Artist Date 115: Distracted

I appreciate a good distraction.

It’s Tuesday and today I find out if I’ve been accepted to the Yale School of Divinity. Of course, “today” is five hours earlier in New Haven, (Spain has not yet turned its clocks forward for spring.) so while it is nearly 7:30 p.m. in Madrid, it is only 2:30 p.m. in Connecticut. And, not surprisingly, I don’t know yet.

I mention this to Gordon, who is sitting next to me, and who expresses surprise when I tell him I have not been checking my phone every few minutes to see if the email has arrived.

I am equally surprised as I have vivid memories from not so long ago, of sitting at my desk hitting refresh on the computer every few minutes, waiting for I-don’t-know-what to happen. Not unlike my wandering into the kitchen to check the refrigerator every few minutes – each time imagining I might find something new added to the shelves since my last look.

Except I will receive something new via email if I wait long enough, whereas the contents of my refrigerator will remain static unless I leave my house and bring in something new. Which is essentially what I am doing now – once again filling my creative coffers. Artist Date 116. A distraction.

My friend Spencer developed the Unamuno Authors Series, bringing poets from around the world to Madrid. Tonight Mark Doty will read his work.

My friend Julie counts him among her favorite writers. A portion of her “fan letter” is included in the paperback version of Doty’s book, Dog Years. Later I will take a selfie with him and send it Julie via Facebook. But for now, I’m just waiting.

For Doty.

Not for Yale.

2016-03-15 20.35.24
Selfie of me and Mark Doty…delightfully distracted.

Because at this point I’ve turned off the sound on my phone. I don’t want to hear it. Or look at it. Or be reminded of it. My phone. Or Yale’s decision. Because I’m not sure if I can stay present in this moment knowing it. So I choose to remain in delicious, hopeful, not knowing.

Doty is a perfect distraction. Engaging. Both serious and playful as he reads his own words about dogs and fish, AIDS and murder. His mouth is tight, his words clipped with a “Locust Valley Lockjaw.” I wonder if anterior neck work (massage) might change the sound of his delivery.

My musings are interrupted by a poem about Doty’s old lover, gone now. He questions why he can no longer conjure up his face without first looking at a photograph. Feel the warmth of his brown skin against his own.

And why can’t I? D is neither dead nor even gone from my life. He is merely far, far away.

We haven’t seen one another in nearly eight months. Since I left Chicago. We do not Skype or FaceTime. This is his choice, not mine, and I do not argue it.

However, as the pages of the calendar turn over onto themselves, I have a harder time recalling his smell, his voice, and yes, even his face, without the aid of photographs and voicemails. I do not want to lose these palpable memories but it seems almost inevitable unless, until, we find ourselves in each other’s presence again.

I recall some years ago, speaking on the telephone with Stu, and then later, Jason – men I had dated when they were little more than boys and I, little more than a girl.

“Oh…that’s what you sound like,” I said upon hearing each of their voices. I had forgotten.

Perhaps this is the brain’s wisdom – making room for new smells, news sounds, new faces. Allowing us to move forward…from a relationship that ends in death, or in distance. From disappointment, words we’d rather than not read or hear.

“The Admissions Committee at Yale Divinity School has completed its review of your application. I am sorry to inform you that unfortunately, we are unable at this time to offer you a place in the Fall 2016 entering class.”

It is nearly midnight when I log on to the Admissions Page. After my Artist Date. After dinner with Spencer and Doty and his partner.

I think that I shake a little reading the email and that my breath catches – stuck in inhalation. That I cry a little too. But already, I don’t remember exactly.

I send Spencer a text, telling him the news, and I go to bed – too tired to do anything else.

And in the morning, I am again waiting. This time for a decision from Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music – my top choice for graduate school. I am assured it should arrive within the next few days.

Until then, I remain in delicious, hopeful, not knowing –  distracting myself with dogs and fish and conjured up memories of old lovers. With art and words and daily life. With moments of presence.

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Artist Date 113: Stella

mark wunderlich
Poster from the Unamuno Author Series, Poet Mark Wunderlich

Stella was always trouble.

