I Will Always Be … A Tashlich Tale

tashlich creek
The “almost” stream in Carpenter’s Woods.

2012. I am standing at the shore of Lake Michigan – the Chicago side. I am wearing my signature orange peep-toe wedges, a tweed dress that hangs on my 12-pounds-thinner-than-usual body, and throwing torn up pieces of bread into the water.

It is Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world, and the bread is part of a Jewish New Year custom called tashlich — the emptying of one’s pockets into moving water, a symbolic casting away of one’s sins. Rabbis of generations past frowned upon the practice, fearing people would not do the hard work of the Days of Awe – of self-examination and making of amends – if they engaged in this ritual, that they would forget that the practice was mere metaphor and would count on the casting to absolve them of their misdeeds.

But I am not casting away sins. (I don’t really believe in them.) Instead, I am casting off an identity, a role I’ve played … as partner and wife. For in this moment I intuitively know that I am now divorced. I can feel it in my bones.

My husband and I have filed dissolution of marriage paperwork in a county that does not require a court appearance, sending off an envelope containing a divorce agreement, our signatures and a notary stamp four weeks earlier. I know that the clerk in this small county signs divorce papers on Mondays. It is Monday.

I move towards my rabbi. “I think I’m divorced,” I say.

“Well, you are pretty intuitive,” he replies.

“I’m going to cast away my Mrs.”

He nods and smiles at me sadly; and I return to the lake, flinging stale bits of challah into the still waters and mumbling something about Dr.’s wife and Mrs. Robertson – a name I never took.

When I return home that afternoon, I call our mediator who checks a database and affirms, “Yes, you are divorced.”

2019. I am still talking about this, writing about this.

Sunday night, erev Rosh Hashanah. A different rabbi asks us to turn to the person nearest us and share what we would like to let go of and what we would like to make room for in the Jewish Year 5780. I turn to my left and tell another rabbinical student that I would like to let go of my ex-husband, my marriage and my divorce as part of my narrative, and that I would like to make room for love.

I am still talking about it.

Tuesday afternoon, I am co-leading a tashlich ritual at a creek just off of campus at the University of Delaware. I tell the story of 2012 — sans peep-toe wedges and dress hanging from my frame — and invite the small group gathered to consider if there is a piece of their identity that no longer fits. Perhaps a role in a romantic relationship or in their family of origin or at work. Maybe a character attribute or behavior they are known for and no longer wish to be.

I ask them to share this with someone near them, either before or after emptying the contents of their pockets – the contents of their hearts – and to consider that in casting off, they might create space for something new … as in my case, when I traded in the role of wife for ex-pat in 2015 and rabbinical student in 2019. I am still talking about it.

I step away to do my own casting off … except I can’t. There is too much chatter around me and there is nowhere to go to let go. So I hold on, until today, when I duck into Carpenter’s Woods, just a few blocks from my house.

I scramble down a dirt and stone path to a clearing where a small, wooden footbridge hovers over an “almost” stream. I don’t have any bread. My pockets are empty. I bend down and pick up a couple of fallen leaves, fold them — once and then again — and rip them into pieces.

As I drop the bits of leaves into the pooled water, I whisper something about letting go of my insistence that my 15-year relationship have no place in my current narrative, my expectation that I should no longer have anything to say about it or him or us. Nothing about letting go of this “former identity.” Nothing about creating space for the universe to rush in.

My words surprise me.

I will always be Lee’s ex-wife. Just as I will always be a massage therapist and a writer — whether or not I get paid for it. Just as I will always have lived in Spain and San Francisco, Oakland, Chicago, Seattle and Detroit – even if I don’t now. And even with all of those pieces of my identity firmly intact, there has always been room for “something new” — for a year of teaching in Madrid, for rabbinical school, and for a few juicy romances.

I have no shame in telling those other parts of my life, no expectations that I should be “done” with them, nor any desire to be. I wonder if the same could be true of my marriage and divorce.

Just then, the wooden footbridge begins to bounce. A man and his brown and white-speckled dog cross my path, signaling my ritual is nearly complete.

I pull my pockets inside out, say a prayer and begin my climb out.

 

Only Someone Who Should Be a Rabbi Thinks …

doors open
“They” say when things are right doors fling open.

