A Birthday Story: Celebrating What Is

It is four something in the morning.  I woke up at the same ungodly hour yesterday – my 44th birthday.

I have always loved birthdays.

My birthday didn't begin with laughter...it ended with it.
My birthday didn’t begin with laughter…it ended with it.

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.

2013-10-20 20.19.35
Kristin. Who reminds me of the love in my life when I cannot see it.

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.

Indian sweets.
Indian sweets.

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.

“Of course he’s here,” Kristin said.  “He loves you.”

I decided to believe her.  And to believe in all the love around the table.  JB’s.  Tom’s.  Matt’s.

Rebecca’s.  Brian’s.  Kristin’s.

And to focus on it.  To focus on who was there, instead of who wasn’t.  The calls, texts, cards and Facebook greetings I did receive.  Instead of those I didn’t.  (Well, mostly.)

We took pictures and ate fried bits of goodness – both sweet and savory.  Drank lassis and tea with evaporated milk.

I came home and ate the last of my sweets.  I felt a little overly-sugared.  Overly stimulated.

And I fell into bed.  Alone.  Sated.  Full.

Artist Date 42: Dressed, Safely Shrouded

I think I need a headdress.

2013-10-03 14.50.37Feathered, 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.

afro lesleyAnd 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.

2013-10-03 15.09.25A 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.

Mourning Pages

This piece was recently published in Catharsis Journal: How Creativity Changed My Life. Krista Burlae, Editor. Balboa Press. 2013

“I am alone because I am getting ready to be alone.”

Every day the same words spilled out of my pen and onto my notebook.  It was March.  I was staying at a friend’s house in Northern California, while she and her partner were in Hawaii.  In their week-long absence, they left me their home, a car and a neurotic dog named Zach.

Every morning was the same.

I’d mash a banana into a bowl; cover it with dry oats and water and microwave for three minutes – adding blueberries and soy milk after cooking.  French press a pot of coffee.  Open the sliding glass door for Zack to go outside.  Sit at the table next to fireplace and write three pages, longhand.

I was in Week 4 of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way – A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity.

The book had been suggested to me for nearly 18 years, but I had only recently picked it up.  Pain is a great motivator.  So is time.

I was living in Seattle.  I’d been there just a little more than six months.  It was my second cross-country move in less than five years.  The first, to Chicago from San Francisco, for my husband’s medical residency.  The second, to Seattle, for his dream job.

Both times, I closed up my massage practice.  Handed over my Weight Watchers meetings to another leader.  Threw a send-off soiree, and said a tearful goodbye to my friends.  Following in his path.  Next time would be my turn.  That was the promise we made.

I wasn’t working much.  I didn’t have a massage license.  I was clinically depressed.  My husband encouraged me to take it easy.  He reminded me that his job as a doctor, and the six-figure salary that went along with it – that it was for us.  That this is what he had been working for.  That now I could breathe and think about what “my turn” might look like.

I hadn’t a clue.

Rabbinical school?  Acupuncture school?  Nothing seemed certain.

Devoid of any clear sense of direction, I picked up the book that had been recommended to me so many times over the years.

I dug in with a hunger and willingness I hadn’t known since getting sober nearly five years earlier.  I read each page carefully, highlighter in hand, taking notes in the margins.  Looking for a clue.  For a promise of direction.  Or at the very least, something meaningful to do with my time.

Each week had a title.  “Recovering a Sense of…” – fill in the blank.  It included readings, suggested exercises, and questions for reflection at week’s end.  Two constants ran through the entire 12 weeks, what Cameron calls the primary tools of creative recovery – Morning Pages and the Artist Date.

Morning Pages were simply that – three pages written longhand, first thing in the morning.  Before diving into email.  Before opening up the newspaper.  Before dressing children.  Cleaning the house.  Talking to the nanny.  Making dinner plans.  Before Pilates.

