How I Learned to Ask For Handouts (No Matter How Weird It Feels)

Farming and writing don't bring home the bacon—why I'm no longer ashamed to ask my community to help.
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“Would you prefer to ride a dragon or a winged tiger?” Ula asks, skipping between Saoirse and me as we head up the road for our morning walk. “I have this one dragon, her name is Night Thrower, but she doesn’t usually throw people,” she explains. “She’s actually very gentle.”

I am guilty, once more, of only partially listening to her. My mind is turning over a conversation I had with my mother and sister on Easter Sunday. Over breakfast she brought up the fact that I recently installed a donation button on my blog.

"Why do you get to collect a paycheck every week, but I have to work for free?"

“Everybody’s looking for a handout,” my sister said, shaking her head as she stood up from the table. “I can’t stand it.”

My stomach turned to knots. I wanted to scream at her: Why do you get to collect a paycheck at an off-farm job every week, but I have to work for free?

I didn’t say it out loud. But my mom knew exactly what I was thinking.

“You gave your work away for free,” she said.

Sometimes I hate that my family has the ability to voice the exact thoughts that float around in my head. The question that my mom and sister brought up had been turning my stomach for months.

A few different things had led me to start asking for donations. For one, I’d been deeply moved by Amanda Palmer’s new book, The Art of Asking. Palmer, a musician, eloquently outlines how the act of asking has been a potent tool for creating innovative work in her own life. Asking is a form of giving, she argues, a way of engaging with your audience in the creative process and building community. Thanks to the Internet, artists are no longer distanced from the rest of the world. Palmer can step outside the fickle realm of corporate money and ask for support directly from people who listen to and enjoy her music.

Then there was the painful process of my family’s plans to transfer ownership of our farm. We’re trying to figure out exactly how my parents will turn it over to me and my husband. Bit by bit, my mom and I have been dissecting each of the family’s enterprises and looking at where time and money were being spent. Our honey production was marginally profitable. Our sheep business was doing OK. But when I looked at the financial details of my website and writing, the results were ugly.

The clincher came from my friend Nancy. She and her husband Matt are musicians and moved to Schoharie County a few years back. They have dedicated their lives to art and music since the 1960s, seeing both art forms as powerful opportunities for social change. After moving to the area they played their music all over our community for free, making it a point to share their art and music with local farmers in the area. I became great friends with them, in spite of one annoying habit of Nancy’s. For the last several years, she has called me every month and asked me the same question: “How can I help you?”

I never really had a good answer for her. And that’s because Amanda Palmer’s ideas on giving and Matt and Nancy’s hippie values of love, peace, and sharing collided head-on with my agrarian sense of independence.

Farmers don’t ask for help.

We deal with our own shit. And all too often, we find ourselves muttering the same words that came out of my sister’s mouth on Easter Sunday. “Everybody’s looking for a handout.”

And it’s true. A lot of folks are looking for handouts. My friends Cornelia and Greg bought our local run-down and defunct church hall. Slowly they have been rebuilding it into The Panther Creek Arts Center. They regularly send out emails asking for help with things like replacing stairs, digging out foundations, and rewiring lights. And they have a donation button at the bottom of their website. Ben Hewitt, one of my favorite writers and bloggers, who, like me, explores what it means to pursue a sustainable life, has a “Generosity Enabler” button at the top his website. Kathy Voth and Rachel Gilker, creators of On Pasture, a website devoted to helping grass-based livestock farmers learn about current farming research, news, and innovations, has a whole dropdown menu devoted to donation.

Why is it that great ideas cannot be supported through conventional economic transactions?

I wonder if we are all just fools, wasting our energy on frivolity. I could earn more money spending early morning hours making socks or soap. Or I could sleep in and work longer days on the farm. I try to imagine my life if I just surrendered writing and turned my attention to ventures that held more direct economic value. Why is it that great ideas, all these different powerful contributions that make community life more enriching, cannot be supported through conventional economic transactions?

And then it hits me. The conventional economy is broken. It has a distorted habit of placing little or no value on caring, nurturing, community building, innovation, or the sharing of ideas.

When I finally look up from my thoughts, Saoirse and Ula have darted off the trail. They’ve tethered the imaginary creatures they were riding to a nearby tree for the sake of picking up trash. Their small arms are full of junk that has been tossed out of people’s car windows.

“Mommy? Can you help us?” They call out. “There is more trash than we can carry.”

They didn’t even think about it. They didn’t feel guilty about asking for a handout. Their minds were wrapped up in the world of their imaginations—one where dragons are gentle and tigers can have wings. They didn’t stop to ask if I would reward them for picking up the trash. They simply charged off and did what was necessary to keep their world beautiful. And when the burden of the cleanup became too great, they did the next logical thing. They asked for help.

That’s what Cornelia and Greg are doing with the arts center. That’s what Rachel and Kathy are doing with On Pasture. That’s what Ben and I are doing with our blogs. We can see a world that contains gentle dragons and flying tigers. And we see the work that must be done in order to get there. We don’t wait to see if that work will turn a profit. We just start. And when the burden becomes too great, we ask for help, asking others to join us as we work to create something bigger than ourselves.

Maybe more of us should be asking for handouts.