I am sitting with my new friend C talking about resistance, mine in particular. It is early spring according to the calendar, but the weather gods seem to have missed the message and so I am wrapped in my Eddie Bauer sleeping bag coat sipping hot tea. The sun streams in through large, plate-glass windows while cold air blasts onto us from the vents above.

C sips a milky iced coffee seemingly unfazed by these temperature disparities. I imagine this is what makes her a good (albeit now retired) pastor, and what makes her a good spiritual guide – her presence.

I am questioning my path to the rabbinate. This is nothing new. The resistance has been with me as long as the call, more than 25 years. What is different is this time I have pushed beyond consideration. I completed the application process last spring – writing a series of essays and gathering transcripts and letters of recommendation – was invited for an interview last fall, and days before Thanksgiving, was offered a seat in the fall 2019 class at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

I have put down my deposit, secured a place to live in Philadelphia, and at the school’s suggestion taken on formal study of both Biblical and modern Hebrew.

The money for the deposit. The Biblical Hebrew class that fit neatly into my crowded schedule. The professor who offered to tutor me in modern Hebrew for free. The room in Mt. Airy – my neighborhood of choice – that meets all of my wish-list requirements including “cost effective” and “with good lighting.” All of these things have fallen into place seemingly magically, with little or next to no effort on my part.

It seems clear that the universe has been conspiring to make me a rabbi.

What is not different is my resistance. To what?  I am not certain. The time? Six years. The move? Yet another. The Hebrew? Daunting. The debt? Maybe.

The thought of me as a rabbi first arose when I was 23 or 24 and in the middle of an exciting but painful love affair with a man who was considering the rabbinate himself.

“I would not be a very good rebbitzin,” I mused, (not that he ever asked). “But I would be a hell of a rabbi.”

The words surprised me, but I said and did nothing. More than 15 years would pass before I would hear them again, first like a whisper — a friend recalling the first thing I ever told her about myself was that I wanted to be a rabbi – then growing more loudly, as I reminded my husband of our agreement that it would be “my turn,” once he completed medical school and residency, which he was just about to do.

He struggled to envision us moving from Seattle – where we had just moved to and where he had secured his dream job as a doctor – to Philadelphia – where he did not have a job or any prospects — carrying $200,000 in medical school debt and loans because I might want to be a rabbi.

Truthfully, I did too.

When we divorced less than a year later and it was unquestionably “my turn,” the desire left me entirely. Gone. Until about two years ago when I felt its familiar pull during High Holy Day services, like an impatient child tugging at my sleeve, yet again, “pay attention to me.”

I mention this to our congregation’s rabbinical intern.

“Oh yes,” he says, drawing out his “s” like a snake.

“Oh no,” I reply.

“Why not?”

I mutter something about not wanting to study Hebrew and Aramaic, which sounds mostly ridiculous as it falls out of my mouth, and about not wanting “the life” of a rabbi, to which the intern points out the unconventional congregation of which we are a part. Then I say something which sounds like the truth.

“Who will date me?”

I think I throw up a little bit inside my mouth.

Have I been resisting my heart’s desire because a potential partner might find it unacceptable? It seems possible. And now that I know this, I cannot unknow it.

And so, I begin leaning into this calling that I do not understand and all of its associated fears, taking each step that has made “this time” different. Almost as soon as I begin, I meet a man – Jewish, sober and covered in tattoos.

“This is my guy,” I think.

And for a moment, he is. And then he isn’t. When he ends our brief romance – in about the nicest, mensch-iest way I can imagine – I decide to try out/try on my rabbinical aspirations with him. As he is already “gone,” I have nothing to lose.

“D,” I stammer. “I think I might kind of, sort of, maybe want to be a rabbi.”

“That is amazing,” he says, smiling big, his eyes meeting mine.

I cock my head like a cartoon dog, surprised by his response. I ask if he would feel this way if we were still dating, as introducing your girlfriend “the rabbi” is different than introducing your girlfriend “the lawyer.” At least to my mind.

“Absolutely,” he says.

Tears stream down my cheeks. My shameful fear has turned out to be a bogeyman.

C looks up from her iced coffee.

“God’s got skills,” she says.

I nod.

“You know that saying we have in Alcoholics Anonymous,” she says. “That no normal drinker thinks, ‘Maybe I should go to an AA meeting.’ Only someone who should be in AA thinks about going to AA.’

