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.

Artist Date 70: I Am Not Thinking

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Photo: The Grand Budapest Hotel

I have just finished a blog about my friend Clover and the birth of her daughter, Juniper Maya.  She was born nearly 10 days ago, but only now am I at a point where I am able to give words to the experience and my role in it.

I’d been noodling on it for a couple of days and now it is done. I print it out. Set a timer. And read out loud.

Doors open for Story Club in a little more than an hour.  I’ve already penciled it in my book – Artist Date 70.

Story Club meets the first Thursday of the month at the Holiday Club – a bar on the north side of Chicago. Three featured writers read essays on a theme. And three audience members, called at random from a sign-up sheet, read their musings for up to eight minutes.

I’ve been called up just once before, a couple of months ago. My gut tells me I will make it onstage tonight…if I can get there.

My piece is too long. I cross out some sections and set the timer again. Still too long. Then I try again, just reading a portion of it. Up to the words, “The miracle emerges.” This could work.

And I hear it. “Slow the fuck down.” I don’t want to. But I do anyway.

I call Clover to tell her the blog is finished and to ask if she would like to read it before I hit “publish.” She says she would.

I do not usually do this. However, this is not just my story. It is her story too.

I have not given her a clever moniker like the Southern Svengali or Mr. 700 Miles. She is not anonymous. And so I offer my words to her first.

I mention I am on my way to Story Club and ask if she would prefer that I use her initials, as opposed to her real name, as she has not yet read the piece. She says “yes” again.

And it hits me – how much gyrating I am doing to “make this happen.”

To get out the door.   To get on stage. It feels like a push. An awful lot like “my will.” “If this, then that.”

grand budapest hotelI recognize that the words are still fresh to me. That, in some ways, I have just re-lived the birth. That I feel tired and vulnerable, and the idea of sitting in a bar, by myself, in hopes of reading onstage feels neither joyous nor fun. It feels like me trying to make good on my word – as if to make up for all the times when my word meant nothing.

I realize I have nothing to prove, and I give myself a pass.

I put down my papers. I pull on my coat, walk a handful of blocks to the Davis Theatre and purchase a ticket for The Grand Budapest Hotel.

I know nothing about this movie other than my friend Matt invited me to see it with him a few weeks ago. I declined, taking myself to the Art Institute for Artist Date 68 instead.

The theater is about a quarter full. I take comfort in seeing the number of people here alone – even though alone is my preferred way to watch movies.

The previews are dreadful. Even the one with Johnny Depp – who I love.

And especially the one for Transformers. Although it makes me giggle a little as I have a date this weekend with a man 12 years my junior, and he recently posted something about the movie on his Facebook page.

But the featured film is a story for storytellers, told by a storyteller. I am enchanted.

By the glory of the Grand Budapest Hotel in its heyday. And by the quirky outpost for eccentrics that it has become.

By the concierge, at once both straight and gay, tending to the elder, insecure, wealthy – and always blonde – female patrons.

trailer-for-wes-andersons-the-grand-budapest-hotel-4
Photo: The Grand Budapest Hotel

By the refugee hotel boy with a penciled-on moustache. By the love affair between him and the girl who decorates pastry and wears braids – whose birthmark covers half of her face.

It is eye candy. Swaths of bright orange and purple. Handsome stars in less-than-handsome roles. Ralph Fiennes. Adrien Brody. Jeff Goldblum.

I am grinning. I am not thinking about what I will write. Even though I am always thinking about what I will write. The world around me a blog waiting to happen.

I am not thinking that this is a story about family. About status. About love.

About corruption. Courage. Change.

I am not thinking about my own experiences – of family, status, and love. Courage and change.

I am caught up in someone else’s story. I am not thinking. It is a joy.

Real. With Most of Her Hair Loved Off

I’m sitting in a big upholstered chair at The Book Cellar, a stack of children’s books in my lap. Tears streaming down my cheeks – red from the warmth inside.

