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How Farming Taught Me to Live After the Suicide of a Childhood Friend

In the December of my 18th year, my best friend and confidant, partner in poetry, art and sometimes romance, died by suicide. I heard about it during Christmas vacation at my grandma’s house in eastern Kansas. Though the two of us had often talked of taking our lives together, her action still took me by surprise. It felt like the entire trajectory of my life was changed, very much like the way an earthquake can change a river’s course. Nothing was the same after that — there were no remnants of “same” to return to. The strongest feeling was not sadness. It was nothingness, the feeling that I was nowhere, left stranded above an abyss.

Leah’s kind and beautiful soul ignited a love of literature and poetry and music in my own. I have spent the years after her death searching and collecting the pieces that were broken and scattered when she left. I lost faith and interest in life and found myself turning to the things we had shared. I tried to find life and solace in books and music, but found they can be fickle friends. These sounds and shapes came and went and I learned to live in pages torn from borrowed volumes and words suspended in air. In every new book, every poem, every album I listened to, I tried to find a trace of her. Sometimes I did and I cherished that. “The Ninth Wave” by Kate Bush. The poetry of Rimbaud and Allen Ginsburg. 4AD. The Surrealists. There were two things I looked for. One, the honesty to confront and discuss the idea of suicide directly. The other, the courage to break through, with strange vibrations, the everyday, the anchors of this life, to pull them up and cut loose.

I learned to appreciate life through reverberations, still feeling her presence in a way that could not be verbalized, a resonance somewhere out beyond language. Colors became tones and the change of seasons was always accompanied by an encompassing music that only I could hear. A few days after she died, she appeared to me clearly. I was lying in bed and she came into the room. She was angry, asking why I did not keep my promise to join her too. At first I did try to join her. I felt it was my obligation to end my own life, but did not for various reasons. Finally, without really thinking about it, I quit trying and just let life be.

But at the same time, for me there is always that voice that calls from over the edge. It is a familiar voice, and I hear it nearly every day. Not usually 24 hours a day — if it were, it might be something that could be tuned out or ignored. No. It comes unexpectedly, at the most unlikely of times. It always feels the same, like the floor has dropped out from under me, the constant sea of sound stripped away.

At some point, I realized in spite of myself, I needed to dedicate myself to something connected to life. I couldn’t express it like that at the time, but I think that is why I chose to go into education and teaching. I found that the classroom was a living organism. It gave me the chance to interact with and change other lives.

And then I became a farmer. It started when I was living in Japan where we had a school garden at my college. The students would collect food scraps from the cafeteria and make compost with it. Our first season, we had a meter-high mound of compost. One day, when we were turning the compost together, a student placed her hand on the top of it.

“It’s warm, it’s hot, like it’s alive!” She said.

One by one, we took turns touching it and picking up handfuls. On that day, we all felt for the first time the power of composting, of fermentation and of life returning. Feeling the compost inspired us all and galvanized our wills into a rotting fellowship to create the best garden possible. From these early experiences, my own love and respect for farming was born and it became my inspiration to start a farm here in America. Much like the classroom before, I sensed that the garden was a place of life and learning and positivity.

The kind of farming I am talking about is not a cure, but a recognition, a way forward, or at least a trek sideways. Like everything in life, it is another scenic road to nowhere. But here, in the dirt, on the ground, under an enormous sky, I’ve seen life pass through death and in that death provide for another life. This has given me a degree of solace and balance.

I might suggest farming or gardening if you are a person like me. It won’t be a cure, but it might open up a new corridor. It could provide a little more vocabulary so you can tell a different story from the one that is always circling in your head. For example, the simple act of growing a cabbage from tiny seed to giant head, to taking it to market, to passing it on to a customer, that in itself is a tremendous feat! One thing suicidal thoughts do is to reduce the imagination, to limit choices to one, to tie off the story in a knot. Farming is exactly the opposite. Every day is an opening up, an unpredictable now, improvisational and wild. I have found companionship in the soil, among the worms and microbes and roots and pillbugs. Though you may fail, you will always find membership on the farm. The dirt, the ant, the weeds and the critters, they will be waiting for you again tomorrow, no matter how badly you mess up today.

These days I do not see Leah’s physical apparition, but I hear her and feel her everywhere around the farm. At times when I go to sleep I hear her talking to me, whispering a beautiful litany of poetry I could never write myself. The edges of the words leave me stranded, looking right and left, aware only that I will never have the means to keep up. But then there are also iridescent afternoons with muddy knees and hands elbow-deep in mulch. Farming for me is not so much about the production of life as it is life’s cycling. The farmer is not the creator of life, but the witness to its continual passing and returning. Ultimately, it is not the miracle but the movement that interests me. If you too, are among those that find themselves drifting over the abyss, then I encourage you to spend some time with soil and compost. It might help you feel anchored in an uncertainly floating world.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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