Another installment of our Q&A advice column. If you have a question you’d like answered, email us at email@example.com and our resident sage, Katie, will give it her best shot.
I spent a good chunk of last Saturday chopping vegetables, salting them, squeezing brine out of them, and then stuffing them into a jar so that they would ferment into sauerkraut. In the past fifteen years, I have spent hours on similar homesteader-type household crafts. I’ve sewn a dress, baked bread, made my own lip balm, and découpaged everything. Each craft is incredibly time-consuming and pointless. The pointlessness hits me once again about ten minutes into the project. Six hours later, weary, and existentially depressed, I vow never to attempt to knit or whatever it was that I did again. The problem is, I would like practical skills beyond Microsoft Excel. I would like to be, in the event of a radical devolution of the world economy, handy. I would like to engage with the world of things in a manner that resembles work more than hobby. What can I do, Katie?
Dear Miss Frontier,
In the event of economic collapse, I doubt that découpage will save you. I suspect, however, that your homesteader projects are not really about survival. They are about finding meaning in work. Hence the baking-induced existential crises.
Homesteading brings you closer to the “world of things” in a way that Microsoft Excel does not. Your projects leave you angry and exhausted, yet you return to them again and again. Ask yourself: What draws me back to the frontier? Am I missing something in my daily life work? Am I finding it through these projects? Or could it be time to contemplate some bigger changes to my life?
If you find that your passion for homesteading persists, consider contacting PBS to propose a revival of the Frontier House series.
I read a story recently about a forestry college graduate named Masha. Masha travels on a ferry down the Volga from her old home in St. Petersburg to her new home in the far south, the caucasus. On the ferry, she meets a still-young (though with gray hair) pilot. The pilot tells her that while he was visiting his mother in his tiny ancestral village, he took stock of his life. He thought of everything that had happened since he last took stock of his life, and put it all in order. What exact method do you think he used, Katie? I would like to take stock of my life, too, but with such an expansive, perplexing subject, I don’t even know where to begin.
Also, how old do you think the still-young pilot was?
Dear Stock person,
Imagine you work at a bakery, where you are asked to take stock of the baguettes. What will you do? You will check to see how many baguettes were made, how many remain, and how many will be needed for the day. Past, present, future.
Now apply the same method to your life, breaking the subject into digestible pieces. You may begin with simple categories, like your fish tank. How many fish did you originally have? How many are there now? How many do you want in the future? If you dare, scoot into the deeper waters of your friendships, career, and spirituality.
Don’t fret too much about this still-young pilot. From him, you may learn the value of retreating to a tiny ancestral village, where the wandering mind can elude iPhones, to-do lists, Netflix accounts, and happy hours. But your life and his differ greatly. Hopefully, your life is far too complex and dynamic to be put in order entirely, though you may try.
In The New Yorker, E. B. White once compared being infected with the flu to losing the idealism of youth. The flu contagion broaches your body a few days before you begin to feel symptoms. Was it accidentally licking the spigot of the low-flow water fountain that did it? Or was it eating that piece of popcorn you found on the ground? Few of us will ever know the exact moment of infection.
Likewise, says White, few of us will ever know the exact moment that the hopes, dreams, innocence, and goodness of youth are slashed, because those effects, too, aren’t felt until later. And while I can think of many conduits for the flu, I’m having a hard time picturing the sort of quotidien event that ends one stage of life forever. Can you some up with one such event, Katie?
If Mr. White is suggesting that the idealism of youth often flutters away at a single, banal moment, I must respectfully disagree. If such were the case, most of our ideals would depart soon after our first breath.
Rather than reflecting on the myriad ways a child’s ideals might be challenged by reality (stepping on a careless stranger’s wad of gum, watching a kid cut the lunch line, overhearing the presidential debates), perhaps we should reflect on the stunning resilience of a child’s hope and goodness. Does reality inevitably supplant idealism, or can idealism shift and adapt as we move through the world?