My intuition has always been good. I feel things before they happen … usually things I’d rather not know. A sense of dread deep in my core, based on what seem like barely perceptible shifts.
The text that comes an hour later than usual. My every-Monday-at-the-same-time phone call dropping straight into voicemail. The date that doesn’t end with, “When can I see you again?”
People will tell me I’m crazy, that I am overreacting or taking things personally … but I am rarely wrong. These feelings have served me, serving as an alert of what more was to come.
However, sometimes the sensation is more subtle – less dread, more “knowing,” a body memory – like today, skimming Facebook while waiting for an early morning train to Evanston.
On This Day …
“My husband and I met in the Marina District of San Francisco nearly 15 years ago. Ten days ago, in that same place, he asked that we end our marriage. I don’t believe in mistakes. I believe in a grand design of a master quilter. I believe in love. And I believe in friendship. Please hold us both in your hearts.”
That was six years ago. My brain knew the post would reveal itself sometime soon, but my body knew the exact day.
It still hurts … the reminder of the disappointment of a failed marriage, the ending of a partnership that was better than many but not good enough for either us, the sense of rejection. The pain has changed over the years – from chronic and dull to acute and fleeting – these days it feels more like a bee sting than a broken bone.
I know I can change the settings on Facebook so I won’t see it … but the truth is, I don’t want to forget it. I’m not interested in only remembering “the good stuff.”
So I find myself on the platform scrolling through the 81 comments with tears rolling down my cheeks … and in this pain I find that there is “good stuff” right there. Prayers, hugs, love and light. The reminder that I am strong,
A poem from Rabbi Rami Shapiro – “An Unending Love” — sent from my friend, a rabbi in Cleveland. Rainer Maria Rilke’s words, “Let life happen to you. Believe me: life is in the right, always” – sent from an old boss now living in Sydney, Australia.
April 9 marks the end of what I have come to call my spring season of grieving; it begins in mid-March and ends On This Day. It includes my husband asking for a divorce, plus two crushing romantic endings and a rejection letter from Yale University’s School of Divinity in the years that followed.
But what I didn’t realize until this morning is that my “spring season of grieving” also included the purchase of a one-way ticket to Madrid, signaling the beginning of my year of living and working abroad, the fulfillment of a childhood dream.
On This Day (2015).
“Holy Crap! I leave in 109 days. Thank the Goddess for Award Travel – one way cost me $145. (And I feel like I might throw up.)”
And the next, April 10, 2015? On That Day my first, real post-divorce relationship began. I don’t even need Facebook to remind me. It ended a long time ago, but I still remember it … both in my brain and in my body.
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.
I have not waited tables in more than 20 years. Until today.
As expected, not a lot has changed. Waiting tables remains a satisfying exercise in short-term relationships, being sassy and being shiny. Except orders go in via computer now as opposed to directly on the rail.
And my body has something to say about it.
After six-plus hours on the floor, I hurt in all the places I expected to. And some I didn’t.
My shins ache. And although I haven’t eaten in hours, I’m not hungry.
In about 18 hours I leave for Tennessee to visit my mother. I haven’t packed.
And yet, I am flying down Lincoln Avenue in a red and white polka-dot skirt, Fly London Wedges and bubble-gum pink lipstick. My bike lights are on. My heart is full. I feel happy.
Art trumps fatigue. Friendship trumps fatigue. Commitment trumps fatigue.
And so I land here, in a seat at the Steppenwolf Theatre. Artist Date 4.2 (or 120, depending on how you count).
It is the student showcase – the culmination of 10 weeks of classes at the School of the Steppenwolf Theatre. My friend Tom, one of the students, mentioned this a week or so ago. I penciled it in my book and assured him I’d be there.
Tom has built me a dining room table. Installed my air-conditioner. And is also a fan, dare I say devotee, of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.
I was never not going to be here.
Even though I thought about it. Even though my shins had other ideas.
One-hundred twenty Artist Dates under my belt and I’m still shocked how every single one shifts me. That the commitment in my calendar means something. My commitment to my blog. To myself. And in this instance, my friend.
That every time I begin, I feel delighted. Joyous. Like my heart might burst. No matter how or what I was feeling 20 minutes earlier.
