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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Mining deep in the time of pandemic

Kathleen McQuillan
Posted 5/6/20

One of the delightful benefits of the social lockdown is that I’m periodically having longer phone conversations with my children. This week I received a call from my older son. It came after a …

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Mining deep in the time of pandemic


One of the delightful benefits of the social lockdown is that I’m periodically having longer phone conversations with my children. This week I received a call from my older son. It came after a busy day in the garden. John and I had spent the last few days hauling cow manure and decomposing straw from my neighbor’s farm. We do this every year in a long-standing bartering arrangement that has proven to be a valuable part of the household budget — our home-grown food supply.
As may be the case for others, manure and straw are key components for keeping our gumbo clay soil rich and tillable for growing things. After successfully getting our onions in the ground last weekend, our eyes were now on the prize — peas and spinach planted before the “forty days and forty nights” of rain, like those that have set us back the past two springs on our gardening timeline. It was a long day of spreading, tilling, tilling again, and tilling one more time to break down our homemade compost and thoroughly mix it in. Aah! The perfect seedbed, fertile and ready to deliver abundantly.
Around seven o’clock, after indulging in a simple meal and straightening up the kitchen, I sat myself down for some quiet time checking Duffy for ticks. His hair has grown considerably these past four months and he’s become a magnet for “phoo-phoos” — things like burrs, sticks and yes, ticks. An hour combing through his gnarly locks has become part of our nightly ritual. The phone’s ring startled me. But what a joy to hear my son’s voice. He phones less often now since being called back to work the afternoon shift. He brought me up to date on family life in “old” Mountain Iron. They too have been preparing their little garden spot, a source of happiness and inspiration. According to Nick, “mostly Bobbi’s thing.” But believe me, it’s much much more than Bobbi’s “thing”. It’s her work of art!
We went on to discuss the joys and challenges of homeschooling a 14-year-old, trying to decipher “virtual” lectures and assignments prepared by teachers unaccustomed to the novel method informing and motivating students from home. My son provided an inside glimpse of the experience, “a mixed bag of failures and break-throughs”.
I can’t recall the exact course of rapids and eddies that carried us down our thought stream, eventually getting us on this topic of “failure” and “success”, but somehow that’s where we landed. After diving deep into Nick’s recollections of being a high school student, identifying which teachers held his attention, transferred knowledge effectively, and laid the groundwork for his current appreciation for history and math, he also identified those who hadn’t. “I regret that I didn’t pay more attention in English class. Times when I really want to send a clear, well-constructed text using the right grammar so the other person gets my point. That’s when I wish I’d taken Mr. Bartovich more seriously.” I had to laugh. I recalled all those times Mr. Bartovich met me in the principal’s office because Nick wasn’t taking him “more seriously”. We agreed, some teachers really were special. True successes at their jobs!
Nick then shared a recent conversation he’d had with an older man he knew well. It was about the question of how to define “success”. The man was doubting some of the choices he’d made during the course of his life, and also some he’d “failed” to make. He began comparing himself to his siblings, a sister who was an accomplished and somewhat “driven” physician, and his brother, a successful businessman who lived “the high life”. Nick walked me through the man’s self-examination — not passing judgment, just highlighting certain aspects he thought were worth discussing. The man said the doctor often worked eighty hours a week, relying on nannies to help raise her children. Nick queried the man, “How often does she see them now, since they’ve left home?” The man replied, “Not that often.” Nick continued, “And the brother who’s the high-roller entrepreneur? You told me his main goal was making lots of money, and proving that he knew more about everything than anybody else? Is he a person you’ve enjoyed hanging around with?” The man answered, “Well, not really.” Nick summed up his thoughts. “Then maybe their lives aren’t all that great.”
I listened, reflecting on my own life. I chimed in. “Ya know, I’ve asked myself those same questions…. Maybe we all do sometimes.” “Yea,” Nick responded. “You’re probably right.”
We agreed that comparing ourselves to others usually leads us down a rabbit hole — unless we stop and ask ourselves, “How do we measure “success”? Is it how much money you make or status you acquire? Is it what we produce… Something we have to “show” for our lives? Who’s defining success and setting the standard?”
Then Nick asked, “So, if we are brave — or crazy — enough to go our own way, aren’t we all just trying to be happy?” With that, there was a long pause in the conversation.
At this point, Duffy had been thoroughly inspected. While traveling to the “outer limits” and back, I had discovered two ticks, shooed away the bunny that’s been chewing my porch, and finished two cups of tea. I asked Nick, “Hey, what time is it, anyway?” I was shocked when he said 1 a.m. With no clock in the room, we had mined below the surface for three hours. We are two people who have chosen our own paths, and for the most part, we’re happy! Not all the time, of course. But enough to know that joy and satisfaction might be the best measures of success around!
With that, we shared thanks for our marathon chat, then wrapped it up with a sweet “Good Night”.


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