Dancing on a Hot Skillet
Ellen Wyoming DeLoy
Posted on October 14th, 2016
Rain patters on fallen leaves and the maple trees across the street blaze red. The companion oak trees next to them more modestly shift to gold while the conifers and evergreen shrubs hold fast to their northwest green. It’s grey this morning and cars hum by below, spraying water in their wake. The window is open, I sit on the bed, the door is shut. My husband is in the kitchen cooking Sunday breakfast while my nearly 3 year-old sits at the table contemplating the oatmeal I made for him 20 minutes ago. Once in awhile I hear him pick up the whistle his grandma sent him last week, giving an enthusiastic toot every few minutes.
This morning I both asked and took the permission to sit alone in here to write. I didn’t have to purloin the time by encouraging myself up in the flat darkness of predawn light, but by just saying, I’ll be in here, please don’t disturb. Though of course, I’m still thinking of them, and hearing now the strumming of a slightly out of tune ukulele as played by a small child.
The open window for now connects me to the outside, I had so many thoughts on “settling” last night as I went for a walk. The thoughts of course evaporated as soon as I came home and re-immersed into family life. I hoped the ideas might float back to me in here this morning, with the window open, that they might be out there in the ether of other things, my body an antennae saying, I’m here! I’m not distracted, flow into me oh profound wisdom!
So this morning, I sit, considering the many ways to settle, in sweats, on the bed, a third trimester worthy belly stretching my waistband, hearing the sound of my husband now getting ready to take my son with him to the grocery store. A draught of cool, wet fall air breezes in across my face, relaxing and refreshing.
I turned 35 this year and I recently found a stack of my journals in a box. The books range a span of maybe 20 years in personal ramblings and I picked up one of my favorites. Beaten and decorated, a section-sewn book with cloth backing, built like an early 20th century novel. It’s filled with notes, reflections, grocery lists and simple math (what bill could I pay right then?).
Its pages are filled in with watercolors, pasted-in pictures, and jotted goal lists, all this ephemera of a life lived more than 10 years ago. I read through it, impatiently at times (oh, the things we go through), and am so profoundly aware that the young woman in those pages is me, dancing on a hot skillet, believing it’s the only way to experience the world.
Back then I jumped from one rock to another on an epic journey with little money in the bank , a credit card for the rest, and a lot of energy to experience fully anything. Fear of boredom constantly lurked behind me and I ran forward headstrong into the wind.
In February 2005 I took a drive to the desert southwest for a two-week volunteer river trip down the Grand Canyon, we removed invasive plants in exchange for the journey, and I was hooked. I decided on a whim after the trip not to go back to Texas. I stayed and sought out a job as a river guide (with no experience as one, mind you), and found two Grand Canyon river companies willing to take me on as a trainee. I picked one, signed up for the training trip a month later, and got going.
I worked a long but fast summer, met many people from different walks of life and I struggled to be as good as the other guides, none of whom had any less than 10 years of experience. I stressed out about how much I didn’t know, how I wasn’t fast enough to anticipate x, y or z. Big water tossed me around in a little boat in a hot, remote, desert desert canyon for 225-mile long trips that lasted two to three weeks at a time.
Not yet trustworthy enough for people I primarily rowed gear and baggage boats, though passengers joined me on slower stretches. We hiked slot canyons, side canyons, and discovered things about the earth, and ourselves, that only river pace allows you to see. At the end of a trip, I’d be in Flagstaff for a week, maybe two, living on the couch of friends who also worked outdoors jobs, occasionally crossing paths with them when we all happened to be in town. Then I’d be back on the river.
I spent more nights that year sleeping outside under stars, watching constellations march across the sky, than I did indoors within four walls. I built upper body strength most women don’t experience and developed a sense of bravado mixed with mirth, naivete, and pure gumption. I learned how to read water, maneuver rapids, and turn a fully loaded boat I’d flipped back over again (with a little help from everyone), not losing more than my hat and sunglasses to the river. I became who I always felt I was, but didn’t have the space for, before.
During that summer a job I applied for earlier in the spring offered me a position. A 15-month teaching fellowship at an outdoor science school starting at the end of river season. The job required a Spanish-speaker, many people living in that part of ski country were Spanish-speaking immigrants working primarily in the service and construction sectors, and I’d be teaching their kids in the public schools and on programs through the summer in the Rocky Mountains.
While I took some Spanish in highschool I didn’t speak it well. I had however, the opportunity to study in Brazil as a part of my undergraduate studies work and spoke Portuguese with the ease of someone unafraid to make mistakes in order to communicate. Three weeks before the position started in Colorado I declined an opportunity for a last river trip and flew to a coastal town in Oaxaca, Mexico, enrolled in Spanish classes, and proceeded to coax my tongue into saying yo hablo espanol instead of eu falo portugues. Spanish and Portuguese are like cousins where language is concerned, and so once I understood a few of the fundamental switches, it wasn’t too bad.
My time in Colorado turned out to be an amazing year of teaching kids in English and Spanish who were slowly finding their identity between two places – settling in to make this mountain place their home. I helped them in some small way by showing them more about the land they lived in, why aspen trees grew on certain slopes and evergreens on others. How to use a compass for wayfinding and how macroinvertebrates tell us how healthy streams are.
That year I met the man who would eventually be my husband and moved with him the following year, after another trip guiding in the Grand Canyon, to Jackson, Wyoming. In Jackson that year, which became two, I learned to telemark ski backcountry through in the Teton mountains, cross-country ski through Yellowstone to hidden hot springs to soak in sub-zero outdoor temperatures while bison foraged nearby. I guided day river trips during the summer on the Snake River, taught English as Second Language at the high school and local literacy program, worked at a gear shop, and assisted at a medical clinic in Grand Teton National Park.
At the end of that term, we landed in Portland, Oregon.
We’ve been here eight years now, the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere, and it’s a life of a different sort. I went to graduate school, we got married, he went back to school, we had a child. It’s quieter, it’s hard, it’s exhausting, but it’s also steadying and fortifying. I’m more grounded than ever in my life. I don’t move as quickly or jump at a whim like I used to, and I ached about that for a long time. But I’ve changed a bit now, and I have comfort in weighing the choices because now I must consider my actions before leaping. I also see the value in the long game. My wellbeing is paramount to that of small beings who depend on me, a spouse who leans on me and that I in turn lean on.
Vacations are not as glamorous as our outdoor lifestyle used to be. We camp near the the coast or the Cascades. We visit Colorado primarily to see family. But we’re slowly exposing our young son, soon to be joined by another child, to the things that we love about the world, in child-sized bites and fashion. And we can sustain ourselves, no longer needing to work two or three jobs at a time, I just completed the feat of having one full-time job for a full 2.5 years. It’s no coincidence that this is the length of time I’ve been working since my son was born.
There is a nuance today to small actions having large impacts that went undetectable to me before in a life constantly on the move. This motherhood-stability asks me to find the strength to confront the urge to constantly keep diving into new things. It asks me to refine who I am and what I do so I can still find that charge of energy while working on consistent adventures. It includes waiting for a young child to eat breakfast, while my husband cooks, while I write in a bedroom with the window open, and I feel the baby in my belly kick, and I listen to the rain and the cars drive by.
Settling for me is settling into the strength of self, the gregarious cowgirl I was does not always have to be on display. She’s turned inward, and learned the value in the willingness to pause, listen and see what’s inside. To learn what moves more slowly, but with great power and strength. This is the foundation from which I now root, and soar, it is the journey I’m most interested in today.