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The following long-form piece was written for and performed at Nikki Nigl’s AboutWomen in Chicago on July 19, 2016.

I have been back in Chicago exactly 12 days.

I miss Madrid.

I miss the winding cobblestone walk to my metro stop at Opera. The flat buildings washed yellow, orange and pink with black wrought iron balconies on every window. Cartoonish by streetlight. I swear I could push them over and they’d tumble. Just like a movie set.

I miss the fountain at Cibeles. That “birthday cake of a building” as Dirk used to call it. The old Correos. Post Office. Now a museum I never made it to. A “Welcome Refugees” banner hanging from its top, a fountain in front. In the center of a roundabout that leads you to the Prado or Calle Gran Via, depending on your preference.

I used to walk here on Saturday nights alone when the sun had receded but the air was still hot and all of Madrid filled the streets, up from its collective summer siesta. The goddess Cybel and her lions riding on illuminated pink and blue water.

I miss my metro pass. Fifty euros for unlimited rides on the super clean, super-fast metro that would take me anywhere in Madrid. And if it didn’t the train or the light rail would.

I miss Turron gelato.

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Plaza de Cibeles and that “birthday cake of a building.”

I miss private health insurance to the tune of 57 euros a month. Gynecological exam chairs that tilt down, working with as opposed to against, gravity. I miss not having to ask for a pelvic ultrasound instead of a pap as it is a matter of course.

I miss feeling safe walking home alone at night.

I miss taking the train to Seville or Valencia for the weekend. Or a quick flight to Portugal, North Africa or Nice. I miss swimming in the Mediterranean upon reaching the coast. The salty taste of my lips and the white streaks drying on my legs surprising me.

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On the beach in Valencia.

I miss tomates that taste like tomatoes, pimientos that taste like peppers and pepinos that taste like cucumbers. I miss their names. I miss Paco choosing them for me at the market and our impromptu intercambio. His corrections to my beginner Spanish. My approval of his modest English.  His stories about his daughter and the victory I felt in understanding them. Mas o menos.

I miss cheap groceries.

I miss eating rye for breakfast instead of oatmeal. Eggs that sit on the shelf. Good, inexpensive coffee.

I miss Nick, the Greek waiter at Dionisos, flirting shamelessly with me.

I miss speaking Spanglish.

I miss all of this, and yet I chose to leave it. To return to Chicago. Where I pay for every El ride. Both financially and energetically. Nausteated by the slow, insistent rattling of the train. Knowing I would get there in half the time if I still owned a car. Knowing it’s best to ask someone to walk me to the train at night in some neighborhoods. My keys laced between my fingers as I leave the station and approach my own door.

Chicago. Where politicians are proudly corrupt. People hold signs on freeway off ramps … begging for money. And 2 bags of tasteless produce cost nearly $50.

Where zero degree FARENHEIT winters are a real possibility. As is a shooting death every weekend.

I chose this.

I chose home.

Lumbering Greystone buildings, summer rainstorms and leafy maple trees. Sunday dance classes at the Old Town School of Music. Lectures at the Art Institute. Lake Michigan.

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Copyright Art Institute of Chicago HD Wallpaper.

I’ve moved several times in my life. Four states, seven cities, two countries … if you count where I was born and raised. Which is not the same as home.

I learned that the first time I moved to Chicago in 2007. I’d been living between San Francisco and Oakland for nearly 14 years when my husband and I packed up our two cats and all our worldly belonging and headed east, to the Midwest, a place I vowed I’d never live again, for his medical residency.

God has a sense of humor.

It was grey and sticky, drizzly and hot when we arrived. We opened the car doors and felt the steam rise up around us, looked at one another, and without saying a word asked “What have we done?” Followed by “We are Californians. (Albeit adopted ones). This is a temporary residence. A sojourn. We will hate Chicago together.”

For months I wore ear plugs on the El and held my hand over my heart as I walked up Michigan Avenue. Each felt being accosted, until my own vibrations rose to match those of the city.

Whenever people asked where I was from, I responded, “I was born in Detroit. I live in Chicago. Oakland is my spirit home.”

