From Mikveh to Madrid, Now … More

rocaberti-table
Dinner at the Rocaberti Castle. Food for the belly. Food for the soul.

Five days, 12 writers, 3 mentors, a genius staff who could both dream and deliver. Chefs who fed our hearts and our bellies. A castle, many missed photo opportunities and so much unbelievable talent.

I knew I was truly immersed in the moment when I received an email from my mother “just checking in” because she hadn’t seen me on Facebook in a while. (Sweet, right?)

It is only now, after leaving the “bubble” of the Rocaberti Writers Retreat, that I am able to begin reflecting on all that I experienced. All that I learned. All that happened. And all that has yet to happen.

In the cocoon of the castle, I was able to practice pitching “They Don’t Eat Alone in Spain” to mentors — three individuals steeped and successful in the business of movies, television and publishing — as I would for agent representation or a book deal.

I introduced my work as “Eat, Pray, Love” meets Dora the Explorer, and was immediately met with the challenge — “Why a cartoon character?”

Quite simply, because I could not think of a single happy ending for a solo female protagonist over the age of 12. Think”Ramona the Brave,” “Harriet the Spy,” and yes, Dora.

Our resident feature writer and producer, the one who had challenged me, was able to summon just one — Holly Hunter in the 1987 film “Broadcast News.” One.

In that moment I knew I was on to something. And yet, I already knew. Because of all I had experienced. All I had written. The support I had received via Go Fund Me. And the feedback from my retreat mentor — one on one — and from my colleagues in small group sessions.

In addition to learning about my own work, I received a practical education on next steps and the nuts of bolts of publishing. And opened my mind to the possibilities of film and television.

And now? More…

I’ve been asked to let go of my newspaper training and blogging terseness and to let the lushness of my language fill in the blanks. To tell the story of how I went from mikveh (the ritual bath used in a Jewish divorce) to Madrid. The experience of 52 Artist Dates and how they changed me … that when given a chance at the kind of love I had called out for, I ultimately chose myself.

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Artist Date 94: Do Something(s)

strongherA 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.”

Amen.

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.”)

Artist Date 84: Moreloveletters

2014-08-16 23.04.48

“If you can read this, then it’s yours! Enjoy!”

I’m standing in the bathroom at Weight Watchers with Leah.  A brown envelope sitting on top of the tampon machine catches my attention.

There’s a hashtag on it: #moreloveletters as well as a website: moreloveletters.com.  Inside is a card with an owl and the words “yooo-hoo!”  And inside that are these words:

“Dear Amazing Person,

You are the lovely recipient of a card from moi! A total complete stranger! Not the creepy kind, more like a loving kind to tell you how awesome you are! Every day as you grow you become more and more amazing! Don’t ever doubt yourself!  You rock!  Keep smiling! Share joy with others!  Lots of hugs, Sunshine”

A wave of joy and gratitude washes over my body.  It is an auspicious beginning to my Artist Date – number 84 – which in my mind doesn’t begin until this evening.  I have treated myself to a front row ticket for the Chicago Human Rhythm Project.  I wasn’t familiar with it, but I liked the sound of it.  And already, the magic of the Artist Date – the magic of being filled up – has begun.

I am reminded of my spiritual business teacher Anne Sagendorph Moon, who taught me that money begets money.  That I am able to receive only by giving.  And to tithe the sources of my inspiration.

I recall another of Anne’s students getting two, crisp, $100 bills from the bank, dropping them in the hands of two complete strangers and running away, grinning.

This note in my hand feels like a $100 bill.  My life feels magical and full of possibilities.  I want to deliver my own little brown-wrapped notecards of love into the world.

And for the rest of the day, I do.  Energetically giving and receiving loveletters until I can pen my own and join this crazy, mad, lovely movement.  Hoping that love begets love.

I text the chef – a man I’ve just begun dating.  I recall it is a day of great transition for him and I wish him well.  I do not ask him any questions, nothing that requires action or a response on his part.  I receive one anyway.  “Was thinking of you…Funny.”

I call out a message of encouragement to the woman in the dressing room next to mine at Intimacy – a upscale lingerie shop.  An invitation to treat herself.  She has just let out a squeal of joy.  That “aha-you’ve-changed-my-life-with-the-right-size-bra-and-thank-you-for-showing-me-how-to-wear-it-properly” cry of relief.  I know it.  I’ve had it here.  More than once.

She laments, “Now I have to make choices.  I’ve never had choices.”

“Buy them all,” I yell through the walls.  Laughter.  Hers.  The salesperson’s.  My own.  A host of other women behind closed doors.  “Seriously.  Do it.”

I don’t know what she does, but I leave smiling with a bag full of lacy bits.  Bras and panties.  Silky. Filmy. Embroidered. Embellished.  The price tags make me giggle.  $40.  $65.  $110.  Ridiculous.  Each rings up at 70 percent off.  A sexy little loveletter to myself.

