Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Great Dilemmas

I find myself with a series of dilemmas. I cycle through them on a daily, if not hourly, basis and might come to six radically different conclusions over the course of such a day. Before I lay out the dilemmas, I will lay out what I think I know.

1. All my life I have wanted to live in the country, and for certain portions of my life (college, much of the last four years) I have done so and been pleased. I know, for certain, that I'd like to live in a rural area.
2. I have a severe lack of ambition in and for my life.
3. If it were up to me, I would be reasonably happy to spend my days reading, drawing, taking walks and doing puzzles. So, basically, I want to be a senior citizen.
4. I may be troublingly independent but in a non-sustainable way. I like driving all over the country. I am lucky enough to have friends and family willing to let me stay in their homes for weeks or months at a time without providing them rent or any substantial financial recompense. I also don't like being accountable to others (unless it's my dog).
5. I am so tired of not having my own space and place. I want to unpack the storage unit I've had for the last three years. I'd like to have a kitchen of my own. I'd like to have a space that is mine, where I don't have to account for myself to anyone. I'd like to buy a goddamn mop and bucket that I don't end up leaving behind every two years. This point has become particularly clear to me over the last week of living in my father's home. He only wants to spend time with me, but I find his desire to constantly share schedules hard to take, similarly I know he gauges my activity in his home and finds it lacking (to be fair, it is lacking...but it wouldn't be if I weren't in his home).

The dilemmas.

1. I have made a concrete decision on the score of 'living in the country.' But I have not determined what kind of country life I'm aiming to have. Over the last 15 years I have worked on three small farms, and have loved the work of that world, but have fully seen how much my respective employers struggled to make any meaningful profit through their efforts. To that end, I have the dilemma of farm choice:

One version would be to truly try and make a go of it on a sustainable scale. In other words, never a rancher would I become, but having a flock of sheep of close to 60, along with sizable flocks of chickens as well as sounders (real word, I looked it up) of swine. The intended products of said livestock would be: meat (lamb, chicken, pork) and eggs, as well as sheep skins and perhaps yarn. I'd also like to try my hand at growing flowers. I'd also have a few tiny houses on the property to supplement incomes with the 'working farm' 'hideaway in the country' ideas as marketing. And even so, I would need at least a part-time job to help ends meet.

A second version would be far more modest. House and land of 10-20 acres. Simply having a small flock (10 or less ewes) of sheep and similarly manageable number of chickens (perhaps about the same or a few more). Focusing mostly on raising a substantial amount of protein for me and my life, with the option of selling a little extra to those in my community. I still think the idea of tiny homes as extra income is interesting, though it would come at a cost. This version would 100% necessitate some kind of steady employ, but at times I think if I were to buy cheaply enough, the resulting mortgage would be one easily managed without finding myself working 60 hours a week at WalMart.

The first version is ambitious, and costly. If I'm being incredibly generous in terms of the realities of my financial capabilities, I could have a budget of about $200K for buying a house/land. But at that price point, the realities are that I'd have to sink a substantial amount of additional money into additional infrastructure that would probably not already be in place. In other words, fencing, feeders, actual feed, tractor or other such equipment, new pipelines for water sources in pastures, etc. etc. etc.
While I love thinking about myself as a person ambitious and organized enough to find a way to pull off this level of enterprise on my own, the reality is that I am not up to it, financially or skill-wise. A partner, or set of partners, with similar desires and different skillsets (and financial contributions) could help, but even when one has all that in place, you're still working on a very thin line as far as turning any kind of profit that isn't eaten metaphorically or literally by the very animals you're raising. Basically, I do think this is too big a dream for me. Or rather, it's a dream that would necessarily lead to failure.

The second version appeals to me more, though even on a smaller scale animals need certain things that the land cannot always offer 365 days of the year. In other words, I cannot escape that I need a source of income that is not farming.

A last version would be ditching any largescale livestock idea. Finding a property remote and countrified, but with far less acreage and at a substantially lower price point. In this version I'd be aiming for a mortgage of no more than $400. I'd definitely be in the middle of nowhere. I might be able to swing some chickens, but sheep or pigs would be out of the equation. I could find some kind of work at probably very little pay and make that mortgage...but basically I'd be working at a gas station to pay for living as a hermit in an area that would be far away from any restaurant that ever has foie gras on the menu, or any community that thinks that white privilege exists and should be acknowledged and somehow fought...let alone any friends who would ever come and visit.

