Sunday, April 11, 2010

Speaking, not Talking

This week I found myself with not one, but TWO, separate speaking engagements. This is strange, because while I enjoy public speaking, it's not necessarily something I get to do on a regular basis. (But my mom gets to do it for a living.)

Through various twists and turns, contacts and networking, two different folks asked me months ago if I would consider speaking on generally the same topic: my job, and being a woman working in the international arena. Being a raging narcissist, in love with her job and used to shooting her mouth off in public, who was I to say no? :)

It just so happened they both fell on the same week. For the first one, on Wednesday, I headed down to the MN arboretum in Chaska for the Minnesota Agricultural Leadership Conference. (PS the Arboretum is AMAZING). I hosted a breakout session on my job, my company and what we're doing to help women around the globe. The audience were farmwifes, FFAer's, Farm Bureau and Farm Credit employees, and a host of other women involved in agriculture.

I alternatively love the agricultural community, and am at odds with it. I grew up on a conventional small-grain farm, of mid-size. We are not organic, although I follow the organic argument closely (as evidenced by my earlier blogs). I love the smell of the soil, field full of amber waves of grain (no lie!) and combines moving slowly across the plains at dusk, in a haze of chaff. I am drawn to people with a no-nonsense, hardworking, dry-humored, self-effacing personality. I find Ole and Lena jokes hilarious.

Although I enjoy - and even love - these things - I don't think I'll ever be apart of this community. First, I am most decidedly not a Republican. I see taxes as a necessary part of our Social Contract (I've seen what happens in countries where no one pays them). I read the New Yorker. I love high heels. Hogs do not make my limbs tingle. (One woman I met told me that she'd love to travel more, but she's marrying a hog farmer. I had to suppress the urge to take her aside and tell her to RUN. RUN FAST.)

It's so strange. I was drawn in at the conference; these women are strong, educated, competent, living their passion, just like me. Aside from the politics, we're pretty much the same. Then why is it that the agricultural community gets such a bad rap for being stupid hicks? When I lived in DC, I would often get the remark that I "didn't look like I was from a farm". (WTF?) My stock answer was that I only broke out my overalls for special occasions.

My brother received a book for Christmas called Hollowing Out the Middle, about the brain drain and subsequent decline of small towns. This is a real problem, as towns get smaller, but still need city clerks, smart mayors, and a tax base to keep themselves alive. So, how do we stop people from leaving? How do we invigorate smalltown communities where memories of Lick m' Sticks at Ben Franklin's and DQ ice cream after swimming lessons still live?

How can I even contemplate this without looking at my own choice in lifestyle? It's very painful to realize you want to fix a problem, but you don't want to put forth the skin to be part of the solution. I could never, never move back to my hometown. I am often in awe of my brother, who did just that, and is now doing his part to find grant funding to keep our community alive. I am in awe of my best friend, who farms with her brother, in the adjacent community. I am in awe, and I find myself lacking. They've got the guts, and I've got...a speaking engagement.

What's even funnier is that my friends in DC look to me as the agriculture "expert". I laugh, ruefully.

So, I'm stuck. I'm stuck working for an agricultural conglomerate in the big city, visiting my dying hometown for Christmas, Easter and the occasional funeral, and speaking to the community as if I know exactly what they're going through. I thought by moving back to Minnesota that I'd finally marry my two passions, but it seems, I'm just as mixed up as before. As I grow older, I am finding that it's not enough to recognize the world is not black and white, but to be comfortable with the very large grey part in the middle.


Sarah said...

I don't think that being a Republican or is a prerequisite for being a farmer or living in a small town (the F in DFL is for farmer, after all). :)
But I agree that there are distinct barriers against people like you and me moving back. For example, where the heck would I fit in after being gone all these years? New Yorker subscriber or not, I'm just no longer a part of the community. And where would I find satisfying work? My family doesn't farm anymore and I don't have one of those skill sets needed in a rural area. And yet, I want the vitality of my hometown to be maintained - I'm just not sure I can contribute much.

Ren du Braque said...

One last note. You see the problem and then you avoid it. It's all just a giant grey zone. It's all about choices. Unfortunately, there are choices we would like to make, but they just aren't feasible. And we should be asking ourselves, why can't this work? Why must it be this way? Somehow along the road towards a successful career and lots of education, we've steeped ourselves in a blinding passion that has turned us into Panglossian parrots. Maybe we need to start to make the difficult choices not based on individual choices and empowerment (like having a baby all by oneself) and start re-thinking our lives in spite of how difficult that would be.

At the very least, we could stop taking a suffocating but somehow comforting grey magic marker and drawing over things we don't want to look at.

I am not one who is leading by example. All I know how to do well is drive myself and others crazy by refusing to go along with very frequently professed ideologies.

A good place to start is to put the "culture" back into agriculture, and that means bridging the gap between small towns bled dry by large argicultural firms and picked over by Wal-Mart and the effete urban classes.

I wish you the courage to resolve this question better than I have.