A manipulator by nature (What cat isn’t?) she danced inside a cage one Sunday afternoon at Berkeley’s Your Basic Bird as if to say, “Pick me! Pick me! Yoo Hoo! Over here! Pick me.”

And so we did.

She was “my cat.” A scrawny tortoise shell, unaware of her size, who refused to abdicate Alpha Cat status to Ezra – a Norwegian Forest Cat affectionately known by my then husband as “Big Daddy.”

Bent on asserting his position, Ezra would regularly back Stella into a corner or under the butcher-block cart. Trapped, she would flatten her ears, hiss, and come out swinging – literally – inevitably pissing or crapping herself, which the two of them would roll around in, fighting.

We cleaned the floor with enzymes.

We tried separating the two.

We gave Stella Bach Flower essences. Anti-anxiety medication. Consulted with a feline behavioral specialist.

None of it worked.

Eventually, we tearfully gave Ezra to a client of mine who allowed him to take his rightful place as the Big Daddy, while Stella took the position as Alpha Cat in our home. Much to our surprise, Nin, our third, seemed relieved that Ezra was gone and was happy to acquiesce to Stella’s whims.

And so we thought our Stella troubles were over – and they were – until we moved to Chicago.

She lied limp on the floor of our largely sunless apartment. Depressed. Was spooked by thunderstorms. And eventually began peeing on the floors and furniture – rain or no rain.

I haven’t thought about any of this in years – until now, Artist Date 113. The Unamuno Author Series, featuring American writers reading their work here in Madrid.

I arrive late – having come straight from teaching – and Mark Wunderlich is already reading from his book of poems, The Earth Avails. I slip into a chair and listen while a wave of “Oh yes…this is why I go on Artist Dates” sweeps over me. I fantasize about graduate school – about being a part of a community of writers and artists. English-speaking writers and artists. I think about how I feel like a child here in Spain – unable to communicate more than my basic needs in the language of the country where I have chosen to live. How I become shy and small in Spanish, while I am big and often shiny in English.

And then I think about Stella.

Mark reads poems about many things. Prayer. Bridges. A classmate whose name sealed her destiny as a pole dancer.

But it is the poem that is not included in his book that locks me in. About missing the cat who greeted him at the door – eager for her supper. Who shared the bed with him. Who was there when his partner no longer was.

And about the bolus they injected into her paw when it was clear her life was coming to an end.

I remember holding Stella when they injected the first bolus into her.

It is a Saturday afternoon. I have just pulled the still-warm-from-the-dryer covers back on the sofa cushions, having just washed them with enzymes – again – when Stella leaps on to the couch, looks straight at me, squats and releases her bladder.

I look at my then-husband. We know without saying it that we cannot continue to live like this. That she will ruin every piece of furniture. That she will ruin the dark, original walnut floors. And that no one will adopt her.

Before we can change our minds, we whisk her into the cat carrier and into the car and drive to the somewhat ironically named Anti-Cruelty Society.

Inside, people are relinquishing their pets for all sorts of reasons – some seemingly legitimate, others ridiculous. But what do I know? I am putting my cat down. Not even relinquishing her.

I discuss the matter with a staff member and she agrees with our decision.

I slip Stella out of the cat carrier, let my then-husband say goodbye, and carry her into another room where “the procedure” will take place.

I hold her in my arms on the stainless-steel table, covered with a threadbare beach towel. I tell her that she was a good cat. That I love her. And the technician injects a bolus of medication that will end her life into her paw.

“It will take a few minutes,” she explains. “Keep holding her.”

I do. I hold onto her for what seems like a very long time. She is groggy, like she was the time we gave her anti-anxiety medication, but nothing more. After about 10 minutes the technician returns.

“She’s still alive,” I say. “Always a fighter.”

This time the technician injects the needle directly into a vein, as opposed to near it, and once again leaves us alone.

This time, I feel her breathing slow down. And then stop. She is gone.

Eight years later, my heart still hurts. Tears streaming down my cheeks as I am writing this.

I don’t like thinking about this moment. And yet I am grateful to Mark for reminding me of it. For reminding me of Stella – this scrappy little cat who reminded me so much of myself once upon a time. Hair slicked back. Wannabe Alpha looking for a fight. And yet behind the bravado, a girl – seemingly unaware of her small size –crying “Pick me. Pick me.”

