The Gracias Reward

When I launched my Go Fund Me campaign, “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain,” earlier this summer, I linked rewards to different donation levels. An electronic postcard from Spain for $25. A custom Artist Date for $100. A personalized piece of writing for $500.

However, one reward was promised at all levels — a personal thank-you on Go Fund Me, Facebook, Twitter and A Wandering Jewess.

Following are three more Gracias Rewards … and the stories of those who have so generously supported my dream of manifesting blog into book deal.


23 August

Shortly after my divorce, I developed a bad habit of reading old journals. Really old journals. And only the juicy bits.

There was something delicious about remembering what “was,” once upon a time. But it didn’t help move me forward. And so, at a friend’s suggestion, I put the journals away for a time. The results so effective I ultimately burned them.ultimately burned them — journals I had carried with me for 20 years … from Detroit to San Francisco, Oakland, Chicago, Seattle and Chicago again — before moving to Spain.

I haven’t much looked back at my written words since then. Until now. Pulling together my blogs into the manuscript, “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain.”

It is an interesting, and at times painful, experience. Remembering where I’ve been … both physically and emotionally. Selling my wedding rings.

Burying my biological mother.

Navigating unrequited crushes and affections, and struggling to let go of those which had run their course.

But I also am reminded of the support I received through it all. Much of it, unexpected.

A couch to sleep on. A light box to help manage Midwest winters. The friendship of a best friend’s sister.

Muchas gracias Jacqueline Baron, Darcy Livingston and Sheryl Stollman for these gifts, and for your generous contributions to “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — a new narrative for happily ever after, after a divorce.

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From the blog, “New Ring, Old Questions. Remembering Mr. Thursday.”

24 August

I’m 9 years old. Or thereabouts. I’ve just started learning Hebrew — attending classes on Sunday mornings and Wednesday afternoons.

It is one of those Wednesday afternoons. Except now it is evening. And I am waiting.

Waiting with Rachel and Robbie, Michael and Ronnie. Waiting in the quickly darkening October chill for one of our parents to pick up our carpool.

It appears someone has forgotten.

All the other students are gone. The principal has left too, beeping his horn and waving while we wait outside the school.

Robbie and I walk to the corner store and use the payphone to call our parents. The rest stay behind … in case the delayed parent arrives.

I am a little bit scared, walking on the side of the road in the dark. I remind myself I am not alone. I am with Robbie. He is older, bigger. Handsome.

I do not recall the rest of the story … who it was that forgot to pick us up. And who eventually did.

I only remember my mother’s relief when I arrived home. Her anger toward the principal for leaving us at the school. And my own worry about not completing my homework for the next day … having arrived home so late.

I don’t have any other memories of Robbie — even though he lived right around the corner from us. And none of his younger sister, Amy Freedman.

So I was especially surprised and delighted when I received her contribution to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign.

Muchas, muchas gracias, Amy!

The joys of social media.

Thirty-plus years post Hebrew school, Amy and I have gotten to know one another on Facebook. Divine timing. Everything happens exactly when it is supposed to …

Like the ending of my 15-year relationship … which forced me to face the daunting task of taking responsibility for my own life and happiness.

Like finding myself “suddenly single against my will” … which nudged me toward two years of Artist Dates (one-person play dates), a three-week stag jaunt in Italy, and ultimately a year-long solo sojourn in Spain.

Like being underemployed … which gives me the time and ability to complete the manuscript, “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — a compilation of blogs from http://www.awanderingjewess.com.

Even waiting for a carpool on a dark October evening … which showed me how to walk through fear, and reminded me I’m really never alone.

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My Bat Mitzvah — the culmination of  5 years of Hebrew school. I really never was alone…

28 August

I used to have a nickname in college — Lester. It still makes me cringe. I don’t know where it came from. In fact, it might even go back to high school. As I write these words, I hear voices of friends calling out, “Lester!”

I had another nickname too. One I had forgotten about until the other day … The Pest.

I was reminded by a friend of my brother’s in a private note she sent, along with a donation to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign.

