Forever 16

Last night, I had a dream I was at a school dance. Midway through the dream, a slow song came on — a Peabo Bryson / Gloria Estefan number, I’m sure — and the boy for whom I had a painful, obsessive crush all through high school asked me to slow dance. Not only that, but midway through the slow dance, the boy — for he was still a boy in the dream — looked me in the eyes and kissed me on the lips for all to see.

In that moment, I felt as if I had arrived. My entire body seemed to melt with relief.

I’m worthy of attention. I’m deserving of a slow dance. I’m attractive enough for a kiss on the lips from the cutest boy, in front of everyone.

When I awoke, however, the relief fluttered away. At first, I thought the dream was funny. How is it that 20+ years later I am still dreaming of “the cutest boy” and still yearning for his notice?

But then, I took the message a little more seriously. I understood that I am still desperate to be chosen. And this is…a little sad.

Does the need for validation from “the cutest boy in school” ever dissipate? Will there ever be a time I will feel seen for the who I am and the what I create? What will that self-reliant being seen-ness require of me?

Last week, I spent three days chaperoning my 13-year-old’s class trip to Jerusalem. It was a rare opportunity to see him and his classmates in action, outside the classroom, inside the system of coed adolescence. I tried to pinpoint the girl in the group that was once me.

How hard did I work to be seen then? What did I do to show others I was worthy of their attention? When did I scoot back to avoid being noticed? (Did I ever?) What display of myself was I afraid of exposing back then?

I realized that not much has changed. As then, I care less about my looks and my clothes than I do about deep meaningful connections with other human beings who share similar interests and a sense of humor. But that need for connection comes at a price. You cannot connect alone, just because you want to, just because you feel something, just because you think now is the time. Connection requires mutuality, shared admiration or affection. It requires action…choice. And, yet, it also demands a certain letting go of control.

There will always be times when the connection doesn’t happen; if, for instance, the desire for it is one-sided. And, perhaps this is a lesson that one keeps on learning, long after high school, well into life. On and on and on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I cry at bar mitzvahs

There is nothing like a lifecycle event to open my heart. Combined with the penetrating power of song and prayer, these moments make me so feel so vulnerable, so very aware of our humanity, of life’s fragility.

Since we moved to Hannaton in late 2010, I’ve been present for six bar or bat mitzvahs, five brises or baby namings. I’ve cried at all of them. Sometimes I’ve cried, too, at Shabbat services during the mishaberach prayer for the ill or during a minyan enabling one of my neighbors to say the mourner’s kaddish. Seven have lost a parent since I’ve lived here.

This past weekend — as our oldest child became a bar mitzvah in the synagogue on Kibbutz Hannaton — it was our family’s turn to be at the center of the community’s attention. My body still reverberates the joy that filled every inch of it on Saturday, as our friends and family welcomed my son into symbolic “adulthood.” At some later date, I might share my reflections on the immense gratitude I feel in response to the volunteer efforts of our friends and extended family so we could simply be present for this occasion. It was a gift like no other.

For family and friends who were not able to attend, and for readers of this blog, below is the dvar torah (a reflection on the weekly chapters of Torah read this past Shabbat) I offered to the community on Friday night in advance of the bar mitzvah. The torah portion, the beginning of Shemot, should be familiar even to non-Jews as it’s the story that is the basis for the film, The Ten Commandments.

I welcome your own reflections in the comments.


 

If Moshe had a bar mitzvah, I wonder what language he would have given the dvar torah in?

We learn in the parsha this week, that Moshe was a Hebrew by birth and in his early years, as he is nursed by his mother, is part of his Hebrew family’s household. Presumably, he learns their language, their traditions; becomes accustomed to them. But — though, we don’t know when exactly — Moshe leaves his early home and grows up in the royal palace, among Egyptian family, and Egyptian friends.

It could be, if Moshe had to give a dvar torah in young adulthood, he might have preferred to speak in his Egyptian language.  This was a revelation to me, and a comfort. That Moshe — one of our greatest heroes — was also a person who lived between two languages, two identities.

We also know Moshe questioned his ability to speak in front of a crowd, to be able to move the people God intended him to move.  He says to God in chapter 4:

“God, I am not a man of words … for I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.”

Maybe that difficulty with speech had something to do with his living between languages.

Recently, inside an old cardboard box, I found the dvar torah from my own bat mitzvah  There it was, my speech, typed up and printed out on 1980s IBM printer paper, marked up first in red by the rabbi and then in blue in my mom’s cursive handwriting.

I read the speech. The words didn’t sound like they came from me. They were the rabbi’s words, and my mother’s. But not mine, not really.

