I am a warrior.
When I was 16, I received my black belt in Shaolin Kempo. I remember the day my teacher Evan taught me to break boards – “Aim not for the board, Holly, but past the board, so that your force goes through.” He put me in the adult classes and, because there weren’t any young women black belts, I sparred with big, strong, older men. I learned early on that their limbs were longer than mine, and that if I let them keep me at arms length then I would lose. So, once a match started I became a tenacious animal and would get right in close before my opponent knew what hit him. I would pummel him at such short range he couldn’t get at me with his longer and bigger body, and most often, I won. Warriors don’t stay on the surface, they lean in and move through.
When I was 18, I went to MIT. My true love was math, but I decided to major in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering partly because there were a lot of jobs in the field, but mostly because it was known to be one of the 2 hardest majors at MIT. That was my way – to take the most challenging path and fight my way through. When you are a fairly intelligent person, you can skip the hardest problems in High School and still get an A. At MIT, however, on a daily basis I faced problem sets that were more challenging than anything I had experienced. I learned that the only thing to fear is fear itself, meaning – I had to completely let go of any emotions relating to things being “hard” and could not let myself be intimidated by any problem. So, as other students did, I found my way – I would take a difficult problem, break it into sub-problems, solve some sub-problems myself, work with other students in the class to figure out other sub-problems, see the TA during office hours for help with sub-problems that the other students and I couldn’t solve, and then stitch all the sub-problem solutions together for one big long solution to the original problem. It was normal to have 10-16 hours of homework a day. I slept very little, and in fact there was a saying at MIT – “Work, Sleep, Play – choose 2.” I left MIT with a BS in CS/EE, but I’ll always tell people – what I really took from that amazing school was the ability to solve problems. MIT taught me that warriors face the impossible without letting fear or emotions stop them from persevering
When I was 20, I met my illegitimate half-brother, Greg, for the first time. My father chose to deny his existence but my mother told me of the scandal once I was old enough to ‘understand’. Greg found me, called me, wanted to meet his siblings. My father told me to turn my back walk away. I was told that if I validated him then he might come after the family for back child support and it would be my fault if we lost our family home. As expected, this warrior said “fuck you” to her parents, flew across the country, met her wonderful half brother, and then dealt with the carnage. I was called a family traitor for years. Turns out, Greg only had love and needed no money. My other siblings eventually met Greg, but they did it later and more quietly and were not called family traitors. It is the warrior that blazes the trail that gets shot in the chest.
When I was 21, after graduating a semester early from MIT, Microsoft relocated me out to Seattle. Warrior Holly charged right in and developed a couple of nicknames – Tiger Lady and The H-Bomb, among others. I continued to take no prisoners. I was often given projects that were big sticky messes and I would turn them into finely oiled machines by using my MIT approach – don’t get overwhelmed, break the problem apart, solve what parts you can, recruit help and advice for the parts you can’t, keep digging in, make it happen, don’t give up. I worked very long hours, but it wasn’t a big deal because it was still easier than MIT. After a couple years and a couple of fast promotions, my boss (who worried a lot about my workaholic nature) said “Holly, you don’t even realize… you could literally work half as much and we would still love you.” I knew how to be a warrior but didn’t know how to let go.
I developed serious carpal tunnel and repetitive strain injury from constant computer use. I began to lose use of my hands. I couldn’t open doors or jars without pain. In fact, to add insult to injury, I couldn’t even masturbate without pain. I saw various doctors and physical therapists, but still – I couldn’t let go. Warrior Holly pushed through and was awarded an extremely prestigious position working directly for a Group Vice President who managed a division of 10k employees. It was a grooming job – the job they give to the up and comers who they want to make into someone important some day. My arms continued to ache every single day. I struggled with daily tasks. When I carried a grocery bag home, I hung the handle loosely over my arm instead of grabbing it with my fingers, because my hands barely worked.
When I was 25, I had an image of my future. I saw myself having babies that I would not be able to hold because my arms wouldn’t work. I said “enough”. I quit my job and decided to take a year to travel by myself. My grandmother said “how frivolous of you, to quit your job and not work.” Others said “How could you give up such a prestigious job and opportunity?” My father called me up and said “Holly you should have talked to me before quitting. I would have listened and helped you to figure out how to make it work.” My father has a large ego and delighted in bragging about my achievements, so it was painful for him when I gave the job up. I said “Dad, you didn’t call me to listen. You called me to tell me what to do.” As was my way, I followed my gut. Warriors follow their own path without needing anyone else to understand.
When I was 26, I traveled the world. I spent over a month in India by myself – doing yoga, sitting on beaches, being chased and almost eaten by wild dogs, getting harassed by locals who were shocked to see a white woman by herself, and riding a motorbike on rough roads between rice paddy fields. I spent 6 weeks in Thailand laying in hammocks, visiting ruins, training in Thai massage, learning to pound out my own curry paste, and watching sunsets. I ran all over Greece and Turkey and also visited people I cared about all over the US. This warrior woman walked the earth by herself, without fear. Or perhaps I should say – there was fear, and I faced it over and over. Fear did not own me. Warriors become even stronger in the face of fear.
