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The following long-form piece was written for and performed at Nikki Nigl’s AboutWomen in Chicago on July 19, 2016.

I have been back in Chicago exactly 12 days.

I miss Madrid.

I miss the winding cobblestone walk to my metro stop at Opera. The flat buildings washed yellow, orange and pink with black wrought iron balconies on every window. Cartoonish by streetlight. I swear I could push them over and they’d tumble. Just like a movie set.

I miss the fountain at Cibeles. That “birthday cake of a building” as Dirk used to call it. The old Correos. Post Office. Now a museum I never made it to. A “Welcome Refugees” banner hanging from its top, a fountain in front. In the center of a roundabout that leads you to the Prado or Calle Gran Via, depending on your preference.

I used to walk here on Saturday nights alone when the sun had receded but the air was still hot and all of Madrid filled the streets, up from its collective summer siesta. The goddess Cybel and her lions riding on illuminated pink and blue water.

I miss my metro pass. Fifty euros for unlimited rides on the super clean, super-fast metro that would take me anywhere in Madrid. And if it didn’t the train or the light rail would.

I miss Turron gelato.

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Plaza de Cibeles and that “birthday cake of a building.”

I miss private health insurance to the tune of 57 euros a month. Gynecological exam chairs that tilt down, working with as opposed to against, gravity. I miss not having to ask for a pelvic ultrasound instead of a pap as it is a matter of course.

I miss feeling safe walking home alone at night.

I miss taking the train to Seville or Valencia for the weekend. Or a quick flight to Portugal, North Africa or Nice. I miss swimming in the Mediterranean upon reaching the coast. The salty taste of my lips and the white streaks drying on my legs surprising me.

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On the beach in Valencia.

I miss tomates that taste like tomatoes, pimientos that taste like peppers and pepinos that taste like cucumbers. I miss their names. I miss Paco choosing them for me at the market and our impromptu intercambio. His corrections to my beginner Spanish. My approval of his modest English.  His stories about his daughter and the victory I felt in understanding them. Mas o menos.

I miss cheap groceries.

I miss eating rye for breakfast instead of oatmeal. Eggs that sit on the shelf. Good, inexpensive coffee.

I miss Nick, the Greek waiter at Dionisos, flirting shamelessly with me.

I miss speaking Spanglish.

I miss all of this, and yet I chose to leave it. To return to Chicago. Where I pay for every El ride. Both financially and energetically. Nausteated by the slow, insistent rattling of the train. Knowing I would get there in half the time if I still owned a car. Knowing it’s best to ask someone to walk me to the train at night in some neighborhoods. My keys laced between my fingers as I leave the station and approach my own door.

Chicago. Where politicians are proudly corrupt. People hold signs on freeway off ramps … begging for money. And 2 bags of tasteless produce cost nearly $50.

Where zero degree FARENHEIT winters are a real possibility. As is a shooting death every weekend.

I chose this.

I chose home.

Lumbering Greystone buildings, summer rainstorms and leafy maple trees. Sunday dance classes at the Old Town School of Music. Lectures at the Art Institute. Lake Michigan.

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Copyright Art Institute of Chicago HD Wallpaper.

I’ve moved several times in my life. Four states, seven cities, two countries … if you count where I was born and raised. Which is not the same as home.

I learned that the first time I moved to Chicago in 2007. I’d been living between San Francisco and Oakland for nearly 14 years when my husband and I packed up our two cats and all our worldly belonging and headed east, to the Midwest, a place I vowed I’d never live again, for his medical residency.

God has a sense of humor.

It was grey and sticky, drizzly and hot when we arrived. We opened the car doors and felt the steam rise up around us, looked at one another, and without saying a word asked “What have we done?” Followed by “We are Californians. (Albeit adopted ones). This is a temporary residence. A sojourn. We will hate Chicago together.”

For months I wore ear plugs on the El and held my hand over my heart as I walked up Michigan Avenue. Each felt being accosted, until my own vibrations rose to match those of the city.

Whenever people asked where I was from, I responded, “I was born in Detroit. I live in Chicago. Oakland is my spirit home.”

But eventually … I got worn down. I surrendered. To this city. It’s people. To my addiction. I made a life for myself here. I grew my business. Got sober. And converted to the faith of my childhood – righting a religious technicality.

I stopped beginning every sentence with “In California …”

I found my biological parents. I learned to dance. I took my husband to the place where I spent my childhood summers, 8 hours away in northwest Michigan.

I began having experiences rather than talking about them.

And somewhere along the way I fell in love with this sometimes dirty, noisy, violent city. I fell in love with its architecture. Its people. Perhaps, most of all, I fell in love with myself.

Four years later I moved to Seattle. The wife of a now doctor, I felt obligated to go.