There is a discussion panel about the Arab Spring just a few feet away from me.  Every seat is filled – except for mine, tucked away at the end of the stacks.  A couple of people are standing.

friendsI’m supposed to be choosing a gift for my friend Clover’s yet-to-be-born baby.  Her friends are throwing her a shower this weekend.  And she and Andy have asked guests to bring a book for the baby’s library.  I’m pretty sure I’ve chosen hers – Friends, by Eric Carle’s.  The words are simple, the illustrations lush.  I think about our friendship.  That my wish for her child is to have a friendship like ours.

On the inside back cover is a photograph of Carle and his friend.  They are three-years old.  The month it is taken is written in German, by his mother.  Carle never saw his friend again.  “I often wonder what happened to him,” he writes.

Tears.

I think about people leaving and having no say in the matter.  Powerless.  My adoption shit is all stirred up.

I am reading The Velveteen Rabbit.  I sort of know the story – my friend Rachel used to reference it, talking about being real and having all the fur loved off of you.  But I don’t think I ever actually read it.  Or had it read to me.  Until now.

“ ‘What is REAL?’ asked the Rabbit one day…’Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?’ “

I smirk.

“ ‘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.  When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

Loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with…I let the words wash over me.

“ ‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.”

Yes, I whisper, to no one in particular.

Illustrations, William Nicholson
Illustrations, William Nicholson

“ ‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful.  ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’ “

Bullshit.

“ ‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’ ”

All at once.  Wound up.  That is my history – mostly.  All in love.  Insanely inside one another’s skin.  Until now.   I’ve been getting to know some new someones, bit by bit.  It is new.

“ ‘It doesn’t happen all at once…You become.  It takes a long time.’ “

Amen.

“ ‘That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.

So we don’t all become real?

Do I break easily?  Because I cry easily.  Because I hurt easily.  I decide that it is not the same thing.  Although pieces have certainly chipped off in transit.  I am soft, at times ridiculously so, free of sharp edges.  And despite my seemingly fragile nature, I do not 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.’ ”

Yes.  I think so.

Except for when I am not.  Not Real.  Twisting myself inside out to be who I think you want me to be so that you will love me.  It is more infrequent now.  Subtle.  But it still happens.  Awful.

The way I make myself small, without even knowing it, so you won’t feel overwhelmed by me.  My desires.  My needs.  My emotions.  I found myself doing it today.  Unconscious.   Until I wasn’t.

“How sick to be small and to sit by and wait until you can accept more of me,” I wrote in my notebook.

The Skin Horse tells his story.  Illustrations, William Nicholson.
Skin Horse tells his story. Illustrations, William Nicholson.

“The Rabbit sighed.  He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him.  He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad.  He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.”

Me too.  But so far, these “uncomfortable things” have been the wellspring of change in my life.

I remember once saying to my girlfriend Julie, having again gained back all of the weight I had lost and then some, that if someone could wave a wand and make me a healthy weight, I was certain this time I would maintain it.

I doubt it.

The Rabbit does become Real.  Not just to the child who plays with him, but to everyone.  Real with real hind legs – no longer made from just a single piece of fabric – the kind that allow him to jump without the boy tossing him in the air.

And one day, when Autumn became Winter became Spring, the Rabbit saw the boy again – playing in the woods.

“ ‘Why, he looks just like my old Bunny that was lost when I had scarlet fever!’

But he never knew that it really was his own Bunny, come back to look at the child who had first helped him to be Real.”

Come back to look at the child…yes, sometimes they come back.  High-school friends I never really knew.  Birth parents.  And old boyfriends – 18-plus years later – just to say they are sorry.

Sometimes.

I pick up both books and take them to the register.  I have one gift wrapped for Clover’s baby.  The other I keep for me – the one with most of her hair loved off.

Artist Date 59: Waiting. On The Journey To Becoming

I am waiting on some news.  Both personal and professional.  Nothing scary or life-threatening…as a loving friend of mine recently asked.  But all in G-d’s time, or at the very least, not mine.

The chime on my phone notifies me of messages received and my response is purely Pavlovian.  Hope rises.  And when I check my phone and discover I still have no news, hope falls.  I feel my heart literally sink just a little bit.  Awful.

Radio silence.  My friend Michael says it is normal.  Winter.  “‘Tis the season.”  His words, literally.

