A flood of memories rushes in. An experience with my ex-husband. A story from my childhood. Some person or situation from my past popping up in full Technicolor like a carnival whack-a-mole.
The experience of the Artist Date — a planned, solo flight of fancy with the express purpose of filling me, my creative coffers — wakes up some dormant element of my history and connects me to myself, to art, the artist and the world around me.
It is both a self-involved deep-sea diving excursion into my own unique story and the recognition of the universal experiences that knit us together in an infinity scarf of humanity.
Until today, watching Desperate Dolls, a play written by my friend’s husband, at the Strawdog Theatre — Artist Date 97.
No story. Only feeling.
Enter three girls trying to make it big in Los Angeles, the sleazy but lovable B-movie director who gives them a shot (along with campy “showbiz” names) and a creepy-powerful, sexually frustrated devil-villain called Captain.
There is a late 60s-early 70s motel room with perfect period attention to detail. And screaming. Lots of it.
I covet Matchbox’s body — flat belly and perfect ass — snugly held in white panties and a matching bra. Pretty Sexy’s Go-Go boots and thick, fluttery false eyelashes. Sunny Jack’s belt buckle and mustache.
The thoughts are random and fleeting, in no way connected to my past. Only Sunny Jack’s grainy girl films — wanna-be starlets rubbing suntan oil between their breasts to bossa nova swing; kicking ass, or more literally, kicking balls of some Snideley Whiplash of a pervert chained to a tree — evoke any sense of the familiar.
A tip of the hat to John Water’s early films. Think Mole McHenry performing a do-it-yourself sex change in Desperate Living, Babs Johnson eating dog poop in the final scene of Pink Flamingos.
It is only later that I think about my friend’s brother turning me on to these films the way my cousins turned me on to pot when I was 12, or my father returning one of them to the video rental store before I had watched it . A liquor salesman with a strong stomach and a good sense of humor, he was horrified after just 10 minutes.
In the moment I am only conscious of my stomach tightening with the uncomfortable knowing of what comes next and wishing I didn’t. Sick anticipation and the inability to turn away.
No story. Only feeling.
My sympathetic nervous system — the “fight or flight” reflex that makes my heart race and the soles of my feet sweat — fully activated.
“I love the idea of exploitation movies. Movies conceived and relying on our basest human emotions and the things that attract us to most art…” writes Anderson Lawfer, Desperate Dolls‘ Hugen Artistic Director. “This is a style that doesn’t get done on stage because of the outrageous violence and sexual situations, but why not? We all love it.”
I used to love it. I chased that sympathetic nervous system hit, rushing toward roller coasters, scary movies, and without really knowing it, crazy drama. I lost my taste for it some years ago when it became clear that real life provided more than enough opportunities to exercise my body’s stress response.
But for one night, I can embrace it — grateful for the reprieve from my mind, from my memory, and the self-inflicted, heart-pounding insanity I once craved.
A month has passed since I returned home from my solo sojourn to Italy. It feels like forever ago.
Life comes on — quickly, strong, demanding — and I struggle to hold on to the peace and freedom I felt abroad. The joy in getting lost, not knowing the answer — or sometimes even the question, in being alone. My face looks pinched — the wrinkle between my eyebrows, smoothed by Umbria, has returned.
The decisions I made, the desires of my heart — to live overseas, to publish a book (or more to the point, to be published) — begin to slip into the category of “all talk.”
I recently read that most people would prefer to fail by not trying than fail by trying. I get it. I understand. I wish I didn’t.
And so I find myself at Pizzeria Sera on a Tuesday night listening to six women tell stories about how and where and when they found confidence — hoping to be inspired, or at the very least, to borrow some — Artist Date 94. The monthly event, called About Women, is the brainchild of my friend Nikki Nigl. A force of confidence, not to mention nature, in her own right.
The mere decision to be here bolstered mine some, helping move me forward in the hours before arriving.
Sitting at the computer, doing nothing but waiting for something to happen, I mutter, “Do something. Anything.”
I write an email and send it off. (Two somethings. Write — one. Send — two.) A few lines to the sister of a friend of a friend who just returned from Spain, where she taught English for several years. I ask if she might meet me for coffee and share her experiences — how she got there, what it was like.
I tell myself it is something. It is enough and move on with my day — meeting with my rabbi a final time before he leaves our congregation. We talk about his departure, my desires, and deciphering the will and whim of the universe. Especially when it seems to only speak in whispers.
It feels like a game of telephone and I constantly wonder if I’m hearing it right.
Until I get to the parking lot, into my car and check Facebook.
“Anyone want a job in Portugal NOW?”
