Not Mine to Understand


Too warm this morning, 40-ish and spitting rain. The snow, which just yesterday was ideal for skiing, that elusive combination of glide and yield, has gone to mush underfoot. What more, it has been gray for more consecutive days than I have fingers to count, and while I suppose I could remove my socks to facilitate the math, I don’t like cold toes. So let’s just say we haven’t seen sun for at least 10 days, and let me keep my warm toots, ok?

This morning I noticed a spike in traffic to this site; ever curious, I followed the spike back to Heather’s page, where she’d linked to this page. I like Heather; she’s been incredibly supportive of my work, and furthermore wicked generous with her insight and experience. She strikes me as a thoughtful and gentle person, though of course I know her only at a distance, and this allows me the luxury of imagining her in a manner that’s entirely inconsistent with that impression. I’m thinking pack of Pall Malls perched on the corner of a chipped formica counter, something raunchy on the juke (Skynyrd? No, wait, I got it: Skid Row!), post-breakfast Bloody Mary in hand… damn, I better stop, or she’s never gonna talk to me again.

Anyway, my only-partly-latent narcissism couldn’t keep me from reading the comments pertaining to her post, which included the following statement: I can’t help but feel a bit judged when I read Ben’s work. I might’ve passed it by, but it’s an issue that’s been on my mind; a while back, someone (can’t remember who, and I’m too lazy to go looking) commented on this page that what I write here sometimes makes them feel inadequate. 

I’m not sure exactly what to say about the sentiments expressed, except the only honest thing, which is that they make me feel pretty bad. I know that wasn’t the intent, but of course intent and outcome do not always align. I also know what it’s like to feel judged myself; if you have a spare, oh, 5 hours or so, scroll through the comments pertaining to my Outside article. There’s no shortage of judging going on over there. The obvious difference, though, is that I sort of ask for it. I mean, I put myself and my story and my views out there for the world to see and dissect and critique. Over the years, I have developed a fairly thick skin, though of course it’s not without its cracks. I don’t exist in some sort of evolved state of consciousness where nothing anyone says about me matters. Which is why I suppose the comments about my work making people feel judged or inadequate bother me in the first place.

Ok, I’m figuring out what to say. The first is this: If what you read here makes you feel lesser in any way, shape, or form, please don’t read it. I mean, I want you as a reader, don’t get me wrong. But not at the expense of your self-worth. Or at least your perception of your self-worth, which I suppose is pretty much the same thing. I realize this might sound sort of cold – if you don’t like it, don’t read it – but that’s not how I mean it. What I sincerely mean is that if my work does not hold some positive value for you, find someone’s work that does. There is so much great writing out there; there are so many interesting stories. But far as I’m concerned, none of them are worth feeling shitty over. Conversely, if what you read here somehow makes you feel superior to us, well, you might want to think about that, too. Because that’s its own form of self-deception, is it not?

Second. My intent is never to suggest that our way of life is the best, or that I’ve got it all figured out. We are constantly reevaluating, making changes, tweaking, thinking, talking. In my view, the moment you stop asking questions, not merely of others, but of yourself, is the moment self-confidence tilts toward arrogance. And maybe I am guilty of this at times. I hope not, but maybe so. I know I feel strongly about many aspects of our life, about many of the choices we have made. Truth is, you can’t make these choices and not feel strongly about them, because many of these choices are not widely supported in our culture. I would like to think that through my work, I do not offer answers, but rather encourage people to ask questions. The answers they come up with might be entirely different than the ones we come up with, and that is exactly as it should be. Why? Because they’re not us, that’s why!

Ok, one more thing, and then I’ll shut up. We do thing things we do, the things I write about, because they align with our version of a meaningful life. We do not grow most of our food to meet some arbitrary goal for how much of our food we can grow, or because we’re trying to uphold a moral code. We grow most of our own food because we like it. Because when we wake up in the morning, we get to wake up excited for what the day will bring (well, ok, maybe not today, what with the rain and all). Because we like the feeling of dirt under our fingernails. Because I like to sing stupid, made-up, ad-lib songs to the cows as I go about chores, about love and fur and hay and milk. (If I get $1000 in donations today, I’ll make a podcast of one of these songs. It’s like one of those NPR fund-raising challenges, except the reward is actually a punishment)

Someone once said something really smart to me, and I try not to forget it: I cannot control how people perceive my work and what they take from it. I think this is true, because of course my work is not entirely mine: It inevitably crashes against and into the experiences and perceptions of those who read it. This just now occurs to me, but it’s like the rain that’s falling this very minute. It’s mixing with the snow, it’s becoming something entirely different, one into the body of the other. And the outcome – the final result – is not mine to fully understand.