I want to punch him.

He sends me photographs of the shore of Lake Michigan, taken from the Indiana Dunes.  This is what quiet looks like.  It is at once both sad and beautiful.

lonely beach

He is right though.  It is in the silence that I find my center, that I soothe myself…even though it is the silence, the not knowing, that has me so uncomfortable.

I turn off my phone at dinner with friends.  No ringing.  No vibrating.  No notifying.  Silence.

I am completely present with the people about me.  I am not thinking about what I do not know.  I am happy and serene…until I turn it back on and watch hope rise and fall again.  And watch myself respond with a level of emotion that does not feel at all congruent.

Next day, at work, I turn the phone off again.  And when I power it back on later, I ignore the notifications alerting me to the messages waiting.  Instead, I bring my attention to my friend Nora, who is sitting across from me.  I am again happy and serene.

I feel empowered.

It feels a little bit like when I quit smoking, nearly 15 years ago.  That first week, I was high on not smoking.  That feeling of “I can’t believe I’m doing this…”

The weeks that followed, sans cigarettes, were not filled with that same awe and wonder.  But that is a different story.  And a different lesson.  Fifteen years later I am grateful for a different identity – one of a non-smoker.  And the absence of the yellow stain on my second finger that I could not scrub off – my personal breaking point, my bottom.

My bottom here is that I fundamentally understand I am powerless over people, places and things, and yet, I sometimes still find myself allowing the actions of others to determine my sense of happiness, security and well-being.  I watch myself hand over my serenity.  It is painful.

And it is in this painful awareness that I recognize I have a modicum of control over the anxiety I perpetuate.  That I can dial down my discomfort by simply turning off my phone, or ignoring its messages until I am in time and space to better receive them.

That I can receive the same relief by staying busy, and by pointing my attention to what is right in front of me.

Like Nora.  Like the Artist Date penciled in my calendar.  Number 59.  Chicago Cultural Center for the “Wright Before the Lloyd,” exhibit.

2014-01-30 15.17.11

I am here just a short time – about 45 minutes.  Just long enough to feel the fog in my brain clear, making way for new information, and for my whole body to exhale.

The show is small – photographs, sketches and placards covering either side of a long hallway.  It is a journey of becoming.  The transition from Frank L. Wright, to Frank Lloyd Wright.  A seemingly subtle, but significant, metamorphosis.

I read about his mother, determined that her son should become an architect, placing engravings of cathedrals in his bedroom for inspiration.  His uncle with wild long hair, unconventional fashion sense, and a memorable three-part name who served as role model.  His work with Adler and Sullivan and the “mistakes” he made on the way to creating his signature style.

I notice that many of the buildings shown on this trajectory from Wright to Lloyd Wright are no longer standing.  Either burned down or destroyed.  Gone.  Like the yellow stain on my second finger.

I think about my own trajectory, and the people and experiences that influenced my becoming the woman I always wanted to be.

The one who dances on red soil in Rwanda and glossed, wood floors in Chicago.  Who has been invited in to the intimacy of rooms where life begins and life ends.  The one who listens with her hands and her heart.

The one with her own signature style – cropped hair, second-hand clothes and super-fabulous shoes – the kind that strangers inquire about.  Who takes herself to museums, operas and lectures – comfortably alone.  And out for strong coffee and a really good piece of cake.

The one who has learned to soothe herself.  To quiet her own crazy.  To be responsible for her own wellbeing.

Post Script:  I got a call on some of the news I’d been waiting on.  It was positive and it made me smile.  But it didn’t change anything.  Not my thoughts.  My mood.  My beliefs.  It didn’t make me feel “ok.”  It couldn’t.  Because in my heart I already was.

Artist Date 56: Kind Of Like I Know You

2013-06-04 17.12.55
I coulda, shoulda
worn this hat this night.

It’s raining. Pissing raining. And dark. The snow from the storm which renamed this place Chi-beria is melting and I’m certain the city will flood.

And what look like parking spots in Rogers Park are a siren’s calling mix of ice, snow and deep water. My wheels are sliding under me. And then my feet, unsteady in the rain boots I never wear. The ones I bought a few years ago. That I thought could pass for winter boots as the shaft is made of grey flannel. I was mistaken.

