"A life well lived is the most exquistie work of art." Erwin Raphael McManus
I recently sat next to a Wisconsin dairy farmer on a flight to Denver. We didn't speak at all, until the last 20 minutes of the flight, when he turned to us and just started talking. And it wasn't in that way that makes you feel like you wish you could get away, it was in that way that drew me in closer with some kind of knowing that he's got information for me. Life information.
I have no idea what his opening line was; I have no idea what his name is. I only know that I got the most lovely download of a life in 20 minutes, and it got under my skin and hasn't retreated.
I'm guessing this guy was maybe pushing 40--young and old, weathered and bright at the same time. Full of life. I mean full. Overflowing, even. It was like someone built the perfect character, with all the qualities and spark and humility and engagement that would make that character a little too hard to believe. But he wasn't too hard to believe. He had the authenticity and honesty that maybe only comes from someone who works hard and plays hard and loves hard. And yes, I got all of that in 20 minutes.
So, here's his story: He was traveling to Denver with his oldest son (a freshman in college), his nephew, and his oldest daughter (in high school). They were in the seats across from us, and as he pointed them out they each gave a little wave. The nephew, as it turns out, had spent most of his time with them during COVID, and was quick to add in that he's like another son, a comment that made the Wisconsin Dairy Farmer beam. There were six of them together on the flight, a brother-in-law and a friend in some seats further up. They were heading four hours north of Denver to some friends' ranch to go elk hunting for the week. These friends had taken in his wife when she was a teenager after her father passed away, and they had all stayed close. He said "...they don't have a lot, but they have everything--you know what I mean? They are so generous in hosting us, and we LOVE going there--we do this every year!" Two of his buddies were driving out in his truck, in case he got an elk. They were also bringing gallons of chicken noodle soup, pans of lasagna, and, of course, a bucket of cheese curds. He said they bring a truckload of food every year. His buddies will fly back and he and the kids will drive. (I guess the other friend and brother-in-law were on their own). They had all been at a wedding in the Twin Cities the night before. They stayed up late packing and "...we are exhausted!" he said with a big smile on his face. Happy exhausted. Full life exhausted. I asked if it was hard to get away from the farm. My dad's family were farmers. I don't think they ever left the farm. He looked at me and said, "It's a choice I make." He said most of the people he knows (not surprisingly) are farmers, and most of them don't usually leave their farms. They don't think they can. And then he said, "But I set up my life this way. The farm is not my baby. I love it, but it's just a farm." Turns out, the farm is big enough to have employees, but not too big that he can't manage it all. He said it's hard work, but he didn't say it in a begrudging way, just a statement of fact. He said he and his kids do the milking, too, and that it can be hard to get out there on a tractor or tend to a sick cow when it's below zero. But the employees are wonderful (no surprise again) and very self sufficient, which gives him a lot of flexibility.
There was a pause and I said I can't believe how many things farmers have to know how to do--business management, land management, employee management, animal management, machinary management! This turned the conversation towards the importance of diversification in farming--he said you are vulnerable as a farmer. Vulnerable--his willingness to use that word stood out to me. He works with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on his land. There is funding right now for creating habitats for bees and butterflies, so he does that. He and his wife bought a butcher shop, for their own needs and to create another line of revenue. Plus, he likes things done well. For fun, they also bought a cranberry shop. They sell cranberry wine, cranberry candles, chocolate covered cranberries--all kinds of cranberry doo dads. It's doing well, but it's about to get better because the empty store next to it just got bought by a Home Depot, so he was excited about that. They have two more kids besides the two on the plane--a nine year old boy and a thirteen year old girl. The thirteen year old raises horses--she has five. He said she can drive his truck and back it up and hook up the trailer--I think he called her a boss. He spoke about her with so much pride and respect and awe about what she can do at 13. He said she's so good with those horses. He was delighted thinking about what kind of man she'll end up with--who she will find to match all of that bigness in her. We learned how much he's missing his oldest son who just started college. In anticipation of this they took a trip to Colorado this past summer. They were driving because car rentals were so expensive in Denver, but as they were passing his mother-in-law's house in Western Wisconsin he decided to pull over and check car rentals one more time. He found a reasonable one and rented it and booked two flights from Minneapolis, spent the afternoon with his mother-in-law and then flew with his son to Denver. He let his wife and kids figure it out when they sent pictures back of them at the airport and one of them driving around in a jeep--he was delighted by this too. He said he likes to be spontaneous. A spontaneous Wisconsin Dairy Farmer.
He asked about our trip to Denver, too, and I gave quick answers--visiting our daughter, birthdays, hiking. I didn't want it to stay on us and, luckily, the plane was landing. I felt a little lost, and not very interesting. I could feel he had gotten under my skin somehow. His life was so thoughtful, intentional, designed. A work of art. Was my life a work of art? It's thoughtful, and it's been more and more dialed in and intentional the last five years. But designed? No, I don't think so. Lots of it has been good, lots of it has just been survived. But I haven't designed it, if I'm going to be honest and authentic and vulnerable like the spontaneous Wisconsin Dairy Farmer.
This bothers me, and after I wrote that last sentence I took a break for more coffee, wondering if I have the courage to publish this post. I picked up my phone to check updated podcasts, and here is what popped up in queue: How To Design a Life. I kid you not. (Tim Ferris, November 5, 2021 if you want to fact check it!). I don't know why, but somehow that calmed me down; made me feel like I'm on the right path, and that maybe I'm connected to something bigger.
Am I only here to write about this kind of life, or am I also here to live it? That's the kind of vulnerability this farmer's story asked of me. I think maybe all our lives are works of art, but it's up to us to make them exquisite. I do know my life is full of gratitude--high five on that--and full of fear, I'd like to dial that back. I do know that the last five years have been transformational, and I know that running and fitness have been a source of learning and breakthroughs and confidence that pour into everything I do. Some things are crystal clear to me going forward, and some are not. I think I have some grit, and I know I'm resourceful. My creative channels are open, and I have hope and a sense of humor. And I know I'm capable of change, even if I don't always do it gracefully. When I look at all of that, I'm thinking those are some pretty good tools for designing a life. And it's never too late to design a life.
So if you're a Wisconsin Dairy Farmer who recently took an elk hunting trip to Colorado, and you own a butcher shop and a cranberry shop and you work hard and play hard and love your family well, thank you for whatever compelled you to turn to us and share your life. It is well lived and a work of art, and I needed to hear every bit of it.