Artist Date 5.2: A Rabbi Like Me

 

According to my friend Deb, one of the first things I ever told her was I wanted to be a rabbi.

I have no recollection of this conversation. However, I do not doubt it as this idea has danced around and inside of me for some time.

I’m not exactly sure where or when it took root. Best I can surmise is some time between my post-college, rabbi-to-be lover and coffee with Deb circa 2007.

Most everyone I have mentioned this to over the years thinks it an obvious next step. Perhaps, most especially, Rabbi Brant Rosen.

“In some ways, you kind of already are (a rabbi),” he told me during one of our monthly meetings.

And yet, each time I seem to be moving toward it … I step away.

Most notably, when my then-husband asked me for a divorce in 2012.

No longer did I have to consider his career path. The four years of medical school and four years of residency that had just earned him a lucrative job offer in Seattle. That rabbinical school was in Philadelphia. Or New York. Los Angeles or Boston.

Only that, suddenly I could go.

I bought Hebrew workbooks. Interviewed recent graduates. Secured the domain name “A Wandering Jewess.”

I availed myself of help offered by spiritual leaders in both Seattle and Chicago.

And yet, not long after my divorce was final, the desire fell away.

I didn’t want to cloister myself away studying ancient Aramaic for five years, I said. I took issue with the schools’ policy of not admitting seminary students with non-Jewish partners. Even though I didn’t even have a partner. (The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College has since revoked that policy.)

I wondered about my aptitude for learning Hebrew. Was unclear about what I would do with my ordination. And feared, as a rabbi, I would never find romantic love again.

“Who will I meet?” I asked my rabbi, in earnest. “Another rabbi,” he replied. I wasn’t sure I wanted that either.

So I returned to writing — following a 15-year hiatus — instead. I pursued other work. Fulfilled a life-long dream of living in Europe. (And dove head-first into a delicious three-month romance with a delightful not-Jewish man before leaving the country.)

I applied to the School of Divinity at Yale University.

Anything but re-open my consideration of rabbinical school.

Until recently.

I’ve heard my own voice whisper in possibility, in surrender. Words like “Maybe” and “Really? OK …” But have said little. Until Friday, Artist Date 5.2 (or 121, depending on how you count.)

I ride the number 80 bus to the number 47 and walk about 10 blocks – arriving just a few minutes before Shabbat services at Tzedek Chicago, a new congregation founded by Rabbi Rosen while I was living in Madrid. The congregation is (somewhat ironically) meeting a couple of streets over from the home my ex-husband and I once owned.

There is music and poetry, prayer and politics. Many familiar faces. Many not – like Leah, who plays the guitar and sings. I am reminded of Passover seders and other holiday gatherings … watching Jews sing with unabashed joy, Jews who not only embrace but roll around in their faith as if it were a cashmere blanket.

I am not this kind of Jew. And up until now, I have seen this as proof that I am not “rabbi material.”

Up until now.

I hitch a ride home from services with my friend Elaine. A young woman from Kalamazoo is in the back seat. She has come to Chicago for the weekend, her 22nd birthday, to attend services at Tzedek Chicago.

Her father is Jewish, her mother – Chinese … and she is all Jew. Like me, a Jew (at least to some) who converted to Judaism. But unlike me – an adoptee raised by a Jewish family but not born into one – has only recently claimed this faith as her own.

She plans to apply to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College this fall. And she has spent a summer at Middlebury College learning Hebrew – signing a statement agreeing not to read, write, speak or listen to a language other than Hebrew during the seven-week semester – in preparation for the entrance exam.

She is, in a word, serious.

She believes there is a need for a rabbi like her –a Jew of color, deeply committed to social justice, a supporter of Palestine.

I have no doubt.

But under that, I have another thought.

That I am white. Not terribly political. Older.(Old enough to be her mother.)

Faith does not come easily to me. I am a practitioner of what works. There is a mezuzah in my doorway, a batik of Ganesh on my wall, and the book Alcoholics Anonymous on my shelf.

I gather stray Jews and others for holidays. And say “thank you” when a guest brings a dairy dish and I have cooked meat.

Two of my great loves were not Jews. And when one ended in divorce, I found it necessary to have a Jewish dissolution of marriage, as well as a civil one.

I am doubtful and uncertain. Even now as I write this. Yet I keep returning to it, to this place of Jewishness again and again.

And that, perhaps, there is a need for a rabbi like me.

 

My Heart is a Surfboard

kaddish-coverThere are four cars in the synagogue parking lot in Evanston – mine being one of them.

I do not want to be here.  And I especially do not want to be here alone.

I asked Pam to join me.  Clover.  Michael.  Matt.  All were unavailable.  And then I stopped calling. I didn’t want just anyone to join me.  So I am here, alone, on the one-year anniversary (according to the Hebrew calendar) of my birth mother’s death.

The synagogue sent a letter reminding me of the date, 28 Iyyar, along with the words – in both English and Hebrew – to Kaddish, the prayer that accompanies the lighting of a yahrzeit candle, honoring the deceased.

Her name will be read in synagogue, and I feel l should be here to hear it. I think she would like that – even though she wasn’t Jewish.

I sit in the car a few minutes longer, re-reading flirtatious text messages my friend, Mr. Fashion, sent just before I left the house – trying to distract myself from my uncomfortable feelings about being here.  It only half works.