I walk gingerly into the tiny theatre and choose my seat from the 25 or so, covered in red velvet. I lay my gloves, scarf and hat on the chair next to me to dry.

I smell like wet dog.

Eric Warner sent me an invitation to his performance –“A Life in Tending,” Artist Date 56 – on Facebook, just after his last performance, where he shared the stage with my friend Clover. Artist Date 45.  The same night I realized I have danced with his fiancé years.

So I kind of feel like I know him, even though I don’t really. But he greets me at the door like I do. Even though Clover isn’t here. And neither is his fiancé.

He takes me into The Purple Hotel on Lincoln Avenue with him and his friends – long after it has closed. When the ground is grown over with weeds and the swimming pool is filled with black algae. When they snuck in, several years ago. Or more to the point, when they committed a felony in the name of urban excavation. Of bearing witness.

Which takes him into his grandmother’s home.

And he takes me there too, introducing me to the fierce, loving, tough-as-nails matriarch whose only rule was “Do whatever you want but don’t burn the house down.” Who, when informed her grandson’s classmates call him “fat” and “stupid,” asks, “Do you think you are those things?” Adding that people will tell him he is all sorts of things, what matters is that he knows who he is.

It is no longer that place since his grandmother died several years ago – even though his grandfather remains. He has taken to sitting in her chair, instead of staring at the empty space, where she used to be, from his own.

Pimp or Orthodox Jew?
Pimp or
Orthodox Jew?

Her walker, commode and oxygen tank sit, as though waiting for her to return. Tsotchkes line the kitchen table, sold for a song to feed his Keno habit. And perhaps also as a way of emptying the house, so his family won’t have to when he dies.

I think of my birthmother’s home, a place I visited just three times. Once to meet her. Once to say goodbye. And once to bury her.

On the first visit, I noticed the oxygen tanks in the kitchen – she was just 56. When I returned a few years later, a walker, shower bench and commode had been added.

On the third visit, we got rid of all of it. Me, my “aunt, uncles and cousins,” all of whom I’d never met until now. Except for my aunt. And her, just once, on my second visit.

I tossed reams of paper into large, black garbage bags – notes on an unsolved murder mystery she was following, years old credit-card statements, meeting minutes from the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

I remember standing back as my cousins fingered through her jewelry. My uncle telling me to “get in there.” I didn’t want anything, but I took a brooch anyway.

A few weeks later my aunt sent me my birth mom’s fur hat and coat –her name embroidered on the inside lining. It had belonged to their mother, my “grandmother.” I have never worn fur in my life. I cannot decide if I look like a pimp or an Orthodox Jew in it. It hangs in my coat closet still, even on the chilliest of Chicago days.

This morning, my birth mom’s son, my “half brother” friended me on Facebook. We have never met, or even spoken. A few months ago his daughter wrote to me. We exchanged a couple of emails where I filled in the blanks, explaining exactly who I was.

The timing is not lost on me.

I want to tell Eric all of this. To share my story, because he has shared his.  Because I feel like I know him.  To say “me too.” But I don’t. I do not see him on the way out and I am anxious to get home.

When I arrive I look at the calendar hanging in the kitchen – a gift from my “real” mom, the one who raised me. I’ve written just two things for January. The anniversary of my spiritual teacher’s passing, and my birth mom’s birthday. They are the same day, January 12 – this Sunday.

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.

Pajamas of One’s Own, With Apologies to Virginia Woolf

I threw away my ex-husband’s pajama bottoms.

I know…why did I have them in the first place?

The night before I left Seattle, I asked if I might take them with me.  The thin cotton ones, navy, with a drawstring.  Somewhere there is a matching top.  Somewhere.

I turned my ex on to men’s pajamas years ago, as I had been turned on by the man I dated before him.  Mornings I would pad around his house in Berkeley, wearing his pjs while he made us French-press coffee.  I liked to wear his overalls too.

a room of one's ownHe often remarked that I should get my own – of both.  That year for Hanukkah, I bought him a pair of silk pajamas.  Inside the card I wrote, “A room of one’s own.  Pajamas of one’s own.  I promise I won’t touch these.”  Then I opened his gift to me – my own pair of overalls.

