My commitment to the Artist Date began as a response to pain. To a man I affectionately referred to as the Southern Svengali and the short, sweet romance after my divorce that I couldn’t let go of. I sometimes forget that.
I forget because the weekly, solo play date as prescribed in the book The Artist’s Way, healed me from obsession I only hesitantly admitted.
I forget because two years of creative commitment, coupled with other work, allowed me to release him. Us. And my ideas about the way we should be in one another’s lives. (Which looks dramatically different than I had imagined. And while our contact can now best be described as sporadic, the connection remains strong … sweet and satisfying to both of us.)
I forget because it gently nudged me into becoming the kind of woman I dreamed of being. A woman engaged in life in interesting ways. Who does interesting things. Who has interesting conversations about more than relationships.
But today, I remember.
I remember as I find a hole in my schedule and watch my mind like a rubber band – snapping back to thoughts of the man I dated before I left for Madrid.
While I know there is no slipping back into one’s life as it once was, I had hoped we might explore dating again when I returned. But it hasn’t turned out that way. And in these quiet, alone moments, I find myself once again struggling with letting go. Of him. Us. And my ideas about the way we should be in one another’s lives.
And so it is grace when I hear the whisper that perhaps now is a good time to re-commit to my creative self again. That an infusion of new stimuli might once again quiet my mind and lead me back to the woman who has interesting conversations about more than relationships.
(While a year in Madrid seemed to have the makings of one grand, extended Artist Date, my days were filled with the stuff of life. All occurring in a language not my own. And Artist Dates became, unfortunately, sporadic.)
I peruse the movie guide — more concerned with time, location and the act of going than what will be projected on the screen – and choose a film.
I cut short a phone call. Say no to a text from a friend asking if I would like company. Both occurring after I’ve made the decision to go. The universe seeming to ask, “Are you sure?’
And I am.
I hop on my vintage 3-speed cruiser and pedal to the Music Box Theatre. Artist Date 1.2. (Officially, number 117 … renamed for congruence with my rededication to the practice and my return to Chicago.)
Grinning ear to ear, I purchase my ticket. Giddy to be with me.
This has always been the magic of the Artist’s Date. A turning inward. A return to myself.
Ironic, as the movie I have chosen – Life, Animated – is a documentary about Owen Suskind, a young man with autism and the tools he and his family use to pull him out from his personal world.
How Walt Disney movies become the lens and the lexicon for connection. The language for articulating what we all want. Friends. Romantic love. Work. A sense of purpose. And what we all feel from time to time, what Owen calls “the glop.” The inevitable pain when the things we want elude us.
We join him in watching scenes from Bambi on his first night alone in his independent living apartment – after his mother and father have left. And later, TheHunchback of Notre Dame when his girlfriend of three years ends their relationship.
Heartbreaking moments punctuated with joy and hope, most evident when Owen connects with his own passion and a sense of purpose. His “Disney Club” – where he and other adults with developmental disabilities view and discuss their favorite films. And experience an unscripted visit from Gilbert Godfrey, the voice of Iago from the movie Aladdin.
I sob witnessing their squeals of laughter, excitement and disbelief … as I am reminded that the universe is full of surprises. That it is always willing to conspire with us. And that our greatest joys often come packaged in a way dramatically different than we might imagine them.
That gorgeous moments of serendipity occur when we turn first turn inward – connecting with our tenderest truths – and then out – vulnerably sharing them. We allow the world to join our party. And sometimes even Gilbert Godfrey shows up.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There are these two women who deliver lunch every day at ThyssenKrupp.
One is tall and thin. Twenty-something. Calm and smiling. The other is about my age. She wears a bob and a frantic look on her face – as if, like the Mad Hatter, she’s always running late.
Each has six or so white paper bags dangling from each arm. Some containing fish. Others chicken. Some of the students will eat their lunch before class. Others after. Never during. No matter how many times I assure them it is ok. And always, always in the cafeteria. Never at their desks.
As a rule, Spanish people set aside time for their meals – even if it is only a half hour. My students laugh watching me pull an apple from my bag at the end of class. I will eat it walking to the metro – a dead giveaway that I am an American.
This is because, as a rule, Spanish people do not rush. Every ex-pat I know voices the same frustration with Spanish people walking – often five across, blocking the entire sidewalk – slowly. It seems to be the one cultural difference they never learn to accept.
