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

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

It is 1993. I am 24-years-old and about 10 days sober. I am laying in a shallow bathtub when my mother calls to wish me a Merry Christmas.

“We’re Jewish,” I say.

“So what?” she replies. “It’s still Christmas. And it’s fun.”

“I wish I were in Israel,” I say.

When I was growing up, my cousin Wendy hosted an annual “Chanukkah Party on Christmas Day for Jews Who Have Nothing To Do.” It was a raucous affair with latkes, dreidels, wine, and even a couple of nuns Wendy worked with at the Sisters of Mercy, where she managed their pension fund.

But that was many years ago.

In 1994, the year after my bathtub lament, I moved to San Francisco. There, with my Irish-Catholic roommate Tim, I purchased my first Christmas tree and participated in the post-holiday “tree toss” out the second-story window of our Haight-Ashbury apartment – Tim spotting from the sidewalk while I heaved the heavy trunk out the curved glass window.

A year later, I experienced the Jewish Christmas tradition of Chinese food and a movie for the very first time  — an experience I had missed due to Wendy’s parties.

One more orbit around the sun had me hosting my very own Christmas Eve dinner — an effort to assuage my British boyfriend’s longing for family and Christmas cake from Marks and Spencer. The guest list was made up of friends who filled my home for Rosh Hashanah and Passover dinners, and I cooked up a pot of risotto while my partner made chocolate pie.

By now I had discovered most San Francisco transplants don’t return “home” for the holidays – Thanksgiving or Christmas — and the city is ripe for a Jewish-British Christmas dinner party followed by a bike ride or a movie and dim sum the next day.

In 2007, now married, we moved to Chicago — where everybody goes home for the holidays. To the suburbs. To Michigan or Ohio. Indiana or Wisconsin. Where there are few strays or orphans.

For the next four years, each December we would ask ourselves “to gather or not to gather.” Sometimes we did — opening our home and our hearts. Other times we simply facilitated — reserving two large, round tables in Chinatown and waiting to see who would join us. Occasionally, we were invited to someone else’s celebration.

We spent our last Christmas together in Seattle – where we had moved a few months earlier. I made a final vat of risotto while my friends Earl and Jesse jammed with my husband on guitar.

A year later we were divorced and I found myself once again in Chicago – scrambling for a plan. I have no recollection of what I did that year. And only vague ones of dinners at Min Hing in the two seasons that followed.

Last December, I spent Christmas in Cologne with my sixth-grade lab partner. I was living in Madrid, just a few hours flight away. She picked me up on Christmas Eve with a trunk full of food – explaining the grocery markets would be closed until December 27. At 5 p.m. the airport Starbucks had already closed.

We cooked, ate, talked for hours and went for long walks down wide boulevards that reminded me of Chicago’s Logan Square. On Boxing Day we visited the Christmas markets and stuffed ourselves with giant potato pancakes topped with sour cream and applesauce. It was, without a doubt, my best Christmas.

This December, as the days grew near, I waited to hear if anyone would be “gathering the troops” for Peking Duck. But all I heard was silence. I considered spearheading the process as I had so many times before, but frankly felt too exhausted.

It seemed I would be alone … that is, until an ex-boyfriend phoned a week before the holiday.

“Why don’t you take the train down and join mom and me for Chinese food and TV back at the house? You can spend the night or if you prefer, I can drive you home,” he said brightly, adding, “Mom is really excited to see you.”

Lovely. And yet.

His invitation felt intimate and familiar. Too intimate. Too familiar. A little girlfriend-y. Except I wasn’t his girlfriend anymore.

I sat with his invitation for nearly a week until the morning the words “What do you want to do?” slipped off of my pen while journaling. And then, “What would be fun?”

“A Writers Retreat.”

The words came quickly, followed by, “Meditate. Exercise. Read. Face mask. Bath salts. Beautiful food.”

When I mentioned this to my friend Nikki, she offered up her apartment as a “retreat facility.” She and her husband would be traveling to Wisconsin to be with family. A few days later my friend Clover suggested I open one of her Chanukkah gifts to me early. It was a turmeric and gold clay face mask. “For your retreat,” she explained, smiling.

That night I wrote my ex-boyfriend a note — thanking him, but declining his invitation.

