Column

In The Valley Of Solitude

by Javy Gwaltney on May 08, 2019 at 01:00 PM

This place is a dump.

Stepping onto my recently inherited farm, I spend a few seconds staring at the little hovel that’s supposed to be where I sleep at night. All around it, rough soil serves as home to a cluttered field of jagged stones, broken logs, and endless trees. Somehow I am supposed to turn this wasteland into a farm. Me, the witless idiot from the city.

My cat slinks around my ankles, purring loudly, reminding me in his own way that optimism is inherently more practical, even when forced. I look around at my yard of crap and sigh.

Well, I decide, it’ll have to do.

***

Reader, it has been 517 days since I stopped drinking. I do not tell you this because I’m fishing for compliments or wanting to show you how proud I am. I say it merely to begin.

About two years ago, I was in a deeply unhappy place. I ping-ponged between throwing myself into work and trying to win the approval of friends and strangers alike. My personality is as such that I go all in on things, for better and for worse. This means I’ll often spend hours upon hours agonizing over placement of words or structures of arguments to get things just right. It also means that when I like something, say a nice tumbler filled with a single giant ice cube floating lazily in a lake of bourbon, I have a hard time telling myself to stop.

I lived in a constant state of instability. I was either extremely happy with my work or felt like I was the worst writer who had ever graced the face of the Earth. I descended into paranoia and thought that my friends and colleagues either adored me or hated me. I passionately argued with people over nonsense and burned bridges at the slightest justification.  My life was a series of peaks and valleys, with all the adrenaline and misery that lack of structure carries. I lashed out at my friends simply because they were there. I often found myself crying for no reason and shrugging it off as stress.

When I stopped drinking, when I went to therapy, it was not a cinematic eureka moment. Instead, it was an incredibly hard process, one filled with shame at my awareness of all my failings, of friends I had hurt, of my lack of consideration and decency towards others and myself.

But, silver lining: Shame is an amazing teacher.

***

I stoop to plant the seeds. The last few weeks were dedicated to clearing the field so I could have room to grow cauliflower. Looking out across the now unoccupied soil, I imagine I will construct my first barn in the southwest corner, some hen houses just north of it. I need to save money. A lot of it.

A month in and I’m starting to think that my farm might actually exist one day. Maybe.

***

The change came slowly. I tried to stick to beer initially but that didn't work (a half-measure solution doesn't fix a full-measure problem, go figure), so I stopped drinking entirely. Within a year of seeing soberly, I started to take stock of who I really was versus my own perception of myself.

Deep down, I’m a resentful person. Kindness and forgiveness do not come to me easily. I keep a mental list of all the people who have wronged me and fantasize about them falling headfirst into their own comeuppance. I also have a crippling need to be validated and respected by everyone in the same room. I often believe I know better than anyone else.

I put a dent in the validation issue by removing Twitter from my life, nuking the account for good so that I didn’t have an audience of thousands of strangers encouraging me to write sizzling hot takes or goofy memes. Honestly, without exaggeration, deleting Twitter is probably one of the smartest choices I’ve ever made (even more than embracing sobriety), the career enhancements the platform provides be damned. My mental health has blossomed since getting rid of that seemingly inescapable chamber filled with people yelling at one another for hours over trifles and prophesying doomsday.

Since then I’ve found myself settling into a routine, something I spent so long fearing. I walk 45 minutes to work in the early morning, listening to music. I write the day away and return home. I watch Netflix shows with my partner and walk her dog. I play games and write some more in cafes. I meet up with friends. Every month, I tell my therapist about my resentment or anxiety and we talk about practical strategies for confronting anger and my need for validation. I save money for the future. It’s all surprisingly nice. For all my younger dread of leading "a boring life," consistency has proven to be a reprieve from the chaos of how I once lived.

Slowly, I am emerging, putting the pieces of who I actually am together.

***

The ice is here and nothing is growing. I have hens and I have cows. I was smart enough to install heaters in the barns and hen houses but not wise enough to stow hay in the silo. The majority of profit I make during the season will go to buying food for my animals. It will be another 30 days before I can even think of making any major enhancements to the barn.

I sigh and throw another log on the fire. My cat curls up next to my bed as midnight looms. Oh well, I decide. We’ll just have to go a little slower, I guess.