I call a friend and hold her heart.  I eat dinner and go to the show where I receive the sweat, the lifeblood, of the dancers – literally.  Bits of salty water catching light, cast into space.  The clickety-clap tapping of the feet of teenage girls allows me to imagine a different trajectory.  Sliding doors.

I am recognized as a dancer in my own right by the woman in the seat next to me.  She dances the beginning level West African class at the Old Town School of Music and sees me coming in for the intermediate one.

She sees me.  She has seen me.  She wants to know how long it has taken to arrive where I am.  I tell her I have no idea.

On the way out, I trade a big, wide grin with the handsome sound engineer.  His smile back reflects my own.

I do not give him my card or try to engage him in conversation.  I allow this simple exchange of heart to stand on its own, as if to say “Namaste — I see the God on you.”  A final loveletter of the night.

The Accidental Dater

I accidentally started online dating.

One of my online profile photos -- showing my "quirky" side.
One of my online profile photos — showing my “quirky” side.

I know, right…how does one “accidentally” start online dating?  Here’s how:

A couple of months ago I took a peek at Match.com.

More than a year had passed since my divorce was final, and the people who had suggested I take some time off were now suggesting that perhaps I might consider putting myself out there.

I didn’t get very far.

I began filling out a profile and got stymied on “body type.”  I said curvy.  I was told I was mistaken.  That the correct answer was thin or fit.

I pushed it aside and entertained a long-distance love affair instead – pinning my heart to a man who lived 700 miles away, wasn’t quite divorced, and was even less emotionally available.  Until he just couldn’t do it.

He never said that.  He never said anything at all.  He walked away without a word.  And for the first time in my life, I did not demand an explanation.  It was clear.

Well-intentioned friends suggested I consider JDate while I nursed my heart back to health.  Once again, I began filling out a profile, as I had done with Match.  And once again, I didn’t get very far.

The men I saw while trolling neither quickened my heart nor tugged at my loins.  This likely says more about me and my availability than anything about them.  Nonetheless, I stopped looking…even though Match and JDate continued to send me “potential” matches.

A few weeks went by and I thought I’d try again – this time, OKCupid.  It seemed everyone I knew who had any online-dating success – including my ex-husband – met here.  And, unlike Match and JDate, it was free.

I began filling out a profile, believing I would troll anonymously as I had on the other two sites.  Within moments I started receiving pop-ups like, “Mr. OnlyHasEyesForYou viewed your profile.”

What profile? I hadn’t even completed filling one out.  I panicked, but kept typing – adding photos and pithy prose describing what I am doing with my life and the six things I cannot live without, wondering if I had chosen the proper screen name.

"Show don't tell."   One of the first rules from journalism school.  Dancer. Traveler.  Joyous.
“Show don’t tell.” One of the first rules from journalism school. Dancer. Traveler. Joyous.

That was two weeks ago.

I’ve received photographs of 20-somethings’ manscaped chests with a note asking if I fancy younger men.  I’ve received cheesy, singles-bar lines like, “You are too hot to be on this site.”  Recently, I received a note from a man in his 60s looking for companionship on his ranch in Arkansas.  He isn’t looking for love, he said.  If that comes, fine.  But what he really wants company and a stay-at-home gal.

I have not responded.

I’ve discovered humor doesn’t always translate and what I think is clever might not be received that way.

And I’ve learned what looks and sounds good in email also does not always translate, as evidenced by a seriously strained phone call.

I responded by resorting to an old behavior – sharing unattractive information about myself, in hopes it will drive the other person away.  While I am not proud to admit this, it worked.  Neither he, nor I, followed up with one another.

I thought about writing a quick note, wishing him luck, but I didn’t.  I’m not sure what proper etiquette is here.  My ex tells me there is none.  (He also told me to get ready for a bunch of dick photographs.  Thankfully, to date, I have received none.)

my first, with one of the first men who wrote to me.

He appears smart, clever and articulate.  His pacing feels in sync with my own.

We do not communicate every day.

We have just begun to share more personal aspects about our lives.

He has an adopted daughter who is African-American, and he cannot get her braids right.  I am an adoptee too.  My mother couldn’t get my braids right either, and my father never considered trying.

I’m talking to a couple of other men.  Some seem a little too eager.  And I wonder if that is my own fear or if it is the truth.  Others seem a little more breezy – like myself.  And that is the miracle of this.  I feel breezy.  I have not hooked into any of them.  Or even the idea of any of them.

Turns out, online dating is an excellent exercise in detachment.  People come.  People go.  Some respond.  Others don’t.  Some respond and then stop responding without a word.

