“I Am Safe; It’s Only Change”

“I am safe; it’s only change.”

The words tumble out of a book I recently unearthed, one I began reading together with a friend last year in Spain but never finished. Written on a card, I assume acting as a bookmark, decorated with gorgeous greens and oranges, purples, pinks and blues. Flowers and faces.

It is one of a deck, a gift from my friend Michelle — given to me when I left Seattle for Chicago in 2012, following my divorce. A few years later, I tucked them into one of two suitcases that accompanied me on a year-long sojourn to Spain.

I’ve pulled them out from time to time when I needed inspiration. In writing. In life. But this time I didn’t go looking for it. It found me.

Riding the 9 Ashland bus on my way to work, the card slides out. I smile, thinking of Michelle, and of the changes I am twisting against, and turn it over.

“Safe and Change …

“If you have drawn this card, some kind of change is afoot. It is, after all, the only constant thing! With change comes fear and questions and the ground becomes shaky with uncertainty. This card is a reminder that change would not be happening unless somehow the timing was right. Although it may be edgy and challenging, the universe intends to keep you safe. Courage does not exist in the absence of fear. And faith cannot exist without ‘not knowing.’ Remember that the true unsafety lies in not changing.”

I wonder if the artist could have envisioned the state of our nation when she wrote this. That I, and so many other Americans, would feel sucker punched in the gut every day following the inauguration of our 45th president — watching the principles this country was built upon summarily dismantled. Our country run by a handful of wealthy, straight white men who seem bent on growing their interests alone. Fearful of waking up and no longer recognizing the place we’ve called home. The place I deliberately returned to when my student visa was up for renewal.

I’ve never been so emotionally effected by politics in my life. Perhaps this is good. Perhaps this is the change. The shift my friend Rachel says she is trying to lean into. She mentions it following my post of a Mahatmas Gandhi quote on Facebook – poached from another friend’s newsfeed.

“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall, always.”
– Mahatma Gandhi

The words are like a balm.

Within hours, nearly 100 people have clicked “like” or “love.”

My heart swells and glows yellow, as it sometimes does. I am reminded of the power of hope and of community, and of the words of St. Francis of Assisi, “ … That where there are shadows, I may bring light.”

That night, I decide to limit my news sources to a chosen few. Since then, I’ve begun to feel a little more peace …

Which leaves room to twist against the other shifts and changes in my life … but only if I choose to.

 

 

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Hope Rises. Hope Falls. And I Adjust My Lapel and Say “OK.”

hope-quote-3-dt1

I woke up this morning feeling the stillness of my neighborhood and I knew. I knew we had a new president. One I did not vote for. And I felt afraid.

I still do.

As a woman. As a Jew. As an American. As a being of light and love.

I realized that fear prevailed. And now I am the one afraid.

How do I not be?

How do I live in a place of love and light? How do I be a part of the solution and not the problem?

Yesterday, I believed we would elect the first woman president.

I was so proud to cast that vote. So uplifted by the photos and stories on #pantsuitnation. Unable to tear myself away from the words of people who had chosen to say, “I’m with her.”

The Muslim woman covering her head with an American flag scarf. The white, straight, self-proclaimed “Southern redneck” who totes guns and had voted Republican his entire life. Until now.

Recent immigrants who believe in the values this nation was built upon. Men in skirts. Men in heels. Women in pantsuits and Army fatigues.

People voting from hospital beds – their ballots brought to them, notarized and returned. People whose absentee ballots never arrived and flew back to their “home” states to cast their votes.

I sat on the bus. In the doctor’s waiting room. On my couch. Reading these stories of hope, struggle, strength and peace. And the cheers of support around them. Around us.

I want to believe in that America.

Four months ago, I returned to Chicago following a year abroad. People asked why.

Because my visa expired. Because I’m not Spanish. Because Madrid wasn’t home.

I believed I was meant to be here during this time. That it was important for me to be here during this time.

And now I am. Here. In this place that doesn’t much feel like home either.

I don’t believe “the answer” is somewhere else. I think it is inside of me. Inside of all of us.

Greater love.

