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.’ ”

 

 

“I Am Safe; It’s Only Change”

“I am safe; it’s only change.”

The words tumble out of a book I recently unearthed, one I began reading together with a friend last year in Spain but never finished. Written on a card, I assume acting as a bookmark, decorated with gorgeous greens and oranges, purples, pinks and blues. Flowers and faces.

It is one of a deck, a gift from my friend Michelle — given to me when I left Seattle for Chicago in 2012, following my divorce. A few years later, I tucked them into one of two suitcases that accompanied me on a year-long sojourn to Spain.

I’ve pulled them out from time to time when I needed inspiration. In writing. In life. But this time I didn’t go looking for it. It found me.

Riding the 9 Ashland bus on my way to work, the card slides out. I smile, thinking of Michelle, and of the changes I am twisting against, and turn it over.

“Safe and Change …

“If you have drawn this card, some kind of change is afoot. It is, after all, the only constant thing! With change comes fear and questions and the ground becomes shaky with uncertainty. This card is a reminder that change would not be happening unless somehow the timing was right. Although it may be edgy and challenging, the universe intends to keep you safe. Courage does not exist in the absence of fear. And faith cannot exist without ‘not knowing.’ Remember that the true unsafety lies in not changing.”

I wonder if the artist could have envisioned the state of our nation when she wrote this. That I, and so many other Americans, would feel sucker punched in the gut every day following the inauguration of our 45th president — watching the principles this country was built upon summarily dismantled. Our country run by a handful of wealthy, straight white men who seem bent on growing their interests alone. Fearful of waking up and no longer recognizing the place we’ve called home. The place I deliberately returned to when my student visa was up for renewal.

I’ve never been so emotionally effected by politics in my life. Perhaps this is good. Perhaps this is the change. The shift my friend Rachel says she is trying to lean into. She mentions it following my post of a Mahatmas Gandhi quote on Facebook – poached from another friend’s newsfeed.

“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall, always.”
– Mahatma Gandhi

The words are like a balm.

Within hours, nearly 100 people have clicked “like” or “love.”

My heart swells and glows yellow, as it sometimes does. I am reminded of the power of hope and of community, and of the words of St. Francis of Assisi, “ … That where there are shadows, I may bring light.”

That night, I decide to limit my news sources to a chosen few. Since then, I’ve begun to feel a little more peace …

Which leaves room to twist against the other shifts and changes in my life … but only if I choose to.

 

 

Hope Rises. Hope Falls. And I Adjust My Lapel and Say “OK.”

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I woke up this morning feeling the stillness of my neighborhood and I knew. I knew we had a new president. One I did not vote for. And I felt afraid.

I still do.

As a woman. As a Jew. As an American. As a being of light and love.

I realized that fear prevailed. And now I am the one afraid.

How do I not be?

How do I live in a place of love and light? How do I be a part of the solution and not the problem?

Yesterday, I believed we would elect the first woman president.

I was so proud to cast that vote. So uplifted by the photos and stories on #pantsuitnation. Unable to tear myself away from the words of people who had chosen to say, “I’m with her.”

The Muslim woman covering her head with an American flag scarf. The white, straight, self-proclaimed “Southern redneck” who totes guns and had voted Republican his entire life. Until now.

Recent immigrants who believe in the values this nation was built upon. Men in skirts. Men in heels. Women in pantsuits and Army fatigues.

People voting from hospital beds – their ballots brought to them, notarized and returned. People whose absentee ballots never arrived and flew back to their “home” states to cast their votes.

I sat on the bus. In the doctor’s waiting room. On my couch. Reading these stories of hope, struggle, strength and peace. And the cheers of support around them. Around us.

I want to believe in that America.

Four months ago, I returned to Chicago following a year abroad. People asked why.

Because my visa expired. Because I’m not Spanish. Because Madrid wasn’t home.

I believed I was meant to be here during this time. That it was important for me to be here during this time.

