Jewish, Solo and Sans Chinese Food. And Merry on Christmas.

jewish-christmasI have never known what to do on Christmas.

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.

Upon hearing my plans, my mother asked, “Will you like being alone on your birthday?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “We’ll find out.”

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.

And Christmas?

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.

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Hope Rises. Hope Falls. And I Adjust My Lapel and Say “OK.”

hope-quote-3-dt1

I woke up this morning feeling the stillness of my neighborhood and I knew. I knew we had a new president. One I did not vote for. And I felt afraid.

I still do.

As a woman. As a Jew. As an American. As a being of light and love.

I realized that fear prevailed. And now I am the one afraid.

How do I not be?

How do I live in a place of love and light? How do I be a part of the solution and not the problem?

Yesterday, I believed we would elect the first woman president.

I was so proud to cast that vote. So uplifted by the photos and stories on #pantsuitnation. Unable to tear myself away from the words of people who had chosen to say, “I’m with her.”

The Muslim woman covering her head with an American flag scarf. The white, straight, self-proclaimed “Southern redneck” who totes guns and had voted Republican his entire life. Until now.

Recent immigrants who believe in the values this nation was built upon. Men in skirts. Men in heels. Women in pantsuits and Army fatigues.

People voting from hospital beds – their ballots brought to them, notarized and returned. People whose absentee ballots never arrived and flew back to their “home” states to cast their votes.

I sat on the bus. In the doctor’s waiting room. On my couch. Reading these stories of hope, struggle, strength and peace. And the cheers of support around them. Around us.

I want to believe in that America.

Four months ago, I returned to Chicago following a year abroad. People asked why.

Because my visa expired. Because I’m not Spanish. Because Madrid wasn’t home.

I believed I was meant to be here during this time. That it was important for me to be here during this time.

And now I am. Here. In this place that doesn’t much feel like home either.

I don’t believe “the answer” is somewhere else. I think it is inside of me. Inside of all of us.

Greater love.

But it is hard to believe when I am in fear. Hard to believe when hope rises and then falls.

And then I turn to the words and wisdom and stories of others. (The power of social media used for good.) Of a woman I dance with, who remembers having to drink from a “colored only” fountain when she was a kid. “Do not let fear cloud your judgement and reason … this country has gone through shit before; if you’ve never had to go through it, it can be terrifying … but you know what? That kind of shit got ended …”

Of a woman I’ve known since I was 12, whose husband is black and whose children think my baldish head is beautiful. “It is time for women to get barefoot and pregnant with new ideas and give birth to a new movement, mother it and take anyone down that tries to hurt it. We are just getting started.”

Of a mother on #pantsuit nation, a woman I do not know, whose six-year-old daughter put on her suit jacket this morning, the same one she wore to school yesterday, and asked “What do I need to do to become president?” And upon hearing, “work really hard in school, get in to a top college and then a top law school, and understand the law so you can change it,” replied “Okay,” full of confidence, adjusted her lapel in the mirror and went to school.

And hope rises.

Today, I will adjust my lapel, say “okay,” full of confidence, and go out into the world carrying love and light – knowing I am meant to be here, knowing there is work to be done.

I’ll Never Vote Absentee Again

An Italian friend of mine once remarked, “I can always spot the Americans.”

I was expecting to hear something about white sneakers, loud voices and fanny packs. Instead, she said, “They smile for no reason. Are super friendly and talk to everyone … they also have nice teeth.”

I remembered her words when I was living abroad … the many, many times I was surrounded by people but felt utterly disconnected. Partly a language barrier, with the onus on me to improve my Spanish. But also a cultural difference. In my experience, most Europeans don’t engage in idle chit chat with strangers the way Americans do.

It is one of the things I missed most about the United States when I was living in Spain — the chance for serendipitous connection.

I received that gift in spades this morning … waiting in line to cast my vote, one day before elections.