But it is hard to believe when I am in fear. Hard to believe when hope rises and then falls.

And then I turn to the words and wisdom and stories of others. (The power of social media used for good.) Of a woman I dance with, who remembers having to drink from a “colored only” fountain when she was a kid. “Do not let fear cloud your judgement and reason … this country has gone through shit before; if you’ve never had to go through it, it can be terrifying … but you know what? That kind of shit got ended …”

Of a woman I’ve known since I was 12, whose husband is black and whose children think my baldish head is beautiful. “It is time for women to get barefoot and pregnant with new ideas and give birth to a new movement, mother it and take anyone down that tries to hurt it. We are just getting started.”

Of a mother on #pantsuit nation, a woman I do not know, whose six-year-old daughter put on her suit jacket this morning, the same one she wore to school yesterday, and asked “What do I need to do to become president?” And upon hearing, “work really hard in school, get in to a top college and then a top law school, and understand the law so you can change it,” replied “Okay,” full of confidence, adjusted her lapel in the mirror and went to school.

And hope rises.

Today, I will adjust my lapel, say “okay,” full of confidence, and go out into the world carrying love and light – knowing I am meant to be here, knowing there is work to be done.

Artist Date 2.2: Hello, Old Friend

“Hello, old friend…”

I whisper the words to no one in particular. Smiling as I take a seat in front of Marc Chagall’s “America Windows.” Moments ago, the bench was occupied, but serendipitously it is free… as if waiting for me.

My friend Colleen invited me here – to the Art Institute of Chicago – to catch up over coffee and “peel off for our independent Artist Dates.” Number 2.2 (118) for me.

She knows me. The sacredness of my weekly solo sojourn.

We breeze through admissions and before entering the exhibit –“America After the Fall: Paintings in the 1930s”– (my choice), I kiss her on either cheek, holding fiercely to the traditions of my year in Spain. I wish her joy on her Artist Date and thank her for bringing me here.

Here. This place that used to feel like my home. But that I am acutely aware I am a visitor in.

Colleen’s visitor.

I used to be a member.

I loved sitting in on mid-day member lectures … the youngest in attendance by several times around the sun. Taking advantage of early viewings, free coat check, and complimentary coffee and tea.

But most of all, I loved the freedom to just “pop in” at any time … never worrying about “getting my money’s worth.”

I would always end up here. In front of Chagall’s Windows.

Usually I’d stand up close, looking for new details I might have missed. But today I find myself sitting back. Taking it all in. The whole of it.

It is a metaphor for the day.

The AIC is busy and the exhibit feels congested. I’m somewhat surprised as it has been up for almost two months now. There are a lot of children. And a lot of loud Midwestern accents.

It does not feel like mine anymore.

I snap photographs.

“American Landscape” by Charles Sheeler. Grimy and distinctly Midwestern. Something I kind of romanticized while living abroad. Kind of.

american_landscape

The frame from Grant Wood’s “Young Corn” which reads, “To the Memory of Miss Linnie Schloeman Whose Interest in Young and Growing Things Made Her A Beloved Teacher In Woodrow Wilson School.”

IMAG4560.jpg

The rolling hills that make up the naked, female form in Alexandre Hogue’s “Erosion No. 2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare.”

mother earth

The cartoonish characters and cartoonishly thick pain in William H. Johnson’s “Street Life, Harlem.”

street life

I wander out of the exhibit and take a photograph of the words on a door across the hall – “A Lot of Sorrow.”

Yes, there is. And I am.

Moving is hard … even when I choose it. The place that was mine has changed. I knew it would. It did before. There are new inhabitants. There always are.

And yet, if I look I can still find myself here.

In the words leaping from the panels introducing the exhibit. Eerily appropriate today.

“The title of America after the Fall refers in one sense to the (stock market) crash, but is also aptly describes the pervasive concern that the nation had fallen from grace.”

“Regardless of style, many painters hoped their art could help repair a democracy damaged by economic and political chaos. The diversity of approaches made the 1930s one of the most fertile decades of American painting.”