Her intention was not to drudge up a painful past, but instead to marvel at the change in the relationship between my brother and me. Growing up, we were prone to unkind words and fist fights. Today, he speaks and writes about me with deep affection and pride, posting things to Facebook like —

“HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my beautiful, talented and well-traveled sister, Lesley Pearl. Being overseas on your birthday would be tough for some but knowing you, I am sure that they are lining up to celebrate with you!!”

Awww … sweet, right?

And I adore him equally.

Many thanks to my brother’s friend — for your generous contribution, and for reminding me that relationships change. Sometimes beautifully … like in the case of me and my brother.

And that other times … something beautiful comes from change, like the end of my marriage. While painful, the parting sent me off to create the life I had always dreamed of. A creation chronicled in “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain.”

Oh, and I think I’ll take Lester over The Pest any day …

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Me and my brother … pre-pest days.

Want to know more about “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — how 52 Artist Dates saved my soul after divorce and landed me smack in the middle of my own life — or how to contribute to my Go Fund Me campaign? Click here.

Artist Date 44: You Are Really More West African

Mary is coming toward me but I can’t place her. In fact, I don’t yet recall that this is her name.

I scan through my mental Rolodex as quickly as I can trying to match a face, a name, an experience.  I come up blank other than to know that she is familiar, and we are at my synagogue, so I figure I must know her from here.

One of the many children I met in Kigali...introduced by Mary.
One of many children I met in Kigali, introduced by Mary.

She puts her arms around me and asks how I am.  I tell her I am well and she says that I look it.  Her response is genuine.  Like she has taken a few minutes to take me in.  All of me.  Like she’s seen me before.  And she has.  Even though I cannot remember where.

She begins talking about the speakers I am here to hear.  Dr. Naasson Munyandamutsa and his wife Donatilla Mukumana.  That she has been traveling with them.  Out West, where Naasson received the Barbara Chester Award from the Hopi Foundation, for his work with torture victims.  And now here, to Evanston.  To my synagogue.  My more head-y than usual Artist Date – Number 44.

Finally, I humbly admit I cannot remember her name.  It is Mary.  I tell her mine is Lesley.  She hadn’t remembered either.  Just my face.  She has seen my face.

In Rwanda.  Her name shakes something loose.  The pieces fall into place.

Mary is one of the founders of WE-ACTx – an organization supporting women and children with HIV and AIDS in Rwanda.  We met in the summer of 2012 when I traveled there with my Rabbi and members of my synagogue, the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation.

rwanda filling rxOn the ground, we filled prescription packets, painted walls, built a library.  But mostly, we witnessed.  The people.  Their lives.  The help they required.  And the heroic, albeit shoe-string, assistance that was being provided.

It was an antidote, a balm, to the crazy, or at the very least, unsettled, that was my life at that time.

Smack dab in the middle of my divorce.  Neither in nor out.  I was living in Seattle, with my soon-to-be ex-husband, sleeping on the fold-out couch in the office.  I had decided I would decide in Kigali where to go next.  If I would stay in Seattle.  Move back to Chicago.  Or San Francisco.

Or go somewhere else entirely – like Kigali.  Where it was suggested more than once, by residents, by ex-patriots and by several of those on my trip, that perhaps I should consider staying.

All of this comes flooding back to me as Mary is speaking to me.

Patrick.  His greeting to me each time we met: "Liora, you should stay."
Patrick’s greeting each time we met: “Liora, you should stay.”

The bindi I wore every day – the jeweled accoutrement pasted between my eyes that I had taken to wearing.  The mark of a married women in Indian culture.  My own private, not-even-conscious, barrier between me and the world.  A secret “Don’t-even-fucking-think-of-it.”  Even though it was all I was fucking thinking about. Fucking.  Because I wasn’t.

The name I claimed – Liora, my Hebrew name.  It means “my light.”  There were two Lesley—s on the trip and it just seemed easier.  For everyone except my Rabbi, who knew me as Lesley.

The words, “It’s ok.  It was a long time coming,” that flew out of my mouth regularly.  Every time I spoke of my impending divorce, which was a lot.  It was my story, as we each told our stories to one another – 12 of us over 12 or so days in sub-Saharan Africa.