51 thoughts on “Not Mine to Understand”

  1. Damn, shame I am totally broke because I surely would love to hear a podcast of those songs.. Reminds me of my endlessly happy grandma (who milked cows for a living on a collective farm) and her endless repertoire of little songs… Maybe Jeff can sell one of his guns and finance your podcast. 🙂
    I felt bad at first reading soule mama blog. Then I saw her note that her blog does not portray reality and that it serves as meditation for her where she only posts beautiful things. .. sometimes we don’t see the bad and the ugly. I had always wondered how you guys handle conflict between boys and other challenges upon which you just briefly touch in the books and blog.
    Beautiful post though. Thank you.

    1. I was going to mention Soule Mama. I’ve always liked her blog but I know many don’t because of its portrayal of her life. Google ‘Soule-Crushing Mama’ and you’ll find a blog post regarding this very issue. Many people have very big issues with comparing themselves and their lives to what they read online and have no idea that reality is generally not portrayed accurately.

      1. I think the difference between Amanda and Ben is that Ben talks freely about the shit and Amanda doesn’t.

        Amanda’s writing is beautiful, but unless a person has a strong BS detector, it’s easy to make the leap to thinking her LIFE is beautiful. I’m able to see beneath the sun dappled wooden floors and pudgy baby toes and hear the screaming and see the dirt in the corners, so it doesn’t bother me too much. Some people aren’t, and this can be dangerous (for them).

        But Ben’s portrayal of his life, while not necessarily smooth and easy and rarely beautiful (sorry, Ben), is raw. It has integrity and grit and pain. And that is all together a different sort of of beauty.

        We need both kinds, I think. Variety is good.

    2. Sorry, but my gun room is like the Hotel California, in that they can checkout anytime they like, but they can never leave.

  2. As an avid reader of Heather’s blog for years and a new to you reader, I will say that I do not feel bad when I read either of your blogs. I feel encouraged and feel that there are people who are making a lifestyle work that holds value to me (as I sit in a cubicle in the business world daily but live in my 1800’s Colonial preparing for chickens and our first vegetable garden this Spring). You are both so encouraging, interesting and I am so happy to have your blogs to enjoy and to learn from.

    Thank you ~
    Cari in NH

  3. well said, ben. i’ve been thinking of how to reply, but couldn’t find the words to speak on your behalf. i feel bad in these instances, both for the commenter and the writer. for what it’s worth, the reason i enjoy your writing is because you are incredibly convicted (and constantly questioning), yet i never feel like you’re suggesting the hewitt way is *the* way. furthermore, i never feel like you guys think you have it all figured out. it seems that you do what you do, and believe what you believe, based on what you currently know and need… and when you need something different, or learn something new, you evolve and grow willingly.

    also, it’s camels unfiltered… and i do in fact start each day chanting the ballad of curtis loew with my family all in a circle… kirtan style… with whiskey. bloody marys are reserved for sick days when we need a gentle tonic.

  4. That’s weird, I don’t get it. I never feel judged when I read your work but I always feel hopeful and less alone. Hopeful that our strivings are not in vain and some day we may attain this type of lifestyle for our family. Less alone knowing there are others who share our values. Never, ever judged. I can’t quite fathom why anyone would think that. You Hewitt folk are fan-freakin-tastic.

  5. A meditation teacher once said the following to me: It’s a deep teaching that all judgment is undesirable. An even deeper teaching is that all judgment is okay.

