Sunday, July 01, 2012

Can I Do It? I Can.

by Zinta Aistars

Z Acres

I think I can ... I think I can ... I think I can ....

The little engine that could, that was the little engine's mantra, and now, mine. This has been the year of leaps for me. Leaps of faith. And so far, every time I have made such a leap, I have been rewarded. Why not this time?

2012 has been my year, and I have one more big dream to realize. It's also been a year of facing down fears, doing battle with a few demons, and, happily, conquering them. What's one more?

If there is one thing I know, and have tested over a lifetime, it is that achieving dreams goes hand in hand with risk. Over a lifetime of observation, I've noticed that we all dream ... yet few are willing to reach for those dreams at the cost of giving up security and routine.

Hey, I get it. Risk is scary. That's why so many dreams stay on the shelf. The very moment I had moved over the halfway line into the area of pursuing this last big dream, I felt the terror. Everything in my life, all the recent ups and downs, all the recent steps taken, all were moving me toward this: to cut my ties with my employers and declare myself a free agent. I want to be a full-time writer, self employed, my own boss, maybe even call it ... Z Words? Try my writing hand at full-time freelancing.

Realizing I was moving toward making that final decision, my head began to hurt. My heart hammered. Breathing became strained. I woke in the middle of the night, eyes popping open to stare into the dark, a cold sweat coating my skin, and every imaginable fear crept out from the walls to take a swipe at me.

What if I fail? What if can't make enough to live on? What do I do for health insurance, at least until 2014 when it should become available to the sole propietors like me? What if I can't pay my mortgage? What if go hungry? What if the sky falls?

At that point, my rational brain would kick in and roll its eyes. My fears were increasingly sounding irrational. Sure, some of these issues would need research. I would need to do some math. How much do I need to cover the basics? What is my minimum that I need to bring in? And what indeed would I do about health care? Dare I go without? I've been healthy as heck, but you know about Murphy's Law ... if something can go wrong, it probably will. Am I ready to take all that on?

In daylight, night fears put to bed and my mind clearer, I made a list and started my research. I listed my fears and then listed various ways to take care of them. What would I need to do to realize this last dream?

Indeed, it was my first dream, not my last. Alongside that childhood dream to own a place in the woods, live on land that provided sustenance and solitude, a place where I could pursue my art, was this dream--to pursue my art with everything in me. I had achieved the other. I had found, purchased, and moved to what I now call Z Acres in March 2012. It is Home. Home with a capital H, the place I had long seen in my dreams, where I can put down lifelong roots, enjoy nature, solitude, and be inspired by my environment. I have never been happier than I am now, living here.

Part of that dream, a big part, was that this place will rejuvenate me, inspire me, nurture me as an artist. Two dreams, hand-in-hand.

This Sunday morning, as I do every morning, I went out to walk the property with my coffee mug in hand. My old chow pup, Guinnez, walked alongside, as he always does. We usually begin by going out back to investigate the vegetable garden. What's new? How do my vegetable plants look this morning? Everything healthy? I pulled a few weeds, added a bit of fresh hay for mulch, flicked a bug off a tomato leaf, inspected the burst of little yellow flowers that would soon become my bounty of tomatoes, smiled at the sprouting of my mostly recently planted seeds, placed new and taller stakes for the beans, tasted a basil leaf. All is well. Sipping coffee from my mug in one hand, I held the soft spray of water from the garden hose over the garden while Guinnez settled in for his favorite activity, chewing a twig down to neat little pieces.

Next, I checked on the berry bushes. Black raspberries are ever more profuse. My coffee cup empty, I now filled it with just ripened berries. Some would go into my morning oatmeal, some would go into the refrigerator to scatter across my yogurt later, and some I would set aside to freeze for later enjoyment.

Guinnez and I checked the flower beds. Not only the tummy, but the eye, too, needs to be fed. These past weeks have been hot and dry. Nearby farmers are worried about losing their crops if this drought continues for a couple more weeks. Farmers ... I respect their living with constant risk, ruled by weather. The hardiest and best planners survive.

I watered my flower beds, but most would have to wait for the elusive rain. Since move-in day in March, I hadn't seen the land so barren. Almost nothing was blooming anymore. While spring had brought a profusion of blossoms of every type, shape, color, and early summer had its own beautiful peonies and wild roses and bleeding heart and irises, now all I saw was the sturdy day lilies. The most determined and well-rooted survive.

Walking through my kitchen to drop off my mug filled with berries, old chow pup and I walked through the front door to the front of the house. We enjoy checking on the pond. As we walk up to the edge of the water, bullfrogs belch alarm and plop one by one into the water, sending up a series of splashes and ripples. Guinnez walks up and down the edge of the pond, making them jump, and I chuckle to watch him. He loves to freak out the frogs.

I settled into the old chair that the previous owner had left behind the barn, but that I had brought up pondside and padded comfortably with new chair padding. This was one of my favorite places to sit and contemplate. From here I could oversee the pond, but also hear the little waterfall to my side, where the overflow of the spring-fed pond flowed away toward the neighboring wheat fields.

