Way back in the hazy mists of my teenage years, I had a crush. It was one of those awful ones, where you can’t talk to the Object of Your Affections. In my case, I couldn’t eat or sleep, either. So anyhow, one day we happened to be working together. This didn’t happen often–luckily, or I might not have survived that fall–but that day we were. As luck would have it, I happened to be washing some windows, while he worked on some project on the ground. We finished at about the same time, and he held up his arms and said, “Jump.” I’m not sure what prompted that, but that’s not the point.
What is the point is that I stood there, on my high platform, wanting more than anything to jump. Instead I just clutched my cleaning supplies and said, “Wouldn’t you be surprised if I did.”
“Wouldn’t you be surprised if I moved,” he shot back, and dropped his arms. So I tossed down my cleaning supplies and got myself down off my high ledge.
He never did that again. For a long time I hated myself for lacking the courage to take a risk, to jump, to risk looking foolish.
Well, years have passed, but I’ve never forgotten that. I know now what I didn’t know then–that I was broken in some pretty fundamental ways, and that my jumping wouldn’t have fixed that. But every fall there’s still a part of me that wonders, What if? What if I had had the courage to jump?
That failure–if that’s what it was–has changed me. It taught me the enormous risk of playing it safe. I woke up this morning and realized that the things in my life that have given me the most joy have been the things that required I take a chance, color outside the lines, break the “rules,” do the very thing that scared me the most.
Because of that day I had the courage to leave the stifling security of corporate work and become a designer in a studio where I got to wear shorts to work whenever I wanted to, where we closed the studio and walked up the street to the coffee shop every morning when we weren’t crushed under a deadline, and where we sometimes took the afternoon off and went and ate deep fried alligator at the Cajun restaurant, or seafood at the crab shack on the beach. Because of that day I took the enormous risk of choosing to keep my unexpected pregnancy–even though I was clinically depressed and single. (Looking back, the risk I took terrifies me now–I would never use my experience as a model for someone else’s.) Because of that day when my house got moldy in Portland I took the risk of not just moving into a different apartment, but of moving across the state to where it was dryer, and buying a house. Because of that day I had the courage to sit down one day and commit myself to writing truly.
So I learned to jump–and then I learned something just as important–I learned that very often, when I jump, the people on the ground actually catch me. I had my son–and my life fell apart–and my parents, sisters, brother, and the wonderful men who ran the studio where I worked caught me, and helped me find my feet. I jumped, and moved, and my mom and my sister caught me, helped me buy furniture to replace the tainted stuff I had had to throw away. I jumped, and wrote a novel, then another, and then a collection of short stories, and then I wrote my first memoir. And then I published it. And my readers caught me. I learned that while some people would hate what I had to say, others would read and say, “I recognize myself in this.” I learned that in owning my own reality I gave some people a lens to see their own lives in a new way.
I will always wonder what might have happened if I had jumped that long-ago day. But I know what has happened because I didn’t, and I know that the most enriching, fulfilling, joy-filled things in my life are here not because I played it safe and followed the rules, but because took a deep breath and jumped, eyes wide open.