That it really takes so little to make me happy … other than me treating me. Leaving behind the shoulds and have-tos for a little while.
Like when my aunt whisked me away on a few hours shopping excursion during a lull in the weekend of my brother’s Bar Mitzvah celebration. She thought perhaps a certain 10-year-old with a Dorothy Hamill wedge might enjoy one-on-one attention, and some fancy new duds for middle school – which she had gift-wrapped after we picked them out.
Going on an Artist Date is like that. Like being Aunt Ellie to my 10-year-old self.
Except I’m 46. My shins hurt. And I’ve grown up enough to have space and attention for the person on stage.
I didn’t for my brother. I was only 10.
But I do for Tom.
When the lights go up and the entire ensemble takes a bow, I jump to my feet along with half of the audience. Clapping wildly. Tears streaming down my face.
My commitment to the Artist Date began as a response to pain. To a man I affectionately referred to as the Southern Svengali and the short, sweet romance after my divorce that I couldn’t let go of. I sometimes forget that.
I forget because the weekly, solo play date as prescribed in the book The Artist’s Way, healed me from obsession I only hesitantly admitted.
I forget because two years of creative commitment, coupled with other work, allowed me to release him. Us. And my ideas about the way we should be in one another’s lives. (Which looks dramatically different than I had imagined. And while our contact can now best be described as sporadic, the connection remains strong … sweet and satisfying to both of us.)
I forget because it gently nudged me into becoming the kind of woman I dreamed of being. A woman engaged in life in interesting ways. Who does interesting things. Who has interesting conversations about more than relationships.
But today, I remember.
I remember as I find a hole in my schedule and watch my mind like a rubber band – snapping back to thoughts of the man I dated before I left for Madrid.
While I know there is no slipping back into one’s life as it once was, I had hoped we might explore dating again when I returned. But it hasn’t turned out that way. And in these quiet, alone moments, I find myself once again struggling with letting go. Of him. Us. And my ideas about the way we should be in one another’s lives.
And so it is grace when I hear the whisper that perhaps now is a good time to re-commit to my creative self again. That an infusion of new stimuli might once again quiet my mind and lead me back to the woman who has interesting conversations about more than relationships.
(While a year in Madrid seemed to have the makings of one grand, extended Artist Date, my days were filled with the stuff of life. All occurring in a language not my own. And Artist Dates became, unfortunately, sporadic.)
I peruse the movie guide — more concerned with time, location and the act of going than what will be projected on the screen – and choose a film.
I cut short a phone call. Say no to a text from a friend asking if I would like company. Both occurring after I’ve made the decision to go. The universe seeming to ask, “Are you sure?’
And I am.
I hop on my vintage 3-speed cruiser and pedal to the Music Box Theatre. Artist Date 1.2. (Officially, number 117 … renamed for congruence with my rededication to the practice and my return to Chicago.)
Grinning ear to ear, I purchase my ticket. Giddy to be with me.
This has always been the magic of the Artist’s Date. A turning inward. A return to myself.
Ironic, as the movie I have chosen – Life, Animated – is a documentary about Owen Suskind, a young man with autism and the tools he and his family use to pull him out from his personal world.
How Walt Disney movies become the lens and the lexicon for connection. The language for articulating what we all want. Friends. Romantic love. Work. A sense of purpose. And what we all feel from time to time, what Owen calls “the glop.” The inevitable pain when the things we want elude us.
We join him in watching scenes from Bambi on his first night alone in his independent living apartment – after his mother and father have left. And later, TheHunchback of Notre Dame when his girlfriend of three years ends their relationship.
Heartbreaking moments punctuated with joy and hope, most evident when Owen connects with his own passion and a sense of purpose. His “Disney Club” – where he and other adults with developmental disabilities view and discuss their favorite films. And experience an unscripted visit from Gilbert Godfrey, the voice of Iago from the movie Aladdin.
I sob witnessing their squeals of laughter, excitement and disbelief … as I am reminded that the universe is full of surprises. That it is always willing to conspire with us. And that our greatest joys often come packaged in a way dramatically different than we might imagine them.
That gorgeous moments of serendipity occur when we turn first turn inward – connecting with our tenderest truths – and then out – vulnerably sharing them. We allow the world to join our party. And sometimes even Gilbert Godfrey shows up.
