Empty Moms; Empty Shelves

I’ve not been very interested in offering “hot takes” these days. But the media buzz–especially on Twitter–surrounding a nationwide baby formula shortage is so full of hot takes–the good, the bad, and the ugly–that I felt like offering one of my own.

(A good one, hopefully.)

Talking about breastfeeding and baby formula is rough terrain. Some women enshrine breastfeeding as a sacred art. And it’s common for women to feel great shame over their own failure to succeed at breastfeeding.

While I’ve always been a huge proponent of “breast is best” and gave 11 of my body’s best years to breastfeeding my children, I hope those close to me have never sensed any judgement or shame if they chose otherwise or couldn’t make it happen for them and their baby. And I hope anyone reading now hears me loud and clear when I say that formula feeding a baby does not make you a bad mom.

I’ve always been comfortable affirming what I believe is best, and encouraging others toward it, even when I couldn’t achieve it perfectly myself. And I’m always honest about my own shortfalls along the way. But I understand it’s hard to hear that someone thinks you’re not doing what’s “best” for your children. And it’s even worse if you feel you have no better options. So don’t hear what I’m not saying, please.

I’m an idealist. I want things to be the way they were created to be.

And I believe that women and their babies are created for a symbiotic relationship.

There is categorical evidence of the biological and emotional benefits of the bond between mom and baby, for both mom and baby. This bond is strengthened by breastfeeding, but breastfeeding is not necessary for it to happen.

Bonding is a complex tonic of physical closeness and emotional security. It happens through smells and sounds and touches. A child will naturally form a bond with any primary or consistent caregiver. (This is why adoption and fostering relationships can become so strong–as strong as blood.) But we have to be honest about the natural design of motherhood and how the biological relationship between mother and child naturally flows from pregnancy and childbirth into a period of postpartum healing and bonding as a pair. Severing the relationship between mother and child, at any point in this journey, affects both mom and baby. And it can be traumatic.

This doesn’t mean that women and children cannot thrive independently of each other. Certainly, children can effectively bond with another adult in the absence of their birth mother. But it does mean that independence is not the natural state of motherhood or childhood. And it will have consequences.

What does this have to do with baby formula?
Well, a nationwide baby formula shortage is only a crisis because so many American babies are dependent on formula. And the fact that so many American babies are dependent on formula is emblematic of a culture where mother and child live independently of each other. The bond has been severed.

Empty moms; empty shelves.

Now, hold on a minute. Hear me when I say this–
Breastfeeding, in and of itself, is not the solution. And formula, in and of itself, is not a problem

I can attest to the fact that breastfeeding is complicated.

We know that–on paper–the vast majority of women (say, 95%) are capable of nursing their children with success. And we know that doctors recommend at least 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding. But breastfeeding is often difficult at first. It’s sometimes painful. It requires a significant time commitment. It can require dietary and lifestyle changes. And, for a small minority of moms, it is simply impossible.

Many women achieve initial success but then stop breastfeeding around 6 weeks due to exhaustion or concerns about milk production. Sometimes they quit because they are returning to work and want to transition their baby into being bottle fed. Sometimes they’ve started sleep training their baby and stopped night feedings, which affects production. And we know that, once a mother begins supplementing formula because her production slows, it spells disaster for production all together and the likelihood of extended breastfeeding shrinks.

So, while most women will attempt breastfeeding after childbirth, only 1 in 4 continue past 6 months. And half won’t even make it that far.

Enter the $6B baby formula industry.

Remember when I said “Breastfeeding, in and of itself, is not the solution. And formula, in and of itself, is not a problem.” Well, I meant it. Thank God for the modern science that created safe and healthy formula in the first place, right?

Formula is not the problem.
The problem is this: modern society works so hard against our created nature that we have to create more complicated and unnatural systems and industries and tools to survive. And that makes us very vulnerable as a society.

Complicating things has always been a problem with “modern” parenting through time, epitomized in wealthy women who hired wet nurses and tutors for their children while they enjoyed life as, functionally, non-mothers. Now it’s 2022 and we no longer employ (or enslave) wet nurses for our babies. But we do hire nannies. And send our toddlers to “preschool.” And choose to formula feed.

