Bonus Holiday Special: Rural Route One with Lorilee

Bonus Holiday Special: Rural Route One with Lorilee

Holiday Special: Rural Route One

In this special episode, Lorilee shares personal reflections on her childhood in Kentucky, detailing rich memories of Thanksgiving on Long Vue Farms and the safe spaces she created for herself as a young person. It was these sanctuaries — under the dining room table or out in the garden —  that created the conditions for healing and true gratitude, but somewhere along the way, Lorilee lost touch with this grounding practice, leading her to ask a question many of us still grapple with; where is my safe space today?

“Rural Route One” is an excerpt from Cultivator and Creator: An autoethnographic study understanding the addicted artist, which you can read in full here »

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BONUS – Rural Route One

[00:00:00] Lorilee Rager: Hey, I’m Lorilee Rager and this is Ground and Gratitude. It’s a podcast about designing the life you want, one that not only grows but also gives. 

Before today’s episode, I’d like to tell you about where I bank, Her Bank by Legends Bank. This episode of Ground and Gratitude is sponsored by them. Her Bank celebrates, honors, and supports women, especially entrepreneurs by providing financial services and resources through a core team of experienced female bankers, which is so reassuring to me. Her Bank creates a bridge to help women overcome barriers when it comes to money conversations and decisions, while providing women with a better banking experience. Check out to learn more. Her Bank is a brand of Legends Bank. Legends Bank is member FDIC equal housing lender.

So today’s episode is just me. It’s a solo episode, no guest. And I’m not sure the rules, I’m not sure who’s really the boss of me, but I do really think that everyone has a story. And I think your story matters, and I think your voice is important. And I just thought today I would read from my grad school thesis. I went to Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I got my MFA in graphic design. And my thesis was titled Cultivator and Creator, and it is a study on understanding the addicted artist. And my story starts out from my childhood and trying to understand my sense of place and where gratitude comes from. I think this is a time of year, because it’s Thanksgiving, that everyone is thinking about gratitude and thinking about giving thanks. Gratitude is really good for us research shows, so I really hope you can resonate with my writing in this special edition for Thanksgiving. Thanks for being here.

Rural Route One by Lorilee Rager, that’s me. I’d ask you to close your eyes and take a deep breath but then you couldn’t keep reading. Imagine with me a homestead just beyond the coal mines of Kentucky and the Smoky Mountains, right near the Tennessee state line. The hills roll gently, the soil is rich and tillable, and the views from the front porch are of bluegrass and wide open spaces. You are on beautiful Long Vue Farms in Keysburg, Kentucky. 

To help you find your bearings a bit better, Long Vue Farms is just an hour north of Nashville, literally on the state line between Kentucky and Tennessee. Looking out from the back porch, the backfield tree line is the Kentucky-Tennessee border. The farm is 800 acres of small grains growing in some of the richest, flattest, most tillable (and profitable) soil in South Central Kentucky. What we call the home farm. 

Long Vue Farms is also smack dab on the line between Todd and Logan Counties. It’s so rural that we often speak in terms of the county lines and old farms for landmarks. We’re just past the old Shelton place and Gilbert’s road. If you get to the Y in the road you’ve gone too far. I’ve always said when giving directions to the farm, “Right when you think you’ve gone too far and feel lost, go one more mile.” It’s the old Maude Gill place, where I was born and raised. 

It’s true about the farm being on the county line, which led to some complicated situations. When I was little our address was Rural Route 1, Allensville, Kentucky. Yet our phone number was a Guthrie City number 3-2057, but we were to vote in Adairville. Growing up neither county wanted to send a school bus to pick us up, each claiming we either weren’t in the county or on the route. It was an hour ride both ways on the school bus. Miss Fran was my bus driver and gave me a whole pack of double mint gum when I got off on Fridays. 

The two counties also fought over who paved the roads that far, and there wasn’t any 911 to pick up when we called about the barn burning. “Doo-doo-do! We’re sorry that’s not a working number,” was all I heard as I looked out beyond the towering mechanic shop and watched flames leap and flash like fireworks, engulfing our largest tobacco barn. I guess the smoldering sawdust piles got too hot inside from firing the tobacco, plus how the whole building was coated in creosote. 

We didn’t farm tobacco anymore after we lost that crop. Dad said that a tobacco plant destroys the ground anyways, that it sucks the life right out of soil, making it hard to grow any other crops after it. I can remember a few great uncles whose beloved Marlboro Reds seemed to do that to also. 

