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Put to Work

All I was asking for was a little retreat and reprieve from all the sufferings of my heavy heart. Instead, Brian and Betsy and a menagerie of goats put me to work.

by Teresa Kuppinger

This essay originally appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of The Sower, the newsletter of Strangers and Guests Catholic Worker Farm, under the title, “Good Grief!”

Living at Strangers and Guests has been challenging.

For anyone who’s ever lived on a farm, you would know it can be uncomfortable. There’s bugs that bite and their itch wakes you, scratching like hell in the middle of the night. There’s animals covered in ticks and poop, and they’re smelly, and sometimes step on your toes or push you out of the way. You’ve gotta hang your laundry to dry and pray it doesn’t rain or get pooped on by birds. Sometimes you’ve even gotta eat around the worms in your apricots, or fail to clean the dirt from under your nails, so you just have to clip them all off.

Well, this isn’t even just a farm. There’s also Brian and Betsy, who, God love ‘em, talk a lot. And they read a lot. And they work as long as the sun is up. And boy—do they challenge.

Before I came here, I found that it was time to part ways from my intentional community in Kansas City. When I arrived, I let them know that I was grieving many losses, mourning a life I’d known for a long time. Would you believe that I came here looking for some rest and recovery, and wound up hoeing the garden, day after day, my hands blistered and bleeding? Then I’d come back inside and Brian would hand me five or ten new documents, at least three of them books—that he’d want me to read! Pretty soon I’d be laboring for Betsy, ripping and wrapping all these rags for her, so she’d get to do the fun, pretty work on the loom! At least I had a bed in a room all to myself at the end of the day!

The 29th annual summer solstice / Feast of St. John the Baptist bonfire at Strangers and Guests.

Well, after three weeks of living here, I’m sure that nuclear weapons will be our destruction any day now. I’ve witnessed a 14-foot tower being consumed by fire as people just stood around watching. I’ve washed dishes until my hands were dry and peeling. Now suddenly, I’m not so sure that working a full-time job and having my own apartment is quite all that exciting or fulfilling anymore!

Well, all I was asking for was a little retreat and reprieve from all the sufferings of my heavy heart, and maybe a little work to keep me from laying around, sobbing all day. At Strangers and Guests, I experienced all of that, and so much more.

Instead, I’m writing this article for their newsletter, filling my journal with pages of entries every day, writing home 8-page letters contemplating beliefs about life, beauty, and saving the world. I’m wondering how it’s possible to save the world with love and beauty, to trust the slow work of God, when we all know that doom is so closely impending!

Instead of sitting, crying, pining for love-lost, and thinking my way to healing, I’ve been put to work. I’ve tended to the land when I needed tending. I’ve held a crying baby goat when I needed to be held. I’ve read so many other people’s ideas about how we’re supposed to live, love, protest, understand, pray, heal—when I wanted to come to my own damn understanding.

Brian and Betsy, the earth, the plumbing, and a handful of creatures here, have really put me to work this month. Even Don lent me a guitar, so that I should get to work reminding myself and my fingers the pain of those strings. Let’s not forget about Tim telling me to “explain what you mean” during Bible study. Geez, these people sure do ask a lot!

Well, now I wonder what life will be like after a month at this Catholic Worker Farm. I’m not sure if I’m their guest anymore, or if I’m just stranger. Whatever the case, I’ve been reminded that sharing life together forces us outside of ourselves. It forces us to reckon with the miracles and the heartache, sometimes simultaneously. In a world so focused on individualism, hyper-localism, selfhealing, independence, etc.—it’s easy for our blinders to become so closed, that we see only ourselves, and the people within closest proximity. Somehow, moving myself to Maloy, IA, living in an immediate community of three and working with a hoe in my hands alone in a garden—my worldview is only beginning to crack open—thanks to the challenging, sometimes uncomfortable, mostly beautiful moments of living at Strangers and Guests.

There may be a few people who are tired of my references these days to The Prophet by Khalil Gibran, but I’m going to let you in on some of these gems from the chapter On Work:

Always you have been told that work is a
curse and labour a misfortune.
But I say to you that when you work you fulfill
a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned
to you when that dream was born,
And in keeping yourself with labour you are
in truth loving life,
And to love life through labour is to be intimate
with life’s inmost secret.

…And what is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn
from your heart, even as if your beloved
were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection, even as if
your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap
the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved
were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a
breath of your own spirit,

…And he alone is great who turns the voice
of the wind into a song made sweeter by his
own loving.

…Work is love made visible.
And if you cannot work with love but only
with distaste, it is better that you should
leave your work and sit at the gate of the
temple and take alms of those who work
with joy.

Thank you, Brian and Betsy, for seeing my need, challenging me, and helping me heal through work (and even through rest). You are gifts, and it is such a joy to live with, laugh with, and work with you. And thanks for letting me poke a little fun at you in your own newsletter.

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