Don’t misunderstand me–
Any benevolent society maintains its safety nets. And things like affordable preschool and WIC and paid maternity leave need to exist. Yes! But they should continue to exist, primarily, to protect the vulnerable and mothers who have no options other than to work or use formula or pay others to care for their children.

Let me clarify–
I would never suggest we should force a woman to submit to the work of motherhood rather than pursue her career or her social life. Every woman navigates these things for herself. Sometimes, a woman’s decision to send her kid to preschool is a matter of mental health and her own survival. (Trust me, I understand it.) And sometimes a woman truly feels that she has no options other than to maintain her career. (Sometimes she is correct.)

Remember: this post is about formula and breastfeeding, but it’s not really about formula and breastfeeding.

It’s about a modern society where the symbiotic relationship between mother and child is too commonly severed too quickly. Our dependence upon baby formula, as evidenced by the current crisis, is both a symptom of this cultural problem and symbolic of it.

Empty moms; empty shelves.

This is why, when idiot internet ideologues suggest, to the moms searching desperately for baby formula, “Why don’t you just breastfeed?” they are both very wrong (because that’s not how breasts work, dummy) and very right.

There is a very simple solution to this problem.
But it’s much more complicated than we want it to be.

I’ll end with this:
The first, best option for mom and baby is always “baby with mom” for at least a year. Maybe longer.

In every developmental sense, with the exception of abusive situations or severe neglect, this is the best option. Not the only good option. But the best option. And I don’t think any intellectually honest person could argue against this. The benefits to both mother and child are significant and one of these benefits–only one–is that it makes breastfeeding much easier.

But to make this possible, to make it easy for moms to choose the work of motherhood, even just for a season, we need support systems–inside the family, the workplace, and the government–to make it happen.

I have a few ideas for how this could work. And I have opinions about a few of the ideas I’ve heard for how it could work. This is a conversation that needs to happen. But the first step is admitting we might be doing it wrong in the first place. We might be wrong about motherhood and what’s best for our children.

I’d love to help build a world where a different kind of modern motherhood is possible.

A Lenten Confession

Here on Ash Wednesday, I’d like to share a liturgy I wrote (oh so long ago!) in 2008.


Forty Days, Forty Sins

In observance of the Lenten season and its forty days of reflection, this is my confession:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

1. I have not loved you with my whole heart.

2. I have not loved my neighbor as myself.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

3. I have secrets.

4. Yet, I claimed to be honest.

5. I have lied with pride to save face,

6. and in self-deprecation to appear humble.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

7. I have cursed you silently

8. and openly.

9. I have laughed with those who mock you

10. And tolerated those who hate you.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

11. I have not loved your Church.

12. I have avoided your people for the sake of my own comfort,

13. for the sake of my dogma,

14. for the sake of my preferences.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

15. I have not been faithful with all you have given me.

16. I have claimed a right to your blessings

17. and have hoarded them.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

18. I have not thanked you enough privately

19. nor publicly.

20. I have accepted the credit for your work.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

21. I have not loved those whom you have brought closest to me:

22. my family;

23. my friends;

24. the strangers on the street.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

25. I have not proclaimed your name to the nations,

26. nor to my own city.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

27. I have quenched your Spirit out of fear

28. and embarrassment.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

29. I have delighted in my sin.

30. And in the memory of my sin.

31. And in anticipation of my sin.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

32. I have believed you would abandon me

33. and I have acted in fear.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

34. I have not spoken enough about the joy of knowing you,

35. nor the thrill of a life with you,

36. nor the peace found in you,

36. nor the magnitude of my pain without you.

37. I have left too much unsaid.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

38. I have been impatient with you

39. and with others.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

40. I have not preached the resurrection.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Amen.

When God Doesn’t Pick You

My most common refrain these days is, “I just don’t get it.”

And I truly don’t.

At a friend’s house a few weeks ago we were discussing the parable of the sower from Matthew 13. And, while I’ve heard the parable a million times in my life, there was something new in the story for me this time.

It felt sad.
Cruel, even.

Because I don’t understand how, in a good God’s economy, He could invite you to serve and watch you labor doing all the right things–even doing them with joy–but never allow you to see the fruit of your labor.

Why would God ask us to glorify Him in our failures when He could just as easily give us great success?

