Backyard Politics Finding a Way Forward After Failure and Heartbreak, in Life and on the Farm
I was single for the first time in eighteen years. I felt unmoored. For the first time in eighteen years, everything was new, including me.
This is Backyard Politics, a column by Christine Hyung-Oak Lee that sees the world through the lens of urban farming and agriculture.
I want to talk about setbacks.
A farm, as much as it is a place of growth, is also a well of loss.
In the past five years, I’ve lost chickens to raccoons and foxes. I’ve lost a hive to robbing bees. Squash to powdery mildew. Seeds and seedlings to twohey birds. A vanilla bean plant to frost. The list goes on. Predators and forces of nature exist. Oftentimes, they feel like they come out from nowhere.
These threats are part of the landscape. In fact, they’re part of a healthy ecosystem. Foxes need to eat. Bees will find honey and nectar wherever they can during a dearth, even from another hive.
I certainly expected work and lessons when I started a farm, but I never expected heartbreak. Every dead chicken makes me sad. When my favorite hive was robbed and killed, I wept. Yes, I cried over bees. It hurt. And I never want it to stop hurting, at least a little. I never want to be someone who becomes immune to loss and pain. I was once someone who was numb. It nearly killed me.
These darker moments—these setbacks—inform forward behavior. They’re the events that humble us. To think you’re an excellent beekeeper, only to have a queen fail. To think you’ve got a perfect chicken setup, only to have a flock decimated when you are literally outfoxed by a fox. To see lush squash vines, only to see them beset with powdery mildew weeks later. To experience that feeling of failure and then to move on with new solutions or new beginnings. Or in life, the millions of losses we can experience: a financial setback or divorce or personal disappointment. A human being who hasn’t suffered setback is rare and, likely, unbearable.
Sometimes, setbacks are framed as failure. But that is only if you see the setback as the endgame, the final point of the journey. It’s only if you then look back on the rosier past, yearn for it, and refuse to see the road ahead of you. An obstacle isn’t the end of a story; it is the beginning of innovation and resilience and productivity. It is often where the story begins.
I want to also talk about the end of my marriage. It is painful to discuss. But, sometimes, you have to tell a story so that you can bear it. And because the end is also the beginning.
I often explain the end of my marriage by saying that I had a stroke in 2006 and, when I recovered, I became a slightly different person—different enough to make an impact over time. In 2006, turning into an introvert after once being an extrovert and having the exhaustion of chronic illness was not a huge impact. But over the next seven years, the lack of social initiative on my part—and my lack of stamina at the end of a work day—took its toll. So in 2013, my ex left me. We were together for eighteen years and married for fourteen of them. He changed too; he became a man who broke my heart. He broke it so hard, I don’t think my heart will break like that ever again.
But the breaking was simple, as was the end. Everyone innocent. No one to blame. It is the tidiest narrative, one which I provided in my published memoir. We all change, I would say, would make excuses for my ex.
We all change, I would say, would make excuses for my ex.
I could just as easily say: I had a baby and severe postpartum depression, and Adam decided to leave because I was just too much of a bummer. I could just as easily say: I had a baby and severe postpartum depression, and Adam met a twenty-six-year-old bartender and they fell in love and he chose to leave me with a newborn. I could just as easily say: Fuck all. These are all true.
Here is how it happened. Saeed, my friend, texted me a simple question one October morning: “Is Adam in San Francisco?”
“No,” I typed back. “He’s in NYC for business.”
“What?” I typed.
Then the phone rang with the truth. Adam was in New York City with a young woman. She was wearing a bright hot pink parka in Manhattan (oh, Saeed, I love that you never fail to throw appropriate shade). They were on the sidewalk, said Saeed, on the corner of 28th and 6th.
My postpartum depression had just lifted (thank you, Zoloft) and, for the first time in months, I had the wherewithal to look at the billing statements. I saw charges for furniture and household items and clothing and shoes. I saw the name Tiffany on various airplane ticket receipts.