And now I am. Here. In this place that doesn’t much feel like home either.

I don’t believe “the answer” is somewhere else. I think it is inside of me. Inside of all of us.

Greater love.

But it is hard to believe when I am in fear. Hard to believe when hope rises and then falls.

And then I turn to the words and wisdom and stories of others. (The power of social media used for good.) Of a woman I dance with, who remembers having to drink from a “colored only” fountain when she was a kid. “Do not let fear cloud your judgement and reason … this country has gone through shit before; if you’ve never had to go through it, it can be terrifying … but you know what? That kind of shit got ended …”

Of a woman I’ve known since I was 12, whose husband is black and whose children think my baldish head is beautiful. “It is time for women to get barefoot and pregnant with new ideas and give birth to a new movement, mother it and take anyone down that tries to hurt it. We are just getting started.”

Of a mother on #pantsuit nation, a woman I do not know, whose six-year-old daughter put on her suit jacket this morning, the same one she wore to school yesterday, and asked “What do I need to do to become president?” And upon hearing, “work really hard in school, get in to a top college and then a top law school, and understand the law so you can change it,” replied “Okay,” full of confidence, adjusted her lapel in the mirror and went to school.

And hope rises.

Today, I will adjust my lapel, say “okay,” full of confidence, and go out into the world carrying love and light – knowing I am meant to be here, knowing there is work to be done.

Artist Date 6.2: Crazy Time

I love the smell of paper.

It is one of the many reasons I prefer bookstores to the ease of Amazon. That and the sense of possibility. Of community. Staff picks. Book Club reads.  All laid out on tables, ripe for reading. A smorgasbord of words.

Land of Enchantment by Leigh Stein. Grunt by Mary Roach. M Train by Patti Smith.

I pick up each one and tuck it under my arm, carrying a small stack with me through Women and Children First Bookstore. Artist Date 6.2 (122).

Because I know of Leigh but I do not know her. Because we belong to the same women’s writing collective, but we have never met.

Because I heard Terri Gross’ interview with Roach on Fresh Air while I was living in Madrid. Their English sounded so good to my American ear and home didn’t seem so far away.

Because just this afternoon, my friend Spencer suggested Smith’s book to me.

m-train

I feel connected to these stories. Like I want to hold on to them.

Others I don’t.

Spinster: Making A Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick. The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Lang.

Because I fear there is no room in this conversation for my voice — my manuscript, They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain: How 52 Artist Dates Healed My Heart and Landed Me in the Center of My Own Life. Traveling alone. Living abroad. Writing a book. Because I fear I have nothing new to add. Because I believe publication might finally allow me to be “done” with my divorce.

Crazy Time by Abigail Trafford.

Because it takes me back to a time before Artist Dates. Before traveling alone and living overseas and writing a book. When I was just embarking upon my divorce.

I am still living in Seattle, still sharing a home with my soon-to-be ex-husband – but sleeping in separate bedrooms.

I am head-over-heels-over-head for my friend M in Chicago. He is also going through a divorce and we prop one another up through our disbelief and fear, talking on the phone each night into the wee hours of the morning.

I am also a wee bit obsessed with my friend (another) M in Seattle. He is the first man to see me naked – other than my husband or my doctor – in 15 years. We kiss endlessly, stopping only to share our stories — whispering under a blanket that smells faintly of dog.

But only once.

Since then we seem to be dancing a familiar “come-here-go-away” cha-cha. I know the tune, but still haven’t mastered the steps.

My therapist Saundra tells me about Crazy Time.

crazy-time

“Because it is a crazy time,” she says, speaking from both personal and professional experience. She says to tell Chicago M I have to go to sleep. She rolls her eyes at the mention of Seattle M.

“You told me I get to make mistakes.”

“You made yours,” she says.

We look at one another, a little bit shocked by her frankness and laugh.

“You don’t get to say that.”