Why would God ask us to be satisfied with itty bitty seedlings when we know He could have grown the whole damn fruit tree right here before our eyes if He wanted to?

Last summer, my husband and I walked away from a church where he’d been serving as the pastor.

My husband and I have always shared a dream to serve a church in our neighborhood. We thought God opened a door for us at this church but, after four years of laboring, God did not bless our ministry.

We did not find favor with the members.
We did not see the Gospel take root.
We did not see the church renewed.

At least that’s the way it appears from this side of the situation.

(And there is, obviously, so much more to this story…)

We walked away from a really big dream. And it hurt really bad.

And while I don’t feel traumatized or bitter by what happened, I really don’t get it.

You see, this most recent failure has not been our only failure, alone or together. We’ve got a lot of unfulfilled dreams between us. And nothing good we’ve done together has come easily.

We both seem to have a habit of taking uphill climbs that end in nothing but cloudy views, proverbially speaking.

In middle school, I had a particularly heinous homeroom teacher who tortured the class with stopwatch speed drills and disciplinary times tables. She never liked me. And there is one conversation between us that has haunted me since.

“You could be so much more,” she said.

I was probably about twelve years old. And she probably meant it as a motivational exhortation toward excellence. But, instead, I heard it as condemnation and felt the immense pressure to be more, to do more, to achieve more.

For most of my life, I think I’ve been living in the shadow of my potential.

I could be more.

I think most of us find ourselves caught in comparison at some point in our lives.

Sometimes we’re comparing ourselves to other people, perhaps those who have been given the good things we thought God was going to give us.

This comparison game is dangerous, of course. And indulgent. Because everyone has unfulfilled dreams and aspirations. There are things that God has allowed me to have–children, for example–that other people are never given.

Yes, this comparison game gets us nowhere helpful. I think most of us know that. But, maybe the real heartbreaking game we play isn’t when we compare ourselves to someone else, but when we compare our real self to our “could’ve been” self.

Identity crisis. Midlife crisis. Whatever you want to call it.

Most (honest) people will tell you that you can be 100% satisfied—in an immediate, existential sense—with the life you’ve been given while still wondering at the life you could have had instead. Or wondering at the series of circumstances that brought you do where you are rather than where you intended to be.

What would my life look like if I’d gone to the that other college? If I’d never moved to Cincinnati? If we’d waited longer to have kids? If I’d pursued a career? If we’d bought a different house?

Maybe you’ve been there, too. My sense is that this is a pretty universal experience at some level.

When you believe in the absolute sovereignty of God, you have to reckon with not only the providence of God in giving you good things, but also His benevolence in withholding things from you.

That’s really hard.

Who’s to blame for the ”missed trains” or disappointments or unfulfilled dreams in my life?

I vacillate pretty frequently between alternately blaming myself, then God, then back again, for my failures. I can spiral quickly from confusion and dissatisfaction into self-loathing and hopelessness. I can feel trapped in my circumstance, incapacitated by personal weaknesses and bad decisions.

“Why didn’t God pick me to do that thing that He put in my heart to do?” I ask.

“Because there’s something wrong with me.”

Obviously.

I’ve had this internal dialogue a lot this year as I watched our last big failure fizzle out. It’s been a lot to process. I feel pretty disappointed and humbled and insecure.

I don’t know why I’m sharing this. I’m not really looking for comfort or reassurance. And I’m not ”struggling” in any urgent sense that I need an intervention from my six loyal readers. (Ha!)

Maybe I’m just banking on the fact that you (Unnamed Mysterious Reader Somewhere) feel the same way.

And if you feel left out, like you missed the train, like you’re caught on the outside looking in to the only party you’ve ever wanted to be invited to—

You’re not alone.

I know how it feels.

It’s like you got an invitation to the game. You practiced real hard. You put on the uniform and showed up and smiled and were really eager but you didn’t get picked for the team.

God didn’t pick you.

You’re right. It’s hard and confusing.

I just don’t get it.

2021: the expanse

When I logged in and saw that my last post was in March, I freaked out a little bit.

I guess it’s been a while since I published anything here, huh?

There are posts I’ve begun these past few months and never finished. Posts about homeschooling. Posts about ministry. Posts about the politics of maternity leave or vaccinations.