I thought about my 45th birthday. The first one I spent alone – by choice — waking up in Rome and going to bed in Paris.

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

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

Walking across the Seine, looking out at the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, a thought rose up inside of me. “I don’t wish a man were here. I don’t wish a friend were here. That I wore something different or ate something different. I don’t wish anything was different than it is.”

It was a revolutionary idea. One I didn’t choose to think. Instead, it lived inside of me, speaking with its own voice.

Two years later, I returned to Paris — alone — for my 47th birthday.

And Christmas?

I woke up in Chicago and went to bed in Chicago. And in the hours between, I ate smoked salmon, pomegranates, chocolate and fresh dates. I slathered my face with gold clay and soaked in the bath reading Julia Child’s “My Life in France.” I wrote. I meditated. I danced, napped and wrote some more.

I didn’t wish I was in Israel. Or Cologne. With my ex-boyfriend or ex-husband or a friend. Eating dim sum, riding my bike or watching a movie. I didn’t wish anything was different than it was.

I was Jewish, solo and sans Chinese food. And Merry on Christmas.

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Artist Date 107: As It Was Promised to Me

I have come to crave myself.

I was promised this would happen.

The first time when I left Seattle — my therapist gave me a copy of the poem “Love After Love” by Derek Walcott.

Between Acts by Archibald Motley
Between Acts by Archibald Motley

The time will come

when, with elation

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror,

and each will smile at the other’s welcome.

 

and say, sit here. Eat

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back you heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

 

all your life, whom you have ignored

for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letter from the bookshelf,

 

the photographs, the desperate notes,

peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on you life.

The second time was a few months later, when my friend Sarah sent me a text, a photograph of a page in a book and a couple of highlighted lines — I do not remember the exact language, something about “holding on to the jewel that is myself” and “no more compromises.”

Both sounded like a bunch of pretty words and glib proclamations — neither which I could relate to.

My heart was broken. I was broken. Being alone was the worst thing I could imagine, as I was sure it was an indicator of what my future looked like.

I wanted to dress my wounds with the skin of another, healing from the outside in — although I didn’t realize it at the time.

And yet, I put the Walcott poem up on my refrigerator, next to a portion of the poem “Dreams of Desire” by Oriah House…

I want to know if you can be alone

with yourself

and if you truly like the company you keep

in the empty moments.

…and next to a tiny square of paper that had fallen from one of my journals. It was old — leftover from my single days in my 20s in Detroit. I do not know the source.

Sunday in the Park by Archibald Motley
Sunday in the Park by Archibald Motley

Most of us approach things exactly the wrong way around. First we want someone else to make us feel secure by lavishing us with affection and approval. But what you find out is that you are the source of love. When you have done the right inner work, you find that those black holes, those persistent needs and demands have been covering up the source of love, the boundless ocean of love within you.

It seems a higher part of me deeply understood the power of words and of seeing the same words day after day, and it believed in the ability of words to burrow into my subconscious and change me.

And so I find myself aching to be alone and responding with what Twyla Tharp calls “the creative habit” — the Artist Date, number 107.

It is unplanned.

I see posters for the show “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” on my way into work and decide to go. I mention this, throwing in the words “Artist Date,” to my colleague Nancy.

“Oh that’s right…you have a date tonight,” she says, not quite hearing or grasping what I have said.

It is true, I do have a date tonight — the first in many, many months. But first I have a date with myself, I explain.

I bound up the stairs of the Chicago Cultural Center as if to meet a lover. Instead, I meet myself along with the paintings that have called me here.

They are vibrant, sensual, humorous — each telling a story that can only be told by one who has lived it.

Gazing in silence, the chatter of my mind clears. I can hear my breath, my heart. I can feel the cool of lush trees and grass and even a man’s suit — painted an Easter green in “Sunday in the Park.” I can feel the heat of pink bodies — all breasts and asses, high heels and cigarettes (Delightful!) in “Between Acts.”

I can feel my own body soften and fill with a sense of contentedness that comes with giving myself what I need most — in this moment it is time, attention, quiet, a sense of normalcy.

Perhaps this is why I take an Artist Date today — before a more traditional one– so that I might fill myself with these things and not mistakenly ask another to, so that I might have a chance to greet myself at my own door and feast.