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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Five years ago today I boarded a plane bound for Kigali.
I was in the middle of a divorce I didn’t quite see coming, and certain I had no idea of where I was going, other than to Africa — a place I had dreamed of visiting since I was a child.
Several months earlier I had signed up to join a group of volunteers from my synagogue, working with two AIDS service organizations in the Rwandan capital. Little did I know that there — under my mosquito net in the wee hours of the morning — I would reclaim my voice as a writer, that I would succumb to the siren of the blue-light glow of my computer to tell the stories of my experiences on my blog — http://www.awanderingjewess.com.
I had secured the blog address about the same time I secured my place on the trip and had a vague notion that I might write about the road to becoming a rabbi. Instead I wrote about the road to Bombogo – a village on the outskirts of Kigali — where students learned to create kitchen gardens that would feed their families.
I wrote about house visits with social worker and part-time saint, Mary Grace, and her clients. The reed thin woman who sat in the dark, her face illuminated by a hole in the metal roof, who was unsure how she would feed her family now that her rabbits — her source of both food and income — had been stolen. And the robust one who replied to the missionary offering to help her build a roof, “Roof? I need a house!” and then built one for her and her daughters, and then another — thus becoming a landlord.
I wrote about painting walls and filling prescription packets. Dancing with a professional troupe in a style close to the one I had been studying for years. And about a room full of girls all with shaved heads, curious about the “Muzungo” with the same “do.”
The trip that began on Independence Day 2012 returned me to my craft after a 15-year hiatus, changing the trajectory of both my life and my blog. It led me to write about my experiences post-divorce, about dating, and mostly not dating — taking myself on solo excursions AKA Artist Dates instead — and ultimately moving to Madrid, the basis for “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain.”
I recently sent an update on the status of this project, one year after launching it. Many thanks to Tanya Gazdik Irwin, Jan Mekula and AJ Benham who responded to the update with contributions to the “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign.
The “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign was created to defray the costs of the Rocaberti Castle Writers Retreat which I attended in the fall of 2016. Additional contributions have been used to pay for coaching sessions with Debra Engle, my retreat mentor, who is guiding me in the process of taking my writing from blog to book to screen.
The following long-form piece was written for and performed at Nikki Nigl’s AboutWomen in Chicago on July 19, 2016.
I have been back in Chicago exactly 12 days.
I miss Madrid.
I miss the winding cobblestone walk to my metro stop at Opera. The flat buildings washed yellow, orange and pink with black wrought iron balconies on every window. Cartoonish by streetlight. I swear I could push them over and they’d tumble. Just like a movie set.
I miss the fountain at Cibeles. That “birthday cake of a building” as Dirk used to call it. The old Correos. Post Office. Now a museum I never made it to. A “Welcome Refugees” banner hanging from its top, a fountain in front. In the center of a roundabout that leads you to the Prado or Calle Gran Via, depending on your preference.
I used to walk here on Saturday nights alone when the sun had receded but the air was still hot and all of Madrid filled the streets, up from its collective summer siesta. The goddess Cybel and her lions riding on illuminated pink and blue water.
I miss my metro pass. Fifty euros for unlimited rides on the super clean, super-fast metro that would take me anywhere in Madrid. And if it didn’t the train or the light rail would.
I miss Turron gelato.
I miss private health insurance to the tune of 57 euros a month. Gynecological exam chairs that tilt down, working with as opposed to against, gravity. I miss not having to ask for a pelvic ultrasound instead of a pap as it is a matter of course.
I miss feeling safe walking home alone at night.
I miss taking the train to Seville or Valencia for the weekend. Or a quick flight to Portugal, North Africa or Nice. I miss swimming in the Mediterranean upon reaching the coast. The salty taste of my lips and the white streaks drying on my legs surprising me.
I miss tomates that taste like tomatoes, pimientos that taste like peppers and pepinos that taste like cucumbers. I miss their names. I miss Paco choosing them for me at the market and our impromptu intercambio. His corrections to my beginner Spanish. My approval of his modest English. His stories about his daughter and the victory I felt in understanding them. Mas o menos.
I miss cheap groceries.
