The “Lucky” Ones – An interview with farmer-artist McKenzie Ditter

If you haven’t stopped by WTH since before last Thursday, don’t worry—you are in the right place. Things just got a whole lot prettier. A reminder that if you purchase an ad between now and the end of March, you can get 20% off the regular price with the promo code “REDESIGN.” (Etsy shop owners, you get 25% off—email me your shop link and I’ll email you back your own promo code.)

More special redesign-related posts are coming your way soon, but right now, here’s an interview that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. Meet my good friend McKenzie… and her adorable farmy animals.

McKenzie

If you know McKenzie Goetz (and I do!), then chances are you’ve been welcomed to her home countless times and were treated to whatever home-cooked meal was in season. (And it was freaking amazing.) Then, you probably not-so-casually asked if you could go hang out with her eight sheep, 24 chickens, and two aplacas—the latter of whom are aptly named Oliver and Abraham.

McKenzie and her husband Jamie are not your typical 20-somethings. Though they consider themselves new to farming, these homesteaders have dedicated their lives to building a foundation that they hope will allow them to support themselves completely off their land. And it’s been hard work. Car troubles, living without heat, and Jamie’s nearly life-threatening wrist break and subsequent infection have been true tests of their will. But they’ve also had a lot of success to keep them motivated. The satisfaction of self-sufficiency is the greatest reward, and McKenzie’s art and blog (named after Oliver and Abraham) have helped them support their endeavor. Another fun fact—their wedding photos from last June went viral on the Internet and landed on Rock ‘n’ Roll Bride, the Etsy blog, and the Free People blog to name a few.

Now say hello to my wonderful friend, McKenzie!

 

Maintaining a farm and growing a business on top of a day job must make for a busy schedule. What does your daily routine look like?

My alarm goes off at 6:40am on weekdays, and I’m up by 7. I get dressed, go outside to feed and water the sheep, let the chickens out, and breathe some fresh air. By the time I come back inside I’m much more awake and prepare myself some breakfast. Right now I’m on a plain yogurt-maple syrup-muesli kick, but I switch it up with oatmeal sometimes. For having eggs out the wazoo, I certainly don’t eat them enough… they make me queasy in the morning. Then I’m off to work at 7:45, usually eating said breakfast in the car. I work at a Montessori preschool from 8-1, and when I come home I feed the animals again. When the grass is dormant I leave them in their barnyard and we feed grain and hay. During the rest of the year, we use a portable electric fence that’s powered by solar energy. We mow the pasture that way, and don’t feed hay anymore. We only feed them grain when we move them from one spot to the other, or if we have nursing mamas. Anyway, after feeding (or moving the fence) I come in and take about an hour break to eat lunch and waste time on the interwebz. Then I get down to business. I divide my time between spinning yarn, drawing, filling custom orders for my shop, and blogging. Somewhere in there I clean the house, make food, and tend to the garden. I think the turning point for me was when I decided to treat my time at home as a disciplined “second job.” I’m still guilty of checking my email way too much though. Working on that part…

Why did you decide to become farmers and raise animals?

It was a leap of faith. I’d just graduated from high school, moved out, dropped out of my second semester of college, and my new roommate (now husband) moved in. Once we realized we had the hots for each other, we took one look at our 2.5 acre backyard and decided to grow our own vegetables to “beat the system!” Back then we were on the cusp of the 2008 market crash and things looked pretty grim. Our thought was that if we could provide our own food when the shit hit the fan, so to speak, we’d survive. We still have that idea in the back of our minds, but it’s turned into much more than that. We got alpacas and sheep and chickens and honeybees, we moved several times, we faced hardship that we never imagined possible. But it’s all been worth it because there’s a resurgence of young farmers in America, and we’re proud to be a part of that. Preserving biodiversity and caring for soil is something I never thought about before having a garden. Back when we only had a garden, I watched so many documentaries. The World According to Monsanto and Food Inc. are the most memorable and life altering. So many people are starting to wake up to these issues and are buying local or organic these days. It’s all about community and ethical eating. The future is much more promising than it was just five years ago!

babies!

What are the biggest challenges of being a farmer? Has there been a lot of trial and error as you gain more experience?

Land acquisition is a big issue for young farmers. Pretty much you either get lucky or you rent. Balancing time is also hard. It’s not easy to work at your day job and still have energy for working at home. We both work part time jobs and we struggle to pay the bills. I have faith that this will get easier as we become more firmly rooted, but we’ve had a rough start and I know we’re not alone. We’ve really come to learn a lot about wants vs. needs since making the conscious choice to be farmers, and yes, there has been a lot of trial and error. Thank GOD for the internet, but nothing comes close to befriending real-life farming mentors.

In those tough moments—emotional or physical—do you ever question whether the hard labor is worth it?

Over a year ago, my husband Jamie broke his wrist, had surgery, got an infection, and was on IV antibiotics for months. He’s still not 100% and it’s a challenge seeing him not have the same physical or emotional strength as I know he wants. The workload on the farm became my sole responsibility for a long time. There were moments when we questioned if we should just give up, but imagining a life without our alpacas and sheep was just heart-wrenching. We asked the question, “why us?!” more times than I can count. Yes, we’ve made some stupid choices in life and we’re not perfect, but on a whole we’ve always tried really hard to live with morals. It’s been a tumultuous year in ways I can’t even explain, but we’re at the point now where we would like to think that Karma balances herself out in the end. I guess it’s the only way to feel less distraught about hardship.

Oliver & Abraham

You’re often told that you lead a very “different” or alternative lifestyle—what’s your reaction to that? Is it accurate?

At first, the people who told me that were being very understandably judgmental. My family disapproved and thought it wiser to continue with college. I didn’t want to get caught up in a load of debt though, and I knew my personality was not such that I’d squander away my talent. I’m strong-willed (or stubborn) and farming just felt right. I don’t regret it.

Do people have any other misconceptions about what you do? Why do you think people jump to such conclusions?

