With gratitude for those who have supported my Go Fund Me campaign, “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — a post-divorce narrative of how 52 Artist Dates healed my heart and pointed me in the direction of my dreams –- and my goal of manifesting blog into book deal. Those who inspire me. Those who unselfishly prod me toward my one, precious life.
Among my many 20-something gripes was the idea that I didn’t “have a thing.” A passion. A commitment. A “thing” that defined me. Drove me. That people associated with me.
A medium of creative expression.
Like Sherrod Blankner with paint. Over the years I watched her toil outside my house on Liberty Street in San Francisco and at Artist Residencies in Mendocino. I watched her put on shows in Berkeley and sell her work to patrons everywhere. She was (and is) a “working artist.” A description she once laughed at … “If that means I earn enough to pay for my supplies, I suppose I am.”
Like Julie Brown with a lens. We met on assignment for the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California in 1995 — the camera to my pen. Portraits. Projects in Guatemala. Even my wedding — she wanted to be a guest, but wanted me to have beautiful photographs even more — Julie captured, and continues to capture real life from the other side of a piece of glass.
Thank you, Sherrod. And thank you, Julie. For inspiring me with your work and your commitment. And for your generous donations to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign.
Turns out I did “have a thing,” and a medium … I always did. Words. It took the aftermath of divorce, sans romance, to wrangle them out of me and onto the pages of “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain.”
In Jewish tradition, the number 18 represents “chai” or life. And it is customary to give gifts in denominations of $18.
So it seems only appropriate that my friend and “sister of choice,” Julie Kupsov, would so generously donate to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign in this way.
Not only because we are both Jewish. But because we have experienced so much life — the birth of her son, for which I had the great, good honor to be present as her doula — and death — the passing of her parents Irv and Carole, who provided a safe, loving home away from home for me for more than 30 years — together.
And everything in between.
Julie pushed me to accept a newspaper job in San Francisco more than 20 years ago … thus leaving Detroit and our standing Thursday “date night.” And she loaned me money to volunteer in Rwanda in the midst of my divorce. … where the seeds of my book and my Spanish sojourn were planted.
Muchas, muchas gracias, Julie. (We learned that much in high-school Spanish class, right?) For your generous support of my campaign and of all my journeys.
(By the way, Julie is a genius writer in her own right … keep your eyes peeled for her name on Amazon!)
Math was never my strong suit.
“I don’t get it,” I’d sigh, slightly exasperated, plopping my textbook down on Mr. McClew’s desk in high school.
“OK,” replied the ever-patient instructor of snotty, privileged teens. “Tell me what you don’t get.”
“I can’t help you, Lesley … You have to tell me what you don’t understand.”
I’m not sure I ever could. That I ever got “it.”
But I’ll tell you who does … my mother.
Because of her generous contribution to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign, I’m more than half-way to my goal. And over-the-moon delighted and grateful.
What?! Fuzzy math? Lesley logic? The campaign says $1,956 to date. The goal is $4,250. Huh?? My mom is old school. She wrote me a check.
Thank you, Linda Park. For your contribution. And for always supporting me …
Pink hair. (“Not a word,” she’d mutter to my father after a trip to the hairdresser.) Bad behavior grades. (I once received an “unacceptable” conduct mark. She told the teacher in no uncertain terms this was preferable to me cowering in a corner. And afterward, convinced Coach Downs to give me a passing grade in gym class.) Pillbox hats to high school. (Enough said …)
Moves to San Francisco. Chicago. Seattle. Chicago. Spain. And Chicago again.
My choices may not have been her choices. But she “got,” and still gets, that this is my one and only life. And she bolsters me in any healthy way she knows how.
Like saying “yes” to my book “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — a (mostly) happily-ever after, after divorce tale. The story of how 52 Artist Dates healed my heart and helped me to step into my one and only life. The life I always dreamed of.
Want to know more about “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — how 52 Artist Dates saved my soul after divorce and landed me smack in the middle of my own life — or how to contribute to my Go Fund Me campaign? Click here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last week my boss forwarded a text from the company where I’ve been teaching. They need to cut costs and will not be continuing with English classes. So I have to cut costs. Or find more work.
I mention this to S over lunch.
