The Present of Being Present

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Wearing T’s marathon medal — the present of being present, of being here now.

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.

Click.

“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.

 

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Up To Date

me in segovia
Still on a solo adventure…

Up to Date.

The words are not lost on me.

I posited that this was what I needed to move forward in my writing … to tie up the past 3-plus months neatly, in context, with a bow (or a blog, or three). Tidy, clean, presentable.

And under this, tugs the idea that now that I am “up to date,” am I also “up to date?”

I’m not so sure.

In addition to writing little about my days here in Madrid, I’ve written precious little about the relationship I left in Chicago. Precious being the key word. Because it was. Because it still is. Because I wanted to, and still want to, honor his privacy…and mine.

And also because I was hopeful. Hopeful that even though we’d been doing the dance of “not long distance,” a nameless cha-cha of “I love you, but you live in another country so I don’t know exactly what we are but we certainly aren’t what we were” – that we would do long-distance. That I could have my romance and have my adventure too.

Not unlike my marriage. My marriage that ended for many reasons, among them perhaps that I often appeared more single than partnered. Not romantically or sexually single. But uncompromising. Independent. So when I moved to Chicago, and then Seattle, for my then-husband’s work, more than one friend expressed surprise…thinking I might opt to stay put and stay married.

It’s been painful to find love again and to leave it. Even though we both knew I was leaving from the moment we met. I don’t think either of us expected to tumble so head over heels over head for one another.

Upon seeing this, my friend S. – the master of turning things on their head just to get perspective — has more than once suggested I return to Chicago to “play things out, to see what happens.”

I explain that my lover never asked me to stay. That he has never asked me to come back.

“I didn’t ask you that,” he replies. “I said if you want to go find out about the two of you…then go.”

“I can’t,” I say.

“Why not?”

I pause.

Because I am here. Because I committed to being here. Because I always dreamed of living overseas and it was such a crazy, distant dream that I never imagined I’d do it. And yet here I am, doing it!

Even when it’s hard. Even when I’m not sure that I am here for any reason other than to say, “I tried it. I did it. I had the experience.”

Even though  Spain might not be my long-term home. Even though teaching English might not be my long-term career.

I made a commitment — a commitment to myself.

I tell him that I don’t know when I might have this opportunity again.

That I followed my ex-husband’s dream. That it was easier than thinking about my own. But that this is mine. A sometimes vague, not-fully formed but finally-owned fantasy.

“So stay,” S. says. “But it is your choice.”

It is my choice.

And I am reminded of making the very same choice a few months before I met D. Before I decided to move to Madrid…when teaching English overseas was still in the “maybe, just maybe” stage.

It is winter. Sunday morning. I am driving to work, leaving my friend P. at my apartment. He is visiting from Michigan.

P. is a shaman and a writer. He is funny and sweet and sexy. Flirtatious. But P. is not interested in me that way. We have discussed it.

Before I leave the house he traces the space between my eyebrows – my third eye — and kisses me there. Driving, I think, “It is too bad P. doesn’t like me that way…”

And in the silence of Sunday morning, sunlight bouncing off the snow, a voice, mine…but smarter than me, whispers, “His dream is to have a retreat center in Southwest Michigan. Yours is to live in Europe.”

And I realize, for perhaps the first time in my life, I have a dream bigger than love.

I am flummoxed.

And it seems I still do.

It all sounds very Ms. magazine-esque. Strong and empowered. And at moments it is. But at other times, a lot of the times, it feels incredibly lonely and stupid. And yet, the thought of returning to Chicago before my one-year visa has expired sounds more lonely, more stupid.

And I return to the question…am I “up to date?” Here? In Madrid? I see a friend of mine embark on her first Tinder date just weeks after announcing the end of her 20-plus year marriage and I’m pretty sure the answer is no.

Kudos to her. But I just haven’t been “up to” it.

Maybe because I haven’t wanted to let go of “us.” Maybe because it was, and we were, that good.

Maybe because I’m a little bit scared to open my heart again. Maybe because I am dubious about what is or is not out there.

