I’ve been back in the United States for a little more than a year now.
In these 12-plus months I have made a conscious choice to put down roots, to “bloom where I’m planted” – signing an apartment lease and buying furniture, dating someone who lives on the same CTA and Metra line as me, securing work and allowing myself to become “a fixture” there.
And yet, at least once a week I am greeted with “You’re here?!” or “How long are you stateside?” or “Where do you live anyway?”
The words reflect a life I’d always dreamed of – the bon vivant flitting from gorgeous here to glamorous there – and at times make it difficult to be where my feet are, here in Chicago.
Especially when Facebook reminds me that last year “On This Day” I was staying in a castle in Girona at a writers retreat; that the year before I was riding a rented bike to the beach in Valencia and sharing paella with new friends; and the year before that, I was volunteering at a chocolate festival in Umbria.
Especially when the second of two new bed pillows I recently purchased now goes unused, and I am no longer certain who will sit at my side next week when I see Patti Smith at The Music Box Theatre – an early birthday gift to myself.
Life on the other side of the Atlantic always sounds sexy — in these moments sexier still. The questions about my being here now – in Chicago — feel like a kitten rubbing its insistent head against my naked leg.
That is, until Monday at 4 pm — the day after the Chicago Marathon when T. gingerly walks into my massage room.
She and I started working together about a month ago, when a chronically tight hamstring had her questioning her ability to complete the 26.2 mile run – her first.
It was one of those easy, graceful connections where few words were necessary and those we did exchange were about our connections to Africa — my weeks in Kigali, her years in Nairobi, yellow jerrycans and her fundraising efforts to provide clean water there.
“Well?” I ask, hopefully, my voice upticking at the end of the second “L.”
Her mouth curls into a smile and she pulls a medal out of her bag.
“I did it!” she says.“Can we take a selfie? I never take selfies …”
Neither statement surprises me. I nod and say, “of course.”
Meanwhile, T. hands me the medal as she pulls her phone out of her bag.
“I think you should wear it,” she says.
I feel silly. It is her medal, her marathon. But she insists she couldn’t have done it without me. I slip the red ribbon over my head and hold the medal between our faces.
“I appreciate you,” she says.
“And I, you.”
The moment is a gift, the present of being present, knowing that being where my feet are has allowed hers to carry her 26.2 miles. I feel my roots begin to twist up and gnarl under the earth, finding their place … on this side of the Atlantic.
It is four weeks today since I left Paris. It feels like forever ago.
Not for the reasons most people think. Not because I love Paris, have dreamed of living there for as long as I can remember (even before I had ever visited), and occasionally wake up with French words on my lips – even though I don’t speak the language. Not because a reiki practitioner once told me I have “agreements” with Paris. (I still don’t know exactly what that means.) Although all of that is true.
Quite simply, I left my heart there … and I miss it, and him and what we shared.
What was meant to be 14 days together, zipping up to Normandy on his motorbike (“It will be like our honeymoon,” he said.) was goodbye instead.
I never saw it coming.
We met in October, on my way home from a writer’s retreat in Girona, Spain. It was, as my friend Michelle likes to say, “A romance for the ages.”
We found one another in a church basement – the kind where we both learned how to get and stay sober a number of years earlier – on his birthday, the day before mine. What began as coffee led to a meandering walk through Paris — sharing our stories, and a piece of cake — and ended with three knee-buckling kisses at the Bastille roundabout, my salmon-colored wool and silk scarf blowing in the breeze. One for his birthday, one for mine, and one to “tide me over” until we saw one another again in two days. The stuff of Hollywood movies.
Four days later, my last in Paris, he told me he loved me, and that he was in love with me.
“Is that crazy” he asked over a steaming bucket of mussels and live accordion music that wafted up the stairs.
“Yes,” I replied. “But I get it.”
He also told me he didn’t want to think about me every day, that he didn’t want to know how I took my coffee.
