My therapist prescribed Play-Doh to me this week and I complied, buying six tubs in neon colors: orange, purple, pink, yellow, blue, and green. Play-Doh appeals to all the senses. It has a unique feel under the hand, it has the distinct smell of childhood, the colors are bright, it even makes a pleasing sound when it’s squished. I’d say something here about the taste but I can’t bring myself to put it in my mouth. Did you know that it contains wheat?
I needed to find a photo I thought I had lost and, in the process, I discovered all of my receipts, ticket stubs, and notes from my last trip to New York City in 2007. Next to every landmark or museum visited, I jotted down how much money I spent and how much money I had left in my checking account.
I was twenty years old and didn’t have a credit card, and all of my spending money came from the paychecks I earned at various jobs on campus: checking out required textbooks and DVDs in the library’s reserve room, hosting prospies for the Admissions office, doing data entry. I learned that there was no limit to the number of hours you could work on campus, and no limit to the number of departments you could work for.
I leave for my next trip to New York City on Tuesday and I will fill pages and pages in my journal about the woman I’m seeing, the coffee shops in Queens that serve Stumptown coffee, and the new exhibit at the Whitney, but I’m not keeping a ledger to make sure I don’t overspend on my cafeteria lunches. In a bizarre twist of events that twenty-year-old me could not have predicted, I’m flying first class using airline miles from a jointly-held credit card with my second spouse.
The Play-Doh is supposed to help my anxiety, the nauseous pit in my stomach when I think about working on the book I’m writing.
“I’m interested in helping people connect to the process of making,” my therapist said. She told me that most of her clients are artists, writers, and musicians, many of them full-time professionals. They get obsessed with the product and lose sight of the process, so she tries to pull them back, to help them get fascinated again with art-making.
“Sounds like a good metaphor for life,” I said, and she nodded as I scribbled notes in the padfolio spread open across my lap.
When I left for college, I moved from Portland to Ohio and broke up with my boyfriend, since we both decided that we didn’t want a long-distance thing. Then my parents immediately announced their separation once I was safely on the other side of the Mississippi. Understandably, I was a bit upset and lonely. I wrote long letters to my ex-boyfriend every day for almost two months, until it finally sunk in that he was never going to write back, even though we exchanged messages daily on AOL Instant Messenger.
That ex-boyfriend? I married him seven years later. And two years after that, we got divorced. In one of our last conversations as a couple, the kind where you’re both surveying the wreckage and holding nothing back, he told me about those letters from college.
“I only opened some of them,” he confessed. “Most of them, I didn’t read. I kept them but couldn’t open them.” He cried telling me this, about how he was so overwhelmed by my love and didn’t know what to do with my feelings for him.
I’ve thought about those letters more than once, wondering what happened to them. He lives in Portland so I imagine he did the environmentally responsible thing and put them all in his recycling bin, then wheeled them to the curb one night. The next morning, they were gone.
I was seventeen when the Yeah Yeah Yeahs released Fever to Tell. I listened to that album every day in college, the CD spinning on repeat in my discman long before I had my first iPod.
My favorite song has always been the second-to-last one on the album, “Y Control.” Karen O growls, “I wish I could buy back the woman you stole.”
I wish I could buy back the woman you stole.
I can’t buy back the letters. I can’t buy back all the words wasted, the dozens of letters in the archive of my teenage desire and pain lost to the City of Portland’s Waste Management.
So I buy Play-Doh.
I’m sure it will help.
Once I open it.