Travis and I will be living on an organic farm in T minus six days. We started packing up our apartment yesterday afternoon. Until I started putting stuff in boxes, the fact that my life is about to radically change was an abstraction. As we sat on our porch last night eating rice and veggies out of the two bowls I left unpacked, I started reflecting on our decision to move, and how hard our last two years in Boston have been.
In short, our time here has made us question if the conventional American life is really for us. Two recent college graduates, we both saw our move to Boston as the beginning of our adult lives: full of hardship, sure, but softened by a sense of progress and achievement. We found, instead, that our skills were consistently undervalued, at the same time that the cost to satisfy our basic needs was exploding. Even with our demanding work schedules, we had little to show for it, and no time to enjoy the most important things in our lives: each other. Coupled with a constant, nagging demand to consume coming from all directions (buy more, eat more, earn more, work more, do more), our new, adult life provided us with a half-furnished apartment that we couldn’t afford to heat, and an unconscious sense of duty to keep working towards … what exactly? But before I get too far ahead of myself, let me start at the beginning…
For the first six months after Travis moved here with me, he was out of work. That was scary enough. Then, just as he was about to run out of money, Travis found a job with a Boston non-profit. We were excited about it at first—the group worked on behalf of progressive causes like global warming and world hunger. The only problem, though, was that the organization’s culture put its cause before the well-being of its employees. The average work week was 70-80 hours, people were hired and fired at the drop of a hat, employees were chronically underpaid, and few, even among the management, really knew where all that fundraising money was going. Travis was exhausted and unhappy. He’d leave at 8am and come home at midnight. We never saw each other. But people told him that when you’re young, you’re supposed to work hard, and because he was working towards something good, he should do whatever it takes.
Then there was me.
I have been pursuing a PhD in genocide studies, and over the last two years I have grown increasingly frustrated with my field. I became interested in genocide as a broad topic as an undergraduate at the University of Texas. After learning about 20th-century atrocities in Darfur and around the world, I concluded that genocide was the most important issue we faced. I became an activist and felt that, armed with a doctorate and a passion for human rights, I could make a real difference in the world. I went into higher education with the intention of working for an NGO that might help broker peace in war-torn countries.
But as I became more involved in genocide studies, I’ve realized how naive I was in my thinking. As I studied cases of mass violence around the world, I learned two important lessons: First, that two sides of a conflict are rarely, if ever, divided into a clear moral right and wrong. And second, that my attempts to create these lines where they didn’t exist, especially in a country I knew nothing about, might end up doing more harm than good. I continued to read papers and books calling for American military action in foreign countries in order to stop genocide before it began. I wondered where my colleagues’ confidence to solve such gargantuan problems was coming from. Not feeling it myself, I started to detach. I thought about changing topics, but graduate school for me was never about getting my PhD, it was about using the PhD as a tool for social activism. Although I was aimless, I stayed in school because people told me a PhD was the best career choice I could make.
I don’t blame anyone, of course; they were just giving their opinions. I do find our collective priorities interesting, however. Travis and I worked to solve global problems by day, and came home to our freezing apartment at night. We could barely buy food, but it was prestigious for us to try to save the world. To put it another way, we live right next to a government project that later became section eight housing, and the poverty in the surrounding neighborhoods is palpable. If we are looking for a house to put in order, why are we looking further than outside our front doors?
So Travis and I made a kind of command decision that, for us, the conventional ladder isn’t worth climbing. If we are going to play the game, we are going to make the rules. If a normal career won’t provide enough money to eat good, healthy food, then we can grow our own. If a normal career focuses us on the entire globe, then we will find a way to laser point on our own community. If we can’t attain wealth in the conventional sense, then we’ll redefine the word. So, this move to New York is our hope to hit reset and create a new life that is about more than endurance, consumption, and dependence. We hope to make a new path and keep our focus where it belongs: on ourselves, our family, and our community.
Neysa is currently farming an acre of organic vegetables in Austin, Texas. For updates on her farm, visit www.dissertationtodirt.com or follow her on twitter @farmerneysa.