“But you already know how I take my coffee,” I said, smiling.
We agreed that we wanted to continue getting to know one another and that neither of us knew exactly what that meant. The next morning, boarding a plane back to the United States, I received a text, “Still love you, babe.”
Later that week, during the first of many marathon phone calls, he asked if I would come back in the spring. I said yes without hesitation and purchased a non-stop return ticket from Chicago to Paris for $500 the following day. I had never paid so little to fly to to Europe and chose to see it as a sign — a nod from God.
We spent the next six months writing long emails and sexy Facebook messages, talking on the phone for hours and eventually Skyping. What joy it was to finally see one another again.
I felt like I had met my twin. Funny enough, one of the last things he said to me was, “I met myself when I met you.” That was four weeks ago, when we said goodbye.
One month earlier, I had received an email, “I have some difficult news …” he wrote.
His son’s mother had asked once again if they might get back together. This time she said “all the right things.” This time, it was he who didn’t hesitate to say yes.
Brokenhearted would be an understatement.
Ten days later we Skyped and I asked if I might see him in Paris … to say goodbye.
“You’re still coming?” he asked, visibly surprised.
“My ticket is non-refundable. I’m going on to Barcelona, but I’m still flying in and out of Paris.
“Can I see you? To say goodbye?”
He agreed, and so we did. And when we did, he reminded me that his nine-year-old son lives in Paris … so he lives in Paris.
I knew he had certain ideas about the family he wanted – what it looked like – and believed he was healing some childhood wounds by giving his son what he had wanted most, stability and love, and the picture of family that he himself craved.
“I’m portable,” I said, reminding him I had said this all along.
He said I wouldn’t like living in Paris. (I disagreed.) That it is extraordinarily hard to get work there as a non-Parisian, even teaching English. That he never wanted a long-distance relationship.
He also said that we were “magic,” that I was his “vacation” and his “fantasy.”
What he didn’t say was, “Move in, lean in … we’ll figure it out.”
And so, with seemingly no other choice, I dropped the rope.
The day I had asked if I could see him in Paris, he asked if we might still be friends. “This,” he said, gesturing heart-to-heart, “I’ll miss this.” I said probably one day, but that I would need time — brave words that fell apart once on the other side of the Atlantic, when I hopefully asked, “Will we stay in touch?” even though I had been the one to ask for space after our goodbye.
“I don’t think so … I’d prefer not to,” he said. “I want you to go back to Chicago and write to me and tell me you found a man there who can give you a real relationship.”
I was crushed. Writing these words now, my heart aches.
But a funny thing happened when I returned to the United States, something that had never happened after a breakup before — I respected his wishes.
We agreed I would let him know when I arrived home and that I would send some of my writing to him – musings about our time together. I did both and he responded warmly, but without opening any doors. “I’m not ready to read this just yet, but it’s good to know it’s here” he wrote, and thanked me for sending. Seems this ending is difficult for him too.
Now there’s nothing left to do but grieve.
I’ve never had a clean break before.
In my 20s, breakups included language like, “Of course we’ll be friends,” which seemed to mean something entirely different to my former partners than to me, which looked like me acting as if nothing had changed, except for the addition of some teary, “I miss you’s” and “Are you sure’s?” In the end my ex’s usually had to push me away, it seemed the only way I could give time and space apart.
Since my divorce five years ago, I’ve had only one other relationship, which only sort-of ended when I moved to Madrid in 2015. We spent my year abroad in a liminal space which, while not exactly ideal or exactly what I wanted, seemed to suit me on some level. It was never entirely over until I moved back to the United States last July.
So this is new, this clean-break thing, and here’s the rub – it still hurts like hell. There’s nothing to do, nothing to be done. This clean break means there’s no drama around calling or not calling, writing or not writing, dissecting every bit of conversation. The not-clean-break means I can feel like I’m still in something. There’s some kind of crazy hope, but with this there is none.
Just memories. And sadness.
