My great-grandparents were immigrants, and children of immigrants to America. Though I know only some of their stories, I do know that they lived through times of intense struggle. They were well aquainted with hard work, lived through the fear and scarcity of war time and the Great Depression. They knew things that our culture no longer knows. They knew how to grow their own food, raise animals, store and preserve the harvest. I don't have them in my life anymore, and at times I look at their photos, knowing I'm connected to them... and sob. I cry for all the wisdom and advice I wish I could glean from them. I long to share this homesteading life I've grown to love, knowing they would understand. Because of this yearning, I am enthralled with reading other immigrant's stories.
In one of my favorite books, (The Unprejudiced Palate - written in 1948) Angelo Pellegrini, an Italian immigrant, shares his own experience of coming to America, along with what he believes to be the essential elements of living 'the good life':
"I had known scarcity, had lived on intimate terms with it's agonizing reality, and the discovery of it's opposite [abundance]... was an experience so maddening with joy, so awful and bewildering, that I am not yet fully recovered from the initial shock."
He writes about the struggle to survive in Italy. His arrival in America - and how amazed he was at the abundance of food here. He was shocked by the American's disrespect and wastefulness of food (even then). He describes a typical Immigrant's life in America - how many of their homes were simple and sparse - but they were rich in food:
"It is consistently good because, in a land of plenty, [the immigrant] has set his standards of self-nourishment high. He subsidizes his fluctuating income by wringing from his environment all that it will yield... Regardless of his means, he will garden his plot of ground because he knows the vital difference between cold storage and tinned peas, and those plucked from the vine an hour before they are eaten. Furthermore, challenging the soil for it's produce is in his bones, the pleasure of eating what he raises is insperably fused with the pleasure of raising what he eats. But it all adds up to a gay life, a life rooted in earth."
I can't quite describe how reading and re-reading this book touches something deep inside of me.
All that hard work adds up to a happy life - a life rooted in the earth. Yes. Yes. Yes.
I reflect on our years we spent struggling in our own way. We were not living through war time - but we were fighting our own battle to make ends meet. As a young family, we left our own struggle to survive in California, and 'immigrated' to Colorado in search of a more affordable and full life. During our first 6 years here, we'd bought our first home and brought 4 daughters into the world. My dedicated husband worked several different jobs through those early years trying to find a fit.
After 2 layoffs in a row, he worked road construction, did carpet cleaning, and at the lowest point, even delivered milk at night. We have experienced our own kind of struggle. I know the embarrasment of not having enough cash at the checkout. I know the mixed feeling of gratitude and humiliation having friends or family drop off a bag of groceries, or slip a check into our mailbox. These experiences changed me. I learned how to make ingredients stretch. Which vegetables were least expensive and could be made into many different dishes. I tasted the emotions that go along with financial strain.
I fell in love with the process of growing our own food. It was a necessity. In a way - I was going back in time. I began learning about cultivating the ground, growing the crops for our own consumption, as well as raising animals for meat. I had never known the joy and satisfaction of setting a meal on my table - made up completely of what we had grown. To take part from start to finish, in the hard work of planning, cultivating, tending and finally, harvesting and enjoying the bounty. My great grandparents must have known how this felt.
Angelo Pellegrini knew it too. He writes:
"My home and the surrounding plot of ground reflect an attitude and a way of life; and the achievement of this harmony between myself and my dwelling has given my life a personal significance it would not otherwise possess. I have sought and found the significance latent in little things."
Living on an urban homestead really does "reflect an attitude and a way of life". It takes immense effort, love and care to get things to grow. Not only is it satisfying to harvest what springs from my labors - there is a determination not to waste anything. This means I've come to see food differently than I once did. Because I spend so much time here on my neighborhood farm, my girls learning from home, I am rarely immersed in our 21st century culture. Many of my days DO look like those of years past: tending the animals, working the soil, making meals from what is growing and in season, preserving the harvest. We schedule our learning around the seasons and the work that has to be done, doing much reading and research by the fire in the quieter winter months. We are definitely 'finding the significance latent in little things'.
We have come through those years of intense struggle. My husband has since found his niche, loves his trade, and enjoys steady work. But being self-employed can still put us in tight spots from time to time.
And I'll admit - when money is tight, it can trigger those old feelings of fear, insecurity and scarcity - that there may not be, or isn't enough.
Until take a deep breath...
...and look outside my window.
Ron Finley - an urban gardening 'geurilla' in LA says: "Growing food is like printing your own money".
