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When You've Built a Life of Joys, the Biggest Challenge Is Choosing

I've built a life filled with work I love. But the challenge of choosing among competing joys is very real.

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Opting for a life of gainful unemployment—one directed by entrepreneurship, agriculture, and other pursuits of the heart—prompts a lot of questions from folks who are curious about it. And the one that comes most frequently is, "What are the greatest challenges?"

The greatest challenge in our family is negotiating among competing joys.

I think I know the answers they are anticipating: working long hours trying to preserve the harvest, or standing on one’s feet all day in the cutting room, or getting up early to haul products to market, or having to be tied to the kitchen table five days every week for homeschooling. But the answer I have is always the same.

The greatest challenge in our family is negotiating among competing joys.

It sounds pretty wonderful or even impossible. But competing joys are the theme of our life. If we are walking fence lines it is because we want to be keeping livestock. If we are hauling meat, it is because we want to go to the farmers market. If I am up early in the morning, it is because I want to write. If I am sitting at the kitchen table every day with my daughters, it is because I want to teach them. If we are washing a lot of big pots and pans, it is because we want to eat well. If there is dirt under our nails, it is because we want to work in the garden.

The livestock bring us joy. The meat tastes delicious. The farmers market is a source of deep pleasure. The writing feeds my soul. The homeschooling nourishes our minds and hearts. The garden fills our table and is as pleasurable to gaze upon as an ocean view.

This is a life built intentionally, where dreams manifest through choices. But the challenge to negotiate among competing joys is very real. Gardens keep growing, livestock require constant tending, kids keep learning, ideas keep flowing, people keep eating. None of it ever stops, and at any moment of the day, any of these joys may require attention. And so the day grows long. And we stretch our bodies to a breaking point. Muscles tear. Backs wrench. Eyes strain. Knees buckle. And the joyous activity transmogrifies into a task, and the day suddenly requires a to-do list. The week demands a tactical strategy.

It is August. It is the time of year when all of these joys come to a head, where the intensity of summer crashes head-on with the urgency of preparing for winter. I long to have just one more day lounging beside a water’s edge with my girls, but instead stare down the mountain of firewood that needs to be stacked; clutter my desk with pre-orders from my customers; struggle to meet my writing deadlines; try to keep up with the fat to be rendered for the production of candles, soaps, and salves; fill up my kitchen with the water bath canners and the pressure canner and a multitude of jars; perpetually rearrange my freezer to hold more winter food; and struggle to find a few quiet moments to prepare for the start of the girls' lessons, less than three weeks away.

I maintain my energy by remembering I am doing what makes me happy.

There are two secrets to getting it all done. The first is to remember that they are joys. These are the ways I have chosen to fill my life. When I am standing before a bushel of beets or facing a mountain of peaches to scald and skin, or preparing to stack that first armload of firewood, I cannot think about completing the task. I cannot think about what must be done after. I must think about the fact that I have chosen to do it, that I am where I want to be. I maintain my energy by remembering I am doing what makes me happy, and allowing my mind to slip into a state of blissful reverie as my body enjoys the physical pleasures of the task.

The second secret is to look forward to the coming winter. The days are growing shorter. The sunlight less intense. "The rest will come then," we constantly assure ourselves. Or mother nature will hand us a "free day" card. She will make it too hot to work or fill a day with rain that keeps me indoors beside my knitting basket and a novel, that allows Bob to weave rather than clean out chicken pens, that lets Pop Pop postpone deworming the sheep, that gives Grammie a break from the garden.

But mother nature can be a fickle field boss. The winter rest is never as long as I wish it to be. And lately she has handed us one glorious day after the next and blessed us with rains only as we slept, making each morning fresh for growing and laboring. No rest is in sight until November. And while taking pleasures in the task helps the body to work far longer and produce far more than most people typically accomplish, it can be a bit like taking a pain reliever to mask injury to enable further strain.

This life is still about competing joys. There are joyful labors, and there are joyful rests. The balance between them must be achieved.

If there is a lesson we have yet to master, it is to honor the nature within our bodies, to recognize that, just because we like what we are doing, that does not mean we can perform without rest.

It is true that we do not live this way because we have to. We live this way because we want to. But we must take that same truth and apply it to our rest and recuperation. We must choose those things now, when we want them, before they become compulsory. Otherwise, this life built by intention and choice will suddenly be dictated by requirements for medical care and rehabilitation.

This life is about competing joys. There are joyful labors, and there are joyful rests. The balance between them must be achieved. And right now, thinking all this over, I think it is time to choose in favor of the joyful rest. Today, I will choose only those tasks that enable me to breathe most deeply. Maybe I won't wait for rain to pick up my knitting or my book. Perhaps today I will knit and read in the sunshine ... as soon as I've made a dent in that wood pile....


Shannon Hayes headshotShannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet, and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of Grassfedcooking.com and RadicalHomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York.

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