Artist Date 110: Bird of “Pray”

2016-01-31 10.54.08I 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.

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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.

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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.”

 

 

 

 

Artist Date 89: Fifteen, Sixteen, Seventeen…Twenty-Two

Walking west on the new Bay Bridge, while the old one is torn apart, cast away...
Walking west on the new Bay Bridge, while the old one is torn apart, cast away…

I am a marker of time.  I look for patterns in numbers, hoping to find or make meaning of them.

Like last week.

I had been aware of the numerical arrangement in front of me for awhile.

September 15.  My spousal support would be cut almost in half.  September 16.  Two years since the dissolution of my marriage was made final.  September 17.  My Divorce Buddy’s birthday.  The man who walked lock step with me on this path.  Also the day I would board a plane bound for San Francisco, for a friend’s wedding.

The same friend whose home I stayed in the last time I was in the Bay Area.  When every morning I would write “I am alone because I am getting ready to be alone.”  The words gliding off my pen, seemingly without thought or effort on my part.  When my then-husband asked for a divorce.

It all seemed “full circle.”  As it should be. Recognizing the pattern, the blog began writing itself.  The same way those prophetic words did each morning.  Of themselves.

And yet, September 15 came without fan fare.  I did not check my bank account to confirm the new, lesser amount had been deposited.  The 16th was much the same.  I felt, remarkably, “nothing.”

On the 17th, I forgot to call my Divorce Buddy to wish him a happy birthday.  (Unlike me, he’s not a marker of time.  I imagine he may have been grateful for the oversight.)  I was too busy packing.

Which left me wondering about 18, 19, 20 and beyond.

Eighteen had me meditating in Golden Gate Park — returning to the “twice” in my twice-daily practice — and  then running into my first massage instructor.  (Ironic, as I was staying just a few blocks from the massage school I attended and later, where I taught — although I didn’t realize it until I arrived and looked out the window.)

Nineteen, 20 and 21 had me walking on the Bay Bridge and dancing under redwood trees, all the while fielding the persistent question, “When are you moving back?”

My answer, a surprising and consistent, “I don’t know.”  Followed by the insistence that “I’m just waiting for the earth to stop shifting beneath me.”  And “The universe will tell me.”

It always does.  Oblivious to any date on the calendar.

Like it did on 22, my last full day in San Francisco.  The only day of my seven with alone time specifically set aside.  I returned to Golden Gate Park — to the Japanese Tea Gardens, a place I had never been before.  And then to Ocean Beach.  A place I went often…especially when life felt crazy.  I’d stand in the sand, squint my eyes and wonder if I could see across to the other side if I tried hard enough…knowing I never could.

The place I took my ex-husband on our first date.  Where I kissed him for the first time.  The ocean wind whipping my once long hair around my face, showering it with a fine mist of salt water.

I sat on the white-washed wall separating the beach from the parking lot, wishing I had something to throw into the ocean.  Something to “give away,” to further separate me from him.  To further cut the ties that had kept me tethered — unknowingly, until this trip — to him.  I had nothing.  Nothing but words.  A prayer.

“Let the love that began here, let it end here.  Let it wash out with the tides.  And let something new wash in.”

Twenty-three I arrived home.  The eve of 24, on the Jewish calendar, a new year began.

Twenty-five.  Today.  I worshipped in synagogue this morning but skipped taslich — the ritual casting away of sins, that which no longer serves us.  I had already done it…a few days early.

And I prayed, “…let something new wash in.”

Artist Date 82: Avec moi-même

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Big Kahuna Yard Sale.  The Chicago Mosaic School.  Viva Vintage Clothing.

I am walking down Ravenswood Avenue, following the elevated Metra rail tracks.  A pathway I have taken hundreds of times.  Except that I usually don’t go south of Montrose.  I haven’t had a reason to.  And I usually walk on the east side only.

Except today.

Artist Date 82.

Earlier tonight I ditched my plans to attend an end of Ramadan feast for Muslims and Jews.  I am tired and overwhelmed and this small gesture seems like a big step towards self-care.

It is not easy as I am of the variety who fears missing out on something fantastic.  Of the variety more comfortable going and doing than sitting and being.  Even though I have maintained a meditation practice for more than 12 years.  Even though I make my living, in part, doing massage – the stillest work I can imagine.

I like an Artist Date rich with stimulation – music, prayer, food, potential tumult.  Like an end of Ramadan feast.

But today I choose to fill myself in the quietest, stillest way I know how.  Doing one of the only two things that made any sense to me during my divorce and for months after.  I am walking.  (Writing being the other.)  Walking somewhere familiar.  (Ravenswood between Lawrence and Montrose.) And then somewhere new. (Ravenswood between Montrose and Irving Park.)

