A blueberry summer: stories from an art school dropout Ep2
The summer I quit school and worked on a farm in Maine.
I can count only a handful of times in my life when I’ve felt that euphoric feeling of freedom. They never last long, but it’s a sensation that is overwhelming and completely visceral—like your entire body is bursting from pure excitement and realization that the world is yours to have.
The first time I felt it was the first night I pulled an all-nighter freshman year of college, hanging out with a group of other art students at an upper classman’s East Village studio. There was a twin bed in the corner, the only indication that someone actually lived there, but other than that, the studio was a landlord’s nightmare: a mess of paint tubes, brushes, and open jars of liquids littered across the floor. Dozens of canvases in varying stages of completeness leaned against the walls, some stacks three or four deep.
I remember taking it in and thinking to myself, “this is what it means to be an artist. To be consumed by it, to breath it in day and night.” It may have been at that point, in perhaps a first premonitory sign, that I self doubted my own capacity to love art so much. My friends and I sat on the floor in a circle and stayed up all night talking about art making, politics, and our dreams. It’s absurd when I think about how young we were, considering I still think of my teenage children as kids. None of us were even 20, and yet I felt so grown up.
I left my friend’s apartment sleep deprived, but happy that morning just as the sun was rising. The city was quiet, not yet awake. It was October. New York City is glorious in October and I walked down Lafayette Street on a cloud, the street kissed with the earliest of dawn light stretching down as far as where the street meets the horizon, the view unobstructed by the absence of cars at that hour. I walked past my school towards Chinatown where I was living, and I remember thinking how I had finally arrived. My life was just beginning.
I quit art school just three weeks shy of completing my junior year of college. That Spring was a very unexpected detour that would change the trajectory of everything. I crashed spectacularly during the summer between high school and college. Like in a very bad way. But instead of taking a pause, I pushed ahead to school because in our culture, you just kept going on autopilot; skipping college was never going to be an option.
As it turned out, however, this didn’t prove to be a bad thing because college was exactly what I needed, but not in the way that I thought. Art and academics, which up until then ruled my life, took a back seat behind the life experiences that would come. I don’t think I truly started living until I left home, but it took me three years to have the guts to consider that art might no longer have a place in it.
School breaks were long and I spent all three and a half months every summer moving around—in cars, in vans, sometimes even hitchhiking (sorry, mom. Kids, don’t do this) all across the country. I had never seen America. Growing up, we barely left the state. My entire life up until that point was my neighborhood in Queens, Flushing, and downtown Manhattan where my friends and I would sometimes escape to on weekends and pretend like we belonged.
The summer I left New York after quitting school, I somehow ended up in Maine. Without any clear plan on what I was doing, my friends and I heard that you could make money picking blueberries, and so that is where we headed. We drove ourselves there in an old car, inherited from my friend’s parents. It was built like cars were built back in the 70s—all solid metal, long and lumbering like a boat. By word of mouth we found a farm that was hiring workers.
I had never picked blueberries or any kind of fruit before, let alone been on a farm. We stood in a long line with seasonal migrant workers from Mexico and Latin America to sign papers. There wasn't any sort of vetting process, no interview—you just showed up ready to work. My naive self thought that we would be picking them by hand, but as I approached the fields of low shrub bushes, I realized that wasn’t the way it worked. I was handed a bucket and a rake. The rake was a strange new instrument in my hand, heavier than I thought and not at all what I expected one would use to pick blueberries. It resembled a wide metal dustpan with long, sharp prongs along the edge like a comb.
I watched the other experienced workers set their buckets down and get to raking. They held the tool in their hand and bent down from the waist to attack the bushes near the base. In one motion, as they scooped up their rakes, the blueberries were plucked off their stems and cradled in the rake’s receptacle. This is how you pick low-bush blueberries destined for store shelves. Depending on your experience and skill, you can pick a full pint or more in one single scoop.