In Archibald Motley’s “Saturday Night,” which I saw for the first time a little more than a year ago. On another Artist Date, at the Chicago Cultural Center. The date before the date – the one with the man who would become my lover for the months leading up to my departure for Spain. I smile and my heart aches just a little.

saturday night motley

On the bench in front of “America Windows,” where today I see nothing new at all. The sameness – both beautiful and comforting.

“Hello, Old friend.”

Home

The following long-form piece was written for and performed at Nikki Nigl’s AboutWomen in Chicago on July 19, 2016.

I have been back in Chicago exactly 12 days.

I miss Madrid.

I miss the winding cobblestone walk to my metro stop at Opera. The flat buildings washed yellow, orange and pink with black wrought iron balconies on every window. Cartoonish by streetlight. I swear I could push them over and they’d tumble. Just like a movie set.

I miss the fountain at Cibeles. That “birthday cake of a building” as Dirk used to call it. The old Correos. Post Office. Now a museum I never made it to. A “Welcome Refugees” banner hanging from its top, a fountain in front. In the center of a roundabout that leads you to the Prado or Calle Gran Via, depending on your preference.

I used to walk here on Saturday nights alone when the sun had receded but the air was still hot and all of Madrid filled the streets, up from its collective summer siesta. The goddess Cybel and her lions riding on illuminated pink and blue water.

I miss my metro pass. Fifty euros for unlimited rides on the super clean, super-fast metro that would take me anywhere in Madrid. And if it didn’t the train or the light rail would.

I miss Turron gelato.

2015-08-08 21.39.03
Plaza de Cibeles and that “birthday cake of a building.”

I miss private health insurance to the tune of 57 euros a month. Gynecological exam chairs that tilt down, working with as opposed to against, gravity. I miss not having to ask for a pelvic ultrasound instead of a pap as it is a matter of course.

I miss feeling safe walking home alone at night.

I miss taking the train to Seville or Valencia for the weekend. Or a quick flight to Portugal, North Africa or Nice. I miss swimming in the Mediterranean upon reaching the coast. The salty taste of my lips and the white streaks drying on my legs surprising me.

2015-10-10 17.40.41
On the beach in Valencia.

I miss tomates that taste like tomatoes, pimientos that taste like peppers and pepinos that taste like cucumbers. I miss their names. I miss Paco choosing them for me at the market and our impromptu intercambio. His corrections to my beginner Spanish. My approval of his modest English.  His stories about his daughter and the victory I felt in understanding them. Mas o menos.

I miss cheap groceries.

I miss eating rye for breakfast instead of oatmeal. Eggs that sit on the shelf. Good, inexpensive coffee.

I miss Nick, the Greek waiter at Dionisos, flirting shamelessly with me.

I miss speaking Spanglish.

I miss all of this, and yet I chose to leave it. To return to Chicago. Where I pay for every El ride. Both financially and energetically. Nausteated by the slow, insistent rattling of the train. Knowing I would get there in half the time if I still owned a car. Knowing it’s best to ask someone to walk me to the train at night in some neighborhoods. My keys laced between my fingers as I leave the station and approach my own door.

Chicago. Where politicians are proudly corrupt. People hold signs on freeway off ramps … begging for money. And 2 bags of tasteless produce cost nearly $50.

Where zero degree FARENHEIT winters are a real possibility. As is a shooting death every weekend.

I chose this.

I chose home.

Lumbering Greystone buildings, summer rainstorms and leafy maple trees. Sunday dance classes at the Old Town School of Music. Lectures at the Art Institute. Lake Michigan.

Art-Institute-Of-Chicago-HD-Wallpapers
Copyright Art Institute of Chicago HD Wallpaper.

I’ve moved several times in my life. Four states, seven cities, two countries … if you count where I was born and raised. Which is not the same as home.

I learned that the first time I moved to Chicago in 2007. I’d been living between San Francisco and Oakland for nearly 14 years when my husband and I packed up our two cats and all our worldly belonging and headed east, to the Midwest, a place I vowed I’d never live again, for his medical residency.

God has a sense of humor.

