On This Day

april 9

My intuition has always been good. I feel things before they happen … usually things I’d rather not know. A sense of dread deep in my core, based on what seem like barely perceptible shifts.

The text that comes an hour later than usual. My every-Monday-at-the-same-time phone call dropping straight into voicemail. The date that doesn’t end with, “When can I see you again?”

People will tell me I’m crazy, that I am overreacting or taking things personally … but I am rarely wrong. These feelings have served me, serving as an alert of what more was to come.

However, sometimes the sensation is more subtle – less dread, more “knowing,” a body memory – like today, skimming Facebook while waiting for an early morning train to Evanston.

On This Day …

“My husband and I met in the Marina District of San Francisco nearly 15 years ago. Ten days ago, in that same place, he asked that we end our marriage. I don’t believe in mistakes. I believe in a grand design of a master quilter. I believe in love. And I believe in friendship. Please hold us both in your hearts.”

That was six years ago. My brain knew the post would reveal itself sometime soon, but my body knew the exact day.

It still hurts … the reminder of the disappointment of a failed marriage, the ending of a partnership that was better than many but not good enough for either us, the sense of rejection. The pain has changed over the years – from chronic and dull to acute and fleeting – these days it feels more like a bee sting than a broken bone.

I know I can change the settings on Facebook so I won’t see it … but the truth is, I don’t want to forget it. I’m not interested in only remembering “the good stuff.”

So I find myself on the platform scrolling through the 81 comments with tears rolling down my cheeks … and in this pain I find that there is “good stuff” right there. Prayers, hugs, love and light. The reminder that I am strong,

A poem from Rabbi Rami Shapiro – “An Unending Love” — sent from my friend, a rabbi in Cleveland. Rainer Maria Rilke’s words, “Let life happen to you. Believe me: life is in the right, always” – sent from an old boss now living in Sydney, Australia.

April 9 marks the end of what I have come to call my spring season of grieving; it begins in mid-March and ends On This Day. It includes my husband asking for a divorce, plus two crushing romantic endings and a rejection letter from Yale University’s School of Divinity in the years that followed.

But what I didn’t realize until this morning is that my “spring season of grieving” also included the purchase of a one-way ticket to Madrid, signaling the beginning of my year of living and working abroad, the fulfillment of a childhood dream.

On This Day (2015).

“Holy Crap! I leave in 109 days. Thank the Goddess for Award Travel – one way cost me $145. (And I feel like I might throw up.)”

And the next, April 10, 2015? On That Day my first, real post-divorce relationship began. I don’t even need Facebook to remind me. It ended a long time ago, but I still remember it … both in my brain and in my body.

 

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Artist Date 110: Bird of “Pray”

2016-01-31 10.54.08I am sitting in a café in the old Jewish Quarter of Prague. I have just visited the Pinkas Synagogue where the name of every Czech and Moravian Jew who perished during the Holocaust is painstakingly painted on the walls, and art created by children from the ghetto at Terezin is kept on the second level.

Spencer leans into the table separating us. “I’ve been trying not to say anything, but…I still think you should be a rabbi,” he says. I am not surprised. We have discussed this many times. Probably as many times as I have considered it over the past 10 years. But something deep within me keeps me from it, continuing to say “no,” or “not yet.”

“Or, you could do what I did and go to the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale,” he says casually, continuing on to tell me about the program, his experience of it, and how and why it would be a good fit for me.

Hearing his words, my spine aligns. I am suddenly sitting a little more upright. I’m pretty sure I hear a puzzle piece fall into place and my whole body screams “yes.”

I feel like a bird of “pray”– that I have been circling this all of my life, or at least since I was 17, nearly 30 years – but that I only just now know what this is.

I have been circling this ever since my cousin handed me a copy of the Tao Te Ching the summer after my graduation from high school.

I have been circling this ever since I enrolled in my first religious studies course – a survey of Eastern religions – and met the instructor who would help guide my studies for the next four years. Who, when I called to say I had accepted my first journalism job – as a beat reporter with a Jewish newspaper – replied, “Of course you did. You’ve been seeking everywhere else. In India. In China. In Japan. It’s time to look in your own backyard.”