Sometimes people think I get way more done than I actually do. But the truth is, I just make choices about what gets done and what doesn’t. Sometimes the laundry goes unfolded until it’s ready to be washed again. Sometimes the dishes sit in the sink for days and my dirty oatmeal bowl gets forgotten in the car for a week. Sometimes my hair goes unwashed. Sometimes I cheat and buy boxed mac & cheese and cheesy poofs. I think people jump to these conclusions because they have insecurities about how they spend their own time. It’s really easy in the blog world to read about someone’s life and assume that they “do it all” and then the self-loathing starts… and then the outwardly reflected judgement. But the vast truth is that we’re all quite imperfect and that’s okay.

Do you hope/plan to always be a farmer? What do you envision for your farm and family in the coming years?

Yes. Jamie wants to start growing edible mushrooms this year and make a good portion of our income that way. I want to expand my shop to sell my handspun yarn, and I also want to start a fiber co-op for our local knitting community. We plan on getting a market booth for the first time this year, and eventually we want to have a couple dairy goats for milk. Someday we want to have a little tribe of children and homeschool them on our farm. It would be nice to own land, but we’re not heart-set on having that happen.

You’ve established your blog in a very distinct niche. How has documenting your life and finding like-minded bloggers inspired and motivated you?

It’s been wonderful feeling connected to other people who are going through the same hardships. I’ve met some amazing friends through my blog, one of whom I talk to on a daily basis now. It’s pretty awesome. I also organized a “Farmy Pen-Pals” group on my blog this year and connected 20 women all over the world. I like the idea of encouraging people to take a relationship off the internet and growing it at a slower, more deliberate pace.

MOAR BABIES

What are some of your favorite books?

What advice would you give to others seeking a more self-sustaining lifestyle?

Take the plunge. Yes, you will make mistakes and probably cry when it gets hard, but you can always go back if it’s not for you. On a lighter note, if you know that you don’t want to be a farmer but would like to grow food, get over the fact that you weren’t taught how growing up. (Neither was I.) Stop saying you don’t have a green thumb. That’s what the internet is for. And manure. You could also do a work-share at a local CSA and get food in return. If you’re still nervous, email me. 🙂

McKenzie's art

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned over the past few years of farming?

My friend Meg who blogs at Brooklyn Homesteader recently wrote, “farming is heavy, beautiful and one of the few opportunities man has to witness the absolute truth of existence, which is to say, that we are totally entwined in everything and everything is totally entwined in us. It’s hard to feel alone in the world with that understanding.” That’s it in a nutshell.

 

Thanks, McKenzie, for your story and your friendship. If you enjoyed McKenzie’s interview, let her know in the comments! And an added bonus: get 25% off all prints, cards, and originals from McKenzie’s Etsy store with the code WTH25, and feel good knowing you are directly supporting her and Jamie’s farm. 

Would you or someone you know be a good fit for The “Lucky” Ones series? Email me at wittycassiehere [at] gmail [dot] com and introduce yourself!

The “Lucky” Ones – An interview with budding country music star Rachel Rhodes

This week’s interviewee was suggested to me by the lovely miss Rachel over at Existation. I’m so glad Rachel introduced me to Rachel. (That’s a lot of Rachels.) You’ll see why—read on to hear her story.

Rachel Rhodes

Rachel Rhodes does nothing halfway when it comes to pursuing her dreams. While the country music artist may seem like a Nashville native—what with a hot off the press Music Row-inspired EP under her belt and all—she’s actually a Midwestern small town girl. Growing up in northwest Iowa, Rachel trained as a classical singer, performing in operas both nationally and internationally. While she loved the art of operatic singing, it was country music that her heart gravitated toward most. So, wasting no time, Rachel packed up and moved to Nashville with her dog Dolly in tow. Within just a year of relocating, the 24-year-old wrote and recorded her debut EP alongside a notable producer and several talented musicians. Her labor of love, Heartland, was released just last month.

Aside from her passions for singing and songwriting, Rachel also plays the piano (and, as she modestly puts it, “a really terrible attempt” at guitar). She loves reading, bargain shopping, and exploring her new town. You can find Rachel and her music here, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

Welcome, Rachel!

Where and when was your first public performance? Describe what that was like.

My first public performance was as a kindergartener, playing Gretl (the smallest girl) in The Sound of Music. I started out performing in musicals and choirs, because that was what was available. But I remember begging my parents to let me go to a music camp when I was a high school freshman, and they were shocked I had any interest. They actually kind of tried to persuade me out of it! And when I finally got to go, I was hooked on singing. It became pretty much my only interest.

When did you decide you wanted to pursue music as a career? Was your family supportive?

Honestly, I decided right away. I had never felt so passionate about something, and I’d never had something that made me stand out as talented. I was hooked immediately, and because I knew the music business was a one-in-a-million kind of dream career, I started as soon as possible to try and make it happen for me.

You started out as a classically trained operatic singer. What made you decide to go back to country music, and how did that classical experience prepare you for becoming a country singer and performer?

Sometimes people will ask me if I regret pursuing opera, now that I’m loving life in country music. The reality is that classical training teaches the building blocks of vocal production–exactly what is happening inside your body to make certain sounds. I’m so glad I got the opportunity to learn those lessons, because hopefully it will help me keep my voice healthy for the long run.

I chose to go back toward country because it felt like home. I’d stayed away from it for so long because I wanted to be different, and opera was about as different from my hometown roots as I could possibly get. And of course, once I did it, I really did love it. But when you’re an opera singer, you’re always going to be singing music that was written by someone else, and once I started writing my own music, I just couldn’t imagine going back.

album cover

What has living in Nashville been like since you moved? Has any part of the transition been difficult or unexpected?

I moved to Nashville with no furniture—just my dog and an air mattress. So the first month was pretty bare bones, but eventually the furniture came! Even though I was basically sleeping on the floor, I knew immediately that Nashville was where I was supposed to be. I LOVE this city! The thing about Nashville is that it’s a big city with so much to offer, but it also has a very small town feel to it. You’re constantly running into people you know, and everyone is so friendly! I’d actually never been to Nashville in my life before the day I showed up here, but it couldn’t be a more perfect fit. Guess I got lucky!

I’d imagine recording your first EP would be surreal. Can you explain what that process was like—both in terms of recording logistics and just the overall emotional, learning process?

