My friend Clover knows I love papercut artist Nikki McClure and has twice bought me calendars of her work. Each has a beautiful image of the season and a single word. BECOME for January. RETREAT for April. LINGER for September. This morning I turned the page to October –AWAY.
AWAY (alone) is the gift I have learned to give myself each birthday (whenever possible), each October 20.
Forty-five began with breakfast in Rome and ended with dinner in Paris. That evening, crossing the Seine from the Right Bank to the Left, I looked out at Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower and thought, “Who goes to Paris for dinner?” and then, “I do.”
What followed shook me to my core. Alone on my birthday in arguably the most romantic city in the world I thought “I don’t wish a man was here.” “I don’t wish a man was here.” And then, “I don’t wish a friend was here or that I ate anything different or wore anything different or that anything was different.” It was a moment of pure contentment and total bliss – fleeting and remarkable.
That trip – specifically my time spent in Rome – catapulted me on to a trajectory that had me living in Madrid six months later.
I had met a woman a few weeks earlier while volunteering in Perugia. Upon my arrival in Rome, she insisted on throwing a dinner/birthday party in my honor. As I rode the tram from the residential Trastevere neighborhood to Pyramid station on a Saturday night, flowers in hand, I thought, “It’s like I live here,” and then, “I can do this.” I knew just what the words meant – although I didn’t yet know where I’d be going … or how soon.
Forty-seven found me back in Paris waking up to a text that read, “Yesterday’s kisses are still on my tongue. Delicious. Happy Birthday, Gorgeous!” I spent that afternoon on a walking tour of Montmarte with a woman I had met just that morning. We shared a chocolate tart before parting company and she sang me Happy Birthday. That evening, I walked back to the bridge where I had found contentment and peace two years earlier – alone, eating a falafel from my favorite stand in Le Marais, and equally blissed out.
The romance lasted a glorious six months. My friendship with the woman from the walking tour remains strong.
I’ve often said I am best on the road, on my own.
My internal travel clock grows loud and restless at about the five-month mark. My spirit calls for its sojourn. AWAY (alone). Some might call it running … but I don’t think so.
AWAY (alone) is a detour. It is a place where unfamiliar roads open my eyes and force me to pay attention to what is in front of me. I believe it is in that paying attention that magic shows its face and I am awake enough to notice and respond to it.
I leave for Montreal in 19 days – my 48th birthday – AWAY (alone) and wonder what gifts await me.
It is 1993. I am 24-years-old and about 10 days sober. I am laying in a shallow bathtub when my mother calls to wish me a Merry Christmas.
“We’re Jewish,” I say.
“So what?” she replies. “It’s still Christmas. And it’s fun.”
“I wish I were in Israel,” I say.
When I was growing up, my cousin Wendy hosted an annual “Chanukkah Party on Christmas Day for Jews Who Have Nothing To Do.” It was a raucous affair with latkes, dreidels, wine, and even a couple of nuns Wendy worked with at the Sisters of Mercy, where she managed their pension fund.
But that was many years ago.
In 1994, the year after my bathtub lament, I moved to San Francisco. There, with my Irish-Catholic roommate Tim, I purchased my first Christmas tree and participated in the post-holiday “tree toss” out the second-story window of our Haight-Ashbury apartment – Tim spotting from the sidewalk while I heaved the heavy trunk out the curved glass window.
A year later, I experienced the Jewish Christmas tradition of Chinese food and a movie for the very first time — an experience I had missed due to Wendy’s parties.
One more orbit around the sun had me hosting my very own Christmas Eve dinner — an effort to assuage my British boyfriend’s longing for family and Christmas cake from Marks and Spencer. The guest list was made up of friends who filled my home for Rosh Hashanah and Passover dinners, and I cooked up a pot of risotto while my partner made chocolate pie.
By now I had discovered most San Francisco transplants don’t return “home” for the holidays – Thanksgiving or Christmas — and the city is ripe for a Jewish-British Christmas dinner party followed by a bike ride or a movie and dim sum the next day.
In 2007, now married, we moved to Chicago — where everybody goes home for the holidays. To the suburbs. To Michigan or Ohio. Indiana or Wisconsin. Where there are few strays or orphans.
For the next four years, each December we would ask ourselves “to gather or not to gather.” Sometimes we did — opening our home and our hearts. Other times we simply facilitated — reserving two large, round tables in Chinatown and waiting to see who would join us. Occasionally, we were invited to someone else’s celebration.
We spent our last Christmas together in Seattle – where we had moved a few months earlier. I made a final vat of risotto while my friends Earl and Jesse jammed with my husband on guitar.