Morning pages were not meant to be art.  Or for anyone to even read.  They were a practice.  “Spilling out of bed and straight onto the page.”  Without expectations.  Without judgment.  Simply making room for new input.  Morning pages, she said, were non-negotiable.

An Artist Date was a kind of fancy, little-bit grown up, name for a play date – alone.  No friends.  No spouses.  No children.  A block of time for spoiling and nurturing oneself – creatively.

*****

The tools gave my life structure.  Something to hang my day on.  I would wake early each morning, before my husband, make oatmeal with blueberries and banana, coffee, turn on my light box and write.

The routine was established by the time I arrived in California in March.  I found it easy to recreate my process in this new, albeit temporary, space.

I had begun to notice patterns emerging in my morning pages.  The same themes popping up like whack-a-moles again and again.  But I didn’t have to race to pound them down with a big, padded mallet.  I could let them sit on the page.  Powerless.

So I wasn’t exactly surprised when I wrote, “I am alone because I am getting ready to be alone.”  I knew exactly what it meant.  And I wasn’t afraid.

*****

We had been struggling for a while.  Pretty much since we arrived in Chicago nearly five years earlier.  He started medical residency.  I quit drinking.  Our lives took radically divergent paths.  And like a vector, kept moving further in opposite directions.

Nine days before we left Chicago, he told me I didn’t have to go to Seattle.  He didn’t want to be the guy who once again took me from my home, my friends and my livelihood.  I was shocked.  Stuck.  I couldn’t turn around that fast, even if I had wanted to.  Besides, we had already rented out our condominium.  I’d given up my office and my work.

We moved forward – together – as planned.  We hosted a going-away party that weekend – assuming our roles in the story of us as happy couple.  And a few days later, we were gone.

Within weeks of arriving in Seattle, my husband asked me for a divorce.  The next day he retracted his request and admitted he might be acting hastily.  We agreed to see a couple’s counselor.  A smart, young woman, many years our junior, who asked, “How will you know?”  Meaning, how would we know when it was time to call it quits.

Neither of us could answer.  I meditated on the question all week.  The words came to me in the stillness of waiting.

“You know what not working on your marriage looks like.  Why don’t you see what working on your marriage looks like?”

I instantly felt a shift in my body – as if I had just experienced a chiropractic adjustment.  I had an immediate sense of ease.  An increase in energy and flow.  I knew it was right.  I told my husband, and together we told our therapist that we had decided “not to decide,” for six months.  Instead, choosing to focus our energies on the work.

It was during that six-month period that I went back to California, stayed in the big house with the fireplace and the neurotic dog, and wrote the same words each day.  I shared them with no one.

***

My husband flew down to join me at the end of the week.  Before picking him up, I met with a local Rabbi.  He replaced the one I had studied with many years earlier, before I was married.  He had died unexpectedly.  His passing was a source of remorse and pain, mostly as we had never completed our studies.  I had slipped away without a word.  Just about the time I met my husband.

I told the replacement Rabbi that I might want to be a Rabbi.  But that I couldn’t see how to do it, to stay married, and continue to work on my marriage.  He said if it was my path, it would find me.

My husband and I greeted one another at San Francisco International Airport, irritated, obligated.  I remembered coming home from a trip, not long after meeting him.  He met me at the gate, flowers in hand.  I literally ran to him and jumped into his arms, wrapping my legs around his waist.  We were no longer that couple.  And we hadn’t been for a long time.

I drove us back to the big house with the glass fireplace and the neurotic dog.  I told him about the flood of memories that I had experienced that week.  That they had nearly drowned me.  That everywhere I turned, I was reminded of us.  Especially of the hours we spent together on our bikes.

“It got too hard,” he said.  “I didn’t want to do it anymore.”

“Ride with me?” I asked, referring to the chasm between our cycling abilities – a regular source of tension between us.  “Or be married?”

“Both.”

And there it was – the truth that I had written every morning.  The truth that I knew because I did write every morning.  The truth that I had known in my bones before he ever arrived.

