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.

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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.

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“.

 

Exchange of letters

I was thinking of Sarah this morning when I realized how many similarities there are between the online friendships I’ve cultivated and the pen pals I used to collect as a young girl.

Sarah and I are planning to meet in real life for the first time. Despite the fact that we both are former Americans living in Israel, and only live an hour’s drive from each other, we’ve never sat to drink coffee together; have never spoken on the phone. I don’t know what Sarah’s voice sounds like even, and this is what I was thinking about when I realized that Sarah exists for me like my much-loved pen pals from childhood. The deep way one knows someone through letters. Except the letters are blogs, and Facebook chats.

When I was a girl — mostly from the ages of 12 – 16 — I exchanged letters with a few other kids my age. I vividly remember two of them, for they were strangers.

Thanks Ali Martell for the pic

Thanks Ali Martell for the pic

Unlike Robert, my camp friend from Texas, or Natali from Mexico, both of whom became active pen pals of mine after shared experiences in real life; Kim and Phillipa, I never met. We starting writing each other because we were subscribers of Bop! magazine. (The original Match.com for pedophiles, Bop actually published in each issue a list of names and addresses of pre-pubescent girls. Can you imagine???)

Unlike my school friends, Kim and Phillipa exist in my memory only as curvy, bubbled Ms and skinny, drooping Qs; as unevenly snipped wallet-sized portraits taken during Picture Day. I never knew their voices so I can’t hear them in my head even if I try. I never knew how tall they were. Whether or not they were skinny or fat. Pimply or clear-skinned. Popular or tortured. Smelled like Chloé or B.O.

We never got in fights over a boy. We never stopped speaking to each other in the halls. We never shared sleepovers or sundaes.

And yet, I loved them in a way. I was grateful for their showing up in my life. In my mailbox.

I knew Kim’s hobbies; Phillipa’s favorite American movie stars. I knew about their jealousies of their siblings and their crushes on the neighborhood skater boy. I imagine they told me secrets they never shared with their school friends. I know I shared with them a few of mine.

There’s something sacred and safe in living and loving only through letters.

Isn’t that what most of us with online-only friends would say about many of those friendships? There’s something sacred and safe about them?

No, we don’t ‘know’ each other in ‘real life’ … but then again, what is ‘real’ life?