Sometimes I respond.  Sometimes I don’t.  And sometimes I stop without a word.  When it is clear there is no “there, there,” to quote Gertrude Stein.

Sadly, I’m not quite over Mr. 700 Miles.  However, meeting all of these men reminds me the world is full of romantic possibilities.   I’m fairly sure that this new knowing, unlike how I got there, is no accident.

Rising Up Into Warrior

Drawings -- icedteaandlemonade.blogspot.com
Drawings — icedteaandlemonade.blogspot.com

When I was a child, my mother did yoga.

I have a vivid image of her in black tights and leotard, trotting off to our swim club – where lessons took place in the “party room,” in front of the fireplace.  She took a towel with her.  It was 1976.  There were no yoga mats.  She boasted that the teacher said she was doing well as she often fell asleep at the end, during Savasana – corpse pose.

I do not do yoga.

I have written about it before.  That I wear this like a badge of honor.  That I am the massage therapist who does not do yoga.  Who wears red lipstick, tailored clothing and heels.  Ever the contrarian.

Until last Thursday, at 6:30 a.m., when I am.

My friend Jeanette is to my left and a little bit forward, so I can watch her out of the corner of my eye.  She is tall to my short.  She knows what the poses are as they are called out.

I know many of them too.  It is untrue that I have never done yoga.  I have dabbled, and not liked it.

Sometimes because I wanted a more vigorous workout.  Sometimes because I felt intimidated.

Mostly, because it made me cry.

My last attempt at yoga was in Seattle.  One of my last efforts to bring my then-husband and I together.

He had found a studio on the top of Queen Anne Hill that he liked.  Small – with just enough room for six mats.  The students were fairly consistent each week, and none of them looked like “Western Yogis.”  Most came to heal a physical or emotional wound.  He liked the teacher.  And he thought I would too.

I did.

But every session I found myself on the verge of tears, wondering when class would end.

The poses were not terribly difficult.  But we held them for what seemed like forever.

I felt my chest rip open – my beating heart vulnerable and exposed.  Too much.  I told her that.  She said it was good.  Everyone said it was good.  That I needed more of it.

Savasana. Yogaflavoredlife.com
Savasana. Yogaflavoredlife.com

It did not feel good.  And while always one to push myself toward more growth, I did not feel like I needed more of it.

So it is a surprise to find myself here on the first day of spring, in the front row of a hot studio, not quite heated to Bikram temperatures, but more than warm.

I committed to it during a Weight Watchers meeting I was leading.  We were talking about accountability.  Partnering.  And stepping outside of our comfort zones.  Jeanette mentioned her class at Om on the Range.  I blurted out, “I will meet you there.”

It is snowing outside.  Big, fluffy flakes.  It is March 20 and the room smells like men’s body odor, which is different from women’s.

The room is darkish.  At times, even darker.  The music changes.  At moments verging on electronic dance.

We begin the session with a collective OM.  I feel the words resound in my ears and bounce off the walls around us.  I think of my synagogue in Seattle – the meditation congregation, Bet Alef.  Rabbi Olivier began each Friday night service with several collective ShalOMs.

The instructor’s name is Veronica.  I have shared my yoga trepidation with her before class, as I was the first to arrive.

She gets it.

The movements are faster, fluid — Vinyasa.  It feels better to me.  And I can mostly follow along.  Veronica makes adjustments to my body.  Uncurling my toes.  Instructing me to bring my feet closer together.  To lean into the edge of my foot for balance.

Warrior 2.  Yogaflavoredlife.com
Warrior 2. Yogaflavoredlife.com

My mat gets wet from sweat and I run a towel along it to keep from slipping.

And it all becomes too much.  Too hot.  Too fast.  Too challenging.

I am too open.

I drop into child’s pose and sob quietly.  Tears mixed with sweat.  Damn it.  My broken heart has seeped through the steely concentration of my mind and body.  And I allow myself to weep.

I stay in this position for what feels like a long time.  I remember Jeanette telling me about a man who lied on the floor with his legs on the wall for the entire hour.  I feel permission to do whatever it is that I have to do.  That I can stay in child’s pose for the entire session if I feel like it.

Veronica puts per fingers on my tailbone and gently pushes it towards my feet, curving down to the earth.  It feels good to be touched just a little.

But I do not stay in child’s pose for the whole session.  I rise up again, into Warrior.  Warrior II.  Warrior III.

We end class with a collective OM.  Jeanette high-fives me.  Veronica reminds me I have a week of unlimited classes.  I slip a schedule into my bag.  A calendar of possibilities.  A reminder.  I can do anything for an hour.  I will rise up again.

Artist Date 42: Dressed, Safely Shrouded

I think I need a headdress.