Eventually, I walk in and am greeted by both the rabbi and the cantor.  Each is a touchstone in my life.  And yet seeing them today does not shift my feelings.

Twenty or so congregants are here for the Friday night service, but I sit alone.   It is my choice.  I feel awkward and angst-y.  I keep my eyes cast down.  I barely sing.  I wonder how it is that I once thought I might be a rabbi.  It seems unfathomable to me now, as it is all that I can do just to be here.  And I again wonder why it is that I am here.

Until the last moments of the service, when I am reminded.

I am standing with my congregation saying Kaddish, the memorial prayer for the dead.  The prayer praising God.  The same prayer I read at home a few days ago when I lit a yahrzeit candle.

The rabbi reads the names of those in the congregation who have passed in the past week, and of those who passed this week in years past.

“Pharen Johnson, mother of Lesley Pearl.”  My rabbi’s voice catches a little – I think.

And without warning, my eyes are heavy and wet.  My nose flares – hot.  I feel a thud in my core, and then its energy rolling out in waves to my hands and feet.  I am riding the currents.  My heart is a surfboard.  My belly flip-flops and then, more heat.

The feeling is not unfamiliar.  I occasionally experience it when I meditate.  But I do not expect it here, now.

And suddenly I know why I am here.

I understand why we are called to go to synagogue in the days after death, and on the anniversary of it.  Why it is not enough to light a candle and say a few words in my kitchen – alone.

The synagogue gives me the space to grieve.  The service, to consider it — which I have not done.

I mentioned this to Pam the other day, on the actual anniversary of Pharen’s death.

Me and Pharen.  Our first meeting.
Me and my birthmom. Our first meeting.

I tell her that after I lit the yahrzeit candle and said Kaddish – alone – I noticed my desire to call Mr. 700 Miles, the “man” who slipped out of my life without a word a little over two months ago.

I remember him telling me he moved home to be with his mother when she was dying – 18 or so years ago.  That he thought about her every day.  That he wasn’t done learning the lessons she had to teach him.  That she and I were kindred spirits.

I think I should call him, because he knows what this is like.  Even more so.  But so do many of my other friends.

I do not call him.  Or them, either.

Pam responds with a gentle, loving “duh,” and suggests that perhaps I nudged out my grief with incongruent affections for the Southern Svengali – another man who swept me off my feet.  This time in Charleston, where my birth mother lived.  While she was dying.

I consider this.  That it might be true.

I couldn’t grieve.  I didn’t have the space, the energy or the capacity for it.

I hadn’t even grieved the end of my marriage.  Or the life I knew for 15 years that I had driven away from in a 14-year-old Honda Civic just a few months prior.  And I continued not to grieve it until only recently – slotting in affections with woefully unavailable men instead.

I consider that I didn’t believe I was allowed to grieve.

Finding my biological mother and father, and having relationships with them, was at times painful and disruptive to my family.  Over the years I have tried to minimize that pain by minimizing how much I talk about them.  About those relationships.

And so, I did not much talk about my feelings with my family — or with anyone else — when my birth mom died.  I talked about the Southern Svengali, and later Mr. 700 Miles, instead.

A year later, these distractions have long since lost their efficacy.

I cannot thread my sadness through another man.  I need to be with it.  And perhaps, for the first time ever, I do not want to run from it.

Tonight I  have a space and a ritual to honor this loss.  By myself, and in community, all at once.

And I understand why I am here.

I text Mr. Fashion when I get home, like I promised I would.  He asks if I would like to get together.  I decline.  I have no desire to distract myself from these feelings.

I ask him for a rain check, which he graciously offers – along with the promise that he will hold me to it, and some other things that I will keep just for myself.

I just smile and let myself feel it.  All of it.

Artist Date 76: The Lines Un-Blurred

In 7th grade I kept an oversized scrapbook on the top shelf of my closet, the same place I kept a bag with all of my “important papers” – report cards from every grade, drawings I had made for my mother, my adoption paperwork.

Baryshnikov -- Then. Photo: Galeria de Bailarines.
Baryshnikov — Then. Photo: Galeria de Bailarines.

The scrapbook was a gift my brother received for his Bar Mitzvah that I co-opted.  The pages a mismatched collection of images and daydreams affixed with Scotch tape.  The musings and considerations of a not-quite woman beginning to define herself.

Pictures of Miss Piggy.  An interest I borrowed from my cousin Wendy Schechter and her obsession with all things pig.  A review of the book, I, Me, Mine by George Harrison – clipped from the Detroit Free Press.  An homage to my best friend Nicole, who had recently introduced me to John, Paul, George and Ringo.  An attempt to blur the lines between us, like we did with our matching Tretorn sneakers and Bermuda Bags.

But some of it was purely mine.  A coin that my mad crush Kenny picked up off of the floor and handed to me, marked “Lucky penny from Kenny.”  A newspaper photograph of Mikhail Baryshnikov.  All muscle and tights.  Breathtaking.

Neither a pig nor a Preppy Handbook has crossed my threshold in more than 30 years.  I do still see Kenny on occasion.  And while he has been married to the same man for more than 25 years, I still have a crush on him – a source of joy and amusement for us both.

And last Sunday I saw Baryshnikov for the first time – Artist Date 76.