And so I did. First, as a curious observer – never quite stepping into the traditions and calling them my own – a “professional Jew.” Until it was brought to my attention that I actually wasn’t one. Although raised as a Jew (I was adopted by a Jewish family), I lacked the essential component that would actually make me one – a biologically Jewish mother.

I “remedied” my status in 2012 when I stepped into the mikveh (ritual bath) waters and declared myself a Jew by conversion. More circling. And returned a year later as part of my get (Jewish divorce). More circling.

During this time I learned to meditate – a daily practice which I have maintained for 12 years – and to create a personal relationship with a God of my understanding through the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. More circling.

I had long ceased to be a professional Jew – having trading my press card for a business card – and had become a personal one.

My writing similarly shifted, from telling the stories of others as a newspaper reporter, to telling my own as a blogger, an essayist – and now as an ISM candidate.

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I am sitting at the tiny desk in my bedroom in Madrid. A red gooseneck lamp glows over the computer screen and the words above (and more) fly off of my fingertips. Effortlessly. I have been trained to write to size and I fill the 700 words allotted for my personal statement with four to spare.

But the writing sample looms. An invitation to showcase my best academic writing and critical thinking. “A portion of a senior thesis is acceptable.”

I have not been a university student in almost 25 years.

I am offered three topics to write about instead. I choose the first – to discuss an author, philosopher or artist, a piece of writing or art that has changed my way of thinking. Of looking at the world. And my career path.

I immediately know, the way I immediately know when Spencer mentions ISM for the first time in Prague.

The Artist’s Way.

The book I named my divorce companion in 2012 when only two things in my life made sense – writing and walking. The book I unearthed nine months later when I was on my knees, desperate. When my non-relationship – an out-of-town, weekend-long romance involving little more than kissing and talking and talking and kissing – had begun to affect my relationships, namely with my girlfriends, one who announced she couldn’t bear to hear his name ever again.

The book that invited me to take a weekly solo sojourn – creative play time, an Artist Date – which became the underpinning of my blogs and of my life. That allowed me to answer the question “How Has Creativity Changed Your Life?” and landed me in an anthology on the topic – the writing sample that has already been written, requiring only a bit of editing and massaging.

The book that is tucked away in my friend’s attic in Chicago. Highlighted. Dog-eared with notes in the margins. So I borrow a copy from a friend here in Madrid, filling in the blank spots of my essay with quotations and works cited.

I am acutely aware that I have been on exactly one Artist Date since arriving in Madrid six months ago.

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I am sitting on a bench in Jardines del Campo del Moro – a little patch of wild tucked inside the city, behind the gardens of the Royal Palace. A place where, if I venture in far enough, I can escape the sound of traffic on a Sunday morning. Where I can hear my heart beat.

My second Artist Date in Madrid – number 110 if you are counting. I suppose I am.

I look up at the cerulean sky with closed eyes and the sun meets my gaze, creating yellow and blue circles behind my lids.

Less than 12 hours ago, I completed my graduate school application and sent it to Yale. It is in God’s hands now. But how I choose to spend my time in Madrid is in mine. If nothing else, this process – specifically the writing, rewriting and editing of my sample work – has reminded me of that, returning me to a truth I seem to have forgotten. That I create joy in my life when I allow myself to play.

When I forgo the laundry and the lesson planning for a few hours and allow myself to walk quietly on my tiptoes – like Bugs Bunny with a rifle – just to see how close I can get to a peacock wandering the gardens.

When I allow myself to stop and take photographs of bamboo trunks just because I like the way they look.

When I allow myself to talk with the black swan swimming in a pond of mallards, giggling as she cocks her read beak at the sound of my voice as if to say “que?”, the response of seemingly every Madrileño to my initial shy attempts at speaking Spanish.

When I allow myself to commit to this process once more – the weekly Artist Date – out loud. Announcing it to God. To myself. And to the swan – bird of “pray.”