But eventually … I got worn down. I surrendered. To this city. It’s people. To my addiction. I made a life for myself here. I grew my business. Got sober. And converted to the faith of my childhood – righting a religious technicality.

I stopped beginning every sentence with “In California …”

I found my biological parents. I learned to dance. I took my husband to the place where I spent my childhood summers, 8 hours away in northwest Michigan.

I began having experiences rather than talking about them.

And somewhere along the way I fell in love with this sometimes dirty, noisy, violent city. I fell in love with its architecture. Its people. Perhaps, most of all, I fell in love with myself.

Four years later I moved to Seattle. The wife of a now doctor, I felt obligated to go.

I cried like a wounded animal. Like I cried when I left Bay Area. Mourning the loss of morning hikes in Redwood Park, Peets coffee, and KFOG radio. The Golden Gate Bridge. My old house in Haight-Ashbury. The place where I met my husband and was married.

 

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Spirit Home. The French Trail in Redwood Park, Oakland.

Except this time, the loss felt strictly internal. Chicago, the place, has never spoken to me. Its topography. Its flatness and lack of nature feel uninspired. But there is something in its soil, in its DNA, that takes root in me.

It called me back after a year in Seattle. When my marriage ended and for the first time in a long time, I got to choose where I would live.

And it called me back after a year in Madrid, where I was teaching English. Fulfilling a childhood dream of living overseas. One I spoke about here, just before I left, a year ago. My only lament that my passport is far less sexy than it would be pre-European Union.

Since arriving, I’ve been greeted with warm “welcome backs” and tentative “welcome homes.” And the inevitable, “What brought you back?” It’s a fair question. One I’ve grappled with myself since making the decision not to renew my visa a couple of months ago.

There are lots of reasons.

Living in a country where you don’t speak the language – at least not fluently, is at best, frustrating. At worst, infantilizing. Without words, one’s personality changes. Mi casera, my landlady, once commented “You are quiet.” To which I replied, “Not in English.”

I needed, and asked for, a lot of help. Scheduling doctors’ appointments. Opening a bank account. Translating government documents. Buying a Spanish cell phone to replace mine which didn’t work.

I slept in a twin bed in an already furnished room in a grand, old Spanish apartment. I felt like a child. I moved the bed. Removed a chest of drawers. A few pictures. I hung up a batik of Ganesh, a string of elephants on a gold chain and a vision board I created around Thanksgiving time. I was still acutely aware that the place was not “mine.” It was not “home.”

The thought of living alone, setting up internet and utilities felt overwhelming. Even friends who were fluent in Spanish waited two months or longer for connectivity. Making due with coffee shops and on occasion, cold showers.

I focused on gratitude. For the opportunity to live with this 83-year-old former UN translator who lived through the Franco era and who was willing to speak with me in halting Spanish or easy English. For my inexpensive rent and the courtyard our apartment looked out on to.

For the community I created. With other teachers. Other expats. And others I met traveling.

For the ability to see Eastern Europe, North Africa and a good deal of Spain. For getting paid, albeit not as much as I had hoped, to talk.

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Traveling in Tangier with my friend Lindsey.

My students adored me. And I, them. But I was acutely aware that they were my students and not my friends … much as I wanted to talk. And much as they were eager to listen.

I had a life. But it was a smaller life.

The English-speaking community in Madrid is transient, making it difficult to build and sustain long-term friendships. And I couldn’t imagine beginning a romantic relationship … in part due to my lack of language skills. But also because of cultural differences. And while my work as a massage therapist surprisingly followed me to Spain, offering me a few clients and a few extra euros a month, my opportunities for employment would always be limited.

I felt limited.

I didn’t know that until a few weeks ago when I was talking with my friend Pam … who had spent six hours in the Social Security office. Playful, friendly and highly communicative, she said to the workers on her way out, “We’re such good friends, I’m going to invite you all to my wedding.”

“That’s it,” I said, pointing to the air, which she – of course – couldn’t see.

I can’t make small talk. I don’t have the language to strike up a conversation on the metro, in the elevator or at the grocery store. I’m too busy thinking about what I’m going to say and how to say it … and by the time I know how, the moment is gone.

And in that moment I realized what home was.