I miss eating rye for breakfast instead of oatmeal. Eggs that sit on the shelf. Good, inexpensive coffee.
I miss Nick, the Greek waiter at Dionisos, flirting shamelessly with me.
I miss speaking Spanglish.
I miss all of this, and yet I chose to leave it. To return to Chicago. Where I pay for every El ride. Both financially and energetically. Nausteated by the slow, insistent rattling of the train. Knowing I would get there in half the time if I still owned a car. Knowing it’s best to ask someone to walk me to the train at night in some neighborhoods. My keys laced between my fingers as I leave the station and approach my own door.
Chicago. Where politicians are proudly corrupt. People hold signs on freeway off ramps … begging for money. And 2 bags of tasteless produce cost nearly $50.
Where zero degree FARENHEIT winters are a real possibility. As is a shooting death every weekend.
I chose this.
I chose home.
Lumbering Greystone buildings, summer rainstorms and leafy maple trees. Sunday dance classes at the Old Town School of Music. Lectures at the Art Institute. Lake Michigan.
I’ve moved several times in my life. Four states, seven cities, two countries … if you count where I was born and raised. Which is not the same as home.
I learned that the first time I moved to Chicago in 2007. I’d been living between San Francisco and Oakland for nearly 14 years when my husband and I packed up our two cats and all our worldly belonging and headed east, to the Midwest, a place I vowed I’d never live again, for his medical residency.
God has a sense of humor.
It was grey and sticky, drizzly and hot when we arrived. We opened the car doors and felt the steam rise up around us, looked at one another, and without saying a word asked “What have we done?” Followed by “We are Californians. (Albeit adopted ones). This is a temporary residence. A sojourn. We will hate Chicago together.”
For months I wore ear plugs on the El and held my hand over my heart as I walked up Michigan Avenue. Each felt being accosted, until my own vibrations rose to match those of the city.
Whenever people asked where I was from, I responded, “I was born in Detroit. I live in Chicago. Oakland is my spirit home.”
But eventually … I got worn down. I surrendered. To this city. It’s people. To my addiction. I made a life for myself here. I grew my business. Got sober. And converted to the faith of my childhood – righting a religious technicality.
I stopped beginning every sentence with “In California …”
I found my biological parents. I learned to dance. I took my husband to the place where I spent my childhood summers, 8 hours away in northwest Michigan.
I began having experiences rather than talking about them.
And somewhere along the way I fell in love with this sometimes dirty, noisy, violent city. I fell in love with its architecture. Its people. Perhaps, most of all, I fell in love with myself.
Four years later I moved to Seattle. The wife of a now doctor, I felt obligated to go.
I cried like a wounded animal. Like I cried when I left Bay Area. Mourning the loss of morning hikes in Redwood Park, Peets coffee, and KFOG radio. The Golden Gate Bridge. My old house in Haight-Ashbury. The place where I met my husband and was married.
Except this time, the loss felt strictly internal. Chicago, the place, has never spoken to me. Its topography. Its flatness and lack of nature feel uninspired. But there is something in its soil, in its DNA, that takes root in me.
It called me back after a year in Seattle. When my marriage ended and for the first time in a long time, I got to choose where I would live.
And it called me back after a year in Madrid, where I was teaching English. Fulfilling a childhood dream of living overseas. One I spoke about here, just before I left, a year ago. My only lament that my passport is far less sexy than it would be pre-European Union.
Since arriving, I’ve been greeted with warm “welcome backs” and tentative “welcome homes.” And the inevitable, “What brought you back?” It’s a fair question. One I’ve grappled with myself since making the decision not to renew my visa a couple of months ago.
There are lots of reasons.
Living in a country where you don’t speak the language – at least not fluently, is at best, frustrating. At worst, infantilizing. Without words, one’s personality changes. Mi casera, my landlady, once commented “You are quiet.” To which I replied, “Not in English.”
I needed, and asked for, a lot of help. Scheduling doctors’ appointments. Opening a bank account. Translating government documents. Buying a Spanish cell phone to replace mine which didn’t work.
