Artist Date 112: Whatever Gets You to God

spencers church
The unassuming Iglesia Catedral del Redentor in Madrid.

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.

 

Artist Date 111: The Heart I Am In Love With

 

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Note: The entire time I was writing, I was certain the Katherine Mansfield quote referenced was “The heart I am in love with has to be a little bit wild.” It was only when I placed the photograph (above) into this post that I realized my error. That the quote was, “The mind I love must have wild places.” I am choosing to leave the essay as it was written, assuming it is the truth of my subconscious…that the heart I am in love with has to be a little bit wild…and honoring it. 

“The heart I am in love with has to be a little bit wild.” (incorrectly attributed to Katherine Mansfield.)

The words are written on a wooden bookshelf with black Sharpie marker. I smile as I snap a photo to send to D – as requested – proof that I, this little bit wild heart he once loved, made it here. To Desperate Literature, Artist Date 111.

This mostly used, mostly English-language bookstore is about a seven-minute walk from my house – the other two locations are in Brooklyn and Santorini, Greece – but I’m only just now finding it. That’s how Madrid is. Lots of windy paths, disguised as roads, bumping into one another. Arteries and veins, as I like to call them.

There is an economy of space here, and it’s easy to miss so much as there are no familiar grids to zig up and zag down. One either stumbles onto a place or is told to go there.

In this case, the latter.

First by Naked Madrid – a must-read blog for non-natives looking for a local experience. And again by my friend E after she attended its “The More Eggnog the Better” Christmas party.

It’s noon – still fairly early for a Sunday “morning” in Madrid – when I stumble in and am greeted by a small man wearing small, round John Lennon-style glasses.

“Please excuse me for just a moment,” he says in a proper Londoner’s accent. “My father just texted, insisting I call him.”

I am charmed by his BBC accent. His familiar greeting. His use of the phrase “excuse me” – words I so rarely hear here, either in English or Spanish. It is simply not a part of the culture. Instead, it is common for Madrileños to push against one another on the metro and in the streets. The lack of “perdon” or “con permisso” considered neither rude nor noteworthy.

There are “Books for When You are Bored” here. “Sexy Books.” “Boozy Books.” (Which come with a shot of whiskey.) “Books for When you are Desperate.”

A vintage typewriter with onion-skin paper slipped through the scroll and a hand-made sign taped to it that says, “Write the poem.” Not A poem. THE poem.

2016-02-07 12.30.54A chess board with the words “play me,” written on it – also in black Sharpie marker. A copy of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass on the nearby shelves.

A small, children’s mattress stacked on top of a wooden bench built into the wall – the ultimate reading nook for anyone under the age of 10. Forty-six, I nonetheless settle in with a handful of books and consider the possibilities of words.

Meanwhile, the owner returns offering me a cup of ginger tea and an update on his father – seems he’s getting married for the fourth time –  while characters from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, painted on the wall opposite of me, return my gaze.

I open Bill Bryson’s Notes From a Big Country. Four handwritten messages are scrawled inside the front cover. Among them, “Adios, hijo de puta. Que te rompan el culo en NY. Peter.”

And while I am still a Level A – beginner— in Spanish, I do know the meaning of “hijo de puta.” (My teacher Diego just taught it to me last week.) And I smirk.

I lean into Bryson’s first essay, “Coming Home”– about his return to the United States after a 20-year sojourn in England – and well up. I’ve been here just six months but wonder if I too will struggle to find the words I once knew, like spackle and anchor. Already I grasp for language, ultimately feeling like I speak neither Spanish nor English very well. I am told this is not an uncommon experience.

It feels like a nod from God…that I am supposed to be here.

As does Lefty Frizzell piped through the speakers, singing about Saginaw, Michigan – my mother’s hometown.

As does the copy of The Artist’s Way, propped up behind the front counter. The book that introduced me to the Artist Date. That I was looking for a copy of last week – my dog-eared copy tucked away in an attic in Chicago – to cite in my graduate-school application.

As does the Katherine Mansfield quote on the bookshelf.

Somewhere at my mother’s house there is a photograph of me sitting in Mansfield’s husband’s (Irving) lap in Beverly Hills. I am five-years-old, wearing a brown and white, gingham-checked bikini with cherries on it. My hair is wet and we are smiling big – both of us, in love with my little bit wild heart. The same little bit wild heart that brought me here.