Perhaps this is why I notice this woman. The one with the pageboy and the panicked look. Because her speed, as she delivers “the lunch,” seems more like that of a New Yorker than a Spaniard.
I do not know her name. Either of their names. Or if either of them speaks English. We greet one another each day with a smile and “hola,” “buenas dias” or “hasta luego.” I’m not quite sure when this started, but it has become our ritual. “Ours” as it is mine and hers, and “ours” as it is specific to us – I do not see her engaging with other teachers, or perhaps I do not see them engaging with her.
Sometimes they are pulling into or out of the parking lot in a grey, beater hatchback, in which case, we just wave.
Today was my last day at ThyssenKrupp. I have been teaching here since last September. The company, like most companies offering English lessons, breaks for July and August, and part of June and September, to accommodate the summer schedule – a truncated day with most employees leaving at 3 and working not at all on Fridays.
Today my class insists we go to a nearby bar. That I eat tapas with them – calamares (fried squid), jamon (ham) and huevos rotos (“broken eggs” over fried potatoes with ham) – and “take a drink.”
This is the group that sang Happy Birthday to me on October 20 and bought me a gift. The group that wanted to know the details of my every trip. The group I watched “16 Candles” with, without subtitles, at the end of last semester.
Yesterday I said goodbye to my other class. The group that talked about relationships, divorce and finding love again. About weight struggles, religion and the most appropriate names for primary and secondary sex characteristics.
I’ve taught them why “normal” and “not normal” are loaded words. That we say “silverware,” not “tools.” “Outside” and not “in the street.” (I explain the difference by recalling the time my brother laid down in the street because another kid dared him to, and my mother yelling at him to “get out of the street.”) We’ve watched clips of the Macy’s Day Parade together and talked about Donald Trump … a lot.
They’ve taught me about Spanish politics, explaining how it is that the country still doesn’t have a president, and the tradition of eating 12 grapes at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
We part ways, yesterday and today, with the traditional kiss on each cheek. R. and I say goodbye twice, exchanging “American-style” hugs. E. invites me to her house for lunch, to meet her family, before I leave. I am deeply moved.
I tell them that some days, being with them was my only social interaction. That some days, being with them was the best part of my day. We agree they will let me know if they are in the United States, and I will let them know when I return to visit Madrid.
I drop off the attendance book and dry-erase marker in the Human Resources office for the last time, and return my badge on the way out. I take a photograph of the gate which has always eerily reminded me of the gates of Nazi concentration camps. Sometimes, I half expect to see the words, “Arbeit macht frei.” I once admitted this to my students and was shocked to learn they had the same response.
Walking to the train I hear a horn beeping. It sounds like it belongs to a go-cart. I turn to see the grey hatchback and the ladies who deliver lunch.
“Adios,” they call out, smiling and waving. Not hasta luego – see you later. Adios – goodbye.
Last week my boss forwarded a text from the company where I’ve been teaching. They need to cut costs and will not be continuing with English classes. So I have to cut costs. Or find more work.
I mention this to S over lunch.
He doesn’t inquire about teaching. Instead, he asks why I am not submitting my work to writing contests with cash prizes…like he has done. Or artist residencies where I can be housed and fed (and occasionally paid a small stipend) while I write.
I don’t have an answer.
He continues, casually mentioning that he will be living in Italy for five weeks this fall. In a castle. Writing.
“How’d you swing that?” I ask.
“Artist residency.” he says, right on cue. “I applied. You can too, you know.”
Yes, this is the same S who, a little more than two months ago, casually mentioned I might consider applying to the Institute of Sacred Music at the Yale Divinity School. (Which I did. And from which I am now eagerly awaiting an answer.)
Clearly he is a messenger, sent directly to me.
That night I poke around the Writers and Poets website, researching writing contests with cash prizes. I am too fixated on financial concerns (and already dreaming of New Haven) to give much thought to artist residencies.
Not until the next day. Artist Date 114.
My student A has invited me to Casa de Velazquez for “Puertas Abiertas” – literally “open doors” or , more accurately, “open studios.”
A has warned me that it is a bit difficult to find. And that Google Maps isn’t particularly helpful.
She is right.
My mood is low and the weather matches it. Windy. Grey. Cold.
But I’m determined.