I cried like a wounded animal. Like I cried when I left Bay Area. Mourning the loss of morning hikes in Redwood Park, Peets coffee, and KFOG radio. The Golden Gate Bridge. My old house in Haight-Ashbury. The place where I met my husband and was married.

 

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Spirit Home. The French Trail in Redwood Park, Oakland.

Except this time, the loss felt strictly internal. Chicago, the place, has never spoken to me. Its topography. Its flatness and lack of nature feel uninspired. But there is something in its soil, in its DNA, that takes root in me.

It called me back after a year in Seattle. When my marriage ended and for the first time in a long time, I got to choose where I would live.

And it called me back after a year in Madrid, where I was teaching English. Fulfilling a childhood dream of living overseas. One I spoke about here, just before I left, a year ago. My only lament that my passport is far less sexy than it would be pre-European Union.

Since arriving, I’ve been greeted with warm “welcome backs” and tentative “welcome homes.” And the inevitable, “What brought you back?” It’s a fair question. One I’ve grappled with myself since making the decision not to renew my visa a couple of months ago.

There are lots of reasons.

Living in a country where you don’t speak the language – at least not fluently, is at best, frustrating. At worst, infantilizing. Without words, one’s personality changes. Mi casera, my landlady, once commented “You are quiet.” To which I replied, “Not in English.”

I needed, and asked for, a lot of help. Scheduling doctors’ appointments. Opening a bank account. Translating government documents. Buying a Spanish cell phone to replace mine which didn’t work.

I slept in a twin bed in an already furnished room in a grand, old Spanish apartment. I felt like a child. I moved the bed. Removed a chest of drawers. A few pictures. I hung up a batik of Ganesh, a string of elephants on a gold chain and a vision board I created around Thanksgiving time. I was still acutely aware that the place was not “mine.” It was not “home.”

The thought of living alone, setting up internet and utilities felt overwhelming. Even friends who were fluent in Spanish waited two months or longer for connectivity. Making due with coffee shops and on occasion, cold showers.

I focused on gratitude. For the opportunity to live with this 83-year-old former UN translator who lived through the Franco era and who was willing to speak with me in halting Spanish or easy English. For my inexpensive rent and the courtyard our apartment looked out on to.

For the community I created. With other teachers. Other expats. And others I met traveling.

For the ability to see Eastern Europe, North Africa and a good deal of Spain. For getting paid, albeit not as much as I had hoped, to talk.

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Traveling in Tangier with my friend Lindsey.

My students adored me. And I, them. But I was acutely aware that they were my students and not my friends … much as I wanted to talk. And much as they were eager to listen.

I had a life. But it was a smaller life.

The English-speaking community in Madrid is transient, making it difficult to build and sustain long-term friendships. And I couldn’t imagine beginning a romantic relationship … in part due to my lack of language skills. But also because of cultural differences. And while my work as a massage therapist surprisingly followed me to Spain, offering me a few clients and a few extra euros a month, my opportunities for employment would always be limited.

I felt limited.

I didn’t know that until a few weeks ago when I was talking with my friend Pam … who had spent six hours in the Social Security office. Playful, friendly and highly communicative, she said to the workers on her way out, “We’re such good friends, I’m going to invite you all to my wedding.”

“That’s it,” I said, pointing to the air, which she – of course – couldn’t see.

I can’t make small talk. I don’t have the language to strike up a conversation on the metro, in the elevator or at the grocery store. I’m too busy thinking about what I’m going to say and how to say it … and by the time I know how, the moment is gone.

And in that moment I realized what home was.

Yes, in its simplest form, home is where I reside. Where I know how to get where I’m going and the fastest way to get there.

Home is the place where restaurants know my face, possibly my name, and often my order. Where I speak the language. And where I sometimes hear my name called out in the street.

But mostly it is a place where I can get bigger. Where I feel expansive. Where I can grow. And to grow, I need to root. Home is a place where the soil is loamy. And conditions are favorable to temperament. A place like Chicago.

 

 

 

Artist Date 115: Distracted

I appreciate a good distraction.

It’s Tuesday and today I find out if I’ve been accepted to the Yale School of Divinity. Of course, “today” is five hours earlier in New Haven, (Spain has not yet turned its clocks forward for spring.) so while it is nearly 7:30 p.m. in Madrid, it is only 2:30 p.m. in Connecticut. And, not surprisingly, I don’t know yet.

I mention this to Gordon, who is sitting next to me, and who expresses surprise when I tell him I have not been checking my phone every few minutes to see if the email has arrived.

I am equally surprised as I have vivid memories from not so long ago, of sitting at my desk hitting refresh on the computer every few minutes, waiting for I-don’t-know-what to happen. Not unlike my wandering into the kitchen to check the refrigerator every few minutes – each time imagining I might find something new added to the shelves since my last look.

