Jewish, Solo and Sans Chinese Food. And Merry on Christmas.

jewish-christmasI have never known what to do on Christmas.

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.

Upon hearing my plans, my mother asked, “Will you like being alone on your birthday?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “We’ll find out.”

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.

And Christmas?

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.

What I Didn’t Write — October and November — or Act, Don’t React

For what feels like the longest time, I’ve barely been able to blog. “I’ve been ‘in the day,’ ” I tell myself – which is true – but I’ve also felt “stuck” by all that wasn’t said. For some reason, perhaps it is the over-explainer in me, I’ve felt the need to bring everything and everyone “up to date.”

I compiled two blogs. One — Facebook posts from my arrival in Madrid on July 29 through August — settling in, finding my way, being a student, and being enchanted by seemingly everything and everyone. And Two — Facebook posts from September – my past bumping up to my present, visits from friends and High Holy Day celebrations.

The third and final compilation follows – October and November — travel, celebrations, and interactions with Madrilenos, my “real life” in Madrid…officially “up to date.”

October 2

Just got paid for the first time since late July…in euros, straight into my Spanish bank account. Definitely one of those moments when I realize, “Oh, I’m not just *here* in Spain. I work here. I live here.” Some days, that amazing truth is still a surprise to me.

October 5

In the elevator of my apartment building…4-year-old girl with a cat’s face on her t-shirt is looking at me while speaking to her father. Father, who knows I speak only a little Spanish, translates, “My daughter thinks girls should not have such short hair.” If I were anywhere but Spain, I would think this man an ass — or at the very least, oblivious.

But he speaks these words with such a kind voice and a genuine smile…as if he is trying to connect with me. As if he is telling me she likes unicorns and chocolate ice cream. Merely speaking the truth. I smile at them both and nod, “Si, el pelo corto…”

October 9

Bound for Valencia! Early birthday gift to myself… beach, bike, big ol’ bathtub and cooked breakfast waiting at the Airbnb.

Last year I celebrated with breakfast in Rome and dinner in Paris…and with the acute awareness that my charmed holiday would end the next day. This year, my jaunt is accompanied with the amazing sensation of “Oh, I’m just zipping off to Valencia for the weekend..” followed by “Holy crap, this is my life!”

October 9

Riding through Valencia in my Fly London wedges, pencil skirt and Jackie O sunglasses (and a helmet, of course)…a new pair of Flys in the basket and a couple of dresses I have no business buying in a pink bag over my shoulder…smiling at the palm trees, the flavor of turrone gelato fresh on my lips. Life is good. Thanks for getting me on the bike all those years ago, Lee. I do it a little differently these days…but still love being in the saddle.

October 10

Persimmons, pulpo, pimienton and PAELLA!

My Airbnb host told me I couldn’t get paella for one. Not fresh, at least. Only a racion from a big pan cooked earlier in the day. And then the universe swooped in. Correction, Laura swooped in.

We’d only known one another through our mutual friend Carrie and Facebook. When she saw I was in Valencia, her home for the past 30 years, she sent me a note and we made a date. She asked if there was anything I’d been hankering for. Well, as a matter of fact…

Mmm, with chicken and rabbit and burnt crunchy bits on the bottom.

Full with delicious food and beautiful new friendships.

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October 11

Made it to the beach…

Massage on the beach…quite possibly the best 20 euros I’ve ever spent. Seconded only by the lounge chair I am lying on while writing this. My body is very, very happy. As is my spirit.

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October 14

Hallelujah! I found chard. I’ve been on the hunt for kale, but this will more than do. A little garlic, some olive oil… And delightfully, persimmons — or what my friend Sara affectionately calls “tree candy” — abound.

October 18

As is my usual ritual, I woke up this morning, opened my window, then padded off to the kitchen to make coffee. When I returned, the bedroom was awash in pink light. I peeked out the window to see the sun making its way down the walls of the inner courtyard, then bouncing off of someone’s washing. Mundane. Magical.

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October 18

Madrid mornings have been chilly. High 30s, low 40s. Today my friend Alexis arrived from Chicago — with my wool coat. Nikki had been keeping it since I left. She packed it up along with my meditation pillow, threw in some vitamin D, Airborne, Clear Care contact solution and a roll of Weight Watchers Bravos, one of my cashmere sweaters and two pieces of fabric, one from India (thank you Paul), and one from my trip to Rwanda. Strangely, I was going to ask her to send the pieces of cloth to me, but she seemed to intuitively know.

Alexis added two bags of walnuts and a bag of almonds from Whole Foods — which would have cost about 20 euros each here — and a bar of olive oil soap from her summer trip to Greece.