Yes, in its simplest form, home is where I reside. Where I know how to get where I’m going and the fastest way to get there.

Home is the place where restaurants know my face, possibly my name, and often my order. Where I speak the language. And where I sometimes hear my name called out in the street.

But mostly it is a place where I can get bigger. Where I feel expansive. Where I can grow. And to grow, I need to root. Home is a place where the soil is loamy. And conditions are favorable to temperament. A place like Chicago.

 

 

 

Artist Date 79: Aho Matakuye O’yasin

Bent and tied river willows form the structure of the sweat lodge.  Photo: Paul Tootalian
Bent and tied river willows form the structure of the lodge. Photo: Paul Tootalian

 

The waxy brown cotton of my lapa feels soft between my fingers.  Like my body.  Like my heart.

I thought the African skirt would become this way over time, as I danced in it – but it remained rigid and stiff.  Until today, when, in the dark and heat of the sweat lodge – Artist Date 79 – it softened, pinning itself to my body.

I roll the fabric between my fingers like rosary or prayer beads.  I feel the moisture accumulate between my breasts – grateful for their small size.  Grateful for the darkness to peel off my sports bra, unnoticed, and let my t-shirt from the Knoxville Farmers’ Market cover me.  Given my druthers I would wear nothing.  But I respect the modesty requested at this ceremonial gathering of men and women.

I close my eyes, breathe in the sweet sage, and fix my ears on the beating drum and the sound of my friend Paul’s voice.

It has been a journey just getting here.

********************

I arrive despite a blinding thunderstorm, the need for on-the-road car repairs, and a bit of information which shakes my sense of perception and causes me to question if this is right for me, right now.  And with the aid and calm of friends who ferry me to and from.

I walk about a quarter of a mile through wet, freshly mown grass to where the lodge is set up – my orange, peep-toe wedges gathering silky, green slivers.

I remember wearing these shoes through Rwanda two summers ago – collecting the red earth of the land of 10,000 hills between my toes – and recalling Patsy and Edina schlepping their Louis Vuitton bags through sand in the Morocco episode of the BBC’s Absolutely Fabulous.  Dragging my rolling suitcase filled with towels, sweat and apres-sweat clothes, I feel like a bit actor in the Sweat Lodge episode.

********************

Paul is draping blankets over the hut he constructed out of river willows – collected from his sister and brother-in-law’s property a few miles away.  Rocks are heating in a pit outside of the lodge, and he has built an altar from the dirt inside of it.

Paul is the third in a line of spiritual teachers with the same name.  The first being my university religious-studies professor, the second, the one who taught me to meditate – leading me through initiation with an offering of fruit, flowers (star gazers, my favorite) and the bestowing of a mantra.

Our paths have been crisscrossing for most of our lives.  We agree the universe has been conspiring for us to meet.

 

The Altar. Covered Lodge. And our guide, Paul. (I call him “The Reluctant Shaman.”

There are eight of us, the last arriving in a John Deere Gator Utility Vehicle.  She looks like an African Queen, regal in her loose batik dress with dragonflies on it, her grey hair braided at the temples and wrapped around her head like a crown.   Her face is at once both sad and serene.

She reminds Paul they have been in ceremony together – with her former partner.  The break-up is obviously fresh.

Words tumble out of my mouth about divorce, change and the painful nature of endings – no matter how right or how kind.  How people will say all sorts of stupid things.  And that she is, no doubt, on the precipice of some sort of adventure.  She smiles in a way that tells me she has lived a thousand lifetimes and knows that this kind of pain is just part of it.  That she has chosen this and is not fighting it.

I mention that I wasn’t sure I would make it here today.  That I wasn’t sure it was right for me, right now.  “Until now.  You are why I am here.”

********************

Paul smudges each of us with sage and we enter the lodge on our hands and knees, proclaiming “Aho Matakuye O’yasin – Greetings, All My Relations.”

I remember Patsy smudging my ex and I when she officiated our marriage.  And me doing the same for my friend Chase when her divorce was final, smudging the entire house – making it “her own” again.

********************

It is hot and humid inside.  I feel a wave of nausea wash over me as Paul explains what will happen in ceremony.