The post describes an academic coach position at a school outside of Lisbon. Scrolling down, I am tagged. “Lesley Pearl, could it be you?”
My heart swells, leaps. Not because I believe I will get the job and move to Portugal (although I might), but because the universe seems to be speaking loudly, clearly — the message undeniable,”Yes, Lesley, it is possible.”
Settled at home, I write a response. It begins, “Yes.” (Three somethings.) Shortly thereafter, I am Skype-ing with a teacher at the school in Portugal, the one who extended the possibility, dangled the carrot — gathering more information. (Four.)
Turns out I’m right on course, so say an advertising executive, a scientist, a minister, a mud wrestler, a mother and a writer — this month’s About Women storytellers. While the details differ, at the core of each woman’s parable is fear — and the decision to do “it” anyway. Ask for a raise. Leave a job. Leave a husband. Take an improv class. Ride a roller-coaster. Pet a dog. Live as an outsider.
Each took action when the pain of inaction became too great. Was no longer an option. Or when “the worst that could happen” seemed less scary than living with “what if” and “I coulda.” And their confidence blossomed.
“Stop focusing on the heart-pounding, vomit-inducing, brick-shitting aspect of everything and start focusing on the payoff,” Kira Elliot — a personal trainer, mud wrestler and Mary Kay Sales Director — says from the stage. “Pretend until the point of no return…then reap the rewards.”
Post Script. Three days after the event, I send a resume and cover letter to the school in Lisbon. I am amazed to see the resistance in myself. Fear masquerading as logic and practicality. It feels “heart-pounding, vomit-inducing and brick-shitting.” I fazê-lo de qualquer maneira. (That’s Portuguese for “I do it anyway.”)
A few weeks ago, over dinner, a woman I know asked me who traveled with me to Italy.
“No one,” I answered. “Myself.”
Like the silence I heard when I was a we, and responded to the question “Do you have children?” with a simple “No.” The quiet, uncomfortable space while they waited for some sort of explanation. Something to make them feel more comfortable with the answer that made them uncomfortable.
The same silence that often greets me when responding to the question, “Are you seeing anyone?” with “No.” The same quiet waiting, for “But I was…” or “Well there is this guy I just met.” Or my friend Patsy’s genius answer, “I am seeing a lot of different men.”
For a while I acquiesced…talking about my not-quite-relationships. My Divorce Buddy. The Southern Svengali. The friendships, flirtations and occasional dalliances that made me feel like I had something going on. The relationships that ended seemingly before they even started. I think it made us both feel better.
This time was different. I felt no need to explain my solo voyage. In fact, I was downright chuffed (to turn a British phrase), pleased with myself and the situation I consciously and happily put myself in – alone for 17 days in Italy.
A few days later, I was asked the same question about travel mates. And I watched as the woman’s smile wrinkled into a pained frown. “You were alone…on your birthday?” The same question my mother asked me before I left. The same question I had asked myself.
“Yes! It was awesome!”
I told her about my 15-hour layover in Paris. About walking along the Seine, seeing Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, laughing out loud, asking no one in particular, “Who goes to Paris for dinner on their birthday?” and replying, “I do.”
I told her about being present to the moment. About the real birthday present – of not wanting anything to be other than it was. Not wishing for a man or a friend. Not wishing I had worn something different, eaten something different, stayed in a different apartment.
She looked confused.
I’ve been thinking about why this trip was different. Why I was different.
I have traveled by myself before – on press trips and volunteer projects and meeting up with friends on the other end. But only truly “alone” once before – in the few days before and after participating in a volunteer project in the south of France.
I had longed to travel alone. It represented who I wanted to be. Adventurous. Glamorous. Strong. A world traveler. And yet, when I arrived in Paris alone in 2006 I only felt sad, scared and alone.
My answer, or at least part of it, came in an email from my friend Melinda. In it, she mentioned going to a play reading – by herself – completely spur of the moment.
“It kind of reminded me of your Artist Dates.”
Artist Date. Balm to my soul. Savior of my heart and mind. The simple suggestion by Julia Cameron in the book The Artist’s Way of a once a week “walkabout” to fill one’s creative coffers.
I took on the challenge nearly two years ago. Newly divorced and painfully licking the wounds of my first forays “back out there.” I had heard others talk about feeling free, having great sex, or at the very least, a lot of it, following the dissolution of their marriages. My efforts and experiences only left me feeling scared, desperate and crazy.
In a moment of grace, I turned away from convention, from the promises of partnership, and toward myself through weekly Artist Dates. To the opera. To the Art Institute. To ethnic grocery stores and new neighborhoods. To theatre and concerts. Alone.
Reading Melinda’s email, it occurred to me that perhaps all of this “structured aloneness” had prepared me for this – a seeming marathon of solitude.