I walk up and down the same street again and again, looking for Avenida Arco de la Victoria, only to learn I am already on it when I finally ask for directions.
I am reminded of a huge billboard on I-75 North, on the drive from Detroit to Saginaw, Michigan to see my nana. A picture of Jesus with a caption that reads, “Are you on the right road?”
I am now.
And eventually I make my way to the large, stone structure that is less than a 15-minute walk from the metro – although it has taken me close to 45.
I send A a message, letting her know I’ve arrived. She meets me outside of the library and takes me on a short tour – at which time I learn it is not her work I’ve come to see , but that of more than a dozen artists in residency.
The timing is not lost on me.
I tell A about my conversation with S. She smiles. “Yes, you could apply for an Artist Residency,” she says, gently adding “Just not here. Because you don’t speak French.”
Indeed, I hardly speak Spanish. And some days, I’m not sure I speak English anymore either.
We walk down the hill, past the empty swimming pool and a sculpture of a pig face, to the cottages where the artists live and work. A introduces me a photographer who speaks English, and who wears the same haircut as me.
We do that, “I like your hair.” “I like YOUR hair,” elbow-nudging thing. I ask where she is from.
Everywhere. Nowhere. Last stop – Paris.
I understand. When asked the same question I pause, stymied. I’m from Detroit. But I lived in San Francisco for 14 years. Chicago for seven. A year in Seattle…I never know quite how to answer.
We talk about this. About creating a life with the whole of one’s belongings fitting neatly into one or two bags. She feels liberated by it. I feel a bit untethered.
For her, this residency is as much her residence as any other.
I leave, thinking about the word residence. Later, I look it up in the dictionary. Merriam-Webster offers several definitions, among them:
1b: the act or fact of living or regularly staying at or in some place for … the enjoyment of a benefit.
2a: the place where one actually lives as distinguished from one’s domicile or a place of temporary sojourn.
4b: a period of active and especially full-time study, research, or teaching at a college or university.
And then I understand the difference in our perspectives.
What I have is a room in a flat in the center of Madrid. What I crave is a residence. A residency.
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.
Churros and chocolate with dear friends from the United States, Melinda and Craig. In these moments the world feels both vast and intimate.
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.
When Seattle descends upon Madrid…Salpicon, Burrata and Churros, oh my! Were your ears burning Pamela and Molly?
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!
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…
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.
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.
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…
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.
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 …
Up late with Marissa and The Cabbage Ministry (at The Tempo Club).
Learning Spanish through food and song, at a former slaughterhouse. We didn’t plan it. It just turned out that way…
It’s hard to believe I left the United States just two months ago today. Feels like I have been here so much longer…
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.”
This should hardly be a surprise as I call myself a writer. Used to make a living as one. As the words “Left” and “Write” are tattooed on my wrists.
And yet, since leaving the United States on July 28 with a one-way ticket to Spain, I’ve written little.
Little about what it is to live in a country where I hardly speak the language. Little about the heartbreak of leaving a deep and unexpected love. Little about the humbling that accompanies beginning yet another career at the age of 45. And little about what it is to turn 46 in this place I now call home.
I’ve written little about my private victories. About being asked for directions and being able to give them – albeit in English. About when Spanish words tumble out of my mouth without my thinking – simple phrases like, “Para llevar for ella, para aqui para mi” – and having them understood. About getting paid in euros. Jumping through hoops of securing a Spanish ID card. And fulfilling a dream I’ve had for as long as I can remember – to live overseas. A dream so faint, so distant, so seemingly unattainable that I forget it was my dream and that I am actually doing it.
I’ve written little about my work teaching English, about my friendships with fellow wanderers and about my travels since arriving. Except on Facebook, where I have posted short, pithy, true-in-the-moment whispers of my life in Madrid, and many, many photographs.
What follows is a chronicle of my first 30-plus days here in Madrid – as they appeared on Facebook.
I have a Spanish phone number. (Message me and I will give it to you.) Most challenging interaction I’ve had so far, but I got it done. People are amazingly kind and helpful — like Jose, another customer at the post office who offered to help translate. (I will be going back tomorrow to get a box to receive “real mail” now that I can provide a local number.) He said my Spanish is good. I do not agree, but I think I am maneuvering well having been here less than 36 hours. Off shortly to an intercambio at J+J Books to meet Facebook friend Robert. Thanks for the connection, Jessica.
