It is November. The weather gods have smiled upon us with sunshine and seventy degrees.
(Many would say the baseball gods have also smiled upon us as the Cubs are in the World Series.)
It is a good time to be in Chicago.
I pull on a pair of brown corduroy trousers from the Salvation Army. Ralph Lauren. Six dollars. Boot-cut and too long in the legs for my not quite 5-foot, 3-inch body.
I slide my hand into the left, front pocket and pull out two small, slippery stubs. Used metro tickets from Paris.
I smile. Wistful.
I’ve been back just eight days but already Paris seems so far away.
The baguette I never eat here but cannot not eat there. Both doughy and solid. Formidable and yielding. I’ve never found anything quite like it at home.
The coffee. Short. Dark. Thick. Served in little cups and drank leisurely in a café, or standing up at a bar, but never taken to go.
The woman who says over coffee, “It’s like there was an empty chair waiting for you, and you slipped right in it … as if you were always there.” And the faces around the table nodding in agreement.
I try to conjure this up in my body. The bread. The coffee. These people who in a matter of days became my people. And I became theirs.
The pastry. The poetry.
The feeling I have every time I find myself in Paris … that my heart might burst if I’m not careful. The feeling I have always been here and will always be here.
But muscle memory fails me … for I can see it, but not fully feel it. Not in my bones. At least not in this moment.
Perhaps it is because I am so here.
In Chicago on this 70-something November day on a bike that doesn’t quite fit me. A loaner from the mechanic until mine is fixed. Wheels out of true. Seat too low. I am more wrestling with it than riding. And yet, I feel the sides of my mouth curling into a smile when I do. My now 47-year-old body embracing the challenge.
Editing my book. Cooking soup. Applying for work.
Watching a Cubs game at a dive bar for no other reason than I have been invited and it sounds like fun.
I am too present here to fully feel there for more than a few moments. And I realize the gift in feeling the ground beneath me. The swish-swish of fallen leaves under my feet.
I have spent years wishing I was somewhere other than where I was — even in Paris — missing the moment.
My friend Paul recently asked why I “even bothered” to come back in the United States. “Your writing is pure poetry there. That is your place,” he says. Perhaps. But for now I am here.
I slip the tickets back in my pocket — so that I might find them again one day and be reminded. Of baguettes and coffee. Poetry and pastry. Of the people who held a chair for me … waiting.
That mid-October was a good time to be in Paris. And right now is a good time to be here.
When I launched my Go Fund Me campaign, “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain,” earlier this summer, I linked rewards to different donation levels. An electronic postcard from Spain for $25. A custom Artist Date for $100. A personalized piece of writing for $500.
However, one reward was promised at all levels — a personal thank-you on Go Fund Me, Facebook, Twitter and A Wandering Jewess.
Following are three more Gracias Rewards … and the stories of those who have so generously supported my dream of manifesting blog into book deal.
Shortly after my divorce, I developed a bad habit of reading old journals. Really old journals. And only the juicy bits.
There was something delicious about remembering what “was,” once upon a time. But it didn’t help move me forward. And so, at a friend’s suggestion, I put the journals away for a time. The results so effective I ultimately burned them.ultimately burned them — journals I had carried with me for 20 years … from Detroit to San Francisco, Oakland, Chicago, Seattle and Chicago again — before moving to Spain.
I haven’t much looked back at my written words since then. Until now. Pulling together my blogs into the manuscript, “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain.”
It is an interesting, and at times painful, experience. Remembering where I’ve been … both physically and emotionally. Selling my wedding rings.
Navigating unrequited crushes and affections, and struggling to let go of those which had run their course.
But I also am reminded of the support I received through it all. Much of it, unexpected.
A couch to sleep on. A light box to help manage Midwest winters. The friendship of a best friend’s sister.
Muchas gracias Jacqueline Baron, Darcy Livingston and Sheryl Stollman for these gifts, and for your generous contributions to “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — a new narrative for happily ever after, after a divorce.
I’m 9 years old. Or thereabouts. I’ve just started learning Hebrew — attending classes on Sunday mornings and Wednesday afternoons.
It is one of those Wednesday afternoons. Except now it is evening. And I am waiting.
Waiting with Rachel and Robbie, Michael and Ronnie. Waiting in the quickly darkening October chill for one of our parents to pick up our carpool.
It appears someone has forgotten.
All the other students are gone. The principal has left too, beeping his horn and waving while we wait outside the school.
Robbie and I walk to the corner store and use the payphone to call our parents. The rest stay behind … in case the delayed parent arrives.
I am a little bit scared, walking on the side of the road in the dark. I remind myself I am not alone. I am with Robbie. He is older, bigger. Handsome.
I do not recall the rest of the story … who it was that forgot to pick us up. And who eventually did.
