“Would you prefer to ride a dragon, or a winged tiger?” Ula is skipping between Saoirse and me as we head up the road for a morning walk. “I have this one dragon, her name is Night Thrower, but she doesn’t usually throw people. She’s actually very gentle.”
I am guilty, once more, of only partially listening to her. My mind is turning over a conversation I’d had with my sister on Easter Sunday. The subject came up over breakfast that I had finally installed a donation button on my blog.
“Everybody’s looking for a hand out,” she said, shaking her head as she stood up from the breakfast table. “I can’t stand it.”
My stomach had begun to turn in knots.
I had wanted to scream at her: Why do you get to collect a paycheck at your off-farm job every week, but I have to work for free?
I didn’t say it out loud. But Mom heard me, anyhow. “You gave your work away for free,” she looked at me pointedly.
What I hate about my family is their ability to voice the exact conversations that happen quietly in my own head.
My sister’s comment has come out of my own mouth too many times to mention.
She and Mom put their finger on the quandary that has been turning my stomach for the past several months.
Should I ask for help?
It was a convergence of events that led me to decide to ask for donations. I’d been deeply moved by Amanda Palmer’s new book, The Art of Asking. In it, Palmer, an indy rock musician, eloquently outlines the act of asking as a potent tool for innovative work. Asking is a form of giving, she argues, a way of engaging your audience in the creative process and building community. She furthers her ideas by showing how the arts are changing. With the internet, the artist is no longer distanced from the rest of the world. She can step outside the fickle realm of corporate selection and endorsement. She is not imprisoned by the record label, or isolated by the book publisher, removed from the public by the celebrity status that cordons off a chosen few. She is also no longer denied the joy of contributing her art to society by virtue of the fact that her work may not have commercial appeal. The artist is part of the community, reflecting the angst, joy and energy that goes into building a better world.
If Palmer’s book wasn’t enough to spur my choice, then it has been the painful process of working through my family’s farm transition plans. Bit by bit, Mom and I have been dissecting each of the enterprises and looking at where time and money are being spent, in order to understand the bottom line and make sure the business can accommodate everyone’s basic needs. The honey business was marginally profitable. The sheep business is doing okay. But the day I had to divulge the details of my website and writing income was ugly.
But the clincher was the long standing chorus I’d heard from my friend Nancy. Nancy and her husband Matt moved to Schoharie County a few years back, right after some of their folk musician friends had relocated here. From the 1960s onward, they’ve invested their life energy into art and music, seeing both as powerful venues for social change. When they came here, the Daynards and their extended family of musicians extended that love to the local farms. We became great friends, except for one annoying habit of Nancy’s. For the last several years, she has called me nearly every month and asked me one question: How can I help you?
I never really had a good answer for her. And that’s because Amanda Palmer’s artsy eloquence and Matt and Nancy’s hippie values of love, peace and sharing collided head-on with my agrarian values of independence.
Farmers don’t ask for help. We deal with our own shit. And all too often, we find ourselves muttering the exact words that came out of my sister’s mouth on Easter Sunday. Everybody’s looking for a handout.
And it’s true. A lot of folks are looking for handouts. Our friends Cornelia and Greg bought our local derelict and defunct church hall. Slowly, with blood, sweat and tears, they have been rebuilding it into The Panther Creek Arts Center. They regularly send out emails asking for help replacing stairs, digging out foundations, rewiring. At the bottom of their website they have a tiny donation button. Ben Hewitt, one of my favorite writers and bloggers, who, like me, explores what it means to pursue a sustainable life on a daily basis, put a Generosity Enabler button at the top of the righthand sidebar of his website. Kathy Voth and Rachel Gilker, creators of On Pasture, a free website devoted to helping grass-based livestock farmers learn about current research, relevant farming news and the latest innovations, have an option on the menu bar at the top of the screen for membership and underwriting.
Everybody’s looking for a handout.
I return my attention to what’s happening on the walk. Saoirse and Ula are running ahead of me now. Ula’s riding the winged tiger, I think. I’m not sure if Saoirse has chosen her mount. I chose Night Thrower, in spite of her inauspicious name. She bucked a little bit when I first climbed up, and took off pretty fast, but Ula was able to reign her in. Now she offers me a gentle imaginary ride so that I can fall back and lose myself in my thoughts.
Why is everybody looking for a handout? Why is it that all these great ideas, all these powerful contributions to make community life more enriching, to make the sustainable path easier to vision, to make ecologically responsible farming more viable, cannot be supported through conventional economic transactions?
Because the conventional economy is broken. It has a distorted habit of placing little or no value on caring, nurturing, community building, innovation, or the sharing of ideas.
I wonder if Rachel and Kathy and Cornelia and Greg and Ben and I are just fools, wasting our energy on frivolity? I could make more money for my family spending the early hours of the morning making socks or soap. Or I could sleep in instead of getting up to write, then put in longer days at the farm. I try to imagine what life would be like if I just surrendered writing in entirety, turning my attention instead to ventures that held more direct economic value.
But before I can fully picture that change, Saoirse and Ula have darted off into the woods. They have tethered their imaginary mounts for the sake of picking up trash that has been tossed out people’s car windows. Their arms are full.
“Mommy? Can you help us?” They call out. “We want to clean this up, but it’s more than we can carry.”
How did they do that? They didn’t even think about it. They felt no guilt about asking for a handout. Their minds were wrapped up in creating the world of their imaginations – one where dragons are gentle and tigers can have wings. And they saw a blight on the earth—Something that had to be fixed in order to keep their world beautiful. They didn’t stop to ask if I would reward them for picking up the trash. They simply charged off and began doing what was right. And when the burden of the clean-up became too great, they did the next logical thing. They asked for help.
That’s what Cornelia and Greg are doing with the arts center. That’s what Rachel and Kathy are doing with On Pasture. That’s what Ben and I are doing with our blogs. We can see a world that contains gentle dragons and flying tigers. And we can imagine the work that must be done in order to let the dragons and the tigers fly together. And we don’t wait to see if that work will turn a profit. We just start. And when the burden becomes too great, we ask for help, asking others to join us as we work to create something bigger than ourselves. Maybe more of us should be asking for handouts.