Things Change. Feelings Change. I Change.

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

One year.

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

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

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

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

Things change.

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

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

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

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

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

The Southern Svengali.

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

I was wrong.

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

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

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

I was wrong about that too.

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

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

Things change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Cotton is the Proper Gift for a Was-A-Versary

Today is my wedding anniversary.

Twelve years ago today...
Twelve years ago today…

Except I’m no longer married.

What do you call an anniversary that is no longer?

Was-a-versary? Once-upon-a-time-a-versary?  Just plain shitty?

Are there traditional gifts for it like for a wedding anniversary?  Paper for the first year?

Yes, of course.  Divorce papers.

And cotton for the second?  According to the wedding website, The Nest, cotton represents durability and the ability to adapt.

Yes.  This is so.  Even on days when I feel really fragile.

I don’t remember this day last year.  The first.  Perhaps it was just too painful and my brain protected me, blocking it out.  Like it does, I am told, with the pain of childbirth – this “amnesia” being necessary for the perpetuation of the species.

The amnesia has cleared.  And this year I am more than present for the pain.

It hit me out of nowhere, or so it seemed – arriving Wednesday and continuing to linger like a low-grade cold that lasts all winter long.

I arrived home from my cousin’s wedding, the second in less than 30 days, and was riding my bike when I felt a rush of energy shoot through my body.  It centered in my heart and moved out to my extremities.  Coursing, over and again.  Sharp heat.

I pedaled as hard as I could – trying to force flush this poison from my system.  It didn’t budge.

My eyes welled up behind my oversized Old Navy sunglasses.  My nose flared and felt hot.  But I couldn’t quite squeak out a cry.

I needed more than a cry.  I needed a wail.

This is the feeling I used to drink over.

I should have seen it coming.  The weddings.  The short-lived sex with a boy 12 years my junior.  It was great fun, but as so often has been the case in my history, over practically before it began.  Over before I was done.

Tim, Master Cake Maker.
Tim — Friend, former roommate and wedding-cake baker.

He told me up front he was in no place for a relationship.  But “a little sex won’t kill me,” he said.  Funny, I told him it might kill me.  I knew that somehow my heart would hurt, but I couldn’t help myself.

And then I cut a cord that tethered my ex and I together.  I told him I could not be his best friend.

Our divorce was about as amicable as they get.  We lived together through it all.  Used a mediator.  Never went to court.  The whole thing was done in less than six months.

The night before I left Seattle we sat on his bed waxing nostalgic – remembering him calling me and asking me out for the first time, and me asking “Why?”

He said I was pretty and I had cool shoes.  And then he looked in my eyes and told me I was still pretty.  That I still had cool shoes.  The next morning, I was gone before he woke.

We were close for a while.  And then we weren’t.  I began to heal.  I leaned into the people about me.  Into my art, my writing, my dance.  He noticed the change in me.  In the dwindling frequency of our conversations and commented on it.

“I guess you need space,” he remarked.  I did.  But I was so afraid of losing him in my life that I asked for it in a wishy-washy sort of way.  Backpedaling often.

When he said it again, a week or so ago, I replied in the affirmative.  This time with a little more backbone, adding, “I cannot be your best friend.”  He immediately, expectedly, retreated.

On Wednesday, home from my travels, and the whirlwind that has been my life for the past few weeks, I felt the culmination of the days and of my experiences.  Grief.  Sadness.  It crashed over me like a wave, and all I could do was feel the incredible force of it.

It reminded me of body surfing in Punta Mita with my ex – the Pacific Ocean as warm as bath water.  I got caught by a rip tide and was thrust down into the sand beneath me, head first.  Terrifying.  I began to flail, unsure which way was up.  Until I remembered what I had been taught.

wedding toastDon’t fight.  Stay still.  That my body would naturally float to the surface.  And it did.

I never told my ex, or anyone else, about the experience.  Until now.

I’ve been back in the ocean many times since then.  The experience remains with me.  A shadow.  A teaching.  A reminder, like all of my experiences – especially the most recent ones –I am durable.  Adaptable.  Like cotton.

The Last of the Firsts

Dancing in Rwanda last July.
Dancing in Rwanda last July.

I thought that Passover was the last of the firsts…first holidays, birthdays, anniversaries without my ex-husband.

I was wrong.

I knew that July 4th was technically the last, but I didn’t think it would matter.  It wasn’t of special significance to either of us.

And yet, here I am in my pajamas, feeling it.  I’m sick.  Sore throat. Heavy eyes.  Headache.  Exhausted.  It came on fast and furious yesterday afternoon and by this morning had me down for the count.  No beach and BBQ to distract me.  I’m aware that yes, this holiday too, registers in the cycle of firsts.

Funny enough, we weren’t together for the 4th last year.  I was on my way to Rwanda, with a group from my synagogue in Chicago.  He was in Seattle, dating another woman.  We were pretty transparent about these things.  At times, painfully so.

But I was coming back to Seattle.  To the home we still shared with our cats Maude and Nin.  To “our life,” altered as it was.

It wasn’t until I left in August, arriving in Chicago the evening before Labor Day, when the cycle began.

Labor Day was a blur through tears.   Then his birthday.  Rosh Hashanah.  Yom Kippur.  Our wedding anniversary.  And my birthday.  In quick succession.