I only remember my mother’s relief when I arrived home. Her anger toward the principal for leaving us at the school. And my own worry about not completing my homework for the next day … having arrived home so late.
I don’t have any other memories of Robbie — even though he lived right around the corner from us. And none of his younger sister, Amy Freedman.
So I was especially surprised and delighted when I received her contribution to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign.
Muchas, muchas gracias, Amy!
The joys of social media.
Thirty-plus years post Hebrew school, Amy and I have gotten to know one another on Facebook. Divine timing. Everything happens exactly when it is supposed to …
Like the ending of my 15-year relationship … which forced me to face the daunting task of taking responsibility for my own life and happiness.
Like finding myself “suddenly single against my will” … which nudged me toward two years of Artist Dates (one-person play dates), a three-week stag jaunt in Italy, and ultimately a year-long solo sojourn in Spain.
Like being underemployed … which gives me the time and ability to complete the manuscript, “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — a compilation of blogs from http://www.awanderingjewess.com.
Even waiting for a carpool on a dark October evening … which showed me how to walk through fear, and reminded me I’m really never alone.
I used to have a nickname in college — Lester. It still makes me cringe. I don’t know where it came from. In fact, it might even go back to high school. As I write these words, I hear voices of friends calling out, “Lester!”
I had another nickname too. One I had forgotten about until the other day … The Pest.
I was reminded by a friend of my brother’s in a private note she sent, along with a donation to my “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” campaign.
Her intention was not to drudge up a painful past, but instead to marvel at the change in the relationship between my brother and me. Growing up, we were prone to unkind words and fist fights. Today, he speaks and writes about me with deep affection and pride, posting things to Facebook like —
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my beautiful, talented and well-traveled sister, Lesley Pearl. Being overseas on your birthday would be tough for some but knowing you, I am sure that they are lining up to celebrate with you!!”
Awww … sweet, right?
And I adore him equally.
Many thanks to my brother’s friend — for your generous contribution, and for reminding me that relationships change. Sometimes beautifully … like in the case of me and my brother.
And that other times … something beautiful comes from change, like the end of my marriage. While painful, the parting sent me off to create the life I had always dreamed of. A creation chronicled in “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain.”
Oh, and I think I’ll take Lester over The Pest any day …
Want to know more about “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” — how 52 Artist Dates saved my soul after divorce and landed me smack in the middle of my own life — or how to contribute to my Go Fund Me campaign? Click here.
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.
It is one of those days when I wonder what I’m doing here. And how I got here. How this “happened” to me.
Nothing particularly bad has happened. Nothing particularly good either.
It is cold. And I am tired.
My bedroom feels small. My lesson today on gratitude felt flimsy and flat. The mother of one of my students is once again making unreasonable demands.
It is the week of Thanksgiving and I am an ocean-plus away from “home” – which I loosely translate as somewhere in the United States, most likely Chicago.
I am talking to a friend who is going through a divorce, telling her everything that I know about divorce. And I admit that at least part of the reason I am here and not in Chicago is financial – that I wasn’t earning enough and couldn’t seem to find my way to more money.
I feel like a failure.
I am riding the train home and I look at my phone. Facebook, tells me I have memories with Nikki Nigl today. It is my blog from a year ago today — Artist Date 94: Do Something(s).
I click on the link and begin reading.
“A month has passed since I returned home from my solo sojourn to Italy. It feels like forever ago.
Life comes on — quickly, strong, demanding — and I struggle to hold on to the peace and freedom I felt abroad. The joy in getting lost, not knowing the answer — or sometimes even the question, in being alone. My face looks pinched — the wrinkle between my eyebrows, smoothed by Umbria, has returned.”
I laugh. My face has look pinched for weeks, possibly months. And the wrinkle between my brow has deepened into what appears to be a permanent groove.
“The decisions I made, the desires of my heart — to live overseas, to publish a book (or more to the point, to be published) — begin to slip into the category of ‘all talk.’ “
To live overseas?! I live overseas!
“I recently read that most people would prefer to fail by not trying than fail by trying. I get it. I understand. I wish I didn’t.”
But I am trying.
“…Sitting at the computer, doing nothing but waiting for something to happen, I mutter, ‘Do something. Anything.’
I write an email and send it off. (Two somethings. Write — one. Send — two.) A few lines to the sister of a friend of a friend who just returned from Spain, where she taught English for several years. I ask if she might meet me for coffee and share her experiences — how she got there, what it was like.”
I remember that coffee. It led to dinner. And then lunch. And then another dinner. Where I gathered not only information, but a new friend too.
“…meeting with my rabbi …we talk about … my desires and deciphering the will and whim of the universe. Especially when it seems to only speak in whispers.
It feels like a game of telephone and I constantly wonder if I’m hearing it right.
Until I get to the parking lot, into my car and check Facebook.
