Letter to my 21-year-old self

Dear Harriet,

You just turned 21 and are struggling through some of the most difficult months of your life. You are being beaten and raped by your husband on an almost daily basis and, of course, he blames you for his behavior, you see your hurts and your position as your own fault. By winter you are almost completely numb and wondering what on earth there is to live for; you don’t see an out. For the last few months your only place of refuge–the only place you truly feel safe–is the bathtub, but you are no longer safe from yourself there. I know you have been scraping your skin off; your legs and stomach look like gazpacho and your pumice stones are stained with blood.

Stay with me, honey, don’t turn out the lights; it’s almost over. By March you will somehow find the internal strength to make a decision, and by the beginning of the summer you will be living in your own little apartment. That bastard will go back to the Midwest and you will only see him twice more in your lifetime. He will continue to deteriorate, but you will flourish.

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Melanie recently posted about what she would tell her 22-year-old self, I have been thinking about it for a couple of weeks. The first few years of my 20’s were volatile and looking back I still don’t know how I happened to come out on the other side in one piece. Truth be told, I wasn’t in one piece, I was a mess, held together with bandages and a few long-buried hopes and dreams. It took me a long time to feel like a whole person again, and I often look back to that girl and whisper to her to just keep going, it will get better, she will be okay. Sometimes I actually believe that these quiet encouragements can transcend time and all the laws of psychics, I wonder if  the bloodied, broken girl in the bathtub can somehow hear my whispers, that she recognizes my voice and is calmed, puts down the stone, and is still.

***     ***     ***     ***     ***

Right now so much seems hopeless, hang in there, young Harriet. You will find hope, you will be thrown into chaos, just breathe, you will be okay. You will make it through this, you will thrive, and you will find your happiness.


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Deep as a River

Tetons River_feistyharriet_May 2014

When I was an angsty teenager I wrote a book of poetry, 64 pages carefully copied into a beautiful notebook with pages lined in gold. The first poem was dated April 7, 2001 and the last is June 28, 2002. I did not compose in this book, the rough drafts and scribbles of my thought process have long been lost, but the final versions are there in my best handwriting.

Those pages are an interesting study into my 18-year-old psyche. I was angry, suffocated, broken, and desperate for recognition, understanding, and unconditional love. I also wanted nothing more than to be free of the life that brought on all those hurtful feelings. I wanted someone to see me, not for who they thought I should be or who they wanted me to be, but just for me, as myself. I was anxious and desperate for space–space to breathe, space to move, and just space to be.

I told you: angsty teenager.

Which doesn’t invalidate my feelings or make them somehow wrong. They were, and I was, and that is all historical fact, carefully recorded in a golden notebook.

There are several pages dedicated to deep, wild rivers constantly on the move, belonging nowhere; lyrical paragraphs about roads to anywhere; ballads about ocean waves crashing into a shore only to race back to the comfort of the sea and throw themselves back on the sand; poems of thunderous rain clouds sailing over dark, moody mountains with angrily flashing lightening; stanzas of shooting stars; a haiku about racing the sunrise across the sky;  verses of a bitterly cold but terrifically strong northern wind whipping snow into the sky and exposing craggy granite peaks; prose about value and worth and distancing oneself via emotional canyons.

Goodness, I so wanted to be simultaneously lost and found, to be loved and appreciated yet on my own and free to make my decisions. I was willing to accept any consequences as long as I could also revel in my own successes. I think, to some extent, all people go through a similar period of being caught between adult and child, independent and also protected.

When I was 21 I signed a lease on a small one-bedroom apartment, left my abusive husband, and felt–for the first time–that I was finally free.

My new-found freedom was intoxicating, exhilarating, sometimes frightening, but I owned every minute of it.

I was finally that dark river, full of secrets and hurts, determined to keep going, to live a life “passing through” until I found somewhere safe to rest. The need to move, the constant churning, that is still there inside of me, a fierce independence that demands her freedom. However, right now–and for the last little while–I am content. I don’t expect this contentment to last the rest of my lifetime, but I also am better equipped to “run” without actually leaving. All it took was a couple of years of testing my wings to learn how to fly, but also to learn how to return home, wherever that home existed.

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Things left behind, and letting go

Halfway through my senior year of high school I left* my childhood home, my Mom and two sisters, and moved in with my Dad, a delightfully quirky bachelor who had zero furniture outside of his bed and a gorgeous grand piano. Lurch is the kind of guy who organizes his pantry alphabetically and spends $150.00 on a pepper grind because it was so sleek and shiny and deemed–after extensive research–the best pepper grinder on the market. I adore Lurch and find his anal retentive/OCD qualities charming and familiar.

When I moved in with him I took everything I owned with me. I packed up all my journals, my summer and winter clothes, toys I had already outgrown, my stuffed animals and dolls, my sticker collection, my drug store camera and box of developed photos, a half-finished crocheted afghan, and the trophies I’d earned in gymnastics, track, and a not-at-all embarrassing number of nerdy academic trophies and medals. (Best Dried Flower Collection, 5th Grade; State Silver Medalist in Math; 12th Grade (Stop laughing!); Best Student Director, Noises Off, 2001).

