little things

Autumn is in the air here in Sicily. Mornings are brisk and foggy and evenings require multiple layers. Strangely though, from the crocuses popping up all over, it seems the garden hasn’t gotten the message.

Best things right now are: juice-dripping candy-sweet plump and delicate persimmons littering the trees in the orchard; air that smells of overturned soil and fermenting grapes; smiles and waves from local folks who now feel much less like strangers and more like neighbors.

I’ve not been writing as much as I’d like to be or taking as many pictures as I should. I sometimes worry as moments pass throughout the day that I’m already forgetting them. Why aren’t I keeping a better written record? But there’s always this contention between experiencing things fully as they are happening and taking yourself out of the moment to record them. With only a handful of days left in October, I wish for a photographic memory.

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where i’m laying my hat

My sophomore year at university, I wrote a list of everything I could think of that I might want to do after I finished school. I still have the list, aptly title AFTER COLLEGE, and it includes everything from “USAID project in Afghanistan” to “30000 Island” (I don’t even know what this entry means — just looked it up and I’m still confused.) Anyway, halfway down the list is “live in Italy.”

Do you ever have a moment where things are a bit fuzzy and complicated and you have certain ideas but have no clue how to make them anything and then you blink and somehow the thing has come together? No? Neither do I. Except that somehow, I just have. That moment has happened to me in a really really big way and I’m still pinching myself really really hard.

In an unbelievable turn of good luck/hard work/finger crossing/etc. this magical spot is the place that I get to temporarily call home. And so, this June, instead of watching corn spring up green around me until it towers overhead, instead of gorging on strawberries, instead of bouncing around farmers markets and packing up evening picnics and going on long walks with my best friend, I am moving very slowly and cautiously in an attempt to drill into my brain every single scene. I am staring at fields of wheat and seeing them change from basil green to golden amber before my eyes. I’m watching globe artichokes rupture from tightly closed fists into the most ridiculous purple explosions. I’m taking lots of walks (often while listening to this) and constantly trying not to burst into tears over the beauty and magic and impossibility of the crazy world I’m living in right now. This June is one for the books.

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farm life

During my stint in Hawai’i, one question I got a lot was, “So, what exactly are you doing?” I think that is a legitimate question for a number of reasons. Those reasons include: 1. I was not doing ‘normal’ Hawaii things. 2. Many people (understandably) are unaware about what happens day-to-day on a farm. Here is my official answer to that question!

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I was working with a lot of food crops — planting, fertilizing, pruning, weeding, harvesting. One thing that I was not doing was watering. You do not often need to water plants on the eastern side of Hawai’i — check out how much rain the area gets in a year! Below are images of the main garden, as well as lilikois (Hawaiian passionfruit), avocados, lemons, and Hawaiian Hot Peppers, all crops that I dealt with on a regular basis.

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I also became a wheelbarrow aficionado. Below are big loads of cassava and sweet potato that would have been no fun to carry by hand. Wheelbarrows are so useful!

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I cooked and preserved the crops I harvested. Below are images of bananas being dehydrated and the banana stand from where I picked them, my typical haul of fruits in any given day, and guava jam I processed and ate over oatmeal.

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I handled lots of flowers and leaves. Below are images of the hydrangeas I picked weekly to put on my windowsill, and a bundle of eucalyptus that I dried and brought home.

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I cared for a number of animals, including this donkey named Gina.

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In addition to these tasks, I hauled manure and wood, removed invasive plants from grazing lots, and worked on small construction projects. My days started at 6am and ended before 10pm. It was a quiet life filled with many hours outdoors, in both the sun and the rain. A life of Aloha.

a bountiful harvest

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I’ve just arrived back in the chilly Midwest after three months in Hawaii. While there, I sowed a lot of seeds. I planted kale, chard, bok choy, black-eyed peas, broccoli, eggplant, peppers, and amaranth. I’m probably forgetting a few.

To thrive, these seedlings required my energy in various forms. First, they needed to be planted. Then they needed to be watered and weeded and fretted over. They needed to be hilled up. They needed heat. They needed fertilizer. They needed an XL dose of my best and fullest patience. (You may be realizing that these babies were some high-maintenance little punks).

Of course, these sprouted seeds will die if proper care is not taken. And if they don’t die, at the very least, neglect will cause them to shrivel. They will sit in their droopy-leaved discontent and wallow. But amazingly, when you go through the motions and put in all of the ingredients and think and consider and ponder and do it every day and waitwaitwait, one day you’ll walk out to the garden to take a peek after a time away and POW! There will be the fruits of your labor. Those sprouts will have become glorious! They will be craning their necks toward the shimmering sun. They will be stretching out their newly developed stems and branches as wide as they can reach. Like gems, there will be glittering flowers of pale pinks and yellows and creamy silky whites. And some of those flowers will have even turned into itty bitty versions of what will one day be an actual edible vegetable. And you’ll think to yourself, “Well holy shit! How in the world did this happen?” And then you’ll step back to think for a moment and the truth will come creeping into your consciousness, “Oh. I did this.”

That is, in a metaphor, what my nearly hundred days in Hawaii were. Not regarding the vegetables, (though everything is always a little bit about the vegetables) regarding me. It was about taking this confused and downtrodden and limping-along person that I had become out into the big world and sitting down with her. She and I had a lot to discuss. We planted our fears and insecurities and uncertainties and discontent and exhaustion. And then we tended to all of those things. And over time, just as in my garden, the uncanny happened. I grew and changed and blossomed. With hours spent listening to my own beating heart, practicing all the kindness I could conjure up, and daring to dig into and smooth out some murky and uneven terrain, the “seeds” that I planted turned into something else entirely.

Certainly this process is not finished yet. Just as I will each year go back out into the fields and till the earth and plant the seeds and care for them season after season, I will do the same with myself. It turns out that flourishing takes a lot of work! But it is certainly well worth the effort.