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Facebook — A useful tool for the present, but not a doorway to the past

Sep 01 2011

Facebook — A useful tool for the present, but not a doorway to the past

Facebook — A useful tool for the present, but not a doorway to the past

“Don’t look at the name, look at the face. You won’t recognize the name, but look deeply into the eyes. You will recognize them,” I am about to write to my first love, a boy from Panama who broke my heart more than twenty years ago. I was fifteen years old, intellectually forty but street-wise only about ten. The extent of worldliness I could call my own was that I had been taking the city bus by myself down the main boulevard to my karate class since I was eight. I had been raised to believe that “strangers are friends we haven’t met yet” and had not yet developed even an ounce of suspicion, cynicism or street smarts. Roberto was seventeen going on thirty, part of the Central American elite where the youth aged at rapid speed. We met at an international summer camp in Switzerland, a place to which if my parents had truly understood what went on they never would have sent me. He called me his “baby” and I was. But, that summer — for eight precious, timeless weeks — I was an adult. He took me on a boat, a fancy yacht that sailed from Lausanne to Evian in France, just for dinner. Dressed up, we sat on the deck at a round table shared with couples twice our age, sipping champagne (there was no enforceable drinking age in Switzerland) as though it were something we did every night. Yes, an evening cruise to France for dinner, just the two of us.

The summer of 1986 ended as quickly as they all do, but along with it my attachment did not. We were in love, and of course that meant forever. Shoeboxes in my closet quickly filled with letters from him, which he sealed with a spray of his signature cologne (I didn’t know ANY other boys who wore cologne). I would sit on the floor of my closet, pulling letter after letter out of the box, not so much to read his effusively devoted words as to clasp them to my nose, my heart, and my nose again until I was sure I could feel him sitting beside me, there on the carpeted floor, our heads lost in clothes hanging down from the racks. The song Hotel California, to which we had danced over and over and over again all summer, played on constant repeat-mode from the stereo in my room. I was impervious to the objections raised by my Jewish grandfather to whom the idea of his 15-year old granddaughter falling in love with a Panamanian boy must have been the equivalent of death by hanging. After all, I was sure, true love could overcome all hurdles, break down all boundaries, and cross all lines of religion and race.

A mere four months later, before the dawn of 1987, he had found himself a real woman, one whom he could take to bed, a place his fifteen year old “baby” could not even imagine going. And that was it. Over. I knew from the first few seconds of our phone conversation that something had changed. “I have a new girlfriend, from Panama,” he told me. “A real woman.” There was no place or time for negotiation. That was it. I called him back a few days later, sobbing, when the reality finally sunk in and the shock wore off. He was drunk and pretended not to recognize my voice.

Fast forward twenty three years. The betrayal and anguish have become simply threads in the tapestry of my life, woven together with threads of great love, bliss, maturity and development, and have almost dissolved imperceptibly into the intricately woven canvass of who I am. Hindsight’s 20/20 vision has enabled me to see the obvious shallowness and immaturity, albeit very real intensity, of the love I felt at fifteen. Those four months have become one of thousands of brush strokes upon the painting of my thirty-eight years, barely noticeable amidst the solid background of peaceful contentment with flourishes of deep gratitude, understanding, wisdom and joy.

Enter facebook…..I join at the behest of a friend who has created a “cause” for our charitable organization. In order to be part of the cause, I need to have an account. As I begin to browse through its functions and options, I find how easy it is to search for people by simply name or country. The temptation is strong. After looking up a few old friends from Stanford, I type in “Roberto Silvo, Panama.” There he is. The picture is too small to recognize, for it’s of a man standing in a mountainous panorama. I dare not invite him to be my “friend.”

