I celebrated my birthday this past weekend in a way I never imagined I would. I celebrated in a state I've never visited, surrounded by people I've never met, and got excited about activities I hadn't considered only one year ago.
Last year, my birthday was a different story. I was a recent college grad working my first-ever professional job at a small newspaper. I didn't dislike the newspaper — in fact, I liked it a lot. But I felt stagnant and stressed a lot of the time, and it was difficult to express and share my budding interests — environmental awareness, self-sufficiency, etc. — with my coworkers and friends. I worked a night shift on my last birthday, hunched over a computer with tense shoulders and aching wrists. I sat in front of a glowing computer screen late into the night, feeling anxious and unhappy. Inspiration was far from my mind.
I couldn't have imagined the changes that would happen in the year that followed. I found a new job, here at MOTHER EARTH NEWS. I changed my consumer habits, learned more about gardening, and ate better (and more real) food than I thought possible. And I spent my next birthday, just one year later, at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR in Seven Springs, Penn., with thousands of people who were eager to learn about how to make cheese, how to start a homestead, how to find health in herbs. My fellow fair-goers didn't know they were celebrating with me, but I was lifted and inspired by their passion and excitement.
It went by so quickly — the setup, the speakers, the stage-managing — but if I slow my memories down enough, there are bits that shine brightly through, bits that will forever stick with me. Meeting and learning about the animals at the fair was a real highlight. (One look at the picture of alpacas, and you'll see why I was so smitten.) I encountered new ideas at almost every stage. I learned a lot listening to Temple Grandin speak about livestock management. I had a chance to hear two of the MOTHER EARTH NEWS homesteaders of the year, Rebecca Heller-Steinberg and Dan Livingston, discuss their urban homestead in a positive and playful way. After listening to Wendy Brown, I excitedly scribbled some notes about foraging for food. And Jenna Woginrich encouraged me to abandon some of the nervousness I've felt about making changes in my life and lifestyle. Everyone there, young and old, was learning. Everyone was smiling, and striving to make positive changes in their own lives and the lives of others.
In the airport on the way home, as I ate a sandwich in the food court and thought about the weekend, I noticed a large wall in front me plastered with colorful squares. Some of the squares showed people smiling, shopping bags full of shoes, empty hangers waiting to display brand-new clothing. The rest of the squares were bold colors with quotes on them — quotes promoting consumerism for the sake of consumerism, quotes evoking the joy of shopping. After a weekend full of do-it-yourself, self-sufficient mentality, it was a strange thing to contemplate. One of the quotes, from actress Bo Derek, said, "Whoever said money can't buy happiness simply didn't know where to go shopping." And, playful though the quote is, I disagree. Whoever said money can't buy happiness was on the right track. Happiness comes from learning how to grow your own food, learning how to care for your animals, learning how to find inspiration in others' achievements. This was never more clear to me than it was in Seven Springs — I experienced a happiness at the fair that's not equivalent to the fleeting joy a shopping trip brings, happiness that will live on in the new projects I tackle and the new ideas I consider.
For those of you who experienced that, too, thanks for coming — I'm glad you were able to be there! And for everyone who wasn't there, I hope to see you next year!
Amanda Sorell is an Assistant Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. You can find her on Google+.