A year later we were divorced and I found myself once again in Chicago – scrambling for a plan. I have no recollection of what I did that year. And only vague ones of dinners at Min Hing in the two seasons that followed.
Last December, I spent Christmas in Cologne with my sixth-grade lab partner. I was living in Madrid, just a few hours flight away. She picked me up on Christmas Eve with a trunk full of food – explaining the grocery markets would be closed until December 27. At 5 p.m. the airport Starbucks had already closed.
We cooked, ate, talked for hours and went for long walks down wide boulevards that reminded me of Chicago’s Logan Square. On Boxing Day we visited the Christmas markets and stuffed ourselves with giant potato pancakes topped with sour cream and applesauce. It was, without a doubt, my best Christmas.
This December, as the days grew near, I waited to hear if anyone would be “gathering the troops” for Peking Duck. But all I heard was silence. I considered spearheading the process as I had so many times before, but frankly felt too exhausted.
It seemed I would be alone … that is, until an ex-boyfriend phoned a week before the holiday.
“Why don’t you take the train down and join mom and me for Chinese food and TV back at the house? You can spend the night or if you prefer, I can drive you home,” he said brightly, adding, “Mom is really excited to see you.”
Lovely. And yet.
His invitation felt intimate and familiar. Too intimate. Too familiar. A little girlfriend-y. Except I wasn’t his girlfriend anymore.
I sat with his invitation for nearly a week until the morning the words “What do you want to do?” slipped off of my pen while journaling. And then, “What would be fun?”
“A Writers Retreat.”
The words came quickly, followed by, “Meditate. Exercise. Read. Face mask. Bath salts. Beautiful food.”
When I mentioned this to my friend Nikki, she offered up her apartment as a “retreat facility.” She and her husband would be traveling to Wisconsin to be with family. A few days later my friend Clover suggested I open one of her Chanukkah gifts to me early. It was a turmeric and gold clay face mask. “For your retreat,” she explained, smiling.
That night I wrote my ex-boyfriend a note — thanking him, but declining his invitation.
I thought about my 45th birthday. The first one I spent alone – by choice — waking up in Rome and going to bed in Paris.
Walking across the Seine, looking out at the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, a thought rose up inside of me. “I don’t wish a man were here. I don’t wish a friend were here. That I wore something different or ate something different. I don’t wish anything was different than it is.”
It was a revolutionary idea. One I didn’t choose to think. Instead, it lived inside of me, speaking with its own voice.
Two years later, I returned to Paris — alone — for my 47th birthday.
I woke up in Chicago and went to bed in Chicago. And in the hours between, I ate smoked salmon, pomegranates, chocolate and fresh dates. I slathered my face with gold clay and soaked in the bath reading Julia Child’s “My Life in France.” I wrote. I meditated. I danced, napped and wrote some more.
I didn’t wish I was in Israel. Or Cologne. With my ex-boyfriend or ex-husband or a friend. Eating dim sum, riding my bike or watching a movie. I didn’t wish anything was different than it was.
I was Jewish, solo and sans Chinese food. And Merry on Christmas.
It is one of the many reasons I prefer bookstores to the ease of Amazon. That and the sense of possibility. Of community. Staff picks. Book Club reads. All laid out on tables, ripe for reading. A smorgasbord of words.
Land of Enchantment by Leigh Stein. Grunt by Mary Roach. M Train by Patti Smith.
I pick up each one and tuck it under my arm, carrying a small stack with me through Women and Children First Bookstore. Artist Date 6.2 (122).
Because I know of Leigh but I do not know her. Because we belong to the same women’s writing collective, but we have never met.
Because I heard Terri Gross’ interview with Roach on Fresh Air while I was living in Madrid. Their English sounded so good to my American ear and home didn’t seem so far away.
Because just this afternoon, my friend Spencer suggested Smith’s book to me.
I feel connected to these stories. Like I want to hold on to them.
Others I don’t.
Spinster: Making A Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick. The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Lang.
Because I fear there is no room in this conversation for my voice — my manuscript, They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain: How 52 Artist Dates Healed My Heart and Landed Me in the Center of My Own Life. Traveling alone. Living abroad. Writing a book. Because I fear I have nothing new to add. Because I believe publication might finally allow me to be “done” with my divorce.
Crazy Time by Abigail Trafford.
Because it takes me back to a time before Artist Dates. Before traveling alone and living overseas and writing a book. When I was just embarking upon my divorce.
I am still living in Seattle, still sharing a home with my soon-to-be ex-husband – but sleeping in separate bedrooms.
I am head-over-heels-over-head for my friend M in Chicago. He is also going through a divorce and we prop one another up through our disbelief and fear, talking on the phone each night into the wee hours of the morning.
