I’ve been back in the United States for a little more than a year now.
In these 12-plus months I have made a conscious choice to put down roots, to “bloom where I’m planted” – signing an apartment lease and buying furniture, dating someone who lives on the same CTA and Metra line as me, securing work and allowing myself to become “a fixture” there.
And yet, at least once a week I am greeted with “You’re here?!” or “How long are you stateside?” or “Where do you live anyway?”
The words reflect a life I’d always dreamed of – the bon vivant flitting from gorgeous here to glamorous there – and at times make it difficult to be where my feet are, here in Chicago.
Especially when Facebook reminds me that last year “On This Day” I was staying in a castle in Girona at a writers retreat; that the year before I was riding a rented bike to the beach in Valencia and sharing paella with new friends; and the year before that, I was volunteering at a chocolate festival in Umbria.
Especially when the second of two new bed pillows I recently purchased now goes unused, and I am no longer certain who will sit at my side next week when I see Patti Smith at The Music Box Theatre – an early birthday gift to myself.
Life on the other side of the Atlantic always sounds sexy — in these moments sexier still. The questions about my being here now – in Chicago — feel like a kitten rubbing its insistent head against my naked leg.
That is, until Monday at 4 pm — the day after the Chicago Marathon when T. gingerly walks into my massage room.
She and I started working together about a month ago, when a chronically tight hamstring had her questioning her ability to complete the 26.2 mile run – her first.
It was one of those easy, graceful connections where few words were necessary and those we did exchange were about our connections to Africa — my weeks in Kigali, her years in Nairobi, yellow jerrycans and her fundraising efforts to provide clean water there.
“Well?” I ask, hopefully, my voice upticking at the end of the second “L.”
Her mouth curls into a smile and she pulls a medal out of her bag.
“I did it!” she says.“Can we take a selfie? I never take selfies …”
Neither statement surprises me. I nod and say, “of course.”
Meanwhile, T. hands me the medal as she pulls her phone out of her bag.
“I think you should wear it,” she says.
I feel silly. It is her medal, her marathon. But she insists she couldn’t have done it without me. I slip the red ribbon over my head and hold the medal between our faces.
“I appreciate you,” she says.
“And I, you.”
The moment is a gift, the present of being present, knowing that being where my feet are has allowed hers to carry her 26.2 miles. I feel my roots begin to twist up and gnarl under the earth, finding their place … on this side of the Atlantic.
My friend Clover knows I love papercut artist Nikki McClure and has twice bought me calendars of her work. Each has a beautiful image of the season and a single word. BECOME for January. RETREAT for April. LINGER for September. This morning I turned the page to October –AWAY.
AWAY (alone) is the gift I have learned to give myself each birthday (whenever possible), each October 20.
Forty-five began with breakfast in Rome and ended with dinner in Paris. That evening, crossing the Seine from the Right Bank to the Left, I looked out at Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower and thought, “Who goes to Paris for dinner?” and then, “I do.”
What followed shook me to my core. Alone on my birthday in arguably the most romantic city in the world I thought “I don’t wish a man was here.” “I don’t wish a man was here.” And then, “I don’t wish a friend was here or that I ate anything different or wore anything different or that anything was different.” It was a moment of pure contentment and total bliss – fleeting and remarkable.
That trip – specifically my time spent in Rome – catapulted me on to a trajectory that had me living in Madrid six months later.
I had met a woman a few weeks earlier while volunteering in Perugia. Upon my arrival in Rome, she insisted on throwing a dinner/birthday party in my honor. As I rode the tram from the residential Trastevere neighborhood to Pyramid station on a Saturday night, flowers in hand, I thought, “It’s like I live here,” and then, “I can do this.” I knew just what the words meant – although I didn’t yet know where I’d be going … or how soon.
Forty-seven found me back in Paris waking up to a text that read, “Yesterday’s kisses are still on my tongue. Delicious. Happy Birthday, Gorgeous!” I spent that afternoon on a walking tour of Montmarte with a woman I had met just that morning. We shared a chocolate tart before parting company and she sang me Happy Birthday. That evening, I walked back to the bridge where I had found contentment and peace two years earlier – alone, eating a falafel from my favorite stand in Le Marais, and equally blissed out.