It definitely was an interesting experience and process. At the beginning, it was terrifying to hand over any control to my producer, because when I’d written these songs, they sounded a certain way in my head, and I was SO scared they would end up nothing like that. My amazing producer, Eric Arjes, lovingly referred to me as a total control freak, but I was so blessed to work with a producer who understood exactly what my vision was for the album and then made it a reality. We had a blast in the studio and are so happy with the final product. Our goal was to make something that could compete (or at least not sound out of place) next to artists who spend millions recording a record. Our budget was TINY, but with a little bit of luck, we had A-list players agreeing to contribute to the album just because they believed in the music, and because of that, the album sounds like we spent WAY more than we did. I told you I love bargain shopping!

As a relative newcomer to the scene, what’s your take on the state of the music industry? Do you worry about potentially being taken advantage of as an artist?

You can only be taken advantage of if you allow it to happen. I think trust is something earned and built, and I also think it’s so important to educate yourself. Have trusted lawyers look over documents before you sign anything, and always go with your gut! Intuition is a very valuable tool, especially in this industry.

It’s hard even for established musicians to make a living off their art. How do you get by? Like so many others, do you also have a “day job”?

I definitely, definitely have a day job. Especially during the “making the album” phase (which was the busiest, most stressful time), I was always balancing my day job and my music. That being said, when I first moved here, I was offered a position that could have quickly grown into a full-time career with benefits and stability, and I didn’t think twice about turning it down. I know it sounds crazy, but I knew it would have taken away from what I came here to do, which was to make music and build a career doing what I love! And because of the opportunities and relationships that grew from my current (much less prestigious) day job, I was able to record an album that I’m so proud of. I can almost positively say that I would be nowhere near an album release if I had accepted that first job.

single

There’s no questioning your talent. But do you ever doubt pursuing a musical path? Will you always be a songwriter, even if for nothing other than the pure joy of it?

Nope! Honestly, there have been times that I WISHED I doubted pursuing a musical path, but it’s been tunnel vision all the way. I find it so extremely difficult to focus on things I’m not passionate about, and music has always been #1. I don’t think I could live a fully happy life pursuing any other career path.

What are some of your all-time favorite albums? Favorite books?

Well, I’ve always been a book worm. I will read almost anything, but my favorites are either Jane Austen novels, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (childhood memories) or… Harry Potter. I’m a huuuuge Harry Potter nerd.

Musically, my taste is really eclectic. I listen to a lot of country music, and my favorite classical composer is Richard Strauss, but usually I’m listening to Lightning 100 Radio—lots of indie musicians. I also love Coldplay and always jam to Kanye West in the shower.

Has luck or persistence brought you to where you are now? Which do you think plays a bigger role in success?

Absolutely persistence! I can say without a doubt that I’ve never worked harder for anything than I have for this album. And there are so many behind-the-scenes type of things that went into it, which were things I’d never even thought about before. For example: Designing a website, designing album art, hiring studio musicians, choosing people to produce, mix and master the album, handling financial and legal aspects of creating a record, marketing, advertising, etc. It has been crazy! I’ve been so lucky to discover that I love the business and marketing aspects of being a musician as much as I enjoy the actual music-making.

I think we always get upset when things we plan for ourselves don’t work out. So when the original plans I’d carefully laid out for my life weren’t making me happy anymore, I was so frustrated and confused, but I knew there had to be a reason why. And when I got to Nashville, and it felt like home, and the album came together in less than six months due to the generosity and kindness of complete strangers and their belief in my music, that was a huge sign that changing the course of my entire life had absolutely been the right decision. I am so happy to have the opportunity to pursue my one-in-a-million dream, and I can’t wait to see what’s next!

The “Lucky” Ones – An interview with book-loving librarian Shannon McNeill

Anyone who appreciates books and the people who write them will love this interview with someone whose job it is to share them. Librarian Shannon McNeill is here to give you a little insight as to what it’s like in her world of books in this week’s interview.

Shannon McNeill

Shannon McNeill had what Oprah calls an aha! moment. It happened like this: One day, she woke up and realized she wanted to be a librarian. But she started out as a teacher. After graduating college, Shannon taught preschool for a year, and later earned her certificate in English as a Foreign Language. With that, she spent a year in Greece and taught English—it was the best year of her life. It was after Shannon moved back home and spent three years teaching at a Montessori School when she had the realization that teaching wasn’t quite for her. When she decided to become a librarian, Shannon began volunteering at her local library, applied to get her Masters of Library and Information Science (MLIS), and landed a job almost immediately upon graduating.

Working as the Assistant Director in a small Pittsburgh library, Shannon maintains the book collection and purchases books for adults and children. She hosts and plans programs including children’s story times, the book club, and visits to local schools. This is clearly the fun part for her. The enthusiasm and energy Shannon brings to the job is infectious. You can find her on Twitter and at her blog, A Librarian’s Lists & Letters.

Welcome, Shannon!

Book lovers have this way of pinpointing exactly what it was that sparked an interest in reading—what was the catalyst for you?

I actually don’t remember a time in my life where I didn’t love books. My mother tells stories  of her walking me to the local library twice a day when I was younger. And though I don’t actually remember this happening, I vividly remember that library. I remember always reading and I kind of remember always knowing how to read. We always had books in our house, I always got books as presents, and the hardest decision growing up was choosing which book I was going to order from the Scholastic catalog on a very meager budget.

Did you always love spending time in the library growing up? What kinds of books and genres did you like to read?

I definitely loved spending time at the library when I was a very young girl. The first neighborhood I grew up in had a library just a block away from our house. But we moved when I was just about to start the first grade to a town without a library. I remember being crushed, but I learned to rely on my school library.

And when I was in middle and high school, I never used the library. I think it’s a time that most students fall out of the habit and I think something librarians are always trying to fix. In college, I only used the library for assignments, but I finally found my way back to libraries as a young adult. And when I did, it just fit.

library

What is the library like where you work? Is it an integral part of the community, or is it something you have to actively work toward making sure it stays running?

My library is a medium-sized library in a suburb of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is a great place to be a librarian because we have a huge library system that allows all of these local neighborhood libraries to be connected through a consortium. You get the benefit of having a true community library that really allows you to become an important place in the community, but you get the benefit of a large system and endless books and resources.