Yes … I have days where I’m not really sure we’re done. Others say that about us too. But I know, at least for now, we are.
Michelle was right. I did have a romance for the ages … and I haven’t even shared a tenth of it. I haven’t written publicly about it at all, until now. It was tender and private and new. It was ours. It still is. But it is my story too and I am a storyteller.
Last night I listened to a TED Talk by Anne Lamott. In it, she said, “You’re going to feel like hell if you wake up someday and you never wrote the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves of your own heart, your stories, memories, visions and songs – your truth, your version of things – in you own voice. That’s really all you have to offer us, and that’s also why you were born.”
It was those words that inspired me to write. That, a fire in my belly, and the memory of blogging about every other romance gone astray since my divorce. Sharing my story and opening it for conversation had felt both vulnerable and healing. There is something about speaking one’s truth, being witnessed, and hearing, “me too.”
It’s what we do in those church basements where he and I got sober and where we keep going so we can stay sober. As my friend Bob likes to say, “A problem shared is cut in two.” If that is so, then posting this hits it with a sledgehammer – cracks it right open sending sharp little shards in every direction that I will be picking up off the floor for months to come, even when I’m certain I’ve vacuumed them all up. The sun will hit the hardwood in a certain way and I’ll find another little piece.
I guess that’s what great love does – cracks us right open and destroys us. I hate it. And I wouldn’t change a single thing.
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.”
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.
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…”
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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!”
Cake before noon? Well sure…it IS my birthday. And we didn’t finish it. Thanks Maria for making 46 in Madrid so special!
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…
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.
Lisbon, Portugal…November 6-9.
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.
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.
Wise tea bag…easier said than done.
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…
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.
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!
Another reason I’ve fallen for Lisbon…music and dance “just happens.”
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.”
Madrid Jazz Festival. This Friday at 8. Conde Duque. Marc Ribot and the Young Philadelphians. Who’s in?
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.
Standing with the Mayor and people of Madrid in 5 minutes of silence…prayers for the people of Paris, and for people everywhere.
Vision Board. Once again, time to create the roadmap of my subconscious. (I cannot believe I found Mod Podge!)
A few days ago, noticing I had hardly written since arriving in Spain but acutely aware of my many Wandering Jewess experiences, I pulled together my Facebook posts from my first month in Madrid in a blog post. What follows is a Facebook accounting of how life unfolded in that second month – no longer a TEFL student living in Airbnb digs, but suddenly an English teacher with a permanent address.
Churros and chocolate with dear friends from the United States, Melinda and Craig. In these moments the world feels both vast and intimate.
So much to celebrate! New work! New home! A friendship that cuts across oceans. And yes, without question, the most fun meal I have ever eaten. Three Michelin Stars. Entiendo.
When Seattle descends upon Madrid…Salpicon, Burrata and Churros, oh my! Were your ears burning Pamela and Molly?
A Rosh Hashanah Story or This Is What Happens When You Say Yes…
A couple of years ago, someone (you can’t remember who) invites to you to join an online group of women writers — thousands of them. A few of them live in Madrid. And one of them is Jewish and from Miami. She invites you to a Rosh Hashanah service and seder put on by a newly formed Reform chavurah.
You have never met her in person, and you feel uncomfortable as hell, but you go anyway. You are asked to light the candles during the service — which is all in Spanish and Hebrew, of which you speak only a little of each.
You have dinner with a professional flamenco dancer from New York, a makeup artist from New Zealand, and a Spanish window maker, his lovely wife and daughter. An engineer from Colombia and a woman from Buenos Aires (who might as well have “Friend” tatooed on her forehead…instead she has Shalom on her ankle) ask for your number — they want English classes.
You eat apples and honey, challah, pomegranates and dates. There is a fish head in the center of the table to represent moving forward…”away from the tail.” (This must be a Sephardic tradition.) All of it happens in a mish-mash of broken Spanish and English. Remarkably, you feel a part of…even the parts you don’t understand.
