Every summer for the last three years, the family I married into takes a vacation together at Lily Springs Farm outside of Osceola, Wisconsin. The “farm” consists of a rustic four-bedroom, two-story farmhouse, an old red barn that has been converted into an events rental, a granary that has been converted into a screened-in porch, a lake, a few water vessels like a canoe and some kayaks, a permiculture garden, and several acres of woods. It is secluded and we don’t see anyone else the whole time we’re there. The photo above is the view you see when you look out the kitchen window or stand on the dock; it’s a patch of trees I’ve always felt very partial to; as soon as I see the these trees, I feel officially on vacation.
The premise of the farm is that it is pretty basic. Showers in the basement are not fancy. The water is potable but smells of sulfur so badly that you can’t drink it. The kitchen is small and sparsely supplied. There is no internet and no long distance phone. Cell phone reception is usually spotty or non-existent. No screens whatsoever. No air conditioning. No cushy seating. The beds are clean and warm, but the mattresses sag. The windows are ancient; they stick and have to be propped up by sticks.
But these are the things it does not have. What it does have, I don’t find in my day to day life. What it does have is so good, so rich and life-giving, that every time I am at the farm, I seriously wonder why I don’t live there (or somewhere like there.) The farm inspires me to make radical life changes because I come away so deeply fulfilled and reminded of my deepest values.
1. Swans. When was the last time you saw a swan? Before I went to the farm, I’m not sure I could have answered that question. But a pair returns to the lake every year. One year, one night when I was having a hard time sleeping, I went out to the dock and found them for the first time, sitting still and close on a still, black lake, the moon illuminating their bodies. I watched them for an hour or more. Other wildlife abound as well; I’ve seen beavers, a bear den, hawks and cranes and ducks, fish and frogs; and our children become feral and wild, accumulating dirt and sweat, and acquire a few new freckles.
2. Fire. Sure, it’s just a regular fire pit with a bunch of logs to sit around. But every single night we’re there, something magical occurs between us around that fire. The rest of the year, we accumulate a laundry list of annoyances between us, like all family does, and we arrive to the farm having lost sight, just a little, of what we really like about each other. (I should say that this is the close family who really likes each other. The farm is just for us.) After a night at the fire, when we’ve all gone to bed at midnight, or 1 am, or 2 am – even though we all have children who wake up at 6 am – I am truly in love with these people again. Magic happens at the fire. Tolerance turns into reverence; how we are different seems to become good, and how we are similar seems to revert into gold.
3. Fights. Someone pointed out this year that every year at the farm, the McGinley sisters have a fight. The rest of us are involved to some degree. I learn something profound from each of these fights – always. I grew up learning that family fights are rare and ugly, and usually produce emotional scars. But not these. These McGinley sister fights are almost beautiful. I have learned how to fight well from these people; I have learned that speaking up against a grievance – and doing it with respect for yourself and everyone else – means that you love them so much you are eager to iron it all out and make things better. One of the most valuable adult life lessons I’ve had.
4. Belonging. We have a lot in common, and it feels good. We are teachers, dreamers, drawers, writers, thinkers, critical news readers, strivers and growers, and full of lots of liberal viewpoints and a little piss and vinegar. It feels good to be in the company of like-minded people who have taken me in as their own for the last 8 years. It feels too good to be true. Being at the farm leaves me with a two-week high because I am reminded that I belong to these people and they belong to me, which is probably the number one factor as to why I no longer feel always on the brink of depression and anxiety like I used to before I belonged to them.
5. Collective work. We trash the place. It doesn’t take very long for 12 people – 6 of whom are under the age of 10 – to make a giant mess. Within an hour, everywhere you look there are socks, books, papers, jars of frogs, swimming suits and wet towels, life jackets, barrettes, food and food and food, cups and utensils and bowls, dirty footprints, picked flowers, sunscreen smears on the door, and on and on. But we all take turns cooking, and we all take turns cleaning, and the kids help out. I’m always surprised that things happen so quickly and with so much to be done, I don’t feel like I actually do much at all. Cleaning and cooking at home seems to take more energy than it does as one big group. Collective work is scarce in my regular life. I marvel at it at the farm, and wonder how my life would be richer if I had more of it on a day to day basis.
One of the conversations we had this year was whether or not we would come back again or look for a new place. Because one of the kids has an allergic reaction to the dust in the house and we’re getting a little too big to feel as comfortable as we used to. Even though I volunteered to be the one to research new vacation rentals for 2015, I’m really sad. I secretly hope we decide to go back and that our solution is that the big kids start camping in the field so the house isn’t so crammed. We will see… (and if you have any ideas, send them my way)… but I’m hoping that saying goodbye to the farm this weekend wasn’t for good. If you ask me, I sure hope we decide that it’s enough.