‘Anyone want a job in Portugal NOW?’
Scrolling down, I am tagged. ‘Lesley Pearl, could it be you?’
My heart swells, leaps. Not because I believe I will get the job and move to Portugal (although I might), but because the universe seems to be speaking loudly, clearly — the message undeniable, ‘Yes, Lesley, it is possible.’ “
Yes, it is. Because I am here now. And because I was in Lisbon just a few weeks ago.
And somehow I feel like less of a failure. Facebook has actually made me feel better — by reminding me of where I was, and allowing me to reflect on where I am. Helping me to see that this was all part of the plan…even if I still don’t quite understand it. Because the universe still speaks in whispers.
My friend Matt recently asked if I was still “doing the Artist Date thing.”
I am somewhat taken aback. It reminds me of being asked if I am still dating Insert-Man-Here — an inquiry often made when I have ceased to talk about a man du jour. It is the cousin question to, “Have you heard from Insert-Man-Here?”
The answer to both is usually, no. If I were, if I had, I would have mentioned it.
But Matt isn’t asking about a man. He is asking about my commitment to myself and to my craft. I wonder if I have ceased to talk about it, to be engaged with it, or if he has just not read about it lately.
The whole exchange scratches at the part of me that knows I haven’t been as committed to the practice as it is prescribed by Julia Cameron in “The Artist’s Way” as I once was. The part that bristles at my skipping weeks, writing about them much later and occasionally allowing others to join on my intended solo sojourns — my imperfection.
I do not mention any of this. Instead, I sy, “Yes,” and add that I have just completed two years of Artist Dates.
A week later, I have not been on another.
I tell myself I’ve been busy with the seemingly incongruent actions of preparing to leave the country for a year and trying to secure additional work while I am here. Drafting resumes, taking software tests and going on interviews; ordering background checks and searching for best prices on airline tickets.
On the eighth day following Matt’s original inquiry, the universe sends a second messenger — this one, a bit more direct. Dorothy attends one of the Thursday Weight Watchers meetings I lead. She is in her 70s and is the kind of woman I hope to become — active, engaged in the world, growing, learning, giving back.
She asks if I have been to the Annual Flower Show at Macy’s.
I have not.
Dorothy sees this as an invitation to make an invitation. She tells me about the show, its theme — Art in Bloom — and how she, a master gardener, and others have breathed life into it.
When she is done, I commit to it, to her, to myself and to my process. I arrive on the 9th floor of the Macy’s flagship store on State Street a few hours later, Artist Date 106.
I smell the exhibit before I can see it. It is moist, warm, green — like the Lincoln Park conservatory where I have spent many Chicago winter days warming myself. I do not expect it.
Flowers are planted into shapes like Matisse cut-outs. Whimsical. Vibrant. I think of the cracked frame holding a Matisse print in the living room of my Mission-neighborhood apartment. Of my then boyfriend sitting on a Pilates ball, losing balance, and rolling into the wall — knocking the print off of it.
Grid flower boxes in primary colors with thick black lines are an ode to Piet Mondrian. I recall the Mondrian show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York many, many years ago — entering the fashioned artist’s studio and swing dancing inside of it with my friend Jason.
I remember my friend Teresa’s mother taking me to the Macy’s Flower Show in San Francisco — on our way to her daughter’s theater performance. She went every year. It was her tradition. Returning to it in Chicago nearly 20 years later, the show becomes a chapter in mine.
I peer through a doorway on my way out — classic paintings are being projected onto a wall of white flowers. Michelangelo’s Mona Lisa. Boticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Raphael’s Sistine Madonnas.
I wonder what my own life might look like projected onto a wall of white flowers.
Fragrant. Lush. Harsh edges softened. Altered but recognizable, I think.
I smile and rub my hand over my mostly naked head. “It must be the hair.”
“No,” she insists. “I remember you. You were here last year. You are here a lot.”
Here is the Auditorium Theater to see Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Here is the pre-performance mini-workshop with company dancer Hope Boykin.
Here is Artist Date 105 — marking the beginning of a third year of solo sojourns, as suggested by Julia Cameron in “The Artist’s Way.” I had not planned to take on this commitment for another year, and yet I am here…counting numbers, filling my creative coffers, following my feet. The Artist Date has become what Twyla Tharp calls “the creative habit.”
I was here opening night of the run, a little more than a week ago, with my friend Julie — my brain cueing each next movement of Revelations, my body responding, leaning into the gesture while my mind completes it. I was here last year and the year before that — each time learning bits of Revelations at the mini-workshop before the show.
I was here with Martha counting the ribs of the dancers from row I — the seats, a gift from my friend Amy. I was here with Rebecca, giddy when an usher moved us from balcony to orchestra, spoiling me for all future dance performances.
And I was here alone, on other Artist Dates.