I slept in a twin bed in an already furnished room in a grand, old Spanish apartment. I felt like a child. I moved the bed. Removed a chest of drawers. A few pictures. I hung up a batik of Ganesh, a string of elephants on a gold chain and a vision board I created around Thanksgiving time. I was still acutely aware that the place was not “mine.” It was not “home.”
The thought of living alone, setting up internet and utilities felt overwhelming. Even friends who were fluent in Spanish waited two months or longer for connectivity. Making due with coffee shops and on occasion, cold showers.
I focused on gratitude. For the opportunity to live with this 83-year-old former UN translator who lived through the Franco era and who was willing to speak with me in halting Spanish or easy English. For my inexpensive rent and the courtyard our apartment looked out on to.
For the community I created. With other teachers. Other expats. And others I met traveling.
For the ability to see Eastern Europe, North Africa and a good deal of Spain. For getting paid, albeit not as much as I had hoped, to talk.
My students adored me. And I, them. But I was acutely aware that they were my students and not my friends … much as I wanted to talk. And much as they were eager to listen.
I had a life. But it was a smaller life.
The English-speaking community in Madrid is transient, making it difficult to build and sustain long-term friendships. And I couldn’t imagine beginning a romantic relationship … in part due to my lack of language skills. But also because of cultural differences. And while my work as a massage therapist surprisingly followed me to Spain, offering me a few clients and a few extra euros a month, my opportunities for employment would always be limited.
I felt limited.
I didn’t know that until a few weeks ago when I was talking with my friend Pam … who had spent six hours in the Social Security office. Playful, friendly and highly communicative, she said to the workers on her way out, “We’re such good friends, I’m going to invite you all to my wedding.”
“That’s it,” I said, pointing to the air, which she – of course – couldn’t see.
I can’t make small talk. I don’t have the language to strike up a conversation on the metro, in the elevator or at the grocery store. I’m too busy thinking about what I’m going to say and how to say it … and by the time I know how, the moment is gone.
And in that moment I realized what home was.
Yes, in its simplest form, home is where I reside. Where I know how to get where I’m going and the fastest way to get there.
Home is the place where restaurants know my face, possibly my name, and often my order. Where I speak the language. And where I sometimes hear my name called out in the street.
But mostly it is a place where I can get bigger. Where I feel expansive. Where I can grow. And to grow, I need to root. Home is a place where the soil is loamy. And conditions are favorable to temperament. A place like Chicago.
The waxy brown cotton of my lapa feels soft between my fingers. Like my body. Like my heart.
I thought the African skirt would become this way over time, as I danced in it – but it remained rigid and stiff. Until today, when, in the dark and heat of the sweat lodge – Artist Date 79 – it softened, pinning itself to my body.
I roll the fabric between my fingers like rosary or prayer beads. I feel the moisture accumulate between my breasts – grateful for their small size. Grateful for the darkness to peel off my sports bra, unnoticed, and let my t-shirt from the Knoxville Farmers’ Market cover me. Given my druthers I would wear nothing. But I respect the modesty requested at this ceremonial gathering of men and women.
I close my eyes, breathe in the sweet sage, and fix my ears on the beating drum and the sound of my friend Paul’s voice.
It has been a journey just getting here.
I arrive despite a blinding thunderstorm, the need for on-the-road car repairs, and a bit of information which shakes my sense of perception and causes me to question if this is right for me, right now. And with the aid and calm of friends who ferry me to and from.
I walk about a quarter of a mile through wet, freshly mown grass to where the lodge is set up – my orange, peep-toe wedges gathering silky, green slivers.
I remember wearing these shoes through Rwanda two summers ago – collecting the red earth of the land of 10,000 hills between my toes – and recalling Patsy and Edina schlepping their Louis Vuitton bags through sand in the Morocco episode of the BBC’s Absolutely Fabulous. Dragging my rolling suitcase filled with towels, sweat and apres-sweat clothes, I feel like a bit actor in the Sweat Lodge episode.
Paul is draping blankets over the hut he constructed out of river willows – collected from his sister and brother-in-law’s property a few miles away. Rocks are heating in a pit outside of the lodge, and he has built an altar from the dirt inside of it.