It was grey and sticky, drizzly and hot when we arrived. We opened the car doors and felt the steam rise up around us, looked at one another, and without saying a word asked “What have we done?” Followed by “We are Californians. (Albeit adopted ones). This is a temporary residence. A sojourn. We will hate Chicago together.”

For months I wore ear plugs on the El and held my hand over my heart as I walked up Michigan Avenue. Each felt being accosted, until my own vibrations rose to match those of the city.

Whenever people asked where I was from, I responded, “I was born in Detroit. I live in Chicago. Oakland is my spirit home.”

But eventually … I got worn down. I surrendered. To this city. It’s people. To my addiction. I made a life for myself here. I grew my business. Got sober. And converted to the faith of my childhood – righting a religious technicality.

I stopped beginning every sentence with “In California …”

I found my biological parents. I learned to dance. I took my husband to the place where I spent my childhood summers, 8 hours away in northwest Michigan.

I began having experiences rather than talking about them.

And somewhere along the way I fell in love with this sometimes dirty, noisy, violent city. I fell in love with its architecture. Its people. Perhaps, most of all, I fell in love with myself.

Four years later I moved to Seattle. The wife of a now doctor, I felt obligated to go.

I cried like a wounded animal. Like I cried when I left Bay Area. Mourning the loss of morning hikes in Redwood Park, Peets coffee, and KFOG radio. The Golden Gate Bridge. My old house in Haight-Ashbury. The place where I met my husband and was married.

 

spirit home
Spirit Home. The French Trail in Redwood Park, Oakland.

Except this time, the loss felt strictly internal. Chicago, the place, has never spoken to me. Its topography. Its flatness and lack of nature feel uninspired. But there is something in its soil, in its DNA, that takes root in me.

It called me back after a year in Seattle. When my marriage ended and for the first time in a long time, I got to choose where I would live.

And it called me back after a year in Madrid, where I was teaching English. Fulfilling a childhood dream of living overseas. One I spoke about here, just before I left, a year ago. My only lament that my passport is far less sexy than it would be pre-European Union.

Since arriving, I’ve been greeted with warm “welcome backs” and tentative “welcome homes.” And the inevitable, “What brought you back?” It’s a fair question. One I’ve grappled with myself since making the decision not to renew my visa a couple of months ago.

There are lots of reasons.

Living in a country where you don’t speak the language – at least not fluently, is at best, frustrating. At worst, infantilizing. Without words, one’s personality changes. Mi casera, my landlady, once commented “You are quiet.” To which I replied, “Not in English.”

I needed, and asked for, a lot of help. Scheduling doctors’ appointments. Opening a bank account. Translating government documents. Buying a Spanish cell phone to replace mine which didn’t work.

I slept in a twin bed in an already furnished room in a grand, old Spanish apartment. I felt like a child. I moved the bed. Removed a chest of drawers. A few pictures. I hung up a batik of Ganesh, a string of elephants on a gold chain and a vision board I created around Thanksgiving time. I was still acutely aware that the place was not “mine.” It was not “home.”

The thought of living alone, setting up internet and utilities felt overwhelming. Even friends who were fluent in Spanish waited two months or longer for connectivity. Making due with coffee shops and on occasion, cold showers.

I focused on gratitude. For the opportunity to live with this 83-year-old former UN translator who lived through the Franco era and who was willing to speak with me in halting Spanish or easy English. For my inexpensive rent and the courtyard our apartment looked out on to.

For the community I created. With other teachers. Other expats. And others I met traveling.

For the ability to see Eastern Europe, North Africa and a good deal of Spain. For getting paid, albeit not as much as I had hoped, to talk.

2016-03-25 11.53.55
Traveling in Tangier with my friend Lindsey.

My students adored me. And I, them. But I was acutely aware that they were my students and not my friends … much as I wanted to talk. And much as they were eager to listen.

I had a life. But it was a smaller life.

The English-speaking community in Madrid is transient, making it difficult to build and sustain long-term friendships. And I couldn’t imagine beginning a romantic relationship … in part due to my lack of language skills. But also because of cultural differences. And while my work as a massage therapist surprisingly followed me to Spain, offering me a few clients and a few extra euros a month, my opportunities for employment would always be limited.