I wish I could say I was calm.  That I stood in awe of my knowing.  In awe of the serendipity.  That the truth was spoken in the city where lived together for nearly 10 years, in the neighborhood where we met.  But I wasn’t.  My wheels rolled on to the Golden Gate Bridge.  I thought about driving off.  Instead, I yelled.  A lot.

I was in the middle of Week Four in The Artist’s Way – Recovering a Sense of Integrity.

******

Returning home to Seattle, I named The Artist’s Way my companion in divorce.  It seemed the only thing I knew to do.  That, and walk.  Miles and miles with no particular destination.  The heels of my tan suede boots were re-soled during this time.

I continued to write.  To look for synchronicity in my life, as I was directed in the book.  Truthfully, I couldn’t imagine any greater synchronicity than what I had just experienced.

I went on occasional Artist Dates but couldn’t fully commit to the practice.

I bought The Writer’s Market and considered writing again professionally.

I made Benjamin Franklin T-squares, lists of pro and con, trying to determine where I should call home.  Seattle?  Chicago?  San Francisco?

I sent The Artist’s Way to my friend in Chicago who was also going through a divorce.

I told him it was a book of miracles, my trusted companion during this time of transition.  I told him about my morning pages.  About being in that house alone and knowing that I was preparing to be alone.

I told him about the Rabbi who said if rabbinical school was my path, that it would find me.  And that my husband asking for a divorce felt like being found.  That I had become open to these messages because of the book.  And because of the creative work I had done.

I finished the 12 weeks of The Artist’s Way.

And then I went to Rwanda.

I had planned the trip several weeks earlier.  I would be traveling with members of my synagogue – touring, witnessing and working with two different AIDS organizations.  It was there, under my mosquito net in sub-Saharan Africa, that I heard the next creative whisper, received my next set of instructions.

I started blogging.

****

I entered university nearly 25 years prior, majoring in fine art.  I graduated with a degree in journalism – my parents insisting I choose a more practical focus.

I spent the next five years toiling at a series of weekly newspapers, and then left the profession entirely.  I wanted to make more money.  Which I did.  I wanted to tell my stories, instead of someone else’s.  Which I didn’t – unless you count drunken scrawls in journals and poems stuffed under the bed.

In Africa, I wrote each night before bed.  After my roommate and I finished debriefing about our days.  When the sky was navy and the air was still with silence – nothingness.  I wrote by the light of the computer screen.

I described the land, its people and my experiences with both in lush detail.  The smell of oranges mixed with diesel.  Churches where bloodied clothes remained, remnants of the most recent genocide.  Children born with HIV acting as mentors to those younger than themselves, also born with the disease.

The houses made of mud brick.  A calendar on the wall – a single decoration.  The woman who built her own house, and then another which she rents.  Who sells charcoal, and can now care for herself and her children – mostly.  Women and children robed in colorful fabrics, walking on the side of the road – 24 hours a day, fruit or furniture balanced on their heads.

Reed thin men pushing bicycles weighted down with four or six yellow jerry cans of water.  An opening gala at an art co-operative tucked into a downtrodden neighborhood.  Peeing ridiculously close to a giraffe while on safari.

I posted my blogs to Facebook in the wee hours when I could get an internet signal.  Following each posting I was greeted with words from the unlikeliest of Facebook “friends.”  Girls I went to Adat Shalom nursery school with in the early 1970s, friends’ husbands I hardly knew, and associates of my Rabbi.  They all said the same thing.  “Thank you.” And “Keep writing.”

But I didn’t.  Not for three months.  I didn’t write about my divorce.  My drive cross country.  My first time living alone in 43 years.  I didn’t write a word – until I received a call that my birthmother was dying.  A woman I had met only three years prior, who at 59, was dying.

I flew out of Chicago the next day, pacing just in front of Hurricane Sandy.  When I arrived she was hooked up to IVs and monitors, barely 100 pounds in a hospital gown.  There was nowhere for her to hide anymore.  She could no longer act the part she thought I wanted her to be.  We were both stripped down and naked.  And I felt, perhaps for the first time, nothing but love for her.