I am also a wee bit obsessed with my friend (another) M in Seattle. He is the first man to see me naked – other than my husband or my doctor – in 15 years. We kiss endlessly, stopping only to share our stories — whispering under a blanket that smells faintly of dog.
But only once.
Since then we seem to be dancing a familiar “come-here-go-away” cha-cha. I know the tune, but still haven’t mastered the steps.
My therapist Saundra tells me about Crazy Time.
“Because it is a crazy time,” she says, speaking from both personal and professional experience. She says to tell Chicago M I have to go to sleep. She rolls her eyes at the mention of Seattle M.
“You told me I get to make mistakes.”
“You made yours,” she says.
We look at one another, a little bit shocked by her frankness and laugh.
“You don’t get to say that.”
“I know,” she says. “But it’s true.” And it is.
Saundra believes it is preferable I grieve the end of my marriage before jumping into another relationship. She says if I don’t, I’ll only run from the pain of it – from bed to bed, relationship to relationship – rather than addressing the source and healing.
It doesn’t sound so bad, really.
And yet, it is not my path.
I pull Crazy Time from the shelf and begin thumbing through it – only half reading.
“It starts when you separate and usually lasts about two years. It’s a time when your emotions take on a life of their own and you swing back and forth between wild euphoria and violent anger, ambivalence and deep depression, extreme timidity and rash actions. You are not yourself. Who are you?
“Then at the height of Crazy Time, you may get a reprieve. You fall in love – a coup de foudre – and the block of lead in your chest miraculously melts; you can’t believe it, you laugh, you dance. You know it’s too soon, too much like jumping into a lifeboat that you know leaks and has no oars. But you smile, feeling so good after feeling so bad for so long. Therapists call this the search for the romantic solution. But it’s usually not a solution.
“You crash… Now you’re really scared. You can’t believe how frightened you are; about money, your health, your sanity. In all the feel-good rhetoric about divorce being a growth opportunity for the new super you, nobody tells you about Crazy Time.”
Four years have passed since my divorce was made final by the courts.
Since then, my ex-husband has bought a home that he shares with the woman he’s been seeing for a couple of years. Chicago M is about to become a daddy. And according to Facebook, Seattle M — the one with the dog blanket — is “In a Relationship.”
I pick up Smith’s M Train and take it to the register, first slipping the other books back into their proper places on the shelves.
Still traveling alone. Still writing. Sometimes still in Crazy Time.
With gratitude for those who have supported my Go Fund Me campaign, “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — a post-divorce narrative with an option for a happy ending, no partner required. For those who are open to possibility and serendipity. Who celebrate lovely. And revel in real.
I’m still amazed when I receive an email alert telling me someone I don’t know has decided to follow me on Twitter (@WanderingJewess), or on my blog. Like today.
It makes me feel a little bit “real.”
But only a little bit.
I think Margery Williams best defined “real” in her children’s classic, “The Velveteen Rabbit.”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. (Named for his bald brown coat and missing hairs of his tail.) “…It’s a thing that happens to you … It takes a long time
“…That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.
“Generally, by the time you are real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all because once you are real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.
“…but once you are real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”
I feel the most real with people who don’t break easily. Who don’t have sharp edges. Who don’t have to be carefully kept. Who do understand.
People like Nora Handler.
I don’t remember meeting Nora. It seems we’ve always known one another. Even when we haven’t. And even when we haven’t seen one another in a very long time. Like lately.
I messaged Nora, thanking her for her contribution to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign, and suggesting we get together and catch up.
“Sounds like a plan,” she said, adding “Lots of life has happened since we’ve seen each other.”
Indeed it has.
But we are both real enough to experience it. And to share it … even when most of our hair has been loved off, our eyes have dropped out, we’re loose in the joints and very shabby.
Thank you, Nora — for all of this.
My alarm is on my phone. I keep it on the floor so I can greet the day on my knees, with thanks.
However, I’ve gotten into the habit of bringing the phone back into bed with me afterward, reviewing who has made contact in the hours I’ve been asleep. Usually it’s Facebook — alerting me that someone has “liked” my status. The Daily OM — delivering my horoscope. Or Hilary Clinton. (Actually, her campaign.)
Occasionally it is Go Fund Me, and the symbol that — at least to my eyes –looks like a crown. It appears each time a donation is made to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign.
I woke to one the other morning and this message from Kim Jupe.
“Rock it, Lesley! So glad we met in Madrid! I am a fan!”
In total, I have spent less than four hours with Kim. We met through friends of friends, unplanned. Delicious serendipity.
The moment I saw Kim I recognized her as “friend,” and invited her to join me for lunch at one of my favorite restaurants — Dionisos, where Nick the waiter is always flirtatious.
