A Good Time To Be Here

metro tickets.jpgIt is November. The weather gods have smiled upon us with sunshine and seventy degrees.

(Many would say the baseball gods have also smiled upon us as the Cubs are in the World Series.)

It is a good time to be in Chicago.

I pull on a pair of brown corduroy trousers from the Salvation Army. Ralph Lauren. Six dollars. Boot-cut and too long in the legs for my not quite 5-foot, 3-inch body.

I slide my hand into the left, front pocket and pull out two small, slippery stubs. Used metro tickets from Paris.

I smile. Wistful.

I’ve been back just eight days but already Paris seems so far away.

The baguette I never eat here but cannot not eat there. Both doughy and solid. Formidable and yielding. I’ve never found anything quite like it at home.

The coffee. Short. Dark. Thick. Served in little cups and drank leisurely in a café, or standing up at a bar, but never taken to go.

The woman who says over coffee, “It’s like there was an empty chair waiting for you, and you slipped right in it … as if you were always there.” And the faces around the table nodding in agreement.

I try to conjure this up in my body. The bread. The coffee. These people who in a matter of days became my people. And I became theirs.

The pastry. The poetry.

The feeling I have every time I find myself in Paris … that my heart might burst if I’m not careful. The feeling I have always been here and will always be here.

But muscle memory fails me … for I can see it, but not fully feel it. Not in my bones. At least not in this moment.

Perhaps it is because I am so here.

In Chicago on this 70-something November day on a bike that doesn’t quite fit me. A loaner from the mechanic until mine is fixed. Wheels out of true. Seat too low. I am more wrestling with it than riding. And yet, I feel the sides of my mouth curling into a smile when I do. My now 47-year-old body embracing the challenge.

Editing my book. Cooking soup. Applying for work.

Watching a Cubs game at a dive bar for no other reason than I have been invited and it sounds like fun.

I am too present here to fully feel there for more than a few moments. And I realize the gift in feeling the ground beneath me. The swish-swish of fallen leaves under my feet.

I have spent years wishing I was somewhere other than where I was — even in Paris — missing the moment.

My friend Paul recently asked why I “even bothered” to come back in the United States. “Your writing is pure poetry there. That is your place,” he says. Perhaps. But for now I am here.

I slip the tickets back in my pocket — so that I might find them again one day and be reminded. Of baguettes and coffee. Poetry and pastry. Of the people who held a chair for me … waiting.

That mid-October was a good time to be in Paris. And right now is a good time to be here.

My Heart is a Surfboard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And suddenly I know why I am here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do not call him.  Or them, either.

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

I consider this.  That it might be true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I understand why I am here.

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

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

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

Things Change. Feelings Change. I Change.

I recently received a packet in the mail from my synagogue, alerting me that the anniversary of my birth mother’s death is this month.

One year.

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

I should have remembered, for so many reasons.  But mostly, because the Mother’s Day card I sent her last year arrived on the day of her funeral.  It was delivered after the service, while her sister, brothers, nieces and I cleaned the house, preparing it for sale.

The past three years, the time that I had known her, I struggled to find a card.  I didn’t think of her as my mother or my mom.  I already had one – the woman who raised me.  But biologically, she was.  No question about it.  And I knew it would mean a lot to her to receive it.  So I bought her one each year.  Something not too schmaltzy.  Not too love-y dove-y.

But last year was easy.  We had had a tremendous healing that fall – when I flew to Charleston for what I thought was to say goodbye.  In a sense, it was, as I never saw her again.  However, she lived for another six months and during that time we spoke fairly frequently.

Things change.

When her brother phoned me last May to tell me she had died, I felt sideswiped.

My job back at the house was to toss everything that either wasn’t necessary or someone didn’t want. Notes on a criminal case she was following and perhaps hoped to write about.  Minutes from meetings of the Daughters of the American Revolution.  Charleston history.  Credit cards that had never been activated.  (As I write this, I look at my own on the table next to me.)

All of it, and so, so much more into big, black garbage bags used for lawn and leaves.  One for shredding.  One for tossing.

I came downstairs when I ran out of garbage bags and saw the card on the counter.  I knew my own writing.  I said nothing.

I went to the store for bags instead.  While I was out, I texted my friend – the man who had captured my heart when I visited six months earlier – and confirmed our meeting the next day.

The Southern Svengali.

I fell head over heels over head for him.  And when I left, I was certain I would never see him again.

I was wrong.

Me and my mom mom, the one who raised me.
Me and my mom mom, the one who raised me.

I saw him the next night.  People around us asked if we had known one another forever.  It seemed that way.

Although I longed for more, our romance never moved beyond hours-long make out sessions on my first visit.  And while intellectually I knew better, I was convinced I would never get over him.

I was wrong about that too.

We had a falling out after my birthmother’s death.  He took exception to the moniker I had assigned him.  He latched on to the deceptive characteristics of the Svengali character, while I chose to focus on the Svengali as teacher – the one who pulled out the artist inside, as he had me.

We haven’t spoken in nearly a year, although we have exchanged a few kind messages.  He left Charleston for the winter, and I didn’t know about it for months as I had stopped visiting his Facebook page.  And I fell head over heels over head for someone else.  Which is all a complicated way of saying I did get over him.

Things change.

It is important for me to notice the changes, because lately it feels like nothing has changed.  Including me.  At times, I feel as sad and unsteady as when I moved back to Chicago in the late summer of 2011, just after my divorce.  It is a feeling.  It is not truth.

It hadn’t occurred to me that my heightened bout of sadness and dis-ease, at least in part, may be connected to the anniversary of my birthmother’s death.  It is a comfort to recognize.  To realize that the feeling of going backward may be connected to the act of reflection, of turning back.

The good news is, I don’t have to stay back.

My birthmother as a teen.  She's in blue.  And pregnant with me.
My birthmother as a teen. She’s in blue. And pregnant.

Inside the packet from the synagogue are several items.  The words to Kaddish – translated as “holy,” – the ritual prayer of mourning, praising God.  A showing of gratitude amidst pain.  And suggestions for honoring the deceased through Tzedakah – an obligation of charity, righteousness.

I see these rituals as a reminder of what the Buddhists call “right action,” or what 12-Step programs call “doing the next right (or indicated) thing.”

I used to believe I would think my way to happiness, contentedness or change.  That if I only dug deep enough I would finally “figure it out.”

What I’ve learned, and then forget and re-learn, is that things change.  Period.  That includes my feelings and my perceptions.

And that I change when I avail myself of the suggestions contained in the packet from the synagogue.  What the Buddhists and the 12-Steppers and all the spiritual traditions espouse – prayer and action.

I do different.  I feel different.  I become different.