He doesn’t inquire about teaching. Instead, he asks why I am not submitting my work to writing contests with cash prizes…like he has done. Or artist residencies where I can be housed and fed (and occasionally paid a small stipend) while I write.
I don’t have an answer.
He continues, casually mentioning that he will be living in Italy for five weeks this fall. In a castle. Writing.
“How’d you swing that?” I ask.
“Artist residency.” he says, right on cue. “I applied. You can too, you know.”
Yes, this is the same S who, a little more than two months ago, casually mentioned I might consider applying to the Institute of Sacred Music at the Yale Divinity School. (Which I did. And from which I am now eagerly awaiting an answer.)
Clearly he is a messenger, sent directly to me.
That night I poke around the Writers and Poets website, researching writing contests with cash prizes. I am too fixated on financial concerns (and already dreaming of New Haven) to give much thought to artist residencies.
Not until the next day. Artist Date 114.
My student A has invited me to Casa de Velazquez for “Puertas Abiertas” – literally “open doors” or , more accurately, “open studios.”
A has warned me that it is a bit difficult to find. And that Google Maps isn’t particularly helpful.
She is right.
My mood is low and the weather matches it. Windy. Grey. Cold.
But I’m determined.
I walk up and down the same street again and again, looking for Avenida Arco de la Victoria, only to learn I am already on it when I finally ask for directions.
I am reminded of a huge billboard on I-75 North, on the drive from Detroit to Saginaw, Michigan to see my nana. A picture of Jesus with a caption that reads, “Are you on the right road?”
I am now.
And eventually I make my way to the large, stone structure that is less than a 15-minute walk from the metro – although it has taken me close to 45.
I send A a message, letting her know I’ve arrived. She meets me outside of the library and takes me on a short tour – at which time I learn it is not her work I’ve come to see , but that of more than a dozen artists in residency.
The timing is not lost on me.
I tell A about my conversation with S. She smiles. “Yes, you could apply for an Artist Residency,” she says, gently adding “Just not here. Because you don’t speak French.”
Indeed, I hardly speak Spanish. And some days, I’m not sure I speak English anymore either.
We walk down the hill, past the empty swimming pool and a sculpture of a pig face, to the cottages where the artists live and work. A introduces me a photographer who speaks English, and who wears the same haircut as me.
We do that, “I like your hair.” “I like YOUR hair,” elbow-nudging thing. I ask where she is from.
Everywhere. Nowhere. Last stop – Paris.
I understand. When asked the same question I pause, stymied. I’m from Detroit. But I lived in San Francisco for 14 years. Chicago for seven. A year in Seattle…I never know quite how to answer.
We talk about this. About creating a life with the whole of one’s belongings fitting neatly into one or two bags. She feels liberated by it. I feel a bit untethered.
For her, this residency is as much her residence as any other.
I leave, thinking about the word residence. Later, I look it up in the dictionary. Merriam-Webster offers several definitions, among them:
1b: the act or fact of living or regularly staying at or in some place for … the enjoyment of a benefit.
2a: the place where one actually lives as distinguished from one’s domicile or a place of temporary sojourn.
4b: a period of active and especially full-time study, research, or teaching at a college or university.
And then I understand the difference in our perspectives.
What I have is a room in a flat in the center of Madrid. What I crave is a residence. A residency.
I smile and rub my hand over my mostly naked head. “It must be the hair.”
“No,” she insists. “I remember you. You were here last year. You are here a lot.”
Here is the Auditorium Theater to see Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Here is the pre-performance mini-workshop with company dancer Hope Boykin.
Here is Artist Date 105 — marking the beginning of a third year of solo sojourns, as suggested by Julia Cameron in “The Artist’s Way.” I had not planned to take on this commitment for another year, and yet I am here…counting numbers, filling my creative coffers, following my feet. The Artist Date has become what Twyla Tharp calls “the creative habit.”
I was here opening night of the run, a little more than a week ago, with my friend Julie — my brain cueing each next movement of Revelations, my body responding, leaning into the gesture while my mind completes it. I was here last year and the year before that — each time learning bits of Revelations at the mini-workshop before the show.
I was here with Martha counting the ribs of the dancers from row I — the seats, a gift from my friend Amy. I was here with Rebecca, giddy when an usher moved us from balcony to orchestra, spoiling me for all future dance performances.
