Friday, January 12, 2018

What Would Wendy Do?

I wrote this a couple of years ago but never shared it.  Seemed fitting today so share this on what would have been Wendy's 40th birthday.

For most of my life, I lived in a box.  No, not a real box.  I didn’t grow up on the street surrounded by cardboard and I wasn’t a member of a small family of mice or anything, though that would be an interesting story.  I had made my own box, carefully stacked around me in rows, built up, year after year into a solid shape that hovered around me like an aura.  Sharp corners, crisp lines and endless strings of words that I had applied to myself and they included a lot of shoulds and musts and don’t’s and can’ts.  There isn’t an anonymous organization for this, but maybe I’m starting one right now.  My name is Karen and I’m a rule-follower.

What rules?  Oh, the ones I applied to myself.  I never had a curfew in high school, mostly because my parents knew I would never sneak out, never drink and never lie about where I had been.  And it wasn’t the parenting, though we had excellent parenting, because my sister did ALL of those things.  I was just, as they say, a goody two-shoes.  It carried over into college.  Homework always in on time, so on time, that I graduated a year early.  Stayed away from the pot smokers, not an easy feat in Los Angeles and didn’t drink, outside of one trip to Europe, where it was legal, until my 21st birthday.  There has never in my life, been a little something called a one night stand.

I never looked the part of the goody two-shoes.  My sister, Wendy, once wrote about me, in some personal essay writing she penned back in 1998 or 99.  She never showed it to me herself, but I found the neatly typed pages years ago.  A little bit of it goes like this.

"Karen is a nice, pretty girl...Sometimes I watch her when we’re at a bar together, and I just laugh inside my head.  She becomes this completely different person than the one I argue with about morality.  Like the way she dances…She can slide her hips to the beat of any song with ease and grace, but at the same time with the kind of raw sexuality rarely seen outside of the highest class strip clubs.  She looks like a girl raring to go, one who’s been around the block quite a few times.  But she is neither of these…Karen doesn’t put out.  My sister is not sexy.  She’s beautiful, but she is not sexy.  She is extremely intelligent, but she is not hip…It’s like she’s a really hot dork trying to be cool.”

In my early college and post grad years, I remember starting to see friends or other students sporting bracelets, usually those woven ones, with the letters WWJD on them. It stood for What Would Jesus Do?  According to Wikipedia, Christians “…used the phrase as a reminder of their belief in a moral imperative to act in a manner that would demonstrate the love of Jesus through the actions of the adherents.”  The bracelets were supposed to help you remember to be a better person, to make wise choices.  Though I suspect some parents “gifted” them to their teens and young adults in a desperate attempt to keep them from drinking, smoking pot and having sex.  Guilt is a powerful motivator.

It's often been guilt, or maybe a combination of guilt and fear, that’s kept me toe-ing the line for so many years.  But I didn’t need a personal relationship with Jesus or a bracelet around my wrist with a jumble of letters to tell me what NOT to do.  It was really the other way around.

During a Southern California fall, on a chilly night just before Halloween, my younger sister, the one who wrote so eloquently about my finer traits, was killed during a random robbery in her car, on a quiet block in Hollywood.  But that is another story.

Wendy was the opposite of me.  If there was a rule to be found, she was going to do her best to break it.  Not because she was contrary by nature.  On the contrary.  She was warm and engaging and you’d be pretty hard pressed to find anyone who didn’t get along with her.  Her world just simply didn’t have walls.  There are a million stories I could relate that would illustrate this statement, but for now, I’ve chosen just one.  

It was in 1999.  I was in grad school and Wendy was an undergrad student at Occidental College.  We lived together, in a little 1950’s house in the San Fernando Valley.  It was late afternoon on a Sunday and Wendy was still in her bathrobe.  Mostly naked was her general preference for attire.  My dog was curled up on Wendy’s lap, her tiny nose tucked into the folds of the dark green terry cloth monstrosity that was probably in desperate need of a wash.  The start of the Golden Globe awards was on TV.

“I’m headed to school,” I said.  I had a project due and a team meeting scheduled.  “I’ll be back later.”
“Okay,” she said.  “I might go to the Golden Globes.”  There was no sarcasm in her voice.

“Right.  Let me know how that goes.”  There was a lot of sarcasm in my voice.

I came home about four hours later to an empty house.  Then I got a text from Wendy, T9 style, on my snazzy brick of a phone.  She did it.  Wendy pulled an old formal dress from a school dance out of her closet, fluffed up her hair and drove to Hollywood.  Later, when she came home, she would tell me that she “walked right in.”  The ceremony was more than half over, and she just looked like she knew what she was doing.  She would later produce photos with a handful of television celebrities and in most of them, she’s got this crazy face on and is gesturing at them with a “look who I’m with” expression.

After Wendy died, I was shattered.  To be honest, I still pick up pieces of myself every now and then and try to stick them back on.  I came apart, and as I put myself back together, over days, and weeks and years, the pieces fit differently.  My rules hadn’t stopped Wendy from dying, they didn’t stop me from grieving, and the box they had built had failed to keep me safe.  Yet, I still clung to them, as if they gave me structure, helped to keep the pieces together.  I still do, a lot of the time.  As they say in recovery, once a rule-follower, always a rule-follower, right?  

But somewhere along the way, maybe four or five years after Wendy died, when I was most struggling with how to keep her in my life as the years fell away, I thought of those What Would Jesus Do? bracelets.  I suddenly realized I needed one.  But mine would read, WWWD.  What Would Wendy Do?  When choices in life would come up, some little and some big, I started to ask myself that question.  There was something immediately reassuring when I discovered that I always knew the answer.  It connected me to her in a way I hadn’t expected and connected me to life in a way I had never experienced.  

If my gut reaction to Wendy’s answer was “Oh, hell, no,” then I stuck to my guns.  But if I thought to myself, “that sounds a little crazy,” or “maybe I shouldn’t,” or “I’d love to, but I’m afraid,” I’d look down at my invisible macramé bracelet and say, “Okay, Wendy, you win, I’m doing it your way.”

What Would Wendy do got me on a plane by myself for a solo vacation to London in 2007, which to this day, was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had.  It got me to open a business in an industry I knew little about.  It got me to give in on days I needed to get stuff done, and to stay in my bathrobe until dinner time.  It got me to stand up for myself in moments when it’s far more comfortable for me to keep quiet.  What Would Wendy Do? also left me once stranded at a house in the Hollywood Hills trapped in a bathroom with a bunch of cocaine-sniffing actors until 4 in the morning in days before Google Maps and iPhones so I couldn’t call a cab because I couldn’t tell them how to find me.  So use with caution.

I issue you that warning because I’d like to pass a little of Wendy’s “get out of your box, whatever it happens to be made out of”, brand of magic.  Think of the word Wendy as a symbol, because it’s not really about Wendy.  This is about me, about you, about all of us.  It’s about getting comfortable with the things that make you feel like you’re wearing a too tight pair of shoes.  It’s not about breaking all of the rules, because there’s an “oh, hell, no” in all of us and it’s there for a reason.  But there’s also a “maybe,” and a “why not,” and all kinds of other wonderful words that make pathways instead of boxes.

So maybe I don’t need an anonymous self-help group.  Maybe all any of us really needs is a circle around our wrist.  Tattooed, imaginary, from the dime store, or even from Tiffany’s.  Especially from Tiffany’s.  A daily reminder that some rules are meant to be broken, that some boxes are meant to be opened.  That an experience, good or bad, is just that, a wonderful, magical experience.  And that life, for as long as we have it, is meant to be lived.