Describe some of the day-to-day tasks you do as an Assistant Director. I’m particularly interested in the book purchasing process (how do you make your selections?) and program planning.

Because I work in a smaller library, my role as Assistant Director really means I do a little of everything. I host all of our story times, plan programs for children and adults, take care of tech questions, perform reader’s advisory and reference, and I share the ordering responsibilities with our Director.

In terms of making purchasing decisions, I always keep the patrons in mind. So much of what I order is best-selling material (authors like James Patterson and Janet Evanovich), but it’s also about finding interesting and informative material. One of my favorite things to do is find quirky reads, music, DVDs, etc. that I know other libraries might not have the budget to purchase. I’m always thinking about my own community first, but because we share materials with the greater Pittsburgh area, I find that material that has larger appeal is harder to find. It’s like a puzzle I’m creating and solving each month.

I don’t worry about censoring material because as long as I am following my library’s purchasing policies, the material that I buy will find its proper place within our collection. Instead, my biggest worry is always buget. Sometimes I want to buy ALL of the books, but have to scale back and weigh my priorities.

You seem to especially love planning programs for children. In what ways is interacting with these kids rewarding?

Well, I was a teacher for five years before I went back to school for my MLIS and became a librarian, so I have always enjoyed working with children. For me, the reward in working with children is just to see how excited they are about learning. Children just want soak up as much information as they can, and they have such a love of reading, it’s impossible not to find joy in hosting a storytime or other program.

Plus, how can you not love a bunch of preschoolers shouting your name and telling you how much they love the library? 

It may seem obvious to some, but why is instilling a love for reading in children so important? Have you witnessed any transformations (big or small) in the children you meet when they find a story that resonates with them?

Instilling a love of reading at an early age is a gateway to success. It gives children so much, including self-esteem and awareness. But really, it helps to make life-long learners. It’s the first step in showing children that they have a world of discovery out there and that they have the tools to figure it all out.

As for transformations, I think I see them every week. They are happening around us all of the time, and I’m just thankful that I get to play a part in helping children learn. It never stops warming my heart to have a child come running to me to talk about their newest favorite book, or to tell me about their latest achievement, or to ask me to choose something special for them. Those are all little transformations and if we don’t pay attention to them, we miss out.

What is your take on the hard copy vs. digital book debate? Is there any right or wrong way to enjoy a good book? And does technology affect the library system negatively?

There is absolutely no wrong way to enjoy a good book. If you are reading something that makes you happy, no matter the format, that’s what matters. I want to help people discover the books that speak to them, and if they read them on an eReader or on paper, it doesn’t really matter. Sure, the world of publishing is changing, but if anything, I think it’s made libraries more relevant. Chances are your library has free eBooks for you to borrow and my library even offers digital subscriptions to magazines. We’re the place people go to for questions about iPads and Kindles and everything in between. Librarians are tech-savvy. We manage to be on top of trends and respectful of traditional methods, too. Really, I don’t think there is much in terms of technology that a good library couldn’t tackle and for those reasons, I don’t think we’ll be disappearing into the dark anytime soon.

On a similar note, said e-readers, along with academic search engines, make it easy for readers and students to not have to make a trip to the library. Why is the brick-and-mortar “search engine” still needed?

The library is more than just a book depository. It houses informed professionals that can help locate things that even Google can’t manage to find. It’s a place where people can come for free education and entertainment. It’s a place where people go when they need someone to talk to. It’s a community center that hosts speakers and teaches skills. It’s a place to find employment help and someone to show you how to build a resume. It’s where you can send a fax, scan documents, and make copies all for very little money. It’s a place that lets you read newspapers and magazines for all day long for no cost. It’s a warm place to find shelter in the winter and a cool place to relax in the summer. It’s where anyone can go and not be judged for needing assistance. The library is more than just books and computers. It’s whatever is needed, for each unique person who walks in the door, each and every day.

library

Clearly you love your job, but are there aspects of it that are tough? Monotonous?

Of course, just like any job librarians have their rough days. I do love my job very much, but sometimes I am so busy it’s hard to come up for air and breathe. It’s not always dealing with demanding or rude patrons. I’ve been yelled at, cursed at, and I’ve even had tennis balls thrown at me. And on those days, of course the job is tough. But more often than not, people are good, caring, and kind and that makes up for the small amount of people who are unreasonable or hurtful.

Would you say that library work is your calling? Would you ever want to pursue other paths?

I woke up one day and knew that I was meant to be a librarian. I was feeling lost and lonely in my life, and something had to change, but it took me awhile before I realized that librarian was a profession that I could actually do. And since then, I haven’t looked back. At this point in my life, I am absolutely certain, with every fiber of my being, that I am supposed to be a librarian. Will I think the same in ten years? I don’t really know. I’ve learned that life doesn’t always happen the way you think it will and to just accept the way it may twist and turn. I’m just thankful that I am happy being a librarian now.

I ask every interviewee this question, but it’s especially fitting for you: What books would you recommend to others?

Oh, I always find this so hard to answer. A librarian takes her recommendations very seriously and knows that each reader is different so there can be no blanket answer. I always write a list of my most favorite books I read each year on my blog, and I keep a pretty extensive Goodreads record of what I’m reading, too.

But if you really want to know, I’m recommending Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple to just about everyone these days. It’s snarky, witty satire at its finest. But it also has depth and and heart. A fantastic mother-daughter coming-of-age tale that not enough people are reading.

And for children? One of my all-time favorites is A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead. It’s a Newbery winner and just an adorable tale of a sick zoo keeper and his animal friends. I’m also a huge fan of Jon Klassen. I’d highly recommend anything he’s written and/or illustrated for any level.

 

Thanks so much for sharing your insight and expertise, Shannon! It’s encouraging to read about your thriving library and the kids who relish in it. Have a question or compliment for Shannon? Leave it in the comments! For more of The “Lucky” Ones interview series, click here.

photo credit: annais via photopin cc and Ozyman via photopin cc

The “Lucky” Ones – An interview with foster co-parent Rachael

Today’s interview is one of the most fascinating yet of this series. If you’ve ever wondered about the intricacies of foster parenting (the emotional roller coaster, the complicated legal process, etc.), read on about Rachael’s experience.