And I was here alone, on other Artist Dates.
So it shouldn’t surprise me that the woman checking my name off the list might remember seeing me. Or that Kristen from the Auditorium Theater Marketing Department does too.
She is standing in front of a board covered with sticky notes and pins, each naming a patron’s “favorite Alvin Ailey memory.”
I take a Sharpie marker and add mine — dancing with Kristen at a master class led by another Ailey dancer — Antonio Douthit-Boyd. It was there I learned the definition of “intermediate” is fluid at best, and that I can be the least trained, least experienced member of a class, but that I still have a right to be there.
But I am surprised when a woman approaches Kristen and me and blurts out, “You go to my synagogue.” It feels completely out of context. It is. And she is right, I do. Although not much lately.
I think about these moments driving home. How the once daunting, seemingly exclusive world of performance seems cozy and familiar. How Chicago feels like a big, small town. And how I feel a part of both.
Making my way up Lakeshore Dive, I am flanked by twinkling skyscrapers to my left and Lake Michigan to my right. For a moment I wonder if I really want to give this up and move to Madrid.
I know just because a place feels like “Cheers” (“Where everyone knows your name.”) is not reason enough to stay. I learned that when I left Detroit and built a life in San Francisco. Again when I left that life in San Francisco and made a place for myself in Chicago. And a third time when I left that place for myself in Chicago and, as my friend Joanne likes to say, “broke the Seattle chill.”
In less than six months I will reduce my belongings to a few boxes that I will ship to my mother — mostly paperwork, plus a few keepsakes I’m not yet ready to part with — and two suitcases which will accompany me to Spain for one year, possibly, hopefully longer.
I am looking forward to going. To filling my brain with another language and culture, and my body with jamon and cafe con leche. To expanding my circle and creating one more home for myself.
I am looking forward to seeing Alvin Ailey perform on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. To perhaps dancing with Hope or Antonio again. To hearing, “Te’ recuerdo!” (“I remember you!”) And being a little surprised by it.
It’s a bit like returning from travels abroad and insisting on eating as I did while away. Toasted bread rubbed with fresh garlic and tomato following a trip to Spain. Cucumber-tomato salad for breakfast after a press trip to Israel. And most recently, coffee made in a stove-top moka upon returning from Italy. Each time, holding on to that place, that experience, for as long as I am able.
Except Bowie takes me back to a place and experience I mostly do not care to hold on to — high school. It begins at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the David Bowie IS show — Artist Date 93. I am transported.
I am 14 and wearing a baseball jersey from the Serious Moonlight tour. My cousin from Los Angeles has turned me on to Bowie. The same way he turned me on to weed, the Culture Club and all things French. He is cool with bleached-blonde hair and skinny ties that match his skinny body. He lights my cigarettes, walks on curb side of the sidewalk and stands up when I leave the table. He is my ideal man. He has been all of my life, and although I don’t yet know it, he will continue to be — long after I stop smoking weed, and Boy George gets sober too.
I am rifling through bins of used albums at Sam’s Jams in Ferndale, Michigan and find ChangesOneBowie. Soon I will commit the words of each song to memory. I will know them like I know my own name. My hair is a pinky-red, spiky and sticky with Aqua-Net Extra Hold. I am wearing iridescent blue lipstick, a plaid pleated skirt from the Salvation Army that doesn’t quite zip all the way up and a Cranbrook Lacrosse sweatshirt — hooded with a torn front pocket — that I “borrowed” from a boy named Simon, who I met just once and never saw again.
I am in Ann Arbor visiting my friend Stacey. We have taken the bus from her house to the University of Michigan campus. There are no buses in suburban Detroit, where I live, save for a yellow school bus. I feel urban and cool. We are watching The Man Who Fell to Earth on a big screen. It is terrible but we love it anyway. Stacey has also seen The Hungerand Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. I have not. She is clearly the bigger fan.
I am sitting on multi-hued blue shag carpeting in my bedroom holding the cover of Heroes in my hands — singing every word printed on the sleeve. “And you, you can be mean. And I, I’ll drink all the time.” Little do I know how true these words will turn out to be. A few years later it is Tonight. Blue Jean and a cover of Brian Wilson’s God Only Knows passing my lips.