Third time IS the charm. Third day at the post office. Finally had everything in order to get a box. Here are the keys!
I wanted to take a photograph of the women who greeted me there these three days in a row, who were so patient and who were able to finally hook me up. They couldn’t imagine why. “Ayuda me.” (I meant to say “You helped me”…I was close, and they understood.) “It is my job,” replied one, in English. “It is my job.” Amazing.
First day of school.
How much do I love my girls in Chicago? How much do they love me? Thanks for lifting me up. XOXO
(Meme from aforementioned great love – posted to my page)
We can skip the wine.”
It begins to feel like home when I run into people I know on the street. I remember when it happened in San Francisco and Chicago. Now Madrid.
Falling head over heels over head for this city.
Magical skies. The energy of its people spilling into the streets after dark. A surprise misting by the evening sprinklers in Retiro Park.
Lunches with new friends — yesterday at Botin, the world’s oldest restaurant, today on Plaza de la Independencia — running into others on the streets.
Hard to believe I arrived less than two weeks ago. I feel so present, so here…
Sunday morning in Retiro Park. Why yes, I should be doing homework. But first — sun, stillness and a shot at serenity. Refueling following a Saturday of letting go…and filling up for the week ahead.
Trust. Just got my hair cut by someone named Pepe. He does not speak English. I hardly speak Spanish. I think we did okay.
Woo hoo!! Student of the week. Not bad for the oldest student in the class…
Tomorrow is the BIG grammar and phonics exam, as well as my final observed teaching. All good juju welcomed.
The past four weeks have been humbling, exhilarating and, at times, overwhelming. In the home stretch…looking forward to what comes next.
DONE! When they handed out the certificates, they dubbed me Lesley~I will conquer Spain~Pearl. Your collective mouth to God’s ear.
I am walking to pick up the keys to my new apartment. At the corner of my street and Calle Mayor I see this banner. I look at the door and know it like I know my name. Every hair on my body stands up and I begin to weep.
My first night in Madrid, 16 years ago with my then husband …our waiter speaks perfect English. I ask him about it and he tells me he learned it on a kibbutz in Israel. I mention I’m Jewish and that my grandmother did not like visiting Spain because there weren’t any Jews here. After dinner, he sends me across the street … to where I am standing now, to this place with the beautiful doors.
How is it I am living here 16 years later…literally here? With the Jews? With the vintage camera shop? The bookstore? And the bakery? With a landlord and roommate named Maite, a former UN translator just five years my mother’s senior … in an apartment with an unheard of eat-in kitchen, a balcony overlooking a plaza, a piano, and lots and lots of original art. A home I didn’t even have to look for it…it literally came to me. (Thanks Kylie.)
I’m not quite sure what to think … Moving is hard. And it is magic. And I am definitely, definitely supposed to be here.
(In response to Facebook memory “On This Day…”)
On this day in 2012, moving back to Chicago. With John and Karin on the exact same day one year prior.moving from Chicago to Seattle. Today I picked up the keys to my new digs here in Madrid. Something about August 29 and big movement in my life. Only thing missing is John and Karin…
Home. Fully unpacked for the first time in more than a month. (Including Ganesh. Thank you, Clover. And a hand-spun wool bowl made by Deb.) Also for the first time, I moved in a cab. Two suitcases. Two backpacks. A couple of shopping bags. Many thanks to Nikki who packed me the first time. (This time was easier but not nearly as much fun.) And to Jennifer who helped get me from Salamanca to Opera. As I write this, I am reminded that I don’t do any of this alone.
Halloween 1979. I am 10-years-old. And too sick to go trick-or-treating.
In my diary, the one I have received earlier in month for my birthday – covered in blue flowers, with a lock, and the smell of old-lady perfume – I write, “I still have the ammonia.”
My mother cannot bear to tell me it is pneumonia, not ammonia that has me walking to the bathroom on tiptoes, holding my head, because full steps hurt too much.
This is not the first time. For three years in a row I have been diagnosed with either pneumonia, bronchitis or both. Always at this time of year – the season of ghosts and goblins, copious amounts of candy, the addition of one hour, and my birthday.
And then one day…nothing.
Seems I have outgrown my respiratory weariness.
