Only Someone Who Should Be a Rabbi Thinks …

doors open
“They” say when things are right doors fling open.

I am sitting with my new friend C talking about resistance, mine in particular. It is early spring according to the calendar, but the weather gods seem to have missed the message and so I am wrapped in my Eddie Bauer sleeping bag coat sipping hot tea. The sun streams in through large, plate-glass windows while cold air blasts onto us from the vents above.

C sips a milky iced coffee seemingly unfazed by these temperature disparities. I imagine this is what makes her a good (albeit now retired) pastor, and what makes her a good spiritual guide – her presence.

I am questioning my path to the rabbinate. This is nothing new. The resistance has been with me as long as the call, more than 25 years. What is different is this time I have pushed beyond consideration. I completed the application process last spring – writing a series of essays and gathering transcripts and letters of recommendation – was invited for an interview last fall, and days before Thanksgiving, was offered a seat in the fall 2019 class at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

I have put down my deposit, secured a place to live in Philadelphia, and at the school’s suggestion taken on formal study of both Biblical and modern Hebrew.

The money for the deposit. The Biblical Hebrew class that fit neatly into my crowded schedule. The professor who offered to tutor me in modern Hebrew for free. The room in Mt. Airy – my neighborhood of choice – that meets all of my wish-list requirements including “cost effective” and “with good lighting.” All of these things have fallen into place seemingly magically, with little or next to no effort on my part.

It seems clear that the universe has been conspiring to make me a rabbi.

What is not different is my resistance. To what?  I am not certain. The time? Six years. The move? Yet another. The Hebrew? Daunting. The debt? Maybe.

The thought of me as a rabbi first arose when I was 23 or 24 and in the middle of an exciting but painful love affair with a man who was considering the rabbinate himself.

“I would not be a very good rebbitzin,” I mused, (not that he ever asked). “But I would be a hell of a rabbi.”

The words surprised me, but I said and did nothing. More than 15 years would pass before I would hear them again, first like a whisper — a friend recalling the first thing I ever told her about myself was that I wanted to be a rabbi – then growing more loudly, as I reminded my husband of our agreement that it would be “my turn,” once he completed medical school and residency, which he was just about to do.

He struggled to envision us moving from Seattle – where we had just moved to and where he had secured his dream job as a doctor – to Philadelphia – where he did not have a job or any prospects — carrying $200,000 in medical school debt and loans because I might want to be a rabbi.

Truthfully, I did too.

When we divorced less than a year later and it was unquestionably “my turn,” the desire left me entirely. Gone. Until about two years ago when I felt its familiar pull during High Holy Day services, like an impatient child tugging at my sleeve, yet again, “pay attention to me.”

I mention this to our congregation’s rabbinical intern.

“Oh yes,” he says, drawing out his “s” like a snake.

“Oh no,” I reply.

“Why not?”

I mutter something about not wanting to study Hebrew and Aramaic, which sounds mostly ridiculous as it falls out of my mouth, and about not wanting “the life” of a rabbi, to which the intern points out the unconventional congregation of which we are a part. Then I say something which sounds like the truth.

“Who will date me?”

I think I throw up a little bit inside my mouth.

Have I been resisting my heart’s desire because a potential partner might find it unacceptable? It seems possible. And now that I know this, I cannot unknow it.

And so, I begin leaning into this calling that I do not understand and all of its associated fears, taking each step that has made “this time” different. Almost as soon as I begin, I meet a man – Jewish, sober and covered in tattoos.

“This is my guy,” I think.

And for a moment, he is. And then he isn’t. When he ends our brief romance – in about the nicest, mensch-iest way I can imagine – I decide to try out/try on my rabbinical aspirations with him. As he is already “gone,” I have nothing to lose.

“D,” I stammer. “I think I might kind of, sort of, maybe want to be a rabbi.”

“That is amazing,” he says, smiling big, his eyes meeting mine.

I cock my head like a cartoon dog, surprised by his response. I ask if he would feel this way if we were still dating, as introducing your girlfriend “the rabbi” is different than introducing your girlfriend “the lawyer.” At least to my mind.

“Absolutely,” he says.

Tears stream down my cheeks. My shameful fear has turned out to be a bogeyman.

C looks up from her iced coffee.