The romance lasted a glorious six months. My friendship with the woman from the walking tour remains strong.
I’ve often said I am best on the road, on my own.
My internal travel clock grows loud and restless at about the five-month mark. My spirit calls for its sojourn. AWAY (alone). Some might call it running … but I don’t think so.
AWAY (alone) is a detour. It is a place where unfamiliar roads open my eyes and force me to pay attention to what is in front of me. I believe it is in that paying attention that magic shows its face and I am awake enough to notice and respond to it.
I leave for Montreal in 19 days – my 48th birthday – AWAY (alone) and wonder what gifts await me.
Five years ago today I boarded a plane bound for Kigali.
I was in the middle of a divorce I didn’t quite see coming, and certain I had no idea of where I was going, other than to Africa — a place I had dreamed of visiting since I was a child.
Several months earlier I had signed up to join a group of volunteers from my synagogue, working with two AIDS service organizations in the Rwandan capital. Little did I know that there — under my mosquito net in the wee hours of the morning — I would reclaim my voice as a writer, that I would succumb to the siren of the blue-light glow of my computer to tell the stories of my experiences on my blog — http://www.awanderingjewess.com.
I had secured the blog address about the same time I secured my place on the trip and had a vague notion that I might write about the road to becoming a rabbi. Instead I wrote about the road to Bombogo – a village on the outskirts of Kigali — where students learned to create kitchen gardens that would feed their families.
I wrote about house visits with social worker and part-time saint, Mary Grace, and her clients. The reed thin woman who sat in the dark, her face illuminated by a hole in the metal roof, who was unsure how she would feed her family now that her rabbits — her source of both food and income — had been stolen. And the robust one who replied to the missionary offering to help her build a roof, “Roof? I need a house!” and then built one for her and her daughters, and then another — thus becoming a landlord.
I wrote about painting walls and filling prescription packets. Dancing with a professional troupe in a style close to the one I had been studying for years. And about a room full of girls all with shaved heads, curious about the “Muzungo” with the same “do.”
The trip that began on Independence Day 2012 returned me to my craft after a 15-year hiatus, changing the trajectory of both my life and my blog. It led me to write about my experiences post-divorce, about dating, and mostly not dating — taking myself on solo excursions AKA Artist Dates instead — and ultimately moving to Madrid, the basis for “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain.”
I recently sent an update on the status of this project, one year after launching it. Many thanks to Tanya Gazdik Irwin, Jan Mekula and AJ Benham who responded to the update with contributions to the “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign.
The “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign was created to defray the costs of the Rocaberti Castle Writers Retreat which I attended in the fall of 2016. Additional contributions have been used to pay for coaching sessions with Debra Engle, my retreat mentor, who is guiding me in the process of taking my writing from blog to book to screen.
I hear these words often in recovery circles — usually in reference to romance or finance but its application is universal. Truthfully, I prefer”my time,” but it seems that’s not how things work — not even in writing, of which I have more than a modicum of control.
According to Facebook, “On This Day” in 2016 I launched my Go Fund Me campaign. I wrote:
“For those of you who have asked, ‘When’s the book coming out?’ (And those of you who haven’t …) I need your help! I’ll be returning to Spain this fall for the Rocaberti Castle Writers Retreat, to meet with industry experts who will help me go from blog to book. I received a half-scholarship to the retreat. Please consider a donation to help defray the remaining costs … ”
I hit my goal in October of last year and went to the retreat in Girona the same month. Inside the cocoon-like confines of the castle, I pitched my project to industry professionals, and received constructive feedback and guidance on my manuscript — both one-on-one and in small work circles. The shorthand takeaway was MORE — more details, more lushness of language, let go of the tight journalistic training and “take us there.”
Eight months have passed … and I naively thought I’d have a book deal by now. (Politics aside, I feel a bit like our current president when he said that his job was way harder than he anticipated. Turns out … so is going from blog to book.)
Today’s “On This Day” seemed like a nudge from the Universe to let those who so generously supported this project know the status of it.
