I find them all the time, connections. I lock eyes with a person on the subway, maybe an older black man, or a young white woman, and we both smile. Maybe we connected over the difficulty of hearing a beggar tell their tale, or maybe I said, "I love your shoes."
One day I might wave to a neighbor on the street corner, and they might stop and tell me their troubles even though they never have before, they might share the issues they're having with their marriage, or what's going on with their kids. I might meet someone sitting next to me in a cafe and suddenly we're sharing our life stories--one of us about being an Arab, one of us about being Jew.
I am buoyed by these connections. My heart swells and I feel purposeful, worthy, like I am here, on Earth, for good reason.
For a time, believing so much in the power of human connection and the necessity of it to soothe my soul, I gave out puffy glittery gold stars to perfect strangers. In those moments when someone would share something with me, offer up some bit of themselves, some truth about how they were faring in the world, I would whip out a star, and hand it to them. "For trying," I would say.
I started a blog, goldstar4trying, to attempt to capture those important moments, those important connections. I felt strong and powerful when I would bestow a star, like the Park Slope Goddess of Glittery Stars. I realized how much I could change another human, if only for a moment, by seeing them, by recognizing them. It was, of course, what I hoped for for myself: to be seen and recognized, to get that gold star I worked for so hard for in school, the thing that said that I was worthy.
Helping others feel worthy and connected was like getting a gold star for myself, every time. But the project faded. The Chinese manufacturer of the glittery gold stars stopped making them and the replacements I found were sub-par. I didn't gain much attention for the blog, and the book proposal an excited literary agent friend requested went nowhere.
Of course, the stars were a catalyst, not the actual connection, but still. I realize, without them, that I sometimes fail to connect. I look down on the subway, wholly unaware of other passengers. I am annoyed at the neighbor who sullenly passes without a hello. I couldn't care less about the person next to me at the cafe, except that their progeny is screaming and annoying me as I try desperately to capture my own thoughts in my journal.
It's a see-saw of connectivity, life, and it's hard to figure why it's not more balanced. If I know that connections are the key to my sense of worth, why can't I just make them consistently?
I found a clue recently. A possible reason why: shame.
I had attended a friend's play and sat in the front row. I was supposed to meet my kids afterward but had not solidified plans with them first, so I texted with them as covertly as possible.
The next morning, my friend sent me a review of her play along with a message: "They hated me, but they hated you too..." she said with a smiley face. The reviewer spoke of the "obnoxious" woman texting in the front row, and as I read it, my heart sank. I'd made a mistake. I'd done the wrong thing, and there was no going back. I couldn't erase it or take a do-over. People had seen and taken notice and judged.
All day, I was bitter and angry. I could barely take in my family or friends to connect, let alone strangers. Nothing could dissuade me from the dim view I had of the world, the loathing I had toward myself. Who was I but an insensitive, self-centered, "obnoxious..." person.
I saw it, though. I had been in such a good place, feeling so good about myself and my relationships all summer, and so I felt the shift dramatically. It was easy to identify how the shame and self-loathing sent me straight into a spiral of disconnection.
And so I breathed through it. I shook it off:
"GET LOST SHAME!" I said.
My friend wasn't mad, I would try to be better about pre-planning and turning off my phone during performances, and life was ok again. I was potentially worthy.
Until the next time, of course. Until that inevitable wrong move I make again, until that next lapse in judgment that makes me feel bad, about myself and, hence, others, that sends me into solitary.
But I know now how I have to forgive myself the way I forgive others, how I have to reward myself like I enjoy rewarding others. I have to stand strong against my shame and external judgment and think instead of how I might be worthy of a pretty gold glittery star. Self-worth lost can be found, over and over again.
This essay was read September 21st, 2016 at Women on Worth, a reading hosted by Reiki Linda Gnat-Mullin to fund Brooklyn's Center for Anti-Violence Education (CAE).