I played Pandora radio for her.  Danced and held her hand to Love Train by the O Jays.  I massaged her feet, her papery skin.  I sobbed on her bed.  And I found healing.

I told her about a man I met there in South Carolina.  How he swept me off my feet – literally picking me up off of the ground the first time I met him.  And how he broke my heart a few days later – slipping away without a word.

I chronicled all of it, blogging.  My inbox filled with personal notes.  Words of encouragement.  Stories shared.   From former co-workers.  Friends of my birthmother.  Cousins I had never met.  Even the man from South Carolina who broke my heart.

I felt seen.  Connected.  The connection I had craved all of my life.  That I had twisted myself inside and out for.  Here it was.  And all I had to do to receive it was to tell my truth.  To write it.  And to share it – publicly.

So I did.

I wrote about living alone.  About throwing out food because I didn’t know how to shop for one anymore.  About my Jewish divorce – my Get…  And my civil divorce.  About my breast reduction – a surgery so fraught with pain and shame I had barely spoken of it.

And then, about my second time through The Artist’s Way.

***

I didn’t date after my ex-husband asked me for a divorce.  I experienced intimate friendships – hours spent on the phone telling one another every detail about ourselves.  Sexy kisses under the moon that made me feel like I was 17.  Over the top expectations and the crash that accompanied them.  But I had not dated.

I wasn’t ready.  I was too vulnerable.  But I was lonely.  So I took on The Artist’s Way again as my companion, this time committing myself to the Artist Dates.  Those two-or-so hour play dates by myself.

I perused gourmet food shops.  Spent hours at a bookstore, tucked in a chair with an Annie Leibowitz anthology in my lap.  I bought myself little trinkets and had them giftwrapped.

I went to the movies.  Walked on the beach in winter.  And at the bird and butterfly sanctuary.  I scoured thrift stores.  Visited the polar bear at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

I went to the art supply store. And to the Art Institute – many times.  Visiting Marc Chagall’s America Windows again and again.  I went to the Lebanese and Indian neighborhoods.  Ate syrupy sweet desserts and shopped with women wearing saris and chadors.  I popped into interesting boutiques I’d eyed and wondered about, but had never stepped foot in.

I went to the Joffrey Ballet.

All of it, alone.  And then I chronicled each experience.

I wrote about my ex-husband sending me boxes of things I left behind, and not wanting to open them.  About being afraid of Week 4 in The Artist’s Way because that was the week my ex asked me for a divorce.

I wrote about how strange and uncomfortable it was when my father asked me if I was dating.  How uncomfortable he was when I said no, and how I felt the need to explain my decision to him.  How I told him that I had work to do.

I let go of work I no longer enjoyed, and leaned heavily into my spousal support.

I took dance classes – Mambo and West African.  I attended performances and lectures – on my own and with girlfriends.  I began cooking again.  Collaging.  And I kept writing.  Blogging.

The Artist Dates had become a habit.  I enjoyed a $6 piece of torte and coffee served on a silver tray on a Friday afternoon, just because.  I brought home a silk kimono from Japan and an embroidered, well-loved bedspread from the thrift store, just because they were beautiful.

I began to treat myself as well, if not better, than anyone else had ever treated me.

I began to turn inward, to lean into my pain.  The hurt of love ending.  Of promises broken.  The fear of a big, empty canvas of life.  I gave it a name and a face – with words, and with paintbrushes, pencils and pretty paper, with movement.  And I found it wasn’t quite so scary when I did.

I found my voice.  The one that wrote, “I am alone because I am getting ready to be alone,” continuing to spill out of me every morning and onto three blank pages.  Mourning pages.

A Year After the Day Before Everything Was About to Change

Wandering in Brussels with my friend, Tim.  I love putting the camera in front of faces and seeing what is captured.
With Tim, in Brussels

A year ago today I was in Brussels.