There are hugs and kisses and What’sApp exchanges. You walk home through Plaza Mayor. There is a chill in the air. Tomorrow you begin teaching. It is a New Year.
Thinking of you this Rosh Hashanah, Brant, Mary Jo, Matt and Pamela. Besos!
It was suggested I try reading in Spanish. Suggestions from Jesus at La Buena Vida. Feeling excited and intimidated. I think it is going to be a slow read…
I just received a refund from the Oficina de Correos. Seems they gave me the wrong post box in July and any and all mail sent to me now resides in the Bermuda Triangle of correspondence. While somewhat unbelievable… what is equally unbelievable is that I received this refund less than a week after the error was discovered. That and the fact that I don’t speak Spanish and no one at the office speaks English. (Thank goodness for my friend David who just happened to be there last Friday and served as translator.) Oh..and the refund came with a handwritten receipt. Ping me privately if you need my mailing address.
Read 5 pages of a Lorrie Moore short story today — in Spanish. Something about 6 months after a divorce not yet taking off one’s wedding ring. Cut off the finger? Cut off the hand? Slow going…but I’m amazed at my perseverance — looking up every fourth or fifth word — and how much I did understand.
And grateful that when my marriage was over, I could take off the ring.
Man on Metro with thick New York accent: Your hair looks fantastic. I love it.
Me: How did you know that I was American?
Man on Metro with thick New York accent: Are you kidding? No Spanish woman would ever wear her hair like that. Or British woman for that matter…
On this eve of Yom Kippur, as I head out the door to go to High Holiday services in Spanish and Hebrew, I am reminded of where I was at this time last year…on the precipice of something big, although I did not know it. Flu-ish and packing for three-weeks in Italy. Near the end of that trip, riding the light rail to a dinner party in Rome with a fist full of flowers, I thought, “It’s like I live here…I can do this.” Nearly one year later, I am doing “this.” This is grace.
Just completed my first private Spanish lesson. I walked in nervous … nowhere to hide. Sixty minutes later I feel inspired and, dare I say, empowered … like maybe, just maybe, I can learn to really speak this language. Up until now I have only shared my students’: experience of humility … now I know their joy!
Considering twice weekly classes …
Up late with Marissa and The Cabbage Ministry (at The Tempo Club).
Learning Spanish through food and song, at a former slaughterhouse. We didn’t plan it. It just turned out that way…
It’s hard to believe I left the United States just two months ago today. Feels like I have been here so much longer…
Seems a fitting Facebook memory for today (“My first memoir piece in print.”)… on the heels of Tim posting that my profile picture screams “book jacket” and a meeting with friend and fellow writer Nicola in an effort to get “writing accountable.”
This should hardly be a surprise as I call myself a writer. Used to make a living as one. As the words “Left” and “Write” are tattooed on my wrists.
And yet, since leaving the United States on July 28 with a one-way ticket to Spain, I’ve written little.
Little about what it is to live in a country where I hardly speak the language. Little about the heartbreak of leaving a deep and unexpected love. Little about the humbling that accompanies beginning yet another career at the age of 45. And little about what it is to turn 46 in this place I now call home.
I’ve written little about my private victories. About being asked for directions and being able to give them – albeit in English. About when Spanish words tumble out of my mouth without my thinking – simple phrases like, “Para llevar for ella, para aqui para mi” – and having them understood. About getting paid in euros. Jumping through hoops of securing a Spanish ID card. And fulfilling a dream I’ve had for as long as I can remember – to live overseas. A dream so faint, so distant, so seemingly unattainable that I forget it was my dream and that I am actually doing it.
I’ve written little about my work teaching English, about my friendships with fellow wanderers and about my travels since arriving. Except on Facebook, where I have posted short, pithy, true-in-the-moment whispers of my life in Madrid, and many, many photographs.