“I know,” she says. “But it’s true.” And it is.

Saundra believes it is preferable I grieve the end of my marriage before jumping into another relationship. She says if I don’t, I’ll only run from the pain of it – from bed to bed, relationship to relationship – rather than addressing the source and healing.

It doesn’t sound so bad, really.

And yet, it is not my path.

I pull Crazy Time from the shelf and begin thumbing through it – only half reading.

“It starts when you separate and usually lasts about two years. It’s a time when your emotions take on a life of their own and you swing back and forth between wild euphoria and violent anger, ambivalence and deep depression, extreme timidity and rash actions. You are not yourself. Who are you?

“Then at the height of Crazy Time, you may get a reprieve. You fall in love – a coup de foudre – and the block of lead in your chest miraculously melts; you can’t believe it, you laugh, you dance. You know it’s too soon, too much like jumping into a lifeboat that you know leaks and has no oars. But you smile, feeling so good after feeling so bad for so long. Therapists call this the search for the romantic solution. But it’s usually not a solution.

“You crash… Now you’re really scared. You can’t believe how frightened you are; about money, your health, your sanity. In all the feel-good rhetoric about divorce being a growth opportunity for the new super you, nobody tells you about Crazy Time.”

Four years have passed since my divorce was made final by the courts.

Since then, my ex-husband has bought a home that he shares with the woman he’s been seeing for a couple of years. Chicago M is about to become a daddy. And according to Facebook, Seattle M — the one with the dog blanket — is “In a Relationship.”

I pick up Smith’s M Train and take it to the register, first slipping the other books back into their proper places on the shelves.

Still traveling alone. Still writing. Sometimes still in Crazy Time.

 

 

 

 

Artist Date 3.2: Enough To Say Fuck Off

Every fiber in my being is telling me to go home. To send resumes. Work on my manuscript.

That I’ve been downtown too long already. Eating lunch. Shopping for sunglasses. Having fun.

That I don’t “deserve” it. That I better get back home and get cracking. Find a job and start making money. And until I do, I have no right “playing” like this.

It’s an old message.

The first time I heard it I was in my late 20s, when my event-fundraising contract was not renewed.

“Enjoy this time,” my therapist said. “Go to matinees. Museums. Walks in Golden Gate Park.

“Soon enough you’ll be working again and you’ll regret not taking advantage of this time … Trust me, I know.”

And she did. It had happened to her.

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But I didn’t much enjoy that time off. Or all the other times I’ve been unemployed or underemployed since.

Not until a couple of years ago, when I took on the challenge of the Artist Date — the weekly, solo flight of fancy as prescribed by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way.

Until then, time not working meant time I scrambled. Wrung my hands. Ran the numbers. Sat in front of the computer. Somehow equating worry with work.

It didn’t work. And it didn’t bring me work. Just suffering. Which I seemed to somehow think I deserved.

When I took on The Artist’s Way as if it were my job, I saw the folly of my constant motion. And I learned, albeit slowly, to enjoy my underemployed status.

Friends marveled at my charmed life. Museum lectures. Book stores. Dance classes. Opera. I did too.

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But deep down, a part of me didn’t believe I deserved it.

Perhaps it still doesn’t.

It is the voice that shames me for returning to Chicago after a year abroad and finding myself, once again, underemployed. And reminds me that unlike the years of 2012-2015, I am no longer receiving alimony. It says, “Be afraid.”

Even though I am doing all the right things. Sending resumes. Writing cover letters. Incorporating edits and feedback.

Registering with temp agencies. Seeing massage clients. Applying for non-career jobs.

Babysitting.

It insists it’s not enough. That I should go home and do more. As if the one hour I have set aside for my Artist Date – number 3.2 (119) – will somehow make a difference in my ability to secure full-time work.

Even though I have enough money for today. And even tomorrow.

I tell this voice to “fuck off!” and walk down Washington and into the Chicago Cultural Center. “Which, by the way,” I tell it, “is free.”