We laughed. A sort-of modern twist on O. Henry’s Christmas tale, The Gift of the Magi.  Except neither of us had to give something away something we loved, to give something to someone we loved.

I stopped wearing men’s pj bottoms some time ago and had taken to wearing short, boy-short underwear and a wife beater – which was fine when it was just the two of us.  But I was about to go on the road, traveling with my divorce buddy – a man – and staying with friends along the way.  And when I arrived in Chicago, I would be living with a male friend of mine, temporarily.

Modesty, not something I usually subscribe to, grabbed hold of me, and I asked my ex if I could take his bottoms.

He looked at me sorts of sideways and said yes.

gift of the magiI have slept in them every night since.  Loosely tied and rolled down twice at the waist so I don’t trip on them.  They remind me of the pants my friend Tim’s roommate wore when he returned from Thailand, when he cranked the heat to 80 degrees and blasted the soundtrack to The King and I nonstop.

My mom attempted to buy me a new pair when I visited her in Tennessee in the spring.  We picked some up at Target, just bottoms, but I didn’t like how they fit.  Too much bunchy elastic at the waist.  So she returned them for me.  But we agreed I had to stop sleeping in my ex’s.  My best girlfriend Julie and I had the same conversation when I stayed with her this summer.

I’m sure I would have had this conversation many times over if I had shared this with anyone else.  But I didn’t.  I was too ashamed.  I knew it was kind of odd.  Palpably and painfully so, pulling them on after sleeping with someone else.

Ten days ago, I threw them out.  Crumpled them into the kitchen garbage bin, covering them with food scraps so I couldn’t pull them back out – fearful of a George Castanza-éclair-at-the-top-of-the-trash lapse.

A few days later I began sleeping for the first time in more than a year and a half.  Really sleeping.  Through the night, uninterrupted, for more than six hours.  Waking up with the alarm, and longing for more.

Not long after I found myself crush-less, and for the first time in my life, not looking to conjure up a love interest.

I told a friend of mine I didn’t want to talk about the boy I slept with – the one with whom I pulled on the pajamas in question.  The one who isn’t the one, but still takes up some residency in my head and in my heart from time to time.  I told her that talking about him wasn’t helpful.  In fact, it was painful.   So I’d rather not do it.

And then I said no to being fixed up with a man who was recently divorced.  I believe my exact words were, “Are you out of your mind?”  I know the desperate crazy that is his life right now and I don’t want to be a part of it.

My words surprised me.  But they felt like ridiculously good, albeit not-so-sexy, self-care too.  Like sleeping.  Like throwing away pajamas that belonged to my ex-husband.

I’ve returned to sleeping in the short, boy-shorts, but am on the lookout for a new pair of loose, drawstring bottoms.  The kind that feel lived in, or have the potential to, and that are not flannel.  Pajamas devoid of history.  Pajamas of one’s own.

Shaking The Coke Bottle and Other Sexy Little Gifts From the Universe

My friend Dina calls it “shaking the Coke bottle.”

coke bottlesThat feeling when “nothing” is going on.  When life doesn’t feel sexy.  When I am going about my business doing what other people do.  Grocery shopping.  Paying bills.  Taking out the trash.  And, seemingly, not much else.

I don’t like it.  Given my druthers, every day would be my birthday, New Years’ Eve and the 4th of July all wrapped into one.  (Actually, I don’t really care for either of these holidays, but they speak to the notion of fireworks and something shiny, new.)

I want to make “something happen.”  Anything.  Ergo, Dina’s Coke bottle.  I imagine it as glass, and filled with soda made from sugar, not corn syrup – before it was retro.  My thumb covering the opening.  Fingers wrapped around the body.  Shaking violently and knowing when I let up a spray of sticky sweetness will shower me, and anyone in my midst.

Sounds great, actually.  The sweet spray, that is.  Trouble is, the mess.  And the dreaded clean-up.  Sticky residue.

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way series, writes that “too much drama equals not enough work.”