Nikki and I arrived in Welles Park a little before 9 a.m. The line had just begun to form. Or so it seemed. The sun was shining on an unseasonably warm November day. And we watched through a window as the voting stations filled before us, oblivious that it would be two hours before we would arrive in that place ourselves.

During those two hours we met the granddaughter of a Turkish immigrant and her beautiful six-month-old daughter, swaddled in pink and strapped to her mother in a Baby Bjorn. She joked about being Muslim. Her husband being Mexican. And that if things went the wrong way, it would be hard to know who would be deported first.

During those two hours I met a neighbor of mine. He seemed familiar to me but I wasn’t sure if I had been looking at him for so long that that was the reason. Turns out we live on the same street. And that he lived in Madrid for a semester abroad in 1988. We talked about architecture, food, travel and the fall out of Franco. How the north feels more French. And how physically safe we felt living there.

During those two hours I learned that our wait was comparatively short compared to the people who voted yesterday. That most voters had been patient and nice. And that Nikki’s shoes will always be a source of conversation – today’s choice, a pair of red, white and black Fleuvogs.

I watched the kindness of strangers as the baby in pink started to fuss and one man volunteered, “Go ahead of us. No one will mind.” And everyone agreed. Instead, she fell asleep pressed to her mother, waking just as it was “their” turn to vote. I took a photograph so mom could tell her about this one day.

When it was finally my turn, I was directed to a voting booth just next to my neighbor. I smiled and whispered to him, “Do it right.” He winked back.

And then I stood in silence. Heart beating wildly. Fingers trembling. Nodding and teary-eyed as I pressed the button casting my vote for the first female president of the United States. A vote I wasn’t sure I’d ever have the opportunity to make in my lifetime. I then completed the ballot and reviewed it once, twice, three times to make certain I had marked the correct box.

I received a paper bracelet with the words, “I Voted. Did You?” on the way out. I quickly peeled off the sticky label, wrapped it around my wrist and waited for Nikki. A few minutes later she emerged, along with the man who had told the baby’s mother to “Go ahead.”

The three of us put our wrists together, took a photograph, and exchanged names – which I promptly forgot. But it didn’t really matter. We had shared a moment together where we had hoped to make history – three smiling-for-no-reason, friendly, talk-to-everyone Americans with nice teeth.

I’ll never vote absentee again.

 

 

 

 

 

A Good Time To Be Here

metro tickets.jpgIt is November. The weather gods have smiled upon us with sunshine and seventy degrees.

(Many would say the baseball gods have also smiled upon us as the Cubs are in the World Series.)

It is a good time to be in Chicago.

I pull on a pair of brown corduroy trousers from the Salvation Army. Ralph Lauren. Six dollars. Boot-cut and too long in the legs for my not quite 5-foot, 3-inch body.

I slide my hand into the left, front pocket and pull out two small, slippery stubs. Used metro tickets from Paris.

I smile. Wistful.

I’ve been back just eight days but already Paris seems so far away.

The baguette I never eat here but cannot not eat there. Both doughy and solid. Formidable and yielding. I’ve never found anything quite like it at home.

The coffee. Short. Dark. Thick. Served in little cups and drank leisurely in a café, or standing up at a bar, but never taken to go.

The woman who says over coffee, “It’s like there was an empty chair waiting for you, and you slipped right in it … as if you were always there.” And the faces around the table nodding in agreement.

I try to conjure this up in my body. The bread. The coffee. These people who in a matter of days became my people. And I became theirs.

The pastry. The poetry.

The feeling I have every time I find myself in Paris … that my heart might burst if I’m not careful. The feeling I have always been here and will always be here.

But muscle memory fails me … for I can see it, but not fully feel it. Not in my bones. At least not in this moment.

Perhaps it is because I am so here.

In Chicago on this 70-something November day on a bike that doesn’t quite fit me. A loaner from the mechanic until mine is fixed. Wheels out of true. Seat too low. I am more wrestling with it than riding. And yet, I feel the sides of my mouth curling into a smile when I do. My now 47-year-old body embracing the challenge.

Editing my book. Cooking soup. Applying for work.