Of how much I loved her. And the possibilities for loving that girl.

 

 

 

Artist Date 95: Temptation and Commitment. The Tapeworm is my Divorce.

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James Ensor. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1887. Regenstein Endowment and the Louise B. and Frank H. Woods Purchase Fund. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SABAM, Brussels.

My neck just did that thing where it snaps back my head as it is falling forward, as I am falling asleep sitting up.  It happens every time.  Every time I sit in a darkened theater.  It doesn’t matter if it is a movie or opera or lecture.  If it is engaging or tedious.  The darkness lulls me into slumber.  I feel like my father before he was diagnosed with sleep apnea and was fatigued all of the time — except that I don’t snore.

I know better.  I know I need to go to sleep earlier.  But I am back to my old habit of sitting in front of the computer until far too late, usually doing nothing of note — trolling Facebook or shopping for something I don’t end up buying.  And when I finally make it to bed, I’m left with five or six hours to rest before I do it all over again.

The habit started when I moved out of my then husband’s bedroom.  I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning talking to a friend who was also going through a divorce.  The late-night habit continued when I settled myself back into Chicago — although the conversations did not.

I began to consciously work on the habit.  Setting alarms at 10 p.m. — alerting me it is time to step away from the computer.  Getting accountable with my Weight Watchers groups — choosing “Get Seven to Eight Hours of Sleep Each Night” as the healthy habit I would work on each week.  I moved from five or six to six or seven, but never quite made it up to eight.

And then I started backsliding.  Call it a sleep relapse.  A divorce-habit relapse.  It began noticing its effects — finding myself “needing” a mid-morning tea to stay awake.  Struggling to make my way out of bed, trying to negotiate my non-negotiable morning exercise.  And today, dozing off during a lecture at the Art Institute, Temptation: The Demons of James Ensor — Artist Date 95.

My being here can only be described as a lazy Artist Date.  I know nothing about Ensor.  In fact, I’m not all that interested in or excited about the lecture.  But it was highlighted in the Art Institute of Chicago Magazine and it allowed me to fulfill the commitment I had made — first, to a year of Art Dates, and when I had completed that, to 100 of them.

This public accountability prods me on — even though no one is really paying attention, other than me — even as my head dips further forward, catching only bits and pieces of the lecture.

Belgium.  Seaside resort town.  Alcoholic father.

Tapeworm.

Yes, tapeworm.  I am suddenly awake.  Awake to this pain, this presence that ate away at Ensor, that his doctors couldn’t seem to rid his body of.

It dominates his art.  Images of the worm, its feeding mouth, skeletons and death.  I am struck by his commitment to it — even after it has left his body.  It changed him.  His story.  His work.

His worm is my divorce.  His drawings and paintings are my words.  I feel somehow comforted by this.  That it is ok that I am “still talking about this, writing about this.”  That this is what we do — at least some of us.  Rather than turning away from the pain, we work it out — on canvas, on paper, on screen.  We allow it to change us.  For ourselves to be changed.

I visit the exhibit after the lecture, wide awake.  The galleries are designed so I can go in the out and out the in.  There is no beginning or end.  Just middle.  The walls are a surprising choice of aquamarine.  I stand close to The Temptation of Saint Anthony — it’s 51 pieces of pencil-colored paper layered upon each other — and look for the worm, its mouth, its suckers.  I find it along with demons, a pair of red shoes and a vendor hawking frites.

On the way out, I pick up a sheet of four temporary tattoos — among them, the feeding mouth of the tapeworm from The Temptation of St. Anthony.  I slip the sheet into my bag, quite certain I will not put any of the images to my skin.

I don’t need to.  I have my own, permanent ones.  “Write” and “Left” tattooed on the inside of each wrist in typewriter font.  The tapeworm is my divorce.  A reminder of what changed me and how I am changed.  Of my work and how I work it out.  And my commitment to it.

write

Choosing To Be A Lesbian Alcoholist

Patsy and I in Israel, nearly 20 years ago.
Patsy and I in Israel, nearly 20 years ago.

