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On Time and Spaciousness

By Emily Stehr, Community Fellow

Last summer, I wrote a blog post about all the reasons I felt I didn’t have enough time to write a blog post—the many personal challenges that sprung up and demanded my attention. With so much racing around my brain and weighing on my heart, it felt impossible to sit down and make space to engage in the kind of retrospective reflection I would have liked to.

Months later, now living and working in an entirely different context, I still find myself longing for–but never quite finding–that space to sink deeply into my mind and body. I’ve remarked at the end of a number of days this year, that I feel a bit like a hamster on a wheel from dawn until dusk. Sometimes, when people ask me how I’m doing, I have a hard time responding because I genuinely do not know the answer. Darting from task to task throughout my workday, on top of the fact that I have to come up with my daily tasks and “triage” their importance all on my own, is a major cognitive load. Sometimes I find myself attending to so many things outside myself at once that I neglect to attend to myself.

Seedlings in the greenhouse soaking up the morning light.

Now, this franticness is by no means new to me. It is simply what was bound to happen when my particular constellation of perfectionism, low self-esteem, and generalized anxiety–as well as the passion and curiosity that brought me to this work in the first place–were put to the tasks of managing a garden and teaching within it. If I sound flippant, or like a textbook case of TMI, it’s because I don’t know how to speak authentically to my experience without naming the mental health challenges that have patterned it for the past five months. Something I figured out how to do very early on in my life was to work unreasonably hard to ensure that there would be absolutely no chance that I could fail–or, more accurately, that I could be perceived as not good enough. (A particularly illustrative example is that I discovered in high school that, in one of my classes, I could literally get a negative score on the final and still get an A in the class. I still studied just as gruelingly hard for that class as I did all my others.) Unable to find solace in or even just recognize the slightest bit of my own intrinsic value, I worked ceaselessly to earn my worthiness from others, going to great pains to ensure that I achieved success in the eyes of my teachers, my bosses, and even my extended family.

Of course, as I mentioned before, there is indeed a sense of passion, curiosity, and reciprocity behind my work ethic–in college, for instance, I was studying subjects that were so interesting and important, yet so fraught and personal/intimate, that I felt a great sense of responsibility. I was excited to give my essay topics more than my due diligence because that is what they deserved. Still, I’m used to being able to control the outcomes of the tasks I undertake through an uncompromising fastidiousness. My brain has been operating this way for so long–doing things at 200% to make absolutely certain the outcome is “impressive”–that it’s nearly impossible to imagine an alternative way of approaching and interacting with the world. Working constantly toward this ultimately unattainable, if not completely nonexistent, state of perfection takes much of the blame for "not enough time."

But alas, in comes gardening, and this ability to control the outcomes of my undertakings gets laughed out of the room. While much of the hamster-wheeliness I experience in my current job as the Garden and Outdoor Learning Coordinator at Bessie Weller Elementary School is the manifestation of a lifetime of practice in a “Go go go! You can do more more more!” orientation toward time and space. Much of it is also due in large part to adjusting to my newfound inescapable dependence on the inevitable vicissitudes of time. Though biology and ecology are the driving forces here, it does all seem to come down to, or at least be measured in, time.

Thanks to Bree, I'm learning so much about native Virginia plants! She'd cheer me on and insist on a high-five every time I identified any plant, especially by its leaves.This one, bloodroot, was as ephemeral as they come–we enjoyed their beautiful blooms for just a couple of days before they fell, leaving their majestic foliage to take over. A lesson in appreciating things for the short time we have them, and letting go when they are gone–trusting that they might just come back next year!

Is this seedling too young to plant out? Have these other ones been in the greenhouse too long? How much longer can I wait to pot these peppers up? Do they need to be planted now? Can they wait until tomorrow? Can they wait until after the weekend? If I transplant them now, will they have time to establish before the cold snap hits? Did I plant all the heat-loving nightshades too early? The kohlrabi were supposed to be ready two weeks ago, am I now too late to plant the next crop in that bed? Will the peas set pods in time before the summer heat wipes them out? Why did they take so long to flower? For how long can they take night temperatures under 50 degrees? Is now a good time to spray neem oil? Ugh, it’s too bright and sunny–but if I wait, how much more damage can these strawflowers take? Will it rain early enough and long enough for the plants to get the water they need? When will this lettuce be ready? Did I harvest the radishes too soon? When do I start pruning the tomatoes? When is it too late to trellis the cucumbers? Which of these concerns do I need to address first?

At any given moment, a dozen or more of these questions are churning through my working memory, the back of my mind compelling me into constant forward movement in a futile attempt to find definitive answers to these questions as the clock ticks on and on. All of these timing uncertainties are made even more complicated when factoring in the parallel chaos of time and space in a school.

I scheduled a planting activity with the fourth graders today, but now it’s pouring rain. I’ve been asked to reschedule to next week, but nothing will be ready for planting then, and the transplants we were going to plant need to get in the ground ASAP. It’s “crunch time” to prepare for Virginia’s standardized tests, and teachers are only able to devote 20-30 minutes to outdoor learning. I may have started my corn too late because the seeds were locked in an upstairs classroom during said standardized tests. It took a lot longer to prep for this lesson than anticipated, and I got a bunch of drop-in visitors today–and now I can’t plant out my flowers, and maybe I’ll have to drive them back to the greenhouse because I’m not sure if they can survive the night outside. This teacher didn’t respond to my email in time for me to prep for the lesson I tentatively planned. Now I’ve got this place up and running, just in time for the kids to leave for the summer. And the greatest timing constraint of them all: I’ve just arrived at this school in the middle of January, smack in the middle of the academic school year. It’s freezing cold outside, I don’t know anyone, no one knows me, and I’ve never done this before. Apparently, it’s “that time of year,” and most teachers don’t have the bandwidth to plan lessons with me, or to include me in their classrooms to help me get to know the kids. What am I supposed to do?

