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.
It is four something in the morning. I woke up at the same ungodly hour yesterday – my 44th birthday.
I have always loved birthdays.
I’m a big celebrator in general. Ask any of my Weight Watchers members. I love to clap and give out Bravo! Stickers for behavior changes. Those subtle little miracles.
“Where else do you go that they clap for you?” I ask.
Well, 12-Step meetings. But I don’t bring that up as it isn’t germane.
Birthdays are like that. It seems the whole world is clapping, rooting for you, that day. Mostly.
This year I awoke feeling a little less clap-y. A little less celebratory.
I’d been aware of a low-grade sadness tugging at me for a few days. Aware this was my first birthday since my birth mother died.
We found one another in October of my 40th year.
Ours was not always an easy relationship. Some days I think she would have jumped in my skin if she could have, while I took a more tentative approach to our relationship. Timing. Expectations. Boundaries. Those were our lessons. And we were one another’s teachers.
She sent me flowers when I turned 40. A card the following year. And then phone calls the next two. She wasn’t well and it was difficult for her to get out – both physically and emotionally. This year there would be no flowers, no card, no call. I felt sad.
Like I did when her name was read at the memorial service on Yom Kippur. Like I did when I returned from Ireland last month and felt like calling and for the first time realized I couldn’t. I find myself surprised by the sadness, although I’m not sure why. It makes perfect sense – at least on a cellular level.
So there was that.
And there was the aloneness of being not-so-suddenly, but-still, single.
My ex was a great gift giver.
Birthday and anniversary mornings I would find a card on the bed, slipped into place when I got up to shower. A gift would come later. Usually something I had spied and mentioned in passing months earlier. Something I had forgotten about until I saw it again. A hand-carved wooden jewelry box. Strands of smoky quartz and hand-colored pearls.
He gave me a watch when I turned 42 – my last birthday with him. I had been wearing the same Seiko tank since I was 14, gift from my Aunt Betty. She had lost hers. Found it. And gave the original to me.
I replaced the band and battery several dozen times over the years. Until the crystal broke and a jeweler told me it couldn’t be fixed.
I didn’t like the watch he bought me. I don’t know if I would have liked anything he bought me at that time. He had recently asked me for a divorce – and then recanted the next day – but it was there. The truth about our relationship. It was over. We just hadn’t cut the cord yet.
He was hurt and offended that I didn’t like his gift, but offered to take me shopping so I could pick out something else, anyway. I couldn’t do it. I kept the watch. I am still wearing it.
When I woke up early yesterday, I noticed the absence of a card. Of a body in my bed. Specifically, my ex’s. I do not crave him being there – but I was used to it. To him, for so long.
I rolled off my mattress and dropped to my knees in child’s pose – both a stretch and a prayer. “modeh ani lefanecha. Thank you G-d for returning my soul to me.” I asked for several obsessions to be removed. And then, still on my knees, I opened Facebook on my phone. The messages had already begun to pour in. Old neighbors. Acquaintances from grade school. Family – by origin and by choice. From Africa. And from just down the street.
I wrote. Meditated. Showered and went to work. Weight Watchers. It felt life affirming. As did dance class. I made lunch and took myself shopping at my favorite resale shop. I bought a grey wool coat that ties at the waist. It fits as if it were made for me.
I talked to a few friends on the phone. Around five a girlfriend picked me up and we went to do what we do to make sure we don’t drink today.
I used to make a big “to do” out of my birthday. Or at least try to. Those expectations often left me feeling sad and frustrated. I was unclear why. But today was delightfully ordinary.
It ended with cheap eats at a large, bright Pakistani restaurant on Devon Avenue. The kind with a menu posted on a TV screen. Where you wait in line to order food and pick it up on a tray. Where you eat with plastic utensils.
Where I feel conspicuously white.
There were eight of us. Among them, my divorce buddy – the man I walked lock step with through the dissolution of our marriages. And then watched my friendship with him dissolve. I hadn’t invited him. But there he was. I was delighted.
Feathered, painted and beaded. Like the one I’m standing in front of at the Chicago Art Institute – Artist’s Date 42. According to the description, it is meant to express a sense of beauty, while spiritually protecting the wearer, providing potency in battle, diplomacy and/or courtship.
I could use that – spiritual protection and potency. Especially in courtship. I feel like I’m fumbling all over the place in this suddenly, or not so suddenly, single world.
