Previously published in the Pearl S. Buck Literary Journal
Shut that closet door and stop looking at Dad’s guns. They are all too large for you to handle anyway. You can’t position a rifle at yourself and reach the trigger. You will just make a mess. The pills in the bathroom medicine cabinet may not work either. You may just make yourself sick or end up comatose.
You are only fourteen years old. You have no way of knowing what you will miss out on if you do this. One day you will wake up to the unnerving realization that had this been your last day, it would have been a tragic forfeiture.
Your pain is real, and it feels unconquerable, but you can get through this. It begins with this moment and when it is gone, you can get through the next one, and the next, and the next. One by one, if you follow them—think ‘one more day’—instead of succumbing to the blinding turmoil in your mind, you will come through this dark place.
You will not be a teenager forever. Your current troubles will subside and yes, they will yield to other nuisances and setbacks, as all lives impart. But you will learn that a diverging path is more challenging and the reward for navigating these curves is the added scenery and preparedness for the next twist in the road, You cannot begin to grasp the magnificence of the visions that lie ahead of you. Just wait until you see the bigger picture!
No matter how stuck you think you are right now, the wheel of your life is in motion. Every friendship, relationship and experience has the potential to change your trajectory beyond anything you can imagine, and when that happens, you will set upon another path to encounter others whose trajectory you are destined to affect. You must stay because you never know what impact you may have on another’s life, nor they on yours.
For in a few years you will fall in love, and you will feel adored and protected…until you are not. Then you will learn how strong you are when you sever the ligatures of a toxic relationship and leave the one who demeans and insults you. His words are flames that burn you, an inferno that consumes you until you are melted down to a dangerously thin frame. The taunting pushes and shoves that were “just playing”, the arrogant gloats and declarations that you will never leave him immobilize you for days. You would not, you could not. But you can and you do. You will never question your decision, nor will you grieve the months that you tolerated his scalding, dispiriting abuses. You left with the tools to extinguish any future immolation.
You will laugh and curse as you attempt to remodel your first home, a structure that was so fixer-upperish that it was barely worth fixing up. There will be times that you question your own senses—what business do you have taking on such a project? Squirrels play in the crawl space and get into the walls. They sound like fish in a bucket, flopping about. You try hanging your own kitchen cabinet by drilling screws through the back without fastening to a single stud. It breaks from the wall and falls, collapsing your ironing board and stack of books that it was propped upon. You are crying with laughter when you call a friend and describe the scene. His mother chides him, “Go help that poor girl hang her cabinets.”
You will smile at the thought of that dumpy old house on Jeffery Lane because it was your escape from the abuser who sneered that you were incapable of doing anything on your own. Yes, it was ugly—hideous—the fences shrugged, and the roof leaked. The fireplace was an afterthought, awkward (and likely dangerously) built into a corner of the living room so that it enclosed a window! The propane tank gauge was corroded and unreadable, so you frequently ran out. You hung wallpaper poorly and your attempt at crown molding looked like it was done with a chainsaw. But it was your soft landing when you leapt from the grip of the abuser.
And when it is time to move on, the Karmic wheel rolls right up to your front door. The shabby little house that you fear you will have to pray away is the palace that answers the prayers of a down-on-her-luck single mother.
When you were a little girl, you wanted to stay home from church on Sunday night and watch the Miss America pageant. Every summer brought two weeks of Bible School, learning memory verses and countless stories from antiquity on the other side of the planet. Old Jerusalem was just an ancient, unimaginable city in a story on thin pages of a heavy book.
But years from now, you will say a prayer at the Wailing Wall and the memories of youth will swarm and flit about like butterflies. Oh, the countless hours spent in church on snowy Sunday mornings and firefly lit, muggy summer evenings! The illustrations in your old children’s Bible come to life as you survey the craggy, rocky streets of the Old City, with its churches and temples. You explore the souvenir shops and enjoy the dance of price-haggling between merchants and penny-pinching tourists. When you return to the maze of streets, you draw your fingers along the walls built of stone in shades of sand and bronze that bled into one another like watercolors. The scene is monochromatic sepia except for the brilliant splashes of colorful flowers that spring from some of the cracks or spill over the top of the wall.
