I am sitting in a café in the old Jewish Quarter of Prague. I have just visited the Pinkas Synagogue where the name of every Czech and Moravian Jew who perished during the Holocaust is painstakingly painted on the walls, and art created by children from the ghetto at Terezin is kept on the second level.
Spencer leans into the table separating us. “I’ve been trying not to say anything, but…I still think you should be a rabbi,” he says. I am not surprised. We have discussed this many times. Probably as many times as I have considered it over the past 10 years. But something deep within me keeps me from it, continuing to say “no,” or “not yet.”
“Or, you could do what I did and go to the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale,” he says casually, continuing on to tell me about the program, his experience of it, and how and why it would be a good fit for me.
Hearing his words, my spine aligns. I am suddenly sitting a little more upright. I’m pretty sure I hear a puzzle piece fall into place and my whole body screams “yes.”
I feel like a bird of “pray”– that I have been circling this all of my life, or at least since I was 17, nearly 30 years – but that I only just now know what this is.
I have been circling this ever since my cousin handed me a copy of the Tao Te Ching the summer after my graduation from high school.
I have been circling this ever since I enrolled in my first religious studies course – a survey of Eastern religions – and met the instructor who would help guide my studies for the next four years. Who, when I called to say I had accepted my first journalism job – as a beat reporter with a Jewish newspaper – replied, “Of course you did. You’ve been seeking everywhere else. In India. In China. In Japan. It’s time to look in your own backyard.”
And so I did. First, as a curious observer – never quite stepping into the traditions and calling them my own – a “professional Jew.” Until it was brought to my attention that I actually wasn’t one. Although raised as a Jew (I was adopted by a Jewish family), I lacked the essential component that would actually make me one – a biologically Jewish mother.
I “remedied” my status in 2012 when I stepped into the mikveh (ritual bath) waters and declared myself a Jew by conversion. More circling. And returned a year later as part of my get (Jewish divorce). More circling.
During this time I learned to meditate – a daily practice which I have maintained for 12 years – and to create a personal relationship with a God of my understanding through the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. More circling.
I had long ceased to be a professional Jew – having trading my press card for a business card – and had become a personal one.
My writing similarly shifted, from telling the stories of others as a newspaper reporter, to telling my own as a blogger, an essayist – and now as an ISM candidate.
I am sitting at the tiny desk in my bedroom in Madrid. A red gooseneck lamp glows over the computer screen and the words above (and more) fly off of my fingertips. Effortlessly. I have been trained to write to size and I fill the 700 words allotted for my personal statement with four to spare.
But the writing sample looms. An invitation to showcase my best academic writing and critical thinking. “A portion of a senior thesis is acceptable.”
I have not been a university student in almost 25 years.
I am offered three topics to write about instead. I choose the first – to discuss an author, philosopher or artist, a piece of writing or art that has changed my way of thinking. Of looking at the world. And my career path.
I immediately know, the way I immediately know when Spencer mentions ISM for the first time in Prague.
The Artist’s Way.
The book I named my divorce companion in 2012 when only two things in my life made sense – writing and walking. The book I unearthed nine months later when I was on my knees, desperate. When my non-relationship – an out-of-town, weekend-long romance involving little more than kissing and talking and talking and kissing – had begun to affect my relationships, namely with my girlfriends, one who announced she couldn’t bear to hear his name ever again.
The book that invited me to take a weekly solo sojourn – creative play time, an Artist Date – which became the underpinning of my blogs and of my life. That allowed me to answer the question “How Has Creativity Changed Your Life?” and landed me in an anthology on the topic – the writing sample that has already been written, requiring only a bit of editing and massaging.
The book that is tucked away in my friend’s attic in Chicago. Highlighted. Dog-eared with notes in the margins. So I borrow a copy from a friend here in Madrid, filling in the blank spots of my essay with quotations and works cited.
I am acutely aware that I have been on exactly one Artist Date since arriving in Madrid six months ago.
I am sitting on a bench in Jardines del Campo del Moro – a little patch of wild tucked inside the city, behind the gardens of the Royal Palace. A place where, if I venture in far enough, I can escape the sound of traffic on a Sunday morning. Where I can hear my heart beat.
My second Artist Date in Madrid – number 110 if you are counting. I suppose I am.
I look up at the cerulean sky with closed eyes and the sun meets my gaze, creating yellow and blue circles behind my lids.
Less than 12 hours ago, I completed my graduate school application and sent it to Yale. It is in God’s hands now. But how I choose to spend my time in Madrid is in mine. If nothing else, this process – specifically the writing, rewriting and editing of my sample work – has reminded me of that, returning me to a truth I seem to have forgotten. That I create joy in my life when I allow myself to play.
When I forgo the laundry and the lesson planning for a few hours and allow myself to walk quietly on my tiptoes – like Bugs Bunny with a rifle – just to see how close I can get to a peacock wandering the gardens.
When I allow myself to stop and take photographs of bamboo trunks just because I like the way they look.
When I allow myself to talk with the black swan swimming in a pond of mallards, giggling as she cocks her read beak at the sound of my voice as if to say “que?”, the response of seemingly every Madrileño to my initial shy attempts at speaking Spanish.
When I allow myself to commit to this process once more – the weekly Artist Date – out loud. Announcing it to God. To myself. And to the swan – bird of “pray.”