No, we didn’t eat alone in Spain that day … but in those few hours together I was reminded of the magic of traveling alone.
I seem to be open to the universe and its inhabitants in a different way when I am untethered — meeting people I might not otherwise if I were with a partner or friend. My eyes, my ears and my heart are otherwise available. It has happened while traveling overseas — in Tel Aviv, Bonn, and Avignon. Lisbon and Seville. And “at home” — in Chicago and Madrid.
Thank you Kim, for taking the time to connect in Spain. For being a part of that ever-expanding circle around me. And, of course, for your support of my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign.
In her book, “When You Eat At The Refrigerator, Pull Up A Chair,” Geneen Roth writes about a friend who sees what most call luxury, as necessity. And what others call necessity, a luxury.
Think French-milled soap. A $3 mango in January. Eight hours of uninterrupted sleep.
The story reminds me of my own friend, Suzanne Pollock, and the whimsical, wonderful, highly impractical coat she was wearing when we first met. White cloth and long, embroidered with large flowers. She found it in Spain and “had to have it.”
As the words tumbled out of her mouth, I knew we’d be friends.
Because Suzanne threw caution to practicality. (A white coat?!! I nearly break out in hives at the sight of white denim … memories of an unfortunate childhood incident involving grass stain and above-mentioned trousers.)
Because she chose form over function.
Because she valued loveliness.
Because she valued herself.
Many thanks Suzanne for your recent contribution to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign — my own exercise in impractical beauty and self love.
Impractical as I leave for Girona — where I will attend a writers retreat with the intention of manifesting blog into book deal — in 21 days, exactly 90 days following my departure from Spain.
Self-loving as I take my turn, embracing my own dream rather than supporting someone else’s.
Want to know more about “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — how 52 Artist Dates healed my heart after divorce and landed me smack in the middle of my own life — or how to contribute to my Go Fund Me campaign? Click here.
When I launched my Go Fund Me campaign, “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain,” earlier this summer, I linked rewards to different donation levels. An electronic postcard from Spain for $25. A custom Artist Date for $100. A personalized piece of writing for $500.
However, one reward was promised at all levels — a personal thank-you on Go Fund Me, Facebook, Twitter and A Wandering Jewess.
Following are three more Gracias Rewards … and the stories of those who have so generously supported my dream of manifesting blog into book deal.
Shortly after my divorce, I developed a bad habit of reading old journals. Really old journals. And only the juicy bits.
There was something delicious about remembering what “was,” once upon a time. But it didn’t help move me forward. And so, at a friend’s suggestion, I put the journals away for a time. The results so effective I ultimately burned them.ultimately burned them — journals I had carried with me for 20 years … from Detroit to San Francisco, Oakland, Chicago, Seattle and Chicago again — before moving to Spain.
I haven’t much looked back at my written words since then. Until now. Pulling together my blogs into the manuscript, “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain.”
It is an interesting, and at times painful, experience. Remembering where I’ve been … both physically and emotionally. Selling my wedding rings.
Navigating unrequited crushes and affections, and struggling to let go of those which had run their course.
But I also am reminded of the support I received through it all. Much of it, unexpected.
A couch to sleep on. A light box to help manage Midwest winters. The friendship of a best friend’s sister.
Muchas gracias Jacqueline Baron, Darcy Livingston and Sheryl Stollman for these gifts, and for your generous contributions to “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — a new narrative for happily ever after, after a divorce.
I’m 9 years old. Or thereabouts. I’ve just started learning Hebrew — attending classes on Sunday mornings and Wednesday afternoons.
It is one of those Wednesday afternoons. Except now it is evening. And I am waiting.
Waiting with Rachel and Robbie, Michael and Ronnie. Waiting in the quickly darkening October chill for one of our parents to pick up our carpool.
It appears someone has forgotten.
All the other students are gone. The principal has left too, beeping his horn and waving while we wait outside the school.
Robbie and I walk to the corner store and use the payphone to call our parents. The rest stay behind … in case the delayed parent arrives.
I am a little bit scared, walking on the side of the road in the dark. I remind myself I am not alone. I am with Robbie. He is older, bigger. Handsome.
I do not recall the rest of the story … who it was that forgot to pick us up. And who eventually did.
I only remember my mother’s relief when I arrived home. Her anger toward the principal for leaving us at the school. And my own worry about not completing my homework for the next day … having arrived home so late.
I don’t have any other memories of Robbie — even though he lived right around the corner from us. And none of his younger sister, Amy Freedman.
So I was especially surprised and delighted when I received her contribution to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign.
Muchas, muchas gracias, Amy!