Green ivy cascades from the trees and blue aster reaches out from small soil beds inserted between stones. Bougainvillea bushes abound with dazzling fuchsia blooms. The branches arch over the top of the wall and reach to join the other flowers. They are perfectly manicured and pruned to discourage overgrowth. Visitors will not be scratched by prickly barbs as they admire the tree’s beauty while retracing the route that Jesus walked while the thorns tortured him.
With every step you will be mindful as you wonder, “In whose steps am I walking?” With each placement of your feet on the stones, you will imagine how others have stepped there. Who were they? Did they live peacefully here during that time, or were they rife with conflict and heartache as so much of the history of Jerusalem holds? What did they experience here hundreds or thousands of years ago? You look at the ground and create a vision. Are you standing on the erased footprint of a thick leather sandal worn by a powerful warrior? Or in the knee prints once made in the mud by a broken, collapsed slave?
But if you keep looking at the guns, this scene will not happen.
You are only fourteen. You cannot know that your future includes living in India and Saudi Arabia. Your adventures in these two wildly different cultures will challenge you on everything that you have ever felt or thought about humanity and the universe. The train journey from New Delhi to Agra will prove a pivotal time in your life. The impossible beauty of the Taj Mahal—as the poet Tagore described, “a teardrop on the cheek of time”—will cast her spell and create in you an unquenchable thirst for everything Indian.
In Mumbai, you will see a young girl carrying an even younger baby on her hip while she extends to you her free hand, begging for a rupee. There will be sandalwood incense making a futile attempt to mask the smell of urine and curry. Varanasi’s sadhus appear other worldly as they meander the winding alleys naked and smeared with gray ash. A bearded Shiva devotee with a mischievous smile and a saffron painted forehead squats at Dashashwamedh Ghat, the steps descending from the city street to the Ganges. He keeps his gaze fixed on you as he wrings the holy water from the marigold robe he is washing. He will continue chanting, “Ram, Ram, for it is his belief that if he dies with the name of his god on his lips, Lord Ram will whisper the secret of life in his ear as the soul leaves the body.
These visions will return to you often and it will be in those moments that you are the most aware of your heart unfolding in your chest. You will wonder why you feel passionately drawn to a culture so different from your own. What is the appeal of this continent, a history, a religion, and a people so unfamiliar to you? As a lotus flower’s root reaches far beneath the water’s surface and cannot be seen, your connection to India will be visceral and its source you may never understand. The mystery will be as thrilling as it is bewildering.
But you will never experience this wonder if you open the orange and white pill bottle with the Family Pharmacy label wrapped around it.
In Saudi Arabia you will spend a year feeling as though you have been dropped onto another planet. The men wear white long robes and red and white checked patterned scarves on their heads. Within a few weeks’ time though, you will decide that they appear familiar to you, and that it is your American colleagues who look out of place in their blue jeans and T-shirts.
You will be living in Jeddah, when two young princes suffer the heartbreaking loss of their mother, who was loved by the world. You will draw the curtains closed and sit in the dark with Karen and Deborah, sobbing while watching William and Harry follow Diana’s funeral procession.
A few days later you will be enjoying a delicious cup of sweetly spiced chai in the Pakistani quarter of Jeddah. Sami, your Bangladeshi-born friend will translate what the server says as he walks away from the table, patting his hand to his heart and waggling his head side to side.
“She looks like our princess. Our kind, dead princess.” And your heart will melt.
