I was visiting my mother in Tennessee recently when a friend of hers asked about my blog … reminding me she follows it, but that she isn’t on Facebook.
Which meant she missed most of my photos and musings about life in Madrid during my year abroad.
Which meant she didn’t know I would be returning to Spain this fall for a Writers Retreat … with the aspiration of manifesting my blog into a book — “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain.” About the Go Fund Me campaign I launched to help offset costs. Or the generous support I have received … and how it has connected me with my past, as well as my present, and people I know just a little.
With each contribution I’ve offered up thanks on Go Fund Me, Facebook and Twitter. Over time, these messages of gratitude have grown into stories, becoming blogs in their own right.
So this (and the series of updates which will follow ) is for my mother’s friend … and for every reader who wondered where I was wandering during that year abroad. Or wonders where I am now. Thank you for reading, and for wondering …
Since launching my blog “A Wandering Jewess: My Journey Back to Self” in 2011, I’ve often been asked “When is your book coming out?” My answer has been a vague, “One of these days.” Truth is, I didn’t know. For personal reasons, I didn’t want to self publish. And I didn’t know how to move my writing from blog to book deal. Until now.
About two months ago, I ended my morning meditation with the words, “Show my work, show me my money, show me my love.” I then opened my computer to find an e-mail from my ex-boyfriend, sent exactly eight minutes earlier, just one word — “Interesting?” and a link to the Rocaberti Castle Writers Retreat in Barcelona .
“This retreat is for you if … You’re working on a book/screenplay combination or have an idea for one. You have a book and want to turn it into a screenplay or vice-versa —or sell it directly to Hollywood. You’re unsure how to get your book/screenplay in front of agents and producers. You’re serious about completing your project and making your dream come true!”
Yes. Yes. Yes. And yes.
I am a big believer in fate. In signs. In messages from the universe.
So this October I’ll be returning to Spain for the Rocaberti Castle Writers Retreat.Joining a small group of other writers, I’ll meet with expert mentors – published authors, produced screenwriters and film producers – for the express purpose of taking my writing from screen to page to big screen.
(Taken in Seville … before I knew I was going!)
My proposed project, “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” garnered a half scholarship to the retreat. I need your help to raise the other half, plus airfare, reward gifts and incidentals. (See budget breakdown below.)
“They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” is based on posts from “A Wandering Jewess,” about my choice to “go it alone” for a year after the dissolution of my 10-year marriage and how Julia Cameron’s “The Artists Way” offered me an unintended framework for doing it.
“They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” is a series of 52 Artist Dates – one-person play dates – which led me on solo sojourns to the opera and the Art Institute, to a three-week stag jaunt in Italy and ultimately an unaccompanied year in Spain (Ironically, a country notorious for togetherness. “Look around,” Robert said over lunch on my second day in Madrid. “No one here eats alone. They just don’t …”)
(They don’t eat alone, but sometimes the servers will feed you … literally.)
Whereas the majority of “post-divorce” reads fit neatly into one of two categories – “How To’s” for getting back in the relationship game or “Crazy Dating Confessionals” (“I had sex with my boss, my trainer and the bagel boy … in the same day.”) – “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” offers another possibility, a happy ending that doesn’t end in romance.
“They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” offers no advice, no salacious sex, no Prince Charming – just a weekly “postcard” sent from the road back to self, a journey taken on the backroads … stopping to fix my own flat tires, visit old promises – traveling alone, living overseas, writing a book – and becoming the heroine of my own story.
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.
I don’t know why. As my ex-boyfriend D once noted with great endearment, “You cry about everything.” But today they surprise me.
Perhaps because it is not quite noon (not that tears are a great respecter of clocks) and it seems early in the day to have such an outpouring of emotion. Or perhaps it is because I have spent the entirety of this Artist Date (number 116) mired in irritation.
I am at Madrid’s Teatro Real for a performance of Brundibar, Hans Krasa’s children’s opera, re-written from memory and performed 55 times at Theresienstadt – the ghetto and concentration camp located about an hour from Prague.
I feel awkward walking to the opera – just a few blocks from my house. It is a children’s performance and I am attending sans child. My discomfort is heightened as I show the usher my ticket.
“You know this is just one ticket? One seat,” she inquires.