I carefully labeled boxes and fill them with papers I’d written that had nice comments from teachers, report cards, my baby blanket, souvenirs from trips to Hawaii, Chicago, Florida, and Washington, D.C., including a shocking number of keychains. Apparently, I thought an  extensive keychain collection was the true mark of an exotic traveler.

I moved into the guest room, hung up my clothes, my Dad bought me some furniture and most of the packed-up boxes went into “Harriet’s corner” of the unfinished basement where they stayed for the next 13 years collecting company: boxes from my brothers and sisters, from Lurch’s brothers and sisters, probably from neighbors and strangers and who knows who else. The basement turned into a jungle of stacks of forgotten boxes, racks of clothes, disassembled furniture, entire walls of full file cabinets, bicycles, kites, electric trains…it was, well, crowded.

A few weeks ago my siblings and I received an email that the basement was being remodeled and all of our shit needed to be claimed. (Of course, Lurch didn’t use the term “shit.” My Dad doesn’t swear, when he gets really upset he uses words like “asinine” and “crap-o-la.”) The stacks of boxes with my 17-year old handwritten labels were still in my corner, and one afternoon I dug in and opened up a world of forgotten memories. An entire box of high school dance pictures; a sheaf of drumsticks; a jewelry box full of drugstore treasures; the box and instruction manual for my first three cell phones; the front page of the newspaper from Sept. 11, 2001; my high school diploma and graduation cap; a whole stack of cassette taps of my favorite songs recorded off the radio; posters and programs from the plays I performed in and stage managed; and, inexplicably, a box of empty glass jars and a hammer.

To be honest, most of the boxes were full of junk, junk that made me smile as I dug through and sorted it into the trash or recycle bins with a small pile of items to keep. It’s amazing the things I thought were so important, and how easily I could let them go now. There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere.

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*I recently learned the terms of my moving from my childhood home to my Dad’s house are up for debate and interpretation. I maintain that my Mom kicked me out, I called my Dad in tears, a friend and her parents helped me pack up boxes and moved me the 25 miles to Lurch’s house because he was out of town on a business trip and couldn’t get home to help. My Mom says that I asked permission to live with Lurch, she and I sat down together and prayed about it, and she helped me pack while Lurch waited in the driveway. Riiiiiight. For the record, my Dad and friend remember the details as I do. Ahem.

For Daniel

In the first half of 2012 I went to 6 funerals: Blue Eyes’ grandmother, a co-worker who lost his battle with cancer, one of Blue Eyes’ best friends and his young son, a dear neighbor from my hometown, and my grandfather. It was a rough six months, oy.

In 2013 I only attended one funeral, a young man just about to graduate from college whom I had met several years earlier. More than perhaps any other funeral, my own grandparents and relatives included, his has stuck with me; Daniel’s funeral was a year ago, but I cannot stop thinking about it, or him. I met Daniel when he was 16, a Junior at the high school where I volunteer in the theater department; he was trying to wrap his head around a difficult Shakespeare monologue, rehearsing to perform at a national competition. He was soft-spoken, smart, determined, and willing to try just about any suggestion to better portray Richard III, the hunchback villain. He was brilliant. Over the next 2 years I coached him on a few different pieces and when he went to college I made a point to go and see the plays in which he performed. His command of language and emotion and his dedication to his art was impressive when he was a teenager, as he learned more about acting it was hard to pay attention to anyone else on stage; that kid was a natural powerhouse.

Daniel was a hipster before it was hip or trendy—he wore skinny colored jeans and black dreadlocks halfway down his back. He had square glasses with dark frames, wrote poetry and played the guitar, and did not care what anyone else thought of him. He rode his skateboard everywhere and I often saw him around my neighborhood which is adjacent to his University. I always honked, and he always waved (usually followed up by a Facebook message thanking me for saying hello). Despite a somewhat rough-looking exterior, Daniel was the kindest, most humble kid I think I’ve ever met. He never put himself above others, I never heard him mock or make fun of a fellow student, and he would do anything to help make a play or competition piece better for everyone involved. Man, that kid was a sweetheart.

I’m still not sure how he died, although because it wasn’t ever announced publicly I imagine it was some kind of drug overdose, either intentional or accidental. He died halfway through his last semester at the university, just weeks before his graduation ceremony.

Daniel’s funeral was unlike any I have ever attended, and I’ve been to probably 25 or 30 in my lifetime. The room was packed with people from all walks of life, the service and remarks were in English and Spanish with translation of both languages. There were beautiful stories, hilarious stories, poems and songs and tributes from family back in Colombia and his fellow University cohort. Daniel was spiritual but not religious, his family acknowledged his position while still maintaining their own hopes to see him in an afterlife. His brothers and cousins sang “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd, his friends quoted huge sections of Shakespeare’s Richard III and Henry V. His aunt read a few stanzas from a Shakespearean sonnet and the final tribute was a Beatles song, sung by anyone in the audience who wished to participate.

It seemed to me a true celebration of a passionate life cut short, as well as a time for grief and mourning of a son, grandson, nephew, brother, and friend. Even though Daniel and I weren’t terribly close, I feel like I will always carry a small piece of him in my heart. And I will always remember the Shakespeare-loving teen with dreadlocks who lived life according to his own rules.

RIP, Daniel.

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