For the first time in your life, you will be subjected to discrimination and a lack of simple liberty that drives you to tears. There will be separate seating areas for women in restaurants, you will not be allowed to drive, and will be required to wear the abaya, the long black robe. You will laugh in the old Souq when you purchase a flamboyant hot pink one and taunt the religious police with your uncovered long blonde hair. There will be stores that display signs in their front windows stating, “No Ladies Allowed,” and you will be rendered apoplectic, but with time youwill reflect on the value of the occurrence. Yes, even this vile, fracturing moment will enrich your soul, for in no other place and at no other time, would you, a twenty-six-year-old white privileged American woman, face such a severe lesson in humility.
At fourteen, you cannot foresee that on a future 4th of July, you will take pictures from a camel’s saddle as you ride around the Sphinx and the great pyramids of Giza. A frail, old man with sun-weathered skin and a turban of white gauzy layers wrapped around his head approaches you. He peddles trinkets to tourists. His kind eyes meet yours and when he places a cheap resin beetle in your hand, he declares, “Gift for you! Now give me money!” It will be a talisman that you never let go.
You will spend hours exploring the Cairo museum, touching towering ancient statues that were carved before Moses walked the land. You will weave through endless aisles of glass cases displaying jewels, intricately painted pottery and papyrus sheaths. Astounded by the volume and ages of the bountiful collection, you will linger to read and reread the caption for each piece, and you send a prayerful thanks to your parents. It was a Christmas gift that you received when you were eight years old that ignited that yearning to learn of other cultures—a globe.
You will be horrified when within weeks of your visit a bus full of German tourists is
attacked as it is parked in front of the museum. Nine people are killed. Thirteen years later, a civil uprising called the “Arab Spring” overthrows the government and thousands of artifacts are lost to Tahir Square rioters, looters, and fire. You will be gripped by your memories and feel sorrow for Egypt’s loss, and grateful for the visions left in your memory.
One evening, you will see on the news a country whose name you have not yet heard, Rwanda. The whole world will learn about this tiny, central African nation when it erupts into an unspeakably savage genocide.
Two decades later, you will hike that Land of a Thousand Hills and marvel, unblinking, at the family of Silverback Mountain Gorillas as they wrestle and chase one another. They are so close that you can hear their breaths as they chew bamboo shoots that they snapped off at the ground. The babies playfully roll around, screeching and teasing the adults. The giant male grunts and rushes past you and your companions, protesting your proximity to his ladies and offspring.
You will spend a few days in an ivy-embraced white stucco cottage that was home to an idyllic American woman and read her personal journal. As you leaf through the red leather-bound book with her elegant penmanship, you will marvel at the whimsical courage that married her to a big game hunter and followed him to Africa. She became so enchanted with Rwanda that even when the marriage failed, she adopted it as her home and lived on their plantation for the rest of her life.
She was a nurturer and became friends with an anthropologist who would one day be famous. When the doctor’s emphysema or local tribal conflicts flared, she descended from her mountain camp in the higher altitudes. She wrote “Gorillas in the Mist” while resting in a bedroom in the cottage, next to the room you will sleep in.
Though in her 80’s when the genocide stormed through forcing a brief evacuation, the lady of the manor returned to her lovely acres of dahlias and daisies, and with the help of the UN, rebuilt the property into an orphanage. She became a mother to hundreds of parentless children, decades after her child-bearing years ended. You will love this story but that you get to walk in her footsteps amongst the flowers and sit at her table will make it so much more meaningful. A picture you take of the African plantation at sunset will be one that, of all your travels, you hold the most dear.
You will struggle in the city of Kigali as you go through the photos and dioramas of the museum that documents the genocide. You will feel the souls of the churchgoers who were killed in their perceived safe place as you walk past the weathered pews, left strewn with the dead’s clothes and possessions as a monument so that they are never forgotten. You will fall in love with the kindness and elegance of the Rwandan survivors. The serenity and grace that you find there will leave you astonished at the human capacity for resilience and forgiveness.
