Monday, July 16, 2007

Zebra in the Zoo

It might have been in an email, on a listserv, even in an earlier article in this blog (I'm too tired to search it out). But within the past week or so, I characterized my plight as a possibly-soon-to-be-urban farmer as becoming like a zebra in a zoo, a novelty to show the children, a relic of some distance time and place: "Look, Daddy--a real farmer!" "zebra in a zoo" has a nice sound, and I've added the analogy to my "personal mythology", my collection of cliche phrases that signify something much broader and deeper than they seem to at first glance.

As I was typing that original sentence, I paused to think of the right animal to use. I didn't want to characterize myself as a monkey--too cliche, too Darwinianly confusing a metaphor. Nor a big cat--not wanting to convey any sort of power or arrogance or bloodthirstyness. I'm too forgetful to be an elephant. No animal that has a strong current cultural mythology attached to it would work (at least, "current" in my definitely dated mind).

Zebra had a nice alliterative ring, and I've always identified with horses. It's a peaceful grazing animal, but fast, capable of defending itself fairly well, and evidently known for being next to impossible to tame. And black and white animals are sort of a theme in my life, beginning with the stuffed velvet skunk that was my one and only stuffed animal in childhood, and ending with my beloved Border Collies.

But I'd never really identified much with zebras before...just thought of them as sort of a horse analog if I had to pick a wild animal.

My daughter, however, identifies the zebra as "her" animal. THAT goes back to a gift I received in her early childhood, a gift that came to symbolize a powerful story in my life, the story of....


I tried to get a college degree as a very young single mom, but after a few semesters realized I just needed vocational training so I could get a job to get off of welfare and support myself and my toddler. I chose printing as a natural "go-with" for my chosen field of graphic design. I was only a trifle older chronologically than the average student in the class, but decades older in maturity and overall dedication to my schooling, compared to the class of young singles who preferred playing cards back in the paper storage area to actually doing production printing.

Towards the end of the year, the class was invited to send three students to demonstrate their skills (page paste-up--which will date you if you know what it is!) at the Kansas Press Association convention in Wichita.

The instructor addressed the class: "Natalya will go, of course. Who else should I choose to go?" A furor instantly arose. "She gets to do everything!" "She's a teacher's pet" "Why HER?" "She's so aloof and uptight, won't even play cards with us." Nine months of resentments flooded out, belittling me, calling me names, and blaming me for their lack of learning in the self-paced program. I was totally taken aback by their venom; I collapsed into humiliated tears. I would have loved to have been able to play cards with them, to goof off and just be another post-high-school kid! The truth was, I didn't know HOW to play cards, or to goof off, or to just be a kid.

Wisely, the instructor took a figurative giant step backwards. "Hmmm. OK, you each write down the names of the three people you think have worked the hardest, have the most talent, and will represent the school the best, and the 3 people with the most votes will go." I buried my head in my arms, certain of further humiliation.

The most votes went to--ME, despite their hostile words just moments ago. I couldn't believe it. The instructor, in his wisdom, had forced the students to answer their own angry questions by searching their minds for the truth of their own experiences and observations. They came to the same conclusion he had reached.

We three stood at paste-up tables in the middle of a carpeted conference room, well out of our element (dilapidated equipment on worn, stained vinyl flooring), diligently trying to focus on our work. Publishers, senior editors, and who knows what other Newspaper Professionals (read: potential future employers) milled about us, watching us do work they surely watched their own staff do much more efficiently everyday, Obviously Noting (back in the days when powerful men could get away with it) that we were three attractive young women approximately their daughters' ages but NOT their daughters. We kept our eyes on our work, and performed well under pressure. No fingers sliced by careless Exacto knives. We remained calm and professional. It was excellent training. Later that year I was employed as a page paste-up person for a daily newspaper, and relived that experience daily as the publisher and editors stood over me, watching my every move assembling the front page.

As a token of appreciation for our demonstration, the KPA gave each of us a gift: a china zoo animal inside a little bamboo cage. Mine was coincidentally a zebra, which lived out its life with me as a misfit in my collection of horses, and eventually became my daughter's. How fitting the cages were, considering the way we were on display like zoo animals for the convention attenders to admire!