In 1976 the Maude Gill estate and farm had been abandoned and was going up for sale at auction. No one wanted it, maybe because it needed so much work. No one else claimed that spot on the map, so my father did. In an interview with my father, he said, “Because we sold our equipment business in Bowling Green, Kentucky, we were willing to relocate since your mother’s family was all here. We were looking for another business, i.e., large scale farming.” Our family got to build our own little community from scratch just the way we wanted. We paid to have electricity run to the house and built our own new dump shed and grain bin system. It was a massive investment, as well as a great feat, to run miles of county electricity, waterlines, and a grain storage system in the middle of nowhere. We made new roads together and had a nice gravel drive for many years (which I raked a lot to help the mud holes), but today it is paved with the finest concrete. One sign of a successful farmer is when he can afford to pave his own way. 

As reflection has pointed me towards my sense of place and the farm, I have realized the world through this lens was all I knew as a child, all that mattered. Now, through this work, I have looked closer, zoomed into sharp focus, and begun to notice where it blurred, where it was lost, found, scuffed up and broken. These roots may have gotten buried and hidden away, yet I still carry them with me. 

My memories rumble with the deep roar of our grain dryers, echoing off the metal grain bins behind the house. Sleeping to that sound is better than any white noise app you’re plugged into. The wind gusts easy now and then, the leaves swirl, and fall harvest season is here. The men are trucking soybeans in from the fields and filling up the bins. Dust covers the windshields of all the farm trucks parked by the shop, sticking to the heavy early morning dew. 

We’ve already had one frost that began to knock off the bright yellows, reds, golds, and oranges off the trees, flecking the fading bluegrass like confetti. The grounds are softly, slowly surrendering to the latest cold snap. I can see the bright leaves beginning to dim and curl as the edges get darker. They remind me of the cinnamon brown sugar corn flake crust from Mom’s sweet potato pie we always have for the holidays. 

The quilted place mats monogrammed “Happy Fall Ya’ll!”, the hand towels and aprons, all patterned with oranges, browns, golds, and amber plaids, welcome us to a time to give thanks- for all that we harvest, all we worked for, and all we stored. Now it is time to rest and eat well. The work on the farm is paused while we pray over the potluck. 

Butter melts in the sweet corn dish from the heat of last summer’s hard work shucking and silking the silver queen we put up with Grandma Smith. Mom’s fresh sourdough bread rises, as the cranberry slips out of the can. The Ball jar lid pops on the fresh canned September white peaches. Those are our family’s favorite, they were put up frozen after we bought them at Jackson’s Orchard and are really something to give thanks for, yum! 

Through the mud and the mess outside and in the world, this is a moment to take a deep breath, close your eyes, and be thankful. It’s time to bow our heads and say grace. Saying your prayers is the go-to way to get through each day, especially in the hard heavy times, and a must in the happy heartful times. 

I remember watching the 1965 film Shenandoah one of the first times with my grandma and the wonder of seeing something so similar to my own culture on TV. Jimmy Stewart – whose mannerisms and voice remind me so much of my Grandfather Thompson – plays Charlie “Pa” Anderson, a father of seven in Virginia during the Civil War. Pa doesn’t allow his sons to fight in what he believes “isn’t our war.” They farmed and did all they could to work together to make their father proud. At Thanksgiving, Pa says grace over a large family at a large table before a large feast: 

Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it, and harvested it. We cook the harvest. It wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be eating it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you Lord just the same for the food we’re about to eat. Amen. 

My own father’s prayer at the beginning of every holiday’s meal went something like this: “Dear Heavenly Father, hallowed be Thy name. Thank You for the roof over our head and all that You’ve given us and done for us. We thank You for this day and our daily bread. We give thanks for being able to gather together with our loved ones. We also thank You Heavenly Father for those that have gone before us (my father usually choked up big here), and we look forward to the day we can all be together again. Thank You for this land, the rain when we needed it, this meal, and this wonderful life. We thank You for all we have and all You’ve given us and done for us. In Jesus name, Amen.” “And God Bless the corn!” Luke, my son, would shout. 

We’d all laugh, trading glances and gentle squeezes on the arm as we’d say: “Ladies first,” line up, here’s your plate Grannie, grandkids will get you your sweet tea or coffee. Then a cue for the little ones to hold tight, don’t jump in front of Grandma, help her to her seat at the big dining room table. Ensure canes, walkers, ice tea glasses, and decaf coffee make it to the table with napkins, forks, and buttered bread. Now line up to get your plate, no more bread either, we saw you eat another piece while you took Grandma’s to her. 

