Artist Date 113: Stella

mark wunderlich
Poster from the Unamuno Author Series, Poet Mark Wunderlich

Stella was always trouble.

A manipulator by nature (What cat isn’t?) she danced inside a cage one Sunday afternoon at Berkeley’s Your Basic Bird as if to say, “Pick me! Pick me! Yoo Hoo! Over here! Pick me.”

And so we did.

She was “my cat.” A scrawny tortoise shell, unaware of her size, who refused to abdicate Alpha Cat status to Ezra – a Norwegian Forest Cat affectionately known by my then husband as “Big Daddy.”

Bent on asserting his position, Ezra would regularly back Stella into a corner or under the butcher-block cart. Trapped, she would flatten her ears, hiss, and come out swinging – literally – inevitably pissing or crapping herself, which the two of them would roll around in, fighting.

We cleaned the floor with enzymes.

We tried separating the two.

We gave Stella Bach Flower essences. Anti-anxiety medication. Consulted with a feline behavioral specialist.

None of it worked.

Eventually, we tearfully gave Ezra to a client of mine who allowed him to take his rightful place as the Big Daddy, while Stella took the position as Alpha Cat in our home. Much to our surprise, Nin, our third, seemed relieved that Ezra was gone and was happy to acquiesce to Stella’s whims.

And so we thought our Stella troubles were over – and they were – until we moved to Chicago.

She lied limp on the floor of our largely sunless apartment. Depressed. Was spooked by thunderstorms. And eventually began peeing on the floors and furniture – rain or no rain.

I haven’t thought about any of this in years – until now, Artist Date 113. The Unamuno Author Series, featuring American writers reading their work here in Madrid.

I arrive late – having come straight from teaching – and Mark Wunderlich is already reading from his book of poems, The Earth Avails. I slip into a chair and listen while a wave of “Oh yes…this is why I go on Artist Dates” sweeps over me. I fantasize about graduate school – about being a part of a community of writers and artists. English-speaking writers and artists. I think about how I feel like a child here in Spain – unable to communicate more than my basic needs in the language of the country where I have chosen to live. How I become shy and small in Spanish, while I am big and often shiny in English.

And then I think about Stella.

Mark reads poems about many things. Prayer. Bridges. A classmate whose name sealed her destiny as a pole dancer.

But it is the poem that is not included in his book that locks me in. About missing the cat who greeted him at the door – eager for her supper. Who shared the bed with him. Who was there when his partner no longer was.

And about the bolus they injected into her paw when it was clear her life was coming to an end.

I remember holding Stella when they injected the first bolus into her.

It is a Saturday afternoon. I have just pulled the still-warm-from-the-dryer covers back on the sofa cushions, having just washed them with enzymes – again – when Stella leaps on to the couch, looks straight at me, squats and releases her bladder.

I look at my then-husband. We know without saying it that we cannot continue to live like this. That she will ruin every piece of furniture. That she will ruin the dark, original walnut floors. And that no one will adopt her.

Before we can change our minds, we whisk her into the cat carrier and into the car and drive to the somewhat ironically named Anti-Cruelty Society.

Inside, people are relinquishing their pets for all sorts of reasons – some seemingly legitimate, others ridiculous. But what do I know? I am putting my cat down. Not even relinquishing her.

I discuss the matter with a staff member and she agrees with our decision.

I slip Stella out of the cat carrier, let my then-husband say goodbye, and carry her into another room where “the procedure” will take place.

I hold her in my arms on the stainless-steel table, covered with a threadbare beach towel. I tell her that she was a good cat. That I love her. And the technician injects a bolus of medication that will end her life into her paw.

“It will take a few minutes,” she explains. “Keep holding her.”

I do. I hold onto her for what seems like a very long time. She is groggy, like she was the time we gave her anti-anxiety medication, but nothing more. After about 10 minutes the technician returns.

“She’s still alive,” I say. “Always a fighter.”

This time the technician injects the needle directly into a vein, as opposed to near it, and once again leaves us alone.

This time, I feel her breathing slow down. And then stop. She is gone.

Eight years later, my heart still hurts. Tears streaming down my cheeks as I am writing this.