My life eddies about me in random ripples that turn out to be patterned in a fascinating, subtle, chaotic fashion. Then, I was gawked at as a student demonstrating a skill that was commonplace at the time but was already, unbeknownst to any of us, already becoming obsolete. Now, I am gawked at for being audacious enought to learn, live and practice trades--market gardening and raising sheep on a small scale, demonstrating hand spinning of wool at Farmer's Market, living a somewhat Luddite life with no TV-- that are also obsolete.

But there's a difference. In the age of Pagemaker and laser printers and direct-to-plate makeup, the world can get along just fine without silver-based phototypesetting and hand paste-up. But someday we may not be able to eat without the skills I'm helping to keep alive.

It just takes a stubborn, intractable zebra to stare back at the gawkers and do it anyway. I might bite and kick now and then, but only to keep from being put back in that little bamboo cage.


Catlady said...

As I was reading your post, I knew how I would comment -

I've been wondering how to word a comment for the past several posts... Thinking about your feelings some weeks ago about change that might come, about your city's decisions on zoning, about how important your working the farm is to the world - yes, the world environment can be affected by a mere 11 acres - about how you are touching other's lives directly (your friends, neighbours, apprentices, etc.) and indirectly (your blog) About all that you are teaching by doing.

Well, when I read about your zebra analogy, I immediately thought of the Quagga. ( ) After reading this page - though I knew most of it already - I saw the comparisons even more clearly.... About a species who became extinct before the world knew what it was losing....

Please don't let yourself become extinct - keep fighting!!! You have my love and support always.

BC hugs as always....

Natalya said...

Thanks, Catlady! I'd forgotten about quaggas!

I think it will be very hard to extinguish me, or it would have happened long ago!

I do want to comment on your words, "Keep fighting." This is exactly what I MUST NOT do! For if I begin to fight, "they" will have already won--my positive energy will be instantly replaced by negative energy, my energy will flow towards "them" and not go into the building of my farm and the carrying out of God's will in my life in so many ways. I must keep farming and living my own life with love, wisdom, gratitude, humor, (sometimes stubborn but hopefully never grim) determination, and complete faith in my Higher Power.

It's a basic principle of physically handling sheep: even if they are much bigger and stronger than I am, I can make them go where I want them to, just by aiming their head that way. They "follow their nose". If I turn my head towards what the developers want to do, I'm just fgoingwhere they want me to go, even if I'm fighting every step of the my attention to their dreams and neglecting my own.

All that being said, I can be watchful, and stomp my hooves and snort a little and say, "THIS IS MY BOUNDARY!" when I see intruders coming...I just have to keep the focus on what I want for my future, not what I don't want.

Of course I'm not perfect,and there are moments when I lapse into that us/them fight-to-the-death mentality. When I do, I instantly feel knots in my stomach and feel my hope and faith draining away. I pray that I'll always be able to catch that shift in time, before I become entrenched in the negativity that devoured so much of my life and serenity before I found Alanon (for those not familiar with this 12-Step program, it offers encouragement to those who've suffered from the effects of other people's drinking, in my case distant ancestors and many of my close friends as a young the past 5 years, it's become an important part of my spiritual journey).

I can either farm, or fight for my right to farm. I want to keep farming!

B.C. hugs to you too!

Ruth Patrick said...

HEEEEY..Natalya...that's right I finally read your blog:D

actually I read the one before this one but didn't have time to figure out how to comment at the time.

I put a link to your blog on the header of my DeviantArt journal, too (which Is basically my blog)

I like you're blog, neat stories, more coherant than mine, alas :(

yeah, the zebra is a good analogy and white...oposites all at onse, individual like a wearing your true individuality all over for everyone to black and white.

I also love the way their mane sticks up, but that is irrelivant here.

I ahve some really nice zibra photos from springfeild, but I don't think I posted them yet.

anyhow, good to hear from you , sister, if only on the internet:D


Anonymous said...

A zebra is my Animal. I have a tradition of black and white animals too, incase you hadnt noticed, but I like to through in the combined grey pet too!