I am on the cold sidewalk outside of Record Outlet with my best friend A. We are here overnight, in line for tickets to the Glass Spider tour which go on sale tomorrow. I cannot believe my mother has agreed to this.
I cannot believe how long it has been since I have talked to A. Nearly five years. That the last thing she said to me was, “Keep them. They look better on you anyway,” referring to the sunglasses I borrowed and that were still tucked in my bag as I drove away from her apartment. I no longer have them.
I cannot believe I left Heroes and Tonight in Seattle with my ex-husband, along with The Specials, Thriller and the original soundtrack from Hair.
I cannot believe I remember Simon’s name, how long I held on to that sweatshirt, or that I am waxing nostalgic about high school.
But it is. And I did. I do and I am.
In 1990, David Bowie played his greatest hits on tour “a final time.” “…it gave me an immense sense of freedom, to feel that I couldn’t rely on any of those things. It’s like I’m approaching it all from the ground up now.” In 1996 he resurrected Heroes onstage.
I woke up Monday morning to an email from my friend Clover, sent to her intimate circle. A report on her day, her condition, her life in Chicago as she is about to bring new life into Chicago.
“It’s a beautiful Monday morning– 40 degrees and sunny…I am feeling good and I’m on my way to work…I am taking it very slow and easy…I feel ready to burst. She is rolling around in there this morning – hanging out on my bladder. No signs of labor yet.”
My heart swells and my head feels clear. I am reminded of what is important in the world.
“The snow is almost fully melted and it’s really starting to feel like Spring…I began to have some abdominal cramps. Not sure if these are the Braxton-Hicks contractions everyone speaks of, but I am feeling closer to labor everyday…
I am so tired, taking it slow and breathing lots. My body is doing such hard work!
…A new life on its way, the prospect of motherhood, the challenge of labor…”
The challenge of labor. I am Clover’s doula. (Greek for “servant.”) Her and Andy’s support and advocate during birth.
I have done this just once before, for my girlfriend Julie. It was a gift. A labor of love. Something I never considered doing again. Until a few months ago when the words tumbled out of my mouth and Clover and I embraced over a marble table at Julius Meinl, “sealing the deal.”
I pull out my pre-natal materials and make a stack of them on the floor, next to my bed. Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, Pregnancy, Childbirth and the Newborn. Pre- and Perinatal Massage Therapy. A binder of handouts and lesson plans. I too am getting ready.
“It is Wednesday and nearly everything here is covered in a fine dusting of snow…the trees look majestic. I love this little morning surprise beauty of winter…
Andy and I started the new remake of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, which made me feel such awe and wonder at our world and our infinitesimal place in it. I feel asleep after 30 minutes, as I do these days…
I decided to stay home from work today and relax..I am hoping that the strong sense of waiting with subside, though I somehow doubt it will. At least I am waiting along with all of you.”
I phone Clover and ask if she would like to wait together. I had planned on writing. Or an Artist Date. Number 67. But being alone with my friend for perhaps the last time for a while seems mundanely juicier.
I remember my last day with Julie before she birthed her son, Jaron.
We went to the gym where Julie mentioned she sometimes sees my junior high-school crush. I felt excited and hopeful. She told me I shouldn’t be. That he never wiped his sweat off of the equipment.
After, we ate breakfast at Giorgio’s. Julie was excited to have French Toast, but had no room for it. Just 5’2” and carrying high, there was hardly any space between her ribcage and her baby. We laughed at the injustice of it.
Back at her house I rubbed acupuncture points on her hands and feet – “downward elevators” in Chinese medicine – to stimulate labor.
She delivered her baby the next afternoon.
We reminisce about this seemingly mundane day regularly. I recall the joy I felt being able to touch my friend. To see her so radiant. To be useful.
I feel the same way about Clover. I see her at the top of the stairs and I tear up, even though I saw her just five days ago.
She makes me a cup of tea and I pull one of her feet into my lap. I sink my fingers into her swollen flesh, searching for bone. The baby is moving about.
She tells me about a dream her husband had several years ago about their daughter, and calling her by name. They had been on the fence about having children. Andy’s disclosure became an opening in their willingness.
Clover is having a girl. She has not told me her name. I hear Annabelle in my head. I do not tell her. Like me, Clover has no poker face.
