A list of things I’d rather be doing than frowning

Wiping the dust off an antique mirror inside a shop in Nogales
Kissing my baby on the underside of his left ear
Smelling the crusty old spit-up there
Listening to Van Morrison on the tape deck of the blue BMW

Opening that teeny tiny folded up love note with the lift-the-flaps
Chewing Hubba Bubba with one of the Adams
Asking Suzanne to fix my bra strap in gym class
Fun fun fun til her daddy takes the t-bird away

Sipping cider right through a straw
Licking powdered sugar off my fingers
Baking chocolate chip cookies for a sundae
Memorizing the lyrics to Don’t Stop Believing

Watching the third season of Lost
Braiding hair, anyone’s hair, but mostly my mother’s
Lying on my right side while my back is tickled, by anyone, but mostly by my mother
When they’d play I’d sing along, it made me smile.

Riding my bicycle down Queen Anne
Jumping off the high dive at Woodcrest Swim Club
Reading Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret
That time Scott dedicated Love Bites

Lying on my back on the rooftop at sunrise at Nimrod
Someone’s basement, an old couch, Good Morning Vietnam
Odd’s or GG Flipps, whichever
Something by Blues Traveler

Swimming from the beach to the floating deck
Choosing Biff or Malibu for my birthday kiss
A wella wella wella uh tell me more
I Will.

Stepping off the bus on Old Route 16
We’ll set the air reverberating with a mighty cheer
Pretending I am psychic
Dreaming the good ones, even if I forget them.

I wrote a letter to a friend

I wrote a letter to a friend today and inside that letter — which was not a letter but something like a letter sent by electronic mail — I composed my feelings into something like feelings. And it’s a pattern, my tendency to compose somethings like. It’s not a pattern but something like a pattern, something I do again and again, with or without noticing, with or without intention. Mine is not a compulsion, but something like a compulsion, for I am compelled to be something like me so that people like me. Not just people but something like people — specific persons who specifically like me but might not if I was anything else but something like me.

Something about this is unsettling, and settling.

For although there is something like disappointment every single time, something like failure; there is something like relief because something remains; this something is due, in fact, only to the space between the letters.

The New 40

“40 is the new 30,” said a friend of mine the other day.

That would totally and completely suck, I just realized.

Yes, my hair was blonder.

Me and my first, Dec. 2003, Tucson

Me and my first, Dec. 2003, Tucson

Yes, my breasts were firmer.

Yes, I had ten years ahead of me still ‘ til 40.

But …

wow. 30. 2004. Mom of one very restless baby. Up to my eyeballs in change … not bad change but the kind that causes upheaval that equals frequent upset. Orange vomit on my shoulder a lot. Not a lot of friends nearby. Unrealistic expectations of marriage, parenthood, community, work, friendship, life.

It’s not that I’m BRILLIANT now.

But I am now aware enough to know how dumb I am. And how age brings a wisdom born of experience that in some ways is better than firm breasts.

The more I speak about and write about 40, the more people (read “women”) say to me:

I loved my 40s

The 40s have been the best years of my life

I really found myself in my 40s

These kind of comments, from real people, are uplifting and have actually started to ignite in me a desired anticipation — the kind I remember feeling in the months leading up to 13. When was the last time we were truly excited for a birthday … not because we had a crazy evening planned or a vacation, but because it was appropriate to celebrate our advance? What happens to our birthday joy as we age?

I have a summer birthday and so I used to be very familiar with anticipation in advance of birthdays. My friends often reached milestones ahead of me : 13, 17 (driving age in NJ), 18, 21, etc. Those last few months before it was my turn were always killer. The summer I was 12, waiting for 13, I remember telling boys when they asked at the camp social, “how old are you?” that I was 13. That my birthday had been in April. For some reason, that mattered then. As if they wouldn’t ask me to dance unless I was old enough to have boobs. (The boobs wouldn’t come for 4 more summers.)

Last summer, when I turned 39, I remember feeling a sense of dread.  It didn’t help that last summer I also suffered from a bunch of moderate health issues, serious enough to impact my daily life . (It’s likely that at least half of them were stress-related, and maybe 1/4 “pre-40” related.)