  6. When we set out on our off-grid, homestead dream journey back in June, many of our friends encouraged us to document and share our experience so that they might learn something from it. We had big plans to publish the house building, all of our systems, along with our challenges and costs etc. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It somehow felt like bragging (though living in a half-finished cabin the size of most folks’ livingrooms hardly seems like a thing to brag about!). I haven’t yet figured out the right way to share our lives or whether we even need to. Would the fact that I bike to run our water pump for my husbands showers each night make others feel inadequate? Likely not, they’d likely just think that we were mad. I think it’s more the fact that I feel so happy, and free, and goddamn grateful that I’m afraid to come off as boastful, as if we’ve got this life all figured out. But in truth, like you say, we’re just figuring out what works for US and brings meaning to our own lives. Should I share it all online? Clearly I’m still figuring it out. But I sure do like it when you do.

    1. Yes, yes, please share. will cut down on time needed for us to get it all figured out and how to hook up that bicycle pump.You can’t be free and afraid to share at the same time.

  7. you’re right. it’s not yours to understand. her judgment of you is really her judgment of herself and i think she understands that. people need to just go on sharing their stories and if you feel like you are bragging (reader above) then that means you are doing something good and right in your life.

  8. That’s a good lesson to learn, I’ve learnt for myself. Maybe that’s called ageing? it might well be one of the (few? many?) good things about it.
    PS mmmh could we hear a bit of that cow song anyway? nope? well, that would have been funny.

  9. I am a long time reader of yours, and a fairly newish reader of Heather’s. I feel good about myself when I read the things you write. I don’t do any of the stuff the two of you do on any level, but I sort of start to feel like I could if I really tried. And it makes me feel hopeful. I guess the way I view your writing is the other side of the coin.

  10. To the person who felt judged by your writing. I wouldn’t say “stop reading” that’s too easy and I know it’s not intended, but it’s a tad flippant. A writer once told me that the worst thing that can happen to you as a writer is when you put your work out there and it gets ignored. So your words moved a reader significantly – this is a good thing for the writer and the reader and too valuable to dismiss by saying “don’t read anymore.” I’m inspired by your work and enjoy reading the comments would be less interesting if everyone just jumped up and down with pom poms.
    I would say to that reader who felt judged, this writing moved you in some way or moved something in you – what is it? Do you feel judged because you are judging yourself (likely)? Is there some part of this life that you yearn for and so when you read the words you ignore the yearn and instead take the ownership of these emotions and place it on the writer, thus letting you off the hook?

  11. Oh my goodness! I do know Heather and your description made me snort tea out my nose.

    I have never understood how folks can read something and take it so personally. Especially when it is regarding how someone else lives their life. Our choices are exactly that, our own. Some of us choose to share, maybe even over share, on our blogs because we are so enthusiastic and want to spread the joy and wonder we feel with what we have created.

    Keep sharing!

  12. I don’t know about feeling “judged” when reading your blog, as if in making your life choices you are simultaneously condemning everyone else’s. Apparently that is exactly how many respond to your choices (as seen by the comments on your Outside article.) I suspect those feelings come from a place of deep insecurity, anger… Yuck.

    But feeling inadequate in one’s choices in life, well, that can be a very positive experience, although that sounds strange. Maybe inadequate was the wrong word (it was my comment, I believe, that you refer to, although I can’t remember exactly what I wrote, and part of it had to do with reading Andrea, who is incredibly passionate.) Perhaps uncomfortable is more appropriate. How else can we examine our life and make changes (especially when these changes are scary or difficult), if we don’t feel a sense of discomfort first? I am constantly re-evaluating my life. What are my life values and how committed to them am I? Are they truly my values, or did they come from society? How far am I willing to go to live a life in line with my values?

    These are the questions that come to me when I read Ben and Andrea, and others. These are great questions to have, and helping form a vision for my life. So yeah, your words are like rain – and they are falling on my head and growing questions and new answers for me.

    1. I don’t have many, but I got a quote that’s apropro.

      The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.
      -M. Scott Peck

      I keep that one on my desk. (well, my cube wall.)

      1. Great quote, thank you for sharing Scott. (Putting on my wall, as a reminder…)

  13. I’m sorry, did you say Sebastian Bach is raunchy, or am I making inferences… Sheesh, man. Pull yourself together.
    Kip Winger might be a little raunchy, but Sebastian Bach…WTF are you talking about?