I quickly learned that this was a lot harder than it looked. The experienced workers made it look so easy; their movements were quick and fluid and they moved with no-nonsense purpose. Each worker was assigned a row and when you got to the end, you turned around and raked the bushes again until all the berries ripe for picking surrendered to the rake. It was like watching competitive swimming, tracking the athletes as they swam in their lanes. If you looked at the row of bushes, it was clear who the fastest workers were.
Unsurprisingly, I was not fast or great at raking blueberries. It required a strong back and upper body strength and my 110 pound body wasn’t built for this kind of manual labor—not yet anyway. I struggled to carry the 40 pound buckets along with me down the row of bushes as I filled them with blueberries. My back began to ache from bending over constantly. I soon learned that it was easier if you kept your body bent over in that position, scooping the bushes as you made your way down the row.
We were paid cash at the end of the day, the amount dependent on how many buckets you could fill. Each day was a repetition of the last and the smartest workers started theirs with the sun before the day got too hot. I lasted 2 weeks on this particular farm, but not because the work was too physically hard, though it was. The pesticides that were used on the bushes got to us as the cloud of chemicals was hard to avoid when we shook the bushes with our rakes. My friends and I sought out an organic farm to work instead. We found a small one, owned by a family near the coast of Maine. The pace was slower, the pressure to rake as many flats in a day not as pressing, and the owners let us camp on their land. I worked on the farm for the remainder of summer until blueberry season was done.
Thirty years later, I no longer remember how I wanted to die at the end of each day, achey and exhausted from eight hours of blueberry picking. Nostalgia has a powerful way of erasing the crappy moments and leaving behind only the memories that we want to coddle years later. All I remember now is the first time I saw the beautiful blueberry fields: an expanse of purple haze that bled into the horizon, the subtle scent of sweet berries in the air as they turned ripe in the sun. I can still feel the relief of swimming in the cool waters off the Maine Coast in the late afternoon after a full day of work, driving along the winding road that twisted along the coves and cliffs in search of a different place to swim every week. I met all kinds of people along the way too, many of whom invited us into their homes, and this helped mend the trust in people that I had lost somewhere along the way.
I don’t want to wax poetic on the lessons of how manual labor taught me to appreciate my privilege or anything cheesy like that. It’s cliche and yes, I have college essays on the brain at the moment, so I’m particularly sensitive to how any of this might come across. But I do look back at that blueberry summer and feel gratitude for that experience.
I was a sheltered immigrant kid from NYC without a single experience outside my NYC bubble. In reflecting what went wrong with my art school career, I felt a disconnect between art and real life. I realized that I was creatively stuck because I hadn’t seen the world yet. I spent so many years in high school holed up in my basement consumed only by my own thoughts and my paintbrush that I forgot to live life on the outside. By college, I was over it.
I spent a few hours with my 19 year old the other day, visiting her at work and walking around the city. I realized that we hadn’t spent time like that, just the two of us, in probably a year. This time it felt different from all the other times I’ve been with her. I was keenly aware of how much of an adult she seemed, watching her work and interact with her coworkers. When we’re together in public now, our relationship to each other isn’t clear and I see people hesitate to identify who I am to her, particularly since we don’t really resemble each other much. I’ve been referred to as “a friend” recently at the doctor’s office.
I watch her from a distance sometimes and remember how I had that sense of freedom and infinite possibilities back when I was her age. The kids have the whole world in front of them and despite inheriting a problematic world, it’s exciting. I remind them of that every chance I can.
But I wonder, can I get that feeling back now? Is it lost to us at this age? Can we ever truly feel it again?
Two things this week
A guest post
I recently did a guest post with my 16 year old on’s The Yellow Pages. It’s pretty nutty that I have a kid old enough to collaborate like this with. We serve up a bunch of art recommendations, so please check it out:
My YouTube experiment continues
I just uploaded my 2nd Korea travel vlog last weekend on YouTube, but trying a little experiment here by embedding my NYC vlog from 2 weeks ago in this newsletter. Does it work?
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