I'm not sure when it happened.
Perhaps it was the monogrammed, barbie pink hatchback sports cars so many area teens were driving, or the expensive designer, but still utilitarian household items I found myself collecting. Perhaps it was the year nearly every mailbox I saw was festooned with elaborate bows, bells and whistles. It could’ve been when I noticed a neighbor’s trash can by the road, full of all the decorations and strings of lights, which just days prior had adorned their front door and spilled into the manicured front yard. Then again, it might have been the groovy pink pave crystal flower case my daughter's 15 year-old friend had around her iPhone. Or perhaps it was the fake snow people tracked into the packed parking lot of the Outlet Shopping Mall on a 70 degree December day.
The tipping point was sly, stealthily gathering moments it flung into a pile so heavy I could ignore it no longer.
My life was unsustainable.
My health, thankfully, was fine- along with that of my family's. We had a roomy, attractive home in a large, modern subdivision just outside Raleigh, NC. The large 2-car garage was supplemented by a workshop out back with a studio and darkroom above- all heated and air conditioned, of course. Without fail, our house, mailbox, and yard sported the requisite seasonal holiday decorations, and our ornamental flower gardens were the envy of all those who would admit it. Our 4 children and their friends had the run of the 1.67 acre property, along with 36 laying hens, 2 vegetable gardens, a kamikaze tire swing, and a tacky blue above-ground swimming pool we bought in a box at Wal-Mart.
The Shearin house was Party Central. My husband and I gave countless parties, dinners, and picnics. Food was of fundamental importance. Even after I graduated with a degree in Culinary Art, quality, classic meals were a priority for me. I spent a large part of our household budget on high-end ingredients and wine, and with 4 mouths to feed, the procuring, planning, and creating of meals was a full-time job- only one part of my Homemaking career. As Chief Operating Wife, or COW, I was in charge of our image and our social obligations, as well. It was imperative that we kept up with the Jones's, so they could keep up with us. And for quite a long time, that was enough.
Then one day, the Meaningless Train we were riding on at breakneck speed came to a shuddering, alarming stop. It was my 40th birthday, and it was 105 degrees outside.
If I lived along the equator, a beastly hot day like that in September might not have phased me. But I wasn't in Mexico, Malta, Brazil or Greece. I was a simple Carolina housewife jogging on a treadmill in a house artificially cooled to 65 degrees- what I thought the air should feel like in the beginning of Fall.
And that's when the final straw fell into place.
Then I got up, dusted myself off, and made a new life.
It didn't happen right away. I'm no miracle worker, and I wasn't prepared to upset my children's lives to accomplish a dream I wasn't even sure I wanted in the first place. But everything pointed to it; the clothes, the home decor, the TV programs, the music, the car, the dogs, all of it. The Dream.
I wanted to be a Farmer.
(Once the laughter dies down, I'll continue...)
As I searched my soul, that day on the treadmill, I realized I didn't just want to work as a Farmer. I wanted a Real Life. I wanted my days to cycle around something other than shopping, decorating, planning parties, chasing kids, and hiding from the weather. I wanted to produce my own food, generate my own energy, and live sustainably in every way possible. I had the vision in my mind, and it all started with land.
After I finished my treadmill cry, I hustled to my computer and googled "Land for sale in NY State". My husband and I had visited the Empire State many times. Our best friend owns a dairy farm two hours north of NYC, and the whole family loved to take vacations on his property. I liked the Upstate NY countryside, and people there seemed friendly. Better still, the further north you travel, the cheaper the land becomes. As my search opened on the screen in front of me, I clicked the first link listed.
We bought the property 3 days later.
That chunk of vacant land is what we now call Winter'Rest Farm.
Changing lifestyles, jobs, and homes in the pursuit of happiness isn't for the faint of heart. It takes planning, tenacity…and money. It's far from easy. In fact, it’s so difficult some might think a total lifestyle makeover is only for the single, rich and childless. We were none of those things, so we had to write our own playbook. We spent 5 years planning. We bought a tiny Victorian cottage in need of renovation, 5 miles from the farm. We raided various investment accounts, built a long driveway, renovated the old pond on the farm, which was choked with cattails, and had a pole barn constructed.
The children were all part of this plan as well. The youngest two would be moving to a new, K-12 school with tiny class sizes, an engaged community, and lots of activities for everyone. But still a change I wasn’t entirely looking forward to. Moving the kids was the toughest part of the whole project. We wanted the new life to enrich them too.