Ever since working in the children’s department of a domestic violence victims’ shelter, Rachael knew she wanted to be a foster parent. She was only in high school then, but the eight years Rachael spent working at the shelter opened her eyes to just how many kids were in need of temporary homes. That experience solidified her belief, and after Rachael married her husband, Andy, they spent a couple of years seriously discussing the possibility of foster care before making it official. Their’s was a unique case—unlike many foster parents, Rachael and Andy are in their late 20s, they’re not religious (as is common in the world of fostering), and they decided to foster before having biological children. Their first, and so far only, placement was just four weeks old when she came into their home. “M” has brought so much joy into their lives over the past year—she’s now 13 months old—and yet the uncertainty of her future and their future as a family is a constant source of anxiety.

Rachael and Andy live in upstate New York—she’s an editor, and he works in sales. Rachael also blogs about the joys and struggles of parenting (as well as regular daily life) at Making it Awkward.

Welcome, Rachael!

Let’s start with your work with domestic violence victims. What was your role at the shelter, and how did working there influence your decision to eventually become a foster parent? 

I started at the shelter as a volunteer in the Children’s Program in my senior year of high school. My job was, basically, to play with kids. It was pretty great. I went into it expecting scared, bruised kids and haunted, weepy mothers, but really, by and large, the kids were normal kids and the women I worked with were incredibly strong. I ran “playgroups” for any kids we happened to have in residence. In the hours that the playroom wasn’t open, I’d spend time with the kids and their moms in smaller groups or one-on-one, and I found out that many of our kids had been in and out of foster care. Domestic violence happens in all levels of society, but in many cases it appears concurrently with drug abuse and various other issues. I was surprised that some of the “normal” moms had had kids taken into foster care. I was surprised that some of the kids’ own dads called in reports on the moms as a new way to manipulate and abuse them. I was horrified at some of the reports of foster kids not being allowed to eat with the rest of the foster family, or only eating one meal a day, or other, much worse, things. Even as a senior in high school, I knew I wanted to be a mom someday, and I knew I could be a better foster parent than some of these people I was hearing about. I felt passionate about the work I did there and worked there for eight years (and after we started dating, Andy occasionally volunteered there too).

What were some of the things you and your husband discussed before ultimately agreeing to foster children? Did you have to make any sacrifices or compromises?

I’m grateful that my husband and I have pretty similar ideas about community and social justice, and we’ve discussed fostering and adoption as possibilities for our family since we were dating. I first brought up really becoming foster parents the summer we bought our house. We had all these rooms! We could put kids in them! Andy wasn’t ready to be a parent at the time, but told me that I could certainly bring it up again. So I mentioned it probably twice a year until last summer, when we happened to be looking into adoption (both international and domestic) and discovering how expensive and restrictive it is. Andy agreed that since we were considering parenting anyway, we should go ahead and look into fostering. Before deciding to go ahead with it, we talked about our end goal: did we only want to foster if it led to adoption? Ultimately we decided that no, there are a lot more kids who need temporary homes than permanent ones in our county, so we’d sign up for all of them and see what happened.

Describe the process of becoming certified. What kinds of meetings and classes did you attend? Were you required to make changes in your home and lifestyle? 

The morning we had the discussion where Andy finally said yes, I called to get more information and was told there was an informational session that very night! We attended, and before we left we signed up for the required training program our county uses (M.A.P.P.). The classes, to my great surprise, are NOT about how to be a foster parent. They’re about helping you decide if foster parenting is the right choice for you and your family. There were classes ten weeks in a row, three hours each. I found the classes painfully slow and repetitive, but I realize that it’s important that everyone fully understand what they’re getting themselves into. We do get supplemental training, some required and some optional, on issues like fostering kids who have been sexually abused and on building relationships with bio-parents. We had our home inspected twice and had several multi-hour interviews with different caseworkers. We had to have a crib and a carseat and working smoke detectors and a carbon monoxide detector and a fire extinguisher before we could be certified. The process, starting with our first informational session and ending with our certification last October, took a total of five months. We’ve been told that this is on the shorter end of the spectrum, since we attended every class and scheduled appointments as quickly as we could.

Why did you decide to become a foster parent before having children of your own? Do you want to have children, and if so, will you continue to be foster parents?

Before we decided to foster we talked a lot about whether having a biological child was important to us. We both felt that if we were going to foster, it would be a good place to start parenting. I guess it boiled down to knowing myself well enough to know that if I had a kid already, it would be much more difficult to take on the risks that come along with foster parenting. After our foster daughter, M, was placed with us and we’ve seen how uncertain our future with her is, we decided that yes, we would like to have a biological child, because in a way we’ll be in charge of that kid’s story. We won’t be depending on caseworkers and a judge and our child’s other parents to make certain choices: this child will be ours in a way that we haven’t had (yet?) with M. We started trying to conceive this summer and I had a miscarriage at eleven weeks, which sucked. It sucked a lot, actually. And just for extra stress, M’s bio-dad started up visits again the week after the miscarriage, after not attending them for five months. So that was rough. But we’re doing okay, and I am actually sixteen weeks pregnant now! We will certainly continue to parent M as long as we’re allowed, and we haven’t ruled out the possibility of continuing to foster. We will, however, probably have to be very selective about accepting placements, for the safety of M (if she’s still with us) and our future child/children.

How would you feel about taking in older kids who are fully aware of their dysfunctional family situation? Do you think that would, in some ways, be tougher than fostering a baby or toddler?

When we signed our paperwork, we indicated we were open to any kid (or sibling group) between birth and age 5, which was the range we felt we could have reasonably biologically parented. There is absolutely a higher level of risk and mess with older kids, for a whole bunch of reasons, but we know there are a lot of foster parents signed up ONLY for the babies and toddlers and that the older kids need a safe home too. Now that we have M and have another on the way, we are not open to taking any more foster kids for the immediate future (fostering takes A LOT of time, and we both work full-time, so coordinating visits and doctor stuff and court for an additional kid isn’t really feasible). No matter what happens with M, we’ll have to talk about whether we want to keep fostering, and if we decide we do, whether we should narrow our age range. For example, research shows that kids who have been sexually abused are significantly more likely to act out sexually on other kids; that’s a real risk with taking in an older (i.e., non-toddler) kid. Our first priority will have to be to protect the kids we DO have before we can help other kids. (I also feel I should note that often a kid doesn’t reveal the extent of abuse right away, so we could specify that we prefer not to foster kids who have been sexually abused, only to find out months later that they have been.)