Guinnez settled in next to me to chew up another twig.

Thoughts of my life dreams and how to realize them flowed back over me, even as I listened to the soothing flow of running water. When I made the decision to purchase Z Acres, I knew it was a leap of faith. I was in transition from one job into another, changing from health care in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to become a contract worker with a global company based in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I was now project manager for a large project over an expanse of about four months, with a possibility of a permanent position at its end. It's an intense and challenging project, and I've enjoyed the team I have joined to complete it. Along the way, I have been asked to take on other writing and editing responsiblities, too. So, should I stay?
Or ... was this the perfect opportunity to launch myself to that freelance dream?

Stability in lifestyle had its own rewards. Throughout my contract employment, I had diligently saved all that I could, knowing that at the end of my contract, at the end of July, I would have to make my decision. One of the most important requirements to attempt a freelance lifestyle was to have sufficient savings to cover at least six months of basic living costs. By now, if I was doing my math right, I had my six months and then some. Maybe I could even stretch it to a year if I lived lean. I had enough to bring the dream within reach.

What else would I need?

The tools of the profession. I still needed to buy a good printer, but these days I found I rarely used one. So many jobs required only electronic submissions. I had long been submitting much of my freelance work as Word documents, with photos as jpgs if needed, through email. But I had a new laptop, one I had purchased when I began this contract job. I was electronically connected to all the resources I would need.

And that was perhaps as important as having a buffer zone of savings for expenses--having a strong network of freelance markets in place. Over the years, no matter what job I held, I always kept up at least a few freelance jobs on the side. No matter how busy I got, I knew that if I ever did want to realize this dream, I would need this network in place, of editors and communications people who knew my work and were willing to pay for it.

I made a list of these markets, rating them for income. Here were my pretty-darn-sure markets, here were my reliable and already-in-place markets, here were my potential markets, here was a list of contacts. It was an extensive and encouraging list. Side by side with my basic expenses, it started to look quite possible I could meet my expenses if I worked hard and planned well.

I had made an appointment with a financial advisor and sought out an accountant with good references from writing friends I trust. I would need to get on a quarterly schedule of paying taxes, and I would need a tax ID number, and I was pretty sure I wanted to make myself an LLC, a limited liability company, to protect myself financially and legally.

I had even found a health insurance plan that was quite reasonable for those unforseen health costs. I was pretty sure I wouldn't need it, being healthy as heck, but one never knows. (I am, after all, eyeing my first chain saw at the hardware store to prune my forest at Z Acres and also provide cold weather burning wood.)

My list went on, and I had either checked off the items as done or written in scheduled appointments to get in place what was needed to check them off. I had about one month to go to get everything in place.

By golly, I think I can .. I think I can ... I think I will.

Bullfrogs belched around the perimeter of the pond. Guinnez had chewed his twig to little pieces and was looking for another. Suddenly, there was a crashing in the trees and shrubbery behind us, and a large wild turkey flew low out from the trees and across the pond. Yes, turkeys fly. Wild ones, that is, as the factory farmed turkeys are so malformed with breeding for large breasts that keep them from moving normally, let alone taking wing ... but who needs to move when you are cramped into a tiny cage?

One of the greatest pleasures of Z Acres was renewing my connection with the natural world around me. I eat only organic food, sustainably raised. Wildlife was a daily part of my life here. Deer paused in my yard. Birds were too many to count, including hawks and sand cranes. Raccoons, muskrats, packs of coyotes howled at the moon, fox trotted through the bush.

My happiest work days are those when I escape the office and telecommute from home. I do this now at least two days of the week, but why not five? Working from Z Acres beats any office I can conceive in my imagination. Nothing better. I've found that on those days that I work from home, I am actually most productive.

I knew going freelance would mean long hours, and long hours here, at my beloved Z Acres, made work worthwhile. I did not fear hard work. I fear meaningless work. As they say, no one says on his or her deathbed, "Gee, I wish I'd spent more hours at the office." But this was a different kind of work that I was contemplating. This was about doing what I love, what I would do regardless, what I do even for pleasure and to add enjoyment to my life. This was about pursing my art and doing what I do best, and finding a way to make it pay the bills.

The wild turkey landed on the opposite side of the pond, took in, no doubt, my human presence and, no doubt, the canine presence alongside, and quick as a flash took wing again and flew back into the woods. A mere glimpse and he was gone.

Life flies fast like that. Blink and you miss it. Waste it in drudgery and you will reach the finish line with regrets.

My heart wasn't hammering anymore. Tension eased from my body, and I relaxed in my chair, letting my eyes wander around the pond, back to the little red, century-old farmhouse. Why fear my destiny? Why fear what I had wanted since I was a little girl, now at long last at hand? After all, worst case scenario, if things didn't work out for one reason or another, I could return to the traditional job market and work for a traditional employer again.

Meanwhile, I found I was counting the days. Less than a month ... and another dream would unfold.

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