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.
These are where I start. And how I proceed. And how I will continue on. Over and over. Courage. Integrity. Courage. Integrity.
And maybe a healthy dose of my ceaseless, occasionally damnable, curiosity tossed in to keep things interesting.