Labor of Love, Labor of Life

[Dear NC Readers: Check out my article in the esteemed Our State Magazine this month! It’s a big break for me and the article covers a noteworthy topic for the state and particularly the mountain counties. The magazine is available everywhere and also in SC near the border. Yay NC! Yay editors that gave me a chance!]

I am in my eighteenth hour of raking when I hear my name over the rustle and toss of dry oak leaves.

“Katey! Katey it’s me. I’m over here!”

I peak through the trees, down the path, and see sweet Janey – a neighbor and friend in the valley. She lives just up the road from the house my family is building, right across from Joe’s farm.

“Hi there!” I wave the rake, holding it high in the air like a champ. When I walk down the path to greet her, the closer I get the more her face comes into focus. She offers a raspberry face full of smiles, her natural pinkness always affording a warm welcome. The way she stands in the light, her shiny white hair is backlit by the afternoon sun and a halo of flyaways from her loosely tied bun adds to the glow.

“I’ve been watching you rake. You’re hard at work!” She takes my hands into hers and kisses me softly on the cheek, her wet lips and gentle surprise. One thing I adore about this valley and its people is how we hug and kiss, greeting each other with easy love and genuine affection. I give her a bear hug in return and pat her shoulders firmly. She is a strong woman – on her feet and in her heart – and someone whom I’m eager to get to know better.

“Look, I’ve been studying,” she says, and as her smile widens the raspberry-pink of her complexion comes into bloom, a hidden treasure of winter. She holds up a stack of Spanish textbooks, a workbook, and a CD-ROM. “It’s easier than I thought!” She is here to have a Spanish lesson with the neighbors for whom I am raking.

We talk and make plans for late December, when my family and I will be up at the house and just across the road from her. “I’ll have you over for a breakfast,” she says, clutching my arm. “Or maybe we could all have dinner together! I’m so happy to know I’m going to have Schultz’s as my neighbors.”

My God, what a blessing, her sweet smile, her heart-full enthusiasm, her uncoiling affection. My parents left so much behind to come to this state, this valley, the school they teach at with the boarding students. My mom left her teaching career in Montessori. My father closed his private practice. The sold the house, the cars, the dogs passed on as if timed to bitter perfection, and before I knew it 25 years of our Portland lives sat in boxes on the west end of SmallTown, NC in a storage unit. But most of all, my parents left their lifelong friends, a city they knew and loved, and a way of life that caused hardly an ounce of strain.

They left though, because they were determined to live a simpler life, determined to get to the mountains, and determined to love the school and community they teach in with all the heart they have. That community welcomed them but their life at the school nearly killed them in spirit (and it seemed, almost, in body) the first 12 months. But today in this unfiltered sunlight, with a simple task of raking laid out before me, and a kind friend at my side, I could think of no greater gift than Janey’s blessing. Step back further and I felt the fortunate nature of my barter situation, for which I get free rent in exchange for seasonal outdoor work. My labor on the land paves the way for my labor with language. Life is labor, right? Embrace the strain until you understand it is the only path we must take.

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