The joys of social media.
Thirty-plus years post Hebrew school, Amy and I have gotten to know one another on Facebook. Divine timing. Everything happens exactly when it is supposed to …
Like the ending of my 15-year relationship … which forced me to face the daunting task of taking responsibility for my own life and happiness.
Like finding myself “suddenly single against my will” … which nudged me toward two years of Artist Dates (one-person play dates), a three-week stag jaunt in Italy, and ultimately a year-long solo sojourn in Spain.
Like being underemployed … which gives me the time and ability to complete the manuscript, “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — a compilation of blogs from http://www.awanderingjewess.com.
Even waiting for a carpool on a dark October evening … which showed me how to walk through fear, and reminded me I’m really never alone.
I used to have a nickname in college — Lester. It still makes me cringe. I don’t know where it came from. In fact, it might even go back to high school. As I write these words, I hear voices of friends calling out, “Lester!”
I had another nickname too. One I had forgotten about until the other day … The Pest.
I was reminded by a friend of my brother’s in a private note she sent, along with a donation to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign.
Her intention was not to drudge up a painful past, but instead to marvel at the change in the relationship between my brother and me. Growing up, we were prone to unkind words and fist fights. Today, he speaks and writes about me with deep affection and pride, posting things to Facebook like —
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my beautiful, talented and well-traveled sister, Lesley Pearl. Being overseas on your birthday would be tough for some but knowing you, I am sure that they are lining up to celebrate with you!!”
Awww … sweet, right?
And I adore him equally.
Many thanks to my brother’s friend — for your generous contribution, and for reminding me that relationships change. Sometimes beautifully … like in the case of me and my brother.
And that other times … something beautiful comes from change, like the end of my marriage. While painful, the parting sent me off to create the life I had always dreamed of. A creation chronicled in “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain.”
Oh, and I think I’ll take Lester over The Pest any day …
Want to know more about “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — how 52 Artist Dates saved my soul after divorce and landed me smack in the middle of my own life — or how to contribute to my Go Fund Me campaign? Click here.
My commitment to the Artist Date began as a response to pain. To a man I affectionately referred to as the Southern Svengali and the short, sweet romance after my divorce that I couldn’t let go of. I sometimes forget that.
I forget because the weekly, solo play date as prescribed in the book The Artist’s Way, healed me from obsession I only hesitantly admitted.
I forget because two years of creative commitment, coupled with other work, allowed me to release him. Us. And my ideas about the way we should be in one another’s lives. (Which looks dramatically different than I had imagined. And while our contact can now best be described as sporadic, the connection remains strong … sweet and satisfying to both of us.)
I forget because it gently nudged me into becoming the kind of woman I dreamed of being. A woman engaged in life in interesting ways. Who does interesting things. Who has interesting conversations about more than relationships.
But today, I remember.
I remember as I find a hole in my schedule and watch my mind like a rubber band – snapping back to thoughts of the man I dated before I left for Madrid.
While I know there is no slipping back into one’s life as it once was, I had hoped we might explore dating again when I returned. But it hasn’t turned out that way. And in these quiet, alone moments, I find myself once again struggling with letting go. Of him. Us. And my ideas about the way we should be in one another’s lives.
And so it is grace when I hear the whisper that perhaps now is a good time to re-commit to my creative self again. That an infusion of new stimuli might once again quiet my mind and lead me back to the woman who has interesting conversations about more than relationships.
(While a year in Madrid seemed to have the makings of one grand, extended Artist Date, my days were filled with the stuff of life. All occurring in a language not my own. And Artist Dates became, unfortunately, sporadic.)
I peruse the movie guide — more concerned with time, location and the act of going than what will be projected on the screen – and choose a film.
I cut short a phone call. Say no to a text from a friend asking if I would like company. Both occurring after I’ve made the decision to go. The universe seeming to ask, “Are you sure?’
And I am.
I hop on my vintage 3-speed cruiser and pedal to the Music Box Theatre. Artist Date 1.2. (Officially, number 117 … renamed for congruence with my rededication to the practice and my return to Chicago.)
Grinning ear to ear, I purchase my ticket. Giddy to be with me.
This has always been the magic of the Artist’s Date. A turning inward. A return to myself.
Ironic, as the movie I have chosen – Life, Animated – is a documentary about Owen Suskind, a young man with autism and the tools he and his family use to pull him out from his personal world.
How Walt Disney movies become the lens and the lexicon for connection. The language for articulating what we all want. Friends. Romantic love. Work. A sense of purpose. And what we all feel from time to time, what Owen calls “the glop.” The inevitable pain when the things we want elude us.