What’s Happened Since the Retreat:
Returning home, I began to incorporate the feedback I had received and quickly found myself lost in my own story. So in early 2017, I took retreat mentor Debra Engle up on her offer of a complimentary 30-minute coaching session, to see if she could help guide me out of the weeds. She did, and then some … so I hired her.
We have completed eight of 10 coaching sessions. (I anticipate buying a package of five more for a total of 15.) It has been a slow and enlightening process.
I discovered many Artist Dates included in the original manuscript got tossed out as they didn’t move the story forward, while others that were seemingly less sexy were added because they illustrated the growth trajectory on my journey from “we” to “me” so well.
With Deb’s guidance I have completed a solid Introduction and Chapter One — which took “seemingly forever.” (Again, God’s time, not mine.) According to Deb, this is normal. “You’re setting up the whole book,” she explained. The “why” of the 52 Artist Dates, which received short shrift in the first-draft manuscript.
In addition, I have completed a chapter-by-chapter outline — 54 easy-to-scan one paragraph summaries that show the arc and trajectory of the story.
Once upon a time writers could bypass the agent and take their work straight to publishing houses. This is no longer the case with the exception of small, specialty houses, which Deb suggested I not consider as the story has “universal appeal.”
I am currently working on the proposal to send to potential agents. It includes:
*Chapter-by-Chapter Outline. Status: Done
*Three Sample Chapters. Status: Introduction and Chapter One completed, rewriting third sample chapter to include “more lushness.”
*The pitch — A summary and overview of the book, consideration of the market, its competition, marketing and “About the Author.” Status: About 75 percent complete.
My goal is to have the proposal “agent ready” by July 4 — Independence Day, which seems fitting as I found every Artist Date moved me towards greater emotional and spiritual freedom — and to begin shopping it July 5.
The original “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign was created to defray the costs of the Rocaberti Castle Writers Retreat and related travel costs. Time with a writing coach was not factored in. To that end, I have not formally re-opened the campaign or changed the fundraising goal. However, I am accepting donations towards this cost — $900 for 15, 30-minute sessions.
It is four weeks today since I left Paris. It feels like forever ago.
Not for the reasons most people think. Not because I love Paris, have dreamed of living there for as long as I can remember (even before I had ever visited), and occasionally wake up with French words on my lips – even though I don’t speak the language. Not because a reiki practitioner once told me I have “agreements” with Paris. (I still don’t know exactly what that means.) Although all of that is true.
Quite simply, I left my heart there … and I miss it, and him and what we shared.
What was meant to be 14 days together, zipping up to Normandy on his motorbike (“It will be like our honeymoon,” he said.) was goodbye instead.
I never saw it coming.
We met in October, on my way home from a writer’s retreat in Girona, Spain. It was, as my friend Michelle likes to say, “A romance for the ages.”
We found one another in a church basement – the kind where we both learned how to get and stay sober a number of years earlier – on his birthday, the day before mine. What began as coffee led to a meandering walk through Paris — sharing our stories, and a piece of cake — and ended with three knee-buckling kisses at the Bastille roundabout, my salmon-colored wool and silk scarf blowing in the breeze. One for his birthday, one for mine, and one to “tide me over” until we saw one another again in two days. The stuff of Hollywood movies.
Four days later, my last in Paris, he told me he loved me, and that he was in love with me.
“Is that crazy” he asked over a steaming bucket of mussels and live accordion music that wafted up the stairs.
“Yes,” I replied. “But I get it.”
He also told me he didn’t want to think about me every day, that he didn’t want to know how I took my coffee.
“But you already know how I take my coffee,” I said, smiling.
We agreed that we wanted to continue getting to know one another and that neither of us knew exactly what that meant. The next morning, boarding a plane back to the United States, I received a text, “Still love you, babe.”
Later that week, during the first of many marathon phone calls, he asked if I would come back in the spring. I said yes without hesitation and purchased a non-stop return ticket from Chicago to Paris for $500 the following day. I had never paid so little to fly to to Europe and chose to see it as a sign — a nod from God.
