Paula dances the tango. Photo courtesy of Richard Love.
Paula dances the tango. Photo courtesy of Richard Love.

SocietyJuly 13, 2023

Played in the key of grief: remembering Paula Harris

Paula dances the tango. Photo courtesy of Richard Love.
Paula dances the tango. Photo courtesy of Richard Love.

Poet and essayist Paula Harris, who was reported as missing on 26th June, was found dead yesterday. Her friend Anna Sophia remembers her extraordinary talent, wit, bravery and heart. 

Content warning: This piece discusses depression and suicide. Please take care.

The last Sunday of June. My least favorite month. Shortened days that end before they begin, a grey Manawatū landscape that is bleak or beautiful depending on your frame of mind.

It’s a busy month in the counselling trade. Referrals are rolling in fast. Depression. My father killed himself in June a long time ago. 

I am scrolling news sites on my phone, avoiding my life, when I see my old friend Paula Harris’s beautiful face on the screen. She’s been missing for a few days. I message Richard, Paula’s ex-boyfriend and long-time companion. “WTF?” 

“There is no good news to know,” he replies.

Paula Harris smiling with a rabbit. All photos are courtesy of Richard Love.

It’s been a while since I caught up with Paula. It’s often like that with old friends. They stay living safely in your heart and you think there will always be enough time. Until there isn’t. 

My mother is 94, and until recently when the last of her old friends died, she was constantly on the phone talking to people she had known when she was 16 or 38 or 45 and onward. I imagine myself at 94, still living in my little house, the only place in this world I belong, finally having time to reconnect with all the wonderful people who have impacted my life.

The different life stages we share with friends add significantly to our development as people.

Contemporary Western thought has a linear approach to life, filled with severed straight lines. I don’t like straight lines or severance and there is no separation between the past, present and future. All relationships stay a part of your life story forever. When you’ve shared a closeness with a friend and they die, the unique alchemy that existed only between the two of you dies too and that loss is painful. 

I met Paula in 1996 at the women’s writing programme at Te Whare Akonga Open Learning Centre, where a mixed bunch of women rocked up on Friday mornings and spat out, then remade, their lives. 

Most of us were going through some kind of awakening. Most of us are still going through some kind of awakening. You are never truly free from patriarchal shackles and sometimes it takes a while to find the right key to unlock them, over and over again so you can claim your turangawaewae.

In the 90s we believed that social change would happen as quickly as we wrote it. I have since learned in my six decades of life that ideas first created in the margins take at least 20, if not 30, years to meander their way into mainstream thinking.

A subgroup hatched from our Friday writing gatherings. We received funding from Creative Communities to run performance poetry workshops and publish our poems and we hit the Palmerston North performance stage in full technicolour. I wore a lime green fur miniskirt and Paula was resplendent in purple.

My verses were less poetry and more furious feminist missives:

Mother, Lover, Wife 

you don’t hear my voice

you say I’m insane or mad

a rabid feminist who can’t catch a man

how sad

hey sister

I understand 

a girl with a brain ain’t a prize in this land 

cos I don’t play rugby and 

I ain’t got a dick and I’m not scared to shout 

you’re a fucken prick.

An experiment in definition. Anna Sophia, 1996

Paula performed beautiful, succinct poems with more finesse than I could ever muster. She wrote from her body, her heart and soul in simple prose with perfect poetic timing:

Rangi Lying Down With Papatuanuku

We lie together
And your body touches
The rise of my hills
And your body touches
The darkness of my cave

We lie together
And my body touches
The lightness of your clouds
And my body touches
The whisper of your air

We lie together
And your fingers clasp
The warmth of my earth
And my fingers clasp
The nothing of your sky

We lie together
And your body
Enters mine
And my body
Receives yours

A poem by Paula Harris. First published in Spin 26 (1996). Also published in Sweet Clarity (1996).

Paula was not a poet’s poet and she hated traditional poetry. She wanted to read and write poems that punched her in the gut. She disliked poetry where she needed a dictionary to translate every word. 

For a time, we called ourselves Streetwomen. We were women from the street writing relatable rhymes for other women on the street. In 1996, Paula set up Street Women Press to publish her own poetry and in 2001 she published Lyrics without Melody, a selection of poems by iconic feminist singer/songwriter, the late Mahinarangi Tocker.

Paula and I also shared a te whare tapa wha approach to health and wellbeing. We were both trained in massage therapy and for many years we did week-about massage swaps. 

The 2000s took on a faster pace as Paula grappled with some major physical health issues and almost died. She bounced back as only Paula could, but the physical ramifications of the surgery and illness never left. Despite this, Paula was creative, energetic and meticulous, and between 1998 and 2018 she juggled all her small business ventures successfully. 