“I think it’s like that. Only someone who should be a rabbi thinks ‘Maybe I should be a rabbi.’ ”

 

 

Not “Most People”

in-the-mirror
In Seville. Sometimes you do eat alone in Spain …

(Originally published as an update to http://www.gofundme.com/awanderingjewess.)

I received my first agent rejection.

I’m smiling as I write this. Perhaps because it means I am “in the game.” I’ve taken another step into a vulnerable and unknown place in publishing.

Last week I began putting “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” in the hands (inboxes, really) of literary agents, hoping one will find this post-divorce memoir with the possibility of a happy ending – no partner required – compelling enough to represent.

It’s taken a long time to get here, far longer than I imagined.

It was a little more than two years ago that I sat in the drawing room of my Madrid apartment and asked the universe for guidance. It came in the form of a single email from an old beau – an introduction to the Rocaberti Castle Writers’ Retreat – and called all of my “one day-s” to task. Did I really believe a blog chronicling my path from desperate divorcee to European ex-pat – told through the lens of a weekly solo sojourn – could be a book? Was I willing to find out?

I decided to say yes … and so did many readers who funded my trip to the castle that fall.

Upon my return, I began working one-on-one with my retreat writing coach. I developed a proposal (story summary, audience analysis, competitive landscape and marketing concepts), a chapter-by-chapter outline and agent query. I spit-shined the introduction and two other chapters and made a list of target agents and a spreadsheet to track my communications.

Last Sunday night – filled with doubt and trepidation, my heart racing – I hit send. At that moment, I truly understood impostor syndrome for the first time. Who was I to pitch a writing project – my writing project – to an agent, anyway?

A few years ago I read that most people would rather fail by not trying than by trying.

I get that. And thankfully, I’ve never wanted to be “most people.”

When I received this note on Tuesday, I was assured I wasn’t.

“Dear Lesley, Thank you so much for querying me. “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain: How 52 Solo Sojourns Healed My Heart and Helped Me Write My Own Happy Ending (No Partner Required) sounds like an interesting project, but I’m afraid I’m going to pass on looking at more. My client list is very full, forcing me to be extremely selective about taking on anyone new at the moment. But please do keep querying other agents, and I wish you all the best with your writing career.”

I’ve taken this agent’s counsel and have continued to query. Meanwhile, a friend suggested I keep all of my rejection letters … “You can have fun with them later,” he wrote. “Maybe include them in the preface in future books.”

Maybe.

 

On This Day

april 9

My intuition has always been good. I feel things before they happen … usually things I’d rather not know. A sense of dread deep in my core, based on what seem like barely perceptible shifts.

The text that comes an hour later than usual. My every-Monday-at-the-same-time phone call dropping straight into voicemail. The date that doesn’t end with, “When can I see you again?”

People will tell me I’m crazy, that I am overreacting or taking things personally … but I am rarely wrong. These feelings have served me, serving as an alert of what more was to come.

However, sometimes the sensation is more subtle – less dread, more “knowing,” a body memory – like today, skimming Facebook while waiting for an early morning train to Evanston.

On This Day …

“My husband and I met in the Marina District of San Francisco nearly 15 years ago. Ten days ago, in that same place, he asked that we end our marriage. I don’t believe in mistakes. I believe in a grand design of a master quilter. I believe in love. And I believe in friendship. Please hold us both in your hearts.”

That was six years ago. My brain knew the post would reveal itself sometime soon, but my body knew the exact day.

It still hurts … the reminder of the disappointment of a failed marriage, the ending of a partnership that was better than many but not good enough for either us, the sense of rejection. The pain has changed over the years – from chronic and dull to acute and fleeting – these days it feels more like a bee sting than a broken bone.

I know I can change the settings on Facebook so I won’t see it … but the truth is, I don’t want to forget it. I’m not interested in only remembering “the good stuff.”

So I find myself on the platform scrolling through the 81 comments with tears rolling down my cheeks … and in this pain I find that there is “good stuff” right there. Prayers, hugs, love and light. The reminder that I am strong,

A poem from Rabbi Rami Shapiro – “An Unending Love” — sent from my friend, a rabbi in Cleveland. Rainer Maria Rilke’s words, “Let life happen to you. Believe me: life is in the right, always” – sent from an old boss now living in Sydney, Australia.

April 9 marks the end of what I have come to call my spring season of grieving; it begins in mid-March and ends On This Day. It includes my husband asking for a divorce, plus two crushing romantic endings and a rejection letter from Yale University’s School of Divinity in the years that followed.