There are posts I’ve dreamt up in my head, rehearsed in the shower or on a long drive. I’ve even recorded a few on a voice memo on my phone, thinking I could transcribe the best of my thoughts at a later time, when I felt like writing it all out.

But I don’t feel like writing. Not really. I simply don’t care as much about my own opinions as I did a year ago.

Possibly related–
For the first half of 2021, I forced myself into a literature fast.

Even though I’d recently accumulated a good dozen nonfiction books I was eager to read, I decided I’d read only fiction for at least six months. It was an effort to extract my mind a from the world of problems and solutions and embed it more deeply in human experience.

What resulted from this experiment was a sense of ideological ambivalence that I’ve rarely experienced in my life before. I’m maybe taking myself and the world a little less seriously these days. Or at least feeling a little less responsibility to have a strong opinion about it as I go about my business.

So, what’s new in my life?

In 2020, even in the midst of a pandemic, our family life remained fairly stable and unchanged. My husband kept working. We were already homeschooling. We stayed healthy. Etc.

2021, on the other hand, has brought our family a lot of changes.

First, in June, my husband resigned from his pastor position at a local church. There was no scandal or anything like that. It just didn’t work out.

We invested more than three years in a hard place. We wanted it to succeed. We fought hard. But, we lost. The church didn’t really want us and disagreed about what it needed. So we walked away.

To most of the people who watched it all happen, his resignation was not a surprise. Maybe it wasn’t even a surprise to us. But it was still hard and confusing and there’s probably more I’ll say about that at some point.

Then, a month ago, my husband resigned from his “day job.”

After 13 years working at a nonprofit affordable housing ministry, he’s now working for himself full-time. This is very exciting for our family. It’s something we’ve discussed on and off for a few years and finally felt it was the right time. But, as he’s the sole provider for our family, this is also a huge transition and a significant step of faith for all of us.

These big occupational and vocational changes have been upsetting. I don’t mean they make me angry or depressed or “upset” in the colloquial sense, but that they have rattled me a little bit. Shaken me up. Made me question where we should be and what we should be doing.

Maybe my husband’s work is only the tip of the iceberg.
Maybe it’s time for everything to change.

In some ways, here in 2021, our future as a family feels like a vast expanse of opportunity. We could go anywhere from here. But, the things I’m longing for most seem the most elusive–quiet and peaceful spaces, work I can be proud of, a slower pace, and the comforts of community.

Lately, when I feel like chasing a rabbit hole, I’ve been doing some research into my family history.

I’m tracing the roots of my family tree into old, distant places like Bohemia, the Kingdom of Prussia, and the West Midlands. I’m looking for photos and searching property and census records, scanning immigration and military records, and searching through Holocaust victim records (what?) to find out who I really am.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’m suddenly interested in my ancestry. So much of our life is in transition that I’m feeling untethered.

I want to know where I belong.
I want to know who my people are.

Who are my people?

Theres’s probably a season of every person’s life when they start to ask these questions–whence have I come and to where shall I go?

And, even more so, what am I supposed to be doing along the journey?

Maybe there’s something about my 40th year that makes the questions more poignant. At this stage in life, it doesn’t seem to too late to make a change. But I get the sense the tipping point is approaching and the urgency is rising.

When I think about a new season for me and for my family, I think about buying a farm or a defunct Bible camp or a historic estate in the middle of nowhere, as if a few acres and some honeybees will give me the space I need to find “my work” and as if getting a dog will cure my children’s loneliness.

Dogs are easier than friends, I think.
And keeping honeybees could be more fruitful than songwriting.

But the thought of digging up roots, starting over again, building something from nothing, is terrifying. And I don’t want to do it.

I don’t want to have to walk away and move on to find a new place. I wanted this to be my place. I wanted to find my people here.

But I haven’t found them yet.

I’m very distracted these days. I try to focus on the task at hand. I try to be present with my kids, with my husband, with my friends. But my mind is somewhere else, trying to peek around the corner, into the expanse, to see what comes next.

I still can’t see it.

I wonder if I’ll ever get to write a book. Release a new album. Go back to school. Hike that big, long trail.

I wonder who my friends are. Whether people want me around. Who I could call at 4am if I needed them.

I wonder whether my kids are learning enough. Whether they’ll resent the way we’re raising them. If they’ll remember me at my best or at my worst.