 

The last time I saw Patsy was at my wedding – nearly 13 years ago.  She officiated, combining Jewish, Hindu, Native American and British elements into a ceremony that spoke to both of our hearts and sensibilities.

I spoke to her yesterday for the first time in more years that I can count – not quite 13, but far too long.

We talked about Mickey – her mom – who had just died and what that felt like for her.  About meeting in Israel on a press trip nearly 20 years ago.  And so much of what had happened in the in between.  Things we caught in passing, in pithy Facebook posts and the occasional email.

She had no real sense of what had happened between my ex and me.  Or even that I had (happily) given up the fight with alcohol nearly seven years ago.

And because she had not been with me for every step, every man, every tear and nuance of the journey – she saw the story, my story, far differently than me.  Her reflections were, in a word, a revelation.

She had recently asked me in an email if there was “someone special” in my life.

It was the question I have come to expect. To brace myself for. To both love and despise – as it can feel both hopeful and humiliating, depending on the day, my mood and the current state of my heart.

I told her that I did not. That it hurt my heart to write that.

I told her about the suggestion that I not date for a year after my divorce. How that was pretty easy as no one was really asking. (Which is not exactly true. More to the point would be, no one I was interested in was asking.) And how that year had come and gone.

I told her I had met some extraordinary men, experienced some wonderful emotional intimacy and some wonderful romance.  But none had been truly available for one reason or another.

I told her I am online, like every other schlub, although it is not how I imagine meeting someone. And to keep me and my big, juicy, open heart in her thoughts and manifestations.

It was “my story.” The one I tell myself. The one I tell here.

Yesterday, she helped me tell the next chapter. It had a decidedly different feel.

I told her about the “romantic friendship” with my spiritual-traveling twin. About the man nearly 13 years my junior, who has been dancing around me (and me, him) for some months, and our breakfast date that morning. And about a similar dance I have been doing with a man who looks a lot like Daniel Day Lewis – my ex’s doppelganger.

I told her about the friend who continues to tell me, “I’m still interested.” How my feelings remain platonic. And that I have no desire to try to “make them” otherwise.

And I told her about a new man – the chef – who I actually did meet online. We’ve had just a few dates, and my feelings feel “right sized.” He is easy to talk to and I have fun spending time with him. I find him attractive and I like how he kisses.

“I think you are very genuine,” he blurted across the table a few nights ago. I like that too. Because it is kind and observant, but mostly because it is true.

Patsy replied, “You ARE dating a lot of men right now. You are having fun. You just haven’t settled on one.”

It was true. It IS true. It sounds different from “I am still not in a relationship,” even though the actual details are the same. And it feels different.

She added that in the nearly 20 years she has known me, that I have always had men in my orbit. Always. That I have always been attractive to men. Always.

This was news. I had not seen it that way.

Seems I have spent the past 30-plus years mostly noticing the time in between. The times of breakup and/or longing. And believing that everyone else was constantly in relationship – meaningful relationship – and wondering why I was not.

She reminded me of the other chef. The one I dated before my ex-husband.

And I recalled the hotel bartender in Israel who suggested I show him the pictures in my room. When I replied, “I think you’ve seen all the pictures in all of these rooms,” he asked if I was a lesbian. Earlier he had asked if I was “an alcoholist,” as I turned down a drink.  Close enough.

I chose an evening with my new press-trip friends (among them, Patsy) over an overseas fling, and a good story to be certain. I chose to be the lesbian alcoholist.

And in that recalling, I saw myself as Patsy saw me. (And likely, many others.) Attractive. Discerning. At choice. I have always been at choice…in relationships. And now, in how tell my story.

 

 

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.”

My Heart is a Surfboard

kaddish-coverThere are four cars in the synagogue parking lot in Evanston – mine being one of them.

I do not want to be here.  And I especially do not want to be here alone.

I asked Pam to join me.  Clover.  Michael.  Matt.  All were unavailable.  And then I stopped calling. I didn’t want just anyone to join me.  So I am here, alone, on the one-year anniversary (according to the Hebrew calendar) of my birth mother’s death.

