Ruled By Water

Lately, my days have been ruled by water. I wake after a night of dreaming of downstream “v”s and wave trains and the swirl of where main current meets eddy. My conversations revolve around flow levels and “gnarly holes” and the current impact of snow melt on every river near the Sierras. With every motion I make, I’m aware of my body, sore and aching from using muscles long atrophied from disuse, from moving rubber and people through rapids and around rocks after more than a decade of not doing so. 

I awake thinking of the river, of the day ahead, of what I can wear that will keep me warm in 40 degree water on a blustery day. I end the day exhausted and replete, joyfully windswept and shivering and eager for a hot shower and an enormous meal and an early bedtime. My world has suddenly become dominated by the tactile and physical, intimately connected to weather and movement and reliant on my sensory awareness and response.

It’s a recollection on so many levels. A recollection of what it is to be so very connected to my own physicality and also a recollection of a less insulated existence. I love inclement weather, I always have (I blame a childhood spent enthralled by the descriptions of English moors and Scottish heather and Irish rain and New England snow that dominated the books I was obsessed with), and I will always thoroughly enjoy sitting within the confines of cozy home/bookstore/cafe sipping something steamy from a mug and looking out upon the weather from my warm and dry shelter. But I’d forgotten how much I love this too, this being out in the middle of that weather, a part of it, of squinting rain out of my eyes as I keep the shivering at bay by pure exertion. Or the flip side, the beating sun in this high desert, the juxtaposition of scorching air and icy runoff that splashes up with each wave we punch through. All of it a recollection of a me who didn’t always spend so many days looking out upon the world from behind her computer, a recollection of a me who knew more precisely where her body and mind intersected in space, how her physical and intellectual could become entwined to cope with challenges. 

And there are challenges aplenty. This is hard. Much harder than I’d anticipated and for reasons I’d never considered. I expected it to be physically challenging…it’s not exactly rocket science to imagine that I would get quite a workout guiding rafts after all this time and that there would be some soreness and exhaustion. But I underestimated how many fears I would be facing down daily, how many perceptions about myself I’d have to look more closely at and take responsibility for. It was easy to talk about my “glory days” as a river guide in the past, to hold that identity as part of the narrative about how I became my current me. It was easy to remember that I’d once been really quite good at it, that I was a leader and had solid knowledge born of day-in-and-day-out experience and immersion. I knew water back then, deep and sure. But to come back after all this time so far away from it is to expose myself to the very real possibility that I not only might be “rusty” and out of shape, but also that I have changed so much in the intervening years that the water might not speak to me in any real way anymore. It was one thing to have walked away from that life all those years ago, another to realize that it might not have any place for me now. Or that the me and the life I’ve built over these last years might have no place for rivers. And what of my creative work? Where does that work fit into these days spent on the water? Can I fall exhausted into my bed each night and still find the energy and motivation to create? Must I choose between them? Who am I in this swirl of past and present, of exterior and interior life and work? 

The only answer I have is that I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m doing here. I don’t know what the balance looks like or whether I’m doing the right things or making a mess. I don’t know if I’m being brave by confronting the barrage of fears and insecurities that show up each day or if the mean-girl voice in my head that keeps whispering that this is what a mid-life crisis looks like is right. I just don’t know. I don’t know if I can regain enough skill to become a good guide again in these three short months. I don’t know what exactly I’m trying to get out of this. I don’t know if neglecting my business for three months will be recoverable or if I’m setting myself up for failure and regret later. I actually just don’t know any of the answers.

But I am moving forward anyway. On trust, mostly. Trust that there is room and space in myself and my life for all of this. That there are cycles to all things, creativity and business and personal identity included, and that stepping back from my business just a bit to dedicate these months to water will actually allow greater clarity and focus when I return. That this version of me has very different lessons to learn from this time working on water than my twenty-something self did, but that they will be just as valuable. That the joyful thrumming I feel despite all the work and fear and difficulty is a sign that I am doing something right. Trust that I have enough courage inside of me to face whatever I find as I move through these choices and these changes and these fears. 