Except I will receive something new via email if I wait long enough, whereas the contents of my refrigerator will remain static unless I leave my house and bring in something new. Which is essentially what I am doing now – once again filling my creative coffers. Artist Date 116. A distraction.

My friend Spencer developed the Unamuno Authors Series, bringing poets from around the world to Madrid. Tonight Mark Doty will read his work.

My friend Julie counts him among her favorite writers. A portion of her “fan letter” is included in the paperback version of Doty’s book, Dog Years. Later I will take a selfie with him and send it Julie via Facebook. But for now, I’m just waiting.

For Doty.

Not for Yale.

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Selfie of me and Mark Doty…delightfully distracted.

Because at this point I’ve turned off the sound on my phone. I don’t want to hear it. Or look at it. Or be reminded of it. My phone. Or Yale’s decision. Because I’m not sure if I can stay present in this moment knowing it. So I choose to remain in delicious, hopeful, not knowing.

Doty is a perfect distraction. Engaging. Both serious and playful as he reads his own words about dogs and fish, AIDS and murder. His mouth is tight, his words clipped with a “Locust Valley Lockjaw.” I wonder if anterior neck work (massage) might change the sound of his delivery.

My musings are interrupted by a poem about Doty’s old lover, gone now. He questions why he can no longer conjure up his face without first looking at a photograph. Feel the warmth of his brown skin against his own.

And why can’t I? D is neither dead nor even gone from my life. He is merely far, far away.

We haven’t seen one another in nearly eight months. Since I left Chicago. We do not Skype or FaceTime. This is his choice, not mine, and I do not argue it.

However, as the pages of the calendar turn over onto themselves, I have a harder time recalling his smell, his voice, and yes, even his face, without the aid of photographs and voicemails. I do not want to lose these palpable memories but it seems almost inevitable unless, until, we find ourselves in each other’s presence again.

I recall some years ago, speaking on the telephone with Stu, and then later, Jason – men I had dated when they were little more than boys and I, little more than a girl.

“Oh…that’s what you sound like,” I said upon hearing each of their voices. I had forgotten.

Perhaps this is the brain’s wisdom – making room for new smells, news sounds, new faces. Allowing us to move forward…from a relationship that ends in death, or in distance. From disappointment, words we’d rather than not read or hear.

“The Admissions Committee at Yale Divinity School has completed its review of your application. I am sorry to inform you that unfortunately, we are unable at this time to offer you a place in the Fall 2016 entering class.”

It is nearly midnight when I log on to the Admissions Page. After my Artist Date. After dinner with Spencer and Doty and his partner.

I think that I shake a little reading the email and that my breath catches – stuck in inhalation. That I cry a little too. But already, I don’t remember exactly.

I send Spencer a text, telling him the news, and I go to bed – too tired to do anything else.

And in the morning, I am again waiting. This time for a decision from Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music – my top choice for graduate school. I am assured it should arrive within the next few days.

Until then, I remain in delicious, hopeful, not knowing –  distracting myself with dogs and fish and conjured up memories of old lovers. With art and words and daily life. With moments of presence.

Everything I Didn’t Write – September

A few days ago, noticing I had hardly written since arriving in Spain but acutely aware of my many Wandering Jewess experiences, I pulled together my Facebook posts from my first month in Madrid in a blog post. What follows is a Facebook accounting of how life unfolded in that second month – no longer a TEFL student living in Airbnb digs, but suddenly an English teacher with a permanent address.

September 2

Churros and chocolate with dear friends from the United States, Melinda and Craig. In these moments the world feels both vast and intimate.

September 4

So much to celebrate! New work! New home! A friendship that cuts across oceans. And yes, without question, the most fun meal I have ever eaten. Three Michelin Stars. Entiendo.

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September 8

Esta noche…first “official” Artist Date in Madrid.

September 12

When Seattle descends upon Madrid…Salpicon, Burrata and Churros, oh my! Were your ears burning Pamela and Molly?

September 13

A Rosh Hashanah Story or This Is What Happens When You Say Yes…

A couple of years ago, someone (you can’t remember who) invites to you to join an online group of women writers — thousands of them. A few of them live in Madrid. And one of them is Jewish and from Miami. She invites you to a Rosh Hashanah service and seder put on by a newly formed Reform chavurah.

You have never met her in person, and you feel uncomfortable as hell, but you go anyway. You are asked to light the candles during the service — which is all in Spanish and Hebrew, of which you speak only a little of each.

You have dinner with a professional flamenco dancer from New York, a makeup artist from New Zealand, and a Spanish window maker, his lovely wife and daughter. An engineer from Colombia and a woman from Buenos Aires (who might as well have “Friend” tatooed on her forehead…instead she has Shalom on her ankle) ask for your number — they want English classes.