Then, one hot August morning, after 5 long years, the day came to leave North Carolina. In full disclosure and hindsight, nothing about the move went according to plan. While the house was on the market, people hated the dated popcorn ceilings, the ragged upstairs carpet (like they don’t have destructive children), and our just-out-of-puppyhood dogs insisted on pooping in the garage, which of course worked to effectively repel any and all potential buyers. The upshot was that our house in NC didn’t sell by the time we were ready to leave, and we ended up renting it for a gut-wrenching two years before we finally unloaded it to the first willing victim…er, I mean buyer.
Downsizing from a large, modern subdivision home to a small, quirky historic cottage laid out like a rabbit warren is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Barely able to squeeze our belongings into the house, which we call Appleside Cottage, we’ve spent the ensuing 3 years shimmying around tables, beds, and trunks, collecting bumps and bruises while I navigated a house with countless doors and windows but almost no wall or storage space. Although we knew the little house needed work, the number of repairs and renovations piled up and were enough to make us question our decision to relocate to this tiny village north of Utica, NY. Furniture-related accidents weren’t the only unexpected malice the Universe put us through. As a Southerner adjusting to winter’s wicked sense of humor, I fell down both front and back porch steps, unaware that snow left in the L of steps create what can only be described as a ramp. The first time I skidded down the domestic ski slope, I was brought down with an entire tub full of BBQ drumsticks destined for the nearby grill. (I hadn’t yet learned that snow-belters put their outdoor equipment away when it’s below zero). Food injuries took a back seat to road mishaps, however. On tires with enough tread left to be perfectly passable in the South, I skidded into several curbs, fortunately with no lasting damage, only the lingering lesson of the value of beefy treads, and quick reflexes.
Appleside tested our mettle, but so did other aspects of our life. My husband dropped a tractor battery on his hand, crushing his wedding ring into the ligaments of his finger- which of course, could have been worse, the gold band taking the brunt of the force. I winged myself with an onion and a Japanese Mandolin like the clumsiest first-day culinary student. Those are just two examples. All in all, I hurt myself more in the first 2 years of life as a pseudo Farmer, than all 12 years as a suburban housewife combined.
It wasn’t all bad. The realization of our dream was so stunning, it’s taken months for the reality to soak in. Authenticity is a noble concept when you’re safe and secure in your tufted leather recliner, with your crystal snifter of cognac. But when you’re two-stepping with cobwebs, dirt, dubious historic construction techniques, and diabolical interior decorating choices spanning 130 years, your perspective changes.
Don’t get me wrong. Appleside Cottage is a lovely place, but it was only meant to be a temporary base from which to build our farmhouse. Our goal is to build a log cabin soon, but for now, we’re camping in this old Victorian, bringing her back to life as she shelters us in ours. The farm is by no means fallow. We’ve been through 2 seasons of raising our own pigs. This year, we not only invested in 5 pigs, but 36 meat chickens as well. I make most of our household bread and baked goods, jams, jellies, preserves, and pickles. My husband Jeff does 95% of the home renovations, and repairs, and is the one with the vision for the Farm.
We don't throw parties any more, or decorate our mailbox. We don't have time. And even if we did, the money we'd spend on fripperies is usually needed for fencing, feed, or equipment. When I need something for myself or the house, I usually either "patch and make do", or find it at a thrift shop or Ag supply store. And that's not to malign people who do love to throw parties, shop at expensive boutiques, or drive flashy cars. But for me, that chapter was at it's end. I needed something else.
We still have a long way to go. We're still commuting from Appleside Cottage to the farm each day. There is still no well or electricity to operate it. We haul water manually to our animals. The log cabin we dream of is still a couple of years away. We may not be living on the ground itself, but we’re farmers just the same. The house is just a detail.
Recently, I read a quote that seemed to sum up our lifestyle makeover: “Nothing is worse than fear, except regret”. Maybe. I go out of my way to avoid fear. But regret is slippery, and can be wrapped in a glossy coat of compliance, conformity and submission. Under that socially acceptable psycho-babble is the waste of potential, which to me is infinitely more tragic than mere regret.
The first step in following your own dream is to recognize it. The rest is just a detail. Don’t ever let that stand in your way.