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.
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.
* * *
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 don’t know if I said it because of the dream or if I dreamt it because I was bound to say it later, but I said it and only after did I realize that it didn’t matter if the dream preceded the belief or the belief the dream.
* * *
What matters more than the man in the dream — a composite of men I have loved — is the woman who jumped so high as to be seen from the carved out window of the plane I was flying in.
She is not me. She was too tall to be me. And yet her hair …
What am I supposed to glean from her loose and long dirty blond hair, from the bohemian dress that floated up above her knees like a parachute each time she leapt from the valley as if the earth below was her trampoline? And what about the mountains, which were not the mountains of Denver, Colorado or the Golan Heights, mountains I have seen directly, both from above and below, but were, I am certain, the mountains of a European country, Spain or Portugal, a country in which there are less Jews than in the countries I am familiar with, countries I might even dare to call my homes?
What matters more than the man in the dream — who brought me to near tears with his collection of short stories recognizable as anecdotes from his childhood — is the woman who was sitting in the row ahead of me on the plane. She, too, saw the leaper, but she was not fazed. “I’ve seen her before,” the woman ahead of me noted. “We’re friends.”
She is not me, either. She was not Jewish enough. And she was also tall, even when seated.
Perhaps, what matters more is the man in the dream — perhaps, he is me.
* * *
Perhaps, I believed it and dreamed it both. Neither one before the other. Neither one bound to be first.
I had the dream again last night in which it’s you and me and him and her at a dinner party and the lighting is for grownups, but for some reason there are children in the room. I made meringues for the children for dessert. They came out fluffy and perfect and I wanted them to stay that way – the meringues – except, inevitably they deflated. “No matter,” my husband said in the dream. “They’re still sweet.”
The dinner party is awkward even though the lighting is good. Like the last time I dreamed us at an awkward dinner party, the lighting is mostly by candle with a touch of track over a brick mantle and the scene is set for adults, which is to say there are things nearby that may be broken.
She is in black as she always is. As for me, I picked out something new to wear just before arriving. I tried it on for my husband in the store, invited him into the dressing room. “The tag said the outfit was 3D,” I told him, but only when I take my glasses off am I able to see the shapes moving in the mirror.
I keep dreaming of my childhood home. I won’t bore you with the details; with the recalling of the coat closet next to the front door; the fur that once lived there, but didn’t appear in my dream. In my dream, my mother pulled out a vintage polyester shirt draped over a wire hanger steam-pressed and plastic wrapped years ago, now eager to breathe. She handed it to me, “Do you want this?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer.
My middle son is reading a musky-smelling original hardcover edition of Key to the Treasure by Peggy Parish. It’s not the edition I read when I was nine — mine was paperback. But mine was lost in the Flood.
I know for certain someone somewhere is reading my copy of New York Then and Now on a toilet. It’s a book meant to be read on the toilet.
They call them coffee table books, but no one has time for coffee anymore. They ought to be called toilet books. This is where I go when I want to pore over pictures from then and now.
Why can’t I manage to hang on to my books? Especially the ones I sought out, hand-picked, then coveted?
I found some of my lost New York books at The Strand last December. I had an urge to buy them all in an effort to once again build a carefully curated collection. This would have been a redux since once before — on weekday afternoons at Bookman’s in Tucson — I spent my lunch hour scanning the children’s section for the titles lost in the Flood.
I say it, but I don’t yet fully believe it: That there is something worthwhile in losing.
I accept the hardcover original edition of Key to the Treasure, but I do so with a gentle stab of reluctance. I understand it’s the story I was wild about when I was nine — Jed and Bill and Liza and the feathered bonnet and the sorrow of missed connections passed down through the generations — not the texture of the pages or the color illustration on the cover. And yet, I want back what was once mine.
After all, if I had wanted to part with it I would have. I would have piled my copy of the book on top of the others that were going to Good Will. But I didn’t. I kept it on my shelf and then placed it in a cardboard box which I labelled “Jen’s books” before my father carried it down to the basement.
Those books, I believed, were meant to be found again one day.
I say it, but I don’t yet fully believe it: That there is something worthwhile in losing.
I can have almost anything I want: a Fisher Price Sesame Street set, a pair of gently-used docksiders, a Speak and Spell, an autographed pull-out poster of Mackenzie Astin. People are buying and selling my faded memories…and yours… all the time.
I can have almost anything I want.
And yet, there is something worthwhile in the losing. In the being lost.
Oh how I wish I was in your bedroom right now and could place inside your tiny paper plate ears a pair of plastic headphones so you could close your eyes and hear what time travel sounds like at least once before you die.
Since I can’t or, let’s face it, you won’t let me no matter how nicely I ask or how sane I try to sound, I will settle for the next best thing which is to request that you click through to this link and turn the volume up as high as it will go, press play and close your eyes.
The next 27 seconds is what time travel sounds like; and the three and a half minutes after is best suited for singing out loud. No, not lip syncing, but, singing out loud. Or (this part is optional and only for the truly possessed) pretend you are slow dancing — with me, or with someone else not me, someone you won’t let put headphones into your ears even though you really want to because you think she’s a little off or a little too sorrowful or a little off.
Close your eyes. Then, cross your arms. Rest your hands on opposite shoulders. Sway back and forth. Back and forth. Until
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 had 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.
(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.
In this big picture, find the locket, the John Lennon spectacles, blue eyeshadow, bangs trimmed straight, August, yellow #5, a red balloon (not to be confused with The Red Balloon), a tray wiped clean, a downward glance, an elephant, love, another elephant, motherhood, hints of a Bubbi in a baby’s breath, a candle blown, “she looks like you Mom,” uncertainty, a glassy iris, love, the end of an exhale, one year, 26, 11 in between days, a hidden picture, gingham.