What follows is a chronicle of my first 30-plus days here in Madrid – as they appeared on Facebook.
I have a Spanish phone number. (Message me and I will give it to you.) Most challenging interaction I’ve had so far, but I got it done. People are amazingly kind and helpful — like Jose, another customer at the post office who offered to help translate. (I will be going back tomorrow to get a box to receive “real mail” now that I can provide a local number.) He said my Spanish is good. I do not agree, but I think I am maneuvering well having been here less than 36 hours. Off shortly to an intercambio at J+J Books to meet Facebook friend Robert. Thanks for the connection, Jessica.
Third time IS the charm. Third day at the post office. Finally had everything in order to get a box. Here are the keys!
I wanted to take a photograph of the women who greeted me there these three days in a row, who were so patient and who were able to finally hook me up. They couldn’t imagine why. “Ayuda me.” (I meant to say “You helped me”…I was close, and they understood.) “It is my job,” replied one, in English. “It is my job.” Amazing.
First day of school.
How much do I love my girls in Chicago? How much do they love me? Thanks for lifting me up. XOXO
(Meme from aforementioned great love – posted to my page)
We can skip the wine.”
It begins to feel like home when I run into people I know on the street. I remember when it happened in San Francisco and Chicago. Now Madrid.
Falling head over heels over head for this city.
Magical skies. The energy of its people spilling into the streets after dark. A surprise misting by the evening sprinklers in Retiro Park.
Lunches with new friends — yesterday at Botin, the world’s oldest restaurant, today on Plaza de la Independencia — running into others on the streets.
Hard to believe I arrived less than two weeks ago. I feel so present, so here…
Sunday morning in Retiro Park. Why yes, I should be doing homework. But first — sun, stillness and a shot at serenity. Refueling following a Saturday of letting go…and filling up for the week ahead.
Trust. Just got my hair cut by someone named Pepe. He does not speak English. I hardly speak Spanish. I think we did okay.
Woo hoo!! Student of the week. Not bad for the oldest student in the class…
Tomorrow is the BIG grammar and phonics exam, as well as my final observed teaching. All good juju welcomed.
The past four weeks have been humbling, exhilarating and, at times, overwhelming. In the home stretch…looking forward to what comes next.
DONE! When they handed out the certificates, they dubbed me Lesley~I will conquer Spain~Pearl. Your collective mouth to God’s ear.
I am walking to pick up the keys to my new apartment. At the corner of my street and Calle Mayor I see this banner. I look at the door and know it like I know my name. Every hair on my body stands up and I begin to weep.
My first night in Madrid, 16 years ago with my then husband …our waiter speaks perfect English. I ask him about it and he tells me he learned it on a kibbutz in Israel. I mention I’m Jewish and that my grandmother did not like visiting Spain because there weren’t any Jews here. After dinner, he sends me across the street … to where I am standing now, to this place with the beautiful doors.
How is it I am living here 16 years later…literally here? With the Jews? With the vintage camera shop? The bookstore? And the bakery? With a landlord and roommate named Maite, a former UN translator just five years my mother’s senior … in an apartment with an unheard of eat-in kitchen, a balcony overlooking a plaza, a piano, and lots and lots of original art. A home I didn’t even have to look for it…it literally came to me. (Thanks Kylie.)
I’m not quite sure what to think … Moving is hard. And it is magic. And I am definitely, definitely supposed to be here.
(In response to Facebook memory “On This Day…”)
On this day in 2012, moving back to Chicago. With John and Karin on the exact same day one year prior.moving from Chicago to Seattle. Today I picked up the keys to my new digs here in Madrid. Something about August 29 and big movement in my life. Only thing missing is John and Karin…
Home. Fully unpacked for the first time in more than a month. (Including Ganesh. Thank you, Clover. And a hand-spun wool bowl made by Deb.) Also for the first time, I moved in a cab. Two suitcases. Two backpacks. A couple of shopping bags. Many thanks to Nikki who packed me the first time. (This time was easier but not nearly as much fun.) And to Jennifer who helped get me from Salamanca to Opera. As I write this, I am reminded that I don’t do any of this alone.