The peaches thawed a little beside the tub of vanilla ice cream over on the dessert bar in the kitchen while we ate dinner in the dining room. The Chess pies cooled and set, and meringue as high as my hand tops the chocolate pies, soft and bubbled up like a calf’s slobber sucking from the bottle. Boy howdy, we gave thanks. 

Those were the calmer seasons in farm life, when both our bellies and grain bins were full and the ground was too hard to work. That’s when I saw my father do a rare relax for a few hours on a holiday and spike his boiled custard. Being responsible for so many mouths to feed while farming to feed the world, too – I understand how the weight of it can drive someone to drink. Agriculture is an intense and stressful line of work. Paul Harvey’s great speech turned 2013 Dodge SuperBowl Ad, “Then God Made A Farmer,” really says it best: 

God said, “I need somebody strong enough to clear trees and heave bails, yet gentle enough to tame lambs and wean pigs and tend the pink-combed pullets, who will stop his mower for an hour to splint the broken leg of a meadowlark. It had to be somebody who’d plow deep and straight and not cut corners. Somebody to seed, weed, feed, breed and rake and disc and plow and plant and tie the fleece and strain the milk and replenish the self-feeder and finish a hard week’s work with a five-mile drive to church.” So God made a farmer. 

As I began to think in grad school about the origin of my never ending always “attitude of gratitude” I started with a search that landed me smack dab in the middle of this southern sweet potato holiday memory. I’m craving answers to uncover why I am here and who was responsible for this habitual toxic positivity approach I unconsciously applied even when design projects and drinking had me spinning my wheels in anxiety and rage I was happy to ignore. 

This search led me back to the rural raisin’ on my family farm and old memories of family that uncovered the foundation of who I am. With my mother, I revisited long forgotten memories of where I first felt safe and grounded. This unearthed the realization that I’d lost my footing as an adult running my design firm, chasing deadlines and clients demands as hard as the lunchtime tequila shots. So remembering with my mother the times she found me content, happy, and comforting myself in a healthy way stopped the merry go round feeling I’d been hiding inside. Remembering these childhood moments began to reconnect to something that felt familiar to me. It felt like an authentic gratitude in a safe space I’d lost touch with. 

At that moment I realized that before the era of Netflix, news feeds, and nagging neck cramps, I had created safe spaces for myself where I could soothe my soul by myself. Rediscovering this gave my inner voice a jolt of “goodness gracious” like I’ve not felt since I was a child. I needed a space where I allowed myself to play, be messy, pray, and recharge. I learned that the solitude of a quiet, peaceful, safe place to retreat, rest, play or hide is an important part of where gratitude grows. This was an important realization, that we always need that safe space in our life. A place to be authentic, be creative, and nurture yourself. A place to make all your own, where you can hide, heal, and dig into your feelings. 

My earliest memory of a safe space I created for myself came out of a series of sweet tea sips with my mother about the farm house and the history of its structures. In the middle of acres of sunrises, stress, storms, and starlit nights, where all you could hear were howls from coyotes and the cooing of mourning doves, I made for myself a space. My mother tells a story of looking for me for hours when I was 8 years old. After searching all over the farm, the dog pen, and the playhouses, she found me under the dining room table. This is where I had made my first safe space. With a soft ribbon-edged blanket, a handmade sock monkey, a cabbage patch doll made from pantyhose and yarn, and a bucket of crayons, I sat happily alone. I also never seemed to be without a legal pad for doodling swiped from Dad’s desk drawer and a tape recorder for storytelling. Mom said after that anytime she couldn’t find me she knew to look in the quietest corners of the house. 

It was a perfect place to hide on happy quiet days alone or from louder, harder ones. The hard days I was too young to understand why, I just knew it was safer in my soft spot hidden away. Those were the combine header broke kind of days, or the drought dust choke us out kind of days, or the banks declined the farm loan kind of days. Those days my father shouted the most, and I knew it was best to stay in my safe space and color harder. 