2013-10-03 14.50.37Feathered, painted and beaded.  Like the one I’m standing in front of at the Chicago Art Institute – Artist’s Date 42.  According to the description, it is meant to express a sense of beauty, while spiritually protecting the wearer, providing potency in battle, diplomacy and/or courtship.

I could use that – spiritual protection and potency.  Especially in courtship.  I feel like I’m fumbling all over the place in this suddenly, or not so suddenly, single world.

Perhaps a wig would suffice.  Cover up my naked head.  My naked heart.

My cousin Andrew told me I should consider wearing them.  Over dinner a few weeks ago at a trendy, too loud, see-and-be-seen, restaurant, he leaned in and said, very seriously, “I’ve been giving it some thought…I think you should wear wigs.”

I laughed, but he was dead serious, waxing the possibilities of an Uma Thurman Pulp Fiction bob.   I showed him a photograph of me wearing a large Foxy Brown afro wig many years ago in Oakland.  I told him I wished my hair grew like that.  How I longed to wear a wig but worried about offending people – lest those whose hair grows that way think it is a joke, this seriously small white girl sporting a do belonging to someone else.

We made a date to go wig shopping but never quite made it.

I had forgotten about it until now.

afro lesleyAnd really, I probably shouldn’t be thinking about it now.  Or even be here at all.  My friend Julie arrives from Detroit in a few hours.  Her visit comes on the heels of my friend Ernie’s visit from Seattle, which came on the heels of my trip to Dublin, and precedes my trip to Minneapolis – for my cousin Andrew’s wedding – by just days.

And yet, I am here.  Stealing away for an hour or so, by myself, with no intention any more noble than to see with different eyes, hear with different ears, feel with a different heart.  To leave here a little better than I arrived.  To fill my mind with something other than “me, me, me.”  It is a relief.

My plan was to visit the African Art.  But I am stopped in my tracks in the Native American section.  Thinking about wigs.  About my cousin.  About my other cousin – Diane.

I visited her in Albuquerque when I was 17.  The trip, my first time traveling alone – to see Diane in New Mexico and Andrew in Los Angeles – was a high-school graduation gift from my parents.

I bought suede fringed boots, the kind with no hard sole, on that trip.  They snaked up my legs, stopping just beneath my knees and tied with crisscrossing leather cord.  Burnout style.  And also, a wooden box, the top decorated with a sand painting of Father Sky – it says so in pencil, written on the underside, good for storing treasures.

Diane bought me a miniature wedding vase, a smaller version of the kind I would drink from at my own wedding 15 years later.

It seems like forever ago.  As does my trip to see Diane.  Except the memories of my marriage feel sneakier – unexpected – and not as purely sweet as those of my trip to New Mexico.

So I keep on moving, rather than sitting (or like my friend Sheila likes to say “bathing”) in the feelings.  I look at pipes, teepee covers and silver jewelry, eventually moving on to the African Art section – something without connection to the past.  Something entirely my own.  Sort of.

Unless you consider it is my ex who bought me a gift certificate to the Old Town School of Music and Dance, where I study West African dance.  Or that I found myself in Rwanda right in the middle of our divorce.

And yet, Africa is mine.  It always was.  A dream since I was a child.  He just helped get me there.

The collection is small.

2013-10-03 15.09.25A few voluminous robes – the kind I have seen my instructor Idy dance in, constantly moving the sleeves in gorgeous gestures to keep from getting the fabric caught up in his feet.  A couple of headdresses and costumes, one depicting the ideal mature woman in the 17th century – prominent nose, jutting chin, and large breasts.

I think of my own breasts.  Small.  No longer pendulous.  Faded scars run from breast fold to areola – subtle reminders of my reduction surgery.  A different beauty ideal.

I am struck by the words tacked to the wall.

“Dress is among the most personal forms of visual expression, creating a buffer and a bridge between the private and the public self…Special forms of luxury dress…may (also) signal particular standing within a community or a moment of transition from one role to another.”

I think about the Native American headdress.  Of my own dress.  My friend Tori says I dress differently since my divorce.  Sexier.  It was not my intention, but I believe she is right.

Across the room is a timeline of events, highlighting key moments in both African and world history.  I snap photographs so I can remember them.

1884: European nations meet for the Berlin West Africa Conference, initiating the European scramble to colonize Africa.  By 1900 only Ethiopia and Liberia remain independent.

1957: The nation of Ghana gains independence from British colonial rule, launching a continent-side decolonization movement.

1980: Zimbabwe gains independence from Great Britain; it is the last European colony to do so.

1990-94: Civil war in Rwanda leads to genocide.

I remember my friend Geri’s map-of-the-world shower curtain – so old, Rhodesia was still on it.

I think about my own map.  My timeline.  My dress.  My independence.  Messy.  Uncertain.  Liberating.  But unlike Rhodesia, I got to keep my name.