How jane fonda helped me briefly forget the world is a nightmare what is electricity


These days, when apocalyptic fears become too loud, I try to remember the summer I was 11 and attended camp at the ranch owned by Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden in the Santa Ynez Mountains. I’d never been to sleepaway camp, and before I left, my mother gave me 14 envelopes, one for every night I’d be away, each containing a white piece of paper on which she’d written a single word in blue ink: No. She said this to me every night at bedtime — No. No was shorthand for “No, there won’t be a nuclear war with Russia while you sleep.” I understood our routine to be preventative as well as therapeutic. By saying these words aloud, we were actually keeping the bombs from dropping, and as I drove north to camp, from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, I was not at all certain that the letters would accomplish the same.

I was joining the second half of a four-week session, which was how my parents could afford it. Worried about making friends, I had packed the game Boggle to use as an overture. When I arrived at the ranch, Boggle cubes gently rattling against their plastic cage in my bag, I understood how vastly I’d miscalculated. The other girls in my cohort of 11-year-olds, all wearing the tiniest of shorts and tank tops, were fainting, giggling, flailing, grinding pelvises into the floor. Apparently, a secret about a boy — I never learned what it was but understood it was sexual — had sent them into what the counselors were calling mass hysteria. I stood awkwardly while they were given paper bags to breathe into.

On the first Friday night of camp, there was an announcement at dinner: Jane was coming! Everyone was excited, even me, although I’d never seen her on a videotape or in a movie. It was her husband, member of the Chicago 8, cowriter of the Port Huron Statement, who was the celebrity in my house. She arrived after we were asleep, and when we woke, we were given a new choice for morning exercise. We could jog around the perimeter of the ranch as usual. Or we could do aerobics with Jane in the meadow.

I chose Jane, but with trepidation. What was aerobics, really? I knew it involved pop music, of the type I only heard at the grocery store, along with gyrating motions and reaching gestures, and how could I do that? My parents listened exclusively to classical music. And while I took ballet, I didn’t know how to dance beyond its strictures, its pliés and tendus. I’d never seen MTV, never attended a school dance. How did people move? Once, at a political meeting with my parents, I’d asked a teenager to teach me. She looked at me sadly. “I guess, if you don’t know, just try to jump in time to the music.”

Finally Jane emerged from the house, looking like sunshine. She was laughing at something the ranch manager was saying to her. He was carrying a silver boom box, and he set it on a rock wall. She took off her robe, revealing a skimpy, bright leotard. But just as she was greeting us, a gaggle of the older girls burst out of the ranch house and ran to join us, standing right behind me, where I couldn’t escape their notice.

The music started. Pat Benatar sang “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” loud and fuzzy and encouraging. Jane began moving, a wiggle-wiggle of sexiness directed to the mountains looming behind us, the hawks overhead, the crackle of grasses underneath our Reeboks. “Follow along!” she shouted. Despite my plan, I couldn’t stop myself. I became possessed. At first, I simply swayed. Soon, I was reaching my hands to the mountains! to the sea! (as Jane called out). I was timid about moving my hips, unable to isolate them from my knees, my waist, but I began thrusting whatever I could to one side and then the other. I went left when everyone else went right. I squatted when they leaped. I looked ridiculous, but there, with Jane Fonda and the music and the mountains, I no longer cared. I was not the special girl who thought only of death. I was a speck. I was nobody. I was joy. I was a piece of paper with a single word on it: Yes.

Dillard answers simply. No. We’re not crucial; these times are not extraordinary. We are ordinary people in ordinary times. Ordinary life, she goes on to say, has always had plagues, floods, totalitarian extermination, refugees thirsty in the desert. It’s always been pre-apocalypse. “Can the news from dynastic Egypt have been any different?”

I am not saying that we shouldn’t be frightened of our ordinary, frightening times. I’m just saying that when the fright gets too great, when it seems like we are doomed actors on a stage — that to live in 2018 is to live in the final year of all we’ve cared about — we can find a way, for a little while, to step out of the spotlight. We can escape the paralysis of specialness, the anxiety of living in a unique time with its unique annihilation, and we can find our own Jane Fonda, whatever it is that helps us remember the mundane fact that we are still incredibly alive in this moment — as is the world around us. We can see the hawks overhead, feel the brush of dry grasses against our skin, reach to the mountains or the sea. We can become nobody again, for a brief moment, unwatched, unworried.

When the hour was over, the music stopped and we ate graham crackers and juice in the shade. But for me, the spell wasn’t entirely broken. My attention had shifted from the sky — where the planes passed, where the watcher watched me — to the sweat down my back and the soreness in my legs and the people all around me. I laughed at something someone said. I dared speak myself. That night I stayed up late on the meadow talking to a girl and a boy, and the three of us became inseparable. I was not, though, entirely changed. As the camp prepared for a dance and music performance, we picked counselors to work with. One counselor, who nobody liked, wanted to create a melodramatic dance about endangered whales, while two beloved counselors offered an African/jazz/modern blend. I felt politically compelled to choose the dying whales. I was disappointed to learn that nobody else did. At the performance, all the other dancers were dressed in beautiful, revealing dresses with jacaranda blooms in their hair, while I, a whale, had blue face paint and streamers tied to my head. Still, in the photo I took with Jane, I’m smiling. ●