“I feel like I’ve lived a thousand lives.”
Life: Before Papa Died
Elwie Apor Harris should not remember her Papa. He was murdered–shot in the chest–when she was just two-and-a-half years old. Yet she can can still picture riding on the back of his motorcycle. She remembers him taking her to get ice cream at the pier. What she recalls mostly of her Papa, however, is the hole left in her life by his sudden absence.
Life: As a Child in Cebu
It wasn’t just her father who went away after his death. Elwie’s mother, who still carried Elwie’s brother in her womb while she watched her husband die, was forced to go to work soon after his death in order to support the family. She worked long hours, leaving Elwie in her grandmother’s care. For the first ten years of her life, Elwie did not see much of her mother.
She was born and lived in Cebu, in the central part of the Philippines. She, her brother, and her cousins all lived under one roof in a neighborhood where it seemed like most people were connected or related somehow.
Like many places in the Philippines, powerful storms and flooding were a frequent problem. “I remember the lights would go off,” Elwie explains, “and we used to make shapes out of our hands with the candle light, and we would make our own little canoes and we’d canoe through the neighborhood. The water was only like a foot deep, but we were kids, so it seemed so high to us. So we would canoe through our village and get everyone smiling, waving at people and flinging the water. We made the best out of what we had.”
Making do in tough circumstances is something Elwie saw her family do time and again. Elwie cried during our interview as she described the way her mother always projected happiness while dealing with the trauma and obstacles she faced in life. “What I know of her today is: one, she’s brave; and two, for all that she’s been through, she’s happy and bubbly. And I look at her and I’m like, Mom, how do you do that? It’s hard for me to walk around sometimes because I carry that weight. I have to go through a process almost to just let that weight go. But with her, she just does it so effortlessly. And really, I’m proud of it. It makes me celebrate her more, you know, as a mother. She’s amazing.”
Elwie has not always felt this warmly toward her mother. “I went through a phase of resent,” she says. “I resented her because I never saw her and I never knew her.”
Life: in America
Things changed drastically when Elwie was ten years old, and her mother decided to marry a man from Iowa whom she had met through an American pen pal. It was a choice her mother made to provide a better life for her children, but it came with a cost. Elwie and her brother were taken from their family and transported to a new, unfamiliar world.
Elwie describes herself as a rebellious teenager during her adolescence. “There was a lot of confrontation growing up,” she explains. She couldn’t always see how the effort of adapting to a new culture was just as hard on her mother as it was on Elwie.
The inward turmoil juxtaposed with the expectation of outward cheerfulness was confusing to Elwie. “It’s easy to fall into depression [after trauma], and I fell into that without realizing that I was there, actually. And I think it was because I was sugar-coating everything, and everything was being sugar-coated for me because I was so young to really understand. To this day, I don’t know why my father died the way that he did. So, I disconnected myself. I disconnected myself from self.”
Elwie understands now that this kind of disconnect from her deeper emotional needs was ultimately not healthy. “Growing up,” she says, “I was like, I just want to be happy. I don’t care what’s going on. I just want to be happy. Which turned me into this very selfish person who didn’t care about anybody else’s feelings except for my own.”
When I asked Elwie was what are some of the values she tries to live by today, she answered, “Authenticity. That’s something that I’ve been practicing so much of. And I practice that because I think with authenticity, knowing yourself fully, whether it’s good emotions or bad emotions or thoughts, when you can accept all of that about yourself, you have a better understanding of happiness, of joy, and self.”
Life: As a Wanderer
It wasn’t until she left Iowa and got lost for a while that Elwie really began to find herself. At the age of twenty-three, she packed two suitcases and left with a friend for California. She had $400 and no place to live. Over the next several years, she worked and stayed in a variety of places–she says she spent part of one year just couch surfing. Gradually she picked up film jobs both in front of and behind the camera.
She started learning guitar by watching YouTube videos. It was a creative outlet she used to help her stay positive. “I found that I could use art as an outlet, so playing the guitar was one, and also being engulfed in the whole making of [film] projects. That was when I realized, Okay, well, I need an outlet for me to keep up with this happy thing that I’m looking for.”
Life: of Health, Authenticity, and Gratitude
As helpful as those creative outlets were, Elwie eventually found that she couldn’t rely on them for overall health and happiness. She needed to go deeper, to get at underlying issues that were still causing her problems.
Ultimately, it was her body that intervened. After two years in California, Elwie was briefly hospitalized and discovered that she was severely malnourished. “Growing up as a girl,” she says, “all I was thinking was skinny. I wasn’t thinking about protein or any vitamins or minerals. So, I was going down this awful path of poor nutrition and overworking my body, and I was hospitalized. Thankfully there was nothing major where they needed to do any type of surgery. All I needed to do was take care of my nutrition.”