It seems a lifetime ago.

Nights under my mosquito net talking with my roommate – who, just a few months later, would begin walking through her own divorce – talking about the day.  Blogging by the light of my computer after she had gone to bed.

rwanda dance posseDancing with a professional troupe in a “cultural village” (read: Tourist Destination) near the Ugandan border.  Dancing on the hot concrete at the WE-ACTx compound and on the lawn outside of the hotel in the evening – a party thrown just for us, complete with a DJ, BBQ, and a movie – Gorillas in the Mist – shown on a screen outside, just like in Chicago during summertime in the parks.

I am jostled back into today as Mary introduces Naasson and Donatilla.

They are sitting at a table, each with a laptop computer in front of them.  His, a MAC Airbook.  Hers, an HP, like mine.

They talk about their work with rape.  With depression and suicide.  Their voices are sweet, slightly lilting.  Easy on the ear.  Their faces express nothing of the pain of their work.  Of what they, and those around them, have experienced.  It is typical for people from this part of Africa, and they speak to it – the shrouded emotional life of Rwandans.

There are only five psychiatrists in all of Rwanda.

I lean over to my Rabbi.  “It’s a good thing I didn’t stay there, “I whisper, remembering he was one of the ones who encouraged me to consider staying – perhaps his own “road-not-traveled.”

“Yes, you are more West African,” he whispers back.  We laugh.  Even though I don’t quite know what it means.  But I like it.

I like it because I “study” West African dance.  Spending Sunday mornings barefoot, moving in lines across a wood floor, supported and surrounded by a posse of drummers and other dancers.  Leaping.  Learning to shake my hips like a not-locked-up-up-tight American woman.

My heart seemingly bursting through my skin.

I don’t know anything about West Africans – other than what I experience from my dance teacher and some of the drummers.  But I know that I am emotionally “raw.”  And not just now.  That I am “wild” in comparison to Rwandans.  And to many Americans.

I like the idea of a place where people live like this.  A land of “misfit toys,” like in the animated holiday special, Rudolph’s Shiny New Year.  Where everyone’s heart is seemingly bursting through their skin.  Spilling out with love.  With pain.  With life.

A Year After the Day Before Everything Was About to Change

Wandering in Brussels with my friend, Tim.  I love putting the camera in front of faces and seeing what is captured.
With Tim, in Brussels

A year ago today I was in Brussels.

I didn’t know that everything was about to change.  Or maybe I did know.  The universe did.  Perhaps that’s why I was blessed with an extra day there, even though it didn’t feel like a blessing at the time.

I’d spent the past two days in what I’d come to call “Paris Small.”  One of them, with my old roommate Tim, who flew in from Dublin for just one night – just to be with me.  We rented an IKEA-decorated studio, a few blocks from the train station.  Its red wooden shutters opened onto the square.  It was perfect.

That day, we Skyped with Tim’s boyfriend Martin, who was living in Yorkshire.  We got our heads shaved.  Ate Belgian Waffles covered in powdered sugar, walking and talking until the sky turned navy.

I spent the next night alone.  I called my friend, Michael, my divorce pal in the States, before going to sleep.  Just as I did most nights back at home.  Ever since my ex asked me for a divorce and he and his wife also decided to separate.

The next morning, a year ago today, I arrived at the airport and learned that my plane had been grounded due to a cracked windshield.  I stood in line for more than two hours before reaching the counter to re-book my flight – surrounded by people loudly sighing and complaining.

I made friends with a gay boy from Missouri.  I watched the family in front of me – husband and wife, and almost grown kids.  They seemed nonplussed.  Almost enjoying the time.  As we approached the counter together, I commented on how happy they seemed.

“What else can we do?” the father responded.

Happy, even though they had missed the Chicago portion of their vacation.  Would miss their connection to San Francisco.  And were just hoping to recoup their time in Los Angeles.  Happy.

They wrote a list of suggestions for how I might want to spend my extra time in Brussels.

We wished each other well, and parted ways.  Me, with a voucher for a hotel room across the street, and a boarding pass for a different flight tomorrow.  No longer direct, I would fly to Frankfurt – the first airport I landed in overseas, nearly 20 years ago – before arriving in Chicago.