I got teary unpacking these humble pieces of my life…held and delivered with such care and love. Quite possibly the best birthday gift ever…topped off with tapas at Mercado San Miguel and a walk with my friend through this magical city I now call home.

October 20

“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!”

October 20

Cake before noon? Well sure…it IS my birthday. And we didn’t finish it. Thanks Maria for making 46 in Madrid so special!

October 21

Humbled and delighted by the bounty of well wishes on my birthday. Phone calls, Skypes, texts, cards, Facebook messages literally from around the world. And even a few regalos…a violet plant from my landlady and roommate, a mug from my lunchtime students reminding me to begin the day with joy, earrings (lovely enough that I took out my signature star and stud) and a wooly forever scarf from my forever friend Maria. I am blessed…

October 22

Pulled on my wool coat, the one Nikki held on to and had Alexis bring to me here in Madrid. Slipped my hands into the pockets and felt paper. “What the hell did I leave in here?” Turns out…nothing. I pulled out my hands, and in them, a few love notes from my dear, dear friend. Wonderful surprise. Wonderful reminder. Everybody needs a Nikki in their life.

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October 23

Lisbon, Portugal…November 6-9.

October 24

Some of my most favorite moments in Madrid involve me tripping over my Spanish while the Spaniard before me trips over his or her English. The two of us apologizing and laughing and smiling, celebrating one another’s victories in finding the right word, delighted in being understood, to be somehow communicating. I always walk away feeling surprisingly connected…and happy.

October 25

And why wouldn’t there be a parade of women drummers in skirts reminiscent of turkeys and heavy black boots at lunchtime in Lavapies? We all couldn’t help but follow them down the street.

Afternoon in Lavapies. Stuffed with butter chicken and besan ladoo.

drummers in lavapies

October 26

Wise tea bag…easier said than done.

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October 30

I love when Chicago arrives in Madrid (seemingly unexpectedly)…and feeling like I am meeting a long-lost cousin for the very first time. How magical and strange that we are only now meeting, and on this side of the Atlantic. I suppose it was time…

Nov 2

Segovia. Magical…

 

me in segovia

November 6

Weekend forecast is 60s, 70s and sunny. On my way…

Sometimes I am in awe of the power of intention. I mentioned to a friend this morning that I really needed some touch … And that I hoped to get a massage this weekend. I’m out the door in Lisbon not 20 minutes and I stumble onto a beautiful spa. They have an appointment available in 30 minutes…

Note: This is pretty much the story of how I met my ex-husband.

November 6

Lisbon…I’ve got a big, fat crush on you. Hills and cobblestone and a big orange bridge. Trolley cars, fresh seafood and chesnut gelato. And perhaps one of the most profound massages of my life…not even sure why, it just was.

Oh, but the people! The old man at the tobacco kiosk who took me — took me! Not pointed me– to a shop where I could save 1 euro on my trolley ticket. And the one who spoke not a lick of English but understood “Ramiro” when I asked and did pointed me to it…then literally chased me down the street a few minutes later when I passed by the restaurant and walked me back, dropping me at the door…talking in Portuguese the entire time, even though I told him I didn’t understand any of it. Yep, big fat crush!

 

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November 8

Another reason I’ve fallen for Lisbon…music and dance “just happens.”

November 9

I continue to be surprised and delighted when, at an airport or train station in Europe, my espresso comes in a china demitasse and I am given a proper plate and flatware for my meal. However, this morning, running short on time, I took my food to go. I feel like the consummate American eating it at the gate…it seems it is “just not done.”

November 9

Madrid Jazz Festival. This Friday at 8. Conde Duque. Marc Ribot and the Young Philadelphians. Who’s in?

November 13

Not that I ever doubted you, Lauren but ooohhhh…what a trip to El Corte Ingles can do for North American soul. Eyebrow wax and tint at the Benefit Brow Bar ( Pamela, I feel a little bit like I cheated on you…but I think Sarai did a pretty awesome job.) And FAT-FREE Greek yogurt. I haven’t had either in nearly 4 months. Feeling just a little bit more like myself.

November 14

Standing with the Mayor and people of Madrid in 5 minutes of silence…prayers for the people of Paris, and for people everywhere.

November 14

Vision Board. Once again, time to create the roadmap of my subconscious. (I cannot believe I found Mod Podge!)

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Alone Again…Naturally

A few weeks ago, over dinner, a woman I know asked me who traveled with me to Italy.

“No one,” I answered. “Myself.”

Silence.

Like the silence I heard when I was a we, and responded to the question “Do you have children?” with a simple “No.” The quiet, uncomfortable space while they waited for some sort of explanation.  Something to make them feel more comfortable with the answer that made them uncomfortable.

