IN THE PAST THREE years, Lauren Greenberger has lost her job, gotten divorced, found a new career and moved from Westmoreland Hills in Bethesda to a farm near Poolesville. How did this happen and how is Lauren managing so many changes?
In 2011, Lauren and husband Rick Gittleman were working side by side in a remote region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the same country where they had met 35 years before, literally on the banks of the Congo (then Zaïre) River when both worked for the Peace Corps. This time Rick was working as a lawyer for an American-based mining company, which also hired Lauren because of her public health work in Congo and elsewhere in Africa in the 1980s and 1990s. She worked with government and community leaders on public health initiatives such as well- and latrine-building, and instituting malaria, measles and HIV/AIDS prevention and controls for close to 150,000 people. Previously she had worked on projects for USAID, CDC and WHO, including an early Ebola study.
Making the Career Switch
Several years before, Lauren and Rick had begun searching for a place in the countryside around D.C. where they could spend time and eventually retire. In 2006, they found “a little farm we loved” in Barnesville at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain. Lauren spent weeks fixing it up to rent for the time being.
In 2009, after their younger child left for college, Rick’s law firm moved him temporarily to San Francisco, and while there Lauren determined to “learn more about planting, harvesting, crop-rotation and composting” to prepare for their future farm life. Volunteering at Green Gulch, an organic farm in Marin County that was also a Buddhist Center, Lauren realized she’d learned a lot over the years–starting with her own mother’s organic vegetable gardens. She realized that that she cared about “stewardship of the land” and so began to focus on landscape design.
From California, Rick and Lauren were offered jobs in Congo by the mining company Rick had represented for many years while working at his law firm. They worked there for two years until Lauren’s job ended in a bureaucratic reshuffling in late 2011. Rick stayed in Africa to complete his work, but Lauren moved back to the U.S. to help with her father, who was now alone, and “So I could get ready for the next stage of our life. I had lots of ideas for the farm–as a teaching facility for school groups, an arboretum of native plants, a working farm and gardens.”
She enrolled in a three-month Master Gardener Certificate program offered through the University of Maryland– something else her mother had done –which she completed in 2013. The certificate, well respected in the landscaping community, led quickly to part-time work for Hilltop Gardens in Rockville and soon thereafter to her own clients –a very quick turn-around, for which she had worked very hard.
Challenges and Joys
Between the rigors of a long-distance relationship and other issues, the marriage ended. Unable to keep both houses, Lauren had to decide: Bethesda or the farm. But, she said, “When we decided to divorce, I knew I would move. The momentum was there.” Last spring, they put the Bethesda house on the market. By early August Lauren had settled by herself in the country farmhouse: from most windows, there is no other house in sight.
The hard parts of being alone include making all the decisions by yourself, Lauren said: “If I don’t decide which trash service to use, the trash won’t get picked up; if Comcast isn’t working, it will stay broken until I fix it.” Although she managed most of the household affairs before, Lauren misses having someone to confer with. “Thank God that Matthew [their son, now age 26] grew up, because he explains tech-related things with remarkable patience,” she said.
Lauren also admits that her perennial can-do attitude, when moving to Africa with Rick and afterwards moving to Barnesville, has involved “having the blinders on” about potential difficulties. Now, she says, there is still a little anxiety, “the feeling that I need to have my life all planned out, although in the last year or so I’ve learned to allow myself not to have it all figured out.”
The good part: “Knowing my time is my own,” she said. Going to a bi-annual “native plant sale” in Alexandria, a big deal because small vendors come from all over, she said. “It was so much fun that I could stay all day, without needing to coordinate with anyone else or feeling guilty that I was away too long.”
Also in the summer of 2012, she and her daughter, Claire, who had a stressful job, took Transcendental Meditation (TM) training. Lauren now meditates at least once a day, and says TM provides “that moment in the day where the scattered, anxious thoughts in your head slow down, and it has helped navigate the ‘crazy time’ of the last couple of years.”
Early Signs of Success
In fact, Lauren says, her horticultural success has been growing over a lifetime: from taking the lead years ago on a wild plant sanctuary near her Bethesda home to being recognized at Green Gulch as knowledgeable and resourceful to getting hired for the first time in her new field: “having someone pay me to do what I love–cool!”
Another success: taking a class in “Landscape Graphics” without much drawing experience, she says, “I did well. When I saw my designs next to those of other students, mine were pretty good.” At the Edgemoor Club in Bethesda, where Lauren plays tennis, the members doing a renovation asked her to help with a redesign of the landscape, which she did as a project for the class. “And they’ve implemented much of it!” she said.
Lauren is now doing more work than she wants to but says, “I don’t want to say no. I’m torn because I also want to be out at the farm, get settled, establish myself there.” Until the landscaping pays more, Lauren has some alimony, but she believes that with more confidence and experience she will be able to charge more: “Now I still spend too much time [on each project] because I’m learning as I go.”
Feeling torn as well between two worlds: “My old friends are not far enough way to leave the old world behind.” Also, to avoid bad traffic, she needs to leave the farm early, around 7 a.m., because her clients are mostly in the D.C. area.
Other issues connected to country living include testing the well water, being careful what you put in the drain, etc. During her first week, Lauren was working inside a small shed when the door shut with no inside latch. She was locked in. Unlike Bethesda, she had no neighbors close by. After several hours, she heard a car pull in at the nearest house, called out, and someone heard. And she made a new friend.
Positive Farm Experiences
Returning from a trip, Lauren found a delicious apple pie made from her apples on her front step, a gift from the local girl who waters plants when she’s away. A neighbor, “who just stopped over with her dog,” told Lauren not to get rid of extra china or silverware because “there are so many potlucks out here, you’ll need them!” From an acquaintance “down county” as she now calls Bethesda dwellers, she has met a group of friends in the area, including members of a local watchdog group called the Sugarloaf Citizens Association, which invited Lauren to join their board. “This is my community now!” she said.
While the absence of a grocery store nearby means planning ahead, there are many farm stands, including some that sell milk and eggs. Buying most food at the farm stands means “I eat just what’s in season,” she said, currently: eggplants, tomatoes, onions, apples, peppers. For meat, the farmer who uses Lauren’s land for grazing “owes me a cow.”
Above all, Lauren said, “It’s beautiful. I love driving down my driveway. I love coming home.”