We spent the next six months writing long emails and sexy Facebook messages, talking on the phone for hours and eventually Skyping. What joy it was to finally see one another again.
I felt like I had met my twin. Funny enough, one of the last things he said to me was, “I met myself when I met you.” That was four weeks ago, when we said goodbye.
One month earlier, I had received an email, “I have some difficult news …” he wrote.
His son’s mother had asked once again if they might get back together. This time she said “all the right things.” This time, it was he who didn’t hesitate to say yes.
Brokenhearted would be an understatement.
Ten days later we Skyped and I asked if I might see him in Paris … to say goodbye.
“You’re still coming?” he asked, visibly surprised.
“My ticket is non-refundable. I’m going on to Barcelona, but I’m still flying in and out of Paris.
“Can I see you? To say goodbye?”
He agreed, and so we did. And when we did, he reminded me that his nine-year-old son lives in Paris … so he lives in Paris.
I knew he had certain ideas about the family he wanted – what it looked like – and believed he was healing some childhood wounds by giving his son what he had wanted most, stability and love, and the picture of family that he himself craved.
“I’m portable,” I said, reminding him I had said this all along.
He said I wouldn’t like living in Paris. (I disagreed.) That it is extraordinarily hard to get work there as a non-Parisian, even teaching English. That he never wanted a long-distance relationship.
He also said that we were “magic,” that I was his “vacation” and his “fantasy.”
What he didn’t say was, “Move in, lean in … we’ll figure it out.”
And so, with seemingly no other choice, I dropped the rope.
The day I had asked if I could see him in Paris, he asked if we might still be friends. “This,” he said, gesturing heart-to-heart, “I’ll miss this.” I said probably one day, but that I would need time — brave words that fell apart once on the other side of the Atlantic, when I hopefully asked, “Will we stay in touch?” even though I had been the one to ask for space after our goodbye.
“I don’t think so … I’d prefer not to,” he said. “I want you to go back to Chicago and write to me and tell me you found a man there who can give you a real relationship.”
I was crushed. Writing these words now, my heart aches.
But a funny thing happened when I returned to the United States, something that had never happened after a breakup before — I respected his wishes.
We agreed I would let him know when I arrived home and that I would send some of my writing to him – musings about our time together. I did both and he responded warmly, but without opening any doors. “I’m not ready to read this just yet, but it’s good to know it’s here” he wrote, and thanked me for sending. Seems this ending is difficult for him too.
Now there’s nothing left to do but grieve.
I’ve never had a clean break before.
In my 20s, breakups included language like, “Of course we’ll be friends,” which seemed to mean something entirely different to my former partners than to me, which looked like me acting as if nothing had changed, except for the addition of some teary, “I miss you’s” and “Are you sure’s?” In the end my ex’s usually had to push me away, it seemed the only way I could give time and space apart.
Since my divorce five years ago, I’ve had only one other relationship, which only sort-of ended when I moved to Madrid in 2015. We spent my year abroad in a liminal space which, while not exactly ideal or exactly what I wanted, seemed to suit me on some level. It was never entirely over until I moved back to the United States last July.
So this is new, this clean-break thing, and here’s the rub – it still hurts like hell. There’s nothing to do, nothing to be done. This clean break means there’s no drama around calling or not calling, writing or not writing, dissecting every bit of conversation. The not-clean-break means I can feel like I’m still in something. There’s some kind of crazy hope, but with this there is none.
Just memories. And sadness.
Yes … I have days where I’m not really sure we’re done. Others say that about us too. But I know, at least for now, we are.
Michelle was right. I did have a romance for the ages … and I haven’t even shared a tenth of it. I haven’t written publicly about it at all, until now. It was tender and private and new. It was ours. It still is. But it is my story too and I am a storyteller.
Last night I listened to a TED Talk by Anne Lamott. In it, she said, “You’re going to feel like hell if you wake up someday and you never wrote the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves of your own heart, your stories, memories, visions and songs – your truth, your version of things – in you own voice. That’s really all you have to offer us, and that’s also why you were born.”