She asks me if I ever wanted to have children.
I tell her I never really knew. That, for a long time, I never considered it. Probably because I somehow knew I couldn’t stay sober for nine months. Although I never acknowledged that to myself until many years had passed without my having a drink.
I tell her about J, who regularly told me he would marry me. That we would have daughters. That he held an image of me and our girls lighting Shabbat candles – which amused me as neither of us were particularly religious.
Kind of like Andy’s dream. Except it didn’t happen.
She says at times, I have felt like a mother to her. That I showed her how to mother herself. I am humbled.
We talk about sex and love and fear. We eat carrots and hummus standing over the sink because her ass has gone numb from sitting. She hands me her hands and I rub them, pressing into the downward elevators. We cry.
The next time I see her she will likely be in labor. I will perhaps be holding her leg, telling her, “You can and you are,” my mantra during Julie’s labor.
The first thing my birth father told me was that we attended the same university. The second thing was that he wouldn’t have gone there if timing were different.
It was the late 1960s. The United States was fighting in Vietnam. School kept him out of the draft.
Given his druthers he would have gone to New York to be a dancer.
I gasped. My secret-private-fantasy-if-I-could-do-it-all-over career was to be a choreographer.
“It’s in the genes,” he said.
I am walking down Lincoln Avenue to the Old Town School of Music for First Friday – a monthly event of music, dance and community. Tonight’s feature is a series of dance performances by students and instructors – tap, modern, Go-Go, Bhangra. Artist Date 60.
I dance here every Sunday at noon. Josh, Don and a couple of musicians whose names I can’t recall drum us through Idy Ciss’ nearly 90-minute West African class. My church. My masochistic joy.
I have been a consistent presence here for more than five years, and yet, I am nervous tonight. Sixty solo dates consciously chosen, and, at times, I still feel conspicuously alone.
This is one of those times – coupled with self-conscious questioning if I’ve earned my seat at the table, or, on the waxed wood floor, as it were. If I really am a dancer. My musings seem self-absorbed and displaced as I am not performing today, only watching. And yet, something is stirred in me.
A boy and a girl, about 9 or so, tap their way across the stage. They are dressed to match in grey trousers and lavender shirts. The boy is skinny and awkward and sweet. One day he will know how to swing a woman around the floor, showing her who’s boss. Quite possibly the sexiest gesture ever. But not yet.
A group of tween girls perform a Bollywood dance, waving colored scarves. The tiniest one slides into the splits. Like when I was a cheerleader – too small to be on the bottom of the mount, too big to be on the top. Kind of. She is completely present and at ease in her body. Each move seems effortless. I am certain I neither looked nor felt that way.
I think about my single year of ballet lessons, taken in first grade with Mrs. Gantz, Who Likes To Dance. That is what she called herself. I don’t know why I didn’t continue. Perhaps I didn’t like it. It wasn’t easy. Or I wasn’t that good. Maybe I got bored. I quit, setting in motion a pattern – with me opting out of piano, gymnastics and cheerleading later.
No one told me that only a few are truly, naturally brilliant. Geniuses. That the savant is rare. That most of us mere mortals toil toward mastery.
The girls remind me of “the popular girls” I knew in junior high – the ones that took jazz and tap with a woman named Miss Barbara. Strangely, I was talking about them last week. About the time they invited me to the movies. Just once. In seventh grade.
I still remember the film – Young Doctors in Love. A spoof on soap operas. It was rated R. And my mother didn’t allow me to go to R-rated movies.
Except this time she did.
I am fond of saying my mother’s “coolest moment ever” was when she took me to see Prince, The Time and Vanity 6. It was pre-Purple Rain, when Prince was still dirty. And I was in the sixth grade.
But the movie exception was pretty cool too.
I find myself thinking about nurture over nature.
About swing dancing in the kitchen with my mother. And her jumping rope to the Pointer Sisters Jump! About me wearing a pill-box hat with a feather and a veil to high school and her asking if I think that I am one of the Pointer Sisters.
I think about her childhood in Saginaw, Michigan, raised essentially by her maid, Mother Flora Hill. About her Sunday mornings spent at Mount Olive Baptist Church – where she was almost baptized – and her summers at the congregation’s camp. There is a photograph of her and my uncle – two toe-headed Jewish kids – in a sea of dark-skinned, smiling faces. My mother loves sweet potato pie and knows all the words to Leaning on Jesus.
I think about her taking me to see Saturday Night Fever when I was in fourth grade because she wanted me to see the dancing. (Her no R-rated movie rule conveniently overlooked.) And about skating with my parents to Peaches and Herb on Tuesday nights at Bonaventure Roller Rink while most of my friends were tucked in at home.
I think about dancing with a troupe in Rwanda a few summers ago and their recognition that I could dance. About the beautiful, bald man who gave me the eye that said, “Follow me.” And I did.
Maybe the dance is in the genes. Maybe it is inside a 1977 Thunderbird with an FM converter box – my mother’s car for as many years as I can remember. It doesn’t really matter. What does is, at the end of First Friday, when the brass band calls the audience up to dance, I go. I quit quitting. So I claim my space on the waxed wood floor.
In the past 48 hours, I have found myself thinking, “My ex would be so proud of me.” A lot.
But the truth is, I’m so proud of me.
I’ve been doing a lot of the things he used to do. And doing them well. Or well enough. Most of them, weather related.
I grew up in Michigan and lived there until I was 24 years old. So by rights, I shouldn’t be phased by snow. But I am. Especially driving in it.
Living in California for 14 years meant I didn’t have to concern myself with it. Except in the mountains, and only then when there was accumulation. Climbing the winding roads to Bear Valley, I would pull to the side when we hit the snow line in Arnold, and without a word, hand over the keys. Without even asking. It was just understood.
When we moved to Chicago in 2007, it was similarly understood that he would drive when the roads were dubious. That he would dig the car out, if necessary, and carve out a parking space on the street — “holding it” with random household items that would not blow away.
This is no longer an option.
I realized this on Tuesday afternoon, New Year’s Eve, as I watched big, fluffy flakes come down in sheets, sideways. I had made a commitment for the early evening and invited a friend to join me. It was her first New Year’s Eve single again, and without her children.
And so, with no one to hand the keys to, and a strong desire to make good on my word, I got behind the wheel. The side streets were a mess. The main roads weren’t much better. Snow was falling faster than the plows could pick it up. And it seemed there were precious few out on the roads.
As my friend Chris often advises, about most everything, I “took it slow.” Like most everyone else on the road. I didn’t hold the wheel with a death grip. I didn’t take silly risks either. I met my obligations, but also made it an earlier night than originally planned.
Feeling bolstered by the experience, and also frustrated by letting the weather dictate my social calendar, I drove to the South Side on Wednesday for a New Year’s Day party – filling the hours with good friends and good conversation, and my belly with black-eyed peas and seven greens, for health and good luck, as is the tradition in the south.
Driving home I could feel the snow rising under my car. Gliding on top of it. It felt scary and kind of fun at the same time. And I was both pleased and relieved when I parked the car for the night.
Luck ran out this morning when the Honda couldn’t quite make it over the inches of fluffy powder that had accumulated around it, and that continued to.
I sort of expected this and took the train to work. On the way home, I bought myself a spendy new pair of winter boots, as the ones I was wearing had begun to leak. After dinner, I went back outside. Started the engine, brushed the snow off the car and shoveled a pathway out from the white swath that neatly tucked it in. I knew I had to before it froze overnight and I was stuck until spring’s thaw.
I know this all seems terribly basic. But the truth is, I haven’t done it in more than 20 years. Since I left Detroit. And there, I depended on my father to crowbar open the occasionally frozen-shut door. Or I skipped work entirely if the roads seemed questionable.
It all sort of reminds me of this great line from Torch Song Trilogy. In the final scene, Harvey Fierstein tells his mother, Anne Bancroft, “I have taught myself to sew, cook, fix plumbing, build furniture – I can even pat myself on the back when necessary – all so I don’t have to ask anyone for anything.”
My foray into shoveling and driving in inclement weather doesn’t go quite that far. Nor would I want it to. I’m ok with asking for help. And I’m grateful for the people who do for me what I truly cannot do for myself.
It’s more like the postcard I have stuck on my white board. A Lichtenstein-style cartoon of a woman, her word bubble reading, “Oh my God! I think I’m becoming the man I wanted to marry.
It’s true. I have. And not just when it comes to snow and cars.
There are a couple of memories that permeate my childhood. Stories I asked to hear again and again until I knew them word-for-word, by heart.
My origins, my adoption and my first eight weeks on the planet – captured with typewriter ribbon on onion-skin paper and tucked into a red vinyl bag with my report cards and school pictures.
The loss of my mother’s biological child. One she didn’t know she was pregnant with until she lost it. The event which, to my mind, secured my role as my parent’s child.
The day my parents packed up their bags and their bird and moved from Oak Park to Birmingham, Michigan to live with my father’s sister for a short time.
It was the summer of 1967. The city of Detroit was on fire — literally. Residents rioted and looted. Police unleashed with unrestrained force. Both the Army and the National Guard were called to quell the mayhem.
My uncle living in California called to say he was watching the news, and did my mother know that tanks were rolling down Woodward Avenue.
She did. Oak Park was just a few miles over the 8 Mile Road border that separated the city from the suburbs. It felt close. Too close. And the tony suburb of Birmingham seemed safely a world away. So they went.
I don’t recall any more of the story than that. How it ended. When it ended. When they came home. Only that the chasm – racially, culturally, financially – between Detroit and the suburbs appeared to be sealed that summer.
Over the years I asked my parents what started the riots. They hypothesized. But the truth was, they weren’t quite certain. Neither were other white people of their generation, and the one just behind them, that I asked.
I got my answers last Saturday night at the Northlight Theatre – Artist Date 51.
The first time I saw a poster for Detroit ’67, with its black upturned fist of Joe Louis, I knew I would see it. That I needed to see it. I didn’t consciously think I might get answers to the questions left hanging from my childhood. I merely felt the pull, a tug that took me to Skokie on a dark December evening — alone.
The audience is mostly older – boomers and above. Mostly African American or Jewish. I recognize the latter by the smattering of kippot (head coverings) and conversations about Israel. And, at risk of sounding politically incorrect, as a Jew raised among mostly other Jews, I “just know” my people. Many of them are dancing – some in the aisles, but mostly in their seats – to Motown.
Martha and the Vandellas. Smoky Robinson and the Miracles. Stevie Wonder, when he was still called “Little Stevie Wonder.”
It is the music of my childhood. The Big Chill soundtrack, and Big Chill-like gatherings at my cousin Wendy’s house.
The couple behind me is singing. They know every word. During the performance, they respond to the actors. More than a mutter but not quite “out loud,” either. I like it. I feel like we are all, “a part of,” and I am not so much alone.
Meanwhile, I tuck into the program and get schooled.
This is what I learn:
Detroit’s 12th Street Riot began on July 23, 1967, with the police raid of a blind pig — a home illegally selling alcohol under the guise of “an attraction…with complimentary beverages.” (Not unlike memberships sold for experimental AIDS treatments in Dallas Buyers Club.Artist Date 47.)
The raid itself was not unusual. Detroit’s white police officers were known for harassing, and even brutalizing, the city’s black residents.
But unlike other raids, this one did not resolve quickly or quietly. And what began as a conflict between police and patrons soon engulfed the whole city. To end the disturbance, Governor George Romney ordered the Michigan National Guard into Detroit. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent Army troops.
Five days later, 43 people were dead. More than 500 were injured, and 7,231 arrested. Half of those arrested had no criminal record. Sixty-four percent were accused of looting and 14 percent were charged with curfew violations.
Losses from arson and looting ranged from $40 to $80 million.
But I don’t see any of it.
Only the actions, and reactions, of five residents of Detroit, black and white, who want to feel safe. Who want something better for themselves. Not unlike my own family. In a basement in the city’s near west side, with an eight-track player, a phonograph that skips, and a dream.
Feathered, painted and beaded. Like the one I’m standing in front of at the Chicago Art Institute – Artist’s Date 42. According to the description, it is meant to express a sense of beauty, while spiritually protecting the wearer, providing potency in battle, diplomacy and/or courtship.
I could use that – spiritual protection and potency. Especially in courtship. I feel like I’m fumbling all over the place in this suddenly, or not so suddenly, single world.