Arriving in Rome alone last month, I felt the same anxious fear that had accompanied me to Paris. But this time I didn’t try to act cool. I didn’t try to pretend I was a local or that I even knew where I was.
I held a map in my hand, asked a lot of questions and opened myself to the possibility of getting lost, or worse, of looking stupid.
I challenged myself to not take cabs. To depend on trains, buses and trams.
On my feet. On myself. And the time-tested kindness of strangers.
Strangers who reminded me I was never really alone. Leonardo, the 19-year-old man/boy, who saved me from boarding the wrong bus – twice – in Arezzo.
Delilah, another volunteer at Altrocioccolato – the fair trade chocolate festival in Umbria where I began my journey – who sent me to her brother, his wife and cousin in Florence for Aperitivo – the Italian version of happy hour, but with a much better buffet, and a drive through the city.
Who organized a dinner party – which became my birthday party, complete with candles, singing and gifts – among her English-speaking friends when I arrived in Rome a few days later.
Seems my Artist Dates, my time alone, prepared me to be alone. For long walks, shopping at flea markets and eating fatty pork sandwiches while sitting on the edge of a fountain in Campo De Fiore.
It also prepared me to be with people – with ideas and experiences to share.
But mostly it prepared me for my life, the one I dreamed of not so many years ago in Paris— Adventurous. Glamorous. Strong. A world traveler.
I never thought about it. But here I am in front of him at Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence – Artist Date 91.
David is a boy and this is a man. David is a Jew and this man has a foreskin. And what is he holding anyway? And why do we have to walk around him to find out?
Paul, the tour guide from Walks of Italy, lobs the questions rapid fire until I feel like my brain might explode, but instead, cracks wide open.
I purchased my first walking tour – my first tour ever – last fall, in Dublin. It was my friend Steven’s idea. And, much to my surprise, I enjoyed it. Even looking like a tourist. Which I was.
Which I am.
Paul takes me and 11 others to the Galleria dell’Accademia . To the Duomo. To Piazza San Marco. Ultimately dropping us at Ponte Vecchio. Stringing us along with juicy bits of history. Linking them together, telling a linear story. Ultimately letting us know why we should care about these tourist attractions.
It is like Jeopardy – Italian style. Where everything comes in the form of a question. Or at the very least, begins that way.
And it works. It is sticky in my grey matter. Days later. Weeks later, when I write this.
I learn that in religious art, the one wearing fur is always John the Baptist.
That Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor and was pissed off when asked to paint or to build.
That he never had sex, slept in his clothes – to save time – and thought art was for the people – and sculptures, the newspapers of the day. But that as a reporter with a chisel he was never neutral — a Michael Moore of Renaissance Art.
Outside the Duomo I learn why Renaissance Art was born here. A simple Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The temporary capital of Italy, Florence was flush. Issues of survival were no longer issues here, so the people of Florence could turn their attention to things of intellect and beauty. They could build the largest church known at that time, its dome an architectural quandary.
And it is at this basilica that christening changed from a dunk to a sprinkle. Seems while no one was dying of the plague, newborns were dying in record numbers following baptism, and someone figured out that while the water might by holy, it wasn’t particularly sanitary.
I learn that families claimed turf by marking corners of buildings with the family crest. An early form of tagging. And a series of balls is the sign of the Medici family.
That Ponte Vecchio survived World War II, while all the other bridges in Florence were bombed by Nazis upon their crossing, because of a Medici. That in 1565 Grand Duke Cosimo de’Medici had a private passageway built into the bridge for the occasions when communication with his estranged wife, living across the Arno River at Palazzo Pitti, was necessary. He filled it with Renaissance Art – art that remained there. Art that Hitler commanded be “saved,” along with Ponte Vecchio.
A few days later in Rome, Cecilia (also from Walks of Italy) similarly schools me on the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the Sistine Chapel, as well as Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and a killer gelateria. Artist Date 92.
Suddenly I am a history nerd, walking at her hip, never losing sight of her umbrella – the raised symbol moving us forward as a group. I think about how much I missed in high school. In college. Because I was hung over, hanging out or just plain disinterested.
About how much I surely missed in Madrid and Barcelona, Amsterdam and Brussels, Paris and London. Because I didn’t believe I needed someone to school me in their city.
I receive my final lesson leaving Vatican City when I ask Cecilia the way back to Trastevere – the neighborhood where I am staying – either via foot or cab. She offers me another option, inviting me to take the bus with her instead.
On our ride, Cecilia tells me I am brave. That she noticed me traveling alone. Heard me talk about volunteering in Umbria. That for all of her education and seeming worldliness – she is terrified to travel alone.