I wondered then, reading my speech from 1987: Do we even have our own words at 13?

Of course we do. Except everyone is trying their hardest to make us say everything else but what we really want to say. They’re trying to shape our words in the same way they’re trying to shape us. In the hopes we’ll grow into smart, kind, loving, good people.

They — our often well-meaning parents, teachers, rabbis — might say to our face, “We love you just the way you are.” But then they act — we act — in a way so counter to this statement. We monitor and evaluate our children’s behavior, we narrate and judge their choices, we edit their words.

I wasn’t very good at speeches when I was 13. Probably because I hadn’t yet found the courage to speak in my real voice, with my choice of words. Since then, I’ve discovered the thrill of sharing my own words with others. Of writing what I think, of investigating my beliefs, of challenging people, of learning others feel the way I do or don’t.

A few weeks ago, however, when I started thinking about writing this speech in honor of Tobey’s bar mitzvah, I got nervous. I found myself asking, What am I going to speak about? What language should I speak in? Would only half the room really be listening if I spoke in English? Would I embarrass Tobey if I spoke in Hebrew? Would I sound like an idiot talking about Torah? Who am I to talk about Torah? Is that really me?

The questions, I realized, were not unlike those of a young person becoming a bar or bat mitzvah.

 

*  *  *

 

There’s a movie I used to love as a kid called Freaky Friday. For those of you who don’t know the movie, it’s about a teenage girl and her mother who one morning magically switch places for a few days. As a kid, I loved this movie for the reason most kids love this movie: Wouldn’t it be awesome to get to be a grownup for a day? To switch bodies with my mom and get to be the one to make all the decisions? To CHOOSE the way my day goes, the way my life goes? When to wake up? What to wear? Whether or not to even get out of bed in the morning?

The irony — all of us grownups realize — is that being an adult is a lot harder than a child imagines it is.

But what’s also true — and what grownups often forget — is that being a child is a lot harder than we adults remember.

Being 13 is hard. You’re straddling adulthood and childhood. And you’re not sure, not really, in which direction you’d prefer to travel. Back to fourth grade, when homework was easier and friends were kinder. Or forward, where there is more freedom, but also more responsibility, confusion, and uncertainty.

I’d argue, too, that this splitting of identities is accentuated for a 13 year old living in two languages, two cultures.  English at home but Hebrew at school or on the soccer field. You often might find yourself asking, Tobey, as I often do, who am I? Am I the me in my own mind? Or am I the me out loud? And is there any way to blend the two?

What I want to say to you Tobey is that life is like Freaky Friday. There are days — like in the beginning of the movie — when you wish you were in the body of somebody else. And there are days — after all the madness that ensues — when you realize just how good it is to be you.

And usually we spend more of our time wondering what it might be like to be someone else instead of getting to know better and loving the person we are right now. This is not something that gets much easier in adulthood, but my wish for you this year Tobey and onwards is for a greater awareness of your true you right now.

Who was Moshe really on any given day? What propelled him that day in the fields to strike down the Egyptian? Who was he in the moment he did? Was he a Jew protecting his own? Or a compassionate Egyptian with a general care for humanity?  And what frightened Moshe afterwards? Was it only the idea of getting caught or was it the guilt of hurting someone who was a member of his own community?  Of one of his communities?

Moshe, if you think about it, was both an insider and an outsider wherever he went. There came a time when he had to decide, however, which of his identities was stronger, and that happens to us too, sometimes.

Tobey: I wish for you …to know who you are… and to love who you are. I wish for you self-compassion on the days when you question who you are (and there will be days when you question who you are). I wish for you the wisdom to distinguish between what others want for you and what you want for yourself. Not just in the short-term, but in the long-term. And so I wish for you also patience.

I wish for you a peaceful, quiet place for those times when you need to consider your choices and I wish for you the courage to choose to be YOU in the face of self-doubt or criticism.

You’ve shown us since you were a little boy that you have the makings of a leader. Being a leader is not always easy, though, as you’ve seen both at home and outside of it. I want you to hear today — in front of everybody who loves you  — that Dad and I are proud of you. We trust you and we believe in you.

There is light inside of you that shines so brightly, Tobey. We see it most clearly when you’re playing rough with your brother and sister. We can hear it, even, when you’re laughing with your buddies upstairs.

May your life continue to be filled with that light and may you continue to shine it upon others. Our lives are fuller with you in them.

Shabbat shalom.

 

 

Make It Easy on Yourself

My husband: “Seriously, Jen. This Facebook post about your thesis defense must be your most popular post ever. People keep liking it.”