It seems like such innocuous newness.  Hardly worth mentioning.  And yet, I see all sorts of things for the first time.

A Latin restaurant.  A pilates studio.  Ballroom dancing lessons.

A beer-tasting room.  Several artist studios.  AVEC painted on a building.  And again on a bridge.

French taggers?

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I take photographs of the tags and send them to a friend along with a text that reads, “Um…how do you pronounce that?!”— referencing the hotel concierge who suggested he and his date have dinner at (emphasis on hard A)vec.

He texts back “Aye-Veck!” and “Aw, Heck” and continues on and on in French.  I get about two-thirds of it, then confess I know just enough French to order pastry and ask for directions without embarrassing myself in Paris.  (I may or may not understand the response, depending on the speed of the speaker.)

We go back and forth like this for a bit and I realize I am very much AVEC.  I am very much WITH my friend.  Which is lovely and fun.  I adore him and we laugh a lot.  But this is not why I am here, wandering Ravenswood Avenue, alone.

I think about the rules I created early on for my Artist Dates: Do not do anything I wouldn’t do on a “real” date.  Answer a telephone call or text.  Listen to music.  Check Facebook on my phone.

Eighty-two dates in, I’ve loosened up on the rules, perhaps even forgetting them – until now.

I stop texting and slip the phone in my pocket.

I am amazed how quickly, how easily I can be pulled from myself, from one moment into another, from what is right in front of me.

Forty-five minutes ago I took my ear buds out and paused Aretha Franklin on Pandora.  The sound of the Queen of Soul distracted me from myself, so I put the music away.  Now the words and this relationship distract me.  I put them away too and return to myself.

AVEC moi-même.  With myself.

Artist Date 79: Aho Matakuye O’yasin

Bent and tied river willows form the structure of the sweat lodge.  Photo: Paul Tootalian
Bent and tied river willows form the structure of the lodge. Photo: Paul Tootalian

 

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.

 

The Altar. Covered Lodge. And our guide, Paul. (I call him “The Reluctant Shaman.”

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.

Complete darkness.

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.

 

Apres sweat — eyes wide open. Photo: Paul Tootalian

 

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.”

Artist Date 75: No Excuse. That I Might…

black square 2Last week marked Artist Date 75.  I didn’t go.

I didn’t even pretend to go.  Or to dress up what I did do instead, like the way I used to dress up my alcoholism.  Wrap it up in trips to wine country and witty repartee with vintners and sommeliers only to be told by a stranger in no uncertain terms that wine aficionado is just a fancy word for a drunk.

No, I didn’t pretend that a day at home cooking constituted an Artist Date.  (Although it might have.)  Or that the date I had with my friend Clover before she gave birth to Juniper Maya, thus setting her life on a wildly new trajectory, somehow counted either.

My friend Lynn told me this would happen eventually.

I recognized that my process — the weekly Artist Date — had become a practice.  And that it had unintentionally given a sub-theme and a structure to my blog, and the story of returning to myself post-divorce.

She said there would be weeks that I wouldn’t go, or that I wouldn’t blog. And that those experiences would be worthy of words too.

So here they are.  Without apology.

It is both a relief and a disappointment.

——————–

Friday afternoon Pam asks me about my weekend plans.

Party.  Haircut.  Client.

Weight Watchers.  Dance.  Church basement.

I confess I am not sure where or how or if I might squeeze in my Artist Date.

“You can’t always be prolific,” she replies.

Somehow I think the rules don’t apply to me.  That I should be above them.  Better than that.  Less than human.

That if I make a commitment, I have to stick to it.  Period.  Which is ironic as I am greatly irritated when held to words I ostensibly said 20-plus years ago – possibly in a blackout.

I come home from work feeling tired, overwhelmed and jangly.  At a friend’s suggestion, I call the hostess and offer my regrets – letting her know I will not be able to attend.  I tell her the truth, which she not only understands but supports.

candle-at-night--burning_19-126713It occurs to me that perhaps I am the only one keeping score.

The next day my client cancels.  The day prior, my own massage is canceled too.

It feels like a message from the universe.  All of it.  Slow down.  Lie down.  Say no.

Stay home.  Pay some bills.  Write.

Ride your bike.  Go thrifting with a girlfriend.  Eat gelato for no other reason than it is sunny and more than 70 degrees.

Be less frantic.

Make room for nothing.

——————–

I remember being an editor at the college newspaper when the Gulf War broke out.  The entire staff gathered around the small television precariously placed on top of a metal file cabinet in the back of the newsroom, watching CNN.

