University of Minnesota
minnesota writing project
center for writing

Minnesota Writing Project.Center for Writing's home page.

Janelle Hallberg

© 2003

Soul Fields

“Let us say it is a field
I have been hoeing every day,
hoeing and singing,
then going to sleep in one of its furrows”
from “My Life” Picnic Lightning by Billy Collins

My life has been inundated with fields, both literal and metaphorical: corn fields, alfalfa fields, soybean fields, oat fields, and now, soul fields. Growing up in a farm family, we would “hoe” everyday, and it created the tune of our lives. Dances or dirges were based on the outcomes of our anxious sweat and investments. We knew we would have to sleep in the results of those furrows.

This is the plight and pleasure of all true professions or callings: the work captures the soul. Labor, play, relationships, and rest fuse into one consuming meaning. My family’s farm life exemplified this reality. Play and relationships constantly commingled: we whined, joked, argued, and told stories while feeding and milking the cows. We soaked each other with the hose while filling stock tanks. Working a shift was foreign to us. We didn’t put in hours. We were finished when the chores were done: fields plowed, planted, watered, cultivated, and eventually harvested.

We didn’t “take work home.” Work was home. This was particularly true for my father as well as my brothers who eventually took over the farm. In addition to investing physically all day, they seemed to be endlessly pondering and reflecting: How can we produce a better yield? How can we get that field to produce more fully? Unlike the hired hands for whom farming was simply a job with clear shift times and paycheck glory, my dad and brothers became their profession: farmers. One doesn’t just do a profession, he/she becomes it, ie. teacher, doctor, minister, counselor, parent, etc. The true professional sleeps in the furrows of his/her field and not just in paycheck validations.

Having been a teacher for four years now, I’ve found teaching quite analogous to farming. Certainly the tools have changed. I’ve not operated a milk machine or tractor in years! Now it’s pens, computers, literature, grade books, and so on. The corn and alfalfa fields are also gone, replaced now by soul fields. Similar to my family becoming farmers, I have become a teacher. It is an early morning to late night calling. Labor, play, rest and relationships commingle in this profession, too: interacting and playful bantering with students and reflecting, creating, and laughing with colleagues. Even within friend and family interactions, the topic of teaching edges in. And now, it’s my turn to constantly ponder how to increase the yield, the growth of my soul fields: How do I help that student grow not only in skills but also as a person? What do I need to change in order to enhance his/her success level?

In those soul fields, I seek much more for my labors than the direct deposit slip that arrives on the 1st and 15th. I yearn for growth - not just skill growth: better use of commas, semicolons, dashes, and the like. I want to see soul growth: depth, maturity, awareness, sensitivity, compassion, wisdom. I look for roots that penetrate deep into the truths of literature. I desire words and sentences forged by individual journeys exploring new ideas, opinions, and possibilities, ready to effectively intersect with the lives of other souls.

These longings exist for every student, each an individual soul field with unique needs. Some need to be plowed, awakened, the hard surfaces of their lives pierced that the life beneath may be released. Others need watering: they hunger to sprout but need gentle rains, encouraging words, an investment of my confidence. Some are quite ready for seeds, hungering to learn, to understand themselves and their lives. Still others need to be weeded, to have the superficial qualities of their lives challenged that substance may ensue. Quite simply, others just need the sun’s warmth: my welcoming smile saying, “I’m glad you’re here.” These individual fields fill my classes en masse daily, making this profession quite overwhelming.

However, every genuine calling is overwhelming and consuming, incessantly stretching us to the end of ourselves that we too may grow. Like my family’s relationship to farming, teaching has seeped into the fissures of my being, forcing me toward continual improvement that I may better tend my fields. Answering this call is adding depth, texture and meaning to my life. Like farming, the monumental challenge of teaching is a risk, producing a vulnerability within me that creates the constant need for and reality of grace. My fields are tended best when I am well aware of my fallibilities, when I’m most human. The desire to see fields growing green, lush, full to maturity leads me into further transformation and improvement year after year.

When desire, vulnerability, and grace in this professions diminishes, it will be time to reevaluate my calling because then I will no longer be a teacher; I will become simply a hired hand working a shift, just punching the clock. For the calling of teacher, much like that of farmer, cannot be bifurcated into an eight hour day apart from the rest of my life. Sadly, I have seen this approach in some teachers. They have not taken ownership of their soul fields, so teaching has become for them simply a job. They have become hired hands. When crop yields are low, rather than reflect on their own approaches, they are inclined to blame the fields: “These students don’t want to learn.” “They can’t learn.” “That kid drives me nuts! I can’t stand him/her!”

For clock-punching teachers, there is no sleeping in the furrows of their labors. Since they have not taken ownership, their labor is simply perfunctory. By rationalizing or projecting their high calling onto others, they have distanced themselves from being a teacher. Though they sustain a sense of false security in their performance, they have forfeited grace, growth, meaning, and improvement. Tragically, I sense they are subconsciously aware of this, for their high calling haunts them, forcing their excuses and targets of blame to further imaginative heights. They fear the vulnerability of answering the call.

This vulnerability rarely existed for the hired hands on my family’s farm. They didn’t own the fields, so the field’s demise lead only to the loss of a paycheck, not to the brokenness of lost investment. Similar to the farmer, a teacher investing in a student, a soul field, is vulnerable. What if he/she doesn’t grow, respond or engage? It is indeed a risk. Hired hands and clock-punching teachers don’t even ask the question. They keep themselves “safe” from its answers.

To some degree, I can empathize with this hunger for security, a desire to keep myself safe from the risks of the calling. Not unlike farming, teaching can be exhausting and exasperating. There are too many soul fields to tend adequately, creating a deluge of challenges: numerous diverse learning styles, personal crises unique to each student, a seemingly endless amount of preparation, and the ever-present piles of essays, projects, and tests to grade. Add in professional development, school community obligations, personal and family commitments, the angst created by the constantly fluctuating political climate in education, and it would seem reasonable to resort to a hired hand approach. Growing up, my siblings and I at times envied the hired hands’ ability to pick up their checks and just drive off at the end of the shift while we were caught, rain or shine, finishing the last chores, staring pleadingly at struggling fields, and, well, sleeping in the furrows. Like clock-punching teachers, they could detach themselves from the costs of the calling.

However, the allure of the hired hands’ approach is specious and there is a cost to it. They kept themselves safe from the price of ownership, taking home only their paychecks, but they sacrificed the actual fruit of farming: the rich sight and smell of the full hay barn, silo, and grain bins in the cool autumn air. They missed the awesome, grace filled awareness that all that grew from seeds we planted in the plowed soil. Like Dad’s hired hands, clock-punching teachers keep themselves safe from the emotional strain, vulnerability, and risk that accompanies ownership. However, they too miss out on the rich, genuine fruits of the harvest which are unmeasureable in paychecks and benefits. They miss students softening and responding to our touch and content as well as stretching and gaining confidence in themselves. They miss the transformed lives and subsequent future impact because of concepts and skills gained in our classes. Finally, they miss students growing more fully in maturity and wisdom because of our significant influential investment.

The bell has rung, and I’m watching my students, my soul fields, exit the building. I remember my dad staring out one of the barn windows, scanning his fields that stretch out for acres, a slight smile in his eyes as he admires the verdant greens of corn and alfalfa. He turns back to his work as do I. Our careers are very different, but our calling is the same: spending our lives plowing, planting, watering, cultivating and harvesting growth. Dad slept deeply in his furrows. He would be pleased knowing I do, too.