Yes, I am aware.
And I am once again reminded of the Spaniards distaste for aloneness. I didn’t buy into this when it was first pointed out to me by a long-time expat during my first days in Madrid. Over the past nine months I’ve become increasingly more aware that at best, Spaniards do not value time spent alone, and at worst, pity it. My Spanish students and friends confirm this.
The child next to me is sniffling and blowing his nose. I privately regard him with disdain as a human petri dish and hope not to catch whatever has taken root in his small body. The pain in my leg and hip that has followed me from California to Chicago to Seattle to Madrid announces itself. A bodyworker by trade, I roll the skin of my thigh between my fingers – burning, painful – hoping to encourage its release. I am, in a word, distracted.
The opera is performed in Spanish – which I don’t expect, even though I know there will be no subtitles. For some reason I expect it to be performed in Czech, and that none of us will know the exact words being sung. Ridiculous.
But as it is in Spanish, I feel obligated to try to understand it. If it were any other language, I wouldn’t even try. Instead I would let the words wash over me, charmed by their different sounds and tickled if by chance I know any of them.
But this is not the case. And now, my Sunday morning Artist Date feels like a work. Like a Spanish lesson.
The performance lasts about 45 minutes. The music and costumes are fanciful and the children’s voices, high and sweet. I know its story because I read up on it last night.
It is a simple tale of fatherless children who need milk for their sick mother, but have no money to purchase it. They decide to sing in the marketplace to earn money but are chased away by the evil organ grinder, Brundibar (who represents Hitler). With the help of a bird, a cat, a dog and other children, they chase away Brundibar and are able to sing in the square.
But it is only as the performers take their bows that I connect to the performance and the story. Only now that the details I learned while reading in bed push up and out of me.
That among the 55 performances of the opera at Theresienstadt was one for the Red Cross, who had come to investigate conditions in the “ghetto,” and one for the Nazi propaganda film Der Fuher schenkt den Juden eine Stadt (The Führer Gives the Jews a City). That many of the Jews living in Theresiendstadt were sent to their deaths at Auschwitz prior to the Red Cross visit to make the ghetto appear less crowded and more comfortable. And that all who participated in the film were sent to Auschwitz upon its completion, and most of them gassed upon arrival.
That, according to Ela Weissberger, a survivor who played the role of the cat at Theresienstadt, the only time the children could remove their identifying yellow Star of David was during performances.
But it is what I have read on radio.cz that has moved me from irritation to tears.
“It is chilling to think that the cast had to be renewed constantly as a growing number of the children were transported to Auschwitz.”
It is this thought that runs through my head as the children take their bows, ironically on the second day of Passover – the celebration of the Jews liberation from slavery. That this cast will be renewed based upon age, not death. And I am no longer surprised by my tears.
I woke this morning to this message on my Facebook wall. “Any news?!?!”
It seemed like a sign – that it is time to speak my truth. To cast a light on my darkness and disappointment and (hopefully) watch it scatter like cockroaches.
I have not been accepted to the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University.
I’ve known this for a little more than two weeks.
I’ve shared the news slowly. With a few friends. My ex-husband. My rabbi and other personal references.
But I haven’t been able to tell either of my parents. Post it on Facebook. Blog about it.
I’ve been transparent about so much in my life. My divorce. The failed romances that followed it. And the beautiful one that began the day after I bought my ticket to Madrid.
My struggles with weight. With alcohol. With making a life in a new country.
My breast reduction.
The death of my biological mother.
But this felt strangely tender and raw. Perhaps a little shameful. Disappointing and shocking because I really thought I was going.
Ever since my friend Spencer mentioned it to me while we were on holiday in Prague. When my spine straightened and my whole body screamed, “Yes! I have no idea what the Institute of Sacred Music is but, Yes!” When I suddenly “knew” (or thought I knew) why I had been called to Madrid. To meet Spencer and to have this conversation.
And the people around me…they thought I was bound for New Haven too.
They saw the way my face lit up, how my resonance changed when I spoke about combining my lifelong practices of writing and spirituality. How I felt like I was finally redeeming myself to myself. How the “smart girl” was finally going to “live up” to that moniker. And how I was going to give myself the gift I couldn’t until now – art school and graduate studies.
