My Heart is a Surfboard

kaddish-coverThere are four cars in the synagogue parking lot in Evanston – mine being one of them.

I do not want to be here.  And I especially do not want to be here alone.

I asked Pam to join me.  Clover.  Michael.  Matt.  All were unavailable.  And then I stopped calling. I didn’t want just anyone to join me.  So I am here, alone, on the one-year anniversary (according to the Hebrew calendar) of my birth mother’s death.

The synagogue sent a letter reminding me of the date, 28 Iyyar, along with the words – in both English and Hebrew – to Kaddish, the prayer that accompanies the lighting of a yahrzeit candle, honoring the deceased.

Her name will be read in synagogue, and I feel l should be here to hear it. I think she would like that – even though she wasn’t Jewish.

I sit in the car a few minutes longer, re-reading flirtatious text messages my friend, Mr. Fashion, sent just before I left the house – trying to distract myself from my uncomfortable feelings about being here.  It only half works.

Eventually, I walk in and am greeted by both the rabbi and the cantor.  Each is a touchstone in my life.  And yet seeing them today does not shift my feelings.

Twenty or so congregants are here for the Friday night service, but I sit alone.   It is my choice.  I feel awkward and angst-y.  I keep my eyes cast down.  I barely sing.  I wonder how it is that I once thought I might be a rabbi.  It seems unfathomable to me now, as it is all that I can do just to be here.  And I again wonder why it is that I am here.

Until the last moments of the service, when I am reminded.

I am standing with my congregation saying Kaddish, the memorial prayer for the dead.  The prayer praising God.  The same prayer I read at home a few days ago when I lit a yahrzeit candle.

The rabbi reads the names of those in the congregation who have passed in the past week, and of those who passed this week in years past.

“Pharen Johnson, mother of Lesley Pearl.”  My rabbi’s voice catches a little – I think.

And without warning, my eyes are heavy and wet.  My nose flares – hot.  I feel a thud in my core, and then its energy rolling out in waves to my hands and feet.  I am riding the currents.  My heart is a surfboard.  My belly flip-flops and then, more heat.

The feeling is not unfamiliar.  I occasionally experience it when I meditate.  But I do not expect it here, now.

And suddenly I know why I am here.

I understand why we are called to go to synagogue in the days after death, and on the anniversary of it.  Why it is not enough to light a candle and say a few words in my kitchen – alone.

The synagogue gives me the space to grieve.  The service, to consider it — which I have not done.

I mentioned this to Pam the other day, on the actual anniversary of Pharen’s death.

Me and Pharen.  Our first meeting.
Me and my birthmom. Our first meeting.

I tell her that after I lit the yahrzeit candle and said Kaddish – alone – I noticed my desire to call Mr. 700 Miles, the “man” who slipped out of my life without a word a little over two months ago.

I remember him telling me he moved home to be with his mother when she was dying – 18 or so years ago.  That he thought about her every day.  That he wasn’t done learning the lessons she had to teach him.  That she and I were kindred spirits.

I think I should call him, because he knows what this is like.  Even more so.  But so do many of my other friends.

I do not call him.  Or them, either.

Pam responds with a gentle, loving “duh,” and suggests that perhaps I nudged out my grief with incongruent affections for the Southern Svengali – another man who swept me off my feet.  This time in Charleston, where my birth mother lived.  While she was dying.

I consider this.  That it might be true.

I couldn’t grieve.  I didn’t have the space, the energy or the capacity for it.

I hadn’t even grieved the end of my marriage.  Or the life I knew for 15 years that I had driven away from in a 14-year-old Honda Civic just a few months prior.  And I continued not to grieve it until only recently – slotting in affections with woefully unavailable men instead.

I consider that I didn’t believe I was allowed to grieve.

Finding my biological mother and father, and having relationships with them, was at times painful and disruptive to my family.  Over the years I have tried to minimize that pain by minimizing how much I talk about them.  About those relationships.

And so, I did not much talk about my feelings with my family — or with anyone else — when my birth mom died.  I talked about the Southern Svengali, and later Mr. 700 Miles, instead.

A year later, these distractions have long since lost their efficacy.

I cannot thread my sadness through another man.  I need to be with it.  And perhaps, for the first time ever, I do not want to run from it.

