The Harvest of My Days

By Kay Augustine

After Mike’s late August repeated appeal for submissions to Shareletter I thought again about the proposed harvest theme, and this time a question came immediately to mind: What is the harvest of my days? And as quickly as the question came to mind, it felt familiar. I was pretty sure it wasn’t original with me, so I googled it, and was not surprised with what came up, since I know portions of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun by heart, having taught it for many years. In the second act, Mama, having learned that Walter has stopped going to his chauffeur’s job and is instead hanging out at a jazz bar, exclaims to the spirit of her dead husband, “Oh, Big Walter, is this the harvest of our days?”

My own question is not asked of those who have gone before me, and it is not asked in reference to a wayward son; but a third of the way through my 87th year, that question is one which does beg an answer of me. What is the harvest of my days?

Before one can harvest, of course, one must cultivate the ground, plant seeds, nurture them. What seeds have I planted (or what seeds volunteered themselves and sprouted), and what am I harvesting? Or failing to harvest?

My sisters and I all shared our father’s gift for singing and harmonizing by ear; I was the only one to earn a degree in music education and spend a huge portion of my days on this earth leading music for three very different church communities. But I do not see my harvest in any of the work done there, although I do treasure the many lifelong friends I made. Rather, the rich harvest from my music education is in the joy I have experienced and brought to others, first years ago by volunteering to help a friend’s young Waldorf students find their singing voices and, more recently, by volunteering to lead singalongs in assisted living centers, particularly those where friends or relatives live. And I did not plant the seeds which led to the singalongs:  it all began when Bill Brown grew reluctant to have people coming into their apartment to clean, so I, as a member of their care committee, suggested we gather down the hall to sing while the cleaning was being done. From there, the engagements multiplied, and I look forward to returning to this work, this time just one afternoon a month, after a call this week from the Catholic Home. This fruitful harvest gives joy to myself and others.

I doubt that I planted the seeds of mental illness either, at least not deliberately: it visited me just before my 20th birthday, a full-blown manic psychosis which landed me in the old Milwaukee County Hospital for Mental Diseases for three months (where the treatment, including an overdose of reserpine, was barbaric); and then, because my parents were not county residents, at Mendota, where, five months later, I was weaned from the ECT and thorazine I’d been given and discharged. I returned, eventually, to college, taking medication again only after I began teaching full time; that stress and the predictable mood swings it produced was successfully treated with lithium until I gained more confidence as a teacher and was able to leave the medication behind. And the harvest? A life-long determination to do what I can through speaking up and writing letters to deter the stigma surrounding mental illness. I have also sought to better manage my own emotional health by participating in weekly Emotions Anonymous meetings. And the second harvest I hope for before the end of my days? To write about that experience, an overdue harvest.

The seeds of being a writer were planted when I saw the movie Bambi and was inspired, probably in fourth grade, to write a poem re-telling the story. I remember only one quatrain:

MAN was in the forest!

He’d started the forest afire!

Bambi began to run!

He saw the flames leap higher!

My teacher entered the poem in the Crawford County Fair, but I was disappointed to discover that she’d entered it not as a poem, but as a book report. Apparently, I wanted to be seen as a poet. But I did not write another poem until April 5th, 1968. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated the day before, and a call from a friend stirred such deep emotion in me that the words which came to me insisted I try to make them into a poem. That experience opened a door which remains a source of creative expression to this day. My son Paul has asked me to gather some of my poems into a book; so far, I’ve only begun to search and categorize, another overdue harvest.

I planted seeds for another writing project when my late, dear friend Joan Wiese and I co-founded the Atwater School Human Relations Committee, at first to promote racial integration. The first successful harvest of these seeds was a wonderful Sister School Project in the spring of 1978, six Saturday mornings combining a group of Atwater students with students from Clarke Street School in Milwaukee. The children did art, music, and play activities, dividing their time between the two schools in the hope that this time together would better prepare them for the coming court-ordered busing about to integrate some schools. Our interactions with other parents on the committee made us aware of another concern, that of Jewish parents whose children were sometimes made uncomfortable by the celebration of Christian holidays in school. We put out a call for parents to form a new committee; that group completed a resource for the Shorewood Schools titled, Human Mosaic: Teaching about Religious and Cultural Diversity in the Public Schools. After Paul’s ethnic studies professor at Indiana University said it was the best thing of its kind he’d seen, I sent it to two publishers. The first one lost it; the second expressed interest but never got back to me. By that time I had started teaching full time and stopped trying, but I’ve always intended to revisit that effort: yet another overdue harvest.

