heinberg on peak oil, by Rob Hopkins on Transition Towns, by devotees of Sri Ramana Maharshi, by Stephen Mitchell on the Gospel of Jesus, by Barbara Kingsolver on self-sufficiency, by Lynne McTaggart on "the field." I've gotten certified in Reiki I and II.  And I've taken thousands of pictures, designed a website and e-newsletter for the Sisters, created a cookbook, and blogged most every week for a year.  

It's been an amazing year, filled with change and new life.  I am so grateful for this opportunity to live alongside the Community, to share in their life, to receive their support and encouragement. I'm grateful for their generosity of time and spirit.  The world and the universe are vast, and our little lives are just a drop in the ocean of time and space. Somehow that knowledge has freed me up to make the most out of this little life, to pay attention to the beauty, to listen to the silence, to laugh in the rain.

I can't convey this adequately enough, but I am retelling this story, and writing about the meaning of this anniversary for me, because I want everyone to know how much life can change.  If you are feeling stuck, or burned out, or fearful, I want you to know that your life can change.  You may have to let go of some of your expectations about how things should be, are supposed to be, and you might have to depend on others rather than being totally independent. Perhaps, like me, you have invested significant time in a career you find you no longer want.  It's hard to let go of that investment.  Economists have studied this human reluctance to abandon "sunk costs."  If you start something new, you might have to answer the quizzical gazes of friends and family with a smile, and with the admission that you don't know exactly how things are going to turn out in the end.  

But the truth is, we never know exactly how things are going to turn out in the end.  The truth is, we're not really in control of what comes next. So why not find a way to do things that feed your soul?  Pay attention to that thing that pulls at your heart, tugging you toward something you never expected.  You can step outside the path you had planned, and take a look around at the lush, wild and tangled greenery along the way. You can take your inner child on a playdate.  You can learn something totally new.  You can try to do something that you've always doubted you had the fortitude or time or skills to do.  And facing those challenges, being in the position of the novice, the new learner, the playful explorer--these are such life-giving positions, providing such a different perspective on the world.

In the end, all I can do is be grateful for the transformation this year has wrought.  It hasn't been easy, but it's been wonder-full.  A year and a day ago, I couldn't have imagined that I'd come to live at a convent, or that I'd be so engrossed in learning how to grow and preserve food.  But I think many people want to have a deeper connection in their lives--to be involved in a larger, community-based project, and to learn basic skills that connect us to the cycles of life and death.  If you can, get your hands in some dirt this spring.  Take a walk in the park, or in the woods if you can find them.  Breathe deep.  Sing aloud.  And seek out a meaningful conversation.  We're learning so many interesting things about the brain--that there are actually positive physiological responses to the bacteria in soil, like a natural mood elevator, that singing makes us happier, and that people who have less small talk and more meaningful conversations tend to be happier.  

We are creatures, biological, social, creative creatures.  We are alive.  We have breath and the gift of consciousness, and we can dance and sing, or we can grumble and groan.  The path ahead may be unclear, but I feel like I'm blooming.  "Grateful" doesn't begin to describe it.