I am walking up the stairs of the metro station at Puerta Del Toledo. My head is spinning. My eyes are dry. My throat, itchy and sore. I felt this coming on at lunch yesterday but had hoped to ward it off by jumping into bed early that night. I have already been sick twice this season.
But this time is different. I feel it in my lungs.
They are heavy. It is as if I can feel each alveola filling with air. I walk to my student’s home, trying to will the illness away. By 1 p.m. I am canceling my Spanish lesson and sending texts in hopes of finding others to take on my evening responsibilities.
I receive a deluge of responses, all with the same message – “Go to the doctor.”
A friend of mine, a native Madrileno, offers to make an appointment for me.
“Tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. Text me when you arrive.”
“Does the doctor speak English?” I ask.
“I don’t know.”
A little more than 12 hours later, I text her.
“Call me if you need help,” she writes.
Somehow I have gotten it in my head that she is meeting me here, but clearly I am confused. She is at work and I am fuzzy and unclear about pretty much everything.
“Okay,” I write back.
I check in, more or less without incident. And at 9:30, the doctor herself calls me into the exam room.
“Habla Ingles?” I ask, crossing both fingers and toes.
I burst into tears.
“Lo siento. Lo siento. (I’m sorry. I’m sorry.),” I squeak.
I am sick. I am overwhelmed. I am scared.
I am 10-years-old, holding my head and walking on my toes, missing Halloween.
And yet clearly I am not. I am 47 and in Madrid, typing back and forth with the doctor using Google Translate – telling her about my symptoms and my medical history.
She takes my temperature. She listens to my lungs. She checks my oxygen levels.
No fever. My lungs are clear. But she wants to run a blood test to find out why I keep getting sick.
I do not understand what she is saying, even with the translator. Probably because this idea is foreign to me.
I remember being in the emergency room in Chicago. Once a heart attack was ruled out, they sent me home.
“So what is it?”
Shrug. “Not a heart attack.”
The doctor calls my friend the Madrileno, who translates.
I get a prescription for ibuprofen and lozenges, as well as for blood work. The doctor schedules an appointment for a follow-up visit – with her English-speaking colleague.
I look at my watch. I have been in her office for an hour. A line of patients sit waiting in red chairs in the hallway.
I go downstairs and have my blood taken, then walk to the train – gingerly, nearly on my toes. On the way, I call one of my girlfriends to tell her “it is not the ammonia.”
“Good,” she says. She tells me that I have done a brave and scary thing — navigating the healthcare system of a foreign country in a language that I don’t quite know.
“Guess you can handle more than you think,” she says.
I’ve begun this blog what feels like a hundred times. But each time, somewhere along the way, I’ve gotten stuck.
Stuck between here and there. Stuck between Chicago and Madrid. Stuck between continuing to tell my story and just living it — holding something and someone so tender, so intimate, so close to myself. Private.
And yet, it is all part of the story of how I arrived here.
January 2015. I make the decision to move to Madrid. To become certified in Teaching English as a Foreign Language and to stay on for a year with a student visa.
“I will never meet anyone now,” I lament to my therapist, and my friend K, referring to my decision. “It would be nice to spend some time with someone though…but not until I buy my ticket, because I am the kind of girl that will stay for love.”
Turns out, I’m not…because I did meet someone, in March, at a memorial for a friend’s mother. But he didn’t reach out to me until a month later –the day after I bought my plane ticket to Madrid.
The synchronicity isn’t lost on either of us.
And so, while our three months together prove to be a great love affair for both of us, it is never in question that I will get on the plane on July 28. It is already written.
We stand at the airport — kissing, crying, holding on to one another, saying goodbye. Watching and waving until I am barely visible in the TSA line. He gives me a final wave, puts his hands into namaste, blows a kiss and leaves — tears streaming down my face. Tears streaming down my face as I write this now.
I settle into my seat on the plane and receive a series of texts and photos from him, sent from the parking lot. Among them, “That was hard to do.” “So hard.” “You will always have a place in my heart.” And, “I hope your trip is a good one and that Madrid is standing there at the other end with open arms.”
Turns out, it is.
It is R. — a friend of a friend who takes me to the ex-pat bookstore, gives me a tour of his neighborhood and meets me the following day when I have a communication breakdown (and emotional meltdown) with Orange Mobil.
It is M. — another friend of a friend who meets me for a walk and pinchos (snacks) on the plaza in her neighborhood.