When I was 29, I had a baby with the man that had become my husband. Labor did not go well. When I was in early labor, a family member was visiting. We had conflict, she yelled at me, my labor stopped, we had to ask her to leave. My body was never able to go back into labor naturally. Once I was 2 weeks overdue, they induced. My body was confused and did not take to the unnatural interventions. I refused all pain medication, because I always do everything the hard way. This warrior labored for 40 full hours without medication before they started losing the baby’s heartbeat and cut me open. I was devastated and promptly fell into a very dark year of post partum depression. Sometimes warriors get beaten down, but they always get back up.
When I was 33, I began to climb mountains. In fact, I had just been cut open for the birth of my second child, but still – 9 weeks after my second C-section I was hiking up a local trail with my baby strapped to my chest. I was determined not to succumb to post partum depression again and hiking was going to be my path away from the darkness. I hiked with Melanie twice a week. I made myself do it even when I had been up all night nursing, even when I didn’t want to go. Warrior mama wasn’t going to give up. I liked hiking and decided I wanted to climb Mt Rainier some day. Once Melanie went to pre-school I didn’t have a baby strapped to me when I hiked, so I filled my pack with sand bags and water bottles. Eventually I was hiking regularly with a 50-60lb pack. I took a 10 day mountaineering class in order to learn self arrest, glacier travel, and crevasse rescue. I joined a guided trip on Rainier to attempt the summit via the Kautz glacier, but we were turned around at 12k feet because of crumbling conditions and 2 avalanches that we narrowly missed. I was mad. I wanted the summit but knew that that day wasn’t the day. This warrior wasn’t going to let it go. When warriors fail, they lick their wounds and try again.
I went back a month later and had a successful summit via the Winthrop glacier. I limped home with scabbed and bleeding ankles. My friends said “Oh your poor feet!” to which I grinned, shrugged, and replied “It’s just skin. Skin grows back.” It was the hardest thing I’d ever done and I was drunk with endorphins and euphoria for days. I vowed to climb Rainier every year.
When I was 39, I became a widow.
An avalanche on Mount Rainier took my husband and the father of my children off Liberty Ridge, 3300 feet straight down onto the Carbon Glacier. In an instant, I became broken and lost my life as I knew it. In my darkest hour, I’ve found that being a warrior means all the same things that it meant before –
Being a warrior means that even though I’m beaten down, I get back up. When I wake up sobbing in the morning and my dark passenger of grief tells me that I will never be happy again I still get out of bed and face my day through the tears, ache, and despair. Being a warrior means that I keep breathing. The pain of my loss often fills my chest so completely that I feel I will choke on it, vomit it up. I cough and sputter on this rancid smoke from the battle field, but still – I keep breathing.
Being a warrior means that I do not regret being on the front line and taking a bullet to the chest, because in this case the front line is true, unconditional love. I loved with every fiber of my being and it is because of this beautiful, tender, all encompassing love that I am so ripped apart. Being a warrior means knowing that some day I will be ready to love again and will volunteer for the front line that storms the castle, even if it means my heart will take another bullet. Warriors take a bullet and get back up. I get back up.
Being a warrior means softening and accepting help. When a warrior is down, she lets her squadron carry her off the field and tend to her wounds. I’m damaged, broken, wounded from the greatest battle of my life, a battle that isn’t over and will never be over. Warriors are so tough and strong that sometimes it kills them to admit they cannot do it all, but I admit it – I cannot survive this journey alone. When I am so filled with grief that I can barely care for my children, I allow others to care for them. When my traumatized children cry and beg me to marry someone else so that they can have a father again, I hold them. Afterwards, I let someone else hold me as I sob and break down from the pain of knowing that I cannot give my children their innocence back. I hang my vulnerability and needs out in plain view. Every single day I am almost crippled by the instinct to harden, to shut off from the rest of the world, but I don’t give in. I soften. I open. I let you tend to my oozing and raw wounds.
Being a warrior means that I do not shrink from the challenge, no matter how hard and scary it might be. I go to all the hard places, the places I went to with him. I go to our favorite trails, our favorite campgrounds, and gaze upon our favorite mountains, even though doing so fills me with so much grief that I feel I will literally vomit. However, I do not let fear or grief own me. I face these spots that remind me of all of my pain, because they also remind me of all of my joy. On my wedding anniversary, I climbed a mountain that gave me a full view of Mount Rainier – the mountain that took John’s life. I sat there, for an hour, gazing on the mountain that is both my husbands death bed and the place where his soul now flies free. I meditated with my eyes closed and opened my heart to his soul. I allowed him to fill me with light and love, so that I might have the strength I need to keep getting up every day. I do not let my fear cause me to run away. Running away from grief would mean running away from John.
Being a warrior means that I lean in and move through the pain, rather than locking it up inside. I cry all the tears, write all the words, and feel all the feelings. I do not stay on the periphery of my opponent, I lean in to the center. I do not aim for the board with my palm, I aim through the board and allow my force to flow through. The way out is through. Being a warrior means being true to my path. I sit in my darkness even if none of you understand my ways or can cope with sitting in the darkness with me. Being a warrior means knowing that life is messy and that one can’t always be graceful through it all. I face the mess. I face the rest of my life, not knowing where it will take me.
Being a warrior means baring it all. I stand before you, naked, on top of a mountain. Having been on the front lines, I’m bullet ridden, bleeding, covered in filth, hair ripped out, with shrapnel buried in my burnt and charred skin. Some of you can’t handle me in this state and find it too overwhelming to be on the battlefield among all the gore. Still, I stand here on this mountain, naked, in my most damaged and horrific state for you all to see, because this is my truth – I am a warrior.