Mourning Pages

This piece was recently published in Catharsis Journal: How Creativity Changed My Life. Krista Burlae, Editor. Balboa Press. 2013

“I am alone because I am getting ready to be alone.”

Every day the same words spilled out of my pen and onto my notebook.  It was March.  I was staying at a friend’s house in Northern California, while she and her partner were in Hawaii.  In their week-long absence, they left me their home, a car and a neurotic dog named Zach.

Every morning was the same.

I’d mash a banana into a bowl; cover it with dry oats and water and microwave for three minutes – adding blueberries and soy milk after cooking.  French press a pot of coffee.  Open the sliding glass door for Zack to go outside.  Sit at the table next to fireplace and write three pages, longhand.

I was in Week 4 of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way – A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity.

The book had been suggested to me for nearly 18 years, but I had only recently picked it up.  Pain is a great motivator.  So is time.

I was living in Seattle.  I’d been there just a little more than six months.  It was my second cross-country move in less than five years.  The first, to Chicago from San Francisco, for my husband’s medical residency.  The second, to Seattle, for his dream job.

Both times, I closed up my massage practice.  Handed over my Weight Watchers meetings to another leader.  Threw a send-off soiree, and said a tearful goodbye to my friends.  Following in his path.  Next time would be my turn.  That was the promise we made.

I wasn’t working much.  I didn’t have a massage license.  I was clinically depressed.  My husband encouraged me to take it easy.  He reminded me that his job as a doctor, and the six-figure salary that went along with it – that it was for us.  That this is what he had been working for.  That now I could breathe and think about what “my turn” might look like.

I hadn’t a clue.

Rabbinical school?  Acupuncture school?  Nothing seemed certain.

Devoid of any clear sense of direction, I picked up the book that had been recommended to me so many times over the years.

I dug in with a hunger and willingness I hadn’t known since getting sober nearly five years earlier.  I read each page carefully, highlighter in hand, taking notes in the margins.  Looking for a clue.  For a promise of direction.  Or at the very least, something meaningful to do with my time.

Each week had a title.  “Recovering a Sense of…” – fill in the blank.  It included readings, suggested exercises, and questions for reflection at week’s end.  Two constants ran through the entire 12 weeks, what Cameron calls the primary tools of creative recovery – Morning Pages and the Artist Date.

Morning Pages were simply that – three pages written longhand, first thing in the morning.  Before diving into email.  Before opening up the newspaper.  Before dressing children.  Cleaning the house.  Talking to the nanny.  Making dinner plans.  Before Pilates.

Morning pages were not meant to be art.  Or for anyone to even read.  They were a practice.  “Spilling out of bed and straight onto the page.”  Without expectations.  Without judgment.  Simply making room for new input.  Morning pages, she said, were non-negotiable.

An Artist Date was a kind of fancy, little-bit grown up, name for a play date – alone.  No friends.  No spouses.  No children.  A block of time for spoiling and nurturing oneself – creatively.

*****

The tools gave my life structure.  Something to hang my day on.  I would wake early each morning, before my husband, make oatmeal with blueberries and banana, coffee, turn on my light box and write.

The routine was established by the time I arrived in California in March.  I found it easy to recreate my process in this new, albeit temporary, space.

I had begun to notice patterns emerging in my morning pages.  The same themes popping up like whack-a-moles again and again.  But I didn’t have to race to pound them down with a big, padded mallet.  I could let them sit on the page.  Powerless.

So I wasn’t exactly surprised when I wrote, “I am alone because I am getting ready to be alone.”  I knew exactly what it meant.  And I wasn’t afraid.

*****

We had been struggling for a while.  Pretty much since we arrived in Chicago nearly five years earlier.  He started medical residency.  I quit drinking.  Our lives took radically divergent paths.  And like a vector, kept moving further in opposite directions.

Nine days before we left Chicago, he told me I didn’t have to go to Seattle.  He didn’t want to be the guy who once again took me from my home, my friends and my livelihood.  I was shocked.  Stuck.  I couldn’t turn around that fast, even if I had wanted to.  Besides, we had already rented out our condominium.  I’d given up my office and my work.

We moved forward – together – as planned.  We hosted a going-away party that weekend – assuming our roles in the story of us as happy couple.  And a few days later, we were gone.

Within weeks of arriving in Seattle, my husband asked me for a divorce.  The next day he retracted his request and admitted he might be acting hastily.  We agreed to see a couple’s counselor.  A smart, young woman, many years our junior, who asked, “How will you know?”  Meaning, how would we know when it was time to call it quits.

Neither of us could answer.  I meditated on the question all week.  The words came to me in the stillness of waiting.

“You know what not working on your marriage looks like.  Why don’t you see what working on your marriage looks like?”

I instantly felt a shift in my body – as if I had just experienced a chiropractic adjustment.  I had an immediate sense of ease.  An increase in energy and flow.  I knew it was right.  I told my husband, and together we told our therapist that we had decided “not to decide,” for six months.  Instead, choosing to focus our energies on the work.