I felt limited.

I didn’t know that until a few weeks ago when I was talking with my friend Pam … who had spent six hours in the Social Security office. Playful, friendly and highly communicative, she said to the workers on her way out, “We’re such good friends, I’m going to invite you all to my wedding.”

“That’s it,” I said, pointing to the air, which she – of course – couldn’t see.

I can’t make small talk. I don’t have the language to strike up a conversation on the metro, in the elevator or at the grocery store. I’m too busy thinking about what I’m going to say and how to say it … and by the time I know how, the moment is gone.

And in that moment I realized what home was.

Yes, in its simplest form, home is where I reside. Where I know how to get where I’m going and the fastest way to get there.

Home is the place where restaurants know my face, possibly my name, and often my order. Where I speak the language. And where I sometimes hear my name called out in the street.

But mostly it is a place where I can get bigger. Where I feel expansive. Where I can grow. And to grow, I need to root. Home is a place where the soil is loamy. And conditions are favorable to temperament. A place like Chicago.

 

 

 

“Whatever Gets You to God”

spencers church
The unassuming Iglesia Catedral del Redentor in Madrid.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in churches. Some great, Gothic cathedrals like Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Others, little more than rooms off of side streets, secret gems, suggested by locals.

 

As a Jew, the words feel strange, incongruent, as they fall from my fingertips on to the keys. As a traveler, one-time reporter, and student of faith, they make complete sense.

I’ve been in churches for professional reasons.

On a press trip to Israel some 20 years ago, where I replied to a colleague’s exhausted and overwhelmed inquiry, “Where are we?”, with “Somewhere where Jesus did something.” Laughing loudly, as Americans sometimes do, we were promptly chastised in a language we didn’t speak. My intention, never to be flip … just honest.

I’ve been in churches for personal reasons.

For a Catholic wedding – where I kept looking for the words everyone spoke in response to the priest – assuming I would find them in a book or on a card. I never did. “You’re just supposed to know them,” my friend Andre explained.

For a colleague’s funeral at a Baptist church in Oakland – which my friend Michael referred to as “a tame affair … nobody threw themselves on to the casket.”

But I’ve never been to a church, “just because.” Until now. Artist Date 112.

If I am to be honest, even this visit isn’t “just because.”

It is because my friend is a priest here – Iglesia Catedral del Redentor. It is because he is preaching this evening, in Spanish – about lepers. About touch. And about his own healing.

I think this will be a good way to practice my Spanish listening skills.

I liken it to watching Spanish television, something that has been suggested many times but that I have yet to do for more than a few minutes at a time – usually when my landlady is half listening to the news. I have not cultivated the habit, and I’m not sure I want to. I haven’t owned a television for many years and don’t miss it.

So I come here instead, to hear this story which I more or less know.

Except that I don’t know it. I cannot find it. My Spanish isn’t that good. I can understand words and phrases but I cannot put them together.

So I focus on what I can see instead.

The words to songs I don’t know, in English or Spanish, projected on to the wall with an overhead projector, an acetate sheet moved up and down by someone’s large hand as each set of lyrics have been completed, making room for the next. I haven’t seen an overhead projector since college, when a friend of mine would drop colored liquids onto the glass plate, projecting swirls of color onto the wall, and we would dance to the Grateful Dead.

The African women – some of them Muslim, wearing head coverings. The families from South and Central America, their children with big, almond-shaped eyes playing in the back of the sanctuary. Many are here for the free bag of groceries they receive after the service. Nary a non-Catholic Madrileño in the crowd.

“All driven out or killed by Franco,” R, a former minister from New York, explains to me.

He and his wife moved to Madrid some years ago after she dreamt about the two of them living here as missionaries. Being fluent in both Spanish and “Christian,” he explains different elements of the service to me.

Two velvet bags attached to wooden sticks are passed through the pews.The gesture requires no explanation and I drop a euro into one of them.

At the end of the service, S walks down the middle aisle – offering his hand, his cheek and his heart to the parishioners. The older ladies grab on to him. They clearly adore him.

