Breaking Down, Breaking Through

I’m writing today from a much-needed spot of rest on the couch. It’s been a rough few weeks.

I’d be writing on the deck, but for the happy zipping of bees through the roses. There are hundreds of bees out on the flowers around my writing spot as they’re released from being cooped up in the hives for the last three days of torrential storms. They are welcome to the flight and exercise and the roses are happy to see them.

I managed to catch a small cold whilst working through the sideways rain to try and save my trout, which were dying in the storm. As of today, I lost nearly half the crop of new trout during the downpours and overflow. I’m still troubleshooting what went wrong so it doesn’t happen again. (Looks like a combination of filtration failure, oxygen shift from torrential rain, and PH changes in sudden water flow). To say I’m bummed would be an understatement. The truth is, I came in from working the tanks the other night, soaked to the bone, shivering and weeping. I knew they were dying and I couldn’t help them, who knew I’d be so emotional about a few tanks of trout.

That night I laid awake, shivering, unable to get warm and just felt like a colossal failure. You know, my old friend, failure, the buddy that encourages over-eating a package of cookies, and drinking a bottle of shitty wine. I seem to be at this point pretty regularly these days. I’ve come to realize though, I usually hit this breakdown point at the third to halfway point of any new stretch.

That’s the key it seems…new stretches. When I put it in perspective like that, I realize, I don’t ever hit these skids when I’m doing only familiar, practiced, or knowable things. Only when I’m reaching…sometimes too far, but always out of comfort range.

I still couldn’t get warm so I went and sat in a hot shower, and while I was steaming I remembered when I took up stained glass windows as a hobby. It lasted about three years, that phase. I went to workshops, classes, and paid for time in studios, bought all the supplies and invested in the stages of what I hoped would be this vision of a stained-glass window I’d always wanted to look at.

I’d imagined a sea scape, bordered with wild red roses, mermaids, and serpents, and all manner of fictional characters. I thought to do it well, I’d need to take classes and learn the medium. How can you design in a medium, when you don’t know how the medium functions? A year into the process, I started buying the panels of baroque glass I planned to store and use on this someday-masterpiece in my mind.

Each panel of this beautiful glass was about $40. So I bought one here and there and stored them for the day I would be good enough to build the panel in my vision. Finally, when I thought I was ready, I started to cut the glass pieces—only, to my horror, nearly all of the dozen or so panels of lovely baroque glass did not cut as expected…they cracked or shattered in unexpected ways despite all my training and practice. I was devastated. I went back to the glass supply store and told myself I would only purchase two more panels, then I was done…I couldn’t afford to fail anymore. If I couldn’t make it work in the next couple of tries—I would give up.

As I was in the checkout and the girl was asking about what project I was building, I described my window plan, then told her how depressed I was that I’d broken all the glass I’d been buying slowly and storing up. I explained what a failure I was, and these last two glass sheets were my last chance to get it right.

She looked up, really met my gaze and said, almost teasingly, “So… let me get this straight…you really thought you were going to build a stained-glass masterpiece on your first few tries without breaking any glass?”

My mouth fell open…then my cheeks flamed… and I stuttered. “Well…when you put it like that….”

Then we both started laughing. LAUGHING. Yes. That’s precisely what I’d thought.

I sat shivering in the steaming shower and smiled at the memory.


Long story short, the failure skids I’m so familiar with usually come about the time I realize I’ve misjudged myself, or a challenge, or the complexity of a goal. I took on a lot this spring. I tackled expensive, challenging projects in an attempt to get to the 40th birthday goal of a self-sustainable nook in the woods. A “stretch” is an understated way of saying, a mother-fucking wild leap.

Old things/ways will be broken in an effort to build something new. When you look at stained-glass masterpieces…they are completely made up of all the broken pieces of glass. A mosaic of failures.  Maybe that’s what makes them so beautiful, sunlight through a picture of adversity.