Or maybe, just maybe, because I’m a little bit afraid of losing my dream again…the one bigger than love. So, for now, I’m holding on tight.

 

 

Pretend Boyfriend

I tattooed my aspirations on my body lest I forget them.  Lest I again consider leaving myself.
I tattooed my aspirations on my body lest I forget them. Lest I again consider leaving myself.

“You want a relationship, right?”

The words tumbled out of my Rabbi’s mouth.  Innocuous.  More a statement than a question.  Nearly an afterthought as we wrapped up our monthly meeting.

“I…I think so,” I stammered.

We stared at one another.  There it was.  The truth.  It fell flat on the floor, spreading out in the space between us.  Consuming.  Shocking.

We’d spent an awful lot of time talking about relationships over the years.  Talking about my fathers – both of them, the biological one and the one who raised me, my Dad.  My husband – now my ex.  The smattering of men who had come in and out of my life since the dissolution of my marriage.

My Divorce Buddy.  The one I talked to each night, into the wee hours of the morning.  Half a country apart.  Both of us alone, in the dark, navigating our way through the sometimes messy endings of marriage.

The Southern Svengali.  Genius artist in a Johnny Cash t-shirt.  He guided me through Charleston and my last visit with my biological mother before she died.  Pressed his lips against mine and nothing more.  Called me “Lil Pearl” and taught me how to be a better artist.

And most recently, the man I have affectionately come to call Mr. 700 Miles – referring to the physical distance between us.  In our hearts…it is just inches.  But in our lives… oceans and continents apart.  He is clearly, plainly, 100 percent unavailable.

Separated, but not quite divorced.  ”Kinda dating” someone in his own zip code.  He is finding his own center – spiritually, emotionally, creatively – and his own truth.  Work I have already done.  Work I continue to do.

And yet, when we talk or Skype, there is a familiarity that speaks of karmic attachments and lives shared.  Quite simply, I am in love with his heart.

He is, what my friend Rainey calls, a pretend boyfriend.  They all are.

A "selfie," on the road with my Divorce Buddy.  He never wants to show up in pictures. Hm...
A “selfie,” on the road with my Divorce Buddy. He never wants to show up in pictures. Hm…

She uses the words in a matter-of-fact way that implies everyone has one.  Has had one.  Like a cell phone or email address.

Deep friendship.  Emotional intimacy.  Trust.

Companionship.  Connectedness.  A shared sense of not being alone even though you are – when you are one instead of two.

But without a physical dimension, or a commitment to anything more.

She assures me that she has had several over the years.  And that sometimes, pretend boyfriends become real boyfriends.  But mostly they are pretend.

This has been my experience too.  Although I am usually too blinded by hope to see it at the time.

Good for practice.  For reminding me of my loveliness.  What it feels like to be close.  And allowing me to believe in possibilities.

No good at all in moments when my bed feels cold and lonely.  When I want nothing more than to feel arms wrapped around me.

Downright disastrous when I bring expectations of a real relationship to it.

My friend Kerry called me out on my penchant for pretend boyfriends this past weekend.  He wanted to know what I was afraid of.  Why I wouldn’t try online dating.  Why I wouldn’t make myself available to someone who is available.

A gift from one of my pretend boyfriends.  He said that I fell out of his head and on to his sketchbook.
A gift from one of my pretend boyfriends. He said that I fell out of his head and on to his sketchbook.

I felt sick inside.

“I don’t want to be left,” I said quietly in a voice that did not seem my own.

Was I referring to my partner of 15 years “leaving me?”  My birth parents “leaving me?”

Or was it me leaving myself?  Pushing aside my art, my values and my aspirations for someone else.  Someone who never asked me to.  And for something else – a relationship.  Believing that alone I was somehow less valuable.

Earlier that day, I left a voicemail for one of my girlfriends.  “I want a real boyfriend.  Not a pretend one.  I just had to say that out loud,” I announced into the digital abyss.