I am fascinated, compelled, drawn inward into the world of this boy, now man, whom I certainly don’t know and probably never really did, regardless of how convinced I was that we were soul mates. I peek inward, into as much of his world as I can see without leaving any traces or disclosing my identity. I look at all of his 162 “friends” as though somewhere, somehow, in their random names and random faces with their random children and random pets I can catch a glimpse of a person who existed twenty-three years ago in my teenage heart. What relation his friend Maria Santos and her smiling photo with two beatific children has to the boy with whom I danced in an old Swiss stone building, up a narrow, cobblestone street in Chailly-sur-Lausanne, I have no idea. But then why am looking so closely at her picture? Why do I expect, somehow, that if I stare long enough it will reveal to me the answers I am looking for? One by one, I examine his “friends”, a role into which I know I never will, nor ever should, step, drawn by some nearly irrational yet ever so compelling tug of heart strings I thought had been left behind in the shoeboxes on my closet floor.

Disappointingly, not only do his 162 friends offer absolutely no window into the current life or soul or heart of Roberto, but I realize I have wasted nearly an hour. I who usually am so focused, so disciplined with my time and energy have just let it fizzle away like the bubbles on a glass of champagne we shared on the boat to France.

Despite the allure of this new internet toy, it is unfortunately not set up to allow me permission-less access to someone else’s life. I can see pictures of his “friends” but they bring me no closer to him. So I send a message. “Are you the same Roberto Silvo who went to ITC in Switzerland and the Hun boarding school of New Jersey.” The answer comes back in less than 24 hours. “Yes, that’s me. But I’m a little fuzzy on you. Did you go to Hun?” I have changed my name since he knew me. I have moved to India, and taken vows of renunciation. I have become a nun, living in an ashram in the Himalayas. Of course he would not associate the Indian, Hindu name of a saffron-robed woman contacting him on facebook, with the fifteen year old girl whose heart he broke as a carefree teenager.

The urge to respond is strong. Nearly irresistible. I want, for some inexplicable reason, to have him “face to face” again. Not to pick up where we left off twenty-three years ago. I am deeply sure about my decision for renunciation, and fully aware of the idiocy of taking up with someone I knew for four months a quarter of a century ago, whose life bears no relation to my own. What is the instinct then? I search deeply within. What am I looking for? An apology? Awareness of the pain he caused me? Not really. I realize that the urge is much more simply for the connection of the past, the urge to go backwards rather than forwards, the urge to be fifteen years old, dancing in a dark room in a quaint village of Switzerland, at a time when the greatest concerns were whether to choose badminton or tennis for the afternoon activity. The urge is to lift back up the heavy curtain which has dropped, the curtain between yesterday and today, between past and present, between then and now. The urge is to have one last look, nay looking is not enough, to actually go back to a time when, ironically, all one wanted to do was grow up. The urge is to hold everything in hand — that which was and also that which is — to somehow have ever expanding hands which are able to hold tightly to every moment, every person, every experience of the past while simultaneously having infinite room to be fully open in the present. The urge is, of course, impossible to fulfill. Life either moves forward or it stagnates in the past. One cannot simultaneously hold tenaciously to the past and be open to the present.

This is why, according to the theory of rebirth and reincarnation, we do not remember our past lives. It is difficult enough to navigate the present without the past popping in as an uninvited guest. Information of past experiences (from either this life or previous lives) is extraordinarily useful as means of insight and understanding for our fears, desires, neuroses, obstacles. But it is the information and insight gleaned from past experiences rather than every aspect of the actual experience itself which should find a place in our current awareness. If we carry all the actual experiences with us, replete with their full casts of characters and set designs, our stage becomes too crowded to allow the divine drama of the present to unfold. Further, as we hold on to costumes of yesterday, to the script of last week, to the backdrop of last year, we prevent ourselves from donning the robes of today, from speaking the truth of this moment and from walking onto the set of now. There is room in my life for the experience, the lessons, the strength I gained from being heartbroken at fifteen, but there is no room in my life for the inevitable confusion and clamor which would come along with the actual presence of my teenage heartbreak. I stood up, off the carpeted floor of the closet in my parents’ home, and brushed myself off more than twenty years ago. It is senseless to try to squeeze my thirty-eight year old being back into a closet sized for a heartbroken teenager.

I do not respond to his message which asks who I am. The curtain has dropped and life has moved forward.

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