It was during that six-month period that I went back to California, stayed in the big house with the fireplace and the neurotic dog, and wrote the same words each day.  I shared them with no one.

***

My husband flew down to join me at the end of the week.  Before picking him up, I met with a local Rabbi.  He replaced the one I had studied with many years earlier, before I was married.  He had died unexpectedly.  His passing was a source of remorse and pain, mostly as we had never completed our studies.  I had slipped away without a word.  Just about the time I met my husband.

I told the replacement Rabbi that I might want to be a Rabbi.  But that I couldn’t see how to do it, to stay married, and continue to work on my marriage.  He said if it was my path, it would find me.

My husband and I greeted one another at San Francisco International Airport, irritated, obligated.  I remembered coming home from a trip, not long after meeting him.  He met me at the gate, flowers in hand.  I literally ran to him and jumped into his arms, wrapping my legs around his waist.  We were no longer that couple.  And we hadn’t been for a long time.

I drove us back to the big house with the glass fireplace and the neurotic dog.  I told him about the flood of memories that I had experienced that week.  That they had nearly drowned me.  That everywhere I turned, I was reminded of us.  Especially of the hours we spent together on our bikes.

“It got too hard,” he said.  “I didn’t want to do it anymore.”

“Ride with me?” I asked, referring to the chasm between our cycling abilities – a regular source of tension between us.  “Or be married?”

“Both.”

And there it was – the truth that I had written every morning.  The truth that I knew because I did write every morning.  The truth that I had known in my bones before he ever arrived.

I wish I could say I was calm.  That I stood in awe of my knowing.  In awe of the serendipity.  That the truth was spoken in the city where lived together for nearly 10 years, in the neighborhood where we met.  But I wasn’t.  My wheels rolled on to the Golden Gate Bridge.  I thought about driving off.  Instead, I yelled.  A lot.

I was in the middle of Week Four in The Artist’s Way – Recovering a Sense of Integrity.

******

Returning home to Seattle, I named The Artist’s Way my companion in divorce.  It seemed the only thing I knew to do.  That, and walk.  Miles and miles with no particular destination.  The heels of my tan suede boots were re-soled during this time.

I continued to write.  To look for synchronicity in my life, as I was directed in the book.  Truthfully, I couldn’t imagine any greater synchronicity than what I had just experienced.

I went on occasional Artist Dates but couldn’t fully commit to the practice.

I bought The Writer’s Market and considered writing again professionally.

I made Benjamin Franklin T-squares, lists of pro and con, trying to determine where I should call home.  Seattle?  Chicago?  San Francisco?

I sent The Artist’s Way to my friend in Chicago who was also going through a divorce.

I told him it was a book of miracles, my trusted companion during this time of transition.  I told him about my morning pages.  About being in that house alone and knowing that I was preparing to be alone.

I told him about the Rabbi who said if rabbinical school was my path, that it would find me.  And that my husband asking for a divorce felt like being found.  That I had become open to these messages because of the book.  And because of the creative work I had done.

I finished the 12 weeks of The Artist’s Way.

And then I went to Rwanda.

I had planned the trip several weeks earlier.  I would be traveling with members of my synagogue – touring, witnessing and working with two different AIDS organizations.  It was there, under my mosquito net in sub-Saharan Africa, that I heard the next creative whisper, received my next set of instructions.

I started blogging.

****

I entered university nearly 25 years prior, majoring in fine art.  I graduated with a degree in journalism – my parents insisting I choose a more practical focus.

I spent the next five years toiling at a series of weekly newspapers, and then left the profession entirely.  I wanted to make more money.  Which I did.  I wanted to tell my stories, instead of someone else’s.  Which I didn’t – unless you count drunken scrawls in journals and poems stuffed under the bed.

In Africa, I wrote each night before bed.  After my roommate and I finished debriefing about our days.  When the sky was navy and the air was still with silence – nothingness.  I wrote by the light of the computer screen.

I described the land, its people and my experiences with both in lush detail.  The smell of oranges mixed with diesel.  Churches where bloodied clothes remained, remnants of the most recent genocide.  Children born with HIV acting as mentors to those younger than themselves, also born with the disease.

The houses made of mud brick.  A calendar on the wall – a single decoration.  The woman who built her own house, and then another which she rents.  Who sells charcoal, and can now care for herself and her children – mostly.  Women and children robed in colorful fabrics, walking on the side of the road – 24 hours a day, fruit or furniture balanced on their heads.

Reed thin men pushing bicycles weighted down with four or six yellow jerry cans of water.  An opening gala at an art co-operative tucked into a downtrodden neighborhood.  Peeing ridiculously close to a giraffe while on safari.