It was those words that inspired me to write. That, a fire in my belly, and the memory of blogging about every other romance gone astray since my divorce. Sharing my story and opening it for conversation had felt both vulnerable and healing. There is something about speaking one’s truth, being witnessed, and hearing, “me too.”
It’s what we do in those church basements where he and I got sober and where we keep going so we can stay sober. As my friend Bob likes to say, “A problem shared is cut in two.” If that is so, then posting this hits it with a sledgehammer – cracks it right open sending sharp little shards in every direction that I will be picking up off the floor for months to come, even when I’m certain I’ve vacuumed them all up. The sun will hit the hardwood in a certain way and I’ll find another little piece.
I guess that’s what great love does – cracks us right open and destroys us. I hate it. And I wouldn’t change a single thing.
The words tumble out of a book I recently unearthed, one I began reading together with a friend last year in Spain but never finished. Written on a card, I assume acting as a bookmark, decorated with gorgeous greens and oranges, purples, pinks and blues. Flowers and faces.
It is one of a deck, a gift from my friend Michelle — given to me when I left Seattle for Chicago in 2012, following my divorce. A few years later, I tucked them into one of two suitcases that accompanied me on a year-long sojourn to Spain.
I’ve pulled them out from time to time when I needed inspiration. In writing. In life. But this time I didn’t go looking for it. It found me.
Riding the 9 Ashland bus on my way to work, the card slides out. I smile, thinking of Michelle, and of the changes I am twisting against, and turn it over.
“Safe and Change …
“If you have drawn this card, some kind of change is afoot. It is, after all, the only constant thing! With change comes fear and questions and the ground becomes shaky with uncertainty. This card is a reminder that change would not be happening unless somehow the timing was right. Although it may be edgy and challenging, the universe intends to keep you safe. Courage does not exist in the absence of fear. And faith cannot exist without ‘not knowing.’ Remember that the true unsafety lies in not changing.”
I wonder if the artist could have envisioned the state of our nation when she wrote this. That I, and so many other Americans, would feel sucker punched in the gut every day following the inauguration of our 45th president — watching the principles this country was built upon summarily dismantled. Our country run by a handful of wealthy, straight white men who seem bent on growing their interests alone. Fearful of waking up and no longer recognizing the place we’ve called home. The place I deliberately returned to when my student visa was up for renewal.
I’ve never been so emotionally effected by politics in my life. Perhaps this is good. Perhaps this is the change. The shift my friend Rachel says she is trying to lean into. She mentions it following my post of a Mahatmas Gandhi quote on Facebook – poached from another friend’s newsfeed.
“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall, always.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
The words are like a balm.
Within hours, nearly 100 people have clicked “like” or “love.”
My heart swells and glows yellow, as it sometimes does. I am reminded of the power of hope and of community, and of the words of St. Francis of Assisi, “ … That where there are shadows, I may bring light.”
That night, I decide to limit my news sources to a chosen few. Since then, I’ve begun to feel a little more peace …
Which leaves room to twist against the other shifts and changes in my life … but only if I choose to.
It is 1993. I am 24-years-old and about 10 days sober. I am laying in a shallow bathtub when my mother calls to wish me a Merry Christmas.
“We’re Jewish,” I say.
“So what?” she replies. “It’s still Christmas. And it’s fun.”
“I wish I were in Israel,” I say.
When I was growing up, my cousin Wendy hosted an annual “Chanukkah Party on Christmas Day for Jews Who Have Nothing To Do.” It was a raucous affair with latkes, dreidels, wine, and even a couple of nuns Wendy worked with at the Sisters of Mercy, where she managed their pension fund.
But that was many years ago.
In 1994, the year after my bathtub lament, I moved to San Francisco. There, with my Irish-Catholic roommate Tim, I purchased my first Christmas tree and participated in the post-holiday “tree toss” out the second-story window of our Haight-Ashbury apartment – Tim spotting from the sidewalk while I heaved the heavy trunk out the curved glass window.
A year later, I experienced the Jewish Christmas tradition of Chinese food and a movie for the very first time — an experience I had missed due to Wendy’s parties.