Tonight I  have a space and a ritual to honor this loss.  By myself, and in community, all at once.

And I understand why I am here.

I text Mr. Fashion when I get home, like I promised I would.  He asks if I would like to get together.  I decline.  I have no desire to distract myself from these feelings.

I ask him for a rain check, which he graciously offers – along with the promise that he will hold me to it, and some other things that I will keep just for myself.

I just smile and let myself feel it.  All of it.

Mourning Pages

This piece was recently published in Catharsis Journal: How Creativity Changed My Life. Krista Burlae, Editor. Balboa Press. 2013

“I am alone because I am getting ready to be alone.”

Every day the same words spilled out of my pen and onto my notebook.  It was March.  I was staying at a friend’s house in Northern California, while she and her partner were in Hawaii.  In their week-long absence, they left me their home, a car and a neurotic dog named Zach.

Every morning was the same.

I’d mash a banana into a bowl; cover it with dry oats and water and microwave for three minutes – adding blueberries and soy milk after cooking.  French press a pot of coffee.  Open the sliding glass door for Zack to go outside.  Sit at the table next to fireplace and write three pages, longhand.

I was in Week 4 of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way – A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity.

The book had been suggested to me for nearly 18 years, but I had only recently picked it up.  Pain is a great motivator.  So is time.

I was living in Seattle.  I’d been there just a little more than six months.  It was my second cross-country move in less than five years.  The first, to Chicago from San Francisco, for my husband’s medical residency.  The second, to Seattle, for his dream job.

Both times, I closed up my massage practice.  Handed over my Weight Watchers meetings to another leader.  Threw a send-off soiree, and said a tearful goodbye to my friends.  Following in his path.  Next time would be my turn.  That was the promise we made.

I wasn’t working much.  I didn’t have a massage license.  I was clinically depressed.  My husband encouraged me to take it easy.  He reminded me that his job as a doctor, and the six-figure salary that went along with it – that it was for us.  That this is what he had been working for.  That now I could breathe and think about what “my turn” might look like.

I hadn’t a clue.

Rabbinical school?  Acupuncture school?  Nothing seemed certain.

Devoid of any clear sense of direction, I picked up the book that had been recommended to me so many times over the years.

I dug in with a hunger and willingness I hadn’t known since getting sober nearly five years earlier.  I read each page carefully, highlighter in hand, taking notes in the margins.  Looking for a clue.  For a promise of direction.  Or at the very least, something meaningful to do with my time.

Each week had a title.  “Recovering a Sense of…” – fill in the blank.  It included readings, suggested exercises, and questions for reflection at week’s end.  Two constants ran through the entire 12 weeks, what Cameron calls the primary tools of creative recovery – Morning Pages and the Artist Date.

Morning Pages were simply that – three pages written longhand, first thing in the morning.  Before diving into email.  Before opening up the newspaper.  Before dressing children.  Cleaning the house.  Talking to the nanny.  Making dinner plans.  Before Pilates.

Morning pages were not meant to be art.  Or for anyone to even read.  They were a practice.  “Spilling out of bed and straight onto the page.”  Without expectations.  Without judgment.  Simply making room for new input.  Morning pages, she said, were non-negotiable.

An Artist Date was a kind of fancy, little-bit grown up, name for a play date – alone.  No friends.  No spouses.  No children.  A block of time for spoiling and nurturing oneself – creatively.

*****

The tools gave my life structure.  Something to hang my day on.  I would wake early each morning, before my husband, make oatmeal with blueberries and banana, coffee, turn on my light box and write.

The routine was established by the time I arrived in California in March.  I found it easy to recreate my process in this new, albeit temporary, space.

I had begun to notice patterns emerging in my morning pages.  The same themes popping up like whack-a-moles again and again.  But I didn’t have to race to pound them down with a big, padded mallet.  I could let them sit on the page.  Powerless.

So I wasn’t exactly surprised when I wrote, “I am alone because I am getting ready to be alone.”  I knew exactly what it meant.  And I wasn’t afraid.

*****

We had been struggling for a while.  Pretty much since we arrived in Chicago nearly five years earlier.  He started medical residency.  I quit drinking.  Our lives took radically divergent paths.  And like a vector, kept moving further in opposite directions.