Like I adore him.

I think of what my friend D calls “divine attraction.”

“Whatever it is that gets you to God,” she explains to me over coffee, many years ago, when I fess up to having a crush on a “man of the cloth.”

The piercing blue eyes and suede elbow patches of a college religious studies professor.

The compassionate heart of a rabbi who understands my need to convert to the faith of my childhood when I don’t quite understand it myself.

The friendship of an American priest who helps me navigate my way through a Spanish-speaking world.

An empty belly and a the promise of a bag of food.

Artist Date 112: Whatever Gets You to God

spencers church
The unassuming Iglesia Catedral del Redentor in Madrid.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in churches. Some great, Gothic cathedrals like Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. Others, little more than rooms off of side streets, secret gems, suggested by locals.

As a Jew, the words feel strange, incongruent, as they fall from my fingertips on to the keys. As a traveler, one-time reporter, and student of faith, they make complete sense.

I’ve been in churches for professional reasons.

On a press trip to Israel some 20 years ago, where I replied to a colleague’s exhausted and overwhelmed inquiry, “Where are we?”, with “Somewhere where Jesus did something.” Laughing loudly, as Americans sometimes do, we were promptly chastised in a language we didn’t speak. My intention, never to be flip … just honest.

I’ve been in churches for personal reasons.

For a Catholic wedding – where I kept looking for the words everyone spoke in response to the priest – assuming I would find them in a book or on a card. I never did. “You’re just supposed to know them,” my friend Andre explained.

For a colleague’s funeral at a Baptist church in Oakland – which my friend Michael referred to as “a tame affair … nobody threw themselves on to the casket.”

But I’ve never been to a church, “just because.” Until now. Artist Date 112.

If I am to be honest, even this visit isn’t “just because.”

It is because my friend is a priest here – Iglesia Catedral del Redentor. It is because he is preaching this evening, in Spanish – about lepers. About touch. And about his own healing.

I think this will be a good way to practice my Spanish listening skills.

I liken it to watching Spanish television, something that has been suggested many times but that I have yet to do for more than a few minutes at a time – usually when my landlady is half listening to the news. I have not cultivated the habit, and I’m not sure I want to. I haven’t owned a television for many years and don’t miss it.

So I come here instead, to hear this story which I more or less know.

Except that I don’t know it. I cannot find it. My Spanish isn’t that good. I can understand words and phrases but I cannot put them together.

So I focus on what I can see instead.

The words to songs I don’t know, in English or Spanish, projected on to the wall with an overhead projector, an acetate sheet moved up and down by someone’s large hand as each set of lyrics have been completed, making room for the next. I haven’t seen an overhead projector since college, when a friend of mine would drop colored liquids onto the glass plate, projecting swirls of color onto the wall, and we would dance to the Grateful Dead.

The African women – some of them Muslim, wearing head coverings. The families from South and Central America, their children with big, almond-shaped eyes playing in the back of the sanctuary. Many are here for the free bag of groceries they receive after the service. Nary a non-Catholic Madrileño in the crowd.

“All driven out or killed by Franco,” R, a former minister from New York, explains to me.

He and his wife moved to Madrid some years ago after she dreamt about the two of them living here as missionaries. Being fluent in both Spanish and “Christian,” he explains different elements of the service to me.

Two velvet bags attached to wooden sticks are passed through the pews.The gesture requires no explanation and I drop a euro into one of them.

At the end of the service, S walks down the middle aisle – offering his hand, his cheek and his heart to the parishioners. The older ladies grab on to him. They clearly adore him.

Like I adore him.

I think of what my friend D calls “divine attraction.”

“Whatever it is that gets you to God,” she explains to me over coffee, many years ago, when I fess up to having a crush on a “man of the cloth.”

The piercing blue eyes and suede elbow patches of a college religious studies professor.

The compassionate heart of a rabbi who understands my need to convert to the faith of my childhood when I don’t quite understand it myself.

The friendship of an American priest who helps me navigate my way through a Spanish-speaking world.

An empty belly and a the promise of a bag of food.