I hear her. I believe her – that I am brave. I own it. And share the greatest lesson I have learned. That I am terrified too. Of getting lost. Of looking stupid. Of…insert fear du jour here.
My friend Kerry told me to look for ladybugs while I was in Italy.
He was referring to the part of the movie, Under the Tuscan Sun, when the sexy, older ex-pat from London tells Frances, a recently divorced American reinventing herself in Italy, that looking for love is like looking for ladybugs. That when she was a child, she would spend hours looking for them, eventually tiring and falling asleep in the grass. And when she awoke she would find herself covered in them.
I wasn’t sure I was looking for love in Italy. Or even a romance – although I assured him and others that my heart was open to the possibility. However, as the days to my departure date grew more near, I was more than certain I was here to do something.
I saw my first ladybug when I arrived in Umbria, 24 hours after arriving in Rome.
After I nearly took the wrong bus from Arezzo to Cita de Castello – twice – and a young man named Leonardo approached me, offering help in English. After we spoke for nearly 45 minutes – talking about writing and language and being “black sheep” – and friending one another on Facebook.
After Giulia and Elide – my contacts for the AltroCioccolato, the “other” chocolate festival I came to volunteer for – picked me up at the bus station. And after bringing me to Roberto’s house – one of the festival’s founders – where I sat in the sun while he plied me with buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes – shiny with olive oil, and espresso.
It was a few hours later, driving to pick up groceries at a biological food co-op. A large ladybug graced a sign announcing that our destination, The Happy Worm, lay ahead.
The next day, I saw three more. One embellished a pizza parlor sign. Another, actually a mess of them, covered a car steering wheel.
The final one landed on another of the volunteers – Duncan, the youngest of the group and the only other American. He asked me if I wanted it, knowing nothing of Kerry and our conversation. I told him I did. He put his arm next the mine and the ladybug crawled over to me without any prodding. And refused to leave.
That night, I found myself in the city’s hospital. What had merely been a health nuisance while I was in the states had escalated enough for me to make contact with healthcare professionals back home at .99 a minute.
I was fairly certain I would have difficulty getting a live voice at Northwestern Hospital, so I called my physical therapist to ask her advice. She told me to call my doctor. That she wasn’t comfortable giving advice on this matter. When I told her I didn’t have an internet connection, she looked up the number for me.
Several holds, disconnects and phone calls later, I was advised by a medical assistant to seek attention.
I knocked on Giulia’s door and told her I needed to go to the hospital. As she dressed, my roommate Ingrid, from the UK, offered to join us for moral support. In the piazza at midnight in this sleepy village Giulia – a native of Italy – asked around for a cab. A stranger offered to drive us, dropping us off at the hospital and wishing us buona fortuna — good luck in Italian.
Ninety minutes later I was warmly assured by a doctor that I was in fact, ok. I received a bill for 25 euros which I was instructed to pay the next day. And Elide – whom Giulia had called – drove us home.
Earlier that evening, in the hospital, I broke down in tears. Overwhelmed. Afraid. And aware that my ex-husband, a doctor – was no longer “my person.” That I was “alone.” Giulia responded, wrapping her arms around me and saying, “We are your family.”
And I realized that ladybugs weren’t just on signs and steering wheels and the arms of volunteers. That ladybugs – that love – followed me everywhere. All the way to Italy. To Umbria. Just south of the Tuscan sun.
I never wanted to ask for directions. Carry a map. I didn’t even want to do anything “touristy” – including going to the top of the Eiffel Tower. (Thank goodness it was rainy and cold and there was no line, so I submitted. And, of course, it was fabulous!)
Instead I got lost in the neighborhoods of Puerta Vallarta – where a kind stranger took pity on my ex and me, intuitively knowing we couldn’t possibly be in the right place and asked us where we were trying to go.
Somehow I associated it all with white Reeboks. A fanny pack and speaking very loudly.
The last time I traveled alone – and by alone I mean not meeting a friend or traveling together as a group, which means Dublin and Rwanda don’t count – I went to France.
I was participating in a volunteer project, but I started off with a few days on my own in Paris. Intent on playing the part of the Parisian.
That night I wandered the streets of the City of Lights, slightly drunk – alone. I was scolded for smoking in the non-smoking section of an outdoor café. (Who knew there was one? In Paris!) And I called my then-husband sobbing. I had wanted to travel alone. And suddenly I felt very alone. I didn’t like it.
The days that followed weren’t much better. That is, until the day I left for Avignon to join my volunteer team, when I was able to remember a single word of French and use it, thus communicating with an old woman at the train station. “Plutar.” She lit up. “Plutar! Plutar!” Yes, yes, I was going to Avignon too – later.