You eat apples and honey, challah, pomegranates and dates. There is a fish head in the center of the table to represent moving forward…”away from the tail.” (This must be a Sephardic tradition.) All of it happens in a mish-mash of broken Spanish and English. Remarkably, you feel a part of…even the parts you don’t understand.

There are hugs and kisses and What’sApp exchanges. You walk home through Plaza Mayor. There is a chill in the air. Tomorrow you begin teaching. It is a New Year.

Thinking of you this Rosh Hashanah, Brant, Mary Jo, Matt and Pamela. Besos!

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September 15

It was suggested I try reading in Spanish. Suggestions from Jesus at La Buena Vida. Feeling excited and intimidated. I think it is going to be a slow read…

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September 17

I just received a refund from the Oficina de Correos. Seems they gave me the wrong post box in July and any and all mail sent to me now resides in the Bermuda Triangle of correspondence. While somewhat unbelievable… what is equally unbelievable is that I received this refund less than a week after the error was discovered. That and the fact that I don’t speak Spanish and no one at the office speaks English. (Thank goodness for my friend David who just happened to be there last Friday and served as translator.) Oh..and the refund came with a handwritten receipt. Ping me privately if you need my mailing address.

September 19

Read 5 pages of a Lorrie Moore short story today — in Spanish. Something about 6 months after a divorce not yet taking off one’s wedding ring. Cut off the finger? Cut off the hand? Slow going…but I’m amazed at my perseverance — looking up every fourth or fifth word — and how much I did understand.

And grateful that when my marriage was over, I could take off the ring.

September 21

Man on Metro with thick New York accent: Your hair looks fantastic. I love it.

Me: How did you know that I was American?
Man on Metro with thick New York accent: Are you kidding? No Spanish woman would ever wear her hair like that. Or British woman for that matter…

September 22

On this eve of Yom Kippur, as I head out the door to go to High Holiday services in Spanish and Hebrew, I am reminded of where I was at this time last year…on the precipice of something big, although I did not know it. Flu-ish and packing for three-weeks in Italy. Near the end of that trip, riding the light rail to a dinner party in Rome with a fist full of flowers, I thought, “It’s like I live here…I can do this.” Nearly one year later, I am doing “this.” This is grace.

September 23

Just completed my first private Spanish lesson. I walked in nervous … nowhere to hide. Sixty minutes later I feel inspired and, dare I say, empowered … like maybe, just maybe, I can learn to really speak this language. Up until now I have only shared my students’: experience of humility … now I know their joy!

Considering twice weekly classes …

September 26

Up late with Marissa and The Cabbage Ministry (at The Tempo Club).

September 27

Learning Spanish through food and song, at a former slaughterhouse. We didn’t plan it. It just turned out that way…

 

2015-09-27 14.17.16September 28

It’s hard to believe I left the United States just two months ago today. Feels like I have been here so much longer…

September 30

Seems a fitting Facebook memory for today (“My first memoir piece in print.”)… on the heels of Tim posting that my profile picture screams “book jacket” and a meeting with friend and fellow writer Nicola in an effort to get “writing accountable.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dirty Little Travel Secret Number 1 or What and Who I Will Remember in 16 Years

Sixteen years later, the Museo Chicote looks exactly the same.
All these years later, the Museo Chicote looks exactly the same.

Sixteen years ago, my ex and I took our first overseas trip together – to Spain for the Christmas holiday.

While moving to Madrid is an experience all mine, there are moments when my past and present collide. Strangely, mostly in regards to food.

Walking up Gran Via, I stumble upon the neon sign of Museo Chicote — Madrid’s oldest cocktail bar, a place Hemmingway used to frequent.

I had circled it in our Frommers’ guide and we sought it out upon arrival. Dimly lit and cool in a retro kind of way. They served potato chips with their drinks, scooping them from wooden drawers that looked like library card-catalog files.

Knowing in my bones that I am close to the anonymous third-floor walkup hotel where we stayed for $30 a night – the one with the ridiculously comfortable foam mattress — and having that feeling confirmed when I spy the Nebraska Cafeteria, the name as surprising to me now as it was then.

Shopping for food at El Corte Ingles– like Sears when it carried everything, even houses — but better, higher end.

We picked up smoked salmon, baguettes and wine on our final night in Spain and spread it out for a picnic on our bed at a boutique hotel recently purchased by Best Western. An over-sized room by European standards, with a deep, tiled bathtub and television which ran CNN – creature comforts at the end of 10 days of traveling, most of it while fighting the flu.

It was raining and cold…and truth told, we couldn’t bear to do battle with Spanish restaurants one more time.

Dirty Little Travel Secret Number 1 – sometimes the seemingly simple act of ordering a meal in a country where you do not speak the language is overwhelming.