There is no drama right now.  Not enough work either.  Correction, it is there.  I just don’t seem to be doing it.

Entering billable time for the past month.  A tedious and mundane task that will take me, at best, 45 minutes.

Submitting two pieces – already written – for publication.  Their titles and the word “pitch,” scrawled on my white board months ago and never erased.

Tackling the looming job search.

What I am doing is writing.  This is a good thing.  (Consider that the word “write” is tattooed on my right, inner wrist.  “Left” on the opposite.)

writeExcept when it keeps me from taking small actions that chip away at what appear large and overwhelming tasks.  When it keeps me from making those satisfying little check marks on my to-do list.

This morning, while journaling my morning pages, I gave words to the hidden fear that the Coke-bottle fantasy seeks to remedy, or at the least, cover up.

That I will run out of subject matter to write about.  My blog will grow dry and fallow.  My life will grow dry and fallow.  I will grow dry and fallow.

There is no romance.  No big, new job.  No decadent travel in the works.  There is “nothing” going on.

What I forget is, when I do what’s in front of me, the rest, somehow, seems to magically take care of itself.  And often, sexy little gifts from the universe emerge – if I choose to see them that way.

Strangely, it is not a linear process.  A plus B does not equal C.

It is like weight loss.

There are weeks when I do everything “right,” the scale registers a gain and I call it a liar.  And weeks when I do everything “wrong.” It shows a loss.  And I thank the weight-loss goddess and keep on moving.  When this happens to my Weight Watchers members, I remind them that it is what they do most of the time that matters.

Or like marketing.  My spiritual business teacher insisted that we students reach out to 20 people a day and speak our vision – what we do, what we offer, what we promise.

“I am a massage therapist and bodyworker.  I help people fall in love with their bodies, take care of their bodies, and do things they never imagined possible.”  Twenty times a day.

When I did this, clients came to me.  Not a single one directly from the outreach.  But from other places.  The universe answering my call.  Proof that energy begets energy.

Or, as my friend Teresa used to tell me, “Nature abhors a vacuum.”  Or, eventually something is going to happen.

So today, I will do what is in front of me.  I will lead two Weight Watchers meetings.  Meet for another informational interview.  Go to a friend’s gallery opening.

I might even drop an email to my friend Steven about a trip to Italy we’ve been considering.

As I commit to this not-so-sexy stuff, the footwork, I feel my grip loosen – fully aware that the sticky, sweet will go flat.  But that my life has not.  Even if it sometimes feels that way.

Post Script.  I met a milliner at tonight’s art opening.  She shared that she used to make hats full-time, but that she had to get a “real job” when she got divorced.  She found one, with great benefits and vacation.  And that leaves her time and energy enough to continue to make hats.

“We’re looking to hire,” she offered.  I smiled at the synchronicity.  I told her our situations are strikingly similar, handed her my card, and asked if we might talk further.

Sexy little gift from the universe.  And no clean up.

Artist Date 47: Holding On To That Bull For 8 Seconds

I drive a 13-year-old Honda Civic Hatch DX.  They don’t make my car anymore.  From time to time I find a note on the windshield, someone offering to buy it.

In the glove box, in the side pockets, and behind the cup holders are stacks of CDs.

I grabbed them, haphazardly, when I left Seattle.  Three Dog Night.  Basia.  Mazzy Star.  Those were my ex’s.  Donna Summer, Stevie Wonder and Torch Song Trilogy are mine.  As is a disco mix my friend DJ Andy T made for me.

basiaI can listen to them over and over again without growing bored.  Singing along.  The familiar words keep me awake while driving long stretches.  Keep me from my thoughts.

And then I hit a wall.  Pulling out disc after disc as I make my way down Lake Shore Drive, looking for something I want to hear.   I come up empty.  No more Bonnie Raitt.  Annie Lenox.  Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.  No more Dire Straits.  No more Gipsy Kings.

My destination for this week’s Artist Date – 47 – was easy.  To Laurie’s Planet of Sound on Lincoln Avenue.