This leads to a second dilemma: Where to be?

1. I have quite a romantic notion of wanting to be off the beaten track and away from the hustle and bustle of much of contemporary society. And have partially lived that out...the first Washington farm I lived on was tucked back from any main road and could not easily be stumbled across, but within a 15 minute drive one could find a town chi-chi enough to have a wonderful French bistro, and in the broader community you would be more likely to spit and hit a liberal lefty loose-y hippie type than the opposite. The second Washington location I lived in was not as remote, as it was closer to town but in an area that was more sparsely populated. I could drive into town within 10 minutes, and while the food and restaurant scene wasn't quite as upscale, it did exist. I would be more likely to spit and hit dirt than any person, but if it did hit a person, they'd probably be a Trump supporter. The point here is: I want to be away from the crowd or possible suburban encroachment...but I also do like feeling like every person I interact with, whether at the gas station, the grocery store or a beer joint, doesn't fundamentally disagree with most everything I think.

To that end, my dilemma is about location and the varying factors that influence me in regards to it. When I left Washington coming east, my thought was I would move to Ohio and be near my many members of my mother's family, including my dear cousin and her family (including a goddaughter who will soon be two). Then at one point in the summer, I found myself thinking that Tennessee (where my father lives) was a better fit for me. Then, in the fall, I traveled to Pennsylvania and New York, and was reminded how much I actually delight in the company and conversation of dear friends who have known me for years and years.

So there are pros and cons to those three areas, each representing numerous variables: how often relatively cheap but not shitty land/houses are on the market, the politics and communities of those properties, the market for any thing I might labor to sell, the "prettiness" factor, the dynamics of my being in close proximity with different elements of family, the dynamics of being farther away from family but closer to friends. A further break down:

1. Tennessee is beautiful. It's got mountains (or plateaus) and valleys, and plenty of lakes and waterfalls to swim in. I love many aspects of the small town my father lives in, though I would never actually live in it full-time, as it is too expensive and has close to no large parcels of land at prices anywhere near my budget. The reality, however, is that the areas around that particular small university town, are the kinds of areas where one can drive a five mile stretch of country road and count at least two confederate flags. While I like the idea of being far away from folks, I'd also like to feel like the broader community I might interact with is not one where my "progressive" views on gay marriage, health insurance, the environment, and the importance of secularism would hardly be tolerated. I do not want a life of isolation to this extreme. Another way to put it is, I'd like to make friends...and it would be hard to be friends with people who so fundamentally think so much of what I think is right, is wrong. And I don't want enemies. In other words, I wouldn't want to live in an isolated spot where I became a target for animosity even if I wasn't particularly forthcoming with any of my views. Perhaps further complicating this, is that whenever my father and I spend even a bit of time together, the worst version of me becomes the predominant part of me. There's some lizard brain thing at work, where I simply regress to the most selfish and impatient self. There are reasons for this that are not unwarranted, but there are also reasons why I should be better than I am. Gainful employment in any capacity would be hard to come by, which would probably result to my working jobs that probably wouldn't be terribly satisfying, either financially or intellectually.

2. Ohio is also beautiful, in places, and in a much more rolling hills to flat land kind of way. That sounds mean, but there is great beauty in the large amount of the state that is taken up with small to large scale agriculture. But the question of community matching is just as prevalent as in Tennessee, when applied to Ohio. I get along much better with that portion of family, and would love to become the weird aunt whose farm is where the kids get dropped off for a weekend or week in the country. Here, too, the realities of where land is cheapest would suggest I would struggle for gainful/sustainable employment.

3. Pennsylvania/New York. The two general regions of each respective state I'd most like to inhabit are already saturated with city people money. In other words, land in those areas is at a premium due to rich folks wanting second bucolic homes. I couldn't compete with that, and would also fear that any parcel I might manage to get could quickly become even less rural with one developer's move. If I were to look a little farther afield, I would be perhaps still a bit closer to friends (who generally live in cities like Philadelphia or New York City) but I might still be in a fringe area as far as who my daily neighbors (and their politics) would be.