My 39th birthday, spent with family by the Jersey shore was lovely, but undercut by a constant heartburn. The antacids didn’t help. The gluten-free diet didn’t help. The technology detox didn’t help. I understand now it’s because the heartburn was only partly physical. Much of it was existential. Prilosec can’t help with that. Not even the Wild Berry flavor.

This summer, I am determined to drop the burn. Be all heart. Feel 12 again. I am determined to want 40.  So badly that I pretend like I already am.

Boobs, or not.

 

 

 

 

Return to sender

I let go of Shira yesterday.

I called her up on the phone, walked over to her house, met her on the path there, and let her go.

She laughed.

So did I.

It was swell.

I had in my hand 18 year old Shira.

With love, I gave her back. To 40 year old Shira.

Some would call this surreal. Others would call it silly. I call it an extraordinary gift.

How did it happen?

In my cardboard boxes, I found letters. Shoeboxes filled with letters. Composition notebooks bookmarked for years with unsealed envelopes torn open by younger hands. Manilla folders stuffed with old exams, but peppered here and there by notes unsigned; the author’s identity only revealed by her handwriting.

I found a few from Shira. (Even if she didn’t live across the street from me here on this kibbutz in Israel, I would have recognized her 18 year old handwriting. It’s distinct. And handwriting, like phone numbers from childhood, is something I tend to hold on to strongly in my memory.)

The letters were from 1991 and 1992. The summers she and I respectively traveled to Israel for the first time.  In 1993, we’d arrive here together one winter break during college as participants on a 2-week volunteer program. We’d be stationed on an army base that’s now less than an hour drive away from where we live.

shira and jen 1993

The letters, when I read them yesterday for the first time in more than 20 years, emphasized a certain awareness I’ve already arrived at on my own.

Shira, I’m so grateful to say, has known two different Jens, maybe three, maybe even four or five, depending on where you slice me.

It’s a gift, indeed. A friend who knew you as a girl. Who knew you when you were thinner, blonder, filled with greater energy than you are now.

But an even greater gift is a friend who notices how much you’ve grown since then. Who knew you when you were less worldly, to say the least, less clever, less kind …and has forgiven you your youth.

In reading the letters, I remembered a younger Jen and a younger Shira, and a much younger friendship. I remembered the moments that punctuated that time. In her short letters — one scribbled in cursive on airmail stationery, another stuffed inside letterhead from her father’s business — our world in ’91 and ’92 came  alive for a moment and made me smile. In a different voice than the one I know today, 18 year old Shira reminded me of who we were then.  I was touched by the Shira I had forgotten; touched by the Shira I had never known then. I also fell in love for a moment with the Jen I must have been then. A Jen I never knew I was; not at the time.

It’s complicated — the gift of old letters, of old friends — but it’s also so very simple.

I could have thrown them away, the letters. Like I’ve tossed other papers found inside the cardboard boxes.

Instead, I decided to return them to sender.

It seemed symbolically appropriate. I can’t explain it, though I’ll try.

I returned them not because I was certain Shira would want them or need them (though it was a kick to laugh over them for a minute or two), but because handing over Shira to Shira seemed like the right thing to do.

Giving Shira’s letters back to her — instead of holding on to them — allows Shira to be whoever she wants to be in the world. Now.

And forces me, in a way, to accept her as such.

Not the Shira I used to know. Not the Shira who was what she was then. Not the Shira I thought she was yesterday.

Just Shira. Now.

Giving Shira back her letters gave me the opportunity to explore a concept I have great difficulty with (and the chance to practice on someone I knew would make it easy on me!)

The concept? Giving up my past so I can be present.

I can’t say I know what the outcome of this experiment will be. But something about it just seemed right.

Just like, I suppose, something felt right about saving letters in a shoebox.

* * *

This is one in a series of essays inspired by my cardboard boxes. If you like this post, and want to know how it began, read A Case for Hoarding. One post in the series, Note to Self,” was recently featured on Freshly PressedAdditional posts are tagged “the boxed set series“.