I pass by here almost daily.  There is a white board outside with new arrivals written in dry-erase magic marker.  There are t-shirts in the window.  And inside there are records, books and CDs.  I can tell from peeking in, but I’ve never been inside.  Until Friday.  And then, just for a moment.

There is a hipster man-boy at the register.  Big curly hair, plaid button-up shirt and chunky, nerd glasses.  We nod at one another.  I think John Cusack, High Fidelity.

elvis costello

I am holding The Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions CD.  $6.99.  I used to have this on cassette.  I remember singing along with Elvis to “Alison,” “Pump it Up,” and “Every Day I Write the Book.”  I remember my high-school crush giving me grief for buying “best of” albums.

My phone rings.  It is a call I have been expecting from a friend and mentor.  I drop the CD back in the bin and walk outside.  I will return later for it.

But I don’t.  During the course of our call, I find out she is moving away.  The stars have aligned and a “not-to-be-missed” opportunity has been presented to her family.  I am the first person she has told.

I am delighted for her.  And I feel the loss inside of me too.  I am acutely aware that our relationship will change.  I am tired of change, I think.  And yet, when things stay the same, I am restless and bored.

We finish our call and I go to Paciugo for gelato.  I order a piccolo cup – toasted coconut, sea-salt caramel, and cinnamon – and eat it walking home.  The sun is shining and the air is cool.  I am wearing gloves.  I tell myself I will go back to Laurie’s later.

But I don’t.

A friend comes over, and later, when I drive her home, she asks if I am looking forward to my Friday night alone.  Sometimes I do.  Especially this time of year, when night comes early and my radiator-heated apartment feels toasty.

I do not feel this way tonight.  I tell her so, bursting into tears.  By the time I pull over to her apartment I am sobbing uncontrollably in her arms.

I am so lonely.  She holds me.

I have been on the verge of tears all week.  This is not entirely unexpected.

Perhaps it’s because my ex-boyfriend – the one I always sort of held out hope for and thought “maybe one day…”– got engaged.

Perhaps it is because my friend and mentor is moving.  Or because I have begun to look for work in earnest, for the first time in 12 years.

Perhaps it is because I chatted online with my ex-husband today and that always kind of throws me off my square.

Or maybe it is because it is the first week in November.  That it’s just that way right now.  I don’t know.  I’m not sure that it matters.

All I know is going home by myself, to myself, is a really bad idea.  I know I won’t cook or write or take a bath.  I am pretty certain I will do something not helpful, like look up old lovers on Facebook.

I don’t feel like going back to Laurie’s either.  I don’t want to hear the chatter in my head.  And I don’t want to talk about it.  There is nothing more to say.  And knowing that is really something of a miracle.

Dallas_Buyers_Club_posterDallas Buyers Club is playing at the Century Theatres.  If I drive fast I can make the 8:30 show.  I make a beeline and arrive with time to spare.

I buy a ticket and claim a seat on the end.  I lay my coat on the seat next to me, joining the one belonging to the man sitting two to my right.  He is also alone.

I think about Tony, my first close friend diagnosed with AIDS.  I remember him cutting my hair in his kitchen and doing me up like a drag queen, full-well knowing I would never wear my hair like that.  But it makes him happy.  I remember smoking pot with him and eating empanadas in Detroit.  I remember that AZT made his mouth taste like metal and put him in a cranky mood.

But mostly, I get lost in the story unfolding in front of me.

I forget that Matthew McConaughey is Matthew McConaughey and not Ron Woodruff – a red-neck, homophobic, drug-addicted Texan diagnosed with AIDS.  I open my heart to this man who lived seven years instead of 30 days.

This man who befriended a card-shark, drag queen named Rayon.  Who smuggled non-FDA approved treatments into the United States for his Dallas Buyers Club.  Who in helping himself, helped others.

I cry watching him hold on to that bull for eight-seconds.  (See the movie.  You’ll understand.)  I cry when the screen goes black and silent white letters report his death.  Even though it isn’t a surprise.

I have gotten caught up in someone else’s story instead of my own.  It is what I had hoped for.

Driving home, I feel just a little bit better.  But I am still holding on by my fingernails.  Like a newly sober alcoholic counting the minutes before bed – congratulating himself and thanking God for making it through another day without drinking.