Me: “It makes up for the nine birthday wishes I got this year.”

My husband: “No, really. I think it’s because of what you wrote about me.”

Me: “What? Because I was publicly nice to you? That thing about love and support?”

My husband: “Yes. That. Exactly.”

Me: “I don’t think so. People just like milestones. And baby pictures. And cats.”

*   *   *

I love Facebook birthdays. Seriously, the last eight birthdays since I joined Facebook have made up for the 30+ birthdays prior.

My birthday is in August. Worse: the end of August. No one remembers your birthday when they are boogey boarding and eating funnel cake by the Jersey shore.

This year, as most years, I pretended to not be excited about my upcoming Facebook birthday. I also pretended to not be upset at 12 noon on August 19 when I had only received birthday greetings on my wall from my mother and my old friend, Sondra, with whom I share a private birthday challenge. (For decades now, we’ve competed to be the first to wish each other a happy birthday.)

Checking my watch as we set out for our family vacation to the Israeli desert, I silently pacified my ego by blaming the time difference between Israel and the U.S. However, later that evening, only a handful of greetings on “the wall,” I realized the annual sea of flattery and acknowledgment was not coming.

I would, I guess, need to feel satisfied by the real-time, in-person love of the people in my company: my husband, my three kids, and friends we were travelling with. That was new.

susan d note fb

*   *   *

When I turned 18, the week before we all left for college, my girlfriends bought me a book about sex and a package of Today sponges as a birthday present. A how-to guide with illustrated positions, that book might have been the most thoughtful birthday present I ever got from friends. I saved it for many years. It was lost somewhere between Elizabeth, NJ and the port of Haifa.

I wonder if writing today about this memory of the birthday sex book  is why I dreamed last night about a college boyfriend I haven’t seen in decades, and why I remembered this morning he said to me once, “Enough with the hand job. I can do that myself.”

*   *   *

The good thing about your Facebook friends forgetting your birthday is the idea that once something is on the internet, it might have a chance at one day being forgotten. That we don’t have to worry so much about naked photos of our children on instagram or that time we wrote a blog post about the color and consistency of our poop.

*   *   *

There’s a line in my thesis I love. In fact, it might be one of the most important statements in my entire thesis (a lyric essay memoir).

Despite my fears of saying what I really think, I am almost certain the people who have loved me over the years of my life love me because of the words I’ve spoken out loud, not because of the words I’ve kept to myself. 

This almost-belief is what allows me to sleep the nights I’m worried about the words I’ve written: on the blog, in old letters on frayed pages of spiral-bound notebook paper, or in emails during the late nineties. It makes me think I will one day be forgiven by anyone I’ve ever hurt. It gives me the confidence to continue sharing my internal truths, even when I’m so frightened by the consequences of admitting to them.

*   *   *

Truth: I suffered the absence of my Facebook birthday this year. I really did. And I will likely suffer next year, so DON’T FORGET!

I don’t like that about myself. I don’t like how much I want your attention, how much I want you to remember me…and fondly. I don’t like that I still struggle with loving myself enough so that I don’t need to be loved by you.

But I’m getting there.

Maybe this is why so many people liked my “thesis defense post.” They subconsciously know I’m getting there.

 I’m getting there.

5 Random Facts About Me

Deborah chose me and I’ll have to be honest — I was excited. In a tingly “you’ve been selected” sorta way. I felt it …well, I won’t tell you where, but it’s the same spot in my body and the same physical sensation I get whenever I’ve decided I’ve been designated special by someone.

Of course, this sensitivity to being chosen also makes me physically vulnerable to the dark side of egocentric arousal — for when someone decides I’m not special (or worse, unremarkable or overrated), the tingly sensation moves down to my lower digestive tract; I spend the next few hours in the bathroom, and … well you can imagine the rest.

Deborah dared me to reveal five random facts about myself. I use the word “dare” lightly because, let’s be honest, if I didn’t enjoy disclosing facts about myself, you and I wouldn’t be enjoying this writer/reader virtual pseudo-relationship. In fact, if I could just eliminate the urge to tell you stuff, I might be able to once and for all walk away from social media.

I could be happy.

But then, I wouldn’t be a writer.

Which leads me to Random Fact #1.

Everyday anxiety is an “organizing principle” in my life. In other words, it has made me who I am today and continues to make me who I am no matter how much yoga I practice, no matter which books I read, how much air I breathe, no matter how slowly or deeply. Anxiety is an essential element of me.