  14. I loved the part about not asking questions and arrogance so much that I wrote it down so I can quote it somewhere down the road. Fantastic post.

  15. seriously though, it is hard to be like a little child, and all this skills and knowledge and seeking to leverage it into something else… you lose wonder and you can gain judgement in its place… those great huge cranes are so marvelous to look at and watch… but they eat into a mountain after a fossil fuel that’s gone forever… a great conundrum… how to be like little children.

    1. how to be like little children… say what you think, do what you feel like doing, do the opposite of what adults tell you, crawl under tables, forgive as soon as you get mad, create your own rules, draw pink elephants and purple trees, make snow angles in flour on kitchen floor, have a food fight, teach younger ones, test the limits, sit in the mud, splash in bath water, play in our underpants, use books for building stepping stones on the floor, hug for no reason, and have no fear – that is what my kids do.. Sounds good if you ask me. . 🙂

  16. I didn’t read the comments yet…sometimes I think I should before I comment so I don’t repeat something…but I also don’t want to get distracted from what I was going to say. Which is this….
    I have felt “inadequate” while reading your stuff at times. Not because I’ve felt judged, but because it has forced me to examine how we do some things here in my home…and lots of things in our life here come up feeling so needless and superfluous compared to how I perceive your life. And then I feel bad about our life. But I don’t stop at feeling bad, I try to use that to figure out if there is something I would like us to do differently.

    Perhaps a more positive way to think about it, is that I feel challenged and inspired by your pieces; challenged to think about our way of life and what it means and what it says and what is necessary and how it affects other people. You have obviously given a lot of thought about how your life is lived…I’m thinking that’s impossible to avoid as a homesteader. Me, I think perhaps we’ve gotten swept along and haven’t worked at it enough. I keep coming back to your site, though, because I think you convey an important perspective, one that adds value to my life.

  17. There’s a spiritual teaching that says what we see outside of ourselves that we judge harshly is actually something within ourselves that we’ve not yet made the choice to look at. It’s much easier to see the splinter in someone else’s eye than to remove the plank stuck in our own.

    I only feel bad, Ben, reading your words when I compare your life as a young parent to my life at the same stage. You live such a thoughtful life! As a young parent, I was trudging down the same path my parents trod (respect authority, do what you’re told, get married, get a good job, pay your bills on time, punish your kid when he doesn’t follow these same rules, etc.) because it never occur to me there was another path. I didn’t question life. I never listened to that quiet voice of discontent, never turned into that vague feeling something wasn’t right. When I read your words, I feel a bit sad, a bit disappointed with myself, wishing for a do-over, wondering what life would have been like back then if I was even just a little more awake at the wheel.

    Feeling bad has nothing to do with you, Ben, and everything to do with me. I suspect that’s the case for anyone who reads you and feels anything other than pleasure in your turn of a phrase and joy in witnessing your story unfold.

    Your writing gifted me with the opportunity to look at something in myself that needed to surface so it could be forgiven and released. Thank you for that. 🙂

    1. Yes! that’s the wording I was looking for. Very well spoken.

      “what we see outside of ourselves that we judge harshly is actually something within ourselves that we’ve not yet made the choice to look at.”

      Also, yeah, the “forgiven” part I think is key in your last paragraph, Martha. If there’s something worrying you that you can’t do a darn thing about, (the past is an example), let it go. Good for you!

  18. I read your blog because it opens new doors to me. Your life is vastly different from mine, you are oft times humorous (I’d like to hear the cow songs), and maybe someday I would like to take up whittling. Can I just say, that I cannot imagine reading something that makes me feel inferior, then keep reading it, then post to someones blog about it. If you look at it that way, maybe you’ll see the funny in it. People are insane. You are on the right path. After reading the Q & A from your friend in Scandinavia, and how she felt her work and her life choices were received, and now reading this blog, I am reminded how daring it is to share a part of yourself with the world. I bet there a thousands of artists without the cojones to share their life, their work. Sure, interpretation is up to the reader. And we writers/artists have to let go at some point. This blog-o-sphere is a weird dynamic. My daughter and I just had a discussion on a Robert Frost poem and what it meant. I thought it meant exactly what it said, she is digging deeper. In Frost’s day, it took weeks to hear opinions, and by that time, that crotchety old genius probably moved on to something else completely. There will always be those on both sides. The mulitiverse is expanding, and there’s room for all of it. I’m just thrilled to be along for the ride. Thanks for writing.