I’m supposed to be getting rid of things in preparation for my departure to Madrid later this summer — like the Bianchi road bike I sold last Friday.
Instead, I’m in a furniture store — Artist Date 108.
I’ve passed by here hundreds of times. Today there is a sign in the window pointing to a new entrance. It feels like an invitation.
Inside it is crammed with a collection of furniture sourced from India, Indonesia and other faraway places. Red bookshelves. Green sideboards. A tall chest with tiny drawers — like a library card-catalog file — each painted a different color, each begging to be filled with a special treasure.
A real desk. A weathered armoire. A butcher block on wheels — the one I never got around to buying for my kitchen.
I think of a friend who recently commented that my apartment — while inviting and well-appointed — has a sense about it that implies I never planned on staying.
Perhaps he sees the empty spaces on the futon where pillows and a throw might go. The missing bedside table. The crappy knives.
He does not mention any of these things, but I see them — reminders that I never entirely put down roots.
Or perhaps he sees the table made of suitcases stacked on their sides. The snowshoes tacked to the entryway wall. The hung pieces of fabric I collected in Rwanda. A traveler’s accoutrements.
I think of all the places I’ve lived and what made each one mine.
The Indian cotton blanket and Picasso print I bought at Cost Plus World Market to dress up my dorm room.
The Morticia Addams-style wicker chair I found at a yard sale in the Castro and carried to my apartment in Haight-Ashbury. The yellow walls in the great room of that apartment, painted with my roommate Tim in the wee hours of the morning. The scratched parsons table and chipped black bookshelves gifted to me from the As IS room at Crate and Barrel.
The mezzuzah my friend Pam gave me when I left Chicago, and that I tacked to the doorway in Seattle as soon as I arrived.
Each like a fingerprint, identifying my space.
Much of what fills my current apartment was gifted to me. Two wooden chests of drawers that had been taking up space in my friend Patrick’s storage unit — delivered on my birthday. I sobbed putting away my socks for the first time — overwhelmed and grateful to finally have a place to store them. The dining-room table my friend Tom made from a door. The lamp that was Mimi’s.
Each object has a story. I mention this to my friend — the one who says my apartment has the feeling of being inhabited by one who isn’t planning to stay.
“Somehow I knew that,” he replies.
He reminisces about traveling through India, China and the former Soviet Union — decorating rooms he would keep for just a month or two with postcards, fabric and fragrant bars of soap purchased in the market.
“You will do the same,” he reminds me.
He is right.
The idea is a comfort as I prepare to move overseas with two large suitcases and two carry-ons; my plan being to find a room already outfitted with a bed and a chest of drawers –space within a place someone else calls home.
I trust I will find it. That I will find room within a room to call my own. And that that which is mine will come to me once more, dressing up the empty spaces. A train map. A rock. A card from a lover.
A tattered copy of Tropic of Capricorn. A packet of seeds.
Each with a story I will share with that friend…and that I will share with new friends. Each a fingerprint, marking my place in the world.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine posed a question on Facebook, asking what she should do with her many years of journals in the course of a move.
I’d been wondering the same thing as I am moving to Madrid later this summer. My plan is to board the plane on July 28 with a one-way ticket, a one-year visa and two suitcases — but no journals.
“Burn them,” my friend Scotty wrote in response to the original question, the answer not intended for me. And yet, it was, as I intuitively knew he was right.
I had been an avid journal-er in my 20s — tucking into bed each night with a notebook and pen and chronicling the events of the day. Sometimes in prose. Occasionally poetry. Lush, detailed descriptions of the sex I was having. Barely decipherable drunken scrawls, desperate and self-pitying.
I carried them with me for nearly 20 years — from Detroit to San Francisco to Oakland. To Chicago to Seattle and back to Chicago — about a dozen of them, most of them with hard covers.
