First Kiss • 1 December 2010

Five days, five social networks. But back home, a day thick in memories twenty years old. Sixth grade feelings pinball through my body. They're crumbling up the tragicomedy I tell myself about adolescence.

Last week’s a blur. Coffee with a beautiful-minded sociologist and ashtanga home-practitioner, who first learned the method with me in my PhD mentor’s office, after that teacher died on his motorbike. Lunch with my first yoga teacher in Beverly Hills, down the street from the apartment where, at 25, I remembered how to be a math person. Ice cream with the sister in law I judged too clueless to be a parent, and with the niece who shakes up feelings that can only be described as maternal. A guest room in the Silverlake womb-home of someone who pushed my edge for four edgy years, and who cured me overnight of my mental illness when we got trashed on Cuervo, Kirkegaard and Hume in a cabin at Black Butte Ranch. Thanksgiving with Portland’s tiny fine arts fringe, including the man who makes insideowl tick, a woman whose band I loved in college, a beekeeper artist, and an old-fashioned printmaker who works on massive old iron machines she drove cross country on a semi. A Coava Coffee shot whose raspberry suede perfection has ruined me for other espresso, suggested by the person whose emotional intelligence, social skill and aesthetic sense were already decades beyond me when he was born as my little brother in 1979.

But whatever. This pinball in my body goes ping on my old social identity—a habit of setting up as an introverted outsider with superior taste. Lately I’ve wondered if it was the ecstatic months in Mysore that opened me up and taught me to finesse the energy-exchange of social life without getting drained. But I dunno. There’s all this feeling right now of being 11 and 12, the ways I was—maybe—being opened up even back then by a crude, hostile world.

For my first kiss, I got a life. Sixth grade social status was revolution for a preacher’s kid. During the previous six years (in rural Montana, nobody made you go to school until first grade), fluctuations in my standing were measured by the obscenity of the nickname to which my special personal suffix – “weenie”—was pinned. Over eight years, we were a class of 14 to 17 corn-fed farm kids with a gender ratio even freakier than your average agricultural society: some years just two girls to the whole crop of boys.

Unlike the other girl, who had two older brothers and went on to point guard for the Air Force Academy, I was only a good draft pick for team math contests. But when I took the boys’ dare and kissed Bryan, I came of age and finally got some respect. No wonder: Bryan was our serially expelled class clown, even poorer than most, with chapped lips and jagged teeth, patchy rat-tailed hair and only two changes of clothes. And I kissed him in front of everyone: right on the front steps of the school, moments before Mrs. K arrived to let us in from recess.

I spit Bryan’s kiss out like I saw my dad do with snake-poison; and in that moment I merged not with the boy but with the whole class. (My next kiss wasn’t for another 5 years, Tyler the quarterback from jazz choir, a looooong-suffering sophomore love whose innocence seemed to obliterate my brutal initiation.) After the first kiss, I joined the boys for everything but the drinking, the smoking, and whatever it was they did at those Friday night, ahem, boner contests. Our school mascot was the Outlaw, pointing two six-shooters and draped in bullet garlands; the image was no joke out there in libertarian country. We had four-wheeling parties (yes, at age 11), BB gun wars, swam in irrigation ditches or ice skated atop them for miles. Sometimes I'd take long phone calls to listen to Beastie Boys tapes without bringing the (Satanic) media in to the house.

A few months ago in therapy, I wondered aloud why I feel so at ease with the crusty men others find barbaric. Owl Whisperer suggested that there was a forgotten time when I identified with such barbarians. True.

Outlaw enfranchisement felt good, but becoming a member and thus getting a life also made me world-weary. Soon after the kiss, I wrote in my plastic-bound journal (which hid for years between my waterbed bladder and its frame) that “more action means less reflection.” I was concerned that I would lose my relationship with Jesus (he had taught me so much about turning the other cheek during the “weenie” years – would the end of martyrdom make me shallow?). And I was dismayed that, as I spent more time being a normal, rowdy sixth grader, my personal writing might decline. Worst, my life suddenly felt meaningless. In the journal, I wrote that since I’d been welcomed in to the group, I’d had no time to be all alone, and had lost the deep ache that connected me to who I really was inside.

A year on, in seventh grade, I went back to the post-kiss entry and wrote that what I feared had happened. I’d become shallow. I wrote that my best self had been lost, now that I had become less reflective, more active. As a social outsider, I thought I had written beautifully. And I had loved my classmates without any love in return—which I considered to be the highest possible emotion. (Glorifying unrequited love at 12… a little self-cruelty in that, but also some Kant and some Arjuna in drag.) The past self writes that she no longer understands the meaning of her own life. And because she’s become “a somebody” and people are often kind to her for selfish reasons, she feels she’s also lost access to the boys’ “true” selves. Only the lowest of the low can see others as they are.

These are the things mini-owl said to herself when she believed that personality was durable. When she thought meaning was an inner phenomenon best encountered alone in her journal on a Saturday night.

Now I’d say… the pre-kiss life was theoretical to the max. From the beginning, classmates smelled intellectualism and the way I used it to control my world. The wisest part of them (the part that was protective of the weakest among us) knew they didn’t have to worry: my mind was a fortress. Their verbal jabs respected my attachment to words, and used that weapon of my choosing to try to force me in to their world. But I’d just flash them a sorrow-for-humanity frown and swallow their arrows, go home to my room and poop them out as pearls, beautifully arranged in the journals. I retained full narrative control.

The boys were brutal as life is brutal; but in part they were just frustrated that I refused to meet them in their world. They loved it—and me—when I finally showed them my anger and my ability to act crazy.

Sometimes I try live as pure action, collapsing reflection and meaning in to doing. It’s a way of challenging the 11-year-old’s formula of more action = less reflection = less meaning. The contention is that there is greatest meaning in a life that fully synthesizes action and reflection. How to glamorize such a life? Is there a snappy Latin or Sanskrit phrase that means Stop taking notes, burn the maps, dismantle your meanings?

Or maybe Dogen + Socrates: To forget the self is to know the self?

No. That’s ludicrous. Maybe something in prayer form:

Let me have the heart to think the smart thoughts, the guts to not think the stupid thoughts, and the head to know the difference.

Maybe just the Talking Heads chorus: The world was moving and she was right there with it (and she was)

I dunno. Pure action is a good challenge, but after this week I’m remembering what was rich about life before the kiss. The all reflection/ no action model.

Curating my past—ten years of living up and down the Pacific coast. My inner sixth grader would have visited holy sites –apartments, schools, restaurants—in ritual fashion, presencing the past. But there’s no quiet time for that: too many loved ones here. Eleven months after leaving, everyone has brighter eyes, great digs and a bigger name. Fruition is everywhere. Celebrating what’s changed  is actually so beautiful it’s painful. It makes the skin above my sternum contract and my nostrils flare to tighten the tear ducts.

There is a way of being in a place without being there at all—just using its coordinates to trigger old feelings and the stories I invent to hold them in place. According to the Google Maps van, the stairs where I kissed Bryan are still there, but crumbled halfway down. The old schoolhouse looks dead. I wonder if, standing there next month, there will be any meaning at all left in those memories.