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Johnny Appleseed


The year my oldest daughter was ready to start kindergarten, we moved to a new city and rented an apartment while searching for a home to buy. We knew she would only be in this school system for a year, but wanted it to be a positive experience for her.  She already had a response to learning that seemed to augur well, so I looked forward to her first official report card, one of those secret joys many mothers anticipate.


She arrived home with report card in hand, also eager to learn what it had to say about her.  I opened it and began reading. She actually was evaluated with glowing terms, high marks checked in all categories.  I was stunned however. The entire report card referred to her as a male, as in “Completes his assignments in a timely fashion” or “Interacts with his classmates cooperatively”.  They were telling me all these great things about her, and calling her a him.


She wanted me to read the report card to her, so I did, editing as I went. I could not imagine how anyone could evaluate a child who was a girl and call her a boy.  How did teachers fill these things out?  Wasn’t the dissonance as jarring for them as it was for me?  And yes, I was angry. Sexist language is tedious and damaging; didn’t they know that?  Were there mothers reading this to their daughters without editing?


It took me a few days to recover, and develop my action plan. I would write the school expressing my concern and request that all their subsequent communications focused on my daughter would refer to her as a girl.  The letter went through several iterations as I worked to wash out my anger and try to create a possible positive outcome both for my daughter and the school.  I sent the letter, never received any response, but did get a subsequent report card describing a very successful girl child. We moved out of the district and my focus moved with me.


Several years later, my former husband, a professor in a School of Education, was meeting with one of his students to discuss her course project.  In explaining her goals, she said, as something of an introduction, “Well, after we finished that project that your wife started, we…”.  He was confused, interrupting to ask “What project did my wife start?”  She explained that she taught at the school that had received my letter about my daughter who was not a boy.  She amplified. The letter catalyzed a school wide assessment of all forms, curricula, standard communication, etc., she explained. Their effort to remove sexist language took them three years. A pronoun project before its time!


This was the first time I consciously realized that perhaps my life purpose was what I learned to call a “Johnny Appleseed” existence.  Sow seeds and move on.  You may sometimes get a report on the harvest, but you will not be present for it, you will not participate in it. I spent some time pondering this; indeed, I still do.  There are trade-offs.  Moving on, you can create more of what you hope to create. Moving on, you miss the satisfaction of the harvest. Moving on, you miss the inevitable dismantling of what you had hoped to create. Moving on, you forgo the opportunity to push back against the dismantling.


A quick stop at Wikipedia reveals the enormous complexity behind the myth of Johnny Appleseed, along with the number of places that hope to claim him as uniquely “theirs”. He didn’t just plant apple trees, he created nurseries, many that he owned. He established a nursery, asked a neighbor to take care of it, then moved on, but he still had a link to the nurseries.  Much of his work was shaped by his belief system which made him appear eccentric, yet revered. He was invested in what he perceived to be the “next life” which he believed would be shaped by his time on earth: whatever hardships he endured here would lessen his afterlife suffering. He lived a life of hardship by choice. In that sense he was a missionary.


This short biosketch highlights something about a Johnny Appleseed existence. What you are doing seems clearer to others than why you are doing it.  People remember the apple trees, not the world view behind planting them.  His belief system never took root; the trees did. Returning to the story of my daughter’s school, a release from sexist language took root. I learned this only through an “accidental event”.


I have learned to call this “coming full circle” sort of like Johnny Appleseed traveling through a town where he had planted trees during their first “Apple Harvest Festival” where they serve apple pie, apple fritters, and applesauce while entertaining the little kids with an Apple Bobbing Competition.  This experience of “coming full circle” can be quite powerful, even arresting.


For 35 years I have provided consultations, workshops and courses on Creative Conflict Engagement, primarily to health care communities.  Conflict avoidance and the fear of conflict can make this work distressing to others, somedays making me wish I had actually been called to plant apple trees.  One experience of coming full circle occurred at a national convention where I was approached by a very high profile and successful nurse leader.


She explained that she had participated in a workshop I had conducted six years ago, and I observed that I remembered her.  At that time, she had struggled with both the content and the group activities to explore the content. She shared with me that she had “hated me” for this experience, actively “bad-mouthing” me to others repeatedly. Suddenly last year, she shared, through a series of personal experiences, she “got it”. She had made an effort to share with others both her initial response to me and her subsequent insight, expressing her regret about her responses to me.  She thanked my profusely, apologized for her responses, and we parted with smiles. Sometimes “coming full circle” is just plain weird, and skipping harvest makes sense.


I have often wondered if “coming full circle” is the universe’s way of comforting me since I do not get to stay for harvests. This appears to be linked to my dicey “Letting Go” skills, and the full circle is provided to comfort me, to assure me that all this planting of seeds is actually working out nicely and I should trust the process more, maybe quit hankering after harvests and just “Let Go” already.  Mostly, this just amuses me.  Coming full circle has happened often enough that I now think of it as part of the process I live.


What is perhaps more powerful for me, as insights go, is that a life purpose shaped by a Johnny Appleseed existence is an amazing opportunity.  At some level, this is true for everyone, since we never really see the harvest clearly or completely. Knowing this and living accordingly takes the focus away from the harvest, the outcome.  I think this is powerful because attachment to outcomes may be the most deadly obsession we endure.


I cannot live an open, honest, free life if everything is shaped by the outcome I hope to get from my thoughts, emotions, words and actions. I am then simply structuring for the outcomes I want.  I can then obsess.  Will this work, what if this happens, how do I interrupt that threat to my outcomes, how do I push back at those threatening my outcomes? There are many noisy concerns here.   At some point, the outcome overtakes the initial goal.


Planting seeds, you just plant them, do what you need to make sure they take root (I too opt for nurseries, not just random planting) and then move on to the next site for planting. This actively disturbs the illusions of control and certitude, deadly forces.  Yes, it is true, sometimes some seeds and seedlings do not take root well, or forces destroy them. That happens whether I stay to be an eye witness or if I am simply elsewhere.


Planet earth and the human adventure on it are often messy, unpredictable and complex.  I like the idea of a purpose that is focused primarily on creating and affirming life.  I have no assurances, but then I know of no one who does. Besides, I can thus avoid the self-deception of defining “success” using only the terms I embrace.


I am not actually marketing “Johnny Appleseed Existence” as a product. Just noting it has a lot to offer for those of us struggling with the challenge of “Letting Go”!  As to the little girl in kindergarten that people actually described as a little boy, her career investments have made her an expert in addressing “isms” in the workplace.  Coming Full Circle.


“We can’t change people, but we can plant seeds that may one day bloom in them.”


- Mary Davis -

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1 Comment

I deeply resonate with your Johnny Appleseed entry. Thankfully the delayed 'harvest' comes back to me in most unexpected ways offering me insight in the impacts of the seeds I've been trying to plant in my life. Thank you.

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