Our dining room was the room where I felt safest, bedded down like the bird dogs out in the pens. We only used the big dining room for real special holidays and birthdays, like Easter, Thanksgiving, and Grandaddy Thompson’s birthday; most other days it was forgotten about, pleasantly dusky, with Mom’s hand-sewn tasseled drapes drawn. Marbled maroon wallpaper covered the cracks in the plaster walls and ornate dentil crown molding adorned the walls like icing topping a cake. I piled my softest blankets beneath the china plates stacked on the table by Mrs. Virginia. The china cups sat in rows, washed of Grannie’s custard and waiting to be put up in the cabinet. The silver lay shiny and polished in the velvet box on the antique sideboard beside Great Grannie Sweats crocheted linens, freshly laundered and ready to be tucked away. Grandma’s thick, cranberry red crystal wine glasses cast a rosie glow as they patiently awaited their next party pours. Jewels glittered on the heavy brass railroad lamps Grandfather Thompson had rewired from oil-burning to electric (his retirement hobby as an antiquer was paying off.). Lace doilies draped over the entrance to my sanctuary, protecting me and the mahogany table. It was a magical place of suspended disbelief, gently sparkling like the crystal chandelier above me. 

Safe spaces and hard days have intertwined throughout my life, and I’ve learned through my work how making a safe space for yourself creates the conditions for authentic gratitude. As Mom told her story, I remembered other safe spaces I found around the farm as I grew older, like in the garden with my grandma. Later in college, my first studio drawing class became a retreat from the bush hog bullshit barked at me from my father. Here is where I began to wonder: Where is my safe space today? Where did I lose it? Can Amazon get me one by tomorrow? As a child I made one on my own and today do I still carry it? Do I still carry the ability to grow and permission to play in my own safe container? Has been inside of me all along? Well bless my heart! 

Embarking on this inward, unflinching inspection of my sense of place has helped me uncover my own truths. A realization of my resilience, my choice of response to life, and that recovery tools that I used as a child and had long since forgotten are still in this muddy mess I’ve been stuck within. Revealing that my safe spaces were places made by me, just for me, to retreat with buckets of art supplies, blankets, and objects that brought me joy and comforted me. They were spaces that nourished and grounded me in my own inner peace, joy, and calm, but along the way I had gotten distracted and disconnected. Only believing I had to be a busier designer pushing more pixels around. 

From kids to client meetings, negotiating contracts, begging for payments, learning small business tax laws… with all these competing demands, I lost my way. I lost where I was even going in life. There wasn’t time or thought to pause, rest, eat well, play, gym, be a wife, a mom, a boss or care for myself. The days, months, and years flew by as the pounds came on, the dinner drinks turned to day time, and I tried to gratefully design faster in hopes that would stop the stress. 

More logos, more meetings, and more revisions became my priority. To stay up on design trends, sign codes, and in hand dates, I learned to drink my coffee strong and my drinks stronger. Working harder and faster, no moment spared to soothe myself, it seemed like numbing myself made more clients happier. 

My mother’s words not only shared the childhood safe spaces but it cast a frightening mirror at me watching my father live the same way I’d now become in my childhood years. As he worked to build a farm from 800 to 8,000 acres, so grew his struggles with stress and addiction from trying to run the perfect farm, with the perfect family, in the perfect town. For me, redbull and vodka and a little Xanax hushed that voice in my head for the afternoon pop up meeting that kept the angry client happy. 

Looking at my habits, I realized I had lost touch with my safe spaces. My addictions obscured my self-awareness so that I lost sight of the soft blanket skills I used to rely on. This uncovered unhealthy, learned behaviors and lack of boundaries I was ashamed to admit, like how I’d turned to drowning my hard times with hard liquor like my father. I had lost my creative, calming, coloring, childlike ways. I was so busy drinking, pleasing, and mirroring everyone else’s feelings and actions around me, I lost sight of the safe space within me. 

I had forgotten how I grounded my body, and paused to rest. As a child, after helping everyone on the farm with chores, I knew to soothe myself by making a safe space to be my creative, authentic self and fill up my cup. But somehow along the way, I had turned to booze to get me where I thought I needed to go faster and boxed up, ignoring my problems. 

Thanks so much for listening to me read this piece from my grad school thesis. I hope this holiday, and every day, you’re able to find a safe space where you can find your own gratitude and get a little more grounded. I wish you a very happy Thanksgiving. Thank you so much for tuning into Ground and Gratitude. You can read this piece and you can also find some more information about the show and listen to past episodes Be sure and join me next time for more honest conversations exploring what it means to truly live a life grounded in gratitude. 

I’m extra thankful for my producers of Ground and Gratitude, Kelly Drake and AOMcClain, LLC.