I receive a text from my friend Stephanie on Friday, asking if I have $50 and want to see Baryshnikov.  Oddly, I hesitate.  It will mean missing dance class.  Irony.  I mention this to my friend Pam, who responds, “Are you crazy?”  She has a point.  This is an icon.  A legend.  Sarah Jessica Parker’s boyfriend on Sex and the City.

I text back with a definitive “Yes.”

Intellectually I understand this is once again NOT an Artist Date as I am not venturing alone.  (I am, however, getting better at breaking the rules.)

But it does fill the criteria of filling my creative coffers.  And, perhaps more significant, it reminds me of the juicy, sexy, charmed life I lead.  The one I am beginning to reclaim – and by that I mean once again notice – now that there is little distraction in the boy department.

But this evening I am distracted.  I Google Baryshnikov.  He is 66.  And stands 5’6.”

Does he still dance, I wonder, recalling the email I received earlier in the week from Hubbard Street Dance.   The subject line “Guess Who Dropped In?” with a photograph of him smiling, observing rehearsals.

I have no idea.

In fact, I don’t actually know where I am going or exactly what I am seeing – I didn’t ask – just that I am going and that I will see him.

Baryshnikov -- now.  Photo: T. Charles Erickson.
Baryshnikov — now. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

And I do.  And he does…dance, that is.  Just not as I imagined.

His slippers traded for jazz shoes, his tights for pleated trousers.  His dance, a part of the story but not the story.  The story.  Two actually.  Adapted from the writings of Anton Chekhov and performed as Man in a Case at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

He glides across the floor softly, alone – his arms holding the lover in his mind, in his heart.  Jazz on the radio, his guests dozing after dinner.  It feels spontaneous – but of course isn’t – like my mother and I swing dancing on the kitchen linoleum.

My heart leaps.

So convincing in his roles, I have forgotten who he is.

But now I remember, and his every movement is a dance.  The gesture of his hand.  The roll of his hips.  His torso leaning forward and back, flirting but never touching.  Sexy.

When it is over, I join the throngs from my fifth row seat, rising in applause.  My eyes wet.  Looking to him as if I might catch his glance when the lights go up.

I do not.

I do not tell Stephanie about it — my folly, my fantasy — either.  Or about my scrapbook.  Baryshnikov, the pigs or the penny.

I hold them to myself instead – the lines un-blurred.  Mine alone, still.

Things Change. Feelings Change. I Change.

I recently received a packet in the mail from my synagogue, alerting me that the anniversary of my birth mother’s death is this month.

One year.

Me and my birthmom.  Our first meeting.
Me and my birthmom. Our first meeting.

I should have remembered, for so many reasons.  But mostly, because the Mother’s Day card I sent her last year arrived on the day of her funeral.  It was delivered after the service, while her sister, brothers, nieces and I cleaned the house, preparing it for sale.

The past three years, the time that I had known her, I struggled to find a card.  I didn’t think of her as my mother or my mom.  I already had one – the woman who raised me.  But biologically, she was.  No question about it.  And I knew it would mean a lot to her to receive it.  So I bought her one each year.  Something not too schmaltzy.  Not too love-y dove-y.

But last year was easy.  We had had a tremendous healing that fall – when I flew to Charleston for what I thought was to say goodbye.  In a sense, it was, as I never saw her again.  However, she lived for another six months and during that time we spoke fairly frequently.

Things change.

When her brother phoned me last May to tell me she had died, I felt sideswiped.

My job back at the house was to toss everything that either wasn’t necessary or someone didn’t want. Notes on a criminal case she was following and perhaps hoped to write about.  Minutes from meetings of the Daughters of the American Revolution.  Charleston history.  Credit cards that had never been activated.  (As I write this, I look at my own on the table next to me.)

All of it, and so, so much more into big, black garbage bags used for lawn and leaves.  One for shredding.  One for tossing.

I came downstairs when I ran out of garbage bags and saw the card on the counter.  I knew my own writing.  I said nothing.

I went to the store for bags instead.  While I was out, I texted my friend – the man who had captured my heart when I visited six months earlier – and confirmed our meeting the next day.

The Southern Svengali.

I fell head over heels over head for him.  And when I left, I was certain I would never see him again.

I was wrong.

Me and my mom mom, the one who raised me.
Me and my mom mom, the one who raised me.

I saw him the next night.  People around us asked if we had known one another forever.  It seemed that way.

Although I longed for more, our romance never moved beyond hours-long make out sessions on my first visit.  And while intellectually I knew better, I was convinced I would never get over him.

I was wrong about that too.

We had a falling out after my birthmother’s death.  He took exception to the moniker I had assigned him.  He latched on to the deceptive characteristics of the Svengali character, while I chose to focus on the Svengali as teacher – the one who pulled out the artist inside, as he had me.

We haven’t spoken in nearly a year, although we have exchanged a few kind messages.  He left Charleston for the winter, and I didn’t know about it for months as I had stopped visiting his Facebook page.  And I fell head over heels over head for someone else.  Which is all a complicated way of saying I did get over him.

Things change.

It is important for me to notice the changes, because lately it feels like nothing has changed.  Including me.  At times, I feel as sad and unsteady as when I moved back to Chicago in the late summer of 2011, just after my divorce.  It is a feeling.  It is not truth.

It hadn’t occurred to me that my heightened bout of sadness and dis-ease, at least in part, may be connected to the anniversary of my birthmother’s death.  It is a comfort to recognize.  To realize that the feeling of going backward may be connected to the act of reflection, of turning back.

