This story is by Jeannie Johnston and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Wednesday was a day of pain. I woke up with my ever-present existential crisis bringing tears to my eyes before I’d even opened them. Of the many ways it appears, waking up with “the crisis” is the worst because I can’t moderate my thoughts while I’m sleeping. When they creep up during the day, I have an armory of tools, all non-medicated, to fight them off. After unguarded sleep, however, I wake up feeling like someone was chasing me with a knife down a dark alley all night.
The rest of the day was rough too, inevitably so when it starts like that. At dinner that night, my best friend Kit said she could tell I was struggling more than usual. She knows I can usually laugh at the absurdity of the situation, at this crippling affliction that was created solely by my own brain. But today was a day that made me think I was losing the war. After nearly 10 years of fighting off this crisis, it’s hard not to feel that way. “I’ve decided to name the crisis “Harriet” after my great aunt,” I announced, trying to lighten the mood. At least she laughed.
My Aunt Harriet died years ago, but Kit knew her reputation well. She was always unwelcome at our house, stayed far too long when she came and made me feel like crap the entire visit. In her defense, she’d been a strong, independent woman born around 1900, had never married and had chosen her own, unconventional path through life. And while she could be remarkably blunt and didn’t smile easily, she never bullied me like Harriet-the-crisis did. Either way, the borrowed name seemed to fit. “I can’t battle the pointlessness of my existence, but I can fight off a bitchy aunt-like crisis named Harriet,” I explained. “And I’ve given Harriet three days to live. Ten years is long enough for this to torture me. By the time of my birth on Saturday night at 8:47 p.m., it will all be behind me.” The next morning, I started my quest.
T minus 60 hours (9 a.m. Thursday)
“What are you using this for again, Jess?” Father Jerry asked suspiciously. He knew me a little from our Wednesday running club but not well enough apparently.
“I’m doing some soul-searching right now and wanna know your take on why we’re here…the meaning of life. Most people’s existential crisis is triggered by a major life event, then it has the decency to go away. Mine started right after my divorce and when my parents died — both when I was 35. Since then, well…I’ve lived day to day with no compass to steer my boat. I question everything I do, I live with terrible guilt and despair that I’m wasting my life, and I generally feel horribly lost most of the time. At this point, I’m terrified I’ll stay adrift in this sea and never do what I’m meant to do. And I can’t live with that. I’ve decided to end the crisis once and for all, so that’s why I’m here…asking you these absurdly deep questions.”
“But are you Catholic? I thought you were a Miami Indian. Does insight from a Catholic priest help?”
“I don’t know, but I think it will give me some useful perspective. In the spirit of full disclosure, I am asking some others the same question.”
Feeling more comfortable, he dove into the topic eagerly, even sharing with me his story of being called to the priesthood. I appreciated his time and effort, but after two hours, my deadline was starting to weigh on me. I thanked him for his time and made it back to my car before noon. On to my next sage.
T minus 50 hours (7 p.m. Thursday)
By Thursday night, I called Kit for moral support. I’d spoken to five people that day but didn’t feel any more enlightened. And definitely more confused. “It was interesting, but I feel like I could summarize it all with bumper stickers,” I vented.
“Come on, Jess, it can’t be that bad. Tell me what they said.”
“Oh, you don’t believe me? Judge for yourself! Father Jerry’s bumper sticker was ‘Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.’ Lorrie’s advice from the yoga studio was about finding contentment by ‘learning to dance in the rain’ as far as I could make out. Stop laughing or I’ll never make it through them! My atheist neighbor’s was ‘Don’t worry, be happy,’ because there is no God, no afterlife and no meaning of life. The lady at the psychic readings place…well, her exact words were ‘to live the fullest expression of our divine souls’, and the waiter at Jack’s said ‘Life is an adventure, so enjoy it, man.’ Satisfied?”
Kit was still laughing, but then again, so was I. Somehow, my best-laid plans always ended up like a scene of the Keystone Cops, tripping and bumbling over each other. Hey, at least I can appreciate the humor in my misadventures! And the important thing is to learn from them.
Sobering up, Kit responded, “Well, maybe your approach wasn’t personal enough. Maybe you should spend Friday writing your own bumper sticker. Talk to some of your tribal elders, make a list of the stuff you’re passionate about…that kind of thing. Jess, we’re laughing to let off steam, but this is serious. I desperately want you to kick this thing. You’re the best person I know, I love you dearly and you deserve to feel like you belong here. I know with absolute certainty that you’re here for a reason. You just need to find the path to it, that’s all.”
“Thanks. I know it seems ridiculous for me to still have faith after all these years, but I do — I still believe my life has a purpose. And even though today didn’t get me very far, I promise you that by Saturday night, Harriet’s outta here. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I’m bumping her off one way or another. It’s become a pivotal life challenge for me, and I won’t allow myself to fail. I can’t fail.”
T minus 24 hours (9 p.m. Friday)
I was exhausted. The bone-tired, don’t care about dinner kind of exhausted. I’d spent the day listing accomplishments, talents, passions and goals. I’d spoken with one of the Miami spiritual leaders for nearly an hour. I’d meditated, burned sage, prayed, ran and everything else I could think of to clear my mind and make way for divine guidance to rain down on me. But nothing happened. I’d learned a lot about myself and my priorities, but other than that, I was just plain tired.
I had one day left, but I was too tired to think and plan for Harriet’s demise. I felt her starting to creep back into my consciousness, so I slammed the door in her face and went to bed.
T minus 2 minutes (8:45 p.m. Saturday)
I pulled the candle closer and lit it. Every year on my birthday, I celebrate with my friends, but then later on…when I’m alone…I light a candle and burn sage and sweet grass as a blessing to honor and thank my parents. I miss both of them, but my mother the most. She’d been a vital force in my life, one of my strongest supporters and most constructive critics. I miss her terribly, but as I think about her now, I can’t help but smile and remember all the things I learned from her. All the things I loved about her. Slowly, all my worries, my pain, and even Harriet, drifted away. I thanked Mom for watching over me. Then I did the same for Dad. I said to them out loud, “I love you and miss you both like crazy.”
I relaxed into a reflection of the past few days. Sure, I was disappointed I hadn’t yet found a way to finish off Harriet, but I hadn’t lost hope. Or my resolve. My mind wandered to what the spiritual leader had said the day before…that we’re here to honor our ancestors and ease the path for those who come after us. And just like that, a strong sense of purpose suddenly came into focus for me and — instantly — Harriet was gone. I can’t explain it, but I knew I was here to honor my parents and ancestors by becoming the best version of myself I could be and to share my knowledge and gifts with future generations.
With the revelation, dozens of ways to fulfill my purpose rushed into my head, from helping preserve the stories of the tribal elders, to sharing my own story in some way. With a little more time, I knew I could do it. At long last, I leaned over, whispered softly, “Goodbye Harriet,” and blew the candle out.