***

I picked up Stardew Valley again (yes, reader, yes, yes, finally I get to the point) last month. Despite Days Gone, Dragon’s Dogma, and Mortal Kombat 11 all sitting on my playlist, Eric Barone’s 2016 farm simulator has charmed me into giving it nearly all my gaming attention. I liked the game a lot back in 2016. The spritey charm of building my farm up as well as the social aspects with Pelican Town's citizens and delving deep into the mines kept me playing for hours. However, I find myself invested even more this time because its relaxed approach to pushing the player to progress resonates to the changes that have taken hold in my life.

Watching the gradual growth of my farm from a tiny lot that barely breaks even to a beautiful homestead (and an immensely profitable enterprise) has been a joy. I love having routines for my farmer that shift ever so slightly with every upgrade for my farm.

Initially, I started out simply planting seeds, watering them, and then spending the day in the mines collecting valuable minerals as well as rocks for future construction. Once I had my animals, my routine became slightly more complex, with me having to make time to feed the animals and collect eggs and milk. Learning to turn those products into cheese and mayonnaise added even more steps to my routine but also laid the foundation for my eventual fortune. Despite how dull all this might sound, there's just something so calming and satisfying about watching a space transform and blossom ever so slowly because of your steadfast commitment to it.

The fine balance between routine and progression feels true to life. Change and victories, both small and large, aren’t often overnight occurrences. They’re events that play out over a long period of time, with you having to learn from failures in order to grow.

My farm is getting large now but I’ve definitely stumbled more than a few times, like when I decided to upgrade my water pail (a process that takes days and leaves you without said tool) at the same time I needed it to water my crops. However, failure in Stardew is never fatal, only a stall in progress, which is in itself reassuring. You will get where you’re going eventually, the game’s forgiving systems say. You just need to take your time. Learn. Embrace your failures. They will make you happier in the end, if you let them.

***

The denizens of Pelican Town are incorrigible. Every day they leave me mail urging me to come to town and play. Come be part of the festivals, come talk, come watch the stars.

Instead, I keep away. I go into town to purchase seeds, to break rocks, to deliver goods to the occasional customer, but their life, their friendship...it’s not that I don’t want it. I just don’t really think I’m ready. Maybe one day, once my farm is complete, I will walk among them. I will be their companions. I will take seats at their banquets. I will dance.

But for now, it is enough to be their weird, happy hermit at the fringes of their lives.

***

I’m not afraid of relapsing, drinking-wise. There are a surprising amount of non-alcoholic beers that come close to tasting like the real thing and besides, coffee is my one true love. However, I'm still concerned about my relationship to other people to the point I often choose to stay home or work on things instead of venturing out and being more sociable. To be clear: I want to be among people, I do, and I do have a small group of friends. I go out once or twice every week to hang out with said friends at bars and restaurants. We’re all gamers. We play Smash Bros. We argue and poke fun at one another about our opinions as we stuff our faces with cheese fries.

There is a genuine community and affection among us. I don’t feel the need to put on a show or try and be witty all the time. It’s a nice feeling, one of security and amusement. I imagine I’d like to have more friends like this, when I’m ready. I can still sense all those things that I am, that I don’t like about myself, still there at the center of me – the yearning to be respected, the need to be surrounded by validation, the overwhelming desire to perform for the amusement of others. I reject those things as much as I can: I choose to live in defiance of myself.

Maybe eventually that defiance doesn’t have to be who I am. Perhaps I can trick myself with my routines, with the consistent choice to be level-headed and considerate into actually being that decent, amiable person automatically — or at least less manually.

In the meantime, I find that it is best to tend to my garden in relative solitude in order to produce its most valuable crop: contentment. It'll be nice to have a little virtual companion, my little fantasy farm, to reinforce the value of those routines, dispel doubt, and remind me that that my labors have borne and will continue to bear fruit for all the days to come.

***

I put down my shovel and take a few minutes to admire my handiwork: the lines of barns and henhouses, the bee stands, the taps affixed to maple trees. The hovel now looks like a starter home thanks to an expansion that added a bedroom and kitchen. Not bad for a first year.

I'll build some fences and stone paths this season, I think. Give the farm a little more structure, really focus on the aesthetic. I look back to see my apple and peach tree saplings are starting to take root. In the distance, my cat sleeps next to a couple of logs beneath the springtime sun.  The place is actually starting to look like a farm.

How nice.