The effect is immediate. What I used to get from that first gulp of booze. What I used to think was magic in a bottle. Relief.

My chest feels flushed, my heart full. The voice is quiet. I am smiling.

I’ve been here dozens of times but today I am particularly struck by the beauty of the former public library. So much so I never make it to the exhibit on the fourth floor.

Glittering tile work. Quotes carved in marble. In English. Hebrew. Arabic. Chinese.

Light shining through the recently cleaned stained-glass cupola.

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A poster that reads, “There are no degrees of human freedom or human dignity. Either a man respects another as a person or he does not.” James Cone.

Equally lovely.

I’d add, “…respects himself, or herself, or does not … enough to say ‘fuck off.’ ”

 

Up To Date

me in segovia
Still on a solo adventure…

Up to Date.

The words are not lost on me.

I posited that this was what I needed to move forward in my writing … to tie up the past 3-plus months neatly, in context, with a bow (or a blog, or three). Tidy, clean, presentable.

And under this, tugs the idea that now that I am “up to date,” am I also “up to date?”

I’m not so sure.

In addition to writing little about my days here in Madrid, I’ve written precious little about the relationship I left in Chicago. Precious being the key word. Because it was. Because it still is. Because I wanted to, and still want to, honor his privacy…and mine.

And also because I was hopeful. Hopeful that even though we’d been doing the dance of “not long distance,” a nameless cha-cha of “I love you, but you live in another country so I don’t know exactly what we are but we certainly aren’t what we were” – that we would do long-distance. That I could have my romance and have my adventure too.

Not unlike my marriage. My marriage that ended for many reasons, among them perhaps that I often appeared more single than partnered. Not romantically or sexually single. But uncompromising. Independent. So when I moved to Chicago, and then Seattle, for my then-husband’s work, more than one friend expressed surprise…thinking I might opt to stay put and stay married.

It’s been painful to find love again and to leave it. Even though we both knew I was leaving from the moment we met. I don’t think either of us expected to tumble so head over heels over head for one another.

Upon seeing this, my friend S. – the master of turning things on their head just to get perspective — has more than once suggested I return to Chicago to “play things out, to see what happens.”

I explain that my lover never asked me to stay. That he has never asked me to come back.

“I didn’t ask you that,” he replies. “I said if you want to go find out about the two of you…then go.”

“I can’t,” I say.

“Why not?”

I pause.

Because I am here. Because I committed to being here. Because I always dreamed of living overseas and it was such a crazy, distant dream that I never imagined I’d do it. And yet here I am, doing it!

Even when it’s hard. Even when I’m not sure that I am here for any reason other than to say, “I tried it. I did it. I had the experience.”

Even though  Spain might not be my long-term home. Even though teaching English might not be my long-term career.

I made a commitment — a commitment to myself.

I tell him that I don’t know when I might have this opportunity again.

That I followed my ex-husband’s dream. That it was easier than thinking about my own. But that this is mine. A sometimes vague, not-fully formed but finally-owned fantasy.

“So stay,” S. says. “But it is your choice.”

It is my choice.

And I am reminded of making the very same choice a few months before I met D. Before I decided to move to Madrid…when teaching English overseas was still in the “maybe, just maybe” stage.

It is winter. Sunday morning. I am driving to work, leaving my friend P. at my apartment. He is visiting from Michigan.

P. is a shaman and a writer. He is funny and sweet and sexy. Flirtatious. But P. is not interested in me that way. We have discussed it.

Before I leave the house he traces the space between my eyebrows – my third eye — and kisses me there. Driving, I think, “It is too bad P. doesn’t like me that way…”

And in the silence of Sunday morning, sunlight bouncing off the snow, a voice, mine…but smarter than me, whispers, “His dream is to have a retreat center in Southwest Michigan. Yours is to live in Europe.”

And I realize, for perhaps the first time in my life, I have a dream bigger than love.