I took the train back to the City Centre after checking in to the hotel and retraced my steps down the cobblestone streets.  Enjoying another waffle.  Purchasing pale nougat studded with almonds and dried orange pieces to bring home as gifts.

I walked to a park overlooking the city and read in the cool sunshine.  I browsed a museum gift shop, as I arrived too late to see the exhibit.  And then I took the train back to the hotel, stopping in the airport to buy a phone card, hoping to speak with Michael again.

I tried phoning him from my room, and then realized I hadn’t put enough money on the card.  I stuffed it in my wallet and went to the lobby to take advantage of the free WiFi.

I noticed it was my friend J’s birthday while trolling Facebook.  I sent him good wishes, which he was on the other end to receive.  It was still afternoon in New York.

He told me he would be spending his birthday eating crab legs with his girlfriend.  I told him I was on my way home from Rwanda.  That I was grounded in Brussels.  That I was divorcing.  And that I was moving back to Chicago.

I threw up on him.  And then I went to dinner.

When I left Seattle nearly a month earlier, I didn’t know where I would settle.  Now I had a plan.

I arrived in Chicago the next afternoon.  (I was fortunate, for those who were able to re-book on the original flight remained grounded in Brussels for another day.)  I informed my friends I was now going by Liora – my Hebrew name – as that was what I was called in Rwanda, the result of having two Lesleys on the trip.

I had dinner with Michael.  And after, we stood under a street lamp, holding on to one another for what felt like forever.  I didn’t want to let go.  I told him I would see him in a month.

My friend Emily picked me up at the airport that evening.  She remembered what re-entry was like after spending time in Africa.  We had dinner.  She took me grocery shopping.  And then she dropped me off at home.

The cats greeted me at the door.  My then soon-to-be-ex-husband was noticeably absent.  I felt painfully alone as I rolled my hard orange suitcase into the house.

I saw Michael sooner than anticipated.  At my request, he flew to Seattle, helped me pack my car and drive home.  We stayed with friends of mine in Missoula and Bozeman.  I shot a gun for the first and only time somewhere between the two cities.

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Hiking in the Badlands.

We camped along the Missouri River, under a blue moon, at Teddy Roosevelt National Park.  Hiked the Badlands the next day, and stopped somewhere outside of Fargo that night, sharing a room at The Bison Inn.

We stayed with my college roommates on our final stop in Minneapolis.  They stuffed us with homemade treats.  Michael replaced the radiator in my 2000 Honda Civic.  It failed just as we were entering the city.  My job was to hand him the tools he called for.

We arrived home the day before Labor Day, around 11 p.m.  I dropped him off at home in his questionable neighborhood, sobbing on the front lawn.

July 19, 2012.  I didn’t know everything was about to change.  That, in many ways, it would be the last day of my “previous life.”   How could I?  And yet, how could I not?

I believe my brain was protecting me from that which I could not yet conceive of.

My divorce was final a little more than 10 months ago.  I live alone for the first time in my life.  I buried my birth mother in the spring.

I felt new lips over mine for the first time in many, many years.  And I watched my heart crack open.  Then again.  And again.

A couple of weeks ago, I initiated the process of separating our monies.  When that is complete, only our condominium, which we rent out, will bind us – financially.

I applied for a job today.  The first in more than 11 years.  I’m excited.  Fingers crossed.

This morning, two women commented that I sounded really good.  A third asked for my blog address.  Later, my friend Jess asked if I could have imagined how much I would have healed by now.  It struck me as funny, as I didn’t feel particularly healed.  I decided to trust her perspective, and that of the three other women.

I wrote J a birthday greeting.  I wished him what I wish for everyone I love – joy and the causes of joy.  And then I wished him something special – something  just for him:  a nice piece of liver for dinner.

He knew exactly what it meant.  And suggested a watermelon instead.  I laughed out loud.

It is comforting to know not everything has changed since July 19, 2012.  To know that some things have survived.  Friendship.  Love.   Shared memories and private jokes.  And most of all, me.