Arriving at a solution vs imposing one

When the problem is larger than you are—your experience, skillset, wisdom, or imagination—the best course of action is to do nothing. Simply wait. My seven-year journey has demonstrated this again and again.

Unlike Frodo’s course, our family’s quest has carried us away from the fires of Mordor, and all that corporate disfigurement, toward a sustainable household economy. This economic engine of ours, while helping to nourish the community in a small way, and yes, striving to have a positive impact, is simultaneously dependent upon the good will of our neighbors. While we contribute, we also receive. There is a continuous loop, whereby the act of contribution is often so bound up in the receiving that distinguishing between the two is pointless. In the end, the final balance sheet might very well add up to a big ol’ zero. Life, vocation, and purpose, cannot be reduced to an act of accounting. Thank goodness for that. While joining the conversation—the community’s ongoing story— we may serve by simply drawing out the best from those around us. Might this photo of our microgreens atop deliciously prepared cod at the Boat Club Restaurant demonstrate this?

Maybe, just a bit, but that’s not why we’re here today.

There have been stages in this journey that have been so remarkably complex and beyond my pay grade, that the best thing to do was to cease movement. Build a fire. Seek nourishment from food and the company of loved ones, and though my efforts in this area are often rather unremarkable, pray.

An addition to our home is happening right now. This new space will house Tiny Farm Duluth’s operations for the foreseeable future.

All that material completely destroyed what was previously a beautiful garden space, patio, and perennial garden:

Alas, times change. Sacrifices are happening for the greater good.

Now we have a poured foundation, and while 25% of that mountain of material was backfilled alongside it, we’re left with a whole lot of clay!

The pile has been pushed into a bit of a promontory facing out from the addition, which I attempted to begin moving with a simple shovel. After 20 shovelfuls failed to even trim the elephant’s toenails, let alone move it from this place to that, I walked away. A couple days later, while sitting in the shade of my favorite tree on a sweltering day, I stared at the totality of it all. The answer came to me without much thought. Rather than imposing a solution through brute force, I’d work with it, rather than fight against it. The problem—too much sun in that area for much human enjoyment in the height of summer—became the solution. We’ll leave most of the material where it lies, and build a few raised beds for gardens. Many plants, after all, love full sun. The humans can move further down the hill and enjoy more shade.

While this example is a relatively small one, a similar process came to bear while going through the long process of figuring out how we’d make an income: currently a three-legged stool of art, urban farming, and writing. Many problems, some of which were documented in this blog and will be explored in greater detail in my forthcoming book, seemed larger than life when we encountered them. In retrospect, these were opportunities for growth, developing patience, building faith, and accepting the reality that we are not in absolute control. By simply waiting, we may arrive at a solution. This almost always leads to a better outcome than when one imposes a solution on a given situation. You might call it the universe providing an answer. I credit Providence.

Here are some problems I’ve currently set aside, with no clear answer at the moment:

  1. We currently have just one vehicle to serve our family of four: a 2008 Toyota Prius. With a 3rd driver on the loose, and a fourth who now has a learning permit, there’s some pressure to obtain a van. Much of this stems from my daughter, who has begun working at a cafe just two miles from home (but up a steep hill). Does it make sense to invest in a depreciating asset so the car may sit in a parking lot while she earns ten bucks an hour? I can’t get my mind wrapped around that. Sometimes scarcity makes us appreciate what we have, forces us to be more resourceful, etc…. Other than my daughter’s job, all of our work emanates from the home base. Driving is only necessary for deliveries. Furthermore, immediately after the addition is completed, our home’s roof will undergo a complete reconstruction, requiring another massive infusion of capital. Saddling ourselves with another potential liability before the dust settles seems unwise. This sounds sensible, but I must acknowledge that we were dependent upon neighbors for a vehicle after our son broke his hand a couple weeks ago. Are rare moments of dependency really so bad? Once again, we’d never succeed at this lifestyle without the goodwill of our community.
  2. How will we ever be able to enjoy extended family vacations?

These are first world problems. They’re nothing like the fires we’ve endured in years past, which were solved through waiting, so I don’t feel any great urgency to impose an answer.

Meanwhile, the kids continue to grow up, so we enjoyed a vacation close to home on the south shore of Lake Superior. We rented a cabin 70 minutes away near Cornucopia, WI, for three nights, which afforded me the ability to journey home one evening to engage in necessary planting and watering. I returned to the family for breakfast the following morning, missing nothing of consequence.

Though our vacations seem to pale in length, frequency, and pizazz, compared to what I see on social media, we felt most fortunate. Our “plight,” viewed against the context of grinding poverty endured by hundreds of millions of people around the globe, seems worthy of gratitude, not self-pity. One of our simple excursions, at the end of a somewhat exhausting day that saw Shawna and the grandparents head back to the cabin, was a short reading hike I enjoyed with the kids.

Emma was a bit annoyed after discovering that Joey had lugged a giant book on our jaunt to the sea. I had encouraged her to opt for a slim copy of Animal Farm, obtained during our tour of used bookstores that day. Hiking with books is more fun when they can be slipped into a pocket.
30 minutes of quiet reading beside the seashore is good for the soul.

I also enjoyed a splendid early morning visit with my friend Fred, who operates a sheep dairy on a marvelous piece of property just down the road from the famous sea caves that dot Wisconsin’s northernmost shoreline along Lake Superior. I could have snapped a photo of the sheep butts as they were being milked, but it seemed a violation of their privacy. Instead I took this short of video of his small herd of beef cattle and of the surrounding countryside. The landscape is picturesque and peaceful. It’s the sort of place I’d love to settle in, but I’ve found satisfaction in visiting folks who live like this, while escaping the back-breaking work involved. Fred works 10 times as hard as me, I’m sure.

These themes are endemic in my book and journey:

  1. Arrive at a solution, rather than imposing one.
  2. The problem is the solution.
  3. We are not in control.
  4. Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly at first, and….., quite a bit more. The darn thing is probably too long. We’ll see what my friendly editor says. There is gold in this thing. Hopefully readers will be willing to hunker in a bit while enjoying the journey.


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