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Our March 2020 newsletter, written in mid-February, described new connections that we hoped to grow. We’d just begun regular visits to the Springbrook senior housing complex. We were planning in-person Screen-Free Week activities and a neighborhood dance. We were reaching out to invite new community members to join the farm as Lorraine and Zach prepared to move away. And then along came COVID.
For the first couple of months I expected life to get back to normal soon. Instead, a year later, COVID is surging (it has spread, and killed, in our county this winter as it did not during the early part of the pandemic), and social distancing matters more than ever. During the growing season we had many outdoors visitors , but now Lorraine and I hardly see other people. (Zach is the designated errand-runner so still has some more outside contacts.) I hear from neighbors and from far-off friends about the loneliness that comes with taking necessary precautions, as well as the loneliness that comes with the deepening divide in our perceptions of what is real. I’ve written more about that particular loneliness and division in my article “Fear, Sanity, and Community” below. I think it is made worse by the straightforward loneliness of plague-year isolation.
I still don’t have a clue when or whether things will get back to “normal.” We’re focusing on finding safe ways to keep up connections during this lonely time. Lorraine calls other people who are feeling the effects of COVID isolation, and she also finds connection and encouragement in those conversations. Zach drops books, music, and plants off for our nonagenarian friend, and we enjoy hearing her take on what she reads and hears. I’m writing more letters and enjoying hearing from people who take time to write back substantively. And I try to keep rooted in prayer, to remember that, however lonely we may feel, we are all one in the One.
The Pulaski Community Services Task Force still meets monthly by phone so that official social service agencies, small volunteer groups, and others can share information and find ways to cooperate. COVID has complicated the work of keeping people fed and housed, and of helping people navigate systems that were confusing enough before. But at the meetings people keep reporting that neighbors have been unexpectedly generous and there is still enough to share. I am grateful for our meetings. I miss the time when we could gather in person, when people hung around in small groups after the meetings to discuss projects they might try together, when it was possible to put a hand on someone’s shoulder when they were grieving or frustrated. I also hear from some agencies that if/when COVID recedes they will keep offering phone and online services for their clients who live in remote areas and may not have reliable transportation to get the help they need. That’s another good thing that has come out of this hard time.
We’re trying to plan for free non-electronic Screen-Free Week activities that families can do at home, or outdoors in very small or self-guided groups. This is more complicated because this year the school’s spring break week, when we’ve traditionally scheduled Screen-Free Week activities, spans the end of March and the beginning of April so the weather’s likely to be cold. During the pandemic constructive activities are more important than ever, and also harder to plan safely. We’re figuring that out as best we can, and I’ll report on the results in the June newsletter. Some suggestions for indoor and outdoor family activities which we put together last spring are on the “Live and Learn” page of our website.
I’ve spread the word about our search for new community members in various forums. A few people have responded. Often the ensuing conversations show that inquirers are looking for something other than what this community offers. I have gotten used to this place and this life, and I forget how odd some aspects of it are. We’re religious enough to alarm some people, and insufficiently tied to any particular form of religious orthodoxy for other people. I have been reminded that manual labor is growing less popular even when it’s directly paid for, and this life outside the usual systems of financial security understandably alarms some people. I still know there is something in this life which visitors have found meaningful as well as disconcerting. (See Lorraine’s article on page 4.) I’m still in conversation with some people who intend to come visit us in the growing season when it will be easier to work and talk together in COVID-safe ways. I am also thinking about other organizations that could make good use of this land if I cannot find new community members to stay here with me.
I wrote above about trying to remember that I am still connected to all living souls even in lonely times. I also try to remember that, while this place has been home to me for a long time now, it is not my home. Many people have built and loved and learned from St Francis Farm, and in some way it will continue to be a place of gift and labor and prayer. I try to remember, also, that I am at home everywhere and nowhere in this difficult, beloved world. –Joanna
Once this health crisis passes, our worst response would be to plunge ever more deeply into feverish consumerism and new forms of egotistic self-preservation. God willing, after all this, we will no longer think in terms of “them” and “those,” but only “us” … If only this immense sorrow may not prove useless, but enable us to take a step forward towards a new style of life. If only we might rediscover once for all that we need one another, and that in this way our human family can experience a rebirth, with all its faces, all its hands, and all its voices, beyond the walls we have erected.
–Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti
Retrospective by Lorraine
This winter has given me an opportunity to look back over my years at the farm before moving on to the next phase of my life. I decided to go back and read records of groups and letters received, things saved by year and filed away without any particular purpose. Now I’m very glad to have saved them for the memories they bring and for how much clearer the path we’ve traveled seems in hindsight even though I’ve only read through 2010. For years while we didn’t address the questions and problems posed by groups in newsletters, we tried to make hosting service weeks work for us and those who came. In hindsight our decision to stop seems inevitable but not a failure. I can even see that we were “planting seeds,” an assertion that irritated me when I saw the stony ground so clearly and forgot the fertile soil since we almost never saw the growth.
At first what we’d taken on seemed overwhelming, and we just tried to cope day by day. We had to borrow money to pay property taxes that first fall, and groups had been a main source of income. Some were already scheduled for 2002, and some of those canceled after 9/11 or because of growing concerns around sexual abuse within religious institutions. We didn’t know what to expect since none of us had ever gone on a service trip and Joanna and Zach hadn’t even gone to school. The few groups we had helped with in the summer had been rather confusing with our being new and everyone else in the process of leaving. But we did know some things we wanted to do differently.
We wanted to be able to begin our days with half an hour of silence whether a group was here or not. People with more group experience told us that would only work “perhaps once in the week if the group were really mature,” but given the choice between joining us or planning their own morning prayers, group leaders chose to join us. Some weeks our visitors were restless for the first day or two, but by the end of the week many mentioned that way of prayer as something new that they wanted to take home with them. Before meals, instead of asking one of the visitors to lead a prayer which we had noticed often caused embarrassment, we gathered in a circle, holding hands while we paused to be thankful. Anyone who wished could pray aloud and sometimes we sang a blessing as we’d seen migrant workers do during the Spanish Apostolate retreats. The prayer circle before meals received favorable comments on the feedback from groups over the years.
Work was puzzling—there was plenty that needed to be done—but it didn’t always fit for a group. As fewer groups came, we did more work that didn’t depend on them. Having less income, we focused on producing more of what we ate, cutting more firewood and buying less oil, learning to repair whatever needed fixing. Off-farm projects couldn’t always wait for a group week. When I was hired to coordinate the after-school program at Rural & Migrant Ministry and the others at the farm were regular volunteers, we had to balance that with hosting groups. Some were helpful with the children, and some just made that work more difficult. Group leaders often wanted to do some project at Unity Acres, but that wasn’t always convenient for the staff there. Many found the farm work challenging but rewarding and some were pleased to learn some new skills, but often the work didn’t meet expectations of what a “service trip” should be. Supervising a dozen “helpers” who had little experience of manual labor was hard with just three of us—even if nothing broke down and no one showed up needing our help or attention.
Our stated mission of living an alternative to the consumer culture led us to question “selling” a group experience at the farm to the privileged. Volunteers who came on their own lived and worked with us without money changing hands or major disruptions to the rhythm of our days. Group leaders wanted the students to bond as a group and not to question the ideas about success of their school or community. They wanted them to “serve the poor” and to feel good about “sacrificing” their time to come here. Feedback at the end of a week often mentioned not making enough community contacts. But when Deacon Sweenie brought us two migrant workers just hours before a college group arrived, students complained about having a Spanish language table, and a Spanish major refused to talk with the men whose “grammar was bad.” But they would have liked the “experience” of visiting a migrant camp. We canceled time scheduled with local children one spring break because we didn’t want them to have to mix with some very rude and foul-mouthed high school boys here for a group week. One group leader’s frequent comments about “illegal aliens” and “welfare cheats” raised concerns about how we could welcome people in our community while hosting groups.