  19. Oh gosh, now I feel terrible. That was my comment. I did say I’m sure it is my issue to work on, and not yours, but I should have tried to explain it better. I truly did not mean to hurt; my comment was a sort of gut reaction and a questioning of that reaction. Very sorry.

    I am actually very content with my life which straddles farming/self-sufficiency and a profession that is fast-paced, but very rewarding. Like everyone, I’m sure, we are always re-evaluating and re-prioritizing and it’s not perfect, but I’m pretty sure I’m not more insecure than the average bear and I’m a pretty happy person (if I’ve had coffee). Actually, I lost my hand in a car accident 2 years ago and I’ve been nothing but incredibly grateful ever since that it was all I lost (puts things in perspective, let me tell you). Nonetheless, I feel the way I do when I read certain blogs. Is it not true that when we make certain choices, for example, not to do certain things, that we are judging them as undesirable? Well, perhaps, for better or worse, I transferred what I perceive as your judgement of a choice to judgment of a person, because — well — people are the ones making choices.

    In any event, it was really just an observation of a reaction I’ve had more than once to your writing (but DEFINITELY not always — I still read your stuff regularly). That definitely does not mean you are a judgmental person and it certainly doesn’t make me feel bad about my own choices. It simply makes me question my reaction to try to get to the root of it. Let the psychoanalysis begin (errr…continue)! Please be kind. I do not have thick skin.

    1. Danielle G – Never apologize for an honest emotional reaction. 🙂

      Some homesteading blogs make you feel like crap I agree, but I think that is because when you have an off day it stings a million times more than usual . You know what I mean. That day where you feel like you accomplished f-all and you read someone has moved one hundred cattle to a new grazing area, planted vegetables for whatever season is lurking, started knitting a king size afghan and canned 20 quarts of tomatoes all in one day, you get a little pissed off. And that is totally alright because everyone, including homesteaders like Ben and his ilk, has one of those ‘off’ days, they just may not write about it.

      I do appreciate blogs like Ben’s more because they show the shitty, rough side. Here are two reasons why.
      One, it takes away the romanticized view of raising livestock and living off the land. Some people think it is all rainbows and pretty flowers and look at this alpaca sweater I knit by candlelight, when it is backbreaking, hard work. The realization that a storm or blight can destroy a crop and leave you destitute is too dangerous to ignore, but some do.
      Two, if you are part of the homesteading/simple living crowd, any tips help. Especially screw ups or failures because you learn so much from it. I see it like advice from an old friend. 🙂

      1. MissFifi, loved your comment! 🙂 I had not accomplished that much in my lifetime as some of those homesteaders in a day. 🙂 Yes, it is a good thing. Reading Ben’s blog, and some others, makes me actually reconsider this romantic view and plans of the farm on the hill. Thanks a lot, Ben, for killing the dream. 🙂 But if seriously, I do appreciate the reality of it. Yes, screw ups are most helpful, especially if they are screw ups by others, so we can learn and not repeat.

    2. Don’t sweat it, Danielle. Keeps me honest. And now I know you’re leading a life that straddles farming/self-sufficiency and a face-paced profession… with ONE HAND! Jeez. I barely get by with two.

      Thanks for the comment.

  20. I feel a kinship and inspiration from people working to live close to the land because we share values and opinions about environmentalism, sustainability, slow living, beauty, sincerity, neighborliness, humbleness – you get the picture. 🙂 I also sometimes feel not completely welcomed into that philosophical fold because, instead of planning to own a chicken, I plan to continue working a 40-hour-a-week job in town (that I find important and rewarding) and I’d rather sip coffee on a pulsing Manhattan corner than knit a sweater by a fireplace. “Not welcomed” is too strong a way to put it, but I’m not finding quite the right words. Maybe I sometimes feel like I’m viewed with … a dash of suspicion? … by my fellow greenies/slow-livers, suspicion that I can’t really be slow-living when I’m also a “wage slave”, for example. That does not reflect my own thinking on the topic — I *know* I’m a greenie *and* a hard-working, value-contributing member of society. We all want community, and feeling that a community’s embrace of us is somewhat incomplete can arouse unpleasant feelings. I hope I’m making a modicum of sense here in trying to articulate how I sympathize with where I imagine Danielle might be coming from.