And I do.  Someone who is here.  Who I can physically feel.  His lips over mine.  His breath on my neck.  His hands on my body.

Someone to hold on to me.  And who I can hold on to.

Someone to eat with.  Sleep with.  Dance with.

A partner.  An equal.  Someone I can grow with.  Grow old with.

But I want me more.  The chance to be with myself.  To not leave again.

Yes, I want a real boyfriend.  I just don’t want one yet.

Becoming The Man I Wanted To Marry

In the past 48 hours, I have found myself thinking, “My ex would be so proud of me.”  A lot.

But the truth is, I’m so proud of me.

2014-01-02 23.03.37I’ve been doing a lot of the things he used to do.  And doing them well.  Or well enough.  Most of them, weather related.

I grew up in Michigan and lived there until I was 24 years old.  So by rights, I shouldn’t be phased by snow.  But I am.  Especially driving in it.

Living in California for 14 years meant I didn’t have to concern myself with it.  Except in the mountains, and only then when there was accumulation.  Climbing the winding roads to Bear Valley, I would pull to the side when we hit the snow line in Arnold, and without a word, hand over the keys.  Without even asking.  It was just understood.

When we moved to Chicago in 2007, it was similarly understood that he would drive when the roads were dubious.  That he would dig the car out, if necessary, and carve out a parking space on the street — “holding it” with random household items that would not blow away.

This is no longer an option.

I realized this on Tuesday afternoon, New Year’s Eve, as I watched big, fluffy flakes come down in sheets, sideways.  I had made a commitment for the early evening and invited a friend to join me.  It was her first New Year’s Eve single again, and without her children.

And so, with no one to hand the keys to, and a strong desire to make good on my word, I got behind the wheel.  The side streets were a mess.  The main roads weren’t much better.  Snow was falling faster than the plows could pick it up.  And it seemed there were precious few out on the roads.

As my friend Chris often advises, about most everything, I “took it slow.”  Like most everyone else on the road.  I didn’t hold the wheel with a death grip.  I didn’t take silly risks either.  I met my obligations, but also made it an earlier night than originally planned.

Feeling bolstered by the experience, and also frustrated by letting the weather dictate my social calendar, I drove to the South Side on Wednesday for a New Year’s Day party – filling the hours with good friends and good conversation, and my belly with black-eyed peas and seven greens, for health and good luck, as is the tradition in the south.

Driving home I could feel the snow rising under my car.  Gliding on top of it.  It felt scary and kind of fun at the same time.  And I was both pleased and relieved when I parked the car for the night.

Luck ran out this morning when the Honda couldn’t quite make it over the inches of fluffy powder that had accumulated around it, and that continued to.

2014-01-02 20.04.51I sort of expected this and took the train to work.  On the way home, I bought myself a spendy new pair of winter boots, as the ones I was wearing had begun to leak.  After dinner, I went back outside.  Started the engine, brushed the snow off the car and shoveled a pathway out from the white swath that neatly tucked it in.  I knew I had to before it froze overnight and I was stuck until spring’s thaw.

I know this all seems terribly basic.  But the truth is, I haven’t done it in more than 20 years.  Since I left Detroit.  And there, I depended on my father to crowbar open the occasionally frozen-shut door.  Or I skipped work entirely if the roads seemed questionable.

It all sort of reminds me of this great line from Torch Song Trilogy.  In the final scene, Harvey Fierstein tells his mother, Anne Bancroft, “I have taught myself to sew, cook, fix plumbing, build furniture – I can even pat myself on the back when necessary – all so I don’t have to ask anyone for anything.”

My foray into shoveling and driving in inclement weather doesn’t go quite that far.  Nor would I want it to.  I’m ok with asking for help.  And I’m grateful for the people who do for me what I truly cannot do for myself.

It’s more like the postcard I have stuck on my white board.  A Lichtenstein-style cartoon of a woman, her word bubble reading, “Oh my God! I think I’m becoming the man I wanted to marry.

It’s true.  I have.  And not just when it comes to snow and cars.