I planted an olive grove for my old age. I imagined friends and family gathering under the dense shade of the silver trees, sitting at antique wooden trestle tables spread with white tablecloths and wine and cheese, as we watched children play on rugs laid under the trees and run through the gnarled trunks, playing hide and seek and discovering secret worlds.
But, despite the Mediterranean climate of South Australia, where I planted my little olive grove in the garden of our white-washed “poet’s cottage” in Kapunda, and despite olives being so tough they grow in impoverished soil and last for a thousand years, growing an olive grove is hard.
To begin with, I dug up self-seeded plants I found in the streets around my house, and replanted them in my garden. Though they stayed alive, they didn’t grow for about five years. It seems self-seeded olives, though they will come up anywhere, don’t like being moved. Then, I decided to buy some trees from a nursery and put in five trees of different varieties. All but one died.
So I watered and worried for years, and wandered through my imagined olive grove, wondering if I’d get to old age before it grew. Then one by one, each tree had a growth spurt, and now, after 15 years, my grove consists of two almost adult trees, two that are halfway grown and one that’s still not much bigger than when I put it in.
This week, and well before my old age, I harvested my first olives.
Last year, one tree produced three olives, and this year it was bedecked with large black fruit. You can imagine how it felt to have a huge bowl of olives that I had grown myself. It felt triumphant and humbling.
In Greece, I watched old men and women harvest olives in the fields around Ancient Sparta. Mt. Taygetus, snow covered and shining in morning light, hovered over the fields, and you could hear the Eurotas River, just a stream really, gently bubbling over the rocks and sounding like a playing child. The peasants and the olive trees looked the same: aged, gnarled with weather and life, serene, accustomed, accepting and endless. From my position as a spectator and a foreigner, the harvesting looked like life, not work.
That day was an epiphany. I made a promise to my future, then and there, that I would turn work into life. From that day on, I’ve tried to solve the work-life balance by wiping it out completely, by blurring the edges of both work and leisure, and paradoxically reversing the way I think about each.
This is not as hard to do as it sounds. You just have to love work so much that it doesn’t seem like work, and integrate a sense of the joy of work into every part of your life. The result is that everything has meaning, that you feel a sense of having enough time, and that you feel satisfied, contented and fulfilled. It’s a pretty good aim!
In order to love your work, you need to be doing what you are good at, and what gives you a sense of control and community. It’s what is commonly called good ‘job fit’. You also need to have enough challenge to keep you interested and motivated. You need enough reinforcement to feel satisfied, useful and appreciated. You need to work for an organisation or in an endeavour that you approve of and agree with.
When you come home, you need the same things. You need to be and feel engaged.
The olive grove is my plan for old age, because it is symbolic. It symbolises life, work, productivity, longevity and tenacity. It symbolises success. In reality, it will provide both leisure and work. Olive groves produce shade, and a place to eat, think and play, but they also produce olives. Because I have finally harvested my first olives, I had to find out how to preserve them, and this is how you do it:
Prick, bruise, pit or otherwise break the skin of the olives and put them in brine (1 part salt: 10 parts water) and change the brine every day for ten days. This will change the consistency of the flesh and remove the bitterness. After 10 days, if the olives are still bitter, keep going with the process until they’re not any more.
This sounds like a recipe for people and life to me, not just for olives!
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