I can’t remember the last time I vomited. I don’t try to. Such a violent act — my insides coming out. My body’s intuitive wisdom, ridding itself of what it identifies as clearly foreign. An organic process.
It is hard to imagine I would ever try to bring this on. But I did.
A long time ago. And thankfully, not for very long — I wasn’t very good at it.
I haven’t thought about this in more years than I can remember. Probably because I haven’t binged in at least that long.
But I am brought back to it here, in the darkened Greenhouse Theater for Danielle Pinnock’s showcase performance of Body Courage — Artist Date 104.
In these 75 or so minutes, Pinnock is the embodiment of her more than 400 interviews, her words verbatim.
She is man and woman. Black and white. Straight and gay. Young and old.
She is a former Miss California USA pageant contestant sporting a red bathing suit, gold high heels, a long blonde wig and Valley Girl twang.
She is an Irish priest with early-onset Parkinson’s Disease. A Muslim woman touching her thighs over and again — the site of her burn scars, scalded by her ex with the contents of a crock pot.
She is Tan Mom, whose 15-minutes of fame I missed somehow, and a Temple University professor who also missed her arrival on to the American pop-culture scene.
She is a gay man with gynecomastia — overdeveloped male breasts — the one who keeps his shirt on during sex.
She is a 20-something waitress who vomits.
My ears perk up when the waitress mentions “the trick” — puke immediately after eating, before any food has begun its journey towards digestion.
How could I not have known this? It is so obvious. And yet, my flirtation with this brand of disordered eating was pre-Internet, before Google was a verb and I could type “How to vomit” into the search bar.
Unfortunately, I never needed any special instructions regarding bingeing. It was easy. Intuitive.
The black-out tornado roaring through my kitchen — stuffing bite after bite into my mouth, not fully finishing the last before starting the next. No mere episode of overeating, emotional eating, or eating when I am not hungry — although all of these factors may be at play.
The binge is a high. A distraction. Numbing.
And it is shameful. A secret. Dissociating.
It is me at my friend Carlos’ house, dog sitting — on the kitchen floor eating Girl Scout Thin Mints by the sleeve and peanut M&Ms from a cut-crystal jar.
He returns, unexpected. My mouth is full, my hand loaded for the next bite. We look at one another and say nothing about it — now or ever again.
It is me lying on the bed in my underwear and nothing else, trying to bargain away the hurt — both physical and emotional. Trying to pray away the remorse.
It is me walking down the hill to one market for yogurt-covered raisins, up it to another for Pepperidge Farm cookies, and next door to a third for a pint of Ben and Jerry’s — too ashamed to buy all of this at once.
It is me successfully unloading my body of macaroni and cheese from the cafeteria before my afternoon lecture. I look in the mirror. The blood vessels around my eyes are purple and broken. I fear people will notice, will know what I have done.
It’s been nearly 20 years since my last binge. I don’t remember it. What I ate. If I vomited. Or how I stopped.
I only know that it stopped “working” — no longer providing the desired effect of distraction, and if I was lucky, oblivion. That the pain of my behavior — both physical and emotional — became too great to continue. And that I no longer do it.
A miracle is defined as “a highly improbable or extraordinary event, development, or accomplishment that brings very welcome consequences.” This is surely one.
However, I still overeat — sometimes. I still emotionally eat and eat when I am not hungry — sometimes. And I likely always will — sometimes.
Sliced pork on focaccia, oil seeps through the waxy paper, while I sit on the edge of a fountain in Campo de’ Fiore. My body says “enough” at two-thirds, but I continue — uncertain when I will be here again.
The last few bites of a burrito from my favorite taqueria — not enough to bring home.
Fresh dates in my refrigerator — nature’s crack. I have two, then two more, and then another two.
The dinner plate I push away — done — and then pull back and return to as my friend broaches the topic we have neatly avoided all night.
The difference? My intent. My response. My awareness.
I remember these moments. Some, like the porchetta in Rome, are joyous. Others, like the reminder of my “still single” status over dinner, more than uncomfortable. But mostly they are neutral, evoking neither shame nor pain, just information — a physical sensation of “too much.”
And the comfort in knowing it, and in knowing that sometimes “too much” is “just enough.”
Forgive me, it has been 16 days since my last Artist Date and 19 days since I’ve blogged.
