Sex and the Ivy

Fear of Drowning

Filed under: Love, Summer Guy — Elle July 21, 2008 @ 6:02 pm

Part of the reason why I write about my life is because I am scared of not remembering anything about it. I have a terrible memory, no doubt an ironic symptom of childhood bullying that taught me the art of forgetting terrible memories. (Truth: I routinely have problems with recalling things that happened before the age of 12). Unfortunately for me, I never quite unlearned how to forget. Now that I am full-grown and expected to remember things like faces and names, I find myself standing around dumb-founded as all my friends recall events at which everyone but me seems to have been present. I routinely fail to recognize guys with whom I’ve gone on single dates, or even people I went to high school with. It seems I am a spectator to other people’s memories but never the one doing the remembering herself.

And it’s not just memories either. It’s skills like how to use JSTOR (thank you, high school debate) or how to swim (thank you, community pool) that I must relearn because I’ve somehow magically forgotten despite everyone’s insistence that there are some things, like riding a bike, that you remember forever. Well, trust me, if there were ever a person who could forget, it’d be me. In Ibiza, for example, this was precisely my problem. Here I was with miles of unpolluted ocean before me, and I was terrified of wading too far out because I hadn’t swum in years. I was always scared to go into pools as a kid until I braved swimming lessons during early elementary school. Then I promptly forgot and had to learn again, this time during a summer around age 10. I don’t think I’ve really swum again since. Eventually in Ibiza, I gave it a go at a shallow beach but I conceded defeat after several gulpfuls of seawater. This was a performance from someone who used to relish jumping off diving boards several yards above her head.

And so I consider my life history a sort of project. Narcissistic it may be, but most of my writing concerns relationships; and my knowledge of relationships is inseparable from my understanding of myself. It’s too bad my mental timeline starts somewhere at last week. To help myself remember the important things, I sift through blog entries from high school, reread old instant messaging conversations, or simply ask questions to people who were paying attention when life was happening. I am endlessly recording and recalling the details of my existence in hopes that turning my laptop into a life library will offer some permanence to my fleeting memories. Last summer, I even paid a friend $40 to transcribe 200+ text messages. This spring, I requested from Harvard my mental health records from 2006 to 2007. It’d been a tumultuous year, and I thought these logs might come in handy some day, not just for “memoir research” (the reason I cited on my request form) but for … well, me. When I go home for the holidays, I dig up paper diaries of my youth and old notes passed from friends to my middle and high school self. I actually still have plenty, including mean ones that declared me a slut at as young an age as 12 and nice ones from girls who are still some of my closest friends today. I’m the type of person who doesn’t throw things away, despite easily blocking out large chunks of my childhood. I’m pretty sure that none of these habits are common, that I am straddling a fine line between forgetfulness and repression,that I likely appear crazy or self-obsessed or both . (That last one may be a correct assessment, since I am, after all, applying journalistic techniques to research my favorite subject: myself.)

The funny thing about reexamining the past is that I always find something new. I have a hard time remembering, and so the Lena of yesterday never seems familiar. I might as well be going through the personal documents of a stranger. Besides, I’ve changed so much that it’s hard to get a grasp of who I was or wanted to be at any given point in time. It’s a good thing that I do a better job than most of keeping track of feelings and thoughts in the moment or else my account of my life would begin somewhere at 17. Luckily, I’ve maintained multiple blogs for the past five years in which I have a record of everything from my adolescent sexual experiences to college admission anxieties to freshman year disillusionment to first loves and last loves. The girl preserved reads like a fictional character to me. Whoever I was then is always too far removed for me to get a good hold on her now. And it’s sad. It’s tragic that I forget.

It’s tragic because forgetting means throwing out the good along with the bad and though I think leaving behind the latter is a matter of self-preservation, it’s the former that makes life worth living, isn’t it? Besides, there are lessons I could learn from myself if only I had the will to remember them. I must admit that there are some things I did better at 15 than I do now. Somehow, things seemed clearer then, even when it came to what I wanted to accomplish with my writing. There are other things I’ve simply stopped knowing how to do, like letting myself fall in love without worrying about what risks it might entail.

Last night, while trying to dig up resume drafts from my inbox, I found an old email exchange with an ex-boyfriend I dated two summers ago. In it, Summer Guy (his pseudonym on my blog) said one of the most important things anyone has ever told me: “Your writing is beautiful; don’t ever stop.” To which I responded, “I’m more flattered than if you had said I was beautiful. Thank you.” The rest of the emails were about our relationship, about falling hard and fast, about — as I called it then — “love … or its short-term equivalent.” We were writing at the height of our passion for each other, and I found what I said to him remarkable because for once, reading the old Lena brought about a feeling of nostalgia, a sense that I had indeed felt that way in that moment. I remembered her. This hasn’t happened in a long time for me. Recognition of my former self, in place of embarrassment at who she was — or even worse, bafflement — has largely been rare, and yet last night, I could recall what it felt like to love someone.

