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.

Surrender In A Box

My friend Cynthia has a God Can.  “Because God can,” she says.

I’m not quite that optimistic.

2014-02-25 15.36.44
My God Box.

I keep a God Box, instead – wooden and carved.  From Poland, I think.  My friend Patsy gave it to my ex and I as a wedding gift, stuffed with cards on which our guests might write their wishes for us.

I’ve used it as my God Box for a while now.  Long before my ex and I called it quits.

We moved the wishes into the bottom of a cherry-wood box holding black and white photographs of our big day.  Another gift from another friend.  I think I tossed the wishes in the recycle bin when I left Seattle a year and a half ago, but I’m not entirely certain.

Over the years I’ve stuffed the God Box with dreams, wishes and, perhaps most importantly, people and situations over which I have no control.  Which is pretty much everything and everyone…but in this case, those that caused me pain, anxiety, obsession.

Slips of paper and folded-over sticky notes with names.  Occasionally a few details.

My birth mother – she would have jumped into my skin if I would have let her.  In the early days of our reunion, she would call so often I didn’t have a chance to call back.

My mad crush in marriage – the one who bought me a whole smoked-salmon on my 39th birthday and nodded knowingly to seemingly every word I said.  My guru – the man who held space for everything that poured out of me.  Who saw me, was charmed by me, and knew how to hold a boundary.

I desperately wanted to keep each of them.  For each to fall into his or her proper place in my life.  That was my prayer.  To hold them near.  Available.  But without the pain of longing and attachment.

All that has come to pass...
All that has come to pass…

The Southern Svengali.  The man/boy who swept me off of my feet when my birth mom was dying in Charleston.  My divorce buddy – the one who spent long, intimate hours on the phone with me every night but insisted he did not have romantic feelings for me.

Orders to the universe.  For my condo, my apartment, my office.  Notes for a workshop I have yet to conduct.  Questions.  Who would drive back with me from Seattle to Chicago?  A dollar bill.   A prayer for prosperity.

I opened up the god box the other day and put a new slip of paper in it.

The name of a man 700 miles away.  Last week I told him I could no longer ponder the possibilities of a romantic relationship with him.   That he wasn’t available enough to me.  And I was no longer available for the knot in my stomach I called uncertainty.

That pain moved from my stomach to my heart.  I miss him.   I miss my heart leaping each time he calls or messages or just comments on my Facebook status – as if to say, “I see you.  I am here.”

What remains...God's work.
What remains…God’s work.

I wonder, will we be friends like we promised?  (I hope so.  We adore one another.)  But how?  How will he fall into his proper place in my life?While the box was open, I took out the mess of slips inside and read them.  I saw that most of these things had come to pass.  Had worked themselves out without my doing much of anything, other than writing words on slips of paper and stuffing them into a box.  And occasionally twisting, which I’ve learned is not essential to the process.

Most.  But some remained.  Unresolved.  Insistent questions about how I will support myself.  When, where and with whom I will have my next relationship, romantic encounter, date, sex, kiss.  Words cut out from a magazine, “dreams do come true…”  I left them in the box, along with the newest addition.

I’m not sure what to do with those that have come to pass.  Do I keep them as a reminder that things change — with or without me?  That new loves, losses and worries displace the old ones.  That more often than not, I receive some sort of version of what I want? Or do I burn them — as a prayer and an offering?

Meanwhile, there is a little more space in my God Box — room for my work, money and romantic possibilities to grow.  Room for God to work on them.  Room for me to act as if I believe that God is working on them — which is me doing my work.  Writing rather than worrying.  Right now.

Artist Date 52: Exactly Where I Am Supposed To Be

This time last year I was on my knees.  Literally.

It was my first holiday season divorced and living back in Chicago, alone.  My girlfriend called me out on my obsession with the man I like to call the Southern Svengali — the one I kissed for two nights while in Charleston in late October.  She said she could not hear about it, or him, anymore.

My non-relationship was affecting my relationships.