The good news is, I don’t have to stay back.

My birthmother as a teen.  She's in blue.  And pregnant with me.
My birthmother as a teen. She’s in blue. And pregnant.

Inside the packet from the synagogue are several items.  The words to Kaddish – translated as “holy,” – the ritual prayer of mourning, praising God.  A showing of gratitude amidst pain.  And suggestions for honoring the deceased through Tzedakah – an obligation of charity, righteousness.

I see these rituals as a reminder of what the Buddhists call “right action,” or what 12-Step programs call “doing the next right (or indicated) thing.”

I used to believe I would think my way to happiness, contentedness or change.  That if I only dug deep enough I would finally “figure it out.”

What I’ve learned, and then forget and re-learn, is that things change.  Period.  That includes my feelings and my perceptions.

And that I change when I avail myself of the suggestions contained in the packet from the synagogue.  What the Buddhists and the 12-Steppers and all the spiritual traditions espouse – prayer and action.

I do different.  I feel different.  I become different.

Thank You For Your Bad Behavior

Last Saturday I ran into R. at a party. We hadn’t seen one another in a while. And while she looked stunning at first glance, I intuitively knew something was wrong.

Her vibration was low. And she seemed less sparkly than usual.

She confessed she was in what I like to call a “come-here-go-away” relationship. She had become involved with someone who was not emotionally available.

I could only smile. Not for her pain. But because I know it so well.

For the past two months Mr. 700 Miles (Away from Chicago) and I had been doing the same thing. Until two weeks ago, when – without a word – he went away. No text. No phone call. No Facebook message. Nothing.

A part of me felt sideswiped.

We had just Skyped the night before, before bed, as had become our ritual – enjoying all that technology allowed us to enjoy about one another. We blew a kiss goodnight. He said he would call me the next day.

Intellectually, I had no reason to believe he wouldn’t.

With Jo, the night he walked away.  I told her he wouldn't call.  She told me to let it unfold.
With Jo, the night he walked away. I told her he wouldn’t call. She told me to just let it unfold.

And yet all that day and the next I felt twisty and anxious. Something inside of me knew otherwise.

I was right.

What I didn’t realize was we wouldn’t speak again.

I don’t exactly understand what happened. And yet, I do. Clearly, he couldn’t do it. And for whatever reason, he couldn’t tell me he couldn’t do it.

At first I felt sad. Confused. Then I got angry — chucking magazines across the apartment, their glossy pages smacking and fanning out on the hardwood floors, and shouting into the universe, “You F**king Pussy,” choking on my sobs.

I beat the bed with a red spatula – the one my friend Kristen brought me the day I moved into my apartment – whacking it until I was exhausted.

I wrote a letter in red marker – one I will never send. It wasn’t kind or generous or understanding. It didn’t speak of my gratitude for him in my life, or that my heart would always be open to his friendship – even though this too was true.

I didn’t write it to garner a response, or to guarantee he would remember me a certain way.   I wrote it so I didn’t have to hold the pain myself. So I didn’t have to pretend it didn’t hurt when it did.

It felt good. And hard. And when I was done, I wiped the Alice Cooper mascara rings from under my eyes and went to sit in a church basement with the people who taught me I didn’t ever have to drink again – not even during times like this.

I miss him. Our friendship. Our deep connection – emotional, spiritual, creative, sexual.

But I do not miss what I saw in my friend Saturday night. The twisting. The anxious. The uncertainty.

The holding on to what was, what could be, rather than what is. The hearing only what I want to hear – what fits my story.

The trying to wedge myself into a sexy stiletto of a relationship – the one that gives me blisters.

Dressed up for the party...no date necessary.
Dressed up for the party…no date necessary.

And as R. told her story, I felt gratitude. Gratitude for his “bad behavior.” In walking away without a word, he made the choice for me. A choice I had made a month prior, in a moment of strength and clarity, when I told him I couldn’t do this. That I needed more. A choice I ultimately could not stick to it.

It all reminds me of when my girlfriend A. divorced me a couple of years back. When she told me I was “too much.”

“I am sorry you feel that way,” I said, rather than, “You are right. Please show me how to be strong like you” – which was, at the time, more my style.

At that moment our karmic contract was broken. We were done.

It has been more than four years since we had that conversation at her home in Long Beach. Over the years I have reached out just a handful of times. She never responded. And then I stopped trying.

I thought being told I was “too much,” was the worst thing that could happen. It wasn’t. And in the process, I learned that I wasn’t either.

I thought “being left without a word – abandoned,” was the worst thing that could happen. It wasn’t. And I learned that I wasn’t either. That that is an old adoptee fear. Old language. He simply chose a different path. And he chose not to tell me about it. It was never about me.

Perhaps that was our karmic contract. Or at least part of it.

R. left the party early. Perhaps to see her Mr. Come-Here-Go-Away. Perhaps to twist and perseverate.  I’m not certain.

But I stayed. I ate cake and talked with friends about the book proposal I am working on, the contract work I recently secured, and about dancing a master class with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.   Anything but him. But us.

And on the way home, I thanked Mr. 700 Miles – for many, many things – among them, his “bad behavior.”

Pretend Boyfriend

I tattooed my aspirations on my body lest I forget them.  Lest I again consider leaving myself.
I tattooed my aspirations on my body lest I forget them. Lest I again consider leaving myself.