The history of hosting groups, the expectation that we would continue, and the evident benefits to some of the visitors made it hard to give up hosting groups. We were advised to visit Nazareth Farm and model ourselves on it, to bring in “enthusiastic young people” to run groups and stick to farm work ourselves. I’m grateful to Sr. Louise who told us in 2001 that we didn’t need to do what others had done before us, that we had our own gifts and should use those to meet the needs we encountered. I’m grateful to Vince who, after spending 3 weeks here in 2007, told us in a letter that visitors might just be starting down a road that we had been traveling for some years. He prayed that we would stretch to reach back to them while we reached forward toward Christ. Reading feedback and letters from so many who have spent time here, I wonder where they are and what they are doing and thinking. I hope the ones who found inspiration here have carried that with them and spread it in their own ways. And I hope the ones who were offended or dissatisfied with their experience here have found in some other place what they most need.
Selected quotes from group evaluations over the years:
We valued the morning silence— a way of praying and being in community that we don’t experience much.
I wasn’t sure about the idea of participating in your daily life, but the way things went met our objectives better than most trips we do. (2002)
Your open spirit allowed us to really listen and speak our minds. (2003)
The work was hard, but a good kind of hard. I learned the most from the migrant workers.
I’ve never eaten so healthy and still felt so satisfied.
I learned to set aside distractions and think deep down, how to reach out to people instead of judging by appearances.
I loved time to notice the sounds of nature and to do manual labor as a group. (2004)
I felt pressured to set aside all I have known all my life.
SFF has yet to find balance among prayer, work for itself, and work in the community.
I admire how you dealt with a difficult group. Those of us who had a positive experience will carry it with us forever.
Prayer took some getting used to but became quite peaceful.
Sharing in picking, preparing meals and cleaning up made us feel like part of the farm family. (2005)
I slowed down and thought about my life in the silence which was odd at first.
Some of the work seemed trivial and pointless. Wanted to help at UA, more experience of poverty.
I think you should be grateful enough that groups come to volunteer.
I found that the Catholic identity was missing. I was discouraged and overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work that is needed to maintain the farm.
A trip to Nazareth Farm would give you an idea of what I wish for at SFF. (2006)
Work is hard and may seem daunting but in the end is rewarding. It helped to have quiet time, a set time to think about things. The food was new but delicious.
Work was hard and complicated. So much to be done as if it never ended. Really hard to just sit for half an hour of silence when we just got out of bed.
So much of what I believe was continually revealed to me during hours of work. (2007)
Liked open discussion but opinions were harsh—alternative to consumer culture was evident but not a life based on the gospels.
I tried new foods and actually liked them. We did more work than I expected but I liked it better.
More people should live simplier but not to this extreme.
I couldn’t stand the smell of the water. I liked working with my hands in the garden.
The food wasn’t my favorite—it tasted weird. Silent prayer was uncomfortable because I didn’t know what to do really.
The silence is a great way to wake up and let your senses slowly come back to you. I’m not sure if you can call it work when you’re enjoying it. You’ve made the week fun and enjoyable, complex and intriguing. (2010)
This winter I have been spending a lot of days in the shop, which provides some income to the farm and gives me time to build more instruments. I know that once spring comes I will not be able to do this nearly as much, so I am trying to get caught up now while I can. In past years we used to make toys for the refugee center in Syracuse in the winter, but since 2017 there have been few or no refugees coming into the country, and with the pandemic going on we are not able to continue the outreach to local senior citizens that we began last winter. I’ve been going into town one day a week to do necessary errands, and other than that we’ve just been keeping to ourselves. I’m looking forward to spring when we’ll be able to have visitors again once it warms up and we can spend time outside or on the porch.
The weather this winter has not been conducive to getting out to cut firewood like I did last winter. At first it was too warm, going above freezing most days so that the ground stayed soft, and more recently the snow has begun to pile up to more of a depth than I can get through with the equipment we have, though it’s not as deep as it has been in some of our winters here. I’ll just cut the firewood in the spring like I have usually done, and that should be fine, since we don’t have any large repair projects scheduled for this year. Our current firewood supply is holding up well. The main woodshed will likely be empty sometime in the first half of March and this year I will go ahead and burn the wood in the emergency stack out in the barn, as it has been there for 2 or 3 years, before starting in on the regular spring and summer wood piles. The boiler was staying hot better than usual through the fall and early winter, but we didn’t seem to be able to get the heat out into the building as much as we wanted to. I replaced the circulator pump since it was more than 8 years old and I was afraid it might be getting weak, but it didn’t help the situation. I couldn’t think what else to try, but finally it occurred to me to try replacing the thermostat in the mixing valve on the boiler intake which controls the intake temperature. I found that the old one was stuck about halfway open, and that was what was keeping the boiler hot without letting enough heat into the building. Since then it has been working fine, and I’ve learned a new thing about the boiler system.