I don’t like thinking about this moment. And yet I am grateful to Mark for reminding me of it. For reminding me of Stella – this scrappy little cat who reminded me so much of myself once upon a time. Hair slicked back. Wannabe Alpha looking for a fight. And yet behind the bravado, a girl – seemingly unaware of her small size –crying “Pick me. Pick me.”

Of how much I loved her. And the possibilities for loving that girl.

 

 

 

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“Whatever Gets You to God”

spencers church
The unassuming Iglesia Catedral del Redentor in Madrid.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in churches. Some great, Gothic cathedrals like Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Others, little more than rooms off of side streets, secret gems, suggested by locals.

 

As a Jew, the words feel strange, incongruent, as they fall from my fingertips on to the keys. As a traveler, one-time reporter, and student of faith, they make complete sense.

I’ve been in churches for professional reasons.

On a press trip to Israel some 20 years ago, where I replied to a colleague’s exhausted and overwhelmed inquiry, “Where are we?”, with “Somewhere where Jesus did something.” Laughing loudly, as Americans sometimes do, we were promptly chastised in a language we didn’t speak. My intention, never to be flip … just honest.

I’ve been in churches for personal reasons.

For a Catholic wedding – where I kept looking for the words everyone spoke in response to the priest – assuming I would find them in a book or on a card. I never did. “You’re just supposed to know them,” my friend Andre explained.

For a colleague’s funeral at a Baptist church in Oakland – which my friend Michael referred to as “a tame affair … nobody threw themselves on to the casket.”

But I’ve never been to a church, “just because.” Until now. Artist Date 112.

If I am to be honest, even this visit isn’t “just because.”

It is because my friend is a priest here – Iglesia Catedral del Redentor. It is because he is preaching this evening, in Spanish – about lepers. About touch. And about his own healing.

I think this will be a good way to practice my Spanish listening skills.

I liken it to watching Spanish television, something that has been suggested many times but that I have yet to do for more than a few minutes at a time – usually when my landlady is half listening to the news. I have not cultivated the habit, and I’m not sure I want to. I haven’t owned a television for many years and don’t miss it.

So I come here instead, to hear this story which I more or less know.

Except that I don’t know it. I cannot find it. My Spanish isn’t that good. I can understand words and phrases but I cannot put them together.

So I focus on what I can see instead.

The words to songs I don’t know, in English or Spanish, projected on to the wall with an overhead projector, an acetate sheet moved up and down by someone’s large hand as each set of lyrics have been completed, making room for the next. I haven’t seen an overhead projector since college, when a friend of mine would drop colored liquids onto the glass plate, projecting swirls of color onto the wall, and we would dance to the Grateful Dead.

The African women – some of them Muslim, wearing head coverings. The families from South and Central America, their children with big, almond-shaped eyes playing in the back of the sanctuary. Many are here for the free bag of groceries they receive after the service. Nary a non-Catholic Madrileño in the crowd.

“All driven out or killed by Franco,” R, a former minister from New York, explains to me.

He and his wife moved to Madrid some years ago after she dreamt about the two of them living here as missionaries. Being fluent in both Spanish and “Christian,” he explains different elements of the service to me.

Two velvet bags attached to wooden sticks are passed through the pews.The gesture requires no explanation and I drop a euro into one of them.

At the end of the service, S walks down the middle aisle – offering his hand, his cheek and his heart to the parishioners. The older ladies grab on to him. They clearly adore him.

Like I adore him.

I think of what my friend D calls “divine attraction.”

“Whatever it is that gets you to God,” she explains to me over coffee, many years ago, when I fess up to having a crush on a “man of the cloth.”

The piercing blue eyes and suede elbow patches of a college religious studies professor.

The compassionate heart of a rabbi who understands my need to convert to the faith of my childhood when I don’t quite understand it myself.

The friendship of an American priest who helps me navigate my way through a Spanish-speaking world.

An empty belly and a the promise of a bag of food.

Artist Date 112: Whatever Gets You to God

spencers church
The unassuming Iglesia Catedral del Redentor in Madrid.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in churches. Some great, Gothic cathedrals like Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Others, little more than rooms off of side streets, secret gems, suggested by locals.

As a Jew, the words feel strange, incongruent, as they fall from my fingertips on to the keys. As a traveler, one-time reporter, and student of faith, they make complete sense.

I’ve been in churches for professional reasons.