 

irving mansfield

 

 

Artist Date 110: Bird of “Pray”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Artist’s Way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Brooklyn Les

brooklynThere was already a Leslie when I arrived to work at The Jewish Bulletin of Northern California in 1995, so I quickly became Les – which was strange because up until that time, only my parents had ever called me Les.

However, not long after that “christening,” I earned the name Brooklyn Les – used exclusively when I would lead with my mouth.

Brooklyn Les swore like a sailor. Kept a pack of Newport Lights in the pocket of her leather jacket – a tan vintage number with a paisley silk lining which my friend T affectionately referred to as the Serpi-coat, an homage to Al Pacino in the movie of the same era. Brookly Les was feisty. A little bit angry. And funny as she let the expletives fly from her lips.

In those first few years in San Francisco, Brooklyn Les showed up a lot. But as time passed, her role became more of a cameo — the walk-on of a once beloved character that had moved on.

I quit smoking. I got older. I went to therapy.

I quit the job I hated and learned to curb my tongue at the one that I loved. I learned to meditate. I joined a spiritual business group.

There was less to be angry about.

“Remember when you used to be surly, Pearly?” my then-husband asked, only half in jest.

I did.

When I moved to Chicago in 2007, Brooklyn Les began appearing again. Sans cigarettes.

I was newly sober and leaking emotion. Joy. Gratitude. Pain. My friend D insisted I was angry but didn’t know how to express it.

And yet, every once in a while, I did. Usually with my friend M, over food or coffee. Always unexpected. What started as simple conversation quickly developing into full-fledged rant. About my husband. Or my parents. Or my birthparents. The weather. Weight Watchers. Chicago. Occasionally myself.

M would clap with glee. She loved Brooklyn Les. Probably because she only turned up occasionally and was so different than the woman I presented as. She was funny and crass and said things none of us dared say.

But I always felt apologetic. Like I shouldn’t behave this way. That I couldn’t afford the luxury of a good resentment.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Brooklyn Les. Strangely, she didn’t show up during my divorce or my pained efforts at dating after. She didn’t show up during my move to Seattle or my unfruitful job search in Chicago.

I was angry. But it wasn’t funny or functional. Instead, it mostly got turned inward, on to me.

My friend S noticed and thought that breaking some rocks might help release it. Or at the very least, invite Brooklyn Les for a visit.

So a few weeks ago, we drove out to El Pardo – a park outside of Madrid where Franco used to shoot deer. (Rumor has it he was such a bad shot that his lackeys would literally have to place deer – I don’t know how – directly in front of his aim if he was to have even a minimum of success.)

Inside the park, at a quarry of sorts, S demonstrated.

He picked up a rock, said some choice words, threw it against another and watched it shatter into bits. Then he invited me to do the same.

I picked up a rock. Threw it. And watched it bounce off another and roll onto the ground.

“I can’t even get angry correctly.”

S invited me to name my anger – more specifically, the sources of my anger – but I couldn’t. I could only cry. So he named them for me. And I cried even harder.

I cried and muttered and prayed…threw some rocks. A few shattered. Many bounced.

It was a beginning.

I’m sure Brooklyn Les could have done better. But she was nowhere to be seen.

I thought I recognized her walking through Sol, the center of Madrid, the other day. As I was jostled and bumped by Spaniards just doing what they do – walking four or five across on the sidewalk, slowly, seemingly expecting everyone else to move. They all seem to navigate just fine around each other but I haven’t quite figured out their system.

But instead of Brooklyn Les, I felt more like William Shatner in an Everyready Battery commercial circa 1978. “I dare you to knock this battery off of my shoulder.”

My anger scared me. It still does.

I thought about my ex-boyfriend D. How I more than once told him, “I won’t fight with you.”

“People fight,” he insisted. But I wouldn’t.

I thought about my ex-husband. How he was one of less than a handful of people I would fight with – who I felt safe enough to fight with.

But mostly, I find myself just fighting with myself. It’s exhausting.

It seems clear I need to find a way to purge this anger from my body – without imposing it on others, or turning it on to myself. Although I’m still not exactly sure how.

Perhaps Brooklyn Les might have an idea…

 

What I Didn’t Write — October and November — or Act, Don’t React

For what feels like the longest time, I’ve barely been able to blog. “I’ve been ‘in the day,’ ” I tell myself – which is true – but I’ve also felt “stuck” by all that wasn’t said. For some reason, perhaps it is the over-explainer in me, I’ve felt the need to bring everything and everyone “up to date.”