For the better part of our trip we wandered the streets of Spain until way past hungry, and when we finally decided upon a restaurant, were often baffled. Do we just sit down? Do we wait to be seated? Do we order at the counter? Do we pay now? Do we pay later? Do we ask for the bill?

What do these words mean on the menu?

We pulled out our translator – a charming and antiquated apparatus by today’s standards – and were met with responses like “spoon of the world.” Useless.

Eventually we found our rhythm, often opting to sit at counters and order tapas – pointing to what we wanted rather than risking another menu fiasco.

I had forgotten about this until a little over three weeks ago, when I arrived in Spain and tripped over myself at restaurants – again uncertain whether to sit or be seated, and often disappointed with what I thought I had ordered. Seems Dirty Little Travel Secret Number 1 also applies to new expats.

I quickly found myself shopping at the CarreFour for yogurt and thinly sliced cured meats, and picking up figs, tomatoes, melon and salad greens at any one of several produce markets on my street. My classmates marveled at my healthy looking salads, fruit, brown rice and chickpeas.

What I didn’t mention was dinner often consisted of gelato, eaten on the street. That at the end of a 10-hour school day, navigating a restaurant – coupled with the cultural norm that it is highly unusual to eat alone here (“A waiter will bring a glass of wine to a woman eating alone because he pities her,” a friend of a friend told me.) – was often more than I could take on.

It is both humbling and frustrating to experience and to admit — as are many things about being an immigrant.

And I find myself incongruently grateful when sharing a meal with someone who has lived here longer than me — who knows how to wrangle us a bowl of gazpacho for lunch when it is not on the menu.

I’ve been thinking a lot about those awkward meals my ex and I shared 16 years ago. And how all these years later we remember the beautiful food – a simple tortilla Espanola eaten outside of the train station in Sitges, and a feast of fresh crustaceans in Barcelona on Christmas night – but not the disappointments.

And more than that, we remember the quest — the journey, the experiences, the people. The girls in Santa caps who served us tuna sandwiches. The waiter who rescued my ex when he got locked in the restaurant bathroom, who learned English on a kibbutz in Israel and who pointed this Wandering Jewess to the synagogue across the way after dinner.

The what’s and who’s I imagine I will remember in 16 years.

Artist Date 90: Full

Outside Mercato Sant'Ambrogio.
Outside Mercato Sant’Ambrogio.

There’s an empty space in front of me where a wine glass used to be. It was there just a few minutes before I got up.  But now it’s gone.

It’s a God thing. I’m sure of it.

It is 10 a.m. and I am at a wine shop – the first stop on a walking food and wine tour of Florence – Artist Date 90.

I was the first to arrive on the piazza, to meet our guide Ishmael.  I refrain from any The Old Man and The Sea references.

He is from Latin America, but has made Florence – or more accurately, its environs – his home for more than 30 years. He is bearded and handsome and gentle.  As is the case with so many men here, I cannot tell for certain whether he is straight or gay.  I decide not to worry about it.

We wait for 10 others to join us. They come in groups of twos, like animals on Noah’s Ark.  I feel wildly liberated, untethered and free.

We walk a few blocks to a wine shop, where a long table is set up with stools, glasses and a variety of bruschetta.

I have not had a drink in nearly seven years. It is strange to be here.

And yet, this used to be my life. Conversations about the dwindling availability of cork, comparing plastic versus screw top.  Stainless steel versus oak.  I was living just an hour from the Napa Valley and spent a considerable amount of time there – tasting, learning, drinking.

I fancied myself fancy because I knew just a little bit.  Until the day when a stranger said to me, “Wine aficionado is just a fancy name for a drunk.”  I was incensed.  But in regards to me, he was right.

About half-way through the tasting Ishmael notices I do not have a glass. He asks if I would like one.  I shake my head, smile and say no.

“Are you sure,” he asks. I am very sure.

At the wine shop...I focused on the bruschetta.
At the wine shop…I focused on the bruschetta.

We stop at a food cart – like the ones in Portland, San Francisco and New York, like the one made famous by a pre-teen’s Tweeting in the movie Chef.  Except there are no hipsters here.  Only work men.  And instead of hawking clever cupcakes or Asian-Latin fusion, this one sells tripe.  Just tripe.

Ishmael asks if any of us would like to try it. I raise my hand, along with the Greek painter from Lawrence, Kansas, and a few minutes later receive a white plastic container, along with a plastic fork and a hunk of bread.

I am a bit nervous, but tell myself “when in Rome”…or Florence. But, like Mikey in the 1970s Chex cereal commercial, I like it!  It is well-spiced, like a fiery, paper-thin calamari.

I ask the woman from New York traveling with her mother to take a photograph of me eating it, my MAC “Kiss Me Quick” lipstick staining the plastic fork – lest anyone question my story.