I am flummoxed.

And it seems I still do.

It all sounds very Ms. magazine-esque. Strong and empowered. And at moments it is. But at other times, a lot of the times, it feels incredibly lonely and stupid. And yet, the thought of returning to Chicago before my one-year visa has expired sounds more lonely, more stupid.

And I return to the question…am I “up to date?” Here? In Madrid? I see a friend of mine embark on her first Tinder date just weeks after announcing the end of her 20-plus year marriage and I’m pretty sure the answer is no.

Kudos to her. But I just haven’t been “up to” it.

Maybe because I haven’t wanted to let go of “us.” Maybe because it was, and we were, that good.

Maybe because I’m a little bit scared to open my heart again. Maybe because I am dubious about what is or is not out there.

Or maybe, just maybe, because I’m a little bit afraid of losing my dream again…the one bigger than love. So, for now, I’m holding on tight.

 

 

I Held On To My Own Hand

Carrie and Petrofsky -- BEFORE he let go of her hand.
Carrie and Petrofsky — BEFORE he let go of her hand.

There’s a wonderful scene in the second to last episode of Sex and the City —  where the camera zooms in and in slow motion Aleksandr Petrofsky lets go of Carrie Bradshaw’s hand, the one he had asked her for a few hours earlier in a moment of anxiety and doubt.

“Promise me you will not let go,” a nervous Petrofsky says, fiddling with his cufflinks as he dresses for his art show opening.

Carrie nods, forgoing the party held in her honor — perhaps the first and only experience of and for herself in the City of Light.

Upon entering the gallery, Petrofsky’s fear is quickly assuaged by applause. Forgetting his words, he releases Carrie’s hand, ultimately releasing her.

I am telling this story to the man lying next to me on the futon.

We are making out like teenagers. Except that I never did this when I was a teenager. It is sweet. Tender. New. My whole body is humming.

I feel his weight on top of me and suddenly feel small, pressed down, vulnerable. My body is no longer humming. In fact, I am slipping out of it. “He will move soon and do something else,” I think. “It is fine.”

But it is not fine.

There is nothing aggressive or threatening about this gesture. He is not too heavy on top of me. In fact, I crave his nearness, and yet I am triggered by it.

I don’t know why. I don’t really care. I only know that I desperately want to return to the place where my body hums.

And I intuitively know the only way back is through — through my mouth, my voice, my truth.

I ask him to move. Kindly. Gently. Assuring him he has done nothing wrong, because he hasn’t. Assuring him that this is “my stuff.”

He rolls on to his side, kisses my forehead and strokes my cheek, and asks me what I need from him.

“Nothing,” I say. And it is true. I have exactly what I need. I have myself.

And in this seemingly insignificant moment I see the hundreds of times I have told myself everything was “fine” when it was not — saying nothing. Enduring, hoping, praying something would change, but not recognizing my role in changing it. In sex. In love. In work. In friendship. In family.

I get teary with the realization that I have never advocated for myself in this way before. I tell him this and the Carrie-Petrofsky story.

“I feel like I have held on to my own hand,” I say.

A few nights later we are again lying on the futon, under the front window that faces a church.

I am wearing decidedly less clothing than I was the previous time we were together. I feel myself slipping out of my body again.

“I want my pants back on,” I blurt out.

“Too fast?” He asks. “Too fast,” I reply.

“Yes, for me too,” he says, helping me slip back into my skinny corduroys. Zipping them, I almost immediately slip back into my body — reveling in all of the sensations created by my new partner.

I think of all of the times I have had sex when I didn’t want to. Because I thought I should. Because I thought it was expected. Because I had wanted it but changed my mind and didn’t really believe I was allowed to, that I could. Turns out — I can.

“I held on to my own hand again,” I tell him, grinning.

He smiles back, his hands tracing the seams of my corduroy jeans, kissing me like the teenager I never was.

And I feel my body humming again.