I felt desperate and scared.  I called a friend who advised me to get on my knees and ask God to remove my obsession him every day.

I did.  But I needed something more.

the artists wayI remembered the comfort I had found in the structured creativity of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and decided to pull it out again —  a hopeful, albeit artsy, roadmap out of myself.

This time, in addition to taking on the weekly reading and writing assignments, I committed to the weekly Artist Date – the weekly hour or so block of time, alone, to fill my creative coffers – and to a weekly blog about it for a year.  Fifty-two Artist Dates.  Fifty-two blogs.

Thursday is Artist Date 52.

I am sitting in a Starbucks on Michigan Avenue killing time before Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.  It is 6 p.m. and I have been downtown since 11.  I am tired.  I am questioning the wisdom in staying here as opposed to driving home at 2 p.m. when I was finished with my work and returning later.

Until I get the text which lets me know I am exactly where I should me.  It is from my friend Matt.  He is at a coffee shop around the corner, also killing time, before his couple’s therapy session where he will ask his wife for a divorce.

I tell him where I am.  Within moments he is standing over me and then we are hugging each other tightly.  Teary.

I remember when he told me that he and his wife were separating, more than a year ago.  I still lived in Seattle, but was visiting Chicago – smack dab in the middle of my own divorce.

Matt is appropriately anxious.  I reflect back to him how thoughtful he has been through this entire process – never rash.  We hold hands and we pray together, in the middle of Starbucks.  It doesn’t seem strange.

He leaves.  And shortly after, I do too, pulling my wool long-underwear back on over my tights.  It is December and the temperatures are already in the teens.

I love Chicago at night.  Especially during the holidays.  Michigan Avenue twinkles with white lights, and skaters glide around in circles on the tiny patch of ice in Millenium Park.

Photo: The Inside Scoop Chicago
Photo: The Inside Scoop Chicago

I walk up “the hill” that is Randolph Street to the Harris Theater.  My body has once again adjusted to the flat Midwest and takes note of the incline.

I pick up my ticket at will-call and make a beeline for the bathroom, peeling off my long underwear.  Winter in Chicago is a lot of work.

My friend Lori is coming out.  We embrace and talk excitedly about her ceramics show.  Lori is a genius potter.  We met her at Lil Street Art Center, where I was stumbling through a beginners’ class.  Lori taught me how to glaze.

She asks if I will come back to Lil Street.  I am not certain as I have committed my creative energies to my writing and my dance – at least for now.

She asks if I remember Kevin from the clay studio and reminds me he is a member of Hubbard Street.  I do remember.  It is one of the reasons I am here.

We part company and I run into a woman I have danced with.  She is enrolled in Level three West African Dance.  I am in Level two.  Later, I see Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The world seems small and I am a citizen of it.  Or, at the very least, a citizen of Chicago.

The woman in the seat next to mine is alone.  As is the woman next to her.  We make easy conversation.  She is a Weight Watchers member.  I am a Weight Watchers leader.  She is looking for a massage therapist.  I am a massage therapist.  She is a widow.  I am a divorcee.

She tells me she lost her husband four years ago, and she tears up.  For the second time today I am clear that I am exactly where I am supposed to be.  Right down to my seat: BB10.

The performance, One Thousand Pieces by Alejandro Cerrudo, is inspired by Marc Chagall’s America Windows – the installation I visit every time I am at the Art Institute, my favorite.  I shared it with Matt a few months ago when we met downtown for a member’s-only café re-opening.  It was summer and we sat in the courtyard noting who was checking the other out.  It seems a long time ago.

One Thousand Pieces, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
One Thousand Pieces, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

It is my first time seeing Hubbard Street Dance.  The dancers’ bodies are strong.  Gorgeous.  Not sinewy, like ballet bodies.  I think my legs approximate the same shape as theirs, albeit less toned and I feel at the same time cocky and ashamed admitting this to myself.

The stage is glossed and looks like water.  I am looking for Kevin.  My eyes occasionally roll back into my head.  This almost always happens to me at performances.  The lights go down and my sleepy kicks in.  Except for last year when I saw Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre  – twice.