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Not many ladies eating tripe off a food cart…

I was a picky eater growing up.  My mother would serve me a silver-dollar size piece of steak that I would cut up, cover in ketchup and move around the plate for a quarter of an hour until my father, exasperated, would say, “Make her a grilled cheese sandwich.”  I lived on grilled cheese, hot dogs and Spaghetti-Os until I was about 14.

We wander over to Mercato Sant’Ambrogio. Outside vendors are selling grapes, carrots, herbs, mushrooms – truffles.  I recall the chef I briefly dated kissing me in his kitchen, and asking when I would be in Italy.

October.

“Mmm…truffle season…except you cannot afford them.”

I should have told him to fuck off.  Or how he was so certain what I could and could not afford.  But I said nothing.

I think he would enjoy this culinary tour of Florence.  And then decide not to think about him at all, but instead the cured meats, cheeses and olives that a butcher is serving us with toothpicks off of a polystyrene tray.  From the North, the South, Tuscany.  Aged six weeks, six months, 16 months.

We sit down on long benches and sample orecchiette with finely chopped broccoli, spaghetti with pancetta, olive oil and parmesan, pomodoro.  Once this was simply a place for market vendors to have a meal.  Today it is a restaurant.

I am generally not one to get too excited about pasta. Until now.  It is silky and warm on my tongue, along my cheek.  I taste every ingredient.  Minutes old.  I am silent.  I am, as my friend Stan says, “having a relationship with my food.”

Yes...I left a little bit.
Yes…I left a little bit.

We end with gelato from one of Ishmael’s favorite shops – Il Procopio. I pair carmelized figs with cream, almonds and pine nuts with the shop’s namesake of pistachios and orange peel.

I have eaten gelato every day since arriving in Italy more than a week ago, congratulating myself on always ordering a piccolo.  But today, grinning and completely conscious, I order a medio — and congratulate myself that it is not a grande.  It’s a God thing.  I’m sure of it.

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Il Procopio. Firenze, Tuscany. Enough said.

 

Welcoming Juniper Maya with the Hand of God

2014-03-25 01.42.32I keep my phone plugged in to an outlet near the floor so that its light does not interrupt my sleep. But also, because it brings me to my knees first thing in the morning – prayer becomes non-negotiable.

It is 1 a.m. and I am on my knees. I have only turned off the lights two hours ago.

“Is it time?” I ask, seeing it is Clover.

“It’s time,” she says,  her voice both dreamy and reassuring. “Take your time.”

We have plenty of it. Nearly 17 hours until Juniper Maya is born. Clover is her mother. And I am Clover’s doula – Greek for servant or birth support.

I brush my teeth and pop in a fresh pair of contact lenses. Pull on a pair of grey skinny corduroys, a purple and white checked blouse and the sweater I can’t bear to give away. The blue merino wool one with the tear under the armpit, and that is separating from its collar.

I pack a bag with berries, yogurt and cereal. Baby carrots. Apples. Sweet potato. Clover and Andy have been cooking and freezing for weeks in preparation for the birth and the days and weeks after. But I pack this, along with a journal and a book – just in case – and jump in my car, leaving the bag with my glasses and toothbrush by the door.

It is quiet out and beginning to snow. I circle the block twice and find a spot nearby. Before getting out of the car, I pray. “Please join us in this sacred moment. May this be a safe and joyous birth for mom and baby.” Or something like that. I am surprised. I didn’t plan to pray. It just sort of spilled out of me, as my prayers often do.

Andy buzzes me in. There is a handmade sign on the door – birth in process. We greet one another in the hallway in whispers.

Inside, it is dimly lit. There are candles. Music is looping from a play list created just for this moment. It is all part of Clover’s birth plan. She greets me sleepily in a short, cotton nightgown. Soon she will be wearing nothing at all and it will seem like nothing could be more natural.

********************

Clover and Andy demonstrate the routine they have established. With each contraction they grasp one another’s upper arm. Andy leans back and they count through it – together. One.   Two.  Three.  Four.  Up into double digits, until it is over.

I trade places with Andy and begin counting and leaning and holding on. This will be our foundation for the next 17 hours. The ritual we return to.

It is warm inside. Clover gives me one of her t-shirts. It is grey and oversized with butterflies on it. My friend Julie’s mother Carole (now deceased) often visits both her and I as a butterfly. I know she is with us now.

********************

2014-03-25 01.49.41We eat. We walk. We count.

Clover bounces on the birthing ball. She does cat and camel poses on her hands and knees while I stand behind her, pressing her hips together to midline. Relief.

We doze in bed. Clover and Andy lying next to one another. Me lying perpendicular to them at the foot of the bed. Later I will lie between them, placing my fist in Clover’s low back, gently pushing her sacrum toward her feet. My arm stretched over her body. Her hand clenching mine, until I think my tarsal bones might break.

