Sara Kirschenbaum
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A New Essay: Dirty Dancing

Posted Tuesday, Sep 22nd, 2009 at 7:02pm

Dirty Dancing - (I've Had) The Time Of My Life

Boy: “Now I've had the time of my life/ No I never felt like this before/ Yes I swear it's the truth/ And I owe it all to you”

Here’s the situation. It is 1987. My relationship is breaking up like a destroyed rocket upon re-entry. I won’t know it for a couple of decades when she makes amends but my soon-to-be ex has popped my waterbed, read my journals and scratched my favorite records. I haven’t done much better. Mimicking my dad’s ability to terrorize, I have screamed and yelled, picked the lock on her bedroom door, smashed a beloved glass plate I gave her and groveled on the floor of her van. I am deeply ashamed and afraid that if word of my behavior gets out in the social work community I work in, I’ll be doomed. I feel hypocritical. I feel done for. I have nowhere to sleep because my bed is popped and she certainly won’t let me into her room. I curl up on our cheap foam fold-out chair in the living room.

Girl: “'Cause I've had the time of my life/ And I owe it all to you”

I head out in the morning for my job at the soup kitchen. I’m cooking lunch today for at least 100 people and I’m also running the Women’s Resource Center that I started with three VISTA volunteers from the neighborhood. What would people say if, while they were listening to me pontificate in my workshops on domestic violence, they knew what I had done in my own home? As I walk out my front door I’m hoping I don’t see the upstairs neighbors because it is embarrassing to have screamed and yelled so much, late into the night.

In the summer of 1987, the movie “Dirty Dancing” had just come out and by fall the radio stations are still playing its theme song, “The Time of My Life.” And as I head out of my house into a bright fall day, these words sing in my head:

Girl:”We saw the writing on the wall As we felt this magical fantasy”

The knuckles on my hand are scabbed from me hitting a wall (just like my pop) last week. Holding the knowledge of my dishonorable rage, it feels like more than my love-life is over. Where will I go?

I’m running a few minutes late and I know when I get to the soup kitchen there will be five or six homeless men there waiting for me on the steps to the kitchen: green-eyed Walter Gibbs who is as untrustworthy as he is charming , the one-eyed Gerald with several bullets still in him. Burt, veteran of the state mental hospital, who will be mad at me because he’s anxious to take the chairs down. Sweet Eugene who has already given me three of his four worldly possessions: TV, leather jacket and boom box. The guy with bumps on him who is ready to make coffee.

Boy: “just remember”

Girl: “You're the one thing”

Boy: “I can't get enough of”

Girl: “So I'll tell you something”

Both:”This could be love because…”

Why, I want to know, do I have a love-song running through my head? And who is this that I owe it all to? Why a cheerful, soulful, upbeat love song now? And it is becoming a little unnerving how many times it’s playing over and over in my mind.

“I've had the time of my life”

You got to hand it to me; I’m good at getting help. In the past few months I have joined Co-Dependants Anonymous. Found a therapist and started peer counseling. I take my insistent love-song to the therapist’s couch. I ask her: Why oh why do I have this damn love-song crooning away in my head. Does it mean I still love my ex? Should I get back together with her? The therapist in her Buddha-ed, candled, wall-hanginged office smiles. She knows I’ve been struggling with the higher power concept in Co-Dependant’s Anonymous. She says, “Do you think it could be a love-song with your higher power?”

A higher power had no place in my atheistic childhood on the 18th Floor of an apartment building in NYC. My Jewish father certainly wasn’t for it. Having walked though those rows of dead bodies in Lipsk when he was on the front line in the Second World War, he could not see the work of any god he wanted to get involved with. Mom, half Jewish and half Episcopalian, would go so far as to tell ghost stories about her mother (appearing at a dinner party with her signature leopard skin patterned dress even though she had been dead for years), but could not vow for any intelligent design. Life beyond the grave in her world seemed threatening, scary. My mom has a younger sister, Judy, and once when Judy was a little girl acting out, their mother threatened to come back and haunt Judy as her future daughter. My parents also had a friend who was a disciple of Gurdjieff who supposedly could hear people’s thoughts, “like listening to a radio” my dad said. This creeped me out and I’m still somewhat afraid of her even though she died 20 years ago, locking herself into her apartment so she could die alone from cancer. So a love-song with my higher power? Are you kidding me?

Girl: “With my body and soul/ I want you more than you'll ever know”

Boy: “So we'll just let it go/ Don't be afraid to lose control”

The singing continued in my head. I didn’t know at the time that I would be diagnosed with OCD in 3 years. And one of my symptoms was the repeating tape loop of songs in my head that would not stop – especially when I was alone and not distracted.

But this therapist had a way of coaxing obsession into comfort; spinning straw into gold. She thought I could come to think of the song as reminder that my higher power was present and caring. So each time The Time of My Life would come on the radio (and the radio was on a lot at the soup kitchen. I made a reputation for myself of dancing it up – especially to “Don’t Worry; Be Happy) I’d choose to take it as a special wink to me from above. Although it wasn’t at all clear who was doing the winking – god, providence, a radio disc jockey, or me.

Boy: “Just remember/ You're the one thing”

Girl: “I can't get enough of”

Boy: “So I'll tell you something”

Both: “This could be love”

The song was eventually played less and less often. I’d go years without hearing it. But it was okay, part of its magic was its increasingly rare serendipity. I did continue to go to 12-step meetings although I switched to Al-Anon. Higher power gradually became something that I would talk about like the other veterans of the twelve steps in my meetings – using the jargon of the 12-steps. I gave higher power a chance, and in times of crisis, like so many, I’d plead to HP to get me through. I hadn’t heard The Time of Your Life in years until the recent death of Patrick Swayze. I was watching a compilation video of him on You Tube, and here came my crooning higher power. Patrick Swayze was such a mega-guy! The way he swoops up Jennifer Grey, with those bulging muscular arms, it gives the idea of Trust, charisma.

It’s not that Patrick Swayze is the face of my higher power. He and his co-star just give me the words. It’s me who is singing to the mysterious powers that be “I’ve had the time of my life…and I owe it all to you.” Gratitude has become the reliable currency of my faith.

Both: “No I've never felt this way before/ Yes I swear it's the truth/ 'Cause I've had the time of my life/ And I've searched through every open door/ Till I found the truth/ And I owe it all to you

I never got back together with my girlfriend and she and I moved on to other partners, slowly working the abuse of our childhoods out of our relationships. And it is only in the backwards glance of hindsight that I am beginning to see what there was to be grateful for way back then when I was so ashamed of my behavior, and had nowhere to sleep. It’s that perverse spiritual law of human nature that when you “hit bottom” and despair, that is the ticket to propel you forward, your ticket to real change. It must have been at some desperate moment on the foam fold-out chair that my life veered off at an angle heading on a new path that was not so lonesome. When I began to believe in a benevolence to the wide universe. It’s been 22 years since and I now find myself a surprisingly easy-going and positive person.

And I owe it all to you.


  1. Cara Wrote on Thursday, Sep 24th, 2009 at 12:50pm

    This was a beautiful and uplifting essay. Thanks for posting it.

  2. D'Arcy Fallon Wrote on Friday, Sep 25th, 2009 at 1:52am

    Sara, this is a fantastic essay. Really spot on! I couldn't stop reading it. Loved where you went with it. xox, D.

  3. Christina Malango Wrote on Wednesday, Feb 03rd, 2010 at 2:37pm

    not sure how I missed this essay. I really like it, especially the structure of the song lines between the paragraphs, very effective. And of course, I got my own chuckle out of the "math" of you adding this up to 22 years! Ha!

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