I didn’t know that everything was about to change.  Or maybe I did know.  The universe did.  Perhaps that’s why I was blessed with an extra day there, even though it didn’t feel like a blessing at the time.

I’d spent the past two days in what I’d come to call “Paris Small.”  One of them, with my old roommate Tim, who flew in from Dublin for just one night – just to be with me.  We rented an IKEA-decorated studio, a few blocks from the train station.  Its red wooden shutters opened onto the square.  It was perfect.

That day, we Skyped with Tim’s boyfriend Martin, who was living in Yorkshire.  We got our heads shaved.  Ate Belgian Waffles covered in powdered sugar, walking and talking until the sky turned navy.

I spent the next night alone.  I called my friend, Michael, my divorce pal in the States, before going to sleep.  Just as I did most nights back at home.  Ever since my ex asked me for a divorce and he and his wife also decided to separate.

The next morning, a year ago today, I arrived at the airport and learned that my plane had been grounded due to a cracked windshield.  I stood in line for more than two hours before reaching the counter to re-book my flight – surrounded by people loudly sighing and complaining.

I made friends with a gay boy from Missouri.  I watched the family in front of me – husband and wife, and almost grown kids.  They seemed nonplussed.  Almost enjoying the time.  As we approached the counter together, I commented on how happy they seemed.

“What else can we do?” the father responded.

Happy, even though they had missed the Chicago portion of their vacation.  Would miss their connection to San Francisco.  And were just hoping to recoup their time in Los Angeles.  Happy.

They wrote a list of suggestions for how I might want to spend my extra time in Brussels.

We wished each other well, and parted ways.  Me, with a voucher for a hotel room across the street, and a boarding pass for a different flight tomorrow.  No longer direct, I would fly to Frankfurt – the first airport I landed in overseas, nearly 20 years ago – before arriving in Chicago.

I took the train back to the City Centre after checking in to the hotel and retraced my steps down the cobblestone streets.  Enjoying another waffle.  Purchasing pale nougat studded with almonds and dried orange pieces to bring home as gifts.

I walked to a park overlooking the city and read in the cool sunshine.  I browsed a museum gift shop, as I arrived too late to see the exhibit.  And then I took the train back to the hotel, stopping in the airport to buy a phone card, hoping to speak with Michael again.

I tried phoning him from my room, and then realized I hadn’t put enough money on the card.  I stuffed it in my wallet and went to the lobby to take advantage of the free WiFi.

I noticed it was my friend J’s birthday while trolling Facebook.  I sent him good wishes, which he was on the other end to receive.  It was still afternoon in New York.

He told me he would be spending his birthday eating crab legs with his girlfriend.  I told him I was on my way home from Rwanda.  That I was grounded in Brussels.  That I was divorcing.  And that I was moving back to Chicago.

I threw up on him.  And then I went to dinner.

When I left Seattle nearly a month earlier, I didn’t know where I would settle.  Now I had a plan.

I arrived in Chicago the next afternoon.  (I was fortunate, for those who were able to re-book on the original flight remained grounded in Brussels for another day.)  I informed my friends I was now going by Liora – my Hebrew name – as that was what I was called in Rwanda, the result of having two Lesleys on the trip.

I had dinner with Michael.  And after, we stood under a street lamp, holding on to one another for what felt like forever.  I didn’t want to let go.  I told him I would see him in a month.

My friend Emily picked me up at the airport that evening.  She remembered what re-entry was like after spending time in Africa.  We had dinner.  She took me grocery shopping.  And then she dropped me off at home.

The cats greeted me at the door.  My then soon-to-be-ex-husband was noticeably absent.  I felt painfully alone as I rolled my hard orange suitcase into the house.

I saw Michael sooner than anticipated.  At my request, he flew to Seattle, helped me pack my car and drive home.  We stayed with friends of mine in Missoula and Bozeman.  I shot a gun for the first and only time somewhere between the two cities.