We join him in watching scenes from Bambi on his first night alone in his independent living apartment – after his mother and father have left. And later, TheHunchback of Notre Dame when his girlfriend of three years ends their relationship.
Heartbreaking moments punctuated with joy and hope, most evident when Owen connects with his own passion and a sense of purpose. His “Disney Club” – where he and other adults with developmental disabilities view and discuss their favorite films. And experience an unscripted visit from Gilbert Godfrey, the voice of Iago from the movie Aladdin.
I sob witnessing their squeals of laughter, excitement and disbelief … as I am reminded that the universe is full of surprises. That it is always willing to conspire with us. And that our greatest joys often come packaged in a way dramatically different than we might imagine them.
That gorgeous moments of serendipity occur when we turn first turn inward – connecting with our tenderest truths – and then out – vulnerably sharing them. We allow the world to join our party. And sometimes even Gilbert Godfrey shows up.
I don’t know why. As my ex-boyfriend D once noted with great endearment, “You cry about everything.” But today they surprise me.
Perhaps because it is not quite noon (not that tears are a great respecter of clocks) and it seems early in the day to have such an outpouring of emotion. Or perhaps it is because I have spent the entirety of this Artist Date (number 116) mired in irritation.
I am at Madrid’s Teatro Real for a performance of Brundibar, Hans Krasa’s children’s opera, re-written from memory and performed 55 times at Theresienstadt – the ghetto and concentration camp located about an hour from Prague.
I feel awkward walking to the opera – just a few blocks from my house. It is a children’s performance and I am attending sans child. My discomfort is heightened as I show the usher my ticket.
“You know this is just one ticket? One seat,” she inquires.
Yes, I am aware.
And I am once again reminded of the Spaniards distaste for aloneness. I didn’t buy into this when it was first pointed out to me by a long-time expat during my first days in Madrid. Over the past nine months I’ve become increasingly more aware that at best, Spaniards do not value time spent alone, and at worst, pity it. My Spanish students and friends confirm this.
The child next to me is sniffling and blowing his nose. I privately regard him with disdain as a human petri dish and hope not to catch whatever has taken root in his small body. The pain in my leg and hip that has followed me from California to Chicago to Seattle to Madrid announces itself. A bodyworker by trade, I roll the skin of my thigh between my fingers – burning, painful – hoping to encourage its release. I am, in a word, distracted.
The opera is performed in Spanish – which I don’t expect, even though I know there will be no subtitles. For some reason I expect it to be performed in Czech, and that none of us will know the exact words being sung. Ridiculous.
But as it is in Spanish, I feel obligated to try to understand it. If it were any other language, I wouldn’t even try. Instead I would let the words wash over me, charmed by their different sounds and tickled if by chance I know any of them.
But this is not the case. And now, my Sunday morning Artist Date feels like a work. Like a Spanish lesson.
The performance lasts about 45 minutes. The music and costumes are fanciful and the children’s voices, high and sweet. I know its story because I read up on it last night.
It is a simple tale of fatherless children who need milk for their sick mother, but have no money to purchase it. They decide to sing in the marketplace to earn money but are chased away by the evil organ grinder, Brundibar (who represents Hitler). With the help of a bird, a cat, a dog and other children, they chase away Brundibar and are able to sing in the square.
But it is only as the performers take their bows that I connect to the performance and the story. Only now that the details I learned while reading in bed push up and out of me.
That among the 55 performances of the opera at Theresienstadt was one for the Red Cross, who had come to investigate conditions in the “ghetto,” and one for the Nazi propaganda film Der Fuher schenkt den Juden eine Stadt (The Führer Gives the Jews a City). That many of the Jews living in Theresiendstadt were sent to their deaths at Auschwitz prior to the Red Cross visit to make the ghetto appear less crowded and more comfortable. And that all who participated in the film were sent to Auschwitz upon its completion, and most of them gassed upon arrival.
That, according to Ela Weissberger, a survivor who played the role of the cat at Theresienstadt, the only time the children could remove their identifying yellow Star of David was during performances.
But it is what I have read on radio.cz that has moved me from irritation to tears.
“It is chilling to think that the cast had to be renewed constantly as a growing number of the children were transported to Auschwitz.”
It is this thought that runs through my head as the children take their bows, ironically on the second day of Passover – the celebration of the Jews liberation from slavery. That this cast will be renewed based upon age, not death. And I am no longer surprised by my tears.
Halloween 1979. I am 10-years-old. And too sick to go trick-or-treating.
In my diary, the one I have received earlier in month for my birthday – covered in blue flowers, with a lock, and the smell of old-lady perfume – I write, “I still have the ammonia.”