I did not realize there was a name for this condition until I read a passage yesterday about Joan Didion written by Vivian Gornick in her book on writing called The Situation and the Story:

For Joan Didion, ordinary, everyday anxiety is an organizing principle. Out of it she has created a depressed, quivering persona that serves her talent wonderfully … in [her] essays, where a subject beyond the self must be intersected with—migraine headache, the Black Panthers, California and the American Dream—Didion’s gorgeous nerves are brought under brilliant control. It is here, in this form, that her existential nervousness is developed with such artistry that insight transforms, and literature is made through the naked use of the writer’s emotional disability.

Don’t mistake my admission of Random Fact #1 as me comparing myself to successful memoirist and essayist Joan Didion. As if! But out of this I understand that my acid reflux and my artistry, my migraines and my imagination, like Didion’s, go hand and hand. And that I am far, far from alone.

Which leads me to …

Random Fact #2

One of my most notable appearances in the media was in the Associated Press when I was quoted as being a sufferer of irritable bowel syndrome. Equally classy, I was quoted in the Chicago Tribune as not only suffering from IBS, but also allergies and anxiety. At the time, those interviews seemed like a good idea for the personal brand I was building (as a wellness expert and writer). Now, I’m not so sure.

Random Fact #3

My bowel, ever irritable, offered me the distinct honor of pooping in the Executive Office building of the White House where I volunteered every Wednesday morning between the hours of 4 am  and 9 am for the Clinton administration’s Communications Office one semester in 1994. Also in the Embassy of Israel where I interned for a semester. And in the Starbucks on K Street.

I was just telling a friend of mine yesterday, in fact, that I had this brilliant idea when I used to live in Manhattan in the late 90s. I wanted to research and publish a Zagat type listing of all the best bathrooms in Manhattan. I zagathad mentally logged most of the cleanest ones in SoHo, where I lived and worked at the time, for my own personal benefit since I never knew where or when I would need quick access to a tidy and private stall. But what if I expanded my research to the entire island? And categorized the lists according to not just cleanliness, but also friendly to, let’s say, hookups? Cleaning up after an accidental coffee spills on the train? Best for vomiting? Ones with condoms? Tampons? Fresh mints? Luxury bathrooms easily accessed in hotel lobbies? Restrooms frequented by celebrities?

I never wrote the book, but it’s on my list of “good ideas that could have made me money if only I wasn’t so lazy.”

Which leads to …

Random Fact #4

I practically invented Facebook. If you don’t believe me, ask anyone who knew me in 1999. Especially my parents … because they like to brag about that almost as much as they like to say I was a “White House intern.” Which I wasn’t … I was a “volunteer.” You don’t need to watch Scandal to know that Washington has a hierarchy. A hierarchy, people. That said, I was a volunteer in the White House the same time Monica was an intern.

Back to Facebook and how I missed an opportunity to be a gajillionaire.

In 1999, a half a year or so before the internet bubble burst, I built on my Dell computer and maintained all on my own from my one bedroom apartment on Prince Street a web site called oldcampfriends.com. I came up with the idea because I was obsessed and preoccupied with my overnight camp experience and friends and figured other people were, too. This was before you could Google stalk anyone or pay $9.99 for a dossier on them. It was difficult, still, to track down old friends.

I built it on the old Homestead site builder online software. I created a form that people filled in and submitted. I HAND-FILLED in the information (their names and email addresses) on the profile pages I created for each camp: Camp Wekeela, Camp Wohelo, Pine Forest, Camp Anawana, Camp Ramah New England, Camp Nah-Jee-Way, Che-Na-Wah, Moshava, you name it. Your camp was there. Via oldcampfriends.com you were able to reconnect with your bunkmate, your first kiss, the counselor you always wanted to hook up with but who was too fearful of arrest … Oldcampfriends.com? It took you there.

Coulda been Facebook. Coulda been Facebook.

oldcampfriends screen shot 3

(Those hikers at the top were animated GIFs.)

If oldcampfriends.com leaves any legacy it is to illustrate how impactful the people who have passed through my life have been and continue to be even after they’re gone. It is to show that when you leave me — because leave me you must — you don’t ever really leave.

Random Fact #5

You remain inside me — sometimes as acid reflux, sometimes as tingles that recur when I look at your picture or handle between my thumbs the friendship bracelet you once wove for me in the arts and crafts cabin, or the mixed tape you made me that summer. You remain inside me, as a song or a slow dance or as a scene from a movie we watched together on Betamax in your basement. You remain inside me; sometimes as an eternal punishment, sometimes as an occasional pleasure. You remain.

Random fact: I am forever tagged by you.

You, the people.

==

I tag Sarah, Nina, Judy, Tienne, and Jason.