On a press trip to Israel some 20 years ago, where I replied to a colleague’s exhausted and overwhelmed inquiry, “Where are we?”, with “Somewhere where Jesus did something.” Laughing loudly, as Americans sometimes do, we were promptly chastised in a language we didn’t speak. My intention, never to be flip … just honest.

I’ve been in churches for personal reasons.

For a Catholic wedding – where I kept looking for the words everyone spoke in response to the priest – assuming I would find them in a book or on a card. I never did. “You’re just supposed to know them,” my friend Andre explained.

For a colleague’s funeral at a Baptist church in Oakland – which my friend Michael referred to as “a tame affair … nobody threw themselves on to the casket.”

But I’ve never been to a church, “just because.” Until now. Artist Date 112.

If I am to be honest, even this visit isn’t “just because.”

It is because my friend is a priest here – Iglesia Catedral del Redentor. It is because he is preaching this evening, in Spanish – about lepers. About touch. And about his own healing.

I think this will be a good way to practice my Spanish listening skills.

I liken it to watching Spanish television, something that has been suggested many times but that I have yet to do for more than a few minutes at a time – usually when my landlady is half listening to the news. I have not cultivated the habit, and I’m not sure I want to. I haven’t owned a television for many years and don’t miss it.

So I come here instead, to hear this story which I more or less know.

Except that I don’t know it. I cannot find it. My Spanish isn’t that good. I can understand words and phrases but I cannot put them together.

So I focus on what I can see instead.

The words to songs I don’t know, in English or Spanish, projected on to the wall with an overhead projector, an acetate sheet moved up and down by someone’s large hand as each set of lyrics have been completed, making room for the next. I haven’t seen an overhead projector since college, when a friend of mine would drop colored liquids onto the glass plate, projecting swirls of color onto the wall, and we would dance to the Grateful Dead.

The African women – some of them Muslim, wearing head coverings. The families from South and Central America, their children with big, almond-shaped eyes playing in the back of the sanctuary. Many are here for the free bag of groceries they receive after the service. Nary a non-Catholic Madrileño in the crowd.

“All driven out or killed by Franco,” R, a former minister from New York, explains to me.

He and his wife moved to Madrid some years ago after she dreamt about the two of them living here as missionaries. Being fluent in both Spanish and “Christian,” he explains different elements of the service to me.

Two velvet bags attached to wooden sticks are passed through the pews.The gesture requires no explanation and I drop a euro into one of them.

At the end of the service, S walks down the middle aisle – offering his hand, his cheek and his heart to the parishioners. The older ladies grab on to him. They clearly adore him.

Like I adore him.

I think of what my friend D calls “divine attraction.”

“Whatever it is that gets you to God,” she explains to me over coffee, many years ago, when I fess up to having a crush on a “man of the cloth.”

The piercing blue eyes and suede elbow patches of a college religious studies professor.

The compassionate heart of a rabbi who understands my need to convert to the faith of my childhood when I don’t quite understand it myself.

The friendship of an American priest who helps me navigate my way through a Spanish-speaking world.

An empty belly and a the promise of a bag of food.

 

Artist Date 111: The Heart I Am In Love With

 

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Note: The entire time I was writing, I was certain the Katherine Mansfield quote referenced was “The heart I am in love with has to be a little bit wild.” It was only when I placed the photograph (above) into this post that I realized my error. That the quote was, “The mind I love must have wild places.” I am choosing to leave the essay as it was written, assuming it is the truth of my subconscious…that the heart I am in love with has to be a little bit wild…and honoring it. 

“The heart I am in love with has to be a little bit wild.” (incorrectly attributed to Katherine Mansfield.)

The words are written on a wooden bookshelf with black Sharpie marker. I smile as I snap a photo to send to D – as requested – proof that I, this little bit wild heart he once loved, made it here. To Desperate Literature, Artist Date 111.

This mostly used, mostly English-language bookstore is about a seven-minute walk from my house – the other two locations are in Brooklyn and Santorini, Greece – but I’m only just now finding it. That’s how Madrid is. Lots of windy paths, disguised as roads, bumping into one another. Arteries and veins, as I like to call them.

There is an economy of space here, and it’s easy to miss so much as there are no familiar grids to zig up and zag down. One either stumbles onto a place or is told to go there.