One more orbit around the sun had me hosting my very own Christmas Eve dinner — an effort to assuage my British boyfriend’s longing for family and Christmas cake from Marks and Spencer. The guest list was made up of friends who filled my home for Rosh Hashanah and Passover dinners, and I cooked up a pot of risotto while my partner made chocolate pie.
By now I had discovered most San Francisco transplants don’t return “home” for the holidays – Thanksgiving or Christmas — and the city is ripe for a Jewish-British Christmas dinner party followed by a bike ride or a movie and dim sum the next day.
In 2007, now married, we moved to Chicago — where everybody goes home for the holidays. To the suburbs. To Michigan or Ohio. Indiana or Wisconsin. Where there are few strays or orphans.
For the next four years, each December we would ask ourselves “to gather or not to gather.” Sometimes we did — opening our home and our hearts. Other times we simply facilitated — reserving two large, round tables in Chinatown and waiting to see who would join us. Occasionally, we were invited to someone else’s celebration.
We spent our last Christmas together in Seattle – where we had moved a few months earlier. I made a final vat of risotto while my friends Earl and Jesse jammed with my husband on guitar.
A year later we were divorced and I found myself once again in Chicago – scrambling for a plan. I have no recollection of what I did that year. And only vague ones of dinners at Min Hing in the two seasons that followed.
Last December, I spent Christmas in Cologne with my sixth-grade lab partner. I was living in Madrid, just a few hours flight away. She picked me up on Christmas Eve with a trunk full of food – explaining the grocery markets would be closed until December 27. At 5 p.m. the airport Starbucks had already closed.
We cooked, ate, talked for hours and went for long walks down wide boulevards that reminded me of Chicago’s Logan Square. On Boxing Day we visited the Christmas markets and stuffed ourselves with giant potato pancakes topped with sour cream and applesauce. It was, without a doubt, my best Christmas.
This December, as the days grew near, I waited to hear if anyone would be “gathering the troops” for Peking Duck. But all I heard was silence. I considered spearheading the process as I had so many times before, but frankly felt too exhausted.
It seemed I would be alone … that is, until an ex-boyfriend phoned a week before the holiday.
“Why don’t you take the train down and join mom and me for Chinese food and TV back at the house? You can spend the night or if you prefer, I can drive you home,” he said brightly, adding, “Mom is really excited to see you.”
Lovely. And yet.
His invitation felt intimate and familiar. Too intimate. Too familiar. A little girlfriend-y. Except I wasn’t his girlfriend anymore.
I sat with his invitation for nearly a week until the morning the words “What do you want to do?” slipped off of my pen while journaling. And then, “What would be fun?”
“A Writers Retreat.”
The words came quickly, followed by, “Meditate. Exercise. Read. Face mask. Bath salts. Beautiful food.”
When I mentioned this to my friend Nikki, she offered up her apartment as a “retreat facility.” She and her husband would be traveling to Wisconsin to be with family. A few days later my friend Clover suggested I open one of her Chanukkah gifts to me early. It was a turmeric and gold clay face mask. “For your retreat,” she explained, smiling.
That night I wrote my ex-boyfriend a note — thanking him, but declining his invitation.
I thought about my 45th birthday. The first one I spent alone – by choice — waking up in Rome and going to bed in Paris.
Walking across the Seine, looking out at the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, a thought rose up inside of me. “I don’t wish a man were here. I don’t wish a friend were here. That I wore something different or ate something different. I don’t wish anything was different than it is.”
It was a revolutionary idea. One I didn’t choose to think. Instead, it lived inside of me, speaking with its own voice.
Two years later, I returned to Paris — alone — for my 47th birthday.
I woke up in Chicago and went to bed in Chicago. And in the hours between, I ate smoked salmon, pomegranates, chocolate and fresh dates. I slathered my face with gold clay and soaked in the bath reading Julia Child’s “My Life in France.” I wrote. I meditated. I danced, napped and wrote some more.
I didn’t wish I was in Israel. Or Cologne. With my ex-boyfriend or ex-husband or a friend. Eating dim sum, riding my bike or watching a movie. I didn’t wish anything was different than it was.
I was Jewish, solo and sans Chinese food. And Merry on Christmas.