Clover reminds us of the images that ground her. A sparkly oak tree. The river that runs behind it. A nearby staircase made of fluffy, white feathers. Her spirit guide, Strident.

Andy takes apart the dining room table to make room for the tub. Inflates it and fills it with warm water. Clover climbs in and smiles. The water is holding her and everything she has been carrying.

Morning comes through the pulled shades. Andy calls the midwives around 7:30. Clover has been laboring for 12 hours now. Hilary, the midwife, tells her to keep her voice low, in her abdomen, as opposed to in her throat – which feels more natural. This will help move the baby lower into her pelvis.

Her grunts and noises sound remarkably sexual when she does this. It seems fitting the noises would be the same both conceiving a child and delivering it.

Clover and I are walking. Her hands on my arms. Mine upon hers. She looks directly into my eyes. Hers are big, round, open. Is it fear? Trust? Amazement? Fatigue? I’m not sure. I meet her gaze, as she has asked me to. And I tear up. I am trying to be solid but I feel like I will fall apart at any moment.

No one has ever trusted me this much. Trusted my heart. My body. My psyche. I am overwhelmed.

 ********************

 2014-03-25 02.28.27The first midwife assistant, Sarah, arrives around 8:30 a.m. She is extraordinarily perky. She has slept. We have not.

She watches Clover and I move through a contraction.

We have a new pattern. She squats and I squat with her. I tell her to see the oak tree. To see Strident in the oak tree. She softens and collapses into me and I hold her naked body against my clothed one. We will repeat this again and again.

Sarah puts a fetal heart-rate monitor on Clover’s belly. She will do this following each contraction to make certain everything is as it should be.

I leave Clover with Sarah and walk into the kitchen. I look at Andy, who is making me yet another cup of instant coffee. I tell him this is perhaps the most important thing I have ever done. “Me too,” he says.

A few hours later a second assistant arrives. And around noon, Hilary – the midwife – shows up.

They are all very matter-of-fact. Except about moving. When Clover moves, the baby moves, they explain. And so we keep her moving. In the tub. Out of the tub. In the bed. Out of the bed. Over the toilet. On all fours. On her side. Squatting.

I hold. I squat. I invoke the oak free and Strident until the images no longer produce the desired effect. “No more oak tree,” she says.

Clover’s temperature rises and falls. She steps out of the tub and we wrap her in towels. Moments later she throws them off.  She is like James Brown, hobbling off stage with a cape draped over him, then tossing it off and jumping into the splits. All except for the splits.

We laugh. All except Clover. She is somewhere else. Focused.

Not once does she say “I can’t.” Only, “this is taking so long.”

********************

clover and mayaIt is late afternoon and she begins to push. The midwives continue to keep her moving. Reminding her to keep her voice low in her body. She is in the tub. I am taking photographs, as she has asked me to do. The camera hides my tearing eyes.

I do not know if they are happy or sad tears. Perhaps both.

I put the camera down and kneel on the side of the tub so that Clover can grasp my hands as she has so many times now. She does, and then lets go, grabbing on to the handles on the side of the tub. It is her and her God alone in the tub. We are her chorus, surrounding her.

And the miracle emerges – all head and a shock of dark hair. Her tiny body tethered by the umbilical cord. Hilary shouts, “Catch your baby! Catch your baby!” And she does.

The pool is red. Clover is radiant. Energized.

Hilary pulls a cap on to Juniper Maya’s tiny head and wraps a towel around her. She lies on Clover’s chest. Andy cuts the umbilical cord.

 ********************

I feel the tears rise up inside of me. I want to leave.

I am sleep deprived. My body is full with food I wouldn’t normally eat. Spoonfuls of crunchy peanut butter. A chocolate energy bar. Chicken stew. A cold sweet potato. And yet I still feel hungry.

I am acutely aware that my long-distance love, Mr. 700 Miles – the one who slipped away without a word several weeks ago – is shockingly, frighteningly present.  That he has been for the last 17 hours, during which time I have told him, again and again – quietly, internally – “You gotta go.”  He is never gone for long.

I feel sad that I cannot, will not, be able to share this experience with him.

I feel sad that he will never meet Clover, Andy and Juniper Maya.

I feel sad because I recently had the thought, “I would have a baby with this man.” A thought I had never had before.  Not even with my ex-husband.

I begin cleaning. Picking up towels strewn across the floor, determining which can be laundered and which go in the trash. Emptying trash bins and putting in fresh bags. Scrubbing the slow cooker. Loading the dishwasher.

I watch Sarah drain the tub with a hose – siphoning the water mixed with blood and other fluids into the toilet.

I gather my things and greet the family in the bedroom.

Hilary is stitching Clover. Juniper Maya is nursing. I help Andy send a text to waiting friends and family.

Clover tells me the small box with ribbon is for me.