As strong as your bond is with M, how hard will it be when the time comes to let her go?

We really think of M, in our day-to-day lives, as our daughter. She’s about thirteen months old now, and she has been with us since she was four weeks old, so we are the only parents she knows. She hasn’t seen her bio-mom since March, hasn’t seen her bio-grandma (who was sort of pursuing custody of M) since April, and has seen her bio-dad less than once a week since the end of August. Her dad is the most likely candidate for reunification, but it’s really hard to say if he’s capable of doing what the county requires. We have no idea if it’s more likely that M will be raised by him or by us. If/when she does go back to her bio-family, we’ll be devastated. Luckily for us, because she is so young and so attached to us, the county would require a tapering of her time with her bio-dad, gradually increasing his visits so that he has her more of the time, to make the transition easier on her. We would also do our best to use that transition time to build a relationship with her dad, so that he can think of us a resource in M’s life. He knows that we would be thrilled to be part of her life and has said that he’s open to the idea, but we don’t know how likely he is to follow through. (I’ve had a coworker ask recently if it would be easier to lose M since I’m pregnant now, and I honestly stared at her open-mouthed. No, it won’t be easier to lose my daughter. Nothing will make that easy, ever.)

Do you get insensitive comments like that a lot? How do you handle it?

My eyebrows have gotten a lot more exercise since we started fostering. Andy and I are white; M is not. I am frequently amazed that (mostly white) strangers feel that they are allowed to comment on or ask us about this – “Is she yours?” “What race is she?” “Where is she from?” “Oh, what a pretty brown baby!” We’ve also been told, over and over, by well-meaning friends and family, that they could never foster because they’d “get too attached.” They might not realize it, but that’s freaking insulting because it implies that WE WON’T. Of course we get too attached. Of course we love M as if she were born to us. I have also had more than one person tell me they knew how hard it must be because they had fostered dogs for an animal shelter. Um, not quite the same thing, thanks. We’ve also had a lot of people flat-out ask why we’d want to foster, or if we have fertility problems, or if we’re planning to have a biological child – things that are absolutely none of their business (and it’s interesting to note that these questions are ALWAYS directed at me, never at my husband). We also have been told over and over how lucky M is. It’s really hard not to explain exactly how wrong this statement is, because she was neglected for the first four weeks of her life and may be removed from the only family she knows at any moment. Usually, I deal with it by being polite but dismissive – when people ask if she’s ours, I say yes. I smile politely and do my best to change the subject with thoughtless coworkers or acquaintances. I don’t want to set a bad example about how to respond to insulting things, so I do my best not to engage.

What are some of the other emotional ups and downs of being a foster parent?

I really didn’t expect the uncertainty to wear on me as much as it has. M’s case is a little odd, in that her mom has a specific case plan to work, and we get regular reports on that, but her dad isn’t a factor in why she came into foster care and he could choose to file for custody at any moment. Usually, the foster parents know if the parents have a shot at getting the kid back or not, but right now M’s case is anyone’s guess. There’s also a lot of pain in people asking, casually, “So did you adopt her yet?” as if we have any say in the matter. Visit days are rough, too, because M doesn’t know her bio-dad well and is at the age that she’s scared of strangers, so she spends the whole visit screaming her head off and then falls asleep from exhaustion, which breaks my heart. I struggle a lot with the reminders that even though this kid calls me “Mama” and we are her parents in her eyes, we are not in charge of her life (for example, we’d have to get permission from her bio-parents to get her a haircut, and if anything were to happen to me and Andy, instead of staying with our extended family, who adore her, she’d go into another foster home with strangers).

What has been the very best part about this whole experience so far?

We’ve gotten to parent a really, really awesome baby. M is truly a delight. And we’ve been lucky enough to have a fantastic worker on her case who is very communicative and answers my one million questions patiently and cheerfully. The worker is always honest with us, which is nice – she doesn’t know any more than we do about where M will be raised, but she doesn’t sugarcoat that M might leave or a judge might grant the mom an extension for no particular reason and thus extend the time M remains in foster care before adoption becomes possible. We also have met a few other local foster families who “get” what it’s like to have all this nonsense as part of your daily life in a way that most of our friends and family can’t. And at the risk of being schmoopy, I’ll also say that parenting with Andy has been really great. We have a lot of similar opinions on how things should go in a family, so there aren’t many disagreements about how to handle things, and watching him play with our kid just kills me with how happy it makes them both.

How has this experience changed your life and views on parenting?

I have thought long and hard to come up with an answer that isn’t just “Fostering has changed my life in every way possible,” but that’s true, even if it’s a cliché and a cop-out. We weren’t parents before; now we have a toddler. I was always pretty polite and believed that people in authority would do their best for me; since we had a complicated health issue with M, I learned really quickly how to be assertive (and have since had no problem escalating my questions any time I feel it’s warranted). I think Andy and I already both had wider-reaching perspectives than many of our middle-class, mostly-white friends, but this has helped cement that. For example, we don’t plan to do “Santa” with our kids, foster or bio, because of the huge class discrepancy that comes with that. How could we tell a foster kid “Santa will come and visit you when you’re with us this year, but we can’t promise anything when you leave”? Andy’s reading this book right now and took real issue with a throw-away comment by the author that you shouldn’t bother buying a ton of stuff for your kid, because that’s what grandparents are for!, because that’s really not true for a lot of people who don’t have family support or who don’t have an affluent background or whatever. It’s really hard not to see the world around us through the lens of being foster parents now, and through the broader view of social justice in general. We know we’re in the “haves” and we try to be more aware of the “have-nots,” I guess. Ugh, that sounds smug and self-righteous but I swear it’s not meant to be.

Overall, would you say that foster care is worth all the heartache that can come along with it?