Watching a Cubs game at a dive bar for no other reason than I have been invited and it sounds like fun.

I am too present here to fully feel there for more than a few moments. And I realize the gift in feeling the ground beneath me. The swish-swish of fallen leaves under my feet.

I have spent years wishing I was somewhere other than where I was — even in Paris — missing the moment.

My friend Paul recently asked why I “even bothered” to come back in the United States. “Your writing is pure poetry there. That is your place,” he says. Perhaps. But for now I am here.

I slip the tickets back in my pocket — so that I might find them again one day and be reminded. Of baguettes and coffee. Poetry and pastry. Of the people who held a chair for me … waiting.

That mid-October was a good time to be in Paris. And right now is a good time to be here.

From Mikveh to Madrid, Now … More

rocaberti-table
Dinner at the Rocaberti Castle. Food for the belly. Food for the soul.

Five days, 12 writers, 3 mentors, a genius staff who could both dream and deliver. Chefs who fed our hearts and our bellies. A castle, many missed photo opportunities and so much unbelievable talent.

I knew I was truly immersed in the moment when I received an email from my mother “just checking in” because she hadn’t seen me on Facebook in a while. (Sweet, right?)

It is only now, after leaving the “bubble” of the Rocaberti Writers Retreat, that I am able to begin reflecting on all that I experienced. All that I learned. All that happened. And all that has yet to happen.

In the cocoon of the castle, I was able to practice pitching “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” to mentors — three individuals steeped and successful in the business of movies, television and publishing — as I would for agent representation or a book deal.

I introduced my work as “Eat, Pray, Love” meets Dora the Explorer, and was immediately met with the challenge — “Why a cartoon character?”

Quite simply, because I could not think of a single happy ending for a solo female protagonist over the age of 12. Think”Ramona the Brave,” “Harriet the Spy,” and yes, Dora.

Our resident feature writer and producer, the one who had challenged me, was able to summon just one — Holly Hunter in the 1987 film “Broadcast News.” One.

In that moment I knew I was on to something. And yet, I already knew. Because of all I had experienced. All I had written. The support I had received via Go Fund Me. And the feedback from my retreat mentor — one on one — and from my colleagues in small group sessions.

In addition to learning about my own work, I received a practical education on next steps and the nuts of bolts of publishing. And opened my mind to the possibilities of film and television.

And now? More…

I’ve been asked to let go of my newspaper training and blogging terseness and to let the lushness of my language fill in the blanks. To tell the story of how I went from mikveh (the ritual bath used in a Jewish divorce) to Madrid. The experience of 52 Artist Dates and how they changed me … that when given a chance at the kind of love I had called out for, I ultimately chose myself.

Artist Date 6.2: Crazy Time

I love the smell of paper.

It is one of the many reasons I prefer bookstores to the ease of Amazon. That and the sense of possibility. Of community. Staff picks. Book Club reads.  All laid out on tables, ripe for reading. A smorgasbord of words.

Land of Enchantment by Leigh Stein. Grunt by Mary Roach. M Train by Patti Smith.

I pick up each one and tuck it under my arm, carrying a small stack with me through Women and Children First Bookstore. Artist Date 6.2 (122).

Because I know of Leigh but I do not know her. Because we belong to the same women’s writing collective, but we have never met.

Because I heard Terri Gross’ interview with Roach on Fresh Air while I was living in Madrid. Their English sounded so good to my American ear and home didn’t seem so far away.

Because just this afternoon, my friend Spencer suggested Smith’s book to me.

m-train

I feel connected to these stories. Like I want to hold on to them.

Others I don’t.

Spinster: Making A Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick. The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Lang.

Because I fear there is no room in this conversation for my voice — my manuscript, They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain: How 52 Artist Dates Healed My Heart and Landed Me in the Center of My Own Life. Traveling alone. Living abroad. Writing a book. Because I fear I have nothing new to add. Because I believe publication might finally allow me to be “done” with my divorce.

Crazy Time by Abigail Trafford.