It is N., M. and E — women from my online writing group who live here, two Americans and a Brit, who offer to meet with me, as well as J. — the best friend of one of my Weight Watchers members who calls me several times and invites me to meet for lunch next Sunday.
It is the countless others who touch my life, if only for a moment, helping me to feel at home. My host, M., and flatmate, S., who builds the fan I purchase at Corte Ingles.
J., another customer at the Correos — Spanish Post Office — who helps translate for me. And the four women workers there who see me three days in a row, and who help me finally secure a box for letters — handwritten notes with lovely stamps as was suggested by the man who said “Hasta luego” at the airport — because, yes, we are just that romantic.
“Hasta luego” — see you later, but not “adios,” — goodbye. Mere nuance, the difference recently explained to me. A subtlety that allowed me to leave in spite of love and to remain available to open arms waiting— in Chicago, in Madrid — everywhere.
Artist Date “Dirty Little Secret” — I almost never want to go. The same way I never want to get on a plane to somewhere I’ve never been before.
I do when I book the flight or when I make the reservation for a performance or workshop. But when the actual time comes, I feel anxious and sick inside.
Like the first time I went to Europe. The German Consulate in San Francisco sent me. Lufthansa Business Class. Four and five-star hotels in Bonn, Berlin and Dresden. (Or as luxury as was available in Dresden in 1995.) Access to end of World War II commemoration events where I spied Helmut Kohl, Al Gore and Francois Mitterand.
But I am at the airport in San Francisco, talking with my friend Peg from a payphone — in tears.
Ten years later I am on my way to France, by myself. This time it is my husband and a cell phone.
And to Italy this past fall. From Chicago O’Hare. I call my girlfriends in quick succession. Ann, Julie, Lynn, Chase. No tears this time. Just an overwhelming sense of dread.
Each time, I am anxious with uncertainty. Anxious, that I don’t speak the language — German, French, Italian — that I won’t understand. That I will feel foolish. That I will fail.
My fears are not baseless. Each time I depart the plane, I don’t speak the language — not fluently. Just a little French. A little Italian, leaning heavily on my high-school Spanish. And German, none at all.
I often don’t understand. And I sometimes feel foolish. But I never fail. Mostly because it is impossible to fail at traveling. Unless one fails to get on the plane.
It is the same walking into the Museum of Contemporary Art for a flamenco workshop — Artist Date 103.
I am anxious as I don’t know the genre. I do not know what to shoes to wear (if any), what clothing. Afraid that I will feel foolish. That I will fail.
I think back to the master class I joined with a principal dancer from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The workshop was described as intermediate. I had been dancing for six years — once a week at the Old Town School of Music. But the others had been dancing all of their lives. It was my Flashdance moment — sans rolling on desks in front of an admissions board — I was out of my league.
I did feel foolish. At best, I got one-third of it. But I didn’t fail…because I got on the plane, as it were.
And I lived a fantasy I never imagined I really would or could — to dance with Alvin Ailey company members.
I remember this and call the MCA to inquire about attire. I do not receive a phone call back. I pack a pair of hard shoes with wooden heels, a sports bra, yoga pants and too-big jeans and go.
When I arrive the program manager takes me into the theater, through the side doors and into Dressing Room B. “You can change in here,” she says.
I ask her what she thinks would be best — yoga pants or jeans. Either will work, she replies.
It doesn’t matter. I don’t care anymore.
I could leave now and be “good.”
I am in the dressing room at the MCA. The same dressing room Mikhail Baryshnikov *might* have used when he performed here last year. (There *is* a Dressing Room A. And there may be more — C, D.)
I am giddy.
I feel like an imposter. I take a photograph of myself, change into my yoga pants and go out to the stage. (The same stage where Baryshnikov performed. The same stage where Sonia Sanchez will perform tonight.)
I could have worn jeans as it is not a workout, per se.
We do unwinding exercises and learn the foot pattern that matches the Flamenco rhythm. (One. Two. Three-two, three, four. Four-two, three, four. Five.) We create improvisational pieces with partners that we perform.
Some of the women have been dancing flamenco for years. They wear Gypsy-style skirts and black, heeled dance shoes. Others have never danced a day in their lives. They are dressed for a winter’s day in Chicago.
And Sonia, she doesn’t speak English so much. And I really don’t speak Spanish. But I understand… enough.
