Artist Date 115: Distracted

I appreciate a good distraction.

It’s Tuesday and today I find out if I’ve been accepted to the Yale School of Divinity. Of course, “today” is five hours earlier in New Haven, (Spain has not yet turned its clocks forward for spring.) so while it is nearly 7:30 p.m. in Madrid, it is only 2:30 p.m. in Connecticut. And, not surprisingly, I don’t know yet.

I mention this to Gordon, who is sitting next to me, and who expresses surprise when I tell him I have not been checking my phone every few minutes to see if the email has arrived.

I am equally surprised as I have vivid memories from not so long ago, of sitting at my desk hitting refresh on the computer every few minutes, waiting for I-don’t-know-what to happen. Not unlike my wandering into the kitchen to check the refrigerator every few minutes – each time imagining I might find something new added to the shelves since my last look.

Except I will receive something new via email if I wait long enough, whereas the contents of my refrigerator will remain static unless I leave my house and bring in something new. Which is essentially what I am doing now – once again filling my creative coffers. Artist Date 116. A distraction.

My friend Spencer developed the Unamuno Authors Series, bringing poets from around the world to Madrid. Tonight Mark Doty will read his work.

My friend Julie counts him among her favorite writers. A portion of her “fan letter” is included in the paperback version of Doty’s book, Dog Years. Later I will take a selfie with him and send it Julie via Facebook. But for now, I’m just waiting.

For Doty.

Not for Yale.

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Selfie of me and Mark Doty…delightfully distracted.

Because at this point I’ve turned off the sound on my phone. I don’t want to hear it. Or look at it. Or be reminded of it. My phone. Or Yale’s decision. Because I’m not sure if I can stay present in this moment knowing it. So I choose to remain in delicious, hopeful, not knowing.

Doty is a perfect distraction. Engaging. Both serious and playful as he reads his own words about dogs and fish, AIDS and murder. His mouth is tight, his words clipped with a “Locust Valley Lockjaw.” I wonder if anterior neck work (massage) might change the sound of his delivery.

My musings are interrupted by a poem about Doty’s old lover, gone now. He questions why he can no longer conjure up his face without first looking at a photograph. Feel the warmth of his brown skin against his own.

And why can’t I? D is neither dead nor even gone from my life. He is merely far, far away.

We haven’t seen one another in nearly eight months. Since I left Chicago. We do not Skype or FaceTime. This is his choice, not mine, and I do not argue it.

However, as the pages of the calendar turn over onto themselves, I have a harder time recalling his smell, his voice, and yes, even his face, without the aid of photographs and voicemails. I do not want to lose these palpable memories but it seems almost inevitable unless, until, we find ourselves in each other’s presence again.

I recall some years ago, speaking on the telephone with Stu, and then later, Jason – men I had dated when they were little more than boys and I, little more than a girl.

“Oh…that’s what you sound like,” I said upon hearing each of their voices. I had forgotten.

Perhaps this is the brain’s wisdom – making room for new smells, news sounds, new faces. Allowing us to move forward…from a relationship that ends in death, or in distance. From disappointment, words we’d rather than not read or hear.

“The Admissions Committee at Yale Divinity School has completed its review of your application. I am sorry to inform you that unfortunately, we are unable at this time to offer you a place in the Fall 2016 entering class.”

It is nearly midnight when I log on to the Admissions Page. After my Artist Date. After dinner with Spencer and Doty and his partner.

I think that I shake a little reading the email and that my breath catches – stuck in inhalation. That I cry a little too. But already, I don’t remember exactly.

I send Spencer a text, telling him the news, and I go to bed – too tired to do anything else.

And in the morning, I am again waiting. This time for a decision from Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music – my top choice for graduate school. I am assured it should arrive within the next few days.

Until then, I remain in delicious, hopeful, not knowing –  distracting myself with dogs and fish and conjured up memories of old lovers. With art and words and daily life. With moments of presence.

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“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.

 

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.

2016-01-31 10.59.05

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.

2016-01-31 11.02.00

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 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.”