Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Cotton Eye Joe and County Fair

The last week of July, Katie and I were blessed with the opportunity to attend the State Presidents' Conference in Washington, D.C.  From selecting proposals from all around the nation to make our organization better to talking with legislators about the Student Agriculture Protection Act, every moment was phenomenal.
Those five days will last in my mind as one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had, but one seemingly insignificant part of it taught me more than I ever would have expected.

On Friday night, 103 representatives of all 52 state FFA associations pooled together everything we had learned and took time to celebrate it.  We danced.  Now, I love swing dancing, but line dancing has always been hard for me to pick up.  It takes lots of instruction and lots of practice for even the simplest moves to stick in my brain.  The members in that room were from all over the country, and what we’d learned back home about dancing varied a ton.  As we started dancing, the first line dance came on.  It was amazing, but one I had never seen.  In the back with another new learner, I mimicked the moves, but at the end of the song, I was woefully behind.  A couple songs later some other officers quickly formed a line, started moving and kicking their feet in unison, and drastically left me in the dust.  I was a little closer to having the right moves this time around, but I still wasn’t there.

Then, a song came on that I knew!

Where did you come from, where did you go?
Where did you come from, Cotton Eye Joe?

When I heard these lyrics, I was confident I knew every step.  We line dance to this one back home in Minnesota FFA!  I started with my hands together in the air on the right, moved them to the left, and looked over to see my friends from New York jumping through the air, clapping between their legs, and pulling off moves even a gymnast would struggle with!  Goodness, I think my mouth actually dropped open watching them! Nevertheless, I grabbed my new friend Ethan, mouthed “teach me,” and tried it out.

After the rest of the song (and a little bit of extra practice with Ethan), I was satisfied.  I knew the dance well enough to bring it along to my next adventure: home.  

If we take a look at the only two lines of “Cotton Eye Joe” I really know the words to, we will see the question, “where did you go?”  We also see a question asking where we came from-not just once, but twice.  I think the person who wrote “Cotton Eye Joe” really knew what they were talking about when they decided to ask it this way.  

The places we come from, whichever line dance version they teach, are what send us to the amazing places we go.  And we’ll go to a lot of them in our lifetimes!  The thing is, when we go to those new, amazing places, it is important to remember our roots.  Knowing where we came from is what keeps us in line with our values and what is truly important.

This past week, I was able to get in touch with my beginnings while showing back home at the Goodhue County Fair.  After putting in days at the fair and reconnecting with old friends, we reached show day.  Before stepping into the ring with my goat one of my last times as a 4-H member, I looked up into the stands.  There was my dad, some of my closest friends, the lady whose son taught me what to look for in a goat, and the owner of the first goat I ever showed. Then, I saw Mark, the man who helped me into the ring my very first time.  

For a moment, I flashed back to the summer after my sixth grade year.  I had been helping my dad and his students with the Cannon Falls FFA Kiddi Barnyard by holding chicks and rabbits when one of the member’s parents came in saying they needed a person to show a goat.  Chase, an FFA member a couple years older than me, had two goats entered in the same class.  
I was nervous, but after some encouragement from my dad, I walked over to the show arena to help.  Mark showed me where to set the goats feet, how to hold the show chain, and which way to walk around the ring.  Seeing I was nervous, he confided, “Emily, it’ll be easy.  The worst thing that can happen the goat getting away, and then I’ll be right there to catch it.”

And you know what? The goat got away.  Mark was right there to catch it.

I’ve become a much better showman in the six years since.  Because of the community members and mentors like Mark, who have given me tips, encouraged me, and handed out the opportunity to be an active part of agriculture, I continued to grow.  Knowing the people who invested in me as a shy sixth grader has shown me how much the agriculture community truly cares.  Remembering the common values we share, about loving people and caring and providing for other families and the land we use, motivates me to continue moving forward.  Coming back home reinforces my passion and reminds me who I am.

Whether home looks like certain people, values, or is shaped just like Goodhue county, looking back to our roots allows us to keep pushing forward on the right path. The people back home had been with me the whole time I was at our nation’s capitol. Their encouragement had carried me just as much as the wings of the plane we rode.  The confidence Mark had in me as he put a show chain in my hand six years ago transferred to my voice as I talked with congressmen during State Presidents' Conference.  Thinking of Sophia, a younger goat showman who leads just like I do, gave me the courage to run for chair, and then vice chair of a committee on the national level.  Remembering the time I let go of that goat in the show ring graced me with humility as I shook the hand of the United States' Secretary of Agriculture.

Every time I look back at where I came from, I’m amazed how far I can really go and inspired by all the people who have invested in me.  Keeping home in my heart, I can go even farther.

Let’s look back to those questions in “Cotton Eye Joe.”

Where did you come from?  
Where did you go?
Where did you come from?

Think about what's brought you to where you are. How can you carry your values, the people you've learned from, and home with you every day? Whether you keep in close contact with your community, share about them in conversations with other people, use skills you developed back home, or even reflect on a picture of you showing in shorts, (wait, that's me!) looking back will propel you forward. Decide to start your day focused on your faith, choose to capture and revisit your path in journals or pictures, or call home to thank your mentors tonight. Checking back in on where we come from helps us steer where we go next.

We are already capable of reaching phenomenal heights.  When we remember where we came from and those who invest in us, we can go even greater places.

Stationed by the plow,

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