Identity

FaceTiming My Loved Ones Is Like Basic Emotional Hygiene

I brush my teeth and FaceTime at least two times a day.

by Jasmine Sanders
Feb 19 2019, 3:38pm

Photo by Jasmine Sanders.

This Is Fine. is Broadly's weekly newsletter about the previously private and highly personal tactics people use to make the world less harrowing. In this week's newsletter, Jasmine Sanders waxes about the merits of FaceTiming in moments of pleasure and peril. Sign up here to receive a newsletter with a new dealing-with-life strategy each Sunday evening.

In a high school auditorium, a horde of Black children raise their many fists and voices in salutation to the mighty Pan-African flag. The flag hangs vertically before us; we regard each of its colors in turn. “Here is to the red,” the chorus sing-shouts. “And the black, and the green.”

My fist is limp, held up by my other hand. I never memorized this declaration, a page-long text handed to us at summer’s start. The auditorium, thick with adolescent energy, seems airless. I squirm to unstick my cotton camp shirt from my back.

My antsiness and faineance draws the scorn of my counselors. They watch, aware that I’m only pantoming the words, that my fist is barely raised, and that I would do anything at all to be anywhere but Ujamaa Day Camp, a summer enrichment program intended to impart the teachings of Pan-Africanism to Black adolescents.

The summer prior, when I was 11, I attended Washington Park Summer Camp, a Shangri-La where we swam outdoors in a pool complete with a water slide, under the supervision of teenage counselors who were cool and lax and easily evaded. We were allowed ample free time to frolic amongst ourselves, gossiping, dancing, playing intricate hand games which required a quartet of girls, our movements coordinated to the lyrics of “Rockin’ Robin.” One girl claimed to be dropped off daily by a limousine, a ceremony none of us ever managed to witness. Another, with enchanting buck teeth and cotton-candy hair she kept in two big ponytails, commenced a spirited bullying campaign against me. This culminated in a midsummer fight. I lost, but she stopped bullying me.

I’d anticipated returning to Washington Park the next summer, and the next, and every summer of my life, maybe. When the season arrived, my grandmother said we couldn’t afford the camp’s fee that year. How much is it? I asked. “300 dollars.” Is that a lot of money? “Yeah. It’s a lotta money.”

So I went to Ujamaa, where admission was cheaper and a family friend provided a discount. The anarchic thrill of Washington Park was replaced by structured, mostly indoor lessons on Garveyism and a hodgepodge of dubiously “African” cultural knowledge: Egyptian pyramids; the tenets of Kwanzaa; Kiswahili vocabulary. Something about the strictures of the program, its imposing authority and alien regimentation, ignited my every instinct for panic. I refused to speak to anyone there. I refused to learn any of the drills. I stopped eating during the daytime, and, eventually, I stopped shitting (I was a chronically constipated child).

My opposition to camp had been so outsizedly dramatic, so dogged, that my aunt and grandmother convened one day to question whether someone there had done me harm—had “messed with” me in some way. Of course they’re messing with me, I thought. They won’t give me graham crackers or cookies because of the sugar content, and I spend my days making acronyms for the word LIBERATION instead of swimming.

Every day, I asked to phone my aunt. “What’s wrong?” the proprietors asked. I could rarely say. I just knew that I needed to speak to her. Or, even better, see her—though they seldom let me call, that made it even more of a relief when she came to get me at the end of the day.

At my most undone—my most lonesome or anxious—the feelings that overtook me that summer come howling back. I’m reminded of how it feels to be a girl of 12 when everyone else is either 11 or 13 years old. Of the abiding, astringent terror of childhood. Of knowing lovely games and routines, possessing a particular knowledge/skill you worked very hard to attain, only for no one around you to have any use for, or even polite interest in. That summer, I learned something intimate about being a woman or Black or poor, of being mired in circumstances over which you have no control or choice. Of my own talent for dramatics. Of wanting to call women who love me when I’m in duress.

This took on a different format in recent years, when I was perilously broke and too depressed to find work outside of freelance writing and my cell phone service was suspended. I had an iPhone, which functions for iMessaging and FaceTime when connected to wifi, even without cellular service. Most places have wifi, so I spent my days FaceTiming. I’m less broke now, but still frequently unmoored, and the habit of FaceTiming has stuck.

I have become the friend who FaceTimes at 2 PM without warning, or while getting a pedicure, the nail technician yanking angrily at my feet. I’ve FaceTimed at work, at the Eiffel Tower, and on a swamp tour in the Louisiana Bayou as a moderately sized gator snapped up chicken parts thrown into the water. When a guy that I was dating informed me, some months after the fact, that he had slipped the condom off that one time, I screamed in his apartment and slammed the door when I left. I FaceTimed my friend and cried desperate, hot tears in his building’s lobby. The next year, she would FaceTime me, weeping over a similar violation. FaceTiming is like basic emotional hygiene: I brush my teeth and FaceTime at least two times a day. (I have, more than once, brushed my teeth while FaceTiming.)

Negotiating your FaceTime chemistry with a new friend or inductee is a lot like dancing, or sex. Some people are poor FaceTime partners, being too skittish to perform the act in public. Others are too fixated on their appearance to successfully complete the task at hand. Which isn’t to imply that FaceTime has no room for peacocks: Imani arrives at every FaceTime date newly rapt by her own beauty, each of us complimenting the camera’s ability to capture her splendor. Once, when I bought a new lipstick, which I was certain was the most wonderful thing to ever happen to me, I spent entire FaceTime sessions with the phone lens focused on my lips. Similarly, I called my sister after I got extensions in part to regale the camera with slow, sumptuous blinks.

FaceTime is the only innovation which has, thus far, come close to realizing the futuristic wonders we’d possess this far into the 21st century. (Not only do the cars not fly, but when they do, they will likely be utilized by the police.) Some days, FaceTime is the single camera which captures me with my knowledge, consent—and delight. It’s pleasing to think that someone, somewhere will view the tape of Amy and me displaying our respective Christmas trees, or of my cousin praying for me when I moved to NYC.

FaceTime is only a small step away from necromancy; it’s a convening with people who are with you, but not really. Still, they feel present. It’s like this: Once, I was depressed or heartbroken, and my best friend asked, “How do you feel?”

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“It feels like I have no skin.” I meant that I felt weak—inappropriately sensitive and raw, like some critical protective covering had been pared away, like the peel of a fruit. Like I felt sweating in my camp uniform, panicked and out of place. I find FaceTime immersive and ameliorative, something that helps my skin grow back. For these reasons and others, I feel like the proper preposition, when referencing FaceTime, is in, instead of on. My friends and I are in FaceTime.

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