I sawed a lot of lumber during December, finishing a few days before Christmas, and have not run the sawmill since, partly because the weather has made it hard to skid logs and partly due to lack of demand for lumber. We sold a lot of lumber in December and since then hardly any, but that’s not unusual as it always fluctuates unpredictably. Now the loft is full, so there will be lumber to sell when people start to want it again.
We didn’t start to get a lot of snow till January, and one day when I went out to blow snow with the tractor the PTO driveshaft broke apart. I had hoped to get parts in town, but the blower we have uses an odd gearbox and I had to order parts online and wait for them to come. In the meantime I used the blower as a plow, which was okay but not quite as effective. Once the parts came it was a very easy repair.
Fear, Sanity, and Community by Joanna
In the aftermath of the mob violence at the Capitol, I hear some liberals and conservatives responding to the great gulf in how Americans perceive reality by saying that people on the other side are mentally ill. My response to this is complicated by my own struggles with mental illness and my memories of our attempts to make a safe place here at the farm for other people dealing with mental health issues.
I know that kind, thoughtful, and reasonably clear-sighted people may disagree with me about the things that matter most to me. I used to think I knew how to discuss those disagreements constructively. That feels harder given the growing disconnects in our understandings of reality. I am bewildered and alarmed when people—including some whom I know and love–say the COVID pandemic is a hoax or a bioweapon. Or when they say a demonic conspiracy is controlling the government and the media and also all of us ordinary people on the “wrong side” of the political spectrum. Or when they condone violent actions to redress these imagined threats. I don’t know how to reasonably discuss our differences or seek common ground, since what I see as clear facts appear to them as Communist or demonic lies.
I am tempted to say, “These people are sick in their minds and are beyond hope” — to write them off. Some people have done this with me, saying that I have been brainwashed or am suffering from “Trump Derangement Syndrome.”
There is no such syndrome, and I haven’t been brainwashed, but I have been sick in my mind. I’ve struggled with anxiety, obsessions, and compulsions. I know how it felt to live in a world shaped by fear, how hard it was to hear other people over the blaring of my internal alarms. I remember thinking that I was protecting other people and doing a good and necessary thing (for instance, by washing my hands over and over and over to prevent imagined deadly contamination) when in fact I was just creating problems (by wasting time and hot water, making my skin crack and bleed, and worrying the people who loved me). I remember resenting loved ones’ concerns and insisting vehemently that I was JUST FINE. I remember my elaborate pseudo-rational explanations for the unreasonable things I believed and did. Sometimes as I listen to friends with bizarre and frightening beliefs I wonder if they are stuck in a similar place.
I’m not saying these friends are clinically mentally ill. I see that there are differences between private delusions and belief in widely shared lies. My unreasonable fears originated in my own brain and looked bizarre to the people around me, who urged me to get help. No public figures or online groups stoked my fears or praised me for acting on them. And while my sickness sometimes prompted me to feel misunderstood and resentful, it never prompted me to believe that other people were evil/possessed/not really human.
But I hear that people gravitate to conspiracy theories partly because they want a sense of control in a world that feels out of control, and that feels familiar. Once I had admitted my obsessive/compulsive tendencies, my mother asked me, “Is there any reason why you hold onto this? Is there something about this that you want to believe?” I insisted indignantly that there wasn’t. Eventually I actually stopped and thought about the question. Then I realized that all my elaborate irrational stories came down to one basic pattern: if I don’t do things just right, people I care about will be harmed. And this was appealing because of the implied converse: if I do things just right, people I love won’t be harmed. I can keep them all safe. Once I recognized what I had been saying to myself, I saw that it was a lie, I saw why I had wanted to believe it, and I saw why it made me miserable. After that it was easier—not easy, but easier—to let go of that lie.
I had to choose to let go of my lies. No one else could do that for me. But various things outside me helped. The loving challenges/questions, and the ongoing love, of family and friends were great helps. Books teaching constructive coping strategies helped. Doing basic necessary work, often in the fresh air and under the open sky, also helped.