There is a spouse in your future who needs you to survive. When his family breaks apart and he is shaken to the core by the silent absence of his children and pet, you will be the one with whom he builds a future. You will sunburn on Caribbean beaches and delight in Broadway shows. Your disdain for cold weather will acquiesce to the majesty of snowy Swiss Alps when he takes you there at Christmastime. He will indulge your inner Hippie when you embrace yoga, meditation, and pink hair.
At 14 you cannot embrace this concept. You cannot see past tomorrow, but that is not because of stubbornness or “being a teenager”—it is perspective. It is understandable that the thoughts and fears that you cannot articulate are all-consuming and that you feel disconnected from the adults you try to confide in. You sense that they are growing tired of you, that they think you are being vain and unreasonable.
You feel that you have control over nothing in your life—you are an animal in a snare and there is only one way to stop this crushing feeling.
Exasperation flattens you when they say, “This is temporary,” and that, “You’ll get over it”. Your despair is compounded when your feelings are trivialized and dismissed. You know that they do not mean to sound this way, but clearly, they cannot grasp the gravity of your emotional state—and you desperately need them to.
What you need to know is this: They are not apathetic or unconcerned with your despondency —they have forgotten how it feels to be powerless. No one gets through adolescence without some tears. Almost everyone who has muddled through it to reach the liberating milestone of adulthood discarded the armor long ago that deflected their own daggers of teenage angst. They must be reminded that you are unable to see your situation the way they do. Your short fourteen years of life have not provided enough experiences to look back on to show you that it truly does get better, that there really is a good place waiting on the other side of this challenge. All you know is where you are now, how you feel now.
Here is what else you need to know: There absolutely will be evenings of gut-wrenching laughter with wonderful friends that you have yet to meet. You will read books that change your heart and beliefs. You will travel around the planet more times than you can count. You will sip a Moscow Mule across the bar from a former British Prime Minister in a swanky European piano lounge. You will pour coffee on a private jet for a former President—he takes it black and in his paper cup, not the china. You will discover Eton Mess in London, have pizza in Perugia, and roam Rome. Maybe you’ll even write a story or two. But you will never see any of this if you leave now.
Seek out what fascinates you and pursue it in your spare time. Notice the adults with whom you feel comfortable—teachers, friends’ parents, or neighbors. You may be drawn to them because of a common interest or talent. Take advantage of their age and experience to lead you to opportunities. Follow an issue as it evolves from one project into another that may seem unrelated—and then marvel at the journey. Learn as much as you can about other cultures and engage in thoughtful conversations that stretch your soul and vision. Devour books and see movies that do more than entertain, but also inspire and teach. These are the actions that nurture curiosity and dialogue, and dialogue nurtures compassion, which nurtures connection—a lack of which is precisely what brings you to this moment.
Be aware that at any time, there are many others like you who are confused, defeated, lost, and standing on the same ledge that you are. When you see them, I hope that you are confidently the one to help. It will be your time to talk them down, assuring them that you all have grand lives to look ahead to.
Thirty years from now you will be haunted by an epidemic of teen suicides. When that day comes, I hope that you remember the words that pulled you through your own dark times. You will know that those kids need a guide to that tells them that they have adventures to look forward to. They just must be convinced that there is a future and it can be more than mere existence. Life can be full of purpose and awe, as yours has been and you never saw it coming. One day you were on an ill-defined path just out of a rotten relationship and living in a slightly less rotten house, the next you were on your first flight to Paris. That was twenty-six years ago, and you are not finished yet—but if you do what you are thinking of doing right now, none of this will ever happen.
It is sobering to think of how many others have not walked away from the closet during the past thirty years, but instead reached inside, picked up the weapon, strung the rope, or swallowed the pills. Sadly, it is reasonable to believe that over the next thirty years there will be other fourteen-year-olds, 17, or even 10-year-olds somewhere looking in a closet. If you don’t walk away from your closet, they may not walk away from theirs.