I don’t love him anymore. At least not in the way that I used to. And though I consider us good friends, I enjoy Summer Guy’s company most from afar … or preferably in short spurts with breaks for good measure. But despite only harboring platonic feelings for him nowadays, recalling how much I once loved him made me smile. It reminded me that relationships are great, and believe it or not, I need the reminder. I’ve been spending the past month trying to convince myself that relationships are the precise opposite of great. Instead, they are emotionally precarious, troublesome, and unnecessary. Maybe I’m clinging desperately to my independence for fear that I will lose some part of myself in the process of falling for someone else. Maybe I simply don’t know how to respond to someone who exceeds the expectations I’ve habitually lowered in light of attached suitors and so-called liberal lovers who later balk at my ideals. Maybe I’m not willing to run the risk of abandonment. But though I’ve been afraid for weeks to make this concession, I must say: by and large, love is worth it. The fact that an email from a former boyfriend can conjure up this rare spark of recognition of the feeling is proof enough.

Love didn’t used to terrify me, and I certainly didn’t think I was scared of it but reading those emails I wrote to Summer Guy made me see how differently I am now behaving in this relationship. Because unlike the community pool, love is more like swimming in the ocean. Once you’re far out, there are no lifeguards or railings, and more often than not, your final destination is not forward but back from where you came. For the girl who used to throw herself headfirst into the water without hesitation, it seems like I’ve taken one too many steps away from the sand to remember that the view is worth it, that drowning is more fear than real possibility, that even those who never properly learned how to swim — or who have long forgotten — are capable of staying afloat.

Working it.

Filed under: Harvard, Travel, Work — Elle July 20, 2008 @ 8:39 pm

I’ve been getting a fair share of critical comments and emails for appearing overprivileged and “jet-setting” all over Europe, which would actually not bother me so much if it weren’t for the fact that neither is true. Contrary to claims made by commenters on my blog, I don’t come from a wealthy family (which is why I qualify for HFAI) so Harvard is pretty much my only claim to privilege. As far as claims go, I have to admit that I’ve got it pretty good, but simply going to an Ivy League school doesn’t make the rest of your life. It’s not like I showed up to Harvard and suddenly, I was given the trust fund I’d always wanted. Before this year, I worked during every summer since age 15 and during every academic term since college began. But after my last job ended in December, I vowed to concentrate more on my writing, so I decided to ditch paid-by-the-hour internships in favor of freelance work and personal projects. I completed my most recent assignment a week and a half ago, in the days between my London and Spain trips. Sure, I’m awfully lucky that I get to run around Europe, but writing remains a huge component of my life and I’m pretty much always working on columns or my manuscript here.

And though this is beside the point, I think I’ve made it fairly obvious that the majority of my time here thus far has been spent in an un-air-conditioned dorm room with my sometimes-suicidal best friend. Her roommates are probably wondering when the hell I’m going to leave. It’s not like I’m rocking out in lavish hotels. I’m essentially a squatter in student housing, not the Marie Antoinette these online snarks are looking to stone. I mean, when I was hungry today, I had to go into the kitchen to steal someone else’s cake and eat it. Seriously.

Anyway, I’m writing this somewhat defensive entry because I find it irritating that there’s a stereotype of Harvard kids as being spoiled brats who have had everything handed to them in life. Certainly, this holds true for a portion of the population, but on the whole, the students here are probably some of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen, and there are plenty of them who aren’t working for money but rather for causes and beliefs that don’t even benefit them. Occasional pretension aside, my peers deserve a lot of credit for that. Of course, plenty of us — even someone like me whose annual family income qualified her for free school lunches back in the day — have had inherent advantages, be they particularly supportive parents or the necessary college prep classes. Still, those advantages shouldn’t discredit the many things we have earned for ourselves. In my case, I think this summer of travel has been well-earned, given the fact that it’s the first leisurely summer I’ve had since … just about ever.

Unlike comments about my sexual history, I take criticism about perceived privilege and exorbitant spending (of other people’s money) very personally. I consider “brat” far more insulting than “slut”, because though I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with sexual appetite, I do think that ignorant wastefulness and entitlement are major character flaws. Besides, the truth is that I do feel bad about not working this summer. I put myself through enough guilt without needing commenters to remind me about it. And this guilt is definitely an irrational manifestation of the capitalistic, work-a-holic system in which I grew up. Why do Americans feel so bad about taking a vacation!

This autumn, it’ll be back to work for me … and it’ll be much more work than usual too. I’m taking the year off from Harvard, and I’ll be the Boston area, close to friends and lover (note: that was singular, not plural). I’m looking for a part-time gig to balance out my freelancing. Having my own hours as a writer is fantastic but at my age, at least, it’s no way to pay the bills on the regular. So ideally, I’d like to be working at a non-profit that deals with women’s issues, LGBT advocacy, or disadvantaged youth. Come September, I’ll be more than ready for real life and the comfort of work. I wouldn’t trade this summer for anything, but I wouldn’t extend it either. Besides, when traveling becomes a full-time occupation, it ceases to be a vacation.