This lettuce was getting way too big for its greenhouse containers about 3 weeks earlier than I had planned to plant them–Bree encouraged me to trust their resilience and get them out in the field, and they flourished!

There is, however, something unexpectedly liberating about all of this. Just a couple of days ago, I was compiling my daily to-do list, and it was starting to get pretty darn long and pretty darn scary. It dawned on me that it would be wise to check the weather to make sure I could actually safely plant the many cold-sensitive seedlings I had planned to. Turns out, I couldn’t–we’d be seeing temperatures in the lower-mid forties for a couple of nights–and my list of responsibilities for the day was slashed in half. Suddenly, time and space opened before me as my extreme sense of urgency around planting those starts melted away. I had no choice but to surrender to the natural rhythm of the plants and this place. It simply wasn’t time for them to go into the garden.

This letting go requires an incredible amount of trust in the environment, in the remarkable resilience of plants, and in the fact that everything will be okay. This experience confirmed for me once again that there is often nothing I can do, no amount of effort I can exert, to absolutely ensure the productive success of the garden. I’m used to being able to work so hard at something that there is no chance I will fail. Now, I have the variables of time, temperature, and the countless other biological and ecological mysteries of other-than-human lives and their interactions to contend with, making it impossible to ensure my control over the space. And truly, when I ground myself in my aspirations toward connectedness with the natural world, control over the garden is not actually something that I desire at all. Rather, I seek a partnership, and that partnership can only be honed through trial and–this is the important part–error.

As my former mentor and supervisor Bree once wrote on the whiteboard in our classroom, “Farming is failing, failing is learning, and learning is good.” I have already amassed so many failures and been forced to relinquish control over so many things, and, guess what? Everything has been okay! Has my stress level decreased at all? Not one bit! Actually, this isn’t totally true–there is now a voice that talks back to my super stressed-out one, telling me to trust the plants and the timing that nature has made possible rather than fretting over it, wishing it were different, or trying to fight it.Unfortunately, I can’t expect my orientation toward achievement and failure to change overnight, but every time I allow this voice to express itself, I grow into a more peaceful version of myself.

On the last day of school, I noticed that the garlic Bree and the 2nd graders planted in the fall was scaping! Perfect timing–the end-of-year potluck celebration for teachers and staff was the next day. I baked some focaccia (a beloved recipe from my cohort), whipped up a garlic scape pesto, and served two other compound butters from the garden: one with oregano, and one with sorrel, which has a lemony zing. A lovely instance of time serendipitously working in my favor!

So too must I give myself over to the difficult timing of this Fellowship as it aligns (or, rather, doesn’t align) with a school year, and the difficulties of scheduling lessons when teachers are overburdened enough as is. In the winter months of this year, I think I was subconsciously blaming myself for not immediately jumping in and teaching with passion and ease. I wish I had been able to see then what I know now: I had to wait until it was time. I can only do as much as I can do. As I look toward the beginning of the next school year in August, I hope to remember to give myself grace as I continue to find my place and rhythm in this community.

My therapist and I came up with the goal of finding more spaciousness in my everyday life. I liked that she used the word “spaciousness”– even as I write this, it’s like my chest opens up and my arms outstretch to embrace the slowness and stillness that I so desperately need. Much like I must surrender to the rhythms of the garden and the school, I must also honor my own natural rhythm, making space and time to respect my own physical, mental, and emotional boundaries rather than charging through them for the sake of external validation. And all I can think about is the fact that if I am so constantly worried about the garden and in such dire need of more spaciousness, the pressure that production farmers must feel must be absolutely unbearable.

We as a cohort have spoken about feeling like the farming we have been exposed to is too much work and too much stress, largely because of how much working against nature and ecology has to be done in order to grow non-native food crops like tomatoes and kale. Water needs, disease and pest control, weed suppression–not to mention that not doing all of these things correctly and on time could mean the loss of one’s livelihood. While we all wish for a world in which more people farm so that such a massive burden is not placed on so few, and a world in which we don’t live or die by the monetary value we produce, we are also heartened to know that there are alternatives in the here-and-now.

Spending the day at Jubilee Climate Farm was a breath of fresh air. I felt so held by the beauty of the space, and by the amount of time we had to be together and appreciate it.

Our most recent Cohort Day was a visit to Jubilee Climate Farm, and I think the whole day served as a sort of collective sigh of relief as we learned of the many ways they are striving to nurture an ecosystem that will one day nurture itself. Similarly, when we visited Michael Carter’s farm for the second time in this Fellowship, we were further inspired by his philosophy of minimal intervention, and the African-origin crops that allowed him to produce so much food with less effort relative to, say, the AMI Farm at Augusta Health or the Allegheny Farm. So, it may be possible to feed people and live a spacious life, one that works with rather than against the timing of the land and all the creatures who inhabit it–even the thrips and flea beetles. As I look toward the second half of this Community Action Year, I intend to strive for spaciousness, grounding myself in my budding trust in this garden, in nature itself, and in the fact that everything will happen when and how it should.

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