The synagogue sent a letter reminding me of the date, 28 Iyyar, along with the words – in both English and Hebrew – to Kaddish, the prayer that accompanies the lighting of a yahrzeit candle, honoring the deceased.

Her name will be read in synagogue, and I feel l should be here to hear it. I think she would like that – even though she wasn’t Jewish.

I sit in the car a few minutes longer, re-reading flirtatious text messages my friend, Mr. Fashion, sent just before I left the house – trying to distract myself from my uncomfortable feelings about being here.  It only half works.

Eventually, I walk in and am greeted by both the rabbi and the cantor.  Each is a touchstone in my life.  And yet seeing them today does not shift my feelings.

Twenty or so congregants are here for the Friday night service, but I sit alone.   It is my choice.  I feel awkward and angst-y.  I keep my eyes cast down.  I barely sing.  I wonder how it is that I once thought I might be a rabbi.  It seems unfathomable to me now, as it is all that I can do just to be here.  And I again wonder why it is that I am here.

Until the last moments of the service, when I am reminded.

I am standing with my congregation saying Kaddish, the memorial prayer for the dead.  The prayer praising God.  The same prayer I read at home a few days ago when I lit a yahrzeit candle.

The rabbi reads the names of those in the congregation who have passed in the past week, and of those who passed this week in years past.

“Pharen Johnson, mother of Lesley Pearl.”  My rabbi’s voice catches a little – I think.

And without warning, my eyes are heavy and wet.  My nose flares – hot.  I feel a thud in my core, and then its energy rolling out in waves to my hands and feet.  I am riding the currents.  My heart is a surfboard.  My belly flip-flops and then, more heat.

The feeling is not unfamiliar.  I occasionally experience it when I meditate.  But I do not expect it here, now.

And suddenly I know why I am here.

I understand why we are called to go to synagogue in the days after death, and on the anniversary of it.  Why it is not enough to light a candle and say a few words in my kitchen – alone.

The synagogue gives me the space to grieve.  The service, to consider it — which I have not done.

I mentioned this to Pam the other day, on the actual anniversary of Pharen’s death.

Me and Pharen.  Our first meeting.
Me and my birthmom. Our first meeting.

I tell her that after I lit the yahrzeit candle and said Kaddish – alone – I noticed my desire to call Mr. 700 Miles, the “man” who slipped out of my life without a word a little over two months ago.

I remember him telling me he moved home to be with his mother when she was dying – 18 or so years ago.  That he thought about her every day.  That he wasn’t done learning the lessons she had to teach him.  That she and I were kindred spirits.

I think I should call him, because he knows what this is like.  Even more so.  But so do many of my other friends.

I do not call him.  Or them, either.

Pam responds with a gentle, loving “duh,” and suggests that perhaps I nudged out my grief with incongruent affections for the Southern Svengali – another man who swept me off my feet.  This time in Charleston, where my birth mother lived.  While she was dying.

I consider this.  That it might be true.

I couldn’t grieve.  I didn’t have the space, the energy or the capacity for it.

I hadn’t even grieved the end of my marriage.  Or the life I knew for 15 years that I had driven away from in a 14-year-old Honda Civic just a few months prior.  And I continued not to grieve it until only recently – slotting in affections with woefully unavailable men instead.

I consider that I didn’t believe I was allowed to grieve.

Finding my biological mother and father, and having relationships with them, was at times painful and disruptive to my family.  Over the years I have tried to minimize that pain by minimizing how much I talk about them.  About those relationships.

And so, I did not much talk about my feelings with my family — or with anyone else — when my birth mom died.  I talked about the Southern Svengali, and later Mr. 700 Miles, instead.

A year later, these distractions have long since lost their efficacy.

I cannot thread my sadness through another man.  I need to be with it.  And perhaps, for the first time ever, I do not want to run from it.

Tonight I  have a space and a ritual to honor this loss.  By myself, and in community, all at once.

And I understand why I am here.

I text Mr. Fashion when I get home, like I promised I would.  He asks if I would like to get together.  I decline.  I have no desire to distract myself from these feelings.

I ask him for a rain check, which he graciously offers – along with the promise that he will hold me to it, and some other things that I will keep just for myself.

I just smile and let myself feel it.  All of it.

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.