In the last three months I’ve pushed my limits, built things I didn’t know I could build. My cottage in the woods is now a farm. I’ve got chickens, ducks, bees, trout (half of my original crop), a garden, roses, wisteria, fruit and hazelnut trees, herbs, and vegetables, grapes and flowering climbing vines. Is it finished? Not by a long shot – there’s still so much to do to make it successful. Tired is an understatement. Exhausted. Challenging is an understatement. Tapped out. Fried. (And yes, I did eat a package of cookies, and drink a whole bottle of shitty wine)

I don’t know any practical data about aquaculture. This is my first ever attempt to farm fish, of course book learning wouldn’t prepare me for every scenario. Same to be said for beekeeping, and raising fowl. This is all new territory, new opportunities for learning—often the hard way. I could quit. I could drop all the projects and go back to a quiet, uninterrupted life in the woods. I could quit further still, and just move back to the conveniences of the city life.

But I realized as I was straining nets of dying trout out of the tanks, middle of the night, lightning and thunder, net in one hand, flashlight in the other; scooping them into tubs with higher density oxygenated water, sideways rain blowing into my ears and down into my boots, fingers too cold to bend… As frustrating as it is, as lonely as it can be, as depressing as failure can get, as challenging as the struggle really is—I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I loved standing over the tanks the next day and knowing I was able to save some of the fish. There’s a world of difference in the beauty of sunlight through a stained-glass window… but the moment I saw the rainbow trout flashing through the water, their beautiful green and red and silver scales zipping through the tanks…I thought for a moment they were such lovely creatures. Not cathedral mural of glass lovely, but just as beautiful in a different kind of way.

The relief that they were okay for the moment was palpable. The relief that I hadn’t just said, fuck it, and left them out there in the storm with an overflow and filtration issue…made me realize I haven’t failed at the goal just yet. As long as there’s still one goddamn fish in the tank—it’s still a possibility that I can make this system work.

Did I really think I was going to try aquaculture from books and internet videos on the first try and not lose a single fish? Yes. Yes, I did. Okay, now that reality has set in, how do I re-configure book learning with practicum and get this shit done?

Failure is just another way of saying, “re-think this plan” or “not this way…but what haven’t I tried?”

In the grand scheme of things, yeah, it’s just a self-sustainability goal. It’s just a way of testing myself, and my resolve. Is it life or death? Not really. Is it a necessity? Not so much right now.

But am I having fun trying? Hells to the yes. Am I invigorated by the challenge? Yes. Am I curios about the possibilities? Totally.

So then I ask myself, what’s the harm in pressing onward? Just put a couple of extra packages of cookies and a few bottles of wine in the pantry for those days when you’re weeping and shivering in the shower… then take a day to reconfigure, and get back out there.

The new filtration system arrived in the mail today, and I’ll get started on a way to keep the last 80 fish alive and healthy long enough for a good harvest in the fall. In the meantime, here’s a little video of the system I put together for series of aquaculture I’m working on.

Trout Aquaculture Part 1

And by working on, I mean learning in process…failures and detours, and reconfigurations included.

P.S. Because I know someone will ask, I never did finish my stained-glass mural, though I did set it aside until I can re-configure the materials and efforts. Not given up, just put on hiatus. To be continued….


Author: Athena

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  1. You are amazing! I’m sorry you lost some of your trout, and I DEFINITELY get the impulse to feel like if it’s not done perfectly the first time, it’s just not meant to be (which is why I never seem to get more than a week or so into a diet before giving up because I haven’t immediately dropped 50 pounds), but it really seems like you’re doing a great job! Learn as you go and someday it will seem like second nature. I really admire the space you’re building for yourself.

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    • Thank you, Nelli. Its nice to know I’m not the only one who struggles with the need to see positive results quickly 🙂 Thank you for the encouragement! It’s tough out here, but I really do love it. I hope you’ll get to come see this little nook some day <3

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  2. Oh yes, Becky and I have definitely discussed inviting ourselves over to stay with you in you sanctuary for a few days. Some day you’ll get the illustrious chance to host both of us! Don’t worry, we’ll bring booze. 🙂

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    • Sweet!! ♡ I’m counting on a girls catchup session with you both!! ♡ yay!!

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