Perhaps a wig would suffice. Cover up my naked head. My naked heart.
My cousin Andrew told me I should consider wearing them. Over dinner a few weeks ago at a trendy, too loud, see-and-be-seen, restaurant, he leaned in and said, very seriously, “I’ve been giving it some thought…I think you should wear wigs.”
I laughed, but he was dead serious, waxing the possibilities of an Uma Thurman Pulp Fiction bob. I showed him a photograph of me wearing a large Foxy Brown afro wig many years ago in Oakland. I told him I wished my hair grew like that. How I longed to wear a wig but worried about offending people – lest those whose hair grows that way think it is a joke, this seriously small white girl sporting a do belonging to someone else.
We made a date to go wig shopping but never quite made it.
I had forgotten about it until now.
And really, I probably shouldn’t be thinking about it now. Or even be here at all. My friend Julie arrives from Detroit in a few hours. Her visit comes on the heels of my friend Ernie’s visit from Seattle, which came on the heels of my trip to Dublin, and precedes my trip to Minneapolis – for my cousin Andrew’s wedding – by just days.
And yet, I am here. Stealing away for an hour or so, by myself, with no intention any more noble than to see with different eyes, hear with different ears, feel with a different heart. To leave here a little better than I arrived. To fill my mind with something other than “me, me, me.” It is a relief.
My plan was to visit the African Art. But I am stopped in my tracks in the Native American section. Thinking about wigs. About my cousin. About my other cousin – Diane.
I visited her in Albuquerque when I was 17. The trip, my first time traveling alone – to see Diane in New Mexico and Andrew in Los Angeles – was a high-school graduation gift from my parents.
I bought suede fringed boots, the kind with no hard sole, on that trip. They snaked up my legs, stopping just beneath my knees and tied with crisscrossing leather cord. Burnout style. And also, a wooden box, the top decorated with a sand painting of Father Sky – it says so in pencil, written on the underside, good for storing treasures.
Diane bought me a miniature wedding vase, a smaller version of the kind I would drink from at my own wedding 15 years later.
It seems like forever ago. As does my trip to see Diane. Except the memories of my marriage feel sneakier – unexpected – and not as purely sweet as those of my trip to New Mexico.
So I keep on moving, rather than sitting (or like my friend Sheila likes to say “bathing”) in the feelings. I look at pipes, teepee covers and silver jewelry, eventually moving on to the African Art section – something without connection to the past. Something entirely my own. Sort of.
Unless you consider it is my ex who bought me a gift certificate to the Old Town School of Music and Dance, where I study West African dance. Or that I found myself in Rwanda right in the middle of our divorce.
And yet, Africa is mine. It always was. A dream since I was a child. He just helped get me there.
The collection is small.
A few voluminous robes – the kind I have seen my instructor Idy dance in, constantly moving the sleeves in gorgeous gestures to keep from getting the fabric caught up in his feet. A couple of headdresses and costumes, one depicting the ideal mature woman in the 17th century – prominent nose, jutting chin, and large breasts.
I think of my own breasts. Small. No longer pendulous. Faded scars run from breast fold to areola – subtle reminders of my reduction surgery. A different beauty ideal.
I am struck by the words tacked to the wall.
“Dress is among the most personal forms of visual expression, creating a buffer and a bridge between the private and the public self…Special forms of luxury dress…may (also) signal particular standing within a community or a moment of transition from one role to another.”
I think about the Native American headdress. Of my own dress. My friend Tori says I dress differently since my divorce. Sexier. It was not my intention, but I believe she is right.
Across the room is a timeline of events, highlighting key moments in both African and world history. I snap photographs so I can remember them.
1884: European nations meet for the Berlin West Africa Conference, initiating the European scramble to colonize Africa. By 1900 only Ethiopia and Liberia remain independent.
1957: The nation of Ghana gains independence from British colonial rule, launching a continent-side decolonization movement.
1980: Zimbabwe gains independence from Great Britain; it is the last European colony to do so.
1990-94: Civil war in Rwanda leads to genocide.
I remember my friend Geri’s map-of-the-world shower curtain – so old, Rhodesia was still on it.
I think about my own map. My timeline. My dress. My independence. Messy. Uncertain. Liberating. But unlike Rhodesia, I got to keep my name.