Nine days before we left Chicago, he told me I didn’t have to go to Seattle.  He didn’t want to be the guy who once again took me from my home, my friends and my livelihood.  I was shocked.  Stuck.  I couldn’t turn around that fast, even if I had wanted to.  Besides, we had already rented out our condominium.  I’d given up my office and my work.

We moved forward – together – as planned.  We hosted a going-away party that weekend – assuming our roles in the story of us as happy couple.  And a few days later, we were gone.

Within weeks of arriving in Seattle, my husband asked me for a divorce.  The next day he retracted his request and admitted he might be acting hastily.  We agreed to see a couple’s counselor.  A smart, young woman, many years our junior, who asked, “How will you know?”  Meaning, how would we know when it was time to call it quits.

Neither of us could answer.  I meditated on the question all week.  The words came to me in the stillness of waiting.

“You know what not working on your marriage looks like.  Why don’t you see what working on your marriage looks like?”

I instantly felt a shift in my body – as if I had just experienced a chiropractic adjustment.  I had an immediate sense of ease.  An increase in energy and flow.  I knew it was right.  I told my husband, and together we told our therapist that we had decided “not to decide,” for six months.  Instead, choosing to focus our energies on the work.

It was during that six-month period that I went back to California, stayed in the big house with the fireplace and the neurotic dog, and wrote the same words each day.  I shared them with no one.

***

My husband flew down to join me at the end of the week.  Before picking him up, I met with a local Rabbi.  He replaced the one I had studied with many years earlier, before I was married.  He had died unexpectedly.  His passing was a source of remorse and pain, mostly as we had never completed our studies.  I had slipped away without a word.  Just about the time I met my husband.

I told the replacement Rabbi that I might want to be a Rabbi.  But that I couldn’t see how to do it, to stay married, and continue to work on my marriage.  He said if it was my path, it would find me.

My husband and I greeted one another at San Francisco International Airport, irritated, obligated.  I remembered coming home from a trip, not long after meeting him.  He met me at the gate, flowers in hand.  I literally ran to him and jumped into his arms, wrapping my legs around his waist.  We were no longer that couple.  And we hadn’t been for a long time.

I drove us back to the big house with the glass fireplace and the neurotic dog.  I told him about the flood of memories that I had experienced that week.  That they had nearly drowned me.  That everywhere I turned, I was reminded of us.  Especially of the hours we spent together on our bikes.

“It got too hard,” he said.  “I didn’t want to do it anymore.”

“Ride with me?” I asked, referring to the chasm between our cycling abilities – a regular source of tension between us.  “Or be married?”

“Both.”

And there it was – the truth that I had written every morning.  The truth that I knew because I did write every morning.  The truth that I had known in my bones before he ever arrived.

I wish I could say I was calm.  That I stood in awe of my knowing.  In awe of the serendipity.  That the truth was spoken in the city where lived together for nearly 10 years, in the neighborhood where we met.  But I wasn’t.  My wheels rolled on to the Golden Gate Bridge.  I thought about driving off.  Instead, I yelled.  A lot.

I was in the middle of Week Four in The Artist’s Way – Recovering a Sense of Integrity.

******

Returning home to Seattle, I named The Artist’s Way my companion in divorce.  It seemed the only thing I knew to do.  That, and walk.  Miles and miles with no particular destination.  The heels of my tan suede boots were re-soled during this time.

I continued to write.  To look for synchronicity in my life, as I was directed in the book.  Truthfully, I couldn’t imagine any greater synchronicity than what I had just experienced.

I went on occasional Artist Dates but couldn’t fully commit to the practice.

I bought The Writer’s Market and considered writing again professionally.

I made Benjamin Franklin T-squares, lists of pro and con, trying to determine where I should call home.  Seattle?  Chicago?  San Francisco?

I sent The Artist’s Way to my friend in Chicago who was also going through a divorce.

I told him it was a book of miracles, my trusted companion during this time of transition.  I told him about my morning pages.  About being in that house alone and knowing that I was preparing to be alone.

I told him about the Rabbi who said if rabbinical school was my path, that it would find me.  And that my husband asking for a divorce felt like being found.  That I had become open to these messages because of the book.  And because of the creative work I had done.

I finished the 12 weeks of The Artist’s Way.

And then I went to Rwanda.