My mother cannot bear to tell me it is pneumonia, not ammonia that has me walking to the bathroom on tiptoes, holding my head, because full steps hurt too much.
This is not the first time. For three years in a row I have been diagnosed with either pneumonia, bronchitis or both. Always at this time of year – the season of ghosts and goblins, copious amounts of candy, the addition of one hour, and my birthday.
And then one day…nothing.
Seems I have outgrown my respiratory weariness.
I am walking up the stairs of the metro station at Puerta Del Toledo. My head is spinning. My eyes are dry. My throat, itchy and sore. I felt this coming on at lunch yesterday but had hoped to ward it off by jumping into bed early that night. I have already been sick twice this season.
But this time is different. I feel it in my lungs.
They are heavy. It is as if I can feel each alveola filling with air. I walk to my student’s home, trying to will the illness away. By 1 p.m. I am canceling my Spanish lesson and sending texts in hopes of finding others to take on my evening responsibilities.
I receive a deluge of responses, all with the same message – “Go to the doctor.”
A friend of mine, a native Madrileno, offers to make an appointment for me.
“Tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. Text me when you arrive.”
“Does the doctor speak English?” I ask.
“I don’t know.”
A little more than 12 hours later, I text her.
“Call me if you need help,” she writes.
Somehow I have gotten it in my head that she is meeting me here, but clearly I am confused. She is at work and I am fuzzy and unclear about pretty much everything.
“Okay,” I write back.
I check in, more or less without incident. And at 9:30, the doctor herself calls me into the exam room.
“Habla Ingles?” I ask, crossing both fingers and toes.
I burst into tears.
“Lo siento. Lo siento. (I’m sorry. I’m sorry.),” I squeak.
I am sick. I am overwhelmed. I am scared.
I am 10-years-old, holding my head and walking on my toes, missing Halloween.
And yet clearly I am not. I am 47 and in Madrid, typing back and forth with the doctor using Google Translate – telling her about my symptoms and my medical history.
She takes my temperature. She listens to my lungs. She checks my oxygen levels.
No fever. My lungs are clear. But she wants to run a blood test to find out why I keep getting sick.
I do not understand what she is saying, even with the translator. Probably because this idea is foreign to me.
I remember being in the emergency room in Chicago. Once a heart attack was ruled out, they sent me home.
“So what is it?”
Shrug. “Not a heart attack.”
The doctor calls my friend the Madrileno, who translates.
I get a prescription for ibuprofen and lozenges, as well as for blood work. The doctor schedules an appointment for a follow-up visit – with her English-speaking colleague.
I look at my watch. I have been in her office for an hour. A line of patients sit waiting in red chairs in the hallway.
I go downstairs and have my blood taken, then walk to the train – gingerly, nearly on my toes. On the way, I call one of my girlfriends to tell her “it is not the ammonia.”
“Good,” she says. She tells me that I have done a brave and scary thing — navigating the healthcare system of a foreign country in a language that I don’t quite know.
“Guess you can handle more than you think,” she says.
““The Artist Date is a once-weekly, festive, solo expedition to explore something that interests you. The Artist Date need not be overtly “artistic” — think mischief more than mastery. Artist Dates fire up the imagination. They spark whimsy. They encourage play. Since art is about the play of ideas, they feed our creative work by replenishing our inner well of images and inspiration. When choosing an Artist Date, it is good to ask yourself, “what sounds fun?” — and then allow yourself to try it.”
Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way
I tell myself that every day in Madrid is an Artist Date.
I am a liar.
I have been here a little more than 40 days. And it is true that most every day is a solo expedition – at least in part — and that most every day I am exploring something that interests me — my new home.
That there are moments of whimsy and of play, when everything looks like eye candy. Sun-washed orange and yellow apartment buildings, lined with rows of black iron balconies, that look like cardboard cut-outs against the navy-painted sky. Others the color of cotton candy, hugging a traffic circle that my friend Dirk refers to as “the big circus intersection.”
A man with two teeth playing accordion on the street. Another, with a full-white grin, feeding peacocks from his hand in Retiro Park.
Everything is new.
And yet my hours are filled with classes. With looking for an apartment and looking for work. (Blessedly, both have come to me quickly and easily.)
With scheduling appointments to complete my visa paperwork and to obtain a monthly Metro card. (No, I cannot just purchase one at the station.)
With navigating a new city and a new language.
Despite the creative inspiration surrounding me, my inner well has run dry.
I have felt this before, when my ex-husband and I moved cross-country – first to Chicago, and later to Seattle – when the work of the adventure of living some place new took so much out of us that we had little, if anything, left to give the other.
Our relationship needed tending to, but we couldn’t see it.
And now this relationship, mine to myself, does too.