Because it takes me back to a time before Artist Dates. Before traveling alone and living overseas and writing a book. When I was just embarking upon my divorce.

I am still living in Seattle, still sharing a home with my soon-to-be ex-husband – but sleeping in separate bedrooms.

I am head-over-heels-over-head for my friend M in Chicago. He is also going through a divorce and we prop one another up through our disbelief and fear, talking on the phone each night into the wee hours of the morning.

I am also a wee bit obsessed with my friend (another) M in Seattle. He is the first man to see me naked – other than my husband or my doctor – in 15 years. We kiss endlessly, stopping only to share our stories — whispering under a blanket that smells faintly of dog.

But only once.

Since then we seem to be dancing a familiar “come-here-go-away” cha-cha. I know the tune, but still haven’t mastered the steps.

My therapist Saundra tells me about Crazy Time.

crazy-time

“Because it is a crazy time,” she says, speaking from both personal and professional experience. She says to tell Chicago M I have to go to sleep. She rolls her eyes at the mention of Seattle M.

“You told me I get to make mistakes.”

“You made yours,” she says.

We look at one another, a little bit shocked by her frankness and laugh.

“You don’t get to say that.”

“I know,” she says. “But it’s true.” And it is.

Saundra believes it is preferable I grieve the end of my marriage before jumping into another relationship. She says if I don’t, I’ll only run from the pain of it – from bed to bed, relationship to relationship – rather than addressing the source and healing.

It doesn’t sound so bad, really.

And yet, it is not my path.

I pull Crazy Time from the shelf and begin thumbing through it – only half reading.

“It starts when you separate and usually lasts about two years. It’s a time when your emotions take on a life of their own and you swing back and forth between wild euphoria and violent anger, ambivalence and deep depression, extreme timidity and rash actions. You are not yourself. Who are you?

“Then at the height of Crazy Time, you may get a reprieve. You fall in love – a coup de foudre – and the block of lead in your chest miraculously melts; you can’t believe it, you laugh, you dance. You know it’s too soon, too much like jumping into a lifeboat that you know leaks and has no oars. But you smile, feeling so good after feeling so bad for so long. Therapists call this the search for the romantic solution. But it’s usually not a solution.

“You crash… Now you’re really scared. You can’t believe how frightened you are; about money, your health, your sanity. In all the feel-good rhetoric about divorce being a growth opportunity for the new super you, nobody tells you about Crazy Time.”

Four years have passed since my divorce was made final by the courts.

Since then, my ex-husband has bought a home that he shares with the woman he’s been seeing for a couple of years. Chicago M is about to become a daddy. And according to Facebook, Seattle M — the one with the dog blanket — is “In a Relationship.”

I pick up Smith’s M Train and take it to the register, first slipping the other books back into their proper places on the shelves.

Still traveling alone. Still writing. Sometimes still in Crazy Time.

 

 

 

 

Fully Funded

With gratitude for those who have supported my Go Fund Me campaign, “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain — How 52 Artist Dates Healed My Heart and Landed Me In the Center of My Life.” For those I have know in Spain and in Chicago. For those who have loved me enough to tell me the truth about myself. For those who have brought me to my fundraising goal! Muchas gracias.


September 20

I spent some time on the phone this morning, talking with a woman I’ve known for a long time but haven’t spoken to in years. She had recently opened an old email address inbox and happened upon a history of my blog posts.

“You inspire me,” she said, having read them. “You really do take lemons and make lemonade.”

I was touched and humbled by her words. And a bit tickled by the divine timing of our conversation. I’ve been thinking a lot about the people who inspire me. Not by grand heroics, but just by going about their days — stepping fully into their lives with a generous heart, and showing me what is possible.

People like Lynn Merel.

Lynn doesn’t love winter. But rather than grouse about the inevitable, she has arranged her life to spend the worst Chicago months in warmer climates.

She is a working artist. Lynn paints, and makes paper and greeting cards. (Check out http://www.lynnmerelart.com!) When I converted to Judaism in 2011 — committing to the faith I was raised with but not born into — she planted a tree in Israel in my honor.