“God’s got skills,” she says.

I nod.

“You know that saying we have in Alcoholics Anonymous,” she says. “That no normal drinker thinks, ‘Maybe I should go to an AA meeting.’ Only someone who should be in AA thinks about going to AA.’

“I think it’s like that. Only someone who should be a rabbi thinks ‘Maybe I should be a rabbi.’ ”

 

 

Artist Date 5.2: A Rabbi Like Me

 

According to my friend Deb, one of the first things I ever told her was I wanted to be a rabbi.

I have no recollection of this conversation. However, I do not doubt it as this idea has danced around and inside of me for some time.

I’m not exactly sure where or when it took root. Best I can surmise is some time between my post-college, rabbi-to-be lover and coffee with Deb circa 2007.

Most everyone I have mentioned this to over the years thinks it an obvious next step. Perhaps, most especially, Rabbi Brant Rosen.

“In some ways, you kind of already are (a rabbi),” he told me during one of our monthly meetings.

And yet, each time I seem to be moving toward it … I step away.

Most notably, when my then-husband asked me for a divorce in 2012.

No longer did I have to consider his career path. The four years of medical school and four years of residency that had just earned him a lucrative job offer in Seattle. That rabbinical school was in Philadelphia. Or New York. Los Angeles or Boston.

Only that, suddenly I could go.

I bought Hebrew workbooks. Interviewed recent graduates. Secured the domain name “A Wandering Jewess.”

I availed myself of help offered by spiritual leaders in both Seattle and Chicago.

And yet, not long after my divorce was final, the desire fell away.

I didn’t want to cloister myself away studying ancient Aramaic for five years, I said. I took issue with the schools’ policy of not admitting seminary students with non-Jewish partners. Even though I didn’t even have a partner. (The Reconstructionist Rabbinical College has since revoked that policy.)

I wondered about my aptitude for learning Hebrew. Was unclear about what I would do with my ordination. And feared, as a rabbi, I would never find romantic love again.

“Who will I meet?” I asked my rabbi, in earnest. “Another rabbi,” he replied. I wasn’t sure I wanted that either.

So I returned to writing — following a 15-year hiatus — instead. I pursued other work. Fulfilled a life-long dream of living in Europe. (And dove head-first into a delicious three-month romance with a delightful not-Jewish man before leaving the country.)

I applied to the School of Divinity at Yale University.

Anything but re-open my consideration of rabbinical school.

Until recently.

I’ve heard my own voice whisper in possibility, in surrender. Words like “Maybe” and “Really? OK …” But have said little. Until Friday, Artist Date 5.2 (or 121, depending on how you count.)

I ride the number 80 bus to the number 47 and walk about 10 blocks – arriving just a few minutes before Shabbat services at Tzedek Chicago, a new congregation founded by Rabbi Rosen while I was living in Madrid. The congregation is (somewhat ironically) meeting a couple of streets over from the home my ex-husband and I once owned.

There is music and poetry, prayer and politics. Many familiar faces. Many not – like Leah, who plays the guitar and sings. I am reminded of Passover seders and other holiday gatherings … watching Jews sing with unabashed joy, Jews who not only embrace but roll around in their faith as if it were a cashmere blanket.

I am not this kind of Jew. And up until now, I have seen this as proof that I am not “rabbi material.”

Up until now.

I hitch a ride home from services with my friend Elaine. A young woman from Kalamazoo is in the back seat. She has come to Chicago for the weekend, her 22nd birthday, to attend services at Tzedek Chicago.

Her father is Jewish, her mother – Chinese … and she is all Jew. Like me, a Jew (at least to some) who converted to Judaism. But unlike me – an adoptee raised by a Jewish family but not born into one – has only recently claimed this faith as her own.

She plans to apply to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College this fall. And she has spent a summer at Middlebury College learning Hebrew – signing a statement agreeing not to read, write, speak or listen to a language other than Hebrew during the seven-week semester – in preparation for the entrance exam.

She is, in a word, serious.

She believes there is a need for a rabbi like her –a Jew of color, deeply committed to social justice, a supporter of Palestine.

I have no doubt.

But under that, I have another thought.

That I am white. Not terribly political. Older.(Old enough to be her mother.)