Rocks.  Herbs.  Water.

Chanting.  Praying.  Smoking.

Complete darkness.

Connectedness to the earth.  To one another.  To ourselves.

I am afraid.  Afraid of the total darkness.  Afraid of what I might feel, what might “come up.”  Afraid I cannot physically or psychologically endure this – even though Paul has assured us that this will be a “gentle sweat.”

But the heat is like a balm – different from the still Midwestern humidity that settled heavy around me just moments before.  The drumming and chanting force all thoughts from my mind.  I only hear my friend’s voice – strong, confident, prayerful – and the African Queen’s.  It is sweet and slippery and hard to hold on to.  But very much there.  Just as I feel her, very much there, next to me.

Everything softens.  My body.  My brain.  My lapa.  I feel the sweat sliding down my body and I am deliriously in love with it.  This body I have fought for so much of my life.  That has brought me here and is sustaining me today.  It is strong and small and very, very feminine.  I feel my hands pressing into the earth beneath me.  My legs.  My feet.  My ass.  The soft dampness of moist earth is flesh, the spiky grass is hair and we are one.

 

Apres sweat — eyes wide open. Photo: Paul Tootalian

 

I pray for my stepfather and my two girlfriends who are battling mightily.  And I ask for prayers for myself.  For compassion and acceptance for myself, for where I am, not where I think I should be.  My voice cracks and I add, “May we all have compassion and acceptance for ourselves and for one another.”

I pray for the man who hurt my heart not so long ago.  I call out his name when I am certain no one can hear me.

********************

I smoke from the Chanupa — the sacred, ceremonial pipe.  Sober nearly seven years, my addict is awakened.

I am back in college, sitting in a circle.  My friend Brian stirs the bowl and lights it while I suck in all that I can, holding it in my lungs.  I converse easily while I do this – like one of the big boys.

But I am not talking.  And this is not weed.  It is tobacco, although it tastes like juniper and pine.  It is ceremony.  It is holy.  It is community.  It is what I longed for, sitting in a circle like this, so many years ago.

********************

I weep in the darkness.  I am certain no one can hear my dying animal letting go. And it is over.

We crawl out on our hands and knees, just as we had entered, saying “Aho Matakuye O’yasin – Greetings, All My Relations,” once again.

Paul greets each of us with an embrace, and we greet one another in the same way.  The African Queen’s eyes are wordlessly different.  Lighter.  As if the color has changed.  She presses me tightly to her.

The group walks towards the house for a celebratory feast, but I stay behind and wait for Paul.

While I am waiting, I do cartwheels around the lodge.  One after the other after the other, until I feel dizzy.  I feel the pull of my pelvis – the source of chronic pain – and I welcome it.  I feel the lightness of my body, of my mind and I welcome it, give thanks for and to it.

I had believed I was here to meet the African Queen.  That was only half of the truth.  In the stillness of the after-lodge, I know its other half, its twin — I was here to meet myself.  “Aho Matakuye O’yasin — Greetings, All My Relations.”

Artist Date 38: Creating Community…It’s Not About the Shoes

I don’t know if I filled my creative coffers this week.  By my spiritual and social ones are brimming over.  And that will have to do this week for Artist Date 38.

Overlooking Lake Michigan, at Dawes Park.
Overlooking Lake Michigan, at Dawes Park.

Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year. 5774.  I’m at Dawes Park in Evanston for the ritual of tashlich – where we empty bread from our pockets into a body of moving water.  Some think of it as casting away one’s sins.  I prefer a gentler interpretation.  That I am simply cleaning out the residue of the last year.  Whatever is stale.  Has been sitting around in the corners of my consciousness slowly growing a somewhat furry mold.

I’ve stuffed a package of naan bread in my bag.  It’s been in my freezer since November.  A friend brought it to a party I had, to go with the curried lentil soup I was making.  I’m not much of a bread eater, so I tucked it away for just such an occasion.

Another woman has matzo.  I could have brought that two.  I buy too much every year.

It is my third High Holiday season with the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, so I know where we meet.  But this year is different.  I not only know the place, but I know many of the people here too.