My seats were good – dress circle one night, main floor the other.  My experience was dramatically altered by looking straight at the dancers as opposed to peering down at them.  I vowed then I would always buy good seats for dance.  These seats are good – the Harris Theatre is small and there are no “bad seats.”  But not good enough.

And then it is over.

The performance, but not my Artist Dates.  They “work.”  Like being on my knees works.  Not so much in desperation (although I am certain I will find myself there again many times in this life), but in prayer – the antidote to it.  Exactly where I am supposed to be.

My Last Conversation With My Birth Mom. Part One

My birthmom as a girl, in the blue.  My ex says I look just like her.
My birthmom as a girl, in the blue. My ex says I look just like her.

I don’t remember my last conversation with my birth mom.

I remember a brief talk we had from the car, when she told me to call her when I could sit down and really talk.  I did, a few days later.  But I don’t quite remember what I said.  Or what she said.  Something about paying bills.

I had gotten used to the idea that she would be around for a while.  I had forgotten she was sick.

A little more than six months ago I got a call that she was in the hospital, unresponsive.  That if I wanted to see her before she died, it was time to go.  So I went.

By the time I arrived in Charleston 36 hours later, she was sitting up, drinking chocolate milk — the occasional expletive flying out of her mouth.  She was “fine.”

But she wasn’t fine.  She was hooked up to tubes and machines.  She looked frail.  The doctors were pushing her to make decisions about the end of her life.  She wasn’t having any of it.

I had imagined sitting next to her, stroking her hand and telling her everything I never got a chance to tell her and wondering if she heard any of it.

Instead, we had a dance party in her room.  I danced.  She held  my hand.  We listened to Motown — naturally.

I sang to her and rubbed her feet and we talked about boys — the one I had just met, the one that was my biological father, the one I used to be married to.

She told me she had written my ex off as “dead,” as she and her friends were wont to do.  Fiercely protective of me.  I told her she didn’t have to.  That he was a good man.  “But he hurt you,” she said.

“It’s ok.  I’m ok,” I said.  And she softened.

And yet, when I left her I was certain I wouldn’t talk to her again.  Wouldn’t see her again.  Neither turned out to be true.

We continued our conversations as she was moved from hospital to hospital to rehabilitation center to home.  None of us believed she would ever go home, let alone live another six months.  But she was determined.  And when Pharen got an idea in her head, it was hard to derail her.

And so, over a six month period, I was lulled into a sense of security.  A belief that she would “be there.”  Our conversations felt less dramatic.  Less desperate.  Less “this might be the last time we talk.”

I was surprised when I got the call that she died. And yet, there was a peace in not knowing our last conversation would be just that. That we could just talk, like people do. Like we had learned to do. 

 

 

Artist’s Date 21: Not Quite Alone at the Opera

opera glassesI called my friend Sheila from the Lyric Opera tonight.  I was seeing Oklahoma!   Artist’s Date 21.  Standing in the lobby, talking into my corded ear piece, I told her I felt at ease here by myself.  That it didn’t seem strange.  That I was comfortable.

Perhaps because I had been on 20 solo Artist’s Dates prior.

Or perhaps because I wasn’t really alone.

I got a call this morning.  My birth mother, Pharen, died.  She was 60.

We just met for the first time three years ago.  She had been looking for me for 12 years, but it wasn’t until I began my search for her that we were connected.  And then it was ridiculously and remarkably fast.  And easy.

We spoke for the first time two days before I turned 40.  I was on a plane to Charleston to meet her a few months later.

During that visit she gave me a pair of mother-of-pearl opera glasses — one of the few things she had to give me, she explained, apologizing that she had long ago given her “good jewelry” to her nieces, as she wasn’t sure she would get to meet me.

I patted the lump in my bag that was the glasses, tucked inside a soft purple Crown Royal bag.  Exactly how she gave them to me.