So I was a little bit nervous about coming to Italy alone. Even though I chose it.
I know traveling alone can be lonely. And scary. There is no one to get lost with. And it has been my experience that getting lost together is far less scary than getting lost alone. And yet, at the end of my first day in Rome, I haven’t gotten lost. And I don’t feel lonely. Or alone.
Perhaps because I’ve asked a lot of questions. Of the teenage boys on the train from the airport. “Why did so many kids get on all at once at this stop? Is there school on Sunday?” (Nope. Game and comic festival.) Of the man behind the counter at the newsstand. “Can I buy a ticket for Tram 8 here?” (Yes.)
And of a woman on the platform in the middle of the street. “Is this the right stop for Tram 8 going towards the city center?” (Yes. And she even reminded me when we got to the third stop, my stop. I had mentioned it to her.)
I asked my host where I might eat and he suggested the very same place as a friend of mine in the United States had. And then I asked him to show me on a map how to get there.
I ambled. I rambled. I looked for street names on buildings and found them on about one-third. I held out my map and “stood in it” like Joey did in London on Friends.
I got lost. I got found. Or maybe I just got turned around. But I didn’t panic. And along the way I heard music in Piazza Santa Maria Trastevere and enjoyed my first gelato of the trip – yogurt, pistachio-hazelnut-chocolate and single-sourced cocoa. And just before handing me the cup, the server lopped on an extra spatula full…just because.
I took things slowly. I found my way to the river, crossed over and made my way to Piazza Campo De Fiore. Yes, given the time I can read a map. I also found the famed Grom gelato – there’s an outpost shop in Manhattan – but decided to save it for another day. However that didn’t keep me from checking out the flavors at another shop and tasting the ginseng and one with candied fruit when invited to.
I finished with dinner at Ai Spaghettari – where my host and my friend had suggested and I had the carbonara, also suggested, along with melon and prosciutto and a macchiato.
All around me were Italians glued to the soccer match on television, and a fair number of Americans plotting their next move. And I was one of them.
A couple of weeks ago I received an email from my rabbi. It was not directed to me individually, but to the entire congregation. After 17 years with our synagogue, he was leaving.
I wasn’t entirely surprised. But I didn’t know how I felt about it, or what to say, either. So I did nothing. No email. No phone call. Which, for this rather impulsive person, is growth.
Except that I continued to do nothing.
I skipped a part of Rosh Hashanah tradition, tashlich – joining the rabbi and cantor and other congregants at Lake Michigan to empty my pockets of the residue of the past year. That which I no longer needed. And considered skipping second day Rosh Hashanah services too.
This was highly unusual.
I’ve been blessed with a close, personal relationship with my rabbi. He led me through my conversion and through my get, my Jewish divorce. I traveled to Africa with him and other congregants during the summer of my divorce, and I have met with him more or less monthly for the better part of the past five years.
And it hit me. I was avoiding. Or at least I think I was avoiding. Rather than facing the pain of change, of uncertainty, of not knowing what to say, I chose to ignore it, ignore him – telling myself I would say something eventually. When I had the right words.
I wondered if these were the same thoughts that The Chef and Mr. 700 Miles had when they chose not to further pursue a romance but didn’t or couldn’t say anything about it.
I was doing what had (potentially – I’ll never know for certain as I do not live in their minds) been done to me.
I first had the realization I was not free from this behavior a couple of weeks ago. Just before returning to San Francisco, my home for 14 years.
I had a friend there I knew I owed an amends to – I just wasn’t sure what it was.
About four or five years ago I told her I needed space. Without warning. Without lead up. I did not return a couple of her phone calls in a timely manner, and when she called me on it – in a voicemail, simply asking if she had done something wrong and if, in fact, I was ok – I responded with an email, something along the lines of “I need space. I’m sure you understand.”
She replied that she did not understand, but would honor my request. And, with the exception of a single message wishing me well I was moving to Seattle, and my thank you in response, we had not spoken since.
Until a couple of weeks ago.
When, preparing for my trip, I realized I had done to her what had been done to me — almost. I left without explanation – almost without a word.
I phoned before my visit and asked if we might meet. If I might right my wrongs. She graciously said yes, and we did.
My amends was simple. That I had walked away when she needed me most, with barely a word or an explanation. That I had been selfish. That I had been wrong.
And then we talked.
About who she had been in my life and who I had been in hers. How she remembered things and how I remembered them. About why I had not been able to be there for her – because of “my stuff” and how it and I got triggered. Things I had never told her.
There were tears. And there was healing, for both of us.
I found myself thinking that perhaps The Chef and Mr. 700 Miles had come into my life, at least in part, to be my mirrors. To show me my behavior.