2012-08-31 10.30.32
Hiking in the Badlands.

We camped along the Missouri River, under a blue moon, at Teddy Roosevelt National Park.  Hiked the Badlands the next day, and stopped somewhere outside of Fargo that night, sharing a room at The Bison Inn.

We stayed with my college roommates on our final stop in Minneapolis.  They stuffed us with homemade treats.  Michael replaced the radiator in my 2000 Honda Civic.  It failed just as we were entering the city.  My job was to hand him the tools he called for.

We arrived home the day before Labor Day, around 11 p.m.  I dropped him off at home in his questionable neighborhood, sobbing on the front lawn.

July 19, 2012.  I didn’t know everything was about to change.  That, in many ways, it would be the last day of my “previous life.”   How could I?  And yet, how could I not?

I believe my brain was protecting me from that which I could not yet conceive of.

My divorce was final a little more than 10 months ago.  I live alone for the first time in my life.  I buried my birth mother in the spring.

I felt new lips over mine for the first time in many, many years.  And I watched my heart crack open.  Then again.  And again.

A couple of weeks ago, I initiated the process of separating our monies.  When that is complete, only our condominium, which we rent out, will bind us – financially.

I applied for a job today.  The first in more than 11 years.  I’m excited.  Fingers crossed.

This morning, two women commented that I sounded really good.  A third asked for my blog address.  Later, my friend Jess asked if I could have imagined how much I would have healed by now.  It struck me as funny, as I didn’t feel particularly healed.  I decided to trust her perspective, and that of the three other women.

I wrote J a birthday greeting.  I wished him what I wish for everyone I love – joy and the causes of joy.  And then I wished him something special – something  just for him:  a nice piece of liver for dinner.

He knew exactly what it meant.  And suggested a watermelon instead.  I laughed out loud.

It is comforting to know not everything has changed since July 19, 2012.  To know that some things have survived.  Friendship.  Love.   Shared memories and private jokes.  And most of all, me.

Artist’s Date 20: When God Fills the Space, a Trip to the Island of Lost Souls

Luana_Danse_Savage-Small__07477_std“You look familiar.  Are you famous?”

This is an auspicious beginning to any date – even an Artist’s Date, one that I take by myself.

I assure Eric, the salesperson at Blackbird Gallery and Framing, that I am not.

“I love this,” he continues, gesturing to my bindi.  “All of this,” he adds, waving his hands in small circles around his face.  “You are beautiful.”

I like this man.  Of course, he is gay.

In my hand is a cardboard tube.  I’ve made a handle out of packing tape so I could carry it from Nashville to Knoxville to Atlanta and home to Chicago.  Inside are two posters.

I bought them at Hatch Show Print in Nashville – America’s oldest working print shop – where letterpress posters summoned me through glass.  Where nary a square inch of wall isn’t covered with iconic images of Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and the Grand Ole Opry.

A smattering of them are for sale, among them “Luana. Danse Savage” and “Island of Lost Souls with the Panther Woman.”   As soon as I spotted them, I knew they were mine.

Eric unrolls them onto a large table and places weighted felt bags at each corner so they lie flat.  They are made of heavy cotton paper, printed in single color ink.  Luana is deep purple – women dancing in short fringed skirts, with cuffs around their ankles.  Island of Lost Souls with the Panther Woman is forest green – a vamped-out, busty broad holding a wild cat on a leash.

Island of Lost Souls.  I feel like I took up residency there about a year ago.  I often times still feel wayward.  Uncertain.  Acutely aware that little in my life has stood on terra firma for some time now.

Island_of_Lost_Souls_01__08149_stdMarriage dissolved.  Another move cross-country, this time bringing little with me that feels like home.  At the time it felt liberating – packing the 13-year-old Honda Civic and leaving the rest behind.  Only later did it register as frighteningly impulsive and potentially foolish.