Faith does not come easily to me. I am a practitioner of what works. There is a mezuzah in my doorway, a batik of Ganesh on my wall, and the book Alcoholics Anonymous on my shelf.

I gather stray Jews and others for holidays. And say “thank you” when a guest brings a dairy dish and I have cooked meat.

Two of my great loves were not Jews. And when one ended in divorce, I found it necessary to have a Jewish dissolution of marriage, as well as a civil one.

I am doubtful and uncertain. Even now as I write this. Yet I keep returning to it, to this place of Jewishness again and again.

And that, perhaps, there is a need for a rabbi like me.

 

Everything I Didn’t Write – September

A few days ago, noticing I had hardly written since arriving in Spain but acutely aware of my many Wandering Jewess experiences, I pulled together my Facebook posts from my first month in Madrid in a blog post. What follows is a Facebook accounting of how life unfolded in that second month – no longer a TEFL student living in Airbnb digs, but suddenly an English teacher with a permanent address.

September 2

Churros and chocolate with dear friends from the United States, Melinda and Craig. In these moments the world feels both vast and intimate.

September 4

So much to celebrate! New work! New home! A friendship that cuts across oceans. And yes, without question, the most fun meal I have ever eaten. Three Michelin Stars. Entiendo.

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September 8

Esta noche…first “official” Artist Date in Madrid.

September 12

When Seattle descends upon Madrid…Salpicon, Burrata and Churros, oh my! Were your ears burning Pamela and Molly?

September 13

A Rosh Hashanah Story or This Is What Happens When You Say Yes…

A couple of years ago, someone (you can’t remember who) invites to you to join an online group of women writers — thousands of them. A few of them live in Madrid. And one of them is Jewish and from Miami. She invites you to a Rosh Hashanah service and seder put on by a newly formed Reform chavurah.

You have never met her in person, and you feel uncomfortable as hell, but you go anyway. You are asked to light the candles during the service — which is all in Spanish and Hebrew, of which you speak only a little of each.

You have dinner with a professional flamenco dancer from New York, a makeup artist from New Zealand, and a Spanish window maker, his lovely wife and daughter. An engineer from Colombia and a woman from Buenos Aires (who might as well have “Friend” tatooed on her forehead…instead she has Shalom on her ankle) ask for your number — they want English classes.

You eat apples and honey, challah, pomegranates and dates. There is a fish head in the center of the table to represent moving forward…”away from the tail.” (This must be a Sephardic tradition.) All of it happens in a mish-mash of broken Spanish and English. Remarkably, you feel a part of…even the parts you don’t understand.

There are hugs and kisses and What’sApp exchanges. You walk home through Plaza Mayor. There is a chill in the air. Tomorrow you begin teaching. It is a New Year.

Thinking of you this Rosh Hashanah, Brant, Mary Jo, Matt and Pamela. Besos!

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September 15

It was suggested I try reading in Spanish. Suggestions from Jesus at La Buena Vida. Feeling excited and intimidated. I think it is going to be a slow read…

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September 17

I just received a refund from the Oficina de Correos. Seems they gave me the wrong post box in July and any and all mail sent to me now resides in the Bermuda Triangle of correspondence. While somewhat unbelievable… what is equally unbelievable is that I received this refund less than a week after the error was discovered. That and the fact that I don’t speak Spanish and no one at the office speaks English. (Thank goodness for my friend David who just happened to be there last Friday and served as translator.) Oh..and the refund came with a handwritten receipt. Ping me privately if you need my mailing address.

September 19

Read 5 pages of a Lorrie Moore short story today — in Spanish. Something about 6 months after a divorce not yet taking off one’s wedding ring. Cut off the finger? Cut off the hand? Slow going…but I’m amazed at my perseverance — looking up every fourth or fifth word — and how much I did understand.

And grateful that when my marriage was over, I could take off the ring.

September 21

Man on Metro with thick New York accent: Your hair looks fantastic. I love it.

Me: How did you know that I was American?
Man on Metro with thick New York accent: Are you kidding? No Spanish woman would ever wear her hair like that. Or British woman for that matter…

September 22

On this eve of Yom Kippur, as I head out the door to go to High Holiday services in Spanish and Hebrew, I am reminded of where I was at this time last year…on the precipice of something big, although I did not know it. Flu-ish and packing for three-weeks in Italy. Near the end of that trip, riding the light rail to a dinner party in Rome with a fist full of flowers, I thought, “It’s like I live here…I can do this.” Nearly one year later, I am doing “this.” This is grace.