I had planned the trip several weeks earlier.  I would be traveling with members of my synagogue – touring, witnessing and working with two different AIDS organizations.  It was there, under my mosquito net in sub-Saharan Africa, that I heard the next creative whisper, received my next set of instructions.

I started blogging.

****

I entered university nearly 25 years prior, majoring in fine art.  I graduated with a degree in journalism – my parents insisting I choose a more practical focus.

I spent the next five years toiling at a series of weekly newspapers, and then left the profession entirely.  I wanted to make more money.  Which I did.  I wanted to tell my stories, instead of someone else’s.  Which I didn’t – unless you count drunken scrawls in journals and poems stuffed under the bed.

In Africa, I wrote each night before bed.  After my roommate and I finished debriefing about our days.  When the sky was navy and the air was still with silence – nothingness.  I wrote by the light of the computer screen.

I described the land, its people and my experiences with both in lush detail.  The smell of oranges mixed with diesel.  Churches where bloodied clothes remained, remnants of the most recent genocide.  Children born with HIV acting as mentors to those younger than themselves, also born with the disease.

The houses made of mud brick.  A calendar on the wall – a single decoration.  The woman who built her own house, and then another which she rents.  Who sells charcoal, and can now care for herself and her children – mostly.  Women and children robed in colorful fabrics, walking on the side of the road – 24 hours a day, fruit or furniture balanced on their heads.

Reed thin men pushing bicycles weighted down with four or six yellow jerry cans of water.  An opening gala at an art co-operative tucked into a downtrodden neighborhood.  Peeing ridiculously close to a giraffe while on safari.

I posted my blogs to Facebook in the wee hours when I could get an internet signal.  Following each posting I was greeted with words from the unlikeliest of Facebook “friends.”  Girls I went to Adat Shalom nursery school with in the early 1970s, friends’ husbands I hardly knew, and associates of my Rabbi.  They all said the same thing.  “Thank you.” And “Keep writing.”

But I didn’t.  Not for three months.  I didn’t write about my divorce.  My drive cross country.  My first time living alone in 43 years.  I didn’t write a word – until I received a call that my birthmother was dying.  A woman I had met only three years prior, who at 59, was dying.

I flew out of Chicago the next day, pacing just in front of Hurricane Sandy.  When I arrived she was hooked up to IVs and monitors, barely 100 pounds in a hospital gown.  There was nowhere for her to hide anymore.  She could no longer act the part she thought I wanted her to be.  We were both stripped down and naked.  And I felt, perhaps for the first time, nothing but love for her.

I played Pandora radio for her.  Danced and held her hand to Love Train by the O Jays.  I massaged her feet, her papery skin.  I sobbed on her bed.  And I found healing.

I told her about a man I met there in South Carolina.  How he swept me off my feet – literally picking me up off of the ground the first time I met him.  And how he broke my heart a few days later – slipping away without a word.

I chronicled all of it, blogging.  My inbox filled with personal notes.  Words of encouragement.  Stories shared.   From former co-workers.  Friends of my birthmother.  Cousins I had never met.  Even the man from South Carolina who broke my heart.

I felt seen.  Connected.  The connection I had craved all of my life.  That I had twisted myself inside and out for.  Here it was.  And all I had to do to receive it was to tell my truth.  To write it.  And to share it – publicly.

So I did.

I wrote about living alone.  About throwing out food because I didn’t know how to shop for one anymore.  About my Jewish divorce – my Get…  And my civil divorce.  About my breast reduction – a surgery so fraught with pain and shame I had barely spoken of it.

And then, about my second time through The Artist’s Way.

***

I didn’t date after my ex-husband asked me for a divorce.  I experienced intimate friendships – hours spent on the phone telling one another every detail about ourselves.  Sexy kisses under the moon that made me feel like I was 17.  Over the top expectations and the crash that accompanied them.  But I had not dated.

I wasn’t ready.  I was too vulnerable.  But I was lonely.  So I took on The Artist’s Way again as my companion, this time committing myself to the Artist Dates.  Those two-or-so hour play dates by myself.

I perused gourmet food shops.  Spent hours at a bookstore, tucked in a chair with an Annie Leibowitz anthology in my lap.  I bought myself little trinkets and had them giftwrapped.