“You want a relationship, right?”

The words tumbled out of my Rabbi’s mouth.  Innocuous.  More a statement than a question.  Nearly an afterthought as we wrapped up our monthly meeting.

“I…I think so,” I stammered.

We stared at one another.  There it was.  The truth.  It fell flat on the floor, spreading out in the space between us.  Consuming.  Shocking.

We’d spent an awful lot of time talking about relationships over the years.  Talking about my fathers – both of them, the biological one and the one who raised me, my Dad.  My husband – now my ex.  The smattering of men who had come in and out of my life since the dissolution of my marriage.

My Divorce Buddy.  The one I talked to each night, into the wee hours of the morning.  Half a country apart.  Both of us alone, in the dark, navigating our way through the sometimes messy endings of marriage.

The Southern Svengali.  Genius artist in a Johnny Cash t-shirt.  He guided me through Charleston and my last visit with my biological mother before she died.  Pressed his lips against mine and nothing more.  Called me “Lil Pearl” and taught me how to be a better artist.

And most recently, the man I have affectionately come to call Mr. 700 Miles – referring to the physical distance between us.  In our hearts…it is just inches.  But in our lives… oceans and continents apart.  He is clearly, plainly, 100 percent unavailable.

Separated, but not quite divorced.  ”Kinda dating” someone in his own zip code.  He is finding his own center – spiritually, emotionally, creatively – and his own truth.  Work I have already done.  Work I continue to do.

And yet, when we talk or Skype, there is a familiarity that speaks of karmic attachments and lives shared.  Quite simply, I am in love with his heart.

He is, what my friend Rainey calls, a pretend boyfriend.  They all are.

A "selfie," on the road with my Divorce Buddy.  He never wants to show up in pictures. Hm...
A “selfie,” on the road with my Divorce Buddy. He never wants to show up in pictures. Hm…

She uses the words in a matter-of-fact way that implies everyone has one.  Has had one.  Like a cell phone or email address.

Deep friendship.  Emotional intimacy.  Trust.

Companionship.  Connectedness.  A shared sense of not being alone even though you are – when you are one instead of two.

But without a physical dimension, or a commitment to anything more.

She assures me that she has had several over the years.  And that sometimes, pretend boyfriends become real boyfriends.  But mostly they are pretend.

This has been my experience too.  Although I am usually too blinded by hope to see it at the time.

Good for practice.  For reminding me of my loveliness.  What it feels like to be close.  And allowing me to believe in possibilities.

No good at all in moments when my bed feels cold and lonely.  When I want nothing more than to feel arms wrapped around me.

Downright disastrous when I bring expectations of a real relationship to it.

My friend Kerry called me out on my penchant for pretend boyfriends this past weekend.  He wanted to know what I was afraid of.  Why I wouldn’t try online dating.  Why I wouldn’t make myself available to someone who is available.

A gift from one of my pretend boyfriends.  He said that I fell out of his head and on to his sketchbook.
A gift from one of my pretend boyfriends. He said that I fell out of his head and on to his sketchbook.

I felt sick inside.

“I don’t want to be left,” I said quietly in a voice that did not seem my own.

Was I referring to my partner of 15 years “leaving me?”  My birth parents “leaving me?”

Or was it me leaving myself?  Pushing aside my art, my values and my aspirations for someone else.  Someone who never asked me to.  And for something else – a relationship.  Believing that alone I was somehow less valuable.

Earlier that day, I left a voicemail for one of my girlfriends.  “I want a real boyfriend.  Not a pretend one.  I just had to say that out loud,” I announced into the digital abyss.

And I do.  Someone who is here.  Who I can physically feel.  His lips over mine.  His breath on my neck.  His hands on my body.

Someone to hold on to me.  And who I can hold on to.

Someone to eat with.  Sleep with.  Dance with.

A partner.  An equal.  Someone I can grow with.  Grow old with.

But I want me more.  The chance to be with myself.  To not leave again.

Yes, I want a real boyfriend.  I just don’t want one yet.

Surrender In A Box

My friend Cynthia has a God Can.  “Because God can,” she says.

I’m not quite that optimistic.

2014-02-25 15.36.44
My God Box.

I keep a God Box, instead – wooden and carved.  From Poland, I think.  My friend Patsy gave it to my ex and I as a wedding gift, stuffed with cards on which our guests might write their wishes for us.

I’ve used it as my God Box for a while now.  Long before my ex and I called it quits.

We moved the wishes into the bottom of a cherry-wood box holding black and white photographs of our big day.  Another gift from another friend.  I think I tossed the wishes in the recycle bin when I left Seattle a year and a half ago, but I’m not entirely certain.

Over the years I’ve stuffed the God Box with dreams, wishes and, perhaps most importantly, people and situations over which I have no control.  Which is pretty much everything and everyone…but in this case, those that caused me pain, anxiety, obsession.

Slips of paper and folded-over sticky notes with names.  Occasionally a few details.

My birth mother – she would have jumped into my skin if I would have let her.  In the early days of our reunion, she would call so often I didn’t have a chance to call back.

My mad crush in marriage – the one who bought me a whole smoked-salmon on my 39th birthday and nodded knowingly to seemingly every word I said.  My guru – the man who held space for everything that poured out of me.  Who saw me, was charmed by me, and knew how to hold a boundary.