Mr. 700 Miles finally did make contact with me. His words were simple. That he had “left” because he fell in love with someone else. That he was sorry. And with those words that last bit of wondering, that last bit of residue, was gone. Like the residue I would normally rid myself of at tashlich.
I wanted to write back, “Thank you,” or “Was that so hard?” But I did nothing – other than thank him and wish him well in my heart.
However, I did make contact with my rabbi. I sent him an email that night after the tashlich that wasn’t. I apologized for having been so silent. I told him I had assumed he might be overwhelmed by the response of congregants and others to his news.
And I told him I didn’t know what to say. But that I honored his decision. The graceful way he was moving through this transition. And that I hoped we would find our way to a new chapter in our friendship.
I did go to second day Rosh Hashanah services, where we talked briefly about what I had written. My tears drowning out my words.
I let them flow, rather than trying to talk through them. No longer avoiding. No longer doing what I thought had only been done to me.
I only recently bought my plane ticket, and just last week decided exactly where I will spend the days following my volunteer work in Umbria. I have not booked a single night at a hotel, pensione, hostel or airbnb.
This is highly unusual for me.
By now I would have secured a room for all of my nights, and outlined a rough itinerary of my days – making certain I knew when each museum closed. I learned this from my friend Tim, who saved the Louvre for his last day in Paris, not realizing it closed on Tuesdays. He has lovely pictures of the outside.
I would have purchased my train tickets and made copies of my passport. My travel books would be dog-eared and yellowed with highlighter.
I have done none of this. I’m not sure why.
And so I find myself tucked into a big chair in the back of the Book Cellar, pouring over travel guides – more out of necessity than anything. Fodors. Rough Guide. Lonely Planet. Thick books on the whole of Italy. Thinner versions on Rome, Florence and Tuscany. Artist Date 86.
I recall my first travels overseas – press trips to Germany and Israel. I was in my 20s and had dreamed of traveling abroad. Everything was handled for me. Flights. Hotel. Itinerary. And yet, I sat at San Francisco International Airport before each trip – terrified.
Flying out of SFO in 1999 to Spain – my first overseas trip with my then boyfriend, now ex-husband — felt wholly different. I wasn’t alone.
One Saturday morning we somewhat impulsively bid on Priceline tickets to Madrid. By afternoon, we were sprawled out on the floor of Borders Books – leaving a few hours later with copies of Frommers – Europe on $100 a day and Madrid, Barcelona and Seville.
We traveled overseas together several times over the next few years – me carefully crafting an itinerary each time. Yet, a part of me longed to travel alone, as so many of my friends had done after college.
And at 37, I do it.
At the time, I feel too old to throw a rucksack on my back, sleep in hostels and shower in train stations. I find a trip volunteering in the south of France, building walls as part of an architectural restoration project.
I spend a few days in Paris by myself when I arrive. It does not feel glamorous and exciting as I had imagined. It feels scary and lonely. I wander the streets alone, slightly drunk and call my then husband — crying. A few days later I join my team in Avignon. Surrounded by volunteers from around the word, ranging in age from 21 to 73, I feel joyous and free. I have found my place, my role. I am the friendly American who drinks too much and gives massages.
Eight years later, (I will turn 45 in Italy) I do not drink anymore. I do not have a husband anymore. These things that I leaned into ceased to serve me long ago. This time, this trip, I must lean into myself. My hesitation in planning suddenly makes sense. I am afraid.
And yet, I have a plan, a purpose – I am again joining volunteers from around the globe. This time, at the Altrocioccolato Festival – known as the “other chocolate festival” – outside of Perugia. This time, my alone time is on the back-end of the trip – and I will have a better sense of place. This time I have people, “waiting” for me in church basements. People who also used to drink too much but don’t anymore – people like me.
My friend Pam says I will go to Italy and meet a boy on a scooter and never come home. She tells me that I am brave. That she doesn’t know anyone else our age doing what I am doing – traveling, alone. I do not feel brave.
And I remember what I’ve been told, that bravery isn’t the absence of fear, it is walking through it anyway.
Or perhaps flying through it – direct from Chicago to Rome on Alitalia. Or riding a scooter through it – an Italian boy in front, and chocolate in my pocket.
The waxy brown cotton of my lapa feels soft between my fingers. Like my body. Like my heart.
I thought the African skirt would become this way over time, as I danced in it – but it remained rigid and stiff. Until today, when, in the dark and heat of the sweat lodge – Artist Date 79 – it softened, pinning itself to my body.