I felt confident about my personal statement and my writing sample, the glowing letters of recommendation.
“You’re going,” they said, as if they had seen the future in a crystal ball. And I believed them. Not because I wanted to. But because I thought it was already written.
Unfortunately, this was instead.
Dear Ms. Pearl:
The Admissions Committee of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music has reviewed your application with great care. I am sorry to inform you that your application has not been approved.
We recognize your dedication to the church and appreciate your great interest in the educational mission of the Institute. We send you our best wishes for success in realizing the goals expressed in your application.
Martin Jean Director Yale Institute of Sacred Music
“Clearly it wasn’t meant to be.” “It isn’t God’s will.” “Something better is around the corner.” “Fuck Yale.” “I know just how you feel.”
I’ve heard these words, spoken with love and compassion. And while I’m sure they are true, it’s been hard for me to accept them, to take them in. I’m just not “there” yet.
I’m certain I will one day look back and view this with gratitude and the “ahhhh” of understanding. But until then, and without faith on my part, the words feel somehow hollow, a little bit like platitudes.
Surprisingly, I’ve received the most comfort from the words, “I’m sorry.”
Perhaps because they speak to where I am at this moment.
It’s Tuesday and today I find out if I’ve been accepted to the Yale School of Divinity. Of course, “today” is five hours earlier in New Haven, (Spain has not yet turned its clocks forward for spring.) so while it is nearly 7:30 p.m. in Madrid, it is only 2:30 p.m. in Connecticut. And, not surprisingly, I don’t know yet.
I mention this to Gordon, who is sitting next to me, and who expresses surprise when I tell him I have not been checking my phone every few minutes to see if the email has arrived.
I am equally surprised as I have vivid memories from not so long ago, of sitting at my desk hitting refresh on the computer every few minutes, waiting for I-don’t-know-what to happen. Not unlike my wandering into the kitchen to check the refrigerator every few minutes – each time imagining I might find something new added to the shelves since my last look.
Except I will receive something new via email if I wait long enough, whereas the contents of my refrigerator will remain static unless I leave my house and bring in something new. Which is essentially what I am doing now – once again filling my creative coffers. Artist Date 116. A distraction.
My friend Spencer developed the Unamuno Authors Series, bringing poets from around the world to Madrid. Tonight Mark Doty will read his work.
My friend Julie counts him among her favorite writers. A portion of her “fan letter” is included in the paperback version of Doty’s book, Dog Years. Later I will take a selfie with him and send it Julie via Facebook. But for now, I’m just waiting.
Not for Yale.
Because at this point I’ve turned off the sound on my phone. I don’t want to hear it. Or look at it. Or be reminded of it. My phone. Or Yale’s decision. Because I’m not sure if I can stay present in this moment knowing it. So I choose to remain in delicious, hopeful, not knowing.
Doty is a perfect distraction. Engaging. Both serious and playful as he reads his own words about dogs and fish, AIDS and murder. His mouth is tight, his words clipped with a “Locust Valley Lockjaw.” I wonder if anterior neck work (massage) might change the sound of his delivery.
My musings are interrupted by a poem about Doty’s old lover, gone now. He questions why he can no longer conjure up his face without first looking at a photograph. Feel the warmth of his brown skin against his own.
And why can’t I? D is neither dead nor even gone from my life. He is merely far, far away.
We haven’t seen one another in nearly eight months. Since I left Chicago. We do not Skype or FaceTime. This is his choice, not mine, and I do not argue it.
However, as the pages of the calendar turn over onto themselves, I have a harder time recalling his smell, his voice, and yes, even his face, without the aid of photographs and voicemails. I do not want to lose these palpable memories but it seems almost inevitable unless, until, we find ourselves in each other’s presence again.
I recall some years ago, speaking on the telephone with Stu, and then later, Jason – men I had dated when they were little more than boys and I, little more than a girl.
“Oh…that’s what you sound like,” I said upon hearing each of their voices. I had forgotten.
Perhaps this is the brain’s wisdom – making room for new smells, news sounds, new faces. Allowing us to move forward…from a relationship that ends in death, or in distance. From disappointment, words we’d rather than not read or hear.
“The Admissions Committee at Yale Divinity School has completed its review of your application. I am sorry to inform you that unfortunately, we are unable at this time to offer you a place in the Fall 2016 entering class.”