We’ve offered constructive work, time in nature, resource books, emotional support, and clarity to others who come to the farm dealing with mental health struggles. Sometimes we’ve been a constructive or healing place for people who knew that they were struggling with various forms of anxiety or depression. Sometimes we haven’t been able to keep up a constructive connection or we’ve realized they needed a kind of help we couldn’t give. And we’ve found no good way to help people who do not perceive themselves to be (or at least do not admit being) mentally ill.
There are many things I don’t understand about how we might heal as a nation. But I wish that we could hold onto compassion for people stuck in fear and in false stories, and that we could keep doing basic work together. I’ve seen people with painfully divergent political views come together to feed hungry folks or contact isolated elders. Such shared work doesn’t necessarily change political views, but it weakens the sense of helplessness and isolation which make people more vulnerable to Big Lies, and it undermines the belief that all those people on the other side are scary and evil.
I hear some people say that calls for unity come at the expense of justice– that to reach out to people with extremist views is to abandon the people most imperiled by those views. I see that the danger of extremism is real and growing. I see, also, that the people threatened by extremists are also harmed by deep ongoing injustices in how our systems normally operate. We all take part in an economy that exploits low-wage workers and dumps toxic wastes in poor communities—and people’s vulnerability to these injustices is also influenced by race and immigration status. We all have large blind spots about class, race, religion, and other issues which allow us to speak and act harmfully, or to ignore the harm being done by “our people.” We are all prone to believing false stories about the world that help us hold onto a sense of control, or a sense of blamelessness. I don’t want us to unite by continuing to accept those false stories. I also don’t want us to unite with “our people” by vilifying “their people” while ignoring the vile tendencies in ourselves and our groups. I wish we could unite in recognizing our common frailty, the harm we all do, and the mercy and justice we all need. I wish we could unite in the commitment to see more clearly, to do justice, and to love kindness. Then maybe we could practice sanity together. Then maybe we could grow communities just and strong enough so that we wouldn’t be so desperately afraid.
For Christians, the words of Jesus…compel us to recognize Christ himself in each of our abandoned or excluded brothers and sisters (cf. Mt. 25:40.45)…Still, there are those who appear to feel encouraged or at least permitted by their faith to support varieties of narrow and violent nationalism, xenophobia and contempt, and even the mistreatment of those who are different… We need to develop the awareness that nowadays we are either all saved together or no one is saved. –Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti (Brothers All)
My natural inclination was to see relationships, to seek the threads that connect the world, to join instead of divide.–Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
We’ve updated the Readings section on our webpage with book recommendations and quotes from our winter readings. Here are some titles that made us think. Tell us what you’ve been reading and thinking about.
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Fratelli Tutti (Brothers All) by Pope Francis
Twenty Years at Hull-House by Jane Addams
So far February seems much wintrier than December did, with knee-high snow and single-digit temperatures, but the light is lengthening, the greenhouse plants growing again after a long winter stasis, and the spring work coming on. By the time this reaches you Zach may be boiling down maple syrup, I may be pruning apple trees and starting seedlings, and some of the rabbits may be pregnant.
We’re expecting a goat kid in early May—a little later than usual, since the car was broken down on the first occasion when we might have taken the goat to be bred. Zachary contacted the butchers early to get a pig processing appointment, since last year the place was fully booked and we only got in through their extra generosity. Our old hens are still laying copiously through the cold gray days. We’re not starting new chicks this year, since it’s not at all clear if there will still be a core community here next year to eat the eggs they lay.
We’re waiting to see whether or not the shiitake logs we inoculated last spring will produce. They didn’t produce a late fall harvest as some earlier batches have done, but they may just have been delayed by the summer drought.
Last winter eagles began showing up on our land to scavenge, and we began relocating roadkill to the hayfield so we could eagle-watch more conveniently. This January we spotted a dead deer in the stream and Zach hauled it out of the water and moved it to the field. We enjoyed watching the ravens and eagles until the snow buried the deer. (Alas, they mostly preferred to show up when the snow was falling thickly enough to impede picture-taking.) Nothing is wasted…
If all the world is a commodity, how poor we grow. When the world is a gift in motion, how wealthy we become.
–Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass