I Will Always Be … A Tashlich Tale

tashlich creek
The “almost” stream in Carpenter’s Woods.

2012. I am standing at the shore of Lake Michigan – the Chicago side. I am wearing my signature orange peep-toe wedges, a tweed dress that hangs on my 12-pounds-thinner-than-usual body, and throwing torn up pieces of bread into the water.

It is Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world, and the bread is part of a Jewish New Year custom called tashlich — the emptying of one’s pockets into moving water, a symbolic casting away of one’s sins. Rabbis of generations past frowned upon the practice, fearing people would not do the hard work of the Days of Awe – of self-examination and making of amends – if they engaged in this ritual, that they would forget that the practice was mere metaphor and would count on the casting to absolve them of their misdeeds.

But I am not casting away sins. (I don’t really believe in them.) Instead, I am casting off an identity, a role I’ve played … as partner and wife. For in this moment I intuitively know that I am now divorced. I can feel it in my bones.

My husband and I have filed dissolution of marriage paperwork in a county that does not require a court appearance, sending off an envelope containing a divorce agreement, our signatures and a notary stamp four weeks earlier. I know that the clerk in this small county signs divorce papers on Mondays. It is Monday.

I move towards my rabbi. “I think I’m divorced,” I say.

“Well, you are pretty intuitive,” he replies.

“I’m going to cast away my Mrs.”

He nods and smiles at me sadly; and I return to the lake, flinging stale bits of challah into the still waters and mumbling something about Dr.’s wife and Mrs. Robertson – a name I never took.

When I return home that afternoon, I call our mediator who checks a database and affirms, “Yes, you are divorced.”

2019. I am still talking about this, writing about this.

Sunday night, erev Rosh Hashanah. A different rabbi asks us to turn to the person nearest us and share what we would like to let go of and what we would like to make room for in the Jewish Year 5780. I turn to my left and tell another rabbinical student that I would like to let go of my ex-husband, my marriage and my divorce as part of my narrative, and that I would like to make room for love.

I am still talking about it.

Tuesday afternoon, I am co-leading a tashlich ritual at a creek just off of campus at the University of Delaware. I tell the story of 2012 — sans peep-toe wedges and dress hanging from my frame — and invite the small group gathered to consider if there is a piece of their identity that no longer fits. Perhaps a role in a romantic relationship or in their family of origin or at work. Maybe a character attribute or behavior they are known for and no longer wish to be.

I ask them to share this with someone near them, either before or after emptying the contents of their pockets – the contents of their hearts – and to consider that in casting off, they might create space for something new … as in my case, when I traded in the role of wife for ex-pat in 2015 and rabbinical student in 2019. I am still talking about it.

I step away to do my own casting off … except I can’t. There is too much chatter around me and there is nowhere to go to let go. So I hold on, until today, when I duck into Carpenter’s Woods, just a few blocks from my house.

I scramble down a dirt and stone path to a clearing where a small, wooden footbridge hovers over an “almost” stream. I don’t have any bread. My pockets are empty. I bend down and pick up a couple of fallen leaves, fold them — once and then again — and rip them into pieces.

As I drop the bits of leaves into the pooled water, I whisper something about letting go of my insistence that my 15-year relationship have no place in my current narrative, my expectation that I should no longer have anything to say about it or him or us. Nothing about letting go of this “former identity.” Nothing about creating space for the universe to rush in.

My words surprise me.

I will always be Lee’s ex-wife. Just as I will always be a massage therapist and a writer — whether or not I get paid for it. Just as I will always have lived in Spain and San Francisco, Oakland, Chicago, Seattle and Detroit – even if I don’t now. And even with all of those pieces of my identity firmly intact, there has always been room for “something new” — for a year of teaching in Madrid, for rabbinical school, and for a few juicy romances.

I have no shame in telling those other parts of my life, no expectations that I should be “done” with them, nor any desire to be. I wonder if the same could be true of my marriage and divorce.

Just then, the wooden footbridge begins to bounce. A man and his brown and white-speckled dog cross my path, signaling my ritual is nearly complete.

I pull my pockets inside out, say a prayer and begin my climb out.

 

Only Someone Who Should Be a Rabbi Thinks …

doors open
“They” say when things are right doors fling open.

I am sitting with my new friend C talking about resistance, mine in particular. It is early spring according to the calendar, but the weather gods seem to have missed the message and so I am wrapped in my Eddie Bauer sleeping bag coat sipping hot tea. The sun streams in through large, plate-glass windows while cold air blasts onto us from the vents above.

C sips a milky iced coffee seemingly unfazed by these temperature disparities. I imagine this is what makes her a good (albeit now retired) pastor, and what makes her a good spiritual guide – her presence.

I am questioning my path to the rabbinate. This is nothing new. The resistance has been with me as long as the call, more than 25 years. What is different is this time I have pushed beyond consideration. I completed the application process last spring – writing a series of essays and gathering transcripts and letters of recommendation – was invited for an interview last fall, and days before Thanksgiving, was offered a seat in the fall 2019 class at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

I have put down my deposit, secured a place to live in Philadelphia, and at the school’s suggestion taken on formal study of both Biblical and modern Hebrew.

The money for the deposit. The Biblical Hebrew class that fit neatly into my crowded schedule. The professor who offered to tutor me in modern Hebrew for free. The room in Mt. Airy – my neighborhood of choice – that meets all of my wish-list requirements including “cost effective” and “with good lighting.” All of these things have fallen into place seemingly magically, with little or next to no effort on my part.

It seems clear that the universe has been conspiring to make me a rabbi.

What is not different is my resistance. To what?  I am not certain. The time? Six years. The move? Yet another. The Hebrew? Daunting. The debt? Maybe.

The thought of me as a rabbi first arose when I was 23 or 24 and in the middle of an exciting but painful love affair with a man who was considering the rabbinate himself.

“I would not be a very good rebbitzin,” I mused, (not that he ever asked). “But I would be a hell of a rabbi.”

The words surprised me, but I said and did nothing. More than 15 years would pass before I would hear them again, first like a whisper — a friend recalling the first thing I ever told her about myself was that I wanted to be a rabbi – then growing more loudly, as I reminded my husband of our agreement that it would be “my turn,” once he completed medical school and residency, which he was just about to do.

He struggled to envision us moving from Seattle – where we had just moved to and where he had secured his dream job as a doctor – to Philadelphia – where he did not have a job or any prospects — carrying $200,000 in medical school debt and loans because I might want to be a rabbi.

Truthfully, I did too.

When we divorced less than a year later and it was unquestionably “my turn,” the desire left me entirely. Gone. Until about two years ago when I felt its familiar pull during High Holy Day services, like an impatient child tugging at my sleeve, yet again, “pay attention to me.”

I mention this to our congregation’s rabbinical intern.

“Oh yes,” he says, drawing out his “s” like a snake.

“Oh no,” I reply.

“Why not?”

I mutter something about not wanting to study Hebrew and Aramaic, which sounds mostly ridiculous as it falls out of my mouth, and about not wanting “the life” of a rabbi, to which the intern points out the unconventional congregation of which we are a part. Then I say something which sounds like the truth.

“Who will date me?”

I think I throw up a little bit inside my mouth.

Have I been resisting my heart’s desire because a potential partner might find it unacceptable? It seems possible. And now that I know this, I cannot unknow it.

And so, I begin leaning into this calling that I do not understand and all of its associated fears, taking each step that has made “this time” different. Almost as soon as I begin, I meet a man – Jewish, sober and covered in tattoos.

“This is my guy,” I think.

And for a moment, he is. And then he isn’t. When he ends our brief romance – in about the nicest, mensch-iest way I can imagine – I decide to try out/try on my rabbinical aspirations with him. As he is already “gone,” I have nothing to lose.

“D,” I stammer. “I think I might kind of, sort of, maybe want to be a rabbi.”

“That is amazing,” he says, smiling big, his eyes meeting mine.

I cock my head like a cartoon dog, surprised by his response. I ask if he would feel this way if we were still dating, as introducing your girlfriend “the rabbi” is different than introducing your girlfriend “the lawyer.” At least to my mind.

“Absolutely,” he says.

Tears stream down my cheeks. My shameful fear has turned out to be a bogeyman.

C looks up from her iced coffee.

“God’s got skills,” she says.

I nod.

“You know that saying we have in Alcoholics Anonymous,” she says. “That no normal drinker thinks, ‘Maybe I should go to an AA meeting.’ Only someone who should be in AA thinks about going to AA.’

“I think it’s like that. Only someone who should be a rabbi thinks ‘Maybe I should be a rabbi.’ ”

 

 

Not “Most People”

in-the-mirror
In Seville. Sometimes you do eat alone in Spain …

(Originally published as an update to http://www.gofundme.com/awanderingjewess.)

I received my first agent rejection.

I’m smiling as I write this. Perhaps because it means I am “in the game.” I’ve taken another step into a vulnerable and unknown place in publishing.

Last week I began putting “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” in the hands (inboxes, really) of literary agents, hoping one will find this post-divorce memoir with the possibility of a happy ending – no partner required – compelling enough to represent.

It’s taken a long time to get here, far longer than I imagined.

It was a little more than two years ago that I sat in the drawing room of my Madrid apartment and asked the universe for guidance. It came in the form of a single email from an old beau – an introduction to the Rocaberti Castle Writers’ Retreat – and called all of my “one day-s” to task. Did I really believe a blog chronicling my path from desperate divorcee to European ex-pat – told through the lens of a weekly solo sojourn – could be a book? Was I willing to find out?

I decided to say yes … and so did many readers who funded my trip to the castle that fall.

Upon my return, I began working one-on-one with my retreat writing coach. I developed a proposal (story summary, audience analysis, competitive landscape and marketing concepts), a chapter-by-chapter outline and agent query. I spit-shined the introduction and two other chapters and made a list of target agents and a spreadsheet to track my communications.

Last Sunday night – filled with doubt and trepidation, my heart racing – I hit send. At that moment, I truly understood impostor syndrome for the first time. Who was I to pitch a writing project – my writing project – to an agent, anyway?

A few years ago I read that most people would rather fail by not trying than by trying.

I get that. And thankfully, I’ve never wanted to be “most people.”

When I received this note on Tuesday, I was assured I wasn’t.

“Dear Lesley, Thank you so much for querying me. “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain: How 52 Solo Sojourns Healed My Heart and Helped Me Write My Own Happy Ending (No Partner Required) sounds like an interesting project, but I’m afraid I’m going to pass on looking at more. My client list is very full, forcing me to be extremely selective about taking on anyone new at the moment. But please do keep querying other agents, and I wish you all the best with your writing career.”

I’ve taken this agent’s counsel and have continued to query. Meanwhile, a friend suggested I keep all of my rejection letters … “You can have fun with them later,” he wrote. “Maybe include them in the preface in future books.”

Maybe.

 

On This Day

april 9

My intuition has always been good. I feel things before they happen … usually things I’d rather not know. A sense of dread deep in my core, based on what seem like barely perceptible shifts.

The text that comes an hour later than usual. My every-Monday-at-the-same-time phone call dropping straight into voicemail. The date that doesn’t end with, “When can I see you again?”

People will tell me I’m crazy, that I am overreacting or taking things personally … but I am rarely wrong. These feelings have served me, serving as an alert of what more was to come.

However, sometimes the sensation is more subtle – less dread, more “knowing,” a body memory – like today, skimming Facebook while waiting for an early morning train to Evanston.

On This Day …

“My husband and I met in the Marina District of San Francisco nearly 15 years ago. Ten days ago, in that same place, he asked that we end our marriage. I don’t believe in mistakes. I believe in a grand design of a master quilter. I believe in love. And I believe in friendship. Please hold us both in your hearts.”

That was six years ago. My brain knew the post would reveal itself sometime soon, but my body knew the exact day.

It still hurts … the reminder of the disappointment of a failed marriage, the ending of a partnership that was better than many but not good enough for either us, the sense of rejection. The pain has changed over the years – from chronic and dull to acute and fleeting – these days it feels more like a bee sting than a broken bone.

I know I can change the settings on Facebook so I won’t see it … but the truth is, I don’t want to forget it. I’m not interested in only remembering “the good stuff.”

So I find myself on the platform scrolling through the 81 comments with tears rolling down my cheeks … and in this pain I find that there is “good stuff” right there. Prayers, hugs, love and light. The reminder that I am strong,

A poem from Rabbi Rami Shapiro – “An Unending Love” — sent from my friend, a rabbi in Cleveland. Rainer Maria Rilke’s words, “Let life happen to you. Believe me: life is in the right, always” – sent from an old boss now living in Sydney, Australia.

April 9 marks the end of what I have come to call my spring season of grieving; it begins in mid-March and ends On This Day. It includes my husband asking for a divorce, plus two crushing romantic endings and a rejection letter from Yale University’s School of Divinity in the years that followed.

But what I didn’t realize until this morning is that my “spring season of grieving” also included the purchase of a one-way ticket to Madrid, signaling the beginning of my year of living and working abroad, the fulfillment of a childhood dream.

On This Day (2015).

“Holy Crap! I leave in 109 days. Thank the Goddess for Award Travel – one way cost me $145. (And I feel like I might throw up.)”

And the next, April 10, 2015? On That Day my first, real post-divorce relationship began. I don’t even need Facebook to remind me. It ended a long time ago, but I still remember it … both in my brain and in my body.

 

Independence Day, Indeed

with dance friends in Africa
What I did write about … dancing with African dancers, in Africa!

Five years ago today I boarded a plane bound for Kigali.