I compiled two blogs. One — Facebook posts from my arrival in Madrid on July 29 through August — settling in, finding my way, being a student, and being enchanted by seemingly everything and everyone. And Two — Facebook posts from September – my past bumping up to my present, visits from friends and High Holy Day celebrations.

The third and final compilation follows – October and November — travel, celebrations, and interactions with Madrilenos, my “real life” in Madrid…officially “up to date.”

October 2

Just got paid for the first time since late July…in euros, straight into my Spanish bank account. Definitely one of those moments when I realize, “Oh, I’m not just *here* in Spain. I work here. I live here.” Some days, that amazing truth is still a surprise to me.

October 5

In the elevator of my apartment building…4-year-old girl with a cat’s face on her t-shirt is looking at me while speaking to her father. Father, who knows I speak only a little Spanish, translates, “My daughter thinks girls should not have such short hair.” If I were anywhere but Spain, I would think this man an ass — or at the very least, oblivious.

But he speaks these words with such a kind voice and a genuine smile…as if he is trying to connect with me. As if he is telling me she likes unicorns and chocolate ice cream. Merely speaking the truth. I smile at them both and nod, “Si, el pelo corto…”

October 9

Bound for Valencia! Early birthday gift to myself… beach, bike, big ol’ bathtub and cooked breakfast waiting at the Airbnb.

Last year I celebrated with breakfast in Rome and dinner in Paris…and with the acute awareness that my charmed holiday would end the next day. This year, my jaunt is accompanied with the amazing sensation of “Oh, I’m just zipping off to Valencia for the weekend..” followed by “Holy crap, this is my life!”

October 9

Riding through Valencia in my Fly London wedges, pencil skirt and Jackie O sunglasses (and a helmet, of course)…a new pair of Flys in the basket and a couple of dresses I have no business buying in a pink bag over my shoulder…smiling at the palm trees, the flavor of turrone gelato fresh on my lips. Life is good. Thanks for getting me on the bike all those years ago, Lee. I do it a little differently these days…but still love being in the saddle.

October 10

Persimmons, pulpo, pimienton and PAELLA!

My Airbnb host told me I couldn’t get paella for one. Not fresh, at least. Only a racion from a big pan cooked earlier in the day. And then the universe swooped in. Correction, Laura swooped in.

We’d only known one another through our mutual friend Carrie and Facebook. When she saw I was in Valencia, her home for the past 30 years, she sent me a note and we made a date. She asked if there was anything I’d been hankering for. Well, as a matter of fact…

Mmm, with chicken and rabbit and burnt crunchy bits on the bottom.

Full with delicious food and beautiful new friendships.

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October 11

Made it to the beach…

Massage on the beach…quite possibly the best 20 euros I’ve ever spent. Seconded only by the lounge chair I am lying on while writing this. My body is very, very happy. As is my spirit.

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October 14

Hallelujah! I found chard. I’ve been on the hunt for kale, but this will more than do. A little garlic, some olive oil… And delightfully, persimmons — or what my friend Sara affectionately calls “tree candy” — abound.

October 18

As is my usual ritual, I woke up this morning, opened my window, then padded off to the kitchen to make coffee. When I returned, the bedroom was awash in pink light. I peeked out the window to see the sun making its way down the walls of the inner courtyard, then bouncing off of someone’s washing. Mundane. Magical.

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October 18

Madrid mornings have been chilly. High 30s, low 40s. Today my friend Alexis arrived from Chicago — with my wool coat. Nikki had been keeping it since I left. She packed it up along with my meditation pillow, threw in some vitamin D, Airborne, Clear Care contact solution and a roll of Weight Watchers Bravos, one of my cashmere sweaters and two pieces of fabric, one from India (thank you Paul), and one from my trip to Rwanda. Strangely, I was going to ask her to send the pieces of cloth to me, but she seemed to intuitively know.

Alexis added two bags of walnuts and a bag of almonds from Whole Foods — which would have cost about 20 euros each here — and a bar of olive oil soap from her summer trip to Greece.

I got teary unpacking these humble pieces of my life…held and delivered with such care and love. Quite possibly the best birthday gift ever…topped off with tapas at Mercado San Miguel and a walk with my friend through this magical city I now call home.

October 20

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

October 20

Cake before noon? Well sure…it IS my birthday. And we didn’t finish it. Thanks Maria for making 46 in Madrid so special!