Perhaps a wig would suffice. Cover up my naked head. My naked heart.
My cousin Andrew told me I should consider wearing them. Over dinner a few weeks ago at a trendy, too loud, see-and-be-seen, restaurant, he leaned in and said, very seriously, “I’ve been giving it some thought…I think you should wear wigs.”
I laughed, but he was dead serious, waxing the possibilities of an Uma Thurman Pulp Fiction bob. I showed him a photograph of me wearing a large Foxy Brown afro wig many years ago in Oakland. I told him I wished my hair grew like that. How I longed to wear a wig but worried about offending people – lest those whose hair grows that way think it is a joke, this seriously small white girl sporting a do belonging to someone else.
We made a date to go wig shopping but never quite made it.
I had forgotten about it until now.
And really, I probably shouldn’t be thinking about it now. Or even be here at all. My friend Julie arrives from Detroit in a few hours. Her visit comes on the heels of my friend Ernie’s visit from Seattle, which came on the heels of my trip to Dublin, and precedes my trip to Minneapolis – for my cousin Andrew’s wedding – by just days.
And yet, I am here. Stealing away for an hour or so, by myself, with no intention any more noble than to see with different eyes, hear with different ears, feel with a different heart. To leave here a little better than I arrived. To fill my mind with something other than “me, me, me.” It is a relief.
My plan was to visit the African Art. But I am stopped in my tracks in the Native American section. Thinking about wigs. About my cousin. About my other cousin – Diane.
I visited her in Albuquerque when I was 17. The trip, my first time traveling alone – to see Diane in New Mexico and Andrew in Los Angeles – was a high-school graduation gift from my parents.
I bought suede fringed boots, the kind with no hard sole, on that trip. They snaked up my legs, stopping just beneath my knees and tied with crisscrossing leather cord. Burnout style. And also, a wooden box, the top decorated with a sand painting of Father Sky – it says so in pencil, written on the underside, good for storing treasures.
Diane bought me a miniature wedding vase, a smaller version of the kind I would drink from at my own wedding 15 years later.
It seems like forever ago. As does my trip to see Diane. Except the memories of my marriage feel sneakier – unexpected – and not as purely sweet as those of my trip to New Mexico.
So I keep on moving, rather than sitting (or like my friend Sheila likes to say “bathing”) in the feelings. I look at pipes, teepee covers and silver jewelry, eventually moving on to the African Art section – something without connection to the past. Something entirely my own. Sort of.
Unless you consider it is my ex who bought me a gift certificate to the Old Town School of Music and Dance, where I study West African dance. Or that I found myself in Rwanda right in the middle of our divorce.
And yet, Africa is mine. It always was. A dream since I was a child. He just helped get me there.
The collection is small.
A few voluminous robes – the kind I have seen my instructor Idy dance in, constantly moving the sleeves in gorgeous gestures to keep from getting the fabric caught up in his feet. A couple of headdresses and costumes, one depicting the ideal mature woman in the 17th century – prominent nose, jutting chin, and large breasts.
I think of my own breasts. Small. No longer pendulous. Faded scars run from breast fold to areola – subtle reminders of my reduction surgery. A different beauty ideal.
I am struck by the words tacked to the wall.
“Dress is among the most personal forms of visual expression, creating a buffer and a bridge between the private and the public self…Special forms of luxury dress…may (also) signal particular standing within a community or a moment of transition from one role to another.”
I think about the Native American headdress. Of my own dress. My friend Tori says I dress differently since my divorce. Sexier. It was not my intention, but I believe she is right.
Across the room is a timeline of events, highlighting key moments in both African and world history. I snap photographs so I can remember them.
1884: European nations meet for the Berlin West Africa Conference, initiating the European scramble to colonize Africa. By 1900 only Ethiopia and Liberia remain independent.
1957: The nation of Ghana gains independence from British colonial rule, launching a continent-side decolonization movement.
1980: Zimbabwe gains independence from Great Britain; it is the last European colony to do so.
1990-94: Civil war in Rwanda leads to genocide.
I remember my friend Geri’s map-of-the-world shower curtain – so old, Rhodesia was still on it.
I think about my own map. My timeline. My dress. My independence. Messy. Uncertain. Liberating. But unlike Rhodesia, I got to keep my name.