Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Jump

It started with me standing at the edge of a waterfall in Tennessee. Abrams Falls is only three stories, but it's amazing how high that feels right before you decide to jump off it.

I was fresh out of college and had spent the year working my first real job. I was a web designer for HGTV in Knoxville. Born and bred in the northeast, the decision to move to the South alone was the biggest I'd made in my life so far. But I did it. I got an apartment, adopted a pair of Siberian Huskies, and now this young woman hopped up on adrenaline and corporate health insurance was standing on the edge of a waterfall feeling invincible. My real life was just starting.

...And I was possibly going to end it by jumping off a wet cliff. Why? Because my friend Heather and I had hiked several miles to this mountain spring in the glorious summer heat and we brought towels to enjoy a swim as a post-hiking treat. While we played with the baby trout swimming around our knees in the shallows, we witnessed several frat guys jumping off the falls and having a hell of a time. I decided I wanted to do it, too.

So I climbed up the craggy trail and stood at the edge of the falls, the water rushing around me as my legs wobbled on outcropped rocks. I knew I had to run and jump. There was about six feet of clearance needed to not end up skewered on large rocks directly below. From the comfort of the ground that distance looked easy to clear. Up here, not so much.

I jumped.

I didn't run. I should have run. I just used my shaking thighs to launch myself and I hadn't cleared that crucial distance. I will never forget watching those rocks rushing up at me, knowing I was going to die. I closed my eyes and accepted the mistake.

A second later I was surrounded by cold water. I looked up at the sunshine above me, liquid light at the end of a tunnel of green water. I moved all my limbs slowly. I felt my head. I was still underwater and I think, in shock. I didn't think about breathing. I was suspended in awe.

When I finally swam up to the surface all those frat guys were around the ledge, faces white and horrified. A guy made a measurement between his thumb and index finger and said, "You were THIS close. We all thought you hit the edge. We came down to fish you out!"

I walked back to the trail head feeling ethereal. I was certain I'd float off if I wasn't weighed down by the luck that allowed me to survive. It coated me in a cold sweat, like dew. How was I still alive? How did I still have time? I shouldn't have any more time?

The next day the local news reported that two grown men died at the same falls. Not from jumping off, but from swimming too close and getting pulled under by the force of falling water. It scooped them out of the world in an instant, a hunting undertow. It took a harnessed SCUBA team to pull out the bodies. They were trapped by the pressure.

That story is the first point in a line that lead to this farm. I wish I could say that I had a revelation to change the direction of my life after that jump; some instant understanding that life is short and to follow my dreams, but my mental alchemy is slow. In real life there's no quick page flip to Act 2 and change isn't a relief like realizing you're alive under water. Change is fucking terrifying.

It's comfort subterfuge. It writhes under our skin, pacing whether we address it or not. Even the most pleasant changes - like a new relationship, achieving a goal, or becoming a parent require surrender of the self we currently know. Changing for the better is giving up on the version of ourselves that got us this far. Always a risk of happiness suicide.

I was twenty three when I jumped off the waterfall. In a few fast years I would buy my own farm and quit my career in web design. Instead of conference calls I would have farrier appointments, hay deliveries, and slaughter dates. My best office clothes soon turned into my best shit-forking clothes and my life of wanderlust and travel would be reigned in to six acres and the fight to keep them. I regret nothing. This place turned that shaking girl up in the air into a grounded woman.

I didn't end up on this farm because I fell in love with some with some cowboy and was swept up into his life. I didn't cash in some inheritance or trust fund. And I sure as hell didn't win the lottery. I wish any of those things had happened instead, but I ended up at this farm because I was heading for the rocks again and I desperately needed to clear them.

I was unhappy with choices I'd made in work and relationships. And I felt trapped because those choices were what I was told my entire life I was supposed to want. I had done everything right. I got the degree, the job, stayed out of trouble, avoided drugs and precarious sexual adventures. I was well-behaved and on the track to a middle-management position in air conditioning. I was miserable.

So I jumped again. The second time was easier.

I worked up to quitting. First by going from full time to part time and then making the final cut and resigning. I was selling a book a year, teaching classes and workshops, making enough to make self-employment as a professional Jenna Woginrich passing for believable.

The process took a year. I was a mess. In the same twelve months I quit my job, bought a British draft horse I had no business owning, became a full-time farm writer, and took up falconry. I felt that relief again, that sheen of luck from a brave and stupid choice.

People confuse stagnation with comfort. They confuse choice with change. They stay in jobs they hate, dead relationships, unhealthy bodies, and bad habits because consistency is the most addictive drug in the world. They think a rash decision to visit India or remodel their kitchen with salve them, but again, that isn't the pacing change I am talking about. Novelty isn't the end game, happiness is. And being happy has nothing to do with passport stamps, granite counter tops, or bank receipts - it has to do with living a life you respect yourself for choosing. Absolutely no one but yourself can give you the permission to live it.

Fucking terrifying, right?

That day in Tennessee gave me pass to be foolish and be better for it. I spent my twenties falling in love with farming and making it my entire world. It took a decade of moving, renting, mistakes, luck, force and hope to get to the life you see now.

Everyone who loved me told me it was a mistake. It was, and is, on paper. But this blessed mistake allowed me to create this Fantasy I have the insane privileged to work to keep.  I don't know how to justify that struggle as contentment, because it isn't.

It's not what I am supposed to want. But I feel safe. I feel alive. I feel lucky. And I wake up excited every single morning to fight the odds. Five years since quitting success at this seems more real than failure. It's enough to keep me going.

I am still scared of jumping. I still shake. But I've learned that the risks of leaping grant stories far greater than the comforts of staying put. My life still has plenty of anxiety and problems, but not much regret. I figured out how to pace alongside the change in me. I learned to keep it on its toes, dance with it, and use it as a rocket boost instead of a cage.

The rocks are still down there, but they haven't gotten me yet.

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