In the summer of 2001, I worked as a secretary for a sleep-away summer camp in upstate New York and I was officially divorced from the high school sweetheart I married at 19. I was 28 years old. An old lady, as far as most inhabitants at a children's summer camp are concerned. And since I didn't have any duties with the children directly, I was given my own small cabin. For a 28-year-old who was still afraid of the dark and learning to sleep by herself for the first time in her entire life, living alone in a small cabin out in the woods felt terrifying.
When I think of that cabin now, I laugh at how much I would pay for the opportunity to get that much solitude in such a small, simple, beautiful place. All I really had to do to keep that cabin clean was sweep the floor every other day. It smelled like pine. My favorite days were the rainy ones because all the children stayed indoors and I could just lay on my bed and nap and read and listen to the rain. And even though I hated being alone, I felt held tight by the rain and the trees and my cabin made of pine -- and that was really nice. I walked on back country roads and wooded trails everyday. I read and I wrote endlessly. I made a couple of really great friends (even if I have lost touch with them since then) -- Lindsey from Manchester, England and Connie "the Kiwi" from New Zealand. We'd spend our off nights at the one local pizza parlor. We became so close with the owner of that pizza joint that we hung out at her house in her pool, with her kids a couple of times. At the end of the summer, her kids even made me a mixed CD of all of the jukebox songs they heard me freak out over and saw me dance to those nights.
Until recently, I kept a picture of the tiny little pond (New Yorkers actually call it a Lake -- but when you're from Michigan, it is simply blasphemous to call a tiny muddy polluted pool of water such as this a "Lake" - just sayin') I actually swam to the middle of in the middle of the night one evening. I kept a picture of it because this pond -- and my swim to the middle of it -- became a metaphor of that summer, that time of my life where I felt like I might be drowning but instead, forced myself to swim. During that night swim, I kept waiting for something to swallow me. But it didn't. I made it to the raft in the middle. And then I made it back to the shore.
During that summer, I did one of the smartest things I've ever intentionally done. I sent myself hundreds of letters of support. I mailed a dozen or so each week to the address where I would be staying when I returned to Las Cruces, New Mexico to finish my Master's Degree. I knew I would need them. Las Cruces is where the marriage failed, where everything -- including me -- fell completely apart. I was scared to go back so I sent myself these letters, notes, cards thinking that I'd open one every day, every time I needed a little kick in the pants, a little wave of inspiration to keep swimming.
Mostly, I copied words from the books I was reading -- words that struck me as signs from the Universe -- the stones that created a path over the river. I bought a child's writing tablet and copied these words in the best printing I could muster. It made sense to me. I was at the beginning again. I felt like I needed to start over from the beginning.
As I opened the letters through the years, I would post them somewhere I could see them each day so that some of them have become mantras for me. Today, while I was cleaning out some old files in a state of out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new-year, I found these three - yellowed and half crumpled, with multiple layers of tape in the corners. Well-loved but stashed somewhere, probably several years ago and forgotten -- until today.
One night during that summer at the sleep-away camp, I was deep into a self-pitying rant when my Kiwi friend, Connie, offered up a painful and simple directive: "JodiAnn, wake up to yourself!" I learned after that night, that this is a relatively common phrase in Australia and New Zealand. It means just what it says. You say it to people who have lost touch with what's important, true, right or real -- people who are being idiots. I took Connie's directive to heart. I did begin waking up to myself. And then, there have been times in the last 13 years where it's just been easier to go back to sleep for a bit. Luckily, that old me, was smart enough to send me words that serve as my alarm for when sleep has become too easy. Luckily, that old me knew I was going to have to wake up and wake up and wake up and keep waking up to myself -- and that I might need a little help along the way. It turns out, despite what I often think, I have always been my own ally and have always known what I need to get me through even the darkest times. Huh.
Whenever I spend time revisiting who I used to be -- which isn't all that often -- it is usually to scoff at past choices, roll my eyes at how ridiculous that woman was, or lament the loss of my various innocences. But I'm thinking the time for all of that is over. I'm thinking that maybe I should spend some time with my previous self and honor the hard work she did to keep me sane and happy and swimming. I'm thinking I should be grateful for the letters she sent me that summer and for all of the signs she has collected for me since -- that continue to lead the way across the river, even in a fair amount of darkness.