I posted my blogs to Facebook in the wee hours when I could get an internet signal.  Following each posting I was greeted with words from the unlikeliest of Facebook “friends.”  Girls I went to Adat Shalom nursery school with in the early 1970s, friends’ husbands I hardly knew, and associates of my Rabbi.  They all said the same thing.  “Thank you.” And “Keep writing.”

But I didn’t.  Not for three months.  I didn’t write about my divorce.  My drive cross country.  My first time living alone in 43 years.  I didn’t write a word – until I received a call that my birthmother was dying.  A woman I had met only three years prior, who at 59, was dying.

I flew out of Chicago the next day, pacing just in front of Hurricane Sandy.  When I arrived she was hooked up to IVs and monitors, barely 100 pounds in a hospital gown.  There was nowhere for her to hide anymore.  She could no longer act the part she thought I wanted her to be.  We were both stripped down and naked.  And I felt, perhaps for the first time, nothing but love for her.

I played Pandora radio for her.  Danced and held her hand to Love Train by the O Jays.  I massaged her feet, her papery skin.  I sobbed on her bed.  And I found healing.

I told her about a man I met there in South Carolina.  How he swept me off my feet – literally picking me up off of the ground the first time I met him.  And how he broke my heart a few days later – slipping away without a word.

I chronicled all of it, blogging.  My inbox filled with personal notes.  Words of encouragement.  Stories shared.   From former co-workers.  Friends of my birthmother.  Cousins I had never met.  Even the man from South Carolina who broke my heart.

I felt seen.  Connected.  The connection I had craved all of my life.  That I had twisted myself inside and out for.  Here it was.  And all I had to do to receive it was to tell my truth.  To write it.  And to share it – publicly.

So I did.

I wrote about living alone.  About throwing out food because I didn’t know how to shop for one anymore.  About my Jewish divorce – my Get…  And my civil divorce.  About my breast reduction – a surgery so fraught with pain and shame I had barely spoken of it.

And then, about my second time through The Artist’s Way.

***

I didn’t date after my ex-husband asked me for a divorce.  I experienced intimate friendships – hours spent on the phone telling one another every detail about ourselves.  Sexy kisses under the moon that made me feel like I was 17.  Over the top expectations and the crash that accompanied them.  But I had not dated.

I wasn’t ready.  I was too vulnerable.  But I was lonely.  So I took on The Artist’s Way again as my companion, this time committing myself to the Artist Dates.  Those two-or-so hour play dates by myself.

I perused gourmet food shops.  Spent hours at a bookstore, tucked in a chair with an Annie Leibowitz anthology in my lap.  I bought myself little trinkets and had them giftwrapped.

I went to the movies.  Walked on the beach in winter.  And at the bird and butterfly sanctuary.  I scoured thrift stores.  Visited the polar bear at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

I went to the art supply store. And to the Art Institute – many times.  Visiting Marc Chagall’s America Windows again and again.  I went to the Lebanese and Indian neighborhoods.  Ate syrupy sweet desserts and shopped with women wearing saris and chadors.  I popped into interesting boutiques I’d eyed and wondered about, but had never stepped foot in.

I went to the Joffrey Ballet.

All of it, alone.  And then I chronicled each experience.

I wrote about my ex-husband sending me boxes of things I left behind, and not wanting to open them.  About being afraid of Week 4 in The Artist’s Way because that was the week my ex asked me for a divorce.

I wrote about how strange and uncomfortable it was when my father asked me if I was dating.  How uncomfortable he was when I said no, and how I felt the need to explain my decision to him.  How I told him that I had work to do.

I let go of work I no longer enjoyed, and leaned heavily into my spousal support.

I took dance classes – Mambo and West African.  I attended performances and lectures – on my own and with girlfriends.  I began cooking again.  Collaging.  And I kept writing.  Blogging.

The Artist Dates had become a habit.  I enjoyed a $6 piece of torte and coffee served on a silver tray on a Friday afternoon, just because.  I brought home a silk kimono from Japan and an embroidered, well-loved bedspread from the thrift store, just because they were beautiful.

I began to treat myself as well, if not better, than anyone else had ever treated me.

I began to turn inward, to lean into my pain.  The hurt of love ending.  Of promises broken.  The fear of a big, empty canvas of life.  I gave it a name and a face – with words, and with paintbrushes, pencils and pretty paper, with movement.  And I found it wasn’t quite so scary when I did.

I found my voice.  The one that wrote, “I am alone because I am getting ready to be alone,” continuing to spill out of me every morning and onto three blank pages.  Mourning pages.

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6 thoughts on “Mourning Pages

  1. Thank you for sharing this, Lesley! And for teaching, speaking, listening, hearing, knowing, not knowing, shopping, feeling, wondering, wandering, exploring, CREATING. This is a beautiful piece, I love it! (Also, your most recent blog post has the best last line ever.) Congratulations again on Mourning Pages being published! xo Cara

  2. UNreal. This seems like almost all of the themes, a sketch for an entire work rather than a small slice. Your ambition’s inspiring, and the way you do your sentences is just great to watch.

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