For us, yes, it is, without hesitation. Some of it really sucks, but overall, kids are really cool little humans, and as foster parents we get to hang out with one of the best of them. And really, there is a very significant need for safe, temporary homes for foster kids while their bio-families work out whatever issues brought the kids into care, so yes, even when it’s shitty, to us it’s worth it to keep a kid safe for as long as they need it. There are days when it’s truly horrible, but there are way more days when it’s not. (I’ve never had a kid leave my home, though, so my answer to this might be different eventually.)

Are there any books related to your experience that you’d recommend?

Because our experience with fostering has only been one placement, and she’s so very young, the majority of books on fostering don’t really apply to us very much. I read and really liked The Connected Child, which has a lot of great information that can be applied to fostering despite being overtly about adoption. We ordered a few kids’ books on foster care before we got our placement, and we really liked A Mother for Choco, Maybe Days, and The Family Book. Horton Hatches The Egg is a great book for talking to non-foster kids about how different families are created.

 

Rachael, thank you so much for telling your and Andy’s story. Your insight taught me (and others, no doubt) a ton about the world of foster care. It’s crystal clear that you two are selfless, loving people who make for wonderful parents. Congratulations on your pregnancy(!), and the best of luck in your ongoing story with M. Have questions or comments for Rachel? Add them here!

*No photos used in this post are of Rachael or her foster child(ren). All but the top photo belong to Witty Title Here.

The “Lucky” Ones – An interview with Shanghai artist & bodyworker Julie Kesti

After several weeks off due to the holidays, I’ve been anxious to get The “Lucky” Ones interview series back up and running. (You can read past interviews here.) My first interviewee of 2013 is a creative soul with an adventurous spirit. Meet artist and Shiatsu practitioner, Julie Kesti!

shanghai is cold in winter so i jog in place

Julie Kesti is an artist—both in the traditional sense and otherwise. After receiving her art degree from the University of Minnesota, she began to explore other paths (mail carrier, face painter, museum guard, and birthing doula to name a few). But what grabbed her attention—and stuck—was another kind of art: healing bodywork. Inspired by previous work in a yoga studio, Julie learned the practice of Shiatsu, a Japanese alternative medicine that incorporates massage and stretching. She eventually started her own business both as a Shiatsu and Thai massage practitioner while continuing to create art.

A major life change, not to mention culture shock, forced Julie out of her comfort zone when her husband’s job recently transplanted them to China. It’s made for a whole new source of inspiration for Julie’s artwork—which is mostly paintings and drawings that use various materials, as well as a series of art-by-mail projects which she ships to people all over the world from her new home in Shanghai. Crediting her childhood as the youngest of five siblings, Julie’s power of observation has made her independent career both successful and fulfilling.

Welcome, Julie!

You’ve explored many careers on your path to art and bodywork. What led you to where you are now, and how did you know when you had a good fit?

I remember my college advisor saying, “It doesn’t matter what you major in, companies want employees who are intelligent and can think creatively.” I think this is probably both true and untrue. At the time, though, I somehow knew [art] was the right choice for me. Oddly I also knew that I wasn’t going to go out and try and show my stuff in galleries. I recall being really clear about that, though not about what it was I would do instead. I think studying art was developing a way of interacting with the world, and I didn’t know where that would take me.

Since then I’ve worked all sorts of jobs. In the midst of all that I also studied bodywork and eventually started my own business as a Shiatsu and Thai Massage practitioner, including co-creating a great bodywork space that hosted arts events. Two of my best roles were working in an assistant role, which is a little surprising because I can be stubbornly independent, but not so surprising because I like to find pattern and organization in things. I was lucky to work alongside brilliant experts in their fields. They each had a well-honed talent, and I was able to step in to join with them to make that work easier and better, while learning from their expertise.

can't stop painting plants

Did you experience a lot of uncertainty when you took on these different roles? How would you decide what to pursue next or when you felt it was time to move on?

I don’t exactly believe in fate, but I have to admit, as I look back on all this, there have been several times I was sure about doing something but wasn’t sure exactly where it would go.  My doula work—I was so excited about it when I began and loved doing it, but then at a certain point, I was like, I think this part of my work is done. I just knew it. It was a little awkward, really, because I had no good explanation for people, apart from saying something about a switching of priorities. But it was about that time that I met [my friend] Sarah and Blooma (the yoga studio) was opening, and things evolved from there. I was just going to work at the desk a couple days a week because I thought it was such an exciting new concept to be around, but it evolved, and I was able to take on a leadership role there that used a lot of skills I’d developed over the years, and taught me a lot of new ones. I think, really, in that case in particular, my college advisor was right—it was my ability to think creatively and organize and sort information, key tools of an artist, that made me a good fit for that role.

It seems you were intent on becoming an artist from the start. But what about bodywork? What was it about the practice that resonated with you?

This work did in some ways come out of my art practice. [In school], a lot of my work explored the idea of living in a body, how we are viewed and project ourselves through our physical forms, and more specifically, as women. One of the most influential classes I took was a course called “Women’s Images and Images of Women.” It altered my understanding of history and the way that the personal and the political reflect each other. Fast-forward a few years, and I’d lived in China for a stretch, and served a year as an Americorps Volunteer, gotten married and was back in Minneapolis. A friend of mine was in Shiatsu school and would tell me about Chinese Medicine and practiced on me. I was intrigued and thought it would be a way to keep examining our human bodies, and also a way to study that wasn’t all about book studying (which was what I’d done most of my life) but also hands-on. Shiatsu and Chinese Medicine are interesting because they discuss the body in a way that includes so many factors—environment, emotions, lifestyle, history—and that of course appealed to me as an artist.

On the surface, art and bodywork appear to be two very different professions, though it seems bodywork is its own art form, and art, healing. Do you feel the same? And how do you do both?

A friend once came for a session and noted that to her my Shiatsu work felt like I was “making a painting.” That’s a little abstract, but I think it’s pretty accurate—you are creating each session for each client, and you are listening and responding to what you notice in the body—it is a creative process. You also develop your own style as you grow as a practitioner, the same with an art-making practice. And both art and bodywork are beneficial to the practitioner—you feel good and energized after giving a Shiatsu, and painting is invigorating in a similar way.

Practically speaking, though, I seem to always have multiple interests going on—which can be both a blessing and a curse—to keep up with it all logistically, and of course to make it all work financially.

