Meghan Daum risks her heart and home with mixed results.
Last summer, I did something that made a lot of people think I was crazy. I moved out of my spacious, comfortable house in a small city and rented a tiny, drafty farmhouse several miles from town. Unlike my previous residence, which had a large office, central air-conditioning, and a guy who showed up to rake the leaves in the fall and shovel the snow in the winter, the farmhouse was like a homesteader's shanty. A one-story, 800-square-foot affair, it seemed to face the natural elements—the blinding prairie snowdrifts, the merciless high plains winds—like a submissive dog; it just crouched on its hind legs and relinquished all authority.
Which is sort of what I did, too. Unlike my old house, where I could eat dinner at 10 P.M. and talk on the phone all night, the farm was a joint venture. I moved here with my boyfriend, Henry, a man with no more disposable income than me (which is to say, none), a penchant for adopting unusual animals, and three exuberant boys whose hobbies include shooting pellet guns.
I made this move because I'd wanted to live on a farm my whole life. As much as I liked the solitude and space of my house in town, I'd spent nearly every Sunday since I'd been there scouring the classifieds for a farm where Henry and I could keep animals, watch the sun set, and stretch a clothesline between two cottonwood trees. When we finally found our farm, it was perfect in every way except for the house, which, with its two small bedrooms, was about five rooms short of ideal. Since I work at home and Henry's boys visit regularly, I could see we were in for an adjustment. As we moved in, the 10-by-12-foot room that would be my office spilled over with not only my desk, books, and files but also with sleeping bags and pillows for Henry's boys. To my dismay, I learned that the phone wiring wouldn't support an additional fax line. I could feel my independence slipping through my fingers. For the first time in my life, I suffered from insomnia.
When I took a chance and moved to this farm, I understood full well that I was trading autonomy and privacy for cramped quarters, extra responsibilities, and bills from places like the farm insurance bureau. It hardly surprised me that the first few months strained my relationship with Henry, not to mention my professional life and our finances. Nor was I surprised when hints of progress—we adopted two puppies, we hosted a successful Christmas party—always seemed to be followed by more small crises. The oven broke. The refrigerator broke. The puppies fought with each other, and, through agony and tears, I had to give one of them away. It was as if the farm were a needy child, a dependent that was constantly tugging at my skirt. But though there were days when I scanned the classified ads for houses back in town, I told myself to stick it out. The decision to try out this lifestyle was my own, and I owed it to myself to see where it would take me.
Almost a year later, I wish I could say unequivocally that my risk paid off. I wish I could say that the house didn't feel so small after all, that the winter was mild, that Henry never resents getting up before dawn to feed the animals (which today include two horses, two geese, a pig, a cat, and a now adolescent dog) and I never resent relinquishing my office at 8 P.M. for his youngest son to go to bed (which means turning off the ringer of my private phone line, a gesture that feels like the ultimate act of self-created isolation).
But I can't say that. Risks don't always present you with results that can be read like test scores. We tend to think of a risk as something that will either completely succeed or completely fail. But sometimes the outcome of the risk takes the form not of a final verdict but of a pendulum that shifts daily, maybe even hourly. Some days, when the cloud formations are particularly stunning and the FedEx truck brings me new shoes and Henry and I spend the evening sipping wine in the stock tank that doubles as a wading pool, I know I was right to move to this farm with him. Other days, when it's 30 below zero and I have to go out to the barn every hour to break the water that's frozen in the animals' troughs and I miss four business calls because I forgot to turn the ringer back on, I can feel regret coming on like a flu. But like a flu, the doubts pass just as mysteriously as the fleeting assurances. Moving here was no more wrong than it was right. It is simply what I did. And so I live inside my risk, with good days and bad, which is pretty much how everyone lives.
In the end, there's strength to be gained from an ambiguous outcome. It gives you more to think about. It gives you some mistakes over here, some triumphs over there, some setbacks to keep you humble, some strides you didn't think you were capable of. One thing I've learned is that when you take responsibility for the choice you've made, when the person you've kept up at night is yourself, even the worst outcome won't make a victim out of you. You're only a victim when you're reducing your risk to a zero-sum game, when you're not respecting its subtleties and hidden corners, its remarkable ability to restore your faith just moments after it has ripped out your heart and tossed it into a cornfield. There are people who still think I'm crazy for trying to juggle my writing career with activities like cleaning out a pigpen and playing junior Yahtzee with someone else's child. Oftentimes, I'm one of those people. But I also know that I've learned so much more from this than I would have if everything had gone smoothly. I've learned that there's a middle ground between success and failure. It's called real life. And that's always worth taking a chance on.