This past spring, I was stressed out to the max. I couldn’t put a finger on just one thing that stressed me out; it was probably several things piled on top of each other. It might have been the life changes of switching jobs, moving so many times, and getting married. (They say that big life changes, even happy ones, can cause some level of temporary anxiety. This is called an “adjustment disorder” and is fairly common.) Some of it was probably financial stress and some of it was probably my job: I had 125 seventh graders last year and numerous behavior problems. Sometimes the stresses of teaching — the demands of the system, endless testing, difficult parents, students with difficult behaviors, and a major shortage of time — feel like they are going to bury me, but last year was especially bad.
During this time, I had trouble sleeping and felt sick and exhausted all the time. I prayed a lot and read a lot of books, but I really wasn’t sure when or even if I would start feeling better. My poor husband had to put up with a nervous wreck of a wife for months, but he stayed by my side nonetheless.
Whatever it was, I’ve slowly returned to my normal self. I can sleep again and feel much healthier. I thank God every day for that. And I can’t help but think that maybe, moving back to the family farm didn’t hurt things either. You see, when I am here, I feel a peace that I don’t feel anywhere else. I think I belong in the country, and had we stayed in Bismarck, it would have been years before we could afford a country place. As it was, we were able to move into our little modular home here on the farm and even lower our expenses along the way. We traded more house for less house and a lot more space. Our neighbors are pheasants and coyotes. When I take the dogs on walks, instead of passing by never-ending houses on paved sidewalks, we pass by endless fields on gravel roads. I love it.
It reminded me of an essay I wrote in a college nonfiction writing class, so I decided to dig it out and read it again. As I read, the irony of my words struck me hard. I wrote it just a couple months before my grandpa Tim died and long before I knew I would come back here to settle down.
I’m going to share it, just to show how some things turn out nothing like we had planned and yet in some ways turn out exactly like we planned…
Cotton Candy Dreams
The momentary sound of a single fly brings my mind back to the overheated truck cab. I think about the fact that I’m supposed to be moving the rickety old grain trucks around the field, but it is hard to concentrate on a dreamy day like today. One combine, followed by a trail of grain dust floating off in the wind, reminds me that three more combines are out there, out of sight. Every once in a while the sound of the wind rustling through the wheat rises above the hum of machinery. Any slight movement catches my eye, and the golden wheat stretches on forever, like my thoughts. In this moment, I feel lazy and restless at the same time. In this moment, I am a dreamer.
Only one place in my life has always caused me to dream like this. Not the kind of dream you have at night – this kind of dream is the cotton-candy cloud kind of dream, the kind that floats through your mind and lingers for a while before passing slowly by. When I’m in this place I forget to worry about things, about what I’ll be doing tomorrow.
This place is the farm.
The farm is my first love. It’s not just a farmyard and a few fields. Rather, it encompasses a wide range of feelings and things: my grandpa, old Dodge grain trucks, horseback rides, a red barn, rolling hills, open highways, small towns, wide prairie skies, and glorious sunsets. People wonder why a girl my age would love a place full of work, dirt, and no shopping mall; why a girl my age would love such an open, treeless land with “nothing to do.” I ask them to watch just one of those watercolor sunsets, full of pinks and blues and those cotton-candy clouds, and not fall in love. Ragged, rocky buttes invite me to climb and gaze upon miles and miles of untamed country. The solitude can be pressing, but never depressing, at least for me. I find comfort in it.
Furthermore, people here slow down and spend time with each other. Riding horse on crisp mornings with my dad are moments I treasure – when he tells me about his life growing up and I tell him about my goals. In my five brothers, I find five friends, five enemies at times, and five reasons why I might be considered a tomboy. We play whiffleball in the town park, ride horse, work together, camp in the buttes, and go swimming in the dam. Sitting with my mom in the suburban at my brothers’ baseball games, occasional cheers and hollers floating through the open windows, I enjoy the sound of her laugh and know that someday I want to be a mother like her. And my grandpa, a staunch Christian and Republican who makes no apologies for his fierce opinions, always takes the time to give me advice. “Rachel,” he says over a caramel roll and cup of coffee at the cafe, “always sit up straight. A girl is ten times prettier when she sits up straight and shows the world what she’s made of.” He’s still farming at the age of 87.
People at the farm are used to hard work. For the six of us kids, work is unavoidable. My dad would rather make up jobs for us to do than let us sit idle at home. It’s not a typical summer job for a teenage girl; my friends are lifeguarding at the pool or babysitting kids and I’m wrestling with grease guns. Sometimes, I admit, it’s not easy. I get tired of all-male company and at times would just rather hang out with my mom. It can be a challenge to drag myself out of bed early every morning to go for a jog, make a lunch, and head out to the field. And no one will let me forget that collision involving my combine and the tandem truck. But it’s all worth it when I pull up to the grain elevator in that old Dodge truck and the men there remark that I can handle that truck “just like any old farmer.” One of the old elevator guys always gives me special treatment. He insists that I sit inside his office in the cool air conditioning, sipping a 50 cent root beer from the machine while he dumps my truck for me. Honestly, I cannot imagine loving any kind of summer job more. I find deep satisfaction in coming in for a meal of meatballs and mashed potatoes in the field, knowing I’ve earned it. We share laughs when we quit for the night, and my brothers and I fight over who gets to drive which vehicle home. The simple things I usually take for granted suddenly mean more: a drink of cold water, my favorite country song on the radio, nightly showers, and rest on Sundays.
To me, the farm is a place of escape, comfort, dreams, memories, and simple pleasures. I connect it to some of the best memories of a young girl waiting for life to happen. And I connect it to my future dreams, too. I would love nothing more than to live in a cream-colored country house in western North Dakota and watch my horses grazing out the window. I want my children to grow up knowing, as I have come to know, a hard day’s work and that not everything in life comes easy.
But times are changing. Reality pushes my young girl cotton-candy dreams closer to the horizon. As much as I hate to admit it, everyone is growing older, including myself. My grandpa will be retiring soon. My older brothers don’t make it back as often as they used to. I have finally begun to think seriously about where I am going in life, and realistically, I need to tell myself that I probably will not end up in this place. The job market is simply not here, and as a rural community, it is gradually fading as many farm communities are.
These thoughts sadden me. Why can’t life retain that sweet bliss of childhood? It seems that the prairie wind that has gently erased the growing-up hurts of a young girl before should be able to erase this hurt as well; but reality is a frustratingly unchangeable force. I have a nagging worry that my days here, as I have known them, might be numbered. But I must take a piece of this dream with me, wherever I end up. The farm will always be there waiting for me. I can promise myself a visit and, in the back of my mind, know that life might get in the way and I won’t make it as often as I say. I must remember the sunsets, the whisper of the wind, and those whiffleball games in the town park.
As they say, a girl never forgets her first love. For now I shall be clinging as long as I can to those cotton candy dreams before they float over the far western horizon.
The irony of it all kills me. A few things have changed since then, and so have I. Yet here I am, age 30, with the prairie wind healing my grown-up hurts just like it healed my growing-up hurts years ago. I have a good man by my side and horses out my window; I see those beautiful sunsets every night. My little modular house is even cream-colored. And God willing, when we have kids, they will come to know a hard day’s work, just like I did. The crazy thing is, I owe a lot of it to the oil boom.
Every once in a while, among the harsh realities and anxieties of life, God decides to take a few of those cotton candy dreams and put them right into our hands. I doubt I did anything to deserve it, but I’m grateful nonetheless.
I couldn’t be more blessed.