The same silence that often greets me when responding to the question, “Are you seeing anyone?” with “No.” The same quiet waiting, for “But I was…” or “Well there is this guy I just met.”  Or my friend Patsy’s genius answer, “I am seeing a lot of different men.”

For a while I acquiesced…talking about my not-quite-relationships. My Divorce Buddy.  The Southern Svengali.  The friendships, flirtations and occasional dalliances that made me feel like I had something going on.  The relationships that ended seemingly before they even started.  I think it made us both feel better.

This time was different. I felt no need to explain my solo voyage.  In fact, I was downright chuffed (to turn a British phrase), pleased with myself and the situation I consciously and happily put myself in – alone for 17 days in Italy.

A few days later, I was asked the same question about travel mates.  And I watched as the woman’s smile wrinkled into a pained frown.  “You were alone…on your birthday?”  The same question my mother asked me before I left.  The same question I had asked myself.

Happy on my birthday, in Paris.
Happy on my birthday, in Paris.

“Yes! It was awesome!”

I told her about my 15-hour layover in Paris. About walking along the Seine, seeing Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, laughing out loud, asking no one in particular, “Who goes to Paris for dinner on their birthday?” and replying, “I do.”

I told her about being present to the moment. About the real birthday present – of not wanting anything to be other than it was.  Not wishing for a man or a friend.  Not wishing I had worn something different, eaten something different, stayed in a different apartment.

She looked confused.

I’ve been thinking about why this trip was different. Why I was different.

I have traveled by myself before – on press trips and volunteer projects and meeting up with friends on the other end. But only truly “alone” once before – in the few days before and after participating in a volunteer project in the south of France.

I had longed to travel alone.  It represented who I wanted to be.  Adventurous.  Glamorous.  Strong.  A world traveler.  And yet, when I arrived in Paris alone in 2006 I only felt sad, scared and alone.

My answer, or at least part of it, came in an email from my friend Melinda.  In it, she mentioned going to a play reading – by herself – completely spur of the moment.

“It kind of reminded me of your Artist Dates.”

Artist Date. Balm to my soul.  Savior of my heart and mind.  The simple suggestion by Julia Cameron in the book The Artist’s Way of a once a week “walkabout” to fill one’s creative coffers.

I took on the challenge nearly two years ago. Newly divorced and painfully licking the wounds of my first forays “back out there.”   I had heard others talk about feeling free, having great sex, or at the very least, a lot of it, following the dissolution of their marriages.  My efforts and experiences only left me feeling scared, desperate and crazy.

In a moment of grace, I turned away from convention, from the promises of partnership, and toward myself through weekly Artist Dates. To the opera.  To the Art Institute.  To ethnic grocery stores and new neighborhoods.  To theatre and concerts.  Alone.

Reading Melinda’s email, it occurred to me that perhaps all of this “structured aloneness” had prepared me for this – a seeming marathon of solitude.

Arriving in Rome alone last month, I felt the same anxious fear that had accompanied me to Paris. But this time I didn’t try to act cool.  I didn’t try to pretend I was a local or that I even knew where I was.

I held a map in my hand, asked a lot of questions and opened myself to the possibility of getting lost, or worse, of looking stupid.

I challenged myself to not take cabs. To depend on trains, buses and trams.

On my feet. On myself.  And the time-tested kindness of strangers.

Strangers who reminded me I was never really alone. Leonardo, the 19-year-old man/boy, who saved me from boarding the wrong bus – twice – in Arezzo.

With Leonardo, who saved me from going to God-Knows-Where. Twice!
With Leonardo, who saved me from going to God-Knows-Where. Twice!

Delilah, another volunteer at Altrocioccolato – the fair trade chocolate festival in Umbria where I began my journey – who sent me to her brother, his wife and cousin in Florence for Aperitivo – the Italian version of happy hour, but with a much better buffet, and a drive through the city.

Who organized a dinner party – which became my birthday party, complete with candles, singing and gifts – among her English-speaking friends when I arrived in Rome a few days later.

Roman Birthday Party. Delilah, the hostess, is in black.
Roman Birthday Party. Delilah, the hostess, is in black.

Seems my Artist Dates, my time alone, prepared me to be alone. For long walks, shopping at flea markets and eating fatty pork sandwiches while sitting on the edge of a fountain in Campo De Fiore.

It also prepared me to be with people – with ideas and experiences to share.

But mostly it prepared me for my life, the one I dreamed of not so many years ago in Paris— Adventurous. Glamorous.  Strong.  A world traveler.

 

 

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.

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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.