 

 

 

 

Nose-ing What Is Right For Me

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The last page of the wedding ceremony…

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine posed a question on Facebook, asking what she should do with her many years of journals in the course of a move.

I’d been wondering the same thing as I am moving to Madrid later this summer. My plan is to board the plane on July 28 with a one-way ticket, a one-year visa and two suitcases — but no journals.

“Burn them,” my friend Scotty wrote in response to the original question, the answer not intended for me. And yet, it was, as I intuitively knew he was right.

I had been an avid journal-er in my 20s — tucking into bed each night with a notebook and pen and chronicling the events of the day. Sometimes in prose. Occasionally poetry.  Lush, detailed descriptions of the sex I was having. Barely decipherable drunken scrawls, desperate and self-pitying.

I carried them with me for nearly 20 years — from Detroit to San Francisco to Oakland. To Chicago to Seattle and back to Chicago — about a dozen of them, most of them with hard covers.

I stopped journaling not long after my then boyfriend (now ex-husband) moved into my apartment — choosing to tuck in with him rather than a stack of pages and my most intimate thoughts.

I returned to the practice 15 years later, switching the time to first thing out of bed — Morning Pages, as suggested in the book, “The Artist’s Way.”

When I moved back to Chicago in 2012, following my divorce, I began reading my old words  — the ones I had carried with me for so long.  Juicy bits about the photographer who kept a studio above the restaurant where I worked. The aspiring rabbinical student. The actor.

The much, much older man from Detroit who suggested I meet him in Vail — “just as friends.” The lawyer and part-time musician. The doctor I met on a press trip in Germany.

I had forgotten.

It was fun at first, feeling like a voyeur, remembering who I had once been — until I considered contacting one of those men, at which time a friend suggested I take a break from my reading. And I did.

Meanwhile, I continued filling soft-covered notebooks with Morning Pages, stacking them one on top of the other on a shelf in my bedroom closet — until a few weeks ago, when I placed them in a box along with my marriage license and a copy of our wedding ceremony and drove them to Michigan, to the home of my friend Paul, the sometimes reluctant shaman.

That evening, at Paul’s suggestion,  I tore off the covers from my notebooks and ripped pages from their metal spirals. I threw a glossy journal into the wood-burning stove that heats the entire house and watched the resin-covered cardboard catch, shrivel and glow. I tossed in several more, until the oven was filled with ash. Then Paul played John Lennon’s “Starting Over” and we danced, laughing.

In the morning I brought the remaining notebooks, wedding ceremony and marriage license outside to a fire pit Paul had dug. He said a few words, inviting in the spirits, and I again began the process of burning my words — stopping occasionally to read a random page out loud before throwing the notebook into the flames — until the pit was overcome with ashes like the stove the night before.

Nearly two hours later, I wasn’t done. Paul suggested I leave the remaining notebooks with him, promising to burn them at his next sweat lodge. I agreed, and asked that we end the day’by burning my marriage license.

Several people had suggested I might need it one day, but I couldn’t imagine any reason to hold on to it. So I offered a few words of thanks to my ex and once again set him free — something I had done following the completion of our civil divorce, and again following our Jewish divorce.

The legal document crackled and hissed, engulfed in yellow and blue flames.

Since then, my ex and I have had precious little contact. And the relationship that had begun just prior to my trip to Michigan has blossomed.

Paul closed the ceremony by bringing me inside, where we sat in meditation. Then he sang and he drummed, smudged me with sage and handed me a rubber nose in a small plastic container — the kind from a bubble-gum machine that contains a prize, a ring or tattoos — and assured me if I continue to listen to my heart and to my spirit, I will always “nose” what is right for me.

Like knowing when to let go of my stories and how to do it. With fire, with friendship, and with God.

Thank You For Your Bad Behavior

Last Saturday I ran into R. at a party. We hadn’t seen one another in a while. And while she looked stunning at first glance, I intuitively knew something was wrong.