Nothing pulls me up out of that fear-filled pit of scarcity like walking through my garden. I can feel frustrated and sad when funds are tight ... but seeing the bounty of wealth growing up all around me changes my thinking.
I often feel torn between two worlds.
The world of my immigrant ancestors: Living simply, gratified by the hard work and time it takes to provide for ourselves, grateful for the bounty of each season, spending our time together, learning, working and eating as a family...
The 21st century reality of my culture: Busyness that leaves no room for slow enjoyment of simple things. The push to consume and acquire every convenience, valuing quick, easy and cheap regardless of the effect on our bodies or the environment.
I love living in town and being a part of our community, but when we jump back into that 21st century world, my mindset can slip from gratitude for my simple life I've worked so hard for - to comparison and ingratitude.
In our world today, the public relies on having food available and fast, and expects it to be abundant and cheap. We look to the grocery store for the food to sustain us. No desire to cook? There is always take-out. Because we are used to this convenience system, (which, by it's nature only provides us with mediocre flavor and low nutrient value, despite it's dizzying array of selection) we leave hardly any space in our lives for one of the most essential elements of our survival, and what was historically one of the most enjoyable aspects of life.
Before our slow food journey began, I too saw food this way. With no thought about where or how this food was grown, or how many miles it traveled to get to our plates. Convenience and selection. This is what our culture demands.
This summer, we were heading home from a party, and it was past dinner time. I hadn't prepared anything, having been away from home most of the day. On the drive home I was dwelling on how tired I was. What did I even have to make for dinner? I felt out of ideas and was feeling sick and tired of our end-of-summer cucumber and tomato salads. Should we head to the store? Grab take-out? (I had my 21st century goggles on.)
Uh ... nope. This wasn't an option. We were in between paychecks. Money was tight, and we needed to wait. I felt cranky, realizing I would have to get creative when I just wasn't feeling it. The kids piled out of the car, noisily stomping into the house, happily ignorant of my plight. I grabbed a basket and went out into the garden.
It wasn't long before my heart found peace. Being in my garden alone at the height of the summer bounty ... there was so much abundance all around me. Those dark feelings of scarcity melted into gratitude as I walked. Gratitude for this Divine miracle of life. The way that seeds have everything already inside of them - ready to spring up into these plants that will feed us, given the right care. Gratitude for the healthy toiling over loads and loads of compost and mulch that build the soil, and my strength as well. Gratitude for the love that I'd poured into this plot of ground.
Though it was late and I was tired, my heart felt as full and overflowing as my basket was with food. With every Italian bean, tomato and carrot, squash and herb I plucked, I felt a deep connection with Angelo, with my great-grandparents, with those immigrants who learned the art of 'wringing from their environment, all that it will yield" . I smiled at the irony of remembering them while picking vegetables in the dark by the light of my smartphone.
Much of my harvest was simple, not shiny or glamorous. Some large patty pan squashes that a squirrel had munched, some carrots that had split in the ground, and been eaten a little by slugs. But nothing could discourage me now. I was seeing clearly. I was RICH. I had more than enough.
My husband poured me a glass of wine. (clearly we were still ok) I told him we'd eat eventually, but it would take awhile. We worked together to clean up our workspace, and I took my time scrubbing, trimming and chopping our treasures. With the dirty and munched bits removed and trimmed - they looked like jewels. Wow. RICH, I tell you.
Now, what to do with it? Hmmm... no dry pasta on hand, no meat, .... aaaand we'd eaten the last of the sourdough. I spotted some Arborio rice in the back of the cabinet. AHA - ok, these vegetables wanted to become Risotto.
I pulled out some frozen stock I had made from saving my meat and veggie scraps, (sent more gratitude to my friend Will for teaching me how... cried a moment) - and started sauteeing garlic.
I took my time stirring the risotto, adding stock and tasting. I sipped my wine, kissed my husband, called the girls to set the table, and stirred some more. RICH.
We ate around 10pm that night. The oohs and aahs from around the table abounded. Our bellies and hearts were full. I had fallen back into my Old World simple life, and I felt at home. This was where I belonged.
Interestingly, it is when I CAN'T afford to just run to the store - (or take a rare break from cooking and grab Chipotle) - that I MOST appreciate this homesteading life. Because it's in those tight times that I rely on it. I am SO grateful for it when it is all that I have.
It's also in these times that I realize that I'm not really living like my ancestors did. Whereas they lived most of their lives with this reality, my moments of scarcity are few and far between.
This reminds me of what I read recently from a 21st century favorite author of mine, Brene Brown. I believe my immigrant ancestors and Angelo would agree:
The opposite of scarcity isn't abundance.