I went to the movies.  Walked on the beach in winter.  And at the bird and butterfly sanctuary.  I scoured thrift stores.  Visited the polar bear at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

I went to the art supply store. And to the Art Institute – many times.  Visiting Marc Chagall’s America Windows again and again.  I went to the Lebanese and Indian neighborhoods.  Ate syrupy sweet desserts and shopped with women wearing saris and chadors.  I popped into interesting boutiques I’d eyed and wondered about, but had never stepped foot in.

I went to the Joffrey Ballet.

All of it, alone.  And then I chronicled each experience.

I wrote about my ex-husband sending me boxes of things I left behind, and not wanting to open them.  About being afraid of Week 4 in The Artist’s Way because that was the week my ex asked me for a divorce.

I wrote about how strange and uncomfortable it was when my father asked me if I was dating.  How uncomfortable he was when I said no, and how I felt the need to explain my decision to him.  How I told him that I had work to do.

I let go of work I no longer enjoyed, and leaned heavily into my spousal support.

I took dance classes – Mambo and West African.  I attended performances and lectures – on my own and with girlfriends.  I began cooking again.  Collaging.  And I kept writing.  Blogging.

The Artist Dates had become a habit.  I enjoyed a $6 piece of torte and coffee served on a silver tray on a Friday afternoon, just because.  I brought home a silk kimono from Japan and an embroidered, well-loved bedspread from the thrift store, just because they were beautiful.

I began to treat myself as well, if not better, than anyone else had ever treated me.

I began to turn inward, to lean into my pain.  The hurt of love ending.  Of promises broken.  The fear of a big, empty canvas of life.  I gave it a name and a face – with words, and with paintbrushes, pencils and pretty paper, with movement.  And I found it wasn’t quite so scary when I did.

I found my voice.  The one that wrote, “I am alone because I am getting ready to be alone,” continuing to spill out of me every morning and onto three blank pages.  Mourning pages.

Artist’s Date 25: Following Breadcrumbs and Cleaning Up My Insides

Andrew-Gilliatt-April-2013-60-300x300
Bowl by Andrew Gilliat

I believe in “following the breadcrumbs.”  Like Hansel and Gretl, noting the obvious signs and trusting that I will always be led – if I listen.

I was on the fence about my destination for this week’s Artist Date – Number 25.  My friend Kiki mentioned she might drop by a reception at Lillstreet Art Center – one of my considerations.  Her noncommittal musing was just enough to point my compass.

I’ve been to Lillstreet just once before, for a fundraiser.  I imagined I would return here often, but I have not.  I pass it all the time and I think about going in.  I pour over the website trying to decide which class to sign up for.  I am intimidated and ultimately do nothing.

This is ironic as I am greeted by a most friendly staffer at the door.  She tells me the photography show opening today, Midwest Contemporary, is on two floors.  That beer is on the main floor, wine is on the second – in case that helps guide my decision in terms of where to begin.  It doesn’t.

But the pottery does.  Porcelain slab platters etched with lines that look like a teenage girl’s cutting.  Bowls and plates covered with repeating whimsical patterns.  Forks and knives, swings, balloons and birds in matte glaze. 

I’ve considered the First-Time Potter class here but have been leaning toward Drawing-into-Painting.  Pottery is messy and I don’t really have “pottery clothes.”  I can draw anywhere.  Yet I keep picking up the fired clay.  Running my fingers over it.  Cupping it in my hand.

I remember ceramics class in high school.  Mr. B and I argued about everything – even about how often I peed.  He said I was a sloppy student.  That I didn’t clean my edges, my insides.  It sounds true – of my work.  Of my blurry boundaries and the messy parts inside of me.

I did craft beautiful pieces in his class though.  A platter with a teal drip glaze.  A coil vase with a long neck – large and genie-like, big enough for Barbara Eden to pop out of.  My mother displays both of them in her home.  

I look up toward the photography on the wall – my chosen medium in college until I switched my major from fine art to journalism.  There is a large, creepy photograph of a doll’s head – battered and old.  I don’t like it.  I read the artist’s statement.  She photographs vintage dolls.  The cracks in their exteriors representing the broken parts in us all – some that might never be “fixed” in this lifetime.  I still don’t like the picture, or the doll’s eyes.  But I like the idea of it.