October 21

Humbled and delighted by the bounty of well wishes on my birthday. Phone calls, Skypes, texts, cards, Facebook messages literally from around the world. And even a few regalos…a violet plant from my landlady and roommate, a mug from my lunchtime students reminding me to begin the day with joy, earrings (lovely enough that I took out my signature star and stud) and a wooly forever scarf from my forever friend Maria. I am blessed…

October 22

Pulled on my wool coat, the one Nikki held on to and had Alexis bring to me here in Madrid. Slipped my hands into the pockets and felt paper. “What the hell did I leave in here?” Turns out…nothing. I pulled out my hands, and in them, a few love notes from my dear, dear friend. Wonderful surprise. Wonderful reminder. Everybody needs a Nikki in their life.

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October 23

Lisbon, Portugal…November 6-9.

October 24

Some of my most favorite moments in Madrid involve me tripping over my Spanish while the Spaniard before me trips over his or her English. The two of us apologizing and laughing and smiling, celebrating one another’s victories in finding the right word, delighted in being understood, to be somehow communicating. I always walk away feeling surprisingly connected…and happy.

October 25

And why wouldn’t there be a parade of women drummers in skirts reminiscent of turkeys and heavy black boots at lunchtime in Lavapies? We all couldn’t help but follow them down the street.

Afternoon in Lavapies. Stuffed with butter chicken and besan ladoo.

drummers in lavapies

October 26

Wise tea bag…easier said than done.

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October 30

I love when Chicago arrives in Madrid (seemingly unexpectedly)…and feeling like I am meeting a long-lost cousin for the very first time. How magical and strange that we are only now meeting, and on this side of the Atlantic. I suppose it was time…

Nov 2

Segovia. Magical…

 

me in segovia

November 6

Weekend forecast is 60s, 70s and sunny. On my way…

Sometimes I am in awe of the power of intention. I mentioned to a friend this morning that I really needed some touch … And that I hoped to get a massage this weekend. I’m out the door in Lisbon not 20 minutes and I stumble onto a beautiful spa. They have an appointment available in 30 minutes…

Note: This is pretty much the story of how I met my ex-husband.

November 6

Lisbon…I’ve got a big, fat crush on you. Hills and cobblestone and a big orange bridge. Trolley cars, fresh seafood and chesnut gelato. And perhaps one of the most profound massages of my life…not even sure why, it just was.

Oh, but the people! The old man at the tobacco kiosk who took me — took me! Not pointed me– to a shop where I could save 1 euro on my trolley ticket. And the one who spoke not a lick of English but understood “Ramiro” when I asked and did pointed me to it…then literally chased me down the street a few minutes later when I passed by the restaurant and walked me back, dropping me at the door…talking in Portuguese the entire time, even though I told him I didn’t understand any of it. Yep, big fat crush!

 

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November 8

Another reason I’ve fallen for Lisbon…music and dance “just happens.”

November 9

I continue to be surprised and delighted when, at an airport or train station in Europe, my espresso comes in a china demitasse and I am given a proper plate and flatware for my meal. However, this morning, running short on time, I took my food to go. I feel like the consummate American eating it at the gate…it seems it is “just not done.”

November 9

Madrid Jazz Festival. This Friday at 8. Conde Duque. Marc Ribot and the Young Philadelphians. Who’s in?

November 13

Not that I ever doubted you, Lauren but ooohhhh…what a trip to El Corte Ingles can do for North American soul. Eyebrow wax and tint at the Benefit Brow Bar ( Pamela, I feel a little bit like I cheated on you…but I think Sarai did a pretty awesome job.) And FAT-FREE Greek yogurt. I haven’t had either in nearly 4 months. Feeling just a little bit more like myself.

November 14

Standing with the Mayor and people of Madrid in 5 minutes of silence…prayers for the people of Paris, and for people everywhere.

November 14

Vision Board. Once again, time to create the roadmap of my subconscious. (I cannot believe I found Mod Podge!)

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Everything I Didn’t Write – September

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

September 2

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

September 4

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

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September 8

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

September 12

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

September 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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September 15

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

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September 17

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

September 19

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

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

September 21

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

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

September 22

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

September 23

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

Considering twice weekly classes …

September 26

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

September 27

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

 

2015-09-27 14.17.16September 28

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

September 30

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Everything I Didn’t Write — July and August 2015

I love words.

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.

July 30

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.

July 31

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.

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August 3

First day of school.

August 4

How much do I love my girls in Chicago? How much do they love me? Thanks for lifting me up. XOXO

nikki and melissa

August 4

(Meme from aforementioned great love – posted to my page)

“Hmmm.