I called Adam.
What, he said, are you talking about?
Please don’t lie.
I’m not lying.
Her name is Tiffany, I said.
Oh. He said. Oh. Yeah.
I learned the truth and more. That Adam had a crash pad across town. That he hadn’t been on business trips, as he’d told me, but living with Tiffany during the workweek, and coming home to me and our daughter on weekends.
I learned that the bank account had been depleted.
“Honey, this explains everything,” said Saeed, before hanging up.
On my farm, I learned that raccoons are mafiosos. They tear the heads off chickens, leaving the rest of the body as a signature. They don’t, it appears, actually eat the chicken, but kill for fun. On the other hand, foxes do eat their kill.
They are all doing what they need to survive. They are doing what they are programmed to do. They all deserve to live. Even if their life is at the expense of my chickens. Even if it means I have to pick up the body of a hen stiff with rigor mortis and bury her.
I met Tiffany a few weeks after finding out about the affair. I’d insisted on meeting her before releasing my daughter for an overnight visit to Adam, who said Tiffany would be present. Who was I to delay the inevitable? I’d already learned that it would happen, with or without my consent.
Please don’t be mean to her, asked Adam.
I won’t, I said.
She arrived wearing four-inch-heeled boots. A white gauzy shirt underneath which I could see a black brassiere. Black pants. I’d never met anyone like her before. She looked like the patriarchal definition of sexy and nubile.
I gave her a hug. And I could feel her relax beneath my arms. I wondered then if it was she or I who was the predator at that point.
Aside from the things that kill are the things that weaken. Like varroa mites, which will weaken a bee hive and make it susceptible to diseases, like deformed wing virus and nosema, the diseases that will then decimate a hive. Or powdery mildew, which feeds on leaf tissues and hinders photosynthesis until the plant withers and starves to death.
There are many ways to die. Most of the time, loss does not come suddenly.
Adam said I’d done nothing wrong. That we had been happy. That he hadn’t factored in falling in love again with someone who wasn’t me.
Were we happy?
I’d seen so many unhappy models of marriage before me, pantheons of bitter perseverance and commitment. Does a good marriage survive storms and emerge weather-beaten? Does a good marriage know when to let go? Before it kills us both?
There are ways to overcome. There is opportunity in setback. An opportunity for innovation. For lessons. For humor.
I didn’t know it at the time, but letting go of an unhappy coupling, even if presented with sudden cruelty, was an opportunity for innovation. No one in my family had led this narrative. I didn’t have any models before me. All I’d known was perseverance at all costs. Everything was new. Everything was cruel. Everything was terrifying.
As a writer, we mine our own lives for stories. But a story cannot come without deeper understanding and learned lessons.
On the farm, we built a stronger chicken coop. My partner and I researched ways to build a better structure. We built the edges of it on concrete so that no predator could dig their way in. Our neighbor, who also lets her chickens free range, communicates predator sightings and we keep our chickens locked up until greater danger passes.
I learned to become a better, even more diligent, beekeeper. I went back and looked at all the data I collected during hive inspections throughout the year. When the bee population had peaked and then when it began to fall. When I’d spotted eggs. When I’d last spotted the queen. To see at what point the hive had gone sideways without my noticing.
You see, a hive isn’t susceptible to robbing unless it’s already weakened. The last time one of my hives was robbed, I looked at the record: There it was—two months earlier—a fall in bee population. And the last time I’d spotted eggs. The queen had been failing for at least two months. I should have replaced her way earlier. I hadn’t done so because I loved that queen so much. I saw what I wanted to see and chose to ignore the signs that she was ailing.
The worker bees in the hive had built queen cells, knew they needed to make a home for a new queen. But this queen—this queen wouldn’t admit she was failing, either. She kept ripping the queen cells down.
Until there was no room for a successor.
There is no moving forward without tears. Without acknowledging feelings.