In this case, the latter.

First by Naked Madrid – a must-read blog for non-natives looking for a local experience. And again by my friend E after she attended its “The More Eggnog the Better” Christmas party.

It’s noon – still fairly early for a Sunday “morning” in Madrid – when I stumble in and am greeted by a small man wearing small, round John Lennon-style glasses.

“Please excuse me for just a moment,” he says in a proper Londoner’s accent. “My father just texted, insisting I call him.”

I am charmed by his BBC accent. His familiar greeting. His use of the phrase “excuse me” – words I so rarely hear here, either in English or Spanish. It is simply not a part of the culture. Instead, it is common for Madrileños to push against one another on the metro and in the streets. The lack of “perdon” or “con permisso” considered neither rude nor noteworthy.

There are “Books for When You are Bored” here. “Sexy Books.” “Boozy Books.” (Which come with a shot of whiskey.) “Books for When you are Desperate.”

A vintage typewriter with onion-skin paper slipped through the scroll and a hand-made sign taped to it that says, “Write the poem.” Not A poem. THE poem.

2016-02-07 12.30.54A chess board with the words “play me,” written on it – also in black Sharpie marker. A copy of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass on the nearby shelves.

A small, children’s mattress stacked on top of a wooden bench built into the wall – the ultimate reading nook for anyone under the age of 10. Forty-six, I nonetheless settle in with a handful of books and consider the possibilities of words.

Meanwhile, the owner returns offering me a cup of ginger tea and an update on his father – seems he’s getting married for the fourth time –  while characters from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, painted on the wall opposite of me, return my gaze.

I open Bill Bryson’s Notes From a Big Country. Four handwritten messages are scrawled inside the front cover. Among them, “Adios, hijo de puta. Que te rompan el culo en NY. Peter.”

And while I am still a Level A – beginner— in Spanish, I do know the meaning of “hijo de puta.” (My teacher Diego just taught it to me last week.) And I smirk.

I lean into Bryson’s first essay, “Coming Home”– about his return to the United States after a 20-year sojourn in England – and well up. I’ve been here just six months but wonder if I too will struggle to find the words I once knew, like spackle and anchor. Already I grasp for language, ultimately feeling like I speak neither Spanish nor English very well. I am told this is not an uncommon experience.

It feels like a nod from God…that I am supposed to be here.

As does Lefty Frizzell piped through the speakers, singing about Saginaw, Michigan – my mother’s hometown.

As does the copy of The Artist’s Way, propped up behind the front counter. The book that introduced me to the Artist Date. That I was looking for a copy of last week – my dog-eared copy tucked away in an attic in Chicago – to cite in my graduate-school application.

As does the Katherine Mansfield quote on the bookshelf.

Somewhere at my mother’s house there is a photograph of me sitting in Mansfield’s husband’s (Irving) lap in Beverly Hills. I am five-years-old, wearing a brown and white, gingham-checked bikini with cherries on it. My hair is wet and we are smiling big – both of us, in love with my little bit wild heart. The same little bit wild heart that brought me here.

 

irving mansfield

 

 

Artist Date 110: Bird of “Pray”

2016-01-31 10.54.08I am sitting in a café in the old Jewish Quarter of Prague. I have just visited the Pinkas Synagogue where the name of every Czech and Moravian Jew who perished during the Holocaust is painstakingly painted on the walls, and art created by children from the ghetto at Terezin is kept on the second level.

Spencer leans into the table separating us. “I’ve been trying not to say anything, but…I still think you should be a rabbi,” he says. I am not surprised. We have discussed this many times. Probably as many times as I have considered it over the past 10 years. But something deep within me keeps me from it, continuing to say “no,” or “not yet.”

“Or, you could do what I did and go to the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale,” he says casually, continuing on to tell me about the program, his experience of it, and how and why it would be a good fit for me.

Hearing his words, my spine aligns. I am suddenly sitting a little more upright. I’m pretty sure I hear a puzzle piece fall into place and my whole body screams “yes.”

I feel like a bird of “pray”– that I have been circling this all of my life, or at least since I was 17, nearly 30 years – but that I only just now know what this is.

I have been circling this ever since my cousin handed me a copy of the Tao Te Ching the summer after my graduation from high school.

