Casting anchor in the scarcity of rural life

At every moment you choose yourself. But do you choose your self? Body and soul contain a thousand possibilities out of which you can build many I’s. But in only one of them is there a congruence of the elector and the elected. Only one – which you will never find until you have excluded all those superficial and fleeting possibilities of being and doing with which you toy, out of curiosity or wonder or greed, and which hinder you from casting anchor in the experience of the mystery of life, and the consciousness of the talent entrusted to you which is your I.  [Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings]

When I made the decision to move from Chicago, my residence of eleven years, to my parents’ farm in rural, southwestern Minnesota for an undefined period of time, anchoring was not my main goal. I wasn’t anticipating a revival in spirit, a broadened understanding of love, a fullness of opportunity, an infatuation with the horizontal expanse. I was expecting a few months of quality time with my parents, some time to develop my pottery skills, and space to think about the next thing.

Casting Anchor Rural Scarcity Of the lessons learned in these seven weeks, including awareness and space, my latest is the role of scarcity in rural life. Out here on the prairie, the sky is everything – it’s all horizon. To risk over-quoting Naomi Shihab Nye, “There is a therapy in fields. East, west, nothing speaks but the sky.” Speak it does. But when it comes to population and availability, scarcity speaks. The lack of people, an overwhelming contrast to Chicago, drives the societal landscape and impacts the experience of life in this pocket of the prairie. The nearest town of 1,500 people is six miles away and it’s a common occurrence to drive twenty miles without passing a fellow traveler on the road.

Casting anchor in the scarcity of rural lifeCasting Anchor in the Scarcity of rural lifeOn a return trip to Chicago a few weeks ago, I encountered many questions about my new life in Minnesota: What do my days look like? Do I enjoy being in my hometown? Am I bored? Can I get sushi in Dawson? The rural concept, this reality of a population of 1,500 people, is incomprehensible to urban dwellers, understandably so. The incongruity of this life, coupled with my slow-living, puzzles many of them. I know that I’m a slow emotional processor, sometimes to the point of delusion, sometimes to the point of surprising myself as I hear words being spoken from my own lips, but as these questions came at me and I put to words my reflections on this extended sabbatical in rural Minnesota, I found myself unable to hold back the outpouring of support for the positivity of scarcity.

This scarcity of people in rural Minnesota drives a thirst, a yearning for involvement. When a poetry workshop appears in the community education brochure, you sign up. When the local brewery taps a new beer, and a delicious one at that, you drink it. When a third of your town’s population joins together to have an interfaith dialogue about Islam, you go. You go to art show openings and plays about civil rights and live music events and storytelling evenings. You glance up at the stars, shining in vibrancy, on the cold winter nights. Under no circumstances do you miss a good sunset or opportunity for a walk on the gravel road. And when your parents appreciate and encourage your cooking, you become immersed in Moroccan food, filling the refrigerator with rose harissa and preserved lemons and za’atar.

Casting anchor in the scarcity of rural life

My days here have been richer in cultural experiences than the same seven weeks likely would have been in Chicago. The thing is, when you have a wealth of opportunity at your fingertips, you ignore it. You take it for granted. You forget that you should attend and support the things you believe in. You know someone else will be there so you don’t go, even if you did have all the best intentions. And sometimes you feel like you’re just one person in the big city – what can you really do to impact things, anyway?

Life out here couldn’t be more of a contrast. In a series of unexpected and pleasant circumstances, I’ve found myself in a realm where anything seems possible: brainstorming ways to create a local food co-op, organizing a poetry dinner party, pursuing grant money for an arts project, figuring out a way to incorporate new forms of cooking into the community, celebrating the cultural diversity of small towns, hosting spoken word events at the local town hall, discussing possible uses for renovated old buildings. People around here make things happen, possibly because there’s an understanding that if I don’t, no one else will. But also because there’s an opening, a freedom, a magnetic current running beneath the surface of everything.

Casting Anchor in the scarcity of rural lifeThe brewery in the next town quickly became my favorite place to meet people: friends and acquaintances of my parents, old classmates, musicians, neighbors, cheese makers, peers who share my current experience of moving back home after a decade or more of city life. In so many ways it champions the argument for bringing beer production back to the local arena: fantastic beer, strong community involvement – a local potter made the membership beer steins, and the openness of the building’s layout provides space for conversations, introductions, card games, storytelling and connectedness.

I’m spending a few hours each week learning pottery from a master craftsman. These hours, filled with the work of my hands and the light of the morning sun, are balm for my soul and encouragement to continue down this emerging creative path.

And as I continue down this path, I will keep engaging in the mystery. I will look for opportunities. I will take on some of the boldness mirrored by so many around me. I will say yes. I’m still exploring the consciousness of the talent entrusted to me, this I, as Dag Hammarskjöld mentions. But I certainly hope to find it. I don’t know how long I’ll be here: maybe a few more months, maybe longer. But I do know one thing – this is the best place for me to be right now as I journey towards this I, and I will continue to experience the mystery as I cast anchor in the vibrant scarcity of rural life.

Casting anchor in the scarcity of rural life


In the pursuit of reclaiming my life, I've spent the last six months on sabbatical filling my days with thought-provoking words, compelling poems that speak truth into places I was unable to locate, pottery and poetry, and the pursuit of wholeness.
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  • I enjoyed reading your reflections, Elisabeth. As we anticipate moving back to Chicago from small town New England in a year or so for retirement, we are thinking about how jarring the contrast will be. If you haven’t yet run across “Dakota” by Kathleen Norris, now might be the time.

    • I look forward to hearing about that transition – in many ways the reversal of my path. I hope it awakens new perspective, new eyes.

      I have not yet run across “Dakota” but will seek it out. Thanks for the recommendation.

  • love this, friend.

    this is my life: “What do my days look like? Do I enjoy being in my hometown? Am I bored? Can I get sushi in Dawson? The rural concept, this reality of a population of 1,500 people, is incomprehensible to urban dwellers, understandably so. The incongruity of this life, coupled with my slow-living, puzzles many of them.”

  • Thanks for sharing you reflections on rural living, I live a few miles south of your parents, yes out here, we do understand the meaning of community, we are all on this earthly journey for a reason, sometimes I just marvel at how blessed I am, thanking God for the people he has placed around me, good people, country people, made of the ” can do spirit” most metropolitan’s can’t fathom. Again thanks for sharing. May you be lead to your new adventure or maybe your life will be filled with different experiences to collect and reflect on. All the best.

  • Beautifully written. Your writing resonates with me, as I lived a section away from Tokheim’s for 10 years. I’ve recently moved to the Twin Cities and am contemplating the possibility of moving back to the area. I miss the sunsets, the community and the peace. Best of luck in your journey.

    By the way – I went to college with your dad’s cousin!

    • Thanks for reading, Melissa. I cannot say enough about the horizon – something I never appreciated fully until I returned from living in Chicago for 11 years! Best of luck with your journey as well.

  • I am visiting my family farm today and finally got a minute to read your post. How appropriate. I am sitting by the fire with tea and my very can-do family is out making life happen here in our town of 2,400. This is a nice reminder that I should recognize the richness of rural living. As always, very inspirational!

    • Jodi – I love that. The can-do people must stick together! There is a definite richness beneath the surface of rural life, made clearer with the new eyes of changed perspective. May we all continue to keep our eyes open.

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