Luckily, lately my days have been ruled by water. And if there is a better daily reminder that trying to control everything or that working against natural flow is a fruitless endeavor, I don’t know what it is. I feel alive and in touch with every part of myself right now, which feels a bit strange and foreign, but also just absolutely lovely. I’m exhausted on pretty much every single level. But it’s a deeply satisfying exhaustion, a kind of bone-deep weariness that comes from reaching all the way into the depths, of working hard and honestly and past my perceived limitations. I am immersed once again in the rhythms of water and seasons, and such, can trust that my own rhythms and cycles also have purpose and intrinsic value.

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More images from our transition time between Texas and Nevada. If you ever find yourself in southern New Mexico, be sure to carve out time to see White Sands National Monument. It is simply magical.

Courage & Integrity

A few weeks before I graduated from law school, I made an appointment with a local tattoo artist. After months of denial and bargaining and flip-flopping, I had made the decision not to sit for the bar exam and to walk away from a career practicing law. I was terrified. I was overwhelmed. I had this roiling monster living in the pit of my stomach telling me that my decision-making was no longer to be trusted (wasn’t that what got me to law school in the first place…alongside the hundreds of thousands of dollars of student debt that would now accompany me for much of the rest of my life?). Despite my success in school, I felt, unequivocally, like an enormous failure. I was 31 years old and beginning from scratch. Again. It seemed like everyone else I knew was settling into their callings, into careers and families and building big lives. And here I was, with years of toil behind me and a feeling of having nothing to show for it.

There are two very opposite and opposing sides to my personality. On the one side, I have my “oldest child” self. She’s a bit of people pleaser who thrives on discipline and organization and checking things off an immaculately organized to-do list. She’s the part of me who very sincerely adores making a beautiful home, cooking elaborate meals for family and friends, excelling in the rigors of a competitive learning environment. She loved law school, the way her understanding was stretched every day, the simple work of it, the challenge to wrap her head around complex ideas and nuance. She also loved law school because it satisfied her need for approval by others, the way people seemed to automatically assign her intelligence and capability upon learning that she was studying the law. Despite what the other parts of me knew, law school seemed to tell the world that I was a person in the midst of living up to her potential, and that “oldest child” part of me can be entirely too dependent on that sort of external validation.

And then there is my other side. I think of her as my “wild woman” (if you haven’t read Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s seminal Women Who Run With The Wolves, stop reading this right now, immediately go buy it, and prepare to savor her words and ideas over and over for the rest of your life). My “wild woman” is the part of me that has needed a little bit of risk all my life, who got grounded in third grade for riding her bike off of her friend's roof into the pool below, who savored (without even the tiniest hint of guilt) skipping high school to joyride around the Texas Hill Country, who felt like the whole of the universe must have irrevocably shifted when she was introduced to the outdoors and the big places away from other people. She’s the part of me who quit school in her final semester as an undergrad because she was too broken to continue and began her healing by walking alone with her backpack into Glacier National Park, knowing that the only path to wholeness was to battle her demons in the support of uninhabited and unparalleled beauty. She’s the part of me who came fully alive in my first season as a river guide, who felt a contentment and a rightness so bone-deep that I ached with the sheer beauty of my days. She’s the part of me who, when she allows herself to be pushed into a corner, will bite and claw her way out, setting every single bridge in her life on fire to escape if necessary. She can make a real mess of things when she wants to.

Over the course of my life, I’ve tended to swing between these two sides of myself, toward the extremes. So when cancer (and a body that couldn’t easily walk to the mailbox, much less paddle a river or carry a backpack), the subtle pressure to “get a real job,” a certain craving for intellectual rigor, all combined in a bizarre stew seasoned with the gravy of some complicated relationships, I decided to go to law school. It was the biggest swing I ever took toward my “oldest child” self, the most extreme end of that spectrum. I packed away my outdoor gear. I traded Carharts for navy suits and Chacos for matching pumps. In some ways, I thrived- I was good at law school and I truly loved the learning. But I never quite fit, I never quite managed to fully lose the uneasy feeling that this wasn’t my place, wasn’t where I should be. Sometimes I would pass an outdoor store or see a kayak on a car roof on the highway or go for a run and the “wild woman” part of me would start to writhe in the center of my chest a little, and I would feel suddenly like it was hard to breathe somehow.