I feel like a Jewish Catholic at confession. Except the only one I’m asking for absolution is myself.
I miss my alone time. Artistic input into my body. My head feels foggy. Squeezed. Heavy and thick. As if there is no room…no room for anything more. No room for anything at all.
I am daydreaming about when and where I can get my fix — my dose of solitude and creative sustenance.
I didn’t expect this, didn’t expect to be “hooked” when I entered into this commitment a little more than two years ago. I didn’t know what to expect. Only that I needed help.
I was newly divorced. My biological mother — who I had only met just four years earlier — was dying. And the relationship I wasn’t having — the one with a handsome southerner who lived some 900 miles away, who I kissed for two nights like a horny but innocent teenager — was effecting my relationships.
My friend S. told me in no uncertain terms she could not, would not, hear his name again.
I was on my knees, desperate. The humbled position where all change grows from.
On Christmas night 2012, a voice I’ve grown to know — my wise-self voice — suggested I work through The Artist’s Way again. Adding that this time I go on weekly Artist Dates — a once every seven-days solo sojourn to fill my creative coffers — as is suggested in the book.
I went to lectures, museums, opera. To pottery classes, dance performances, walking tours. Movies, thrift shops and book stores. All of it, alone.
On occasion, I miss a week — choosing to spend a final day with a friend before she becomes a mother or sharing my artsy outing with another — but it is rare. And I’ve never gone this long without…until now, at the Davis Theatre — Artist Date 99.
My therapist in Seattle was the first to suggest Cheryl Strayed. “I read her before Oprah,” she insisted, imploring me to pick up Wild, as well as Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar — the best of Strayed’s advice column from The Rumpus.
Queen Anne Books placed a special order for both books. They arrived the day after I left for Chicago.
I mostly forgot about them until this past summer — two years later — when my friend Lori insists I buy both books. She tells me “writers read,” and drags me into the Book Cellar where she puts a copy of each into my hands and guides me to the cash register.
Both are dog-eared now, and tear-stained. Sentences underlined, entire pages bracketed. Words resonate. Lessons I do not want to forget. Whispers from the universe reminding me where I came from, where I am today.
“Unique as every letter is, the point each writer reaches is the same: I want love and I’m afraid I’ll never get it.” (Tiny Beautiful Things)
“…for once it was finally enough for me to simply lie there in a restrained and chaste rapture beside a sweet, strong, sexy, smart good man who was probably never meant to be anything but my friend. For once I didn’t ache for a companion. For once the phrase a woman with a hole in her heart didn’t thunder into my head.” (Wild)
Sitting in the darkened theater, Strayed words — now images — alive before me, I say, yes. And yes.
I still fear the possibility of not finding romantic love again, but it doesn’t drive me anymore. It doesn’t dictate my every action. My every reaction.
I can be in “chaste rapture beside a sweet, strong, sexy, smart good man who was probably never meant to be anything but my friend.” Lying next to one another on my couch following morning meditation, the Reluctant Shaman’s lips pressed to my forehead — my third eye.
I no longer ache for a companion. The words, “I do not wish a man were here,” crossing my lips as I cross the Seine last October, alone on my 45th birthday..
Strayed took to the Pacific Crest Trail — alone — to learn these truths. To feel them in her bones. Mine was a different path, made of clay and dance and music. Of film and paint and spoken word. Of pasta and gelato and nearly three weeks in Italy. All of it, alone. But the truths, the same.
“So write…,” Strayed writes in Tiny Beautiful Things. “Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.”
My neck just did that thing where it snaps back my head as it is falling forward, as I am falling asleep sitting up. It happens every time. Every time I sit in a darkened theater. It doesn’t matter if it is a movie or opera or lecture. If it is engaging or tedious. The darkness lulls me into slumber. I feel like my father before he was diagnosed with sleep apnea and was fatigued all of the time — except that I don’t snore.
I know better. I know I need to go to sleep earlier. But I am back to my old habit of sitting in front of the computer until far too late, usually doing nothing of note — trolling Facebook or shopping for something I don’t end up buying. And when I finally make it to bed, I’m left with five or six hours to rest before I do it all over again.
The habit started when I moved out of my then husband’s bedroom. I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning talking to a friend who was also going through a divorce. The late-night habit continued when I settled myself back into Chicago — although the conversations did not.