Paul is the third in a line of spiritual teachers with the same name. The first being my university religious-studies professor, the second, the one who taught me to meditate – leading me through initiation with an offering of fruit, flowers (star gazers, my favorite) and the bestowing of a mantra.
Our paths have been crisscrossing for most of our lives. We agree the universe has been conspiring for us to meet.
There are eight of us, the last arriving in a John Deere Gator Utility Vehicle. She looks like an African Queen, regal in her loose batik dress with dragonflies on it, her grey hair braided at the temples and wrapped around her head like a crown. Her face is at once both sad and serene.
She reminds Paul they have been in ceremony together – with her former partner. The break-up is obviously fresh.
Words tumble out of my mouth about divorce, change and the painful nature of endings – no matter how right or how kind. How people will say all sorts of stupid things. And that she is, no doubt, on the precipice of some sort of adventure. She smiles in a way that tells me she has lived a thousand lifetimes and knows that this kind of pain is just part of it. That she has chosen this and is not fighting it.
I mention that I wasn’t sure I would make it here today. That I wasn’t sure it was right for me, right now. “Until now. You are why I am here.”
Paul smudges each of us with sage and we enter the lodge on our hands and knees, proclaiming “Aho Matakuye O’yasin – Greetings, All My Relations.”
I remember Patsy smudging my ex and I when she officiated our marriage. And me doing the same for my friend Chase when her divorce was final, smudging the entire house – making it “her own” again.
It is hot and humid inside. I feel a wave of nausea wash over me as Paul explains what will happen in ceremony.
Rocks. Herbs. Water.
Chanting. Praying. Smoking.
Connectedness to the earth. To one another. To ourselves.
I am afraid. Afraid of the total darkness. Afraid of what I might feel, what might “come up.” Afraid I cannot physically or psychologically endure this – even though Paul has assured us that this will be a “gentle sweat.”
But the heat is like a balm – different from the still Midwestern humidity that settled heavy around me just moments before. The drumming and chanting force all thoughts from my mind. I only hear my friend’s voice – strong, confident, prayerful – and the African Queen’s. It is sweet and slippery and hard to hold on to. But very much there. Just as I feel her, very much there, next to me.
Everything softens. My body. My brain. My lapa. I feel the sweat sliding down my body and I am deliriously in love with it. This body I have fought for so much of my life. That has brought me here and is sustaining me today. It is strong and small and very, very feminine. I feel my hands pressing into the earth beneath me. My legs. My feet. My ass. The soft dampness of moist earth is flesh, the spiky grass is hair and we are one.
I pray for my stepfather and my two girlfriends who are battling mightily. And I ask for prayers for myself. For compassion and acceptance for myself, for where I am, not where I think I should be. My voice cracks and I add, “May we all have compassion and acceptance for ourselves and for one another.”
I pray for the man who hurt my heart not so long ago. I call out his name when I am certain no one can hear me.
I smoke from the Chanupa — the sacred, ceremonial pipe. Sober nearly seven years, my addict is awakened.
I am back in college, sitting in a circle. My friend Brian stirs the bowl and lights it while I suck in all that I can, holding it in my lungs. I converse easily while I do this – like one of the big boys.
But I am not talking. And this is not weed. It is tobacco, although it tastes like juniper and pine. It is ceremony. It is holy. It is community. It is what I longed for, sitting in a circle like this, so many years ago.
I weep in the darkness. I am certain no one can hear my dying animal letting go. And it is over.
We crawl out on our hands and knees, just as we had entered, saying “Aho Matakuye O’yasin – Greetings, All My Relations,” once again.
Paul greets each of us with an embrace, and we greet one another in the same way. The African Queen’s eyes are wordlessly different. Lighter. As if the color has changed. She presses me tightly to her.
The group walks towards the house for a celebratory feast, but I stay behind and wait for Paul.
While I am waiting, I do cartwheels around the lodge. One after the other after the other, until I feel dizzy. I feel the pull of my pelvis – the source of chronic pain – and I welcome it. I feel the lightness of my body, of my mind and I welcome it, give thanks for and to it.
I had believed I was here to meet the African Queen. That was only half of the truth. In the stillness of the after-lodge, I know its other half, its twin — I was here to meet myself. “Aho Matakuye O’yasin — Greetings, All My Relations.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m standing in the dark looking at my x-rays with Stephanie, my new chiropractor.