I have been circling this ever since I enrolled in my first religious studies course – a survey of Eastern religions – and met the instructor who would help guide my studies for the next four years. Who, when I called to say I had accepted my first journalism job – as a beat reporter with a Jewish newspaper – replied, “Of course you did. You’ve been seeking everywhere else. In India. In China. In Japan. It’s time to look in your own backyard.”

And so I did. First, as a curious observer – never quite stepping into the traditions and calling them my own – a “professional Jew.” Until it was brought to my attention that I actually wasn’t one. Although raised as a Jew (I was adopted by a Jewish family), I lacked the essential component that would actually make me one – a biologically Jewish mother.

I “remedied” my status in 2012 when I stepped into the mikveh (ritual bath) waters and declared myself a Jew by conversion. More circling. And returned a year later as part of my get (Jewish divorce). More circling.

During this time I learned to meditate – a daily practice which I have maintained for 12 years – and to create a personal relationship with a God of my understanding through the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. More circling.

I had long ceased to be a professional Jew – having trading my press card for a business card – and had become a personal one.

My writing similarly shifted, from telling the stories of others as a newspaper reporter, to telling my own as a blogger, an essayist – and now as an ISM candidate.

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I am sitting at the tiny desk in my bedroom in Madrid. A red gooseneck lamp glows over the computer screen and the words above (and more) fly off of my fingertips. Effortlessly. I have been trained to write to size and I fill the 700 words allotted for my personal statement with four to spare.

But the writing sample looms. An invitation to showcase my best academic writing and critical thinking. “A portion of a senior thesis is acceptable.”

I have not been a university student in almost 25 years.

I am offered three topics to write about instead. I choose the first – to discuss an author, philosopher or artist, a piece of writing or art that has changed my way of thinking. Of looking at the world. And my career path.

I immediately know, the way I immediately know when Spencer mentions ISM for the first time in Prague.

The Artist’s Way.

The book I named my divorce companion in 2012 when only two things in my life made sense – writing and walking. The book I unearthed nine months later when I was on my knees, desperate. When my non-relationship – an out-of-town, weekend-long romance involving little more than kissing and talking and talking and kissing – had begun to affect my relationships, namely with my girlfriends, one who announced she couldn’t bear to hear his name ever again.

The book that invited me to take a weekly solo sojourn – creative play time, an Artist Date – which became the underpinning of my blogs and of my life. That allowed me to answer the question “How Has Creativity Changed Your Life?” and landed me in an anthology on the topic – the writing sample that has already been written, requiring only a bit of editing and massaging.

The book that is tucked away in my friend’s attic in Chicago. Highlighted. Dog-eared with notes in the margins. So I borrow a copy from a friend here in Madrid, filling in the blank spots of my essay with quotations and works cited.

I am acutely aware that I have been on exactly one Artist Date since arriving in Madrid six months ago.

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I am sitting on a bench in Jardines del Campo del Moro – a little patch of wild tucked inside the city, behind the gardens of the Royal Palace. A place where, if I venture in far enough, I can escape the sound of traffic on a Sunday morning. Where I can hear my heart beat.

My second Artist Date in Madrid – number 110 if you are counting. I suppose I am.

I look up at the cerulean sky with closed eyes and the sun meets my gaze, creating yellow and blue circles behind my lids.

Less than 12 hours ago, I completed my graduate school application and sent it to Yale. It is in God’s hands now. But how I choose to spend my time in Madrid is in mine. If nothing else, this process – specifically the writing, rewriting and editing of my sample work – has reminded me of that, returning me to a truth I seem to have forgotten. That I create joy in my life when I allow myself to play.

When I forgo the laundry and the lesson planning for a few hours and allow myself to walk quietly on my tiptoes – like Bugs Bunny with a rifle – just to see how close I can get to a peacock wandering the gardens.

When I allow myself to stop and take photographs of bamboo trunks just because I like the way they look.

When I allow myself to talk with the black swan swimming in a pond of mallards, giggling as she cocks her read beak at the sound of my voice as if to say “que?”, the response of seemingly every Madrileño to my initial shy attempts at speaking Spanish.

When I allow myself to commit to this process once more – the weekly Artist Date – out loud. Announcing it to God. To myself. And to the swan – bird of “pray.”