I began to consciously work on the habit. Setting alarms at 10 p.m. — alerting me it is time to step away from the computer. Getting accountable with my Weight Watchers groups — choosing “Get Seven to Eight Hours of Sleep Each Night” as the healthy habit I would work on each week. I moved from five or six to six or seven, but never quite made it up to eight.
And then I started backsliding. Call it a sleep relapse. A divorce-habit relapse. It began noticing its effects — finding myself “needing” a mid-morning tea to stay awake. Struggling to make my way out of bed, trying to negotiate my non-negotiable morning exercise. And today, dozing off during a lecture at the Art Institute, Temptation: The Demons of James Ensor — Artist Date 95.
My being here can only be described as a lazy Artist Date. I know nothing about Ensor. In fact, I’m not all that interested in or excited about the lecture. But it was highlighted in the Art Institute of Chicago Magazine and it allowed me to fulfill the commitment I had made — first, to a year of Art Dates, and when I had completed that, to 100 of them.
This public accountability prods me on — even though no one is really paying attention, other than me — even as my head dips further forward, catching only bits and pieces of the lecture.
Belgium. Seaside resort town. Alcoholic father.
Yes, tapeworm. I am suddenly awake. Awake to this pain, this presence that ate away at Ensor, that his doctors couldn’t seem to rid his body of.
It dominates his art. Images of the worm, its feeding mouth, skeletons and death. I am struck by his commitment to it — even after it has left his body. It changed him. His story. His work.
His worm is my divorce. His drawings and paintings are my words. I feel somehow comforted by this. That it is ok that I am “still talking about this, writing about this.” That this is what we do — at least some of us. Rather than turning away from the pain, we work it out — on canvas, on paper, on screen. We allow it to change us. For ourselves to be changed.
I visit the exhibit after the lecture, wide awake. The galleries are designed so I can go in the out and out the in. There is no beginning or end. Just middle. The walls are a surprising choice of aquamarine. I stand close to The Temptation of Saint Anthony — it’s 51 pieces of pencil-colored paper layered upon each other — and look for the worm, its mouth, its suckers. I find it along with demons, a pair of red shoes and a vendor hawking frites.
On the way out, I pick up a sheet of four temporary tattoos — among them, the feeding mouth of the tapeworm from The Temptation of St. Anthony. I slip the sheet into my bag, quite certain I will not put any of the images to my skin.
I don’t need to. I have my own, permanent ones. “Write” and “Left” tattooed on the inside of each wrist in typewriter font. The tapeworm is my divorce. A reminder of what changed me and how I am changed. Of my work and how I work it out. And my commitment to 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.”)
The waxy brown cotton of my lapa feels soft between my fingers. Like my body. Like my heart.
I thought the African skirt would become this way over time, as I danced in it – but it remained rigid and stiff. Until today, when, in the dark and heat of the sweat lodge – Artist Date 79 – it softened, pinning itself to my body.
I roll the fabric between my fingers like rosary or prayer beads. I feel the moisture accumulate between my breasts – grateful for their small size. Grateful for the darkness to peel off my sports bra, unnoticed, and let my t-shirt from the Knoxville Farmers’ Market cover me. Given my druthers I would wear nothing. But I respect the modesty requested at this ceremonial gathering of men and women.
I close my eyes, breathe in the sweet sage, and fix my ears on the beating drum and the sound of my friend Paul’s voice.
It has been a journey just getting here.
I arrive despite a blinding thunderstorm, the need for on-the-road car repairs, and a bit of information which shakes my sense of perception and causes me to question if this is right for me, right now. And with the aid and calm of friends who ferry me to and from.
I walk about a quarter of a mile through wet, freshly mown grass to where the lodge is set up – my orange, peep-toe wedges gathering silky, green slivers.
I remember wearing these shoes through Rwanda two summers ago – collecting the red earth of the land of 10,000 hills between my toes – and recalling Patsy and Edina schlepping their Louis Vuitton bags through sand in the Morocco episode of the BBC’s Absolutely Fabulous. Dragging my rolling suitcase filled with towels, sweat and apres-sweat clothes, I feel like a bit actor in the Sweat Lodge episode.