I was in the middle of a divorce I didn’t quite see coming, and certain I had no idea of where I was going, other than to Africa — a place I had dreamed of visiting since I was a child.

Several months earlier I had signed up to join a group of volunteers from my synagogue, working with two AIDS service organizations in the Rwandan capital. Little did I know that there — under my mosquito net in the wee hours of the morning — I would reclaim my voice as a writer, that I would succumb to the siren of the blue-light glow of my computer to tell the stories of my experiences on my blog — http://www.awanderingjewess.com.

I had secured the blog address about the same time I secured my place on the trip and had a vague notion that I might write about the road to becoming a rabbi. Instead I wrote about the road to Bombogo – a village on the outskirts of Kigali — where students learned to create kitchen gardens that would feed their families.

I wrote about house visits with social worker and part-time saint, Mary Grace, and her clients. The reed thin woman who sat in the dark, her face illuminated by a hole in the metal roof, who was unsure how she would feed her family now that her rabbits — her source of both food and income — had been stolen. And the robust one who replied to the missionary offering to help her build a roof, “Roof? I need a house!” and then built one for her and her daughters, and then another — thus becoming a landlord.

I wrote about painting walls and filling prescription packets. Dancing with a professional troupe in a style close to the one I had been studying for years. And about a room full of girls all with shaved heads, curious about the “Muzungo” with the same “do.”

The trip that began on Independence Day 2012 returned me to my craft after a 15-year hiatus, changing the trajectory of both my life and my blog. It led me to write about my experiences post-divorce, about dating, and mostly not dating — taking myself on solo excursions AKA Artist Dates instead — and ultimately moving to Madrid, the basis for “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain.”

I recently sent an update on the status of this project, one year after launching it. Many thanks to Tanya Gazdik Irwin, Jan Mekula and AJ Benham who responded to the update with contributions to the “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign.

The “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign was created to defray the costs of the Rocaberti Castle Writers Retreat which I attended in the fall of 2016. Additional contributions have been used to pay for coaching sessions with Debra Engle, my retreat mentor, who is guiding me in the process of taking my writing from blog to book to screen.

To learn more about “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain — A Post-Divorce Narrative With the Possibility of a Happy Ending, No Partner Required” — click here, https://www.gofundme.com/awanderingjewess.

Also, please consider subscribing to my blog at http://www.awanderingjewess.com, liking my Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/lesleypearl.awanderingjewess/, and/or sharing this message and encouraging your friends to do the same.

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

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

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

“We’re Jewish,” I say.

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

“I wish I were in Israel,” I say.

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

But that was many years ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lovely. And yet.

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

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

“A Writers Retreat.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Christmas?

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

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

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

From Mikveh to Madrid, Now … More

rocaberti-table
Dinner at the Rocaberti Castle. Food for the belly. Food for the soul.

Five days, 12 writers, 3 mentors, a genius staff who could both dream and deliver. Chefs who fed our hearts and our bellies. A castle, many missed photo opportunities and so much unbelievable talent.

I knew I was truly immersed in the moment when I received an email from my mother “just checking in” because she hadn’t seen me on Facebook in a while. (Sweet, right?)

It is only now, after leaving the “bubble” of the Rocaberti Writers Retreat, that I am able to begin reflecting on all that I experienced. All that I learned. All that happened. And all that has yet to happen.

In the cocoon of the castle, I was able to practice pitching “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” to mentors — three individuals steeped and successful in the business of movies, television and publishing — as I would for agent representation or a book deal.

I introduced my work as “Eat, Pray, Love” meets Dora the Explorer, and was immediately met with the challenge — “Why a cartoon character?”

Quite simply, because I could not think of a single happy ending for a solo female protagonist over the age of 12. Think”Ramona the Brave,” “Harriet the Spy,” and yes, Dora.

Our resident feature writer and producer, the one who had challenged me, was able to summon just one — Holly Hunter in the 1987 film “Broadcast News.” One.

In that moment I knew I was on to something. And yet, I already knew. Because of all I had experienced. All I had written. The support I had received via Go Fund Me. And the feedback from my retreat mentor — one on one — and from my colleagues in small group sessions.

In addition to learning about my own work, I received a practical education on next steps and the nuts of bolts of publishing. And opened my mind to the possibilities of film and television.

And now? More…

I’ve been asked to let go of my newspaper training and blogging terseness and to let the lushness of my language fill in the blanks. To tell the story of how I went from mikveh (the ritual bath used in a Jewish divorce) to Madrid. The experience of 52 Artist Dates and how they changed me … that when given a chance at the kind of love I had called out for, I ultimately chose myself.