Shortly after that, she was introduced to Herbalife, a company that Elwie says taught her to take care of herself. (She runs an Herbalife business today.) Eventually, self-care went beyond nutrition and began to affect how she viewed other pieces of her life, like her relationship with her mother.
“I wanted to make sure that my mom and I had a good relationship, but for me to have that good relationship with my mom was for me to have a good relationship with myself. For me to have a good relationship with myself was for me to love myself. For me to love myself was for me to take care of myself.”
Part of Elwie’s self-care and the practice of authenticity involves not blaming others for her own emotional state. In the end, she says, that allows her to get better at loving them.
“Because of being authentic and practicing that, I’m learning to say [things like], ‘I’m losing a little bit of my patience.’ And so it’s not so much like saying, ‘You are the reason.’ It’s not blaming others. Which is loving on others when you’re not blaming. And then you have a better understanding of how you operate in these situations too. So, you have a little bit more control, as well. And I’ve not always been that way. I really haven’t. I’ve had times where I’ve lost complete control.”
Every day, she has learned, is a step in the process toward becoming something more. Some go better than others. But each experience, good or bad, is one for which she can be thankful. Even when speaking about the hardest parts of her life, she says, “as traumatic as they were, to some degree I’m glad I went through them.”
“One of the things that I did when I was in California was I would make a point to wake up and think of one thing to be grateful for. And it was a struggle, because I was like, I’m not grateful right now! I don’t want to get up, and I don’t want to […]. I don’t want to do anything today. But eventually what happened was, [as a result of that practice], I would be grateful for just being alive.”
Toward the end of 2014, Elwie decided to move back home to Eastern Iowa. Most of her Herbalife clients were here, and she was ready to take some time away from the entertainment industry to reflect on what she truly wanted out of life.
Being close to her parents again after years away has changed how she sees them. She told me a story about last New Year’s Eve, when she first recognized that her parents had fallen in love with each other. “They love to go dancing, that was their thing. So, I decided to join them. We had to stand in line for something, and my Mama and Dad were in front of me holding hands just like two sixteen-year-olds. And I’m looking at them like, Oh, my gosh! Hi! How have I never really recognized this up until now? And every time I’m around them I see things that I’m quite taken by, and it inspires me to find a love that is greater than my understanding of it. It’s beautiful, really.”
Not long ago, doctors discovered precancerous cells in her mother that had to be surgically removed. After spending the day at the hospital with her mother, Elwie was about to leave. Then her mother did something completely unexpected.
“She opens up her arms while she’s lying in bed,” Elwie said, “and I thought, Oh, my gosh! This is really happening. And I almost lost it there, but I wanted to make sure that, you know, I didn’t want to weaken her by any means, so I held it strong, and I gave her a hug, and I said, ‘I love you, Mama.’ And then she said, ‘I love you too.’”
The emotion from that embrace was still raw when Elwie recounted the experience in our interview. She acknowledges that she and her mother still have work to do in their relationship, but she is also profoundly thankful that they are getting the chance to reconnect.
Elwie Apor Harris is only thirty years old. She still has a lot to learn about herself, her family, and life. But she is on her way. Early in the conversation, when I asked her what she is looking forward to, she said, “Becoming. Becoming my highest potential.”
At first, I thought that sounded like a non-answer, a kind of generic platitude. But as the conversation deepened, I understood how much Elwie sees her life as a work in progress. The truth is, there are many more lives she could live in the future, and I didn’t get the sense that she has it all mapped out. “I just want to give back, somehow,” she told me.
For now, her business is going well, and being close to her parents and brother is important to her. She also longs to build deeper connections with her family in the Philippines. She has been back three times in her life, but has only met one of her Papa’s eight siblings.
During her last visit to Cebu, she went to her cousin’s restaurant opening with other family. While there, her uncle stood next to her and said, “Elwie, I want you to take a look at your Tito (Dad’s cousin).”
“Oh, why?” She asked.
“That’s exactly how your Papa is,” he said. “People would always think that they were twins because they had such similarities–the way they walked, the way they talked.”
“And then it hit me,” she says. “We had this table in front of everybody and I’m bawling, and I couldn’t control any of it. And I didn’t really care at the time. I was vulnerable, and I was happy, and there was this mix of emotion. So, of course, my reaction was to go sit next to him and touch him, just rub elbows with him. So, I did exactly that, and we have a picture where I’m holding onto his arm. And yeah, that was a special moment for me.”
Story by Courtney Ball. Photos by Josh Booth.
(Except this one, taken with Courtney’s phone, because it’s fun to watch Josh work.)