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JO MURPHY: Life lessons learned from getting my hands dirty

March 12, 2022 at 10:00 p.m.
Jo Murphy

By JO MURPHY | contributing columnist

Growing up, we never had a garden. My mother raised irises, roses, and jonquils, but the closest we came to growing our own food was the time a watermelon vine sprouted from a seed-spitting contest. I've longed to grow melons ever since. In fact, I've spent my life wishing I knew how to live off of the land, make my own clothes, and do absolutely everything from scratch.

On the other hand, I tell my kids that their daddy's daddy was a real life cowboy. Riding horses and roping cows were all in a day's work on the ranch his family managed just outside of Genoa. His parents were self-sustained if anybody ever was. I don't think Granny ground her own wheat, and I don't think she kept bees or harvested sugar cane, but almost everything else she put on her table was canned or frozen from her own green earth. The berries in her cobbler came from her fence rows, the beans from her garden. The fish came from the reservoir, the beef from the field. They made everything. They used everything.

I was 20 when Granny told me how to fry mountain oysters.

"The trick," she said, "is keeping them partly frozen so they hold their shape. You just thin-slice them into medallions and batter them like chicken fried steak."

That family anecdote fascinates me as much as it disturbs me. It takes me back to childhood dreams fashioned by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

What would it be like to harvest a pig or a chicken or a cow and use every part because, after all, the head cheese might mean the difference between a stocked pantry and a hungry winter? I've always wanted to care for chickens, to forage for nuts, to plant an orchard. I've always wanted the skills that my parents and grandparents lost as they reached for college, career, and a two car garage. If only I had the time! But I don't know how to do any of those things and just learning about them takes all of the spare minutes I can give. And so, I've read and read, lamenting the fact that I didn't grow up cutting, canning, and cooking as I learned my letters and prepped for standardized tests.

But the plain truth is, I don't need to put away my own tomato sauce. I don't need to make my own dresses. No one in my family will go hungry and no one will be naked if I never master these skills. I don't need to feed myself from my tiny garden. I just want a garden so that I can garden.

It's easy for me to lose that perspective. It's easy for me to feel that I'm failing simply because nobody taught me to sew or cook or can. But you know what? I learned how to sew because I wanted to. I learned how to bake biscuits and pie crust because those things are important to me. And I still don't know how to fill my shelves with beautiful jars of jellies and jams, but that doesn't mean I won't learn.

It's OK that every year finds me saying, next year we'll try again. And it's OK that next year never gets us very far because of church work, Little League, ballet lessons, and life.

I don't know why I long for this really hard work that isn't necessary to my sustenance. I think deep down I can't shake the feeling that I might actually need to feed my family some day. And so I strain and struggle to prepare for the possibility of a life affected by trucker strikes, war rations, or pandemic supply issues. But I have to balance that possible future with who I am today. I can't get frustrated with baby steps because I am not my husband's grandmother. I will never make my daughter's wedding dress or fill my table with food from my homestead. And thank heaven that for now I don't have to do those things. My role is different. I'm a teacher and a writer. It's important for me to be present in my life now as I remember the small things I am doing to move toward sustainable living. It's important for me to remember that if I ever do need my garden to supplement my grocery cart, it will be OK to take the time then to make the food grow.

Last year, we started composting. We drilled holes in giant storage bins and layered them with grass clippings, kitchen scraps, and dirt. All through the year we've experimented with what can and can't go in the bin. We've learned we can't just dump cantaloupe rind or it gets gross and slimy. It's a process. A little wet stuff, a little raking, a little dry stuff. We've learned that we can put junk mail in the compost bin, and last year's canna lillies.

And over time, it's grown. Over time, all of the muck and trash and muscle have blended and morphed into something beautifully homemade. And if I let myself, I can get discouraged that my gorgeous dirt is, after all, just dirt. It's not a chicken coop. It's not a beehive. It's not a fruit tree. But that discouragement is wrong.

My dirt is a necessary part of the process. Composting is a skill I didn't have before. It's a step in the right direction. A step I can build on.

I think all of life is like my little compost bin. Just like I feel discouraged comparing the garden I long for and the work it takes to get there, it's easy to also feel a tension between the woman I want to be and the woman I am. If I'm not careful, I can short-change my hard work on both fronts, in homesteading and in life. I can get lost in my longing and cheat myself of ever growing into something more.

Growing up, we never had a garden. It's something I always wanted. You know what? I have one now. It's a small one. But it's more than I had before. Maybe it will be a little bigger next year. But this year, I'm going to choose to be happy with my garden. I'm going to choose to be happy with my hard work. I'm going to choose to be happy with me.

(Jo Murphy moved with her family to Texarkana's historic Highland Park District in December of 2019. She loves laughing with her kids, doing life with her neighbors, and live music of all kinds.)

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