We can skip the wine.”

dirk meme

August 5

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.

August 9

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…

August 15

Officially overwhelmed…

August 16

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.

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August 17

Trust. Just got my hair cut by someone named Pepe. He does not speak English. I hardly speak Spanish. I think we did okay.

August 25

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.

August 28

DONE! When they handed out the certificates, they dubbed me Lesley~I will conquer Spain~Pearl. Your collective mouth to God’s ear.

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August 29

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.

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August 29

(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…

August 30

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.

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Not 10-Years-Old

rxHalloween 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.

Until now.

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.

“No.”

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.

Guess I am not 10-years-old.

Artist Date 109 (Madrid Artist Date 1): Too Caught Up To Notice

2015-09-08 19.39.42“The Artist Date is a once-weekly, festive, solo expedition to explore
something that interests you. The Artist Date need not be overtly
“artistic” — think mischief more than mastery. Artist Dates fire up the
imagination. They spark whimsy. They encourage play. Since art is about the
play of ideas, they feed our creative work by replenishing our inner well
of images and inspiration. When choosing an Artist Date, it is good to ask
yourself, “what sounds fun?” — and then allow yourself to try it.”

Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way

I tell myself that every day in Madrid is an Artist Date.

I am a liar.

I have been here a little more than 40 days. And it is true that most every day is a solo expedition – at least in part — and that most every day I am exploring something that interests me — my new home.

That there are moments of whimsy and of play, when everything looks like eye candy. Sun-washed orange and yellow apartment buildings, lined with rows of black iron balconies, that look like cardboard cut-outs against the navy-painted sky. Others the color of cotton candy, hugging a traffic circle that my friend Dirk refers to as “the big circus intersection.”

BUILDING_AT_EAST_END_OF_YOUR_STREETA man with two teeth playing accordion on the street. Another, with a full-white grin, feeding peacocks from his hand in Retiro Park.

Everything is new.

And yet my hours are filled with classes. With looking for an apartment and looking for work. (Blessedly, both have come to me quickly and easily.)

With scheduling appointments to complete my visa paperwork and to obtain a monthly Metro card. (No, I cannot just purchase one at the station.)

With navigating a new city and a new language.

Despite the creative inspiration surrounding me, my inner well has run dry.

I have felt this before, when my ex-husband and I moved cross-country – first to Chicago, and later to Seattle – when the work of the adventure of living some place new took so much out of us that we had little, if anything, left to give the other.

Our relationship needed tending to, but we couldn’t see it.

And now this relationship, mine to myself, does too.

I respond, purchasing myself a ticket to the Victor Ullate Ballet’s performance Samsara – Artist Date 109, my first in Madrid.

The ballet announces itself to me every morning on the Metro, a siren-like blur through the windows as the train passes from Opera to Diego de Leon.

At home, I watch a video clip online and feel that heart-leaping-out-of-my-skin-I-know-this-is-God-sensation I have gotten every time I see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

This, coupled with a Tuesday ticket discount and a single seat available at the end of the second row, proves an irresistible combination, and a few hours later I am walking up Calle San Bernardo to Teatros del Canal.

I’m giddy in that “I’ve got a secret” kind of way, which is not unusual for an Artist Date…except that something my friend Robert told me the day after I arrived has been banging around in my head ever since.

“Spaniards don’t do anything alone,” he said. “A server will bring a glass of wine to a woman eating alone because he pities her.”

This has been confirmed by others.

This does not bode well for a woman who travels alone, goes to movies and lectures and operas alone, who not only enjoys being alone but craves her own company.

And yet, no one seems to notice me standing at the bar eating a piece of chocolate cake – alone – before the performance.

And no one seems to notice me sitting at the end of the second row – alone — during the performance. Least of all, me.

I am too caught up in the music. In the movement. The costumes. The stories.

I am too caught up in counting the dancers’ ribs and watching beads of sweat literally slip sideways off of them.

I am too caught up trying to translate the Buddhist quotes projected on the stage before they fade away.

I am too caught up trying to keep my heart from leaping out of my skin because I know this is God. Because this is decidedly Alivin Ailey-esque — specifically Revelations, Part 1: “I’ve Been Buked” –  and my body knows the motions, my lips know the words.

I am at once in my seat and in the dance, but most certainly not in the head of any Spaniard who might want to buy me a glass of wine because he pities my being alone.

It is a Revelation. It is Samsara, “journeying” – birth, death, rebirth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do these words mean on the menu?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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