People like Meghan Harkins.

Meg is an actor and a musician. She gives great hugs. Teaches kids ukelele and piano. And has been known to send a text from the train, inviting me on an impromptu Artist Date to the Art Institute for free-after-5 p.m. Thursdays.

We recently had a conversation about money and miracles. The power of saying no to work that doesn’t serve you. And the gift of giving money away.

Like she did by contributing to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign. Like Lynn did too.

Muchas gracias, mis amigas. For your generosity. And for showing me abundance and possibility in living a creative life.

distant-city
Distant City 1. Copyright 2013. Lynn Merel

September 21

Anonymous
Adjective. anon·y·mous ə-ˈnä-nə-məs
1: of unknown authorship or origin
2: not named or identified
3: lacking individuality, distinction, or recognizability
(Source: Meriam-Webster’s Learning Dictionary)

To date, I have received 69 donations to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign. Many of them are anonymous (not to me, but externally facing) — definition two. But of those, none are three.

Their stories, how I know them — not how we met, but how we “know” one another — are distinct enough to render them no longer “unrecognizable.” So I won’t tell them here. But I know them. And they do too.

Connections and tales that span the globe. From Madrid to the Midwest. All along the left coast and across all aspects of my life. The movies in my heart — that I know by heart.

I feel recognized (further dismantling definition three) — truly seen — by their generous support. As I am. As a writer.

Muchas gracias, sweet friends. You know who you are …

in-the-mirror
Alone, but never anonymous, in Seville.

September 22

My “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign is fully funded!!

As I wrote early this morning on Facebook, I am in awe. Humbled and honored by the support around me and this project. Graced by this opportunity.

This is not the update I imagined writing today.

I had one planned about the friends who love you enough to tell you the truth about yourself. Like my friend Kiki who generously doles out servings of no-nonsense affection and reflection in her kitchen, along with a side of her killer homemade soup.

Like my friend Pam, who is both a truth-teller and a channel for my 12-year-old self. We can talk about “boys” for hours and laugh so hard I pee myself. (I only did that once!)

I had one planned about friends who witnessed my life in Spain. Like Lindsey, who flew from Chicago to Madrid and joined me in exploring Malaga, Granada and Tangier. Who carried an inflated mattress across town with me — her bed while staying in the capital city. And watched me clumsily communicate in the South of Spain, insisting I do in fact speak Spanish.

Like Nicole, who I knew only a little while living in Chicago … but who made time to meet me at Mox in Malansaña (one of Madrid’s funkiest neighborhoods) for an American-sized salad. And who I have grown to know more deeply since returning “home.”

But instead, I woke this morning to an $86 donation (the exact amount necessary to meet my $4,250 goal) and these words from Harriett Kelly, “Go write your book!” I laid in bed for a while, tears streaming down my cheeks — laughing and crying.

Thank you, Pam. Thank you, Kiki. Thank you, Lindsey. Thank you, Nicole. And thank you, Harriett. For your generous donations. And for supporting my dream and my story — a post-divorce narrative with the possibility of a happy ending, no partner required. One you can write yourself. Like I did.

Yes, Harriett … “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain: How 52 Artist Dates Healed My Heart and Landed Me In the Center of My Life” is written. The manuscript was sent to my writing retreat mentor at the beginning of September.

Next stop is Girona — where I will meet with an editor and other publishing professionals whose job it is to tell me the truth about my work. (Thanks for the training, Kiki!) What I need to do to bring my story to market. And how to manifest a book deal.

I leave in 13 days. I’ll send “postcards” and updates from the road here.

with-lindsey-and-camel
In Tangier with Lindsey … I asked, but forgot, the camel’s name.

I’ve been asked if the campaign is still open for donations. Yes! Any additional funds raised will be used to support the publication and promotion of “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain.” Think book tour! Want to know more about”They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain?” Click here: https://www.gofundme.com/awanderingjewess