September 23

Just completed my first private Spanish lesson. I walked in nervous … nowhere to hide. Sixty minutes later I feel inspired and, dare I say, empowered … like maybe, just maybe, I can learn to really speak this language. Up until now I have only shared my students’: experience of humility … now I know their joy!

Considering twice weekly classes …

September 26

Up late with Marissa and The Cabbage Ministry (at The Tempo Club).

September 27

Learning Spanish through food and song, at a former slaughterhouse. We didn’t plan it. It just turned out that way…

 

2015-09-27 14.17.16September 28

It’s hard to believe I left the United States just two months ago today. Feels like I have been here so much longer…

September 30

Seems a fitting Facebook memory for today (“My first memoir piece in print.”)… on the heels of Tim posting that my profile picture screams “book jacket” and a meeting with friend and fellow writer Nicola in an effort to get “writing accountable.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Artist Date 102: Driving Me in Reverse Down a One-Way Street

From "Drunken Geometry" by Allison Wade and Leslie Baum
From “Drunken Geometry” by Allison Wade and Leslie Baum

I thought I would be used to this by now. Going it alone.

More than 100 Artist Dates, more than 100 solitary sojourns in an effort to fill my creative coffers, as suggested by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way.

Lectures, live lit events, ballets, book readings. Fabric stores. Operas. Walking tours. A handful taking place in other countries. And yet my stomach does flip-flops driving to an art opening a few miles from my apartment.

If I’ve learned anything in this grand experiment it is to put one foot in front of the other, regardless of how I feel — this time, up concrete stairs to the third floor of a warehouse in Garfield Park, to my friend’s exhibit, Artist Date 102.

Allison is an inspiration.

Once upon a time she wrote marketing materials for the financial services sector. Until the day when she turned right where she would have gone left and applied to art school. Several years, several moves and an MFA later, she is a working artist and an adjunct professor in the Art Department at Northwestern University.

I hear voices and laughter before I make it to the top of the stairs. I poke my head into the first gallery. I circle the room. Large painted swaths of fabric on the wall. Furniture taken apart, mismatched and reassembled — table legs sticking straight up out of a chair, pointing at the ceiling. Deconstructed still life. Or, as Alison and her partner Leslie call it “Drunken Geometry.”  But no Allison.

I poke my head into the second gallery and see my friend. She walks me through the exhibit, explaining its meaning, its genesis. Her process, her partnership. I am all in my head…thinking about my friend Rainey, the first artist I knew who created installations, introducing concepts rather than canvases.

Thinking about my own desire to go to art school.

For fashion. For photography. For the sake of being and calling myself an artist. I recall pictures I drew of myself in elementary school — wearing a beret and holding a palette — and a Saturday morning sketching class I briefly attended.

I did not go to art school.

Instead, I spent one year as a fine arts major at a Big Ten university before transferring to the journalism program at my parents’ prompting.

I tell myself I was more committed to the idea of being “an artist” than to making art. This may or may not be true. But being a visual artist was never “easy” for me.

I was fast-moving, my work somewhat sloppy. Stitches ran crooked on the waistband of a skirt. Film stuck onto itself, improperly loaded on the development reel. The inside of a ceramic slab box left rough, unfinished — the internal belying the external.

Writing came easy to me.

I placed out of freshman college English, enrolling in a senior writing seminar instead. Somewhat grudgingly wrote for the daily college newspaper. And then later, for weeklies in Detroit and San Francisco.

I did not think writing was art. Writing was…writing.

It didn’t feel sexy or tragic or dark. I didn’t wrestle with it, so I didn’t want it. But it followed me anyway…loyal puppy of a boyfriend.

I resented it. Ignored it. Didn’t take care of it. Until I needed it.

In Africa, in the middle of my divorce. When I couldn’t not write. The way junkies can’t not shoot-up. When writing felt like breathing. Like the only thing that gave me relief — the antithesis of how I feel now in this moment. Anxious.Uncomfortable. Squirrel-y.

