It was 11pm. I was waiting on some samples to make their way up to my treetop lab with the viewing window, overlooking the sea of machinery below. Runs and belts and quart bottles bobbing over rollers. It was just me on second shift now. My trainer, a college student in chemistry, barely younger than myself, had moved back to day shift. The job wasn't complicated compared to last one - running a cold store of millions of compounds to prepare for scientific testing in product development. There was a solid plan for moving up management here, they had said in the interview. “Yes, sounds great.”
I didn't want to move here. I did need a job though. My husband had accepted a job in Texas a few months prior. They had flown me down for the interview. Before my goodbye to Indiana, crossing the state line, this job was waiting.
The samples arrived. I tested them. Viscosity. Mass Spec for metals - my favorite. Cold crank. There were others. I made a baby batch of oil for the next run from the raw materials. Scratched down the ratios for the cookers, blenders they called them, then buzzed the guys below. Then I would wait. I'd test the oil at several more points along the process before going out to the line. Then again at frequent intervals while traveling the line.
I'd only been down here four weeks and already I hated this job. No, I didn’t hate the job, but I hated the hours. I never saw my husband. We'd just moved 1100 miles and I hadn't seen him in four weeks, except four hours on Saturdays. I called my brother, who moved down here six years before we did, just to talk. We were talking more these days. Something about being in the same city, the newness of it.
'What's up?" He answered.
"Waiting on my new batch of samples. I have another book idea."
Another book idea. My list was long and saved in one line Word files or on scrapes of paper, all over the place. Ever since I could write my name in kindergarten, writing is all I did and thought about.
"Oh yeah," he quipped with a chuckle. "What's that?"
"A Drop of Oil."
The running joke in my family is 'what job does Heather have now?'
My childhood friend Tara, she'd held the same job every summer, year after year. All through high school and then transferred to another branch location near college. The same job! Younger me could't wrap my head around it. Me - I landed something different every holiday break, every three-months of summer. I loved the variety, the challenge and exposure to something new. I wanted to know how everything worked. How the world worked.
Have I mentioned yet I was scared of people. So that was a thing. I was constantly forcing myself into the position of having to talk, be seen. It was a fear I had, HAD to face over and over. I was going to fix me dammit.
This same childhood friend, in giving her toast as my maid of honor, listed the things I said I'd be when I grew up. When Jewel sang the line “swallow the moon” from the song Jupiter of her Spirit album, it became my instant Life motto. That's what I was going to do. Everything.
"It's going to be about all the jobs I've ever had, the experiences and how we're all so small in the world yet we each count. Everyone doing their part, how it matters. And how we're all one out of billions in our messy world, yet it's a global world and we've got to do out part and we can have a big impact even as a small One ." I said more in an increasingly bungled, thinking-it-through-as-I-went way.
"Sure, you'll write it." There was that chuckle again, revealing his low confidence.
A decade later, amid the projects underway, that one sits at the bottom of the pile. As if punished unfairly before showing what he was made of. At 26, I had no perspective, certainly no grounding to any sort of purpose except work faster and move up rank. Make money and pay bills. Get married and start a family. Then consider staying home, for the kids sake. All the proper good-girl-things you do when you're from a small Heartland town.
Without much credence of thought, living automatic action, I steamrolled my twenties. Deep down I knew my real goal. Be awesome enough for my employers to overlook my obvious fear of even being there. An awkward specimen in my own skin, they could have sliced me open and examined me under a symptomology microscope.
Then again, what twenty-something doesn't fit into that description. I'm not special there. None of us are.
And yet, I was that idiot employee who wanted more work, needed more responsibility. If I wasn't busy from the moment I arrived until the moment I left, I felt as if I was wasting an opportunity to, well, get something done. Or, at least I was that idiot. In the words of the greatest boss I've ever had, "Fuck no, I wouldn't relive my twenties even if they paid me a million dollars."
And really, the point of all that spinning, all that effort and churning, was to drown out the anxiety I felt for even existing.
If I could go back, give my younger self some advice, even though that version of myself wouldn't have listened to it, it would be to slow down. Don't volunteer to work on Saturdays. Notice your breathing. Breathe in, breathe out. Take an occasional, purposeful, mindful deep breath. (Just not around the CO2 nozzles in the roach room.) Allow some untethered seconds to go by without my hyper-vigilant planning plowing through attaching purpose to every one of those seconds. Take a real break to stretch my mind and body, not just ensure the place holder of time I'm forced to for OSHA's sake. Stop doing data entry on your lunch hour. Seriously, take a break.
It’s been 13 years since I sat in that treetop lab. Since then, I’ve held one or two jobs. I no longer feel I have to prove anything. It’s glorious. I love the journey I have taken to get here, floods, heartaches and all. I don’t run around anymore for the sake of running around. Pain slowed me enough to listen to my soul and then I learned who I was, who I am. I cherish this place I’ve grown into. Magic in the possibility of what could be. I make my loves my priority. My husband, my children, my friendships, creation and my writing. There was such a long time when that wasn’t the case. I am no longer afraid of people, but I do prefer solitude above anything else and one-on-one visits, that will probably never change.
Not a day goes by where pain doesn’t impact my every moment. I dream of heaven. When my physical body gets shuttered to ash and my spirit is released. Bookcases as tall as the stars. Waters peaceful, willows weeping tears of joy and air always smelling like autumn. Mostly, I dream of no physical pain. A day my leg doesn’t burn. A night I don’t wake with throbbing joints. An evening I don’t have to cut short because I can no longer walk without zaps of unforgiving torment.
But my smile has never been quicker to call forth. I have never felt more at peace. I am learning to suspend my first and immediate reactions and am conditioning myself to look up from my phone more and more. I find myself falling back in love with a world I had wanted to run into and hide but then banished from my mind when I thought it was out of reach, the mental pain of it too great to tolerate. As I court creation on this side of growth, I do not do so to run and hide. From people. From problems. I do it as a celebration of the opportunity to be here. The layers of our loves.
A Drop of Oil still sits at the bottom of the project stack. The Fishing Well was born and now I continue with others that call louder during this season of my life. And that’s ok.