I desperately wanted to keep each of them.  For each to fall into his or her proper place in my life.  That was my prayer.  To hold them near.  Available.  But without the pain of longing and attachment.

All that has come to pass...
All that has come to pass…

The Southern Svengali.  The man/boy who swept me off of my feet when my birth mom was dying in Charleston.  My divorce buddy – the one who spent long, intimate hours on the phone with me every night but insisted he did not have romantic feelings for me.

Orders to the universe.  For my condo, my apartment, my office.  Notes for a workshop I have yet to conduct.  Questions.  Who would drive back with me from Seattle to Chicago?  A dollar bill.   A prayer for prosperity.

I opened up the god box the other day and put a new slip of paper in it.

The name of a man 700 miles away.  Last week I told him I could no longer ponder the possibilities of a romantic relationship with him.   That he wasn’t available enough to me.  And I was no longer available for the knot in my stomach I called uncertainty.

That pain moved from my stomach to my heart.  I miss him.   I miss my heart leaping each time he calls or messages or just comments on my Facebook status – as if to say, “I see you.  I am here.”

What remains...God's work.
What remains…God’s work.

I wonder, will we be friends like we promised?  (I hope so.  We adore one another.)  But how?  How will he fall into his proper place in my life?While the box was open, I took out the mess of slips inside and read them.  I saw that most of these things had come to pass.  Had worked themselves out without my doing much of anything, other than writing words on slips of paper and stuffing them into a box.  And occasionally twisting, which I’ve learned is not essential to the process.

Most.  But some remained.  Unresolved.  Insistent questions about how I will support myself.  When, where and with whom I will have my next relationship, romantic encounter, date, sex, kiss.  Words cut out from a magazine, “dreams do come true…”  I left them in the box, along with the newest addition.

I’m not sure what to do with those that have come to pass.  Do I keep them as a reminder that things change — with or without me?  That new loves, losses and worries displace the old ones.  That more often than not, I receive some sort of version of what I want? Or do I burn them — as a prayer and an offering?

Meanwhile, there is a little more space in my God Box — room for my work, money and romantic possibilities to grow.  Room for God to work on them.  Room for me to act as if I believe that God is working on them — which is me doing my work.  Writing rather than worrying.  Right now.

Artist Date 62: Standing On…? Wondering Where I Am.

"Love is Pain." Artist, Judith Hladik-Voss.
“Love is Pain.” Artist, Judith Hladik-Voss.

Love is pain.

That is what the quilt says.  Right in the center on a big red heart.  All around it are stages, stops – like on a game board.  Candy Land or Risk.  Yeah, Risk.

Love.  Joy.  Desire.

Trust.  Faith.  Intimacy.

Jealousy.  Anger.  Betrayal.

Heartbreak.  Wound.

Anxiety.  Disillusion.  Despair.

Loss.  Grief.

It is Valentine’s Day.  I am at the Greenleaf Art Center for the exhibit – Be Mine.  I am meeting my girlfriends here, but they are stuck in traffic.  So I am alone.  Impromptu Artist Date 62.  My second this week.

I step back and look at the quilt that greets me as I walk in the door, wondering where I am on it.

Joy.  Desire.

I met a man.  Or perhaps I should say, re-met.  We knew each other once upon a time.  Kind of.   We are getting to know one another – not quite again – but now, for the very first time.

He is smart and funny, creative, sensitive and sexy.  I’m pretty sure he feels the same way about me.  We can talk for hours about anything and everything.  We laugh a lot.  And I find myself smiling a lot.  Friends have noticed this.

There are about a thousand reasons why this will likely not work out and I will land on the square marked Heartbreak.  I occasionally visit Anxiety already.  I hate uncertainty.  But I can’t not see this through.  I want to find out about us.

Trust.  Faith.  I am trying to practice both in my life.  Not so much with him, but with the universe, my higher power.  Intimacy.  Yes.  We are building that — slowly.  He lives several states away, so we are forced to go at this pace.  Although the recent addition of Skype dates – we have one tonight – have added a heat to the flame.

I have not told him every single thing about me – emotionally vomiting, as if to say, “So can you handle that?”  And, obviously, I have not slept with him.  I haven’t led with my sexuality – my one-time calling card – either.  Refraining from saying things like, “I think about you bending me over the butcher block and hiking up my dress around my waist.”  I think them instead.

"Ungentlemanly Behavior."  Artist, Cathi Schwalbe.
“Ungentlemanly Behavior.” Artist, Cathi Schwalbe.

Loss.  Grief.  I still find myself here sometimes too.  Not as deeply entrenched as I once was.  I am no longer up to my knees in it.  I am standing in the sun, my feet wet, in a puddle left from the storm.

Post-divorce, grieving the loss of the fantasy, that that one person will be there no matter what.  Always.  That this love will quiet that part of me that silently screams “Don’t leave me.”  It is a lie.

Day one of my life on the planet.  Separated from my mother.  I do not recall a second of it.  Yet I know a part of my work here is to heal it.

I watch it get kicked up and manifest in unconscious, desperate attempts for control and certainty.  As if that will heal me.  But it doesn’t.  Neither did a husband.  Nor meeting my biological parents.  The work is mine alone.