Our divorce was final on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

I didn’t have a dinner at my house as I usually do.  I didn’t yet have a house.

Instead, when I received the dissolution of marriage papers in the mail a few days later, I gathered a few friends in support.  We ate noodles together – never mentioning why we were there.

I broke the fast on Yom Kippur at a friend’s house.  She let me know that once invited, I am always invited.

I don’t recall his birthday or mine.  Or our anniversary.  What I remember are the beautiful gifts he gave me for many years.  A hand-carved wooden jewelry box.  A hand-colored pearl and smoky quartz necklace I had been coveting.  Things I mentioned in passing and had forgotten about, but that he made note of, and surprised me with.

Halloween passed without fanfare.

Then Thanksgiving hit hard.  I was invited to the home of a friend of a friend.  She also told me that once invited, always invited.

Thanksgiving was our “wandering” holiday, ever since we left California.  Up until then we spent it with my old roommate Tim, who hosted it Martha Stewart-style, complete with printed menus.

Once year we traveled to Chicago to be with Tim, when he lived here for about 10 months.  We called it “the year Tim worked a lot.”  We were in complete denial that he was gone.

Another time we shared breakfast with him and Steven, at IHOP.  We were on our way to London, for our honeymoon – just after 9/11.  The airport was spooky quiet.

We never had a Thanksgiving ritual in Chicago or Seattle.  We were always invited somewhere, but it was never the same.  The only constant was that we were together.

I celebrated my sober birthday in late November with a big soiree at my house.  He was noticeably absent.  Neither there to make pot after pot of coffee nor to help clean up.  I texted my South Carolina crush late that night, when everyone was gone and the last dish was in the rack, feeling palpably and frighteningly alone.  He had already gone to bed.

Making risotto.
Making risotto.

I was invited to spend Christmas Eve with some new friends.  Christmas Day I found myself at the table where I had spent Thanksgiving.  My ex and I spoke frequently over those 24 or so hours, remembering our Christmas Eve gatherings – a take-off on my cousin Wendy’s annual party on Christmas Day for Jews who have nothing to do.  I would make a big pot of mushroom risotto.  He would bake.  Christmas Day we would go to a movie.

We were both pretty heartsick.  Both of us broken-hearted by our forays into new romance.  We found comfort talking with one another.

New Year’s Eve I spent at a party at my friend Sheila’s house.  I didn’t make it until midnight.

The year before we were skiing at Steven’s Pass.  My ex rented a house that backed up to a river.  It had a loft bedroom, crazy fireplace and heated floors.  We sang karaoke and did jigsaw puzzles.  I brought the knitting needles, yarn and instruction manual he bought me for Hanukkah.  I never used them.

We bickered on the trails.  He was a cross-country skate skier.  I was not.  In our early years together I took a few lessons and  got moderately better.  But I never really got the hang of it.  We incorporated wine tasting into our ski weekends, drinking before or after.  Sometimes both.  It worked.  Until it didn’t.  When I didn’t drink anymore.

That last trip, I spent a few hours in the “lodge,” – an anonymous room where one could purchase chili, cookies wrapped in plastic film and powdered cocoa while the television blared.  I read Patti Smith’s Just Kids,  while he skied hard, the way he liked to.

This year on Valentine’s Day, I unearthed our last cards to one another.  They were sad.  We knew that our marriage was ending but hadn’t yet said the words.  I blogged about it.

By March it was over.  He asked me for a divorce at the end of that month, just before Passover.

I invited a handful of friends for a Seder in Seattle.  He joined us.  It didn’t seem unusual at the time.

This year I celebrated twice.  Once at my friend Mary Jo’s.  A second time in my apartment, looking out at the Catholic church across the street.  There were 12 of us.  Some of the usual suspects, friends I had made over the years in Chicago, as well as some new guests.  My Divorce Buddy, the one I used to spend hours on the phone with late into the evening, stayed to do dishes with me.  It didn’t feel so lonely.  Not until he asked me about one of my girlfriends.

Me and Ernie at the beach.
Me and Ernie at the beach.

Memorial Day I rode my bike to a BBQ and blogged about where I was the year before – with my friend Ernie, at the ocean, wringing my hands about making out with Mr. Thursday Night, worried it wouldn’t happen again.  It didn’t.

June 19 was the anniversary of our first date.  I know that because it’s my brother’s birthday.

July 4.  An entire cycle completed.  Unless you count the first time we had sex, which I recall only because it is my cousin David’s birthday and we had drinks with him in San Francisco at the Latin American Club that night.  That will be later this month.  I don’t *think* it will rattle me as I’ve never marked the occasion before, just been aware of it.

The sun is going down.  It is noisy outside.  I am reminded of when we lived in Humboldt Park.  July 4 felt like a war zone.

I was invited to a BBQ tonight by a man I recently met.  He’s easy to talk to – open and forthright about his divorce.  He’s a good hugger.  Nice looking.  I don’t have any feelings about him.  But I’d like to get to know him better.

I sent him a text telling him I won’t make it tonight.

I made myself kale salad, roasted squash and corn on the cob.  I read, napped, wrote and napped some more.  I walked a few blocks to Paciaugo for gelato – campfire banana, orange-chocolate-saffron and rose – came home and put my pajamas back on.

It all seems right somehow, spending the last of my first alone.  Caring for myself.  Readying myself for a whole new cycle of experiences.