The employment dilemma:

So. Over the last few months I've been doing freelance editing. It pays well, especially if you have many, many clients. I have not had enough clients that I could truly support myself on this editing alone. Though it has generally floated me the last couple of months, as I have been gallivanting around ignoring the impending existential dread and lack of purpose I possess in spades. While I'd like to discuss a future expansion of clients with my current source of such work, it is not something to bank on or consider at all a guaranteed possibility. That said, I wish it could be. I wish I could work feverishly, from my own home, editing during the height of my employer's busy season (about 6 months or so) and then have enough saved up that some part-time work and scrimping could keep me independent and free to do as I'd like for another portion of the year.

But, as I said, the dream mentioned above is not necessarily something I could achieve. And what remains is tricky. When I left Philly a number of years back, I left in part because I no longer wanted to work in an office and in a job that left me feeling that I needed a vacation. Farm work gave me a sense of satisfaction, purpose, usefulness and health that I loved. But I did not love working for families, which were/are the main kinds of farms that I have the right experience for. I find that small family farm dynamics get tricky. They get tricky for radically different reasons, but the reality is the same: your employers are all related, you are not related to them, you are usually one of only a handful (or less) of employees, and there are no official channels or protocols for handling issues...and even if they technically exist, the reality is: they're families and they're going to look out for their own/themselves. So, generally speaking, while I might want to be a farmer on a small scale...I kind of don't want to be an employee of such a person.

This leaves me with a few possible channels of employment depending, in part, on the location dilemma. None of which are exciting...but perhaps the biggest issue in this overarching dilemma is that no source of employment sounds exciting to me...and I'm not actually independently wealthy. I could be a receptionist or admin assistant to some small company or person. I could be a waitress at a diner or restaurant. I could, perhaps, fake it til I make it as a bartender. But even these avenues of work are not guaranteed. I've worked as a customer service type phone person, I've worked as a waitress and as a bartender...but all these experiences are so many years in the past, that I'm not sure they would impress anyone but the most desperate...which, if it were a restaurant, would probably mean very low tips.

And these are my struggles. A disclaimer I most certainly have started this post with would be: I know I'm still in a position of privilege. I am not, at this moment in time, worried about how to pay for an electric bill, or to feed my (non-existent) kids. I have enough of a social safety net that I have the time to be stymied by these issues. I am a white woman, so even my concerns about living in an area that predominantly has a flavor of racism and conservatism are nothing compared to what they would be if I were a person of color.

I've had friends and family, from time to time, jump onto to my farm fantasy. They suggest pulling resources and doing something together. But on the whole those are their own fantasies. Their lives are those of functioning grown ups. They like or love me, and they like or love the idea of having an oasis elsewhere...but because they are already grown ups, they have too much already on the line to actually move forward with any such plans. And I also have the fear that I would let them down. While I'm fairly comfortable with being a failure to myself, I don't love the idea of straight up sucking or disappointing others (though my dad might be surprised to hear this).

Obviously this is a blog post that almost no one will read because no one reads blogs anymore. And obviously, I'm having some trouble feeling comfortable in the spot I'm in at this current moment...and it's leading to great heaping piles of anxiety, ennui, malaise, fear and confusion. There is a house I've been eyeing in this area. It's 13 acres and 120K. A part of me thinks I should just buy it, regardless of the trailer park just a quarter of a mile down the road, regardless of the lack of likeminded folks I'd be likely to find anywhere near it, regardless of how difficult it could be to find work. It's close enough to what I want and where I want it. But I cannot decide if that's jumping the gun or just deciding not to be so wishy washy.

I have made big dramatic choices in my life from time to time. Whether leaving home at 13 to go away to school (privilege alert, yes), going to grad school (again, yes), or leaving a relatively well-paying job in favor of far less pay across the country on a farm. I am capable of 'just doing it' but after long periods of agonizing. At this particular juncture I just can't tell whether I need to be patient a little longer. Weigh things out. Wait for the perfect property (which at my price point does not exist). Or if I should start committing to things again, for better or worse. Get me my own space and kitchen. Work at a Waffle House and save up for the improvements I'd need to make to make even a homesteader's goal of farming. I simply don't know. And you don't know either. And that's fine. It's just another dilemma.

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