I roll the fabric between my fingers like rosary or prayer beads. I feel the moisture accumulate between my breasts – grateful for their small size. Grateful for the darkness to peel off my sports bra, unnoticed, and let my t-shirt from the Knoxville Farmers’ Market cover me. Given my druthers I would wear nothing. But I respect the modesty requested at this ceremonial gathering of men and women.
I close my eyes, breathe in the sweet sage, and fix my ears on the beating drum and the sound of my friend Paul’s voice.
It has been a journey just getting here.
I arrive despite a blinding thunderstorm, the need for on-the-road car repairs, and a bit of information which shakes my sense of perception and causes me to question if this is right for me, right now. And with the aid and calm of friends who ferry me to and from.
I walk about a quarter of a mile through wet, freshly mown grass to where the lodge is set up – my orange, peep-toe wedges gathering silky, green slivers.
I remember wearing these shoes through Rwanda two summers ago – collecting the red earth of the land of 10,000 hills between my toes – and recalling Patsy and Edina schlepping their Louis Vuitton bags through sand in the Morocco episode of the BBC’s Absolutely Fabulous. Dragging my rolling suitcase filled with towels, sweat and apres-sweat clothes, I feel like a bit actor in the Sweat Lodge episode.
Paul is draping blankets over the hut he constructed out of river willows – collected from his sister and brother-in-law’s property a few miles away. Rocks are heating in a pit outside of the lodge, and he has built an altar from the dirt inside of it.
Paul is the third in a line of spiritual teachers with the same name. The first being my university religious-studies professor, the second, the one who taught me to meditate – leading me through initiation with an offering of fruit, flowers (star gazers, my favorite) and the bestowing of a mantra.
Our paths have been crisscrossing for most of our lives. We agree the universe has been conspiring for us to meet.
There are eight of us, the last arriving in a John Deere Gator Utility Vehicle. She looks like an African Queen, regal in her loose batik dress with dragonflies on it, her grey hair braided at the temples and wrapped around her head like a crown. Her face is at once both sad and serene.
She reminds Paul they have been in ceremony together – with her former partner. The break-up is obviously fresh.
Words tumble out of my mouth about divorce, change and the painful nature of endings – no matter how right or how kind. How people will say all sorts of stupid things. And that she is, no doubt, on the precipice of some sort of adventure. She smiles in a way that tells me she has lived a thousand lifetimes and knows that this kind of pain is just part of it. That she has chosen this and is not fighting it.
I mention that I wasn’t sure I would make it here today. That I wasn’t sure it was right for me, right now. “Until now. You are why I am here.”
Paul smudges each of us with sage and we enter the lodge on our hands and knees, proclaiming “Aho Matakuye O’yasin – Greetings, All My Relations.”
I remember Patsy smudging my ex and I when she officiated our marriage. And me doing the same for my friend Chase when her divorce was final, smudging the entire house – making it “her own” again.
It is hot and humid inside. I feel a wave of nausea wash over me as Paul explains what will happen in ceremony.
Rocks. Herbs. Water.
Chanting. Praying. Smoking.
Connectedness to the earth. To one another. To ourselves.
I am afraid. Afraid of the total darkness. Afraid of what I might feel, what might “come up.” Afraid I cannot physically or psychologically endure this – even though Paul has assured us that this will be a “gentle sweat.”
But the heat is like a balm – different from the still Midwestern humidity that settled heavy around me just moments before. The drumming and chanting force all thoughts from my mind. I only hear my friend’s voice – strong, confident, prayerful – and the African Queen’s. It is sweet and slippery and hard to hold on to. But very much there. Just as I feel her, very much there, next to me.
Everything softens. My body. My brain. My lapa. I feel the sweat sliding down my body and I am deliriously in love with it. This body I have fought for so much of my life. That has brought me here and is sustaining me today. It is strong and small and very, very feminine. I feel my hands pressing into the earth beneath me. My legs. My feet. My ass. The soft dampness of moist earth is flesh, the spiky grass is hair and we are one.
I pray for my stepfather and my two girlfriends who are battling mightily. And I ask for prayers for myself. For compassion and acceptance for myself, for where I am, not where I think I should be. My voice cracks and I add, “May we all have compassion and acceptance for ourselves and for one another.”
I pray for the man who hurt my heart not so long ago. I call out his name when I am certain no one can hear me.
I smoke from the Chanupa — the sacred, ceremonial pipe. Sober nearly seven years, my addict is awakened.
I am back in college, sitting in a circle. My friend Brian stirs the bowl and lights it while I suck in all that I can, holding it in my lungs. I converse easily while I do this – like one of the big boys.
But I am not talking. And this is not weed. It is tobacco, although it tastes like juniper and pine. It is ceremony. It is holy. It is community. It is what I longed for, sitting in a circle like this, so many years ago.