How has relocating to a completely different part of the world shifted your perspective of your work and lifestyle?

Since moving to China this year I’ve had a lot of time to think and have been forced to examine how the next phases of my work will evolve. Not much here is built-in for me, and this move wasn’t entirely my choice—not that I was forced to go, but it is my husband who has a job here, and who has studied Mandarin and Chinese culture for years and years, so my investment is different from his. There is an (I think) terrible term for this: “trailing spouse!”

So I’ve been in a bit of a free fall, which is terrifying and also a great gift. It makes me have to step up to the plate—I can’t relax in established relationships or roles or even, you know, ways of getting groceries and doing laundry. It’s a chance to Teach English (believe me, everyone will tell you, “You could always teach English!”) or Do Something Else. So I’ve been staring at Something Else a lot and trying to discern it, and exploring what others have done in a similar situation. And it seems like this is a lot of what the blogging world is about—people trying to do something other than what they were doing, or trying to shift their lifestyle, or maybe keep doing the same thing but be more reflective and/or intentional about it.

typically bizarre shanghai view

Has your new home influenced your art? Are people in Shanghai receptive to it?

Yes, it has. Partly just in having my time wide open and saying, okay, let’s do this. Partly because I think the urban landscape is making me paint plant after plant after plant. It’s got me thinking about how to make an art practice that is viable no matter where I am—hence my experiments with art-by-mail and my new Etsy site. (Thank you postal services of the world!)

I’m not sure yet if people here are receptive to it—I am still trying to get to know the community and find a spot for myself. There are some inspiring projects here, so I have hope. The skies here can be very grey and smoggy, so I have a feeling there is a place for my colorful work in this city.

Bodywork-wise, I’ve been set up to give Shiatsus here for about a month. So far so good. It’s extra nice to create a cozy oasis for people in the midst of this huge city.

What challenges have you faced as a result of simply being in your respective fields, as well as immersing yourself in such a vastly different culture? What about the rewards?

The challenge with learning bodywork initially was going to school and learning anatomy and stretching my brain to think in terms of Chinese Medicine, which can be a very different view of the human ecosystem. I had some great teachers to guide me in this process. (Thanks Tomas and Andre.) Once you get through all that, there is the challenge of starting a business and figuring out how to share it with others. This was actually a fun challenge, however, one I still enjoy and am learning about, and one that I can now bring back around to my art-making. It’s funny—I forget sometimes how much of a learner-by-doer I am. I suppose this is why I often am not sure what the next step is, so I keep walking ’til I’m in it.

Immersing myself in a different culture is hugely challenging. And here in Shanghai, it’s many cultures—Chinese, Shanghainese, the Expatriate world, the world of the very-corporately-employed, a world of regular food scandals, a world of a pretty totalitarian government with a really annoying internet firewall. It’s a big change from Minneapolis. At many moments it has totally, completely sucked. But—but—of course, just to laugh in the face of my most pessimistic moments, of course it is rewarding to me, too. I can see in what ways I was pampered by being in one place for many years. I encounter viewpoints and lifestyles and cultural references that I didn’t in my circles back home. Generally, foreigners in Shanghai are extremely bright and ambitious people, which creates a unique dynamic to observe and learn from. Let’s be honest, I’ve been thrust into the ultimate make-it-up-as-you-go situation, so this should be right up my alley.

It makes me think about immigrants all the time. I am pretty sure I’ll be back in my home country again—I think about what it would be like if I knew I wasn’t going back.

my dog skye lives in SH too

What has been your biggest success to date, and how do you hope to see your art forms evolve?

I’m so bad at “biggest/most” questions, but I’d have to say one of the biggest successes was the Art Swap Shanty. It was part of the Art Shanty Projects on a frozen lake outside of Minneapolis. Artists are commissioned to build themed huts (like ice fishing houses) that become an interactive creative village, visited by thousands of people over several weekends in the dead of winter. Our shanty started as an idea by my junior high friend Dana, who lives in L.A., and me, and we roped in a few friends and before we knew it we had hundreds of people swapping works of art in our tiny space in the glow of our wood stove, under a giant stocking cap.

This was the first community art project I’d done, and it was cool to use my organizational skills in an arts setting. I don’t always love group projects, but we had a good synchronicity with this group, and everyone had a good skill that made the shanty work. Equally important to its success was being part of the Art Shanty Projects—they’d been going for several years and, for good reason, had a great following by then. It was an awesome experience of collaboration and of feeling first-hand the way that not reinventing the wheel has its benefits!

My other big success would be a series of drawings I “collaborated” with my nephew on. I put that in quotes because he died before I made the drawings, when he was 9 years old. I took his drawings and writings and made new works out of them. I think that project will continue somehow in the future. It involved mystery and story and maps and thinking about what a life is, and how we make meaning, which is so much of what I’ve been doing, really.  You can read more about that project here.

waiting for the subway train in SH

Are there any books you’d recommend (whether they’re personal or professional favorites) to like-minded readers?

I’m pretty obsessed with Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny, Beautiful ThingsLynda Barry’s What It Is, and Danielle Laporte’s The Firestarter Sessions right now. My favorite children’s books ever are Leo the Late Bloomer by Robert Kraus and Jose Aruego, and Andrew Henry’s Meadow, by Doris Burn, which I still refer to often. If you are interested in Chinese Medicine, Wood Becomes Water: Chinese Medicine in Everyday Life by Gail Reichstein is a nice place to begin.

(I love reading novels—who knows why they aren’t on the list today.)

Which has played a bigger role in your success: persistence or luck?

Huh. Hm. Well.

In the grand scheme of things I know I’m very lucky. Privilege upon privilege, an awesome family, and growing up in a place with fresh air and trees and lakes and educational opportunities…

But I’d say “success” requires persistence. Not in the force-it-make-it-happen sort of way, but in the keep-on-keepin’-on sort of way, and in let’s-give-it-a-try sort of way, in the letting-your-heart-grow-three-sizes-again-and-again sort of way.


I can’t think of a better conclusion to that interview. Thanks so much for sharing your story, Julie! If you enjoyed reading Julie’s story and insight, let her know in the comments!