Paul is draping blankets over the hut he constructed out of river willows – collected from his sister and brother-in-law’s property a few miles away. Rocks are heating in a pit outside of the lodge, and he has built an altar from the dirt inside of it.
Paul is the third in a line of spiritual teachers with the same name. The first being my university religious-studies professor, the second, the one who taught me to meditate – leading me through initiation with an offering of fruit, flowers (star gazers, my favorite) and the bestowing of a mantra.
Our paths have been crisscrossing for most of our lives. We agree the universe has been conspiring for us to meet.
There are eight of us, the last arriving in a John Deere Gator Utility Vehicle. She looks like an African Queen, regal in her loose batik dress with dragonflies on it, her grey hair braided at the temples and wrapped around her head like a crown. Her face is at once both sad and serene.
She reminds Paul they have been in ceremony together – with her former partner. The break-up is obviously fresh.
Words tumble out of my mouth about divorce, change and the painful nature of endings – no matter how right or how kind. How people will say all sorts of stupid things. And that she is, no doubt, on the precipice of some sort of adventure. She smiles in a way that tells me she has lived a thousand lifetimes and knows that this kind of pain is just part of it. That she has chosen this and is not fighting it.
I mention that I wasn’t sure I would make it here today. That I wasn’t sure it was right for me, right now. “Until now. You are why I am here.”
Paul smudges each of us with sage and we enter the lodge on our hands and knees, proclaiming “Aho Matakuye O’yasin – Greetings, All My Relations.”
I remember Patsy smudging my ex and I when she officiated our marriage. And me doing the same for my friend Chase when her divorce was final, smudging the entire house – making it “her own” again.
It is hot and humid inside. I feel a wave of nausea wash over me as Paul explains what will happen in ceremony.
Rocks. Herbs. Water.
Chanting. Praying. Smoking.
Connectedness to the earth. To one another. To ourselves.
I am afraid. Afraid of the total darkness. Afraid of what I might feel, what might “come up.” Afraid I cannot physically or psychologically endure this – even though Paul has assured us that this will be a “gentle sweat.”
But the heat is like a balm – different from the still Midwestern humidity that settled heavy around me just moments before. The drumming and chanting force all thoughts from my mind. I only hear my friend’s voice – strong, confident, prayerful – and the African Queen’s. It is sweet and slippery and hard to hold on to. But very much there. Just as I feel her, very much there, next to me.
Everything softens. My body. My brain. My lapa. I feel the sweat sliding down my body and I am deliriously in love with it. This body I have fought for so much of my life. That has brought me here and is sustaining me today. It is strong and small and very, very feminine. I feel my hands pressing into the earth beneath me. My legs. My feet. My ass. The soft dampness of moist earth is flesh, the spiky grass is hair and we are one.
I pray for my stepfather and my two girlfriends who are battling mightily. And I ask for prayers for myself. For compassion and acceptance for myself, for where I am, not where I think I should be. My voice cracks and I add, “May we all have compassion and acceptance for ourselves and for one another.”
I pray for the man who hurt my heart not so long ago. I call out his name when I am certain no one can hear me.
I smoke from the Chanupa — the sacred, ceremonial pipe. Sober nearly seven years, my addict is awakened.
I am back in college, sitting in a circle. My friend Brian stirs the bowl and lights it while I suck in all that I can, holding it in my lungs. I converse easily while I do this – like one of the big boys.
But I am not talking. And this is not weed. It is tobacco, although it tastes like juniper and pine. It is ceremony. It is holy. It is community. It is what I longed for, sitting in a circle like this, so many years ago.
I weep in the darkness. I am certain no one can hear my dying animal letting go. And it is over.
We crawl out on our hands and knees, just as we had entered, saying “Aho Matakuye O’yasin – Greetings, All My Relations,” once again.
Paul greets each of us with an embrace, and we greet one another in the same way. The African Queen’s eyes are wordlessly different. Lighter. As if the color has changed. She presses me tightly to her.
The group walks towards the house for a celebratory feast, but I stay behind and wait for Paul.
While I am waiting, I do cartwheels around the lodge. One after the other after the other, until I feel dizzy. I feel the pull of my pelvis – the source of chronic pain – and I welcome it. I feel the lightness of my body, of my mind and I welcome it, give thanks for and to it.