Her vibration was low. And she seemed less sparkly than usual.

She confessed she was in what I like to call a “come-here-go-away” relationship. She had become involved with someone who was not emotionally available.

I could only smile. Not for her pain. But because I know it so well.

For the past two months Mr. 700 Miles (Away from Chicago) and I had been doing the same thing. Until two weeks ago, when – without a word – he went away. No text. No phone call. No Facebook message. Nothing.

A part of me felt sideswiped.

We had just Skyped the night before, before bed, as had become our ritual – enjoying all that technology allowed us to enjoy about one another. We blew a kiss goodnight. He said he would call me the next day.

Intellectually, I had no reason to believe he wouldn’t.

With Jo, the night he walked away.  I told her he wouldn't call.  She told me to let it unfold.
With Jo, the night he walked away. I told her he wouldn’t call. She told me to just let it unfold.

And yet all that day and the next I felt twisty and anxious. Something inside of me knew otherwise.

I was right.

What I didn’t realize was we wouldn’t speak again.

I don’t exactly understand what happened. And yet, I do. Clearly, he couldn’t do it. And for whatever reason, he couldn’t tell me he couldn’t do it.

At first I felt sad. Confused. Then I got angry — chucking magazines across the apartment, their glossy pages smacking and fanning out on the hardwood floors, and shouting into the universe, “You F**king Pussy,” choking on my sobs.

I beat the bed with a red spatula – the one my friend Kristen brought me the day I moved into my apartment – whacking it until I was exhausted.

I wrote a letter in red marker – one I will never send. It wasn’t kind or generous or understanding. It didn’t speak of my gratitude for him in my life, or that my heart would always be open to his friendship – even though this too was true.

I didn’t write it to garner a response, or to guarantee he would remember me a certain way.   I wrote it so I didn’t have to hold the pain myself. So I didn’t have to pretend it didn’t hurt when it did.

It felt good. And hard. And when I was done, I wiped the Alice Cooper mascara rings from under my eyes and went to sit in a church basement with the people who taught me I didn’t ever have to drink again – not even during times like this.

I miss him. Our friendship. Our deep connection – emotional, spiritual, creative, sexual.

But I do not miss what I saw in my friend Saturday night. The twisting. The anxious. The uncertainty.

The holding on to what was, what could be, rather than what is. The hearing only what I want to hear – what fits my story.

The trying to wedge myself into a sexy stiletto of a relationship – the one that gives me blisters.

Dressed up for the party...no date necessary.
Dressed up for the party…no date necessary.

And as R. told her story, I felt gratitude. Gratitude for his “bad behavior.” In walking away without a word, he made the choice for me. A choice I had made a month prior, in a moment of strength and clarity, when I told him I couldn’t do this. That I needed more. A choice I ultimately could not stick to it.

It all reminds me of when my girlfriend A. divorced me a couple of years back. When she told me I was “too much.”

“I am sorry you feel that way,” I said, rather than, “You are right. Please show me how to be strong like you” – which was, at the time, more my style.

At that moment our karmic contract was broken. We were done.

It has been more than four years since we had that conversation at her home in Long Beach. Over the years I have reached out just a handful of times. She never responded. And then I stopped trying.

I thought being told I was “too much,” was the worst thing that could happen. It wasn’t. And in the process, I learned that I wasn’t either.

I thought “being left without a word – abandoned,” was the worst thing that could happen. It wasn’t. And I learned that I wasn’t either. That that is an old adoptee fear. Old language. He simply chose a different path. And he chose not to tell me about it. It was never about me.

Perhaps that was our karmic contract. Or at least part of it.

R. left the party early. Perhaps to see her Mr. Come-Here-Go-Away. Perhaps to twist and perseverate.  I’m not certain.

But I stayed. I ate cake and talked with friends about the book proposal I am working on, the contract work I recently secured, and about dancing a master class with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.   Anything but him. But us.

And on the way home, I thanked Mr. 700 Miles – for many, many things – among them, his “bad behavior.”