I move on to a series of men’s shirt collars embroidered with real messages from the artist’s experiences with online dating.  “What kind of underwear girl are u?”  “Every young man want to get laid by a gray hair lady.” “You want a naughty pic?”  It reminds me I have not finished my Match.com profile.  And that I probably won’t.

There are maps covered with pins and handwritten notes.  Heart-shaped boxes filled with broken glass and newspaper clippings. A video of a woman covered in striped fabric dancing with a bee.

I return for a third time to a piece titled, “Love Letter.”  It is long and tall, like a body.  With hair at the top, words winding down the center, like buttons, and rocks circling the bottom.  The artist, Sherry Antonini writes, “Love Letter is a meditation on listening inward and noticing outward; on persistence and on beginning again with what is left over.”

I read the poem running down her torso again.  It is still too much to take in.  So I photograph it – in pieces.

“Keep time.  But throw away most other things, including reasons to worry…Watch for signs, however small.  Push through with ideas, envisioning them as even bigger than you think they deserve to be.  Do this until you can once again see yourself shine…

"Love Letter."  Artist, Sherry Antonini.
“Love Letter.” Artist, Sherry Antonini.

“Make a list of the things you hold at core.  Those essences nearly forgotten, cast aside for too long…Months or years it is that you have been bound tight and stilled, silenced in some darkness.  But the beauty of light is insistent…

“First, you fill up a room, then you empty it, one piece at a time and all in its right time.  No one can tell you not to.  Or that you can’t.  That you never will.  Or won’t ever again.

“When you rotate the stones point them in line with your heart’s desire, you put your hands once again on your own gleam of power and touch possibility.”

I head toward the front door as my friends are entering.  Unplanned.  Serendipity.  I meet them, filled, spilling over.  Love.  Joy.  And later, this man who makes me smile big, on Skype.  He notices my grin and tells me he likes it.  I read him the poem, still trying to sort my way through it.  Intimacy.  Faith.  Desire.

Artist Date 60: It’s In The Genes

The first thing my birth father told me was that we attended the same university.  The second thing was that he wouldn’t have gone there if timing were different.

It was the late 1960s.  The United States was fighting in Vietnam.  School kept him out of the draft.

Given his druthers he would have gone to New York to be a dancer.

I gasped.  My secret-private-fantasy-if-I-could-do-it-all-over career was to be a choreographer.

“It’s in the genes,” he said.

I am walking down Lincoln Avenue to the Old Town School of Music for First Friday – a monthly event of music, dance and community.  Tonight’s feature is a series of dance performances by students and instructors – tap, modern, Go-Go, Bhangra.  Artist Date 60.

I dance here every Sunday at noon.  Josh, Don and a couple of musicians whose names I can’t recall drum us through Idy Ciss’ nearly 90-minute West African class.  My church.  My masochistic joy.

I have been a consistent presence here for more than five years, and yet, I am nervous tonight.  Sixty solo dates consciously chosen, and, at times, I still feel conspicuously alone.

This is one of those times – coupled with self-conscious questioning if I’ve earned my seat at the table, or, on the waxed wood floor, as it were.  If I really am a dancer.  My musings seem self-absorbed and displaced as I am not performing today, only watching.  And yet, something is stirred in me.

My first dance performance.
My first dance performance.

A boy and a girl, about 9 or so, tap their way across the stage.  They are dressed to match in grey trousers and lavender shirts.  The boy is skinny and awkward and sweet.  One day he will know how to swing a woman around the floor, showing her who’s boss.  Quite possibly the sexiest gesture ever.  But not yet.

A group of tween girls perform a Bollywood dance, waving colored scarves.  The tiniest one slides into the splits.  Like when I was a cheerleader – too small to be on the bottom of the mount, too big to be on the top.  Kind of.  She is completely present and at ease in her body.  Each move seems effortless.  I am certain I neither looked nor felt that way.

I think about my single year of ballet lessons, taken in first grade with Mrs. Gantz, Who Likes To Dance.  That is what she called herself.  I don’t know why I didn’t continue.  Perhaps I didn’t like it.  It wasn’t easy.  Or I wasn’t that good.  Maybe I got bored.  I quit, setting in motion a pattern – with me opting out of piano, gymnastics and cheerleading later.

No one told me that only a few are truly, naturally brilliant.  Geniuses.  That the savant is rare.  That most of us mere mortals toil toward mastery.

The girls remind me of “the popular girls” I knew in junior high – the ones that took jazz and tap with a woman named Miss Barbara.  Strangely, I was talking about them last week.  About the time they invited me to the movies.  Just once.  In seventh grade.

I still remember the film – Young Doctors in Love.  A spoof on soap operas.  It was rated R.  And my mother didn’t allow me to go to R-rated movies.

Except this time she did.

Post-run, swing dancing.  Another cool moment with my mother.
Post-run, swing dancing with my mother.

I am fond of saying my mother’s “coolest moment ever” was when she took me to see Prince, The Time and Vanity 6.  It was pre-Purple Rain, when Prince was still dirty.  And I was in the sixth grade.

But the movie exception was pretty cool too.

I find myself thinking about nurture over nature.

About swing dancing in the kitchen with my mother.  And her jumping rope to the Pointer Sisters Jump!  About me wearing a pill-box hat with a feather and a veil to high school and her asking if I think that I am one of the Pointer Sisters.

