Book Review: The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball

The Dirty Life, by Kristin Kimball, is about farming, but has a lot in common with a conversion story. She is a New York City dweller working as a freelance writer, living the trendy, free life so-coveted today, but finds her values somewhat wanting. Being over 30, she says that she and her friend, James, after abandoning the values of the their middle-class upbringing “teetered between seeing the lives we’d made for ourselves as adventures and seeing them as disasters” (32). When she goes down to Pennsylvania to interview an organic farmer, Mark, they fall in love, have a whirlwind romance before a year-long engagement and wedding during which time they resolve to start a new farm from scratch in upstate New York that will be organic, local, sustainable and provide a whole diet for the community.

That’s the summary. It’s an interesting story to hear Kimball recount her transformation from city-socialite to dirt worker. It’s a story about what matters and her experiences along the way. I connected a lot with this book because in many ways her conversion to life on a farm closely resembles my own conversion to life with children.

I very much enjoyed her account of living “the life,” so to speak, with an apartment in a hip neighborhood, a creative job, and various romantic flings and how despite this, she said “The word home could make me cry. I wanted one. With a man. A house. The smell of cut grass, sheets on the line, a child running through the sprinkler” (22). As she admits, the way things turned out was not quite what she had envisioned, but it was still a drastic change that gradually brought her closer to her own personhood. She says:

“I was in love with the work, too, despite its overabundance. The world had always seemed disturbingly chaotic to me, my choices too bewildering. I was fundamentally happier, I found, with my focus on the ground. For the first time, I could clearly see the connection between my actions and their consequences. I knew why I was doing what I was doing, and I believed in it. I felt the gap between who I thought I was and how I behaved begin to close, growing slowly closer to authentic.” (158)

Her honesty about the dissatisfaction with her picture-perfect career is refreshingly frank. Not many women (or men, for that matter) feel inclined to admit that career isn’t everything and that an unglamorous life such as farming, in her case, or motherhood, in my case, can in fact be very authentic and meaningful.

I enjoyed reading about her transformation during which the old habits fell away and her personal philosophy shifted and shifted and shifted until it was 180 degrees different. She describes how her chic wardrobe was slowly eroded into farm-wear with fewer and fewer items being kept in good condition for off-farm use. The same could be said for my mom life. I used to wear nice, clean clothes. Now I rely on denim, loose fitting skirts and flowy tops or tank tops and most of them have spots.

This especially hit home for me: “My old pleasures were scarce. There were no cafes in town, no bookstores, no interesting little bars to discover…Here the movie theater was almost an hour away….I was the one who finally tired of movies.” (156) For brevity’s sake, I removed a long explanation about the hour long drive to the greasy mall to watch lame, teenager fare at the theater, an experience which quickly grew to feel empty.

My old pleasures fall into this category, though they are still around, just difficult to make time for. Movies—babies don’t like movie theaters and theater patrons don’t love babies. Shopping—babies cry and toddlers want to buy everything in sight. Antiquing—definitely out as antiques tend to be breakable. Knitting—between dishes, marriage and trying to write occasionally, it’s just not a priority when I’m not on baby duty. Bars and partying—well, I never did that. Reading, that still happens

It was odd though, at first I clung to certain old pleasures as though if I could just go to enough social events baby-free, my life would be the same. But it isn’t the same and it never will be, and grasping for the past just makes the present miserable. And as it turns out, the present is just fine. All those old pleasures weren’t really as necessary as I thought they were; and there are new pleasures to replace the old ones: a soft, warm bundle with smooth skin who wants nothing more than to cuddle and be cuddled, a toddler’s impish grin, the new appreciation for life in all its phases that comes from witnessing their mysterious growth that somehow happens though it is never observable.

I also liked a few of the more far-flung anecdotes that make it into the story such as the time they shot and ate wild pigeons for their dinner because there was nothing else. I will say that I thought the end fell short philosophically, but other parts of the book were dotted with such satisfying reflection that I forgave it.

Mark would

“like to imagine a farm where no money traded hands, only goodwill and favors. He had a theory that you had to start out by giving stuff away—probably big stuff, worth, he figured, about a thousand dollars. At first, he said people are discomfited by such a big gift. They try to make it up to you, by giving you something in return. And then you gve them something else, and they give you something else, and pretty soon nobody is keeping score” (17).

How very hobbit-like!

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