We are too young to remember Vietnam.  We have not lived through a war.

We dispatch the writers and photographers on to campus to capture the mood and the moment.  In the newsroom, we debate our position and how we will represent it on the Opinion Page, of which I am the editor.

We consider blacking out the entire page – as it was rumored our predecessors had done when the United States put troops in Vietnam.

Instead we run a single photograph taken that evening – a student sitting cross-legged, lighting a candle.  In prayer and hope, I imagine.

I think about that big black page as I begin writing today.  Of darkness.  Nothingness.  And the statement it made.

I don’t have a statement to make.  My lack of Artist Date just isn’t that important.  The only war going on is inside of me.  The only dying off I need consider is that of old ideas.

I decide the absence of Artist Date 75, and the absence of spin or excuse, might serve as a metaphoric kindling of light.  A prayer and a hope that I might quit keeping score.  That I might continue to make room for nothing.  That I might allow myself the space to change my mind.  And to be gloriously, imperfectly human.

Things Change. Feelings Change. I Change.

I recently received a packet in the mail from my synagogue, alerting me that the anniversary of my birth mother’s death is this month.

One year.

Me and my birthmom.  Our first meeting.
Me and my birthmom. Our first meeting.

I should have remembered, for so many reasons.  But mostly, because the Mother’s Day card I sent her last year arrived on the day of her funeral.  It was delivered after the service, while her sister, brothers, nieces and I cleaned the house, preparing it for sale.

The past three years, the time that I had known her, I struggled to find a card.  I didn’t think of her as my mother or my mom.  I already had one – the woman who raised me.  But biologically, she was.  No question about it.  And I knew it would mean a lot to her to receive it.  So I bought her one each year.  Something not too schmaltzy.  Not too love-y dove-y.

But last year was easy.  We had had a tremendous healing that fall – when I flew to Charleston for what I thought was to say goodbye.  In a sense, it was, as I never saw her again.  However, she lived for another six months and during that time we spoke fairly frequently.

Things change.

When her brother phoned me last May to tell me she had died, I felt sideswiped.

My job back at the house was to toss everything that either wasn’t necessary or someone didn’t want. Notes on a criminal case she was following and perhaps hoped to write about.  Minutes from meetings of the Daughters of the American Revolution.  Charleston history.  Credit cards that had never been activated.  (As I write this, I look at my own on the table next to me.)

All of it, and so, so much more into big, black garbage bags used for lawn and leaves.  One for shredding.  One for tossing.

I came downstairs when I ran out of garbage bags and saw the card on the counter.  I knew my own writing.  I said nothing.

I went to the store for bags instead.  While I was out, I texted my friend – the man who had captured my heart when I visited six months earlier – and confirmed our meeting the next day.

The Southern Svengali.

I fell head over heels over head for him.  And when I left, I was certain I would never see him again.

I was wrong.

Me and my mom mom, the one who raised me.
Me and my mom mom, the one who raised me.

I saw him the next night.  People around us asked if we had known one another forever.  It seemed that way.

Although I longed for more, our romance never moved beyond hours-long make out sessions on my first visit.  And while intellectually I knew better, I was convinced I would never get over him.

I was wrong about that too.

We had a falling out after my birthmother’s death.  He took exception to the moniker I had assigned him.  He latched on to the deceptive characteristics of the Svengali character, while I chose to focus on the Svengali as teacher – the one who pulled out the artist inside, as he had me.

We haven’t spoken in nearly a year, although we have exchanged a few kind messages.  He left Charleston for the winter, and I didn’t know about it for months as I had stopped visiting his Facebook page.  And I fell head over heels over head for someone else.  Which is all a complicated way of saying I did get over him.

Things change.

It is important for me to notice the changes, because lately it feels like nothing has changed.  Including me.  At times, I feel as sad and unsteady as when I moved back to Chicago in the late summer of 2011, just after my divorce.  It is a feeling.  It is not truth.

It hadn’t occurred to me that my heightened bout of sadness and dis-ease, at least in part, may be connected to the anniversary of my birthmother’s death.  It is a comfort to recognize.  To realize that the feeling of going backward may be connected to the act of reflection, of turning back.

The good news is, I don’t have to stay back.

My birthmother as a teen.  She's in blue.  And pregnant with me.
My birthmother as a teen. She’s in blue. And pregnant.

Inside the packet from the synagogue are several items.  The words to Kaddish – translated as “holy,” – the ritual prayer of mourning, praising God.  A showing of gratitude amidst pain.  And suggestions for honoring the deceased through Tzedakah – an obligation of charity, righteousness.