I stopped journaling not long after my then boyfriend (now ex-husband) moved into my apartment — choosing to tuck in with him rather than a stack of pages and my most intimate thoughts.
I returned to the practice 15 years later, switching the time to first thing out of bed — Morning Pages, as suggested in the book, “The Artist’s Way.”
When I moved back to Chicago in 2012, following my divorce, I began reading my old words — the ones I had carried with me for so long. Juicy bits about the photographer who kept a studio above the restaurant where I worked. The aspiring rabbinical student. The actor.
The much, much older man from Detroit who suggested I meet him in Vail — “just as friends.” The lawyer and part-time musician. The doctor I met on a press trip in Germany.
I had forgotten.
It was fun at first, feeling like a voyeur, remembering who I had once been — until I considered contacting one of those men, at which time a friend suggested I take a break from my reading. And I did.
Meanwhile, I continued filling soft-covered notebooks with Morning Pages, stacking them one on top of the other on a shelf in my bedroom closet — until a few weeks ago, when I placed them in a box along with my marriage license and a copy of our wedding ceremony and drove them to Michigan, to the home of my friend Paul, the sometimes reluctant shaman.
That evening, at Paul’s suggestion, I tore off the covers from my notebooks and ripped pages from their metal spirals. I threw a glossy journal into the wood-burning stove that heats the entire house and watched the resin-covered cardboard catch, shrivel and glow. I tossed in several more, until the oven was filled with ash. Then Paul played John Lennon’s “Starting Over” and we danced, laughing.
In the morning I brought the remaining notebooks, wedding ceremony and marriage license outside to a fire pit Paul had dug. He said a few words, inviting in the spirits, and I again began the process of burning my words — stopping occasionally to read a random page out loud before throwing the notebook into the flames — until the pit was overcome with ashes like the stove the night before.
Nearly two hours later, I wasn’t done. Paul suggested I leave the remaining notebooks with him, promising to burn them at his next sweat lodge. I agreed, and asked that we end the day’by burning my marriage license.
Several people had suggested I might need it one day, but I couldn’t imagine any reason to hold on to it. So I offered a few words of thanks to my ex and once again set him free — something I had done following the completion of our civil divorce, and again following our Jewish divorce.
The legal document crackled and hissed, engulfed in yellow and blue flames.
Since then, my ex and I have had precious little contact. And the relationship that had begun just prior to my trip to Michigan has blossomed.
Paul closed the ceremony by bringing me inside, where we sat in meditation. Then he sang and he drummed, smudged me with sage and handed me a rubber nose in a small plastic container — the kind from a bubble-gum machine that contains a prize, a ring or tattoos — and assured me if I continue to listen to my heart and to my spirit, I will always “nose” what is right for me.
Like knowing when to let go of my stories and how to do it. With fire, with friendship, and with God.
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 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.
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.”
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.
And so I find myself at Pizzeria Sera on a Tuesday night listening to six women tell stories about how and where and when they found confidence — hoping to be inspired, or at the very least, to borrow some — Artist Date 94. The monthly event, called About Women, is the brainchild of my friend Nikki Nigl. A force of confidence, not to mention nature, in her own right.
The mere decision to be here bolstered mine some, helping move me forward in the hours before arriving.
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 tell myself it is something. It is enough and move on with my day — meeting with my rabbi a final time before he leaves our congregation. We talk about his departure, 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?”
The post describes an academic coach position at a school outside of Lisbon. 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.”
Settled at home, I write a response. It begins, “Yes.” (Three somethings.) Shortly thereafter, I am Skype-ing with a teacher at the school in Portugal, the one who extended the possibility, dangled the carrot — gathering more information. (Four.)