And yet, my ex doesn’t seem to feel any less lost than I – living in the house where we once lived together, sleeping in the bed we used to sleep in together, surrounded by “our things.”  Perhaps I got the better end of the deal.  Spiritually, at least.

I like the panther on the poster.  And the va-va-voom dress the woman is wearing.  A sexy new take on Cat Woman.  The possibility of living as a super hero.

Luana reminds me of Sunday afternoon dance class at the Old Town School of Folk Music.  Of the serendipity and just plain good luck I had to dance with a troupe in Rwanda this past summer.  The dancers’ surprise and delight that the muzungo (white person) could follow.

Luana seems the opposite end of the Island of Lost Souls.  Yet I am both of them at once.

The posters are big.  Big enough to make a dent on my big, blank canvas of a wall – painted  eggshell by my landlord.  The colors, the same as those in the fabric hanging on the adjacent wall – a few meters cut and carried from the Rwandan market.

They are not what I had envisioned here.

slade painting of meI had imagined my friend Slade’s sketch of me.  Shaved head, bindi, a whitish aura around me – he is not the first to comment on it.  I look a little bit African American, a little bit Hare Krishna.  Thin, wispy, spiritual.  I love it.  I love how he captured me.  But the piece is small, and it lives in his sketchbook.

I had imagined a map.  Or a series of maps, playing off the unintentional travel theme of the room.  Snowshoes on one side of the entry way, license plates from California, Washington and Illinois on the other.  Stacked suitcases turned on their side make a table.  There’s the Rwandan fabric, and a painting I bought from my friend Scotty of a woman leaving her home, leaving her tribe.  It’s called, “You Can Take it With You.”

I am amazed at how the space is filled when I let go of my ideas and make room for God.

Eric and I lay frame corners on the edges of the posters.  Painted wood.  Maple. Birch.  No.  Not quite.  I place a sample of metallic sage on one, metallic plum on the other.  A marriage is made.

Eric places a card on top of the posters.  It shows the differences between three types of glass.  Three price points.  I submit to the middle grade.  Less reflection.  Less distortion.  UV protected.

We talk about spacers and decide I can do without.

Eric crunches numbers and square inches.  I look at paintings and photographs on the walls.  The artists are young, accomplished – as evidenced by their bios.  Talented.  I feel woefully far behind in my craft.  As if I’ve been losing time for some time.  On that Island of Lost Souls for far longer than I realized.

He produces a framing estimate that shocks me.  Even with my $61 Yelp! coupon credit it is much more than I anticipated.  I consider leaving and sticking a tack into Luana and the Island.

I think about all the things I left behind so that I could create something new.  Something shiny.

I hand over my credit card and put down a deposit, hoping the second half will show up on next month’s bill.

I tell Eric about the posters.  About dancing in Africa in the middle of a divorce, leaving the Island of Lost Souls for a spiritual sojourn.  He tells me about his photography work.  We talk about my return to writing.

Perched up on a three-legged stool, I realize I am flirting.  It doesn’t matter that he is gay.  I feel light.  Like myself.  Or who I used to be.  I enjoy our easy rat-a-tat-tat repartee.

I ask him his sign.  Sagittarius, he says and I laugh.  I should have known.  I tell him I love Sagittarians.  I do not tell him that the book Love, Sex and Astrology says that Libra and Sagittarius meet at half past 7 and are in bed by 8.

I keep this to myself, along with stories of all the Sagittarians I have loved – my first real boyfriend in college.  My one-time drinking partner.  My religious studies professor – the object of my unrequited desire for so many years.  Unfinished business.

Instead, I tell him I am a Libra.  He tells me I seem strong.  Resilient.  I smile and nod.

“Sometimes,” I say.

After nearly an hour with Eric, I leave with a pink receipt and a card for his next open studio.

As I cross the threshold on the way out, a couple walks in with a large piece of art for framing.  So large it requires both sets of hands.  Divine timing.  God filling the space I am leaving.