Enough to be reminded that I really can’t fail if I show up. And that when I do, I get access to places I could never go on my own — into dressing rooms, onto stages, into my fear.
I thought I would be used to this by now. Going it alone.
More than 100 Artist Dates, more than 100 solitary sojourns in an effort to fill my creative coffers, as suggested by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way.
Lectures, live lit events, ballets, book readings. Fabric stores. Operas. Walking tours. A handful taking place in other countries. And yet my stomach does flip-flops driving to an art opening a few miles from my apartment.
If I’ve learned anything in this grand experiment it is to put one foot in front of the other, regardless of how I feel — this time, up concrete stairs to the third floor of a warehouse in Garfield Park, to my friend’s exhibit, Artist Date 102.
Allison is an inspiration.
Once upon a time she wrote marketing materials for the financial services sector. Until the day when she turned right where she would have gone left and applied to art school. Several years, several moves and an MFA later, she is a working artist and an adjunct professor in the Art Department at Northwestern University.
I hear voices and laughter before I make it to the top of the stairs. I poke my head into the first gallery. I circle the room. Large painted swaths of fabric on the wall. Furniture taken apart, mismatched and reassembled — table legs sticking straight up out of a chair, pointing at the ceiling. Deconstructed still life. Or, as Alison and her partner Leslie call it “Drunken Geometry.” But no Allison.
I poke my head into the second gallery and see my friend. She walks me through the exhibit, explaining its meaning, its genesis. Her process, her partnership. I am all in my head…thinking about my friend Rainey, the first artist I knew who created installations, introducing concepts rather than canvases.
Thinking about my own desire to go to art school.
For fashion. For photography. For the sake of being and calling myself an artist. I recall pictures I drew of myself in elementary school — wearing a beret and holding a palette — and a Saturday morning sketching class I briefly attended.
I did not go to art school.
Instead, I spent one year as a fine arts major at a Big Ten university before transferring to the journalism program at my parents’ prompting.
I tell myself I was more committed to the idea of being “an artist” than to making art. This may or may not be true. But being a visual artist was never “easy” for me.
I was fast-moving, my work somewhat sloppy. Stitches ran crooked on the waistband of a skirt. Film stuck onto itself, improperly loaded on the development reel. The inside of a ceramic slab box left rough, unfinished — the internal belying the external.
Writing came easy to me.
I placed out of freshman college English, enrolling in a senior writing seminar instead. Somewhat grudgingly wrote for the daily college newspaper. And then later, for weeklies in Detroit and San Francisco.
I did not think writing was art. Writing was…writing.
It didn’t feel sexy or tragic or dark. I didn’t wrestle with it, so I didn’t want it. But it followed me anyway…loyal puppy of a boyfriend.
I resented it. Ignored it. Didn’t take care of it. Until I needed it.
In Africa, in the middle of my divorce. When I couldn’t not write. The way junkies can’t not shoot-up. When writing felt like breathing. Like the only thing that gave me relief — the antithesis of how I feel now in this moment. Anxious.Uncomfortable. Squirrel-y.
No one is drunk. No one is ridiculously hip. On the contrary. There is a bowl of Chex Mix on the table near the drinks, and a handful of children stopping short of running around.
I see faces I know — including my own. Myself as struggling, wannabe visual artist. Perhaps this is what makes me uncomfortable. Seeing my former in-love-with-the-idea-of-being-an-artist self.
I would have turned myself inside out for if my parents would have let me. Just as I have done with the idea of so many lovers and would-be lovers in my past. The title — artist, girlfriend — who I think I want to be, driving me in reverse down a one-way street..
Talking for two in romantic pursuits, attempting to create a connection or intimacy that isn’t organically there. Chasing what’s hard — dark, sexy, tragic — rather than embracing what is light, easy, what would one day feel like breathing.
I pick up a large piece of heavy paper with words printed in pink and blue — a conversation between the artists about their process in creating.
“In all honesty for me, and I think for you, this work is agenda-less. It’s about formal play and making connections.” Allison writes.
Leslie adds, “The beginning and the end. A looping. A circle that wobbles a bit, like a drunk. Our logic and our vocabulary are of this wandering yet insistent geometry.”
Yes, for me too. Except I’m no longer drunk. Just insistent and Wandering (Jewess).