No one is drunk. No one is ridiculously hip. On the contrary. There is a bowl of Chex Mix on the table near the drinks, and a handful of children stopping short of running around.

I see faces I know — including my own. Myself as struggling, wannabe visual artist. Perhaps this is what makes me uncomfortable.  Seeing my former in-love-with-the-idea-of-being-an-artist self.

I would have turned myself inside out for if my parents would have let me. Just as I have done with the idea of so many lovers and would-be lovers in my past. The title — artist, girlfriend — who I think I want to be, driving me in reverse down a one-way street..

Talking for two in romantic pursuits, attempting to create a connection or intimacy that isn’t organically there. Chasing what’s hard — dark, sexy, tragic — rather than embracing what is light, easy, what would one day feel like breathing.

I pick up a large piece of heavy paper with words printed in pink and blue — a conversation between the artists about their process in creating.

“In all honesty for me, and I think for you, this work is agenda-less. It’s about formal play and making connections.” Allison writes.

Leslie adds, “The beginning and the end. A looping. A circle that wobbles a bit, like a drunk. Our logic and our vocabulary are of this wandering yet insistent geometry.”

Yes, for me too. Except I’m no longer drunk. Just insistent and Wandering (Jewess).

Artist Date 94: Do Something(s)

strongherA month has passed since I returned home from my solo sojourn to Italy.  It feels like forever ago.

Life comes on — quickly, strong, demanding — and I struggle to hold on to the peace and freedom I felt abroad.  The joy in getting lost, not knowing the answer — or sometimes even the question, in being alone.  My face looks pinched — the wrinkle between my eyebrows, smoothed by Umbria, has returned.

The decisions I made, the desires of my heart — to live overseas, to publish a book (or more to the point, to be published) — begin to slip into the category of “all talk.”

I recently read that most people would prefer to fail by not trying than fail by trying.  I get it.  I understand.  I wish I didn’t.

And so I find myself at Pizzeria Sera on a Tuesday night listening to six women tell stories about how and where and when they found confidence — hoping to be inspired, or at the very least, to borrow some — Artist Date 94.  The monthly event, called About Women, is the brainchild of my friend Nikki Nigl.  A force of confidence, not to mention nature, in her own right.

The mere decision to be here bolstered mine some, helping move me forward in the hours before arriving.

Sitting at the computer, doing nothing but waiting for something to happen, I mutter, “Do something.  Anything.”

I write an email and send it off.  (Two somethings.  Write — one.  Send — two.)  A few lines to the sister of a friend of a friend who just returned from Spain, where she taught English for several years.  I ask if she might meet me for coffee and share her experiences — how she got there, what it was like.

I tell myself it is something.  It is enough and move on with my day — meeting with my rabbi a final time before he leaves our congregation.  We talk about his departure, my desires, and deciphering the will and whim of the universe.  Especially when it seems to only speak in whispers.

It feels like a game of telephone and I constantly wonder if I’m hearing it right.

Until I get to the parking lot, into my car and check Facebook.

“Anyone want a job in Portugal NOW?”

The post describes an academic coach position at a school outside of Lisbon.  Scrolling down, I am tagged.  “Lesley Pearl, could it be you?”

My heart swells, leaps.  Not because I believe I will get the job and move to Portugal (although I might), but because the universe seems to be speaking loudly, clearly — the message undeniable,”Yes, Lesley, it is possible.”

Settled at home, I write a response.  It begins, “Yes.”  (Three somethings.)  Shortly thereafter, I am Skype-ing with a teacher at the school in Portugal, the one who extended the possibility, dangled the carrot — gathering more information.  (Four.)

Turns out I’m right on course, so say an advertising executive, a scientist, a minister, a mud wrestler, a mother and a writer — this month’s About Women storytellers.  While the details differ, at the core of each woman’s parable is fear — and the decision to do “it” anyway.  Ask for a raise.  Leave a job.  Leave a husband.  Take an improv class.  Ride a roller-coaster.  Pet a dog.  Live as an outsider.

Each took action when the pain of inaction became too great. Was no longer an option.  Or when “the worst that could happen” seemed less scary than living with “what if” and “I coulda.”  And their confidence blossomed.