I think about her childhood in Saginaw, Michigan, raised essentially by her maid, Mother Flora Hill.  About her Sunday mornings spent at Mount Olive Baptist Church – where she was almost baptized – and her summers at the congregation’s camp.  There is a photograph of her and my uncle – two toe-headed Jewish kids – in a sea of dark-skinned, smiling faces.  My mother loves sweet potato pie and knows all the words to Leaning on Jesus.

With my dance "partner" in Rwanda.
With my dance “partner” in Rwanda.

I think about her taking me to see Saturday Night Fever when I was in fourth grade because she wanted me to see the dancing.  (Her no R-rated movie rule conveniently overlooked.)  And about skating with my parents to Peaches and Herb on Tuesday nights at Bonaventure Roller Rink while most of my friends were tucked in at home.

I think about dancing with a troupe in Rwanda a few summers ago and their recognition that I could dance.  About the beautiful, bald man who gave me the eye that said, “Follow me.”  And I did.

Maybe the dance is in the genes.  Maybe it is inside a 1977 Thunderbird with an FM converter box – my mother’s car for as many years as I can remember.  It doesn’t really matter.  What does is, at the end of First Friday, when the brass band calls the audience up to dance, I go.  I quit quitting.  So I claim my space on the waxed wood floor.

Real. With Most of Her Hair Loved Off

I’m sitting in a big upholstered chair at The Book Cellar, a stack of children’s books in my lap. Tears streaming down my cheeks – red from the warmth inside.

There is a discussion panel about the Arab Spring just a few feet away from me.  Every seat is filled – except for mine, tucked away at the end of the stacks.  A couple of people are standing.

friendsI’m supposed to be choosing a gift for my friend Clover’s yet-to-be-born baby.  Her friends are throwing her a shower this weekend.  And she and Andy have asked guests to bring a book for the baby’s library.  I’m pretty sure I’ve chosen hers – Friends, by Eric Carle’s.  The words are simple, the illustrations lush.  I think about our friendship.  That my wish for her child is to have a friendship like ours.

On the inside back cover is a photograph of Carle and his friend.  They are three-years old.  The month it is taken is written in German, by his mother.  Carle never saw his friend again.  “I often wonder what happened to him,” he writes.

Tears.

I think about people leaving and having no say in the matter.  Powerless.  My adoption shit is all stirred up.

I am reading The Velveteen Rabbit.  I sort of know the story – my friend Rachel used to reference it, talking about being real and having all the fur loved off of you.  But I don’t think I ever actually read it.  Or had it read to me.  Until now.

“ ‘What is REAL?’ asked the Rabbit one day…’Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?’ “

I smirk.

“ ‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. (Named for his bald brown coat and missing hairs of his tail.)   ‘It’s a thing that happens to you.  When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

Loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with…I let the words wash over me.

“ ‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.”

Yes, I whisper, to no one in particular.

Illustrations, William Nicholson
Illustrations, William Nicholson

“ ‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful.  ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’ “

Bullshit.

“ ‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’ ”

All at once.  Wound up.  That is my history – mostly.  All in love.  Insanely inside one another’s skin.  Until now.   I’ve been getting to know some new someones, bit by bit.  It is new.

“ ‘It doesn’t happen all at once…You become.  It takes a long time.’ “

Amen.

“ ‘That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.

So we don’t all become real?

Do I break easily?  Because I cry easily.  Because I hurt easily.  I decide that it is not the same thing.  Although pieces have certainly chipped off in transit.  I am soft, at times ridiculously so, free of sharp edges.  And despite my seemingly fragile nature, I do not have to be carefully kept.

“ ‘Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.  But these things don’t matter at all because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.

“…but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again.  It lasts for always.’ ”

Yes.  I think so.

Except for when I am not.  Not Real.  Twisting myself inside out to be who I think you want me to be so that you will love me.  It is more infrequent now.  Subtle.  But it still happens.  Awful.

The way I make myself small, without even knowing it, so you won’t feel overwhelmed by me.  My desires.  My needs.  My emotions.  I found myself doing it today.  Unconscious.   Until I wasn’t.

“How sick to be small and to sit by and wait until you can accept more of me,” I wrote in my notebook.

The Skin Horse tells his story.  Illustrations, William Nicholson.
Skin Horse tells his story. Illustrations, William Nicholson.

“The Rabbit sighed.  He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him.  He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad.  He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.”

Me too.  But so far, these “uncomfortable things” have been the wellspring of change in my life.

I remember once saying to my girlfriend Julie, having again gained back all of the weight I had lost and then some, that if someone could wave a wand and make me a healthy weight, I was certain this time I would maintain it.

I doubt it.

The Rabbit does become Real.  Not just to the child who plays with him, but to everyone.  Real with real hind legs – no longer made from just a single piece of fabric – the kind that allow him to jump without the boy tossing him in the air.

And one day, when Autumn became Winter became Spring, the Rabbit saw the boy again – playing in the woods.

“ ‘Why, he looks just like my old Bunny that was lost when I had scarlet fever!’

But he never knew that it really was his own Bunny, come back to look at the child who had first helped him to be Real.”

Come back to look at the child…yes, sometimes they come back.  High-school friends I never really knew.  Birth parents.  And old boyfriends – 18-plus years later – just to say they are sorry.

Sometimes.

I pick up both books and take them to the register.  I have one gift wrapped for Clover’s baby.  The other I keep for me – the one with most of her hair loved off.