But what I didn’t realize until this morning is that my “spring season of grieving” also included the purchase of a one-way ticket to Madrid, signaling the beginning of my year of living and working abroad, the fulfillment of a childhood dream.

On This Day (2015).

“Holy Crap! I leave in 109 days. Thank the Goddess for Award Travel – one way cost me $145. (And I feel like I might throw up.)”

And the next, April 10, 2015? On That Day my first, real post-divorce relationship began. I don’t even need Facebook to remind me. It ended a long time ago, but I still remember it … both in my brain and in my body.

 

Doors Like Breadcrumbs, Leading Me Home

A few days ago a friend of mine from university posted this message on my Facebook page — “Read this and thought of you this morning. Smooches bubbala!”

Every year, The New York Times recommends 52 Places to Go, one place to dream about exploring each week. The list is an ambitious forecast of which beaches will remain unspoiled, which starchitect-designed museums will live up to their renderings and which culinary treasures are worth hopping a flight to eat.

This year, we want at least one ambitious traveler to turn our wish list into an itinerary.

We are seeking a journalist who, over the course of 2018, will go to every destination on our list and tell us the story of each place and the story of life on the road. The ideal candidate is a permanent student of life and astute documentarian of the world. This person should have a well-worn passport, the ability to parachute into a place and distill its essence and to render a compelling tale with words and images.”

As part of my application, I had to write (only) 500 words on the most interesting place I’ve been to. It was fun to go back on the Marrakesh Express … Fingers crossed!!

*****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****     *****

Marrakesh – I expect it to smell otherworldly like Tangiers, fragrant with spices mixed with sea water, but it doesn’t. Instead, I notice steam rising from the black-tar cement and yellow maze-like lines that direct us inside the airport where there is no air-conditioning, no Wi-Fi, not even a vending machine selling over-priced water.

Outside, under a white tent, wooden benches teem with drivers holding signs, like breakfast, it is included with the price of our riad.

We pile into the car and drive towards the old city. A woman wearing a cobalt blue kaftan and matching head scarf keeps pace with us as we circle the roundabout. The streets are lined with palm trees and resorts tucked behind colorful walls.

marrakesh scooter

We stop abruptly at an uninspired entry point to the medina. Our driver hands us over to a small man with a wheelbarrow, who tosses our luggage into it. We follow him down cobblestone streets with no names to an unremarkable door, behind it is a courtyard with a small dipping pool and our host, waiting with mint tea. He takes us to our room — white-washed and pristine with wooden shutters that look out across the courtyard to its mirror image and upward to the sky. He marks our location on a map with an X and shows us how to reach Jemaa el-Fnaa – the main square.

riad 107

We snake down dusty paths with no street signs, but that more or less match the design of the map, taking photos of the low archways we pass through and doors on each corner – my own version of breadcrumbs that will lead us home.

marrakesh doors

The streets are loud with a language I do not know. Tongue-y and shrill. Spices are piled in the shape of cones – mustard, orange and saffron-colored. Babouche, brightly colored slippers with pointed toes, line the walls. I have been advised not to look unless I am prepared to purchase, so I avert my eyes, the same way the women walking two-by-two avert mine.

The labyrinth-like streets drop us on to the main square where there are rows and rows of pop-up restaurants with metal picnic tables covered with plastic, checkered tablecloths. Each host carries a stack of laminated menus and tries to pull us in. “You are so skinny. You must be hungry. Come. Eat.”

There are tall stalls with men selling fresh dates, dried apricots, cashews and almonds. Sitting perched at the top, they grab their wares with long, metal claws and hand us samples, then fill cardboard cones with our purchases. We drink fresh-fruit smoothies served in real glasses at a make-shift bar.

Snake charmers sit on the warm cement playing flutes called pungis while serpents dance to their melody, as if agreed upon before the show. Monkeys on leashes pose for photographs. Amidst the pandemonium the Muslim call to prayer sounds from tinny speakers that crackle. It passes through me like a breeze and reminds me I am a long, long way from home.

The Present of Being Present

IMG_1717
Wearing T’s marathon medal — the present of being present, of being here now.

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.

Click.

“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.

 

AWAY (alone)

nikki mcclure
Nikki McClure 2017 Calendar

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.

Yes, indeed.

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.