“Stop focusing on the heart-pounding, vomit-inducing, brick-shitting aspect of everything and start focusing on the payoff,” Kira Elliot — a personal trainer, mud wrestler and Mary Kay Sales Director — says from the stage.  “Pretend until the point of no return…then reap the rewards.”

Amen.

Post Script.  Three days after the event, I send a resume and cover letter to the school in Lisbon.  I am amazed to see the resistance in myself.  Fear masquerading as logic and practicality.  It feels “heart-pounding, vomit-inducing and brick-shitting.”  I fazê-lo de qualquer maneira.  (That’s Portuguese for “I do it anyway.”)

Artist Date 88: Tied

rcfIt’s Sunday and I’m not at dance class…which feels really weird. I’ll be away more than here – to San Francisco in September and Italy the following month – so it didn’t really make sense to enroll this session.  Except it’s “what I do.”  Except today.

The sun is hot, the air is crisp and the sky is a perfectly blue sky blue. The kind of day I would lament missing if I were in the dance studio.

I jump on my bike and pedal to Wicker Park for the Renegade Craft Fair: Artist Date 88.

There’s a DJ spinning records and it’s all I can do to not spontaneously bust into dance. Although I’m pretty sure no one would mind.

There is leather and pottery. Fibers and lithographs.  And lots and lots of jewelry.

I strike up a conversation with a young jewelry maker from Wisconsin. We talk about art school – where she went, my desire to go.  She is flanked by her mother who notes the wholehearted support she offered her daughter in following her bliss.

For years I blamed my parents for my not going to art school. Truth told, I don’t think I had the drive, let alone the chops.  I fancied myself a fine artist but I didn’t have the discipline.  A discipline I only found later in life – much later, in my 40s, when I took on Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way for a second time.

Feeling desperate, crazy and on my knees, I embraced the book as others might the Bible or the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. Viewing it as a salvation.  The keys to the kingdom.  The yellow brick road.

I took on nearly every suggestion – most noteworthy, the bogeyman – the Artist Date. That hour or so alone each week to fill my creative coffers.  Scheduled.  Planned.  And penciled in to my calendar.

A commitment to myself and my creativity.

It changed my life. And I’m pretty sure saved it.  Or at least my sanity.  It forced me to focus on me.  Not in a navel-gazing way, but more in a “What have you done for me, lately,” Janet Jackson kind of way.  Except I’m not asking some no-goodnik while dancing at a diner…I’m asking myself.

When I speak of it, I feel like the Pied Piper.  And today I should have brought my flute.

I run into my friend Whitney, who introduces me to a colleague, who innocently asks, “What brings you here?”

The answer seems obvious. The art.  The weather.  The promise of Black Dog Gelato.  Instead, I tell her about The Artist Date.

As I speak, I become excited by own story. Almost as if it is someone else’s story.  And I am reminded that my life is really quite magical.  That I AM the woman I always wanted to be.  A cool, creative, urban chick.  Like the women I saw in photographs when I was 12 – waiting on line for a shave or a Mohawk on Astor Place in New York.

It is the same feeling I have talking to the boys from San Francisco – where I lived for 14 years – who make and sell tea, T-We. We talk about what took me there – a job.  And what brought me here – love.  For my then husband, when I followed him to Chicago for medical residency.  And later for myself, the people, and the place itself – when I returned by choice, alone, a little more than two years ago.

It’s the feeling I have trying to put a ribbon into an old manual typewriter – part of a salon set up on Division Street by a woman renting vintage furniture. I tell her I learned to write on a typewriter – an IBM Selectric – when I was in journalism school.  About editing the newspaper on boards.  Printed stories rolled on to glass with wax and hacked at with a blue marker to fit the page.  It is the work that took me to San Francisco.  To Germany and Israel.

It’s the feeling I have talking with the woman who make shoes with ribbon laces – MOPED. I am lacing up a pair with gold ribbons and wonder aloud if they might not serve me well in Italy.

We talk about volunteering overseas. My upcoming flight of fancy at a fair-trade chocolate festival in Umbria, where I will live in an apartment with other volunteers from around the globe, and play out my “I live in Europe” fantasy.  I tell her about volunteering in Rwanda and in the South of France.  How traveling this way allows me to go alone without being alone.  How it ties me to people and place and purpose.

Like the ribbons I pick to take with me – seven in total. Purple.  Black.  Grey.  Pink stripes.  Navy stripes.  Silver glitter.  Gold.