It is nearly midnight when I log on to the Admissions Page. After my Artist Date. After dinner with Spencer and Doty and his partner.
I think that I shake a little reading the email and that my breath catches – stuck in inhalation. That I cry a little too. But already, I don’t remember exactly.
I send Spencer a text, telling him the news, and I go to bed – too tired to do anything else.
And in the morning, I am again waiting. This time for a decision from Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music – my top choice for graduate school. I am assured it should arrive within the next few days.
Until then, I remain in delicious, hopeful, not knowing – distracting myself with dogs and fish and conjured up memories of old lovers. With art and words and daily life. With moments of presence.
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 manipulator by nature (What cat isn’t?) she danced inside a cage one Sunday afternoon at Berkeley’s Your Basic Bird as if to say, “Pick me! Pick me! Yoo Hoo! Over here! Pick me.”
And so we did.
She was “my cat.” A scrawny tortoise shell, unaware of her size, who refused to abdicate Alpha Cat status to Ezra – a Norwegian Forest Cat affectionately known by my then husband as “Big Daddy.”
Bent on asserting his position, Ezra would regularly back Stella into a corner or under the butcher-block cart. Trapped, she would flatten her ears, hiss, and come out swinging – literally – inevitably pissing or crapping herself, which the two of them would roll around in, fighting.
We cleaned the floor with enzymes.
We tried separating the two.
We gave Stella Bach Flower essences. Anti-anxiety medication. Consulted with a feline behavioral specialist.
None of it worked.
Eventually, we tearfully gave Ezra to a client of mine who allowed him to take his rightful place as the Big Daddy, while Stella took the position as Alpha Cat in our home. Much to our surprise, Nin, our third, seemed relieved that Ezra was gone and was happy to acquiesce to Stella’s whims.
And so we thought our Stella troubles were over – and they were – until we moved to Chicago.
She lied limp on the floor of our largely sunless apartment. Depressed. Was spooked by thunderstorms. And eventually began peeing on the floors and furniture – rain or no rain.
I haven’t thought about any of this in years – until now, Artist Date 113. The Unamuno Author Series, featuring American writers reading their work here in Madrid.
I arrive late – having come straight from teaching – and Mark Wunderlich is already reading from his book of poems, The Earth Avails. I slip into a chair and listen while a wave of “Oh yes…this is why I go on Artist Dates” sweeps over me. I fantasize about graduate school – about being a part of a community of writers and artists. English-speaking writers and artists. I think about how I feel like a child here in Spain – unable to communicate more than my basic needs in the language of the country where I have chosen to live. How I become shy and small in Spanish, while I am big and often shiny in English.
And then I think about Stella.
Mark reads poems about many things. Prayer. Bridges. A classmate whose name sealed her destiny as a pole dancer.
But it is the poem that is not included in his book that locks me in. About missing the cat who greeted him at the door – eager for her supper. Who shared the bed with him. Who was there when his partner no longer was.
And about the bolus they injected into her paw when it was clear her life was coming to an end.
I remember holding Stella when they injected the first bolus into her.
It is a Saturday afternoon. I have just pulled the still-warm-from-the-dryer covers back on the sofa cushions, having just washed them with enzymes – again – when Stella leaps on to the couch, looks straight at me, squats and releases her bladder.
I look at my then-husband. We know without saying it that we cannot continue to live like this. That she will ruin every piece of furniture. That she will ruin the dark, original walnut floors. And that no one will adopt her.
Before we can change our minds, we whisk her into the cat carrier and into the car and drive to the somewhat ironically named Anti-Cruelty Society.
Inside, people are relinquishing their pets for all sorts of reasons – some seemingly legitimate, others ridiculous. But what do I know? I am putting my cat down. Not even relinquishing her.
I discuss the matter with a staff member and she agrees with our decision.
I slip Stella out of the cat carrier, let my then-husband say goodbye, and carry her into another room where “the procedure” will take place.
I hold her in my arms on the stainless-steel table, covered with a threadbare beach towel. I tell her that she was a good cat. That I love her. And the technician injects a bolus of medication that will end her life into her paw.
“It will take a few minutes,” she explains. “Keep holding her.”