I see these rituals as a reminder of what the Buddhists call “right action,” or what 12-Step programs call “doing the next right (or indicated) thing.”

I used to believe I would think my way to happiness, contentedness or change.  That if I only dug deep enough I would finally “figure it out.”

What I’ve learned, and then forget and re-learn, is that things change.  Period.  That includes my feelings and my perceptions.

And that I change when I avail myself of the suggestions contained in the packet from the synagogue.  What the Buddhists and the 12-Steppers and all the spiritual traditions espouse – prayer and action.

I do different.  I feel different.  I become different.

Welcoming Juniper Maya with the Hand of God

2014-03-25 01.42.32I keep my phone plugged in to an outlet near the floor so that its light does not interrupt my sleep. But also, because it brings me to my knees first thing in the morning – prayer becomes non-negotiable.

It is 1 a.m. and I am on my knees. I have only turned off the lights two hours ago.

“Is it time?” I ask, seeing it is Clover.

“It’s time,” she says,  her voice both dreamy and reassuring. “Take your time.”

We have plenty of it. Nearly 17 hours until Juniper Maya is born. Clover is her mother. And I am Clover’s doula – Greek for servant or birth support.

I brush my teeth and pop in a fresh pair of contact lenses. Pull on a pair of grey skinny corduroys, a purple and white checked blouse and the sweater I can’t bear to give away. The blue merino wool one with the tear under the armpit, and that is separating from its collar.

I pack a bag with berries, yogurt and cereal. Baby carrots. Apples. Sweet potato. Clover and Andy have been cooking and freezing for weeks in preparation for the birth and the days and weeks after. But I pack this, along with a journal and a book – just in case – and jump in my car, leaving the bag with my glasses and toothbrush by the door.

It is quiet out and beginning to snow. I circle the block twice and find a spot nearby. Before getting out of the car, I pray. “Please join us in this sacred moment. May this be a safe and joyous birth for mom and baby.” Or something like that. I am surprised. I didn’t plan to pray. It just sort of spilled out of me, as my prayers often do.

Andy buzzes me in. There is a handmade sign on the door – birth in process. We greet one another in the hallway in whispers.

Inside, it is dimly lit. There are candles. Music is looping from a play list created just for this moment. It is all part of Clover’s birth plan. She greets me sleepily in a short, cotton nightgown. Soon she will be wearing nothing at all and it will seem like nothing could be more natural.

********************

Clover and Andy demonstrate the routine they have established. With each contraction they grasp one another’s upper arm. Andy leans back and they count through it – together. One.   Two.  Three.  Four.  Up into double digits, until it is over.

I trade places with Andy and begin counting and leaning and holding on. This will be our foundation for the next 17 hours. The ritual we return to.

It is warm inside. Clover gives me one of her t-shirts. It is grey and oversized with butterflies on it. My friend Julie’s mother Carole (now deceased) often visits both her and I as a butterfly. I know she is with us now.

********************

2014-03-25 01.49.41We eat. We walk. We count.

Clover bounces on the birthing ball. She does cat and camel poses on her hands and knees while I stand behind her, pressing her hips together to midline. Relief.

We doze in bed. Clover and Andy lying next to one another. Me lying perpendicular to them at the foot of the bed. Later I will lie between them, placing my fist in Clover’s low back, gently pushing her sacrum toward her feet. My arm stretched over her body. Her hand clenching mine, until I think my tarsal bones might break.

Clover reminds us of the images that ground her. A sparkly oak tree. The river that runs behind it. A nearby staircase made of fluffy, white feathers. Her spirit guide, Strident.

Andy takes apart the dining room table to make room for the tub. Inflates it and fills it with warm water. Clover climbs in and smiles. The water is holding her and everything she has been carrying.

Morning comes through the pulled shades. Andy calls the midwives around 7:30. Clover has been laboring for 12 hours now. Hilary, the midwife, tells her to keep her voice low, in her abdomen, as opposed to in her throat – which feels more natural. This will help move the baby lower into her pelvis.

Her grunts and noises sound remarkably sexual when she does this. It seems fitting the noises would be the same both conceiving a child and delivering it.

Clover and I are walking. Her hands on my arms. Mine upon hers. She looks directly into my eyes. Hers are big, round, open. Is it fear? Trust? Amazement? Fatigue? I’m not sure. I meet her gaze, as she has asked me to. And I tear up. I am trying to be solid but I feel like I will fall apart at any moment.

No one has ever trusted me this much. Trusted my heart. My body. My psyche. I am overwhelmed.