Ribbons that tie me to these shoes.

To the ground.  To myself.  To this life.  The one a 12-year-old imagined – right down to the shave.

Artist Date 53: You Don’t Say

I used to swear like a sailor.  It was part of my tough-talking, cigarette-smoking, don’t-mess-with-this-Jew personae – affectionately known by my newspaper colleagues as “Brooklyn Les.”

Until I got hired by Weight Watchers.  My friend, and mentor Stan told me I would need to watch my mouth.  That I might think people thin-skinned, but that not everyone cottons to the liberal and casual use of the word fuck.

I trusted him, and learned to curb my four-letter tongue.  I found the more I didn’t use those words in the workplace, the more they slipped away from my vocabulary entirely.

Don’t get me wrong.  I still like a well-placed fuck.  (Double entendre not intended, but appreciated.)   Especially the unexpected sort that shocks.

tribes

Like in Tribes.  Artist Date 53 at the Steppenwolf Theatre.

The word punctuates each breath of the play’s first lines, followed by cunt and a graphic, fairly vulgar description of the much-older object of Ruth’s affection.

Uproarious laughter covers a collective gasp.  There is a shared sense of ok-ness.  That we have chosen our mores.  That we have agreed upon this use of language.

I am a part of this conscious collective too.  But I don’t feel that way.  I am self-consciously aware of feeling “not a part of.”  Disconnected.  The word rattling in my head since I lost Internet connectivity minutes before leaving the house.

It is exacerbated by the series of phone calls I make while driving that dump me into voicemail.  And even more so by the conversation to my right, once in my seat.  Flanked by two couples, I listen as they share highlights of their collective creative genius.  She leads workshops teaching artists how to write grants.  He is a photographer.  The other she is an actress.

I am envious.  Irritated.  It does not occur to me that I am a writer.  That I too have a creative genius.  One that connects me to others every time I engage it.  I am, as my friends like to say, looking for the differences.  All of the places where I don’t measure up.  At least in my mind.  I have been all day.

This afternoon, interviewing with a recruiting firm — really more of a temp-to-permanent staffing agency.

I went in worried about not wearing a suit.

I haven’t owned one in more than 12 years.  Ever since I traded prestige for peace of mind and left a nearly six-figure job to answer phones at a massage school for $12/hour and 50 percent off future classes – supplementing my new cobbled-together career as a massage therapist and Weight Watchers leader.

It had not occurred to me that my plaid, Pendlelton coat and patterned spectators might be the least of my concerns.

All around me – on both sides of employment table – are “kids.”  They appear to be born the same year I graduated from high school.

I lose myself in self-conscious concern.  About my age, my appearance, that I have not looked for work in 12 years.  And when the questions come about desired salary, and ideal work environment, I stammer.

Photo by Sandro. Steppenwolf Theatre.
Photo by Sandro. Steppenwolf Theatre.

Like Daniel in Tribes, when his sense of security – false or not – is taken from him and he reverts to old patterns.

The old tendency to try to be what you need me rushes in.  People pleasing.  Like Billy, learning to read lips rather than pushing his family to learn to sign – which seems selfish, at the least inconvenient, and might make them uncomfortable.

It is an old behavior and yet it sneaks back in as effortlessly as the fucks that can still fly from my mouth.  I feel tired and small.  And sort of stupid.  Even though I know that none of that is true.

But suddenly not so separate.  I see myself in bits of the universal dysfunction unraveling on stage.

I am like Beth.  A tentative, later-in-life writer.  Like Christopher.  Using bluster and swagger to cover up my own not knowing.  Like Ruth.  Looking for love.  Except I no longer ask “What is wrong with me?” while sobbing in my mother’s arms.

Nor do I succumb to the urge to call a boy I know while driving home, when the separateness has returned to me.  A boy fighting demons far greater than my own right now.  A boy who could never give me what I want – which right now is nothing more than to be held.  I know that this is beyond his capabilities – so I think better than to ask for it.

Age, experience – it is grace.

Once home, I write a note to my friend Melinda, as I do most nights – sharing an inventory of my day via email.  I will receive hers in the morning.

Connectivity has been restored.  To the Internet.  To my friend.  To my truth.