So here I was, on the precipice of graduation, surrounded by classmates talking about job offers and preparing to put all that we’d worked so hard for over the past years to good use. And I was making a tattoo appointment instead (not that the two are mutually exclusive, of course). It wasn’t my first tattoo. I had a few small ones from my late teens and early twenties- nothing particularly horrid, but nothing particularly good, either. But even those silly tattoos felt like a reminder of my wild woman self, the part of me who wasn’t cowed by the idea that I might someday wish I hadn’t placed ink on my body in a certain place or in a certain way. They were a comfort in that way, a tangible reminder that there was more to my story than navy suits and matching pumps. I wanted- I needed- another such reminder as I began to step off the path I’d been on for so many years.

I needed that reminder to be visible to me every single day, something not easily covered or hidden away. I wanted to keep all of the parts of myself out where I could see them, where I could keep an eye on them and pay attention when they began to show signs of neglect. I needed that reminder to be a mantra, a truth that could be a grounding force for my life, no matter my outfit, no matter my occupation. 

I was scared. I was scared that I was making a gigantic mistake, scared that I had all of this debt and no idea how I would pay it, scared that I would be a burden to my brand-new husband, scared that I would wither to nothing if I kept putting on those suits, scared that I would be one of the people I met in a chemo room who kept talking about all of the things they wished they’d done differently if only they’d known how little time they might have. I felt lost and directionless, not sure who I was or where to begin. I felt too far away from the world of guiding rivers and the me I’d been there and I wasn’t sure how to make my way back towards it from our little urban townhouse with two bathrooms. I'd recently had my eyes opened to the world of photography, but was struggling to see myself as creative…I had never taken a single art class in my entire life and it seemed self-indulgent to embark on an artist’s unpredictable life when I had more than $150,000 in student loans to pay off. But I also knew that once I’d seen that I couldn’t put on a suit every day, it was bell I couldn’t unring- there was simply no going back to pretending I could. 

So where do I start? Where do I stand when there’s nothing but shifting sand beneath me? What are the non-negotiables for whatever life I would lead next?

Courage and integrity. 

I kept coming back to these two words over and over. I needed to find the courage to seek the life I am called to lead, the courage to begin again as many times as I must to figure that out, the courage to call myself out on my bullshit excuses. And I needed that courage to come from a place of integrity. To be honest with myself and others, to fulfill my commitments and obligations, to take responsibility for myself and my life and my choices, to operate from my value system and to do the work to identify and evaluate that value system over and over and over again throughout my life.

So I tattooed those words on either wrist. You can make fun of me if you’d like, I don’t mind- I know it’s a bit cliche. I tattooed them in Chinese because I didn’t want others to be able to read them, I wanted them to be just for me, to serve as my own daily reminder each time I looked at my outstretched hands. And because I think the characters are beautiful and simple. And because the way they slash across my wrists reminds me of my choice to end the life I was leading, my choice to let the fear bleed out of my decision-making.  

I have been looking at them a lot lately. I’ve been leaning on them, needing that reminder once more. 

Because the fact of the matter is that I’m scared again. Excited, of course, but scared. Terrified, actually. In 8 days we drive away from this place, this community we’ve so loved. Today is Justin’s last day of work and we don’t have his first travel nurse job lined up. I don’t have any weddings booked because I don’t know where we will be. As of tomorrow, we are two nearly-forty-year-olds who are unemployed, soon to be homeless, and our savings isn’t sufficient to make it for long without work. I still have all of this student debt and I am once again not sure how I will pay it. Once again, it seems that everyone we know is building something in their lives- careers, families, homelives- and here we are, utterly dismantling ours. We have no idea what this will look like, where we will be in a year or two or five. We have no idea what we are doing. We have no idea if this will work. 

And so I look at my wrists and remember the last time I felt this unsure, this overwhelmed, this giddy with freedom and open-ended possibility, this petrified. 

Courage. 

Integrity.

These are where I start. And how I proceed. And how I will continue on. Over and over. Courage. Integrity. Courage. Integrity. 

Courage. 

Integrity.

And maybe a healthy dose of my ceaseless, occasionally damnable, curiosity tossed in to keep things interesting.