Sweet irony.  For it is only in getting sober that I finally mustered the courage to look for her rather than talk about looking for her.  That I found friends who had done the same and could walk me through it, step by step.

Sweet irony.  That I would be going to the opera the day she died.

My friend Lynn told me to be gentle with myself during this time.

This time when my stomach feels full with anxiety and yet I don’t know what I am anxious about.  She says it is my body responding to the uncertainty of experiencing something new.

Like losing a “parent” — even if she didn’t raise me.  Or going to the opera alone.

My body has grown accustomed to these Artist’s Dates.

Picking up my tickets from will call, I felt kind of cool and confident, like the girl in a Charlie! perfume commercial from the 1980s.  “Who’s that in the orange suede boots and short, pink-wool blazer by herself?   The one with the bindi and the cropped hair?”

I used to sometimes feel sorry for people I saw alone at events.  I don’t anymore — because I don’t feel sorry for me.

I settled into my aisle seat — main floor, row RR — relieved that I didn’t have to make conversation.  That I could sit.  That I could read from the book in my bag.  That I could return emails and texts from my smartphone, clicking “like” by every condolence I received on Facebook.  Right until the lights went down and the curtain went up.

I’d never seen Oklahoma! before, movie or stage production.  I loved it.  Who doesn’t love a surrey with a fringe on top?  I pulled out  my glasses to see the performers better.  I had a hard time getting a really clear view, but no matter.  I felt her with me.  I wasn’t alone.

I loved the simple story of courting and coupling — a different time, but the foibles and heartbreaks universal, transcending it.  I saw a little bit of myself in wildly flirtatious Ado Annie.  Always keeping her options open.  Easily swayed by pretty words and sexy kisses.

I thought of my Aunt Julie, Pharen’s sister, who I met this fall when I went to Charleston a second time — when I received a call that my birth mother was dying, but didn’t.

I had met a boy while I was there and fell head over heels over head.  And when it didn’t turn out exactly as I had planned, she warned me about “pretty words.”  And to “stop and pay attention” when I hear what I want to hear, words that make my heart race.

Aunt Julie is practical and wise.  Pharen was like me.  A dreamy romantic with her heart on her sleeve and her feet often-times not quite touching the ground.

I loved the singing.  I loved the dancing.  I loved that it was light and I could just smile through it.

I loved that I could, in fact, smile through it.

That I no longer had to be attached to my sadness.  That I could experience moments of joy amidst my sorrow.

That I could go to the opera without wearing the look of “rescue me” painted on my face.

That I coudl go to work today, rather than calling in “tragic victim,” and not feel the need to announce to my Weight Watchers members that my birth mom had died earlier that morning.  That I could engage in their stories.  And when one offered that her niece had recently died, I didn’t have to match her loss with my own.

That I could call my parents, the ones who raised me, and tell them about Pharen’s passing.  That I could go to them with compassion and without expectations, knowing that this isn’t easy for them — my having found my birth family.  That I could turn to others less affected for comfort and soothing.

That I could call my birth dad and not want a thing from him other than to tell him this news.

That I could experience joy when 45 minutes after receiving the call that my birth mother had died, I received another call letting me know I had won fifth prize ina  a writing contest I recently entered — my first ever.  Addressing the topic, “How Creativity Changed My Life,” I wrote about these Artist’s Dates and the book from which they come, The Artist’s Way — my companion in divorce, in my (mostly) chosen single-dom.  Chosen but not always embraced.

That I could take the Mother’s Day card I bought yesterday — signed, sealed and ready to be delivered — and drop it in the mailbox anyway.  Knowing she would “get it.”  Just like I knew she was there with me tonight…

Peering through the opera glasses to see which male performers were cutest.  Knowing Ado Annie but wondering how she might be more steely, like Laurey.  Admonishing me for wearing orange suede booties in the rain, while I waited for the valet to bring my car — the ones that clomped down the hospital corridor so loudly, causing her to yell, “I knew it was you from half-way down the block…”

No wonder I didn’t feel alone.