I weep in the darkness. I am certain no one can hear my dying animal letting go. And it is over.
We crawl out on our hands and knees, just as we had entered, saying “Aho Matakuye O’yasin – Greetings, All My Relations,” once again.
Paul greets each of us with an embrace, and we greet one another in the same way. The African Queen’s eyes are wordlessly different. Lighter. As if the color has changed. She presses me tightly to her.
The group walks towards the house for a celebratory feast, but I stay behind and wait for Paul.
While I am waiting, I do cartwheels around the lodge. One after the other after the other, until I feel dizzy. I feel the pull of my pelvis – the source of chronic pain – and I welcome it. I feel the lightness of my body, of my mind and I welcome it, give thanks for and to it.
I had believed I was here to meet the African Queen. That was only half of the truth. In the stillness of the after-lodge, I know its other half, its twin — I was here to meet myself. “Aho Matakuye O’yasin — Greetings, All My Relations.”
I have a vivid image of her in black tights and leotard, trotting off to our swim club – where lessons took place in the “party room,” in front of the fireplace. She took a towel with her. It was 1976. There were no yoga mats. She boasted that the teacher said she was doing well as she often fell asleep at the end, during Savasana – corpse pose.
I do not do yoga.
I have written about it before. That I wear this like a badge of honor. That I am the massage therapist who does not do yoga. Who wears red lipstick, tailored clothing and heels. Ever the contrarian.
Until last Thursday, at 6:30 a.m., when I am.
My friend Jeanette is to my left and a little bit forward, so I can watch her out of the corner of my eye. She is tall to my short. She knows what the poses are as they are called out.
I know many of them too. It is untrue that I have never done yoga. I have dabbled, and not liked it.
Sometimes because I wanted a more vigorous workout. Sometimes because I felt intimidated.
Mostly, because it made me cry.
My last attempt at yoga was in Seattle. One of my last efforts to bring my then-husband and I together.
He had found a studio on the top of Queen Anne Hill that he liked. Small – with just enough room for six mats. The students were fairly consistent each week, and none of them looked like “Western Yogis.” Most came to heal a physical or emotional wound. He liked the teacher. And he thought I would too.
But every session I found myself on the verge of tears, wondering when class would end.
The poses were not terribly difficult. But we held them for what seemed like forever.
I felt my chest rip open – my beating heart vulnerable and exposed. Too much. I told her that. She said it was good. Everyone said it was good. That I needed more of it.
It did not feel good. And while always one to push myself toward more growth, I did not feel like I needed more of it.
So it is a surprise to find myself here on the first day of spring, in the front row of a hot studio, not quite heated to Bikram temperatures, but more than warm.
I committed to it during a Weight Watchers meeting I was leading. We were talking about accountability. Partnering. And stepping outside of our comfort zones. Jeanette mentioned her class at Om on the Range. I blurted out, “I will meet you there.”
It is snowing outside. Big, fluffy flakes. It is March 20 and the room smells like men’s body odor, which is different from women’s.
The room is darkish. At times, even darker. The music changes. At moments verging on electronic dance.
We begin the session with a collective OM. I feel the words resound in my ears and bounce off the walls around us. I think of my synagogue in Seattle – the meditation congregation, Bet Alef. Rabbi Olivier began each Friday night service with several collective ShalOMs.
The instructor’s name is Veronica. I have shared my yoga trepidation with her before class, as I was the first to arrive.
She gets it.
The movements are faster, fluid — Vinyasa. It feels better to me. And I can mostly follow along. Veronica makes adjustments to my body. Uncurling my toes. Instructing me to bring my feet closer together. To lean into the edge of my foot for balance.
My mat gets wet from sweat and I run a towel along it to keep from slipping.
And it all becomes too much. Too hot. Too fast. Too challenging.
I am too open.
I drop into child’s pose and sob quietly. Tears mixed with sweat. Damn it. My broken heart has seeped through the steely concentration of my mind and body. And I allow myself to weep.
I stay in this position for what feels like a long time. I remember Jeanette telling me about a man who lied on the floor with his legs on the wall for the entire hour. I feel permission to do whatever it is that I have to do. That I can stay in child’s pose for the entire session if I feel like it.
Veronica puts per fingers on my tailbone and gently pushes it towards my feet, curving down to the earth. It feels good to be touched just a little.
But I do not stay in child’s pose for the whole session. I rise up again, into Warrior. Warrior II. Warrior III.
We end class with a collective OM. Jeanette high-fives me. Veronica reminds me I have a week of unlimited classes. I slip a schedule into my bag. A calendar of possibilities. A reminder. I can do anything for an hour. I will rise up again.