I wonder if I’ll ever be any good at being married.

The whole point of this post, I guess, is to say I don’t really have anything important to say right now.

And to say that, yes, I’m still here. But I’m busy with a new family business. And I’m distracted by life’s biggest questions. And, while I do have opinions to share and stories to tell, I’d rather offer them in real time, in real life, with real people.

I’m just trying to quiet my heart, keep my head down, and walk faithfully in one direction until I’m pointed elsewhere.

Why We Care So Much About The “Why”

What makes a good man turn bad?

That’s an excellent question.

This week, a young white man in Georgia murdered eight people. He was raised in a Baptist church and had professed the Christian faith. His victims worked at massage parlors known to offer sexual services and most of them were of Asian descent.

The internet (and my social media feeds) are full of opinions about how and why this man did such a horrendous thing.

His own immediate confession notes his struggles with sexual addiction and a desire to remove the object of his lust. So, early headlines painted him as either some sort of religious fanatic or a racist terrorist.

Follow-up news stories have illuminated more of his story, noting that–though he’d been raised in a Christian home and had professed to faith years ago–he was a troubled young man who had recently been kicked out of his house, his sexual behavior had ruined a romantic relationship, he’d sought Bible-based behavioral therapy (that didn’t work), he was out of work due to the pandemic, and he’d frequented the types of massage parlors where he committed these acts of violence.

Some of my friends were quick to blame his murderous acts on the Southern Baptist Church, purity culture, and the Christian patriarchy. Some blamed it on the anti-Asian rhetoric of Donald Trump and white supremacy. I’ve seen a lot of hot takes that blend all these environmental factors together to paint the picture of a pressure cooker of a young man who was an anti-Asian, anti-woman, sexually-repressed, gun-toting, Bible-thumping ticking time bomb.

And maybe he was.

Over the past few years, I’ve worked hard to curb the compulsion to offer my own “hot take” on every current event. It’s almost impossible to know the truth of a situation at the start. I don’t want to perpetuate lies by opining on things I honestly know nothing about. What good does it do, after all, to throw fuel on a fire of false assumptions and half-truths?

What I do know, about this particular situation, is that what this man did was absolutely reprehensible and unjustifiable, regardless of his reasons.

But we still want to know “why,” don’t we?
And I think I know why the “way” matters so much.

A few days ago, I said this online:

“The news media of the 1980’s convinced Americans that all young black men were drug-dealing baby-daddy hoodlums. Let’s not now be misled into thinking all white men are women-hating racist terrorists. The world is full of decent men who will never make the news.”

What I meant by “decent,” of course, was not “good” in an ontological sense but decent in the sense that they could live peaceably with other men, that they would still do things like help a stranger change a tire or buy a neighbor’s girl scout cookies. You know, the kind of men who, while they might believe that sex work or infidelity or porn use is sinful, they will never shoot up a massage parlor because of it.

“Not all ideological errors,” I continued, “lead to inhumane behavior.” And I meant it.

When I was growing up, there was an implicit expectation that it was possible to establish a temporary truce, of sorts, among people with ideological differences. This is why my two grandfathers, who disagreed vastly on issues of religion and politics, could gather their families together for Thanksgiving and share a meal and watch a football game and enjoy each other’s company. They may have never become best friends. They would never solve the great problems of the world. But they could find pleasure in sharing space for a few hours on a few days a year without killing each other.

I don’t why this isn’t possible anymore. But it doesn’t feel possible anymore.

Without getting too theological here–because I don’t have the authority or the qualifications to do so–my sense is that there are a few fundamental and foundational Christian beliefs about the nature of man that we no longer believe. The most basic among these is the belief in “original sin.”

It’s the paradigm shift from the Puritan “self is sin” to the postmodern “self is Good.” It’s the shift from “Jesus as savior of the world” to “Jesus as moral example and self-help guru.” It’s what I (not jokingly) refer to as the “Glennon Doyle-ing” of American Christianity. And it’s not just progressive Liberal circles. It happens even among Conservative churches.

In my experience, this is evident anywhere we see secondary theological issues becoming primary issues. The most basic, primary message of the Gospel takes a back seat to the secondary issues of sexual ethics, social justice, racial issues, family structures, liturgical traditions, etc. Then, we subconciously bastardize the daily expressions of our faith from disciplines of simple dependence on Christ to public fidelity to secondary gospels.