My friend Phil is here with his family.  He introduced me to this congregation – specifically the Rabbi — a number of years ago, when I was feeling particularly wayward and spiritually lost.

Since that time I have developed a close relationship with Rabbi Brant and Cantor Howard.   They are tuning up for this short, mostly musical, service that precedes the tossing of the bread.  Jeff is tuning up as well.  We met a couple of years ago at a Shabbat morning service I attended just once.

He seemed to sense I was new and somewhat hesitant, and warmly welcomed me in.  I have had several encounters with him since them.  Perhaps my favorite being when he sidled up to me during last year’s High Holiday services.

He said he read my blog postings from Rwanda and that he liked my writing.  I thanked him and told him I used to write professionally.  “It shows,” he said.  And was gone.

Moments before I had silently cried out to G-d, asking what the plan is, what it is I was meant to do.  I recall looking up toward the heavens, smiling and saying, “got it.”

Mary Jo is here.  Brant introduced us several years ago when I completed my conversion to Judaism.  She joined him and Howard as my witnesses, and was there in that same role when I received my get, my Jewish divorce.

I am now on her permanent invite list for Passover, and the breaking of the fast on Yom Kippur.

I feel a tap on my shoulder.  It is Rachel.  She is a Weight Watchers member I know.

Monica is here with her family.  We met at Shabbat services at the lakefront a couple of years ago.  Michael is here too.  He blows the shofar every year at High Holiday services.  He introduces me to his daughters who are following in the family tradition.

I see Hannah.  She used to wear her head shaved like mine but now she has a mass of ringlets.  She tells me that she’s bought a condo and that she broke up with her boyfriend.  She introduces me to her friend Kelly and we agree we must get together.

A woman I have never met before approaches me.  Her name is Sheila.  She likes my shoes and takes a photograph of them.

Yes, they are “the shoes.”  The shoes that have seemingly come to identify me.  My orange Fly London peep-toe wedges.

The shoes...
The shoes…

The first summer I owned them, people literally chased me down Michigan Avenue to find out what they were and where I got them.  It was fun, talking with all sorts of people I wouldn’t otherwise meet.  And today is no exception.

Walking to the water, a tall woman with a mess of dark curls puts her foot next to mine.  “Nice shoes,” she says.  She is wearing the same ones in pewter.

She tells me she is tossing out the year of rehabbing her broken wrist.  It is healed.  I do not tell her what I am tossing.  Instead, I tell her I like our shoes so much that I have two pairs.  That the second I bought before my divorce was final, when my then-husband kindly said, “Do what you need to before we separate our monies.”

I bought a new lightweight massage table, a Torah commentary, and the peep-toe wedges in mustard.  We laugh at my choices.

I wish her a sweet New Year and peel off to throw my bread, my karmic residue.  There are so many things I could get rid of.  The litany that I repeat every year – self-doubt, unkindness, judgment of myself and others.  I recall that last year I tossed away my identity as a wife.

It was a Monday.  I knew divorce papers were signed on Mondays in the county where we filed.  I had a sinking feeling at that moment that I was officially divorced.  A call to my mediator later in the day confirmed it.

Today I am casting away what my friend Lisa likes to call “an old idea.”  I am embarrassed to admit that I have continued to hold on to it.  Actually, I’m not sure I was consciously aware that I had it, but a series of recent events has cast a glaring light upon it and I can no longer turn away.

I point myself east, tear off a piece of naan and whisper to myself, “I let go of the idea that I am only desirable for sex.”

It is windy and the naan flies back at me.  I turn west off of the dock where the waters are still.  I repeat the words.

I’ve got a lot of naan so I say it a couple of more times, ripping and tossing.  Ripping and tossing.

When I am done, I am approached by a woman.  She asks me about the shoes.  She is radiant and I tell her so.  She tells me about her job search.  Her cancer.

I suddenly remember that people used to tell me things about themselves all of the time.  Friends and family, and random, almost strangers too.  Cab drivers especially.  I realize people are talking to me in this way again.

It’s not the shoes.  Because I wore the same ones last year…I am different.  My heart has healed just enough to let some of my light shine out.  I am open and there is room for others.  They sense it and come in.