I was sad for a very long time. My friends had to literally come peel me off the kitchen floor where sometimes I’d pass out while weeping on weekends while my baby was gone. I gave out house keys so they could do this without knocking and because it happened so often.
Resilience and sadness are mutually exclusive. I thought that being strong meant not being sad. Meant not crying. Meant not admitting vulnerability. Meant being furious instead. But rage, I learned, stays with you. Fury meant that I hadn’t let go of what happened. Anger meant my past was informing my future. And the resolution? For me, at least, it meant mourning and acknowledging my loss before evaluating next steps.
I imagined that my body was water and that it was heading downstream. That the rocks moved through me. That I came out the other side. That I was carried by the current and gravity and weather. I may have imagined this while “on floor.” I may have yelled, “Calgon, take me away!” while “on floor” imagining I was a body of water.
I imagined my body was a river that finally met the ocean. I imagined myself as the ocean.
She kept ripping the queen cells down. Until there was no room for a successor.
And then one day, my friends no longer received texts from me that said, “I am on floor.” My friends no longer received Mary Oliver poems from me each morning via text either. I read a lot of Mary Oliver poems in those days.
I wanted to see what my life would be like afterward. I envisioned what I wanted my life to look like.
I’d never learned to be free. Here’s the thing: I met Adam when I was young. We began dating when I was twenty-one and he was nineteen. I’d never experienced truly independent life. For fuck’s sake, I’d never done my own taxes, even.
So here is what I saw: I saw myself alone. I saw myself paying the mortgage. I saw myself with a job. I saw myself making a decent life. I saw myself surviving. This seemed, at the time, a huge feat. My biggest fear until that point was being alone without Adam. And that tragedy had happened.
I’ll survive, I told Saeed.
I was visiting New York City to pack up the apartment, to close up the era during which Adam and I had a company-reimbursed apartment in Manhattan. It had been two months since I found out about the affair and one month since Adam asked for a divorce.
Saeed and our mutual friend Ellen were throwing me a New Year’s Eve party. It took three strong men to carry in all the prosecco. We were going to say bye-bye to 2013 with aplomb. Also, unbeknownst to me at the time, my rug would be saying bye-bye later that night as well. Yes, our party would swell to epic proportions. Yes, a woman would throw up on that rug nineteen times.
“Christine,” he said, “I don’t want you to survive. I want you to thrive .”
The word “thrive” hung in the air.
Saeed held my hands in his. It was New Year’s Eve. The Empire State Building, visible from my balcony, was lit with all the colors of confetti. The year was new, the moment was new, and these words—these words felt like a light I could not yet see at the end of a long, dark road.
Thrive. I had not realized that that was my goal. It had never dawned on me to thrive.
I was leaving New York City; my heart ached for my entire past, for the city I loved and which loved me so much it told me the truth when nowhere else did. I was a new mother; it was so fucking hard, I felt like a sleep-deprived imbecile every minute of every day. And I was single for the first time in eighteen years; I felt unmoored. I had no idea what was before me.
For the first time in eighteen years, everything was new, including me.
I had no idea that I’d start a farm. But I would. Because when I left New York City, I vowed to do everything I couldn’t do in New York City. I’d write a book and publish it. When my marriage ended, I vowed to do everything I couldn’t do within the confines of that marriage.
I had lived under the shade of a larger tree. And that tree was larger because I’d sacrificed for its growth.
There was a winter once, when my writing did not go as well as I liked. It had been three years since the divorce, one year before the official divorce decree, and I was, I’ll say, frustrated . So I chopped down two trees. Then I hacked down a twenty-year-old trumpet vine. It was with the intention of clearing more growing space in my backyard. In its place now is a grapevine. And this year, after a long wait, I can see the tiny grapes forming. It will be the year of harvest.
My farm has been five years in production.
Any writer can tell you that a story without conflict or challenge isn’t a rich story at all. Any writer will tell you that a story begins with setback.
Out of a setback comes a story, and that story is mine.