So it shouldn’t surprise me that the woman checking my name off the list might remember seeing me. Or that Kristen from the Auditorium Theater Marketing Department does too.
She is standing in front of a board covered with sticky notes and pins, each naming a patron’s “favorite Alvin Ailey memory.”
I take a Sharpie marker and add mine — dancing with Kristen at a master class led by another Ailey dancer — Antonio Douthit-Boyd. It was there I learned the definition of “intermediate” is fluid at best, and that I can be the least trained, least experienced member of a class, but that I still have a right to be there.
But I am surprised when a woman approaches Kristen and me and blurts out, “You go to my synagogue.” It feels completely out of context. It is. And she is right, I do. Although not much lately.
I think about these moments driving home. How the once daunting, seemingly exclusive world of performance seems cozy and familiar. How Chicago feels like a big, small town. And how I feel a part of both.
Making my way up Lakeshore Dive, I am flanked by twinkling skyscrapers to my left and Lake Michigan to my right. For a moment I wonder if I really want to give this up and move to Madrid.
I know just because a place feels like “Cheers” (“Where everyone knows your name.”) is not reason enough to stay. I learned that when I left Detroit and built a life in San Francisco. Again when I left that life in San Francisco and made a place for myself in Chicago. And a third time when I left that place for myself in Chicago and, as my friend Joanne likes to say, “broke the Seattle chill.”
In less than six months I will reduce my belongings to a few boxes that I will ship to my mother — mostly paperwork, plus a few keepsakes I’m not yet ready to part with — and two suitcases which will accompany me to Spain for one year, possibly, hopefully longer.
I am looking forward to going. To filling my brain with another language and culture, and my body with jamon and cafe con leche. To expanding my circle and creating one more home for myself.
I am looking forward to seeing Alvin Ailey perform on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. To perhaps dancing with Hope or Antonio again. To hearing, “Te’ recuerdo!” (“I remember you!”) And being a little surprised by it.
A flood of memories rushes in. An experience with my ex-husband. A story from my childhood. Some person or situation from my past popping up in full Technicolor like a carnival whack-a-mole.
The experience of the Artist Date — a planned, solo flight of fancy with the express purpose of filling me, my creative coffers — wakes up some dormant element of my history and connects me to myself, to art, the artist and the world around me.
It is both a self-involved deep-sea diving excursion into my own unique story and the recognition of the universal experiences that knit us together in an infinity scarf of humanity.
Until today, watching Desperate Dolls, a play written by my friend’s husband, at the Strawdog Theatre — Artist Date 97.
No story. Only feeling.
Enter three girls trying to make it big in Los Angeles, the sleazy but lovable B-movie director who gives them a shot (along with campy “showbiz” names) and a creepy-powerful, sexually frustrated devil-villain called Captain.
There is a late 60s-early 70s motel room with perfect period attention to detail. And screaming. Lots of it.
I covet Matchbox’s body — flat belly and perfect ass — snugly held in white panties and a matching bra. Pretty Sexy’s Go-Go boots and thick, fluttery false eyelashes. Sunny Jack’s belt buckle and mustache.
The thoughts are random and fleeting, in no way connected to my past. Only Sunny Jack’s grainy girl films — wanna-be starlets rubbing suntan oil between their breasts to bossa nova swing; kicking ass, or more literally, kicking balls of some Snideley Whiplash of a pervert chained to a tree — evoke any sense of the familiar.
A tip of the hat to John Water’s early films. Think Mole McHenry performing a do-it-yourself sex change in Desperate Living, Babs Johnson eating dog poop in the final scene of Pink Flamingos.
It is only later that I think about my friend’s brother turning me on to these films the way my cousins turned me on to pot when I was 12, or my father returning one of them to the video rental store before I had watched it . A liquor salesman with a strong stomach and a good sense of humor, he was horrified after just 10 minutes.
In the moment I am only conscious of my stomach tightening with the uncomfortable knowing of what comes next and wishing I didn’t. Sick anticipation and the inability to turn away.
No story. Only feeling.
My sympathetic nervous system — the “fight or flight” reflex that makes my heart race and the soles of my feet sweat — fully activated.
“I love the idea of exploitation movies. Movies conceived and relying on our basest human emotions and the things that attract us to most art…” writes Anderson Lawfer, Desperate Dolls‘ Hugen Artistic Director. “This is a style that doesn’t get done on stage because of the outrageous violence and sexual situations, but why not? We all love it.”
I used to love it. I chased that sympathetic nervous system hit, rushing toward roller coasters, scary movies, and without really knowing it, crazy drama. I lost my taste for it some years ago when it became clear that real life provided more than enough opportunities to exercise my body’s stress response.
But for one night, I can embrace it — grateful for the reprieve from my mind, from my memory, and the self-inflicted, heart-pounding insanity I once craved.