She was a naturopath, an aromatherapist, and the best massage therapist I have ever received a massage from. She was passionate about dancing the tango and she and Richard taught weekly classes. She loved cooking and taught Italian cooking classes. She was a GROOVE dance facilitator and a pilates instructor. She was an excellent scribe for community groups and was active on various art, environmental and educational committees. 

She was always stylishly dressed in her beautifully aesthetic, self-designed clothes. 

She was a writer, mainly a poet, but she enjoyed a side trip in essay writing. A creative project of a different sort was finally launched in February this year after a long time in the making. Four different filmmakers chose one of Paula’s poems and made a short film based on their own interpretation of the poem. Paula describes it as “a poem and a music video having a baby”. 

On the night I found out Paula was missing, I stayed up late scouring her social media pages searching for clues to her whereabouts. The answers were there. They were cryptic but easy to decipher. 

We were all too late, even those of us who are fluent in the language of a suffering soul.

I have worked as a counsellor for 25 years and I manage a no-cost community counselling service in the Rangitikei district. At the counselling centre, most of the people we see believe they have depression. 

I visualise depression on a bell curve.  At one end there’s lowercase depression and at the other end sits capped, bold DEPRESSIONThe two extremes bear little resemblance to each other, except they share the same name and usually get lumped together, like it’s a single entity that is the same for everyone. 

Lowercase “depression” is easy to unpack. It’s everyday life stuff that happens as we struggle to make sense of our fragile existence on this planet. Loss, grief, relationships, despair, sadness, anger, anxiety, deep feelings all stuffed down, unexplored and unexpressed. For older women I will also add menopause into that complex mix as well. 

In the privacy of the counselling room, after the stories have been told, cried and raged over, after new strategies have been mapped out and implemented, this “depression” dissipates quickly, and the clients trot off happily, never to be seen again at the counselling centre. (Marton is a small town, so we still see them in the supermarket or the local cafes, even years later, and they are still doing fine.)

Experienced counsellors can help people as easily as an electrician rewiring the house, a plumber unblocking a pipe or a dentist extracting a tooth. A good counsellor is the tradesperson of the human psyche. 

DEPRESSION, at the other end of the bell curve, is an enormous, wicked beast with sharp teeth that won’t let go. It takes up residence deep inside a person’s soul and seeks to destroy everything in its path. This is not like a bad day or week, or even year or two. This is likely to be a lifetime bloody curse that gets seasonably worse. It’s serious, often unmanageable, and not well understood by the people suffering it, their loved ones or the professionals whose job it is to help them. And you can die from it.

This kind of DEPRESSION leaves the most experienced counsellor quaking in their boots. It requires a level of care with a lot more resources available than a once-a-week, timeframe-limited appointment. People suffering at this level in Aotearoa usually have only one place they can go whether they want to or not: into the bowels of the Community Mental Health system. Often with a one-way ticket. 

Over the past five years, DEPRESSION set up a permanent home inside Paula and her sense of wellbeing steadily diminished. However, her prolific creativity remained as intact as ever. 

She wrote a heartbreaking account of her experience within the mental health systemBeing a client of a mental health system anywhere in Aotearoa can be a hit and miss affair. Most people who work within that system really care about helping people to get well and are committed to doing their very best. But it’s a tired, overwhelmed system with high staff turnover so it can be hard for the consumer to find consistent care with someone they can trust and who is skilled enough for the transformative alchemy of healing to take place.

Paula was not a fan of new-age positive affirmations so it was never a good idea to offer any kind of twee, “things will get better soon” off-kilter comment.

At her best, Paula was truly outrageous and enviably admirable. She had a pithy, wry sense of humour and her writing was brave and confronting. 

In much of her writing, she talks about sexual desire with a passionate honesty that has even me (who clearly is not as open-minded as I think I am) sometimes keeling over in shock. Only Paula Harris could write an essay pairing up watching boring free TV with masturbation. I heard that even this version was heavily censored before publication [editor’s note: it was].

A friend of Paula’s said her writing “could both charm and disarm you simultaneously”. Paula was like that in real life too. She imprinted on many people’s lives in Palmerston North, where she lived all her life. (Sometimes she struggled with that one like the rest of us who are astonished to realise we have been living here for a very long time when we didn’t mean to be.) 

She had an extensive writing and creative network in Aotearoa, as well as far-flung places around the world, who chanced upon her writing in the many journals that published her work and said, “Whoa, this is amazing writing. Who is this woman? I want to know her.”

She left us last month. She left us devastated and asking lots of questions. 

She was very tired, and her beautiful brain needed to rest. 

Where to get help:

• Lifeline: Call 0800 543 354 or text 4357 (HELP) (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: Call 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youth services: (06) 3555 906
• Youthline: Call 0800 376 633 or text 234
• What’s Up: Call 0800 942 8787 (11am to 11pm) or webchat (11am to 10.30pm)
• Depression helpline: Call 0800 111 757 or text 4202 (available 24/7)
• Helpline: Need to talk? Call or text 1737

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

Keep going!