We hug. We kiss. We exchange words of gratitude. None of them quite capturing what we have shared.

I tell her I love her and that we will talk about it – all of it – later.

********************

2014-04-06 22.16.11I am barely out the door and I begin sobbing – heaving, convulsing, cannot catch my breath tears.

I arrive home and see my bag at the door. The one with my toothbrush and eyeglasses. I scramble some egg whites and pick up the phone, calling Sarah, Lynn, and Chase. I call Anne. And Kristina. Anyone but Mr. 700 Miles. I leave messages for each of them. And one by one, each calls me back.

I open the box from Clover. Inside is a delicate gold chain with the smallest hamsa (palm-shaped amulet) I have ever seen.

I fall into bed.

Tomorrow Clover will tell me the hamsa is the hand of God. That my hand was the hand of God.

I will recall telling Andy this is perhaps the most important thing I have ever done.

And I will be certain of it.

Artist Date 55: Saving Myself. No Wand or Wings Required.

I’ve been having a hard time getting myself out on weekly Artist Dates.  Ever since I hit that “magic” one-year mark.

Carmel and I.  Extras.  Fans.  And Friends.
Carmel and I. Extras. Fans. And Friends.

Maybe it’s because, as suggested, I didn’t date for a year after my divorce became final.  The passing of 52 Artist Dates meant that that year had passed.  And perhaps on some subconscious level I thought it was time to date others instead of myself.

Even though nothing, absolutely nothing, has changed in my romantic life.  Even though I don’t even have a crush.  And for perhaps the first time in my life, the world still feels full of possibilities.  That is a big change in my romantic life.

Or maybe it’s because maintenance is hard.  Of anything.  Eating well, moving my body and maintaining a healthy weight.  Staying sober.  Meditating.  Artist Dates.

Each serves me, makes me feel better, be better in the world.  It would seem I would only want to perpetuate these patterns.  But somehow it doesn’t work that way.

My brain is a liar.  It tells me “I’ve got this.”  Which, when it does, is the exact moment I need to redouble my efforts.  And I need other people to do that.  To remind me that my brain is, in fact, a liar.  And of what actions I can take anyway.

It’s why I work for Weight Watchers.  Surround myself with sober individuals.  And probably why I only meditate in the morning but not the evening, even though Vedic meditation is a twice-daily practice.  I’ve been doing it alone ever since I left California in 2007.

The Artist Date is a solo process.  No one would know, or probably care, if I did or did not engage in it.  Except me.  By stating my intention and blogging about it, I invite others in, and I stay in the action of it.  Action that always makes me feel better.

So I was grateful when I saw a Facebook post from my friend Lori late Friday night, asking if anyone was available to be background talent for a music video she was filming the following day.  Without thinking, I said “yes” – Artist Date 55.

“Who knows?” I thought.  “Perhaps I will meet Mr. Right…”

skatersBy morning I wasn’t so sure about that.  When I opened Lori’s email with details for the shoot, I found myself feeling incredibly resistant.  So much so, I told her I may have spoken too soon.

I shared my “dilemma” with a friend who reflected back to me that I am a woman who does what she says.  And so I did.

But when I arrived, the first words out of my mouth were, “Do you have enough people?  Because if you do…”  Yes, she said, adding, “If you have somewhere to be, go…”

But I didn’t.

Knowing that, something shifted.  And I decided to stay.

I took a seat on an empty bench where the Windy City Rollers practice and watched the girls go around and around in circles, fading in and out of the fog of the smoke machine – the set for the music video, for a song written by one of the skaters, Xoe.

I joined about a dozen extras as a Windy City Rollers fans.  Our job was to rush the red team after winning the bout.  To jump up and down and high-five the skaters, and each other.  Simple enough…even for a non-sports fan like myself.  But first, we waited.

angelsI watched the big cameras zooming in and out.  Xoe’s stunt double — dressed like a guardian angel with wings, a wand and a sequined dress — “saving her” from herself, and knocking out a couple of the Rollers in the process.  I looked at the snack table and thought it could use a makeover.  That I would replace some of the donuts, Oreos and chips with fresh fruit and vegetables, hummus and low-fat cheese.  But nobody asked me.

A woman I know just a little, but like quite a bit, showed up and she and I talked like old friends for the better part of the afternoon – telling stories about boys, our bodies and travel.

I noticed the high concentration of men on the set – lots of tattoos and wool hats.  But I didn’t “recognize” my mate.

The day ended with a whack upside the head.  Literally.  It was an accident.

During a “pretend” fight scene,I leaned into the fist of a wisp of a girl standing next to me.   She apologized profusely.  I laughed.  It somehow seemed right.  Like I had definitely “connected.”

This morning, I put my hand to my forehead.  It was sore.  A little tender spot reminding me of how much I fight myself.  And of how I can save myself – no wand or wings required.