We begin to believe that we are not the true Believers unless, for example, we’ve done enough for racial justice or enough to protect the traditional family or to fights for victims of abuse. The hyper-Patriarch, then, is just as obsessed with his own performative, acts-based, self-justification as is the progressive social justice warrior that he sees as his ideological enemy. Both have made the system of his faith his savior, and hold it up as the savior of the world.

When terrible things happen, the reason we become so obsessed with knowing the “why,” is because we believe that the error in men lies in his incorrect or unjust systems, not within the man himself.

We believe the lie that a correct system will create a good people.
And we want to preemptively absolve ourselves and our systems of producing the same evil men.

But we cannot.
The Bible doesn’t let us absolve ourselves in this way.

To be sure–
Believing in the sinful nature of man does not excuse our unrighteous or un-godly systems. And it doesn’t stop us from mourning and lamenting the injustice we see around us.

The Bible does–absolutely, beyond a doubt–demand more just, equitable, Godly systems of church, family, and government. And it also demands justice for the oppressed, protection for the vulnerable, love for neighbor, mercy for the broken, and personal piety.

But these good things only happen, naturally, as the fruit of a people who have already been changed from within.

Righteous systems–whether political or ideological–do not make a man clean from within. They can protect us from harming ourselves. They can protect us from harming each other. They can keep peace between us and make us decent. But only the savior of the world can change us.

This is an uncomfortable position to take in response to the evil of the world. It does not satisfy our desire for a scapegoat–whether it’s the Southern Baptist Church or pornography–and it does not offer the empty promise that “this will never happen again.”

And I’m sorry for that.

Sometimes I wish I could just co-sign with my friends and proclaim that “Yes! If we would just rid the world of White Supremacy, wars and murder and racism would all disappear.” But I know better. I think most of us know better.

We want to know the “why” because we want a guarantee that–if we can design a better political or ideological or religious system– this will never happen again. But, instead, by seeking the savior of the world in a better man-made system, we are doomed to repeat this over and over again.

Unless we are changed from within, our only hope in this life is to try and keep from killing each other. And that’s not much hope at all.

On Losing A Farmer

“As Gill says, ‘every man is called to give love to the work of his hands. Every man is called to be an artist.’ The small family farm is one of the last places – they are getting rarer every day – where men and women (and girls and boys, too) can answer that call to be an artist, to learn to give love to the work of their hands. It is one of the last places where the maker – and some farmers still do talk about ‘making the crops’ – is responsible, from start to finish, for the thing made. This certainly is a spiritual value, but it is not for that reason an impractical or uneconomic one. In fact, from the exercise of this responsibility, this giving of love to the work of the hands, the farmer, the farm, the consumer, and the nation all stand to gain in the most practical ways: They gain the means of life, the goodness of food, and the longevity and dependability of the sources of food, both natural and cultural. The proper answer to the spiritual calling becomes, in turn, the proper fulfillment of physical need.”
― Wendell Berry, Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food

On Tuesday evening, Cincinnati’s small farming community lost a good man: Scott Richardson. He was rear-ended by a car on a snowy road. His buggy was decimated. His horse had to be put down. He was air-lifted to a hospital in Dayton, Ohio, and he passed away a few hours later.

Scott was my farmer.
(“Only a farmer,” he would say.)

I’m not going to pretend to be a family-farm slow-food “local only” hero here.

To be honest, trying to keep up with the locavore movement has always exhausted me. BUT. I have tried, in small ways, to support the local food economy and to give my city kids the privilege of fresh, local food when possible.

Our first foray into local food was membership in a nearby urban micro-farm co-op. When I started having kids and it got too hard to volunteer at the co-op, I joined a bougie produce delivery service. That (quickly) got too expensive and I relegated myself to the very pedestrian farmers’ market scene, when I had the time and energy.

We decided on raw milk when my son was aging into drinking cow’s milk.

I found our first dairy farmer, Vernon Yoder, through his weekly presence at a local farmer’s market. A friend and I joined his herdshare together and took turns doing the pickup. But, after a few years, Vernon closed his farm. He’d gone through a mental health struggle and moved with his family to a different Amish community up north.