Holding on to that bull for eight seconds.  Holding on.

“I Love You.” “Thank You.”

My divorce buddy signed his final divorce papers today.  It’s been a long time coming.  At least from the outside looking in.

My divorce buddy took this photograph of me.
My divorce buddy took this photograph of me.

I remember the day he called and told me that he and his wife were separating.  My then-husband and I made the same decision three weeks earlier.

I call him my divorce buddy because we walked through this thing – the dissolution of marriage – together.  Hand in hand.  On occasion, literally, but mostly figuratively.

A buddy, like in kindergarten, required for just about everything.  To walk down the hall, ride the bus, go to the bathroom.  I don’t know if it was because two are harder to lose track of than one, or that if one should stray, at least he or she wouldn’t be lost alone.

That’s what it felt like.  We weren’t lost alone.

We would talk on the phone nearly every night for hours. And on the nights we didn’t talk, we texted.  Until I came to Chicago that summer – 2012.  Something changed.  Seemingly everything.

There was a chasm.  One that hadn’t been there the night before when we talked for three hours when my red-eye from Sea-Tac was delayed.  I couldn’t get close no matter how hard I tried.

My Rabbi laid it out in simple terms.  We no longer had a phone and 2,500 or so miles between us.  We were standing face to face.  I had feelings.  And expectations – although I tried not to.

I don’t know what he had.  I often said I was not “in this” alone, but face to face, I was no longer sure.

And then, when separated by miles and a phone again, we seemed to fall back into a comfortable intimacy.  I spent two weeks in Rwanda that summer, and called him from Belgium, where I stopped for a few days before coming home.

My travel companions continued down the long airport corridor to their connecting flight home, while I found myself in baggage claim – orange hard case in hand.  I ran my credit card through the phone and dialed.  It was 2 a.m. in Chicago.  I knew he’d be up.

He sounded surprised and excited to hear from me.  I told him we had to talk quickly because I had no idea how much this call was going to cost but I had a feeling it would be a lot.  (It showed up as $65 on my credit card statement.  Worth every penny.)

In Brussels, with my friend Tim.  Not my divorce buddy.
In Brussels, with my friend Tim. Not my divorce buddy.

He gave me some practical instructions about Brussels — the airport, the train and the city — and I began to cry.  He was doing “that thing” that he does.  “That thing” I always loved about him.  Even when we were both married and I had a crush on him but he had such good boundaries that I never worried about it.

He made me feel safe.  I told him that.

And then I told him I had to go and blurted out quickly, “I love you,” and before I put down the receiver he said, “I love you too.”

He had said it just once before. The night he called me to tell me he was getting a divorce.  At the end of the conversation.  When I promised him he wouldn’t be alone.  That it just wasn’t possible…thinking but not saying, “You can be with me, silly.”  Instead, I said, “I love you, my friend.” And he said, “I love you, too.”

It wasn’t a romantic “I love you.” From either of us.  Either time.  Regardless of my feelings, in those moments, my expression was pure heart connection.  I believe his was too.

Tonight he told a group of us that he signed his final papers.  My eyes welled up, tears of empathy, of gratitude and of memory.

Later, I took him aside, and told him I was sorry.  That I understood.  That I knew.  That his “news” reminded me of what we had walked through together.   He nodded and wrapped his arms around me.

I leaned into his ear and whispered, “I love you.”  Silence.  And then he said, “Thank you.”

Awful.

I wanted to tell him I knew he loved me too.  But I didn’t.  I guess because it wasn’t necessary.  Because I already knew.

Because I’ve changed just a little.  I am no longer interested in proving myself as necessary.  Indispensable.

And because our situation has changed too.

Learning he has signed his final papers, that his divorce is nearly complete, feels like an ending.   (My divorce was final in September 2012.)  That we have fulfilled our obligation to one another.  That our karmic contract is complete.

I felt a little something break off.  It felt sad.  But also necessary, right and true.

I didn’t join him and the others for dinner.  I came home – alone – instead.  Also right.  True.

Our friendship isn’t over.  We’re just no longer lost together.  We can let go of one another’s hands.