Turns out I’m right on course, so say an advertising executive, a scientist, a minister, a mud wrestler, a mother and a writer — this month’s About Women storytellers. While the details differ, at the core of each woman’s parable is fear — and the decision to do “it” anyway. Ask for a raise. Leave a job. Leave a husband. Take an improv class. Ride a roller-coaster. Pet a dog. Live as an outsider.
Each took action when the pain of inaction became too great. Was no longer an option. Or when “the worst that could happen” seemed less scary than living with “what if” and “I coulda.” And their confidence blossomed.
“Stop focusing on the heart-pounding, vomit-inducing, brick-shitting aspect of everything and start focusing on the payoff,” Kira Elliot — a personal trainer, mud wrestler and Mary Kay Sales Director — says from the stage. “Pretend until the point of no return…then reap the rewards.”
Post Script. Three days after the event, I send a resume and cover letter to the school in Lisbon. I am amazed to see the resistance in myself. Fear masquerading as logic and practicality. It feels “heart-pounding, vomit-inducing and brick-shitting.” I fazê-lo de qualquer maneira. (That’s Portuguese for “I do it anyway.”)
I am a marker of time. I look for patterns in numbers, hoping to find or make meaning of them.
Like last week.
I had been aware of the numerical arrangement in front of me for awhile.
September 15. My spousal support would be cut almost in half. September 16. Two years since the dissolution of my marriage was made final. September 17. My Divorce Buddy’s birthday. The man who walked lock step with me on this path. Also the day I would board a plane bound for San Francisco, for a friend’s wedding.
The same friend whose home I stayed in the last time I was in the Bay Area. When every morning I would write “I am alone because I am getting ready to be alone.” The words gliding off my pen, seemingly without thought or effort on my part. When my then-husband asked for a divorce.
It all seemed “full circle.” As it should be. Recognizing the pattern, the blog began writing itself. The same way those prophetic words did each morning. Of themselves.
And yet, September 15 came without fan fare. I did not check my bank account to confirm the new, lesser amount had been deposited. The 16th was much the same. I felt, remarkably, “nothing.”
On the 17th, I forgot to call my Divorce Buddy to wish him a happy birthday. (Unlike me, he’s not a marker of time. I imagine he may have been grateful for the oversight.) I was too busy packing.
Which left me wondering about 18, 19, 20 and beyond.
Eighteen had me meditating in Golden Gate Park — returning to the “twice” in my twice-daily practice — and then running into my first massage instructor. (Ironic, as I was staying just a few blocks from the massage school I attended and later, where I taught — although I didn’t realize it until I arrived and looked out the window.)
Nineteen, 20 and 21 had me walking on the Bay Bridge and dancing under redwood trees, all the while fielding the persistent question, “When are you moving back?”
My answer, a surprising and consistent, “I don’t know.” Followed by the insistence that “I’m just waiting for the earth to stop shifting beneath me.” And “The universe will tell me.”
It always does. Oblivious to any date on the calendar.
Like it did on 22, my last full day in San Francisco. The only day of my seven with alone time specifically set aside. I returned to Golden Gate Park — to the Japanese Tea Gardens, a place I had never been before. And then to Ocean Beach. A place I went often…especially when life felt crazy. I’d stand in the sand, squint my eyes and wonder if I could see across to the other side if I tried hard enough…knowing I never could.
The place I took my ex-husband on our first date. Where I kissed him for the first time. The ocean wind whipping my once long hair around my face, showering it with a fine mist of salt water.
I sat on the white-washed wall separating the beach from the parking lot, wishing I had something to throw into the ocean. Something to “give away,” to further separate me from him. To further cut the ties that had kept me tethered — unknowingly, until this trip — to him. I had nothing. Nothing but words. A prayer.
“Let the love that began here, let it end here. Let it wash out with the tides. And let something new wash in.”
Twenty-three I arrived home. The eve of 24, on the Jewish calendar, a new year began.
Twenty-five. Today. I worshipped in synagogue this morning but skipped taslich — the ritual casting away of sins, that which no longer serves us. I had already done it…a few days early.