That’s when I found Scott.

A friend and neighbor across the street was switching to Scott’s herdshare from a different, more modern local diary farm.

Scott was an Old Order Mennonite, a lot like the Amish but not quite. He had been an engineer in the Peace Corps as a young man, met his wife overseas, and they had converted to the Mennonite lifestyle as adults. They were raising their brood of children on a farm in Hillsboro, Ohio.

As an Old Order Mennonite, Scott didn’t use technology. And, without a telephone or computer, he was hard to get ahold of. He had no online ordering system, no email address. USPS mail was the most reliable way to contact him, which meant communication moved slowly and lines were sometimes crossed in the process.

What he offered changed throughout the year. There was always milk (both cow and goat milk) and eggs, yogurt, raw milk cheese, sourdough bread, noodles, honey, maple syrup, and seasonal vegetables, Throughout the year, he offered limited butchered meats and sausage, as well as roaster chickens. There was salsa, tomato sauce, and some fermented foods.

Around the first of the month, Scott sent an order form that we were to fill out and send back. And included in the envelope was a bill for our previous month’s order and a letter from Scott.

I’m really going to miss his letters.

Scott’s letters were photocopied from his typed originals. They were winsome and informative. He talked about life on the farm, explained variations in our foods (why the milk changes color throughout the year, for example), and gave us a small window into the Mennonite lifestyle.

He invited us to the farm to learn about our food. He sent us articles about how raw dairy consumption affects wellness. He offered new paradigms for understanding diet and illness.

Having lived life on both sides of simplicity, Scott had a unique window into the frenetic lives of his customers. It gave him a somewhat prophetic voice. His letters were full of observations about values, health, community, and faith. They were a challenge to me and, from what I’ve heard, his other customers as well.

He was never condescending about his decision to take the difficult road of being a simple Mennonite farmer. Instead, he welcomed his customers into its beauty.

I know that my grief upon hearing of his death is mostly selfish–The modern world stole my beautiful Old World farmer from me.

But there is so much more to grieve.

Scott was a husband and father. He was a neighbor and a friend. My small amount of grief for my personal loss is nothing compared to the loss for those near to him. They were robbed of a future of working alongside Scott and learning from his wisdom and insight.

I was only a customer.

But beyond my personal, purely selfish grief at losing my farmer and possibly losing my herdshare, Scott’s death is breaking open a deeper longing in me for the community and connection that old world traditions like family farms and homemade goods and artisan craft provide and my modern, urban life lacks.

Maybe it’s the pandemic.
Maybe it’s my own stubborn introversion.
Maybe it’s just February.
But I feel disconnected from everything.

And now I’m wondering what it would be like to have a deep connection to all of our things and to the people who provide them. Maybe this is how it’s supposed to be. I should care about the people who grow my food. I should mourn when their livelihoods are threatened.

A quick story about Scott before I wrap this up–

A few years back, we became the hosts of one of Scott’s drop-op locations for his herdshare, which means we parked a few ragged, empty milk coolers out in front of our house once a week for the delivery driver, Jesse, to trade out the new week’s delivery. Then the herdshare members nearest to us picked up their new goods and dropped off empty jars and boxes, etc.

We live in an urban area with significant foot traffic. And, one day, things started disappearing. Over the course of a few weeks, milk and eggs and produce were stolen by, I’m assuming, a passerby.

We notified the other herdshare owners to make sure they picked up their deliveries quickly after the drop-off so it was less likely to disappear. And I sent Scott a letter letting him know that I couldn’t confirm how much was being stolen, but that some of the members may be writing him to say they never received their order.

Well, Scott never made any of us pay for items we didn’t receive.
And, more than that, for a few weeks, he wrote me back saying he would be sending extra eggs and milk every week, labeled with the name “friend,” just in case the thief was hungry and needed the food.

That’s just one example of the man Scott Richardson was.
I wish I’d known him better.

I should mourn for the passing of my farmer because no farmer is “only a farmer.” His family and his community are experiencing a great loss right now and I am desperately wishing I had kept every one of his letters that I’ve received over the years.






*If you feel compelled to support the Richardson family as they grieve Scott’s passing, another herdshare member has set up a GoFundMe account (with permission from Scott’s family) to help. You can find it here.