Travis and I just got back from a weekend in Dallas to visit family for Greek Easter. Lamb, Spanakopita, Tsoureki—Easter is the biggest feast day of the year for the Greeks. Travis and I are dead tired because we stayed up talking after dinner. Between us, we got about 2 hours of sleep last night, then flew all morning. We had a lot to discuss because this trip was an important one–it was the first time I saw my family, Travis’ family, and their friends since I announced I was leaving my PhD program to begin organic farming. Over the phone, my parents have been … less than enthusiastic. As Travis and I boarded the plane to Dallas, I was dreading what sort of cornering finger-wagging I was in store for. Although I never intended to take their doubting and refutations seriously, somewhere over the weekend I realized I was actually learning about how our society defines success.
My parents don’t like this idea. Over the month or so that I’ve been talking about it, their position has changed from outright hostility to grudging acceptance, but only with the caveat of an indefatigable delusion that this is only a summer excursion, and that I will go back to finish my PhD in the fall. Travis’ parents are much different. His mother is an eternally supportive woman. She sees the positive in most everything and trusts Travis and his decisions, even if she doesn’t understand or agree with them. She’s just happy for us, and it’s a breath of air.
On Easter Sunday, my mother had a big dinner party. Julie, my mother’s well-to-do friend, arrived first with her (also well-to-do) husband. Sunday was the first time I’d seen Julie in two years. Before that, I’m pretty sure I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had any interaction with her. Still, as soon as she walked through my mother’s door, unopened bottle of wine in hand, she was on top of me. “I heard you are leaving your program! You are limiting your earning potential for the rest of your life if you don’t get your PhD!”
My response was a pointed, “uh, er, ok.”
The lecture she was about to embark upon was especially jarring at this point, because I had just spent the weekend getting the same sort of head shaking from my mother and father. “No one else in the family has a PhD,” “Your mother regrets not staying in graduate school,” “You are so academically-minded,” “You will needa PhD!” “You are unnecessarily closing doors.” Now, apparently, I was limiting my earning potential.
Julie followed me around telling me about her graduate school experience, then prodding Travis with a bony elbow and telling him it was “his job” to convince me to stay in school. “The only thing you’re qualified to do with a master’s is teach high school!” she bellowed. … I guess that’s bad?
Through all this, I kept looking at my parents, but quickly found that they weren’t prepared to offer up any defense for me, because, although they weren’t as abrasive as Julie, they agreed with her. My “talent” would be going to waste growing food on a farm in New York. “You’re going to a farm?!” Julie snickered, “oh that will pay really well!” During the dinner toast, my father said, “Neysa and Travis are going to a farm this summer. I still don’t know what all of that is about.” Thanks, Dad.
In the end, I remained cordial to Julie. I let her finish, said “ok,” and then stuffed myself with pastitsio. After all, what does her antagonism really do to me? But it took some self-control to bite my tongue. Where does this woman get off telling me how to live my life, number one. But my personal indignation aside, Julie perfectly articulated the theme of the reactions Travis and I continue to get when we tell people about this little career change of ours. One person asked if this was some sort of cult we were joining. What everyone is saying, really, is that farming is not considered a real job. Growing and selling food is considered beneath someone with any intellectual capabilities. Some of these stereotypes reflect associations of manual labor with low-class and low-intellect. But there’s another aspect to the reaction that has to do with the basicness, the fundamentality, of food. Doing something so essential to human survival, so simple and vital in life, has come to be seen as a “waste” for anyone with an education. Where did this disconnect come from? Have we bought into our own sense of industrialized modernity so much that basic sustainability and self-reliance have become “primitive”? Why is intellectual work necessarily separated from physical work? Hell, since it’s Easter, wasn’t Jesus a carpenter?
And more than that, why is getting a PhD “successful” but operating a profitable farm is not? Success, in America today, is defined by money and stuff. Well, I choose not to define it that way. Success, for me, is a sense of fulfillment, contentment, and contribution. If I have to “limit my earning potential” to do that, then so be it. My life is not an economic projection chart.