There is work from an artist who earned his MFA from Michigan State University – my alma mater.  It wasn’t known for its art department when I was a student.  I wonder how it has changed.

There is another of a trailer park along the Russian River in California with a big Paul Bunyan figure looming over the camp.  It is part of a series chronicling the photographer’s vacation destinations as a child.  I’m pretty sure I’ve been here.

I wander up to the second floor.  There is a second photograph of trailers, this one from Williston, North Dakota.  Hydraulic fracking boom town.   Michael and I drove through here on our way back to Chicago from Seattle.  It reeked of testosterone and crystal meth.  Unsettling.

There is a photograph of a young African-American man looking straight into the lens.  Into me.  The photographer is from Saginaw, Michigan – where my mother grew up. 

midwest contemporary show
“Elliot,” by Sarah-Marie Land

I feel alone.  I go downstairs , returning to the pottery, and strike up a conversation with another woman, also alone.   She likes the bowls and goblets adorned with animals.  Anything with animals, she says.  I do not, but say nothing.   As the room fills up I am acutely aware of my single-ness.  I think about staying and listening to the live music, but I’m not sure where to perch myself.

I decide to leave instead. 

This is the first time my Artist Date feels lonely, that I don’t feel filled up by it.  On the way out I stop and talk briefly with the friendly staffer who greeted me.  I remember Kiki mentioning her friend’s reception is private, on the roof – that I would have to ask to get up there.  So I do.

I am directed to the back of the building, through the music and pottery and photography, through double doors. I ask a tall man/boy with a red beard and glasses if this is the way to the roof. He says yes and we climb the stairs together. Two of mine for every one of his.

It is sunny and clear.  People are drinking wine.  I do not see my friend.  I turn to go back down.  The bearded man/boy says, “Yep.  A lot of roof.”   We walk down together.  I am not sure why he has come here.  I ask him if he has a studio here.  He does not.  He peels off to a classroom on the third floor and I go down to two.  There are open artist studios.  I missed them my first time up. 

I walk into one.  There are slabs of clay with what looks like hieroglyphics on them.  The artist is talking with a couple about her work and they rope me into conversation.  I ask about the tall, smooth pieces with wild insides.  They are wide.  Almost as big around as I, and climbing higher than my waist. 

Each represents a character from Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.”  The blue queen is smooth outside, but inside “she is mourning.”   I see it.  I see the glazed clay crying inside, rounded discs turned down upon themselves like leaves.  I wonder if this is what I look like inside.

A second character is smooth and orange-y outside, fiery and sharp inside.  She is angered by how the king has treated the mourning queen.  A third is green.  A girl child left in the woods, raised by a shepherd.  She is smooth inside as well as out.  Peaceful.

I return to a jewelry studio I couldn’t make my way into before.  Too small.  Too many people.  Edith Robertson is talking with a friend.  She has a blonde-ish/white-ish bob and turquoise eye liner.  She immediately greets me, inviting me to try on whatever I like.  She puts her hand on my arm.  Warm.

I pick up a choker made of gathered strands of thin wire with a long crystal hanging from it.  It looks like a stalactite. Or is it a stalagmite?  A piece of lapis lazuli adorns the back side – a hidden surprise.

I think of my friend Julie and the days I spent with her after her mother died, offering massage and bodywork to her family.  Of her friend Karen whisking me off to her house, plopping me into an overstuffed chair and placing a crystal in each hand. 

The effect was immediate.  Electric.  Like a volt of energy seizing my body.  I imagined smoke coming off of me, as if I had fried a chip.  I was out.  When I awoke about 20 minutes later, I felt like I had been put back together.  I wonder if this crystal would do the same for me.

Edith and I quickly realize our paths have been crossing one another for the better part of 30 years.  In Detroit.  In San Francisco.  And now in Chicago.  That the universe has been conspiring for us to meet.

She tells me that making jewelry is her second act.  I tell her about mine.  About my Artist Dates and my return to writing.  We talk about Germany – her birthplace.  The first place I traveled overseas.   She has the same last name as my ex-husband.

We talk until a couple walks in and I hand her over to them.   I sign her guest book, leaving her with my email address and her necklace.  Perhaps another time. 

I walk down the stairs and out the door, thinking about connections.  About clay classes and cleaning up my edges, my insides.  About breadcrumbs.