I do. I hold onto her for what seems like a very long time. She is groggy, like she was the time we gave her anti-anxiety medication, but nothing more. After about 10 minutes the technician returns.
“She’s still alive,” I say. “Always a fighter.”
This time the technician injects the needle directly into a vein, as opposed to near it, and once again leaves us alone.
This time, I feel her breathing slow down. And then stop. She is gone.
Eight years later, my heart still hurts. Tears streaming down my cheeks as I am writing this.
I don’t like thinking about this moment. And yet I am grateful to Mark for reminding me of it. For reminding me of Stella – this scrappy little cat who reminded me so much of myself once upon a time. Hair slicked back. Wannabe Alpha looking for a fight. And yet behind the bravado, a girl – seemingly unaware of her small size –crying “Pick me. Pick me.”
Of how much I loved her. And the possibilities for loving that girl.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time in churches. Some great, Gothic cathedrals like Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Others, little more than rooms off of side streets, secret gems, suggested by locals.
As a Jew, the words feel strange, incongruent, as they fall from my fingertips on to the keys. As a traveler, one-time reporter, and student of faith, they make complete sense.
I’ve been in churches for professional reasons.
On a press trip to Israel some 20 years ago, where I replied to a colleague’s exhausted and overwhelmed inquiry, “Where are we?”, with “Somewhere where Jesus did something.” Laughing loudly, as Americans sometimes do, we were promptly chastised in a language we didn’t speak. My intention, never to be flip … just honest.
I’ve been in churches for personal reasons.
For a Catholic wedding – where I kept looking for the words everyone spoke in response to the priest – assuming I would find them in a book or on a card. I never did. “You’re just supposed to know them,” my friend Andre explained.
For a colleague’s funeral at a Baptist church in Oakland – which my friend Michael referred to as “a tame affair … nobody threw themselves on to the casket.”
But I’ve never been to a church, “just because.” Until now. Artist Date 112.
If I am to be honest, even this visit isn’t “just because.”
It is because my friend is a priest here – Iglesia Catedral del Redentor. It is because he is preaching this evening, in Spanish – about lepers. About touch. And about his own healing.
I think this will be a good way to practice my Spanish listening skills.
I liken it to watching Spanish television, something that has been suggested many times but that I have yet to do for more than a few minutes at a time – usually when my landlady is half listening to the news. I have not cultivated the habit, and I’m not sure I want to. I haven’t owned a television for many years and don’t miss it.
So I come here instead, to hear this story which I more or less know.
Except that I don’t know it. I cannot find it. My Spanish isn’t that good. I can understand words and phrases but I cannot put them together.
So I focus on what I can see instead.
The words to songs I don’t know, in English or Spanish, projected on to the wall with an overhead projector, an acetate sheet moved up and down by someone’s large hand as each set of lyrics have been completed, making room for the next. I haven’t seen an overhead projector since college, when a friend of mine would drop colored liquids onto the glass plate, projecting swirls of color onto the wall, and we would dance to the Grateful Dead.
The African women – some of them Muslim, wearing head coverings. The families from South and Central America, their children with big, almond-shaped eyes playing in the back of the sanctuary. Many are here for the free bag of groceries they receive after the service. Nary a non-Catholic Madrileño in the crowd.
“All driven out or killed by Franco,” R, a former minister from New York, explains to me.
He and his wife moved to Madrid some years ago after she dreamt about the two of them living here as missionaries. Being fluent in both Spanish and “Christian,” he explains different elements of the service to me.
Two velvet bags attached to wooden sticks are passed through the pews.The gesture requires no explanation and I drop a euro into one of them.
At the end of the service, S walks down the middle aisle – offering his hand, his cheek and his heart to the parishioners. The older ladies grab on to him. They clearly adore him.
Like I adore him.
I think of what my friend D calls “divine attraction.”
“Whatever it is that gets you to God,” she explains to me over coffee, many years ago, when I fess up to having a crush on a “man of the cloth.”
The piercing blue eyes and suede elbow patches of a college religious studies professor.
The compassionate heart of a rabbi who understands my need to convert to the faith of my childhood when I don’t quite understand it myself.
The friendship of an American priest who helps me navigate my way through a Spanish-speaking world.
An empty belly and a the promise of a bag of food.