 ********************

 2014-03-25 02.28.27The first midwife assistant, Sarah, arrives around 8:30 a.m. She is extraordinarily perky. She has slept. We have not.

She watches Clover and I move through a contraction.

We have a new pattern. She squats and I squat with her. I tell her to see the oak tree. To see Strident in the oak tree. She softens and collapses into me and I hold her naked body against my clothed one. We will repeat this again and again.

Sarah puts a fetal heart-rate monitor on Clover’s belly. She will do this following each contraction to make certain everything is as it should be.

I leave Clover with Sarah and walk into the kitchen. I look at Andy, who is making me yet another cup of instant coffee. I tell him this is perhaps the most important thing I have ever done. “Me too,” he says.

A few hours later a second assistant arrives. And around noon, Hilary – the midwife – shows up.

They are all very matter-of-fact. Except about moving. When Clover moves, the baby moves, they explain. And so we keep her moving. In the tub. Out of the tub. In the bed. Out of the bed. Over the toilet. On all fours. On her side. Squatting.

I hold. I squat. I invoke the oak free and Strident until the images no longer produce the desired effect. “No more oak tree,” she says.

Clover’s temperature rises and falls. She steps out of the tub and we wrap her in towels. Moments later she throws them off.  She is like James Brown, hobbling off stage with a cape draped over him, then tossing it off and jumping into the splits. All except for the splits.

We laugh. All except Clover. She is somewhere else. Focused.

Not once does she say “I can’t.” Only, “this is taking so long.”

********************

clover and mayaIt is late afternoon and she begins to push. The midwives continue to keep her moving. Reminding her to keep her voice low in her body. She is in the tub. I am taking photographs, as she has asked me to do. The camera hides my tearing eyes.

I do not know if they are happy or sad tears. Perhaps both.

I put the camera down and kneel on the side of the tub so that Clover can grasp my hands as she has so many times now. She does, and then lets go, grabbing on to the handles on the side of the tub. It is her and her God alone in the tub. We are her chorus, surrounding her.

And the miracle emerges – all head and a shock of dark hair. Her tiny body tethered by the umbilical cord. Hilary shouts, “Catch your baby! Catch your baby!” And she does.

The pool is red. Clover is radiant. Energized.

Hilary pulls a cap on to Juniper Maya’s tiny head and wraps a towel around her. She lies on Clover’s chest. Andy cuts the umbilical cord.

 ********************

I feel the tears rise up inside of me. I want to leave.

I am sleep deprived. My body is full with food I wouldn’t normally eat. Spoonfuls of crunchy peanut butter. A chocolate energy bar. Chicken stew. A cold sweet potato. And yet I still feel hungry.

I am acutely aware that my long-distance love, Mr. 700 Miles – the one who slipped away without a word several weeks ago – is shockingly, frighteningly present.  That he has been for the last 17 hours, during which time I have told him, again and again – quietly, internally – “You gotta go.”  He is never gone for long.

I feel sad that I cannot, will not, be able to share this experience with him.

I feel sad that he will never meet Clover, Andy and Juniper Maya.

I feel sad because I recently had the thought, “I would have a baby with this man.” A thought I had never had before.  Not even with my ex-husband.

I begin cleaning. Picking up towels strewn across the floor, determining which can be laundered and which go in the trash. Emptying trash bins and putting in fresh bags. Scrubbing the slow cooker. Loading the dishwasher.

I watch Sarah drain the tub with a hose – siphoning the water mixed with blood and other fluids into the toilet.

I gather my things and greet the family in the bedroom.

Hilary is stitching Clover. Juniper Maya is nursing. I help Andy send a text to waiting friends and family.

Clover tells me the small box with ribbon is for me.

We hug. We kiss. We exchange words of gratitude. None of them quite capturing what we have shared.

I tell her I love her and that we will talk about it – all of it – later.

********************

2014-04-06 22.16.11I am barely out the door and I begin sobbing – heaving, convulsing, cannot catch my breath tears.

I arrive home and see my bag at the door. The one with my toothbrush and eyeglasses. I scramble some egg whites and pick up the phone, calling Sarah, Lynn, and Chase. I call Anne. And Kristina. Anyone but Mr. 700 Miles. I leave messages for each of them. And one by one, each calls me back.

I open the box from Clover. Inside is a delicate gold chain with the smallest hamsa (palm-shaped amulet) I have ever seen.

I fall into bed.

Tomorrow Clover will tell me the hamsa is the hand of God. That my hand was the hand of God.

I will recall telling Andy this is perhaps the most important thing I have ever done.

And I will be certain of it.