Artist Date 68: Power Cords

I have given my power away.

Valley, by Nilima Sheikh
Valley, by Nilima Sheikh

I feel vulnerable.  Ashamed.  I am “that woman,” wringing her hands about “that man.”

Disgusting.

I gave my power away when I said, “I can’t do this.”  Telling him I needed more.  And that he didn’t seem capable of giving it to me.  And did it anyway, becoming more and more deeply entwined in our long-distance intimacy.

I did it when I told him I could not Skype with him.  That it was too hard to look into his green eyes.  To see him look back at me in a way I can’t ever recall being seen.  And did it anyway.

I did it when I promised myself I wouldn’t reach out to him for 30 days.  Not as a game or a test.  But to find out how he shows up.  And reached out anyway.

I did it every time he mentioned bad timing, money or miles between us, and chose not to listen.  Only paying attention to the part where he changed his mind, usually about 10 minutes later, saying he did want to “find out about us.”

I made the rules and I couldn’t keep them.  Just like when I used to drink.  And it left me feeling the exact same way – anxious, obsess-y, over-thinking.  Knowing in my heart that something isn’t right, and trying to make it work anyway.  Somehow believing “this time will be different.”  Powerless.

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

I am standing in my bedroom in front of a batik wall hanging of Ganesh — Hindu boy with an elephant head, Remover of Obstacles – like I do every morning.

I kick my meditation cushion to the side, put my hands in prayer, in front of my third eye, and inhale deeply.

“Lord Ganesh, give me back my power.”

I feel a surge through my body, a response, and am flooded with words of direction.

Ganesh batik in my bedroom.
Ganesh batik in my bedroom.

Carry Ganesh with you.  Visit India.  See Nilima Sheikh’s “Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams” at the Art Institute.  Artist Date 68.

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

It is the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day.  The train headed downtown is filled with drunk twenty-somethings in oversized green, foam hats, green socks and beads.  I put on my sunglasses and turn up Nina Simone and try to forget that he did not show up last night.

That he has not responded to my text.

That I am the one with the problem.

I get off several stops earlier than necessary and walk.  It is cool and sunny and I feel happy in my grey wool coat, knit hat and red ankle boots.  I make note of the galleries on Superior Street.  Future Artist Dates.  I feel my power growing.

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

I step inside the Special Exhibit Gallery.  It is quiet.  Still behind glass doors.  I stand in front of a painted scroll titled “Valley.”  The canvas is green.  Lush and gentle.  A verdant map.  I begin to cry.

“That really affected you, huh?”

It is the museum guard –a woman named Denise.  She wears long braids gathered together.  I nod.  She says a few more things but I cannot take them in.  I am lost.  I politely tell her I need to be alone in my quiet.  She nods.  I feel my power growing.

I approach the canvas, “Farewell.”  Red, with two entwined figures – one holding open his robe, displaying a map of Kashmir where his heart should be.

Farewell, by Nilima Sheikh
Farewell, by Nilima Sheikh

“If only somehow you could have been mine.  What would not have been possible in the world?”  The words stenciled in gold at the top of the canvas.  “We’re inside the fire, looking for the dark,” on the back.

I feel like I have been punched in the gut.

The tears return.  I am breathless.

I return to “Valley.”  “…And though the guards searched for him with the sun in one hand and the moon in the other the demon baffled them.”  Stenciled on the back.

He sought me.  I am baffled, wondering where he is now.  But knowing I must continue to seek myself.  I feel my power growing.

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

I share a bench and a cup of tea with a couple in the member’s lounge.  We talk about shoes.  About art.  About recovery and vibrators and relationships.  They tell me I need a man who is here.  I know they are right.  I feel my power growing.

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

In some ways I feel like I have been waiting all of my life for this man.  And I am “Dying Dreaming.” (The words, like all those in quotes, names of Sheikh’s canvases.)

But I also know that his life is still a “Construction Site,” while I am “Gathering Threads” — stringing together the people, places and pleasures that bring me joy, that make me whole.  Power cords.