I respond, purchasing myself a ticket to the Victor Ullate Ballet’s performance Samsara – Artist Date 109, my first in Madrid.
The ballet announces itself to me every morning on the Metro, a siren-like blur through the windows as the train passes from Opera to Diego de Leon.
At home, I watch a video clip online and feel that heart-leaping-out-of-my-skin-I-know-this-is-God-sensation I have gotten every time I see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
This, coupled with a Tuesday ticket discount and a single seat available at the end of the second row, proves an irresistible combination, and a few hours later I am walking up Calle San Bernardo to Teatros del Canal.
I’m giddy in that “I’ve got a secret” kind of way, which is not unusual for an Artist Date…except that something my friend Robert told me the day after I arrived has been banging around in my head ever since.
“Spaniards don’t do anything alone,” he said. “A server will bring a glass of wine to a woman eating alone because he pities her.”
This has been confirmed by others.
This does not bode well for a woman who travels alone, goes to movies and lectures and operas alone, who not only enjoys being alone but craves her own company.
And yet, no one seems to notice me standing at the bar eating a piece of chocolate cake – alone – before the performance.
And no one seems to notice me sitting at the end of the second row – alone — during the performance. Least of all, me.
I am too caught up in the music. In the movement. The costumes. The stories.
I am too caught up in counting the dancers’ ribs and watching beads of sweat literally slip sideways off of them.
I am too caught up trying to translate the Buddhist quotes projected on the stage before they fade away.
I am too caught up trying to keep my heart from leaping out of my skin because I know this is God. Because this is decidedly Alivin Ailey-esque — specifically Revelations, Part 1: “I’ve Been Buked” – and my body knows the motions, my lips know the words.
I am at once in my seat and in the dance, but most certainly not in the head of any Spaniard who might want to buy me a glass of wine because he pities my being alone.
It is a Revelation. It is Samsara, “journeying” – birth, death, rebirth.
The first time when I left Seattle — my therapist gave me a copy of the poem “Love After Love” by Derek Walcott.
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome.
and say, sit here. Eat
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back you heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you have ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letter from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on you life.
The second time was a few months later, when my friend Sarah sent me a text, a photograph of a page in a book and a couple of highlighted lines — I do not remember the exact language, something about “holding on to the jewel that is myself” and “no more compromises.”
Both sounded like a bunch of pretty words and glib proclamations — neither which I could relate to.
My heart was broken. I was broken. Being alone was the worst thing I could imagine, as I was sure it was an indicator of what my future looked like.
I wanted to dress my wounds with the skin of another, healing from the outside in — although I didn’t realize it at the time.
And yet, I put the Walcott poem up on my refrigerator, next to a portion of the poem “Dreams of Desire” by Oriah House…
I want to know if you can be alone
and if you truly like the company you keep
in the empty moments.
…and next to a tiny square of paper that had fallen from one of my journals. It was old — leftover from my single days in my 20s in Detroit. I do not know the source.
Most of us approach things exactly the wrong way around. First we want someone else to make us feel secure by lavishing us with affection and approval. But what you find out is that you are the source of love. When you have done the right inner work, you find that those black holes, those persistent needs and demands have been covering up the source of love, the boundless ocean of love within you.
It seems a higher part of me deeply understood the power of words and of seeing the same words day after day, and it believed in the ability of words to burrow into my subconscious and change me.
And so I find myself aching to be alone and responding with what Twyla Tharp calls “the creative habit” — the Artist Date, number 107.
It is unplanned.
I see posters for the show “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” on my way into work and decide to go. I mention this, throwing in the words “Artist Date,” to my colleague Nancy.
“Oh that’s right…you have a date tonight,” she says, not quite hearing or grasping what I have said.
It is true, I do have a date tonight — the first in many, many months. But first I have a date with myself, I explain.
I bound up the stairs of the Chicago Cultural Center as if to meet a lover. Instead, I meet myself along with the paintings that have called me here.
They are vibrant, sensual, humorous — each telling a story that can only be told by one who has lived it.
Gazing in silence, the chatter of my mind clears. I can hear my breath, my heart. I can feel the cool of lush trees and grass and even a man’s suit — painted an Easter green in “Sunday in the Park.” I can feel the heat of pink bodies — all breasts and asses, high heels and cigarettes (Delightful!) in “Between Acts.”
I can feel my own body soften and fill with a sense of contentedness that comes with giving myself what I need most — in this moment it is time, attention, quiet, a sense of normalcy.
Perhaps this is why I take an Artist Date today — before a more traditional one– so that I might fill myself with these things and not mistakenly ask another to, so that I might have a chance to greet myself at my own door and feast.