I had believed I was here to meet the African Queen. That was only half of the truth. In the stillness of the after-lodge, I know its other half, its twin — I was here to meet myself. “Aho Matakuye O’yasin — Greetings, All My Relations.”
It is the story of my life. Or perhaps it is just my fear. That seemingly subtle line between interested self-awareness and narcissistic self-centeredness.
I begin blogging in 2012. Dubious. Wondering what, if anything, I have to say. And who, besides myself and perhaps a few kind-hearted friends, would care.
The questions become irrelevant as life becomes more Technicolor than I am used to. I have no choice. I have to write.
About Rwanda. My birth-mother’s death. Divorce. Romance. Healing.
The unexpected gift of my return to writing following a 15-year absence – what spurs me on in my early, tentative efforts and continues to spur me on today – is the return voices of others. The sense of connection, and its immediacy, is a balm.
I feel seen. Heard. Supported. And even, dare I say, useful. It seems the words I give to my name my experiences are words others have struggled to find.
In time, I find the writing itself is healing. That I am healing myself.
And yet I sometimes still wonder what, if anything, I have to say.
On occasion those closest to me take exception to my writing and I have to consider if what I have written is hurtful or dishonest. If I have compromised their anonymity. Their right to privacy.
And, when blog posts garner little response, I question if what I have to say is still relevant. Interesting. Of value.
Self-doubt. It is the devil of all creatives. Likely all people. But for those whose very lifeblood is the exercise of expression through words or clay or paint or charcoal. Violin, ballet or film. It can kill – the art. The process. The artist. Either metaphorically or literally.
Sunday – Artist Date 73 – is that kind of killer.
I am invited to Megan’s house for a salon. (Think 1920s Paris, the apartment of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.) Her friend, Peggy Shinner will be reading from her recently published book of essays on the body, “You Feel So Mortal.”
Megan thinks I will enjoy the afternoon, both as a writer and a bodyworker. And, she thinks I should perhaps meet Peggy.
Approaching Megan’s door I hear piano music blending with animated chit-chat. Inside there is a table covered in finger foods. Slices of grainy-European bread topped with slices of egg and watercress. Cheeses, jams and chutneys. Chocolate-covered fruit. Elegantly-penned signs in front of each platter, describing its offering.
I make a cup of green tea and easy conversation with the handful of women I know.
Megan introduces Peggy and me, highlighting our shared status as writers and Jewish women. She asks me about my writing. I trip over myself, talking about my blog – life after divorce, not dating, Artist Dates, healing. My proverbial elevator pitch in desperate need of revision, or at the very least practice.
I tell her I believe it might be a book. She smiles.
Later, Megan summons us upstairs, inviting us to find a seat from a row of chairs. Peggy comes to the front of the room, opens her book and begins to read.
“I have Jewish feet,” she reads, continuing on about her father’s and how they are the same. Then digging deeper, she reads about Jewish genetics, especially as applied to feet. And how it was used against her people, my people, in Nazi Germany.
Her story is bigger than just her feet. Just her family.
I feel small. Self-important. Silly. Why don’t I include research in my writing? Facts. Or history — like she does in another essay about her mother and her relation to Nathan Leopold, who with Richard Loeb, sought to commit the perfect crime.
In a Q and A session following the reading, Peggy specifically mentions her desire to reach beyond her own story. To have a greater context.
I don’t buy Peggy’s book. I say goodbye from a distance, a wave, mouthing the words “Thank you.” I am in some sort of self-imposed shame spiral.
I come home and finish reading, “Seducing the Demon,” by Erica Jong. I have forgotten how smart, sassy and irreverent she is. Her casual use of “fuck” and “cunt.” She is my hero.
The book includes an essay that Jong read on “All Things Considered” in 2006. “On Being a Car Wreck” – a response to unfavorable reviews of this book.
“So, instead of seeing the review as a personal vendetta or sexist attack, I’m living with the fact that the critic simply thought my book sucked. So how can I write a better one?
“…Become less self-centered…How do I get over myself?…I’ve always wanted to improve and evolve as a writer…I’ve finally, at age sixty-four, gotten to the point where I realized that there are lives and characters more interesting than mine…”
She was sixty-four. I am just forty-four. Plenty of time.