The seeds of being a music educator were planted for me by others I wanted to please: my beloved piano teacher, who was like a second mother to me; my adored high school band director. So I finished a degree in music education, but I made sure my English minor also certified me to teach high school English. Something inside me knew that’s what I really wanted to do, and after substituting in MPS in both music and English, I lucked out by landing in a ninth grade English vacancy at North Division. There I became determined to find a better way to teach all students about how we learn language, why different communities use it differently, how difficult it is to change language usage habits after a certain age, and how ignorance of these facts causes us to make false judgments about people’s intelligence and potentialities. This goal led to my completing a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction with a focus on linguistics four years after I retired from teaching. A few years later, a linguistics professor whose class I was auditing at UWM was so impressed with the thesis that he offered to help me publish it; I wanted to add a few things buried in my attic, said I’d get back to him. Those items remain undiscovered, the professor has moved to New Zealand, and the thesis gathers dust. I’ve thought about at least publishing it online. My fourth overdue harvest.

The seeds of marriage and family I planted very deliberately. While both Augie and I admitted, years into our marriage, that neither of us was the prince nor the princess the other had been hoping to find, we both wanted marriage and a family, so we made the best of it:  he in providing for his family, I in nurturing our four sons (which left me time for an expanding number of volunteer activities). Those sons have brought us much joy, each in their own way, a joy which has been enlarged by their wives and daughters. That is a bountiful harvest for which I am most grateful!

The seeds of being a gardener were planted early: as a child I loved roaming the hills around our farm, bringing home wild flowers to transplant into my mother’s flower garden. During my teaching years, every summer found me digging up more of my lawn to plant flowers and a few vegetables and fruit trees. But I also allowed my yards–front, back, and side–to become infected with invasive goutweed which took over during times when my health or work prevented me from keeping it under control. During my last summer at home, 2019, I worked hard to restore the yards to some semblance of order and to plant new flowers. Since I’ve been able to bus safely again, I go one morning weekly to garden (my son John and his wife Alison live there). My harvest is the joy I get from gardening and from sharing what’s blossoming with neighbors and Facebook friends.

And, finally, the weed seeds. (Didn’t you know there had to be mention of weeds here somewhere?) Beginning as early as elementary school, I scattered the insidious seeds of procrastination, and they grew into a powerful, self-defeating habit: Assignments not finished (I got good grades anyway). Piano and clarinet not practiced (I never learned the rewards of self-discipline). Housework not done until company was expected (piles on the dining room table were stuffed into grocery bags and taken to the attic). Teaching materials brought home after every school year were taken to the attic to sort over the summer (each new school year I’d reinvent them).

And the harvest of these years of procrastination? When I began attending Friends Meeting in 2000, I asked to be held in the Light that I might clear my attic. After a few people responded by suggesting I let the mess go, I stopped asking. I still report to my weekly EA group, ever so gradually gaining insight into the problem and how to solve it. I’ve gotten better at making time, doing things on time. Saturday mornings I now bus to my house to work several hours in my attic. I will probably never finish, for I have made a huge task for myself and delayed attending to it for far too long. A bitter, likely incomplete harvest.

In conclusion, with both an actual and a figurative autumn now fast upon me, I survey my fields, my half-forgotten dreams and goals, and decide not to abandon all hope of bringing in my overdue harvests–the writing projects, the attic clutter. Rather, asking this question of myself and writing this answer–and I’m grateful to Mike for the prompt to do that–has led me to make this promise to myself: I will continue my weekly attic and garden times, and I will prioritize the overdue writing projects, focusing sensibly on one at a time. Since I am an early riser, mornings are the best time for this work; energy lags and thinking dulls most afternoons. This may mean I will not be visible as often in our community in the days to come. Be assured:  I am still with you in Spirit, and for each harvest brought in, I hope to celebrate that joy with you all.