  21. Well there ya go, now nobody has to feel bad anymore:} Good thing it played out the way it did or we would not have been able to read all the cool comments and feel the power of this internet unity…..wooo!

  22. With the recent arrival of my first child, I would have every reason to feel less than in my homesteading activities or lack there of, however, I absolutely do not feel less than. We all have different priorities at different times of our lives. I know that when I have more free time, the canning jars, garden, and projects will all be waiting for me and in the mean time I will continue to be supported in my chosen ways by reading and supporting other’s endeavors. For the first time in my adult life I have really felt the pull to be connected to others as I navigate my new life as a parent, and part of that is to support and nourish my needs which today is to read about other’s homesteading and parenting adventures, knowing that my life will soon extend beyond diaper changes and nursing. I am eager to read the writings of Ben, Amanda, Jenna, Jon, and others to remind myself that I will soon enough be right there again.

  23. I’ve made this comment once before but I’ll say it again. I am constantly amazed and extremely grateful for your family’s willingness to share so much of your life with total strangers (some of us stranger than others, I suppose!) Always been the case for writers but in this day of the internet the risks of negativity or being misinterpreted go up a million-fold just due to the shear volume of people who can read your work at any given moment. Rather than feeling inadequate, your words make me feel less alone in my views and values and encourage me. The only sadness (if you can call it that) I might feel upon reading your posts is how nice it would be to have the Hewitts (or a reasonable facsimile) living next door. But, I am then encouraged to be the kind of neighbor I would like to have and hope that makes some difference. Many thanks, as always, Ben.

    1. NC, I love your thoughts as always. Thank you for keeping it sane.
      To lighten the day, this will sum it up

      “Would things be easier if there was a right way?
      Honey, there is no right way.”

      And since you mentioned strangers, some stranger than others. . .

      “Love with every stranger, the stranger the better” 🙂

  24. Re-reading this post, I’m reminded of a friend who once worked with Martha Stewart. Apparently, she was accused of making people feel inadequate quite often. I was told her response was something along the lines of, “Look, even I’m not Martha Stewart.” She pointed out that she had a staff full of people who helped to make those beautiful books, magazines and the projects on her TV show come to life. The purpose was not to insinuate that one person should do all of those things but to pick and chose those things which held meaning for them and to feel inspired and to have the tools to do so. Maybe the same could be said here. You may not want to have multiple gardens and make fire cider and keep livestock and educate your children like the Hewitts or knit, sew, hook rugs, write, etc. like the Soules but maybe you do. Or maybe you want to do one or two of those things. Or maybe you don’t want to do any of it but are glad you live in a world where there are people who do. As I see it, all of that is OK.

    1. ncfarmchick – this is the response I wanted to be able to articulate yesterday and today after thinking about this conflict for a long while. So thank you! Comparison is the thief of joy, and I don’t want to lose the joy I have found in reading the adventures of Ben, Amanda, Jenna and listening to the Chicken Thistle Farm podcast. Circumstances are such that right now I can’t do “all the things” – and I seriously doubt that even Amanda can, nor has she ever said that she does. She still inspires me, as does Ben, to live more mindfully.

      1. Another bit of wisdom I hold dear is from my mother. “You can have it all just not all at once.” Took on new meaning for me once my children became toddlers and naps are now a thing of the past. I feel I have It All meaning everything that really matters to me, I just have to go about things a bit more slowly and with the readiness to drop the shovel and sprint into the woods after one boy or another at any moment. Peace!

  25. “I know I feel strongly about many aspects of our life, about many of the choices we have made. Truth is, you can’t make these choices and not feel strongly about them, because many of these choices are not widely supported in our culture.”

    ^^ YES!!

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