Tears stream down my face. I see my body. All of it. Even the IUD I had put in just before my trip to Rwanda because I vowed I would not have my period in Africa.
I can no longer turn away from the physical pain I so rarely mention or acknowledge. The pain that has been with me, moving but constant, for so many years.
Suddenly, I understand. As a bodyworker and massage therapist, it’s hard not to. But the dysfunction is so obvious a 4-year-old could point it out – kind of like “one of these things is not like the other.”
My left hip is significantly raised. Several inches significantly raised. I laugh and explain that I have a really bad case of what my friend Brian used to call “bus leg” – the stance he would take while waiting for one of four different buses that ran up and down Haight Street in San Francisco, one knee bent, leaning into the opposite hip. He would light a cigarette in the hope that this would hasten its arrival.
My body is telling my stories.
Stephanie laughs and points out that not only is my left hip raised, but my right hip is rotated forward. I step into this position – exaggerating the rise of my lift hip and the twist of my right – and I immediately feel the pain.
Stephanie shows me my cervical spine, my neck. It is devoid of any curve and tilted to the right. Cocked like a dog considering what his master is saying and whether or not to ignore it.
I tell her the tilt makes sense. That this movement, right ear dipped to the right shoulder is the motion I associate with my mugging in 2007.
Just two months sober and back in California, I am held up at gunpoint on a Sunday morning in Oakland. Blocks from where I attended massage school, where I taught, and where I treat clients each quarter, returning “home” for a busman’s holiday.
I pick up a coffee from Carerras and am talking on the phone with my friend Robyn when I feel a flurry of activity around me – circling, swirling energy, like a cartoon Tasmanian Devil. And then a gun inches from my nose.
“Give us your shit and we won’t shoot.”
“They are kidding,” I think. “In about 30 seconds they are going to say ‘We’re just fucking with you, lady,’ and I’m going to tell them this is not funny.” But they never say that. I think I am dreaming but I don’t wake up. And then I slip back through the rabbit hole of reality and scream a scream I didn’t know I had in me.
They just look at me.
I think about everything in my bag. My passport and how my husband and I are supposed to leave in five days for Mexico. The flash drive that has all of my files on it and has not been backed up. My keys. But I am frozen. I cannot say a word. I cannot push out a logical sentence like, “Let me give you the money but I keep the rest, ok?” Because this is not logical.
Instead, I cock my head to the right, opening up my shoulder and allowing them to take the bag I am wearing across my body. They pluck my metallic-pink cell phone from my hand and are gone.
I scream and piss myself running back toward the school. I have attracted attention and people who were not there just a moment ago are asking, “Are you ok?” I do not realize they are talking to me until one grabs hold of me. I tell her my story and she calls the police while a man takes my arm and walks me back to the school.
My friend Tim picks me up that afternoon. I get a new passport and go to Mexico. And when I return to Chicago, I engage in EMDR work – trauma therapy. I get relief. But the story is still in my body.
The story is my body. They all are.
The car accident on New Year’s Eve day when a Ford F-250 with a horse trailer goes through the back of my Honda Civic Hatchback. When my husband takes the car to the shop on January 2 and they ask, “Did everyone live?”
The piece of my cervix I have removed when I am 24 – ridding my body of its pre-cancerous cells. And the doctor in California who, upon examining me for the first time, says, “If anyone asks, this is not what an ordinary cervix looks like.”
My breast reduction when I am 40 and the shame and depression that follows me for years like an ex-boyfriend who won’t let go. Faint memory now, like the scars that run vertically from breast fold to nipple.
My body has held on to each of these and made them its own – painting over experience with a broad brush stroke of pain. Not unlike the stories I repeat so often that they become my pained reality – whether or not they are completely accurate. My skewed perception becomes truth.
I come home from my treatment, take my boots off and place my naked feet on the hardwood floor. I feel the ground beneath me. Supporting me. As if for the first time. Whereas before I seem to have been standing on only a part of my feet, tottering.
I have fallen into my feet. Into my body. Into truth, and the possibility of a new story.