guest post by: Amy Miller
It was May 1988, the end of my junior year of college and I was starting to panic. The summer prior, my father had taken the initiative to find me a job at his office. This was not like Don Draper setting up his kid with a coffee-running gig in an ad firm. My dad was a staff pharmacist in a mental institution. Sure, the job he arranged for me was, in fact, office work – copying paperwork, entering data into databases, that sort of thing – but the office where I worked was smack dab in the middle of hardcore Crazytown. Most of the residents were developmentally disabled – a term that had yet to be invented in the late 80s – and were completely (as far as I knew) harmless, but it was NOT my bag. I was a hippie lovechild born in the wrong generation. The office ladies were very kind and polite to me, but could NOT figure out why I refused to wear makeup and shave my fuzzy legs. In retrospect, my father probably assigned me a job before I came back from school because left to my own devices I did something along the lines of driving across country with a couple of friends and trying to convince strangers to give us money to freeze nuclear weapons testing, which is precisely what I had done the summer after my freshman year of college. Who could blame him? Apparently me because as I looked at my wall calendar that fateful May day in 1988, I knew what I had to do: scare my parents again and find my own employment, preferably anywhere besides my hometown, preferably doing something that had what I thought at the time possessed integrity.
From the binders of job opportunities in the campus job center, I narrowed my search to two criteria: outdoor labor and New England. I am from Kentucky and as a teenager did my damnest to either ignore or avoid my heritage. My snooty teenage brain thought that Kentucky elicited visions of horseracing, moonshine, and toothless hillbillies. I had no experience with any of those things, but still I didn’t want to be thought of as backward. Again, this was my inflamed teen brain talking. I know better now. At the heart of my employment quest was a quest to do something with soul, something poetic (without writing poetry, but something that might inspire me to write poetry later). In a month’s time I would have watched Dead Poet’s Society three times, all full-price theater showings if that tells you what romantic rot my teen brain suffered. By June 1, I was packing my bags for a brief visit home. After that, I was flying to Martha’s Vineyard to work on an organic farm where I would read Thoreau and Emerson and find my poet soul.
My parents were not happy with me, but I had already purchased the roundtrip airfare and they bit their nails while they drove me to the airport. Morning Glory Farm was basically a farmstand store over which stood four apartment rooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen. These were the living quarters for the temporary farm staff, which included four other college girls and me. Another local girl worked on the farm in the summers away from liberal arts college, but she lived on the island with her mother. There was also a 30-year-old year-round worker (college educated) who wore a strand of pearls with her t-shirts and a handyman, plus the owners who I never saw.
The first morning of work began at 7:00 a.m. with a summer rainstorm. A summer rain on Martha’s Vineyard is like an early April rain in Kentucky: cold. We hustled down the stairs, pulled plastic ponchos over our sweatshirts, jeans and hiking boots, and headed into the strawberry fields to pull slugs off the fruit. It was muddy and smelly and I was cold to the bone and tired by the time we took a coffee break at 10:00. We stood around a kitchen behind the farmstand, huddled around ceramic coffee mugs and homemade strawberry rhubarb pie, getting to know one another, trading farm stories. I felt completely out of place. This was not something I had ever experienced before – manual labor, all day long. I had zero stories to share. I thought it would be honest, soulful work, but it turns out it was just hard. By the end of the week, I was homesick and depressed, broke and heartbroken. I had no means of transportation and felt stuck in the middle of nowhere. By Monday, the following week I walked into town on my day off and booked a ticket back home, eating the cost of the roundtrip ticket I had purchased while still at college.
But a funny thing happened that week, after I bought the second ticket: I started to have fun. I spent hours at night talking about literature and film and boys with my co-workers/roommates/new friends. These were fascinating women, beautiful and smart and talented. I wanted to emulate their carefree attitudes, their thoughtfulness and eagerness to learn and explore. The ticket I had just purchased, the new one – one-way back to Kentucky – was a flight due to leave on Saturday morning making my summer farming adventure a two-week trip, a vacation really. The evening before I left, my new friends took me to dinner. We dressed up in the nicest clothes we packed, put on a little eyeliner, lipstick, and earrings, and had the best night since I had arrived. Had I but known that things could turn around so swiftly, had I but trusted that my anxiety would abate as my surroundings became more familiar, I would never have bought that second plane ticket.
As I flew off in the Cessna the next morning, leaving the island for Boston where I would board a sturdier vessel for the second leg of the trip, I stared out the window and sobbed. What was meant to be a summer of liberation turned into a sad admission of failure. I wanted to be more daring and exciting than I was capable of being. But something good did come from this experience. After my short-lived farming career, I realized that I needed to give all new experiences the full two-week acclimation test. One week was not enough time to decide if a job, apartment, or relationship were a good fit. In all honesty, two weeks may not be much better, but at the minimum I made a pact with myself, give new opportunities two weeks and if at the end of the full two weeks I’m still miserable, I can change my situation. I wish I could tell you that I went back to work the farm on Martha’s Vineyard, but I didn’t. I have, however, lived by my own terms, experimenting with freelance work and grad school, experiencing committed relationships, marriage, and parenthood, and I’m happy to report that the two-week rule has sustained me, helped me grow and learn. I am richer for it.
Amy Miller is a mom, writer, professor, graduate student, and, according to her blog ADDled, totally ADD. I first met Amy on yet another terrace under the Tuscan sun, and found her to be someone who lives her life honestly, speaks with sincerity, and makes you laugh uproariously. She and I have stood in Walgreens in downtown Boston during a blizzard scouring the shelves for mousse for her gorgeous curly hair, and we have collectively scowled at our computer screens lamenting the rigors and mysteries of the world of social networking. Amy is an incredible writer (as you've all just seen) and an absolute delight, and you will want to find her on Twitter and on Tumblr, as well as on her fabulous blog. Thank you, Amy, for sharing with us this moment in your life.